Thursday, October 31, 2013

Science well sort of….Eureka, I’ve figured it all out

I have to start by thanking you all for your patience.  Since I began this blog a couple of years ago I have been trying to answer what I thought was a straight forward question:  How do we decide what to believe? Those of you who stuck with me watched me muddle through various theories and explorations in earlier blog posts, my core idea all along being that if I could somehow show how I came to my beliefs, it might impact the way other people  arrive at theirs. …Well, I was wrong… very, very wrong.  But the good news, at least  as it relates to me and my fragile little ego,  is that this is not all on me as an ineffectual  blogger, but rather it’s simply a function of how we are wired…of how our brains work.

We think of ourselves as rational actors, using judgment, education and reason to come to our conclusions. But as I learned, this is really not the case.  My good friend Anthony Pratkanis calls us “cognitive misers” meaning that we are cheap in our use of rational reasoning.  I think what he’s pointing to is what Daniel Kahneman has brilliantly summarized in his seminal work “Thinking Fast and Slow”.  Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work explaining how individuals evaluate risk and make decisions often contrary to the evidence and their self-interest.  Complex sciency stuff, but as a psychologist it led him to further explorations on the very question of how our brain works in determining our beliefs.

In his book (and check out the SALT talk here) he makes a compelling argument for how our brain functions determine these outcomes.  He describes two methods of thinking, system one and system two. His best example of the difference  is system one is what kicks in when we are asked, what is 2+2?  The answer comes to us almost instantly and without struggle.  But when we are asked what is 17 x 28 system two has to come into operation  We pause, our pupils dilate (literally) and we have to expend mental energy to come up with the answer.  It is much slower and it takes work.

System one is where our brain is working almost on auto pilot, navigating us though the day without conscious effort.  It’s largely intuitive and enables us to assimilate vast amounts of inputs and stimuli in a way that we can process to our benefit.  It instantly categorizes and associates data into frames that we are comfortable with.  It is heavily influenced by our previous experience, associations, biases and ideologies, even if we are unaware of it.  System two is where we slow down and do the hard work of reasoning. We use it to check and validate our system one conclusions.  It takes effort, and we do it relatively rarely, regardless of the fact that we perceive ourselves to be using it much of the time.

And this is not a bad thing…we rely on system one to be effective, to survive, and to process the fire hose of visual, aural, and olfactory stuff that is coming at us non-stop…and generally it works really, really well.  If we tried to apply the slower system two to all these inputs, we’d simply be unable to function.

But wait…if we can understand all this, can’t we simply apply system two analysis to the more complex problems - like how we come to our beliefs -  taking the time to question our assumptions and regularly checking our initial system one conclusions?

Well no  - at least not often, if at all.  In fact it appears the opposite is the case, and that the more aptitude we have for scientific reasoning, (for system two), the more likely we are  to be swayed by system one processes and biases…. and I think it’s been proven, using….science.

Yale Law professor Dan Kahan is in my estimation a genius.  His latest research is the best designed yet to demonstrate the fallacy that if we just had more information, and were more skilled in our reasoning, we would rationally come up with the correct objective answer.

While not at all complicated, I won’t be able to do justice to his work and fully describe his methodology in the space I allow myself here.   But trust me, his results show in a very compelling fashion that contrary to what one might expect,  the more sophisticated a person is, the more likely they are to misinterpret scientific data based on their political ideology.  And the more information they are given, the harder they hold on to their beliefs.  It should come as no surprise that this holds equally true for folks on both sides of the political spectrum.  If you have any interest at all in this topic, I highly recommend you go here and here for the details.

