Archive for the 'critical thinking' Category

Dec 11 2009

No Link Between Casual Sex and Mental Health Issues

One bit of pop-psychology reasoning goes like this: individuals who engage in casual sex, especially women, show they don’t respect themselves — by not holding out for a committed, loving relationship. They are engage in self-disrespectful behavior. And when you don’t respect yourself, how can you feel good about yourself, at least deep down inside (wherever that is). And when you don’t feel good about yourself, you likely have low self-esteem and are prone to mental health problems.

Many people find this reasoning compelling. To qualify as “common sense,” even. For me, it has always seemed suspect. Individuals differ in their innate social and sexual propensities. And social environments and learning experiences certainly differ.

I now have greater reason to doubt. A recent study has found that . . .

young adults engaging in casual sexual encounters do not appear to be at increased risk for harmful psychological outcomes as compared to sexually active young adults in more committed relationships. [source]

Okay, this is only one study, (though it was amply sized with over 1,000 subjects). But until I encounter another study that has found a link between casual sex and mental health problems, I’m inclined to doubt the proposition.

The news release sums up the issue nicely:

Although there has been speculation in public discourse that sexual encounters outside a committed romantic relationship may be emotionally damaging for young people, this study found no differences in the psychological well-being of young adults who had a casual sexual partner verses a more committed partner.

Personally, I find value in monogamous relationships. But not for every person in every social environment at every time in their life. And sure, while sexual cheating/infidelity and, especially, unsafe sex are clearly problematic, these are separate issues.

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Dec 03 2009

How to Save Water

[And now for something different. I composed this piece a few years ago as an exercise in creative writing. It fits here to the degree it reflects my skeptical outlook.]


When we bought our house in Florida, we had only a well for water. Our property sat on the very edge of the closest incorporated city. The water was high in rust, but after installing a sediment filter, we liked it just fine. So did our plants and the fish in our goldfish pond.

Sadly, the well was old and soon went the way of old wells. We had to go on city water. I drove to the city utilities department, and there I paid the impact fee, the meter fee, the initial fee, and the water deposit. The secretary handed me a receipt and a poorly photocopied page titled, “25 Things you Can do to Save Water.” On the list–a list obviously put together by some national agency–was such sage advice as, “Keep a bottle of drinking water in the refrigerator. This puts a stop to the wasteful practice of running tap water to cool it for drinking.” In Florida the tap water never gets cold.

There was also, “Stop using your toilet as an ashtray.” This advice is as relevant to me as, say, “stop using your refrigerator as a paper weight.”

The suggestions did get me thinking about my water use, however. Which is spare, to say the least. I don’t even water my lawn. I don’t much care for fence-to-fence outdoor carpeting. Especially a carpet you have to pay to water, fertilize, insecticide and mow to keep looking lush. I like our tidy, little weed patch just fine, thank you. And so do the bugs and lizards and birds and butterflies.

Anyway. I got to thinking about other ingenious ways to save water. Here’s what I came up with.

1. Drink espresso. Coffee is, after all, mostly water, so cut down on the mostly part. Just take smaller swallows so you get the same dose of caffeine and flavor.

2. Break your spitting habit. Whether you play baseball or not, spitting causes you to lose bodily fluids. And it sometimes causes other people to see you losing bodily fluids. Bodily fluids have to be replaced. Which wastes water.

3. Buy condensed soup. Then don’t un-condense it. Instead of having a bowl of cream of tomato soup for lunch, have a pile of tomato pudding.

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Nov 24 2009

Natural Born Scientists

Perhaps more than being Natural Born Killers, human beings are natural born scientists. Or at least have the potential to be.

New research published in the journal Child Development has found that when preschool-age children ask those series of “why” and “how come” questions, they aren’t fishing for attention. They want answers. And not just any answer.

By looking at how the children reacted to the answers they received to their questions, the researchers found that children seem to be more satisfied when they receive an explanatory answer than when they do not. [source]

An explanatory answer. Anyone familiar with science knows that science does more than provide answers by connecting dots. It also reveals the mechanisms and processes between the dots, so to speak. Beyond B “because” A, there are variables and hypotheses and theories that reveal “how come” B follows A. In a sense, this is the reductionistic mindset innocently manifesting itself. While a basic answer might help us know about A and B alone, an answer that includes more information about underlying mechanisms — about the many variables and relationships potentially involved — can help us better understand whole classes of phenomena. We can take what we learned from one instance and apply it to other circumstances. Now that’s smart.

