Friday, June 21, 2013

Republican Denial of Reality?

I would like to make my point from a few days ago (can you be smart and a Republican at the same time) even stronger, so I present you with a few more interesting bits of information I stumbled upon on the Web.

1. An article from Slate, by Phil Plate: Why is Our Government Attacking Science?
2. Again, from Slate: Mandating Scientific Discovery Never Works, by Lawrence Krauss.

Both authors are great scientist (see Plait's "Death from the Skies!: The Science Behind the End of the World" and Krauss' "A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing"), and both of them understand how science works extremely well. On the other hand the Republicans in the government seem to only accept science that is convenient for them, either politically, or ideologically. And that, of course, will take us back to the times where science, "reason" and philosophy were in the service of the rulers. We still call those times "The Dark Ages", and for a very good reason.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Do You Believe In Magic?

You do, if you use homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, Reiki, some kind of faith healing, and countless other alternative medicine modalities that have absolutely no roots in modern science, reality and critical thinking. Most of them are just ways of "wishing away" the problem, and while some might "work" as a placebo, the might have some dangers associated with their use, and, when used instead of real medical interventions, all of them can be deadly (see here, here, and here).

So, why do we do it? Because we want miracles? Because we don't know any better? Because science is complex and, sometimes, difficult to understand? Probably, all of the above.

It is good to know that we can count on a few brave authors, who do the research, dig out the details and present it in a nice fashion, digestible by the regular folks like us. Among them is Paul Offit, a medical doctor, a researcher, and a strong proponent of reality-based medicine, including vaccines. His previous books, "Autism False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine and the Search For a Cure", and "Deadly Choices" were both excellent descriptions of the vaccine "controversy", how it started, evolved from bad science to social movement, and how it threatens our health and the well-being (and lives) of our children. Knowing his great writing style and deep commitment to science and research, I was very excited to find out that his new book "Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine" is out. I should have more of my own thoughts about it in a few days (or weeks, it's summer after all), but in the meantime, here are two reviews available on line:

Book raises alarms about alternative medicine - from USA Today, by Liz Szabo
Vaccine advocate takes on the alternative medicine industry - NBC News

There is also more on the topic from Liz Szabo: Alternative therapies, supplements can cause side effects and How to guard against a quack

Go, read it all, and stop believing in magic. It's the 21st Century!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Are "Smart" and "Republican" Mutually Exclusive Terms?

Following my fascination with cognitive dissonance and how it can obstruct one's clear view of reality and reason, I give you the real world example.

First, an article from the Tampa Bay Times, from a few years back (I remember reading it in real print):

Why scientists are seldom Republicans
Have you ever wondered what the world would be like without scientists? Ask the Republican Party. It lives in such a world. Republicans have been so successful in driving out of their party anyone who endeavors in scientific inquiry that pretty soon there won't be anyone left who can distinguish a periodic table from a kitchen table.
This was a brilliant article and it's funny, how the Republicans finally noticed the same thing, after the last elections, and decided to stop being a "stupid party"... except I don't think they are actually trying at all.

Not only, the narrative from them did not change, but it seems it is getting worse. From climate change and creationism, to gun control and human rights, they are still deep in the 19th Century, and they seem to be more and more proud of it. Case in point:

Where do we go from here??? Only a complete negation of reality can follow... and it's a scary, scary vision.

Friday, June 7, 2013

On Cognitive Dissonance, or How We Reinforce Our Beliefs

We all go through life with a set of solid, well established beliefs. We acquire some of them from our parents, other ones in a process of our education, and some we seek out on our own, settling into something comfortable and familiar that drives our everyday lives.

This process of establishing one's identity is interesting, but what is even more captivating, from my point of view, is how we hold on to those beliefs throughout our lives. After all, we get most of them in our formative years, when we are young and easily influenced. However, we manage to hold on to many of them for the rest of our lives, even when they don't make sense, even when facts and everyday experiences tell us there are absolutely no reasons behind them.

This ranges from deeply "spiritual" beliefs, to those that might affect our health (e.g. alternative medicine vs. science-based medicine), to something as mundane as superstitions (knock on wood anyone?). I've been always fascinated with how this works... people, who are seemingly very rational, who pride themselves in conducting their daily lives based only on rational, methodical decisions, who spend better part of their education in science, can completely disregard reason and logical thinking when it comes to some beliefs, which seem to be completely immune from any criticism and skepticism. How many rational people would use oscillococcinum, or echinacea for cold, even though there is no clinical evidence that they work. Why do we ridicule homeopathy, but think that some other alternative medicine modality will help? Why do we laugh at beliefs from other parts of the world, but get offended when someone does the same to our own convictions?

Of course, in psychology, this is not a new question. A theory of cognitive dissonance has been around since 1957, and it states:
The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.[1] It is the distressing mental state that people feel when they "find themselves doing things that don't fit with what they know, or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions they hold."[4] A key assumption is that people want their expectations to meet reality, creating a sense of equilibrium.[5] Likewise, another assumption is that a person will avoid situations or information sources that give rise to feelings of uneasiness, or dissonance.
Even better source of popular information about this fascinating topic is a book by Caroll Tavris and Elliot Aronson: "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts".

It is easy, in line with the theory of cognitive dissonance, to point mistakes in others, to see their foolishness and stupidity, but much harder to do the same to ourselves. As great physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Richard Feynman once said:
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool."
But the first step of not fooling yourself is the knowledge of the principles and psychological mechanisms of such processes. Questioning every belief, and every idea, seemingly set in stone, is the only way to weed out the nonsense and superstition.