A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

without comments

Many people like to divide science into hard and soft. Hard sciences are the ones where you can directly apply the scientific method whereas soft sciences don’t lend themselves well to the scientific method. For example, physics is generally considered a hard science since you can replicate the results of previous experiments with new experiments. Sociology, on the other hand, doesn’t lend itself well to the scientific method because the results of previous experiments often can’t be replicated by new experiments. As if to acknowledge that fact sociologists tend to rely heavily on statistics.

In our modern world where science is the new god you can’t make an argument without somebody demanding to see your scientific evidence. While such demands make perfect sense in debates about, say, physics, they don’t make much sense when it comes to social issues because you can create statistics that prove whatever you want. Case in point, a research project found that one in every 24 kids in the United States has witnessed a shooting. However, the statistic was created through a survey with a question worded in such a way to guarantee a predetermined result:

It all started in 2015, when University of New Hampshire sociology professor David Finkelhor and two colleagues published a study called “Prevalence of Childhood Exposure to Violence, Crime, and Abuse.” They gathered data by conducting phone interviews with parents and kids around the country.

The Finkelhor study included a table showing the percentage of kids “witnessing or having indirect exposure” to different kinds of violence in the past year. The figure under “exposure to shooting” was 4 percent.

[…]

According to Finkelhor, the actual question the researchers asked was, “At any time in (your child’s/your) life, (was your child/were you) in any place in real life where (he/she/you) could see or hear people being shot, bombs going off, or street riots?”

So the question was about much more than just shootings. But you never would have known from looking at the table.

That survey was then picked up by the Center for Disease Control (CDC( and the University of Texas (UT) who further twisted the research:

Earlier this month, researchers from the CDC and the University of Texas published a nationwide study of gun violence in the journal Pediatrics. They reported that, on average, 7,100 children under 18 were shot each year from 2012 to 2014, and that about 1,300 a year died. No one has questioned those stats.

This is how statistics is often used to create a predetermined result. First a statistic is created, oftentimes via a survey. The first problem with this methodology is that surveys rely on answers given from individuals and there is no way to know whether or not the people being surveyed are being truthful. The second problem is that survey questions can be worded in such a way as to all but guarantee a desired result. Once the results from the survey have been published then other researchers often take them and use them inappropriately to make whatever point they want, which is what happened in the case of the CDC and UT. Finally, you have a bunch of people making arguments based on those questionable statistics used erroneously by organizations that share their agenda.

Written by Christopher Burg

July 5th, 2017 at 11:00 am

On an Editorial Board, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog

without comments

“Where’s your peer reviewed paper,” is a question many people instinctively ask when you present an idea that conflicts with one of their beliefs. The idea of requiring scientific peers to review research papers before they are considered scientifically sound is a good one. However, peer reviews are only as good as the people reviewing them. Many “scientific” journals exist not to verify scientific vigor but to prey on gullible researchers who are often new to their field. When such journals review a scientific paper you don’t know if the review was done by a human being or a dog:

Ollie’s owner, Mike Daube, is a professor of health policy at Australia’s Curtin University. He initially signed his dog up for the positions as a joke, with credentials such as an affiliation at the Subiaco College of Veterinary Science. But soon, he told Perth Now in a video, he realized it was a chance to show just how predatory some journals can be.

“Every academic gets several of these emails a day, from sham journals,” he said. “They’re trying to take advantage of gullible younger academics, gullible researchers” who want more publications to add to their CVs. These journals may look prestigious, but they charge researchers to publish and don’t check credentials or peer review articles. And this is precisely how a dog could make it onto their editorial boards.

The peer review process, like many things surrounding the scientific method, is often poorly understood by laymen. To those who have hoisted science onto a religious pedestal the words “peer review” are more of a magical incantation that makes the words that follow infallible. To those who understand the scientific method the words “peer review” means that the credentials of the peers need to be verified before their review is given any weight.

