The Truth Is Out There…Isn’t It? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “The Truth Is Out There…Isn’t It?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript below.) In it, we try to answer a few fundamental questions: how do we know that what we believe is true? How do we decide which information to trust? And how do we quantify risk — from climate change to personal investments?

The program begins with Stephen Greenspan, a psychologist and an expert on “social incompetence” and gullibility. He knows from personal experience that even the smartest people can be duped into bad risk assessments, especially on the advice of people they trust. You can read more about him here (spoiler alert!).

We also talk with Dan Kahan of Yale Law School and Ellen Peters of Ohio State University, both of whom belong to the Cultural Cognition Project, a scholarly group focused on “how cultural values shape public risk perceptions.” We blogged earlier about their interesting finding: 

Greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased.

The authors hypothesize that people who are more numerate and scientifically literate are better at gathering information that confirms their existing beliefs. Kahan believes this happens, in part, for a pretty basic reason: we just want to fit in with our friends. So we work to maintain viewpoints that fall in line with our social group.

You’ll hear from professional skeptic Michael Shermer, who explains the evolutionary basis of funky risk-assessment practices. It all goes back to our hominid ancestors, he says, who needed to be on high alert to protect against predators.

Steve Levitt also chimes in:

If there’s one thing that human beings are terrible at, it’s assessing risk and knowing what to really fear versus the things we actually do fear. And the kind of things that tend to scare us are the things that evolution has bred into us. So, my wife is terrified of snakes, mice, flies, you know, butterflies, everything small that flies or that runs she’s terrified of. What are the chances that any of those are going to do her any harm in the modern world? Virtually nothing. I mean the things that you should be afraid of are French fries, and double cheeseburgers, and getting too much sun for skin cancer. Those are the kinds of things that really end up killing us in the modern world.

And what happens when our normal fears kick into overdrive? We talk to Nick Pope, formerly of the British Ministry of Defence, who for several years investigated UFO sightings for the government. (Some files from the Ministry’s UFO department have recently been made available at the British National Archives.) Since leaving government, Pope has been accused of being part of an elaborate government cover-up. He talks about the futility of trying to change a conspiracy theorist’s mind.

Climate change, hominid ancestors, UFO cover-ups, and smart people making bad decisions: all that and more in this week’s podcast.


Adriel

It does feel like changing minds on personal issues is futile. When I look at trends on support for things like same-sex marriage, it seems as if the only way you can really impact support is to just wait for the stuck generations to die out.

James

I don't think the numbers support that, as the shift on same-sex marriage has happened quite a bit faster than would be expected from just a die-off effect. There's also a big bulge in the don't really care much middle who've shifted pretty quickly from "Why would anyone want that?" to "OK, if it makes them happy."

Eric

@Adriel: I think you are right and that change occurs demographically, i.e. generational die-offs.

Yves

That is truly interesting. I guess the people who are caught in the their mindset of conspiracy theories and new age thinking ought to be, as they say, open minded about this. But that would conflict their set ideologies and their desire to be shocked.

To bad for them, they think most poeple are blind and live in a prison. Yet, they too, are somewhat caught in a prison themselves. At least that's what I've come to understand, anybody thinks this too?

abqhudson

I think the discussion on Climate Change missed the point. No one argues that the climate does not change. The discussion should be about the cause of Climate Change - Ice Ages, periods of global warming and so on. That is where the leap of faith is taking lace with no hard/credible science to back it up.
And, why should we believe scientists who have to grovel for funds when getting the funds is the objective?

James

This is pure baloney. The science of CO2-related climate change has been well known for over a century, and in fact is far better established than the amount of current change, which depends on measurements & statistics.

James Briggs

What is pure baloney? You answer didn’t address my point. I never doubted CO2-related climate change. For the sake of argument I will agree: “The science of CO2-related climate change has been well known for over a century, and in fact is far better established than the amount of current change,
which depends on measurements & statistics.” Is a metaphysical certainty. Co2 related climate change is as undoubtable as a three sided triangle.

My point is and was does being right justify falsifying the data. Does it justify saying the snow caps of the Himalayas are melting when they aren’t. Does it justify calling anyone who disagrees with you an idiot.

James

"My point is and was does being right justify falsifying the data."

Does being afraid of what the actual data shows justify claiming that people have falsified that data, when they haven't?

"Does it justify saying the snow caps of the Himalayas are melting when they aren’t."

But they are.

"Does it justify calling anyone who disagrees with you an idiot."

Only when their reasons for disagreement are demonstrably idiotic :-)

James Briggs

I do believe global warming (based on a man made the increase in CO2) and have for years. I stated my agreement on the internet in the 1980s. Then as in now I believe in following certain rules.

1. "Does it justify saying the snow caps of the Himalayas are melting when they aren't."

