Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Friday, November 7, 2014

A Systematic Approach To Knowledge

Science is a systematic approach to knowledge; concerned with discovering reality, overcoming personal biases, avoiding superstitious and various other types of cognitive errors.  Proper use of the scientific method(s) leads us to rationalism (basing conclusion on intellect, logic and evidence). Relying on science also helps us avoid dogmatism (adherence to doctrine over rational and enlightened inquiry, or basing conclusion on authority rather than evidence), and leads us closer to reality.  Scientific processes/ methods are unmistakably the most successful processes we have for describing, predicting and explaining phenomena in the observable universe. If reality is your preference then science is the way. 

“Science is not the mysterious, distant, smoking-test-tube sort of a priesthood that many imagine it to be. Rather, it is simply an organized, formal method of finding out.”  James Randi
General approach
The scientific approach to knowledge is based on systematic empiricism (Stanovich, 2007).  Observation itself is necessary in acquiring scientific knowledge, but unstructured observation of the natural world does not lead to an increased understanding of the world. “Write down every observation you make from the time you get up in the morning to the time you go to bed on a given day. When you finish, you will have a great number of facts, but you will not have a greater understanding of the world” (Stanovich & Stanovich, 2003, p. 12).
Systematic Empiricism is systematic because it is structured in a way that allows us to learn more precisely about the world.  After careful systematic observations, such as those in controlled experiments, some causal relationships are supported while others are rejected. Extending these observations, scientists propose general explanations that will explain the observations.  “We could observe end-less pieces of data, adding to the content of science, but our observations would be of limited use without general principles to structure them” (Myers & Hansen, 2002, p. 10).
The empirical approach (as used in everyday observation) allows us to learn things about the world.  However, everyday observations are often made carelessly and unsystematically.  Thus, using everyday observations in an attempt to describe, predict and explain phenomena is problematic.
Observation
When observing phenomena a scientist likes to exert a specific level of control.  When utilizing control, scientists investigate the effects of various factors one by one.  A key goal for the scientist is to gain a clearer picture of those factors that actually produce a phenomenon.  It has been suggested that systematic control is the key feature of science.  Non-scientific approaches to knowledge are often made unsystematically and with little care.  The non-scientific approach does not attempt to control very many factors that could affect the events they are observing (don’t hold conditions constant).  This lack of control makes it difficult to determine cause-and-effect relationships (too many confounds, unintended independent variable). 
The factors that the researcher manipulates, in experimental research, to determine their effects on behavior are called the independent variables.  In its simplest form the independent variable has two levels.  A variable is manipulated when participants / subjects are assigned to receive different levels of the variable.    These two levels (or conditions) include the experimental condition; the condition in which the treatment is present and the control condition; the condition in which the treatment is absent.  Only with experimental research can we determine cause and effect (or probability of causal relationship).
The measures that are used to assess the effect of the independent variables are called dependent variables (Shaughnessy & Zechmeister, 1990).  Proper control techniques must be used if changes in the dependent variable are to be interpreted as a result of the effects of the independent variable. Scientists often divide control technique into three types: manipulation, holding conditions constant, and balancing.  We have already discussed manipulation when we looked at the two levels of the independent variable.   Holding conditions constant other than the independent variables is a key factor associated with control.  This helps eliminate the possibility of confounds influencing the measured outcome.
Balancing is used to control factors that cannot be manipulated or held constant (e.g. subjects characteristics).  The most common method of balancing is to assign subjects randomly to the different groups being tested.   An example of random assignment would be putting names on a slip of paper and drawing them from a hat (flipping coin or number generator may also be used for random assignment).  This does not mean there will be no differences in the subject’s characteristics, but the differences will probably be minor, and generally have minimal effect on the results. 
Reporting

How can two people witness the same event but see different things?  This often occurs due to personal biases and subjective impressions.  These characteristics are common traits among non-scientists.  Their reports often go beyond what has just been observed and involve speculation.  In the book Research Methods in Psychology (Shaughnessy & Zechmeister, 1990) an excellent example is given demonstrating the difference between scientific and non-scientific reporting.  An illustration is provided showing two people running along the street with one person running in front of the other.  The scientist would report it in the way it was just described.  The non-scientist may take it a step further and report one person is chasing the other or they are racing.  The non-scientist has a tendency to speculate more than the scientist.  This type of reporting lacks objectivity.
Scientific reporting attempts to be objective and unbiased.  One way to lessen the chance of biased reporting is checking to see if other independent observers report the same findings.  Even when using this checkpoint the possibility of bias is still present.  Following strict guidelines to prevent biased reporting decreases the chances of it occurring.  Totally unbiased reporting, rarely, if ever occurs.  Scientists are humans, and humans are susceptible to a wide range of conscious and unconscious biases. 

