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The Skeptics Guide #641 - Oct 21 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 10/21/2017 - 9:00am
What's the Word: Epicenter
Categories: Skeptic

Making Oxygen on Mars

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 10/20/2017 - 4:25am

At some point humans will travel to Mars. It seems inevitable, the only question being when that will happen. Optimists like Musk think it will happen before mid-century, but that may not be realistic. There are significant logistical hurdles without clear solutions.

Some argue, and I agree with this strategy, that we should focus first on a moon base. The moon is a lot closer, which solves many problems right there. But otherwise it would have many of the same challenges as Mars, and so if we develop a base on the moon we can use what we learn to be better able to tackle Mars. Further the moon can be a literal launching pad for Mars.

While Mars has some extra challenges, it may have some advantages as well over the moon. NASA experts have observed that Mars has just enough of an atmosphere to be a problem. It has 1% of the pressure of Earth, which means for astronauts it is functionally the same as a hard vacuum. You still need pressure suits, pressurized living spaces, and you need a supply of air to breath.

Further, it is not thick enough to help braking when landing on Mars, but it is thick enough to cause friction. You are better off having a thicker atmosphere you can use, or no atmosphere to get in the way. From NASA’s perspective, it is just a nuisance.

Although wispy, it is enough to cause dust storms, even planet-wide storms that last for weeks. This dust is more annoying to NASA than sand was to Anakin Skywalker:

“If you’ve seen pictures of Curiosity after driving, it’s just filthy,” Smith said. “The dust coats everything and it’s gritty; it gets into mechanical things that move, like gears.”

It is not strong enough, however, to blow people and equipment around as imagined in the book and movie, The Martian. That was one major scientific inaccuracy in an otherwise very diligently accurate book. The author acknowledged this and admitted it was a convenient plot device.

So the atmosphere of Mars seems to be a major negative, but can it be of any use to future Martian colonists? Perhaps – as a source of raw material

The Martian atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide. Therefore there is a lot more CO2 in Mars’s atmosphere than Earth’s. Earth has 0.04% CO2. So even though the atmosphere is 100 times thicker, that is still only about 4% of the CO2 in the atmosphere on Mars.

If fact if we ever wanted to terraform Mars and give it a breathable atmosphere, we would have to get rid of all that extra CO2.

Well, it’s possible to kill two (or maybe even three) birds with one stone. A new study looks at the plausibility of using plasma to split CO2 into oxygen and carbon monoxide. Here is the highly technical summary:

Herein, it is argued that Mars has nearly ideal conditions for CO2 decomposition by non-equilibrium plasmas. It is shown that the pressure and temperature ranges in the  CO2 Martian atmosphere favour the vibrational excitation and subsequent up-pumping of the asymmetric stretching mode, which is believed to be a key factor for an efficient plasma dissociation, at the expense of the excitation of the other modes. Therefore, gas discharges operating at atmospheric pressure on Mars are extremely strong candidates to produce O2 efficiently from the locally available resources.

What all this means is that if we had an energy source on Mars we could use that to drive a process by which plasma is used to make oxygen and carbon monoxide from the CO2 in the atmosphere. The primary use of this process would be to make oxygen for colonists – oxygen that can be stored in tanks and used in space suits or habitats.

That could be a massive advantage to any missions to Mars, especially one that endeavors to establish a permanent colony on Mars. One of the biggest challenges to such a colony would be resources. A colony would need, at a minimum, energy, food, oxygen, and water. I could add shielding to the list, to protect against cosmic rays.

Energy can be made locally with solar panels. That is how our Mars rovers operate. However, solar panels are less productive on Mars because the sun is farther away. Also, the dust storms are a major problem for solar panels. Burning fossil fuel is not practical – that is just one more resource you will have to bring with you. Nuclear batteries are a great option, as long as they are handled safely.

I do wonder what power source a Mars colony would use. Probably solar panels and nuclear batteries, but I wonder if that will be enough. Perhaps they will use small self-contained nuclear reactors.

In any case, once they have an energy source, where will they get their food, water, and air. Research is underway to see how hospitable Martian soil is to agriculture. A self-sustaining colony will have to, at some point, grow their own food.

There is plenty of water on Mars, but that will have to be extracted. You can split water into oxygen and hydrogen, but that uses up your water.

Splitting CO2 to make Oxygen seems like a perfect solution. The raw material is readily available. It seems that extracting oxygen locally would be absolutely necessary to any self-sustaining colony.

If, in the far future, we want to terraform Mars this would also be a useful process. It will add a little O2 to the atmosphere (not nearly enough, but it’s a start) and can get the CO2 down to breathable levels.

The carbon monoxide can also be used as a raw material to make fuel, essentially serving as an energy storage medium.

This is one tiny step that may help our plans to visit and colonize Mars, but it is interesting to think about what the challenges are and what possible solutions may be.

Categories: Skeptic

More Gravitational Waves

neurologicablog Feed - Thu, 10/19/2017 - 5:09am

The winner of the Nobel prize for physics was the detection of gravitational waves. These are extremely subtle ripples in spacetime caused by massive cataclysmic events, such as black holes colliding. These ripples were predicted by Einstein, who thought we may never be able to detect them because they would be so unbelievably tiny.

How tiny?  LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), the device used to detect the waves, can detect changes as small at 10 -22 meters. Graviational waves detected so far have had an amplitude of 10 -18 meters, smaller than the radius of a proton.

How is that possible? That is where the interferometry comes in. LIGO uses a laser split into two beams that will travel for 8 Km and then reflect off mirrors and come back to the same detector. The two beams have traveled the exact same distance so that they are in phase, or at least they can be calibrated to be exactly in phase, meaning that the peaks of the waves line up. When a ripple in spacetime comes through, the length of the two arms (which are at 90 degree angles to each other) will change slightly, bringing the two beams out of phase. That slight phase shift can be detected and measured.

Prior to winning the Nobel prize LIGO had detected four gravitational waves wash over it. This was considered enough of a confirmation of the technology and science to award the prize.

I admit I was a little surprised. The discovery is certainly worthy, but usually the Nobel committee is very conservative and they will wait for a discovery to stand the test of time. The little doubt I had in the back of my mind was that, in order to detect the tiny gravitational waves they have to eliminate all sources of even the slightest interference. Animals walking on the grounds of LIGO will cause a jitter in the detector.

While I had no doubt the instrument worked as advertised I admit to being a little worried about how certain they could be that all sources of artifact have been eliminated. The signal to noise ratio is miniscule, requiring virtually all noise to be eliminated or accounted for, and that always makes me suspicious.

Well, I think my doubts have now been assuaged. LIGO has detected a fifth gravitational wave event. More importantly, this detection was then confirmed (for the first time) by observing the event itself in various parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.  As Science reports:

At 12:41 universal time on 17 August, physicists with three massive instruments—the twin 8-kilometer-long detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, and the 6-kilometer Virgo detector near Pisa, Italy—spotted waves unlike any seen before. The four previous events lasted for, at most, a few seconds, with gravitational waves rippling at frequencies of tens of cycles per second. The new siren sang for 100 seconds at frequencies climbing to thousands of cycles per second. Whereas the earlier signal came from pairs of huge black holes quickly spiraling into each other, the new signal revealed lighter neutron stars, 1.1 and 1.6 times as massive as the sun, twirling inexorably together, researchers announced in parallel press conferences in Washington, D.C., and Garching, Germany.

Confirmation by three gravitational wave detectors is nice, but there’s more:

Because all three gravitational-wave detectors saw the signal, physicists could triangulate and locate the source to within a 30-square-degree patch of sky—about 60 times the size of the moon and much more precise than Fermi’s localization. Astronomers swiveled telescopes large and small to the spot in the constellation Hydra. The search got off to a slow start because that part of sky was in daylight for many observatories. But within hours, five groups had identified a new source of light in the periphery of galaxy NGC 4993, which they watched fade from bright blue to dim red in a matter of days. Nearly 2 weeks later, the source began to emit x-rays and radio waves.

The difference for this detection is that it was of neutron stars colliding, not black holes. Black holes are black, you can’t see them directly. But we can see neutron stars. They emit gamma rays, x-rays, and radio waves (what astronomers call an “optical counterpart”). This was no artifact – this was a real celestial event.

I appear not to be alone in my sentiments. Astronomer Andrew Howell is quoted as saying:

 “Sometimes I wonder whether we’re all just mucking around,” Howell says. “It’s moments like this that reassure me that science works.”

This event had some more scientific pay dirt as well. The colliding neutron stars formed what is called a kilonova – thousands of times more bright than an ordinary nova.

Further, our models predict less production of heavy elements like gold and platinum in supernova than we actually observe in the universe. Where are those extra heavy elements coming from? It was hypothesized that they were coming from neutron start collisions like this one. Indeed – astronomers observed clouds of heavy elements around the kilonova – planets worth of gold and platinum.

I find it ironic that the ultimate gravitational wave confirmation comes so soon after this new science was awarded the Nobel. But it’s actually not that much of a coincidence. Once the detectors were up and running, the gravitational waves started coming in.

This is the birth of an entire new field of astronomy, a new way to image the universe. Yet again, Einstein is vindicated, and this time we actually exceeded his technological expectations. Sometimes we can be clever little apes.

 

Categories: Skeptic

Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 91

Center for Inquiry News - Wed, 10/18/2017 - 10:25am

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

Jason Lemieux Joins CFI as Director of Government Relations

The principles for which the Center for Inquiry stands—reason, science, humanist values, and the freedom of inquiry—are vital for a free and thriving society. It seems obvious to us that these values should be guiding leaders and officials at all levels of government in the formulation of public policy, but much too often it seems that many of them are averse to reality.

It’s serious business. On a wide range of important issues such as climate change, women’s autonomy, science education, LGTBQ rights, church-state separation, alternative medicine, and even so-called “fake news,” policy must be based on evidence and facts, not dogma and magical thinking.

Luckily, last month CFI welcomed a new leader to represent the reality-based community and reason-based policy, our new Director of Government Affairs, Jason Lemieux.

Jason’s background is one in which critical thinking fueled dedicated advocacy and problem solving, as the leader of a U.S. Marines intelligence team in Iraq, as a staffer for Members of the U.S. House and Senate, and as an advocate for the interests of veterans. He’ll be bringing that experience and those skills to fight for reason and science on Capitol Hill and at the grassroots level.

“We humans are connected to each other and to the cosmos by our relationship to the evidence revealed by a scientific worldview,” said Jason in our official announcement. “To be truly representative, governments must be guided by this evidence, and I look forward to advancing CFI’s work at this critical moment in history.” We’re looking forward to it, too. Welcome, Jason!

 

Time is Running Out to See Richard Dawkins This Fall! 

Time is running out for you to see and hear Richard Dawkins this fall, along with some very special guests, for unscripted conversations live on stage for “An Evening with Richard Dawkins.”

October 29: Hosted by CFI Los Angeles at the Alex Theatre, Richard will be joined on stage by renowned author Michael Lewis, whose highly acclaimed books include Moneyball, Liar’s Poker, The Big Short, Flash Boys, Boomerang, Losers, and many others, spanning the worlds of Wall Street, professional baseball, and presidential campaigns. You surely will not want to miss this chance to see the sparks and ideas fly between these two sharp, quick-witted, brilliant fellows. Get your tickets before they’re all gone!

November 4: Richard 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. Dawkins and Zimmer are a perfect pairing, so buy your tickets now.


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.

 

An Avalanche of Issues: Religious Exemptions, Discrimination, and More 

In the four weeks since the last edition of Cause & Effect, there has been a great deal of activity on many of the issues we care about. At both the national and the local levels, CFI has been tracking developments and working toward solutions on several cases.

Hobbling Health Care:

The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) was already very generous with religiously based exceptions to the Act’s contraceptive coverage mandate, and CFI worked to make sure that simply having a religious belief does not exempt one from the law, though the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case made those loopholes rather vast. 

Last week, those loopholes became chasms as Trump’s Health and Human Services department issued new rules stating that any employer, regardless of the nature of their business, can claim an exemption to the contraceptive mandate for religious or even “moral” reasons. 

“Giving employers the ability to dictate [health] benefits on religious grounds draws employees into their employer’s religion as a condition of employment,” said CFI President and CEO Robyn Blumner in our official statement. “This is bad for women and a pluralistic society.”

