Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Jul 19 2016

Debunking Islamic Creationism

Published by under Skepticism

scaletofeatherAdnan Oktar, who writes under the pen name of Harun Yahya, is an Islamic creationist. He has written several books and his articles now infect the internet.

His arguments are essentially the same as Christian creationists, which raises the question of whether or not he developed them independently or he simply read Christian creationist texts. He references Duane Gish and other similar sources, so it seems that at least to some extent the similarity is through direct copying.

Some of the similarity may also be due to the fact that he is following a similar process, which can best be summarized as “making shit up.” He also likes to quote scientists out of context, a technique he seems to have borrowed from his Christian counterparts.

I also find it very familiar in that he presents himself as an intellectual and yet is breathtakingly ignorant of his subject matter. He appears to have learned about evolution from what Stephen J. Gould characterized as, “secondary hostile sources.” The result is that he tilts at rather simplistic “strawmen,” and never comes close to modern evolutionary theory, which escapes his attacks unscathed. Let’s take a look.

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112 responses so far

Jul 18 2016

Taking the High Road

Published by under Skepticism

skeptical-activismI am passionate about science and critical thinking. I believe these to be the best tools humans have for understanding the universe and tackling the challenges that face us. This is why I am a science communicator and skeptical activist.

Part of this passion is that blatant anti-science, credulity, and fraud are genuinely upsetting. Homeopathic potions are approved drugs, the medical profession is soft on pseudoscience as long at it is presented in flowery language, some people want to teach their religious beliefs as science in the public schools, pseudoscience in the courtroom leads directly to injustice, and there are organized and well-funded groups who are rabidly opposed to safe and effective technologies because of irrational fears.

Some of the forces behind irrationality and pseudoscience in our world are straight-up con artists. They are exploiting scientific illiteracy and lax regulations to knowingly defraud people. Many think they are just being slick marketers, and this is how business is done. Or, they are scientifically illiterate themselves and they actually think the pseudoscience they are selling is legitimate.

Many, however, mean well but are trapped inside their own ideology. They are equally passionate, perhaps even more so, about their issue. They feel they need to do everything they can to oppose what they see as an evil in the world (vaccines, fluoride, GMOs, mainstream medicine, evolution, etc.). This justifies in their minds some extreme tactics, such as harassing scientists, slandering their opponents, vandalizing scientific experiments, or lying when necessary. Some of them become extremely nasty people as a result.

This, of course, only serves to fuel the passion of the science advocates.

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131 responses so far

Jul 14 2016

Framing the Debate on GMOs

Framing is a very interesting and intellectually critical concept. It is part of metacognition, the act of stepping back from the details of your beliefs and arguments to think about the nature of the thinking itself. Framing is meta-debate, where you think about the context of the debate itself, not just the details.

Framing can also be used, either consciously or inadvertently, to control a debate or discussion, to set up the parameters so that they favor one position.

A recent article in The Conversation discusses the framing of the GMO (genetically modified organism) debate. It’s an interesting article that definitely makes me think about how the GMO discussion should be framed, although I do not agree with the author, Sarah Hartley’s, take.

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2 responses so far

Jun 21 2016

The Improbability Principle

strawberrymoonPeople generally suck at statistics. Our innate sense of how likely something is does not accord very well with reality, especially for large numbers.

But don’t worry, this just means you have to think a little harder about how likely things are. David Hand writes about this in his 2014 book: The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. This is making the rounds again in the media because of the recent “rare” astronomical events.

Yesterday the Summer Solstice coincided with the Strawberry Moon – the first full moon in June. The last time this happened was in 1967. Recently we have seen “rare” transits of Mercury and Venus across the sun.

These events are not that rare, and I really don’t see what the fuss is all about (I guess the media is desperate for anything they can hype.) Don’t get me wrong, I love astronomical events, it is their rarity that I think is overhyped.

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20 responses so far

Jun 14 2016

GMOs – Have We Turned a Corner?

Published by under Skepticism

gmo cornScientific skeptics spend a great deal of their time and effort fighting against pseudoscience, ideology, and entrenched beliefs. This can be a frustrating effort, given that such beliefs tend not to be based in scientific thinking in the first place. It can be so frustrating that Marc Crislip chose as the symbol for the Society for Science-Based Medicine an image of Sisyphys endlessly pushing a rock up hill.