There are a lot of scam artists out there, even in scientific fields. Don’t trust research just because it was peer reviewed. Try to find out whether the peers who reviewed the research are likely knowledgeable about the subject or are really just a bunch of dogs.

Written by Christopher Burg

May 31st, 2017 at 10:30 am

It’s Science!

without comments

Reason posted an article claiming that research shows that you can’t even pay somebody to read information that contradicts their beliefs. However, if you read the about the methodology you learn that the researchers didn’t offer to pay people to read information that contradicted their beliefs:

The study gave participants two options: they could read an article about same-sex marriage that matched their own perspective, or they could read an article about same-sex marriage that contradicted their views on the subject. They were told that if they selected the article with which they disagreed, they would be entered in a drawing to win $10. But if they selected the more comforting, self-affirming article, they would only stand to win $7.

Being entered into a lottery isn’t payment, it’s a chance at payment.

I bring this article up to illustrate how poor research can quickly lead to stupid conclusions and headlines. Initially reading the research might lead one to believe that it gives evidence to the possibility that some people won’t read contradicting information even if there is a reward. But when you stop to think about the methodology used you quickly realize that the research was inadequate at addressing incentive. Some people might not be willing to read contradicting information for a chance to be entered in a lottery with a slightly better payoff but they might be willing to do so for straight up cash. $10 might not convince some people to read contradicting information but $20 or $30 might.

I also bring this article up because it shows that neocons and neoliberals aren’t the only people who allow themselves to use poor research to reach a desired conclusion. Libertarians can and do fall into that trap as well.

Written by Christopher Burg

May 17th, 2017 at 11:00 am

The Religion of Science

without comments

One might get the impression that I’m opposed to science based on how much I’ve been harping on scientism as of late. Truth be told, I’m actually a huge advocate of science, which is why I’m investing so much time into criticizing scientism.

Science is supposed to be about using observations to develop hypotheses and testing those hypotheses through experimentation. It’s supposed to be different from faith. But most of the people cheering the greatness of science are treating it as a religion. Scientists are being treated like priests, their words are being treated as law and their characters are being treated as sacred. This has lead to religious zealotry:

In late July 2014, a Twitter user named @dogboner posted a photo of a man on a subway train working on his laptop, accompanied by the caption, “Some guy using his laptop on the train like a dumbass nerd lol.” The “dumbass nerd” in question was astrophysicist, author and TV host Neil deGrasse Tyson. Instantly, “@dogboner” (whose real name is Michael Hale) faced a tweet-storm of abuse and haranguing from social media users for whom Tyson has emerged as a kind of messiah of modern rationalism.

The photo was shared on the popular Facebook page “I Fucking Love Science” (which currently engages some 25 million-plus users), leading to even more angry call-outs. Hale was called “stupid,” an “underachieving burnout,” and worse. One person encouraged Hale to “fall into an ocean of A.I.D.S.” Few had bothered to consider that the original tweet was nothing but the sort of stupid, ironized joke that savvy Twitter users major in. Legions of self-satisfied rationalists and armchair logicians who pride themselves on their superior intellect were effectively fleeced.

Beyond being (really, really) funny, the incident was revealing. It spoke to the vehemence and belligerence science seems to inspire in popular culture. It also laid bare the frothing cults of personality surrounding people like Tyson, Bill Nye, Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield (who live-streamed parts of his 2013 mission to YouTube, including a much-shared acoustic guitar rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”), and other modern pop-star scientists.

The irony, of course, is that most of the people who lashed out at Mr. Hale probably don’t know any scientists who don’t regularly appear on television. In this way they mimic many self-proclaimed Christians who are only aware of popular televangelists and wouldn’t recognize the names of even well-known historical theological scholars.

