Archive for November, 2016

Nov 08 2016

Massimo Pigliucci Responds on GMOs

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

Scientists examining crops in field

I always enjoy when someone whom I respect and who cares about using careful and valid arguments disagrees with me. It is an opportunity for me to correct any mistakes I have made, to deepen my understanding of the topic, or at least tighten up my arguments.

Last week I wrote an article responding to a recent New York Times piece on GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Massimo Pigliucci, who is a friend and skeptical colleague, disagrees with my analysis. Massimo thinks that knee-jerk defense of GMOs is a problem generally in the skeptical movement, and uses me as an example. I disagree with him, but will discuss that toward the end.

I want to take the points that I make in my previous post one by one and see how they hold up to Massimo’s criticism, and may expand upon them and include other comments as well.

GMOs should not be considered as one thing.

I wrote in my previous article:

“Any meaningful analysis of GM technology has to consider each application unto itself. Further, the GM trait is only part of the picture – you also have to consider how it is being applied.”

I have consistently taken this position in my writings, and this is also the most common position I encounter when reading other skeptics writing about GMOs. It is not really meaningful to consider GMOs as if they are one thing, and this is a mistake that Hakim makes in the original NYT article.

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Nov 07 2016

The Dr. Strange Narrative

Published by under Culture and Society

doctor-strange-2I saw the latest Marvel Studios movie, Dr. Strange, last night with a large crowd of friends, many of whom are fellow skeptics. Overall I enjoyed the movie – the acting was very good, there was plenty of good eye candy, and some interesting plot elements. I always enjoy Cumberbatch, although his fake American accent was not great.

For those who are not familiar with the comic book character and have not yet seen the movie, there are some massive spoilers ahead. However, if you have seen the trailer I am probably not going to reveal more that was in there.

As often happens when skeptics see science fiction and fantasy movies, there is a discussion about how the movie treated skeptics and skepticism. There are always two basic sides in the discussion, and individuals can hold both views simultaneously. On the one hand it is disappointing to see the same tired Hollywood tropes about science and belief. On the other hand, the movie is clearly escapist fantasy and therefore should not be held to any standard of realism.

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Nov 04 2016

Reproducibility is Critical

Published by under Skepticism

Part of expertise comes from doing something for so long, so many times, that you see patterns that might not be immediately apparent. I have been doing the skeptical thing for over 20 years, and one of the things I really enjoy about being an all-purpose skeptic, as I like to call it, is that I can see patterns of thought, argument, and behavior among disparate beliefs.

The anomaly hunting of ghosthunters is the same as the anomaly hunting of 911 truthers.

One very dominant pattern that I see on a frequent basis is the tendency to cite preliminary evidence as if it is rock-solid and confirmed. People will worry about the health effects of GMOs or vaccines because of a few flawed studies. They will promote the health benefits of a supplement based upon a preclinical study that is many steps removed from actual clinical claims. They will accept a new phenomenon as real based on studies that have never been replicated.

To put this into its broadest context, we need to think explicitly about the relationship between levels of scientific evidence and how much we should accept those results. When do we conclude that a scientific finding is probably real? For applied sciences like medicine this has a very practical form – when do we recommend a treatment?

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Nov 03 2016

Two Emerging Digital Technologies

Published by under Technology

virtual-realityI have long maintained that it is extremely difficult to predict how new technologies will be used, more difficult than predicting the technologies themselves. New technologies tend to be used differently than they are initially conceived. The human element is the hardest to predict – how will people interact with the technology?

It’s still fun to imagine how new technologies will be used, and that is part of the process of developing applications for those technologies.

There are two emerging digital technologies about which I am willing to make predictions, partly because we are already getting some early indications of consumer acceptance and use: virtual/augmented reality and unstructured data management.

Virtual and Augmented Reality

Virtual Reality refers to systems that provide full sensory input (at least full visual input) to create a virtual world in which the user can operate. Augmented reality overlays digital information onto the real world. These two related technologies complement each other.

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Nov 01 2016

Tesla’s Solar Shingles

Published by under Technology

tesla-solar-shinglesI revealed recently on the SGU that I have had solar panels placed on my roof. This is something I have been thinking about for a while, but was putting off mainly because I was waiting for the next big solar breakthrough. I eventually came to accept the fact that improvements in solar efficiency and cost were continuous and incremental, and there would probably not be any significant game changer, so there was no reason to wait.

I decided to go with a company that assumes all the installation costs and then sells you the electricity for cheaper than what the power company is charging. This can be tricky, and you need to do some research before you commit to a contract. It may be more advantageous for you to buy or lease your solar panels, if you can afford the upfront costs or financing.

If you decide to go with a contract like I did you need to make sure your state has good net metering laws. This means you will get full credit for any electricity you put back into the grid. You also need to read the fine print, and make sure that your electricity prices won’t increase dramatically after an initial period.

I was pleasantly surprised that, living in Connecticut, my roof could hold more than enough solar panels to produce 100% of the electricity I consume averaged over a year. So, for no upfront cost I get cheaper electricity and a lowered carbon footprint. Continue Reading »

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