Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Mar 24 2015

Ultrasound for Alzheimer’s Disease

Published by under Skepticism

A new study published in Science Translational Medicine concerning a possible new treatment for Alzheimer’s disease is getting quite a bit of play on social media. While it is an interesting study, and excitement over any scientific study is great to see, I also think it’s important to always put such studies into a reasonable context (which is rarely done well).

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a devastating chronic degenerative brain disease in which neurons slowly die over years, causing memory loss of eventually overall cognitive impairment. Nancy Reagan described her husband Ronald’s AD as a “very long goodbye.” My grandmother died of AD, and it’s likely many of her relatives did as well, but in her it was confirmed at autopsy. About 75% of all dementia cases are due to AD:

The pooled data of population-based studies in Europe suggests that the age-standardized prevalence in people 65+ years old is 6.4 % for dementia and 4.4 % for AD.3 In the US, the study of a national representative sample of people aged >70 years yielded a prevalence for AD of 9.7 %.

In short, this is a common and serious disease. Most people will have a family member or know someone with AD. Further, as our population ages the incidence of AD will increase as a matter of course.

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Mar 03 2015

The Problem with Astroturfing

In a recent TEDx talk, Sharyl Attkisson nicely demonstrates the deep problem with astroturfing, although part of her demonstration was inadvertent. The problem is actually deeper than she stated, because she herself has fallen victim to part of the deception.

Astroturfing is essentially fake grassroots activism. Companies and special interests create non-profits, Facebook pages, social media persona, write letters to the editor, and essentially exploit social and traditional media to create the false impression that there is a grassroots movement supporting some issue. The key to astroturfing is that they conceal who is truly behind these fronts.

Attkisson, a journalist for CBS news, points to several examples in which pharmaceutical companies, for example, secretly promote their drug and marginalize criticism. She correctly points out how campaigns of doubt and confusion can work, by generating so much controversy that the public loses confidence in the science (and in fact science itself) and throws the baby out with the bath water.

This is all part of the same phenomenon I discussed in yesterday’s post about Google ranking websites by their factual accuracy. There is power in information, and there is essentially a war going on over control of information, which increasingly is fought on the battleground of the internet and social media.

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Feb 17 2015

Anderson Cooper Takes Down Dan Burton

Published by under Skepticism

I criticize bad, biased, and or just lazy science journalism frequently, and so it’s a pleasure to occasionally have the opportunity to praise good journalism. This recent interview of Dan Burton by Anderson Cooper could be a template for how to conduct an interview over a scientific issue.

Dan Burton is a former Republican Congressman who has a long history of being anti-vaccine. He likes to repeat anti-vaccine tropes, and does so with the clueless persistence of a seasoned politician with an agenda.

Anderson Cooper is one of the few American journalists who has demonstrated his ability to do a tough and probing interview – you know, actual journalism. He demonstrated his chops again here. Specifically:

He was clearly prepped for the interview. He did his research, understood the issues, and was able to challenge Burton on specific points. You can’t go into an interview like this cold, or with only a superficial understanding of the issue. You have to know what the other person is going to say and how to respond.

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Feb 03 2015

Vaccine Debate Heats Up

We seem to be going through a spasm of debating vaccines (if social media is any guide), probably provoked by the Disneyland measles outbreak (102 cases in January, mostly stemming from the outbreak). This recent outbreak has finally garnered the attention of the public at large who are starting to realize that antivaxxers are a threat to public health. This resulted in a wave of criticism.

At first it seemed like the antivaxxers were just going to lay low and ride out this recent outbreak, but I guess the tide of anti-antivax was just too great. Now they are starting to push back with, of course, greater levels of crazy, driving even more criticism. The debate has percolated up to the political class, with the predictable embarrassing comments by clueless politicians. And around it goes.

Given that I have been covering this issue for over a decade, I guess I have to jump back into the fray.

A recent Pew Poll regarding whether or not vaccines should be required is very interesting. It shows no significant difference by sex, race, or income (Hispanics were slightly more pro-vaccine). However, there was a significant age effect: 18-29 year olds were 59% in favor of required vaccinations, with increasing numbers in each age category, and 65+ year olds being 79% in favor. The question is – is this an age effect or a generational effect? If the latter then we could see waning support for requiring vaccines in the future.

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Jan 30 2015

The Gap Between Public and Scientific Opinion

A recently published poll from the Pew Research center finds that there is a huge gap between public opinion and the opinion of scientists on many important scientific issues of the day. This is disappointing, but not surprising, for a variety of reasons.

Generally speaking, if the majority of scientists have the same opinion about a scientific question (especially relevant experts), then it is a good idea to take that majority opinion seriously. It does not have to be correct, but if you were playing the odds I would go with the experts. If public opinion differs from the opinion of scientists on a scientific question, it is a safe bet that the public is wrong, probably because of interfering cultural, social, political, ideological, psychological, or religious beliefs. (Scientists have those too, which may explain the minority opinion in some cases.)

This attitude is often portrayed as elitism – usually by those who disagree with the scientific majority. Those relatively new to concepts of critical thinking, or trying to sound as if they are critical thinkers, might also dismiss such sentiments as an “argument from authority,” and then declare themselves the victor because they were able to point to a logical fallacy.  They miss the fact that informal logical fallacies are context dependent, and it is not a fallacy to respect (within reasonable limits) the consensus of expert opinion.

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Dec 25 2014

Io Saturnalia

Published by under Skepticism

Seasons Greetings, Happy Holidays, Happy Festivus, Have a wonderful Winter Solstice, and Merry Christmas.

