Monday, March 23, 2015

Where's the Truth? The Challenge of Scientific 'Controversies'

I wrote a little over a month ago about the use of the term "research" in public arguments over science. I argued at the time, and still maintain, that people often claim to have done "research" when what they really mean is that they have (very selectively) read other people's research. This is related, I think, to the erosion of respect for expertise, but that's a subject for another day.

At the time, a fairly robust Facebook discussion broke out among my friends about whether there isn't another reasonable form of the word "research" - what we might call "library research". Isn't it fair, some argued, for a layperson who is not expert in a given field to say that they are "researching" some issue by digging into the literature and reading what the experts have written? I will concede this point - though I would prefer the term "library research" to distinguish this from the sort of research that generates new knowledge, I think it's fair for non-experts to talk about "researching" a topic in the sense of informing themselves about the current state of what is known.

Of course, many of those who try to stir up "controversy" on scientific subjects (vaccines, climate change, etc.) aren't really doing this kind of "research" either. There's a difference between reading The Literature on a subject to try to find out what the experts think about something, and selectively reading that same research to bolster a predetermined conclusion that you've already arrived at (vaccines cause autism, climate change isn't real, the earth is 6000 years old - take your pick). Those people still aren't engaged in research, even of the "library research" variety, any more than a small child putting on his father's tie makes him an employed professional with a job. It's just window dressing, and usually pretty ill-fitting at that.

But in the midst of that Facebook conversation, one of my friends raised a very good question: if you are a non-expert faced with a controversial subject, how do you go about trying to research that topic to figure out, as best you can, what the truth is? This is actually harder than it might seem, in part because experts often don't do a very good job of communicating with the public and in part because those who are trying to create "controversy" as a way of arguing for extremely unorthodox (often demonstrably false) ideas like to muddy the water as much as they can. In the midst of that kind of free-for-all, what's a reasonable non-expert person to do?

There are a few fairly easy rules of thumb that will take you a little ways down the road. Just as the corollary to Godwin's Law states that whoever mentions Nazis first in an argument automatically loses, the adoption of any argument predicated on a vast conspiracy of silence on the part of thousands of otherwise-autonomous (if not competitive) individuals is a guaranteed loser. Efforts, therefore, to dismiss "climate science" as a cooked-up conspiracy fail on their face since such a theory would require the complicit cooperation of thousands of individual scientists around the world who all know better but have been convinced to lie to the rest of us. Ditto for arguments that the CDC  and NIH are somehow engaged in a conspiracy of silence - anybody who watches government agencies for any length of time knows that most of them leak like sieves and can't be trusted to keep much of anything secret. So if one side of a "debate" is relying on this kind of argument, it's safe to say they're probably wrong.

Beyond that, however, the waters get pretty muddy. Many folks involved in these controversies make claims to certain kinds of authority, while denying the authority claims of the other side. Take, for example, the work of Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She has given a number of public talks recently claiming that modern chemical agriculture, and Monsanto's RoundUp product in particular, are going to make 1/2 of all American children develop Autism by the year 2025. This has been widely reported in a number of fringe science websites, often with headlines line this:
MIT States That Half of All Children May Be Autistic By 2025 Due to Monsanto
On the face of it, this is absurd. "MIT" states no such thing - in fact, the university itself does not endorse the work of any of its researchers. Moreover, Dr. Seneff is a highly controversial figure at best - an electrical engineer and expert in computational algorithms for understanding human language who has wandered into matters of public health, biochemistry, and epidemiology that are pretty far afield from her established expertise. Beyond presentations and talks, much of the work she has published in this area has been in the journal Entropy, itself a highly controversial publication whose parent organization, MDPI, has been accused of shady scientific practices. All of this gets into the realm of claim and counter-claim which can be VERY difficult for non-experts to sort through.

