Dec 18 2018

Worst Pseudoscience of 2018

I don’t usually do lists, but I do find it interesting to look back over the past year and review major events and trends. It’s good for the memory, and the exercise always reminds me of how terrible memory is. I often realize that I forgot about major events, and also have a poor sense of how far in the past certain events occurred. (Was that this year or last year?)

So here are the pseudosciences from 2018 that I think deserve to be remembered. I am going to list them in no particular order, and just keep adding them until I run out of time.

Climate Change Denial

It does seem that 2018 may have been a bit of a turning point for the recognition that climate change is real, imminent, and deserving of far more attention and priority than we are giving it. There were multiple reports all agreeing that essentially the problem is worse than we thought, we have less time than we thought, and we better get cracking. The IPCC, for example, pointed out that even if we keep warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, an ambitious and probably not achievable goal, bad things will still happen, just not as bad if warming goes beyond that point. A US government report echoes this, adding that further warming will be economically damaging and it is cost-effective to prevent it rather than deal with the consequences.

Several surveys also show that people are increasing concerned about climate change. Even some conservatives admit they were wrong on climate change. Even the writers of South Park admitted their prior error in an apology series of episodes to Al Gore.

Therefore, perhaps the worse pseudoscientists of 2018 is anyone still denying that climate change is a real problem that needs to be dealt with. The denialist strategies have not changed – no, the Earth is not warming, well if it is it’s not due to human causes, well even if we are causing it the results won’t be bad, well even if they will be bad there is nothing we can do about it anyway, and whatabout China? Like all pseudosciences they start with the desired conclusion – that we don’t need to do anything about it, just keep burning fossil fuels, and then they reverse engineer a justification for that conclusion.

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Dec 17 2018

Belief in Santa

How old were you, if you ever believed in Santa, when you figured out he was not real? Is belief in Santa benign, beneficial, cruel, or ultimately harmful to the trust children place in adults? Many people have strong opinions about this, but we have little actual data. A recent survey adds some.

The survey is mainly asking adults about their childhood experiences with belief in Santa, so take that for what’s it’s worth, but here are the main results:

  • 34 per cent of people wished that they still believed in Santa with 50 per cent quite content that they no longer believe
  • Around 34 per cent of those who took part in the survey said believing in Father Christmas had improved their behaviour as a child whilst 47 per cent found it did not
  • The average age when children stopped believing in Father Christmas was 8.
  • There are significant differences between England and Scotland –
  • The mean age when people stop believing in Father Christmas was 8.03 for England and 8.58 in Scotland.
  • There was a difference in attitudes between England and Scotland, as to whether it is ok to lie to children about Santa – more people in Scotland than in England said it was ok to lie to children about Santa.
  • A total of 65 per cent of people had played along with the Santa myth, as children, even though they knew it wasn’t true.
  • A third of respondents said they had been upset when they discovered Father Christmas wasn’t real, while 15 per cent had felt betrayed by their parents and ten per cent were angry.
  • Around 56 per cent of respondents said their trust in adults hadn’t been affected by their belief in Father Christmas, while 30 per cent said it had.
  • A total of 31 per cent of parents said they had denied that Santa is not true when directly asked by their child, while 40 per cent hadn’t denied it if they are asked directly.
  • A total of 72 per cent of parents are quite happy telling their children about Santa and playing along with the myth, with the rest choosing not to.

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Dec 14 2018

More Evidence Organic Farming is Bad

I know I have been hitting this topic frequently recently, but I can’t ignore a major study published in Nature. The study is not just about organic farming, but about how we use land and implications for climate change, specifically carbon sequestration. The core idea is this – when we consider land use and its impact on the climate, we also have to consider the opportunity cost of not using the land in a more useful way. This echoes a previous study by different authors I discussed five months ago, and a review article by still different authors I discussed three months ago.

There certainly does now seem to be a growing consensus that we have to think very carefully about how we use land in order to minimize any negative impact on the environment, and specifically limit carbon in the atmosphere driving climate change.

The new study essentially argues that we need to use land optimally. If land is well suited to growing corn, then we should grow corn. If it is better suited for forestation, then we should allow forests to grow there and not convert it to farmland. Forests sequester a lot more carbon than farmland, and this is a critical component to any overall strategy to mitigate climate change. The authors calculate that land use contributes, “about 20 to 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.”

If we put the various studies I have been discussing together, a compelling image emerges. First, we need to consider that we are already using all the best farmland to grow crops. Any expansion of our farmland will by necessity be using less and less optimal land for farming. This translates to a greater negative impact on the climate. However, our food production needs will grow by about 50% by 2050.

This is a strong argument, in my opinion, against biofuels. We need that land to grow food, not fuel – unless we can source biofuels from the ocean or industrial vats without increasing land use.

