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Updated: 21 hours 39 min ago

Space Policy Directive 1 – Return to the Moon

Tue, 12/12/2017 - 5:00am

Yesterday President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1 (SPD1), an executive order that will shape NASAs priorities going forward. Essentially the directive states that NASA’s primary mission is human space exploration, with a specific goal of returning to the moon.

The Directive is the result of recommendations made by the National Space Council (NSC) – a council of experts that advises the executive branch on all matters dealing with space. According to NASA, in June of this year:

President Trump has signed an executive order reestablishing the National Space Council. The council existed previously from 1989-1993, and a version of it also existed as the National Aeronautics and Space Council from 1958-1973. As such, the council has guided NASA from our earliest days and can help us achieve the many ambitious milestones we are striving for today.

The NSC recommended to the White House that NASA’s priority should be the Moon, and SPD1 is the result of that recommendation.

I think the core vision for SPD1 is solid, and something I have supported for years. Specifically, our human exploration priority should be establishing an Earth-to-Moon infrastructure, including a permanent presence on the moon. We should only set our sights on Mars after we have a stable moon base. There are several reasons for this.

First, colonizing the moon is much easier than Mars. The moon is three days away from Earth, while Mars is 9 or more months. We don’t even have the technology at this point to protect martian astronauts from the radiation they would be exposed to on the trip. Going to Mars is a logistical and technological problem perhaps an order of magnitude more difficult than going to the Moon.

Being close to Earth also means that resupply and rescue missions would be much more feasible. If something goes awry on Mars, good luck to you. Don’t expect help anytime soon. For a moon base, however, we could theoretically have a rocket on standby, something that could launch within a week, and be on the moon in another three days.

All of the main issues we would confront on a Mars colony would also exist on a moon colony, and so once we developed the knowledge and technology to have a self-sustaining base on the moon, we could use that knowledge to then build bases and colonies on Mars. A moon base would need proper shielding, an energy source, and sources of food, water, and oxygen.

We are currently eyeing possible lava tubes as locations for permanent bases on the moon.  These are caves carved out by ancient lava. They could be geologically stable locations under ground, which would provide natural shielding from radiation and micrometeors. The same is true on Mars.

So walk before you run. It is likely hubris and folly to set our sights on Mars when the moon is much closer and more feasible.

But further – the moon could be a stepping stone to Mars. A trip to Mars could have two stages. The first is getting to a way station on the moon. This will get you largely out of the gravity well of Earth. You can also optimize ships and other infrastructure for getting from the Earth to the moon, and then have a separate infrastructure for getting from the moon to Mars or elsewhere.

SPD1 mentions a Deep Space Gateway – this is a station that would be in lunar orbit. The Gateway would be the transfer point to Mars and other distant destination in the solar system. NASA describes how this might work:

“This spacecraft would be a reusable vehicle that uses electric and chemical propulsion and would be specifically designed for crewed missions to destinations such as Mars,” agency officials said. “The transport would take crew out to their destination [and] return them back to the gateway, where it can be serviced and sent out again.”

One advantage to this kind of system is that you don’t have to lift all the fuel it takes to get to Mars with you out of Earth’s gravity. You just need the fuel to get to the Moon, and then take a separate ship to Mars. This all comes from the rocket equation – you need enough fuel to carry the fuel to carry the fuel, etc. So making one big trip with all the fuel is inherently inefficient. Any way we can break it up into stages, or refuel along the way, is highly useful.

Ideally we would produce the fuel on the moon, which is entirely possible. NASA is already working on ways to extract oxygen, water, and volatiles from the lunar regolith.

The new directive also has a loser, however. It ends NASA’s goal of sending a mission to an asteroid – the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). This is unfortunate. Asteroids are also a potentially very useful resource. Developing the technology to mine asteroids could have a massive economic impact on our planet. Asteroids could be a source of fuel, water, oxygen, and enough metals to dwarf existing supplies of gold, platinum, and other precious metals.

While I know we can’t do everything, and we need to have priorities, I do lament the missions we must forgo. Of course, I would much rather see just a net increase in our investments in space. I think these are likely to be worthwhile investments which will pay for themselves many times over in the long run.

But there is another aspect to SPD1 that is encouraging – in addition to establishing NASA’s goals, the directive discusses optimizing how NASA will collaborate with the growing private space industry. I am perhaps even more encouraged by the development of private space companies in the last decade than by any NASA directive. Once we cross the line where going to space can be profitable, then space exploration will really take off.

There is, for example, a company called Planetary Resources, Inc. Their goal is to mine the solar system. If they manage to get their hands on one asteroid with platinum group metals, they will potentially net trillions of dollars. That is a big risk, but also a huge potential payoff. We may see a future with space mining corporations more wealthy and powerful than most nations.

I did not see any mention in the coverage of SPD1 of robotic exploration. I presume that NASA will continue this core mission as well. Robots are still the most efficient way to explore space. While I support human exploration and colonization, I recognize that humans are fragile. We are not built for space. Keeping people alive and healthy in space is a major part of the expense of human space travel. I still think it is a worthy endeavor for our species.

But we should ride on the backs of our robotic servants. Robots don’t need food, water, oxygen, or atmospheric pressure, and are much more tolerant of a wide range of temperature and exposure to radiation. If we just want to send a pair of eyes to a location to explore, robots are the way to go. Robots can even pave the way for our travel to new locations, like Mars. Let them do all the hard and dangerous work, and create an infrastructure for us to inhabit.

Overall I think the SPD1 is a good thing. I like that it shifts the focus away from Mars and towards the moon. That puts things in its proper order. I would much rather have a successful moon mission, that establishes a long term lunar presence, then a one-off or failed Mars mission.

Categories: Skeptic

Goop Nonsense – Yes It Matters

Mon, 12/11/2017 - 4:35am

Paltrow has defended her “lifestyle brand” by saying that they are just giving women choices, and being open. Nonsense – don’t be swayed by such distractions.

I unapologetically support reason and scholarship as critical values for human civilization. This is increasingly true as our world gets more complex, as the stakes get higher, the margins for error lower, and as our culture and economy are increasingly global.

We cannot get by just shooting from the hip. We need people with specific expertise who transparently follow a process that is logically valid and based on evidence. We need standards of scholarship and intellectual rigor that are up to the challenges we face. We also need to make this work within an open and democratic society, where public opinion matters.

What all this means is that it is more important than ever to have a well-educated public, and for our public discourse to respect standards of honesty and excellence. It matters if people understand and accept what experts have to say about vaccine safety and effectiveness, the evidence base for manmade climate change, the safety of GMOs, and the nature of health and disease.

But there is not just a quality control issue here. There are people and institutions who have vested interests in opposing transparent scholarship and standards. They may be motivated by ideology, tribalism, a misguided worldview, or simple greed. They may even think they are the good guys, and that the ends justify the means.

That is perhaps the most insidious belief infecting our culture today – that as long as your intentions are pure (or pure enough) then methods don’t matter. Your team are the good guys, and the other side are the bad guys, so do whatever it takes. In a recent speech President Trump made this attitude very clear:

“There are powerful forces in Washington trying to sabotage our movement. These are bad people, these are very, very bad and evil people. . . . But you know what, we’re stopping them. You’re seeing that right now.”

Getting back to Goop – this brand is the embodiment of abandoning standards, method, and evidence. There is nothing benign about this, and it should be viewed in the larger context of our society. Paltrow and her people have abandoned any pretense of science-based quality control in order to sell an image. In doing so, they make all of their customers victims.

