About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Massimo’s Picks

By Massimo Pigliucci
* The most recent Rationally Speaking podcast, on the idea of expertise.
* You’ve heard the standard evolutionary psychological argument about why males “naturally” cheat. Here is a tongue in cheek response from the female perspective.
* What’s introspection? How reliable is it? How is it possible? Here is the latest about it from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
* Francis Collins, his rather silly conversion from atheism to Christianity, and the equally silly accusations hurled at him by some of the New Atheists.
* Philosophy Talk takes on the thorny issue of self-deception: how is it even possible, and why do we do it?
* How “myths” (read “lies”) about the health care bill originated. My favorite: it provides for a personal army for President Obama.
* Funny yet depressing commentary by Gail Collins on Sarah Palin.
* Michael Shermer responds to Jerry Coyne on capitalism and the Templeton Foundation. I have to think about this one.
* Did Samir Okasha, one of the most brilliant contemporary philosophers of science, finally crack Hume’s problem of induction?
* My interview at “Real People, Real Lives, Real Spirituality.” (Hey, Michael Shermer did it too...)


  1. One of these is not like the others. The article on Hume is from 2001. But hey, that probably still fits in the "news" category when it comes to philosophy! :)

  2. Massimo, why you are thinking about the Shermer-Coyne tussel, this is my quick take. Shermer recklessly conflates trade, exchange, markets, and capitalism, and then complains that nobody really took the time to understand him correctly. Maybe he ought to take the time to be more precise.

    And another pet-peave, from the Shermer article:
    "As Jared Diamond once told me about his research on Papua New Guinea hunter-gatherers:..."

    I really wish people would get their cultural anthropology right. The vast majority of native people of Papua New Guinea are swidden horticulturalists raising yams and pigs. Just because they look "primitive" does not mean they are hunter-gatherers.

  3. Luke, well, I just became aware of this paper by Okasha recently, so it is news to me...

  4. I'm a bit surprised that Shermer is citing Jared Diamond, given some serious lapses covered by StinkyJournalism.org.

  5. Unfortunately, the bad reputation of evolutionary psychology continues (at least among some critics). Cheating is natural as murder is natural. I know that you are well aware of the naturalistic fallacy but sometimes this seem to be lost among critics. Over and over, popular articles in the press portray the field as justifying immoral behaviors such as cheating, rape and so on but that's not what the researchers really say. Regarding cheating, it will be more accurate to say that researchers focus on the conditions in which cheating is more likely to happen in both sexes. There are many studies that show how women are more likely to cheat during ovulation but for some reason, the media don't report them. Maybe because it's easier to write about the stereotype of the cheating men.

  6. I'm with Coyne on this one, particularly when he says:

    I don’t see capitalism as innately conducive to morality. It is, at best, orthogonal to it. It may make us more prosperous, but it doesn’t make us better people.

    Shermer tries to weasle out of this by first equivocating between "capitalism" and "trade" (heck, even Communist countries engage in trade) and then by basically repeating the libertarian myth that the main problem with real-world examples of capitalism is too much "hindrance from third parties" (read: government intervention in the free market).

    Hey, I'm no fan of corporate welfare, either, and I also see markets as an essential ingredient in any country's economic success. But Shermer's selection bias here is painfully obvious to anyone with even a basic knowledge of economics. For example, he seems to have never heard of an externality (or at least not a negative one). If he has, then he seems to brush it under the carpet or else believes that its social implications are morally negligible.

    Regardless, I think Shermer's response to Coyne only strengthened the latter's case (not that I deem either one to be an expert on the topic).

  7. gil,

    I agree, the facts of evolution to do not warrant any conclusions about our values (unless you are Sam Harris! Oh, sorry, couldn't resist!).

    But there is a serious point here, which is that it is just as easy to cherry pick other primate or "primitive" human behaviors to buttress whatever preconceived notion we may have of human nature.

    I hasten to add that I do believe that science does tell us something about human nature, and I do not believe that we are blank slates. But evo-psych is a particularly vulnerable and easy to manipulate source for that kind of knowledge.

  8. Massimo,

    Thanks for the link about evolutionary psych -- sometimes I think dismissive sarcasm is exactly what such arguments deserve! It's not accurate to say it's from "the female perspective", however -- there are plenty of female perspectives on evo-psych, just as there are many male ones. Feminists don't think as a monolith, and women in general certainly don't.

