May 23 2019

How Do We Know?

A Reddit thread in the Skeptic subreddit is framed as criticism toward skeptical philosophy. The questions it raises are all important, and honestly the poster should have just framed his points as questions rather than criticisms, because they reflect not problems with skeptical philosophy but their poor understanding of it. So the first lesson here is – humility. Don’t assume that an entire field you don’t fully understand is wrong. Rather, start with the assumption that you have more to learn, and then let proponents make their best case.

There are many good responses in the thread, which shows that a reasonable understanding of skeptical philosophy is out there in the community. The questions are very common beginner errors, and so they are worth responding to in detail. My first response, however, (as others in the thread have pointed out) is to begin with a basic text of the subject. Read a philosophy book. I humbly suggest The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, which is designed to be a primer on skeptical philosophy and directly addresses all of the poster’s questions. But there are many good books out there, and even basic philosophical books on epistemology will do (they don’t have to be explicitly skeptical).

I point this out because I frequently encounter people who are trying to do philosophy without even realizing it, or without an appreciation for the depth of philosophy as an intellectual field. Philosophy is one of those things that everyone thinks they can do, even without a lick of education on the topic. Inevitably they make basic mistakes, often ones that were dealt with thousands of years ago by the first philosophers. This would be no different than making pronouncements about a highly technical field of science without ever having studied it, and without really knowing the position of experts.

He begins:

‘Fact’ – What is a ‘fact’? Google search says: “a thing that is known or proved to be true”. Here is my problem: ‘known’…by whom? I am from India and have seen both villages and towns. Different things are ‘known’ in different communities. For example, people in rural areas ‘know’ there exists witches and ghosts.

This is a basic question of epistemology – how do we know anything, and what does it mean to know something? Here is also a pearl – don’t rely on essentially a dictionary definition for insight into a technical term or concept.

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May 21 2019

The Inherent Contradiction of Marketing Homeopathy

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is suing Walmart for their marketing of homeopathic products, similar to a prior lawsuit against CVS. Their claim is that Walmart is using deceptive practices to sell homeopathy, implying that such products are equivalent to science-based remedies. While I applaud their effort, you can tell by reading the reporting that it is ultimately an exercise in futility.

First let me clearly state my underlying premise – homeopathy is pure 100% nonsense. It is a 200+ year old pre-scientific system of potions with no basis in reality. It is simply witchcraft. And if that is not enough for you, it has been tested in clinical trials (despite being utter nonsense) and has been convincingly, and unsurprisingly, shown to have no effect.

The inherent contradiction this undeniable fact creates is, how do you market homeopathic products without deception and harm? The answer is – you can’t. The only way to actually sell the product is to deceive the customer on some level.

The FDA and FTC have tried to strike a balance between freedom and consumer protection when it comes to homeopathy, but this is a hopeless endeavor. There is no balance. So they each have their guidelines for the industry to promote transparency, honesty in labeling, and to minimize deception. Of course these regulations don’t go far enough. They just mean the industry has to be a little more clever and coy in their marketing.

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May 20 2019

New Probe To Look For Life On Mars

Published by under Astronomy
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One of the greatest scientific questions to remain unanswered so far concerns the existence of life outside of the Earth. So far the only place in the universe where life has been confirmed in on Earth itself. There is almost certainly life elsewhere, the universe being as big as it is, but we have not confirmed it.

Looking in other stellar systems will not be easy. We will not be traveling to any other stars anytime in the foreseeable future, so what are the options for probing for extrasolar life? We can look for the chemical signatures of life in the atmosphere. Or we can try to detect signals from a technological species. That’s pretty much it at this point, unless that life brings itself or its probes to us.

Our best bet to detect life off Earth, therefore, is to look within our own solar system. There are really only a few plausible locations for life – in the oceans beneath Europa or Enceladus, in the atmosphere of Jupiter or one of the other gas giants, or on Mars. No where else has plausible conditions for life.

Of these possibilities, Mars is the easiest to get to. We have already landed a number of probes on Mars. None of these robots, however, have been equipped with the necessary tools to directly look for life. They did examine the conditions on Mars which could potentially inform the probability of life on Mars, but that’s it. The bottom line of this examination is that conditions are not particularly suited for life as we know it, but does not exclude the possibility of life.

One interesting find is the presence of perchlorates at 0.5-1% in Martian soil, likely widely distributed around the planet. These are reactive molecules containing oxygen, and present both good and bad news for human intentions on Mars.  The bad news is that perchlorates are toxic, and any human presence on Mars will have to deal with the soil itself being a hazard. Extreme measures will be needed to protect astronauts. This is not a deal-killer, but it is a significant technical hurdle.

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May 17 2019

The Climate is Always Changing

Whenever the issue of climate comes up on this blog (or even just in the comments on unrelated articles), climate change deniers make an appearance. Consistently they use terrible arguments – relying on straw men, factually incorrect statements, deliberately confusing and blurring the lines, and committing just about every logical fallacy. They are also the same recycled arguments I see over and over, regardless of how many times they are refuted. That is how you know a position is intellectually dishonest, it never changes. It just moves around to the same repertoire of refuted positions.

A systematic refutation of these bad arguments requires a book, and there are many good resources out there, but I just want to focus on one argument in this article – the notion that the climate is always changing. This, of course, is true. It’s simply not a refutation in any way of the scientific position of anthropogenic global warming.