So, problem solved….I’ve answered to my satisfaction how we decide what to believe…now off to begin my next major inquiry, seeking the answer to that age old question… how do they make paper? I’ll report back…so what do you believe?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Science, well sort of…the final definitive answer on fracking

Wait, what was the question?  Oh right… some months ago I undertook a journey seeking to answer the question, is fracking, and the resulting increase in the availability and use of natural gas, on balance a ‘good thing’ as it relates to climate change. In other words, will fracking result in a meaningful reduction in GHG’s, and will the associated risks/costs be worth that reduction?  I started this quest for two to get some clarity in my own mind on the issue, but more importantly, I hoped the exercise would serve as a model to show how we each come to our own conclusions on what to believe on sciency issues.  If you are just catching up, you can follow the journey here ('The experiment begins''Fracking open my brain', 'Midterm').  My governing theory behind all this, which frankly I’m coming to doubt more and more as time passes, is that by illuminating how we come to our beliefs, we all might have a better shot at doing so accurately…honestly…scientifically…and most important to me for some reason, non-ideologically.
Ok, here goes…the definitive answer to the question posed is… yes. Everyone cool with that?  Shockingly, I’m guessing not.  So now for the one caveat and then my rationale.
The caveat for the answer is simply that it is mine.  It’s the answer I came to after my own exploration.  It is not absolute, it is no doubt based in some significant part on my own biases as I sought to parse the fine points that lie between the debates, and it is subject to revision as time goes by.  I had originally thought I would seek out two experts on either side of the debate to help me decide, but after digging in deeper, I realized I could just as easily read their work, and frankly, once things got technical, I would have to defer to my own judgment in any case.  So the answer is yes….here’s how I came to my conclusion.

I will stipulate that there are indeed risks posed by fracking…but I did not set out to see if it was safe, rather, to find out if the benefits outweigh the risks.  In my judgment they do.  The risks come in two categories, localized and global.  The localized risks include groundwater contamination, earthquakes and other general environmental disturbances that come with the drilling of wells.  In my review, while there are anecdotal examples for all of the above, and always will be, I could not find any data supporting systemic impacts for any of these risks.  Some argue that the absence of evidence of risk is not evidence that there is no risk, and I get that.  But so far, if we follow the data available, this is where we are.  My bet is that more studies will not materially alter this conclusion….Biased?

The global risks are twofold…the release of methane during the drilling and fracking process, and the broad question of what does natural gas replace.  Several years ago claims were made that the release of extra methane during fracking would overwhelm the benefits of using natural gas in place of coal.  This idea gained a lot of traction and its authors were widely cited.  The problem is, there is now a pretty clear consensus that they were just plain wrong. The methane release debate is insanely complex, as all these things are, but I was persuaded by the preponderance of evidence at this point that methane leaks are not a material problem.

The policy and market driven question of what does natural gas replace is for me the biggest one.  This is where the critics of fracking make the most compelling points.  If the increase in cheap locally sourced natural gas does not replace higher carbon energy sources as it is deployed, the argument goes, we’re screwed.  So don’t spend time on it, and move straight to zero carbon alternatives.  In a perfect world I vote for this too…but, well, you know…so living in this world we need to look at what is possible now.  We have to set policies that will still push for the rapid deployment of all zero carbon energy sources.  We have to price carbon so that the market works more efficiently to encourage lower or no carbon alternatives.  We need to move away from coal, globally and fast.  Natural gas, which is essentially methane by the way, has about half the CO2 of coal, and if it is locally sourced and used, has an added benefit of a lower end to end carbon footprint.   It’s not perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better and has contributed in a marked reduction of US CO2 output.  Is it enough? No.  Is it on balance worth continuing to develop more natural gas by fracking? Yes.

A friend and colleague used the analogy that if you’re driving towards a cliff at 60 mph, you need to do more than slow to 50… Agreed.  But to get to a stop, you have to slow to 50 first along the way.  In my judgment fracking can have that effect….so, what do you believe?

