Archive for the ‘Reasoning’ Category


Syllogistic Thinking

January 10, 2011

Here’s an interview with Jared Loughner’s philosophy professor, worth a full read.

The odd thing about Loughner’s syllogisms is that they’re not far off from examples Slinker might use in class. “When you teach logic, you draw a distinction between truth and inference,” says Slinker. To illustrate that, a teacher might say, “If chickens could fly upside down, then George W. Bush would be president in 2098.” The statement isn’t true. It just serves as a premise from which to draw conclusions. The purpose, says Slinker, is “to show it’s the form of the argument rather than the content that’s the expression of validity.” But that only works when talking in the abstract. In real-world logic, premises matter. “If the premises aren’t true,” says Slinker, “all bets are off.”


A World of Discovery

September 2, 2010

Dead crazyperson and one-time eco-crusader James Lee has stirred up a veritable shitstorm of political opportunism with his recent hostage-taking at the Discovery Network. Here, you can see all the fun posts about the political associations of nutcrackers by travelling to Wonkette.

The Washington Post begins the thread by calling Lee an “environmental militant”. Think Progress then says one thing. Anthony Watts anotherJoe Romm another. Whee! This is fun.

No, but seriously. This event, like most of these events, is the result of a person who is seriously out of psychological balance. He was not sorting the world into goods and bads, as the Washington Post seems to assert. He was not sorting out good and bad ideologies. He was having difficulty identifying goods and bads, rights and wrongs, full stop. He was exercising exceptionally poor judgment, and we have evidence of this in his actions today. In effect, he had a problem with reasoning.

The lesson here, I think, apart from the truism that mental illness is a serious problem and that we need to provide help to those who aren’t capable of finding that help for themselves, is that it is incredibly easy to use crazy people for political gain, to ignore the serious burdens that reason places on us by appealing instead to all of the nutty dumdums who pepper our nightly news broadcasts.

Much as I believe that there are many unreasonable people — even completely nutty people — who disagree with me politically, it does nobody any good to focus on the nutty. To say that some position X will cause other people to Y, or that some position A is the consequence of derangement or disorder, is to psychologize reason away. Far better to focus on the reasonable, to hone in on an argument by deploying the principle of charity, to find the best representative of a given position and dismantle that position on its own terms.

In this respect, Stanley Fish’s column this week is incredibly prescient:

The formula is simple and foolproof (although those who deploy it so facilely seem to think we are all fools): If the bad act is committed by a member of a group you wish to demonize, attribute it to a community or a religion and not to the individual. But if the bad act is committed by someone whose profile, interests and agendas are uncomfortably close to your own, detach the malefactor from everything that is going on or is in the air (he came from nowhere) and characterize him as a one-off, non-generalizable, sui generis phenomenon.

The only thing more breathtaking than the effrontery of the move is the ease with which so many fall in with it. I guess it’s because both those who perform it and those who eagerly consume it save themselves the trouble of serious thought.


Climate and Closure

May 3, 2010

John Quiggin over at Crooked Timber offers this fascinating connection of the “Oregon Petition,” which allegedly offers 31,000 scientists who reject global warming, with the discussion that has been all the rage among (primarily) the right-wing intelliblogigentsia on “epistemic closure.”

Here’s the Wikipedia article, a further debunking from DeSmogBlog and here’s my own investigation from 2002. Some basic points

  • “Scientist’ In this petition means anyone who claims to have gone to university (initially, they had to claim some study of science subjects). The number of actual (PhD with published research) scientists who reject any part of the mainstream consensus on climate change is far smaller (Wikipedia provides a list of such scientists who have at least one published article). The number of such scientists with relevant expertise, who are not obvious cranks, ideologues or hired guns, is small enough to be counted on the fingers of one hand.
  • The petition and its reporting are dishonest in obvious ways (fake PNAS style, misreporting of the content) etc
  • The promoters, Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine are obvious fruitcakes

I particularly appreciate the following observation, as I think it’s true. The standard defense is a sort of tu quoque, which makes it all the more refreshing that the discussion about epistemic closure is happening primarily among the right.

To avoid thread derailment, I’d like to defer to a separate thread (coming soon, I promise) the main rightwing response, which is a tu quoque, that is, that the left (here meaning Democrats and everyone to their left) is just as bad. I don’t believe there is anything comparable to the Oregon petition, but I want to leave this for a separate debate.

Instead, I’d like to end with the rhetorical question of whether, given the extent to which the US rightwing movement relies on the deliberate promotion of ignorance, anyone, regardless of their philosophical views on conservatism, libertarianism and so on, can associate with this movement and maintain any intellectual integrity. The converse question for the left, is whether there is any benefit in engaging intellectually with anyone who is, in the end, promoting ignorance and dishonesty by virtue of their affiliations.