Sanctioning Discrimination:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo last week granting sweeping exemptions to antidiscrimination laws for religious organizations, even if those organizations receive federal tax dollars. This directive from the Department of Justice aims to broaden the definition of religious freedom from the right to belief and worship to a right to refuse compliance with laws that apply to everyone else. 

By making a “religious freedom” claim, government officials can refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, business owners can refuse to provide services to any group they feel does not comport with their faith, and so on, no matter whether taxpayer funds are involved. Robyn accurately described this as “a recipe for social discord,” setting up people of differing beliefs against each other.

Punishing Protest:

Right alongside prohibitions against blasphemy are bans on protests of national symbols, and we’re seeing that crop up in two Louisiana high schools, where students are being subjected to punishment for refusing to partake in displays of patriotism. At Bossier Parish Schools, students are being informed that they will be disciplined if they protest during the National Anthem at school football games.

CFI joined a coalition of groups demanding that this rule be rescinded, as it is a clear violation of the students’ First Amendment rights, spelled out by the Supreme Court case of West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, which held that students are under no obligation to take part in patriotic displays. “Students don’t shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate,” said Nick Little, CFI’s Vice President and General Counsel. “Nor do they abandon those rights by putting on a football helmet.”

Classroom Double-Cross:

Finally, we have a small but important victory for church-state separation. A teacher at Westmar Middle School in Allegany County, Maryland, had displayed two large Christian crosses at the entrance to her classroom, a blatant act of proselytization by a government employee in a position of authority over children. After being informed of the crosses, CFI reached out to the Allegany County Board of Education, asking them to see to it that the crosses came down. They did so, and now the crosses are gone. 

Robyn said in our press statement, “CFI will continue to act as a watchdog to ensure our public schools serve their true purpose, whether that means challenging sectarian religious displays like these crosses, or defending the teaching of scientific fact such as evolution in the face of religious dogma.”

 

News from the CFI Community

Openly Secular Day: It’s Time to Be Counted!

Openly Secular Day is this Friday, October 20! It’s a call to action for those with a secular identity to encourage openness and dialogue about one’s identity and beliefs.

Here are a couple of great ways for you to get involved this year:

Tell Your Lawmakers That You Are Openly Secular 

 This is a great opportunity to let your elected representatives know that you are a Secular Values Voter who believes in freedom, inclusion, equality, and knowledge, and who asks that all Americans be represented equally regardless of their faith or lack thereof. To have an impact, we need as many of our supporters as possible to contact their representatives. Look for a new Action Alert this week asking you to contact your representatives. But if you want to make sure you don’t miss this as well as future important Action Alerts, you should definitely subscribe to them via text message. 

These exclusive alerts, delivered straight to your phone, are a convenient, easy, and effective way to stay informed and engaged. You can subscribe by texting the word “secular” to 52886.

Put Your Secular Values Into Action

 The Center for Inquiry has been a proud member of the interfaith Know Your Neighbor coalition since it launched in 2015 at the White House, and this year we’re using Openly Secular Day as an opportunity to help others understand what secular humanists and other secular people believe through community education and dialogue. This Openly Secular Day, we encourage you to take part in an interfaith activity so you can be a part of helping to foster a better understanding of your secular identity—and to better understand the religious identity of others.

To learn more about Openly Secular Day and see other ways you can get involved, check out the Openly Secular Day page.

 

Point of Inquiry is Not Saying it’s Aliens

Where are the aliens? Why won’t they talk to us? Would we even know what they were if we found them? Would they be a guest on Point of Inquiry?

The prospect of discovering life on another world is, depending on your perspective, either extremely exciting or utterly terrifying, particularly if it’s intelligent life. But for all of our species’ attempts to scan the universe with our best and most far-reaching technology, we have yet to detect a definitive sign that there is anyone out there. If any extraterrestrials have become aware of us through our own communications, both intentional and not, they haven’t confirmed receipt.

With so much effort being directed at questions of alien intelligence, sending messages across the galaxy, and what we’ll do if we ever make first contact, it can be a little frustrating that we haven’t heard or seen anything yet. To better understand what is and is not happening, the latest episode of Point of Inquiry, CFI’s flagship podcast, features Scientific American journalist Lee Billings. Author of the 2013 book Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars, Billings talks to host Paul Fidalgo about this noble and quixotic quest to connect with our interstellar neighbors.

Also be sure to check out the previous episode, also on the theme of space exploration, with Loren Grush of The Verge.

 

CSICon 2017: It’s the Fiiiiinal Count-Dowwwwwn!!!

This is it! CSICon Las Vegas 2017, the biggest and most exciting skeptics’ event of the year, is just days away! If you haven’t registered and arranged your travel, it’s go time! It all happens Thursday, October 26 to Sunday, October 29 in the city of illusions itself, with an amazing lineup of speakers and events that will open your mind and sharpen your wits.

And what kind of CSICon promo would this be without speaker interviews by Susan Gerbic? Here’s three fresh new conversations with great skeptical minds:

  • How many Novellas can you fit into a skeptics’ conference? Well, at least three. Bob Novella, cofounder of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast (which will record an episode before a live CSICon audience), talks to Susan about his favorite interview subjects, living in a world of infinite iPhones, and something about Star Trek zombies.
  • Experimental psychologist Sheldon W. Helms talks about conferences past, including SkeptiCals, Amaz!ng Meetings, and of course CSICons. He also touches on the subject of his presentation, the insidious phenomenon of “gay conversion” therapy, as well as why people fall for psychics.
  • Finally, we have New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova, who will receive the Balles Prize in Critical Thinking at the conference this year for her book The Confidence Game. She discusses the topic of her next book, which is the game of poker, and how it relates to her previous work on biases, con artistry, and mindfulness.

Also in person at CSICon will be luminaries such as James Randi, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Cara Santa Maria, Michael Mann, Richard Saunders, Eugenie Scott, many more. It all happens at the Excalibur Hotel and Casino, where there will also be spectacular entertainment events, magic shows, and even a Halloween disco party.

So hurry! Get registered, and we’ll see you next weekend in Vegas at CSICon 2017!

(Oh, and the band Europe will not be performing at CSICon, as far as we know.)

 

CFI Branches Give and Receive Honors for Great Humanist Work

For the dedicated people of CFI Michigan, volunteer service is a priority, an example of humanists living out their values in the real world. In August, CFI Michigan teamed up with the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan for the Get the Lead Out Initiative, canvassing homes in sections of Grand Rapids where lead contamination is a threat to residents. Volunteers received some training and then went door to door to educate residents about the lead in paint dust, which is particularly dangerous to kids and infants and to let them know what federal funds are available to have the lead safely removed from their homes. For this “secular service” work, the Foundation Beyond Belief named CFI Michigan its August Team of the Month.

Plus, CFI Michigan got the attention of ABC affiliate WZZM 13 last week for their National Coming Out Day event, with a screening of the documentary The Sunday Sessions and a panel discussion with Larry DeShane of the Grand Rapids Pride Center, psychologist Matthew Clark, a specialist in helping LGBTQ kids coming from Christian families, and of course CFI Michigan Program Director Jennifer Beahan.

This weekend, CFI Michigan will celebrate its 20th anniversary with actress and playwright Julia Sweeney!

Last month, CFI Northeast Ohio held its biennial Humanism Awards Banquet, where the award for 2017 was given to native Ohioan Frank Zindler for his lifetime of advocacy for secular, atheist, and humanist cause. Zindler has long been an outspoken nontheist, even back when very few dared to be, and since the 1970s he has also been active in supporting social causes such as women’s reproductive rights. In addition to hearing Zindler’s reflections on his life as a secular activist, attendees were treated to a recording of a piece of classical music that he composed for piano and cello.

The featured guest speaker for the banquet was Ali Rizvi, author of the much talked-about book The Atheist Muslim, which recently won the Forkosch Award from CFI’s Council for Secular Humanism. In Rizvi’s presentation, “The Journey of an Ex-Muslim Atheist,” he described the unique set of problems that Ex-Muslim nonbelievers face, both in the west and in countries far more hostile to freethought.

Congratulations on a great event, CFI Northeast Ohio!

 

CFI Highlights on the Web

CFI Board Chair Eddie Tabash, a veteran attorney and world-class debater, took the stage at Calvary Chapel in Anaheim, California, last month, going into the lion’s den to debate Calvary Chapel University theology professor Nick Keehus over the existence of God. And now, the full debate is available to view online. (You will not be surprised to know that the consensus is that Eddie won handily, but do see for yourself.) 

Nick Little, CFI’s Legal Director, talks to Ashley Feinberg at Wired in an important exposé of President Trump’s nominee for the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, Jon Adler, and his record of pushing the Church of Scientology’s pseudoscientific detox treatments. 

Richard Dawkins has a new video up at Big Think, discussing the possible evolutionary roots of religious belief, explaining why a human’s tendency to believe in the supernatural may not be too different from a moth’s inclination to flutter its way into a blazing fire. 

Despite their expressions of awe, TV Bigfoot hunters don’t actually have anything to get excited about when they see “glowing eyes” they assume to be from the Sasquatch, of course. Joe Nickell explains how they’ve mistaken many animals’ eyeshine for “red glowing,” and the basic biological facts behind it.

At CSICOP.org, Stuart Vyse looks at the casual armchair diagnoses of the man who shot and killed dozens of people from a hotel window this month, and observes, “More interesting than the shooter’s motive is our need to find a motive for him.” Also, Stuart looks at the superstitions about the number 13, and notes that the location of CSICon 2017, the Excalibur, does indeed boast a 13th floor.

Ben Radford recounts an especially blatant attempt to use the scary clown trope to conceal a murder in 1990, a crime that had not resulted in an arrest until just last month. Plus, Ben picks apart the marketing claims of what is clearly a pseudoscience book about “overturning Darwin” on evolution, or as Ben puts it, “creationist bullshit.” His words!

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

CFI Portland

CFI Tampa Bay

CFI Western New York

  • October 20: Dave Hahn, a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Buffalo, delivers a presentation on conspiracy theories, how to define them, and the harms they can cause.

 

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

Tell Us Your Story. Become a Card-Carrying Skeptic!

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 10/18/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

Click the play button above to watch our short video introduction.

TELL US YOUR STORY! Become a Card-Carrying Skeptic

WE SKEPTICS CAN ALL REMEMBER that one moment when we began to think like skeptics. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, we asked a few of our favorite friends to tell us about that moment. (Click the play button above to watch our short video introduction.)

SKEPTIC FRIENDS FROM TOP LEFT TO BOTTOM RIGHT: Lawrence Krauss (Theoretical Physicist); Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend TV show); Randy Olson (Scientist turned Filmmaker); Tracy Drain (NASA Flight Systems Engineer); Aron Ra (Atheist Activist); George Hrab (Musician, Skeptic, Geek); Brian Brushwood (Magician, System Hacker); Richard Dawkins (Evolutionary Biologist); Shelley Segal (Singer Songwriter)

We’ll be releasing their incredible stories on YouTube over the next few months. Now, we would like for you to join us in celebrating our 25th anniversary by telling us your story of when you knew that you were a Card-Carrying Skeptic.

How Can I Become a Card-Carrying Skeptic?
  1. Film your story.
  2. Make it public on YouTube.
  3. EMAIL A LINK to your video.

In return, we’ll send to you your very own, genuine Skeptic Card in the mail. Be sure to tell us your mailing address when you email your video link to us. We promise we won’t share your mailing address with anyone (except the post office).

Proudly, let the world know that you are a Card-Carrying Skeptic!

We may even feature your video in a future eSkeptic, embed it on our website, and/or share it on our social media platforms!

To inspire you to film and submit your own story, check out this story that we recorded of our friend Rachel Bloom (creator and star of the American romantic-comedy-drama Crazy Ex-Girlfriend:

Thank you for being a part of our first 25 years. We look forward to seeing you over the next 25.

—SKEPTIC

American Goblins—Part 3
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 138

Our final part of our three-part look at the Kentucky Goblins case of 1955 concludes with an interview with the hosts of Astonishing Legends, Scott Philbrook and Forrest Burgess. We discuss the facts of the case, possible explanations, and the problems with the Wikipedia entry and the scholarly journal article cited within it. This episode’s topic is also discussed in a blog post by Blake Smith: Astonishing Legends, Questionable Facts.

If you missed them, be sure to listen to Part 1 and Part 2 of American Goblins.

Listen to episode 138

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.

