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Volume versus Validity
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Mark



Joined: 22 Mar 2007
Posts: 1400

PostPosted: Mon Sep 14, 2009 10:32 pm    Post subject: Volume versus Validity Reply with quote

With a non-discriminating audience, volume overpowers validity.

"If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing." - (Anatole France or Bertrand Russell, depending on the quote site)

"The soundest argument will produce no more conviction in an empty head than the most superficial declamation; as a feather and a guinea fall with equal velocity in a vacuum." -Charles Caleb Colton, author and clergyman (1780-1832) (quoted on AWAD)

I suggest that Gresham's law (Bad money drives out good) applies to ideas. I think we are seeing a form of it in our culture that I have summarized in my opening sentence above. When the majority of the population can't tell real science from snake oil, more snake oil than real science will spread around because snake oil takes much less work to produce than real science.
wiki: Gresham's law:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gresham's_law
wiki: snake oil:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snake_oil

Science and the public in the USA

This link is to a short quiz related to other material below:
http://pewresearch.org/sciencequiz/

Take the quiz before reading this report about scientists, science and the general public:
http://people-press.org/report/528/
The small percentage (10%) of the general public getting all quiz answers right is appalling. I didn't see a link for the quiz until after I had looked at a related table in the report, but I think I would have answered all the questions right even without that.
The full report runs almost 100 pages, but the opening overview covers major points.
My local newspaper, which is usually fairly decent about covering science, summarized the whole report in a few paragraphs.
Even though I am an interested layman rather than a working scientist, my opinions agree with the majority of scientists rather than a less-informed public on most questions mentioned in the report. I suspect the difference relates to basic character as much as to education.

Analogies: Is a balloon or a book a better analogy for a container of knowledge? (A hypertext network would be an even better analogy, but I'm trying for easy-to-visualize images here.)
A balloon of knowledge is flexible and grows in volume as knowledge is added. The flexibility can manifest in bulges and depressions in specialized areas of more or less knowledge, and beliefs that are falsified can even shrink parts of the balloon. The larger the volume of a balloon of knowledge, the larger the surface of contact with what is yet to be learned (the currently unknown), so the more you know the more you know you don't know. Anyone can expand the balloon by adding knowledge.
A book of knowledge is fixed. Whatever was published is permanent.
I believe that people with scientific training or a scientific mindset are much more likely to be comfortable with a constantly changing balloon of knowledge and that the unscientific public is more likely to think in terms of a fixed book of knowledge.

Similes: Are important books milestones or millstones?
Books describing major scientific advances are milestones--they advance knowledge and also pave the way for future advances. (E.g., Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model of our Solar System, Kepler added elliptical orbits that fix problems from circles, Newton defined exact equations of motion, and Einstein added refinements to Newton's equations. Darwin described evolution and natural selection and Mendel described genes at almost the same time, and almost a century later Watson & Crick identified DNA as a key molecule in genes.)
Many religious books are millstones--they freeze a system of thought in a version that too many later generations try to maintain literally.
Are the most important books in your life milestones or millstones?

There are different reasons some people fail to absorb new knowledge from modern science:
An illiterate person can't read.
An aliterate person doesn't read.
An uncomprehending person reads without understanding.
A Platonically troglodytic person rejects new knowledge. (See Plato's allegory of the cave.)

Some thinking on topics like this can be illustrated by examples from my years of reading F&SF that values logic and science (as I do). A few examples:
The Marching Morons by C. M. Kornbluth was an early 1950s science fiction cautionary tale about how a technical civilization could fail under the weight of a largely illiterate population. IIRC, the story premise was based on poor genetics, but if you add the large numbers of aliterate, uncomprehending and Platonically troglodytic people in modern America that caution starts to look awfully urgent.
Space Viking by H. Beam Piper was an early 1960s science fiction novel that included discussions of civilizations and barbarians. A memorable (for me) point is that the barbarians that pull down a civilization don't have to come from outside--a culture can develop internal barbarians.
The evils of theocracies are a staple of the science fiction I have read for decades. I see far too much theocratic politics in the daily news for my comfort. The USA was founded by people steeped in Enlightenment ideals and rationality, including the bedrock separation of church and state, yet all too many modern laws are fundamentally religious in origin rather than rational.

