Tue May 19 14:06:13 EDT 2015

Problems with Science

I am a big fan of science and so am happy to see that current problems with scientific research are being tackled.

  • The Trouble With Scientists

    How one psychologist is tackling human biases in science.

    Given that science has uncovered a dizzying variety of cognitive biases, the relative neglect of their consequences within science itself is peculiar. "I was aware of biases in humans at large," says Hartgerink, "but when I first 'learned' that they also apply to scientists, I was somewhat amazed, even though it is so obvious."
    One of the reasons the science literature gets skewed is that journals are much more likely to publish positive than negative results: It's easier to say something is true than to say it's wrong. Journal referees might be inclined to reject negative results as too boring, and researchers currently get little credit or status, from funders or departments, from such findings. "If you do 20 experiments, one of them is likely to have a publishable result," Oransky and Marcus write. "But only publishing that result doesn't make your findings valid. In fact it's quite the opposite."
    ... Surprisingly, Nosek thinks that one of the most effective solutions to cognitive bias in science could come from the discipline that has weathered some of the heaviest criticism recently for its error-prone and self-deluding ways: pharmacology. It is precisely because these problems are so manifest in the pharmaceutical industry that this community is, in Nosek's view, way ahead of the rest of science in dealing with them. For example, because of the known tendency of drug companies and their collaborators to report positive results of trials and to soft-pedal negative ones, it is now a legal requirement in the Unites States for all clinical trials to be entered in a registry before they begin. This obliges the researchers to report the results whatever they say.
    ... The idea, says Nosek, is that researchers "write down in advance what their study is for and what they think will happen." Then when they do their experiments, they agree to be bound to analyzing the results strictly within the confines of that original plan. It sounds utterly elementary, like the kind of thing we teach children about how to do science. And indeed it is--but it is rarely what happens. Instead, as Fiedler testifies, the analysis gets made on the basis of all kinds of unstated and usually unconscious assumptions about what would or wouldn't be seen. Nosek says that researchers who have used the OSF* have often been amazed at how, by the time they come to look at their results, the project has diverged from the original aims they'd stated.

    * See How the Open Science Framework works

  • Retraction Watch

    Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process.

    So why write a blog on retractions?
    First, science takes justifiable pride in the fact that it is self-correcting -- most of the time. Usually, that just means more or better data, not fraud or mistakes that would require a retraction. But when a retraction is necessary, how long does that self-correction take? The Wakefield retraction, for example, was issued 12 years after the original study, and six years after serious questions had been raised publicly by journalist Brian Deer. Retractions are therefore a window into the scientific process.
    Second, retractions are not often well-publicized. Sure, there are the high-profile cases such as Reuben's and Wakefield's. But most retractions live in obscurity in Medline and other databases. That means those who funded the retracted research -- often taxpayers -- aren't particularly likely to find out about them. Nor are investors always likely to hear about retractions on basic science papers whose findings may have formed the basis for companies into which they pour dollars. So we hope this blog will form an informal repository for the retractions we find, and might even spur the creation of a retraction database such as the one called for here by K.M Korpela.
    Third, they're often the clues to great stories about fraud or other malfeasance, as Adam learned when he chased down the Reuben story. The reverse can also be true. The Cancer Letter's expose of Potti and his fake Rhodes Scholarship is what led his co-authors to remind The Lancet Oncology of their concerns, and then the editors to issue their expression of concern. And they can even lead to lawsuits for damaged reputations. If highlighting retractions will give journalists more tools to uncover fraud and misuse of funds, we're happy to help. And if those stories are appropriate for our respective news outlets, you'll only read about them on Retraction Watch once we've covered them there.
    Finally, we're interested in whether journals are consistent. How long do they wait before printing a retraction? What requires one? How much of a public announcement, if any, do they make? Does a journal with a low rate of retractions have a better peer review and editing process, or is it just sweeping more mistakes under the rug?

  • First results from psychology's largest reproducibility test

    Crowd-sourced effort raises nuanced questions about what counts as replication.

    An ambitious effort to replicate 100 research findings in psychology ended last week -- and the data look worrying. Results posted online on 24 April, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, suggest that key findings from only 39 of the published studies could be reproduced.
    But the situation is more nuanced than the top-line numbers suggest (See graphic, 'Reliability test'). Of the 61 non-replicated studies, scientists classed 24 as producing findings at least "moderately similar" to those of the original experiments, even though they did not meet pre-established criteria, such as statistical significance, that would count as a successful replication.

