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15 Credibility Street #30: Bear with us, yeti again

The Doubtful News Feed - Sun, 12/03/2017 - 3:53pm
This episode has two cryptozoologically-themed topics. We have a follow-up on the Bigfoot-naming show from last episode and there is a new paper about Yeti DNA just out that is not making cryptozoologists too happy. See the comments on this post about the new proposed name for Bigfoot and why it’s bad science and not…
Categories: Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #647 - Dec 2 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 12/02/2017 - 8:00am
Interview with Britte Hermes; Forgotten Superheroes of Science: Hisako Koyama; News Items: Speciation Event Observed, UK Water Companies Use Dowsing, NET Neutrality, Interstellar Visitor; Who's That Noisy; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

Liberation Procedure for Multiple Sclerosis – The Final Chapter?

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 12/01/2017 - 5:03am

In 2009 an Italian neurosurgeon, Paolo Zamboni, published a controversial article in which he claimed that patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) suffered from blockage in the veins that drain blood from the brain, that this correlation was strong and the pattern suggested a causal relationship. He called his newly identified condition Chronic Cerebrospinal Venous Insufficiency (CCSVI). His article concluded:

CDMS is strongly associated with CCSVI, a scenario that has not previously been described, characterised by abnormal venous haemodynamics determined by extracranial multiple venous strictures of unknown origin. The location of venous obstructions plays a key role in determining the clinical course of the disease.

I first wrote about the resulting controversy in 2010. At the time I concluded that there was good reason to be skeptical, that there were many “red flags for crankery”, but that further research should be done to put the question to bed. There were many reasons to be skeptical, not the least of which is that an entirely vascular cause of MS went against decades of research showing that MS is an autoimmune disease. In that first article I also wrote:

Then one of two things will happen: either the new idea or treatment will fade, becoming little more than a footnote in the history of science, or a subculture will persist in believing in the treatment and will dismiss contrary evidence and mainstream rejection as a conspiracy. Which course the new idea will take seems to depend largely on the original scientist – if they accept the new evidence and abandon their claims, it will likely fade. If they refuse to give up in the face of new evidence, then a new pseudoscience will likely be born.

Well, here we are 8 years after Zamboni’s original publication. How has this drama played out?

Scientifically, the story is fairly typical. One researcher published an exploratory study with dramatic new claims. Most new claims in science will turn out to be false, and so we don’t get excited until we see independent replications. We can also assess plausibility to make predictions about how likely it is that the new finding will pan out. In this case the scientific community was very skeptical, and early replications were mixed, but mostly negative, and none as dramatic as Zamboni’s findings.

Over the last 8 years hundreds of studies on CCSVI have been done, exploring various aspects of these claims. The correlation between CCSVI and MS was studied, using various imaging techniques, and comparing MS patients of various types and severity, patient with other neurological disease, and healthy subjects. In the end it was found that there is no correlation between CCSVI and MS.

While the basic correlation was being studied, researchers were also studying treatment of CCSVI by opening up the blocked veins, an intervention called the liberation procedure. This kind of research takes years to complete. Early studies were negative, but this only motivated believers (Zamboni chief among them) to call for bigger better trials. Well – those trials have now been complete. Earlier this year a large Canadian study showed no benefit from the liberation procedure for MS patients.

And now we also have the results of a four-year study conducted by Zamboni himself, just published in JAMA Neurology. The results were completely negative, leading Zamboni himself to conclude:

Venous PTA has proven to be a safe but largely ineffective technique; the treatment cannot be recommended in patients with MS.

Now we will see what effect this has on the other side of the story – public perception and the reaction of the MS community. We will see if my prediction above comes true, if Zamboni’s admission that the liberation procedure does not work will allow the whole CCSVI affair to fade away. Alternatively, it may be that populist belief in CCSVI has already taken on a life of its own, and will survive after losing the support of its creator. It also remains to be seen if Zamboni will have the courage to stick by the results of his own research, or will backslide into maintaining some belief in CCSVI.

For now I give Zamboni credit for conducting a well-designed study, and for not spinning the results in his publication. He can fully redeem himself and even become a hero if he now campaigns against the monster he created, in the name of science and what’s best for patients. CCSVI is now a famous cautionary tale – what legacy in that tale will Zamboni ultimately make for himself?

The monster he created was substantial. His preliminary research, which should never have seen the light of day outside of wonky research journals for other experts, became a public sensation. News of a possible new treatment for MS spread throughout the MS community, with the usual exaggerations and anecdotes. The result was not pretty. Desperate patients understandably wanted access to a potential new treatment, and were largely unhappy when experts told them the treatment was not recommended. This lead to conspiracy theories and general distrust between some patients and their MS doctors.

Of course all this was happening on the background of a general cultural movement in which expertise is easily dismissed, and trust of experts is threatened by memes spread on social media. It is hard to calculate the harm that was ultimately done to patients because of all this. We know that several patients died receiving the liberation procedure – so there was some direct measurable harm. But how many other patients had suboptimal treatment for their MS because of their faith in a highly implausible new theory that was crashing almost as soon as it was published? How much money was funneled to quack clinics, and all the ultimate harm that they do, by patients seeking out the liberation procedure?

Lessons from CCSVI

This is a cautionary tale, but I fear it will soon be forgotten. It’s not like this is the first time something like this has happened, and yet the cautionary tales of the past are not generally known. How many people remember the radioactive tonics of the early 20th century, or Abrams Dinomizer, or the countless other treatments that were popularized based upon flimsy preliminary evidence and ultimately were useless?

There is a reason skeptics and promoters of science-based medicine recommend caution when new medical ideas are first proposed. We know from extensive history, and also from studying the medical literature quantitatively, that most new ideas will turn out to be wrong. We know that preliminary positive evidence is a very poor predictor of ultimate success. Anecdotes are inherently deceptive and cannot be relied upon to make conclusions. And plausibility matters – if a new idea goes against established principles, it is more likely to be wrong.

In medicine especially, all of this matters. Experts genuinely try to come up with a bottom line assessment of risk vs benefit with any intervention. With the liberation procedure it was clear that the probability of harm vastly exceeded the probability of benefit, which itself was tiny. It is dismissive and arrogant to wave away sober expert analysis with cheap conspiracy theories or claims of bias or protectionism.

It is in everyone’s best interest that we remain cautious in the face of preliminary evidence. Let the science work itself out. I know this is especially difficult for desperate patients or their loved-ones when faced with a serious illness without adequate treatment. But that is also already taken into consideration in the risk vs benefit analysis. We will give speculative or experimental treatments on a compassionate basis – but not anything. We still need to assess plausibility and the probability of harm vs benefit.

It was entirely clear that the liberation procedure for MS was not justified, even on a compassionate basis. The fact that the experts were correct in retrospect should not be brushed aside. However, I predict it will be for the next speculative treatment and the ones after that. Only with structural change to the way such information is disseminated and the practice of medicine is regulated can be prevent victims of the next liberation procedure.

Categories: Skeptic

Science Friction

Skeptoid Feed - Thu, 11/30/2017 - 4:00pm
Finally, a documentary film about scientists who get misrepresented by the media.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Semi-Synthetic Life With Expanded Genetic Code

neurologicablog Feed - Thu, 11/30/2017 - 4:58am

It’s interesting to follow truly cutting edge research that has the potential to significantly change our world. I include in this category research into brain-machine interfaces, regeneration through stem cells, genetic engineering, and fusion energy. I would also add research into creating synthetic life.

Synthetic life research views living organisms like a technology. It is, in a way, the original nanotechnology, using complex tiny machines to manufacture chemicals, collect and store energy, degrade toxins, and other functions. Scientists have been very successful in tweaking existing organisms to harness them as tiny factories. Many modern drugs are now made in this way, making drugs like insulin widely available.

