How One Psychologist Is Tackling Human Biases in Science

How One Psychologist Is Tackling Human Biases in Science.

What is no doubt bad news for many scientists should be good news for the progress of science and the enterprise of knowing.

It’s good to see greater effort being made to explore the place of intellectual virtue in the practice of science. And there is some irony in the fact that problems of bias in research and intellectual activity in general is confirmed by the methods of scientists.

It would be good to have more examples of the problem described by these researchers on bias. And it would be useful to study the effects of such pervasive scientific shortcomings on belief in matters beyond scientific judgment—in religion, for example.


Nuke Media Distortion with Facts—What to Believe about the Dangers of Japan’s Nuclear Reactors

Are you good at believing the things you believe? That’s my motto. So what are we supposed to believe about the danger of nuclear radiation following Japan’s recent 9.0 earthquake and damage to nuclear reactors at two locations?

Satellite view of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

First, why we need to know what is happening:

  • We care about the safety of the Japanese people.
  • We care about the safety about the world population.
  • We care about radiation drift toward North America.
  • We have energy needs that may be met with new reactors in the U.S., but only if they’re safe.

Second, why the mainstream media cannot be trusted for knowledge of what is happening:

  • The media are prone to sensationalize the “news” in order to boost their ratings.
  • The media have a liberal bias, which is already heavily invested in opposition to nuclear energy.
  • The media have no idea what a reactor is, how one works, and what terms mean when used to described behavior at a nuclear plant (e.g., “meltdown).
  • The media, even if they try for “balanced coverage” by “experts” with opposing views, are as likely to get crackpots having their own meltdown over what’s happening in Japan.

Third, the only way to nuke media distortion (whether deliberate or not) is with facts and critical reflection.

For facts, the internet is probably your best guide.

The most valuable report I’ve read so far comes from Dr. Josef Oehman, a research scientist in mechanical engineering and engineering systems at MIT. Read his analysis “Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors”. The cost of being well-informed is the effort of becoming informed. Oehman’s article is lengthy, but accessible. You can settle for sound bytes or get the facts in clear and cogent detail.

Oehman captures the threat level with this advice:

If you were sitting on top of the plants’ chimney when they were venting, you should probably give up smoking to return to your former life expectancy.

I’ve started following Oehman on Twitter.

Of course, you want more than one doctor’s opinion. So switch off your TV and search out other reliable sources of real information. If you must monitor the TV coverage, be sure to note the names of specialists and experts who are interviewed, find out who they work for, and examine their credentials.

And listen carefully to the naive questions the journalists are asking. Watch for their own off-hand comments and simplistic reactions. Last night I watched Geraldo interview specialists about the news out of Japan. Geraldo marveled with near-panic that engineers had resorted to flooding their reactors with sea water in order to cool the over-heated reactors. Apparently he didn’t know that this is backup protocol when disaster strikes. (See the article by Oehman.)

Critics of nuclear energy will be sorely tempted to make good use of the disaster in Japan. But this could backfire on them if it turns out that the 9.0 earthquake demonstrates the safety and viability of nuclear power plants, even when disaster strikes.

Time will tell.

“My Daddy Killed Pluto”


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A year or so ago, I was lecturing in my graduate seminar in epistemology. To illustrate a point, I brought up the recent fate of the ninth planet—Pluto. This was spontaneous. I hadn’t thought about the example before. But I knew that astronomers/astrophysicists had determined that Pluto was not, after all, a planet.

“How was it decided that Pluto was not a planet?” I wondered out loud. One possibility is that our scientists, working with a definite conception of what makes a planet a planet, had discovered that the stellar object we call “Pluto” does not satisfy the conditions for being a planet. Hence, it had to be demoted from planetary status to something else—an “ice ball,” perhaps.

Alternatively, our scientists may have known of Pluto’s properties and recently decided that the concept of a planet should be refined. With a refined conception of planethood, it would turn out that Pluto could no longer be considered a planet.

Which of these is the actual story? Did scientists discover something about Pluto that violated the standard conception of planethood, or did scientists revise their concept of planethood, knowing that Pluto’s claim to planethood would thereby be precluded?

I didn’t know the answer to the question at the time, my knowledge of the demoted status of Pluto being embarrassingly anecdotal. I was less embarrassed, though, when I asked a physicist acquaintance if he knew the answer. He didn’t.

So what is the answer?

Mike Brown, astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, narrates the answer in his recent book How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. The Amazon page for this book includes “A Letter from Author Mike Brown” that recounts the author’s PR problem with his own daughter. “Daddy,” she said to him, “I know you had to kill Pluto, but will you promise me one thing?” He told her that he would. To find out what she asked him to promise, visit this page.



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What Is the Movie Avatar About?

So what is the movie Avatar really about? Here are some possibilities:

  1. The obstacles to finding spiritual energy in the world around us
  2. The joys of flying a high-tech helicopter
  3. The dangers of the scientific enterprise, or of scientific knowledge
  4. The need for humans to find and explore life on other planets
  5. The vices of capitalism
  6. The honorable service of the United States Marines
  7. The virtues of a simple lifestyle
  8. The religious significance of trees
  9. The degrading effect of secularism in contemporary western civilization
  10. The color blue

Amazon link for Avatar

The Virtues of Vultures

Do you find vultures “revulting”? In a Slate essay titled “Vulture World,” Constance Casey tallies up the virtues of vultures:

vulture-in-profile1What would happen without them? The major vulture news of the last decade gives a clue. A mysterious die-off of Asian white-backed vultures has led to a pileup of domestic animal carcasses and an increase in the population of rodents and feral dogs. It turned out that an anti-inflammatory drug—diclofenac—used on sick livestock kills vultures even in low doses. Though the Indian government is phasing out the veterinary use of the drug, the vulture population hasn’t rebounded. One social consequence has been that members of the Zoroastrian Parsi community, who have used vultures to dispose of human corpses, now have to cremate their dead. But that doesn’t solve the problem of animal carcasses in a vulture-free world. Let’s be grateful the turkey vultures are keeping us from being awash in dead raccoons.

Click here for the complete story. The bottom line is, these birds not-of-prey perform a vital service in the economy of living and no-longer-living things.

The instincts and capacities of vultures should invite questions about how the mechanism of natural selection explains their evolutionary emergence. Did they evolve out of a need for there to be garbage disposals that would spare the animal kingdom from life-threatening disease?

A brief list of sources on vultures:

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