Nov 20 2017

The Moon Landing Hoax – Again

Apollo-17-visorJames Randi has often observed that paranormal beliefs are like “unsinkable rubber duckies.” No matter how many times they are knocked down, they just keep popping back up. That’s because they are not based on facts or logic, but motivated reasoning serving some deeper cultural or emotional need. You can counter them with facts, but that is not addressing the real reason for their existence.

Conspiracy theories are the same. There is a variety of motivations behind them, having nothing to do with the truth. They result partly from hyperactive pattern recognition and agency detection, serving a need for certainty, feeling special, and defending existing narratives from refutation. A well-tended conspiracy theory is like impenetrable armor that can turn away any fact.

The notion that the US never really went to the moon, and that the entire Apollo program was staged for some reason is one such conspiracy theory. Those who promote the moon landing hoax conspiracy theory depend largely on anomaly hunting – looking for anything that they cannot immediately explain, or that looks odd, and then proclaiming that it is evidence for a hoax. So far every one of their alleged anomalies has been shot down.

They claim, for example, that the lighting in photographs from the moon’s surface is uneven, proving stage lighting. Actually, the opposite is true. The unevenness of the shadows is from the unevenness of the surface of the moon itself. But properly analyzed, the photos show that the lighting is, in fact, parallel. This indicates a distant light source, like the sun. To duplicate this effect on earth, while simultaneously duplicating the lack of diffusion (no atmosphere) would have required many bright white lasers, technology that simply did not exist back then. (Lasers were expensive and only available in red.)

So ironically, what the moon hoax conspiracy theorists end up proving is that the moon landing could not possibly have been faked and was therefore real.

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Nov 17 2017

The Ethics of Head Transplants

sergio-canaveroNewsweek, who has been following the story of Italian Neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, now reports: “Human Head Transplants Are About to Happen in China: But Where Are the Bodies Coming From?”

I have already discussed the scientific aspects of this claim. They are highly implausible and I doubt that such a transplant is about to happen at all. If it does I predict it will be a dismal failure, and ethically dubious. First, I have to reiterate, that it is far more accurate to call such a procedure a body transplant. The head donor will wake up with a new body. The body donor is, I suspect, dead.

There are three basic hurdles that need to be overcome in order to have a successful body transplant – the surgical attachment, suppression of rejection, and regeneration of the attached neurological tissue. Given that Canavero is a surgeon, I suspect he is excited about the first issue. He may think he has made some advances because he improved his technique for making the attachment. This was never, however, the primary hurdle.

We are already making great advances with organ transplantation and controlling rejection. However, this is still a huge issue. Donor and recipient have to be closely matched, and lifelong drugs are required. Still, the amount of tissue being transplanted here will be a challenge. It opens up, for the first time, the possible effects of tissue rejection on an entire brain. While this is a significant hurdle, our current treatments mean it is not necessarily a deal breaker (it might be, but research would be needed to see).

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Nov 16 2017

John Oliver Nails Trump

Oliver-Trump 2017In the season finale of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver reviews Trump’s assault on truth and decency. If you haven’t been watching this show, you should give it a try. Not only is it funny and entertaining, but on each episode Oliver does a deep dive on something in our society that is not right and can be fixed. His researchers generally do a great job, and I also think Oliver does a good job of not being gratuitously partisan.

His season-long attacks on Trump may not make it seem that way, but I don’t think they are partisan. I also try to keep my personal politics out of my science advocacy, but I think the problems with Trump transcend politics, ideology, and party. In this last episode for the season, Oliver reviews why this is true.

The real problem with Trump is not that he is Republican or conservative – actually you could argue that he is barely either of those things. It’s not even necessarily that he is an anti-establishment populist who wants to shake things up. The real danger of Trump is that he is an anti-intellectual who has been waging war against journalism, expertise, decency, standards, and any notion of objectivity.

For Trump the only thing that appears to matter is the current struggle in which he is engaged – he needs to achieve what he perceives as victory over any adversary, at any cost. Being honest and respecting knowledge and accuracy doesn’t seem to factor in at all.

