Aug 18 2017

A New Option for Grid Storage

Last year I wrote about the various grid energy storage options, adding a newly proposed option – chilled air. I am now writing to add another new option to the list – concrete gravity trains. But first, let me review the background.

We need massive grid storage for two main reasons. The first is peak shaving. Energy demand peaks in the early evening, which means we need to have the capacity to meet all of peak demand, even though demand the rest of the day is lower. Peak power is less efficient and clean, because the more efficient energy is used preferentially for baseload production. We dip increasingly into the less efficient energy options when necessary to meet peak demand.

Grid storage could shift energy produced during low demand and then draw upon it during peak demand. Optimally enough grid storage could completely flatten power production, increasing overall efficiency.

The second reason for grid storage is the increasing use of renewable energy sources like wind and solar which are intermittent and not on-demand. This varies by season and location, but generally peak demand occurs just after sunset, when the sun is not shining. No matter how much solar and wind energy we produce, without grid storage we would need to maintain all of our peak capacity. You can encourage people to shift their energy use to times when energy is produced, but it’s hard to get everyone to do something.

The bottom line is that if we ever want to get to significant renewable energy production we will need significant grid storage.  Continue Reading »

Comments: 29

Aug 17 2017

Alternative Medicine Kills

alternative medicine killsI find it ironic that proponents of alternative medicine often accuse their critics (including yours truly) of not caring about patients. They try to take the moral high ground, claiming they are just trying to help people anyway they can.

Of course, this entirely misses the point of the criticism (which is either deliberate or convenient). Proponents of science-based medicine want one thing – the best chance that our treatments are safe and effective. Determining whether a treatment or any medical intervention has more benefit than risk can be very tricky – much more tricky than most non-experts realize. That is precisely why we need the best science available to help us make these critical determinations.

Meanwhile, alternative medicine proponents, it seems to me, fall into two broad camps: those who simply don’t understand the science of medicine, and con-artists. This is actually a continuum, with many people having a combination of naivete and a willingness to cut corners or engage in a little deception. The one thing they don’t have, however, is any legitimate moral high ground. They are either being reckless, despite their intentions, or they are robbing people of their health and money.

For some so-called alternative treatments there is little quality scientific evidence to evaluate claims. For such treatments we can still make judgments based upon plausibility, but such arguments are rarely compelling to the lay public. We also have an extensive history over the last century at least of new possible medical treatments. We know from experience that most new treatments will not turn out to be safe and effective. So, just playing the odds, any new untested implausible treatment is overwhelmingly likely to be either worthless or harmful. But again, people buy lottery tickets.

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Comments: 3

Aug 15 2017

More on the Backfire Effect

mythsOne critical question for the skeptical enterprise is the notion of a backfire effect – when someone is given factual information about a myth that they believe, do they update and correct their beliefs or do they dig in their heels and believe the myth even stronger? Some studies worryingly show that sometimes people dig in their heels, or they simply misremember the corrective information.

A new study sheds further light on this question, although it is not, by itself, the definitive final answer (one study rarely is).

For background, prior studies have show several effects of interest. First, from memory research we know that people store facts separate from the source of those facts and from the truth-status of those facts. That is why people will often say, “I heard somewhere that…” They may not even remember if the tidbit is true or not, but the idea itself is much easier to remember, especially if it is dramatic or resonates with some narrative or belief.

So, if you tell someone that there is no evidence linking vaccines and autism, they are most likely to remember something about a link between vaccines and autism, but not remember where the information came from or if the link is real. That, at least, is the concern.

The research on this topic is actually a bit complex because there are numerous variables. There are factors about the subjects themselves, their age, their baseline beliefs, their intentions, and the intensity of their beliefs. There are different types of information to give: positive information (vaccines are safe), dispelling negative information, graphic information, and fear-based information (pictures of sick unvaccinated kids). There are different topics – political vs scientific, with different levels of emotional attachment to the beliefs. There is belief vs intention – do you think vaccines are safe vs do you intend to vaccinate your kids? Finally there is time, immediate vs delayed effects.

