Sunday, January 04, 2009

"Blind" faith vs. faith

Attacking intellectual blindness rather than faith

This cartoon posted by Cameron Reilly in his blog is on the classic theme of faith vs. science.

I appreciate jokes of this sort, although I also think they sort of miss the point. They are funny more because they play on our fear of religious fanatacism and our stereotypes of faith than because they really hit home.

I think it’s more the “blind” in blind faith that we find problematic … rather than the “faith”part. Great things as well as terrible ones are accomplished by monomaniacs with a mission driven by faith. If someone shares your own faith, you find it admirable. If they don't, it is scary, and often for good reason. We use "faith" to good effect in all areas of life. It also aligns us and sometimes kills people massively when leveraged for politics.

Attacking “faith” as such sometimes makes us sound as if we lack hope, optimism, and belief in anything in general, and for many of us who admire science, the rest of those things aren’t true.
Origin of Species is still considered a classic of science writing and theorizing because it drew observations from broad patterns of data in many fields to support its conclusions, fairly considered conflicting evidence, and suggested implications of the ideas and ways to test them. Its role in the cultural shifting of “faith” was a secondary result.

The works of "scientific" creationism are still equally great examples of quite the opposite process, selectively picking data to support its conclusions, selectively quoting authorities, and creating explanations that while they explain a lot in some sense can’t ever be tested.

We all have a tendency to see things in terms of what we already believe. We all make good use of “faith” in at least some form.

The important difference, I think, is that the ideals of inquiry teach us to make mistakes and learn from them, while a tolerance for uncertainty allows us to see our ideas as theories.
When we say that people are going overboard with “blind faith” I think what we intend to mean is that they completely reject the ideals of inquiry, which is what makes it blind. It’s the blind part and not the faith part that makes the cartoon hit home. If “design” or “creation” were really a hypothesis rather than a mythic story, it would at least potentially have a scientific form. To the degree that it has such a form, it has accumulated an enormous amount of disconfirming evidence.

That’s not an attack on faith, it’s an attack on blindness.

If we attack faith as such, it should be for its political and social abuses rather than because we ignore the value of "faith" in some form in daily life.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Preventing Injuries: Biological Robustness

Preventing Injuries: Biological Robustness

I'm a risk averse type, who happens to enjoy some slighly risky activities, so I've always had an interest in injury prevention. In the past decade I've gotten more systematic about preventing injuries. A minor pull that would have taken a few days to heal in my teens will now at 50 sideline me for weeks or even months. And after a few weeks off, I'm pretty much starting over on some aspects of my training. Rather than challenge my motivation to keep starting over and over, I've learned to greatly reduce my injury rate with a judicious little bit of extra training. If you just want to cut to the chase, you can skip down to the last couple of sections. If you want to know the background of the robustness approach , which I think is pretty interesting, then read on.

The biological robustness approach to injury prevention

The concept behind injury prevention that I've adopted is called biological robustness. Biological robustness is based on a adaptive systems approach to human movement. The essential idea is that biological systems preserve their integrity and their core functions in spite of both internal and external perturbation, and we can make use of that fact to understand how things go wrong and make ourselves more resistant tp injury.

How the Body Responds to Stresses: Claude Bernard and the Inner Steady State

The central theme of biological robustness originated in the concept of homeostasis.

Homeostasis has a notable pedigree in physiology, going back to the man often considered the father of modern physiology in the mid 19th century, Claude Bernard. Bernard coined the term "mileu interior" for the internal environment of living things. He wrote that "La fixité du milieu intérieur est la condition d'une vie libre et indépendante" which means:

The constancy of the internal environment is the condition for a free and independent life.

Maintaining the Internal Steady State: Extended to a General Principle

This idea was later developed by physiologist Walter Cannon in the early 20th century into the concept of homeostasis. Canon published his ideas in 1932 in The Wisdom of the Body.

Most important for our purposes, Cannon reasoned that homeostasis does not occur by chance, but is the result of organized self-government. This is a very significant observation and modern biology has recently begun to build on it increasingly to see the body in terms of more tightly interconnected systems rather than a collections of loosely coordinated individual parts.

This probably seemed to a lot of mechanically minded physiologists at the time as a rather unlikely or even an unscientific notion. Fortunately our increasing understanding of how complex systems work in general has made Canon's ideas increasingly plausible and important over time rather than relegating them to the science museum with phlogiston and luminiferous ether.

Biological Stress Challenges Our Integrity

Canon's homeostasis, derived from Bernard's mileu interior, became the foundation for the familiar notion of stress, first discussed in this context by endocrinologist Hans Selye in the 1930's. Canon was the one who first coined the popular expression "fight or flight response" in 1915 and it later figured importantly in Selye's concept of stress, along with the idea of homeostasis.