Some researchers, however, want to go beyond tweaking existing organisms. What if we could create synthetic organisms, even just single cells, entirely from scratch? That is Craig Venter’s dream – to strip down cells to their bare essentials, and then use that as a template to create a completely artificial minimal generic cell. That basic artificial cell, which we understand well because we built it from the ground up, can then be modified to perform endless functions – designer cells.

There is more to this vision, however. Once we free ourselves from the constraints of existing organisms we can explore novel properties that did not happen to evolve. Evolution is powerful, and it has had several billion years to experiment with life, but evolution is also constrained by its own history. For example, all life on earth uses the same genetic code, based upon two pairs of bases in the DNA – cytosine bonds with guanine and thymine bonds with adenine. This produces a 4-letter alphabet for the genetic code (CTAG), and also gives DNA the double-stranded structure and its ability to make copies of itself. The code consists of 64 3-letter words.

Known life is also limited to 21 amino acids with which it constructs all proteins. As an interesting aside, until 1988 we only knew of 20 amino acids. Selenocysteine is the 21st, but it is unusual. It only exists in some branches of life, and it has unique coding. It is coded for by UGA in the messenger RNA (in RNA uracil replaces thymine). But UGA is also a stop codon (a code than ends transcription of the RNA into a protein), so in these organisms this one genetic word can have two meanings. This is just another example of how messy and complex life is.

This genetic code is highly conserved, shared by all known life. What if, however, we could expand the code? That is what researchers are now working on. In a recent paper Zhang et al report that they have created a semi-synthetic organism based on E. coli (a bacterium) that uses 6 bases instead of 4 (or 3 pairs instead of 2) – the pair dNaM–dTPT3 (X-Y) was added. That means there are 216 possible three-letter words rather than 64.

They were able to demonstrate that their semi-synthetic organism was able to decode RNA with the expanded bases and actually function. Further, they were able to incorporate new (what they call non-canonical) amino acids into proteins. They conclude:

The results demonstrate that interactions other than hydrogen bonding can contribute to every step of information storage and retrieval. The resulting semi-synthetic organism both encodes and retrieves increased information and should serve as a platform for the creation of new life forms and functions.

This could mean the ability to create organisms that can direct the production of new proteins that incorporate non-canonical amino acids. This can greatly increase the potential properties of those proteins beyond what ordinary cells can create. Obviously this research is in the early stages, but the results of this study show that it has potential. I also think it reflects how versatile life can be.

When we learn about biology it is often presented as a complex but delicate machine, as if one piece out of place would destroy function. It is certainly true that sometime small changes can be fatal. But in general biology is much more resilient than that. What we see as the complex kluge resulting from evolution is not necessary for any function at all. There is no one correct or optimal arrangement. Many aspects of biology can be changed or removed without destroying function – function, rather, will just be less efficient, or even just have different trade-offs.

We can even mess with the genetic code, and the protein-building machinery will still work. Function won’t be optimal, but it can get by. This demonstrates how new functions can arise through evolution – changes result in new, if less efficient, functions which can later be tweaked and optimized.

It is also interesting to think about the ultimate potential of synthetic biology technology. Without the constraints of history, we can design organisms from the top down. We can eliminate all the junk from DNA, increase its information density, and expand its repertoire. Life is, essentially, nanotechnology. It is fascinating and a little scary to think about the potential of mature synthetic biology.

Categories: Skeptic

Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 94

Center for Inquiry News - Wed, 11/29/2017 - 8:59am

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

Malaysian Officials Endanger Atheists

Earlier this summer, we were stunned to hear a high official in the Malaysian government say that atheists needed to be “hunted down.” This person was responding to a photo being shared over social media of a gathering of nonbelievers in Malaysia and found the sight of those smiling secularists to be unacceptable. He called for an investigation of the circumstances surrounding this meeting, particularly into whether any Muslims (or ex-Muslims) were involved. Many in Malaysia called for the atheists’ imprisonment and even execution.

At the UN Human Rights Council last month, CFI President and CEO Robyn Blumner took the opportunity to shine the spotlight on this overreaction to an innocent meeting and Malaysia’s hostility to atheists. “There is no room for this kind of religious persecution in a world community that honors freedom of conscience,” she declared.

Last week, another gauntlet was thrown when Malaysia’s deputy minister in charge of Islamic affairs, Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, went a step further, calling atheism a “threat,” “unconstitutional,” and even “seditious.”

“Anyone who tries to spread ideologies and doctrines that promote atheism and similar beliefs which tarnish the sanctity of other religions, can be charged under the Sedition Act,” said Asyraf to the Malaysian parliament.

When this issue first arose in the summer, Robyn told the United Nations that it constituted a “human rights situation.” If atheists and ex-Muslims are indeed “hunted down,” treated as threats to the nation, and charged with sedition, this situation will have grown into a full-blown crisis.

Tweeting in response to the words of the deputy minister, CFI board member Richard Dawkins said, “Words fail me. How do you deal with such prodigies of stupidity and injustice?” And it is indeed baffling but hardly unique. It may not be long before CFI’s Secular Rescue program is activated to begin relocating Malaysian atheists, just as it has done for those in Bangladesh, Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

“We hear almost every day from atheists and secularists in majority-Muslim countries who are terrified for their lives, dealing with suffocating persecution and death threats, and we do all we can to help as many of them as possible,” said Robyn in our official statement. “The comments made by this Malaysian official have put innocent people in danger simply for raising legitimate questions about ingrained religious beliefs.”

 

Louis Appignani’s Quarter Million Dollar Challenge

Louis Appignani is back, challenging the supporters of reason and science to give our shared mission an end-of-year boost. But he’s not just asking; he’s participating. Louis has generously agreed to match every single donation to the Center for Inquiry all the way up to a quarter million dollars.

Louis will double the power of every contribution that comes in from now until the end of 2017. He’s giving all of us the opportunity to make a powerful impact in support of freethought, free expression, and free inquiry. With reality being twisted every day by the forces of superstition, conspiracy theories, and religious dogma, there’s never been a greater need for CFI to have the resources to confront these challenges.

Make no mistake; Louis Appignani is serious about this mission. For decades, he’s been a champion of secularism and the rights of the nonreligious.

Please don’t miss this amazing opportunity that Louis has presented. We can meet the Appignani Quarter Million Dollar Challenge and do more for our cause than ever before. Make your tax-deductible, matched donation right now.

 

News from the CFI Community

Conspiracies and Cults in CFI’s Flagship Publications

The November/December issue of Skeptical Inquirer centers on tall tales becoming several stories taller, as conspiracy theories, fake news, and wishful thinking spiral into myths and legends.

In the cover feature on conspiracy theories, sociologist Jeffrey S. Debies-Carl follows the infamous “Pizzagate” fake-scandal of the 2016 election, a right-wing conspiracy theory that asserted that the Clintons and their associates were operating a child-sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor.

“Legends, just like fake news, can lead to real-world consequences,” writes Debies-Carl, showing that Pizzagate is an example of a lie evolving into a full-blown legend, so much so that it led to “legend-tripping,” in which a person tries to enter into the legend itself. That’s just what happened when one of the legend’s adherents took it upon himself to grab an assault rifle and head to the pizza joint to “rescue” the fictional children.

This issue also includes Eric Wojciechowski on the phenomenon of already-accomplished people feeling the need to embellish their life stories into something fantastical; Bertha Vazquez and Christopher Freidhoff answering some key questions about the teaching of evolution; and Skeptical Inquirer Editor Kendrick Frazier marking the 70th anniversary of the Roswell UFO incident…plus a lot more.

