lunar-human connection

Confirmation Bias in Action

lunar-human connectionWe humans are strange creatures. Here we have the ability to reason. We have science to give us a means of interpreting our world. Yet, we still fall prey to a juicy confirmation bias.

We can’t help ourselves. It affects even the keener minds, i.e., the ones that should know better. A study by the University of California provides a striking example.

Confirmation Bias in Action

Professor Jean-Luc Margot analyzed the basis for the so-called lunar effect on humans. There probably isn’t one person who hasn’t said at one time or another, “It must be a full moon.” The scenario goes something like this.

Things get wacky. It could be a higher number of accidents or more arrests involving aggression. In this case, Margot looked at hospital admissions and birth rates. A review of the literature suggesting a correlation between the moon and these types of incidents yielded startling results.

No, the moon isn’t causing your Uncle Norm to run amok. Rather, it boiled down to erroneous conclusions drawn from analysis shortcomings. Margot found problems with data collection and analysis, which contributed to the errors.

How Errors in Inductive Reasoning Occur

Induction is the process of using premises to support the credibility of a conclusion. Your argument could be weak or strong. Your conclusion could also be false. Deduction, on the other hand, is a definitive conclusion drawn from the premises. With induction, you generalize.

Here’s an example of inductive reasoning.

Premise: All of the people I see at the bar are regulars.
Conclusion: Therefore, the bar only serves regulars.

You can see the logical flaw. That’s how confirmation bias works. In a nutshell, it is the tendency to disregard evidence that does not support your beliefs and seek (or notice) the bits that do.

In the case of the lunar connection, individuals notice the spike in births and attribute to the full moon. Never mind the other times when births spiked and there was no full moon. We remember the evidence that it does.

Safety Mechanism

While it sounds silly, the confirmation bias has its place. It allows you to make quick decisions. In a world where survival was uncertain, it could mean the difference between life and death. Unfortunately, it also leads to errors in judgement, hence, the lunar-human connection.

But all is not lost. Awareness is the first step toward taming the bias/fallacy monster. It’s when you’re not aware that things go awry. Next time, pay attention to what you say and hear. Look for the signs of confirmation bias. It’s not the end of the world to admit that you’re wrong.

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”
~Albert Einstein Chris DR

green roofs

Staying Open to Solutions

green roofsAs I’ve written before, politics and ideology plague the climate change dialogue. It is a classic example of the false dilemma fallacy or specifically, the false choice fallacy. It goes something like this. Climate change exists. We need a solution. Either we [fill in the blank] or we’re all doomed, and women will be forced into prostitution.

That’s why a new law passed in France is so refreshing. The law declares that all new buildings in commercial areas must either have rooftops with solar panels or plants. It is the or bit that is a good change of pace.

The Island You Might Want to Avoid

If you travel regularly between cities and rural areas, you know the heat island effect firsthand. The city heats up during the day due to the amount of heat-absorbing dark-colored surfaces. The effect compared to rural settings is dramatic. The French law is a win-win solution.

Either you make that solar radiation work for you, or you use it to grow plants while lowering temperatures. It is the fact that it is a choice that makes the difference.

No longer is it the dogmatic response that you must install a solar panel. Instead, the French government recognizes two solutions to the same problem. Solar panels aren’t the end-all solution for everyone. There are problems

Solar Panel Issues

Let me go on the record to say that I believe solar panels work as standalone solutions. If you can afford to invest and wait for the ROI, go for it. However, large-scale solar power has problems that have yet to be addressed. Birds getting killed when flying near solar plants is an issue. All lives matter.

Then there are the geographic and topographic limitations. Science hasn’t figured out to make the sun shine at a different angle in the northern latitudes or tucked down in valleys. If I have a problem getting enough vitamin D from sun exposure in the winter because I live in Minnesota, a solar panel isn’t likely to do much better. It is what it is.

A Suite of Solutions

The French law is an acknowledgement that there can be more than one solution to a problem. Many factors come into play, not the least of which is cost and efficacy.

