Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Nov 18 2019

Peak Intelligence

Published by under Skepticism

There is an interesting article over at The Conversation asking the question – have humans reached peak intelligence? This is something we have discussed previously on the SGU so I was keen to find out what philosophers think about this question. The core question is this – are there ultimate limits to the ability of humans to think, understand, and hypothesize? If so, are we approaching that limit now? There is also an angle to this the article did not cover directly – is there is limit to our ability to manage complexity (as opposed to just comprehending reality)?

There are different ways to approach this question. From an evolutionary point of view, our ancestors were likely under selective pressure to solve problems of immediate survival, and not to unravel the deep mysteries of the universe. But I don’t think this is ultimately relevant. This is a hyper-adaptationalist approach. It actually doesn’t matter to the ultimate question, because our hands did not evolve to play the piano either. Abilities that evolve for one purpose may be more generally useful. Clearly humans evolved some general cognitive abilities that go way beyond their immediate narrow evolutionary function.

But the broader point is salient – our cognitive abilities are not necessarily unlimited. What if the universe is simply more complex than our brains can comprehend? Take quantum mechanics, for example. The best thinkers we have, specializing in this question, still cannot solve the mystery of duality and apparent non-locality. We have some ideas, but it is possible that our brains are simply not equipped to imagine the true answer. It may be like a cat trying to understand calculus. If this is true, then what would we expect to happen in the course of scientific development? Would we hit a wall?

As they also discuss in the article, I don’t think so. Rather, if we look at the course of scientific development, our ability to do science is progressing, the technology of science, if you will. But at the same time the difficulty, complexity, and subtlety of the problems are increasing. We are having to work harder and harder for progressively smaller returns. Rather than hitting a wall, I agree that we will likely just wade into the molasses. We will keep pushing deeper and deeper into fundamental theories about how the universe works, but progress will become slower and slower. It may never actually stop, but advances will simply come fewer and farther between.

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Nov 08 2019

How to Combat Firehosing

Published by under Skepticism

According to a recent Guardian article:

It’s (“firehosing”) a relatively new term coined by Rand researchers Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews in 2016 to describe the propaganda tactics Russian authorities use to quell dissent and control the political landscape.

They report that the strategy has metastasized from political propaganda to science denial campaigns, such as the anti-vaccine movement. The skeptical world has known about this strategy for decades. We typically refer to this as the “Gish Gallop.” The context is slightly different, however – a Gish Gallop usually refers to a single encounter, such as a debate, in which one side vomits forth a large amount of BS and misinformation knowing the other side will never have the time to deal with it all. This strategy can work because it takes a lot more time to deconstruct each misconception or falsehood than it does to create it.

Firehosing is very similar, but can refer to a strategy of massive misinformation over time and in multiple venues. This is especially relevant in the age of social media. The underlying strategy is identical – overwhelm the other side with large volumes of low grade information, even blatant lies and claims that have already been definitively debunked. Some form of this strategy is so common, dealing with it is a frequent topic of skeptical discussion.

I find there are two roots to firehosing (I’ll use this term to refer to the general phenomenon). The first is more innocent, in that I don’t think it is a conscious strategy. Rather, the person engaging in firehosing is themselves a victim of a misinformation campaign. They have read or heard many bits of information, and find the sheer volume compelling. They fall for the fallacy of, “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” No – in reality where there is smoke there may be fire, but there also may be someone blowing a lot of smoke, or maybe there is just fog. You will encounter a lot of pithy references to this in skeptical writing. “The plural of anecdote is not data.” “No matter how high you pile up cow pies they don’t turn into gold. You just have a huge pile of BS.”

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Nov 04 2019

The Problem with Bill Maher

Published by under Skepticism

Bill Maher is a divisive figure among skeptics because he is somewhat of a contradiction. On the one hand he is capable of taking down certain forms of irrationality with humor and satire in a very effective way. He is a warrior and an entertainer, and when he is championing something we agree with, we love it. But then he takes positions that are as irrational as the ones he attacks. So there is definitely a “glass half-full” issue with perception.

I see Maher as a cautionary tale – clearly there is something wrong with his process, and since he is trying to be skeptical but also clearly failing, we should perhaps try to figure out what that is. I have no personal insight into the man, I can only base my judgement on information in the public domain. However, that information is substantial since he has a regular TV show in which he espouses his views.

