Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds
New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason.
By Elizabeth Kolbert
Feb 27 2017
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds

In 1975, researchers at Stanford invited a group of undergraduates to take part in a study about suicide. They were presented with pairs of suicide notes. In each pair, one note had been composed by a random individual, the other by a person who had subsequently taken his own life. The students were then asked to distinguish between the genuine notes and the fake ones.

Some students discovered that they had a genius for the task. Out of twenty-five pairs of notes, they correctly identified the real one twenty-four times. Others discovered that they were hopeless. They identified the real note in only ten instances.

As is often the case with psychological studies, the whole setup was a put-on. Though half the notes were indeed genuine—they’d been obtained from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office—the scores were fictitious. The students who’d been told they were almost always right were, on average, no more discerning than those who had been told they were mostly wrong.

In the second phase of the study, the deception was revealed. The students were told that the real point of the experiment was to gauge their responses to thinking they were right or wrong. (This, it turned out, was also a deception.) Finally, the students were asked to estimate how many suicide notes they had actually categorized correctly, and how many they thought an average student would get right. At this point, something curious happened. The students in the high-score group said that they thought they had, in fact, done quite well—significantly better than the average student—even though, as they’d just been told, they had zero grounds for believing this. Conversely, those who’d been assigned to the low-score group said that they thought they had done significantly worse than the average student—a conclusion that was equally unfounded.

“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”

A few years later, a new set of Stanford students was recruited for a related study. The students were handed packets of information about a pair of firefighters, Frank K. and George H. Frank’s bio noted that, among other things, he had a baby daughter and he liked to scuba dive. George had a small son and played golf. The packets also included the men’s responses on what the researchers called the Risky-Conservative Choice Test. According to one version of the packet, Frank was a successful firefighter who, on the test, almost always went with the safest option. In the other version, Frank also chose the safest option, but he was a lousy firefighter who’d been put “on report” by his supervisors several times. Once again, midway through the study, the students were informed that they’d been misled, and that the information they’d received was entirely fictitious. The students were then asked to describe their own beliefs. What sort of attitude toward risk did they think a successful firefighter would have? The students who’d received the first packet thought that he would avoid it. The students in the second group thought he’d embrace it.

Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from.

The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

[snip]

Self-Driving Cars Have a Bicycle Problem

Self-Driving Cars Have a Bicycle Problem
Bikes are hard to spot and hard to predict
By PETER FAIRLEY
Feb 24 2017
http://spectrum.ieee.org/transportation/self-driving/selfdriving-cars-have-a-bicycle-problem

Robotic cars are great at monitoring other cars, and they’re getting better at noticing pedestrians, squirrels, and birds. The main challenge, though, is posed by the lightest, quietest, swerviest vehicles on the road.

“Bicycles are probably the most difficult detection problem that autonomous vehicle systems face,” says UC Berkeley research engineer Steven Shladover.

Nuno Vasconcelos, a visual computing expert at the University of California, San Diego, says bikes pose a complex detection problem because they are relatively small, fast and heterogenous. “A car is basically a big block of stuff. A bicycle has much less mass and also there can be more variation in appearance — there are more shapes and colors and people hang stuff on them.”

That’s why the detection rate for cars has outstripped that for bicycles in recent years. Most of the improvement has come from techniques whereby systems train themselves by studying thousands of images in which known objects are labeled. One reason for this is that most of the training has concentrated on images featuring cars, with far fewer bikes.

Consider the Deep3DBox algorithm presented recently by researchers at George Mason University and stealth-mode robotic taxi developer Zoox, based in Menlo Park, Calif. On an industry-recognized benchmark test, which challenges vision systems with 2D road images, Deep3DBox identifies 89 percent of cars. Sub-70-percent car-spotting scores prevailed just a few years ago.

Deep3DBox further excels at a tougher task: predicting which way vehicles are facing and inferring a 3D box around each object spotted on a 2D image. “Deep learning is typically used for just detecting pixel patterns. We figured out an effective way to use the same techniques to estimate geometrical quantities,” explains Deep3DBox contributor Jana Košecká, a computer scientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

However, when it comes to spotting and orienting bikes and bicyclists, performance drops significantly. Deep3DBox is among the best, yet it spots only 74 percent of bikes in the benchmarking test. And though it can orient over 88 percent of the cars in the test images, it scores just 59 percent for the bikes.

