Category Archives: Science & Skepticism

Framing and Perception: Using Skepticism to Avoid Being Deceived

We’ve all heard the expression there’s two sides to every story. It implies that one side is the truth, and the other side is lying. While that can be true, it can also be that both sides are right, and are both just leaving out crucial factors. It could be that neither side is right, and the truth is something else entirely. It could be that one side is right, and the other believes they’re right, but are simply mistaken. And most commonly, it could be a matter of opinion, and there simply isn’t a right or wrong in the first place.

The point of skepticism, is to be able to consume information in such a way that you are least likely to be deceived, or make bad assumptions. Thus leading to more intelligent decisions, and typically better outcomes for you. Let’s look at some examples.

In April of 2019, it was reported in several news outlets that just eating one slice of bacon can increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 20%. You can see one instance of this report from CNN here. CNN was not dishonest in this reporting, that data is true.

But when you click the actual study, and apply a little skepticism (and some math), you might look at it a little differently.

There were 475,581 participants in the study, and a mere 2609 case of cancer reported among all participants. So if one group is 20% higher than the other, that means it’s approximately 45.4/54.6 split (45.4/54.6 = 120.2%, or 20% more).

54.6% of 2,609 = 1,425 (0.29% of the total group)

45.4% of 2609 = 1,184  (0.24% of the total group)

So while 1,425 is indeed 20% more than 1184, out of the total group or people observed (475,581) a mere 0.55% contracted colorectal cancer. A total of 241 more were the bacon eaters, or a mere 0.05% overall increase (0.29% vs 0.24%).

An almost entirely insignificant 0.05% or 241 out of 475,581 people doesn’t sound nearly as scary as 20%, does it? But scary sells news media, and journalists are rarely scientists.

This problem isn’t entirely about science, because you can apply these same skills to a myriad of things you’ll read or see in the media.

Imagine a news story we’ll call statement A with a headline that reads, “Woman courageously does all that is needed to put food on the plate for her child.”

Female Shoplifter

But then imagine a different news outlet runs a different headline we’ll call Statement B that reads, “Woman fired for drinking while at work, stole unhealthy snacks and booze from a grocery store.”

Statement A makes her sound like a hero, but Statement B tells a very different story. Both can be 100% true, but the context changes how you feel about the story entirely.

The point of all this are to make you think about any news story you read, and maybe think about changing the way you consume information. So here’s a couple of ideas on how to improve how you consume information.

  • Avoid click-bait headlines from sources you’ve never heard of, or that you know are openly biased. You know they’re all almost entirely bullshit. So why waste your time on them? The good ones will link to credibly sources, and you should click on those to read the whole story, if you do go down that road. But in general, if people stop clicking on clickbait, the people doing it will respond to the lack of demand for it, by ceasing to make it.
  • Read the article and not just the headline. Even reputable sources have resorted to click-bait headlines just so you’ll read their stories over the nonsense from non-reputable sites. You’re missing a lot of context and nuance if you don’t read the story. Not to mention, you look silly when you add your own comment that clearly shows you didn’t read the article.
  • Any story that says something like, “The such-and-such that such-and-such doesn’t want you to know” or “Person A destroys person B” is bullshit. All of it. Like every single one of them.” Stop sharing that nonsense. Seriously.
  • If you see a story and it seems pretty amazing, but you aren’t seeing it on reputable sources, I assure you, some podunk website did not scoop Reuters or AP. It’s bullshit that they didn’t vet properly, or worse, that they just made up.
  • Check a second source. This one is huge. If you see a story on a site that’s kinda reputable but not great, look for it on a site like Reuters or AP. If you confirm from multiple reputable sources, then it’s probably true. But if it’s multiple sources with the same bias, you should probably still avoid it.
  • Think about what’s being said in the story, and could there possibly be another way of looking at it.  For instance, if I told you France gets 75% of its energy from nuclear, where the United States only gets 20%, you could easily assume that France is a leader in nuclear energy compared to the United States. But if I told you France has 58 nuclear power facilities whereas the United States has 98, you’d think the US is the leader. Both are true, but both tell a different story. So it pays to dig into the data when you can, and form your own opinion based on all the information.

    Nuclear Power Plant Emits Only Water Vapor

Hopefully this helps you think about how to consume news differently, and prevents you from being that embarrassing friend on social media always sharing bullshit articles everyone but you seems to know isn’t true. You’ll thank me later. 🙂

 

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Famous People and Their Causes

This may surprise you, but famous people have opinions. Gwyneth Paltrow believes a jade egg shoved in a woman’s hoo-hah somehow makes her healthier (click the link, because it doesn’t).