Astonishing Legends, Questionable Facts

In conjunction with episode 138 of MonsterTalk mentioned above, MonsterTalk host, Blake Smith, explores whether a family in Kentucky got drunk and mistook owls for ‘space-goblins,’ or did something much more complex happen on that hot August night in 1955?

Read the Insight

DEBATE: THURSDAY, OCTOBER 19 How Do We Know What’s Right?

Full details

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Astonishing Legends, Questionable Facts

Skeptic.com feed - Tue, 10/17/2017 - 10:00am

Drunken Owl Wine Bottle Holder (Photo © 2014 Joseph Oliphint Photography. Image used by permission of Rodney Brazil at HomeWetBar.com)

A small percentage of the population self-identifies as “Skeptic.” This is somewhat different than being skeptical. Anyone can be skeptical, but what I usually call “capital-S” Skeptics are people who are so interested in the methodology and practice of scientific-skepticism that they label themselves to signal to others with a single word that they value these processes enough to say that what they most believe in (or strive to practice) is filtering information through the sieve of science.1

Within this group of Skeptics, there is a sub-set who enjoy researching fringe, paranormal and Fortean topics, which Sharon Hill and Jeb Card refer to as “spooky” topics. It’s a small group of people who value science and critical thinking and try to apply those tools to stories of mysterious monsters, strange phenomena, and magical events — all the while maintaining an enthusiasm for researching and thinking about (dare I say enjoying?) these stories.

I’m in that latter group. I frequently describe it as being in a ghetto within a ghetto. I don’t know if there is a useful and handy shorthand for this group of folks — perhaps Spooky Skeptics? Regardless, from this peculiar vantage we often find ourselves having to defend against stereotypes of skeptics as “armchair naysayers,” “scofftics,” “denialists,” “cynics,” “pseudoskeptics” and “the closed-minded.” This is from the printable pool of undesirable labels; there are many less savory ones. Because of my membership in this peculiar subculture, I find myself urged to defend science in communities whose familiarity with the long, deep history of science criticism is shallow, but whose passionate distrust of Skeptics is deep.

I am the host and producer of MonsterTalk, an official podcast of Skeptic magazine. With my co-host, Dr. Karen Stollznow, we try to use these spooky topics to talk about science and critical thinking. (Ah, another subculture — podcasters.) To prepare for the show, and because I enjoy the topics, I listen to a lot of paranormal podcasts and view a lot of thematically similar shows to my own. One I regularly listen to is the podcast Astonishing Legends, hosted by Scott Philbrook and Forrest Burgess. In a recent episode they conclude a three-part look at The Kelly-Hopkinsville Incident. What transpires in that discussion is noteworthy to Skeptics and paranormal enthusiasts.

In a typical episode arc of Astonishing Legends, the hosts discuss a mysterious legend, talk about the topic and possible explanations, and then give their own thoughts about possible solutions. Sometimes I agree with them, sometimes I don’t — but usually I feel like they’re entertaining and well informed, even when we don’t agree on the conclusions. But in episode 81, the content proved much more poignant to me given my interests and my affinity for scientific skepticism as a methodology.

BACKGROUND ON THE KELLY-HOPKINSVILLE INCIDENT

Briefly, the Kelly-Hopkinsville incident refers to an encounter with mysterious entities in rural Christian County, Kentucky in 1955. It was closely associated with an aerial phenomena that most skeptical researchers agree was a meteor. But what about the entities? They were big-eyed, pointy-eared and sometimes said to be glowing and to float. Because of their association with the aerial phenomenon, the case was investigated by UFO researchers very soon after it took place. I won’t go into great detail about the case or its associated phenomena within this article. Here, I’m concerned about the meta-issue of how the research of this case is perceived by paranormal enthusiasts, and the proper role of scientific skepticism in that context.

In the Wikipedia article about this case, a peer-reviewed article from the journal Frontiers in Psychology by Rodney Schmaltz and Scott Lilienfeld is cited. The hosts of Astonishing Legends discuss this article and its use within the Wikipedia entry in excruciating detail, and the crux of that discussion concerns a paragraph which contains a mistake. The paper, Hauntings, Homeopathy, and the Hopkinsville Goblins: Using Pseudoscience to Teach Scientific Thinking, is written in a style which is quite accessible by non-academics (such as myself) and has been cited by at least fourteen other journal articles and numerous websites. As the title suggests, the paper is about using pseudoscientific topics as a tool for teaching critical thinking. Its content is closely aligned with my own thinking on the use of these topics for similar purposes. The authors were looking for examples to show how to apply the critical-thinking methods they were describing, and chose the case of the Kelly-Hopkinsville creatures to demonstrate the point. But there was a problem. Let’s look at the paragraph at the source of the contention. I’ve highlighted the sentence that caught the attention of the Astonishing Legends hosts.

The Hopkinsville entities have a decidedly earthly explanation. The “aliens” were in fact, Great Horned Owls, and the eyewitnesses were probably intoxicated during the “alien attack” (Davis and Bloecher, 1978). Students usually find the true story of the events amusing; and this example can lead naturally into a discussion on Area 51, the Greys, or other otherworldly interests (Nickell, 2012; Leman and Cinnirella, 2013). —Schmaltz and Lilienfeld, 2014

In that sentence there is a problem — the statements about the owls and the alcohol do not come from Davis and Bloecher. As I listened to the episode, my very first thought was, “Did the authors put in the wrong citation?” I felt bad as I listened to Scott and Forrest pretty much crush this entire paper because of this problem. They did briefly consider the possibility that the error might have been a clerical mistake, but the majority of the episode excoriated the Schmaltz and Lilienfeld’s certitude and focused on how there was nothing in the cited source to support that certainty about the root cause of this incident.

(AL 28:08) Forrest Burgess: “Now I don’t know why, it could be — the citation could just be a huge typo, which is bad enough in itself, really, because you’re publishing a peer-reviewed scientific journal. I thought that these things were better checked out… Again I’m not trying to be condescending here but it’s like people go off this thing as being totally accurate and measuring up to scientific rigour.”

I did agree with them that the citation was in error, but what followed in their discussion pained me. They were effectively taking what I guessed was someone’s innocent error and making much ado about it in a very public venue.

Part of their argument seemed to stem from their interpretation of Science as Orthodoxy. Those are my words, not Astonishing Legends’. It is an idea promoted by an author I know both they and I have read, John Keel. When Keel complains of science orthodoxy he seems to be implying that science is arrogant and implacable and bends evidence to meet its ends. I don’t know if Scott and Forrest actually explicitly believe that, but it’s what I felt was being complained about in the episode. In fact, in a sense, I felt like this episode would have been quite different if they viewed science as a tool rather than an institution. Perhaps we’ll get a chance to talk about that later.2 It’s certainly an issue with the public perception of science that is on my mind frequently.

What does one do when one encounters an error in a scientific journal? It is certainly within the purview of the public to read a journal and make public comment, but the writer in me empathizes with authors. Also, while I don’t know either author personally, I’ve read and corresponded with Scott Lilienfeld before. So I reached out to him, and also to the primary author of the paper, Rodney Schmaltz. Rodney confirmed my initial suspicions. He had meant for that to reference a different citation.

“Thank you for the email. The reference should have been Nickell, 2006, not Davis and Bloecher, 1978. I have contacted Frontiers and informed them of the correction.” —Schmaltz, 2017

I can’t really complain too much about Astonishing Legends’ take on the whole thing because I think they did a good service in at least one respect. They not only showed the error in the paper, which will hopefully be corrected by the journal in the near future, but they also highlighted some criticism of science common to paranormal enthusiasts as well as topics of criticism within the scientific community itself.

I’d like to briefly talk about some of those issues.

THE PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING OF SCIENCE
The general public does not understand science.

The general public doesn’t know what science is, possibly because there is no single universal definition and no ruling body or authority that really controls its meaning.3 In general, science is a methodology for trying to find explanations of phenomena4 through testing and rejection of demonstrably wrong solutions. It is always being refined as better tests and experiments are discovered, and it must always yield to evidence. If the evidence disproves the hypothesis, then it is the hypothesis that must change, not the evidence. There are longer definitions and more nuanced, but over the past couple of hundred years the methods of science have been refined to help drive out biases and preconceptions such that we might trust the results of these processes more than the anecdotes and untried ideas which served us before science was developed. (This is necessarily an understated explanation for something quite complex and diverse.) But the average person5 probably cannot define science, and probably conflates science with technology — one need look no farther than the popularity of sites like IFLScience to see this mistaken approach in full display.

The important parts — to me — that distinguish science from other methods of discerning what is real (to use laymen terms) is that science tests its ideas, and science is self-correcting. Science is not dogmatic. You can overturn scientific theories — anyone can — but you have to do it through the mechanisms of science. You can’t do it from outside that framework — your new ideas must be testable, and must stand up to testing and must validate your hypothesis.

Science journalism fails to relate science. Or journalism.

As a science enthusiast, I really enjoy stories about how science has uncovered some exciting new principle or unlocked a deeper understanding of nature. Unfortunately the vast majority of science stories don’t accurately convey the nuanced information that is revealed in what are often highly technical journal articles full of specialized terms and complex statistical mathematics. Math itself and the science ideas it helps test are often outside of the expertise and skill set of the majority of readers.6 This is not surprising since most of us are not working scientists, and the nature of science is that as it accrues more and more details about its domain, it requires more and more expert knowledge to fully grasp. The job of a science journalist is difficult from that starting point, and challenged more each year by the very vastness of the fields of expertise — but also challenged by the tumultuous nature of the media within which it is published.

Journalism was already a rocky field as more than two decades of “new media” have devastated stability for venerable old media companies. As the field has evolved, the need to drive quantifiable revenue through clicks and page views on web-based media outlets has pressured editorial boards to push for virality over quality. This has led to a disturbingly widespread tendency of science news stories to be rushed, inaccurate, and to always seek out some angle for how this latest paper will directly affect the reader. The cherry on top of that sundae of errors is the editor who wants a “click-bait” headline. The nuanced paper which describes an interesting discovery based on some molecule acting on a group of rats gets turned into the super-viral, but highly distributed, article about how some food will make you young or give you a better sex life.

In short, the pressure for accuracy in science is the inverted counterpart of the pressure for virality in science journalism. While the authors in both cases may have the best of intentions, both fields (for understandable reasons) are failing to make the scientific method well understood by the general public. I could go on, but this is a topic for vast contemplative introspection within both science and journalism. In a media culture where revenue is more important than accuracy or public service, there is no fix in sight for this problem. There is good science journalism being done, but there are more tears than wheat in the field.7

Science’s process of self-correction is messy.

I constantly encounter people talking about how scientists think they know everything, are arrogant, live in ivory towers of academic certainty, etc… But the reality is that if science were about certitude, nobody would need to become a scientist. As I mentioned before, science is a process. It is a slow process filled with many pitfalls, not the least of which is our own well documented litany of biases and logical fallacies. While, in principle, the methods of science can be described as self-correcting, the steps of that correction are conducted by human beings. Errors can range from typos, to misinterpretation of data, to hypotheses that account for some but not all of a phenomenon, to fraud and I’m sure there are many others. The uncovering of these mistakes can lead to a correction in a journal, or — for more egregious errors (like Andrew Wakefield’s notorious paper falsely linking vaccines with autism) the paper can be retracted by the journal that published it. Scientific theories can be politely but passionately disagreed upon in back-and-forth editorials, articles, or even books. A good example is Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould’s arguments about Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium in evolution, which included Dawkins critiquing it in his book The Blind Watchmaker. That’s the friendly stuff, not even considering the shouting matches and acid emails that often occur behind the scenes of any passionate disagreement. In time the passions of scientists must give way to the erosive effects of time and what is left, when all the is said and done, is still a provisional understanding of the question being examined, and any conclusion reached are always subject to being overturned.

Scientists often do not respect fields of expertise which are not their own.

There is a very human tendency to be dismissive of things which one does not understand. Even more so, there is a tendency to believe that one understands very well that which one has never examined with more than cursory interest.8 This misplaced confidence leads to both a sense that one doesn’t need to look into it, and a dismissive attitude at those who say they have more expertise. You will see this in play within scientific fields with a lot of cross-discipline criticisms such as physicists dismissive of philosophers, “hard science” experts dismissive of “social science” experts, and so on. What is usually at play here is a lack of deep understanding of the expertise in the other discipline.

This disdain or false confidence adds to that public image problem that scientists often struggle against, science as arrogance. Science really does have a PR problem, and unfortunately — as with many stereotypes — being able to point at specific, real-life anecdotes which support the stereotype tends to make it very hard to overcome. (See availability heuristic research.)