Perhaps if the dialogue shifts more toward a suite of solutions, we can move away from this false choice scenario. It does no one any good to dismiss the solutions that don’t happen to be the favorite ones of any political group. I said it before, I’ll say it again. We all want the same things: clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. Chris DR
photo credit: IMG_8499 via photopin (license)

small farm

The Road to Probably

small farmLast week, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization announced a summary of a soon-to-be published monograph about organophosphate insecticides and herbicides. An assessment of glyphosate, popularly known as the pesticide, RoundUp®, set the blogosphere on fire.

According to the summary, researchers concluded that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The use of probably is not my own. That is a direct quote from the report.

The Road to Probably

How did the IARC come to this conclusion? These criteria stand out:

  • Limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals
  • Evidence of DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells

It’s worth noting as well that “. . . other explanations for the observations (called chance, bias, or confounding)
could not be ruled out.”

The reason is that the findings—for humans, anyway—are based on meta-analysis of observational studies of farm workers and individuals handling/dispensing pesticides. Unlike the lab animals, we don’t experiment with humans. No one is going to volunteer to be in the pesticide application group.

What we’re left with is a distinction between association and causation. Without randomized assignment and sampling of a populaton, science can only find associations, not causes. And that is what makes it problematic.

Confusing to the General Public

Based on the evidence and review, the language of the summary is correct. Science can’t declare something causal without an experiment to control for the confounding factors that may contribute to cancer risk.

Unfortunately, the correct verbiage opens itself to misinterpretation and confusion. Many of the articles I’ve seen reporting on the news have been careful to include the probably part. That’s good from the science perspective; but it’s bad for the general public. In our world, it either does or does not cause cancer. Probably isn’t good enough.

Another thing to bear in mind is the source of the evidence. The human evidence is based on farm worker exposure. The average Joe isn’t going to have the same contact with glyphosate as someone who uses it as part of his job. The other wildcard therefore is the amount of exposure.

As Paracelsus, the Father of Toxicology, reminds us,

“Only the dose makes the poison.”

And that’s where the research needs to go, as problematic as it may seem. In the meantime, it bears mentioning what a pesticide is. A pesticide is “a chemical preparation for destroying plant, fungal, or animal pests.” The findings of the IARC shouldn’t come as any surprise. Chris DR
photo credit: Central Iowa via photopin (license)


You Didn’t Build That Storm

droughtWe’re in an age now where we want to cut to the chase and get to the facts. We don’t want the whole story; we want the Reader’s Digest version. We even want it with the most complex issues of our time, including climate change.

Extreme Weather and Climate Change

You’ve undoubtedly have read this talking point, but it bears mentioning again. Weather is what you see outside your window. Climate is the prevailing weather conditions for an area. They are not synonymous, though you won’t get that idea from popular media.

Instead, every single snowstorm, tornado, hurricane, and heavy rainfall is attributed to climate change. Both weather and climate are complex phenomenon. To pigeonhole a single event to anthropogenic climate change is too simplistic. Other things contribute to both, like oceans, volcanoes among other things.

What Science Says

Even science acknowledges this fact. The abstract from a 2013 paper from the Bulletin of American Meteorological Society states:

“Approximately half the analyses found some evidence that anthropogenically caused climate change was a contributing factor to the extreme event examined, though the effects of natural fluctuations of weather and climate on the evolution of many of the extreme events played key roles as well.”

The quote refers to 19 analyses of extreme weather events in 2012. As you can see, there is some disagreement with half finding some evidence and the half, not. And notice as well that the the paper references some evidence, not definitive. It also acknowledges other facts, including natural fluctuations.

I bring this up not to split hairs, but as a plea for truth in reporting. The real story is not being told. Instead, we have the snark as evidence by this headline from Bloomberg Businessweek: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid,” in a reference to Superstorm Sandy. I hate to break it you. You didn’t build that storm.

