The Oxford Dictionary word of the year is “post-truth” which they define as:
an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.
The implication is that we are now living in a post-truth era. Many people would probably point to the outcome of the recent presidential election as evidence of this. Of course there were many factors influencing the election and it’s impossible to tease them all apart, but this seems to legitimately be a factor.
Trump has 15 million Twitter followers, which means that more people likely see his tweets than will watch any news broadcast. Trump just appointed Stephen Bannon to be his chief White House strategist. Bannon was the chairman of Brietbart news, a far right propaganda echochamber.
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Stories take on a life of their own. That is the origin of urban legends, myths, and even religion. A good narrative feeds on itself and can be self-sustaining. It evolves and adapts and finds fertile ground in most human hosts (unless they have been inoculated with a sufficient dedication to facts and logic).
Aspartame, an artificial sweetener that was approved by the FDA in 1981, has been the focus of conspiracy theories ever since. The “holistic medicine” and “natural health” subcultures have largely been responsible for spreading misinformed hysteria about aspartame, first through chain letters and newsletters, and now through the internet.
Ever adapting, they have added some new wrinkles to the legend of aspartame, making sure that their baseless fearmongering is making use of the latest buzzwords.
Aspartame is Safe
First for some background, the anti-aspartame brigade claims that this food additive has been linked to cancer, neurological disorders, and a long list of complaints and diseases. They are simply lying, or the equivalent of lying by cherry picking data, dismissing evidence out-of-hand, and making up whatever claims they need to support their position. Continue Reading »
On November 6th Nigel Antony Gray predicted on his Facebook feed:
“Heads Up: On 14th November and a couple of days either side of that date, watch for a major earthquake, and quite possible in South Pacific area.”
On November 13th there was a magnitude 7.5 Earthquake on the south island of New Zealand. So far the death toll is two people. This was a significant quake along a known fault line that runs through the south island.
The internet was apparently very impressed with this prediction. Gray has long argued that earthquakes can be predicted by looking at the lunar cycle, because of the tidal forces of the moon on the earth. He is particularly fond of supermoons – when the moon is at perigee, the closest point in its orbit around the earth.
Tonight will be the most super supermoon since 1948. Last night and tonight the full moon will appear slightly larger than you are used to. You will not notice this difference, however. If you saw pictures of the apparent size of the moon side by side you can see the slight difference, but you would never notice it just by viewing the moon.
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Donald Trump is our president-elect. Dramatic transitions are always anxiety-provoking, partly because of the unknown, and since Trump has never held public office there is a lot of uncertainty.
I do think, as Obama and Clinton have expressed, that it is important that we respect the outcome of our democratic process and a peaceful transfer of power, even if we don’t like the results. I disagree with the current protests (it’s too late, the election is over). Similarly, I disagree with the trend in the last two decades of challenging the legitimacy of the president. This started with Bush’s win over Gore, and has been an element of every election since. Trump himself has done a lot to undermine confidence in the process and its results.
While I further agree with Clinton that we should give Trump a chance to be a good president, and Democrats should even try to work with him, he is not a blank slate. He said a lot in the campaign that is worrisome. He will now be judged by what he says and does as president-elect during the transition, and of course by his actions as soon as he takes office. Continue Reading »
Last week I wrote a response to a NYT article on GMOs. Massimo Pigliucci wrote a critical analysis of my response. I then responded to that piece.
Below is the final round of responses on this issue, one from Massimo and then a final response from me. In this round Massimo changes the focus from GMOs specifically to how the skeptical movement handles such issues.
My (further) response to Novella on GMOs
by Massimo Pigliucci
I promise, this is the last round concerning this particular discussion, at the least on my part. To recap: Danny Hakim, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, published a critical piece on certain aspects of GMO technology; my friend and fellow skeptic Steve Novella responded; I commented critically on Steve’s response; and he responded to my criticism. The current post, however, isn’t going to be yet another blow-by-blow affair, for a few reasons: i) it would be even longer than the last installment, which I fear would severely test readers’ patience; ii) there is a diminishing return to going deeper and deeper and insert more and more qualifications to any argument; and iii) it seems to me that most of what Steve and I wanted to say has been said already.
So let me try to zoom the discussion out a little, shifting attention to what I think are some background issues of which this exchange has been a particular instantiation.
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I always enjoy when someone whom I respect and who cares about using careful and valid arguments disagrees with me. It is an opportunity for me to correct any mistakes I have made, to deepen my understanding of the topic, or at least tighten up my arguments.