Folks that like to cite impressive institutions (MIT, Harvard, Johns Hopkins) on behalf of their claims are often quick to dismiss other equally-impressive institutions when scientists disagree with the argument they're trying to advance. This is another good indication that you may be dealing with a questionable argument - a persistent habit of attacking people rather than ideas (similar to the reliance on conspiracy theory, above). It's legitimate to question someone's credentials, because that's germane to whether they are a reliable source of information. Questioning motives, on the other hand, is generally out of bounds. Inconsistency doesn't look good either; note this article's introduction of its purported expert as a "Johns Hopkins University graduate" even though nearly every other graduate of that same institution engaged in research in the field of vaccines disagrees with him.

In the end, if you REALLY want to know what the state of knowledge is on a given subject, you first have to become conversant in the basics of the scientific method and you have to be willing to wade through an awful lot of material, some of which may be deliberately obfuscatory or misleading. That's a tall order for most folks, but if it matters to you to be right then that's what you have to do. This is one reason why scientific literacy is so important - more people need the tools to do this right. But equally important, people need the mental discipline to not "reason backwards", picking the answer they want based on their social tribe and then cherry-picking evidence to support it. That's probably the hardest barrier of all, and it's what separates actual scientists from wannabes with agendas.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

When You're Losing, Change the Subject: Vaccines and the "Freedom" Agenda

I have blogged recently about the misuse of the term "research" by various movements seeking to argue with mainstream scientific consensus around a range of topics. People opposed to vaccines (led in particular by those who believe that vaccination causes autism and other maladies) have been in the news much lately, although the same arguments have been active around issues of climate change, evolutionary biology, and other issues. National Geographic recently published a cover story on this, provocatively titled (in the print version) "The War on Science".

The anti-vaccine movement has taken a lot of flak and pushback recently, both from the medical & public health community concerned that dropping rates of vaccination will undo progress from the last 100 years and from concerned parents afraid that the drop in herd immunity will expose their children to diseases long since removed from the population at large. It has been, from a social and political point of view, a fascinating and rare example of a loud minority being countered by a much larger majority. On a number of other issues vocal minorities hold sway simply because the larger population doesn't care enough. Apparently, public health is not one of those issues.

Given this pushback, it's unsurprising that the anti-vaccine movement is trying to change the terms of debate. Whenever somebody is losing an argument in the US, they try to turn it into an argument about Freedom, because Freedom is the one trump card that people think always wins the argument. This meme, now circulating on the internet, is emblematic of this approach:

I'm surprised that they didn't throw mom, the flag, and apple pie in there, but you get the picture. I mean, how can anybody possibly be against any of these wonderful things?

The organization sponsoring this particular argument, an outfit in California called Your Family, Your Choice, is trying to fight legislation that will take away the philosophical exemption to childhood vaccination currently allowed under California law. Many of the folks who oppose vaccination are indeed also opposed to science and research, at least as these things are understood by the medical research community. Such folks often want their own science, want to reach (or have already reached) their own conclusions, and are not kind (and often not very civil) to those who disagree with them.

But all of that is neither here nor there - what really interests me is the "I am pro-freedom" part of the argument. This is indeed the "go-to" for folks on the losing end of a public debate. Recently we've seen certain segments of our society opposed to gay marriage making the same claim on behalf of small businesses that don't want to serve gays - just as two generations ago, similar folks claimed "freedom" as a justification to turn away interracial couples. "Freedom" was the cry of George Wallace on the steps of the Alabama schoolhouse when he railed against "the oppression of the rights, privilege, and sovereignty" of his state in the face of integrationist pressure.

The fact is that we all give up a measure of freedom as the price of living in a civilized, advanced society. We agree not to drive through a red light. We agree to wear our seat belts - 49 out of 50 states in the US have some form of mandatory seat belt laws on the books. We agree to file certain kinds of information with the government at various levels. We agree to pay our taxes. We agree not to discriminate against fellow citizens when engaging in public commerce or service. Failure to do these things comes with the penalty of government sanction.

