It’s my blog, quit throwing spitballs

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The Internet allows people like me to put my views and opinions out there. In return, I must accept criticism of them. Criticism is the primary means to locate and fix errors; to make progress.

Everyone gets commentators that simply don’t like what you said in your post. It’s a struggle to know when to be “fair” in accepting and addressing criticism and where to draw the line, rejecting there ever-lengthening, obfuscating remarks?

Call me traditional, but if I disagree with a blog post or article, I like to have backup for my opinion – a reference or a coherent argument, for example. Not so for many people who comment on a science-based post. I think the problem is that they are not on the same page. Literally. They do not read it with the same worldview in which I wrote it.
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The “ghost” who moved the chair and killed the dog

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A family in the U.K. (Coventry) say they have a poltergeist or mischievious ghost in their home. The story was reported in the Daily Mail.

Those who believe in the supernatural use stories like this to bolster their worldview that there is more to nature than we can explain with our earth-bound laws. I’m not a supernatural believer. I’m going to play armchair skeptic here and point out the various flubs to illustrate how one can view these stories with a critical eye. It’s not meant to be disrespectful towards the people in the story or those who wrote it, however, it’s worth emphazing that the media does not always give us the information we need to truly make a sound conclusion. They aim, instead, to give us a good story.

I see a number of places where what is stated makes little sense and immediately raises questions… Continue reading

Warnings of impending danger: Science and Social Factors

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Those who consider prediction* a part of their research and responsibility range from weather forecasters to seismologists and volcanologists. Warnings of impending danger cause predictable social and economic effects that must be considered along with the primary goal which is safety. If a disaster prediction is wrong, several million people might be unnecessarily affected (Olsen, 1989) and the region may suffer economic losses. If it is correct, but delivered inadequately, disaster is inevitable.

Accuracy of predictions is based on what is possible to observe and data that can be collected. For example, hurricane predictions are very accurate because scientists have extensive weather instruments and well-tested forecasting techniques to use. Volcanic hazard areas and those prone to tsunamis are mapped based on zones identified through historical records – scientists can find geologic evidence that the land was affected by lava, ash or debris flows.

For some forecasted events (such as volcanic eruption and severe weather), there is time to deliver the message and prepare for the event. The worst situation is certainly earthquakes because there are no widely accepted precursors and data-based forecasts are long-term probabilities — relatively unhelpful for short-term preparation. With the potential for large seismic events to kill huge numbers of people, earthquake prediction theories have been particularly problematic and fraught with ethical dilemmas for the scientific community, public authorities and media. Continue reading

The big difference between earthquake prediction and forecasting

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I previously posted about how it’s unethical to endorse dowsing if you are a geologist bound by a professional code that includes using the best scientific procedures and evidence. Condoning a process which is scientifically questionable or invalid is a breach of this code.

A similar argument can be made for earthquake prediction. There have been several instances where scientists (and many more non-scientists) have predicted through various means when and where an earthquake will occur. Currently, there is a storm of criticism leveled at author (not scientist), Simon Winchester after he wrote this article strongly suggesting without evidence that the Pacific coast area is next in line for a big quake due to the strain at “a barely tolerable level” (whatever that means).

These next two blog entries will explore natural disaster prediction. First, it’s important to distinguish between prophesizing, predicting and forecasting. Continue reading

Firsthand account of going to grad school: UB’s Science and the Public program

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In the past two years, as a participant in the University at Buffalo’s Science and the Public masters’ degree program, I’ve had a number of people ask me what it’s like. At least two people [one a complete stranger] sought me out to answer their questions and concerns before deciding to enroll! I guess I was convincing. Full disclosure: I’m not a recruiter. I get no kickback from this.

Specific details about the program are hard to find – the workload, the classes, the “feel” of it. So, I thought it might be helpful to other curious people to provide a first hand account of what you might expect and, in my opinion, what to consider when deciding if it’s for you. Continue reading

Dowsing: An unethical geologic delusion

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Last week, I was preparing a talk about ethics to a group of future professional geologists. It’s a tough topic but really is the foundation of any avocation; one is expected to follow the ethical code of that profession to be included as a valid member.

One item they may have found a bit odd is my discussion of frauds, hoaxes and delusions. There have been only a few really well known frauds in geology. Frauds are perpetuated by greed and a need for professional recognition. Some examples are forged fossils or mineral speculation schemes. Hoaxes are sometimes jokes gone wrong or attempts to obtain notoriety or some minor monetary rewards. Again, fake fossils are common. Both frauds and hoaxes are intentional deception. Trust can be scientists’ Achilles heel. We don’t expect other scientists to lie or be less than honest in their work. So, it can be very easy to take advantage of them. [I am reminded of Randi's successes in exposing how scientists are so easily scammed by conjuring tricks and shoddy controls.]

Delusion is slightly different from frauds and hoaxes in that one is not being deceived by another, but by oneself. It is an honest belief that one has found a truth or is doing something real. The delusion that immediately comes to my mind regarding geological practice is dowsing. Continue reading

Building a wall with values

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Throughout the day, I’m reading books and news stories and listening to podcasts. This week, I saw a recurring theme in my media selections: values and the entrenched position.

I guess I was predisposed to thinking about it. I spent last week preparing a lecture on ethics for a professional licensure exam review. I included a bit on bias in science and the ooze of politics into the scientific endeavor.

I came across an article about last week’s EPA hearing on regulating greenhouse gases where opposing sides (which happened to be along party lines…surprise!) brought their scientific experts to argue their points. Continue reading

Psychic fail. As usual.

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In a world where we crave the answers to life’s great questions and order from chaos by any means, people love psychic predictions. Too many STILL believe psychics have some credibility. Here is a stark reminder of why that belief is complete and utter nonsense:

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It “appears as if” the world is ending

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Remember that the year began with mass animal deaths? It continued with revolution in the Middle East. And, poor Australia was hit with the wrath of the gods. (What did you guys do? Just kidding.) Now, we have catastrophic earthquakes – one after another – and a wicked tsunami. With all the political turmoil and natural disasters this year, it would appear as if the world is being ripped apart, socially and physically.

“Appear as if” are the important words to consider. It depends on the perspective you take.

People mostly get their news from the media. The media gives attention to unique things, stories that affect certain groups of people or important people. They don’t always cover events that affect A LOT of people if those people aren’t considered important (remote, poor, unknown).

Once a story is in the news, the topic becomes important. I’m calling this the Google Alert effect. Continue reading

Miracle Detectives Followup – I love the internet

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I had a fabulous online talk with Miracle Detective co-host Indre Viskontas.

She was kind enough to contact me via email after seeing my initial post on this blog back in April 2010 when the show was cast. I followed up to tell her my thoughts on the show (on The Oprah Network). I thought she would make a great interview for SheThought website so here is one version of an interview.  More of the interview will be appearing in a future issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

I learned a lot from listening to her. Continue reading