Archive for October, 2016

Oct 31 2016

The Times Gets it Wrong on GMOs

Published by under General Science

Bt BringalIt is unfortunate that so many journalists begin with a narrative and then back fill the facts and points necessary to tell their narrative. I have encountered this many times when being interviewed for an article or documentary – more often than not the reporter or producer is simply hunting for quotes to plug into a story they have already written. I am not giving them information so much as filling a role, which could be that of expert or of token skeptic.

We are all familiar with this phenomenon when reading about political topics in outlets that have a clear editorial policy. If the policy is clear, we don’t even expect objectivity. When reading about non-political topics, however, I do think there is a general expectation of objectivity, but the motivated reasoning can be just as pronounced.

A recent New York Times article, in my opinion, is a good example of what happens when a journalist writes about a complex and contentious topic and allows their narrative to overtake the facts. The article, Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops, declares the narrative in the headline (yes, I know journalists don’t write their own headlines, but they still may accurately reflect the tone of the article, as in this case).

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62 responses so far

Oct 28 2016

The Anti-Profit Narrative

Published by under Skepticism

moms_fatsuitMark Twain said,“Give a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep ’til noon.” What he was saying with his characteristic folksy charm is that a good narrative is more powerful than facts.

It is still difficult for me to wrap my head around sometimes. When properly motivated, people have absolutely no problem completely ignoring facts, or dismissing them with a casual flick of rationalization.

This natural tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance with nimble mental gymnastics is bad enough. Humans have also learned how to exploit this tendency in others for their own ends. I have to quote Sting here:

Poets priests and politicians
Have words to thank for their positions
Words that scream for your submission
And no-one’s jamming their transmission
‘Cos when their eloquence escapes you
Their logic ties you up and rapes you

I would add, anyone with something to sell (I would have substituted “Peddlers” for “Poets”).

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12 responses so far

Oct 27 2016

Do Wind Mills “Kill All the Birds?”

Published by under Technology


No energy source is perfect, but if we are going to make rational decisions about where to invest in our energy infrastructure, we have to consider all the features of each option. We need precise information that is placed into a proper context.

That, of course, requires thoroughness, diligence, a willingness to listen to actual experts, and the ability to think somewhere above a third grade level (my apologies to all third graders).

Donald Trump apparently lacks all of those qualities.

In a recent interview Trump said:

“[Wind power] kills all the birds. Thousands of birds are lying on the ground. And the eagle. You know, certain parts of California — they’ve killed so many eagles. You know, they put you in jail if you kill an eagle. And yet these windmills [kill] them by the hundreds.”

This is a claim he has repeated in numerous speeches and, of course, late night tweets.

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38 responses so far

Oct 25 2016

234 Possible Alien Signals

Published by under Astronomy,Skepticism

alien-worldI love reading articles that discuss the same issue and come to essentially opposite conclusions. In this case, Canadian astronomers have recently performed an analysis of 2.5 million stars and found 234 of them producing pulsed signals that they claim may be of alien origin. The scientific community is skeptical.

The Independent declares, “Strange messages coming from the stars are ‘probably’ from aliens, scientists say.” Meanwhile, states, “Why hundreds of aliens probably aren’t trying to contact us.”

When you read deep into both articles you find a more nuanced position. The difference is mostly in the headline writing, but also in the overall emphasis of the article. Skepticism can be marginalized or central.

SETI and Skepticism

I have found the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) to be an excellent topic of skeptical discussion. It is a great forum for discussing what is legitimate science, and how scientists decide whether something is likely to be true or not. There is nothing supernatural or paranormal about life evolving on exoplanets, intelligence emerging, and developing a technological civilization that might send signals out into space. We have done it.

