Thursday, October 30, 2014

How Much Context Matters

Recently, I walked in in the middle of a conversation about microwave cooking, and as soon as I walked through the door, the first words I heard were "microwave food is not good, right?"  That sort of question has a few meanings, but the most common meaning I am used to hearing about is just about how food cooked in a microwave generally doesn't taste as good as other modes of cooking.  To this, I agreed, as I generally find this to be the case as well.  Then it went off on some tangent about "killing everything" and how that supposedly doesn't happen with regular stovetop cooking...  and so I replied that that only happens after you reach a certain temperature (presuming that he was talking about killing microbes).  After some shouting where I couldn't quite follow what people were saying because it was too many people talking at once, I figured we were still talking about taste, so I made the point about being unable to achieve certain effects like searing the outsides of foods, applying dry heat, etc...  and then I got a question about radiation going into the food.  Well, that's technically how a microwave is supposed to work, so that is ostensibly true, but not much of a meaningful question in the context.  It wasn't until much later that I was informed that the discussion was about the safety of microwave cooking, and so I found myself unwittingly agreeing with people who held an absurdly misguided and factually dead wrong position.

A lesson in just how much context makes a difference, and how far off the mark one can go if they make presumptions about what that context is.  It is within context that meaning is derived, and getting that context wrong can really destroy your sense of what people mean at times.

Sometimes, I get asked whether or not I've ever been even briefly fooled by some of the charlatans and crazies out there.  Well, I, like most atheists wasn't really a non-believer in my youth -- I had questions and no satisfactory answers which drove me to doubt, but I wouldn't say that I firmly rejected any of the religious beliefs on which I was raised until I was reasonably educated in actual facts.  That said, though, for most of us, this is something of a given, so I don't think people who would ask such a question would be interested in that sort of thing.  But then, perhaps one could argue that this is also making assumptions about context...

Whatever the case, the most recent example that I can think of pretty much boils down to a lack of background context.  This happened when I read a white paper by Nassim Haramein titled "The Schwarzchild Proton."  At this point in time, I had never so much as heard of Nassim Haramein, so I had no idea what to expect.  The actual content of the paper itself is pretty light, and there's nothing in particular objectionable about it.  It made use of some constants with which I wasn't really familiar at the time, and did a few manipulations to show a sort of coincidental alignment between the strong nuclear force and a hypothetical black hole with the radius of a proton.  Of course, I wasn't ready to say this proves that gravitation and the strong nuclear force are the same thing because this sort of clever turn of calculations seems to disregard quarks entirely among a host of other things.  Whatever the case, though, it's an example of how you can look at things from a different perspective that one normally wouldn't think of, and then hit upon a weird coincidence that exposes a flaw.  That sort of thing doesn't really throw me off, because throughout my career, I've found myself in a position to find solutions to difficult problems simply by being the guy who tried looking at it a different way.  But despite my relative ignorance of the topic at the time (compared to now), my impression was that this sort of coincidence, at best, indicated that the Standard Model is incomplete.  That...  doesn't really amount to any great revelation.  I think pretty much any particle physicist would have said that much, albeit not for the same reasons.  If not for that, there would not even have been such concepts as string theory or supersymmetry and what not.

You might say that's not much for being "fooled" per se, but the end effect of this was that I didn't really take Nassim Haramein for a pseudo-scientific bullshit artist at the time.  Well, considering what I had to go off of, there's nothing much to suggest otherwise...  so I thought this was one of those cases where someone is trying to make a basic truth approachable to the layman.  Trying to elucidate the incompleteness of something like the Standard Model of Quantum Mechanics isn't really straightforward, but this white paper was the sort of thing that could highlight a flaw using some clever mathematical trickery that was well within reach for an average high school student.  So that was actually kind of cool.  What killed it was when I tried finding more examples of things that Nassim Haramein tried to to push forth.  Then I started hearing some things about him and the juxtaposition of the silliness with which he was associated and the one source I had directly from the man himself seems a little out of place...  so I tried to find some talks or interviews featuring him. And what I heard straight from his own mouth set into place my acceptance that this guy was indeed a psychobabbling new-age woo-woo charlatan.  In one interview, the man tried to connect a convenient coincidence around the mass of the proton to the connected-ness of souls...  That's the sort of leap that would make friggin' Deepak Chopra blush.  Having that additional information was all too important, and having only a limited background context prior to that meant I thought he might have actually been sane.

If I told you that I'm in the process of raising the dead right now, someone who knows nothing about me would probably either think I'm kidding, a poe, or due for the loony-bin.  Someone who has read this blog would probably presume I'm either joking or trying to drive at a point.  The latter is technically true, but what if I added on that the person I'm trying to resurrect from the dead is myself?  Now it sounds even stranger, but those who are familiar with this blog and its content would have enough of a background context to that I'm not entirely serious here.  Well, in reality, I am resurrecting myself from the dead...  but only in a manner of speaking.  More specifically, that I'm trying to rectify erroneous reports that I only recently found out about which claim that I had died in 2013.  Yes, seriously.  Actually, I had run into an old college friend at an academic conference last year who thought I was dead then, too, but didn't think much of it at the time.  As unusual as this may sound, though, there's nothing particularly extraordinary about it, since it's not an actual death in question.  Moreover, putting the claim that I'm "resurrecting myself from the dead" into this kind of framing puts it well into the realm of the mundane.

