Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

May 14 2019

Truth Decay

Published by under Skepticism

What is the greatest threat facing human civilization? This question is obviously meant to be provocative, and is probably inherently unanswerable. But I think there is a reasonable argument to be made that perhaps the greatest threat is the deterioration of fact-based political and social discussion. The argument is that this is a meta-problem that keeps us from effectively addressing all other problems.

There are, of course, potential threats that could override everything else, such as an asteroid barreling down on the Earth or a super pandemic that could wipe out humanity. Most problems we face or are likely to face, however, can be potentially effectively managed, or at least mitigated, if we optimally marshal our resources and planning. The real problem we are facing is that we appear to be increasingly unable to do so.

Some observers identify a large part of the problem as “Truth Decay.” The RAND corporation (a think tank of scientists and researchers), which has been researching the issue, defines Truth Decay as:

1- increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data

2- a blurring of the line between opinion and fact

3- the increasing relative volume and resulting influence of opinion and personal experience over fact

4- declining trust in formerly respected sources of facts.

I think that list seems reasonable. Clearly this is a multifaceted problem, and other researchers have identified these various factors before. In The Death of Expertise, for example, Tom Nichols focuses on item 4, the declining trust in experts and the very notion of expertise itself.

Continue Reading »

Like this post? Share it!

No responses yet

May 09 2019

Source Credibility

Published by under Skepticism

How much of an influence does the source of information have on our reactions to that information? Not surprisingly, it has a significant effect. A new study supports this conclusion, but I think the implications are far more narrow than the reporting suggests.

In the study subjects were first given a generally positive attitude toward a character named Kevin. They were then told something disturbing about Kevin, that he beat his wife. However, one group was told this information came from official police reports. The other was told it came from a friend of Kevin’s ex-girlfriend. The new information had a much greater effect on attitudes when it came from a credible source than a dubious one. This was true even if the information first created a negative impression of Kevin, and then the subjects were later told the source of the information. They quickly corrected their opinion with the new information.

I find none of this surprising given prior psychological research. When it comes to beliefs about which we are largely emotionally neutral (like our attitudes toward a fictional character in a study) we tend to naturally follow a Bayesian approach – we update our conclusions as new information comes in. We also have a desire to be correct, all things being equal, and therefore would reasonably consider the source of information. The study results may also be reflecting a small confirmation bias. If subjects already believe Kevin is a good guy, they would be biased against changing this conclusion unless the new information warranted it. So a rumor from a friend of an ex-girlfriend, which we can easily rationalize away as having a grudge, is not enough. It’s hard to argue with official police reports, however.

Continue Reading »

Like this post? Share it!

No responses yet

May 07 2019

Why Prior Probability Matters

Back in the early days of my skeptical career I attended a skeptical conference hosted by CSI (then CSICOP). One panel stuck out, and I still remember some details more than two decades later. This was a panel on extrasensory perception (ESP). The proponent on the panel argued that the research showing that ESP is real shows as much of an effect as the research showing that aspirin prevents strokes. Therefore if we accept one, we should accept the other. Even my nascent skepticism was able to detect that this argument did not hold water, but now I understand why in far greater detail. There are many problems with the claim (such as the quality of the research and the overall pattern of results) but I want to focus on one – the role of prior probability.

This is often a sticking point, even among mainstream scientists and clinicians, I think because of the inherent human lack of intuition for statistics. Most scientists are not statisticians, and are prone to making subtle but important statistical mistakes if they don’t have proper consultation when doing their research. In fact, there is an entire movement within mainstream medicine that, in my opinion, is the result of large scale naivete regarding statistics – evidence-based medicine (EBM).

EBM focuses on clinical research to answer questions about whether or not a treatment works. Conceptually EBM explicitly does not consider prior probability – it only looks at the results of clinical trials directly asking the question of whether or not the treatment is effective. While this may seem to make sense, it really doesn’t.

Let me explain.

Continue Reading »

Like this post? Share it!

No responses yet

Apr 30 2019

Skeptic vs Denier

Published by under Skepticism

The skeptic vs denier debate won’t go away. I fear the issue is far too nuanced for a broad popular consensus. But that should not prevent a consensus among science communicators, who should have a technical understanding of terminology.

A recent editorial in Forbes illustrates the problem. The author, Brian Brettschneider, makes a recommendation for when to use which term, which sounds superficially reasonable but I think he misses the essence of the issue. His solution is this – if you have an advanced degree in climate science and you have doubts about the mainstream view, then you are given the benefit of the doubt and should be referred to as a skeptic. If you do not have a formal degree in climate science, then you have no business going against the consensus of mainstream scientific opinion and you should not be given the benefit of the doubt, and are hence a denier.

