Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Nov 02 2018

That Rat Cellphone Study – I’m Still Not Impressed

Published by under Skepticism

In May I reported on the preliminary report of an extensive study of cancer incidence in mice and rats exposed to radio-frequencies. Yesterday the researchers released the final report, with essentially the same conclusions. This is prompting another round of the media reporting that a study links cell phone use to cancer – but the data does not show that, and what it does show is still not impressive.

To summarize the results, and the points I made in my previous review of this study – there were actually two studies, one in mice and one in rats. The researchers exposed some of the animals to intermittent (10 minutes on, 10 minutes off) radio frequencies in varying strengths, whole body, from the womb until death. They found a statistically significant increase in some types of brain and heart tumor in male rats only exposed to the radio frequencies, but not in female rats, and not in male or female mice.

Right there, this is a strange result. Why only male rats? If this effect does not even extend to female rats, or to mice, why should we suspect it extends to humans? Further, whenever study results are quirky like this, in my opinion that calls into question the relevance, and even the reality, of the claimed effect. It smacks of random noise.

Another red flag is the large number of comparisons being made in the study. For example, the researchers looked for a particular type of tumor, schwannoma, in various tissues. They found a statistically significant increase in the heart, but not in other tissues, and not when you look at all schwannomas – only when you consider the heart separately. This looks suspicious for not controlling for multiple comparisons. You have to make a statistical adjustment for doing so, and I see no mention that they did.

Further, the absolute numbers are fairly low, with affected rats all being in the single digits. This makes subtle confounding effects and also random quirky effects more likely.

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Oct 02 2018

SGU Book Releases Today

Published by under Skepticism

If you will allow me a bit of shameless self-promotion – my first book releases today:  The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake. (You can find places to purchase the book, reviews, and a schedule of live book-signing events here.)

This has been a two year project, and was as much work as I thought it was going to be. It took about a year to write from first conception, and then another year to go through the publishing process. My final task was recording the audio version, which took two weeks, and I completed just two weeks ago.

The book is intended to be both a primer for someone new to the world of scientific skepticism, and also a thorough reference even for experienced skeptics. We tried to make it as light and fun to read as possible, while also being dense with facts and concepts. Early reviews suggest we were reasonably successful.

I say “we” because I have four co-authors on the book, my fellow rogues at the SGU. They provided some of the first drafts of chapters, although I did the final edit to keep the book in a consistent voice and narrative.

Regular readers here will certainly find the subject matter familiar. The book is largely based, in fact, on this blog, and I thank the many regular commenters here for contributing to the conversation that has informed my writing over the years. Writing a book, however, is very different from writing a blog, I found. Blog entries are stand-alone essays. This book is not a series of essays, as some books are, but rather walks the reader through a continuous narrative. It is framed as an intellectual journey, reflecting on my own journey towards skepticism.

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Sep 21 2018

Croydon Cat Killer Found

You know, investigating can be difficult. There are many pitfalls, and it is easy to fool yourself, even when others are not trying to fool you. Critical thinking skills are indispensable to any investigative endeavor – along with specific domain knowledge.

Case in point – the mysterious case of the Croydon Cat Killer. For three years the mystery mutilator killed pet cats, eviscerated them, removed their heads and tails, and deposited the remains on display. Tabloids warned that the perpetrator would likely soon move onto humans. Veterinary pathologists and the metropolitan police were flummoxed. PETA offered a reward, and detectives from South Norwood Animal Rescue and Liberty (SNARL) found evidence of human involvement.

Investigators even worked up a profile of the likely suspect (40, male, problems with women, etc.).

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Jul 31 2018

The Weaponizing of Fake News

I encounter a range of opinions regarding the current state of politics and misinformation. At one extreme are those who argue for what I think is a false equivalence – politicians have always lied, the news has always been fake, there is nothing to see here. At the other end are those who argue that social media has changed everything.

I think reality is somewhere in the middle. Lying politicians and biased journalism have existed as long as there have been politicians and journalism. But social media has fundamentally changed the dynamic, and we have yet to adapt to the new world we have created.

This appears to primarily be a problem in societies that are based on open democracy. Ironically our freedoms have been weaponized against us. Russia interfering with the 2016 election is only the most obvious example, and is perhaps not the worst or most pernicious.

The Role of Social Media

While social media is a fantastic tool for communication and accessing information, it has some vulnerabilities. Traditional media had to build a brick-and-mortar infrastructure in order to have societal penetration, and that infrastructure was often built over years. This model favored, at least to an extent, quality control. If a news outlet was persistently wrong, or “tabloid” in its style, it was relegated to the supermarket checkout lane.

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Jul 27 2018

A Look Inside the Anti-GMO Movement

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

A recent EU court ruling on GMO regulations might just hoist the anti-GMO movement on its own petard. The ruling covers so-called new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs). I am not exactly clear on the full scope of what counts as an NPBT, but it does include CRISPR. Some reports also say it includes “mutagenesis plant breeding techniques.”

Part of the problem with the anti-GMO movement is that what counts as a GMO is vague and arbitrary. If you follow organic policy, GMO’s include any form of gene editing, but not mutation breeding (using chemicals or radiation to increase the rate of random mutations in plants). In fact scientific critics of the anti-GMO movement having repeatedly pointed this out as a glaring contradiction – opposing precise single gene changes, but not random mutations.

This ruling by an EU court expands the net of GMO farther, revealing the risk of relying on such vague and arbitrary categories. This is important because it means that a long list of breeding techniques are now prohibitively regulated in the EU. This move was in opposition to scientific organizations in Europe:

For the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), a body representing the national science academies of all 28 EU member states, the decision represents a “setback for cutting-edge science and innovation in the EU”.

