Science & Religion: The Difference

The horse that won’t stay dead no matter how hard we beat it. 

Here are some examples: 

I think the preponderance of evidence strongly supports the idea that species arise over time as a result of differentiated survival rates among members of a population with different characteristics.

This is a scientific judgement. 

I believe in evolution. 

This is an act of faith. 

Based on evidence from many sources, I think it very likely that the climate is changing, and has been changing for the hundreds of of million of years over which any evidence can be found. 

Again, a scientific judgement. 

I believe in climate change

Another act of faith. 

These examples are of a point so basic, so simple and dazzlingly obvious, that it would seem no one who has reached intellectual adolescence should need to have it made to them more than once. One reaches a scientific conclusion based on evidence and reason (and, being based on evidence and reason, such conclusions are always conditional – but that’s up one small level from what we’re talking about now). But, alas! The evidence strongly supports one or the other or a combination of two factors making this basic point obscure to many: either few reach intellectual adolescence, or many do not care to see this distinction.

Great Scott! It’s Science!

I love adolescence. Having had 4 of our kids pass from childhood to adulthood, and having one 14 year old now, I can say that one of my greatest joys as a dad has been witnessing the intellects of my own children awaken. (The most obvious step is when they start really getting jokes.) And this distinction, this idea that not every mental experience is a feeling, but that there are – yes, I’m going to say it – *higher* functions of the intellect, is a step into a larger world. A better, more interesting, world.

A step surprisingly few people take. As any perusal of the interwebs or conversations with just about anyone will quickly reveal, there are a lot of people who use faith language about what they conceive of as science. They believe in their bones that such acts of faith render them morally and *intellectually* superior to those who dispute their dogmas or even who refuse to mouth the shibboleths. (1)

Advertisements

Wednesday Flotsam, Including Science!

A. Stray thought: there is evidence that we’re in a Golden Age in at least some fields, and not just the obvious technological ones. Besides, we’re so close to the birth of technical fields such as computer and material sciences that calling this a Golden Age in that respect seems too premature to mean much. No, I mean areas old enough to have gone through a few boom/bust cycles.  There seem to be an awful lot of people, many  young or youngish masters, doing very impressive work across a number of fields.

Further, while Golden a Ages seem to feature a disproportionate number of true masters, I would think that the true measure isn’t the individual genius (who can pop up anywhere at any time, it seems) but rather the number of competent to great practitioners beneath them. For example, the 16th and early 17th centuries were the Golden Age of polyphony. Everybody who knows anything about that era can name Palestrina, de Lasso, Victoria, Byrd. But what’s astounding is that the few times I’ve gotten to perform stuff written by the supposed 2nd tier guys, I’ve been blown away. There seems to have been a lot of great music written back then, for which Palestrina in particular has been chosen as the poster boy, with everybody else getting at most a ‘oh, yea, him too’ reference. (1)

Years ago, listened to an interview with some pianists involved in competitions. Turns out there’s a general consensus that there are more fabulous piano players alive now than at any time in history. Used to be that, for example, Rachmaninov’s piano concertos used to be the peak of the virtuoso mountain, attempted by only the best of the best. Today, there are thousands of 15 year olds around the world knocking them off. It’s gotten to the point where, in competitions, as single mistake will disqualify you; as one young pianist said: it’s like they’re judging your soul. Technical perfection is simply the price of admission.

Sticking with music, Rick Beato, an accomplished musician with a Youtube channel I follow, mentions in one of his videos the growing number of utterly excellent guitar players out there today. He tells a story familiar to any of us older, say, over 50, guys: when we were young, a new song would come out and you’d throw the vinyl record on the turntable and wear it out while you figured out how to play it. A noble, useful exercise, but time-intensive and often frustrating.

Today? On Youtube, you can likely find a dozen videos of people, occasionally, even the original performers, showing you how to play the song. Technical issues such as fingerings and voicings that are often difficult picking up from the recording become clear. You still have to do the work, but it is so much faster and less frustrating to see it worked through, especially when you’re a relative beginner.

Same general principle holds for woodworking, blacksmithing and boat building, and no doubt a thousand other crafts and arts. There’s some normalish guy out there building a Bombay chest, a classic rapier or a cedar strip canoe right this minute, and his work will stand comparison the the best that’s out there.

But the real value is more subtle: you get to see normal people doing extraordinary things. Teenage girls will shred their way through Eruption or arrangements of Beethoven sonatas; you can watch her hands and see how she’s doing it. Dude will show you how to do epic, Japanese-flavored woodworking projects in his home shop. A guy will build a 45′ steel boat in his front yard; a young couple will build a ketch from scratch with the intention of sailing the world. A 20 year year old kid will make swords that should be hanging in museums. And on and on.

There’s even a sort of Art Tatum of this crafty world, a guy whose patient perfectionism and awesome skills might intimidate you even he wasn’t so matter of fact and charming: on his Clickspring channel he’s building a replica of the Antikythera Mechanism out of sheets of brass, often using tools he makes for the purpose. It must be seen to be believed.

Is it just that social media makes all this cool stuff easily seen, when in the past it was hidden from all but the hardest hardcore hobbyists? I don’t think that’s the whole story. Rather, I think there’s a general spreading of inspiration, that people everywhere are seeing that people just like them can do these incredible projects, and that some of those people then start incredible projects of their own.

I think this a very good thing, if true. People with a sense of accomplishment are much less likely to get blown about in the winds of political and social fashion, seems to me. They’re not looking, or looking less, for that practical sense of meaning in their daily lives that mastery of a craft gives you. People who finally master that instrument, build that boat, or finish that home addition are more likely to be stable, solid citizens.

Maybe. I could be delusionally optimistic. Wouldn’t be the first time.

