Oct 05 2015

Innumeracy – The Hot Hands Debate Continues

There is a general consensus that people overall do not have a good intuitive grasp of statistics. In addition, there are multiple biases filtering our perception and memory. Therefore we tend to engage in a biased evaluation of biased data. The entire gambling industry depends on this fact.

As an example, consider the famous Monty Hall problem. In the classic game show, Let’s Make a Deal, the host Monty Hall would often show three doors to the contestant. In this problem Monty Hall says that behind two of the doors there are goats and behind one there is a new car. The contestant chooses one of the three doors. Monty (who knows where the car is) then opens one of the doors the contestant did not choose to reveal one of the two goats. He then offers the contestant the opportunity to change their pick to the other remaining door. Should they switch?

The answer is unequivocally yes. Yet many people have a very difficult time grasping the statistics behind the explanation. In fact, statistics can be so counter-intuitive that the world’s psychology researchers may in fact perpetuate an error for thirty years before someone realizes it. That is what two researchers (Miller and Sanjurjo) are now claiming.

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Oct 02 2015

The Problem of Space Junk

Published by under Astronomy
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We have been putting stuff into orbit around the Earth, especially low-Earth orbit, for the last 58 years. Space is a big place, so no one probably worried at first that we would start junking it up, but that is exactly what has happened in this short span of time. This is now a serious issue we have to confront.

It’s disappointing, and I hate having one more thing to worry about, but Earth orbit has become so cluttered with debris that it poses a serious risk to our assets in space. Recently former NASA scientist Donald Kessler said in an interview:

“We’re at what we call a ‘critical density’ — where there are enough large objects in space that they will collide with one another and create small debris faster than it can be removed.”

NASA scientists also fear a scenario similar to that portrayed in the movie, Gravity. There were some scientific problems with the movie, but the core idea is valid – there is so much debris in orbit that a collision of two large objects can start a chain-reaction, they will scatter debris which will collide with other objects causing more debris.

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Oct 01 2015

Yogic Farming in India

If I had to choose the one thing that has most transformed human civilization it is science. Prior to this remarkable invention history was characterized by conflicting ideologies, philosophies, superstitions, and religions.

Some practical knowledge managed to move forward, including various technologies and even enlightenment philosophy, but our attempts to understand and manipulate the world were burdened with magical thinking. Science set us on a new track, and in the last few centuries we have systematically replaced our old traditional thinking about the world with scientific thinking.

A thousand years ago European physicians attempted to understand and treat illness by manipulating the four humors while their eastern counterparts were faring no better with an astrology-based system of blood letting. If we wanted to anticipate future events, an astrologer would consult fanciful charts that have no actual influence on reality.  If we wanted to make our lives better, ensure a good harvest, or survive a plague we would pray to imaginary powerful beings.

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Sep 29 2015

Study Correlates Brain Connections to Intelligence

One marker of a good scientific study is that it provokes more questions than it answers. That thought kept occurring to me as I read a recent study: A positive-negative mode of population covariation links brain connectivity, demographics and behavior. The study essentially correlates specific patterns of brain connectivity – the degree to which different parts of the human brain talk to each other – with a suite of what are generally considered positive traits, such as education, income, and self-control.

Let me describe the study and then we’ll try to unpack the many layers of what such a study might mean.

The authors are among the first to avail themselves of the Human Connectome Project (HCP), part of the NIH funded BRAIN project. The HCP seeks to perform high definition function MRI scanning on 1,200 individuals while also gather large amounts of data about those same individuals, such as IQ testing, personality profile, and a host of demographic and historical information. The HCP has already released its data for the first 500 subjects to be scanned, so that other scientists can use the data for their own research.

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Sep 28 2015

Denier vs Skeptic

The AP has recently published an updated version of its Stylebook, which contains the following entry:

To describe those who don’t accept climate science or dispute the world is warming from man-made forces, use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science. Avoid use of skeptics or deniers.

This debate has been going on as long as the debate about the nature of recent climate change. This is more than a nitpick, as words have real meanings and they often reflect our understanding of an issue. Those who do not accept the current consensus of climate science would prefer they be referred to as “skeptics.” This has caused a problem for the skeptical community, because the majority of scientific skeptics accept the consensus of scientific opinion on anthropogenic global warming (AGW). They feel that AGW deniers are deniers and they taint the brand of “skeptic” by adopting that term.

There is, of course, a continuum of scientific acceptance without a sharp demarcation. Following Aristotle’s golden mean, I would place proper scientific skepticism as a virtue positioned between two extremes, with denial at one end and true-belief or gullibility at the other. This scientific continuum also does not capture the entire picture, as there are those who are anti-science or who follow non-scientific philosophies.

