Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

A Dan Kahan Reader on Cultural Bias and Motivated Reasoning

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

As previously mentioned, here’s some Dan Kahan to liven up your day:

Watson on Skeptic Sexism

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Rebecca Watson has been at the center of the ickiness surrounding the misogynistic behavior of some in the skeptics’ community. She summarizes in this article in Slate: It Stands to Reason, Skeptics Can Be Sexist Too.

I know that this article will only rile up the sexist skeptics. I’ll hear about how I’m a slut who deserves whatever I get, about how I’m a liar who made everything up, about how I’ve overreacted, and about how I should just ignore the trolls and they’ll go away. I’ve written this article anyway, because I strongly believe that the goals of skeptics are good ones, like strengthening science education, protecting consumers, and deepening our knowledge of human psychology. Those goals will never be met if we continue to fester as a middling subculture that not only ignores social issues but is actively antagonistic toward progressive thought.

Novella on Alexander’s Proof of Heaven

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

It’s easy to be superstitious, to believe in mysterious forces beyond our ken that shape the reality we live in. Because there are mysterious forces beyond our ken, and they do shape the reality we live in. But the difference between superstition and actual knowledge is that with actual knowledge, there’s objective evidence that supports the belief. With superstition, it’s just what we want to believe, for whatever reason, bolstered by confirmation bias.

I’ve given up a fair amount of superstitious belief over the last several years, and it makes me kind of a Debbie Downer in discussions involving mystical belief, especially discussions with people I care about. So I mostly don’t discuss those things. Which is an easy course of action for me to adopt, since I’m an off-the-charts introvert whose go-to response in pretty much any social situation that carries a hint of potential conflict is a stony silence. (Or what appears from the outside to be stony. From my perspective, it’s just silence. I guess stones, if they could speak, might have the same complaint.)

Anyway, what I actually wanted to talk about was a recent noteworthy bit of wishful credulity by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander in Newsweek, Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife. Alexander was in a coma for 7 days after contracting meningitis. After recovering, he came to believe that he’d experienced a cloud-like realm, a sense of universal love, and another being with whom he conversed, and that he had done so (this part is key) while his higher brain functions were clinically, demonstrably inactive.

Letting the air out of this story is (who else?) neuroscientist, noted skeptic, and man-crush Steven Novella: Proof of Heaven?

While his experience is certainly interesting, his entire premise is flimsily based on a single word in the above paragraph – “while.” He assumes that the experiences he remembers after waking from the coma occurred while his cortex was completely inactive. He does not even seem aware of the fact that he is making that assumption or that it is the central premise of his claim, as he does not address it in his article.

Of course his brain did not go instantly from completely inactive to normal or near normal waking consciousness. That transition must have taken at least hours, if not a day or more. During that time his neurological exam would not have changed significantly, if at all. The coma exam looks mainly at basic brainstem function and reflexes, and can only dimly examine cortical function (through response to pain) and cannot examine higher cortical functions at all. His recovery would have become apparent, then, when his brain recovered sufficiently for him to show signs of consciousness.

Alexander claims there is no scientific explanation for his experiences, but I just gave one. They occurred while his brain function was either on the way down or on the way back up, or both, not while there was little to no brain activity.

It’s not that the world isn’t mysterious. It is. It’s just that our desire to explain the things we don’t understand needs to be grounded in some sort of epistemological framework, one that takes into account things like the well-documented, easily reproducible fact that a human brain, deprived of oxygen or otherwise taken outside the relatively narrow constraints within which it likes to operate, quickly becomes an unreliable narrator.

