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eSkeptic for November 8, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 11/08/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

SKEPTIC EXCLUSIVE FILM CLIP Bill Nye: Science Guy (a new documentary)

Bill Nye is a man on a mission: to stop the spread of anti-scientific thinking across the world. The former star of the popular kids show Bill Nye The Science Guy is now the CEO of The Planetary Society, an organization founded by Bill’s mentor Carl Sagan, where he’s launching a solar propelled spacecraft into the cosmos and advocating for the importance of science, research, and discovery in public life. With intimate and exclusive access — as well as plenty of wonder and whimsy — this behind-the-scenes portrait of Nye follows him as he takes off his Science Guy lab coat and takes on those who deny climate change, evolution, and a science-based world view. The film features Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, and many others.

Below, you can watch an Exclusive Clip from the film in which Bill Nye has a few words with Ken Ham — founder of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which promotes a pseudoscientific, young Earth creationist explanation of the origin of the Universe based on a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative in the Bible.

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A NEW STORY! How Phil Zuckerman Became a Card-Carrying Skeptic

As we announced a few weeks ago in eSkeptic, we asked several friends to tell us about those “aha!” moments that led to their becoming skeptical thinkers. As promised, here is another one of their incredible stories on YouTube. Enjoy!

Phil Zuckerman is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and he is a card-carrying (and corn cob pipe gnawing) skeptic. He is the author of several books, including: Living the Secular Life (2015), and Society Without God (2008).

TELL US YOUR STORY!

Tell us your story and become a card-carrying skeptic! Thank you for being a part of our first 25 years. We look forward to seeing you over the next 25. —SKEPTIC

Become a Card-Carrying Skeptic

It’s possible that artificially intelligent systems might end up far more intelligent than any human. In this week’s eSkeptic, Matthew Graves warns that the same general problem-solving ability that makes artificial superintelligence a uniquely valuable ally may make it a uniquely risky adversary. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 22.2 (2017).

Why We Should Be Concerned About Artificial Superintelligence

by Matthew Graves

The human brain isn’t magic; nor are the problem-solving abilities our brains possess. They are, however, still poorly understood. If there’s nothing magical about our brains or essential about the carbon atoms that make them up, then we can imagine eventually building machines that possess all the same cognitive abilities we do. Despite the recent advances in the field of artificial intelligence, it is still unclear how we might achieve this feat, how many pieces of the puzzle are still missing, and what the consequences might be when we do. There are, I will argue, good reasons to be concerned about AI.

The Capabilities Challenge

While we lack a robust and general theory of intelligence of the kind that would tell us how to build intelligence from scratch, we aren’t completely in the dark. We can still make some predictions, especially if we focus on the consequences of capabilities instead of their construction. If we define intelligence as the general ability to figure out solutions to a variety of problems or identify good policies for achieving a variety of goals, then we can reason about the impacts that more intelligent systems could have, without relying too much on the implementation details of those systems.

Our intelligence is ultimately a mechanistic process that happens in the brain, but there is no reason to assume that human intelligence is the only possible form of intelligence. And while the brain is complex, this is partly an artifact of the blind, incremental progress that shaped it—natural selection. This suggests that developing machine intelligence may turn out to be a simpler task than reverse- engineering the entire brain. The brain sets an upper bound on the difficulty of building machine intelligence; work to date in the field of artificial intelligence sets a lower bound; and within that range, it’s highly uncertain exactly how difficult the problem is. We could be 15 years away from the conceptual breakthroughs required, or 50 years away, or more.

The fact that artificial intelligence may be very different from human intelligence also suggests that we should be very careful about anthropomorphizing AI. Depending on the design choices AI scientists make, future AI systems may not share our goals or motivations; they may have very different concepts and intuitions; or terms like “goal” and “intuition” may not even be particularly applicable to the way AI systems think and act. AI systems may also have blind spots regarding questions that strike us as obvious. AI systems might also end up far more intelligent than any human.

The last possibility deserves special attention, since superintelligent AI has far more practical significance than other kinds of AI. […]

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2018 | IRELAND | JULY 15–AUGUST 2 One of the best geology tours we’ve ever offered: an epic 19-day tour of the Emerald Isle!

Ireland’s famed scenic landscape owes its breathtaking terrain to a dramatic 1.75 billion year history of continental collisions, volcanoes, and glacial assault. Join the Skeptics Society for a 19-day immersive tour of the deep history of the Emerald Isle, while experiencing the music, hospitality, and verdant beauty that make Ireland one of the world’s top travel destinations.

For complete details about accommodation, airfare, and tour pricing, please download the detailed information and registration form or click the green button below to read the itinerary, and see photos of some of the amazing sites we will see.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Science-Based Veterinary Medicine

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 11/07/2017 - 5:16am

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) is a UK-based professional organization for veterinary surgeons and nurses. They describe their mission as:

We aim to enhance society through improved animal health and welfare. We do this by setting, upholding and advancing the educational, ethical and clinical standards of veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses.

They recently came out with a statement regarding complementary and alternative medicine, essentially setting the standard for their profession in the UK. There are some good parts to the statement, but also some dramatic weaknesses which are representative, in my opinion, of the broader issues of how academia is dealing with the CAM phenomenon.

The Case for Science-Based Medicine

Before we get to the statement, let me review my position on the matter. As many readers will likely know, I am a strong advocate for what I call science-based medicine. The SBM approach, at its core, is simple – we advocate for one science-based standard for the health-care profession. This means that treatments which are safe and effective are preferred over those that are either unsafe or ineffective. Effectiveness and safety, of course, occur on a continuum and so individual decisions need to be made based on an overall assessment of risk vs benefit.

Further, the best way to assess the safety and efficacy of an intervention is by a thorough, transparent, and unbiased assessment of the entirety of the scientific evidence. This is where things can get really wonky, which is why specific expertise is required to make such assessments. If you are interested in the details there are a few hundred articles you can read either here or on the SBM website. But here is the short version:

SBM considers both basic science and clinical evidence. The basic science is needed in order to assess the plausibility of any claim or intervention. Further, understanding plausibility (or prior probability) is necessary in order to interpret the clinical evidence. You literally cannot properly interpret the statistical probability of a treatment working unless you know the prior probability, which is dependent upon plausibility.

In addition you need rigorous clinical evidence that shows a specific, consistent, replicable and clinically significant effect of a specific intervention, properly controlling for other relevant variables. Yes, you really do need this. I am not just being persnickety. The evidence clearly shows that when interventions are adopted prior to this level of evidence they are overwhelmingly likely to be reversed with later more rigorous evidence.

We can argue about the exact optimal threshold of evidence we should require before adopting a treatment, but many reviews of the literature and of practice indicate that this threshold should be higher than the current standard in place, and higher than most people think. Otherwise you are more likely to be causing harm than good, and that is the ultimate goal – to make sure we are helping people and not hurting them.

Further, placebo effects are transient and subjective, and do not represent actual improvement in any disease. At best they provide a short term distraction from subjective symptoms. They are not worth pursuing for their own sake, and certainly do not justify interventions which are not science-based.

Given the high stakes within health care, professional ethics requires that we make (collectively and individually) our best efforts to provide science-based interventions, and to avoid the waste and abuse that comes from unscientific claims or practices. Also, the ethical requirements of informed consent and patient autonomy require that we are honest and candid with them about the scientific basis of our recommendations and a realistic assessment of risk vs benefit.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) takes a very different approach. CAM proponents are specifically advocating for a double-standard, one in which a science-based assessment of risk vs benefit is not required. They further seek to weaken and lower the standards of scientific evidence, frequently misinterpret the evidence in a biased manner, make false claims about placebo effects, and favor the freedom of the practitioner over the rights and needs of the patient.

However, there are billions of dollars to be made selling snake oil, and the purveyors of what was previously called simply “health fraud” have invested some of those billions lobbying for favorable laws and regulations, bribing hospitals and academic institutions with donations, setting up their own alternative journals and organizations, and marketing their deceptive narrative to the public.

The RCVS Statement

With this background, let’s take a look at the RCVS statement. They admit that forming their official position was controversial with passionate views on both sides.  That is undoubtedly true, but it is the job of a professional organization to make the right decision, and not cater to a populist insurgency. Unfortunately, it seems that the RCVS caved to pressure and decided to “split the baby.” They begin:

“We would like to highlight our commitment to promoting the advancement of veterinary medicine on sound scientific principles and to reiterate the fundamental obligation on our members as practitioners within a science-based profession, which is to make animal welfare their first consideration.”

OK, so far so good. I like the nod to “science-based.” That is critical, in my opinion. The modern medical profession should be overtly science-based, otherwise we are just witch-doctors. They continue:

“In fulfilling this obligation, we expect treatments offered by veterinary surgeons are underpinned by a recognised evidence base or sound scientific principles. Veterinary surgeons should not make unproven claims about any treatments, including prophylactic treatments.”

Again, very nice. One tweak – I would change “recognised evidence base or sound scientific principles” to “recognised evidence base and sound scientific principles.” As I noted above, you cannot have one without the other.

They then go on to single out homeopathy, which is understandable. Homeopathy has turned into the sacrificial lamb, the one CAM treatment that academics and professionals throw under the bus in order to appear science-based. See – we reject pseudoscience. They write:

“Homeopathy exists without a recognised body of evidence for its use. Furthermore, it is not based on sound scientific principles.”

The very next statement, however, is where they go off the rails.

“To protect animal welfare, we regard such treatments as being complementary rather than alternative to treatments, for which there is a recognised evidence base or which are based in sound scientific principles.

“It is vital to protect the welfare of animals committed to the care of the veterinary profession and the public’s confidence in the profession that any treatments not underpinned by a recognised evidence base or sound scientific principles do not delay or replace those that do.”

Ugh. Given their statement about passions on both sides, I suspect this was their bone to the snake-oil peddlers in their ranks. They bought into the CAM narrative. Essentially they are saying that it is OK to sell pure pseudoscience and nonsense to pet owners, and to subject animals to utterly worthless interventions, as long as they also provide real medicine first. Hey, this way you get to charge for real and fake medicine.

This statement utterly undercuts everything that comes before it. It is also naive to think that resorting to fake medicine is ever benign. As a clinician I can tell you that there is almost never a time when there is nothing science-based to do for a patient. That does not mean we can cure everything, but you can always manage symptoms, improve quality of life, and help your patients deal with their condition.

