Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Jun 23 2017

NASA Slams Goop

Body-Vibes_10-2Recently I have been vacillating between two different views of humanity. On the one hand, we all share a core neuropsychology. We are all struggling to get through life with our humble meat machines, complete with cognitive biases, flawed perception and memory, and irrational tendencies.

On the other hand, it often seems like there are fundamentally different kinds of people in the world. I guess it depends on whether you focus on what we have in common, or what separates us. Articles like this make it difficult not to focus on the latter.

This has been circulating recently so you probably have already seen it – Paltrow’s wretched hive of scum and quackery she calls Goop is promoting a product called Body Vibes. This is the bottom of the barrel of pure pseudoscientific nonsense wrapped in holistic bling. The claims are also nothing new – your body has an energy frequency, and our little sticker (or bracelet, amulet, fez, whatever) will balance your energy vibrations and cure what ails you.

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116 responses so far

Jun 16 2017

Open Access Predatory Journals

Published by under Skepticism

academic-publishers-titles-identified-as-predatorial-2011-2016-210116-largeFor about five years Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian, maintained a list of predatory journals. Earlier this year he removed the list and all associated websites from the internet. Recently he explained exactly why he did this, and it’s a chilling tail.

Predatory Journals

A predatory journal is generally one in which authors pay a fee in order to publish a paper. This in itself does not make a journal predatory, but it sets the stage. This is part of the open-access movement, which is also not synonymous with predatory but is vulnerable to predatory practices.

Traditional journals earn their money from subscriptions and advertising. In order to maximize revenue, they want to maximize their reputation and impact factor. This gives them an incentive to publish high quality articles, although also surprising and new studies, which may not be replicable, but that is a separate issue.

Open access journals make the papers they publish freely available to the public. Because they don’t, therefore, have subscriptions, they make their money by charging researchers a publication fee. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this model and the idea of open access is a good one. But, with this model publishers have an incentive to publish a lot of papers and no financial incentive to reject poor quality submissions or to engage in rigorous peer review.

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13 responses so far

May 05 2017

Solar Forcing and Climate Change

Published by under Skepticism

sun1A recent article in Principia Scientific International summarizes 20 recent studies showing that solar activity correlates with long term trends in climate change. This is an excellent example of how misinformation campaigns meant to sow doubt and confusion work.

First, we need to consider the source. PSI is not a scientific organization or publication, it is a propaganda front group trying to appear as a scientific organization. This is very common – giving an organization a neutral sounding scientific name that does not reflect its true agenda.

PSI claims, completely contrary to the scientific consensus, that CO2 is not even a greenhouse gas. They actually argue that it causes no warming at all, and in fact may have a cooling effect on the environment. They further argue that wind turbines cause illness, a claim that is demonstrably false.

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53 responses so far

Apr 11 2017

Science and Politics

Published by under Skepticism

marchforscienceThe March for Science is coming up on April 22, which has prompted another round of – should science stay out of politics? I think this is a persistent debate because the answer is yes and no, depending on what you mean.

Staying Out of Politics

There are several arguments for why scientists and science organizations should stay out of politics. The first is that politics and ideology can distort science. There are countless historical examples of this. You might call this “motivated research” which is similar to motivated reasoning.

Research can be directly toward an ideological agenda in many ways. Ideology can frame how we ask questions, which questions we think are important, and which research agendas get funding. Political beliefs can also shape how research is conducted, exploiting degrees of freedom and other methods to distort the process of research and the interpretation of results. It can also bias which research gets published and cited.

Every step of the way there is the potential for bias, and if that bias is consistently in one direction it is not difficult to manufacture an entire alternate reality of scientific evidence that supports your agenda. We see this with alternative medicine research in general. We see it with pharmaceutical company research which is much more likely to be favorable to the financial interests of the company. We see cultural biases, such as the uniformly positive studies of acupuncture in China.

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89 responses so far

Mar 23 2017

The Need for Critical Thinking

Published by under Education,Skepticism

thinkers_cartoon-26nmykqOne of the (perhaps) good things to come out of the recent political climate in the US is a broader appreciation for the need to teach critical thinking skills. I hope we can capitalize on this new awareness to make some longstanding changes to our culture.

For example, a recent NYT article is titled: “Why People Continue to Believe Objectively False Things,” and begins:

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” goes the saying — one that now seems like a relic of simpler times.

The article also discusses recent evidence showing that belief in the “birther” Obama conspiracy decreased after Trump admitted that Obama was born in Hawaii. Shortly after that admission 62% of people stated they believed Obama was a US citizen, but a more recent poll shows the number dropped to 57%. (Over that period of time fewer Republicans believed he was a US citizen, while more Democrats did.) The authors conclude that over time people forget specific information while they revert to old tribal beliefs.

A recent study looking at Twitter activity also reinforces the evidence that people generally follow their instincts rather than critical thinking. They showed that people will rate the believability of a tweet as higher, and are more likely to share that tweet, if it already has a high number of retweets. This creates a positive feedback loop in which retweets beget retweets, regardless of the inherent reliability of the information.

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63 responses so far

Mar 14 2017

GM Corn To Prevent Deadly Toxin

aflatoxin-cornAflatoxin is a serious food contaminant that causes both acute and chronic illness in animals and humans. It was first discovered in 1960 when 100,000 turkeys in the UK died over the course of a few months. Their deaths were tracked to a nut-based feed that was contaminated with a newly discovered toxin, named aflatoxin.

