The Myth of the Unprejudiced Scientist and the Three Levels of Protection Against BiasRead Now
As modern science was emerging during the 18th and 19th centuries, ideas regarding how science should be performed also began to take shape. One particular idea posited that scientists subject theories to test, but do not allow their biases to get in the way. Real scientists, it was argued, are unprejudiced, and rather than try to prove theories right or wrong, they merely seek the truth based on experiment and observation. According to this notion, real scientists don’t have preconceptions, and they don’t hide, ignore, or disavow evidence that does not fit their own views. Real scientists go where the evidence takes them.
Unfortunately, the romantic notion that real scientists operate free of bias proved to be dead wrong. Scientists, even “real scientists”, are human beings, and like all human beings they have biases that influence what they do and how they do it. While a minority of scientists does engage in outright fraud, even honest scientists who claim they are only interested in the truth can unconsciously bias the results of their experiments and observations to support their ideas. In past posts I have already provided notable historical examples of how scientists fooled themselves into believing they had discovered something that wasn’t real such as the cases of the physicist René Blondot, who thought he had discovered a new form of radiation, or the astronomer Percival Lowell who thought he had discovered irrigation channels on Mars.
It is in part because of the above realization, that scientists developed several methodologies to exclude bias and limit the number of possible explanations for the results of experiments and observations such as the use of controls, placebos, and blind and double-blind experimental protocols. This is the first level of protection against bias. Today the use of these procedures in research is pretty much required if scientists expect their ideas to be taken seriously.
However, while nowadays scientists use and report using the procedures described above when applicable, the proper implementation of these procedures is still up to the individual scientists, which can lead to biases. This is where the second level of protection against bias comes into play. Scientists try to reproduce each other’s work and build upon the findings of others. If a given scientist reports an important finding, but no one can reproduce it, then the finding is not accepted.
But even with these safeguards, there is still a more subtle possible level of bias in scientific research that does not involve unconscious biases or sloppy research procedures carried out by one or a several scientists. This is bias that may occur when all the scientists involved in a field of research accept a certain set of ideas or procedures and exclude other scientists that think or perform research differently. Notice that above I used the words “possible” and “may”. The development of a scientific consensus within the context of a well-developed scientific theory always leads to a unification of the ideas and theories in a given field of science. So far from bias, this unification of ideas may just indicate that science has advanced. But in general, and especially early on in the development of a scientific field, science is best served not when researchers agree with each other but when they disagree. So the third level of protection against bias that keeps science true occurs when researchers disagree and try to prove each other to be wrong. In fact, some funding agencies may even purposefully support scientists that hold views that are contrary to those accepted in a field of research. The theory is that this will lead to spirited debates, new ways of looking at things, and a more thorough evaluation of the thinking and research methods employed by scientists.
However, disagreements among scientists do have a downside that is often not appreciated. While science may benefit when in addition to Scientist A, there is a Scientist B researching the exact same thing who disagrees with the ideas and theories of Scientist A, science may not necessarily benefit when Scientist A and B research something and A thinks that B is wrong and doesn’t have the slightest idea of what he/she is doing, while B thinks A is an idiot who doesn’t understand “real science”. There are a number of examples of long-running feuds in science between individual scientists or even whole groups of scientists. In these feuds, the acrimony can become so great that the process of science degenerates into dismissal of valid evidence, screaming matches, insults, and even playing politics to derail the careers of opponents.
But, of course, the problem I have described above is nothing more than the human condition and in this sense science is not unique. Every activity where humans are involved has to deal with bias, but at least in science we can recognize we are biased and implement the three levels of protection against this bias. It may be imperfect, it may be messy, it may not always work, but, being human, that’s the best we can do.
Image from Alpha Stock Images by Nick Youngson used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
Election 2020 – In the Absence of Safeguards, How Do We Distinguish Fantasy From Reality? A Scientist’s PerspectiveRead Now
Elections are normally not considered a scientific topic. However, when elections take place many scientific questions can be formulated about their outcome. For example, “Which candidate obtained the majority of the votes in a given state or in the overall election?” is a scientific question, as it can be answered by counting the votes. Additionally, and more relevantly to the 2020 election, questions about the integrity of the election can also be formulated as scientific questions. However, and this is the key, BEFORE you ask questions and begin searching for evidence that fraud has taken place, you have to define what would constitute “fraud” (as opposed to mere machine glitches or human error), how said fraud would be detected and investigated, and how much fraud has to be present to label the election as “compromised”. Only then can meaningful questions be asked, evidence procured, and valid conclusions reached. Why is this?