Giving them fake interventions is always inappropriate, robs them of their resources (financial, time, emotional), gives false hope, betrays their trust and the requirements of patient autonomy and informed consent, and is simply fraud. Sure, it is worse when it replaces real treatment, but in practice this is almost always what happens. “Complementary” or “integrative” approaches are a fiction. When you actually look at what such practitioners do, they incorporate fake interventions early in their management, when science-based interventions are still available. The “complementary” schtick is just a cover.

Also, you simply cannot have an adequate understanding of the relationship between science and medicine and think it is reasonable to give your patient homeopathy or anything similarly pseudoscientific. CAM erodes the public and professional understanding of science, sows confusion, and weakens regulations and professional standards. The RCVS statement is, ironically, evidence of that very thing. Here we have a professional organization whose stated mission is to promote the health of animals with science-based interventions, saying it is OK to give magic water to animals and charge their owners for it.

I don’t know how much this is a failure on the part of the RCVS to recognize the problem, or a failure of political will to deal with it appropriately. It is some combination of both. It is also representative of the broader problem within the general medical profession.

Modern medicine is failing to deal with its own populist and fraudulent insurgency, and it is eroding the profession and our contract with society.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #596: How to Assess a Documentary

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 11/06/2017 - 4:00pm
Some tips to assess whether a documentary is good science or just propaganda.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

US Government Report Affirms Climate Change

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 11/06/2017 - 5:09am

The U.S. Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report was recently published, and its conclusions are crystal clear:

 This assessment concludes, based on extensive evidence, that it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.

That conclusion is nothing new to those following the science of climate change for the last couple decades or so. The more this question is studied, the more data is gathered, the firmer the conclusion becomes – the planet is warming due to human release of greenhouse gases, such as CO2. There are error bars on how much warming, and the exact effects are hard to predict, but that’s it. The probable range of warming and effects are not good, however. It will be bad, the only real debate is about how bad and how fast.

The conclusions of the report, therefore, at least scientifically, are not surprising. It was, however, politically surprising. The special report began in 2015, under Obama. Because of Trump’s stated position that global warming is a Chinese hoax, and his appointment of many global warming deniers to key positions, it was feared that his administration would slow or frustrate the publication of this report.

However, according to the NYT, Trump himself was simply unaware of the report. Further, the fate of the report was largely in the hands of those amenable to following the science, rather than putting a huge political thumb on the scale. As a result the report was not hampered or altered. It was approved by 13 agencies who reviewed its findings.

The reports adds to the consensus of consensus that global warming is real and human-caused. What I mean by the “consensus of consensus” is that multiple reviews by expert panels have come to the same conclusion about the consensus of scientific evidence. There are only fringe outliers, as there are with most scientific questions (no matter how strong the consensus).

It remains to be seen how Trump himself or his administration will respond to the report. However, the global warming denier community has already dismissed it as the result of “Obama holdovers.”

There is good reason to be pessimistic about the effects this report will have on public opinion. While it does seem that public opinion is slowly moving in the direction of accepting the science of global warming, there is a strong ideological influence on what people believe. A study from March 2017 surveyed 9,500 people over several years and found that the strongest predictor of their views on climate change was their party affiliation.

In other words, you could predict with a high level of accuracy someone’s attitudes toward climate change if you knew only their party affiliation. This effect was strengthened the more they paid attention to the news. Therefore consuming information itself did not move people toward the scientific consensus, just toward their party line.

I do want to point out, because this point is often missed, that this motivated reasoning phenomenon is not universal but appears to be in proportion to the degree to which issues are strongly ideological and tied to tribal affiliation.

Of course, in an ideal world this would not be the case. Science should speak for itself, and should inform politics but not be determined by it. Party affiliation should have nothing to do with the scientific consensus on a scientific question. This highlights the importance of separating science from ideology, and the need for better education in philosophy and critical thinking. This is a failure of thinking clearly and scientific literacy.

Both sides, of course, will think that they are the one’s who are in line with logic and evidence and the other side is succumbing to political ideology. This does not mean that the issue is necessarily symmetrical – that both sides are wrong. Sometimes the science happens to be in line with our ideology. In those cases the accuracy of your views on the science is almost incidental, or at least it does not provide convincing evidence that you will accept scientific conclusions regardless of their ideological implications.

What is convincing evidence is when someone accepts a scientific consensus on a question even when it is inconvenient to their ideology or party affiliation. Again, I am not saying there is absolute symmetry, but liberals, for example, should not be smug about their acceptance of the scientific consensus on climate change unless they also accept the scientific consensus on genetically modified food, organic farming, vaccines, alternative medicine, and nuclear energy.

Part of the problem is motivated reasoning. Part of the problem (perhaps a growing part) is the echochamber effect. But also scientific literacy plays a huge role, and here I am not just talking about factual scientific knowledge but the ability to evaluate scientific research and opinions, to determine what the consensus of scientific opinion is and how solid it is. This means not citing retracted papers, fringe opinions, or preliminary studies as if they were definitive, for example.

And of course critical thinking is essential – knowing how to avoid common pitfalls such as logical fallacies and conspiracy thinking.

But the key concept to understand with regard to the relationship between scientific questions and ideology is this – don’t expect or demand that the science will always be maximally convenient to your political views. Understand, by chance alone, it won’t be. You should strive to be most suspicious of scientific claims when they do seem to support your political ideology, because of the motivation to accept such conclusions uncritically. Further, structure your ideological value-based opinions in such a way that they can accommodate whatever conclusions science comes to.

In other words, if you are pro-environment, then support whatever policies are science-based, rather than choose the scientific conclusions that are in line with environmentalist ideology. If you value the free market, then propose rational free-market solutions to the problems that the scientific evidence says we face. Don’t deny the science to make it more convenient for a free-market ideology.

This is where philosophical literacy comes in – understanding the difference between value-based opinions and empirical questions of fact. I also think it is critical to value the truth as part of your ideology. Following a valid logical process needs to be highly valued in itself, and not, therefore, easily subverted to other values.

Otherwise you end up denying a strong scientific consensus because the pundits on news outlets that make you feel good about your political affiliation tell you it’s a hoax.

Categories: Skeptic

15 Credibility Street #28: Defense against the dark art of scare-mongering

The Doubtful News Feed - Sun, 11/05/2017 - 3:11pm
It was just Halloween, the media is out to scare you into believing dumb things. Don’t. Tricks in treats? Not-too-deep-thinking about marijuana-laced candy warnings will bring quick realization this hazard is not worth worrying about. One incident in New Brunswick, Canada may have been nailed down but who would eat that anyway? The condition called…
Categories: Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #643 - Nov 4 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 11/04/2017 - 9:00am
Live from CSICon 2017, with special guest, Dr. Rachael Dunlop; What's the Word: Epistemology; News Items: Halloween Bad Reporting, Skeptical Activism Down Under, Conspiracy Thinking, Lava Tubes on the Moon, T. rex Arms, Raccoon Intelligence, Millennials and Religion; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

Consistency Bias

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 11/03/2017 - 5:17am

“Oceania was at war with Eurasia; therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.”

– George Orwell

In Orwell’s classic book, 1984, the totalitarian state controlled information and they used that power to obsessively manage public perception. One perception they insisted upon was that the state was consistent – never changing its mind or contradicting itself. This desire, in turn, is based on the premise that changing one’s mind is a sign of weakness. It is an admission of prior error or fault.

Unsurprisingly our perceptions of our own prior beliefs are biased in order to minimize apparent change, a recent study shows. The exact reason for this bias was not part of the study.

Researchers surveyed subjects as to their beliefs regarding the effectiveness of corporal punishment for children. This topic was chosen based on the assumption that most subjects would have little knowledge of the actual literature and would not have strongly held beliefs. Subjects were then given articles to read making the case for the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of spanking (either consistent with or contrary to their prior beliefs), and then their beliefs were surveyed again.

Predictably the researchers found that after reading a text inconsistent with their prior stated beliefs, most subjects changed their minds. Their beliefs moved in the direction of the new information. This is consistent with the research on beliefs that are moderately held, and not necessarily beliefs that are strongly held or part of one’s identity.

Further, the researchers asked the subjects to indicate their prior beliefs on the effectiveness of spanking – this was the real focus of the study. They found that many subject misremembered their prior beliefs, biased in the direction of their current beliefs. Also, the greater the difference between prior and current beliefs the greater this bias in their memory for their prior beliefs.

Therefore, we will tend to underestimate the degree to which our minds have been changed by learning new information – at least for moderately held beliefs. Why does this happen?

Again, this study does not directly address the question of why, but here are some possibilities. The authors gave a straightforward interpretation, that we lack metacognitive awareness of our prior beliefs, and that our estimates of prior beliefs are affected by our current beliefs. Therefore it may be as simple as estimating prior beliefs based on current beliefs, without necessarily a deeper emotional cause.

However, we can certainly speculate that deeper emotional causes are present. It is possible that a disconnect between prior beliefs and current beliefs causes cognitive dissonance, and that we partly relieve that dissonance by simply adjusting our memory to reduce the magnitude of the change.

There may also be an element of impression management – we consciously and subconsciously attempt to manage other’s perception of ourselves. We do not like to appear inconsistent, and so will pretend our prior beliefs were closer to our current beliefs to minimize apparent inconsistency.

I do wonder how much of this apparent need to minimize the degree to which we have changed our mind is cultural. Even if cognitive dissonance in the face of change is the “default mode” of human psychology, it seems to me that it would be advantageous to alter this by culture and education.

In other words – we should cultivate an attitude in which changing one’s mind in the face of new information is not socially embarrassing, does not imply weakness, and is not something that needs to be covered over. In fact, gleefully altering one’s beliefs to accommodate new information should be a badge of honor, a sign that one is intellectual honest and courageous.

I also think that a related phenomenon is a willingness to suspend opinion or judgement. It is OK to say that we don’t know enough about a topic to have a strong opinion, or any opinion at all. This represents appropriate humility in the face of our own ignorance. No one can know everything, and admitting ignorance should not be shameful. Again, it represents intellectual honesty. Pretending knowledge one does not have is the real vice.

These traits should be cultivated, specifically taught, and celebrated – humility and honesty in the face of one’s own ignorance, and pride in the ability to appropriately change one’s mind in the face of new knowledge. Part of this will likely require cultivating the language necessary to express these positions – stating one’s opinions as tentative, acknowledging the limitations of our knowledge, and the potential depth of our ignorance.