Singing About Science

Monday, September 17th, 2012

You’ve probably seen it already (since I’ve seen it about 5 times from various sources in my newsfeed), but the Symphony of Science guy (John Boswell, aka melodysheep) has a new auto-tuned song out about climate change:

Also, Phil Plait called my attention to this moving (and scientifically accurate!) song and video about lunar libration:

That in turn led me to this video, from the same people as Libration (Matt Schickele, composition and visuals; Hai-Ting Chinn, voice; and Erika Switzer, piano), though this time with a different skeptic (Steven Novella) providing the lyrics. Also very moving (at least for me), while being simultaneously profound:

Laden and Romm on Goldenberg on Gleick

Monday, May 21st, 2012

I’m not sure that anyone else besides me actually cares about the angst I suffered during the whole Heartland/Peter Gleick saga. But for me at least, it was fairly angsty. One of the main things I took away from it was this: Some of the people I’d considered credible sources, people on my “side” of the issue, were revealed to me as being willing to peddle bullshit in the name of scoring points against their ideological opponents.

I’m not just talking about Gleick, though his dishonesty was the most prominent example. I’ve been giving the whole “mock trial of Peter Gleick” thing a rest, but I may revive it. It sounds like there are going to be some new developments to hash over.

Suzanne Goldenberg has an article in The Guardian today alleging that Peter Gleick has been “cleared” of forging the strategy memo: Peter Gleick cleared of forging documents in Heartland expose. The article itself is quite thin on details, but as best I can tell Goldenberg is claiming to have access to the results of an investigation commissioned by the Pacific Institute (the think tank Gleick previously headed, and from which he stepped down in the wake of the scandal), and the investigation reportedly will conclude Gleick did not forge the strategy memo.

A review has cleared the scientist Peter Gleick of forging any documents in his expose of the rightwing Heartland Institute’s strategy and finances, the Guardian has learned.

Gleick’s sting on Heartland brought unwelcome scrutiny to the organisation’s efforts to block action on climate change, and prompted a walk-out of corporate donors that has created uncertainty about its financial future.

Gleick, founder of the Pacific Institute and a well-regarded water expert, admitted and apologised for using deception to obtain internal Heartland documents last February.

He has been on leave from the institute pending an external investigation into the unauthorised release of the documents, although it is not entirely clear what the investigation entailed. That investigation is now complete, and the conclusions will be made public.

It was not immediately clear the findings would allow Gleick to make an early return to his job at the Pacific Institute. However, despite the official leave, Gleick has remained professionally active, appearing at public events and accepting speaking engagements. He delivered an Oxford Amnesty lecture on water in April.

It seems likely, given Goldenberg’s willingness to run with the story, that there is a report, and that it will offer the conclusion that Gleick did not forge the memo. But how strong will the report’s actual language be on that point? What evidence will it cite? Who are the report’s authors? What is their relationship to the Pacific Institute, and how credible are they as representing an independent perspective, given the Pacific Institute’s interest in findings that minimize Gleick’s wrongdoing?

All this is obviously very preliminary at this point. But you wouldn’t know that from Greg Laden’s blog post: An important revelation regarding Heartland Gate (global warming denialism). I’m not going to bother excerpting from Laden’s post. It’s basically anti-Heartland, pro-Gleick propaganda, treating the Goldenberg article as an excuse to trot out a one-sided recapitulation of the whole affair.

Similarly, Joe Romm (and Rebecca Leber) at Think Progress go for maximum spin: Heartland Institute Hemorrhages Donors And Cash For Extremist Agenda, As Coal And Oil Step In. Their piece begins with the following triumphant banner linking to the Goldenberg article:

Peter Gleick cleared of forging documents in Heartland expose

Sigh. I’m not a defender of Heartland (far from it). But this stuff reinforces a decision I made recently to remove Laden and Romm from my newsfeed. It’s not that I’m in the denialist camp that disputes the science of global warming. But just because one champions scientists doesn’t make one’s own assertions scientific. Laden and Romm have let their adopted role as advocates carry them past the point of being honest brokers of information. They’re peddling self-serving spin as truth, selecting what to pass on not on the basis of skeptical inquiry, but simply on the basis of which untested hypotheses paint their enemies in the worst light.

With a universe of information sources available and my own time a scarce and precious commodity, I don’t need their bullshit polluting my information stream.

