Monday, November 17, 2014

Considering the demarcation between valid science and pseudo-science

I'm having some fun before I get back to Jim Steele's recent YouTube videos, where he uses every underhanded trick to distract from, and minimize, our manmade global warming situation.

You see, after digesting his second video I got sidetracked into wondering about the mind's ability to ignore important valid information.  And I took an excursion into Massimo Pigiucci's "Nonsense on Stills."  His book inspired me to look him up on the internet and among other information I found some interviews.  I think he does a good job of outlining the problem for a novice like me.  

Since I like to imagine there are some other novice students of life looking in on these pages, I've put together highlights from his interview at "For Good Reason" and interjected some links to further reading, including a couple important videos related to climate science and the public dialogue in particular.  Given by Naomi Oreskes and Ben Santer respectively.  For good measure I've included the "Six Rules of Critical Thinking in Science".

Massimo gave another worth listening to interview at Point of Inquire with Chris Mooney.  |  November 5, 2010

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Massimo Pigliucci - Nonsense on Stilts  |  Interview at For Good Reason

The synapsis,
Philosopher and skeptic Massimo Pigliucci discusses the “demarcation problem” in the philosophy of science, which is how to tell what is science and what is not science, and what is pseudoscience. 

He talks about Karl Popper’s theory of falsifiability, comparing Einstein’s theory of general relativity with Freudian psychoanalytic theory. 

He draws a distinction between theories that are “unscientific” and theories that are merely “false,” and talks about Newtonian mechanics in this regard. 

He explains in what way astrology is more scientific than String Theory. 

He explains to what extent people, including the skeptics community, should just “trust consensus science,” and when the public should get a “second opinion” when given bad news by scientists regarding public controversies such as human caused global warming. 

He argues that there are not actually two sides to some of these issues. 

He explains what it means to be a skeptic, and argues what responsibilities skeptics have regarding the promotion of consensus science. 

He explores why libertarianism may fuel global warming skepticism. And he details five questions to ask when evaluating someone’s expertise.

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Massimo Pigliucci 1:55:  ... the Demarcation Problem, trying to separating science from non-science and pseudo-science is a classic problem in the philosophy.  It was formalized by Karl Popper in the middle part of the twentieth century and Popper is one of the few philosophers of science that many in the general public and certainly a lot of scientists know about.

He's the guy that came up with Falsification, the idea that theory or hypothesis in order to be scientific has to be falsifiable.  In other words there has to be a way in principle that a theory could be disproven by the data, it is in fact not true. ...
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Further reading:

Climate Science & Falsifiability
Richard Lawson shows how Karl Popper can help settle the climate debate.

Falsifiable and falsification in science

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FGR: Are you saying that we should just trust consensus science?  ...

Massimo Pigliucci 13:40  Well, to some extent and I'm afraid that's true.  
I want to qualify the "to some extent."  
No, I'm not suggesting that we as a society should just give the keys to our future to scientists and let them do whatever it is that they do.

... it depends on what you mean by "deferring" so for talking about deferring on political, and policy decisions.  Of course not.  But, if we are talking about trusting the (scientists about the) science well I'm afraid the answer is yes.  Because scientists are simply one category of experts. 

You know most of us go to a mechanics and we defer to what the mechanic ... (and so on)

FGR: Well but on the other hand there is such a thing as a second opinion
and society doesn't really get a second opinion when it comes to these controversial issues?

Massimo Pigliucci  15:11: You're make a great point about second opinion but I would argue that in the case of science you actually get thousands and in fact tens of thousands of second opinions.

... But, talk about the phenomenon itself.  Who is supposed to know the best or the most about these kinds of things? Climatologists.
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Here's a good place to insert a talk with Naomi Oreskes author of Merchants of Doubt and Paul Kennedy a journalist.  There's a lot of intro, the talk itself starts at 10:00

Naomi Oreskes: Using History and Science to Understand the Climate Change Debate

Rotman Institute of Philosophy 
Published on Oct 7, 2013 - 
Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the award-winning book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, has studied the climate change debate as a historian and philosopher, and will explore the above questions, and more.  
Oreskes works to expose deliberate attempts to sow confusion and doubt about important issues, such as climate change, is not based in rhetoric, as it is with some of the 'merchants of doubt' she writes about, but on looking at science using philosophical techniques.
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Massimo Pigliucci 16:50  Those are public controversies, there is a distinction between a public controversy and the scientific controversy.

... But in some cases there isn't a second side.  I mean depending on what the debate is, if we're talking about evolution there's no second side in terms of the science of evolution there is a second side in terms public understanding of the issue.  

The real issue, is the issue the media should be covering is not whether evolution is true or not but how come that 40% to 50% of Americans reject the established scientific theory.  That's the story. 
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Here's a fitting talk by Ben Santer that I think is a good example of a serious scientist explaining the knowns and unknowns of his science among other important aspects of our public dialogue vs. the science.  There is the bonus of an interesting introduction where the late Stephen Schneider recalls the first dust up at an IPCC Plenary Session, one that left Ben Santer enemy number one to the climate science contrarian community.

