Debunking Denialism

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Category Archives: Skepticism

The Hypocrisy of Pseudoscientific Cranks: Response to Criticism

Screenshot of post about cranks

The other day, a rant exposing the hypocrisy of proponents of pseudoscience was posted on Debunking Denialism. It got a lot of social media attention after being shared on the Facebook page of James Randi, and with it, a lot of objections. Criticism (of varying quality) came from many sources, such as the skeptic subreddit, Facebook, blog comments and emails. Due to the sheer volume and diversity of responses to the previous post, they have been synthesize and organized into general categories for easier treatment.

You are a Monsanto shill / Monsanto collaborator / agricultural Holocaust perpetrator

This is a flawed approach for several reasons. Besides the fact that it is not true (where are my checks!?), it is a psychological defense used to avoid tackling the actual arguments about GM crops and essentially a guilt by (imaginary) association fallacy. Just like 9/11 truthers distract from real problems with American foreign policy issues, anti-GMO conspiracy theorists distract from real and important social, economic and political issues related to GMOs. Maybe food regulation can be improved and made more effective? Perhaps there could be alternatives to patents / huge R&D costs that allows smaller companies to compete more efficiently in the free market? Because anti-GM activists constantly derail the conversation into crankery, these issues are not given sufficient attention.

This article is mediocre / sophomoric / preachy / not convincing to cranks / emotionally charged / sensationalist / makes stupid generalizations / contains a lot of bitterness / cynical / self-congratulatory intellectual masturbation / does nothing to further the cause of scientific inquiry / promotes straw men / name-calling / derogatory / does nothing to promote skepticism

It was written as a humorous rant against the hypocrisy of many pseudoscientific cranks. It was not intended to be a dispassionate analysis of irrational claims or an attempt to convince these quacks that they are wrong. These are also not straw men, as there are real-world examples of all of them.

I do not understand why corporal punishment is doing in that list

Because the science is more or less settled that corporal punishment is ineffective and harmful, yet defenders commonly use denialist tactics to support their views.

Gershoff, E. T. (2013). Spanking and Child Development: We Know Enough Now to Stop Hitting Our Children. Child Development Perspectives, 7(3), 133-137. doi: 10.1111/cdep.12038

The “dead babies” section was inappropriate

Homebirth is quackery, and homebirths attended by unqualified MANA midwives (who do not require any medical training) is considerable more dangerous than hospital births. It is intellectually dishonest to dismiss this fact by misguided appeals to “appropriateness”.

I had a successful homebirth, so that means that it really is not that dangerous / I was spanked and turned out fine

So? A smoker who does not develop lung cancer is not an argument against the fact that smoking causes lung cancer.

Read more of this post

You Know You Are a Pseudoscientific Crank If…

crank

Are you sick of always failing to convince us scientific skeptics that GM crops kill people, that homeopathy cures cancer or that climate change is a socialist myth? Do you feel frustrated by being asked to provide peer-reviewed scientific papers to support your position? If this matches your experience and you still do not know why, see how many of the following statements match your behavior to see if you qualify as a pseudoscientific crank.

You denigrate the knowledge of scientific experts, but compare yourself with Galileo and Einstein.

Just because you are criticized by knowledgeable people who provide scientific evidence to back up their arguments does not mean that you are an oppressed genius. Sometimes, you are just a rebel trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. In the end, the flawed notion that criticism means that you are actually right is a pathetic defense mechanism to avoid responding to objections or backing up your claims with evidence.

You are not Galileo or Einstein. They convinced their peers with evidence. You have no evidence whatsoever.

You claim mainstream medical treatments are unsafe and ineffective, while promoting quack treatments that are dangerous and untested.

There is a lot of hate towards modern medicine by proponents of quack treatments. This may be based on envy from quacks who never got into or failed medical school or because of postmodern belief that everyone is an expert. This is yet another example of confirmation bias and selective thinking.

Read more of this post

Risk Factors: Misunderstandings and Abuses

Risk factors

Although risk factors occupy a central place in medical and epidemiological research, it is also one of the most misunderstood concepts in all of medicine.

