Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

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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Jan 04 2022

Elizabeth Holmes Guilty of Fraud

There are a lot of complexities to this case, as you might imagine. Some question whether or not Holmes, CEO of the now disgraced Theranos company that claimed it had revolutionized blood testing, was unfairly targeted because she is a woman. Her defense was also complex, including a claim she was abused by her boyfriend. These details are, of course, important in the pursuit of individualized justice. But I want to focus on some big picture factors – what might the results of this case mean?

I first wrote about Theranos in 2016 – I recognized the story as a skeptical cautionary tale. The claims that Holmes was making were implausible in the extreme. She claims her company innovated the technology to perform hundreds of different blood tests with a very small amount of blood and within a short period of time. The public is used to such advances in technology, and this claim, while bold, may seem plausibly incremental. However, medical experts recognized the claim for the nonsense it was. Far from being incremental, such a feat would have required hundreds of scientific breakthroughs all brought to technological fruition in a marketable product. This kind of advance does not come out of nowhere, without a paper trail of scientific research behind it.

Holmes was counting on a general level of scientific illiteracy, specifically to how the process of science works. It is increasingly difficult to make a major discovery or technological advance without all the groundwork being laid by incremental research spread out among various experts and institutions. Often when we hear of a new technology hitting the market, there is 20-30 years of background research. The idea for an mRNA vaccine started in the 1980s, for example. The new medical technologies that are coming online in the last decade have roots that go back decades.

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Dec 13 2021

Blaming the Victim

If someone gets seriously ill from COVID, to the point that they need to be hospitalized and even placed in ICU, and they were unvaccinated, how much should we blame them for their illness? This question can have practical implications, if we base decisions on allocating limited resources and insurance coverage of vaccine status. I wrote about this dilemma recently on Science-Based Medicine (and then discussed it on the SGU), and it sparked a lively discussion. Some of the responses amounted to justification for blaming the victim, which is essentially the core of the issue, and an important concept for activist skeptics to handle.

Blaming the victim can occur in many contexts. Within skeptical circles the most common manifestation is to blame people for being gullible (which is essentially the opposite of being skeptical). If someone, for example, falls for an obvious con it is easy to feel contempt or even anger toward that person for their gullibility. Sometimes gullibility is combined with scientific illiteracy. There are numerous pseudoscientific products on the market that require someone to have essentially no idea how the world works in order to believe the claims (or alternatively to compartmentalize any thoughts of mechanism of action). There are products that claim to improve the taste of wine simply by waving a plastic card over the glass, or to improve your athletic performance because you wear a small piece of rubber on your wrist – imbued with “frequencies” that harmonize with your body’s natural rhythms. There are fuel additives or devices that claim to dramatically improve the fuel efficiency of your car without any downside. And of course there are endless free energy devices that “they” don’t want you do know about.

It’s easy to write all this off as “caveat emptor” – if people pay a small price for their gullibility and scientific illiteracy, that is perhaps how it should be. We can then congratulate ourselves on being less gullible and more knowledgeable. Or we may moralize about individual responsibility, touting the fact that we invested the time to learn how to protect ourselves in a world full of con artists and scams. Blaming the victims of scams gives us the illusion of control (we can protect ourselves) and serves our sense of justice (people largely deserve what they get). But is this sort of blaming the victim morally or intellectually justified?

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Nov 30 2021

Self-Replicating Xenobots

Published by under Skepticism

Placing “self-replicating” and any kind of “bots” in the same sentence immediately raises red flags, conjuring the image of reducing the surface of the world to gray goo. But that is not a concern here, for reasons that will become clear. There is a lot to unpack here, so let’s start with what xenobots are. They are biological machines, little “robots” assembled from living cells. In this case the source cells are embryonic pluripotent stem cells taken from the frog species Xenopus laevis. Researchers at the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University have been experimenting with assembling these cells into functional biological machines, and have now added self-replication to their list of abilities.

Further, these xenobots replicate in a unique way, by what is known as kinematic self-replication. This is the first instance of this type of replication at the cell or organism level. The researchers point out that life has many ways of replicating itself: “fission, budding, fragmentation, spore formation, vegetative propagation, parthenogenesis, sexual reproduction, hermaphroditism, and viral propagation.” However, all these forms of self-replication have one thing in common – they happen through growth within or on the organism itself. By contrast, kinematic self-replication occurs entirely outside the organism itself, through the assemblage of external source material.

This process has been known at the molecular level, where molecules (like proteins) can guide the assemblage of identical molecules using external resources. However, this process is entirely unknown at the cellular level or above.

In the case of xenobots, the researchers placed them in an environment with lots of individual stem cells. The xenobots spontaneously gathered these stem cells into copies of themselves. However, these copies were not able to replicate themselves, so the process ended after one or a very limited number of generations. In a new study, the researchers set out to design an optimal xenobot that could sustain many generations of self-replication. They did not do this the old-fashioned way, through extensive trial and error. Rather, they used an AI simulation, which calculated for literally months, testing billions of possible configurations. It came up with a simple shape – a sphere with a mouth, looking incredibly like a Pac-Man. These xenobots are comprised of about 3,000 cells. The researchers assembled their xenobot Pac-Men and when placed in an environment with available stem cells they spontaneously herded them into spheres and then into copies of themselves. These copies were also able to make more copies of themselves, and so-on for many generations.

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Oct 21 2021

Drivers of Military Technology

Published by under Skepticism

There are different ways of looking at history. The traditional way, the one most of us were likely taught in school, is mostly as a sequence of events focusing on the state level – world leaders, their political battles, and their wars with each other. This focus, however, can be shifted in many ways. It can be shifted horizontally to focus on different aspects of history, such as cultural or scientific. It can also zoom in or out to different levels of detail. I find especially fascinating those takes on history that zoom all the way out, take the biggest perspective possible and look for general trends.

A recent study does just that, looking at societal factors that drive the development of military technology in pre-industrial societies, covering a span of 10,000 years. They chose military technology for two main reasons. The first is simply convenience – military technology is particularly well preserved in historical records. The second is that military technology is a good marker for overall technology in most societies, and tends to drive other technologies. This remains true today, as cutting edge military technology (think GPS) often trickles down to the civilian world.

As an interesting aside, the researchers relied on Seshat: Global History Databank. This is a massive databank of 200,000 entries on 500 societies over 10,000 years. This kind of data is necessary to do this level of research efficiently, and is a good demonstration of this more general trend in scientific research – in increasing areas of research, it’s all about big data.

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