Saturday, 10 February 2018

The 'JAMES H RANDI' Framework: Assessing Science Reporting.

It's vital to acknowledge that most people do not get information about the sciences from peer-reviewed papers, instead relying on the media to disseminate information to them. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but most journalists are not qualified in the sciences, this includes actual science correspondents and content writers for science periodicals like New Scientist and Scientific American. Headlines are often vastly exaggerated or outright false. The articles in question may not reflect the findings of the paper or study they concern because the journalist failed to understand what they were reading, they took the information in their article from a secondary source that was incorrect or they've blatantly misrepresented the findings of the research to fit some other narrative or belief. Of course, there's another possible reason for the article being wrong, it may accurately represent the study it reports, but that study may itself be deeply flawed. So it's vital to review how to assess a news article that relates scientific findings.

In what follows I'm going to draw heavily on the work of Kevin McConway and David Spiegelhalter (1), two statisticians, who after getting tired of hearing bogus medical claims on the morning radio, developed a framework to assess the reporting of medical studies in the press. At points, I'm going to generalise to make the points apply beyond the medical sciences. My adapted framework contains eleven questions divided into two categories, study quality and the standard of reporting.

Scoring your article

All the questions in the framework can all be answered 'yes' or 'no' but you'll notice that they are sometimes worded in a quite ungainly fashion. This is because one point is awarded for a 'yes' and zero points are being awarded for a 'no'. Thus the higher an article's score the less trustworthy it is. An article with a score of seven or above should be considered deeply flawed, an article with 10 or more, utter bunkum.

Quality of study.

1. Just Observational? 

Have the researchers made any attempt to control for other variables or have they simply observed a process without interference? Whilst a lack of experimenter tampering may sound like a good thing, failing to apply proper controls make it extremely difficult to link a cause to an effect. Imagine testing a medical intervention but failing to control for other treatments. How can we tell which medical intervention caused an observed improvement?

2. Another Single study? 

What journalists often fail to realise is that scientific consensus cannot be built upon the outcome of one study. We should establish if the study in question has been successfully replicated, or if the results found reflect those found in other, similar investigations into the same phenomena. 

3. Might there be another explanation for the observed effect?

Is there a confounder that might explain the found results? The experimental controls should allow the researchers to eliminate plausible alternative explanations for an observed effect. Imagine experimenters are testing a new cold remedy. They select two groups, men and women. They give the women the new drug, but not the men. They find that the women in the group administered the medicine tend to recover more quickly than the men and report less extreme symptoms. They conclude the remedy is successful, but they have failed to control for gender. The experiment is confounded.

We should also consider any systematic bias, have the researchers introduced an element into the study that will skew the results in favour of one particular outcome? A striking example of this would be a recent survey issued by the Trump administration comparing voters opinions of the first year of Trump's first term to the first term of Obama's first term (below). You'll immediately notice that the first question has an element missing. Subjects are unable to rate Trump poorly whereas the option is available in the second question which asks subjects to rate Obama's first term(2). This quite laughable omission means that a side by side analysis is unsuitable.

4. Extrapolating Small sample sizes?

We should be extremely wary of studies with small sample sizes, especially those with subjects numbering in the tens rather than the hundreds or even thousands. There are mathematical ways to calculate appropriate sample sizes, but often it's easy enough to do this intuitively. You can't draw conclusions about millions of people based on a study of tens.  For example, consider Andrew Wakefield's withdrawn Lancet study which attempted to establish a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Wakefield's study group contained five children, clearly not enough to draw conclusions about millions who had received the MMR vaccine. We need to be even more concerned when the conclusions of a series of tests are extrapolated to a much larger population

In relation to sample sizes, it's important to be wary of larger of studies of rare events. For example, a study of a rare illness may involve following millions of people but only an extremely small number of that sample develop the illness in question.

5. Samples not varied enough? 

Related to the previous point, it's not suitable to draw conclusions about a large population based on a sample that isn't varied enough. A good example of this is the study I looked at with the Spooktator crew early last year. The study proposed to show that individuals with strong religious or supernatural beliefs have poor cognitive abilities. The problem was, not only were the sample sizes extremely small but the vast majority of those studied were aged under 25 and female. It's not possible to draw conclusions about millions of believers of all ages and both sexes from such small, unvaried sample sizes. 

Standard of reporting.

6. Half (or less) of the story?

Are the reporters telling you everything? If they are reporting on the harmful effects of a medicine are they pointing out the benefits as well, or vice versa? Are they highlighting a small part of the research and ignoring the bigger picture? Researchers will normally point out flaws with their studies and suggest avenues for further research. Are these elements being covered in the report?