Unfortunately, not all nature born scientists continue their questioning ways. It seems that the scientific attitude of preschoolers wanes as they age. Why is that? How come?

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Nov 18 2009

Honesty in Good Science Writing

Yesterday, in my “bitter about chocolate” post, I bitched about science writing that leaves out important information. Information that would bring greater precision to the reporting. Today I have a contrasting sample of science writing to share. Just look at the title:

Transcendental Meditation Helped Heart Disease Patients Lower Cardiac Disease Risks by 50 Percent

And it gets better –

The nine-year, randomized control trial followed 201 African American men and women, average age 59 years . . . .

The study found:

* A 47 percent reduction in the combination of death, heart attacks, and strokes in the participants
* Clinically significant (5 mm Hg average) reduction in blood pressure associated with decrease in clinical events

Excellent! Numbers galore! There is nothing more precise than numbers. Good science writing will use them.

So why does science writing for the general public too often avoid numbers like the plague? A couple reasons come to mind.

First, numbers are associated with math and equations and all that sterile, boring, academic stuff. Yet used the right way, numbers are just numbers and will not chase people away. Just as an advertisement touting not just a great sale, but a 30% off sale will likely generate greater interest.

Second, the use of numbers in science reporting can make the findings less dramatic. Rather than reporting that, say, a new study has shown that drinking wine will reduce your risk of a heart attack, to more precisely report that drinking wine will reduce your risk of a heart attack from a baseline of 10% chance to 8% . . . well, how large-font worthy is that? Still, it’s the truth. And including the numbers is more honest reporting. Better reporting.

I believe it is possible for good science writing to be exciting and precise. Yes, we may need to educate the general public about the true nature of most findings. Rather than full earthquakes of discovery, they are tremors. That is the nature of science. Let’s be honest about it.

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Nov 15 2009

The Constitution: An Imperfect Document

An article I read yesterday got me thinking about the U.S. constitution.

Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be

You can probably guess its source: the Onion. Another funny, spot-on parody.

Spurred by an administration he believes to be guilty of numerous transgressions, self-described American patriot Kyle Mortensen, 47, is a vehement defender of ideas he seems to think are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and principles that brave men have fought and died for solely in his head.

Imagine this argument:

Person 1:

The Constitution says “X.” Therefore, position “X” — my position — is the right one.

Persons 2:

No, the Constitution says “Y.” Therefore, position “Y” — my position — is the right one.

I’d be tempted to step into the above and say,

Screw the Constitution. It’s an imperfect document. Tell me about your values instead, for that is what the issue really is. And while you are at it, convince me why your values should be preserved/embraced by this country.

“Screw the Constitution”? What kind of anarchism is that?! Actually, it’s freethought. As a freethinker I hold no idea or document to be above critical scrutiny. Just as I freely criticize what’s in the Bible, I will freely criticize another document that some people will present as sacred, particularly when they believe it supports their cause.

Of course, I would not scrap the Constitution. I would certainly consider further amending it. Yes, the U.S. Constition is an important and largely esteem-worthy piece of legislation and legislative history.

But it was written hundreds of years ago by men who lived in different times. Their culture was different; their economy was different; their technology was different; the threats to their peace and prosperity were different.

I don’t value the paper ideas are expressed upon. I value the ideas themselves. Or not. As I see it, the Constitution expresses and protects a set of values. These values are largely about a desired or preferred lifestyle. And I don’t mean lifestyle flippantly. Lifestyle means the freedom to engage in some behaviors and the prohibition to engage in others. Lifestyle includes the opportunities we want to preserve and obligations we consider important.

Maybe it’s the scientist in me. But whenever I hear a political disagreement, I really wish people would stop talking in abstracts and get to the nitty-gritty. Okay, you say you love freedom. But the freedom for what?

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Nov 13 2009

Detecting Autism & the Scientific Attitude

Yesterday I read a fantastic news release about a recent scientific discovery. The piece pleased me in two ways: for the wonder/curiosity it evoked in me, and for the exemplary way it illustrated how science is a cognitively cautious, rational endeavor.

1. The finding -

University of Missouri researchers have developed a pupil response test that is 92.5 percent accurate in separating children with autism from those with typical development. In the study, MU scientists found that children with autism have slower pupil responses to light change. [source]

Is that cool, or what?! People with autism show slower pupil response to light. Wild.

2. The scientific attitude -

Study author Gang Yao says this about the research:

“There are several potential mechanisms currently under study,” Yao said. “If these results are successfully validated in a larger population, PLR response might be developed into a biomarker that could have clinical implications in early screening for risks of autism.

