Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Nov 15 2016

Aspartame and GMOs

aspartameStories take on a life of their own. That is the origin of urban legends, myths, and even religion. A good narrative feeds on itself and can be self-sustaining. It evolves and adapts and finds fertile ground in most human hosts (unless they have been inoculated with a sufficient dedication to facts and logic).

Aspartame, an artificial sweetener that was approved by the FDA in 1981, has been the focus of conspiracy theories ever since. The “holistic medicine” and “natural health” subcultures have largely been responsible for spreading misinformed hysteria about aspartame, first through chain letters and newsletters, and now through the internet.

Ever adapting, they have added some new wrinkles to the legend of aspartame, making sure that their baseless fearmongering is making use of the latest buzzwords.

Aspartame is Safe

First for some background, the anti-aspartame brigade claims that this food additive has been linked to cancer, neurological disorders, and a long list of complaints and diseases. They are simply lying, or the equivalent of lying by cherry picking data, dismissing evidence out-of-hand, and making up whatever claims they need to support their position. Continue Reading »

37 responses so far

Nov 14 2016

The New Zealand Earthquake and the Supermoon

Published by under Skepticism

supermoon-micromoonOn November 6th Nigel Antony Gray predicted on his Facebook feed:

“Heads Up: On 14th November and a couple of days either side of that date, watch for a major earthquake, and quite possible in South Pacific area.”

On November 13th there was a magnitude 7.5 Earthquake on the south island of New Zealand. So far the death toll is two people. This was a significant quake along a known fault line that runs through the south island.

The internet was apparently very impressed with this prediction. Gray has long argued that earthquakes can be predicted by looking at the lunar cycle, because of the tidal forces of the moon on the earth. He is particularly fond of supermoons – when the moon is at perigee, the closest point in its orbit around the earth.

Supermoon

Tonight will be the most super supermoon since 1948. Last night and tonight the full moon will appear slightly larger than you are used to. You will not notice this difference, however. If you saw pictures of the apparent size of the moon side by side you can see the slight difference, but you would never notice it just by viewing the moon.

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15 responses so far

Nov 10 2016

One more round with Massimo on GMOs and Skepticism

platoLast week I wrote a response to a NYT article on GMOs. Massimo Pigliucci wrote a critical analysis of my response. I then responded to that piece.
Below is the final round of responses on this issue, one from Massimo and then a final response from me. In this round Massimo changes the focus from GMOs specifically to how the skeptical movement handles such issues.

 

My (further) response to Novella on GMOs

by Massimo Pigliucci

I promise, this is the last round concerning this particular discussion, at the least on my part. To recap: Danny Hakim, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, published a critical piece on certain aspects of GMO technology; my friend and fellow skeptic Steve Novella responded; I commented critically on Steve’s response; and he responded to my criticism. The current post, however, isn’t going to be yet another blow-by-blow affair, for a few reasons: i) it would be even longer than the last installment, which I fear would severely test readers’ patience; ii) there is a diminishing return to going deeper and deeper and insert more and more qualifications to any argument; and iii) it seems to me that most of what Steve and I wanted to say has been said already.

So let me try to zoom the discussion out a little, shifting attention to what I think are some background issues of which this exchange has been a particular instantiation.

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44 responses so far

Nov 08 2016

Massimo Pigliucci Responds on GMOs

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

Scientists examining crops in field

I always enjoy when someone whom I respect and who cares about using careful and valid arguments disagrees with me. It is an opportunity for me to correct any mistakes I have made, to deepen my understanding of the topic, or at least tighten up my arguments.

Last week I wrote an article responding to a recent New York Times piece on GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Massimo Pigliucci, who is a friend and skeptical colleague, disagrees with my analysis. Massimo thinks that knee-jerk defense of GMOs is a problem generally in the skeptical movement, and uses me as an example. I disagree with him, but will discuss that toward the end.

I want to take the points that I make in my previous post one by one and see how they hold up to Massimo’s criticism, and may expand upon them and include other comments as well.

GMOs should not be considered as one thing.

I wrote in my previous article:

“Any meaningful analysis of GM technology has to consider each application unto itself. Further, the GM trait is only part of the picture – you also have to consider how it is being applied.”

I have consistently taken this position in my writings, and this is also the most common position I encounter when reading other skeptics writing about GMOs. It is not really meaningful to consider GMOs as if they are one thing, and this is a mistake that Hakim makes in the original NYT article.

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21 responses so far

Nov 04 2016

Reproducibility is Critical

Published by under Skepticism

Part of expertise comes from doing something for so long, so many times, that you see patterns that might not be immediately apparent. I have been doing the skeptical thing for over 20 years, and one of the things I really enjoy about being an all-purpose skeptic, as I like to call it, is that I can see patterns of thought, argument, and behavior among disparate beliefs.

The anomaly hunting of ghosthunters is the same as the anomaly hunting of 911 truthers.

One very dominant pattern that I see on a frequent basis is the tendency to cite preliminary evidence as if it is rock-solid and confirmed. People will worry about the health effects of GMOs or vaccines because of a few flawed studies. They will promote the health benefits of a supplement based upon a preclinical study that is many steps removed from actual clinical claims. They will accept a new phenomenon as real based on studies that have never been replicated.

To put this into its broadest context, we need to think explicitly about the relationship between levels of scientific evidence and how much we should accept those results. When do we conclude that a scientific finding is probably real? For applied sciences like medicine this has a very practical form – when do we recommend a treatment?

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10 responses so far

Oct 28 2016

The Anti-Profit Narrative

Published by under Skepticism

moms_fatsuitMark Twain said,“Give a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep ’til noon.” What he was saying with his characteristic folksy charm is that a good narrative is more powerful than facts.

It is still difficult for me to wrap my head around sometimes. When properly motivated, people have absolutely no problem completely ignoring facts, or dismissing them with a casual flick of rationalization.

This natural tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance with nimble mental gymnastics is bad enough. Humans have also learned how to exploit this tendency in others for their own ends. I have to quote Sting here:

Poets priests and politicians
Have words to thank for their positions
Words that scream for your submission
And no-one’s jamming their transmission
‘Cos when their eloquence escapes you
Their logic ties you up and rapes you

I would add, anyone with something to sell (I would have substituted “Peddlers” for “Poets”).

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11 responses so far

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, worldofwierdthings.com 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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71 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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20 responses so far

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