Category Archives: Fact-Based Thinking

Our Amazing Yet Deeply Flawed Neural Networks

NeuralNetwork

Back in the 1980’s when I did early work applying Neural Network technology to paint formulation chemistry, that experience gave me fascinating insights into how our brains operate. A computer neural network is a mathematically complex program that does a simple thing. It takes a set of training “facts” and an associated set of “results,” and it learns how they connect by essentially computing lines of varying weights connecting them. Once the network has learned how to connect these training facts to the outputs, it can take any new set of inputs and predict the outcome or it can predict the best set of inputs to produce a desired outcome.

Our brains do essentially the same thing. We are exposed to “facts” and their associated outcomes every moment of every day. As these new “training sets” arrive, our biological neural network connections are physically weighted. Some become stronger, others weaker. The more often we observe a connection, the stronger that neural connection becomes. At some point it becomes so strong that it becomes undeniably obvious “common sense” to us. Unreinforced connections, like memories, become so weak they are eventually forgotten.

Note that this happens whether we know it or not and whether we want it to happen or not. We cannot NOT learn facts. We learn language as children just by overhearing it, whether we intend to learn it or not. Our neural network training does not require conscious effort and cannot be “ignored” by us. If we hear a “fact” often enough, it keeps getting weighted heavier until it eventually becomes “undeniably obvious” to us.

Pretty amazing right? It is. But here is one crucial limitation. Neither computer or biological neural networks have any intrinsic way of knowing if a training fact is valid or complete nonsense. They judge truthiness based only upon their weighting. If we tell a neural network that two plus two equals five, it will accept that as a fact and faithfully report five with complete certainty as the answer every time it is asked. Likewise, if we connect spilling salt with something bad happening to us later, that becomes a fact to our neural network of which we feel absolutely certain.

This flaw wasn’t too much of a problem during most of our evolution as we were mostly exposed to real, true facts of nature and the environment. It only becomes an issue when we are exposed to abstract symbolic “facts” which can be utter fantasy. Today, however, most of what is important to our survival are not “natural” facts that can be validated by science. They are conceptual ideas which can be repeated and reinforced in our neural networks without any physical validation. Take the idea of a god as one perfect example. We hear that god exists so often that our “proof of god” pathways strengthen to the point that we see proof everywhere and god’s existence becomes intuitively undeniable to us.

This situation is exacerbated by another related mental ability of ours… rationalization. Since a neural network can happily accommodate any “nonsense” facts, regardless of how contradictory they may be, our brains have to be very good at rationalizing away any logical discrepancies between them. If two strong network connections logically contradict each other, our brains excel and fabricating some reason, some rationale to explain how that can be. When exposed to contradictory input, we feel disoriented until we rationalize it somehow. Without that ability, we would be paralyzed and unable to function.

This ability of ours to rationalize anything is so powerful that even brain lesion patients who believe they only have half of a body will quickly rationalize away any reason you give them, any evidence you show them, that proves they are wrong. Rationalization allows us to continue to function, even when our neural networks have been trained with dramatically nonsensical facts. Further, once a neural network fact becomes strong enough, it can no longer be easily modified even by contradictory perceptions, because it filters and distorts subsequent perceptions to accommodate it. It can no longer be easily modified by even our memories as our memories are recreated in accordance with those connections every time we recreate them.

As one example to put all this together, when I worked in the Peace Corps in South Africa a group of high school principals warned me to stay indoors after dark because of the witches that roam about. I asked some questions, like have you ever personally seen a witch? No, was the answer, but many others whom we trust have told us about them. What do they look like, I asked. Well they look almost like goats with horns in the darkness. In fact, if you catch one they will transform into a goat to avoid capture.

Here you clearly see how otherwise smart people can be absolutely sure that their nonsensical “facts” and rationalizations are perfectly reasonable. What you probably don’t see is the equally nonsensical rationalizations of your own beliefs in god and souls and angels or other bizarre delusions.

So our neural networks are always being modified, regardless of how smart we are, whether we want them to or not, whether we know they are or not, and those training facts can be absolutely crazy. But our only measure of how crazy they are is our own neural network weighting which tells us that whatever are the strongest connections must be the most true. Further, our perceptions and memories are modified to remain in alignment with that programming and we can fabricate any rationalization needed to explain how our belief in even the most outlandish idea is really quite rational.

