One of the (perhaps) good things to come out of the recent political climate in the US is a broader appreciation for the need to teach critical thinking skills. I hope we can capitalize on this new awareness to make some longstanding changes to our culture.
For example, a recent NYT article is titled: “Why People Continue to Believe Objectively False Things,” and begins:
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” goes the saying — one that now seems like a relic of simpler times.
The article also discusses recent evidence showing that belief in the “birther” Obama conspiracy decreased after Trump admitted that Obama was born in Hawaii. Shortly after that admission 62% of people stated they believed Obama was a US citizen, but a more recent poll shows the number dropped to 57%. (Over that period of time fewer Republicans believed he was a US citizen, while more Democrats did.) The authors conclude that over time people forget specific information while they revert to old tribal beliefs.
A recent study looking at Twitter activity also reinforces the evidence that people generally follow their instincts rather than critical thinking. They showed that people will rate the believability of a tweet as higher, and are more likely to share that tweet, if it already has a high number of retweets. This creates a positive feedback loop in which retweets beget retweets, regardless of the inherent reliability of the information.
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As we enter a new legislative session in many states we are also faced by a new wave of anti-evolution bills. Creationists have been trying to undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools since Scopes in the 1920s. They have essentially been unsuccessful legally but successful culturally. For the first half of the 20th century they made the “e” word too controversial for textbooks. Since then they have provided cover for teachers in the Bible Belt to teach creationism or falsely criticize evolution.
In a 2011 survey, only 28% of high school biology teachers reporting following National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences recommendations in teaching evolution, and 13% reported that they openly advocated creationism.
This, of course, refers only to public schools. Private schools can openly teach creationism, which is exactly why Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has spent so much effort and money promoting school vouchers and private schools.
Legally anti-evolution efforts have consistently run up against that pesky First Amendment, which guarantees religious freedom. The Supreme Court has interpreted this to mean that the government (Federal or State) cannot promote any specific religion or religious belief. Creationism is a religious belief, not science, no matter how creationists try to dress it up, therefore it doesn’t fly.
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Donald Trump has just named Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt, to head the EPA. Pruitt is a known denier of the science of anthropogenic global warming, and in fact has spent much of his time as attorney general suing the EPA over the issue. The conspiracy theorists are now running the show.
This is just the latest in what has been an eye-opening year, which has seen “post-truth” named as word of the year, and has also seen a surge in the notion of “fake news”.
In a recent editorial published in Nature, scientist Phil Williamson argues that:
Challenging falsehoods and misrepresentation may not seem to have any immediate effect, but someone, somewhere, will hear or read our response. The target is not the peddler of nonsense, but those readers who have an open mind on scientific problems. A lie may be able to travel around the world before the truth has its shoes on, but an unchallenged untruth will never stop.
He recounts that his awakening occurred after he had a run-in with Brietbart news over their gross misrepresentation of the science of global warming and ocean acidification. Now he is on a crusade to fight back against pseudoscience online.
For greatest effect, I suggest that we harness the collective power and reach of the Internet to improve its quality. The global scientific community could learn from websites such as travel-review site TripAdvisor, Rotten Tomatoes (which summarizes film and play reviews) and alexa.com (which quantifies website popularity), and set up its own, moderated, rating system for websites that claim to report on science. We could call it the Scientific Honesty and Integrity Tracker, and give online nonsense the SHAIT rating it deserves.
While I completely agree with Williamson that this is a problem and the scientific community should take responsibility for it, I was struck by the complete absence of awareness in his editorial that there is already a movement of scientists, science communicators, and science enthusiasts who are doing this – the skeptical movement. Continue Reading »
A recent study adds some empirical data to the current discussions regarding online information. This Stanford University study looked at 7,804 student responses across 12 states, divided among middle school, high school, and college students. The goal of the study was to see if these students could distinguish reliable sources of information from fake or unreliable sources.
Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.
Although students grew up in the internet and social media age, and are very skilled at using online resources, they apparently have not developed the skills to critically evaluate the information they are finding online.
The authors echo what I and many others have pointed out, that while the internet is a great source of information, it is largely a source without editorial filters. As I recently discussed, this has led to a range of outlets including high quality journalism, low quality journalism, advocacy sites, biased sites, advertising, opinion, and fake sites that exist only to drive clicks. Since you no longer need a large infrastructure, or years to build up a reputation and circulation, in order to publish articles that then get shared on social media as news, every kind of information is jumbled together and it is up to the reader to discriminate.
The authors looked at five tasks for each school level that they felt was appropriate for that level. Here are some example results:
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Continued from Part I
5) How to Analyze a Scientific Study
I don’t expect a non-scientist, or even a scientist far outside their area of expertise, to be able to do a detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of a study. That is what peer-review is for. However, there are some basic rules of thumb that could give even a lay person a rough idea how seriously they should take a study. Always ask at least the following questions:
Is the study controlled in some way? Was the treatment group compared to a control group, or was the alleged effect compared to some baseline?
Is the study blinded? Were the primary measurements or assessments performed by someone who was blinded to whether or not the alleged effect is supposed to be present?