Fallacies Abound

Let’s consider the science. Climate scientists work with past data and modeling. They can’t create an experiment in the traditional way as in a double-blind, randomized controlled setting. As such, they can find correlations but not causation.

Second, in a twist on the chicken-and-the-egg storm, global warming brings about climate change. The unfortunate coining of the former term has fueled many skeptic arguments, sometimes with the ridiculous use of snowballs.

Third, let’s us not forget the Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. (The phrase is Latin for “after this, therefore because of this.”) The argument goes like this: Climate change is happening. We had a huge storm, therefore it must be climate change.

This fallacy often shares the limelight with the appeal to ignorance or argumentum ad ignorantiam. In this case, the argument states that it must be climate change because you didn’t prove that it’s not. The fallacies show us what is wrong with this whole argument.

How About a Solution?

As I wrote last time, the thing missing in this whole dialogue about climate change is rational communication. That means no snark, no Weather Channel euphemisms for any weather event,  and no political ideologies confusing the issue. A grasp of science and statistics would help too.

Yes, I accept that climate change is occurring. Yes, there will be consequences. No, I don’t equate it to social issues or politicizing. I want the same things as you want: clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. Can we all agree on that? Chris DR
photo credit: Dry Riverbed via photopin (license)


The Real Danger of Climate Change

floodingAfter reading Mark Lynas’ piece in The Guardian, I’m convinced. The real danger of climate change isn’t the predictions of rising oceans, wildfire, or extreme weather. It is the people and the politicizing of climate change. The so-called environmentalism has morphed into something that would make John Muir spin in his grave.

The Snark

A lot of snark gets in the way of what should be a straightforward discussion about limiting harm to the planet. Instead, eco-zealots (or the eco-Malthusian left as Lynas brilliantly observed) fire back with terms like deniers in an attempt to debase skeptics. Greenpeace adds to the vitriol by permanently damaging Peru’s Nazca Lines. To be fair, the conservatives fuel the fire too with the likes of the ridiculous Senator James Inhofe.

What we don’t have is a dialogue. And we also have an issue so mired in political ideologies and social issues that you have to even wonder if it’s about climate change and its consequences at all.

Acting Like Lemmings

Then, there is the short-sightedness of some people. If rising oceans and coastal flooding are in our future, why are we failing to plan for it? Instead, research by the University of Southampton suggest that over 600 million people will be affected by it by 2100. The researchers projected costs of $100,000 billion per year by then.

I’m reminded of of joke my husband told me. A man lived in a place that experienced a raging flood. He sought shelter on the top of his house. A helicopter flew by and asked him if he needed any help. He said, “No, God will take care of me.” A second helicopter came by, and again, the man declined. Finally, the flood waters swept him away and killed him. At the Pearly Gates, the man lamented to God, “I needed you, but you let me down. Why?” “Let you down?” God asked. “I sent two helicopters to save you.”

That’s how I see the situation where people rebuild in flood-prone areas like the Mississippi River Valley that flooded in 1993 or after Hurricane Katrina. You can also question the wisdom of rebuilding in areas prone to wildfires or going back to a mobile home after a tornado when you live in Tornado Alley. It’s like some got the memo, but ignore it. The popular media bombards us with stories and misinformation about extreme weather, yet so many don’t listen.

What Will the Future Bring?

Like Lynas warns, we need to drop the politics that are fueling political debate rather than solving problems. I would add social issues to the mix too because it’s misleading a lot of innocent people. Who pays when you implement a carbon tax? Who pays when regulate businesses who pass the costs to consumers? Who pays when substitute expensive and imperfect renewable energy sources for cheaper ones that may include nuclear?

The people who are hurt the most are the poor, the ones that the eco-zealots claim to look out for when the social issues get wrapped up with climate change. Until we all can have a mature, non-emotional discussion, we’ll just have to see which of the consequences comes true first and what harm it will bring to humankind. I remain skeptical about any consensus or solutions to forgo any of them. Chris DR
photo credit: Bridge over the James at Maidens via photopin (license)