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A critical analysis of archeology leads to rejection of astrology, conspiracies, etc.
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.
I found this to be a great lesson in critical thinking. Check it out 🙂
How do you investigate hypotheses? Do you seek to confirm your theory – looking for white swans? Or do you try to find black swans? I was startled at how hard it was for people to investigate number sets that didn’t follow their hypotheses, even when their method wasn’t getting them anywhere.
This video was inspired by The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb and filmed by my mum. Thanks mum!
Four common types of analytical errors in reasoning that we all need to beware of.
Today we’re going to cover a bit of new ground in the basics of critical thinking and critical reasoning. There are several defined types of common analytical errors to which we’re all prone; some, perhaps, more so than others. Reasoning errors can be made accidentally, and some can even be made deliberately as a way to influence the acceptance of ideas. We’re going to take a close look at the Type I false positive error, the Type II false negative error, the Type III error of answering the wrong question, and finally the dreaded Type IV error of asking the wrong question.
By way of example we’ll apply these errors to three hypothetical situations, all of which should be familiar to fans of scientific skepticism:
- From the realm of the paranormal, a house is reported to be haunted. The null hypothesis is that there is no ghost, until we find evidence that there is.
- The conspiracy theory that the government is building prison camps in which to orderly dispose of millions of law-abiding citizens. The null hypothesis is that there are no such camps, until we find evidence of them.
- And from alternative medicine, the claim that vitamins can cure cancer. The null hypothesis is that they don’t, unless it can be proven through controlled testing.
So let’s begin with:
Type I Error: False Positive
A false positive is failing to believe the truth, or more formally, the rejection of a true null hypothesis — it turns out there’s nothing there, but you conclude that there is. In cases where the null hypothesis does turn out to be true, a Type I error incorrectly rejects it in favor of a conclusion that the new claim is true. A Type I error occurs only when the conclusion that’s made is faulty, based on either bad evidence, misinterpreted evidence, an error in analysis, or any number of factors.
In the haunted house, Type I errors are those that occur when the house is not, in fact, haunted; but the investigators erroneously find that it is. They may record an unexplained sound and wrongly consider that to be proof of a ghost, or they may collect eyewitness anecdotes and wrongly consider them to be evidence, or they may have a strange feeling and wrongly reject all other possible causes for it.
The conspiracy theorist commits a Type I error when the government is not, in fact, building prison camps to exterminate citizens, but he comes across something that makes him reject that null hypothesis and conclude that it’s happening after all. Perhaps he sees unmarked cars parked outside a fenced lot that has no other apparent purpose, and wrongly considers that to be unambiguous proof, or perhaps he watches enough YouTube videos and decides that so many other conspiracy theorists can’t be all wrong. Perhaps he simply hates the government, so he automatically accepts any suggestion of their evildoing.
Finally, the alternative medicine hopeful commits a Type I error when he concludes that vitamins successfully treat a cancer that they actually don’t. Perhaps he hears enough anecdotes or testimonials, perhaps he is mistrustful of medical science and erroneously concludes that alternative medicine must therefore work, or whatever his thought process is; but an honest conclusion that the null hypothesis has been proven false is a classic Type I error.
Type II Error: False Negative
Cynics are those who are most often guilty of the Type II error, the acceptance of the null hypothesis when it turns out to actually be false — it turns out that something is there, but you conclude that there isn’t. If you actually do have psychic powers but I am satisfied that you do not, I commit a Type II error. The villagers of the boy who cried “Wolf!” commit a Type II error when they ignore his warning, thinking it false, and lose their sheep to the wolf. The protohuman who hears a rustling in the grass and assumes it’s just the wind commits a Type II error when the panther springs out and eats him.
Perhaps somewhere there is a house that actually is haunted, and maybe the TV ghost hunters find it. If I laugh at their silly program and dismiss the ghost, I commit a Type II error. If it were to transpire that the government actually is implementing plans to exterminate millions of citizens in prison camps, then everyone who has not been particularly concerned about this (myself included) has made a Type II error. The invalid dismissal of vitamin megadosing would also be a Type II error if it turned out to indeed cure cancer, or whatever the hypothesis was.
