Reddit/r/science is a wonderful internet location for sorting through the latest fascinating findings from science. For those of you who are unfamiliar with how Reddit works, basically users submit “stuff” that falls in to certain categories (and there are hundreds if not thousands of categories from which to choose) and other users “upvote” or “downvote” that stuff. Upvotes rise to the top of the lists, downvotes sink to the bottom.
On r/science, users submit, as you likely guessed, science-related stuff, often from academic journals.
Yesterday an article was posted regarding a very large discovery of Old Stone Age (Middle Paleolithic) tools at a site in South Africa. The post linked to a website called Sci-News and the headline said, “1-Million-Year-Old Artifacts Found in South Africa.” The article made the front page of r/science and generated quite a large number of upvotes. The comments and actions that followed provided a very interesting illustration of the power of review.
The lead comment from Reddit users under that original link was, “Misleading Title: Artifacts found at 1,000,000 year old archaeological site.” A criticism. Why? Because the original paper published in PLOS spent very little time talking about the age of the artifacts. And frankly, even as the top comment suggested, it didn’t spend a lot of time on the age of the archaeological site either. It turns out that finding a 1,000,000 year old artifact in this part of South Africa is fairly unremarkable in archaeology circles.
What the paper actually was highlighting was the sheer volume of artifacts found, not dozens but tens of thousands, as well as the fact that the site is in danger of being further destroyed by encroaching real estate development.
With that backdrop, what happened next is truly fascinating. The lead author of the paper, PhD candidate Steven Walker, found out that the story had been linked to Reddit, so he actually got online and placed this comment under the top comment:
Lead author of the published paper here.
The site described in this blog post is Kathu Townlands. They are describing research we published in PLOS one here
The dating of the site is based on a variety of indicators. The artefacts at the site were made sometime between 1,000,000 and 700,000 years ago (see our article for our reasoning).
I’ll happily answer any questions at this post over here:
Please see the following news article for a much better description of our findings
He actually spent some time answering reader questions about his research! And the headline from the “popular” science article in IOL Scitech that the Mr. Walker pointed to was, “Ancient treasure chest under threat.” This is a much more accurate yet still attention-grabbing headline.
And for the purists out there who would rather read the original paper, this is what Reddit looks like today. Notice what’s nestled just below the original post. Here’s to the power of review and getting to the most accurate representation of the truth.
If ever there was a logical fallacy which seemed to epitomize intellectual dishonesty, it is this one: slothful induction. Slothful induction is the fallacy whereby an inductive argument is denied its proper conclusion, despite strong evidence for inference. If that still doesn’t quite make sense, let me explain in greater detail.
First, what is an inductive argument? Simply stated, an inductive argument is one made from the available facts. In other words, like a detective at a crime scene gathering clues about the crime, an inductive argument builds to a conclusion by piecing together the details that support it. It’s the “most likely” outcome – or inference – based on what has been observed, tested, collected, etc.
Now back to slothful induction. With this fallacy, one either willfully or through ignorance, refuses to accept what is most likely true in spite o the evidence presented. It is an interesting naming convention in that this logical fallacy gives the benefit of the doubt to the denier; which is to say that the denier is simply being “slothful” or lazy.
However, more often than not, the denier committing this fallacy is not lazy, but rather simply does not like the direction the evidence is heading. She chooses to ignore it. I sometimes call this the “sticking ones head in the sand” defense or to use more colorful language, the “keeping ones head up ones ass” defense.
A very good essay discussing the slothful induction fallacy can be found at The Illogic Primer. Within that essay, there is a key phrase that caught my attention,
“Usually it (slothful induction) is a red flag that someone is not principally interested in the truth of a matter. And, because inductive arguments are at best probabilistic, not definitive, someone can always hold out against the preponderance of evidence.”
So if you find yourself in a debate where the evidence you are presenting is being ignored, what is your recourse? You have very little to be honest. You are in a debate with an individual who does not value evidence and reason, therefore you will not be able to use evidence and reason to influence the argument.
