Category Archives: Science & Skepticism

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.

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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.

Analysis: Are Science and Scientists Often Wrong?

When debating some controversial science claim, I’ve often heard people argue that “scientists are always wrong.” Usually it’s from those arguing for some “thing,” medicinal or otherwise, that’s supposed to make your life better, but seems to fly in the face of science, or at least isn’t backed by any reputable study.

For example: people arguing marijuana (or at least some of its chemical constituents) kills cancer, but “western medicine” wants to keep you sick with things like chemotherapy, so they’re suppressing the evidence. Something I largely debunked here with just a little critical thinking. So I don’t need to rehash that specific point again.

But what I do want to cover, is the notion that scientists are often wrong. If you were to ask this question, and require a simple “yes” or “no” answer to whether scientists are often wrong, the answer I suppose is “yes, yes they are.” But that’s partly by design, and this is an important part few seem to understand.

If you were to ask most people outside the science community what science is, they’d probably conjure up people in a lab with beakers mixing chemicals together, and hoping that by combining bleach, marijuana, gluten-free wheat, and organic apple seeds, somehow, you’ll have a cure for any particular rare condition that ails you.

But what is science really? It’s a method—thus the moniker “the scientific method.” It’s a means by which you can most likely find the truth about something.

This is WAY oversimplified, but it basically goes like this:

  1. You observe something in the world, and go “Hmm?” Emphasis on the question mark.

This is how science starts—people have questions.

Non-scientists will often answer them with something complicated and/or supernatural like gods or aliens, if they’re struggling to find a more natural answer to their question. Others just make a random guess based on what they think is most likely the best answer, and go with it, evidence-be-damned.

Why?

Because science is hard work, and moving on past this phase requires far more than just imagination.

Scientists however will assume nothing until there is evidence of something. So if they’re compelled to answer the question, they’ll move to phase 2.

2. You gather as much evidence as you can on the thing you saw.

From this point forward, we separate the scientists (or skeptics like myself, since I’m not a professional scientist) from the non-scientists, because non-skeptics/scientists stopped after phase 1 when they opted for a guess.

If there’s no evidence to gather, sadly your work here is done, and you must accept that you don’t know. Think of cryptozoology, like Bigfoot ‘experts” or ghost hunters and such. They have no evidence to test (like an actual bigfoot to observe and test—alive or dead), yet they make claims anyway which are always pure speculation.

So whatever they’re doing, trust me, it isn’t science. Using scientific words, and scientific equipment doesn’t make one a scientist, following the rules of the scientific method does.

3. If you are able to gather evidence, you form a hypothesis, what a layperson might call an “educated guess,” based on the evidence you’ve gathered.

This forming of a hypothesis is different from a guess, in that it is based on the evidence you’ve gathered so far, and none of the evidence gathered should be contrary to your hypothesis.

A guess is often just what you think is most likely, but isn’t always weighed against the evidence you have. You see this often in political or religious debates, where people have an ideology, and any evidence they’ve gathered so far, if it doesn’t support their ideology, is thrown out as if the evidence must somehow be flawed. It’s a process called confirmation bias, and sadly we all do it. Especially if we’re not even aware it’s a thing, and that we should avoid it.

4. Here’s where those beakers might come in. Time to do some testing.

Now here’s the interesting part. If you’re a scientist, you try to prove yourself wrong. Yeah, I said it—WRONG. It’s a principle called falsification.

If you can’t disprove (falsify) your hypothesis, then you assume you have a potentially true hypothesis. Professionals will try to get such findings published in a peer-reviewed and reputable journal, then hope other scientists in their field will test it.

Know what those others will do?

You guessed it, try to prove the hypothesis wrong as well. Not because they want the first scientist to be wrong, or are their competition, but because that’s just how it works.

So why try to prove it wrong, versus prove it right? Derek Muller from the highly-respected YouTube channel Veritasium made an excellent video explaining why, in a pretty unique presentation. I encourage you to watch it. It will make you think differently, if you don’t already think this way.

How often are scientists wrong?

Of all the sciences, one of the most rigorously tested would surely be biology, specifically pharmacology, or medicine. As this story reports, approximately 1 in 5,000 drugs actually make it from concept to FDA approval. Which means 4,999 were effectively falsified. Those seem like pretty horrible results, for sure.

It’s not all bad, though. One of these drugs for instance, was sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. It was initially meant for the treatment of blood pressure, and through clinical testing proved ineffective for that purpose, but highly effective at “pitching tents.” Serendipity at its finest, since Viagra has proven to be far more profitable for its founder, than the blood pressure medicine would likely have been.

But such serendipity is simply an added benefit of rigorous testing, and the proper documentation of all findings. Science is technically always about the unknown. You can ignore things that don’t fit into your desired outcome, or you can follow the data wherever it takes you and learn from it.

