Aug 11 2016

Do Superstitious Rituals Help Performance?

superstition-sportsWith the Olympics brings a great deal of attention to sports and sporting culture, including the latest fads that are sweeping athletes. It is well known that athletes, for example, are very superstitious, and it’s fun to talk about their crazy personal rituals.

A 2016 review of the literature confirms the association between sports and superstitions. They find that there are cultural and situational factors at play. The situational factors include:

In agreement with past theories, they increase with the level of challenge, as reflected by the importance of the competition, as well as with the level of uncertainty.

People engage in superstitious behavior to have a sense of control, and they need that sense of control when the stakes are high and uncertainty is high. This explains the observation that more elite athletes engage in more superstitious behavior.

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Comments: 16

Aug 09 2016

Making the Non-Existent Disappear

Hieronymus_Bosch_051If I told you I could make something nonexistent disappear, you probably would not be very impressed with that as a magic trick. However, magic is all about misdirection. If I could make you think you saw an object that was never there, and then make it disappear, that could be quite impressive.

Psychology and Magic

Increasingly psychologists, neuroscientists, and magicians are converging upon a model of how our brains construct our perceptions of reality. Magicians actually had a head start as they have been working out practical ways to fool human perception for centuries. Psychologists started taking note in the late 19th century, but really have only been seriously examining the techniques of magicians in the last decade or so. Psychologists now routinely use magic tricks as part of experimental setups.

The basic picture that has emerged is that our sensory perceptions have both bottom-up and top-down components. The bottom-up components are essentially using the raw sensory input and constructing an image from that, then passing that construction on to higher brain levels that interpret the image and give it emotional meaning. Top-down construction works the opposite way, with the higher brain areas communicating their expectations to the primary sensory areas and influencing their construction.

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Comments: 7

Aug 05 2016

Mike Pence Does Not Understand Evolution

Pence-EvolutionIt is my universal experience, after more than thirty years of confronting various forms of evolution denial or creationism, that creationists simply do not understand evolution. If any do understand it, they pretend not to. I guess they have no choice – they are motivated to deny an established scientific theory. They need to pretend they know better than the world’s experts, or that the world’s experts are lying and deceitful.

Mike Pence is a run-of-the-mill creationist. His denial of evolution is unremarkable and unimaginative, but now he is running for Vice President so his views serve as a ripe target for criticism. In a speech before the House he decided, for some reason, to go on a rant against evolution. For those who are interested, it is a good opportunity to play “name that logical fallacy” and you may want to watch the video and count the errors before reading ahead.

Pretty much everything Mike Pence says in the speech is wrong or misleading, except for trivial facts. He starts by setting the stage with Darwin publishing On the Origin of Species and presenting the theory of evolution. That evolution is just a “theory” is a main theme of his speech, which I will get to in a moment, but first he follows up by saying that Darwin expected his theory to be proven correct by the fossil record. He concludes that Darwin did not live to see this happen, and neither have we.

Is Evolutionary Theory Proven? Continue Reading »

Comments: 1,049

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 »

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