Tag Archives: Confirmation bias

Anti-fluoride 65 brain-fluoride studies not evidence against fluoridation

Activists like ant-fluoride and anti-vaccination propagandists are very selective about the studies they promote. But their bias often means they get even these ones wrong. FAN’s 65 brain-fluoride studies are an example of this. Image credit: Don’t let confirmation bias narrow your perspective

Anti-fluoride and anti-vaccination activists suffer from a common activist fallacy – they believe their own propaganda. They also have a network of “natural”/alternative health industry internet sites and magazines to disseminate these beliefs and propaganda. A glaring example is a smug article, The End of Fluoridation Is in Sight, published on the Mercola.com alternative health, anti-vaccination site.

The uninformed reader looking at these alternative health industry sources might be excused for thinking that community water fluoridation (CWF) is about to end. That the scientific evidence against it is damning. But, of course, those conclusions are wrong – the science supporting CWF remains strong and the few studies activists use to argue against CWF have big flaws.

Actually, the situation is even worse than that. The studies commonly cited by anti-fluoride activists actually support CWF when they are read properly. Activists are unaware of this because they rarely read the studies they cite – most don’t get past the title, let alone the abstract, and certainly don’t bother with the real content. And they never subject these studies to critical analysis.

The Fluoride Action Network (FAN) has collected  together all the studies they argue show CWF is bad for children’s brains in a single list – FLUORIDE & IQ: THE 65 STUDIES.I have completed a detailed analysis of all the 65 studies and my full analysis is available for download as the document Analysis of FAN’s 65 brain-fluoride studies.

In fact, none of these studies in FAN’s list provides any credible evidence that CWF is harmful to child IQ. On the contrary, these studies either assume or provide evidence that fluoride at the concentrations used for CWF is harmless.

I will summarise my findings of these studies in a series of upcoming articles as my health permits (I have just spent a couple of stressful weeks in hospital).

  1. Difference studies – a simple comparison of cognitive measures in people living in “low fluoride and “high fluoride” areas. Forty-six studies made in areas of endemic fluorosis – India, China, Mexico, Iran, and Sudan. All these studies implicitly assume no negative health effects at fluoride concentration relevant to CWF
  2. Three difference studies relevant to CWF where populations in non-fluoridated and fluoridated areas are compared. All these studies show no effect of CWF on child IQ.
  3. Studies which derive relationships of cognitive measurements with fluoride exposure in areas of endemic fluorosis. Six of these studies include enough data for testing if there is a statistically significant effect at concentrations relevant to CWF – there is no effect observed in all these cases.
  4. Three studies deriving relationships for cognitive measurements with fluoride exposure in low fluoride areas where concentrations are relevant to CWF. These controversial studies involve considerable statistical manipulations and activists cherry-pick a few statistically significant relationship but ignore the many more non-significant relationships.

Read my article Analysis of FAN’s 65 brain-fluoride studies if you want the detailed analysis. Otherwise, just follow my summaries in future posts.

Similar articles

When scientists get political: Lead fluoride-IQ researcher launches emotional attack on her scientific critics

age credit: Science and Politics – Skeptically.org

It seems impossible to keep politics out of science. It’s a pity because politics can end up forcing science to produce the results desired by politicians. When this happens the ideal aim of science – the pursuit of objective knowledge – can get lost.

We rightly disapprove of external political and commercial influences on science. But there is another insidious form of politics derived from ego, personal ambition and the promotion of research by institutes and individual researchers. This is very often driven by the competition for research funding – the loudest researcher gets the grant. These days this is a real problem – the classical introverted scientist, no matter how bright, is often at a complete disadvantage when it comes to the fight over research funding.

In my own career, I have seen excellent researchers driven to redundancy simply because they did not have the political skills to fight for research funds. And at the same time, I have seen mediocre scientists, often producing poor quality or even misleading science, get those funds – simply because of their ambition and political skills.

These thoughts came flooding back to me as I read the new opinion piece by Christine Till, the leader of the research group that published several of the recent fluoride-IQ/ADHD and similar papers that I have critiqued here. Papers that have been heavily promoted by the authors and Till’s institute as well as the anti-fluoride/anti-vaccination crowd and, at the same time, extensively critiqued by the scientific community.

The citation  for her article is:

Till, C., & Green, R. (2020). Controversy: The evolving science of fluoride: when new evidence doesn’t conform with existing beliefs. Pediatric Research.

Unfortunately, the article is not a reply to critics or a good faith scientific engagement with the scientific issues. It is simply an attack on those who have made honest and respectful critiques. An attack which attributes unjust motives to her critics and comes close to personal.

