Archive for the 'Pseudoscience' Category

Apr 03 2020

A Stupidity Pandemic

As a skeptical science communicator I am constantly walking the line between hope and cynicism. On the one hand, I very much take to heart Carl Sagan’s approach to science – focusing on the absolute wonder of the universe, and celebrating the curiosity and ingenuity of humanity. We have peered into the past, walked on the moon, and decoded many of the secrets of life. Science is a powerful tool that has transformed the world more in the last few centuries than in tens of thousands of years beforehand. And yet, humanity still struggles with the demons of our evolutionary history. We are tribal, superstitious, and capable of surrendering our critical thinking to a charismatic leader.

What this all means is that when we are faced with a challenge, even a crisis, we are capable of meeting it. We can bring the tools of science, philosophy, and politics to bear to solve almost any problem. And yet the extent to which we will fail to do so is a consequence of our own stupidity and lack of critical thinking. There is nothing like a pandemic to reveal all of this – the good and the bad.

On the bright side, there have already been thousands of studies of the novel coronavirus (SARS-COV-2) and the disease it produces, COVID-19. Researchers are already exploring possible treatments and developing a vaccine. Meanwhile, we have solid mechanisms everyone can use to protect themselves and slow the spread of disease. Where implemented properly and in time, these strategies work. Compare this to just 100 years ago, during the 1918 flu pandemic. That pandemic killed at least 50 million people worldwide – and that magnitude was created largely by the world’s collective failure to properly understand and deal with the virus. They had no treatment, no vaccine, and utterly failed to enact adequate public health measures (for sure, this was partly due to the fact that they were fighting a world war and many politicians prioritized the war effort over mitigating the pandemic). Go back a bit further to the black death, which killed a third of Europe, and they did not even understand the nature of the pandemic. Their ignorance made them all but helpful before it.

Today, through science we understand exactly what is going on, down to the molecular level. And we have the methods to quickly (relatively speaking) figure our how best to address it. It is still a challenge, because the pandemic is moving quickly, but all we really have to do collectively is not panic and listen to our own experts. But of course, it’s never that simple. Some people will find a way to screw it up, because humanity is a complex mixture of motivations, biases, and emotions.

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Nov 11 2019

Astrology – A Peak Behind the Curtain

Published by under Pseudoscience

It is always interesting, and incredibly useful, to have insight from someone on the inside of a pseudoscience. Occasionally, someone who’s logical ability and intellectual honesty are reasonably intact gets sucked into a world of pseudoscience. If they are able to emerge out the other end still able to engage meaningfully with reality, they may have an incredible tale to tell. For example, Britte Hermes is a former naturopath who is now a real scientist and is able to report what really goes on in the world of fake medicine. Another example is Mark Edward, a former “psychic” who wrote his own tell-all. In such situations I have always found that things are much worse than even the fevered imaginings of a jaded skeptic.

The Guardian provides another useful example – the confessions of a former astrologer. Please read the full article. It provides concise insight into the psychology and business of new-age nonsense. The author, Felicity Carter, started dabbling in Tarot readings as entertainment, and as the story often goes, was convinced by the amazing accuracy of some of her readings. While she increasingly took her readings and her psychic power seriously, she always kept one foot in the “real” world and was apparently intellectually honest enough to ask important questions (at least in her current telling). Here are some of the key insights she provides.

The first is the way the new-age mind works. She states, “Astrology is one big word association game.” This is typical pre-scientific superstitious thinking. It probably derives from the fact that the human brain largely functions through association. We’re really good at it. We casually use analogies, and our literature is replete with metaphor. The problem comes from confusing metaphor for reality. This is often referred to as sympathetic magic, which is the conceptual underpinning of many pseudosciences, like homeopathy. In this world-view metaphors are not just abstract connections made in the human brain, they actually exist out there in the physical world. The happenstance arrangement of some stars as viewed from Earth slightly resembles a lion in the human imagination, so this virtual pattern actually imbues the qualities that humans perceive lions possess. It is an extreme metaphysical view of reality, with the universe being imbued with cosmic magic. If it makes you feel better you can say it’s quantum something. What matters is our gut intuition that metaphors are real.

All this makes it very easy to give a reading, regardless of the specific tools used – Tarot, astrological charts, tea leaves, numerology, or nothing at all. All you have to do is riff on free associations.

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Jul 15 2019

Clouds and Climate Change

A paper is making the rounds on climate denial sites that claims to debunk human-caused climate change in a single stroke. Predictably, the paper does nothing of the sort, but it does raise a complex issue regarding climate change that is worth reviewing. But first let’s get to the paper itself.

The paper, by J. Kauppinen and P. Malmi, is a pre-publication paper on the Arxiv. This means it is not peer-reviewed. Their central claim, from the abstract:

In this paper we will prove that GCM-models used in IPCC report AR5 fail to calculate the influences of the low cloud cover changes on the global temperature.

