Category Archives: Skepticism & beliefs

Understanding false beliefs

truth wordsThere have been many discussion recently about belief in false facts. This phenomenon has shown up both in politics and in science.

In order to understand why people persist in believing things that are demonstrably false, you have to consider the psychology.

…[C]onsider whether the following statements are true or false:

– We only use ten percent of our brains.
– We lose most of our body heat through our heads.
– If you swallow chewing gum, it will stay in your system for seven years.
– Cracking your knuckles will give you arthritis.

If you answered “true” to any of these, you’re guilty of believing falsehoods.

Read more at:
Why Do People Believe Things that Aren’t True?

The economics of the Loch Ness monster

monsterJust in time for tourist season, there has been another sighting…

Study after study has shown there is nothing in the loch that resembles a monster. But the locals desperately wish to keep it alive. I would love to visit Loch Ness for the mythical feel and historical context, but mostly for the geology and beauty. There is no monster in the loch except for the one that has to be fed by tourist cash.

Money monster of Loch Ness must be fed

The psychology of anti-vaccine beliefs

Here is an interesting article on understanding the psychology of anti-vaccine beliefs.

The anti-vaccine conspiracy theory holds that vaccines cause a long list of ills. This is taken as a given, an article of faith. Everything else necessarily flows from that premise. If vaccines cause disease, then the pharmaceutical industry must know it. They have done the research. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to assume that corporations are hiding inconvenient information to protect their profits.

But then the narrative necessarily gets darker. Not only must pharmaceutical executive know that vaccines are causing harm, it must also be true that the medical profession knows as well. Who do you think is conducting that research? They review the data, and they make recommendations for treatment. The government must be involved as well, because they regulate vaccines. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reviews the published science and makes recommendations for the vaccine schedule. So they must be in on it.

Source: The Anti-Vaccine Narrative Just Gets Darker – Science-Based Medicine

Risk perceptions

An interesting introduction to a new book by Geoffrey C. Kabat on the psychology of risk perceptions.

…we have been encouraged to worry about deadly toxins in baby bottles, food, and cosmetics; carcinogenic radiation from power lines and cell phones; and harm from vaccines and genetically modified foods… When looked at even the least bit critically, many of the scares that get high-profile attention turn out to be based on weak or erroneous findings that were hardly ready for prime time.

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 –

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?