Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Jul 25 2023

Giant Eels, Loch Ness, and Probability

Published by under Skepticism

At this point it is pretty clear that the Loch Ness Monster (Nessie) does not exist. I know, logically it is impossible to prove a negative, so if we want to be technical we can say that the probability of a large creature similar to that believed to be Nessie approaches zero. The original 1934 photograph that created the Nessie phenomenon is a confessed hoax. We have 89 years of exploration, including countless visitors hoping to get a glimpse of the creature, camera in hand, and sonar surveys, submarine explorations, multiple webcams, and most recently a DNA survey. The DNA survey is perhaps the most conclusive, because it captures the DNA signature of everything living in the lake. There is no evidence of anything that can be a giant reptile.

If Nessie does not exist, then what have people been seeing all these years? I don’t think we need a concrete explanation for every single sighting. Hard evidence is one thing, but just eyewitness testimony is not really evidence. It is also well known that people misperceive things, confabulate, and are strongly influenced by expectations and desires. In short, if you look hard enough for the Loch Ness Monster, eventually you will see something and convince yourself that you saw the Loch Ness Monster. Even still, it is interesting to hypothesize about what phenomena might trigger alleged sightings, and not just of Nessie, but other lake monsters and cryptids.

One hypothesis is that some eye witnesses may have been seeing other aquatic creatures that might swim along the surface or breech. This includes large alligators, seals, groups of otters, and large fish such as sturgeon. The DNA evidence also ruled out these creatures for the Loch Ness (although they are still candidates for some other lake monsters). DNA, however, did raise the possibility that there are giant eels living in the Loch. Could an unusually giant eel have been mistaken for the neck or tail of Nessie?

A recent paper tests that hypothesis with some statistics. They used data for the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) to calculate likely size distributions. Eels grow throughout their lifespan, and can live over a hundred years. However, their growth is not linear, as it slows down as they age. They calculate that a sighting of a 1 meter long eel in Loch Ness has a probability of 1 in 50,000. Given the size of the lake and the fish stock, they conclude that such sightings are reasonable. So if you think a 1 meter eel could be mistaken for Nessie, it is a reasonable candidate, at least for some of the sightings over the years.

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Jul 18 2023

How We Determine What to Believe as True

Psychologists have been studying a very basic cognitive function that appears to be of increasing importance – how do we choose what to believe as true or false? We live in a world awash in information, and access to essentially the world’s store of knowledge is now a trivial matter for many people, especially in developed parts of the world. The most important cognitive skill in the 21st century may arguably be not factual knowledge but truth discrimination. I would argue this is a skill that needs to be explicitly taught in school, and is more important than teaching students facts.

Knowing facts is still important, because you cannot think in a vacuum. Our internal model of the world is build on bricks of fact, but before we take a brick and place it in our wall of knowledge, we have to decide if it is probably true or not. I have come to think about this in terms of three categories of skills – domain knowledge (with scientific claims this is scientific literacy), critical thinking, and media savvy.

Domain knowledge, or scientific literacy, is important because without a working knowledge of a topic you have no basis for assessing the plausibility of a new claim. Does it even make basic sense? An easily refutable claim may be accepted simply because you don’t know it is easily refutable. Critical thinking skills involve an understanding of the heuristics we naturally use to estimate truth, our cognitive biases, cognitive pitfalls like conspiracy thinking, how motivation affects our thought processes, and mechanisms of self deception. Media savvy involves understanding how to assess the reliability of information sources, how information ecosystems work, and how information is used by others to deceive us.

A recent study involves one aspect of this latter category – how do we assess the reliability of information sources and how this affects our bottom line assessment of whether or not something is true. The researchers did two studies involving 1,181 subjects. They gave the subjects factual information, then presented them with claims made by a media outlet. They were further told whether the media outlet intended to inform or deceive on this topic. They studies claims that are considered highly politicized and those that were not.

What they found is that subjects were more likely to deem a claim true if it came from a source considered to be trying to inform, and more likely to be false when the source was characterized as trying to deceive – even if the claims were the same. At first this result seems strange because the subjects were told the actual facts, so they knew absolutely (within the confines of the study) whether or not the claim was true.