It is possible, however, that even with a mature understanding of these intellectual virtues, our memories may still fail us. This study suggests that our memories for prior beliefs may themselves be inaccurate and biased in the direction of minimizing change. All we can do, therefore, is be aware of this bias in our memories and try to adjust for it. This may come up when other people have a different memory of our prior positions than our own. We need to acknowledge that their memories may be closer to the truth, because of this bias.

This is yet another reason to be suspicious of our own memories. Overall the research shows that our memories serve thematic goals first and foremost, and details are adjusted accordingly. Therefore, be humble in the knowledge of the fallibility of your own memory.

Of course, if new research shows something different, I will happily change my beliefs.

 

Categories: Skeptic

The Long Winter That Killed the Dinosaurs

neurologicablog Feed - Thu, 11/02/2017 - 5:13am

There is still a bit of a debate about what, exactly, was responsible for the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs and 75% of all species on Earth about 65 million years ago (the K-Pg extinction event). There is no question that a large meteor impacted near Chicxulub crater in the Gulf of Mexico at precisely that time, and was certainly responsible for at least some of the extinction. However, volcanism near the Deccan traps in India was also stressing the environment and may have contributed to some degree to the extinction. The debate is really about the relative contribution of these two factors, plus a potential third factor, marine regression.

As a non-expert enthusiast my reading of the consensus of scientific opinion is that the meteor impact was the main cause, perhaps made a bit worse by the pre-existing stressors which were already causing a minor extinction of their own. But the K-Pg event would not have been a mass extinction without the meteor strike.

Adding to this view is a recent analysis that indicates the impact would have caused a devastating continuous subfreezing “winter” from 3-16 years long, enough to make the Starks shiver (sorry for the gratuitous GOT reference). Scientists have been drilling in the Chicxulub crater to learn more about the specific effects of the impact.

I wrote in May of this year that scientists have discovered that the impact threw up large amount of gypsum (calcium sulfate dihydrate). The sulphur this would have thrown up into the atmosphere would have effectively blocked out the sun, reducing photosynthesis and breaking the food chain. The researchers even speculated that the impact was in the worst possible location, because the shallow seas have a lot of gypsum, which would not have been present on land or in deep ocean.

In addition:

The team’s calculations estimate the quantities ejected upwards at high speed into the upper atmosphere included 325 gigatonnes of sulphur (give or take 130Gt) and perhaps 425Gt of carbon dioxide (plus or minus 160Gt).
The CO2 would eventually have a longer-term warming effect, but the release of so much sulphur, combined with soot and dust, would have had an immediate and very severe cooling effect.

They computer modeled the effect on the climate of this much ejecta and calculated that the Earth would have cooled to subfreezing temperatures for at least 3 years and as long at 16 year. It doesn’t take much imagination to consider the effects on living creatures of such a prolonged freeze.

Except for some large turtles and crocodiles, no tetrapod above 25kg survived the extinction event. There was definitely a size component to which species went extinct, which is why the non-avian dinosaurs were so thoroughly wiped out. This makes sense if the primary problem was the lack of food, which would be cause by the loss of photosynthesis and the long winter. Smaller animals could eek through the event on the scraps that survived, but large animals would not have had enough food to survive.

Nuclear Winter

Some of you may recall that Carl Sagan was vocal in warning the world about the potential for nuclear winter. He argued that a prolonged winter was the likely result of the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs, and that a significant nuclear exchange could have the same effect – resulting in a “nuclear winter”.

“Beneath the clouds, virtually all domesticated and wild sources of food would be destroyed,” Sagan says. “Most of the human survivors would starve to death. The extinction of the human species would be a real possibility.”

This was not mere speculation. Sagan and others published a computer simulation of their own, using early climate models, in 1983 in the journal Science. Some even credit Sagan and this argument with calming the cold war. The idea of a nuclear winter potentially wiping out the entire human species was more than even mutually assured destruction. The notion of any significant nuclear exchange became suicide. In other words – it was not possible to “win” a nuclear war. The only possible outcome was extinction (or at least the end of human civilization).

It is interesting that now, 34 years later, the prolonged winter hypothesis is getting such strong support from direct analysis of the crater (which had not even been discovered at the time). It is, in fact, even worse than prior models indicated because of the gypsum/sulphur discovery.

In my mind this also strengthens the argument that the meteor impact was the major cause of the K-Pg extinction.

Categories: Skeptic

Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 92

Center for Inquiry News - Wed, 11/01/2017 - 8:35am

Cause & Effect is the biweekly newsletter of the Center for Inquiry community, covering the wide range of work that you help make possible. Become a member today!

The Top Stories

Skepticism, Enlightened and Enlivened, at CSICon 2017

This past weekend hundreds of members of the reality-based community from across the country (and some from around the world) gathered in Las Vegas for the biggest and best skeptics’ event, anywhere, CSICon. While this year’s conference took place in the same city and the same venue as CSICon 2016, the context of the two events could not have been more different.

One year ago, CSICon took place on the eve of the U.S. presidential election, when most people thought the outcome would be very different. CSICon 2017, however, opened with a shared acknowledgement of the new irrational, anti-scientific, and dangerous political environment. There was no getting around the fact that the biggest skeptics’ conference around was taking place while the White House was occupied by a president who represents and advances almost everything CFI and its Committee for Skeptical Inquiry stand against. How would we address this at what is in large part a celebratory event?

Well, you can have your boss dress up like Trump and deliver an opening monologue taunting the attendees by touting “his” intention to subvert all of us with his aggressive irrationality and science denial and admit, “I hope you fail.” Center for Inquiry President and CEO Robyn Blumner had broken the ice and identified the elephant in the room, and the conference took off from there.

And it really took off. The looming haze of Trump quickly dispersed, and attendees were treated to an incredible array of presentations, discussions, receptions, and even a film premier. There were special VIP talks, a crazy Halloween disco party, and, of course, an evening watching knights swing heavy, sharp weapons at each other. Richard Wiseman cracked wise with Richard Dawkins, Science Moms debuted their new documentary, Massimo Polidoro recounted amazing stories from the life of the Amazing Randi (who was unable to come due to health concerns), Lawrence Krauss unwove the fabric of the universe, Britt Hermes shined a spotlight on the fake medicine of naturopathy, Maria Konnikova was awarded for her great work, and George Hrab serenaded us with “thoughts and prayers.” And that’s just a sampling.

Almost everyone walked away from CSICon 2017 with a renewed sense of determination and optimism, because so many of the talks were anchored in one particular theme: that skeptics can make a difference one person at a time, one conversation at a time, even when national political power is stacked against us.

If you couldn’t be there yourself, or you want to refresh some inspiring memories, check out the almost-real-time blogging by Paul Fidalgo, CFI’s Communications Director, at CFI Live (centerforinquiry.live), with almost-real-time summaries and reactions to the event. You can also browse through Twitter with the hashtag #csicon.

And then save these dates: October 18–21, 2018. That’s when CSICon comes back to Vegas, this time at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino. We’ll see you there.

 

CFI Indiana Director Honored with ‘Women of Achievement’ Award 

Reba Boyd Wooden is one of the most devoted and hardest-working activists you’ll ever meet, and it just so happens that among her many advocacy efforts, she is of course the executive director of CFI Indiana and director of CFI’s Secular Celebrant program. She is passionate and disciplined in her work for issues such as human rights, church-state separation, women’s health, and education, just to name a few. She is also the president of Indiana’s HAPA Coalition (Health And Privacy Alliance), a member of the boards of the Indiana ACLU and Indiana NOW, and has thirty-seven years of experience as a public school teacher. Whew!

Recognizing her incredible efforts, Ball State University’s College of Sciences and Humanities this month honored Reba with the Indiana Woman of Achievement Award. Applauding the choice of Reba for the award, CFI Board Chair Eddie Tabash said in a statement:

Ms. Wooden’s devoted and successful efforts to preserve equal rights for everyone regardless of viewpoint on matters of religion and regardless of sexual orientation, has been outstanding. She was instrumental in securing in Indiana the equal rights of non religious to perform marriage ceremonies. She has a clear and most enlightened vision of what an ideal society should look like when deeply rooted prejudices would be eliminated and overwhelming majorities of people would truly adopt a live-and-let-live attitude toward others.

In her acceptance speech, Reba said:

We Secular Humanists practice the Common Moral Decencies such as honesty, integrity, don’t hurt people, don’t harm other people’s property, be responsible, be benevolent—trustworthiness, dependability, justice and equality in society, and respect for the beliefs, values, and lifestyles of others. …

When I discovered Center for Inquiry, I found that this organization represented my values, and when I became Executive Director of their Indiana branch, it gave me a platform from which to be an activist on those values.

We support the first amendment on both freedom of religion and separation of church and state. Everyone has the right to believe and practice their chosen religion including the right to choose to practice no religion.

News of the award was covered in the Washington Times Herald and The Southsider Voice.

Congratulations, Reba! CFI is proud to have a leader like you on our side.

 

Richard Dawkins in Hartford, Conn., with Carl Zimmer Nov. 4 

On October 29, CFI Los Angeles hosted a great conversation between Richard Dawkins and critically acclaimed author Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Big Short). This Saturday, November 4, Dawkins comes to the Bushnell in Hartford, Connecticut, for a conversation with the New York Times’s science journalist Carl Zimmer, whose upcoming book is a fresh new perspective on the history and science of heredity, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: What Heredity Is, Is Not, and May Become. This is quite a fortuitous pairing for what is sure to be a very enlightening conversation, so get your tickets now.

As preview for the big event, Dawkins was interviewed by two of Connecticut’s major news outlets, talking to Christopher Arnott of the Hartford Courant and Colin McEnroe on his WNPR radio program.

Plus: On November 7, Richard hosts a special V.I.P. reception at the 2017 Carl Sagan Fest at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. These tickets are going particularly fast, so don’t wait.

 

News from the CFI Community

A Flurry of Activity for TIES

The Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES), the Richard Dawkins Foundation program that helps middle school science teachers get the skills and knowledge they need to teach evolution, is having a very busy autumn. TIES’ indefatigable director, Bertha Vazquez, just completed a workshop at the Florida Association of Science Teachers Annual Conference in Orlando and a full day of workshops and discussions at Valdosta State University in Georgia (covered by the Valdosta Daily Times). The following week, Robert Shaw presented TIES workshops at the New Jersey Science Convention in Princeton, and Blake Touchet was in Biloxi to give a workshop at the Mississippi Science Teachers Association Annual Conference.