7. Representing risk in a misleading way? 

Watch out for the phrase "higher risk" in a report. If you are told that exposure to a substance doubles your risk of a certain ailment or illness it sounds quite bad. But what if your risk was incredibly low, to begin with? Unfortunately "X doubles the risk of Y" makes a fantastic attention-grabbing headline. This can also be true when considering a stated effect. If some variable makes the chance of a positive outcome more likely, we need to know how likely that outcome was in the first place to know if that is significant or not. To combat this we should be looking at absolute numbers as a sign of good science reporting.

8. An Exaggerated headline? 

Headlines for articles can be difficult to construct, this sometimes means important details are omitted, worse still they can be abandoned in favour of hyperbole. Does the headline of the article actually reflect what is said in the actual report, or is it misrepresentative or manipulated?

A great example of this would be a study published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reflecting the decision to list the radiation from mobile phones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” or in specific terms to place classify it as a group 2B carcinogen (3). The 2B category is used when there is no specific evidence of a substance or material posing an actual risk, but there have been correlations made in the past. Some other 2B carcinogens include; fuels, laundry detergents and aloe vera.

The Daily Express clearly weren't interested in these details when they reported the IARC's report with the headline: "Shock Warning: Mobile phones can give you cancer" (4).

This headline complete strips the subtlety of the IARC report in favour of hyperbole and blind panic.

9. No Independent Comment?

When considering a scientific study it's vital to remember our first point, single studies do not make the scientific consensus. That means that we should be looking for independent comment from someone in the field of research not involved with the research in question to put our study in context. If an article omits this, it's likely based on promotional material issued by the institution that produced the research, one that has vested interest and may well not be as even-handed as one could hope. This doesn't mean these comments have to be negative, but they should be present.

This leads us to...

10. Does the report rely on public relations puff pieces, or are there considerable personal interests involved?

Are there elements of the report that imply the study is just PR? Who sponsored the research? What was the ultimate aim of the study? Does it fit into a wider scientific context? The answers to these questions are likely to tell you whether you should take the report with a pinch of salt or a shovel. This isn't to say that research that has been paid for by a company or corporation should be immediately disregarded, but it should be viewed with some skepticism. Likewise, research conducted by individuals with considerable personal interests in the research should be considered with suspicion.

For example, Martin Pall's research (5) on the dangers of electromagnetism should be weighted alongside the fact that he sells a range of supplements that he claims to strengthen the biological systems which his research claims EMF 'attacks'(6). Is this conflict of interest mentioned in the report, or in the original paper even?


11. Is the original research unavailable?

A great deal of the time, you'll find that the article you're reading doesn't even link to the original study. This means you're going to have to do the legwork yourself. The original study should be searchable by title if this gets you no results try searching by selected keywords. When doing your search, you may be far more likely to find success searching using an academic search programme such as Google Scholar (7). When you find your paper, it may well be hidden behind a paywall. Don't despair, even if this is the case, the abstract will be available for free. You will more likely than not find that this alone is sufficient to find errors in sloppy articles, especially if the author didn't even bother to read the abstract as often is the case!


If you're slightly worried that all that may be difficult to remember, fear not, I've formed it into a handy mnemonic, JAMES H RANDI after my skeptical hero. You could always rework the framework to spell out the name of your own hero of science or skepticism. I've also formed the questions into a rudimentary scorecard which you can see below and download by following the link in the sources (8). Hopefully, it should make assessing science articles much easier.


Tuesday, 6 February 2018

A Quick Look At Another of David Rountree's Academic Claims.

When this title says quick, it's no exaggeration.

By this point, David Rountree has been so fundamentally debunked that there's very little else to say about the man. His reputation is in tatters, his claims of academic success have been shredded so many times they should be served in pancakes with Hoisin sauce.

But this turkey keeps on cluckin'.

A friend led me to recent conversation Rountree had with his followers, and amidst the anger, denial and threats of retribution, I found the final nugget that David seems to be offering as evidence of his academic success. Rountree is repeatedly reposting links to his '' website. That's where Rountree initially uploaded his laughable "Wormhole theory of the Paranormal" paper.

Now, to Rountree's dwindling band of followers, who bizarrely continue to massage his ego, the fact Rountree has an 'academic profile' may seem impressive. It may even imply he has some form of credibility.

To disprove that, here's my Academia.Edu profile. I don't have any academic qualifications, having not yet finished my degree. That wasn't a problem in setting up the site. Nor was the fact that I didn't even use my real name!

They even send me e-mails to tell me I've been cited despite having never published there!

The only reason my profile isn't visible to the public is I won't pay the money that Academia.Edu require for me to finalise the account!

There is legitimately nothing to stop you setting an Academia.Edu account up for your hamster. Meaningless to anyone who hasn't taken a big old swig of Rountree's Kool-Aid.

If you want more meat on Rountree you could read this which collects the hard work of a group of folks who were determined not to let him get away with this kind of bullshit.


I said "Plugs. Plugs. Plugs." Dammit!

As this has been a quick post, I'm going to throw in two extremely quick plugs. Firstly in addition to writing here, I have also been writing for an up and coming news website called Scisco media as I've mentioned before. My writer's page can be found here,

My writer's page.

