Why “X Is Like Y Chemically” Is Meaningless (And Why It’s Not An Insult To Be Told You’re Wrong)

I was recently in a discussion that invoked the “X is dangerous for you because it’s only one atom/molecule away from Y” argument. In this specific case, the argument being made by Person A was that Drug X was dangerous because it was chemically similar to Drug Y. While the conclusion was accurate, the methods used to reach this conclusion were wrong. Yet, even though the conclusion was correct (in this case), I believe that pointing out why the methodology used is wrong is an important discussion to have.

BUT WHAT WAS WRONG ABOUT IT?

The idea that, simply because an item is chemically similar to something dangerous, it too is dangerous, is an argument built on a fallacy. There are plenty of harmless things (e.g. water) that are chemically similar to something dangerous (e.g. water and hydrogen peroxide) but are not harmful to us. In fact, similar pseudoscience methodologies have been used to prop up arguments of anti-vaxxers and other alt-right and alt-left beliefs.

BUT SCIENTISTS MAKE COMPARISONS ALL THE TIME!

In the case of this particular example, it is true that scientists will sometimes compare drugs to one another. However, drug studies tend to focus on how drugs interact with the body. Any associations between drugs are based on that. Generally, the only time studies on one drug will reference another is to say something like “potential for addiction is similar to Drug Y”. Scientists generally avoid statements like “Drug X is chemically similar to Drug Y and should therefore be avoided” because they know these types of statements are misleading and don’t inherently mean anything.

As stated earlier, Person A isn’t wrong when they say Drug X and Drug Y are chemically similar. They certainly are, but it’s besides the point. The point is: It is poor methodology to use chemical composition comparisons between two different substances to call one dangerous simply because the other is. The comparison is inherently meaningless in itself – lots of harmless things are one atom away from something dangerous. It’s only how the body interacts with each individual substance that provides actual merit to the idea that something is dangerous.

ARE YOU CALLING ME DUMB?

There is no malice or insult in having someone say “your methods for this are wrong and here is why.” There is not even malice or insult in saying “you’re using the same methodology as the alt-right and alt-left”. These are perfectly neutral factual statements and should be taken as such. It’s important to point out these logical fallacies, however, so that people can be educated on the issue and stop perpetuating bad science. Being (told you’re) wrong is the first step to being right – and there’s no shame in that.

SO WHAT SHOULD I HAVE DONE?

If we are trying to make the case, for instance, that Drug X is as bad for people as Drug Y, we should base our argument around the way Drug X affects the body. Because, while this person was 100% right that Drug X can be dangerous, it’s not necessarily because its chemical structure is similar to Drug Y’s (which, as previously stated doesn’t necessarily mean anything by itself). By drawing chemical composition comparisons (that are inherently meaningless) we are propping up pseudoscience methodology.

WHY IS THIS A BIG DEAL ANYWAY?

This is something we should all be passionate about because these are the types of arguments the alt-right and alt-left use to bolster their anti-science claims. More and more, people on both the left and right are starting to fall prey to pseudoscience – so it’s more important than ever to have these conversations in public so people can get educated. We need to put an end to these methodologies so people don’t ultimately buy into misunderstood pseudoscience and so that those who do buy into this pseudoscience can’t point at us and say, “look they’re doing it too so it must be right!”

Because these conversations are so important, we need to do away with the idea that if someone tells us we are wrong or are using poor methods of gaining information employed by pseudoscience advocates, that it is a personal attack against us. It is not and we can’t take these things personally. These are merely factual statements to help someone better understand where they went wrong and how to do better in the future. Like I said: Being wrong is the first step to being right – and there’s no shame in that.

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DNC scandal, Republicans a boon for Bernie Sanders campaign?

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Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally. Photo courtesy Nick Solari.

Bernie Sanders’ campaign has been in hot water lately. After Sanders’ staffers illegally accessed campaign lists for Hillary Clinton, the DNC swiftly moved against the Sanders campaign – revoking their access to all campaign data, including the data Sanders’ campaign compiled itself.

However, despite the seriousness of what the Sanders campaign did, Sanders himself seems to have come out of the DNC scandal relatively unscathed – and possibly even stronger from it.

The Sanders campaign fired at least one staffer directly connected to the breach and attacked the DNC for denying them access to their own data – saying they were damaging the democratic voting process. The DNC ultimately backed down from the Sanders campaign and access was restored relatively quickly.

