Archive for the 'Science and the Media' Category

Apr 21 2017

Some Brain Science Hype

scalp-EEGTwo recent neuroscience news items in The Independent represent exactly the problem with bad science journalism today and the tendency to overhype incremental studies.

Brain-Machine Interface

Here’s the first:

Device that can literally read your mind invented by scientists. An ‘easily operated’ machine linked to a smartphone could be ready within five years.

Um, no.  I have be writing about this technology for years, because it is genuinely interesting and I think is a technology to watch. Several labs have made significant progress in brain-machine interfaces. The idea is that you read the electrical activity of the brain with either scalp electrodes or brain surface electrodes. Scientists have developed software that interprets the EEG patterns and learns to correlate them with the thoughts or intentions of the subject. The subject, in turn, learns to control their mental activity to affect the EEG output.

Here is where the technology stands: With brain surface electrodes, you get a much greater resolution of EEG activity. The software has progressed to the point that monkeys can control a robotic arm with sufficient subtlety to feed themselves.

With humans we have mostly used scalp electrodes, which have a more blurry signal. Even with these people have learned to control robots or control a cursor on a computer.

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Apr 07 2017

$100 Million? It’s Going to Take More Than That

Pierre Omidyar, founder and chairman of the board of eBay, speaks at the eBay Developer's Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, Wednesday, June 13, 2007. (Photo by JB Reed/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, is one of the world’s richest men. He recently announced that his philanthropic investment firm will dedicate $100 million to combat the “global trust deficit.” By this he means the current lack of trust in information and institutions born by the age of misinformation, fake news, and alternative facts.

I agree that this is a phenomenon that needs to be studied and tackled, but I hope that he is just getting started with the $100 million, because it’s going to take a lot more than that. I also don’t think we can rely on a few philanthropists to fix this problem.

As an aside I find it historically interesting that the internet boom lead to a crop of very young very rich people, not only Omidyar but also Bezos, Musk, Zuckerberg and others. Omidyar notes that:

“We sort of skipped the ‘regular rich’ and we went straight to ‘ridiculous rich’,” he said of his overnight fortune.

“I had the notion that, okay, so now we have all of this wealth, we could buy not only one expensive car, we could buy all of them. As soon as you realise that you could buy all of them, none of them are particularly interesting or satisfying.”

So we have a crop of young bored billionaires looking to change the world. I think that’s cool.  I hope they succeed.

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Feb 23 2017

Natural News Delisted from Google

natural-news-pseudoscienceIt appears that Google has removed all Natural News content from their indexing. This means that Natural News pages will not appear in organic Google searches.

This is big news for skeptics, but it is also complicated and sure to spark vigorous discussion.

For those who may not know, Mike Adams, who runs Natural News, is a crank conspiracy theorist supreme. He hawks snake oil on his site that he markets partly by spreading the worst medical misinformation on the net. He also routinely personally attacks his critics. He has launched a smear-campaign against my colleague, David Gorski, for example.

A few years ago Adams put up a post in which he listed people who support the science of GMOs to the public, comparing them to Nazis and arguing that it would be ethical (even a moral obligation) to kill them. So he essentially made a kill-list for his conspiracy-addled followers. Mine was one of the names on that list, as were other journalists and science-communicators.

In short Adams is a dangerous loon spreading misinformation and harmful conspiracy theories in order to sell snake oil, and will smear and threaten those who call him out. He is an active menace to the health of the public.

Adams is a good example of the dark underbelly of social media. It makes it possible to build a massive empire out of click-bait and sensationalism.

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126 responses so far

Nov 22 2016

Fake News

fake-newsThis post is a follow up to my post from last week on post-truth. The idea that we are living in a post-truth era took off this last year, making it the top pick for Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. Right on its heels, though, and perhaps a contender for phrase of the year, is “fake news.”

Fake news is clearly a thing. There are websites that make up fake news stories for various purposes. Already in the short life of this phrase it has been destroyed by abuse. It is already losing focus and meaning.

It is simultaneously a bug and a feature of the internet that it is a venue for a war of ideas. There is an obvious benefit to this in an open society – the free exchange of information in the marketplace of ideas. Let’s hash it all out with a true democracy of expression and access (well, for those with access).

The bug is that the internet is also a venue for fraud, lying, misinformation, and manipulation. Not everyone is a fair player, and they ruin it for everyone else. In actuality it is not black and white. Rather, there is a spectrum of behavior, and most people are at various points along that spectrum on different issues. At the same time there are extremes, some sites that aspire to a high level of journalism or scholarship, and at the other end sites that are pure fraud, propaganda, or click-bait.

We are collectively still trying to figure out how to deal with the resulting mess. It seems to me that part of the problem is that we are using the internet to address the problems of the internet. Bad actors can therefore hijack or duplicate the mechanisms of quality control and subvert them.

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54 responses so far

Aug 19 2016

Communicating Risk and Certainty

climate-change-denialA recent article in the Guardian discusses how scientists and experts should communicate risk and certainty to the public. The author, Jack Stilgoe, makes some good points, but unfortunately frames it as part of a defense of Jill Stein:

She said that there were ‘real questions’ about the dangers of vaccines, that GM foods have ‘not been proven safe’ and that ‘more more research is needed’ on the risks of electromagnetic fields.