The December 2017/January 2018 issue of Free Inquiry takes us from conspiracies to cults. Joanne Hanks escaped a life entrapped by the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days (TLC) seventeen years ago, and with the help of Steve Cuno muses on the properties of cults, which can range in destructiveness from Amway to Jim Jones. Primarily, Hanks offers a kind of tongue-in-cheek how-to for becoming susceptible to the call of the cult. “If your life’s dream is to become or to raise prime cult-bait, [this] is for you,” she says, clarifying, “I’m talking about the kind of cult that dictates your identity, what you will think, and how you will act, all to an absurd level of intrusion.”

This issue also features a remarkable and sobering look at the power of the John Templeton Foundation, which Free Inquiry Editor Tom Flynn reveals “cuts a mighty swath across fields from science to psychology, ethics to religion.” Documenting eighteen of the fund’s grants—which include projects having to do with diagnosing “what’s wrong” with nonbelievers, the “properties” of God, and critiques of scientific explanations for morality—Tom shows how “by its sheer scale, Templeton’s giving has a potentially pernicious effect on every field it penetrates.”

Also not to be missed is Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s call for a bond of friendship between science and philosophy, distinguishing philosophy as how we humans “get a handle on who we are.”

Subscribe now to Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry, or check out their digital versions: Skeptical Inquirer is available in app stores across mobile platforms, and Free Inquiry now offers web-only subscriptions.

 

CFI Highlights on the Web

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution seeks insight from CFI Legal Director Nick Little in a multifaceted piece on the Johnson Amendment and church politicking.

The Chronicle of Higher Education profiles philosopher and Skeptical Inquirer contributor Massimo Pigliucci on his embrace of stoicism.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has led a political movement that trades reason for ideology and erodes the nation’s secular foundations. In Free Inquiry, James Haught looks back on the now-threatened legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Joe Nickell looks at the phenomenon he calls the “Roswellian Syndrome,” in which mythmaking around conspiracies about aliens surround UFO incidents subsequent to the seventy-year-old legend. In this case, the foil used in weather balloons is taken to be of extraterrestrial origin.

Joe also takes us back to the nineteenth century to see some of the popular treatments for babies’ teething pains, which came to be known as “baby killers” for including morphine sulfate among their ingredients.

Harriet Hall explores the ethical and practical pitfalls of sham surgeries as a way to scientifically determine the efficacy of a particular procedure. “One might just as well argue that not doing a sham surgery trial is more unethical, since it means that far greater numbers of patients will be harmed in the long run.”

In Free Inquiry, Shadia Drury tackles the particular problems of monotheism, writing, “Wittingly or unwittingly, monotheism divides the world into good and evil. The latter must be utterly destroyed if good is to prevail.”

Benjamin Radford uses the example of a construction worker and his gun-resembling tools to illustrate how expectations color our perceptions in a new piece at the Free Thinking blog.

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


Upcoming CFI Events

CFI Austin

 

CFI Indiana

 

CFI Michigan

  • December 9: Secular Service time, helping out the nonprofit Kids’ Food Basket as they address childhood hunger through their Sack Supper program.
  • December 13: Solstice Dinner in Grand Rapids.
  • December 16: Solstice Dinner in Madison Heights.

 

CFI Western New York

 

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!


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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

eSkeptic for November 29, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 11/29/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

Pro-Truth Pledge: I pledge to share, honor, and encourage the truth. (Image from the Post-Truth Pledge Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ProTruthPledge/ Please also visit https://www.protruthpledge.org/ )

In a time when the Oxford English Dictionary has named “post-truth” as its word of the year (2016), Dr. Gleb Tsipursky avers that we can create a mechanism for differentiating the liars from the truth-tellers, ensuring the veracity of public information.

The Pro-Truth Pledge
An Effective Strategy for Skeptics to Fight Fake News and Post-Truth Politics

by Gleb Tsipursky

How do we get politicians to stop lying? How do we get private citizens to stop sharing fake news on social media? Deception proved such a successful strategy for political causes and individual candidates in the UK and US elections in 2016 that the Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” as its word of the year, with the definition of “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The extensive sharing of fake news by private citizens led Collins Dictionary to choose “fake news” as its word of the year for 2017, meaning “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”

We are facing a nightmare scenario. For many years now, traditional gatekeepers for ensuring the veracity of public information—news media, civic leaders, authorities on various topics—have been trusted less and less. Social and digital media have only accelerated this trend, exemplifying the potential of technological disruption to undermine our democracy.

Fortunately, if we can create a mechanism that differentiates the liars from the truth-tellers, we have a hope of protecting our democracy. At the same time, tilting the scale toward truth requires addressing the psychological factors that cause people to tolerate untruths. Using research from behavioral science research about what causes people to lie and what motivates them to tell the truth, a number of behavioral scientists (including myself) and concerned citizens have launched the Pro-Truth Pledge at ProTruthPledge.org, which combines our knowledge of behavioral science with crowdsourcing to promote truth-oriented behavior.

The pledge is meant for both public figures and private citizens to sign. So far, thousands of private citizens across the globe and several hundred public figures and organizations signed it, including globally-known public intellectuals such as Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, Peter Singer and Michael Shermer. You might be especially surprised that many dozens of politicians have signed it as well. […]

Continue reading

Grimoires—Part I
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 142

Episode 142 of MonsterTalk continues its special series on Magic as it examines the history of Grimoires in Western culture. State Department Archivist Jerry Drake, PhD, discusses the history of magic books, magic writing and how it fits into the history of science. This is the first of a two-part interview.

Listen to episode 142

Read notes for episode 142

Subscribe on iTunes

Grimoires—Part II
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 143

Episode 143 of MonsterTalk

MonsterTalk continues its series on Magic with Part II of its coverage of Grimoires. We continue our interview with researcher Jerry Drake, and focus on the view of magic books in various magical traditions of Western Europe.

Listen to episode 143

Read notes for episode 143

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.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Pro-Truth Pledge An Effective Strategy for Skeptics to Fight Fake News and Post-Truth Politics

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 11/29/2017 - 12:00am

How do we get politicians to stop lying? How do we get private citizens to stop sharing fake news on social media? Deception proved such a successful strategy for political causes and individual candidates in the UK and US elections in 2016 that the Oxford English Dictionary named post-truth as its word of the year, with the definition of “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The extensive sharing of fake news by private citizens led Collins Dictionary to choose “fake news” as its word of the year for 2017, meaning “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”

We are facing a nightmare scenario. For many years now, traditional gatekeepers for ensuring the veracity of public information—news media, civic leaders, authorities on various topics—have been trusted less and less. Social and digital media have only accelerated this trend, exemplifying the potential of technological disruption to undermine our democracy.

Fortunately, if we can create a mechanism that differentiates the liars from the truth-tellers, we have a hope of protecting our democracy. At the same time, tilting the scale toward truth requires addressing the psychological factors that cause people to tolerate untruths. Using research from behavioral science research about what causes people to lie and what motivates them to tell the truth, a number of behavioral scientists (including myself) and concerned citizens have launched the Pro-Truth Pledge at ProTruthPledge.org, which combines our knowledge of behavioral science with crowdsourcing to promote truth-oriented behavior.

The pledge is meant for both public figures and private citizens to sign. So far, thousands of private citizens across the globe and several hundred public figures and organizations signed it, including globally-known public intellectuals such as Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, Peter Singer and Michael Shermer. You might be especially surprised that many dozens of politicians have signed it as well.

