Thursday, September 26, 2013

Another great example of change blindness.

While reading Cracked.com the other day, I came across another great example of change-blindness. For those who don't know, this is a psychological phenomenon in which people fail to notice some change that has taken place around them. The basic explanation for this phenomenon is that we have a limited amount of attention. Thus, when we are paying attention to one thing, we often don't notice other things that are going on around us because all our attentional energy is already in use. Furthermore, when we aren't paying attention to something, our brain will fill in the details surrounding that thing we are focusing on. Thus, when a change occurs and we are focused on something else, we often don't notice it. This, for example, helps explain why texting while driving is such a bad idea. When we are focused on a text message we don't notice what is going on around us, and can miss changes in the driving environment (such as a car stopping in front of us) that demand attention.

In the following video we can see a great example of change blindness.



The basic explanation here seems to be that because the person in the video doesn't think he will see the person asking for directions ever again, the brain no longer pays attention to him, and basically "forgets" what he looks like. Thus, when a new person appears many people don't notice that a change has occurred. This is another fascinating exploration of human psychology and perception, and should once again lead us to a little epistemic humility about what we think we have seen and what we think we know.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Climate Change, Arctic Ice, and Statistics


As some of you may know, 2012 was a record low for Arctic sea ice. This year, Arctic sea ice has increased by 60%, and some are using this fact to argue that global warming is not real. However, those making this case do not understand how statistics work. In particular, they fail to understand a statistical phenomenon known as Regression to the Mean. The basic idea here is that if one has a measurement that is particularly extreme, then the next measurement will be much closer to the average or mean. In the case of Arctic sea ice, since 2012 was a record low, we would expect that in the next year we would see an increase. As Dr. Steven Novella puts it in reference to the image above:
Dana Nuccitelli at The Guardian has a nice graphic showing Arctic sea ice trends from 1980 to this year.  In this graph you can see the background fluctuation year to year, but also the clear downward trend overall. Another trend is also apparent – following any year with a record low Arctic ice measurement, the following year is likely to have increased total ice. This is simply regression to the mean. In any fluctuating system, extreme values are likely to be followed more average values. [sic]
The upshot of this is that when we are looking at a complex phenomenon like climate change, we need to look at the whole picture to understand what is going on. If we simply pull out a small segment of the entire picture, say by just focusing on the years 2012 and 2013 (an example of Cherry Picking) it can seem like global warming is on the wane. However, if we pull back and take a broader look we can see that the trend for Arctic sea ice clearly shows that the amount is decreasing over time. And this provides further evidence that global warming is a real phenomenon.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

This is not photoshopped!


This neat image is not photoshopped, or digitally manipulated in any significant way. It is merely a trick of perspective created by the photographer Bela Barsodi as an album cover for the band VLP. If we shift our angle slightly, we see that it looks like this:


This again demonstrates how easily our perceptions of reality can be tricked by something as simple as the perspective from which we view. Looking at the image from one angle we see something that looks completely fake and artificial. Moving slightly to the left we can see that what we originally saw was just a trick of how our brains process visual images. There are numerous similar examples of these sorts of things, and I will feature more of them in future posts.

In closing, here is a nifty little video of the shot being composed:


h/t to Cracked.com

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

How healthy is "healthy"?

Mmmmm Donuts
The above picture is a real product, recently announced by Dunkin' Donuts. As you can see, it is an egg and bacon sandwich served on a glazed donut sliced in half. It's quite brilliant really, but I don't want to evaluate this on it's culinary merits. Instead, I want to take a look at some of the efforts made by Dunkin' Donuts to help their customers make "Better-for-you choices that keep you running." Now the Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich is not one of these "better-for-you choices," but what is surprising is that, at 360 calories, the Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich has 30 less calories than one of these DDSmart choices, the Turkey Sausage Breakfast Sandwich, which has 390 calories. Furthermore, the Turkey Sausage Breakfast Sandwich is advertised on the Dunkin' Donuts website with the following copy:

Turkey Sausage Done Right

Eating right can still taste great. Our Turkey Sausage Breakfast Sandwich is under 400 calories, and big on taste.
The clear implication here is that the Turkey Sausage Breakfast Sandwich is "right" and is a "smart" choice (or at least "DDSMART"), but it is, in many respects, a less healthy choice than the Glazed Breakfast Donut Sandwich. We can certainly argue about what counts as "healthy." The Turkey Sausage Breakfast Sandwich has less fat and sugar and more protein and fiber, but it is also higher in sodium and cholesterol than the Glazed Breakfast Donut Sandwich. The point is, it is very misleading for Dunkin' Donuts to identify one item as "smart" or "right" (as near as I can see they don't ever use the words "healthy" or "healthier"), because this creates the impression in an uninformed consumer that by eating this piece of junk food they are being healthy. This highlights the importance of applying critical thinking to all aspects of our daily life, as well as the importance of understanding how words are defined and used. The folks at Dunkin' Donuts (or their ad agency) are purposely using deceptive language and Weasel Words to create the impression that eating some of their products is part of a healthy lifestyle; a claim that is controversial at best.

h/t to the New York Daily News

Friday, September 6, 2013

Nicholas Kristof: Dumb or Dumber?

In his column today New York Times resident moron Nicholas Kristof "argues" in favor of a military strike by the US on Syria. I use quotation marks around argument because, as we will see, Kristof doesn't really have anything intelligent to say on this topic, and instead must resort to a bunch of False Dilemmas, Straw Men, Inconsistencies, and Non Sequiturs. Let's take a look.

Kristof begins by suggesting that the only alternative to fully supporting the Obama administration plan for military strikes on Syria is to do nothing. He writes:
To me, the central question isn’t, “What are the risks of cruise missile strikes on Syria?” I grant that those risks are considerable, from errant missiles to Hezbollah retaliation. It’s this: “Are the risks greater if we launch missiles, or if we continue to sit on our hands?” [Emphasis added]
This is a clear example of a Straw Man combined with a False Dilemma. The Straw Man occurs when he suggests that people who are opposed to a US strike on Syria are in favor of doing nothing. This is complete nonsense as many people have suggested other options for dealing with the ongoing civil war. Here are two: one from a former diplomat named Robert A. Pastor, and another from columnist David Sirota. One may disagree with the effectiveness of these approaches, but it is a false dilemma of gross proportions to suggest that the only two options are drop bombs or do nothing.

Kristof continues by suggesting that a limited bombing campaign would stem the violence in Syria. Ignoring the almost certain civilians casualties from these strikes, Kristof's claims make absolutely no sense on their face:
In Syria, it seems to me that cruise missile strikes might make a modest difference, by deterring further deployment of chemical weapons. Sarin nerve gas is of such limited usefulness to the Syrian army that it has taken two years to use it in a major way, and it’s plausible that we can deter Syria’s generals from employing it again if the price is high.
By Kristof's own estimates, 165 people are killed daily in Syria, and the death toll from the Syrian conflict has been estimated at around 100,000. By contrast, the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria killed about 1500 people (I say "alleged" because we still don't have strong evidence other than reports from US officials that a chemical attack occurred, much less that the Syrian government was responsible). Following Kristof's logic, even if we could magically eliminate the Syrian government's chemical weapons capacity without harming any innocent civilians, this would have almost no impact on the magnitude of human death and suffering caused by the civil war. As others have noted, the Obama plan would not do anything to resolve the conflict, but would merely be a "face-saving" exercise for the US government.