Even with the DNC’s about-face, the Sanders campaign is now suing the DNC for their actions. Additionally, rumors have swirled about the DNC favoring the Clinton campaign – with one Sanders campaign official even insinuating that the campaign staffer who accessed Clinton data was a DNC/Clinton saboteur.

No-nonsense diplomacy

The quick response to firing those deemed responsible for accessing Clinton’s campaign data, the DNC quickly caving to the Sanders campaign and restoring their data access, and the Sanders campaign’s continued pursuit of the DNC via lawsuit – all while Sanders himself maintains tact in regards to Hillary Clinton – makes Sanders come off as a quick-acting, diplomatic candidate with little tolerance for wrongdoing.

Even Donald Trump – who has had plenty of negative things to say about Sanders himself – seemed to stand behind Bernie Sanders in the debacle, applauding Sanders’ tact while attacking Clinton for her lack of it.

Trump is not the only Republican who has seen virtues in Sanders either. The presidential candidate seems to have far wider Republican appeal than Clinton. While the Facebook group Republicans for Bernie Sanders boasts over 19,000 members despite just being created this year, a Republicans for Hillary group that has been around since 2012 has a mere 319.

Multiple articles have been written about Republicans’ love affair with Bernie Sanders as well, while articles about Hillary Clinton and Republicans tend to be antagonistic. Reasons for backing Sanders differ among Republicans – some love his idea to audit the FED and go after big banks, while others back his views on education and the economy. Others simply believe he is the most likely candidate to upset the status quo.

Cross-party candidate

While the reasons for backing Sanders may differ among people, it seems that more and more people are eyeing him as the most likely Democratic nominee – and, even among Republican pundits like Ann Coulter, the most likely to win the presidential election if he clinches the Democratic nomination.

The race is far from over, but with Sanders’ cross-party appeal and demonstrated ability to weather at least one scandal without getting messy, it’s clear voters, other candidates, and the media (another thing he has in common with Republicans) will want to watch him closely.

Why are we telling people not to share what they enjoy with us?

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I’ve seen an interesting trend lately. Posts bashing posts about workouts or food, or that bash quizzes and Bitstrips — “friends” who bash “friends” who post things they aren’t interested in.

I cannot comprehend this sentiment. A person’s Facebook wall and posts are about that person, not about others. A person comprises their wall with their likes and dislikes, their opinions, their self. 

And just as people are varied, so are posts. So while you may find someone’s posts about exercising, food, politics, or whatever to be annoying or boring — those are the things that person is really into. And even those (silly) quizzes and bitstrips are a way of expressing one’s self — or something someone found humor or enjoyment in and thought others might enjoy.

So the question is: What kind of person are you? Are you the kind of person who supports a “friend” and takes an interest in their life and passions — or at least lets posts you don’t enjoy slide off your back? Or are you the type of person who puts down people for sharing a part of themselves?

And if you’re the latter… You and your “friend” are both probably better off if you just press the “unfriend” button.

(More) DOs and DON’Ts of online conversations

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I’ve already discussed a few DON’Ts for online conversations, but after some feedback from readers I’ve compiled another list of DON’Ts as well as a conversation DO.

DON’T use sarcasm

This was suggested by a few people, and I can’t believe I didn’t think of it for my original set of conversation DON’Ts.

I love sarcasm (and its cousin, satire), but in an online conversation, especially with people who don’t know you — sarcasm should be avoided. In fact, anything requiring inflection or face/body language should probably be avoided. It’s too easy for people to become confused and misinterpret your words.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen someone attempt to use sarcasm, only to be applauded by someone that actually disagrees with them and thinks they’re being serious (it’s funny, but also not).

DON’T commit logical fallacies

This is one I’m still trying to get more acquainted with myself and was suggested by Manachron. I like the idea though. Logical fallacies are misconceptions that result from incorrect reasoning — and they are numerous. Knowing the various logical fallacies cannot only help you pick apart someone else’s argument and force them back to the drawing board to analyze their own ideas, but it’s a great way to help you analyze your OWN arguments and make sure they are up to snuff.

DON’T use anecdotes

This was suggested by psychologistmimi, who says “I like to see statistics and corresponding sources.”