The USA was once a land of promise (potential excellence).
Based on the Pew report and many other news items, the USA is becoming a land of premise (assumption leading to conclusion).
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CD



Joined: 15 Sep 2007
Posts: 665
Location: London, UK

PostPosted: Tue Sep 15, 2009 8:46 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Interesting study but pretty depressing. I did the quiz and all of the questions were really REALLY basic stuff: I gave up science when I was 15 and still got them all correct. I'm especially depressed about only half of all Americans knowing what makes stem cells important given the level of recent debate on the subject.
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JaneO



Joined: 17 Feb 2008
Posts: 798

PostPosted: Tue Sep 15, 2009 10:08 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Mark:
1. The first part of your post has nothing to do with the second.

2. The Pew quiz is cute, but has nothing to do with scientific knowledge or understanding it's just trivia. After all, I got 11 out of 12 and my scientific background is nil.

3. Why the emphasis on scientific knowledge? After all, how much scientific knowledge do I need to use my computer? Drive my car? Evaluate the candidates asking for my vote? Why not emphasize a knowledge of history or the humanities?

4. Yes, the amount of knowledge (and pseudo-knowledge) is constantly expanding. How much of it is actually significant, meaningful or useful? I suspect the humanities provide a more useful guide to answering that question than the sciences.

5. As for this passage:
Quote:
Books describing major scientific advances are milestones--they advance knowledge and also pave the way for future advances. (E.g., Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model of our Solar System, Kepler added elliptical orbits that fix problems from circles, Newton defined exact equations of motion, and Einstein added refinements to Newton's equations. Darwin described evolution and natural selection and Mendel described genes at almost the same time, and almost a century later Watson & Crick identified DNA as a key molecule in genes.)
Many religious books are millstones--they freeze a system of thought in a version that too many later generations try to maintain literally.
Are the most important books in your life milestones or millstones?

That's not rationality. That's bigotry.
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JaneO



Joined: 17 Feb 2008
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PostPosted: Tue Sep 15, 2009 11:30 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I apologize. My last comment was way out of line.
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dick



Joined: 22 Mar 2007
Posts: 2510

PostPosted: Tue Sep 15, 2009 12:13 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I agree. The Pew quiz tests whether one keeps up with the news more than it tests one's knowledge of science. Actually, in general, I've always been skeptical of science, simply because it too often suggests that induction leads to totally valid conclusions.
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Sterling_95



Joined: 04 Oct 2008
Posts: 212

PostPosted: Tue Sep 15, 2009 6:32 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

JaneO wrote:
I apologize. My last comment was way out of line.


Quite frankly, Jane, I don't think that comment was out of line at all. Calling religious work "millstones" is bigotry.

To address your original inquiry, Mark, I am a scientist, albeit a social one. And the chaff among the wheat may be laid upon the shoulders of the scientific community. In order to preserve a high profile and sometimes to maintain a fellowship, scientists (doctors, therapists, engineers) are required to do a minimum number of studies. Often, the scientist - counselors and doctors in particular - do not specialize in the area and are only writing because it is their "homework". Hence, you get several overworked, resentful scientists who are not research or experiment focused, pounding out a quick paper in the time they have between clients. Not surprisingly, the quality of said papers is not always up to snuff.

As to the other points of your post, it appears to be more of a rant against theology than a plea for more scientific enlightenment. Jane and Dick are correct in that the Pew quiz tests trivia more than it tests knowledge. Many of the books that you cited in your post are more treatises on eugenics than treatises against theocracies. Furthermore, you would be hard pressed to find any part of the political spectrum that relies purely on rationality. The Founding fathers and the Enlightenment ideals included several non-rational ideals including: all men are equal; an improved society is possible through further knowledge; pure knowledge is that, pure and untainted by bias; public access was the best forum for ideas. These ideas are not a set of proven variables, but rather a set of values and ideals.
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Mark