I’m going to blame the government indoctrination system that is often mistakenly called an education system. Government indoctrination centers tend to teach by authority. What the teach says is supposed to be accepted by the students with blind obedience. Everything written in the textbooks is supposed to be accepted as truth. Students who question the teachers or the textbooks are often dismissed with a wave of the hand or outright punished. Unfortunately, imprinting this system on children at a young age likely makes them seek out authority figures instead of seeking out knowledge.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, who I have never met but would enjoy getting a beer with sometime, has become one such authority figure. People seeking out an authority figure on science have latched onto him, as many Christians latch onto televangelists, because he’s charismatic and entertaining. However, it’s no crime to be entirely unaware of him, especially if one’s interests aren’t in astrophysics. Likewise, it’s no crime to be entirely unaware of Aziz Sancar. Who is Aziz Sancar? He’s a microbiologist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. I’m not a chemist so I was also unaware of him and only found him when doing a search for scientists who have made notable accomplishments but haven’t enjoyed appearing on every television channel known to man. My point is that most self-proclaimed lovers of science are probably entirely unaware of his existence and that’s OK.

Science ceases to be science when it becomes blind faith and cults of personality. The masses currently demanding science-based policies appear to be primarily composed of worshipers of scientism, not people with an actual understanding of the scientific method. They don’t want science-based policies, they want policies inspired by the sermons of their priests.

Written by Christopher Burg

May 12th, 2017 at 11:00 am

Limitations of Experience

without comments

Bill Nye has gained himself a great deal of admiration and hatred by positioning himself as a public face of scientism. A lot of progressives, who tend to side with scientism, are now holding up Bill Nye as a god. Meanwhile, a lot of conservatives, who tend to side against scientism, are now holding him up as a devil.

The debate of scientism has more or less become a debate between progressives and conservatives, which means a tit for tat has developed. Conservatives are lambasting one of the progressive’s public faces so they now need to lambast one of the conservative’s public faces. For the conservative’s tit the progressives have chosen Mike Rowe as their tat:

This image further demonstrations that the biggest advocates of scientism have a severe lack of understanding of the scientific method. The opening words in the image make sense within the framework of the debate. Conservatives have been arguing that Bill Nye lacks experience in scientific fields and is therefore unqualified to speak about scientific matters. In return the progressives are pointing out that Mike Rowe lacks experience in the trades. Here’s the problem, science isn’t a single discipline.

By the logic presented in the image one would certainly listen to Bill Nye on matters of mechanical engineering (at least matters that fall within his area of expertise). However, one would completely ignore anything he said about other scientific fields, such as the effects of widespread pollution on the biosphere, since he has no experience in those fields.

Of course, both sides are being foolish. The progressives’ implication that expertise in one scientific field gives an individual expertise in all scientific fields is wrong. But the conservatives’ implication that professional training is what indicates an individual’s expertise is equally wrong.

It’s quite possible for an individual to be very capable in one field and incompetent in another. Ben Carson is a great example of this point. He was a very skilled neurosurgeon. But his comment about pyramids being grain silos shows that his knowledge in the field of archeology is, to put it nicely, lacking. Likewise, it is also possible for an individual to be very capable in a field that they don’t work in professionally. Hedy Lamar had no formal scientific training yet she made several important discoveries, such as using frequency hoping to prevent enemies from jamming radio-controlled torpedoes (which was also an important contribution to the development of several wireless communication technologies that we rely on today).

In summary, both sides are being stupid. Each side is slinging mud at one of the other’s public face instead of debating the actual issues. One might expect such behavior from conservatives since they’re not beating the scientism drum but why would progressives, who claim to be believes in science, do the same thing? Simple, progressives are no more lovers of science than conservatives. They wield science much like conservatives wield Christianity. That is to say, they see science as nothing more than a concept they can exploit to forward their political goals.

Written by Christopher Burg

May 4th, 2017 at 11:00 am

Pop Science Versus Science

without comments

Two days ago I said that the March for Science would more appropriately be called the March for Philosophy. I fear that I may have given many of the marchers too much credit.

