Jan 07 2019

Crowdfunding Quackery

A recent study in The Lancet highlights a disturbing trend – cancer patients using crowdfunding sites to pay for worthless and misleading fake cancer treatments, like homeopathy. They found that in June of 2018 there were 220 active GoFundMe campaigns for “alternative” treatments for cancer.

In this study, which focused specifically on homeopathy (which is 100% complete snake oil), 38% were seeking to use homeopathy in addition to conventional treatment, 29% instead of conventional treatment, and 31% after conventional treatment had failed. The authors, Snyder and Caulfield, were appropriately concerned about these trends.

At this point the most common question to ask is, “What’s the harm.” Well, it is extensive and severe – let me elaborate. In 2017 a study looked at cancer patients, their use of alternative treatments, and their survival. They found that overall if you used alternative treatments you were 2.5 times as likely to die during the study. For the most treatable cancers, like breast cancer, the risk of death was almost six times higher. That is a massive increased death rate. This increased risk of death was controlled for how sick the patients were. The most likely contributor to the increased death rate was delay in conventional treatment.

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Jan 04 2019

Asimov’s Predictions for 2019

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In 1984 science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote an article for the Toronto Star making predictions for 2019. I thought that was an odd date to pick, but as The Star explains, 1984 was 35 years from the publication of the book by that name, so they wanted to look 35 years into the future.

I am interested in futurism, which is notoriously difficult, but it is an excellent window onto the attitudes, assumptions, and biases of the people making the predictions. Asimov’s predictions are no exception, but they are particularly interesting coming from a professional futurist, and one with a reputation for being particularly prescient.

What did he get right, and what did he get wrong, and why? He focused on what he considered to be the three biggest issues for the future: “1. Nuclear war. 2. Computerization. 3. Space utilization.” I think this list itself reflects his bias as a science-fiction writer. They are reasonable, but he could have chosen medicine, agriculture, transportation, or other areas.

In any case, on nuclear war he was pessimistic in a way that was typical for the height of the cold war, and prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He said if we have a nuclear war, civilization is over, so not much more to say about that. Instead he just wrote:

“Let us, therefore, assume there will be no nuclear war — not necessarily a safe assumption — and carry on from there.”

He spent most of the article focusing on the impact of computers on society. This was a frequent topic of his fiction. He famously was correct in his prior visions of the future in the broad brushstrokes of – computers will get more powerful, more intelligent, and more important to civilization. But he also famously got the details wrong, imaging giant computers running things. He missed the trend toward smaller, ubiquitous, and embedded computers.

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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 21 2018

Radical Political Views Correlates with Poor Metacognition

The usual caveats apply – this is one study in a limited context showing only correlation and using a psychological construct. I also have to be careful because the study confirms what I already believe. Having said all that, it is interesting and is probably telling us something about people with extreme political views, especially when other research is considered.

The study involves individuals with radical political beliefs, as measured by a standard questionnaire. It has already been established that those with more extreme beliefs espouse greater confidence in their knowledge and beliefs. However, it is not clear how much this is due to an overconfidence bias vs a failure of metacognition. In other words – do people who are overconfident about their political beliefs like to portray themselves to others as being confident, or do they simply lack insight into the correctness of their own beliefs (a metacognitive failure). The current study tests the latter factor.

The researchers, lead by Steven Flemming at University College London, looked at, “two independent general population samples (n = 381 and n = 417).” He gave them a challenge in which they had to estimate the number of dots on two images, and decide which one had more. They also had to say how confident they were in their judgement. Further, if they got the answer wrong, they were given further information in the form of another image with dots which should have helped them improve their estimate. They were then asked to restate their confidence.

The study found that those with more radical political views indicated higher confidence in their choices, even when they were wrong, and less of a tendency to update their confidence with new information. In other words – you might say they are opinionated and stubborn.  This comes as absolutely no surprise if you have ever interacted with someone with extreme political views.

