Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Aug 28 2015

French Court Awards Disability for Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity

Published by under Skepticism

A French court recently awarded a disability allowance ($912 per month for three years) to Marine Richard based upon her claim that she has EHS (electromagnetic hypersensitivity). This is a concerning development because EHS is likely not a real disease. The situation, however, is a bit more nuanced than it may at first appear.

EHS and Non-Specific Symptoms

First for some background on EHS (or Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields, IEI-EMF, as it is now called in the scientific literature) - sufferers claim that they are sensitive to electromagnetic fields and that these fields cause symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, tingling sensation, or palpitations. In one case series of EHS specifically subjects reported:

The most frequently reported symptoms from exposure to smart meters were (1) insomnia, (2) headaches, (3) tinnitus, (4) fatigue, (5) cognitive disturbances, (6) dysesthesias (abnormal sensation), and (7) dizziness. The effects of these symptoms on people’s lives were significant.

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Aug 20 2015

The Myths of Vandana Shiva

Published by under Skepticism

Vandana Shiva is one of the loudest voices speaking out against GM (genetic modification) technology and modern agriculture. She is an ideologue and a crusader, which unfortunately means that she feels free to play loose with the facts and the science as long as it serves her narrative. Michael Specter did an excellent article about Shiva a year ago for The New Yorker. This quote puts much of Shiva’s propaganda into perspective:

“There are two trends,” she told the crowd that had gathered in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, in Florence, for the seed fair. “One: a trend of diversity, democracy, freedom, joy, culture—people celebrating their lives.” She paused to let silence fill the square. “And the other: monocultures, deadness. Everyone depressed. Everyone on Prozac. More and more young people unemployed. We don’t want that world of death.”

To her, GMOs are part of a world of death, while opposing GMOs is all about joy and freedom. She is anti-corporate, anti-West, anti-globalization, and anti-technology. Her campaign is largely one of lies and misinformation. She would also apparently rather have people starve than eat GMOs.

As reason.com reports:

Ten thousand people were killed and 10 to 15 million left homeless when a cyclone slammed into India’s eastern coastal state of Orissa in October 1999. In the aftermath, CARE and the Catholic Relief Society distributed a high-nutrition mixture of corn and soy meal provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development to thousands of hungry storm victims. Oddly, this humanitarian act elicited cries of outrage.

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Aug 18 2015

How Common is Life in the Universe?

Published by under Skepticism

We don’t know, but we can do some interesting thought experiments.

The only confirmed life in the Universe is here on Earth. That gives us one data point, so we know it is at least one planet per universe. The universe is an extremely large place. There are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the visible universe, each with hundreds of billions of stars on average, most of which seem to have planets. According to Ethan from Starts with a Bang:

With at least 200 billion galaxies out there (and possibly even more), we’re very likely talking about a Universe filled with around 1024 planets, or, for those of you who like it written out, around 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets in our observable Universe.

This number may be much larger. There are also many rogue planets not orbiting stars, and there may be as many stars between galaxies as there are within galaxies. So maybe, rough estimate, tack another zero on there.

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Aug 17 2015

Controversial Science Topics on Wikipedia

The press release reads: “On Wikipedia, politically controversial science topics vulnerable to information sabotage.” They could have left off the qualifier, “On Wikipedia” and I think the statement would remain accurate.

But of course they are referring to a specific study, “Content Volatility of Scientific Topics in Wikipedia: A Cautionary Tale,” by Adam Wilson and Gene Likens. Likens co-discovered the acid rain phenomenon in North America and was concerned that the Wikipedia entry on acid rain seems to be edited frequently with misinformation.

Wilson and Likens made a comparison of the last ten years of Wikipedia edits for three politically controversial (but not scientifically controversial) topics: evolution, acid rain, and climate change, and compared these to four non-controversial topics: the standard model in physics, heliocentrism, general relativity, and continental drift. They found that the controversial topics were edited much more frequently than the non-controversial ones.

“For example, over the period we analyzed, the global warming page was edited on average (geometric mean ±SD) 1.9±2.7 times resulting in 110.9±10.3 words changed per day, while the standard model in physics was only edited 0.2±1.4 times resulting in 9.4±5.0 words changed per day.”

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Aug 10 2015

Rethinking the Skeptical Movement

Published by under Skepticism

This week on the SGU we interviewed Jamy Ian Swiss about the scope and nature of the skeptical movement (a longer version of the interview is also available to SGU premium members). From time to time I like to step back and take a serious look at skeptical activism, to see how we are doing and what we can do better or differently.

