Feb 21 2014

Pareidolia Watch – Mercury Edition

I only have time for a quick entry today, so here is any easy one - another example of pareidolia unrestrained by reality testing. Pareidolia is the tendency for our brains to match known patterns to random sensory noise, most commonly applied to images. The most familiar image to the human brain is the human face, and so perhaps the most common experience of pareidolia is the seeing of a face in the clouds, in a rust stain, tree bark, tortilla shell, a hillside, or on NASA photos of other worlds.

The Face on Mars is a famous example. Low resolution images of the Cydonia region of Mars showed an apparent face, although the image was lit from the side so half the “face” was missing, and the nostril (which added to the overall illusion) was just data loss from the image. Later higher resolution images showed the face for what it was, just another natural formation.

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Feb 20 2014

Reality Testing and Metacognitive Failure

Imagine coming home to your spouse and finding someone who looks and acts exactly like your spouse, but you have the strong feeling that they are an imposter. They don’t “feel” like your spouse. Something is clearly wrong. In this situation most people conclude that their spouse is, in fact, an imposter. In some cases this has even led to the murder of the “imposter” spouse.

This is a neurological syndrome known as Capgras delusion – a sense of hypofamiliarity, that someone well known to you is unfamiliar. There is also the opposite of this – hyperfamiliarity, the sense that a stranger is familiar to you, known as Fregoli delusion. Sufferers often feel that they are being stalked by someone known to them but in disguise.

Psychologists and neuroscientists are trying to establish the wiring or “neuroanatomical correlates” that underlie such phenomena. What are the circuits in our brains that result in these thought processes? A recent article by psychologist Philip Garrans explores these issues in detail, but with appropriate caution. We are dealing with complex concepts and some fuzzy definitions. But in there are some clear mental phenomena that reveal, at least to an extent, how our minds work.

The “reality testing” model discussed by Garran reflects the overall hierarchical organization of the brain. There are circuits that subconsciously create beliefs, impressions, or hypotheses. We also have “reality testing” circuits, specifically the right dorsolateral prefrontal circuitry, that examine these beliefs to see if they are internally consistent and also consistent with our existing model of reality. Delusions, such as Capgras and Fregoli, result from a “metacognitive failure” of these reality testing circuits.

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Feb 18 2014

GM Potatoes and Disease Resistance

The issue of genetically modified food is an excellent one for skeptics – it is a complex question that mostly revolves around scientific data, popular beliefs are rife with myths, misconceptions, and ideology, there are active and well-funded campaigns of misinformation regarding GM, and it is a hugely important topic for society. The topic is too big to cover in one blog post, which is why I have been writing about it sporadically to cover different angles of this issue (see here, here, here, and here). I also was recently interviewed for Mother Jones, with the result in both article and podcast form. The comments after the article are especially revealing.

Much of the discussion around GMO involves the two most common GM traits, pesticide(Bt) production and herbicide resistance. While these traits can be very useful when used intelligently, the potential for GM technology is perhaps much greater in other realms, including disease resistance. Late blight alone, a disease that affects potatoes and tomatoes, is estimated to cost 3-5 billion dollars per year in the US, Europe, and developing countries, through the cost of fungicide use and crop loss.

A three year trial of a new GM potato variety has just concluded, demonstrating impressive resistance to late blight. The researchers took a gene (Rpi-vnt1.1) isolated from a wild relative of potato, Solanum venturii, and placed in into the potato variety known as Desiree. The results:

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Feb 17 2014

New Science and Religion Survey

A new Rice University survey of 10,000 people explores issues of science and religion. Surveys are always fascinating, giving us a “lay of the land” of what people around us believe. However, they are also very tricky. Results can vary wildly based upon how a question is asked, and what questions surround them. This study was presented at the AAAS meeting, and is not published, so I don’t have access to the actual questions.

With those caveats in mind, here are the main results:

50 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work together, compared to 38 percent of Americans.
18 percent of scientists attended weekly religious services, compared with 20 percent of the general U.S. population;
15 percent of scientists consider themselves very religious (versus 19 percent of the general U.S. population);
13.5 percent of scientists read religious texts weekly (compared with 17 percent of the U.S. population)
19 percent of scientists pray several times a day (versus 26 percent of the U.S. population).
Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”
27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict. Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion.
48 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work in collaboration.
22 percent of scientists think most religious people are hostile to science.
Nearly 20 percent of the general population think religious people are hostile to science.
Nearly 22 percent of the general population think scientists are hostile to religion.
Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.

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Feb 14 2014

Eating Yoga Mats

This is the worst example of pseudoscientific fearmongering I have seen in a while, and that’s saying something.

Vani Hari, a blogger known as “food babe,” has started a petition to get Subway to remove use of the chemical azodicarbonamide from their breads. She writes:

Azodicarbonamide is the same chemical used to make yoga mats, shoe soles, and other rubbery objects. It’s not supposed to be food or even eaten for that matter. And it’s definitely not “fresh”.

This, of course, is utter nonsense – that is, the notion that because a chemical has multiple uses, included in non-food items, that it is not “supposed” to be eaten. Azodicarbonamide (ADA) is used as a blowing agent in the formation of certain rubbers and sealants. It is used, for example, in sealing the tops of baby food containers, but also in the production of certain plastics and rubbers. It is also used as a bleaching agent for bread, giving it a softer and fluffier quality. None of this says anything about it’s safety at the levels used.