As a result Trump is willing to sacrifice the basic fabric that is necessary for a functional democracy. He seems to view democratic checks and balances as nothing but an annoyance and obstacle, so eroding that fabric is just another win for him.

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Nov 14 2017

Fact-checking on Facebook

facebook-unlikeLast year Facebook announced that it was partnering with several outside news agencies, the Associated Press, Snopes, ABC News, PolitiFact and, to fact-check popular news articles and then provide a warning label for those articles on Facebook. How is that effort working out?

According to a recent survey, not so well. Yale researchers Rand and Pennycook found only tiny effects overall, and it’s possible there is a net negative effect from the warning labels. Some people just ignore the labels. Perhaps more significant, however, is the fact that fake news articles that were missed by the fact-checkers were more likely to be believed as real because they lacked the warning label. The fact-checkers could not possibly keep up with all the fake news, so they were overwhelmed and most of the dubious content not only made it through the filters, but benefited from a false implication of legitimacy.

Further, the Guardian reports that this arrangement between Facebook and these news outlets compromise the ability of those news outlets from being a proper watchdog on Facebook itself. If their journalists are being paid by Facebook to fact-check, then they have a conflict of interest when reporting on how Facebook is doing. This conflict is exacerbated by the fact that news organizations are hard-up for income, and could really use the extra income from Facebook.

So it seems that the fact-checking efforts of Facebook were insufficient to have any really benefit, and may have even backfired. Warning labels on dubious news articles may be the wrong approach. It’s simply too easy to foil this protection by overwhelming the system. You could even deliberately flood Facebook with outrageously fake news stories to serve as flack and provide cover for the propaganda you really want to get through. In the end the propaganda will be even more effective.

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Nov 13 2017

Raccoons Are Smart But Not Good Pets

raccoon-AesopsAnimal intelligence is fascinating for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it forces researchers to think carefully about what intelligence is. The comparison might also provide a window into what constitutes human intelligence in particular.

There is no question that humans have intellectual capabilities that no other species has. However, some animals are smarter in certain ways than you may imagine. Certain birds, like corvids (jays and crows) have demonstrated significant problem-solving capability, for example. Researchers are also finding that raccoons may be even smarter than we suspected.

One paradigm of animal intelligence research is known as the Aesop’s Fable test, based on the the story of the thirsty crow. In this tale a thirsty crow came upon a tall pitcher with water at the bottom, but it could not reach down the long neck to the water. So it dropped stones in the pitcher to raise the water level until it could reach. This behavior demonstrates creative problem-solving and some basic understanding of cause and effect. Corvids have the ability to pass this test – they can figure out how to use objects to raise the water level to gain access to water or food.

A recent study performed the same test on raccoons. They were given access to a long tube with marshmallows floating lower down, too low for them to reach. First they were shown how dropping stones would raise the water level. Two of eight raccoons tests were then able to use this effect to gain access to the marshmallows. Statistically this is not as good a performance as corvids, but at least some raccoons are smart enough to pass the test. Continue Reading »

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Nov 10 2017

Glyphosate Not Associated with Cancer

IARC-Headquarters_ExteriorIn March of 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), published their assessment on glyphosate, Monsanto’s popular weedkiller, classifying it as 2a – a probable carcinogen. This was like red meat to the anti-GMO crowd, and even sparked class action suits against Monsanto and may lead to banning use of the chemical in the EU.

There were significant problems with the IARC report, however. First – it is at odds with every other expert review of the scientific literature on glyphosate. I review the evidence here, citing many expert panel reviews, all conclude that the evidence does not support a link between glyphosate and risk of cancer. The IARC conclusion is a clear outlier, which reasonably prompts questions as to why their designation stands out.

We also need to put the IARC classification of 2a – probable carcinogen, into context. This is the same classification that the IARC gave to drinking hot beverages or eating red meat. Overall they tend to err on the side of caution when making their classification.

But there were problems that go beyond where the IARC sets their threshold for “probable.” Two main criticisms have emerged. The first is the lack of transparency. Reuters has published a series of articles on the issue, outlining, for example, that when the EPA reviewed the safety of glyphosate they also published a 1300 + page document that outlines the entire deliberative process. The IARC produced no such document.

