Skepchick Quickies, 7.14


Jen is a writer and web designer/developer in Columbus, Ohio. She spends too much time on Twitter at @antiheroine.

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  1. Re: Gravity – The more I read about String Theory, the more I’m beginning to think it’s some kind of math-woo. So far to my knowledge no one has been able to devise any tests that would conclude that String Theory, and only String Theory could be responsible for the results. It makes no testable predictions, and as a result just sounds like the ancient mathematical mystics and their 5 perfect forms (aka D&D dice).

    I’m starting to dismiss articles about String Theory just about as quickly as I dismiss anti-vaccination drivel.

    They’re going to have to make a testable prediction soon, devise an experiment that shows that the only possible result is String Theory, and have it replicated in order for me to think that they’re anything other than woo-peddlers.

    I don’t care if the math works, the physics have to work.

    Or am I being overly skeptical?

  2. Well, I know that facts can change people’s minds, and no study is going to convince me otherwise.

    Also, @Zapski: an awful lot of physicists feel exactly the way you do and basically want string theory to put up or shut up, so I wouldn’t necessarily say you’re being overly skeptical.

  3. Regarding FACTS don’t have the power to change our minds, here is a letter I wrote to Phil Plait who spoke on our need to be nice when talking to true believers, if we are going to effect behavior. Carol Tavris spoke after him on cognitive dissonce theory, reinforcing Phils message. Phil wrote back saying that it was interesting seeing the response by others in the blogosphere and that he agreed with the below.

    Hello Phil,

    Thanks for taking time to read this.

    Again, I am so happy that you gave the presentation that you did this past weekend. Though PZ Myers speaks for some skeptics and Richard Dawkins may speak for others , you spoke , if not for me, to me, yet we are all in this movement TOGETHER. The question remains, however, how do we proceed? For the record I am a primary care physician , an internist and a pediatrician, and my profession allowed me to have an “ah hah” thought.

    I was listening to Desiree Shell’s SKEPTICALLY SPEAKING podcast today and on her show was Kathleen Taylor, the author of the book CRUELTY: HUMAN EVIL and the HUMAN BRAIN. It was a different, but excellent podcast. One important concept, relevant to this BE NICER discussion was the concept of othering. According to USEFUL LINKS and definitely in accordance to the author’s usage, “othering is a way of defining and securing one’s own positive identity through the stigmatization of an “other.” Whatever the markers of social differentiation that shape the meaning of “us” and “them,” whether they are racial, geographic, ethnic, economic or ideological, there is always the danger that they will become the basis for a self-affirmation that depends upon the denigration of the other group. ”

    In addition to cognitive dissonance, a theory I love, which Carol Tavris so expertly defined as it applies to belief systems , behavior and our ability to effect such belief systems, amplifiying your point, I think othering applies as well. We are dangerously engaging in this behavior, and the more we do so, not only will we continue to find it difficult to help non skeptics discover rationality and critical thinking, but the greater likelihood we will only accomplish denigrating “the other group.” This helps no one. It also leads to the true believers’ further denigration of us.

    Now, if attacked, should we turn the other cheek? Frig Jesus! Of course not. But we must carefully and constructively undermine the arguement, not the person. But how best to change behavior and beliefs other than acting early, before a belief system is well engrained, at the top of the dissonance pyramid or gently, after a belief system is deeply assimilated and illogically defended, at the bottom?

    First of all, we must fight fair. When we physicians are discussing disruptive, dangerous or subversive behavior with our patients , we are taught to attack the behavior, not the person. We should NOT get personal. We must stay on the TOPIC that the other presents, not on top of the person. Everyone of us I fear, including myself ( when it comes to Jenny and Oprah and Oz ) , I think are guilty of attacking the attacker, not the topic. Emotions are emotions. Somehow, we must restrain ourselves and concentrate on the EVIDENCE that we hold so dear. This will reduce our tendency to OTHER. This will reduce our tendency to denigrate.

    Secondly, when I present bad news to a patient , such as a cancer diagnosis, I am there for them as their world spins out of control. As was mentioned in the conference ( I think it was by Michael Shermer ), people often replace one form of nonsense with another. In order for a behavior to best successfully change ( i.e., smoking cessation ) the belief in that behavior must be internalized , and it’s best internalized when the patient is ready for change. If we can present evidence, consistantly, effectively, and non threateningly perhaps we can ready them, but it can all fall apart , only to be replaced by nonsense, if we are not THERE for them as their world spins out of control.

