Explaining the rules

red sweater by gabrielerosa56
I object!:
[Via Bad Astronomy]

I was recently involved in a discussion of post-modernism and relativism that started when a commenter on my blog tried to support how astrology can be true and then continued when I posted on Twitter about it. I wrote:

The human condition is relative from human to human and culture to culture. But there are scientific truths outside and independent of us.

I thought my meaning was clear. What might be moral in one culture may not be in another, and in many cases that’s OK. Cultures are different. But in the objective reality of the Universe, such relativism may fall apart. Physical laws have an objective reality; we may interpret them, but they continue to do what they do whether our interpretation is correct or not.

This led to a discussion of the meaning of things, and that I think is the important issue.

A follower on Twitter said:

Gravity may well exist. But if we can’t describe it, it’s hardly objective. And we can’t possible know it’s [sic] meaning.


I agree totally with Phil. Gravity has no ‘meaning’ and exists whether humans are here or not. Yet the discussion seems to be a nice measure of something discussed in the new book ‘Don’t Be Such A Scientist‘ by Randy Olson.

Most people see the world quite differently than scientists. They have emotional responses to things that we see as simply factual.

Many people deal with a complex world by using a few simple rules of thumb (or as scientists would say, heuristics). They do not have to think deeply about a new pattern. They see where it fits in their rules. And if it does not fit, they generally just ignore it.

Scientists have been trained to really use a much more complex set of heuristics because we have directly seen so many examples of how simple rules of thumb lead researchers astray. One such rule is to stick to facts, not to metaphysical meanings, which often have little real impact on objective facts.

So I am not surprised that  the follower on Twitter discussed meaning. People look for meaning in all sorts of things; they try to find patterns even when there are not any.

While this is now a very non-selective approach (it can lead to decisions that are actually harmful for survival), in simpler times while on the savannah, finding patterns would be very useful for identifying the lion in the brush.

Researchers have trained themselves to actually think against some of our basic premises. Humans look for meanings and patterns in everything. Scientists have trained themselves to find the facts, not the meanings or misleading patterns.

Thus, a girl dying after being injected with a vaccine is, to many people, a sign that the vaccine caused the death. Scientists know that these post hoc fallacies are often wrong and wait. When it is found that she had a severe underlying illness, only scientists are really reassured.

Most people have already made the new rule that the vaccine is bad. Simply telling them that this is not so will have little effect. The only way I have found to get them to really ‘think’ and perhaps alter their rule is to use stories that come at the fallacy in ways that they can easily understand.

I’ve have used this story a couple of times:

A women puts on a red sweater, gets on a plane and then dies in a plane crash. Since she crashed so soon after putting on the red sweater, authorities are suspending sales of red sweaters until they can determine whether it was responsible for the accident. While it is an unlikely cause, they want to make sure that there is no connection.

Now, most people would say this is just ridiculous because there is no way that red sweaters could cause a crash. When the investigation shows the rear til broke off of the plane, everyone gets very comfortable because that explanation fits their rule of thumb quite nicely.

Why weren’t they fooled by the initial post hoc argument? Because many have direct knowledge of the entire system and know that the original conclusion is wrong.

Not so with most science, such as vaccine development. The process is a mystery as well as one that they have little control over.

Telling them the facts will not change this very basic rule of thumb. To get them to re-evaluate their conclusion, they need to be provided with a similar ‘story’ but one that illustrates the new rule by contradicting their old rule.

So after giving a nice story, I can then describe how a vaccine undergoes strong safety checks, how hundreds if not thousands of people have received it and that the side effects are no different than placebo.

Like an airplane, we may be a little reluctant to give up control but the results are so beneficial that this discomfort is worth it.

After all of this, a sudden death actually caused by the vaccine would be as odd as a red sweater causing a plane crash.

Not everyone gets it (some heuristics are too strong, particularly ones dealing with various forms of woo) but I have actually gotten a couple to be a little more skeptical. At least when they see a report, like the one (I’ll wait to actually see the results published. I also wonder if they looked at people who got no vaccine but got the flu last year, as a control) , they come and check with me.

I can see why Aesop’s Fables are so useful. They provide easy ways to gather rules of thumb that can be important in a complex world. Maybe we need some new fables for a complex world.

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10 thoughts on “Explaining the rules

  1. I don’t think we need new fables. Between Aesop, Shakespeare and Old Wives Tales, everything is pretty well covered. Think of “Birds of a feather…..” and “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth”, etc. etc.

  2. I’m not sure its quite as easy as saying the scientist investigates in this way, normal people in that.

    Its true about the investigation, but you can’t be a scientist in that sense when not doing science.

    In the public discourse, we’re all in the same boat. Thats why scientists need to get better at telling stories, need to tell better stories. We definitely need new fables.

    Because scientists ain’t scientists when their eye is off the microscope. In the public sphere, refusing to do narrative is not a coragous committment to objectivity, but a cowardly refusal to engage in life.

