The poverty of psychology, again

by John Quiggin on April 14, 2017

Chris’ post on psychological theories of anti-egalitarianism reminded me of one I’ve been meaning to write for a while, responding to a whole subgenre of the Haidt school of political psychology dealing with the question: why do people maintain false beliefs in the face of contrary evidence? There seems to be an article in the papers on this every week or two (unsurprisingly, given the political situatin), and they are nearly always much the same.

Given the assumption that this is a matter of individual psychology, the answer must be applicable to everyone, and, in the US context, “everyone” means “both Republicans and Democrats”. The answer is some irrational/antirational feature of individual belief formation, such as confirmation bias. I’m not going to pick on any particular writers; examples abound.
The obvious problem here is that, to a first approximation, people believe what members of their social groups believe. So, the relevant questions are:

*How do social groups maintain, or correct, false beliefs in the face of contrary evidence ?

  • Under what circumstances do people break with false beliefs held by other members of their social group? If this happens, does it involve a break with the social group or the emergence of a dissident subgroup?

Once we look at things this way, it’s obvious that not all social groups are the same, Scientists have a social process for dealing with evidence, which differs from that of (to pick a group with almost zero overlap) Republicans. Obviously, scientists collectively are much better at correcting false beliefs than Republicans, even though, as individuals, both scientists and Republicans exhibit forms of motivated reasoning such as confirmation bias.

The question of how the members of groups change their beliefs seems like an obvious topic for study by social psychologists. And perhaps it is, but if so, their work has had no impact on the asocial psychologists I’ve seen talking about it.

{ 99 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Lord 04.14.17 at 3:28 am

Part of this is insecurity and the need for surety. If you want to believe or think you already know how the world works and prefer it that way, you may close yourself off from it and no longer see or seek discrepancies and discount them when brought to your attention. Part of this is goals. If you see change and seek change, you will want to know what works and how to do what you need to for the results you want. If you don’t want change, you may avoid facing having to and reject anything until forced to.

2

nastywoman 04.14.17 at 6:03 am

– taking the way Von Clownstick just yesterday didn’t maintain or corrected some of his… false? beliefs?!
Wouldn’t he be a great example for a psychological study:
Under what circumstances do people break with false beliefs held by other members of their social group?
And if this indeed happened?

Did it happen?
Does it involve a break with the social group or the emergence of a dissident subgroup?

As when I read all of these crazy comments on Breitbart – it looked like it really happened?
Or – is the Breitbart ‘group’ and Von Clownstick are just too… let’s call it ‘dumb’ for such a psychological study?

3

GrueBleen 04.14.17 at 6:43 am

“… no longer see or seek discrepancies and discount them when brought to your attention.”

Absolutely ! In order to respond to evidence, you have to actually see evidence. So the number of people responsible for actually producing evidence is always quite small – virtually everything we all think we know, we’ve gotten from the testimony of others and not in any way from our own efforts.

Go thou and consider ‘conspiracy theories’ (eg we didn’t actually land on the moon) – what’s their dynamic ? Is that a ‘social group’ that somehow polices or enforces conformism, or is it a bunch of folks that more or less independently come to believe the same stuff ?

As to people in a ‘social group’, so far as I can see, there is a very considerable range in the beliefs that people supposedly “share” – just ask all the people in the social group of ‘Trump voters’. It has been found that, for example, that people who voluntarily participate in a survey (of attitudes, beliefs, whatever) will provide a set of responses to the survey questions. But if they are then asked to explain their response, many people change their answers. In short, they didn’t actually believe what they thought, or at least averred, that they believe.

So just how similar are the beliefs of ‘social groups’ and/or just how ‘groupish’ are the people who apparently hold similar beliefs.

4

casmilus 04.14.17 at 7:14 am

Yes, why is it people in different sub-disciplines aren’t taking any notice of developments elsewhere?

There might not be a single answer. It may be that political philosophy (and Phil in general) is regarded as irrelevant by anyone in a field with a self-image as “hard”. Economists certainly seem to have that issue with philosophy, a few years back some American was quoted criticising Oxford’s PPE for mixing up a serious business with specious ones. What these boys don’t realise is how low regarded in the real “hard sciences”. Wherein there are plenty of physicists who want to reinvent 17th century ideas with supreme self-confidence no one can tell them better.

5

SusanC 04.14.17 at 7:47 am

A big problem with much of psychology and psychiatry is that the unit of analysis is the individual human being. (E.g. Psychiatric diagnoses are diagnoses of an individual person) Whereas there is a good case to be made that many of the issues these disciplines concern themselves with are to do with how groups, rather than individuals, behave .

On the other hand, if you’re going to do sociology of science – which is where your post seems to be heading – you need to look at what communities of scientists actually do, not just what they (with some assistance from Karl Popper) would like people to think they do.

6

SusanC 04.14.17 at 8:08 am

Leon Festinger’s work on cogitive dissonance cones to mind here.

Also, you probably want a sociologist rather than a phycologist

7

ozma 04.14.17 at 10:42 am

Susan’s observation fits my very flimsy anecdotal evidence based on personal observation of people in the last election. A major reason people don’t relinquish their false beliefs when they regard those beliefs as collectively held is that to do so would threaten the cohesiveness of the group or would render one an outsider in the group. Agreement is the price of group membership.

Political beliefs are tightly bound up with people’s identities and their sense of security. So this is probably why they are especially reluctant to change theose beliefs. They don’t want to become outsiders. The more threatening the situation–e.g., if an external enemy is perceived– the more people seem to cling to beliefs essential to cohesion. It’s almost a test of loyalty in a bizarre way to cling to the belief in the face of contrary evidence–because then you can prove that the group is more significant to you than anything else, including truth.

One thing I wonder about your question is whether your standard is rational persuasion. The easiest way to change beliefs in small groups is to convince the person everyone considers a leader, the person whom most in the group believe they should be loyal to. Once that person gives permission for a change in belief, then the other members of the group will often go along. But, like Susan said, social dynamics count here much more than personal transformation.

Conspiracy theories are strange in that they are both very individualist and people can be slightly proud of having cracked some mystery with them–but then they can become collective, and sometimes a source for group cohesion. The cohesion there can sometimes just be a bunch of other people confirm your view, and this gives you a faith in those people. So there, the belief comes first and the faith afterwards.

People are surprisingly willing to believe what they see as to their advantage in the face of contrary evidence. A huge number of our beliefs are probably what we want to be true or what would be advantageous to us if it were true. If you poke holes in people’s beliefs by raising contrary evidence, they will be very annoyed with you. The more undeniable the evidence, the more annoyed they tend to get.

8

Peter T 04.14.17 at 10:43 am

In this context, what’s a “false belief”? While physical reality is independent of human beliefs, this is not the case with social realities (which is not to say they are false – as Dumbledore observed, just because it’s in your head does not mean it’s not real). We live in overlapping imagined communities, and subscription to various beliefs is the stuff of those communities.

So people can change their social beliefs by changing communities or forming new ones (usually around some part of a larger one). Or communities can change and, in doing so, cause some beliefs to be come irrelevant. Or beliefs can move from the social to the physical category and, in doing so, become subject to different criteria of verification.

That the earth was 6000 years old was an established social, but largely unimportant, belief up to the Renaissance. It then became an important belief for many Protestants from the Reformation. In the late C18 early C19 it moved from a social to a physical category and so became an empirical question for most people, but still remains an important social belief to those wedded to biblical literalism. The same story could be told for evolution, or cosmology.

The categories are not hard and fast. Some disciplines live in an uneasy grey area (as I believe JQ and Henry argue for economics in their recent joint article). Much C19 history was political because tied to important beliefs about national origins – it now has, in western Europe at least, become a socially marginal and therefore more empirically open discipline. Political economy has probably gone in the opposite direction over the same period.

Socially false is not the same thing as physically false, because socially false can often be made true if enough people believe it.

9

Faustusnotes 04.14.17 at 12:48 pm

The articles referred to in the OP don’t exist to explain mysteries to in groups, but as a vehicle for hippy punching.

10

LFC 04.14.17 at 2:47 pm

casmilus @4
It may be that political philosophy (and Phil in general) is regarded as irrelevant by anyone in a field with a self-image as “hard”

It “may be” the case, but in fact it isn’t. For example, there are a non-trivial number of economists who do not see political philosophy or political theory as irrelevant. One could start with names like Sen, Roemer, and Bowles and go on from there.

11

Marc 04.14.17 at 3:21 pm

Scientists do have remarkably powerful tools for addressing scientific problems. Even speaking as a scientist, however, it’s not clear to me that they are any better as a group at solving political problems. Or that they are any less subject to group think or confirmation bias outside of their professional expertise.

12

JimV 04.14.17 at 3:58 pm

I recently read “Anomaly! Collider Physics and the Quest for New Phenomena at Fermilab” by Tommaso Dorigo. Quoting from Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder’s review:

“Anomaly! Is Tommaso’s first book and it chronicles his time in the CDF collaboration from the late 1980s until 2000. This covers the measurement of the mass of the Z-boson, the discovery of the top-quark and the – eventually unsuccessful – search for supersymmetric particles. In his book, Tommaso weaves together the scientific background about particle physics with brief stories of the people involved and their – often conflict-laden – discussions.”

The group of about 100 Phd’s and graduate students argued every step of the way: over how to design the collider and its measurement systems; over how to prioritize which data got recorded (since there were too many collisions per nanosecond to record everything); over how to analyse the data; over what the data meant and how important it was; and finally, what to publish. And these arguments involved a lot of name-calling and insults – very similar to a typical CT thread on politics.

In the long run, further data and more than quadruple-checking of analyses might produce a consensus (though often with some hold-outs); in the short run, the way things got temporarily resolved was for the head of the project hierarchy to make a decision.

These were all brilliant, well-educated people – who spent a lot of time calling each other idiots and questioning each other’s motivations.