In the words of the great philosopher/poet Kenny Rogers, you have know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run. When faced with slothful induction, it’s best to walk away (or run).
These are the wise words of my best friend and most trusted advisor, my wife. What would prompt such terse yet directed advice you may ask? Well, quite frankly she was most likely tired of listening to me moan and complain about how our wonderful community seemed to be exhibiting an increase in scientific illiteracy, historical illiteracy…dare I say, just plain old illiteracy?
And as much as I had tried to “manage” my frustration at this observation by, for example, removing myself from my acquaintance’s and even some of my friend’s Facebook feeds (the ones who consistently regurgitate misquotes or untruths), and by avoiding news outlets with known ideological biases, I still couldn’t seem to avoid it.
I would drive down our bucolic roadways and marvel at the number of Paul (evolution is lies straight from the pit of hell) Broun signs that kept popping up like big ugly scientifically stunted mushrooms and I would just complain. I would read a letter to the editor of the Marietta Daily Journal taking issue with the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming and fume at the writer’s abject incomprehension of the scientific method, and again, I would just complain. And so it went.
So how does one who enjoys writing and debating go about doing “something about it?” One does not simply show up at the various editors’ desks of large national magazines and demand their work be published. One does not email blast the producers of international news shows and expect to be invited on as guests for spirited discussions. Alas, one has to do a little bit of work first.
For me that bit of work involves conversations (written and spoken) which champion the cause of “reason.” So honey, here it is. A salvo in the battle to make our neighborhood, our state, and our country a more reasonable, rational place. Thanks for the push!
Some of the most bizarre and impassioned discussions I have with people do not involve politics (directly) or even religion. No, it seems that people are more than happy to come completely unglued when discussing…wait for it…global warming.
Yes, global warming, that enormously elaborate, perfectly executed global hoax perpetuated over the course of several decades by the vast majority of physicists, chemists, astronomers, geologists, biologists and so on who study climate with the sole purpose of getting rich off of grant money (irrespective of their academic credentials, affiliations, organizations or national origins).
Well, either that or global warming is real.
But at any rate, the willingness of people to squeeze their eyes shut and close their ears remains astonishing.
Case in point. In a twitter argument I was in some time ago, a global warming denier accused me of asserting the reality of global warming without providing any evidence to support my assertion; to which I responded that I have the overwhelming consensus of the entire scientific community on my side. I added that on their “side” they have Fox News, right wing talk radio and blogs, Glenn Beck, and in fairness, a very small handful of scientific contrarians largely ignored by their colleagues at this point. But no real science. Nothing in a peer-reviewed journal of note. None. Zilch. Zip. Nada.
Losing patience with this particular climate contrarian’s willful ignorance, I asked him to name a single scientific body of national or international standing that does not endorse the consensus on anthropogenic global warming. He gave me the Fraser Institute, Slovakia’s past president Vaclav Klaus, and something called Weather Canada. What? Did I misspell “scientific body of national or international standing?” This type of false equivalence is endemic with climate change deniers. They do not understand what makes for a statement of credible science and for the life of me I can’t figure out why they don’t get it.
Clearly some people simply have no idea what constitutes a national or international scientific body, so allow me a few words to document my position more succinctly and hopefully in so doing, elucidate the term “scientific consensus” should any poor soul need to reference this page in the future:
I understand climate change is real not because I’m a climate scientist, but because I trust climate scientists and more specifically, I trust the scientific method to ferret out the invalid and leave the valid.
With that, let’s start with general science, physics, and chemistry:
American Association for the Advancement of Science: “The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society….The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years.”
American Geophysical Union: “The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. Many components of the climate system—including the temperatures of the atmosphere, land and ocean, the extent of sea ice and mountain glaciers, the sea level, the distribution of precipitation, and the length of seasons—are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century.”
American Chemical Society: “Careful and comprehensive scientific assessments have clearly demonstrated that the Earth’s climate system is changing rapidly in response to growing atmospheric burdens of greenhouse gases and absorbing aerosol particles.”
American Institute of Physics: “The Governing Board of the American Institute of Physics has endorsed a position statement on climate change adopted by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Council:”
American science not good enough? What about scientific organizations in Europe?
The European Physical Society: “The emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, among which carbon dioxide is the main contributor, has amplified the natural greenhouse effect and led to global warming.
European Science Foundation: There is now convincing evidence that since the industrial revolution, human activities, resulting in increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases have become a major agent of climate change.”
Still not good enough? Let’s add a third continent then shall we?
Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies: “Global climate change is real and measurable. Since the start of the 20th century, the global mean surface temperature of the Earth has increased by more than 0.7°C and the rate of warming has been largest in the last 30 years.”
How about the people who in 2011, launched a 1-ton mobile laboratory on a 352 million mile journey and then landed it flawlessly with pin-point accuracy via a jet-propelled sky crane? You may know them as:
NASA: “The industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane to higher levels than at any point during the last 650,000 years. Scientists agree it is very likely that most of the global average warming since the mid-20th century is due to the human-induced increases in greenhouse gases, rather than to natural causes.”
How about meteorologists and oceanographers?
American Meteorological Society: “Human activities have become a major source of environmental change. Of great urgency are the climate consequences of the increasing atmospheric abundance of greenhouse gases.”
Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society: “Global climate change and global warming are real and observable … It is highly likely that those human activities that have increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have been largely responsible for the observed warming since 1950.”
And finally, what about our friends in paleoclimatology?
American Quaternary Association: “Few credible Scientists now doubt that humans have influenced the documented rise of global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution,” citing “the growing body of evidence that warming of the atmosphere, especially over the past 50 years, is directly impacted by human activity.”
Each of these organizations are comprised of hundreds if not thousands of experts in their respective fields; men and women who have spent decades refining their expertise through constant study, experimentation, peer-scrutiny, and analysis. These are people who publish their findings as often as practicable, just so that their counterparts can tear it down if at all possible. These are scientists.
That is what we mean when we say the scientific consensus is clear.
This is story about books and covers, and more directly, not judging the former by the latter. It’s also a story about the failure of our education system to properly equip its graduates with a rudimentary grasp of world literature. But hey, that failure sometimes leads to some decent, dare I say divine, comedy.
My daughter used to cheer for one of the premier clubs in the United States. For those of you not in the know, the cheer industry has boomed in to a money making juggernaut of a sport where you’re only as good as your latest round-off, back handspring, back layout, back tuck. To execute these spectacular moves and lifts takes hours and hours of practice week in and week out. This work happens at cheer gyms across the country. The kids practice, practice, and practice while the parents wait, wait, and wait.
My daughter’s gym mercifully has two waiting areas. The main waiting area overlooks the gym floor and is full of mostly moms, crowded up to the observation glass gasping, applauding, and bragging. This is a dimly lit, high chatter area and the gym owners recognize that sometimes, non-cheer brothers and sisters need to find a spot to do homework while cheer siblings do their thing. So they have a second waiting area: the smaller, brighter, quiet room. This particular night, I wanted to catch up on some reading so I found a nice spot in the quiet room away from the buzz of the main waiting area.
Alas, quiet was not to be found this particular evening. Two moms took up seats across from me and launched in to a very “non-quiet room” conversation. I thought, “do I subtly remind them that this is the quiet room and that they should please kindly shut the f*ck up, or do I just let the conversation play out in hopes that enough evil exasperated glances might send them the appropriate hint?” I opted for the latter approach and was entertained for my trouble.
The two started off casually enough, talking mostly about their high-school aged girls and how each was progressing in cheer. When that vein began to grow languid, they moved the conversation to comparisons of each daughter’s school experiences. From this, I was able to pick up that one of the moms was a high school teacher. At this point their conversation got very interesting. The teacher mom was confiding in her new friend that she had found herself confounded if not downright alarmed, by her daughter’s recent high school literature reading assignment.
Teacher mom said that her daughter was assigned a book that under initial inspection, was very likely satanic. “Satanic?” What started as unavoidable and annoyed eavesdropping on my part, turned quickly to heightened anticipation. I thought, “had a brave high school literature teacher assigned Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ perhaps? Or maybe this was one of those One Million Moms types; the kind who believed in her heart of hearts that reading ‘Harry Potter’ was tantamount to devil worship.”
The other mother was legitimately aghast at the very thought of the poor child being forced to read satanic literature.
Teacher mom continued, now with the gravest of tones. She described how her daughter had, almost casually, shared with her how the book went in to very precise detail on the construction of hell. It described in very colorful language, the punishments for certain types of sins. It mapped different sins to different layers of hell; each with its own flavor of eternal torment. It even described the nature of the devil himself!
Mom two was apoplectic. I quote her here not to cast dispersions on her educational level, but to leave you with a hint that she may have been in over her head. “You can’t be teaching no devil worship in school!” By now, I was a very active spectator of their conversation; as each had begun to look at me, expecting if not my verbal approval of their outrage, then certainly some serious eyebrow raising and complicit head nodding. I didn’t disappoint. But while my facial expressions surely conveyed disbelief, it was not the book that had me mortified.
Teacher mom had now grown almost forlorn at her impotence to stop the assignment. It seemed every student had been assigned the book and to teacher mom’s dismay, no other parent had raised the alarm; did no one else care? Was there to be no pitchfork attack of the school? The God-fearing parents among them would be left to exorcise their angelic children from any schoolwork-induced demons at some point after the grade was settled.
At this point in the conversation I was barely able to conceal my shock-cum-laughter, and quite frankly, could no longer tolerate the ignorance of literature so painfully on display in the quiet room. I now butted in with a superhero sound track playing in my mind (maybe Mighty Mouse). Here I come to save the day!
Composure now. No laughing…ahem.
“Do you happen to know the author?” I managed to inquire with an actor’s stoic concern.
They both looked at me hopefully, I’m sure thinking, “ah-ha, he’s now engaged. We finally have rallied another concerned parent. Perhaps now we can build the momentum behind our noble, soul-saving, cause. Pitchforks at the ready! Let us rid the public school system of this evil volume!”
Teacher mom said, “I think the name begins with a ‘D’.”
I questioned gently, knowing the answer already, “Hmmm, does ‘Dante’ sound familiar?”
Light bulb. “Yes! That’s it!” She exclaimed, obviously excited that I was already aware of this satanic text.
Slowly, methodically, I began to unwind their outrage.
“Ok, well, your daughter is reading what we would call ‘a classic’ of world literature.”
I paused to let that sink in just a moment and then continued, “Dante’s Inferno is one of three parts of his 14th century epic poem called Divine Comedy.”
I now picked up some steam. “In Inferno, Dante describes his vision of hell based roughly on his knowledge and interpretation of Christian theology at the time. It was a theology common in Dante’s Italy, but beyond the beauty and imagery of the poem itself, Dante’s work is an allegory of the soul’s journey to God. It’s a masterpiece and is considered a cornerstone of Western literature. I should also add that I too read it in high school, and then again in college, and if you didn’t have the good fortune to have been assigned it in school, now would be a great time for both you to read it as well.”
They looked at me like I was speaking Italian.
I clarified. “It’s OK. The book is old, famous, and definitely not satanic.”
They gave me a somewhat patronizing, “oh…ok then,” and changed the subject.
I’m happy to report that the last time I checked the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged classics, Dante’s Inferno was not on the list.
de omnibus dubitandum
That is my motto, which translates to English as “everything must be doubted!” If was going to get a tattoo, this would be on my short list (along with either a soccer ball or something from Lord of the Rings…which may help explain why I don’t get tattoos.)
Dr. Shermer’s essay in today’s Huffington Post, What Is Skepticism, Anyway?, speaks to what it means to doubt everything, to wear the proud badge of skepticism – a badge I’ve been wearing since I first pondered how it was physically possible for one portly elf to deliver gifts to so many kids in a single night.
Skepticism is in my DNA (or is it?). In fact, and this happens frequently if the Long Island Medium is on TV, I often get the eye-rolling dismissal, “oh come on Dad, you’re such a skeptic.” Fiction has its place; but fiction masquerading as fact does not. And fiction masquerading as fact which then plays on the real emotions of people grieving for the sake of ratings, absolutely does not!
So how does being a skeptic turn in to an eye-rolling accusation? Shouldn’t we all aspire to be better skeptics? Yes we should. And Dr. Shermer’s piece helps dispel some of the misconceptions around what it means and what it doesn’t mean to be a skeptic. It’s not obstinate disagreement, it’s not blissful acceptance, it’s actually more like thoughtful analysis.
Dr. Shermer says,
“Skepticism is not “seek and ye shall find,” but “seek and keep an open mind.” But what does it mean to have an open mind? It is to find the essential balance between orthodoxy and heresy, between a total commitment to the status quo and the blind pursuit of new ideas, between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas and so open-minded that your brains fall out. Skepticism is about finding that balance. Here is a definition of skepticism:
Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims.
Skeptics question the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it. In other words, skeptics are from Missouri — the “Show Me” state. When we skeptics hear a fantastic claim, we say, “That’s interesting, show me the evidence for it.”
“That’s interesting, show me the evidence for it.” Those last six tiny little words are combustible! Show me the evidence for it. Why do we ask for it? Because we want to understand your claim, we want to learn for ourselves, we do not accept truth claims solely on authority, we eschew logical fallacies, and we demand intellectual honesty from ourselves so we expect it from others.
Dr. Shermer lists a series of “I believe” statements that shouldn’t be a surprise to any scientifically or historically literate person:
• I believe in the germ theory of disease.
• I believe that vaccines are good for societal health.
• I believe that fluoridated water reduces cavities.
• I believe in the germ theory of disease.
• I believe that vaccines are good for societal health.
• I believe that fluoridated water reduces cavities.
• I believe in the Big Bang theory of the universe.
• I believe that the theory of evolution best explains life.
• I believe that the theory of plate tectonics best explains the the continents.
• I believe that the periodic table of elements best explains chemistry.
• I believe that JFK was assassinated by a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald.
• I believe aliens are probably out there somewhere but that they have not visited Earth.
All of Dr. Shermer’s “I believe” statements can also be reworded as “I understand how” or “I understand why” statements. My piece of a few days ago, I believe in evolution because I understand why evolution is true, gets right to the heart of the distinction. For example, when someone says, “I believe in vaccinations,” they probably mean is, “I trust the medical community on the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing disease.” I agree that is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s more accurate.
On the other hand, when someone says, “I believe in ghosts,” they are asserting an unfalsifiable claim to knowledge they don’t have. They might actually believe in ghosts, but skeptics have no interest in the subject. Never, in the history of humanity, has the existence of a ghost, any ghost, been verified. (Sorry fellow Shakespeare fans, Hamlet doesn’t count as evidence.)
To further understand what it means to be a skeptic, I recommend reading Dr. Shermer’s book, “The Believing Brain” and I would add to your Amazon.com order, Carl Sagan’s “The Demon Haunted World.” Both of these books should be on every skeptic’s bookshelf (see my blog’s cover photo above if you still doubt me).
In fact, I would argue both of these books should be required reading for every high school student in America! Teenagers already mistrust what adults are telling them, so what a fantastic time to equip them with an even greater understanding of what their skeptical intuition is already telling them.
Everything must be doubted!