Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Nov 17 2020

Following The Rules

Published by under Skepticism

Most of us have probably had the experience, whether we remember a specific incident or not, of playing with friends when we were very young. When children first learn how to play with others one of the first lessons learned is that you follow the rules of the game. You don’t get to make up your own rules as you go along. And of course those of us who are parents will better remember seeing this behavior in our own children. There is a natural competitiveness that children have, and they don’t like losing. When they do lose, it is common for them to attempt to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat by making up new rules ad hoc – after they see the results.

This is amusing when we see children do it, and it seems obvious why you can’t make up your own rules to reverse engineer the results you want. But of course, we continue this exact same behavior as adults, we simply do it with more sophistication and subtlety. Even scientists do it – when they do we often call it p-hacking, or perhaps harking (hypothesizing after the results are known). But using complex statistical analysis does not make the behavior fundamentally different than making up new rules on the elementary school playground.

Harking in science is very common. I most often see it in the form of making up explanations for why a clinical trial has failed. Perhaps the dose was too low or the treatment duration too short. Perhaps there is a subset of people in whom the treatment does work, if we just find the right parameters. Maybe we need to start treatment earlier. These are all reasonable hypotheses, and may be true in some cases, but raising them after a treatment has failed, and for no other reason than the fact that the results were negative, is not very predictive that any of them are true. It is simply making up excuses after the fact.

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Nov 10 2020

Pre-Bunking Game

A new game called Harmony Square was released today. The game hires you, the player, as a Chief Disinformation Officer, and then walks you through a campaign to cause political chaos in this otherwise placid town. The game is based upon research showing that exposing people to the tactics of disinformation “inoculates” them against similar tactics in the real world. The study showed, among other things, that susceptibility to fake news headlines declined by 21% after playing the game. Here is the full abstract:

The spread of online misinformation poses serious challenges to societies worldwide. In a novel attempt to address this issue, we designed a psychological intervention in the form of an online browser game. In the game, players take on the role of a fake news producer and learn to master six documented techniques commonly used in the production of misinformation: polarisation, invoking emotions, spreading conspiracy theories, trolling people online, deflecting blame, and impersonating fake accounts. The game draws on an inoculation metaphor, where preemptively exposing, warning, and familiarising people with the strategies used in the production of fake news helps confer cognitive immunity when exposed to real misinformation. We conducted a large-scale evaluation of the game with N = 15,000 participants in a pre-post gameplay design. We provide initial evidence that people’s ability to spot and resist misinformation improves after gameplay, irrespective of education, age, political ideology, and cognitive style.

While encouraging, I think there are some caveats to the current incarnations of this approach. But first, let me say that I think the concept is solid. The best way to understand mechanisms of deception and manipulation is to learn how to do them yourself. This is similar to the old adage – you can’t con a con artist. I think “can’t” is a little strong, but the idea is that someone familiar with con artist techniques is more likely to spot them in others. Along similar lines, there is a strong tradition of skepticism among professional magicians. They know how to deceive, and will spot others using similar deceptive techniques. (The famous rivalry between James Randi and Uri Geller is a good example of this.)

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Oct 23 2020

Randi vs The Psychics

Published by under Skepticism

My skeptical colleague, James Randi, died earlier this week at the age of 92. He led a long, happy, and rich life and died with few meaningful regrets, and that is something to be celebrated. But we will also miss his wit and keen mind. He was one of the founders of modern skepticism, focusing his attention mainly on the consumer protection angle. He particularly delighted in exposing frauds and hucksters.

Randi came at skepticism through the magician path, which is not uncommon. Houdini, perhaps the most famous stage magician of all time, began this tradition by setting to expose the fake mediums of his time. Houdini realized that many of them were using standard magician stage tricks in order to fake seances. This is fine as a form of entertainment, but they were essentially tricking people into thinking they were contacting lost loved-ones in order to relieve them of excess cash. This practice continues to this day. As a magician himself, Houdini knew how to detect and expose their tricks.

Randi’s career in many ways is similar to Houdini’s but he helped spawn an entire movement of people, including scientists and philosophers, to help in the task. Randi told a story of his youth when he attended a faith-healing session. The pastor had people fill out “prayer cards” with their basic information and the ailment for which they sought healing. The pastor would appeal to the angels to bring him divine information about the next person who needed help. One person in the audience would cry out in joy and the pastor, seemingly through divine means, rattled off very specific information about them – information he could not have known.

Randi instantly recognized this as the old “one ahead trick”. The pastor was simply reciting the information he just read on the previous card, as if it were for the next person. This is a mentalism trick, meant to entertain, but being used to deceive. So Randi exposed the pastor for the trickster that he was, but those present did not thank him. They yelled at him, called him names, and ran him off. They were surprisingly ungrateful that Randi had popped their bubble of illusion and deception.