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Feb 13 2014

P-Hacking and Other Statistical Sins

I love learning new terms that precisely capture important concepts. A recent article in Nature magazine by Regina Nuzzo reviews all the current woes with statistical analysis in scientific papers. I have covered most of the topics here over the years, but the Nature article in an excellent review. It also taught be a new term – P-hacking, which is essentially working the data until you reach the goal of a P-value of 0.05. .

The Problem

In a word, the big problem with the way statistical analysis is often done today is the dreaded P-value. The P-value is just one way to look at scientific data. It first assumes a specific null-hypothesis (such as, there is no correlation between these two variables) and then asks, what is the probability that the data would be at least as extreme as it is if the null-hypothesis were true? A P-value of 0.05 (a typical threshold for being considered “significant”) indicates a 5% probability that the data is due to chance, rather than a real effect.

Except – that’s not actually true. That is how most people interpret the P-value, but that is not what it says. The reason is that P-values do not consider many other important variables, like prior probability, effect size, confidence intervals, and alternative hypotheses. For example, if we ask – what is the probability of a new fresh set of data replicating the results of a study with a P-value of 0.05, we get a very different answer. Nuzzo reports:
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Feb 11 2014

New Burgess Shale Find

Published by under Evolution
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For those familiar with the Burgess Shale, the news of a new “phyllopod bed” is exciting.

A century ago Charles Walcott discovered (in what is now called Walcott quarry) an amazing fossil bed from the Cambrian era. These were soft-bodied fossils preserved in shale from the very dawn of multicellular life, the Cambrian explosion. From 570 to 530 million years ago multicellular plant and animal life appeared in fossils and diversified. Every major group we see today is represented in Cambrian fossil beds, along with phyla that are now extinct. Walcott Quarry is by far the most prolific and best preserved such fossil bed.

Now researchers report on the discovery of another fossil bed 40 km southeast of the Walcott quarry, in Kootenay National Park. The report:

The assemblage, discovered in 2012, occurs at the top of the Burgess Shale Formation and is significantly younger than the localities of the type area. In situ excavation and talus collections from a two-meter thick interval have so far yielded 3053 specimens representing at least 52 taxa. Among these, half are known from the Walcott Quarry and at least 15 are new.

Wow. This is a massive find from somewhat later in the Cambrian, perhaps showing even more early diversity of multicellular life. Already they are finding new species and more details about known species. It may be a little early to speculate, but the researchers feel that this find could be even bigger than the Walcott Quarry.

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Feb 10 2014

Anti-Flu Vaccine Rants at the HuffPo

The Huffington Post continues to be a venue for all sorts of pseudoscience, alternative medicine propaganda, and anti-vaccine sentiments. Two recent posts by Lawrence Solomon in the HuffPo Canada indicate that the nonsense is international.

His first article claims that the majority of health care workers “resist” or “refuse” the flu-vaccine – therefore it can’t be that great. The second attacks the CDC estimates for the number of flu-associated deaths. Together they demonstrate how a bit of motivated reasoning can seem like actual journalism when in fact it leads to misinformation.

Solomon cites statistics about low rates of flu-vaccine update among healthcare workers:

In the UK, only 46 per cent of health care workers — slightly less for doctors (45 per cent) and nurses (41 per cent) — are vaccinated for the flu, despite concerted government efforts according to Public Health England. This startling failure is similar to that seen in Canadian jurisdictions for health care workers today, and those seen in the recent past in the U.S.

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Feb 07 2014

Questions from the Nye-Ham Debate

There has been a lot of discussion about the Bill Nye-Ken Ham creationism debate from the other night. Questions about whether or not the debate was a good idea, and who won, are probably too overwhelmed with subjectivity for there to be any definitive answer. We talked about it on the SGU this week so you can listen to the next show to hear my thoughts.

One sideshow that emerged from the debate that I do want to talk about came from journalist Matt Stopera. He reports:

I asked 22 self-identifying creationists at the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate to write a message/question/note to the other side. Here’s what they wrote.

Take a look at the 22 photos – this is not a scientific survey by any means, but probably does reveal something about what the “rank and file” creationist on the street believes. I thought it would be fun to actually answer the 22 questions, since there are likely to be many creationists out there who believe the same sorts of things.

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Feb 06 2014

Fructose vs Glucose

Health conscious individuals have been systematically informed about how important nutrition is to health. This is no doubt true, nutrition is very important. But the nutrition industry, and “natural” health gurus selling vitamins would like you to think that “nutrition is everything,” (in quotes because I have been told that phrase more than once).

Nutrition is important, but it is only one factor among many affecting health. It is not the cause of all problems, and therefore it is not the solution to all health issues.

The overhyping of nutrition, however, creates an obsession with endlessly tweaking one’s diet in the hopes that the perfect combination of “superfoods” will cure all ills and optimize health. The unstated major premise of such claims is that our bodies perform best within very narrow nutritional parameters. It is closer to reality, rather, that our bodies are resilient to a fairly broad range of nutritional parameters. It is helpful to get the broad brushstrokes correct (do not overconsume calories, have a varied diet, etc.), but obsessing over tiny details is likely to be a waste of time.

In the middle of all this is also the ever-present naturalistic fallacy.

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