Nov 21 2014

How to Choose Science Advisers

I recently discussed the decision of the EU president to eliminate the post of the EUC science adviser. It seems that a major factor in eliminating the position was the unpopular pro-GMO views of the person holding the post, Professor Anne Glover.

Now the US Congress has just passed a bill that would change the way appointments are made to the science advisory panel of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Two aspects of the bill are receiving critical attention, however, reading the text of the bill itself makes it unclear to me what the net effect would be.

The first is a provision allowing onto the advisory panel experts with ties to the industry that is being regulated. The White House claims that this provision would, “negatively affect the appointment of experts and would weaken the scientific independence and integrity of the SAB.”

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. said to the bill’s sponsor, “I get it, you don’t like science, and you don’t like science that interferes with the interests of your corporate clients. But we need science to protect public health and the environment.”

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Nov 20 2014

How Much Water?

Water is the focus of a great deal of medical myths and snakeoil. This is perhaps due to water’s health halo – it is the very essence of purity, the elixir of life. I wonder if there is an evolved psychological connection to water. The idea of drinking dirty or contaminated water seems to be especially disgusting, while pure clean water is the most wholesome thing in the world.

Perhaps this is why there are so many “magic water” scams out there.  There is structured water, energized water, and ionized water. Homeopathy is essentially magic water with memory.

There is also a persistent belief that simply drinking more water has untold health benefits. You have probably heard that you should drink eight 8 oz glasses of water per day to stay healthy. This, however, is a myth, in that the 64 oz figure is not based on any evidence.

Your water requirements will vary, depending upon your body size, level of activity, humidity and ambient temperature. It will also depend on the type of food you eat. We get on average about 20% of our water intake from our food, but this will also vary depending on the type of food you eat.

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Nov 18 2014

Perception vs Facts

I was recently in a conversation with someone about the alleged threat that Muslims present to Western societies. I made the point that not all Muslims are radicals, and it’s not valid to condemn the entire group based upon the actions of their most radical members. They countered that “90%” of Muslims were radicals.

Obviously, they made this figure up on the spot for rhetorical effect. But this was their perception, shaped, very likely, by the type of news they generally consume.

In addition to the biasing effect that media can have on our perceptions of reality, there is a day-to-day subtle confirmation bias that colors our perceptions. It is very true that “believing is seeing” – we tend to notice, remember, and accept observations that seem to confirm (or can be interpreted to confirm) our internal model of reality. We tend to ignore or (more often) dismiss observations that seem to contradict our internal narrative. They are reinterpreted, or treated as “exceptions” (assuming the rule to which this new evidence would be an exception).

The good news is that today we have rapid access to objective factual information like never before. I love whipping out my smartphone and fact-checking in the middle of a conversation. This access to information should also have a humbling effect, and should motivate people to question the “facts” that they have rattling around in their brains. Don’t trust anything unless you have a recent and reliable reference.

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Nov 17 2014

Politics vs Science

What happens when your political or ideological views are contradicted by the consensus of scientific opinion regarding the evidence? It appears that a common reaction (depending on how strongly held the ideological views are) is to reject science. Not only do people reject the science specific to their issue, they reject science itself. They reason that if science disagrees with a view they strongly hold (and therefore “know” to be true) then science must be broken.

The latest example of this comes from the European Union. The role of chief science adviser, held by Professor Anne Glover, was recently axed by EU President Jean-Claude Juncker. There are conflicting reports as to the exact reason, but reading through everything it seems pretty clear to me. Her advice on the science, specifically with regard to genetically modified organisms (GMO) was politically inconvenient.

According to speeches given by Glover, her position, created at the beginning of 2012, was always a bit contentious. She said in a speech in New Zealand:

“I would say in-house politics did hamper the efficiency of the role. Many people in the Commission simply did not want a Chief Scientific Adviser, so it was a little bit difficult. I did have the necessary independence but I was often excluded from the essential information.”

She also recounted.

“I turned up and it was almost as if they had forgotten I was coming,” she said, adding that she did not meet her immediate boss – the then EU President, José Manuel Barroso – until day 51 because he “had other things on his mind”.

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Nov 14 2014

The Seduction of Cancer Quackery

Here’s another instance of the narrative clashing with reality.

I wrote recently about an 11-year-old girl, a member of Canada’s Six Nations community, who has leukemia. Her parents, concerned about the side effects of chemotherapy, would rather treat her with traditional and alternative medicine. They are fighting for their right to do so, and the court seems sympathetic to the rights of the parents to express their cultural identity.

Meanwhile, it seems clear to me that the parents, and more importantly the girl, are simply being victimized by a charlatan, who has nothing to do with their cultural identity.

The seduction, really a con, is fairly straight forward. A seriously ill child is every parent’s worst nightmare, putting them into an extremely vulnerable position. Cancer is especially frightening, and chemotherapy, while it can be effective, is harsh. Leukemia is very treatable, and the girl’s doctors give her a 90-95% chance of being completely cured with a standard course of chemotherapy. However, she will have serious side effects from the chemo, and that is hard for any parent to watch. It can be an emotional dilemma (I think intellectually it’s a no-brainer, but emotionally tough).

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Nov 13 2014

Food Babe Misinformation on Travel

The “Food Babe” is an excellent object lesson in why people who are not qualified should not be dispensing advice to the public. Spouting uninformed opinions is one thing, but presenting information in an authoritative manner as if from an expert should not be attempted by the non-expert.

