Archive for the 'Pseudoscience' Category

Jan 18 2019

GM Foods and Changing Minds

The question at the core of science communication and the skeptical movement is – how do we change opinions about science-related topics? That is the ultimate goal, not just to give information but to inform people, to change the way they think about things, to build information into a useful narrative that helps people understand the world and make optimal (or at least informed) decisions.

I have been using the GMO (genetically modified food) issue as an example, primarily because the research I am discussing is using it as a topic of study. But also – GMO opposition is the topic about which there is the greatest disparity between public and scientific opinion. A new study also looks at attitudes toward GMOs, specifically, with the question of – is a convert from GMO opponent to supporter more persuasive than straightforward GMO support?

The study uses clips from a talk by Mark Lynas, an environmentalist who converted from GMO opponent to supporter. They found:

The respondents each were shown one of three video clips: 1) Lynas explaining the benefits of GM crops; 2) Lynas discussing his prior beliefs and changing his mind about GM crops; and 3) Lynas explaining why his beliefs changed, including the realization that the anti-GM movement he helped to lead was a form of anti-science environmentalism.

The researchers found that both forms of the conversion message (2 and 3) were more influential than the simple advocacy message. There was no difference in impact between the basic conversion message and the more elaborate one.

This makes sense – prior research shows that it is more effective to give someone a replacement explanatory narrative than just to tell them that they are wrong. However, it is very difficult to say how generalizable this effect is.

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Jan 03 2019

Magic Can Increase Belief in Pseudoscience

Magicians play a significant role in the skeptical movement. They have, as Liam Neeson famously said, a particular set of skills. They are very adept at deception, using techniques that have been honed through trial and error over centuries. It is a great example of cultural knowledge. Having the ability to deceive others, purely for entertainment and with informed consent, also makes them adept at detecting the use of the same techniques for nefarious purposes. This, essentially, has been James Randi’s entire career.

But at the same time some stage magicians make skeptics uncomfortable by not being entirely upfront with their audience. Now, I am not suggesting that all magicians tell their audience how the tricks are done, and I completely understand the need to create a mystique as part of the performance. However, I have seen skilled magicians (like Randi or Banachek) perform amazing tricks with complete candor about the nature of those tricks, without diminishing the entertainment value.

Magicians typically create a narrative by which they “explain” their tricks to the audience. A magician, for example, could say, “I am using sleight of hand.” Or they could say (or strongly imply), “I have true psychic ability.” The Amazing Kreskin falls into this latter category. There are also those like Uri Geller who (sort of) pretend they are not doing magic at all, but have special powers.

In the gray zone are those like Derren Brown. Their narrative is not that they are psychic but that they are using psychological manipulation on their audience – reading microexpressions, influencing their decision-making, or reading body-language. This narrative is as much BS as the psychic one, used as part of the magic experience and for misdirection. You can read and influence people to some degree, but these techniques are not reliable enough to support a performance. Typically mentalists use standard sleight of hand and then pretend to use psychological techniques.

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Dec 18 2018

Worst Pseudoscience of 2018

Published by under Pseudoscience

I don’t usually do lists, but I do find it interesting to look back over the past year and review major events and trends. It’s good for the memory, and the exercise always reminds me of how terrible memory is. I often realize that I forgot about major events, and also have a poor sense of how far in the past certain events occurred. (Was that this year or last year?)

So here are the pseudosciences from 2018 that I think deserve to be remembered. I am going to list them in no particular order, and just keep adding them until I run out of time.

Climate Change Denial

It does seem that 2018 may have been a bit of a turning point for the recognition that climate change is real, imminent, and deserving of far more attention and priority than we are giving it. There were multiple reports all agreeing that essentially the problem is worse than we thought, we have less time than we thought, and we better get cracking. The IPCC, for example, pointed out that even if we keep warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, an ambitious and probably not achievable goal, bad things will still happen, just not as bad if warming goes beyond that point. A US government report echoes this, adding that further warming will be economically damaging and it is cost-effective to prevent it rather than deal with the consequences.

Several surveys also show that people are increasing concerned about climate change. Even some conservatives admit they were wrong on climate change. Even the writers of South Park admitted their prior error in an apology series of episodes to Al Gore.

Therefore, perhaps the worse pseudoscientists of 2018 is anyone still denying that climate change is a real problem that needs to be dealt with. The denialist strategies have not changed – no, the Earth is not warming, well if it is it’s not due to human causes, well even if we are causing it the results won’t be bad, well even if they will be bad there is nothing we can do about it anyway, and whatabout China? Like all pseudosciences they start with the desired conclusion – that we don’t need to do anything about it, just keep burning fossil fuels, and then they reverse engineer a justification for that conclusion.