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Comments: 10

Aug 14 2017

Tribal Epistemology

Tribalism550In the early days of my skeptical career I spent time investigating and deconstructing classic pseudosciences, like belief in Bigfoot, astrology, UFOs, and ghosts. I was often challenged as to why I even bothered – these are all silly but harmless beliefs. Is it really worth the time to dissect exactly why they are nonsense?

But my fellow skeptics and I knew the answer. We were interested not so much in the beliefs themselves but the believers. How does someone get to the point that they believe that the relative position of the stars at the moment of their birth could influence the wiring in their brain and even their destiny? At the time I think the answer most activist skeptics, including myself, would give was scientific illiteracy. People simply lack knowledge of science and fills the gaps with entertaining fantasy.

Lack of scientific knowledge definitely plays a role, and is an important problem to address, but it was naive to think it was the main cause. Such explanations do not survive long with contact with actual believers. It becomes rapidly clear that the primary malfunction of true believers is not a lack of information or scientific savvy. It’s something else entirely.

My explanations for why people believe nonsense then evolved into stage 2 – a lack of critical thinking skills. Scientific knowledge needs to be coupled with an understanding of epistemology (how we know what we know), logic, cognitive biases and heuristics. This view, that belief in nonsense is mainly a failure of critical thinking, is a lot closer to the truth. Our strategy for fighting against belief in pseudoscience and magic evolved into promoting not only scientific literacy but critical thinking skills.

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Comments: 143

Aug 11 2017

Alex Jones – Snake Oil Salesman

Patent-medicine5If Alex Jones lived 150 years ago he would have traveled around with a horse-drawn wagon selling his patent medicine with a medicine show featuring amazing stories about hacking his way through the jungle to find cures and sitting down with Indian medicine-men to learn their secrets.

Today he has his own TV show where he tells amazing stories of conspiracies in order to sell dubious supplements.

I have to admit, Jones had me fooled for a while. I was only paying slight attention to the nonsense he spewed on InfoWars, enough to know that he was a raving conspiracy theorist. I paid closer attention when he claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a false flag operation. Anyone as popular and flamboyant as Jones is likely supplementing their true belief with showmanship. I now, however, think it’s more likely that Jones is pure showmanship.

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Comments: 10

Aug 10 2017

Are Logical Fallacies Useful?

logical-fallacies-everywhereUnderstanding the nature of argument and specific logical fallacies is a cornerstone of critical thinking. I was therefore surprised when I read an article by a philosopher, Maarten Boudry, titled: “The Fallacy Fork: Why It’s Time to Get Rid of Fallacy Theory.”

Boudry lays out what he feels is a critical weakness in using the notion of logical fallacies to police sloppy thinking and his solution is to abandon the notion of informal logical fallacies altogether. I strongly disagree, and ironically I think Boudry is committing a couple logical fallacies in his argument.

The Fallacy Fork

The basis of his position is the notion of what he and his coauthors on a 2015 paper call “The Fallacy Fork.” The basic idea is that informal logical fallacies are highly context dependent. Let’s take as an example the fallacy of confusing correlation with causation. Because this reasoning is context dependent there is a spectrum in terms of how absolutely one makes this argument.

So, someone might say that correlation is always due to direct causation, which is clearly not true. They might also take the position that one particular causation must be true because of a correlation, which again is demonstrably false. There is no legitimate “always” or “must” with such arguments.

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Comments: 30

Aug 07 2017

Token Skepticism about Exorcism

I was interviewed a few months ago by a journalist, John Blake, doing a piece on exorcism. That article has now been published, and I’m afraid it’s disappointing in all the predictable ways.

The article is mostly about Dr. Richard Gallagher, a Yale-trained psychiatrist who believes in demonic possession. Gallagher is like catnip to a journalist – someone with credentials who has a fantastical story to tell. Is demonic possession real? This Yale psychiatrist says, “Yes.”