The World Health Organization (2009) defines a risk factor as: “A risk factor is any attribute, characteristic or exposure of an individual that increases the likelihood of developing a disease or injury. Some examples of the more important risk factors are underweight, unsafe sex, high blood pressure, tobacco and alcohol consumption, and unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene.” The CDC (2007) offers a similar definition: “an aspect of personal behavior or lifestyle, an environmental exposure, or a hereditary characteristic that is associated with an increase in the occurrence of a particular disease, injury, or other health condition.” However, the CDC also uses the term risk factor when it comes to sexual violence. For instance, they consider alcohol and drug use, antisocial tendencies, hostility towards women, and community-level tolerance to sexual violence.

Based on these sources, we can develop a simplified definition of a risk factor: if A is a risk factor for B, then the presence of A increases (but not necessarily in a causal sense) the probability of B occurring.

A is a risk factor for B does not necessarily mean that A causes B. It might be the case that A causes B only indirectly via some third factor, that B causes A, or that some third factor causes both A and B. In other words, correlation does not on its own imply causation. However, it is possible to disentangle these possibilities by measuring B at the start of the study. If physical punishment of children is a risk factor for aggressiveness, we can find out what comes first by measuring baseline child aggressiveness.

A is a risk factor for B does not mean that A will cause B in every instance of A. Smoking causes lung cancer, but some smokers can smoke all their lives without developing lung cancer. This does not mean that smoking is not a cause of lung cancer. It just means that there are other factors that also play a role. It is common for pseudoscientific cranks to bring up exceptions of this kind to argue against a correlational or causal association in an effort to spread uncertainty and doubt. Read more of this post

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part I: Bayesian Self-Defense

Winston Wu's website

Proponents of paranormal claims often feel threatened by scientific skepticism. This is because core skeptical principles erode their scientific pretensions. Instead of trying to back up their original paranormal claims with real scientific evidence, they attempt to deflect by attacking these skeptical principles. Most of the time, they make a hatchet job arguing against principles they misunderstood to begin with. This is because skeptical principles such as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, Occam’s razor and burden of evidence can be formally stated and defended using basic Bayesian probability theory.

One such individual is Winston Wu, who has compiled a list of thirty sections attempting to defend paranormal claims and attack scientific skepticism. Wu attempts to offer a series of refutations to what he sees as thirty core scientific skeptical positions. Half of them deal with overarching objections to paranormal assertions and discuss topics such as burden of evidence, extraordinary claims, Occam’s Razor and anecdotal evidence. The other half concern specific paranormal beliefs such as psychics, miracles, alternative medicine, answered prayer, precognitive dreams, consciousness, UFOs and creationism.

In this first installment, we take a closer look at confidence in relation to the strength of evidence, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, Occam’s razor, burden of evidence and anecdotes.

Misunderstood principle #1: Confidence should be proportional to evidence

The first argument that Wu objects to is the notion that “it is irrational to believe anything that hasn’t been proven”. This, however, is a straw man. The correct version promoted by serious scientific skeptics is that the confidence in a proposition about the world around us should be proportional to the evidence for that proposition. In other words, the confidence in the atomic theory of matter or the existence of the sun should be high because the evidence is so overwhelming. In contrast, we should have very low confidence in propositions for which the evidence is rare, non-existence or directly contradicting it.

This principle can be formulated using Bayesian statistics. The posteriori probability of a hypothesis given evidence, P(H|E), is proportional to the probability of evidence given the hypothesis P(E|H):

P(H|E) = \frac{P(H)P(E|H)}{P(E)}

The higher P(E|H), the higher P(H|E) becomes (assuming that P(E) is constant). Although the formal description of the principle, it is straight-forward: the more evidence for a claim, the stronger confidence is justified in that claim. The less evidence, the less confidence is justified.

Wu goes to great lengths to misunderstanding this simple principle.

Read more of this post

Skeptical Activism Online: How to Avoid the Burnout

Burnout!

