Category Archives: Science

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.


Music Appreciation

PatI’m flying to Vegas this weekend to catch “Pat Benatar and Neil Geraldo: A Very Intimate Acoustic Evening.” I have been a fan of theirs since the 70’s and am thrilled to get to see them once again. Unlike so many other older artists who simply run on autopilot, Pat and Neil have just gotten better and better with age, reinventing themselves in fresh ways while still remaining unapologetically true to their rock hard roots. No longer having megastar status has actually freed them to be truly great. Rather than being carefully manicured by the contrived glitz of big concert venues, they truly shine in intimate settings where they can stroll out on stage and warmly greet the audience wearing sweat pants and holding Styrofoam mugs of coffee.

My upcoming concert trip inspired me to upgrade my music system. I used to have an admittedly insane $50K worth of audiophile equipment, but like many others I have gradually traded away all that great equipment for the convenience and unlimited access of the digital age. I know that many people are perfectly happy with their crappy ear buds (see here), and are convinced that high-end audio is just pretentious nonsense, like people who insist that a $1000 bottle of wine really is worth every penny. But whether you can hear it or not, to people who can and do appreciate fine audio, you get what you pay for.

While for a long time the very alluring benefits of digital libraries and streaming access have forced us to compromise on quality, the industry has made huge strides. The good news is that today most of us can now get really, really good quality for a very affordable price. You no longer have to invest $20K and dedicate a room to get very good audio that rates at least a B+.

But as a consequence, concessions to digital convenience has pushed the dream of an A+ quality experience even further out of reach. For a while, I feared that truly exquisite high end audio had been essentially killed by digital. But I am pleased that the industry is not remaining satisfied with mass market B+ audio. Streaming services have invested heavily in delivering high quality source material, and the traditional audiophile industry is catching up to provide new digital-friendly equipment that can take those who care enough to the heights of sonic rapture.

Yesterday I visited a local high end audio store here in Tacoma called Advanced Audio (see here). I have to say that the staff there were incredibly warm and friendly, not at all the cliché snooty types that all too often manage these stores. I picked up a Sonos Playbar for my television (see here). The audio is very nice for both music and movies. Certainly not audiophile quality, but excellent for the money with amazing ease of connectivity to all my digital equipment.

Victor, the owner of Advanced Audio, took me into a listening room to show off his combination of Sonos Connect, Auralic Altair, Macintosh MC275 tube amplifier, and small-format Focal Sopra N1 speakers. He let me listen to “Papa’s Roses” by Pat Benatar on the system. I’ve used this track as my reference piece for many years, along with a few others like “Big Love – Live” by Lindsey Buckingham. I know from experience that these songs simply get better and better as your equipment gets better.

I’ve auditioned Papa’s Roses on the best of the best and thought I knew how gorgeous it could be, but I was still blown away this time. I had never heard it reproduced this beautifully. It was like a heavenly orchestra of angels. The song was rendered with such exquisite detail as to bring tears to ones eyes.

I was particularly blown away because the source was streaming digital! It is very gratifying that the high end audio industry not gone the way of vinyl records. Instead, it has met the challenge to bring stunning quality to the digital world of music. Now it is true that if you want to experience this acoustic nirvana, you will have to fork out around $25K. But while out of reach for many, it is still good to know that it is out there waiting for you and yielding technical breakthroughs that will improve everything downstream.

If you decide to audition a high end system, I can offer some practical advise. While an expert like Victor can talk your head off with acoustic science and engineering, here are 10 simple guidelines to help you pick out the best system for you:

