Archive for the 'Science and the Media' Category

Mar 19 2018

Gullible Reporting About ESP on CBS

In the 1970s and 80s belief in the paranormal was the most common target of skeptics. Topics like extrasensory perception (ESP), astrology, and faith healing were at the top of the list of skeptical concerns. In the last 30 years skepticism has evolved quite a bit, and while we never stopped being watchdogs on paranormal beliefs and other pseudosciences, they did mostly fade  into the background. Other topics, such as science denial and the rise of fake news, took center stage.

But history has shown that there is often a cycle to such things. Interest in UFOs has waxed and waned over the years, for example, never going away completely, but fading and then rising again to prominence as a new generation discovers the topic.

Still, we do like to think we are making some progress through exposure and education. We have tried to interact frequently with the press so that at least the skeptical point of view will get better exposure when such topics are addressed. One solid victory was when the BBC announced they will no longer follow a pattern of false balance when dealing with science denial – putting a crank up against the consensus of scientific opinion as if they were equal.

A recent episode of CBS Sunday Morning about ESP, however, was worse than false balance, it was a throwback to the early days of credulous reporting about the paranormal with only token skepticism. Not that token skepticism was gone, but it has become more rare, especially from a major network or news outlet.

The piece, by Erin Moriarty, is a complete journalistic fail. It was the kind of piece we used to see thirty plus years ago before the skeptical movement had any traction. It is a perfect example of what we call token skepticism – a piece that is utterly gullible except for a very brief talking head skeptic who says something generic, like, “There is no scientific evidence to support this.” The token skepticism is immediately negated, however, by some response from the true-believer, a response the skeptic is never allowed to respond to in turn.

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Feb 27 2018

GMOs and the Revenge of Lysenko

A recent study finds that Russia is using its social media propaganda methods to stir up controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Why would Russia want to do this? This partly goes back to Lysenko.

But perhaps the real story here is the mechanism that Russia is using to stir the anti-GMO pot – weaponizing the free flow of information and ideas.

The Revenge of Lysenko

If you recall from my previous article, Lysenko was essentially a crank scientist who used his political influence to decimate the Soviet agricultural industry. It is a great historical example of the triumph of ideology over science, and an important cautionary tale. Continue Reading »

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Feb 12 2018

Significant but Irrelevant – Study on Correcting False Information

A study from a few months ago is making the rounds due to recent write ups in the media, including Scientific American. The SA titles reads: “Cognitive Ability and Vulnerability to Fake News: Researchers identify a major risk factor for pernicious effects of misinformation.”

The study itself is: ‘Fake news’: Incorrect, but hard to correct. The role of cognitive ability on the impact of false information on social impressions. In the paper the authors conclude:

“The current study shows that the influence of incorrect information cannot simply be undone by pointing out that this information was incorrect, and that the nature of its lingering influence is dependent on an individual’s level of cognitive ability.”

So it is understandable that reporters took that away as the bottom line. In fact, in an interview for another news report on the finding one of the authors is quoted:

“Our study suggests that, for individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability, the influence of fake news cannot simply be undone by pointing out that this news was fake,” De keersmaecker said. “This finding leads to the question, can the impact of fake news can be undone at all, and what would be the best strategy?”

The problem is, I don’t think this is what the study is saying at all. I think this is a great example of confusing statistically significant with clinically significant. It is another manifestation of over-reliance on p-values, and insufficient weight given to effect size.

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May 08 2017

Vaccinated vs Unvaccinated Survey

vaccine meme1One of the basic skills of critical thinking in our modern society is, first, the realization that not all scientific studies are created equal. Studies range from worthless to rigorous, and not all “studies” are even actual studies, but rather just surveys or reviews of prior research.

Further, it’s helpful to be able to look at a study and evaluate it for basic issues of quality. There will often be technical details that only an expert in the field will recognize, and statistical analysis is a specialty unto itself. But basic research concepts could apply to any study and give you at least an idea of how reliable it is. There are other generic factors as well, such as the quality of the journal in which it was published, the funding source, the history of the researchers, and whether or not the paper was ever retracted. Finally, any individual study needs to be put into the context of the overall literature, and not just cherry-picked.

Vaccinated vs Unvaccinated Study

Recently the anti-vaccine community has been sending around a study on social media that purports to show that vaccinated children have a higher rate of neurodevelopmental disorders (NDD) than unvaccinated children. This contradicts a wealth of prior studies that show that the only health difference between vaccinated and less vaccinated (fewer vaccines and/or given later) is that the less vaccinated children have more infections, especially vaccine-preventable diseases.  Continue Reading »

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Apr 21 2017

Some Brain Science Hype

scalp-EEGTwo recent neuroscience news items in The Independent represent exactly the problem with bad science journalism today and the tendency to overhype incremental studies.

Brain-Machine Interface

Here’s the first:

Device that can literally read your mind invented by scientists. An ‘easily operated’ machine linked to a smartphone could be ready within five years.

Um, no.  I have be writing about this technology for years, because it is genuinely interesting and I think is a technology to watch. Several labs have made significant progress in brain-machine interfaces. The idea is that you read the electrical activity of the brain with either scalp electrodes or brain surface electrodes. Scientists have developed software that interprets the EEG patterns and learns to correlate them with the thoughts or intentions of the subject. The subject, in turn, learns to control their mental activity to affect the EEG output.

Here is where the technology stands: With brain surface electrodes, you get a much greater resolution of EEG activity. The software has progressed to the point that monkeys can control a robotic arm with sufficient subtlety to feed themselves.

With humans we have mostly used scalp electrodes, which have a more blurry signal. Even with these people have learned to control robots or control a cursor on a computer.