Many more workshops are on the horizon!

  • November 9, 2017: Bay School District Professional Development Day, Panama City, FL, presented by Nancy Dow
  • November 10, 2017: Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching, at the George R. Brown Convention Center Houston, TX, two sessions presented by Gemma Mora-Azuar
  • November 30 and December 1, 2017: Pennsylvania Science Teachers Association Annual Conference, State College, PA, two sessions presented by Robert Cooper
  • March 5, 2018: National Science Teachers Association National Conference, Science on My Mind, Atlanta, GA, presented by Kathryn Green Atlanta

TIES is a real jewel in the crown of CFI, and it’s having a real impact on the lives (and minds) of teachers and students across the country.

Plus: Check out Matt Nisbet’s Skeptical Inquirer article on the importance of introducing evolution education to students well before they get to college, especially when students are subject to a primarily religious education, as well as Scott O. Lilienfeld’s piece on the question of what is the best time to teach children about critical thinking.

 

CFI Michigan Celebrates 20 Years

CFI Michigan held their 20th Anniversary event with Julia Sweeney this past Saturday with eighty people in attendance for the main event and twenty-five attending the VIP Reception.

Executive Director Jeff Seaver told the story of CFI Michigan’s twenty-year history, as it grew from the Freethought Association of West Michigan to becoming one of the most active CFI branches. Julia Sweeney then sat down with Program Director Jennifer Beahan for a wide-ranging conversation on a variety of topics, including Sweeney’s deconversion from religious belief and stories of her adventures in secular parenthood.

CFI Michigan does tremendous good, both for the cause of science and reason and also for its local community, regularly engaging in service work to help those people and causes that need it most. Congratulations, CFI Michigan, and here’s to all that you’ll accomplish over the next twenty years.

 

CFI Highlights on the Web

When you need a skeptical angle on ghosts and hauntings in the run-up to Halloween, who you gonna call? The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, of course (even though that doesn’t quite fit with the song).

  • Daniel Kolitz at Gizmodo elicits explanations from experts in ectoplasm, including CFI’s own Ben Radford.
  • Terry Stawar at the News & Tribune looks to Joe Nickell and Skeptical Inquirer for answers about ghost sightings.
  • The Cape Cod Times cites CSI as the institution to look to for the skeptical take on hauntings.

Speaking of CSI, there’s a new trove of skeptical articles up at CSICOP.org:

  • James Randi recounts his experiences with pseudoscience-based polygraph tests. “If you agree to take one,” writes Randi, “you may be placing your reputation in the hands of an unwitting charlatan who can proclaim you to be guilty or innocent.”
  • In a Skeptical Inquirer cover feature, Jeanne Goldberg explores the history and harm of the politicization of science, calling it “a threat to our democracy.”
  • Joe Nickell looks at the legend of Bigfoot through the broader lens of mythology, examining how ideas about the creature evolved over time and what it says about the human need to believe we are “not alone.”
  • In skeptical reading, Harriet Hall takes a deep dive into human consciousness with Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, and Robert Ladendorf lauds the collaboration between climate scientist Michael Mann and cartoonist Tom Toles in The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy.

More skeptical highlights:

And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.


Upcoming CFI Events


CFI Transnational

CFI Austin

CFI Indiana

CFI Los Angeles

  • November 3: European Parliament member Teresa Giménez Barbat will discuss her efforts to combat pseudoscience and promote policy based on critical thinking.


CFI Michigan

  • November 8: Leadership coach M. Nora Bouchard introduces techniques for “Inclusive Listening” for bridging differences and hostilities.
  • November 12: Program Director Jennifer Beahan speaks about her personal journey to secular activism for the Mid-Michigan Atheists and Humanists in Lansing.
  • December 9: Secular Service time, helping out the nonprofit Kids’ Food Basket as they address childhood hunger through their Sack Supper program.

 

Thank you!

Everything we do at CFI is made possible by you and your support. Let’s keep working together for science, reason, and secular values.  Donate today!


Fortnightly updates not enough? Of course they’re not.

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Cause & Effect: The Center for Inquiry Newsletter is edited by Paul Fidalgo, Center for Inquiry communications director.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at www.centerforinquiry.net. 



 

Categories: , Skeptic

Are You An Unconscious Racist?

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 11/01/2017 - 12:00am

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a racist?

  • A person who thinks their “race” or ethnic group is better than everyone else’s by virtue of genetic superiority, religion, customs, food, way of life, or beliefs.
  • A person who fails to hire an applicant with the best qualifications if that person is from a different ethnic or religious group from the employer’s.
  • A person who is part of an institution that requires him or her to systematically target and discriminate against African Americans or other minorities.
  • A person of any race, ethnicity, or religion who feels more comfortable with others who are like themselves.

or:

  • A person whose score on the Implicit Association Test (IAT) reveals that he or she is unconsciously biased against black people.

Some of the above? All of the above?

Throughout the first decade of this century, surveys repeatedly found that prejudiced attitudes—notably the once-common beliefs that blacks were inferior to whites, women inferior to men, gay men and lesbians inferior to straights—had declined sharply, especially among young people. Surveys, of course, supposedly assess what you think. But what if they assess what you think others think you should think? What if they simply reflect your awareness that it isn’t cool to reveal your actual negative feelings about another group? Self-report data is inherently plagued with this problem. Thus, most social psychologists who study prejudice and discrimination focus on what people do, not what they say they might do. For example, when researchers have sent identical résumés to potential employers, varying only a name that indicates gender, or implies race (a black-sounding name or membership in an African American organization), or mentions religious affiliation, many employers have revealed a bias in whom they choose to call for an interview.1

Of course, whether or not you choose to tell an interviewer that you would never willingly hire a [fill in the target person], you know what you feel about “those people.” But some researchers have set their sights on capturing the prejudices that they believe lurk below awareness, hoping to identify implicit, unconscious negative feelings— not only in people who know they are prejudiced but don’t want to admit it, but also among people who believe they are unprejudiced.

Michael Shermer Examines the Implicit Association Test

Nearly twenty years ago, a team of eminent psychological scientists, including Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji, developed the Implicit Association Test, which measures the speed of people’s positive and negative associations to a target group.2 You sit at a console or your computer and are shown a series of faces you must sort as quickly as you can—pressing a left key for a black face, say, and a right key for a white face. Now you have to do the same for a series of positive or negative words—press the left key for positive words (such as triumph, joy, honest) and the right key for negative words (such as devil, maggot, failure). Once you’ve mastered these sorting tasks, the faces and words are combined: Now, as quickly as possible, you must press the left key when you see a black face or a positive word and the right key when you see a white face or a negative word. You are given a rapid set of combinations: black + triumph, black + poison, white + peace, white + hatred. The pairings get harder as you go along. Many people respond more quickly when white faces are paired with positive words and when black faces are paired with negative words. That speed difference is said to be a measure of their implicitly racist attitudes toward African Americans because it’s harder for their unconscious minds to link African Americans with positive words.

When the research first appeared all those years ago, my colleague Carole Wade and I were disinclined to report it in our introductory psychology textbook. It was unclear what those microsecond “associations” meant; it seemed a leap to call it a measure of prejudice; at best it seemed simply to be capturing a familiar cultural association or stereotype, in the same way that people would be quicker to pair bread + butter than bread + avocado. A person of any age might be aware of negative associations between old people and mental decline without being prejudiced against old people in general. One team got an IAT effect by matching target faces with nonsense words and neutral words that had no evaluative connotations at all. They concluded that the IAT does not measure emotional evaluations of the target but rather the salience of the word associated with it—how much it stands out—and negative words attract more attention. When they corrected for these factors, the presumed unconscious prejudice faded away.3

So Carole and I figured that the IAT would travel the route of other hot ideas that cooled off in the face of failed replications or more plausible interpretations. Indeed, had the measure’s originators simply said they had found a modest but interesting association between various groups and words culturally linked with them, that might have been that. Instead, over the years, the success of the IAT grew so rapidly, spilling into the public arena with such an enormous splash, that textbook authors (let alone the public, college administrators, and politicians) could no longer avoid it. To date, more than 17 million people have taken the test online (at “Project Implicit”), and it has also been given to students, business managers, employees, and countless others to identify their alleged prejudices toward blacks, Asians, women, old people, people with disabilities, and other groups. I asked a young friend, one of the least prejudiced and most open-minded humans on the planet, if he knew about the IAT, and he said yes, he’d taken it online. “What in the world for?” I asked. “To see if I have an unconscious bias,” he said.

Carole and I were awakened from our somnambulance by Malcolm Gladwell, who set off our skeptical buzzers on high alert. Gladwell, who is biracial, took the IAT and learned that he was prejudiced against black people. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, he said: “The person in my life [his mother] who I love more than almost anyone else, is black, and here I was taking a test, which said, frankly, I wasn’t too crazy about black people, you know?” A gay activist said she was stunned to learn that “her own mind contained stronger gay = bad associations than gay = good associations.” But the pièce de résistance was that one of the developers of the IAT, Mahzarin Banaji, a woman of color who was born and raised in India, reported that she herself “failed” the racial IAT, revealing antiblack associations that she consciously repudiates.4

Now this is curious. Why jump to indict oneself instead of saying, “Uh oh, maybe something’s wrong with the test?” Banaji and Greenwald might have considered the possibility that they got too enthusiastic too soon, claiming more for their test than it warranted. However, by the time their 2013 book for the public appeared, Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, they had much invested in the IAT; and, in their admirable zeal to educate people about the persistence of prejudice, they began claiming more and more about the test’s significance and relevance. For their part, many laypeople accepted the IAT’s findings because of the great power attributed to methods that purport to uncover what our brains are doing without our knowledge. How do I know what my unconscious is thinking? By definition, it’s unconscious! Clearly, the test knows more than I do, even if I do love my mother!

If the IAT were being used solely as an instrument to generate discussions of what prejudice is and is not, few would object. Having a “hidden bias” is not, in and of itself, a sign of prejudice; it’s a sign of having a human brain. What social psychologists call the “in-group bias”—a feeling of comfort with, and preference for, people who are like us—is a universal phenomenon, undoubtedly one that evolved to aid human survival by binding us to our groups. But it does not inevitably produce “out-group hostility” or discrimination against those who are unlike us.

