Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Oct 25 2016

234 Possible Alien Signals

Published by under Astronomy,Skepticism

alien-worldI love reading articles that discuss the same issue and come to essentially opposite conclusions. In this case, Canadian astronomers have recently performed an analysis of 2.5 million stars and found 234 of them producing pulsed signals that they claim may be of alien origin. The scientific community is skeptical.

The Independent declares, “Strange messages coming from the stars are ‘probably’ from aliens, scientists say.” Meanwhile, states, “Why hundreds of aliens probably aren’t trying to contact us.”

When you read deep into both articles you find a more nuanced position. The difference is mostly in the headline writing, but also in the overall emphasis of the article. Skepticism can be marginalized or central.

SETI and Skepticism

I have found the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) to be an excellent topic of skeptical discussion. It is a great forum for discussing what is legitimate science, and how scientists decide whether something is likely to be true or not. There is nothing supernatural or paranormal about life evolving on exoplanets, intelligence emerging, and developing a technological civilization that might send signals out into space. We have done it.

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35 responses so far

Oct 24 2016

The Conspiracy Theory Label

As skeptics we apply various labels to certain kinds of intellectual behavior. Perhaps the big three are pseudoscience, conspiracy theory, and denialism. There are many specific subtypes of these three big categories, however. Quackery, for example, is medical pseudoscience. Tooth Fairy science, a term coined by Harriet Hall on SBM, refers to a certain type of crank pseudoscience in which many studies are done but they never challenge the core assumption of a claim.

These terms are useful because they have operational definitions. One of my first major pieces of skeptical writing was a dissection of exactly what makes a pseudoscience, and I have spent the last 20 years refining my understanding of this definition. I have done the same for denialism and conspiracy thinking. These are actual phenomena that need to be understood by any critical thinker. They are, I would argue, legitimate philosophical concepts.

Like all philosophical concepts, they often get abused when translated into the popular culture. What I have found is that these terms are mostly properly understood and used by those trying to be genuinely skeptical. There are varying levels of nuance, and all of these concepts are fuzzy around the edges, but in general people get what a conspiracy theory is, and when someone is denying established science.

Problems arise mainly with those who are the target of these labels – with those who believe in a particular pseudoscience or conspiracy theory or engage in denialism. They bristle at the application of these concepts to their beliefs, and often push back.

Their pushback takes a few forms. They of course can simply deny the specific accusation, and argue that creationism is legitimate science, or that global warming denial is just proper skepticism. Conspiracy theorists are fond of arguing that some conspiracies are demonstrably real, and therefore all conspiracy theories are somehow legitimate or at least plausible. This argument misses the point that it is the necessary size of an alleged conspiracy that makes it implausible.

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32 responses so far

Oct 10 2016

Modeling Misinformation

Published by under Skepticism

tweetdemicAs social media changes the nature of information and communication, it is interesting to think about how information and misinformation spread through these networks. A paper from 2015 seeks to model the spread of information through social networks to better understand the effect of specific variables.

The study: Fact-checking Effect on Viral Hoaxes: A Model of Misinformation Spread in Social Networks, is not a real-world examination but a mathematical model. As with all such models, it is overly simplistic in order to isolate a few key variables. For the purpose of this model they are treating misinformation as a virus. Someone exposed to the misinformation is potentially infected. At random, they will either be gullible, believe the misinformation and spread it on, or they will be skeptical, fact check the misinformation and then spread correcting information.

In the model they can vary the percentage of people who are believers vs fact checkers. They can also vary the time it takes on average for people to forget the information and therefore become susceptible to infection again. They used a stochastic model, which means the spread of the information and whether or not an individual is a believer or fact checker was random.

They found, not surprisingly, that the greater the percentage of fact checkers, the more likely it is that the hoax will essentially be wiped out. If the percentage of fact checkers is too low then belief in the hoax can become endemic – it can persist indefinitely in the population.

Interestingly, the rate at which the misinformation spread did not matter in this model.

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8 responses so far

Oct 04 2016

Review – Brain Training Games Don’t Work

brain-gamesYesterday I wrote about the literature on so-called “power poses” – the notion that adopting certain poses make you feel more confident and powerful, and therefore change your behavior in certain ways that may be advantageous. Over the last decade psychologists have built up a literature which they claim supports the conclusion that power poses work.

However, a reanalysis of the data suggests that the evidence is flimsy, and in fact may be entirely an illusion created by p-hacking (essentially, loose research methodology).

The primary proponent of power poses, Amy Cuddy, has already built a career on the idea, topped off with a popular TED talk, and so far is sticking by her conclusion. Meanwhile, one of her coauthors, Dana Carney, has already jumped ship and stated publicly she does not think the power pose effect is real.

Brain Training

Today I am going to tell a very similar story, this time about brain training games. Over the last decade psychologists have built up a literature which they claim supports the conclusion that playing certain “brain games” will make you smarter in general, and may even stave off dementia.

