Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Jun 21 2016

The Improbability Principle

strawberrymoonPeople generally suck at statistics. Our innate sense of how likely something is does not accord very well with reality, especially for large numbers.

But don’t worry, this just means you have to think a little harder about how likely things are. David Hand writes about this in his 2014 book: The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. This is making the rounds again in the media because of the recent “rare” astronomical events.

Yesterday the Summer Solstice coincided with the Strawberry Moon – the first full moon in June. The last time this happened was in 1967. Recently we have seen “rare” transits of Mercury and Venus across the sun.

These events are not that rare, and I really don’t see what the fuss is all about (I guess the media is desperate for anything they can hype.) Don’t get me wrong, I love astronomical events, it is their rarity that I think is overhyped.

Continue Reading »

20 responses so far

Jun 14 2016

GMOs – Have We Turned a Corner?

Published by under Skepticism

gmo cornScientific skeptics spend a great deal of their time and effort fighting against pseudoscience, ideology, and entrenched beliefs. This can be a frustrating effort, given that such beliefs tend not to be based in scientific thinking in the first place. It can be so frustrating that Marc Crislip chose as the symbol for the Society for Science-Based Medicine an image of Sisyphys endlessly pushing a rock up hill.

I do think we are having a significant impact on culture, the media, and the bigger conversation on scientific issues, but it is hard to measure, and sometimes even perceive, that impact. The noise of pseudoscience can seem overwhelming. We are mostly left to imagine that the situation would be much worse without our efforts and take comfort in small victories.

This is why I took notice of a recent article by Risk-Monger that claims we have changed the dynamic with respect to public opinion about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He makes an interesting case that there has been a “Surprisingly Sudden Demise of the Anti-GMO Movement.” Here is his summary of the evidence: Continue Reading »

17 responses so far

Jun 09 2016

Liberal vs Conservative Antiscience

Published by under Skepticism


On a recent Bill Maher show, Maher repeated his frequent claim that the Republicans are the party of antiscience. Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was a guest on that episode, countered:

“Don’t be too high and mighty there, because there are certain aspects of science denials that are squarely in the liberal left.”

There is no doubt that there are science deniers across the political spectrum. There are two points that I feel are in contention, however. Is there relatively more antiscience on the right than the left, and if so, what are the causes of the asymmetry?

Immediately there is a problem with this framing, as the political spectrum is more complicated than left vs right. However, most surveys use a three-point political designation: liberal (Democrat), conservative (Republican), Independent. So that is the data we have.

Continue Reading »

57 responses so far

Jun 06 2016

The Lost City

ZakynthosWe often don’t give nature enough credit. In many contexts, scientists or explorers find an anomaly and immediately the interest and speculation turns to intelligent agents at work. The ultimate expression of this, of course, is intelligent design creationism, where nature is denied credit for biology itself.

For example, snorklers discovered some odd shaped stones off the coast of the Greek island Zakynthos. The stones were surprisingly round, and so the immediate speculation was that these were the bases of pillars and are therefore the remains of an ancient Greek port, since lost to the sea.

I am not saying that this hypothesis is unreasonable, just that it seems to be the preferred hypothesis. This preference is also not unreasonable, because the remains of an ancient city are a lot more interesting than some oddly shapes stones (unless you’re a geologist).

Of course, there is always going to be someone taking such speculation too far, and prematurely concluding they have evidence for an intelligent artifact, even when further scientific investigation finds otherwise. It’s important to remember that in order to conclude that an anomaly is the product of deliberate artifice, we need further evidence. Greek ruins, for example, are lousy with pot shards. They are just everywhere. None have been found in the vicinity of the alleged pillars, however. This should give any ancient Greek port proponents extreme pause.

Continue Reading »

7 responses so far

Jun 02 2016

Theranos Exposed

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

Holmes-Summit-e1460127673162-1200x945I love a good cautionary tale. Perhaps my medical background predisposes me to “post mortem” analysis – what exactly went wrong and why? There is a risk of the cautionary tale, however, in that it is easy to impose a preexisting narrative onto events. The tale can be easily coopted, and then you are not learning a lesson but just reinforcing an existing belief.

I will try to avoid that trap while discussing the story of Theranos, but I am picking this story because it does support a cautionary tale skeptics like to tell.

Theranos was a hot tech startup based on a “disruptive” technology developed by its young maverick founder, Elizabeth Holmes. The story was perfect for the tech industry, who ate it up. It seemed a little dodgy to the medical industry, however, who viewed it with skepticism.