What this study cannot tell us about is the arrow of cause and effect. One possibility is that those who lack the metacognitive ability to properly assess and correct their own confidence levels will tend to fall into more extreme views. Their confidence will allow them to more easily brush off dissenting opinions and information, more nuanced and moderate narratives, and the consensus of opinion.

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Dec 20 2018

The Really Worst Pseudoscience of 2018

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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Dec 18 2018

Worst Pseudoscience of 2018

I don’t usually do lists, but I do find it interesting to look back over the past year and review major events and trends. It’s good for the memory, and the exercise always reminds me of how terrible memory is. I often realize that I forgot about major events, and also have a poor sense of how far in the past certain events occurred. (Was that this year or last year?)

So here are the pseudosciences from 2018 that I think deserve to be remembered. I am going to list them in no particular order, and just keep adding them until I run out of time.

Climate Change Denial

It does seem that 2018 may have been a bit of a turning point for the recognition that climate change is real, imminent, and deserving of far more attention and priority than we are giving it. There were multiple reports all agreeing that essentially the problem is worse than we thought, we have less time than we thought, and we better get cracking. The IPCC, for example, pointed out that even if we keep warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, an ambitious and probably not achievable goal, bad things will still happen, just not as bad if warming goes beyond that point. A US government report echoes this, adding that further warming will be economically damaging and it is cost-effective to prevent it rather than deal with the consequences.

Several surveys also show that people are increasing concerned about climate change. Even some conservatives admit they were wrong on climate change. Even the writers of South Park admitted their prior error in an apology series of episodes to Al Gore.

Therefore, perhaps the worse pseudoscientists of 2018 is anyone still denying that climate change is a real problem that needs to be dealt with. The denialist strategies have not changed – no, the Earth is not warming, well if it is it’s not due to human causes, well even if we are causing it the results won’t be bad, well even if they will be bad there is nothing we can do about it anyway, and whatabout China? Like all pseudosciences they start with the desired conclusion – that we don’t need to do anything about it, just keep burning fossil fuels, and then they reverse engineer a justification for that conclusion.

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Dec 17 2018

Belief in Santa

How old were you, if you ever believed in Santa, when you figured out he was not real? Is belief in Santa benign, beneficial, cruel, or ultimately harmful to the trust children place in adults? Many people have strong opinions about this, but we have little actual data. A recent survey adds some.

The survey is mainly asking adults about their childhood experiences with belief in Santa, so take that for what’s it’s worth, but here are the main results:

  • 34 per cent of people wished that they still believed in Santa with 50 per cent quite content that they no longer believe
  • Around 34 per cent of those who took part in the survey said believing in Father Christmas had improved their behaviour as a child whilst 47 per cent found it did not
  • The average age when children stopped believing in Father Christmas was 8.
  • There are significant differences between England and Scotland –
  • The mean age when people stop believing in Father Christmas was 8.03 for England and 8.58 in Scotland.
  • There was a difference in attitudes between England and Scotland, as to whether it is ok to lie to children about Santa – more people in Scotland than in England said it was ok to lie to children about Santa.
  • A total of 65 per cent of people had played along with the Santa myth, as children, even though they knew it wasn’t true.
  • A third of respondents said they had been upset when they discovered Father Christmas wasn’t real, while 15 per cent had felt betrayed by their parents and ten per cent were angry.
  • Around 56 per cent of respondents said their trust in adults hadn’t been affected by their belief in Father Christmas, while 30 per cent said it had.
  • A total of 31 per cent of parents said they had denied that Santa is not true when directly asked by their child, while 40 per cent hadn’t denied it if they are asked directly.
  • A total of 72 per cent of parents are quite happy telling their children about Santa and playing along with the myth, with the rest choosing not to.

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Dec 14 2018

More Evidence Organic Farming is Bad

I know I have been hitting this topic frequently recently, but I can’t ignore a major study published in Nature. The study is not just about organic farming, but about how we use land and implications for climate change, specifically carbon sequestration. The core idea is this – when we consider land use and its impact on the climate, we also have to consider the opportunity cost of not using the land in a more useful way. This echoes a previous study by different authors I discussed five months ago, and a review article by still different authors I discussed three months ago.

