Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Feb 01 2016

Spa Death and the Dangers of Pseudoscience

Published by under Skepticism

spiritual guruThree Quebec spa workers were just sentenced to prison for their role in the death of Chantal Lavigne. During their “spiritual” treatment, Lavigne was wrapped in mud, then is cellophane, covered in multiple layers, and her head put in a cardboard box, on a hot summer day, for nine hours. It will probably not shock you to learn that this treatment resulted in dehydration.

The dehydration was so severe that she had to be rushed to a hospital, where she suffered multiple organ failure and eventually died. The three spa workers were given 2-3 year sentences, which seem fairly light.

This is not the first time that this has happened. In 2011 James Ray, a self-proclaimed guru, was sentenced to two years in prison after the sweat lodge death of three people. That’s less than one year per person.

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7 responses so far

Jan 30 2016

NECSS and Richard Dawkins

Published by under Skepticism

The Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) will hold its 8th conference this year in New York from May 12-15. While we are expecting a great conference this year, the opening of registration has been marked by a bit of controversy. Last week we announced that Richard Dawkins would be a featured speaker at the conference. However on Wednesday we withdrew our invitation to Professor Dawkins.

This was a difficult and complex decision that requires further explanation, in the name of transparency and open discussion. I don’t expect to resolve any controversies here, just to explain our thought process and answer some of the questions and speculations that have been circulating.

NECSS is run by the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society, both non-profit organizations. NECSS has its own executive committee, consisting of members of both organizations. (Added clarification: those members are Michael Feldman, Steven Novella, Jamy Ian Swiss, Benny Pollak, and Jay Novella.) There has been much speculation about who is making the decisions for NECSS – it is this committee. I will just say that there were a range of opinions on this matter within the committee, and we came to the best decisions we could, given that range of opinions. When I refer to “we” in this article, I am not speaking for every individual on the committee, just the majority result.

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246 responses so far

Jan 25 2016

The Challenges of Science Communication

Published by under Skepticism

Brian Resnick has written an interesting article on Vox in which he relates 11 common journalistic errors in reporting social science news, according to 20 social scientists that he spoke to. The points are good ones, and most of them apply to communicating all science, not just the social sciences.

The core of the issue is the essential tension between science and journalism. Science proceeds slowly and cautiously, is very conservative in its claims, and is skeptical toward any new finding (or at least it should be).

Journalists, however, want an exciting new and simple story. In fact bad science journalism is much closer to self-help gurus than to actual science – “do X and you will be happy.” I know that journalists often do not write their own headlines, and that there is a circle in skeptical hell dedicated to headline writers where they are tormented by the twin demons, Hype and Sensationalism.

To be fair, I also understand that we live in the real world where ratings and clicks matter to the bottom line. This has been made very clear to me since I have been running my own science Facebook page (The Skeptics’ Guide page). This gave me the experience of posting 6-8 science and skeptical news items per day, adjusting variables, and seeing directly how much reach each post gets.

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4 responses so far

Jan 14 2016

Real Scientific Literacy, Part II

Dr_Nick_Simpsons-e1310873491586Continued 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 »

143 responses so far

Jan 12 2016

Real Scientific Literacy

miracleequationWhat does it mean to be scientifically literate? There is no completely objective answer to this question, it can be defined in multiple ways and the bar can be set anywhere along a spectrum.

Many tests of scientific literacy essentially ask a series of scientific facts – they are tests of factual knowledge, but not scientific thinking. This glaring deficit has been pointed out many times before, and was so again in a recent editorial by Danielle Teller. She writes:

There are a number of problems with teaching science as a collection of facts. First, facts change. Before oxygen was discovered, the theoretical existence of phlogiston made sense. For a brief, heady moment in 1989, it looked like cold fusion (paywall) was going to change the world.

I agree. A true measure of scientific literacy should be a combination of facts, concepts, and process. Facts are still important. Concepts without facts are hollow, and facts without concepts are meaningless. Both need to be understood in the context of the process that led us to our current conclusions.

