Archive for January, 2020

Jan 17 2020

Personality Test Pseudoscience – Swedish Edition

Published by under Neuroscience

Our skeptical colleagues over in Sweden have been tackling one of the most popular pseudosciences there (thanks to Swedish Skeptics president Pontus Böckman for the heads up) – their “Fraudster of the year in 2018 was author Thomas Erikson for his book Surrounded by Idiots. The book popularized a dubious personality test known as DiSC, which uses four colors to characterize personality types, red, green blue, and yellow. The book is a best seller in Sweden and is now being exported to many languages. It is also incredibly popular in corporate culture.

Dan Katz, licensed psychologist and psychotherapist, does a great job of breaking down why Erikson’s claims are not based on science. I’m not going to repeat his article, just read the original. The short version is that Erikson has no qualifications, and the DiSC model is not based on any scientific evidence. The entire thing is a giant scam. What I do want to do is extend the discussion about personality tests in general.

The core scientific question behind any personality test is this – is there even such a thing as a personality type? The current best short scientific answer is – mostly no. But let’s get a bit deeper and more nuanced. First we need to distinguish personality traits from personality types. A personality trait is simply a behaviorial tendency that someone has that transcends any particular context and is consistent over long periods of time. Introversion/extroversion is probably the best established personality trait. The big five personality trait spectra that are the best established and are generally accepted by psychologists are OCEAN – openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

But we have to acknowledge that these are just cultural and scientific constructs. They are our best attempt at understanding some of the building blocks of personality, but we don’t know if they are bedrock, meaning that they are real neurological phenomena. My sense is that introversion/extroversion probably is a fundamental neurological phenomenon – one reason for this is that there are known genetic disorders that have extremely consistent extroversion personality traits.

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Jan 16 2020

Anti-Vaxxers Strike Back

This is going to be a long struggle, perhaps endless. Antivaxxers have been around since there have been vaccines, for over two hundred years, so there is no reason to expect they are going anywhere. Rather, we need an equally permanent anti-antivaxxer movement (otherwise known as the skeptical movement).

After the Disneyland measles outbreak, there has been political pressure to push back against antivaxxers and strengthen our vaccine requirements. This resulted, for example, in SB277 in California, a law to remove personal beliefs as a reason for vaccine exemption. The return of measles in the last few years (1,282 cases in 2019 in the US, more than 140,000 worldwide) has fueled similar push back. But the antivaxxers have not taken this lying down. They are now fired up to defend their debunked conspiracy theories and pseudoscience at the expense of public health.

A recent clash in New Jersey shows the intensity on both sides. Bill S2173 narrowly failed in the senate amid vocal protests by the antivaxxers. The bill would have removed religious exemptions for vaccine requirements for schools and daycare. In order to save the bill, proponents amended it to apply only to public schools, but this only cost more support as some senators correctly pointed out this will only concentrate the unvaccinated in private schools and result in more outbreaks. Proponents of the bill vow to revise it and try again.

It’s clear that there is now intensity on both sides. One side, however, is completely wrong, something I rarely say but there are issues where this is clearly true. Antivaxxers claim, falsely, that vaccines don’t work, they cause more harm than good, they are linked to autism and other serious complications, and even that there is a corporate-government conspiracy to hide these facts. Debunking these claims will take many many articles, but fortunately I and my colleagues have already written them. You can look through here and also here for articles addressing pretty much every antivaxxer claim. But it is an unfortunate reality that there is always an asymmetry in these cases, because it takes much more time and effort to debunk a false claim than to make it in the first place.

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Jan 14 2020

Communicating The Consensus

Published by under General Science

Science communication is an evolving art, backed by some interesting research. However, my overall take on the state of the research is that it is mostly telling us the various ways in which we fail, rather than how to succeed. The latest target if scicomm handwringing is “consensus messaging.” How do we, and should we, communicate the scientific consensus to the public?

This issue is probably most salient to communication about global warming. Those who deny the scientific consensus on AGW frequently deny that there is a consensus and/or deny that a scientific consensus is even meaningful. How should we address this situation. In 2018 Russil argued that consensus messaging is generally ineffective. Instead we should focus on the victims of climate change:

“If we recognize that climate change danger will be mediated by questions of migration, dislocation and refuge, and if climate change communication abandons the legacy of consensus messaging to involve those affected by danger, how might our work unfold differently?”