The Pro-Truth Pledge incorporates 12 countermeasures to the psychological factors that foster misinformation. Signers pledge their earnest efforts to make it a practice to:

  • Verify: Fact-check information to confirm it is true before accepting and sharing it.
  • Balance: Share the whole truth, even if some aspects do not support your opinion.
  • Cite: Share your sources so that others can verify the information.
  • Clarify: Distinguish between your opinion and the facts.
  • Acknowledge when others share true information, even when you disagree with their point of view.
  • Reevaluate if your information is challenged, and retract it if you cannot verify it.
  • Defend others when they come under attack for sharing true information, even when you disagree with their point of view.
  • Align your opinions and your actions with true information.
  • Fix: Ask people to retract information that reliable sources have disproved, even if they are your friends or allies.
  • Educate: Compassionately inform those around you to stop using unreliable sources, even if these sources support your point of view.
  • Defer: Recognize the opinions of experts as more likely to be accurate when the facts are disputed.
  • Celebrate those who retract incorrect statements and update their beliefs based on the truth.

As a skeptic, you may already be doing everything described here, and if so, the Pro-Truth Pledge allows you to make a clear public statement while also calling on public figures to take the pledge. If you are not, now is your chance to commit to the kind of behaviors you would want our public figures to follow, and then challenge them to make this commitment along with you.

Because the pledge is to “earnest efforts,” it doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect in following all of these; just make a good-faith effort to adhere to these behaviors. The pledge does not address private speech, spiritual speech, or personal experience—only public discourse.

The pledge has teeth: it’s an opt-in, libertarian-style mechanism for holding each other accountable. Private citizens who signed the pledge have an opportunity to be advocates for the pledge if they sign up to help. One role of advocates is to hold other pledge-takers accountable for avoiding sharing misinformation, especially public figures. We have a clear evaluation and accountability mechanism, in which anyone can participate. Thus, for public figures, signing the pledge provides a marker of credibility, since they are being held accountable, in the same way that the Better Business Bureau provides a marker of credibility for ethical businesses.

The accountability mechanism works. For example, Michael Smith, a candidate for Congress, took the pledge. Some time later, he posted on his Facebook wall a screenshot of a tweet by Donald Trump criticizing minority and disabled children. After being called out on it, he went and searched Trump’s feed. He could not find the original tweet, and while Trump may have deleted it, the candidate edited his post to say, “Due to a Truth Pledge I have taken, I have to say I have not been able to verify this post.” He indicated that he would be more careful with future postings.

This is not a partisan project: there are plenty of honest public figures on all sides of the political divide, and both conservative and liberal politicians, media figures, and public intellectuals have taken the pledge. Something bigger is at stake: preventing the inevitable consequence of growing corruption and authoritarianism that follows from post-truth politics. The more people take the pledge—ordinary citizens like you, as well as politicians and journalists and civic leaders—the more impact the pledge will have. We talked to a number of politicians and other public figures who indicated the pledge is too burdensome for them to take now, and to come back when we have more people who went to ProTruthPledge.org and signed it. So when you sign the Pro-Truth Pledge, you know you are making a real difference in fighting against the lies and protecting our democracy from the scourge of lies.

Research on network effects shows that you powerfully impact the people in your social network, and as skeptics committed to reason, it is our responsibility to show skeptics in the best light possible. Taking the pledge, and sharing publicly about our commitment to the truth, will be a crucial signal to our social network about the positive role in our society that skeptics—that you and I—can play. The fake news and post-truth politics are a systemic problem, and without an intervention by everyone who cares about the truth, they will continue. So be part of the solution: go to ProTruthPledge.org and sign the pledge to fight against the lies and protect our democracy.

Take the Pro-Truth Pledge!

About the Author

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is Assistant Professor in the History Department along with the Decision Sciences Collaborative at Ohio State University. He is President and Co-Founder of Intentional Insights, a nonprofit advocating truth-seeking, rational thinking, and wise decision-making, and the co-founder of the Pro-Truth Pledge, an initiative to fight misinformation and advocate for truth.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Giving Tuesday: Support Science & Reason

Skeptic.com feed - Tue, 11/28/2017 - 10:50am
  • 25 Years Strong: Ensuring Sound Scientific Viewpoints Are Heard Worldwide.

November 28th is #GivingTuesday. Please download and read the letter from Executive Director, Michael Shermer, and support our mission by donating to the Skeptics Society, your 501(c)(3) non-profit science education organization. 25 YEARS STRONG Your ongoing patronage will help ensure that sound scientific viewpoints are heard worldwide.

2017 was another banner year for science, skepticism, and critical thinking. We celebrated our 25th anniversary with a spectacular event in New York City that featured our Executive Director Dr. Michael Shermer and a number of skeptical and scientific Internet celebrities including the ASAP Science guys, the science rapper Baba Brinkman, neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin, pop star Michael Posner, magician Prakash Puru, The Thinking Atheist podcast host Seth Andrews, and others. Thanks to your continuing support we are looking forward to 2018 and are pleased to tell you about some of the great success we have had with new projects launched in 2017. Click the button below to read the 4-page update from Michael Shermer, the Skeptics Society’s Executive Director.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Pseudoscience of Masaru Emoto

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 11/28/2017 - 5:05am

Masaru Emoto thinks that emotions can affect inanimate objects. If you are nice to water and then freeze it, it will make pretty happy crystals. If you are mean to water and then freeze it, it will make ugly unhappy crystals. He writes:

The result was that we always observed beautiful crystals after giving good words, playing good music, and showing, playing, or offering pure prayer to water. On the other hand, we observed disfigured crystals in the opposite situation.

I know – this is ridiculous. Why even bother? Scientific skeptics study pseudoscience for several reasons. What is interesting about Emoto’s research is not the research question he is pursuing (which has close to zero plausibility) but how he has managed to convince himself that his research supports his fantastical notion. Further, he has managed to convince (or at least intrigue) a large segment of the public that he is onto something, and so this presents an opportunity to teach the public about how science works and how we can distinguish it from pseudoscience. Finally, even serious science can fall prey to error and self-deception. Blatant pseudoscience is an excellent opportunity to see pathological science in the extreme, which helps us understand it better phenomenologically, and hopefully then avoid more subtle manifestations elsewhere.

I do want to emphasize that I have no problem with Emoto researching this question (as long as he is not wasting limited public research funds). Exploring seemingly wacky ideas may bear unforeseen fruit. The probability is low, but that is the nature of exploratory research. Fringe research is a good way to keep us on our toes, keep us from getting too complacent or narrow in our view. And very occasionally, we may just get surprised. Even if the hypothesis itself turns out to be hopelessly wrong, we may find something unexpected along the way.

What I do have a problem with, however, is doing bad or shoddy research in order to confirm a silly idea, and then claiming that the silly idea is scientific. That, in my opinion, is what Emoto is doing.

In case anyone is holding out that there is some mysterious plausibility to Emoto’s claims – there isn’t. He claims that simply writing negative words on a container of water is enough to change the physical properties of that water. Such a claim would require a fundamental change in our understanding of the basic forces of nature and how nature works. Simply appealing to the limits of human knowledge is not enough to rescue such a hypothesis.

While we don’t and can’t know everything, and must always leave the door open to new evidence and new ideas, we have accumulated a body of knowledge that we can use to evaluate new hypotheses. Essentially we can ask – is this alleged phenomenon compatible with what has already been established and does it require new physics? These are two distinct criteria. Simply requiring new phenomena in order for a hypothesis to be viable does make it less likely to be true, simply because we are venturing into the unknown. Most new ideas in science turn out to be wrong.

Far more damning, however, is when a new hypothesis would overturn a mountain of existing research. The larger the body of verified research that would need to be wrong in order for a hypothesis to be true, the greater the burden of proof for the new idea. So – I would not say that you could never convince me (that is not a scientific approach), but rather that the evidence for the new hypothesis has to be of a quality and quantity greater than the evidence that suggests the hypothesis must be wrong.

