Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Knowledge Roundup

Finding the Truth

Do lie detectors detect lies? What do you think? The standard machine (polygraph) has three features 1) blood pressure cuff 2) a tube fastened around subject’s chest which indicates changes in breathing and 3) device measuring skin’s electrical conductivity. Baker & Nickell (Missing Pieces p. 105) “Unfortunately, while polygraphs do detect nervousness, Hines correctly observes (1988, p. 304) that ‘not everyone is nervous when telling a lie and not everyone is calm when telling truth.’ Factors other than nervousness that may affect the responses are physical handicaps, moral attitudes toward veracity, location of the test, personality of the examiner, and the subject’s state of mind (“House Measure” 1985).” Michael Shermer tests the polygraph Watch Video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLL3wtgBiFA

Snakebite the Myths and Facts Part one

Kristin at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo addresses questions regarding snakebites. Juvenile snakes can’t control how much venom they inject? What is most dangerous snake? What are the chances you will die if bitten by a venomous snake? Watch Video

Raven Run Nature Sanctuary

My son and I became excited as we walked towards the Nature Center. There were sounds of birds and a mellow whistling of the wind that filled the air. Everywhere we looked we seen butterflies, birds, exotic looking plants, and a variety of trees. I knew we were experiencing nature at it’s best. After a few minutes we reached the Raven Run Nature Center. I was astonished with all of the displays featured in the Nature Center. I was thinking to myself wow all of this and we have not even seen the trails yet. We spent the remainder of the day traveling the trails and taking in the beautiful scenery. The sanctuary’s various habitats made me feel like I had visited three or four sanctuary’s not just one. This was my first visit to Raven Run, but definitely not my last………
This is my first article in Kentucky Explorer. Read the full article in April 2009 issue.

The Biology of skin color: Black and White
By Gina Kirchweger

Ten years ago, while at the university of Western Australia, anthropologist Nina Jablonski was asked to give a lecture on human skin. As an expert in primate evolution, she decided to discuss the evolution of skin color, but when she went through the literature on the subject she was dismayed. Some theories advanced before the 1970s tended to be racist, and others were less than convincing. White skin, for example, was reported to be more resistant to cold weather, although groups like the Inuit are both dark and particularly resistant to cold. After the 1970s, when researchers were presumably more aware of the controversy such studies could kick up, there was very little work at all. "It's one of these things everybody notices," Jablonski says, "but nobody wants to talk about." Read full article http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/07/3/text_pop/l_073_04.html

Evolution in Action
By Carl Zimmer

Evolution doesn’t always take millions of years to occur. Carl Zimmer meets Richard Lenski the man who has been watching evolution occur in his own laboratory. “Twenty- one years ago, Lenski used a single E.coli to establish 12 identical lines of bacteria, each of which lived in its own flask. Ever since the experiment started, the bacteria have been evolving. Lenski and his students and colleagues in his Michigan State University laboratory have been tracking the microorganisms’ evolution in fine detail. Along the way, some of the bacteria have undergone extraordinary transformations.” Read the full article at BBC Knowledge Magazine, April 2009 issue pp. 42-46.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Why We Believe

Why We Believe
By Jamie Hale

Have you ever wondered why people believe things when there is no evidence to support their beliefs,but tons of evidence indicating the belief is false. Why do people believe calories don’t matter, the world is 6000 years old, paranormal claims, homeopathy cures, dietary supplement magic, virgin giving birth, and so on? Shermer tackles this question in Why People Believe Weird Things. Shermer points out there is no single reason people believe weird things, but there are a few common reasons, including (ch. seventeen) : the belief is consoling, immediate gratification, morality and meaning (if you can’t believe in something higher or divine you lack morality, so they say),and hope springs eternal. In chapter 18 shermer asks Why Smart People Believe Weird Things. The chapter begins with this quote “When men wish to construct or support a theory, how they torture facts into their service!” John Mackay. Isn’t that the truth. Shermer says “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

Pages: 59-60 Shermer Why People Believe Weird Things

“In day-to-day life, as in science, we all resist fundamental paradigm change. Social scientist Jay Stuart Snelson calls this resistance an ideological immune system: “educated, intelligent, and successful adults rarely change their most fundamental presuppositions” (1993, p.54). According to Snelson, the more knowledge individuals have accumulated, and the more well-founded their theories have become (and remember, we all tend to look for and remember confirmatory evidence, not counterevidence), the greater the confidence in their ideologies. The consequence of this, however, is that we build up and “immunity” against new ideas that do not corroborate previous ones. Historians of science call this the Planck Problem, after physicist Mac Planck, who made this observation on what must happen for innovation to occur in science: “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning” (1936, p.97).” The ideological immune system often becomes problematic for graduate students. The problem occurs once students rely to heavily on guidance from instructors, or only look at some of the evidence. Acknowledging only sources that support the University’s biases, but neglecting sources that contradict (confirmation bias)strengthens the ideological immune system. To combat this problem students should look at all the available data ( within reason). This is often a long and tedious process, but it is necessary if gaining real knowledge is the objective.

I would agree with the points Shermer makes, and I would further add, people don’t always believe what they say they believe. Why do they say it? A detailed discussion of why they say they believe is not the objective of this article (refer to Daniel Dennett's Breaking The Spell). However, I would like to mention two of the most common reasons people say they believe what they don't believe-to avoid confrontation and prevent discomfort to friends or family. To illustrate my point, consider the rational individual that believes in the *virgin birth (virgin, person who has never had sex) of Christ. They probably really don’t believe this nonsense, but the spouse and friends hold this belief dear to their heart and they believe thinking anything but that would be horrible. It is easier for the pretend believer to agree. For many people the issue of abortion or religion are touchy subjects and any discussion is meaningless, as their emotions overwhelm their rationality. In these instances even a generally rational person may become irrational. The more they have invested in this belief the harder it becomes for them to abandon it, or at least the harder for them to admit they abandon it.

* virgin birth myth is derived from a mistranslation of ‘young woman’ into ‘virgin’ in the biblical account.

Many weird things are taught on the basis of faith (belief without any evidence). Once blind faith is established then any belief can be justified. From a very young age many children are taught that they should not question authority (teachers, religion, health professionals and so on), have faith. Promoting this attitude is a dangerous road to travel. It is also important that we separate blind faith from science. It’s fine to have faith (maybe, and depends on strength of faith and faith in what) if you would like, but don’t make the mistake of trying to disguise faith as science (e.g. creation science, which is not science). I find it comical when religious (of various religions) fanatics attempt to classify science as a religion. Religion is based on mounds and mounds of faith and delusional testimonials. Science is based on observable, testable, falsifiable, replicable and measureable evidence. Religion does not fall under the umbrella of science, as it is faith based and the very essence of faith, to reiterate, is belief in the absense of evidence.

No wonder society is so gullible regarding the dietary supplement industry, religious doctrine, governmental policies, self help myths, etc. It’s really not that hard to understand why people fall for all the nonsense they are exposed to on a daily basis, considering they have been taught their entire lives not to question authority and some things you just have to believe, regardless of how irrational they seem.

Suggested Readings

Dennett, D (2006). Breaking the Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon. Viking.

Flesch, R (1951). The Art of Clear Thinking. Barnes & Noble Books.

Gilovich, T (1991). How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. The Free Press.

Shermer, M (2002). Why People Believe Weird Things. Owl Books.