Monthly Archives: December 2016

Anecdotal Evidence Shows

The titular phrase “anecdotal evidence shows that…” is very familiar to us – with good reason. Not only is it very commonly used, but it is subject to a great deal of misuse. It generally makes an assertion that something is probably true because there is some observed evidence to support it. While that evidence does not rise to the level of proof, it does at least create some factual basis for wishful thinking.

Anecdotal evidence is important. It is often the only evidence we can obtain. In many areas, scientists cannot practically conduct a formal study, or it would be ethically wrong to do so. It may simply be an area of study that no one is willing to fund. Therefore, even scientists often have no alternative but to base conclusions upon the best anecdotal data they have.

Anecdotal evidence is essential to making everyday decisions as well. We don’t normally conduct formal studies to see if our friend Julie is a thief. But if ear rings disappear each time she visits, we have enough anecdotal evidence to at least watch her closely. Likewise, even court proceedings must often rely upon anecdotal evidence, which is slightly different than circumstantial evidence.

Knowing when anecdotal evidence is telling, when it is simply a rationalization for wishful thinking, and when it is the basis for an outright con job is not always easy. The fact that sometimes all we have to work with is anecdotal evidence makes it all that much more dangerous and subject to misuse and abuse.

All too often, anecdotal evidence is simply poor evidence. I once presented anecdotal evidence of ghosts by relating a harrowing close encounter that I had. The thing was, I totally made it up (see here). People don’t always intentionally lie when they share an anecdote, but those people who in good faith repeated my story to others were nevertheless sharing bad anecdotal information.

Testimonials are a form of anecdotal claim. Back in the 1800’s a Snake Oil Salesman would trot out an accomplice to support his claims of a miracle cure. Today we see everyone from television preachers to herbal medicine companies use the same technique of providing anecdotal evidence through testimonials. Most of these claims are no more legitimate than my ghost story.

We also see anecdote by testimony performed almost daily in political theatre. The President points to the crowd to identify a person who has benefitted greatly from his policies. In Congressional hearings, supposedly wronged parties are trotted out to give testimony about how badly they were harmed by the actions of the targeted party. Both of these individuals are put forth as typical examples yet they may be exceedingly unusual.

So here’s the situation. We need anecdotal evidence as it is often all we have to work with to make important decisions that must be made. However, basing decisions on anecdotal information is also fraught with risk and uncertainty. How do we make the wisest use of the anecdotal information that we must rely upon?

First, consider the source and the motive of the anecdote. If the motive is to try to persuade you to do something, to support something, to accept something, or to part with your cash, be particularly suspect of anecdotal claims or testimonials. One great example are the Deal Dash commercials. You hear a woman claim that she “won” a large screen television for only $49. Sounds great, until you realize that the anecdote doesn’t tell how many bids she purchased to get it for $49, how much she wasted on other failed auctions, and how much was spent in total by the hundreds of people bidding on that item. Anecdotal evidence are not always an outright lies, but they can still tell huge lies by omission and by cherry-picking.

Second, consider the plausibility of the anecdote. If the anecdote claims to prove that ghosts exist, someone made it up. Likewise with god or miracles or angels or Big Foot. Just because someone reports something incredible, no matter how credible that person may be, demand credible evidence. As Carl Sagan pointed out, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Third, consider the scope of the anecdotal claim. Does it make sweeping generalizations or is it very limited in scope? If the claim is that all Mexicans are rapists because one Mexican was arrested for rape, we end up with a Fallacy of Extrapolation which is often the result of the misuse of anecdotal information.

Finally, consider the cost/benefit of the response to the anecdotal claim. If the anecdote is that eating yoghurt cured Sam’s cancer, then maybe it’s reasonable to eat more yoghurt. But if the anecdote is that Ed cured his cancer by ceasing all treatments, then perhaps that should be considered a far more risky anecdote to act upon.

Anecdotal information is essential. Many diseases such as AIDS have been uncovered by paying attention to one “anecdotal” case report. In fact, many of the important breakthroughs in science have only been possible because a keen-eyed scientist followed up on what everyone else dismissed as merely anecdotal or anomalous data.

Anecdotes are best used to simply make the claim that something may be possible, but without any claims as to how likely it is. For example, it may be that a second blow to the head has seemed to cure amnesia. However, this cannot be studied clinically and it is not likely to occur often enough to recommend it as a treatment. Still, sometimes it is extremely important to know that something has been thought to happen, no matter how uncertain and infrequent. If a severe blow to the head MAY have cured amnesia at least once, this can help to inform further research into it.

Don’t start feeling overwhelmed. We don’t actually need to stop and consciously analyze every anecdote in detail. Our subconscious pattern-recognition machines are quite capable of performing these fuzzy assessments for us. We only need to be sure to consciously internalize these general program parameters into our pattern recognition machines so that they produce sound conclusions when presented with claims that “anecdotal evidence shows.”