This is one of the primary ways that pseudoscientists go wrong – they put up an ant-hill and claim it disproves a mountain. When the scientific community is not impressed, they accuse them of being closed-minded or engaged in a conspiracy.

In order to maintain their claims they generally overestimate the magnitude of their own evidence, and are either ignorant or dismissive of the established evidence. Part of overestimating the value of their own research is ignorance of methodology and grossly underestimating the role of self-deception and bias in research.

For example, Emoto’s research is fairly universally criticized for poor methodology. He uses sample sizes that are too small, outcomes that are subjective, and methods that are insufficiently blinded. For this reason, his results do not stand up to replication when proper methods are used. He is engaged in the classic pseudoscientific process of starting with a conclusion and then seeking to prove that conclusion, rather than genuinely trying to prove his own hypothesis wrong.

To illustrate this, Emoto has expanded his research from water to rice. He fill jars with rice and adds water for the rice to absorb. He then leaves them for days to see how much mold and fungus they grow. Some jars of rice are exposed to positive emotions, some to negative emotions, and some are ignored. Unsurprisingly, he finds that the rice with positive emotions grows less fungus than the rice exposed to negative emotions.

And again – his methodology is not convincing. He uses a small sample size, his outcomes are open-ended, and his observations are not blinded. How long does he observe the rice? What does he consider a positive or negative outcome? How many times did he do the experiment before he liked the results?

Unsurprisingly, his experiment does not hold up to even basic replication. Grant Thompson repeated the experiment with a larger sample size, and his results were entirely negative.

The lessons here are basic to understanding scientific methodology. In order to avoid p-hacking (getting the results you want by tweaking the experiment) you need to use rigorous methods. Sample sizes need to be large enough to have statistical power. You need to determine before the experiment what the outcome measure will be, how long the observations will be, how may subjects there will be, and what kind of analysis you will make. You cannot make these decisions after you start to collect data, because then you can easily subconsciously p-hack the results.

Emoto gives us an extreme example of this. It shows that there is no hypothesis so ridiculous that you cannot p-hack your way to an apparently positive result. This is an important lesson for serious scientific researchers, to remain vigilant against more subtle manifestations of p-hacking.

All scientists and science enthusiasts should be students of pseudoscience.

 

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #599: Listener Feedback: Creationism and More Dead Paul

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 11/27/2017 - 4:00pm
Some updates, notes, and extra information sent in by listeners about recent episodes.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Renewed Antiscience Legislation

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 11/27/2017 - 5:03am

The fight over science in public education continues, and if anything picked up considerably in 2017. Earlier in the year Nature reported on various state laws designed to water down science education or allow for equal time to be given to unscientific views. They report:

Florida’s legislature approved a bill on 5 May that would enable residents to challenge what educators teach students. And two other states have already approved non-binding legislation this year urging teachers to embrace ‘academic freedom’ and present the full spectrum of views on evolution and climate change. This would give educators license to treat evolution and intelligent design as equally valid theories, or to present climate change as scientifically contentious.

New Mexico took a more direct approach – simply scrubbing “controversial” ideas from the state’s science standards. The standards no longer mention “evolution”, human contributions to climate change, or even mentioning the age of the Earth. This is not a back door approach – this is straight-up censorship of accepted scientific facts.

A new Florida bill also includes this problematic language:

Controversial theories and concepts must be taught in a factual, objective, and balanced manner.

This is part of the latest strategy. First, don’t mention any one theory (like evolution) by name. That is likely to trigger a constitutional challenge. Second, make the bill sound like it is promoting something positive, like academic freedom, democracy, or just being fair and balanced.

Being fair and balanced, of course, is not the point of these laws. The point is to provide a pretext or legal cover to challenge the teaching of evolution in science class, or to open the door to teaching creationism. The language may superficially sound benign, but this is the end result of decades of trial and error with the specific goal of weakening the teaching of evolution or inserting the teaching of specific religious views in the public science classroom. Context and history are necessary to understand the true purpose of these bills.

For example – who gets to determine what is “controversial?” And who gets to determine what is “balanced?”

How should science standards for public education be developed? Ideally there would be an apolitical process to develop a curriculum that reflects the current consensus of scientific opinion, is appropriate to each educational level, and is geared toward developing an understanding of how science works (not just the findings of science). This process should also be transparent, and will need to be constantly updated as science evolves.

This is already the process that is being used to develop science standards. Why, then, are any laws needed at all? The short answer is that they aren’t. All of these laws are being sponsored by people who are simply unhappy with the current consensus of scientific opinion. They confuse their personal political, religious, or ideological views with science and academia, or they simply don’t care. They want to teach their views, not the scientific consensus.

This is why such laws are often referred to as a “back door” approach. Essentially creationists have lost the argument in the scientific arena. They have failed to either cast doubt on the current scientific consensus regarding evolution, or to propose a viable alternative scientific theory. They lost, but they refuse to acknowledge it.

Since they cannot convince the scientific community of their views, they are trying to make an end-run around them and instead change science education through the legislative process. This is not an isolated case. It often happens that those who lose the intellectual struggle of logic and evidence try to have a second go in the legislature. They may, for example, pass laws that protect quack treatments that have failed in clinical trials.

Even if you happen to support a belief that is not currently accepted by science, you should not celebrate laws that are meant to subvert the normal scientific process. We should not be fighting over scientific ideas in the legislature. That is not the proper venue. You may win a short term battle there, and this will make you feel good for a while, but that would be a Pyrrhic victory. In general we should be wary of eroding the basic fabric of our society for such single-issue victories.

Scientific questions should be fought in the scientific literature, in academia, and in the marketplace of ideas. It should not be fought in the legislature.

We need to simply agree as a society that public school science education should reflect the current consensus of opinion of experts in science. Sure, we may start to introduce fringe ideas later in education as students mature, as a way of teaching them how the scientific process sorts out what is valid and what isn’t. But you cannot simultaneous teach how science works, and also fringe ideas that are not valid as if they were an equal alternative.

If you want your beliefs to be taught as science, first convince the scientific community that your beliefs are scientifically valid. If you can’t do that, well then maybe you should reconsider your beliefs.

The obvious counter to this position is that the scientific community is broken. This position quickly degenerates into a conspiracy theory – the last refuge of the intellectual scoundrel.

Categories: Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #646 - Nov 25 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 11/25/2017 - 8:00am
CSICon Special Recording, with Special Guest: George Hrab; Skeptical Ghost Stories; You Don't Know Me Bro; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

Evolution Observed in Darwin’s Finches

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 11/24/2017 - 4:55am

Just two weeks ago I wrote about “Evolution Caught in the Act” – I was writing about fossils that are clearly transitional and occur within a major evolutionary change, like a land animal adapting to aquatic life. Now we have another report that justifies the same title, although this one is in living species.

For this observation we go back to the beginning, to the Galapagos where Darwin made observations critical to his development of evolutionary theory. The Galapagos are a chain is relatively young volcanic islands, far enough from the mainland to provide relative isolation, but close enough for life to find its way there. Most famously, some ancestral finch species found its way to the island. Their descendants then adapted to a variety of food sources, most obvious in the change in beak size and shape, optimized for its new use.

What Darwin observed is that the Galapagos finches filled many of the same niches as other bird families in other parts of the world. He had to puzzle out why on the Galapagos all those niches were filled by finches. He figured out that they must be descended from an ancestral finch, which also means that they have speciated into a large number of different finch species as they adapted to different islands and different food sources.

Modern evolutionary scientists have also capitalized on the unique natural experiment represented by the Galapagos. They have been closely observing the finches for decades, and this has provided a massive set of direct data. All this work has paid off in the observation of a chance speciation event.