As with climate change, it is tempting to claim that the science is certain, the evidence is clear and the debate should move on. Things are rarely so black-and-white. In politics, the facts don’t speak for themselves, so it falls to experts to make sense of the shades of grey.

Stilgoe is speaking of a dilemma faced by experts and science communicators when dealing with political or ideological opinions that diverge from the scientific consensus. The real dilemma is that if we communicate the science in technically accurate detail, it seems as if we are equivocating and those on the anti-science side will unfairly exploit this to exaggerate the uncertainty. If we gloss over the uncertainty to emphasize the bottom line, then the anti-science side will unfairly exploit that to say we are engaged in a cover-up and are being uncritical.

It is a no-win scenario, which is often the case when dealing with those who put ideology above science and reason. They aren’t playing fair, which can give them a rhetorical advantage over someone honestly trying to be fair.

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31 responses so far

Jun 30 2016

Mummies and Cancer

egyptian-mummy-3Often there are several layers to my skeptical articles – there is the science story itself, and then there is the reporting of the science and the underlying neuropsychological factors that led to the disconnect between the two.

Here we have another classic example, surrounding the claim that cancer (and sometimes extended to other “modern” diseases) were rare in pre-industrial societies based on evidence from mummies.

The Narrative

The psychological and media story here is that people tend to organize their knowledge around thematic narratives (which I am doing right here – so meta). We like stories, especially stories that have meaning, and especially when that meaning is emotionally satisfying or surprising in some way.

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May 27 2016

A Tale of Two Science News Reports


One of the recurring themes of this blog, and of the skeptical movement itself, is that science news reporting is generally poor. It is highly variable – there are some excellent science news reporters out there, but most are mediocre and some are terrible. The problem is that the average quality is simply too low.

The problem is compounded by the fact that scientists sometimes overhype or overinterpret their results, but even more common, the press office for the university at which the scientists work often sensationalize the science. At every step there is an opportunity to add hype, misinterpret the actual results, sensationalize, focus on the speculative aspect of the study rather than the actual data, or simply get the story wrong.

The race for clicks seems to be driving the quality of science reporting down, favoring clickbait headlines. Reporters don’t seem to mind getting the story wrong and then being corrected by science bloggers, for then they just get another round of clicks correcting their own bad reporting as if it were someone else’s fault.

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Oct 30 2015


Journalists frustrate me. Whenever they cover a topic about which I have a fair degree of knowledge, or even expertise, they seem to do a generally poor job. There are excellent journalists out there, but the average mediocre journalist tends to fall for the fallacy of false balance, indulge in hype and sensationalism, overly rely on individual experts who may have quirky opinions, and often fail to put topics into a proper context.

These failings are exacerbated whenever the topic at issue requires critical thinking and a high degree of skepticism.

Even generally high quality news outlets, like NPR, tend to fail when they deal with topics which require both expertise and skepticism, such as alternative medicine. A recent episode of Marketplace with Colin McEnroe is an excellent example of how a generally reasonable journalist can completely fail when dealing with such topics.

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32 responses so far

Oct 09 2015

Nature Defends Science Communication

An editorial in Nature Biotechnology titled, Standing Up for Science, takes direct aim at the problem of science communication in our society. (It’s a short article – read it.) It’s a wonderful editorial, and I completely agree with it. This should not come as a surprise to any regular readers here.

The article focuses on the recent events involving US Right to Know using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to essentially harass public scientists and troll through their e-mails so that they can take lines out of context and use it for anti-GMO propaganda. This effort was funded in part by a $47,500 donation from the Organic Consumers Association. The irony of this was apparently completely lost on USRTK.

The main target (so far, this affair is likely not over) was Kevin Folta, a gifted and dedicated science communicator (he has been a guest on the SGU a couple of times and was a speaker at NECSS). The “smoking gun” revealed by USRTK was that Monsanto had donated $25,000 (that’s $22,500 less than USRTK got from Big Organic) to Kevin’s University for public outreach, funds which he used to pay for gas money and snacks when he traveled for public speaking engagements. As Nature points out:

Folta broke no laws. The Monsanto funds were a donation to his university’s Foundation outreach program. They were tied neither to him directly nor to his research. His conflict of interest disclosures were wholly compliant with his university’s rules. He never used industry funds for personal gain.

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13 responses so far

Jul 09 2015

New Zealand Ban on “Trolling”

New Zealand recently passed a law designed to outlaw cyberbullying and give victims a measure of protection. The intent of the bill good, and I agree that this problem may need some creative legislative solutions, but I don’t think this bill was well crafted. It further raises all the thorny issues of free speech.

The Telegraph reports:

The bill was introduced after a public outcry over the horrific “Roast Busters” scandal, in which a group of teenage boys from Auckland was accused of sexually assaulting drunk, under age girls and boasting about the acts on social media.

Public outcry is often a problematic motivation for new legislation. It motivates legislators to do something dramatic quickly, which does not lend itself to nuanced law. Of course this is a horrible crime and people should be outraged. The primary crime, however, was the sexual assault. Boasting about the crime later on social media rubbed salt in the wounds, but it would be a mistake to over-react to that aspect of the crime.

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9 responses so far

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