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Dec 04 2018

Foodbabe Fails – Blames Astroturfing

Many people are complaining that CNN, in reporting on the recent E. coli outbreak on romaine lettuce, had The Food Babe (Vani Hari) on as a food “expert.” This, of course, is a complete journalistic failure on the part of CNN. The Food Babe is a famously scientifically illiterate alarmist whose career is based on peddling misinformation. My favorite example is when she completely misunderstood the nature of pressure in airline cabins, and complained that the air was tainted with up to 50% nitrogen.

As important as this complete scientific failure, was her response. She did not transparently correct the misinformation and apologize. She simply deleted the post.

Hari has come under extensive criticism for spouting her nonsense and fearmongering. She is perhaps most famous for her “yoga mat” stunt, completely misunderstanding the fact that chemicals can be used for a variety of reasons, and that does not make them dangerous.

Her general response to criticism is to (in addition to hiding) go on the attack. She does not appear to be an honest broker of information, but rather a self-promoter who will attack her critics. She also likes to ban critics from her own page. So when the internet complained to CNN that the Food Babe was not an appropriate person to have on their program to be presented as an expert, Hari did what she does – she went on the attack.

Her tactic this time is to blame the whole affair on “astroturfing.” This is a real phenomenon in which an industry, company, cult, or ideological group will create the impression of a grassroots campaign using front organizations and paid agents. However, this isn’t the whole story.

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Nov 27 2018

The Myths of Troy

Published by under Pseudoscience

Last week I wrote about yet another claim for a possible location for Atlantis. This sparked some lively discussion, indicative of the fact that there is something alluring and iconic about the idea of Atlantis. I also think having a cool name is critical for such appeal (and not a small part of why Nostradamus, for example, is so iconic).

Long story short – there is no evidence that Atlantis existed, that Plato intended his writings to be an actual claim that Atlantis was real, and there is no evidence that the new supposed location, the Richat structure in Africa, is Atlantis or any ancient city.

In the comments, defenders of Atlantis made a claim, one that I have heard frequently before, that caught my interest.

One commenter wrote:

Atlantis a myth…?
Perhaps the story, but is the story based on something?

Let’s remember Troy was a myth until rediscovered in 1870.

Another:

They laughed at Heinrich Schliemann, but he found Troy and started, for the most part, the science of archaeology.

and:

back in 19th centrury(sic): The consensus of actual scholarship is that Troy is a myth.

Thank you Heinrich Schliemann for not caring about consensus.

The initial response by me and others was – so what? The logic here is not valid. Just because one city written about in ancient texts turned out to be real, that doesn’t mean they all are, or that Atlantis specifically is. Further, the analogy is not a good one.

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Nov 19 2018

No – Atlantis Has Not Been Discovered in North Africa

Published by under Pseudoscience

A video is making the rounds claiming “proof” that Atlantis existed in norther Africa. This video is by Jimmy from Bright Insight and it is an excellent example of crank pseudoscience. Jimmy has made himself into a social media brand, with lots of conspiracy and pseudohistory nonsense to sell, but let’s focus on this one video for now.

The video follows a familiar format – gather together lots of circumstantial evidence, exaggerate its significance and specificity, ignore anything that doesn’t fit, ignore all genuine scholarship, and create the impression that you’re onto something. Essentially – blow a lot of smoke to convince the naive that there’s a fire.

His argument is essentially that the Richat structure, or the Eye of the Sahara, fits Plato’s description of Atlantis so well, it essentially amounts to proof.

First, let me start out by stating that the consensus of actual scholarship is that Atlantis is a myth. Plato never intended his description of Atlantis to be an actual claim that the city existed. He used it as an obvious rhetorical device – the evil empire that was vanquished by the morally pure Athenians, and wiped off the Earth by the wrath of the gods. The notion that knowledge of a nine thousand year old city (at his time) somehow came only to Plato, of all people, is itself a huge stretch. Further, no one at the time reacted to his description of Atlantis as if it were a real claim. All his contemporaries understood it to be a device, not a claim. Jimmy does not even address this fatal flaw in his argument.

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Oct 04 2018

Evolution Under Attack

As an American it’s very easy to look at issues from a narrow American-centric view (we have a well-earned reputation for this). I am often reminded of this by my many international SGU listeners, and I have had to discipline myself to keep this in mind.