  1. Don’t be swayed by specs. They don’t matter in the final analysis. The only thing that matters is the listening test.
  2. Don’t be fooled by complexity. The best speakers I’ve ever found have been simple two-way speakers, not gimmicky contraptions with 38 emitters designed to wow the unsophisticated buyer.
  3. Bring your own source material that you know very well.
  4. Some systems only sound good with particular types of music. Unless you only care about a particular music type, audition a representative range of genres.
  5. Some systems only sound good with sufficiently high quality sources. This greatly limits what you can enjoy. If I cannot still enjoy my beloved but crappy-quality Nina Hagen recordings on a system, I don’t want it.
  6. If the salesperson won’t let you play your own source material, walk away. He or she is trying to cherry pick only that particular music that flatters the system and avoid music that exposes its flaws.
  7. Don’t be wowed by heavy bass. I don’t want a system that sounds like a woofer array in the trunk of a ’79 caddie.
  8. Look for natural balance, dispersion, and clarity that flatters all parts of the music. Every instrument should stand out clear as the clearest bell. You should hear fingers sliding on the frets, breath on the reeds, and the subtle reverberations of an actor speaking in a hallway.
  9. Test it at all volumes. A great system should sound full and satisfying at low volumes. It should also still sound great – and not tire you out – at 100+ decibels.
  10. Don’t be rushed. The only test that really matters is what I call the “can I walk away” test. Many systems will knock your socks off for a few minutes, then leave you fatigued and ready to enjoy some silence. A great system leaves you wanting ever more and more and more. You desperately want to play everything you own. You could listen for hours and not get tired of it. If you cannot stop listening, you’ve found the right system for you.

Claiming that the experience of true audiophile quality music enjoyment is just made up, is like claiming that watching Star Wars on your television is just as good as experiencing it at an extreme digital big screen 3D movie theater. Great music can only be fully appreciated with great music systems. And I am overjoyed that digital and audio technologies are today converging and synergizing to make that experience accessible to more and more people.


Our Northern Flicker

My wife and I recently moved from Manhattan to Tacoma Washington. Although we still love NYC, we were ready for a change from the endless scaffolding and continual roadwork that seems unending and incessant in lower Manhattan. We were frankly tired of being woken up by jackhammers echoing through the skyscraper canyons (in lower Manhattan they literally tear up the streets and pave them over only so they can rip them up again the very next day). We were ready for the peace and serenity of the Puget Sound.

Imagine our Deja Vu shock to be virtually bounced out of bed in the morning by a noise somewhere between a jackhammer and an over-revved race car between 6 and 8 am in the morning. It seemed to come from the general area of the chimney, but it reverberated throughout the house. After exhausting every possibility inside, I went outside to spot a paunchy little bird perched on our chimney, industriously drumming away with his beak on our metal chimney cover at like 10,000 ppm (pecks per minute). He was essentially the little transducer at the base of a huge sound resonator.

northern-flickerIt turns out that he or she is a Northern Flicker and they are well-known to north westerners because they are regionally infamous little drummers. Of course no one can say with certainty why they do this but we can speculate. They are peckers by nature. They peck out hollows for homes with their beaks, they peck to find food, and they peck produce a unique sound that attract mates or communicate with them. Hey, they have a very efficient and powerful little hammer, and when that is all you have…

Some people assume that the bird is just mindlessly pecking on metal because they are too stupid to realize that it is metal. I don’t subscribe to such dismissive and diminutive assumptions regarding animal behavior. This kind of view often arises from a false notion of human exceptionalism that is endemic to religious thinking.

Instead of only taking pride and self-satisfaction in how unique and special we are, I also take great pride and satisfaction in appreciating how alike we are with our animal cousins. Rather than feel diminished by comparisons to animals, by ascribing human-like motivations and capabilities to them, such comparisons give me a deep sense of continuity and familial community with all of nature. Furthermore, we can better learn more about ourselves if we are more open to recognizing our own simplified and less complicated behaviors and motivations in other species.

Therefore, when it comes to our Northern Flicker friend, I think that, like us, he drums for many reasons. Drumming is what he does, he’s really good at it, he takes pride in it, and he enjoys it so it does it just for fun. He probably really, really likes the huge megaphone that our chimney cover offers, and likes to be the loudest Flicker in the neighborhood.