Biological stress is when our capacity to maintain our internal steady state environment is exceeded, whether it is because of real external threats or even perceived ones (which is why there are psychological components to stress as well as physical components).

In the process of preparing for and responding to threat, organisms bring all sorts of emergency mechanisms into play. Selye theorized that when stresses were extended too long, these emergency responses would eventually become exhausted, leading to illness and injury. Other theorists since then have proposed the alternate theory that stress-related illness results not so much from the exhaustion of the emergency mechanisms as from their effect itself on our tissues and organs over time.

In either case, the significance to us is the same: extended stressors without relief lead to breakdown. That becomes the model for how chronic injury occurs. It is also potentially an important factor even in acute injuries, which often occur when we are fatigued or distracted, both of which are sometimes related to the effect of stressors.

Homeostasis Expands To Biological Robustness

The modern slant on Selye's idea that makes it much more useful for injury prevention is that we have extended the mileu interior to a systems model of how the body operates in general, not just how the body regulates some of its interior processes. Biological robustness means the ability of the body to maintain its core functions in spite of unexpected events.

Note how much more general this is than Canon's homeostasis. The unexpected events might be inside our own body or things happening to us from the outside and they may be in many different kinds of systems. In a wide variety of cases our body strives to maintain function by adapting . Bernard's and Canon's careful observations about specific physiological processes turned out to be applicable to more systems than they first noticed.

This striving to adapt is important for a number of reasons. For example, it can mean that we will change our movement form (often without realizing it) to compensate for a stiffness or weakness in one muscle group by using other muscle groups differently. The fact that our body centrally coordinates movement as well as internal homeostasis means that problems in one place can end up being referred someplace else, a well known principle in modern physiotherapy.

It may seem obvious that when your left foot is hurt, you limp on it and change your gait to adapt, but the concept has some much more subtle implications. A tight iliopsoas muscle in the front of the hip can have an effect on how you use your gluteus muscles, which in turn helps cause an injury somewhere else. And this is a relatively simple and straightforward example.

What this all means to us for preventing injury is that we can't understand the mechanics of our activities just by studying human activity and trying to figure out where the direct physical stresses on us might be. We have to understand the patterns by which our body coordinates movement and strives to adapt to unexpected stresses.

How specifically does this translate to injury prevention? Expecting the Unexpected

Physical training for performance is mostly about identifying specific requirements and training in a way customized for those specific requirements. The better we know the demands of the activity, the better we can tailor the activities and schedules to meet them. Training is specific.

The way that biological robustness affects training is that we also have to take into consideration unexpected stressors as well as expected and well known ones. The principle of robustness training is "expect the unexpected." How the heck do you do that? It's not as crazy an idea as it first sounds. Although we obviously can't prepare for anything that might happen to us, there are a range of potential unexpected stresses that are found in any given kind of activity. For example, a runner can expect to sometimes hit broken ground and turn their foot over, a wrestler can expect to sometimes have body parts pulled forcefully to the limits of movement in various directions, and so on.

So knowing these potental unexpected stresses, how do you protect yourself?

Performance training and robustness have a critical tradeoff. The more you work to prepare yourself for specific expected demands, the more vulnerable you become to unexpected ones. It isn't obvious why this should be so. What seems to happen is that all this complex adaptation your body is doing to specific training demands leaves imbalances and vulnerabilities in other areas. As you become able to push more weight in one exercise, you may be developing a weakness somewhere else that is compensating for some minor internal or external factor that you don't even know about. Over time, even relatively minor unexpected stresses can hit one of these vulnerabilities, and all of a sudden we are injured and we don't know why. We assume we just worked to hard perhaps. But in some cases it was a long developing adaptation process.

How do we minimize the risk of this happening to us?

For each specific training goal, there is a related robustness goal.

When you train for strength, you are working to improve the work capacity of specific muscles and muscle groups. When you train for strength robustness, you look to increase modularity. This means looking at the chain of movements involved and enhancing the ability to withstand stress in each part of the chain. Rather than trying to increase the amount of weight you can push or pull, when you do strength robustness work you try to expose yourself to a wider variety of stresses on the various segments of the movement. You do simple assessment tests to find basic movement weaknesses and you address those. These often reveal problems that you never knew you had because your body found ways to compensate very effectively. But that compensation had an effect elsewhere over time and made you more fragile to injury from some unexpected small stressor.