Have you ever felt exhausted from seemingly endless struggles with creationists in Youtube comments? Spent too long time bickering on Twitter with quantum mystics who clearly are not worth your time? Gotten caught in a unproductive spiral of trench warfare on a forum with homeopaths? Spent hours writing blog comments on the placebo effect and statistical tests only to have them deleted because the blog owner is a acupuncture-promoting quack?

Most scientific skeptics who engage in online activism sooner or later come across these kinds of enormously frustrating situations. Combating pseudoscience in this way can sometimes become an unhealthy obsession. Here are some tips to make online skeptical activism less frustrating and reduce the risk of a burnout.

Stop having unproductive struggles

One major contributor to skeptical activist burnout is probably unproductive struggles on social media sites and comment sections on various websites. The common problem with these debate avenues is that they are unsuitable for discussing complex scientific topics. Some of them (such as Twitter and Youtube) restrict the number of characters you can use to communicate your skeptical arguments. This forces you to break them up into tiny pieces that will obscure the larger context of your objections. In other avenues (such as Youtube, some Facebook pages and comments on pseudoscientific blogs), the power over your skeptical material rests in hostile hands. This means that proponents of pseudoscience can refuse to publish, delete or edit your comments. Material you have spent hours and hours writing can be distorted or removed in a few seconds Read more of this post

How to Spot a Pseudoscientific Paper

A scientific paper (or is it?)

With the rise of low-impact journals and predatory open-access journals, the journal jungle has become considerable more difficult to navigate for the informed reader. There are even journals started by groups promoting pseudoscience: young-earth creationists have Answers Research Journal, intelligent design creationists have the BIO-Complexity journal, homeopaths have the Homeopathy journal, proponents of acupuncture have the Journal of Chinese Medicine & Treatment and so on. Even more alarmingly, high quality journals (such as JAMA) have on rare occasions published what appear to be promotional pieces of quack treatments (Gorski, 2013). Thus, it is more important than ever to be able to sift the gems from the trash and approach published research papers with a skeptical eye.

This post exposes many of the common tricks used by proponents of pseudoscience to make their research papers appear more credible than they actually are: unjustified claims in the abstract, misrepresentations of previous research.

Abstract:

In a real scientific research paper, the abstract contains a summary of each major section of the article. This allows researchers to quickly get a grasp of the main methods and conclusions without reading the full text version. In the ideal case, the abstract accurately reflect the content of the paper.

Watch out for:

  • Claims not found in the paper
  • Claims not justified by the results
  • Cherry-picked and/or spun results

However, proponents of pseudoscience can distort the abstract in a number of different ways. They can report claims in the abstract that is not found in the paper, not justified by the data or they can select the most impressive finding and ignore or otherwise downplay the rest in a deceptive manner. Read more of this post

Scientific Skepticism and Social Justice Advocacy

Note: the general idea in this post is that people who promote social injustices often make rationalizations were they perform logical fallacies, assume false empirical premises and appeal to pseudoscience. Scientific skeptics can promote social justice by targeting those flawed rationalizations for destruction without mission drift or acceptance of any specific political ideology.

Scale of Justice

This post will attempt to lay out some possible connections between scientific skepticism and social justice, give some practical examples of how scientific skepticism can be used to promote social justice without mission drift or the need to sacrifice critical thinking for political ideology (such as opposition to GM crops). Perhaps it may encourage some people to spend some time getting involved in social justice issues outside of scientific skepticism as well.

The post is divided into two larger sections. The first presents a core argument as to how scientific skepticism can be useful for examining arguments about social justice issues. I have tried to make it as minimalist as possible so that it has the best chance of convincing individuals who hold different ideas and positions on this and related issues. The core argument will be illustrated with example of conservative anti-vaccine opposition to HPV vaccination for young girls. The rest of the post will look at a couple of areas were scientific skepticism can made fruitful contributions to social justice activism: legal system malfunctions, victim blaming, anti-group bigotry and defending individuals against quack “treatments” and beliefs.