For non-regular readers of Crooked Timber, but for climate scientist readers familiar with the Oregon Petition, you may be interested in heading there to participate in the discussion.

Finally, William Saletan offers what I take to be sage advice on how to avoid bubble think. Essentially, he offers the same tips that I propose all of my students should follow, but it should help to bear them in mind. My favorite? “5. Seek wisdom, not victory.”


Fish Guts

March 11, 2010

Paul Gowder offers this nice evisceration of Stanley Fish’s recent tragedy on secular reasons.



February 12, 2010

Democracy Now offers a good example of what I was talking about yesterday. (Hat tip to Max.) Actually, the discussion of climate-vs-weather seems to be everywhere. Here’s another example of it, and Yulsman, as usual, is on the case.  The NY Times also adds a nice little bulletin board of bullshit — otherwise known as the “Room for Debate” (never mind that there’s no actual debate) — suggesting that somehow the connection between weather and climate is better understood psychologically. (Seriously? WTF?)

Recall that the issue here is that some have been claiming that the weather on the east coast is “inconsistent with” global warming models. The charge, if accurate, would be damning.

In response to these charges, many have replied that these weather events are perfectly “consistent with” the models.

And there, my little piggies, is the rub.

Here’s an interesting quote from the editors of Democracy Now:

We speak to climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who argues the extreme weather is in fact a part of global warming.

How are we to understand this? What are we to say?

More after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry ?


Conflicts of Interest

February 9, 2010

Rajendra Pachauri has been getting a fair bit of heat recently for alleged conflicts of interest. He has coyly denied any such allegation. There are many strong political reasons to avoid conflicts of interest, of course, and those are specified by the NAS rules that Roger cites over at his blog. Among them, the rules are in place to protect a person from giving the impression that his/her objectivity has been compromised.

There is, in principle, nothing wrong with having a conflict of interest. We’re not determined by our circumstances, after all. It’s entirely possible to conduct research, or to argue on behalf of a position, while contemporaneously being employed by, or funded by, some entity that shares your interests. In fact, it would be near impossible not to do so. We all ride on waves of normativity (whatever the hell that means).

What strikes me as interesting about reactions to the recent COI flap are the kinds of arguments that support it.

For one, someone might say that we have strong political reasons to avoid conflicts of interest. The lumpen masses might well misunderstand our conclusions, or falsely challenge our claims, if we are conflicted. That political line of reasoning is different than the claim that most existing institutions have COI rules, so therefore the IPCC ought to have binding COI rules. That is also a different line of reasoning than the line that suggests, as the NAS COI rules suggest, that one ought not to have conflicts of interest to “protect oneself” from defamation.

So there you have at least three lines of argument: the political, the conventional, and the prudential. But there are more.

The NAS also offers the justification that COI rules are objective (meaning procedurally impartial, I’d guess) and that they are prophylactic. They are in place, it appears, to steer a practitioner (any practitioner) away from temptation. That’s yet a fourth line of argument.

Seems to me that there are other important lines of argument too, and maybe these need quite a bit more attention.

One reason to have COI rules is to ensure that the procedure by which information is introduced and validated is immune from scrutiny, independently of whether the fickle individuals, or the fickle facts, caught up in that procedure are. It’s not that procedures themselves necessarily need to be cleansed of all normative pollutants, but rather that that’s what would make a conclusion (arrived at through such a procedure) valid. The validity doesn’t hang on the conclusion’s correspondence with the world, but rather on the extent to which the means of arriving at the conclusion are subject to an appropriately wide scrutiny.

And that’s where it gets damned tricky.

An “appropriately wide scrutiny” is a sufficiently vague notion. Calls to make the scrutiny wider than is appropriate, as some are charging, may equally undermine the authority of the critics. More on this in a bit. Right now? I’m off to class.


What’s Your Function?

January 22, 2010

mm831schoolhouse-rock-conjunction-junction-posters.jpgThough my critical thinking students may beg to differ, turns out that it matters whether you use ‘and’ or ‘or’.


Feeding Frenzy

November 20, 2009

Whoa. The denialosphere is all a twitter with heated banter about a hacked computer server at the East Anglia Climatic Research Unit (CRU).  You can read the ecstatic blog-comments here and here. Frankly, it’s hard to compile all of the data, nonetheless make sense of it. Essentially, some very heavy hitters in the climate community have (allegedly) had their server hacked. A large collection of e-mails over the past decade or so has been released, including strategies about how best to respond to critics and how to ensure that papers make it through peer review.

There are cries of “smoking gun,” “conspiracy,” “collusion,” from those who naturally suspect as much. I’ll confess that it creeps me out to read these e-mails, mostly because it feels so terribly peeping-tom-ish. I’ll even confess that if one puts on some significant ideological glasses, it may look like there’s a lot of shady business going on. There may even be shady business. Certainly, a good bit of this will be spun wildly.