  • When All Models Are Wrong

    More stringent quality criteria are needed for models used at the science/policy interface, and here is a checklist to aid in the responsible development and use of models.

    Against this background of declining trust and increasing problems with the reliability of scientific knowledge in the public sphere, the dangers for science become most evident when models-abstracts of more complex real-world problems, generally rendered in mathematical terms-are used as policy tools. Evidence of poor modeling practice and of negative consequences for society abounds.
    ... The situation is equally serious in the field of environmental regulatory science. Orrin Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, in a stimulating small volume titled Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can't Predict the Future, offer a particularly accessible series of horror stories about model misuse and consequent policy failure. They suggest, for example, that the global change modeling community should publicly recognize that the effort to quantify the future at a scale that would be useful for policy is an academic exercise. They call modeling counterproductive in that it offers the illusion of accurate predictions about climate and sea level decades and even centuries in the future. Pilkey and Pilkey-Jarvis argue that given the huge time scales, decisionmakers (and society) would be much better off without such predictions, because the accuracy and value of the predictions themselves end up being at the center of policy debates, and distract from the need and capacity to deal with the problem despite ongoing uncertainties.
    ... In this light, we wish to revisit statistician George E. P. Box's 1987 observation that "all models are wrong but some are useful." We want to propose a key implication of Box's aphorism for science policy: that stringent criteria of transparency must be adopted when models are used as a basis for policy assessments. Failure to open up the black box of modeling is likely to lead only to greater erosion of the credibility and legitimacy of science as a tool for improved policymaking. In this effort, we will follow The Economist's recommendations and provide a checklist, in the form of specific rules for achieving this transparency.

  • Science's Biggest Fail

    Scott Adams

    What's is science's biggest fail of all time?
    I nominate everything about diet and fitness.
    ... Science is an amazing thing. But it has a credibility issue that it earned. Should we fix the credibility situation by brainwashing skeptical citizens to believe in science despite its spotty track record, or is society's current level of skepticism healthier than it looks? Maybe science is what needs to improve, not the citizens.

  • Unreliable research: Trouble at the lab

    Scientists like to think of science as self-correcting. To an alarming degree, it is not.
    The Economist, Oct 19th 2013

    Dr Kahneman and a growing number of his colleagues fear that a lot of this priming research is poorly founded. Over the past few years various researchers have made systematic attempts to replicate some of the more widely cited priming experiments. Many of these replications have failed.
    In 2005 John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist from Stanford University, caused a stir with a paper showing why, as a matter of statistical logic, the idea that only one such paper in 20 gives a false-positive result was hugely optimistic. Instead, he argued, "most published research findings are probably false."

  • Defending Science

    The Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy

    The Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (2002-2008) examined the nature of science and how it is used and misused in government decision-making and legal proceedings. Through empirical research, conversations among scholars, and publications, SKAPP aimed to enhance understanding of how knowledge is generated and interpreted. SKAPP promoted transparent decision-making, based on the best available science, to protect public health.
    How and why science works may be difficult for non-scientists to understand. The aura around science and scientists - reflecting the power of scientific understanding and its complexity - creates opportunities for misunderstanding and misuse of scientific evidence. Indeed, failure on the part of decision-makers to understand the norms of science may lead to inaccurate conclusions and inappropriate applications of scientific results.

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Thu Apr 30 14:58:31 EDT 2015

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently:

  • Randomness, Skill, and Investment Strategies

    Campbell Harvey of Duke University talks with EconTalk podcast host Russ Roberts about his research evaluating various investment and trading strategies and the challenge of measuring their effectiveness.

    Among topics discussed, two examples of (mis)understanding randomness given:

    • Significant: Jelly Beans Cause Acne
    • So let me set up what actually happens. So, let's say after those 10 weeks in a row you actually subscribe to this person's predictions. And then they don't do so well, after the 10 weeks. And the reason is that the original strategy was basically: Send an email to 100,000 people, and in 50,000 of those emails you say that Team A is going to win on Monday. And in 50,000 you say Team B is going to win on Monday. And then, if Team A wins, the next week you only send to the people that got the correct prediction. So, the next week you do the same thing. 25,000 for Team A, 25,000 for Team B. And you continue doing this. And the size of the number of emails decreases every single week, until after that 10th week, there are 97 people that got 10 picks in a row correct. So you harvest 97 suckers out of this.