This is the time of year that many cultures in the northern hemisphere celebrate the return of the sun, celebrate family and life while facing the long dark of winter, and engage in superstitious rituals to help them survive the cold and hunger that mark that season. All of that is the real reason for the season.

In western culture the celebration has been largely “Christianized” into the holiday of Christmas, but the secular aspects of Christmas, from gift giving to the Christmas tree, all have non-Christian origins.

For me, though, it all doesn’t matter. It’s a great time of year to take a break from the usual grind and spend time with family and friends, reminding everyone how much we mean to each other. In the darkest part of the year (again, with apologies to my southern hemisphere friends) we spread a little light and warmth to those in our lives.

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Dec 23 2014

A New Wrinkle in Quantum Mechanics

Published by under Skepticism

The press release of this news items proclaims: “Quantum physics just got less complicated.” I’m not sure I agree. Perhaps in the minds of physicists who actually understand quantum mechanics (as well as it currently can be understood). To the rest of us this new finding is just as strange and incomprehensible as QM itself.

QM describes the universe at the atomic and subatomic levels. At that scale nature behave very differently from what we are used to at the macroscopic level, which is often referred to as the realm of classical physics. The dividing line between the quantum world and the classical world remains a matter of research and debate, but it is somewhere at the level of molecules.

There are several aspects to QM which essentially describe the results of careful experiments. We don’t currently have a proven theoretical framework to explain why the universe behaves this way – that is a breakthrough waiting to happen.

One aspect of QM is known as wave-particle duality. When particles, such as photons, shine through two narrow close slits (the famous double slit experiment) the pattern of light that hits the wall (or film or detector) behind the slits is in a light and dark banded pattern that resembles the interference pattern that results when two waves intersect. The light is clearly traveling as a wave through the two slit and those waves are interfering on the other side.

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Dec 22 2014

Nobody’s Perfect – Dealing with Flawed Characters

Published by under Skepticism

A recurring controversy that crops up from time to time within the rationalist communities is how to deal with someone who promotes rationalism on the one hand, but has a major flaw on the other. The latest example of this comes from my friend and colleague, Phil Plait.

The IFLS website posted a picture of women actors who are also scientists. The image included Mayim Bialik, who plays Amy on the Big Bang Theory, and who also has a Ph.D. in neuroscience.  At the same time, Bialik is openly anti-vaccine, and promotes pseudoscientfic organizations like Holistic Moms Network and Attachment Parenting International. Phil retweeted the picture from IFLS and added, “I love this.”

This all prompted another round of hand-wringing (actually I think this is all a healthy and interesting conversation) over supporting scientists, educators, and skeptics who are flawed in some way. Phil defends the position in his blog that we can accept flawed characters as ambassadors of science, writing:

So is using her in that montage of pictures a good thing or a bad thing? I would argue it’s neither, but the good outweighs the bad. The facts are that she is a scientist, she is an actress, and the picture was about actresses who are scientists. In point of fact, celebrities can be influential, and it’s a good thing that people see science supported by celebrity.

Other celebrities who have caused the same type of controversy include Bill Maher, who is an outspoken atheist, but who is also anti-vaccine, doubts the germ theory of disease, and has a general conspiratorial attitude toward modern medicine.

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Dec 19 2014

Universal Medicine Uses Google To Silence Critics

An Australian based company called Universal Medicine (UM) has been criticized by various skeptical blogs and groups as being a new age alternative medicine cult. Looking through their website, this seems like a reasonable observation. (The term “cult” is fuzzy, but many of the features seem to be present.)

In response to this criticism, UM has apparently issued many complaints to Google, claiming defamation. According to the site Chilling Effect, Google has responded at least in some cases by removing the sites from Google searches, effectively censoring those websites.

Doubtful News was one of the sites censored by Google.

This type of action represents a serious threat to the skeptical mission. Part of that mission is consumer protection, and the primary method of activism is public analysis and criticism of dubious claims, products, services, and organizations. Essentially, we expose charlatans.

Charlatans, it turns out, don’t like to be exposed. They don’t like bad press.

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Nov 07 2014

Solution Aversion and Motivated Reasoning

Anyone paying the slightest attention has likely realized that people tend to hold positions in line with their general world view. In the US, for example, political conservatives tend to hold conservative opinions, while political liberals tend to hold liberal opinions. This is true even when the topic at hand is scientific or factual, and not a matter of value or opinion.

Whether the issue is climate change, GMO, gun control, nuclear power, the death penalty, or biological facts surrounding pregnancy and fetal development, your political ideology is likely to determine your scientific opinions.  Further, depending on how strongly held the political values are, facts are not very helpful in changing opinions. Presenting fact may actually backfire, motivating people to dig in their heels. 

All of this is old news to readers of the skeptical literature. The basic phenomenon at work here is motivated reasoning, which is a catchall covering the suite of biases and cognitive flaws that lead people to arrive at confident conclusions they wish to be true, rather than objectively following facts and logic wherever it leads. Further, as I discussed yesterday, the process of motivated reasoning leads us to a false confidence in our conclusions. We all think we have facts and logic on our side.

A recent paper on the issue defines motivated reasoning this way:

Of importance, recent evidence has demonstrated that political ideology, defined as “an interrelated set of moral and political attitudes that possesses cognitive, affective, and motivational components,” can similarly guide, funnel, and constrain the processing of information and alter behavior.

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