The core argument

A minimalist argument for the compatibility between scientific skepticism and social justice advocacy might look something like this. People who defend social injustices will often attempt to provide “arguments” (well, more like rationalizations) for why their position should be considered credible. These will usually contain premises, inferences and appeals to pseudoscience. Premises and inferences can be examined on logical and/or empirical grounds and appeals to pseudoscience may be countered with standard skeptical approaches. Either of these approaches are sufficient to undermine the position of the social injustice defender. In addition, a positive scientific case could be built in favor of a social justice goal (although useful, this is not strictly required to just refute the claim being made). All of these approaches do not require mission drift or the sacrifice of critical thinking for the sake of political ideology. Read more of this post

Heather McNamara Prefers Trolling Over Reasoned Arguments

Heather McNamara

Recently, I had an interesting exchange with Heather McNamara on Twitter. For those of you who do not know of her, Heather is a self-described Marxist and the partner of Zinnia Jones, the latter a popular blogger and social justice advocate at FreethoughtBlogs. Heather (I will use her first name to avoid confusion as both of the women share the same last name) has occasionally made guest videos on Zinnia Jones’ Youtube channel regarding topics such as pregnancy and alcohol, radical feminism and transphobia, social justice activism, sex positivity and anti-pornography etc.

Heather made numerous assertions, but when challenged, she was unable to back these up with arguments or evidence. Rather, she engaged in name-calling, decided to quote me out of context to give her followers the impression that I was less charitable than I was. She also made numerous inconsiderate stereotypes about straight people, white people and people whose gender identity corresponded to their assigned sex (henceforth referred to as “cisgendered”). When I confronted her on this, suggesting that she was now guilty of the same flawed stereotyping behavior that social justice advocates object to, she just reasserted her claim. Then, out of nowhere, she used a translation service to post a tweet in butchered Swedish. After that she posted a tweet in Norwegian referring to a Scandinavian cultural tradition of not thinking that one is better than others. Finally, she decided she was no longer interested in the conversation, because her son wanted to go to see a movie.

This post contains each tweet exchange between us and an short analysis of the conversation. Read more of this post

The Anechoic Chamber of Greta Christina

Note: racism is morally wrong and a young African-American man should absolutely without question be able to buy some candy without being, as the narrative holds, “hunted down and murdered by an angry white racist”. However, Greta Christina has misunderstood the legal situation and this post examines some of her errors. For a short summary of the main points, scroll down to “Conclusion”.

Greta Christina's reaction to the Zimmerman verdict

I have discussed the problems surrounding selective skepticism many times before on this blog. It can arise in the context of Nobel Prize winners having their rational thinking undermined by pseudoscience. It can occur when evolutionary biologists start making claims about the validity of an entire field for which their knowledge and understanding is, to put it charitably, limited. It has happened when the political beliefs of some skeptics contaminate their view of the skeptical movement. However, there are some ways for skeptics to attempt to limit impact of selective rationality and groupthink, even thought it often seems difficult.

When I use the term selective skepticism, I am referring to the following broad themes: (1) skeptics who are rational in many other areas (e. g. accept that evolution is a fact, accept that vaccines are generally safe and effective, reject HIV/AIDS denialism, accept global warming etc.), but remarkably fail to reach the same level of rationality in another field, (2) applying little or no skepticism to evidence that appears to support their personal belief and apply extreme skepticism to evidence that seem to run counter to those beliefs.

I continue to be fascinating by examining new case studies of selective skepticism that occur among well-known members of the skeptical community. In this post, I will be examining Greta Christina’s reactions to the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial. The two main reactions that this post will focus on is a tweet by Christina and a subsequent blog post were she elaborates on her position.

Important background information

Before we go into the details of this case study, let us go to great lengths to avoid misunderstandings. That way we can focus on the topic itself without needing to spend a lot of effort on unproductive and dead-end derailings of the conversation.

Racism: racism, like any kind of group discrimination, is morally wrong. Furthermore, racists and race realists often use pseudoscience to prop up their flawed beliefs. This has been demonstrated in many posts on this blog (here, here, here, here and here etc.) and there is even an entire blog category on Debunking Denialism dedicated to refuting racists and race realists.

