Your Ideas and Beliefs Aren’t Stupid and Neither are Mine

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On June 13th Ronald Bailey wrote an article for reason.com entitled “Are Conservatives Dumber Than Liberals?” In the article Bailey overviews some social science studies that seem to “confirm” that liberals are more “intelligent” than conservatives, then he suggests that classically liberal people (i.e., libertarians- in his definitions) are actually more intelligent than democrats (or modern liberals). Though well intentioned as Mr. Bailey may be, I’m afraid all of these studies are, full of holes and provide no significant evidence in any direction.

First lets overview the studies that “prove” liberals are more intelligent than conservatives in Bailey’s own words.

A 2010 study using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, for example, found that the IQs of young adults who described themselves as “very liberal” averaged 106.42, whereas the mean of those who identified as “very conservative” was 94.82.

For this proposition to be true a few components have to be demonstrated to be reliable. One, is IQ an appropriate test of “intelligence”? Two, do the scores found on IQ differ in a meaningful way that answers the research question of intelligence and political views? Three, is self-report reliable?

The answers to all of these questions are, unfortunately for Ronald Bailey – and the researchers who conducted the study, no. IQ tests do not measure intelligence per say, unless you define intelligence as having a history with situations that result in you picking the associations and problem solving methods used in each portion of the test[1]. This is why IQ tests are well known to be culturally biased[2][3][4]. It should also be noted that their use in the U.S. in education system was to determine which students had deficits in academics and standard Western style problem solving instruction[5]. Not to mention that the test is measuring a construct, i.e., intelligence. According to the Oxford dictionaries a construct is “an idea or theory containing various conceptual elements, typically one considered to be subjective and not based on empirical evidence”[6]. Constructs are not real entities and cannot be examined as if they are one, all of which makes the use of IQ to determine who is more intelligent a pretty ridiculous way of getting to what I believe is the implicit question of this article and studies associated with it, “do people with certain political views may only hold them because they don’t know any better?”

Two, even if IQ was a good way to go about answering this question of intelligence and political views, do the differing scores found on IQ  answers this question in a meaningful way? The answer as stated earlier is no, but why? It is because of the way that IQ is scored. IQ is scored by a deviation method. A deviation method is a statistical method by which a range of scores plus or minus a certain, main score (in IQ it is 100- average intelligence) are considered to be the variability of getting score that appear to be different, but are actually equivalent, because of the natural variability of the measure. More plainly, average intelligence is considered 100 and its deviation that +/- are 15. That means that any score between 85 and 115 are essentially equivalent to getting a score of 100. Any variability between these numbers is simply the margin of error. So, when the 2010 study showed scores of approximately 95 and 106, they were both within the margin of error of the same score. This can be clarified by any basic statics book, especially one for the social sciences.

Third, is self-report reliable? Again I say no, so why not?  It is commonly known that what people report (i.e., what they say) and what is observed about the person (i.e., what they do) does not line up[7]. There can be many reasons for this, people may lie or be unaware of the truth. (One explanation for this may be found in B. F. Skinner’s suggestion that the variables that result in our actions may not be the same ones that result in what we say to others[8], but is another topic.) Regardless, the use of self-report harms the reliability of this study to even answer the question reliably.

Luckily, Bailey does not rely on only one study to make his point. Unfortunately for Bailey the other studies he cites don’t have any better data. First, the 2009 study he cites provides a score that is simply what person marked on the various questions and again this type of information does not necessarily say anything other than that – according to the measures used – the participants that fit the construct of conservatisms used for this study correlated (i.e., their answers point to an unknown relationship) with the construct for cognitive ability (i.e., the performance on the task given to participants, which don’t necessarily mean anything about cognitive ability in the typical decisions of everyday life). This holds all of the same flaws as the 2010 study discussed above.

As far as the 2012 study that Bailey presents – the study suggests that people provided more conservative answers to questions when they were drunk and/or have been performing difficult cognitive tests – it’s just irrelevant. If it were not irrelevant, then the inherent proposition of Bailey and the researchers would have to be that the best way to determine a people’s level of intelligence and political views is to impair them through performance of difficult task or by providing them with substances of abuse. I don’t believe Mr. Bailey is under that impression.

Next, the 2008 study describing agreement between SAT verbal scores and answers to social questions is rightly identified as a problem with the construct that the researcher was using, but then Bailey goes on to reformulate it along the lines that befit his own position. It is bad reasoning and bad science to get your results and then formulate the lines upon which you will judge them. You are working from your conclusion to find your question. Not to mention the fact that as a construct it doesn’t tell you anything about a real event, per say, at all.

Lastly, Ronald Bailey discusses a study in 2014 that discusses differences between libertarians (the construct group he seems to be in favor of), liberals, and conservatives on IQ. Needless to say, all differences are less than +/- 15 IQ points away, which you may remember is the margin of error for IQ scores, and are in fact only 2-5 point differences, which is completely meaningless. Just like all of the other studies, these rely on self-reports, IQ test, non-meaningful differences in scores, and constructs.

The point of this article, however, is not to shame Mr. Bailey in any way. I believe he presented this information with all good intention; well as good as looking to prove your own view right can be. In the age of easy access to information we must be more skeptical than ever of research, particularly those that confirm our own views.

So, are there intelligence differences between people of differing political views? Based on the research presented in Ronald Bailey’s article, no there isn’t. Which means the question I asked earlier was implicit in his article (as well as others like it), are people with certain political views may only hold them because they don’t know any better.  No – or at least not any more than people of other political views.

Personally, I think this is a good thing to find out. Maybe it will lead people to ask why people really do hold views both similar and different from themselves. Then, maybe, just maybe, we could have real conversation when it comes to politics- even when we hold different views.

 

[1] http://users.ipfw.edu/abbott/120/IntelligenceTests.html

[2] http://www.gifted.uconn.edu/nrcgt/ford5.html

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ronnie-reese/test-bias-minorities_b_2734149.html

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ronnie-reese/test-bias-minorities_b_2734149.html

[5] http://www.apa.org/monitor/feb03/intelligent.aspx

[6] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/construct

[7] http://www.wiley.com/legacy/wileychi/barker/supp/excerpt.pdf

[8] Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Protecting Other People’s Appalling Opinions So We Can Protect Our Own: A Perspective and Rebuttal on the American Right of Freedom of Speech

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In recent weeks two law professors, Thane Rosenbaum of Fordham University[1] and Garrett Epps of the University of Baltimore[2] have written on freedom of speech[3] in two popular news sources, The Daily Beast[4] and The Atlantic[5], respectively. Both articles have some merit, arguing for opposing sides, but a rational skeptic must look at the claims supporting (or not supporting) all opinions.  I will provide you my opinion as a rational skeptic, to demonstrate how an analysis of social issues can be conducted and then form an opinion with this viewpoint. My opinion may not be the same as the reader’s, but it will be based on evidence and considerations from multiple sources, while conducting a logical analysis of the issue and proposed arguments.