    To me, BE NICE means:

    1. Stop othering
    2. And take responsibilty for the people we effect. Be there for a true believer.

    Number one probably is most effective group vs group and number two is probably best individual to individual, but I think both are needed if we want to create an environment for change and a pathway for change.

    Thanks for listening,

    FACTS ALONE will not change behavior. We must support the people we are effecting. We really must.

  4. I read that NYT article on gravity yesterday and what struck me about the article was how similar it read to articles discussing woo such as homeopathy, accupuncture etc. Long on ‘what ifs’ and short on substance. Plenty of hyperbole.

    Take this phrase for example:

    ‘This disrobing began in the 1970s with the discovery by Jacob Bekenstein of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University, among others, of a mysterious connection between black holes and thermodynamics,…’

    There is no ‘mysterious connection between black holes and thermodynamics’. Everything obeys the laws of thermodynamics. Even black-holes. Perhaps it took us a little while to work out what the consequences were but to say we discovered a link is simply untrue.

  5. That article on people not accepting the facts in conflict with their beliefs is depressing.
    But it reinforces a thought I have been carrying around with me for awhile.
    Convert your beliefs into ideas. Ideas are easier to give up when you are wrong. I even made a piece of art around that quote.

  6. Well, as to facts not mattering…. I’ve had yet another young earth creationist defriend me because I (nicely) told him that he was being closed minded and referred him to talk origins. What an asshat!

  7. @halincoh: I agree about 99% of the time. However there are some whose beliefs harm, injure and cause death that need to be called to accounts, not to the discussion table.

    The art of the argument is saying “you’re wrong” instead of “I disagree” and still having someone listen to you. The issues of skepticism are about correct thinking, established facts and prior probability, but often the public discourse gets bogged down in areas where the disagreements are about values, philosophy and political persuasions. We skeptics, including most of us who are also skeptical of religious claims’ often lose our capacity to be effective if our most vociferous arguments and causes are those where there is a substantial value component. Values are importent and we can get there more effectively if we start with and generally stick with discussions about the scientific method, general science education, how evidence and studies work and what the available evidence is in areas of dispute. Skepticism is not a dogma but I’d wager the majority of those outside the skeptical community think of us as quite dogmatic and strident or have little understanding or appreciation of how willing scientists and skeptics are to change their minds when faced with evidence contrary to what we’ve been thinking.

    @Non Believer: “Convert your beliefs into ideas. Ideas are easier to give up when you are wrong. I even made a piece of art around that quote. “

    I really really like that idea.

  8. I think as of right now, string theory is a fool’s errand. We don’t know what’s going on with dark matter and dark energy. Once we figure out whats going on with them, then, maybe, string theory will possible, and will make testable claims. Until then, IMHO, its like trying to build a Ferrari without the understanding of internal combustion.

    BTW, I guess I mind as well get on the FFD bandwagon. Those who listen to SGU and Reasonable Doubts podcasts should be aware they both referenced Flight From Death recently. Geo on SGU talked about using icons in a non-iconic way, and Luke from RD talked about it more in depth. One part was that if science says something contrary to what a person believes, then that person assumes that science must be wrong.

    I need to find this documentary and watch it. It sounds INSANELY interesting. Besides, its a sign from Skycat that I must watch. Two seperate podcasts both talked about it recently, and I ended up listening to both episodes on the same day. Then this. Maybe I can find the path to cheezburgertopia there! Maybe not watching it is a sin.

  9. The article on gravity reminds me of a paper a friend tried to get published. He had just been contemplating the universe, thought of some new way of thinking of things, and then reasoned everything to fit according to his limited understanding. They said the paper lacked the rigor they expected. It’s my understanding that physicists have to deal with stuff like that a lot – people with radical ideas that have no more than thought experiments behind them. This one just happens to be put forward by a physicist rather than some schmoe. Show me the math.

    New topic. I thought it was interesting that one group did change their mind – the group that was confronted by a person authoritatively telling them a fact. It’s just another bias, of course, but people change their minds when people tell them things with an air of certitude. Unfortunately, certitude is found much more readily among the uninformed as opposed to the skeptical. Personally, I believe that’s why Mormons have “Testimony Meeting” each month. They know how much it affects their congregation’s belief.