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Sep 24 2015

44 Reasons Creationists are Deceptive, Final Installment

This week I have been making my way through a list of old and debunked creationist arguments put together by Michael Snyder (a young-earth creationist), giving the old arguments new life on social media. As science communicators we often have to play this game of whack-a-mole, persistently addressing points that have already been refuted. Each time is an opportunity to educate more people about the real science of evolution, about logic and critical thinking, about science in general, and the vacuous and deceptive arguments of the science deniers.

This is the fourth and final installment of this series of posts. You can find the others here: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

The next five points that Snyder raises are all variations on the same theme:

#30 Which evolved first: blood, the heart, or the blood vessels for the blood to travel through?

#31 Which evolved first: the mouth, the stomach, the digestive fluids, or the ability to poop?

#32 Which evolved first: the windpipe, the lungs, or the ability of the body to use oxygen?

#33 Which evolved first: the bones, ligaments, tendons, blood supply, or the muscles to move the bones?

#34 In order for blood to clot, more than 20 complex steps need to successfully be completed. How in the world did that process possibly evolve?

Snyder, of course, is asking a false question, one with an unstated major premise that is wrong, or at least misleading. The implication he is trying to make is essentially the debunked notion of irreducible complexity – that complex structures or biological systems could not have evolved because they could not have simpler functional states.

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Sep 24 2015

44 Reasons Creationists Are Deceptive further cont.

This is the third post dealing with a recent aggregation of old creationist arguments that has been making the rounds on social media, 44 Reasons Why Evolution Is Just A Fairy Tale For Adults.  The author, Michael Snyder, has shown a typical level of horrific scholarship and reasoning. Post 1 is here, and post 2 is here.

In the last article I discussed the claim that the Coelacanth is a “living fossil” (a term I despise because it is ripe for confusion). Essentially Snyder and other creationists treat the Coelacanth as if it is a specific species, when in fact it is an order of fish. An order surviving for hundreds of millions of years is not at all unusual.

In the next of Snyder’s reasons he commits the same mistake:

#18 According to evolutionists, the Ancient Greenling Damselfly last showed up in the fossil record about 300 million years ago.  But it still exists today.  So why hasn’t it evolved at all over the time frame?

This claim is entirely wrong, demonstrating sloppy research. Actually I suspect that Snyder did no research (and here I am just referring to looking up reliable references). He seems to have just swallowed a creationist meme whole from the Institute for Creation Research, specifically an article by their “science writer” Brian Thomas.

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Sep 22 2015

44 Reasons Creationists Are Deceptive cont.

Part II: Sudden Appearance

This is a continuation of my blog post from yesterday, deconstructing 44 alleged reasons to doubt evolutionary theory. In Part I I addressed the claim that there are no transitional fossils, which is a bold creationist lie they maintain despite the copious evidence and the fact that their misinterpretations have been publicly corrected.

The next series of “reasons” #7-12, attempt to support the claim that species appear suddenly, as if they are created. Snyder begins:

If the theory of evolution was true, we should not see a sudden explosion of fully formed complex life in the fossil record. Instead, that is precisely what we find.

Once again we see the creationist tactic of giving partial selected information, rather than putting the entire picture into perspective. They are not looking for proper perspective – they are looking for deception.

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Sep 21 2015

44 Reasons Creationists Are Deceptive

Part I: Transitional Fossils

Creationists are an endless source of material for skeptical analysis. The reason for this is that modern creationism is what I call “sophisticated nonsense.” It is an elaborate system of motivated reasoning crafted to defend a particular religious view.

The energy, time, and resources that some creationists put into this endeavor is astounding, resulting in a mountain of false claims, half-truths, misdirections, unsound arguments, and misinterpretations.

Creationists are engaged in science denial – denying evolutionary science. The purpose of denial is doubt and confusion, so they don’t have to create and defend a coherent explanation of the origins of life on Earth. They don’t have to provide an explanation for all the available evidence. All they have to do is muddy the waters as much as possible.

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Sep 18 2015

Lobbying for Quackery

The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians is lobbying Congress to pay naturopaths to treat vetarans, specifically for chronic pain. This, of course, goes beyond “health care freedom” (which itself is dubious) and is asking for taxpayer dollars to be spent on unproven and pseudoscientific treatments.

The open letter does not mention specific treatments that naturopaths would offer.  Instead it fearmongers about pharmacological treatments for pain. It is certainly true that opiates are a double-edged sword. They are powerful pain killers, but long term use causes dependence, tolerance, and may complicate pain management. Science-based physicians are well aware of this, and use a variety of approaches to minimize opiate use for chronic pain.

The letter claims that naturopaths have unique “natural” therapies that can effectively treat pain. This is one of the core myths of “alternative” medicine – if there were a treatment that objectively worked, it would be incorporated into mainstream medicine.

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