13

John Garrett 04.14.17 at 4:18 pm

What Ozma said, plus: we completely underestimate the social cost of leaving a closed, extreme group: when Browder, for instance, finally left the Communist Party after the Stalin revelations, he found that he literally knew no one who would speak to him. This is why so many ex-communists gravitated quickly to right wing extreme groups where they could experience the same insider vs. outsider clan. Isolation is more terrifying than avoiding truth.

14

Yankee 04.14.17 at 4:22 pm

“True” or “false” has no essential point in social belief, the thing is whether “edifying” (following Rorty), that is whether holding the belief facilitates talking about things we want to talk about. Sanctions for unsocial beliefs are against the individual … the nonconforming individual and the social group become mutually incomprehensible, and the individual will be passively ejected.
Therefore social attitudes can’t change, they must migrate incrementally, below the level where difference is perceptible to the individual. For examples beyond politics, consider language (sound shifts, grammatical patterning) and technology (diffusion of new tools/techniques),

You would like to think that a fact-based society would have a competitive advantage, but it seems that the advantage of being in a strongly cohesive group is overwhelming in the present environment.* I suppose there _could_ be liberal-progressive fact-based groups that are also strongly cohesive, ie consciously altruistic. On some distant mountaintop of the fitness landscape.

* … as, when I helped build very large commercial computers for Amdahl, it became clear that it was not necessary to do it efficiently if you could get it done at all.

15

Paul Davis 04.14.17 at 6:08 pm

you need to look at what communities of scientists actually do, not just what they (with some assistance from Karl Popper) would like people to think they do

Ah, so Feyerabend, then?

16

TheSophist 04.14.17 at 6:22 pm

Susan C @5 reminded me, of course, of this: Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. – Nietzsche

17

Joseph Brenner 04.14.17 at 10:01 pm

A subject near and dear to my heart. I take this as a good starting point, as well:

“Once we look at things this way, it’s obvious that not all social groups are the same, Scientists have a social process for dealing with evidence, which differs from that of (to pick a group with almost zero overlap) Republicans. Obviously, scientists collectively are much better at correcting false beliefs than Republicans, even though, as individuals, both scientists and Republicans exhibit forms of motivated reasoning such as confirmation bias.”

But rather than ask the question “How do social groups maintain, or correct, false beliefs in the face of contrary evidence?” I would look at it the other way around: Is there some way we can imitate the way science works and create social institutions in other realms that function better than our existing ones?

You might imagine, for example, that the internet could evolve into a system harnessing the collective efforts of volunteers to evaluate evidence and arguments relevant to any concerned citizen. As you may have noticed, what we actually have at present is isolated bubbles infested with shills and trolls and fanatics, but it’s not clear that it *has* to be that way.

You can come at this from various directions: look at existing customs and think about ways they could be modified (“What if we had a web site with membership restricted on the basis of ____ and moderated according to principles ___ where people are asked to work on projects like ____.”); or you could look at the customs of science and think about what you might want to imitate, and so on.

Kim Stanley Robinson makes the point that science looks very much like a functional anarchy, founded on utopian ideals of cooperative exchange, openness and tranparency. He makes the point that scientists do not appear to have the degree of obsession with material gain our modern conservative friends take as a given of “human nature”.

But then it strikes me that scientific processes are relatively slow, and something like them would have trouble competiting with the rapid fire of distortions we see during election season.

18

joel hanes 04.15.17 at 4:54 am

When I was a sprout, about 30% of practicing scientists were Republicans, and would say so.

Today that number is closer to 3%. The GOP drove the scientists out by rejecting the results of scientific investigation when they contradicted preferred Republican narratives.

19

Alphonse 04.15.17 at 5:19 am

A good case study would be the macroeconomics profession and the persistence of the notion that that issuance of a floating fiat currency must be exactly matched by taxation plus borrowing.

20

Jim Fett 04.15.17 at 1:13 pm

As an undergrad, I had a class that used a book on social epistemology. 20+ years later, I don’t remember the title or author/editor (I think the cover was orange. Or maroon), but I believe it dealt with exactly this subject.

And I vote Feyerabend too. My love affair with Popper didn’t survive my twenties.

21

b9n10nt 04.15.17 at 3:52 pm

It was orange. Everyone knows it was orange.

22

Joseph Brenner 04.15.17 at 6:21 pm

Jim Fett@20:

Yeah, “Social Epistemology” is the name this subject goes by over in the philosophy department. At one point I was wondering if anyone had used that phrase to mean anything and I found that there were two journals dedicated to it.

I’ve been reading some of this stuff off and on over the last few years. I might recommend the slim volume “Social Epistemology: 5 Questions” as a really good survey it’s essentially mail interviews with 16 of the leading lights in this particular sub-field, where they ask everyone the same relatively general questions, e.g. “What have been some of the major advances in the field?” (one of my favorite answers goes something like “There hasn’t been any advances, we’ve all just published a bunch of papers, no one cares about this.”).

It’s a little hard to sum up the general thrust of Social Epistemology, there are a few different threads running through it. Some of them start with Hume on Testimony and then try to think about how that works with larger groups of people, some start with things like the Condorcet Jury Theorem, and try to work with results from the social sciences (e.g. Erik J. Olsson mentions that there’s research showing the quality of a jury’s judgements are improved by increasing the size of the jury). A lot of them got involved with fighting the good fight against the non-Kuhnian Kuhnians like Rorty and Foucault.

So, I’m got more entries for my reading-list from all this:
o Helen Logino, _Science as Social Knowledge_
o Alvin Goldman, _Knowledge in a Social World_
o Lorraine Code, _Epistemic Responsibility_

But where I actually went from there was to back-up and read (and re-read) Kuhn: “Structure” is over 50 years old now, and “The Road Since” has got some good material in it as well.

Outside of “Social Epistemology”, other names one might look for are:

“Sociology of Science”: in the hopes that it’s gotten over the Science Wars crap.

“Cultural Cognition”: originally associated with Hutchins (“Cognition in the Wild”) who observed that the understanding of how to run a large naval vessel was distributed across the crew and not held by any one person, it’s been adopted by Dan Kahan who often seems to use it as a synonym for “Motivated Reasoning”.

“Collective Intelligence”: using Big Data to sell shit to suckers– maybe it’s best thought of as a branch of literature about advertising.

But then there’s the whole world of business organization literature: I still don’t know what they call this stuff over there.

23

bruce wilder 04.16.17 at 12:07 am

In this context, what’s a “false belief”?

I had the odd experience of reading this thread backward from the end, not seeing the OP; for a few moments I thought it derived from reflections on the Ada Palmer books, and I dreamed I might be swimming upstream toward some revelation about how the Scientific Revolution had given the Enlightenment its name and characteristic confidence in the conceits of skepticism and contempt for faith’s even more cloying conceits.

As I contemplated whether it would ever make sense to prefer the expertise of a student of society over that of a student of algae (per SusanC), it occurred to me spelunking Plato’s Cave cannot be made social without attendant difficulty: we have to argue, don’t we?

The standard of scientific proof seems contradictory: if the business of science is the establishment of shared understanding based on objective measurement, isn’t belief not so much contradicted as made redundant by the success of the process of a scientific inquiry? Why have any belief at all, after?

24

Jerry Vinokurov 04.16.17 at 1:30 am

But rather than ask the question “How do social groups maintain, or correct, false beliefs in the face of contrary evidence?” I would look at it the other way around: Is there some way we can imitate the way science works and create social institutions in other realms that function better than our existing ones?

One of the things that makes science work well is a shared notion of what constitutes evidence and truth. I think at least part of the problem is that many of our institutions lack that notion. Not that science is perfect, but in my own field of training (cosmology), there used to be many viable cosmological models and now there are lot fewer because the range of possible models has been constrained by measurements. Not that there aren’t theories that depart from Lambda-CDM cosmology, but they tend to live out on the fringes. The reason for this is partly that a lot of people have been convinced by the accumulated evidence and accept that this evidence really does exclude other models, and I think they are convinced because part of becoming a scientist is acculturation into what passes for evidence in your field.

We don’t really have that in the broader society. Most of the time, when you ask people to justify this or that assertion, they’ll either fall back on “conventional wisdom” or just invent stuff out of whole cloth. A lot of very highly educated people that I’ve interacted with never seem to stop to question what would constitute evidence for or against whatever position they’re arguing at the moment. You see this play out on TV all the time, where “debates” mostly just consist of two sides shouting at each other without properly interrogating anything like reasons or justifications. I don’t know if there is any way of spreading the way that science functions to the broader public, but if there is, I think it has to start with the establishment of some epistemic common ground.

25

ZM 04.16.17 at 2:30 am

From the OP:

“*How do social groups maintain, or correct, false beliefs in the face of contrary evidence ?

Under what circumstances do people break with false beliefs held by other members of their social group? If this happens, does it involve a break with the social group or the emergence of a dissident subgroup?

Once we look at things this way, it’s obvious that not all social groups are the same, Scientists have a social process for dealing with evidence, which differs from that of (to pick a group with almost zero overlap) Republicans. ….

The question of how the members of groups change their beliefs seems like an obvious topic for study by social psychologists. And perhaps it is, but if so, their work has had no impact on the asocial psychologists I’ve seen talking about it.”

I think you’re making 2 separate inquiries here John Quiggin.

First you are looking into how societies and individuals change beliefs, which is a neutral non-normative sort of inquiry. By which I mean that you aren’t interested in normatively differentiating between good or bad changes in beliefs, but only in identifying changes, good or bad, and identifying *how* change occurs.

Second, your inquiry becomes normative to look into how societies and individuals change beliefs to reach scientifically correct or objectively correct, morally just or right etc beliefs.

You would have to look at normative psychology to look into the 2nd category, some psychological research is non-normative and would only answer the first question.

The second part also has different elements — scientific or objective truth is different from morally just or right beliefs.

To be honest I think the first area is a matter of education and training.

I studied history as my undergraduate major, so from that I learnt ways of evaluating evidence and seeking the objective truth or facts about events and people etc.

Some of the evaluative techniques are similar to scientific techniques, so I can use them for evaluating scientific arguments to a degree, although I don’t understand science at the detailed level necessary to undertake scientific work myself.

