Showing doubt, Sientific American.

What Can Be Done about Pseudoskepticism?

Just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we know nothing
What do tobacco, food additives, chemical flame retardants and carbon emissions all have in common? The industries associated with them and their ill effects have been remarkably consistent and disturbingly effective at planting doubt in the mind of the public in the teeth of scientific evidence. Call it pseudoskepticism.It began with the tobacco industry when scientific evidence began to mount that cigarettes cause lung cancer. A 1969 memo included this statement from an executive at the Brown & Williamson tobacco company: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.” In one example among many of how to create doubt, a Philip Morris tobacco executive told a congressional committee: “Anything can be considered harmful. Applesauce is harmful if you get too much of it.”

The tobacco model was subsequently mimicked by other industries. As Peter Sparber, a veteran tobacco lobbyist said, “If you can ‘do tobacco,’ you can do just about anything in public relations.” It was as if they were all working from the same playbook, employing such tactics as: deny the problem, minimize the problem, call for more evidence, shift the blame, cherry-pick the data, shoot the messenger, attack alternatives, hire industry-friendly scientists, create front groups.

Documentary filmmaker Robert Kenner encountered this last strategy while shooting his 2008 film Food, Inc. He has said that he “kept bumping into groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom that were doing everything in their power to keep us from knowing what’s in our food.” Kenner has called them “Orwellian” because such front groups sound like neutral nonprofit think tanks in search of scientific truth but are, in fact, funded by the for-profit industries associated with the problems they investigate.

Consider “Citizens for Fire Safety,” a front group created and financed in part by chemical and tobacco companies to address the problem of home fires started by cigarettes. Kenner found it while making his 2014 film Merchants of Doubt, based on the 2010 book of the same title by historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. (I appear in an interview in the film.) To misdirect regulators and the public away from the link between cigarettes and home fires, the tobacco industry hired Sparber to work with the National Association of State Fire Marshals to promote the use of chemical flame retardants in furniture. As another memo reads: “You have to fireproof the world around the cigarette.” Suddenly Americans’ furniture was awash in toxic chemicals.

Climate change is the latest arena for pseudoskepticism, and the front group du jour is ClimateDepot.com, financed in part by Chevron and Exxon and headed by a colorful character named Marc Morano, who told Kenner: “I’m not a scientist, but I do play one on TV occasionally … hell, more than occasionally.” Morano’s motto to challenge climate science, about which he admits he has no scientific training, is “keep it short, keep it simple, keep it funny.” That includes ridiculing climate scientists such as James E. Hansen of Columbia University. “You can’t be afraid of the absolute hand-to-hand combat metaphorically. And you’ve got to name names, and you’ve got to go after individuals,” he says, adding with a wry smile, “I think that’s what I enjoy the most.”

Manufacturing doubt is not difficult, because in science all conclusions are provisional, and skepticism is intrinsic to the process. But as Oreskes notes, “Just because we don’t know everything, that doesn’t mean we know nothing.” We know a lot, in fact, and it is what we know that some people don’t want us to know that is at the heart of the problem. What can we do about this pseudoskepticism?

In Merchants of Doubt, close-up prestidigitator extraordinaire Jamy Ian Swiss offers an answer: “Once revealed, never concealed.” He demonstrates it with a card trick in which a selected card that goes back into the deck ends up underneath a drinking glass on the table. It is virtually impossible to see how it is done, but once the move is highlighted in a second viewing, it is virtually impossible not to see it thereafter. The goal of proper skepticism is to reveal the secrets of dubious doubters so that the magic behind their tricks disappears.

Sowing doubt-rough

Sowing doubt-rough

Showing doubt - AW

Showing doubt – AW

Overconfidence man

Tim Harford’s UNDERCOVER ECONOMIST at G magazine

We don’t have a good sense of our own fallibility. Checking my answers, it was the one I felt the most certain of that I got wrong