B. In comments to  this article from the Medical Press, a nuclear physicist points out that even elite scientists often screw up their statistical analyses. In the initial paper, data was collected from a carefully selected representative sample of people who use statistics. Just kidding! I slay me! Using an ‘instrument’ of some kind, some college students were asked to solve questions where the solution required following 3 or more logical steps OR really knowing stat so that you could plug some numbers into standard stat formulas. There is an example in the initial paper.

Now, knowing quite a few people, including myself, I’d say the likelihood a high percentage of any group of people who aren’t professional statisticians or logicians to solve such problems is slim to none. It would fall well below half. I’d expect single digits among, say, pedicurists, long haul truckers and journalists – you know, fields were being able to follow 2 or more steps of logic isn’t a job requirement.  No knock – if we don’t use it, our minds are pretty good at freeing up space for something else.

The purpose of the study was no doubt to obtain a stick with a patina of science on it with which to beat some target or other. Since the reason suggested – I hope you’re sitting down – is that statistics is taught very badly in schools, it looks like the target is people whose money the state wants for funding reliable statist voters, such as ‘educators’ and teachers. The state of eternal school reform must be maintained, while at the same time all who question why we would pay for something that has failed to work for 200+ years are automatically excommunicated.

I don’t think teaching will help much, unless lots of us peons somehow reach the conclusion that following logic very carefully is something we can’t live without. Until then, even ignoring any possible issues with native intelligence, people aren’t going to learn this. For those who might want to know how to think a little but for whom the schools have  succeeded in their stated goal of preventing just such thought, well, they could start with Dr. Briggs’ book.  In it, he shows convincingly that probability and statistics are branches of philosophy (and thus necessarily, of logic) with a little math attached. In other words, knowing what you are doing and what is possible comes first. Do that, and the math is either completely unnecessary or firmly secondary.

Statistics properly understood is both a powerful tool and a cautionary tale. As Briggs explains in his book, there are more interesting questions in this world about which statistics can tell us nothing than there are ones where statistics can give us great insight. I’d guess exactly 98.83% of all statistical analyses you’ll ever hear about are out and out nonsense, at least as presented. How the data is gathered, what the data even is, whether the subject matter even admits of numerical analysis – these are philosophical questions that get booted even before the perp gets a chance to screw up the math.

  1. And it’s even worse than that, in that about a half dozen works by Palestrina are well known among the tiny subset of people who care about this stuff. Palestrina and de Lasso were very prolific, writing hundreds of pieces over their careers. Palestrina also maintained legendarily high standards – all his work is good to epically great. It’s too much! So we get to hear the same small set of pieces repeatedly, and just take the experts word for it being representative. And that’s not even counting any of the other masters who you’ve never heard of and whose names I promptly forget.

Science & Humility

Stray thought:

In his classic Caltech 1974 commencement address often referred to here, Richard Feynman states the following:

But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in Cargo Cult Science.  That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school—we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation.  It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly.  It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.  For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.  You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it.  If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.  There is also a more subtle problem.  When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

This is beautiful. Such scientific honesty is also rare in the wild. I think it would be near extinct except for another feature of science, one Feynman does not here discuss but did in fact practice: everybody is entitled, and even honor-bound, to do their best to shoot down a theory. This probing and testing of theories to see if they can be overthrown is perhaps the only example of Nietzsche’s quip being true: that which fails to kill a theory makes it stronger.

This is not to say that proponents of theories like having others, often young punks, try to destroy their scientific babies. Far from it, which is how we get another famous quip, that science advances one funeral at a time. Often, only death is strong enough to loosen a partisan’s grip on a theory under attack. This observation may be generalized beyond science.

In one of the accounts he gives of the discoveries that lead to his Nobel Prize, Feynman mentions that he spotted an error in previous work, where a no doubt respected physicist had proved his point by extrapolating beyond what the data could actually support. Feynman had to disprove and discard the conclusion of this prior physicist in order to establish the model that got him the Nobel.

It would be nice to hear how this other physicist took the news. Was he a good sport about it? In physics, this is a t least possible, what with grad students and other young guns pouring over every theory and calculation that came before, just looking for that spot where they can make a name for themselves. I assume, perhaps naively, that this sort of thing happens with enough regularity that physicists might not get too bent out of shape over it.

The history of science if full of cases where the fathers of displaced theories didn’t take it very well. In general, scientists are people: Galileo was a out of control and petty egomaniac; Newton was an insufferable snob. Boys will be boys. It is part of the glory of science that it makes progress even with the participants acting like primadonnas and toddlers. It must be something special, if it can work under those constraints.

The point here is that at least in the hard sciences, the honesty of which Feynman speaks is enforced by the competitive nature of elite scientists. On the one hand, they want their theories tested and challenged, because that means they are important and validated. On the other, they know they’ll likely get caught if they fudge, since that same army of ambitious grad students and young guns can make their own name by finding flaws.

The point I think Feynman is making is that everything goes smoother if the scientists keep all this in mind as they do their research. Don’t publish your pet theory until you’ve thought through and responded to every challenge you can come up with, and included all the steps needed for anybody else to validate you methods. Cut to the chase. Keep it clean.

What Feynman does not mention here in this speech nor anywhere else I can recall is humility. I’ve never heard, and find it hard to imagine, Feynman being accused of being humble.

Humility is what it takes. The proud are also the blind. The beginnings of modern science can be found is the medieval Questions method, best known from St. Thomas’s writings. A proposition was tossed out for discussion, and refined to its purest possible expression. The seminar, as we might call it today, batted it around, argued for and against, probably spun off other questions to be addressed. When done, their work was summarized in the usual form: It would seem that X, for reasons A, B & C. Arguments A, B, & C must be stated in a form that their champions agree is accurate. Then: On the contrary, it would seem not-X, for reasons D, E, & F. And objections A, B, & C can be answered as follows. Therefore, not-X is conditionally true, subject to further information and argument.