In humans early days, we could live with these inherent imperfections. They actually helped us survive. But the problems that face us today are mostly in the realm of concepts, symbols, ideas, and highly complex abstractions. There is little clear and immediate feedback in the natural world to moderate bad ideas. Therefore, the quality of our answers to those problems and challenges is entirely dependent upon the quality of our basic neural network programming.

The scientific method is a proven way to help ensure that our conclusions align with reality, but science can only be applied to empirically falsifiable questions. Science can’t help much with most of the important issues that threaten modern society like should we own guns or should Donald Trump be President. Our flawed neural networks can make some of us feel certain about such questions, but how can we be certain that our certainty is not based on bad training facts?

First, always try to surround yourself by “true and valid” training facts as much as possible. Religious beliefs, New Age ideas, fake news, and partisan rationalizations all fall under the category of “bad” training facts. Regardless of how much you know they are nonsense, if you are exposed to them you will get more and more comfortable with them. Eventually you will come around to believing them no matter how smart you think you are, it’s simply a physical process like the results of eating too much fat.

Second, the fact that exposing ourselves to nonsense is so dangerous gives us hope as well. While it’s true that deep network connections, beliefs, are difficult to change, it is a fallacy to think they cannot change. Indoctrination works, brainwashing works, marketing works. Repetition and isolation from alternative viewpoints, as practiced by Fox News, works. So we CAN change minds, no matter how deeply impervious they may seem, for the better as easily as for the worse. Education helps. Good information helps.

There is a method called Feldenkrais which can be practiced to become aware of our patterns of muscle movement, and to then strip out “bad” or “unnecessary” neural network programming to improve atheletic efficiency and performance. I maintain that our brains work in essentially the same way as the neural networks that coordinate our complex movements. As in Feldenkrais, we can slow down, examine each tiny mental step, become keenly aware of our thinking patterns, identify flaws, and correct them. If we try.

Third, rely upon the scientific method wherever you can. Science, where applicable, gives us a proven method to bypass our flawed network programming and compromised perceptions to arrive at the truth of a question.

Fourth, learn to quickly recognize fallacies of logic. This can help you to identify bad rationalizations in yourself as well as others. Recognizing flawed rationalizations can help you to identify bad neural programming. In my book Belief in Science and the Science of Belief, I discuss logical fallacies in some detail as well a going deeper into all of the ideas summarized here.

Finally, just be ever cognizant and self-aware of the fact that whatever seems obvious and intuitive to you may in fact be incorrect, inconsistent, or even simply crazy. Having humility and self-awareness of how our amazing yet deeply flawed neural networks function helps us to remain vigilant for our limitations and skeptical of our own compromised intuitions and rationalizations.

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The Multiverse is Bigger than God

MultiverseOur gods used to be gods of specific things; the sky, the sea, war, love. Then God took over and became the god of everything. But our understanding of “everything” keeps expanding, and as it does, our fanciful notion of God has to expand along with it to remain ever beyond the limits of mere science.

The visible horizon of our observable universe is 46.5 billion light years away in any direction. That is an immense distance, and this visible sphere around us contains about 100 billion galaxies, each with perhaps 100 billion stars. Our God of everything created all that too, presumably just for us to look at.

But wait, there’s more, much more. Today we understand that our universe is almost certainly unimaginably larger than that which we can observe. It is perhaps 100 billion trillion times larger than our observable universe. That makes what we can see just the tiniest mote of dust in our greater universe. In our observable universe we can look into the sky and at least see what happened in the distant past. We can not even see out into the darkness beyond that. But since it apparently exists, believers have no choice except to inflate God once more. God presumably created all that inaccessible space beyond the horizon as well, and just for us.

It gets better. Now we are beginning to understand that God apparently created an infinite multiverse just for us as well. I first recall being fascinated by the idea of multiple universes in 1966 when Mr. Spock met Captain Kirk’s evil counterpart from an alternate universe (see here). But just as Star Trek communicators became everyday reality, the science fiction of multiple universes has become legitimate science.