But with medicine, obviously lives are at stake in a pretty profound way, so the level of scrutiny there is rightfully going to be higher than any other field of science.

To a layperson, this might seem like the argument is that scientists are wrong 4,999 times out of 5,000, and this is where the “scientists are always wrong” myth starts to germinate. Not because they are wrong, but because of how science is often reported.

You see, technically, they weren’t wrong. They never made the claim you often heard. They formed a plausible idea, and then tested it rigorously to see if it stood up to the scientific method. With medicine, the number of phases a drug goes through is staggering.

Again, very oversimplified, but it’s something like this:

  1. Test it in a lab (say in a petri dish), basically taking some live diseased cells, put them in a dish, and see if the chemical in question kills them, or otherwise does what you’re hoping it does.
  2. Test them in animals, like rats
  3. Test them on an animal that may be closer to humans genetically, like a apes
  4. Test them on a few healthy humans to make sure they don’t get sick
  5. Test them on a very small amount of humans to see if it helps
  6. Test them on a medium-sized group of humans to see if you can show a statistically significant result
  7. Test them on a large group of humans so you have a result you can argue is most certainly one certain assumptions could be made about.

Now you can start to understand why it can take 12 years for a drug can get to market. But here’s where the “scientists are always wrong” argument often comes into play. Because after phase 1, the findings are published. After phase 2, the findings are published. After phase three, again, the findings are published. This will be true for all phases.

Abraham Lincoln Weighing In On the Internet

Now, a reporter, website, or any other type of media who knows nothing about science, picks up the published study from phase 1, and writes a big, attention-grabbing headline that reads “Scientists discover cure for cancer,” and a straw man of the finest quality is born.

Because they don’t understand these results are merely a step along the road of a cure, and with respect to cancer, each one is different anyway. The tests would surely be against one type of cancer, such as lung, breast, or prostate cancer, for instance. Not just cancer as a whole.

A year later when this substance fails phase 2, another reporter reports that scientists show the same substance now is not effective at curing cancer. And the public is left thinking scientists screwed up—they didn’t.

People who know nothing about science irresponsibly misrepresented the phase 1 story, the populace which aren’t largely scientists didn’t know how to decipher the misleading clickbaity headline, and voila, “Scientists are always wrong.”

You can also find this notion with people who are skeptical of larger theories, like the big bang theory, or evolution. They’ll point out that “evolution doesn’t explain how life started” or other things we don’t know yet.

But what such people seem to not understand, is that large theories have a couple important facets they aren’t considering.

First, think of a particular scientific theory as a puzzle depicting Albert Einstein standing in his study. Your puzzle has a thousand pieces, and you’ve so far rightly inserted 950 of them. You can clearly see it’s Einstein in his study at this point, but there’s a few small details (missing pieces), maybe a few books on the shelf in the background, that you can’t yet identify. You’re still not sure about such facts, and that may change the picture significantly, but it is much more likely it will not, instead just filling in those small blanks.

For evolution for instance, this might be the fact it isn’t understood how non-living organics (carbon-based substances) became living organisms (carbon-based life forms). Just because we don’t understand that facet, doesn’t mean the other “950 pieces” we do understand aren’t true, or are suspect.

The other important part to understand about a theory, is that it’s a theory instead of a law, because it isn’t entirely observable. We can see the effect of gravity on something and measure it accordingly, so that’s a law.

Charles Darwin: Author of The Origin of Species and impetus for the Theory of Evolution

But with evolution or the big bang, we can’t go back in time and watch it happen. So all we can do is theorize based on data we have, and try to recreate the event in some small way so we can observe it. From there, we can make a fair assumption the theory holds true if replicated.

Since skeptics are often religious in nature, they’ll refute science with the Bible, Quran, or other religious works, as if we should assume such works are true. But almost all claims made by modern-day scientists which contradict religion, have a mountain of evidence supporting them, to the point that people like the pope himself, have acquiesced to, as reported here. And it’s important to understand that such religious works aren’t supported by evidence either, as far as we know. We can’t go back in time and observe them being written, nor do we have any supporting documents to back up their claims. It could literally have been written by one delusional person thousands of years ago, sold to a larger group of people as truth, a religion was born thereafter, and we’d have no way of knowing. So assuming such religious texts must be right on the subject of gaps in scientific knowledge does not follow any reasonable logic.

So are scientists always wrong? Of course not. Through the course of their methods, they form hypothesis which they often prove wrong, but by the time they get to a point where they make a claim, they are demonstrably far more correct than any other group of people on the planet. Be a skeptic and question everything, including science. But proper skepticism should lead you to find that the scientists did their part correctly; the errors came in how that information made its way to you along the way.