Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

Scientific Consensus

Posted in Neurologica by Skepdude on September 30, 2008

I often refer to the “consensus of scientific opinion” and was asked to elaborate on exactly what that is and, more importantly, how it is determined. From a practical point of view, how can the average citizen get a handle on what the scientific consensus is on any given topic? For some burning questions, like whether or not there is significant anthropogenic global warming, much of the debate centers around whether or not there is a consensus and what it means. For others, like should we invest in biofuel from corn, a consensus seems elusive.

The Role of Consensus

For anyone trying to take a scientific approach to knowledge about the world, we must rely heavily upon experts, or those who are more knowledgable than we are. There is no choice – there is simply too much specialized scientific knowledge for anyone to be an expert in everything, or even a significant portion of scientific disciplines.

Further, being an educated layperson is usually not enough to form your own opinions on specific scientific questions. Forming a reliable opinion often requires a level of detailed knowledge that only an expert in the field can obtain. Even experts can be wrong, of course, and since lay opinions are likely to span all possibilities, some are bound to be correct. Experts, however, are far more likely to have an opinion that accurately reflects the evidence and to understand how to incorporate new evidence as it comes in.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “NEUROLOGICA”

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Denying Intelligent Inference

Posted in The Rogues Gallery by Skepdude on September 15, 2008

Listener Dex Wood sends us the following question:

I am kind of concerned about proving our ability to extrapolate with past evidence.  This concern came from a discussion I was having with someone about evolution.  I claimed that the large body of evidence allows us to determine the course that evolution took in the past.  They returned with, “You weren’t there, and there was no direct observation.”  It is true that I was not there to directly observe it, and showing someone that evidence being used as observation is valid, seems difficult.  How do you deal with someone arguing that things could have been different a long time ago?  This can apply with radioactive dating or physics in general.
Thank you for your reply,

Dex Wood

This is a classic strategy of denial, used most prominently in evolution denial (i.e. creationism/intelligent design). It is simply an attempt to deny one form of legitimate scientific evidence and reasoning.

First, I want to point out that “extrapolation” is not the best word to use for what Dex is asking. Extrapolation specifically means to find a pattern within existing data and then to project that pattern beyond the data. The specific example he gives, figuring out the path of prior evolution, is mainly interpolating – filling in data between existing data points. The fossil evidence represents snap-shots of the evolutionary past and we infer what happened between those snap-shots.

READ THE REST OF THIS AT “THE ROGUES GALLERY”

Here be Dragons

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on September 10, 2008

Don’t forget this nice 40 min video from Brian Dunning. If you’re a teacher you should probably play this for your students.

HERE BE DRAGONS THE MOVIE

How To Improve Science Education

Posted in Neurologica by Skepdude on September 5, 2008

The stated “mission” of the loosely defined “skeptical movement” is to promote science and reason. At the core of this mission is the promotion of life-long quality science education. The many blogs, podcasts, magazines, lectures, and books primarily serve this purpose – to popularize science and help teach scientific philosophy, methodology, and facts to the public.

But what about formal public science education? There appears to be general agreement among skeptics that the quality of science education is generally poor, and yet is critical to our goals. But what have we done about it? Too little, I think.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “NEUROLOGICA”

The Importance and Limitations of Peer-Review

Posted in Science Based Medicine by Skepdude on September 3, 2008

Peer-review is a critical part of the functioning of the scientific community, of quality control, and the self corrective nature of science. But it is no panacea. It is helpful to understand what it is, and what it isn’t, its uses and abuses.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “SCIENCE BASED MEDICINE”

Sweden Rocks the Religious World.

Posted in Uncategorized by Skepdude on August 20, 2008

In a hugely controversial move, the Swedish government has moved to ban teaching religious doctrine in schools as if it were true.

Well butter my buns & call me a biscuit; here’s something I never did think I’d see. Sweden’s population is about 50% atheist, but this legislation is widely rumored to be aimed at religious fundamentalists, not the generally religious portion of the citizenry. According to the article:

There is little doubt that combating Islamic fundamentalism is the underlying aim, especially in conjunction with another new requirement that all independent schools declare all their funding sources. This would allow the inspectors – whose budget is being doubled – to concentrate their efforts on those schools most likely to be paid to break the rules.

In the background to these announcements comes the release of a frightening documentary film on Swedish jihadis, which follows young men over a period of two years on their slow conversion to homicidal lunacy.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “LEFT COAST LIBRUL’S WEBLOG”

Provenance

Posted in Skeptico by Skepdude on July 29, 2008

No, it’s not a region in France. Provenance is a thing’s origin or source, and the history of its subsequent owners. It’s important when, for example, selling works of fine art. If you find a long lost Picasso in your granny’s attic you might have trouble convincing the experts it’s real, even if it looks real. If it’s very good, you might be able to sell it for a decent amount of cash, but doubt about its origin will mean you only get a fraction of what a verified Picasso would fetch. But if your granny could prove she worked as, say, Picasso’s housekeeper during the period he produced that type of work, you might get a lot more. The quality of its provenance would make it more likely the work was genuine. Provenance is a necessary factor in the valuation of art – to determine that it is (a) genuine and (b) legally owned.

Provenance is also useful in determining the validity of scientific claims. If the claim is based on earlier sound science – backed by quality evidence – it is more likely to be true. Not certain to be true, of course. But it will at least have scientific plausibility. But if the claim is based on something that was just made up, then it seems much less likely it would be true.

An Example

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “SKEPTICO”