When it comes to beliefs about what is morally right or just though, we don’t think of that as being a matter of education and training — we think everyone has the ability and right to make these decisions themselves.

Republicans don’t necessarily have training in weighing evidence objectively, whereas scientists do.

But scientists can be value neutral, where politicians or members of political parties are expected to hold values dear to them in their decision making.

26

Paul Davis 04.16.17 at 7:31 am

bruce @ 23:

The standard of scientific proof seems contradictory: if the business of science is the establishment of shared understanding based on objective measurement, isn’t belief not so much contradicted as made redundant by the success of the process of a scientific inquiry? Why have any belief at all, after?

This is a staggering misrepresentation of the scientific method and scientific theory formation. At no time does anything in science supplant belief – all scientific inquiry may be accurately viewed as a series of attempts to determine which of an arbitrary possible set of beliefs about the world are more (or less) correct, specifically in the sense that those beliefs allow us to make predictions above the behaviour of the world in ways that are in some way useful to somone.

At no time does the evidence ever supplant the theory, and the theory is nothing more than a belief that has been shown to consistently be accurately predictive regarding the observable characteristics of the world.

The central distinction between “scientific” and other beliefs is not that the former are not “beliefs” per se. Rather, it is that they are always contingent and, the sociology of science and the broader context in which it takes place notwithstanding, subject to revision or even outright refutation. This may happen via a process of observation, but the results of this process do not replace belief, they reinforce/support it, or call it into question.

27

Older 04.16.17 at 6:56 pm

Science does not eliminate the need for belief. As a scientist, or a rational thinker (self-defined of course), I can know things in my field. I am equipped to check out the basis for other people’s statements, in my field.

But as to other people’s fields, I can not know things in the same way. However, I believe that respected authorities in other fields have reached their conclusions in the same way as I have, that is, by rational means (again, alas, self defined), and therefore, I can accept them, because of belief.

28

bruce wilder 04.16.17 at 7:22 pm

Paul Davis @

I am saying is that the conceit that some beliefs are scientifically proven/provable mistakes the nature and indeed the psychic and social functions of belief, qua belief.

Simple facts about the world can be known to us without belief intervening, and a belief may incorporate facts without having a necessary role in creating knowledge of those facts.

Say, I visit a friend recovering from an accident of some sort, one that caused an injury. We talk about the accident itself. I say things like, “You are so lucky, it could have been so much worse.” That is belief. It isn’t scientific to say someone is lucky. It isn’t scientific to speculate on imagined fictions purely for their emotional effect. But, it can be comforting, it can help to restore a healthy narcissism, which can be shaken by an accident causing injury. It is useful, but not scientific for being useful.

I think science, by establishing the primacy of factual knowledge thru measurement, does supplant belief. When Kepler became interested in the math of planetary orbits, he had a day job as a court astrologer interpreting celestial omens for the Hapsburg Emperor. I do not think astronomy, as it emerged, so much disproved the narratives of astrology by experiments as it made such beliefs untenable, it supplanted them with facts. But, it would not be accurate to say that astrology was ever trucking much in fact; the business of astrology was meaning: Kepler’s job as astrologer was to tell the Emperor that he was lucky, that he was an important cog in the turning wheel of the universe, his affairs foretold and prefigured by heaven’s lights.

Once Newton had identified a mechanism, the visible lights of the night sky lost some of their enchantment for us. We were looking at clockwork that could have no meaning, and in which we could no longer invest mythic belief. That does not indicate that myth, a cultural artifact and mainstay, was proto-science or that science was suitable as a new myth. So much the worse for the Emperor’s claims of legitimate importance and divine right, but that took some time to play out, eh?

29

William Timberman 04.16.17 at 8:09 pm

Not only the Emperor’s claims. If, objectively speaking, a principal outcome of the Enlightenment was the assertion that every individual should be the arbiter of his/her own destiny, then weren’t we, ultimately, all destined to be hoist on the Emperor’s petard? Wasn’t that, in fact, what everyone from Kierkegaard to Marx was on about — the notion that the Enlightenment had, in some very tangible, if not precisely specifiable way, turned out to be something of a bamboozle?

30

Paul Davis 04.16.17 at 10:32 pm

bruce @ 28:

although Feyerabend and others have convincingly demonstrated that actual science, the social institutions of science, do not function in a Popperian fashion, it remains the case the science does not prove hypothesis, it only disproves them.

You seem to differentiate scientific stories from all the other stories that humanity tells itself, which I consider a mistake. They are different, in the sense that they represent contigent belief, not faith. But “the universe is made of stories, not atoms” is not just a poet’s license. When you reflect on it in the right way, you realize that the atoms are just stories too, albeit stories which enable remarkable predictive (and thus engineering) capabilities.

As to a couple of your specific points: astronomy did not supplant belief in astrological narrative with “facts”, it provided a new story about what the stars were and our relationship to them. The story was just a lot more useful because using it, “believing it” if you will, enables us to do things that the pre-astronomical stories did not. I’m not going into the actual historical process here, which is of course way more complex than astrology-then-astronomy.

It is true that science in general is hard on teleological views of our existence and the universe itself. But it isn’t in opposition to such views – rather, it requires rather more sophisticated notions of meaning and purpose than was the case with the older explanations.

Finally, if you really feel that our understanding of the night sky has in some way diminished the wonder that it can still hold for a human standing on this earth and looking up, then I feel deeply sorry for you. I do not believe that this is the universal condition or outcome of scientific explanation.

31

reason 04.17.17 at 9:22 am

Bruce,
I’m with Paul Davis on this – he has it exactly right.

32

reason 04.17.17 at 9:48 am

ozma http://crookedtimber.org/2017/04/14/the-poverty-of-psychology-again/#comment-707126

“Political beliefs are tightly bound up with people’s identities and their sense of security. So this is probably why they are especially reluctant to change theose beliefs. They don’t want to become outsiders. “

Isn’t this the fundamental problem with the two party system (as it currently operates). Perhaps this post talking about political polarisation and weak parties is relevant:

http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/7/13532178/donald-trump-american-democracy-weakness

If people have to chose between two identities neither of which actually suit them very well, it leads to disfunction. It is much better to allow a multitude of identities.

33

Sebastian H 04.17.17 at 1:44 pm

“Scientists have a social process for dealing with evidence, which differs from that of (to pick a group with almost zero overlap) Republicans. Obviously, scientists collectively are much better at correcting false beliefs than Republicans, even though, as individuals, both scientists and Republicans exhibit forms of motivated reasoning such as confirmation bias.”

This is a quote that is true, but also a lot less true than commonly thought. You come from economics, and are talking about psychology–two fields where the trappings of science (and their reach as arbiters of facts in the political arena)far outstrip their actual practice. Studying why untruths persist against evidence could be confined to those areas and would still be fruitful. You have sort of started thatbproject with zombie economics.

34

Chris "merian" W. 04.17.17 at 4:21 pm

I like Paul’s concise and eloquent way of tying these things together in #30, but quibble with this:

As to a couple of your specific points: astronomy did not supplant belief in astrological narrative with “facts”, it provided a new story about what the stars were and our relationship to them. The story was just a lot more useful because using it, “believing it” if you will, enables us to do things that the pre-astronomical stories did not.

But that’s what scientific facts are: actually quite complicated beasts, the output of a process that has methodological constraints both empirical and and theoretical, and that appear in the form of new stories.

Sometimes, the distinction between “ordinary” facts of the kind Bruce introduces and scientific facts is useful for communication outside one’s field. People deal in non-scientific facts all the time. To make things complicated, some can be regarded as somewhat empirical and thereby related to scientific facts (“The roads were slippery this morning.”) while making such a link is harder for others (“My child is frustrated by their homework”.) But all of them are output, not input, and the common element might be some process of pattern recognition (where the pattern is formulated in language) after observing a phenomenon. (Now the job of some of us is to link scientific facts such as “vaccines do not cause autism” or “fossil fuel burning by humans is leading to global climate warming on historical time scales” to everyday understanding of ordinary facts, which may be fuelled by opposing patterns and stories, such as the self-interest of untrustworthy academics and activists.)

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Chris "merian" W. 04.17.17 at 4:22 pm

Oops, the blockquote should end after the first paragraph, which is Paul’s. The rest is mine.

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b9n10nt 04.18.17 at 3:15 am

Joseph Brenner @22 et. al.

Vygotsky and other social constructivists seem like they should be part of the curriculum too, if we are interested in understanding how groups come to construct (and fail to deconstruct) knowledge.

Seemed kinda obvious and no one’s mentioned it.

37

Freddie deBoer 04.18.17 at 1:22 pm

I wrote a couple posts that I thought would be uncontroversial, in which I said that one can accept genetic influences on intelligence AND reject racist pseudoscience of the Bell Curve variety. It ended up being controversial because I pointed out that IQ has significant predictive validity for academic outcomes, even while I acknowledge that our definition of intelligence is socially constructed. I was surprised to find that tons of people objected to IQ entirely, even though I was explicitly rejecting any connection to race. And the claim was always the same: IQ has been “debunked,” that the scientific consensus is that IQ measures nothing and that it’s been rejected by the experts. But surveys of the experts find quite literally the opposite: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289608000305

When I asked people to actually check out this kind of research literature, every study was identified as pseudoscience and fringey, no matter what the prominence of the journals or how established and mainstream the researchers were. The very concept of scientific opinion was slippery: when I said “experts in the field say X,” they’d challenge those experts; when I’d point to lit reviews and surveys that showed broad consensus within the field, they’d say “that entire field is flawed!” The idea that they could simply disagree with a field’s consensus seemed to be an impossible conclusion to reach; they had to constantly morph their understanding of how scientific agreement happened to protect the idea that the consensus backed them up.

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Moz of Yarramulla 04.18.17 at 11:49 pm

Paul Davis @ 30 said if you really feel that our understanding of the night sky has in some way diminished the wonder that it can still hold for a human standing on this earth and looking up, then I feel deeply sorry for you. I do not believe that this is the universal condition or outcome of scientific explanation.

