Saturday, October 22, 2005

Deductive Reasoning

Ever since I can remember myself, I can remember my dad telling jokes. Problem was, he'd tell the same jokes over and over again.
When my friends would come over, my dad always tried to be 'cool' by holding my friends in the hallway, not letting them continue to my room, and telling them a joke or two or three.
I'd cringe and try to hurry things, being quite rude when I think about it today. My friends, so polite, always laughed. It never dawned on me that the jokes were actually funny (well... having heard them so many times).

Well, today I'll share one of these jokes with you that somehow made more of an impression with me. Unlike my dad, however, I'm the worst joke teller, so please bear with me while I struggle here:

A scientist performs an experiment. He takes a spider and tears off two of its legs.
"Go," he tells the spider and the spider goes.
The scientist makes a note in his log and tears off another pair of legs.
"Go," says the scientist and the spider goes.
He makes another note in the log and repeats the process until he tears off the last pair of legs.
"Go," the scientist says but the spider doesn't move. The scientist makes the following note in his log:
'Conclusion: A spider with no legs can't hear.'

Pram pam pam.

This joke appealed to me on so many levels, but first and foremost was the statement it made about us, humans, and our cockiness. Our assumptions, our presumtions of understanding the world around us.

I loved this joke's mockery of science specifially and of our deductive abilities in general. Do we really infer correctly from the picture we see? From the data?

Of course there is a reason this joke came to mind; a reason I'm talking about reasoning -- I've been reading about 'racist science' lately.
Naturally, scientists investigating such matters go to great lengths to sound as impartial and as dry and as disinterested as they can. They present the data and the conclusions. They don't care what the conclusions are, they're not racist.

Well, I wonder if some of these scientist aren't like the scientist in my dad's joke...



Karen Lee Field said...

I remember similar things happening to me. I think back and realise I was rude too, but that's the way the world is. My parents were trying to be involved in my life. All they did was embarrass me.

Now I find myself doing the same with my own son. I try to stop myself but often it's too late. I think maybe that's why he's over his mates house, instead of them being over here. *grin*

Oh, well, at least it's quiet. :)

Anonymous said...

The post (to me) is not about the joke, but about the self awareness that after the years of not understanding a relationship, what we thought was one thing, was actually something else. That is something we can never undue, only forgive and move forward.

ObilonKenobi said...

Two levels in this post both very insightful. I agree that the post says a lot about you (and me and us) as children who become adults and parents. When we are young we think of anyone over a certain age as old and uncool. We can be pretty rude to our own parents because they embarrass us or make us look bad in front of our friends. I remember those same feelings. A friend of mine (parent of three) is always joking around. He told me a story one time about how his father took him to school one day and embarrassed him by telling jokes and being silly. He was mortified. Then after his father died and he had his own children he said that even though he was entirely embarrassed by his father then, now that is one of his most treasured memories. His father making his friends laugh. He realized the lesson he learned from that experience. It didn't matter what his friends thought, they were all grown up and moved away now. It mattered that his father was always in a good mood, joking around. His father could have been like many other fathers he knew: mean, grumpy and generally unlikable. He was glad for the father he had and wished that at the time he appreciated him more.