A large majority of Hollywood believe Trump is basically satan, and many black athletes have taken a knee during the national anthem because they believe the police are too quick to shoot a young black man.

Gwyneth Paltrow/Chris Martin and Family

When they have these opinions, being someone who is used to being in the spotlight, they rarely shy away from sharing their feelings on any given subject—using their bully pulpit to encourage others to follow their lead.

There are a few important facets to these expressions of beliefs that I feel are worth discussion.

First things first. They have a right to an opinion, and they should share such an opinion if they’re passionate about it. They should be shown respect for speaking out on something that’s important to them. Their success means that if it is a cause worth fighting for, they can shine a light on a subject that us non-famous people simply don’t have the ability to do.

I’ve seen the Twitterverse often have regular people telling athletes with an opinion on politics to “Just shut up and play (insert their respective sport here)”, or people tell British physics Professor Brian Cox, who’s quite vocal about Brexit, to “just stick to science.”

Professor Brian Cox

I understand why people might feel this way, since such famous people are not famous for politics, and thus not presumed to be experts on the subject. But politics isn’t science, it’s entirely driven by subjectivity. Meaning one person’s opinion is just as valid as another. And as a libertarian, anyone who speaks truth to power (even if I think they’re misinformed on what is truthful) is still doing something noble.

By all means, make the effort to correct them if you think they’re wrong on the facts, but people should do so respectfully, and applaud anyone with a voice for speaking out.

Phil Mickelson spoke out against California and its high taxes, and was blasted as being an elitist. So what! He’s earned his money with his work ethic. Most people will ever know how hard it is to be that good at anything, and I assure you it didn’t happen with a mere 9-5, 40 hours a week effort.

PGA Tour Golfer Phil Mickelson

Colin Kaepernick started a movement to call out when officers shoot unarmed black men, and little repercussions occur as a result, something we should all be bothered by when it happens. We can quibble over whether some of the shootings he rallied against were justified, some may have very well been, but it does happen nonetheless, and we shouldn’t excuse it.

But all that being said, people should understand that being famous doesn’t make you an expert and thus adds no additional credibility to their argument, versus your neighbor who may be espousing the same opinion, (unless they’re an expert in the field.)

So while we should not discourage them from speaking out with things like, “just shut up and play your sport” or something like that, please bear in mind that you shouldn’t be blindly following them either. You shouldn’t assume they’re in command of the facts, and that the information they provide is truthful. The only thing you could presume to be true, is that their heart is in the right place, and they mean well.

Just about every issue is way more complicated than any non-expert understands. So listen to what people say, but apply your own skepticism, and if you care about the issue, take the time to look up credible sources on the issue, forming your opinions based on them. Doing something, or believing in something because a famous person told you to, is irresponsible at best.

America, Australia, and Guns – My 2nd Visit to Sci-Gasm Podcast

On this episode, my best friend Mike  (a non-active duty Marine) speak with Wade and Byrne from Sci-Gasm about guns, gun culture, and why we love them so much here in the US. But it’s really a conversation on how to discuss controversial topics like gun laws as well.

CLICK HERE and give it a listen!

Everything I Wanted To Know About GMO’s

Last year, Kevin Folta, host of Talking Biotech agreed to let me grill him on all the questions I have about gene editing, GMO foods, and genetic engineering in general. I’m a layperson, he’s most definitely not. His qualifications in the field are pretty well documents, and only the hardcore anti-GMO crowd doubts him, but they’re a bunch of zealous twits who are at level zero on the objectivity scale.

Kevin took all my questions and answered them in a way, hopefully everyone can understand.

 

CLICK HERE and give it a listen!

 

Logically Fallacious – The Misuse of Logical Fallacies

People who fancy themselves as intellectuals often take pride in citing someone’s argument for being a logical fallacy. While it’s good that people are aware of logical fallacies, and know the value of avoiding them in reasoned debate, it appears many know the words, but don’t necessarily understand what they so eloquently recite.

Logical fallacies are ways people make arguments, where they make a definitive statement, as if something must be true or false, when the argument may be either/or.

