Aug 04 2016

Skepticism – Banned by Facebook

Facebook - GMOFacebook, despite its critics and many competitors, remains a robust social media platform. The SGU has a Facebook page with over 1 million likes, and we use it to drive traffic here and to Science-Based Medicine.

There are pages on Facebook promoting just about any point of view you can imagine. It is a true marketplace of ideas. Like any marketplace, there is the expectation that its rules are fair and its regulation is rational and reasonable.

Earlier this year Facebook came under criticism when it was discovered that some of their employees may have been systematically biased against conservative leaning news items. This sparked a discussion of whether or not an outlet like Facebook has a responsibility to be neutral. They are a private company, they can do what they want. Newspapers and TV news programs can have a biased editorial policy. What is important is transparency, and Facebook was putting their thumb on the scale on the sly. They have responded by initiating a training program for their employees to teach them to recognize their own bias – so they at least understand the benefit of the perception of being unbiased.

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Comments: 12

Aug 02 2016

Supplements and Contract Research

snake-oilI dislike double standards. They are inherently intellectually dishonest. Sometimes double standards are the result of a deliberate campaign to confuse the public or regulators in order to create special privileges.

Alternative medicine is a great example of a double standard. Proponents want their own special standard for research, for evidence, and for practice. They, in fact, have succeeded in passing laws in many states which explicitly create a double standard for practices arbitrarily deemed “alternative”.

Organic farmers can use toxic pesticides while criticizing their competitors for using less toxic pesticides. They also eschew GMO cultivars, while using those resulting from mutation farming or forced hybridization.

One clear double standard is the marketing of supplements – the industry has successfully created a double standard for their products. They criticize the pharmaceutical industry while being guilty of far worse practices.  Continue Reading »

Comments: 8

Aug 01 2016

Exercise and Health

couchpotatoEveryone knows that it is better for your health to exercise regularly, and that a sedentary lifestyle is ultimately unhealthy. The science clearly supports this conclusion as well, so this is one area where popular belief and science are in accord.

Uncertainty sets in, however, when you try to drill down to more detail. The primary question is – can exercise undo or offset the negative effects of being sedentary? Is the problem with sitting only that you are not exercising, or is sitting a risk factor for death in and of itself?

A new review and reanalysis of data from 13 studies hopefully clarifies this question. There is some good and bad news in the results, but overall I think it is good.

The authors looked at the two variables of interest, exercise and sedentary time. Sedentary time includes driving, sitting at a desk, watching TV, and similar activity. Moderate exercise could be just taking a brisk walk, and they mostly considered the total time of exercise.

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Comments: 11

Jul 29 2016

An Artificial Leaf

solar sell1We are currently in a transition period from an economy based largely on fossil fuels to one based largely on renewable or carbon-neutral fuels. Even if we put aside the question of global warming, there are many good reasons to make this transition. Fossil fuel pollution results in billions of dollars of health care costs and lost productivity each year. For any nation, the ability to create more of their own fuel and be less dependent on oil imports can have economic benefits.

Of course, if you accept the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming, we may just avoid some unwanted consequences of dumping billions of tons of previously sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere (40 billion tons in 2015 alone).

One interesting technology is often called an artificial leaf, because it uses light energy not to generate electricity directly (photovoltaics) but to synthesize fuel or fuel precursors from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and other inputs (photosynthesis).

Photosynthesis is what plants do, hence the term “artificial leaf.” Plants use this process to make food in the form of carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water, releasing oxygen in the process.

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Comments: 2

Jul 26 2016

Marketing Conspiracies and Conspiracy Marketing

selling pseudoscience6_nA recent article by Spenser Davis details how Alex Jones uses his conspiracy mongering to sell conspiracy-themed supplements and products. This phenomenon goes way past Alex Jones. This post from Destroyed by Science lists a few of the more popular websites that combine conspiracy theories and dubious supplements and other products.

In my opinion, Jones pales in comparison to Natural News. This online empire closely connects conspiracies about medicine and the government with specific alternative health products and supplements.