Pushing Back in the Comments

Monday, May 7th, 2012

I will always love Jack Hitt for his story about taking his daughter to lunch on Martin Luther King day, which featured in what may be my favorite episode of This American Life ever, Kid Logic. I liked that story so much I stole it and included it in podcast #21, the first of the “modern” podcasts, in which I get all derivative and remix-y (and illegal).

So yeah, sorry about the lack of those lately. I have a batch of things I’d like to get to, but just haven’t been able to scrape up the time. But in the meantime, do check out this article from Hitt that appeared over the weekend in the NYT: Science and truth: We’re all in it together.

I learned about it from Roger Pielke, Jr. in Ignore the gloss at some risk, which is also recommended.

Rounding out the interesting pushback is this item from Dan Kahan: Some data on CRT & “Republican” & “Democratic brains” (plus CRT & religion, gender, education & cultural worldviews). Heh. Includes welcome pushback on Chris Mooney, whose recent book The Republican Brain, is also sitting around waiting for me to find the time for it. I was so excited about The Republican Brain when I first heard about it. But that was before I’d heard the title, and (more) heard Mooney detail the premise. As it turns out, the actual book has been a disappointment to me (which I guess I shouldn’t really be able to say until actually reading it). But I’m disappointed nevertheless. I was hoping that Mooney would really dig into what was going on with motivated reasoning and why people believe the wacky things they do. Instead, it seems what we’ve got is the liberal equivalent of an Ann Coulter book, bashing the other side so we on our side can feel good about how right we are.


Anyway, no time to obsess over this, or even write a proper blog post. If I were going to write a proper blog post, I’d probably write something similar to what I wrote five years ago in Debugging the Bush administration. So I’ll just quote myself:

A famous truism from the world of open source software development is that “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” In other words, if you get a large enough pool of people examining a malfunctioning piece of code, there’s going to be someone for whom the solution is obvious.

Go eyeballs.

Annan on McPhaden on Gleick

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Good stuff from James Annan on James’ Empty Blog: His transgression cannot be condoned, regardless of his motives. Includes a link to, and quote from, Mike McPhaden, president of the AGU, in his comments on Gleick: We must remain committed to scientific integrity.

See especially Annan’s comments in his blog post’s discussion thread, where he expands a little on his current thinking.

The biggest impact of this incident on me personally has been to shake up my taxonomy of the climate change debate. Before, I had just two boxes: scientists (the well-informed, rational, good guys) on one side, and deniers (the deluded, stupid, and/or bad guys) on the other. The former accepted that climate change was real. The latter didn’t.

Unfortunately, to paraphrase von Moltke, my taxonomy could not survive contact with the enemy. I now realize that the climate change landscape is more complicated. There are some intelligent, rational people who nevertheless question the mainstream scientific view. And there are some real bozos who accept it. I’m not making any particular assertion about the number of people in either of those categories. But they’re definitely there.

I liked this post from Tamsin Edwards’ blog, All Models Are Wrong: The Sceptical Compass. It includes this diagram:

Regardless of where I or the people I’m reading fall on the vertical axis, I want to spend less of my time on the left side of that graph, and more on the right.

Galef on How to Be More Right

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Julia Galef has some good advice for anyone who finds himself (or herself) frustrated in the course of online arguments:

(Note: It actually is good advice. The fact that she’s young and female and therefore will annoy the crap out of shcb is merely a happy accident.)

Laden on Skeptics on Fukushima

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Greg Laden has some really good comments on the ongoing Fukushima reactor events and their spinning by pro-/anti-nuclear advocates: The Fukushima Disaster, Hyperbole, Credibility, Skepticism, and the Future of Nuclear Power.

I honestly think that it is too early to have this conversation, but alas, the conversation has been forced.