Right in the first sentence is a huge red flag – claiming to be able to “prove” that the IPCC report is false. That’s a bold claim, and suggests a less than rigorous intellectual approach. They also claim to rebuke a rather robust conclusion built on many lines of evidence with a single line of evidence – the single stroke approach. This is also a huge red flag.

The claim is built around one major line of reasoning, that if you compare low cloud cover with changes in global temperatures, you see a strong correlation. In fact, the authors argue, you can explain most of global warming as resulting from a decrease in low cloud cover, leaving almost nothing left for anthropogenic forcing. There is a great deal wrong with this claim. The site ClimateFeedback has helpfully curated much of the response from climate scientists, who eviscerate the Kauppinen paper, and I will give you a summary of their summary.

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Apr 23 2019

Behind the Curve – Flat Earth Exposed

I finally watched Behind The Curve, a documentary about the Flat Earth movement. It is a powerful documentary which provides important insights into this fascinating phenomenon. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it.

For me the most interesting moments were those when the Flat Earth believers the film focuses on show a flash of insight. They never quite get there, but they have all the pieces in front of them, they see them, they see their significance, but can’t quite make the final emotional connection.

The other aspects that I found most interesting were those that provided generic insight into how ideological movements work. There is some basic and universal human psychology going on, and in some ways it’s a mirror to any group of humans, including skeptics.

I also was especially interested in the question, directly addressed by the film, of how best to approach Flat Earthers and the entire movement. What is our responsibility here as science communicators, and what is our best strategy?

Some reviews have focused on those moments when Flat Earthers did experiments to test their theory, and were wrong. These are, of course, delicious. For example, one group purchased a ring laser gyroscope, a $20k device that can very sensitively measure movement. They say straight up, and correctly, that if the earth is a globe and it rotates once every 24 hours, then there should be a 15 degree drift in the gyroscope every hour. That is their experimental hypothesis.

So – they set up the device and…it measures a 15 degree drift every hour. QED – the Earth is a rotating globe.

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Mar 19 2019

The Gambler’s Fallacy

One of the core concepts in my book, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, is that humans are inherently good at certain cognitive tasks, and inherently bad at others. Further, our cognitive processes are biased in many ways and we tend to commit common errors in logic and mental short-cuts that are not strictly valid. The human brain appears to be optimized by evolution to quickly and efficiently do the things we need to do to stay alive and procreate, and this has a higher priority than having an accurate perception and understanding of reality. (Having an accurate perception of reality has some priority, just not as much as efficiency, internal consistency, and pragmatism, apparently.)

One of the things humans are not generally good at is statistics, especially when dealing with large numbers. We have a “math module” in our brains that is pretty good at certain things, such as dealing with small numbers, making comparisons, and doing simple operations. However, for most people we quickly get out of our intuitive comfort zone when dealing with large numbers or complex operations. There is, of course, also a lot of variation here.

We give several examples to illustrate how people generally have poor intuition for statistics and certain kinds of math, and how our understanding of math runs up against our cognitive biases and flawed heuristics. These common examples include the fact that we have a poor intuitive grasp of randomness.

Probability also seems to be a challenge. How many people would you have to have in a room before having a >50% chance that two of them share the same birthday (not year, just day)? The answer is a lot less than most people guess – it’s just 23. We tend to underestimate how probabilities multiply when making multiple comparisons. This is why we are inappropriately amazed at coincidences. They are not as amazing as we naively think. The probability of someone winning the lottery twice is also a lot higher than you might think.

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Mar 11 2019

Another Theory of Everything – Oh My!

Published by under Pseudoscience

These are always amusing, but I do admit to a little bit of guilt. My concern is that the individuals involved may be diagnosable, and is it really fair to publicly criticize their “work.” But then I realize I cannot diagnose people from afar, and they placed their work in the public arena, so it’s fair game.

What I am talking about are extreme cranks, and a particular flavor of cranks that believe they have developed what is derogatorily called a “theory of everything.” These are theories that attempt to explain the ultimate nature of reality – of space, time, fundamental forces, and even the meaning of life – but are not truly scientific. Such individuals have always existed in some form, and the internet has given them a new venue to rapidly spread their bizarre claims.

The now iconic example of the extreme theory-of-everything internet crank is “the time cube guy.” He became famous (as an internet meme) for his endlessly scrolling webpage filled with incoherent technobabble, peculiar fonts and formatting, and boasts about how much smarter he was than famous scientists. For many this was their introduction into the world of crankery. Many scientists were already very familiar, however, being on the receiving end of occasional massive tomes of self-published nonsense, eager for their attention.

A new crank theory of everything is making the rounds, at least within skeptical corners of the internet – Dan Winter, who is pushing his theory – Phase Conjugate Fractality: HOW Gravity is CAUSED. (formatting in the original)

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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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