One of the biggest problems with the concept of science in popular culture is that few people actually understand what the scientific method entails:

Let’s start with my contention that most “pro-science” demonstrators have no idea what they were demonstrating about. Being “pro-science” has become a bizarre cultural phenomenon in which liberals (and other members of the cultural elite) engage in public displays of self-reckoned intelligence as a kind of performance art, while demonstrating zero evidence to justify it. On any given day, many of my most “woke” friends are quick to post and retweet viral content about the latest on what Science (and I’m capitalizing this on purpose) “says,” or what some studies “prove.” But on closer look, much of what gets shared and bandied about is sheer bullshit and is diagnostic of one thing only: The state of science (and science literacy) in this country, and most of the planet for that matter, is woefully bad. For example, the blog IFLScience (IFL stands for “I f—ing love”) seems singularly committed to undermining legitimately good science half the time, while promoting it the other half—which, scientifically speaking, is a problem. Here’s a neat one that relays news about a study that suggested that beer hops may protect against liver disease. I’ll be sure to mention that to the next alcoholic with hepatitis and cirrhosis that I treat. To date that article has been shared 41,600 times. Very few of those readers, I should mention, were mice, though the research was carried out in, you guessed it, mice. (And of course, this type of coverage is not refined to cleverly named blogs.)

So many self-proclaimed science fans have such a gross misunderstanding of what science is that they don’t even know what they don’t know. They see some meme shared by a Facebook group that claims to promote science and they mindlessly believe whatever the short caption in the meme says. They never seek out the published research paper to see what the methodology or conclusion were. This is because most of the people who are proclaiming a love of science are really in love with pop science, which is nothing more than an exercise in taking a kernel of truth from scientific research and embellishing it so it appeals to the masses (Beer hops protects against liver disease!).

Actual science is seldom flashy. It’s rare to find a scientist who claims that their research proves something. Most scientists couch their language because they realize that the scientific method doesn’t prove anything, it merely gives or takes weight away from hypotheses. They know that future research could render their hypothesis incorrect. You’ll rarely find a research paper that concludes that beer hops protects against liver disease.

Science, like religion, has become just another tool for the masses to support their confirmation bias. Any pop science that supports an average person’s beliefs is treated as gospel while any pop science or real science that disproves their beliefs is labeled bad science and discarded. In other words, science does the opposite of what it’s intended to for most people.

How did this happen? As with so many problems, this one may have been the results of good people with good intentions trying to do the right thing. A lot of teachers, professors, and television personalities encouraged kids to become scientists. This idea sounds good because having more scientists should, theoretically, increase the rate of scientific discovery. However, like so many religions, these advocates changed the message to make it more appealing to their audience. They engrained in children all of the cool things that science can do but left out most of the gritty details. Now these children have grown up. Most of them found the actual practice of science to be dull so they went into other careers. But they never stopped believing in what they were taught about how cool science is. I theorize that we have a bunch of people basically parroting instilled religious beliefs without actually understanding what they’re parroting. In that way, I find the average Christian, who generally isn’t well-versed in Christian theology, to be indistinguishable from the average self-proclaimed lover of science, who generally isn’t well-versed in the scientific method.

Written by Christopher Burg

April 28th, 2017 at 11:00 am

The March for Philosophy

with 3 comments

This weekend was the March for Science. What was the March for Science? A march for philosophy.

Judging by the number of people who participated in the March for Science, there are a lot of people who don’t understand what science actually is. Perhaps nothing illustrates this fact better than the commonly used phrase, “The science is settled.”

Science, or more specifically the scientific method, is a process of discovery that relies on observation and experimentation. First, a phenomenon is observed. Second, a hypothesis that explains that phenomenon is developed. Third, an experiment is performed to determine whether the hypothesis is plausible or not. Eventually, if enough experimentation indicates that the hypothesis is correct, a theory is developed. The keywords here are “hypothesis,” “experimentation,” and “theory.” Theories are not immutable truths. Every theory has the potential of being proven incorrect by future experimentation. So science can never be settled.

