Tag Archives: University College London

People believe falsehoods despite new factual info

This is not news, but it turns out can be replicated in carefully designed experiments, as researchers at University College in London have observed in a submission to the journal PLOS: Computational Biology. And it turns out this bias toward old facts we thought were true over new facts showing the opposite can still exist even when choosing the old beliefs costs us something in return.

This last presidential election was a watershed moment for many of us in terms of politics, and not in a good way. No matter which candidate one supported, the amount of false news being passed about online was staggering and, if you value credible news, disheartening.  I witnessed perfectly intelligent people — some with advanced degrees — sharing articles which most any informed person would immediately assume to be factually incorrect.

Part of this is because the purveyors of false news — whether they are simply offering clickbait to make money or because they are spreading political propaganda — have become much better at making fake news seem real.

But part of it is because the false news being spread on both sides simply confirmed the biases of the person sharing it — confirmation bias.  If an article confirms our previous beliefs it seems true for that very reason no matter how outlandish it might seem when held up to scrutiny.

But what if choosing the wrong answer we knew to be true previously would cost us something in return?

Researchers at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, set up an experiment whereby individuals were shown symbols worth varying amounts of money. After a while, participants learned which symbols were worth most and began choosing those symbols as expected.

In a second experiment,  however, participants were shown the same lucrative symbols from the first experiment. Added to these were new symbols worth more money, making the choosing of the old symbols cost participants in terms of potential earnings lost.

An interesting thing happened: participants would still choose the old symbols even though they were plainly shown doing so would cost them money . 

This all sounds exceedingly simple, but the researchers controlled for all sort of variables in the participants and in the way they crunched their numbers.  I don’t know exactly what “dimensionality reduction and model comparison” and “parameter correlation and parameter recovery” are, but the trained scientists who do these sorts of experiments know exactly what they are and that is what elevates research like this from something you might do with your friends into the realm of accepted scientific research.

Of course, this will all have to be confirmed with more experiments by other scientists who read these results in this respected journal and try to replicate them, which is how science works and why it is so important that it be done properly.

These same kinds of results keep appearing in similar studies. If these findings are confirmed down the road it raises interesting questions for our everyday life, in education, and in understanding why people continue to hold onto false beliefs.

The researchers from University College have some ideas as to why people might still hold onto false information even when still believing it to be true might cost them something. 

Some of it might be simply the satisfaction of thinking we are correct and refusing to let go of that feeling that we are smart.

It also might hold some evolutionary reasons which translate into today’s world, such as the mere fact that, as other research has shown, being supremely confident in your own abilities and choices can often make a person with few facts and low ability more successful that a person with more facts, greater abilities but possessing chronically low self-confidence.

I have a friend, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, whose grandparents are staunch supporters of President Donald Trump despite the latter being tied to, and refusing to immediately condemn, Nazis and other forms of anti-Semitic rabble.

This has, of course, caused great pain among for the grandparents and some of their progeny who cannot understand how the grandparents could support such a man — especially considering the background of the grandparents with Nazi Germany.

There has been much shaming of the grandparents and hurt feelings on all sides. Through it all, grandpa — the self-made business success story — has dug in his heels with grandma the dutiful follower.

Grandpa the self-made man likely has much emotional real estate invested in his stubborn support of Trump.  Plying him with facts and condemning him for his choices has gotten nowhere.

Perhaps the best approach to grandpa — and anyone else we are trying to dissuade from contradictory beliefs which alarm us — is to find a way of helping them to save their ego while still choosing the the thing that is true over the thing they want to be true.

How one might do that is an open question and will likely vary from person to person.

In the real world, it is clear that telling a person how stupid they are for not acknowledging the plain-to-see (for most of us, anyway) facts in front of them simply doesn’t work with many people.

What we should learn regarding Nobel prize winners who say ridiculous things about women

Tim Hunt, the Nobel laureate on whom young female scientists apparently throw themselves — right before their friends plead with them to get eye exams. Yes, intelligence can be sexy. But it doesn’t burn your retinas off.

It’s an enduring question but one that is probably easily answered: How can some men (it’s almost always men) with impressive credentials and educational attainments ignore what the rest of the peer-reviewed scientific community sees as plainly evident; that human-induced climate change is real, and vaccines are not causing autism?

I will guess that some male egos are particularly suited toward believing they know best, and deciding that terms such as “outlier” do not apply to them as they are just words that mainstream science uses to marginalize those with whom it disagrees.

After all, if a Nobel laureate can say with utter conviction the things below, and then give a half-apology that indicates he’s learned nothing from the gaffe, is it any wonder a run-of-the-mill engineer thinks he knows better than terabytes of climate data proving he is wrong?

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” the Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt reportedly said on Monday at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.”

Those are the only three things that happen. Romance and tears. What does not happen, apparently, is science.

Following a backlash from conference attendees, on social media, and in regular media, Hunt offered a half-hearted apology on Wednesday, speaking to BBC Radio 4.

“I’m really sorry I said what I said. It was a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists,” he said. “What was intended is a light-hearted ironic comment. Apparently it was interpreted deadly seriously by my audience.”

Then he added, “I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. It’s terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing but getting at the truth.”

On Thursday, Hunt, a biochemist, resigned from his faculty position at University College London.

Men will be men, and some men will always be boys on the playground boasting of their own superiority and conquests.

via What Tim Hunt’s Resignation Should Teach Us About Sexism in Science – The Atlantic.

Let me get my sexy revved up — with my lab goggles on and baggy contamination suit

I worked around a great many female graduates, post-graduates and faculty for a long time.

Am I turning you on yet?
I’ve had four hours sleep, six cups of coffee and I have on my last pair of clean jeans underneath this get-up. Am I turning you on yet?

Only once in all that time did I hear about a female scientist blatantly and successfully using her femininity to try to gain an upper-hand with a professor.

It may have worked, but that one professor and his new love were effectively ostracized by the rest of the department and they both left the institution. That professor had lost two of the most important things biomedical faculty researchers possess: the perception that he was impartial and wise.

Do some women attempt to use charm to gain favor with the professor? Yes. The same way male students have been using their looks, humor, a way with words, compliments and other tools to ingratiate themselves with faculty and administrators mostly likely since education and mentorship came into being.

Meanwhile, good riddance to a Nobel laureate who is this clueless:

Female scientists have been sharing “distractingly sexy” photos of themselves after a feminist website encouraged them to respond to comments by a Nobel laureate.

Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt was roundly criticised when he detailed his thoughts about the “trouble with girls” at a conference of science journalists. “Three things happen when they are in the lab,” he said, “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”

He said his comments were meant to be “light-hearted, ironic comment”, but whatever the intention, it went over like a heavy metallic dirigible in a field with some widely acknowledged gender issues. Hunt has now resigned from his position at University College London.

Example below of a female scientist looking as I remember so many of them looking.

#DistractinglySexy

via Female scientists post ‘distractingly sexy’ photos – BBC News.