Tag Archives: Ars Technica

Critical thinking is one for the history books

A critical analysis of archeology leads to rejection of astrology, conspiracies, etc.

By via Ars Technica

The world as a whole has become increasingly reliant on science to provide its technology and inform its policy. But rampant conspiracy theories, fake news, and pseudoscience like homeopathy show that the world could use a bit more of the organized skepticism that provides the foundation of science. For that reason, it has often been suggested that an expanded science education program would help cut down on the acceptance of nonsense.

But a study done with undergrads at North Carolina State University suggests that a class on scientific research methods doesn’t do much good. Instead, a class dedicated to critical analysis of nonsense in archeology was far more effective at getting students to reject a variety of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. And it worked even better when the students got their own debunking project.

The study, done by Anne Collins McLaughlin and Alicia McGill, lumps together things like belief in astrology, conspiracy theories, and ancient aliens, calling them “epistemically unwarranted.” Surveys show they’re widely popular; nearly half the US population thinks astrology is either somewhat or very scientific, and the number has gone up over time.

You might think that education, especially in the sciences, could help reverse this trend, but McLaughlin and McGill have some depressing news for you. Rejection of epistemically unwarranted ideas doesn’t correlate with scientific knowledge, and college students tend to have as much trouble coming to grips with reality as anyone else.

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Out-of-body experiences are harder to remember

Researchers use virtual reality gear to mess with subjects’ perspective

by via Ars Technica

image: Fox Entertainment

image: Fox Entertainment

If you think about it, memory is an astounding thing. At will, our brains can dig back through the archives and pull out the sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and emotions from a day long gone. All those memories have one pretty obvious thing in common—everything about an experience is recorded from a first-person perspective. But what happens if your memory is not in first-person.

Some people go through what is commonly referred to as “out-of-body experiences,” where they feel a sense of detachment from their body as if they were somehow floating above it. This and related “dissociative” phenomena can be a part of posttraumatic stress disorder or schizophrenia, for example. The people who have out-of-body experiences often seem to have difficulty recalling these experiences with the usual amount of detail. That could be a clue about how our memories work, but how could you design an experiment to test the possibilities?

obeLoretxu Bergouignan and Henrik Ehrsson of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and Umeå University’s Lars Nyberg have an answer. They utilized a setup that simulates the feeling of an out-of-body experience by transporting a subject’s perception of sight and sound across the room. (Science writer Ed Yong has first-hand knowledge of this non-first-person experience.) Subjects wear a virtual-reality-like display connected to stereo cameras and microphones that can be placed elsewhere. Under controlled conditions (holding still, etc.) the illusion can be quite profound.

In order to test the effect this has on memory, the researchers staged situations intended to be memorable. The participants—64 university students—were given some reading materials on several topics and told they would be given an oral exam. After they studied up, they donned the virtual reality gear. The cameras were placed in a few different configurations: either just above and behind the student’s head to match a normal perspective, on the opposite side of the room pointing back at themselves, or a few feet to their right. To reinforce the out-of-body illusion, one person walked up to the cameras and repeatedly extended a rod toward a point below them while another poked the student’s actual chest synchronously.

At this point, a professional actor playing the role of an “eccentric professor” entered the room, sat in a chair facing the student, and began to  .  .  .

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How the attempt to sequence “Bigfoot’s genome” went badly off track

bigfoot right there
Humans interbred with an unknown hominin in Europe, then crossed the Bering Sea — say what?

by via Ars Technica

finding-bigfoot_250pxWhen we first looked at the report of the bigfoot genome, it was an odd mixture of things: standard methods and reasonable looking data thrown in with unusual approaches and data that should have raised warning flags for any biologist. We just couldn’t figure out the logic of why certain things were done or the reasoning behind some of the conclusions the authors reached. So, we spent some time working with the reported genome sequences themselves and talked with the woman who helped put the analysis together, Dr. Melba Ketchum. While it didn’t answer all of our questions, it gave us a clearer picture of how the work came to be.

The biggest clarification made was what the team behind the results considered their scientific reasoning, which makes sense of how they ran past warning signs that they were badly off track. It provided an indication of what motivated them to push the results into a publication that they knew would cause them grief.

Melba Ketchum and the bigfoot genome

The public face of the bigfoot genome has been Melba Ketchum, a Texas-based forensic scientist. It was Ketchum who first announced that a genome was in the works, and she was the lead author of the paper that eventually described it. That paper became the one and only publication of the online journal De Novo; it’s still the only one to appear there.

The paper itself is an odd mix of things. There’s a variety of fairly standard molecular techniques mixed in with a bit of folklore and a link to a YouTube video that reportedly shows a sleeping Sasquatch. In some ways, the conclusions of the paper are even odder than the video. They suggest that bigfeet aren’t actually an unidentified species of ape as you might have assumed. Instead, the paper claims that bigfeet are hybrids, the product of humans interbreeding with a still unknown species of hominin.

bigfoot_200pxAs evidence, it presents two genomes that purportedly came from bigfoot samples. The mitochondrial genome, a small loop of DNA that’s inherited exclusively from mothers, is human. The nuclear genome, which they’ve only sequenced a small portion of, is a mix of human and other sequences. Some are closely related, others quite distant.

But my initial analysis suggested that the “genome sequence” was an artifact, the product of a combination of contamination, degradation, and poor assembly methods. And every other biologist I showed it to reached the same conclusion. Ketchum couldn’t disagree more. “We’ve done everything in our power to make sure the paper was absolutely above-board and well done,” she told Ars. “I don’t know what else we could have done short of spending another few years working on the genome. But all we wanted to do was prove they existed, and I think we did that.”

How do you get one group of people who looks at the evidence and sees contamination, while another decides “The data conclusively prove that the Sasquatch exists”? To find out, we went through the paper’s data carefully, then talked to Ketchum to understand the reasoning behind the work.

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