Košecká says commercial systems are delivering better results as developers gather massive proprietary datasets of road images with which to train their systems. And she says most demonstration vehicles augment their visual processing with laser-scanning (ie lidar) imagery and radar sensing, which help recognize bikes and their relative position even if they can’t help determine their orientation.

Further strides, meanwhile, are coming via high-definition maps such as Israel-based Mobileye’s Road Experience Management system. These maps offer computer vision algorithms a head start in identifying bikes, which stand out as anomalies from pre-recorded street views. Ford Motor says “highly detailed 3D maps” are at the core of the 70 self-driving test cars that it plans to have driving on roads this year.

Put all of these elements together, and one can observe some pretty impressive results, such as the bike spotting demonstrated last year by Google’s vehicles. Waymo, Google’s autonomous vehicle spinoff, unveiled proprietary sensor technology with further upgraded bike-recognition capabilities at this month’s Detroit Auto Show.

[snip]

Security error leaves NY airport servers unprotected for a year

Security error leaves NY airport servers unprotected for a year
The backup storage drive hadn’t been password-protected since April.
By David Lumb
Feb 25 2017
https://www.engadget.com/2017/02/24/security-error-leaves-ny-airport-servers-unprotected-for-a-year/

The 760 GB of exposed data included TSA letters of investigation, social security numbers, internal airport schematics and emails, according to Chris Vickery, lead researcher from MacKeeper Security Center. He’d discovered the lapse, noting that the backup drive “was, in essence, acting as a public web server.” If someone had found their way in, they could access a particular file with usernames and passwords for various devices and systems, which security experts confirmed to ZDNet would open up every component of the airport’s internal network to a malicious user.

Apparently, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey contracts out management of Stewart Airport to a private company called AvPORTS, which uses a single IT professional to set up and maintain its networks. Obviously, having one person show up twice a month per location to make sure each IT setup is watertight presents opportunities for lapses that go unnoticed. A Port Authority spokesperson noted that an investigation was ongoing, but that no information was believed to have been compromised during the near year-long exposure.

I Was a Muslim in Trump’s White House

I Was a Muslim in Trump’s White House
When President Obama left, I stayed on at the National Security Council in order to serve my country. I lasted eight days.
By RUMANA AHMED
Feb 23 2017
https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/02/rumana-ahmed-trump/517521/

In 2011, I was hired, straight out of college, to work at the White House and eventually the National Security Council. My job there was to promote and protect the best of what my country stands for. I am a hijab-wearing Muslim woman––I was the only hijabi in the West Wing––and the Obama administration always made me feel welcome and included.

Like most of my fellow American Muslims, I spent much of 2016 watching with consternation as Donald Trump vilified our community. Despite this––or because of it––I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump Administration, in order to give the new president and his aides a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America’s Muslim citizens.

I lasted eight days.

When Trump issued a ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and all Syrian refugees, I knew I could no longer stay and work for an administration that saw me and people like me not as fellow citizens, but as a threat.

The evening before I left, bidding farewell to some of my colleagues, many of whom have also since left, I notified Trump’s senior NSC communications adviser, Michael Anton, of my departure, since we shared an office. His initial surprise, asking whether I was leaving government entirely, was followed by silence––almost in caution, not asking why. I told him anyway.

I told him I had to leave because it was an insult walking into this country’s most historic building every day under an administration that is working against and vilifying everything I stand for as an American and as a Muslim. I told him that the administration was attacking the basic tenets of democracy. I told him that I hoped that they and those in Congress were prepared to take responsibility for all the consequences that would attend their decisions.

He looked at me and said nothing.

It was only later that I learned he authored an essay under a pseudonym, extolling the virtues of authoritarianism and attacking diversity as a “weakness,” and Islam as “incompatible with the modern West.”

My whole life and everything I have learned proves that facile statement wrong.

My parents immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh in 1978 and strove to create opportunities for their children born in the states. My mother worked as a cashier, later starting her own daycare business. My father spent late nights working at Bank of America, and was eventually promoted to assistant vice president at one of its headquarters. Living the American dream, we’d have family barbecues, trips to Disney World, impromptu soccer or football games, and community service projects. My father began pursuing his Ph.D., but in 1995 he was killed in a car accident.

I was 12 when I started wearing a hijab. It was encouraged in my family, but it was always my choice. It was a matter of faith, identity, and resilience for me. After 9/11, everything would change. On top of my shock, horror, and heartbreak, I had to deal with the fear some kids suddenly felt towards me. I was glared at, cursed at, and spat at in public and in school. People called me a “terrorist” and told me, “go back to your country.”