Unfortunately, as the IAT’s reputation grew, claims about what this test was revealing began to outstrip the data. The IAT was no longer said to be capturing an “association”; not even merely a “bias”; but a prejudice —especially racism. And not just racism, but discrimination—the willingness to act on that prejudice. The Project Implicit website warns: “When we relax our active efforts to be egalitarian, our implicit biases can lead to discriminatory behavior, so it is critical to be mindful of this possibility if we want to avoid prejudice and discrimination.”

The IAT directs people’s attention to their supposed unconscious feelings, leaving many puzzled and worried that they might be awful racists without knowing it.

And so we come to the crux of the matter: does the IAT really capture unconscious prejudices? Can the test predict whether people will actually behave in a biased or discriminatory way? The evidence is now pretty clear that the answers to both are “no.”5 When people are asked to predict their responses toward different groups on the IAT, they are highly accurate— regardless of whether they were told that implicit attitudes are true prejudices or culturally learned associations. People’s scores aren’t reliable, either; they might score “highly biased” one week and get a different result two weeks later. And as for the IAT’s ability to predict behavior— the ultimate measure of any test’s scientific validity—meta-analyses of hundreds of studies on many thousands of people find that the evidence linking IAT scores with behavior is weak to nonexistent. “The IAT provides little insight into who will discriminate against whom,” wrote Frederick Oswald and his colleagues in a 2013 meta-analysis, and it provides no more information than just asking people if they are biased.6 They concluded that the correlation between people’s IAT scores and their behavior is so small as to be trivial. Greenwald and Banaji countered that statistically small effects can have “societally large effects.”7

In the final analysis, I think what is most problematic about the IAT is that it directs people’s attention to their supposed unconscious feelings, leaving many puzzled and worried that they might be awful racists without knowing it, and without knowing what they are supposed to do about it. It confuses normal cognitive biases with bigotry. And it locates the problem of discrimination in people’s unconscious minds, not in the systemic patterns of racism that deserve our far greater attention and search for remedies.

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 22.2 (2017).
Buy this issue

In his meticulous investigation of the IAT, Jesse Singal concluded that “after almost 20 years and millions of dollars’ worth of IAT research, the test has a markedly unimpressive track record relative to the attention and acclaim it has garnered. Leading IAT researchers haven’t produced interventions that can reduce racism or blunt its impact. They haven’t told a clear, credible story of how implicit bias, as measured by the IAT, affects the real world. They have flip-flopped on important, baseline questions about what their test is or isn’t measuring. And because the IAT and the study of implicit bias have become so tightly coupled, the test’s weaknesses have caused collateral damage to public and academic understanding of the broader concept itself…[S]crutinizing the IAT and holding it to the same standards as any other psychological instrument isn’t a sign that someone doesn’t take racism seriously: It’s exactly the opposite.”

How ironic that this well-intended effort to illuminate a dark side of our natures now obfuscates the very thing we’re trying to understand. And it’s a story with an all-too-familiar lesson for scientists and other skeptics: we can’t let our wish for a method or a finding to be right block our ability to evaluate it critically, and to change our minds when the evidence dictates.

About the Author

Dr. Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and coauthor, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes were made (but not by ME). Watch the recording of Science Salon # 10 in which Tavris, in a dialogue with Michael Shermer, explores cognitive dissonance and what happens when we make mistakes, cling to outdated attitudes, or mistreat other people.

References
  1. For example, see: Acquisti, Alessandro, and Fong, Christina M. 2014, October 26. “An Experiment in Hiring Discrimination Via Online Social Networks.” http://bit.ly/2iLIJgc
  2. One of the first published papers was Greenwald, Anthony G.; McGhee, Debbie E.; and Schwartz, Jordan L. K. 1998. “Measuring Individual Differences in Implicit Cognition: The Implicit Association Test.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 74, 1464–1480. Mahzarin Banaji and Greenwald went on to write a book for general audiences: Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, 2013, New York: Delacorte.
  3. Rothermund, Klaus, & Wentura, Dirk. 2004. “Underlying Processes in the Implicit Association Test: Dissociating Salience from Associations.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol. 133, 139–165.
  4. In Banaji and Greenwald, 2013, 57. Gladwell also tells this story in his book Blink.
  5. For three superb reviews of the research, with inter views with the IAT’s proponents and its critics, see: Singal, Jesse. 2017. “Psychology’s Favorite Tool For Measuring Racism Isn’t Up to the Job,” New York magazine, Januar y 11; Bar tlett, Tom. 2017. “Can We Really Measure Implicit Bias? Maybe Not,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 5; and a power ful scholarly and theoretical criticism, Mitchell, Gregor y, and Tetlock, Philip E. 2017. “Popularity as a Poor Proxy for Utility: The Case of Implicit Prejudice,” in Scott Lilienfeld and Irwin D. Waldman, Psychological Science Under Scrutiny, New York: Wiley, pp. 164–195. Tetlock has been a persistent critic of the IAT. See Tetlock and Arkes, Hal, 2004. “Attributions of Implicit Prejudice, or ‘Would Jesse Jackson ‘Fail’ the Implicit Association Test?’” Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 15, 257–278.
  6. Oswald, Frederick L., Gregor y Mitchell, Har t Blanton, James Jaccard, and Philip E. Tetlock. 2013. “Predicting Ethnic and Racial Discrimination: A Meta-Analysis of IAT Criterion Studies,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 105, 171–192.
  7. Greenwald, Anthony G., Banaji, Mahzarin R., and Nosek, Brian A. 2015. “Statistically Small Effects of the Implicit Association Test Can Have Societally Large Effects.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 108, 553–561.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for November 1, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 11/01/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

A NEW STORY! How Richard Dawkins Became a Card-Carrying Skeptic

As we announced a couple weeks ago in eSkeptic, we asked several friends to tell us about those “aha!” moments that led to their becoming skeptical thinkers. As promised, we have begun releasing their incredible stories on YouTube. Enjoy!

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins shared with us an early memory of playing hide-and-seek with an African man who claimed to have “magicked himself invisible.” Dawkins is the author of many books, including: The God Delusion, The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, The Ancestor’s Tale, An Appetite for Wonder, The Magic of Reality, The Greatest Show on Earth, and A Devil’s Chaplain.

TELL US YOUR STORY!

Tell us your story and become a card-carrying skeptic! Thank you for being a part of our first 25 years. We look forward to seeing you over the next 25. —SKEPTIC

Become a Card-Carrying Skeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Carol Tavris examines whether the Implicit Association Test (IAT) can really capture unconscious prejudices and predict if people will actually behave in a biased or discriminatory way. This column appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 22.2 (2017).

Are You An Unconscious Racist?

by Carol Tavris

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a racist?

  • A person who thinks their “race” or ethnic group is better than everyone else’s by virtue of genetic superiority, religion, customs, food, way of life, or beliefs.
  • A person who fails to hire an applicant with the best qualifications if that person is from a different ethnic or religious group from the employer’s.
  • A person who is part of an institution that requires him or her to systematically target and discriminate against African Americans or other minorities.
  • A person of any race, ethnicity, or religion who feels more comfortable with others who are like themselves.

or:

  • A person whose score on the Implicit Association Test (IAT) reveals that he or she is unconsciously biased against black people.

Some of the above? All of the above?

Michael Shermer Examines the Implicit Association Test

Throughout the first decade of this century, surveys repeatedly found that prejudiced attitudes—notably the once-common beliefs that blacks were inferior to whites, women inferior to men, gay men and lesbians inferior to straights—had declined sharply, especially among young people. Surveys, of course, supposedly assess what you think. But what if they assess what you think others think you should think? What if they simply reflect your awareness that it isn’t cool to reveal your actual negative feelings about another group? Self-report data is inherently plagued with this problem. Thus, most social psychologists who study prejudice and discrimination focus on what people do, not what they say they might do. For example, when researchers have sent identical résumés to potential employers, varying only a name that indicates gender, or implies race (a black-sounding name or membership in an African American organization), or mentions religious affiliation, many employers have revealed a bias in whom they choose to call for an interview[…]

Continue reading

2018 | IRELAND | JULY 15–AUGUST 2 One of the best geology tours we’ve ever offered: an epic 19-day tour of the Emerald Isle!

Ireland’s famed scenic landscape owes its breathtaking terrain to a dramatic 1.75 billion year history of continental collisions, volcanoes, and glacial assault. Join the Skeptics Society for a 19-day immersive tour of the deep history of the Emerald Isle, while experiencing the music, hospitality, and verdant beauty that make Ireland one of the world’s top travel destinations.

For complete details about accommodation, airfare, and tour pricing, please download the detailed information and registration form or click the green button below to read the itinerary, and see photos of some of the amazing sites we will see.

Get complete details

Download registration form

Witches, Pleas
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 139

In episode 139 of MonsterTalk, we begin our multi-episode coverage of “magic” by taking a look at the witch in Western European culture with the editor of The Skeptic, Deborah Hyde (@Jourdemayne). In a wide-ranging conversation we talk about the alleged powers of witches, the difference between the more benign figure of the Cunning Woman and the culturally monstrous figure of the witch as viewed during Witch Crazes and Witch Hunts.

Listen to episode 139

Read the episode notes

Subscribe on iTunes

Get the MonsterTalk Podcast App and enjoy the science show about monsters on your handheld devices! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows. Subscribe to MonsterTalk for free on iTunes.

BECOME A PATRON

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. Your ongoing patronage will help ensure that sound scientific viewpoints are heard around the world.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Conspiracy Thinking and Epistemology

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 10/31/2017 - 5:06am

Just last week I discussed a study looking at the correlation between belief in conspiracy theories and hyperactive pattern recognition. The quick version is this – belief in false patterns (such as bizarre conspiracy theories) results from a tendency to detect false patterns and a lack of filtering out those detections. The question for psychologists is, how much of an increased tendency to believe grand conspiracies is due to increased pattern recognition and how much is due to impaired reality testing? My assumption would be that both are involved to varying degrees in different people. The study found that there is a correlation between conspiracy beliefs and pattern recognition – which supports that hypothesis, but does not refute the role of decreased reality testing or other variables, such as culture, ideology, and self-esteem.

