Ninety Degrees Screws Everything Up

Perspective and Rationality

I live on a north-south street in a suburb where most streets are on a squared-off grid.  In order to drive to my favorite restaurant on the big local county road, I drive south on my road and then take a right to get to the county road.  This county road runs on a diagonal, northwest-southeast. Most of the time this doesn’t cause a perspective problem for me, except when I approach it from an east-west road…as I always do when coming from home.  For some reason, my perspective overrides my rational understanding of directionality.  It overrides my knowledge that the sun rises in a generally easterly direction and sets in a generally westerly direction depending on the time of year.

This may be based on the fact that I grew up in the flatlands. The homesteads were laid out in even quarter sections and the roads were for the most part laid out based on the homestead boundaries.  The roads are almost all either north-south or east-west, unless they are diverted to accommodate a river.  I have always had this problem and diagonals have always messed with my sense of direction.  I need a map whenever I am in a strange city or neighborhood, because I need to have street names matched up with those in the map if I have been faced with driving in an area infested with curvy roads or diagonal streets.  I lose my north/south/east/west innate sense of direction, even when the sun is out and I should know my directions based on its position in the sky.

When I visualize through my intuitive sense of direction rather than one adjusted by rational direction or matching a map to my surroundings, in my suburb, I encounter streets that are 90° “off” from where they should be.  My kids’ mother’s street is a north-south street, but to me it feels east-west.  I can’t fully orient myself in this town, and I will have to move as soon as I can back to St. Paul or to Minneapolis just to get my bearings again.

Perception, in psychology, is the manner in which we interpret the sensations we receive through from our environment. The five senses are touch, taste, sight, sound and smell.  What we do with data we get through the senses is based on our perceptions of what is and even what “should be.”  The sensation of “cold” is actually a perception; in other words our nerves send to our brains the information that a certain amount of thermal energy has made contact with our nerve endings.  The brain compares this volume of thermal energy to a standard that we use to decide, based on the situation in which this information is being processed, whether or not that amount of thermal energy translates to “hot,” “cold” or “warm.” If I was determining whether or not a cup of water is hot enough to brew tea, the standard that my brain uses for that measure is different than if I am determining if the same temperature of water is safe for taking a shower.  In one situation, the water can be hot or cold to my touch even though the temperature is constant at 150° F. Very hot for a shower; very cold for tea.

Perspective is a function of perception.  My sense of direction is based on perception of data brought in through my sensations of sight and the kinetic sense, and there is no absolute direction or sensational cue of directions.  People only know the directions based on their prior learning and interpretation, and mine happens to be faulty at times and requires direct thought for correction.  My fault in perspective is something I’m aware of, and knowing this, I can the apply rational thought to reorient myself so that I don’t drive into a ditch or someone’s house and instead drive to the proper house and make the proper turn.  Not proper in the sense of seeing my ex-wife, but proper in the sense of being reunited with my children.

What I apply in order to regain my bearings is critical thinking.

The process of using critical thinking involves several steps. These steps work formally in experimental design and analysis, studying and mastering new concepts as we learn and in making decisions that people need to make in the various aspects of our lives.  They also work informally and people process these steps often when we are not aware of them, nor even that we are following them.  Stephanie listed the steps she used in the process of critical thinking in her article “Trust and Critical Thinking in Science Reporting:  A Case Study.”  Her steps were; use the controversy, check the tools, check the controls, check the claims, untangle the logic, and to finally identify the biases.

Between checking the controls and identifying the biases there is an overlap, because the controls should be designed to correct for the biases. If the author of a study, as in the case of the report that Stephanie had analyzed, doesn’t recognize that he was in fact trying to find a reason to justify his belief that there is a measurable IQ difference in races, then he will not set a proper control against that bias.  He will be disoriented, and while it seems perfectly reasonable to him to come to the conclusion that he did, the results will still be off by ninety degrees.  Metaphorically, of course, but in defending his work, he has gone in the ditch.

This is where a layperson, or a journalist, reporting on science can muck up the analysis when reading and reporting on the results of a recent scientific finding.  If the writer doesn’t seek to find their own perspective and how it might color the way that they write on or analyze the topic, then they will either accept the conclusions as the are delineated in the abstract of the paper or seek an outside and irrelevant source of clarification that will take them away from the truths either found or obscured.