We suffer these infringements on our freedom because there are some collective goods that cannot be had otherwise. Because of our traffic laws - actually quite draconian by the standards of much of the world - we enjoy some of the safest highways and streets in the world, vastly safer than they were 80 or 100 years ago. Because of our attention to civil rights, populations once voiceless and enslaved are now freer and much better off and we are closer to realizing our ideals as a republic of equals.

Those who hold up the "pro-freedom" banner are trying to escape this reality. They want to free-ride on the rest of society, to deny that there are some things we can only have if we all contribute. Herd immunity from disease is one of those things, however much some folks may want to deny it.

So I find this latest adaptation by a political movement interesting, even entirely predictable. But I also suspect that it may be a last gasp of an effort that may soon collapse. The argument against vaccination is too weak, and the consequences too severe, for these folks to win. I have no doubt that we will see a great deal more shouting and gnashing of teeth in certain corners, and likely many more interesting internet memes. But as Richard Feynman reminded us a generation ago, for every successful technology "reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

Monday, March 9, 2015

You Can't Infer Motives From Behavior

I occasionally comment on memes and other internet oddities that catch my eye. Usually these are political and/or tribal in nature and strike me as saying something the maker or distributor didn't intend to say. So it was that the following came across by FB feed this past weekend:

Now, this is a pretty typical piece of ideological tribalism. In fact, all it really is is a quote from one of Thomas Sowell's columns - which I'm sure are readily available elsewhere on the internet for his devoted readers - gussied up with some pictures of Democrats. As memes go, it's pretty unremarkable, although it does provide a FB- and twitter-ready way to spread around a sound byte that others might not see if they don't go track down Mr. Sowell's work and read it in its entirety.

What struck me about this otherwise ordinary bit of internet flotsam was the claim that it makes up front: the author claims to know what the real motives of a vaguely-defined group of people are, separate from what they themselves say about their motives. Leaving aside the question of whether a large group ("liberals") can all have the same set of motives, this claim violates one of the first rules I learned in graduate school: you can't infer motives from behavior.

The problem of motive has vexed political and social scientists for generations. All of us make inferences of motive all the time. We believe that the person who cut us off in traffic is a jerk who likes to push other people out of the way. We claim that the other political party has a hidden agenda not revealed in their public explanations of their policy preferences. We argue that Iran is building nuclear weapons so that it can annihilate Israel. And so on up and down the line.

The problem in every one of these cases is that there is always another explanation. The car in traffic may be driven by a desperate mother rushing her toddler to the ER. The folks writing that political party platform may genuinely believe that their policy prescriptions will lead to better outcomes for the welfare of the country. And Iran might be pursuing weapons capabilities for deterrence purposes in an effort not to change the status quo but to maintain it against what it perceives are aggressive outside forces.

The answers to the motives question obviously matter. As Robert Jervis pointed out more than a generation ago in Perception and Misperception in International Politics, there is no "safe bet" - misinterpreting aggressive motives as defensive ones is just as bad as seeing a defensive actor where there is in reality an aggressive one. There is no "play it safe" - all miscalculations can lead to ruin.

Unfortunately, the only thing we can see - the other actors' behavior - doesn't tell us what their motives are, because different motivations can lead to the same behaviors. Moreover, as Jervis and many others have pointed out, we tend to be very selective about which behaviors we see and how we interpret them. We tend to ascribe the motives to the other side that we want to. Our judgments are filled with wishful thinking.

This is actually what Mr. Sowell is engaged in. He would very much like what he says to be true, because it strengthens his own group identity and sense of superiority. It also makes him a great deal of money to say these kinds of things, which is motive enough for many kinds of behavior. This is not to say that he doesn't believe what he says - he may very well be sincere. But it does cast doubt on whether his claim should be taken seriously.