It’s fine to try new approaches, but my problem with this argument is that essentially nothing works when it comes to changing minds on AGW, and so the fact that any one strategy does not work doesn’t really tell us anything about that strategy, or favor any other.

The concept of consensus does, in fact, exist in science. I wrote about it previously here and here. If the vast majority of scientists agree on some scientific conclusion, that is a consensus. That much is historically undeniable, so the strategy is often to switch to the position that a consensus is meaningless. That’s not how science works. To bolster this position often an example of when a scientific consensus was wrong is brought up. These examples, however, never work to establish the anti-consensus position.

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Jan 13 2020

Light and Satellite Pollution

Published by under Astronomy

(Side note: I  had a small injury to my dominant index finger which is slowing down my typing considerably. My blog posts may be shorter than usual this week.)

When I was recently in New Zealand and Australia, I tried very hard to get a good look at the Southern sky. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. Over a period of two weeks I had really one opportunity, and I had to drive 40 minutes out of town to do it. It really drove home for me how bad light pollution has become. Depending on where you live you may spend most of your life unable to see the night sky. A true dark sky experience is also amazing – only then do most people realize what they are missing.

We are now realizing that the ability to see the night sky is a resource, one we did not collectively realize we were sacrificing for the convenience (and even safety) of lighting. No one made this decision, it evolved organically. But now we have to make a risk-reward calculation and decide how best to balance our lighting needs with preserving the dark sky as a natural resource.

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Jan 10 2020

The Polio Dilemma

In 1988 there were 350,000 cases of polio worldwide. Polio is a virus that attacks the nervous system and can cause paralysis. Effective vaccines had already significantly reduced polio cases in developed nations, but it was still a scourge in poor countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) and others formed the Global Polio Eradication Initiative with the goal of eradicating polio from the world by the year 2000. They were partly successful. Their massive vaccine campaigns reduced the number of cases to 719 by 2000, and by a total of 99.99%, to just 33 cases in 2018. But the program failed to completely eradicate polio, and in this case close (while still a great reduction in disease) is not enough.

Polio is a virus that has the potential to be eradicated, meaning completely eliminated from the world, because there is no non-human reservoir. Other viruses, like ebola, can spread in animals, which makes it impossible to eradicate from the world just by vaccinating humans. So eradicating polio is an achievable goal, and we got real close in 2002. Wild cases of polio were limited to three countries, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Elimination failed in these countries entirely because of political unrest which itself resulted in anti-vaccine sentiments. The vaccine program was portrayed as a Western conspiracy, reducing compliance.

Since that time the GPEI has been fighting a somewhat losing battle, unable to snuff out the last embers of polio. Unfortunately, in 2019 the effort has faced it worse year since 2000, because of continued political unrest, but also because biology has simply caught up to the effort. The story is a bit complex, but here is the overview.

There are three strains of polio virus, wild type 1, 2, and 3. The primary effort to eradicate polio was through a trivalent live attenuated virus vaccine, one that contains weakened versions of all three polio strains. A live virus vaccine uses viruses that have been genetically gimped, so they can cause a mild infection and strong immunity, but are not virulent enough to cause any disease. There is an advantage and disadvantage to live virus over a killed virus or viral particle vaccine. The live virus in this case causes stronger immunity, enough to fully prevent the shedding and spread of virus. So this is most useful in an eradication campaign, as opposed to simply one trying to minimize disease.

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Jan 07 2020

Carbon Efficiency of Electric Cars

Published by under Technology

Arguments about which technology is the most energy and carbon efficient over their entire lifetime are good ones to have. This is where the conversation should be focusing, not rehashing questions that are not currently scientifically controversial. But the debate about life cycle efficiency is complex, and often gets abused or misunderstood. We face these questions from biofuels to solar, wind energy, and all-electric vehicles.

With regard to electric vehicles, for example, it is not enough that they do not emit carbon from a tailpipe. We have to consider the energy used and carbon released during the entire manufacturing process, including sourcing the raw material. We also need to consider the source of energy used to charge the vehicle, and what happens to the battery at the end of its lifetime. This is a difficult assessment to make, and every study that attempts to do so must make a number of assumptions which affect the outcome.