I went to an astronomy week at Uluru in Australia and found it full of people for whom science seemed to deepen the sense of wonder. At the extreme, talking to one of the principals behind the Murchison Wide Field Array and having him rave at me about using his digital camera to take photos of stars. I mean, dude has access to hugely better imaging tools than that but still goes outside to sit in the cold and point his consumer grade “toy” at the stars… sense of wonder [tick]. And that was just the speakers… the audience had more than a few people like me who “just like to look at things” and bemuse the highly knowledgeable by saying “I took a photo with my cellphone of this weird thing, what is it”. Response: I have spent 20 years and hundreds of hours trying to get a photo of that phenomenon (the “you bastard” was only implied).

You don’t have to have much knowledge or skill to get lucky, just enough to say “that’s odd” and point your pocket supercomputer’s astonishingly good imaging sensor at it. I still get stuck at “OMG, there’s a DOS eumlator written in Javascript that runs in a browser on my phone”… what the??? How did we get here? Some days I think you have to be actively trying to avoid thinking about this stuff not to just stare at it and drool. Or sing the Monty Python universe song.

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bruce wilder 04.19.17 at 4:40 am

Freddie deBoer @ 37

IQ is such a rich example of what can go wrong when scientific methods or styles connect with ideologies and methods of social control that I would not know where to begin.

40

Freddie deBoer 04.19.17 at 5:08 pm

bruce wilder @ 40

But you understand that this results in statements that are factually wrong in precisely the way that John Quiggin is discussing here, right? When people say that IQ doesn’t predict anything, they are make a statement of fact – one that is undoubtedly false. The evidence against it is overwhelming. The social and political problems that can stem from poorly discussing IQ, or using it in a way that contributes to political marginalization, are well discussed. I’ve discussed them, at length! But they can’t undermine the predictive validity of the tests, and to claim that they do is no more in keeping with scientific reasoning than saying that economics denies global warming. This is precisely the slippage that creates the social problems discussed in this post.

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engels 04.19.17 at 6:43 pm

Freddie have you ever heard of Engels-IQ? Basically measure your IQ and then add on 5 point if you’re me. That is also decently predictive for a tonne of stuff yet I think people would be pissed off if its use became widespread.

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James Wimberley 04.19.17 at 9:20 pm

JQ cites Republicans as an example of a social group clinging to false beliefs in the face of strong evidence. True, but there is a generic sub-puzzle about political parties. Their objective is to gain and wield power. (Contrast a religion, normally. ) Some political beliefs help in gaining power, others don’t. The rational democratic politicians of public choice theory should change their advertised beliefs frequently in the face of electoral results. We know this is in fact a rare and painful process, as in the abandonment of belief in state ownership by social democratic parties. There is a lot or ruin in a party, as in a state.

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J-D 04.20.17 at 1:01 am

The tendency to cling to false beliefs in the face of contrary evidence extends beyond beliefs with obvious political or ideological significance and beyond beliefs characteristic of or endorsed by or shared with definite social groups.

There are instances in which victims of confidence tricksters refuse to accept the evidence that they have been scammed and persevere in believing the lies told by the scammers, sometimes even to the extent of allowing themselves to be scammed again. There are extreme cases of people duped by advance fee frauds who have travelled to Nigeria in pursuit of the bait which they still believe exists and then been held for ransom or even murdered outright for whatever valuables they have on them (thus dying rather than admit they were wrong).

Aficionados of logical and mathematical puzzles encounter with some of them a phenomenon where people who have committed to the wrong answer refuse to accept the right answer when shown to them. The famous puzzle based on the couplet ‘Brothers and sisters have I none, but this man’s father is my father’s son’ can be relied on to elicit two different answers, and the adherents of the wrong answer show similar persistence to adherents of the right answer in defending their solution and rejecting the other one. (In this case I know from my own experience that it is possible, with diligence and care, to persuade people to switch from the wrong answer to the right one, but it’s not easy.)

Recently I saw a presentation on the Youtube channel Veritasium of four puzzles. One of them I was familiar with and knew the answer to; but I also foresaw that some people would give a wrong answer to that puzzle which they would subsequently defend in the face of proof they were wrong, and that’s just what’s happened in the comments on the follow-up video a week later that gave the answers.

The general reason people adhere to false beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary is that it is distressing to admit error, but perhaps the reason nobody has mentioned this so far is that it’s too obvious?

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Bill Murray 04.20.17 at 5:45 am

Freddy @40

Are there many people who claim IQ doesn’t predict anything, so much as IQ doesn’t represent anything except an ability to do well on IQ tests, which leads to the conclusion that an ability to do well on IQ tests, correlates with the ability to do well on other tests. Saying anything else is misusing IQ tests which certainly many people do, particularly with claiming doing well on an IQ test is representative of one’s intelligence

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Paul Davis 04.20.17 at 7:08 am

It just occurs to me that if people are not aware of Kathryn Schulz’s book “On being wrong”, they probably should be. She explores the sources and consequences of error and the psychological aspects of how we handle our own errors/erroneous beliefs. It is popular science rather than original research but is probably one of the best recent summaries of work in this area. There’s also a TED talk based on the book.

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Paul Davis 04.20.17 at 7:15 am

James @ 42:

here is a generic sub-puzzle about political parties. Their objective is to gain and wield power.

This may or may not be true. In an idealistic sense, power is merely a means by which political organizations can reach their ends (a particular redistribution of resources among the population, for example). It strikes me as sadly cynical (though possibly true) to regard the objective of political parties as (merely) gaining and wielding power; most of those involved, at some point at least, truly believe that action is required to make the world better (by their own metrics), and that a political party is the way to attempt to take those actions. Getting elected is a means to that end, not an end in and of itself.

Also: game theory says that in an electoral representative democracy, you won’t get elected many times if you lie about what you will do once elected (though current evidence suggests that the definition of “lying” acccepted by society as a whole is rather loose). For individuals attempting a single-shot reach for power, that may not matter, but for political parties, whose expected/desired existence exceeds that of any particular individuals, it may matter rather a lot.

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reason 04.20.17 at 10:05 am

Bill Murray,
what do you mean by “intelligence”? Some people I know regard it, as nothing more than the ability to do well of intelligence tests, since otherwise it’s meaning is very vague. I would be interested to know what you think.

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reason 04.20.17 at 10:17 am

Bruce Wilder
“IQ is such a rich example of what can go wrong when scientific methods or styles connect with ideologies and methods of social control that I would not know where to begin.”

This is starting to get ridiculous. Are you going to condemn science because Trueman dropped A-Bombs on Japan?

IQ tests measure something. Results from IQ tests, even when controlled for environment are correlated with genetic factors. That should all be uncontroversial. The problem first arrives when genetics is used to assess the WORTH of people. Accepting that reality doesn’t imply any policy. Policy is always based on two separate things. Our aims, and how best to go about realizing those aims (and science can only help with the second). It is important that we keep that distinction clear.

It seems to me this is a bit the argument about men’s and women’s sports (raised for instance by transgender athletes). Science can’t tell you any answer about this because the issue is one of what do we actually want to achieve by distinguishing between men’s and women’s sports, not one of how we should treat people’s gender in general. If you like the problem is an old one, we are giving too much power to name and not realizing that we may well be dealing with distinct concepts (in economics the concepts of savings and investment are often notoriously misunderstood or misused).

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Freddie deBoer 04.20.17 at 12:20 pm

” so much as IQ doesn’t represent anything except an ability to do well on IQ tests, which leads to the conclusion that an ability to do well on IQ tests, correlates with the ability to do well on other tests. “

But that is not true. IQ is broadly predictive of all manner of life outcomes that are not tests – not just academics like graduation rates and GPA but also likelihood that you’ll get and hold a job, how long you’ll live, whether or not you’ll get divorced…. I’m not making this stuff up. It’s in fact very easy to find in the research record.

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William Timberman 04.20.17 at 2:54 pm

Is the measure of Freddie deBoer’s IQ also the measure of Freddy deBoer? Freddy deBoer seems to think so, and seems also to be claiming that there is much credible research that bears him out. I wonder, is this yet another case of O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown? No. I obfuscate. I oversimplify. I am not familiar with the relevant research. I must not be taken seriously.

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Cian 04.20.17 at 2:57 pm

Freddie, what do you think of James Flynn’s research. I doubt I’m as widely read on this research as you are, but I’ve always found his arguments about how performance on the IQ test is more of a social phenomenon very persuasive. Which isn’t to say that the IQ test doesn’t measure a real thing (it clearly does), but that maybe it’s measuring something that is a mixture of biological, social and cultural factors.

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engels 04.20.17 at 5:42 pm

Just because something’s ‘predictive’ doesn’t mean it is actually measuring anything real.

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bruce wilder 04.20.17 at 6:01 pm

Freddie deBoer

I am not willing to fully endorse the point JQ has made, because I am suspicious of the arrogance that says, in effect, my views are scientifically true and my opponents are wrong, stupid and ignorant (and should submit to science and truth and my view).

In our hierarchical society, ordinary people often have as their political task checking Power and Power will invoke as legitimating, the authority of science. I am somewhat sympathetic with people who find themselves defending their views, interests and personal autonomy, attempting to defend themselves against an overweening technocracy possibly fronting dubious interests, bereft themselves of the approved scientific concepts, frameworks and vocabulary to make their case, cast in a morality play as bloody-minded luddites.

In my view, the original Luddites had legitimate economic and social grievances. That’s one point.

The anti-vaxxers are a bête noire for JQ on this issue. Of course, repeating now disproven claims about autism isn’t a healthy politics. But, I see why people might want to press back against the burgeoning number of vaccines required by the state and question the rationales. It would be nice if the rebel critics were more scientifically literate; it would be nice, too, if official authority were a bit more scientifically literate and transparent in their reasoning. Every proposed vaccine is not, in fact, a scientific no-brainer. There are costs and risks and alternative strategies might be considered. Unfortunately, only underfunded state agencies and over-funded for-profit corporations can afford to do the science, and that’s a system ripe for corruption. Asking people to offer up their children on some bureaucrat’s say-so is not democracy.

