Beware of Common Sense

People place a lot of value on their “common sense.” And while common sense is great for many things, at a certain level of complexity, it begins to break down. In fact, common sense can sometimes trick us in to being wrong when by all appearances, it looks like we’re exactly right!

My favorite example of this is relativity.

Our common sense tells us we are stationary and the moon, sun, and stars are forever swirling around us, but through greater analysis, we know that is completely incorrect. By trusting reason and evidence as opposed to trusting our common sense, we know we are on a planet that is spinning at 1,040 miles per hour. We are orbiting the sun at about 67,000 miles per hour. We also know that our entire solar system is orbiting the center of the Milky Way Galaxy at about 514,000 miles per hour! In fact, we are never in the same place from one moment to the next!

Our common sense is not to be trusted and good critical thinkers know this.

I was having one of the most bizarre Facebook chats I’ve ever had, with a woman who is a conspiracy theorist and who of course does not believe vaccines are effective. She keep citing her “common sense.”

Watch how I steered the conversation toward her “method” for determining what is true, rather than devolving in to the pissing contest of whose evidence was better. It was exhausting and upon reflection, I began to really worry about her mental state, given the depths of her conspiratorial beliefs. Here are some of the highlights of the chat with names redacted of course:

Here she did a deep dive in to an anti-vaxxer on YouTube – a nutter who believes you can drink bleach to cure cancer (among other things). Again I was trying to pull the conversation out of specific claims and get it back to epistemology.She never responded to my final question. Whenever someone tells you that giving them evidence would change their minds, make sure to ask them to give you a specific example. My guess is you’ll get what I got…silence.

Happy critical thinking!

Climate Change Denial Hypothesis and Social Media

I think there’s an underlying psychology that each climate change denier displays. It is composed of classic anti-intellectual distrust of expertise and an over-amplified belief in intuition over data and evidence. This results in a huge range of conspiratorial thinking grounded in a devaluing of reason and evidence as good epistemology.

Facebook and to a lesser degree Twitter are two of the few avenues I’ve found that actually lets those of us who promote critical thinking, punch some holes in the confirmatory echo-chambers within which most science deniers live.

For example, a couple of times lately I’ve seen statements to the effect of, “the climate has changed in the past” as if that somehow obviates the fact that humans are causing the current change:

I’ve blurred Brad’s face and picture because he’s an old friend of mine but Twitter is an open forum so I’ve left that profile unobscured:

That the climate has changed before does not mean that humans haven’t pumped enough CO2 in to the atmosphere over the last century to cause more heat to be trapped (the Greenhouse Effect) which in turn causes the global mean temperature to rise (global warming) which in turn causes the climate to change. This is not a difficult concept.

But nothing beats a face-to-face “intervention.”

Happy critical thinking!

A brief note on scientific literacy

Just a brief note on scientific literacy that was prompted by the following ridiculous video that showed up on my Facebook feed.

I don’t know who the person speaking in this video is but he is clearly a crackpot. And while ad hominem arguments are normally just lazy, on this I don’t know what else to say. The science is clear. While not all vaccines are 100% effective, and while all medical procedures, including receiving a vaccine, carry a risk, there is no doubt that vaccines are among the most important and impactful public health inventions of human history.

And in general, I hope it’s also clear this is what I mean when I talk about scientific literacy.

I’m neither an MD, a climate scientist, nor a biologist for example, but I trust doctors on vaccines because I understand at a high level how vaccines work and I know their efficacy has the overwhelming consensus of the medical community…just like I trust climate scientists on climate because I know at a high level what is happening with greenhouse gas emissions and I know man made global warming has the overwhelming consensus of the climate science community and just like I trust biologists on evolution, etc. I don’t have to do the experiments or publish in peer-reviewed journals to be able to weigh the plausibility of evidence-based scientific truth claims.

This is what it means to be scientifically literate. The video below is a dangerous example of what it means to be scientifically illiterate.

What is Trump?

Angry_TrumpDonald  Trump’s rise to the top of the GOP heap is a symptom of classic American anti-intellectualism, which unfortunately is the real cancer eating away at the Republican Party.

While many see Trump’s rise and even Sanders’ rise, not as anti-intellectualism, but as purely symptomatic of a growing frustration with establishment government, and certainly to some degree that is true, Trump is something much more sinister. The current discontent with the establishment was summed up nicely by a smart conservative friend of mine when he said, “People are getting tired of business as usual in politics and want change. I truly believe that the lack of term limits, and the creation of career politicians that are more worried about their next fundraiser or election instead of doing what’s right, is the cause of what we are seeing now.” But let’s evaluate this idea by analyzing both Trump and Sanders.