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71 responses so far

Oct 24 2016

The Conspiracy Theory Label

As skeptics we apply various labels to certain kinds of intellectual behavior. Perhaps the big three are pseudoscience, conspiracy theory, and denialism. There are many specific subtypes of these three big categories, however. Quackery, for example, is medical pseudoscience. Tooth Fairy science, a term coined by Harriet Hall on SBM, refers to a certain type of crank pseudoscience in which many studies are done but they never challenge the core assumption of a claim.

These terms are useful because they have operational definitions. One of my first major pieces of skeptical writing was a dissection of exactly what makes a pseudoscience, and I have spent the last 20 years refining my understanding of this definition. I have done the same for denialism and conspiracy thinking. These are actual phenomena that need to be understood by any critical thinker. They are, I would argue, legitimate philosophical concepts.

Like all philosophical concepts, they often get abused when translated into the popular culture. What I have found is that these terms are mostly properly understood and used by those trying to be genuinely skeptical. There are varying levels of nuance, and all of these concepts are fuzzy around the edges, but in general people get what a conspiracy theory is, and when someone is denying established science.

Problems arise mainly with those who are the target of these labels – with those who believe in a particular pseudoscience or conspiracy theory or engage in denialism. They bristle at the application of these concepts to their beliefs, and often push back.

Their pushback takes a few forms. They of course can simply deny the specific accusation, and argue that creationism is legitimate science, or that global warming denial is just proper skepticism. Conspiracy theorists are fond of arguing that some conspiracies are demonstrably real, and therefore all conspiracy theories are somehow legitimate or at least plausible. This argument misses the point that it is the necessary size of an alleged conspiracy that makes it implausible.

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32 responses so far

Oct 20 2016

Chiropractic and Strokes

neck-adjustment-1In February Playboy model and instagram star Katie May died suddenly of a stroke at age 34. Recently TMZ obtained a copy of the coroner’s report from her autopsy which concludes that the stroke was due to a tear in one vertebral artery, which in turn was caused by neck manipulation by a chiropractor.

This is a good time to review the evidence surrounding the issue of chiropractic manipulation and strokes, which is a concern expressed by many experts but largely denied by the chiropractic profession.

Strokes in young people (<50) are extremely rare. A stroke is caused by blockage of an artery feeding the brain leading to lack of oxygen causing injury and even death to brain cells. Arteries can be blocked if a blood clot lodges in the artery (an embolus), or if a clot forms in the artery (a thrombus).

One major cause of young strokes is trauma to one of the four arteries that feed the brain: two carotid arteries in front and two vertebral arteries in back. The trauma can cause a tear in the inner lining of the artery, which is called a dissection. That tear causes turbulence in blood flow, which in turn can result in a blood clot (when blood isn’t flowing it tends to clot). That blood clot or thrombus can block the artery if it gets big enough, or a piece can break off and lodge down stream, either way causing a stroke.

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40 responses so far

Oct 18 2016

The Hawthorne Effect Revisited

Published by under Neuroscience

It’s always more complicated than you think. If there is one overall lesson I learned after 20 years as a science communicator, that is it. There is a general bias toward oversimplification, which to some extent is an adaptive behavior. The universe is massive and complicated, and it would be a fool’s errand to try to understand every aspect of it down to the tiniest level of detail. We tend to understand the world through distilled narratives, simple stories that approximate reality (whether we know it or not or whether we intend to or not).

Those distilled narratives can be very useful, as long as you understand they are simplified approximations and don’t confuse them with a full and complete description of reality. Different levels of expertise can partly be defined as the complexity of the models of reality that you use. It is also interesting to think about what is the optimal level of complexity for your own purposes. I try to take a deliberate practical approach – how much complexity do I need to know?

The Hawthorne Effect

The distilled narrative of what is the Hawthorne Effect is this – the act of observing people’s behavior changes that behavior. The name derives from experiments conducted between 1924 and 1933 in Western Electric’s factory at Hawthorne, a suburb of Chicago. The experimenters made various changes to the working environment, like changing light levels, and noticed that regardless of the change, performance increased. If they increased light levels, performance increased. If they decreased light levels, performance increased. They eventually concluded that observing the workers was leading to the performance increase, and the actual change in working conditions was irrelevant. This is now referred to as an observer effect, but also the term Hawthorn Effect was coined in 1953 by psychologist J.R.P. French.

