Archive for the 'Pseudoscience' Category

Nov 28 2017

The Pseudoscience of Masaru Emoto

Published by under Pseudoscience

Masaru Emoto thought that emotions can affect inanimate objects. If you are nice to water and then freeze it, it will make pretty happy crystals. If you are mean to water and then freeze it, it will make ugly unhappy crystals. He wrote:

The result was that we always observed beautiful crystals after giving good words, playing good music, and showing, playing, or offering pure prayer to water. On the other hand, we observed disfigured crystals in the opposite situation.

I know – this is ridiculous. Why even bother? Scientific skeptics study pseudoscience for several reasons. What is interesting about Emoto’s research is not the research question he was pursuing (which has close to zero plausibility) but how he had managed to convince himself that his research supported his fantastical notion. Further, he had managed to convince (or at least intrigue) a large segment of the public that he was onto something, and so this presents an opportunity to teach the public about how science works and how we can distinguish it from pseudoscience. Finally, even serious science can fall prey to error and self-deception. Blatant pseudoscience is an excellent opportunity to see pathological science in the extreme, which helps us understand it better phenomenologically, and hopefully then avoid more subtle manifestations elsewhere.

I do want to emphasize that I have no problem with Emoto researching this question (as long as he was not wasting limited public research funds). Exploring seemingly wacky ideas may bear unforeseen fruit. The probability is low, but that is the nature of exploratory research. Fringe research is a good way to keep us on our toes, keep us from getting too complacent or narrow in our view. And very occasionally, we may just get surprised. Even if the hypothesis itself turns out to be hopelessly wrong, we may find something unexpected along the way.

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13 responses so far

Nov 17 2017

The Ethics of Head Transplants

sergio-canaveroNewsweek, who has been following the story of Italian Neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, now reports: “Human Head Transplants Are About to Happen in China: But Where Are the Bodies Coming From?”

I have already discussed the scientific aspects of this claim. They are highly implausible and I doubt that such a transplant is about to happen at all. If it does I predict it will be a dismal failure, and ethically dubious. First, I have to reiterate, that it is far more accurate to call such a procedure a body transplant. The head donor will wake up with a new body. The body donor is, I suspect, dead.

There are three basic hurdles that need to be overcome in order to have a successful body transplant – the surgical attachment, suppression of rejection, and regeneration of the attached neurological tissue. Given that Canavero is a surgeon, I suspect he is excited about the first issue. He may think he has made some advances because he improved his technique for making the attachment. This was never, however, the primary hurdle.

We are already making great advances with organ transplantation and controlling rejection. However, this is still a huge issue. Donor and recipient have to be closely matched, and lifelong drugs are required. Still, the amount of tissue being transplanted here will be a challenge. It opens up, for the first time, the possible effects of tissue rejection on an entire brain. While this is a significant hurdle, our current treatments mean it is not necessarily a deal breaker (it might be, but research would be needed to see).

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3 responses so far

Oct 12 2017

Another Antivaccine Retraction

Retracted-950x633Science only works when it works.

In other words – science itself does not lead to an understanding of the universe unless that science is done correctly, rigorously, and honestly. This is a lot harder than I think is generally appreciated. In order to really reach firm scientific conclusions about any complex question we need to follow the arch of the research as it matures. We need to see what overall patterns emerge in the evidence. Eventually a tentative but reliable scientific consensus can be achieved.

There are many ways in which this process can go off the rails, however. With ESP we see researchers chasing the noise – trying to find tiny signals but only chasing their tails. With acupuncture we see proponents choosing to ignore, misinterpret, and then abandon well-controlled clinical trials in favor of “pragmatic” studies that will show them what they want. There is “cargo cult” science that goes through the superficial motions but lacks true scientific methodology. There is “Tooth Fairy” science that nibbles around the edges but never addresses the core premise – is the phenomenon actually real?