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Dec 13 2018

Delay School Start Times

Living in a complex society means that some decisions are made for us. In a representative democracy, this means our elected officials, at every level, can have incredible power over our lives. The social contract, however, is that these elected officials should know what they are doing, act in the public interest, listen to their constituents, and engage in due diligence based on valid evidence-based processes. Well, that’s the ideal, and it’s pretty clear that we generally fall far short.

One limitation is that people are flawed and have complex motivations and often fall prey to ideology. However, there is also a collective problem of political will, with often perverse incentives baked into the system itself.

These inherent flaws in the system become increasingly frustrating as there are obviously better ways to do things, and yet we can’t seem to get out of our own way. On the bright side it is possible to slowly build the political will in response to a growing body of evidence. Scientific evidence on the risks of second-hand smoke, for example, supported the political will to ban smoking in many public locations, which has led to an improvement in health.

But there are other areas where the science is increasingly clear, the arguments seem one-sided, and yet we seem to be stuck in paralysis. Changing from Daylight Savings time to Standard time is hazardous. It is linked to worse sleep, more accidents, and even more heart attacks. There is also no good reason for the change. It’s just dumb. It seems that we are long past the time of having enough evidence, arguments, and political will to just ditch the change – so what’s the holdup?

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Dec 11 2018

Study – Mental Activity Does Not Prevent Decline

There has been a very interesting debate going on in neuroscience over the impact of so-called “brain training” activities and cognitive ability and decline. No one study, of course, is ever going to be the final word on this debate, but a new study does add one more piece to the puzzle. Unfortunately it shows that increased mental engagement (doing puzzles, engaging in problem solving, etc.) does not alter the course of mental decline in later years.

But let’s back up and frame the question a bit more. The overarching question is – what is the effect on the brain and on cognitive ability from engaging in various kinds of mental activity? A cottage industry has risen out of one extreme end of opinion on this question, the notion that certain kinds of mental activity could have wide ranging benefits. This is the “brain training” claim – doing specially designed puzzles will make you smarter, and maybe even prevent dementia.

Although Lumosity often gets cited for making these claims, I think it started much earlier, in the 1990’s with the Baby Mozart movement. In 1993 a short paper was published in Nature, involving a small number of college students who were either exposed to classical music or just relaxation. They were then tested with a paper folding task, and those who listened to the music did a litter better. This was a small preliminary study in college students showing a very narrow effect. Yet somehow this tiny and insignificant paper was used to create the myth of the so-called “Mozart effect” – that children who are exposed to classical music will become generally smarter.

Later studies showed no such effect, but the genie was out of the bottle. A cottage industry of “Baby Mozart” and “Baby Einstein” (because, why not?) products still thrive to this day. This spawned a more general claim that mental activity can “train your brain” to make you generally smarter.

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Dec 10 2018

To Screen Or Not To Screen

Should you regularly see a physician for preventive medicine and to screen to potential health problems? Of course, and this has been consistent messaging to the public for decades. However, specific decisions about whether or not to perform a specific screening test can be complicated, and this muddies the messaging.

The problem is that there is a disconnect between how optimal medical decisions are made, and how individuals approach their own medical care (or that of their loved-ones). Optimal medical decision-making, which results in the best possible outcomes, are based on careful analysis of the best evidence available. Specifically, it considers risk vs benefit – what is the net effect of doing, or not doing, any medical intervention compared to the alternatives? This is necessarily a statistical determination, because we cannot literally see the future.

But people don’t like making cold, hard statistical decisions, especially about something as personal and important as health care. They prefer to prioritize hope. Also, people tend to be risk-averse, but also wish to avoid missing out on a potential benefit. Therefore, psychologically we will tend to go for the option that offers the most hope, not the option that has the statistical best outcome. This is part of the role of the physician – to advise their patients with the hard analysis.

All this is just considering individual decisions, but increasingly we are making societal decisions. These often include cost-effectiveness. This is because we are resource-limited, and decisions about what health care to provide and how to provide it has a dramatic impact on, again, statistical outcomes. If you are on the board of health of a state deciding how to spend your Medicare dollars, then you have to decide, for example, to pay for one liver transplant to save one life, or more basic medical care that might save hundreds of lives for the same money.

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Dec 07 2018

Real Ion Drives in Mercury Probe

Most Star Wars fans know that the name of the iconic TIE fighters is an acronym standing for “Twin ion engines.” Most space fans know that ion engines are real, but are nothing like what we see in the movies.

There is a disappointing disconnect between science fiction and science reality when it comes to space travel. The unfortunate reality is that space travel is really hard, so most science fiction simply makes up super-advanced spaceships with highly unrealistic capabilities. There is artificial gravity, impervious shielding, faster-than-light travel, and seemingly inexhaustible fuel. Only hard science fiction, like the recent show Expanse (which I highly recommend) deals with the reality of even future space travel.