AND WE’RE BACK

I want to return now to this specific case because it works as a nice proxy for some of the nuanced issues that I face when putting together my own show, MonsterTalk. It bears repeating, in the field of Cryptozoology, we see all the spectrum of human belief writ small. I have come to realize that monster legends are an excellent way to talk about cherished beliefs without some of the interpersonal risks associated with other topics. Yes, there are many people who would come to blows over disagreement about Bigfoot’s existence, but I suspect we’re talking about thousands of people not the millions who feel a similar cognitive passion for valued ideas like their religious or political views.

However, just because there are fewer people with that level of passion does not mean that the topics should be treated lazily. If we’re going to use these unscientific ideas to demonstrate critical thinking and the scientific method, then it requires the same rigour and exactitude one would use when engaging more volatile topics. It can be done. Many well trained critical thinkers have sharpened their minds on the whetstone of Bigfoot.

So in this section, I want to talk about Astonishing Legend’s criticisms of the paper by Schmaltz and Lilienfeld. I’ll include references to the show audio where applicable.9

Mistakes were made.

The show begins by going through the Wikipedia article on the Kelly-Hopkinsville incident. (AL 6:53) In that entry, the Schmaltz and Lilienfeld paper is cited in a section titled “Explanations.” The hosts go through the paper and despite agreeing with the premise of the paper’s content, use the paper’s own points about identifying pseudoscience to skewer mistakes in the paper. A key issue, as mentioned above, is that a sentence in the paper makes an assertion that is not backed up by the cited source. A brief transcript about this issue follows:

[Note: This excerpt begins at 22:33 into the episode.]
Scott Philbrook: “That preceding statement right there is cited to Davis and Bloecher, 1978. The very report that we have drawn most of our research from for this entire series.”

Forrest Burgess: “Yeah. That was all of Part One.”

Scott Philbrook: ”Yes. So what they’re saying is that the Davis and Bloecher reports states that there’s an earthly explanation, the aliens were great-horned owls and eyewitnesses were probably intoxicated during the attack. The next sentence [quoting Schmaltz & Lilienfeld] ‘Students usually find the true story of the events amusing; and this example can lead naturally into a discussion on Area 51, the Greys, or other otherworldly interests.’ again citing Nickell, for 2012 and then P. J. Leman and M. Cinnirella, from Belief in Conspiracy Theories and the Need for Cognitive Closure, that’s from Frontiers in Psychology as well, and I want to keep that phrase in mind, ‘the need for cognitive closure.’ That’s what they’re saying people need when they use pseudoscience to evaluate these stories.”

Forrest Burgess: “Yeah, and it sounds like what these guys need too.”

Scott Philbrook: “Yeah. So this article that many point to as identifying the Kelly-Hopkinsville case as a hoax at worst or a misidentification of marauding owls at best is pretty weak.

Forrest Burgess: “It’s a little crappy in my opinion.”[laughter]

Scott Philbrook: “I think you’re (laughter) I think you’re right.”

[talking over]

Forrest Burgess: “We’re going talk this out-”

Scott Philbrook: “Let’s break it down, Forrest.”

Forrest Burgess: ”We’re gonna break it down! But I don’t want to sound like we’re bagging on these guys, their knowledge, their academic standing, any of that, their research into this… because I think these are valid points. We’re going to make a case here why I don’t think it fits with this case. And that it’s kinda… that maybe they didn’t do due diligence”

This error in the paper is mostly due to a mistaken citation, the attribution intended should have been to Joe Nickell’s research from 2006. In an article titled Siege of the ‘Little Green Men’: The 1955 Kelly-Kentucky Incident, (unlike Davis & Bloecher) Nickell does talk about both owls and intoxication.

From the outset, people offered their proposed solutions to the mystery. In addition to those who thought it was a hoax, some attributed the affair to alcohol intoxication. I talked with one of the original investigators, former Kentucky state trooper R.N. Ferguson (2005), who thought people there had been drinking, although he conceded he saw no evidence of that at the site. He told me he believed the monsters “came in a container” (i.e., a can or bottle of alcohol). A visitor to the farm the next day did notice “a few beer cans in a rubbish basket” (Davis and Bloecher 1978, 35). Whether or not drinking was involved, it was not responsible for the “saucer” sighting; other UFOs were witnessed in the area that evening (Davis and Bloecher 1978, 33). —Nickell, 2006

While this attribution error would dissolve much of the complaint directed at Schmaltz and Lilienfeld by the hosts of Astonishing Legends, it is unlikely to satisfy the entirety of their complaint. There is still the wording in the actual sentence from the psychology paper which is unlikely to sit well with people who have devoted hours, days or months (or even years) to investigating the case:

The “aliens” were in fact, Great Horned Owls, and the eyewitnesses were probably intoxicated during the “alien attack” (Davis and Bloecher, 1978). [emphasis added]

I’ll explain why this wording is problematic.

Certitude is no virtue

Part of the concern I had with the objections of Astonishing Legends to this paper by Schmaltz and Lilienfeld was that aside from their concern that even when one corrects the reference from Davis and Bloecher to Joe Nickell’s article, it is still questionable whether the wording about the explanation for the creature is accurate. Without digging into the depths of the case here, I’d like to talk about the use of “in fact” and “probably intoxicated” within that sentence.

Were the “goblins” really owls?

Joe Nickell has done much research into these “spooky” cases. I have many of his books, have read many of his research articles, have interviewed him several times for my podcast, and consider him a mentor and a friend. Our investigative methods are similar and I look to him as an excellent source for how to investigate mysteries with a scientific approach. Nickell often exudes confidence in his investigations. It is easy to conclude that his proposed solutions are the definitive scientific solutions. But outside the context of his meticulous methodology and write-ups, a summary of his findings will sound necessarily reductionist and repetitive to people who want to believe in these matters. A proposed solution of owls for cases with similar sounding monsters (Kelly-Hopkinsville’s goblins, the Flatwood monster, and Mothman all have elements that sound very owl-like) might lead one to conclude that Nickell thinks all monsters of this type are really owls. Similarly, otters and tree-trunks have been likely candidates for lake and sea monsters. In each case write-up, Nickell explains why he reached particular conclusions but it is very easy to jump to the ending and disagree with his assessment. And even concluding owls as an explanation is not the solution — it is part of an overall assessment that includes voluminous research which discusses the limits of human perception.

Schmaltz and Lilienfeld are very familiar with the complexity and limits of human perception and so would the reviewers of the article — the “peer” part of peer-review. What might sound like an absurdly unlikely explanation, that someone could confuse an owl with a large goblin-like creature, is less absurd given all of that research into the workings of the human mind and how it makes errors. Even so, while such an understanding could give one confidence in reaching the conclusion that owls are involved, I think that the wording here was imprecise and implied a level of certitude that was not warranted.

What is certain is that there is rich body of evidence that eyewitness testimony, despite being the most compelling kind of evidence in our daily lives, is notoriously unreliable. There are cultural factors that can be at play, as well as concepts such as “priming” and many other interesting elements that may better explain this case without needing to add aliens or goblins and without the overly simple explanation of owls. Any thorough treatment of this topic needs to include those factors in their possible explanations.

How probable is probably? Does drinking cause hallucinations?

The use of “probably intoxicated” is equally troubling. If one only read Nickell’s account (and the reference was supposed to be to Nickell 2006) there is still insufficient primary evidence to support the idea that the witnesses in the Kelly-Hopkinsville case were drinking or drunk. The implication, to non-psychologists, seems to be that drinking somehow causes people to see goblins. As the Astonishing Legends hosts rightly pointed out, outside of cartoons with “little pink elephants” hallucinations are not a normal byproduct of drinking alcohol. I believe what the authors were trying to allude to is that people who are intoxicated are more likely to be affected by a group delusion. Maybe. But the questionability of that explanation led the hosts to this exchange:

[32:10] Forrest Burgess: “The second one is kind of a social one for me in that the eyewitnesses ‘were probably intoxicated during the alien attack.’ Where does the word probably fit in with a scientific report?

Scott Philbrook: “It doesn’t make— yeah.”

Forrest Burgess: “‘Probably gravity has something to do with the unified, the grand unified theory, probably—’ How is that even allowed in a scientific thinking journal? Again, not to bash but—”

Scott Philbrook: “Also, it’s an offensive supposition. It’s all ‘Well look at these country folks all out on the farm, they got drunk and saw aliens.’”

Forrest Burgess: “Exactly and you’re getting my populist in a ruffle here, it’s a little bit of academic and social-standing marginalization and elitism. Those are big political charged terms now, but what I want to say is that I think that’s what’s going on. ‘These people are simple drunk hicks and they don’t know what they saw—’”

Scott Philbrook: “And by the way, they ‘we know for a fact they were owls, even though we were not there, we didn’t go there, and we didn’t even read the report on it.’”

Forrest Burgess: “Well no,—”

Scott Philbrook: “Here’s the other, you know, speaking of red flags, we only drilled down on this one source of the twenty or so that are cited with this paper, and the one we looked at, there is zero connection between the statement made in the report that we looked at and what they said the report said.”

This is just my opinion as an amateur, non-academic fan of science and monsters, but if you’re going to pick a monster-case as an example of how to spot pseudoscience, it would be ideal to be very careful about how you make that example. In this case, I fear that the authors of the journal article oversimplified their solution and picked one where the solution is far from certain. Picking any example that would satisfy everyone would also prove challenging because you will never find a fringe topic where everyone agrees that the mystery has been solved.

Everything is complicated.

It is worth remembering that everything is complicated, and the more you dig into a topic the more you may come to realize that it is impossible to fully understand anything. At some point one must draw a line and say, “Okay, this explanation is good enough,” or you risk falling down a rabbit hole with no end. I feel like science does have plausible explanations for the events that took place that night, but that they were not adequately explained in the cited paper — nor was that the point of the paper.

WIKIPEDIA NEEDS TO BE FIXED. YOU CAN HELP.

The final concern I want to mention about this case is that, outside the control of anyone involved in this discussion, Schmaltz and Lilienfeld’s paper has been used by Wikipedia in what seems to be an assertion that the Kelly-Hopkinsville case is solved definitively. Rather than use a primary source which makes such an assertion and has definitive evidence for such a solution, they pointed to this article which only references the case in a small paragraph and contains an error within that paragraph. As is often the case with Wikipedia, it gives very good coverage of popular topics but the more expertise one has on a matter, the more likely one is to see mistakes.

The good news10 is that anyone can edit Wikipedia and improve it. At the time of this writing, the Kelly-Hopkinsville case has the problem reference as described here. Even if Frontiers in Psychology posts a correction to fix the problematic text, I believe it would be helpful to edit the Wikipedia entry to go directly to Joe Nickell’s article if the point is to inform readers of possible solutions to the case.

I can’t fix the errors in the Wikipedia article myself because I believe my work in trying to tie together all the issues concerning this incident would constitute original research, which disallows me from editing the relevant entry. But there are many Wikipedia contributors working to improve coverage of topics like this, and hopefully this article will draw their attention to this particular entry.

SCIENCE IS SELF-CORRECTING

When I started working on this article, I also began correspondence with both Philbrook and Burgess as well as Schmaltz and Lilienfeld. I hope that this will be an ongoing discussion because all I find that I’m interested in many of the same things as both pairs. One outcome of the discussion is that Schmaltz and Lilienfeld have elected to request a change to their published paper. They’re submitting a corrigendum to Frontiers in Psychology requesting the sentence be changed to:

“It is plausible, if not likely, that the ‘aliens’ were Great Horned Owls, and there is some evidence that the eyewitnesses may have been intoxicated during the ‘alien attack’ (Nickell, 2006).” —Schmaltz, 2017

This softer version will likely not satisfy everyone who researches this case, but I’m proud of the authors for taking the time to make a more accurate statement in a paper whose overall content I not only agree with, but which parallels the very model we use on MonsterTalk to talk about science and critical thinking using fringe, spooky, and weird topics as a launching point for conversation.

CONCLUSION

After all this conversation I’m left in the same predicament as at the beginning, but with renewed hope that we can find common ground with people who are too often framed as enemies. I enjoy fringe topics, I believe in the scientific method, and I have faith that in time the processes of science will help drive us to a more accurate understanding of the world including the parts that now seem so mysterious. I hope that Skeptics will always strive to seek answers, admit the limits of science, adhere to the rules of the scientific method, and maintain a good bit of empathy for the people who experience the kind of astonishing events from which legends are forged.