O’Reilly: Athiest Billboards Are Insulting

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Bill O’Reilly on how athiest billboards are an insult to believers. Also, he believes in God because of the tides. Courtesy of NorthernLight, who posted it in the comments to Climate roulette:

Novella on Bedbugs AND Meta-cognition (*Swoon*)

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Oh, man-crush Steven Novella, how do I love thy postings at Neurologica? Let me count the ways…

Um, okay: two. That is, I love the latest post at Neurologica (The Coming Bedbug Plague) two ways: It is about an insect (which is a topic I’m lately fairly obsessed with) and it links the insect story with a pithy observation about humans’ mistaken belief in the inevitability of progress.

Here’s my favorite bit from the part about progress:

My initial surprise at hearing this story, I think, reflects an inherent progressivist bias in our thinking. We tend to think of human history as making inexorable progress. This bias is reinforced, especially since the industrial revolution, by the fact that science and technology has been relentlessly progressive. The problem is in the default assumption that all change is progressive – whatever current system we have must be better than the old system because newer is better.

Human history, however, is more complex than our default assumptions. Sometimes history is regressive. And sometimes it is cyclical. Not all current trends will extrapolate indefinitely into the future. Today’s fad is not always the wave of the future.

In my mind bedbugs were a problem of pre or early industrial societies, and were no longer an issue given modern hygiene and pest-control. I associated bedbugs with an earlier age, and it just seemed incongruous that they could return in the 21st century. But the details tell a different story.

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned the recent insect obsession on, but you can find evidence of it, if you’re interested, at my local nature-y blog, Carp Without Cars. Or you can examine my recently uploaded images at Or you can watch this video I took in my bedroom the other day, of a case-bearing carpet moth caterpillar, and contemplate the fact that taking that video was kind of the high point of my week:

Or you could just take my word for it: I’m kind of into bugs lately.

Yong on the Urge to Cling Harder to Shaken Belief

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

Awesome science blogger Ed Yong wrote back in October about a new study demonstrating the lengths to which people will go to avoid cognitive dissonance: When in doubt, shout – why shaking someone’s beliefs turns them into stronger advocates.

You don’t have to look very far for examples of people holding on to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Thousands still hold to the idea that vaccines cause autism, that all life was created a few thousand years ago, and even that drinking industrial bleach is a good idea. Look at comment threads across the internet and you’ll inevitably find legions of people who boldly support for these ideas in the face of any rational argument.

That might be depressing, but it’s not unexpected. In a new study, David Gal and Derek Rucker from Northwestern University have found that when people’s confidence in their beliefs is shaken, they become stronger advocates for those beliefs. The duo carried out three experiments involving issues such as animal testing, dietary preferences, and loyalty towards Macs over PCs. In each one, they subtly manipulated their subjects’ confidence and found the same thing: when faced with doubt, people shout even louder.

There are a couple of obvious tie-ins to the climate change debate: Deniers deny even more fiercely in the face of mounting scientific evidence that climate change is real, and that urgent action to address it is imperative. And I guess it cuts the other way, too, as shcb is no doubt already preparing to type in response: In the face of public relations setbacks, the climate change believers are redoubling their own efforts. If you believe that the believers are factually wrong, and that the evidence against them is legitimate, then it matches up in exactly the same way.

And accused people tend to protest their innocence, whether or not they are guilty. That doesn’t make the two cases equivalent, though. There is such a thing as actual innocence, and it makes a difference.

For more great stuff from Ed Yong, check out his NERS Review of the year Part 9 – Twists and lessons.

Novella on Lehrer on the Decline Effect

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

Recently-acquired mancrush Jonah Lehrer had a cool article in the New Yorker recently: The Truth Wears Off (PDF of the otherwise-paywalled full article). It concerns something called “the decline effect”, which seems to afflict a broad range of scientific pursuits. In a nutshell, a new and exciting discovery is announced. Other scientists replicate it, and confirm that yes, the effect appears to be real. But then, over time, a curious thing happens: The magnitude of the measured effect begins to decline in subsequent studies. It’s almost as if, as Lehrer puts it in his title, the truth “wears off.”

