Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Pseudoscience is on Fire, Run!

If you yell fire in a theater, you're are going to get a lot of folks running for the exits.

If the fire alarm goes off in your building, people will finish their coffee first.

If you are in a temporary building, also known as a 'trailer', and there is a tornado siren, you look around for a second or two to see if you have your car keys and then run like a scared little girl for the nearest tornado shelter.

The key reason for the difference between the three different reactions is the context. Context plays a roll in many aspects of life. Context can also lead to misinterpretations of facts and lead to pseudoscience.

In your office, there is always a drill or false alarm due to poor microwave use. We are used to the fire alarm being a cry of wolf. We also don't expect a modern building to really burn very fast. 

In the safety zone of your workplace, we also don't panic very easily. But think back. The first time a fire alarm went off at a 'new' job when someone overcooked the popcorn, you were ready to run out the door! But I am sure you looked around and saw your calm fellow employees drinking their coffee. Their actions may have felt a little odd, but your heart slowed it's pace. Now for any new alarm, you are just as likely to get a fresh cup of coffee for the trip to your fire safety meeting point or muster station.

Context can backfire. Think New Orleans and the hurricane. Too many calm people mucking about, taking their time to get out of town. Nobody panicking means nobody in a hurry and finding reasons not to go at all. Hurricane warnings are like fire alarms in buildings. There are a lot of false alarms or storms that are not as powerful as the warnings. Plus most are in the safety of their homes, increasing their comfort of literally weathering the storm.

Context is another coping mechanism of our lazy brains. We gauge our need for fight or flight from the group we trust and personal experience. Unless you have almost died in a hurricane you are not going to go running out of town. Most would have stayed except for the need for some compliance to authority. 

Think tribes of people and prairie dogs. In either case the members depend on the skills of the watchful or experienced. Why waste your time looking for a hawk when their are others that will spot it first? Imagine looking for a fires, hawks, or other threats all the time? We can only hold a couple of concepts in out head at one time. Some people need to be looking for and gauging the threats so that the rest of us can get on with the other jobs. 

The police are the prairie dogs that spot the hawk. Your fellow workers sipping coffee as the alarm goes off are also hawk watchers. With the coworkers, they haven't really seen a lot of hawks other than a fire marshal or two, but they are part of the collective watchfulness of the tribe. 

We listen when the ones we trust start raising the alarm. This is as dangerous as the possible problem. Sometimes the people you trust are not trustworthy.

Comfort and experience can short circuit the authority figure. You can imagine that the police are not seen as authorities in New Orleans. Fear of looting may even be the bigger motivator of some. If police are seen as ineffective, believing them about evacuation and trusting them to safeguard your possessions, however meager, will fall on the side of self protection.

Where is the pseudoscience? Hold on, I'm thinking.

Oh yeah, the problem is that yelling fire is the same a yelling global warming or financial meltdown. It does not matter how true it is. What causes you to believe is the context and the authority. 

You will not believe much in global warming if you are watching the Discovery Channel while socked in with six feet of snow. You will believe if you are experiencing 101 degrees in December. Context! 

If you are listening to Al Gore, a reasonably respected man, about global warming, you will believe him. He looks like he did his homework. Unless you are a far right republican, his slide show is compelling.  Al Gore is an authority. His slides are also context as they have elements that remind you of your daily experience. You have also heard this before, so add repetition. 

I am not saying yes or no to global warming. I won't say it is pseudoscience. But there are many arguments and out of context facts for and against global warming that are pseudoscience. Even claims of one side or another is practicing pseudoscience, may be just as much pseudoscience. 

Look carefully to avoid the assumptions and not fall for either the context or the authority. Ask yourself why you think something is believable. Does the context influence you? Does the authority influence you?

Imagine you are in your office with the fire alarm blaring. You are grabbing another cup of coffee for the long wait out in the parking lot. Then you see a fireman run past... Will you head to the parking lot a bit faster than normal? Yep, new context and the authority figure in the fireman's attire.

The final word is that many factors cause us to believe in one thing or another. Fires, hurricanes, and even global warming will form beliefs in your mind that depend on their context and authority.

One more thing. First a warning, if you like to read aloud, do not read this in a theater...


Katie Couric the Antivaxer or Telling both sides is great pseudoscience

Katie Couric is a practicing pseudoscientist. As a former morning show mavin, she certainly has the qualifications. Her topic recently was the HPV vaccine.

HPV is a vaccine that prevents the  human papillomavirus. HPV is credited as a source for cancer in women. It is also one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. So, if you are looking for a candidate of vaccine that could benefit mankind (and of course womankind) HPV vaccine is a good one.