Legal system biases exists and are well-documented: many scientific studies have exposed various biases in different legal systems around the world. Judges are more likely to grant probation if they review the case after lunch than before (Danziger, Levav and Avnaim-Pesso, 2011). When using visual courtroom technology, witnesses are considered more credible the more spatially and temporally closer they are to the evaluators and witnesses filmed using a medium shot are evaluated as more credible than those film using a close-up shot (Landström, 2010). If a person is convicted of murdering a European-American, that person is more likely to be given the death penalty than if the victim had been an African-American (Baldus et. al, 1998) and that study controlled for almost 40 possible non-race confounders. The more stereotypical an American-American defendant appears to be, the higher the risk of that person getting the death penalty (Eberhardt et al., 2006). Swedish researchers, using vignette scenarios, have shown that men are considered more provocative in the aggressor position and more responsible for their own victimization in the victim position (Lindholm and Yourstone Cederwall, 2011). This is attributed by the researchers to gender stereotypes of men as being powerful and aggressive and women being weak and unable to defend themselves. This was just a few examples, and others exist. Read more of this post

Mailbag: Contaminated Tools and the Tsunami of Unreason

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

This time, the questions comes from the commenter Skeptek. It was a little bit too long, so I have shortened it a bit to distill the main ideas but hopefully I have kept sufficient context for it to make sense. Earlier on the blog, me and Skeptek had a short discussion about the motives of quacks and cranks. Skeptek was leaning more towards considering them as conscious frauds and liars, whereas I more took the position that one should not attribute to malice that which can be credibly explained by human ignorance. Of course there are proponents of pseudoscience that are conscious frauds and liars, but perhaps that should not be our default assumption.

Additionally, you’re not the first wise person to point out, what you see as flaws in my logic – namely that I am making assumptions or improperly speculating about the motives of people who promote pseudoscience, or even their mental health. I see them as willful liars, but most others seem sure they’re simply stupid. I’ve long thought that this simply can’t be true – that my reasoning was faultless [...] I do feel a strong and viscerally emotional reaction to pseudoscience in all forms. I become tense and even get snippy with those around me after reading some of the worst stuff that’s out there. “How dare these ignorant, lazy cowards attack the hard working and noble work of brilliant scientists whom I idolize as heroes?” I’m not really sure what I’m asking here, but you seem to have either been down this road already, or you’ve been able to avoid it altogether, so I’m curious how an experienced skeptic like yourself is able to maintain neutrality as you appear to do.

I detect a certain level of black-and-white thinking in this paragraph, where those who subscribe to some form pseudoscience is grouped up into a category with properties like “willful liars”, “ignorant”, “lazy”, “cowards”. On the other hand, scientists are grouped up in a category with properties like “does noble work”, “brilliant” “target of idolization”. This, however, is a cognitive simplification (a form of demonization). Reality is a lot more nuanced and complex. I have found one insight that is extremely useful for breaking up that kind of thinking: the widespread prevalence of selective skepticism. To exemplify, let us look at three specific discoveries that I had as I began to discover selective skepticism.

The first discovery relates back to when I noticed that many other skeptics (while successfully using the methods of scientific skepticism towards things like creationism and homeopathy) utterly failed to apply the same degree of skepticism towards their favorite unsubstantiated belief. These skeptics that I personally admired turned out to be 9/11 truthers, mental illness deniers, anti-vaccine cranks, anti-GMO activists, climate change deniers and so on (for a specific case, see Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong about Medical Psychiatry and the follow-up article Why Jerry Coyne is Still Wrong about Antidepressants). I was flabbergasted. Completely shocked. I asked them: “can’t you see that you are using the exact same kind of pseudoscientific debating tactics to defend your ideological belief as creationists and homeopaths do to defend theirs?” They did not seem to get it. Others understood my line of thought, but provided feeble rationalizations. Apparently, quoting climate scientist Phil Jones out of context about northern tree rings is not at all the same as Darwin on the eye out of context. Yeah right.

