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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May 11 2015

Missing the Point and Wasting Resources

I sometimes think of scientific skepticism as a method of waste reduction and improved efficiency. As an individual, a family, a society, a government, and indeed a civilization, we are best served if our time and energy were spent in an efficient manner pursuing appropriate goals. It pains me, for example, to think of researchers who spend an entire career pursuing a fiction. When you think about how much time and money is wasted because of ideology, stubbornness, or simple ignorance it can be depressing.

Part of the problem is that the choices we face are increasingly complex, and we really don’t have the infrastructure necessary to collectively make good decisions. Politics is overwhelmed with ideology and perverse incentives, people are overwhelmed with misinformation and advertising, the public is largely scientifically illiterate, the media generally does not do a good job of informing the public, and the default mode is to make decisions for emotional and ideological rather than rational reasons.

There are many examples just from the pages of this blog – billions wasted on useless supplements, disease outbreaks caused by antivaxxers, companies dedicated to producing free-energy devices, and ideological opposition to anything “unnatural,” to name just a few. The latter is interesting because it demonstrates how passionate people who mean well can be easily diverted by sloppy thinking. A recent article by Beth Skwarecki points this out nicely. While I don’t agree with everything she writes, the essence of her article is spot on.

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May 08 2015

A Reproducibility Experiment

I have been writing quite a bit here and on Science-Based Medicine about metascience – the study of science itself. When you think about it, science is perhaps the most critical and broadly applicable technology of our modern civilization. It is the one endeavor from which all other technologies derive.

It therefore is very important that we understand how the institutions and processes of science are functioning. If there are any inefficiencies or biases in the system they can cause great harm, a waste of resources and a slowing of progress.

A recent metascience project called, The Reproducibility Project: Psychology, asks a very important question:

Do normative scientific practices and incentive structures produce a biased body of research evidence?

The project focuses on one specific aspect of this question – how reproducible are published psychological studies? They looked at 100 studies published in prominent psychology journals with positive results that have been generally accepted. They then crowdsourced scientists conducting replications of these studies, with 270 authors participating.

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May 07 2015

Fight Over WiFi In Public Schools

A Los Angeles middle school has turned WiFi off in a classroom to accommodate a teacher, Anura Lawson, who believes she has electromagnetic sensitivity. Now Lawson is petitioning to have WiFi turned off in every classroom in California. That’s what you get for catering to pseudoscience – more pseudoscience.

Electromagnetic (EM) sensitivity is a controversial disorder; well, controversial in that the scientific community has investigated it and concluded that it does not exist, but some individuals still believe they have it. Like many spurious disorders, the symptoms are mostly non-specific. Lawson claims she experienced, “dizziness, migraines, and heart palpitations,” while her daughter claims that her “brain was running slower.”

Such non-specific symptoms can be the result of anything stressing out the system: poor sleep, lack of physical activity, an unrecognized chronic illness, anxiety or depression. They may also be purely psychological. There are no specific symptoms or objective signs to indicate that there is any pathology present. Once treatable pathology has been ruled out, it’s best to focus on treating symptoms and improving quality of life.

However, there are many fake or dubious diagnoses out there to place a label on patients with such non-specific symptoms. These labels have changed over the generations, but apparently have always existed. Today there are several popular fad diagnoses for non-specific symptoms, including candida hypersensitivity, multiple chemical sensitivity, chronic Lyme disease, adrenal fatigue and EM sensitivity.

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May 05 2015

Open Science

There is a movement to open access to scientific information, and with the relatively new resources provided by the internet and social media, we may be heading rapidly in that direction. However, I don’t think this will be an easy transition and we should consider the possible unintended consequences.

A 2012 commentary by Nosek and Bar-Anan outlined the changes that would open science:

We call for six changes: (1) full embrace of digital communication, (2) open access to all published research, (3) disentangling publication from evaluation, (4) breaking the “one article, one journal” model with a grading system for evaluation and diversified dissemination outlets, (5) publishing peer review, and, (6) allowing open, continuous peer review. We address conceptual and practical barriers to change, and provide examples showing how the suggested practices are being used already.

The Center for Open Science outlines a similar mission:

1-Increase prevalence of scientific values – openness, reproducibility – in scientific practice
2-Develop and maintain infrastructure for documentation, archiving, sharing, and registering research materials
3-Join infrastructures to support the entire scientific workflow in a common framework
4-Foster an interdisciplinary community of open source developers, scientists, and organizations
5-Adjust incentives to make “getting it right” more competitive with “getting it published”
6-Make all academic research discoverable and accessible

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May 04 2015

Homeopathic Rant

Every now and then we get a public peek into the mind of a crank or pseudoscientist. This is not to say that they don’t utter complete nonsense often, but usually in public they try to put a sanitized and rational face on their quackery. An unfiltered rant can be refreshing and illuminating.