For instance, there’s the Tu Quoque Fallacy which translates to “you too” is basically that just because someone doesn’t do the thing they said you should do, doesn’t mean it’s invalid. For people not familiar with the name of this fallacy, they might simply argue someone is guilty of  “do as I say, not as I do” hypocrisy.

Imagine I advise you not to drink alcohol, citing all the health issues that go along with it. That is genuinely good advice. Even if I drink myself, it doesn’t mean it’s bad advice. So arguing that because I drink, it must mean that my argument that drinking is bad for you must be invalid, or I wouldn’t drink myself.

These are matter-of-fact statements which is what the tu quoque fallacy seeks to correct. However, it’s not applicable to subjective claims.

For instance, if I say that I believe drinking is immoral, and then I drink anyway, and someone criticizes me for it, they’re not committing the tu quoque fallacy, they’re just rightfully calling me out for being a hypocrite.

In the first example, I made a factual statement, the second example I shared an opinion.

Another example where logical fallacies are mis-attributed is when people assume the answer is binary, in that it must be true or false.

For instance, imagine I say that someone wants to legalize marijuana because they just want to smoke it themselves. That’s a logical fallacy, arguably either a Non-Sequitur, or a Strawman fallacy, depending on how it was presented, because it’s entirely plausible that such a statement is not true.

Click Image for more info

However, that doesn’t mean it is automatically false, either. And this is where many people who correctly cite the argument as logically fallacious go into their own logically fallacious whole, by assuming it must not be true.

What may be logically fallacious may still be more likely than not, or at least plausible. It’s just a logical fallacy because the person who made the argument, argued as if it must be true, which is false. It’s merely plausible.

So I applaud everyone for trying to be a better debater, or for educating people (and themselves) on logical fallacies. It’s just important not to go down your own logically fallacious hole doing it.

A Critical Look At Political Correctness, the Easily Offended, and Why We Should Change This Culture

Political correctness is a term that typically evokes annoyance and hatred from almost anyone who hears the term. Yet despite this nearly universal hatred for it, political correctness seems to be as pervasive as ever.

As an example, in 2017, the TV show Bates Motel, a TV adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 epic thriller Psycho, opted to rescript what is arguably the most famous scene in movie history. The story is about a man (Norman Bates) who suffers from multiple personality disorder. Aside from his own personality, he would also take on the persona of his mother, a psychopathic killer who would murder women she felt were immoral.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1622408a)
Psycho (On Set)
Film and Television

When Norman became his mother, he would often dress up as her, and in the original and now famous shower scene, where a young woman is stabbed to death by Norman during a schizophrenic episode, he was wearing his mother’s dress.

However, the Bates Motel show runners, for fear of offending the trans-gender community it seems, opted to not have Norman (played by Freddie Highmore) wearing his mother’s clothes. The argument being they didn’t want to paint transgender people in a negative light. On the face of it, this can sound fair, but political correctness always does at first.

Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates – A&E Series Bates Motel

The first issue should be glaringly obvious. Norman Bates wasn’t transgender, he was schizophrenic with multiple personality disorder. He wasn’t a man who identified as a women. In his mind, he was his mother. So the show runners, for fear of offending people they weren’t even depicting, made the scene less accurate, out of irrational fear.

The referenced article above shows the writers clearly understood this, but the fear of offending someone and having the show be attacked by those who misunderstood the show’s intent was so great, they decided not to risk offending them.

In general, the idea of political correctness can be broken down into a couple of camps.

  • One is a selfless reason—you don’t want to offend someone because you’re a good person, and you just don’t like offending people.
  • The other is selfish—you have concerns that it might harm your brand or business if people happen to be offended. You don’t so much care that they’re offended, but if they make a lot of noise in attacking your business (or you personally), you’re concerned it could harm you financially when they do so. The above example falling into the latter camp.

If either camp is genuinely trying to avoid offending people, why is this a problem, then? Shouldn’t that be a good thing? The answer is a little murky, but let’s dig into the dirt a bit.

The Straw Man Argument

You may have heard of the logical fallacy known as the straw man argument. If not, click the video above from PBS. But the Straw Man Fallacy principle also applies to those who are easily offended.

Imagine I said, “I like Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president in 2012 and 2016.” Full stop. Now imagine a Trump or Clinton supporter who hears my statement, then gets offended and responds to me, “Oh, so you think Hillary/Trump is a bad person then? You’re a horrible person.”

Hopefully you see the problem here. I didn’t say anything about Hillary or Trump, and it’s genuinely quite possible I like all three people. So they’re mad at a straw man version of my argument, not what I actually said and intended.

