I came across another one of those ads just the other day that caused me to do a double-take. This time it was a banner advertising a method for parents to determine the correct dosage of medicine for their children.
Here's the ad:
I'm personally all in favour of any product that helps make the job of being a parent easier. This statistic just didn't sit right with me though. I needed to look at the source of this claim and try and determine it's context.
At first I thought I was dealing with a mutant statistic - a fact or figure which has been misremembered/misinterpreted in such a way as to render it completely inaccurate. I wasn't able to find this 72% figure in any search of the literature, so it looked like maybe there was some mutation going on here.
So I wrote to the people at Accudial asking for information about this claim. Normally when I make these kind of inquiries, they go unanswered. But this time I actually did get an answer, and now I can tell you what I found out:
This is a segment from a Canadian science news show from back in February of 2009 regarding Obama's first visit to Canada as president.
I wanted to talk about this because it seems to me like a case where somebody builds himself up as an expert on something when there's really not a whole lot verifiable to what he's saying.
Perhaps there's something to the suggestion that Obama's body language indicates a take-charge type of personality. I can see that. The extra directional gestures he makes do kind of look as though he's trying to be in complete control of the situation.
But what about him jogging down the stairs? Is that really a statement about Canada's relationship with the U.S.? That seems to be really reaching to me. Those were a lot of stairs, and Obama's a busy man!
And what about how they walked between those columns? Was Harper's being off center really a statement about the balance of power? I kind of doubt it. The stairs they walked up were off center with the columns, and they just had to adjust to that a little bit awkwardly.
If you ask me, this guy's just spitballing and coming up with what we expect to hear based on what he already knows of the political situation.
A little over a year ago NASA released an interesting image of a nebula captured by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. What's interesting about this image is that it's a nice example of pareidolia. On first glance, this nebula looks remarkably like a human hand:
What I find fascinating about this image is how much of the resemblance to a human hand evaporates when you examine it closely. Much of the distinguishing features of the hand are made up of very insubstantial mist, only giving the vague impression of the shape of a hand.
If you take the time to simply draw an outline around the clearest parts of the nebula, the illusion of a hand disappears altogether:
To me it now looks more like a hitchhiking moose hand puppet.
Take this as a cosmic reminder that you can easily see the illusion of a pattern in something that is essentially random.
I just read Nightfall by Isaac Asimov. It was voted the "Best Science Fiction Short Story Of All Time" by the Science Fiction Writers Of America in 1964. When you find out that a story has received that kind of award, you've just got to check it out, right?
You can listen to an audio version of the story from the Escape Pod podcast. Its text is also available online. The reason I bring up the story is because it got me thinking about what science can know and what should be considered good evidence for something like a coming disaster.
The story is, of course, very compelling. though there was some science explained that I'm pretty sure is wrong. For example, if a planet were to be in such close proximity to 6 suns, and an alignment took place where only one of those suns were shining down on a hemisphere, the remaining 5 suns would still be lighting up the other hemisphere. An eclipse of that sole sun wouldn't throw the entire planet into darkness.
You can explain that away though. It could be that this planet only has one continent, and when the character Sheerin is explaining the science, he gets it slightly wrong. He does say that he's only giving the "layman's standpoint".
What I found more interesting was the kind of scientific evidence used by the scientists in the story to draw their conclusions. So I want to talk about that a little more. I don't think anything I have to say can be considered a spoiler, it's all revealed early on in the story. But you may want to read the story before continuing anyway, if you haven't already.
For those of us who consider ourselves skeptics, rationalists, or critical thinkers, there's a question about how we should handle religion and religious people. The question has been brought up on several podcasts, blogs, and online forums that I frequent, so it's been on my mind.
How should we deal with religion? What part should skepticism play in the discussion? Can religious people really be critical thinkers?
There's a school of thought that says that we should oppose religion and religious thought completely. That religion stands as completely opposed to critical thought, and that religious people cannot really be in "our camp".
This way of thinking makes me uncomfortable, and I want to explore it a little more in this post.
I think a lot about the question of how we know things. It's especially important when I write a blog devoted to understanding science and the world around us. Why should people trust what I have to say? I write articles that attempt to counteract claims made by people who I believe are wrong. But by what standards should I expect people to judge what I have to say as being more accurate than the claims I'm arguing against?
Should you trust my expertise? My education is in the computer sciences. I took statistics in college, but I'm not a statistician. I basically don't have any formal education in most of the things I talk about on this blog.
When I look at some of the references this blog has been getting through Google searches, it seems that some of my articles have done pretty well in the rankings for certain searches. That's gratifying to see, but it makes me wonder how I come across to others.
As I've mentioned before, I think it's important to develop intellectual uncertainty, and to admit to the possibility of being wrong. I think it's also important to pay attention to the actual experts, and try to understand the current state of knowledge.
What I hope I present to people are articles that are well researched and reasoned. I think the strength of an argument should always be more important than a person's quality of expertise.
But, of course, expertise matters. In this post, I want to explore how I believe that we should look at and think about knowledge and expertise.
I want to talk a little about the implications of correct versus incorrect opinions, facts, and figures.
Of course, nobody likes to be wrong. I know I certainly don't, and I always try to use as accurate information as I can find when writing about any given topic.
But not even encyclopedias with all their fact checkers and editors are immune from mistakes. There's no way I can hold myself up as a beacon of pure accuracy. Considering the sheer number of beliefs, opinions, and miscellaneous information we all hold in our heads, unless you are omniscient, the chances are that you hold several beliefs that are just flat out wrong.
And if there are any omniscient beings reading this, you're under my standing invitation to write in and enlighten me about the truths of the universe. But then, you already knew that. (Use my private email address. You know the one.)
I believe that how we handle ourselves when we're wrong is very important, and since I've just started a blog dedicated to truth and knowledge, I thought it would be best to explain my stance on this right off the bat.
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