Thursday, September 10, 2015

Fifty Billion Shades of Grey

There is an argument I hear a lot from delusional idiots like Ray Comfort and his ilk.  They make the point that even a kindergartener can plainly see that evolution is false and "God" is real.  I often get puzzled by why they use this argument...  are they really suggesting that we should base all of scientific fact on the cognitive capacity of a 6-year-old?  The thing is it's not even rare or confined to denial of evolution.  The insipid food blogger, Vani Hari, AKA "Food Babe" -- someone who ranks among the most dangerously stupid people in the country (which is quite an achievement in a world in which Louie Gohmert exists) -- once put out a little sound bite that "if a 3rd grader can't pronounce it, don't eat it."  Her adversary, Yvette d'Entremont, who uses the tongue-in-cheek name of "Science Babe", was quite quick to respond with her own sound bite: "don't base your diet on the pronunciation skills of an 8-year-old."

To those of us who have functioning brain cells, it would seem more than a little bit silly to ever think that decisions about something as complex and nuanced as personal health should be so cut and dry as "all chemicals are dangerous"...  or that quantum mechanics "proves" the existence of the afterlife, when life itself is so ill-defined...  or that climate change is clearly false because there's snow in your driveway.  It's so obvious that god is real because evolution isn't obvious!  Isn't that obvious?

It's obvious to me that your search for the obvious only obviates obliviousness.

I think, for instance, about the people who would argue that abortion is wrong because it's taking a life, with the definition that life begins at conception.  Why conception of all the moments?  Presumably, they don't want to go with the moment of birth because that's a little too late to start talking about abortions.  Why not the implantation of the embryo in the uterus?  Why not the passing of the first trimester, when the majority of risks related to rejection, ectopic pregnancy, and miscarriage have been cleared?  What's so special about conception?  Well, here's the thing about conception -- unlike all those other things, there's nothing really all that "fuzzy" about conception, at least insofar as how the public at large understands it.  It can pretty well be narrowed down to a definitive moment.  And although you can't necessarily pinpoint the exact second of conception of a child, you can have a pretty darn close guess and more importantly, it's pretty well viewed as a sort of semi-instantaneous moment where a whole lot of things occur as if a switch had been turned on.  The other thing is that it's a moment where not all the mechanisms at play and hormonal signals and what not are all that well understood, which means there's that little margin of ignorance in which to insert any old bullshit you want...

That ignorance tack, though extremely common, is sort of a separate issue.  What happens here is that you end up with the illusion that there is no ignorance in the first place.  There's just no room for it because it's perceived as just so black and white.  Black and white is simple, but shades of grey?  Not so much.  I think Yoda would tell us all that seeking this kind of simplicity is like the dark side -- it's "quicker, easier, more seductive."  Okay, enough of that.

Why are we so uncomfortable with death, for instance?  Coming to grips with mortality makes people do crazy things.  This concept of not being around or "the screen going blank" as I often like to say is something that is hard to wrap your head around.  Mark Twain famously quipped that he was not bothered by his own non-existence prior to his birth, and humorous though it is, it escapes why people fear death in the first place.  The question only appears after we become cognizant of being alive in the first place.  None of us have any reference point for what it is not to be alive because there was nothing there to perceive as our own state of non-being.  The very nature of medical science advancements also means that we're generally getting fuzzier in terms of that boundary between life and death.  That's not good for the ignorant masses who want things clear, simple, easy.  And that's moronic beyond words.

Reality is not simple.  Facts about reality do not naturally present in the form of distinct point data, but as a continuum of interval quantities in which imperfect measurement and variation is the fundamental ground truth.  I take, for instance, the people who have trouble with the idea of evolution.  Evolution isn't easy to grasp because it is happening on the scale of populations, and is therefore probabilistic by nature.  It's not about the random events, but about the changes in the probability distributions of those events.  But instead, the creationist thinks in terms of "there's people and there's monkeys and they're different," and go no further.  That's an attractive answer because it's completely without ambiguity, and that's also why it has no possibility to be right.  Oh wait, that sentence was also unambiguous, wasn't it?  Let's say virtually no possibility, then.  The thing is that even with a perfect recorded history of the entire existence of the Earth, there is still no way to come up with an answer to any question about evolution that would satisfy people of faith.  Why?  Because it would still come out in terms of fluid processes that involve large-scale statistical analyses to make sense of anything.  And that means understanding it requires actually thinking.  That's not acceptable for people who want obvious, uncomplicated, and definitive answers to every question.  Reality, to them, should read like a true-false quiz.

Ask yourself this, though...  why should anything have to be obvious in order to be true?  Since when does comprehensibility to a child become the acid test of viability?  Is everything that you know to be true plainly obvious?  Is everything with which you surround yourself simple enough that a child who has yet to experience any major depth to their education should comprehend it readily?  Yet, that's the argument I keep hearing for why evolution can't be true, or why mind-brain dualism has to be true, or why climate change is false, or why GMOs are evil, or why vaccines cause autism.  It doesn't make sense to ever arrive at any conclusions if the knowledge base and analytical skills you bring to the table are those of the completely uninitiated.  It is as if we're looking straight into the gateway to Dunning-Kruger.