But they are.
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The fact that the Himalayan Mountains are not melting has nothing to do with global warming. It is because they are growing at nearly three inches a year.
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U.N. climate chiefs apologize for glacier error
http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-20/world/glacier.himalayas.ipcc.error_1_glaciers-ipcc-fourth-assessment-report?_s=PM:WORLD
January 20, 2010|By Matthew Knight, for CNN

The U.N.'s leading panel on climate change has apologized for misleading data published in a 2007 report that warned Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035.In a statement released Wednesday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said estimates relating to the rate of recession of the Himalayan glaciers in its Fourth Assessment Report were "poorly substantiated" adding that "well-established standards of evidence were not applied properly."
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http://www.dimensionsguide.com/highest-elevation-on-earth/

This measurement was determined by Boston Museum of Science professor, Brad Washburn. However, this figure is bound to go higher over time as it is estimated that the Himalayan Mountain range, which Mount Everest is a part of, is growing at least 2.64 inches a year.
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Apparently you believe that making false statements helps your case.

2. "Does it justify calling anyone who disagrees with you an idiot."

Only when their reasons for disagreement are demonstrably idiotic :-)
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If you think making a joke out of a serious question is a valid way to answer then be my guest.

3. "My point is and was does being right justify falsifying the data."

Does being afraid of what the actual data shows justify claiming that people have falsified that data, when they haven't?
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No it doesn't. Simply agreeing with someone when they are right doesn't hurt my case at all. Might I suggest you do the same?

4. Your unwillingness to concede anything seems to be a pattern among some who support global warming. Perhaps you are afraid? I support the idea of global warming and I am willing to be honest. I don’t think it makes me special.

Read more...

abqhudson

I think the discussion on Climate Change missed the point. No one argues that the climate does not change. The discussion should be about the cause of Climate Change - Ice Ages, periods of global warming and so on. That is where the leap of faith is taking place with no hard/credible science to back it up.
And, why should we believe scientists who have to grovel for funds when getting the funds is the objective?

James Briggs

As the author said humans are bad at predicting the odds. If the author is human then he is included in the statement. There must be a reason that evolution selected for humans who live in the now. Yes it can be harmful. Drug addiction is a good example but to dismiss the idea is fraught with peril. The author seems to believe because he knows the odds of things happening in the past he knows the odds of them happening in the future. Human knowledge may double every 72 hours at the very least that makes it impossible to predict the odds. Certain things may be bad for you but how bad no one knows. The threat of death by French fries seems to be based on the increased chances of death from French fries and nothing else. Something may kill you before the French fries. If you are in a car heading over a cliff does having one last fry affect your life span? What if you take such good care of yourself food shouldn’t kill you. Again there may be advances in medical science in the future which may end French fries being a cause of death. It also assumes that death is the only valid value. These ideas also ignore the idea that people have their own future and expectations. There may be an investment opportunity where one hundred thousand dollars maybe worth far more than a million dollars two years from now.

I feel sorry for the author’s wife she knows in some cases being bitten by an animal is a virtual certainty but no one can know the odds of a French fry killing you.

Read more...

James Briggs

Two things made accepting global warming much harder. It was made political from the start. We were told that industry was evil and had to stop or we would all die from global warming. The proper way was to establish that global warming was happening. Then look at the causes of global warming. Only after all that was done do you propose remedy. The other problem was the rejection of the Scientific Method proponents of global warming. There was an editorial in Scientific American saying fudging the data was justified because the issue was so important. Fudging the data is never justified. Then there was name calling. Anyone who says a physicist can’t understand the data has disqualified themselves from the debate.

James

"The proper way was to establish that global warming was happening. Then look at the causes of global warming."

Which shows a pretty shaky understanding of the science, or even of common sense. We have science, worked out in considerable detail, with lots of experimental evidence, that shows that adding a lot of CO2 to the atmosphere will cause bad things to happen. Why should we have to wait until those things have happened before trying to stop them from happening? Isn't that like bailing out of a plane, but not opening your parachute until after you hit the ground?

James Briggs

Clearly you are putting words in my mouth.

“The proper way was to establish that global warming was happening. Then look at the causes of global warming.”

Which shows a pretty shaky understanding of the science, or even of common sense. We have science, worked out in considerable detail, with lots of experimental evidence, that shows that adding a lot of CO2 to the atmosphere will cause bad things to happen. Why should we have to wait until those things have happened before trying to stop them from happening? Isn’t that like bailing out of a plane, but not opening your parachute until after you hit the ground?

You are saying that hypotheses should not be tested. You know the truth the hell with facts. This is the scientific method. It has served mankind well

1. Use your experience: Consider the problem and try to make sense of it. Look for previous explanations. If this is a new problem to you, then move to step 2. 2. Form a conjecture: When nothing else is yet known, try to state an explanation, to someone else, or to your notebook. 3. Deduce a prediction from that explanation: If you assume 2 is true, what consequences follow? 4. Test: Look for the opposite of each consequence in order to disprove 2. It is a logical error to seek 3 directly as proof of 2. This error is called affirming the consequent.

You are saying we should not look at the data with regard to an increase in temperature. Do you think that we should just do whatever you tell us to do without evidence?