Last week I wrote an article responding to a recent New York Times piece on GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Massimo Pigliucci, who is a friend and skeptical colleague, disagrees with my analysis. Massimo thinks that knee-jerk defense of GMOs is a problem generally in the skeptical movement, and uses me as an example. I disagree with him, but will discuss that toward the end.
I want to take the points that I make in my previous post one by one and see how they hold up to Massimo’s criticism, and may expand upon them and include other comments as well.
GMOs should not be considered as one thing.
I wrote in my previous article:
“Any meaningful analysis of GM technology has to consider each application unto itself. Further, the GM trait is only part of the picture – you also have to consider how it is being applied.”
I have consistently taken this position in my writings, and this is also the most common position I encounter when reading other skeptics writing about GMOs. It is not really meaningful to consider GMOs as if they are one thing, and this is a mistake that Hakim makes in the original NYT article.
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I saw the latest Marvel Studios movie, Dr. Strange, last night with a large crowd of friends, many of whom are fellow skeptics. Overall I enjoyed the movie – the acting was very good, there was plenty of good eye candy, and some interesting plot elements. I always enjoy Cumberbatch, although his fake American accent was not great.
For those who are not familiar with the comic book character and have not yet seen the movie, there are some massive spoilers ahead. However, if you have seen the trailer I am probably not going to reveal more that was in there.
As often happens when skeptics see science fiction and fantasy movies, there is a discussion about how the movie treated skeptics and skepticism. There are always two basic sides in the discussion, and individuals can hold both views simultaneously. On the one hand it is disappointing to see the same tired Hollywood tropes about science and belief. On the other hand, the movie is clearly escapist fantasy and therefore should not be held to any standard of realism.
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Part of expertise comes from doing something for so long, so many times, that you see patterns that might not be immediately apparent. I have been doing the skeptical thing for over 20 years, and one of the things I really enjoy about being an all-purpose skeptic, as I like to call it, is that I can see patterns of thought, argument, and behavior among disparate beliefs.
The anomaly hunting of ghosthunters is the same as the anomaly hunting of 911 truthers.
One very dominant pattern that I see on a frequent basis is the tendency to cite preliminary evidence as if it is rock-solid and confirmed. People will worry about the health effects of GMOs or vaccines because of a few flawed studies. They will promote the health benefits of a supplement based upon a preclinical study that is many steps removed from actual clinical claims. They will accept a new phenomenon as real based on studies that have never been replicated.
To put this into its broadest context, we need to think explicitly about the relationship between levels of scientific evidence and how much we should accept those results. When do we conclude that a scientific finding is probably real? For applied sciences like medicine this has a very practical form – when do we recommend a treatment?
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I have long maintained that it is extremely difficult to predict how new technologies will be used, more difficult than predicting the technologies themselves. New technologies tend to be used differently than they are initially conceived. The human element is the hardest to predict – how will people interact with the technology?
It’s still fun to imagine how new technologies will be used, and that is part of the process of developing applications for those technologies.
There are two emerging digital technologies about which I am willing to make predictions, partly because we are already getting some early indications of consumer acceptance and use: virtual/augmented reality and unstructured data management.
Virtual and Augmented Reality
Virtual Reality refers to systems that provide full sensory input (at least full visual input) to create a virtual world in which the user can operate. Augmented reality overlays digital information onto the real world. These two related technologies complement each other.
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I revealed recently on the SGU that I have had solar panels placed on my roof. This is something I have been thinking about for a while, but was putting off mainly because I was waiting for the next big solar breakthrough. I eventually came to accept the fact that improvements in solar efficiency and cost were continuous and incremental, and there would probably not be any significant game changer, so there was no reason to wait.
I decided to go with a company that assumes all the installation costs and then sells you the electricity for cheaper than what the power company is charging. This can be tricky, and you need to do some research before you commit to a contract. It may be more advantageous for you to buy or lease your solar panels, if you can afford the upfront costs or financing.
If you decide to go with a contract like I did you need to make sure your state has good net metering laws. This means you will get full credit for any electricity you put back into the grid. You also need to read the fine print, and make sure that your electricity prices won’t increase dramatically after an initial period.
I was pleasantly surprised that, living in Connecticut, my roof could hold more than enough solar panels to produce 100% of the electricity I consume averaged over a year. So, for no upfront cost I get cheaper electricity and a lowered carbon footprint. Continue Reading »