"The Great Extraterrestrial Debate"
I attended CFI Canada's "GREAT EXTRATERRESTRIAL DEBATE" at the University of Toronto last night, 4 March 2011. The debaters were Seth Shostak (SETI); Rob Sawyer (science fiction writer); and Ray Jayawardhana (U of T Astrophysicist). It was great fun, and I even may have learned something. It was being taped for Vision TV.
Here is where we stand as best as I can summarize last nights symposium. The errors and conclusions are all mine.
1. SETI has looked at such tiny fraction of the sky, the probability of finding a narrow-band signal has been very low. SETI has had to rent time on other arrays, has not had its own full-time telescope. That has changed. They now have the Allen Telescope Array. Still the probability of looking in the right place at the right time is very very low.
2. Until Kepler, for 15 years, only five-hundred planets had been confirmed (identified and corroborated by a second method). In its first year Kepler has identified 1263 (give or take, my memory isn't perfect) candidates (planets which need to be confirmed). With this increase, the probability of finding chemical signatures of life increases significantly. In addition, the trend is toward finding smaller planets. There have been a number of multi-planet solar systems, which if our solar system is any indicator, may be required for life. Finally, about 50 (60?) of the planet-candidates have been found within the habitable zone of their stars.
3. If we consider extremophiles on Earth -- like those found around ocean vents, in the antarctic, in undisturbed pockets of water deep in the earth's crust, in high-mountain lakes, and so forth -- we can expand our definition of the necessary conditions for life. This again increases the probability of finding life.
4. However as the sci-fi author Rob Sawyer points out , none of points 1 through 3 is evidence for life. At best they are indications we live in an exciting time of great promise, but no guarantee. We need to see signals from intelligent life (SETI, Seth Shostak). We need to detect chemical signatures (Kepler, Ray Jayawardhana). We need to not only see extremophiles on Earth, it would be much more convincing if an extremophile were of a completely difference evolutionary origin. Some academics (see Paul Davies) argue that if life were discovered to have begun independently more than once on Earth, then that decreases the likelihood we are alone in the universe.
There are some assumptions in all these cases which must be vetted and debated, though. It is likely even in SETI's case, that a narrow-band signal would be rejected by many groups who want to deny life existing beyond earth, and also science and academia, who would correctly point out that just because there is no known natural source of such signals, it does not mean there cannot be such a natural source. Humanity may have to wait hundreds/thousands of years for a coded response from that same signal source after we have sent back our own before the narrow-band signal would be accepted as evidence.
Life on other worlds is likely never to be detected directly. Certainly in our lifetime, it is extremely unlikely. I do not see that it has to be, though. We routinely use methods to measure phenomena both in space and in our daily lives to detect things for which we have no means of sensing directly. Spectral analysis of a distant planet's atmosphere, or an array detecting a narrow-band signal are just extensions of what we do every day.
Regardless of the lack of evidence to date for life outside of Earth, it is plausible. While the Drake equation is littered with assumptions, fundamentally, the vast numbers of potential solar systems coupled with the increasing number of candidates given the tiny fraction of space studied thus far, suggest Drake's conclusion may nevertheless be true: it is more probable we are not unique in the universe. This is certainly debatable. In fact, we are really arguing outside the bounds of science. While science certainly informs the debate, it is really a philosophical debate. It is, as far as I can discern, a grand exercise in skeptical or critical thinking. Notwithstanding, it is very exciting.
Last Updated (Saturday, 05 March 2011 12:45)
Ben Radford & Rebecca Watson A Skeptical Debate: Eating Disorders, the Media, and Skepticism
Prior to reading this article, you must read the following, in order. It will not take you long, and without doing so, none of which follows will make any sense.
Throughout the following article, these posts will be referenced in parentheses.
Ok. So, we have this back and forth between two great skeptics: Rebecca Watson and Ben Radford. What is the topic in question? The skeptics ponder the impact of media on female self image and related eating disorders. What are the positions?
I have chosen the above quotes because they reflect the positions in the debate. Ben Radford’s intent in writing the first two articles was not engage Rebecca Watson, as they preceded her criticisms. While there are many issues which can be tackled, here my focus is on the reason why Rebecca calls Ben out, not necessarily to tease out all the nuances of the debate or to review all the research which informs the debate. Rebecca calls Ben out for how he uses the research, not the research he uses to support his thesis.