Attempt to close down science by personal attacks

I discussed some of these issues before in my articles Scientific integrity requires critical investigation – not blind acceptance and Fluoridation science and political advocacy – who is fooling who?

In this case, I was concerned about the way  Dr William Ghali, one of the promoters of  Christine Till’s work, attacked and attempted to belittle scientific colleagues who were indulging in the normal peer-review process of critiquing published papers which they considered had faults. Nothing new about that scientific critique – it goes on all the time. It is expected by authors and, in the end, it helps to improve the science. I Personally think such critique should be welcomed by researchers.

If the opponents of scientific exchange like Dr Ghali are successful in their attempt to prevent such scientific debate then we are all losers. How can we trust scientific findings that are protected from scrutiny?

This is what is wrong with the opinion piece by Till and Green cited above. Instead of entering into a good-faith scientific exchange with their critics they attribute motives and biases to them. Even accusing them of attempting to prevent the progress of science. They accuse critics of a “tendency to ignore new evidence,” of  “overt cognitive bias” and of promoting  a “polarized fluoride debate.”

But, in fact, these critiques have come because the “new evidence” is not being ignored but is being evaluated. It is being critically considered. The article more or less admits this when it says “critics attacked the methodology of the study [Green et al (2019] and discounted the significance of the results.

True, the so-called “fluoride debate” is polarised. After all, it is being promoted by anti-fluoride/anti-vaccination activists who are attempting to prevent or remove, a health policy known to benefit children. Till & Green may be unhappy that they have not been able to win over the scientific community with their paper but it is hardly honest to reject the critiques of the paper by calling them “attacks” or by claiming they “ignore” the evidence.

An admission the paper had difficulties

The article admits the  Green et al (2019) paper had difficulties right from the beginning. It took three attempts before a journal would accept it for consideration. Even then it ended up having “several additional rounds of review by the JAMA editors until we eventually reached a compromise.” This gives some substance to my speculation of problems in the review process which lead to the unprecedented publication of an editor’s note – a political action  I have never seen before (see If at first you don’t succeed . . . statistical manipulation might help).

They acknowledge that even their colleagues in environmental epidemiology “were initially sceptical.” And so they should have been – all new research should be reviewed sceptically and critically.

Refusing to engage scientifically

But the annoying thing is that these authors attempt to write off the scepticism and critical review of the wider scientific community as being due to “experts” (yes in quotes), “who held strong beliefs . .” This despite the fact that in the published critiques it is not “strong beliefs” which were presented, but detailed consideration of the methodology and statistical analyses used in the original paper.

All these critiques were made respectfully – and often with thanks to the Green et al (2019) for their new work. Yet Till and Green accuse these reviewers of making “vitriolic comments and claims with little scientific basis” – a comment which is, in itself, disrespectful to those who took time to make their critiques. They resort to smearing two of the reviews (by the UK-based Science Media Centre and Dr Berezow, a specialist from the American Council on Science and Health) by accusations these bodies are “both heavily funded by the pharmaceutical and food and beverage industries.” This funding smear is commonly used by anti-science activists who attempt to discredit scientific findings or analysis but refuse to consider the science itself.

They say of these two reviews that they claim “the results are driven by outliers” – yet a simple search shows that this comment simply does not appear in the cited reviews.  The critique of Dr Berezow from the American Council on Science and Health does not include either of the words “outlier” or “driven.”

The only reference to “outliers” in the Science Media Centre review was by Dr Oliver Jones, Associate Professor of Analytical Chemistry, RMIT University who wrote:

“The authors state that an increase of 1 milligram per liter (1 mg/L) increase in fluoride was associated with a 4.49 point lower IQ score but fluoride intake appears to have been below 1 mg/L for most people in the study, even for those with fluoridated water, and nearly everyone (bar a few outliers) had a fluoride intake of less than 2 mg/L (which multiple previous studies have shown is safe) . There is also a Lot of variation in the data – which makes drawing firm conclusions/ predictions from it difficult.”

A valid criticism which needed a response – not a smear.

My search for the word “driven” produced these two comments:

Dr Joy Leahy, Statistical Ambassador, Royal Statistical Society, wrote:

“if a woman is living in an area with fluoridated water during pregnancy, then her child is likely to grow up drinking this same fluoridated water. Therefore, it is difficult to say whether any association found is driven by the fluoride consumption in pregnancy, or an assumed fluoride consumption in the infant after birth.”

Prof Rick Cooper, Professor of Cognitive Science, Birkbeck, University of London, said:

“a significant decrease in IQ was found only in boys – girls showed a non-significant increase in IQ. The negative effect was driven by a small number of boys whose mothers had extreme levels of fluoride exposure, but even these children had IQ in the normal range.”