And without blowing my own trumpet, I think the last post I wrote for Scisco is possibly the best thing I've ever written.

Gravitational Waves: A new way to ‘see’ the universe

Also a plug for my new t-shirt shop. Yes, I have shilled out and am now selling what my children term 'merch' through the website Spreadshirt.  At the shop, you'll find some sciencey, some skeptical t-shirts, badges, bags and all sorts of merchandise. Purchasing from the shop is a nice way to support what I do here and hopefully moves me closer to devoting more time to writing.

There are about six designs at the moment and they are all available in a range of styles.

The Null Hypothesis@spreadshirt. 

Friday, 2 February 2018

Money For Huffin'. Steve Huff's Patreon Exposes Just How Sleazy He Is.

It's late, you're preparing for bed when there's a familiar ping from your phone. A little red bubble appears over your messenger app. A friend who keeps tabs on the worst scumbags in the paranormal field has something to show you. You open the message getting the feeling you have when you pull open the door of the seediest bar of your town. That's what happened to me tonight when my friend directed me to Steve Huff's Patreon (0). Just when you think that a human being could not possibly sink any lower than selling broken radios to the gullible at massively inflated prices. When you believe that this same person couldn't do anything more tasteless than 'contacting the spirits' of recently deceased celebrities.

He suprises you on both counts.

Let's get something out of the way first. I have no objection to people opening a Patreon. Heck, when I mulled over the move from blogging to making Youtube videos and podcasts I considered doing the same. The time restrictions on making videos meant I may well have to cut down my working hours and I thought Patreon would help me do this without impacting my family. I never made that move, mainly because I enjoy writing and the time constraints of recording audio and editing videos were just too limiting. But opening a Patreon isn't something I rule out, nor is it something I frown upon others for doing.

So why do I have a problem with Huff doing this?

Essentially, it comes down to the fact that Huff uses the videos and content he creates in order to sell his ridiculous range of broken or at best, poorly functioning radios. He's already receiving a revenue stream from the videos he creates, which are essentially just advertisements. But he's not content with that. He wants his followers to pay him to create his advertising material. Obviously, Huff can't outright say this, so let's unpack his justification for soliciting money from his followers.

Huff tells his followers that by donating to him through Patreon they are helping him to conduct his 'research'.

His "drive is stronger than ever before"? I guess a lot can change in a few months because only last year Huff quit the paranormal 'field' after claiming he was under sustained attack from demons! (1), As for Huff's claim that he is conducting 'research'. Where is it? In his introduction video on his Patreon he claims that people have never even seen the majority of his research.

Two questions. Why is that? And given that is the case, why the fuck should anyone pay to support Huff conduct more research, just for him to lash the results in the fucking garbage?

Sitting in your bedroom playing with neon-lights and broken radios is not research. It's tinkering and he's got a damn nerve asking others to pay to allow him to continue to do it. Now he's receiving money just for the purposes of research doesn't Huff have a responsibility to his donors to properly and publically present that research?

I believe so, but he gives no indication that he is going to do this.

In the above video, Huff declares that he is broke, that he can only continue his 'research' without donations. But surely he's got a revenue stream from selling his junk? In fact, only on January 25th, he posted his latest products on his website, costing between $900 - $3995! (2)

And finally, the model that costs over $3000. It will set you back over $4200 if you want it shipped abroad!

Now, Huff can't have lots of his money tied up in stock of this rubbish for the simple reason that he requests you accept that he won't build your box until he's got your cash in his hand.

There's another interesting condition the Huff asks his customers to agree to. He asks his customers to accept that there is no guarantee that his boxes will actually work!

Can you imagine any other type of retailer selling a product that they don't guarantee will work! Huff may actually be falling afoul of a piece of US legislation, the Sales and Storage of goods framework (3), which states:

This requires that the seller knows that an item is fit for purpose at the time of sale, Huff is expressly telling his customers that he does not know that!

Back to Huff's Patreon, as well as crying poverty, you'll notice that Huff brings the issue of heaven and hell into the equation of whether you choose to support him. Huff tells us he has categorically discovered there is a heaven and a hell, and his research is helping discover who goes where when they die. In this respect, Huff has made himself indistinguishable from televangelists like Jim Bakker who threatened that viewers' grandchildren would go to hell unless they buy a $60 bucket of pancake mix. (4) Well, there is one difference. Give your money to Bakker and you get some pancake mix.

So what is Huff offering to his donors?

It's a lot sleazier than pancake mix.

Steve Huff. Ghoul for Gold.

So, for your monthly contribution, Huff is offering to attempt to contact your deceased loved one. Of course, with everything Huff offers, he's quick to point out there are no guarantees. And when it does work, it's very likely because the patron has provided Huff with the name or names of the person they want to be contacted. Something which makes audio pareidolia and suggestibility a much easier for Huff to exploit.