Most of what I’ve seen, however, doesn’t give me the impression that there’s shady business going on. It just makes me uneasy. It’s terribly frank and casual, like many e-mails are. (“That guy X is a massive jerk, isn’t he? Let’s give him a hard time.”) Employing the principle of charity to what I’ve seen so far actually leaves me feeling that the e-mails are not so incriminating. I suppose there really is a possibility of unearthing something devastating, but I’m skeptical about the extent to which there’s anything jaw-dropping here. I’m not at all ruling out the possibility that something jaw-dropping will be discovered, I just don’t know if there is anything yet. (I’ve not sifted through the actual collection of e-mails, mind you. I’m just reading what some of the commenters have written. I assume they’ve culled the best for the most blood-thirsty.)

At any rate, this is an interesting development (not unlike this one). I’ll be really curious to see how it unfolds. Anybody who wants to post something they deem to be extremely incriminating here, feel free to do so. I’m happy to try to give it the most charitable read possible.

UPDATE: Roger has linked to an interview in TGIF (pdf) essentially confirming that the e-mails are real. Doesn’t say much about whether they’ve been tampered with, but he too raises the question that I have. Is this serious or is this much ado about nothing?

UPDATE 2: RealClimate has responded. The more I read the e-mails, the more I think RC is straight up in its response. It is true that I lean their way climatologically speaking, and it is also true that I don’t want a massive political explosion out of this, but as any normal person who would be concerned about this must do, I’m trying to read their e-mails with both a critical and a charitable eye. There is definitely political fodder here. To my mind, not much else.

One point that is not getting much play is the seemingly clear indication that all of these e-mails have been culled in at least one respect: they’re a selection; they don’t contain everything ever written by e-mail. There’s little here about kids, about illness, about who wants to go out for a beer, about other non-professional stuff. Since they’ve been culled in this way, this suggests that someone has read them. They couldn’t filter them for personal content otherwise. And since someone has read them, there’s no reason to believe that that someone has also not tampered with them, or at least tweaked the wording slightly. As I’ve said, very little here seems incriminating to me, so as I read how non-incriminating this is, I’m less likely to suspect that they have been tweaked. At the same time, one cannot dismiss the fact that whoever collected these has read through each of them both with (a) some knowledge of the larger political context and (b) some intent to harm or malign the reputation of those in the e-mails.


Miracle Max

November 17, 2009

I’ve prefaced my comments in the past with disclaimers about my non-science background, but this one is too rich. Apparently, if you drill straight into a tree, you get really skinny tree rings, and if you drill sideways into that same tree, you get thicker tree rings. Moreover, if you drill all the way around a tree in a big circumferential loop, you get no fracking tree rings, which is pretty astounding, because dendrologists have asserted for quite some time that all trees exhibit a telltale tree-ring shape.

Given that this is the case, it stands to reason that if a tree is irregularly shaped — maybe due to some external pressure like, say, a giant ice monster crashing the hell up against it several thousand years ago — or if it is perfectly round, as if plucked from the fantasy-land of Plato’s forms, you will get different patterns of tree rings. Lordy. Nature is confounding!

Here’s another interesting factoid that I am wholly unqualified to assert (but will anyway): If you stick a needle into my bicep, you will be more likely to strike muscle than if you stick a needle in my skull. My skull, as it turns out, is mostly bone (or rock; hard to tell). Many doctors probably do not know this about my skull and my bicep, but it bears pointing out lest my doctors draw irrational conclusions about their breaking of needles on the top of my head.

More astonishing is that this peculiar topology is true for all people, except those who have led cosmically different lives: who have fantasized exactly 218 times about dining on chocolate for breakfast, who have swum with piranha, sung lullabies to sheep, eaten three micrograms more spinach than paneer, or been attacked by a thousand-year-old ice monster. And yet, this impudent institution loudly insists on extrapolating across a wide population of all humans, mindless of rampant data-collection errors, naive to the perils of individual variation, wholly reliant upon a flawed and out-dated statistical apparatus that can never account for individual difference because, when we look back over time, there is always another causal branch that has not been explored. Four micrograms of spinach, you say? Bullocks. Back to the drawing board. Audacious, then, to insist that we use their imprecise and flimsy analysis to protect our children against the nefarious pig disease that has been giving all manner of press-lackey conniptions since April.

Don’t get me wrong. I make no pretense to know the statistics. I have no interest in such voodoo. Nor am I interested in tree rings or muscle tissue. I’m interested, instead, in holding the highest standards for the sciences, in setting the truth bar so high that no possible methodology could hope to surmount it. There’s grace in sticking to one’s theoretical guns, you see, in insisting that researchers maintain an immeasurable degree of accuracy, that they hold fast to truth with a conceptual stringency only Moritz Schlick could love.

By my humble lights, far better to stick with math. This a posteriori drivel is a disaster.

Have fun storming the castle!