My father taught me a Bengali proverb inspired by Islamic scripture: “When a man kicks you down, get back up, extend your hand, and call him brother.” Peace, patience, persistence, respect, forgiveness, and dignity. These were the values I’ve carried through my life and my career.

I never intended to work in government. I was among those who assumed the government was inherently corrupt and ineffective. Working in the Obama White House proved me wrong. You can’t know or understand what you haven’t been a part of.

Still, inspired by President Obama, I joined the White House in 2011, after graduating from the George Washington University. I had interned there during my junior year, reading letters and taking calls from constituents at the Office of Presidential Correspondence. It felt surreal––here I was, a 22-year-old American Muslim woman from Maryland who had been mocked and called names for covering my hair, working for the president of the United States.

In 2012, I moved to the West Wing to join the Office of Public Engagement, where I worked with various communities, including American Muslims, on domestic issues such as health care. In early 2014, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes offered me a position on the National Security Council (NSC). For two and a half years I worked down the hall from the Situation Room, advising President Obama’s engagements with American Muslims, and working on issues ranging from advancing relations with Cuba and Laos to promoting global entrepreneurship among women and youth.

Science societies have long shunned politics. But now they’re ready to march.

Science societies have long shunned politics. But now they’re ready to march.
By Sarah Kaplan
Feb 24 2017
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/02/24/science-societies-have-long-shunned-politics-but-now-theyre-ready-to-march/

Some of the nation’s biggest scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Geophysical Union, are partnering with grass-roots organizers to plan the March for Science, an Earth Day rally in Washington and cities around the world aimed at defending “robustly funded and publicly communicated science.”

The news signals that the effort, spawned from social-media musings in the days after President Trump’s inauguration, has officially gone mainstream.

Such coordinated activism is a big change for scientists and the societies that represent them. Researchers have long been reluctant to dive into political debates out of concern that their work will be perceived as partisan. But the community is increasingly worried about eroding public support for science, and it’s ready to speak up.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Rush Holt, chief executive of the AAAS. “In the past, there have been marches for one aspect of science or another or for rallies for funding for medical research. … But this was not organized by any interest group. It’s a spontaneous display of concern about science itself.”

The March for Science is slated to take over the Mall in Washington on April 22. The Earth Day Network is co-organizing the event, which will involve speeches, a teach-in, musical performances and a march through Washington. Supporters from nearly 300 cities in 30 countries will hold satellite marches on the same day.

The people behind the march are mostly scientists and educators at the beginning of their careers. Few have activist backgrounds, and none has organized an event on this scale. But in the month since the event’s conception, they’ve managed to get some of the biggest names in the American scientific community on board. The march’s other major partners are Sigma Xi, the 100,000-member honor society for scientists and engineers, the Entomological Society of America, the climate action advocacy group NextGen Climate America, ScienceDebate.org and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In addition, organizers say that more than 50,000 volunteers have signed up to help with the event. In a private Facebook group, more than 800,000 people have said they’ll be attending.

“This started as an idea, but it’s rapidly actualizing into a global movement,” Valorie Aquino, one of the march’s three national co-chairs and an anthropology PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico, said in a statement. “Scientific integrity serves everyone, and we need to speak out for science together.”

That AAAS and others have joined the effort is a sign of the community’s growing dissatisfaction with the “stick to science” mentality.

“Some people for a long time believed that if scientists would just dispassionately provide data, that science would not be politicized,” said Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “That turned out to be a misjudgment of colossal proportions.”

At the American Geophysical Union’s meeting in December — the first major conference of earth and atmospheric scientists after the election — there was a pervasive sense of anxiety about what the Trump administration would mean for science. The transition team had already sent a letter to Energy Department officials, asking them to name employees who worked on climate-change research. Several of Trump’s nominees had previously expressed doubt about the reality of man-made climate change.

Colleagues stood in clusters during the meeting’s poster sessions, discussing the developments, debating what they should do.

[snip]

Most scientists ‘can’t replicate studies by their peers’

Most scientists ‘can’t replicate studies by their peers’
By Tom Feilden
Feb 22 2017
http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-39054778

Science is facing a “reproducibility crisis” where more than two-thirds of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, research suggests.

This is frustrating clinicians and drug developers who want solid foundations of pre-clinical research to build upon.

From his lab at the University of Virginia’s Centre for Open Science, immunologist Dr Tim Errington runs The Reproducibility Project, which attempted to repeat the findings reported in five landmark cancer studies.

