The Occasional Joke

Nurse: Patient's name?

Centurion: Marcus Licinius Crassus

Nurse: And his date of birth?

Centurion: 115 BC.

Nurse: All right. And what is he here for?

Centurion: Cataphract surgery.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Around and around

The Latin tag that appears at the top of this Blog is attributed to Julius Caesar, and it means, roughly, "It's easy for men to believe what they want to."

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about this same phenomenon, under the label "Confirmation Bias." Essentially, if you have some results of some kind, or some observations, or something that passes for data, you are exhibiting or can be accused of exhibiting confirmation bias if you choose to interpret that data in a way that supports your pre-existing beliefs. It is my pre-existing belief that although CB certainly takes place, perhaps more often than not, it's the act of a fool to start flinging mud on that basis, since such criticism contains a serious logical flaw.

Consider: New Scientist recently ran a story about how CB might well be the basis of all positive interpretation of results, leading to support for the reality of paranormal phenomena. People, they said in effect, interpret observations as showing the existence of paranormal hooey if they already believe in it.

Well, a reader, somebody with some physics chops (he apparently won a Nobel prize, back in the Seventies,) wrote in, saying, "Oh, yeah! Well, maybe your authors think that because they're applying confirmation bias due to their not believing in paranormal stuff." (Or words to that effect.)

To which anyone, of course, could reply, "Ha! You just think that because you have a a pre-existing belief in the possibility of paranormality!"

To which he could then reply, "Oh, Yeah? Well, what if you ..."

You get the drift. It's all just a bunch of intellectual smack-talking. Yo' mama so credulous, she believe in ghosts! Oh, yeah? Yo' mama got confirmation bias in favor of not believin' in 'em! Oh, yeah? Well, yo' mama ... and around and around we go. It isn't a useful rhetorical device.

My point, if I can be said to have one, is that this isn't the most professional way to conduct intellectual discourse. Something that seems to have gotten lost along the path is that a scientist, even a social scientist or, God help us, a psychologist, should be extremely reticent to claim results or causalities on the basis of anything less than multiple, repeatable experiments. The right thing to say is that, based on the data I collected, there seemed to be nothing happening or, conversely, something happening, or -- much more likely -- nothing conclusive was observed, but I got tenure anyway.

This is how science was done, back in the dark ages when I was supposedly being trained to do it. What's gone wrong with the world?

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