Thoughts on Filter Bubbles

My friends Boaz Miller and Isaac Record have a paper forthcoming in Episteme on the implications of internet filter bubbles for our ability to form knowledge. They argue that, because search engines like Google personalize search results through an unknown algorithm, we cannot base knowledge claims on those search results alone. If we attempt to do so, we are failing to live up to our epistemic responsibilities to avoid bias—our beliefs lack the requisite justification to be counted as knowledge.

Miller and Record’s claim is based on observations such as those from Eli Pariser that search results can differ significantly between individuals with diverging ideologies or interests. Pariser’s paradigmatic example is of two friends he asked to search for “BP” in 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. One friend’s search results were investment information while the other’s were news of the spill. These friends were both “educated, white left-leaning women”, and so this difference is meant to suggest even greater differences will exist for others.

Several potential objections to Pariser, Miller, and Record come to mind.…

Reply to Wayne Myrvold on the Higgs Boson

Although its discovery has now been disputed (via Gizmodo), the “apparent” recent discovery of the Higgs Boson has elicited much discussion. Wayne Myrvold, a philosopher at the University of Western Ontario, wrote a nice though slanted explanation of the statistical background of the claim. I wrote a somewhat lengthly reply as a comment to his article, but for whatever reason it has yet to be posted. So I’m reproducing that here. Please read Wayne’s article first.

We can all agree that reasoning and decision making in science is complicated. Scientists reason in many different contexts: in the lab, in their published papers, as career-minded professionals, as interested consumers of science, and as people going about their lives. It’s plausible to think that they reason in different ways in all of these contexts. When we’re discussing their reasoning as scientists, I believe distinguishing between the first three contexts is especially important. While Wayne’s explanation of the statistics behind the Higgs Boson discovery is very interesting, informative, and as far as I can tell correct, I think there are some confusions arising from his failure to make these distinctions.

Wayne’s explanation fails to distinguish between the two different statistical methodologies underlying the gradual changes in subjective belief he describes as arising from the accumulation of data and the “five sigma signal” that justifies CERN’s discovery claim. Changes in belief, as he described, occur through Bayesian updating. Bayesianism is an account of how our beliefs change, or ought to change, as we accumulate new experiences. The five sigma signal, in contrast, is a measure of statistical significance. Such significance measures come from an entirely different statistical methodology, often known as “standard” or “Neyman-Pearson” statistics. While the product of Bayesian updating is a degree of belief that a claim is true (say, that the Higgs Boson exists and has a certain energy level), the product of standard statistics is the probability that we would observe the results we do through random chance alone. That is, if no Higgs Boson existed, how often would we observe the results we do? A five sigma result means that, as Wayne explained, there is about a one in a million chance that we would. Importantly, this *does not* mean that there is a one in a million chance the the Higgs Boson doesn’t exist, or that we are 99.9999% certain the Higgs Boson does exist. There is no way to translate between our beliefs that the Higgs Boson exists, as measured by Bayesian statistics, and the probability that we would get the observed results through chance, as measured by standard statistics.

Given this distinction, it isn’t really correct for Wayne to imply that the five sigma signal is a “threshold of certainty for telling the world you’ve made a discovery”, because you can’t get from the five sigma result to any measure of certainty that the Higgs Boson exists. Instead, I think a better way to say this would be that a five sigma result has been set by the community of physicists as a standard for claiming discovery. Scientists agreed that once this threshold was reached–that is, once the probability that the result would have been observed if the Higgs Boson did not exist was small enough–they could claim discovery. Thus, I would say there is a moment that the Higgs Boson was discovered: the moment that the statistical analysis was completed showing that their data had reached or exceeded the previously established criteria. This is similar to claiming that a house is built once the last nail has been hammered and the last paint has been applied. Although the construction of the house took place over perhaps months, it was built, or completed, at a specific time. Yes, there is some grey area for both houses and science, but that grey area is relatively narrow.

There is also a distinction between the moment of discovery and the moment of claiming the discovery. Once a discovery has been made, there is a further decision of whether and when to announce or publish that discovery. The history of science is full of examples of scientists declining to announce discoveries for years after they have been made, sometimes waiting until after their deaths. I think Wayne is right to apply decision theory to the question of whether to announce. However, it’s important to clearly distinguish between this announcement decision and the discovery moment. In Heather Douglass’s account, values indirectly enter science through the setting of significance thresholds. There is nothing magical about the five sigma threshold. It is a complicated product of many different considerations, including the practical limits of present technology, the phenomena being studied, and the social and political context. Douglas’s argument is that those latter considerations can properly be considered part of scientific reasoning: scientists can and must consider social and political values when setting their thresholds for making scientific claims. However, setting this threshold is a separate procedure from deciding whether to announce the discovery. Social and political considerations may enter into the decision of whether to announce a discovery as well, but those decisions are already baked into the discovery itself. Whether or not CERN decided to announce or not, they had already, objectively, made their discovery and the criteria for making that discovery already included value considerations.