I have already deconstructed Gallagher’s claims, and the CNN article provides nothing new. Gallagher’s evidence that some people are actually possessed is predictably thin and proves only his lack of critical thinking. He cites the claim that possessed people display hidden knowledge, but his examples are far more easily explained as cold reading. He cites displays of extraordinary strength, which is not unusual for ordinary people under the influence of adrenaline.

He also cites hearsay – other people have told him they saw levitation, although he never witnessed it himself.

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Comments: 41

Aug 04 2017

Lectin – The New Food Bogeyman

red-kidney-beans-on-a-wooden-tableDo you want to get rich on the internet? Here is a simple formula. First, purge yourself of any ethics or scruples you may have. Suppress any urge for intellectual honesty.

Next, pretend you are an expert. Actual expertise is not necessary. In fact, you don’t even need a basic 5th grade level of knowledge. There are titles you can grant yourself to easily accomplish this step: life coach, nutritionist, health ranger, food chick, whatever.

Now you are almost there. All you have to do is create a demand for some useless snake oil that you can sell online for a ridiculous markup. At this point you might be thinking – why would anyone buy my useless snake oil? It’s actually a lot easier than you think, and marketers have been using some version of this strategy since the barter system was invented. In a word – fear.

Just make your marks (I mean customers) afraid of something and then sell them the solution. It’s easier than you might think, everything you need is already on the internet. Recently John Oliver showed how Alex Jones uses crazy conspiracy theories to stoke fear and rage in his audience then sell them water filters and supplements as a solution. He is also selling a conspiracy culture and convinces his gullible audience that they need to support him so that he can get the truth out there. Jones can even admit it’s all an act and it doesn’t matter, because he successfully created an environment in which facts and truth are whatever he says they are – a marketer’s dream.

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Comments: 11

Aug 03 2017

Chunking

brainpuzzleIf I gave you a string of digits to remember, how many do you think you could handle? For example, try to remember the number – 8945557302. That’s 10 digits. Most people can handle only 7, and there is a specific neurological reason for this. Our working memory is wired for about 7 bits of information (give or take 1-2 bits). Now, try to remember the number as 894-555-7302. That is recognizable as a phone number, and despite the fact that the individual digits exceed our bit capacity, most people can remember such numbers.

Grouping bits of information into recognizable patterns in order to make them easier to remember is a phenomenon called chunking, first described by George Miller in his 1956 book, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information.

Chunking is best established as a mnemonic device. Miller and others conducted experiments to see how much chunking as a strategy could extend the limits of human memory. For example, the typical number of binary bits, such as Morse code, people can remember is 9. However, someone who understands morse code will chunk the individual bits into groupings of three, each one representing a letter. They will then group letters into words and words into sentences.  This type of chunking extended memory from 9 to 40 binary bits.

Another study involved a runner tasked to remember strings of digits, again starting with a typical digit span of 7. However, he was encouraged to chunk the digits into race times – a meaningful pattern with which he was very familiar. With a little practice he increased his digit span to 80 numbers.

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Comments: 16

Aug 01 2017

Snake Oil 1970s Style

laetrileOn a recent post I repeated my long challenge to name any alternative medicine treatment that has been rejected by CAM proponents because of evidence of lack of efficacy. I am not aware of any. It doesn’t seem to ever happen – because alternative medicine is disconnected from evidence and reality.

As if to make my point, I came across this article on Buzzfeed about laetrile – yeah, laetrile. For those of you old enough to remember, laetrile is a fake cancer cure that was already being made fun of on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s (the original cast). I haven’t heard of this one for a while, but apparently it is making a comeback.

The story of laetrile, in addition to demonstrating yet again that snake oil peddlers are con artists, also showcases how the world has changed in the last forty years when it comes to health fraud (hint – not for the better). Continue Reading »

Comments: 9

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