Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

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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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.

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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.

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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.

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