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Jun 27 2023

Titan Disaster and Risk vs Benefit

Published by under Skepticism

There has been a lot of discussion regarding the recent disaster of the Titan submersible. Was the risk justified? Who should be responsible for the safety issues? Who should be on the hook for the millions of dollars the rescue effort took? And why did this tragedy garner more media coverage than 600 people dying off the coast of Greece when an overcrowded fishing crawler capsized?

To review, OceanGate is a submersible company that offers expeditions to the wreckage of the Titanic and other experiences. The company has been operating since 2008, making  more than 200 dives. The Titan was their latest vessel. It has made two previous successful trips to the Titanic, one in 2021, and one in 2022. The trip this month was it’s third trip. During descent to the wreckage, about 1 hour 45 minutes in, the control vessel suddenly lost contact with the Titan. It is believed that at that point the Titan suffered a “catastrophic implosion”. Essentially the pressure compartment failed. Even the tiniest crack would be enough, as any weak point would then collapse the entire chamber, kind of like popping a balloon but with high pressure on the outside rather than the inside. The only bright side of this being the fate of the Titan is that death would have been sudden, and the five passengers were not slowly suffocating for days trapped in the dark deep under water.

The disaster has sparked a lot of discussion about whether the entire enterprise is worth the risk. Some have called for a halt to any sight-seeing trips to the Titanic (anything other than research). At the other end of the spectrum was the OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush who now famously said:

“You know, at some point, safety is just pure waste. I mean, if you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed, don’t get in your car, don’t do anything. At some point, you’re going to take some risk, and it really is a risk-reward question.”

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Jun 06 2023

How Much Carbon do Living Things Store?

Published by under Skepticism

Since we are in a “all hands on deck” situation when it comes to climate change, we need to take a look at all potential strategies for delaying and blunting global warming. The game at this point is all about peak warming – how much will the Earth warm before temperatures peak and then start to come down again (assuming we eventually drastically reduce our collective carbon footprint). This is not a win-lose, all-or-nothing scenario. It is very much a sliding scale – the higher peak warming is, the greater the chance of hitting some nasty tipping points and the greater the disruption to life and civilization.

Current evidence indicates that if we keep at 1.5 C warming or below (we are currently at 1 C warming) then we will probably be OK. If we exceed 2.5 C then there will very likely be disastrous results. Between 1.5 and 2.5 there is uncertainty. We don’t know precisely where the tipping points are (where will the Antarctic glaciers fail and essentially slide into the ocean), or exactly how bad things will get at each degree above 1.5. The problem is, we will almost certainly land somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 C. So every bit we do to reduce that peak warming will likely have measurable benefits. For any intervention, therefore, the question is not whether or not it will prevent global warming, but rather how much will it likely reduce peak warming and lower the odds of the really bad stuff happening. This is why many experts believe we need an “all of the above” strategy. Every little bit helps.

With that in mind, what is the potential for reducing peak warming by maximizing living carbon sinks? Often this question is framed with respect to the most obvious living carbon sink – trees. Can we “prevent” global warming by planting a trillion trees, which should be framed as, how much does planting trees contribute to reducing peak warming. We can also frame it as, can we keep at or below a certain level (such as 1.5 C) if we plant enough trees?

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May 16 2023

The Role of Plausibility in Science

I have been writing blog posts and engaging in science communication long enough that I have a pretty good sense how much engagement I am going to get from a particular topic. Some topics are simply more divisive than others (although there is an unpredictable element from social media networks). I wish I could say that the more scientifically interesting topics garnered more attention and comments, but that is not the case. The overall pattern is that topics which have an ideological angle or affect people’s world-view inspire more passionate criticism or defense.  Timed drug release is an important topic, with implications for potentially anyone who has to take medication at some point in their lives. But it doesn’t challenge anyone’s world view. ESP, on the other hand, is a fringe topic likely to directly affect no one, but apparently is 70 times more interesting to my readers (using comments as a measure).

I also get e-mails, and my recent article on ESP research attracted a number of angry individuals who wanted to excoriate my closed minded “scientism”.  I think people care so much about ESP and other psi and paranormal phenomena because it gets at the heart of their beliefs about reality – do we live in a purely naturalistic and mechanistic world, or do we live in a world where the supernatural exists? Further, in my experience while many people are happy to praise the virtue of faith (believing without knowing) in reality they desperately want there to be objective evidence for their beliefs. Meanwhile, I think it’s fair to say that a dedicated naturalist would find it “disturbing” (if I can paraphrase Darth Vader) if there really were convincing evidence that contradicts naturalism. Both sides have an out, as it were. Believers in a supernatural universe can always say that the supernatural by definition is not provable by science. One can only have faith. This is a rationalization that has the virtue of being true, if properly formulated and utilized. Naturalists can also say that if you have actual scientific evidence of an alleged paranormal phenomenon, then by definition it’s not paranormal. It just reflects a deeper reality and points in the direction of new science. Yeah!

