Monday, June 7, 2010

Michael Specter on The Danger of Science Denial

I recently watched this TED talk from Michael Specter, who's also the author of Denialism (which I haven't read). I find often times while reading a blog post or in this case, watching a talk, I'm often thinking of a lot of different ideas that may or may not be related but are related in that they're all referenced in that post or talk. I've been thinking of experimenting with writing what you might call a "biography of a talk." These are my thoughts and comments on the talk, which I'd highly recommend watching. The style is more conversational - the talk is interesting and I hope that I can add something to it this way.

I'd highly recommend watching the talk if you can. Blockquotes are from the transcript of his talk and highlights are the essentials of what he is saying. 

Overall, Specter's passion makes him seem a bit callous, and he steps across a few lines here and there but on the whole I agree with his message and think he makes many important points.

Let's pretend right here we have a machine, a big machine, a cool, TED-ish machine, and it's a time machine. [If you can go back] I wonder what you'd choose, because I've been asking my friends this question a lot lately, and they all want to go back... I'm convinced that there's some sort of pull to nostalgia, to wishful thinking.
Smallpox killed billions of people on this planet. It reshaped the demography of the globe in a way that no war ever has. It's gone. It's vanished. We vanquished it. Puff. In the rich world, diseases that threatened millions of us just a generation ago no longer exist, hardly. Diphtheria, rubella, polio ... does anyone even know what those things are? Vaccines, modern medicine, our ability to feed billions of people, those are triumphs of the scientific method. And to my mind, the scientific method, trying stuff out, seeing if it works, changing it when it doesn't, is one of the great accomplishments of humanity.
We've never needed progress in science more than we need it right now, never, and we've also never been in a position to deploy it properly in the way that we can today. We're on the verge of amazing, amazing events in many fields. And yet, I actually think we'd have to go back hundreds, 300 years, before the Enlightenment, to find a time when we battled progress, when we fought about these things more vigorously, on more fronts, than we do now.
I definitely see that apprehensiveness in people towards progress. The progress that people have made in relatively recent history is huge. Huge. I don't know how else to describe it- but it's often taken for granted- and I have an idea why: we're taught in school that we're living in a time that's very different from any time before in history, and I don't think that we're really prepared to absorb that message in school. By virtue of that message being forcefully pounded into brains that can't really feel the magnitude of it and are likely focused on other things, we end up taking it for granted and we become immune to it as we grow and when we really have the ability to really understand what it means it's been used so often that it's already lost its meaning. Humans have a really hard time imagining anything other than what's in front of them- we just can't do it- so it's hard to really picture a world that's very different from what we see in front of us today and then realize the disparity between those two worlds.
We're at a point in this world where we don't have the same relationship to progress that we used to. We talk about it ambivalently. We talk about it in ironic terms with little quotes around it: "Progress." Okay, there are reasons for that, and I think we know what those reasons are. We've lost faith in institutions, in authority, and sometimes in science itself, and there's no reason we shouldn't have. You can just say a few names and people will understand. Chernobyl, Bhopal, the Challenger, Vioxx, weapons of mass destruction, hanging chads. I mean, you know, you can choose your list.There are questions and problems with the people we used to believe were always right. So be skeptical. Ask questions, demand proof, demand evidence. Don't take anything for granted. But here's the thing: When you get proof, you need to accept the proof, and we're not that good at doing that.
I feel strongly about being skeptical, demanding proof and demanding evidence. I generally agree with what he says about accepting proof- in this post I cite Eliezer Yudkowsky, who really says it best. Sometimes though, as demonstrated by the climate change debate, what exactly is concrete proof is often messy. That aside, in most situations that you face the bigger danger is being emotionally invested in your beliefs to the point that you aren't willing to let them go. Also watch out for rationalizing your way into a stronger belief once you first latch on to it. (We're always looking to confirm to ourselves that we made the right decision and the mind has no problem emphasizing certain things and creating more "evidence" for us- Influence is a great book to read for more about that).
People wrap themselves in their beliefs, and they do it so tightly that you can't set them free. Not even the truth will set them free. And, listen, everyone's entitled to their opinion; they're even entitled to their opinion about progress, but you know what you're not entitled to? You're not entitled to your own facts.
My previous paragraphs of commentary apply to this one as well. As I mentioned, what exactly the facts are can be debatable- but turning to a new set of "facts" too quickly is, in terms of frequency that it happens, less of a danger than becoming wrapped up in your existing beliefs for less-than-valid reasons. There are two main ideas on the cognitive functioning of humans- that we're right most of the time and have few flaws, and then the other side of the coin- that we're wrong most of the time and have many flaws. While in reality I think it's more of a continuum that the either-or that it's often made out to be, but I'm definitely firmly on the "humans are inherently flawed" side of the spectrum.
The data came back from the United States, from England, from Sweden, from Canada, and it was all the same, no correlation, no connection, none at all. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter because we believe anecdotes, we believe what we see, what we think we see, what makes us feel real. We don't believe a bunch of documents from a government official giving us data.
I wrote about this in Don't Ever Confuse Popular Opinion and Truth and I think it covers this very well. One of the most effective ways to get a point across is through stories- we are more persuaded by stories and anecdotes because they're right there in front of us and we are biased towards the tangible instead of the intangible- that's something that pervades all of our thinking. If you've ever read any book by Malcolm Gladwell, you'll know that they're all stories, elegantly woven.
We hate big pharma. We hate big government. We don't trust the man. And we shouldn't. Our health care system sucks. It's cruel to millions of people. It's absolutely astonishingly cold and soul-bending to those of us who can even afford it. So we run away from it, and where do we run? We leap into the arms of big placebo.
I think he oversteps one of those boundaries that I mentioned in the beginning when he makes those comments about the U.S. health care system, but that's only the fairly uninformed opinion of an outsider. I don't know enough to make a decision one way or the other. Similarly, I don't know enough to make a decision on the organic/holistic vs. scientific/engineered debate.