They further attack their critics as biased, closed-minded attention whores. They are essentially selling a narrative – one of empowerment. Don’t worry about the scientific details or such trivialities as evidence – their products will make you feel empowered.

As evidence for where the forgoing standards leads, at the upcoming Goop conference one keynote speaker will be Kelly Brogan, who is an HIV denier. As Orac reports:

In her post, Brogan approvingly cites HIV/AIDS denialist Celia Farber’s claims about HIV/AIDS:

This fact would be less concerning if this trial was not the foundation of empirical treatment of pregnant women around the world with a medication so toxic, it kills mother and their unborn. She raises questions about assumptions we have come to believe are truths –

That HIV is a meaningful diagnosis (she references the false positive testing likelihood in pregnancy, the unstandardized lab standards from country to country, and the abandonment of even those criteria in Africa where an HIV diagnosis can be conferred based on symptoms like malaise and diarrhea alone).

That HIV causes AIDS (a syndrome of 25 illnesses that does not satisfy Koch’s postulates of infectious disease).

That drug toxicity associated with AIDS treatment may very well be what accounts for the majority of deaths.

Farber also references the role of vitamin A in reducing HIV transmission, if we are to accept the clinical relevance of this concern, and how unacknowledged the role of nutrition is in infectious disease – stating that before the discovery of niacin and vitamin C, pellagra and scurvy were thought to be contagious.

Brogan is also anti-vaccine. From Brogan’s website, and article on vaccines states:

Will you grant government bureaucrats carte blanche to define and ultimately direct the education and welfare of your children across a broad spectrum of issues, and to allow your children to be taken away if you do not comply?

Yes, that’s exactly what this is about.

This is precisely the point. If we don’t treat this critically important decision as the intensely private affair that it is, then we co-create a culture in which it’s legitimate, then appropriate, and ultimately imperative for others — bureaucrats, doctors, schools, employers, reporters, neighbors — to ask and then tell us what we must think and do.

The message is clear – don’t trust experts, everything is a personal choice, the most important thing is to empower yourself and answer to no one.

Paltrow may think she is harnessing this attitude just to sell jade eggs women can put up their vagina, or magic stickers that will give you good vibrations, but she is also reinforcing and promoting a pernicious anti-intellectualism that is eroding our society.

Unlike Trump, I don’t think this is a struggle largely between good people and “bad evil” people. I think this is largely a struggle among various narratives, where most people think they are on the good side (which is whatever narrative they have bought into). There are also some bad people out there exploiting the whole situation and making it worse (there always is), but that is not the core phenomenon.

Humans are tribal by nature. We also tend to organize our understanding of the world around stories and narratives. This naturally leads to a situation in which everyone picks a side, buys into that narrative, and then sees the world through that filter. It is now easier than ever to ensconce ourselves in echochambers that reinforce our tribal narratives, and disparage everyone else as “fake,” as “trolls,” and as “very bad and evil people.”

The way to rise above our tribal nature is through objective facts, legitimate scholarship, and valid logic. In other words – there needs to be some objective external standard against which ideas are tested, and conflicts resolved. Without this we will devolve into our warring factions, with no mechanism for common ground.

So yes, the fact that Goop sells magic stickers does matter. Of course they are not responsible for the woes of our society, they are just one tiny manifestation of it. But as I think we have learned recently, tolerating nonsense, anti-science, and sloppy thinking tends to normalize those very things. Then it becomes easier to accept them in more important and bigger contexts. The little lies set you up to accept the bigger lies.

This is similar to the process of falling into an abusive relationship. Looked at from the outside you might be tempted to think – how can anyone let someone else treat them that way? But the victims in those relationships felt the same way. At first they accepted small abuses, they excused them, and normalized them. The abuses then became larger and larger, and the excuses grew with them. Eventually the victims get into a situation they never would have accepted previously.

We can’t allow the small anti-intellectual abuses to normalize anti-intellectualism. Yes, it matters when people believe in ghosts or Bigfoot because in order to maintain that belief they have to abuse scientific thinking and philosophy. It matters if they buy what Goop is selling, which is not really stickers or jade eggs but an anti-intellectual narrative that pretends to be about freedom.

It is not by accident that the Goop conference is hosting someone who is anti-vaccine and an HIV denier. When you suspend intellectual rigor in order to sell magic stickers that is where you inevitably lead.

Categories: Skeptic

In Half a Second

Fri, 12/08/2017 - 5:04am

If you have not yet read Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, I recommend it. I have discussed its basic principles here many times, and I am reminded of it by a new study that evaluates how we quickly size-up groups of people.

Before we get to the study, here is a quick overview. Kahneman and Tversky did the foundational research into cognitive biases and heuristics – ways in which our thinking is biased or constrained. Kahneman calls this system 1 thinking, or intuitive thinking, which is the fast sort. There is also system 2 thinking, which is slow and analytical.

He admits that these are metaphors, there probably isn’t two distinct biological systems in our brains, but they help us think about the different ways in which we think. Actually, given that our brains are hierarchical, the two-system model may be based in biology to some extent. There are the primitive older parts of our brain that are more system 1 – instinctive, emotional, and fast. Then there is the neocortex – which gives us executive function, and slow deliberative decision-making. I don’t think you can make a clean separation, but it is a useful schematic that is probably more true than not.

In any case, the two systems work together to shape our perceptions and decision-making. The idea is that we evolved rapid-response cognitive systems that makes quick and dirty judgments that are accurate enough and biased in whatever direction favors survival. We can then follow up these quick perceptions with more careful analysis when we have time.

But also, we are fundamentally lazy, which we can less judgmentally characterize as being efficient. We seem to always be looking for ways to minimize our cognitive work. So we rely on system 1 automatic thinking probably more than we should. We also have a tendency to substitute easy problems for more difficult ones.

For example, we have a left number bias. There actually is a reason that items cost $19.99 instead of $20.00. We know rationally that the penny difference is insignificant, but we don’t spend the mental energy to think about it. We have a tendency to substitute a simpler algorithm – how big is the left most digit, for the slightly more involved task of analyzing the entire number. $19.99 feels smaller than $20.00. This is a reasonable short cut, if numbers are random, but the short cut is easily exploited by crafting prices that end in all 9s.

Perception of Groups

With that background, let’s take a look at a new paper published in Social Psychological and Personality Science called, “Threat in the Company of Men: Ensemble Perception and Threat Evaluations of Groups Varying in Sex Ratio.”

Previous research has found that people can very quickly determine what general category another person belongs to – male, female, race, and age. We can also very quickly (less than a second) determine someone’s emotional state – are they happy or angry.

This makes sense from a survival point of view. An angry young adult male is likely to be more of a threat than a happy old woman. We can almost instantly make that determination, and then dedicate more resources to further evaluating the threat represented by the angry young male. Are they armed, are they looking at me, are they alone?

This is also interesting because perception research has shown that sometimes the age, sex, and race of a person is all we really perceive about them. You can see videos demonstrating this online. About half the time, if you switch one person for another during a casual social interaction, the subject won’t notice the change. The probability of detecting the change in person goes up if you change age category, sex, or race.

What this may reflect is that we don’t notice the change if there is no change in perceived threat category.

The new study extends this research to groups. They had subjects quickly view pictures of groups of people and then asked them various things. They asked them to estimate the ratio of men to women, and to evaluate how threatening the group was. The researchers also measured indirect implicit markers of threat perception.

