Archive for the 'Pseudoscience' Category

Dec 08 2016

Scientists – Welcome to the Skeptical Movement

sterling-law-buildingDonald 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 »

193 responses so far

Dec 06 2016

Instacharge – There Is Not An App For That

instacharge-appEnergy is the ultimate currency of our civilization. It takes energy to do stuff, by definition. Food is energy for manual labor, and it takes energy to make food. In many ways energy is a limiting factor for our technology. It is difficult to think of any one thing that would have a more wide ranging benefit than a new technology that affords cheap, clean, abundant energy.

This is the appeal of free energy. No description of an alleged free energy device is complete without a discussion of the impact the device would have on civilization. The appeal suckers investors and draws media attention. It kept Steorn going for ten years (they have finally liquidated), attracting 23 million Euros in investment. They had nothing, and never did – the 23 million was based entirely on a transparently empty promise.

The impending threat of global warming has raised the stakes even higher. Much of our cheap abundant energy is not clean, and putting previously sequestered CO2 back into the atmosphere is another limiting factor. Personal electronic devices also raise the stakes for the average consumer. We all want our smartphones and laptops to last longer on a charge. We will also soon want more mileage out of our electric cars.

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12 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 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 03 2016

Doubt About Power Poses

powerpose1underwoodIn 2012 psychologist Amy Cuddy gave a TED talk about “power poses.” This was the result of her recent research, which found that adopting “expansive” postures, such as standing with your hands on your hips, makes you feel more powerful, and this feeling translates into action, such as taking more risks.

Cuddy and her coauthors are serious psychological researchers, but the result was pop-psychology and self-help gold. The self-help industry in particular loves tricks that they can argue will help people succeed at some goal. This is because the public wants the tricks – the easy shortcut that can reach a goal without all the hard work or that can give you an edge over others.

But of course we have to ask the hard question: is the effect real?

Power Poses and P-Hacking

Recently one of Cuddy’s coauthors, Dana Carney, published a statement in which she details why she no longer believes that the power pose effect is real. (There are a number of individual effects here, including internal psychological changes, behavioral changes, and outcome changes, but for brevity I will simply refer to power poses, also called expansive postures, and the power pose effect.)

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8 responses so far

Aug 30 2016

In Defense of “Pseudoscience”

PhrenologyDon’t be confused by the headline – my intention is not to defend pseudoscience itself but rather the use of the term “pseudoscience.” In a recent commentary for American Scientist, Katie L. Burke argues that journalists and science communicators should stop using the term, “pseudoscience.” I disagree with her position and I think she is committing a number of logical fallacies, which I will now explore.

She writes:

A guiding tenet has emerged through years of climate change discussions and other polarizing scientific debates: Framing issues as “us versus them”—with a clear ingroup and outgroup—encourages polarization. The term pseudoscience inherently creates this framing, pitting those who believe in “real” science against those who believe in “fake” science. But these discussions really indicate whom we trust. And maybe if people trust alleged pseudoscience over science, we should be discussing why, rather than dismissing their values and beliefs.

Ironically Burke is not considering how she is framing her own discussion of use of the term “pseudoscience.” She is framing the distinction as a value judgment, rather than what it is, a judgment regarding scientific process and evidence.

Making objective statements about facts and logic is not a dismissal of someone’s values and beliefs. If Burke had any familiarity with the skeptical literature (and her essay provides much evidence that she does not) she would know that this is a point of heated discussion. In short, we try very hard to separate personal values and beliefs from science. Science is a process of empirically investigating the universe with valid logic.

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21 responses so far

Aug 11 2016

Do Superstitious Rituals Help Performance?

Published by under Pseudoscience

superstition-sportsWith the Olympics brings a great deal of attention to sports and sporting culture, including the latest fads that are sweeping athletes. It is well known that athletes, for example, are very superstitious, and it’s fun to talk about their crazy personal rituals.

A 2016 review of the literature confirms the association between sports and superstitions. They find that there are cultural and situational factors at play. The situational factors include:

In agreement with past theories, they increase with the level of challenge, as reflected by the importance of the competition, as well as with the level of uncertainty.

People engage in superstitious behavior to have a sense of control, and they need that sense of control when the stakes are high and uncertainty is high. This explains the observation that more elite athletes engage in more superstitious behavior.

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16 responses so far

Jul 26 2016

Marketing Conspiracies and Conspiracy Marketing

selling pseudoscience6_nA recent article by Spenser Davis details how Alex Jones uses his conspiracy mongering to sell conspiracy-themed supplements and products. This phenomenon goes way past Alex Jones. This post from Destroyed by Science lists a few of the more popular websites that combine conspiracy theories and dubious supplements and other products.

In my opinion, Jones pales in comparison to Natural News. This online empire closely connects conspiracies about medicine and the government with specific alternative health products and supplements.

The marriage of conspiracy theories and selling snake oil and pseudoscience is an obvious one. My question, however, is in which direction does the arrow of causation go?

Springtime for Charlatans

Pseudoscience, scientific illiteracy in general, and conspiracy thinking are goldmines for the sellers of dubious products. Think about it – what better potential customer is there than someone who is willing to believe fantastical claims does not require claims to even be scientifically plausible, let alone supported by solid science, and is skeptical of the regulatory system designed to protect consumers from fraud?

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21 responses so far

Jul 14 2016

Framing the Debate on GMOs

Framing is a very interesting and intellectually critical concept. It is part of metacognition, the act of stepping back from the details of your beliefs and arguments to think about the nature of the thinking itself. Framing is meta-debate, where you think about the context of the debate itself, not just the details.

Framing can also be used, either consciously or inadvertently, to control a debate or discussion, to set up the parameters so that they favor one position.

A recent article in The Conversation discusses the framing of the GMO (genetically modified organism) debate. It’s an interesting article that definitely makes me think about how the GMO discussion should be framed, although I do not agree with the author, Sarah Hartley’s, take.

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2 responses so far

Apr 28 2016

What Is Biohacking?

bulletproof-butter-coffeeAfter reading up on biohacking and listening to its proponents, I have come to the conclusion that biohacking is not a real thing. It doesn’t really exist.

Here is how one biohacking site describes what they think it is:

Biohacking is a crazy-sounding name for something not crazy at all—the desire to be the absolute best version of ourselves.

The main thing that separates a biohacker from the rest of the self-improvement world is a systems-thinking approach to our own biology.

You know how coffee feels like a shot of energy to your brain?

Pre-coffee you is sleepy….zzzzzz…

Post-coffee you is WIDE AWAKE!!

The only difference is the coffee in your stomach.

The lesson is this: What you put into your body has an ENORMOUS impact on how you feel.

See what I mean? So, drinking coffee is “biohacking?” If you look at what is considered biohacking it essentially amounts to living a healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise, with the addition of the usual assortment of pseudoscientific nonsense. This is nothing but a rebranding of standard self-help quackery.

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22 responses so far

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