PS…I purposely did not include any citations to my sources to avoid clutter, and because I am lazy.  However, if you have doubts about my conclusions, I’ll point you to how I got there in the comments.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Science, well sort of…. A fracking midterm report

Ok, best intentions notwithstanding, I’m way behind on my self-imposed schedule of completing the promised three part series on fracking.  Part one (here) generated an unprecedented number of responses from you all …clearly readership is now firmly in the low double digits…I’m humbled.  And I do promise to complete the series, but until then, I thought it might be useful to quickly share with you some of the comments I received as they point to the vexing complexity of this project, and therefore may serve as part of my excuse for being late on my homework. Consider this part 1.5 of the now 3.5 part series…ugh.

First, a number of you asked me to "show my work"…what were the sources of information that led to my conclusions after round one, so that you could check me and arrive at your own conclusions.  Well, that will be hard, as my research process resembles the wiring of my brain…random and disjointed. But frankly, that’s exactly how I wanted to approach the project, mimicking how I go about my day to day media consumption, rather than using a rigorous approach.  I would start with an article I ran across in the NYT, SF Chronicle or Twitter, and then follow threads where they took me, be it via embedded links or just the magic of Google, driven by my curiosity (…biases?). So I found myself on sites such as 'Shale Shock', the Shale Reporter, Propublica, various UC Berkeley Centers for the study of blah blah blah, and so on.  My point was not to get to an objective truth, but to examine how I got to mine.  But bottom line, I was too lazy to document my research so I’m unable satisfy those of you who want to double check me…sorry.

Another point raised by several folks was that I was not framing the question correctly. Or perhaps to be more precise, I was framing the question too narrowly.  Here’s what I said initially …
"I set out to answer the question, is fracking, and the resulting increase in the availability and use of natural gas, on balance a ‘good thing’ as it relates to climate change. In other words, will fracking result in a meaningful reduction in GHG’s, and will the associated risks/costs be worth that reduction?"

You pointed out that I may have missed some important aspects of the issue by framing it in this way.  First, there is the question of what does natural gas replace.  If it is coal or other high carbon sources, you concede it will likely result in an overall reduction of GHG’s…but if the consequence of cheap and plentiful natural gas is to slow the development of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, or zero carbon sources such as nuclear, well then not so much.  I was also chastised for focusing too narrowly on the feared direct impacts of fracking, such as potential groundwater contamination, methane release and increased drilling, and not on the more nuanced points.  And you’re right, darn you.  For example, it was also pointed out that the impact of fracking on the reduction of GHG’s will largely be the result of governmental policy and regulation rather than just the free market.  Again, this is directly related to what natural gas replaces as the result of tax incentives, energy policy, how tight regulations are, etc.  Again, you are no doubt right.

Next many of you on the sciency side of the issue made some great points that can be summed up as “we just don’t have enough data yet”.  This is of course correct, but we have to be careful as it may also be a bit of a red herring.  I will concede that there will always be a need for more and better data on this, as on any complex issue.  But we also have to acknowledge that the demand for ‘certainty’, or at least more research, is often used as a device to divert, delay or obfuscate.  So while I concede this is very much an emerging issue about which we do indeed need more data (the methane release issue came up in particular) we also need to be honest with ourselves. At the end of the day, we reach our conclusions based not only on data, but on the host of other factors I have been droning on incessantly about in this blog….emotions, biases, fear, community, etc.

Finally, I have been gratified by the number of offers you made to provide me with the experts I’m seeking, to make their best case on the issue…it’s going to be tough to figure out who to choose.

So there, with your indulgence, is my midterm report…I promise to get the rest of my work turned in on time, unless of course my dog acts up again…so, what do you believe?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Science, well sort of… fracking open my brain!