This is not to suggest that our Flicker’s emotions and behaviors and intellect are on a par with ours, but they are simpler versions of our human versions in the same way that his little bird legs gave rise to our human legs and his littler eyes are earlier versions to our human eyes. Their behaviors do not merely “appear” human, they are exactly what evolved into our more complex feelings and emotions. Just as we aren’t the only animals to have some form of brain, we aren’t the only animals to have some level of emotions and intellect and feelings. To dismiss these deep and direct similarities out of some religious sense of separateness is, to me, a highly sad and lonely pedestal on which to place ourselves. You may choose to DEFINE emotions as things only humans have, to DEFINE intellect as intellect only when it reaches human capabilities, but that does not negate the real presence of highly developed precursors in animals.

And just as the drumming of our little Flicker resonates and echoes and touches others in ways he cannot imagine, so too do our more complex behaviors reverberate our to touch others in tangible and deeply personal ways that we cannot imagine. If I were to make it impossible for our little drummer to peck on our chimney cap in some way, he or she might very well start to peck on the wood of our home and that would be much worse for us.

So, my new Flicker friend, you go on drumming on our chimney cap. I grok you and it enriches my life to listen in on your early morning broadcasts. I can identify with your joys and compulsions and frustrations and yearnings for a mate. I hope that later this spring, when your drumming stops, it will mean that our chimney cap has helped you find a mate who will give you other things to do with that spectacular beak of yours!

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.”


Aborting the Lies

Is it any surprise that there are many more fake pro-life “abortion clinics” than there are actual abortion clinics? Is it any surprise that if you try to Google anything related to abortion services, you will get many, many more hits for fake pro-life Trojan-Horse sites than actual legitimate abortion service sites?

Frankly this should come as no surprise to anyone. This is what these fanatical pro-life activists do. As documented in the excellent HBO film “12th and Delaware” (see here) and others, Christians set up fake abortion clinics to lure in distressed, vulnerable pregnant women under false pretenses. Like any good confidence operation, they are warm and welcoming and sprinkle in as many facts as they can so that they can manipulate these women.

However, once lured into these “abortion counseling services,” the women find that the pressure on them will build and build, becoming more manipulative as these pro-life fanatics try to persuade or coerce or even trick the woman into delivering her baby. This manipulation is not merely limited to appeals to emotion, but includes many outright distortions and lies. One such tactic is to intentionally under-report the gestational age of the baby to make the client believe she has much more time than she actually has to perform the abortion. They outright lie to trick the women into delaying their abortion until it is too late. In fact, they feel justified to lie about anything and everything necessary to “save” the baby.

Clinics and web sites make the women watch “informational videos” to help in this coercion. Many are produced by an infamous anti-abortion doctor named Dr. Anthony Levitano. He has one such propaganda video on medical abortion (see here), which is an extremely safe and effective procedure. I encourage you to watch this because it provides a great crash course in how to manipulate others and what to watch for to avoid being manipulated. It starts out for the first minute or so as a fairly straight-forward description of medical abortion. The manipulation kicks in by pointing out that the medical abortion can be “reversed.” This is factually inaccurate, but pro-life advocates like to say it anyway to plant the seed of doubt – the doubt that many women “come to their senses” too late to save their baby.

At about a 90 seconds in, the video starts to turn palpably darker, emphasizing ominous words like “severe” and “heavy” and introducing phrases intended to appeal to emotion like “force the dead baby out.” Notice that they intentionally call it a baby, not a fetus or embryo, because they use every possible ploy to make the mother feel emotionally connected. After that, Levitano proceeds to up the temperature by warning that the process can be “very intense and painful.” From there it gets quickly worse, gratuitously pointing out that the woman could “loose her baby” at any time, then following up with images of a woman on a toilet “expelling her baby down the toilet which she will then flush.” The repulsive imagery that Levitano fully intends to invoke is masked under a transparently thin veil of clinical detachment.

And this is only half-way through the thing! The video goes on to repulse the viewer with increasingly horrific and increasingly blatant appeals to fear, guilt, and revulsion. He points out, for example, how [if the woman were to sift through the tissue in the toilet] she might be able to detect fingers and toes. Levitano claims that 1% of women require hospitalization after a medical abortion, but this is at least a hundred-fold exaggeration and in the extremely rare case when there is hospitalization, it is rarely serious or even the result of the abortion drug. Levitano closes his manipulation by sharing his own personal realization that “all abortions are wrong.”