Scientists report that in 1981 they observed the arrival of a male cactus finch (Geospiza conirostris), a non-native species, to the island of Daphne Major. The relatively large male mated with native female members of Geospiza fortis, a medium ground finch. They produced fertile young. In the 36 years since the descendants have produced a stable and isolated population (now about 30 individuals) – researchers all calling this the big bird population.

Importantly, this big bird population has remained completely genetically isolated from native populations (called “endogamous” – mating only within a group). The big bird population are larger than the native ground finches, and this has enabled them to exploit a new food source. Further, the native females do not seem to recognize the song of the big bird males, and so do not mate with them.

The one critical ingredient for speciation is genetic isolation. However, this direct observation documents the fact that isolation does not have to be geographical. Genetic isolation can occur in species that exist in the same physical location – which is called “sympatry”. This would therefore be an example of sympatric speciation.

Once populations are genetically isolated there are a number of processes that can make them diverge over time. Simple genetic drift may be enough – random and non-directed changes in gene frequency with occasional new mutations thrown in.

However, if the populations are under different selective pressures they will also demonstrate directed changes over time. That is the case here, as the larger big bird finches are exploiting a new niche.

In this case the researchers were expecting that the immigrant bird and his offspring would simply be absorbed into the native population. This can introduce new genes into the population, but would not establish a new species. They were surprised to find that the population remained genetically isolated. The mating habits of the finches, however, made this possible.

This, of course, is just one case, but it adds to other examples of population changes in living species. This is now one of the best cases of a speciation event observed in real time in a living species. I also shows how quirky evolution can be. Random events, like the chance migration of a single male finch 65 miles to a nearby island, can trigger evolutionary change. Further, there are many things that can genetically isolate populations, and simple behavior is one of them. Even very similar and fertile species can be genetically isolated by behavior, such as mating song.

It is cool that almost two centuries later the finches of the Galapagos are still teaching scientists about evolution.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptic Six-Day Sale (25% Off, Now Thru Cyber Monday)

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 11/22/2017 - 12:00am

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25 YEARS STRONG Your ongoing patronage will help ensure that sound scientific viewpoints are heard worldwide.

2017 was another banner year for science, skepticism, and critical thinking. We celebrated our 25th anniversary with a spectacular event in New York City that featured our Executive Director Dr. Michael Shermer and a number of skeptical and scientific Internet celebrities including the ASAP Science guys, the science rapper Baba Brinkman, neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin, pop star Michael Posner, magician Prakash Puru, The Thinking Atheist podcast host Seth Andrews, and others. Thanks to your continuing support we are looking forward to 2018 and are pleased to tell you about some of the great success we have had with new projects launched in 2017. Click the button below to read the 4-page update from Michael Shermer, the Skeptics Society’s Executive Director.

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MAY WE SUGGEST these informative and in-depth issues…

Issue 6.1 (1998)

Science & Society

E.O. Wilson: Can We Unify All Knowledge?; Deconstructing James Van Praagh Talking to the Dead; Emily Rosa Tests Therapeutic Touch; The Ancient Evil Eye; James Randi on New Age Tech; Legalizing Fraud in the Name of Religion; Holocaust Revisionism; Stephen Hawking v. Frank Tipler; Skeptic’s Guide to the Drug Policy Debate; Objectivity in Journalism; Graduate Record Exam Fringe Science…

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Issue 6.4 (1998)

John F. Kennedy

JFK Facts and Fictions; JFK Case Still Open: Skepticism and the Assassination of JFK; JFK Assassination Science; James Randi on Dowsing; Steven T. Asma on Critical Thinking; The Case For and Against God: A Forum Exchange; The Lost World: of Jack Horner An Interview with the World’s Most Famous Dinosaur Digger; Anastasia: Miraculous Survival Myth; Aliens Among Us?; Psychic Math!; How to Fake UFO Photo…

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Issue 3.1 (1995)

Pseudomedicine

Life After False Memory Syndrome; The Mattoon Phantom Gasser Mass Hysteria; Why Should Skeptics Understand Religion?; Skeptical Perspectives: A Heretic-Scientist Among the Spiritualists; Homeopathy; Spiritual Belief Systems Try to Compete as Alternatives to Scientific Health Care; Therapeutic Touch; Leftist Science; Star Trek’s Meaning; Liquefying “Blood” …

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Issue 7.3 (1999)

Millennium Madness

A Critical Analysis of James Redfield and The Celestine Prophesy; Search for Immortality; The Alpha and the Omega The Creation and the End in Biblical Eschatology ; Celestine Prophesy; The Fire That Will Cleanse: Millennial Meanings and the End of the World ; That’s All Folks! It’s the End of the World … Again; Apocalypse Never The Search for Immortality as Millennial Phenomena; Myth and Science; Political Extremism; Autopsy Aliens…

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Issue 4.1 (1996)

Evolutionary Psychology

Quadro Tracker Dowsing Stick, Tested; Jehovah’s Witnesses/End of World; Physics; McIver Guide to Evolutionary Psychology/Nature of Human Nature; Salter Evolutionary Psychology as Protoscience; Critical Analysis of Evolutionary Psychology; Interview: Stephen Jay Gould; Gould’s Dangerous Idea: Contingency/Necessity/Nature of History; Reviews: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea; The Origin of Satan; The Final Superstition…

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Issue 1.4 (1992)

Witches, Heretics & Scientists

Special Section: The Price of Intolerance; Spirits, Witches & Science: Why the Rise of Science Encouraged Belief in the Supernatural in 17th-Century England; Ideological Immune System: Resistance to New Ideas in Science; Psychology of Resistance to the Heretical-Science of Copernicus; Edgar Cayce Foundation Responds to a Skeptical Critique and we reply; It’s Baaack: The Nature-Nurture Debate…

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Issue 5.1 (1997)

Environmental Science

Ecologists vs. Economists: A Quick & Dirty Guide to the Environmental Debate: Is Environmental Science polluted by Politics?; The Beautiful People Myth; Population Risk Assesment; The Not-So-Wise-Use Movement; Julian Simon Slams Eco-Crybabies; Top Scientists’ Eco-warning; Fred Crews on Modern American Witch Hunters; Ancient Astro-NOTS; Murky Origins of Hale-Bopp UFO Fiasco; Human Magnets; Dowsing; Futurists…

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Issue 7.2 (1999)

Cloning & Genetic Engineering

Cloning Science & Ethics; Science’s Moral Limits; How Evolution Increases Information in the Genome; Group Selection & Origins of Evil; Historical Perspective on Theology & Evolutionary Psychology; Urban Legends; Hawking Expanding Universe Trick; Deconstructing JFK: Assassination Debate Continues; De-Population Myths; Is Anybody Out There?; Freethinkers, Fundamentalists, Fake Quotes …

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Issue 3.2 (1995)

AIDS

Does HIV Really Cause AIDS? A Case Study in Skepticism Taken Too Far; AIDS Part I: The Skeptics and Their Claims; Part II: How Skepticism Went Astray; Part III Lessons on How Science Works; An interview with the author of The Bell Curve, Charles Murray; Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin, and the Resolution of a Scientific Priority Dispute; The Question All Skeptics are Asking: Why Did God Make Rice Cakes?…

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Issue 18.2 (2013)

Gender Differences

What Science Says and Why it’s Mostly Wrong; Gender and the Paranormal; What Science Says About the Soul; Interview with Controversial Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon; Is Earth’s Magnetic Field Reversal Dangerous?; Scientology Self Help Handbook; Can We Trust Science Media Reports?; Why The Universe Exists; Skeptics in Film; Witchcraft Ceremony; Junior Skeptic: Alien Invaders!…

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Issue 7.1 (1999)

The Game of Influence

The Game of Influence: Understanding the Hidden Dynamics of Communication; Selection for Credulity A Biologist’s View of Belief; Legitimatizing Psychology’s Prodigal Son: Re-considering Hypnosis for the 21st Century; How the Public Relations Industry Compromises Democracy; The Knowledge Filter Reality Must Take Precedence in the Search for Truth…

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Issue 1.2 (1992)

Cryonics: Can Science Cheat Death?