Joined: 22 Mar 2007
Posts: 1400

PostPosted: Tue Sep 15, 2009 7:54 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I obviously didn't spell out the implications of a Gresham's law in ideas.
Many (if not most) political discussions are impacted by whether decisions are made based on facts that pass scientific tests or based on untestable beliefs. This includes all discussions of abortion, climate, ecology, education, global warming, health care, pollution, stem cells, etc.
There is a strong link in the USA between some religions and poor understanding or acceptance of science.
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JaneO



Joined: 17 Feb 2008
Posts: 798

PostPosted: Wed Sep 16, 2009 9:29 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quote:
Many (if not most) political discussions are impacted by whether decisions are made based on facts that pass scientific tests or based on untestable beliefs.


Surely you jest.

Questions like What should the role of government in health care be? and At what point should cost become a factor in environmental clean-up? are questions about values, not scientific fact.

Even when we are dealing with scientific issues, the real questions are not likely to be about "facts." When it comes to cloning, for example, there is no question about whether it can be done, but a great many questions about whether or under what circumstances it should be done.
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Sterling_95



Joined: 04 Oct 2008
Posts: 212

PostPosted: Wed Sep 16, 2009 2:06 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Mark wrote:
I obviously didn't spell out the implications of a Gresham's law in ideas.


Mark, are you aware that in the absence of legal tender laws, Gresham's law will work in reverse?

Likewise, with the studies flooding the market and the lack of "laws" to evaluate them, the public tends to retain the ideas that stand the test of time. More often than not, these are the studies that are peer reviewed by the community and critically evaluated, hence of "better" quality
Quote:

Many (if not most) political discussions are impacted by whether decisions are made based on facts that pass scientific tests or based on untestable beliefs. This includes all discussions of abortion, climate, ecology, education, global warming, health care, pollution, stem cells, etc.
There is a strong link in the USA between some religions and poor understanding or acceptance of science.


JaneO has already debunked the rest of your post quite thoroughly. Mark, your idea is good in theory, but it fails to take into account that pesky little element known as "the human factor". Humans deal according to values as much as facts and that's where the controversy comes in.

To use one of the examples you cited: abortion.

FACT: Unless a fetus suffers severe physical abnormalities, it is likely to gestate into a full human being
FACT: The fetus is human life from the moment of conception as a zygote develops, requires basic nutrition and contains a genetic code completely separate from its host.
FACT: An infant born of a rape is genetically indistinguishable from one born of consensual sex
FACT: Nature doesn't care whether the woman wants a child or not, so long as she helps to perpetuate the species
FACT: Women are at their most fertile and have the best chance of successfully carrying a healthy child to term from their late teens until their mid-20s.

Given the facts above, if a perfectly healthy 15 year old girl is violently raped by a healthy, intelligent, good-looking 50 year old male, it is logically unsound that she should be allowed an abortion. If she has an abortion, she is murdering her child and depriving the species of a potentially valuable piece of property.
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Mark



Joined: 22 Mar 2007
Posts: 1400

PostPosted: Wed Sep 16, 2009 7:29 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

That logic has some problems.
Your 2nd fact isn't one. Until near-term when if born a baby would be independently viable it is a PARASITE that has the potential to become a human being.
Your 4th fact isn't one. "Nature" is not an entity that cares about anything. Desire to perpetuate the species is a CULTURAL VALUE perpetuated by some groups such as the Roman Catholic Church.
Your "Given" is a wild jump. "Murder" is another cultural definition (deliberate killing of a human being), dependent on accepting that the zygote is a human being (see non-fact 2). A pre-independently-viable zygote is not a child. As for the value of adding more humans to the biosphere, anyone paying attention to overpopulation could argue that LESS added humans will give the species a better chance of survival than MORE.
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JaneO



Joined: 17 Feb 2008
Posts: 798

PostPosted: Wed Sep 16, 2009 8:01 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quote:
Until near-term when if born a baby would be independently viable it is a PARASITE that has the potential to become a human being


Mark, you are switching terms a classic error in logic. "A human life" (Sterling's term) and "a human being" (your term) are not the same thing. In addition, both are cultural terms with a lot of value-added baggage. So is PARASITE, for that matter.