In part 2 additional characteristics of the systematic approach to knowledge will be discussed.
To learn more about science, rationality and statistics read In Evidence We Trust: The Need for Science, Rationality andStatistics 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Bad Evidence


When discussing evidence it is important to point out that Common Evidence (evidence in the context of everyday discussion) is drastically different than Scientific Evidence (evidence derived from scientific processes).   Common Evidence, generally consists of proof or testimony.  Webster’s New Dictionary of The English Language (2006) provides the following definitions for evidence:  “1: outward sign  2: proof or testimony.”  An outward sign, proof or testimony are ambiguous, and can mean almost anything.  From a scientific perspective, testimonials, anecdotes, they-says, wishful thinking and so on do not count for evidence.  Testimonials exist for almost any claim you can imagine.  That does not mean that claims of this sort have no value. However, they have little value in the context of science.  Experiences are confounded (confused by alternative explanations). Experiences may be important in some contexts, and they may serve as meaningful research questions.  However, a meaningful question or a possible future finding is not synonymous with evidence; although, in the future either could become evidence (Hale, 2013).  Scientific evidence is derived from scientific studies.  All scientific evidence is not created equal.  Many bad studies get published and many good studies do not get published. 

The contents of this article address scientific evidence. I address Common Evidence in a different article- Testimonials Aren't Real Evidence
  
Understanding research methods & statistics

Reading and understanding research methods and statistics are not easy.  For most people formal training may be necessary to gain a firm understanding of these relatively difficult subjects.  There are people that lack formal training, in these areas, that have exceptional knowledge on these topics. 

Scientific methods are the most powerful methods we have for discovering reality.  Statistics allows us to organize, summarize, and interpret research data collected from samples. In order to fully appreciate and apply the knowledge that has been acquired through the scientific process it is imperative to have a basic understanding of scientific research methodology.  Scientific Methodology-scientific techniques used to collect and evaluate data. 
    
It is important to understand that all research methods play an important role in leading us to tentative conclusions concerning how things work in the observable universe.  But, it also important to realize different types of research should be interpreted and applied in a different manner. As an example, the primary goal of correlation research is prediction, while the primary goal of experimental research is explanation / understanding (determining cause and effect relationships). 

Quantitative research is different than qualitative research.  With quantitative research the results are presented as numbers or quantities; qualitative research presents the results in words (Patten, 2004).  Knowledge of statistics is required if one is interested in understanding quantitative research.  For a detailed discussion on quantitative vs. qualitative research refer to - Understanding Research Methods by M.L. Patten and Health Psychology by L. Brannon and J. Feist. 

An understanding of research methods and statistics is attainable by most people.  However, it requires a lot of effort for most.   Understanding research requires more than reading an abstract, glossing over the Discussion section of a paper, or repeating what your favorite guru said about the results of a study. 

Bad Evidence

When considering the value of evidence, reliability and validity must be considered.  The type of study also needs to be considered. In addition, other factors should be considered when evaluating studies.  A concise discussion regarding reliability and validity is addressed here: Reliability & Validity  Refer to In Evidence We Trust (Hale, 2013) to learn more about evaluating research. 

It is imperative to recognize that not all scientific journal articles are quality articles.  Journals often publish poor studies.  And, good studies are sometimes not published.  Students in research methods and stats courses know there are a lot of bad studies published.  Students are often required to critique bad journal articles.  I hated doing this in graduate school.  However, it was great learning experience, and my ability to spot bad evidence was enhanced.   