The science of vaccines and the related statistical measures of their risks and effectiveness are genuinely sophisticated science. I might criticize the official advocates and enforcers of vaccination for hunkering down behind an oversimplified assertion of scientific authority, but they do have good science available to them and they are up against anti-vaxxers who, in their frustration with the exercise of official authority, have embraced unreasoning passions. Not a good political dynamic.

Here’s something I ran across today, which seems like an interesting look at another political context where these issues of authority and science and people’s lives play out.
http://www.ecowatch.com/sacred-cod-fishery-collapse-2357635999.html

RE: IQ

I do not think the science is anywhere near the sophistication evident in the case of vaccines (or the cod fishery). “broadly predictive” cannot bear much weight, especially not in the context of a political contest over schemes of social control, premised on ideological meanings projected onto “broadly predictive”.

If you are going to measure something with tests, you ought to be able to say what it is you are measuring. Or your research with the tests ought to aim to get to a place where you can figure out what you are measuring. Instead, decade after decade, the field self-selects its members for being foolish enough to be mesmerized by a mysterious “g” emanating like a ghostly signal from the cloud of noise generated by the tests.

“broadly predictive” can just be lying with statistics, if the scheme of social control is using the test to attribute properties to a decidedly not-broad individual. Then, it is just another sad case of mistaking the median for the message (to paraphrase Steven Jay Gould).

If we are going to use science well in political struggles, we cannot embrace an unthinking denial, but neither can we abandon critical reason — science should lead to the application of more sophisticated critical reason. I doubt IQ testing will survive much application of critical reason. Science will not, and should not, advance us to a non-political utopia of neoliberal technocrats, so let’s not imagine that is possible.

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Paul Davis 04.20.17 at 8:48 pm

engels @ 52:

Just because something’s ‘predictive’ doesn’t mean it is actually measuring anything real.

and thus … science. Yes, really.

more seriously, but just as on point: Don’t mistake your models for reality (Lord Kelvin).

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steven t johnson 04.20.17 at 9:16 pm

engels @52 Yes, this is actually true. But in the public mind prediction is falsificationism. Yes every indication is that the Mont Pelerin philosophy of science has completely triumphed. Therefore successful prediction must be science. If you can’t predict, then it’s not science. CT and its commentariat know how useful this misconception is for dismissing Marxism (as Popper designed it,) therefore it will not die. Like the auteur theory, everyone will deny believing it, then promptly return to discussing everything as if falsificationism were simply true.

Yes, the ability of IQ tests to identify acculturation means it can predict academic success in a school system that aims at reproducing class relations. And class position will correlate with all sorts of life outcomes. Nonetheless, the identification of this correlation with “intelligence” and the presumption that these individual differences are causative is not scientific because you can call this a prediction, Popper notwithstanding.

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jdkbrown 04.20.17 at 10:06 pm

I’ll always take a chance to link to Cosma Shalizi; so, since IQ has come up: g is a statistical myth.

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JimV 04.20.17 at 10:41 pm

Science gets things wrong because trial and error is the way we learn new things. However, science recognizes that our first, second, and third tries at truth are apt to be wrong, and attempts to compensate for this tendency.

One of the ways it does this is to insist that theories be predictive: true cause-and-effect relationships should be predictive. If not, they are probably not real. Science cannot prove what is real, but it can try to eliminate what is not.

Because people will believe anything. That’s one of the things I’ve learned over my lifetime which was the hardest to accept.

58

John Quiggin 04.20.17 at 11:15 pm

I think the reference to IQ is causing a lot of confusion here. Does anybody disagree with the following propositions

1. Ability to take tests is highly predictive of success (on various measures) in our society
2. Ability to take tests is highly correlated with ability to take IQ tests

If you accept 1 and 2, it’s obvious that high scores on IQ tests will be predictive of success, regardless of whether IQ is a meaningful concept and regardless of the determinants (genes, schooling, social class or something else) of test taking ability.

59

Chris "merian" 04.20.17 at 11:39 pm

The IQ discussion on this thread offers an interesting case study for how debates about the scientific status of something can fail (and I guess often do). People with negative attitudes about IQ testing doubtlessly sometimes overstate their case. But on the other hand, “IQ has been debunked” may in no way be in contradiction to “IQ has been found predictive of [insert list of desirable life outcomes]”. Some use “debunked” to mean that IQ isn’t necessarily stable across a lifetime and can a score be improved by studying / practicing for the test, which just means it’s not an intrinsic property of an individual’s cognitive capacities. And the latter is how many fans of IQ testing, explicitly or not, conceptualize it.

And for those who don’t, those who just bang on about IQ’s predictive value of [somethingorother], I can fully agree with them and yet be strictly opposed to using IQ for, say, sorting children into academic tracks, or ranking job candidates by order of preference. And since the former is just my opinion that no one in any position of power has an interest in, while the latter may have repercussions in real life, that makes me an “anti” even though I harbor no doubt in any of the reliable scientific results that have been listed.

As for bruce wilder, while I wasn’t with him on Popper I’m with him on vaccines, to a considerable degree. A few months back I read in a German paper (a serious one, probably Die Zeit) an interview with several medical doctors, family physicians, who all only agreed to be interviewed under the promise of anonymity. The topic was vaccination, and they said they feared to be branded as anti-vaxx. Now this fear may well be overblown — I rather think it was! Nonetheless, it was a much richer and much more nuanced discussion of vaccines. Of course, there was no anti-vaccine attitude in what any of them said. What they did do was highlighting some vaccines as particularly critical for public health, while others were described as having little efficacy. For some vaccines, they described a fall-off of the usefulness of a second or third dose between ages X and Y, for example. There was information about various techniques, some obsolete, some not, and how they impacted risk and benefit associated with particular vaccines. And of course they went a little deeper into how flu vaccines are different, and much less efficient overall, than others. Now there was nothing in the slightest unscientific about the conversation. Indeed, it was the stuff I expect from a knowledgeable scientist who’s a specialist in their field. All fields have nuances. But if (hopefully misguided) distrust in the possibility of free and open science communication is preventing us from getting such communication, we have some work to do.

(I don’t understand that cod example, though. The article looks pretty much standard-issue for many natural resource, and specifically fisheries, management topics to me.)

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J-D 04.21.17 at 12:37 am

The discussion provides additional confirmation for one point which probably didn’t need any additional confirmation, that people cling to different and incompatible beliefs about IQ; and the general explanation of this is, I suggest, the same general explanation I offered before about why people cling (in particular) to false beliefs in the face of contrary evidence: it is distressing to admit error.

As I understand it, the original purpose for which Alfred Binet invented the first IQ tests was to help in identifying students who needed extra assistance. I get why it would be important to know how well they work for this purpose. As for all the other questions about IQ, I get how they’re intellectually interesting, but I can’t find any other reason to care much about them.

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William Timberman 04.21.17 at 12:56 am

John Quiggin @ 58

So now we’ve come to the point where we must define success, no? To validate your point, I’m assuming you’d want to define it rather narrowly, but I also think that the skeptics would have good reason to reject the kind of narrow definition you’d need, not only because of what it would necessarily omit, but also because it is so often deployed, as Bruce Wilder says, as a tool, or worse, a weapon, in the hands who have less than scholarly motives for wanting authority over what they’ve identified as socially important definitions.

Abstractions, even the most benign and seemingly well-intentioned abstractions, are fundamentally problematic not only in science, but in all areas of thought. That’s why, I think, they’re almost always the real basis of argument, and why they’ve so tormented several generations of linguistic philosophers. In this case, though, all that needs be said is that H.D. Thoreau’s definition of success and Donald Trump’s are quite different, and that, historically, each has had its legions of defenders.

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John Quiggin 04.21.17 at 1:04 am

@59 There are two ways of being falsely branded “anti-vaxx”, or, similarly, a “climate denier”, “creationist” etc. One is attack by overzealous defenders of mainstream science for letting the side down in some way. This is unfortunate, and should be avoidable.

The other, more frequent in my observation, is to have your words taken out of context by anti-vaxxers/climate deniers, and cited as support for their position. One of the leading climate deniers (Marc Morano, IIRC) produced a big list of published papers supposedly supporting the denialist position, and ignored protests from the authors that they were being misrepresented. This is pernicious, and made worse by the fact that anti-vaxxers invariably (and climate science deniers usually) claim not to be anti-vaxxers, but (insert weasel words here).

63

John Quiggin 04.21.17 at 2:14 am

@61 William: you’re right, and I’d happily qualify “success” to “conventional measures of success”, though I suspect Thoreau would probably have outscored Trump on an IQ test.

Let’s start from the position that the propositions “IQ tests are good predictors of success, as conventionally measured in our society” and “most uses of the concept of IQ, including most applications of IQ testing, are pernicious, as evaluated by liberal-minded members of our society” are both strongly supported by the available evidence.

There’s a strong temptation, though, to reason from the truth of one of these propositions to the falsity of the other. Which way round depends on the social group to which you belong.

The explicit point of the OP is that the extent to which a social group avoids this kind of temptation is variable. The implicit hope is that, in the end, social groups that encourage bad reasoning of this kind will lose political struggles with groups that respond more readily to evidence. Broadly speaking, that’s proved true over the past couple of hundred years, even if the very recent evidence is less encouraging.

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Val 04.21.17 at 4:04 am

Chris “merian” @59
Just to confirm what you said about vaccines – I work in public health, once won an academic award for epidemiology, and have a long term interest in nutrition and immunology (social and historical rather than clinical but evidence based). However I never comment publicly on vaccination debates.

The only things I say, very cautiously, sometimes, are about the possible ‘epidemics’ of infectious diseases we are all supposed to be scared of nowadays – viz that the evidence suggests that such ‘epidemics’ are occurring only in very poor or disadvantaged countries or communities, and that there are commercial interests involved in the proposals that we need more and more vaccines against such possible epidemics.

