Category Archives: Skepticism & beliefs

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.

 

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

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

Correlations and milk

Another example of the importance of understanding the relationship between correlation and causation.

In a study of more than 2,700 children aged one to six, Toronto researchers found that those who drank whole milk had a body mass index score almost a full unit lower than kids who drank one per cent or two per cent milk.That’s comparable to the difference between having a healthy weight and being overweight, said Dr. Jonathon Maguire, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital who led the study.

Did drinking whole milk make the kids thinner, or are heavier kids drinking low-fat milk because they are heavier?

Source: Kids who drink whole-fat milk are leaner, study finds – Macleans.ca

Can memory be trained?

Here is another interesting article that asks whether memory training programs or products actually have any beneficial effects.

Today, in our health-conscious culture permeated by people eating kale, meditating, and working out, it seems tempting to regard the brain as just another muscle, one whose relevant parts can be “exercised” to keep them from getting flabby and plump. Memory exercises and meditation to the rescue! Puzzles, games, and challenges are today’s mental weights.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the results tend to show that the only benefits are very specific to what was actually practiced, and short lived. As the article points out, this is important because many people, including school systems, are paying money for these unproven products.

Source: Skeptic » Reading Room » Can Working Memory Be Trained to Work Better?

Detecting lies with questioning

124315322_efe6bf96ed_mThere has been lots of talk, and even a television show, about detecting lies by observing body language. But the actual support for this has been weak.

Here is an interesting article that describes how active questioning was far more powerful for detecting lies.

Here’s The Real Secret to Detecting Lies (And It’s Not Body Language) — PsyBlog.

Despite all the advice about lie detection going around, study after study has found that it is very difficult to spot when someone is lying.

Previous tests involving watching videos of suspects typically find that both experts and non-experts come in at around 50/50: in other words you might as well flip a coin.

Now, though, a new study published in Human Communication Research, has found that a process of active questioning yielded almost perfect results, with 97.8% of liars successfully detected.

Testing a paranormal power in Vegas

handHere is a detailed article on the steps used to test a paranormal claim for James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge. Although the claimed power was simple, the required testing was not.

The trials and tribulations of the 2014 James Randi Educational Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge..

Mr. Wang claims that he can project or transmit a power, force or energy, hitherto unknown to science, from his right hand into the hand of a receptive subject. The subject will be able to feel this energy as warmth, movement, tingling or other notable sensations in their hand. It is also claimed that this energy (possibly known as “Qigong”) can be transmitted through various materials including wood, plastic and metal. It is important to note that this claimed ability still works even if the subject is unaware of the direct actions of Mr. Wang.

On the surface of it, this may appear to be a relatively simple claim to test, but experience has shown us that even simple claims can be quite a task.

Does brain training really work?

There are a variety of products out there that claim to improve your cognitive functions through brain training — often in the form of games. The game of Sudoku is particularly popular among people who think it is important to keep their brain active. This article from Randi.org asks whether such brain training activities actually lead to generalized cognitive gains.

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If you practice Sudoku, does your memory and concentration get better, or do you just get better at Sudoku?

The research is mixed, but the overall pattern of research is converging on a particular nuanced answer. It seems that practicing a particular task improves your performance mostly on that task, and to a lesser extent on closely related tasks, but not beyond that to more general intellectual function.

There does seem to be a particular advantage to doing novel things – don’t get stuck in a rut, do a variety of things and add some new experiences and challenges to your life.

But don’t buy into neurosciencey hype about “brain training” and scientifically designed games that are allegedly going to be better for your brain than other similar games. There is no cheat, there is no short cut to becoming smarter or better. The more you work, the more you benefit.

Anti-science and Progressives

Here is an interesting article from Skeptic that asks whether conservatives or progressives are more anti-science. Common wisdom is that conservative thinkers are more anti-science, but this article reviews a book that demonstrates that progressive thinkers are also waging a war against science.

Let’s settle this thing once and for all—right here, right now. Who are more anti-scientific—Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or progressives? Conventional wisdom would have us believe—or at least so says science writer Chris Mooney—that Republicans have waged an unparalleled and all-out war on science.

Indeed, certain big business interests continue to see basic climate science as an entirely too inconvenient truth. And, yes, some religious leaders will likely always deny the facts of human evolution, abortion, homosexuality, and stem cell procurement and therapeutic cloning. Responsible journalists have documented and exposed these affronts to reason quite thoroughly with appropriate vigor.

But are progressives really so different? Not according to Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell. In Science Left Behind, the authors contend that American media have long bestowed a “free pass” on the political Left (primarily progressives), who are just as likely to “misinterpret, misrepresent, and abuse” science to advance their ideological agendas. In fact, the authors say, progressives are currently waging an “undeclared war on scientific excellence itself.”

 

Light a Candle for Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini was an escape artist, magician, and showman. He was also an important skeptic famous for exposing the simple tricks used by mediums of his time. This article explains why we should light a candle to Harry on Hallowe’en.

Houdini’s careers in magic as well as escapology, aviator, filmmaker and movie star, author, book collector, and magic historian, are all fodder for fascinating stories in their own right. But we should particularly honor, this and every Hallowe’en, his career as a skeptic. While the link between magic and skepticism preceded Houdini by at least three centuries in the written record alone (marked with the publication of the classic Elizabethan text, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, by Reginald Scot, in 1584), and other magicians of the Edwardian era spoke out stridently against spiritualism both in the United States and Great Britain, nevertheless, Houdini crystallized the role of the magician in critical thinking, and the importance of having qualified magicians present when investigating self-proclaimed psychics.