These are valid points that again deserve a scientific response yet Till & Green describe them as “vacuous claims exemplify attempts to manipulate the scientific evidence and manufacture doubt.”

We all support using new knowledge to adjust policies

Till & Green attempt to claim the high moral ground by asserting:

“Science advances by continuously challenging old ideas and adjusting our beliefs as new knowledge emerges, even if this new evidence conflicts with conventional wisdom or is inconvenient.”

Of course, this is true and I think it is dishonest of them to pretend this is not also the position of those who critiqued their paper. These reviewers were interested in looking at the new results, evaluating them and seeing how relevant they are. Seeing if they do indeed require us to adopt new thinking.

After all, look at what Dr Berozow, one of the critics they smeared by implying he was influenced by industry funding  and was falling back on “vitriolic comments” and “vacuous claim”, says in introducing his critique:

“The investigation by Green et al into the effect of maternal consumption of fluoride on the IQ of children is important. It is always wise to constantly evaluate and reevaluate long-standing public health practices in the light of new evidence.”

Till & Green are simply resorting to attributing motive and asserting their critics are not open to new knowledge as a way of avoiding facing up to the valid criticisms made by experts who reviewed and critiqued their work.

Confirmation bias – the pot calls the kettle black

We all suffer from confirmation bias and scientists (including Till & Green) are not immune. It is well understood that scientists are the last people to recognise problems in their own work. That is why peer review and open critique of scientific reports is so essential. But, in line with the whole approach of this opinion piece, Till & Green attempt to present a picture that only their critics suffer from this problem. They say:

“We typically fret about subtle biases, like recall bias and unmeasured confounding, but confirmation bias, the tendency to ignore or debunk data that does not conform to what we believe, is arguably a much larger problem.”

I find their attempt to belittle concerns about “unmeasured confounding” rather ironic. After all, this was the problem with Till’s original fluoride-ADHD work (which she used to win research grants for her later fluoride research) that I highlighted in Perrott (2018) Fluoridation and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – a critique of Malin and Till (2015).

I am aware that Till has read my paper in its pre-publication and published forms but studiously ignores it. For example, the ADHD paper of Riddell et al (2109), which she co-authored, simply does not include Perrott (2018) in its discussion and continues to present Malin & Till (2105) as authoritative despite the obvious flaw that it ignored important confounders, and when these are considered their claim of a relationship between fluoridation and ADHD prevalence proved to be false.

So much for her attribution of confirmation bias to others – when she is obviously guilty of it in this case by ignoring “data that does not conform, to what [she] believes.”

The Till & Green opinion piece is unwise

Till & Green seem to have simply reacted emotionally to the reviews and critiques the Green et al (2019) paper received. They, of course, had the right – even the obligation – to respond scientifically to the reviews. But I believe their response in this article is unwise, maybe even professionally damaging,  and they should not have committed these emotional outbursts to print. After a cooling down period, it is possible they will withdraw the article – and that would be best for them in the end.

Similar articles

So you are saying . . . . . !

Another case of Jordan Peterson setting a great example for us.

The video demonstrates a classic example of how people cannot see what is in front of them, or hear what is said because their brain (and their prejudices) gets in the way. This happens again and again in the above interview and each time Peterson stands his ground.

Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip and the author of several nonfiction works of satire, commentary, and business, explains below what is happening – and how it is a common human problem.

This filtering through the prejudices of commenters and commentators is a major cause of misrepresentation in the media. That is why I prefer to go to the original sources, hear what the person has to say, and not simply accept what is being said about them.

Mind you, there is still a problem in communicating my conclusions to anyone else who has their own biases to confirm.

Why is communication so difficult?

Confirmation bias – we all suffer from it but how can we reduce its effect?

Confirmation bias – we all suffer from it. It’s just part of being human. Sure, we are capable of rational thought but it is often overridden by our emotional messages. And even in the best situations, our attempt at rational thought is inevitably contaminated by our emotions.

This video from Above the Noise • PBS explains what is going on in a popular way. Even resorts to brain scans.

Word of warning, though. It inevitably suffers from its own confirmation bias. Right up front, it produces a graph comparing Facebook clicks on “fake news” articles compared with clicks on “mainstream news” articles!! As if that is a proper analysis.

We all know mainstream media regularly publishes fake news. What they are probably comparing is Facebook clicks for mainstream media articles compared with alternative media articles. That is just not an intelligent differentiation when talking about “fake news.”

So take the video with a grain of salt.  Look at it critically and intelligently.

In fact, probably the best way of avoiding, or at least reducing confirmation bias is to approach all information, from whatever source, critically and intelligently. To think for oneself. Avoid group thinking and official interpretations.