It is impossible to discuss abortion without bringing in cultural values, no matter which side you are arguing on.
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Sterling_95



Joined: 04 Oct 2008
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 17, 2009 2:10 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

JaneO wrote:
Mark, you are switching terms a classic error in logic. "A human life" (Sterling's term) and "a human being" (your term) are not the same thing. In addition, both are cultural terms with a lot of value-added baggage. So is PARASITE, for that matter.

It is impossible to discuss abortion without bringing in cultural values, no matter which side you are arguing on.


JaneO is quite correct. Human life is separate from the term "human being". I specifically used the term "human life" because a zygote/fetus/embryo is indeed human life unless we are discussing a human/animal hybrid, which to my knowledge, is not possible at this stage in science. I avoided using the term "human being" because as Jane pointed out, the term is loaded and unless you want to define it as a particular variable with a particular set of attributes, we could end up talking circles round each other. But even the term "human life" has value implications given to it by culture

In short, my second point still stands as a fact. It's a human life. Perhaps not a viable one - although advances in science keep making "viable" a dependent variable - perhaps not an independent one. But life and human nonetheless.

My 4th fact is one. Desire to perpetuate the species is the result of religious institutions? Any evolutionary psychologist would spank you for suggesting that. In fact, some very reputable scientists - and miltant atheists, such as the infamous Dawkins - have suggested the reverse, that religion is created as an evolutionary survival mechanism, to ensure perpetuation of tribes and increase the chances for survival and reproduction.

Quote:
Your "Given" is a wild jump. "Murder" is another cultural definition (deliberate killing of a human being), dependent on accepting that the zygote is a human being (see non-fact 2).


OK, I'll grant you that. Let's remove the term "murder" and replace it with "kill". Same result, a less culturally loaded term. Still, even with the non-personhood, the same result applies. Life that is separate from host. Host takes deliberate action that will kill off other life. If I kill a tapeworm, I'm still committing an act that will kill a separate life, morality of what I'm doing aside.

Quote:
A pre-independently-viable zygote is not a child.


Please define the term "child" and all the relevant attributes for the purpose of this argument, as well as your definition of "pre-independently-viable". Are we talking "not viable at this fixed moment in time", "viable less than 50% of the time", "viable in surviving past __ amount of time?

Quote:
As for the value of adding more humans to the biosphere, anyone paying attention to overpopulation could argue that LESS added humans will give the species a better chance of survival than MORE.


That's a strawman, Mark. But if you want to play it that way, then let's look at the cold equations instead of playing it on values. In terms of basic necessities (for this purpose, food, oxygen, clothing and shelter sufficient to keep a human being functioning without heatstroke, pneumonia or any other temperature based illness), your average 7-10 pound infant requires less than your average 110-200 pound over 70 year old. Given infant mortality rates within 5 years, compare and contrast that with mortality rates within 5 years of 70 year olds. Senior citizens are diminishing returns; children less so. Therefore, in order to control population rates, it'd be more productive to kill off people once they reach an age where the resources they consume are arguably higher than their rate of production (however you choose to define production: goods, services, intellectual output, etc), than it would be to kill off healthy, genetically sound zygotes. Or simply withdraw medical treatment for people who are unable to produce past a required quota or fail to fulfill an established criteria (able to produce healthy children, able to do manual labour, able to function in society without _ number of medical tools). Natural selection at work.
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KarenS



Joined: 23 Mar 2007
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 17, 2009 8:57 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

My reading of Mark's post is a concern over religion's role in holding back a country and it's people. When people choose religious dogma over facts they are choosing to perpetuate fear and ignorance. I do agree with Mark about the milestones and millstones. That is aptly put. There is a group of people who choose to believe that religion is the only guide people should follow. They believe that stem cell research is wrong, global warming doesn't exist, the world is 6,000 years old and people lived among the dinosaurs. They also believe that going to war against Iraq is actually a religious war to bring about Armageddon. Even Bush told President Chirac of France that he was fighting Old Testament devils in the Middle East. Chirac thought WTF? When these folks try to influence public policy through ignorance we all suffer. That's where I draw the line. Keep religion out of government policy.