To start with, the question posed by Professor Rosenbaum: should the United States enact hate speech laws that limit the freedom of speech?[6] Mr. Rosenbaum suggests that the only reason that hate speech is not censored and indicted in the United States is because speech causes no actual harm; as compared to hate crimes involving assaults (or worse), which cause obvious physical harm. But, says Rosenbaum, new neurological evidence (which he never specifically cites) suggests that emotional pain can be equally as painful as physical pain, therefore we should limit free speech on “indecent” language.

Rosenbaum’s position is simply flawed. To start with, his suggestion that the only reason we do not limit hate speech is because we believe it does not cause pain, is not necessarily true, as it is not supported by any evidence. Professor Rosenbaum simply makes this statement, but that does not mean the foundation of the law is based on any assumed difference between emotional and physical pain. If this was the clear-cut reason for separating hate speech from hate crimes, then a clear, specific legal precedent could be cited. He seems to only claim that since the case for limiting speech (for example, shouting fire in a crowded theater) is for the safety of the public, the emotional harm felt by people counts as well and these laws should therefore be enacted. But again, there is no specific statement saying that hate speech doesn’t meet the public harm because it does not cause physical harm. Instead he has no real foundation, which means this conclusion cannot stand.

The good professor follows by a personal jab at the justice system’s assumed reasoning of suggesting a difference between emotional and physical pain, saying their opinion is based on nursery rhymes. This is an ad hominem attack, a type of logical fallacy in which the person attacks the person or organization instead of attacking the merits of the argument. Again, not a good reason to agree with his position.

A final part of Rosenbaum’s argument suggests that by allowing hate speech to be protected, the perpetrator’s rights are upheld at the expense of the victim’s rights. Though on its face this seems very reasonable, it is not that simple. As the late Christopher Hitchens noted on this topic – by limiting another person’s right to speak his opinion, you limit your own right to listen to what they have to say[7][8]. Mr. Hitchens further demonstrated the appropriateness of this stance when he asked a Canadian convention crowd if a single one of them knows anyone they trust enough to decide what they do and do not have the right to listen to or read[9]. It may be worth noting that not one person was suggested by the crowd, possibly providing evidence of the complications to be encountered with such a drastic legal step.

Garrett Epps provides a counter to Rosenbaum’s article by suggesting that free speech should not be limited, but it does have cost[10]. In his conclusion, as may be told by the previous paragraph, I agree with Professor Epps, at least mostly. However, I found the particular arguments Epps makes of why free speech is harmful, and maybe that it could be reasonable to adopt the practices of many European democracies, somewhat wanting. To begin with, both Rosenbaum and Epps suggest that the wide-spread use of hate speech laws legitimizes them in some way, but only the premises an argument is based on can legitimize it. After that only if those premises are found to be both valid (appropriately logical) and sound (actually true) is the argument legitimate. This argument of consensus is in no way a proof of anything at all. As John Stuart Mills said in his book On Liberty:

            If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he         had the power, would be justified in silencing all mankind (14)[11].

Both authors also minimize what appear to be clear violations of persons to freely express their opinions in the face of such laws. For example, in France in 2012 Bob Dylan was charged with violating one of these laws for a comment made in a Rolling Stone interview he did[12]. During the interview Dylan was asked about similarities in American between the Civil War era and today. Dylan in remarking about the effect that race still has on American society today said:

            If you got a slave master or [Ku Klux] Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That       stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense     Croatian blood.[13]

Dylan’s statement about Croatians has resulted in charges in France for inciting hate. This appears to be a misuse of the law, as Dylan’s statement in the article was not even derogatory, but simply his opinion of the effects of history on people today; which considering the context of the conversation there may or may not be a point of truth to. If these laws limiting free speech are to be truly considered, then the possible abuses of the spirit of the law must be part of the discussion.

From there Ebbs suggest that the reason the Europeans passed such laws was that men like Hitler demonstrated that democracy can allow such pernicious tyranny to gain influence, so therefore these laws are needed. This seems reasonable, except for the fact that Hitler did not continue democratic values once he came to the ranks through a more democratic process. Hitler instead silenced his critics and opposition[14], as is common in many totalitarian regimes, though quite uncommon in modern day democracies. Based on this evidence it is the suspending of democratic values, such as free speech, that is the actual point of concern. Indeed, as Jonathan Rauch (author and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution) has suggested it is the free debate of ideas that has abated the power that bigotry towards sexual orientation once present in the United States[15][16].

Ebbs also looks at how, historically, in the United States free speech did not engulf so many persons in its protections. These examples are accurate and as Professor Ebbs suggest people can be harassed when they are not a part of the majority. Yet, this in no way means that the best way to safeguard vulnerable citizens from oppression is to take away their right to dissent flagrantly boisterous opponents. In fact, Thomas Paine (American founding father and noted pamphleteer) suggest the opposite idea when he wrote in the closing lines of his Dissertation on First Principles of Government:

            An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to        misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty            secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he       establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.[17]

To end Ebbs concludes, fairly, that the reason we have free speech laws cannot be for a lack of any harm, but again I slightly disagree. Though the essential point of fighting with words vs. weapons is a fine message, many examples of sedition acts and imprisonment (or worse) have been demonstrated over the course of human history when free speech is limited[18][19]. Paine warns plainly that more harm may come to those who limit liberties (such as free speech) than is averted by the limitation of liberty itself. Paine is saying that, although it may cause more short-term harm to allow even derogatory speech, in the long run the greater harm of oppressive and tyrannical abuse of the law may be avoided.

For my part I agree with the Supreme Court that all other laws are based (to some degree) on the right to free speech[20]. Despite the laws in France, a comedian is currently making outlandish anti-Semitic jokes and statements, regardless of the fines and limitations[21]. To me this is evidence that suppression of certain view does not change those views or diminish their notoriety.  Only by defending arguments with understandable evidence and reason can we hope to diminish the influence of noxious opinions on obsequious adherents. Once more, in the words of Thomas Paine:

            … I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his opinion, however      different that opinion may be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave            of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right to change it.

