Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

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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Dec 22 2022

Can Misinformation Cause Cancer?

What are the known factors that increase the risk of getting cancer? Most people know about smoking, but can probably only guess at other factors, and are likely to endorse things that do not contribute to cancer risk. The known contributors to cancer risk include: smoking, consuming alcohol, low levels of physical activity, getting sunburnt as a child, family history of cancer, HPV infection, and being overweight. But there are also a number of “mythic” causes that do not contribute to cancer risk but are widely believed to: artificial sweeteners or additives and genetically modified food; using microwave ovens, aerosol containers, mobile phones, and cleaning products; living near power lines and feeling stressed.

These are all lifestyle factors that people can influence by changing their behavior. Therefore there is a direct utility to informing the public about the true causes of cancer and identifying the factors that they should not worry about. I see the effects of misinformation and poor communication on a regular basis. Often my patients will express to me that they are highly motivated to get healthier by changing their lifestyle, and then they rattle off a list of things they are doing, most of which are useless or counterproductive. Forget all that – just stop smoking and let’s talk about a healthy and practical exercise routine for you.

A recent study seeks to shed light on why there is so much misinformation about the modifiable causes of cancer. This is a complex question, and any one study is only going to look at a tiny slice of potential contributing factors. Also, this is the type of question that is hard to look at in a controlled experiment, so we will have to make due with observational data that can have a lot of confounding factors. The authors did a survey of several English and Spanish language forums, assessing knowledge of true and mythic causes of cancer, and correlating them with belief in conspiracies, preference for alternative medicine, and lack of COVID-19 vaccination. The results are pretty much what you would expect, but let’s dive into some details.

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Nov 04 2022

Consensus on Dealing with COVID-19

A panel of 386 experts from various disciplines and 122 countries have put together a consensus statement on how the world can best deal with the continued challenge of COVID-19. The statement contains 57 specific recommendations that had >95% consensus from the panel, with most having >99% consensus. This is like an M&M rounds for the world’s COVID response. In medicine we have morbidity and mortality rounds where we review both statistics and individual cases with bad outcomes. The point is to explore those cases and determine what went wrong, if anything, and how individually and systemically we can prevent or minimize future similar negative outcomes. This panel did the same thing for our COVID response.

Such endeavors are not about placing blame. We can leave that up to the politicians looking to score points. The purpose is to map out a future course, to take specific actions that will minimize future death and negative health outcomes from the COVID pandemic, which is (despite what you may want to believe) not over. The SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to spread throughout the population, and continues to mutate with variants and subvariants increasingly able to evade prior immunity (from infection or vaccination). As predicted the pandemic is slowly morphing into an endemic infection, like the flu, that will simply be with us indefinitely. But infections are still at pandemic levels.

The focus of the recommendations is on how governments can enact policy and allocate resources to better tamp down infections and reduce negative outcomes. This is needed, because government responses were mostly a failure. This doesn’t mean that the US and other governments didn’t do anything useful. They did. But from the perspective of what a fully prepared optimal response would have been, the actual response, in my opinion, was basically a failure. It’s not like we didn’t see it coming. Even now, after everything the world has been through, our preparedness and response is less than ideal.

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Oct 28 2022

An Open-Letter to All Cranks

Published by under Skepticism

I get lots of e-mail, sometimes from people who want to convince me that their pet theory has merit – in explicit hope that I will champion their cause and spread their theory. They are always disappointed. The exchange is always the same, almost eerily so, as if they are all following the same script. I think to an extent they are – they are all absorbing the same narrative from the culture. So here is my generic response to all cranks, past and future.


Dear Crank,

I use that term not as a personal attack, but as an accurate description of your behavior. I want you to understand why that behavior is not serving you well, and what you can do the escape from a cycle of self-destructive, and frankly annoying, behavior. Hey – you e-mailed me, you jumped up in front of me waving your hands in order to get my attention. Well, you got it. And now I am going to do you a massive favor. I am going to give you a tiny slice of the attention you are so clearly desperate for and explain to you why you are a crank.

I understand you have a theory with which you are very impressed, and it includes a lot of math and facts and details. You may even have some scientific education and background. But if you think you have somehow seen through the fog, and have proven that the world’s scientists have all been hopelessly wrong for the last century or so, then you are likely suffering from not only a lack of proper humility, but overwhelming hubris. You may think that you have proven with one devastating argument that evolution is impossible, or global warming is not real, or that you have created free-energy, cured cancer, or changed everything we thought we knew about history (or whatever), but you haven’t.