If you want to dispense useful information on your blog or website (not just opinion) then it is appropriate to cite credible sources and experts and to accurately convey their information. “These are the facts concerning flu vaccines, according to the CDC,” then quote the CDC directly, with a link to the source.

Unfortunately the web is cluttered with people who really have no idea what they are talking about giving advice as if it were authoritative, and often that advice is colored by either an ideological agenda or a commercial interest. The Food Babe is now the poster child for this phenomenon.

She recently published advice for healthy traveling. The page has since been deleted, apparently in response to criticism, but it is cached here. The FB’s advice contains some real howlers, demonstrating that she lacks even the most basic scientific literacy.

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Nov 11 2014

Glenn Beck’s Medical Narrative

Recently Glenn Beck has revealed that he has been struggling with medical issues for the last five years or so. On his show he states:

“Tonight’s show is not for the casual fan or, really, anyone in the press,” Beck said. “This is a one-on-one between friends. No one in the media ever does a show like this, because it is crazy. … But I believe that by not talking with you openly, it destroys everything of real meaning and value — namely, our trust.”

What follows is a common narrative we have heard before. Beck was very sick with a mysterious illness. His symptoms were mainly pain and numbness in the hands and feet, lack of sleep, mental fog, muscle problems, and vocal cord paralysis. He saw many doctors, who were unable to make a definitive diagnosis, while he slowly deteriorated.

Finally he saw a maverick doctor with unconventional treatments. He was able to explain all of Beck’s symptoms, and gave him a comprehensive treatment program which has reversed Beck’s illness. Now Beck is back with a “clean bill of health.”

Even though I am a neurologist and I have my suspicions about what was really going on, I am not going to attempt to diagnose Beck from afar. What I want to discuss is the issue of public figures using their own health to tell a moral narrative. It’s very problematic for several reasons.

The first is that medical stories, especially those involving a complex or difficult-to-diagnose condition, are, well, complex. There are often many nuances to such stories and they are not easily captured with simplistic narratives. For example, it is very difficult to know what Beck’s various physicians were thinking without either talking to them directly or having access to his medical record. Second-hand reports of the what other doctors are thinking are never, in my experience, accurate.

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Nov 10 2014

Feeling of Presence Induced in the Lab

I have investigated a few hauntings and ghostly phenomenon. In reality I was investigating the ghost-hunters who were investigating alleged hauntings. A few patterns quickly emerged. One is that actual sightings and reported events tended to cluster around a few individuals, or even one individual. Another is that such events never occurred when there was a skeptical investigator present.

Also very interesting, however, was that the real interesting stuff did not start happening until the early morning hours, such as 2 or 3 in the morning. Ghost hunters invent lore to explain this phenomenon (the haunting hours), but my hypothesis is that this is the perfect time for sleep deprivation to be taking its toll.

When the evidence for a phenomenon is reported subjective experience, we need to ask if those experiences are being generated by something happening outside the person, or just inside their brain. When the brain is sleep-deprived, it can become glitchy. We can fall asleep briefly without realizing it. We can start to slide into a dream state, and might even experience a fusion of the waking and dream state, even to the point of hallucinations.

One common report is the feeling of presence (FoP) – the sense that there is another entity in the room with us, although we can’t quite see it as it is lurking just at the edge of our vision. I have experienced this myself, during hypnagogic episodes when I am very sleep deprived.

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Nov 07 2014

Solution Aversion and Motivated Reasoning

Anyone paying the slightest attention has likely realized that people tend to hold positions in line with their general world view. In the US, for example, political conservatives tend to hold conservative opinions, while political liberals tend to hold liberal opinions. This is true even when the topic at hand is scientific or factual, and not a matter of value or opinion.

Whether the issue is climate change, GMO, gun control, nuclear power, the death penalty, or biological facts surrounding pregnancy and fetal development, your political ideology is likely to determine your scientific opinions.  Further, depending on how strongly held the political values are, facts are not very helpful in changing opinions. Presenting fact may actually backfire, motivating people to dig in their heels. 

All of this is old news to readers of the skeptical literature. The basic phenomenon at work here is motivated reasoning, which is a catchall covering the suite of biases and cognitive flaws that lead people to arrive at confident conclusions they wish to be true, rather than objectively following facts and logic wherever it leads. Further, as I discussed yesterday, the process of motivated reasoning leads us to a false confidence in our conclusions. We all think we have facts and logic on our side.

A recent paper on the issue defines motivated reasoning this way:

Of importance, recent evidence has demonstrated that political ideology, defined as “an interrelated set of moral and political attitudes that possesses cognitive, affective, and motivational components,” can similarly guide, funnel, and constrain the processing of information and alter behavior.

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Nov 06 2014

Lessons from Dunning-Kruger

In 1999 psychologist David Dunning and his graduate student Justin Kruger published a paper in which they describe what has come to be known (appropriately) as the Dunning-Kruger effect.  In a recent article discussing his now famous paper, Dunning summarizes the effect as:

“…incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are,”

He further explains:

“What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

As you can see in the chart above, the most competent individuals tend to underestimate their relative ability a little, but for most people (the bottom 75%) they increasingly overestimate their ability, and everyone thinks they are above average. I sometimes hear the effect incorrectly described as, “the more incompetent you are, the more knowledgeable you think you are.” As you can see, self-estimates do decrease with decreasing knowledge, but the gap between performance and self-assessment increase as you decrease in performance.

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