That is science for you. First, the “potential mechanisms” bit. Not only does knowing potential naturalistic mechanisms make a hypothesis/finding more plausible, but it also expresses the necessarily reductionistic attitude of science. Beyond the what of the universe we want to understand the how. What are all the variables (components) involved and how do they interact to cause what we observe?

Second, “If these results are successfully validated.” Bravo! Yes, if. Then we can be much more confident. When you are careful in your data-gathering and thinking, you are less likely to make mistakes and hold mistaken ideas.

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Oct 21 2009

Scientific Discovery: Bible-Writers Were Self-Centered and Delusional

I am not a fan of Stephen J. Gould’s proposal that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria.” Science — gee, it is so grand and does so much for people. Religion — gee, it is so grand and does so much for people. If we keep them more than an arm’s length apart, we don’t have to recognize that they conflict in many fundamental ways. And everyone can keep pretending that the Supernatural Emperor ain’t buck-naked.

Our current culture plays favorites with religion, treating it with kid gloves. Critical thinking, gee, that’s for all the other areas of life. Unfortunately, many scientists and science-writers persist in excluding it from critical thought. A recent geological study — geological! — provides a case-in-point.

In brief, the study asserts that Jerusalem sits atop a type of limestone that readily forms caves through which water flows and springs can bubble. This is an important reason why King David chose the area to build his city.

It proved to be a wise decision. One of David’s successors, King Hezekiah watched as the warlike Assyrian horde, a group of vastly superior warriors toppled city after city in the region. Fearing that they’d soon come for Jerusalem, he too took advantage of the limestone bedrock and dug a 550 meter-long (1804 feet) tunnel that rerouted the spring’s water inside the city’s fortified walls.

The Assyrians laid siege to the city in 701 BCE, but failed to conquer it. It was the only city in history to successfully fend them off. [source]

Anyone familiar with the Bible stories (some of it historical) knows that an essential theme is this: Something good happened because our god intervened to help us, pleased as he was with our loyalty to him. Or, Something bad happened because our god punished us for our infidelity to him. It’s all about me, me, me. Or we, we, we.

The author of the study, Michael Bramnik of Northern Illinois University, does make a brief nod to this all-too-common phenomenon:

“Surviving the Assyrian siege put it into the people’s minds that it was because of their faith that they survived,” Bramnik said. “So when they were captured by the Babylonians in 587, they felt it was because their faith had faltered.”

The real reason the people survived? The human engineering that brought water into the city. In a sense, you could say that what made and continues to make Jerusalem a holy city is the delusional thinking of people. Make that self-centered, delusional thinking. For when something good happens, it is all about me (and my people and our special relationship to our version of the one god); when something bad happens, it is also all about me.

Earlier this month I made a post in my Sunday Sacrilege category, “Nothing by the Hands of a God.” In it I proposed that there are three types of events that tend to be attributed to the work of a god. Bogusly so. The third is certainly relevant here -

3) The work of men and women.

An army is victorious in battle against its foe. Why? Not because they had greater numbers, better weapons or whatnot, but because they had a god on their side. An impressive cathedral is built. Not by human hands alone, but human hands doing the work of their god. The poor are fed. How? By people doing their god’s work.

What’s the unnecessary variable in all of this? A god. People do works they attribute to a god. Yet the works can be fully explained without a god.

The title of the science article above read, “Bedrock of a holy city: the historical importance of Jerusalem’s geology.” Why do people persist in referring to a city as “holy.” Sure, religion claims it is so. But what are those claims based upon? Does science have anything to say about the claims?

It seems to me that the bedrock of religion consists of mis-attributions for objects and events in the natural world. And delusional conclusions drawn from these (my god loves me and wants all people to do x, y, and Z).

How long do we keep pretending that science and religion do not overlap . . . and are equally grand?

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Oct 02 2009

Spanking, Hyenas, and Intelligence

I must have woke on the wrong side of happy this morning. Get ready for some grumbling over perhaps picayune matters. Both of the following reports on science findings strike me as being too general. But in different regards.

1) Hyenas cooperate, problem-solve better than primates

Hyenas cooperate better than we do? If they problem-solve better than chimpanzees and other non-human primates, does that make them more intelligent?

Here’s the data collected/generated -

Captive pairs of spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) that needed to tug two ropes in unison to earn a food reward cooperated successfully and learned the maneuvers quickly with no training.

Intriguing finding, yes. But clearly this is a case of taking an inch of data and concluding a mile with it. Perhaps the hyenas abilities are very task-specific. And thus they are not generally better than primates at problem-solving or even cooperating.