Here is a good overview of the story, with a list of tech news articles fawning over the new startup. Even some news sites who should have known better, like Smithsonian Magazine, were taken in. Read this article – it reads like a marketing brochure for the company. It overstates the limitations and problems with current technology, and overhypes how revolutionary the new technology will be. It asks, but does not answer, the key question – how is this new alleged technology supposed to work.

The claimed breakthrough of Theranos was a streamlined process for laboratory blood analysis that promised to perform 30 tests on a single drop of blood with same-day results. This would eliminate the need for drawing vials of blood and replace that with a simple finger prick.

For any scientist there are immediate red flags. Each blood test, in a way, is its own technology. You don’t measure sodium in the blood the same way you measure glucose, or test for the presence of antibodies to a virus. Yet Theranos claimed to have revolutionized dozens of standard laboratory tests. This would require a massive amount of research and development, or the introduction of an entirely new technology.

Such technology does not come out of nowhere. Research builds upon other research and then is translated into practical applications. The myth of the lone researcher making breakthroughs in their garage is largely just that, a myth. But that image clings tightly to the public consciousness. This makes it easier to sell the narrative of the lone genius making breakthrough technology.

Perhaps the tech industry is especially susceptible to this narrative. A team of coders with a great idea can create a disruptive app that will change the game. Investors are looking for disruptive startups, nerds with a great idea and the next billion dollar company. Medical technology is different, however. There needs to be a paper trail, years of research leading up to the application.

Now that the true story of Theranos is coming out, it seems obvious in retrospect that the whole thing was a scam. First, their labs were conducting 70% of their blood tests on conventional machines using conventional blood draws. They claim this is just while they were waiting for FDA approval of individual tests, but still they were not delivering on their promise.

Second, Theranos just voided the last two years of study results that were being conducted with their technology, what they called the Edison machine. In essence they just admitted that their technology does not work, and the lab test results they provided were not accurate. The company, essentially, has completely evaporated. The company now faces a class action lawsuit.

Last year Forbes estimated Holmes net worth at $4.5 billion. Yesterday they revised their estimate down a bit – to zero.


If this is a cautionary tale, what are the lessons? The obvious one, of course, is to be skeptical. Treat every new exciting claim as if it is a scam until proven otherwise. Don’t buy corporate marketing propaganda. Ask the hard questions, like exactly how does this work?

There are genuine breakthroughs, but most claimed breakthroughs aren’t. The market is currently being flooded with snake oil and medical pseudoscience, so again, it is a good default position that any new claimed medical breakthrough is probably a scam, or at least overhyped.

Also, be skeptical of nice neat narratives. If a story sounds ready made for movie plot, it probably is just that – a fiction. We love stories of underdogs rising from obscurity by challenging the big boys. We love the lone maverick narrative, the young genius, the rugged individual not afraid to break with convention.

The truth is often much less glamorous and exciting. Progress in science is more often made by various teams each contributing their incremental advance. Ideas rarely come out of nowhere. The big advancements are ones that we saw coming 1-2 decades before they became a reality.

Be aware of common red flags: A company selling a new technology should be able to describe, at least in general terms, how the technology works. You can do this without giving away technical secrets. If they refuse to give a satisfying answer for whatever reason, be suspicious.

If the relevant scientific community is skeptical, you should be too.

If they are using science-sounding jargon but do not really make sense (such as talking about frequencies, or quantum mechanics) it is almost certainly a scam.

Theranos is certainly not a rare case. Companies selling pure snake oil are out there in the thousands. Theranos was perhaps just the biggest one. I also doubt that the tech industry has learned its lesson. The allure of billion dollar  disruptive technology is just too great.


17 responses so far

May 30 2016

Underwhelming Cell Phone Rat Study

cell-phone-rat-studyMother Jones headline declares: “Game-Changing” Study Links Cellphone Radiation to Cancer.” NBCNews was similar: A Possible Cellphone Link to Cancer? A Rat Study Launches New Debate.

Any evidence that might link cell phone use to cancer is of legitimate concern, but this is a classic situation in which such evidence needs to put into proper context. I will start with some reassuring clinical context – human epidemiology data has failed to show any consistent association between cell phones and cancer. Further, brain cancer rates have not been increasing overall in the last 20 years when cell phone use skyrocketed. Therefore, any real world effect of cell phones on humans must be tiny to nonexistent.