Type I and II errors are not limited to whether we believe in some pseudoscience; they’re even more applicable in daily life, in business decisions and research. If I have a bunch of Skeptoid T-shirts printed to sell at a conference, I make a Type I error by assuming that people are going to buy, and it turns out that nobody does. The salesman makes a Type II error when he decides that no customers are likely to buy today, so he goes home early, when in fact it turns out that one guy had his checkbook in hand.
Both Type I and II errors can be subtle and complex, but in practice, the Type I error can be thought of as excess idealism, accepting too many new ideas; and the Type II error as excess cynicism, rejecting too many new ideas.
Before talking about Type III and IV errors, it should be noted that these are not universally accepted. Types I and II have been standard for nearly a century, but various people have extended the series in various directions since then; so there is no real convention for what Types III and IV are. However the definitions I’m going to give are probably the most common, and they work very well for the purpose of skeptical analysis.
A look at some of the flawed thinking that prompts people who believe in certain non-scientific concepts to advise others who don’t to be more open-minded.
A deceptive test to make people believe they are a conspiracy theorist.
A few months ago I came across the “You Know You Are a Conspiracy Theorist If…“ test (which I found to be laughable when I saw it) to help a person tell if they are a conspiracy theorist or not (view the test here).
I have some things to say about this “test” and some comments about “questions” that were asked (well, they’re not really questions) as well as a few questions of my own:
• You are capable of critical thinking.
This is a paradox. If a conspiracy theorist was capable of critical thinking, then they wouldn’t be a conspiracy theorist because people who are capable of critical thinking would figure out that a conspiracy theory was BS.
• You distrust mainstream media.
So do most skeptics, although for entirely different reasons than conspiracy theorists do.
• You like nature.
Lots of people do. What does this have to do with being a conspiracy theorist?
• You think it’s a good idea to spend the Friday after Thanksgiving with your family rather than camping outside Best Buy to get a cheap plasma television made in China.
That doesn’t make you a conspiracy theorist. That makes you someone who is smart enough not to waste their time in the cold waiting for some store to open in the hope of finding bargains.
• You think it’s a little strange that WTC building 7 came down at free fall speed on 9/11 yet it was never hit by a plane.
This might make you a conspiracy theorist, as well as someone who has conveniently forgotten that WTC7 was hit by something… a skyscraper.
• You think that drones in America might not be for Al Qaeda.
This might also make you a conspiracy theorist… or it might make you someone who knows drones that fly over America are also used for multiple benign purposes.
• You would like to be able to get on a plane without having to engage in a mandatory radiation bath and digital strip search.
As do many Americans, especially those who have gone through that process.
• You have read a book in the past year.
What does reading a book have to do with being a conspiracy theorist?
• You think you have the right to protest.
According to the first Amendment I don’t think I have the right, I have the right, period!
• You think the War on Terror is a scam.
That depends on what your definition of “scam” is.
• You think the War on Drugs is a scam.
Again, that depends on what your definition of “scam” is. Does your definition mean completely bogus and fraudulent, or wasteful and unnecessary?
• You think the anger directed at America from the Middle East could possibly be related to our foreign policy rather than hating how amazingly free we are.
This just means you’ve done more than five minutes worth of research about the Middle East.
• You think the Republicans and Democrats are exactly the same on the important issues affecting our country.
This could mean you’re a conspiracy theorist… it could also mean that you’re a Libertarian, or you’re just ticked off at both political parties.
• You think believing in The Constitution does not constitute a terrorist act.
Who the Hell believes that believing in the constitution is a terrorist act? The only people who believe that are idiots!
• You have heard of the Bill of Rights and can even name what some of them are.
As most Americans have and can…
• You question whether the government loves you.