There are many forms that the multiverse may take, but for now let it suffice to think of an infinite number of universes just like ours, maybe isolated in pockets of space, maybe superimposed upon each other, maybe both. Their infinity extends through both time and space. This infinite multiverse is not static. In it (if the word “in” even applies to an infinite space) universes appear, grow old, and die. Each is born with a particular set of fundamental parameters. Only a relatively tiny (but still infinite) fraction have parameters in the “Goldilocks” range that allow organized structures. In a tiny fraction of those, life is possible. The rest are stillborn or survive for a short while as unsustainable regions of chaos.

How can it get more mind-blowing? Well it is an inescapable logical conclusion is that in an infinite multiverse everything that could possibly happen must happen. For example, there must be a universe in which every possible variation of our own exists, in fact there must be an infinite number of each possible variation – infinite numbers of each of us.

Whatever form it takes, we become even more insignificant within the time-space grandeur of the multiverse. So our notion of God must once again expand dramatically to exceed even the non-existent bounds of an already infinite multiverse in order to remain the unbounded God of all things. And of course God created that infinite multiverse, so far beyond our ability to grasp let alone interact with, just for we infinitesimal humans.

I talk about god here knowing full well that it is of course completely silly to do so. I might as well talk about the how our notion of Santa Claus must expand to encompass the belief that he has to deliver Christmas presents to all children in the multiverse on one night. Yet, unfortunately we do focus our attention on our fantasy of god whenever these cosmological discussions take place.

Some “religious scholars” try desperately to keep god relevant in the face of our growing awareness by arguing that in a multiverse in which all things are possible, god must exist somewhere. In an otherwise decent article author Mark Vernon (see here), perpetuates this fallacy by repeating that since “everything is possible somewhere … it would have to conclude that God exists in some universes.

This will certainly keep getting repeated but it is simply not a correct interpretation of the science to say that in a multiverse “everything is possible.” This is a perversion of the correct formulation which is “everything possible must happen.” These are completely different ideas. Any particular universe is still governed by its own physics and there is a limit to the possible physics of any given universe. Impossible things, like gods and ghosts, can not happen in any universe.

And even if some universe had some being approaching a god, it would still not be an omnipotent god of everything and it would certainly not be our god. Therefore I am not sure how claiming that a God exists in some other universe does anything but admit that one does not exist in our own.

So what is the most rational of the possible irrational responses for someone clinging to their belief in god in the face of a multiverse? The best would be simply to claim that god created the multiverse and not even try to invoke any pseudo-scientific arguments. As you always have, just keep expanding your definition of god to supersede whatever new boundaries science reveals.

But really, adding God to the multiverse is simply adding fake infinity on top of real infinity. Like infinity plus infinity, the extra infinity is entirely superfluous and unnecessary. And what does it add to place God beyond infinity? It only replaces the insistence that something had to create the multiverse with an acceptance that nothing had to create God. It’s silly, especially given the fact that our limited concept of “before” has little relevance in an infinite multiverse.

Better yet would be to finally give in and acknowledge that the multiverse has rendered your god small and insignificant and kind of pathetic. God is like a quaint old Vaudeville act that can no longer compete with huge 3-D superhero blockbusters, and looks silly trying. Back in the day, it might have been an understandable conceit to believe that God created the Earth just for us… or even maybe the solar system. But the level of conceit required to believe that some God created the entire multiverse just for us is wildly absurd. The idea that such a God would be focused on us is insanely narcissistic.

The multiverse forces God to grow SO large, that it swells him far beyond any relevance to us or us to him.

So abandon your increasingly simplistic idea of god and find comfort, wonder, and inspiration in our incredible multiverse. You do not need to feel increasingly insignificant and worthless in this expanding multiverse. You don’t need God to give you a phony feeling of significance and meaning within it. All it takes is the flip of a mental soft-switch and you can find comfort and wonder and meaning in our amazing multiverse. It’s all just in your head after all.