Stovepiping to produce fake news

Image credit: THOSE ’17 INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES’ CITED BY HILLARY CLINTON ABOUT TRUMP AND RUSSIA TURNED OUT TO BE FAKE NEWS

I have discovered a new word – “stovepiping.” Must admit I had to look it up – but it seems to be highly relevant to the way media seem to authenticate their news reports today – particularly in the current political hysteria emanating from the USA. And, I think, stovepiping plays a central role in the promotion of fake news.

There is nothing new about fake news – we have been subjected to it for ages. But suddenly everyone is talking about it. Of course, it is always the “other” side which indulges in fake news – never “our” side. But I suggest that just demonstrates our own prejudices and confirmation bias. We should look more critically and objectively at the way “our” news media gathers and present what it feeds us.

Stovepiping in the intelligence community

So we come to “stovepiping” which Wikipedia says:

“has been used, in the context of intelligence, to describe several ways in which raw intelligence information may be presented without proper context. . . . . the lack of context may come from a particular group, in the national policy structure, selectively presenting only that information that supports certain conclusions. “

On the one hand, this may be an inevitable result of the way intelligence agencies work – “due to the specialised nature, or security requirements, of a particular intelligence collection technology.”

On the other hand, it may be purposely used to deceive politicians and the public  (to support “certain conclusions”) – the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the justification for the US invasion of that country provides a clear example.

Unfortunately, stovepiping is rampant in the current US media and political hysteria surrounding the current political struggles resulting from an election result which didn’t go the way the establishment wanted and believed it would.

Consider all the “confidence” that the US presidential elections were “hacked” by Russia – even by, or under the personal orders of, the president of the Russian Federation. The assertion is claimed to be unassailable, beyond any question, because it was a conclusion reached, unanimously, by 17 US intelligence agencies. Hillary Clinton made the claim last October in a presidential election debate:

 “We have 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin, and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.”

The really “deeply disturbing” aspect is that this claim was repeated again and again without a sniff of evidence. Anyone questioning the claim, or asking for evidence, was jumped on as a “Kremlin troll” and no politician seemed to have the courage to draw parallels with the Emperors Clothes.” To actually ask – “where is the evidence.” Neo-McCarthyism is alive and active.

Welcome to evidence-free reporting – where stories rely on unattributed, unnamed sources. Where “intelligence reports” are completely free of evidence – yet presented with high authority. And worse – the media then claims the evidence-free reports themselves as “evidence!”

The retractions are buried and ignored

Sometimes such stories do get retracted. On June 29 The New York Times issued a retraction of the claim that 17 intelligence agencies had reported Russian hacking. The NYT admitted:

“The assessment was made by four intelligence agencies — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. The assessment was not approved by all 17 organizations in the American intelligence community.”

Worse – we had stovepiping within stovepiping. Not only was the claim not approved by the 17 agencies – the claim itself was made by selected personal within the four agencies involved. Heavy reported:

“Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had already essentially admitted to this when he testified in May in front of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee. He said the Russia hacking finding came from a special intelligence community assessment, formed by hand-picked analysts from the NSA, FBI, and CIA.”

This sort of stovepiping is loaded with possibilities for anyone wishing to promote evidence-free but politically damaging claims as part of a political battle. Just hand-select a few anonymous agents who you know will support the story you want. The ultimate confirmation bias.

One might think the news media has the ethical responsibility to be a bit more critical of such stories. To refuse to repeat evidence-free claims. To avoid unnamed, and unchecked, sources. And to publish an analysis of the origins of these claims, stressing the lack of evidence.

Unfortunately, in the USA it appears that the mainstream media has forgotten these ethics. It is wholeheartedly participating in this political battle. It is cooperating with elements in the intelligence community who have also joined this political battle. The mainstream media and this politically motivated section of the intelligence community are taking in each others laundry. Unnamed intelligence sources are providing evidence-free information to fill the news reports. The media is giving public voice to these disaffected intelligence agents and the intelligence community (or elements within it), in turn, is giving “authority” to the reported evidence-free claims. After all, what patriotically-minded US citizen will refuse to accept the authority of the intelligence agencies – even without evidence?

Weak retractions, or even the absence of retractions, seems to be an accepted procedure within the mainstream media. Remember Omran Dogneesh, the “Aleppo boy?” Much media hysteria was spent on his story (accompanied by an admittedly outstanding photograph) promoted by the al Qaeda-affiliated White Helmets as part of their propaganda campaign against Syria. His family was liberated with the rest of eastern Aleppo and they can now tell their story about the way their boy was used – in effect kidnapped by the White Helmets – for propaganda purposes. His family’s story has been reported to some extent – certainly without any of the fanfare the original misleading story was promoted (see How Omran, the dazed Aleppo boy who reappeared this week, became a political pawn in Syria’s war). And a gullible public will be encouraged to continue to believe the original distortions.