SUGGESTED READING/LISTENING

Sometimes the reason a Skeptic is so unwilling to believe has to do with an extensive amount of expertise in the limits of human perception. Such research is deeply troubling when first encountered, and while I admit I am comfortable now knowing more about how little I can trust of my own sense, it is a disturbing thing to look into. If you want to take that plunge, I’d recommend checking out some shows like You Are Not So Smart, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid, The ArchyFantasies Podcast, 15 Credibility Street or even my own MonsterTalk. I’d also recommend some books such as Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World and Thomas Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t So as primers.

REFERENCES
  • Phillbrook, Scott, and Forrest Burgess. “Ep 81: The Kelly–Hopkinsville Encounter (Part 3).” Astonishing Legends, 18 Aug. 2017, Ep 81: The Kelly–Hopkinsville Encounter (Part 3) [Audio blog interview]. (2017, August 18). Retrieved September 4, 2017, from http://www.astonishinglegends.com/al-podcasts/2017/8/18/ep-79-the-kelly-hopkinsville-encounter-part-3.
  • Nickell, Joe (2006). Siege of the “little green men”: the 1955 Kelly, Kentucky, incident. Skeptical Inquirer 30.6. Available at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/siege_of_little_green_men
  • Schmaltz, Rodney “Personal Correspondence Received by William Blake Smith”, 23 Aug. 2017.
  • Schmaltz, Rodney “Personal Correspondence Received by William Blake Smith”, 04 Sep. 2017.
  • Schmaltz, Rodney, and Scott O. Lilienfeld. “Hauntings, homeopathy, and the Hopkinsville Goblins: using pseudoscience to teach scientific thinking.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 5, 2014, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00336.
  • Wikipedia.org (2017), Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter. [online] Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelly%E2%80%93Hopkinsville_encounter [Accessed 4 Sep. 2017]
  1. Of course grabbing any cultural label opens one up to inevitable hypocrisy as it is impossible to be a paragon; one can only aspire to one’s values, not embody them.
  2. We did get to talk Friday October 13th, 2017 and that conversation should comprise MonsterTalk Ep #138.
  3. This is hardly surprising. Words change meaning and everyone carries around their own definitions, often incorrect ones.
  4. do-do-dee-do-do.
  5. I don’t want to keep harping on how “the average person” doesn’t know this or that. The simple fact is that science is a methodology which requires expertise, and much of human history was achieved without it. Expertise is by its very nature going to exclude people who either have not had the opportunity to receive training in it, or who don’t find it interesting enough to study it. This built-in exclusionary property just exacerbates the common criticism that scientists are “arrogant,” a criticism that is sometimes true but always hard to dismiss even when misapplied.
  6. Including me!
  7. John Oliver did an amusing piece that covers this, but of course you can do a web search for problems in science journalism to find out more about this problem.
  8. There has been some very interesting research into a related topic called “The Dunning-Kruger Effect,” which, for fear of committing the very kind of error of misguided confidence in something I have not studied deeply, I shall merely link to rather than attempt to summarize.
  9. I do not have an easy way to take you directly to the audio content in question without either cutting out audio excerpts or transcribing the episode audio, so in lieu of those time-consuming options, I will link to the audio and include time-stamps so that you can skip to the relevant point in the show.
  10. Some might say this is also a fault, but I am an optimist.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

What Is Artificial Intelligence

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 10/17/2017 - 5:10am

A recent article by Peter Yordanov claims that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is nothing but misleading clickbait. This is a provocative way to state it, but he has a point, although I don’t think he expressed it well.

Yordanov spends most of the article describing his understanding of human intelligence, partly by walking through the evolution of the central nervous system. His basic conclusion, if I am reading it correctly, is that what we have today and call AI is nothing like biological intelligence.

This is certainly true, but it seems like he takes a long time to make what is essentially a semantic argument. The core problem is that the word “intelligence” means many things. Lack of a consistent operational definition plagues the use of the term is pretty much every context, and certainly in computer AI.

What we have now and is generally referred to as AI are computer algorithms that display functions that resemble intelligence or duplicate certain components of intelligence. Computers are good at crunching numbers, running algorithms, recognizing patterns, and searching and matching data. Newer algorithms are also capable of learning – of changing their behavior based on data input.

Doing some combination of these things with a powerful-enough computer can enable AI systems to beat grand masters at chess or go, to compete with human champions at wide-ranging trivia games, and even to model human behavior and conversation. The latter are not yet able to consistently fool a human (the Turing test), but they are getting close and we will likely be there soon.

These are the things we call AI today. Yordanov is essentially saying that this is all well and good, but it is not the “intelligence” we mean when we refer to human intelligence. This is, of course, true. Computer AI is not self-aware, not truly thinking, and has no understanding. It is duplicating the effects of these aspects of human intelligence  – with great sophistication and some brute computing force.

It would be nice if we had a generally accepted term for what we currently call AI to distinguish it from what most people think of as AI – meaning self-awareness. “Machine learning” is fine but doesn’t cover the whole spectrum. There are specific technical terms for the various components, but a new umbrella term for everything short of self-awareness would be optimal.

The deeper question is – will current AI extrapolate to what is sometimes called general AI which includes self-awareness? Yordanov writes that he believes the answer to that question is no, and I agree.

I do not think we will get to general AI with more and more sophisticated algorithms running on more and more powerful computers. We will make systems that are better at duplicating the effects of general AI, but will not be truly self-aware. I do think something else is required.

That something else is not biology, and there is no reason it cannot be created artificially (whether that material will be silicon or something else doesn’t really matter). What is needed is a functionality that current computer chips do not have.

We are not quite sure yet what that functionality is, because we have not yet reverse engineered the mammalian brain. But we have some ideas. For starters, the brain is neither hardware or software, it is both simultaneously – sometimes called “wetware.” Information is not stored in neurons, the neurons and their connections are the information. Further, processing and receiving information transforms those neurons, resulting in memory and learning.

That much we know and computer chips that function more like neurons are already being developed. I do suspect that the path to true AI goes through neuronal chips, rather than classic silicon chips.

But that also is not enough. Yordanov touches on this, but I want to emphasize it – the brain is wired to constantly talk to itself in an endless loop. Thoughts are information that feed into the loop of processing, which also accepts external information through the senses, and the results of internal networks constantly reporting to each other, and then using that information to generate more results.

This endless loop of communicating and processing information is our stream of consciousness. What we are currently researching but have yet to unravel is the exact networks and how they interact, and how that manifests in human-level consciousness. We have pieces, but not enough to put it all together.

This, I think, is where AI research and neuroscience will dove-tail. We can use what we learn from neuroscience to design AI, which can then become an experimental model by which we can further advance our knowledge of intelligence and neuroscience.

Eventually we should be able to make a human brain in silicon. When we do there is every reason to think that that silicon brain will be self-aware – true general AI.

What is fascinating to think about is how will it be different from a human brain. We can experiment with turning up, down, on, or off different circuits and seeing how that affects the resulting AI. This, in turn, could be a model for every mental illness.

I also suspect that this will force us to reconsider what we think we know about the basic components of neurological function (beyond the obvious like motor movements and recording visual information). What is the neurological substrate of empathy, hostility, creativity, reality checking, and feeling that we occupy our bodies?

We may never be able to fully disentangle all the circuits and their interactions – it is so complex that the number of possible interactions is too great, making it like trying to predict the weather. We can only take it so far before chaos reigns.

Another lesson from all this, which I have discussed previously, is that what we can accomplish with non-self-aware AI is greater than we previously thought. We assumed that general AI would be necessary to beat a grand master at chess, but that assumption was wrong. Limited algorithmic AI can do amazing and sophisticated things, like driving a car, without being on the path to general AI.

This is why I predict that the future of self-aware robot servants in every home will not happen. It won’t have to. Our robotic and computer infrastructure will be able to do everything we need it to do with limited AI. If we develop general self-aware AI it will be for the research, to better understand human and artificial intelligence, and just to see if we can. General AI may then find some useful function, but that will not drive its development.

That function may also be mostly to enhance humans.

It’s all hard to predict, but fun and interesting to think about.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #593: I Still Can't Believe They Did That: More Human Guinea Pigs

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 10/16/2017 - 5:00pm
A further look at ten more scientists who experimented on themselves for the benefit of mankind.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Clean Eating Antiscience

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 10/16/2017 - 5:12am

Eating “clean” is the latest fad diet pseudoscience. A recent article in The Guardian goes over the many aspects of this movement in great detail, and is worth a read. My only complaint is that the author, Bee Wilson, buys into misinformation about the medical profession and nutrition.

Wilson claims that the medical profession was unhelpful when it came to nutrition. I disagree – the medical profession was at the forefront of nutritional research and advice. The problem was that the science-based answers were not what everyone wanted to hear.

There are many aspects to the clean-eating movement, which Wilson does do an excellent job discussing. It is mostly marketing, a way for self-proclaimed “gurus” to make millions selling cookbooks, diet plans, and detox programs with outrageous claims that it will transform you health and cure whatever ails you.

The movement is also partly a reaction to the realities of modern Western culture. There is an obesity epidemic in our culture, and while the exact causes are debated it seems clear that the food industry is partly to blame. Market forces also favor tasty food, which tends to be calorie dense, and supersized portions.

Clean eating is also partly an eating disorder – orthorexia. Obsession with restricting dietary choices and avoiding “bad” food can rise to the level of an actual disorder and be harmful to health.

At its core the clean eating movement is part of the more general phenomenon of  antiscience. There has always been a conflict between academics and genuine experts, and marketing and popular culture. The two don’t always play well together (not to suggest equivalency).

Experts have a problem effectively communicating their findings to the public, engaging in the marketplace, and dealing with the fringe. There is also a tendency to overestimate one’s confidence and underestimate (or at least undersell) uncertainty. This creates a problem of public perception, which is exacerbated by orders of magnitude by the media. They tend to overhype, focus on fringe elements as if they are experts, and gloss over complexity to give a series of ultimately conflicting and simplistic answers. The public is left with a distorted and negative view of “experts,” which the experts do an inadequate job of fixing.

Meanwhile the marketplace finds experts to be an annoyance and obstacle. They are something to be exploited, to the extent that they can, but failing that they cling annoyingly to facts and reality when marketing sometimes requires something else.

The net result is our modern world. There are millions and sometimes billions of dollars to be made selling falsehoods. That money becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop, whereby it funds spreading the very falsehoods on which it depends. This means, often by necessity, attacking and diminishing any experts who might correct the record.

The media just loves the controversy, and so will elevate gurus, fake experts, and outliers to the level of the sober consensus of scientific opinion in order to attract more eyes. And of course, this has all been exacerbated by social media and the era of “fake news.” Now anyone can hang up a virtual shingle with little up-front cost, and compete on an even playing field with venerable institutions.

That is why I found it ironic that Wilson fell for the notion that mainstream medicine and scientists missed the whole nutrition thing. That is just revisionist propaganda promoted by gurus who are marketing themselves against the experts. The propaganda has embedded itself so deeply in the culture that even an otherwise deeply probing piece missed it.

The standard nutritional advice based on current scientific evidence is exactly what health care providers give. That advice, like science itself, is sometimes difficult. If you are an overweight diabetic, you will be counseled on how to have a diabetic diet and the benefits of calorie control and weight loss. Heart patients are counseled on the current evidence for a heart-healthy diet.

Go to any mainstream health website – it is full of science-based nutritional advice. However, this advice may seem unsatisfying to a public that has already been promised health nirvana just by following this one simple trick.

There are actually several manifestations of the clean-eating marketing con. One is the “simple trick” gambit. Avoid this one food, eat this one thing, follow this simple rule and that you will achieve whatever health goal you have. That is tabloid clean-eating.

However, clean eating also rises in some cases to the level of a religious movement. At that level clean eating is about spiritual and physical purity, it is about being “whole,” “natural,” and “pure”. Eating clean requires dedication and sacrifice, and if it doesn’t work for you then you weren’t fanatical or strong enough. You lacked faith.

At the extreme there is the promise that a hardcore pure existence will allow you to live “forever” (or at least a long time). It maintains itself through heavy doses of guilt and shame. It is judgmental and superior.  That is pretty much like every religion. It is not a coincidence, in my opinion, that many religions contain eating restrictions as part of their code.