In 1913 Robert Millikan published the results of one of the most famous experiments in the history of physics: the “oil drop” experiment that revealed both the electric charge on an electron and, indirectly, the mass of the electron too. The experiment led in part to a Nobel Prize for Millikan but it is simple enough for a school kid to carry it out. I was one of countless thousands who did just that as a child, although I found it hard to get my answers quite as neat as Millikan’s.
We now know that even Millikan didn’t get his answers quite as neat as he claimed he did. He systematically omitted observations that didn’t suit him, and lied about those omissions. Historians of science argue about the seriousness of this cherry-picking, ethically and practically. What seems clear is that if the scientific world had seen all of Millikan’s results, it would have had less confidence that his answer was right.
This would have been no bad thing, because Millikan’s answer was too low. The error wasn’t huge — about 0.6 per cent — but it was vast relative to his stated confidence in the result. (For the technically minded, Millikan’s answer is several standard deviations away from modern estimates: that’s plenty big enough.)
There is a lesson here for all of us about overconfidence. Think for a moment: how old was President Kennedy when he was assassinated? How high is the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro? What was the average speed of the winner of last year’s Monaco F1 Grand Prix? Most people do not know the exact answers to these questions but we can all take a guess.
Let me take a guess myself. JFK was a young president but I’m pretty sure he was over 40 when elected. I’m going to say that when he died he was older than 40 but younger than 60. I climbed Kilimanjaro many years ago and I remember it being 6,090-ish metres high. Let’s say, more than 6,000m but less than 6,300m. As for the racing cars, I think they can do a couple of hundred miles an hour but I know that Monaco is a slow and twisty track. I’ll estimate that the average speed was above 80mph but below 150mph.
Psychologists have conducted experiments asking people to answer such questions with upper and lower bounds for their answers. We don’t do very well. Asked to produce wide margins of error, such that 98 per cent of answers fall within that margin, people usually miss the target 20-40 per cent of the time; asked to produce a tighter margin, such that half the answers are correct, people miss the target two-thirds of the time.
We don’t have a good sense of our own fallibility. Despite the fact that I am well aware of such research, when I went back to check my own answers, it was the one I felt most certain of that I got wrong: Kilimanjaro is just 5,895m high. It seemed bigger at the time.
But there’s another issue here. The charismatic Nobel laureate Richard Feynman pointed out in the early 1970s that the process of fixing Millikan’s error with better measurements was a strange one: “One is a little bit bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher. Why didn’t they discover the new number was higher right away?”
What was probably happening was that whenever a number was close to Millikan’s, it was accepted without too much scrutiny. When a number seemed off it would be viewed with scepticism and reasons would be found to discard it. And since Millikan’s estimate was too low, those suspect measurements would typically be larger than Millikan’s. Accepting them was a long and gradual process.
Feynman added that scientists have learnt their lesson and don’t make such mistakes any more. Perhaps that’s true, although a paper published by the decision scientists Max Henrion and Baruch Fischhoff, almost 15 years after Feynman’s lecture, found that same pattern of gradual convergence in other estimates of physical constants such as Avogadro’s number and Planck’s constant. From the perspective of the 1980s, convergence continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s and sometimes into the 1970s.
Perhaps that drift continues today even in physics. Surely it continues in messier fields of academic inquiry such as medicine, psychology and economics. The lessons seem clear enough. First, to be open to ourselves and to others about the messy fringes of our experiments and data; they may not change our conclusions but they should reduce our overconfidence in those conclusions. Second, to think hard about the ways in which our conclusions may be wrong. Third, to seek diversity: diversity of views and of data-gathering methods. Once we look at the same problem from several angles, we have more chances to spot our errors.
But humans being what they are, this problem isn’t likely to go away. It’s very easy to fool ourselves at the best of times. It’s particularly easy to fool ourselves when we already think we have the answer.

Millikan's “oil drop” experiment.jpg

Millikan’s “oil drop” experiment

 

How Science Can Inform Ethics and Champion Sentient Beings.

The arc of the moral universe really is bending toward progress
Jan 20, 2015 |By Michael Shermer

Why is it wrong to enslave or torture other humans, or take their property, or discriminate against them?

That these actions are wrong, almost no one disputes. But why are they wrong?

How science can inform ethics AW

How science can inform ethics AW

For an answer, most people turn to religion (because God says so), or to philosophy (because rights theory says so), or to political theory (because the social contract says so). In The Moral Arc, published in January, I show how science may also contribute an answer. My moral starting point is the survival and flourishing of sentient beings. By survival, I mean the instinct to live, and by flourishing, I mean having adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, and social relations for physical and mental health. By sentient, I mean emotive, perceptive, sensitive, responsive, conscious, and, especially, having the capacity to feel and to suffer. Instead of using criteria such as tool use, language, reasoning or intelligence, I go deeper into our evolved brains, toward these more basic emotive capacities. There is sound science behind this proposition.