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Sep 13 2022

Children Are Natural Skeptics

There is ongoing debate as to the extent that a skeptical outlook is natural vs learned in humans. There is no simple answer to this question, and human psychology is complex and multifaceted. People do demonstrate natural skepticism toward many claims, and yet seem to accept with abject gullibility other claims. For adults it can also be difficult to tease out how much skepticism is learned vs innate.

This is where developmental psychology comes in. We can examine children of various ages to see how they behave, and this may provide a window into natural human behavior. Of course, even young children are not free from cultural influences, but it at least can provide some interesting information. A recent study looked at two related questions – to children (ages 4-7) accept surprising claims from adults, and how do they react to those claims. A surprising claim is one that contradicts common knowledge that even a 4-year old should know.

In one study, for example, an adult showed the children a rock and a sponge and asked them if the rock was soft or hard. The children all believed the rock was hard. The adult then either told them that the rock was hard, or that the rock was soft (or in one iteration that the rock was softer than the sponge). When the adult confirmed the children’s beliefs, they continued in their belief. When the adult contradicted their belief, many children modified their belief. The adult then left the room under a pretense, and the children were observed through video. Unsurprisingly, they generally tested the surprising claims of the teacher through direct exploration.

This is not surprising – children generally like to explore and to touch things. However, the 6-7 year-old engaged in (or proposed during online versions of the testing) more appropriate and efficient methods of testing surprising claims than the 4-5 year-olds. For example, they wanted to directly compare the hardness of the sponge vs the rock.

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Jul 26 2022

Industry of Doubt

It should come as a surprise to no one that the fossil fuel industry has been financing a vast public relations campaign over the last three decades to sow confusion and doubt about human-caused climate change. This is already well established. One Harvard study, for example, focusing on ExxonMobil, found:

That analysis showed that ExxonMobil misled the public about basic climate science and its implications. They did so by contributing quietly to climate science, and loudly to promoting doubt about that science.

Now, the BBC reports on two people who worked with a PR firm specifically to deny the science of climate change who are now telling their story, adding some more details and focus to the tale. Don Rheem and Terry Yosie worked for E Bruce Harrison, an industry PR guru, who, starting in 1992, landed the campaign to work for the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), an industry group comprised of oil, coal, auto, utilities, steel, and rail industries. What do all these industries have in common? They all contribute significantly to green house gas emissions. And why 1992? Because that is the year of the election that would replace an oil-friendly president with one more friendly to environmental causes, and with a vice president who was a climate change activist. The handwriting was on the wall.

And Harrison had a vision – he had honed his tactics fighting auto industry regulations and spreading doubts about the harms of smoking for the tobacco industry. He recruited a team and made climate change denial his primary focus. The tactics his firm used for the GCC were largely the same – they put out constant opinion pieces, background pieces for journalists, and paid advertising emphasizing doubt about climate science. For example, in a 1994 booklet they claimed:

The greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon produced by naturally occurring atmospheric gases. To date, there is no evidence to demonstrate the climate has changed as a result of any “enhancement” to this natural phenomenon by man-made greenhouse gases.

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Jul 22 2022

Overconfidence and Opposition to Scientific Consensus

There has been a lot of research exploring the phenomenon of rejection of established science, even to the point of people believing demonstrably absurd things. This is a complex phenomenon, involving conspiracy thinking, scientific illiteracy, group identity, polarization, cognitive styles, and media ecosystems, but the research has made significant progress unpacking these various contributing factors. A recent study adds to the list, focusing on the rejection of scientific consensus.

For most people, unless you are an expert in a relevant field, a good first approximation of what is most likely to be true is to understand and follow the consensus of expert scientific opinion. This is just probability – people who have an understanding of a topic that is orders of magnitude beyond yours are simply more likely to have an accurate opinion on that topic than you do. This does not mean experts are always right, or that there is no role for minority opinions. It mostly means that non-experts need to have an appropriate level of humility, and at least a basic understanding of the depth of knowledge that exists. I always invite people to consider the topic they know the best, and consider the level of knowledge of the average non-expert. Well, you are that non-expert on every other topic.

This is also why humility is the cornerstone of good scientific skepticism and critical thinking. We are all struggling to be just a little less wrong. As a science enthusiast we are trying to understanding a topic at a generally superficial technical level. This can still be a very meaningful and generally accurate understanding – just not technically deep or rigorous. It’s one thing to say – yeah, I get the basic concept of quantum computers, how they work, and why they can be so powerful. It’s another to be able to read and understand the technical literature, let alone contribute to it. Often people get into trouble when they confuse their lay understanding of a topic for a deep expert understanding, usually resulting in them becoming cranks.

