Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Jun 28 2021

It’s OK to be Wrong

Published by under Skepticism

In science it is not only OK to be wrong, it is an unavoidable and perpetual state – depending, of course, on how you define “wrong”. We lack a complete understanding of the universe, and all of our theories are at best approximations of reality. From this perspective no theory is completely correct, and therefore to some extent is at least somewhat wrong. The idea of progress in science it to become less wrong, knowing that perfect knowledge is not technically possible.

Progress in science is therefore mostly about identifying what facts and ideas we hold that are wrong, exactly how they are wrong, and how we can gather new data or observations that will test those ideas, allow us to refine them, and become one step less wrong.

Some philosophers express this idea as – there is no metaphysical truth in science. What science has is models that predict how the universe will behave. The more accurate and far reaching those predictions, the better the model is. When these models start to break down, because new observations conflict with their predictions, then we have to revise the model to account for the new observations. In this way we make more and more complex, and/or deep models that can make better and better predictions.

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Jun 10 2021

Brain Connections in Aphantasia

There is definitely something to be said for the neurodiversity perspective – when it comes to brain function there is a wide range of what can be considered healthy. Not all differences should be looked at through the lens of pathology or dysfunction. Some brains may be more typical than others, but that does not mean objectively “normal”, better, or healthier. Like any valid concept it can be taken too far. There are conditions that can reasonably considered to be brain disorders causing objective dysfunction. But the scope of healthy variation is likely far broader than many people assume.

Part of this concept is that brain organization and function includes many trade-0ffs. To some extent this is a simple matter of finite brain resources that are allocated to specific abilities, increase one and by necessity another has to diminish. Also different functions can be at cross-purposes. Extraverts may excel in social situations, but introverts are better able to focus their attention inward to accomplish certain tasks.

In light of this, how should we view the phenomenon of aphantasia, a relative inability to summon a mental image? Like most neurological functions, the ability to have an internal mental image varies along a spectrum. At one end of the extreme are those with a hyperability to recall detailed mental images. At the other are those who may completely lack this ability. Most people are lumped somewhere in the middle. The phenomenon of aphantasia was first described in the 1880s, then mostly forgotten for about a century, and now there is renewed interest partly due to our increased ability to image brain function.

A new study does just that, looking at people across that phantasia spectrum to see how their brain’s differ. Using fMRI they scanned the brains of those with aphantasia, hyperphantasia, and average ability. They found that in neurotypical subject there was a robust connection between the visual cortex (which becomes active when imagining an image) and the frontal cortex, involved in attention and decision-making. That makes sense – this connection allows us to direct our attention inwardly to our visual cortex, to activate specific stored images there. Subjects with aphantasia had a relative lack of these connections. While this is a simple model, it makes perfect sense.

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Jun 08 2021

Evolutionary Compromises

Published by under Evolution,Skepticism

Evolution if one of the most fascinating scientific phenomena because it is so complex and operates over such varying and long timescales. It’s a real challenge to wrap one’s head around. There is therefore a tendency to settle on overly  simplistic evolutionary narratives. This is not a criticism, we all do this in an attempt to grapple with evolutionary thinking. The challenge is to recognize this fact, and be open to a deeper, more complex and nuanced understanding of evolutionary processes. It’s a great example of what should be a general intellectual posture – recognize the limits of our current understanding (wherever that may be on the spectrum) and not only be open to, but seek out new information and concepts to keep incrementally pushing our understanding forward.

In that spirit, here is a study on the evolution of broad-horned flour-beetles that illustrates some of evolution’s complexity. The male broad-horned has exaggeratedly large mandibles, which is uses to compete with other males for mating access to females. This is an example of sexual selection, when a feature specifically increases mating success but is not necessarily broadly adaptable. The go-to example of this is the peacock’s tail feathers – a garish display meant to attract females, but an evolutionary burden in many other aspects. This sets up an evolutionary tug-of-war, where a feature may be advantageous in one respect but disadvantageous in another. Evolutionary processes are fairly efficient at balancing such conflicting forces.