According to the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness—a statement issued in 2012 by an international group of prominent cognitive and computational neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists and neuroanatomists—there is a continuity between humans and nonhuman animals, and sentience is the most important common characteristic. The neural pathways of emotions, for example, are not confined to higher-level cortical structures in the brain but are found in evolutionarily older subcortical regions. Artificially stimulating the same regions in human and nonhuman animal brains produces the same emotional reactions in both. Attentiveness, decision making, and the emotional capacity to feel and suffer are found across the branches of the evolutionary tree. This is what brings all humans and many nonhuman animals into our moral sphere.

The arc of the moral universe really is bending toward progress, by which I mean the improvement of the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings. I emphasize the individual because that is who survives and flourishes, or who suffers and dies, not the group, tribe, race, gender, state or any other collective. Individual beings perceive, emote, respond, love, feel and suffer—not populations, races, genders or groups. Historically, abuses have been most rampant—and body counts have run the highest—when the individual is sacrificed for the good of the group. It happens when people are judged by the color of their skin, or by their gender, or by whom they prefer to sleep with, or by which political or religious group they belong to, or by any other distinguishing trait our species has identified to differentiate among members instead of by the content of their individual character.

The rights revolutions of the past three centuries have focused almost entirely on the freedom and autonomy of individuals, not collectives—on the rights of persons, not groups. Individuals vote, not genders. Individuals want to be treated equally, not races. In fact, most rights protect individuals from being discriminated against as individual members of a group, such as by race, creed, color, gender, and now sexual orientation and gender preference.

The singular and separate organism is to biology and society what the atom is to physics—a fundamental unit of nature. The first principle of the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is grounded in the biological fact that it is the discrete organism that is the main target of natural selection and social evolution, not the group. We are a social species, but we are first and foremost individuals within social groups and therefore ought not to be subservient to the collective.

This drive to survive is part of our essence, and therefore the freedom to pursue the fulfillment of that essence is a natural right, by which I mean it is universal and inalienable and thus not contingent only on the laws and customs of a particular culture or government. As a natural right, the personal autonomy of the individual gives us criteria by which we can judge actions as right or wrong: Do they increase or decrease the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings? Slavery, torture, robbery and discrimination lead to a decrease in survival and flourishing, and thus they are wrong. QED.

How science can inform ethics, 2 roughs

How science can inform ethics, 2 roughs

Its about time!

My blog is under nourished for a while now, so her I am, back with some stuff I’ve enjoyed doing.

This one was commissioned by G magazine for an article which focused on the encouragement of employers to maintain people active during their work.

People are invited to be active, not only in the mental, communicative and creative way, but also physically. My view on that, here below.

Health and wellbeing in the workplace- rough

Health and wellbeing in the workplace- rough

Health and wellbeing in the workplace

Health and wellbeing in the workplace

Health and wellbeing in the workplace-Line

Health and wellbeing in the workplace-Line

Je suis Charlie

These days, the tour Eiffel is nested under the shadow of a huge and by far greater monument. A monument that is made of three words, and is now occupying the place of the most synonymous icon of the French capital, JE SUIS CHARLIE.

Last week, I was asked by my editors in the Seven days weekend supplement of Yedioth Aharonot, to give my account of the tragic events that took place in Paris last week.

So here it is, in Hebrew, and in English.

Liberte, 7 days, Yedioth Ahronot, 16.01.2015

Liberte, 7 days, Yedioth Ahronot, 16.01.2015

Liberté

ביום ראשון אני חוזר הביתה, לפריז. כך עניתי לחבריי, ששאלו “מתי?” בדרך כלל אמירה כזאת גוררת אחריה חרחורי קנאה קטנים אצל חברים שנשארים פה, אלא שהפעם המילים האלה נענו בקולות של דאגה. אחרי שבוע של ביקור בארץ, עשיתי ביום ראשון את דרכי חזרה למקום שהוא ביתי בעשר השנים האחרונות. מקום שבו אני חווה את חוויית ההורות המופלאה לבתי, ואת החיים עם בת זוגי. שנינו ישראלים שמנהלים את חייהם מתוך מבט ישר לעיני המציאות, בתוך הדבר היקר, השביר והמאוים כל כך – חופש. חוגגים את אובדן הגבולות ומנסים במידה של הצלחה לחגוג את אותו חופש יקר.

