Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Dec 25 2014

Io Saturnalia

Published by under Skepticism

Seasons Greetings, Happy Holidays, Happy Festivus, Have a wonderful Winter Solstice, and Merry Christmas.

This is the time of year that many cultures in the northern hemisphere celebrate the return of the sun, celebrate family and life while facing the long dark of winter, and engage in superstitious rituals to help them survive the cold and hunger that mark that season. All of that is the real reason for the season.

In western culture the celebration has been largely “Christianized” into the holiday of Christmas, but the secular aspects of Christmas, from gift giving to the Christmas tree, all have non-Christian origins.

For me, though, it all doesn’t matter. It’s a great time of year to take a break from the usual grind and spend time with family and friends, reminding everyone how much we mean to each other. In the darkest part of the year (again, with apologies to my southern hemisphere friends) we spread a little light and warmth to those in our lives.

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Dec 23 2014

A New Wrinkle in Quantum Mechanics

Published by under Skepticism

The press release of this news items proclaims: “Quantum physics just got less complicated.” I’m not sure I agree. Perhaps in the minds of physicists who actually understand quantum mechanics (as well as it currently can be understood). To the rest of us this new finding is just as strange and incomprehensible as QM itself.

QM describes the universe at the atomic and subatomic levels. At that scale nature behave very differently from what we are used to at the macroscopic level, which is often referred to as the realm of classical physics. The dividing line between the quantum world and the classical world remains a matter of research and debate, but it is somewhere at the level of molecules.

There are several aspects to QM which essentially describe the results of careful experiments. We don’t currently have a proven theoretical framework to explain why the universe behaves this way – that is a breakthrough waiting to happen.

One aspect of QM is known as wave-particle duality. When particles, such as photons, shine through two narrow close slits (the famous double slit experiment) the pattern of light that hits the wall (or film or detector) behind the slits is in a light and dark banded pattern that resembles the interference pattern that results when two waves intersect. The light is clearly traveling as a wave through the two slit and those waves are interfering on the other side.

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Dec 22 2014

Nobody’s Perfect – Dealing with Flawed Characters

Published by under Skepticism

A recurring controversy that crops up from time to time within the rationalist communities is how to deal with someone who promotes rationalism on the one hand, but has a major flaw on the other. The latest example of this comes from my friend and colleague, Phil Plait.

The IFLS website posted a picture of women actors who are also scientists. The image included Mayim Bialik, who plays Amy on the Big Bang Theory, and who also has a Ph.D. in neuroscience.  At the same time, Bialik is openly anti-vaccine, and promotes pseudoscientfic organizations like Holistic Moms Network and Attachment Parenting International. Phil retweeted the picture from IFLS and added, “I love this.”

This all prompted another round of hand-wringing (actually I think this is all a healthy and interesting conversation) over supporting scientists, educators, and skeptics who are flawed in some way. Phil defends the position in his blog that we can accept flawed characters as ambassadors of science, writing:

So is using her in that montage of pictures a good thing or a bad thing? I would argue it’s neither, but the good outweighs the bad. The facts are that she is a scientist, she is an actress, and the picture was about actresses who are scientists. In point of fact, celebrities can be influential, and it’s a good thing that people see science supported by celebrity.

Other celebrities who have caused the same type of controversy include Bill Maher, who is an outspoken atheist, but who is also anti-vaccine, doubts the germ theory of disease, and has a general conspiratorial attitude toward modern medicine.

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Dec 19 2014

Universal Medicine Uses Google To Silence Critics

An Australian based company called Universal Medicine (UM) has been criticized by various skeptical blogs and groups as being a new age alternative medicine cult. Looking through their website, this seems like a reasonable observation. (The term “cult” is fuzzy, but many of the features seem to be present.)

In response to this criticism, UM has apparently issued many complaints to Google, claiming defamation. According to the site Chilling Effect, Google has responded at least in some cases by removing the sites from Google searches, effectively censoring those websites.

Doubtful News was one of the sites censored by Google.

This type of action represents a serious threat to the skeptical mission. Part of that mission is consumer protection, and the primary method of activism is public analysis and criticism of dubious claims, products, services, and organizations. Essentially, we expose charlatans.

Charlatans, it turns out, don’t like to be exposed. They don’t like bad press.

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Nov 07 2014

Solution Aversion and Motivated Reasoning

Anyone paying the slightest attention has likely realized that people tend to hold positions in line with their general world view. In the US, for example, political conservatives tend to hold conservative opinions, while political liberals tend to hold liberal opinions. This is true even when the topic at hand is scientific or factual, and not a matter of value or opinion.

Whether the issue is climate change, GMO, gun control, nuclear power, the death penalty, or biological facts surrounding pregnancy and fetal development, your political ideology is likely to determine your scientific opinions.  Further, depending on how strongly held the political values are, facts are not very helpful in changing opinions. Presenting fact may actually backfire, motivating people to dig in their heels. 

All of this is old news to readers of the skeptical literature. The basic phenomenon at work here is motivated reasoning, which is a catchall covering the suite of biases and cognitive flaws that lead people to arrive at confident conclusions they wish to be true, rather than objectively following facts and logic wherever it leads. Further, as I discussed yesterday, the process of motivated reasoning leads us to a false confidence in our conclusions. We all think we have facts and logic on our side.