As an aside, the balances tend to be only metastable. They can alter with changes in the environment or behavior. Even different individuals within a species can adopt different survival strategies that result in a different balance of traits. If a population within a species does this it may even eventually lead to a speciation event. For example, it has been documented that within some primate species dominant males will have access to females due to their alpha status, while others gain access by currying favor with the alpha, and still others gain access by gaining favor with the females and sneaking behind the alpha’s back. Still others may act as a “wing man” to a close kin, promoting their genes into the next generation by proxy. The lesson here is – no one strategy captures the wide diversity of behavior even within a single species.

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May 27 2021

Red Flags of a Crank Study

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the potential danger of misinformation. There are times when we need to act collectively as a society to accomplish certain goals. This is particularly challenging in a society that is organized around a principle of individualism – a principle I endorse and value. Liberty is a precious right to be jealously defended. But it is not the only right, or principle of value. So at times we have to delicately balance various competing interests. I like my freedom, but I also really like not catching a deadly disease, or spreading it to my family.

In a perfect world (one we definitely do not live in) there would be no need for restrictive or draconian measures. All that would be necessary was distributing information – hey, if you want to protect yourself and others, wear a mask, socially distance, wash your hands, and get vaccinated. If you’re really interested, here are the facts, the published studies, the expert analysis, to back up these recommendations. Here are the error bars and level of uncertainty, the risk vs benefit analysis, and comparison to other options.

This approach is necessary, and works to a degree, but it is insufficient. There are two main shortcomings of the information approach. First, people are only semi-rational beings, not Vulcans. We are susceptible to tribalism, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and a host of cognitive biases, faulty heuristics, and logical fallacies. Our intuitions about balancing risk and benefit are also flawed, and we have a hard time dealing with very large numbers. Just peruse the comments to any blog post on this site that is even slightly controversial and you will find copious examples of every type of flawed thinking.

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May 18 2021

Bullshit and Intelligence

The term “bullshitting” (in addition to its colloquial use) is a technical psychological term that means, “communication characterised by an intent to be convincing or impressive without concern for truth.” This is not the same as lying, in which one knows what they are saying is false. Bullshitters simply are indifferent to whether or not what they say is true. Their speech is optimized for sounding impressive, not accuracy. I have discussed before research showing that people who are more receptive to “pseudoprofound bullshit” are also more gullible in their evaluation of fake news and false claims.  Pseudoprofound bullshit are statements that superficially sound wise but are actually vacuous, and operationally for these studies are generated randomly, such as “Innocence gives rise to subjective chaos.”

A new study extends this bullshit research further by looking at the measured and perceived intelligence of subjects correlated to their ability to generate bullshit and receptivity towards it. The study is done to test an evolutionary hypothesis that intelligence evolved largely to provide social skill. Humans are an intensely social species, and the ability to navigate a complex social network requires cognitive skill. Therefore, the authors hypothesize, if this is true that the ability to bullshit (which is used as a marker for social skill) should correlate with intelligence. While the results of the study, which I will get to shortly, are interesting, I think we have to recognize that it is horrifically difficult to make such evolutionary statements of cause and effect.

Cognitive ability is so multifaceted that boiling down selective pressures to any one factor is essentially impossible. At best we can say that the ability to sound confident and convincing is a social skill that would provide one type of advantage to a social species. But we also have to recognize that individuals may pursue many different strategies favoring different attributes. Further, other personality characteristics could have a great influence on the willingness and ability to bullshit that have nothing to do with intelligence. And finally, intelligence bestows so many general advantages that could provide selective reinforcement that, again, it becomes problematic at best to isolate one factor as dominant. While I found the results of this study interesting, there is nothing here that is not incompatible with the interpretation that they are all epiphenomena, not primary selective pressures.

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May 07 2021

COVID Vaccines Are Safe and Effective

We are at a critical point in this pandemic. Worldwide the pandemic is actually more active now than ever. There have been over 156 million cases, and the world is seeing almost 800k new cases a day. The recent peak is mainly due to India, but infections continue throughout the world. The high number of cases also increases the risk of new variants emerging. India also shows us how quickly medical resources can be overwhelmed with catastrophic results. They ran out of oxygen – which is critical to keeping severe COVID patients alive.

Yet, with each wave there was the prevailing sense that this was the worst we’ll get, and now we are rounding the corner. So far, this has been wrong every time. Of course this pandemic must end eventually, the question has always been how much death, morbidity, and economic damage would it cause in the meantime. The primary reason for the next worse wave of the pandemic has largely been that people eased off on pandemic protocols. They stopped wearing masks and social distancing and started gathering in large groups. And each time the virus made us pay for it.

