Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Apr 03 2020

A Stupidity Pandemic

As a skeptical science communicator I am constantly walking the line between hope and cynicism. On the one hand, I very much take to heart Carl Sagan’s approach to science – focusing on the absolute wonder of the universe, and celebrating the curiosity and ingenuity of humanity. We have peered into the past, walked on the moon, and decoded many of the secrets of life. Science is a powerful tool that has transformed the world more in the last few centuries than in tens of thousands of years beforehand. And yet, humanity still struggles with the demons of our evolutionary history. We are tribal, superstitious, and capable of surrendering our critical thinking to a charismatic leader.

What this all means is that when we are faced with a challenge, even a crisis, we are capable of meeting it. We can bring the tools of science, philosophy, and politics to bear to solve almost any problem. And yet the extent to which we will fail to do so is a consequence of our own stupidity and lack of critical thinking. There is nothing like a pandemic to reveal all of this – the good and the bad.

On the bright side, there have already been thousands of studies of the novel coronavirus (SARS-COV-2) and the disease it produces, COVID-19. Researchers are already exploring possible treatments and developing a vaccine. Meanwhile, we have solid mechanisms everyone can use to protect themselves and slow the spread of disease. Where implemented properly and in time, these strategies work. Compare this to just 100 years ago, during the 1918 flu pandemic. That pandemic killed at least 50 million people worldwide – and that magnitude was created largely by the world’s collective failure to properly understand and deal with the virus. They had no treatment, no vaccine, and utterly failed to enact adequate public health measures (for sure, this was partly due to the fact that they were fighting a world war and many politicians prioritized the war effort over mitigating the pandemic). Go back a bit further to the black death, which killed a third of Europe, and they did not even understand the nature of the pandemic. Their ignorance made them all but helpful before it.

Today, through science we understand exactly what is going on, down to the molecular level. And we have the methods to quickly (relatively speaking) figure our how best to address it. It is still a challenge, because the pandemic is moving quickly, but all we really have to do collectively is not panic and listen to our own experts. But of course, it’s never that simple. Some people will find a way to screw it up, because humanity is a complex mixture of motivations, biases, and emotions.

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Mar 17 2020

Being Anti-intellectual During a Pandemic

Published by under Skepticism

In the past I have written a defense of elitism and expertise, and articles exploring the phenomenon of anti-intellectualism. For those who reject science this is a core issue – they must attack expertise, reject consensus, and defend populism as their justification for promoting the idea that the consensus of scientific opinion is wrong. They do so with the same tired and rejected arguments they have for decades, which I guess is in line with their anti-intellectualism.

Recently Michael Egnor, who writes for the anti-science Discovery Institute, and with whom I have tangled before, wrote a stunning defense of anti-intellectualism. He marshaled all the old tropes, which I have already dealt with, but I felt it was especially poignant in the middle of a pandemic. We are actually seeing in real time the consequences of science-denial, of rejecting the advice of experts and basing opinions on your “hunches”, and of approaching reality with a general attitude of anti-expertise populism.

The core of Egnor’s anti-intellectual attack is the notion that – those scientists have been wrong before. First – of course they have. Science is not a crystal ball. It is a set of methods for slowly, painstakingly working out how reality functions. It is full of false hypotheses, dead-ends, mistakes, and occasional brilliance. But mostly it’s careful tedious work, which is then put through the meat-grinder of peer-review. Science is messy, which is why I spend perhaps the majority of my time writing here and on SBM discussing the messiness of science, the pitfalls, the institutional failures, and the changes that many think will help make the institutions of science incrementally better.

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Mar 16 2020

Perpetual Flying Machine

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

I’m a sucker for perpetual motion machines. I don’t mean that I think they work – they don’t – but they are often intriguing contraptions out of some cyberpunk fantasy. They are also often a bit of a puzzle. How are they supposed to work, and why don’t they? That free energy or perpetual motion machines don’t work is a given, because of the laws of thermodynamics. Energy has to come from somewhere, so for each such claim it’s a fun game to figure out where the energy is actually coming from. This game also helps dispel any notion of continuous or free energy.

A new perpetual motion claim is revealed in an article in the Rob Report. The claims is for an electric plane that will fly mostly with the energy generated by the friction of the flying itself. The idea is that the plane will have rechargeable electric batteries that are used for take-off and landing. But while in flight, the batteries will be recharged by vibrations and the flexing of the wings. The inventor, Michal Bonikowski, who calls his project Eather One, hopes this will yield enough energy to keep the plane flying indefinitely.

The problem with this concept, as with all perpetual motion concepts, is the second law of thermodynamics. Every time you change energy from one state to another, at least a little bit is lost. You can never have 100% efficiency. So the energy you use to propel the plane forward will have to be greater than the energy you harvest from pushing through the air. If you design a mechanism (as in the concept art) for harvesting air friction, the extra resistance from the mechanism will cause the plane to slow by more than using that energy to propel it will increase its speed. The entire process will be a net negative. You would be better off optimizing aerodynamics.

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Feb 27 2020

Anti-Intellectualism and Rejecting Science

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
― Issac Asimov

As science-communicators and skeptics we are trying to understand the phenomenon of rejection of evidence, logic, and the consensus of expert scientific opinion. There is, of course, no one explanation – complex psychological phenomena are likely to be multifactorial. Decades ago the blame was placed mostly on scientific illiteracy, a knowledge deficit problem, and the prescription was science education. Many studies over the last 20 years or so have found a host of factors – including moral purity, religious identity, ideology, political identity, intuitive (as opposed to analytical) thinking style, and a tendency toward conspiratorial thinking. And yes, knowledge deficit also plays a role. These many factors contribute to varying degrees on different issues and with different groups. They are also not independent variables, as they interact with each other.  Religious and political identity, for example, may be partially linked, and may contribute to a desire for moral purity.