I definitely see the fear and distrust of the dominant forces in our society and the flee to the little guy, the underdog (here's a possible explanation from Robin Hanson) which, as an instinctive and intuitive reaction is baseless, but on actually examining the facts, I think there are good reasons for it.
(Although a bunch of non-you people believing in something baseless might seem harmless, as in] "Hmm, I'm not going to take the evidence of my experts on mammograms," or some cancer quack who wants to treat his patient with coffee enemas. When you start down the road where belief and magic replace evidence and science, you end up in a place you don't want to be. You end up in Thabo Mbeki South Africa. He killed 400,000 of his people by insisting that beetroot garlic and lemon oil were much more effective than the antiretroviral drugs we know can slow the course of AIDS. Hundreds of thousands of needless deaths in a country that has been plagued worse than any other by this disease. Please, don't tell me there are no consequences to these things. There are. There always are.
Ben Casnocha once had the fleeting thought that the optimal way to personally evolve would be to grow up religious in order to build a strong foundation for character then lose your religion as you got older. That didn't sit well with me- I thought that being anything less than as rational as you could be would be a bad thing- that, as Specter says above, the faulty way of thinking could start you down the road towards other shaky beliefs. It also gets at the simplistic view that religion is necessary to build character. You can be a good person without religion. (I don't think that upon closer examination Ben would continue to stand by this idea.)
Now, the most mindless epidemic we're in the middle of right now is this absurd battle between proponents of genetically engineered food and the organic elite. It's an idiotic debate. It has to stop. It's a debate about words, about metaphors. It's ideology, it's not science. Every single thing we eat, every grain of rice, every sprig of parsley, every brussel sprout has been modified by man.
We object to genetically engineered food. Why do we do that? Well, the things I constantly hear are: Too many chemicals, pesticides, hormones, monoculture, we don't want giant fields of the same thing, that's wrong. We don't companies patenting life. We don't want companies owning seeds. And you know what my response to all of that is? Yes, you're right. Let's fix it. It's true, we've got a huge food problem, but this isn't science. This has nothing to do with science. It's law, it's morality, it's patent stuff. You know science isn't a company. It's not a country. It's not even an idea; it's a process. It's a process, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but the idea that we should not allow science to do its job because we're afraid, is really very deadening, and it's preventing millions of people from prospering.
And all I can say about this is: Why are we fighting it? I mean, let's ask ourselves: Why are we fighting it? Because we don't want to move genes around? This is about moving genes around. It's not about chemicals. It's not about our ridiculous passion for hormones, our insistence on having bigger food, better food, singular food. This isn't about Rice Krispies, this is about keeping people alive, and it's about time we started to understand what that meant. Because, you know something? If we don't, if we continue to act the way we're acting, we're guilty of something that I don't think we want to be guilty of, high-tech colonialism. There's no other way to describe what's going on here. It's selfish, it's ugly, it's beneath us, and we really have to stop it.

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