  • No autism-vaccine link, study finds

    Research should focus on prenatal causes of the disorder, scientists say

    No association was found between autism and getting the MMR vaccine, according to a study published Tuesday in JAMA.
    The study of 95,000 children with older siblings also examined those at high risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), namely those who have an older autistic sibling. No link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism was found in these high-risk children, researchers said in the study.

  • Declining Desire to Work and Downward Trends in Unemployment and Participation

    The US labor market has witnessed two apparently unrelated trends in the last 30 years: a decline in unemployment between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, and a decline in labor force participation since the early 2000s. We show that a substantial factor behind both trends is a decline in desire to work among individuals outside the labor force, with a particularly strong decline during the second half of the 90s. A decline in desire to work lowers both the unemployment rate and the participation rate, because a nonparticipant who wants to work has a high probability to join the unemployment pool in the future, while a nonparticipant who does not want to work has a low probability to ever enter the labor force. We use cross-sectional variation to estimate a model of nonparticipants' propensity to want a job, and we find that changes in the provision of welfare and social insurance, possibly linked to the mid-90s welfare reforms, explain about 50 percent of the decline in desire to work.

  • The Placebo Gene?

    In the current study researchers performed a retrospective analysis of an existing study population in which there was a no-treatment arm (waitlist control), placebo acupuncture with minimal practitioner interaction, and placebo acupuncture with enhanced emotional support (the "warm and fuzzy" arm). The study population are those with IBS, a syndrome known to have a substantial emotional component. Further, the outcome was the subjective report of symptoms from the subjects. In other words - the syndrome and outcomes were amenable to maximal placebo responses. Prior studies have consistently shown that for subjective symptoms such as this the interaction with the practitioner is the single most important factor in reporting a subjective improvement in symptoms from a placebo intervention.
    ... Patients with the gene variant associated with increased dopamine activity in both alleles (copies of the gene) showed more of a placebo response, especially to the warm and fuzzy intervention. While again I have to emphasize the preliminary nature of this research, the results are plausible and do make sense. IBS is particularly susceptible to suggestion and a warm interaction with a practitioner, interventions that reduce anxiety and improve mood. Anxiety, mood, and the emotional response to pain and discomfort are all brain phenomena, and dopamine is an important brain neurotransmitter involved with emotion and reward, so it's not surprising.

  • FT Masterclass: Pickpocketing and how to avoid it with James Freedman

    I ask if there are certain hotspots where pickpockets strike. Tourist spots, Freedman tells me, especially places such as Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower, where people's attention is directed upwards and away from their belongings. He says that many pickpockets also operate near signs warning us to beware of pickpockets. The irony is that when people read the signs, they check their pockets or bag, thus alerting the lurking pickpocket to where their valuables are.

  • Study: Believing You've Slept Well, Even If You Haven't, Improves Performance

    Results: Participants who were told they had above-average REM sleep performed better on the test, and those who were told their REM sleep was below average performed worse, even when researchers controlled for the subjects' self-reported sleep quality.
    Implications: A great victory was won here for lies, over truth. This study shows that if you're in the mindset that you're well-rested, your brain will perform better, regardless of the actual quality of your sleep. Conversely, constantly talking about how tired you are, as so often happens in our culture, might be detrimental to your performance.

  • Can you succeed at anything with enough practice?

    How much is achievement based on natural ability and how much hard work?

    In an international experiment, a table-tennis coach gave an "unsporty" adult an hour's coaching every day for a year in a bid to make him one of the top table tennis players in Britain.
    Why did the project fail?
    Table tennis has the smallest court, the smallest ball, the smallest bat, the quickest reaction times, the most spin, and it's the only sport where you play on one surface but stand on another.

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Thu Apr 9 14:48:02 EDT 2015

climate skepticism

  • Why I am a Climate Change Skeptic

    Dr. Patrick Moore, Greenpeace co-founder and former director Greenpeace International.