I do not share the pessimism of some that we can never “see” or understand the multiverse. My working assumption is that even the greater multiverse is our cosmos, that it is knowable. If we survive Climate Change, we may eventually understand it more fully through indirect observations or through the magical lens of mathematics. Until then, if you are intrigued and stimulated by these real possibilities, I highly recommend that you read the excellent overview article by Robert Lawrence Kuhn (see here).

Atheists Can Be Deluded Too

rollAs webmaster for New York City Atheists (see here), I recently found myself on a mailing list for a man named Michael Roll, pictured right. While he considers himself an atheist, Mr. Roll is also a self-professed spiritualist who has undertaken a personal mission to sell his particular fantasy as a non-religious, science-based idea. Since the 1960’s his “campaign for philosophical freedom” (see here) has tried to promote his spiritualist delusions.

Following are just a few of the ideas that he puts forth with great intellectual soberness and gravitas:

  • There is no god, but there is an afterlife that is part of the natural world. This spirit world exists on a “different frequency” and accounts for the unaccounted 95% of the energy in our universe.
  • While the religious beliefs of others are nonsense, his essentially identical beliefs are based on “experiments and mathematical models.”
  • His evidence is largely based on the “research” conducted by Sir William Crooks between 1871 and 1874. Crooks observed the manifestations produced by several “materialism mediums” which he claimed proved the existence of a vast afterlife (see here).
  • The media is in cahoots with the Vatican in a conspiracy to discredit legitimate science on the paranormal including work linking subatomic physics with the afterlife (see here).
  • According to Roll “famous television scientist Professor Brian Cox […] is let loose on the public because his false model of the universe is no danger to the Vatican and their powerful materialistic agents.
  • Roll also states “2018 could just be the year that a few billion people will find out that the great philosopher Jesus started from the correct scientific base that we all have a soul that separates from the dead physical body. But most important of all, that Einstein started from the incorrect scientific base that the mind dies with the brain.

I am not going to waste any of your time refuting all of Roll’s clearly delusional fantasies, any more than I would waste your time refuting the Narnia-really-exists theory. Here is a video in which you can hear his “logic” directly from him (video here). It particularly saddens me that Roll appears to be a student of Carl Sagan and quotes him extensively, yet manages to do so in a way that is a blasphemy to everything Dr. Sagan stood for (see here).

What interests me more than debunking this one clearly delusional individual is the more general observation that atheists are not immune to magical thinking. While atheists may not believe in god, they may certainly believe in lots of other equally nonsensical ideas. Just calling oneself an atheist does not immunize one from delusions. Michael Roll’s secular form of rationalizing his magical thinking with “logic” is no different than the “logic” put forth by Ken Ham to rationalize his biblical fantasy (see here).

Atheist delusions can be unique to an individual, but are more often propagated by non-religious movements and fads. Spiritualism and New Age thinking are examples of non-religious structures of fantastical delusions about the world.

Even smart, logical, sophisticated thinkers are not insulated from spiritual delusion. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the brilliant creator of the paragon of rational thought, Sherlock Holmes, was another passionate proponent of spiritualism. He clung to his belief, even after Houdini proved to him that his magic tricks were merely tricks. Even after that irrefutable evidence, Doyle refused to be swayed from his insistence that they proved spiritualism was real (see here).

That these kind of spiritual belief systems can so compromise the thinking of one such as Conan Doyle demonstrates that they are both highly seductive and tenacious. Many of my atheist friends do not share my concern about these non-religious movements because they do not have the institutional power of an organized church behind them. Fair enough. However, they still contribute significantly to a culture in which magical thinking is encouraged and rational thought diminished. They legitimize and normalize public debate on important matters in which “alternative facts” are even entertained.

I argue that while misguided atheists like Michael Roll claim not to believe in god, their belief in essentially the same kind of pseudoscientific thinking supports faith-based thinking in all its forms. To attempt to use phony science fiction to rationalize a delusion does not make it less harmful than a purely religious belief. Indeed, the false invocation of the facade of science may in fact make the delusion far more harmful and damaging.

In my book “The Science of Belief,” (see here), I tried hard to not focus too much on religious thinking specifically, but on all non-fact based thinking in general. My thesis was that we cannot successfully attack religion or other secular forms of magical thinking directly. Rather we must teach real, authentic scientific ways of thinking and approaching the unknown. If we succeed at that, religion and spiritualism will crumble away to dust on their own.

