Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

May 29 2015

A Chocolate Science Sting

John Bohannon is at it again. In 2013 he published the results of a sting operation in which he submitted terrible papers with fake credentials to 304 open access journals. Over half of the journals accepted the paper for publication. He published his results in Science magazine, and it caused a bit of a stir, although arguably not as much as it should have.

Bohannon was asked to repeat this feat, this time to expose the schlocky science of the diet industry. He was asked to do this for a documentary film which will be release shortly, but he has already published his reveal. You can read his full account for details, but here is the quick summary.

He collaborated with others to perform a real (although crappy) scientific study. His researchers recruited 16 people, with one drop out, the remaining 15 were divided into three groups: low carb diet for three weeks, low carb diet plus daily chocolate for three weeks, and no change in diet. The results were not surprising in that the two diet groups lost 5 pounds on average, while the no diet group did not. However, they also found that the chocolate group lost 10% more weight. He explains:
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May 21 2015

Creationism – Are We Winning The Battle and Losing The War?

One of the major ambitions of my life is to promote science and critical thinking, which I do under the related banners of scientific skepticism and science-based medicine. This is a huge endeavor, with many layers of complexity. For that reason it is tempting to keep one’s head down, focus on small manageable problems and goals, and not worry too much about the big picture. Worrying about the big picture causes stress and anxiety.

I have been doing this too long to keep my head down, however. I have to worry about the big picture: are we making progress, are we doing it right, how should we alter our strategy, is there anything we are missing?

The answers to these questions are different for each topic we face. While we are involved in one large meta-goal, it is composed of hundreds of sub-goals, each of which may pose their own challenges. Creationism, for example, is one specific topic that we confront within our broader mission or promoting science.

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May 19 2015

Federal Anti-SLAPP Statute Proposed

Americans cherish our free speech, enshrined in the very first amendment to the Constitution. SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuit against public participation) are a serious threat to that freedom of speech. We desperately need libel reform in the form of effective anti-SLAPP laws.

What I learned when I became the target of a SLAPP suit (that is still ongoing) is that anyone with money can take away your free speech at will. It works like this: if you express an opinion publicly that someone else doesn’t like because it is critical of them, their beliefs, their business, etc. then they can hire a lawyer and send you a cease and desist letter. You are now faced with a dilemma – take down your blog, article, podcast, video, or whatever and allow your free speech to be suppressed, or potentially face tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Except for those few states with effective anti-SLAPP laws (California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Texas and the District of Columbia – Florida just passed one which has not yet gone into effect), if you refuse to remove your free speech and you get sued, then expect to spend large sums of money and years of your life defending your rights. Here’s the thing – even if the case against you has zero merit and no chance of winning in the end, the lawsuit is a financial game of chicken. There is no way to shut the case down early. There is no bar for meritless cases.

The net effect of this is that if someone has money they can shut down your free speech at will. This, of course, has a chilling effect on free speech that can go way beyond the one instance of speech being targeted.

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May 15 2015

The Meddling Prince

Context is important. If a celebrity promotes a good cause, such as Michael J. Fox raising awareness about Parkinson’s disease, then that is considered altruism and charity. If, however, they promote something with which you disagree, then they are exploiting their celebrity.

I find this analogous to many legal and political claims. In the legal context, if you can’t win on the merits, then argue the law. In politics, if you oppose a law then you can challenge it based on state’s rights or as a constitutional purist. I am not opposed to these concepts – I just want to point out that often such arguments are used selectively when it is really the substance that is unwanted.

I am not decrying the use of celebrity itself. Celebrities have a right to advocate for whatever they want, and their celebrity will lend power to their advocacy. I do think that in general the public should not give weight to celebrity itself. They should be, in fact, more skeptical if celebrity is being used to support a claim. I also respect celebrities who use their power for good, and I am free to publicly criticize those who use it for “evil.” Indulge me while I engage in the latter.

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May 14 2015

Why Is the Public So Wrong?

I had hoped that the advent of the internet would have a positive effect on public access to information, and perhaps it has. The problem is that it also facilitates access to misinformation. I also wonder to what extent people are availing themselves of this easy access to information (or are they just watching cat videos?).

