Author Archives: Andrew

Can almanacs really predict the weather?

One headline says that the recent winter storms in Vancouver were predicted “almost exactly”. Another headline, 4 days later, says that almanac predictions for the east coast of the U.S. were entirely wrong because springlike conditions occurred when one to two feet of snow had been predicted.

What is going on here? Can we trust an almanac to tells us what the weather will be like, as much as a year in advance?

It turns out that there are many almanacs, with some competing head-to-head. In the U.S., The Old Farmer’s Almanac started in 1792, while the younger rival The Farmers Almanac started publishing in 1818. These almanacs have had a long time to perfect their prediction methods and get things right. But, alas, time has not helped.

A recent article by Dr. Karen Stollznow in Skeptic Magazine provides a nice summary of the history and techniques used in making weather predictions:

The Farmer’s Almamac forecaster, who is only known by the mysterious pseudonym Caleb Weatherbee, uses a “top secret mathematical and astronomical formula, that relies on sunspot activity, tidal action, planetary position and many other factors.” These methods seem to be the “11 herbs and spices” of weather forecasting.

The other almanac uses a similar, secret formula. But how well do they work?

A study conducted in 1981 found that the Old Farmer’s Almanac was no better than chance at predicting the weather for 32 locations around the US. A careful reading of the predictions also shows that they are vague, generalized, and strongly tied to the seasonal averages. Much like astrology, almanacs are relying on the Barnum effect, where people will consider general statements to be very accurate if they believe the statements are tailored just for them (or their local weather).

Almanacs do offer more than weather forecasts, and that might explain some of their appeal:

Almanacs offer an awkward mix of science and superstition. They present factual astronomical information about moon phases, alongside spurious astrological claims. They still offer handy hints, gardening tips and recipes for comfort food, and teach you how to clean the toilet with Coca-Cola and keep fleas away from your dog naturally. Sticking to their roots of prediction, they provide the “best days” to cut hair to increase growth, to quit smoking, apply for a loan or shop for clothes.

So far, nobody can predict the weather far in advance, and certainly not an almanac. But maybe it can tell me when to get my hair cut.


Optimize your naps

It turns out that there may be an optimal time and length for the best nap.

New research involving 3,000 Chinese seniors suggests that naps soon after lunch, lasting about about an hour, were the best. Good naps let the seniors function as if they were 5 years younger.

The difference in overall cognition associated with these napping groups was similar to or greater than the decline in cognition associated with a 5-year increase in age.”

Source: The Best Nap Time For Big Mental Health Boost – PsyBlog

Avoiding mental rabbit holes

How can you stay calm under pressure? Are there mental techniques you can use to help you cope under stress? A recent article provides some interesting answers based on interviews with a bomb disposal technician.

Something’s going wrong. You’re worried and your mind starts to race. Your old friend Panic is nuzzling up to you and wants to snuggle. Your brain starts asking, “What if X happens? What if Y happens? What if? What if? What if?”

Navy [bomb disposal] techs refers to this as “the rabbit hole.” And if you go down it, things are going to get very bad very fast.

Source: How To Be Calm Under Pressure: 3 Secrets From A Bomb Disposal Expert

Sham peer reviews a growing problem

Peer review for the publishing of scientific articles is like democracy: a messy, imperfect system that is better than all the alternatives.

As Winston Churchill said:

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.

Peer review, like science itself, should be self-correcting. A few bad papers may get accepted but eventually the work should be properly evaluated and treated accordingly.

But recently there is a growing trend for pay-to-publish journals to pretend to do peer review, while accepting just about any paper that an author will pay for.

Science has recently published a detailed article on this topic, including an experiment involving an obviously inaccurate article submitted by fictitious authors. The results are not encouraging.

The most basic obligation of a scientific journal is to perform peer review, arXiv founder Ginsparg says. He laments that a large proportion of open-access scientific publishers “clearly are not doing that.” Ensuring that journals honor their obligation is a challenge that the scientific community must rise to. “Journals without quality control are destructive, especially for developing world countries where governments and universities are filling up with people with bogus scientific credentials,” Ginsparg says.

Source: Who’s Afraid of Peer Review? | Science

More research questioning brain training

Can playing games increase your skills at sports and other tasks? Some research and commercial products suggest that they can, but other researchers are skeptical. A recent article in the NY Times examines a neurological game said to increase athletic performance.

But the notion that practice at one task could effectively bolster abilities in another — called transfer — has long been disputed. In 1906, the psychologist Edward L. Thorndike found that rigorous practice helped students’ ability to estimate the areas of rectangles, but it did not help them estimate the areas of other shapes. Another century’s worth of research has continued to reshape and redefine, expand and restrict this line of thinking. Sir Charles Sherrington, the Nobel Prize-winning neurophysiologist, also believed that “acquisition of a habit is not transferable beyond its application.” K. Anders Ericsson’s seminal study on expertise — the so-called 10,000 hours rule — emphasized training that was specific to the skill. This meant that memorizing an extraordinary amount of numbers is not likely to yield improvement in your recall of names. Practicing Tetris can improve your ability to play Tetris, but it probably won’t help you get better at juggling.

Source: Keep Your Eye on the Balls to Become a Better Athlete

When is brain development finished?

This is an interesting article on how the brain develops, and whether it ever finishes. There is also an interesting discussion of teenage thinking and emotions.

The human brain reaches its adult volume by age 10, but the neurons that make it up continue to change for years after that. … The pruning in the occipital lobe, at the back of the brain, tapers off by age 20. In the frontal lobe, in the front of the brain, new links are still forming at age 30, if not beyond.

Source: You’re an Adult. Your Brain, Not So Much. – The New York Times

Tattoos make men more attractive … to men

Men with tattoos are likely to provide serious competition for a woman’s attention, at least in the eyes of other guys, but women themselves actually aren’t that impressed. … the female participants didn’t rate the tattooed gentlemen as more attractive; moreover, they considered them worse prospects as partners and parents.


Wear the red dress?

Are women really more attractive if they wear red? Research results used to say “yes”, but replicating those studies is proving to be difficult.

… nothing, it seems, is straightforward in psychology any more. A team of Dutch and British researchers has just published three attempts to replicate the red effect in the open-access journal Evolutionary Psychology, including testing whether the effect is more pronounced in a short-term mating context, which would be consistent with the idea that red signals sexual availability. However, not only did the research not uncover an effect of mating context, all three experiments also failed to demonstrate any effect of red on attractiveness whatsoever.



The science of gift shopping – Don’t try so hard

Research has been done on what gifts people like to receive. It turns out that simple and straight forward is often the best approach.

Social scientists bear glad tidings for the holiday season. After extensively observing how people respond to gifts, they have advice for shoppers: You don’t have to try so hard. You’re not obliged to spend hours finding just the right gift for each person on your list. Most would be just as happy with something quick and easy. This may sound too good to be true, but rest assured this is not a ploy by some lazy Scrooges in academia.

Source: The Perfect Gift? It’s the One They Asked For – The New York Times

Science denial and climate change

This is an interesting article on science denial and how it may be possible to inoculate people against misinformation.

Science denial has significant consequences. AIDS denial caused over 300,000 deaths in South Africa. Vaccination denial has allowed preventable diseases to make a comeback. Climate science denial helped delay sorely needed mitigation policies, committing us to direr climate impacts for decades to come.

Source: A Skeptical Response to Science Denial – CSI