“The idea here is to take a bunch of experiments and to try and do the exact same thing to see if we can get the same results.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that should be easy. Experiments are supposed to be replicable.

The authors should have done it themselves before publication, and all you have to do is read the methods section in the paper and follow the instructions.

Sadly nothing, it seems, could be further from the truth.

After meticulous research involving painstaking attention to detail over several years (the project was launched in 2011), the team was able to confirm only two of the original studies’ findings.

Two more proved inconclusive and in the fifth, the team completely failed to replicate the result.

“It’s worrying because replication is supposed to be a hallmark of scientific integrity,” says Dr Errington.

Concern over the reliability of the results published in scientific literature has been growing for some time.

According to a survey published in the journal Nature last summer, more than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments.

Marcus Munafo is one of them. Now professor of biological psychology at Bristol University, he almost gave up on a career in science when, as a PhD student, he failed to reproduce a textbook study on anxiety.

“I had a crisis of confidence. I thought maybe it’s me, maybe I didn’t run my study well, maybe I’m not cut out to be a scientist.”

The problem, it turned out, was not with Marcus Munafo’s science, but with the way the scientific literature had been “tidied up” to present a much clearer, more robust outcome.

“What we see in the published literature is a highly curated version of what’s actually happened,” he says.

“The trouble is that gives you a rose-tinted view of the evidence because the results that get published tend to be the most interesting, the most exciting, novel, eye-catching, unexpected results.

“What I think of as high-risk, high-return results.”

The reproducibility difficulties are not about fraud, according to Dame Ottoline Leyser, director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.

That would be relatively easy to stamp out. Instead, she says: “It’s about a culture that promotes impact over substance, flashy findings over the dull, confirmatory work that most of science is about.”

[snip]

When Evidence Says No, but Doctors Say Yes

When Evidence Says No, but Doctors Say Yes
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
By DAVID EPSTEIN and PROPUBLICA
Feb 22 2017
https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/02/when-evidence-says-no-but-doctors-say-yes/517368/

First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.

That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.

A cardiologist recommended that the man immediately have a coronary angiogram, in which a catheter is threaded into an artery to the heart and injects a dye that then shows up on special x-rays that look for blockages. If the test found a blockage, the cardiologist advised, the executive should get a stent, a metal tube that slips into the artery and forces it open.

While he was waiting in the emergency department, the executive took out his phone and searched “treatment of coronary artery disease.” He immediately found information from medical journals that said medications, like aspirin and blood-pressure-lowering drugs, should be the first line of treatment. The man was an unusually self-possessed patient, so he asked the cardiologist about what he had found. The cardiologist was dismissive and told the man to “do more research.” Unsatisfied, the man declined to have the angiogram and consulted his primary-care doctor.

The primary-care physician suggested a different kind of angiogram, one that did not require a catheter but instead used multiple x-rays to image arteries. That test revealed an artery that was partially blocked by plaque, and though the man’s heart was pumping blood normally, the test was incapable of determining whether the blockage was dangerous. Still, his primary-care doctor, like the cardiologist at the emergency room, suggested that the executive have an angiogram with a catheter, likely followed by a procedure to implant a stent. The man set up an appointment with the cardiologist he was referred to for the catheterization, but when he tried to contact that doctor directly ahead of time, he was told the doctor wouldn’t be available prior to the procedure. And so the executive sought yet another opinion. That’s when he found Dr. David L. Brown, a professor in the cardiovascular division of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The executive told Brown that he’d felt pressured by the previous doctors and wanted more information. He was willing to try all manner of noninvasive treatments—from a strict diet to retiring from his stressful job—before having a stent implanted.

The executive had been very smart to seek more information, and now, by coming to Brown, he was very lucky, too. Brown is part of the RightCare Alliance, a collaboration between health-care professionals and community groups that seeks to counter a trend: increasing medical costs without increasing patient benefits. As Brown put it, RightCare is “bringing medicine back into balance, where everybody gets the treatment they need, and nobody gets the treatment they don’t need.” And the stent procedure was a classic example of the latter. In 2012, Brown had coauthored a paper that examined every randomized clinical trial that compared stent implantation with more conservative forms of treatment, and he found that stents for stable patients prevent zero heart attacks and extend the lives of patients a grand total of not at all. In general, Brown says, “nobody that’s not having a heart attack needs a stent.” (Brown added that stents may improve chest pain in some patients, albeit fleetingly.) Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of stable patients receive stents annually, and one in 50 will suffer a serious complication or die as a result of the implantation procedure.

[snip]