Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Oct 02 2018

SGU Book Releases Today

Published by under Skepticism

If you will allow me a bit of shameless self-promotion – my first book releases today:  The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake. (You can find places to purchase the book, reviews, and a schedule of live book-signing events here.)

This has been a two year project, and was as much work as I thought it was going to be. It took about a year to write from first conception, and then another year to go through the publishing process. My final task was recording the audio version, which took two weeks, and I completed just two weeks ago.

The book is intended to be both a primer for someone new to the world of scientific skepticism, and also a thorough reference even for experienced skeptics. We tried to make it as light and fun to read as possible, while also being dense with facts and concepts. Early reviews suggest we were reasonably successful.

I say “we” because I have four co-authors on the book, my fellow rogues at the SGU. They provided some of the first drafts of chapters, although I did the final edit to keep the book in a consistent voice and narrative.

Regular readers here will certainly find the subject matter familiar. The book is largely based, in fact, on this blog, and I thank the many regular commenters here for contributing to the conversation that has informed my writing over the years. Writing a book, however, is very different from writing a blog, I found. Blog entries are stand-alone essays. This book is not a series of essays, as some books are, but rather walks the reader through a continuous narrative. It is framed as an intellectual journey, reflecting on my own journey towards skepticism.

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Sep 21 2018

Croydon Cat Killer Found

You know, investigating can be difficult. There are many pitfalls, and it is easy to fool yourself, even when others are not trying to fool you. Critical thinking skills are indispensable to any investigative endeavor – along with specific domain knowledge.

Case in point – the mysterious case of the Croydon Cat Killer. For three years the mystery mutilator killed pet cats, eviscerated them, removed their heads and tails, and deposited the remains on display. Tabloids warned that the perpetrator would likely soon move onto humans. Veterinary pathologists and the metropolitan police were flummoxed. PETA offered a reward, and detectives from South Norwood Animal Rescue and Liberty (SNARL) found evidence of human involvement.

Investigators even worked up a profile of the likely suspect (40, male, problems with women, etc.).

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Jul 31 2018

The Weaponizing of Fake News

I encounter a range of opinions regarding the current state of politics and misinformation. At one extreme are those who argue for what I think is a false equivalence – politicians have always lied, the news has always been fake, there is nothing to see here. At the other end are those who argue that social media has changed everything.

I think reality is somewhere in the middle. Lying politicians and biased journalism have existed as long as there have been politicians and journalism. But social media has fundamentally changed the dynamic, and we have yet to adapt to the new world we have created.

This appears to primarily be a problem in societies that are based on open democracy. Ironically our freedoms have been weaponized against us. Russia interfering with the 2016 election is only the most obvious example, and is perhaps not the worst or most pernicious.

The Role of Social Media

While social media is a fantastic tool for communication and accessing information, it has some vulnerabilities. Traditional media had to build a brick-and-mortar infrastructure in order to have societal penetration, and that infrastructure was often built over years. This model favored, at least to an extent, quality control. If a news outlet was persistently wrong, or “tabloid” in its style, it was relegated to the supermarket checkout lane.

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Jul 27 2018

A Look Inside the Anti-GMO Movement

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

A recent EU court ruling on GMO regulations might just hoist the anti-GMO movement on its own petard. The ruling covers so-called new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs). I am not exactly clear on the full scope of what counts as an NPBT, but it does include CRISPR. Some reports also say it includes “mutagenesis plant breeding techniques.”

Part of the problem with the anti-GMO movement is that what counts as a GMO is vague and arbitrary. If you follow organic policy, GMO’s include any form of gene editing, but not mutation breeding (using chemicals or radiation to increase the rate of random mutations in plants). In fact scientific critics of the anti-GMO movement having repeatedly pointed this out as a glaring contradiction – opposing precise single gene changes, but not random mutations.

This ruling by an EU court expands the net of GMO farther, revealing the risk of relying on such vague and arbitrary categories. This is important because it means that a long list of breeding techniques are now prohibitively regulated in the EU. This move was in opposition to scientific organizations in Europe:

For the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), a body representing the national science academies of all 28 EU member states, the decision represents a “setback for cutting-edge science and innovation in the EU”.

“EASAC reaffirms that breakthroughs in plant breeding technologies, such as genome editing, remain crucial for food and nutrition security globally. It remains to be seen what implications this decision may have outside of the EU, particularly in developing countries who stand to benefit most from crops that better withstand the devastating effects of climate change,” EASAC said.

It is generally a bad idea for a society to consistently go against the consensus of opinion of its own scientists for pure ideology, irrational fear, or because of industry favoritism. In the case of the anti-GMO movement, all three are involved.

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Jul 17 2018

A Glitch in the Matrix

Published by under Skepticism

The original Matrix movie was brilliant and innovative. It introduced movie elements that we now take for granted, like shifting perspective and “bullet-time”. The story, too, was creative and certainly captured the imagination. In fact, I would argue, the movie has become iconic, in that it represents a more general phenomenon. There is a serious philosophical question about the probability that we are living in a simulated universe. Often “The Matrix” stands in for the concept of any kind of simulated reality.

In the movie (huge spoiler if, for some reason, you have still not seen this movie) most of humanity is living, unbeknownst to them, in a digital simulated world. They are actually floating in pods, plugged in to a vast computer. The fake reality is called the Matrix. One clever plot point is that there are occasional small glitches in the Matrix, usually when those who control the Matrix are introducing new code. This is experience by humans trapped in the Matrix as experiences of deja vu, or errors in perception. In an animated sequel (Animatrix – highly recommended if you are a Matrix fan) glitches were even used to explain apparent paranormal activity. A “haunted” house was simply a computer glitch.

This was an interesting plot point because it reverses the normal line of argument. Some people, unsurprisingly, have taken this seriously, as if it applies to the real world, therefore proving that we are actually living in the Matrix.

Glitch in the brain vs glitch in reality

There is no question that people experience glitches in their stream of perception of external reality. This is a common topic of psychological study, and pretty much the entire field of stage illusion. One very common theme of critical thinking and scientific skepticism is that we seek to carefully explain these apparent glitches as largely neurological phenomena (an approach I call neuropsychological humility).

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Jun 26 2018

Male and Female Brains Revisited

There is a seemingly endless debate about whether or not, and how, male and female brains differ. This is also an extension of the also endless nature vs nurture debate.

Unfortunately these questions get tied up with social, political, and ideological questions. I say unfortunately because they really shouldn’t be. Ideally we can ethically recognize that the optimal position is to respect every human’s rights and dignity. Everyone should be afforded the same basic rights and opportunity to pursue their potential and desires.

This ethical position can be valid even if it turns out to be true that not every human being is identical in terms of their potential or inclinations, or whether or not there are identifiable subgroups of people. These are scientific questions that should be approached and answered scientifically.

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