Archive for March, 2012

Mar 29 2012

Perception and Publication Bias

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The psychological literature is full of studies that demonstrate that our biases affect our perception of the world. In fact psychologists have defined many specific biases that affect not only how we see but how we think about the world. Confirmation bias, for example, is the tendency to notice, accept, and remember data that confirms what we already believe, and to ignore, forget, or explain away data that is contradictory to our beliefs.

Balcetis and Dunning have published a series of five studies that add to this literature by showing what they call “wishful seeing.” In their studies they found that people perceive desirable items as being physically closer to them than less desirable items. This finding is plausible and easy to believe for a skeptic steeped in knowledge of cognitive flaws and biases. But is this finding itself reliable? Psychologists familiar with the history of this question might note that similar ideas were researched in the 1950s and ultimately rejected. But that aside, can we analyze the data from Balcetis and Dunning and make conclusions about how reliable it is?

Recently Gregory Francis did just that, revealing an interesting aspect of the “wishful seeing” data that calls it into question.  Ironically the fact that Balcetis and Dunning published the results of five studies may have weakened their data rather than strengthen it. The reason is publication bias.

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34 responses so far

Mar 27 2012

Tennessee’s Anti-Evolution Bill

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Creationists continue their assault on the teaching of evolution, this time in the home state of the Scopes Monkey trial – Tennessee. The state senate passed bill 893, which will now go back to the house. The bill reflects the current strategy of creationists to sneak creationist arguments into the public school, or at least water down the teaching of evolution. The bill offers this justification for why it is needed:

(1) An important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens;
(2) The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy; and
(3) Some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects

The first sentence is certainly true, but begs the question of whether this bill will serve that purpose. Ironically this bill is directly opposed to the purpose of educating students who are scientifically literate and can think critically. This may have something to do with the fact that the creationists supporting this bill generally cannot think critically and are scientifically illiterate – at least when it comes to the topic of evolution.

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39 responses so far

Mar 26 2012

Escape to Newage Mountain

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Part of the human struggle is to understand the world around us, to understand ourselves, and to have some level of control of our lives by being able to predict at least the basic patterns and rhythms of the world. Ancient cultures made calendars and monuments to help them predict the seasons, for example. Accurate knowledge is difficult, however, especially since we live in a world that is far more complex than the one in which our poor monkey brains evolved.

One advantage of the skeptical world view is that it seeks to understand the weaknesses and biases of human cognition, and it respects accurate knowledge over our emotional desires and needs. Skeptics attempt to see the world as it actually is, not how they might want it to be. Examples of what can happen when you take an unskeptical view abound.

Take, for example, the people gathering at the small French village of Bugarach. In their attempts to understand the world and have a sense of control of their lives by predicting important events in the future, they have come to the come to the conclusion that the world is going to end on December 21, 2012. The end of the world is a pretty big event, and if you truly believed this was going to happen that would be very disturbing. It is no surprise, therefore, that this commune of New Age believers gathering in Bugarach have a second belief that is their salvation.

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15 responses so far

Mar 22 2012

How Electroconvulsive Therapy Works

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Electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, has been used for about 70 years and yet remains a controversial treatment. There is no real controversial over whether or not ECT works for depression – it is highly effective. The controversy is over the invasiveness and side effects. The controversy is also partly driven by the fact that we’re not sure how it works, so a new study shedding light on this question may change the debate.

ECT is the application of an electrical current to the temples in order to induce a seizure. It is used in severely depressed patients who are not responding to medication and therapy. The major side effect is memory loss, which can be significant. Over the years researchers have discovered how to make the procedure less and less invasive and traumatic. Forget that scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, that’s old school. Patient are now given medication so that they are sedated and paralyzed so that they don’t convulse. Further, researchers learned that doing ECT to one hemisphere is just as effective as two, with fewer side effects. Researchers continue to tweak the dose of ECT to find the optimal benefit with least side effects, but there is no way with current ECT to eliminate the side effects, specifically the memory loss.

It has not been know exactly how ECT works. It is known that ECT reduces brain activity and raises seizure threshold (makes it less likely to have a seizure).  This implies that overall neuronal activity is reduced, so perhaps ECT is inhibiting overactivity in a part of the brain that is driving the depression. That hypothesis is supported by a recent study that uses fMRI scanning to look at brain activity in nine patients with major depression before and after ECT. They found:

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144 responses so far

Mar 20 2012


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Felix Baumgartner is attempting to break the world record for the highest skydive ever. He recently completed a test dive from 71,500ft (22km), putting him in the top three. The purpose of the dive was to test out all of his equipment before he attempts the record breaking dive of 120,000ft later in 2012.

The current record is held by Joe Kittinger, a US Air Force Colonel who jumped from 102,800ft in 1960. At that altitude the air is very thin and cold, so the equivalent of a space suit is required to survive the trip up and down.

Baumgartner, a 42 year old Austrian, said after his test jump that the cold was “hard to handle” and that they may need to work on that problem before the big jump.

When discussing the upcoming jump on a recent episode of the SGU we commented that the high altitude jump is very dangerous. Kittinger, in fact, spun out of control at one point and blacked out. The details, however, are a bit different from what we discussed.

