In Jeffrey Debies-Carl’s conspiracy legends article in the November/December 2017 Skeptical Inquirer, I was struck by the author’s statement that, “Inspired by a legend, a person may travel to the alleged site of a story to investigate its validity directly.” I have an interesting experience in that regard. In my neighborhood in Vienna, Virginia, was a small group of homes locally called “Midgetville.” The houses were built during an era when the adjacent railroad was operating, and they were used as a weekend escape from the heat of Washington, D.C. The area was called Midgetville not because midgets lived there but because the motley collection of houses was very small. On one occasion, I spoke to some people who had heard the legends about the place and had traveled all the way from Canada to see the midgets. They were quite disappointed that their long trip was in vain. Wikipedia has an article on Midgetvilles in other locations.
Science Popularizer Dan Q. Posin
Stuart Vyse’s thorough and fascinating article on Dan Q. Posin acquainted me with a heroic figure I’d never heard of (November/December 2017).
A couple of observations: “In 1914 his parents fled in advance of the Russian Revolution.” This reads as if SI, which I’ve read since it was The Zetetic, has for the first time endorsed an ability to foretell the future. Nobody foresaw the Bolshevik triumph; Lenin himself said in January 1917 that his generation of radicals might not live to see the revolution. The World War itself was a surprise to most, and in its course a great many unforeseeable things happened. Surely Vyse did not mean to impute prophetic vision to the Posin family, and surely the unstable, depressing, and pogrom-infested state of Imperial Russia in 1914 sufficed to make emigration seem a promising idea.
And a relatively trivial point—Vyse later mentions the 1939 Einstein letter to Roosevelt, calling for the United States to look into nuclear energy lest the Nazis get it first. Leo Szilard wrote the letter; Einstein (a more celebrated figure, likely to catch the attention of nonscientists) was persuaded to sign it.
Prof Emeritus, History
Stuart Vyse replies:
In fact, I do not know why the Posin family left Russia, and as a result, I should probably have omitted my speculation about the Russian Revolution. As Professor Berger points out, the pogroms and other factors might very well have been the motivation, but I just don’t know the answer. Whatever the reason, it was sufficient to sustain the family through a very difficult three-year-long trip. I also thank Professor Berger for the clarification on the Szilard-Einstein letter.
Move Statistical Goalposts?
Reading “Moving Science’s Statistical Goalposts” in the November/December 2017 issue, I have a bone to pick. Yes, statistical significance is a “holy grail.” The solution is not moving the goalposts; it’s getting rid of them. Research that fails to reach “statistical significance” can still impart knowledge. If nothing else, meta-analysis requires finding all available research on a set of variables. Research that never gets published is often never found and included.
Get rid of goalposts and grails. As long as the research was conducted competently according to the standards of science and the results are properly qualified and discussed in the context of possible statistical error, it should be published regardless of the “significance” level. Replace “p <” with “p =” and publish it, perhaps in a less prestigious journal. “Slimmer journals” means less knowledge available to researchers. How can that possibly be considered a good thing?
Stuart Vyse replies:
I agree with several of the points made by James Brentar. There has long been push-back on the use of statistical significance as a measure of worth in science, and some have proposed that effect size should be used instead. It is also the case that many journals are now reporting exact p-values rather than just p < .05, which is an improvement. But as much as people have railed against statistical significance tests as a hurdle for publication, they seem to persist. The proposal to use the more stringent p < .005 significance level that I reported on was offered as a solution to the current replication crisis, primarily in social psychology, and there is little doubt that such a change would eliminate many Type I errors. But the larger question that Brentar raises about the usefulness of statistical significance tests in general is still worthy of discussion.
Government and Science
In the article “Ten Questions (and Answers) about Teaching Evolution,” author Bertha Vasquez offers an answer that is factually incorrect. She states in her response to a question of whether or not the current administration will affect science education that “The people President Donald Trump has hired and the decisions being made will slow down this positive trend. (See, for example, Florida SB 989 which went into effect on July 1, 2017. It allows any county resident—not just parents—to challenge materials used in the public schools.)”
She certainly must realize that a Florida senate bill has absolutely nothing to do with the Executive Branch of our federal government. As a Florida resident, I was opposed to the bill, but I did not try to blame the president for it. Knee jerk reactions of condemning Donald Trump for actions that clearly are not his doing only diminish the credibility of skeptics. If the only example the authors can give for the opposition to science education by the administration is clearly a false one, they have undermined their own premise.