This is not a bad rule of thumb as an initial assumption, but does not work as a technical distinction.

First let me say that I agree with the underlying premise. It is not a logical fallacy (argument from authority) to defer to a strong consensus of legitimate expert opinion if you yourself lack appropriate expertise. Deference should be the default position, and your best bet is to understand what that consensus is, how strong is it, and what evidence supports it. Further, if there appears to be any controversy then – who is it, exactly, who does not accept the mainstream consensus, what is their expertise, what are their criticisms, and what is the mainstream response? More importantly – how big is the minority opinion within the expert community.

This is where a bit of judgment comes in, and there is simply no way of avoiding it. There is no simple algorithm to tell you what to believe, but there are some useful rules. Obviously, the stronger the consensus, the more it is reasonable to defer to it. There is always going to be a 1-2% minority opinion on almost any scientific conclusion, that is not sufficient reason to doubt the consensus. But you also need to find out what, exactly the consensus is, and what is just a working hypothesis. Any complex theory will have multiple parts, and it’s not all a package deal.

For example, let’s take evolutionary theory. There is almost unanimous consensus (>98%) among experts that evolution happened, that all living things on Earth are related through a nestled hierarchy of common descent. Further, the evidence for that conclusion is overwhelming and cannot be reasonably denied. Further still, there is no alternative scientific hypothesis that can account for that mountain of evidence (note the word “scientific” in that sentence). But the same is not true of all aspects of evolutionary theory. That natural selection is a main driving force of evolutionary change is also well established, but there is still legitimate debate about the role and magnitude of other factors, such as genetic drift. When we drill down to details about which species evolved into which other species and when, drawing a precise tree of evolutionary relationships, then there is considerable debate and much that is unknown.

Continue Reading »

Like this post? Share it!

No responses yet

Apr 16 2019

FDA Takes On Misleading GMO Labeling

Published by under Skepticism

The FDA has released its guidelines for voluntary labeling of food products with respect to whether or not they contain ingredients that either are, or are derived from, genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The guidelines, if nothing else, are a good way for consumers to become more savvy to all the ways in which companies can use food labels that are technically truthful, but are designed to deceive.

However, it’s frustrating that these are just voluntary guidelines. They are not policy, so companies are free to just ignore them. Hopefully, they are a precursor to actual policy and regulations, but Congress had done a good job of keeping the FDA too weak to actually fulfill its mandate. So often they are left to firing off strongly worded letters, warnings, and voluntary guidelines.

Here are some of the deceptive practices the FDA discusses. Obviously they go over the basics of being accurate and truthful – what it considers a GMO, etc. These are mostly obvious or technical. More interesting are the ways in which labels deceive by omission or by implications.

For example, the guidelines note:

For example, on a product made largely of flour derived from genetically engineered corn and a small amount of non-genetically engineered soybean oil, a claim that the product “does not contain bioengineered soybean oil” could be misleading if consumers believe that the entire product, or a larger portion of it than is actually the case, is free of bioengineered material.

Continue Reading »

Like this post? Share it!

No responses yet

Feb 05 2019

What Drives the Flat-Earthers?

I am still stunned that there are seemingly average people walking around today with the firm belief that the world is actually flat. The numbers, while still small, are also surprisingly high. In a recent survey only 84% of those surveyed were confident that the Earth is “round”. The rest expressed some doubt, were confident the Earth is flat, or were unsure. For those 18-24 only 66% were confident the world is round. (The survey was presented as a dichotomy between round and flat – it’s hard to say if this had any effect on the responses, but we’ll put that aside.) Belief in a flat Earth correlated with being young, religious, and poor.

Wrapping your head around this fact, for anyone with a modicum of scientific literacy and general sense, is not easy. But I am trying not to settle for any simplistic explanation of this phenomenon. Certainly any fringe movement like this is going to attract those with mental illness or an otherwise tenuous grip on reality. It also attracts dedicated conspiracy theorists. There are also the Sherri Shepherds of the world who simply can’t be bothered to clutter their mind with extraneous facts, such as the shape of the world on which they live.

But there seems to be still more going on, especially with the recent increase in this phenomenon. First, let me put to rest the scientific question – the Earth is undeniably roughly a sphere. I already reviewed some of the common arguments the flat-earthers raise, and they are all demonstrable nonsense.  There are many sources online going over the countless hard proofs that the Earth is round. What flat-earthers do, like any conspiracy theorist, is look for anomalies and then declare the Earth is flat. What they don’t do, and cannot do, is explain all the actual observations that anyone can make, let alone those made by scientists and astronauts. They can’t explain lunar eclipses, or the changing orientation of the moon, direct observations of the curvature of the Earth from high commercial jets, or along very long bridges. And of course they can’t explain all of space travel and the countless images and videos from space showing a round Earth.