Time To Dump Linda

You have probably read articles that reference the famous Linda Study conducted by researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky back in the early 1970’s. In it, the researchers describe an outspoken person named Linda who is and smart and politically active and who has participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. They then ask the subject to indicate whether Linda is more likely to be a) a bank teller or b) a bank teller who is also an active feminist.

No direct evidence is given to indicate that Linda is either a bank teller or a feminist. She is smart so she might be a bank teller, and since she has been socially active she might be a feminist. But logically it is far more likely that Linda is only one of these things than that she is both. Yet most people, given the choices presented and regardless of education, answer that Linda is probably both a bank teller and a feminist. This is an example of the Conjunction Fallacy (see here), in which a person mistakenly believes that multiple conditions are more likely than a single one.

Although this study is frequently cited in popular science articles, the conclusions drawn from it have been strongly criticized or at least given more nuanced analysis (see here). Few popular ideas from science since the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle have been so misused and overextended as the Linda Study. We really should stop reading so much into this study and cease abusing it so badly.

irrationalAn example of one such popular science article describes research by Professor Keith Stanovich (see here). In his work he used the Linda Study methodology along with other tests to measure rationality. Although I do not know how well this popular science article represents the actual research by Stanovich, it suggests that the Linda Test is a strong indicator of rationality. I find that assertion very troubling.

First off, while the Linda Test does expose the Conjunction Fallacy, we are all are susceptible to a huge number of logical fallacies. I document dozens of these in my book, “Belief in Science and the Science of Belief” (see here). While everyone should be taught to do better at recognizing and avoiding logical fallacies, failing to do so probably does not adequately correlate to irrational thinking.

If subjects were made aware that this was intended as an SAT-style logic gotcha, many would answer it in a more literal context. But we normally assume a broader scope of inference when answering this sort of question and the pattern-recognition machines we call our brains are capable of all sorts of fuzzy logic that is completely independent of, and much broader than, strict mathematical logic. In the real world, it might well turn out that women like Linda are in fact more likely to be both bankers and feminists.  Moreover “both” is a far richer answer in the context of most real-world interactions. The more logically correct answer is less insightful and interesting.

This is not to suggest that we should become lax about adhering to principles of logic, but only to suggest that a simple “brain teaser” logic question is not a very powerful indicator of overall rationality. Furthermore, equating rationality to a fallacy recognition test diminishes the profound complexity and importance of rationality.

I suggest that there are far stronger indicators of rationality. Does the subject believe in God? Do they deny climate-change? Do they subscribe to pseudoscientific nonsense? Is their thinking muddled by irrational New Age rationalizations? Do they insist the world is only 6 million years old and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs (cough) Ken Ham see here (cough).

Here’s the problem. All of these direct indicators are too entrenched and widespread to be overtly linked to irrationality. So instead we use safe, bland, non-confrontational indicators like the Linda Test that are at best weak and at worst undermine important and frank questions about rationality.

So dump Linda already in favor of far more meaningful measures of rationality!


How True Klingons Battle Climate Change

klingonYou probobly assume that we Americans represent the Federation of the Star Trek universe. Not really. If anything, we are far closer to the Klingons – say otherwise and I will let you taste my bat’leth! Like the Klingons, we may be inept at maintaining our infrastructure, at providing affordable healthcare, at ensuring a good education, a secure retirement, or a working wage… but we are truly exceptional at waging war. We have far more military might than all other human civilizations combined. Our immense “defense” budget is sacrosanct and we subordinate every other priority to sustain it. We bring our armies down upon anyone who dares challenge us and have been involved in over a hundred wars in our short history (see here). Admit it or not – like it or not – we are the Klingons.

You probably mistakenly assumed that Russia represents the Klingon Empire. But the Russians are more akin to the Romulans, favoring cloaking devices and clandestine operations to advance their insular goals. The European Union is probably the closest thing our planet has to a Federation.

But I say, don’t deny our Klingon side, embrace it! In fact, call upon it to battle the biggest, most deadly enemy threatening us – Climate Change. What would a true Klingon warrior do if faced with the threat of Climate Change? Well yes, they would unhesitatingly invade and occupy a nice planet like Bajor that has been responsibly managed by peaceful refugees. But if that were not possible, they would meet Climate Change in glorious battle.

I realize that declaring war on Climate Change seems hopeless, particularly after the election of the world’s most moronic climate-change-denying buffoon to the White House and the impending purge of any remnant of reason from our government. But Klingon warriors scoff at such defeatism.

My proposal is that we get ourselves into a war against Climate Change and bring the full wrath and fury of the American Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines to bear against it. Our military knows how to win against all odds. I say bring it down upon Climate Change like a hostile fleet of Klingon Birds of Prey!

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking there’s no way our Republican-controlled Congress would ever declare war on Climate Change. But there is nothing easier than getting America into a war. We love our wars way too much to ever say no to one. And even though many members of the Congress don’t believe in Climate Change, we go to war under false pretenses all the time. We don’t need real reasons when any old aluminum tubes will do.