They found that in 500 ms, half a second, subjects were able to accurately perceive the male:female ratio of groups. This ratio also was the main factor in determining their assessment of how threatening the group was. The total number of males was also a factor.

What this suggests is that our system 1 easy problem that our brains use to rapidly assess potential threat of a group is how many men does the group contain in total and what is the ratio of men to women. We can get this information in a flash.

And again, it is easy to make sense of this in terms of survival advantage. Primate war parties generally consist of all males. If you come across a group of 20 males, they are probably up to no good. A mixed group of half females, however, is probably not going to war or hunting, but may just be a traveling social group.

Of course this is not always true – that’s the point. It is just true enough to lead to a quick 500 ms snap impression that will alert us to a potential threat. We can then take a closer look (from a hidden vantage point, perhaps) to more thoroughly evaluate the potential threat.

By coincidence I happen to be watching Godless – an excellent miniseries, by the way. This takes place in the old West and in part follows the exploits of an outlaw band of thirty men. The premise of the show is that the West at this time was a very dangerous place. Any time strangers meet they immediately suspected danger and were extremely cautious, and their assumptions were usually warranted.

In several scenes characters come across the band of 30 outlaws, and the show does an excellent job of creating the impression of how intimidating and threatening such a group would be. I definitely noticed watching this show how as a viewer you start to size up groups of people to determine if the characters you are following are being threatened, and you can see how any large group of men is immediately suspect. Even when they are the good guys, they are menacing until proven otherwise. Likewise the presence of women in the group is reassuring.

I also notice that the presence of young children in large groups is also very reassuring, although this was not examined in the current study. This research could also be extended to include the age of the people in the groups, and also their racial makeup.

Beyond just being fascinating, research like this elucidates how our brains function. This knowledge can then be turned inward – to tweak the relationship between system 1 and system 2 thinking to maximal utility. Ideally we would extract the advantage of making rapid assessments, but know how and when to back them up with analytical thinking, and avoid succumbing to lazy thinking.




Categories: Skeptic

Alternative Medicine Kills

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 4:57am

If the best available evidence is used to determine which treatment strategy for a serious illness has the best survival, than any “alternative” to this evidence-based treatment should, by definition, have a lower survival.

That is a simple and straightforward fact. You have to believe in some twisted conspiracy theory to avoid the obvious conclusion.

But good scientists like to dot all their “i”s and cross all their “t”s. In August Yale researchers published a study in which they looked carefully at the outcomes of cancer patients treated with conventional treatments vs those who opted for so-called alternative treatments. They only considered patient who used alternative treatments instead of proven treatments.

What they found was not surprising, but should be sobering:

Following 2:1 matching (CCT = 560 patients and AM = 280 patients) on Cox proportional hazards regression, AM use was independently associated with greater risk of death compared with CCT overall (hazard ratio [HR] = 2.50, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.88 to 3.27) and in subgroups with breast (HR = 5.68, 95% CI = 3.22 to 10.04), lung (HR = 2.17, 95% CI = 1.42 to 3.32), and colorectal cancer (HR = 4.57, 95% CI = 1.66 to 12.61).

To translate – all the subjects in the study who used alternative medicine to treat their cancer had a 2.5 times higher death rate over a five year follow up. Those subjects with breast cancer had 5.68 times higher death rate, and colorectal cancer 4.57 times.

As was suspected, breast cancer had the most stark outcome. If you have breast cancer and you use the best standard treatment you are likely to survive. If you use alternative medicine you are likely to die.

As the authors point out, this was an observational study. They controlled for as many variables as they could, and the most plausible interpretation is that avoiding standard cancer treatment in favor of useless alternative treatments is what caused the higher risk of death. But other factors cannot be ruled out.

Why, then, would any rational person choose alternative medicine to treat their cancer? Here I think the answer is simple – because they have been lied to by quacks and charlatans. Patients facing a serious, possibly terminal, cancer diagnosis are vulnerable. They are understandably frightened and concerned. There are no great options before them – they have to face the consequences of the cancer, and/or they have to face invasive treatments with some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and radiation.

Then along comes a friendly practitioner who says there is a third option – gentle “alternative ” treatments that will cure the cancer without all the horrible side effects. It is an escape hatch from a terrible situation. Further, alternative gurus have their marketing down. They know which buttons to push, and how to sell their narrative. They have answers to the reasonable questions anyone should ask. If the alternative treatments are so safe and effective, why isn’t everyone using it? Well, because doctors are in the pocket of Big Pharma who just want to protect their drug profits. They are closed-minded to real healing and only know drugs and surgery.

They have a narrative that has evolved and been tweaked over centuries to lure in desperate patients with false promises. They use testimonials which any marketer can tell you is very effective, but utterly worthless as real evidence. Dead patients tell no tales. Some will pretend to be scientific, without ever doing any real science – it’s all just part of the marketing.

At this point you might be wondering why we allow people to treat cancer with unproven therapies. Well, they have a strategy for that to – they call it “health care freedom.” They have managed to convince enough people that patients have a right to whatever treatment they want, but really what the gurus are interested in is their right to sell whatever treatment they want with whatever claims they want. They want the right to practice fraudulent medicine without any standard of care. It is the ultimate con.

Any cancer doctor can tell you stories of patients with curable cancers who instead opted for alternative treatments and as a result dies a horrible unnecessary death. It is good to now have some numbers to put on this phenomenon. This study, however, did not capture the negative effect of delaying treatment – it only counted people who never received conventional treatment. So the harm of false hope from fake cancer treatments is greater than even what this study revealed. And of course there are many more diseases out there than just cancer.

Our goal should be to have reasonable standards of care so that patients are offered the best treatments available, with full transparency and autonomy. That means we use rigorous evidence to ask all the important questions that will inform patient choices. Further, it is blatantly unethical, and should be illegal, to lie to patients in order to give them false hope in order to lure them away from proven therapies in favor of magic water and other fraudulent treatments.

In practice, however, it isn’t, because all you have to do is label whatever nonsense you are selling as “alternative” and suddenly it’s all good. Academia and the medical profession are not working hard enough to correct this situation. Our politicians have no clue what is going on, and there simply isn’t the political will to do anything. Studies like this are a good start to help turn around public opinion, but we are working against a multi-billion dollar alternative medicine industry with effective lobbying and marketing.

They have managed to flip the script, and sell a narrative in which they are the heroes, when in fact they are the villains. They are literally killing their patients for profit.

Categories: Skeptic

Plastic Waste

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 5:09am

I know, there are already so many things to worry about. It’s almost painful to hear about one more way in which we may be harming the world. Such reports are also often couched in emotional and dramatic terms.

However, it’s important to sift through the rhetoric and evaluate what the science says about what is actually going on. There is increasing reporting about the coming plastic apocalypse. We are dumping massive amounts of plastic into the environment, and some of that plastic is winding up in the world’s oceans. The world produced 343 million tons of plastic in 2014. Only 10% of that plastic was recycled. In total we have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, which does not biodegrade for hundreds of years.

The fact is, human civilization is big enough that we have to think about the effects of our massive industry. Producing that much plastic will likely have an impact on the environment. The biggest impact may be the percentage that winds up in the oceans – about 10%. Once there is just breaks down into smaller and smaller bits. Many animals accidentally eat the plastic, which can be fatal.