Of course for mainstream marketing you don’t want to call your clean eating fanaticism a religion, so it is marketed as a “lifestyle.” There are even lifestyle brands (like Goop) based on clean eating and natural living.

And like many religions, when their articles of faith conflict with science, they have to go full anti-science. They need to delegitimize experts and even the very concept of expertise. They elevate their priesthood as the sole purveyors of “Truth.”

Meanwhile, for most people, the scientific answer to healthy eating is not complex. Eat more vegetables. Eat a varied diet. Exercise regularly. Adjust your caloric intake to achieve a healthy weight. If you do that you are 90% of the way there. The rest are details, most of which will be taken care of if you eat a varied diet and plenty of vegetables.

 

 

Categories: Skeptic

Donald Prothero & Timothy Callahan—UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says

Skeptic.com feed - Sun, 10/15/2017 - 2:00pm

UFOs. Aliens. Strange crop circles. Giant figures scratched in the desert surface along the coast of Peru. The amazing alignment of the pyramids. Strange lines of clouds in the sky. The paranormal is alive and well in the American cultural landscape. In UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens, Don Prothero and Tim Callahan explore why such demonstrably false beliefs thrive despite decades of education and scientific debunking.

Employing the ground rules of science and the standards of scientific evidence, Prothero and Callahan discuss a wide range of topics including the reliability of eyewitness testimony, psychological research into why people want to believe in aliens and UFOs, and the role conspiratorial thinking plays in UFO culture. They examine a variety of UFO sightings and describe the standards of evidence used to determine whether UFOs are actual alien spacecraft.

Finally, they consider our views of aliens and the strong cultural signals that provide the shapes and behaviors of these beings. While their approach is firmly based in science, Prothero and Callahan also share their personal experiences of Area 51, Roswell, and other legendary sites, creating a narrative that is sure to engross both skeptics and believers.

Order UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens from Amazon.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #640 - Oct 14 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 10/14/2017 - 9:00am
Forgotten Superheroes of Science: Frances Glessner Lee; News Items: Debunking Works, Mindfulness Pseudoscience, Columbus Myths, Missing Matter; Who's That Noisy; Your Questions and E-mails: Thermos Physics; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

A Poor Marker of Truth

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 5:23am

As a recent Atlantic article recounts, in the early 1800s steamed powered printing presses were making the distribution of information cheaper and faster. It didn’t take long for someone to figure out that this was an opportunity. In 1833 Benjamin Day (who was just 23 – the Zuckerberg of his age) founded the New York Sun.

The paper was the first of the “penny press” – sold for just a penny to increase distribution, and then monetized through advertising. This was a new paradigm – Day was not really selling information to the masses, he was selling the attention of the masses to advertisers. This flipped the incentives. He no longer had an incentive to produce quality information (because information was not the product), but rather to print whatever information got the most attention (which was his product).

So, in 1835 Day printed a series of stories about how astronomers, using a new telescope, were seeing bat people on the moon. The story “went viral” and fooled most people. It took rival newspapers to debunk the stories until Day finally admitted the whole thing was a hoax. That hoax may have been over, but it spawned an age of tabloids that continues to this day.

The printing press of the 21st century, of course, is the internet, and attention is the coin of the realm. This creates an inherent dilemma for our society – because attention is a poor marker of truth.

The internet is not just a cheap, fast, and easy way to spread information. It is also a force multiplier. Small information campaigns can end up having a massive effect, for two important reasons. One is that the inherent structure of the web allows for and encourages the spread of information. Some kinds of information spread faster and wider than others. So we need to ask ourselves – what features of information will make it spread more through social media? It’s not accuracy, or thoroughness, or fairness. Bite-sized nuggets of drama or humor seem to do the best. If your information is unencumbered by reality, that is an advantage.

Second, information can be targeted. You don’t necessarily have to get a story to as many people as possible, just the right people. Social media algorithms, designed to meet our apparent desires, make this not only possible, not only easy, but almost the default.

Some will argue that this is all for the good. This is the democratization of information, and we should just let the free-market of ideas sort it out. While there is a kernel of truth here, this view is also profoundly naive in my opinion.

I am a strong believer in the power of the marketplace. It is, essentially, a bottom-up evolutionary force that generates information through the individual decisions of countless actors. This power should be harnessed.

However, marketplaces are not voids. They have structure and rules, and those rules have a significant influence on outcome. We need to explore how the marketplace itself is influencing outcomes. Keeping with the evolutionary analogy – the marketplace is like the environment. Evolution adapts populations to the environment. But also the behavior of individuals in the various populations helps shape the environment.

So – we need to think about human nature and how that interacts with the marketplace of ideas. As I stated above, it is pretty clear that if the marketplace favors attention above all else, then informational products that favor attention will dominate. But this may not be in the best interest of our society. It’s also not what most people actually want, but rather may just be the path of least resistance.

As an example, most people don’t want to be overweight, but they get there often just by going with the flow of their natural behavior in the context of an environment where the marketplace favors calorie-dense foods and large portions.  Therefore, there may be a disconnect between what people want when they think about it, and how they behave by default.

Similarly, most people would probably indicate that they do not want to be fed misinformation, lies, and entertaining hoaxes, even though that is exactly what they will buy on the checkout line of the grocery store. We may want accurate and true information, but then guarantee that is exactly what we will not get by the links we click and the social media we frequent.

So – should we give people what they choose with impulsive or default behavior, or what they say they want when they actually take the time to consider their choices? There is no easy answer here, because any method we choose to will inevitably require someone having control over the choices available to us, and will likely have unintended and unwanted consequences.

There is some low-hanging fruit here, some win-wins that we should definitely do. For example, printing calories on a menu is not restricting anyone’s choice, but informing that choice at the time it is being made (recent data suggests this might actually work).

Likewise, maybe Facebook, Google, and YouTube should not by default set their algorithms to give you information that will thoroughly encase you in an echochamber that may reflect your choices but not your desires. Maybe they shouldn’t sell ads to Russian propaganda outlets trying to upset our elections.

There may also be utility in exploring ways to label news stories like restaurants label menu items. But again – who gets to decide what is “fake news?” This used to be the job of editors, but there role is diminished in today’s world. Still, some kind of transparent and reasonable labeling system for news sources would probably be a net benefit.

Ultimately, the best solution is for individual providers of information to be ethical, to actually care about the truth. Individual consumers of information also need to be discriminating and skeptical. This is a cultural and educational phenomenon that no algorithm will fix.

People have to care about truth and accuracy, and then need to know what that means. Like so many issues I deal with, therefore, this ultimately gets back to educating the public to be better critical thinkers.

Categories: Skeptic

Another Antivaccine Retraction

neurologicablog Feed - Thu, 10/12/2017 - 5:04am

Science only works when it works.

In other words – science itself does not lead to an understanding of the universe unless that science is done correctly, rigorously, and honestly. This is a lot harder than I think is generally appreciated. In order to really reach firm scientific conclusions about any complex question we need to follow the arch of the research as it matures. We need to see what overall patterns emerge in the evidence. Eventually a tentative but reliable scientific consensus can be achieved.

There are many ways in which this process can go off the rails, however. With ESP we see researchers chasing the noise – trying to find tiny signals but only chasing their tails. With acupuncture we see proponents choosing to ignore, misinterpret, and then abandon well-controlled clinical trials in favor of “pragmatic” studies that will show them what they want. There is “cargo cult” science that goes through the superficial motions but lacks true scientific methodology. There is “Tooth Fairy” science that nibbles around the edges but never addresses the core premise – is the phenomenon actually real?

There is a huge positive bias in science – researchers have a tendency to tweak their methods to get the results they want, publishers have a tendency to publish positive exciting research, and other scientists have a bias toward citing positive interesting research. Funding sources affect research outcome. When pharmaceutical companies fund research the results are much more likely to be favorable to their drug than independent research. Scientists make mistakes, take shortcuts, and often have blinders on. And then there is outright fraud, which is uncommon but still crops up on a regular basis.

Somehow, through all of this we manage to grind slowly forward. Because of the nature of science, reality has an effect. It is a slow wind gently blowing us in the right direction, despite our efforts to find the answers we want rather than the actual truth.

Anti-vaccine Pseudoscience

The latest example of how bias can distort the process of science comes from the anti-vaccine movement. Another study from researchers Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic has now been retracted. These researchers, darlings of the anti-vaccine movement, seem to have a dedicated anti-vaccine mission. They apparently are not doing studies to find out if vaccines cause any problems, but to prove that they do. Real science, of course, doesn’t work that way.

As usual Orac has all the details. Last month their paper was published allegedly showing that injecting aluminum adjuvant, sometimes used in vaccines, activated immune regulating genes that they claim are “homologous with biomarkers of autism.”

The paper was quickly criticized on several grounds. First, their line of reasoning is paper thin, making leaps of inference that are not justified by the data. There were also many methodological complaints, some small (like injecting subcutaneously rather than intramuscular) and others devastating. They were accused of using outdated genetic data and genetic tests, and inappropriate statistical analysis.

Further, as Orac points out, their study was a “fishing expedition.” This is yet another type of problematic science in which researchers hunt around for any correlation. This is a reasonable type of study to do in preliminary exploratory research, but any findings are dubious because you are basically data mining. Results of exploratory research should only be used to generate hypotheses, not to test them. Findings need to be confirmed by later studies designed to specifically test the alleged correlation.

But a lot of exploratory research, especially in service to an agenda, is not even legitimate as far as it goes. The biggest reason is that the statistical analysis does not account for multiple comparisons, and so what is presented as statistically significant really isn’t.

So the Shaw and Tomljenovic paper was fatally flawed, and in line with their previously established anti-vaccine bias. But there is an update – when an online journal club, PubPeer, looked at the paper they found convincing evidence of fraud. Images used to represent data in the paper appeared to have been duplicated and manipulated.

This prompted the journal editor to do their own review, and they concluded:

Our own analysis showed some figures had been altered. We requested a retraction because we could not understand how that had happened. We felt the data had been compromised.

Really – they could’t understand how it happened? I guess they need to be circumspect, but that struck me as an odd way to say it. I can understand how it happened (using the passive voice). It’s called fraud. That at least should be the working hypotheses until another viable explanation is offered with evidence.

At least the paper has now been retracted (another retraction for these authors). But, as I discussed yesterday on Science-Based Medicine, even retracted papers can live on in an undead “zombie” state. This is what happens within dedicated anti-science echochambers. The Shaw-Tomljenovic papers are evidence for anti-vaxxers, and criticism and even retraction of the studies are just evidence of a cover-up. We see the same thing happen in the anti-GMO community with Seralini’s studies.

That is the real lesson here, and it goes way beyond this one crappy study. Science has to be transparent and communal. Different groups can’t have their own science that says what they want it to say.

Science only works when it works.

Categories: Skeptic

eSkeptic for October 11, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

CONSCIOUSNESS & REALITY Michael Shermer, Baba Brinkman, Deepak Chopra, Seth Andrews, and Aspen Matis

In late September 2017, in celebration of 25 years of Skeptic magazine and the Skeptics Society combating ‘fake news,’ Dr. Michael Shermer hosted a live variety science show, in partnership with YouTube Space NY, to explore the question: ‘How Can We Know What’s True?’.

Canadian hip-hop rapper, Baba Brinkman, opened the show with a rap about perception, hallucination, optical illusions, and the predictive model of consciousness.

Following that, in the name of open dialogue between those with differing or polarized worldviews, Michael Shermer (Director of the Skeptics Society, and creator of Skeptic magazine) discusses consciousness and the nature of reality with Deepak Chopra (philosopher and self-proclaimed “radical skeptic”).

In the following video, Michael Shermer discusses spirituality and science with Deepak Chopra (philosopher), Aspen Matis (author of Girl in the Woods), and Seth Andrews (creator and host of The Thinking Atheist).

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NEW EPISODE BY MR. DEITY Misterpiece Theater: I’m Listening

Tara helps Matt understand the importance of “listening to the universe.”

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In this week’s eSkeptic, Dr. David Speed examines why the definitional ambiguity of the word “spirituality” is problematic for researchers who seek to explore the relationship between it and other constructs.