For example, when it comes to teaching science in public schools, I do, of course, feel the most responsibility for my own backyard, but this is an important issue everywhere. But this is an issue in many countries, not just the US. Recent reports indicate that the teaching of evolution is under attack in Israel and Turkey. The Guardian also reports:

This news follows the astonishing statements made by India’s minister for higher education earlier this year. Satyapal Singh claimed Darwin was “scientifically wrong”, and is demanding that the theory of evolution be removed from school curriculums because no one “ever saw an ape turning into a human being”.

India has 1.35 billion people, which is 17.7% of the world population. (China is 1.4 billion, 18.5% – so India and China combined have 36.2% of the world population). I think it’s reasonable to say that it matters what happens in these countries, especially with our increasingly globalized world. Our efforts to curb climate change depend on cooperation from China and India, and having a scientifically literate population will help these efforts.

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Aug 13 2018

Dunning Kruger Effect and Anti-Vaccine Attitudes

One of the persistent themes of this blog is that expertise matters. This is not to say the experts are always right (sometimes they disagree with each-other), and there is also a range of expertise, and different kinds of experts can have different biases and blind spots. But all things considered, someone who has formal expertise on a specific topic is likely to know much more about that topic than someone who has read about it on the internet.

Further, most people underestimate the amount of knowledge that exists on a topic, and therefore the vast gulf of knowledge that exists between them and the experts. In fact, the more someone knows about a topic the more they understand how much is known, and the more humble they tend to be with respect to their own knowledge. The flip side of this – people who know little tend to overestimate their relative knowledge – is an established psychological phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Operationally Dunning and Kruger found in their study that the lower someone performed on a test of knowledge, the greater the gap between their perceived knowledge and performance and their actual performance. At around the 80th percentile and above, people tend to underestimate their relative knowledge. Below that point they tend to increasingly overestimate it, and everyone thinks they are above 50%.

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Jul 05 2018

Quantum Woo in Parapsychology

Published by under Pseudoscience

Etzel Cardeña has published an extensive review of parapsychology concluding that it is both plausible and supported by evidence. It stands, in my opinion, as an excellent example of everything that is wrong with psi research. There is a lot of meat to go through, but I want to focus in this article on his use of quantum mechanics to justify the plausibility of ESP and psi phenomena.

Psi, or anomalous cognition, is a group of alleged phenomena that include sensing what other people are thinking, viewing remote locations not accessible to the normal senses, and predicting the future in some way. These claims are inherently implausible because there is no way to account for them with known phenomena. They appear, therefore, to violate well-established laws of physics. Therefore, any reasonable scientists would argue, the threshold of evidence needed before concluding that a psi phenomenon is real should be very high. What we have is very low-grade evidence at best, therefore it is reasonable to reject claims for psi.

Psi proponents, therefore, attack the two pillars of this rejection – that psi is implausible, and that the evidence is low-grade. Cardeña is no exception, and that is precisely what he is trying to do in his paper. He fails on both counts, producing only a string of cherry-picked evidence, selected quotes that can be made to seem as if they support his position, and very strained logic.

What do we mean by plausibility? This is actually a deceptively complex question. Plausibility essentially means, if we had to guess, based on everything we know so far about the universe, is a specific claim likely to be true? There is a very broad range of plausibility, and unfortunately often people refer to plausibility as a false dichotomy, that a claim is either plausible or not. This dichotomy obscures a vast spectrum, which matters because we deal with different locations on that spectrum very differently.

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Jun 19 2018

New York Times and the Return of Astrology

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Krista Burton is perhaps one sign of recent social trends – increasing belief in things like astrology, especially among millennials. Burton provides some insight into this phenomenon, but then also makes some horrible justifications for it.

Belief in astrology, the notion that the relative positions of planets and start affect our personality and perhaps our destiny, has been measured at about 25% in the UK, Canada and US in recent decades. However, as researchers, Nicholas Campion, points out, the number depends greatly on what exactly you ask:

In one of my groups – of mostly male students aged 18 to 21 – I found that 70% read a horoscope column once a month and 51% valued its advice. Other questions produced a huge variation: 98% knew their sun sign, 45% thought it described their personalities, 25% said it can make accurate forecasts, and 20% think the stars influence life on Earth. The higher figures are close to previous research which showed that 73% of British adults believe in astrology, while the lowest figures are similar to those found by Gallup’s polls.

It’s difficult to know how to parse all of that, but it seems like about half of people take astrology seriously to some extent, and 20-25% very seriously. That is a significant percentage of the population to believe in something which is 100% superstitious nonsense. Let’s get this out of the way now – there is no plausible mechanism by which astrology could work, there is no evidence that any form of astrology does work, and it is structured and functions like a classic pseudoscience. A moderate amount of scientific literacy, and a trace of critical thinking skills, should be enough to purge any belief in astrology.

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