Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

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.

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37 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.

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192 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?

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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.

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28 responses so far

Mar 15 2016

Cryotherapy – Basic vs Clinical Science

RoganOn a recent episode of the Joe Rogan Experience (starting at the 2:10 mark), Rogan discusses an article I wrote previously on Science-Based Medicine about whole body cryotherapy (WBC). Rogan did not like my article, which he characterized as “poorly done and poorly researched.” He was discussing the article and WBC in general with his guest, Dr. Rhonda Patrick.

What this discussion revealed, in my opinion, is a significant lack of understanding of the roles of basic science research vs clinical research. Before I get to the discussion, here is a quick review of WBC.

Whole Body Cryotherapy

WBC involves exposing the whole body to extremely low temperatures, -200 to -240 degree F temperatures (-125 to -150 C) for 1.5-3 minutes. There are chambers where the head sticks out the top, and there are chambers that you step into entirely.

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14 responses so far

Mar 03 2016

Intellectual Child Abuse

Published by under Skepticism

On  February 29th Ken Ham posted on his Facebook page:

Intellectual child abuse: when kids are taught they’re just animals in an evolutionary process. This morning I taught kids the creation/gospel message!

The young people today in Alabama learned they’re not made in the image of an ape — they’re created in the image of God.

Ken Ham, as many likely know, is a young earth creationist. He believes in the literal truth of the Bible and therefore that the universe is 6,000 years old. This is an article of faith, but Ham also tries to support his faith with science, which means he gets the science entirely wrong. That’s what happens when you start with the answer and then work backwards.

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34 responses so far

Feb 28 2016

Science Communication Lecture

Published by under Skepticism

I will be travelling for a couple of days, heading down to Virginia where I will be giving a couple of lectures at the NASA Langley Research Center. The talk will be on the art and science of science communication. I will be discussing the many challenges faced by those trying to communicate science to the general public.

I will also be giving the talk on Tuesday March 1, at 7:30 pm, which is free and open to the public, at Virginia Air & Space Center in downtown Hampton, VA.

This should be a fun talk, so if you are in the area please come by.


3 responses so far

Feb 25 2016

The Johnson and Johnson Talc Cancer Case

Published by under Skepticism

A jury has recently found for the plaintiff against the company Johnson and Johnson over the claim that their talc powder may have caused ovarian cancer in an Alabama woman who died of the cancer at 62. They awarded her family $72 million.

This story has had a great deal of attention because it raises two questions: what is the scientific evidence for a link between talc use and ovarian cancer, and how should the courts rule in such cases when the science is ambiguous?

Talc and Cancer

Concerns about the cancer causing effect of regular talc use stem from a time when talc contained asbestos. Since the 1970s, however, talc has been asbestos-free. Asbestos is clearly linked to cancer, but for the asbestos-free talc the link is not as clear.

There have been a number of large epidemiological studies looking at the association of talc use and risk of ovarian cancer, with some mixed results, but overall not impressive.

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44 responses so far

Feb 23 2016

Identifying Real or Fake Images

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

CGI-fakeFor anyone active on social media it is almost a daily occurrence that a photo being passed around as if it were real is revealed as a fake. In fact, if you don’t want to look silly, it’s a great idea to Google before you share. A basic search is often all that is necessary, and if the photo is fake it is very likely that Snopes has you covered.

For the more intrepid, you can also use reverse-photo search websites. These will find matches to the photo you select, which can often reveal the original photo that was “photoshopped” in order to create that iconic representation of whatever ideology is being promoted.

Some people have a better eye for photo manipulation than others. Sometimes context is all you need – if the photo seems too perfect to be true, it probably is.

The task of sniffing out fake photos, however, (at least from a technical perspective) is getting more difficult. There are two basic ways to make a fake photo. The most common is to take a real photo and manipulate it. Just replace the words on that protest sign to say whatever dumb thing you want to mock.

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21 responses so far

Feb 12 2016

Concern Trolls and Free Speech Nazis

Published by under Skepticism

Note: This post was originally published on June 28, 2010 on SkepticBlog. Although it is not about the same issues as the current NECSS controversy, I found the underlying principles relevant, and I still stand by the position outlined here. 

One of the things that I love about the skeptical community is that it is a vibrant intellectual community that is not afraid to turn its critical eye inward. There is also sufficient diversity of background and perspective, superimposed upon a generally skeptical outlook, to provide some genuine conflict. While you won’t find many bigfoot believers in our ranks, we do run the spectrum from liberal to libertarian, militant atheist to Christian, scientist to artist, and politically correct to Penn Jillette.

The wringing of hands may at times seem tedious – but it’s all good. As long as we remember that at the end of the day we are all skeptics, a cultural minority looking to change the world.

Occasionally our diversity of approach does erupt into outright conflict, with the preferred medium usually being blogs. This happened recently in response to the appearance of Pamela Gay, an astronomer and co-host of the Astronomy Cast podcast with Fraser Cain, on my own podcast, the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. Pamela is a Christian, and on the SGU we have a tendency to be less than respectful of unscientific beliefs, including religious beliefs that wander into the arena of science.

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122 responses so far

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