Quaecumque Sunt Vera

In a piece at Quillette Alana Redstone says she’s darned tired of people saying “just follow the science”:

About a year and a half ago, I sat with a friend at the Open Future conference in Chicago put on by the Economist. We were watching a panel debate on gun control (the video is available here, with the panel in question beginning shortly after the four-hour mark). Unsurprisingly, the conversation grew heated, and soon the participants stopped even pretending to give a fair hearing to views that conflicted with their own:

Person A (opposing gun restrictions): Seventy percent of the homicides in Illinois [are in] Chicago. [Yet] most of the gun restrictions are [applicable] in Chicago. It is a contradiction. [Gun control] does not solve [the problem] at all… We have the data to prove it. Over 90 percent of mass shootings… are in gun-free zones. [What we need instead is] more education, less legislation, [safer], and more responsible firearm ownership.

Person B (advocating gun restrictions): Forty-nine percent of Texans [now] support an [assault-rifle] ban and buyback… So I think that we’re really seeing a shift [in opinion].

Person A: That’s the silliest thing in the world… We’ve just proven that the data shows, for over 30 years, that more legislation and taking Americans’ private property [doesn’t work]. So what if I don’t want to sell [my gun] back [to the state]? You’re going to send somebody with a gun to come and take it from me?

Person C (advocating gun restrictions): I don’t want to hear NRA talking points recited back to me… And to be very clear about what the research does show… You are wrong on the facts… The research is very, very clear.

And so on, and so forth. Everyone was sure that the available “data” and “facts” showed that they were unambiguously right, full stop. Yet based on this summary from the RAND Corporation, both sides were partly right and partly wrong that day.

She elaborates by making the following points:

  • statistics don’t interpret themselves
  • motivated reasoning and confirmation bias are powerful psychological forces, and they are difficult to overcome
  • efforts to address complex social problems will always come with tradeoffs
  • People frequently reason in reverse.

    When a topic has moral or ideological implications, people typically have an a priori point of view that they then use as an end point, at least on a subconscious level.

    They figure out they want to happen and look around for statistics that support their preferred outcome rather than evaluating the situation with an open mind. Google as lowered the opportunity cost of finding statistics that support your preference to practically nothing. And people confuse what shows up in Google searches with the truth.

To those I would add (at least) one more observation. People have different preferences. They hold different relative values. Don’t dismiss that as a factor. What’s crucial to you may not be as crucial to me or vice versa.

I also feel bound to observe that I’m darned tired of Paul Krugman’s proclaiming that reality has a liberal bias. How would he know? He’s not a liberal. He’s a progressive and they’re not the same thing.

10 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    Need to stop referring to the social sciences as science. Even when you do have something like real science you need to know how studies were done, especially looking for bias, and you need to know how to interpret data. A lot of studies really dont have meaningful results. Finally, even when you have a good study that is properly done and the results really are significant you rarely want to hang your hat on one study.

    There are groups that explicitly reject the use of data and empirics. I used to have discussion with Boudreaux about this at his site. If he thought his reasoning was correct then he didnt need or want any data on the topic.


  • bob sykes Link

    Agree, the social sciences amount to astrology and numerology. And coding a la Big Tech is not technology. Steel making, cars, planes, and dams are.

    But the disease of stupidity and stubbornness exists everywhere. The German physicist Max Planck said that science advances one funeral at a time. Or, as my high school English teacher Don Hasenfus would say, “Knowledge maketh a bloody entry” (para Macbeth).

  • TastyBits Link

    Statistics is not science. Social science is not science. It is applied math.

    Numbers are meaningless, and more numbers are more meaningless. Constants are arguably important, but there is still a philosophical component that needs to be resolved.

  • PD Shaw Link

    With the virus in particular, we have quants analyzing data and coming up with associations and correlations, none of which is science and often appear to be completing lacking in any domain knowledge. (This may be purposeful, biology is fuzzy and thus believed to be largely ignorable) On top of that, models are being utilized as if they reflect laws of physics as opposed to tools with understood uses and limitations.

    As a for instance, Tyler Cowen will give space to someone who assigns a 90% probability that one of the variants of concern is more than 30% transmissible. It turns out that the person is a (a) biology student; (b) who reads a lot about this virus; and (c) is employed as a super-predictor. Cowen believes super-predicting is a skill and it benefits from not being beholden to domain. If you look at the underlying studies quants rely upon, the conclusions are usually quite modest, identify their limitations and primarily point to the need for more study, i.e. the need for science.

  • PD Shaw Link

    In the time it took me to compose my comment, Tastybits hits the core of the issue.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    In a moving sea of uncertainty,
    conservative principals, anyone?
    Standards and mores gleaned over centuries of experience.
    Not always correct, but a place to put your feet while you ponder the possibles.

  • steve Link

    OT- Vaccinated about 100 people this morning (4 hours). We are doing pretty well at solving the staffing issue. Helps that our Covid load has been decreasing. We have found nursing students to be a good source of help. A lot of them have not had as much clinical time as usual since we were short on PPE so they had limited pt contact. Went pretty smoothly and there was never a real line. I would note that it was 22 degrees outside so a goodly number of the old folks were bundled up in long sleeves and sweaters. I think I spent more time getting people out of their coats, sweaters, etc and rolling up sleeves than I did actually giving shots. We need some public service spots or whatever reminding people to come prepared to get stuck in the arm. Wear a short sleeved shirt or something that rolls up easily under the coat. Could have gone 50% faster.


  • PD Shaw Link

    @steve, our county has changed course and is now only vaccinating ages 85 and over (while healthcare personnel and long-term care residents finish up). They found that opening up to 65 and older a few weeks ago when demand so outstripped supply left a lot of of people unhappy. OTOH, they have more personnel available to vaccinate than they have vaccine, so they have more time available right now to address the needs of the oldest group. They continue to fill in missed appointments and extra doses by calling first responders — they have been able to get someone from this group within 15 minutes, sometimes within a few minutes because of the nature of the job. Only one dose wasted was due to faulty needle.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    Speaking of the vaccine and statistics.

    Couldn’t help but comment on the Novavax trial results.


    It was a good news / bad news kind of thing.

    The good news.

    The vaccine was very effective against the original COVID – 96%, inline with the mRNA vaccines.
    The vaccine was only slightly less effective against the UK variant – 90% effective.
    It is a non-mRNA vaccine which doesn’t have the storage requirements of mRNA.

    The bad news:
    It was only 60% effective against the South African variant. Novavax suggested there was data in the trial that previous infection offered little protection to the new variant.

    This is broadly consistent with in-vitro studies vaccines showing less effectiveness against the South African variant.

    Then this is the part that in animal / phsae 1 studies, Novavax generated the best immune response, even better then the mRNA vaccines.

    The South African variant was detected in South Carolina so there’s community spread here.

    The likelihood we will need a second booster shot before the fall is increasing.

  • Drew Link

    “Statistics is not science. Social science is not science. It is applied math.

    Statistics is not science. ……………. It is misapplied math.

    There, fixed it for you.

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