This week I am going to discuss another recent study looking at belief in conspiracies and their correlation with beliefs about the nature of knowledge (epistemic beliefs). These researchers are focusing on the other end of the equation – the methods we use to assess knowledge and form beliefs, rather than the more basic function of perceiving patterns. They start with a helpful review of previous literature:

There is also some evidence that individuals’ styles of thinking can influence their willingness to accept claims lacking empirical evidence. Individuals who tend to see intentional agency behind every event are more likely to believe conspiracy theories, as are those who attribute extraordinary events to unseen forces or interpret events through the Manichean narrative of good versus evil. Those who mistrust authority, who are convinced that nothing is as it seems, and who lack control over their environment are also more predisposed to conspiracist ideation.

Taken together you may look at these cognitive traits as a strategy or narrative for understanding the world, which can often be complex and overwhelming. There is an underlying assumption that dark forces are controlling events for their own nefarious purposes. Once that assumption is in place it can be a powerful lens through which everything is perceived, one that prevents its own refutation. The conspiracy lens twists logic back in on itself, forming a self-contained belief system immune to external validation or refutation.

For the current study the authors focus on epistemic beliefs – notions about the nature of knowledge itself. I found their results entirely unsurprising, as they are consistent with prior research into conspiracy thinking. The first factor they looked at was faith in intuition or facts. Do you trust your gut feelings about a subject, or would you set aside those feelings if the empirical evidence told a different story? Second they looked at the extent to which subjects believe facts are political vs objective.

They asked subjects to rank twelve statements on a scale of 1-5, four each probing their beliefs about the reliability of intuition, the need for evidence, and the political nature of facts.  They also had them rank seven different conspiracy theories from 1 (definitely not true) to 9 (definitely true) and considered a rank of 6 or higher as belief in the conspiracy. On their list belief in a JFK assassination conspiracy ranked the highest, at 45.7% belief. The Apollo moon landing hoax was at the bottom at 15.3%. I was a bit surprised that almost a third, 30.7%, believe that a New World Order seeks to replace sovereign governments and rule the world.

As you can see in these scatter plots, belief in intuition, lack of need for evidence, and belief that facts are political all correlate with increased belief in conspiracy theories. There is also a tremendous amount of individual variability within these general trends.

For comparison they also correlated epistemic beliefs and misperceptions about political issues that are not specifically related to conspiracy theories. Specifically they look at belief in global warming, that vaccines cause autism, there Iraq at WMD prior to the war, and that Muslims are inherently violent. They also found a strong correlation, similar but not as strong as with conspiracy theories.

This is also not surprising, in part because these political beliefs incorporate conspiracy theories as well. The separate is not clean. Those who reject the scientific consensus on global warming justify that rejection by claiming there is a conspiracy of scientists and politicians to hoax the world for their own purposes. Antivaxers believe the medical profession and Big Pharma are conspiring to sell harmful vaccines.

The authors conclude:

We find that individuals who trust their intuition, putting more faith in their ability to use intuition to assess factual claims than in their conscious reasoning skills, are uniquely likely to exhibit conspiracist ideation. Those who maintain that beliefs must be in accord with available evidence, in contrast, are less likely to embrace conspiracy theories, and they are less likely to endorse other falsehoods, even on politically charged topics. Finally, those who view facts as inexorably shaped by politics and power are more prone to misperception than those who believe that truth transcends social context. These individual-difference measures are fairly stable over time. Although the influence of epistemic beliefs is sometimes conditioned on ideology, this is the exception; in most instances the two types of factors operate independent of one another.

What I like about this study is that it focuses on factors that may be more amenable to education, rather than being deeply ingrained personality traits. Once again, education is science and critical thinking can give people the “conscious reasoning skills” to assess their own beliefs more thoroughly and critically.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #595: Chasing Malaysian Airlines MH370

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 10/30/2017 - 5:00pm
A roundup of the conspiracy theories and the probable true fate of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #642 - Oct 28 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Wed, 10/25/2017 - 9:00am
Private SGU recording made at DragonCon 2017
Categories: Skeptic

eSkeptic for October 25, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 10/25/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

Could a sonic weapon have focused a wave of energy with pinpoint accuracy on American diplomats in Cuba? In this week’s eSkeptic, Robert E. Bartholomew presents a plausible explanation for the illness cluster reported by State Department officials: mass psychogenic illness.

The “Sonic Attack” on
U.S. Diplomats in Cuba:
Why the State Department’s Claims Don’t Add Up

by Robert E. Bartholomew

…an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.
—Marcello Truzzi1

Even though sound is measurable, we tend to experience it as spectral, as something beyond our rational understanding. It is thus the perfect stand-in for a Cold War-style cunning enemy, who is surely out there, doing something, even though we can never seem to pin him down.
—Lisa Dierch & Ben Tausig2

It’s the stuff of spy novels and science fiction films. On October 13, 2017 the Associated Press released an eerie recording of a mysterious sound that was said to have been part of a “sonic attack” on American diplomats in Cuba.3 In August, State Department officials reported that several personnel at the Havana Embassy had been sickened by an unidentified acoustical weapon. The number of those affected in the sporadic, ongoing attacks is now at least two dozen. Several Canadian diplomats have reported similar health complaints. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and remembering, insomnia, tinnitus, confusion, vertigo, hearing loss and “mild brain trauma.” Conspiracy theories abound with talk of secret military weapons from a foreign power or rogue agents, possibly Russian. But delve deeper, and the government’s claims begin to unravel.

For starters, there is no concrete evidence of an attack. Experts agree that what is being reported is not consistent with how sonic weaponry works. A leading figure in the field of psychoacoustics, former MIT researcher Joseph Pompei, is adamant that the State Department’s claims violate the laws of physics. “Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible,” he said, noting that to produce such an effect “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.”4 German physicist and acoustics specialist Jürgen Altmann of Technology University Dortmund, concurs: “I know of no acoustic effect that can cause concussion symptoms. Sound going through the air cannot shake your head.”5 Former Brown University neuroscientist Seth Horowitz also views the claims as fanciful: “There isn’t an acoustic phenomenon in the world that would cause those type of symptoms.”6 He notes that while infrasonic sound waves can cause nausea, they would have no effect on human hearing as “there are no acoustic devices that can cause sudden onset hearing loss that the people involved could not hear.”7 Former CIA officer Fulton Armstrong agrees: “No one has a device that could do this” as “no such device exists.”8

The range of human hearing is between 20 and 20,000 hertz. Sounds below this level—infrasound, have proved a challenge to weaponize due to the difficulty in focusing the wavelengths. The central effect appears to be irritation. Sounds above this range—ultrasound, are an equally poor candidate for the symptoms because the waves dissipate rapidly as they travel. Even if they reached a building in an effort to target people inside, most of the wave would bounce off walls before harmlessly reaching their target. […]

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Get a 1st edition, autographed, hardcover copy of Dr. Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom for only $9.50, plus shipping (while quantities last). In this book about moral progress, Shermer demonstrates, through extensive data and heroic stories, that the arc of the moral universe bends toward truth, justice, and freedom, and that we are living in the most moral period of our species’ history.

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NEW EPISODE The Way of the Mister (Quickie): If There Is No God, Murder Isn’t Wrong.

Earlier this year, PragerU posted a video titled “If There Is No God, Murder Isn’t Wrong” in which Dennis Prager claims that without God, there are no moral facts and therefore one cannot know that murder is wrong. Brian Dalton explains why the entire argument hinges on the question of knowledge.

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SOLVING MORAL DILEMMAS How Do We Know What’s Right?

For those of you who missed the discussion we announced in last week’s eSkeptic, we present it here in video and audio-only versions. Jesse Dollemore and Brittany Page (hosts of the https://dollemore.com/) moderate a discussion involving Drs. Michael Shermer, Douglas Navarick, and Ryan Nichols on the question of whether science can be used to determine our moral values of right and wrong. The discussion is divided into opening statements, a period of exchanges among discussants, questions from the live audience, and closing statements. Watch the video below, or listen to the audio-only version.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The “Sonic Attack” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Why the State Department’s Claims Don’t Add Up

Skeptic.com feed - Tue, 10/24/2017 - 10:00am

…an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.
—Marcello Truzzi1

Even though sound is measurable, we tend to experience it as spectral, as something beyond our rational understanding. It is thus the perfect stand-in for a Cold War-style cunning enemy, who is surely out there, doing something, even though we can never seem to pin him down.
—Lisa Dierch & Ben Tausig2

It’s the stuff of spy novels and science fiction films. On October 13, 2017 the Associated Press released an eerie recording of a mysterious sound that was said to have been part of a “sonic attack” on American diplomats in Cuba.3 In August, State Department officials reported that several personnel at the Havana Embassy had been sickened by an unidentified acoustical weapon. The number of those affected in the sporadic, ongoing attacks is now at least two dozen. Several Canadian diplomats have reported similar health complaints. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and remembering, insomnia, tinnitus, confusion, vertigo, hearing loss and “mild brain trauma.” Conspiracy theories abound with talk of secret military weapons from a foreign power or rogue agents, possibly Russian. But delve deeper, and the government’s claims begin to unravel.

For starters, there is no concrete evidence of an attack. Experts agree that what is being reported is not consistent with how sonic weaponry works. A leading figure in the field of psychoacoustics, former MIT researcher Joseph Pompei, is adamant that the State Department’s claims violate the laws of physics. “Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible,” he said, noting that to produce such an effect “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.”4 German physicist and acoustics specialist Jürgen Altmann of Technology University Dortmund, concurs: “I know of no acoustic effect that can cause concussion symptoms. Sound going through the air cannot shake your head.”5 Former Brown University neuroscientist Seth Horowitz also views the claims as fanciful: “There isn’t an acoustic phenomenon in the world that would cause those type of symptoms.”6 He notes that while infrasonic sound waves can cause nausea, they would have no effect on human hearing as “there are no acoustic devices that can cause sudden onset hearing loss that the people involved could not hear.”7 Former CIA officer Fulton Armstrong agrees: “No one has a device that could do this” as “no such device exists.”8

The range of human hearing is between 20 and 20,000 hertz. Sounds below this level—infrasound, have proved a challenge to weaponize due to the difficulty in focusing the wavelengths. The central effect appears to be irritation. Sounds above this range—ultrasound, are an equally poor candidate for the symptoms because the waves dissipate rapidly as they travel. Even if they reached a building in an effort to target people inside, most of the wave would bounce off walls before harmlessly reaching their target.

Since Weapons?