The government is not a living entity. It neither loves nor hates, therefore it is pointless to ask if it loves you or not.
• You think the right to bear arms is not for hunting, rather so citizens can fight back should the government become a bunch of tyrannical thugs.
Yeah, this could mean that you’re a conspiracy theorist… it could also mean that you just don’t like the government, or you’re afraid that the United States “could” become a tyrannical dictatorship.
• You don’t own a television, and if you do, all you watch is RT, especially the Keiser Report and Capital Account.
(Reading that alone makes me wonder if this is satire) If all you watch on television is RT (Russia Today) then there is no need to finish this test. You are a conspiracy theorist.
- 5 Things I’ve noticed about… Conspiracy Theorists on Youtube (illuminutti.com)
- How “The Matrix” inspired Conspiracy Theorists (and Vice-Verse) (illuminutti.com)
- If the Government is shut down, then who is paying the shills? (illuminutti.com)
- 5 Things I’ve noticed about… Bizarre Conspiracy Theories (illuminutti.com)
- Has someone got to this conspiracy theorist? (thetimes.co.uk)
- Conspiracies – not “conspiracy theories” – are destroying democracy (veteranstoday.com)
For a moment there that headline might seem like preaching the converse of “The Secret”, the toxically ignorant book promoted by the toxically ignorant Oprah. But this isn’t about the notion that thinking bad – or good – thoughts produces bad or good results. That notion is just plain dumb. (It’s also hateful because it inescapably claims that bad things happen to people because they don’t think good thoughts.)
What I mean by “bad thinking” here however is poor thinking – the inability to think critically, the inability to understand or effectively utilize science and scientific reasoning. And when that kind of bad thinking is in effect, then in fact, very bad things do happen. Not to mention: to good people. And their children.
This was evidenced yet again a few weeks ago when a study published in the journal “Pediatrics” provided further evidence that the 2010 pertussis (whooping cough) outbreak in California was partly the result of increased numbers of parents opting out of vaccinating their children.
Sometimes too much education, too much disposable income, too much free time and above all, too much good medicine and good health, can lead otherwise seemingly intelligent people to make appallingly ignorant and hazardous choices. That appears to be the case evidenced by the new study. According to a story at salon.com (quoting a report on NPR):
“… a community loses herd immunity after the vaccination rate drops below 95 percent. In 2010, only 91 percent of California kindergarteners were up to date on their shots. The researchers found that in some neighborhoods, especially those with high income and education levels, exemption rates were as high as 75 percent.”
The significant point to understand about herd immunity is that the greater percentage of vaccinated community members in turn helps protect infants, who are too young to be vaccinated, and anyone else unable to safely be given the vaccine, from contracting the disease.
A piece in “Scientific American” points out that, “Unvaccinated individuals in the 2010 epidemic were eight times more likely to contract pertussis than vaccinated ones. But unvaccinated individuals pose risks to the community as well. ‘It’s a choice you make for yourself and a choice you make for those around you,’ Offit [Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia] says. “Infants need those around them to be protected in order not to get sick. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to our neighbors as well as to ourselves and our children.’”
So bad thinking does make bad things happen – and in this case, not just to the people doing the bad thinking, but to other people, and to other people’s children – and since I live in San Diego, my children are at risk thanks to that bad thinking. If you don’t think that science education and critical thinking skills are important, think again. If you don’t think the skeptic movement does important work, think again. If you don’t think that educating people about how to think about psychics and Bigfoot claims has a direct connection to the unnecessary medical risk my children face thanks to bad thinking – think again.