  9. Metatwaddle, touche`, of course there isn't such a thing as *the* female perspective.

  10. Interesting article on Hume, thanks for the link. However, I remain unconvinced - I can't see how you can do Bayesian corrections without assuming a uniformity in nature, e.g. in your own thinking process. The problem of assuming uniformity is therefore not alleviated, but it is illuminated.


  11. Massimo, I completely agree that like most sciences there are good and bad studies, onces that cherry pick their data and so on. However, I do think that there are some really good studies that stem from sounded evolutionary hypotheses. Wouldn't you think that that mate choice cues such as health and fertility (symmetry, waist to hip ratio, young look of women) has to be based, at least in part, on our evolutionary past?

    To make a more philosophical point I think that being part of evolution entails some evoluiotnary influences. I agree that a lot of time it's hard to seperate evolution and culture, but that's a point that should also be made toward other social scientists that do not even think there are some evolutionary forces affecting humans. I think that you can come out with both cultural and evolutionary theories and try to find support for each one of them. There is no proof but that doesn't mean that some evolutionary theories are more likely than their counterparts. Cross species studies are just one example, but you can also do cross cultural studies including hunter-gatherers comparisons. There is also a difference between picking one ape and saying "this is like us" than looking at the whole range of primate behaviors and morphology and trying to see were humans fit. For example, testicles size is highly correlated with the amount of intra sexual competition, sexual promiscuity and paternal investment. There should be a strong argument to show that this has nothing to do with human male behaviors.

  12. Shermer is very optimistic about trading. It is obvious that free market eats away common goods (environment, knowledge) and amplifies economic inequality.

  13. Michael Shermer is just wrong on economics. Hey Skeptics, why aren't any of you sceptical about civilisation. Check out Derrick Jensen, John Zerzan et al.

  14. gil, of course evolution informs our understanding of human behavior. The tricky part is when it comes down to specific claims made by evo-psych. btw, the waist/hip ratio study has been debunked.

    unpronounceable, you may remain unconvinced, but Osaka knows quite a bit about Bayesian theory, you may need to look at the paper before dismissing the idea.

  15. I am not sure what study you refer to (as there are many on that subject), but if indeed it was debunked doesn't it show that ev psych is not just "just so stories" and can actually be refuted?

    I think you should interview an evolutionary psychologist to the podcast. I know you wrote about the subject so it should make for a fascinating talk on the demarcation problem.

  16. I'd like to point out that the Ryan book Shalit makes fun of is actually arguing against the standard pop-evo-psych argument of cheating men and mercenary women. Nor does Ryan commit the naturalistic fallacy based on his work, to my knowledge (see the end of HIS article!).

    Shalit's piece is clever as polemic but smacks of defensiveness, confusion between explanation & justification, and what I would call "science cannot touch that sacred thing" syndrome. I think her opposition to evo-psych is ideological.

  17. On that induction paper: How can you write a paper using Bayesian theory without one single equation? My bullshit detector is screaming. If you use a mathematical tool, you must actually do the math! Throwing words like "prior" around won't do.

  18. gil, the study in question was debunked in one of the issues of Nature immediately following it. The debunking was not an example that evopsych works, because the author shows that it is simply not true that men prefer the same waist-to-hip ratios across cultures.

    optical, the paper is philosophical, not mathematical. The argument needs no math at all, only an understanding of Bayes theorem and of the problem of induction. Okasha is one of the most brilliant philosophers active today, I'd be threading lightly before accusing someone of being an idiot without having read the paper.

  19. I tried to read the paper but could't seem to understand a sentence. But yeah, my bad. I haven't tried hard and therefore shouldn't say it's nonsense. Apologies. Will try harder.

  20. PS: I might add that, in economics, externalities are part of the larger category of market failures.

    But I don't mean to suggest that economics (as a social science) is a study of morality. (That would be a categorical error, not unlike Shermer's, as Coyne pointed out.) I do mean to suggest, however, that Shermer has also cherry-picked from the field in a way that reveals a libertarian political bias. (The fact that he dresses like Penn & Teller is also somewhat revealing. :-))

    PPS: unpronounceable = Yair (pronounced like: Yah-ear). I understand that not all of us read Hebrew, but he did sign his name in Roman letters.

  21. Referring to sex outside of marriage as "cheating" or "immorality" is a bit circular, as is comparing it to murder. The only moral component that I see is that the person who engages in this behavior defies the expectation of his or her partner. Perhaps the fault lies in that partner's expectation of monogamy? The moral component would go away if the degree of commitment that each partner was offering was clear to each at the outset.