Often times, when I hear the sentiments and reasoning of people who reject pretty well-accepted science, it becomes abundantly clear that they just do not think of these principles within a remotely appropriate context.  When you hear climate change deniers say "But there were below zero temperatures in the Midwest this year!"...  they seem to conveniently be unaware of the fact that the total number of days with below zero temperatures in the Midwest this year was the lowest ever for any winter in recorded history.  Notice how just a slight expansion of perspective really changes the picture?  And that's hardly the scale at which climatologists work.  The people who actually understand climate science operate at a several orders-of-magnitude larger scale.  When I hear people talk about their rejection of evolution, they look at a man and a monkey and consider nothing more.  Well, if your context is that shallow, then no wonder evolution looks ridiculous to you!  If actual biologists had that tiny a window onto the set of all living organisms, they wouldn't accept evolution either;  or even propose it in the first place.  The reason they do recognize evolution is because the perspective they take involves ALL organisms at once, and not just looking at similarities and differences, but in how those similarities and differences are distributed -- the overall pattern that emerges is what indicates evolution...  not something that is gleaned from looking at just a pair of organisms or a few finches in a vacuum.  Similarly, as I've brought up before, the canard that a "building implies a builder" is something that is borne out of lack of cognizance of the larger context we naturally have about buildings and builders.

At certain times, it can pay off to frame things in other contexts just to explain them.  In my job, I tend to deal a lot with the context of Monte Carlo methods and efforts to efficiently sample well-defined distributions...  because of that, one of the easiest ways for me to think about evolution is in terms of the probability distributions of alleles within a population and how it can be skewed by certain variables that introduce a bias into the system.  This is one way to explain it that isn't necessarily traditional, but if you use it before a trained biologist, he will have the background knowledge to map this sort of framing into his own preferred context and put together how it makes sense to him.  Interestingly enough, I've recently used this sort of framing to explain evolution to an apparent theist, and this form of explanation eventually got him around to accepting that it makes sense.  Of course, being able to do that at all does depend on the willingness of the theist to engage in honest discussion...  which this guy happened to be.  That's not often the case, which is why even this discussion was pretty full of rapid-fire condescension.  That said, it's not that easy under normal conditions even if you're dealing with a theist who is honestly trying to wrap his head around it.  The thing is that we are ultimately dealing with things that are not that simple and aren't that straightforward to imagine.  Richard Dawkins has done this sort of contextual re-mapping for an audience of children when he gave an analogy for the time scale of 4.5 billion years as compared to the length of one's arm.  At the same time, it's easy to take some of these remapping analogies into the confusing, so one needs to watch out here.

The contrasting case, of course, is when people on the wrong side have built up their own background contexts which are just emphatically stupid to begin with.  Anti-GMO activists have a certain lack of context regarding what GMOs actually contain, what they are used for, and a general ignorance of the subject that yields an atavistic fear response to what they don't understand...  but they also have an emphatically stupid background context that includes some insane ground assumptions.  These include beliefs that GMOs necessarily contain poisons or that because the corporations that develop them are driven by the profit motive, that makes them evil, and therefore they can only create evil things.  Some of them even seriously believe that consuming GMOs can cause one's own genes to be altered.  Communicating to people like this is especially difficult because you not only have the challenge of informing them about the actual facts of GMOs and their place in the food chain, but also tearing down the disgustingly delusional window they have on reality.  You have people like Ken Ham who aren't merely completely ignorant of the fact of evolution, or for that matter, any other process in science, but work from within a bubble where the Bible is ground truth and not eligible to be disregarded by any means.  That is not something you can break merely by pointing out the real facts or even demonstrating the absurdity of their position...  you have to pop the bubble of faith somehow, and that's no easy nut to crack.  I've sometimes made a little headway in doing this by pretending to be on their side and then constructing an inversion thereof.  I ask them "Let's assume for a moment that everything in your holy book is true...  let us then consider the hypothetical that in that world, the book itself never existed (i.e. nothing of its content was ever written down at any point)...  How, then, would you make these truths apparent to me?"  This is a fun little turnaround because you force someone to reason within a space where they ought to feel comfortable, but you are taking away the blanket that gives that security.  Works sometimes, but only if you're dealing with someone who at least tries to feign rationality.

What is often difficult to realize is that the same people we would normally point out as holding egregiously idiotic beliefs are actually thinking straight within the framework that they hold.  If in fact, weather and climate were the same thing, yeah...  it makes sense to disbelieve climate change.  If in fact, hormones in cows really did make it into the bloodstreams of people who drank that milk or ate that cheese, there would be some sense in buying the untreated stuff.  If in fact, microwaves actually did destroy nutrients in ways unique to microwaves, it would be quite reasonable to hold some concerns over it.  But in the end, what makes these crazy people crazy is the fact that they are building off of crazy "ground truths."  They build up a background knowledge base which is full of nonsense, and it is that baseline nonsense that begets the greater nonsense.  It is also because of the otherwise reasonable deductions from baseline nonsense that people who fall victim to this do not comprehend why those of us who build up reasonable deductions from things that are actually true would call them insane.  In a certain sense, many of them could well be otherwise sane (not that there aren't a huge selection of exceptions to this); but their wells have been poisoned.  Trying to get through to these means not just demonstrating that they live in a castle of sand, but in tearing down the muddy foundation on which those pillars of sand were built.  I should say, though, that I mean this not only in the sense of communicating the problem, but also in the sense that destroying irrational thinking is something that needs to go all the way down until you reach the point where there is no more shred of garbage remaining.  Happy trash-burning.

If you like what you've been reading on this blog, please consider supporting The Grumpy Anti-theist on Patreon and help make it better than ever.