This is why being easily offended is often the problem of the person who chose to mischaracterize your argument and be offended by it, and not the problem of the person who said something they were offended by.

For this reason, it’s important we not coddle such people, and give their behavior credence. They’ve made a mistake, and condoning and/or excusing that mistake doesn’t help anyone. Worse yet, it creates a whole new problem.

Factitious Disorder Imposed On Self (Munchausen Syndrome) is a condition where people claim to be ill in some way, when they’re either making it up, or they’ve actually harmed themselves, in order to gain sympathy for their illness from people who don’t know they’ve done it to themselves.

Many people who claim to be offended may not actually be offended per se, but much like those who suffer from factitious disorder, have learned that by proclaiming they’ve been offended on social media or some other public forum, gain sympathy from their followers, fans, or friends. They’re being conditioned to be offended about things going forward to attain even more attention (sympathy), creating this downward spiral of dishonest dialogue, fake outrage, and people who are afraid to be speak their mind.

So just by the virtue of it not even being honest outrage, or an honest assessment of the thing that outraged them, it’s already an illogical and potentially immoral condition. But this isn’t where the negatives end.

The Wisdom Of The First Amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances

U.S. Constitution: 1st Amendment

As most people know, the first amendment of the US Constitution wasn’t written so we can discuss the weather freely, nor to believe things we all believe. Our founding fathers understood you should have the right to say something offensive if it’s what you truly feel or believe. You should also be encouraged to speak truth to power when leaders say things that simply aren’t true.

This was of course about freedom from prosecution by government for saying such things, but the logic of protecting that speech is important outside of first amendment constraints as well. If people are afraid to speak their mind, you’ll never learn what they’re thinking. They might have ideas that could change the world, or at least maybe your world view—hear them out.

Martin Luther King Jr. for instance, was saying things we understand are true and not controversial now, but were quite controversial then. So much so, he was murdered over them. But you can go a lot further back in history to see why this is important. Galileo for instance, was famously convicted of heresy, and sent to jail for his arguments about the nature of our solar system. He described heliocentrism—the idea that our sun is at the center of the solar system, and not the Earth, as the Catholic church believed at the time. Not only is this not controversial now, only the most delusional of people think it isn’t fact.

Galileo

While some things may be controversial forever, many things that are edgy today, will almost assuredly be commonplace tomorrow, and this should be deemed as typically a good thing. People are often afraid of change, but adaptation is the key to survival, and free speech is key to having the discussions that help us to evolve our way of thinking as time goes on.

Political correctness and being easily offended are the biggest detriment to these discussions, and reasonable people should make an effort to ensure such discussions aren’t quashed by aggressive social justice warriors.

As for how to fix this, the answer isn’t attacking people verbally with insults and such, that’s not going to win over hearts and minds. Technically, I’m arguing that you do nothing. No really, don’t do a thing. if someone gets upset, and demands apologies because they were offended, don’t say a thing. Let them realize no one agrees with them by not agreeing with them.

If you see attention-seeking behavior like this in general, the best thing you can do is simply not respond to it. It’s like the urban legend version of Ferberizing a baby, letting them cry it out alone, but with adults. (Ferber didn’t actually argue for letting kids cry it out. His actual arguments are here.)

These people are seeking attention. If you don’t give them any, they will be conditioned to not waste the energy for their ineffective technique. We made it effective in the first place, we can make it ineffective, too.

Internet Troll

There will surely be a knee-jerk reaction  to respond by either giving in, if you’re not buying into my idea that it’s a problem, or to troll by lashing out at them for behaving childishly. You would think that those options are opposite each other, but the fact is that they’re both attention. And if you respond negatively to it in an effort to get them to “grow up,” others who don’t share your view (and mine) will sympathize with them even more because you were such a meanie to them.

Now that we’ve talked about how to stifle the political correct and easily offended, how do we promote the reasons for stifling them in the first place?

Also a pretty simple answer. Talk. Not yell or attack, but have respectful discourse with people. If you’re the type to avoid discussions that might get contentious, don’t. If they can’t respond in kind, then again, go back to not responding.

You can also stand up for facts. If someone says something you know isn’t true, chime in respectfully, and let them know they may be incorrect. Cite sources for extra credit. If at any point the conversation devolves, again…walk away. If enough people do this, eventually, reasonable discourse can and will prevail.