“Cat Person or Dog Person?” survey explained

Picture of a cat with sciencey stuff. "Survey says 75% are cat people ... and 25% are wrong"

Several weeks ago, I published the “Cat Person or Dog Person?” survey.  It’s a silly survey that asks the same question over and over again in different ways, and then you see the results.  It’s basically an interactive art piece, and your interpretation of it is as valid as mine.

Now that several weeks have passed, I’m going to explain some of the thought process behind the survey.  This should be thought of as “explaining the joke”–the survey was funny, this explanation will not particularly (cat meme excepted).

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Stop supporting nuclear power

A powerful way to convince people of a policy, is to get them to believe they understand the policy’s disadvantages. People believe they understand the disadvantages of nuclear power: radioactive waste, and the possibility of catastrophe. Skeptical/sciencey people tend to think these disadvantages are small, because they know people often give too much weight to highly unlikely outcomes. But in fact, the main thing holding back nuclear power, is that it’s not economically competitive.

Public understanding of nuclear power is based on decades of political debate, with one side arguing that nuclear power is much cleaner than the alternatives, and the other side pointing to catastrophes like Chernobyl or Fukushima. I recall being taught these advantages and disadvantages in grade school science classes. They were also encoded into Sim City. But in the real world, the advantages and disadvantages of different energy sources are not timeless. They depend on the details of the technology. It is not possible to understand a complex and ever-changing issue based on what you were taught in grade school.

If you take nothing else away, I would like to at least persuade you of this: a) you don’t understand the disadvantages of nuclear power as well as you thought, and b) your position of “more nuclear power” should be updated to “nuclear power is an option that experts should consider”.  If you’d like to learn more, read on.

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The black hole: Zoom in, enhance!

A few days ago, scientists announced the very first real image of a black hole (as opposed to one of those “artist’s conception” images that you see everywhere).

blurry ring of light

Black hole Messier 87 (aka M87) (credit)

This was a very nice surprise, because I was not aware any such project was underway, and I would have thought the obstacles were too great.  The main problem with imaging black holes is that black holes are really far away.  You would have to “zoom in and enhance” many many times to get the image above.  Let’s compare it to other examples of extreme zooming.

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Measuring musical dissonance

An empirical approach

When we hear two musical notes played together (either in succession, or simultaneously), we often characterize those notes as “dissonant” or “consonant”. But instead of having a sharp dichotomy between dissonance and consonance, it might be more useful to speak of a spectrum between the two. Then, the question before us is how to quantify the dissonance of any pair of notes.

12tone is a cool music theory channel, and he recently published a video discussing the solution thought up by the 18th century mathematician Leonhard Euler. I include the video below, but be warned that I’m going to trash Euler’s answer. I believe that any measure of musical dissonance must, at some point, refer to empirical observations of dissonance. Euler’s answer relies on mathematical supposition, and thus I would deride it as numerology.

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Ethical review of academic hoaxes

I learned from PZ that Peter Boghossian is under ethical investigation for his “grievance studies” hoax.  Peter Boghossian was one of three authors of the hoax, but the other two (James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose) do not hold academic positions, so are unlikely to be sanctioned.

An institutional review board (IRB) concluded that by involving journal editors and reviewers, they were conducting research on human subjects, and per standard policy they should have gotten IRB approval before beginning.  Everyone–including Boghossian’s defenders–suspects that if he sought IRB approval, he would have been rejected.

Note, there are plenty of experiments that deceive human subjects and still get IRB approval, but I suspect this particular hoax would encounter problems beyond mere deception.  They were undergoing peer review, which is rather arduous labor to get from non-consenting subjects.  The hoax also involved fabricating data, and the IRB decision on that matter is still pending.  I would also say that the hoax did not have much scholarly merit, which is a legitimate consideration for these ethical reviews.

Boghossian’s defenders, of course, are spinning a “martyr for free speech” narrative.  If the target of his hoax were something more acceptable, would he still have been criticized on ethical grounds?

Well, actually…

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The skeptical mythology of postmodernism

Ever since I started blogging in 2007, one of the boogeymen of the skeptical movement was so-called postmodernism. Postmodernism, as skeptics understood it, was an ideology where anything goes. It was extreme moral relativism. It was the idea that truth itself was a social construct. It was the idea that no one could know anything, and yet people could have their own personal truths, which may differ from one another. In short, it was one of skepticism’s antitheses.

Transcript: You have your truth, and I have mine. All knowledge is theory-laden. All perception is internal to the perceiver. There is no meaningful "reality." In the shadow cast by this knowledge, I decide for myself what is good and what is not. Caption: Postmodernism is the only explanation for black licorice.

Source: SMBC. I think the best way to describe the skeptical concept of postmodernism is by showing how skeptics choose to portray it in parodies.

Even in 2007, this seemed kind of sketchy to me. I recall writing a post titled “What’s with postmodernism?” wherein I complained that the term was inconsistently defined, and trusted sources offered a completely different picture of what postmodernism really was. Now that I have more experience in academia, and a much greater degree of cynicism about the skeptical movement, I feel more confident in simply calling bullshit. Postmodernism is a villain invented by skeptics, originally based on a real thing, but so far abstracted from reality that it may well be called mythology.

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That time IFLScience wrote about my field

As you can see, I took a brief blogging break… and during Asexual Awareness Week too.  But I don’t believe in apologizing for that sort of thing.


Two years ago, I spotted an IFLScience article about my particular field of research.  The article’s title?  Crucial Superconducting Theory Confirmed.  I remember chortling over the absurd idea that superconductivity would be solved, and that the first place I’d hear about it would be IFLScience of all places.

As I read the article, I realized how familiar I was with the research being discussed.  I knew Chandra Varma, a famous superconductivity theorist.  I had already read the scientific article they were talking about.  And one of the authors on the paper was a close colleague.  Small world, eh?

Anyway, I found the article interesting as a tiny little case study on science popularization.  Let’s go through the article, starting with the title.

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