The use of sound as a weapon can be traced back to biblical times. The Book of Joshua 6:1–27, describes the Battle of Jericho, during which the walls of Jericho reportedly collapsed after an army of Israelites marched around the structure blowing trumpets. While this story has never been verified and is almost certainly mythical, it speaks to the age-old human fascination with the potential destructive power of sound. The research on the military use of acoustical weapons, is clear. Despite an abundance of conspiracy theories about secret sonic devices capable of “frying” human organs or triggering insanity, the scientific literature is clear. The most comprehensive study of sonic weapons to date, was conducted by Drs. James Jauchem and Michael Cook of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in San Antonio, Texas. They state that based on the laws of physics, “it seems unlikely that high-intensity acoustic energy in the audible, infrasonic, or low-frequency range can provide a device suitable for use as a nonlethal weapon.”21 Furthermore, even if such a weapon were developed, it could not possibly cause the symptoms that are being reported in Cuba.

Sonic weapons may work for James Bond, but they are impractical in the real world, with one major exception: blasting loud noises. On October 12, 2000, a small boat laden with explosives approached the USS Cole and exploded, blowing a hole in the vessel and killing 17 American sailors. Since this incident, the Navy has developed an “acoustical canon” that works by generating extreme noise capable of causing deafness and headaches. Such weapons are not exactly covert. Research on the use of sonic weapons has tailed off in recent years as it is widely viewed as a waste of research funds and a dead end. Despite this, there is no lack of grandiose claims and conspiracy theories about the use of secret acoustic devices.

Could someone have developed a hand-held weapon that could focus a wave of energy on a victim with pinpoint accuracy? This is Buck Rogers-style science fiction according to Timothy Leighton, professor of Ultrasonics and Acoustics at Southampton University in the United Kingdom: “If you’re talking about a ray-gun rifle knocking out someone with ultrasound…that’s not going to happen.”9 New York City Police have used Long Range Acoustic Devices or LRADs to break up crowds of protestors, but there is nothing subtle or mysterious about these devices. These bulky machines are nicknamed “sound canons” due to their capacity to blast ear-piercing noises. The U.S. Navy has used similar devices to protect their ships by warding off small vessels suspected of carrying terrorists or pirates, while the Army has used them to clear houses of combatants.10 In 2015, riot police in the Philippines even blasted Katy Perry music to disperse anti-government protestors.11

Another oddity surrounds how diplomats have been targeted. Many claim to have been “attacked” in their homes, and even a hotel. Why were some people affected while others who were standing next to them, were not? While the U.S. cannot prove that the Cubans are responsible, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has suggested that the Cuban government knows more than they are letting on. “We believe that the Cuban government could stop the attacks on our diplomats,” he said.12 Cuban President Raúl Castro vehemently denies any involvement in the “attacks” and has taken the extraordinary step of inviting the Federal Bureau of Investigation to travel to Cuba and conduct their own investigation.13 Since June, FBI agents have been on the Caribbean island conducting forensic analyses of the possible crime scenes, but remain stumped.14 This leaves one plausible explanation for the illness cluster in Cuba: mass psychogenic illness.

To those who are unfamiliar with the capabilities of sonic weaponry, the claims may sound ominous—and very real. After all, how can conditions like hearing loss and brain trauma be psychological in origin? State Department officials have even released a recording of the “weapon” in action. Yet the recording proves little. The high-pitched whine sounds like a swarm of cicadas. It could be anything. It is the equivalent of a blurry UFO photograph or grainy Bigfoot video. Furthermore, most of the symptoms are vague. Terms like “brain trauma” and “hearing loss” sound alarming but tell us little, and none of the medical records have been released. This could be done without violating privacy laws by redacting the names and identifying information about the “victims.” How many diplomats are suffering from hearing loss, and is it partial or total? Why haven’t they given us more specific figures? Is it one case or 17—and if it is the latter, why haven’t they said so in order to convince a skeptical media? There may very well be a small number of personnel who are experiencing health issues that are unrelated to either psychogenic illness or a sonic weapon.

Sick Building Syndrome

The literature on mass hysteria is filled with reports of so-called “sick buildings” where some harmful agent is blamed for a mysterious illness outbreak, most commonly in schools and factories. However, once the premises are tested, the results are negative. The symptoms often continue to recur, so long as the perceived agent is believed to remain. The failure to identify a potential culprit may generate more anxiety, leading to further outbreaks. Common suspects include pesticides from nearby farm fields, gas leaks, mold, and contaminated water. In these cases, the outbreak is triggered by the spread of an idea, aided by rumors, folklore, and erroneous media reports about the “toxic” building. Often speculation centers around nearby waste dumps. This could explain the illness reports at the Embassy, but what about their homes? Embassy staff would have been aware of the history of American diplomats in Cuba, and the Cold War folklore that included harassment of personnel in their homes.

Cold War Context

The historical backdrop of the “attack” may have contributed to the outbreak. The Embassy closed for 54 years, from 1961 when then President Dwight Eisenhower severed ties with Castro’s rise to power, to its reopening in 2015. While the Embassy was closed, the U.S. has maintained a diplomatic presence in Cuba such as the mission at the United States Interests Section in Havana. Due to the antagonistic relationship between the two countries, during the Cold War Cuban agents engaged in a series of antics that have become part of American Intelligence folklore. These actions were more harassing and prankish than sinister. They would do things like sneak into the homes of diplomats and rearrange their bookshelf or furniture. On the high end of the scale, some diplomats reported returning home to find fecal matter lying on their floor. The context of the illness cluster fits neatly with the psychogenic hypothesis as you have a group of people working in an anxious environment amid reports and rumors of a mysterious attack.15

Earlier Hum Scares

Since the early 1940s there have been similar outbreaks involving claims of mysterious humming sounds reportedly making people sick, especially in the United States. The most famous of these is the “Kokomo Hum” in the city of Kokomo, Indiana. Some have even suggested that the American military was conducting secret tests on its own citizens. Conspiracy theorists have had a field day with these cases. In 1999, Kokomo city officials were besieged by complaints from at least 90 residents, many of whom claimed that the hum was not only irritating, but ruining their health.16

A study of one Kokomo neighborhood by an acoustics engineer seemed to confirm the reality of the hum after he reported detecting a low frequency sound at about 55 decibels and 15 hertz—too low to be heard by the human ear. At the time, an expert from the Acoustical Society of America observed that the origin of the sound was unclear. “Those levels of sound could be coming from road traffic on even distant highways, air or rail activity or possibly just some industrial plants or even commercial buildings in the area. And, in fact, those levels could be caused just by the wind in the trees,” said Bennett Brooks. He cautioned that the range of ill-effects attributed to the low frequency hum could be entirely imaginary. “The levels that will rattle dishes on a wall…haven’t been shown to cause health problems, other than perhaps people waking up at night worrying,” Brooks said at the time.17 Some Kokomo residents were so concerned by the “hum” that they moved away.

Similar claims of ill-health associated with the presence of low-frequency sound have been recorded in Taos, New Mexico, since 1991, but the source has neither been determined nor any conclusive link to ill-health including sleep problems, earaches, irritability, and general discomfort.18 Investigative journalist Oliver Libaw notes that various investigations of the Taos Hum “failed to measure any low-frequency vibration that experts believed could cause either the noise or the infirmities reported by those who heard it.”19

London and South Hampton in the United Kingdom have had their own Hum Scares. Scores of residents have complained of an irritating low frequency sound dating back to the 1940s. They too have claims that it has caused health problems. In 1989, an organization was formed to investigate reports: The Low Frequency Noise Sufferers Association, nicknamed “the Hummers.”20

The “sonic attack” on embassy staff in Cuba appears to be a case of old wine in new skins. It is the Hum Scare and Sick Building Syndrome dressed up in a different social and cultural garb. These scares may resonate because they reflect prevailing fears such as the distrust of foreign and domestic governments. It may be no coincidence then that the outbreak reportedly began just days after the election of Donald Trump, an administration known for promoting conspiracy theories.

About the Author

Dr. Robert Bartholomew is a medical sociologist who holds a Ph.D. from James Cook University in Australia. He is an authority on culture-specific mental disorders, outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness, moral panics and the history of tabloid journalism. He has conducted anthropological fieldwork among the Malays in Malaysia and Aborigines in Central Australia. His most recently books are A Colorful History of Popular Delusions with Peter Hassall and American Hauntings: The True Stories Behind Hollywood’s Scariest Movies—From Exorcist to The Conjuring with Joe Nickell. Read his previous article, https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/mass-hallucinations-shoddy-journalism-why-we-need-skepticism-more-than-ever/An Outbreak of Mass Hallucinations and Shoddy Journalism: Why We Need Skepticism More Than Ever.