It seems to me that the skeptical movement has had a lot of growing pains in the last decade, which is good because it means we are growing and evolving. However, the growth of the movement has been entirely from the bottom up, without any actual plan, coordination, and without much discussion. There are strengths and weaknesses to this kind of growth.

We also have to recognize the role of social media, which has transformed the movement (as it has transformed massive social interaction in general). Where does all this leave us?

Jamy and my SGU co-hosts and I explored two issues: the scope of the skeptical movement and quality control within the movement. I have already written extensively about the scope of scientific skepticism and the various related movements and how they differ. Please read these links for a full discussion, but here is a quick overview.

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Jul 29 2015

Despite Headlines, the EM Drive Is Still Bullshit

Published by under Skepticism

Headlines declare, “To the Moon in Four Hours,” and “Star Trek Impulse Drive,” even from mainstream outlets like the Telegraph.

This is an old story that will likely rear its head for years to come. It’s the free energy of space travel. The allure is simply too great for the cranks to ignore.

At issue is the EM Drive, which I wrote about here. The makers of the drive claim that it produces thrust without propellant. Physicists say that such a thing would violate the law of conservation of momemntum. Devices that claim to break a well-established law of physics have a terrible track record.

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Jul 24 2015

Another Study that Doesn’t Show How Acupuncture Works

Published by under Skepticism

The pattern is now quite familiar – a study looking at some physiological outcome while rats or mice are being jabbed with needles is breathlessly presented as, “finally we know how acupuncture works.” As is always the case, a closer look reveals that the study shows nothing of the sort.

The current study making the rounds is, “Effects of Acupuncture, RU-486 on the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis in Chronically Stressed Adult Male Rats.” We are told that acupuncture has the same effect as pain medication, but honestly I don’t see that anywhere in the study.

The study presents two experiments with rats in which there is a control group, a stress group, stress plus acupuncture, and stress plus sham acupuncture. The first thing to notice is that the rats were not actually getting acupuncture. They were getting the fiction known as “electroacupuncture.” Electroacupuncture is not a real thing – it’s just electrical stimulation through a needle which is called an acupuncture needle.

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Jul 13 2015

Supporting the Narrative in an Echochamber

Published by under Skepticism

Dunning, commenting on the implications of the Dunning-Kruger effect, wrote:

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

This seems accurate, but I think the situation is actually worse. Dunning is describing a passive process – people become filled with misinformation and faulty conclusions simply by the flawed nature in which we absorb information from our environment. There is also, however, a much more active process in which people expose themselves selectively and seek out specific misinformation all pointing in the same direction.

This more active process has been called the “echochamber effect.” While this has likely always been a problem, the internet and social media has greatly magnified this phenomenon. It is now easier than ever to surround yourself with the comforting reassurance that all your beliefs are simply and unassailably true.

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Jul 03 2015

A Quick Logic Lesson

Try your hand at this quick puzzle, then come back and read the rest of this post.

How did you do? This is a great little test with a very important lesson.

The discussion that follows the puzzle is a fairly good explanation of confirmation bias, which is a partial explanation for why people might fail to solve the puzzle. It is a partial explanation only, however, and therefore missed an opportunity to  teach a critical lesson in scientific reasoning.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out, perceive, accept, and remember information that confirms beliefs we already hold, coupled with the tendency to miss, ignore, forget, or explain away information that contradicts our beliefs.

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Jun 16 2015

The Debate over Nutrition Research

Can you recall everything you ate yesterday, including those little snacks you snuck, with reasonably accurate estimates of amounts? How about two days ago? Most people, it turns out, have a hard time recalling with good fidelity their recent food intake, or they have a hard time reporting it accurately not only because of the fallibility of memory but because of biases and denial.

Despite this, a great deal of nutrition research is based upon subjects recalling and accurately reporting what they ate. A recent article in Mayo Clinic Proceedings by Edward Archer et al challenges the legitimacy of this research. They write:

The reliance on M-BMs to inform dietary policy continues despite decades of unequivocal evidence that M-BM (memory-based dietary assessment methods ) data bear little relation to actual energy and nutrient consumption.

This is pretty damming. They charge that the current dietary guidelines are based upon fatally flawed data. They specifically state that such data is based upon fallible memory, uses data collecting techniques known to promote false recall, cannot be independently verified, and often does not contain objective data on physical activity. They go as far as to call such research an, “unscientific and major misuse of research resources.”

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