Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Jun 17 2014

Deepak Challenge to Skeptics

Deepak Chopra doesn’t appear to like skeptics much, or understand them. He just put out a YouTube video challenging ”Randi and his cronies” to his own fake version of the million dollar challenge.

All we have to do, apparently, is make 50-100 years of scientific advance in neuroscience in a single peer-reviewed paper. I’ll get started on that right away.

Actually, even that probably would not be sufficient. The whole point of pseudoscientific goal-post moving is to keep forever out of reach of current scientific evidence. It doesn’t matter how much progress science makes, there will always be gaps and limitations to our knowledge. Chopra lives in the gaps.

Here is his exact challenge:

Dear Randi: Before you go around debunking the so-called “paranormal,” please explain the so-called “normal.” How does the electricity going into the brain become the experience of a three dimensional world in space and time. If you can explain that, then you get a million dollars from me. Explain and solve the hard problem of consciousness in a peer-reviewed journal, offer a theory that is falsifiable, and you get the prize.

The challenge is absurd because it is completely undefined. “Explain” to what degree? Science often advances by developing theories that are progressively deeper. Obviously we can explain consciousness on some level, and just as obviously Chopra would not accept that level as sufficient, but he gives absolutely no indication of how much deeper an explanation he would require.

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May 12 2014

Correlation and Causation

Every skeptic’s new favorite website is Spurious Correlations. The site is brilliant – it mines multiple data sets (such as causes of death, consumption of various products, divorce rates by state, etc.) and then tries to find correlations between different variables. The results are often hilarious.

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Often it is more effective to demonstrate a principle than simply to explain it. By showing impressive looking graphical correlations between phenomena that are clearly not related (at least proposing a causal connection superficially seems absurd.), it drives home the point that correlation is not enough to conclude causation.

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May 06 2014

Afterlife Debate

Published by under Paranormal,Skepticism


I will be involved in a debate Wednesday evening (May 7th) at the Kaufman center in New York.

The debate will be from 6:45 to 8:30pm.

The debate is hosted by Intelligence squared, which hosts a series of such debates. While tickets are sold out, the debate will be live streamed. I have embeded the stream below, or you can see the stream here: http://goo.gl/WNV6nQ 

The specific topic is “Death is not Final”

Against this proposition will be me and Sean Carroll. Sean is  a physicist, so he will cover the physics angle, while I will cover the neuroscience.

For the proposition will be Eben Alexander, author of Proof of Heaven, and Raymond Moody, author of Life after Life.

The evening promises to be very interesting, so please tune in.

You can view the live stream of the debate here:

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Apr 18 2014

OMG – The Chemicalz

The Foodbabe is at it again – well, she never stopped being at it. She is apparently trying to make a career out of a combination of the naturalistic fallacy and chemical illiteracy.

I wrote previously about her campaign to scaremonger about completely safe ingredients in food. She called azodicarbonamide, an ingredient to make bread fluffier, the yoga mat chemical because it also has a variety of industrial uses, including making yoga mats. Soy also has a variety of uses, including making yoga mats.

She successfully marshaled her scientific illiteracy to pressure Subway into removing the ingredient from their bread.

Her modus operandi is simple – look at ingredient lists for names that sound like chemicals or are difficult to pronounce, bypass any scientific analysis or evidence and go straight to hyperbolic fearmongering. Then just hope that companies cave in order to avoid negative press before anyone can ask too many questions.

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Apr 15 2014

Why We Need a Skeptical Movement

Published by under Skepticism

Skeptics tend (as they should) to question everything, even the need for a movement of self-identified skeptics. It is an interesting question – what is the net cultural effect of organized scientific skepticism?

Of course, we can’t really ever know the answer to this question. There are too many moving parts. We could point to cultural trends, but this is probably the worst line of evidence. There is no way to control for skepticism as an isolated variable. We have no way of knowing what the world would be like without organized skepticism.

We can point to individuals whose lives have been changed, they believe for the better. I am heartened by every e-mail I receive from a reader or listener who says their life has been changed for the better because of skeptical outreach. Perhaps they were steered away from a career in pseudoscience, learned how to think more critically about everything, or just found a community to which they could connect.