You see the superstructure of science right there: you must clearly state your proposition, what it is you think supports your argument (which includes these days, observations made with the aid of gadgets and math). You must address all objections, which must be stated as strongly as possible and truly reflect the views of your opponents (or they will let you know about it). You must show your work. Everybody understands that tomorrow’s new observation might overturn the whole thing.

I propose that the problems in science, especially Science! as revealed in the so called ‘replication crisis’, is in fact a failure of humility. The pride present in all of us is exacerbated by the softness of the science. A science is soft to the extent that peer-skepticism and adversarial review are not accepted and encouraged. Such skepticism and review keep science honest. Lacking them frees pride from all restraint.

I don’t imagine the students and masters practicing the Questions Method in 1250 were any more intrinsically humble and honest than we are today. But at least they would have understood that humility is both a prerequisite and a subset of honesty: you must be humble enough to accept you could be wrong; if you’re being honest, you will be humble. In the same way replication and criticism keep modern science however honest it may be, recognizing their own pride and need for humility helped keep the scholastics honest.

This recognition of the need to be humble is unknown among the leading lights of the soft sciences. Freud can respond to challenges to his teachings by asserting his critics are repressed, both applying the theory in question as if it has been established as correct and avoiding any response to the substance of the criticisms. There will never be any recognition that these ad hominem attacks are petty diversions among practitioners of the soft sciences. Just review the name calling that often constituted the entire response of those challenged by the current ‘replication crisis’.

Hegel gave the illusion of a patina of intellectual validity to the notion that reason is nothing, only revelation (“enlightenment”; “wokeness”) matters, so that the only response to critics is to point out how unenlightened they are. This thinking became the thinking of academy. This is hardly surprising, as  the key point of Harvard, et al., the belief that drove their founding and continues intact to this day, is that the right people need to be in charge. Only the little people, as Hegel pointed out, get all tangled up in logic and reason. True philosophers can be identified, functionally, as those who agree with Hegel.

Real scientists are like those adopted kids who don’t know who their parents are, but know they are orphans of a sort. Insofar as you are a true scientists as described above by Feynman, you will not find colleges in general to be your family. But their true parents – the scholastics and Aristotle – have been painted with such a black brush they would be horrified to recognize them as mom and dad.

Thursday Update: Modernism & Education & Science!

A. Ran into some very interesting stuff around the whole excommunicate Catholics who refused to send their kids to Catholic schools even when such were available and affordable. Walch tells the story differently than I’d read it before (where, I can’t remember and didn’t take notes! Never again will I not take notes! No, really, this time – for sure! It’s got to be in either the books on the shelf in front of me or in one of the myriad of links I’ve collected…)

Image result for bullwinkle this time for sure

Walch ascribes the incident to the machinations of one layman, a James McMaster, a convert who, with typical convert zeal, thought Catholics should send their kids to parish schools no matter what, to keep them out of the evil clutches of the state schools. On his own, he sent damning articles showing the evil of public schools to Rome, along with a memorandum asking if Catholics could justifiably send their kids to such schools.

This got the attention of people in Rome, who responded by sending a questionnaire to the American bishops. They responded and, at least according to Walch, were a bit put out. The pope got involved, and issued the Instruction of 1875, which favored McMaster’s take, but left things vague enough to provide leeway in the bishop’s actions. The bishops chose to ignore the instructions.

Walch’s sympathies are clearly with Progress, and he repeatedly states in this section of the book how Catholics thought their schools were often inferior to the public schools and parents concerned for their children’s futures would choose them for that reason. Besides, many if not most parishes did not have a desk in the parish schools for anything like all the Catholic children in the area. The bishops’ disregard for the rulings of Rome is seen as an inevitable and good thing. He quotes, of all people, Orestes Brownson as someone favoring having Catholic students attend public schools.

(Aside: Can’t resist talking Brownson! There’s a somewhat famous Brownson quotation deriding the very idea that the state should control education – “Where the whole tendency of education is to create obedience, all teachers must be pliant tools of government. Such a system of education is not inconsistent with the theory of Prussian society but the thing is wholly inadmissible here… According to our theory the people are wiser than the government. Here the people do not look to the government for light, for instruction, but the government looks to the people. The people give law to the government….to entrust government with the power of determining education which our children shall receive is entrusting our servant with the power of the master. The fundamental difference between the United States and Prussia has been overlooked by the board of education and its supporters.” However, this quotation is from around 1840. By 1865, Brownson was championing the idea that the US would both become Catholic by nature and necessity, and that the rest of the Western Hemisphere would convert (if necessary) and petition to join the Union. If one thinks the nation will become Catholic, then one might stop objecting to state run schools.)

The other view I’d come across was rather that some of what would now be called conservative Catholic bishops wanted the power to withhold the sacraments from anyone who could send their kids to a Catholic school and didn’t, and were disappointed with the vague answers the pope gave in the Instruction of 1875, but, obedient as they were, they let it go. By either take, this ended up encouraging people like Shields, Pace and Barns to view the public schools as some sort of ideal that the Catholic schools were to strive to achieve.

Yikes.

B. I have mentioned in passing that Fr. Thomas Shields, a scientific psychologist and pedagogue and, according to the meager sources I’ve found so far, a somewhat obscure Catholic Progressive educator, and Fr.  James A. Burns, a prolific writer and fundraiser and one time president of Notre Dame, espouse and promote ideas concurrently being condemned by popes, namely, Modernism.

Here’s somebody’s summary of Pascendi dominici gregis subtitled on the Vatican website  “Encyclical of Pope Pius X on the doctrines of the Modernists.” It’s well worth reading. This summary seems about right.