Rebecca outlines where she believes Ben quoted out of context. We are at a disadvantage: two of the three articles are behind pay walls. Unless we are willing to pay, we cannot read them. Fortunately, though, Ben does not refute Rebecca’s appraisal of the research he cited to support his view “Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia are biological diseases, not voluntary behaviors.”(1) In his response to Rebecca, he argues his use of the research was to make general statements about
Accordingly, we can assume because he has no issue with Rebecca’s summary of the research, her summary is – at least as far as Ben is concerned – accurate. Thus, we can examine the back and forth of our skeptics with at least some confidence in the findings of the research Ben has quoted without having to have read it ourselves. This is certainly, by no means ideal, but because the antagonists agree, our examination can go forward.
This brings us to the admission on Ben’s part that he and Rebecca are using the research in different ways. He writes he is using the introduction and the articles cited within the research to make the general point that the research into the relationship between media images and eating disorders is not causal. And, true to his word, when he quotes Heidi Posavac’s research (the one article which is free to view),Ben takes it (1) directly from the Abstract:
The only other statement similar to this is found later in Posavac’s introduction where, as Rebecca suggests, she uses the failure of previous experimenters to find the link as a jumping-off point for her own research, ”The distinction between women with high vs. low trait body satisfaction may help account for previous failures to find effects of exposure to media images on weight concern.”
Certainly, then we cannot deny what Ben has argued; namely, that he referenced Botta and Posavac not for their own research, but for their summary of other research. Yet, it must also be noted Ben does not make this admission in the original articles (1 &2). In fact, he argues (1) that Posavac supports the view, “Concrete evidence is still necessary…to show that this existence of thin images and ideals has an effect on viewers….At this point, the relationship between television exposure and body image disturbance remains in question.” If one returns to the abstract above – specifically to the line following the highlighted, underlined sentence fragment Ben chose to quote – one sees that Posavac’s research does not support this view.
Is this a big deal? After all, Ben did say he was simply using their research to support his position that the balance of research failed to find a causal link. Right?
Well, wrong. Ben makes the point that science is littered with studies which run contrary to the bulk of the research. (4) While this is true, it in no way necessarily invalidates that contrary research. If a new piece of research was methodologically matched (using the same methodology, with the same variables, etc.) and came up with wildly dissenting results, Ben would be correct to be skeptical. However, if we look at the scope and the complexity of the Botta as Rebecca outlines it, and the nuanced, mediating variables of Posavac’s, it becomes clear that the researchers were doing something different. When we look to their conclusions, we do not see a radical departure from consensus, but a more complex, nuanced understanding of the relationship of media images and body image disturbance (Botta) and weight concern (Posavac). Interestingly, the Posavac research involved experimental manipulation, showing causality. So, I ask again, is it reasonable for Ben to ignore the research from which he has taken his citations when that research may break with those citations; especially when a causal link – albeit a mediated causal link – is supported by the research? No, it is suspect.
Confirmation Bias: The Skeptic's Bane
Ben has done exactly what Rebecca accused him of doing with elipses (…); but on a much larger scale. Ben has completely ignored the contrary research. Ben has completely de-contextualized the citations. By being lazy, using someone else’s research to find the references he did not take the time to find, he shot himself in the foot. I do not believe Ben did this purposefully; I believe Ben relied on these researchers to find his confirming evidence. This is a trap we must try to avoid, at all costs, as skeptics. This is a trap Ben is well aware of, yet by which he was victimized: the tendency to look for confirmation of our beliefs.
Indeed, if Ben simply wanted a study which was nothing more than a meta-analysis of the research that is the study for which he should have looked. Ben did do this, in his response to Rebecca. Ironically, in his response (4) he provided a study from 2009 which reviews the literature and research. Sadly, he once again, ignores the contrary evidence, in favor of that which supports his point- of-view. This is what he chose to quote, “currently, engagement with mass media is probably best considered a variable risk factor that might well be later shown to be a causal risk factor.” Guess where Ben took this from? Yes, the Abstract. However, if we look a little deeper, to the end of the paper, we find a more robust, nuanced conclusion. The authors begin their Conclusions and Recommendations section with:
Before I conclude, I would like to make one more point on as far as what I think is Ben’s failure to recognize his own confirmation bias. In 2007 Ben wrote a very detailed article which we can also read. Ben lays out his position very well. He supports his position with many, many references. I leave it to you to judge by his words whether his current posts differ much from his article of a few years ago,
The take-away is that Ben wrote 1 & 2 above after having fully committed to this position years ago. Today he appears to be seeing evidence supporting his position on a subject which is important to him, as evidenced by the number of times he has returned to that subject: the relationship between media images and eating disorders and related phenomena.