This discovery made it impossible for me to uphold individual skeptics (and the skeptical community at large) as uniformly science-friendly or rational.

The second discovery was when I first read about what is now known as the Nobel disease. As it turns out, not even Noble Prize winners are immune to the tsunami of unreason. Linus Pauling, a quantum chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1954, yet he became a cancer quack claiming that large doses of vitamin C could cure cancer. Konrad Lorenz, one of the founders of behavioral ecology and Nobel Prize winner in 1973, was a dedicated Nazi. Nikolaas Tinbergen, who won the prize the same year as Lorenz, supported autism quackery (the notion of refrigerator mothers and an ineffective and coercive treatment for ASD based on restraint) in his Nobel speech. Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize in 1993 for his improvements on the PCR reaction (standard technique in biology labs the world over), yet he became an HIV/AIDS denialist, rejected global warming and embraced astrology. Luc Montagnier, who won the Nobel Prize in 2008 for his discovery of HIV, is now a proponent of ideas that resemble homeopathy. These are just a few examples out of a long list of Nobel Prize winners who have succumbed to the allure of pseudoscience.

If Nobel Prize winning scientists cannot withstand the tsunami of unreason, how can the average scientist do it? How can I or other skeptics do it? Read more of this post

Scientific Skepticism and Internet Trolls

troll

If you are a scientific skeptic with any kind of enduring online presence, you have surely come across many Internet trolls. These are individuals that are not particularly interested in discussing the issues or presenting evidence for their claims. Instead, their goals are something much more sinister. They want to cause disruption of conversations and websites, get people angry and irritated, provoke emotional responses, inflating their own sense of self-importance and so on.

In this blog post, I will describe some of the most common types of trolls that a scientific skeptic can come across and discuss a couple of suggestions on how to deal with trolls.

Different kinds of anti-skeptical trolls

There are many different kinds of trolls out there, so consider this to be a description of some of the more common anti-skeptical troll archetypes that many skeptical activists online deal with on a regular basis. This list is by no means exhaustive and only covers the kinds of anti-skeptical trolls that are most familiar to me.

The crank troll: someone who has an uncontrollable compulsion to spread their assertions that some aspect of mainstream science (evolution, quantum mechanics, general relativity, modern medicine etc.) are fatally flawed and let others know that they have the solution. This kind of troll typically misunderstands the scientific background to the area and so cannot comprehend skeptical refutations.

The link spammer troll: this kind of troll posts posts or comments containing almost nothing besides a long list links to videos or articles attempting to demonstrate their favorite pseudoscience. A classical example of a link spammer troll is certain 9/11 truthers who think that if they can just post enough links to Youtube videos containing grainy pictures and slow-motion clips, then they will finally be seen as suppressed truth-seekers rather than obsessed and irrational.

The martyr troll: these individuals usually come across as very passive-aggressive as they are often incredibly arrogant and condescending in their treatment of science, skepticism and their critics. However, when someone takes the time and effort to point out the flaws in those assertions, this troll acts like he or she is the victim of a targeted campaign and tries to appear as an innocent victim of cold-hearted skeptics. Read more of this post

Skeptical Blogging: What’s the Point?

What's the point?

There are many different kinds of online skeptical activism: blogging, writing comments on blogs, tweeting, taking part in forum discussions, networking with other skeptics on facebook, bickering in Youtube comments and so on.

I tend to prefer blogging over the others because it allows you to create a space where the main content is only produced by you and gives you a lot of control over presentation. I also enjoy debating on forums, with what you say is easily drowned out by the opinions of thousands of others and if you are posting on a hostile forum your content may become edited or deleted. Even if your posts do not get edited or removed, they can become pruned after a while and the content you have written does not stay. Blogs also provide enough space to make detailed arguments (compared with twitter that only allows 140 characters) and is not completely dreadful and life-draining (bickering in Youtube comments).