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19 responses so far

Mar 19 2012

Galileo Syndrome and the Principle of Exclusion

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The other night I was looking through a telescope at Jupiter and Venus with my daughters (they are next to each other and in good view – the planets, not my daughters). These are the very two planets that Galileo viewed with a telescope that ultimately led him to conclude that not everything in the universe revolves about the earth. Venus goes through phases, like the moon, and Galileo concluded that it must go around the Sun. Around Jupiter he discovered four moons that clearly were revolving about Jupiter. It was exciting to show my daughters the very thing that led to such a profound change in our view of the universe and our place in it.

This led to a discussion of Galileo. I believe I am one of the many scientists and skeptics who independently observed that cranks of various kinds have a tendency to compare themselves to the great Italian astronomer. Galileo Galilei was persecuted and his claims were dismissed out of hand, the logic goes, and so when the crank’s claims are likewise dismissed they feel that means they must be analogous to Galileo in other ways. There are multiple problems with the line of reasoning, however.

The definitive assessment of this comparison comes from the original version of the movie, Bedazzled (highly recommended). Dudley Moore’s character calls Satan a nutcase (for claiming to be Satan), and Satan replies, “They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud and Galileo.” Moore then replies, “They said it of a lot of nutcases too.”

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20 responses so far

Mar 16 2012

UFO over Chilean Air Base

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It seems the HuffPo, not content to promote medical pseudoscience, is branching out into UFO nuttery. UFO author Leslie Kean, blogging in the Huff Po Science section, give a breathless and completely gullible account of a recent apparent UFO encounter over an air base in Santiago. You can watch the video for yourself and decide how impressive it is. View the video before reading on, as it will put everything into context.

Kean gives us this quick summary of the UFO situation:

As agreed by authorities around the world, these truly unexplainable unidentified flying objects appear solid, metallic and luminous, able to operate with speeds and maneuvers that defy the laws of physics. And, most chilling of all, they often behave as if under intelligent control.

Let’s count the logical fallacies she packed into this one paragraph. First she opens up with an argument from authority (even using the term). I doubt there is any consensus among world governments or “authorities” (whichever authorities she is referring to) that UFOs are space craft. There is certainly no scientific consensus that this is the case. But even if your average politician thought that UFOs were alien craft – so what. Politicians are generally not scientists and not exactly authorities on such topics.

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30 responses so far

Mar 15 2012

Neutrino Communication

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I do not envision a day anytime in the foreseeable future when the average person can take out a cell-phone sized communication device that operates using neutrino signals. Nor is Geordi La Forge’s visor, which can see neutrinos, ever to become a reality.  The problem with neutrinos is that they interact very weakly with matter. But perhaps this can also be an advantage. A group of University of Rochester researchers think so.

Neutrinos are nearly massless particles that travel at nearly the speed of light. (Reports of neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light have been premature, and will likely not pan out.) As their name implies, they are electrically neutral. They interact with matter only through the weak nuclear force, which means they interact very little.  The so-called “mean free path” of neutrinos through solid lead is more than a light year. In other words – on average a neutrino would travel through more than a light year of lead before interacting with a nucleus.

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11 responses so far

Mar 13 2012

JPLs Firing of Coppedge

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David Coppedge is suing his former employer, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, for demoting him in 2009 and then firing him in January of 2011. According to Coppedge he was demoted then fired because of his religious beliefs. He is an evangelical Christian who promotes belief in intelligent design. The case raises an interesting question about freedom of religion vs professionalism, but first let’s go over the details of the case in a bit more detail.

David Coppedge started working for NASA at the JPL in 1996 as a subcontractor. He was then hired full time in 2003 to work on the Cassini mission, and was functioning as a team leader. In 2009 he was demoted from the team leader position because, as NASA claims, of reported complaints from his coworkers of harassment. The nature of the harassment was proselytizing about his beliefs, specifically Intelligent Design (ID) and other evangelical beliefs, such as opposing gay rights. Coppedge sued NASA and the JPL for this demotion, and then amended the suit after he was fired in 2011. He was fired as part of a larger lay off  of 246 positions due to budget cuts and downsizing.

So – NASA/JPL’s position is that Coppedge was demoted for harassing coworkers, and they felt he could not function effectively in a team leader position, and then he was fired as part of a larger round of  downsizing.  Coppedge’s position is that the demotion and the firing were a result of discrimination against his religious views, that he was singled out.

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141 responses so far

Mar 12 2012


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You can find almost anything on YouTube. I can imagine a future historian analyzing the millions of videos from a certain period of time, using it as a window into our contemporary society. I further imagine some videos would be quite mysterious, however. For example, why is there a video of a person whispering Genesis in Latin? Another video is a static picture of a wrapped present with the sound of someone wrapping presents (several people apparently loved this). There is also video of is a real people getting eye exams. This seems ordinary enough – but there is a strange connection between the eye exam videos and the previous two.

The phenomenon is called autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). I have been reading about this for a short time, it seems to be a growing subculture on the internet and is just peaking through to mainstream awareness.

By the way – this is perhaps another phenomenon worth pointing out, the internet allowing for previously personal and hidden experiences to come to general awareness. Human communication has been increased to the point that people who have what they think are unique personal experiences can find each other, eventually bringing the phenomenon to general awareness, giving it a name and an internet footprint. Of course, such phenomena are not always real – sometimes a real pattern emerges from the internet, sometimes illusory or misidentified patterns, the cultural equivalent of pareidolia.

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77 responses so far

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