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Apr 07 2017

$100 Million? It’s Going to Take More Than That

Pierre Omidyar, founder and chairman of the board of eBay, speaks at the eBay Developer's Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, Wednesday, June 13, 2007. (Photo by JB Reed/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, is one of the world’s richest men. He recently announced that his philanthropic investment firm will dedicate $100 million to combat the “global trust deficit.” By this he means the current lack of trust in information and institutions born by the age of misinformation, fake news, and alternative facts.

I agree that this is a phenomenon that needs to be studied and tackled, but I hope that he is just getting started with the $100 million, because it’s going to take a lot more than that. I also don’t think we can rely on a few philanthropists to fix this problem.

As an aside I find it historically interesting that the internet boom lead to a crop of very young very rich people, not only Omidyar but also Bezos, Musk, Zuckerberg and others. Omidyar notes that:

“We sort of skipped the ‘regular rich’ and we went straight to ‘ridiculous rich’,” he said of his overnight fortune.

“I had the notion that, okay, so now we have all of this wealth, we could buy not only one expensive car, we could buy all of them. As soon as you realise that you could buy all of them, none of them are particularly interesting or satisfying.”

So we have a crop of young bored billionaires looking to change the world. I think that’s cool.  I hope they succeed.

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Feb 23 2017

Natural News Delisted from Google

natural-news-pseudoscienceIt appears that Google has removed all Natural News content from their indexing. This means that Natural News pages will not appear in organic Google searches.

This is big news for skeptics, but it is also complicated and sure to spark vigorous discussion.

For those who may not know, Mike Adams, who runs Natural News, is a crank conspiracy theorist supreme. He hawks snake oil on his site that he markets partly by spreading the worst medical misinformation on the net. He also routinely personally attacks his critics. He has launched a smear-campaign against my colleague, David Gorski, for example.

A few years ago Adams put up a post in which he listed people who support the science of GMOs to the public, comparing them to Nazis and arguing that it would be ethical (even a moral obligation) to kill them. So he essentially made a kill-list for his conspiracy-addled followers. Mine was one of the names on that list, as were other journalists and science-communicators.

In short Adams is a dangerous loon spreading misinformation and harmful conspiracy theories in order to sell snake oil, and will smear and threaten those who call him out. He is an active menace to the health of the public.

Adams is a good example of the dark underbelly of social media. It makes it possible to build a massive empire out of click-bait and sensationalism.

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Nov 22 2016

Fake News

fake-newsThis post is a follow up to my post from last week on post-truth. The idea that we are living in a post-truth era took off this last year, making it the top pick for Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. Right on its heels, though, and perhaps a contender for phrase of the year, is “fake news.”

Fake news is clearly a thing. There are websites that make up fake news stories for various purposes. Already in the short life of this phrase it has been destroyed by abuse. It is already losing focus and meaning.

It is simultaneously a bug and a feature of the internet that it is a venue for a war of ideas. There is an obvious benefit to this in an open society – the free exchange of information in the marketplace of ideas. Let’s hash it all out with a true democracy of expression and access (well, for those with access).

The bug is that the internet is also a venue for fraud, lying, misinformation, and manipulation. Not everyone is a fair player, and they ruin it for everyone else. In actuality it is not black and white. Rather, there is a spectrum of behavior, and most people are at various points along that spectrum on different issues. At the same time there are extremes, some sites that aspire to a high level of journalism or scholarship, and at the other end sites that are pure fraud, propaganda, or click-bait.

We are collectively still trying to figure out how to deal with the resulting mess. It seems to me that part of the problem is that we are using the internet to address the problems of the internet. Bad actors can therefore hijack or duplicate the mechanisms of quality control and subvert them.

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Aug 19 2016

Communicating Risk and Certainty

climate-change-denialA recent article in the Guardian discusses how scientists and experts should communicate risk and certainty to the public. The author, Jack Stilgoe, makes some good points, but unfortunately frames it as part of a defense of Jill Stein:

She said that there were ‘real questions’ about the dangers of vaccines, that GM foods have ‘not been proven safe’ and that ‘more more research is needed’ on the risks of electromagnetic fields.

As with climate change, it is tempting to claim that the science is certain, the evidence is clear and the debate should move on. Things are rarely so black-and-white. In politics, the facts don’t speak for themselves, so it falls to experts to make sense of the shades of grey.

Stilgoe is speaking of a dilemma faced by experts and science communicators when dealing with political or ideological opinions that diverge from the scientific consensus. The real dilemma is that if we communicate the science in technically accurate detail, it seems as if we are equivocating and those on the anti-science side will unfairly exploit this to exaggerate the uncertainty. If we gloss over the uncertainty to emphasize the bottom line, then the anti-science side will unfairly exploit that to say we are engaged in a cover-up and are being uncritical.

It is a no-win scenario, which is often the case when dealing with those who put ideology above science and reason. They aren’t playing fair, which can give them a rhetorical advantage over someone honestly trying to be fair.

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Jun 30 2016

Mummies and Cancer

egyptian-mummy-3Often there are several layers to my skeptical articles – there is the science story itself, and then there is the reporting of the science and the underlying neuropsychological factors that led to the disconnect between the two.

Here we have another classic example, surrounding the claim that cancer (and sometimes extended to other “modern” diseases) were rare in pre-industrial societies based on evidence from mummies.

The Narrative

The psychological and media story here is that people tend to organize their knowledge around thematic narratives (which I am doing right here – so meta). We like stories, especially stories that have meaning, and especially when that meaning is emotionally satisfying or surprising in some way.

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