When you train for general conditioning, you are trying to increase the capacity and efficiency of your cells and tissues to utilize oxygen and utilize various energy systems for movement. When you are trying to improve conditioning robustness you are instead trying to reduce fragility by preparing for a wider range of lesser unexpected challenges rather than a greater amount of an expected challenge. You subject yourself to a wider variety of moderate stresses, particularly varying resistance levels, range of movement around joints, and multidirectional patterns of movement. You want to constantly vary the stresses from session to session and from week to week to expose you to a wider variety of stresses than you would normally get in your activity, but which you still could potentially experience.

When you train for coordination in your activity, you learn movement skills for specific kinds of responses. When you are trying to improve coordination robustness you are looking to train your nervous system to adapt to unexpected variations in movement in your activity. This is done by focusing more deliberately on the skills involved in your training while you vary it. Rather than always turning your thoughts off and running on automatic in your conditioning sessions, you focus more on the skills you are using and vary the sessions, so you can teach yourself to perform the movements in different ways with skill. If you're a runner for example, you might deliberately extend or shorten your gait for a while, concentrating on otherwise maintaining good form. You don't want to do too much of this. You aren't trying to change your gait, you're trying to teach yourself to adapt to unexpected variations in movement. In general you might try varying the speed, direction, range, or rhythm of various movements in your activity.

Finally, consider the psychological dimension of stress. Deliberately focus on small easily neglected aspects of your training to look for problems and help recognize areas where you are frustrated or not in control. Use drills to help develop a greater sense of control over your performance. If you identify specific situations that cause you problems, expose yourself to them in a controlled way in practice to help desensitize yourself to it. Simulate problem situations and rehearse the coping skills you will need in realistic simulations.


Beginners often get too excited and simply overreach themselves. Aside from that, most injuries result not from doing too much or training with too high an intensity level, but from increasing difficulty too quickly without preparing properly or without realizing that there is a basic movement problem being compensated for. Using a conservative progression scheme and incorporating basic assessment tests goes a long way to preventing injuries.

If you want to do even more, then find subtle variations of your training methods that impose a wider variety of moderate stresses on your body, both slight variations in functional movements and in the individual segments of movement chains, and teach your body deliberately to adapt to
variations of stresses. Don't overdo this, it isn't meant to change your basic training program or interfere with it, it is meant to expand it at the boundaries to make you better prepared for the unexpected stressors that you will eventually meet.

Much thanks to Matt Lancaster for the ideas in his article Taking a robust approach to running from P2P Publishing (2008) from which a lot of the specific ideas in the last half of this post were taken. The Peak Performance web site offers a number of good articles and books that are well researched, authoritative, and practical.

Minimalist Fitness: Wherever you go, there you are, working out!

Minimalist Fitness: Wherever you go, there you are, working out!

I just read this excellent post on the Zen Habits blog which reflects a lot of my own philosophy of minimalist conditioning as well.

Part of self-directed training is doing a little research to figure out how to get started, then getting out of analysis mode and DOING IT. It helps in making that transition to DOING IT to have someone do some of the planning for you to get started. I list several programs that I've used personally and found very helpful and very motivating. There are many others that look good as well based on similar sound principles. Remember, I'm not suggesting these in particular for veterans or elite athletes, I'm emphasizing the ones that will help a relative newbie get started fast in a solid minimalist program which they can build on themselves later.

Turbulence Training
Does all of the planning for you with predetermined minimalist sessions and vaariety and progression built in. Support forums, contests, ongoing workouts available.

"Never Gymless" Workout
High-end intensity minimalist principles and program ideas, you have to do a little planning work to use this well and most of it is not really for absolute beginners but it provides superb conditioning principles.

This is a whole culture of programs around various aspects of fitness with a strong minimalist slant and often an interestingly unusual twist.

A very cool approach based on swinging heavy blades around to emphasize functional movement. I mention this one mostly because it is fun, especially when you get bored with burpees and pushup varations.

As I said, I’m omitting a lot of good ones, but these I’ve actually used so far and found fun, effective, and minimalist.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Being fair to sociologists: is it worth the effort?

Being fair to sociologists: is it worth the effort?

In his blog Stranger Fruit, John Lynch makes the latest of his attacks on Steve Fuller, who has recently chosen to associate himself supportively with intelligent design proponents. I don't agree with Fuller in general, but I also think I understand in part why he finds his critics to be responding stupidly in many cases.

My comments:

1. Sociologists of science traditionally distinguish themselves as "objective" in part by showing their cynicism to mainstream science, illustrating that they can stand apart from it in some sense and observe it critically. I know that's a difficult idea to make consistent, since the critical examination generally itself makes use of scientific concepts. I don't agree with it, I just make an observation.