People are entitled to have their beliefs or lack thereof. The thing that bothers me the most about religion are the extremists in any religion who feel they have the right to foist their beliefs on others. Why they think they are right is beyond me. Belonging to a particular religion is basically an accident of birth. Not very many people choose their religion unless they have examined their lives. Most people choose to embrace the religion of their parents and grandparents and/or the accepted religion of their country. So one's religious beliefs can actually be pretty arbitrary.
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Sterling_95



Joined: 04 Oct 2008
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PostPosted: Fri Sep 18, 2009 1:22 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

KarenS wrote:
My reading of Mark's post is a concern over religion's role in holding back a country and it's people.


He may give some thought to retitling his post then and restructuring some of it. From the title and opening paragraphs, I was under the impression that he wanted to discuss validity in scientific studies and over-saturation. Instead, it was basically a stealth form of the same old, same old Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris argument that has been hashed out ad nauseum.

Quote:
When people choose religious dogma over facts they are choosing to perpetuate fear and ignorance.


The problem is, KarenS, that only 2 of your examples qualify as choosing dogma over ignorance: the Young Earth theory and people among the dinosaurs. In all the other cases, people are choosing to side with a particular value, since there is no particular "fact" to be found. With stem cell research, fact is that we have found some promising research, but a great deal of it is speculation. There is also a chance that this will turn out to be the same as the laetrile treatments of the 1970s, Krebiozen in the 1960s, etc.

Quote:
I do agree with Mark about the milestones and millstones. That is aptly put. There is a group of people who choose to believe that religion is the only guide people should follow.


Well, let's see. In Christianity, there are over 50 different known denominations, not including the LDS church. Hinduism has well over 100 sects and branches. Islam has 4 major sects. So even the 'party line' isn't exactly full of people stepping in perfect lockstep to their chosen religious text. There is a certain amount of interpretation and yes, even reasoning that goes on.

Plus, the idea of pure empiricism being possible is questionable. 2 centuries ago, Kant was already critiquing the idea that self-consciousness presupposes external objects in Against Pure Reason

Quote:
That's where I draw the line. Keep religion out of government policy.

If your religion is the primary way that you derive your values, asking people to keep their religion out of policy is about as successful as asking people to disregard their gender, background or education when making political decisions. The saying: The personal is political comes to mind.

Quote:
People are entitled to have their beliefs or lack thereof. The thing that bothers me the most about religion are the extremists in any religion who feel they have the right to foist their beliefs on others. Why they think they are right is beyond me.


We all do it, whether we're religious or not. Do you support Affirmative Action? Public funding of Planned Parenthood? Raises in taxes? In all of these cases, you are taking a specific belief and foisting it on someone else who may not believe in the same thing or believe the opposite. And generally they do so because they believe they are right. You may think they are irrational, but they probably think the same about you

Quote:
Belonging to a particular religion is basically an accident of birth. Not very many people choose their religion unless they have examined their lives. Most people choose to embrace the religion of their parents and grandparents and/or the accepted religion of their country. So one's religious beliefs can actually be pretty arbitrary.


I could say the very same about values and education. A good number of sociological studies show that children tend to vote in the same manner as their parents, receive the same level of education and remain in the same economic class. If your family was liberal, feminist and college educated, there is an over 70% chance that you will be the same (According to the information I last read approximately 5 years ago). Like it or not, we are social creatures and we pick up social cues - including values - from our social network. IMO, if you pride yourself on being a totally objective, empirical, fact based reasoning machine, you're vastly underestimating the influence of your environment and due for a crash course in anthropology, Adlerian psychology and Star Trek (not even the Vulcans managed to stomp out emotions)
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dick



Joined: 22 Mar 2007
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PostPosted: Fri Sep 18, 2009 10:29 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Both "facts" and "values" mislead, as history demonstrates. In my thinking, it's simply not possible to say it's better to follow one rather than the other.
Agreed that all the things heretofore mentioned--religion, heritage, socialization, whatever--influence the values we hold, the facts we accept, and the stands we take, but surely none of them prevent us from changing those values and those stands, and when we do, we probably take what we perceive as fact into account.
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