Also, all this is just one layer, mostly focused on explaining the motivation for rejecting science. The process of rejection involves motivated reasoning, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and a host of self-reinforcing cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias. Shameless plug – for a full discussion of cognitive biases and related topics, see my book.

So let’s add one more concept into the mix: anti-intellectualism – the generalized mistrust of intellectuals and experts. This leads people to a contrarian position. They may consider themselves skeptics, but they do not primarily hold positions on scientific issues because of the evidence, but mainly because it is contrary to the mainstream or consensus opinion. If those elite experts claim it, then it must be wrong, so I will believe the opposite. This is distinct from conspiracy thinking, although there is a relationship. As an aside, what the evidence here shows is that some people believe in most or all conspiracies because they are conspiracy theorists. Others believe only in some conspiracies opportunistically, because it’s necessary to maintain a position they hold for other reasons. There is therefore bound to be a lot of overlap between anti-intellectualism and holding one or more conspiracies, but they are not the same thing.

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Feb 04 2020

New York Times Goop Fail

This has to be the worst opinion piece I have read in a major news outlet in a long time. The authors, Elisa Albert and Jennifer Block, leave behind them a killing field of straw men and empty containers of metaphorical “Kool Aid.” Here is the short version – they are defending Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and the recent Netflix series Goop Lab with all the tropes of pseudoscience they can muster. They wrap them all up in a narrative of female empowerment, and dismiss out-of-hand all the legitimate criticism of the dangerous advice Goop sells as a conspiracy of the “patriarchy.”

Ironically, and sadly, I would argue that Paltrow, and by extension Albert and Block, are exploiting women, making them more vulnerable, and depriving them of true empowerment – which is knowledge. When you give someone misinformation, you are taking away their ability to have informed consent. This is what con artists do. Alternative medicine is frequently a double-con, in which those who promote it are themselves deceived and are just paying the deception forward.

All the talk about the “patriarchy” is also just another version of a conspiracy theory, in which all legitimate counter arguments and evidence are dismissed as part of the conspiracy (as I am sure some will do with this very blog post). Conspiracy theories work best if they contain a kernel of truth, or if they are built around a legitimate historical grievance, as in this case. All you have to do is wipe away all the nuance, and cherry pick the details that serve your narrative.

Let’s dig in to some of the details of the article. They start with a rather blatant straw man:

The show would surely promote “dangerous pseudoscience,” peddle “snake oil,” and be “undeniably awful for society.”

Six episodes of the show finally dropped late last month, and so far civilization seems to be more or less intact.

Right, so because civilization did not instantly collapse, none of the warnings about the dangers of pseudoscience are valid. But they were just getting started and this was a mere warm up. The next paragraph frames the discussion: Continue Reading »

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Nov 19 2019

Scientific Fraud in China

Published by under Skepticism

There is plenty of fraud and corruption in the world, even in the halls of science. No one has a monopoly. But there are some hot spots that deserve specific attention. Recently significant concerns have been raised about the published research of Xuetao Cao, a Chinese Immunologist. This story is newsworthy because Cao is not just any immunologist – he is also the President of Nankai University, in Tianjin, China. But more to the point – he is the Chairman of research integrity in all Chinese research. When your head of research integrity is exposed for massive scientific fraud, you have a problem.

Here is a thorough treatment of the evidence for fraud, which covers over 50 published papers. The fabrication of data was noticed because much of it has to do with pictures, of either western blots, gels, flow cytometry images, and microscopy images. There appears to be two general types of fabrication going on. One type results from sending the same sample multiple times through analysis, but treating the data as if it came from different samples. In this case the resulting imaging will be strikingly similar in pattern, but not identical. The second type of fabrication is to simply photoshop copy and paste images.

Either way, the resulting data fabrication is undeniable once it is noticed. The images are simply too similar (and again, sometimes identical) to be genuine data. Once researchers started pouring through Cao’s other papers, the extensive fraud became obvious. When confronted with this revelation online, Cao responded by first standing behind his work, then stating:

Nevertheless, there is no excuse for any lapse in supervision or laboratory leadership and the concerns you raised serve as a fresh reminder to me just how important my role and responsibility are as mentor, supervisor, and lab leader; and how I might have fallen short.

Wow – you see what he just did there? He simultaneously apologized and took responsibility, but only for failure of supervision. So essentially he is throwing all of the people who work for him under the bus. Either way, however, this is really bad for Cao. Even in the best case scenario, all the fraud was perpetrated by others under his watch. Keep in mind, he is in charge of research integrity for all of China, but apparently can’t keep an eye on his own lab. There are certainly famous cases where research assistants were the ones perpetrating the fraud. Another immunologist, Jacques Benveniste, claimed to have evidence of immunological activity from high “homeopathic” dilutions. An investigation found his results to be highly unreliable at least, and likely straight-up fraudulent (although may have been do to really sloppy techniques and bias). But it also appears that the positive results all seemed to come from one lab assistant, Elizabeth Davenas – certainly a disturbing pattern.

Perhaps a similar pattern will emerge from Cao’s lab, but it seems unlikely that an overzealous assistant can be responsible for data fabrication in 50 published studies. This is clearly a systemic problem.

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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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