Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Baloney Detection Kit: Dr Shermer's Questions, and What Makes Women Happy


                                                           Dr. Michael Shermer

                                                                   Happy Erin

What do Girls Want?  Why fun of course!

   12. Non sequitur - which is Latin for "it does not follow" -  is an argument in which its conclusion does not follow from its premises. Christians, in both the Catholic and Protestant varieties, tend to believe that theirs is the only real and true religion (despite all of the infighting within these two branches (Sister Simone Campbell's rebellion (Nuns on the Bus) against the Catholic hierarchy, and the Protestant Reformation itself, or the tendency for Protestants to create their own brand of Protestantism in the form of starting a whole new church anytime they don't like some tenets of a previous one)), and that when they die they are the only ones who will be able to enter Heaven and be rewarded with an afterlife of eternal bliss (do they have cable in Heaven? If they don't I'm not going). Yet every religion believes something similar, and the adoption of any particular religion is usually not made by choice but in a large part is due to the geographical location of a persons birth. If you happen to be born in Sri Lanka you'll more than likely become a Buddhist. If you are born in nearby India you'll more than likely become a Hindu. So the logic of the argument that because I am a Christian I will go to Heaven and enjoy eternal life while every one else will be sentenced to eternal misery in Hell simply because they happened to have been born in another country does not follow.

   13.  Post hoc, ergo propter hoc - which is Latin for "it happened after so it was caused by" - confusion of cause and effect. Another way to put this is since that event followed this one, that event must have been caused by this one. "We never had a fire in this building until you moved in." There had been a scarcity of fires in this building until you moved in and we had a fire... therefore you caused the fire. Or, "Barack Obama has not cleaned up the mess the Bush Administration left him fast enough, so Mitt Romney will do a better job."

   14. Meaningless question - "what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?" The apparent paradox arises because it rests on two premises—that there exist such things as irresistible forces and immovable objects, which cannot both be true at once. If there exists an irresistible force, it follows logically that there cannot be any such thing as an immovable object, and vice versa. The question becomes meaningless. The same holds true for "Can God create a stone so heavy it cannot be lifted, not even by God Himself?"
   Or as in this short exchange between actor Ron Glass portraying a demon come to pick up the soul of Sherman Hemsley in the 1985 episode of "The Twilight Zone," "I of Newton."
   Sherman is allowed to ask three questions in regard to the demon's powers, or propose a task for the demon to fulfill; if the demon cannot answer said question or perform said task, Hemsley's soul is spared. He asks if there are any physical limitations to the demon's powers; the demon gleefully replies in the negative, claiming that he is able to travel faster than the speed of light or make two electrons occupy the same quantum state.
   The next question forms a corollary to the second. Sherman queries if there is any place from which the Devil cannot find his way back. The demon, with great satisfaction informs him that he can move through galaxies in a microsecond, and even go to places that do not exist, such as "Berlin if the Nazis had won the war", or Rome had Alexander the Great "lived to a ripe old age".
   The demon demands that Sherman ask the final question, or propose a task, confident now that Sherman's soul is now his.
   Hemsley proposes a task, he simply tells the demon to "get lost." Of course the demon cannot do this since there is no place that he cannot find his way back. Accordingly the demon screams and melts away (which is exactly what would happen if an an irresistible force were to meet an immovable object).
   "Another of our continuing tips on what to do if the Devil shows up on your doorstep. A public service announcement from the Twilight Zone."