            The most formidable weapon against any error of every kind is reason. (v[22])[23]   

By using rational skepticism to inform my process of analysis I hope I have shown how an opinion on debatable issues can be determined. Note that even though I agreed with the conclusions of Garrett Epps, still I analyzed all his rationale for both truth and errors. For a rational skeptic, even our own opinions are not exempt from skeptical evaluation. In presenting my views on this topic I do not expect my opinion to be the same as all readers. My only goal is for the reader to come to see my position as a fair one, based on evidence and reason.

This is exceedingly important in matters of societal engagement and policy decisions, where you necessarily wish to have your opinion forced on others. Debate based on rational skepticism does not force any particular opinion (assuming it is not in contradiction to the evidence), but it may increase the probability of people being able to relate with one another, as they may be able to more clearly see differing arguments and opinions as reasonable. In this ways rational debate becomes a godsend of excessive proportions. By engaging in this method people may be allowed to come to some accordance on the world they all want to live in, without empowering demagogues and swindlers that prey on the discord and prejudices of society… and avoiding that should be good for everyone.   

~By Nicholas S.


[8] This is a paraphrase of his stance, not a direct quote

[11] Mills, J. S. (1859/2002). On liberty. Dover, Mineola, NY.

[14] Eley, G. (2003). Hitler’s silent majority? Conformity and resistance under the Third Reich (part 2). Michigan Quarterly Review, 42. Retrieved by: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?cc=mqr;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0042.319;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1;g=mqrg

[18] Zinn, H. (2005). A people’s history of the United States: 1492-present. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, New York, NY.

[19] Foner, E. (2009). Give me liberty: An American history: Volume 2 (ed. 2nd). Norton, New York, NY.

[22] Capitalizations removed from some words.

[23] Paine, T. (1794/2006). The Age of Reason. Barnes & Nobles, New York, NY.

The Anti-Vaccine Pseudoscience Domination: An Example of the Dangers of Believing a Falsehood

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It will not be surprising to tell you that some people in the world, unfortunately, do not believe in the findings of traditional reputable science and put excessive stock in pseudoscience. There are many different reasons for this phenomenon[1][2]. Even among those of us who have not succumbed to such false beliefs, a ready defense for these pseudoscience believers is sometimes made. It may be presented by saying “it isn’t causing any harm for them to believe in that”. To be a rational skeptic such defenses cannot be taken without further investigation. When it comes to belief in pseudoscience there can in fact be drastic consequences. A perfect example of the dangers of pseudoscience is the belief that vaccines cause autism. By assessing the claims, facts, and outcomes of this pseudoscientific belief the rational skeptic may see the risks involved in accommodating such untrue claims.

To begin it must be made clear what I mean when I say science and when I say pseudoscience. By science I mean what scientists do; they investigate an event in the nature to contribute to our overall understanding of the natural world. This is compared to pseudoscience, which involves making claims or presenting “findings” (typically supported with logical flaws) that do not contribute to the understanding of the world[3].  The claim that vaccines cause autism fits these criteria because all sound, valid studies with good research methodology and design have shown that there is no link between vaccines and an autism diagnosis. In contrast, all support for this link has been presented through unsound reasoning, invalid conclusions, or poor research design and methodology. In many cases testimonials that a person’s child was vaccinated before he was diagnosed with autism is the only evidence. None of these flawed forms of evidence have contributed to the larger understanding of world. In fact, these sources are far outnumbered by the better quality studies conducted, again showing little reason to trust in their claims. It may not be impossible, but it is so improbable that it might as well be.

What are the claims of the anti-vaccination camp in relation to autism? In general they claim that vaccines are toxic, do not increase immunity, and that they cause autism and other developmental disabilities[4][5][6][7][8]. With autism this was really started when Andrew Wakefield and colleagues published an article in the medical journal the Lancet claiming a link between autism and the mumps, measles, and rubella (MMR) vaccine[9]. In 2010 this article was retracted by the Lancet when its medical panel concluded that “Dr. Wakefield had been dishonest, violated basic research ethics rules and showed a ‘callous disregard’ for the suffering of children involved in his research”[10].  That same year Wakefield had his medical license revoked for unethical practice relating to this study[11]. To elaborate, he took a biased sample of participants without informed consent (from his son’s birthday party) and he did not disclose that the study was partly funded by a lawyer for a family seeking to sue vaccine makers[12]. This may be why his study came the conclusions it did, but was never corroborated by any other study conducted with good methodology.

 Despite the former Dr. Wakefield’s unethical and unscientific practices coming to light, as well as his clear bias of financial gain, many who believe his uncorroborated claims will not be convinced. Some have noted that the actions taken to discredit Wakefield will be seen by devotees of the anti-vaccine movement as proof of the “conspiracy” propagated by the government and the scientific community[13], which is unlikely[14]. A large number of parents whose child has a diagnosis of autism still believe vaccines are the cause[15], which is less surprising with the voice of celebrities on the side of the anti-vaccine movement[16][17][18]. This is in the face of a multitude of studies discrediting this claim[19][20][21][22][23][24].

For all those parents who are not convinced that vaccines do not cause autism it makes some sense, as there is a rising in the diagnosis of autism[25][26].A brief walk through some of the evidence involving autism prevalence and vaccines may illuminate possible reasons for the rise in autism diagnoses and help clarify why vaccines are not likely the cause. To begin with the effects of the MMR vaccine on autism diagnoses a study by Uchiyama and colleagues investigates the cases of autism diagnoses before, during and after use of the combination MMR vaccine at a clinic in Japan[27]. They compared the before, during and after groups of patients, as well as those who opted out of the MMR during the MMR period. The researchers found no link between autism diagnosis and MMR vaccination.

Next, a look at other reasons for rising autism diagnoses. Researchers Tidmarsh and Volkmar note that the criteria changes in the DSM-III- TR[28] and the DSM-IV[29] were overly inclusive[30]. The changes in autism diagnosis criteria in the DSM-V are expected to decrease the prevalence of autism[31], suggesting that at least part of the increase was due to overly inclusive diagnostic criteria. Tidmarsh and Volkmar also overviewed the changes in assessment tools, reporting methods, and general knowledge of autism spectrum disorders, which would all possibly increase the prevalence of autism. Catherine Maurice in her book Let Me Hear Your Voice[32], about her families struggle with autism, suggests that many professionals she encountered were less than knowledgeable about autism. Croen and colleagues overviewed prevalence in California in individuals serviced by the Department of Developmental Services and found that part of the increase in prevalence was due to a reclassification of children as autistic who had previously obtained the diagnosis of mental retardation[33] unknown cause[34].