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Apr 10 2014

NECSS 2014

Published by under Skepticism

I will be at NECSS this weekend – the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, in New York City. This is an excellent conference full of science and critical thinking lectures and panels. My podcast, the SGU, will be recording a live show on stage Saturday.

I will also be running two 1-hour workshops on critical thinking on Friday. I will be moderating a panel debate on GMO which should be very exciting. Finally I will be on a neuroscience panel talking about the uses and abuses of neuroscience.

Our keynote this year is Lawrence Krauss. You can see the full line up of speakers at www.necss.org.

Online registration will remain open today (Thursday), and onsite registrations are welcome. You can register for one day or the entire weekend. There is also a comedy show Friday night, stimulus response, in which, apparently, I will be skewered by a professional improv comedy group. (They did my brother Jay last year and it was hilarious – so he made sure I got payback this year.)

Please come up and say hi if you will be at NECSS. Also, the SGU will have a swag table so you can stop by there as well.

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Mar 25 2014

Standards of Evidence – Wikipedia Edition

Published by under Skepticism

There are many public intellectual debates occurring over scientific and skeptical issues – the place of creationism vs evolution in public science classes, the including of alternative medicine in academic curricula, the validity of debate on global warming, etc.

Many of these issues, while important, are proxy issues for a deeper cultural conflict – the role of standards in the intellectual, academic, and scientific spheres.

Scientific skeptics (whether they go by that label or not) generally take the position that there should be fair and reasonable standards by which to evaluate any factual claim or intellectual position. We need a process to ensure that our collective thinking is logically valid, balanced in it judgments, and properly accounts for all available evidence. With regard to empirical claims, we call this process science, but these virtues are generic to any intellectual endeavor.

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Mar 18 2014

Australian Anti-Vaccination Group Loses Charity Status

The group previously known as the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) has been getting a lot of heat recently, in large part thanks to the Australian Skeptics who have been exposing their dangerous misinformation. The AVN is an anti-vaccination group that actively campaigns against vaccination. They are (or at least were until recently) also a registered charity, which means they can take tax-deductible donations.

The Australian Skeptics pointed out that the name of the AVN is misleading, as it might make the public think they are giving fair and balanced information about vaccines. In reality the information they dispense amounts to anti-vaccine propaganda.

Recently the New South Wales Department of Fair Trading ruled that the AVN is a misleading name, and ordered the group to change their name. That’s the good new. The bad news is that they decided to change their name to the Australian Vaccination Skeptics Network.

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31 responses so far

Mar 10 2014

Can Thinking Change Reality

I love the documentary series, The Day the Universe Changed, by James Burke. It’s a follow up to his equally good, Connections (I know, they have their criticisms, but overall they are very good). The former title is a metaphor – when our collective model of reality changes, for us the universe does change. When we believed the earth was motionless at the center of the universe, that was our reality.

But Burke was not arguing that the nature of the universe actually changed, just our conception of it. Thinking alone cannot directly change external reality. That is magical thinking.

Such thinking, however, lies at the center of much new age spiritual claims. The secret of The Secret is that you can change your world by wishing. Proponents of such ideas are desperate for scientific validation of their basic premise. Such evidence does not exist. In fact over a century of such research shows rather conclusively that there is no such effect in operation in our world to any significant degree.

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Mar 07 2014

Health of Vaccinated vs Unvaccinated

One of the new realities of social media is that old news can be dredged up and spread around. In this way old memes can keep coming back to life like the Terminator, and we have to kill them over and over again.

The antivaccine crowd, for example, has their narrative of conspiracy and evil and their cherry-picked factoids to support their narrative. In their world vaccines don’t work and are all bad all the time, and only corporate evil and public malfeasance can support them. They scour the internet for anything to support their beliefs, and then splash it around as if it’s news.

In this case, they have resurrected a terrible survey from 1992. The survey was conducted in New Zealand by the Immunization Awareness Society. Unsurprisingly, when this anti-vaccine group surveyed their own anti-vaccine members, they found a higher incidence of disease among vaccinated children compared to unvaccinated children.

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