Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Jan 26 2021

Why People Hear the Dead

Published by under Paranormal,Skepticism

Some spiritualists claim to be “clairaudient” which means they can hear voices, usually of spirits of the the dead. Some claim to be clairvoyant, which means they can see things remotely (from a different place and/or time), while still others claim clairsentience, meaning that they can feel emotions or sensations from objects or places. There is no credible scientific evidence that any of this is real, meaning that they represent genuine extrasensory perception (ESP), or the perception of genuine external information through non-physical (or at least unknown) means. There is also no plausible mechanism for such phenomena. This doesn’t make such phenomena strictly impossible, just highly unlikely, and sets a very high bar for evidence to be convinced they are real.

When a person claims to hear, see, or feel something through ESP, then, what is happening? Likely, many different things. In some cases there is good reason to suspect (or there is even solid evidence) that the person is simply lying. Convincing others that you have special access to hidden knowledge can be lucrative. But assuming that in at least some cases the person claiming to experience ESP is sincere, what is happening? (And to be clear, this is not a strict dichotomy, as there is a full spectrum of people mixing sincere belief with “shortcuts”.) Is this all a learned behavior, or are some people neurologically or psychologically predisposed to the subjective experience of ESP?

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Jan 22 2021

Q Shows How Pernicious Conspiracy Theories Are

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, we find faithful adherents who have been waiting literally to the end of time for the return of their prophet. Now that’s dedication – but more on point, that is some extreme motivated reasoning. It turns out, the prophet does return to usher in a new age of utopia, literally with 1 second left to the universe.

While this is humorous fiction, it does highlight a reality of human psychology. Over the centuries there have been many doomsday or other cults who instilled their followers with the firm belief that something dramatic would happen at a specific time. This could be the second coming, the apocalypse, the rapture, or beaming onboard alien spaceships. The point is that something undeniably huge was supposed to happen, something you cannot pretend did happen when it didn’t. Cult followers who likely gave up their lives, all their worldly possessions, their relationships outside the cult, and often their reputations – all for that one glorious event – then have to face the reality that it did not happen. Often the cult leader will say something along the lines of, “Oops, I forgot to carry the 2, the world will end next Tuesday. But this is only a temporary reprieve, and does not change the fact that the leader was wrong, and can no longer claim infallibility.

When smacked in the face with undeniable reality, what do most people in these extreme situations do? Our initial instinct (probably from imagining ourselves in that situation) is that, as painful as it may be, reality will finally settle and they will have to admit the whole thing was a scam. But of course that is not what typically happens. Most people in that situation double down, dedicate themselves even more fanatically to the cult’s core beliefs, and go on a recruiting drive. Psychologically it is clear why they might do this – the fantasy is easier to deal with than the harsh reality. What really surprises people is the nimbleness of the mental gymnastics necessary to maintain false belief directly in the strong headwinds of reality. This is where motivated reasoning comes in.

We are now witnessing this moment of reckoning with another cult – Q-anon. Make no mistake, this is a conspiracy theory based cult. Believers in Q have been lead to believe absurd things, the core being that the world is being run by a ring of Satan-worshiping pedophiles (we known them as Democrats). Perhaps even more improbable is the claim that Trump is secretly a genius who has been tirelessly working to save the world. Everything that has happened over the last four years, from the Mueller investigation to the impeachment, was a false flag hiding Trump’s true agenda. And like the Cylons – Trump had a plan, even if we did not know exactly what it was.

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Jan 07 2021

The Wages of Motivated Reasoning

Published by under Skepticism

It can be tempting, as Adam Savage likes to say, to reject reality and substitute your own. The world is complex. There are difficult trade-offs. Sometimes we are wrong, our “tribe” is on the wrong side of history, or things just don’t go our way.  Any parent has seen how toddlers often respond when they don’t get their way – the behavior can be described as a temper tantrum.

Part of neurological maturity is being able to deal with disappointment, to face an uncomfortable reality. Often adults, however, have the same reaction to reality as a toddler, their temper tantrums are just more sophisticated. This is where discipline, rules, institutions, and critical thinking come in. Society needs these things to function, or else we are living in the Lord of the Flies.