I do think we are having a significant impact on culture, the media, and the bigger conversation on scientific issues, but it is hard to measure, and sometimes even perceive, that impact. The noise of pseudoscience can seem overwhelming. We are mostly left to imagine that the situation would be much worse without our efforts and take comfort in small victories.

This is why I took notice of a recent article by Risk-Monger that claims we have changed the dynamic with respect to public opinion about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He makes an interesting case that there has been a “Surprisingly Sudden Demise of the Anti-GMO Movement.” Here is his summary of the evidence: Continue Reading »

17 responses so far

Jun 09 2016

Liberal vs Conservative Antiscience

Published by under Skepticism

tysonmaher

On a recent Bill Maher show, Maher repeated his frequent claim that the Republicans are the party of antiscience. Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was a guest on that episode, countered:

“Don’t be too high and mighty there, because there are certain aspects of science denials that are squarely in the liberal left.”

There is no doubt that there are science deniers across the political spectrum. There are two points that I feel are in contention, however. Is there relatively more antiscience on the right than the left, and if so, what are the causes of the asymmetry?

Immediately there is a problem with this framing, as the political spectrum is more complicated than left vs right. However, most surveys use a three-point political designation: liberal (Democrat), conservative (Republican), Independent. So that is the data we have.

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57 responses so far

Jun 06 2016

The Lost City

ZakynthosWe often don’t give nature enough credit. In many contexts, scientists or explorers find an anomaly and immediately the interest and speculation turns to intelligent agents at work. The ultimate expression of this, of course, is intelligent design creationism, where nature is denied credit for biology itself.

For example, snorklers discovered some odd shaped stones off the coast of the Greek island Zakynthos. The stones were surprisingly round, and so the immediate speculation was that these were the bases of pillars and are therefore the remains of an ancient Greek port, since lost to the sea.

I am not saying that this hypothesis is unreasonable, just that it seems to be the preferred hypothesis. This preference is also not unreasonable, because the remains of an ancient city are a lot more interesting than some oddly shapes stones (unless you’re a geologist).

Of course, there is always going to be someone taking such speculation too far, and prematurely concluding they have evidence for an intelligent artifact, even when further scientific investigation finds otherwise. It’s important to remember that in order to conclude that an anomaly is the product of deliberate artifice, we need further evidence. Greek ruins, for example, are lousy with pot shards. They are just everywhere. None have been found in the vicinity of the alleged pillars, however. This should give any ancient Greek port proponents extreme pause.

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8 responses so far

Jun 02 2016

Theranos Exposed

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

Holmes-Summit-e1460127673162-1200x945I love a good cautionary tale. Perhaps my medical background predisposes me to “post mortem” analysis – what exactly went wrong and why? There is a risk of the cautionary tale, however, in that it is easy to impose a preexisting narrative onto events. The tale can be easily coopted, and then you are not learning a lesson but just reinforcing an existing belief.

I will try to avoid that trap while discussing the story of Theranos, but I am picking this story because it does support a cautionary tale skeptics like to tell.

Theranos was a hot tech startup based on a “disruptive” technology developed by its young maverick founder, Elizabeth Holmes. The story was perfect for the tech industry, who ate it up. It seemed a little dodgy to the medical industry, however, who viewed it with skepticism.

Here is a good overview of the story, with a list of tech news articles fawning over the new startup. Even some news sites who should have known better, like Smithsonian Magazine, were taken in. Read this article – it reads like a marketing brochure for the company. It overstates the limitations and problems with current technology, and overhypes how revolutionary the new technology will be. It asks, but does not answer, the key question – how is this new alleged technology supposed to work.

The claimed breakthrough of Theranos was a streamlined process for laboratory blood analysis that promised to perform 30 tests on a single drop of blood with same-day results. This would eliminate the need for drawing vials of blood and replace that with a simple finger prick.

For any scientist there are immediate red flags. Each blood test, in a way, is its own technology. You don’t measure sodium in the blood the same way you measure glucose, or test for the presence of antibodies to a virus. Yet Theranos claimed to have revolutionized dozens of standard laboratory tests. This would require a massive amount of research and development, or the introduction of an entirely new technology.

Such technology does not come out of nowhere. Research builds upon other research and then is translated into practical applications. The myth of the lone researcher making breakthroughs in their garage is largely just that, a myth. But that image clings tightly to the public consciousness. This makes it easier to sell the narrative of the lone genius making breakthrough technology.