Can Science Cheat Death?; Technical Aspects; The Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Dead: History of Resuscitation; Basic Q&A on Cryonics from Alcor Life Extension Foundation; Physicist in the White House?; Black Holes; Acupuncturists and Chiropractors Fined; Secular Alcohol Treatment; Laws of Robotics; Establishing a Miracle; Use & Abuse of Statistics in the “Real World”…

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Issue 21.4 (2016)

Deception in Cancer Treatment

Deceptive Cancer-care Industry Marketing; Amityville Hoax at 40; Alien Skulls?; Meaning Behind the Nazca Geoglyphs; Clown Sightings Rattle Nerves; Case for a Galactic Defense System; Is “Spirituality” Meaningless?; Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?; One of the Most Fundamental Sources of Error in Human Judgment; Thinking Critically about Public Discourse; Anti-Aging Claims…

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Issue 21.4 (2016)

Boston Bombing Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy in Boston: Disentangling Boston Marathon Bombing Conspiracy Theories; Miracle of Large Numbers Explains Seemingly Miraculous Events; Reasons for Hope in the Science of Artificial Intelligence; Faith Healing Tragedies; The Science of Memory and the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen Case; Photographing Phantoms; Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States; Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey…

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Below, you’ll find a few books we recommend for your library. These also make great gifts!

AUTOGRAPHED HARDCOVER, 1st EDITION How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom

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Praise for the book

A thrilling and fascinating book, which could change your view of human history and human destiny.

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In these cynical times, where right and left foresee disaster and despair (albeit for different reasons), Shermer’s monumental opus, spanning centuries, nations, and cultures, is bound to provoke debate and open minds.

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Shermer’s thought-provoking, multidisciplinary book will engage anyone who wishes to understand rationalism as a force for morality.

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Dense with facts, convincing arguments, and curious statistics, this is an ingenious collection of light entertainment for readers who believe that explaining stuff is a good idea.

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Shermer makes a strong case for the value of the scientific endeavor and the power of rational thinking in 75 brief essays…. Each entry is insightful, informative, and entertaining.

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Michael Shermer is a beacon of reason in an ocean of irrationailty.

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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. Paranormal belief is alive and well in American. Donald Prothero and Tim Callahan explore why such demonstrably false beliefs thrive despite decades of education and scientific debunking. Employing the standards of scientific evidence, the authors discuss the reliability of eyewitness testimony, and the psychology of belief and conspiratorial thinking.

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In this New York Times Bestseller (and a definitive work on religion), Daniel Dennett (one of the “Four Horsemen” and a world-famous philosopher) asks: Is religion a product of blind evolutionary instinct or rational choice? Is it truly the best way to live a moral life? Ranging through biology, history, and psychology, Dennett charts religion’s evolution from “wild” folk belief to “domesticated” dogma.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

How Wikipedia Tackles Fringe Nonsense

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 11/21/2017 - 5:03am

Wikipedia is an interesting experiment in amateur crowdsourcing of information. I think it is a massively successful experiment, but it faces specific challenges. This page on Wikipedia discusses their approach to what information they allow to remain in their pages. They have a number of policies and practices that are meant to act as a quality control filter.

In my opinion they have settled upon a reasonable approach that might even be used as a model in other contexts. They begin with a completely open model – anyone can become a contributor and add information to Wikipedia. This is the crowdsourcing angle – many hands make light work. There are currently approximately 5,505,947 articles on the English language version of wikipedia. Wikipedia was founded on January 15, 2001, so that is almost 17 years. It is hard to imaging creating a reference with that much information by any other method in that much time.

So the wiki model is ideal for quantity, but what about quality. From the beginning there were concerns about the quality of the information – if anyone can post information, how can we know how accurate it is? A 2008 study comparing Wikipedia to other references for historical articles found Wikipedia to have an 80% accuracy rating, compared to 95-96% for other references. However, a 2005 Nature study of science entries found that Wikipedia was almost as good as Brittanica online – with no differences in major errors, and with an average of 4 errors total per article for Wikipedia, and 3 per article for Brittanica.

There haven’t been many studies since then, but a 2012 small follow up study found no significant difference between Wikipedia and other sources. Wikipedia has tightened its editorial policies over that time, so the improvement makes sense.

What are Wikipedia’s quality control policies? They require information to have independent verifiable references. Further, they maintain a stance of neutrality toward controversies. They see this as appropriate for a standard reference. It is not their job to debate information or to give a soapbox to every fringe view, but to be a general reference for consensus scholarship.

These filters are absolutely essential for any open source project like this. One primary reason, as they have learned first hand, is that enthusiasm is not always proportional to quality. In other words, advocates of fringe ideas are likely to have a great deal of energy in promoting their views. They feel that they are in a beleaguered minority and have to promote their view against the tide of mainstream opinion. Wikipedia, without filters, is set up to give disproportionate attention to a vocal minority. The filters are necessary to make sure the information in Wikipedia reflects the balance of information and opinion, not just the enthusiasm of its advocates.

Wikipedia admits, however, that its filters are not currently adequate:

This maneuvering and filibustering is soon likely to exhaust the patience of any reasonable person who naturally prefers not to reason with the unreasonable, and who, unlike the advocate, has no special interest or passion other than striving to maintain neutrality. Additionally, by continually engaging fringe advocates in endless argument, you run the risk of turning Wikipedia into a battleground or a debating society. At the present time, Wikipedia does not have an effective means to address superficially polite but tendentious, long-term, fringe advocacy. Some contend that this is a main flaw of Wikipedia; that unlike conventional encyclopedias, fanatics (no matter how amateur or idiotic) can always get their way if they stay around long enough and make enough edits and reversions. [3] In this sense, Wikipedia’s ‘commitment to amateurism’ does not always work for the best interests of the project.

What I find particularly interesting is that the Wikipedia experience is a microcosm of a free society in general, and not just with social media. In a free and democratic society everyone has a voice, and everyone is equal. However, information is not equal. There can be dramatic differences in quality of scholarship, and those differences matter.

Shouldn’t the free marketplace of ideas sort it all out, though? In my opinion, yes and no. A marketplace is not a neutral void, it is a system with its own rules and forces at work. The feedback mechanisms will tend to lead toward certain outcomes, but those outcomes are not necessarily optimized for the general good of society.

For example, within a marketplace subjective value is placed on certain things, qualities, or services. The relative value of the various components of the marketplace will have a large effect on outcomes, which may have very negative long term unintended consequences.

That is essentially what the Wikipedia editors are saying – the open system by itself favors enthusiasm over quality, and that may not optimally achieve the goals of creating the best general information reference. The Wikipedia editors have therefore come to the same conclusion with their experiment that society has come to with the centuries long experiment with capitalism – the free market is powerful and should be leveraged, but we need to monitor the effects of market forces and tweak the rules to mitigate unintended consequences.

To take the broadest view – systems can have either top-down or bottom-up processes. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. A pure top down system is slow, cumbersome, and oppressive. It is well-controlled, but will get there slowly. A pure bottom-up process is chaotic and easy to exploit. It is fast, but you can’t really control where it’s going.

As with so many things in this world, the best option seems to be a balance between the two, and that is what Wikipedia rapidly evolved towards (and is still evolving). They have successfully leveraged the power of a bottom-up crowdsourced system. But they quickly found they had to add some top-down editorial filters to keep Wikipedia from becoming a constant brawling mess.