Now it may seem clearer why there is no link for the increase in autism prevalence, as well as why there would be an increase in the first place; but some people may still say “what is the harm”. The harm is what happens when people believe vaccines cause autism. Namely, they do not vaccinate their children[35]. This is the reason for the rising cases of measles, mumps, and rubella[36], which has resulted in scores of unnecessary illness and even many deaths[37]. A common objection by doubters is that the likelihood of getting autism is higher than death from measles, but that was not always true. Before advances in medical science the rates of death from measles was nearly double that of getting autism[38][39]. All in all, “the harm” is people’s health and lives.

To be a rational skeptic it is important to look at the logical end of any action or claim. The logical end of anti-vaccine beliefs is the increased probability of harm to human lives over time. Pseudoscience and junk science can cause dangerous decisions to be made. For this reason it is very important to investigate with rational skepticism all ideas that affect our actions. Those in the anti-vaccine movement have used an irrational skepticism to defame probable sources of valid and sound information. We must be cautious of this type of thinking or it may lead to perilous actions that don’t make sense.        


[1] Shermer, M. (1997). Why people believe weird things: Pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time W H Freeman/Times Books/ Henry Holt & Co, New York, NY.

[2] Jacobson, John W., Foxx, Richard M., & Mulick, James A. (Eds.). (2005). Controversial therapies for developmental disabilities: Fad, fashion and science in professional practice. Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

[9] Wakefield, A. J., Murch, S. H., Anthony, A., Linnell, J., Casson, D. M.,… & Walker-Smith, J. A. (1998). Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet, 351, 637–641.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Bearman, P. (2010). Just-so stories: Vaccines, autism, and the single-bullet disorder. Social Psychology Quarterly, 73, 112-115.

[15] Bazzano, A., Zeldin, A., Schuster, E., Barrett, C., & Lehrer, D. (2012). Vaccine-related beliefs and practices of parents of children with autism spectrum disorders. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 117(3), 233-242. 

[16] Ibid.

[18] Bearman, P. (2010). Just-so stories: Vaccines, autism, and the single-bullet disorder. Social Psychology Quarterly, 73, 112-115.

[19] Uchiyama, T., Kurosawa, M., & Inaba, Y. (2007). MMR-vaccine and regression in autism spectrum disorders: Negative results presented from japan. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37(2), 210-217.

[20] Herbert, J. D., Sharp, I. R., & Gaudiano, B. A. (2002). Separating fact from fiction in the etiology and treatment of autism: A scientific review of the evidence. The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice: Objective Investigations of Controversial and Unorthodox Claims in Clinical Psychology, Psychiatry, and Social Work, 1(1), 23-43.

[21] Tidmarsh, L., & Volkmar, F. R. (2003). Diagnosis and epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry / La Revue Canadienne De Psychiatrie, 48(8), 517-525.

[24] Hall. H. (2009). Vaccines and autism: A deadly manufactroversity. Skeptic, 15, 26-32.

[25] Croen, L. A., Grether, J. K., Hoogstrate, J., & Selvin, S. (2002). The changing prevalence of autism in california. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32(3), 207-215

[27] Uchiyama, T., Kurosawa, M., & Inaba, Y. (2007). MMR-vaccine and regression in autism spectrum disorders: Negative results presented from japan. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37(2), 210-217.

[28] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 3rd Edition, Text Revised- this is an edition of the manual used to set criteria for psychiatric disorders, including an autism diagnosis.  

[29] This is the 4th edition  of the same manual

[30] Tidmarsh, L., & Volkmar, F. R. (2003). Diagnosis and epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry / La Revue Canadienne De Psychiatrie, 48, 517-525.

[32] Maurice, C. (1993). Let me hear your voice: A families triumph over autism. Ballantine, New York, NY.

[33] This is now referred to as intellectually disabled, but the study was based on older diagnostic criteria

[34] Croen, L. A., Grether, J. K., Hoogstrate, J., & Selvin, S. (2002). The changing prevalence of autism in california. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32(3), 207-215

[38] Perry, R. T., & Halsey, N. A. (2004). The clinical significance of measles: A review. The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 189 Suppl 1, 4-16.

Free Will, Determinism, and the Logical Fallacies of a Contributors to a Major News Source: A Response to Marcelo Glesier

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It is an unfortunate fact that many reputable sources and persons make irrational or false claims. Rational skeptics must be ever vigilant to guard against blind acceptance of incorrect information. In the event that the information being given is regarding a topic that we feel strongly about (either one way or the other), then we must be that much more cautious about accepting or rejecting that information.

Recently Marcelo Glesier, a well-known theoretical physicist and contributor to National Public Radio (NPR)[1], wrote two articles on free will and determinism[2][3]. NPR is a major news source commonly associated with highly reliable information and informed viewers[4]. Despite this fact when talking about free will and determinism, deeply personal topics for most Westerners, Glesier succumbed to many poor arguments and logical fallacies in defending his position.

Both articles center around objections to a book by Sam Harris titled Free Will[5]. In his book Harris argues that free will is an illusion. He makes this claim based on neurological evidence that people’s decisions (or choices) can be observed in the brain before people say they have come to a decision (or made a choice)[6]. Based on this evidence Harris argues that our brains make the decisions before “we” do, so we cannot be said to be the authors of those decisions.

In his 1st article entitled The Choice is Yours: The Fate of Free Will[7], Glesier begins by presenting an appeal to ignorance[8], a type of logical fallacy in which a person states that something cannot be known, therefore it is not true. Glesier says that since we have no way of measuring all neuron and synaptic activity, then free will cannot be disproved. However, this argument is not true. It assumes that our ability to track all neurological activity is a necessary condition to prove the likelihood of determinism and disprove free will. In reality all that needs to be proven is that our actions can occur as a result something other than our conscious choice –  that is, when we say we’ve come to a decision.

Marcelo Glesier does not stop at one logical fallacy. He goes on to say that even if this research shows that free will does not exists for simple decisions, it cannot possibly be the same for complex decision (for example, choosing which college to attend). Here Glesier is making the logical error of begging the question[9]. This is a type of logical fallacy in which a person presents an uncertain premise as if it confirms his conclusion. By admitting that basic human choices may not be free, but saying complex decisions must involve free will, Glesier is begging the question of “Based on what data?” as if it is self-evident. The fact is Glesier is not basing this on data; it is simply a statement he makes. Just because something is, or even appears, complex does not make it occur as a result of a different process. Choices like “which college to attend” may very well involve complex decision making, but that does not mean that any final decisions cannot be observed at the neurological level before the conscious decisions is made, at least not necessarily.