Perhaps the tech industry is especially susceptible to this narrative. A team of coders with a great idea can create a disruptive app that will change the game. Investors are looking for disruptive startups, nerds with a great idea and the next billion dollar company. Medical technology is different, however. There needs to be a paper trail, years of research leading up to the application.

Now that the true story of Theranos is coming out, it seems obvious in retrospect that the whole thing was a scam. First, their labs were conducting 70% of their blood tests on conventional machines using conventional blood draws. They claim this is just while they were waiting for FDA approval of individual tests, but still they were not delivering on their promise.

Second, Theranos just voided the last two years of study results that were being conducted with their technology, what they called the Edison machine. In essence they just admitted that their technology does not work, and the lab test results they provided were not accurate. The company, essentially, has completely evaporated. The company now faces a class action lawsuit.

Last year Forbes estimated Holmes net worth at $4.5 billion. Yesterday they revised their estimate down a bit – to zero.

Conclusion

If this is a cautionary tale, what are the lessons? The obvious one, of course, is to be skeptical. Treat every new exciting claim as if it is a scam until proven otherwise. Don’t buy corporate marketing propaganda. Ask the hard questions, like exactly how does this work?

There are genuine breakthroughs, but most claimed breakthroughs aren’t. The market is currently being flooded with snake oil and medical pseudoscience, so again, it is a good default position that any new claimed medical breakthrough is probably a scam, or at least overhyped.

Also, be skeptical of nice neat narratives. If a story sounds ready made for movie plot, it probably is just that – a fiction. We love stories of underdogs rising from obscurity by challenging the big boys. We love the lone maverick narrative, the young genius, the rugged individual not afraid to break with convention.

The truth is often much less glamorous and exciting. Progress in science is more often made by various teams each contributing their incremental advance. Ideas rarely come out of nowhere. The big advancements are ones that we saw coming 1-2 decades before they became a reality.

Be aware of common red flags: A company selling a new technology should be able to describe, at least in general terms, how the technology works. You can do this without giving away technical secrets. If they refuse to give a satisfying answer for whatever reason, be suspicious.

If the relevant scientific community is skeptical, you should be too.

If they are using science-sounding jargon but do not really make sense (such as talking about frequencies, or quantum mechanics) it is almost certainly a scam.

Theranos is certainly not a rare case. Companies selling pure snake oil are out there in the thousands. Theranos was perhaps just the biggest one. I also doubt that the tech industry has learned its lesson. The allure of billion dollar  disruptive technology is just too great.

 

17 responses so far

May 30 2016

Underwhelming Cell Phone Rat Study

cell-phone-rat-studyMother Jones headline declares: “Game-Changing” Study Links Cellphone Radiation to Cancer.” NBCNews was similar: A Possible Cellphone Link to Cancer? A Rat Study Launches New Debate.

Any evidence that might link cell phone use to cancer is of legitimate concern, but this is a classic situation in which such evidence needs to put into proper context. I will start with some reassuring clinical context – human epidemiology data has failed to show any consistent association between cell phones and cancer. Further, brain cancer rates have not been increasing overall in the last 20 years when cell phone use skyrocketed. Therefore, any real world effect of cell phones on humans must be tiny to nonexistent.

Toxicology science, however, looks at questions several ways. The most definitive evidence would be placebo-controlled trials, but we almost never have this because it is unethical to expose a subject to a possible toxin just to see if it has a negative effect. (You can do this as part of a therapeutic trial where there is a greater chance of benefit to the subject, but not just to test toxicity.)

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12 responses so far

May 19 2016

Skepticism and the Fallacy of Relative Privation

There has been a lively exchange surrounding John Horgan’s article about skeptics, which I responded to previously. (See also Orac’s and Daniel Loxton’s responses.) At the core of Horgan’s piece is a logical fallacy so common, I feel it deserves special attention. In fact, PZ Myers wrote approvingly of Horgan’s fallacy, showing that it is still alive and well.

That fallacy can be called the fallacy of relative privation, which is a type of red herring or distraction from actual issues. The fallacy is essentially an argument that a problem is not important or does not deserve attention and resources because there are other more important problems. “Why are you wasting your time on X when there are children dying of cancer?”

In Horgan’s case, he would like us to end all war and bring about everlasting world peace before we tackle lesser problems like quackery, fraud, global warming, vaccine denial, the environment, and other such trivialities.

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38 responses so far

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