Friday, January 30, 2015

Second Column in Skeptical Briefs

by Felipe Nogueira

As I explained in a previous post, I am regular columnist for Skeptical Briefs, the Newsletter of The Committe of Skeptical Inquiry, a leading skeptical organization. 

In the Winter 2014/2015 issue, released this month, my second column, an article titled Pseudoscience and Bad Science in the Brazilian Scientific American has been published. 

In this column, I talked about some bad articles that had been published under the siege of the Scientific American Brazil. It's important to emphasize, as I did in the column, that Scientific American Brazil is a different magazine from the one published in United States, with its own editorial process. The Brazilian magazine has the rights to translate contents from the original magazine and to add another articles written by Brazilian journalists or researchers.

The motive for my column was an article about anxiety published in October 2014 issue of Mind and Brain, another Brazilian magazine that has Scientific American's name on its cover. The article was written by a Brazilian journalist and Mind and Brain's sub-editor in chief. The problem of the article is that its last section is anything but science. It was a defense and recommendation of the use of accupuncture to treat anxiety flooded with pseudocientific claims, such as "Each emotion is related with an organ - anxiety is associated with the heart". You can see my translation of that section in the image below.

I also mentioned other two articles, both published in Scientific American Brazil. One was a pseudoscience piece of homeopathy published in 2012 and Harriet Hall have criticized it properly on Science Based Medicine blog here.

The other article I covered wasn't pseudoscience, but the author's conclusions about the marijuana health effects weren't supported by the data he presented, overstating the risks, saying, for example, that causality was established between marijuana use and psychotic episodes. However, the authors of the paper Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana Use, published in New England Journal of Medicine in 2014, concluded that we can't confidently say marijuana causes psychothic episodes, even that marijuana users are more likely to experience them than non-users.

Popularization of science is already lacking in Brazil. We certainly don't need to get things worse with such a big name as Scientific American featuring pseudocience and bad science in its Brazilians magazines.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Anomalistic Psychology

by Felipe Nogueira

Several psychologists have studied why and how people believe in different things. In popular science, Michael Shermer, psychologist and the founder of The Skeptics Society, has written several books on this topic, such as The Believing Brain and Why People Believe in Weird Things. As another example, psychologist Bruce Hood is the author of the book SuperSense

Sometime ago, I discovered a field called Anomalistic Psychology. 
Psychologist Christopher French is the founder and director of Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. According to French, anomalistic psychology 
attempts to explain paranormal and related beliefs and ostensibly paranormal experiences in terms of know (or knowable) physical and psychological factors. It is direct at understanding bizarre experiences that many people have, without assuming that there is anything paranormal involved.
With Anna Stone, professor of anomalistic psychology and critical thinking, French authored the interesting book Anomalistic Psychology. The book presents a comprehensive overview of anomalistic psychology research. For example, Chapter 2 presents research regarding individual differences associated with paranormal beliefs, such as age, gender, socio-economical status, etc.  

I always remember that there are people that insist that there are scientific evidence for the existence of paranormal (ghosts, communication with the dead, extrasensorial perceptial, etc). However, French and Stone are very clear in the following quote from the book:
It is possible of course that some people believe in the paranormal because paronormal forces really do exist and these people have had direct personal experience of them. This a possibility that has been taken seriously by many of the finest intellects of the history of science and a consideral amount of time and effort has been spent in trying to prove that paranormal forces really do exist. After well over a century of serious scientific research investigating this possibility, however, the wider scientific community remains unconvinced by the evidence produced to date. Chapter 10 of this book will present an overview of parapsychology that will conclude that although some current approaches appear to at least merit further reaserch, the wider scientific community is fully justified in its scepticism. 
Considering the evidence from controlled tests of spirit mediums, the authors say that many studies have been done asking the medium to give a reading for different sitters, and then asking each sitter to select the reading that best apply to them. According to the authors, results shows that sitters cannot select the readings that apply to them correctly, offering no support for the survival hypothesis (the possibility of some aspect of consciouness survives death).  

The book is very comprehensive, exploring several topics related to paranormal beliefs or experiences.  Besides what I've described, some examples of what is covered in the book:
  • childhood beliefs;
  • near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences;
  • cognitive bias and memory bias;
  • cold reading; 
  • pattern recognition in random data;
  • alien contact claims;
  • scientific status of parapsychology.
I predict that anyone interested in the psychology of belief, as I am, will consider the book very interesting and a must read.