Clearly, in the pursuit of the almighty dollar, there is no level Huff will not stoop to now. He is quite happy to manipulate his patron's grief and pain. Something that shills in the paranormal circus have been doing for years.

Just like mediums or anyone else who proposes to contact the dead, Huff is a ghoul. Pure and simple. It angers me greatly to read the messages from patrons on Huff's page requesting him to contact their loved ones. 

No-one deserves to be exploited in this way.

No one.

So what can we do? The first step I'd suggest is going to Patreon directly. I have to say that they aren't particularly responsive, but if enough people register their disdain perhaps we can help shut down this thinly veiled exploitation. Next, raise awareness, whether by spreading this post around social media or by writing your own posts and articles.

One thing should be abundantly clear here, Huff is a fraud and a charlatan. He has shown himself to have absolutely no boundaries in what he will do for money. 

Monday, 29 January 2018

Giving up the Ghost: Why I've debunked my last tabloid ghost article

Let's address the elephant in the room. The last post I wrote on the blog I came to certain conclusions regarding an alleged ghost image which was published in the Daily Record and then spread on to the Mail and other tabloid outlets. My conclusion was wrong. The image couldn't be accounted for in the way I suggested. The reason for my failure was two-fold. Firstly there was a pure quirk of coincidence that I thought was too convenient to call a coincidence. That I can't help. Secondly, I didn't research my explanation carefully enough. I found a reasonable explanation and then went looking for evidence to support that explanation, ignoring data that didn't support it. You know, that thing I accuse ghost hunters and creationists of doing all the time. I got caught NOT practising what I preach, and whilst I appreciate that everyone makes mistakes. This whole episode is pointing to something I've suspected for a long time.

I'm done debunking ghost "evidence" presented by the tabloids.  

I was lucky enough in this case, that someone who still has a modicum of respect for me was the one who caught me out and worked overtime to privately show me that I was wrong. If it weren't Kenny Biddle that caught me out, it could have been another skeptic, perhaps one I've burnt bridges with (there are plenty of those believe me, even if I have no idea what I did to piss these people off) or someone with a new blog or vlog who doesn't care about stepping on toes and exposing his peers. Someone not as decent as Kenny, someone... well, like me. I've got to add at this point, I've no hard feelings towards Kenny. I actually appreciate that he took the time to privatively explain my mistake to me before going public with his own explanation, which I will link in the article in question as soon as Kenny publishes it.

I've always made the point that there is only one thing worse than no skepticism, and that is bad skepticism. Bad skepticism gives an 'in' for pseudoscientists and woo-merchants, they use mistakes made by skeptics as a weapon against other skeptics. There are lots of other skeptics out there doing great work in this area (see sources for some of the best), I don't want to be impeding their work by offering, lazy, rushed and inaccurate 'debunkings'.

When you produce a post or an article you attach your credibility to it. The same is true essentially everytime you communicate anything to anyone. The internet holds that information forever, and if you've made a grave error that is immortalised too. You continue to do this because it's an endless cycle of risk/reward. You can justify your mistakes by saying "I got this one wrong, my credibility got hurt, but the next one I may nail and I'll be back". Essentially, you're only as good as your last debunking. The problem is I feel the risk-reward ratio is completely unbalanced when commenting on ghost stories/evidence published by the tabloids. The reason for this is, the tabloids aren't ever going to change their approach to publishing ghost articles that people click-on. As such, they don't have any credibility at stake. As long as they keep earning revenue the papers will publish them. At this stage, it doesn't even matter what the content of the story is, the UK tabloids will publish it regardless.

An example of this, on the 20th January 2018, the Mirror published a story entitled "Moment 'poltergeist' spooks ghost hunters by letting them know it is in the room"(2). What spooky evidence was provided? A video showing a K2 meter placed on an uneven carpet falling over (below: image taken from the 'chilling' video). This is the kind of story I'd have once devoted 800 words and an evening to.

The tabloids just don't care what they publish anymore. Not one shit. All they care about is whether people visit the site. Heck, they don't even care if the majority visit just to tell them how fucking stupid the story is, I'm devoting my time to debunking this stuff, often linking to the original post and thus sending extra traffic their way. I used to think that what I do is part of the solution, now I see it's just part of the problem.

As for the risk. As result of writing for this blog and the negative and positive feedback I've received other the years, I've found myself in the position where I can actually be a science communicator. I never thought this would ever develop into an endeavour that I could possibly use to help support my family. A piece I wrote on dowsing helped pay for my daughter's school shoes. That might not seem like a lot, and financially it isn't, but it's a lot symbolically. For the first time, something I wrote made my little girl's life incrementally better.