I touched on the need to cite sources in my earlier post, but taking that one step further, hard information is a boon to any argument. Your personal experience with something, while obviously important to you, is a representative sample of one: Yourself. It’s easily dismissible and provides no real data to back up your point of view. I’ve also seen cases where people twist their opposition’s anecdote to suit their argument — something that is much harder to do with statistics and outside data.

That said, Mimi admits “a really deeply moving anecdote can help a little.”

DO take the time to digest each comment before responding

This is a biggie. In a real-life confrontation or debate, you don’t get much of a chance to ponder what has just been said before you need to respond. The internet is not like that, and it’s something I suggest taking advantage of as much as possible. Taking some time to re-read and ponder what someone has just thrown at you before responding is good for a variety of reasons:

— You might have misinterpreted something the first time through and a second read can suddenly make the actual intent clear.

— You might glean some new information that you missed the first time through, which could be necessary for a proper rebuttal.

— It gives you a chance to calm down and collect yourself, which can keep you from resorting to name-calling or personal attacks, or otherwise letting your emotions get the better of you and compromising the effectiveness of your rebuttal.

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EDIT: I loved this comment I received from a friend, so I thought I’d share it:

“I also use anecdotes frequently – but! – I use them as illustrative examples, not as facts or proof (unless it is a case of proof that it is POSSIBLE, in which case a sample size of one is all that is needed :P).”

SOUND OFF: What do you like to see in a conversation? What do you try to avoid?

Is satirical “news” making us stupid? (UPDATED)

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I’m a big fan of The Onion. And satire in general. But I’ve noticed an increasing trend lately: People mistaking satire for legitimate news. It used to be easy to tell when The Onion was the only player in the satire game — but the last few years have seen the satirical news market become increasingly saturated.

It doesn’t help that often the disclaimers (if they have any) are hidden away somewhere — or are so tongue-in-cheek that if you don’t realize the article is satirical, you may not realize the disclaimer is satirical too.

I’ve also noticed that this new brand of satire is far more subtle, at least in the beginning. Things start off plausibly before building to a crescendo of implausibility near the end. This can cause some problems.

Not too long ago the place I work conducted a study on the reading habits of people. The biggest takeaway was that people tend to read the first two or three paragraphs of something — then either skim the rest, jump to the end, or just stop reading.

Since much of this newer satire buries the big giveaways deeper in the story, many people seem to miss them — but post or share anyway, believing it is legitimate. From there other friends share it, also thinking it is legitimate since their friend posted it.

And from there the satire takes on an air of truthfulness — with people using the “information” from such stories in conversations and debates. Once something is out of the box, it’s very hard to keep it from spreading — let alone put it back in. Snopes has quite a list of things that have needed debunking and have origins in satirical news articles.

So remember, search high and low for a disclaimer (they can usually be found at the bottom of the page or “about us” section) — or just Google before you post up that “shocking” “news” story. And make sure to point out such falsities to others when you see them posted. Help our collective consciousness stay sharp!

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” — Thomas Jefferson

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EDIT: After posting this originally, I received some feedback from people concerning satire. The main theme being “(satire) promotes critical thinking — which is something we need.”

And honestly, I couldn’t agree more. It’s one of the reasons I love satire. It’s (usually) smart stuff. The problem, as pointed out by another reader, is “not so much that satirical news is making us stupid, as that as a society we have become so gullible and unwilling to ‘fact check’ (or even read the entire article in the first place, as you pointed out) that we don’t even start to think critically in the first place.”

So the question is: What’s the best way to keep people from being so gullible and to get them thinking critically?

Google before you post

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I generally believe that someone’s Twitter or Facebook wall should be whatever they want it to be. But posts dealing in misinformation are problematic. They can lead people to make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t make (sometimes dangerous ones), divert time and resources from government agencies, and unfairly malign people and organizations.

Often these posts have been re-shared hundreds of times. Often they’re political, but sometimes they deal with science, major companies, religion, or other issues. Generally they all carry the same underlying emotions — fear, anger, or worry.

Here are a few quick examples of such posts, along with examples of how to use Google to find the truth.

Facebook Privacy Notice

This one crops up every few months. A post claiming that if you share it on your wall, it keeps Facebook from owning/using the content you post. It often invokes uniform commercial code (UCC) 1-103 1-308.

Search: “Facebook Privacy Notice”+”snopes” OR “UCC 1-103 1-308″+”snopes”

Result: It’s a hoax. When you sign up for Facebook and agree to the terms and conditions, you give Facebook the authority to use any content you post, and once you agree to that, there’s nothing you can do.