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Jun 07 2022

The Morality of Skepticism

A recent editorial by Tauriq Moosa, a South African writer focusing on ethics, makes a cogent argument that skeptical activism is a moral necessity. I don’t know Tauriq and his connection to skepticism, if any, but he writes as if from a perspective outside the skeptical movement. Rarely do I encounter outside commentary on skepticism that isn’t cringeworthy in its cluelessness. Tauriq does a good job, although his commentary could be taken further (which, of course, I will do).

His core argument is that when it comes to skepticism of fraud and fakery, silence is not a (morally defensible) option. He makes an analogy to Semmelweis, who first discovered that if doctors would simply wash their hands before treating patients many lives could be saved. Knowing this, he had a moral imperative to try to convince the world of this fact. Likewise if a skeptic has good reason to believe that a treatment or practice is actively harmful, they have a moral imperative to try to convince others of this fact. Homeopathy, for example, is worthless. If you rely upon it to treat a non-self-limiting disease you are likely to suffer harm. He writes:

If you don’t think the skeptic movement is about saving lives and providing ammunition to protect yourself against charlatans, then you simply don’t know the numbers of preventable deaths – ‘preventable’ if the information had been accepted by the adults concerned.

He then goes on to confront a common response to this type of skeptical activism – rational adults can make their own decisions, so let them be. Tauriq addresses this by focusing on the notion of “rational”. He correctly points out that rational decision-making requires accurate information, and so providing that information is a service. He also points out that when children are involved adults have a responsibility for scientific due diligence when making decisions on their behalf.

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May 13 2022

Scientists Grow Plants in Lunar Soil

Published by under Skepticism

After years of requesting tiny samples of lunar soil, plant scientists at the University of Florida were finally granted 12 grams to work with (out of the 382 kg brought back during the Apollo missions). They had proposed a simple experiment – could seeds germinate and plants grow in lunar soil? It turns out the answer is yes, sort of.

The researchers used Arabidopsis, or rockcress, which is a genus that contains the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced and is therefore a favorite of plant biologists.  They added nutrient rich water to one gram pots of lunar soil and planted Arabidopsis seeds in them. As controls they planted the same seeds with the same nutrients in regular soil, and simulated lunar and Martian soil, plus Earth soil but from extreme environments. All of the seeds sprouted. For about the first six days the plants all seemed to be doing equally well, but then it became clear that the plants growing in lunar soil were smaller, more varied in size, and were showing signs of stress.

The experiment was therefore a partial success – the plants grew surprisingly well but did not thrive in the lunar soil. Because they used Arabidopsis, they were able to also track gene expression in the plants. The plants growing in lunar soil had increased expression of genes related to stress, reinforcing the conclusion that there is something about the lunar soil that is not friendly to the plants, causing them to react as if they were growing in an extreme environment.

Interestingly, the researchers had two different type of lunar soil from different locations. One type is referred to as “mature” lunar soil, which was exposed directly to the solar wind. They also had not mature lunar soil, in which the plants fared a little better.

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Apr 21 2022

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

I am happy to announce that pre-orders are open for my upcoming book, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future, which will be released by Grand Central Publishing on September, 27th. You can preorder your book here.

This was a particularly fun book to write, with my two brothers, Bob and Jay (who also co-host the SGU podcast with me). This is our second book, with Evan and Cara also contributing to the first one (The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe). In this new book we explore futurism itself – what have we learned from past attempts at predicting the future and how can we use those lessons to perhaps do a little better? We explore, for example, what I call “futurism fallacies”, common errors in trying to extrapolate our world into a vision of the future. One common fallacy is to extrapolate current trends indefinitely into the future, even though this is generally not the path that history has taken. Disruptive technologies, changing priorities, the interaction among various types of technology, and evolving culture all introduce zigs and zags into the course of history, and therefore the future.

Is futurism, therefore, doomed to failure? This is actually a matter of scholarly debate, with critics and advocates. Overall I think predicting the future is similar to predicting the weather – while it is impossible to predict the details beyond a very short window, we can make broad predictions about the climate. Similarly we can say that technology will not only continue to advance but the pace of that advance is accelerating. We explore those individual technologies that are just emerging and most likely to have a profound impact on our future, such as genetic engineering, additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence, and metamaterials. There are also some established technologies that will continue to advance, expanding into new niches, such as robotics.

We also discuss technologies that are just in the conceptual stage, and give our opinion as to whether or not they are likely to ever come to fruition. We will likely have fusion power someday, but I doubt we will ever have a space elevator (at least not on Earth).

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