Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Binary Truth In Western Culture

A recent TED talk mentions that one of the great things that happened during the enlightenment was that we shook off much of the legacy from the ancient Greeks that was stifling our ability to think for ourselves. Since they were wrong about a lot of things, treating their pronouncements as eternal wisdom held us back from making progress in our understanding of the world. But there is one area of thought where ancient thinking has become so insidious that we are not even aware of its influence. It is an area where we think we are being more rational in our thinking whereas in fact we are straying further from reality. I am talking about true/false logic and how it affects our worldview.

Let me be clear that I am not talking about formal logic. I am talking about how individuals throughout our society view the issues of the world as belonging to only two states: true and false.

I started giving this serious study during the skyrocketing oil prices of 2008. An intelligent person said to me, "I was glad to find out that the high price of oil was due to China's increased consumption. I was worried that it was our[America's] fault."

I was surprised though I shouldn't have been. This is just an artifact of the worldview of our culture. China's growth caused an increase in the price of oil, therefore America's consumption of oil has no effect on the price? The world is a complicated place, and almost everything in it has more than one cause. But the way our culture applies a true/false logical view on everything has obscured that fact from many people's view of many issues.

This attitude is endemic throughout all western nations. We can't just blame Fox News for this (although they are a particularly egregious example), it is everywhere within our culture. It is implicit in the views expressed throughout the blogosphere as well.

Where did this bimodal view of the world originate? I believe it came from science. In science, something is either proven or it is not. There are different standards for what constitutes proof (the gold standard being the randomized double blind trial) but once the evidence for an hypothesis passes a given level, it is considered proved. The conceit is that we pass instantly from no knowledge to knowing something in an instant.

This approach to truth is of course nonsense. What actually happens is that we build up evidence that something is true. The probability that something will ultimately cross our proof threshold increases over time. To claim that we suddenly go from knowing nothing to knowing something is an artificial construct that both comes from and reinforces our notion that truth only has two states: true and false.

This notion of what is true actually hurts us. An obvious example is the way the tobacco industry abused the scientific notion of truth by setting an artificially high the level of proof required to show that smoking caused cancer. Because of this true/false distinction never quite crossing their artificial finish line for proof, they were able to win a seemingly never-ending series of court cases despite the fact that anyone with good sense knew their product did indeed cause cancer in the population.

A more recent example of an industry abusing this notion of truth is seen in the recent handling of Bisphenol A. A study a few years ago found that Bisphenol A caused cancer in rats. The industry that produces plastics made with Bisphenol A was quick to point out that no studies had shown any effects on humans. This was true at the time, although studies published in 2008 and 2009 did show that there were health risks to humans with high levels of Bisphenol A in their bodies.

But when products made with it were first produced, we really did know nothing about the effects of Bisphenol A on humans. Were we as ignorant by the time the rat studies started showing up? No, we were not. The rat studies each contributed one more piece in the growing evidence that Bisphenol A affects humans in a negative way. Each was evidence, but not proof. Each piece of evidence made it more likely that we would eventually find out (meaning cross the proof threshold) that Bisphenol A causes cancer in humans. To act like we are no closer to knowing something when we have evidence to support it is just stupid, and it is a stupidity that has infected the way our society views the world.

This is especially obvious when you consider the the difference in perspective between terminally ill patients and doctors with a scientific view of the world. The doctor will say, "I can only prescribe treatments that I know will work", meaning treatments that have reached the proof level that the doctor considers appropriate. The patient will say, "I don't have time for you to prove these things. I'll be dead by the time that you do and that does me no good. Give me the treatment you think most likely to work even if in the end it turns out you were wrong."

I remember when the studies came out that showed that bone marrow transplants did not result in women with breast cancer living longer. All of the media coverage talked about how terrible it was that those women received unnecessary transplants. That coverage made me angry. Sure it turned out that the transplants didn't end up having a net effect on extending lives, but the early results gave evidence that in fact lives were extended. Those transplants weren't unnecessary, they were the best guess at the time as to what would work. I applaud both the doctors and patients who decided to take that chance. It was the right thing to do.

The fact that we think we know that bone marrow transplants don't help women with breast cancer is dangerous in another way. The transplants are inherently dangerous and many people die of the treatment earlier than they would without it. Given that the net effect for breast cancer patients was no change in overall survival times, that means that some women did live longer as a result of receiving the transplants. Imagine if we could identify that group and give transplants only to them. Or consider that bone marrow transplants are getting safer all the time. Is it true that there would be no survival advantage after 5 years of improvements? It doesn't matter. We now know that bone marrow transplants help breast cancer == false. You can't argue with logic.

Given the influence science has had on creating this attitude within our culture, it is ironic that one of its biggest scandals to hit science in recent years was caused by the frustrations that a group of scientists experienced because of it. I'm referring to the climate change emails scandal, aka ClimateGate.

You probably heard about this scandal. It was very big news among all the climate change denial people and that leaked over into the mainstream press. You probably don't know what it was about (although you may think you do). Some scientists wrote emails about falsifying climate change data. That part became common knowledge. But why did they want to falsify the data? That part of the affair was not publicized. The reason that their motivation was not part of the story is that sharing that information didn't suit the agenda of the climate change deniers. They hoped that people would assume it was because climate change wasn't real but that the scientists wanted to claim that it was. That answer is incorrect.

The scientists wanted to falsify the data because they were frustrated that the public wanted climate change to either be true or false. The trouble is, the world is a complicated place. In most places the temperature is going up. In some places it is going down. That is why the phrase "global warming" is being replaced with the phrase "climate change". It is more accurate, even though the overall trend is warmer.

The tricky part for the scientists, however, is that in a few places there is no change at all. And the frustration for them is that even though there are 10,000 places where the climate is changing for every one that is staying the same, "equal time" is being given to the reports about those few even in some supposedly academic journals.

The press is trying to claim that climate change is "big business", which is just plain silly. When is the last time you saw a fat-cat scientist? Even if you don't believe in climate change, it is hardly controversial to point out that big business pollutes. Nor is it controversial to say that scientists are claiming that pollution is one of the causes of climate change. Thus, no one should be upset if I make the claim that big business would be negatively affected by government policies that seriously addressed climate change (whether you agree that it exists or not). As far as big business goes, I think it is fairly obvious to any but the worst apologist that they do not want climate change to be real. This results in the same manipulation that we have seen in the plastics industry and the tobacco industry as far as whether climate change is true.
If you have ever been in the situation where you know a lot about a topic, and people who don't know anything about it keep insisting something that is not true, then you can appreciate the scientists' frustration. I certainly can, even though I don't condone for a second them carrying out the actions they described in the emails. Perhaps they wouldn't condone it either, and were just blowing off steam in their emails.

The trouble is that it is easy to lie with data by being selective about the data you choose. The public is easily confused by this. After all, none of them are experts in the field of climate change. How do they know how much emphasis to give any particular piece of data? And no one, not even the experts, is able to say that climate change has been proved, that we have passed an arbitrary line from knowing nothing to knowing something. All they can say is that there is a huge amount of evidence to support it.
If only we had more ways of viewing the world that true and false, we might be able to cope better with the real state of climate change science. Stay tuned, and I'll give you what I consider a solution.

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