In terms of evidence bad evidence can be thought of as no evidence.  Deciding the value of evidence is an intense intellectual activity and becomes increasingly difficult with complex studies. 

Experimental Research Fallacy

It is a fallacy that experimental research is always good research.  This fallacy is not generally explicitly stated, but may be suggested when only experimental research seems to count in regards to the discussion or topic being discussed.  As with other research methods, the reliability and validity must be considered along with additional factors that may impact the outcome or inferences regarding the outcome.  Considering internal validity (in addition to external, construct, and statistical validity) is important when evaluating experimental results.  Research methods, other than experiments, can provide valuable information, contrary to what some appear to think.  As an example, epidemiological studies were the first to detect a relationship between the behavior of smoking and heart disease (Brannon & Feist, 2010). 

If the goal is determining causation true experimentation is required. Some researchers suggest that some level of causation can determined using methods other than just experiments (Stanovich, 2007; Gore, 2013).  True experiments require tedious work and high levels of control.  However, experiments are not always practical or ethical.  Thus, one of the reasons other types of methods are needed.  If we didn’t have other research methods in addition to experiments many questions couldn’t be examined.   

Evidence Based Practice

Some people in the medical, educational, and fitness industry consider themselves evidence-based practitioners.  What is an Evidence Based Practitioner?  Consider the following illustration in relation to the medical field:  Research utilization (RU) overlaps with some of the same principles of an evidence based practice (EBP). However, EBP extends beyond the steps taken with scientific research.  Research utilization refers to the review and critique of scientific research, and then the application of the outcomes to clinical practice (Estabrooks, 1998).  Evidence-based practice (EBP) represents a wider concept. When clinicians utilize the EBP approach, they go beyond the expertise of clinicians and researchers, and consider the patient's preferences and values to guide patient care (Ingersoll, 2000).  This sort of ambiguous definition is problematic.  How can this concept be operationalized?  

Operationism (using operational definitions) removes the concept from the feelings and intuitions of an individual and allows it to be tested by anyone with the resources to carry out the measures (Stanovich, 2007).
When clinical recommendations are incongruent with statistical recommendations one should generally prefer statistical recommendations.  Refer to the following article to learn more about clinical vs. statistical prediction- When Experts Are Wrong  
 
Procedures for enhancing medical adherence may involve not only scientific findings.  Adherence to the program or treatment plan should be considered. The treatment provider and patient relationship should also be considered in terms of efficacy.  Research indicates a positive relationship between clinician and patient is often associated with a positive outcome (Benedetti, 2011)  Does one practicing medicine need to be well read in science to perform well as a clinician?  Of course, in order to understand and explain how things work a scientific understanding is needed.  But, recipe knowledge may work fine in regards to successful clinical practice.  
 
I have asked many of the self-proclaimed evidence based fitness crowd to provide a definition, or at least an approximate definition of evidence based fitness, but I haven’t even received an answer.  If there are no guidelines, criteria, or approximations of the concept- Evidence Based Fitness (EBF)- the concept is weak.  If this concept is hard to test or as some have suggested non-testable, then it is a non-scientific matter.  If what is implied by EBF is that some elements of the training program adhere to scientific findings then it is reasonable to suggest most successful programs are evidence based.  Just as successful diet programs are successful due to some scientific principles, whether the proponents of the diet programs are aware or not of what those principles are.  In addition to lacking a definition, other problems exist regards EBF- logical inconsistency, and no evidence indicating that clients of evidence based fitness practitioners has better outcomes.    

The following questions need to be addressed:

Do trainers need to be well read in science and statistics to be good trainers?
Isn’t a large part of fitness training artistic in nature?
Should evidence based practitioners ridicule people for making non-evidence based fitness claims, and then proceed to make irrational claims associated with other domains of knowledge?
What is the ultimate objective of the EBF crowd?  To be well read in science, to design quality training programs or both?
How can EBF be operationalized?  

Do those that call themselves evidence based fitness trainers understand research methods and statistics?

The evidence based fitness movement can have some positive implications- highlighting the importance of science, encouraging people to learn more about science, and encouraging thorough evaluation of popular fitness claims.

