Archive for October, 2013

Oct 08 2013

Kansas Citizens Sue to Reject Science

There’s some good news and some bad news. The good news is that 7 states have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), including Kansas. These science standards were developed by The National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve, and are a comprehensive and coordinated k-12 science curriculum.

This is an excellent attempt to provide a consistent high standard across the 50 states. The states each adopt their own science standards, with most not doing a great job. This is one area where it is probably not necessary to reinvent the wheel 50 times – science is generally a consensus-building exercise, and at the k-12 level students should be learning basic science that is all well-established. I think it is a great idea to have a consortium of scientific organizations create standards that states can then adopt, without having to duplicate the work themselves.

It is also heartening that Kansas is one of the first seven states to adopt the standards. Frankly, they can use it.

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Oct 07 2013

A Problem with Open Access Journals

Published by under General Science

In a way the internet is a grand bargain, although one that simply emerged without a conscious decision on the part of anyone. It greatly increases communication, lowers the bar for content creation and distribution, and allows open access to vast and deep databases of information. On the other hand, the traditional barriers of quality control are reduced or even eliminated, leading to a “wild west” of information. As a result it is already a cliche to characterize our current times as the “age of misinformation.”

For someone like me, a social-media skeptic, I feel the cut of both edges quite deeply. With podcasts, blogs, YouTube videos, and other content, I can create a network of content creation and distribution that can compete with any big media outlet. I can use these outlets to correct misinformation, analyse claims, engage in debates, and debunk fraud and myths.

On the other hand, the fraud, myths, and misinformation are multiplying at frightening rates on the very same platforms. It is difficult to gauge the net effect – perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

For this post I will discuss one of the most disturbing trends emerging from the internet phenomenon – the proliferation of poor quality science journals, specifically open access journals.  The extent of this problem was recently highlighted by a “sting” operation recently published by Science magazine.

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Oct 04 2013

CAM Research – Be Careful What You Wish For

Edzard Ernst is the first professor of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). He began 20 years ago as a CAM enthusiast, and a trained homeopath, and genuinely wanted to point the critical eye of science onto CAM. Many CAM proponents claim this, but Ernst was different in a key respect – he wanted to use rigorous scientific research to find out if CAM worked, not to prove that it does.

He recently wrote about his 20 years of CAM research, and eloquently makes this point. He writes:

Unfortunately, we also had a few co-workers who, despite of our best efforts, proved to be unable of critical thinking, and more than once this created unrest, tension and trouble. When I analyse these cases in retrospect, I realise how quasi-religious belief  must inevitably get in the way of good science. If a person is deeply convinced about the value of his/her particular alternative therapy and thus decides to become a researcher in order to prove his/her point, serious problems are unavoidable.

Problems are indeed unavoidable. There is a problem with researcher bias and publication bias in medical research. Science magazine also reports on a “sting” operation in which an author submitted a hopelessly flawed paper to 304 open access journals, with more than half accepting the paper for publication. There are plenty of places to publish terrible research that proves whatever point you wish to make.

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Oct 03 2013

Politics, Science Rejection, and Conspiracy Thinking

Even among self-identified skeptics and critical thinkers, there is the full spectrum of political ideology, and this varying world view does seem to color certain opinions. In my experience in the community, most skeptics eventually get to a similar place with regard to politically-charged scientific topics (logic and evidence do hold sway in the end), but they certainly start in different places. There is also the occasional skeptic who, while displaying critical thinking in most areas, retains a sacred cow or two associated with their political world view.

A recent study explores the issue of political worldview, conspiracy thinking, and the acceptance or rejection of certain scientific topics. Stephen Lewandowsky et al published the study in PLOSOne, The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science

The study essentially looks for association between a free market ideology, conservatism, and conspiracy thinking as these world views relate to acceptance or rejection of vaccine safety, global warming, and acceptance of GMO (genetically modified organisms). A number of interesting and not-so-surprising findings emerged.

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Oct 01 2013

New IPCC Report on Climate Change

Published by under General Science

Whether or not the planet is warming due to human activity is a very important question. That is perhaps the one statement on which everyone agrees. Beyond that we have the usual conflict between mainstream science and motivated reasoning, denialism, industry apologists, and contrarians. Stuck in the middle are sincere skeptics who have not managed to wade through the tsunami of misinformation.

This is the 5th report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) assembled by the UN. The point of this panel is to provide usable information to the UN, and the governments of the world, through robust scientific consensus. They describe the working group as:

A total of 209 Lead Authors and 50 Review Editors from 39 countries and more than 600 Contributing Authors from 32 countries contributed to the preparation of Working Group I AR5.

That sounds pretty robust to me. Of course, consensus is not always correct in retrospect, but the whole point of building a consensus is that it is more likely to be correct than the quirky opinions of any individual or small group. Personal bias, error, skewed perspectives, and misinformation should all average out and the result should, hopefully, reasonably reflect the actual scientific evidence.

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