Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

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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Jun 11 2015

Ideology is the Problem

i·de·ol·o·gy
noun
1. a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.

It is my goal as an intellectual and skeptic to purge myself of all ideology, as much as possible. I have come to understand that it is ideology, in its broadest sense, that is largely the enemy of reason. This includes not only political and economic ideology, but also religious, social, and historical.

At its core, an ideology is something you believe because you believe it. It is a moral and intellectual anchor, as well as a lens through which the world is viewed. I am not implying any sort of equivalency – not all ideologies are created equal. We also come to our ideologies through different paths, some more valid than others. Often we absorb them from our family, our society, and our culture. Genetics may also play a role. We seem to be predisposed to certain political ideologies based upon which values speak to us most loudly. We then take those values as if they were the Truth and proceed from there.

There are even ideologies that we arrive at through valid argument and consideration. I consider scientific skepticism, which values doubt, logic, empiricism, and self-knowledge, as a valid and worthwhile ideology. Even then a belief or value system can be a problem if we treat it like an assumption rather than a conclusion.

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Jun 02 2015

PBS GMO Debate

Published by under Skepticism

PBS has put up an interactive resource on the GMO (genetically modified organisms) debate. You vote for which side you are on, and then the site feeds you arguments against your position. I like this idea, as it is always helpful to challenge yourself by confronting differing opinions. This is a sort of antiechochamber approach.

Since I accept the strong scientific consensus that GMOs are generally safe (each genetic modification needs to be evaluated on its own, but so far existing GMOs have been found safe, and there are no established specific issues with the technology itself), and are a potentially useful technology, I took the pro side, which means PBS fed me all their anti-GMO arguments. I was struck by how consistently terrible their anti-GMO arguments were. It seems that PBS was trying to be fair and thorough, which implies that there are only terrible anti-GMO arguments, so they had no choice.

I am still honestly trying to find a non-terrible anti-GMO argument, because I agree with seeking out the best arguments on all sides of an issue, and being charitable to those arguments. PBS did not fulfill my quest. To be fair to PBS, they are reflecting the talking points of GMO critics, and that is what they say. They are not endorsing these positions. Here are their anti-GMO points:

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May 29 2015

A Chocolate Science Sting

John Bohannon is at it again. In 2013 he published the results of a sting operation in which he submitted terrible papers with fake credentials to 304 open access journals. Over half of the journals accepted the paper for publication. He published his results in Science magazine, and it caused a bit of a stir, although arguably not as much as it should have.

Bohannon was asked to repeat this feat, this time to expose the schlocky science of the diet industry. He was asked to do this for a documentary film which will be release shortly, but he has already published his reveal. You can read his full account for details, but here is the quick summary.

He collaborated with others to perform a real (although crappy) scientific study. His researchers recruited 16 people, with one drop out, the remaining 15 were divided into three groups: low carb diet for three weeks, low carb diet plus daily chocolate for three weeks, and no change in diet. The results were not surprising in that the two diet groups lost 5 pounds on average, while the no diet group did not. However, they also found that the chocolate group lost 10% more weight. He explains:
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May 21 2015

Creationism – Are We Winning The Battle and Losing The War?

One of the major ambitions of my life is to promote science and critical thinking, which I do under the related banners of scientific skepticism and science-based medicine. This is a huge endeavor, with many layers of complexity. For that reason it is tempting to keep one’s head down, focus on small manageable problems and goals, and not worry too much about the big picture. Worrying about the big picture causes stress and anxiety.

I have been doing this too long to keep my head down, however. I have to worry about the big picture: are we making progress, are we doing it right, how should we alter our strategy, is there anything we are missing?

The answers to these questions are different for each topic we face. While we are involved in one large meta-goal, it is composed of hundreds of sub-goals, each of which may pose their own challenges. Creationism, for example, is one specific topic that we confront within our broader mission or promoting science.

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May 19 2015

Federal Anti-SLAPP Statute Proposed

Americans cherish our free speech, enshrined in the very first amendment to the Constitution. SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuit against public participation) are a serious threat to that freedom of speech. We desperately need libel reform in the form of effective anti-SLAPP laws.

What I learned when I became the target of a SLAPP suit (that is still ongoing) is that anyone with money can take away your free speech at will. It works like this: if you express an opinion publicly that someone else doesn’t like because it is critical of them, their beliefs, their business, etc. then they can hire a lawyer and send you a cease and desist letter. You are now faced with a dilemma – take down your blog, article, podcast, video, or whatever and allow your free speech to be suppressed, or potentially face tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Except for those few states with effective anti-SLAPP laws (California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Texas and the District of Columbia – Florida just passed one which has not yet gone into effect), if you refuse to remove your free speech and you get sued, then expect to spend large sums of money and years of your life defending your rights. Here’s the thing – even if the case against you has zero merit and no chance of winning in the end, the lawsuit is a financial game of chicken. There is no way to shut the case down early. There is no bar for meritless cases.

The net effect of this is that if someone has money they can shut down your free speech at will. This, of course, has a chilling effect on free speech that can go way beyond the one instance of speech being targeted.

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