  22. Let me see if I can summarize the Okasha paper.

    Hume's problem of induction can either be taken to mean induction is not deductively valid (which is boring and admitted by all) or than induction is not valid at all, even probabilistically. It's the second interpretation that we should be concerned with.

    Hume's argument goes like this:
    (1) Induction assumes uniformity in nature.
    (2) If there is no such uniformity, induction fails.
    (3) Such uniformity cannot be shown deductively.
    (4) It can't be shown probabilistically, because that would be circular.
    (5) If the uniformity cannot be shown deductively or inductively, it is irrational to believe in it.
    (6) So we have no reason to believe in nature's uniformity.
    (7) So we cannot justify induction/probabilistic reasoning.

    Okasha claims that this argument is valid but unsound; premises (1) and (2) are wrong. He uses a Bayesian model to show this.

    An ideal Bayesian updater is "born" with a set of prior probabilities, distributed across all hypotheses by rules like the maximum entropy principle.

    It then updates those probabilities using Bayes' theorem when it encounters new evidence. For example, I start with a certain prior probability for "all ravens are black," and update that prior in a positive direction every time I see a black raven (FYI, the probability can never actually reach 1), downward if I see a white raven.

    Since this process is a process of inductive reasoning, and yet NEVER makes an arbitrary assumption of "uniformity of nature," premises (1) and hence (2) are wrong, and Hume's problem of induction isn't a problem.

  23. I enjoyed the "Deferring to Experts" podcast.

    I think a major issue of our information/mass-media age is Information Quality Control (IQC).

    How can we quantify information quality?

    Is it every person for themselves, "Let the reader beware (caveat lector)"?

    The expert question is included in this IQC problem. We must have proxies to filter information for us. The alternative is information overload paralysis or exploding heads.

    But we also need proxies to regulate the proxies--experts on experts. Institutions, peer review, media watchdogs, fact checkers, etc. do their best to fill this need.

    But it seems that these mechanisms are not only being overwhelmed with the growing volume of information--they are actually being poisoned by toxic information pollution such as disinformation and "spin".

    My proposal for increasing IQC capacity will probably make some intellectuals, academics, scientists, etc. gag.

    Early computerized "expert systems" were just static information networks ("decision trees" or "flow charts"), only as good as the datasets and logic they were manually populated with.

    Now stuff is evolving on the internet that gives me hope for a new breed of expert system. It would be a fusion of ideas from search engines like Google, publicly managed and populated databases like Wikipedia, and e-commerce expert systems like Amazon and eBay.

    > The average citizen has far more confidence in the eBay seller rating system than in the International Panel on Climate Change.

    > Its amazing how good Amazon has become at suggesting books I can't resist.

    > Google search results aren't peer reviewed, but search algorithms certainly can be. A publicly managed, open-sourced, technically advanced, peer-reviewed search engine is now in order.

    > We also need to leverage what wiki developers, administrators, and user-editors have learned to establish a universal Wikipedia-type public human knowledge base--a meta-wiki portal into all online knowledge, much of which anyone can edit, comment on, red-flag, etc.

    > One idea Wikipedia hasn't fielded but which I like is that the information quality (confidence) level of content could be indicated in-line by the color and/or font of the text.

    Such confidence levels might be computed by many different criteria and by many different experts and users, but the process would be transparent, code would be open-source and peer reviewed, and at some level the policy management of the system would be public and democratic.

    Information quality can't be achieved by any one of these methods but a combination of all of them (including many more such technologies I haven't mentioned or yet discovered) might give us the best ICQ leg-up available.

    I think the UN should be the institutional host for such an effort.

    Poor Richard

    Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

  24. ianpollock said..."I start with a certain prior probability for "all ravens are black," and update that prior in a positive direction every time I see a black raven (FYI, the probability can never actually reach 1), downward if I see a white raven.

    The way I think of this is that

    1) knowledge begins heuristically or even at a random data point and then

    2) progressively becomes more stochastic (probabilistic),

    3) until it's probability reaches some threshold (pragmatically defined for a given purpose),

    4) at which I consider it provisionally deterministic for the given purpose.

    Poor Richard

    Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

  25. Re: expertise episode:

    I'm not sure the skeptical movement (apart from a few specific skeptics like Ray Hyman, James Alcock, Susan Blackmore, and Richard Wiseman) is really the place to find expertise on parapsychology. There has been a lot of bad skeptical commentary on the subject, which requires a certain level of expertise in statistics that most skeptics lack.