Burns first published in 1908, the year after the encyclical was proclaimed; Shields was active both before and after.  One thing I read and didn’t makes notes on (a mistake I’m trying to avoid now!) quoted some late 19th century letters among American Catholic prelates on how backwards and hidebound the European Churches were, and how we Americans had to lead them into the glorious future. That attitude would seem congruent with the writings of Shields and Barns, and would explain their (so far – have lots more to read) silence on the teachings of this and previous encyclicals.

To take it point by point – modernist?:

  • Classic philosophy does not get discussed as a basis for education; the latest ‘advances’ are touted – yes;
  • Not directly, but see catechesis  below – push;
  • Not directly, but that we are surfing the leading edge of Progress is merely assumed, with regular comments about how we used to do it poorly in the past, but now we’re doing it obviously better and scientific mow – qualified yes;
  • So far, there’s both these writers are pretty firm on dogma – no;
  • They both want to reform catechesis. On one paper I read, Shields is commended for his opposition to the Baltimore Catechism and in trying to implement the ‘findings’ of ‘scientific’ psychology to make sure children are not taught stuff too hard for them and are taught in ways that appeal to their feelings. This same author thinks Shields was vindicated in the 1960s when we *finally* ditched the Baltimore Catechism and started doing catechesis right. So that would be a – yes;
  • Burns, at least, is big on sacramentals and devotions, so – no;
  • One way to weaken the Church’s power to discipline would be to always step a little over the line and dare the proper ecclesiastical authories to react. That’s pretty much Shield’s M.O., don’t know about Burns, so – qualified yes
  • Both lead by example: Shields ignored the bishops whenever he felt like it, pushed for the professionalization of Catholic school teachers and for them to run the schools as they saw fit – moving authority from bishops to clergy and lay people. Burns is big on the Catholic National Education Association, by which Shields’ goals were pursued. This isn’t even looking at Notre Dame. This would be a big – yes;
  • See above;
  • See above;
  • N/A
  • Burns:  “In the teaching of the purely secular branches she (the Church) has had no direct interest. She took the curriculum of secular studies such as she found it, and left its development to the operation of the ordinary laws of educational growth. Outside of the matter of religion, there has been no attempt to differentiate Catholic parish schools from other denominational schools or from the public schools.” This sounds OK on the surface, but what it means in practice, and what actually happened, was that Catholic schools accepted uncritically whatever methods and content is developed for the public schools provided it can be framed up as ‘secular’ knowledge. This is not good, when the public schools first goal is to promote control and a harmony, let us say, of ideas – modernist ideas. Think psychology, history and sociology. I’ll talk about this further in another post. So – yes. 
  • This, and the next two points, are quite evident in current ‘catholic’ schools, but not yet evident in the writings of Shields and Burns – Incomplete
  • Incomplete
  • Incomplete

I think it’s safe to tentatively conclude, while leaving room for counter evidence, that since the early 20th century at the latest, our Catholic parish schools have been steered toward exactly the modernism that Pope St. Pius X specifically condemned.

I know you’re shocked.

C. Then there’s this nonsense: Bad science! Bad!.When feminists and other anti-science, anti-reason, anti-reality loonies get to decide what it is permissible to find, Orwell’s dystopia is already upon us. What the paper says and how strong its arguments are is irreverent to this point – we won’t know, because it’s not published! – merely that it can be memory-holed because of bad think.

The time to be nice has long passed. We must make a stink whenever the opportunity arises.

Science, Medicine & Me (or You)

One of the problems, or challenges, if you prefer, with medicine is that few people who become doctors do it because they love science. They become doctors typically because they want to help people, a very fine reason. But this means that when the situation calls for a more scientific examination of the evidence before them, or of the value or pertinence of this or that finding or practice, your doctor is likely operating at a disadvantage.

Ultimately, tradition, law, and their insurance companies all but force them to stick to conventional, approved approaches to everything. In general, this is not a bad thing – you certainly don’t want your doctor freestyling it when it is your health on the line. If doctors everywhere treat a given constellation of symptoms in a particular way, that would probably be the place to start. But it’s not in itself science.

I recall a couple decades ago that every time we took a kid to the pediatrician – and we loved our pediatrician – she would feel compelled to advise us not to let the little ones sleep with us, family bed style. I can just hear her teachers, or her professional bulletins or her insurance company telling her it was best practice, that kids die every year smothered in a bed with an adult, and just don’t do it. Now, of course, pediatricians in the US (it was never policy in the rest of the world) have come to realize that the benefits to both the child and the parents of having the child in the parent’s bed far outweigh the miniscule risks. Such risks effectively disappear if the child and parents are healthy and the parents sober, while the sense of comfort and attachment gained by the child and the extra sleep gained by the parents is a serious win-win.

Now a scientifically inclined person might ask about the data and methodology behind the claim that hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection had somehow gotten the whole baby sleeps with parents thing wrong.  Maybe it has – but the issue should have at least been addressed. But it wasn’t, in America, at least up until a few years ago. So every American pediatrician was expected to toe the official line, and our doctors did. For, what if you hadn’t advised parents against ‘co-sleeping’ and a baby died? You’d be asking for a lawsuit.

Another example I’ve mentioned before is salt intake. This one is a little different, in that for some people, there seems to be a fairly strong correlation between salt intake and blood pressure, so at least being concerned about it isn’t crazy.

For most people, however, there is little or no correlation between salt intake and blood pressure, at least within realistic levels of consumption. In one of the earliest studies, rats were given the human equivalent of 500g of salt a day, and their blood pressure shot right up! But humans tend to consume around 8.5g of salt a day. Um, further study would be indicated?