Continue Reading »

Like this post? Share it!

No responses yet

Jan 15 2019

Dunning Kruger and GMO Opposition

I have written extensively about GMOs (gentically modified organisms) here, and even dedicated a chapter of my book to the topic, because it is the subject about which the difference between public opinion and the opinion of scientists is greatest (51%). I think it’s clear that this disparity is due to a deliberate propaganda campaign largely funded by the organic lobby with collaboration from extreme environmental groups, like Greenpeace.

This has produced an extreme, if not a unique, challenge for science communicators. Also – there are direct implications for this, as the political fight over GMO regulation and acceptance is well underway. The stakes are also high as we are facing challenges feeding a growing population while we are already using too much land and there really isn’t more we can press into agriculture. (Even if there are other ways to reduce our land use, that does not mean we should oppose a safe and effective technology that can further reduce it.)

A new study published in Nature may shed further light on the GMO controversy. The authors explore the relationship between knowledge about genetics and attitudes toward GMOs.

In a nationally representative sample of US adults, we find that as extremity of opposition to and concern about genetically modified foods increases, objective knowledge about science and genetics decreases, but perceived understanding of genetically modified foods increases. Extreme opponents know the least, but think they know the most.

Continue Reading »

Like this post? Share it!

No responses yet

Jan 03 2019

Magic Can Increase Belief in Pseudoscience

Magicians play a significant role in the skeptical movement. They have, as Liam Neeson famously said, a particular set of skills. They are very adept at deception, using techniques that have been honed through trial and error over centuries. It is a great example of cultural knowledge. Having the ability to deceive others, purely for entertainment and with informed consent, also makes them adept at detecting the use of the same techniques for nefarious purposes. This, essentially, has been James Randi’s entire career.

But at the same time some stage magicians make skeptics uncomfortable by not being entirely upfront with their audience. Now, I am not suggesting that all magicians tell their audience how the tricks are done, and I completely understand the need to create a mystique as part of the performance. However, I have seen skilled magicians (like Randi or Banachek) perform amazing tricks with complete candor about the nature of those tricks, without diminishing the entertainment value.

Magicians typically create a narrative by which they “explain” their tricks to the audience. A magician, for example, could say, “I am using sleight of hand.” Or they could say (or strongly imply), “I have true psychic ability.” The Amazing Kreskin falls into this latter category. There are also those like Uri Geller who (sort of) pretend they are not doing magic at all, but have special powers.

In the gray zone are those like Derren Brown. Their narrative is not that they are psychic but that they are using psychological manipulation on their audience – reading microexpressions, influencing their decision-making, or reading body-language. This narrative is as much BS as the psychic one, used as part of the magic experience and for misdirection. You can read and influence people to some degree, but these techniques are not reliable enough to support a performance. Typically mentalists use standard sleight of hand and then pretend to use psychological techniques.

Continue Reading »

Like this post? Share it!

No responses yet

Dec 20 2018

The Really Worst Pseudoscience of 2018

Published by under Skepticism

This is a continuation of my previous post, but I am not going to simply add to the list. Rather, I am going to discuss how the general phenomenon of pseudoscience has continued to evolve in 2018. There were certainly many candidates for specific pseudosciences I have not yet covered on this list – the raw water nonsense, flat-earthers, anti-GMO propaganda, more alternative medicine and free energy claims, and a continuation of all the pseudosciences from previous years.

It is important to address specific claims, drilling down to individual facts and arguments, but it is also important to step back and look at the cultural and institutional patterns behind those specific claims.

The real story over the last few years is that of fake news. This is actually a multi-headed monster, with completely fake news stories, biased and distorted news, and real news dismissed as fake. What these variations all have in common is the blurring of the lines between valid and invalid, legitimate and fake, fact and opinion, skepticism and denial, and expertise vs elitism.

Distinguishing real from fake has always been a challenge, and there is also the demarcation problem – there is often a fuzzy line between the two, not a clear bright line. Also, experts make mistakes, the consensus of opinion is sometimes wrong, there is bias and fraud in science, corporations often put their thumb on the scale – and people, in general, are flawed, so their institutions are also flawed. For these and other reasons, most of the things you think you know are wrong, or at least incomplete, distorted, misleading, or flawed.

Continue Reading »

Like this post? Share it!

No responses yet

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.

Continue Reading »

Like this post? Share it!

No responses yet

Next »