Archive for October, 2020

Oct 23 2020

Randi vs The Psychics

Published by under Skepticism

My skeptical colleague, James Randi, died earlier this week at the age of 92. He led a long, happy, and rich life and died with few meaningful regrets, and that is something to be celebrated. But we will also miss his wit and keen mind. He was one of the founders of modern skepticism, focusing his attention mainly on the consumer protection angle. He particularly delighted in exposing frauds and hucksters.

Randi came at skepticism through the magician path, which is not uncommon. Houdini, perhaps the most famous stage magician of all time, began this tradition by setting to expose the fake mediums of his time. Houdini realized that many of them were using standard magician stage tricks in order to fake seances. This is fine as a form of entertainment, but they were essentially tricking people into thinking they were contacting lost loved-ones in order to relieve them of excess cash. This practice continues to this day. As a magician himself, Houdini knew how to detect and expose their tricks.

Randi’s career in many ways is similar to Houdini’s but he helped spawn an entire movement of people, including scientists and philosophers, to help in the task. Randi told a story of his youth when he attended a faith-healing session. The pastor had people fill out “prayer cards” with their basic information and the ailment for which they sought healing. The pastor would appeal to the angels to bring him divine information about the next person who needed help. One person in the audience would cry out in joy and the pastor, seemingly through divine means, rattled off very specific information about them – information he could not have known.

Randi instantly recognized this as the old “one ahead trick”. The pastor was simply reciting the information he just read on the previous card, as if it were for the next person. This is a mentalism trick, meant to entertain, but being used to deceive. So Randi exposed the pastor for the trickster that he was, but those present did not thank him. They yelled at him, called him names, and ran him off. They were surprisingly ungrateful that Randi had popped their bubble of illusion and deception.

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Oct 22 2020

COVID-19 Becoming Less Deadly

Over the course of the pandemic the death rate in people diagnosed with COVID-19 (the case-fatality rate) has declined. Unpacking all the reasons this may be the case can help us better understand and fight this disease. A few recent studies shed some light on this question. While there might be some encouraging news here, it highlights that this is still a “novel” virus and we have a lot to learn about the illness it causes.

One recent study looking at the case fatality rate in the New York region from March to August found that the death rate for those admitted to the hospital dropped from 27% to 3%. They also found many possible reasons for this dramatic decrease. One is the fact that in March New  York hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID cases. They did not have enough ICU beds or ventilators, and doctors were crushed beneath the initial wave of cases of a disease they had no experience with. So simply “flattening the curve” and reducing pressure on hospitals is one important factor.

The most encouraging reason for the decline is the steep learning curve of knowing how to treat those who are seriously ill with COVID. Doctors have learned through direct experience how to better manage COVID patients, and many interventions became standard practice between March and August. For example, it is better to rest patients on their stomach than their back, and it is better to delay ventilation as long as possible. The discovery that steroids can reduce the risk of cytokine storm was perhaps a significant improvement. Some patients now get convalescent plasma, something that obviously could not have happened early on. Remdesevir was given emergency use authorization, but a recent study by the WHO found no survival benefit from this drug (or from hydroxychloroquine, a combination of the anti-HIV drugs lopinavir and ritonavir; and interferon).

While we still do not have a cure for COVID-19 or a proven effective anti-viral, management has significantly improved and this has definitely contributed to survival. However – this is not the only effect, and may not even be the major effect.

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Oct 20 2020

Daryl Bem, Psi Research, and Fixing Science

In 2011 Daryl Bem published a series of ten studies which he claimed demonstrated psi phenomena – that people could “feel the future”. He took standard psychological study methods and simply reversed the order of events, so that the effect was measured prior to the stimulus. Bem claimed to find significant results – therefore psi is real. Skeptics and psychologists were not impressed, for various reasons. At the time, I wrote this:

Perhaps the best thing to come out of Bem’s research is an editorial to be printed with the studies – Why Psychologists Must Change the Way They Analyze Their Data: The Case of Psi by Eric Jan Wagenmakers, Ruud Wetzels, Denny Borsboom, & Han van der Maas from the University of Amsterdam. I urge you to read this paper in its entirety, and I am definitely adding this to my filing cabinet of seminal papers. They hit the nail absolutely on the head with their analysis.

