Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Sep 21 2020

The Holocaust and Losing History

Published by under Skepticism

In the movie Interstellar, which takes place in a dystopian future where the Earth is challenged by progressive crop failures, children are taught in school that the US never went to the Moon, that it was all a hoax. This is a great thought experiment – could a myth, even a conspiracy theory, rise to the level of accepted knowledge? In the context of religion the answer is, absolutely. We have seen this happen in recent history, such as with Scientology, and going back even a little further with Mormonism and Christian Science. But what is the extent of the potential contexts in which a rewriting of history within a culture can occur? Or, we can frame the question as – are there any limits to such rewriting of history?

I think it is easy to make a case for the conclusion that there are no practical limits. Religion is also not the only context in which myth can become belief. The more totalitarian the government, the more they will be able to rewrite history any way they want (“We’ve always been at war with Eastasia”). It is also standard belief, and I think correctly, that the victors write the history books, implying that they write it from their perspective, with themselves as the heroes and the losers as the villains.

But what about just culture? I think the answer here is an unqualified yes also. In many Asian cultures belief in chi, a mysterious life force, is taken for granted, for example. There are many cultural mythologies, stories we tell ourselves and each other that become accepted knowledge. These can be the hardest false beliefs to challenge in oneself, because they become part of your identity. Doubting these stories is equivalent to tearing out a piece of yourself, questioning your deeper world-view.

These cultural beliefs can also be weaponized, for political purposes, and for just marketing. A century ago Chairman Mao decided to manufacture a new history of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). He took parts of various previous TCM traditions, even ones that were mutually exclusive and at ideological war with each other, and then grafted them into a new TCM, altering basic concepts to make them less barbaric and more palatable to a modern society. Now, less than a century later, nearly everyone believes this manufactured fiction as if it were real history. Only skeptical nerds or certain historians know, for example, that acupuncture as practiced today is less than a century old, and not the thousands of years old that proponents claim. Mao’s propaganda has become history.

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Sep 08 2020

QAnon and Other Conspiracies

I previously wrote that the flat Earth movement is the mother of all conspiracies – it essentially is the ultimate conspiracy in that, if you believe that the world is actually flat then you also have to believe that there has been a massive conspiracy involving millions of people all of the world over centuries. If “they” can lie to us about the shape of the world, then they can lie to us about anything. Once you have been convinced that the spherical nature of the Earth is a grand conspiracy, then you can believe anything. Facts, expertise, authority all cease to exist. And that, I think, is the point. That is the appeal of flat Eartherism – it gives you permission to believe anything you want, to reject any claim, any fact, out of hand. You have the freedom to construct reality the way you wish, and can dispense with the tedious part of having to deal with actual reality.

Recently another conspiracy has been getting more attention, and may have eclipsed the flat Earth theory as the most extreme conspiracy. This one is more of a politically-based rather than science-based conspiracy, but that is not as critical as you might think. Phenomenologically they are the same, and the subject matter is actually secondary. But in any case, the Q conspiracy holds that Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats are part of a world-wide cabal of Satan-worshiping cannibalistic pedophiles who are trying to secretly take over the world. Further, Trump is actually secretly a genius who is working behind the scenes, with Mueller and in some incarnations with JFK Jr. who is secretly still alive, to uncover this cabal and bring them to justice (an event they call the “Storm”), and when he does he will usher in a golden age.

As with the flat Earth, the first reaction someone might have to hearing these conspiracies is that they are incredibly dumb. They are epically stupid, in a childish way. That may be true, but if you stop there then you miss what is actually going on. Also, it is very tempting to conclude that because the conspiracy theories themselves are mindbogglingly ridiculous, that people who believe them must be themselves “epically stupid”. But I don’t think that’s true, and that conclusion misses the actual phenomenon at work.

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Aug 03 2020

Do Your Own Research?

A recent commentary on Forbes advises: You Must Not ‘Do Your Own Research’ When It Comes To Science. I agree  with everything the author, Ethan Siegel, says in the piece. It was a good start – but did not go far enough. For example, he did not really reach any conclusion about what people should actually do, beyond “listen to the experts.” OK – how, exactly, do we do that? This is not a criticism (I have written similar articles before) but an observation: after trying to communicate these same skeptical themes for decades and getting thousands of questions from the public, I have realized that it is perhaps not so obvious what it means to listen to the experts.

First let me amplify what Siegel gets right, although I may reframe it a bit. He correctly describes the typical process that people use when evaluating new information, although does not name it – confirmation bias. His summary is as good as any:

  • formulating an initial opinion the first time we hear about something,
  • evaluating everything we encounter after that through that lens of our gut instinct,
  • finding reasons to think positively about the portions of the narrative that support or justify our initial opinion,
  • and finding reasons to discount or otherwise dismiss the portions that detract from it.