Indeed, nearly all claims about "the motives of the enemy" should be taken with a bag or two of salt. Sussing out motivations is a difficult and time-consuming task undertaken only with extensive data and rigorous analysis as removed as possible from wishful thinking and other biases - a task that requires extensive training and practice. And even then, practitioners of this art are sometimes wrong. Until we invent the machine that reads minds (and maybe even not then), this is the best we can get.

So what's the average layman to do? Political science can't teach people to make better judgments about motive, not unless people are prepared to undertake both a lot of study and a significant amount of personal introspection to control their own biases. But there is a much shorter punchline that everyone can reach quickly. If you care about actually being right about politics, ignore any and every statement that starts with "the real motives of X are..." Stop and consider the full range of possible motives, not just the ones that confirm your biases. It's a small step, and not an easy one. But if you care about the toxicity of political discourse, it's a necessary step for all of us.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Guns on Campus: An Administrator's View

Last week I blogged about the politics surrounding the intersection of gun rights and the "campus rape crisis", with particular note taken of an Assemblywoman in Nevada making some (what seem to me) silly claims about the effectiveness of guns in women's self-defense. That post ended up being a lot about the tactical self-defense assumptions behind the "more guns on campus" prescription, and the unexamined values underlying that argument.

In this post I want to put on my other hat as university administrator and look at this question from more of an institutional point of view. University administrators have been universal in their rejection of proposals to put more guns on campus, whether that involves arming faculty or allowing students to carry weapons. While it would be easy for those in the gun rights camp to dismiss this resistance as knee-jerk academic liberalism, some of those university presidents are themselves gun owners from across the political spectrum. What they all share is a responsibility for campus safety that leads them to the conclusion that guns on campus will make things less safe, not more.

To understand why administrators think this way it's important to understand the pressures and incentives they operate under. Many discussions about guns and self-defense are centered on the micro level: the attacker and the (potential) victim. Assemblywoman Fiore of Nevada talks exclusively in these terms, about the interaction between women (as potential victims) and possible attackers. But administrators know that the university itself is a key player, because whatever happens on campus tends to get blamed on the administration.

For proof of this see any of the dozens of marches, sit-ins, and other protests by students on campuses across the country in the last year or two. Regardless of the merits of the particular grievances, each of these protests has carried a common message: it is up to The Administration to prevent rape and sexual assault on campus. This is also the view of a large number of federal investigations currently underway, as well as a raft of civil lawsuits filed in recent years. Many arguments for the right to carry guns flow from a radically libertarian and individualist view of the world. Unfortunately, that's not the world that universities live in.

So administrators really do want to reduce the incidence of rape and sexual assault on their campuses, for a host of reasons. If they thought that a abundance of firearms would accomplish that task, I've no doubt that at least some of them would get on board with the idea. So why don't they?

The first point is that a university president or provost does not have the luxury of looking at one issue at a time. They have to consider the consequences of decisions across a host of different dimensions. The introduction of guns on campus is an excellent example. A concealed weapon is not only a self-defense tool in a potential rape situation. It may also be deployed in the course of an argument, it may be stolen and used elsewhere or for criminal activity on campus, or it may be accidentally discharged. There are plenty of examples of all of these things in the news, and all of them tend to make the people in the vicinity distinctly less safe. There is also, as many have pointed out, the dangerous mix of guns and alcohol - the latter substance something that many college campuses are awash with.

There are cost implications as well. If a university changes its policies (or they are changed by legislation) to allow guns on campus, a host of people will need to be trained on how to handle situations involving firearms: campus police, faculty, staff, and others. Training takes time and money. Campus police forces may likewise have to change protocols and tactics, and to reequip themselves (more body armor?) for those changes - which again has a price tag. Higher education officials in Texas have estimated that it would cost that state's universities $47 million over six years to implement proposed "campus carry" legislation. Given the size of that state and its university systems, I think that's a reasonable guess - and those costs will, of course, either be passed on to students in tuition hikes or be deducted from other things campuses are currently doing, like educating their students.