Regardless of what you believe deep down about the ultimate nature of reality (and honestly, I couldn’t care less, as long as you don’t think you have the right to impose that view on others), the science is the science. Science follows methodological naturalism, and is agnostic toward the supernatural question. It operates within a framework of naturalism, but recognizes this is a construct, and does not require philosophical naturalism. So you can have your faith, just don’t mess with science.

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May 15 2023

Student Attitudes Toward AI in the Class

Published by under Education,Skepticism

Researchers recently published an extensive survey of almost 6,000 students across academic institution in Sweden. The results are not surprising, but they do give a snapshot of where we are with the recent introduction of large language model AIs.

Most students, 56%, reported that they use Chat GPT in their studies, and 35% regularly. More than half do not know if their school has guidelines on AI use in their classwork, and 62% believe that using a chatbot during an exam is cheating (so 38% do not think that). What this means is that most students are using AI for their classwork, but they don’t know what the rules are and are unclear on what would constitute cheating.  Also, almost half of students think that using AI makes them more efficient learners, and many commented that they feel it has improved their own language and thinking skills.

So – is the use of AI in education a bane or a boon? Of course, asking students is only one window into this question. Educators have concerns about AI creating a lazy student, that can serve up good-enough answers to get by. There are also concerns about outright cheating, although that has to be carefully defined. Some teachers don’t know how to react when students turn in essays that appear to have been written by a chat bot. But many also think there is tremendous potential is using AI as an educational tool.

Clearly the availability of the latest generation of large language model AIs is a disruptive technology. Schools are now scrambling to deal with it, but I think they have no choice. Students are moving fast, and if schools don’t keep up they will miss an opportunity and fail to mitigate the potential downsides. What is clear is that AI has the potential to significantly change education. Simplistic solutions like just banning the use of AI is not going to work.

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Apr 10 2023

The Lunar Cycle and Suicide

Published by under Skepticism

Does the lunar cycle affect human behavior? This seems to be a question that refuses to die, no matter how hard it is to confirm any actual effect. It’s now a cultural idea, deeply embedded and not going anywhere. A recent study, however, seems to show a correlation between suicide and the week of the full moon in a pre-Covid cohort of subjects from Marion County. What are we to make of this finding?

Specifically they show that:

We analyzed pre-COVID suicides from the Marion County Coroner’s Office (n = 776), and show that deaths by suicide are significantly increased during the week of the full moon (p = 0.037), with older individuals (age ≥ 55) showing a stronger effect (p = 0.019). We also examined in our dataset which hour of the day (3–4 pm, p = 0.035), and which month of the year (September, p = 0.09) show the most deaths by suicide.

They also found suicides were not significantly associated with the full moon for subjects <30. They did not give the p-value for those between 30 and 55, and I suspect, given the numbers, that group was either not significant or barely significant. The first question we should ask when confronted with data like this is – is this likely to be a real effect, or just a statistical false positive? We can think about prior plausibility, the statistical power of the study, and the degree of significance. But really there is one primary way this question is sorted out – replication.

In fact, studies like this are best done in at least two phases, an initial exploratory phases and a follow up internal replication to confirm the results of the first data set. But confirmation can also be done through subsequent replication, by the same group or others. A real effect should replicate, while a false positive should not. The authors note that they did a literature search and found the results “mixed”. In fact, this study is a replication (not exact replication, but still a replication) of earlier studies asking the same question. Did they replicate the results of previous studies? Let’s take a look. Continue Reading »

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Feb 28 2023

A Climate Debate Regarding Health Effects – Part II

Yesterday’s post was the first in an exchange about the effects of climate change on public health. Today’s post is my response.