Another comparison worth making is the approach to information in Wikipedia and our educational system. Wikipedia correctly perceives their roles as documented the consensus of human scholarship. What things can we claim to know with reasonable confidence, based on some operational rules of transparency and independence? Wikipedia is not the place to debate new or fringe ideas, but to simply reflect those ideas which have already gained a sufficient acknowledgement among appropriate scholars.

That is the exact approach I think public schools should take. They exist to teach consensus scholarship, not give equal time to every fringe idea. Where schools differ is that they are not just a reference of information for students, but also exist to teach students how to think, how to study, and how to be scholars. For that reason students may need to be exposed to fringe ideas, to teach about them and how to evaluate them, but not to teach them as facts or as legitimate alternatives to mainstream scholarship.

For those who espouse fringe ideas, if they want to promote them and to elevate their fringe ideas into the mainstream, there are places to do that. They have to do the hard work of scholarship and convince academics of the value of their ideas. That is a different marketplace of ideas with its own rules.

What happens, however, is that fringe ideas fail in the marketplace of academia and science, and some proponents of those failed ideas then try to create a second life in the public marketplace which has different and often more permissive rules. They try to game Wikipedia, journalists, or the educational system, or they simply market their ideas in books or online.

That is why there needs to be additional rules for good journalism, or for projects like Wikipedia in order to prevent such end-runs around proper scholarship.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #598: The Hudson Valley UFO Mystery

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 11/20/2017 - 4:00pm
Hundreds of people watched this UFO over the Hudson River Valley many times between 1983 and 1984.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Moon Landing Hoax – Again

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 11/20/2017 - 4:56am

James Randi has often observed that paranormal beliefs are like “unsinkable rubber duckies.” No matter how many times they are knocked down, they just keep popping back up. That’s because they are not based on facts or logic, but motivated reasoning serving some deeper cultural or emotional need. You can counter them with facts, but that is not addressing the real reason for their existence.

Conspiracy theories are the same. There is a variety of motivations behind them, having nothing to do with the truth. They result partly from hyperactive pattern recognition and agency detection, serving a need for certainty, feeling special, and defending existing narratives from refutation. A well-tended conspiracy theory is like impenetrable armor that can turn away any fact.

The notion that the US never really went to the moon, and that the entire Apollo program was staged for some reason is one such conspiracy theory. Those who promote the moon landing hoax conspiracy theory depend largely on anomaly hunting – looking for anything that they cannot immediately explain, or that looks odd, and then proclaiming that it is evidence for a hoax. So far every one of their alleged anomalies has been shot down.

They claim, for example, that the lighting in photographs from the moon’s surface is uneven, proving stage lighting. Actually, the opposite is true. The unevenness of the shadows is from the unevenness of the surface of the moon itself. But properly analyzed, the photos show that the lighting is, in fact, parallel. This indicates a distant light source, like the sun. To duplicate this effect on earth, while simultaneously duplicating the lack of diffusion (no atmosphere) would have required many bright white lasers, technology that simply did not exist back then. (Lasers were expensive and only available in red.)

So ironically, what the moon hoax conspiracy theorists end up proving is that the moon landing could not possibly have been faked and was therefore real.

All other objections have similarly been dealt with. The movement of the flag was not due to wind, but just inertia (again, no atmosphere to dampen the oscillations). The movement of the astronauts and objects could not be duplicated by simply slowing down the film. Further, you can examine the dust thrown up by the moon rover and show that the thousands of dust particles are moving in moon gravity without an atmosphere.

As many people have pointed out, duplicating all this on Earth would have been more difficult and more expensive than simply going to the moon.

Conspiracy theorists are also good at “just asking questions.” Why can’t we see the moon landing sights with our orbiters? Well, we can. The  Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has captured stunning pictures of the Apollo landing sites, even showing the footprints of the astronauts and matching records of their missions. Of course this, like all evidence, is easily dismissed by conspiracy theorists as fake and part of the conspiracy (impenetrable armor).

Now we have another claim of evidence of a moon landing hoax, of similar quality to all previous claims. Youtuber, Streetcap1, claims to see a stage hand in the reflection in a visor taken during the Apollo 17 mission. This is another great example of anomaly hunting, looking for anything superficially unusual rather than putting evidence into an appropriate context. You can see the picture above, and go to the link for the video which zooms in further.

With regard to the image of the figure in the visor, it is, essentially, blobsquatch. In other words, it is a blurry image at the limit of identifiable detail. It is enough to be suggestive but not definitive – like most photos of alleged ghosts, bigfoots, and Loch Ness monsters. Some photos are identifiable as fakes, and so might be clear, but mostly they are blobs that a motivated imagination can turn into the cryptozoological creature of choice.

In this case the figure is completely compatible with simply being another astronaut in a space suit. That is, by far, the simplest explanation. But it is blurry and distorted enough that you can imagine, if you are so disposed, a stage hand with long hair and a vest, and not wearing a space suit.

Ironically, as with the other alleged lines of evidence presented by the conspiracy theorists, if anything this is just more evidence against a hoax. Look at the entire reflection in the visor, which is essentially presenting the reverse view of the scene. You will notice the absence of any lighting, cameras, or any of the people necessary to pull of staging that photo on Earth. What would that one lonely “stage hand” be doing just standing there in the middle of the set, anyway?

This is often when many conspiracy claims fall apart, because they require simultaneously that the people pulling off the hoax are brilliant, powerful, and have impeccable attention to detail and yet also are incredibly stupid and careless. So, you would need to believe that they constructed a set of the moon’s surface, impeccably lighted, with simulated regolith, and constructed in such a way that a reflection in the visor does not reveal any cameras or equipment. Meanwhile, one stage hand stands right in the middle of the set while the photo is being taken, and the photo is released without anyone noticing.

It also reveals what often happens when you engage in enthusiastic anomaly hunting – the conspiracy explanation actually causes more and larger anomalies than the one it apparently explains. If you hypothesize that the photo is staged in order to explain the figure in the reflection, that hypothesis causes the bigger problem of why there isn’t cameras and other equipment in the reflection.

When trying to figure out the best explanation it is necessary to consider all evidence and all competing hypotheses to determine which one is most compatible with that evidence. All conspiracy theorists have to do, however, is cast doubt and ask questions. They are not really trying to put forward a coherent theory that stands up to scrutiny. They are just trying to cast doubt on the official explanation, and then declare that there must be a conspiracy. This is similar to science denial, like various forms of creationism. They don’t have to prove a coherent theory of creation, just cast doubt on evolutionary theory and then declare victory.

This latest bit of “evidence” is no different than all the other bits put forward to support a moon hoax theory. It is worthless, and if anything is just more evidence that the moon landing was genuine. That will not stop it from being added to the canon of moon hoax lore.

Categories: Skeptic

15 Credibility Street #29: Amateur Hour

The Doubtful News Feed - Sun, 11/19/2017 - 4:55pm
Trump nominates Brett Talley, an unqualified lawyer and former paranormal investigator, for Federal Court in Alabama. Being a former ghost hunter is the least of his problems. Bigfoot gets another “official” name: Kryptopithecus gimlinpattersonorum. What does this all mean? Can you name a species from a photo? Yes. A classic case of taxonomic vandalism: Raymond…
Categories: Skeptic

15 Credibility Street #29: Amateur Hour

The Doubtful News Feed - Sun, 11/19/2017 - 4:55pm
Trump nominates Brett Talley, an unqualified lawyer and former paranormal investigator, for Federal Court in Alabama. Being a former ghost hunter is the least of his problems. Bigfoot gets another “official” name: Kryptopithecus gimlinpattersonorum. What does this all mean? Can you name a species from a photo? Yes. A classic case of taxonomic vandalism: Raymond…
Categories: Skeptic

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