  3. A problem arises when someone else thinks their ‘story’ is just as real and vital as the scientist’s narrative. One is based on a factual description of the world and one is fiction.

    Many people would rather believe the fiction, even to the detriment of all of our lives. The non-fictional narratives provided by researchers can not often be manipulated to fit the unreal story of some people.

    Then, whose fault is it? We hear a lot about how scientists must do a better job with their narrative. Fine. But fictional views of the world must also be recognized and dealt with for what they are.

    Unreal depictions of reality.

  4. Richard, I still think the criterion for whether you denounce a human-created belief is the consequences of the fiction. There are human-created beliefs that you wouldn’t want to undermine, that you could prove were useful using a scientific investigation. And the bad fictions you refer to are probably impregnable from the factual perspective, they only exist because they are already insulated against science. Even the scientists reality is doused in fictions, just not the massive ones that come with religious faith.

  5. Human-created beliefs can have all sorts of positive benefits. But if they conflict with reality, with facts and data, I fail to see how they can be of much use. We usually call such non-factual beliefs lies.

    Scientists are human and have to deal with their own stories. But most realize that their stories have to change as new facts become apparent. The discovery that ulcers are caused by bacteria is a nice recent example.

    Scientists live in a world where their views become marginalized if they refuse to adapt to new information. Not so elsewhere. There the refusal to accept new data creates a nice living for those who support an unhealthy group of deniers – deniers who have continuing negative impact on our society’s ability to solve complex problems.

    Sorry for the rant ;-) It is a sore subject because my outreach efforts inevitably encounter anti-vaccine, creationist, anti-climate change people. Having to tell the same stories again and again makes me a little petulant.

  6. No, rant well founded – and I’m with you on the anti-vaccine, creationists and anti-climate change folks (and I was a philosophy not an english major back in the day – but I thought the internet was meant to help people share) I guess I just think there’s space in-between facts and false factual claims for something else, that shouldn’t be called lying. And while the literal religions get this very wrong, I still think the scientists attitude, that the factual narrative covers everything, is false and causes a lot of harm.

    Because while it is easy to see that ID has bad consequences – like a right of passage of the most fundamentalist zealots, the belief that, say, one mythical man came back from the dead, is more difficult to figure out. Its obviously not true, but if great things come from it, who am I to say so. Are you not sometimes worried that scientists are fundamentalists about factual reality to the detriment of the nuance of our lives as we experience them?

  7. BOS,

    I do not really disagree with you too much. If someone’s story gives them comfort or helps them get through the day, I think that is wonderful.

    The problem comes when their convenient story is contradicted by factual reality. History has shown that those communities that continue to believe the convenient untruth do not survive for long, while those that adapt to reality often continue and grow.

    To me facts are facts. I fail to understand how, for the society at large, finding nuance in factual reality helps in the long run in many of these cases. That is because some facts and some beliefs are often in direct conflict, permitting little place to find nuance.

    Science can do little than simply say, “Here are the facts. Deal with them.”

    Mankind survives in a complex world using heuristics – rules of thumb – to deal with it.

    Some people have very simple heuristics, though, which keep running into problems with the very things that might require nuance.

    Many times this gut feeling approach to life permits them to get by. But we are living in a very, very complex world now, mostly of our own making. And many of these simple heuristics can actually become counterproductive.

    This is the point where I would denounce them. These heuristics are no longer useful for surviving in a complex world but can actually harm a community.

    It is often easy to see just when this happens and who is being affected.

    These are the ones who most vociferously deny most of the scientific facts we have been discussing. They lack any sense of nuance at all.

    In the main, this is because their rules of thumb, the stories they use to instruct their lives, are no longer properly helping them navigate the world.

    I am not saying that every belief should be dealt with. I am saying that those rules of thumb that no longer really provide a useful advantage because they are directly opposed by factual reality must be dealt with firmly.

    Heuristics that obviously can not deal with factual reality are ones that are harmful to us all. They provide no survival advantage that I can see.

    But this leaves a lot of very useful stories that can be used to help people survive. Science does not cover everything, at least not yet ;-)

  8. Ah, heuristics. I like the rules of thumb, but I don’t think they get us to a finishing line. To understand what people do you’ve got to see that they apply rules of thumb to complex conceptual narratives, which can’t be understood as simple neurological formations. They exist over time, and in language – not brain binary. The conceptual connections certainly exist, but I wouldn’t say either “subjective” or “objective” capture the subtelty of the situation.

    The real thing I wanted to say was that it’s not necessarily about simply helping people survive – thats just one of countless life narratives. If you’re going to be rational, you’d have to try and figure out the best possible narrative by which to live. But that is essentially a creative pursuit and one that scientists don’t seem suited to, prefering instead to think of stories as a nessesary evil, and blindly accepting the ones that follow from their scientific theories.

    As you say, its one of the areas which requires nuance to get the best solution, and I’m not seeing much of it from the science community.

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