There is a huge positive bias in science – researchers have a tendency to tweak their methods to get the results they want, publishers have a tendency to publish positive exciting research, and other scientists have a bias toward citing positive interesting research. Funding sources affect research outcome. When pharmaceutical companies fund research the results are much more likely to be favorable to their drug than independent research. Scientists make mistakes, take shortcuts, and often have blinders on. And then there is outright fraud, which is uncommon but still crops up on a regular basis.

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5 responses so far

Jun 23 2017

NASA Slams Goop

Body-Vibes_10-2Recently I have been vacillating between two different views of humanity. On the one hand, we all share a core neuropsychology. We are all struggling to get through life with our humble meat machines, complete with cognitive biases, flawed perception and memory, and irrational tendencies.

On the other hand, it often seems like there are fundamentally different kinds of people in the world. I guess it depends on whether you focus on what we have in common, or what separates us. Articles like this make it difficult not to focus on the latter.

This has been circulating recently so you probably have already seen it – Paltrow’s wretched hive of scum and quackery she calls Goop is promoting a product called Body Vibes. This is the bottom of the barrel of pure pseudoscientific nonsense wrapped in holistic bling. The claims are also nothing new – your body has an energy frequency, and our little sticker (or bracelet, amulet, fez, whatever) will balance your energy vibrations and cure what ails you.

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117 responses so far

Jun 19 2017

Biodynamic Farming and Other Nonsense

Published by under Pseudoscience

biodynamic1It seems that for every major practice in the world there is someone who will add an unnecessary layer of woo or pseudoscience. This is generally done for marketing, appealing to the emotions, which I guess is the underlying problem – that there is a market for feel-good pseudoscience. Sometimes the practice is philosophy-based, but that is just a way of saying that the pseudoscience is embedded in the culture.

Yoga is a good example. Start with stretching and exercise and mix in gratuitous woo. Massage is similar – there’s nothing wrong with getting a good massage, and it can relax tight muscles. Too often, however, they feel the need to talk about releasing toxins or activating your chi.

In other cases the process is the reverse, the pseudoscience came first and real science is just a patina on top to help make it more palatable. Naturopathy is a good example of this – it is based almost entirely on various pseudoscientific practices, like homeopathy, water cures, and nutritional pseudoscience. They throw in, however, some common-sense advice about diet and exercise and market themselves as lifestyle practitioners. They are defined, however, by the pseudoscience. You also can’t trust what they say, right or wrong, because they do not have a science-based quality control filter in place. So any given bit of advice can be complete nonsense. Continue Reading »

40 responses so far

May 26 2017

Pyramid Homology vs Analogy

Pyramid nonsenseI saw this post on the Credible Hulk Facebook page today. It refers to an old claim by proponents of ancient astronaut theories that the fact that there are similar looking pyramids from different locations on Earth proves cultural contamination from an extraterrestrial source.

While this is a silly argument, it is interesting to explore exactly why it is silly. The underlying principles have to do with homology and analogy, and are exactly the same as they are applied in evolutionary theory. The displayed meme implies that because there are step pyramids in Mexico, Egypt, and Indonesia – countries too far removed to have had direct contact with each other – the idea of a step pyramid therefore had a common source.

This is similar to the evolutionary argument that because two structures look similar or serve a similar function, they must have had a common source, which means the feature was derived from a common ancestor. But we know that this is not always true. The wings of bats, birds, and pterydactyls have similar features, but not a common evolutionary origin. The eyes of vertebrates and cephalopods also have features in common, but evolved independently. But giraffes and humans both have seven cervical vertebrae.

So how do evolutionary biologists tell the difference? They try to determine if the features are homologous (derive from a common ancestor) or analogous (independent origins but similar structure). They can do this in a number of ways, either based on direct evidence or inference. Direct evidence would be finding a fossil of a common ancestor with the feature.

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15 responses so far

May 19 2017

Young Earth Creationists and the Grand Canyon

Andrew Snelling is a young-earth creationist with a PhD in geology who wants to study the Grand Canyon. The National Park Service (NPS), which regulated who gets to do science in Grand Canyon National Park, turned down his application. You can probably guess what happened next.