References
  1. Truzzi, Marcello. 1978. “On the Extraordinary: An Attempt at Clarification.” Zetetic Scholar 1(1):11.
  2. Diedrich, Lisa, and Tausig, Benjamin. 2017. “Mysterious Sounds and Scary Illnesses as Political Tools.” New York Times (Online), New York: New York Times Company. Oct 10.
  3. Lederman, Josh, Weissenstein, Michael. 2017. “Dangerous Sound? What Americans Heard in Cuba.” Associated Press News, October 13, http://bit.ly/2g4DzrX
  4. Lederman, Josh, Weissenstein, Michael, and Lee, Matthew. 2017. “Cuba Mystery Grows: New Details on what Befell U.S. Diplomats,” Chicago Tribune, September 26.
  5. Zimmer, Carl. 2017. “A ‘Sonic Attack’ on Diplomats in Cuba? These Scientists Doubt It.” New York Times, October 5.
  6. Loria, Kevin. 2017. September 16. “U.S. Diplomats Returned from Cuba with Brain Injuries and Hearing Loss, and Mysterious ‘Sonic Weapons’ could be to Blame.” Business Insider Australia, September 16.
  7. Gearan, Anne. 2017. “U.S. investigating whether American diplomats were victims of sonic attack in Cuba.” Washington Post, August 10.
  8. Kornbluh, Peter. 2017. “Trump’s Non-Sonic Attack on Cuba.” The Nation, October 5.
  9. Zimmer, 2017, op cit.
  10. Evers, Marco. 2015. “The Weapon of Sound: Sonic Canon Gives Pirates an Earful.” Der Spiegel, November 15.
  11. Felipe, Cecille. 2015. “Katy Perry Roar at Anti-APEC Rallyists.” The Philippine Star, November 20.
  12. Lederman and Weissenstein, 2017, op. cit.
  13. Buncombe, Andrew. 2017. “Donald Trump expels 15 Cuban Diplomats Following Mysterious ‘Sonic Attacks’ on 23 U.S. embassy staff,” The Independent (London), October 3.
  14. Kornbluh, 2017, op cit.
  15. 15. Rosenberg, Carol. 2003. “U.S. Details Harassment of Diplomats by Cuba.” Miami Herald, February 6; Bruno, James. 2014. The Foreign Circus: Why Foreign Policy Should not be left in the Hand of Diplomats, Spies and Political Hacks. Canastota, NY: Bittersweet House Press.
  16. Huppke, Rex W. 2002. “Strange Doings Abuzz in Kokomo–Many Claim Illness from Mystery Noise.” Bergen County Record (Bergen County, New Jersey), June 13, 2002; Martinez, Matt. 2002. “Profile: City Council in Kokomo, Indiana, Authorizes a Study to Investigate the Source of a Sound that has Caused many Residents to Become ill.” All Things Considered, NPR, May 22.
  17. Martinez, Matt. 2002. “Profile: City Council in Kokomo, Indiana, Authorizes a Study to Investigate the Source of a Sound that has Caused many Residents to Become ill.” All Things Considered, NPR, May 22.
  18. Lambert, Pam. 1992. “Hmmmmmmmmmmmm…? (Ground Noise in Taos, New Mexico).” People Weekly 38 (12):61-62 (September 21); Begley, Sharon. 1993. “Do You Hear What I Hear? A Hum in Taos is Driving Dozens of People Crazy.” Newsweek 121 (18):54–55 (May 3); Huppke, op cit.
  19. Libaw, Oliver. 2003. “The Kokomo Hum. Reports of Mysterious Noise and Illness in Indiana.” ABC News report filed February 14, http://abcn.ws/2ioAyHy
  20. “The Low Frequency Noise Sufferers Association.” Journal of Low Frequency Noise and Vibration 9(4):149–155; Donnelly, John. 1993. “Mysterious, Annoying ‘Taos Hum’ a Baffling Detective Story.” Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 9.
  21. Jauchem, James R., and Cook, Michael C. (2007). “High-Intensity Acoustics for Military Nonlethal Applications: A Lack of Useful Systems.” Military Medicine 172 (2):182–189. See. p. 182.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Mandela Effect

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 10/24/2017 - 5:15am

Do you remember when Nelson Mandela was killed in prison in the 1980s? Apparently there are a lot of people who, for some reason, had this memory. Of course, Mandela was not killed in prison, he survived and went on to become president of South Africa.

This false memory, however, gave rise to the term, “The Mandela Effect,” which refers to remembering some detail of the past that is simply not true. There is a disconnect between our memory and reality.

This should not be surprising to anyone, especially anyone even slightly familiar with memory research. Our memories are constantly changing, they merge, details shift, and entire memories can be confabulated. If there is a conflict between our memory and documented reality, it is clearly our memory that is at fault.

Despite this obvious answer, there are groups of people who feel that the Mandela effect represents something else. The disconnect between our memories and reality is due, they argue, to a shifting in reality, perhaps due to a crossing of the streams between parallel universes. Alternatively it can be a glitch in the Matrix that happens when they apply a new patch or expansion.  Between physical reality and memory I would say that memory is the one that is slippery and changing, not reality.

Their alleged evidence for the parallel universe interpretation is that many people have the same false memory. OK, I will acknowledge that this deserves an explanation, but again parallel universes would not be anywhere near the top of my list.

There are many lists of common Mandela Effect examples, and here is a subReddit where people discuss their false memories. These are fun reminders of how unreliable our memories are. The one that really surprised me was the girl with braces in the movie Moonraker. In an online survey 47% of people said that Dolly’s braces were the feature that first attracted Jaws to her, but Dolly never had braces. That is a false memory.

In the SubReddit discussing this particular example, one person explains that they viewed old VHS tape and the tape shows that Dolly has no braces, to which another responds: “Thats how MEs work, no proof.”

Of course there is a problem with any belief that is based on there being no evidence.

So what can be going on here? Many MEs are simply misremembering small details. It wasn’t, “Sex in the City,” it was always, “Sex and the City.” In this case many people’s memories drifted over to a slightly easier to say and perhaps more intuitive phrase. In the same way, it isn’t, “Interview with a Vampire,” it’s “Interview with the Vampire.” But,  “With the” doesn’t quite role off the tongue as easily as “With a.”

Other MEs probably occur from confusing common words. It isn’t “Jiffy” peanut butter, it’s “Jif”. But “jiffy” is a word (I’ll be there in a jiffy) and so many people just substitute a known similar word for the brand name.

Other interesting example include the fact that Hannibal Lecter never said, “Hello, Clarice.” While I have a clear memory of someone saying, “Well hello, Clarice,” that is probably a memory of someone else imitating Lecter. That is a very common phenomenon. Carl Sagan never said, “Billions and billions,” but Johnny Carson did when making fun of Sagan. Cagney never said, “You dirty rat,” but every one of his impersonators did.

Essentially our memories tend to consolidate onto more pithy, concise, poetic, and easier to say phrases. Many people share these false memories simply because we have similar brains that tend to make similar mistakes. This is also partly how language evolves – phrases and words tend to get shortened, simplified, and easier to say.

Also similar to language, these false memories can spread. We contaminate each-other’s memories (this is the meme idea), and we can even think of a competition of memories in the ecosystem of our culture with the versions that resonate the most predominating (even if they are not accurate).

Many MEs are probably due to confabulation. For example, in one episode of Spongebob (which I watched with my daughters), Patrick reveals an embarrassing picture of Spongebob at the Christmas party. However, he never actually shows the picture itself. But I have a memory of the picture.

There are two possibilities here. I am remembering another embarrassing picture of Spongebob from another episode and merging the two memories. Or, I imagined the picture and my imagination became a memory.

Now, of course, people actually made possible pictures of Spongebob (because the internet has everything) and so my memory is contaminated by these pictures.

The Mandela Effect is a fun example of the vagaries of culture and human memory. It is not evidence of parallel universes or the Matrix, however, because such interpretations rely on their being no actual evidence to validate these alleged effects. Further, they are massive violations of Occam’s razor.

While the Mandela Effect can be fun, I am most amazed by how fallible my own memory is.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #594: Paul Is Dead

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 10/23/2017 - 5:00pm
The origins and history of the urban legend that Paul McCartney died and was replaced.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Conspiracy Thinking and Pattern Recognition

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 10/23/2017 - 4:47am

Humans are conspiracy theorists. Seeing and believing in conspiracies appears to be a fundamental part of how our minds work. Psychologists are trying to understand rigorous 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.

That is important to understand – your perception actually changes, not just your interpretation of it, and this change is subconscious. When your brain encounters speech-like noise, it tries to find the best match, and then those are the words you hear. This process is also affected by visual cues (literally reading lips) and highly susceptible to suggestion. (e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIwrgAnx6Q8)

The same is true visually. Your brain connects the apparent dots, fills in missing information, enhances some lines and glosses over others, and constructs a three-dimensional interpretation out of two-dimensional cues.

So, the thinking went, perhaps we do the same thing cognitively – we take bits of information and look for connections, for an underlying pattern that makes sense of it all. We then fill in the gaps with speculation about how it all fits together.

Not only does this process fit our massively parallel pattern-seeking brain function, it can be highly adaptive. Especially in a complex social species, being able to anticipate possible threats, or notice when others are working against your interests, would be highly advantageous.

In addition it seems as if we have a tendency to err on the side of seeing patterns, even ones that are illusory – that are not really there. We see faces in clouds or in NASA photos of Mars.

A distinct but related phenomenon is called hyperactive agency detection. We tend to assume that things happen for a reason, that there is a deliberate agent behind events. When, for example, we see the bushes shaking we assume it is a predator rather than the wind.

If you combine the tendency to see patterns with the tendency to assume agency – you have the makings of conspiracy theories.

But this is not the whole story. While we may tend to see illusory patterns and assume agency, we are also endowed with logic and critical thinking.  These are also skills that need to be taught and practiced. They give us the ability to evaluate apparent patterns and determine if they are real.

And again, it’s easy to make sense of this. If you had to design a machine that had the task of finding all real patterns, but only real patterns, how would you do that? This is a “sensitivity vs specificity” issue that all diagnostic tests face. The more sensitive your detection equipment is the more patterns you will find, but the more false positives you will have also. If you dial back the false positives, then you lose some true positives.

One way to solve this dilemma is to have a two-step process. The first step is highly sensitive, it finds all possible patterns even though this results in detecting many false patterns. But then there is a second highly specific filter in which you remove the false positives. You are then left with all the true positives.

Our hyperactive pattern recognition is the first step – we are highly sensitive to any possible pattern. Our logic and critical thinking is the second step – we evaluate possible patterns to see if they are likely to be real. Do the patterns make sense, are they plausible, are they independently verified?

The burning question for psychologists is this – do people who have a heightened tendency to believe in conspiracy theories have increased pattern recognition, decreased critical thinking filters, or both? In psychology the usual answer to such questions is, yes. People are variable, and we are likely to see every permutation.

What this and other studies document is that people who tend to believe in conspiracies have a greater tendency to detect patterns in the first place. This probably does not entirely explain conspiracy thinking, but it is part.

Further, the tendency to see conspiracies is not entirely a fixed personality feature. It seems to be modifiable by situational factors. This and other studies suggest that believing in one conspiracy makes someone more susceptible to believing in others. Conspiracy thinking also increases when someone feels threatened or insecure, so it is partly a protective mechanism. And conspiracy thinking can be moderated by teaching critical thinking skills – by being more skeptical.

The critical thinking component is the most modifiable variable. This can actually be taught. Basic scientific literacy helps also as it is useful for the reality filter.

None of this means there aren’t real conspiracies out there. There are (although not the “grand” type of conspiracies favored by fanatics), but we need to filter out the fake ones to find them.

Categories: Skeptic

15 Credibility Street #27: It’s not right, it’s surrealism

The Doubtful News Feed - Sun, 10/22/2017 - 5:49pm
Jumping right into news of the same dumb TV schtick being sold to audiences, what paranormal beliefs are popular with American’s today, two former rock stars now exist at the fringes, and DNA test failed a psychic who thought she was the offspring of a famous painter. Caution: Some people might find the sounds a…
Categories: Skeptic

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