Then there is the scientific level. Don't you love how, when people can interpret data in many ways that some people actually choose to see the negative? Don't people realize how skewed data can be? I took a great class in college called Human Communication. It was about all the ways we communicate with each other. From scientists, to marketers and advertisers to politicians. It was great. My teacher said never to trust statistics from advertisers. He proved to us (and I wish I could remember how) that the same data that the toothpaste people used that 4 out of 5 dentists agree that not brushing your teeth was good for you. He used this data and looked at it as overlapping circles. It was fascinating. He also taught us about ethos. (I think he was single-handedly trying to make us all little skeptics!) He said that people accept what other people say because of ethos. Ethos is the power and trust that we automatically give to someone because of who they are. For instance: Politicians and scientists. We generally accept that what they say is true because we can't imagine that they are lying or wrong. SO when scientists say that their data supports racism a whole slew of unskeptical people who lend those scientists their ethos just believe it's true. When a former high-ranking general who has been trustworthy in the past says that there are definitely weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we tend to believe him. Why would he lie? He must know what he's saying. If you surround yourself with enough people of supposedly high rank like George Bush and have them spout lies, the public has a hard time (a whole not individuals) believing that they could actually lie to us. We give them ethos. We give doctors ethos to tell us what they think is healthy and unhealthy. See you must question motivation behind what people say. Are they being paid? Are they supporting their own or somebody else's agenda? Etc. Just because we hear a scientist say Spiders are hard of hearing doesn't mean his conclusions are correct. Look at all the data. Make decisions for your selves. Of course we can’t go through life all the time questioning everything. We must give some ethos to people but we have to be very careful with that. We could end up in a very bad situation.

Jennifer said...

Isn't it hard to be totally impartial. Everyone's thinking is always going to lean one way or another just because of how they were brought up, of how they learned something, of a teachers influence...of a million different experiences they've had.

And all these events affect how we will see or interpret something so even the most impartial person really isn't totally impartial (in my opinion).

Melly said...

Karen, LOL, so you should. I believe it is the parents job description - embarrass your kids as often as you can and be totally oblivious to it :)

Lance, you understood me well. My relationship with my father today is very different. I actually like his jokes, even when I hear them for teh 100th time.

Melly said...

ObilonKenobi, yes. Two levels indeed. One led me another and back again. The way life always does.
Relationships are a dynamic thing. If I still felt the same way about my dad, I probably wouldn't have been able to write about it, but understading and laughing about it is a sign I moved on to better things.

About the second part - the problem with questioning scientists is that we don't really have the tools most times. So when someone claims a certain group of people is less intelligent and proves it, I, as a non-scientist, do not have the tools to question his method. Luckily, other scientists do and they question it, run the same study and reach a different conclusion. So now, who should I believe???

Jennifer - absolutely. I think impartiallity is somethign that is very difficult to achieve. But it doesn't mean we shouldn't try and strive for it ;) I hope we can come close. DOn't you?

redchurch said...


Don't forget some people will call geneticists racist for merely suggesting that genes affect intelligence.

There is very much a kneejerk reaction towards any science that points towards genes distributing certain effects among specific segments of the population.

The funny part is many scientists aren't making a commentary, they're just showing the data. How you read the data is up to you... a lot of people seem to choose a negative reading of the data.

See E. O. Wilson and Sociobiology. He had death threats made against him in the 70s for suggesting that the genes affect many factors, including intelligence, among different races. He's not a racist in the slightest but people kneejerked to that conclusion immediately.

The sad thing is, I think it's still true today. You can't say anything regarding science or genes that highllights the differences between people or a population without somebody getting upset.

There is also the awful legacy of fields like eugenics and social darwinism which are legitimate concerns. I just don't like they're invoked automatically any time genetics and race are uttered in the same sentence. One does not necessarily imply the other... although you wouldn't know that from the way people sometimes react.

Singularity said...

It is often difficult for someone uninformed about a particular subject to discern between articulate sophistry and objective scientific analysis. Sophists with less than genuine motives count on this fact to persuade. Exhibit A of this situation are the intelligent design club.

BTW - hey Melly - thanks for the kind posting on my blog. :)

Melly said...

I'm familiar with that kneejerk reaction only too well. I tend to have it myself ;)

My post wasn't a kneejerk reaction though to 'racist science,' but I definitely read some things I didn't like.

When it comes to 'people science,' I do think most scientist would deduce a spider can't hear. I think it is very hard to explain things properly and to take all things into account in 'people science.' Hence, I think the conclusions can be wrong.

Oh, and most of these scientist don't just present data, they also present their conclusions. At least in stuff I've read.

Wow, that was a good one :)

dog1net said...


