Apr 17 2015

Grab Your Torch and Pitchforks

I always find it disturbing to see people, especially in large crowds, apparently acting according to primitive emotions rather than enlightened thinking. It makes it seem like the veneer of civilization is paper thin, and we are not far removed from apes huddled around the monolith and hitting each other over the head with bones.

We can get on top of it, but that is a high energy state. Entropy is forever dragging us down to the lowest common denominator of tribalism, fear, disgust, and paranoia. As Sagan wrote in the Demon-Haunted World:

Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.It does seem, based upon a century of psychological research, that all that basic programming is still there in our brains.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”

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Apr 16 2015

Mission to Mars

Mars is an interesting place. The more we study the surface of the planet with our various robot labs, the more interesting it becomes. This is one of the reasons that it is very enticing to send people to Mars, but there is debate about the feasibility of any mission to Mars over the next few decades.

Life on Mars

Recently the Curiosity rover found evidence that suggests there might be briny liquid water just under the surface of Mars. When the temperature and humidity are just right, salts in the Martian soil could absorb moisture from the air creating a subsurface briny liquid water. This water would then evaporate again when temperatures rise during the day, creating a water cycle.

This would be a harsh environment for life, perhaps not compatible with life as we know it, but extremophiles have surprised us before. It is perhaps more likely that deeper down in the Martian dirt there is more permanent liquid water and more protection from cosmic rays, meaning that life could endure in slightly less extreme conditions.

There are also geological features that suggest recent flowing something, perhaps water bubbling up temporarily from below the ground, and flowing briefly before it evaporates in the thin Martian atmosphere.

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Apr 14 2015

FDA and Homeopathy

The skeptical community is abuzz with the announcement by the FDA’s announcement that they are reviewing the “regulatory framework” of homeopathic products and are open to public input. We have written about this at Science-Based Medicine, and as you can imagine, this is a serious topic of discussion among the editors.

Background

The FDA regulates food, drugs, medical devices, supplements, and cosmetics for the purpose of protecting the public health and safety. Congress created the FDA and determines its powers. In the 1938 FDA act, one Senator, Royal Copeland, who was a physician and homeopath, included in the bill that the provision that the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States (HPUS) would be included in the list of official drugs.

What this means exactly is that homeopathic products are automatically considered drugs by the FDA. Further, any new homeopathic product added to the HPUS in a supplement also counts. All homeopaths have to do, therefore, to get a homeopathic product listed as a drug by the FDA is write it down in one of their supplements to the HPUS. That’s it. No research is necessary, no assurance of safety or efficacy.

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Apr 13 2015

No Jab, No Pay

Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott has just announced a new policy that will go into effect January 2016 – the “no jab, no pay” policy. Under this policy parents who refuse to vaccinate their children will lose tax exemptions for children. This could cost them up to $11,000 per year (I have also seen estimates of up to $15,000) per child.

This new policy is reported to have bipartisan support and is supported by the Australian Medical Association.

The new policy would not apply to medical exemptions or religious exemptions, but the latter is enforced as a very narrow exemption.

Antivax parents are, of course, protesting, arguing that the new policy infringes on their rights as parents. But does it? The antvax community often makes the argument that they have the right as parents to make medical decisions for their children and the government cannot force them to vaccinate.

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Apr 07 2015

Rolling Stone and Journalism Failure

In November 2014 Rolling Stone magazine published an article called, “A Rape on Campus.” If you click on the link to that article today you are directed to another article on Rolling Stone: “A Rape on Campus,” What Went Wrong?

This one article may have triggered two important conversations in our society. The first was to push forward the conversation on the problem of rape on college campuses. This is a real and serious issue, but as is often the case when a new social issue comes to prominence the basic facts have not been fully vetted and worked through. There are many claims on all sides of the issue, and a lot of new data to sort through. For example, there is ongoing debate over the true incidence of rape on college campuses.

The article also unintentionally sparked a discussion of best journalistic practices. As the editor of Rolling Stone describes:

Last November, we published a story, ‘A Rape on Campus’ [RS 1223], that centered around a University of Virginia student’s horrifying account of her alleged gang rape at a campus fraternity house. Within days, commentators started to question the veracity of our narrative. Then, when The Washington Post uncovered details suggesting that the assault could not have taken place the way we described it, the truth of the story became a subject of national controversy.

Rolling Stone commissioned an independent journalistic investigation, which has now been published. The Columbia Report is a harsh indictment of the failures of the magazine, and a cautionary tale for all journalists.

So, what did go wrong? A New York Times editorial characterizes what went wrong as a failure of skepticism.

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Apr 06 2015

The Google University Effect

I remain endlessly fascinated with the incredible social experiment we have all been living through over the last decade (and I can say, if you are reading this, you are part of the experiment). The internet and social media have changed the way we access information and communicate. The traditional top-down systems of information and opinion dispersion are eroding, being replaced by a largely bottom-up free-for-all.

I think we’re still figuring out all the consequences of these changes, both intended and unintended. One effect that has been casually observed is that many people believe they have expertise they do not have because they have been able to do “research” online. The democratization of information has led to a false sense of democratization of expertise.