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17 responses so far

Jan 11 2016

Should There Be Mandatory GMO Labeling?

GMO labelCampbell Soup has just announced that they are switching sides in the GMO labeling debate – they are now in favor of federal mandatory labeling for all products that contain genetically modified organisms. This has perhaps opened up a new chapter in the debate.

In response Mark Lynas, a journalist who, after researching the topic, is staunchly pro-GMO, has responded with an interesting essay agreeing with this move by Campbell.

Let me state up front that I think the answer to mandatory labeling is no, but let me also walk you through my thinking on this complex issue.

The Scientific Case Continue Reading »

124 responses so far

Jan 08 2016

What Is Bayes Theorem?

I have written a little about Bayes Theorem, mainly on Science-Based Medicine, which is a statistical method for analyzing data. A recent Scientific American column has some interesting things to say about it as well. I thought a brief overview would be helpful for those who are not sure what it is.

This statistical method is named for Thomas Bayes who first formulated the basic process, which is this: begin with an estimate of the probability that any claim, belief, hypothesis is true, then look at any new data and update the probability given the new data.

If this sounds simple and intuitive, it’s because it is. Psychologists have found that people innately take a Bayesian approach to knowledge. We tend to increment our beliefs, updating them as new information comes in.

Of course, this is only true when we do not have an emotional investment in one conclusion or narrative, in which case we jealously defend our beliefs even in the face of overwhelming new evidence. Absent a significant bias, we are natural Bayesians.

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57 responses so far

Jan 07 2016

When Will Yellowstone Blow?

Published by under Skepticism

yellowstone-echinus-geyser-550It can be difficult to know what the optimal attitude is to have toward rare or unlikely events that would be catastrophic. How much should we worry about a large asteroid striking the earth? It could happen any time, but statistically is unlikely anytime soon (although is almost inevitable over the long term, meaning millions of years).

There are other rare but devastating natural phenomena. Phil Plait wrote about all the things that can bring Death from the Skies, including asteroids but also gamma ray bursts and other astronomical phenomena.

Today, however, we’re talking about death from below, specifically volcanic eruptions, more specifically supervolcanoes, and even more specifically the Yellowstone supervolcano. Recent news reports are breathlessly stating that scientists warn Yellowstone could blow in the next 70 years. Well, not so fast. Continue Reading »

7 responses so far

Dec 29 2015

Avril Lavigne Is Not Dead, and Other Conspiracy Theories

avril-dead-1024x986Yesterday I wrote about types of misinformation online. I left one out – skeptics or scientists creating false information to show how easy it is for people (or specifically the press or journal editors) to be fooled.

I have never personally done this for several reasons (as tempting as it may be): I think it’s important to protect my integrity as an honest broker of information and opinion, and that would be sullied by a deliberate hoax, no matter what my intentions. I also worry about adding to the pile of misinformation out there, while the lesson would be largely lost. Also, it can be a lose-lose situation. If you pull it off well, it can backfire. If you don’t pull it off well, you look silly.

Case in point – in 2012 a Portugese-language blog created the false conspiracy theory that Avril Lavigne killed herself after her first album, and was replace by a doppleganger who took over her career. However, the replacement dropped subtle clues in lyrics and elsewhere, revealing the conspiracy.

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46 responses so far

Dec 28 2015

Fake Photos in 2015

Published by under Skepticism

children huggingDiana Rusk writing for BBC news has a good article about fake photos and videos that were spread in 2015. It is a sobering reminder of how much fake, misleading, and deliberately fraudulent information there is out there.

As I have often pointed out, the internet is a fantastic tool for communication, but is also a double-edge sword. If even a tiny percentage of the online public are generating false information, for whatever reason, that will create a steady stream of misinformation. We will never be rid of it.

Think about this, estimates are that about 1% of the population are psychopaths. That is 3 million psychopaths in the US alone. Some are in prison, but many are in the general population and have access to the internet. Online they can wreak havoc with impunity. In fact there is some preliminary information that there is a huge overlap between being an internet troll and a psychopath.  Continue Reading »

24 responses so far

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