The only thing about this is, the one piece of advice I've received from every science writer/blogger/journalist whose writing I've read on the subject is that in order to be an effective science communicator your audeince has to trust you implicitly. Mistakes like this 'monk-y buisness' from last week may well whittle that trust. Google will hold that error against my name for the foreseeable future. I can't afford to make too many mistakes, that means I can't afford to write articles debunking things that crucially don't matter, won't make a difference and potentially helps the organisations that spread the misinformation in the first place.

I've been thinking this way for some time. Since way before I dropped the Skeptic's Boot moniker. The rough guide to debunking ghosts videos was an attempt to put a lid on this sort of post. I kept doing the low-hanging fruit, the tabloid ghost junk because it's the stuff I write that connects with the most people. I like my audience and I want to keep them, but I'm not sure this kind of post is my ballpark anymore. I may lose my audience by saying "I'm done with tabloid debunkings" but I'll lose them anyway if what I write is sloppy and wrong.

I spoke to a fairly well-known skeptic last year about a particular element of the paranormal that he'd become heavily associated with. He had got to the stage were he approached the subject with utter disdain, he hated writing about it and had lost all reason to talk about it beyond "It's what people want". I found this a pretty sad situation and resolved never to get stuck in that rut.

Of course, the Null Hypothesis blog will continue, and I'll continue to write about pseudoscience and the poor application of the scientific method, meaning the odd ghost hunter will pop up from time to time. I may well even review the odd Ghost Hunting show or book.

But as for debunking tabloid dross...

Always leave 'em wanting more, not wishing you'd go away. 

Great skeptical resources that focus on tabloid and viral ghost stories, follow these and you won't be missing anything, they were always better than me anyway.

The Spooktator podcast/ Hayley Stevens

Hayley Stevens, Ash Pryce, Paul Gannon, Charlie Revelle-Smith and others look at a month's worth of ghost tales from various sources and discuss them. The great thing about this podcast is you can to hear a variety of viewpoints and the team has a great rapport. 

Follow them on



and like them on Facebook.

Read Hayley's blog here.

Doubtful News/15 Credibility Street

Sharon Hill's Doubtful News covers plenty of dodgy tabloid junk from both sides of the Atlantic. As well as ghosts and UFOs, the site is particularly good for those with an interest in cryptozoology. 



Facebook page

Mick West

Mick mostly focuses on debunking conspiracy theories but also dips his toes in other elements of pseudoscience. He operates the website Metabunk which is a brilliant go-to source for debunkings.



Kenny Biddle.

Kenny assesses the latest viral and tabliod ghost stories and 'evidence' with a strong emphasis on the scientific method. This work features attempts to replicate phenomena to assess if they can be achieved through natural means.




A new one, but a good one. As well as producing his own articles and posts, Kev Kerr has brought together an assorted collection of other people's work in his Debunking lounge. In a field that is filled with people dedicated to promoting their own work, it's refreshing to see someone promote other people as they realise that information trumps ego.


Debunking Lounge.




Thursday, 25 January 2018

A Hole In His Story.The Unexplainable 'Ghostly Monk' of Eynsford Castle Explained.

Ok, it’s never easy to do this, but I have to admit that I’m wrong about the recent Castle ghost. After a lengthy talk with Kenny Biddle, he finally managed to explain where I’d gone wrong.

So apologies to everyone who has shared and liked the post that follows. All I can say about my mistake is that the nature of science is that you correct your position when you’re faced with new evidence.

Also, got to mention that Bear fella and a commenter called Chris on the blog, who also pointed out my error.

As for what the image actually is, I suspect Kenny will pick up the cudgel on that, so I’ll leave the reveal to him.

Apologies again.

- Rob.

The Daily Record reports today on a spooky apparition appearing on an image taken at Eynsford Castle, Kent. The image, taken by Jon Wickes alleges to show the spectral figure of a hooded monk(1). The Record tells us that Jon enlisted the help of paranormal investigator Alan Tigwell, who assured him there is 'no explanation' for the image. The story is almost certain to hit the Star and the Mirror in the next 24-48 hours. Let's take a look at it and see if we can find an explanation first.

Here's Jon's Image.

 And a closer look.

The investigator, Tigwell tells the Record he visited the castle twice to search the area for potential answers before declaring it 'unexplainable'.
"I went to the site twice last Thursday – in the morning when it first opened and later on. The purpose of my visit was to ascertain whether there was anything within those walls to explain the picture. I've been investigating the paranormal for over 20 years. The difficulty with looking at things retrospectively is that it's impossible to say exactly what something is.All I can say is that there wasn't anything in the castle itself that could explain that picture."
Hmmm... "within those walls..." these words may come back to haunt Tigwell.

I can't get to Kent at short notice, so I decided to use the wonders of Google to attempt to solve this mystery. I used street view to get as close the castle grounds as possible. The first few images gave me a pretty clear idea of what our 'phantom' actually is. 