The Day I Met Lucy Liu

LucyLiuSo speaking of celebrity encounters in NYC, one time I was waiting for a date in front of a restaurant near my apartment in lower Manhattan, when Lucy Liu walked up and stood next to me. She was waiting for someone as well and we exchanged pleasantries.

Oh wait… that never happened. In fact, once I impulsively related this story to a group of friends. As I did, I had a growing feeling of uneasiness as if something was wrong. Then one of my friends said, “hey that’s the story I told you!” It then hit me that I was remembering her experience. I was so mortified that I tried clumsily to cover up for my humiliation.

I had had the actual experience of waiting outside that same restaurant several times to meet dates. I had had actual experiences of encountering other celebrities in NYC. I was obviously familiar with Lucy Liu from television and movies. The presence of my friend who told me that story probably triggered a temporary conflation of all of these to produce a false memory.

How can this happen? Well it happens all the time but we are not usually made aware of it in such an embarrassing fashion. You see, we do not recall events like a tape recorder. Rather our memories are like notes scribbled along the margins of our brains, associated by proximity or by little arrows. When we try to retrieve a memory, we do not hit “replay,” rather we check our scribbled, fragmented notes and try to piece the events back together as best we can. Our memories are not recordings, but are rather more like docudramas that we recreate from scraps of information each time we invoke them.

These little docudrama memories are never recreated exactly. They are full of errors and omissions. Not only are they constructed incompletely, but they are colored by our biases, fears, hopes, and needs at the time we recreate them. Even worse, each time we recall them, our scribbled notes are updated with these changes and this modified version forms the basis of our next recollection. It’s like basing your documentary of JFK on a previous documentary. Our memories are like the message in a game of telephone, changing and morphing each time we invoke them. If my friend had not been present to point this out about Lucy Liu, I may well have further integrated her story more solidly into my own memories.

As marvelous as our memories are, these things happen. Anyone, like our President, who thinks they have “one of the great memories of all time” is simply not paying close enough attention. And it’s hard to question our very memories. After all, they form the basis of who we are and all we think we know. To question our memories is to question our own competence, our own sanity, and even the very foundation of our self identity.

Yet we must be skeptical of memories, particularly our own. Most of our memories are not as falsifiable as a misremembered encounter with Lucy Liu. There is no one to call us out of most of the memories that form our experiences and define us as who we are. Most of our memory glitches aren’t exposed on a witness stand. We recall certain things about how our parents treated us but not other things. We recall a friend insulting us when it was actually a comment made on a television show. We clearly recall a pivotal experience in our life that was in fact only a recurring dream.

I noticed that when I gave lectures, I told an abbreviated story that was a composite of a number of other stories, just to illustrate a point. Before too long I could no longer recall the individual stories but only the abbreviated composite. Each time we retell a story, that replaces our old memories and our memories change and morph over time.

You can experiment on yourself to test my claims. Just start telling some story about yourself – make it somewhat plausible. I guarantee that before too long you’ll have trouble recalling that you made this up. Before much longer, and you’ll become absolutely certain it is completely true. You remember it clearly after all, so it must be. That’s how your neural network works. You cut you bleed. You repeat experiences through stories or dreams or whatever, and they become memories. They become your self.

Even more important than recalling events is the problem of remembering feelings. Our recollection of feelings is extremely malleable. We can quickly grow to hate a dear friend or spouse largely because we retell stories over and over again that gradually deteriorate into a “powerful, unforgettable recollection” of how terribly we have been treated in the past. If we are disposed to think badly of someone, all our memories will be colored by that lens. Perhaps, a good indicator of the person we are now is the tone we impart upon the docudramas we recreate to recall events and how those events made us feel.

In fact, studies have suggested that having a “great memory” makes you less happy. People with so-called great memories tend to never let go of any slight or insult. They only get angrier and more unhappy as time goes on. I submit that their memories are not actually that great and that they likely have a tendency to create a more unforgivably offensive version of their memory each time they recall it.

