Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Parascience

Every once in a while a science story hits the mainstream that sounds really cool. Then you get in to the details and notice some interesting commonalities:

  • A condemnation of those who remain skeptical of the claims [Real scientists accept and encourage skepticism of their work because it provides them with ideas on how to test it so as to put it on a stronger footing.]
  • A reliance on results which are very low but "statistically significant" [Statistical significance is a subjective choice. Many scientists use a standard but arbitrary cut off which states that, if the effect you are trying to measure is nonexistent and you were to do the experiment exactly the same way with the exact same number of trials 100 times you would expect to get the results you got only 5 times or 1 time depending on how significant you are trying to get. Statistics never prove an hypothesis, they only tell you whether, on the basis of your experiment, you can reject the hypothesis.
  • The effect was discovered at Princeton University which has a thriving paranormal /parapsychology culture though not much to show for it.
  • At some point meta-analysis is invoked. [Meta-analysis is a statistical trick used to turn many small scale experiments into one big one. Different statisticians can use perfectly acceptable standards for meta-analysis and get completely different results. And they are the ones who actually understand this crap. Many of the finest scientists have taken one stats course in their lives which is one reason why science journals need to be so choosy about what they print.]
  • At some point quantum mechanics - or more precisely - poorly understood quantum principles of an unknown nature are invoked.
  • The results will not appear for other people when they to reproduce the results.

This story by Wired News has all those elements which leads me to believe that these people who have worked for nearly 30 years to find evidence that the human mind can influence machines or random outcomes of physical processes should keep working and stop griping that people should be more accepting of their work. Princeton also has a project designed to show how major news events cause the collective consciousness of the planet to flip out and upset random number generators. Once again we are dealing with statistics and once again only people without a sound basis in statistics (meaning everyone) is supporting it.

On a similar line of thought, I have noticed that there is a world of difference between medical science (things your doctor tells you) and medical studies (things your nightly newscaster tells you); the latter being produced by drunken pre-med school frat boys or by companies or lobby groups with a major emotional or financial stake. Studies are typified by ridiculously small sample sizes, conclusions which completely do not follow and a high degree of popular press publicity. Even the popular science press can be sucked in by them at times, though they tend to be slightly more balanced in their reporting. (In the preceding New Scientist link if you were reading quickly with a pre-existing distrust of video games you would think the article was proof that they were harmful even though the exact opposite could also be true without the article being wrong. Most other media who reported on that story were not as balanced.

So let us review.
Words and terms which should activate your Bullshit detector:
  • "Skeptics suck!" (or words to that effect.)
  • Meta-analysis.
  • Quantum entanglement. (unless the story is about particle physics.)
  • Spooky action at a distance. (Any quote by Einstein that can be understood without a PhD or via paraphrasing is generally being taken out of context.)
  • Statistically significant.
  • Princeton.
  • A new medical study.
This will be on the final exam.

11 Comments:

At Wed. Jul. 20, 01:51:00 a.m. 2005, Blogger alice said...

So in other words, we have no idea what the hell is going on here and not a chance in hell of finding out. Just as I suspected.

I'll have to go back to Descartes.
"I think, therefore, I am."

I think.

PS Has the movie "What the Bleep do we know" hit Canada yet?
www.whatthebleep.com

 
At Wed. Jul. 20, 01:39:00 p.m. 2005, Blogger Apesnake said...

I think it showed here shortly but it tanked pretty quickly. That was the movie which was channeled by some 35,000 year old god/warrior named Ramtha wasn't it? He couldn't do any worse than most Hollywood writers I suppose.

I have always had trouble with the "I think, therefore I am." business. It presumes that people who 'are not' don't think. Since I have never met anyone who 'was not' I don't think we should cast aspersions on them. Descartes seems to be speaking out of prejudice. What have people who 'are not' ever done to him? I am going to get a bunch of people who 'are not' together and punch Descartes in the nose. Since he currently 'is not', they should know where to find him.

 
At Wed. Jul. 20, 10:55:00 p.m. 2005, Blogger alice said...

Sounds like something from "The Night of the Living Dead"

Wanna work on a screen play?

 
At Fri. Jul. 22, 01:02:00 a.m. 2005, Blogger Apesnake said...

I would love to but the timing would conflict with the piece I am writing for a made for TV movie about how Charles Darwin murders Terri Schiavo

After Darwin kills Terri he is going to face off with Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist in a cage match.

"TWO MEN ENTER...
ONE MAN LEAVES!!!"

(Based on a true story.)

 
At Sun. Jul. 24, 12:54:00 a.m. 2005, Blogger alice said...

Where do you find this stuff, Apesnake?

I still think it would be a wonderful idea to do a parody on the various philosophies which have made their appearance on the world screen. Of course one would have to have an in-depth knowledge of what each philosophy contained and that would take a scholar of some note,.. one with a sense of humor as well. and the audience would have to have some background to get the joke.

I am currently reading Bertrand Russell. It's a book he wrote in 1948 about the limits and scope of human knowledge. Epistomology, right?

I love to read this stuff, but I only really understand about 1/4 of the material. And yet I feel that somehow it is important, both to mankind in general and me in particular.

I could be wrong.

 
At Sun. Jul. 24, 09:28:00 a.m. 2005, Anonymous Sunni said...

I read that Wired article too, with pretty much the same thoughts going through my head as apparently went through yours. And I have taken numerous statistics courses (but didn't learn the magic that is meta-analysis).

 
At Sun. Jul. 24, 10:31:00 p.m. 2005, Blogger Apesnake said...

The philosophers certainly have some interesting things to say. Unfortunately many of them wrote or were translated before the 50s or so which seems to be about the time when scholarly authors decided to start using normal English to express themselves instead of trying to impress their colleagues with the most unusual use of common words. I often find that reading any really old work is surreal because I know the meaning of every word on the page but they make no sense. It is like having a stroke or something.

The statisticians don't teach the meta-analysis until you have entered the darkest recesses of their inner circle. The initiation ceremony is the only esoteric ritual in history to involve nudity, live snakes, a pentagram and oatmeal while STILL being boring as hell.

 
At Wed. Jul. 27, 05:15:00 p.m. 2005, Blogger PeaceLove said...

Hi Apesnake,

Congrats to you and me; we both got a mention on Bidisha Banerjee's blog roundup on Slate:

http://slate.msn.com/id/2123179/

Ironic that you and I share the same template and blog colors, too! Coincidence? Or are our consciousnesses linked?

You be the judge!

PeaceLove

 
At Thu. Jul. 28, 01:36:00 p.m. 2005, Blogger Apesnake said...

I am going to have to start hiring a staff to keep track of me now that I am famous. I hope they don't mind being paid in Canadian Tire money (Most Americans don't realize that we have a parallel currency up here. It is like Monopoly money only with quasi-legal tender.)

Thanks for the tip about Bidisha Banerjee's blog roundup.

I think the template you chose indicates incredibly good taste. It also really sets off that picture of a 3D simulation of the fallopian tube. If I am ever inside a giant uterus I will be able to orient myself. (I should say "When" not "If"; think positive I always say.)

You know what they say:

"When your consciousness gets linked with someone it also links with everyone they have linked with."

You might want to get yourself tested for psychic VD 'cause I have linked with some pretty freaky people over the years.

 
At Sun. Jul. 31, 11:01:00 p.m. 2005, Blogger Ron said...

http://skepdic.com/pear.html

http://www.randi.org/jr/072905beenthere.html#1

 
At Fri. Oct. 07, 08:54:00 p.m. 2005, Blogger Dave said...

You, or your readers, might be interested in reading up on how to create entangled photons. It's an article that discusses QE from first principles using pictures, analogies, and best of all ... no math. =)

Quantum Entanglement

Quantum Entanglement Discussion

 

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