Posts Tagged ‘Scientific method’

Politics Needs Science

January 22, 2017

The article in the 21 January 2017 issue of the Washington Post by Sarah Kaplan titled “New group encourages scientists to enter politics” was good news.  STEM the Divide is a group that will push to have more scientists involved in politics.  This initiative was set up by the political action committee 314 Action.  The goal  is to connect people with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and math to the expertise and money needed to run a successful campaign.   The article stated that scientists who have been interested in getting into politics were rarely encouraged and sometimes discouraged.

Shaughnessy Naughton  is the founder of this organization.  When asked whether this raised a risk of politicizing science—framing scientific questions as ideological questions, rather than matters of fact—Naughton argued that that ship has already sailed.  Her  response follows:  “People might think that science is above politics, as it should be, but increasingly we see that politics is not above bringing itself into science.  At a certain point, there’s diminishing returns to not getting involved.”  HM would change “diminishing returns” to “serious existential dangers.”

Moreover, the question she was posed, “framing scientific questions as ideological issues, rather than as matters of fact,” betrays the erroneous concept that science is simply a bunch of facts.  Science can be an ideology, an ideology that should provide the basis for governing.  Science is not a monolithic entity, but rather a set of methodologies devoted to arriving at truth in the various disciplines.  This truth is arrived at by reasoning and data.  Moreover, it is fluid in that as circumstances or facts change, truth is corrected or refined.  Science provides the basis for our standard of living, and it can be argued that social problems are due to the failure to apply scientific approaches to social problems.

A good example of this is medical care in the United States.  Medical care in the United States is the most expensive in the world, with results suitable for a third world country.  All other advanced countries provide superior medical care for all their citizens at a fraction of the costs in the United States.  The Affordable Care Act was the best that could be done given the political environment.  One party wants either to exclude the federal government entirely or severely limit its participation due to ideology.  They use fear, lies, and misinformation to destroy attempts to bring the United States into line with the truly advanced countries of the world.

A good question is why this is the case.  The general argument is against big government.  Any argument about the size of government without considering the question of  what the government can best do versus what private industry can best do is moronic.  Yet it is repeated ad nauseum.

People say that they are followers of Reaganism with great pride.  Ronald Reagan is also regarded as a great communicator, which he was.  But what is overlooked is the reason his ideas were so easy to communicate is that they were so simple.  Reagan demanded that his staff provide brief descriptions of the issues so he could formulate brief descriptions of his policy.

The problem is that simple ideas do not adequately solve complex problems. For example, people will say that they believe in free markets.  One would be hard pressed to find many economists who do not believe in free markets, but they also realize that free markets do not remain free for long.  They are manipulated and monopolies emerge.  The manipulations achieve a variety of ends, one being the financial collapse of 2008.

Moreover, there are always complaints about the excessive regulations that come from big government.  Just think back over time and consider what life would be like without government regulations.  How long would the work week be?  What would salaries be without the minimum wage?  If these are exclusively left to “market forces” they would leave the majority of people in misery.  Were it not for unions, it is quite likely that Marx’s prediction of the revolution of the proletariat would have occurred.  But Marx’s analysis was superficial and did not consider the possibility of workers organizing to achieve a decent wage and working conditions.

Government regulations have also goaded businesses into actions that benefited them.  Gas mileage standards is an example.  And God protect us from what the atmosphere would be like absent government regulations.  One of the costs that decreased the competitiveness of the US Auto Industry in the international market, were the costs of medical insurance.  Had medical insurance been provided by the government, the industry would have been more competitive.  Their ideology acted against their business interests.

One of the most disturbing actions that Trump has promised to undertake is the dismantling of financial regulations taken to prevent another market collapse.  It should be obvious by now that the financial industry does not self regulate.  Smart manipulators cash in, while everyone else in the country and the country itself collapses.

The argument here is not that business is evil and government is good.  There are ample examples of government being a monster.  The reality is that the individual citizen stands between two giants, business and government.  Either one can step on and crush the individual citizen.  The citizen needs to be watchful of both and play each against the other to get the best result.

How should this be done?  By employing science, conducting research, and analyzing data to decide what policies are, and who should do what.  This does not guarantee a good result, but science is self correcting.  So when something does not work, the reason why it didn’t work will be studied, and new approaches will be developed and evaluated.