Back to Dr Katie. The topic of her December 4th, 2013 show was on the HPV vaccine and as she promised in her tweet the day before, "We're hoping to tell both sides so parents can make informed decision." Of course, "tell both sides" is our secret code for pseudoscience. Usually, especially when it comes to vaccines, there isn't ever a legitimate "other side" that is worth pitting against science.

Not saying there isn't another side. All vaccines have a risk. You could be allergic to something in the vaccine preparation, like eggs. Your body is of course going to react to the vaccine and your body will learn to recognize and fight against the virus you are being exposed to. These effects are mild an risks very very very low. According to the CDC, "mild side effects included pain where the shot was given, fever, headache, and nausea." Of course, most of these could in fact be nocebo affects because these are common side effects of similar vaccines.

According to Dr Katie's guests, the anecdotal claims include death and other slightly less worse outcomes. These guests were of course highly trained non-doctors. 

Why is this pseudoscience? Simply, the antivaxer claims are non-science. Like on Dr Katie's show, the people that are affected are not statistically significant, except to the ratings of the TV show that they are guests on. Their claims are also usually not exposed to the light of deep examination by experts. Instead, Katie's producers are trolling for the 'other side' of the story and find grieving families that blame the 'establishment' for harm and conspiracy to do harm.

To illustrate what is happening, let's look at aspirin. Did you know that aspirin kills people? That's right! If you take an aspirin, you have a 1 in 6 chance of death by heart attack. Of course, if you don't take aspirin, your odds are also 1 in 6 chance of death by heart attack. That is because we all have a 1 in 6 chance of death by heart attack. This is also known as death by statistics. 

Same goes for vaccines. If we all have a 1 in 6 chance of death by heart attack, the odds are quite high that after getting a vaccine that you die of a heart attack. It is also easy to prove that not getting a vaccine might be the culprit as dead people rarely get vaccinated. Q.E.D. vaccines cause heart attacks. They also cause 1 in 7 to die of cancer and 1 in 160 to die in a car accident. Of course there is a 100% chance that you will die after taking a vaccine because their is no vaccine for death.

The "other side" to vaccines is of course science. Ever since they were first created, they have had a pretty good track record. They have also eliminated or almost eliminated diseases like Polio and Smallpox. Vaccines, to be effective, need to be given to most people. Take for instance, measles. If enough people don't take the vaccine, you easily get an epidemic. It is even worse in Texas where folks don't cotton to being told what to do. At a Texas mega church and surrounding area, there was an outbreak caused by these folks not getting their vaccines. Of course, those that did, did not get measles, though are in eminent danger of slipping and falling in the tub.

Experiment: Cheat Death

Because 1 in 171 people die from falls, you can cheat death. Lie down and stay down. Note: You have a higher chance of death from other sources like diseases caused by a lack of activity.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Scientists Find Gullibility Center

At long last, we have found the Scientists Find Gullibility Center. Guess what, it is in the brain!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Brain wired for creationism?

Brain wired for creationism?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Reposting for International Talk Like a Pirate Da

The following is a repost of the last post that has been strung up on the yardarm and translated to Pirate, matey! Translation provided by:

Climate Change verses th' deniers. Evolution "I'll Dance A Jig!" verses creationism an' intelligent design. Why "Empty Hearted French Poodle!" does this have t' be bout denial or scientific understanding? Why be people called salt-blastedly stupid, incompetent, or worse? 

Belief in hooey be just th' tendency fer a social squadron t' hold a common belief even when thar be no verifyable evidence. Ye "Bilge-Sucking Scum!" don't b'lieve in Intelligent Design (ID) cause it makes sense. Ye b'lieve in ID cause your buddies in th' church or Fox News b'lieve it. ID "Hands Orf Me Booty!" came from cognitive dissonance an' a blitheringly little creativity. When "Smoke 'em if yew got 'em, matey!" fairy tales proved too blunderingly difficult t' sell at school board meetings, someth'n had t' give . Smooth sail'n once ye be us'n th' same science speak as th' science squadron. It "Treacherous Grease Wad!" also helps t' vote in your church buckos. Nobody be incompearned people an' salt-blastedly even scientists. They "Blistering Barnacles!" belie 

Why do ye think ye root fer your home town sports team? Why be th' best? Cause it's your team, your town, your people (blunderbustingly even if they were from out o' town an' be paid many more than yee could count t' throw a ball or slap a puck in said town). This "Yo-HO, me hearties!" be our greatest issue wi' pseudoscientific beliefs. They "Somethn's Foul in the Air!" be social an' thus can only be defanged by destroy'n a person's need t' belong t' a social squadron. Cause o' media we have things bigger an' looser than religion. Look "Blow Me Down!" at climate change which creates a debate where people gravitate t' th' side they best identify wi' rather than examin'n th' facts or trust'n a scientist verses other sources. 