2) Children who are spanked have lower IQs, new research finds

While the conclusion in this title is likely true, I’m not sure about the strength of the data — too general — nor the causal inferences. When the variables are general, it’s easy for confounding elements to get mixed in.

Here’s the data –

Straus and Mallie Paschall, senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, studied nationally representative samples of 806 children ages 2 to 4, and 704 ages 5 to 9. Both groups were retested four years later.

Nationally representative children were tested, leading to this conclusion –

Straus found that children in the United States who were spanked had lower IQs four years later than those who were not spanked.

Mind you, there is some relatively good research out there on spanking that leads me to believe that there could be a causal link between spanking and intelligence. Could be. (See my recent post, Better Science on Spanking).

More data –

Straus also found a lower national average IQ in nations in which spanking was more prevalent. His analysis indicates the strongest link between corporal punishment and IQ was for those whose parents continued to use corporal punishment even when they were teenagers.

Comparing statistics between nations and drawing a conclusion is fraught with difficulty. A nation as a variable is far too general. Differences between nations are simply too numerous and complex to take any findings from these type of studies without a massive grain of salt.

To settle the above, I propose an experiment in which the intelligence of spanked hyenas is compared with that of non-spanked hyenas.

I told you I woke up on the wrong side of happy.

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Sep 02 2009

Normally Biased

Is there such a thing as a close-minded individual, a person who steers clear of information that could open his or her eyes to a more accurate view of the world?

In research into what boils down to the confirmation bias,* lead author Dolores Albarracin highlights this finding:

[P]eople who have little confidence in their own beliefs are less likely to expose themselves to contrary views than people who are very confident in their own ideas.

Aha! So close-minded individuals are actually insecure! Right? Wrong. Sure, armed with ideas gleaned from pop-psychology, we love to attribute character flaws to those who refuse to see the sense of our own worldview. But it is more complicated than that.

In fact, in Albarracin’s research she differentiated low-confidence individuals from those characterized as close-minded. And she did find that these second type of individuals were “reluctant to expose themselves to differing perspectives.” In one experiment, they chose to view information complimentary to their current beliefs close to 75% of the time.

Aha! So there you have it. A personality flaw, close-mindedness, causes people to be biased and less able to modify their thinking.

Yet an equally significant finding — perhaps more — is that the average person chose to view confirming information 67% of the time.

So “close-minded” individuals are not altogether different from average folk. Their selection bias is simply more pronounced.

Given the problem of the tendency for individuals to habitually expose themselves to confirming information over potentially disconfirming material, how can we counteract this bias in the effort to promote seeing the world more freely and hence clearly? Two ideas come to mind:

1. Encourage people (including yourself) to find sources of information just outside the edge of current beliefs and presented in an optimally tolerable format.

2. Encourage people (including yourself), to disengage the emotional and social selves from the intellectual while evaluating claims. As much as possible.

Additionally, I wonder: Is it possible that the 360 degree skeptic has a bit of a masochistic streak? Just as he/she takes pleasure in data that confirms his/her beliefs, he/she also finds excitement in intellectual challenge and adaptation. Can this be taught?

* For other posts on the confirmation bias, see:

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Aug 31 2009

Alcohol, Happiness, and Science-Based False Claims

Did you know that people who don’t drink are less happy than drinkers? Science told me so. Ipso facto, drinking is good for a person’s mental health, right? Maybe not.

The title to news of the research in question reads, Teetotallers more likely to be depressed. See, refrain from drinking and you might get blue.

The lead sentence says all you need to now. Well, maybe not. “Abstaining from alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of depression according to a new study published in Addiction journal.”

Okay, there’s the science, so what’s wrong with the claim that, according to the study, people who don’t drink are less happy than people who do? Actually, that wording is okay, but could easily be misconstrued. However, my previous wording, that “drinking is good for a person’s mental health,” based on this finding, is false. Why? Because that’s not what they found. What they did find was an association, a correlation, between those-who-don’t-drink and depression.

Notice I wrote, “those who don’t drink” and not “not drinking.” For there is a huge difference. Huge.

Further down the article you will find this telling paragraph:

The authors conclude that in societies where some use of alcohol is the norm, abstinence may be associated with being socially marginalised or particular personality traits that may also be associated with mental illness.

Aha! So it may not be the non-drinking itself that leads to greater depression rates, but likely other factors: personality, social, what have you.

As has been said many times, and bears repeating, scientific/critical thinkers are cautious not to jump from a discovered correlation to a conclusion of causation.

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