There certainly does now seem to be a growing consensus that we have to think very carefully about how we use land in order to minimize any negative impact on the environment, and specifically limit carbon in the atmosphere driving climate change.

The new study essentially argues that we need to use land optimally. If land is well suited to growing corn, then we should grow corn. If it is better suited for forestation, then we should allow forests to grow there and not convert it to farmland. Forests sequester a lot more carbon than farmland, and this is a critical component to any overall strategy to mitigate climate change. The authors calculate that land use contributes, “about 20 to 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.”

If we put the various studies I have been discussing together, a compelling image emerges. First, we need to consider that we are already using all the best farmland to grow crops. Any expansion of our farmland will by necessity be using less and less optimal land for farming. This translates to a greater negative impact on the climate. However, our food production needs will grow by about 50% by 2050.

This is a strong argument, in my opinion, against biofuels. We need that land to grow food, not fuel – unless we can source biofuels from the ocean or industrial vats without increasing land use.

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Dec 13 2018

Delay School Start Times

Living in a complex society means that some decisions are made for us. In a representative democracy, this means our elected officials, at every level, can have incredible power over our lives. The social contract, however, is that these elected officials should know what they are doing, act in the public interest, listen to their constituents, and engage in due diligence based on valid evidence-based processes. Well, that’s the ideal, and it’s pretty clear that we generally fall far short.

One limitation is that people are flawed and have complex motivations and often fall prey to ideology. However, there is also a collective problem of political will, with often perverse incentives baked into the system itself.

These inherent flaws in the system become increasingly frustrating as there are obviously better ways to do things, and yet we can’t seem to get out of our own way. On the bright side it is possible to slowly build the political will in response to a growing body of evidence. Scientific evidence on the risks of second-hand smoke, for example, supported the political will to ban smoking in many public locations, which has led to an improvement in health.

But there are other areas where the science is increasingly clear, the arguments seem one-sided, and yet we seem to be stuck in paralysis. Changing from Daylight Savings time to Standard time is hazardous. It is linked to worse sleep, more accidents, and even more heart attacks. There is also no good reason for the change. It’s just dumb. It seems that we are long past the time of having enough evidence, arguments, and political will to just ditch the change – so what’s the holdup?

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Dec 11 2018

Study – Mental Activity Does Not Prevent Decline

There has been a very interesting debate going on in neuroscience over the impact of so-called “brain training” activities and cognitive ability and decline. No one study, of course, is ever going to be the final word on this debate, but a new study does add one more piece to the puzzle. Unfortunately it shows that increased mental engagement (doing puzzles, engaging in problem solving, etc.) does not alter the course of mental decline in later years.

But let’s back up and frame the question a bit more. The overarching question is – what is the effect on the brain and on cognitive ability from engaging in various kinds of mental activity? A cottage industry has risen out of one extreme end of opinion on this question, the notion that certain kinds of mental activity could have wide ranging benefits. This is the “brain training” claim – doing specially designed puzzles will make you smarter, and maybe even prevent dementia.

Although Lumosity often gets cited for making these claims, I think it started much earlier, in the 1990’s with the Baby Mozart movement. In 1993 a short paper was published in Nature, involving a small number of college students who were either exposed to classical music or just relaxation. They were then tested with a paper folding task, and those who listened to the music did a litter better. This was a small preliminary study in college students showing a very narrow effect. Yet somehow this tiny and insignificant paper was used to create the myth of the so-called “Mozart effect” – that children who are exposed to classical music will become generally smarter.

Later studies showed no such effect, but the genie was out of the bottle. A cottage industry of “Baby Mozart” and “Baby Einstein” (because, why not?) products still thrive to this day. This spawned a more general claim that mental activity can “train your brain” to make you generally smarter.

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