Toxicology science, however, looks at questions several ways. The most definitive evidence would be placebo-controlled trials, but we almost never have this because it is unethical to expose a subject to a possible toxin just to see if it has a negative effect. (You can do this as part of a therapeutic trial where there is a greater chance of benefit to the subject, but not just to test toxicity.)

Continue Reading »

12 responses so far

May 19 2016

Skepticism and the Fallacy of Relative Privation

There has been a lively exchange surrounding John Horgan’s article about skeptics, which I responded to previously. (See also Orac’s and Daniel Loxton’s responses.) At the core of Horgan’s piece is a logical fallacy so common, I feel it deserves special attention. In fact, PZ Myers wrote approvingly of Horgan’s fallacy, showing that it is still alive and well.

That fallacy can be called the fallacy of relative privation, which is a type of red herring or distraction from actual issues. The fallacy is essentially an argument that a problem is not important or does not deserve attention and resources because there are other more important problems. “Why are you wasting your time on X when there are children dying of cancer?”

In Horgan’s case, he would like us to end all war and bring about everlasting world peace before we tackle lesser problems like quackery, fraud, global warming, vaccine denial, the environment, and other such trivialities.

Continue Reading »

38 responses so far

May 17 2016

John Horgan is “Skeptical of Skeptics”

Published by under Skepticism

NECSS2016This past weekend at NECSS 2016 we invited science journalist John Horgan to give a talk on “Skepticism: Hard Versus Soft Targets.” We’re always game for some critical introspection. It keeps things interesting if nothing else.

Unfortunately the talk, which he has now published on Scientific American’s website (which means it’s fair game), was more than a bit disappointing – not because he was critical, but because he does not seem to get skepticism with a small or a big “S.” The result was a string of cherry picked strawmen.

He begins:

“I hate preaching to the converted. If you were Buddhists, I’d bash Buddhism. But you’re skeptics, so I have to bash skepticism.”

That makes you a contrarian, not a skeptic. How about telling it like it is? Most ideas and movements are a mix of good and bad, and it often takes some effort and nuance to tease this apart. Or, you can just “bash” an entire philosophy simplistically because you fancy yourself an independent thinker. There is also nothing wrong with “preaching” to the choir – it’s not about conversion, but education.

Continue Reading »

194 responses so far

Apr 18 2016

The Age of Click-Bait

Published by under Skepticism

A recent article in The Guardian discusses the current pressures in newsrooms that is eroding quality control. The article brings up many rather sobering points, but will hardly be news to anyone who frequents the internet.

The internet and social media have rapidly revolutionized the way we communicate, find, and consume news. Large publishers able to maintain a significant infrastructure are no longer the gatekeepers of information. This has both positive and negative ramifications.

While no one likes the idea of fat-cat publishers having all the power – deciding what news to print, which programs to air, which albums to produce, etc. – they did provide a filter. They filtered out the vast background noise, providing at least an opportunity for quality control. How they used that opportunity determined the reputation of the outlet. We still has the National Enquirer, but everyone knew it was a grocery store tabloid.

Now the filters are largely gone. The internet is filled with all the noise. We still have news outlets, aggregators, and brands based on perceived quality. Essentially there are few top-down controls, only bottom-up market forces at work. So what have those market forces brought us?

Continue Reading »

42 responses so far

Mar 17 2016

Is Everything You Think You Know Wrong?

Published by under Skepticism

dino-asteroidDoes sugar make kids hyper? Has science proven bumble bees can’t fly? Does the average person only use 10% of their brain capacity? Are routine multivitamins good for you? Were the dinosaurs killed off by an asteroid impact?

It is often observed that when a fact is accepted uncritically because, “everyone knows it to be true,” it is probably false. The answers to the above questions are no, no, no, probably not, and it’s more complicated than you think.

The best way to drive this home for many people is this – think of the one area of knowledge in which you have the greatest expertise. This does not have to be your job, it can be just a hobby. Now, how accurate are news reports that deal with your area of extensive knowledge? How much does the average person know? Does anyone other than a fellow enthusiast or expert ever get it quite right?

The universal experience (according to my informal survey over many years) is that the general public is full of misinformation and oversimplifications about your area of knowledge. Now extrapolate that experience to all other areas of knowledge. This means that you are full of misinformation and oversimplifications about every area in which you are not an expert.

Continue Reading »

28 responses so far

Next »