Boy this has been a trip.  I set out to answer the question, is fracking, and the resulting increase in the availability and use of natural gas, on balance a ‘good thing’ as it relates to climate change. In other words, will fracking result in a meaningful reduction in GHG’s, and will the associated risks/costs be worth that reduction?   For phase one of this “experiment”, my methodology was to drift through my normal day to day interactions with various media (almost all on line now, BTW) and see where the stories and reports took me.  I probably spent about 10 hours over the last few weeks reading and listening to various sources assuming that this would lead me to an operating thesis or general conclusion.  I then planned (and still intend) to take my thesis and test it with some true experts on both sides of the proposition to see where that leads me.  But even as I started my troll through my media, I ran into a major and perhaps insurmountable roadblock to the truth…me.

As I have meandered around and under the issue of how we decide what to believe, a central touch stone to my thinking has been if we can somehow make folks aware of how they come to their beliefs, if they can be brought to a conscious level, then this may have a positive impact on their decision making.  And unselfconsciously, I have probably held myself up as an example of what can be achieved by this seemingly laudable approach.  Just be self-aware and all will be well.

So going in to my fracking experiment, I was indeed well aware of my biases.  I cataloged them, steeled myself against their intrusion, even asking for your help.  But what I was not prepared for was that despite my supposed awareness, I gleefully and unabashedly raced from source to source seeking to confirm my biases while shunning conflicting data.  I repeatedly reveled in proving myself right and avoided looking at contrary information…I frankly found it nearly impossible to approach the information objectively…oh my, even smarty-pants me.

Here’s how it played out…

First, I found little if any debate about the fact that natural gas emits about half the GHG’s of coal.  So going in any risks would need to outweigh that benefit…so far so good.

One of the major knocks on fracking is the environmental harm it is purported to cause.  This includes contaminated groundwater water, releases of methane and potential earthquakes due to the fracking.

As I started to look into these issues, my bias against zealots who stake out positions based on ideology or fear rather than science soon overwhelmed my noble quest.

My casual surfing of the various media took me to sources such as  “The Shale Reporter”, which  tells us of a man claiming to be sickened by the radioactive content of the fracking fluid flow-back who only gets relief from homeopathic remedies (…don’t get me started). On the radio, the Executive Director of an Anti Fracking NGO was unable to cite a single example of actual groundwater contamination.  I followed other threads of various claims about water contamination, and threats of exposure to lead, arsenic and innumerable carcinogens and they kept coming back to a single source, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange and Dr. Theo Colborn.  And while no doubt well intentioned, and despite protests to the contrary, the evidence offered there is not based on rigorous science. My search reinforced over and again my bias that the fears about the potential health effects of groundwater contamination may be ideological rather than scientific…and frankly confirming this bias is easier and more gratifying than challenging it.  So when I see that the EPA will issue a major report next year on fracking impact on groundwater, I already assume it will generally confirm my position, while of course calling for more research. Remember, more research is ALWAYS needed.

Similarly, my dilatory cruising of the web unearthed serious doubt about the scientific basis for claims that methane release is a big problem.  Early studies making the claim have been refuted, and at worst there seems to be pretty easy technological fix.  But again, in my gut I know I’m seeking out the threads that confirm this conclusion rather than challenge it.

Next, losing heart, I only looked into one claim about earthquakes, which gave me comfort by telling me that if they are caused by fracking, which is uncertain, they are minute and therefore inconsequential.

Finally, my head exploded when I ran across the quote below from one of California’s State Legislators in reference to a law that would potentially place a moratorium on fracking…

"What I'm trying to do is say to the oil companies, 'Look, if there's never been a problem with fracking, if it's safe, you need to prove that to the public,' " said Pavley, D-Agoura Hills (Los Angeles County).
See here on the impossibility of proving something will not harm you, and yet we keep making that demand.

Look, I have no doubt that fracking poses legitimate risks.  Also, I’m sure it is not nice to have a well in your back yard…but so far I have not bought into the idea that the downsides outweigh the potential benefit of reduced GHG’s.  The question is, have I come to this conclusion because I’m unable to resist confirming my existing biases, or is it objectively true…we’ll ask the experts next time.  So, what do you believe?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Science, well sort of…The experiment begins, on the topic of….