Finally, there are serious moral issues that nobody in the gun debate seems to want to grapple with. When a Boise State professor asked, "When may I shoot a student?", the question was taken to be satirical. But it's actually a very serious question for anybody carrying a firearm - when and under what circumstances are you prepared to take a life, and how do you practice thinking and action in such a way that, when crisis comes, you will respond the way you want to? As I've written before self-defense of any kind is a discipline, acquired only through study and ongoing practice. How do you know that, faced with a situation in which a gun is in your hand, you won't do something that in a calmer moment you would find morally horrific? Articles have been written about how PTSD in soldiers comes often not from the act of being shot at but from the act of killing. Fiore and her ilk are far too cavalier about the impact of actually shooting another human being, whatever the circumstances, on the person doing the shooting.

Introducing more guns to campus, even if they prevent a small number of rapes, begins to look like a very bad bargain. Others will be placed in danger, and some may be shot and killed. The university will bear significant costs up front, and the potential for massive liability down the road, if anything goes wrong. Many people will be frightened and confused by the proliferation of guns around them. The chances of someone dying on campus - from an administrator's point of view, one of the very worst things that can happen - will go up exponentially.

Given all of this is it any wonder that university presidents, however much they may be pro-gun in their personal lives, are loathe to want more weapons on campus? The current debate and arguments made by the more-guns side of the argument will not succeed, because the people making those arguments are too focused on a narrow (and, in my view, misguided) view of self-defense. One of the cardinal rules of argumentation: know your audience. It's clear that so far, those outside academia who are trying to push more guns onto campuses didn't learn this in school.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Trustee-Assisted Suicide: The Death of Sweet Briar College

The following news is likely to seriously shake a good bit of the higher education world for a while:
Sweet Briar College Will Shut Down
This is a shocking decision for a college that has a good reputation, full accreditation, and an intact endowment (in the $85-$90 million range). Colleges that go under usually do so after long and painful struggles, and are often forced over the edge by the weight of financial obligations they are no longer able to meet. That's not the case here - the patient, as it were, is still healthy today. But it's on a path, or so the leadership believes, to eventual destruction.

I tend to accept the trustees' argument that this is the most merciful decision. Down the road from me  is another small niche college, Wilberforce, which has been going through a most painful effort to keep itself alive for the past several years. If it ultimately goes under - and it may very well - a lot of time, effort, and pain will have been spent, and a lot of students will get hurt in the process, to no avail. What Sweet Briar is doing now is far preferable to a long, lingering death with frantic but unsuccessful efforts to revive the patient.

Colleges are not people, of course. If a college can return itself to sustainability its lifespan may be very long indeed. But too often we don't ask the question - is that really possible? In this case, I think the Sweet Briar trustees have hit on the key question to ask: is the writing on the wall for small, mid-tier, niche liberal arts colleges?

I used to work for one such institution (not quite so small as Sweet Briar but not very large either), and I wonder to this day how it survives. Having spent much of last year going through the college search process with my daughter (who was admitted to several much more prestigious and well-heeled liberal arts colleges), I confronted the same question of that category in general. How many people are there who can afford to spend $20k or $25k or $30k per year - after all the financial aid is awarded - on their kid's education? That is beyond the means of most families, even those earning in the very low six figures.

I don't know the answers, in part because every school is different. As the article linked above points out, other schools in similar circumstances are choosing different paths and maybe those will work out. But from the standpoint of a family with one kid in college (and two more coming up behind), the economics are nearly overwhelming, especially given that there are MUCH more affordable options elsewhere. And with the rapid growth of income inequality in the US, the number of households who can afford this kind of education is not expanding.

One thing is clear: these kinds of institutions need to take a long, hard-nosed, difficult look at their futures. Some of them may survive, but they will do so only by adapting to become somewhat different from what they are now - which is itself a painful process. Some of them probably will not. I hope that those that will not will choose graceful exits. At least now they have a model to follow.