Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Jul 03 2015

A Quick Logic Lesson

Try your hand at this quick puzzle, then come back and read the rest of this post.

How did you do? This is a great little test with a very important lesson.

The discussion that follows the puzzle is a fairly good explanation of confirmation bias, which is a partial explanation for why people might fail to solve the puzzle. It is a partial explanation only, however, and therefore missed an opportunity to  teach a critical lesson in scientific reasoning.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out, perceive, accept, and remember information that confirms beliefs we already hold, coupled with the tendency to miss, ignore, forget, or explain away information that contradicts our beliefs.

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Jun 16 2015

The Debate over Nutrition Research

Can you recall everything you ate yesterday, including those little snacks you snuck, with reasonably accurate estimates of amounts? How about two days ago? Most people, it turns out, have a hard time recalling with good fidelity their recent food intake, or they have a hard time reporting it accurately not only because of the fallibility of memory but because of biases and denial.

Despite this, a great deal of nutrition research is based upon subjects recalling and accurately reporting what they ate. A recent article in Mayo Clinic Proceedings by Edward Archer et al challenges the legitimacy of this research. They write:

The reliance on M-BMs to inform dietary policy continues despite decades of unequivocal evidence that M-BM (memory-based dietary assessment methods ) data bear little relation to actual energy and nutrient consumption.

This is pretty damming. They charge that the current dietary guidelines are based upon fatally flawed data. They specifically state that such data is based upon fallible memory, uses data collecting techniques known to promote false recall, cannot be independently verified, and often does not contain objective data on physical activity. They go as far as to call such research an, “unscientific and major misuse of research resources.”

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Jun 11 2015

Ideology is the Problem

i·de·ol·o·gy
noun
1. a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.

It is my goal as an intellectual and skeptic to purge myself of all ideology, as much as possible. I have come to understand that it is ideology, in its broadest sense, that is largely the enemy of reason. This includes not only political and economic ideology, but also religious, social, and historical.

At its core, an ideology is something you believe because you believe it. It is a moral and intellectual anchor, as well as a lens through which the world is viewed. I am not implying any sort of equivalency – not all ideologies are created equal. We also come to our ideologies through different paths, some more valid than others. Often we absorb them from our family, our society, and our culture. Genetics may also play a role. We seem to be predisposed to certain political ideologies based upon which values speak to us most loudly. We then take those values as if they were the Truth and proceed from there.

There are even ideologies that we arrive at through valid argument and consideration. I consider scientific skepticism, which values doubt, logic, empiricism, and self-knowledge, as a valid and worthwhile ideology. Even then a belief or value system can be a problem if we treat it like an assumption rather than a conclusion.

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Jun 02 2015

PBS GMO Debate

Published by under Skepticism

PBS has put up an interactive resource on the GMO (genetically modified organisms) debate. You vote for which side you are on, and then the site feeds you arguments against your position. I like this idea, as it is always helpful to challenge yourself by confronting differing opinions. This is a sort of antiechochamber approach.

Since I accept the strong scientific consensus that GMOs are generally safe (each genetic modification needs to be evaluated on its own, but so far existing GMOs have been found safe, and there are no established specific issues with the technology itself), and are a potentially useful technology, I took the pro side, which means PBS fed me all their anti-GMO arguments. I was struck by how consistently terrible their anti-GMO arguments were. It seems that PBS was trying to be fair and thorough, which implies that there are only terrible anti-GMO arguments, so they had no choice.

I am still honestly trying to find a non-terrible anti-GMO argument, because I agree with seeking out the best arguments on all sides of an issue, and being charitable to those arguments. PBS did not fulfill my quest. To be fair to PBS, they are reflecting the talking points of GMO critics, and that is what they say. They are not endorsing these positions. Here are their anti-GMO points:

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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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