It is a shame that these issues can’t be more openly debated and I do think some of those who class themselves as being in the ‘science’ camp are contributing to this as well as the ‘anti-vaxxers’.

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Val 04.21.17 at 4:13 am

Obviously I should have said ‘almost never’ publicly comment on vaccination, in my previous comment!

66

reason 04.21.17 at 9:54 am

JQ
“The implicit hope is that, in the end, social groups that encourage bad reasoning of this kind will lose political struggles with groups that respond more readily to evidence. Broadly speaking, that’s proved true over the past couple of hundred years, even if the very recent evidence is less encouraging.”

I think is because large parts of the society now feel they have nothing left to lose in ignoring reality (i.e. it doesn’t actually matter to them). The real question is what can we change so that is no longer true.

67

J-D 04.21.17 at 10:55 am

Val

The only things I say, very cautiously, sometimes, are about the possible ‘epidemics’ of infectious diseases we are all supposed to be scared of nowadays – viz that the evidence suggests that such ‘epidemics’ are occurring only in very poor or disadvantaged countries or communities, and that there are commercial interests involved in the proposals that we need more and more vaccines against such possible epidemics.

Which proposals are those?

68

Conor O'Brien 04.21.17 at 1:54 pm

William Timberman at 61 Abstractions, … are fundamentally problematic… . That’s why, I think, they’re almost always the real basis of argument.
and Reason at 66
I think is because large parts of the society now feel they have nothing left to lose in ignoring reality (i.e. it doesn’t actually matter to them).

For those who are proficient in abstractions and modeling, they are a powerful tool. But they are not real, even if they are pervasive.
For those who have to daily deal with a harsh reality, it’s possible that they are not ignoring reality, but ignoring models that are not real.

69

William Timberman 04.21.17 at 4:07 pm

Conor O/Brien @ 68

A welcome clarification, thanks. I’d be the last person to deny that modeling is useful, but as we’ve recently seen in the Sturm und Drang surrounding the modern theory and practice of economics, leaving modeling in the custody of people with questionable agendas, or — if we succumb to the pessimistic view — any exogenous agendas at all, can be a bit like handing out dynamite and blasting caps to 10 year-olds.

This is a shame, because what is modeling anyway but an attempt to make a plausible and demonstrably useful story out of the discrete bits of causal relationship that our natural curiosity uncovers? Discipline this storytelling by providing it with a regulatory framework which encourages iteration, cumulation, and the rejection of bits that don’t fit any currently plausible narrative, and you have science. Unfortunately, because it has been disciplined, IS a discipline, science can trade on its quasi-unimpeachable reputation in a way that, these days, neither religion nor rhetoric can convincingly manage. If we don’t acknowledge the kind of mischief that can arise under such circumstances, we’ll undoubtedly deserve what, sooner or later, will be coming our way.

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Howard Berman 04.21.17 at 4:30 pm

Having no name in particular and being neither a scientist nor a Republican, let me throw down my two cents, for what it’s worth, I think people or some are naturally Aristotelian realists, and can’t imagine that they are projecting their categories into the world.
To me, that is the mysterious psychological mechanism at root of Haidt’s hypothesis: and it is in part psychological and in part historical. The Republicans’ Christianity mixed with a naive realism (Aristotelianism) freezes and imprisons their beliefs in an ice palace that won’t melt from the light of day or reason or evidence

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bruce wilder 04.21.17 at 6:11 pm

“For those who are proficient in abstractions and modeling, they are a powerful tool. But they are not real, even if they are pervasive. For those who have to daily deal with a harsh reality, it’s possible that they are not ignoring reality, but ignoring models that are not real.”

The rhetoric of the real (or “the real”), like the rhetoric of the logical fallacy, or the rhetoric of truth (“truth”), runs up against the propensity of human beings to believe (JimV: “people will believe anything”).

That’s one reason why I think it might be useful analytically to detach “belief” from verification and to admit that what we believe is at best orthogonal to an appreciation of what’s real. True belief, like a Hollywood True Story™, is just another form of fiction.

Fiction can be entertaining, informative, inspiring, and a lot of other useful things, to the individual and to the society. When we believe a fiction, it is at base a wilful act, perhaps a commitment, but reality does not ask our consent or conform to our wishes. Our relationship with reality is a one-sided negotiation with and among ourselves — reality is neither counterparty nor intermediary in these negotiations — where we trade our wilful beliefs for knowledge of mechanisms, of how things work.

There’s a deep division of labor involved and the economics of scientific knowledge are problematic in a number of respects. One of the problem areas that I was trying to draw attention to above was the extent to which scientific knowledge gets distributed as a public good in the form of rules for cooperative behavior. Rules are big economizers of information. The rule says what signal to pay attention to and how to respond to that signal. A rule isn’t a general invocation to do good on the basis of global awareness; people are instructed to behave in a certain way that does not make much sense on the basis of purely local knowledge. (Here: “let this community college grad stick this needle in your child’s arm. We are only here to help.”) Rules only make sense, I might note, in an uncertain world, where we know some things, but not everything, and what we do know does not neatly circumscribe what we don’t know: we expect to learn and we have reason to fear black swans that may teach us more than we really wanted to learn.

Paradoxically, or maybe this is an instance of irony — paradoxical irony? — now I’m confusing myself — anyway, rules compose a kind of fictional reality, a virtual reality, a prescriptively simplified pretend world where, in accordance with the rules, one acts in almost ritualized ways in response to stylized “facts” aka information in the form of supposedly sufficient statistics. These rules are formulated, prescribed and enforced by hierarchically organized authority.

I expect everyone knows that the virtual reality prescribed is fictional, but pretty much everyone believes in it actively or at least passively in order to participate in social cooperation on the basis of that virtual reality. Most people most of the time do not think critically about it; in fact, most people most of the time are not intellectually equipped or in a position to be well-informed enough to evaluate whether the institutionalized virtual reality ought to be reformed. Or, to phrase it differently, to evaluate whether the public good provided is of sufficient quality and quantity for purpose. And, frankly, some people, by temperament or for other reasons, will be cheating (at the bottom of the hierarchy) or leaching parasitically (at the top). People can be way more invested in the system as cheaters than are the compliant. As a couple of commenters have noted, even to raise issues regarding the necessarily uncertain and contingent scientific foundation for the rules — the overall system architecture — may seem to call the legitimacy of the whole fiction into question in ways that may de-stabilize the vital social cooperation — it becomes scary.

It seems to me that is the political context when the issues raised by the OP arise. There’s a regulatory authority prescribing rules for social cooperation based on scientific information and things have evolved under that regime to a point where people are questioning the integrity and validity of the authority and its rules.

Vaccination and the cod fishery are both instances where we know, thanks to science, that we are playing a game of uncertainty against the universe, trying to control, in the one case potentially epidemic disease and the other the natural abundance of a wild food source. To do so, authority, with considerable uncertainty as to consequences, has to formulate rules of behavior and then persuade people to follow those rules at some cost to themselves. And, the regime created has to be reformed and renewed (– or demolished; another scary thought) after a while, because things evolve — things always evolve.

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J-D 04.21.17 at 9:42 pm

Abstractions, even the most benign and seemingly well-intentioned abstractions, are fundamentally problematic not only in science, but in all areas of thought. That’s why, I think, they’re almost always the real basis of argument, and why they’ve so tormented several generations of linguistic philosophers.

For those who are proficient in abstractions and modeling, they are a powerful tool. But they are not real, even if they are pervasive.

There is no thought without abstraction; indeed, there is no perception without abstraction. Every word is an abstraction. Of course, there are varying degrees of abstraction. The word ‘word’ is more abstract than the word ‘tool’; the word ‘language’ is more abstract than the word ‘word’. Abstraction is both risky and essential; like fire, fear, habit, and tradition, it is a good servant but a bad master.

Abstraction becomes more dangerous when its users are not conscious of abstracting, when they use their abstractions as if they are more concrete than they really are. When I ask people to illustrate whatever point they’re making in more concrete terms and they become resistant and hostile, I suspect that the reason they’re not explaining their meaning more clearly is that they don’t understand it clearly themselves.

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Val 04.21.17 at 10:09 pm

JD @ 67
There are vaccines in development for a wide range of diseases including Zika, Ebola and many more. It costs a great deal.
The flu vaccines are the most controversial, as I think Chris “merian” mentioned. Here’s an interesting article http://www.afr.com/lifestyle/health/mens-health/does-having-a-flu-vaccine-every-year-do-you-any-good-20160321-gnns97

you can see an example of commercial interest there

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John Quiggin 04.22.17 at 3:13 am

“There are vaccines in development for a wide range of diseases including Zika, Ebola and many more. It costs a great deal.”

And that’s a bad thing?

As for the flu article, $25 for a 50 per cent reduction in the risk of getting the flu sounds like a pretty good deal to me. But even the guy who questions this agrees with the official recommendations for vulnerable groups.

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Faustusnotes 04.22.17 at 5:20 am

Influenza has a low basic reproduction number – usually estimated at between 1.3 and 1.5 I think – which means that the vaccine doesn’t have to be very effective to significantly hinder spread of the disease. With a basic reproduction number of 1.5 you need to get effective immunity in 1/3 of the population to stop the spread – 2/3 of the population for a vaccine with 50% efficacy. He real required number is probably somewhere in between if you can preferentially target high risk groups and it reduces symptom severity. It’s worth remembering that influenza is an extremely dangerous disease and during epidemic season it is a major source of blockages in the health system.

Just because vaccine efficacy is low doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. Effficacy of circumcision in preventing hiv transmission is estimated to be about 65% but the low basic reproduction number of HIV makes it a highly effective intervention. It’s. It a good idea to just assume that big pharma is pushing these low efficacy vaccines for no reason exceptnprofits. (Also, when talking about the reason big pharma is in the market it might be good to consider their intervention in the death penalty debate. For all their flaws, pharma companies do want to improve health).