Conclusion  

Bad evidence is often published in science journals.  Understanding that not all scientific journal articles are created equal is imperative.  To reiterate, experimental research is one of many scientific methods.  Other methods can contribute to an understanding of the universe.    

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Emotion Influences Rationality

Rationality (critical thinking) has been a popular topic of discussion for many years.  There is a large body of literature-popular and scholarly-that addresses rational thinking skills.  Rationality is often misunderstood, and the word loses its importance when it is defined ambiguously. This confusion has contributed to a popular myth - emotional thinking inhibits rationality.

Cognitive scientists recognize two types of rationality:  instrumental and epistemic.  A simple definition of rationality is behaving in the world so that you get exactly what you most want, given the resources (physical and mental) available to you. The other aspect of rationality studied by cognitive scientists is termed epistemic rationality.  This aspect of rationality concerns how well beliefs are corroborated by actual evidence. Instrumental and epistemic rationality are related.  
 
Does emotion thwart rationality?  The claim that emotion inhibits rationality is not consistent with definition of rationality in modern cognitive science.  Instrumental rationality is behavior consistent with maximizing goal attainment.  There is no specific psychological process at work here.  Emotions may enhance instrumental rationality, or they may impede it. Emotions provide an approximation of the correct response.  If more accuracy than that is required, then a more precise type of analytic cognition will be required (Stanovich, 2009)  It is possible to rely too much on the emotions.  We can base responses on an approximation when what is really needed is a more precise type of analytic thought.  More often than not, processes of emotional regulation enhance rational thinking and behavior. 
 
Neurology of decision making 
 
People with damage to an area in the prefrontal cortex, the ventromedial area, are often irrational.  This is because their processes of emotional regulation are deficient (integration of cognition and emotion). Emotion is one of many tools of rational thought.
 
An emotion may be defined as a collection of changes in the brain and other parts of the body  triggered by a dedicated brain system that responds to one’s perceptions.  (Damasio 1994, 1999, 2003, 2005).  These changes range from modification of the internal environment and viscera that may not be perceived by an observer (e.g., endocrine activity, heart rate,  micro-sweating) to changes in the musculoskeletal system that may be obvious to an observer (e.g., posture, facial expression, specific behaviors such  freezing, aggression, voice variation and so on).  Humans have different types of emotional experiences. 
  
In the past 25 years, Damasio and colleagues have studied several patients with lesions of the ventromedial prefrontal (VM) cortex who showed impairments in judgment and decision-making.  The case of Phineas Gage spearheaded the way for the idea that the frontal lobes were associated with judgments, decision-making, social interactions, and personality.  There are reports of numerous cases of people with frontal lobe damage that show defects similar to those of Phineas Gage.  (As cited from Damasio, 2005- Brickner, 1932; Welt, 1888 ). 
  
“Patients with bilateral damage to the VM prefrontal cortex develop severe impairments in personal and social decision-making” (Damasio, 2005, p.337) .  They have difficulties planning their day, as well as difficulties in various types of social activities.  They do not learn from previous mistakes as reflected by perseveration of decisions that lead to negative consequences.
 
 VM patients generally produce average scores on  general neuropsychological tests, however, they have a decreased ability to express emotion and experience feelings in appropriate situations.  To reiterate, they demonstrate abnormalities in decision-making.  Emotions are key factors involved in the interaction between environmental conditions and decision making.
 
“The process of deciding advantageously is not just logical but also emotional” (Damasio, 2005, p. 368)
 
To learn more about rationality and scientific thinking refer to – In Evidence We Trust: The Need for Science, Rationality and Statistics (Hale, 2013).

  
 

 

 
 

Monday, June 23, 2014

All-Natural Mythology


Approximately 10 years ago I wrote an article discussing misconceptions about All-Natural Food.  Since then I have written numerous articles on the topic, and answered too many questions on All-Natural topics to discuss.  This will be my last article on the topic unless new research suggests findings that are incongruent with the current evidence.  That is, numerous, reliable, valid studies demonstrate the superiority of All-Natural.  It is time for Argumentum ad Naturam to R.I.P. 

Argumentum ad Naturam is a claim that something is better because it is natural or bad because it is unnatural.