“EASAC reaffirms that breakthroughs in plant breeding technologies, such as genome editing, remain crucial for food and nutrition security globally. It remains to be seen what implications this decision may have outside of the EU, particularly in developing countries who stand to benefit most from crops that better withstand the devastating effects of climate change,” EASAC said.

It is generally a bad idea for a society to consistently go against the consensus of opinion of its own scientists for pure ideology, irrational fear, or because of industry favoritism. In the case of the anti-GMO movement, all three are involved.

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Jul 17 2018

A Glitch in the Matrix

Published by under Skepticism

The original Matrix movie was brilliant and innovative. It introduced movie elements that we now take for granted, like shifting perspective and “bullet-time”. The story, too, was creative and certainly captured the imagination. In fact, I would argue, the movie has become iconic, in that it represents a more general phenomenon. There is a serious philosophical question about the probability that we are living in a simulated universe. Often “The Matrix” stands in for the concept of any kind of simulated reality.

In the movie (huge spoiler if, for some reason, you have still not seen this movie) most of humanity is living, unbeknownst to them, in a digital simulated world. They are actually floating in pods, plugged in to a vast computer. The fake reality is called the Matrix. One clever plot point is that there are occasional small glitches in the Matrix, usually when those who control the Matrix are introducing new code. This is experience by humans trapped in the Matrix as experiences of deja vu, or errors in perception. In an animated sequel (Animatrix – highly recommended if you are a Matrix fan) glitches were even used to explain apparent paranormal activity. A “haunted” house was simply a computer glitch.

This was an interesting plot point because it reverses the normal line of argument. Some people, unsurprisingly, have taken this seriously, as if it applies to the real world, therefore proving that we are actually living in the Matrix.

Glitch in the brain vs glitch in reality

There is no question that people experience glitches in their stream of perception of external reality. This is a common topic of psychological study, and pretty much the entire field of stage illusion. One very common theme of critical thinking and scientific skepticism is that we seek to carefully explain these apparent glitches as largely neurological phenomena (an approach I call neuropsychological humility).

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Jun 26 2018

Male and Female Brains Revisited

There is a seemingly endless debate about whether or not, and how, male and female brains differ. This is also an extension of the also endless nature vs nurture debate.

Unfortunately these questions get tied up with social, political, and ideological questions. I say unfortunately because they really shouldn’t be. Ideally we can ethically recognize that the optimal position is to respect every human’s rights and dignity. Everyone should be afforded the same basic rights and opportunity to pursue their potential and desires.

This ethical position can be valid even if it turns out to be true that not every human being is identical in terms of their potential or inclinations, or whether or not there are identifiable subgroups of people. These are scientific questions that should be approached and answered scientifically.

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May 11 2018

The Evolution of Baleen Whales

A recent survey finds that knowledge of evolution correlates with acceptance of evolution. This was widely reported as suggesting that educating the public about evolution could lead to higher rates of acceptance. Sure, but to be clear the survey does not actually show this. We can also interpret the same data to suggest that acceptance of evolution leads to greater knowledge of it.

This latter interpretation makes sense in light of the fact that there is a tremendous amount of misinformation about evolution from creationist sources. If you are anti-evolution for ideological reasons, you are likely to be highly misinformed about the science because your rely on secondary hostile creationist sources for your information. If you accept the scientific consensus on evolution, you may be more likely to avail yourself of legitimate scientific sources of information.

But probably both factors are at play, and we certainly should strive to improve public education about evolutionary science. It is a complex and subtle science that is poorly understood by the public. The survey also found that 68% of those surveyed failed to demonstrate a basic knowledge of evolutionary theory. And it is certainly easier to spread misinformation about a science the public generally does not understand. In this case knowledge would be a good defense against propaganda.

It is also true that the evidence for the basic fact that life on Earth is the result of evolutionary processes is a scientific home run. It is a phenomenally well-established fact, with no viable competing theory. This often creates the naive belief among those with a solid understanding of evolution and the evidence for it that if they could only explain that evidence to a typical creationist, they will win them over with the massive force of that evidence. That does sometimes happen, but more often evidence is no match for motivated reasoning.

With all that said, I am still going to write about the evidence for evolution in the hopes of nudging public acceptance even a little.

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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 13 2018

New California Initiative – Crank Magnetism in Action

Being involved in skeptical activism for over two decades does provide some perspective. One phenomenon I have noticed is that most pseudosciences and weird belief systems are, at their core, the same. Sure, the details vary, but the underlying errors in logic and thinking are the same. Essentially people make the same mistakes over and over again.

This, in fact, was the original motivation for developing a list of common logical fallacies. We kept encountering the same poor logic time and again and wanted to address the underlying cognitive errors. This is why scientific skepticism is so heavily involved with metacognition – thinking about thinking. There are thousands of fake medical claims out there, for example. Debunking every one is an endless game of whack-a-mole. Better to understand and address the underlying flaw in logic and method that leads to all the medical nonsense.

More recently this phenomenon has been dubbed, “Crank magnetism.” This is the closely related notion that people who believe on type of pseudoscience tend to believe multiple types – they tend to attract each other. The cause of this seems obvious – if your method is flawed, you will achieve the same flawed results over and over.

There may also be different flavors of crank magnetism, although there is a lot of overlap also. For example, there are conspiracy theorists who believe every conspiracy, there are spiritual true-believers who are prone to believing anything mystical, and there are “nature is best” fanatics who are vulnerable to marketing anything as “natural” and fearmongering about “the chemikilz.”

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