Archive for May, 2018

May 11 2018

The Evolution of Baleen Whales

A recent survey finds that knowledge of evolution correlates with acceptance of evolution. This was widely reported as suggesting that educating the public about evolution could lead to higher rates of acceptance. Sure, but to be clear the survey does not actually show this. We can also interpret the same data to suggest that acceptance of evolution leads to greater knowledge of it.

This latter interpretation makes sense in light of the fact that there is a tremendous amount of misinformation about evolution from creationist sources. If you are anti-evolution for ideological reasons, you are likely to be highly misinformed about the science because your rely on secondary hostile creationist sources for your information. If you accept the scientific consensus on evolution, you may be more likely to avail yourself of legitimate scientific sources of information.

But probably both factors are at play, and we certainly should strive to improve public education about evolutionary science. It is a complex and subtle science that is poorly understood by the public. The survey also found that 68% of those surveyed failed to demonstrate a basic knowledge of evolutionary theory. And it is certainly easier to spread misinformation about a science the public generally does not understand. In this case knowledge would be a good defense against propaganda.

It is also true that the evidence for the basic fact that life on Earth is the result of evolutionary processes is a scientific home run. It is a phenomenally well-established fact, with no viable competing theory. This often creates the naive belief among those with a solid understanding of evolution and the evidence for it that if they could only explain that evidence to a typical creationist, they will win them over with the massive force of that evidence. That does sometimes happen, but more often evidence is no match for motivated reasoning.

With all that said, I am still going to write about the evidence for evolution in the hopes of nudging public acceptance even a little.

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May 10 2018

False Dichotomy and Science Denial


Psychologist Jeremy Shapiro has an interesting article on RawStory in which he argues that one of the pillars of science denial is the false dichotomy. I agree, and this point is worth exploring further. He also points out that the same fallacy in thinking is common in several mental disorders he treats.

The latter point may be true, but I don’t see how that adds much to our understanding of science denial, and may be perceived as inflammatory. For example, he says that borderline personality disorder clients often split the people in their world into all bad or all good. If you do one thing wrong, then you are a bad person. Likewise, perfectionists often perceive that any outcome or performance that is less than perfect gets lumped into one category of unsatisfactory.

I do think these can be useful examples to show how dichotomous thinking can lead to or at least support a mental disorder. Part of the goal of therapy for people with these disorders is cognitive therapy, to help them break out of their pattern of approaching the world as a simple dichotomy. But we have to be careful not to imply that science denial itself is a mental illness or disorder.

Denialism and False Dichotomy

A false dichotomy is a common logical fallacy in which many possibilities, or a continuum of possibilities, is rhetorically collapsed into only two choices. People are either tall or short, there is no other option. There are just Democrats and Republicans.

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May 08 2018

Stephen Hawking’s Parting Shot

Published by under Astronomy

In the excellent series, Rick and Morty, the scientist Rick Sanchez invented a portal gun that allows him to jump into any of the infinite number of universes. This is a great plot device that allows for many funny and absurd scenarios. There are also parts of this idea that are not implausible, according to cosmologists.

Stephen Hawking, with coauthor Thomas Hertog, had something to say about the multi-universe theory in his final paper published 10 days prior to his death. The paper, 20 years in the making, reverses some of Hawking’s earlier positions and also, if ultimately viable, still leaves much work to be done.

This is one of those scientific arguments that is incomprehensible in its language and math outside of a small group of experts. I have no hope of reading and understanding the original paper. But I will do my best to pull together translations of the basic concepts.

In this paper Hawking and Hertog are reversing one idea introduced by Hawking many years ago, that the universe is finite but unbound in time. This is literally impossible to imagine, but his analogy is to think of how being unbound but finite in space works. Imagine the surface of a ball. You can walk around the surface and never reach an end, but that surface is finite because it is curved back in on itself. What if time worked the same way? The life of our universe is a finite time loop, with no edge.

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May 07 2018

The Waking Dead

Amid a continuous stream of terrible science news reporting, this one stands out from MSN: ‘Miracle’ Boy Wakes After Parents Sign Organ Donation Papers and Days of Being Brain-Dead. Actually the story is based on a local Fox news report. Everyone involved in these stories should be placed in the journalists penalty box.

This is a standard fluff narrative that comes up regularly – the person who wakes unexpectedly from a coma, or better yet, after being declared brain dead. There is a common pattern to the stories – you never get enough details to know what actually happened, but what details you do get do not hang together.

The basic facts of the case are this, 13-year-old Trenton McKinley of Mobile Alabama was injured in a dune buggy accident. He suffered severe head injury. Apparently his prognosis was so poor at one point that the doctors talked with his parents about organ donation, and they agreed that if his heart stopped they would go through the organ donation procedure. In other words, they would harvest his organs.