But you are right about one thing, Congress would need some compelling excuse – merely saving our planet is obviously insufficient. So what we can do is stage a False Flag operation to get them all riled up. Maybe we can plant rumors that the Russians are actually orchestrating Climate Change to spread Communism. Or we could “discover” Climate Change documents in Nicaragua that implicate the drug cartels. We could even stage a fictional attack purportedly made by Climate Change against an American Destroyer or a government building. Better yet, the CIA can merely insert a fake news story on Breitbart reporting that Climate Change gave American soldiers the middle finger. Really, any of the old tried-and-true methods for justifying a war should do just fine.

Once we do go to war against Climate Change, that evil CO2 will be routed. Our Navy subs can fire modified torpedoes to defend salinity in the North Atlantic Conveyor belt. Our Air Force can bomb CO2 strongholds in the Middle East. The Army can hold off rising seas on our Eastern seaboard while amphibious Marines assault mega tornadoes and hurricanes in the Gulf. The Coast Guard can protect polar ice caps. Special Forces will be needed for missions into other countries while the CIA conducts covert ops to take out the worst methane polluters. Homeland Security may have to go door to door to uncover traitors in our midst and I would not rule out drones or even space-based weaponry.

Seriously, we need to leverage our greatest asset in a global effort to reverse Climate Change. Hey, if it takes a military coup to get this war started, I’m all for it. I’m even willing to resort to chemical warfare in this case. Heck, go ahead and waterboard Climate Change if it gets results. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures. And even if we fall, we can at least save our Klingon honor and perhaps even give the surviving cockroaches their chance to evolve to be wiser beings than us.

We are Klingon! Today is a good day to die!!


Why Wall Street Loves Trump

I hear that Wall Street is all excited about a Trump Presidency. They should be. I’d like to comment on this, but first let me admit that I have absolutely no qualifications to offer any sort of informed analysis. In fact I’m probably the least qualified financial analyst possible. As amazing as it may seem, I am literally an Economics 101 drop out.

How is it possible to fail one of the easiest undergrad filler classes you ask? Well back in Econ 101, the professor instructed us that we had to “play the game.” We were explicitly told not to consider any common sense, logic, or real-world experience while participating in his discussion sessions. We were admonished to simply play along and accept his premises as presented, however absurd they they may seem.

I had trouble participating in these discussions. In fact, at one point the professor called on me to select either option A or option B for some hypothetical scenario. I told him that I could not choose either one because they were both ridiculous. As this was not my first uncooperative infraction, he told me that I should either “play the game” or drop his course. I stood up, gathered up my books slowly, and announced that I chose option C, dropping the course. Then I took a long walk up the lecture hall steps and across to the back door to give my fellow students as much time as possible to consider what they hell they were learning in this idiotic class.

Although I never did “play the game” to the end to see how it all came together, I suspect that the professor never actually got around to showing how all of his ridiculous economic scenarios applied to the real world. I suspect that all of my former classmates came away only with the expected understanding of our crazy capitalist system, and with absolutely no recollection of the sanity that they were required to abandon in order to accept it.

Now most of us do accept as we are constantly led to believe by the media, that when the Dow and the Nasdaq are excited, we should all be excited. And here I am, without the insight gained by completing even Econ 101, epically unprepared to understand why we should all be excited by Wall Street’s enthusiasm for Donald Trump.

Yet it seems to me that Wall Street gets excited over one thing and one thing only, higher profits for shareholders. Profits are not increased by the things most of us want like more jobs, higher wages, better benefits, a cleaner and safer environment, or greater consumer protections. In fact profits go up most dramatically when these things can be reduced, circumvented, or eliminated completely.

Wall Street gets excited when businesses can replace jobs with machines or cheap overseas labor. They get excited when they can lower wages or benefits to increase profits for shareholders. They get excited when they can be shielded from corporate malfeasance or pollute our environment or bankrupt retirement funds to hand out executive bonuses. The markets go up and down all the time. Usually when they go up it means nothing good for the workers or for the consumer.

These are all things that Wall Street expects Donald Trump to help them do as President. Is it any wonder they are all excited?

wallstreetOne thing that Wall Street loves most of all are disasters. Disasters make bankers salivate. Life is full of its little ironies, and as it turns out I just moved away from New York City after 10 years of living literally on Wall Street. In another strange twist of fate, I worked on Church Street (I’m a devout atheist). Anyway, back on point. I used to meet lots of financial types. I remember after a tornado leveled some towns in the South, these guys were like kids in a candy store. They could hardly contain their enthusiasm over this disaster and all the new loans and sales it would create.

Make no mistake. The election of Donald Trump was a huge, mega-disaster. No wonder my former Wall Street neighbors are getting erections. Disasters create opportunities for massive profits for the already wealthy. But for all the rest of us? Well they are still just disasters. Maybe we all just need to forget reality and simply “play the game” when CNN Money and The Economist reassure us that Wall Street is bullish over a Trump Administration.