The science would seem to support some degree of caution regarding salt intake for people with high blood pressure. Instead, what we get are blanket recommendations that everybody – everybody! – reduce salt intake. It will save lives! Medicine cries wolf. People learn to ignore medical advise. Further, Medical Science! fails to consider what it is asking for – a complete overhaul of people’s diets. Few real people are going to do this without serious motivation. Wasting ammo on a battle not worth winning.

Again, if doctors were essentially scientists attracted to medicine for all the opportunities for scientific discovery human health presents, such errors and poor judgement might be more limited. But doctors became doctors to help people, not to debate scientific findings with them. They want to DO something. Thus, conventional medical practice is full of stuff to do for every occasion. Whether or not there’s really any science behind it is not as important, it seems, as developing practices to address issues so that medicine itself can be practiced. Clearly, for the average doctor, having *something* to do is better than having nothing to do, even when that something isn’t all that well supported or even understood.

These thoughts are on my mind because of all the trouble I’m having with blood pressure medicines at the moment. Since there’s an obvious trade-off here – somewhat higher blood pressure with a higher quality of life versus acceptably lower blood pressure but with lower quality of life – I decided I needed to do a little basic research. Here’s where I’m at after a very preliminary web search:

What I’m looking for, and have so far failed to find, is a simple population level chart, showing the correlation between blood pressure and mortality/morbidity. Of course, any usefully meaningful data would be presented in a largish set of charts or tables, broken out by such variables as age, sex, and body mass index.  But I would settle at this point for any sort of data at all, showing how much risk is added by an additional 10 points or 10 percent, or however you want to measure it, above ‘normal’ blood pressure.

For example, I’m a 60 yr old man. Each year in America, some number of 60 year old men drop dead by high blood-pressure-related illnesses. OK, so, base data is at what rate do 60 year old men drop dead from high blood pressure related diseases? Let’s say it’s .1% (just making up numbers for now) or 1 out of every 1,000 60 year old men. That’s heart attack and stroke victims, with maybe a few kidney failures in there, severe enough to kill you, a 60 year old man.

Now we ask: what effect does blood pressure have on these results? Perhaps those 60 year old men running a 120/80 BP die at only a .05% rate – one out of every 2,000 drops dead from heart attacks, strokes or other stray high BP related diseases. Perhaps those with 130/90 (these results and possible ages would be banded in real life most likely, but bear with me) die at .09% rate, while those with 150/100 die at .2% rate, and those above 150/100 die at a horrifying 1% rate, or 10 times as much as the old dudes with healthy blood pressure. These numbers would all need to average out to the .1% across the population, but a high degree of variability within the population would not be unexpected.

Or maybe something else entirely.  But I have yet to find such charts. I’ve found interesting tidbits, like FDR’s BP in 1944 when his doctor examined a by that time very ill president “was 186/108. Very high and in the range where one could anticipate damage to “end-organs” such as the heart, the kidneys and the brain.” So I gather BP in that range is very bad for you, or indicates that something else very bad for you is going on (FDR had a lot of medical issues and smoked like a chimney).

Then there’s this abstract, suggesting in the conclusion that my quest is going to be frustrated:

Abstract

Objectives

Quantitative associations between prehypertension or its two separate blood pressure (BP) ranges and cardiovascular disease (CVD) or all-cause mortality have not been reliably documented. In this study, we performed a comprehensive systematic review and meta-analysis to assess these relationships from prospective cohort studies.

Methods

We conducted a comprehensive search of PubMed (1966-June 2012) and the Cochrane Library (1988-June 2012) without language restrictions. This was supplemented by review of the references in the included studies and relevant reviews identified in the search. Prospective studies were included if they reported multivariate-adjusted relative risks (RRs) and corresponding 95% confidence intervals (CIs) of CVD or all-cause mortality with respect to prehypertension or its two BP ranges (low range: 120–129/80–84 mmHg; high range: 130–139/85–89 mmHg) at baseline. Pooled RRs were estimated using a random-effects model or a fixed-effects model depending on the between-study heterogeneity.

Results

Thirteen studies met our inclusion criteria, with 870,678 participants. Prehypertension was not associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality either in the whole prehypertension group (RR: 1.03; 95% CI: 0.91 to 1.15, P = 0.667) or in its two separate BP ranges (low-range: RR: 0.91; 95% CI: 0.81 to 1.02, P = 0.107; high range: RR: 1.00; 95% CI: 0.95 to 1.06, P = 0.951). Prehypertension was significantly associated with a greater risk of CVD mortality (RR: 1.32; 95% CI: 1.16 to 1.50, P<0.001). When analyzed separately by two BP ranges, only high range prehypertension was related to an increased risk of CVD mortality (low-range: RR: 1.10; 95% CI: 0.92 to 1.30, P = 0.287; high range: RR: 1.26; 95% CI: 1.13 to 1.41, P<0.001).

Conclusions

From the best available prospective data, prehypertension was not associated with all-cause mortality. More high quality cohort studies stratified by BP range are needed.

Ok, so here is some information. Let’s chart it out as best we can. Here is the diagnostic banding used by the medical profession here in the US. I note it is unadjusted for age or anything else, which is fine, got to start somewhere:

  • Normal blood pressure – below 120 / 80 mm Hg.
  • Prehypertension – 120-139 / 80-89 mm Hg.
  • Stage 1 hypertension – 140-159 / 90-99 mm Hg.
  • Stage 2 hypertension – 160 / 100 mm Hg or higher.

The meta-study above further divides the prehypertension range into a high and low as follows:

  • Low Prehypertension – 120–129/80–84 mmHg
  • High Prehypertension – 130–139/85–89 mmHg

This particular study does nothing with Stage 1 and 2 hypertension – too bad. But it’s mostly those prehypertension numbers I’m worried about personally. Anyway, here’s what we’ve got so far.