The fundamental problem is with the individual voter.  Thee is ample evidence that voters do not vote in their own interest.  See the healthy memory blog post, “The Low Information Electorate.” It is also true that voters are governed by their emotions rather than carefully considered opinions.  Previous posts have argued that decisions of most people are governed by their guts, which are System 1 processes.  That certainly is the best explanation of the results of the 2016 presidential election.  People need to invoke their System 2 processes.   System 2 processes require cognitive effort.  The vernacular term for them is thinking.  Entering “System 1” or “System 2” or “Kahneman” into the healthymemory blog search block should yield ample posts on this topic.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

More on Revising Beliefs

August 10, 2015

This is the third post in a series of posts on Nilsson’s book, Understanding Beliefs.  Nils J. Nilsson, a true genius who is one of the founders of artificial intelligence, recommends the scientific method, as the scientific method is the primary reason underlying the progress humans have made in the past several centuries.  We know from previous healthy memory blog posts that beliefs are difficult to change.  Yet we inhabit an environment in which there is ongoing dynamic change.  Moreover, modern technology accelerates the amount of information that is being processed and the amount of change that occurs.

The immediately preceding healthy memory post, “Revising Beliefs,” expressed extreme skepticism that there was sufficient sophistication among the public to implement the scientific method on a large scale in the political arena. Suppose this is indeed the case.  Suppose the world will be characterized by increasing polarization so that little or no progress can be made.  What is a possible remedy?

Here I wish that Nils J. Nilsson would write a second book on how technology, in the lingo of the healthy memory blog transitive memory, might be used to address this problem.  During the Cold War there was a movie, Collosus:  The Forbin Project.  At this time there was a realistic fear that a nuclear exchange could occur between the United States and the Soviet Union that would obliterate life on earth.  In the movie the United States has built a complex sophisticated computer, the Collosus to manage the country’s defenses in the event of a nuclear war.  Shortly after Collosus becomes operational it establishes contact with a similar computer built by the Soviet Union.  These two systems agree that humans are not intelligent enough to manage their own affairs, so they eventually take control of the world.

Perhaps we are not intelligent enough to govern and we need to turn the job over to computers.  Kurzweil has us becoming one with silicon in his Singularity, so we would be as intelligent as computers.  Suppose, however, that computers were infected with human frailties.  In Bill Joy’s the World Without Us, we are eliminated by intelligent machines.  But perhaps he is projecting human desires on computers.  Perhaps they would be motivated to dominate, but rather to assist.  Or perhaps this feature would be incorporated by AI developers offering this solution to a country or the world, locked in gridlock.

So here is my plea to AI researchers and Sci-fi authors.  Please take this concept and run with it.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Revising Beliefs

August 7, 2015

We know from the immediately preceding post, “Understanding Beliefs,” as well as from earlier healthymemory blog posts, that beliefs are difficult to change.  Yet we inhabit an environment in which there is ongoing dynamic change.  Moreover, modern technology accelerates the amount of information that is being processed and the amount of change that occurs.

Nils J. Nilsson, a true genius who is one of the founders of artificial intelligence, recommends the scientific method, as the scientific method is the primary reason underlying the progress humans have made in the past several centuries.

I would like to see a survey of what people believe about beliefs.  I fear that most would fall short of what Nilsson describes in Understanding Beliefs.  I fear that the idea that we do not have direct knowledge of the external world, but rather develop models of the external world based on experience would be alien to most.  I fear that even among scientists, engineers, and educators there are those to whom this concept is alien.  Moreover, probabilities are likely absent regarding many beliefs being replaced by absolute belief and absolute doubt.  People still refuse to believe even given scientific consensus regarding such topics as evolution and global warming.  Moreover an understanding of statistics and experimental design by the general public would be necessary.  So this lack of sophistication or primitive modes of thinking constitute a considerable obstacle to employing the scientific method.

Nevertheless, just for fun, let’s consider how a country might work were it governed according to the scientific method.  Let’s take the United States for example.  Americans would need to accept scientific results even if they conflicted with their personal beliefs.  Sometimes scientific results  are counterintuitive.  For example, research in the arena of public housing has found that it is less expensive to provide public housing initially, rather than having the homeless work their way up in terms of eligibility by freeing themselves from abuse, finding employment, and so forth.  The savings that accrue are due to the decrease in emergency room visits, ambulance and related costs that are spent on the homeless.  In addition there is also the pride of having a residence that fosters personal development.  Of course, there is the option of completely ignoring the homeless and not providing medical services, but instead just sweeping up the bodies and incinerating them.  In lieu of this radical option, using data to pursue policies that control costs is the preferred option

A similar option exists with respect to medical costs.  The United States has had the highest medical costs in the world that result in third world medical statistics for a long time.  The uninsured have gone to emergency rooms for costly care that is passed on to hospital bills.  The Affordable Care Act is a first attempt to remedy this problem.  Yet it still is receiving stiff resistance from those who think it is wrong to consider medical costs as being a citizen’s right.  Government involvement is a way of providing better medical services while controlling these costs.  Another problem is that the most common means of payment is a fee for service.  It is much more rational to compensate physicians for results, normalized by the condition of the patient, as is done in England.