While free access to information is great, there is no systematic way in which the public is taught how to use this information to maximal benefit, and avoid the most common pitfalls. Schools are generally behind the curve in terms of teaching students how to manage their online information access. Most adults were done with their formal education before the wave of social media.

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Apr 03 2015

There is No Problem with Atheism

CNN published an opinion piece yesterday: Deepak Chopra: The problem with atheism. I could not help but to read it, just as you have to slow down to look at the results of a serious car crash. Go ahead, Dr. Chopra, inform me about my own belief system, which you have demonstrated over the years you clearly do not understand.

He starts off reasonable enough. In fact, if I didn’t know the article was written by Chopra it could be confused for a reasonable position:

We all fall somewhere on the sliding scale of belief and unbelief. Secular society has sharpened our demand for truth. To me, this is a positive development. If belief in God can’t stand up to proof, it won’t sustain a person through difficult times.

It’s always good to recognize a false dichotomy. Endorsing a demand for truth – also good. I take issue with his conclusion, however. I think supernatural beliefs can serve their emotional purpose whether or not they stand up to skeptical scrutiny. “Proof” is, by definition, irrelevant to faith, which is belief without proof.

The statement gets to the core of what I think is (at least one of) the problem with Chopra. He wants to be able to prove, or at least logically demonstrate, that his particular faith is truth. This is a common state, but ultimately it is folly. Either you follow logic, reason, and evidence to whatever conclusion it reaches, or you don’t. Faith begins with the conclusion. This is not a false dichotomy but a genuine stark difference in approach.

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Apr 02 2015

Lunar Cycle Effects Busted

When I was an intern doing a rotation in the emergency department, on one particularly busy shift a nurse commented (to no one in particular) that it must be a full moon. I habitually look at the moon and generally know what phase it is in (right now it is a waxing gibbous, almost full), and so I knew at the time that in fact there was a crescent moon in the sky. I informed her of this. She gave a disappointed look and then went on with her work without any apparent further thought on the matter.

The episode struck me at the time. It seemed to me that I just witnessed a clear example of confirmation bias – what if it had been near a full moon? That would have confirmed her prior belief in a lunar effect, while this negative correlation was brushed aside and likely did not have any negative effect on her belief. (Although, my interpretation and memory of this event can itself be an example of confirmation bias regarding confirmation bias.)

Belief in the so-called lunar effect, that the phases of the moon exert an influence on human behavior with the most common element being a full-moon inducing extreme behavior, is very common. In my experience it is one of the most common pseudoscientific beliefs I encounter in the general public. One survey indicates that 43% of adults believe in the lunar effect, especially mental health professionals, including nurses.

When someone expresses such a belief to me I often use it as an opening to discuss skeptical principles. While belief in the lunar effect is widespread, it is usually not part of any emotionally held religious or ideological belief. It is therefore an excellent teaching opportunity. One question I like to ask is, “how do you think that works?” The most common answer I receive is probably the least plausible – that the tidal effects of the moon influence the brain because the brain is sitting in water (spinal fluid).

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Mar 30 2015

Peer-Review Scandal

Biomed Central, a UK company that publishes 277 peer-reviewed journals, announced that it is retracting 43 articles because of “fabricated” peer-review.

Peer-review is a process that many scientific journals use to vet submitted articles. Typically an editor will review the article but also send it out to two or three experts in the subject matter and have them take a close look at the article to make sure everything is high quality. Most submitted articles will come back with required changes before acceptance. Of course many articles are rejected outright.

The process is not perfect, but it is one critical layer of quality control. The “peer-reviewed literature” is therefore a body of evaluated knowledge that has met at least a minimal standard of quality.

Of course, your mileage may vary. Not all peer-reviewed journals are as rigorous. Also, whenever there is any system in place to separate the wheat from the chaff, someone will try to game the system for their own advantage. There also needs to be some monitoring or policing in place to ensure the integrity of the system.

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Mar 27 2015

Dark Matter Collisions

The existence of dark matter is one of the coolest science stories of my lifetime. When I was growing up I was in love with pretty much every field of science, but particularly with astronomy, and at that time we had no idea that 85% of the matter in the universe even existed. We now know that the astronomy I was so fascinated with was actually the study of 15% of the matter in the universe. If you count dark energy, which makes up 68% of the universe, then dark matter makes up 27%, and everything that we thought was the entire universe is actually only 5% of the universe.

This story dramatically contradicts every crank and pseudoscientist who tries to tell you that scientists only support the status quo. In my lifetime we discovered 95% of the universe, without any prior theory telling us to expect this result. (Dark matter was hinted at in observations of galaxy rotation, but not generally accepted.) The discoveries were based on unexpected observations, that broke our models of how we thought the universe worked. Scientists met these new ideas with skepticism, but explored them further, and were slowly convinced by mounting evidence. Now dark matter and dark energy are generally accepted – because the evidence convinced the scientists. That is how science works, kids, so don’t believe the cranks.

Dark matter is a powerful idea, even though we currently don’t know what it is, because it not only explains observations that otherwise don’t make sense, it makes predictions. Predictions are the key to scientific progress. They provide the opportunity to test ideas against reality. If an idea does not make any testable predictions, right or wrong it’s just worthless. (Not even wrong.)

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