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

Research groups’ useful social function is not “being scientific”

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The LA Times reports on the MUFON conference with the headline “convention emphasizes scientific methods”. The reporter then skewers this idea by showing how at least some of the attendees have thoroughly embraced the idea of alien visitation and human-alien hybridization. Oh my. (Read about a scientist’s experience in attending a MUFON conference here.

The reporter doesn’t have to go to the fringe to point out the sham of science here. It’s more basic than that – rooted in popular misunderstanding about what science is and what scientists do.

UFO researchers, including MUFON, were included in my study of ARIGs (amateur research and investigation groups). I looked at how they use the concept of science and being scientific in their activities. In this article, we see some common devices come up: they emphasize the “precision of a scientist” and the use of devices; they document reports, they are “professional”. All that is fine but certain critical components of being scientific are missing. Continue reading

Stunning findings about origin of mountain lion killed in Connecticut

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This post originally appeared on the Keystone Society for Rational Inquiry blog.

In a followup to this story Connecticut officials have reported some “amazing” news.

…they said that the Connecticut Cougar had made its way east from the Black Hills of South Dakota and that genetic testing matched samples of an animal confirmed as having been in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

That means that the animal traveled more than 1,500 miles to Connecticut, more than twice as far as the longest dispersal pattern ever recorded for a mountain lion. The news stunned researchers trying to make sense of the first confirmed presence of the species in Connecticut in more than a century. Many believed that the animal must have been released or had escaped from captivity.

Daniel C. Esty, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said that the journey was a remarkable and positive reminder of the ability of wild animals to survive and adapt, but that there was no evidence that mountain lions were returning to the state.

“This is the first evidence of a mountain lion making its way to Connecticut from western states, and there is still no evidence indicating that there is a native population of mountain lions in Connecticut,” he said.

But the finding may add at least a smidgen of mystery or paranoia to dozens of reports of similar creatures in Connecticut and the Northeast, most of them investigated and then dismissed as mistaken impressions. Before the animal was reported seen in early June in Greenwich, the last confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in Connecticut was in the late 1800s.

This news means that the animal passed through Pennsylvania en route to Connecticut.
Continue reading

On the shoulders of giants: Using references

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Science as knowledge is cumulative. It is built upon that which was discovered by those that came before. The profession of science relies on getting (and giving) credit where it’s due and demonstrating you know what the heck you are talking about (1).

Good nonfiction books (not just science books) have references to show that the authors have based their writings on the foundation of what others have established and they acknowledge those authors for their work.

I use a list of references in a book or paper to judge the quality of the research. A nice comprehensive list not only shows that the author was diligent about citing sources for their info (i.e., was a careful researcher), but also tells me that he/she has made an effort to become familiar with the literature that’s already out there. This process is called literature review and it’s a primary step in doing scientific research. It sort of makes you “well versed” which you ought to attempt to be before writing a book of your own. Continue reading

Scientific or Scientifical?

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About half of all amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs – those self-forming groups that do ghost hunting, Bigfoot searches, cataloging of UFO sightings, and other paranormalia) on the Internet say they use scientific methods and equipment and/or their field is based in science. [1]

As one who actually did scientific work in a lab (geochemistry) and geologic investigations, I had a hard time with their claims about scientificity. To be scientific, in a strict sense, there is no substitute for academic training. Long ago, we exhausted all the relatively simple ways of learning about the world and science rocketed out of the reach of amateurs. Now, like it or not, science takes a big effort – careful planning, funding, collaboration and eventual publication so that results can be critically evaluated by the community. In Western society, science is a privileged method of inquiry. The public generally understands that the methods of science are rigorous and the results are authoritative. So, to say that one is “scientific” is to set a very high bar. I could not help but wonder just how close to the bar these ARIG participants could get. So, I looked at their websites and read their publications. Continue reading

Young Earth Creationists’ sneaky strategy to be scientifical

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Earth magazine has an intriguing and disturbing article by Steven Newton describing how geologists, who actually represent the Institute for Creation Research, the Discovery Institute and Christian universities, subtly promote the view that Noah’s flood was responsible for geological observations in the American West. Their new strategy is to give talks, posters and guide field trips at a premier geologic conference.

How can this be? Well, if you’ve ever been on one of these field trips, you know they can be a jargony nightmare. Even as a professional, when it comes to very specialized terms and labeling used in petrology and sedimentology, vocabulary is wicked tough to learn and remember. If this is your introduction to a particular feature or region, you look to the expert guiding the trip to provide you with information. You likely do not have enough background yet to form good questions or recognize some dubious interpretation.

The article’s author, a director for the National Center for Science Education, went on the trip run by five co-leaders. The Creationist content was not openly disclosed. Continue reading

Balticon: Scientifical and Real Mad Scientists

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Balticon is a conference done by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. I was asked to participate in their new mini-skeptic track that was developed by Marv Zelkowitz of the National Capital Area Skeptics (NCAS). I thought it was a success. Throughout the day I was there, on Sunday, I saw a big skeptical respresentation. But, also, there were many people who hold that critical, thoughtful mindset but don’t associate themselves with that community. I was glad to speak to them.

My talk was on Being Scientifical: Amateur Research and Investigation Groups. I looked at 1000 web sites of these groups in the U.S. who investigate ghosts, UFOs, cryptids, and general paranormal phenomena. By mimicking science, or doing what they think is science (hence “scientifical”), amateur investigation groups appear serious and credible to the public. This image is effective in selling the public the idea that they find legitimate evidence of the paranormal. It’s concerning.

Continue reading