Glesier followed up his 1st article on free will with a 2nd article entitled The Problem with a Clockwork Universe[10]. In this 2nd article he defends his stance on free will by talking about determinism. He begins by defining determinism, saying “a system is deterministic if its future (and past) behavior can be fully determined by knowledge of its condition in the present.” This is not determinism, as science typically defines it. Determinism is a basic assumption of all science and it is not defined the way that Glesier says. Determinism in science is when, whatever is being investigated (for example, our choices) occurs as a result of, or is determined by, something else (for example, our historical preferences)[11][12]. That is, anything that happens has a cause, it did not occur willy-nilly in contradiction to all physical law. In essence, determinism says that the world is lawful and anything that scientists are studying is assumed to occur as a result of some lawful relationship, until proven otherwise. If this was not true everything would occur completely by chance, utterly independent of anything lawful, logical, or rational[13][14].

Where Marcelo Glesier goes wrong is by confusing determinism and pre-determinism[15][16] in his definition.  Pre-determinism is when whatever is being investigated (for example, our choices) could never have been different (for example, despite our historic preferences, our genetic makeup, how hungry we are, the physical cost of making those choices, etc.), nothing could change or affect it, similar to fatalism. Determinism just means that anything that happens has a cause, a reason, a preceding event. In pre-determinism no other choice of action could have been made. In determinism a different choice of action could have, but what happened was probabilistically likely to occur, because of the combination of variables that preceded it.

Glasier goes on to say “[i]n practice [in physics], deterministic physical systems are described by equations that allow us to predict precisely their advance in time.” This may make sense in physics where you are talking about the specific, single path of an object or system, but human choices are each discrete events, that are controlled by different variables of various consideration. Glesier follows by saying that since we cannot measure all particles in the universe – which would be needed to determine the course of all particles and prove a pre-determined universe – we cannot say there is no free will. This pre-determined universe is not the world we live in and it is not the world that many of us would want to live in.

Logically the problem is that Glesier’s redefinition of determinism is a straw man argument[17], which is another logical fallacy. A straw man argument is when someone misrepresents or redefines a position and then attacks the redefined position as proof of the falsehood of the original position, as if they are the same. This may seem confusing, but let me explain. By saying that determinism cannot be true because – the way he defines determinism – it would be impossible to determine everything, Glesier attacks his redefinition of determinism as if it is the same thing as the determinism that Sam Harris and others’ position of “there is no free will” rests on. (That is, there is a preceding event or condition that determines our choice of action outside of our conscious choice.)  The science we do today could not occur under Glesier’s requirement. If this is how science was done, it would mean we only had to determine the cause of some kind of event and we could predict all future actions. However, if science had no (actual) deterministic assumption it would be pointless; because the assumption would be that there is no cause to anything[18][19].

Marcelo Glesier concludes in both articles that the existence or nonexistence of free will is not black and white. He does this by repeatedly presenting logical fallacies. The truth is that in science if something can be studied, then we assume it is determined (at least probabilistically) until that assumption is proved otherwise – and to date, it hasn’t been.

However, the biggest flaw of Glesier’s arguments may be the use of data from physics to present a proof of free will. Physic is for sure, a fantastic natural science, but free will is a question of whether our actions are determined by our agency (as human beings) independent of any other variables. Physics is the scientific study concerned with matter and energy[20], though the study of these variables is important, it is overly reductionistic to answer the questions about the choices of human beings. It is a question about our behavior of making choices, which occurs at a level far above matter and energy, to the actions of human beings. As a result, it is only through psychology, and more specifically the science of behavior, that these questions can in any way be answered scientifically; specifically the analysis of human behavior – accounting for its findings as outside of the evidence found in related areas of science that affect behavior, such as biology, neuroscience, physiology, genetics, etc.

So, how should human behaviors and choices be assessed to account for the probability of free will? It may be helpful to start by defining human behavior in a manner that encompasses these different types and levels of choices. By behavior I mean the large scale definition of anything an organism does in space/time[21][22]. In this sense all thoughts, actions, and feelings can be assessed. Though this definition is broad, it follows the assumption of radical behaviorists (those following the tradition of B. F. Skinner) – that the only difference between observable and unobservable behaviors is that only you can see your unobservable behavior (for example, your self-talk).

Next in our investigation of free will, all the possible events and conditions that affect behavior must be considered. Genetic endowment has been shown to effect behavior; including all physiological structures and systems- this is where the neuroscientific data is placed[23][24]. Current environment has been shown to affect behavior[25]. Personal history has been shown to effect behavior[26].

Some claim  that conscious decision making affects behavior, but the findings in neuroscience[27], biology[28], and economics[29], challenge this notion by finding situations in which choices are predictably determined by other conditions and events and do not require an account of the effects of consciousness. Hank Schlinger wrote a fantastic article in Skeptic that suggests the most parsimonious reasoning concludes that consciousness does not exists as anything but our own thoughts, feelings, and observations[30][31]. Also, despite the suggestions by cognitive psychologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists that thoughts determine our actions[32][33][34], behavior analysts view thoughts as just more behaviors that need explanations[35][36][37]. To assume that thoughts are different from other behaviors is to assume they are of some different substance, but there is no reliable evidence of this at all[38]. It could be that thoughts affected something that other behavior do not, but again there is no reliable data to suggest this, so the assertion by Schlinger may be a better place to start.

The only data we have that thoughts precede behaviors, tells us that neurological responses are detected before muscular response[39][40]. However, in these cases the same part of the brain is responding as those that are active during the muscular response[41]. This can be seen as evidence that the response starts at the brain, but it is all part of the same action for the organism, so this is not the kind of evidence that verifies thoughts control behaviors in any special sense.

So, what do behavior analytic scientists have to say about free will and determinism? Well, they have not found any behavior without relations to other events and conditions. As far as they know all behavior is determined, which means no free will – at least not in the classic sense[42][43]. This does not mean we do not make our own choices. It simply means we don’t make those choices for no reason, logic, function, or purpose.

Also, even if thoughts do affect behaviors, that doesn’t mean those thoughts would not be determined by some preceding events or conditions. In this framework your choices may have some determining factors, but you are still you and your choices are still your choices. In this sense you can still “feel free” and this feeling may be what is truly important[44].

For some people this may be uncomfortable. The idea that we aren’t as free as we thought we were can seem very unpleasant. A quick look at the history of deterministic ideas can make it clear why[45]. However, to be rational skeptics we must look at the evidence despite our feelings. Logical fallacies will not change the world and believing in ideas that make us feel better won’t either. Just remember, nothing has actually changed. If our actions and choices are determined, then they’re still just as free as they have always been. We have never lived in a freer world than we do right now.