Well, I’ll tell you in a second.  Regular readers, and bless all 8 of you, will recall that I’ve taken on the task of exploring how one comes to a belief by conducting an experiment on myself  - right here, on this blog (background here). I’ve  picked a topic that is sciency and that I honestly don’t know much about and I’m going to document how I form my conclusions on it.  I guess the uber idea is to serve as a model of sorts, with the hoped for result of getting you to examine your own path to your beliefs as you see how I arrive at mine. When I announced this experiment, several of you suggested topics for me to examine.  I hated all of them, partly because I had already decided, but mainly because your ideas were far better than mine.  But my original idea stuck in my head, so I’m going with the topic of… fracking.

To start, I need to come clean about my overall biases. First I am generally skeptical about proclamations of absolute certainty on any topic.  So I’m assuming going in that my conclusion will be a nuanced one, with many shades of grey.  Second, I tend to dismiss sources that I deem to be purely ideologically motivated, both left and right.  But this can be a trap, because motivation does not necessarily make the claim factually wrong.  The problem with all biases is that we often unconsciously seek to confirm them by interpreting information to align with our preconceived notions.  So feel free to call me out if you see me erring.

In terms of the topic, the specific question I’m seeking to answer is whether fracking, and the resulting increase in the availability and use of natural gas, is on balance a ‘good thing’ as it relates to climate change. In other words, will fracking result in a meaningful reduction in GHG’s, and will the associated risks/costs be worth that reduction?  Easy one, right?

My Methodology
I thought I should set out my plan of how I’m going to go about this effort on the near non-existent chance that someone might seek to replicate it. First, you should know that I have been consciously avoiding reading or listening to anything on the topic of fracking since I picked it about a month ago. And quite frankly I had read little before then, so I truly am going into this pretty open.  My plan is for the next month to simply start reading everything that I run across on the topic.  This should be easy as my twitter feed and various news channels are replete with mentions of it.  But here is the first problem… I self-selected these sources, and I’m assuming the provided perspective will be a skewed one.  So to counter balance this I’ll also seek out other sources I might not otherwise stumble upon, and just see how it goes.  I’ll then report back on my preliminary conclusion and how I arrived at it.   And here’s where you come in. Over this next month feel free to point me to any data you think I should look at.  I’d particularly value sources that challenge the status quo, either pro or con.  I’ll include your suggestions in my search unless I judge them to be whacky.   My thinking is that this is how we generally come to conclusions about a topic, by just kind of drifting towards it with random inputs from various media, friends, etc.

After I report back on my initial conclusions, I intend to get serious, and actually seek out authoritative sources on both sides of the issue and ask them to make their case. Not yet sure who this will include, but I’m guessing the natural gas industry, various academics, and advocacy groups.  What fun.  Again I’ll ask for your suggestions.  I’ll give myself another month to absorb all this new information, see the impact on my beliefs and then report back again.

Finally, I’m going to go back and double check myself to see if I have allowed biases or other errors to creep in.  I’ll do this with the help of my friend Dr. Anthony Pratkanis who has spent a career researching belief formation and has a number if interesting strategies that will help in my self-assessment.  I mention Anthony by name in part to show you how serious I am about this, but mainly to impress you with the quality of my friends.  I’ll then issue my final conclusions…gulp.

So, what do you believe?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Science, well Sort of….blah, blah, blah, part 2

In my last post (here) I sought to lay out how I go about assessing scientifically based claims.  Running out of room I punted with a promise to come back with a  part 2…This will be quick, because I really want to move on to the next phase of this exploration….but before that,  when deciding what to believe, let’s be sure to:

Embrace Systemic Causation.