Recently a homeopath, Mary English, wrote such a public rant against Simon Singh, who is a science communicator and promoter of rationality. What has English so riled is the fact that Singh is threatening to sue the National Health Service (NHS) for wasting taxpayer money by funding homeopathy.

Singh is an open critic of so-called alternative medicine. He has written about homeopathy before, explaining why it is complete unscientific lunacy. He famously was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for daring to say that they embrace “bogus” therapies (because they do).  He works for a charity, the Good Thinking Society, which has challenged the UK powers-that-be to reconsider their support of homeopathy:

In February 2015, The Good Thinking Society, working with Bindmans LLP, wrote to Liverpool CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) in order to highlight and challenge the CCG’s decision to approve spending on homeopathic treatments – a decision we believe to be unlawful, and contrary to the best interest of local patients. In April 2015, Liverpool CCG conceded our challenge and agreed to make a fresh decision on the issue.

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May 01 2015

Tesla Introduces the Home Battery

Innovative billionaire, Elon Musk, is introducing the first product designed to be a home battery for the average home - the Powerwall by Tesla. This is a large but shallow and stylish lithium ion battery meant to be attached to the wall of a garage or basement. There are two versions, a 10kWh for $3,500 and a 7kWh for $3,000. That puts it in the range of a typical large home appliance.

This is an interesting move, and is earlier than I anticipated such a product would hit the market. I wonder if the market is ready. There are some indications that it may be.

For the homeowner there are two primary uses of a large home battery, one large enough that you can actually run your home, at least for a while. The first is as a backup device for when the power goes out. That in itself would be a useful function, as anyone who has ever lost power to their home can attest. Even if the power goes out for 12 hours or so before being restored, that is long enough to lose everything in your freezer. A day without power is a massive inconvenience, and can even be dangerous in the dead of winter, which is when most power outages occur in my part of the country. It doesn’t take long for the house to plunge into freezing temperatures.

The second use is as a method for using solar or wind produced energy more efficiently. Peak energy use does not coincide with peak sunshine. Right now that is not a big deal, as homes with solar installation are mostly just giving their solar produced electricity to the grid and then pulling from the grid as needed. However, as solar penetration increases we may get to the point that it is a significant contribution to the grid.

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Apr 30 2015

Neonicotinoids, GMOs, and Colony Collapse Disorder

A new propaganda point has entered the anti-GMO repertoire – that GMOs are killing the honey bees. This claim, like many of their claims, is highly misleading, as the actual cause is incidental to the technology of genetic modification or even its use. This hasn’t stopped headlines like this one from organicconsumers.org: GMOs Are Killing the Bees, Butterflies, Birds and . . . ?

This story follows a common strategy among the intellectually dishonest anti-GMO propaganda machine. The fact is, producing enough food to feed over 7 billion people (and growing) is not easy, and requires intensive high-yield farming. Farming, not surprisingly, is having an impact on the ecosystem. Just cutting down forests to make room for crops can have a huge effect, in addition to displacing native species. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of farming’s effect on the environment is that anytime you want to grow millions or even billions of something, critters will evolve to exploit that food source. Any attempt you make to fight back against those critters will inevitably result in resistance.

We face the same challenge with antibiotics. Crowding into cities, and the growing population of humans meant that bacteria who use humans for their lifecycle exploded, leading to outbreaks and epidemics of infectious diseases. Antibiotics have been a powerful weapon against bacterial infections, but evolution is relentless and has led increasingly to antibiotic resistance among bacteria pathogenic to humans and our livestock. This is a genuine dilemma, as we struggle to come up with new antibiotics, and enforce practices that reduce the emergence of resistance.

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Apr 29 2015

SGU 10 Hour Live Streaming Event

This Saturday, May 2nd, from noon to 10pm Eastern time, the SGU will be having a live video streaming event. This will be a 10 hour marathon to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the SGU.

You can watch the live video feed here. We are planning on recording the stream for later use as well. We will be taking live questions via Twitter at #SGULive.

Come join us in our newly refurbished skeptilair. We will be joined by in studio guests, George Hrab and Brian Wecht, and guests via Skype: Eugenie Scott, Dean Cameron, Phil Plait, Cara Santa Maria, Julia Galef, Richard Saunders, and Joe Schwarcz. There will be some surprise guests as well.

Fill your Saturday with science, skepticism, assorted random geekery, and a celebration of everything SGU.

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