Part II

Climate change is a critically important topic for society today, and it’s important that the public have a working knowledge of the facts, causes, effects, and potential interventions regarding climate change, so I am always happy to discuss the topic. Unfortunately, it’s a very complex topic that has been highly politicized and polarized. The science often becomes wrapped up in ideology – the best indication of this is that one’s political affiliation is the strongest predictor of the public’s opinions regarding climate change. The media, as they do in general, is happy to sensationalize the topic and often does not provide good context or background. Scientists have gotten better communicating about climate change, but not enough to override political affiliation.

My sense is the core issue is that the complexity of climate change allows everyone to cherry pick those details that fit their narrative. You can find examples to support whatever narrative you want to believe. You don’t even have to be factually incorrect (although many people certainly are), you just have to be selective in your details and interpretation. Climate change is a Rorschach test of subjective validation and confirmation bias.

I say this all because I think Scott’s narrative comes through very clearly. He contacted me asking fervently for a debate on this specific topic, the health effects of climate change. I thought this was a little odd since I have never written or expressed an opinion about this topic before. It seems he assumed what my position was based on other things I have written about climate change – that I think it’s real, it is primarily being caused by humans, and the effects are likely to be bad for the environment and human civilization. This brings up another aspect of the climate change debate, that people generally take sides and think that everyone fits relatively cleanly into the “for or against” side. Once someone thinks they have detected what side you are on, they then ascribe the entire package of views to you.

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Jan 31 2023

The Cancer Cure Conspiracy Again

Some ideas never seem to die. There is something compelling about the narrative, perhaps because it fills some explanatory need. One of those narratives is that “they” have “the cure” to cancer but are keeping it hidden from the public in order to protect the profits that result from cancer treatment. I recently received the following e-mail (partly redacted):

“I read many articles by physicians like yourself that claim secrets cannot be kept about cancer cures.  I beg to differ.

Pharmaceutical firms require their associates to sign confidentiality agreements as a condition of employment.  If they breach it, it’s safe to assume that they risk grave consequences for doing so.

These companies could care less about sick people.  They only care about the health of their bottom line.  They make far more profit on lifetime treatments rather than one-shot cures.  After the patent expiration on a cure, the steady stream of revenue comes to a halt.

A cure eliminates the need for any new drug development unless the side effects are unpalatable.  I was even told as much by a retired employee of a pharmaceutical company.  She saw the private memos from their lobbyists.

In any case, the confidentiality contracts are why secrets are kept in the pharmaceutical industry.  It’s also why cancer cures can be kept hidden as it would be treated as a trade secret.  No one wants to be brought up on a felony charge of industrial espionage.  Nor do they wish to be sued for it by their former employer.

Ask yourself the following question: would you risk your family’s future under those circumstances?  No way!  If you signed one of those legal instruments, you would never divulge such information if you came across it.”

The notion that a pharmaceutical company could hide a cancer cure is, in my opinion, and from the perspective of an academic physician who has participated in clinical research for pharmaceutical companies, hopelessly naive. The belief comes partly from looking into a complex system from the outside, without any real idea how it actually works.  First let’s talk about the science and then we’ll turn to the logistics of the conspiracy itself.

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Jan 27 2023

Electricity from Rocks?

There are several viral videos spreading claiming to demonstrate a large electric charge stored in certain kinds of rocks in Africa. The most popular is this one which alleges to show electrically charged rocks from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). When touched together the rocks give off large sparks which leave burn marks on the stones. The comments are mostly amusing and sad, reflecting the cultural turmoil of the region. A few figured out what is happening here.

We can start by evaluating the plausibility of the claim. The sparking is not a single event, as if there were static electricity in the rocks that discharged. They continue to discharge without diminishing. It is implausible that a natural ore (i.e. not a battery) would contain so much electricity. Also, where would the electricity come from? Some commenters through out the piezoelectric effect, the transformation of mechanical stress to current, but this only produces a tiny amount of electricity. Even if there were some small amount of static electricity in the material, this would not be a source of power, as some seem to believe.

What about the video itself? There are countless deceptive and fake videos on social media, so it’s good to have some basic idea how to recognize deception. I recommend Captain Disillusion’s Youtube channel – he is a digital effects expert who examines dubious videos and reveals their deception. On this video there are some immediately suspicious features. First, the video is very close-up. We are seeing just the rocks with little space around them. Close-cropping like this is a standard technique for hiding things out of view of the lens. An honest video documenting a phenomenon would show the environment and the setup, and show multiple angles and perspectives. It may zoom in at some point, but if all you see if a super close-up, be suspicious.

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