Natural Toxins

Ricin, abrin, botulinum, and strychnine—highly evolved chemical weapons used by organisms for self-defense and territorial expansion- are just a few natural, but dangerous, toxins. Cicuta (Water hemlock)- another natural plant- is considered one of North America's most toxic plants, being highly poisonous to humans.  Every plant and microbe carries a variety of more or less toxic attack chemicals, and synthetic chemicals are no more likely to be toxic than natural ones (Silver, 2006; Hale, 2013).  Of course, many unnatural things are good- computers, medicines, vehicles, and so on.  The benefits that are afforded to us due to science and technology are often very unnatural.  I bet All-Natural proponents are not willing to give up these unnatural things.   

All Natural Inconsistency

The word natural is sometimes considered synonymous with the word good.   If one believes something is better BECAUSE it is natural, in order to demonstrate logical consistency one must assume natural is better than unnatural in each case.  Natural disasters or diseases are not your friends.  Nature is indifferent to you and I.  Natural diseases are often treated with synthetic treatments (unnatural treatments).  In many contexts (too many to mention) suggesting All Natural is better is considered absurd. Consider the following- When collecting water from a stream it is recommended that the water should be purified before drinking.  This purification of the water reflects chemical processes, and the water is usually purified using some type of tablet or water purifying device.  These processes change the natural condition of the water.  


Chemical Ignorance

The chemical reality is “everything is made of chemicals.”  Often man-made chemicals are safer than the so-called natural ones.  Every living molecule inside every living organism is created through chemical reactions. And the natural chemicals contained in organically grown coffee, pepper, mushrooms, apples, celery, potatoes, nutmeg, and carrots present a greater risk of cancer to people than DDT, DDE, or Alar, three pesticides that are banned in the United States and many other countries (Silver, 2006). 

You, your pet, your family, friends and so on are a combination of chemicals.  Consider the amount of chemicals making up a 60-kg person: oxygen- 39 kg, carbon- 11kg, hydrogen- 6 kg, nitrogen- 2 kg, and calcium- 1 kg (Timberlake, 1999).   Those chemicals make up approximately 98% of your body.  Oxygen is found in water, carbohydrates, fats and proteins.  Carbon is found in carbohydrates, fats and proteins.  Hydrogen is found in water, carbohydrates, fats and proteins.  Nitrogen is found in proteins, DNA and RNA.

The chemical reality is there is an extensive, systematic regulatory process involved with determining which chemicals can be used in foods, medicines, beauty products and other substances. 

Organic food

There is overlap between organic and All- Natural food concerns.  Would you be surprised to learn- aectaldehyde, benzaldehyde, benzene, benzo (a) pyrene, benzofuran, caffeic acid, catechol, 1,2,5,6-dibenz (a) anthracene, ethylbenzene, formaldehyde, furan, furfural, hydroquinone, d-limonene, 4-methylcatechol, styrene, toluene–are natural carcinogenic and DNA–damaging chemicals present in a cup of certified organic coffee. (Gold et al., 1992)?

The Institute of Food Technologists issued a Scientific Status Summary on the organic foods industry (Winter, 2006). Below are some of the key points from the Summary:

Organic fruits and vegetables possess fewer pesticide residues and lower nitrate levels than do conventional fruits and vegetables. In some cases, organic foods may have higher levels of plant secondary metabolites; this may be beneficial with respect to suspected antioxidants such as polyphenolic compounds, but also may be of potential health concern when considering naturally occurring toxins. Some studies have suggested potential increased microbiological hazards from organic produce or animal products due to the prohibition of antimicrobial use, yet other studies have not reached the same conclusion.

While many studies demonstrate these qualitative differences between organic and conventional foods, it is premature to conclude that either food system is superior to the other with respect to safety or nutritional composition.

This review illustrates that tradeoffs exist between organic and conventional food production. Organic fruits and vegetables rely upon far few pesticides than do conventional fruits and vegetables, which result in fewer pesticide residues, but may also stimulate the production of naturally occurring toxins if organic crops are subject to increased pest pressures from insects, weeds, or plant diseases. Because organic fruits and vegetables do not use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, they have more biochemical energy to synthesize beneficial secondary plant metabolites such as polyphenolic antioxidants as well as naturally occurring toxins. In some cases, food animals produced organically have the potential to possess higher rates of bacterial contamination than those produced conventionally since organic production generally prohibits antibiotic use.