I now frequently have the experience of being in a discussion with someone and arriving at a disagreement over a specific fact. Pre-internet we would not be able to resolve the difference, we would agree to look it up later, and usually would never do so. Now we can whip our our smartphones and within a minute or two find references to the correct fact.

Despite this there remains a disturbing gap between public perception and reality on many important issues. I discussed previously the recent survey showing significant differences between public attitudes towards certain scientific issues and the attitudes of science. The biggest difference was for the statement that it is, “safe to eat genetically modified food.” While 88% of scientists agreed with this statement, only 37% of the public did.

The gap is not limited to scientific issues, but spans the spectrum of civil issues as well. For example, 68% of Americans believe crime is worsening nationally, and 48% believe it is worsening locally, while crime has been steadily decreasing for the last two decades.

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May 12 2015

In Defense of Prior Probability

This post is a follow up to one from last week about reproducibility in science. An e-mailer had a problem with the following statement:

“I tend to accept claims based upon published rigorous evidence that shows a consistent robust result with reasonable effect sizes with evidence in proportion to the plausibility. “

In response they wrote:

“I think this might open up for arbitrary amounts of discrimination based on gut feelings. As an example, if it really was so that aliens regularly conducted semi-stealthy visits to planet earth (as the proponents seems to suggest), we might actually never realise so, because there could be a double standard demanding arbitrarily high levels of evidence based on gut feelings about prior probability.

Allowing prior conceptions this power could even open up for psychological effects such as post hoc adapting the prior judgement such that it is just low enough to allow to discard the presented evidence.”

This is a common reaction, especially when prior probability is used as part of an argument for rejecting a scientific claim (to be clear, I don’t think the e-mailer is doing this, they just seem to have an honest question). I am a strong proponent of prior probability, used as part of a Bayesian analysis. That is, in fact, at the heart of the difference between science-based medicine (a term I coined to reflect my approach) and evidence-based medicine.

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Apr 29 2015

SGU 10 Hour Live Streaming Event

Published by under Skepticism

This Saturday, May 2nd, from noon to 10pm Eastern time, the SGU will be having a live video streaming event. This will be a 10 hour marathon to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the SGU.

You can watch the live video feed here. We are planning on recording the stream for later use as well. We will be taking live questions via Twitter at #SGULive.

Come join us in our newly refurbished skeptilair. We will be joined by in studio guests, George Hrab and Brian Wecht, and guests via Skype: Eugenie Scott, Dean Cameron, Phil Plait, Cara Santa Maria, Julia Galef, Richard Saunders, and Joe Schwarcz. There will be some surprise guests as well.

Fill your Saturday with science, skepticism, assorted random geekery, and a celebration of everything SGU.

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Apr 17 2015

Grab Your Torch and Pitchforks

Published by under Skepticism

I always find it disturbing to see people, especially in large crowds, apparently acting according to primitive emotions rather than enlightened thinking. It makes it seem like the veneer of civilization is paper thin, and we are not far removed from apes huddled around the monolith and hitting each other over the head with bones.

We can get on top of it, but that is a high energy state. Entropy is forever dragging us down to the lowest common denominator of tribalism, fear, disgust, and paranoia. As Sagan wrote in the Demon-Haunted World:

Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.It does seem, based upon a century of psychological research, that all that basic programming is still there in our brains.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”

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Apr 06 2015

The Google University Effect

Published by under Skepticism

I remain endlessly fascinated with the incredible social experiment we have all been living through over the last decade (and I can say, if you are reading this, you are part of the experiment). The internet and social media have changed the way we access information and communicate. The traditional top-down systems of information and opinion dispersion are eroding, being replaced by a largely bottom-up free-for-all.

I think we’re still figuring out all the consequences of these changes, both intended and unintended. One effect that has been casually observed is that many people believe they have expertise they do not have because they have been able to do “research” online. The democratization of information has led to a false sense of democratization of expertise.

While free access to information is great, there is no systematic way in which the public is taught how to use this information to maximal benefit, and avoid the most common pitfalls. Schools are generally behind the curve in terms of teaching students how to manage their online information access. Most adults were done with their formal education before the wave of social media.

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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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