It turns out that has been an increase in global temperature and it did make sense to check it.
http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/globalwarming.html

Global surface temperatures have increased about 0.74°C (plus or minus 0.18°C) since the late-19th century, and the linear trend for the past 50 years of 0.13°C (plus or minus 0.03°C) per decade is nearly twice that for the past 100 years.

So the condition has been satisfied.

Did you believe that the temperature shoot up suddenly and kill everyone? Did you think it would change as rapidly as hitting the ground?

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Dyske

If I understood this correctly, it means that the more educated you are, the more likely that you would care about getting along with others. This makes sense because approval and respect from others is what leads to "success" in life, and what would be the point of doing/saying the right thing if it does not lead to success? That is, the smarter we become, the more we understand the pointlessness of being right/correct for its own sake. "Success" is ultimately what we are after. This is even true of academics, artists, scientists, philosophers, or economists. Doing/saying the right thing is only a means to achieve success.

Success is not an absolute measure that exists outside of human values/perceptions/subjectivity. So, we are not striving for anything rational or objective. I'm sure there are millions of people in history who said and did the right things but were never recognized as such, and are now completely forgotten. Who would want to be one of them?

If you actually believe in truth as its own virtue, picking on "conspiracy theorists" is a cowardly act. Anyone could do that with no risk. We need more people who are skeptical of the mainstream, widely accepted ideas. For instance, we needed more people who were skeptical of the housing bubble. But what happens is that when you become skeptical of widely accepted ideas, you run the risk of being labeled a "conspiracy theorist" yourself.

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Jay Turpin

I really liked the episode. The only thing that bothered me was that the term "climate change" was used repeatedly. I think you meant "man-made climate change". I think most people agree that the climate is changing, but the question about our overall impact is far from being settled. Scientists not sharing data to allow others to validate their experiments, attempting to squash competing ideas (such as the effect of solar activity on the climate) and exaggerating the facts are not making matters any better.

Zach S

I couldn't help but notice the deep irony at the root of this podcast. There is a throwaway line midway through where Levitt notes that the media isn't such a great way to find truth. Well, why is that? I wish this particular issues was delved into a little deeper because I think this very podcast merely adds fuel to the fire, at least with regard to the climate change debate.

Over the past few years or decade or however long you want to go back, "the science of climate change" has become an on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand discussion. Skepticism on this particular issue, much like abortion, was born (excuse the pun) a political issue. And the way we address issues we deem to be political in this country (and others to be sure) is to put up a split screen of two paid consultants testing the limits of the volume control on your television set and radio. "The media" -- the same world where this podcast lives, incidentally -- presents global warming (like abortion) as an issue where there are two sides, one side to be selected. And the more the idea that there are "two sides" is solidified in our consciousness, the more likely we are to see the sides as even.

We don't do this with gravity, the existence of bacteria/viruses, or the question of whether the world is going to end in 2013 because "we" have come to reasonable conclusions about those things. The science says, period. To argue otherwise, even earnestly, is to waste the time of listeners. The more we pretend there are two sides, the more likely we are to want to "teach the controversy."

We should be clear when we talk about the roots of skepticism, because pretending not to understand the "we have to choose from these two sides of this issue" trap that the hated "media" seems to fall into (for eyeballs and ad revenue), we are doing ourselves a disservice. Global warming, evolution, and beginning-of-life skepticism is on the rise because there is a media industry and political system devoted to there being skepticism about these particular issues.

Frankly, I am disappointed that Freakonomics crew -- a team so hell-bent on following the data -- did not recognize the irony of presenting an issue like climate change as a mere war between "two sides." The presentation itself is an unscientific, political interpretation of a wholly scientific question.

When we are presented with "two sides," we tend to want to give those sides equal weight. But when we talk about science, we are not talking about flipping a coin. As our UFO friends will -- without a hint of irony -- tell us, the truth is out there. At least on that point, they are right.

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James Briggs

Most people 90% choose sides. They chose one side or the other and find reason to support their side. There are procedures for finding the truth. They don't always work but they tend to work. Most people reject them. (I agree with global warming. If I don’t say it often it drives people crazy.) You saw my debate with the pro-global warming guy. He assumed because I said his side was less than perfect that I had to be against global warming. I am not. Then he said I knew nothing about science because I wanted people to look at the data before they decide. Being opposed to looking at data is a sign of irrationality. Only a sign we must keep an open mind. The point is irrationality is the norm.

Dan K.

This was a very thought-provoking piece. The idea that more education in a subject could potentially cause more polarization and that many times, we seek out reaffirmation of our own world view to "fit in" rather than to find the truth, is fascinating.

However, one loophole is that the authors of this piece, as well as the cited studies used to support this premise, may have the very same bias that they are reporting on. And perhaps this piece reinforces the worldview of people (like me) who are drawn to Freakonomics and are looking for reaffirmation of their own indelible truths. It's a Catch-22 of sorts.

James Briggs

Most education teaches facts. It used to teach thinking. People who read the classics over time tend to develop patterns of thinking that encourage finding the truth. If people at taught the scientific method, not a science, over a long enough period of time they will learn to used it when it is important. More importantly they will tend to respect a cogent argument when they hear it.