Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Dec 11 2017

Goop Nonsense – Yes It Matters

Paltrow has defended her “lifestyle brand” by saying that they are just giving women choices, and being open. Nonsense – don’t be swayed by such distractions.

I unapologetically support reason and scholarship as critical values for human civilization. This is increasingly true as our world gets more complex, as the stakes get higher, the margins for error lower, and as our culture and economy are increasingly global.

We cannot get by just shooting from the hip. We need people with specific expertise who transparently follow a process that is logically valid and based on evidence. We need standards of scholarship and intellectual rigor that are up to the challenges we face. We also need to make this work within an open and democratic society, where public opinion matters.

What all this means is that it is more important than ever to have a well-educated public, and for our public discourse to respect standards of honesty and excellence. It matters if people understand and accept what experts have to say about vaccine safety and effectiveness, the evidence base for manmade climate change, the safety of GMOs, and the nature of health and disease.

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8 responses so far

Dec 04 2017

The Causes of Science Denial

Over the last few decades the challenges we face promoting science and critical thinking have become greater, but so have the tools at our disposal. The “science of anti-science” has been progressing nicely, and we now have a much more nuanced view of what we are up against.

Carl Sagan was fond of saying that, “Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood.” That was the conventional wisdom among skeptics at the time (quote from Demon Haunted World, published in 1997) – that the problem of pseudoscience or science-denial was essentially one of information deficit. Correct the deficit, and the science-denial goes away. We now know that the real situation is far more complex.

To reduce the acceptance of pseudoscience or the rejection of real science, we need to do more than just promote scientific literacy. We also need to understand what is driving the pseudoscience, and we need to give critical thinking skills.

A recent publication of a series of studies looking at the roots of science rejection is a nice cap on this research: Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection.

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96 responses so far

Nov 27 2017

Renewed Antiscience Legislation

The fight over science in public education continues, and if anything picked up considerably in 2017. Earlier in the year Nature reported on various state laws designed to water down science education or allow for equal time to be given to unscientific views. They report:

Florida’s legislature approved a bill on 5 May that would enable residents to challenge what educators teach students. And two other states have already approved non-binding legislation this year urging teachers to embrace ‘academic freedom’ and present the full spectrum of views on evolution and climate change. This would give educators license to treat evolution and intelligent design as equally valid theories, or to present climate change as scientifically contentious.

New Mexico took a more direct approach – simply scrubbing “controversial” ideas from the state’s science standards. The standards no longer mention “evolution”, human contributions to climate change, or even mentioning the age of the Earth. This is not a back door approach – this is straight-up censorship of accepted scientific facts.

A new Florida bill also includes this problematic language:

Controversial theories and concepts must be taught in a factual, objective, and balanced manner.

This is part of the latest strategy. First, don’t mention any one theory (like evolution) by name. That is likely to trigger a constitutional challenge. Second, make the bill sound like it is promoting something positive, like academic freedom, democracy, or just being fair and balanced.

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11 responses so far

Oct 23 2017

Conspiracy Thinking and Pattern Recognition

conspiracy thinking1Humans are conspiracy theorists. Seeing and believing in conspiracies appears to be a fundamental part of how our minds work. Psychologists are trying to understand rigorously exactly why this is, and what factors predict a tendency to believe in conspiracies.

A recent study adds to those that link conspiracy thinking with pattern recognition. The researchers did a series of experiments in which they showed that the belief in one or more conspiracies correlates with the tendency to see patterns in random data, such as random coin tosses or noisy pictures. Further, when subjects read about one conspiracy theory they were then slightly more likely to endorse other conspiracy theories and to see patterns in random noise.

They conclude:

We conclude that illusory pattern perception is a central cognitive mechanism accounting for conspiracy theories and supernatural beliefs.”

This makes sense, which is why psychologists have been studying it in the first place. First, we know that people in general have a tendency to see patterns in randomness. That is part of how our brains make sense of the world. Essentially, we are bombarded with various sensory streams. Our brains parse those streams as best it can, filtering out noise and distraction, and then searching for familiar patterns. When it finds a possible match it then processes the information to make the perceived pattern more apparent. That pattern is then what we perceive.