Let me be perfectly clear. This is factual and emotional manipulation with no tactic too subtle or too blatant. Whatever true facts are presented are only included to establish enough credibility to sell the big lies and manipulations to come. It is sad that so many women fall prey to this kind of hateful and harmful manipulation dressed up and rationalized as Christian morality and charity. Whether they are in front of abortion clinics or hosting their Trojan-Horse web sites, in their minds no tactic is out of bounds, no lie is a lie to them if it advances their cause.

liesBut this should come as no surprise. After all, all of religion is nothing but selling lies. It can be nothing else because it has nothing but lies to offer. Scriptures, angels, salvation, afterlife, god, devils… its all lies and Christians spend all their energy believing or convincing others to believe these lies. Is it any wonder then that Christians should have no trouble believing and spreading lies about abortion as well? Religion is not benign. Becoming comfortable rationalizing religious nonsense directly impacts our capacity to rationalize equally crazy thinking in consequential matters like abortion.

And as with religious fantasy, it is immaterial whether they sincerely, devoutly, fervently believe the nonsense they spread about abortion or how selfless their intentions might be. Their lies, deceits, manipulations, misinformation, and misguided efforts do great harm to a great many people regardless of their motivation – harm to the women directly affected as well as to the men and families in their lives.

If you are seeking an abortion, ask the clinic early and directly if they provide abortions on their premises. If you do not receive a clear and unambiguous yes, hang up. Ask again the minute you walk in the door. If they begin to use any of these tactics on you, leave immediately because their only goal is to do whatever it takes to prevent you from obtaining a legal and safe abortion.


Data, Data Everywhere…

In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lamented “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” There seems to be no better way to describe our situation today with regard to information. We sail upon a vast ocean of data and yet we die of thirst. Indeed, we are too often deluged by great waves of facts that batter us relentlessly to and fro upon treacherous seas of data.

It feels particularly disconcerting for me to write this article. In my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here), I promote the importance of elevating facts above beliefs. After all, facts should reflect reality. They should be the basis upon which truth is known. Today however, data seems to be used far more effectively to support beliefs, fantasies, and lies than it is used to reveal truths. Indeed, those who wish to sell us nonsense don’t often bother to invoke the bible or faith anymore – they invoke their own “facts” instead.

One reason that facts have become the new champions of beliefs and cons is the sheer amount of it. We now have so much data that one can mine anything they want from the endless mountains of the stuff that we have produced. Misrepresented facts can now be dredged up to fabricate lies far easier than spinning magical stories of gods and devils.

Nowhere is this new perversion of facts more true than in politics. Today politicians like Donald Trump incessantly cite completely misleading facts to support their beliefs and positions and to outright lie. Even if the majority of people do not believe their “trumped up” facts, they nevertheless conclude that all facts are suspect and that no facts can be trusted. This tangibly undermines the level of rational thinking of our entire culture and leaves us without any sound basis for making good decisions as a society.

In his excellent Op-Ed (see here), William Davies points out that “they [facts] seem to be losing their ability to support consensus.” According to Davies, there is clear agreement that “We have entered an age of post-truth politics.” This new age of bullshit is fueled not by assertions of faith, but by assertions of facts. As Davies further points out, “Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

So facts have become the new bullshit. We claim to care about facts, but only because, as with the bible, we can always find something in them to support our beliefs and prejudices and self-interest. Our abundance of data seems to be only serving to diminish and undervalue it; to make it increasingly vulnerable to manipulation, misrepresentation, and lies by half-truth. The sheer volume of it makes it far more difficult to say anything with certainty without some other bit of data seeming to contradict it.

And this perversion and misuse of facts is not just true in politics but has become the new normal in all walks of life. All too often journalists and pundits do not pursue facts to reveal truth, but rather invoke them to advocate for opposing sides of an issue. This makes great theatre, but does little to advance the important questions that we face. It instigates and perpetuates conflict rather than help reach a sound fact-based consensus.