- Bad Thinking Makes Bad Things Happen (randi.org)
- Vaccination Opt-Outs Found to Contribute to Whooping Cough Outbreaks in Kids (scientificamerican.com)
- Vaccination Opt-Outs Found to Contribute to Whooping Cough Outbreaks in Kids. (zedie.wordpress.com)
- Combining Shots with the Pediarix Vaccine (pediatrics.answers.com)
- Health Officials: Marin Parents Opting Out of Vaccines Put Community at Risk (blogs.kqed.org)
- Flu Shot Side Effects And Vaccinations (pediatrics.answers.com)
- Vaccine Refusals Fueled California’s Whooping Cough Epidemic (npr.org)
- Doubting the Safety of Vaccinations: How safe are they? (vaccinesforchildren.wordpress.com)
- Vaccine-Refusing Parents Falsely Blamed for Whooping Cough Epidemic (activistpost.com)
- Unvaccinated kids hurt the people in your community (kevinmd.com)
A line of reasoning named for Socrates helps us help believers in the strange re-examine their beliefs.
Read transcript below or listen here
Of all the possible perspectives, beliefs, theories, ideologies, and conclusions in this world, which of them are beyond question? None of them. And neither should be any person who holds one of those positions. People believe all sorts of strange things, and even though they might be passionate about them, most will still admit that questioning their belief is an appropriate undertaking. Therefore, we — as scientific skeptics — have an available avenue by which we can always encourage believers in the strange to revisit their beliefs. Despite the fact that we may lack professional expertise in the subject at hand, we can still plant the seeds of an uprising of logic within the mind of the believer. One way to do this is through the application of Socratic questioning.
Returning to our fake example guys used in the past, Starling and Bombo, we can illustrate this concept. Let us choose an example scenario. If Bombo has seen a UFO and believes that it was an alien spacecraft, it would likely be difficult for Starling to reason him out of the idea by offering alternative suggestions. People are often pretty stubborn when it comes to personal experiences that they’ve already interpreted for themselves; Bombo saw an alien spacecraft, and telling him it was the planet Venus would probably be a dead end. Indeed, even offering lines of logic for Bombo to follow on his own would probably be refused. So is there any effective way at all of getting someone to consider a different explanation?
The answer is yes, and it involves getting Bombo to arrive at alternate explanations on his own. We’re all far more prone to accept our own ideas than someone else’s. Starling might well able to get Bombo to consider the idea that the UFO might not have been an alien spacecraft by employing Socratic questioning. Named (quite obviously) for Socrates — the ancient Greek philosopher (also quite obviously) — the Socratic questions are primarily teaching tools. Just as Bombo better accepts his own ideas, so do students of all types. Socratic questioning helps people to take a second, closer look at their own beliefs, and to apply critical thinking even when they least expect it.
There are six commonly described categories of Socratic questions, and they’re all good. You could familiarize yourself with any one of them, and you’d have a pretty good chance at changing Bombo’s mind, or that of anyone else who has made a conclusion based on faulty logic. An adept at all six types of questions would be a formidable reformer of popular pseudoscience believers.
Let’s begin with the first type:
- Skeptoid #384: Asking the Socratic Questions (skeptoid.com)
- Socrates Is The Most Influential Teacher In History (jasmineleigh17.wordpress.com)
- “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Socrates (terjanianpascal.wordpress.com)
- Socrates has a question for you… (therapyandstuff.com)
- it’s time to start thinking like Socrates! (newspaperprojectlangford.wordpress.com)
- Socratic Teacher Questioning in Science Classrooms (psychologytoday.com)
If you missed our first two videos, check them out:
This is volume 1 of The Con Academy videos—another resource in the Skeptics Society‘s arsenal of Skepticism 101 for teaching critical thinking and promoting science through the use of humor, wit, and satire. In this faux commercial for The Con Academy you’ll see how psychics count on the confirmation bias to convince people that their powers are real when, in fact, they are just remembering the hits and forgetting the misses. We also demonstrate how psychic “organizations” con people by taking their money for services that are not real.
- Psychic Sally Damages (In More Ways Than One) (illuminutti.com)
- Psychics…? They definitely saw me coming! (clarabella4.wordpress.com)
- Confirmation bias – ferreting favourable findings while overlooking opposing observations (scienceornot.net)