As the United States is divided into states, it would be possible to design experiments in which different policies were followed in different groups of states and then analyze the results in terms of results and costs.  Although questionnaires would be one component of the evaluation, the primary measure would be the success of the different programs in terms of objective medical results.  Now, in the case of studies regarding health, these results would be normalized with respect to the initial health of the patient.  It should be realized  that the survey data might conflict with the medical results.  That is, people might think that care had deteriorated even thought their health had improved.  These people might have been disappointed and felt annoyed because they did not receive treatments that they wanted, even though they would have been ineffective (given an antibiotic for a virus, for example), or had not been given unnecessary medical tests.

This same paradigm could be followed for other issues.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What Next for Randomized Clinical Trials?

March 14, 2015

An article by Herbert I. Weisberg in the February 2015 Significance (22-27), which is a joint publication of the American Statistical Association and the Royal Statistical Society of Great Britain addresses a concern I have been increasingly having regarding the Gold Standard of research, Randomized Clinical Trials (RCTs).  Advances in the sciences and in statistical practice have raised some serious questions regarding their generality.

Actually RCTs are a fairly recent development.  For most of medical history medicine was an art practiced by “healers and  based on esoteric knowledge acquired mostly through apprenticeship.”  The situation began to changed in the 1700s, during the Age of Enlightenment.  The scientific method based on empirical evidence about disease and the effectiveness of different interventions began to be applied.  However, the article notes that with the exception of a dispute over the wisdom of inoculation to prevent smallpox, the study of medical treatment remained almost entirely qualitative.  Even the study by James Lind that eventually led to the use of citrus fruits to cure scurvy would be regarded as a pilot study by today’s standards.

However, at this time, statistical ideas had yet to arrive.  Pierre-Simon Laplace was a strong believer in the potential of statistical analysis in various fields including medicine.  Laplace’s prescription was primarily theoretical, but it did influence some contemporary medical researchers,  One of these was Pierre Louis, who formulated a “numerical method” of assessing treatment efficacy.  His approach, applied first in the 1820s utilized simple counts without formal probabilistic analysis.

Two major advances took place in the 1920s that led to the golden age of the RCT.  One was the fortuitous discovery of penicillin in1928.  This led to a proliferation of new antibiotics that transformed medical practice.  The administration of these life-saving treatments was relatively straightforward and depended little, if any, on subtle medical judgment.  The effects of these drugs were much less variable with respect to the patient’s response than most traditional therapies. The second advance was in statistics.  In 1925 Fisher’s Statistical Methods for Research Workers was published.  This provided methodological guidance for RCTs.  Gosset’s development of the t-test solved how to analyzed experiments with modest sample sizes.  As the article notes, by the 1970s, the methodology of large-scale double-blinded RCT had reached maturity and was broadly accepted as the way to demonstrate the efficacy of a pharmaceutical product, and was mandated by regulatory agencies throughout the world.

It is important that the RCT permits generalization to the population from which the sample used in the RCT was drawn.  It does not necessarily generalize to every individual in that sample, or to individuals who belong to other populations.  In most studies there are individuals who either didn’t die or recovered from the illness that the drug was intended to eliminate or mitigate.  But the RCT requires large samples to estimate statistical confidence.

The advent of epigenetics has refocused the attention on to individuals.  Even individuals with the same genetic backgrounds might differ in their response to a treatment because of the way the information was read out of the genome.  Genetic differences can determine the efficacy of different treatments.  Suddenly the world has become much more complicated.  The promise of developing specific treatments for specific individuals has tremendous potential, but is only beginning.  There is much to be learned and new techniques for research and treatment will need to be developed.  So we must wait and hope.

The important point for readers of the healthy memory blog is that when you read the results of a RCT, the results might not pertain to you individually.  This is particularly true in research areas such as mindfulness.  You might read that such and such a method was not found to be beneficial.  What was found was that the method was not found to be beneficial for the treatment group and for the population from which that group was drawn.  But there may have been differences with respect to the research protocol, or to the assiduousness with which certain participants carried out the method.  So you shouldn’t necessarily rule out trying the method yourself or some variant of the method.