Astern "Get My Cat O' Nine Tails!" t' Climate Change an' Evolution. Do ye b'lieve cause o' th' evidence? Or, be it cause ye know a lot o' people that also b'lieve or consider yourself as part o' th' same social group? Ye e'er written a peer reviewed paper on climate change? Odds be ye have just read some articles or maybe heard Al give his talk. Maybe ye be a Democrat? We don't think it be cause ye be an expert. We "Gar, Where can I find a bottle o'rum?" don't just need facts. When "Ye Ugly Old Barnacle!" did we start believ'n th' Earth be lustily round an' revolved 'unseaworthily round th' Sun? Thar be a lot o' socialization an' a few blitheringly dead heretics. Can ye convince someone t' discard a fantasy? Aye, but ye need t' do more than argue facts. 

A "Heave Ho!" deprogrammer be th' best example, though ablunderingly little more mentally violent an application the challenged, nay just th' belief. Deprogramm'n does have its salt-blastedly good points. Th' fact that th' Fly'n Spaghetti Monster doesn't exist be less than th' doctoral priest an' th' henchmen. Easier "Tha Old Sea Dog!" t' poke holes in someth'n blunderbustingly real rather than a belief. This "Ahoy, Me Hearties! " works both ways which be why scientist be demonized by people that b'lieve in demons. Until "I Needs Ya Gold!" th' social squadron can be changed, no argument, no matter how scientific, will sway th' herd. Thar "Parrot Strangling Slops Barrel!" be a tipp'n point that I don't pretend t' understand, but can be s'n wi' th' Copernican Revolution. Sadly "Where's The Grub!" thar be also a revolution in pseudoscience as can be s'n wi' th' resurgence o' fundamentalists an' politics 'unseaworthily round climate change - or be those both politics? Look aloft 'social proof' on wikipedia. Th' problem be that ye need sheep t' make a flock. How do we create sheep that as a squadron don't b'lieve arguments based on logical fallacies?

Be thar an anti-pseudoscience? Arr thar be. Th' "Rotten Friend Of A Gibbet!" proof be that we can say th' Earth revolves 'carbunculously roundth' Sun an' nobody gets tortured. If "Fish Breathed Waster!" ye know th' secret, comment below! 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Climate Change verses the deniers. Evolution verses creationism and intelligent design. Why does this have to be about denial or scientific understanding? Why are people called stupid, incompetent, or worse?

Belief in hooey is just  the tendency for a social group to hold a common belief even when there is no verifyable evidence. You don't believe in Intelligent Design (ID) because it makes sense. You believe in ID because your buddies in the church or Fox News believe it.

ID came from cognitive dissonance  and a little creativity.  When fairy tales proved too difficult to sell at school board meetings, something had to give . Smooth sailing once you are using the same science speak as the science group. It also helps to vote in your church friends. Nobody is incompetent, just following the groupthink of their peers.

Look at any religion and/or cult. They are populated by learned people and even scientists. They belie

Why do you think you root for your home town sports team? Why is the best? Because it's your team, your town, your people (even if they were from out of town and are paid millions to throw a ball or slap a puck in said town).

This is our greatest issue with pseudoscientific beliefs. They are social and thus can only be defanged by  destroying a person's need to belong to a social group. Because of media we have things bigger and looser than religion. Look at climate change which creates a debate where people gravitate to the side they best identify with rather than examining the facts or trusting a scientist verses other sources.

Back to Climate Change and Evolution. Do you believe because of the evidence? Or, is it because you know a lot of people that also believe or consider yourself as part of the same social group? Have you ever written a peer reviewed paper on climate change? Odds are you have just read some articles or maybe heard Al give his talk. Maybe you are a Democrat? We don't think it is because you are an expert. We don't just need facts.

When did we start believing the Earth was round and revolved around the Sun? There was a lot of socialization and a few dead heretics.

Can you convince someone to discard a fantasy? Yes, but you need to do more than argue facts. A deprogrammer is the best example, though a little more mentally violent an application than we generally accept. The social group has to be challenged, not just the belief. Deprogramming does have its good points. The fact that the Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn't exist is less than the doctoral priest and the henchmen.  Easier to poke holes in something real rather than a belief. This works both ways which is why scientist are demonized by people that believe in demons.

Until the social group can be changed, no argument, no matter how scientific, will sway the herd. There is a tipping point that I don't pretend to understand, but can be seen with the Copernican Revolution. Sadly there is also a revolution in  pseudoscience as can be seen with the resurgence of fundamentalists and politics around climate change - or are those both politics? Look up 'social proof' on wikipedia. 