The General Public: Why Such Resistance? 
Uploaded on May 13, 2010 
(February 25, 2010) Ben Santer, a research scientist from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, discusses the recent problems with the use of the freedom of information act for non-US citizens to demand complete records, including emails, on scientific research projects. Santer posits that this is a dangerous dilemma that will ultimately inhibit scientific research.
This course was originally presented in Stanford's Continuing Studies program. 
Stanford University:
Stanford University Channel on YouTube:
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Massimo Pigliucci 19:10: There's two very important questions in there.  One is about what it means to be a skeptic and then the other I want to go back for a minute to the whole idea of expertise because I think it's crucial.

Being a skeptic doesn't mean denying things.  Being a skeptic means having an open mind about issues, but to hold to beliefs in proportion to evidence.

The idea is that a skeptic is supposed to be somebody engages in critical thinking and engages the issues; engaging the evidence and tries as much as possible to adjust his or her beliefs in proportion to the evidence that's available.  

Now that's easy to say it's not ready that easy to do, you know critical thinking  doesn't come natural - one needs to be trained in critical thinking.

{I believe as much as anything it requires a desire to learn above all else.}

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Six Rules of Critical Thinking in Science

After J. Lett.  1990. A field guide to critical thinking. Skeptical Inquirer 14(2): 153-160.

1. Is it falsifiable?
For any explanation to be considered science, it must be falsifiable.  It must be possible to obtain some evidence that would falsify the claim.  This is what makes science science, and why most significantly evidence matters.  

2. Is it logical?
All conclusions or predictions drawn from an explanation must logically follow.  This is important because explanations are tested by evaluating such predictions.  

3. Is it comprehensive?
Does the explanation account for all of the available evidence?  If not, then how can it possibly be true?  This means you cannot pick and choose among the available evidence and select only those items that support your explanation.  To be a viable alternative explanation, all the available evidence must be explained.

4. Has everyone been honest?
Anybody offering an explanation has an obligation to weigh all the evidence and reach a rational conclusion.  You always must be on guard of self-deception, and you must be willing to abandon any explanation if the evidence contradicts it.  Science makes progress when falsified explanations are abandoned and replacing them with new explanations.  

5. Is it replicable?
Any evidence offered in support of an explanation must be capable of being obtained independently and confirmed by someone else.  If something repeatedly cannot be confirmed independently, then the original evidence becomes suspect, and so does the explanation it supported.

6. Is it sufficient?
Is the evidence offered sufficient to support the truth of the explanation?  The belief we place in an explanation must remain proportionate to the amount of credible evidence that has been accumulated in its support. Remember the burden of proof rests on the person putting forth the explanation, and the more extraordinary the claim, the more solid the evidence required to support it.  Further the absence of falsifying evidence is not the same as the presence of evidence that confirms a claim or explanation.

If an explanation or claim passes on all six rules, then you are justified in considering it to be true.  Of course, this does not provide a guarantee of truth, but it means you have a good basis for supporting the explanation.  If an explanation fails one of the six rules, then it should be rejected or at least treated with great skepticism.  If you following these six rules you will be a skeptical thinker, supporting or accepting an explanation only when the evidence warrants it.  These rules are one of the reasons reports in science are subjected to peer reviews prior to publication to guard against making exactly such mistakes.  

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Massimo Pigliucci  25:20:  Then there is another question one can ask if we're going about assessing expertise and expert opinion and that is of course the question you know you have to ask yourself if that person has a bias, an obvious bias that might color his or her ideas or opinions about that particular topic.

Now I have to qualify this because of course it doesn't mean that just just because somebody biased that doesn't mean that he's wrong

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Climate Misinformers

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Massimo Pigliucci 32:16:  ... The book starts out with a discussion of Karl Poppers approach because Popper thought that he had found a few simple solution to the problem. Right.  Falsification was the idea and it was easy to apply and once you applied it you can easily tell what was science and what was not.
It turns out as I explain in the book, that in fact Popper was wrong.
He was right about the problem, but he was wrong about the solution to it.

FGR: Or just that the solution wasn't as elegant and as simple as he thought?

Massimo Pigliucci 32:48:  That's right the solution is messy, the solution requires a lot of work and it there's no guarantee of getting it right every time.  But the idea is that in fact there are things that we can learn as citizens of an open society.   About how science and pseudo-science work and compare to each other and we can make informed decisions and frankly that is the best that we can hope for.  We cannot pretend to be infallible, but we have a duty to get it right as much as possible when it comes to issues of Science and in particular public policy.

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University of Chicago Press Books 

Nonsense on Stilts


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Another interesting read that fits right into this collection:
The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science
By Chris Mooney
How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.

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I might add this little intellectual excursion into the "demarcation problem" also led me to 
James "the amazing" Randi and his clear observation People Need to Believe 
and even viewing "An Honest Liar" the yet to be released documentary about his life and times, 
which resulted in this recollection of the experience.
"An Honest Liar" - Considering James Randi

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