Their primary point is this – when research finds positive results for an apparently impossible phenomenon, this is probably not telling us something new about the universe, but rather is probably telling us something very important about the limitations of our research methods

I interviewed Wagenmakers for the SGU, and he added some juicy tidbits. For example, Bem had previously authored a chapter in a textbook on research methodology in which he essentially advocated for p-hacking. This refers to a set of bad research methods that gives the researchers enough wiggle room to fudge the results, enough to make negative data seem statistically significant. This could be as seemingly innocent as deciding when to stop collecting data after you have already peeked at some of the results.

Richard Wiseman, who was one of the first psychologists to try to replicate Bem’s research and came up with negative results, recently published a paper discussing this very issue. In his blog post about the article he credits Bem’s research with being a significant motivator for improving research rigor in psychology:

Several researchers noted that the criticisms aimed at Bem’s work also applied to many studies from mainstream psychology. Many of the problems surrounded researchers changing their statistics and hypotheses after they had looked at their data, and so commentators urged researchers to submit a detailed description of their plans prior to running their studies. In 2013, psychologist Chris Chambers played a key role in getting the academic journal Cortex to adopt the procedure (known as a Registered Report), and many other journals quickly followed suit.

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Oct 19 2020

Biodiversity Matters

I consider myself a skeptical environmentalist, which is why I was really annoyed by the book by the same name by Bjørn Lomborg. The problem with Lomborg’s book was not the notion of reviewing the science behind the big environmental issues, but rather that he did such a poor job his treatment amounted to denialism, not skepticism. It as so bad, in fact, that Scientific American was motivated to dedicate an entire issue to systematically debunking his claims. This, of course, is part of a larger trend of tainting the word “skeptic” by using it to refer to science deniers and contrarions (and yes, there is a difference and denialism is a thing).

I am an environmentalist in the way that we should all be environmentalists – we should care about the biosphere in which we live. It is literally the only one we have. It is probable that human civilization will never have another, ever. Think about that. Interstellar travel will likely never be practical, and even if we can figure out a way to get to nearby systems, we will not find another Earth. Finding a world that is “earth-like” would require science-fiction level faster-than-light travel which may never be possible, and if it is will not happen anytime soon. Even then, there is a huge difference between “earth-like” and Earth. Terrforming other worlds in our solar system is also very difficult, and will take thousands of years if it is practical at all. So except for far future unpredictable scenarios – this is it. Our efforts are best spent preserving the world that is literally perfect for us, because we evolved here.

Beyond just surviving, I also love nature, perhaps more than the average person. Although people in general have an affinity for nature, and studies show that people are generally happier and healthier when they have exposure to nature. But as human civilization has grown, especially in the las century, we have displaced many natural ecosystems and impacted the environment in such a way as to stress many natural ecosystems. This is a serious issue because of, in a word, biodiversity.

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Oct 16 2020

Room Temperature Superconductor

Published by under Technology

Once again we have the reporting of a technological advance but leading with a bit of hype. The BBC headline is – “Superconductors: Material raises hope of energy revolution.” (Original article) I would first point out that I have been reading similar headlines since the 1980s. No revolution so far. We see some version of this claim every time there is an incremental advance in superconductor technology. We have hit a bit of a milestone with this latest progress, but it has to immediately be put into proper context.

Scientists have indeed demonstrated the first room temperature superconductor. But you know there’s a catch, right?

The scientists observed the superconducting behaviour in a carbonaceous sulphur hydride compound at a temperature of 15C.

However, the property only appeared at extremely high pressures of 267 billion pascals – about a million times higher than typical tyre pressure. This obviously limits its practical usefulness.

“Limits its practical usefulness” is perhaps a bit of typical British understatement. The way I see it they have just substituted one highly impractical limitation of superconducting material (extreme low temperatures) with another (extreme pressure). The research could have easily gone the other way. What if the high pressure superconductors were discovered first, then the holy grail would have been finding a superconductor at normal pressures, which they could have done by using extremely low temperatures. In fact, the low temperature may be the easier of the two.

At atmospheric pressure the record is still held by cuprates, which have demonstrated superconductivity at temperatures as high as 138 K (−135 °C).

It is easier to cool something to -135 °C then to put it under 267 billion pascals of pressure, so you might even argue we have taken a step backwards. This still might be useful if the research leads down a new path that ends with room temperature and atmospheric pressure superconductivity. Perhaps we’ll see in another 30 years.