Aflatoxin is a group of 20 toxins produced by a fungus, Aspergillus species. According to Food Safety Watch:

Aflatoxins may be present in a wide range of food commodities, particularly cereals, oilseeds, spices and tree nuts. Maize, groundnuts (peanuts), pistachios, brazils, chillies, black pepper, dried fruit and figs are all known to be high risk foods for aflatoxin contamination, but the toxins have also been detected in many other commodities. Milk, cheese and other dairy products are at risk of contamination by aflatoxin M. The highest levels are usually found in commodities from warmer regions of the world where there is a great deal of climatic variation.

Corn is perhaps the biggest source of aflatoxin contamination. It is estimated that 16 million tons of corn are disposed of each year due to aflatoxin contamination. The toxin is highly stable and can survive most types of food processing.

Acute toxicity can result in death when severe. Chronic toxicity is difficult to detect, and the most common effect is liver damage and increased risk for liver cancer.

Many techniques are used to minimize contamination, but even with these methods aflatoxin is a huge source of food waste and an important cause of human illness, especially in developing countries. Continue Reading »

8 responses so far

Mar 13 2017

Reconsidering The Nudge

Published by under Skepticism

behavioural_economics_nudgeIn 2008 Thaler and Sunstein published their book, Nudge, advocating for a more nuanced approach to changing public behavior. Since then nudge theory has been quite popular but hasn’t created the revolution optimists had hoped.

Here is the core problem: people do not always act in their own best interest. Sometimes this affects only them, but often the negative impacts affect the people around them, their family, and even society as a whole. An obvious example is vaccinations.

There are many less-obvious examples, however. Poor health care decisions increase the cost of health care, which is a rapidly increasing burden on society. Poor financial decisions can leave people in debt, might cause them to default on those debts, and have an overall negative impact on the economy. We all share risks through insurance premiums and public costs.

And, we actually care about people. We are a social species and we do generally have empathy for others (unless they have been psychologically relegated to an out-group). It is also some people’s job to care about people.

Therefore, for various reasons, there are individuals and groups who care about changing other people’s behavior for their own good and for the good of society. This paternalism runs up against several obstacles.

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42 responses so far

Feb 27 2017

The Death of Expertise

Published by under Skepticism

fox-globalwarmingTom Nichols’ book, “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters,” is currently on the Amazon bestsellers list. The book discusses a topic I have delved into many times here – what are the current general attitudes of the public toward experts and expertise, and how did we get here?

He mentions various aspects to this war against experts:

“The United States is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance. Many citizens today are proud of not knowing things. Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue.”

The culture and our educational system have created a generation that has little experience being told they are objectively wrong. Everyone feels they are entitled to be right. Combine this with the illusion of knowledge provided by Google, and everyone thinks they are their own expert in anything.

Interestingly, as Nichols also points out, people are arbitrarily selective in which experts they respect. Sports is a great example. No one really thinks they should play for the NFL and begrudges recognizing that NFL players are the result of a combination of natural talent and years of developing physical ability and specific skills.

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134 responses so far

Feb 23 2017

Natural News Delisted from Google

natural-news-pseudoscienceIt appears that Google has removed all Natural News content from their indexing. This means that Natural News pages will not appear in organic Google searches.

This is big news for skeptics, but it is also complicated and sure to spark vigorous discussion.

For those who may not know, Mike Adams, who runs Natural News, is a crank conspiracy theorist supreme. He hawks snake oil on his site that he markets partly by spreading the worst medical misinformation on the net. He also routinely personally attacks his critics. He has launched a smear-campaign against my colleague, David Gorski, for example.

A few years ago Adams put up a post in which he listed people who support the science of GMOs to the public, comparing them to Nazis and arguing that it would be ethical (even a moral obligation) to kill them. So he essentially made a kill-list for his conspiracy-addled followers. Mine was one of the names on that list, as were other journalists and science-communicators.

In short Adams is a dangerous loon spreading misinformation and harmful conspiracy theories in order to sell snake oil, and will smear and threaten those who call him out. He is an active menace to the health of the public.

Adams is a good example of the dark underbelly of social media. It makes it possible to build a massive empire out of click-bait and sensationalism.

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126 responses so far

Feb 10 2017

Heartland on Global Warming – Case Study in Propaganda

Published by under Skepticism

heartland-institute-unabomberH. Sterling Burnett, writing for the Heartland Institute blog, wrote a revealing post titled: Energy Restrictions, Not Climate Change, Put Civilizations at Risk. In my opinion it is a classic example of misleading propaganda, worthy of deconstruction as a case study.

What Is Propaganda?

I always endeavor to be as clear, thorough, and fair in my writing as possible. I am not saying I always succeed, but that is my goal. I have been influenced by my scientific background where clarity and accuracy rises to the level of obsession in the technical literature. It’s not possible to achieve that level in a non-technical blog, but it is a good ideal.

Propaganda is the opposite of clear, thorough, and fair. The purpose of propaganda is to persuade the reader to an ideological or political opinion, or to impugn or cast doubt on other people or other ideas. Being persuasive in an of itself does not make communication propaganda. In order to rise to that level there has to be a willful distortion of facts, a selective use of arguments and information, and the marshaling of any points that suit your ends, regardless of how fair they are.

Propaganda, like pseudoscience, exists on a spectrum. This further means that there is a demarcation problem – there isn’t going to be a bright line beyond which communication is clearly propaganda.

Burnett’s article shows multiple dramatic examples of what constitutes propaganda, and so should serve as an instructive example. This is not surprising since The Heartland Institute is an ideological think tank. They are not a scientific organization. Continue Reading »

61 responses so far

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