After Hurricane Sandy last summer the interweb lit up with hand wringing over whether the claim could justifiably be made that climate change was the ‘cause’ of the hurricane. Sciency sounding cases were made for both sides of the argument…and I was personally unconvinced/confused until I read this and was persuaded we were engaged in the wrong debate altogether.  In the article, Berkeley’s George Lakoff makes the case for “systemic causation”.  Simply put, some systems are too large or complex to be able to attribute direct causation.  Climate change causing extreme weather, smoking causing cancer, sex leading to HIV/AIDS, sugar’s role in obesity,  are some of many examples of systemic causation.  In each case we know from observation and research that while these are determinative factors, it is impossible to show direct causation in any single instance.  This is the case in almost all complex or emergent systems.  Note that Lakoff is not a physical scientist, and I’m sure this concept makes many of them squirm, but again that misses the point.  When we have to make a judgment informed by confusing and often conflicting data, we need to step back and look at the bigger picture rather than get tied up in superfluous debates about direct causation.

And there is another important aspect of systemic causation…which is to be on the lookout for when you don’t see evidence of it.  Classic examples here are supposed dangers caused by cell phone “radiation” and harmful GMO’s….In each case, there are massive amounts of exposure, or causes, but no observable effects.  If they were in fact harmful, we would expect to see evidence of systemic causation by now after decades of use…you may not like the point, but I’m sure you get it.

Next, be sure to:

Beware of Epistemic Closure.

Don’t be intimidated by the title…it simply means don’t allow yourself to be persuaded only by folks you violently agree with already.  The Conservative economist and policy wonk Bruce Bartlett wrote an excellent piece on this here. In talking about post-fact, post-science politics he notes, “This was my first exposure to what has been called “epistemic closure” among conservatives—living in their own bubble where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction”.  There are of course many examples of this on the nominal political right, from creationism to climate denial …but before my progressive friends get too smug, note that many on the political left are circulating their own nonsensical ideas about the dangers of vaccination,  and EMF emitting devices or the healing powers of homeopathy. Anyone can fall prey to this.  In fact, to varying degrees, we all do. So my best suggestion is to “friend” and “follow” folks you disagree with, read blogs and magazines that offer different perspectives, and generally seek out smart folks who you don’t normally listen to…Simply, push yourself out of your comfort zone and self-created filter bubble.

And finally:

Accept the Limits of Science.

This one is at once simple, and agonizingly complex.  The simple part is grounded in understanding what science cannot do.  It can never provide absolute certainty.  It is not set up to “prove” things with finality, but rather to generate ever more questions and lines of inquiry. Further, it cannot prove something will not happen.  The best example is it cannot prove something cannot harm you.  It can show that it likely will or likely won’t, to various degrees, but is never absolutely definitive. (...go for it, cite me an example where I’m wrong on this).   And perhaps most importantly, science is never “settled”.  Each discovery, revelation and explanation simply leads to new avenues of research ….it is never ending.

And this is where the agony comes in…we really, really don’t like it this way.  We look to science for answers, assurance and proof.  We are frustrated and confused by the noise coming in from both sides of every debate, drowned by seemingly conflicting data, and we are often simply unable to understand the jargon employed…How do we figure out what to believe when even the scientific experts seem to disagree, or we simply can’t understand them?…Well, once again we've come full circle.   Which leads me to my brilliant new idea.

I’m going to conduct...

A Science Experiment.

I’ll be the test subject, and you will be the scientist observing the experiment, and to make it easier for you, I’ll even take the notes. So the experiment will be that I will select a topic currently being debated in the public sphere that has a basis in science.  It’s a topic that I frankly have not taken the time to understand, and therefore I really don’t know what to believe about it.  You’ll observe me on this journey as I decide what to believe, with the idea that we both might learn something, both on the specific topic and on the nature of beliefs. So, the topic I have selected is…, I think I’ll make you wait until next time…(insert your favorite wry smile emoticon here).

