Mangled Science, Mangled Truth, Part 1

It’s one of those intellectual nuggets you tuck away for dinner parties: A recent psychological study finds that people are more likely to express politically conservative values after seeing a U.S. flag. And this one: People are more inclined to support inequality when exposed to money.

Throw these scientific factoids at your conservative neighbor during the next block barbeque. You’re reactionary because you’re bought and paid for, Harry. And these American flag napkins just reinforce your worldview.

The problem with both studies, however, is that other researchers have been unable to replicate them. Worse, this problem may extend to a great many findings from psychological studies.

If you doubt that this matters, consider that as I write this, major publications are gleefully reporting a new study by a Cornell psychology PhD who has found that casual sex can be very good for the emotional well-being of young people. Maybe she’s right, maybe she’s wrong, but I’m wagering nobody will bother to find out, which means you can choose to believe her findings if it suits you. [Read more...]

Experimenting on the Lambs

News from Alabama is that researchers obscured risks of blindness, brain damage, and death in order to convince parents of 1,300 premature infants to participate in a medical study. In my last essay I argued the seemingly esoteric point that disciplines like philosophy are essential to good science. Here is a practical example: science run amok, facilitated by well-meaning people who have been steeped in an inhumane and unscientific mode of thinking that masquerades as “how science is done.”

Drastically premature babies need oxygen, and this is inherently dangerous. Too little oxygen can cause brain damage or death. Too much can damage the eyes, sometimes to the point of blindness. Medical practitioners exercise judgment about how much oxygen to give any particular infant. But some scientists have asked—quite reasonably—whether they might sometimes be giving too much oxygen, inducing unnecessary eye damage. Researchers attempted to study this in the 1950s, but there were problems, not the least of which—in their view—were nurses surreptitiously increasing oxygen levels whenever they thought babies slated to receive lower amounts were suffering as a consequence.

A research team centered at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, however, came up with a clever way to elide this complication. They manipulated oxygen meters in the pediatric intensive care units where they were running their experiments, so that nurses were misled about the actual oxygen babies were receiving. Now, you see, we can get a clean test. Clean tests are essential when you do science.

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Scientific Passions

The nerd world felt a slight disturbance in the force a few weeks back, when the hottest new science popularizer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, argued that philosophy yields little value compared to science. The widely quoted statement that drew ire from philosophical types was Tyson’s observation, in response to someone’s admission to having been a philosophy major: “That can really mess you up.”

Anyone who has ever endured a philosophy class recognizes the truth in this claim, but it became a convenient placeholder for Tyson’s more objectionable comments, which amounted to an assertion that philosophy is navel-gazing sophistry which does not contribute to “our understanding of the natural world.”

“Practical men,” wrote John Maynard Keynes, “who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” This is doubly true of practical scientists, like the amiable Dr. Tyson, who are enslaved not to economists but to philosophers, even as they pronounce themselves independent of philosophical drudgery.

The amateur philosopher imprisoning Tyson and many of his colleagues is a centuries-dead Frenchman named Laplace, astronomer and mathematician by trade, who in his Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (he was not privy to Tyson’s cautions against philosophizing) expounded a notion that grips most science popularizers today, and a good many social planners as well. It is the notion that if we could capture all the data in the universe, we could understand the past and the present, and predict the future with certainty.

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Corporate Insanity Starts with Us

Imagine you paid someone to build a house for your child, and imagine one night you get a call. The house has collapsed. Your child is dead.

A year after you bury your child, a letter arrives. It is from your builder. Get out of the house, it says. There may be some defects.

You learn that other houses have collapsed, other people have died. The builder knew of the danger for years. So you get a lawyer, you go to court, you demand compensation—not that any amount of dollars will bring back the child you have lost. You demand the money because it is the only way you know to punish the builder, and to make sure everyone knows his wrongdoing.

The builder sends his lawyers to the judge, and they tell the judge he is not liable. He isn’t liable, because the fool who used shoddy materials was the old him. He is a new man. He can’t be held responsible for the actions of his past person.

Preposterous, right? Yet this is precisely the argument employed by General Motors in response to numerous lawsuits, in response to at least thirteen deaths from engineering defects that cause its vehicles to lock up, rendering their power steering, brakes, and airbags inoperable. In a recent court filing, GM’s lawyers claimed the engineering mistakes were committed by “the old GM.” They represent, you see, “the new GM.”

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The Prodigal Bears His Scars

My last communion was during a brief suspension of my former church’s policy of forbidding it to children. I was already halfway out Protestantism’s door, and three-quarters out of my marriage, but on this their mother and I agreed: we should seize the opportunity to have communion alongside our children. The table was soon blocked again, after much pastoral consultation of texts. Communion remained accessible for hard-drinking adulterers like me, but not for my four year-old.

I lingered at the edges of another church in the following months, and then not at all. The shape of a newly divorced and even harder drinking man is not well-suited—at least it can seem to him, in his vanity and stupor—to pews. I drifted, and far.

My memory of that long descent’s end is the memory of a voice, nightly, over the phone. That voice spoke truths I’d forgotten apply to me: truths about forgiveness, about purpose. It was not the voice of an angel, but close enough, and to this day the sound of it conjures for me salvation.

I still hear it every morning, because it is the voice of a woman who chose to become my wife, long after I stopped believing I deserve such a thing. She took my hand despite my past, took it though her cancer left us unsure if she would live long past a honeymoon. We had no money, no home. Each of us bore a sickness. Today we are mending, and we have a house in a little town, and my children love her more than I imagined possible.

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