Evolution vs. Creationism

April 5, 2014

The previous post was on the stupidity pandemic. A specific example of this pandemic is on whether evolution or creationism should be taught in the public schools. The Scopes Trial, commonly called the Scopes Monkey Trial, and technically termed The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes took place in 1925. The state claimed that Scopes had violated Tennessee law by teaching evolution is a state-funded school. Inherit the Wind is a movie on the Scopes trial. Scopes was found guilty, but his conviction was overturned on a technicality. Nevertheless, the debate has continued. Some argue that evolution should not be taught, or that creationism should be taught instead of evolution, or that both evolution and creationism should be taught. Frankly I am strongly in favor of the final option. My friends tell me that I am wrong, that creationists would use this option to legitimatize their position or perhaps, with biased teaching, to discredit evolution.
What my friends fail to realize is that they are advocating teaching evolution as dogma, which is the very thing that creationists are doing. What is important is that students understand what science is and how it is conducted. The evolution vs. creationism debate provides an ideal means to do this. However, the following points need to be made.
The first point is that scientific theories can be disproved. So, however unlikely it might be, evolution could be disproved on the basis of overwhelming new evidence. In fact evolutionary theory is constantly undergoing refinement. Creationists regard this as a refutation of evolution, but this fine tuning process is a vital part of science. So creationists need to be asked, if there were significant evidence to the contrary, could creationism be disproved? If it cannot be disproved, then creationism is most definitely not a science.
The second point regards the scientific method as well as a bias in the way we humans process information. The human tendency is to look for information that confirm one’s beliefs or hypotheses. However, in the scientific enterprise it is important to look for disconfirming information. In the case of creationism, one can find evidence of an intelligent creator, but looking at the historical record, an enormous number of species have failed and become extinct. True, if the creator were seriously flawed, this could be a reasonable result. But isn’t it more reasonable to propose a random selective process?
The third point is that science does express beliefs, and in probabilistic terms in statistics, but they are based on data and logic. So consider the relevant geologic information. That is based on theory and data. What is the basis for what is presented in the religious source? Arguments based on authority, regardless of the presumed status of that authority, are not acceptable.
Students should be free to draw their own conclusions. But these are the points it is important for students to understand about science.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The STEM Disciplines Redux

August 28, 2013

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. And why are they important? They are regarded by many as being important to the economy and to our country. It is much easier to justify funding for these disciplines than for non STEM disciplines.

Here is where the fun begins. It is generally clear what is included in engineering and technology. But what constitutes science? Many people think that scientists wear lab coats and work in laboratories. They think of physics and chemistry first, then perhaps molecular biology and zoology. But what about the social sciences?

First of all, it needs to be understood that science does not refer to any particular discipline. Rather, science refers to a type of thought, a discipline we impose on our thinking. Moreover, all scientific thinking is constrained by empiricism, by collecting facts that can confirm or refute theories. Now there are two general methods of conducting science. One involves systematic observations of nature. Examples are astronomy and natural history. Astronomy involves observations, often with very sophisticated instruments of the universe. Natural history involves the systematic observation of nature. Both support the development of theories and both rely upon empirical observations to support these theories.

The other involves conducting systematically designed experiments to quantify the effects of variables. Experiments are common in chemistry and physics. Some of the experiments in physics are quite expensive. These experiments support or refute theories.

There are shortcomings with naturalistic observations because the scientist cannot systematically control the variables of interest and these variables are often confounded so it is difficult trying to determine what variable affects what, and how the variables interact (affect each other). Addressing these issues requires statistics and experimental design. A knowledge of statistics and experimental design is essential to science.

Although I am biased, I think psychology provides one of the best means of understanding science because it is applied at so many levels. It is applied at the level of the single neuron where recordings are taken. It is applied at the level of individual behavior. It is applied at the level of human cognition. And it is applied at the level of groups of people. Each of these areas develops its own methods, but they are all based on the fundamentals of the scientific method. And they all require a knowledge of statistics and experimental design.

In my professional life I have been surprised about the lack of knowledge in the areas of statistics and experimental design by some professionals in the non-controversial STEM areas, namely technology, engineering, and math. I was surprised by this when I saw the efforts of some engineers and mathematicians trying to design an experiment. They were pathetic. Essentially they were familiar with the limited parts of statistics and experimental design that were used in their disciplines, but could not generalize beyond them. Unfortunately, most people think that people with strong mathematical backgrounds are knowledgeable in statistics and experimental design. Although their backgrounds should facilitate their acquisition of statistical and design skills, the knowledge must be acquired. I have seem engineers running simulations that would have profited immensely by a good experimental design. What is worse is that, generally speaking, they are unaware of and will not acknowledge their shortcomings. I have lost track of the large number of projects that could have benefited from my assistance, but was not requested because they saw no need for it.

There is a general problem regarding the employment of Ph.Ds. Funding is provided for their education, but largely disappears when they are pursuing their careers. So they end up being a migratory work force pursuing post docs or pursue careers remotely related to their training.

Personally speaking, I have had a good life and have remained gainfully employed. But I have fallen way short of what I know I could have accomplished had I been in the right situation with adequate resources. And I believe that our country would be much better off without this underemployment of Ph.Ds. Some might argue that there too many PhDs. I argue that there is insufficient funding from government and industry.

But there is a much larger problem. And that has to do with the rejections of the findings of science and to the reluctance to use science to solve problems. There are internal political forces of ignorance and darkness. I believe that these forces present a larger danger to the United States than terrorists or hostile countries.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.