    My skepticism begins with the believers' certainty they can predict the global climate with a computer model. The entire basis for the doomsday climate change scenario is the hypothesis increased atmospheric carbon dioxide due to fossil fuel emissions will heat the Earth to unlivable temperatures.
    ... In fact, the Earth has been warming very gradually for 300 years, since the Little Ice Age ended, long before heavy use of fossil fuels. Prior to the Little Ice Age, during the Medieval Warm Period, Vikings colonized Greenland and Newfoundland, when it was warmer there than today. And during Roman times, it was warmer, long before fossil fuels revolutionized civilization.
    The idea it would be catastrophic if carbon dioxide were to increase and average global temperature were to rise a few degrees is preposterous.

  • It's Not The Heat, It's the Tepidity

    Clifford Asness and Aaron Brown

    Of course the real but rather small trend doesn't prove that global warming is a minor issue, far from it. We're just saying the graph taken on its own is actually pretty reassuring, at least compared to predictions, and declared danger points, of the IPCC and similar groups. If things continue along the way they have for the last 135 years, the point at which we reach dangerous temperatures is a very very long time from now. Those predicting that we face a big problem much sooner aren't arguing this from these data, instead they have to be arguing that historical warming trends will change drastically in the near future; that they will not continue at the trend of the past hundred years or so. The historical record to date, and in particular this ubiquitous graph, can't be the basis of an argument that we will hit dangerous levels soon . To argue that we will hit them in this, or even next century requires us to explain away this graph, to explain why the rate of warming will increase.
    ... Of course, this raises the very important issue of whether or not 4°C is the right danger line. No one knows the answer to this question, but 4°C seems the most common figure used by the experts. It’s what the IPCC uses in its most recent report. No one denies that there are some risks and costs to any amount of warming, and on the other hand, almost no one is predicting that warming at or slightly beyond 4°C will cause extinction of the human race either. Risks go up with the amount of warming. We just don't know how fast. Despite the uncertainties, there seems to e a scientific consensus that less than 1°C or 2°C of warming would make global warming no more serious than several other environmental issues, but warming above 4°C would likely make global warming a unique danger. Even if the danger point is 2°C this trend doesn't reach it until over 130 years from now.

    For reactions and rebuttals see Imagine if They Disagreed With Us!

    What we did not expect was the immediate and strong chorus of agreement, yes agreement, from climate scientists. Equally unexpected was that their agreement would be couched in unfriendly terms!

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Tue Mar 31 12:05:36 EDT 2015

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently:

  • Homeopathy won't cure you, researchers conclude

    Is this news?

    After a years-long review of hundreds of studies, Australia's top medical research agency has concluded that homeopathy is essentially useless for treating any medical condition.
    ... Although several studies have shown that homeopathic "remedies" have no detectable amounts of the original substance left, homeopaths believe the tinctures retain a "memory" of the original substance and are thus effective.
    ... They say they found no reliable evidence that any homeopathic treatment led to health improvements that were any better than a placebo.
    And the researchers say the studies that did find homeopathic remedies effective were either so poorly designed, or so poorly conducted, that they were too flawed to be considered reliable.

  • Hospitals Are Robbing Us Blind

    Forget Obamacare. The real villains in the American health care system are greedy hospitals and the politicians who protect them

    Whether you’re for Obamacare or against it, you can’t afford to ignore the fact that America’s hospitals have become predatory monopolies.

  • What's Changed about the Standard of Living?

    It's Complicated. But Hopeful.   By Megan McArdle

    This list illustrates why public policy seems to be struggling to come up with a plan of attack against our current insecurities. The welfare state is relatively good at giving people money: you collect the taxes, write a check, and now people have money. The welfare state has proven very bad at giving people stable jobs and stable families, a vibrant community life, promising career tracks, or a cure for their drug addiction. No wonder so many hopes now seem to be pinned on early childhood education, far in excess of the evidence to support them: it is the only thing we have not already tried and failed at.
    But I think this list illustrates the poverty of trying to measure living standards by staring at median wages. Many of the changes of the last century show up in that statistic, but others, like the time no longer spent plucking chickens, or the joys of banishing lye from the pantry, appear nowhere. Nor do the changes in job and family structure that have made the lives of people who are indisputably vastly materially richer than my young grandparents were, nonetheless feel much more precarious. We look into the numbers and think we're seeing hard facts. But in fact, like someone reading tea leaves, we are projecting our intangible impressions onto an ambiguous picture.

  • Why the Idea That a Big Cyber Attack Could Create a Huge Tech Armageddon Is Pure BS

    It turns out that all the talk of cyber Armageddon was a load of bunkum. An elaborate propaganda campaign which only serves as a pretext to sacrifice our civil liberties and channel an ocean of cash to the defense industry.

  • Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement?

    The continuing debate over a murky sexual encounter at a 2008 convention for cheekily anti-establishment skeptics underscores a broader dilemma: How can a progressive, important intellectual community behave so poorly towards its female peers?

    Also see, Atheism's shocking woman problem: What's behind the misogyny of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris?.

  • Genetic Data Tools Reveal How Pop Music Evolved In The US

    ... and show that The Beatles didn't start the 1964 American music revolution after all

    Instead, they say that the evolution of music between 1960 and 2010 was largely constant but punctuated by periods of rapid change. "We identified three revolutions: a major one around 1991 and two smaller ones around 1964 and 1983," they say.
    The characters of these revolutions were all different with the 1964 revolution being the most complex.
    ... Another question hotly debated by music commentators is how British bands such as the Beatles and The Rolling Stones influenced the American music scene in the early 1960s. Mauch and co are emphatic in their conclusion. "The British did not start the American revolution of 1964," they say.

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Wed Mar 25 13:31:39 EDT 2015

Problem with Economists

Why do people still pay attention to a profession that has been so wrong so often?

  • What Good Are Economists?

    Robert J. Shiller, Professor of Economics at Yale

    Indeed, economists failed to forecast most of the major crises in the last century, including the severe 1920-21 slump, the 1980-82 back-to-back recessions, and the worst of them all, the Great Depression after the 1929 stock-market crash.
    A cynic might ask, "If economists are so smart, why aren't they the richest people around?" The answer is simple: Most economic ideas are public goods that cannot be patented or otherwise owned by their inventors. Just because most economists are not rich does not mean that they have not made many people richer.

    I guess I must be a cynic because I disagree with the Nobel laureate. If economists understood economics they could become rich without owning or patenting anything, by for example just betting on which way interest rates will go.

  • How Economists Came to Dominate the Conversation

    There's an old Bob Dylan song that goes "there's no success like failure," and it's a lesson that's been central to the rise of the economics profession. Each economic calamity since the Great Depression -- stagflation in the 1970s, the double-dip recession in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the 1991 downturn -- has served to boost the stock of economists. The long Clinton boom that pushed unemployment down to 3.8 percent was good news for nearly all Americans, except economists, who saw their prominence plummet. Fortunately, the last financial crisis fixed that.

  • Explaining How Economists Explain

    It takes a physicist, Mark Buchanan, to analyze what is wrong with economics:

    Academic economists, they say, use the term "explanation" in a way that other scientists never would. Instead of developing realistic and testable theories like those in biology or physics, they often aim only to develop "theoretical cases" -- imaginary mathematical worlds with their own rules of cause and effect.
    And yet, Gilboa and his colleagues suggest that most economists don't see checking the external validity of models as part of their job. Rather, they like to make whatever assumptions are needed to prove their results, get published in a journal, and then "leave the similarity judgements to practitioners." If their results are inappropriately applied in the real world, that's not their problem. In no way does it threaten the reputation of the theories they have developed.

As explained in The Economist the only reliable method to evaluate predictions is to conduct a Philip Tetlock forecasting tournament.

Addendum 04/19/2015: Science's Toughest Test, & Higgs Particle vs Piketty

Good science allows only shakeable faiths. Its toughest test comes when new evidence meets old certainties. By that test some economics seems more art (or math masked religion) than science.
One aspect of Tyler Cowen's intertribal Piketty review illustrates. He calls Piketty's redistributive recommendations "more ideological than analytic," then complains about "distorting effects" of "intense government control," asserting that growing the "economy would do more than wealth redistribution to combat...inequality." But recent IMF research finds "no observed tradeoff between redistributive...institutions and...growth." Instead "inequality reduces growth". Are Cowen's ideological priors encouraging him to discount contrary evidence?

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Wed Mar 4 22:41:29 EST 2015


It is pretty hard to find decent coverage of Netanyahu's address to Congress from conventional reports in newspapers or on radio or television. As usual for some good coverage see how Jon Stewart covered it on The Daily Show,

Two points raised there are also mentioned by Robin Wright in The New Yorker news-desk,

  • Netanyahu has made a career out of crusading against Iran. In 1992, as a member of parliament, he predicted that Iran was three to five years away from producing a nuclear weapon, and appealed for its program to be "uprooted by an international front headed by the U.S." He cited the same time frame three years later, in his book "Fighting Terrorism."