So in summary, I think Wayne’s explanation of the discovery is valuable and mostly accurate, but he failed to clearly distinguish between (a) what scientists believe about the Higgs Boson, (b) whether and when scientists discovered the Higgs Boson, and (c) how scientists decided to announce that discovery. These three processes can involve different styles of reasoning, and indeed completely different statistical methodologies. Not making these distinctions can lead to an incomplete or incorrect understanding of the scientific process.…

Inferring the Supernatural: Forrest v. Beckwith

Barbara Forrest’s “The non-epistemology of intelligent design: its implications for public policy”1 is at the center of what has been dubbed “The Synthese Affair“. The bulk of her paper is a sustained and often dismissive account of Francis Beckwith’s arguments in support of Intelligent Design. Although I think Forrest’s attacks constitute a relatively minor transgression of academic norms, I find myself perplexed by some (though by no means all, or even many) of her substantive arguments. I will be teaching a unit on Intelligent Design for an undergraduate course this year, so the purpose of this post is to sort out my ideas on some issues. I would greatly appreciate feedback.

  1. Forrest, B. 2011. “The non-epistemology of intelligent design: its implications for public policy.” Synthese.

Should values influence a scientist’s reporting of empirical results?

In Heather Douglas’s Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal (you can find a video of Douglas speaking about her book here), she claims that there is no practical way to draw a distinction between scientists-as-scientists and scientists-as-advisors. That is, you cannot cleanly separate the descriptive, empirical claims of scientists from their prescriptive advice. Mainstream philosophy of science, she claims, has gone astray since the 1940s in supporting a view of science as value-free, and scientists as detached and objective. Douglas not only argues that we need to acknowledge the unavoidable value-ladenness of science, but that values are not necessarily a negative influence on science. Rather, scientists have an ethical obligation to make value judgments in their work.

Here is one of her examples:

Suppose a scientist is examining epidemiological records in conjunction with air quality standards and the scientist notices that a particular pollutant is always conjoined with a spike in respiratory deaths. Suppose that this pollutant is cheap to control or eliminate (a new and simple technology has just been developed). Should the scientist make the empirical claim (or, if on a science advisory panel reviewing this evidence, support the claim) that this pollutant is a public health threat? Certainly, there is uncertainty in the empirical evidence here. Epidemiological records are always fraught with problems of reliability, and indeed, we have only a correlation between the pollutant and the health effect. The scientist, in being honest, should undoubtedly acknowledge these uncertainties. To pretend certainty on such evidence would be dishonest and deceptive. But the scientist can also choose whether or not the emphasize the importance of the uncertainties (81).

Douglas presents this as a slam-dunk case, and has constructed the situation, by assuming a cheap and easy fix, to be unproblematic. However, I find the implications of this argument deeply troubling.…

What can HPSers do for society? What is socially relevant HPS?

History and Philosophy of Science, even by academic standards, is a somewhat obscure discipline of the humanities.  The march of science and technology often seems to proceed regardless of any commentary, critique, or analysis from historians, philosophers, sociologists, and even policymakers. So why think there is any potential for a history and philosophy of science to become “socially relevant”?…

Is this the era of personalizable medicine?

Physicians are trained in a science of particulars. Your bodily experiences might be unique, your preferences deserving of personal care, and your history worthy of a docudrama… but the medical evidence at your bedside was gathered in a freeze-framed panorama: randomized, controlled, and blinded. This is the science of particulars: big-picture studies that have to be individualized for you. And me. This is evidence-based medicine.

But how does this landscape represent you — person and patient?

Lets begin with semantics. What’s the difference between patient-centered, person-centered, and personalized medicine?

Patient-centered medicine revitalizes a patient’s values, preferences, and autonomy. It brings respect for patient decisions back into the clinical equation.

Person-centered medicine treats patients as… persons. Persons can suffer, worry, and hope unlike their objectified and medicalized counterparts: diseased patients.