Really enjoyed reading this post. What we sometimes are not able to deduce while in the moment, sometimes comes to us much later, which is what you came to realize about how "funny" your father's jokes really were. Nice segue from the past to present and back.

Pat Kirby said...

>When it comes to 'people science,' I do think most scientist would deduce a spider can't hear. Actually, if anything, I think the joke, while very funny, is more an example of how the "average" person thinks science progresses. (I'm not lumping you or anyone in particular in "average," so no offense intended.)

What it ignores is the fact that scientists, modern scientists at least, don't operate in isolation, pulling poorly conceived experiments out of their woo-hoos. An aspect of experimental design is literature review; a comprehensive study of all related experimentation that went before and current theories. In this case, everything about spiders. And frankly all living things.

And of course, there is peer review, where a scientist's lovingly held conclusions are cheerfully eviscerated by his/her collegues.

This sort of micro-focus on one weak causal relationship is the sort of thing that the un-Intelligent Design crowd use. They find a situation where the theory of evolution hasn't proved something, and immediately claim that it dismantles the entire theory, stupidly ignoring the vast body of evidence that does "work." Likewise the twits who grasp one (in a sea of contradictory studies) study that claims the Earth is cooler and dismiss global warming as an environmentalist plot to make us all get rid of our SUVs.

I'm not suggesting science has all the answers. Just that it isn't a simplistic observation of cause and effect.

Melly said...

You are so welcome singularity :) I'm so happy you dropped by.
I see you have strong feelings on the matter as well...

Scot, wow. You brought a whole new aspect to this post that I haven't even thought of. My own false reasoning as a child, later viewed in a different light. Beautiful!
Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention (and a general thanks :)

Melly said...

No, I'm not suggesting that either, Pat. Not at all. I totally udnerstand what you say and even agree with most of it (if it came out that I suggested most scientists are like the one in the joke, it wasn't my intention).

About peer reviews, that can take years, especially in complicated experiments, but that's beside the point.

I'll tell you exactly what I was referring to in this post - a very popular "scientific" research claiming that negroids (their classification) have lower intelligence. It even became a popular book at some point, the name escapes me at the moment.
These scientists, as it turns out, chose to look at some aspects but ignore others.

It took years for other scientists to find the missing data and disprove that conclusion. It didn't matter though, the damage was done.

So when I talk about 'people science' there are so many variants that it's possible the data was mistakingly ignored, yet, no matter why data is ignored (intentionally or accidentally) it still led to wrong conclusions.

I love science and everything about it. Scientists, however are human, prone to mistakes, and as Jennifer pointed out, to their own preconceived ideas. I may trust science, and I even can't say I distrust scientists. Most of them I do trust. But there's always some skepticism left in me - the eternal skeptic :)

rdl said...

Nice story, well done.

redchurch said...

More I think about it, more I realize Mell's post is about the difference between correlation and causation. Recently finished the book Freakonomics and they had a lot to say about correlation vs. causation.

It's also exactly the 'funny bit' of the spider joke.

Science should never be based only on correlations.

ME Strauss said...

Melly, I really enjoyed you how tied the two ideas together into one shole and find it interest how you as the outside observer in both notice that your father doesn't see that maybe the kid in the call doesn't want to hear a joke and the scientist doesn't see the spider can't walk. Both are ignoring data.

Here I go to yet another place . . .

In both cases, the "scientist" runs the risk of seeing what he needs to see rather than seeing all of the data. It's a very human failing. We all do it in every part of our life--making judgments on what we think is going on rather than finding out what really is happening.

Karen Lee Field said...

Now the interesting thing here is that the replies to the post seemed strange to me but then I realised that I'm the strange one because I stopped reading the post once I got to the joke. (Sorry, Melly.)

Selective listening, I guess.

Melly said...

Thanks rdl :)

Redchurch, I believe you just nailed it. Next time I'll just write the one sentence ;)

Liz, exactly. Not only that, it is well known that scientist try to get certain outcomes (due to funding or whatever). They're very human.
And please, any direction is welcome :)

Karen - no prob. Select at will :)

The Taorist said...