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33 responses so far

Aug 28 2017

GMO and Dunning Kruger

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

GMO-surveyIncreasingly in modern society, with perpetual access to the internet, lack of information is far less of a problem than misleading or incorrect information. As Dunning (of Dunning-Kruger fame) noted:

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

I would add to that list – deliberate propaganda. People can feel as if they are well-informed because their heads are full of nothing but propaganda. Just have a conversation with an anti-vaxer, creationist, or flat-earther and you will see. Lack of information is not their primary problem.

Attitudes toward GMOs are also largely a function of information vs misinformation. After two decades of a dedicated anti-GMO campaign by the organic food lobby and Greenpeace, the public is largely misinformed about GMOs and organic food. This has led to a 51 point gap (the largest of any topic covered) between what scientists believe about GMOs and what the public believes.

Michigan State University has recently published their Food Literacy and Engagement Poll which sheds further light on this issue. For example, 20% of respondents believe they rarely or never consume food with GMOs and another 26% did not know. Meanwhile, 75-80% of packaged food contains GMO ingredients. Most corn and sugar derives from GMO crops. There are also “hidden” GMOs. For example, just about all cheese is produced with enzymes (rennet) derived from GMO yeast. Laws requiring GMO labeling or outright banning GMOs, however, always carve out an exception for cheese, because the cheese industry would essentially not exist without it.

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27 responses so far

Aug 15 2017

More on the Backfire Effect

Published by under Skepticism

mythsOne critical question for the skeptical enterprise is the notion of a backfire effect – when someone is given factual information about a myth that they believe, do they update and correct their beliefs or do they dig in their heels and believe the myth even stronger? Some studies worryingly show that sometimes people dig in their heels, or they simply misremember the corrective information.

A new study sheds further light on this question, although it is not, by itself, the definitive final answer (one study rarely is).

For background, prior studies have show several effects of interest. First, from memory research we know that people store facts separate from the source of those facts and from the truth-status of those facts. That is why people will often say, “I heard somewhere that…” They may not even remember if the tidbit is true or not, but the idea itself is much easier to remember, especially if it is dramatic or resonates with some narrative or belief.

So, if you tell someone that there is no evidence linking vaccines and autism, they are most likely to remember something about a link between vaccines and autism, but not remember where the information came from or if the link is real. That, at least, is the concern.

The research on this topic is actually a bit complex because there are numerous variables. There are factors about the subjects themselves, their age, their baseline beliefs, their intentions, and the intensity of their beliefs. There are different types of information to give: positive information (vaccines are safe), dispelling negative information, graphic information, and fear-based information (pictures of sick unvaccinated kids). There are different topics – political vs scientific, with different levels of emotional attachment to the beliefs. There is belief vs intention – do you think vaccines are safe vs do you intend to vaccinate your kids? Finally there is time, immediate vs delayed effects.

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11 responses so far

Aug 14 2017

Tribal Epistemology

Published by under Skepticism

Tribalism550In the early days of my skeptical career I spent time investigating and deconstructing classic pseudosciences, like belief in Bigfoot, astrology, UFOs, and ghosts. I was often challenged as to why I even bothered – these are all silly but harmless beliefs. Is it really worth the time to dissect exactly why they are nonsense?

But my fellow skeptics and I knew the answer. We were interested not so much in the beliefs themselves but the believers. How does someone get to the point that they believe that the relative position of the stars at the moment of their birth could influence the wiring in their brain and even their destiny? At the time I think the answer most activist skeptics, including myself, would give was scientific illiteracy. People simply lack knowledge of science and fills the gaps with entertaining fantasy.

Lack of scientific knowledge definitely plays a role, and is an important problem to address, but it was naive to think it was the main cause. Such explanations do not survive long with contact with actual believers. It becomes rapidly clear that the primary malfunction of true believers is not a lack of information or scientific savvy. It’s something else entirely.