The marriage of conspiracy theories and selling snake oil and pseudoscience is an obvious one. My question, however, is in which direction does the arrow of causation go?

Springtime for Charlatans

Pseudoscience, scientific illiteracy in general, and conspiracy thinking are goldmines for the sellers of dubious products. Think about it – what better potential customer is there than someone who is willing to believe fantastical claims does not require claims to even be scientifically plausible, let alone supported by solid science, and is skeptical of the regulatory system designed to protect consumers from fraud?

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Comments: 21

Jul 25 2016

A Tougher Turing Test

exmachinsert5In 1950 Alan Turing, as a thought experiment, considered a test for telling the difference between a human and an artificial intelligence (AI). If a person had an extensive conversation with the AI and could not tell them apart from a real person, then that would be a good indication that the AI had human-like intelligence.

This process became known as the Turing Test, and every year various groups administer their version of the Turing Test to AI contestants. The test has limits, however, and is generally considered to be too easy. It is also dependent on the skills of the human questioner.

Parsing Language

A recent AI contest used a different approach, the Winograd Schema Challenge (WSC).This is one of many alternatives to the Turing Test that are being explored. Here is the format of the challenge:

  1. Two entities or sets of entities, not necessarily people or sentient beings, are mentioned in the sentences by noun phrases.
  2. A pronoun or possessive adjective is used to reference one of the parties (of the right sort so it can refer to either party).
  3. The question involves determining the referent of the pronoun.
  4. There is a special word that is mentioned in the sentence and possibly the question. When replaced with an alternate word, the answer changes although the question still makes sense (e.g., in the above examples, “big” can be changed to “small”; “feared” can be changed to “advocated”.)

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Comments: 270

Jul 22 2016

Does Race Exist?

World_Map_of_Y-DNA_HaplogroupsIs Pluto a planet or a dwarf planet? Are these two categories even meaningful? The reality is that objects orbiting our sun occur on a continuum from asteroids to planetoids, dwarf planets, and full planets.

Humans like to categorize, however. It helps us wrap our minds around complexity, gives us convenient labels to help sort our knowledge, and hopefully the categories reflect some underlying reality.

Categories often begin as purely observational. We label diseases by what they look like (their signs and symptoms), and then later may have to recategorize them once we know what causes the diseases.

Prior to Darwin, taxonomists categorized all of life according to superficial characteristics. These categories sometimes, but not always, matched the underlying reality of evolutionary relationships. We now have a different system of taxonomy called cladistics, which is purely evolutionary. That’s why birds are now dinosaurs.  Continue Reading »

Comments: 67

Jul 21 2016

Dark Matter and Dark Energy

Winter_Dark_Matter_CFHTLenS_alternative_colour

Genuine mysteries in science are fascinating, and there is no shortage of them. Scientists love mysteries because that is where the work is.

Two of the biggest scientific mysteries of our generation have similar names – dark matter and dark energy. Their names imply the unknown. They are, in fact, place-holder concepts that are temporarily representing what we don’t know. However, we are  slowly crawling toward an understanding of what they are.

Dark energy makes up about 70% of the mass/energy of the universe, while dark matter makes up another 25%, leaving just 5% for ordinary matter and energy. This means we currently don’t know what 95% of the universe is made of.

Fritz Zwicky first proposed the existence of dark matter in 1933, but his ideas were not accepted until the 1970s when they were revived by two astronomers, Vera S. Rubin and W. Kent Ford Jr. The hypothesis derives from the observation of how galaxies rotate. Their rate of rotation depends upon the amount of matter they contain – the more mass that exists within the orbit of any particular star, the faster that star will revolve about that galaxy. You can therefore estimate the amount of mass in a galaxy by observing how fast the stars are moving.

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Comments: 31

Jul 19 2016

Debunking Islamic Creationism

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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Comments: 112

Jul 18 2016

Taking the High Road

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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Comments: 131

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