BP graph 1

We will here ignore what looks like a bit of statistical hoodoo – we’re blending different studies, calculating p-values and confidence intervals to the combined results – um, maybe? Perhaps if Mr. Briggs or Mr. Flynn drops by, they can give a professional opinion. Me, I’m just – cautious. So, what’s this telling us?

If I’m reading it correctly – not a given by any stretch – we’ve determined the total relative risk or RR (a term of art, but sorta means what it seems to mean) at the base state and the three partially overlapping prehypertension states based on both systolic and diastolic BP ranges, both on a ‘All Causes’ and a cardiovascular diseases basis. What this appears to say is that a meta analysis of 13 studies of nearly a million people over several decades shows that your risk of illness from any cause increases .03 RR points, or 3% over the base value, if your BP runs a little high, but that your risk of cardiovascular  disease increases 32%. Which doesn’t exactly make sense if one assumes cardiovascular diseases are part of ‘All Causes’ – and why wouldn’t they be? – unless slightly high BP somehow reduces the sum of all other risks. Also, the analysis run over the two sub-ranges of low and high prehypertension do not look like they could possibly add up to the values over the entire prehypertension range – which could well be an artifact of the statistical analysis used. If that is the case, does not logic indicate that the results are quite a bit less certain than the p-values and confidence intervals would suggest? Again, I am very much an amatuer, so I could be a million miles off, but these are the questions that occur to me.

The critical piece missing for my purposes: what scale of risk does the RR here represent? A 32% increase in a .01% chance of Bad Things Happening is hardly worth thinking about; a 32% increase in a 20% risk of Bad Things is a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish.

I’m about researched out for the moment, will continue to google around for more information when I get a moment.

UPDATE:

Is it obvious enough that I’m a LITTLE COMPULSIVE? Just found this, at the Wiley Online Library: 

BP chart 2

Don’t know if this is annualized (per year) numbers, or a total across the entire age range, that ‘all significant’ part worries me a little, but: this seems to be saying that I, a 60 year old man, could expect a 1.8% chance of cardiovascular disease (however that’s defined) if my blood systolic blood pressure falls between 120 and 139, or, more important to my purposes, minisculely more risk than if my BP was the more desirable 120.

This is in line with what one would expect from the data in the previous chart.

Still a lot more work to do here.

AI-yai-yai.

Henry Kissinger (yes, he’s still alive – 95 yrs old. His dad made it to 95 and his mom to 98, I think, so he may be with us even longer.) has opined that we’ve got to do something about AI:

Henry Kissinger: Will artificial intelligence mean the end of the Enlightenment?

Two thoughts: Like Hank himself, it seems the Enlightenment is, surprisingly, still kicking. Also: End the Enlightenment? Where’s the parade and party being held? Oh wait – Hank thinks that would be a bad thing. Hmmm.

Onward: Dr. K opines:

“What would be the impact on history of self-learning machines —machines that acquired knowledge by processes particular to themselves, and applied that knowledge to ends for which there may be no category of human understanding? Would these machines learn to communicate with one another? [quick hint: apparently, they do] How would choices be made among emerging options? Was it possible that human history might go the way of the Incas, faced with a Spanish culture incomprehensible and even awe-inspiring to them?”

Note: this moment of introspection was brought about by the development of a program that can play Go way better than people. Little background: Anybody can write a program to play tic-tac-toe, as the rules are clear, simple and very, very limiting: there are only 9 squares, so there will never be more than 9 options for any one move, and no more than 9+8+7+6+5+4+3+2+1 possible moves. A simple program can exhaust all possible moves, dictate the next move in all possible scenarios, and thus guarantee whatever outcome the game allows and the programmer wants – win or draw, in practice.

Chess, on the other hand, is much harder game, with an effectively inexhaustible number of possible moves and configurations. People have been writing chess playing programs for decades, and, a few decades ago, managed to come up with programs sophisticated enough to beat any human chess player. Grossly put, they work by a combination of heuristics used to whittle choices down to more plausible moves (any chess game contains the possibility of any number of seemingly nonsensical moves), simply brute-force playing out of possible good choices for some number of moves ahead, and refinement of algorithms based on outcomes to improve the heuristics. Since you can set two machines to play each other, or one machine to play itself, for as long or as many games as you like, the possibility arises – and seems to have taken place – that, by playing millions more games than any human could ever play, measuring the outcomes, and refining their rules for picking ‘good’ moves, computers can program themselves – can learn, as enthusiasts enthusiastically anthropomorphize – to become better chess players than any human being.

Go presents yet another level of difficulty, and it was theorized not too many years ago to not be susceptible to such brute-force solutions. A Go master can study a board mid-game, and tell you which side has the stronger position, but, legendarily, cannot provide any sort of coherent reason why that side holds an advantage. The next master, examining the same board, would, it was said, reach the same conclusion, but be able to offer no better reasons why.

At least, that was the story. Because of the even greater number of possible moves and the difficulty mid-game of assessing which side held the stronger position, it was thought that Go would not fall to machines any time soon, at least, if they used the same sort of logic used to create the chess playing programs.

Evidently, this was incorrect. So now Go has suffered the same fate as chess: the best players are not players, but machines with programs that have run through millions and millions of possible games, measured the results, programmed themselves to follow paths that generate the desired results, and so now cannot be defeated by mere mortals. (1)

But of course, the claim isn’t that AI is mastering games where the rules clearly define both all possible moves and outcomes, but rather is being applied to other fields as well.