    Early on in the episode Julia speaks about a premise being "valid"--validity is a property of arguments, not premises. Premises can be true or false, but not valid or invalid.

    I second Massimo's opinion on expertise in philosophy having some relation to expertise in rules of reasoning. There are other aspects of expertise that weren't much discussed, such as being part of a social community within a discipline, knowing the methods of research and publication and being able to apply them, and so forth. Being a good historian is not just a matter of "knowing what happened" but of knowing how to investigate, analyze, document, and report on what happened.

  26. Re introspection, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    The article is very worthwhile reading but only mentions neuro-anything in one paragraph and fMRI only once.

    Poor Richard

    Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

  27. Experts and information:

    Because of the concerns with induction as well as gaps in the body of knowledge such as the missing explanation of mass, long ago I switched my epistemology to justified belief or what I prefer to call information quality.

    A key parameter of information quality is fitness for a particular purpose, so we can work with a wide range of quality as long as our purposes and expectations are adequately met.

    The point I want to make now is that it is more productive (and I think intellectually superior) to investigate and understand how to maximize and control information quality than to look for other "ultimate" foundations to reality, logic, knowledge, science, etc.

    There are many people who will always prefer to speculate very deeply. I think for such theorists empirical knowledge is secretly an irritant and a bother that they are grudgingly forced to pay lip service to. But for society, the cost of trying to gain empirical data to confirm or falsify theories at the frontiers of particle physics or cosmology, for instance, can be disproportionately high.

    I'm glad we have people who think and ponder very deeply on esoteric vapors, but they are not my intellectual heroes.

    My intellectual heroes are the interdisciplinarians in biophysics, ecology, neurobiolgy, experimental psychology, information science, complexity, etc.

    Thanks to technology, empirical data is pouring in from these fields faster than anybody knows what to do with. That pace will only accelerate. So my biggest intellectual heroes are those who are investigating new ways for humanity to assimilate all this information.

    In philosophy, I think the best interdisciplinary intersection may be utility theory.

    Just saying.

    Poor Richard

    Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

  28. Here is what I see as a fatal flaw in Okasha's argument. As I see it, he describes a process that I will call "iterative Bayesian induction." Then he says the following about it:

    "Presumably the sceptic will argue that the high prior probability I allocate to the statement 'Conspecific birds are usually uniform in colour' is unwarranted. But we need only ask the sceptic 'What prior probability do you recommend?'. If we could make good probabilistic sense of a state of ignorance, or of a 'theoretically barren context', the sceptic would have a plausible answer to this question. The sceptic could say 'Your prior probability in that statement should be x', where x is the number dictated by the prior probability function that represents the state of ignorance. But if, as I am assuming, the principle of indifference does not work, then the sceptic will be unable to provide an answer on these lines. So his argument fails. It does not beg the question to operate with some particular prior probability distribution if there is no alternative to doing so. Only if the inductive sceptic can show that there is an alternative, i.e., that 'information-free' priors do exist, would adopting some particular prior distribution beg the question." (323)

    This argument seems to me to demonstrate exactly the opposite of what Okasha intends to prove. If it were possible to specify a prior distribution corresponding to ignorance, then it would be reasonable to use that distribution, and iterative Bayesian induction would be well-founded. But no such prior distribution exists; we must pick one out of a hat. We must make an arbitrary choice -- an unreasoned choice. So no example of iterative Bayesian induction is well-founded.

    As I read Hume, that is a very close rephrasing of his conclusions; and I think when Okasha claims that begging the question because one must is not begging the question, he's being evasive. One of Hume's aims was to show the limits of human knowledge, and those limits are the same whether one uses "acknowledgement of fallibility" or "skepticism" to describe them.

    I suppose there is an interesting quasi-paradox around the notion that it is reasonable in this case to make an unreasoned choice. And one could argue, I think, that an unreasoned choice may be shown, by its consequences, to be a good one (though not provably the best). But I don't think introducing Bayesian reasoning into the mix changes anything about the problem of induction.

  29. ianpollock: I agree, except that Okasha also rejects the principle of indifference in setting up prior probabilities.

    However, what I think Okasha misses is that to apply his Bayesian model we need a certain uniformity in nature. He implicitly assumes you the thinking process goes on regularly, that there is a certain uniformity to how the brain works, and how evidence works, and hence how nature works.

    @Scott Yes, a very good point. However, I believe that even if we could supply such a rational distribution, it would not fully replace the principle of the uniformity of nature - we would still need it to justify and allow the use of Bayesian reasoning.



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