2. Controversy tends to drive people to the extremes (I suspect because it fosters the conditions for "hot" or "motivated" cognition), and people get caught up in those extremes to varying degrees.

So in being well intentioned sociologists of science, often involved in controversies, people like Fuller sometimes slide down toward the opposite pole from the people whose work they are trying to understand.

Thus polarized, it is so much work for people to understand each other that they generally don't consider it worth the effort. So Fuller is pretty much doomed to be misunderstood for the most part, and to find his critics to be rather dense.

Some of my favorite examples of the possible breaching of this polarization are found in "The One Culture" edited by Labinger and Collins. There, scientists and sociologists of science go back and forth and make sincere attempts to understand each other as if the other side actually has something worthwhile to say.

Conclusion: Sometimes in the end it is worth the effort to try to understand each other, sometimes not. We don't always know which is true from our initial appraisal, and that's the point.

The concept of motivated cognition: its uses and abuses and its application to rationalism

Two Kinds of Scientific Rationalists: The Influence of Motivated Cognition

The concept of motivated cognition: its uses and abuses

There is a growing body of evidence that human abstract cognition is motivated, something that has been studied recently and somewhat infamously with regard to politics. The scientific concept has also been abused for political purposes, so for good context on the technical side check out this great article on the Mixing Memory cognitive science blog, which describes the basic concept and also its limitations:

In motivated reasoning, memory searches, interpretations of incoming
information, evaluations of arguments, and even perception, are biased in such a
way that we will be more likely to arrive at a desired conclusion ...

...biasing the information available for supporting or evaluating
conclusions and arguments, as well as interpreting incoming information... long as we can, we'll only deal with that information that is
consistent with our conclusion

... continually confronted with information that conflicts with that conclusion, we will be forced to deal with it

Theories of motivated cognition have recently emphasized its apparent link with what is often called "hot cognition," which for example means that we particularly tend to use this mode of thinking in situations such as where:

  • our attitudes are challenged
  • an emotional judgment is called for
  • there are relatively small consequences for being wrong
  • the judgmental task is complex
  • "Objective" information is not readily available or the evidence is ambiguous
  • disconfirming evidence is not highlighted
  • counter-arguments come easily to mind
  • we are distracted or under time pressure
If you follow the concept this far, you notice that motivated reasoning indeed seems to be, rather disturbingly, something like a baseline mode of thinking for human beings. We tend to use it under the most common decision situations where we believe we are addressing something meaningful and important, where the decision is complex, where we have mostly ambiguous information available, and we don't feel we have the time and resources to just focus on and analyze the issue for long periods. This strongly resembles the situation where we generally give opinions on topics like politics, which seems to fit the original conclusion that we tend to use motivated cognition for political thinking.

Motivated cognition and science

The point I've been preparing for here is that philosophical discussions over human reason aren't all that different, from the standpoint of cognitive science, from political opinions. The fact that we are starting with the assumption that humans are rational doesn't mean we aren't typically affected by the conditions that lead to hot cognition.

The classic difference is of course that in the philosophical tradition of modern science, we are supposed to consider all ideas tentative, assume that our own ideas may be biased or wrong, and then are strongly encouraged seek out disconfirming evidence and to consider it when it is found. So in principle, at least, we should already be aware of something like the phenomenon of motivated reasoning, be aware that it affects ourselves as well as others, and actively work to compensate for it. The tradition emphasizes the uncertainty of knowledge at a given time in history, and so encourages an important attitude of active open-mindedness in its conception of scientific inquiry. This is notoriously taken too far at times to encourage premature and unwarranted "paradigm shifts", but the basic underlying principle continues to be sound and consistent with current cognitive science.

When scientific rationalists write about how great science is and how religion is largely silly superstition, I think they often seem largely unaware that they are not representing a single body of opinion but are themselves split by the effects of motivated cognition.

Motivated cognition and rationalism

In the opening of his wonderful book, The Ancestor's Tale, Richard Dawkins discusses two temptations he feels are worth avoiding, but which he he is compelled to flirt with for the purpose of narration: (a) our appetite to find patterns in history even when they aren't there and (b) the vanity of the present, seeing the past as if it were aimed at our own time.

Discussions over what is rational for human beings to believe based on science are in general forced to flirt with these temptations as well. The concept of what is rational has a history and we want to see patterns in it. At the same time, we also want to see the current worldview as being the end result that all of history has led up to.