After hearing this speech, Mr. Kissinger started to study the subject more thoroughly and learned that artificial intelligence goes far beyond automation. AI programs don’t deal only with the rationalization and improvement of means, they are also capable of establishing their own objectives, making judgments about the future and of improving themselves on the basis of their analysis of the data they acquire. This realization only caused Mr. Kissinger’s concerns to grow:

“How is consciousness to be defined in a world of machines that reduce human experience to mathematical data, interpreted by their own memories? Who is responsible for the actions of AI? How should liability be determined for their mistakes? Can a legal system designed by humans keep pace with activities produced by an AI capable of outthinking and potentially outmaneuvering them?”

“Capable of establishing their own objectives” Um, what? They are programs, run on computers, according to the rules of computers. It happens all the time that following the rule set, which is understood to be necessarily imperfect in accordance with Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, computer programs will do unexpected things (although I’d bet user error, especially on the part of the people who wrote the programming languages involved, is a much bigger player in such unexpected results than Godel).

I can easily imagine that a sophisticated (read: too large to be understood by anyone and thus likely to be full of errors invisible to anyone) program might, following one set of instructions, create another set of instructions to comply with some pre existing limitation or goal that may or may not be completely defined in itself. But I’d like to see the case where a manufacturing analysis AI, for example, sets an objective such as ‘become a tulip farmer’ and starts ordering overalls and gardening spades off Amazon. Which is exactly the kind of thing a person would do, but not the kind of thing one would expect a machine to do.

On to the Enlightenment, and Hank’s concerns:

“The Enlightenment started with essentially philosophical insights spread by a new technology. Our period is moving in the opposite direction. It has generated a potentially dominating technology in search of a guiding philosophy. AI developers, as inexperienced in politics and philosophy as I am in technology, should ask themselves some of the questions I have raised here in order to build answers into their engineering efforts. This much is certain: If we do not start this effort soon, before long we shall discover that we started too late.”

Anyway, go watch the videos at the bottom of the article linked above. What you see are exactly the problem Dr. K is worried about – “AI developers, as inexperienced in politics and philosophy as I am in technology” – although in a more basic and relevant context. The engineer in the videos keeps saying that they wrote a program that, without any human intervention and without any priming of the pump using existing human-played games of Go, *programmed itself* from this tabla rasa point to become the (machine) Master of (human) Masters!

When, philosophically and logically, that’s not what happened at all! The rules of the game, made up by humans and vetted over centuries by humans, contain within themselves everything which could be called the game of Go in its logical form. Thus, by playing out games under those rules, the machine is not learning something new and even less creating ex nihilo – it is much more like a clock keeping time than a human exploring the possibilities of a game.

The key point is that the rules are something, and something essential. They are the formal cause of the game. The game does not exist without them. No physical manifestation of the game is the game without being a manifestation of the rules. This is exactly the kind of sophomore-level philosophy the developers behind this program can almost be guaranteed to be lacking.

(Aside: this is also what is lacking in the supposed ‘universe simply arose from nothing at the Big Bang’ argument made by New Atheists. The marvelous and vast array of rules governing even the most basic particles and their interactions must be considered ‘nothing’ for this argument to make sense. The further difficulty arises from mistaking cause for temporal cause rather than logical cause, where the lack of a ‘before’ is claimed to invalidate all claims of causality – but that’s another topic.)

The starry-eyes developers now hope to apply the algorithms written for their Go program to other areas, since they are not dependent on Go, but were written as a general solution. A general solution, I hasten (and they do not hasten) to add: with rules, procedures and outcomes as clearly and completely defined as those governing the game of Go.

Unlike Dr. Kissinger, I am not one bit sorry to see the Enlightenment, a vicious and destructive myth with a high body count and even higher level of propaganda to this day, die ASAP. I also differ in what I fear, and I think my reality-based fears are in fact connected with why I’d be happy to see the Enlightenment in the dustbin of History (hey, that’s catchy!): What’s more likely to happen is that men, enamoured of their new toy, will proceed to insist that life really is whatever they can reduce to a set of rules a machine can follow. That’s the dystopian nightmare, in which the machines merely act out the delusions of the likes of Zuckerberg.  It’s the delusions we should fear, more than the tools this generation of rootless, self-righteous zealots dream of using to enforce them.

  1. There was a period, in the 1980s if I’m remembering correctly, where the best chess playing programs could be defeated if the human opponent merely pursued a strategy of irrational but nonfatal moves: the programs, presented repeatedly with moves that defied the programs’ heuristics, would break. But that was a brief Star Trek moment in the otherwise inexorable march forward of machines conquering all tasks that can be fully defined by rules, or at least getting better at them than any human can.

Key Psychological Study is a Fraud. Who’da Thunk It?

Confession time: This is a case, somewhat, of personal confirmation bias for me. I should have read this, when I came across it years ago, with a solid double dollop of skepticism. Instead, I was too willing to just swallow it as presented as a yet another sad example of fallen human nature. Cautionary tale, folks.

This one:

The Stanford prison experiment was an attempt to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and prison officers. It was conducted at Stanford University between August 14–20, 1971, by a research group led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo using college students. It was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research as an investigation into the causes of difficulties between guards and prisoners in the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps. The experiment is a topic covered in most introductory (social) psychology textbooks.

Guards and prisoners had been chosen randomly from the volunteering college students. Some participants developed their roles as the officers and enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, by the officers’ request, actively harassed other prisoners who tried to stop it. Zimbardo, in his role as the superintendent, allowed abuse to continue. Two of the prisoners left mid-experiment, and the whole exercise was abandoned after six days following the objections of graduate student Christina Maslach, whom Zimbardo was dating (and later married). Certain portions of the experiment were filmed, and excerpts of footage are publicly available.

