Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Aug 15 2017

More on the Backfire Effect

Published by under Skepticism

mythsOne critical question for the skeptical enterprise is the notion of a backfire effect – when someone is given factual information about a myth that they believe, do they update and correct their beliefs or do they dig in their heels and believe the myth even stronger? Some studies worryingly show that sometimes people dig in their heels, or they simply misremember the corrective information.

A new study sheds further light on this question, although it is not, by itself, the definitive final answer (one study rarely is).

For background, prior studies have show several effects of interest. First, from memory research we know that people store facts separate from the source of those facts and from the truth-status of those facts. That is why people will often say, “I heard somewhere that…” They may not even remember if the tidbit is true or not, but the idea itself is much easier to remember, especially if it is dramatic or resonates with some narrative or belief.

So, if you tell someone that there is no evidence linking vaccines and autism, they are most likely to remember something about a link between vaccines and autism, but not remember where the information came from or if the link is real. That, at least, is the concern.

The research on this topic is actually a bit complex because there are numerous variables. There are factors about the subjects themselves, their age, their baseline beliefs, their intentions, and the intensity of their beliefs. There are different types of information to give: positive information (vaccines are safe), dispelling negative information, graphic information, and fear-based information (pictures of sick unvaccinated kids). There are different topics – political vs scientific, with different levels of emotional attachment to the beliefs. There is belief vs intention – do you think vaccines are safe vs do you intend to vaccinate your kids? Finally there is time, immediate vs delayed effects.

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11 responses so far

Aug 14 2017

Tribal Epistemology

Published by under Skepticism

Tribalism550In the early days of my skeptical career I spent time investigating and deconstructing classic pseudosciences, like belief in Bigfoot, astrology, UFOs, and ghosts. I was often challenged as to why I even bothered – these are all silly but harmless beliefs. Is it really worth the time to dissect exactly why they are nonsense?

But my fellow skeptics and I knew the answer. We were interested not so much in the beliefs themselves but the believers. How does someone get to the point that they believe that the relative position of the stars at the moment of their birth could influence the wiring in their brain and even their destiny? At the time I think the answer most activist skeptics, including myself, would give was scientific illiteracy. People simply lack knowledge of science and fills the gaps with entertaining fantasy.

Lack of scientific knowledge definitely plays a role, and is an important problem to address, but it was naive to think it was the main cause. Such explanations do not survive long with contact with actual believers. It becomes rapidly clear that the primary malfunction of true believers is not a lack of information or scientific savvy. It’s something else entirely.

My explanations for why people believe nonsense then evolved into stage 2 – a lack of critical thinking skills. Scientific knowledge needs to be coupled with an understanding of epistemology (how we know what we know), logic, cognitive biases and heuristics. This view, that belief in nonsense is mainly a failure of critical thinking, is a lot closer to the truth. Our strategy for fighting against belief in pseudoscience and magic evolved into promoting not only scientific literacy but critical thinking skills.

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174 responses so far

Aug 03 2017


Published by under Skepticism

brainpuzzleIf I gave you a string of digits to remember, how many do you think you could handle? For example, try to remember the number – 8945557302. That’s 10 digits. Most people can handle only 7, and there is a specific neurological reason for this. Our working memory is wired for about 7 bits of information (give or take 1-2 bits). Now, try to remember the number as 894-555-7302. That is recognizable as a phone number, and despite the fact that the individual digits exceed our bit capacity, most people can remember such numbers.

Grouping bits of information into recognizable patterns in order to make them easier to remember is a phenomenon called chunking, first described by George Miller in his 1956 book, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information.

Chunking is best established as a mnemonic device. Miller and others conducted experiments to see how much chunking as a strategy could extend the limits of human memory. For example, the typical number of binary bits, such as Morse code, people can remember is 9. However, someone who understands morse code will chunk the individual bits into groupings of three, each one representing a letter. They will then group letters into words and words into sentences.  This type of chunking extended memory from 9 to 40 binary bits.

Another study involved a runner tasked to remember strings of digits, again starting with a typical digit span of 7. However, he was encouraged to chunk the digits into race times – a meaningful pattern with which he was very familiar. With a little practice he increased his digit span to 80 numbers.

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16 responses so far

Jul 20 2017

Bismuth and Solar Cells

Published by under Skepticism

bismuth ocyodideThere is something appealing about the fact that while there was so much controversy and public debate about global warming and energy production, solar cell technology incrementally improved in the background, largely unnoticed, until it became an actual cost-effective option for energy production. There were no breakthroughs or big announcements, just a slow increase in efficiency and decrease in cost.

Slow incremental changes add up, like a conservative but reliable investment. In 1941 the first silicon-based solar cells were developed with <1% energy conversion efficiency. In 2009 we broke 25% efficiency. The current record efficiency for mass-produced solar cells is 26.6%.

While more efficiency is always welcome, this is now more than enough for most practical uses of solar cells. The solar panels on the roof of my house (which doesn’t even cover my entire available roof space) produces 100% of the energy (averaged over the year) that my house consumes. Obviously, your mileage may vary, depending on roof orientation, shading, and geographic location. I live in CT, which is hardly a sunny state, so anywhere in the US should be viable for solar energy. If you life somewhere like Arizona, it’s a no-brainer.

With many technologies there is one feature that is considered a limiting factor, or at least the most important factor, at least by the public, and tends to dominate discussion. For computers it used to be processor speed, for cameras it was megapixels. Once, however, we get to the point where these parameters are generous enough to no longer be the dominant limiting factor, we start to pay attention to other factors. Make no mistake, these other factors were important all along, they were just often neglected by the public who focused on one number.

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17 responses so far

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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117 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

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