But now, despite being in the middle of the biggest wave so far, the situation is changing, because now we have multiple safe and effective vaccines. In the US there are two mRNA vaccines, from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, in addition to the J&J vaccine. Other than a minor hiccup with extremely rare blood clots, these vaccines have a great safety profile. In states with high vaccine uptake the virus is getting under control, and restrictions are starting to be safely lifted. Life is partly getting back to normal – thanks entirely to the vaccines.

But we are facing two problem – entirely of our own making. The first is that we are in a race against time. We have to vaccinate enough of the world to achieve herd immunity before new variants emerge that are resistant to the vaccines. Also, we don’t know how long immunity from the vaccines last, but it may be something around a year. So when we get to a year out from the first vaccines given, we need to do it all over again with booster shots. Perhaps even more importantly, we are running up against vaccine hesitancy, which may ultimately prevent us from getting to herd immunity. That would be a tragedy.

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Apr 26 2021

Political Polarization is Exaggerated

Published by under Skepticism

Humans are tribal by nature. We tend to sort ourselves into in-groups and out-groups, and then we engage in confirmation bias and motivated reasoning to believe mostly positive things about our in-group, and mostly negative things about the out-group. This is particularly dangerous in a species with advanced weaponry. But even short of mutual annihilation, these tendencies can make for a lot of problems, and frustrate our attempts at running a stable democracy.

Part of this psychological tribalism is that we tend to exaggerate what we assume are the negative feelings of the other group toward our own. Prior research has shown this, and a new study also demonstrates this exaggerated polarization and negativity. There are a few reasons for this. One is basic tribal psychology as outlined above. Other cognitive biases, like oversimplification and a desire for moral clarity, motivate us to craft cardboard strawmen out of our political opponents. We come to assume that their position is either in bad faith, and/or is simplistic nonsense. We tend to ignore all nuance in our opponent’s position, fail to consider the justifiable reasons they may have for their position and the commonality of our goals. Ironically this view is simplistic and may motivate us to act in bad faith, which fuels these same beliefs about us by the other side, creating a cycle of radicalization.

This process is helped along by the media, both traditional and social media. Social media tends to form echochambers where our radicalized simplistic view of the “other side” can become more extreme. Also, impersonal online interactions (just read the comments here) may allow us to engage with the cardboard fiction in our minds rather than the real person at the other end.

Traditional media contributes to this phenomenon by focusing on issues in conflict at the expense of issues where there is more consensus and commonality. The media likes conflict, and this give everyone a distorted view of how much polarization there actually is.

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Apr 15 2021

Paul Thacker Trolling Skeptics on Vaccines

Published by under Skepticism

As the COVID vaccine rollout continues at a feverish pace, the occurrence of rare but serious blood clots associated with two adenovirus vaccines, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, is an important story, and should be covered with care and thoughtfulness. I have followed this story on Science Based Medicine here, here, and here. There is a lot of nuance to this issue, and it presents a clear dilemma. The ultimate goal is to optimally balance risk vs benefit while we are in the middle of a surging pandemic and while information is preliminary. This means we don’t panic, we consider all options, and we investigate thoroughly and transparently. There is a real debate to be had about how best to react to these rare cases, and as a  science communicator I have tried to present the issues as reasonably as possible.

But we no longer live in an age where most people get most of their science news from edited science journalists. Most get their news online, from a range of sources, some good, some bad, some acting in bad faith or filtered through an intense ideological filter, and many just trolling. There are even “pseudojournalists” out there, reporting outside any kind of serious review. One such pseudojournalist is Paul Thacker, who recently decided he had to criticize the reporting of “skeptics” on the COVID vaccine blood clotting issue.

For background, Thacker was fired from the journal Environmental Science & Technology for showing an anti-industry bias. Bias is a bad thing in journalism, the core principle of which is objectivity. I have no idea if Thacker honestly believes what he writes or if he can’t resist trolling, but it doesn’t really matter. He has espoused anti-GMO views to the point of harassing GMO scientists, leading Keith Kloor to call him a “sadistic troll”. Thacker has also promoted 5g conspiracy theories.

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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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