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Oct 20 2020

Daryl Bem, Psi Research, and Fixing Science

In 2011 Daryl Bem published a series of ten studies which he claimed demonstrated psi phenomena – that people could “feel the future”. He took standard psychological study methods and simply reversed the order of events, so that the effect was measured prior to the stimulus. Bem claimed to find significant results – therefore psi is real. Skeptics and psychologists were not impressed, for various reasons. At the time, I wrote this:

Perhaps the best thing to come out of Bem’s research is an editorial to be printed with the studies – Why Psychologists Must Change the Way They Analyze Their Data: The Case of Psi by Eric Jan Wagenmakers, Ruud Wetzels, Denny Borsboom, & Han van der Maas from the University of Amsterdam. I urge you to read this paper in its entirety, and I am definitely adding this to my filing cabinet of seminal papers. They hit the nail absolutely on the head with their analysis.

Their primary point is this – when research finds positive results for an apparently impossible phenomenon, this is probably not telling us something new about the universe, but rather is probably telling us something very important about the limitations of our research methods

I interviewed Wagenmakers for the SGU, and he added some juicy tidbits. For example, Bem had previously authored a chapter in a textbook on research methodology in which he essentially advocated for p-hacking. This refers to a set of bad research methods that gives the researchers enough wiggle room to fudge the results, enough to make negative data seem statistically significant. This could be as seemingly innocent as deciding when to stop collecting data after you have already peeked at some of the results.

Richard Wiseman, who was one of the first psychologists to try to replicate Bem’s research and came up with negative results, recently published a paper discussing this very issue. In his blog post about the article he credits Bem’s research with being a significant motivator for improving research rigor in psychology:

Several researchers noted that the criticisms aimed at Bem’s work also applied to many studies from mainstream psychology. Many of the problems surrounded researchers changing their statistics and hypotheses after they had looked at their data, and so commentators urged researchers to submit a detailed description of their plans prior to running their studies. In 2013, psychologist Chris Chambers played a key role in getting the academic journal Cortex to adopt the procedure (known as a Registered Report), and many other journals quickly followed suit.

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Oct 19 2020

Biodiversity Matters

I consider myself a skeptical environmentalist, which is why I was really annoyed by the book by the same name by Bjørn Lomborg. The problem with Lomborg’s book was not the notion of reviewing the science behind the big environmental issues, but rather that he did such a poor job his treatment amounted to denialism, not skepticism. It as so bad, in fact, that Scientific American was motivated to dedicate an entire issue to systematically debunking his claims. This, of course, is part of a larger trend of tainting the word “skeptic” by using it to refer to science deniers and contrarions (and yes, there is a difference and denialism is a thing).

I am an environmentalist in the way that we should all be environmentalists – we should care about the biosphere in which we live. It is literally the only one we have. It is probable that human civilization will never have another, ever. Think about that. Interstellar travel will likely never be practical, and even if we can figure out a way to get to nearby systems, we will not find another Earth. Finding a world that is “earth-like” would require science-fiction level faster-than-light travel which may never be possible, and if it is will not happen anytime soon. Even then, there is a huge difference between “earth-like” and Earth. Terrforming other worlds in our solar system is also very difficult, and will take thousands of years if it is practical at all. So except for far future unpredictable scenarios – this is it. Our efforts are best spent preserving the world that is literally perfect for us, because we evolved here.

Beyond just surviving, I also love nature, perhaps more than the average person. Although people in general have an affinity for nature, and studies show that people are generally happier and healthier when they have exposure to nature. But as human civilization has grown, especially in the las century, we have displaced many natural ecosystems and impacted the environment in such a way as to stress many natural ecosystems. This is a serious issue because of, in a word, biodiversity.

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Oct 12 2020

Pre-Bunking

Psychologists in the UK have created a game that pre-debunks (or “pre-bunks”) COVID-19 conspiracy theories. The game is based on research that shows it can be more effective to give people information about how to identify conspiracy theories or misinformation before they are exposed to it. This is a fantastic idea, and I love the fact that this is being done in coordination with research to show if it is effective.

The current game is called Go Viral. It puts the player in the role of someone spreading conspiracy theories about the pandemic, and their goal is to make the misinformation go as viral as possible. This way the players learn the deceptive tactics of those who spread such misinformation by doing it themselves. This tactic reminds me of magicians who are skeptics. They have learned the techniques of deception, and have experienced how easy it can be to deceive people. Stage magic is essentially the practical art of misdirection, that exploits many of the weaknesses in our ability to perceive and construct an experience of what is happening. This puts magicians into a perfect position to detect deceptive practices on the part of others.