A recent paper on the issue defines motivated reasoning this way:

Of importance, recent evidence has demonstrated that political ideology, defined as “an interrelated set of moral and political attitudes that possesses cognitive, affective, and motivational components,” can similarly guide, funnel, and constrain the processing of information and alter behavior.

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Nov 06 2014

Lessons from Dunning-Kruger

In 1999 psychologist David Dunning and his graduate student Justin Kruger published a paper in which they describe what has come to be known (appropriately) as the Dunning-Kruger effect.  In a recent article discussing his now famous paper, Dunning summarizes the effect as:

“…incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are,”

He further explains:

“What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

As you can see in the chart above, the most competent individuals tend to underestimate their relative ability a little, but for most people (the bottom 75%) they increasingly overestimate their ability, and everyone thinks they are above average. I sometimes hear the effect incorrectly described as, “the more incompetent you are, the more knowledgeable you think you are.” As you can see, self-estimates do decrease with decreasing knowledge, but the gap between performance and self-assessment increase as you decrease in performance.

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Oct 09 2014

AWARE Results Finally Published – No Evidence of NDE

Back in May I participated in a debate for Intelligence Squared regarding “Death is not Final.” At the time I was updating myself on the published literature regarding alleged near death experiences or NDEs, and noticed that the AWARE study (AWAreness during REsuscitation) had been completed but the data not yet published. I was disappointed that I would not have these results available to me during the debate.

I had read about the study several years earlier. This is a prospective study of cardiac arrest patients to not only describe their NDEs when they occur, but to conduct a large prospective test looking for objective evidence of conscious awareness during resuscitation. The lead researcher, Sam Parnia, is a believer in NDEs, but designed a study theoretically capable of finding objective evidence.

The multi-center study involved placing an image in a location that was hidden from normal view but could be viewed by a person floating above their body during an NDE. This could be a way to objectively differentiate between the two leading hypotheses. Parnia and others believe that reports of NDEs represent actual awareness during cardiac arrest when the brain is not functioning. This, of course, would be compelling evidence for cognition separate from brain function.

I and most scientist favor the more mundane and likely explanation that memories of NDEs are formed at other times, when the brain is functioning, for example during the long recovery process. At least the memories themselves do not differential between these two hypotheses, and this explanation does not require inventing entirely new non-materialist phenomena.

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Sep 25 2014

Newtown and FBI Crime Statistics

On December 14, 2012, a disturbed shooter killed 20 children and 6 adult staff at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. This was a horrific event, and the community is still recovering.

Almost immediately after the shooting, and continuing to this day, conspiracy theorists have been shoe-horning this tragic event into their preferred narrative, calling the event a “false flag” operation. In other words, they believe that no children were killed on that day. The entire event was staged by the powers that be as a pretext to take away the guns of law-abiding citizens.

The claim is absurd on its face, but does provide an interesting window into how people can come to believe something that seems so “bat shit crazy.” It provides a lesson into the iron grip that a compelling narrative can have on someone’s mind.

The preferred narrative of the conspiracy theorist is that you cannot believe anything anyone in authority says. The government lies and only seeks to oppress us, so if the government says something it cannot be true. Anyone who believes the government is hopelessly naive.

So if “corporate media” is saying children were killed at Sandy Hook it must not be true, no matter how implausible the alternative might be.

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Sep 23 2014

Flavors of Nonsense

I, like most people, like to categorize things. It helps me keep my mental space organized and tidy. A good system of categorization is also like a framework on which I can hang specific facts and details. Categories are most useful when they reflect underlying reality, rather than superficial or arbitrary features. Categories are therefore often at the nexus of facts and theory in science – they can organize the facts in a way that reflects the underlying theory. 

You have to be cautious, however. Reality often does not cleave in clean straight lines. There are likely to be exceptions to any rules one devises for defining specific categories. Groups tend to be fuzzy around the edges. While categories can be a useful tool for organizing ideas, they can also become a mental prison or straightjacket.

Is Pluto a planet? It depends on how you define planet, and why you would define planet in any particular way. Is there a difference between planets, dwarf planets, and planetoids? Or do these objects exist along a spectrum and scientists are simply drawing arbitrary lines for convenience? Is schizophrenia one disease or a group of diseases, how do we categorize the subtypes, and do they reflect real underlying differences in cause? Are such labels helping or hindering research?

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Sep 08 2014

Internet Echochambers

I recently came across a post on the skeptic subreddit pointing to the rules of the 9/11 truther subreddit:

Welcome to 911truth! The purpose of this subreddit is to present and discuss evidence showing that the US Government’s version of the events of 9/11 cannot possibly be true. Submissions or comments supporting the official version, including links to sites purporting to “debunk” the 9/11 Truth Movement (depending on context), are considered off-topic here.

Rules:

  1. Stay on topic. Off topic comments are subject to removal.

Rule #7 also made me smile:

7. No caps lock.

This is the double-edged sword of the internet – it allows for unprecedented on-demand access to incredible information, but that information is biased.

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