The good news is there are simple and effective ways to manage our plastic waste. The number one plastic polluter is China –  almost 9 million metric tons of their plastic ends up on the ocean each year. The next country is Indonesia, with just over 3 million metric tons, followed by the Philippines, at just under two. The USA ranks 20th with less than 300 thousand million metric tons.

You may have noticed that there are countries with far bigger economies than Indonesia who produce far less plastic waste ending up in the ocean. The US still has the largest economy in the world (24%) with China second at 14.8%. So with a larger economy we dump 1/30th the plastic into the ocean as China.

This means that it is possible to properly manage our plastic waste. While the world average for recycling plastic is about 10%, the US is 28%. There is still a lot of room for improvement. But we also keep a larger portion of that plastic from getting into the ocean.

So what do we do? At the very least we need to bring all countries in line with average plastic management. The worst polluters need to make significant changes to the way they handle plastic, and that alone would make a dramatic improvement. That’s the low-hanging fruit.

But every country can do better. Recycling rates should be much higher. This is mainly about making it easy to recycle.

Companies can also evaluate what plastic they produce as part of their products and packaging, and consider ways to limit plastic and use more biodegradable materials.

There are lots of little things individuals can do as well. I actually find it easier to shop with large reusable bags, rather than carrying small plastic bags or fragile paper bags. That’s a win-win. I have also switched from using disposable plastic water bottles to a reusable water bottle. This ends up saving money – so again, a win-win.

Plastic is an extremely useful material. It is cost effective and practical for many applications. I’m not arguing that we should stop using it altogether. But it does have the feature of remaining in the environment for a long time, and findings its way into the ocean. So we just need to use it intelligently, to minimize waste down to a sustainable level.

We don’t need any major innovation or change in our economy. This problem is actually not that hard to fix, just by picking the low-hanging fruit.


Categories: Skeptic

The Causes of Science Denial

Mon, 12/04/2017 - 5:09am

Over the last few decades the challenges we face promoting science and critical thinking have become greater, but so have the tools at our disposal. The “science of anti-science” has been progressing nicely, and we now have a much more nuanced view of what we are up against.

Carl Sagan was fond of saying that, “Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood.” That was the conventional wisdom among skeptics at the time (quote from Demon Haunted World, published in 1997) – that the problem of pseudoscience or science-denial was essentially one of information deficit. Correct the deficit, and the science-denial goes away. We now know that the real situation is far more complex.

To reduce the acceptance of pseudoscience or the rejection of real science, we need to do more than just promote scientific literacy. We also need to understand what is driving the pseudoscience, and we need to give critical thinking skills.

A recent publication of a series of studies looking at the roots of science rejection is a nice cap on this research: Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection.

The researchers looked primarily at three forms of rejection of science: climate change denial, vaccine rejection, and skepticism about GM technology. They also looked at a number of possible correlating factors: political ideology, moral purity, religiosity, support for science, faith in science, and scientific literacy.

There are a lot of details here, and if you want to delve in deeply it’s best to just read the original study (it’s pretty accessible). I will give a summary of the overall findings here.

They found that climate change denial was predicted mainly by political ideology, but not by low scientific literacy. Vaccine rejection was predicted by low scientific literacy and low faith in science, and also by religiosity and moral purity. Distrust of GM food was predicted by low scientific literacy and low faith in science. Neither vaccine or GM food rejection were predicted by political ideology.

Further, there was a lot of interplay among these various measures. For example, religious orthodoxy was the main driver of low faith in science and support for science.

One lesson from all this is that belief is very complicated, and it is difficult to tease apart all the various influences. A study, for example, that only looked at political ideology and science rejection would miss a massive part of the picture. We also have to consider direct vs secondary effects – does religious orthodoxy directly lead to rejection of vaccines, or more through a desire for moral purity and an overall lack of faith in science?

We also have to think about what factors this study did not examine. I noticed the distinct absence of any measure of conspiracy thinking. There is plenty of evidence that a tendency to accept conspiracy theories also predicts rejection of science in the right context. I would also be interested to see how faith in government and corporations also plays into science rejection, and if these are independent variables at all or completely predicted by political ideology.

The possible permutations are endless. The best we can do is pull out some general trends as they apply to specific beliefs. For example, these studies suggest that scientific literacy itself will do nothing to combat rejection of the consensus of scientific opinion on climate change, but it may be very effective in reducing unwarranted skepticism toward GM technology, and go a little ways toward mitigating vaccine rejection.

Here is one way I would put this all together – we have to understand acceptance and rejection of science as part of an overall narrative. People have a certain world view, or narrative by which they make sense of an overwhelmingly complex world. This is understandable, even necessary. We need to organize our knowledge into manageable bits that hold together with a common thread.

The trick is understanding one’s own narratives and how they color and filter the world. Further, we need critical thinking skills in order to constantly test our narratives for internal consistency, logic, and factual consistency with reality. We need to be able to step back from our own narratives, so that we can use them as a tool, rather than being enslaved to them.

So one way to make sense of all the complex interacting variables, only some of which were examined in these studies, is to see how they fit together into a common narrative, or more likely multiple overlapping narratives. We might think of these as archetypes (or less charitably as stereotypes). For example we might have someone whose narrative is dominated by the notion of purity – moral purity, clean eating, freedom from corporate greed and the moral and physical “toxins” of modern society. There may be religious and secular versions of this narrative, with varying levels of scientific literacy, but not aligned to any particular political ideology.

Alternatively another archetypal narrative might be the conspiracy theorist – someone with an extreme distrust of power, who themselves feel powerless, who understand the world as a struggle between those in control and the sheep. In such a worldview, the only defense is paranoia and distrust, and anything less is naive.

Part of what we skeptics have been trying to do over the years is identify and understand the various common narratives that seem to get in the way of science acceptance or that drive the embrace of pseudoscience. While I think we have made good progress there, the far harder part is then mitigating the negative effects of those narratives. Again – simply promoting scientific literacy is not enough (although it often helps).

In fact there is recent research which shows in order to change someone’s beliefs about science we need to replace their existing explanatory narrative with another one. We can’t just take away their blanket – we need to give them a new way to make sense of the world.

What I take from all this is that what skeptical activists need to do, in order to make the world a more skeptical place, is to not only promote science, support for science, and overall scientific literacy, but all increase critical thinking skills. Further, we need to promote a narrative of scientific skepticism – we need to explain how skepticism provides a useful and accurate way of making sense of the world.

This means that people need to identify as critical thinkers, to identify with prioritizing the accuracy of their beliefs over all else. Being correct is more important than supporting your tribe, or reinforcing your ideology. Until we get to that point – we will lose to the existing narratives.

Categories: Skeptic

Liberation Procedure for Multiple Sclerosis – The Final Chapter?

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

Semi-Synthetic Life With Expanded Genetic Code

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

The Pseudoscience of Masaru Emoto

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

Renewed Antiscience Legislation

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

Evolution Observed in Darwin’s Finches

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

How Wikipedia Tackles Fringe Nonsense

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

The Moon Landing Hoax – Again

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

The Ethics of Head Transplants

Fri, 11/17/2017 - 4:43am

Newsweek, who has been following the story of Italian Neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, now reports: “Human Head Transplants Are About to Happen in China: But Where Are the Bodies Coming From?”