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J-D 04.22.17 at 7:36 am

Val
I acknowledge a lack of expertise to make an independent evaluation of the statements in that article about the flu vaccine; but I can see for myself what statements are made there and what statements are not made there. The article states to me that there’s a recommendation for universal vaccination against flu in Australia; that this is endorsed by the National Health and Medical Research Council; that there’s a technical advisory group on immunisation. But it doesn’t provide any information about how that technical advisory group is made up. Do you have additional information that shows they are mainly representatives of commercial interests, or heavily influenced by commercial interests?

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Val 04.22.17 at 9:27 am

@ 74
I wasn’t intending to comment on whether it’s a good use of resources or not, just to say that it costs a lot and decisions about resources in public health do have to be made – what is the best use of resources? Usually there is more than one possible response and usually in public health a range of responses will be adopted, of which developing a vaccine may be one.

I was just responding to JD’s question there but my main point is a bit different. For example, when you have diseases that particularly affect people who, say, are poor, malnourished and living in unhygienic conditions in close proximity to animals, there are different responses you can take, and developing a vaccine is one, though not necessarily the only one.

One difference between developing a vaccine and, say, measures to alleviate poverty and improve nutrition and living conditions is that the first is a commercial proposition while the others aren’t. Vaccines are commodities that can be sold.

Where things could get really murky is if people start saying things like ‘this disease has a very high death rate, therefore we need mass immunisation’, when in fact the death rate is high in the conditions I’ve described but may not be in others.

That’s where it could even be in a company’s commercial interest to provide free or cheap vaccine to poor countries, if wealthy countries then buy mass stocks for their populations.

Let me be quite clear, I am not accusing any company of anything, just trying to point out to you some of the possible complexities here.

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SusanC 04.22.17 at 1:17 pm

@74: It very depends on what your base rate of being exposed to the virus is, whether a 50% reduction in probability of infection if you’re exposed to the virus is worth $25.

But given my likely exposure rate to influenza as a person who lives in the UK, I’d consider it a good deal. (I actually don’t have the influzenza shots, as this is one of the ones that a typical healthy person n the UK gets advised by their doctor as not worthwhile).

The linked article raises the concern that flu vaccination increases your risk from other strains. I have no idea if this is true or not, but if it is true, it completely changes the tradeoff:

An decreased risk of infection from the relatively benign strains that will just put me in bed for a week, coupled with an increased risk of infection from the killer strains like the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, does not sound a good deal.

[Again, depends on the base rate. A frequent rule of thumb for “how likely is it” is “how long since the last time it happened”. It’s about 100 years since the 1918 pandemic, so call it a 1% base rate that next year we will encounter a killer flu pandemic.]

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Chris "merian" W. 04.22.17 at 2:54 pm

I think this Tweet illustrates the problem with how we talk about IQ rather well: that general levels of understanding science, through education and outreach, are at levels low enough that, I think, a majority of citizens of rich western countries things this kind of visualization is a legitimate, if inconvenient, use that reflects some sort of relevant piece of scientific truth: https://twitter.com/DecentGuyZac/status/855790379487985664 .

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faustusnotes 04.23.17 at 3:08 am

That Men’s Health article is interesting but it contains a lot of probably contestable claims that aren’t easily verified without references. For example, people who were exposed to swine flu and were regularly vaccinated were twice as likely to get the flu – but is this because they were high risk people, or because their exposure patterns were different? It’s hard to say without seeing the evidence. Also the fact that there has been no reduction in seasonal flu mortality rates despite high rates of vaccination in high risk groups may reflect health system and other factors that mediate mortality, or changes in size and definition of high risk groups over time.

The composition of the advisory group on immunisation can be found here, it’s mostly academics and consumer health advocates, doesn’t appear to have any pharmaceutical companies involved, though many of the academics on the committee likely have pharma funding – you can check this by accessing the conflict of interest documents at the same page (e.g. Michell Giles has had travel paid for by Pfizer in the past). It’s all very open and transparent.

Remember that the recommendation for vaccination isn’t just to protect the personal health of the people receiving the vaccine, but to try and establish a level of population level immunity that will protect everyone, including people who can’t afford the vaccine or can’t take it. When the government chooses to make a vaccine available for free rather than just recommend you pay for it yourself, the government is essentially saying that the public health benefits are even greater than just the personal benefit you might be getting from taking it.

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Freddie deBoer 04.23.17 at 3:05 pm

I simply feel compelled to point out that, for both John Quiggin and the commenters, there is a clear and obvious difference between how much they’re willing to listen to the (again) overwhelming consensus in the fields of behavioral genetics and developmental psychology compared to the consensus in other fields. And there’s just such breezy talk here dismissing what is arguably the most consistently and durably replicated findings in the history of psychology. “Oh, well society rewards people who can take tests well so of course societal rewards accrue to people who score well on IQ tests” is a response that has been addressed over and over again in the research literature. The following are not credible arguments:

1. This has been debunked!

Debunked how? By who? Where are you citations? I can post links to not just survey instruments like the above but to large literature reviews by people like Flynn, Plomin, or Turkheimer. You can’t just say “this has been debunked” and then not engage in the actual research.

2. This has bad social consequences!

No, misreading the data and making bad political arguments based on that misreading has bad social consequences. If we can’t talk about these things openly, then that’s what happens – the bad people dominate the conversation. That’s not a good idea.

3. This field’s evidentiary standards are not up to those of medicine, so I can dismiss its findings.

That’s not how this works. All fields have their own evidentiary standards which are related to the types of evidence and the level of analysis. And, again, within the relevant field, the vast majority of credible researchers believe that IQ is significantly (not solely! not exclusively! no one is arguing that!) genetically influenced.

I wish you guys would excavate why there’s this divide between how you read and interact with research here differently than you do with other kinds of research. Yes, I understand: there’s a lot of shitty people who use IQ to argue shitty things. But, again, this is why we have to engage with it – to make the conversation better by not allowing it to be dominated by bad people.

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faustusnotes 04.23.17 at 3:08 pm

Freddie did you read the Cosma Shalizi article linked above?

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Freddie deBoer 04.23.17 at 3:45 pm

Yes, I’ve read it before. A single blog post does not, for me, outweigh hundreds of articles by established researchers at some of the most prestigious institutions in the world. And again: the fact that I am supposed to take that as dispositive is simply not in keeping with how any of you would treat research controversies of other kinds. I mean, there are lots of dissenting voices for science that is accepted as true by people around here, right? So why does this resource supposedly outweigh everything else? Obviously, because you are predisposed to its conclusions.

And I say this all in the context of a supremely naive liberal narrative about science. Yesterday there were mass demonstrations founded on the idea that liberals Believe In Science, that they simply go where the research literature points them, and that conservatives don’t. And this is a case where the effort to avoid arriving at a particular conclusion – that genetics explains a substantial portion of the variation between individuals in their observed academic and cognitive quantitative indicators – massively exceeds that found in other fields.

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Manta 04.23.17 at 5:09 pm

Answering Freddie on why people reasonable people dismiss psychology findings as pseudo-science:
“collectively these results offer a clear conclusion: A large portion of replications produced weaker evidence for the original findings despite using materials provided by the original authors, “
http://science.sciencemag.org/content/349/6251/aac4716

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J-D 04.23.17 at 8:42 pm

Val
It seems to me that there is an important difference between ‘It’s possible that there could be proposals to develop more and more vaccines which are driven by commercial interests when they’re not the preferable publich health response’ and ‘It’s actually the case that there are proposals to develop more and more vaccines which are driven by commercial interests when they’re not the preferable publich health response’; and it seemed to me previously that you were asserting the second of these, whereas it now seems to me that you’re only defending the first.

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J-D 04.23.17 at 8:45 pm

Freddie deBoer

“Oh, well society rewards people who can take tests well so of course societal rewards accrue to people who score well on IQ tests” is a response that has been addressed over and over again in the research literature.

I’m sorry, I’m not following you . What does ‘addressed’ mean in this specific context?

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Val 04.23.17 at 9:50 pm

J-D
I have read about cases that I think are very questionable, but I don’t have time to find all the details. I think swine flu may be a case in point but would have to search for the literature.

Re faustusnotes’ comments about herd immunity above – I think that’s more relevant where there is a long lasting immunity. It has to be more questionable in the case of flu viruses which keep changing surely? Another public health response to the issue in the case of flu is telling people to stay home when they feel sick, wash their hands frequently and cover their nose and mouth when they sneeze – even avoid public places in the case of an epidemic. I don’t think anyone is actually trying to get herd immunity to flu are they?

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Collin Street 04.23.17 at 10:03 pm

that they simply go where the research literature points them, and that conservatives don’t

Well, this is what the research literature actually says. There’s been a fair amount of research on the cognitive and neurological basis of political thought, you know.

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Val 04.23.17 at 10:04 pm

Faustusnotes
Actually six of the academics on the panel have received some funding or travel grants from pharma according to the conflict of interest doc.

Recent research, which I heard about at the public health conference in 2015, suggests it doesn’t make any difference how ‘open and transparent’ people are about conflict of interest – in fact as I remember they said authors who declare interests may have slightly more bias than those who don’t (presumably because they ‘feel’ more honest or something). I might try to chase this up sometime if I can.

Under a lot of time pressure because I’m due to complete in June! Shouldn’t even be doing this!

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J-D 04.24.17 at 12:26 am

Val
It is of course possible that there is additional information, not in my possession, which would/should lead me to revise my views if it were available to me: that’s true in all cases, by default.

I am not doubting your veracity when you tell me that you have read about very questionable cases, but I hope you will understand why being told that you have read about such cases, without being supplied with any details, is not enough reason for me to revise my views.

I hope you will also understand that I am making absolutely no suggestion that you have any sort of obligation to supply additional details — particularly not if you have a completion date in June!

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Faustusnotes 04.24.17 at 12:53 am

Val the technical advisory group on immunization advice on influenza dems to suggest that the purpose of the program is not building herd immunity but protecting vulnerable people, I think you’re right about that. Probably they did a cost benefit analysis and decided it isn’t worth the whole hog for exactly the reasons you suggest. But if that’s the case doesn’t it undermine your narrative? If immunization was driven by pharmaceutical interests they would be pushing for herd immunity? Which would be a big annual dividend for sanofi and gsk (the companies supplying the vax this year).