The result is many studies with a range of outcomes based on different techniques and assumptions used. This is a common situation in science, and what is typically done is to look at the full range of study outcomes, which should follow somewhat of a bell curve of results, and see where the peak is. It does not make sense to rely upon individual studies that are out by either tail – these are literally outliers. So bottom line – what do these studies show? They indicate that over the entire lifetime of an electric vehicle, under most driving conditions, they produce less carbon than an average gas vehicle, and hover around the efficiency of a gas-electric hybrid. The greatest individual determining variable is the source of the electricity (“fuel cycle” in the chart).

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Jan 06 2020

Zeroing In on Memories

Published by under Neuroscience

How do memories work? That has been a burning question for over a century, since Richard Semon introduced the term “Engram” in the early 20th century as the fundamental unit of memory in the brain. I should say, that is how long the question existed in its modern neuroscientific form. Thinking about the nature of memory goes back to the early Greek philosophers. In fact we have evidence that they figured out pretty quickly that the brain was central to cognitive function:

Yet an important development in Hellenistic medicine should not remain unmentioned: the discovery, by the Alexandrian anatomists Herophilus and Erasistratus (late fourth/early third century BCE), of the nervous system, of the central role of the brain in cognition and locomotion and the observation, by Herophilus, of the various ventricles within the brain.

Of course, the ancient philosophers also thought that we had souls and that memory and thinking were fundamentally a process of the soul. But the soul had to live somewhere in the body, and to interface with the physical body, and early observations suggested it lived in the brain. This debate carried forward to Medieval times. In the time of the great physician, Galen, the primary debate was whether or not the memories of the soul lived in the heart (cardiocentric view) or the brain (encephalocentric view). Galen himself took the encephalocentric view, that memories and reason are in the brain, but felt that other functions, such as emotion, were in the heart. This is a belief that still resonates with our culture today (amazing how persistent ideas can be).

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Jan 03 2020

Golden Rice Approved in Philippines

Published by under Technology

This is a quick follow up in the golden rice story (golden rice is a GM rice with added beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A). I have written about it here, here, and most recently here. The news is that the Philippines have just approved golden rice as safe for human and animal consumption. The US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have already approved golden rice, but these approvals were symbolic and none of those countries would actually need to grow it. The Philippines is the first nation that both consumes large amounts of rice and suffers from large numbers of vitamin A deficiency to approve this GM crop, meaning that they intend to actually grow and eat it. There is still one more step before the rice will be grown:

“The Philippine Rice Research Institute and the International Rice Research Institute will now carry out taste tests as they seek approval for farmers to grow specific strains commercially.”

This is good news, the approval of golden rice is grinding forward despite dedicated opposition from anti-GMO groups. As I discuss in more detail in the earlier articles, both the opposition and approval are partly because golden rice breaks all the typical anti-GMO propaganda tropes. The rice was developed as a humanitarian project, it’s sole purpose is to improve nutrition for the world’s poorest children, it will be made available patent and royalty free and without restriction, and it does not involve the use of any pesticides. There is no issue here of farmer sovereignty, corporate profits, or any of the usual nonsense.

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Jan 02 2020

Update On Wind Turbines and Birds

Published by under Technology

Objective numbers are great for any debate or discussion. They have a way of cutting through all the subjectivity, confirmation bias, and nonsense. I like to say – you can’t argue with the numbers – but of course, I know that people still do. More importantly, they straight up ignore, deny, or distort the numbers, painting an alternate reality at will. But for those who still care about data and facts, here are some recently updated numbers on bird deaths from various sources.

This story is in the news again because Trump recently renewed his attack on wind turbines. Pretty much everything he said was wrong or significantly distorted, as others have pointed out. I want to focus on his previous claim that wind turbines, “kill all the birds.” He recently added:

“You want to see a bird graveyard? You just go, take a look, a bird graveyard, go under a windmill someday you will see more birds than you ever seen, ever in your life.”

This is, of course, hyperbole, but I don’t think that excuses his lack of precision and context. He is making a clear point – we should oppose wind turbines in part because they cause an unacceptable number of bird deaths. Look at the chart above – this makes it visually clear that the number of bird deaths from wind turbines does not even register when compared to other sources. It is less than the uncertainty in other sources of bird deaths. In fact, if anything the chart visually underestimates the difference because you can’t really even see how small the total from wind turbines is.

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