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Oct 15 2020

Power From Graphene

Published by under Technology

The headline reads, “Physicists build circuit that generates clean, limitless power from graphene.” There are some red flags there – my skeptical antenna always prick up when I see claims of limitless power. However, unlike the silly caricature of those who push back against appropriate skepticism, my doubts were the beginning of the process, not the end. I had many questions. How much power are we talking about? Where is the energy coming from (always a good question)? Does this require “free energy” or breaking any of the laws of thermodynamics? Is this theoretical or does it exist?

The press release, as is often the case, did not delve into these questions to a satisfactory degree, but was mainly hype. So I went to the original article –  Fluctuation-induced current from freestanding graphene. (Sorry, it’s behind a paywall, but I had access through my institution.) This helped, but was technically over my head in some parts. What I needed was to talk to an expert who could translate the technical bits for me. We discussed this news item, as much as we could, on the SGU and asked for help getting in touch with someone who could help unpack the physics at work here. Listener David Thompson, who is at the University of Arkansas where the research was done, was able to hook us up to the lead author of the study, Paul Thibado. We interviewed him yesterday for the show that will air this Saturday. Listen to the interview for all the details, but here is a quick breakdown.

The claim is that Thibado and his group have built a circuit that can harvest electrical energy from freestanding graphene. Graphene is a 2-dimensional material of carbon, think of a chickenwire with carbon atoms at each of the connection points. Graphene has interesting properties, and we are still near the beginning of exploring possible applications of this material. Freestanding graphene means the sheet is floating like a picture in a frame – this allows it to move freely. This sheet of graphene will undulate, buckle, and wave (like the surface of the ocean) due to background energy in a form a Brownian motion. The question Thibado and his group asked is this – can we harvest energy from the motion of the graphene, in the same way that you might harvest energy from the wind blowing or the sun shining? The answer, they found, is yes.

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Oct 13 2020

Excess Deaths From Pandemic Higher Than Official Numbers

How many people have died in the US so far from the COVID-19 pandemic? It depends on how you count the numbers. The official count of US COVID-19 deaths is 214,000. This number is often reported as “at least” this amount, because this is a compilation of all deaths where COVID-19 was officially listed as a cause of death. Experts recognize that this is likely to be a gross underestimation, because people may die from the disease at home without ever being diagnosed.

In any such system, regardless of how careful you are, there are going to be false positives and false negatives. When it comes to the cause of death there are very specific coding guidelines. COVID-19 must have directly lead to the death of the individual. Laboratory confirmation is strongly encouraged, but doctors may code COVID-19 as a probable cause of, in their clinical judgement, the patient had COVID-19 and it fits the epidemiology, even if they did not get a test. When COVID-19 is severe enough to kill, it is a fairly recognizable clinical condition. This does open the door to other fatal viral respiratory infections to be coded as COVID, but these instances are likely to be rare.

States report their data differently. Some only report confirmed cases. Some report confirmed and probable. Some states get their numbers from death certificates, while others count deaths among diagnosed cases of COVID-19. Taking all of this into consideration, COVID-19 deaths are likely to be underestimated in the aggregate rather than overestimated. Some critics argue that allowing “probable” cases overestimates the total deaths from COVID, but if you look at the data state-by-state you will see that probable cases are small in number compared to confirmed. In Arizona, for example, probable cases are only about 5% of the total deaths reports, the vast majority of which are confirmed. So even in the very unlikely scenario that all probable cases are false positives, that only gives a 5% variance (and keep in mind, many states don’t report probable cases at all).

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Oct 12 2020


Psychologists in the UK have created a game that pre-debunks (or “pre-bunks”) COVID-19 conspiracy theories. The game is based on research that shows it can be more effective to give people information about how to identify conspiracy theories or misinformation before they are exposed to it. This is a fantastic idea, and I love the fact that this is being done in coordination with research to show if it is effective.

The current game is called Go Viral. It puts the player in the role of someone spreading conspiracy theories about the pandemic, and their goal is to make the misinformation go as viral as possible. This way the players learn the deceptive tactics of those who spread such misinformation by doing it themselves. This tactic reminds me of magicians who are skeptics. They have learned the techniques of deception, and have experienced how easy it can be to deceive people. Stage magic is essentially the practical art of misdirection, that exploits many of the weaknesses in our ability to perceive and construct an experience of what is happening. This puts magicians into a perfect position to detect deceptive practices on the part of others.