   15.  Excluded middle - considering only the two extremes in a range of possibilities (or a false dichotomy). "If you don't love this country, you hate it." "Your either for us or against us," which George B. Bush used to his advantage to further his plans to attack Iraq. Of course the argument makes no sense since there are a wide range of other possibilities, such as "I am not necessarily against you, but there are other ways to handle this problem other than the one you propose."
   16. Short-term v. long-term - a subset of excluded middle ("why pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?"). Our Republican friends are currently using this type of argument quite a bit. Since our nation has acquired such a large national debt (mostly caused by the Republicans themselves) our country cannot afford programs to serve the poor, or women, or the elderly (of course the Republicans  will give away billions to oil companies in the forms of subsidies, increase the defense budget though it does not need to be increased, and never, ever talk about rasing taxes on the wealthy, for that is who the Republicans actually work for).          
    17. Slippery slope - a subset of excluded middle - unwarranted extrapolation of the effects (give an inch and they will take a mile). "If we allow same sex marriage to become the law of the land, then what's to stop marriage between men and goats?" 
   For my own part I have nothing against interspecies marriage. To each his own.
   Here's another: "If we legalize marijuana, then everybody will become heroin addicts."
   18. Straw man - caricaturing (or stereotyping) a position to make it easier to attack. "You are a liberal, so you don't love America." Oh, here's one that was directed toward me by one of my Facebook friends recently, "You are a liberal, so I don't think you were ever in the navy." Of course the two propositions have nothing to do with each other. My friend seems to think that everyone in the military and all veterans are Republican conservatives. Both groups are hardly monolithic.
   19. Suppressed evidence or half-truths. Just look at Romney's campaign for the presidency. He and Ryan claim to want to save medicare and social security for seniors. What they don't mention is that their plan will make medicare a voucher program which will increase costs for the children of seniors, and that they want to secure social security by turning it over to Wall Street. On and on.

   20. The use of Weasel words - for example, use of euphemisms for war such as "police action" to get around limitations on Presidential powers. "An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public."
   The so-called "Patriot Act," which actually infringes on the civil rights of Americans.
    "Obamacare." The Republicans seemed to have thought this would be a pejorative term and that it's use would cause Americans to dislike the The Affordable Health Care for America Act, until the president embraced it, stating that he does indeed care.
   Dr. Michael Shermer, the American science writer, historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and sex symbol, has his own variation of the Baloney Detection Kit in the form of ten succinct questions, which are easy to use, remember, and understand. I'll let him explain:

   1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
   "Pseudoscientists often appear quite reliable, but when examined closely, the facts and figures they cite are distorted, taken out of context or occasionally even fabricated. Of course, everyone makes some mistakes. And as historian of science Daniel Kevles showed so effectively in his book The Baltimore Affair, it can be hard to detect a fraudulent signal within the background noise of sloppiness that is a normal part of the scientific process. The question is, Do the data and interpretations show signs of intentional distortion? When an independent committee established to investigate potential fraud scrutinized a set of research notes in Nobel laureate David Baltimore's laboratory, it revealed a surprising number of mistakes. Baltimore was exonerated because his lab's mistakes were random and nondirectional."
   2. Does the source make similar claims?     
    "Pseudoscientists have a habit of going well beyond the facts. Flood geologists (creationists who believe that Noah's flood can account for many of the earth's geologic formations) consistently make outrageous claims that bear no relation to geological science. Of course, some great thinkers do frequently go beyond the data in their creative speculations. Thomas Gold of Cornell University is notorious for his radical ideas, but he has been right often enough that other scientists listen to what he has to say. Gold proposes, for example, that oil is not a fossil fuel at all but the by-product of a deep, hot biosphere (microorganisms living at unexpected depths within the crust). Hardly any earth scientists with whom I have spoken think Gold is right, yet they do not consider him a crank. Watch out for a pattern of fringe thinking that consistently ignores or distorts data."
    3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?  
   "Typically pseudoscientists make statements that are unverified or verified only by a source within their own belief circle. We must ask, Who is checking the claims, and even who is checking the checkers? The biggest problem with the cold fusion debacle, for instance, was not that Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman were wrong. It was that they announced their  spectacular discovery at a press conference before other laboratories verified it. Worse, when cold fusion was not replicated, they continued to cling to their claim. Outside verification is crucial to good science."
   4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
   "An extraordinary claim must be placed into a larger context to see how it fits. When people claim that the Egyptian pyramids and the Sphinx were built more than 10,000 years ago by an unknown, advanced race, they are not presenting any context for that earlier civilization. Where are the rest of the artifacts of those people? Where are their works of art, their weapons, their clothing, their tools, their trash? Archaeology simply does not operate this way."
   5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim? 
   "This is the confirmation bias, or the tendency to seek confirmatory evidence and to reject or ignore disconfirmatory evidence. The confirmation bias is powerful, pervasive and almost impossible for any of us to avoid. It is why the methods of science that emphasize checking and rechecking, verification and replication, and especially attempts to falsify a claim, are so critical."
   6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
   "The theory of evolution, for example, is "proved" through a convergence of evidence from a number of independent lines of inquiry. No one fossil, no one piece of biological or paleontological evidence has ``evolution'' written on it; instead tens of thousands of evidentiary bits add up to a story of the evolution of life. Creationists conveniently ignore this confluence, focusing instead on trivial anomalies or currently unexplained phenomena in the history of life."
   7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
   "A clear distinction can be made between SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientists and UFOlogists. SETI scientists begin with the null hypothesis that ETIs do not exist and that they must provide concrete evidence before making the extraordinary claim that we are not alone in the universe. UFOlogists begin with the positive hypothesis that ETIs exist and have visited us, then employ questionable research techniques to support that belief, such as hypnotic regression (revelations of abduction experiences), anecdotal reasoning (countless stories of UFO sightings), conspiratorial thinking (governmental cover-ups of alien encounters), low-quality visual evidence (blurry photographs and grainy videos), and anomalistic thinking (atmospheric anomalies and visual misperceptions by eyewitnesses)."
   8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
   "This is a classic debate strategy--criticize your opponent and never affirm what you believe to avoid criticism. It is next to impossible to get creationists to offer an explanation for life (other than "God did it"). Intelligent Design (ID) creationists have done no better, picking away at weaknesses in scientific explanations for difficult problems and offering in their stead. "ID did it." This stratagem is unacceptable in science."
   9.  Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
   "Many HIV/AIDS skeptics argue that lifestyle causes AIDS. Yet their alternative theory does not explain nearly as much of the data as the HIV theory does. To make their argument, they must ignore the diverse evidence in support of HIV as the causal vector in AIDS while ignoring the significant correlation between the rise in AIDS among hemophiliacs shortly after HIV was inadvertently introduced into the blood supply."
   10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?
   "All scientists hold social, political and ideological beliefs that could potentially slant their interpretations of the data, but how do those biases and beliefs affect their research in practice? Usually during the peer-review system, such biases and beliefs are rooted out, or the paper or book is rejected.
   Clearly, there are no foolproof methods of detecting baloney or drawing the boundary between science and pseudoscience. Yet there is a solution: science deals in fuzzy fractions of certainties and uncertainties, where evolution and big bang cosmology may be assigned a 0.9 probability of being true, and creationism and UFOs a 0.1 probability of being true. In between are borderland claims: we might assign superstring theory a 0.7 and cryonics a 0.2. In all cases, we remain open-minded and flexible, willing to reconsider our assessments as new evidence arises. This is, undeniably, what makes science so fleeting and frustrating to many people; it is, at the same time, what makes science the most glorious product of the human mind."