Interesting points about conflict of interest declarations. But I don’t think there is a better way is there? If vaccine research was not funded by pharmaceutical companies a lot wouldn’t happen.

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Freddie deBoer 04.24.17 at 1:21 am

““collectively these results offer a clear conclusion: A large portion of replications produced weaker evidence for the original findings despite using materials provided by the original authors, “”

In fact, behavioral genetics have far better replication outcomes than those of other fields of psychology.

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Chris "merian" W. 04.24.17 at 1:51 am

re: Freddie deBoer #81.

Well, the evidentiary standards in medicine aren’t all that great either sometimes. And I don’t even mind stuff being published that falls short – that’s always been the case.

More importantly, though, you chastise the “commenters on this thread” for failing to accept well-established science but then fail yourself to clearly state what this science is. Instead, you come up with hand-wavy stuff like putting up what appears to be a foil (?) in the form of: “Oh, well society rewards people who can take tests well so of course societal rewards accrue to people who score well on IQ tests”. I echo J-D in asking what you mean by this “has been addressed over and over again in the research literature”. What exactly are we expected to accept other than “IQ is predictive of [insert some measure of social success here]”, which I certainly do, but don’t find particularly interesting or relevant for any practical use of IQ.

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faustusnotes 04.24.17 at 2:11 am

Freddie deBoer is right, we’re scientists, we should have an open mind, right? So I realized I have never read the original Spearman article on intelligence, but the article Freddie linked to contains a reference to it so I downloaded it and had a scan. It’s a big article but you can get to the nub of his intelligence tests around about page 249. Here’s one:

The fourth and last sort of Intelligence which has here been estimated is that known as common sense. To this end, the oldest of the children of Series I was interviewed and interrogated concerning her comrades in precisely the manner described above, except that the criterion was not to be “brightness at school work” but “sharpness and common sense out of school;” and she seemed to have no great difficulty in forming her judgments concerning the others, having, indeed, known them all her life. As a check, and in order to eliminate undue partialities, it had been arranged that as she left the house, the second oldest child should enter it and thus be able to give an as far as possible independent list, since neither had beforehand had any idea of what was wanted. Finally, a similar list was obtained from the Rector’s wife, who also had always lived in this village; but her graduation is unfortunately incomplete and therefore unusable, for she professed inability to pronounce verdict upon some few children who had not come much under her notice; as far as it went, it appeared perfectly homologous with the other two lists.

That’s great! Spearman’s test of intelligence involves asking the Rector’s wife her opinion of a bunch of children! (The other three tests involve rating them by school achievement, which would seem to measure not intelligence but the ability to do tests). But it could be that Spearman was just a low-IQ dude, right? So I thought I’d check some of the other references on this elusive “g” that are in the article Freddie linked to. There were 5, none of them more recent than 1998 and only one (Spearman 1904) from a peer-reviewed journal. Fortunately the next list of research on its relationship to academic and social outcomes is peer-reviewed, so I grabbed one, “Where and Why g matters: Not a mystery” from the journal Human Performance (impact factor 1.6! Not exactly the Archives of General Psychiatry!) and in the first page found only 2 references (one a self citation!), including no references on this splendid statement:

Pick any test of mental aptitude or achievement—say, verbal aptitude, spatial visualization, the SAT, a standardized test of academic achievement in 8th grade, or the Block Design or Memory for Sentences subtests of the Stanford–Binet intelligence test—
and you will find that it measures mostly g. All efforts to build meaningful mental tests that do not measure g have failed.

So this article also seems to be saying – in a very definitive way – that “g” is actually just a test of school achievement and ability to sit tests. Also there’s a staggering misunderstanding of what the results of Factor Analysis mean buried in that paragraph. If a battery of tests X has a set of common factors, and a battery of tests Y has a set of common factors, that doesn’t mean the two sets of common factors are equivalent to each other or measuring the same thing, just because X and Y purport to be measuring the same thing. And especially not if one is measuring school achievement and the other one is measuring spatial visualization!

Is this the quality of research on which this crucial factor rests? Maybe this field needs a few high IQ people to get involved?

95

J-D 04.24.17 at 5:32 am

Instead, you come up with hand-wavy stuff like putting up what appears to be a foil (?) in the form of: “Oh, well society rewards people who can take tests well so of course societal rewards accrue to people who score well on IQ tests”.

That wasn’t just invented out of thin air. It’s a reasonable paraphrase of John Quiggin’s comment here, apart from the fact that John Quiggin’s comment doesn’t use the inexplicably coined neologism ‘societal’, which it is never reasonable to use.

But going back over the discussion to see how much I can figure out of what Freddie de Boer’s point is supposed to be, I notice this: IQ is broadly predictive of all manner of life outcomes that are not tests … whether or not you’ll get divorced.

Is that really a confirmed research finding? It’s hard for me to figure how that’s supposed to be explained on any theory of IQ, which makes me wonder whether any theory of it is reliable.

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Val 04.24.17 at 7:14 am

Fn @91
Just as we would say healthcare should be publicly funded, I think we can also reasonably argue that public health research and development should be publicly funded (not for profit, like CSR used to be I think!)

I have a policy now of trying to follow research evidence through to its logical conclusion. When I was a policy advisor, I guess it was ok to think about commonsense and what was achievable policy, but I don’t think that’s my job as a researcher.

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faustusnotes 04.24.17 at 8:19 am

J-D you can find the divorce relationship in The Bell Curve, a fine work of scholarship if ever there was one. Apparently the people in the top 5% of IQ had a lower divorce risk than those in the bottom 75%. That may seem like an arbitrary set of divisions to you, which would be because it is.

Val, I also think that public health research and development should be publicly funded. Sadly, it’s not all so. And until it is I don’t know what the solution to conflicts of interest might be.

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Collin Street 04.24.17 at 9:28 am

A single blog post does not, for me, outweigh hundreds of articles by established researchers at some of the most prestigious institutions in the world.

God christ you are a moron. For the fuck of jesus, this is… unbelieveable.

OK. You work — you get money — as some flavour of public intellectual, right?

Here’s the mistake you’ve just made. The “hundreds of papers” you cite are based on a particular assumption. The blog post demonstrates — purports to demonstrate, I think convincingly — the falsity of that assumption.

Truth isn’t cumulative; a thing doesn’t become more true because it’s said multiple times, doesn’t become less true because it’s said fewer times. Truth is no respecter of power or authority: a thing doesn’t become more true because it is said by people in authority, or less true because it is said by the marginalised. The numbers of papers vs the number of blog posts have no bearing on the accuracy of the content. A hundred papers that say, “X is Y” are still only making the one statement; a single paper saying, demonstrating, “but it doesn’t matter because all Y is Z and Z is known to be irrelevant” is equal to all that. You don’t count them up and weigh them on a scale by shelf-inches; the truth doesn’t work that way.

And you should know that. It should be something that you learned before graduating high school, I think. And you don’t know that. And we don’t know what other basic stuff you don’t know, buried in your education like landmines; it’s pretty unlikely to be an isolated example [clock strikes thirteen, sort-of-thing], still more if you’re resistant to what I’m telling you.

Freddie, I think you need to reconsider your life choices.

Why am I talking to you like I know you? Because noone who knows you will be honest with you. I don’t know you from shit, I have no reason to make things look bad for you.
Your entire life is a hollow sham. It’s really that bad. You can keep on going as you are… except you can’t, because now you know that you’ll never have the talent to get the acclaim you’re seeking. What you do with that knowledge is up to you… probably — probably — you have better options than suicide, but whatever they are they involve starting a new life from scratch, walking away from basically everything you’ve achieved professionally since you left high school or before. Because it’s all bullshit. Maybe your personal life is better, you can seek refuge in the love of those who love you; maybe you’ve got some hobbies or interests you can throw yourself into or develop.

Whatever. You have no place as a public thinker. You’re not up to it. The people who said you were were deceiving you for their own advantage or deceived themselves.

I am very very sad for you. I am writing this with a heavy heart — I don’t enjoy telling strangers that their lives are shams — but I have to, because I can’t stand having you, having anybody, being abused the way you are. Even if you’re OK with it, in your ignorance.

Please, for your own mental health, find something else to do with your life. Please. The path you are on leads nowhere.

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JimV 04.24.17 at 4:32 pm

It has been several years since I read Dr. Shalizi’s post on “g”, but it came to mind instantly when this subject arose. It demonstrates mathematically that “g” is unsound – that it can’t be logically and uniquely inferred as a real quantity from the evidence. It can’t be refuted by lots of researchers continuing to write papers based in the assumption that “g” exists. It can only be refuted by a mathematician finding some flaw in the math and publishing a rebuttal. I don’t know of any such, and for myself, was convinced the math was sound. I suppose one could say, well it hasn’t been proven to exist by the data but I will believe in it by intuition.

I think Einstein was a lot smarter than myself and that Trump is stupider, and that IQ test measurements would agree with that assessment. So I do think IQ tests give some measure of relative problem-solving-thinking ability (perhaps because I was brought up to think that). However I think the measurement is a rough one with a lot of variation. My personal benchmark for that was reading that Feynman’s IQ was 125 (whereas I would have guessed upwards of 170). Of course there are lots of different tests, but I assumed the number I saw for Feynman (I think in James Gleick’s “Genius”) was from a standard test. The one I had in high school was a one-on-one session with a professional tester who asked me to repeat series of words and numbers forward and backwards and to determine how to obtain exactly x quarts of water using a water source and three bottles of different capacities, pouring from one to another, timed with a stop watch.

Also on a personal note, I think both intelligence and its rough measurement by IQ tests varies with age. I think I have lost at least 15 points of IQ – so I find the term useful for making such statements, at least; and for comparing myself to Trump, although I must consider that a case where worldly success does not correlate with IQ. No doubt Trump considers himself more successful than Einstein or Feynman.

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