This is one of the many positions of the deniers. First they will argue that the climate is not changing. When the evidence for that is too irrefutable, then they say that it is always changing. This is also where the unmitigated hubris comes in – they bring up the point that there are natural trends in climate change as if this is news to anyone. Oh really, you don’t say? The climate naturally changes? I wonder if the world’s climate scientists, who have dedicated their careers to thinking deeply and carefully about things like the climate, have ever encountered that notion before. You should tell them.

Or, this is just a suggestion, you can take a moment to try to understand what scientists actually think rather than just swallowing science-denying propaganda whole. If a scientific idea is comprehensible to you as a non-expert, it’s a pretty good bet the experts have thought of it. You certainly shouldn’t assume that they haven’t, or you are somehow smarter than all the climate scientists in the world. Seriously – get some perspective.

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May 16 2019

Training an AI to See Like a Human

The synergy between AI research and neuroscience is fascinating, and becoming more so. Knowledge of how organic brains function is informing our approaches to artificial intelligence, and research into AI is informing our understanding of neuroscience. I think this process will eventually lead to an artificial human brain, but it’s very hard to predict how long this will take.

Meanwhile, we are beginning to see the fruits of AI algorithms that employ neural nets or try to recapitulate organic learning in some way. A team at the University of Texas has published a paper in which they present yet another example of this – teaching an AI to quickly gather visual information about their environment from a few “glimpses.”

Human perception evolved to be fast and efficient, to infer our environment from as little information as possible. The advantage of this is speed – there is obviously an advantage to perceiving something flying at your head, or a predator stalking you, as quickly as possible. Our brains use algorithm to make high probability inference to construct our perception of the environment from tiny slices of information. This process works very well, and most of the time we accurately perceive our environment sufficiently to move around and interact with it.

However, this system is not perfect. It occasionally will make incorrect inferences or assumptions, and reconstruct reality wrong. We experience such occasions as optical illusions (if we ever break the incorrect construction, otherwise we persist in the wrong perception). This happens, for example, when our brains receive insufficient information or ambiguous information. When observing objects in the sky we may lack a reference in order to judge size and distance. Low light conditions may obscure much of what we see. Unusual objects or environments may challenge the algorithms assumptions.

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May 14 2019

Truth Decay

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 13 2019

The Ending of Game of Thrones

<Warning – spoilers galore if you are not up to date>

I always knew, deep down, that Game of Thrones (GOT) would not have a happy ending. Once Ned Stark got his head cut off at the end of the first book/season, I think everyone knew this was a different kind of fantasy story. I read the books first, and as I did it became clear that I was reading a tragedy and a horror story, not heroic fantasy.

I have a few thoughts I would like to share as the last episode of the series is ready to air. The people I watch the show with had a range of reactions to the second-to-last episode, but I think it was completely consistent with the story George R.R. Martin has been telling us all along. He has been deconstructing the medieval fairy tale right in front of our eyes, hitting us over the head with the reality that we already know. It’s interesting how difficult it can be for many to just accept that.

The final delusion was that Martin would bring it all back home. In the end the heroes would defeat evil, a good person would sit on the throne, and a golden age would dawn – it’s the Lord of the Rings ending. But come on – didn’t we all know this story was not LOTR?

First, the Night King, the White Walkers, and their army of the dead was always a side show, even if it was the most captivating. Most of the series has focused on the title action – a game of thrones. I liken the Night King to a natural disaster – it’s looming in the background, some are warning of it, but mostly people ignore it while they focus on their short term politics. In the end we are really not prepared when the disaster finally arrives. The living actually straight-up lose the battle of Winterfell. (Don’t get me started on the terrible battle tactics: opening with a frontal cavalry charge, putting your troops outside your own choke point, and not opening with a sustained artillery bombardment, etc. – but that’s a side point.)

I think the lesson there is that death comes for all of us, and the best we can really do when we confront it is to either say, “not today,” or to face it bravely. Somehow life manages to keep crawling forward.  It’s like the Plague, in the end it’s a distraction from what we are really interested in, our political battles.

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May 10 2019

Apparently Medicine is Sorcery

According to Texas House Representative Jonathan Stickland, Texas pediatricians should mind their own business when it comes to vaccines, which, by the way, are sorcery.

That some state representative is completely clueless should come as no surprise, nor that he exposes his cluelessness on Twitter. Here is the now infamous exchange:

Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD@PeterHotez
Jonathan Stickland@RepStickland
You are bought and paid for by the biggest special interest in politics. Do our state a favor and mind your own business. Parental rights mean more to us than your self enriching “science.”
Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD@PeterHotez
Jonathan Stickland@RepStickland
Make the case for your sorcery to consumers on your own dime. Like every other business. Quit using the heavy hand of government to make your business profitable through mandates and immunity. It’s disgusting.

In his first tweet Stickland starts with the shill gambit, which is a lazy personal attack used to casually dismiss the concerns of others. In this case Stickland is assuming, and publicly asserting, that the only reason a pediatrician might advocate for children getting vaccinated is because they are “bought and paid for.” He then basically tells the doctor to shut up, as if a medical doctor does not have a legitimate professional and even ethical responsibility toward the health of their patients. Finally he dismisses “science” as a conspiracy and asserts the rights of parents to be free from science.

That is a lot of nonsense to pack into one tweet.

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May 09 2019

Source Credibility

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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