Let’s consider the latest episode which has inspired another round of skeptical outrage. On a recent show he had on Dr. Jay Gordon, infamous anti-vaccine pediatrician, and essentially agreed with his anti-vaccine nonsense. Here is Dave Gorski’s review over at SBM. And here are a couple of Maher’s key points:

“You know, to call you this crazy person—really, what you’re just saying is slower, maybe less numbers, and also take into account individuals. People are different. Family history, stuff like that. I don’t think this is crazy. The autism issue, they certainly have studied it a million times… and yet, there’s all these parents who say, I had a normal child, got the vaccine… this story keeps coming up. It seems to be more realistic to me, if we’re just going to be realistic about it.”

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Sep 05 2019

DNA Analysis of Loch Ness

Published by under Skepticism

If you have never been to the highlands of Scotland, add it to your list of places you should visit. It is incredibly beautiful. When I was there last year we visited Loch Lomond of lyrical fame, and also the largest lake in Great Britain. We were given the option of instead visiting Loch Ness, and we had to explain to our guide that she had a bus full of skeptics. She was relieved because she thought Lomond was the better destination, but of course most tourists want to see the more famous Loch.

The legend of the Loch Ness Monster has now taken on a life of its own, and it seems unlikely that any evidence, no matter how definitive, will kill it. Rumors of a monster in the Loch go back centuries, but the modern myth was kicked off by the famous Surgeon’s Photo. In 1934 Colonel Robert Wilson, a British surgeon, published his now iconic photo. His accomplice later confessed this was a hoax, using a model built out of a toy submarine and a clay head (which I always thought looked like it was modeled after an arm and hand). But it was too late, a myth was born.

A recent headline from the BBC now declares: “Loch Ness Monster may be a giant eel, say scientists.” The problem with this claim is that there is no Loch Ness Monster, so it can’t be anything. Of course they mean that giant eels may be responsible for Nessie sightings, but even this is misleading. There is likely no single phenomenon responsible for the continued sightings of something unusual in Loch Ness.

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Aug 19 2019

Facts vs Stories

There is a common style of journalism, that you are almost certainly very familiar with, in which the report starts with a personal story, then delves into the facts at hand often with reference to the framing story and others like it, and returns at the end to the original personal connection. This format is so common it’s a cliche, and often the desire to connect the actual new information to an emotional story takes over the reporting and undermines the facts.

This format reflects a more general phenomenon – that people are generally more interested in and influenced by a good narrative than by dry facts. Or are we? New research suggests that while the answer is still generally yes, there is some more nuance here (isn’t there always?). The researchers did three studies in which they compared the effects of strong vs weak facts presented either alone or embedded in a story. In the first two studies the information was about a fictitious new phone. The weak fact was that the phone could withstand a fall of 3 feet. The strong fact was that the phone could withstand a fall of 30 feet. What they found in both studies is that the weak fact was more persuasive when presented embedded in a story than along, while the strong fact was less persuasive.

They then did a third study about a fictitious flu medicine, and asked subjects if they would give their e-mail address for further information. People are generally reluctant to give away their e-mail address unless it’s worth it, so this was a good test of how persuasive the information was. When a strong fact about the medicine was given alone, 34% of the participants were willing to provide their e-mail. When embedded in a story, only 18% provided their e-mail.

So, what is responsible for this reversal of the normal effect that stories are generally more persuasive than dry facts? The authors suggest that stories may impair our ability to evaluate factual information. This is not unreasonable, and is suggested by other research as well. To a much greater extent than you might think, cognition is a zero-sum game. When you allocate resources to one task, those resources are taken away from other mental tasks (this basic process is called “interference” by psychologists). Further, adding complexity to brain processing, even if this leads to more sophisticated analysis of information, tends to slow down the whole process. And also, parts of the brain can directly suppress the functioning of other parts of the brain. This inhibitory function is actually a critical part of how the brain works together.

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Aug 01 2019

GMOs and the Knowledge Deficit Model

A 2015 Pew survey found that 88% of AAAS scientists believe that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are generally safe to eat, while only 37% of the general public did. This was the biggest gap, 51%, of any science attitude they surveyed – greater than evolution or climate change. This hasn’t changed much since. A 2018 Pew survey found that 49% of US adults think that GMOs are worse for your health. These numbers are also similar in other countries.

An important underlying question for science communicators is – what is the source and therefore potential solution to this disconnect between experts and the public? In other words – what drives anti-scientific or pseudoscientific attitudes in the public? The classic answer is the knowledge deficit model, that people reject science because they don’t understand it. If true, then the answer is science education and fostering greater scientific literacy.

However, psychological research over the last two decades has called into question the knowledge deficit model. Studies have found that giving facts often has not result, or may even create a backfire effect (although to scope of this is still controversial). Some research suggests you have to confront a person’s explanatory narrative and replace it with another. Others indicate that ideological beliefs are remarkably resistant to alteration with facts alone.