The problem is that you need sheep to make a flock. How do we create sheep that as a group don't believe arguments based on logical fallacies?

Is there an anti-pseudoscience? Apparently there is. The proof is that we can say the Earth revolves around the Sun and nobody gets tortured.  If you know the secret, comment below!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

There's Always Another Opinion

Watching the History channel today and the wonderful show, Brad Meltzer's Decoded. Why? Because it is some of the greatest pseudoscience on TV. We must learn from the best!

So, why is this show pseudoscience? One concept: Everybody has an opinion. It is so easy to have an opinion and this show goes out of its way to find the most extreme opinions.  In normal science and historical inquiry, you research and present the evidence that is well tested and confirmed. With opinion, you state your idea and if the evidence does not add up, chalk it up to a conspiracy to hide the truth.

Why base a history show on a set of opinions? Easy, the crazy train is much more fun than plain history.

Let's look at the show on the Statue of Liberty for where they seemed to look more for squirrels with loose nuts than historians. The premiss starts with the statement that there are hidden symbols built into the statue. Of course they did spend about 5 minutes talking with legitimate historians. Nothing exciting. But then they looked for the wacko fringe.

The bizarre circus freaks range from numerologists, someone that believed the statue was the devil, another that believed that the statue represents secret messages to those that would rule the world. Throw in that the artist behind the statue was a freaky mother loving Oedipus sex maniac because he used the face of his mom as inspiration and his girlfriend's body. In our opinion here at Boys Books, the only evidence that added up was the numerologist (they always do).

In the end, the investigators of the Statue of Liberty fond the most important fact, there are a lot of opinions.... Yep, oh and it wasn't the devil, but lucifer (not big L Lucifer, but the little l as in the light bearer.

Science or pseudoscience? Simple way to test: How entertaining was the show? Very entertaining! Must be pseudoscience!

Statue of Liberty. [Internet]. 2011. The History Channel website. Available from: [Accessed 1 Jan 2011].

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Placebo of Placebo

Well, I thought we had a little bit of good news to round out the end of the year's pseudoscience news. Basically some scientists tried to see if people knew that they were taking drugs that were fake, would they still work. Glory be, the scheme worked! Here is an article and the paper.

But alas, there is a problem with scientists looking into magical effects. Yep, magical. A pill that does nothing but causes an effect and that is magic, right?

First, credit where credit is due. Orac, a computer best known for his contribution of the Blake's 7 crew, looked close at the paper and saw the flaws. Here is Orac's analysis.

The upshot is that the study unfortunately did what most studies of pseudoscience do, they let the cat out of the bag and that probably skewed the results. First, the advertised ads looking for study participants sounded cool. You always get skewed results when patients think there is something cool going on.  

The second problem was that it was not a double blind study. They either gave the patients placeboes or told the participant to go home and do nothing. A double blind would have had placeboes, a fake placebo (a drug not cleverly labeled 'Placebo' like the one in the study).

Not sure if they should have had people that were told to do nothing.... Seems sort of odd. Back to that cool advert, if you found out you were in the "do nothing" group, wouldn't you go home all depressed and maybe your results would be better than getting a pill bottle labeled 'Placebo' (remember, very cleverly labeled).

Experiment - Placebo Crystals

Time for another great experiment!

1) Head to your favorite purveyor of fine rocks and pick up a few hundred quarts crystals.
2) Create envelopes that will hold the crystal and one of three different notes written thus:

    Note 1: Greetings! You have been selected to take part in an important study. This envelope contains a crystal from a mountain in the Andes near the mystic city of Kolumbunga. It is used as a very powerful placebo. In three days, please send an email to and tell us if you feel better or worse.

   Note 2: Greetings! You have been selected to take part in an important study. This envelope contains a crystal. It is used as a placebo. In three days, please send an email to and tell us if you feel better or worse. 

  Note 3: Greetings! You have been selected to take part in an important study. This envelope contains a crystal. In three days, please send an email to and tell us if you feel better or worse. 

   Note 4: Greetings! You have been selected to take part in an important study. In three days, please send an email to and tell us if you feel better or worse. 

Put crystals with notes 1, 2 and 3, but nothing in the 4th envelope. 

4) Recruit a few hundred people to run your experiment. If you want to be reasonably random, stand in front of your school, a supermarket, department store or Mickey D's and recruit.

5) Tally your results from the emails and any comments you may have received along with the better or worse indicator. Don't forget to count the numbers of non-respondents as people not saying anything is like someone talking and saying nothing (sounds Buddhist, but trust us, it is important).

Did you get better results for Note 1? We bet you will, so perhaps you should start selling mood enhancing crystals from Kolumbunga.

Buy a Kindle, via this link so I get credit, and I'll send my book drafts for free (email me)