Three Kinds of Internet Skeptic

“Ideas on earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Vonnegut's global skepticism in the above quote is not shared by many skeptics on the internet. Their skepticism is not the historical, philosophical skepticism of Descartes or of the ancient Skeptus Empiricus. Instead, there are at least three types of skeptics commonly blogging these days: political, religious, and scientific skeptics. Furthermore, skepticism in one area is often kept in conjunction with acceptance and even naivete in another. I'll discuss these types of skepticism below, specifically in how they are seen in bloggers' writings on the Internet.

Political skepticism

The political skeptic on the internet is not someone who is skeptical about government in general, as seen in anarchism or radical forms of libertarianism. Instead, the blogging political skeptic is usually a commentator on recent political events, such as elections and laws, where the prevailing theme is about ulterior, often evil motives for the decisions of the government. The paradigm of this type of blogger is the conspiracy theorist, who typically suspects the party in power or the party to which he is opposed of secretively executing warlike behavior against the people, such as the Bush administration planning the 911 fall of the World Trade Center, or the Obama administration planning the Connecticut school shootings. Political commentators of this type are usually not scientists, but they often try to marshal scientific evidence as proof of their political views. Such willingness to use scientific theory to change public policy suggests they are not generally scientific skeptics. Many political skeptics hold religious views which put them in opposition to certain government policies, and this opposition might be one reason they became suspicious of their government's actions. Thus, many but not all political skeptics on the internet are theists.

Scientific skepticism

Scientific skepticism, as I would define it, is a form of methodological skepticism. Methodological skepticism is a method of discerning truth from falsehood (a method of verification) which is seen in mathematics in the proof by contradiction and in logic in the reductio ad absurdum. In science, methodological skepticism is part of the scientific method, which may test theories by looking for data that contradicts predictions of a theory. This type of skepticism is accompanied by a tendency to reserve judgement which often finds itself opposed to the hype and gullibility of modern media regarding reports of new discoveries.

Scientists take a position of skepticism about findings or theories, including their own, in order to better test those theories. Theories which are better tested are more likely to be correct, and so methodological skepticism may become a pathway to more certainty, if a theory stands up to testing. Scientific skepticism does not necessarily include global, philosophical, political, or religious skepticism or even skepticism in scientific fields outside the scientist's own.

Some internet skeptics look beyond their areas of expertise in their skepticism because they have technical or statistical qualms about scientific studies in general, or, more often, because they have a general interest in science as a field of knowledge. This is usually still methodological skepticism, but in such cases it is more prone to be influenced by the philosophical or political biases of the skeptic, who may be more prone to attack results in a particular field of study for aesthetic or personal reasons, rather than to improve that field's quality, than someone who is directly involved in the field.

I practice scientific skepticism in fields that I find of concern in daily practice.

Religious skepticism

Religious skepticism is doubt of religious claims in general. This should be distinguished from philosophical or doctrinal disputes between believers in different varieties of religion. Skeptics of religion tend not to be merely methodological skeptics, since they do not have as a goal some kind of true religious belief, but instead advocate agnosticism or atheism about all religious belief.

There are a surprising number of atheistic bloggers who are naive realists about science, and who think that atheism and skepticism are the same thing. This causes clashes between scientific skeptics, who want to improve the quality of scientific beliefs, and skeptics of religion, who are concerned with non-scientific (specifically religious, not ethical or political) beliefs.

See the controversy, for example, here.

Eat your carrots...

High Intake of Carotenoids Linked to Reduced ALS Risk


On an Emergent Neutral Ontology: Part 2

Continued from January 28,2013, here.

A few links, including some discussions of emergence in physics and chemistry:

The seminal article "More is different" by condensed matter physicist and Nobel laureate Philip Anderson.

Here, from Margaret Morrison, philosopher of science.

And here, on reductionism and emergence (and a theistic perspective), from Arnold Sikkema, a particle physicist.

And here's an opposing view from philosopher Galen Strawson, who sees strong emergence as impossible on conceptual grounds (despite the physical evidence above).

Tympanic Hygeine for Divers

About Ear Squeeze for Divers

Ear squeeze, also called Aerotitis, Aero-otitis, Barotitis, or Baro-otitis, results from the effects of a difference in pressure between the internal ear spaces and the external ear canal. These effects may include severe pain, inflammation, bleeding, and rupture of the eardrum membrane. Underwater divers and airplane pilots are sometimes affected. The middle ear, the cavity behind the eardrum membrane, is connected with the nasal cavity (nasopharynx) by a thin, narrow tube known as the eustachian tube. Under normal conditions, when the external air pressure increases or decreases, air from the nose passes through the eustachian tube to equalize the pressure in the middle ear cavity; often, however, the eustachian tube becomes blocked by fluids from head colds, by small tumours, or by an excess of tonsillar tissue around the opening.

--Encyclopædia Britannica Online, "ear squeeze", accessed January 28, 2013.

Watch the first couple of minutes of this YouTube video, which demonstrates an excellent way to teach new divers to equalize their ears: look in the mirror, pinch the ends of the nostrils together, and blow gently until you see the middle of both sides of the nose puff outwards as they inflate slightly. You should hear the air pop into your functioning Eustachian tubes at that time.

Source: a lecture by Dr. Edmund Kay.

Snow on Mauna Kea

We live in the tropics, yet I note it's currently snowing up on the Mauna Kea (the white mountain) observatory again today.

Webcam here.

Islet Cell Transplant Reduces Carotid Atherosclerosis.