Personalized medicine aims to truly be that science of particulars: customizing diagnoses, treatments, and prognoses based on your unique biological (i.e. genetic) architecture. Your SNPs have so much to say.

Do any of these epistemic stances make medicine more than just personalized, but personalizable? I’m not so sure. Lets leave that up for debate.…

Are Academic Boycotts Ever Justified?

Since the early 2000s, academics, particularly in the United Kingdom, have advocated and attempted to implement a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and/or academics themselves. This boycott has been compared, by both its advocates and detractors, with a similar boycott targeted at South Africa in the early 1990s.

Twice this year debates have erupted on PHILOS-L, the European philosophy listserve, related to the academic boycott. The first, in early January, was prompted by a call for applications to a new Israeli educational institution. The second, in early March, was prompted by a link to Judith Butler’s recent talk as part of “Israeli Apartheid Week” in Toronto. A common point in both of these threads was the special nature of academia in relation to boycotts. There is, the argument goes, something intrinsic to the nature of academic freedom that makes academic boycotts, separate from economic boycotts or sanctions, particularly problematic.…

What are today’s most important science policy issues and challenges?

While I love my history and philosophy of science, and find them important for understanding the nature of modern science, I also do my best to engage with one of the only areas of public and political discourse where my historical and philosophical study of science might prove useful – science policymaking. It’s often remarked that science policy has a dual nature, or at least an inherent ambiguity, as the term covers both scientific input on policy-making (“science for policy”), and policy-making for working scientists (“policy for science”).  Within those two very widely defined areas there is everything from crafting environmental policy meant to manage the great lakes and generating epidemiological models to help understand what the best national health strategy is (science for policy) to building and negotiating new innovation frameworks, determining the values behind government granting schemes, and providing and facilitating digital networks for working scientists (policy for science).

With all that in mind, I’m curious to hear what historians and philosophers of science think are the important issues of science policy today, out of all the various issues that could be listed under that vague yet still reasonably narrow banner.

I’m also curious, especially if anyone has strong opinions on this, whether their historical and philosophical context aids them in deciding their position on such policy issues, or whether they choose their stances based on partisanship, ideology, greed, whatever non-academic decision vector.  I’m excited to hear, regardless.…

Should Governments Fund Big Science?

This year, twenty two years after its initiation, the CERN Large Hadron Collider – the largest research project ever carried out in human history – became operational. It is said that it is expected to “address some of the most fundamental questions of physics, advancing humanity’s understanding of the deepest laws of nature,” one of which is confirming the existence of the elusive Higgs boson particle.

Thousands of physicists, engineers, technicians, and computer programmers from forty countries are involved in this project. The cost of the project is estimated at more than five billion(!) Euro. While Europe eventually built the CERN Large Hadron Collider, in 1993 U.S. Congress officially canceled the counterpart American project due to its heavy costs. Are this project and others like it worth their price?

What are we to make of physicists’ claims to be pursuing the “grand theory of everything”? Are such claims to be taken at face value, or are they fuelled by naive and unwarranted reductionism?

If we do find this theory of everything, is it worth the cost? What benefit will this theory have for people other than the esoteric group of specialists who can understand it?

Was this project inevitable? Could there have been cheaper ways to pursue the same questions?

What stand should humanities and social science people, in particular HPS and STS people, take on this issue? Should they ally themselves with their fellow researchers and support their quest for knowledge for its own sake? Should they try to get some of the pouring money for themselves, and insist on there being positions for ethnographers, ethicists and their like in such projects? Or should they use their own knowledge to problematize physicists’ reductionist claims, and question whether this turn physics took was inevitable?

Moreover, in today’s climate, where humanities programs all over the world are fighting for their survival and are required to justify their existence, should humanities people point out that the physicists are the big spenders, and their existence should be justified as well? Should they even claim to be able to deliver the same goods, namely answers to fundamental questions of “life, the universe and everything” for a fraction of the cost?…

Why Do We Care about Knowledge?

In the dialogue Meno, Plato raises the question of why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief. While this question is old, only recently has the debate about it resurfaced in contemporary philosophy, where philosophers have noted that leading contemporary theories of knowledge face difficulties with addressing it.

So, do we care about knowledge because of its practical applications? But some of the knowledge we have and seek to have seems to have no such practical application. Maybe we care about knowledge because it facilitates understanding? But it seems that knowledge and understanding may come apart in some cases. Does knowledge have intrinsic value? If so, by virtue of what? Do we have inherent natural curiosity we need to satisfy? Do we care more about scientific knowledge? Have your say.…