A classic example is the Monty Hall problem.  The "obvious" understanding of the problem is that once one the number of doors is reduced from 3 to 2, you are left with a 50-50 chance and so there's no difference if you stick or switch.  But the thorough analysis of the decision trees will show you that's clearly not the case.  Cases like the Monty Hall Problem or the Birthday Paradox are not really complex areas of science, but relatively mundane things for which the truth is not really intuitive.  And if even the mundane can be so non-intuitive, what can you expect for some of the really involved science?

With a lot of the really established scientific "fact" out there, we tend to view them as sort of well-defined and immutable absolutes, and this is especially the case for things that are apparently obvious.  This is also one of the reasons why the general public gets so confused by the concept of the "laws" of science as opposed to scientific "theories."  The reality in science is that nothing is so cut and dry as that.  The "laws" are merely generalizations, and the theories explain them.  But it takes a lot of work to get from the generalization to the explanation thereof.  Leaving aside some of the more elementary things like gravity or the laws of motion, let's take something a little more recent -- that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer.  Now this is something that we all pretty well accept as true.  This is the sort of thing that is so well-supported that we pretty much take it as fact.  The process that got us to that did not come from some small effort or small body of research.  It took mountains of studies, gathering of huge volumes evidence, testing implications, chemical analysis, meta-analyses of multiple studies, etc...  all to get us to a consensus.  I also want to make clear that saying that "smoking cigarettes causes cancer" isn't technically correct either.  Saying that A causes B, in general use, carries a connotation that is a little too definitive;  as if to say that B is an absolute certainty as a result of A's occurrence.  A statement that more accurately fits the consensus is that smoking cigarettes is a causal agent in the onset and/or exacerbation of lung cancer.  On a practical level, the facts are still the same, but the point is that this alternate way of saying it is more nuanced and not so black-and-white.  That's what makes it more accurate, as it so happens.

It's also funny, all the same, when people who hold beliefs that are in direct opposition to the science... say, the anti-GMO crowd, are ready to look at the abstract of some research paper or a few quote-mined sentences used in an article on some anti-GMO blog, and take that as proof positive that the bullshit they believe is true.  But if you dare to follow up the actual sources as I've done every time I argue with them, they are ready to say that the science is still not decided (well, that's the argument they use on those rare occasions that they aren't accusing you of being a shill for Monsanto).  How convenient that a single quote from a single paper is sufficient to conclusively prove something you already believe, but no amount of research is sufficient (2000+ papers be damned) if they at all indicate something you don't like.  Be it GMOs, be it climate change denial, creationism, anti-vaccine, whatever.  It's always the same.  Nobody can ever begin to entertain the idea that the evidence does not fall on their side.

People are too happy to look for definitive because definitive has no depth to it.  There is nothing more to have to think about when you have certainty.  People who look for that kind of certainty are basically doomed never to face up to reality on reality's terms.  There is nothing in black and white because the fabric of reality is not painted in black and white.  Everything about it is grey.  To seek to have every last inch of uncertainty, every last iota of variation disappear is a nonsensical concept to begin with.  Reality isn't built that way.  Sure it might seem that way sometimes, but when you get right down to it, that only occurs when a context is so tightly defined that you're effectively firing a dart through a tube that leads directly to the bullseye.  When you actually look at bigger pictures, everything is fuzzy by nature.  That's just how it is.  It's not because of something like imprecision in measuring either.  It's because we are not talking about things are strictly point information.  A certain fraction of it is simply incomplete knowledge.  Climate change is not something we learn about in the form of raw statistics and hard data...  but from journalists who don't really understand what the scientific literature actually says.  Or for that matter...  the difference between heat and temperature.  GMOs are not really talked about in great specificity because to understand those things requires a great deal of background knowledge...  and you certainly won't find that from some "natural health" blogger whose posts are far stronger click-bait than this one.

That said, it's not just the stuff we hear about in the news, but even the way we learn about science in school.  Students generally have less difficulty with problems in basic physics or chemistry because it's dealt with in such definitive ways.  There's an obvious right or wrong answer.  That much is generally fine for a certain class of problems.  Still, that makes up such a tiny slice of the things humanity as a whole knows.  Basic Newtonian mechanics got us to the Moon, and yet your smartphone had no possibility of ever even existing if we didn't intimately understand special relativity (GPS) or quantum tunneling (flash storage).  But we are so used to this kind of simple and definitive nature to our understanding of reality because that's the easy stuff and the easy stuff is all we ever really see.  That's why you have people who still think it's hilarious that the weekly weather forecast could ever be incorrect what with all the advances in science and technology in this day and age.  It's based on this idea of knowledge as some nugget of fact.  The problem isn't the weatherman; it's that you are among the criminally naive.  The knowledge we have is not a product of just individual bits of information.  We don't predict the weather by looking at one cloud.  We don't understand evolution by looking at individual animals.  It's the aggregation of large amount of data, the insertion into context of several other things we've learned over centuries.  It's the statistical analysis of several bodies of information.  And that also means it's a constantly moving target.

The simple stuff is the stuff we teach to kids to form the foundation of the complex stuff.  And so many of us never actually go there, so we forget that something as massive as a "tested fact of science" has no similarity with what we learned as children.  To demand it to be so is tantamount to asking that reality be childish...  and oddly enough, that's exactly what science deniers think is reasonable to expect of the actual science...  and it's dead wrong every single time.  If you want to continue to live in a world in which everything operates on a child's level, don't expect to be welcomed to eat at the same table as the grown-ups.