This is potentially a minimally invasive transplant procedure which, if done someday via forced differentiation of autologous stem cells, would not require immunosuppression to preserve the transplanted cells. Would it therefore lessen the risk of large strokes in persons with diabetes? Here.

On an Emergent Neutral Ontology

All varieties of emergentism strive to be compatible with physicalism, the theory that the universe is composed exclusively of physical entities...
--Wikipedia entry on Emergentism as of January 2013, paragraph 2, line 1.

But why should this have to be true? After all, the very successes of our science and technology depend on the use of something profoundly non-physical: mathematics.

What if the world has emergent phenomena but is not in its base physical, nor composed of information, nor of the idealized mental stuff of panpsychism? What if both physical effects and the perceptions of consciousness, and indeed all things common in human experience, are themselves emergent from some kind of neutral stuff that is neither physical nor mental?

I would advocate the consideration of a minimalist, neutral ontology. At base, things are made of a stuff which is not physical and not mental, but instead can be neither, either, or both based on a given object's (and its components') properties. Emergent properties might allow a rich, yet still minimalist ontology: rich because nothing that may be real needs to be denied reality (as in eliminative materialism) in the process of reduction of objects to their components, yet minimalist, because only one kind of stuff need ultimately be accounted for: emergence does the work demanded by the diversity of the world.

This is not physicalism. Abstract objects may exist, and if so, are neither mental nor physical. Our thoughts may have mental "substance." If entities such as angels were not physical, they nevertheless could have thoughts, and interact with the physical world.

This is not panpsychism. A rock need not have conscious or proto-conscious properties.

This is neither property dualism nor a dual aspect theory, since existing things may be neither physical nor mental.

This is not the neutral monism of James or Russell. The possibility of a reduction of the properties of things merely to the properties of their components is not generally expected.

In this emergent neutral monist schema, causation may connect any type of thing to any other, so there is no need for epiphenomenalism of the mental on the physical parts of our bodies and brains.

An obvious problem is the "how and why" of emergence: the nature and causes of emergence at many levels in the universe. I don't have many answers to such questions, but I can assert that emergent properties, in contradiction to a few unsupported assertions of reduction later in that Wikipedia entry above, occur irreducibly in the basic sciences, and as such are a problem for fields far from consciousness studies. Emergence is real, whatever its ultimate sources.

More about emergence in physics and chemistry, perhaps, in a later post.

No contest, Pele.

Air Quality and Sulfur Dioxide Sources

Total emissions of sulfur dioxide by all sources in all of New York State in 2010: about 120,000 tons.

Source here.

Total emissions of sulfur dioxide by the Big Island's Kilauea caldera in the past year: about 240,000 tons.

Source here.


The Best Foods for the Brain: An Update
Interesting, how certain foodstuffs, like coffee, go medically in and out of favor over time.

Type I and II Errors in Medical Research

A possible fix for too-frequently-published type 1 error findings.

Quoting from Martha K. Smith, formerly of the math department faculty of the University of Texas, now with the blog, Musings on Using and Misusing Statistics:

Type II Error
Not rejecting the null hypothesis when in fact the null hypothesis is true is called a Type I error. (The second example below provides a situation where the concept of Type I error is important.)

The following table summarizes Type I and Type II errors:
(for population studied)
Null Hypothesis TrueNull Hypothesis False
(based on sample)
Reject Null HypothesisType I ErrorCorrect Decision
Fail to reject Null HypothesisCorrect DecisionType II Error

Thanks, Dr. Smith!
How is this important in neuroscience?
Studies suggest less than 10% of published scientific research is replicated in later publications. Some of this is the tendency of journals to not publish merely replication work, and some is likely due to publication of interesting false positives.
Some have suggested behavioral researchers may repeat an experiment using isolated statistical tests until a statistically significant result for a single trial series is reached--one likely to regress to a non-significant mean on any replication attempt. This manipulates the results to minimize Type II errors, but tends to create Type I errors!
Here's a suggestion on systematizing the marking of spurious findings.

Obligatory XKCD

XKCD on Representationalism.  

Turtle Stories

It's truth, bra--that honu was bigger than she was! (Well, maybe it was closer, too.)

Eosinophilic Meningitis on Hawai'i

Angiostrongyliasis, or human infection due to snail or slug ingestion with rat lungworm. 

It's an uncommon but potentially devastating disease here on the Big Island.  Typically, we see a GI  symptom prodrome, followed by an acute or subacute febrile meningitis with prominent radicular irritation, including an unusually high incidence of hyperesthesia.

Note that in Hawaii, CSF and CBC will always show increasing eosinophilia within a week, but NOT always on the CBC and LP at the time of presentation.

Most survive, but the residual cranial nerve and radicular symptoms seem much more common than with other types of meningitis. Is this because the milder cases typically have been  underdiagnosed here?  One wonders. There is a diagnostic antibody test, on CSF or blood.
See review here, courtesy of Intech.


I was going to comment on this one, but I can't remember what it said.

Poi dogs?

Recent articles:

Two informative articles, and one rather funny article today.

1. We've always said that the cord is worth inspecting when confirming an MS diagnosis, and now it's been quantified.

2. Neurodoubters of fMRI results have nothing to teach those of us with EEG-doubt.

3. Poi dogs?

With the domestication of the dog...was the adaptation to starch for the dog's benefit only, or did it make the animal better tasting?  One wonders, though personally I've only had dogs that served as companions and security.  See here.

Cannabadiol For Epilepsy

Cannabadiol, an extract of marijuana different from the THC ingredient in which most forms of hemp used as a recreational drug are enriche...