Conclusion 

Natural is not safer or better than unnatural.  The belief that natural is better is a faith based belief.  Faith, implies belief in absence of evidence.  

Be sure to read the Recommended Readings given below.  I will probably receive a plethora of comments regarding this article.  However, as stated in the beginning of this article I plan on dedicating minimal time to addressing this topic further.  Please do not send comments such as:  I don’t care what anyone says All-Natural is safer than synthetic-  In fact, you do care what someone says, or why else would you believe this.  You really mean you don’t care about what science says, or what people that disagree with you say.  My opinion is- this is not an article dedicated to opinions.  Science is not always right- I agree, but it doesn’t claim to be.  My family member ate some  fruit (non-organic)  and it caused extreme sickness.  Causal claims can only be derived from experimental research, that has a high degree of internal validity, and even then those claims are not absolute.  Of course, members of the general public have no idea what internal validity is, nor are they expected to.  Researchers engage in systematic, painstaking research design in an effort to establish internal validity.  In short, causal claims based on personal experience are problematic and demonstrates a lack of knowledge regarding the criteria required for determining causation.  

The plethora of current scientific evidence does not indicate All-Natural is better.    

Coming Soon! All-Natural Mythology Seminar 

References available upon request

Recommended Readings

The Preference for Natural  

Knowledge and Nonsense: The Science of Nutrition and Exercise 

Organic Food: The Real Story

Why Natural Is Not Always Better

Challenging Nature

Chemical Illiteracy

Myth of Hormone-Free Meat
 


Monday, May 5, 2014

Dialogue with the "Science Goddess"


It was my pleasure to speak with Joanne Manaster (A.K.A. the "Science Goddess") about her passion- Science. 

Do you have a favorite video you have done? 

I have several that I am glad I have done, but my "Blood Cell Bakery" series is one of my favorites for the material shared and the deliciousness of the cookies! I also had great fun filming "Cats in Sinks" as an exercise in describing basic concepts that scientists use, primarily that of using models in science to get to information somewhere between theory and direct experimentation. Involving my kids and one of the family cats at the time was also enjoyable.

Why does Joanne love science?  Why should others love science?  

My site was developed in a time when there were many challenges in my life and during a period of self-examination, I basically asked myself what would NEVER change, no matter the circumstances, and that was "Joanne Loves Science", because I always had, since I was young, found myself fascinated by the wonders of the world and universe. 

As far as others loving science, it certainly would be ideal, but others might contend that people should love "accounting" or "history" or just about any other topic. Even if you are not in a place to love a particular topic, you should have enough appreciation for how the topic works to make it useful to your life. 

What are your thoughts on the new Cosmos?  How does it compare with Sagan's version?

I watched Sagan's Cosmos in high school and really enjoyed it. There was a depth to Carl Sagan that was palpable, and something about him was worthy of looking up to and emulating. He really brought something smart to TV.

I've only seen the first two episodes of the new Cosmos. It is certainly beautiful and full of information. I've heard from science teachers about the enthusiasm it is stirring up among their students, so that is a positive sign!

What is the biggest (or at least one of the biggest misconceptions) misconception about science?

The biggest misconception I encounter is that "Only smart people can do science" or "Only smart people like science". Many people who hold this perception perhaps were surrounded by others (teachers, parents, friends) who didn't like science or felt they 'weren't good at science' when they were young. Kids pick up on reticence like that, especially from their elementary school teachers, many of whom have humanities leanings. These exposures color their view of science and leave them too intimidated to even attempt to engage in science, assuming they won't understand it. Very often, it takes the influence of someone who is interested in science and passionate about it to reverse other input from a person's early years. I think that is what most science communicators are trying to do.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I would hope that I can continue traveling the world to do more science outreach. I am beginning to turn my eye towards promoting science as a force for good, much as The Gates Foundation is doing, and may even work on a video series showcasing how science is improving the lives of so many in the world, especially in the developing world, and the special challenges faced to implement scientifically sound ideas and technologies in those areas.