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Nov 09 2017

Evolution Caught in the Act

The hypothesis that life on Earth as it is currently found is the result of biological evolution from a common ancestor over billions of years is supported by such a mountain of evidence that it can be treated as an established scientific fact. Further, it is now a fundamental organizing theory of biology.

This, of course, does not stop ideologically motivated denial. There are those who have been systematically misinformed about the evidence, and the nature of science itself. What they think they know about evolutionary theory they learned from secondary hostile sources. One of the common lies they are repeatedly told is that there are no transitional fossils.

This claim amazes me still, because the evidence is so easily accessible. Lists of transitional fossils are easy to find. One of my favorite examples is the evolution of birds, because the morphological transition from theropod dinosaurs to modern birds was so dramatic.

I also have to point out that this evidence represents a successful prediction of evolutionary theory. When Darwin first published his theory the fossil record was scant. Enough fossils had been discovered for scientists to see that life was dramatically changing over geological time, but the puzzle was mostly empty. There were not enough specimens to see connections between major groups. Evolutionary theory predicts that such connections would be found – and they were, and they continue to be.

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Nov 07 2017

Science-Based Veterinary Medicine

chiropractic_HorseThe Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) is a UK-based professional organization for veterinary surgeons and nurses. They describe their mission as:

We aim to enhance society through improved animal health and welfare. We do this by setting, upholding and advancing the educational, ethical and clinical standards of veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses.

They recently came out with a statement regarding complementary and alternative medicine, essentially setting the standard for their profession in the UK. There are some good parts to the statement, but also some dramatic weaknesses which are representative, in my opinion, of the broader issues of how academia is dealing with the CAM phenomenon.

The Case for Science-Based Medicine

Before we get to the statement, let me review my position on the matter. As many readers will likely know, I am a strong advocate for what I call science-based medicine. The SBM approach, at its core, is simple – we advocate for one science-based standard for the health-care profession. This means that treatments which are safe and effective are preferred over those that are either unsafe or ineffective. Effectiveness and safety, of course, occur on a continuum and so individual decisions need to be made based on an overall assessment of risk vs benefit.

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Nov 06 2017

US Government Report Affirms Climate Change

climate changeThe U.S. Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report was recently published, and its conclusions are crystal clear:

 This assessment concludes, based on extensive evidence, that it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.

That conclusion is nothing new to those following the science of climate change for the last couple decades or so. The more this question is studied, the more data is gathered, the firmer the conclusion becomes – the planet is warming due to human release of greenhouse gases, such as CO2. There are error bars on how much warming, and the exact effects are hard to predict, but that’s it. The probable range of warming and effects are not good, however. It will be bad, the only real debate is about how bad and how fast.

The conclusions of the report, therefore, at least scientifically, are not surprising. It was, however, politically surprising. The special report began in 2015, under Obama. Because of Trump’s stated position that global warming is a Chinese hoax, and his appointment of many global warming deniers to key positions, it was feared that his administration would slow or frustrate the publication of this report.

However, according to the NYT, Trump himself was simply unaware of the report. Further, the fate of the report was largely in the hands of those amenable to following the science, rather than putting a huge political thumb on the scale. As a result the report was not hampered or altered. It was approved by 13 agencies who reviewed its findings.

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Nov 03 2017

Consistency Bias

“Oceania was at war with Eurasia; therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.”

– George Orwell

persistence-of-memory-486x309In Orwell’s classic book, 1984, the totalitarian state controlled information and they used that power to obsessively manage public perception. One perception they insisted upon was that the state was consistent – never changing its mind or contradicting itself. This desire, in turn, is based on the premise that changing one’s mind is a sign of weakness. It is an admission of prior error or fault.

Unsurprisingly our perceptions of our own prior beliefs are biased in order to minimize apparent change, a recent study shows. The exact reason for this bias was not part of the study.

Researchers surveyed subjects as to their beliefs regarding the effectiveness of corporal punishment for children. This topic was chosen based on the assumption that most subjects would have little knowledge of the actual literature and would not have strongly held beliefs. Subjects were then given articles to read making the case for the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of spanking (either consistent with or contrary to their prior beliefs), and then their beliefs were surveyed again.

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