Lucy Liu reminds me that a little humility when it comes to the fallibility of our own memories is a good thing. Maybe it would make Donald Trump a less angry and spiteful person if he were not quite so confident that he has “one of the great memories of all time.” Or, maybe angry and spiteful people just cannot help but create memories that reinforce their anger and spitefulness.

 

Compartmentalizing Delusion

CompartmentsReligious people hold a lot of beliefs that nonbelievers conclude are delusional (see here). Many of these believers also hold important positions of responsibility in the government, in the media, and business. Some of them even sit on our Congressional Science Committee. Their decisions deeply impact public policy and the very existence of us and of our planet.

Those most fervent in their beliefs proudly tout the fact that their deeply held religious beliefs guide and influence all of their decisions as a lawmaker. But when someone points out that those deeply held religious beliefs are in direct conflict and contradiction to basic reason and accepted public policy, they then typically claim compartmentalization.

Essentially the contradictory claim they make is that while they affirm that they are deeply influenced by nonsensical ideas, those nonsensical ideas do not influence their thinking in rational matters. They insist that they can wail over rapture on Sunday and make prudent, long-term budget decisions on Monday. They can enumerate why evolution is a hoax cooked up by scientists at Wednesday evening Bible study, then properly assess the advise of climate change scientists in their Thursday morning advisory board meeting. They can affirm that the Bible is the only source of truth on Saturday morning, then go home and work on educational text book selections all afternoon. They assert that one is not affected by the other in the least – except when they want to tout the fact that it is.

Their amazingly selective isolation of thinking, they claim, is all thanks to the magic of compartmentalization. It lets them espouse crazy beliefs and claim to be perfectly sane and rational too. This claim is made so often and with such matter-of-fact certainty, that most people just tend to accept it as true.

But let’s examine this claim of compartmentalization more closely.

All of us compartmentalize somewhat. In fact, such compartmentalization is critical to our functioning. We mentally separate work and home, parent and spouse, private and public. When we think of scientific models, we hold two seemingly different views at the same time (see here). Compartmentalization is an essential rational and emotional adaptation. Maybe that’s partly why we accept their claim of exceptional compartmentalization so easily.

But all normal and highly functional behaviors can become abnormal and dysfunctional at some point. At the extreme, we see people with multiple personalities that are split so completely that they are not even aware of each other. And although some extremely rare individuals can apparently completely isolate their thinking, most of us cannot. For most of us, any irrational, dysfunctional thinking does spill over and taints our rational thinking.

We humans can do hand-stands too. When I was in high school, there were a couple of guys on my gymnastic team who could literally walk up and down stairs between classes, in a crowd at full speed, on their hands with perfect form. But because those rare individuals could do it doesn’t mean we can all claim it. Just because Jimmy Carter seemed to isolate his religious belief from his rational thinking in a healthy way, doesn’t mean that many of us can do that. Jimmy Carter was more like the gymnast who could walk up and down stairs on his hands. Most others who believe they can isolate belief from rationality will invariably plummet down the stairs, taking innumerable others crashing down with them.

As I point out in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here), religious belief is the pot smoking of rational thought. Every pot smoker or alcoholic is convinced that they can handle it. That their rational thinking is not affected. They think what they are expounding while high is really profound, but it’s really just nonsensical gibberish. Religious people can’t see how ridiculous they sound while they’re high on the Bible and only listening to others who are just as stoned.

We don’t easily accept this same claim of compartmentalization in any area other than religion. We don’t fully accept that ones stressful job as a homicide cop has no affect on their home life. We would not accept the assertion by a racist that while he may attend Klan meetings on Friday nights, this has no impact on his professional behavior as a hiring manager. Most of us would be at least skeptical in accepting any opinion expressed by a Wiccan who claimed to have supernatural powers, despite any claim of compartmentalization.

Even religious people don’t accept any compartmentalization except the one they claim. If I ran for public office as an atheist, I don’t have any illusions that my claim that I can compartmentalize my atheism would be sufficient to convince any religious people to trust that my judgement has not been tainted by my atheism.

