Monday, February 9, 2015

Scott Adams' Biggest Fail

In a recent blog post, titled "Science's Biggest Fail", Scott Adams (of Dilbert cartoon fame) writes:

"What’s is science’s biggest fail of all time? I nominate everything about diet and fitness."

The problem is, he goes on:

"The pattern science serves up, thanks to its winged monkeys in the media, is something like this:
 Step One: We are totally sure the answer is X.
 Step Two: Oops. X is wrong. But Y is totally right. Trust us this time."

Here in lies one of Adams' problems - his understanding of science appears to come from the media, whom he views as science's winged monkeys. This is unfortunately not the case - the media don't do science at all well, as Ben Goldacre has so ably demonstrated on many an occasion.

This is a shame as he continues:

"Science isn’t about being right every time, or even most of the time. It is about being more right over time and fixing what it got wrong. So how is a common citizen supposed to know when science is “done” and when it is halfway to done which is the same as being wrong?
 You can’t tell. And if any scientist says you should be able to tell when science is “done” on a topic, please show me the data indicating that people have psychic powers."

He obviously sees science as a cumulative process, but digests it from sources that don't - the mainstream media. This is something Adams has form for - in 2007 he posted about his pretty poor understanding of evolution after reading a Newsweek article, and it appears despite criticism at the time, he has not learned from this. In this post, he references a MotherJones article, and not the actual original research itself, for example.

Adams asks "So how is a common citizen supposed to know when science is “done” and when it is halfway to done which is the same as being wrong?" (As an aside, half way to done is not the same as being wrong. Newton's work on gravity could be described as half way to done. It was incomplete, but it certainly wasn't wrong when it comes to describe the general mechanics of our day to day living). So how is a common citizen supposed to know when science is "done"? Well it's not hard, you just need to do a bit of digging. It's not always possible to get the original research, as much of academia is behind a pay wall, and even if you do have access to it, it may not be the easiest to understand, because science is confusing and counter intuitive at times, and it helps to have someone who can put the complexities into layman's terms. The Cochrane Library offer the best analysis of our current understanding of research into health. These reviews come with a plain language summary.

It's not just academic institutions though - we live in the information age. Behind the HeadlinesMargaret McCartney's blog or Science Based Medicine are just three examples of critical commentary that's freely available to help get the truth behind the often poor medical science reporting in the press. 

Indeed, blog networks like Phenomena from National Geographic, Why Evolution Is True or Sean Carroll's are all places to find out good commentary on the science news of the day.

This is to say nothing of the works of Professors Alice Roberts, Jim Al-Khalili or Brian Cox in their works efforts to increase the public understanding of science.

These references barely scratch the surface of the wealth of decent scientific information that's available to us if we're willing to look.

In 8 years he seems not to have learnt to base his views on science from what scientists actually say, but what they are reported to have said. I wonder if in the same time he still bases his ideas on his "bullshit filter":

"I’ve been trying for years to reconcile my usually-excellent  bullshit filter with the idea that evolution is considered a scientific fact. Why does a well-established scientific fact set off my usually-excellent bullshit filter like a five-alarm fire?"

The above was written in 2007 - The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins was published in 1976, and was followed up by The Extended Phenotype in 1982, and much more; Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel C Dennet (the best book on evolution I've ever read) was written in the 1995 and in 2002 Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen released Evolving the Alien. All these wonderful books (and many more), just one book a decade since his twenties, could easily have defused the five-alarm bullshit filter, especially as he has been struggling with it for years. 

The impression I get from Scott Adams is that he knows he's right, and that's enough. Of course, I could be wrong, but given his history of things like sock puppetry, and his responses to it, I think Adams' biggest fail is his arrogance, which in places looks a lot like the Dunning-Kruger effect. David Dunning, it's co-discoverer, describes it thus: “What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

Fortunately, Scott Adams can resolve this issue by doing a little research and educating himself beyond what he thinks he knows.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Apeocalypse now

A friend posted this on Facebook:

She asked "Can I make the "ape-ocalypse" pun and still be scientifically accurate?" and tagged me, as I am her guru for this.

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer:

Yes, but you must be talking about any combination of: humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans (aka the Great Apes) or Gibbons (aka the Lesser Apes), for these are the apes. (You can see our extended family tree over at OneZoom).

Colloquially ape can mean "any primate except humans", but as can be seen this is not accurate. For our primate cousins to be included we would need far less catchy alternatives such Primatocalypse (which would involve the primates: Lemurs, Tarsiers, Old World Monkeys, Apes and New World Monkeys) or Simianocalypse (which would be all the moneys and apes, simians being Old or New World Monkeys and Apes).