Missing children

This is another one that gets a lot of play on Facebook and Twitter. It will reference a lost child, complete with their name, and often direct you to call a police station in the child’s home state if you spot the child. These hoaxes can be particularly time-consuming for the agencies listed in the hoax because they have to deal with constant calls about the “child” — diverting them from real cases that need their attention.

Search: “(child’s name)”+”missing” (add “snopes” if you want, usually it’s not necessary). If I can’t find any information about the child through that, I will also search for the agency listed in the post and see if the numbers match up. If they do, I will often give a quick call and ask if the case posted is legit.

Result: 9 times out of 10 the “missing child” either is completely fabricated or has been found. Every now and then though, the post proves to be legit (and if that’s the case I always share it).

Political posts

These are too numerous to count. But they usually defame a politician or purport that a piece of legislation will have disastrous effects.

Search: “(person)”+”(action committed)”+”(Snopes or Politifact)” OR “(legislation)”+”(disastrous effect)”+”(Snopes or Politifact)” — I particularly suggest Snopes or Politifact because they tend to be unbiased. When it comes to politics, I don’t trust other sites to have the commitment to pure fact that these sites have shown themselves to have.

Result: 9 times out of 10, these are either outright lies or half-truths. It’s good to get the whole story before passing judgement.

Evil companies

Much like the political posts, these tend to defame a company, corporation, or CEO.

Search: “(person/organization/company)”+”(action committed)” — sometimes I will add “Snopes” too, if I’m unsatisfied with the results my original search gets.

Results: This one is usually more of a mixed bag. Oftentimes there seems to be more half-truths or truths than outright lies, but still, it’s always good to get the full story.

Unwitting victims

The Internet is full of lies — some harmless, some not. Don’t risk it and be a victim, and don’t make your friends unwitting victims either. Always look into an issue or story before you share it.

Censorship: Corroding the “marketplace of ideas” and silencing truth

With the recent revelation that Facebook is censoring not only breastfeeding photos, but also political activists, I wanted to take a moment to discuss censorship — especially as it pertains to social media and business-consumer relations.

I think it’s fine to have a “curse filter” to help keep dialogue on your site family friendly, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to go. I’ve mentioned before that I only delete comments if they’re potentially libelous, and there’s an important reason for that.

Filtering anything beyond that is liable to make people suspicious of an agenda or ulterior motive (which can make you a target for radicalized individuals or groups). It also dampens the “marketplace of ideas” — the idea that the more people you have engaged in a conversation, and the more viewpoints you have at the table, the more likely the truth will emerge. This is especially important to me.

Granted, it’s a very double-edged sword. In order to get the truest results, even the worst ideas must be able to be represented. But I’ve noticed these ideas often get filtered out quickly. The longer a conversation goes on, the more I see people reach across the aisle and come to some consensus. And even when they don’t, they still bring a wealth of information to the table for others to pore over and come to their own conclusions as well.

The end result, I believe, is that everyone is better informed than they were before. And that is one of the fundamental building block to progress. Informed people make better thinkers and doers. In a capitalist democracy, that is especially important. Voting, what you consume, health, environmental quality… so many things depend on being an informed person.

But what about when people aim negative things at you (or your organization)?

The first thing I do is take any negative feedback (or questions) to the people they are aimed at. I talk with them about it and try to get their side of the story. Often, they have a good explanation and it will satisfy a disgruntled customer/critic.

Sometimes there isn’t a good explanation and the person just plain screwed up. For that, an apology is in order. An apology should always be sincere, and it’s best to try and explain what happened as best you can and assure the complainant that it won’t happen again. I always thank the complainants for being vocal about their concern as well, because even negative feedback is a good lesson for everyone.

If that isn’t good enough for them and they keep egging you on, you have to take the high road. You can reiterate that you’ve done all you can, and steps have been taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and you are sorry to hear they aren’t satisfied — but that’s all you can do. At no point should you respond disrespectfully, and at no point should you delete their comment or your conversation — that’s a great way to dig yourself a hole.

After all, censoring others can also weaken your own ideas and lower your credibility. As a colleague once said to me, “How do you expect to forward a proposition (or yourself), if you have to silence opposing points of view?”

(Thanks to manachron for linking me the article from The Conversation.)

SOUND OFF: What do you think about censorship of comments — is it necessary?