Are the outcomes being measured subjective or objective? How are they being measured? What do they really mean?
How large is the study? Studies with small numbers of subjects or measurements (less than 50 per group is a good rule of thumb) are considered small and unreliable.
Is the study an observation or an experiment? Are they just looking for some correlation (in which it is difficult to make statements about cause and effect), or are they controlling for variables and isolating the one factor of interest?
What is the reaction of the scientific community to the study? Are experts generally critical or excited about the results? Continue Reading »
I had hoped that the advent of the internet would have a positive effect on public access to information, and perhaps it has. The problem is that it also facilitates access to misinformation. I also wonder to what extent people are availing themselves of this easy access to information (or are they just watching cat videos?).
I now frequently have the experience of being in a discussion with someone and arriving at a disagreement over a specific fact. Pre-internet we would not be able to resolve the difference, we would agree to look it up later, and usually would never do so. Now we can whip our our smartphones and within a minute or two find references to the correct fact.
Despite this there remains a disturbing gap between public perception and reality on many important issues. I discussed previously the recent survey showing significant differences between public attitudes towards certain scientific issues and the attitudes of science. The biggest difference was for the statement that it is, “safe to eat genetically modified food.” While 88% of scientists agreed with this statement, only 37% of the public did.
The gap is not limited to scientific issues, but spans the spectrum of civil issues as well. For example, 68% of Americans believe crime is worsening nationally, and 48% believe it is worsening locally, while crime has been steadily decreasing for the last two decades.
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Wikipedia is now the most common general reference on the internet, and the 7th most popular site overall. It is, in a way, our collective online store of human knowledge.
Wikipedia is also a wiki, which means that anyone can theoretically write and edit articles. Wikipedia has editors, however, and they manage this process, evaluating the authoritativeness and apparent motives of editors. It is not the wild west like it used to be. (We discussed this recently on the SGU – look for the interview with Tim Farley and Susan Gerbic here.)
The question remains, however – how accurate and reliable is the information on Wikipedia? There have been several comparisons of Wikipedia to traditional references, such as the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and Wikipedia compares fairly well to such sources.
How does Wikipedia do when it comes to more technical, and specifically health care, information? This is a critical question as many people use the internet and Wikipedia specifically as a source of medical information, often to guide medical decisions or self-treatment. A recent study set out to test that very question.
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It will probably come as no surprise that not being vaccinated, or being undervaccinated (missing a schedule routine vaccine) is associated with a higher risk of being infected with the disease that the vaccines are meant to prevent. This is just another way of saying that vaccines work – they reduce the risk of infection.
Often anti-vaccinationists deliberately look at such data wrong, however, in order to create a false impression. They will cite data showing that the majority of the infected are vaccinated, implying that the vaccines do not work. This argument is not valid, however. If, for example, 95% of a population is vaccinated, but 2% of them are non-responders and get the illness, while 5% are unvaccinated and 20% of them get the illness, the vaccinated will outnumber the unvaccinated among those infected – even though ten times as many unvaccinated as vaccinated get sick.
This represents what researchers are now calling “motivated numeracy” – losing basic math skills when ideologically motivated.
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This is the fourth is a series of posts analyzing the claims of Don McLeroy, former chairman of the Texas School Board of Education and young Earth creationist. I recently interviewed Don on the SGU about his successful insertion into the Texas science textbook standards language requiring books to address stasis and suddenness in the fossil record and the complexity of the cell.
In parts 2 and 3 I addressed Don’s stasis and suddenness arguments. They are classic denialist fallacies – focusing on lower order details as if they call into question higher order patterns (they don’t). In this case, Don is arguing that the fact that many (not all) species display relative morphological stability in the fossil record, with episodes of (geologically) rapid speciation events, calls into question the bigger picture of the change of species over time in an exquisitely evolutionary pattern.
The former is a reflection of the tempo of evolutionary change and an artifact of the fossil record, while the latter is home-run unequivocal evidence for common descent and evolutionary change. Don has not provided any explanation for why the pattern of change we see in the fossil record presents any problems for evolutionary theory.
In this post I will address Don’ other main point, which he feels is the greatest weakness of evolutionary theory – the complexity of the cell. His premise seems to be that, if evolution were true, then evolutionary biologists should be able to provide detailed evidence for the specific evolutionary history of many biochemical pathways and cell structures. He argues that they cannot, and therefore the evidence for evolution is weak.
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This week I am posting a discussion with Don McLeroy, a young Earth creationist and former chairman of the Texas Board of Education during the recent controversy over the science textbook standards. This is a follow up to an interview I did with him on the SGU.
Don has been traveling a bit this week, so our e-mail conversation has been slow, but we have had a few exchanges. For today’s post I want to simply reprint that exchange and then add a few thoughts, before I go onto new territory, which I will do in tomorrow’s post.
Here is Don’s response to my prior posts:
I do have time for one reply.
First, you keep bringing up creationism while I do not; I am only discussing the evidence for evolution–the idea that all life is descended from a common ancestor as a result of unguided natural processes.
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