What we know now could be a joke in the future.


You were transported to the 3rd century AD. Rome. The long red capes. The shiny armors. The lions eating the Christians.

To them, the world was flat.
If you told them that.
They'd think you were crazier than a


To us, we thought of them as fools. How long until we get our turn.

melly said...

Oh, so true, so true :)
Taorist, indeed this was partly what I was thinking, like if and when we'd meet an alien - how and what and how many mistakes we would make. But I reveal too much of myself here...

R. Edmondson said...

Found your post interesting not to mention the joke :) I can see the meaning behind it. You send me down memory lane - some great memories with my parents and grandparents.

Thanks :)

Jennifer said...

Sometimes I'd agree striving for imartiallity is good. As in science, your example. Or in our legal system (jusges, jurors...)

Other times I think it would make our existence less 'human'. It's out nature to lean one way or another. That's the root of our uniquiness--the ablity, the freedom to think one way or another, to support one side over another...

Guess it would depend on the situation on whether I think impartiallity is good or bad.

The Phoenix said...

Absolute objectivity is always the ideal scientists aim for. Unfortunately, scientists are just human like everyone else.

I'm loving this blog...lots of intelligent people on here. I'm not as used to that, as my blog is about the goofy side of science.

I'll keep coming back here for sure.

Melly said...

r. edmonson - you're most welcome. Always happy to oblige :)

Jennifer, I think even in daily life impartiality is a good thing. Say you want to decide on your political views, the analysis should be impartial (or as impartial as it can be), but once you've made up your mind, you'd be less impartial. See what I'm getting at??? I don't believe I explained myself well...

Thanks pheonix, what a compliment :)

Eric Mutta said...

I see quite an interesting discussion has ensued here. But I'll sit this one out and just enjoy the hilarious joke as I roll on the floor laughing :-)

PS: briefly on the subject of genes and intelligence. Scientists doing these studies should remember that while they may be as impartial as possible in their quest, there are less well-reasoned perpetuators of hate who will quite happily use the results to justify prejudice.

I believe the kneejerk reaction is not towards the scientists or the study, but towards the possible consequences of the study. It is in a sense similar to the atom bomb issue. Nuclear fusion is simple particle physics. Nagasaki and Hiroshima on the other hand...

Teh Blog Father said...

Melly, it's great to see friends of Teh Blog Father around here. It pays to be Mama Corleone :-)

melly said...

Eric, as always, words of wisdom indeed. Science and scientists have responsibilities. We discussed it in the past a bit already, no?

teh blog father, it sure does :)
As I hope teh father appreciates Mama Corleone's past, present and future tributes to the family as he continues with his blessed protection of Mama Corleone's turf ;)

Eric Mutta said...

I think we touched on the subject of the responsibilities of scientists. If not, I know no better place to start the discussion than on this blog :-)

PS: Teh Blog Father is deeply appreciative of all of Mama Corleone's tributes :-)

melly said...

Thanks deary (hope you don't mind :).

I can't tell you how impressed I am with the success of Teh Blog Father. What a great idea and I'm so glad you went with it. Is there more the Mama can do?

Eric Mutta said...

Melly:>Thanks deary (hope you don't mind :).

Me? Mind? Not at all...deary [chuckle] :-)

Melly:>I can't tell you how impressed I am with the success of Teh Blog Father. What a great idea and I'm so glad you went with it. Is there more the Mama can do?

Well you've already done much by being a popular destination enabling the others to say "hey, I found a cool blog through Teh Blog Father". If you would do me the honour, you could encourage the other diverse folks you get coming here, to submit their own blogs. The following code will produce a nice picture and link for use in a post or in the sidebar:

<a href=""><img src="" alt="Teh Blog Father"></a>

Thanks in advance!

melly said...

I most certainly will do it.
Just give me some time :)

Eric Mutta said...

Thanks once again :)