What is Spirituality, Anyway?
Is “Spirituality” so Broadly Defined that Testing for it is Meaningless?

by David Speed

There has been an explosion of research addressing spirituality over the past two decades. The use of the term “spirituality” is a staple of our everyday vernacular, whereby many have friends who will identify as spiritual, but not religious. The ubiquity of the “spiritual” label is curious given that a definition of spirituality is rarely discussed. Granted, people are often not required to precisely define concepts that they are discussing, so the fact that spirituality means different things to different people is largely irrelevant in everyday conversation. However, this definitional ambiguity is problematic for researchers who seek to explore the relationship between spirituality and other constructs. In other words, while the average citizen can communicate in imprecise ways and get away with it, scientists and researchers do not have that luxury.

The idea of spirituality is so varied that everyone experiences it differently. If this is the case, how can a measurement of spirituality be valid for everyone?

The current paradigm within the spirituality literature is that higher spirituality has a tendency to be associated with better health. Higher spirituality is allegedly linked to numerous health benefits (e.g., satisfaction with life, better general health 1, less depression2, etc.), and there has been an effort within the literature to promote spiritual diversity in the healthcare system.3 There is also academic interest in how spirituality components relate to quality of life assessments4, as well as movements to incorporate spirituality into clinical practice.5 In short, spirituality is experiencing a prolonged interest from both the academy and the public at large. However, these positive findings are somewhat marred by a fundamental issue within the associated literature, namely what spirituality actually is.

Within the academic literature there does not appear to be an agreed-upon definition of spirituality, while there also appear to be radically different conceptualizations of what “being spiritual” means. One review paper with the express intent of clarifying the definition of spirituality summarized its findings by stating, “Spirituality is an inherent component of being human, and is subjective, intangible, and multidimensional.”6 This statement means that all humans are spiritual although they experience this spirituality differently. However, such a statement is not helpful because it could be used to justify any range of definitions. Offering carte blanche to the spirituality definition does nothing to advance the field of research. If everything can be spiritual then logically, any measure purporting to measure spirituality is justified. […]

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Drunken Owl Wine Bottle Holder (Photo © 2014 Joseph Oliphint Photography. Image used by permission of Rodney Brazil at HomeWetBar.com)

American Goblins—Part 2
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 137

In this episode of MonsterTalk — The Science Show About Monsters, we continue our examination of the case of the Kentucky Goblins. Blake is joined by CSI investigator Joe Nickell to discuss the details of the Kelly-Hopkinsville case and what real world creature Joe thinks best accounts for the mysterious events on that Kentucky farm back in 1955.

If you missed it, read the episode notes and listen to Part 1.

Listen to episode 137

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SCIENCE SALON # 15: OCTOBER 15, 2017 UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

What is Spirituality, Anyway? Is “Spirituality” so Broadly Defined that Testing for it is Meaningless?

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 12:00am

There has been an explosion of research addressing spirituality over the past two decades. The use of the term “spirituality” is a staple of our everyday vernacular, whereby many have friends who will identify as spiritual, but not religious. The ubiquity of the “spiritual” label is curious given that a definition of spirituality is rarely discussed. Granted, people are often not required to precisely define concepts that they are discussing, so the fact that spirituality means different things to different people is largely irrelevant in everyday conversation. However, this definitional ambiguity is problematic for researchers who seek to explore the relationship between spirituality and other constructs. In other words, while the average citizen can communicate in imprecise ways and get away with it, scientists and researchers do not have that luxury.

The idea of spirituality is so varied that everyone experiences it differently. If this is the case, how can a measurement of spirituality be valid for everyone?

The current paradigm within the spirituality literature is that higher spirituality has a tendency to be associated with better health. Higher spirituality is allegedly linked to numerous health benefits (e.g., satisfaction with life, better general health 1, less depression2, etc.), and there has been an effort within the literature to promote spiritual diversity in the healthcare system.3 There is also academic interest in how spirituality components relate to quality of life assessments4, as well as movements to incorporate spirituality into clinical practice.5 In short, spirituality is experiencing a prolonged interest from both the academy and the public at large. However, these positive findings are somewhat marred by a fundamental issue within the associated literature, namely what spirituality actually is.

Within the academic literature there does not appear to be an agreed-upon definition of spirituality, while there also appear to be radically different conceptualizations of what “being spiritual” means. One review paper with the express intent of clarifying the definition of spirituality summarized its findings by stating, “Spirituality is an inherent component of being human, and is subjective, intangible, and multidimensional.”6 This statement means that all humans are spiritual although they experience this spirituality differently. However, such a statement is not helpful because it could be used to justify any range of definitions. Offering carte blanche to the spirituality definition does nothing to advance the field of research. If everything can be spiritual then logically, any measure purporting to measure spirituality is justified.

Surprisingly, while definitions of spirituality are difficult to come by, measures of spirituality are not. In a recent review of various spirituality measures7, a journal article listed close to three dozen measures of spirituality. These measures were classed according to their purpose (e.g., general spirituality, spiritual well-being, spiritual needs, etc.) and were rated on their quality. The purpose of the review article was to organize existing measures of spirituality into a typology that would allow for a better understanding of the measures’ purposes. Within the article, the authors devoted reasonable space to providing evidence that these measures were reliable (i.e., if a participant takes the survey again their score is close to the first time); but there was very little discussion on whether the measures were valid (i.e., whether the measures were actually measuring spirituality). For the purposes of the review article, the working definition of spirituality was, “a sense of transcendence beyond one’s immediate circumstances… purpose and meaning in life, reliance on inner resources, and a sense of withinperson integration or connectedness.” As with the previously quoted definition of spirituality, this definition is less than helpful as it could mean a host of different things.

“In the future, science will be able to explain everything” (Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale8). Oddly, agreement with this statement would result in lower spirituality scores.

How would one go about defining spirituality in a way that is valid; that is, ensuring that a definition is uniquely and exclusively spiritual? Defining terms scientifically is often difficult even with concepts that everyone agrees exist (e.g., intelligence, happiness, hunger). The spirituality literature appears to sidestep this problem by defining a person’s level of spirituality by what he/she may score on spirituality indices. This approach is common within social science research as it provides a meaningful basis of comparison between studies. For example, intelligence can be discussed in a general way that people can understand, and researchers will use a person’s score on “IQ Test X” for comparing people between studies. However, the working definitions of spirituality are extremely varied, occasionally contradictory, and often include abstractions without obvious meaning. A consequence of this variety of definitions is that spirituality can only be meaningfully discussed by scores on specific measures, rather than in a broad conceptual way. While this approach may allow the literature to move forward (in terms of volume of studies), it does nothing to clarify what spirituality actually is.

This problem is exacerbated by the high variability of the items contained within spirituality measures. Spirituality measures will often inquire about concepts that may not be immediately associated with one’s perception of spirituality. Questions for spirituality address topics such as social interaction, meaning in life, environmental consciousness, etc. Contrasted with these are questions about interconnectedness, oneness with the universe, higher powers, benefits of prayer, etc. Some spirituality measures even have items that ostensibly inquire about the limitations of science: “In the future, science will be able to explain everything” (Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale8). Oddly, agreement with this statement would result in lower spirituality scores. Because spirituality is often being defined by the measure used to assess a person’s spirituality score, it is informative to investigate the specific items that are assessing spirituality.

Often, spirituality measures will have items related to social functioning. For example, the Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale contains the items, “I accept others even when they do things that I think are wrong” or “I feel a selfless caring for others.”9 In a similar vein the Spirituality Assessment Scale10 presents items such as “I have a general sense of belonging” or “I feel a kinship to other people.” In addition, the Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale includes items such as “When I wrong someone, I make an effort to apologize” and “I examine my actions to see if they reflect my values.” These questions appear to be addressing how persons interact with other people, and presumably, the better social skills a person has, the healthier he/she is likely to be. However, the answers to these items are counted towards a global spirituality score. Global spirituality scores, which are in part the product of questions about social functioning, are in turn linked to better health outcomes.11 Yet, it is confusing as to why the word spirituality encompasses these characteristics, especially given that other measures (e.g., social support assessments) explicitly investigate these topics.

A different issue plaguing the spirituality literature is whether spirituality is intrinsically linked to a belief in god(s). Nearly all spirituality measures have at least one item that references god(s), higher powers, Creators, etc. (e.g., Spiritual Perspective Scale12, Spiritual Assessment Scale), and numerous spirituality measures have multiple items associated with a god construct (e.g., the Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/Spirituality13, Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale, Spiritual Health Inventory14). To be fair, these measures will often provide caveats that god(s) is whatever you define him/her/it to be, but this does not change the fact that this question does not apply to everyone. One may argue that deities represent a “power greater than oneself,” but this is a semantic argument. Using a placeholder that is functionally undifferentiated from god(s), but refusing to label it “god(s)” seems to be without benefit to understanding spirituality. Persons who object to “god-related questions” probably do not object to the specific word selection (i.e., “god”), but probably do object to the overarching concept (i.e., “a metaphysical unproven construct”).

The fact that god(s) is a recurring topic within many spirituality measures raises a number of important questions for researchers. Having items on surveys that are only answerable if one assumes the existence of deities seems to be a step away from the idea that spirituality is “an inherent component of being human.” With all other things being equal, persons who do not believe in god(s) (i.e., atheists) will be “penalized” on their spirituality score because of their non-belief. Given the prevalence of questions regarding belief, one could reasonably conclude that spirituality necessarily includes a belief in some form of higher powers. If this is the case, then spirituality is not an inherently human construct, as not all humans can or do believe in deities.

To address this criticism, measures may allow items to be omitted if non-applicable to persons; however, this fix does not address the underlying objection. Either conceptualizations of deities are necessary for an assessment of spirituality (which would exclude atheists), or conceptualizations of deities are not necessary for an assessment of spirituality (which would raise questions about why so many items address deities). In either case, it is clear that spirituality has either substantive definitional issues or substantive measurement issues, or both. Of course, researchers could argue that deities are often a part of many persons’ spirituality, but are not necessary. However, all this demonstrates is that the idea of spirituality is so varied that everyone experiences it differently. If this is the case, how can a measurement of spirituality be valid for everyone?

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 21.4 (2016).
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It is important to note that these aforementioned spirituality measures have been published in peer-reviewed journals. They are reliable, have convergent validity, and they can be used to predict a variety of health outcomes. These facts are not disputed. However, it must also be made clear that if the items assessing spirituality are about social functioning, life purpose, or emotional maturity, then it is curious as to what makes these items “spiritual”. That these items are related to health outcomes is not surprising given that a bounty of literature has already established this in other fields. If the items assessing spirituality are suspect, then the reliability of the measures is ultimately immaterial to proving the benefits of spirituality. It would be as though “not smoking” was included as an indicator of spirituality, and if researchers then marvelled over the benefits of being spiritual. If spirituality measures do not uniquely predict health outcomes (beyond what is established by other constructs), then researchers should either modify how spirituality is being assessed or critically consider whether items within these surveys unambiguously measure spirituality. Ultimately, much of the investigation into spirituality seems less like research and more like recycling.

About the Author

Dr. David Speed completed his master’s and doctorate at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His primary field of interest is religion and health, but will research anything that “catches his eye”. He is a member of the Atheist Research Collaborative, which is a non-partisan group that researches atheism and irreligion. When David is not researching, teaching, or working, he is at home with his wife Betsy and his daughters Aliya and Charley.