Marcelo Glesier may feel like this doesn’t make sense. That he does not have free will – in that sense that philosophers have thought of it for generations – may seem unfathomable[46]. Yet, our thoughts, feelings, and personal experiences can be wrong. Any undergraduate research methods textbook can tell you not to rely on testimonials[47]. We also cannot rely on poor logic. The best we can do to maneuver through the world as rational skeptics is to accept the strong data in front of us and be wary of weak data that confirms what we already believe.


[5] Harris, S. (2012). Free Will. Free Press, New York, NY.

[6] Ibid.

[8] Hurley, P. J. (2008). A concise introduction to logic (10th ed.). Thompson Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.

[9] Ibid.

[11] Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Merrill-Prentice Hall, Columbus, OH.

[14] Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Merrill-Prentice Hall, Columbus, OH.

[15] Ibid.

[17] Hurley, P. J. (2008). A concise introduction to logic (10th ed.). Thompson Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.

[19] Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Merrill-Prentice Hall, Columbus, OH.

[21] Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Merrill-Prentice Hall, Columbus, OH.

[22] Johnston, J. M., & Pennypacker, H. S. (2009). Strategies and Tactics of Behavioral Research, (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

[23] Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Merrill-Prentice Hall, Columbus, OH.

[24] Harris, S. (2012). Free Will. Free Press, New York, NY.

[25] Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Merrill-Prentice Hall, Columbus, OH.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Welberg, L. (2008). Free will? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 410-411.

[28] Montague, P. R. (2008). Free will. Current Biology, 18, 584-585.

[29] Foxall, G. R., & Sigurdsson, V. (2013). Consumer behavior analysis: Behavioral economics meets the marketplace. Psychological Record, 63, 231-238.

[30] Schlinger, H. D. (2008). Consciousness is nothing but a word. Skeptic, 14, 58-63.

[31] If you would like to see video of the conference talk on this paper go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qbknecc1rWg&feature=player_embedded  graciously shown to me by Karola Dillenburger

[32] Schlinger, H. D. (2008). Consciousness is nothing but a word. Skeptic, 14, 58-63.

[33] Chiesa, M. (1994). Radical Behaviorism: the Philosophy and the Science. Boston: Authors Cooperative.

[34] Harris, S. (2012). Free Will. Free Press, New York, NY.

[35] Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior. Free Press, New York, NY.

[36] Schlinger, H. D. (2008). Consciousness is nothing but a word. Skeptic, 14, 58-63.

[37] Chiesa, M. (1994). Radical Behaviorism: the Philosophy and the Science. Boston: Authors Cooperative.

[38] Schlinger, H. D. (2008). Consciousness is nothing but a word. Skeptic, 14, 58-63.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Harris, S. (2012). Free Will. Free Press, New York, NY.

[41] Schlinger, H. D. (2008). Consciousness is nothing but a word. Skeptic, 14, 58-63.

[42] Johnston, J. M., & Pennypacker, H. S. (2009). Strategies and Tactics of Behavioral Research, (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

[43] Schlinger, H. D. (2008). Consciousness is nothing but a word. Skeptic, 14, 58-63.

[44] Skinner, B. F., (1971). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Hackett  Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

[45] Malott, R. W. (2008). Are women, people of color, Asians, and southern Europeans inherently inferior to north-European males? A history of biological determinism—A cultural, spiritual and intellectual disgrace—And the implications for understanding “mental illness”, Behavior and Social Issues, 16, 134-169.

[47] Goodwin, J. C. (2007). Research in Psychology (5th ed.). Wiley, Hoboken, NJ.

Simon Baron-Cohen’s Fantastically False Article on Radical Behavior: An Example of Valid, but False Premises

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In the information age it seems that every fact is at our fingertips. Simply googling a topic can lead every person to a multitude of different sources on that topic. However, rational skepticism is a must, if any information we find is to be trusted. This is no less true when information comes from supposed intellectuals speaking on areas that they do not directly contribute to.

A wonderful example of this is the recent article published in the Edge[1] by Simon Baron-Cohen[2]. Simon Baron-Cohen is a psychologist at the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University. In the section titled 2014: What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement Baron-Cohen suggests that radical behaviorism should be retired. Based solely on his position and place of work Baron-Cohen would seem, to many people, to be a reputable authority in this area. Unfortunately for Mr. Baron-Cohen and those who would believe his statements in this article, his argument is valid in structure, but his premises are untrue. This destroys his entire argument and shows him to be a great example of an unreliable source in this area.

The article starts out with a true and a false statement. It is true that many students of psychology are taught that behaviorism was displaced by the cognitive revolution, because it was deeply flawed scientifically[3][4]. However, this is not true on two counts. One, it was not, so to say, displaced. Two, it was and is not scientifically flawed.

Behaviorism and radical behaviorism were never displaced. First, the idea that radical behaviorism had a necessarily high number of adherents in its early days is not completely true. Though it was much talked about, there was never a time when the American Psychological Association was made up of an overwhelming number of radical behaviorists. Also the faction of behaviorists that existed in the APA started to have less involvement in the late 1950s-1970s. The reason for this is not because all of the behaviorists submitted to cognitivist view points, but because during this time they started to branch off away from traditional psychology. For example, Skinner developed the experimental analysis of behavior as a form of study and the flagship research journal in this area, the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, did not start to be published until 1958[5]. Ten years later the first applied research journal, the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, had its first publication[6]. The first research methods book for behavior analysis (the science of behavior informed by the philosophy of behaviorism) was not published until 1960[7]. It was not even until the 1971 that the first textbook in the applied textbook in the principles of behavior analysis was published[8]. The Association for Behavior Analysis, the professional organization for behavior analysts around the world, was not even established until 1974[9] and this emerged out of regional behavior analysis conferences[10]. How could behaviorism have been on decline in this period if these events were just starting to occur? In reality this period was representative of behavior analysts’ attempting two firsts: their first attempt to apply their research findings to human issues and their first attempt to separate themselves from the practice and tradition of psychology[11].