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Jun 02 2020

Journalism Without Skepticism

A recent interview published in Scientific American is a good case study in what can happen when you have journalism without skepticism.  By skepticism I mean a working knowledge of the discipline of scientific skepticism, which combines our current understanding of the philosophy of science, the nature of pseudoscience, critical thinking, mechanisms of self-deception, deliberate deception, and specific knowledge about individual pseudoscientific and paranormal topics.

The interview was conducted by John Horgan, who I have trashed in the past for criticizing skepticism while demonstrating an almost complete ignorance of it. The subject of the interview was Leslie Kean, a journalist who has written a book on UFOs and another on life after death. Doing a deep dive into these two issues is beyond this one article, and they have already been covered at length here and elsewhere. I want to focus on what the interview itself reveals.

Kean appears to take a solid journalistic approach to these issues, but there is a massive hole in her approach. She does not seem to be aware that there is already a thorough investigation into these questions, showing convincingly in my opinion that they are not genuine. She ignores it because she thinks she already understands it, when she doesn’t – so she is missing the skeptical take on these issues. She is dismissive of skeptics as deniers and as closed-minded. She then goes on to make rookie mistakes, that any well-informed skeptic could have pointed out to her. The result is a repetition of long debunked fallacious arguments, but with a patina of serious journalism.

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Jun 01 2020

Junk Science in the Courtroom

In the last 20 years I have been called to jury duty several times. Every time I was dismissed almost instantly, once I made it known that I am a professional skeptic. Apparently lawyers fear that kind of skepticism on their juries (at least one side always did). The same is true of many of my skeptical colleagues, so I am not an isolated case. Once my brother said during the process that he wrote an article on the fallibility of human memory and eyewitness testimony. His but barely hit the seat when he was dismissed.

It is unclear how best to interpret these anecdotes, but what is clear is that justice requires facts and needs to align optimally with reality. Falsehoods and pseudoscience do not generally lead to justice. It is for this reason that courtrooms have elaborate rules of evidence, and generally they work well. Even in our adversarial system, you need to use generally valid arguments, you need to back up your statements with evidence, and there are rules of admissibility. Each side provides a check on the other, as a neutral arbiter presides over the process. It is imperfect (because imperfect people are involved) but at least it has a process.

One area where this process has historically had significant problems, however, is in forensic science, and the admissibility of science itself. The main problem, as I see it, is that it is based largely on authority, in both a good and bad way. Each side is allowed to find their own experts, and they can cherry pick experts whose opinion aligns with their needs. Often a non-expert jury is then tasked with sorting it out. There are standards for which expert testimony is admissible, and this has been a controversy unto itself. Here is a good summary:

Prior to 1993, the Frye standard for admitting expert testimony was the prevailing standard for guiding federal and state courts in their consideration as to whether scientific expert testimony should be admitted at trial. Frye v. United States[1]. The Frye standard requires that the proponent of the evidence establish the general acceptance of the underlying scientific principle and the testing procedures. Notably, Frye only applies to new or novel scientific evidence. However, in 1993, following a revision to the Federal Evidence Code by Congress, the Supreme Court of the United States annunciated the new standard in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc.[2] The Daubert inquiry was meant to be flexible and focused on scientific principles and methodology, not conclusions. The Daubert opinion emphasized that the Federal Rules of Evidence governed admissibility and suggested a series of factors a court could consider, but did not establish a test per se. Under Daubert, the admissibility of expert evidence rests squarely within the discretion of the trial court judge. In contrast to FryeDaubert applies to all expert witness testimony.

This article is about the fact that Florida has reverted to the Frye standard recently. This highlights the fact that legal precedent is largely how this is sorted out, and may differ for every state and at the federal level.

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Apr 27 2020

Psychological Pitfalls and COVID-19

SARS-Cov2 is a challenging little bugger, but in my assessment no match for human science and ingenuity. There are already 1,650 listed scientific articles on COVID-19 and 450 ongoing clinical trials. In short, we are scienceing the shit out of this pandemic and we will get through it. But as I have argued previously, perhaps a bigger threat than the virus itself is human psychology. Crises bring out the best and worst in people, and we are seeing both in spades. Also, a crisis exposes the weaknesses in institutions, and they are being highlighted as well.

That’s why, in medicine, we have something called M and M – morbidity and mortality rounds. The goal of these rounds is to review all negative clinical outcomes in whatever setting is being covered and try to figure out what went wrong. But, importantly, such conferences are not about assigning blame, recrimination, or discipline. It is about improving the system. Was a particular negative outcome unavoidable? Was it precipitated by a personal failure, or rather a systemic failure. And if not a failure per se, is there some systematic change we can put in place to minimize these negative outcomes in the future? Should this be handled by education, by some additional checklist or process, or by reconfiguring the workforce?

For some crises, like the pandemic (or a war, for example), we can’t wait until it’s all over to look back and analyze the systemic shortcomings (although we should do this also, to prepare for the next one). We need ongoing analysis and adjustment. That is what a group of psychologists have done, with respect to common psychological pitfalls and how they might affect our individual response to the pandemic. I like this review because it is square in the tradition of skeptical thinking – it identifies psychological pitfalls so that we can better understand ourselves, and proposes specific adjustments we can do to mitigate them. You can read the full article, but I want to highlight a few of particular interset.