אני מאייר. אני חי ופועל זה שנים לצידה של המילה הכתובה ומנסה דרך האיור להעניק לה, ככל יכולתי, ערך מוסף. כשפנו אליי מהעיתון בבקשה להתייחס לאירועים הטרגיים בפריז, מצאתי את עצמי אובד עצות. הנפש נסערת, הרשת כבר מלאה באיורים, פירות יצירתם הזריזה של אמנים חדי מחשבה ועיפרון, כך שכל ניסיון להצטרף למקהלה המאוירת נראה היה שיוליד תוצאה מאולצת. לכן בחרתי לפנות למילה שתניע אותי לפעולה, ובחרתי לחלוק כאן, שלא כדרכי, את מה שמסעיר את רוחי בימים אלה גם במילים. ממדי הסערה שבלב הינם כממדי הסערה שהתחוללה בתל־אביב בסוף השבוע האחרון וכממדי רעידת האדמה שחוותה פריז מאז יום רביעי בערב.

בפריז, בבניין המערכת של השבועון “שארלי הבדו”, הוצאו להורג בשבוע שעבר בני אדם, אמנים יוצרים, בשל היותם לוחמי חופש אמיצים ואחראיים, אנשים שהעזו בעשייתם לאתגר את החברה שממנה צמחו ובתוכה פעלו. זו חברה נינוחה ברובה, אשר למרות הקשיים הכלכליים והחברתיים של השנים האחרונות, מצליחה לקדש ערכים של חילוניות, חופש ונוחות. הם כיוונו את חיצי ציוריהם לכל הכיוונים – אבל לא במטרה לפגוע, אלא כדי להאיר את המקומות החשוכים שמהם צומחים כאבי האדם והחברה. לצידם נרצחו גם אותם חפים מפשע שקיפחו את חייהם בסופר הכשר, ולו רק בשל עובדת היותם יהודים. בשני המקרים, הקורבן הוא גם אותו חופש יקר, חופש שאת מקומו מאיים לתפוס עתה הפחד.

במשך יותר מ־ 20 שנה אני מנהל את חיי באירופה, ועד כמה שזה יישמע מאתגר, בכל הזמן הזה לא נתקלתי בגילויי אפליה או אנטישמיות על רקע מוצאי. אני חווה את הקונפליקט בין הפלסטינים לישראלים מבחוץ, לעיתים באופן מועצם יותר מחבריי ומשפחתי שבארץ. לפעמים אני הוא זה שמודיע למשפחה בארץ על אירוע ביטחוני בישראל, שמערער את השלום הפריזאי שלי. אלא שבימים האחרונים חוויתי לצערי את החוויה ההפוכה.

בעודי בביקור בתל־אביב, עקבתי בדריכות ובדאגה במשך שעות אחרי שידורי החדשות מפריז, ועוצמת החיבור שלי למתרחש הפתיעה אותי. מתוך היכרות עם הסביבה הפריזאית שבתוכה אני חי, הופתעתי גם מהעוצמה ומההיקף האדירים של תגובת ההמונים לאסון. לא ציפיתי לראות את אותם מיליונים יוצאים מבתיהם וזועקים את כאבם המשותף על אובדן אבירי החופש שנקטלו. מצאתי את עצמי חסר בתמונות מההפגנה בכיכר הרפובליקה, כחלק מאותו המון שלפתע מצא עצמו ניצב בחזית הקרב על החופש שלו, בחזית הקרב על החופש של האנושות כולה.

אז אני חוזר הביתה, כדי לקחת את חלקי הצנוע במלחמה על החופש. זהו קרב חסר תהילה על החיים הנורמליים, על השגרה המתוקה, על העבודה ועל התקווה שהטוב ינצח.

יזהר כהן, פריז

Liberté

On Sunday, I shall be making my way back home, to Paris“, that’s how I replied to my friends when asked, “when?
Usually, such a reply would result in murmurs of jealousy from my Israeli friends whose home is there, in Israel. This time my reply provoked the expression of worry.

Last Sunday, after a week’s visit to Israel, I made my way back to the place I’ve been calling home for the past ten years. A place in which I’m experiencing the twin delights of raising my gorgeous daughter and living alongside my beloved partner. We both are Israelis, carrying on with our lives, while staring straight into the reality in which we live, inside this fragile and most threatened thing that is our freedom. Enjoying the absence of borders and trying, with a degree of success, to celebrate this precious freedom.