The way it’s usually presented is this experiment revealed that apparently normal people (you know, white male college students. What could be more normal than that?) harbor wellsprings of sadism that only require an opportunity to reveal themselves. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of (white college student) men? The Stanford Prison Experiment does! It is referenced in connection with the My Lai Massacre and the Armenian Genocide (no, really) to explain how American troops could shoot unarmed villagers and nice Turks could strip naked and crucify teenage girls.

More often these days, even the little bit of professional scientific restraint shown by psychologists is shed in favor of using this study as a stick to beat a particular drum. We’re supposed to believe that the Power Structure creates bad behavior. It’s Rousseau all over again, but now wearing the Sacred Lab Coat of Science! College students – gentle, loving college students who wouldn’t hurt a fly, no doubt –  would, in a state of nature (1) never dream of being sadistic, power-obsessed meanies, become sadistics, power-obsessed meanies once given POWER over other students.

It’s the power dynamic all the way down, man. Any time you see people acting sadistically, killing people, stuff like that, it’s really not their fault! Theories of sin or any other form of personal responsibility that place even part of the blame on the individual are WRONG. You want people to behave better, New Soviet Man style? Expecting them (me. us.) to behave isn’t going to get you anywhere. You need to destroy the Power Structure! This attitude, Marx’s simplification and streamlining of Hegel’s notion of the Spirit acting through History, effectively absolves individuals from all responsibility for Bad Stuff. If, as Hegel posits, the Spirit – God Himself! – is behind all this History, (frog) marching the World dialectically forward, then what difference does individual human actions – human will – make? The only virtue, such as it is, would be getting on the History train. You get run over otherwise. Marx’s trick is to remove the vaguely Judeo-Christian flavoured God of Hegel and just assigning agency to the not-at-all-a-God-History, who nonetheless is a jealous God one must not get on the wrong side of.

But I saw none of this clearly. Until now: 

It was late in the evening of August 16th, 1971, and twenty-two-year-old Douglas Korpi, a slim, short-statured Berkeley graduate with a mop of pale, shaggy hair, was locked in a dark closet in the basement of the Stanford psychology department, naked beneath a thin white smock bearing the number 8612, screaming his head off.

“I mean, Jesus Christ, I’m burning up inside!” he yelled, kicking furiously at the door. “Don’t you know? I want to get out! This is all f**ked up inside! I can’t stand another night! I just can’t take it anymore!”

It was a defining moment in what has become perhaps the best-known psychology study of all time….

Zimbardo, a young Stanford psychology professor, built a mock jail in the basement of Jordan Hall and stocked it with nine “prisoners,” and nine “guards,” all male, college-age respondents to a newspaper ad who were assigned their roles at random and paid a generous daily wage to participate. The senior prison “staff” consisted of Zimbardo himself and a handful of his students.

The study was supposed to last for two weeks, but after Zimbardo’s girlfriend stopped by six days in and witnessed the conditions in the “Stanford County Jail,” she convinced him to shut it down. Since then, the tale of guards run amok and terrified prisoners breaking down one by one has become world-famous, a cultural touchstone that’s been the subject of books, documentaries, and feature films — even an episode of Veronica Mars.

The SPE is often used to teach the lesson that our behavior is profoundly affected by the social roles and situations in which we find ourselves. But its deeper, more disturbing implication is that we all have a wellspring of potential sadism lurking within us, waiting to be tapped by circumstance. It has been invoked to explain the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War, the Armenian genocide, and the horrors of the Holocaust. And the ultimate symbol of the agony that man helplessly inflicts on his brother is Korpi’s famous breakdown, set off after only 36 hours by the cruelty of his peers.

There’s just one problem: Korpi’s breakdown was a sham.

“Anybody who is a clinician would know that I was faking,” he told me last summer, in the first extensive interview he has granted in years. “If you listen to the tape, it’s not subtle. I’m not that good at acting. I mean, I think I do a fairly good job, but I’m more hysterical than psychotic.”

Read the article.  What interest and saddens me is that the subjects of this fraud did not in fact out the dude and drag him into court for illegally imprisoning them. Why? Just a guess here: because they, too, had academic ambitions. Certainly Kopri did. Academics seem to have a certain immunity to having to behave like adults and accept consequences, because they can so easily destroy the careers of the little people under them.

So, has anybody tried to replicate this thing? Glad you asked:

According to Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher, psychologists who co-directed an attempted replication of the Stanford prison experiment in Great Britain in 2001, a critical factor in making people commit atrocities is a leader assuring them that they are acting in the service of a higher moral cause with which they identify — for instance, scientific progress or prison reform. We have been taught that guards abused prisoners in the Stanford prison experiment because of the power of their roles, but Haslam and Reicher argue that their behavior arose instead from their identification with the experimenters, which Jaffe and Zimbardo encouraged at every turn. Eshelman, who described himself on an intake questionnaire as a “scientist at heart,” may have identified more powerfully than anyone, but Jaffe himself put it well in his self-evaluation: “I am startled by the ease with which I could turn off my sensitivity and concern for others for ‘a good cause.’”

Finally, here’s the real issue that comes up whenever the so-called Replication Crisis is brought up: careers get built on half-baked if not out and out dishonest ‘studies’ done to promote, in some order, a particular political agenda and the researcher’s career. Those screaming loudest about the evil, evil people trying and failing to replicate their studies are exactly those people who have ridden the fame of such flawed and dishonest studies to prominence and tenure.

Because that’s the way it works in the soft ‘sciences’.

The Stanford prison experiment established Zimbardo as perhaps the most prominent living American psychologist. He became the primary author of one of the field’s most popular and long-running textbooks, Psychology: Core Concepts, and the host of a 1990 PBS video series, Discovering Psychology, which gained wide usage in high school and college classes and is still screened today. Both featured the Stanford prison experiment.

  1. What is the natural environment for elite psychology students? Smoking dope on daddy’s yacht? That would indeed be pretty mellow. Meow.