Today behavior analysis is not only far from displaced, it is growing. In 2012 at the 38th annual conference of the Association for Behavior Analysis, Maria Malott reported that over the past 20 years the association’s membership has increased by 266%[12]. In 1998 the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB) was formed[13] and started providing certifications for Board Certified Behavior Analysts in the year 2000[14]. Today the state of California alone has over 2,000 (BACB) certificants[15].  BACB approved university programs exist at over 200 different sites around the world[16]. Behavior analysts have conducted countless effective interventions in mental health[17][18], developmental disabilities[19], education[20], animal training[21], organizational change and job improvement[22], traffic safety[23], addiction,[24] and countless other areas. Again, this does not appear to be a dead discipline.[25]

Now to the other false claim; that is, that behaviorism is a flawed science. There are many issues with this claim. The first may be that behaviorism is not considered a science, but a philosophy that guides the science of behavior[26]. Radical behaviorism is a specific philosophy of science that, among other things, operates on the assumptions that there is no difference between the private and public events[27][28]. An example is that the self-talk typically called consciousness (private) is not considered to be of a different substance or dimension than self-talk out loud (public). In both situations the same types of controlling relationships exist and act between the behavior and the environment. More plainly, behaviorists do account for thoughts and feelings in therapies, they just account for them in a different way than traditional mentalistic psychologists. All of this is to say that the radical behaviorists never considered the organism a tabula rasa or blank slate, so this could not be the reason for it being a supposedly flawed science. The behaviorists’ perspective of the individual self as a single dimensional organism may be best illustrated by what the late Christopher Hitchens said in his book Mortality[29], regarding the cancer ravaging his body, “I don’t have a body, I am a body” [30].Which is not to say he does not have thoughts and feelings, but that those are not of a different substance than the rest of him. Further, the idea that radical behaviorism does not account for the findings of other fields was countered by B. F. Skinner himself his book The Contingencies of Reinforcement[31]. In that book Skinner accepted and accounted for the multiple influences of physiology, neurology, biology and genetics on human behavior.

Another example against Mr. Baron-Cohen’s claim that radical behaviorism is scientifically flawed is actually in an area he should be familiar with – that is, autism research. In 2009 the National Autism Council published their National Standards Project[32]. This report was a large scale assessment of the various interventions for autism. It rated each of these interventions for the autism population as either established, emerging, unestablished, or ineffective/ harmful. Of the established treatments nearly two-thirds were behavioral and of the final one-third, 75% were found to be behavioral in nature. This does not seem to be a scientific theory that is ready for retirement.

These are not the only claims made by Simon Baron-Cohen that are false. For example, though Chomsky’s scathing review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior[33][34] did lead many to assume that Skinner’s analysis was flawed, that does not make it true. First of all, Chomsky’s proposed theories on language have contributed almost nothing to helping people learn language skills, whereas the methods based on Skinner’s theoretical analysis have helped countless children learn to speak[35]. This is not surprising as Chomsky’s language acquisition device[36] is simply a construct to explain a behavior, which always leads to circular reasoning. (The child acquires language naturally through his language acquisition device. How do you know? Because he acquires language naturally and quickly. So why does he acquire language naturally and quickly? Because of his language acquisition device.) Do you see the problem?

In regards to the postulation that neuroscience is incompatible with behavior analysis, as Baron-Cohen says, this is simply untrue. In fact, the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior in 2005 devoted a special issue to research collaborations between neuroscience and behavior analysis[37]. David W. Shaal[38] is a particularly great example of a behavior analyst working with neuroscientists and has been an advocate for increased participation.

Finally, in his article Baron-Cohen says that behaviorists’ work with animals in zoos and aquariums is actually harmful. He says that 3 deaths by a killer whale at SeaWorld are an example of this, as human death by killer whales rarely happens in the wild. This is a terrible example, since the contact of killer whales with humans – particularly in close proximity – in the wild is in no way comparable to that experienced at SeaWorld. Baron-Cohen says this is as a result of not accounting for animals’ nature, but behavior analysts have specifically intervened to increasing animals’ species-specific behaviors in captivity[39]. Again, this is the opposite of what Baron-Cohen claims.

All of this speaks to the falsehood of Simon Baron-Cohen’s claims, but not their invalidity. An argument is valid if, assuming the premises are true, the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises. The sources Baron-Cohen sites are real and come from (apparently) reputable sources. Every conclusion he makes from his premises is valid. It is not because of a flaw in his logical process that his article is unreliable. His arguments make sense, but that doesn’t make anything he says true. Since his premises are based on incorrect information his conclusions cannot be true, and this makes his entire argument false.

To be a rational skeptic in the information age finding valid and true sources of information is an important first step. If we are curious about the state of applied quantum physics we should look in journal and organization of applied quantum physics. This is not to say that people outside of the discipline have no right to evaluate it, but that any contradiction between the two claims require further investigation. Finally, we must remember that just because a statement comes from a supposed intellectual is no reason to exempt it from this process of rational, skeptical investigation.


[3] Heine, S. J. (2010). Cultural psychology Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

[4] Miller, G. A. (2003). The cognitive revolution: A historical perspective. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(3), 141-144.

[5] Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 1958, 1 (1) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/issues/128933/

[6] Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1968, 1 (1) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/issues/125029/

[7] Sidman, M. (1960). Tactics of scientific research. Boston: Authors Cooperative.

[8] Whaley, D. L., & Malott, R. W. (1971). Elementary principles of behavior. Engle-Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

[9] Currently the Association of Behavior Analysis International-  http://www.abainternational.org/abai.aspx

[11] For an extended look see Rutherford, A. (2009). Beyond the box: B. F. skinner’s technology of behavior from laboratory to life, 1950s-1970s University of Toronto Press, Toronto, ON.

[12] Malott, M. E. (2012, May). Award for distinguished service to behavior analysis: Maria E. Malott , Ph. D. In M. J. Douger (Chair). Opening event and society for the advancement of behavior analysis awards. Award presentation presented at the 38th Annual conference of the Association for Behavior Analysis International. Seattle, WA.

[14]Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Columbus, OH:        Merrill-Prentice Hall.

[17] Harvey, M. T., Luiselli, J. K., & Wong, S. E. (2009). Application of applied behavior analysis to mental health issues.Psychological Services, 6(3), 212-222.

[18] Sturmey, P. (2009). Behavioral activation is an evidence-based treatment for depression. Behavior Modification, 33(6), 818-829.

[19] Axelrod, S., McElrath, K. K., & Wine, B. (2012). Applied behavior analysis: Autism and beyond. Behavioral Interventions, 27(1), 1-15.

[21] Forthman, D. L., & Ogden, J. J. (1992). The role of applied behavior analysis in zoo management: Today and tomorrow.Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25(3), 647-652.

[22] Journal of Organizational Behavior Management

[23]  Van Houten, R., Hilton, B., Schulman, R., & Reagan, I. (2011). Using accelerator pedal force to increase seat belt use of service vehicle drivers. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44(1), 41-49.

[24] Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 41 (4), 2008.  Special Issue on Drug Addition

[25] See research journals like Education and Treatment of Children

[26]Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviorism Alfred A. Knopf, Oxford.

[27] Chiesa, M. (1994). Radical behaviorism: the philosophy and the science. Boston: Authors Cooperative.

[28] Moore, J. (2008). Conceptual foundations of radical behaviorism. Cornwall-on-Hudson,NY: Sloan.