But the knowledge deficit model is not dead yet. It seems that we have to take a more nuanced approach to unscientific beliefs in the public. This is a heterogeneous phenomenon, with multiple causes and therefore multiple potential solutions. For each topic we need to understand what is driving that particular belief, and then tailor an approach to it.

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Jul 30 2019

The Challenge of Deepfakes

You have probably heard of deepfakes by now – convincing video manipulation that is improving rapidly, getting better and easier. Right now you can often tell when a video has been manipulated. The human eye is very sensitive to movement, facial expressions, and other subtle cues. But the best examples are getting more difficult, and experts predict there will be deepfakes undetectable by most people within a year.

How will this affect the world? Most reports I read simply say that people won’t be able to trust videos anymore (we already can’t trust photos). But that doesn’t capture the situation. People knowing that video can be manipulated won’t really solve the problem.

The problem is psychology – people can be primed and manipulated subconsciously. Let’s say, for example, that you see a video of a famous person committing a horrible crime, or saying something terrible. Even if you know such videos can be faked, or hear the claim that that video was fake, the images may still have an emotional effect. It becomes part of your subconscious memory memory of that person.

Human memory also will contribute to this effect. We are better at remembering claims than remembering where we heard them (source amnesia) or if they are true or not (truth status amnesia). Seeing a dramatic video of a person doing something horrible will stick with you and will be much more vivid than later information about forensic examination of the video.

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Jul 22 2019

Conspiracies Are For the Birds

Let me just start by saying – I don’t believe for a second that this one is real. I think it’s something between absurdist performance art, trolling, and marketing. But it does raise the question about the ultimate effects of such things, and therefore the ethics.

There is an online faux movement called, “Birds Aren’t Real.” It is a fake conspiracy theory someone made up in order to make fun of other conspiracy theories, and perhaps sell T-shirts. The idea is that sometime in the 1970s the US government killed all the birds in North America and replaced them with identical drones in order to spy on its citizens. Of course this makes no sense on multiple levels. Why would they bother to kill all the birds, rather than just mix their drones in with the natural ones? Why hasn’t anyone captured or found one of these drones? And of course, the technology to pull this off is at least a century off, so how did the CIA (or whoever) pull this off 40 years ago?

The absurdity of this conspiracy theory is a feature, not a bug. The question is – why did someone bother? I can certainly see the fun in doing so. Read the website, it’s transparent (in my opinion) mockery. There are various theories as to what’s behind the movement, and what the true motivation is for those who created and who promote it. The cynical view is that they are just trying to sell merchandise by creating a brand. It may work. Others believe they are skeptics trying to expose the gullibility of conspiracy theorists. Or it may have all simply been a joke, or some version of trolling. It may be all of these things.

The question is – will the birds aren’t real meme take on a life of its own? This question has lead to perhaps the least likely theory, that this is all an elaborate social psychological experiment testing the limits of human gullibility. This theory, however, is really just another fake conspiracy theory, which starts the cycle of speculation all over again.

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Jun 17 2019

Fake Skepticism About Psychics

Published by under Skepticism

I was recently sent a link to a site purporting to advise – “5 Easy Ways To Tell If Your Psychic Is The Real Deal Or A Fraud.” The title itself is a red flag. A better title might be – 5 ways we can know that all psychics are frauds. So of course I can replace these five ways with one even simpler more surefire way – they are giving you a psychic reading. If they are doing that while taking your money and pretending it’s real, they are a fraud. They may believe it’s real themselves, but that doesn’t make it real.

In reality this is just an advertisement for this specific psychic – they are warning you away from their competition by arguing that they are genuine. This is a age-old advertising technique, to make people feel insecure about your competition, so they will buy your product or service just to be safe.

But let’s take a look at these five ways. The first is: They don’t offer a refund. Offering a refund is a common sales technique in itself, it gives the customer the impression that there is no risk. However, you always have to read the fine print. What are the conditions under which a refund is given, what do you have to do to get your refund, and are there any hidden costs (like – just pay shipping and handling).

They also say, “It’s a fallacy to think that psychic gifts should be given free, they aren’t, because time is still being utilized and spent.” This is true in that anyone is allowed compensation for their time. But the stated assumption is that the person has “psychic gifts.” There are no standards for determining if someone has such actual gifts. Essentially they are saying – if it feels right to you, then its genuine. This just means that this particular psychic is confident in their performance skills.

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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.

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