My explanations for why people believe nonsense then evolved into stage 2 – a lack of critical thinking skills. Scientific knowledge needs to be coupled with an understanding of epistemology (how we know what we know), logic, cognitive biases and heuristics. This view, that belief in nonsense is mainly a failure of critical thinking, is a lot closer to the truth. Our strategy for fighting against belief in pseudoscience and magic evolved into promoting not only scientific literacy but critical thinking skills.

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700 responses so far

Aug 03 2017

Chunking

Published by under Skepticism

brainpuzzleIf I gave you a string of digits to remember, how many do you think you could handle? For example, try to remember the number – 8945557302. That’s 10 digits. Most people can handle only 7, and there is a specific neurological reason for this. Our working memory is wired for about 7 bits of information (give or take 1-2 bits). Now, try to remember the number as 894-555-7302. That is recognizable as a phone number, and despite the fact that the individual digits exceed our bit capacity, most people can remember such numbers.

Grouping bits of information into recognizable patterns in order to make them easier to remember is a phenomenon called chunking, first described by George Miller in his 1956 book, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information.

Chunking is best established as a mnemonic device. Miller and others conducted experiments to see how much chunking as a strategy could extend the limits of human memory. For example, the typical number of binary bits, such as Morse code, people can remember is 9. However, someone who understands morse code will chunk the individual bits into groupings of three, each one representing a letter. They will then group letters into words and words into sentences.  This type of chunking extended memory from 9 to 40 binary bits.

Another study involved a runner tasked to remember strings of digits, again starting with a typical digit span of 7. However, he was encouraged to chunk the digits into race times – a meaningful pattern with which he was very familiar. With a little practice he increased his digit span to 80 numbers.

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16 responses so far

Jul 20 2017

Bismuth and Solar Cells

Published by under Skepticism

bismuth ocyodideThere is something appealing about the fact that while there was so much controversy and public debate about global warming and energy production, solar cell technology incrementally improved in the background, largely unnoticed, until it became an actual cost-effective option for energy production. There were no breakthroughs or big announcements, just a slow increase in efficiency and decrease in cost.

Slow incremental changes add up, like a conservative but reliable investment. In 1941 the first silicon-based solar cells were developed with <1% energy conversion efficiency. In 2009 we broke 25% efficiency. The current record efficiency for mass-produced solar cells is 26.6%.

While more efficiency is always welcome, this is now more than enough for most practical uses of solar cells. The solar panels on the roof of my house (which doesn’t even cover my entire available roof space) produces 100% of the energy (averaged over the year) that my house consumes. Obviously, your mileage may vary, depending on roof orientation, shading, and geographic location. I live in CT, which is hardly a sunny state, so anywhere in the US should be viable for solar energy. If you life somewhere like Arizona, it’s a no-brainer.

With many technologies there is one feature that is considered a limiting factor, or at least the most important factor, at least by the public, and tends to dominate discussion. For computers it used to be processor speed, for cameras it was megapixels. Once, however, we get to the point where these parameters are generous enough to no longer be the dominant limiting factor, we start to pay attention to other factors. Make no mistake, these other factors were important all along, they were just often neglected by the public who focused on one number.

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17 responses so far

Jun 23 2017

NASA Slams Goop

Body-Vibes_10-2Recently I have been vacillating between two different views of humanity. On the one hand, we all share a core neuropsychology. We are all struggling to get through life with our humble meat machines, complete with cognitive biases, flawed perception and memory, and irrational tendencies.

On the other hand, it often seems like there are fundamentally different kinds of people in the world. I guess it depends on whether you focus on what we have in common, or what separates us. Articles like this make it difficult not to focus on the latter.

This has been circulating recently so you probably have already seen it – Paltrow’s wretched hive of scum and quackery she calls Goop is promoting a product called Body Vibes. This is the bottom of the barrel of pure pseudoscientific nonsense wrapped in holistic bling. The claims are also nothing new – your body has an energy frequency, and our little sticker (or bracelet, amulet, fez, whatever) will balance your energy vibrations and cure what ails you.

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117 responses so far

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