References
  1. Dunn, K. S. 2008. “Development and Psychometric Testing of a New Geriatric Spiritual Well-Being Scale.” International Journal of Older People Nursing, 3, pp. 161–169.
  2. Matheis, E. N., Tulsky, D. S., & Matheis, R. J. 2006. “The Relation between Spirituality and Quality of Life Among Individuals with Spinal Cord Injury.” Rehabilitation Psychology, 51, pp. 265–271.
  3. Pesut, B., Fowler, M., Taylor, E., Reimer-Kirkham, S., & Sawatzky, R. 2008. “Conceptualising Spirituality and Religion for Healthcare.” Journal of Clinical Nursing, 17, pp. 2803–2810.
  4. O’Connell, K. A., & Skevington, S. M. 2010. “Spiritual, Religious, and Personal Beliefs are Important and Distinctive to Assessing Quality of Life in Health: A Comparison of Theoretical Models.” British Journal of Health Psychology, 15, pp. 729–748.
  5. Carlson, T., McGeorge, C., & Toomey, R. 2014. “Establishing the Validity of the Spirituality in Clinical Training Scale: Measuring the Level of Integration of Spirituality and Religion in Family Therapy Training.” Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 36, pp. 310–325.
  6. Tanyi, R. A. 2002. “Towards Clarification of the Meaning of Spirituality.” Journal of Advanced Nursing, 39, pp. 500–509.
  7. Monod, S., Brennan, M., Rochat, E., Martin, E., Rochat, S., & Büla, C. 2011. “Instruments Measuring Spirituality in Clinical Research: A Systematic Review.” Journal of General Internal Medicine, 26, pp. 1345–1357. doi: 10.1007/s11606-011-1769-7
  8. Hatch, R. L., Burg, M., Naberhaus, D. S., & Hellmich, L. K. 1998. “The Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale: Development and Testing of a New Instrument.” Journal of Family Practice, 46, pp. 476–486.
  9. Underwood, L. G., & Teresi, J. A. 2002. “The Daily Spiritual Experience and Scale: Development, Theoretical Description, Reliability, Exploratory Factor Analysis, and Preliminary Construct Validity Using Health-Related Data.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24, 22–33.
  10. Howden, J. 1992. Development and Psychometric Characteristics of the Spirituality Assessment Scale. Texas Women’s University.
  11. Matheis, E. N., Tulsky, D. S., & Matheis, R. J. 2006. “The Relation between Spirituality and Quality of Life Among Individuals with Spinal Cord Injury.” Rehabilitation Psychology, 51, pp. 265–271.
  12. Garner, L. F. 2002. “Spirituality among Baccalaureate Nursing Students at a Private Christian University and a Public State University.” Christian Higher Education, 1, pp. 371–384.
  13. Johnstone, B., McCormack, G., Yoon, D., & Smith, M. 2012. “Convergent/Divergent Validity of the Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/ Spirituality: Empirical Support for Emotional Connectedness as a ‘Spiritual’ Construct.” Journal of Religion & Health, 51, pp. 529–541.
  14. Korinek, A. W., & Arredondo Jr., R. 2004. “The Spiritual Health Inventory (SHI): Assessment of an Instrument for Measuring Spiritual Health in a Substance Abusing Population.” Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 22, pp. 55–66.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Half the Matter in the Universe Just Found

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 10/10/2017 - 5:12am

By now most people are familiar with dark matter – that mysterious substance which has gravity but otherwise does not seem to interact with the normal matter with which we are most familiar. About 27% of the stuff (matter and energy) in the known universe is dark matter, 68% is dark energy, and only about 5% is made of known particles (baryons – protons, neutrons; leptons – electron; and more exotic particles).

We currently don’t know what dark matter is. We know it’s there because we can see its gravitational effect, first noticed because galaxies spin faster than they should. Based just on the gravity from stuff we can see, galaxies should be flying apart. They stick together because there is significantly more gravity than we can account for. There must be additional matter we can’t see, or dark matter.

It is perhaps less well-known that we also haven’t found about half of the normal matter that should exist in the universe. Even if we just consider that 5% that is made of standard particles, about half of it is missing. That is – until now, if recent reports are accurate.

This really wasn’t much of a mystery (not like dark matter) – astronomers suspected that the missing matter was present in the form of diffuse gas between galaxies. There is a lot of space out there, and even a wispy vapor could contain a lot of particles, as much as is contained in all the visible galaxies. The problem is, this thin gas is too wispy to see with conventional means.

Two groups of astronomers, however, have found a way to detect it. The two teams,  one at the Institute of Space Astrophysics (IAS) in Orsay, France, and the other from the University of Edinburgh, used data from the Planck satellite. They also both used a phenomenon known as the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect. When the cosmic background radiation passes through hot plasma it tends to brighten a little. Therefore, we can image the temperature of the CBR and use that to map out the hot plasma in the universe.

When the two teams did this they both found that there is hot plasma in the form of filaments that stretch between the visible galaxies. These filaments are 3-6 times denser than the background gas in the universe – which adds enough matter to the visible universe to account for the missing 50% of normal matter.

Astrophysicist Ralph Kraft is quoted as saying:

“This goes a long way toward showing that many of our ideas of how galaxies form and how structures form over the history of the universe are pretty much correct.”

Essentially astronomers pretty much knew this stuff was out there, but these are the first observations to actually demonstrate it. Sometimes new discoveries challenge what we think we know about the universe. And sometime discoveries confirm what we thought we knew. The former tend to get more media and public attention, but it is important to recognize how science progresses in all its facets.

I like to think of this in terms of a jigsaw puzzle analogy. Trying to figure out how the universe works, or any complex scientific question, is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, without any reference picture, and without any edges, or even knowing how many pieces there are. Sometimes when we find a new piece it fits into the picture we are building. But sometimes the piece doesn’t fit – it expands the puzzle and shows us it is bigger and more complex than we previously thought.

This finding puts a piece right in the middle of our puzzle of the universe, and pretty much right where we thought it should go.

That still leaves 95% of the universe as a mystery. Dark energy and dark matter were definitely pieces that fit outside of the known edges of the picture. We suddenly realized the picture was 20 times bigger than we thought.

However, we should resist the temptation to overhype the significance of the mysterious nature of dark matter and dark energy. Often those who wish to cast doubt (either in general or on some specific area of science) will simplistically assume that because there is something we don’t know that automatically casts doubt one something else we think we do know. This is not necessarily correct, however.

It is possible to have confident scientific knowledge in one area, even if other areas remain unknown. Further, it’s even possible to be confident about one level of knowledge in an area even when deeper questions in that same area are unknown.

For example, we could be very confident that DNA is the primary molecule of inheritance before we understood how it worked. We can be confident that humans and other apes share a recent common ancestor, even before we fully flesh out all the complexity of our ancestry.

This is where the jigsaw puzzle analogy breaks down. As the picture emerges we aren’t just adding new crystal clear pieces. Some of the pieces and the resultant images they contain are blurry or low resolution. As science progresses the picture becomes more clear and more detailed. We are zooming into the picture, not just adding pieces. (So we have to invoke a digital jigsaw puzzle with individual pieces that can vary in terms of their resolution and focus.)

So, for example, when looking at a blurry picture of a tree, at some resolution you can be highly confident that it is, in fact, a tree and nothing else, even before you can see in enough detail to know what kind of tree it is. As the picture becomes clearer, perhaps at some point you can conclude it is a deciduous tree, and then with more detail that it is a maple tree. But there are still many species of maple and it may not be clear which one. Not knowing which species of maple the tree is, however, does not call into question whether or not it is a tree at all.

To bring this back to the current topic – the standard model of particle physics is wildly successful, has made many highly accurate predictions, and is a very useful construct to understand normal matter. The existence of dark matter adds a mystery to our understanding of the universe, but it does not invalidate the standard model.

The missing normal matter was an even smaller mystery. We basically knew it was there and where it was, we just needed to develop a technique for seeing it – and we did. A few more puzzle pieces snap into place with a satisfying click.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #592: Alert 747: The Vela Incident

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 10/09/2017 - 5:00pm
In 1979, a mysterious flash occurred over the southern ocean that could have been a nuclear bomb.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 10/09/2017 - 5:19am

This aphorism has been around since about 1600, originating with Voltaire in French. I have found it to be a useful concept – not an iron-clad rule, but an excellent guiding principle. The perfect is the enemy of the good (sometimes “good enough”).

What this means is that we should not be paralyzed into inaction because we cannot achieve a perfect solution to a specific problem. The idealized perfect solution becomes an obstacle to solutions that are adequate, or at least an improvement on what we have now.

In reality this can be a tricky principle to apply, however. Like the informal logical fallacies, or any informal guideline for clear thinking, there are no rigid rules or definitions. Judgement is required, which means that subjectivity and bias are also involved.

There are two specific ways this principle is either applied to not applied that tends to come up with skeptical topics. The first deals with our own activism – when should we apply this principle?

For example, over the years I and some of my medical colleagues have had a disagreement about how best to approach topics like vaccine exemptions. We all agree that non-medical exemptions decrease vaccine compliance and are a threat to public health. We all agree that in a perfect world states would not allow non-medical exemptions (only exemptions for children who medically are unable to be vaccinated).

What we disagree on is what our public position should be. Should we only advocate for the position of no non-medical exemptions (the perfect), or also advocate for lesser positions that are still an improvement on what most states have? For example, states may eliminate philosophical exemptions, but still allow religious exemptions, and they can make it more difficult to obtain religious exemptions (like attending a class on the risk of vaccine-preventable diseases). These lesser measures are also effective, but not as effective as completely eliminating non-medical exemptions.

We have the same dilemma when it comes to chiropractic – should our position be to reform the profession to make it science-based, or to oppose the profession as being inherently unscientific?

The conflict is often between moral and intellectual purism vs pragmatism. The purist position often feels better. We praise “moral clarity” and it’s easy to criticize someone advocating for compromise as being “mealy mouthed” or weak. Often extreme historical cases are invoked in order to justify the purist position, usually slavery. Should we have tried to restrict slavery and lobby for better treatment of slaves, or ban slavery outright as a moral outrage. Of course there is only one answer.

But not all social questions rise to the level of slavery. And further, banning slavery was the end result of a process that did involve half-way measures, such as banning the slave trade, and restricting the proliferation of slavery. Banning slavery itself was just part of a larger process of racial freedom (albeit the most dramatic one). Further, Lincoln himself had to compromise in the process of emancipating the slaves and ending slavery, to criticisms from the abolitionists. So even slavery itself is a complicated historical example in order to make the point for “moral clarity.”

What the example really is, is an attempt at transplanting the moral clarity on slavery that we hold today onto the past. This creates a contrived example that favors moral purity over pragmatism, because it removes all the context that makes pragmatism necessary.

At the same time, the morally pure position needs to exist and someone needs to advocate for it. The abolitionists needed to be there, making their strong moral case against slavery. But they would not have succeeded without the pragmatists (and even then it required a bloody civil war).

In the end it seems that there needs to be a delicate balance between our goal, the perfect morally pure position, and the good enough that we will accept along the way in order to compromise. Further, we need to judge each situation on its own merits. Some questions do require moral purity, others are more nuanced or require compromise among those with equally valid but distinct moral values. You can’t treat every political battle as if it’s slavery.

There is also a second distinct way in which this principle comes up in skeptical contexts. I often see the perfect held up as an obstructionist strategy. These types of arguments often are used to oppose a measure someone does not like because that measure is not a perfect solution.

For example, anti-fluoridationists will argue that fluoride does not completely eliminate tooth decay. They will also argue that people could simply brush their teeth regularly. Essentially what they are saying is that if everyone had perfect oral hygiene, we would’t need to fluoridate the water. So we should be putting our efforts into promoting oral hygiene.

The poor logic here is that public health measures should be judged on a risk vs benefit and secondarily return on investment approach. Does this specific intervention have benefit in excess of risk, and are the benefits worth the cost? It doesn’t really matter that there are more effective measures out there, especially if those perfect solutions are unobtainable.

That is really the strategy – to hold out the unobtainable perfect solution to obstruct lesser but still effective and practical solutions.

Similarly, anti-GMO activists argue that we don’t need nutritionally enhanced foods (like golden rice) or that we don’t need to increase food production. All we need is to completely fix poverty, have optimal food distribution, and eliminate food waste. These, of course, are unobtainable goals (at least in the foreseeable future) but are used to obstruct workable GMO solutions.

I also find this strategy is common in the anti-gun control camp. We don’t need to regulate guns, all we need to do is eliminate violence and suicide. Those are the “real” problems.

Often the answer to these obstructionist arguments is to say – sure, let’s work on those complex social problems. But meanwhile, we can mitigate the damage they do with some sensible regulations.

To reiterate – the notion that the perfect is the enemy of the good, like any logical principle, is not a formula you can simply apply to a question. It is a guiding principle that may help you think a bit more clearly about a problem.

I also think that, while there is certainly a need to recognize and aspire to morally pristine positions, we should not denigrate the pragmatic middle. It is also often said that part of America’s greatness is our genius at compromise. Perhaps this is something we need to value more.

Categories: Skeptic

15 Credibility Street #26: Stand me up at the gates of Hell

The Doubtful News Feed - Sun, 10/08/2017 - 5:16pm
We delve right into a discussion about the latest mass shooting in the U.S. – what we know and what we don’t know and why. Many people have an ideological basis for their points of view. And, sadly, they hold invalid and illogical views perhaps until they are faced with the truth right in front…
Categories: Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #639 - Oct 7 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 10/07/2017 - 9:00am
Interview with Pamela Gay; Forgotten Superheroes of Science: Martin Jim Aitken; News Items: Nobel Prizes in Physiology, Physics and Chemistry; Rocket Travel; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

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