Snelling is now suing the NPS and the Department of Interior for religious discrimination. He claims his application was turned down because of his religious views. That does not seem to be the case. The NPS had experts review his application. They determined that his science was not valid, and that the rocks he wanted to remove from the park could be found elsewhere. The NPS is particularly careful about any research that involves removing material from parks.

It seems clear to me that the NPS is on solid ground (heh). They already have a process in place to determine if scientific applications are for worthy science and if they justify the removal of material from a park. They did proper peer-review and abided by the recommendations of their experts. This does not appear to have anything to do with what Snelling believes, but the quality of his science.  Snelling is now being a whiny b**ch. He also appears to be using this for propaganda purposes, which may have been the whole idea from the beginning.

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22 responses so far

May 18 2017

Follow Up on Bem’s Psi Research

telepathyAn interesting article in Slate by Daniel Engber reviews the story of Daryl Bem and his psi “Feeling the Future” research. If you are interested in this sort of thing the entire article is worth a read, but I want to highlight and expand upon the important bits.

For review, in 2011 Bem published a series of 10 experiments in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP). I wrote about the research at the time, and wasn’t impressed. I wrote:

“In the final analysis, this new data from Bem is not convincing at all. It shows very small effects sizes, within the range of noise, and has not been replicated. Further, the statistical analysis used was biased in favor of finding significance, even for questionable data.”

Bem had taken standard social psychology experimental protocols, mostly dealing with priming, and did an interesting thing – he reversed the order of the experiment so that the priming came after the subjects were tested. For example, he would give subjects a memory test and then let some of them study the material. He claimed that the studying had an effect backward in time to allow subjects to perform slightly better.

For experienced skeptics, this was not much of a surprise. When dealing with claims that have a vanishingly small prior probability, you need extraordinary evidence to be taken seriously, and this wasn’t it. We were already very familiar with these kinds of results – if you squint just right there is a teeny tiny effect size. But we already knew that experiments are easy to fudge, even unwittingly, and it would therefore take a lot more to rewrite all the physics textbooks. (What is more likely, that the fundamental nature of reality is not what we thought, or Bem was a little sloppy in his research?) The key (as acknowledged by Bem himself) would be in replication.  Continue Reading »

183 responses so far

May 15 2017

MMA vs Wushu – A Fight Between Reality and Fantasy

MMAvsWushuWhen magic and fantasy come up against hard reality, reality wins. One clear demonstration of this are literal fights between fantasy and reality.

There are now multiple videos online of fights between mixed martial arts fighters (MMA) and various forms of traditional Chinese martial arts. They all go the same way – the MMA fighters demolish the traditional fighters in seconds.

At the extreme end of the traditional fighters are the chi masters. They claim that they can channel their magical life force, chi, to weaken, block, and even incapacitate their foes. The first part of this video shows a chi master in action. You can see how apparently effective chi is against indoctrinated students (who have “drunk the dojo koolaid”). In the second half of the video you can see how spectacularly ineffective chi is against an MMA fighter.

In a similar recent competition, MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong had an open challenge to any traditional fighter, and Wei Lei, a practitioner of the “thunder style” of tai chi, accepted his challenge. The fight went like all the others- Wei Lei was crushed in 10 seconds.

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55 responses so far

May 09 2017

More Anti-Vaccine Pseudoscience

ObukhanychAnti-vaccine nonsense is relentless, and spreads through social media like a measles virus in an upscale private California school. Therefore we need frequent skeptical booster shots.

I will usually decide to take on a topic if I see it spreading or if fellow skeptics aren’t sure what the deception is. A story is sending up red flags, but a more expert eye is needed.

Pretty much every word in this headline is wrong or deceptive: Harvard Study Proves Unvaccinated Children Pose No Risk.

First, there is no study. This is not in any way about some new study or research, but simply an article by an anti-vaccine crank, Tetyana Obukhanych. Further, her connection to Harvard seems tenuous and it’s not even clear what her current academic status is. And most importantly, she uses cherry picked, irrelevant, and incorrect information to make her case.

But she appears to be the new darling of the anti-vaccine movement, so let’s take a deeper look. Continue Reading »

9 responses so far

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