Saturday, December 27, 2014

How to debunk false beliefs without having it backfire

By Susannah Locke, via Vox
This doesn't look good. Shutterstock
There's nothing worse than arguing with someone who simply refuses to listen to reason. You can throw all the facts at them you want, and they'll simply dig in their heels deeper.

Over the past decade, psychologists have been studying why so many people do this. As it turns out, our brains have glitches that can make it difficult to remember that wrong facts are wrong. And trying to debunk misinformation can often backfire and entrench that misinformation stronger. The problem is even worse for emotionally charged political topics — like vaccines and global warming.

So how can you actually change someone's mind? I spoke to Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist at the University of Bristol and co-author of The Debunking Handbook, to find out:

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Religious group threatens to sue over tax credit denial for Noah’s Ark-themed park

By Ruth Ravve, via
Shown here is an image from an "Answers in Genesis" ad playing on a digital billboard in New York's Times Square. (
A battle over a Noah’s Ark-themed amusement park in Kentucky could end up in federal court.

A religious group called “Answers in Genesis” (AIG) is threatening to sue over the Kentucky Tourism Board’s refusal to allow tax incentives for the building of a theme park inspired by the biblical story of Noah’s Ark.

The park, which is expected to cost about $172 million, will include a 510-foot wooden ark.

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Something to Sneeze At

By Jeremy Samuel Faust, via Slate

Natural remedies that claim to “boost your immune system” don’t work, and it’s a good thing they don’t.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
Browse the cold and flu aisle at the pharmacy or watch certain famous doctors on TV, and you'll encounter a number of products claiming to boost your immunity, “naturally.” Research on these products shows that they are expensive placebos. However, many people remain convinced that these potions can keep them healthy. Millions of people are taken in by the seemingly friendly—but ultimately cynical—marketing of these products, and they happily fork over their money for what overwhelmingly amounts to snake oil. For all you believers (and for skeptics looking for some new arguments), consider this: Boosting your immunity is actually a pretty bad idea. Even if these remedy and prevention products did what they purport to, you wouldn't want them to.

We have two complementary immune systems: innate and acquired. Innate immunity is the body’s natural, knee-jerk reaction to an unknown infection. Innate immunity is fast, broad, and incredibly nonspecific. When it gets activated, you know the feeling all too well—fever, cough, runny nose, and body aches. In short: inflammation. You can already see why you might not want to “boost” this part of the immune system.

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Elsevier retracting 16 papers for faked peer review

By Cat Ferguson, via Retraction Watch
Khalid Zaman
Fake peer reviews: They’re all the rage.

Sixteen papers are being retracted across three Elsevier journals after the publisher discovered that one of the authors, Khalid Zaman, orchestrated fake peer reviews by submitting false contact information for his suggested reviewers.

This particular kind of scam has been haunting online peer review for a few year now, as loyal Retraction Watch readers know. This one is a classic of the genre: According to Elsevier’s director of publishing services, Catriona Fennell, an editor first became suspicious after noticing that Zaman’s suggested reviewers, all with non-institutional addresses, were unusually kind to the economist’s work.

Elsevier has actually hired a full-time staff member with a PhD in physics and history as a managing editor to do the grunt work on cases like this. Flags were first raised in August, at which point the ethics watchdog went to town digging through all of Zaman’s other publications looking for suspicious reviews coming from non-institutional addresses provided by the scientist, an economist at COMSATS Information Technology Center in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Psychic charged with swindling woman out of nearly $20,000

By Ashley Luthern, via Journal Sentinel

A Milwaukee woman who claimed to be psychic is accused of swindling another woman out of nearly $20,000.

Janet T. Adams, 34, was charged Tuesday with theft by fraud. The criminal complaint filed against her outlines a pattern of taking money from the victim over three months, beginning in April.

According to the complaint:

The victim, identified as P.W. in court documents, learned of Adams and her business as a psychic and healer from her hair stylist. The stylist referred to Adams as "Isabella," which Adams would later tell authorities is her "spiritual name."

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Riches to Rags for New York Teenager Who Now Says His Story Is Hoax

By Kate Taylor and Ravi Somaiya, via The New York Times

Stuyvesant High Student Admits He Didn't Make $72 Million on Stock Trades

An article in New York magazine about a high school student who had earned eight figures trading stocks was a hoax, a representative for the student said Monday night.

The article appeared in the magazine’s “Reasons to Love New York” issue. No. 12 on the list was: “Because a Stuyvesant senior made $72 million trading stocks on his lunch break.”

The student, Mohammed Islam, 17, confirmed to New York magazine that his net worth was in the “high eight figures.”

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Psychic Paula: let us test your pregnancy prediction powers

By Michael Marshall, via The Guardian

Paula O’Brien claims she can predict the sex of unborn children. If true, this would force scientists to rethink the laws of biology and physics
After declaring that an audience member was almost certainly pregnant (much to the lady’s surprise), Paula O’Brien explained that she has an uncanny accuracy when it comes to such matters. Photograph: Paula O’Brien
I firmly believe in the importance of skeptics attending psychic shows, to see firsthand how the biggest touring psychics in the country claim to put audience members in touch with the spirits of their dearly departed – for entertainment purposes only, naturally. In seeing such shows up close and witnessing their effect on devoted audiences we get to see how seriously people take the word of a psychic, and therefore how serious an issue it is if the person making the claims doesn’t have the supernatural powers they profess.

One such show I recently attended was that of psychic Paula O’Brien, whose Liverpool show saw a modest audience of around 150 gather in a hotel function room, eager for Paula to make contact with the other side. Among the usual fare of scattergun names (“Is there a Stephen or a Stewart or a Scott?”) and random numbers and dates (“What does the number three or the month of March or the 3rd of any month mean?”) there were a few points that particularly stood out to a skeptical viewer.

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