The existence of this misunderstand can be further illustrated by people mixing the scientific method with democracy. How many times have you heard a variation of the phrase, “[Insert an arbitrary but large number] percent of scientists agree that…” as if it meant something? Democracy is based on the idea that truth can be discovered by polling a voting body. Science is based on the idea that observation and experimentation can help us explain natural phenomenon. The two are unrelated. Even if 99.9 percent of scientists agree on one theory they can be proven wrong if the remaining 0.1 percent perform an experiment that proves the majority’s theory incorrect. A debate based on what the plurality of scientists think isn’t a scientific debate.

The purpose of the March for Science was to promote science-based policies. This purpose is entirely philosophical in nature. You see, the scientific method is a tool that can address a specific problem domain, namely the understanding of natural phenomenon. The scientific method cannot address all problem domains though. There’s no way to prove that two plus two equal four with the scientific method. To do that humans rely on deductive logic. There’s also no way to prove that the scientific method is the proper tool for understanding natural phenomenon. To do that humans rely on philosophy.

What is the best way for humans to conduct themselves in groups? The scientific method is not the proper tool for answering this question because the answer cannot be discovered through experimentation. The best way is not a natural phenomenon, it’s a subjective criteria. For example, the most important criteria for decided the best way is individual freedom. For a somebody else, the most important criteria may be equality in wealth. The question is necessarily philosophical because it’s subjective.

Whenever somebody says that the United States needs more scientists they’re using philosophy because they are using their subjective criteria, the number of scientists, to decide the best way for humans in an arbitrarily defined group (often referred to as “society”) to conduct themselves. The same is true for anybody who says that there needs to be more government funding for scientific education.

Naturally, I’m apt to blame the government indoctrination system, which is often mistakenly referred to as an education system, for Saturday’s deplorable public display of ignorance. I’m also smart enough to know that my blame is philosophical in nature, not scientific, because there is no way for me to perform an experiment that can confirm or deny my hypothesis. I will also say that I philosophically find this widespread ignorance detrimental to humanity (based on my subjective criteria of what is best for humanity).

Written by Christopher Burg

April 26th, 2017 at 11:00 am

Mind Blowing Research

with one comment

Sometimes I wonder about the average intelligence of our society:

One finding that really surprised us is that a good deal of the potential for miscommunication may come from different interpretations of the exact same emoji rendering.

They were “really surprised” that a system of communication based on subjectively interpreted symbols was confusing?

Cripes. That shouldn’t have been surprising to anybody. Especially not to aspiring Ph.D.s.

I’m fascinated by languages. When I was in high school I studied German, in college I studied Japanese. Last year I learned Esperanto and this year I’m studying Latin. What fascinates me about languages is that they all accomplish the same basic thing, communicating ideas between individuals, but with vastly different rulesets. German uses pronouns where Latin uses conjugations. Esperanto uses a Latin alphabet where Japanese uses a writing system adapted from the Chinese writing system. Since the rules are well defined (even though they don’t necessarily have to be strictly abided by) anybody who understand a set of rules can communicate with anybody else that understands those same rules.

There are no well defined rules surrounding the usage of emojis. Each symbol doesn’t have a specific well known meaning like the symbols used in English or Chinese do. So it should be obvious that using emojis to communicate is going to be more confusing than using languages with well defined rules. Apparently it’s not obvious and resources had to be invested into researching whether the use of emojis is confusing or not. To make matters worse the researchers were “really surprised” that their research showed that using emojis is confusing.

Written by Christopher Burg

April 15th, 2016 at 10:00 am

A New Hero Arises

with 2 comments

Setting aside my general hatred of intellectual property, I want to discuss an especially heinous abuse of intellectual property laws. A lot of research done in the United States is funded by tax dollars. We’re told this is necessary because the research wouldn’t be done if it was left to the market and that we shouldn’t complain because the research benefits all of us. But the research fueled by tax funding seldom benefits all of us because the findings are locked away being the iron curtain of publisher paywalls. We may have been forced to fund it but we don’t get to read it unless we’re willing to pay even more to get a copy of the research papers.