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18 responses so far

Sep 15 2016

Congressman Lamar Smith and the Union of Concerned Scientists

smith-house-science-committee-1200Lawrence Krauss recently wrote an editorial in The New Yorker about how Lamar Smith, a congressman from Texas and chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is harassing scientists who are providing data on global warming.

The story that Krauss tells is very clear – Smith is a Republican who receives more money from the oil industry than any other industry, he is a Christian Scientist, and he is a global warming denier. Last year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a paper in Science in which they show data that indicates there never was a global warming pause and that the world is continuing to warm.

The response of Lamar Smith was to accuse the scientists of lying, of altering the data to suit the political agenda of the administration, and to subpoena their internal communication (they had already turned over their data). In the subpoena Smith writes: Continue Reading »

81 responses so far

Aug 29 2016

The Trump Doctor Letter and Clinton Health Conspiracies

Published by under Skepticism

clinton seizureThe health of the candidates for the presidency is considered fair game, which I think is reasonable. Being president is physically grueling. It requires stamina and if a candidate has health issues that can affect their ability to perform the job, and may also affect whether or not they are likely to live out their term in adequate health.

FDR famously kept his condition from the general public. He had polio when he was 39 (although some researchers think he may have had Guillain-Barre) and was essentially wheelchair bound. This would not affect his ability to function as president, but it was thought that if voters saw him in a wheelchair they would think he was less vigorous and perhaps even less manly.

Woodrow Wilson had a stroke in 1919, and the outside world was kept in the dark. His wife handled all his communication.

In retrospect it seems likely that Ronald Reagan was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease toward the end of this eight years in office. His wife and others close to him tried their best to cover for him, but it was clear he had lost his edge. He was later formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which ultimately took his life.

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19 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

Aug 09 2016

Making the Non-Existent Disappear

Hieronymus_Bosch_051If I told you I could make something nonexistent disappear, you probably would not be very impressed with that as a magic trick. However, magic is all about misdirection. If I could make you think you saw an object that was never there, and then make it disappear, that could be quite impressive.

Psychology and Magic

Increasingly psychologists, neuroscientists, and magicians are converging upon a model of how our brains construct our perceptions of reality. Magicians actually had a head start as they have been working out practical ways to fool human perception for centuries. Psychologists started taking note in the late 19th century, but really have only been seriously examining the techniques of magicians in the last decade or so. Psychologists now routinely use magic tricks as part of experimental setups.

The basic picture that has emerged is that our sensory perceptions have both bottom-up and top-down components. The bottom-up components are essentially using the raw sensory input and constructing an image from that, then passing that construction on to higher brain levels that interpret the image and give it emotional meaning. Top-down construction works the opposite way, with the higher brain areas communicating their expectations to the primary sensory areas and influencing their construction.

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7 responses so far

Aug 04 2016

Skepticism – Banned by Facebook

Published by under Skepticism

Facebook - GMOFacebook, despite its critics and many competitors, remains a robust social media platform. The SGU has a Facebook page with over 1 million likes, and we use it to drive traffic here and to Science-Based Medicine.

There are pages on Facebook promoting just about any point of view you can imagine. It is a true marketplace of ideas. Like any marketplace, there is the expectation that its rules are fair and its regulation is rational and reasonable.

Earlier this year Facebook came under criticism when it was discovered that some of their employees may have been systematically biased against conservative leaning news items. This sparked a discussion of whether or not an outlet like Facebook has a responsibility to be neutral. They are a private company, they can do what they want. Newspapers and TV news programs can have a biased editorial policy. What is important is transparency, and Facebook was putting their thumb on the scale on the sly. They have responded by initiating a training program for their employees to teach them to recognize their own bias – so they at least understand the benefit of the perception of being unbiased.

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12 responses so far

Jul 19 2016

Debunking Islamic Creationism

Published by under Skepticism

scaletofeatherAdnan Oktar, who writes under the pen name of Harun Yahya, is an Islamic creationist. He has written several books and his articles now infect the internet.

His arguments are essentially the same as Christian creationists, which raises the question of whether or not he developed them independently or he simply read Christian creationist texts. He references Duane Gish and other similar sources, so it seems that at least to some extent the similarity is through direct copying.

Some of the similarity may also be due to the fact that he is following a similar process, which can best be summarized as “making shit up.” He also likes to quote scientists out of context, a technique he seems to have borrowed from his Christian counterparts.

I also find it very familiar in that he presents himself as an intellectual and yet is breathtakingly ignorant of his subject matter. He appears to have learned about evolution from what Stephen J. Gould characterized as, “secondary hostile sources.” The result is that he tilts at rather simplistic “strawmen,” and never comes close to modern evolutionary theory, which escapes his attacks unscathed. Let’s take a look.

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112 responses so far

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