Scientists have known from decades of research into the human mind that people with a strong interest in finding evidence for something will find it even if the evidence is not there. Human psychology is such that even people whose intent is honest will filter reality and find patterns where there are none to be found. This is a process akin to finding shapes in the clouds. Defining a priori what constitutes fraud, what should be considered valid evidence for fraud, and how much of it would have to be present to declare the election to have been compromised is an elemental level of protection against human bias. As far as I can tell, Mr. Trump and his team did not do this. Rather they seem to have cast as wide a net as possible which risks ending up with a trove of false positives.
Another level of protection against bias is to recognize that the people best suited to assess whether there is fraud in the election are not those who WANT to find it. This is a very elemental concept in science which has led to the introduction of many controls in the research process. One possible way to control this source of bias is to rely on evaluations of the evidence and the election conducted by people who don’t share your biases, or at least by people committed to place doing their job and following the law above everything else. If enough of these people look at any evidence of fraud presented to them, or assess the procedures followed in the elections and still reach the conclusion that the election was not compromised, then that is an indication that this was indeed the case.
Based on the foregoing, agencies such as the Department of Justice and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, along with several dozen courts and fact checkers, plus multiple election officials, state attorney generals, and governors (many of them pro-Trump Republicans) have not found convincing evidence of foreign or domestic interference in the election, or of fraud at a level that would overturn the results of the election.
These assessments mentioned above involving many individuals of different political persuasions as well as different courts and agencies should have given Mr. Trump confidence that the election results were fair. Instead, Mr. Trump and his team disqualified these assessments, claiming that the people involved at best were indifferent or incompetent, or at worst had nefarious ulterior motives, and may have even coordinated with each other forming part of a massive conspiracy also involving foreign actors.
Over the past few years, I have exchanged many arguments with what I call irrational skeptics. These are people that defend various conspiracy theories ranging from global warming, 911, and COVID-19 severity deniers to antivaccination advocates, creationists, and chemtrail and flat Earth proponents. All these people share the common trait that they are immune to evidence against their ideas, and that any attempt to discredit their ideas will be considered further proof of the existence of a conspiracy. In this sense, I do not see any difference between these irrational skeptics and Mr. Trump and those that support his election fraud claims.
Of course, I am not naïve. I know full well that there may be political and other types of motivations behind the claims of the Trump campaign that have nothing to do with a desire to find the truth. But the intention of this post is not to speculate about motivations. My goal is just to address the elections from a scientific perspective. And in that vein, I want to propose a thought experiment. I want you to consider what would have happened if Mr. Biden had contested the results of some of the states he lost employing exactly the same methods and arguments used by Mr. Trump and his team.
Suppose that Mr. Biden had selected a team of “colorful” lawyers to find voter fraud. Mr. Biden’s team could have pointed to the fact that Biden was ahead in early voting in some states such as North Carolina but that later this trend reversed, as an indication that something ”strange” happened. They could have gathered affidavits from people that thought they had witnessed something suspicious or irregular going on. They could have interpreted every glitch in the system or any clerical error in the worst possible light. They could have interpreted videos of election workers going about their jobs to suggest irregularities and edited portions of the videos in suggestive ways to make their case. They could have relied on testimonials of selected “experts” that exaggerated their credentials. They could have put forward statistical analyses of voting data based on questionable assumptions. They could have alleged that their observers were not allowed enough access to the vote counting process. They could have even named their lawsuit the “Medusa” lawsuit (Kraken/Medusa - get it?).
My question then is: If Mr. Biden and his lawyers had searched for evidence of voter fraud in some of the states he lost employing these sloppy or questionable procedures, would they have “found” evidence of voter fraud of a magnitude and nature similar to that found by Mr. Trump’s lawyers in other states? The point of this exercise is to consider whether, in the absence of safeguards against human bias, the normal impressions people derive from their assessment of reality, coupled to the glitches and mistakes present in any election, can be spun to construct a narrative of fraud.
I will leave it up to you to answer this question. But if your answer is “Yes”, then it should be obvious that unless rigorous and well-defined procedures are employed to analyze the integrity of a process such as elections, it is impossible to distinguish fantasy from reality. Scientists know this to be true for science which is why they use these procedures. Assuming there is an honest interest in finding the truth, why can’t we accept the same procedures are necessary for evaluating the integrity of elections? And if we accept this is the case, why can’t we accept that any investigation that was carried out without following these procedures is not trustworthy and its premises are questionable?
Election 2020 image by conolan from Pixabay is in the public domain.
The Election Conspiracy: The Dire Consequences of Living in an Alternate Reality and What We Can Do About ItRead Now
As I have discussed before, our brains seem to be wired to filter and process our perception of reality based on expectations that we have about the nature of said reality. This may actually be beneficial as it serves as a mechanism to reduce the vast complexity of the world around us to a basic set of actionable premises that guide our response to life-changing events or forces that we don’t control or even sometimes understand. Of course, the problem with this approach is that we may not see or accept those things that don’t fit our expectations and we end up creating and living in an alternate reality. But what happens when this alternate reality collides with the actual reality? You would expect people to change their minds, right? Unfortunately this is not often the case.