It’s tempting to think that, yeah but this is future or at least very advanced technology, so it’s not unrealistic for that tech. That is the disappointing part – when you realize that, yeah, it is. We won’t be zipping around the galaxy in 200 years. It will still be a challenge to zip around the solar system.

There is some basic physics in the way. First, the human body can only take so much acceleration for so long. To get up to really fast speeds quickly, however, you need acceleration that will challenge human physiology. Optimally, ships will accelerate at a comfortable 1g. This will also solve the lack of gravity thing.

But this gets us to the second problem – maintaining that acceleration requires a massive amount of fuel. There is also something known as the fuel equation, because you need fuel to carry the fuel to carry the fuel, etc. So we have a few options.

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Dec 06 2018

Against Ideology

The skeptical movement has always struggled with some unavoidable ironies. We are like a group for people who don’t like to join groups. We actively tell our audience not to trust us (don’t trust any single source – verify with logic and evidence). Our belief is that you really should not have beliefs, only tentative conclusions. Essentially, our ideology is anti-ideology.

This is because scientific skepticism is not about any set of beliefs or conclusions. It is all about process, just like science itself – question, observe, analyze, repeat.

This approach is both empowering and freeing. One of the most common observations I hear from those who, after consuming skeptical media for a time, abandon some prior belief system or ideology, is that they feel as if a huge weight has been lifted from their shoulders. They feel free from the oppressive burden of having to support one side or ideology, even against evidence and reason. Now they are free to think whatever they want, whatever is supported by the evidence. They don’t have to carry water for their “team”.

At the same time, this is one of the greatest challenges for skeptical thinking, because it seems to run upstream against a strong current of human nature. We are tribal, we pick a side and defend it, especially if it gets wrapped up in our identity or world-view.

All of the recent hand-wringing about fake news and a post-fact world is largely about an increase in this partisanship. People use motivated reasoning to defend their ideology against the intrusion of reality, and hyper-partisanship leads to hyper-motivated reasoning. It’s also about echochambers – ideological bubbles of information that reinforce our tribe and demonize all others. These echochambers are essentially institutionalized motivated reasoning, prepackaged misinformation and rationalizations.

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Dec 04 2018

Foodbabe Fails – Blames Astroturfing

Many people are complaining that CNN, in reporting on the recent E. coli outbreak on romaine lettuce, had The Food Babe (Vani Hari) on as a food “expert.” This, of course, is a complete journalistic failure on the part of CNN. The Food Babe is a famously scientifically illiterate alarmist whose career is based on peddling misinformation. My favorite example is when she completely misunderstood the nature of pressure in airline cabins, and complained that the air was tainted with up to 50% nitrogen.

As important as this complete scientific failure, was her response. She did not transparently correct the misinformation and apologize. She simply deleted the post.

Hari has come under extensive criticism for spouting her nonsense and fearmongering. She is perhaps most famous for her “yoga mat” stunt, completely misunderstanding the fact that chemicals can be used for a variety of reasons, and that does not make them dangerous.

Her general response to criticism is to (in addition to hiding) go on the attack. She does not appear to be an honest broker of information, but rather a self-promoter who will attack her critics. She also likes to ban critics from her own page. So when the internet complained to CNN that the Food Babe was not an appropriate person to have on their program to be presented as an expert, Hari did what she does – she went on the attack.

Her tactic this time is to blame the whole affair on “astroturfing.” This is a real phenomenon in which an industry, company, cult, or ideological group will create the impression of a grassroots campaign using front organizations and paid agents. However, this isn’t the whole story.

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Dec 03 2018

Taking A Second Look at Hydrogen

There seems to be increasing awareness (and perhaps weakening denial) that we are standing at a critical moment in the history of our civilization. A problem has been looming for decades and we have largely ignored it. Now the effects are starting to be felt, and scientific confidence has only grown stronger over time.

I am talking, of course, about global climate change. There are still significant stragglers, but there is general consensus in the world that we need to urgently decarbonize our civilization. This is definitely one of the greatest challenges that our generation faces, and many suspect the future will judge us largely by how we meet this challenge.

Many groups have rolled up their sleeves, not to just advocate for one or another potential solution, but to chart viable pathways to a zero carbon infrastructure. The bad news is, it won’t be easy and it will cost trillions of dollars. The good news is, we already have the necessary technology and it will save many more trillions of dollars, not to mention disrupted and shortened lives.

A recent article in the Economist goes over the big picture, making a plug for a significant role of hydrogen. They make the good point that we can’t just think about power generation and cars, we have to also think about industry.

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