Even scientists, our gatekeepers and guardians of fact, all too often emphasize only those facts that advocate for their positions rather than serving the far greater goal of advancing science as a quest for truth.

Abandoning facts is simply not an option. Allowing the manipulators to turn all fact-based thinking into rationalization games and data manipulation exercises is not an option because without sound facts good decisions simply cannot be made. If we allow facts to be coopted by magical thinkers, by self-serving politicians, or even by well-meaning advocates, we might as well put the psychic hotline staff in charge of our fates.

What is the answer? We must reclaim facts. We must become smarter consumers of facts who are no more likely to be fooled by the bogus facts cited by manipulative politicians or corporations any more than we are by laughably ambiguous bible citations and interpretations. We must learn to recognize valid data and sound conclusions amidst all the cherry-picking and false claims. We must learn to treasure and respect fairly presented facts as diamonds amongst all the heaps of rubble and fool’s gold that we have to sift through every day.

Our overabundance of data should make us value – and demand – sound analysis and conclusions based on that data all that much more.


An Alternate View of Automation

People are rightfully concerned about robotics and automation costing us jobs. A report issued by the World Economic Forum early this year (see here) projected that 5.1 million jobs will be lost by 2020 across the 15 leading economies. This loss is attributed to “labor market changes” which includes robotics and automation. But for sake of this discussion, let’s blame robots for all 5.1 million lost jobs.

Tim Worstall, unsurprisingly a contributor to Forbes Magazine, puts this number into a less gloomy light (see here). He points out that while this 5.1 million figure sounds huge, it is out of a total labor pool of about 1.68 billion workers. This translates to a projected unemployment increase of only 0.3%, well below the noise level in these projections. Coincidentally, I wrote a recent article about how statistics are often reported in a very misleading fashion (see here).

RobotOf course job loss is not the only concern or even the major concern. The number of people forced to retrain and change jobs is not included in these projections. Certainly jobs always evolve, but periods of rapid and widespread job disruption are nevertheless painful and difficult. Even those who can transition through the major upheaval being caused by automation and globalization may find themselves forced into jobs they no longer love. More importantly those new jobs may pay far less than the old ones. This loss of standard of living must be mitigated through responsible corporate and governmental policies.

But I contend that human nature will win out in the end over automation. Automation ostensibly promises greater efficiency but this is simply counter to human nature. I’ve written in the past about the tendency of really smart people to come up with astoundingly convoluted solutions to simple problems (see here). Given that tendency, smart people will naturally direct automation toward enabling more complicated systems rather than merely replacing humans in existing ones.

Our tendency toward complication is synergistic with another characteristic of human nature – empire building. In my book on business management (see here), I talk at length about how inefficiency is ironically desirable in the workplace. Contrary to typical intuition, deadwood workers are assets while high-performers are obstacles to the inherent goal of managers to expand their head counts and their budgets. Therefore, automation will be unavoidably applied in such a way as to increase human headcounts by increasing complexity rather than decreasing headcounts through greater efficiency.

Here’s just one example. Ten years ago I designed and developed a customer management system for my employer for negligible cost. Ongoing support costs were also negligible. But this simple, robust, and powerful system would never be replicated today. Now there are new “automation” frameworks available designed to make this easier. But, despite all the promised efficiencies of moving to an automation platform, no jobs were lost in this transition. Quite the opposite, implementing this new system required literally hundreds of people and tens of millions of dollars, not to mention a huge explosion in personnel required to support it moving forward. The benefits are very debatable, but the costs are not.

In this as in many cases, the automation that one might fear would cut jobs proves to dramatically increase the number of jobs needed to support far more complex and fragile systems. Automation, when implemented in accordance with our human nature and self-interest, is likely to create many, many new jobs overall. While this won’t help with the disruption problem, loosing net jobs overall is not likely to be a problem.

Human nature, and the benefits that inefficiency and complexity offer for empire-building, effectively protects us from a future where automation takes over all our jobs.