Religious thinkers claim compartmentalization to avoid legitimate skepticism regarding their compromised rationality. Sadly, we accept this claim for the most part. We should stop giving them this free pass. Not only can such fervent “deeply held” delusions not be sufficiently compartmentalized, but believers don’t really want or intend to compartmentalize away their beliefs in any case.

Religious people want and need to propagate their beliefs and weave them inextricably into public policy. Our polite acceptance of their dubious claim of compartmentalization only helps enable them to do that.

 

Scientific Models

I recently attended a book club discussion on The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore (see here).  In it, Blackmore puts forth a thesis of “memetic evolution” to describe how our minds work. In fact, her assertion is that our minds can only be understood in terms of memetic selection. Although that seems to be a wildly exaggerated claim, the scientific model she proposes is both stimulating and promising.

But memetic evolution is not the topic of this article. I only cite it as one example of the kind of topic that  many non-scientists and even some scientists have great difficulty discussing fairly. Often in discussing such topics, a great many unfounded criticisms are lodged, and these quite often flow from an inadequate understanding and appreciation of scientific models.

This is understandable. Unless you are a trained, experienced, and particularly thoughtful scientist, you probably have had inadequate background to fully appreciate the concept of a scientific model. In fact, if you look up the word model in most dictionaries, the scientific usage of the term is typically not even mentioned. No wonder many people have a very limited if not completely mistaken appreciation of what a scientific model is. A scientific model is not analogous to a plastic model kit that is intended to look just like the real race car in every detail. It is not at all like a fashion model, intended to present something in an attractive manner. Nor is it like an aspirational model to be put forth as a goal to emulate and strive toward.

No, a scientific model is a working system that does not need to actually “look like” the real system it describes in any conventional way. The important characteristic of a scientific model is that it behave like the real system it describes. How accurately a scientific model reflects the real system it models is measured by how well it explains observed behaviors of the real system and is able to predict future behaviors of the real system.

For example, in 1913 Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr put forth the atomic model of matter that we are all familiar with – a nucleus of protons and neutrons orbited by electrons. This was a highly successful model because it described a huge number of observed characteristics and behaviors of matter, allowed us to gain great understanding of matter, and most importantly allowed us to predict as yet unobserved traits of matter.

But in truth the Bohr model is a laughably simplistic stick-figure representation of matter. It describes certain behaviors adequately but completely fails to describe others. It was quickly extended by De Broglie, by Schrödinger, and innumerable others to include wave and then quantum characteristics.

Despite its almost laughable simplicity and innumerable refinements and extensions made over the last century, the Bohr model remains one of the most important and consequential scientific models of all time. If the Bohr model was presented in many book discussion groups today, it would be criticized, dismissed, and even mocked as having no value.

Certainly we can and should recognize and discuss the limitations of models. But we must not dismiss them out of a mistaken lack of appreciation of the limitations of scientific models. Often these misguided criticisms have the more widespread effect of unfairly discrediting all science. Following are some examples of the kinds of criticisms that are valid and some that are invalid.

  1. We must first recognize when we are talking about a new idea like memetic evolution, that we are talking about a scientific model.
  2. A scientific model does not need to answer everything. We must recognize the limitations of every model, but the more important focus is on how useful it is within its applicable limits. Newton’s Laws do not describe relativistic motion, but in our everyday world Newtonian physics is still fantastically useful. Critics of science should not claim that a model – or science in general – is fundamentally flawed or unreliable because a particular model is not universal.
  3. Many critics of science think they have scored points by pointing out that “you can’t trust science because their models are always being replaced!” But models are hardly ever replaced, rather they are extended. The Bohr model was greatly extended, but the basic model is still perfectly valid within its range of applicability.
  4. The fact that there are many different models of the same thing is not proof that “science contradicts itself and cannot make up its mind.” We famously have the two major models of light- the wave model and particle model. The wave model correctly predicts some behaviors and the particle model correctly predicts others. Though they appear irreconcilably different, both are absolutely valid. Real light is not exactly like either model but is exactly like both models. Think of your mother. She has a mother-model that describes her behavior as a mother. But she also has a wife-model, a career-model, a daughter-model, a skeletal-model, and many others. None of these in themselves completely describes your mother, and many may seem irreconcilably different, but all of them correctly model a different set of behaviors in different situations and only collectively do they all communicate a more complete picture of your mother.