I have already discussed the scientific aspects of this claim. They are highly implausible and I doubt that such a transplant is about to happen at all. If it does I predict it will be a dismal failure, and ethically dubious. First, I have to reiterate, that it is far more accurate to call such a procedure a body transplant. The head donor will wake up with a new body. The body donor is, I suspect, dead.

There are three basic hurdles that need to be overcome in order to have a successful body transplant – the surgical attachment, suppression of rejection, and regeneration of the attached neurological tissue. Given that Canavero is a surgeon, I suspect he is excited about the first issue. He may think he has made some advances because he improved his technique for making the attachment. This was never, however, the primary hurdle.

We are already making great advances with organ transplantation and controlling rejection. However, this is still a huge issue. Donor and recipient have to be closely matched, and lifelong drugs are required. Still, the amount of tissue being transplanted here will be a challenge. It opens up, for the first time, the possible effects of tissue rejection on an entire brain. While this is a significant hurdle, our current treatments mean it is not necessarily a deal breaker (it might be, but research would be needed to see).

The real deal breaker here is the third issue – getting the neurological tissue to regenerate, specifically the spinal cord and various nerves. If you cannot get the head and body to communicate through the spinal cord, you will be essentially creating a quadraplegic – the body recipient will be entirely paralyzed and need to be on a ventilator.

Canavero is claiming that he has farmed out this research to another team, who have made such progress that he can proceed with a transplant. To say I find that hard to believe is an understatement. Such an advance would be truly enormous. There are research teams around the world working on spinal cord regeneration with modest progress – so how has Canavero’s mystery team left them all in the dust, without leaving a paper trail behind in the published literature?

Further, if Canavero’s team has solved the spinal cord regeneration problem (they haven’t, but just hypothetically) using that technology for a body transplant would be ridiculous. How about using it to help the half a million people who suffer a spinal cord injury each year? So either they are lying, or they are holding out such a technology, with is ethically monstrous.

Why China?

Canavero was unable to continue with his research in Italy, so now has moved to China where he claims to have the support of the Chinese government, and further claims he plans to proceed with the first “head transplant” next month. But why China? Newsweek speculates:

It is our suspicion that the authorities in China supporting this procedure are doing so wagering that a successful transplant will demonstrate to the world the dazzling level of technological achievement in the country. Perhaps it will. At a minimum, this procedure reveals that Chinese authorities believe there is no cost too high for raising China’s profile on the world stage.

But it also reveals something else that we think is important: cultural values determine what kinds of scientific research happens and where it happens.

If true, I predict their gamble will backfire. They are essentially backing a crank with impossible claims, and doing so does not make them look like they have advanced technology. Rather, it makes them look gullible and backward. They may think it’s worth the gamble, however. If it fails, that failure will mainly be ignored or discussed on the fringe. If it succeeds, they will stun the world. They will also likely distance themselves from any failure, but fully embrace any success.

Newsweek also brings up another issue. Where are the bodies coming from? China does not have a specific definition of death, and is not in line with the Western world on this issue. This is critical for organ donation. A donor needs to be officially dead, and proper consent had to have been given, either by the donor prior to death, or by their family.

Overall China does not have a great reputation for medical ethics and regulation. This is why they are a major center for fraudulent stem cell clinics, for example. There is potentially much overlap here. Chinese stem cell clinics, selling dubious treatments without proper published evidence to back them up, and without proper transparency, are presented by China as evidence that they are on the cutting edge. In reality they exist to lure desperate Westerners in for fake treatments costing tens of thousands of dollars. Perhaps China is looking to expand into the body transplant market.

In fact China is becoming a center for high tech medical quackery, which makes them a perfect fit for Canavero. I suspect this will play out like other dubious claims of technological advancement (like free energy) – delay, excuse, unsubstantiated claims of success, followed by evasion, then further excuses. Along the way someone will be conned out of money somewhere.

Categories: Skeptic

John Oliver Nails Trump

Thu, 11/16/2017 - 5:10am

In the season finale of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver reviews Trump’s assault on truth and decency. If you haven’t been watching this show, you should give it a try. Not only is it funny and entertaining, but on each episode Oliver does a deep dive on something in our society that is not right and can be fixed. His researchers generally do a great job, and I also think Oliver does a good job of not being gratuitously partisan.

His season-long attacks on Trump may not make it seem that way, but I don’t think they are partisan. I also try to keep my personal politics out of my science advocacy, but I think the problems with Trump transcend politics, ideology, and party. In this last episode for the season, Oliver reviews why this is true.

The real problem with Trump is not that he is Republican or conservative – actually you could argue that he is barely either of those things. It’s not even necessarily that he is an anti-establishment populist who wants to shake things up. The real danger of Trump is that he is an anti-intellectual who has been waging war against journalism, expertise, decency, standards, and any notion of objectivity.

For Trump the only thing that appears to matter is the current struggle in which he is engaged – he needs to achieve what he perceives as victory over any adversary, at any cost. Being honest and respecting knowledge and accuracy doesn’t seem to factor in at all.

As a result Trump is willing to sacrifice the basic fabric that is necessary for a functional democracy. He seems to view democratic checks and balances as nothing but an annoyance and obstacle, so eroding that fabric is just another win for him.

Many people, including many conservatives who have not caved to the insanity, have enumerated the numerous ways in which Trump erodes the shared norms on which our society depends. Oliver’s break down may not be the only way to do it, but it is as good as any. He highlights three strategies Trump uses to erode those standards. Actually, I think referring to anything Trump does as a “strategy” is giving him too much credit. These, rather, are the habits that Trump has adopted which have the effect of undermining our society.

The first is to delegitimize the media. Of course, news outlets are not without fault. They have their own biases and are rife with quality-control issues. Half of what I do on this blog is correct bad reporting about science. But the way to deal with this is to call them on their errors and bias, but in a way that respects the institution and vital role of journalism itself.

Trump doesn’t do this. He attacks entire news organization as “fake news.” The term “fake news” has become a shield against anything Trump doesn’t like or finds inconvenient. When news organization reveal legitimate information, or ask the kind of questions they should be asking of a world leader, Trump’s response is to delegitimize them, denounce them as fake, and even flirt with the idea of banning them from the press room, delicensing them, or “opening up the libel laws” so he can more effectively threaten them.

At the same time he promotes the one news outlet that is essentially functioning as a propaganda arm of the White House. It is clear that Trump would love to have one state media that tow his party line, and ban all other media who would challenge him on anything.

The second method Trump and his defenders use is diversion and distraction, what Oliver calls “whataboutism.” Skeptics will recognize this strategy as the tu quoque logical fallacy – defending one action by pointing to someone else who is engaged in something similar. This is only legitimate to the extent that it points out actual hypocrisy, but it is not a defense of ethically wrong behavior, flawed logic, or bad evidence. The recent allegations about Moore are a great example. Moore is accused, now by multiple women, and supported by accusations that he was banned from a local mall for cruising high school girls, that he had relations with teenage girls, at least one of which was underage. The defense? Well, what about Bill Clinton? Even if you accept as true that Democrats hypocritically gave Clinton a pass on his behavior, that does nothing to excuse Moore’s alleged behavior.

Whataboutism is part of a larger strategy of diversion – to distract from the actual issues with irrelevant dog whistles and appeals to emotion and tribalism. On countless occasions over the last two years I have been in conversations with Trump supporters, asked them about a specific policy point or failing of Trump, and their response was, “What about Hillary Clinton?” They still do it, even though she lost and is now politically irrelevant. The demonization of Hillary was so much a part of their support of Trump, they simply can’t let it go. Trump can’t let it go – he wants to use the Justice Department to punish his political opponent and continue the demonization. It is a convenient distraction whenever anyone has concerns about his blatant incompetence.

