Archive for January, 2014

Jan 13 2014

The GMO Narrative and Abstinence Only Farming

Nathaniel Johnson over at Grist has written a series of articles on genetically modified organisms (GMO). As an investigative journalist he decided to do what I call a “deep dive” on this one issue to try to sort out fact from fiction, and which side (anti or pro) has the better arguments. He acknowledges that this was a journey of discovery and he was learning as he went along.

His most recent article, I think, is the most interesting: What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters. In this latest installment he discusses the meta-lessons he learned in his journey through GMO – which seem to me like core skeptical principles. His article is an eloquent discussion of these principles, worth a read in its entirety, but I will further discuss here.

The main thing that Johnson learned is that people generally do not arrive at and defend positions based upon a careful analysis of the facts. Rather they have a narrative that fits their world view, and they defend that narrative despite the facts. This, of course, is familiar territory for skeptics.

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Jan 09 2014

Smoking – Some Good and Bad News

I am extremely anti-smoking for numerous reasons, but primarily because it is one of the most preventable causes of death and disease. Over my lifetime the cultural attitude toward smoking has changed significantly, mostly for the better.

I was born in 1964, the same year that the US Surgeon General came out with his report about the health risks of smoking, leading in part to the famous Surgeon General’s warning on every pack of cigarettes. I was a child in the time of Mad Men, when every adult seemed to smoke. I hated it.

Now I rarely see anyone smoking. It is not allowed at all where I work (a hospital), in restaurants, on airplanes, or in most public places. This is definitely a change for the better.

A recent report looks at the decline of smoking in the US, and estimates that 8 million lives were saved from decreasing smoking rates since the Surgeon General’s report in 1964. This new reports comes out at the same time as the American Cancer Society annual report on cancer deaths and survival. There is more good news here – cancer deaths are down overall by 20% over the last 20 years.

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Jan 07 2014

The Society for Science-Based Medicine

Are you someone who:

– Thinks that medical interventions that are safe and effective are better than those that are unsafe or ineffective?

– Thinks that rigorously and fairly applied scientific evidence is the best way to tell the difference?

– Thinks that the public should have some basic protections against health fraud?

– Would prefer accurate health information to marketing spin and frank pseudoscience?

– Doesn’t rely on celebrities for health-care advice?

– Ever tried to commit suicide with homeopathic pills?

– Has a chill run down your spine whenever you see the word “quantum” applied to a health claim or remedy?

Well, then the Society for Science-Based Medicine (SSBM) might be right for you.

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Jan 06 2014

The Salinas Crop Circle

I can’t resist this excellent example of the human capacity for ad-hoc reasoning and pattern recognition. The Salinas Crop Circle was discovered in late December, and instantly became famous in the crop circle world. It is an example of a complex design, that begs to be interpreted.

Crop circle believers – those who think the designs that are often found drawn in various crops around the world (curiously following cultural lines) are the product of aliens trying to communicate in their abstruse way with humans, like to find meaning in the crop circles. This becomes an exercise in pattern recognition, as they are often trying to find meaning where none exists.

Here is one example. The author, assuming the crop circle is an alien communication, comes up with an elaborate interpretation. He believes it refers to comet ISON, which recently burned up on its journey around the sun. This itself is a good example of “retrodicting.” I would be more impressed if a crop circle predicted something yet to be discovered.

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Jan 02 2014

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

Published by under Neuroscience

I love windows into other times and places – especially those that offer insight into different world views. How did people really think and feel in the past? We know that standards and sensibilities change over time, but still it can be shocking to see an example of just how much things have changed.

My wife, born in 1964, was given such a window by her mother, who had dutifully saved many keepsakes from her childhood. One keepsake was a school journal, with one page dedicated to each year of grade school, starting with kindergarten. The template for each year is the same, which you can see to the right.

Take a look at the bottom of the form – it asks what they want to be when they grow up, and helpfully provides suggestions for each gender. Parents will playfully ask young children what they want to be when they grow up, knowing that they are far too young to make such decisions. The parents anticipate an answer that is cute, but also perhaps hope it will provide some insight into their child’s likes and personality.

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