    New topic! I don’t really understand string theory, of course, but I’m given to understand that it’s basically that particles in our universe have their properties depending on how some extra-dimensional strings are vibrating, right? I’ve been considering this with respect to Artificial Life recently. If we were to create an organism that were capable of similar exploration within its “Universe” as we are within ours, it’s conceivable that they would eventually discover the “1’s and 0’s,” but would they be able to discover the actual changes in voltage behind that? Would they be able to find the electrons using anything within their own universe? It might just be that they would never be able to “see” them, since nothing in their universe would be “small” enough, but they might be able to define them mathematically.

    Just a fun thought experiment.

  10. I particularly liked the last paragraph of the fact piece.
    Fast-talking political pundits have ascended to the realm of highly lucrative popular entertainment, while professional fact-checking operations languish in the dungeons of wonkery. Getting a politician or pundit to argue straight-faced that George W. Bush ordered 9/11, or that Barack Obama is the culmination of a five-decade plot by the government of Kenya to destroy the United States — that’s easy. Getting him to register shame? That isn’t.
    The development of “The News” (as I always thought of it as a kid) into just another form of entertainment, to be chosen based on which set of “facts” it promulgates, has vastly complicated the task of seeking the truth of any issue.
    The practice of politicians reciting the latest “talking points” of whichever party they belong to, in order to control “the narrative” of any particular issue, just relegates the facts of any case to the categories of convenient/inconvenient to the argument, to be used only to bolster a preconceived idea. It’s so fucking depressing.

  11. Re: NYT article: The first thing I thought when I read this was, “Here’s a different idea to look into.” The idea brings up interesting possibilities, but that’s all it is; an idea.

    The nature of gravity is a fundamental problem, and there are so many different paths to try to resolve it. Quantum space, quantum gravity, holographic projection, supersymetry, brane theory, superstrings…the list goes on and on. Different ideas continue to be proposed, but so far none have been proven. It’s very hard to experiment when you’re looking for effects around the Planck length.

    All in all, science marches on. He may be wrong, but at least we’d learn what the wrong path is. And in the meantime, perhaps something interesting will be found along the way.

  12. The facts thing – sounds correct, but I suspect it’s too simplistic.

    Add in time, for instance. The backfire effect may diminish with a little time and curiosity. Also, peer pressure – we all adjust somewhat to the people around us. Personal experiences – that “fact” about welfare may change if your son or daughter ends up on it…

    So, I wouldn’t give up on people just yet. Stay friendly, use humor, show gentle concern. It does (eventually) have an impact.

  13. @Non Believer: I too like “convert your beliefs into ideas. Ideas are easier to give up when you are wrong.” Well said!

    @James Fox: Regarding “skepticism is not a dogma but I’d wager the majority of those outside the skeptical community think of us as quite dogmatic ” Yes, and that is the beginning of OTHERING.

    And regarding “however there are some whose beliefs harm, injure and cause death that need to be called to accounts, not to the discussion table.” I agree completely. Like I said if attacked, Frig Jesus and the cheek turning, one must attack back when ourselves, our family or our community is threatened, but there are skillful ways of doing so.

  14. @Zapski:
    There are tests that can disprove string theory but all known tests are impossible to perform (we cannot even in theory generate the energy we would need to perform the experiments). Most physicists have long ago given up on it. Theoretical physics has a similar appearance on the surface to pseudoscience but you have to remember that everyone knows the majority of theoretical physics will be proven false, it’s just that at the moment you need to put a tremendous amount of work into a theory before you can work out how you could possibly test it.

    @NoAstronomer: I’ve only finished a basic physics degree and my interest is in astrophysics so I’m a little sharper there but I know the basics of what he is talking about and it’s not completely ridiculous. The problem is the author of the article, he’s got completely different concepts thrown in, he throws in Stephen Hawking I’m assuming because he thinks people will recognize the name. It’s pretty bad, though it seems like the author gets it and has just made a hash out of trying to make the science “accessible”. The overconfidence in their own theory is pretty standard from theoretical physicists, the author again should know better.

  15. There should be a prison here in the States for women of “bad character”. And they should allow conjugal visits. And they should send me the address and some photos.

  16. Obviously, facts don’t change people’s opinions. If they did, woo would cease to exist pretty quick, wouldn’t it?
    – “I’m taking some homeopathic medicine for this condition.”
    – “But homeopathy is bunk. Let me show you the facts!”
    – “Great Scott, you’re right! I’ll go and see a real doctor toot sweet!”

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