Finally, Oliver points out that Trump is essentially a troll. He is the first troll president, who won election by literally trolling his opponents and the media. By troll it is meant that Trump says things not to put forward a serious argument, based in logic and fact, but to have an emotional effect. He does it to upset anyone he perceives as an opponent or obstacle. He even does it to allies, just to keep them in their place.

This provides deniability to anything Trump says. He can never be held to a specific position, because he is generally incoherent. How many times has Trump said something outrageous. Then the media and the public are left scratching their head – it sounds like Trump just said he thinks Neonazis are OK. Did he really just say that? Then his spokespeople take to the airwaves to reinterpret what Trump said, and when Trump is confronted he gives vague and incoherent responses that just muddy the waters even further.

Watching one of his people on talk shows gives me a flashback of reading 1984. It is all newspeak and double talk. Deny, distract, divert, confuse. For anyone who cares about being precise and accurate in communication, it is a nightmare.

The scary thing is that Trump is affecting the baseline norm for society, not just for himself. His behavior is metastasizing. I actually don’t think Trump originated this behavior. Much of it has always been around to some degree, and has been greatly increased by social media. I think Trump is just a social media troll who inherited a marketable name and a lot of money. He found out how to troll his way into politics, at a vulnerable time when we are is social transition.

But he is exacerbating the problem by orders of magnitude. There is an optimistic view, however. Trump is shining a bright light on all the problems with trolling, fake news, and anti-intellectualism. He is also too incompetent to take maximal advantage of his position. I can only hope this will limit the damage he is doing. But hopefully the attention he is bringing to the problem will lead to a backlash, and a rededication to the norms of respect for truth, transparency, and scholarship that are necessary for a functional democracy.

Categories: Skeptic

Fact-checking on Facebook

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 4:55am

Last year Facebook announced that it was partnering with several outside news agencies, the Associated Press, Snopes, ABC News, PolitiFact and, to fact-check popular news articles and then provide a warning label for those articles on Facebook. How is that effort working out?

According to a recent survey, not so well. Yale researchers Rand and Pennycook found only tiny effects overall, and it’s possible there is a net negative effect from the warning labels. Some people just ignore the labels. Perhaps more significant, however, is the fact that fake news articles that were missed by the fact-checkers were more likely to be believed as real because they lacked the warning label. The fact-checkers could not possibly keep up with all the fake news, so they were overwhelmed and most of the dubious content not only made it through the filters, but benefited from a false implication of legitimacy.

Further, the Guardian reports that this arrangement between Facebook and these news outlets compromise the ability of those news outlets from being a proper watchdog on Facebook itself. If their journalists are being paid by Facebook to fact-check, then they have a conflict of interest when reporting on how Facebook is doing. This conflict is exacerbated by the fact that news organizations are hard-up for income, and could really use the extra income from Facebook.

So it seems that the fact-checking efforts of Facebook were insufficient to have any really benefit, and may have even backfired. Warning labels on dubious news articles may be the wrong approach. It’s simply too easy to foil this protection by overwhelming the system. You could even deliberately flood Facebook with outrageously fake news stories to serve as flack and provide cover for the propaganda you really want to get through. In the end the propaganda will be even more effective.

The inherent problem seems to stem from the difference between a pre-publication editorial filter and a post-publication filter. Traditional journalism has editors and standards, at least in theory, that require vetting and fact-checking prior to a story being published. Outlets had an incentive to provide quality control in order to protect their reputation.

Of course tabloids also have a long history. They take a different strategy – abandoning any pretense to journalistic integrity, and simply spreading outrageous rumors or fabricated “infotainment.” At least it was relatively easy to tell the difference between a mainstream news outlet and a tabloid rag, although there is more of a spectrum with the lines blurred in the middle.

No one would seriously claim that this system was perfect. News organizations have their editorial biases, and they had a lot of control over what became news. Biases tended to average out over many outlets, however. The big concern was over consolidation in the media industry, giving too much power to too few corporations.

Social media has now upended this system. There is now, effectively, no pre-publication editorial filter. The infrastructure necessary to own and operate a news outlet is negligible, and social media creates a fairly level playing field. It is an interesting giant social experiment, and I don’t think we fully know the results.

What this means is that ideas spread through social media mostly according to their appeal, rather than due to any executive decisions made by gatekeepers. There are still power brokers – people who have managed to build a popular site and have the ability to dramatically increase the spread of a particular news item. That, now, is the name of the game – clicks, followers, and likes. This equals power to spread the kind of memes and news items that will generate more clicks, followers, and likes.

The free-market incentive, therefore, is for click-bait, not necessarily vetted quality news. Quality is still a factor, and will give an article a certain amount of clicks. My perception is that there are multiple layers of information on social media. There are subcultures that will promote and spread items that appeal to them. They may appeal to them because they are high-quality, or because they are genuinely entertaining. Or they may appeal because they cater to a particular echochamber or ideology.

So, if you love science, you can find quality outlets for science news and analysis. Within these subcommunities, quality may actually be a benefit and the cream does rise to the top.

But sitting on top of these relatively small subcommunities is the massive general populace, which rewards memes and clickbait. That is the realm of fake news and cat videos – entertaining fluff and outrageous tabloid nonsense. This realm is also easily exploited by those with an agenda wishing to spread propaganda – click-bait with a purpose.

Facebook, as the major medium for this layer of fake news, now faces a dilemma. How can and should they deal with it? The outsourced fact-checkers strategy is, if the recent survey is accurate, a relative failure. So now what?

I feel we can do better than to just throw up our hands and let this new system play itself out. Sometimes market forces lead to short term advantages but long term doom. Can our democracy function without a well-informed electorate? Can our electorate be well-informed in an age of fake-news? The entire situation is made worse by the fact that the very concept of fake news is used to further spread propaganda, to delegitimize actual journalism and dismiss any inconvenient facts.

Can we properly function as a society if we don’t at least have a shared understanding of reality, at least to the point that there are some basic facts we can agree on? Recent history does not fill me with confidence.

I don’t have the solution, but I do think that the large social media outlets should take the problem seriously and continue to experiment. Overall I think we need to find the proper balance between democracy of information, transparency, and quality control. Right now the balance has shifted all the way toward democracy, with a massive sacrifice of transparency and quality control. I don’t think this is sustainable.

There are, of course, things we can do as individuals – such as supporting serious journalism, and not spreading click-bait online. Everyone needs to be more skeptical, and to vet news items more carefully, especially before spreading them to others. But this is a band-aid. This is like addressing the obesity crisis by telling everyone to eat less and exercise.

We need systemic change. It’s an interesting problem, but there are certainly ways to at least improve the situation.

Categories: Skeptic

Raccoons Are Smart But Not Good Pets

Mon, 11/13/2017 - 4:54am

Animal intelligence is fascinating for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it forces researchers to think carefully about what intelligence is. The comparison might also provide a window into what constitutes human intelligence in particular.

There is no question that humans have intellectual capabilities that no other species has. However, some animals are smarter in certain ways than you may imagine. Certain birds, like corvids (jays and crows) have demonstrated significant problem solving capability, for example. Researchers are also finding that raccoons may be even smarter than we suspected.