We’ll look at Bernie Sanders first. Sanders is a mostly economic phenomenon. His supporters are comprised of largely young, student loan-laden voters who have come to realize that our politics have rigged our economic system to favor the wealthy; to their exclusion. Our system capitalizes profits and socializes losses, something that became painfully clear during the subprime mortgage crisis and the subsequent extensive bank and corporate bailouts of the last decade, and they see Sanders as a catalyst to shake that construct apart. But being frustrated in the status quo does not an anti-intellectual make.

Trump’s rise is much more than simple frustration with the establishment. His brand of political populism in the Jacksonian sense is often a fairly clean inverse of anti-intellectualism. As wonderfully documented in Richard Hofstadter’s brilliant book, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” we know that this phenomenon ebbs and flows throughout our history, and here we are again.

But instead of a true salt of the earth populist like Jackson, today we have the billionaire Trump.

Trump is the perfect poisonous mushroom sprouting from the great pile of crap that was and is the rise of the Tea Party as the dominant Republican identity. These are the xenophobes, the homophobes, the conspiracy theorists, the racists, the birthers, the anti-science (read global warming deniers), the religious zealots, and other malcontents coalescing under a Gadsden flag umbrella and whipped into an angry frenzy by 24/7 “fair and balanced” nonsense and propelled by YouTube ranters and misinformed bloggers.  Trump is the absence of critical thinking. He’s the antithesis of reasonable discussion. He’s the personification of the comments section of any Fox News article about anything social or political.

In a nutshell, Trump is a creation of the GOP’s inability to keep its fringe on the fringe, and the party is all but lost as a result.

Letter to the Editor: Trump true to GOP scientific illiteracy

Drought-2-650x435That climate change is beyond the grasp of so many in the Republican Party is not news. Their leaders nearly trip over themselves to proclaim their ignorance of global warming at every possible turn. Louie Gohmert, Lamar Smith, Steve King, my own representative at this embarrassing time in history, Barry Loudermilk, Ted Cruz, Mr. Snowball himself James Inhofe, and the list of Rs who get Fs in science goes on and on; each sounding as vacuous on matters of fact regarding the natural world, as the next.

So it’s also no surprise that the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump, sits at the same table of willful ignorance as the aforementioned elected officials.

But Trump, being Trump, adds his own special “flair” when it comes to bragging about being scientifically ignorant.

Trump actually told Californians that they weren’t really in a drought. See the following article for more details:

Donald Trump tells Californians there is no drought

It’s difficult to write about this without devolving in to name-calling, but “boneheaded” just races to the top of my list of adjectives when I think about the sheer inanity of such a statement by a presidential nominee.  Why? Because here’s the science.

In the December 30, 2014 edition of Geophysical Research Letters, Daniel Griffin from the Department of Geography, Environment and Society at the University of Minnesota and Kevin Anchukaitis from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution published, “How unusual is the 2012–2014 California drought?” In this paper, the two scientists demonstrate that:

“For the past three years (2012–2014), California has experienced the most severe drought conditions in its last century. But how unusual is this event? Here we use two paleoclimate reconstructions of drought and precipitation for Central and Southern California to place this current event in the context of the last millennium. We demonstrate that while 3 year periods of persistent below-average soil moisture are not uncommon, the current event is the most severe drought in the last 1200 years, with single year (2014) and accumulated moisture deficits worse than any previous continuous span of dry years. Tree ring chronologies extended through the 2014 growing season reveal that precipitation during the drought has been anomalously low but not outside the range of natural variability. The current California drought is exceptionally severe in the context of at least the last millennium and is driven by reduced though not unprecedented precipitation and record high temperatures.”

Let me lift a key statement from their study. California was in the most severe drought in the last 1200 years. So whether it’s simply that Donald can’t read complicated things or that he doesn’t understand the scientific method or that he’s just willfully ignorant, the outcome is the same.


If this great orange buffoon (sorry, more name-calling I know) has the audacity to tell Californians to their collective faces that they aren’t in a drought, then we just have to assume that the guy is immune to evidence and reason. While that trait fits him right in with the fringe elements of the GOP, it does the rest of us who are interested in solving problems, no good whatsoever.