What projects are you currently working on?  Are you modeling any these days?

Modeling is way in the past. It is definitely a young person's field and I don't have time amidst my job and outreach to be hunting after modeling gigs. However, if I were offered an appropriately science themed commercial or PSA, I would consider it.

In addition to my position at the University of Illinois as a faculty lecturer for the Online Master of Science Teaching Biology program for high school and middle school teachers, writing for SciAm, and sharing very cool science with the public on social media, my latest project is one called "Read Science!" where my cohost Jeff and I interview authors of popular science books. Some of our notable guests include Mary Roach, Buzz Aldrin, E.O. Wilson, Temple Grandin and Chris Hadfield. It is such a pleasure to speak to these articulate and intelligent folks who reveal a lot not only about the topic they wrote about, but how to go about communicating to the general public the concepts of science that can be tricky to grasp at times. I am thrilled they will take time out to speak to us!


To learn more about Joanee check out her site Joanne Loves Science

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

You've Been Bamboozled!

Being bamboozled is synonymous with being duped, tricked, fooled, deceived, etc.   Everyone has been bamboozled and will probably continue to be bamboozled on occasion.  There is no foolproof way to avoid it.  However, learning to think scientifically, rationally, statistically, and accepting the fact that everyone is susceptible to cognitive errors may lessen the tendency to be bamboozled.      

This is the first in a series of articles highlighting popular examples of bamboozlement.   You have been bamboozled if you believe:
That low carb diets are superior to All other diets
Low carb diet enthusiasts claim their diet is supreme to other methods. They claim their diet offers a metabolic advantage-"metabolic advantages that will allow overweight individuals to eat as many or more calories as they were eating before starting the diet yet still lose pounds and inches" (Atkins, 1992). In addition, advocates claim overproduction of insulin, stimulated by high CHO intake, is the cause of obesity. Other claims include: low carb diets result in weight loss, fat loss, improved body comp, and improved health. Simply put, low carb dieting is superior to other forms of dieting, according to many low carb advocates.

Low carb diets have been shown to improve the conditions previously mentioned, but isn’t it true other diets offer some of the same benefits? And in some cases aren't low carb diets successful due to calorie manipulation and not some metabolic advantage? Or are low carb diets simply the way to go across the board
Low carbs and weight loss

Studies consistently show that weight loss is primarily determined by caloric intake, not diet composition (Hill et al.,1993)

In all cases, individuals on high-fat, low-CHO diets lose weight because they consume fewer calories (Freedman et al. 2001)....
Homeopathy is a real medical treatment
Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, developed homeopathy in the late eighteenth century. He did so because of his dissatisfaction with the conventional medicine of his time.

Hahnemann suggested two key principles. First, he asserted that “like cures like.” In other words, a substance that produces certain symptoms in a healthy person can be used to cure similar symptoms in a sick person. Second, he claimed that very small doses of a remedy would be effective. Hahnemann diluted the remedies in a process he named potentization. He would take an original natural substance and dilute it numerous times. Between each dilution, he would shake the remedy. Shaking supposedly released the cure’s healing energy....
 
Homeopathy: Less is More

When making decisions trust intuitive thinking
Intuition has its place in the world. But believing it is a reliable cognitive device in most situations that we should trust more often than not is sure to get you into trouble. Relying more often on intuition instead of reasoning is not something that I believe is supported by our current psychological understanding and research.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Nonsense Detection Kit

The impetus for writing the Nonsense Detection Kit was previous suggestions made by Sagan (1996), Lilienfeld et al. (2012) and Shermer (2001).  The Nonsense Detection Kit is referring to nonsense in terms of “scientific nonsense”.  So, nonsense as it is referred to here refer to “nonscientific information” that is often perpetuated as scientific, when in fact it is not scientific. 

The Nonsense Detection Kit provides guidelines that can be used to separate sense from nonsense.  There is no single criterion for distinguishing sense from nonsense, but it is possible to identify indicators, or warning signs.  The more warnings signs that appear the more likely that claims are nonsense.     

Below is a brief description of indicators that should be useful when separating sense from nonsense.  These indicators should be useful when evaluating claims made by the media, on the Internet, in peer-reviewed publications, in lectures, by friends, or in everyday conversations with colleagues.   

