Nasty pseudoscience and counterproductive behavior

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I have a new Sounds Sciencey piece up. This one took a good bit of work – it’s a book review as well as an analysis of an issue in scientific circles, the labeling of fields or works as “pseudoscience”.

Have a look: The Trouble with Pseudoscience—It Can Be a Catastrophe.

Pseudoscience is what one might call a two-dollar word. Skeptics often throw it around because of its weightiness and the values it transmits. We need to talk about this word, where it came from, and why we should be cautious about using it.

gordin_coverI describe how this plays out through the book, The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel  Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe.

Those new to the skeptical community may come in through a very different door than I did. Many are interested in specific topics they want to dig into right away. There is so much current info – websites, blogs, podcasts – to digest, it seems like they are unaware of some of these classic fringe ideas. This is a good one to learn and know. It can teach us many things. Having researched the concept of “pseudoscience” before, I found myself cringing a bit whenever the word was casually used. I hesitated to use it myself because it’s poorly defined and has no objective criteria on which to judge a field or piece of work as legitimately scientific or non-scientific. But it IS clear that the word and the concept is very useful in a social sense. We can disparage fields or works or people by labeling them in this way. It clues others in that this thing is nonsense and not worth pondering. That’s a hazard but for the most part, it works pretty well. There is little sense is taking astrology, phrenology, homeopathy, etc. seriously in terms of how nature works. But it is worth taking seriously if we are talking about the public perception of science.

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There is something alive down there. Troglobite!

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Several years ago, I put a downhole camera into a borehole that I suspected was drilled into a network of rotten rock, riddled with widened fracture and small caves, possibly a cavern (karst). The system was fed by surface stream leakage but sustained by what was estimated to be a very extensive hydrogeological system across the watershed (possibly more than one).

While the camera was decending, I noticed a void space in the rock possibly about a 6-8 inches across. Right after that feature, I found a white, multi-legged critter along the borehole wall who seemed not at all enthused that I was invading its space with light and movement. Shocked, I watched it retreat out of view. The camera resolution was not very high and I had no way to collect it for study. I did have the low res video, though. Later, I was able to determine it was a cave isopod, a troglobite. The closest known cave entrance was about 6 miles away. How did its ancestors get there? At that moment, I was the first person to see this creature ever. Its presence, a pleasant surprise, told me there was an actual ecosystem under there of which I previously had no idea existed.

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Science appreciation class

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Several years ago, while learning about the problem of science illiteracy, I discovered something of critical importance: You can’t get people engaged and enthusiastic or even respectful about a subject if they don’t see any value or connection to themselves.

Kids aren’t going to do well in high school science classes (or even choose to take those classes) if they feel no love for science. It is too late to instill that into them, perhaps. Besides, only a VERY small percentage of the kids would actually go on to become scientists. They probably don’t need biology, chemistry and physics knowledge to succeed in their eventual careers.

Yet, there is tremendous VALUE in knowing how science works. There is also a critical value in appreciating WHY science is one of humanities’ greatest inventions. It’s the process that produces the most reliable knowledge. It’s the best way we know how to learn what’s true about nature.

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Bad pharma and research bias: A talk by Ben Goldacre

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Today, I’d like recommend a TED talk by Dr. Ben Goldacre. His book Bad Science is one that I consider a must for every skeptic’s library and should be a must read for any student of science.

Ben has a new book out in the UK (the US edition is scheduled for later in 2013) called Bad Pharma.

In this talk, he describes precognition research by Daryl Bem‘s and then focuses primarily on academic medicine and publication bias. Continue reading

Better living without chemistry?

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My latest article for my Sounds Sciencey column is about chemistry. Or, more precisely, how it is viewed by the public.

There is this thing you might see on labels of products ranging from baby health goods to fertilizer: “CHEMICAL FREE”. But what does that even mean? I say it’s meaningless and is harmful for consumers.

Over the last 4 decades, the idea of chemistry has gotten a terrible reputation. People just don’t like chemicals. Yet, they certainly don’t understand that EVERYTHING we eat or drink or use in our showers or on our bodies is made of chemicals. Everything we use or wear is derived from a chemical process. To be without chemistry is to not exist. Our bodies run on chemistry.

The word “chemical” has been hijacked to mean “toxic”. And “toxic chemicals” has become a buzz word for environmental and health movements against everything from fracking to vaccines. That’s dangerous. In order to be an informed consumer and citizen, when talking science terms, you need to understand what you are actually advocating for or against. When you say “toxic chemicals,” what science-trained ears perceive from you is “this person is not scientifically literate”.

So, I advocate not to fall into the hype of “chemical-free”. Check out my piece and see how we got here as a society and what can be done about it.

Bad Reaction: The Toxicity of Chemical-Free Claims

Did zoo animals predict the Virginia earthquake? Look closer.

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A day after the east coast earthquake (now forever to be remembered by me as “the best birthday present ever!”), the Smithsonian issued a press release about the behavior of animals at the National Zoo, more than 80 miles from the epicenter of the quake. Some media outlets reported on the news as “animals go wild”, “animals went berserk”. Many said “how animals predicted the quake”.

All of those are wrong.

What really happened? Continue reading

Today’s edition of being scientifical: UFO research and homeopathy

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Ever on the lookout for scientifical examples, here are two that I thought were interesting.

The first relates to my interest in amateurs being scientifical. UFO researcher Budd Hopkins presented the results of a study he conducted at a conference about UFO abductees. According to Robert Sheaffer (Skeptical Inquirer V. 35 No. 3 May/June 2001 p 25-27), he was roundly taken to task. Hopkins devised an image recognition test supposedly to determine if children were being abducted. He also conducted a Roper poll to find out how many Americans believed they have been abducted. His research lacks the basic protocol of credible research. Why? Hopkins is not a scientist. Continue reading