I have previously mentioned several specific reasons why people create and believe in conspiracy theories ranging from feeling safe, reducing uncertainty, and gaining control over their environment to developing and maintaining a positive image of one’s self or group. But I think one general reason why people create and accept conspiracy theories is to explain the discrepancy between their world view and reality. Nowadays there are millions of people in the United States living in alternate realities and accepting and spreading conspiracy theories to explain away the evidence that indicates their world view is wrong.
Thus, flat Earthers claim that the evidence the Earth is round is fake and part of a conspiracy to hide the truth. Antivaxxers claim that pharmaceutical companies are hiding the evidence that vaccines are not safe and cause autism and other diseases. Global warming denialists claim that scientists and the organizations that fund them are faking the evidence for global warming. Creationists deny evolution and claim that atheists aligned with powerful secular interests are attacking religion. Chemtrail proponents allege the government is spraying us with dangerous chemicals. 911 deniers claim the government was responsible for the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings. COVID-19 severity deniers claim that liberals and left leaning organizations colluding with the scientific and medical establishment are exaggerating the impact of COVID-19 and trying to control people using lockdowns, masks, and social distancing.
The latest addition to this list is the individuals that advocate the “election conspiracy”. These are individuals who have the false belief the election was stolen from President Trump by a vast group of republican and democratic election officials, governors, congressmen, and judges colluding with voting machine corporations, the “deep state” and foreign nations. I do not include this group of conspiracy believers here lightly. Although normally I don’t address political issues in my blog, the evidence that the election president Trump lost was not a fraud, as a he claims, is just too overwhelming to ignore or dismiss as a mere “opinion”. Dozens of election officials both Republicans and Democrats, along with recounts, audits, and courts, as well as assessments by fact checkers and government agencies did not find instances of fraud large enough to overturn the election.
Belief in conspiracy theories has consequences at the level of the individual and society, and I think the severity of these consequences depends on two variables. One is the nature and scope of the conspiracy theory being embraced. Flat Earth proponents may only get laughed at, while antivaxxers may influence some people to not vaccinate their children who may then catch a serious disease. COVID-19 denialists may lead people to forgo masks and other mitigation measures that may put them and their loved ones at risk of being infected, while global warming denial activists may hinder urgently needed action on climate change. The other variable that may determine the severity of the consequences of embracing a conspiracy theory is the level of militancy it inspires and the extent to which its followers may become radicalized and willing to act on the premises of the conspiracy to the detriment of their own lives and wellbeing. The poster children for this last variable are the advocates of the “election conspiracy”.
On January 6th the whole nation watched in shock as a mob stormed the US Capitol building while the electoral votes of the American people were being counted. The individuals that did this were so certain that the system had failed them that they were willing to risk everything for their actions. Now many of them have been identified and arrested. They are losing their jobs and businesses, and are being placed on no-fly lists and subjected to non-stop harassment and threats. One of them was shot, and three others died from medical emergencies suffered during the riot. Their actions, besides destruction of government property and damage to American democracy, led to the death of one Capitol police officer and the injuring and abuse of dozens of others. We shudder at the thought of what would have happened if this mob of individuals had been able to get hold of the members of congress inside the Capitol. It has been documented that several people in the mob were shouting “hang Mike Pence” (the vice president) as well as threats to others.
The election conspiracy is a clear example of the dire consequences of living in an alternate reality immunized from facts and evidence. In this state of mind, people’s emotions and fears can be inflamed and manipulated to advance political or social goals in a process akin to selling them snake oil. And the people most susceptible to be victims of snake oil salesmen are those living in these alternate realities.
So how do we deal with this?
Whereas the more radicalized conspiracy believers may be too far gone to be helped, there is a larger mass of people that is unsure about accepting the conspiracy. Some aspects of the conspiracy make sense to them but they are turned off by other aspects. These people are not conspiracy theory believers, but they are conspiracy theory agnostics. I think that these conspiracy agnostics are the people we should talk with. We should address their concerns seriously with evidence and within a framework of respect for their views. But we also need to find what I call “converts” among the ranks of the conspiracy theory believers. Converts are people that have come to their senses having analyzed what they said and did and rejected the conspiracy. These are people that the conspiracy theory agnostics (and even some believers) can identify with. These converts should become the spokespersons against the conspiracy.
We may not be able to eliminate the conspiracy, but maybe we can reduce its spread.
The photograph by of tear gas being used on rioters outside the capitol by Tyler Merbler is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.