Nonsense indicator- claims haven’t been verified by an independent source  


Nonsense perpetuators often claim special knowledge.  That is, they have made specific discoveries that only they know about. Others lack know how, or do not have the proper equipment to make the finding.  These findings are often reflected in phrases such as, “revolutionary breakthrough”, “what scientists don’t want you to know”, “what only a limited few have discovered”, and so on.  These findings are not subject to criticism or replication.  That is not how science works.  When conducting studies it is imperative that researchers operationalize (provide operational definition- precise observable operation used to manipulate or measure a variable) variables so the specifics can be criticized and replicated.  Non-scientists are not concerned with others being able to replicate their findings; because they know attempted replications will probably be unsuccessful.  If a finding cannot be replicated this is a big problem, and it is unreasonable to consider a single finding as evidence.  It is also problematic when only those making the original finding have replicated successfully.  When independent researchers using the same methods as those used in the original study are not able to replicate this is a sign that something was faulty with the original research. 

Nonsense indicator- claimant has only searched for confirmatory evidence


The confirmation bias is a cognitive error (cognitive bias) defined as tendency to seek out confirmatory evidence while rejecting or ignoring non-confirming evidence (Gilovich, 1991).  Confirmation bias is pervasive, and may be the most common cognitive bias.  Most people have a tendency to look for supporting evidence, while ignoring or not looking very hard for disconfirmatory evidence (showing a dislike for disconfirmatory evidence).  This is displayed when people cherry pick the evidence.  Of course, when you’re a lawyer this is what you need to do.  You don’t want any evidence entering into the case that may be incongruent with the evidence you present.  However, as a scientist it is important to look for disconfirming evidence.  In fact, it has been suggested that a good scientist goes out of their way to look for disconfirmatory evidence.  Why look for disconfirmatory evidence?  Because when discovering reality is the objective it is necessary to look at all the available data, not just the data supporting one’s own assertions.  Confirmation bias occurs when the only good evidence, according to the claimant, is the evidence that supports their claim.  Often, perpetuators of nonsense may not even be aware of disconfirmatory evidence.  They have no interest in even looking at it.  

A study by Frey & Stahlberg (1986) examined how people cherry-pick the evidence.  The participants took an IQ test and were given feedback indicating their IQ was either high or low.  After receiving feedback participants had a chance to read magazine articles about IQ tests.  The participants that were told they had low IQ scores spent more time looking at articles that criticized the validity of IQ tests, but those who were told they had high IQ scores spent more time looking at articles that supported the claim that IQ tests were valid measures of intelligence.  

Scientific thinking is structured to minimize confirmation bias.  The late Richard Feynman (Nobel Laureate, Physics) suggested that science is a set of processes that detects self-deception (Feynman, 1999).  That is, science makes sure we don’t fool ourselves.   

Nonsense indicator- claimant does not adhere to the standard rules of reason and research 

A large number of nonsense advocates do not even know what the standard rules of reason and research is, let alone adheres to them.  They often lack any training in research methodology, and are ignorant to the accepted rules of scholarly work (Shermer, 2001).  Consider the following example provided by Shermer (2001, p.21). 

Creationists (mainly the young-earth creationists) do not study the history of life.  In fact, they have no interest in the history of life whatsoever since they already know the history as it is laid down in the book of Genesis.  No one fossil, on one piece of biological or paleontological evidence has “evolution” written on it; instead there is convergence, they have to abandon the rules of science, which isn’t difficult for them since most of them, in fact, are not practicing scientists.  The only reason creationists read scientific journals at all is to either find flaws in the theory of evolution or to find ways to fit scientific ideas into their religious doctrines.

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Other Nonsense indicators featured in the Nonsense Detection Kit: personal beliefs and biases drive the conclusion, excessive reliance on authorities, use of logical fallacies, cannot be falsified, avoidance of peer review, overreliance on anecdotes, extraordinary claims, and use of excessive “science sounding” words or concepts. 

The complete Nonsense Detection Kit is featured in the book- In Evidence We Trust: The Need for Science, Rationality and Statistics.  

References are available upon request