I’m an illustrator. For years I have been creating my illustrations alongside the written word, while attempting, to the best of my ability, to enhance and enrich it. When I was asked by my editors to relate to the latest tragic events in Paris, I was baffled. My soul was in turmoil, but the internet was already swamped with illustrations and caricatures, the fruits of sharp minded and sharp-penciled artists. I felt that any attempt to join the illustrated choir was bound to yield a contrived result. That is why I have turned to the written word, in the hope that it will enable me to express what stirs my spirit.

The size of the storm in my heart is of the same size of the storm that swept through Tel Aviv at the end of last week, and of equal size to the earthquake that Paris is experiencing since last Wednesday.

In Paris, inside the offices of the editorial team of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, men and women were executed. Creative artists were killed for being brave and responsible freedom fighters. People who dared, through their expression, to challenge the society from within. On the whole, this is a comfortable society that, despite the economical and social difficulties of recent years, manages to honour sacred values of secularism and comfort. These artists aimed the arrows of their drawings in all directions, without meaning to hurt anyone, but rather to illuminate the dark places where the pains of our society are born.

Along side them, were murdered innocent people in the Kosher supermarket, for the mere fact of being Jewish. In both cases, the victim was that all so precious freedom. That same freedom which is now being threatened by fear itself.

Over the past 20 years I’ve been living my life in Europe, and as challenging as it may sound, I was never confronted with anti-Semitism or discrimination on the basis of my origins.

I am experiencing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the outside, at times more dramatically than members of my family and of my friends in Israel. More than once it was me who called them to unfold security events in Israel that disturbed my Parisian peace. Unfortunately the past few days have made us swap rolls.

While visiting Israel, I followed for hours, with great attention and worry, the live reports from Paris, and the degree of my connection to the unfolding events surprised me. My assumptions and prejudices about the social environment in which I live meant I was surprised by the intensity and the extent of the popular reaction to the disaster. I did not expect to see those millions coming out of their homes and crying out their shared grief over the loss of their murdered knights of freedom. I felt myself missing in the pictures of Sunday’s march in the Place de la Republique, regretting that I was unable to be part of that crowd that suddenly found itself at the front lines of a battle for its freedom.

I am returning home to Paris, to take my humble part in the war for freedom.
This one is a glory-less battle for normal life, for a sweet routine, for work and for the hope that the good will win.

Izhar Cohen, Paris

 

Pencils Gates

Pencils Gates

Walid

Walid

Morning

Morning

Republique

Republique

Home coming

Home coming

A passport to privilege

Tim Harford’s FT column from 11th of November, 2014, dealt with the essence, and the updated whereabout of privileges.Where-is in the past class mattered, Harford now point the finger elsewhere…

Read it all here.

A passport to privilege

A passport to privilege

In the new design of The Undercover Economist page in G magazine, there is now an additional illustration that relates and focuses on a trivia derivative from the column. This week the focus was on Pride and Prejudice, which is cited in the text. I am attempting as often as I can, to make the link between the main illustration and the small one, either literally , visually or both.

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice

The sountrack of your life

The title above is the one I’ve attributed to a piece I’ve created by request of a good friends of mine.

A couple of friends of their’s got married and they had the idea of commissioning me to come up with an idea for a present.

For a while now, I’ve been toying with the idea of creating within the third dimension, so I thought this could be a good opportunity for me to explore.

I’ve discussed at length together with my friends the nature of the two protagonist and came up with the following idea:

Wedding gift, first ideas

Wedding gift, first ideas

Wedding gift, first ideas

Wedding gift, first ideas

As the groom is invested in catering for the need of humans to gamble on the net, and the bride is a psychotherapist. I thought to myself: the nature of marriage (in my humble opinion and 30 years of happy marriage) is first and foremost a partnership, in which two humans are taking all their chips, and placing them with love and faith on one number. all this is happening while the roulette is turning below their feet. The image was already there, I only had to accommodate the two in the comfort of the psychotherapists’ sofa, while sailing above the record that produce, with luck, the harmonious and hazardous soundtrack of their lives.

My friend was happy for me to go a head and give this idea a concrete shape, and so I did.

In a wooden wine chest, for good spirit, I have housed the elements which I’ve created from plywood, coloured and assembled.

I was left with the impression that everybody’s happy with the result. Following this experience, I’ve decided I want to create a series of boxes for myself…

The soundtrack of their lives

The soundtrack of their lives. final