For those of our Quiche Moraine readers that have been following the controversies brought out here, at Greg Laden’s Blog and at Almost Diamonds, there will be an invaluable resource on how the layperson can balance trust in science journalism with skepticism using tools of critical thinking.  Greg and Stephanie will be joining PZ Myers, Desiree Schell and Kirsten Sanford in a panel to discuss the issue, and resources will be made available for you during and following the discussion at ScienceOnline2010. Much to my regret, I will not be there in person, but I will be following the events as well as I can from here.

Why is this so important for the lay (nonscientist) person out here in Reader Land?  Steven Newton has an excellent, if brief article in the Huffington Post on the issue.  Firstly, we should hope that the editors of Huffington Post read the article and apply their own critical thinking to the stories that they decide to publish.  Secondly, Newton makes a very important point that there are dragons out there and they are ready to consume our intellects:

From evolution to global warming to vaccines, science is under assault from denialists–those who dismiss well-tested scientific knowledge as merely one of many competing ideologies. Science denial goes beyond skeptical questioning to attack the legitimacy of science itself.

Recent foment over stolen e-mails from a British research group inspired an American creationist organization to pronounce that “a cabal of leading scientists, politicians, and media” has sought to “professionally destroy scientists who express skepticism” about climate change. The Discovery Institute usually reserves this kind of over-the-top language to attack evolution, so it was remarkable to see it branch out to climate-change denial.

Despite such misleading hyperbole, science is meritocratic. Once you achieve a minimum level of education and competence, you can participate, ask a challenging question of even the most respected scientist, or submit papers to scientific journals, where research is judged by the data and methodology. Esteemed scientists face relentless criticism. This is how science works.

Even when a scientific consensus based on evidence emerges–as it has for evolution and climate change–there is opportunity for dissent. As the great physicist Richard Feynman noted, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

Feynman was not saying that the experts are idiots. He was saying that their work is open to analysis and must be checked before being accepted to make sure they have corrected for their biases before reaching their conclusions.  They may or may not be ignorant of them, but they certainly aren’t going to be able to be credible if they hide their biases rather than deal with them.  Many good science journalists have all but abandoned HuffPo because it publishes stories by denialists and woomeisters who cloak their biases in scientific sounding jargon.  I hate to see it, because HuffPo’s readership is large, and they need offsets to this trend so that people who read the site can learn how to dismiss the crap and, at least conditionally, trust the good stuff.

Ninety degrees screws everything up when I don’t understand the bias created by a diagonal. If I were to sit at the intersection on the county road and tell you that it’s oriented from northeast to southwest, I would certainly hope that you would be able to look at my analysis and tell me it is faulty.   I would hope that you as my passenger would recognize what I have missed, and be able to correct me.  At some point, I hope that science journalists and lay bloggers learn to use the same steps that you would use to prevent me from turning the wrong direction.

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6 Responses to “Ninety Degrees Screws Everything Up”

  1. January 10th, 2010 at 8:27 am

    EH says:

    Unsurprisingly, having grown up in a mountainous area where roads are never straight, the grid layout of midwestern roads disorients me terribly. You’d think it would be simple to only turn at right angles, but not for me.

  2. January 10th, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    How do you keep track of NWSE when you don’t have the sun or the stars to navigate?

  3. January 12th, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    khan says:

    I grew up in a mountainous region & also have no sense of direction.

  4. January 12th, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    khan says:

    The difference might be that I know I have no sense of direction; and that I am willing to rely upon the ‘elitist’ mapmakers et al to help me find my way.

    I don’t understand all the science behind GPS, but I’ll trust it over someone telling me the sun rises in the west.

  5. January 16th, 2010 at 12:32 am

    MPL says:

    Grid cities are easy to navigate logically—but they’re also places where you can get spun around and everything still looks the same. It’s hard to get lost, but easy to get disoriented. In a city like, say, Boston, getting turned around on a street will feel wrong, because all the angles and lengths will be off. On the other hand, you basically have to memorize routes, rather than think them through.

    There’s a metaphor about everyday thinking vs logical, formalized thinking in there somewhere.

  6. January 16th, 2010 at 12:33 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I’m glad that somebody picked up on that MPL!

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