So, when discussing something like memetic evolution, it is proper and correct to ascertain its boundaries and to critique how well it describes and predicts observed behaviors within those boundaries. But it is wrong and counter-productive to dismiss it either because there exist other models or because it does not – yet – describe everything. And worst is to dismiss all of science as flawed because it puts forth multiple models of reality and extends them over time.

To describe and predict human thinking, Skinner put forth a stimulus-response model, Blackmore puts for forth a meme-model, and I often focus on a pattern-recognition model. These are not in competition. One is not right and the others all necessarily wrong. The fact that there are these three and many other models of human thinking does not reflect any fundamental weakness of science, but rather its strength.

It us unfortunate that far too few people have a sufficiently deep appreciation and level of comfort with scientific models. We must do much better to understand and communicate these subtleties that are so fundamental and critical to science.

 

Out of Context

Charles MurrayIn the Grey Matter section of the Sunday Review in the New York Times, Cornell Professors Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci published an article entitled “Charles Murray’s ‘Provocative’ Talk.” In it, they described a small ad hoc study that they conducted to test whether the words of Charles Murray are objectively offensive and thus deserving of the level of resistance to his lecture at Middlebury College (see here).

In their study, the authors took a transcript of Murray’s actual talk and sent it without attribution to 70 college professors with a request to rate the words on a 9 point scale from very conservative to very liberal. They found that although “American college professors are overwhelmingly liberal,” those surveyed found Murray’s words to be “middle of the road” with an average score of about 5. Williams and Ceci interpret this finding as indicating that the protest over Murray’s invitation to speak was objectively ill-informed and unjustified.

This argument is deeply and fundamentally flawed. We often see similar tricks played when someone reads an excerpt from the Constitution or Mein Kampf and asks for an opinion about it – before the gotcha reveal when they identify the authorship.

One major study flaw is the premise that words stand alone. Context matters and the meaning and intent of words can only be fully assessed with due consideration of the person making the statement. Authorship is an essential part of that greater context. If PT Barnum claimed he had a Yeti in his house, I would have received it with tremendous skepticism. If Carl Sagan made the exact same claim, I would have been very excited about the potential of an important new anthropological discovery.

The reality is that Charles Murray has a long history of promoting what many consider to be highly destructive public policy research and analysis that has undermined valuable social programs and has attacked and divided us along gender and racial differences. For example, his statement that “We believe that human happiness requires freedom and that freedom requires limited government,” may sound perfectly reasonable to 70 of our professional contacts if unattributed. Coming from a known liberal speaker, this could be meant to affirm that we should not be forced to live in an overly-policed state. However, coming from Charles Murray it is clear that his intent is to promote the dismantling of social assistance programs. The same statement might mean something even more extreme if David Duke had said it.

Based on the work of Williams and Ceci one might argue that we should remove all bias in approving speakers by using a blinded, unidentified process in which presenters are approved or rejected based solely on the text of their planned presentation. That would be extremely foolish. The reality is that the larger views and history of any speaker plays an essential role in how we should interpret their statements. Reasonable but isolated statements can conceal a larger and very different agenda that is only apparent if we know the source.

I have no doubt that the authors would respond by saying that intellectually unbiased people should be willing to hear any reasonable speaker and make this assessment for themselves, without forced censorship. However, surely they would also agree that there is some limit beyond which a speaker would not be acceptable even to them. But reasonable people can reasonably disagree about where this fuzzy boundary should lie – and that boundary must consider not only the message but the messenger as well.

Clearly a determinative number of alumni, faculty, and students at Middlebury judged that the lifetime body of work by Charles Murray, as well as his very clear lifelong mission, crossed that fuzzy line for them. Williams and Ceci may disagree on their placement of this line and that is legitimate and fair debate. But it is not legitimate and fair to conduct what amounts to a gotcha stunt under the guise of objective science to prove that these people’s determination in this instance is illegitimate and irrational.

All that Williams and Ceci may have actually shown is that, without attribution, college professors don’t assume the worst or the best. They may merely fill the void with their own middle-of-the-road interpretation of unattributed quotations.