So, what do you believe?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Science, well sort forcing me to answer my own question

In one of my recent posts I had some fun with the topic “…the six things I want our kids to know about science … of course there are more, but it was a good start.  Among the comments I received on the post, one from a friend posed a troubling question, which could be restated as, “OK wise guy, how DO we help our kids figure out what to believe with all this seemingly conflicting and confusing sciency stuff?”  In re-reading my rants on this subject I realize that while I have done a passable job of laying out the challenge of figuring out how to decide what to believe, I’ve done a crap job in providing any answers to the question how.  This led to some rapid self- reflection, asking myself the question, “OK wise guy, how do YOU figure out what to believe with all this seemingly conflicting and confusing sciency stuff?”  …fie on self-reflection. But the effort did allow me to see that I do have a bit of method to my madness, outlined here.

My first step in assessing the validity of a claim is pretty much always the same… I take a really, really close look at the source. I feel this is the best place to start, and while taking a bit of time and effort it can often yield immediate results. If the source does not pass the smell test, then move on.  This exercise breaks down into two broad categories, qualification and motivation.

Part one: Assess if the source is qualified to make the claim

For me, this one is pretty straight forward... Do they have the expertise, track record and just plain legitimacy to make claims? If I don’t immediately recognize the source of a claim, such as a major university, research institute, etc, a quick internet check can be very revealing.  A couple of my favorite examples here are when I Google mapped the location of a very sciency sounding institute that was putting out climate change denial lies, and it turns out they are housed in a small out-building on a dirt road in rural Oregon; or when a legitimate sounding, oft quoted source on the danger of GMOs turned out to be a group of osteopaths in Kansas who did no research at all, but just passed along bogus information.  I’ve done these searches many times and it’s really amazing how much you can learn about the sources of the nonsense that gets put out, and then picked up, by the media, bloggers, interest groups or your Facebook friends.  You don’t have to be a scientist to figure this out…just consider the source and use your judgment.

BONUS Tactic - If you still have lingering doubts about a source, look into how they get their funding, who is on their Board of Directors and, if they are a nonprofit, have a quick look at their tax returns (not hard, go here … lots of insight to be gained doing this.

Part Two: Assess the motivation of the source making the claim
This one seems straight forward, but you have to be careful. When examining the motivation of a source, it is easy to fall into the trap of, “Well, of course they would say that, it is in their self-interest”.  Self-interest can take many forms, such as a financial stake in the outcome, academic rewards, pressure to conform to an ideological perspective and just plain status/ego/hubris.  The tricky problem here though is that many perfectly valid sources have self-interest in the claims they make, or at least can be accused of having so.  Therefore, self-interest should never be an immediate disqualification of the validity of a claim.  But it does play a role, and needs to be viewed in the context of the other factors.  In the recent effort to label GMOs in California, the claims made by the large food industry were attacked in part for their self-interested motivation to maintain the status quo…fair enough.  But you had to also understand that many pro labeling folks also had significant self-interest at stake, in this case the growth of non GMO food markets. So yes, once again you’ll have to exercise some judgment, and weigh all the factors.  My next stop is the data itself.

This is probably the hardest part for us nonscientists, because if you ever try to look at the actual data underlying any claim, unless you are an expert in the field, you quickly realize that you really don’t fully understand what is being presented…in fact, that’s why we rely on trusted sources to interpret and explain the meaning of the data. So my approach is to assess the preponderance and longevity of the data from qualified sources supporting the claim.  Examples…the data to support the claims of human caused climate change is overwhelming and longstanding, while that to support the risks of GMOs is essentially nonexistent.  I could go on, but the point is that we need to weigh a number of factors in assessing claims.  Sadly, there is no easy or simple approach, but it’s certainly worth the effort.

Yikes, I’ve reached my self-imposed word limit, having no doubt lost most readers already (…sorry gang).   I’ll close for now, but to keep you on the edge of your seats, next time I’ll weave in systemic causation, epistemic closure and the limits of science on how they factor in to our beliefs…consider this part one of two…nothing but wacky fun on this blog… [Sic].

So, what do you believe?