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4 responses so far

Oct 17 2016

Where Does the Power Come From?

perpetual-motion-1Yet another perpetual motion machine video is making the rounds. I do have a fascination with these devices, and this one is a great example of the genre.

This device was conceived and created by a Norwegian artist, Reidar Finsrud. He is clearly a talented, intelligent, and motivated artist. He reports that he became obsessed with the idea of his machine and spent many 18 hour days creating it. I do think it is a beautiful work of art and can be appreciated as such.

Finsrud, however, believes that the machine is an example of perpetual motion. At least that is the narrative of the documentary. Finsrud states that when he looks at his machine he feels like he is looking at fire, a the future, a future of free and egalitarian energy.

Perhaps that belief on the part of the artist is part of the art. It’s similar to the crop circle artists who won’t disclose (at least they didn’t for a while) that they were the artists, believing that the mystery about the origin of the crop circles is part of the art form.

At one point in the video Finsrud asks the question, “Where does the power come from?” He recounts how many scientists he has asked could not answer the question. That is another common theme in the genre of pseudoscientific devices or artifacts. The creator or promoter seems to always recount how they consulted experts who could not answer the mystery of the object. I think this is just a form of confirmation bias. When you dig deep you find that they were not consulting the right “experts,” or perhaps they were cherry picking the experts who gave them the answers they liked.

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37 responses so far

Oct 14 2016

Science Is Not Colonialism

science-fallismThis Youtube video is making the rounds. Relax, tape a deep breath, and take a look at the video.

The core point that the primary speaker is making is this: Science is nothing but Western colonialism imposed upon the African people (and presumably others). The only solution is for science to “fall” – she would like to wipe away all of science and start with a blank slate, so that Africans can develop their own knowledge.

She gives as an example that Newton saw an apple fall, made up gravity, wrote down some equations, and now that is scientific truth imposed on the world forever (seriously, I am not exaggerating this one bit).

The other pillar of her position is that in Africa there are practitioners of black magic who can summon a lightening bolt at their enemy. This is not explainable by “Western” science, and yet this is African knowledge, and therefore is an example of Western colonialism suppressing indigenous wisdom.

After stating that practitioners can summon lightening, someone in the audience shouted “It’s not true.” While this might be considered rude, it is an understandable impulse. The response of the moderator was illuminating, in my opinion. She stood up, shamed the audience member, lectured him about the fact that he violated their safe space that is supposed to be free of antagonism, and then forced him to apologize.  Continue Reading »

72 responses so far

Oct 13 2016

GMOs and Horizontal Gene Transfer

Published by under General Science

horizontal-gene-transferPeople reject genetically modified organisms as food (GMOs) for a variety of reasons, but the single most cited reason is the false belief that they are unhealthy. That specific belief also represents the single greatest disconnect between the opinion of scientists and of the general public in a 2015 Pew poll, greater than evolution, climate change, or vaccine safety.

The reason for this disconnect is that the public is relying upon their intuition, rather than scientific knowledge, to arrive at their conclusion. Further, that intuition has been hijacked by a deliberate anti-GMO campaign orchestrated by misguided environmentalists and by the organic food lobby to help promote their brand.

As Stefaan Blancke and his coauthors argue in the above article:

This intuitive reasoning includes folk biology, teleological and intentional intuitions and disgust.

One of the primary “folk biology” talking points of the anti-GMO crowd is that it is “unnatural” to place genes from one species into a distant species. No further reasoning is offered to defend this position – just the invocation of what is “natural” seems to be enough. Those who defend the scientific position often point out that this irrelevant, just a manifestation of the appeal to nature fallacy. Whether or not something occurs in nature does not determine if it is good or bad for human health.

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18 responses so far

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