The various walls of the Norman castle are punctuated with doorways and openings. Some of which may appear dark in poor lighting conditions due to the fact that they have walls immediately behind them. After forming this idea it was a case of finding the area in question and checking it for such openings. Luckily the area photographed was quite distinctive having the bridge, steps, wall and river in the same shot and there is a wealth of shots of the Castle on the internet.

Sure enough, I managed to find the exact area. The only remaining issue was that as the image was taken in an open field, there was a multitude of angles that other photographers could take pictures of the wall in question from. After a tiny bit of searching, I found an image that fit the bill, taken in July 2017.

A side by side comparison shows it is the same area taken from a slightly different angle. And if we zoom in somewhat, we can distinctly see the top of the opening which the Record is claiming is a ghostly monk.

The last thing to do is check this is actually a feature on the wall. To do this we can use the fact that the image was taken at a slightly different angle but at roughly the same distance from the wall to bust this ghost. All we have to do is choose a reference point on the wall we think the opening is based on. We then measure how much this reference point (1) shifts from our test image (A) to the image featured in the Record (B). If the 'ghost' is simply a feature of the wall we should expect it to also shift by a comparable amount. You may want to click on this image to enlarge it.

Indeed we find our reference point (1) moved by roughly -40mm and our 'ghost' shifted by roughly -37mm. I put that 3mm drift down to the relativity low level of accuracy we've used to measure the shift and the slight difference in distance between the point where A and B were taken.

I think this one is well and truly debunked. On to the Mirror and Star to republish it regardless, like the peerless journals they are. As for Tigwell, I don't want to be rude, but perhaps focus more on the earning second half of the title "Paranormal Investigator" and a little less on justifying the first.



Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Art of Misdirection: Supporting your ideology the easy way.

The last few days have been fairly interesting in regards to some of the feedback I've received to my Jordan Peterson article 'The Politicization of Science: Jordan Peterson's lesson from lobsters' (1). Mainly because a particular strategy of argumentation has arisen in response to the points I made in the post which I think it's valuable to highlight. Not every exchange I had with regards to the post ran this way, and many of the people who had negative things to say stuck to the science and we were able to have a positive dialogue even if we didn't come to an agreement at the end of it. Then there were other people who were much less interested in the science I presented. In fact, they seemed adamant to avoid discussing the science at all. 

Firstly before critiquing anybody else, let me offer some self-criticism. The Peterson post was the third addition in the loose series of posts I call the politicization of science. It's the second one which has dealt with a right-wing example of the skewing of science to support an ideological point. The first being 'The Politicization Of Science: How the study "Male Microchimerism in the Human Female Brain" became the news story "Women Absorb And Retain DNA From Every Man They Have Sex With"'(2). I also offered a criticism of a left-wing organisation skewing or misrepresenting science in 'The Politicization Of Science: A Response To "US trade deal after Brexit could see milk and baby formula with cancer-causing toxins flood UK market"'.  In addition to those posts,  I began a third edition previous to the Jordan Peterson article that would have focused on the Young Turks horrendously mangling a science story. It was never completed simply because I just did have the time to really do it justice. That would have also been critical of a left-wing source.

The difference between those previous posts and the Peterson one is that in the latter I let my impartiality slip somewhat at the start of the post. I commented on one of Peterson's other arguments that isn't really relevant to the issue I wanted to deal with and in doing so, I let my partisanship show, albeit briefly. That isn't the point of the politicization of science posts, the point of which is to show that it doesn't matter what side of the political aisle we approach science from, properly applied science and skeptism is not partisan. I hold my hands up, it's a lesson for the future. I do believe that after briefly assessing some of Peterson's other arguments when I move onto his specific claims I focus on these alone, and without a political bias.That brings me to the criticism I've received which has tended to fall into some very narrow topics.

The Nit Pick squared.

Some commenters, including a fairly well known 'science' podcaster, have pointed out that I have no grounds to criticise Peterson's use of the word 'divulge' instead of 'diverge'. Mostly because at one point in the article I spell 'serotonin' as 'seratonin'. 

There are a few points to make about this. Firstly I don't think that a grammatical error is the same as getting a piece of terminology wrong. I don't think it's a fundamental mistake. Science relies heavily on precise terminology. If you're presenting a scientific idea it creates a terrible impression if your terminology is wrong. Secondly, I hardly "rail" on Jordan for this. I mention it once then move on to his claims. Let's look at how "hard" I mocked Jordan:
"Jordan says humans "divulged from lobsters". We should assume that Jordan means "diverge" rather than "divulge" an embarrassing slip and one that gives the distinct impression Petersen doesn't have a clue what he is talking about. Putting this lack of knowledge of terminology aside, the claim Peterson is making is simply not true"


In a 1065 word article, I devote a WHOPPING 53 words discussing his slip. That's just 5% of the article. I'd hardly say the crux of my argument against Jordan's claims rests on this element as Dan seems to imply. I'll return to Dan in second.

Anyway, Jordan explains here why I should pick him up on his words.