  • Netanyahu has long supported American military intervention. In 2002, he testified before Congress in favor of invading Iraq, and predicted that ousting Saddam Hussein would have "enormous positive reverberations on the region" and ripen Iran for revolt against the theocracy. "It's not a question of whether you'd like to see a regime change in Iran but how to achieve it," he said. Today, Iran holds more sway over Iraq than any other country.

What are the odd of someone like Charlie Rose, who gets to interview Netanyahu, ever asking him about his past comments and poor record of predictions?

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Sat Feb 28 21:36:48 EST 2015

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently:

  • A Skeptic's View of Pharmaceutical Progress

    To obtain a balanced view of pharmaceutical progress (or lack thereof), we need to step back, define a few terms and concepts, and make explicit certain assumptions.

    There is also no doubt that some companies have flagrantly covered up negative data. In some cases, after being "caught" the companies paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines or, in one recent case, settled with harmed patients for $5 billion (Singer 2009).
    Almost everyone outside the industry feels an excessive amount of money is spent on misleading advertising--especially for drugs like those in table 5 that would not sell themselves. Also, the use of ghost writers and excessive payments to thought leaders, florid conflicts of interest, and payments to practicing physicians to encourage specific drug use clearly occur (see table 1). These practices should be outlawed (Stein-brook 2009).
    Finally, scientifically worthless seeding studies (i.e., studies that do not test a hypothesis but are meant to familiarize physicians with the drug with the intent of increasing sales) may be on the wane, as is publishing only positive data and encouraging biased talks and literature. The press, academicians, journals, and public have wisely cracked down and lampooned such practices endlessly.
    However, I submit that incredible good has been done by the drugs and vaccines in tables 3 and 4 (and many others not mentioned because of space limitations, like erythropoetin for certain types of anemia).

    See the full article for more of the positives (based on facts). Overall, I think a good skeptical nuanced analysis.

  • Fluoridation
    Three part series by Discover magazine blogger George Johnson.

    "These results do not allow us to make any judgment regarding possible levels of risk at levels of exposure typical for water fluoridation in the U.S. On the other hand, neither can it be concluded that no risk is present."
    Which is the problem with all of these issues: you can never prove a negative. And that opens the door for truthiness with numbers. Scienciness.

  • Should Unprovable Physics Be Considered Philosophy?

    In some large part, science is powerful not because of ideas but because of how it treats ideas. Science asks, prove it. The distinction is what separates science from philosophy: falsifiable claims and experimentation.
    . . . String theory and the multiverse are concepts that by definition defy experimentation, and yet a small movement within cosmology is attempting to make the case that they should be exempt. At stake, according to Ellis and Silk, is the integrity of science itself.
    . . .
    The scientific high-ground is at stake, with an ocean of pseudoscientists ready to flood the landscape, taking the public with them. The answer, according to th current paper, lies in a simple question. What observational or experimental evidence is there that would convince a theorist that their theory is wrong? If there is none, then the theory is not a scientific theory.

  • The Key to Science (and Life) Is Being Wrong

    In order to recognize wrongness, scientists must maintain some level of detachment from their cherished theories and be open to the ideas of others in their respective fields.
    ... Wrongness is something we all secretly or openly dread. According to self-described "Wrongologist" Kathryn Schulz, in the abstract, we all understand that we're fallible but on the personal level, we leave little to no room for being wrong.

  • The Dark Science Of Interrogation

    How to find out anything from anyone

    Hundreds of studies have shown that interrogators would be just as well off flipping a coin

  • The Value of Violence

    Ginsberg's book is a direct challenge to the optimism of the celebrated cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker, whose 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argued that violence is playing a diminishing role in human affairs. Ginsberg counters that violence is essential both to transformational change and to the preservation of political and social order.

    Also see Ginsberg's article Why Violence Works in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • The Preference for Potential

    Paper from Stanford University and Harvard Business School

    When people seek to impress others, they often do so by highlighting individual achievements. Despite the intuitive appeal of this strategy, we demonstrate that people often prefer potential rather than achievement when evaluating others. Indeed, compared with references to achievement (e.g., "this person has won an award for his work"), references to potential (e.g., "this person could win an award for his work") appear to stimulate greater interest and processing, which can translate into more favorable reactions. This tendency creates a phenomenon whereby the potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing. We document this preference for potential in laboratory and field experiments, using targets ranging from athletes to comedians to graduate school applicants and measures ranging from salary allocations to online ad clicks to admission decisions.