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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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Mar 17 2020

Being Anti-intellectual During a Pandemic

Published by under Skepticism

In the past I have written a defense of elitism and expertise, and articles exploring the phenomenon of anti-intellectualism. For those who reject science this is a core issue – they must attack expertise, reject consensus, and defend populism as their justification for promoting the idea that the consensus of scientific opinion is wrong. They do so with the same tired and rejected arguments they have for decades, which I guess is in line with their anti-intellectualism.

Recently Michael Egnor, who writes for the anti-science Discovery Institute, and with whom I have tangled before, wrote a stunning defense of anti-intellectualism. He marshaled all the old tropes, which I have already dealt with, but I felt it was especially poignant in the middle of a pandemic. We are actually seeing in real time the consequences of science-denial, of rejecting the advice of experts and basing opinions on your “hunches”, and of approaching reality with a general attitude of anti-expertise populism.

The core of Egnor’s anti-intellectual attack is the notion that – those scientists have been wrong before. First – of course they have. Science is not a crystal ball. It is a set of methods for slowly, painstakingly working out how reality functions. It is full of false hypotheses, dead-ends, mistakes, and occasional brilliance. But mostly it’s careful tedious work, which is then put through the meat-grinder of peer-review. Science is messy, which is why I spend perhaps the majority of my time writing here and on SBM discussing the messiness of science, the pitfalls, the institutional failures, and the changes that many think will help make the institutions of science incrementally better.

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Mar 16 2020

Perpetual Flying Machine

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

I’m a sucker for perpetual motion machines. I don’t mean that I think they work – they don’t – but they are often intriguing contraptions out of some cyberpunk fantasy. They are also often a bit of a puzzle. How are they supposed to work, and why don’t they? That free energy or perpetual motion machines don’t work is a given, because of the laws of thermodynamics. Energy has to come from somewhere, so for each such claim it’s a fun game to figure out where the energy is actually coming from. This game also helps dispel any notion of continuous or free energy.

A new perpetual motion claim is revealed in an article in the Rob Report. The claims is for an electric plane that will fly mostly with the energy generated by the friction of the flying itself. The idea is that the plane will have rechargeable electric batteries that are used for take-off and landing. But while in flight, the batteries will be recharged by vibrations and the flexing of the wings. The inventor, Michal Bonikowski, who calls his project Eather One, hopes this will yield enough energy to keep the plane flying indefinitely.

The problem with this concept, as with all perpetual motion concepts, is the second law of thermodynamics. Every time you change energy from one state to another, at least a little bit is lost. You can never have 100% efficiency. So the energy you use to propel the plane forward will have to be greater than the energy you harvest from pushing through the air. If you design a mechanism (as in the concept art) for harvesting air friction, the extra resistance from the mechanism will cause the plane to slow by more than using that energy to propel it will increase its speed. The entire process will be a net negative. You would be better off optimizing aerodynamics.

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Feb 27 2020

Anti-Intellectualism and Rejecting Science

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
― Issac Asimov

As science-communicators and skeptics we are trying to understand the phenomenon of rejection of evidence, logic, and the consensus of expert scientific opinion. There is, of course, no one explanation – complex psychological phenomena are likely to be multifactorial. Decades ago the blame was placed mostly on scientific illiteracy, a knowledge deficit problem, and the prescription was science education. Many studies over the last 20 years or so have found a host of factors – including moral purity, religious identity, ideology, political identity, intuitive (as opposed to analytical) thinking style, and a tendency toward conspiratorial thinking. And yes, knowledge deficit also plays a role. These many factors contribute to varying degrees on different issues and with different groups. They are also not independent variables, as they interact with each other.  Religious and political identity, for example, may be partially linked, and may contribute to a desire for moral purity.

Also, all this is just one layer, mostly focused on explaining the motivation for rejecting science. The process of rejection involves motivated reasoning, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and a host of self-reinforcing cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias. Shameless plug – for a full discussion of cognitive biases and related topics, see my book.

So let’s add one more concept into the mix: anti-intellectualism – the generalized mistrust of intellectuals and experts. This leads people to a contrarian position. They may consider themselves skeptics, but they do not primarily hold positions on scientific issues because of the evidence, but mainly because it is contrary to the mainstream or consensus opinion. If those elite experts claim it, then it must be wrong, so I will believe the opposite. This is distinct from conspiracy thinking, although there is a relationship. As an aside, what the evidence here shows is that some people believe in most or all conspiracies because they are conspiracy theorists. Others believe only in some conspiracies opportunistically, because it’s necessary to maintain a position they hold for other reasons. There is therefore bound to be a lot of overlap between anti-intellectualism and holding one or more conspiracies, but they are not the same thing.

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