Thanks Jordan!

You really need to read /watch /listen to his books /website /podcasts before commenting

Another claim was that I shouldn't take Jordan's claims on the show at face value, perhaps he gets the things he gets wrong here, right in his other materials. 

Maybe Jordan does get this stuff right in his books, but I find it unlikely. Why? Because he gets things so fundamentally wrong. Two of the elements he discusses, the role of serotonin and the effect of antidepressants, are completely opposite to what he claims. In a similar vein, he's hardly going to correct on these errors given time to continue and elaborate. As an analogy, trains that derail don't tend to hop back onto the tracks if they're allowed to run for a while.

As for running to his books to correct these errors, do skeptics and science lovers do this when Ray Comfort makes a glaring error? When Comfort called the banana "the atheist's nightmare" how many of us immediately logged onto our Kindles just to give him the benefit of the doubt?

None of us. We were too busy making 'banana man' memes. 

Why should we give Peterson any more charity than Comfort?

 Because he's a Professor?

An argument from authority. 

A commenter on a thread created by Youtuber Noel Plum, commented on the likelihood of a professor making a mistake regarding terminology or evolution. 

I don't know if he misspoke or he is fundamentally wrong about evolution, but I can't rule out the possibility of the latter as Jordan may well be a professor, but he is NOT a professor of biology. Peterson is a psychology professor which in no way makes him an expert in evolutionary biology or anatomy or neurology. I've no reason to suspect he's anymore knowledgeable about biology than anyone else. This is simply an argument from authority. But wait, I'm not a biology professor either, or a neurologist. How can we be sure I'm correct?

That's why I cite my sources so you can check I'm right and correct me if I'm not.

'Cause Feminism!

And here's the crux of the matter, and the theme that ran through almost all the criticism my post received. People see Jordan as a warrior against 'third wave feminism' and they really don't care about the fact that he is completely wrong in the science he is using to support his ideology. To many of the people who defended Jordan, it didn't matter he got almost everything he said wrong. All that mattered was the intent. Now, this is not something exclusive to this discussion by any means, but the reason this is so troubling here is these discussions are occurring in science groups. These arguments are made by people who describe themselves as "science enthusiasts" and skeptics. And they want to talk about anything but science.

Need convincing of this?

Let's not get to the point.

Clearly, if you've read my post you know the main drive of it is the science presented by Peterson. It's ironic then, that most of the people I interacted with on this subject wanted absolutely nothing to do with the science described by Jordan. I attempted several times to steer the conversation to science. These are the kind of responses I received. Remember Dan? Here's his response when I requested a discussion on the science in question on the science page he moderates.

That hurts my feels! Why do some of these folks not want to talk about the science involved here with me? This lovely chap (below), Miles, thinks it's because I'm not a very nice person. Put mildly. Oh and I've given him an extremely complex 17-word answer to one of his questions!

Now, anybody would think that Miles and Dan are desperate here not to actually address the points I've raised both are focusing on trivial matters. It doesn't really matter if Peterson was reading off notes, and it's not that important his slip of words.

But that's all his supporters seem to want to talk about. Here's a list of the things I requested that Peterson supporters completely ignored.
  • Any evidence that humans diverged from lobsters 350 mya.
  • Any evidence that serotonin has a similar affect in arthropods as in humans.
  • That hierarchy existed in proto-roundworms, the lobster/human earliest common ancestor.
  • That similarity in animal hierarchy in such diverse classifications as mammal and arthropod are anything more than convergent evolution.
  • That antidepressants effect lobsters in similar ways to humans.
  • That lobster hierarchy, which is totally based upon fighting, is in anyway comparable to human society.

This is pure misdirection. These "fans of science" don't want to be forced to admit there's no science behind this anti-feminist ideology. That they support it not because it's well-founded, but because they like it. Yet they want these ideas to be founded in science because they've seen science devastate religious and supernatural arguments for years. Science was an ally to them and they want to keep it that way. This means they have to point to irrelevant things such as whether Peterson has notes, or whether he intentionally said "divulge" instead of "diverge" when these things don't really matter. What matters is whether Peterson is wrong in the science he presents or not. The only way to avoid admitting that he is, is to avoid talking about it.

They want science to work for them again. And when it won't they stuff their fingers in their ears and cover their eyes.

Peterson is frequently accused of being "the stupid man's smart person" and I sadly suspect this is all too true.




Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Politicization of science: Jordan Peterson's lesson from lobsters

By now I'm sure many of you are aware of Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Peterson has become a darling of the Youtube alt-right crowd as a result of his refusal to refer to individuals by their prefered gender pronouns, especially new gender-neutral pronouns such as 'Ze' (1). Peterson recently made headlines across the globe when a rather spiky interview with channel four news host Cathy Newman, resulted in her being inundated with threatening and misogynistic messages, which is what happens when you dare to disagree with an alt-right idol in a public space, especially if you have the sheer audacity of being female as you're doing this. What caught my attention during this exchange was Peterson's attempt to suggest that human hierarchies are a result of evolution. In particular, Peterson points to the lobster as an example, and in doing so demonstrates the kind of knowledge of evolution we'd normally associate with a creationist. 