Kristof does suggest and support the possibility of a more robust attack on the offensive capabilities of the Syrian government writing:
The Syrian government has also lately had the upper hand in fighting, and airstrikes might make it more willing to negotiate toward a peace deal to end the war. I wouldn’t bet on it, but, in Bosnia, airstrikes helped lead to the Dayton peace accord.
Missile strikes on Assad’s military airports might also degrade his ability to slaughter civilians. With fewer fighter aircraft, he may be less able to drop a napalm-like substance on a school, as his forces apparently did in Aleppo last month. [Emphasis added]
In his own comments he admits that he doesn't think a military strike would achieve the goals he wants to achieve in Syria! If so, why is he advocating such an attack? Furthermore, if we were successful in degrading the military capability of the Syrian  government, we would then be actively promoting one of the biggest concerns Kristof has about Syria:
The longer the war drags on in Syria, the more Al Qaeda elements gain strength, the more Lebanon and Jordan are destabilized, and the more people die.
Kristof seems to fail to understand that one of the major forces opposing the Syrian government are folks allied with Al Qaeda. Thus, weakening and degrading the Assad regime would only strengthen Al Qaeda in Syria! Thus, Kristof's own argument in internally inconsistent! As Atrios notes, Kristof's plan seems to boil down to:
  1. Bomb
  2. ????
  3. ????
This means Kristof's logic is sub-underpants gnome.



And for this reason I ask again, "Is Kristof dumb or dumber?"

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Syrian False Analogies

John Kerry having dinner with future Hitler Bashar Assad in 2009
With public opinion strongly opposed to a US intervention of any sort in Syria, government officials who back a US attack are turning to ever more strained analogies in an effort to drum up public and Congressional support. Coming as no surprise, Secretary of State John Kerry has gone ahead and invoked Godwin's law by comparing Syrian President Bashar Assad to Hitler, and has claimed that anything less than a military strike on Syria would be comparable to the 1938 Munich Agreement between Hitler and Chamberlain. As reported by Politico:
Secretary of State John Kerry told House Democrats that the United States faced a “Munich moment” in deciding whether to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.
In a 70-minute conference call on Monday afternoon, Kerry derided Syrian President Bashar Assad as a “two-bit dictator” who will “continue to act with impunity,” and he urged lawmakers to back President Barack Obama’s plan for “limited, narrow” strikes against the Assad regime, Democratic sources on the call said.
As noted by Scott Lemieux, this is clearly a False Analogy:
Here’s the thing: for this to be a “Munich moment,” Assad would have to, you know, have both the desire and capacity to conquer most of the region. Since in fact it’s far from obvious that Assad will even be able to maintain power in his own country — let alone have the ability to overrun the Middle East — Assad isn’t a new Hitler and whatever he does Obama won’t be Chamberlain. And in this particular case the analogy goes beyond stupidity to being self-refuting — if Assad poses a threat comparable to Hitler in 1938, why only “limited” “surgical” airstrikes? Really, let’s leave these dumb analogies to fourth-tier winger bloggers, please. 
I couldn't have put it better myself.

h/t to Atrios

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Scientific American on Perception