I see people who consider themselves scientific rationalists (steadfast followers of the ideals of reason and the process of scientific inquiry) as falling mostly toward the extremes on a spectrum with the following poles which I think are the result of motivated cognition and reflect different approaches to addressing the two temptations:

1. those scientific rationalists who are motivated by a desire and need for a sense of certainty leading to a great faith in logic and current best knowledge and believe that we can know the outcomes of our actions with great confidence because science is self-correcting over time and has led up to the present day knowledge in a persistently cumulative way,

2. those scientific rationalists who are more motivated to embrace the unknown and to think of current best knowledge as more transient and have less confidence that we can know the outcomes of our actions because they see the history as contingent, they recognize that knowledge accumulates, but are also more motivated to think of any given theory as tentative at a given time

Similarly to the philosophers foxes and hedgehogs or the lumpers and splitters, these stereotyped views of scientific rationalism are just a tool for helping to understand how our motivations influence the worldviews we adopt and support.

The varieties of scientific rationalism

So I finally come to my point, the different sub-species of scientific rationalists. By the way, like those of us who are diametrically opposed on political ideology, the different scientific rationalists at the extremes don't really see those at the other extreme as scientific rationalists at all.

To make the point more concrete, at one extreme for example we have the people who are committted to preserving science and preventing irrationality and superstition from corrupting the body of accumulated well-tested knowledge. These are the "skeptics" and for historical reasons they are closely related to the almost ironically titled "freethinkers." I don't say this in a demeaning way, because these are really my intellectual mentors and inspire me. I say it is almost ironic because I truly think the motivation for this form of "skepticism" and "freethought" is at its root more about preserving something valuable than inquiring freely. It just happens to be the scientific tradition that they are preserving rather than the traditions of the Crown and Church altar.

At the other extreme we have the people who are committed to questioning and addressing the frontiers of knowedge more aggressively, who want to test the more wacky and more unpopular ideas, who are most motivated to feel that we don't really know how our actions will turn out but we have to act anyway. They are the people motivated to truly embrace the unknown rather than minimize it to help solidify our current knowledge.

The first extreme considers the second one to be irrationalists because they are so quick to dive into things that we have only clues about and not a stable research platform. Their motivation to aggressive "demarcation" of science and superstition leads them to consider ideas that have not yet been validated and well tested to be not only of low confidence but superstitious in principle as well. People who emphasize the contingent nature of history seem to this first extreme to be deliberately ignoring the important patterns and how much we have already accomplished.

The second extreme considers the first one to be irrationalists because they are so loathe to walk on the wild side and don't seem to them to embody much at all of the spirit of active open-mindedness that allows science to revise its mistakes over time. People who emphasize the cumulativeness of scientific knowledge seem to this second extreme to be deliberately ignoring the role of accidents and how much is still unknown, or what might be overturned.

I think the philosopher/logician Susan Haack captured this distinction very well in her book Defending Science Within Reason. She refers to the first category as deferentialists, and the second as cynics. I think that captures the spirit of the distinction very well overall. I strongly empathize with her efforts to steer between them.

The Mixing Memory blog has another fascinating post where a similar kindof distinction is applied to atheism, something commonly associated with scientific rationalism. The author (someone who identifies themself only as "Chris") cleverly divides atheists into skeptical atheists and suspicious atheists. Skeptical atheists are said to adhere strongly to rationalism, while suspicious atheists are more skeptics in the classical sense and question even the scientists' version of reason as well as religious faith.

This is similar to the tradition that considers Haack's cynics and my second category of rationalists to actually be irrationalists, which I tend to disagree with. True, they do put less emphasis on achieving closure through systematic logic, but in many notable cases they are just as opposed to superstition and irrationalism in spirit as the deferentialists.

The cynics are less confident that we really know what we think we know, they don't embrace superstition or revelation or acts of faith.

So I'd put a slightly different slant on that, and say that the cynics really are scientific rationalists of a kind, who have a different slant on reason, emphasizing its limitations while recognizing that it remains our best tool and that we still need to act on it.

To illustrate this important point, my best current example of someone I currently consider a scientfic rationalist cynic is Stuart Kauffman. His conception of how biological phenomena are epistemologically emergent in nature for example truly questions the classical physicalist picture, but it is consistently scientific and rationalist. His consideration of the issues is sophisticated enough that in their online article on emergent properties, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests that (referring to kauffman's Home in the Universe):

Kauffman (1993b) is an important and influential assessment of current
scientific theories lending themselves to epistemological emergentist

Since I consider philosophy to be for the most part a reason-motivated endeavor and the SEP to be relatively authoritative, I think their mention in this context lends support to my contention that Kauffman provides a data point for scientific rationalist cynics.