William A. Robinson
Bertha Vazquez replies:
The reader is correct. There is no direct relationship between the president and the Florida Senate Bill, which is now a law. My point was that the people being hired are antiscience, which is true. However, I should have been more clear in my writing.
Tests of Astrology
Belgian skeptic Tim Trachet (Letters, November/December 2017) claims that I and the other three authors of Tests of Astrology “show their sympathy for Gauquelin, but that is not a good reason to trivialize objections coming from [true] skeptics.” To support this supposed trivialization he cherry picks the evidence, whereas in our Gauquelin account we consider all the evidence. In his review in SI (May/June 2017) Ivan Kelly agrees, describing our account as “extended . . . (forty-eight pages).” Trachet may not like our account but is that a good reason to misrepresent it?
Perth, Western Australia
‘Theory’ in Popular Usage
In “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence,” Benjamin Radford uses the word theory in a very light way. I understand that he may have been using it in the common vernacular, as an opinion or conjecture, but I believe that a magazine for science and reason should be very careful about how it is used in the magazine. Unfortunately, the word is used incorrectly in many scientific publications, and so that gives grist to the creationist mills that “theory” means a guess. It would be better for SI to always use the word in its scientific meaning, a body of work supported by vast amounts of evidence, so as to avoid confusion. Radford’s statement, “There’s nothing wrong with guesses and theories—as long as they are presented as such and not all-but-verified facts” is especially egregious and is certainly fuel for the ill-informed, who are always saying “evolution’s just a theory.” Just what’s wrong with the word “idea?”
Highlands Ranch, Colorado
In response to “History Channel’s Credibility MIA Following Amelia Earhart Special” and many other articles and letters. We have a nomenclature problem. Most scientists I know are careful to call settled truths in science “theories.” The Theory of Gravity, Theory of Evolution. Laypersons almost never use the word “theory” that way.
They use it to denote matters that are tenuous at best. I think it is critically important that Skeptical Inquirer be scrupulous in using “theory” as is meant in science, not in ordinary parlance. For example, on page 11 in the Earhart article the bold print states “There’s nothing wrong with guesses and theories—as long as they are presented as such and not all-but-verified facts.” That passage should read, “There’s nothing wrong with guesses and hypotheses,” assuming a theory is a settled fact. Please do this little favor for us who are trying to pry real science from day to day assumptions.
Atlantic Beach, Florida
Benjamin Radford replies:
The subject of the piece was Earhart conspiracy theories—a phrase I of course did not invent but am obliged to use in the interest of clarity. Many common words (theory, energy, etc.) have both scientific and popular meanings; what makes a word usage correct is the context, and the context was clear: There is nothing about an experiment, control group, variables, or anything else that would mark the word as being used in a scientific sense. Because of my respect for the intelligence of SI readers, I am not worried that they will be confused by my usage of the word theory in the context of a piece about conspiracy theories.
In Terence Hines’s review of Tony Wolf’s book about Rose Mackenberg, Houdini’s “Girl Detective” (Skeptical Inquirer, September/October 2017, pp. 62–63), he states that “Until the publication of this book, the only description of her [in the skeptical literature] was in a short piece by Loren Pankratz in the July/August 1995 Skeptical Inquirer (pp. 28–29).”
This is almost but not quite accurate. CSICOP Fellow Daniel Loxton, editor of Junior Skeptic, showcased Rose Mackenberg and NYPD detective and fortuneteller fraud buster Mary Sullivan the forty-sixth issue of Junior Skeptic back in 2013, inside Skeptic magazine vol. 18, no. 1. The Junior Skeptic cover features Sullivan on the left and Mackenberg on the right.
Beliefs about Dinosaurs
Philip Senter’s article on fire-breathing dinosaurs in the July/August 2017 issue was fascinating and informative. Even having conducted research on the cognitive bases of bizarre beliefs, I was unaware that anybody actually believed this one, let alone that it was being taught anywhere. Senter’s article may serve as the impetus for important new research into the cognitive and affective bases of such ideas.
Congratulations to Senter on this excellent work.
Matthew J. Sharps