Aaron Swartz fought against this and was ruthlessly pursued by the State for his actions. Now that he has left us a new hero has risen to the call. Alexandra Elbakyan is the creator and operator of Sci-Hub, a website created to distribute research papers currently secured behind paywalls:

But suddenly in 2016, the tale has new life. The Washington Post decries it as academic research’s Napster moment, and it all stems from a 27-year-old bioengineer turned Web programmer from Kazakhstan (who’s living in Russia). Just as Swartz did, this hacker is freeing tens of millions of research articles from paywalls, metaphorically hoisting a middle finger to the academic publishing industry, which, by the way, has again reacted with labels like “hacker” and “criminal.”

Meet Alexandra Elbakyan, the developer of Sci-Hub, a Pirate Bay-like site for the science nerd. It’s a portal that offers free and searchable access “to most publishers, especially well-known ones.” Search for it, download, and you’re done. It’s that easy.

“The more known the publisher is, the more likely Sci-Hub will work,” she told Ars via e-mail. A message to her site’s users says it all: “SCI-HUB…to remove all barriers in the way of science.”

I fear many libertarians will be quick to dismiss Alexandra because she espouses anti-capitalist ideals. But it’s important to focus her actions, which are very libertarian indeed. She is basically playing the role of Robin Hood by liberating stolen wealth from the State and returning it to the people. The money has already been spent so it cannot be retrieved but what it bought, research, is still there and should be returned to the people as compensation for the original theft. That is all freely releasing tax funded research is and for her part Alexandra should be treated as the hero she is.

Freely Accessing Scientific Publications Behind A Paywall

with 2 comments

On the one hand we’re told that pure science can only be performed under the “neutrality” of government funding while on the other hand we’re told the research we were forced to fund isn’t ours to access. Having to pay to access research papers that I was forced to fund has been a pet peeve of mine since college. Even though I enjoyed free access to most scientific papers in college the simple fact that I would lose that access as soon as I graduated really rubbed me the wrong way. Fortunately I’m not alone. A group of people have developed a service aimed at pirating scientific research papers:

Sci-Hub uses university networks to access subscription-only academic papers, generally without the knowledge of the academic institutions. When a user asks Sci-Hub to access a paid article, the service will download it from a university that subscribes to the database that owns it. As it delivers the user a pdf of the requested article, it also saves a copy on its own server, so that next time someone requests the paper, they can download the cached version.

Unsurprisingly, Elbakyan’s project has drawn the ire of publishers. Last year, Elsevier sued Sci-Hub and an associated website called Library Genesis for violating its copyright. The two websites “operate an international network of piracy and copyright infringement by circumventing legal and authorized means of access to the ScienceDirect database,” Elsevier’s lawyers wrote in a court filing, referring to the company’s subscription database.

[…]

But even if the new domain gets shut down, too, Sci-Hub will still be accessible on the dark web, a part of the Internet often associated with drugs, weapons, and child porn. Like its seedy dark-web neighbors, the Sci-Hub site is accessible only through Tor, a network of computers that passes web requests through a randomized series of servers in order to preserve visitors’ anonymity.

Sci-Hub can be accessed via the normal Internet here and via Tor here. That second link is important to have since Sci-Hub was already shutdown once. While it’s feasible for the State to censor the normal Internet it’s not feasible for it to censor Tor hidden services since there is no centralized name server to threaten.

I don’t hide my opposition to intellectual property in all forms but I especially detest copyright applying to criminally funded research. A thief should make reparations to right the wrong they have caused so the only way to right the wrong of the State stealing money to fund favored researchers it to make the findings of their research freely available to everybody.

Written by Christopher Burg

February 11th, 2016 at 11:30 am