One paradigm of animal intelligence research is known as the Aesop’s Fable test, based on the the story of the thirsty crow. In this tale a thirsty crow came upon a tall pitcher with water at the bottom, but it could not reach down the long neck to the water. So it dropped stones in the pitcher to raise the water level until it could reach. This behavior demonstrates creative problem-solving and some basic understanding of cause and effect. Corvids have the ability to pass this test – they can figure out how to use objects to raise the water level to gain access to water or food.

A recent study performed the same test on raccoons. They were given access to a long tube with marhmallows floating lower down, too low for them to reach. First they were shown how dropping stones would raise the water level. Two of eight raccoons tests were then able to use this effect to gain access to the marshmallows. Statistically this is not as good a performance as corvids, but at least some raccoons are smart enough to pass the test.

One additional raccoon gained access to the marshmallows, however. They figured out how to grip the top of the tube and then rock back and forth to know the tube over. The researchers had specifically designed the tube so it could not be knocked over, but the raccoons essentially broke the apparatus. This is interesting because it shows that animals may have particular skills or predilections that they will use to their advantage. Knocking over the tube was a very “raccoon” solution.

The researchers also went further. In a follow up experiment they exposed the raccoons to the same setup and gave them access to floating and sinking balls. The sinking balls would raise the water level, while the floating ones were “non-functional” – or so the researchers thought. Again the two smart raccoons performed well, and they figured out that by dropping floating balls on the water they could then push them down, splashing water and marshmallow up along the sides of the tube, and thereby gaining access to the food. One raccoon figured out how to spin the floating ball to bring up marshmallow clinging to it.

So some of the raccoons solved the test, but not in the way the researchers intended. They demonstrated creative problem solving.

Other researchers are interested in how raccoons are adapting to human civilization. Most people in rural or suburban areas will have experience with raccoons. Raccoons also live in cities, but you may be less likely to see them.  They have learned that humans are a great source of food, if you can figure out how to break into their containers. Raccoons are also fairly dexterous, and can break into most things if there is food to be had.

Researchers have compared urban and rural raccoons, and found that urban raccoons have better trash-can opening skills. When confronted with unfamiliar containers, they are more confident and successful in figuring out how to get passed any obstacles. When tracked with GPS city raccoons can be seen avoiding high-traffic streets, and taking safer paths to their destination.

Two questions remain – is the increased intelligence of city raccoons only a result of learning, or is there some evolution going on. Raccoon populations have increased significantly in the passed 80 years, and they are increasingly moving into human-occupied areas, including cities. This suggests that they are adapting to human civilization.

This phenomenon may be similar to what is believed to have happened with dogs. They started living on the edge of human populations, taking advantage of the scraps humans leave behind. Those better able to interact with the humans had a survival advantage. In this way dogs may have already been partly domesticated before humans started breeding them.

So, are raccoons adapting to humans in the same way? Are they becoming not only more clever, but domesticated? If so, how long will this process take? Further, will raccoons split into two species, the wild raccoon and the domesticated raccoon, similar to wolves and dogs?

It seems likely that raccoons will respond to the massively changing environment represented by human civilization. They already seem to be flourishing and adapting. The question is, what niche will they find? They will not necessarily take the same path as dogs or cats. Perhaps they will just become better thieves, increasing not only their cleverness but their stealth.

We may have a clue to the future of raccoon in modern day experience with raccoons as exotic pets. Because they can be adorable, some people may think it would be cool to have a raccoon pet, but veterinarians warn that they make terrible pets.

First, they need constant supervision. They are very good at destroying things, and if you ever left them alone in your house they would cause significant damage. Caging them is not an option as it is cruel to cage a wild animal and that will just stress them out. Raccoons respond to stress by biting. They also cannot be house-trained, and so will relieve themselves anywhere. Essentially, they would be nightmare pets.

But what if they were truly domesticated? Are these inconvenient behaviors part of being wild, or are they just core to being a raccoon? Is getting into trouble and destroying things part of the raccoon personality that would not be solved simply by domesticating them?

It is interesting to think about the future of raccoons. They are clearly one species doing well in the increasingly urbanized world. They are smart and dexterous, do not really fear humans, and are usually not dangerous (unless they have rabies or you provoke them into biting you). How far with their adaptation go? Will we see a future of super smart or fully domesticated raccoons? It’s not unlikely.




Categories: Skeptic

Glyphosate Not Associated with Cancer

Fri, 11/10/2017 - 4:54am

In March of 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO) published their assessment on glyphosate, Monsanto’s popular weedkiller, classifying it as 2a – a probable carcinogen. This was like red meat to the anti-GMO crowd, and even sparked class action suits against Monsanto and may lead to banning use of the chemical in the EU.

There were significant problems with the IARC report, however. First – it is at odds with every other expert review of the scientific literature on glyphosate. I review the evidence here, citing many expert panel reviews, all conclude that the evidence does not support a link between glyphosate and risk of cancer. The IARC conclusion is a clear outlier, which reasonably prompts questions as to why their designation stands out.

We also need to put the IARC classification of 2a – probable carcinogen, into context. This is the same classification that the IARC gave to drinking hot beverages or eating red meat. Overall they tend to err on the side of caution when making their classification.

But there were problems that go beyond where the IARC sets their threshold for “probable.” Two main criticisms have emerged. The first is the lack of transparency. Reuters has published a series of articles on the issue, outlining, for example, that when the EPA reviewed the safety of glyphosate they also published a 1300 + page document that outlines the entire deliberative process. The IARC produced no such document.

Further, Reuters was able to obtain copies of the draft report and shows that the final report differs in significant ways. They found 10 major changes or omissions from the draft to the final copy, every one in the direction of emphasizing the risks of glyphosate. It is not known who made these edits, and the IARC responded by essentially instructing their scientists not to discuss the confidential deliberative process.

Far more important, however, is the accusation that the lead IARC scientist knew of unpublished data (because he was involved in the research) that showed no correlation between glyphosate and cancer, but this data was not considered in the review. So the lead scientist excluded his own data from the final analysis.

That data has now been published. 

The study comes from the Agricultural Health Study. Here are the results:

Among 54 251 applicators, 44 932 (82.8%) used glyphosate, including 5779 incident cancer cases (79.3% of all cases). In unlagged analyses, glyphosate was not statistically significantly associated with cancer at any site. However, among applicators in the highest exposure quartile, there was an increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) compared with never users (RR = 2.44, 95% CI = 0.94 to 6.32, Ptrend = .11), though this association was not statistically significant. Results for AML were similar with a five-year (RRQuartile 4 = 2.32, 95% CI = 0.98 to 5.51, Ptrend = .07) and 20-year exposure lag (RRTertile 3 = 2.04, 95% CI = 1.05 to 3.97, Ptrend = .04).

This is the best and largest set of data to date, and it was negative. The possible association with AML requires further discussion, as I am confident it will be seized on by those with an anti-glyphosate agenda. First and most importantly, this association was not statistically significant. This means it is almost certainly noise in the data. Give the number of possible correlations being examined, non-significant possible correlations are almost inevitable.

There are two other reasons to think this association is noise – there was no difference between the 5 year and 20 year exposure lag. If this were a true cause and effect, we would expect the lag time to matter. Even more significant, however, is the fact that previous possible correlations were between glyphosate and non-Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL). That is the association that led to the IARC classification. There was no association with NHL is this data, just a non-significant association with AML. This is exactly what we expect to find with random noise – different correlations in different sets of data. Such correlations don’t mean anything until they are replicated in an independent set of data.