Ben’s position may very well turn out to be correct. The difficultly in conducting psychological research is a very real issue. Unlike physics, chemistry, and even biology, psychology is extremely messy. There are a great number of variables, most of which we may overlook. Correlations between two or three variables are often very weak, suggesting multi-variable interactions. This includes sociocultural variables as well as bio-chemical, neurological, and genetic variables. No one of these variables alone completely explain the relationship between body image, ideal body image, and eating disorders. Indeed, as Rebecca's dissection of the research shows, in psychology the variables are not easily divided into causal and effect. Often we find our dependent variables can flip and become effective under a different experimental paradigm. Progress in psychology is convoluted, and slow. Twenty or thirty years, forty or fifty years…? Looking for causes in psychology is...well...like looking for causes in psychology; there's nothing quite like it in the rest of science. Sometimes it feels like we are reaching for the horizon.
Nevertheless, as we add in more variables from more research the answer will begin to emerge. Are some avenues of study more plausible than others? Of course they are. However, it really is not for Ben Radford, Rebecca Watson, myself, or any layperson to say. The researchers are the ones who need to make the decision where the research is headed, apply for grants, and further the research in light of years of study and ongoing research. If you are not steeped in research, you are likely to misunderstand the research protocols, or confuse research designed to tease out details about body image with that designed to address correlates of a specific eating disorder, like anorexia. Indeed, this is a trap Ben does fall into. The following is taken from the comments section after his rebuttal of Rebecca. (4)
Unfortunately, Ben's response, "When I'm writing for a knowledgeable audience, I'm much more specific" does not excuse the sloppiness of his thinking and writing. I charge that the euphemism "specific" is a transparent attempt hide the appropriate adjective accurate. Who deserves accuracy, those who will call Ben on his writing (Rebecca, the actual researchers, those who Ben calls knowledgeable) or the people who trust what you write, and do not research beyond what you have written? Probably neither is more deserving, we all deserve the most objective, accurate information.
Certainly skeptics can comment, but when we do, we must be willing to take the time to consult the research fairly, with an open, skeptical mind. When returning to the research, we must recognize we have not been working in the field since the last time we posted an article. That means we cannot trust our memory, but must reacquaint ourselves with the research. In truth, we probably need to re-read our own work on the topic...our memories are just that malleable. Some areas of research are much less ambiguous, of course. That makes our job that much easier, and less prone to error. Some, though, like the current topic, are much more complicated than they might first appear. We need to suppress our beliefs and prejudices and look at each piece of research for what it is, and then in light of previous research.
In the foregoing exchange Rebecca does this, while Ben falls short. Rebecca focuses on the papers in question, drawing her conclusions from the research. Undoubtedly she had preconceptions, otherwise she would not have questioned Ben's posts in the first place. The difference, Rebecca was able to focus on the research, setting aside the larger question. If we scroll up to their quotes I presented at the outset, we can see the difference in approach. Nowhere in her criticism of Ben does Rebecca state a thesis. Whatever her position, she reserves that position. She goes as far as to refer to herself as a "layperson;" recognizing, as any self-aware skeptic should, her own limited depth of subject knowledge.
In contrast, Ben's quote is a thesis statement. Actually, it could be a hypothesis. It is certainly testable. As with Rebecca's, I chose this quote because it is reflective of Ben's position, and the tone of the entire first (1) article. It was important to choose this article, because it was the article on which Rebecca focused in her criticism (3), and it reflects Ben's approach prior to reflection. It must be said, Rebecca was always in the critics role in this back and forth. Ben, though, did not get this opportunity until later. This is important, because, Ben does eventually come to a very different conclusion in his rebuttal (4) than he did in his earlier articles.
So, as I conclude, I offer these final two quotations. The first is Ben's conclusion from his first article. (1) The second is from his response (4) to Rebecca.
Contrast this with:
As the commenter quoted above points out, Ben is still confusing research into causes of eating disorders and the science investigating the media's influence on body image, nevertheless, Ben has become much more subtle and nuanced in his thinking. Ben sounds much more like the skeptic he is known to be.
Last Updated (Friday, 31 December 2010 13:22)