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Fri Feb 20 14:23:45 EST 2015

Artificial Intelligence

Several well known smart people have been voicing fears about artificial intelligence being a threat to to humanity. For example,

But I fail to see any mention of a timeline. Is it decades, centuries or millennia? Predictions without a date attached to them are meaningless since they can never be proven wrong. I disagree with the above, so it's nice to see there are plenty of others who do also.

  • No, the robots are not going to rise up and kill you

    David W. Buchanan, member of IBM Watson "Jeopardy!" system team

    Science fiction is partly responsible for these fears. A common trope works as follows: Step 1: Humans create AI to perform some unpleasant or difficult task. Step 2: The AI becomes conscious. Step 3: The AI decides to kill us all. As science fiction, such stories can be great fun. As science fact, the narrative is suspect, especially around Step 2, which assumes that by synthesizing intelligence, we will somehow automatically, or accidentally, create consciousness. I call this the consciousness fallacy. It seems plausible at first, but the evidence doesn't support it. And if it is false, it means we should look at AI very differently.

  • An Open Letter To Everyone Tricked Into Fearing Artificial Intelligence

    Erik Sofge: Don't believe the hype about artificial intelligence, or the horror

    Forget about the risk that machines pose to us in the decades ahead. The more pertinent question, in 2015, is whether anyone is going to protect mankind from its willfully ignorant journalists.
    Here's the letter at its most ominous, which is to say, not ominous at all:

        "Because of the great potential of AI, it is important to research
        how to reap its benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls."

    To use the CNET and BBC stories as examples, neither includes quotes or clarifications from the researchers who helped put together either the letter or its companion research document
    The truth is, there are researchers within the AI community who are extremely concerned about the question of artificial superintelligence, which is why FLI included a section in the letter's companion document about those fears. But it's also true that these researchers are in the extreme minority.

  • Scientists say AI fears unfounded, could hinder tech advances

    Recent alarms over artificial intelligence research raise eyebrows at AI conference

    "We're in control of what we program," Bresina said, noting it was his own opinion and not an official NASA statement. "I'm not worried about the danger of AI... I don't think we're that close at all. We can't program something that learns like a child learns even -- yet. The advances we have are more engineering things. Engineering tools aren't dangerous. We're solving engineering problems."

  • No need to panic -- artificial intelligence has yet to create a doomsday machine

    A malevolent AI will have to outwit not only raw human brainpower but the combination of humans and whatever loyal AI-tech we are able to command -- a combination that will best either on their own.

  • Out of control AI will not kill us, believes Microsoft Research chief

    Eric Horvitz's position contrasts with that of several other leading thinkers.

    A Microsoft Research chief has said he thinks artificial intelligence systems could achieve consciousness, but has played down the threat to human life.

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Fri Jan 30 01:44:11 EST 2015

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently:

  • The War with Radical Islam

    Jeffrey D. Sachs

    Yet, in most cases, terrorism is not rooted in insanity. It is more often an act of war, albeit war by the weak rather than by organized states and their armies. Islamist terrorism is a reflection, indeed an extension, of today's wars in the Middle East. And with the meddling of outside powers, those wars are becoming a single regional war -- one that is continually morphing, expanding, and becoming increasingly violent.
    From the jihadist perspective -- the one that American or French Muslims, for example, may pick up in training camps in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen -- daily life is ultra-violent. Death is pervasive, coming as often as not from the bombs, drones, and troops of the United States, France, and other Western powers. And the victims are often the innocent "collateral damage" of Western strikes that hit homes, weddings, funerals, and community meetings.
    To be clear, Western actions do not provide Islamist terrorism with a scintilla of justification. The reason to point out these actions is to make clear what Islamist terrorism in the West represents to the terrorists: Middle East violence on an expanded front. The West has done much to create that front, arming favored actors, launching proxy wars, and taking the lives of civilians in unconscionable numbers.

    Nice to see an alternative view rarely written about. Read the whole article.

  • Corruption and Revolt

    Does tolerating graft undermine national security?
    Much of the hundred billion dollars the U.S. spent to rebuild Afghanistan was stolen.

