Tag Archives: pseudoscience

Crackpot Nobelists

I have mixed feelings about the Nobel Prize. To some degree, I sympathize with Feynman:

I agree with Feynman that the discoveries that people made about the nature of reality are more important than titles and distinctions. The true test of scientific work is what it tells us about reality.  Of course “importance” is subjective, but importance can be defined operationally in terms of how much implication a discovery has for the workings of the universe, as made manifest through the breadth of experimental results that it can help explain. The importance of a discovery can also be defined through the impact a discovery has on technology and society.  The later definition is actually closer to Nobel’s intent, although the former version of “importance” usually implies the later as well. The invention of the transistor, a singular event by a few people, surely passes the test. Scrolling through the Nobel prizes in physics, they all appear to pass these operational tests at the highest level. Still, more generally prizes and awards are often corrupted by human cognitive biases and by the insularity of certain social networks – ie winning the prize becomes more about ‘who you know’ rather than ‘what you discovered’. Continue reading

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What’s your evidence threshold?

As we communicate science to the public, it is also important to explain how science works and how to distinguish science from pseudoscience. From years of being in the field, scientists generally have their ‘bullshit’ detectors pretty finely calibrated, which leads to a type of illusion of transparency.  In other words, scientists often underestimate how difficult it is for people outside their field to distinguish established science from pseudoscience. The reason for this is not just that pseudoscience is ubiquitous on the internet. The most persistent and damaging pseudoscience (homoeopathy, climate change denial, anti-vaccination, etc) is justified using studies published in peer reviewed journals by PhDs. Peddlers of pseudoscience use these studies to support their claims while ignoring all other studies which refute them. The vast majority of the public will have no knowledge of the follow up literature (or details of the experiment design and intricacies of statistical significance). Good science reporting will be careful to make wide reaching claims on the basis of a single study, and will mention the statistical significance of results, but such reporting is the exception, not the rule. Therefore, articles on pseudoscience websites can be effectively indistinguishable from much of run of the mill scientific news reporting.
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The chance that a child will have a severe reaction to the MMR vaccine is less than the chance they will die in 200 mile car ride

Backstory: Several weeks ago Newsday refused to publish a comment I posted on the article “Vaccine court protects ‘big pharma‘”. Having experienced this before (they have a very limited window to submit comments), I decided to rewrite the comment and submit it as an editorial. Recently I discovered it had been published. Unfortunately, the editor removed one of the key points from my piece, and also botched the grammar on the third line, so I am republishing the full piece here, with minor copyediting.

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Filed under non-technical, pseudoscience, Science communication