However, before that happened Trenton began to show signs of improvement. He started to move, and then to become conscious. He is now in rehab, able to talk, and to walk with assistance.

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May 04 2018

Be Wary of Dubious Brain Cancer Study

We have yet another example of a scientifically complex study being mangled by the mainstream media, who simply do not have the chops to provide an adequate analysis. The Telegraph reports:

Fresh fears have been raised over the role of mobile phones in brain cancer after new evidence revealed rates of a malignant type of tumour have doubled in the last two decades.

They further report about the study:

They analysed 79,241 malignant brain tumours over 21 years, finding that cases of GBM in England have increased from around 1,250 a year in 1995 to just under 3,000.

This sounds alarming. The mainstream reporting was not horrible (unlike some of the fearmongering by advocacy groups) but was completely inadequate to really put this study into context. The Science Media Center put together analysis from various experts, and the entire page is worth a read. It is a good demonstration of how to really analyze a scientific paper.

The Telegraph article does point out that this new study is looking at brain cancer incidence only, and did not present any data that correlates the risk of brain cancer with any specific risk factor. The paper only speculates about possible causes, including the rise in cell phone use. But that is just scratching the surface.

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May 03 2018

What the Flat-Earth Movement Tells Us

Whenever I write about flat-earthers, those who, incredibly, actually believe in the 21st century that the world is flat, there are multiple comments to the effect that we are just getting punked. No one really believes the world is flat, they are just saying that to wind us up, and we are taking the bait.

But this view is demonstrably wrong. I have actually encountered flat-earthers out in the wild, so to speak – in meat space. They really do seriously entertain the theory that the earth is flat. Harry T Dyer also reports recently in Raw Story about a three day convention of flat-earthers. They weren’t tongue-in-cheek having a laugh. They were dead serious.

I think the flat-earth deniers, if you will, are missing the point. They are approaching the issue like most people do initially – looking at the claims from a scientific point of view. From that angle the claims of flat-earthers are beyond absurd. They are so extremely ignorant and illogical that it seems reasonable to consider that either there is some psychological pathology involved, or it’s just a hoax.

There is no doubt that the belief that the earth is flat is rooted in a profound scientific illiteracy. It is not only ignorant of the findings of science, but also of the history of science, and any knowledge of the institutions of science and the participation of countless students and citizen scientists. But flat-eartherism is not about scientific illiteracy – meaning it is not merely a manifestation of profound ignorance of science (which is also why it cannot be corrected with scientific information). As Dyer also points out, belief in a flat earth is ultimately about rejecting institutional knowledge itself.

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May 01 2018

A Healthy Lifestyle Matters

I see patients nearly every day who sincerely want to live a healthy lifestyle. Most people want to be healthy and I don’t know anyone who is looking forward to a premature death from a preventable disease. That is why health products and advice are a huge market.

For those looking to adopt healthy habits there is good news and bad news. The good news is that we are among the first generations to have comprehensive scientific data to tell us how to do that. The bad news is that we are also living at a time of massive misinformation, and so many people get distracted from the real scientific answers by slick marketing and ideology.

There is even more good news – you already know the answer to healthy living, and it is mostly simple (maybe not easy, but simple). A new study now confirms with the largest set of epidemiological data on the topic to date what previous studies have already shown. There are five basic lifestyle factors that have a dramatic effect on longevity and the risk of death from heart disease, cancer, or other causes.

The researchers used two datasets –  Nurses’ Health Study (1980-2014; n=78,865) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (1986-2014, n=44,354), which means they have data from 34 years with 123,219 subjects. That’s a powerful study. They tracked the correlation between five lifestyle factors – healthy diet, regular exercise, lean body mass, not smoking, and limited alcohol use – with longevity and risk of dying. They found:

We estimated that the life expectancy at age 50 years was 29.0 years (95% CI, 28.3-29.8) for women and 25.5 years (95% CI, 24.7-26.2) for men who adopted zero low-risk lifestyle factors. In contrast, for those who adopted all 5 low-risk factors, we projected a life expectancy at age 50 years of 43.1 years (95% CI, 41.3-44.9) for women and 37.6 years (95% CI, 35.8-39.4) for men. The projected life expectancy at age 50 years was on average 14.0 years (95% CI, 11.8-16.2) longer among female Americans with 5 low-risk factors compared with those with zero low-risk factors; for men, the difference was 12.2 years (95% CI, 10.1-14.2).

So a 50 year old woman who drinks, smokes, is overweight, does not exercise regularly, and has a poor diet overall will die 14 years earlier than someone with none of those risk factors (and for men it is 12.2 years). That is significant. If you look at the full data, there is a fairly linear relationship between the number of risk factors and life expectancy – so each healthy lifestyle you adopt adds a couple years to your life expectancy.

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