James Randi, for example, made a career out of exactly this. He has caught faith healers, for example, using standard mentalist tricks to deceive their audience. One example is the one-ahead trick. You have everyone fill out a “prayer card” with their basic information and what they want to pray for. All these cards are placed in envelopes and are then placed in a bowl, and the preacher draws them one by one “predicting” what each one will say prior to opening the envelope and “revealing” that they were correct. The audience is flabbergasted as the preacher, by seemingly divine means, knows all about them. However, the preacher is simply stating what they just read on the previous card. If you are a magician, this technique is easy to detect – and now you can detect it much easier because I just told you about it.

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Oct 09 2020

Climate Denial Talking Points

Published by under Skepticism

My schedule did not afford time for a post yesterday, and I only have time for a short one today – but I want to reply quickly to a couple of climate denial talking points that arose during the vice presidential debate. Pence represented the typical denial strategy. He started by saying that the climate is changing, we just don’t know why or what to do about it. This is the motte and bailey fallacy in action – pull back from the position that is untenable to defend an easier position, but don’t completely surrender the outer position. Pence was not about to deny that global warming is happening at all in that forum because he would be too easily eviscerated, so he just tried to muddy the waters on what may seem like an easier point.

But of course, he is completely wrong on both counts. We do know what is causing climate change, it is industrial release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. At least there is a strong consensus of scientists who are 95% confident or more this is the major driver, and there is no tenable competing theory. That is what a scientific fact looks like. We also know what to do about it – decrease global emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. And we know how to do that – change our energy infrastructure to contain more carbon neutral sources with the goal of decarbonizing energy. Change our transportation industry as much as possible over to electric (or perhaps hydrogen) vehicles. Advance other industrial processes that release significant amounts of CO2. And look for ways to improve energy efficiency and sequester carbon efficiently. It’s not like there aren’t actual detailed published plans for exactly what to do about it.

Pence, however, will rush from his perceived motte into the bailey of total denial when he feels he has an opening. So he also said that the “climate change alarmists” are warning about hurricanes, but we are having the same number of hurricanes today as we did 100 years ago. This is not literally true (there were six hurricanes so far this year in the North Atlantic, and four in 1920), and it looks from the graph like there is a small uptick, but let’s say it’s true enough that statistically there isn’t a significant change in the number of hurricanes. This is called lying with facts – give a fact out of context that creates a deliberately false impression. In this case the false impression is also a straw man, because climate scientists don’t claim that global warming increases the number of hurricanes. They claim (their models predict) that warming increases the power and negative effects from the hurricanes that do occur. The governments Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory states:

A review of existing studies, including the ones cited above, lead us to conclude that: it is likely that greenhouse warming will cause hurricanes in the coming century to be more intense globally and have higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes.

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Oct 01 2020

Hydrogen-Fueled Trains

Published by under Skepticism

Predicting the future is perilous, but I think it is a good bet at this point that, for the transportation industry, battery technology has essentially won over hydrogen fuel-cell technology. The last 20 years were critical, during which time battery technology slowly but steadily improved and now is practical for powering electric cars. The next milestone is for all-electric cars to become cheap enough to be at parity with gasoline cars, and we are getting close to that point. Some in the industry predict this point will occur in 2025. Electric vehicles are already cheaper to run (lower cost per mile for the energy) and have much less maintenance than combustion engine vehicles.

Over this same time the hydrogen fuel cell ran into some roadblocks, specifically a cost-effective and safe way to store large amounts of hydrogen in a moving vehicle. I remember back in the 2000’s when there was a lot of hype surrounding the coming hydrogen economy, there was always a tiny footnote that – all they have to do is figure out the best way to store hydrogen, but they are working on it. Those tiny footnotes are sometime deal-breakers, and that is exactly what allowed battery powered cars to win the race.

But hydrogen fuel cells are not dead as a technology. The recent test run of a hydrogen fuel train in the UK indicates where the industry might go. But before we get to that, let’s discuss cars. There are hydrogen cars on the road, but not many. They store their hydrogen as compressed gas, just bypassing the idea of storing the hydrogen in some kind of matrix. The Toyota Mirai, for example, has two tanks that store compressed hydrogen gas at up to 10,000 psi. This provides a range of 312 miles on a full tank, and they claim high safety via extensive crash testing. This is pretty good, and in the range of the best battery powered cars. It also has the advantage of filling up in about 5 minutes. A major disadvantage is the availability of filling stations. Also, there remains concerns about having highly pressurized tanks in fast moving vehicles with human occupants. Further, how will designs increase this range or power larger vehicles? They will need more or larger tanks or higher pressure.

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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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