Several of the scientists Lehrer spoke to for his article were uncomfortable being quoted. The decline effect calls into question some of the fundamental underpinnings of the objective, science-y stuff to which they have devoted their lives. The article apparently has been somewhat controversial; witness the cranky review given to it by my other recent mancrush, Steven Novella: The decline effect.

Novella quotes Lehrer’s conclusion (somewhat out of context), and rants on a bit:

And this is why the decline effect is so troubling. Not because it reveals the human fallibility of science, in which data are tweaked and beliefs shape perceptions. (Such shortcomings aren’t surprising, at least for scientists.) And not because it reveals that many of our most exciting theories are fleeting fads and will soon be rejected. (That idea has been around since Thomas Kuhn.) The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.

This paragraph sums up what I was describing above – Lehrer is ultimately referring to aspects of science that skeptics have been pointing out for years (as a way of discerning science from pseudoscience), but Lehrer takes it to the nihilistic conclusion that it is difficult to prove anything, and that ultimately “we still have to choose what to believe.” Bollocks!

I find Novella’s relatively impassioned response to Lehrer really interesting. Rather than simply acknowledging that Lehrer, as a writer selling copies of the New Yorker, faces a different set of contingencies with respect to hyperbole and colorful language than does, say, a neuroscientist selling science-based medicine, Novella really goes for it, taking Lehrer’s statements way past the point where I, at least, think he intended them to be taken, erecting a strawman he can then knock down. Novella talks past much of Lehrer’s argument, ignoring those points where Lehrer offers explanations for the decline effect. For example, Lehrer talks about the too-human fallibility of scientists chasing significance, and the problem of a publication and review process that rewards the dramatic and “interesting” result, which at first is the result that demonstrates a new and hitherto unrecognized effect, but eventually becomes the result that undercuts the now-established wisdom.

Lehrer writes:

The problem of selective reporting is rooted in a fundamental cognitive flaw, which is that we like proving ourselves right and hate being wrong. “It feels good to validate a hypothesis,” Ioannidis said. “It feels even better when you’ve got a financial interest in the idea or your career depends on it.”

I thought about this dispute while listening to D.J. Grothe’s recent interview with paranormal investigator Joe Nickell. Nickell is a skeptic, as is Novella, but his approach impresses me more than Novella’s. Nickell recognizes that the things he’s researching are almost certainly bunk, but he doesn’t just rant (as Novella too-frequently does on the otherwise-awesome podcast he heads up, the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe) about what delusional fools paranormal believers are. Instead, Nickell wants to know what’s really going on. It’s easy (and probably satisfying, on some level) to just cry “Bollocks!” when confronted by belief in something that flies in the face of the best evidence. But what Nickell emphasizes in his interview is that to stop at that point is to miss out on the opportunity to solve the real mystery. So Nickell investigates, in the sense that he actually goes to the site of the latest “haunting” (or whatever), listens to the witnesses with as open a mind as he can muster, and digs until the truth emerges.

As Doyle’s Holmes pointed out in “A Scandal in Bohemia”:

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

Novella is quick to dismiss Lehrer’s article — too quick, I believe. There’s something there, and it’s worth taking a look at. But someone who believes he has the answers already, and is driven by an apparent need to denigrate those who believe differently, is going to be unlikely to do much looking.

Novella on Anecdotes, Anomalies, and the Importance of Context

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Steven Novella has thought a lot about thinking. I offer in evidence the following post from his Neurologica blog: The Context of Anecdotes and Anomalies.

The problem with anecdotes is that they are subject to a host of biases, such as confirmation bias. They are easily cherry picked, even unintentionally, and therefore can be used to support just about any position. For every anecdote, there is an equal and opposite anecdote.

I really liked it, and heartily recommend the whole thing to the friendly local conspiracy theorists. Unfortunately, I also predict that they will fail to recognize it as a valid indictment of their epistemological shortcomings. Oh, well.