[29] Hitchens, C. (2012). Mortality. Twelve. New York, NY.

[30] Ibid. page, 41.

[31] Skinner, B.F. (1969). Contingencies of reinforcement: A theoretical analysis.  New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts

[32] National Autism Center (2009). National Standards Report. Retrieved from http://www.nationalautismcenter.org/nsp/reports.php

[33] Chomsky, N. (1959). Review of Skinner’s verbal behavior. Language, 35, 26–58.

[34] Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. Acton, MA: Copley Publishing Group.

[35] Palmer, D. C. (2006). On chomsky’s appraisal of skinner’s verbal behavior: A half century of misunderstanding. The Behavior Analyst, 29(2), 253-267

[36] Chomsky, N. (2000). New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge University Press. New York, NY.

[37] Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 84 (3), 2005. Special Issue on Neuroscience

[38] Ibid.

[39]   Forthman, D. L., & Ogden, J. J. (1992). The role of applied behavior analysis in zoo management: Today and tomorrow.Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25(3), 647-652.

Probability and Conspiracy: NSA Surveillance as an Exemplar

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The recent revelations regarding the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance program[i] provide a wonderful example of the improbability of conspiracy theories.  Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines a conspiracy theory as “a theory that explains an event or situation as a result of a secret plan by usually power people or groups”[ii]. Now colloquially the notion of conspiracy theories is typically one that is so well guarded it will never be brought to light. It is not surprising that some people will look at the NSA surveillance program as proof of these other conspiracy theories. After all, powerful people engaged in a secret act. Unfortunately for anyone with this inclination, the NSA program is not equivalent to, for example, the John F. Kennedy murder conspiracy theory[iii]; the moon landing conspiracy theory[iv]; or the 9/11 conspiracy theory[v]. In fact, it is the disclosure of the secret surveillance program by a person in-the-know – and repeated other disclosures after this first occurrence – that makes the NSA conspiracy different from other conspiracy theories.

All conspiracy theories involve the presentation of some information as proof of an assertion. In the case of the NSA “conspiracy” it was revealed that the NSA has access to cell phone call histories, therefore the NSA must be looking into personal information of those phone callers. At first this was denied by officials, but was later admitted. Cleverly finding humor in this process on December 9th the Daily Show with Jon Stewart presented a segment on the NSA surveillance program entitled “That thing they said they’re not doing? They’re totally doing.” And here in lies the difference between the NSA “conspiracy theory” and typical conspiracy theories (such as, the 9/11 conspiracy): the NSA program was found out. Secrets were shared and those secrets confirmed. The last part of this process is the most important part. Without it all you have is hearsay. Collaborated hearsay becomes probable truth.

Probability is at the heart of skeptical thinking in everyday life. Occam’s razor[vi] is a principle of parsimony that state (essentially) that- the simplest explanation is the best. By simple I mean the one involving the fewest unverified assumptions or assertions. When the NSA program’s spying was disclosed and verified, the assertion became a probable truth.  This differs greatly from the 9/11 unverified assertions that 9/11 was an “inside job”. For the 9/11 conspiracy the “inside job” claim is the more improbable answer than that provided by government official and others of authority (whom have provided evidence to answer such claims).

One reason that other conspiracy theories are improbable is that there should be people or information that can corroborate claims of conspiracy made. Conspiracy theories that are disclosed and verified by independent (for example, new organizations) or involved persons (people involved in the secret act) because news and history, not conspiracy theories. In addition, withholding secrets can take on a “weight” on the person keeping said secret to the extent that it affects his or her judgment of the world[vii]. This burden can be lifted by disclosing the secret. Secret sharing may also have benefits to the individual in dealing with the secrets he or she carries[viii]. Considering these facts the probability that no one is sharing a secret of the actions of a clandestine group – particularly as the number of persons in this cabal increases and time passes – seems less and less likely.

Now a skeptical conspiracy theorist may say that a lack of evidence is no proof that a conspiracy has not taken place. However this has a couple problems. First, a rational skeptic is not convinced of the truth of every fact or any for that matter. In life many things cannot be known absolutely, but many things may be known probabilistically. In the same way, when the first claims regarding the NSA conspiracy were reported the most rational position was doubt, as no corroboration had occurred. With only this data the conspiracy was improbable, even though it was true. It was only after these assertions had been verified that the probable position was to belief in the conspiracy. Second, not only is making decisions in life based on a lack verifiable data an improbable position, it is a terrible way to maneuver the world. What if one was to pull into an intersection with his or her car based on a person’s information that the road was clear, when the driver could not see at all for him or herself. Driving decisions of this kind would most likely skyrocket accidents across every country on the globe. Making decisions without verifying any information is erratic at best and dangerous at worst.

To close, the NSA surveillance program is not proof of conspiracy theories, it is proof against them. In analyzing any claim the probability should be considered over any hearsay or subjective experiences. Only when claims are verified do they become probable, as well as our opinions.

Nicholas S.


[i] Risen, J. & Poitras, L. (2013, September 28). N.S.A. gathers data on social connections of U.S. citizens. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com

[iii] Reitzes, D. (2013). JFK conspiracy theories at 50: How the skeptics got it wrong and why it matters. Skeptic, 18, 36-51.

[iv] Dowd, W. (2013). A case study in confirmation bias: A review of the film Room 237. Skeptic, 18, 61-62.

[v] Mole, P. (2006). 9/11 conspiracy theories: The 9/11 truth movement in perspective. Skeptic, 12, 30-42.

[vii] Slepian, M.L., Masicampo, E.J., & Ambady, N. (2013, August 5). Relieving the burdens of secrecy: Revealing secrets influences judgments of hill slant and distance. Social Psychological  & Personality Science, Retrieved at http://spp.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/08/02/1948550613498516

[viii] Kelly, A.E., Klusas, J.A., von Weiss, R.T., & Kenny, C. (2001).What is it about revealing secrets that is beneficial? Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 651-665.

The Beginning of an Inquiry

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In this modern age many perspectives are provided daily on a rang of different topics, so why is mine valuable? The answer to this question is my history. I have been trained as a skeptic at both undergraduate and graduate levels of education. Though my specific focus has shifted over time, rational skepticism has been the constant. I have nothing to offer beyond this – my constant love and quest for truth in our world.

What his means is I know I have been, continue to be, and will be wrong. Not always, but repeatedly. This does not taint my opinions of the purity of my intent. It simply makes me human. I pledge not to be constantly correct, but to be constantly open to being wrong and learning what is right as a result. I hope you will not begrudge me this fact.

Nicholas S.- The Skeptical Advisor

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