I've avoided Peterson's arguments against new pronouns thus far, mainly because of how silly it all seems. Language changes frequently and the addition of new words to help define and categories new ideas are not restricted to expressions of gender. Peterson insists he is not 'transphobic' as he is frequently accused of being, but this defence somewhat falls apart when we investigate his argument and find he has no issue with other new terms being introduced to the lexicon. Peterson is fine with words such as 'dongle', 'emojii' and 'meme' all introduced to the Merriam Webster dictionary and other dictionaries in the last ten years (2). He only objects to the addition of words directly related to gender. Jordan argues that these new words somehow impinge on his right to free speech, which implies he alone has the right to decide how people should be identified. Like most alt-righters who argue for 'free-speech', it's only Jordan's own right to speak he's concerned with.

But in the aforementioned interview, Peterson attempted to suggest that human hierarchies aren't socially created, but are effects of human evolution. His evidence for this is the fact that lobsters also have hierarchies. Let's watch the section of the interview in which he makes this claim. If you want to watch the whole interview the link is in the sources (3). Pay special attention to the fact Jordan is clearly reading from pre-prepared notes (4).

Let's look at the easiest points to debunk first. Human lineage diverged from arthropods long before lobsters evolved, so lobster hierarchy clearly developed independant t o any human socitital structures.

Jordan says humans "divulged from lobsters". We should assume that Jordan means "diverge" rather than "divulge" an embarrassing slip and one that gives the distinct impression Petersen doesn't have a clue what he is talking about. Putting this lack of knowledge of terminology aside, the claim Peterson is making is simply not true. Humans did not diverge from lobsters. Jordan throws in the term "common ancestor" and that element is correct lobsters and humans do share a common ancestor. Peterson tells us that this divergence occurred 350 million years ago, but he is way out here. The ancestors of lobsters did indeed appear roughly 360 million years ago (5), but lobsters are invertebrates, specifically,  arthropods much like arachnids and insects, whilst humans are vertebrates. These are completely separate groups on the phylogenic tree, and diverged at least 500 million years ago (5). As the main difference between two groups of animals is a completely different skeletal structure, it seems sensible to suggest that they diverged before the development of any type of skeletal structure at all. Probably something similar to a roundworm with a centralised nervous system. So human societal structures and lobster hierarchies are completely unrelated as even conservative estimations show the vertebrate branch of the phylogenic tree diverged hundreds of millions of years before the emergence of the proto-lobster.

So what about the other similarities that Peterson highlights? Do they exist at all?

Seratonin is indeed found in the brains of both humans and lobsters. In fact, it is found in the systems of most animals and it is generally linked to aggression. As all species share a common ancestor this shouldn't be surprising to us. Clearly, serotonin was a part of our's and lobster's common ancestor. But what Peterson doesn't mention, perhaps because he is unaware, serotonin has a completely different effect in arthropods and vertebrates. In vertebrates lowered levels of serotonin lead to increased aggression. Studies using crustaceans, such as crayfish, have shown that increased serotonin can reverse societal positions (6) as these roles are determined by aggressive confrontation. The lobsters with higher serotonin levels engaged in more aggressive confrontations and were less likely to withdraw, thus they improved their societal standing. With invertebrates, the opposite is true (7). In fact, there are conditions in which the failure of a particular gland to produce serotonin in humans causes unprovoked violent outbursts (8).

As for Peterson's other statement that "antidepressants work on lobsters" again in the same study as the one linked above Prozac was introduced to lobsters, and a significant effect was found. As in humans, in lobsters, Prozac blocks serotonin uptake into nerve terminals (8). Predictably, as the abundance of serotonin in arthropods has opposite effects to its abundance in the systems of vertebrates, Prozac also has converse effects. So antidepressants do work on lobsters, albeit in a completely different way!

rough day at the office?

Human hierarchical structures are nothing like those of lobsters. Comparing the two is actually quite laughable. Lobsters are clearly extremely basic animals with a simple brain, much more influenced by body chemistry. Hierarchy is determined by body size and aggression. Clearly, we don't determine our leaders based on the results of UFC matches. Sometimes I get the impression that men like Peterson believe that this is the case, or at least wish it were, that the more aggressive candidate should assume a leadership role. It's a male power fantasy where they will be valued for their masculinity, aggression and physical strength. This is why it is young men in particular that find this nonsense appealing. They desire a world in which advantages are conveyed to them based on their nature and morphology alone. Clearly, our society has moved beyond this, the existence of art, music, science and literature all make Jordan's comparisons to lobsters utterly facile.

There's an epilogue to this story fair readers. Click here to read it.