    Corruption creeps in, unnoticed, "like some odorless gas," Sarah Chayes writes in her new book, "Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security,"* and confounds policy objectives without attracting much policy attention. Chayes spent most of the past decade living in Afghanistan. Her book, which is part memoir and part treatise, argues that the United States has a tendency not just to ignore international corruption but to compound it, and that in places like Afghanistan this willful ignorance can be destabilizing and dangerous.
    Chayes cites a survey conducted by U.S. military commanders in Kabul, in which captured Taliban prisoners were asked why they joined the insurgency. The leading reason, according to Chayes, "was not ethnic bias, or disrespect of Islam, or concern that U.S. forces might stay in their country." It was "the perception that the Afghan government was irrevocably corrupt."
    As a general rule, occupying powers tend to push countries into corruption, not pull them out of it.

  • Redefining Mental Illness

    The report says that there is no strict dividing line between psychosis and normal experience: "Some people find it useful to think of themselves as having an illness. Others prefer to think of their problems as, for example, an aspect of their personality which sometimes gets them into trouble but which they would not want to be without."

    I wholeheartedly agree.

  • The Science Of Politely Ending A Conversation

    Research-based tips on finding a delicate way to part ways.

    After analyzing the final 45 seconds of the interactions, the researchers coded and tallied up the most frequent "leave-taking" behaviors. These included "reinforcement" (short, tacit agreements, such as yeah and uh-huh), "buffing" (brief transition terms, such as well and uh), and "appreciation" (an encouraging declaration along the lines of I've really enjoyed talking with you).

  • Disease Screening & Base Rate Fallacy

    The base rate fallacy refers to the neglect of prior probability of the evidence that supports the conditional probability of a hypothesis.

    Naturally, this has policy implications: if you test more and more people, a large percentage of people will be told they have cancer when they don't -- leading to more invasive testing that has other real side-effects. The trick is either to try to test a high-risk subpopulation (where the prevalence rate is higher) or to improve the test by reducing its false-positive rate.

  • Two-thirds of cancers caused by bad luck, not heredity & environment

    22 out of 31 cancers researchers studied could be explained largely by random mutations

    Plain old bad luck plays a major role in determining who gets cancer and who does not, according to researchers who found that two-thirds of cancer incidence of various types can be blamed on random mutations and not heredity or risky habits like smoking.

  • Keep Calm and Put Down the Sriracha

    It has come to my attention that some of you are becoming unable to eat good food unless it is spiced to within an inch of its life.

    If you are unable to enjoy simple, traditional fare that has been properly prepared with good ingredients, the problem is not with the food; it is with you.

  • Chocolate health myth dissolves

    Health-enhancing flavanols that end up on the shelf will likely appear in form other than chocolate

    But there are lots of foods that contain potentially healthy flavanols, along with other bioactive compounds in complex combinations. So the question is: Would academic scientists in publicly funded institutions be so interested in the cocoa bean if the chocolate industry wasn't supporting so much of the research?

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Thu Jan 22 23:51:53 EST 2015

Evidence Based Medicine (EBM)

Some links to help in deciding whether a medical treatment has any validity.

  • The Cochrane Collaboration

    Trusted evidence. Informed decisions. Better health.

    Cochrane is a global independent network of health practitioners, researchers, patient advocates and others, responding to the challenge of making the vast amounts of evidence generated through research useful for informing decisions about health. We are a not-for-profit organisation with collaborators from over 120 countries working together to produce credible, accessible health information that is free from commercial sponsorship and other conflicts of interest.

  • theNNT

    The Number-Needed-to-Treat.   Quick summaries of evidence-based medicine.

    We are a group of physicians that have developed a framework and rating system to evaluate therapies based on their patient-important benefits and harms as well as a system to evaluate diagnostics by patient sign, symptom, lab test or study.
    We only use the highest quality, evidence-based studies (frequently, but not always Cochrane Reviews) , and we accept no outside funding or advertisements.

  • Alternative Medicine Providers Show Their Greedy Side

    Fighting Pseudoscience.

    A growing lobby is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM ) providers, who have discovered a new opportunity to extract even more money from patients than they do already. They want the government to force insurance providers to pay for quack treatments, regardless of whether or not the treatments work. Any attempt to require evidence, they argue, amounts to discrimination.

    Alternative Medicine is the antithesis of evidence based medicine.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments