The Galileo Principle and Scientific Consensus

If you believe something that no one else does, you may be a spiritual descendant of this Renaissance gentleman! Or you could be nuttier than peanut butter...

When arguing with those who preach non-scientific views on subjects where my education is limited, I tend to invoke the consensus of scientific opinion.  I believe my reasoning for this is sound.  I tend to trust in the process of science.  I know that it is in the interests of scientists to be able to prove conclusively why something is or is not true, and that it’s in the interests of their colleagues to disprove what the initial scientist is saying.  Using the process of science, ideas are stringently vetted through the entire community, and if a new idea manages to make its way through that process, we can be reasonably certain that idea is an accurate reflection of reality.  The counter I receive tends to be the Galileo Principle, that Galileo was hounded on all sides by those who believed his ideas on cosmology were wrong, even though he was eventually vindicated for his heliocentric cosmos.  How do we reconcile the appeal to scientific consensus with the possibility of Galileos? … continue reading this entry.

On Marc Hauser

About a week ago a noted scientist, Marc Hauser of Harvard University, was given temporary leave pending an investigation of scientific misconduct.  Hauser is not some small time author.  He has written hundreds of articles in respected scientific publications as well as several well selling books on cognitive psychology, evolution, language, and morality. His work has been frequently cited, one article he coauthored with Noam Chomsky on the formation of language has been cited 60 times according to PubMed. He has received numerous awards from various scientific organizations and has established himself as a scientist able to speak to the media.  As a powerful figure in his field, it is undoubted that Hauser’s possible disgrace will have an impact in the greater scientific community. … continue reading this entry.

Science: A Self-Correcting System

Nebraska Man: Proof that folks from the midwest have ALWAYS had fantastic abs.

Nebraska Man: Proof that folks from the midwest have ALWAYS had fantastic abs.

A recent study has shown that performing a lumpectomy, the removal of a woman’s lymph nodes under her armpit, does not increase survival rates for women with certain early breast cancers.  This is fantastic news for women who might suffer from symptoms of breast cancer in the coming years, but it also means that perhaps millions of women underwent unnecessary surgery with painful consequences, and gained nothing for it.  It’s the kind of news story that can really make you distrust the medical profession.  Why did they go through so many surgeries, and not realize that what they were doing was helping no one?  There’s definitely a way to look at this story that puts scientific medicine on the defensive.  For me though, this kind of story is the reason I trust science.  I know that if the science gets something wrong, it will eventually be able to correct itself. … continue reading this entry.

Why basic research matters, for example

This post was previously posted on Gotham Skeptic in the first weeks of the blog’s existence. The topic has been on my mind since the announcement last week of Craig Venter’s amazing achievement.

A common mold yielded the most important antibiotic of the last century.

A common mold yielded the most important antibiotic of the last century.

This is probably the single most important issue to me as a scientist and as a citizen. Coming up with a straightforward answer to why basic research is important is difficult every time I am asked to do so, and depends on who is doing the asking. When writing to a granting agency, it is crucial to outline why my particular aspect of research needs to be pursued more rigorously, and with that granting agency’s money. When it is asked by an acquaintance on the street, I have to first assess the asker’s understanding of how science is done in order to respond. … continue reading this entry.

Faulty logic: Post hoc, ergo propter hoc

For the next in the series on faulty logic, we have:

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc

It’s a natural tendency for people to make connections between events. “When I do this, that happens.”

When I touch something hot, I get burned.
When I don’t water my house plants, they die.
When I eat that kind of mushroom, I get sick. … continue reading this entry.

Mythbusters and the Importance of Variation

Mythbusters, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman

I love the Mythbusters.

I’ve watched their show since the first season, and unlike some other shows of a skeptical persuasion, it’s maintained it’s edge, humor and integrity. But, I’ve noticed a rather disturbing trend (or at least a disappointing outcome that has now occurred more than once). You see, [...]

Science Patriotism? Enlist Me!

While I am happy to discuss and argue dissenting viewpoints in the interpretation of data or the conclusions based on concrete evidence, I usually leave the critiquing of people’s more philosophical arguments to those better suited to it. But after reading a review of the most recent book, Nonsense on Stilts, by Massimo Pigliucci, Chair of Philosophy Department at the City University of New York-Lehman College and fellow NYCS board member, I am eager to try my hand a picking apart the arguments of the author that are so full of holes you could drive a truck through them. The review in The Chronicle of Higher Education, written by Carlin Romano, was intended to critique Massimo’s hidden bias but instead merely exposed the author’s own. … continue reading this entry.

MUFON head quits, calls UFOlogy “humans deceiving humans”

Taken from Flickr user DALAIWMNs photostream

James Carrion, the International Director for the Mutual Unidentified Flying Object Network (MUFON) has resigned from his position and decided to, if you’ll pardon the pun, ‘move on.’

But he didn’t go without explaining himself. And here’s where it gets very interesting. Carrion essentially denounces the entire “scientific” field of UFOlogy, which plays a central role in the alien visitation believing movement:

That in a nutshell is the sad state of Ufology today, humans deceiving
humans. If there is a real phenomenon, I have yet to see any evidence of
it that would stand under scientific scrutiny.

If you’d asked me to guess who said this quote yesterday I might have said Michael Shermer or Phil Plait. But no, this came from one of the leaders of the UFO/alien visitation community! That is unbelievable! … continue reading this entry.

The Role of Empirical Evidence and Skepticism in the Same Sex Marriage Debate

I teach a course in experimental psychology and research methods. Being a skeptic as well as a psychological science enthusiast, I try to imbue my lessons with the importance of rational inquiry whenever or wherever possible. As my students are often interested in working in fields of social welfare and mental health they want me to emphasize practical applications. As such, there often arise examples where empirical knowledge does not seem to apply, or at least go far enough. To demonstrate this, and hopefully get the students thinking of ways to be logical and rational even where there are no directly testable hypotheses, I facilitate a discussion in each course examining the role and limits of science in the development of social policy. Last semester, the social policy we examined was the stance many hold regarding same sex marriage.

But, before I elaborate on this discussion, let me tell you a story about a cab driver I met a few weeks ago. … continue reading this entry.

How to Write an Essay

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’ve been doing some work lately as a tutor. Some of the tutoring materials they give me are better than others and when I looked at how the book suggested one should write an essay… I was a little appalled. Though I don’t always bring my full ability to essay to this blog, it’s one of those things that I actually understand extremely well. My solution was to put together a standard lesson on how to construct an essay.  Now, you may be wondering what exactly this has to do with skepticism, and I’m here to tell you: just about everything. A good essay begins with a strong premise, leading to a thesis statement, and then proceeds to present valid reasons for why the author believes that thesis.  Being able to write an essay is being able to construct a valid argument. Being able to read an essay is being able to deconstruct an argument. If you’ve somehow lost either of those vital tools for your skeptical tool-box, consider me your Home Depot. … continue reading this entry.

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