These guardrails of society and human behavior, however, require a shared reality. There has to be some way to determine what is likely to be true, which facts are legitimate and which are incorrect, and to agree upon what has happened in the past. This is no easy task, and we have entire institutions and professions dedicated to sorting this out. There is no process or institution that is perfect, but we need some shared process to avoid chaos.

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Dec 11 2020

Skeptical of Skepticism regarding Medical Skepticism

Published by under Skepticism

In a recent article in Medpage Today, Vinay Prasad offered his critiques of what he calls “medical skepticism”. Essentially he is talking about Science-Based Medicine and all my colleagues who engage in related activities. I am always open to criticism and love to engage about these topics. Unfortunately, Prasad’s criticism’s were based largely on his ignorance of what it is, exactly, that we do, wrapped around some huge logical fallacies. They are also arguments we have dealt with on numerous occasions before, so he could have saved time by just reading some of the very literature he felt knowledgeable enough to criticize. (And as an aside, the “skeptical of skeptics” meme is way overdone and ready to be retired.)

If I had to give a paraphrasing executive summary of Prasad’s article it would be this – medical skeptics should stop focusing on what they think is important, and should instead focus on what I think is important, even though I don’t really understand what it is that they do. In fact there is so much wrong with Prasad’s article it’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s start with some basic framing. Part of what Prasad is criticizing is our science communication (scicom), but again he seems to be unaware that scicom is a field unto itself, and so he is making some basic false assumptions, without being aware that he is doing so. This false assumption leads Prasad to conclude that medical experts should restrict themselves to the big problems within their area of medical expertise, without seeming to realize that scicom itself is an area of expertise.

Before I go further it is important to understand what we in the Science-Based Medicine and broader skeptical community do, and what our expertise actually is. First, we are science communicators, and this involves studying science communication itself. The big lessons of the last few decades, backed by actual research, is that the old “knowledge deficit” paradigm is mostly incorrect (not completely) and definitely insufficient. In most contexts you cannot change the way people think or behave by just giving them facts. You have to also engage with what they already believe and the complex motivations and patterns of belief that underlie them. Scicom involves, therefore, not just addressing scientific literacy but also critical thinking skills and media literacy. And in order to do this you need to understand the complex relationship between science and pseudoscience, and cognitive biases, conspiracy thinking, science-denial, and a host of other “critical thinking” skill sets.

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Dec 04 2020

A Faraday Cage For Your WiFi

It can be amusing when there are multiple layers of fraud in a single scam, but it’s still a scam. With the holiday shopping season upon us, there are lots of products out there exploiting fear, pseudoscience, and scientific ignorance. The “Large WiFi Router Guard” now available from Amazon is a great example. Let’s unpack how silly this product is.

The seller claims that the router guard, “Blocks about 90% of the EMF large WiFi routers emit including the new 5G.” I’ll get to why some people think they should do this below, but first – let’s consider how nonsensical this very idea is. The entire point of a WiFi router is to take your internet signal and then broadcast it using electromagnetic frequencies in a radius that covers your home or office, typically 50-100 feet. If you need to cover a larger area you can use a repeater, which will pick up the signal and then boost it to extend the range. You can also use a mesh WiFi system which uses multiple devices to give larger and more consistent coverage.

The obvious problem with a WiFi router blocker is that you are blocking the essential function of the router – it can’t work if you are blocking the very signal it is designed to release. The product listing says that it can do this, “without affecting router network speed and performance,” which is impossible. I guess technically you can say that the router is still working, and you have not affected it directly, but you have effectively blocked its speed and performance outside the cage. If you are blocking 90% of the signal, you are blocking 90% of the performance.

As an aside, this product is essentially a small Faraday cage. In that respect, it does actual work in that it will block EMF. A Faraday cage is essentially an enclosure of continuous conducting material. Electrical fields will essentially distribute themselves around this outside conducting material, and those fields will tend to cancel out within cage. So if you are inside a perfect Faraday cage, you are protected from even intense electrical activity happening outside the cage. You can even touch the inside of the cage safely.

This is why, by the way, if you are in your car during a bad electrical storm, or when there is a downed power line nearby – stay in your car. It will act to some degree like a Faraday cage an can protect you.

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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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