So the bottom line is that this large data set is essentially negative regarding any association between glyphosate and cancer. If the IARC had taken this data into consideration it may have (and it seems should have) changed their conclusions. They knew about this data, but chose to ignore it.

The issue of glyphosate is controversial because it has become a focal point for an ideologically struggle. For the anti-GMO movement it is the poster-child of corporate malfeasance. For corporations this is an example of activist government overreach.

I tend to think that both sides are correct, at least to an extent. We should not trust corporations, meaning that we should not just assume they will be good corporate citizens, never abuse their power, or that they will consider the public interest over their shareholders. There is overwhelming evidence that, generally speaking, this is not a good assumption. Corporations look after their own bottom line. That is why we need regulations, transparency, and oversight to protect consumer and public interests.

I also don’t think we can trust activist organizations, nor can we assume that government agencies will act without ideological bias. Again, history tells a very different story.

What we need, therefore, are professional disinterested reviewers. We need scientific experts to review objective evidence, and investigative journalists to make sure there is transparency. They don’t always do their job optimally either, but the whole system acts as a set of checks and balances.

The story of glyphosate and the IARC review is a microcosm of all this. We see multiple different interests, each with a different narrative interpretation of reality, fighting over what is, at the end of the day, a scientific question. What is the safety of glyphosate in the context of how it is used and compared to other alternatives? The best we can do is to have multiple independent experts review all the evidence and give us a transparent assessment. If a consensus emerges and that consensus includes the opinion that there is sufficient evidence to reach a conclusion, then that conclusion is probably the most reliable answer we can get.

In the case of glyphosate we actually have a large set of data with multiple independent reviews concluding it is relatively safe as used, and is superior to most other herbicides. The IARC review is an outlier, and the process used has come under significant criticism suggesting bias.

In any case, the recent published data from the AHS renders all previous reviews obsolete. This new data argues strongly against any link between glyphosate and cancer. In light of this, the IARC should update their classification, as their now obsolete classification is actively being used as a basis of lawsuits and regulations.


Categories: Skeptic

Evolution Caught in the Act

Thu, 11/09/2017 - 5:15am

The hypothesis that life on Earth as it is currently found is the result of biological evolution from a common ancestor over billions of years is supported by such a mountain of evidence that it can be treated as an established scientific fact. Further, it is now a fundamental organizing theory of biology.

This, of course, does not stop ideologically motivated denial. There are those who have been systematically misinformed about the evidence, and the nature of science itself. What they think they know about evolutionary theory they learned from secondary hostile sources. One of the common lies they are repeatedly told is that there are no transitional fossils.

This claim amazes me still, because the evidence is so easily accessible. Lists of transitional fossils are easy to find. One of my favorite examples is the evolution of birds, because the morphological transition from theropod dinosaurs to modern birds was so dramatic.

I also have to point out that this evidence represents a successful prediction of evolutionary theory. When Darwin first published his theory the fossil record was scant. Enough fossils had been discovered for scientists to see that life was dramatically changing over geological time, but the puzzle was mostly empty. There were not enough specimens to see connections between major groups. Evolutionary theory predicts that such connections would be found – and they were, and they continue to be.

The fossil record is such a slam-dunk win for evolutionary theory that deniers have no choice but to simply lie and falsely state that they don’t exist. They try to divert attention to the remaining gaps in the record, or the occasional fossil hoaxes. When you point out the many dramatic transitional fossils they perform the intellectual equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and saying, “La, la, la.”

The most dramatic transitional fossils relate to evolutionary changes resulting from a major change in lifestyle. When dinosaurs took to the wing, for example. Or whenever creatures adapt from the sea to land, or from the land back to the sea. Whales are a great example. We now have a compelling sequence of transitional whales, and can see the slow loss of legs over time, the movement of the nostril to the top of the head, the increase in size, and the development of flippers. Ambulocetus is about half way through this transition – a literal walking whale.

In addition to the well-known groups, there are many nicely documented transitions in less well-known groups – for example, the pleurosaurs. These are ancient reptiles that went back to the sea and evolved to an aquatic lifestyle. They are similar in this way to the plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs and mosasaurs.  A recent specimen was discovered that is 155 million years ago, is remarkably well-preserved, and represents a clear transitional species. As Science reports:

The creature (which the scientists dubbed Vadasaurus, Latin for “wading lizard”) lived 155 million years ago and didn’t have the elongated trunk or relatively shorter limbs that later aquatic species of pleurosaurs did, the researchers report today in Royal Society Open Science. So, Vadasaurus would have been less streamlined overall than its aquatic kin, they suggest. But other features, such as the shape of its skull and the shape and placement of its nostrils, hint that some aspects of the creature were indeed becoming more adapted to an aquatic lifestyle.

So it was partly adapted to the sea, but not completely. Later specimens show more complete adaptation to the water. The specimen also had less ossification, meaning lighter bones, than its terrestrial ancestors. Lighter bones would be an aquatic adaptation – they would make floating easier and heavier bones would not be necessary for support in the water.

Aquatic adaptation is an excellent window into evolutionary change, because life in the water produces a suite of strong selective pressures. You can survive in the water, for example, with stumpy legs, but they are just getting in the way. They slow you down, so there is continuous selective pressure for smaller legs. Therefore we see in the fossil record progressively smaller hind limbs in groups adapting to the sea. Modern whales are left with just an internal bony vestige.

Another strategy evolution deniers use to sow doubt and confusion about the fossil evidence is to focus on tiny details and ignore the bigger picture. Here is a good example from the Orwellian named,  Evolution News. They report on two new transitional fossils, including another feathered dinosaur. The author does not acknowledge that such specimens fill in the morphological space of already known species, and therefore are transitional, providing further evidence for evolution. Rather, they argue, that because these specimens change the way we draw the lines of descent they are evidence against evolution.

That is a common tactic- misinterpret disagreement or uncertainty about the details as if it calls into question the bigger reality. Scientists are trying to piece together exactly what evolved from what when based upon an incomplete record. This is like trying to put jigsaw puzzle pieces in the right place when you only have 10% of the pieces. Every time you find a new piece there is the chance that it will change where you think the pieces go.

If evolution were not true, however, we would not be finding any pieces, or we would be finding pieces to other puzzles entirely. Once we started digging up fossils we could have found a complete absence of life prior to 10 thousand years ago. We could have found that species are stable throughout geological history. We could have found different species, but ones with not possible relationship to extant species.

That is not what we found. We found, as evolutionary theory regarding common descent predicts and requires, dramatically and sequentially changing multicellular species going back 550 million years. Further, fossil species largely fit into a compelling evolutionary pattern. We find creatures that are plausible ancestors to living creatures. We don’t find fossils that are impossible chimeras or totally out of sequence.

However, when you drill down to the details, the fossil record does not always provide enough evidence to make precise reconstructions. Scientists interpolate as best they can from existing evidence, but during this phase of discovery new evidence can significantly change how these maps are drawn. That does not call into question the fact of common descent itself. Pretending it does is intellectually dishonest, which is the hallmark of evolution deniers.

The fact remains, with each new transitional fossil discovered, there is another vindication for evolutionary theory.

Categories: Skeptic

Science-Based Veterinary Medicine

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

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

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

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

The Case for Science-Based Medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The RCVS Statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Skeptic