 People often don't realise that we Homo sapiens aren't just like apes, we *are* apes. A fantastic book to look at our ape heritage is The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being by Alice Roberts. Given that we are apes, one could argue for two reasons that we are, right now, in the middle of an apeocalypse:

1) Originally apocalypse meant revelation, it comes from the Greek for uncover, and is used in the context of uncovering knowledge. Whilst we (as a species) have a long way to go, we are currently in a position of having uncovered more information about how the universe works than at any point that's ever existed. For example, as Sean Carroll has (I think successfully) argued, the laws underlying the physics of every day life are completely understood. No, really, here's the equation. It's an exciting time to be alive, and that is thankful, as science is the best way we have to resolve the second reason.

2) These days (especially for those not in the Church), apocalypse more commonly means any universal or widespread destruction or disaster. Now, if we're to look at how we as species are treating this planet overall, one could also argue we are in the middle of, or on the verge of, an apeocalypse: We are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction, human caused climate change is real and is happening and to sustain the lifestyle that humans are on average living we would need 1.5 Earths.

It's Apecalypse Now, and for our sins, we've given ourselves quite a mission to put it right.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Does the Star Trek Odd/Even rule hold up to scrutiny?

It's all well and good being a skeptic and going after homeopathy, conspiracy theories and religion. But what about the important stuff in life? Skeptics must question everything. This includes Star Trek. Does the oft cited Odd/Even rule hold up to scrutiny?

Yes. Generally, an odd numbered Star Trek film is not as good as an even numbered Star Trek film. Out of 12 Star Trek films, only two fail to meet this rule.

I used IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic to get the ratings for each film. All are in a similar format, being a rating out of 10, a percentage or a mark out of 100. As I started with IMDB I converted all to the same format.

The average score for a Star Trek film is 6.7. Above avergae films are therefore "Good", average films are, well, "Average" (though none exist yet) and below  average films are "Bad".

I have included the recent re-boot, but the rule may need to be modified to just include the "original" run of films, as the two new ones rank 1 and 3 using this survey's methods.

You can see the results below:

Data accurate as of 02/11/2014

Monday, October 13, 2014

Cats are still better than dogs

A while back Jerry Coyne sought some input to help with a debate on Cats vs Dogs, which I duly helped with. Jerry unfortunately reported that the debate was won by the dog lovers.

Of course, cats are better than dogs, so how to explain this outcome? Well quite clearly, there were no Sophisticated Theologians (TM) present:

1.By definition, cats winning in the cats vs dogs debate is a result than which none greater can be imagined.

2.A result that necessarily exists in reality is greater than a result that does not necessarily exist.

3.Thus, by definition, if a cats winning the debate result exists as an idea in the mind but does not necessarily exist in reality, then we can imagine something that is greater than us simply imagining that cats won.

4.But we cannot imagine something that is greater than cats winning the debate.

5.Thus, if cats winning the debate exists in the mind as an idea, then cats winning the debate necessarily exists in reality.

6. Cats winning the debate exists in the mind as an idea.

7.Therefore, cats winning the debate necessarily exists in reality.

So, cats won the NY Times "Cats vs Dogs" debate!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The history of the Ice Bucket Challenge

Originally, the ice bucket challenge was not associated with ALS.

Before it all went viral, I saw a number of my capoeirista friends taking part, and the challenge was a little different, have two buckets of iced water poured on you, then pour the third one on yourself (here's my capoeira teacher, Mestrando Primo taking part, just before it went viral). 

The idea for the challenge was to either take the challenge, or donate to charity (or both), and to pick a charity of your choice, and also nominate three more to take part. Now some would say this isn't the nicest of fundraising tactics, and that it amounts to bullying fundraising tactics, but I think it's not that bad (and certainly better than "trick or treat" at Hallowe'en which is essentially demanding money with menaces), Anyhow...

Facebook data indicates that the challenge started around June 8th, but it wasn't until August that it really went viral. Golfer Chris Kennedy nominated the ALS foundation, and this is where the association with ALS (aka Motor Neuron Disease, or Lou Gehrig's disease).

As with many charity things, some people have been critical of how ALS Foundation spend their funds, for example, they have $6.7 million in investments. What people often fail to realise is that charities need to have money in reserve - fundraising isn't always predictable, and if the fundraising dries up, you need to have your operating costs to carry on the services you provide. I've defended charity spending before, but it bears repeating: charities don't get anything for free, and if you want to have a professional bunch of people working for you, you will have to pay them, as everyone has bills to pay and needs food to eat.

The ALS Foundation are quite open about their spending, and in the UK you can go to the charity commission and look at the accounts of all charities. It is then up to you to see if you think a charity spends too much on its staff etc relative to how much the charity brings in. In the case of ALS, 21% being spend on fundraising and admin seems more than acceptable.

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