James Randi, for example, made a career out of exactly this. He has caught faith healers, for example, using standard mentalist tricks to deceive their audience. One example is the one-ahead trick. You have everyone fill out a “prayer card” with their basic information and what they want to pray for. All these cards are placed in envelopes and are then placed in a bowl, and the preacher draws them one by one “predicting” what each one will say prior to opening the envelope and “revealing” that they were correct. The audience is flabbergasted as the preacher, by seemingly divine means, knows all about them. However, the preacher is simply stating what they just read on the previous card. If you are a magician, this technique is easy to detect – and now you can detect it much easier because I just told you about it.

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Oct 09 2020

Climate Denial Talking Points

Published by under Skepticism

My schedule did not afford time for a post yesterday, and I only have time for a short one today – but I want to reply quickly to a couple of climate denial talking points that arose during the vice presidential debate. Pence represented the typical denial strategy. He started by saying that the climate is changing, we just don’t know why or what to do about it. This is the motte and bailey fallacy in action – pull back from the position that is untenable to defend an easier position, but don’t completely surrender the outer position. Pence was not about to deny that global warming is happening at all in that forum because he would be too easily eviscerated, so he just tried to muddy the waters on what may seem like an easier point.

But of course, he is completely wrong on both counts. We do know what is causing climate change, it is industrial release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. At least there is a strong consensus of scientists who are 95% confident or more this is the major driver, and there is no tenable competing theory. That is what a scientific fact looks like. We also know what to do about it – decrease global emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. And we know how to do that – change our energy infrastructure to contain more carbon neutral sources with the goal of decarbonizing energy. Change our transportation industry as much as possible over to electric (or perhaps hydrogen) vehicles. Advance other industrial processes that release significant amounts of CO2. And look for ways to improve energy efficiency and sequester carbon efficiently. It’s not like there aren’t actual detailed published plans for exactly what to do about it.

Pence, however, will rush from his perceived motte into the bailey of total denial when he feels he has an opening. So he also said that the “climate change alarmists” are warning about hurricanes, but we are having the same number of hurricanes today as we did 100 years ago. This is not literally true (there were six hurricanes so far this year in the North Atlantic, and four in 1920), and it looks from the graph like there is a small uptick, but let’s say it’s true enough that statistically there isn’t a significant change in the number of hurricanes. This is called lying with facts – give a fact out of context that creates a deliberately false impression. In this case the false impression is also a straw man, because climate scientists don’t claim that global warming increases the number of hurricanes. They claim (their models predict) that warming increases the power and negative effects from the hurricanes that do occur. The governments Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory states:

A review of existing studies, including the ones cited above, lead us to conclude that: it is likely that greenhouse warming will cause hurricanes in the coming century to be more intense globally and have higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes.

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Oct 06 2020

Undocumented Immigrants and Crime

Published by under General Science

We live in a democracy, and people have different perspectives, interests, and values. This means we can honestly disagree on questions about how to run our society, and the political process is supposed to work out those differences through compromise and democratic processes. However, the political process should be based on objective facts as much as possible. Senator Daniel Moynihan is quoted as saying, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” or some variation of that basic idea. If we lose the objectivity of facts, if everything is opinion, then the democratic process breaks down. There is no longer any common ground for discussion. In fact, what seems to be happening is that not only has fact devolved into opinion, opinion has become an alternate reality constructed and maintained through conspiracy theories.

Assuming we can get back to a world in which facts exist, let alone matter to some degree, they can very usefully inform public debate on political topics. Facts alone don’t determine political outcomes, because values can still differ, but they help. Let’s take the association between undocumented immigrants and crime as an example.

One of the prominent arguments put forward for aggressive policing of our borders is to stop undocumented immigrants, because they bring “large-scale crime and disease” across the border. But do they? Citing dramatic anecdotes will never give us a meaningful picture of reality. We are a nation of over 300 million people – everything happens somewhere. You can find anecdotes to support any narrative you wish. What we really need is data.

One problem is that undocumented immigrants are – undocumented. This makes it hard to track them and to get data on them. But we do have several lines of evidence that give us at least a partial picture. For example, some studies do surveys of individuals, asking their immigrant status and their involvement with crime. One such study, published in 2017, found that immigrants were 2-3 times less likely to report criminal behavior than demographically matched US born individuals. The two main weaknesses of this approach is that, first, it mixes documented and undocumented immigrants into one category. Second, this tells us only that immigrants report less crime, which may not be the same as engaging in crime.

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