   Here's a link to the Skeptics Society

   Now the only question that remains is what is it exactly that makes women happy?
   Well according to a 2002 study by evolutionary psychologists Gordon Gallup and Rebecca Burch of the State University of New York, it's semen.

   Well I'm all for keeping our womenfolk happy, but let's delve into this a little further, shall we?
   Semen of course is the medium for which sperm are introduced to the female reproductive system and sperm are not absorbed within the vagina. However the seminal fluid is, and seminal fluid consists of mostly water, but includes many mood altering compounds such as testosterone, oestrogen, follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, prolactin and several different prostaglandins, endorphins, and serotonin.
   The study surveyed 293 college women at SUNY Albany concerning sexual intercourse with and without condoms, and then gave the women the Beck Depression Inventory, a standard test to determine mood. Compared with women who "always" or "usually" used condoms, those who "never" did,  and were exposed to semen, showed a significantly better mood with fewer depressive symptoms. In addition, compared to women who had no intercourse at all, the semen-sploshed ladies showed more elevated mood and less depression.  
    "It makes no sense to me for this phenomenon to have evolved," says Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. But Gallup counters that men whose semen promotes long-term mood enhancement might have more chances to indulge in sexual activity. -Raj Persaud, New Scientist, June, 26, 2002
   Still using the scientific method and the tools of the Baloney Detection Kit we can get a little bit of a better understanding of this study and it's validity.
   Well we do have a theory here, indeed. Has it been tested by experiment? Yes, to a degree. 293 is not a very large number to base such a claim. Have the results of the experiment been repeated by other independent sources? Not to my knowledge, yet the provocative nature of the subject matter keeps this one study appearing in the news every so often.
   So is it true that semen makes women happy? Well... maybe, but it would take a lot more experimentation and pier review to advance this theory into the forefront of human knowledge.
   And I'm all for more experimentation.

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