Aleppo boy – his true story was buried. The first photo was trumpeted around the world as part of anti-Syria propaganda. The second practically ignored. Credit: India.com.  Aleppo boy Omran Daqneesh makes his first appearance since 2016 bombing! See heart warming pictures of the Syrian kid 

Just as “authoritative” mainstream media sources continue to report that 17 intelligence agencies had a “high confidence” the Russians “hacked” the US elections.

It’s wider than the Clinton-Trump conflict

While this example of stovepiping and fake news is typical of the current political conflict in the USA the problem is not going to go away when that conflict disappears. I think stovepiping and fake news have resulted from the danger the established news media sees itself in as a result of social media and wider digital sources for news.

In fact, when we look at the intelligence reports about the so-called Russian hacking of the US elections we find the main concern being expressed is the possible influence of alternative media. These reports concentrate on media like RT and Sputnik which have Russian origins – but the concern is really about alternative media in general. After all, if the best they can do is complain that RT gave coverage to minority candidates and ran one interview with Trump then we can see what their crime is. RT and Sputnik, just like the rest of the alternative media, is not under the thumb of the establishment. They are free to question the narrative promoted by that establishment.

The alternative media, just like the internet, is not going to go away. It will persist and it will provide alternatives to those of us tired by the conformity and fake news of the establishment mainstream media.

The political establishment in the US and Europe is trying to nip this phenomenon in the bud – after all the alternative media has limited reach so far. But the establishment can see the danger it represents and we cannot avoid the possibility it may take extreme action to prevent the loss of its influence a wider spread of alternative media represents.

Similar articles

 

Madonna teaches us a lesson in critical thinking

Maybe just a small lesson – but an important one. We should always look at context and not cherry-pick that which confirms our bias. In particuilar, we shouldn’t simply repeat social media claims without doing a bit of fact-checking for ourselves.

It’s an important lesson at the moment because there is a lot of this going on in the social media hysteria surrounding the US presidential elections.

I was called out recently because I shared a Facebook meme questioning the moral authority of people like Madonna (who regularly makes lewd public performances) making moral judgments on the lewd language used by President Trump in a private conversation many years ago. The commenter suggested her lewd performances were irrelevant and that I should instead criticise her for making stupid and distasteful comments about blowing up the White House.

So, I decided to check out what she did say – and the video above is the section of her speech at one of the Women’s Marches where she referred to bombing the White House.

Putting Madonna’s famous comment in context

Now, I realise that the secret service is required to check out people who make comments like this – but it would be a perversion of justice for them to take any action against her. The context of the bombing comment makes clear she used the expression of personal thoughts as a rhetorical device to bring home her main message – which supported the direct opposite of such a terrorist act. In fact, she specifically said such an act would be pointless as it would change nothing (she is clearly wrong there as there would surely be huge changes  – but you get my point. She was not advocating anything like bombing).

Madonna has reacted to the news the secret service will investigate her with this comment:

“I am not a violent person, I do not promote violence and it’s important people hear and understand my speech in it’s entirety rather than one phrase taken wildly out of context.

My speech began with ‘I want to start a revolution of love,” Madonna wrote. “I spoke in metaphor and I shared two ways of looking at things — one was to be hopeful, and one was to feel anger and outrage, which I have personally felt. However, I know that acting out of anger doesn’t solve anything. And the only way to change things for the better is to do it with love.”

I think that sums up what she did say in that section of her speech and her critics should take that lesson on board.

But, not only her critics – also her supporters and allies. It is telling that one of those commenting on her explanation wrote:

“You want people to listen to your speech in its entirety and not a phrase taken wildly out of context….hmmmmm isn’t that what you and your followers have been doing to President Trump all along.”

To my mind, the extreme partisanship of social media commenters, and the #fakenews promoted by mainstream media, has often relied on such cherry picking and removal of context. It started early on in the US election campaign and is still proceeding. The recent rather undignified spat over the numbers attending the inauguration in the Mall, and the numbers observing it internationally on TV is just one example. It reflects how childish – on both sides – this spat between President Trump and the mainstream media has become.

Nor does it impress me that some otherwise rational social media commenters have taken the unfortunate “alternative facts” statement completely out of context to use as a political whip. Although, I suppose it does not surprise me. Even the most self-declared rational of us can be very irrational at times. It is part of being human.

Partisanship and a biased media is counterproductive

I wish we would all calm down and attempt to be more rational and critical in approaching news media reports of the current election hysteria. On the one hand, things do run a lot better when we avoid confirmation bias, partisanship and cherry-picking. (And we wouldn’t have to run the gauntlet of being ‘unfriended” on facebook for questioning things).

On the other hand, I think this opinion piece today from Frank Bruni in the New York Time makes a point that opponents of President Trump have seemingly been oblivious to (see The Wrong Way to Take On Trump). This lack of critical thinking, the cherry-picking, partisanship , confirmation bias and #fakenews from a biased media, actually helped Trump win the election – and is currently probably helping to cement support from those who voted for him. He writes:

“There’s so much substantive ground on which to confront Trump. There are acres upon acres. Why swerve into the gutter? Why help him dismiss his detractors as people in thrall to the theater of their outrage and no better than he is?”

And why risk that disaffected Americans, tuning in only occasionally, hear one big mash of insults and insulters, and tune out, when there’s a contest — over what this country stands for, over where it will go — that couldn’t be more serious.”

I am sure that last point happened with people who may have supported or considered supporting Trump during the campaign. Once you have heard or seen a few reports full of what you know is #fakenews, personal attacks, partisan commentary, insults and swearing you do tend to turn off. You do tend not to trust future news reports, especially those ridiculing your possible electoral choice. And in the more committed cases, this experience of news you know to be fake means that from then on you will whole-heartedly accept the #fakenews from your own side. “The other side lied so what your side says must be true!”

In my own case, I know the experience of the partisanship and media bias during the US election campaign has made me very untrustful of the mainstream media – in fact, all the media. I now refuse to accept claims made in the news as factual until I can check them out for myself. I have sort of done this with Madonna’s speech here.

That means more work and a resignation that there are many things I will not form an opinion on (because I don’t have time to fact-check). But I feel better about myself – even if some of my associates may be upset that I don’t go along with their current thinking.

Note: The video above is also out of context – being just the part of Madonna’s speech relevant to her bombing comment. If you are really interested you can find her full speech here. I watched it and found myself becoming less and less sympathetic to her so won’t post the video here as it would sort of distract from my point.

Similar articles

Trump’s victory – why the surprise, why the anger?

This morning my social media threads seem full of emotional outbursts, even hatred, and the ripping of garments. All over the results of the US presidential elections.

But I have to ask – why this emotion? Why the surprise? And why blame the voters.

Why the surprise? Surely a Trump victory was on the cards – even a strong possibility? At least that is how it appeared to me. But then again I did not have a dog in this race. I wasn’t going to vote. I didn’t support either of the main candidates – and weren’t we all saying it was a matter of choosing between two evils? Then why get so partisan, so emotional?

Perhaps it is because of that irrational indulgence – wishful thinking. By the media – to me the election coverage of the main stream media was partisan and biased. And certainly many people in my social media streams were partisan – refusing to face up to the way the US establishment manipulated the election process (successfully in the case of the Democrats) and willfully allowing themselves to be diverted and manipulated by cynical neo-McCarthyism.

But why blame the voters – especially if it was a choice between two evils? Why not blame the system that delivered such a limited choice to voters?

I could go on – but Thomas Frank’s article in the Guardian today certainly says it more eloquently than I can – Donald Trump is moving to the White House, and liberals put him there.

Is Trump all bad?

Frank starts by ripping into Trump and his campaign. Many will agree with his criticisms – although the fact Trump succeeded suggests the possibility he may have known something his critics didn’t, or understood the mood of the electorate better than his critics did.

Frank considers the election result “is a disaster, both for liberalism and for the world.” Again, Frank may be exaggerating. I think he is a buffoon but if Trump’s policies of real international cooperation in the fight against terrorism and getting along with other countries become realities I consider that a positive.

But instead of expanding on what is wrong with Trump, Frank asks the questions others have been afraid to ask.

Why Clinton?

The electorate was in a mood to punish the establishment – so why put up an establishment candidate? Frank puts it this way:

“What we need to focus on now is the obvious question: what the hell went wrong? What species of cluelessness guided our Democratic leaders as they went about losing what they told us was the most important election of our lifetimes?

“Start at the top. Why, oh why, did it have to be Hillary Clinton? Yes, she has an impressive resume; yes, she worked hard on the campaign trail. But she was exactly the wrong candidate for this angry, populist moment. An insider when the country was screaming for an outsider. A technocrat who offered fine-tuning when the country wanted to take a sledgehammer to the machine.

“She was the Democratic candidate because it was her turn and because a Clinton victory would have moved every Democrat in Washington up a notch. Whether or not she would win was always a secondary matter, something that was taken for granted. Had winning been the party’s number one concern, several more suitable candidates were ready to go. There was Joe Biden, with his powerful plainspoken style, and there was Bernie Sanders, an inspiring and largely scandal-free figure. Each of them would probably have beaten Trump, but neither of them would really have served the interests of the party insiders.

“And so Democratic leaders made Hillary their candidate even though they knew about her closeness to the banks, her fondness for war, and her unique vulnerability on the trade issue – each of which Trump exploited to the fullest. They chose Hillary even though they knew about her private email server. They chose her even though some of those who studied the Clinton Foundation suspected it was a sketchy proposition.

“To try to put over such a nominee while screaming that the Republican is a rightwing monster is to court disbelief. If Trump is a fascist, as liberals often said, Democrats should have put in their strongest player to stop him, not a party hack they’d chosen because it was her turn. Choosing her indicated either that Democrats didn’t mean what they said about Trump’s riskiness, that their opportunism took precedence over the country’s well-being, or maybe both.”

A biased and manipulating media

Frank also blames the media – and in my view rightly so. Even with my limited appreciation of politics the media bias and manipulation stood out like a sore thumb:

“Clinton’s supporters among the media didn’t help much, either. It always struck me as strange that such an unpopular candidate enjoyed such robust and unanimous endorsements from the editorial and opinion pages of the nation’s papers, but it was the quality of the media’s enthusiasm that really harmed her. With the same arguments repeated over and over, two or three times a day, with nuance and contrary views all deleted, the act of opening the newspaper started to feel like tuning in to a Cold War propaganda station.”

After listing some of the medias biased pro-Clinton propaganda Frank says:

“How did the journalists’ crusade fail? The fourth estate came together in an unprecedented professional consensus. They chose insulting the other side over trying to understand what motivated them. They transformed opinion writing into a vehicle for high moral boasting. What could possibly have gone wrong with such an approach?”

I think this post-election media comment is very relevant – The media didn’t want to believe Donald Trump could win… So they looked the other way.

Where my social media friends went wrong

What has amazed me, and taught me a lesson (I guess), is how irrational some of my Facebook friends were about this election. And these were people I had friended because on many issues (particularly scientific ones) I considered them rational and unbiased. In the end we are not a rational species and wishful thinking, confirmation bias and avoidance of self-criticism are only human traits. But Frank describes this self-delusion as “the single great mystery of 2016:”

“The American white-collar class just spent the year rallying around a super-competent professional (who really wasn’t all that competent) and either insulting or silencing everyone who didn’t accept their assessment.”

That insulting and silencing were very real. I experienced the shouting down when I criticised Clinton’s dishonest use of neo-McCarthyist tactics to divert attention aways from her faults. Critics, and even the ordinary people, were insulted and, yes, silenced by this intimidation. Frank points out – “And then they lost.” We are now forced to face up to facts – the emperor really has no clothes.

But I  hope at least some of those social media friends who were caught up in the wishful thinking and group thinking – the partisanship of the US elections – can take on board this bit of advice from Frank:

Maybe it’s time to consider whether there’s something about shrill self-righteousness, shouted from a position of high social status, that turns people away.”

Similar articles

The problem with reasoned discussion

scienceoftruth-460-300x168

Why is  a straightforward logical discussion so impossible? Why do our discussion partners refuse to accept our reasoned arguments? And, if we are honest, why do we ourselves find it so difficult to accept the reasonable logic of our discussion partners?

Well, a recent article at the blog “Why We Reason” provides an answer. It is  Psychology’s Treacherous Trio: Confirmation Bias, Cognitive Dissonance, and Motivated Reasoning and reinforces what I have often felt – we are not really a rational species – more a rationalising one.

Beliefs dictate what and how we see

The article gets to the root of the matter – the psychological forces that fuel our conversations:

“While many like to believe that they have a special access to the truth, the reality is that we all see the world not as it is, but as we want it to be: Republicans watch Fox while Democrats watch MSNBC; creationists see fossils as evidence of God, evolutionary biologists see fossils as evidence of evolution; a mother sees abortion as the best thing for her daughter, and the church sees it as unholy and sinful. You get the point – our beliefs dictate what we see and how we see.”

The article goes on to discuss “a few psychological tendencies that when mixed together form a potent recipe for ignorance.”

Confirmation bias

dilbert-confirmation-bias

Confirmation bias sticks out like a sore thumb when participants in discussion cherry-pick authorities and citations to support their arguments. Well, it sticks out like a sore thumb to the discussion partner anyway (who may also be cherry-picking to confirm an opposite bias).

“Confirmation bias is exactly what it sounds like – the propensity for people to look for what confirms their beliefs and ignore what contradicts their beliefs while not being concerned for the truth.”

Hard not to fall into that trap when discussing complex issues within the constraints of limited space and time. But, nevertheless, something we should attempt to avoid.

Cognitive dissonance

dilbert_diss

“Then there’s cognitive dissonance, which describes a “state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent.” “

The article provides an example:

“Leon Festinger introduced it in 1957 after he infiltrated and studied a UFO cult convinced the world would end at midnight on December 21st, 1954. In his book When Prophecy FailsFestinger recounts how after midnight came and went, cult members began to look for reasons for why the end of the world had not come. Eventually the leader of the cult, Marian Keech, explained to her members that she received a message from automatic writing, which told her that the God of Earth decided to spare the planet from destruction. Relieved, the cult members continued to spread their doomsday ideology to non-believers. Although Festiner’s example is extreme, all of us do this everyday. Take unhealthy food; we all know that pizza is bad for us, but we still eat it. And after finishing a few slices we say “it was worth it,” or “I’ll run it off tomorrow.” Or take smokers; they know that smoking kills but continue to smoke. And after unsuccessfully quitting, they justify their failures by claiming that, “smoking isn’t that bad” or that “it is worth the risk.” Whether it’s UFO’s, food, or smoking we all hold inconsistent beliefs and almost always side with what is most comfortable instead of what is true.”

Motivated reasoning

Dilbert - mot reason

The article describes this as “our tendency to accept what we want to believe with much more ease and much less analysis than what we don’t want to believe.”

I think religious apologists often provide the most obvious examples of motivated reasoning – probably because they are often trained in philosophy and logic. They will argue that their beliefs are based on reason and not faith, and seem to enjoy constructing logical arguments for their claims which seem to be built on simple logical steps. Yet, they gloss over, or ignore, the huge jumps in logic which are inevitably part of their reasoning.

Maybe a faith-based belief reinforced by motivated reasoning is the hardest to defeat because the proponent actually believes their arguments are completely rational.

The article concludes:

“So what’s the difference between confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and motivated reasoning? The short answer is that there really aren’t any differences. Generally speaking, they serve the same purpose, and that is to frame the world so it makes sense to us. But there are a few nuances worth mentioning. For one, motivated reasoning is like an evil twin to cognitive dissonance in that it tries to avoid it. And for another, and I quote NYU psychologist Gary Marcus who says it perfectly, “whereas confirmation bias is an automatic tendency to notice data that fit with our beliefs, motivated reasoning is the complementary tendency to scrutinize ideas more carefully if we don’t like them than if we do.””

Similar articles

How to change your Mind – and why it is good for you

It’s funny how we all recognise confirmation bias in others but a loath to see it in ourselves.

Yet it is only human – and in fact the desire to fit new evidence into existing models in our mind does play an important role in attempts to understand the real world. At the same time, one must realise that our mental models do not correspond exactly to reality, no matter how good they are, or we think they are.

That is why it is important to develop the skills to recognise when our mental models really are out of step with new evidence, with reality.

Julia Galef trains people to do this. To learn to change their mind. She described the process in her talk at TAM 2014.

TAM 2014 – Julia Galef – How to Change Your Mind -TAM 2014.

Similar articles

Approaching scientific literature sensibly

thinking-conf-bias

We all suffer more or less from confirmation bias – it is just human.  So it’s natural for people to be selective, and to indulge in some cherry-picking and biased interpretation, when quoting scientific literature to support an idea they promote.

pseudoscience-cherry-picking

In the scientific community peer review and continual submission of ideas to scrutiny by colleagues helps keep this under control. But it can really get out of hand when used political activists use the literature to support their claims.

I have got used to anti-fluoride commenters on social media simply citing a paper or even providing a bare link, without comment, as if this somehow makes their claims irrefutable. Perhaps, in truth, they have not even read the paper they cite, or understood it, so do not feel confident discussing it.

But this tactic is particularly lazy – and stupid. To simply give a Google Scholar search as proof. Lately I have been presented with links to such searches to argue that fluoridation is toxic. Just a search for “fluoride toxicity.”

This is what that search produces – 234,000 hits:

Fluoride toxicity – 234,000 results

fluoride-toxicity

Sounds good to the uninitiated, I guess. It does seem to produce a large number. But does that mean anything?

What about searching for water toxicity. This produces over 2 million hits. Are we to assume from this that water is toxic, seemingly 10 times more toxic than fluoride?

Water toxicity – 2,190,000 results

water-toxicity

Yes, I know some social media do not offer much space for commenting but that should not be an excuse for such silly citations.

Similar articles