But what is the point of skeptical blogging? People who are entrenched in pseudoscience will never change their beliefs and so, the argument goes, there is not much point in skeptical blogging since you won’t convince anyone. However, this completely misses the point: skeptical blogging is not about convincing true believers. Far from it. When I write a blog post criticizing Sylvia Browne or Ken Ham, I am not expecting to convince those people or their closest supporters. Instead, I have a number of other goals in mind. Read more of this post

The Robustness of Scientific Skepticism

skepticism and testable claims

Recently, scientific skepticism has come under attack. PZ Myers has announced that he does not want to be a part of the skeptical community any longer. His decision stems from a long-standing disagreement with Jamy Ian Swiss about the proper mission of skepticism. While I do not think that his characterization of scientific skepticism is accurate and that his action is a result of anger rather than reason, I will entertain his arguments, point-by-point.

Testable claims and sacred cows

[...] it is clear that “scientific skepticism” is simply a crippled, buggered version of science with special exemptions to set certain subjects outside the bounds of its purview. [...] But what else can you call this logic? Skepticism has no sacred cows! Except that skepticism only addresses “testable claims”. By the way, the existence of gods is not a testable claim. That’s a pretty explicit loophole by definition.

Skepticism has no sacred cows in the sense that no particular set of beliefs that make testable claims is shielded from skeptical scrutiny. Theistic and religious beliefs often do make testable claims, such as the efficacy of prayer, the origin of biological diversity, the nature of the human brain and so on. These are absolutely acceptable targets for scientific skepticism.

What about non-testable claims? Positions that do not make any testable claims cannot be handled exactly the same as those that do make testable claims. However, there are different skeptical approaches to non-testable claims and it is here that skepticism becomes very robust. Read more of this post

Scientific Skepticism and One-liners

skeptical one-liners

The great power many of pseudoscientific myths is that they are often short, simple, memorable, emotionally influential and cognitively attractive. These are beneficial traits in the modern media world, where people can have short attention spans and frequently browse a lot of information. Scientific rebuttals, on the other hand, are usually hard, complex, cold, long-winded and can include a lot of technical information such as crowded graphs, large tables and statistics. It takes a lot of reading effort to get through the material and a lot of cognitive effort to really understand the science. In addition, the problem of different backfire effects looms over any attempt at correcting pseudoscience.

Right from the start, scientific skepticism (and science at large) face uphill terrain. How can the scientific skeptic throttle his or her way out of the situation? Read more of this post

How Skepchick Rebecca Watson Misuses Statistics

leading women age too

It is very important to correct the misuse of statistics regardless of the identity of the perpetrator. Sometimes, it may be even more important to correct well-known individuals because their erroneous statistical argument will have a much more substantial influence than if it had been committed by an average blogger.

One such case is that of Rebecca Watson (who has arguably done more than anyone to highlight important issues related to feminism in the skeptical community) and her analysis of the ages of specific female movie stars and the age of men playing their male love interests in a selection of their movies. The background leading up to her blog post entitled Leading Women Age, Too is that an article posted on Vulture showed data suggesting that male movie stars increase in age, whereas the age of the women playing their female love interests stays roughly within the same age range regardless of the age of the male actor (this is, as we shall see below, erroneous). Someone suggested doing a similar thing for female movie stars that has been doing movies for a long time. Since Watson is apparently “a party animal” she “got totally crazy and spent like an hour on IMDB just to satisfy your curiosity”.

The basic idea was to compare the age of the female movie star (Watson picked Meg Ryan, Julia Robers and Meryl Streep) in different movies with the age of who she believed to the female characters’ love interest and to see if there is a difference before and after the actress turns 40. Here is the logic of her statistical analysis:

If you’re interested, Meg’s mean age in this chart is 35.6 and her costar’s mean age is 39.9 (a difference of 4.3 years). Prior to the age of 40, her mean age is 31.8 and her love interest’s mean age is 37.8 (a difference of 6 years).

See the problem? Watson apparently thinks she can just average the age of the female movie star in all movies, then compare it with the average age of the male love interest in all movies. However, this is only possible for unpaired data and it is highly statistically inappropriate to attempt this for paired data Read more of this post

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