Richard Wiseman at TAM 6

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

A few years ago psychologist and author Richard Wiseman gave a fun talk at TAM 6. I just came across a reposted video of it courtesy of the fine people at the JREF:

Richard Wiseman Spoon Bending at TAM 6 from JREF on Vimeo.

It includes a discussion of Wiseman’s cool “Colour Changing Card Trick” video, which I apparently missed the first time around, though it’s been viewed about 4 million times on YouTube. Anyway, here’s that; it’s only about 3 minutes long, so if you haven’t seen it and don’t want to commit to the full 46 minutes for the above talk, at least check this out:

Steven Novella on the Unreliability of Memory

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Skeptic and actual neuroscientist (and target of the previously mentioned intellectual mancrush) Steven Novella has an interesting writeup of some recent research demonstrating the frailty of human memory: More Evidence Our Memory Stinks.

Our memories are not an accurate recording of the past. They are constructed from imperfect perception filtered through our beliefs and biases, and then over time they morph and merge. Our memories serve more to support our beliefs rather than inform them.

Penn & Teller vs. the Antivaxxers

Monday, August 30th, 2010

I’ve got a bit of an obsession with skepticism lately, so let’s keep rolling. Courtesy Phil Plait (who, by the way, has a new TV show), comes word of this cool clip that I assume is from the latest episode of Bullshit! (I don’t get Showtime): Penn and Teller take on vaccines:

Update: Some followup items inspired by Knarly’s comments in the comments:

Smashing Cars for Skepticism

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Quick: Which would you rather be driving in a 40mph head-on collision: A 1959 Chevy Bel Air or a 2009 Chevy Malibu?

I hope you said the Malibu. From Dragonrock posting at the JREF Swift Blog: Of Cars and Conspiracies.

I went to view the video on Youtube and saw the different copies have hundreds of comments claiming everything from the Bel Air had the engine removed to the frame of the older car was rusted and simply broke. Others say that something was done to the Malibu because the new plastic car wouldn’t have a chance against one made of sheet metal.

These conspiracies spread because of what “everyone knows.” The list of things everyone knows is long and includes things like: Toilets swirl one way in the northern hemisphere and the other way in the southern; Silencers turn the loudest gunshot into a quiet “fffffttt”; that Bogey said “Play it again, Sam”; and, of course, older cars are stronger than newer ones. But, in all these cases, what “everyone knows” is actually wrong.


I suspect that this conspiracy will fade rather quickly while the JFK, moon hoax, 9/11 truthers will be around for a while.  But the root of all of them is the same and that’s a lack of critical thinking.  I’m of the opinion that the hard core conspiracy theorists are a lost cause, but educating children, not on conspiracies, but on basic critical thinking will cause belief in these stories to die a slow death.  It’s hard to fix our world, but maybe we can keep our children from screwing up theirs quite as badly.

That assumes, of course, that each generation gets its own world to screw up fresh. Unfortunately, for certain kinds of long-lasting screwups, the generational inputs are additive.

Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” Talk at TAM 8

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

Phil Plait is cool:

Phil Plait – Don’t Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

MacKenzie on Denialism

Friday, June 4th, 2010

Writing in New Scientist, Debora MacKenzie has an article that is right up my alley: Living in denial: Why sensible people reject the truth.

All denialisms appear to be attempts like this to regain a sense of agency over uncaring nature: blaming autism on vaccines rather than an unknown natural cause, insisting that humans were made by divine plan, rejecting the idea that actions we thought were okay, such as smoking and burning coal, have turned out to be dangerous.

This is not necessarily malicious, or even explicitly anti-science. Indeed, the alternative explanations are usually portrayed as scientific. Nor is it willfully dishonest. It only requires people to think the way most people do: in terms of anecdote, emotion and cognitive short cuts. Denialist explanations may be couched in sciency language, but they rest on anecdotal evidence and the emotional appeal of regaining control.