In a story from Scientific American republished on Salon.com, Psychologist Keith Payne discuses some of the latest research on how our brains filter out information in constructing our view and perception of the world. In particular, he focuses on research that explores how our brains select what to focus on and how this focusing leads us to ignore other aspects of the world around us:
When you first learn about these studies they seem deeply strange. Is it really possible that we are constantly failing to notice things right in front of us? Is there some mysterious force screening what we see and what remains hidden? According to Neisser the answer is yes, we are constantly overlooking much of the world around us and no, there is nothing mysterious about it. The key is to realize that this is just what attention is: selectivity. For a brain with finite computing power, zooming in to focus on one thing always means picking up less information about everything else. That’s how we are able to concentrate on anything at all and leave behind the blooming, buzzing bundle of distraction that is the rest of the world. It is also why being absorbed in a basketball game renders us blissfully oblivious to all requests to take out the garbage. Prioritizing one thing and neglecting everything else are two sides of the same coin.
Perhaps even more disturbing, Payne and his research team conducted a number of studies looking at how the brain decides what to ignore and what to focus on:
Simple selectivity cannot be the end of the story, though, because recent research suggests that we miss some unattended things more than others. That’s right – the brain is selectively selective. In new research my colleagues Jazmin Brown-Iannuzzi, Sophie Trawalter, Kelly Hoffman and I pushed the idea of selective selectivity further by asking whether the unconscious screener might have priorities of its own. Scads of studies have suggested that the unconscious mind is riddled with stereotypes and biases, even among people who are consciously well intentioned. We asked whether the unconscious screener is prejudiced.
The answer to this question is, of course, yes. Our unconscious biases and prejudices dramatically structure our consciousness in ways that we are completely unaware of:
This simple two-step comparison can explain why emotional events like dangerous and sexy things break through, because goals as basic as having sex and not being eaten are always relevant. It is not yet clear how sophisticated the screener can be. Our findings of racial bias, however, suggest something new about the assumptions the unconscious makes. At a minimum, our findings imply that the unconscious can represent social goals such as looking for a friend, a date, or a co-worker. And it seems to have opinions about which kind of people are suitable for each. These kinds of distinctions are more sophisticated, and perhaps more disturbing, than we had assumed.
The upshot of all this is that we must constantly question many of the assumptions we make about the world, and realize that our personal experience of the world may be highly unreliable because of all these unconscious biases that structure how we perceive it.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Paula Deen is MLK?

Note: This post was originally scheduled to go up in July, but for some reason it failed. I am posting it know unchanged because there are some good points in it.

For reasons that remain unclear, this seems to be a Glenn Beck kind of week. Yesterday I talked about some fallacious comments Rand Paul made on his show, and today I want to focus on some comments Beck made about the Paula Deen controversy.



I am particulalrly interested in two points that Beck makes. The first concerns his comment about how Paula Deen losing her Food Network show amounts to McCarthyism. This is a great example of a Slippery Slope as Beck is essentially arguing that a boycott of Deen will lead to something akin to the blacklists of the McCarthy era. Such a claim is, on its face, ludicrous as the McCarthy era was so disturbing because the government was using its powers to silence debate and punish individuals. By contrast, Deen is not having her contracts renewed because a private company, in the wake of a public backlash, no longer wants to be associated with her.

The second fallacy arises when Beck compares Deen to Martin Luther King Jr. This is clearly a False Analogy. In fact, the analogy is so false that I have difficulty even understanding what motivated the comparison in the first place. MLK was a civil rights leader who was assassinated for standing up for equality and civil rights. Paula Deen is a chef who said some nasty things and is not having some of hr contracts renewed as a result. One was killed, the other is inconvenienced. To even try to compare the two is hyperbolic and completely over the top. It also suggests that Beck is not really interested in having a conversation, but rather in making inflammatory comments to inspire and rile up his viewers. Surprise, surprise.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Happy Labor Day from some A-hole at Fox News

On August 29, Fox New's The Five ended with this:


This clip is particularly interesting in that it appears the commentator Eric Boiling, while expressing concern for the free market, apparently has no idea how free markets work. This is an excellent example of Missing the Point. What Boiling fails to understand is that in a capitalist economic system, labor is also part of the free market economy, and is subject to the same forces. When workers go on strike for better wages, they are using their collective power to pressure employers to increase wages. If there is no demand for jobs at the current minimum wage or workers refuse to do those jobs at those wages, free market forces dictate that employers will have to raise wages until they are high enough that people will be willing to do the jobs at the wages being offered. Rather than being a threat to the free market, this demonstrates exactly how free markets are supposed to operate.

As many commentators to the Media Matters post noted, it is interesting that the conservative (perhaps that should be modern-day Republican) vision of the free market seems to consist entirely of the view that corporations should be allowed to do whatever they want and take whatever they want with no accountability. Oddly enough, this is a view that is diametrically opposed to how truly free markets actually operate.