Category Archives: Skepticism

Time’s poor science reporting on AP sleep habits

Would you be surprised to learn that Time Magazine published an article criticizing bed sharing and staying with a baby or toddler until he’s asleep?  Me neither.  Would you be surprised that the “science reporting” involved was pathetic?  Me neither.  How about the fact that the story is framed in an inflammatory, accusing manner?  Not a shock, huh?

This was back in 2008.  Time put out an online article with the headline How not to Get Baby to Sleep.  The article reports on two different areas of study, but discusses them in tandem to make its point: If you’re present when your baby falls asleep, or bring them into your bed, you will cause significant sleep problems.  This in turn is “associated with an increased risk of being overweight and having emotional and behavioral difficulties in adolescence and adulthood.”

The referenced study discusses parents being present when the child falls asleep, taking the child into the parental bed, and giving food and drink upon night waking, and describes these actions as “maladaptive parental behaviors” . (I don’t know if the study authors are just presumptuous, judgmental jerks about cosleeping, or if “maladaptive parental behavior” is an actual, defined term of art in this field.  Regardless, I felt like I needed a barf bag nearby for use every time I read it.)  Of course, the first two “maladaptive” behaviors are common practices of attachment parenting.  According to Time, these behaviors “led to disrupted sleep — bad dreams, short sleep time and delays in falling asleep — in children of preschool age.”

The clear message of the Time article is, “If you cosleep, you’re causing your child’s sleep problems and probably dooming them to a fat, stupid, anti-social adulthood.”

The problem is, the cited study actually comes to almost the opposite conclusion:

Findings support the hypothesis that maladaptive parental behaviors develop in reaction to preexisting sleep difficulties. Further, early sleep difficulties are more predictive than parental behaviors in explaining [bad dreams] and foreshortened [total sleep time] beginning at age 50 months. Results are interpreted in light of early emotive/physiological self-regulation problems. . . .

When controlling for early sleep factors, most parental behaviors no longer predict future sleep disturbances ([bad dreams], [total sleep time]) or remain predictors only in interaction with prior [sleep onset] difficulties.

The study found that it first appeared that cosleeping and staying while a child falls asleep might be causing sleep disturbances, but when they controlled for early sleep difficulties, it showed that parent behaviors had almost no effect on sleep problems.  The one effect that remained was that taking a child into the parental bed upon night waking was associated with a sleep onset time of more than 15 minutes.  So if you’re really concerned that it might take your toddler 16 minutes to fall asleep instead of 14 minutes, you might want to worry about that.

(And actually, given that the study relied on questionnaires filled out by parents, how reliable is this?  How do parents who aren’t present at sleep onset determining the time until sleep onset?  I think the results would be better summarized as “When parents are absent at sleep onset, they assume their kid fell asleep faster.”  Who would have thought that it seems shorter when you’re downstairs watching Game of Thrones than when you’re in the dark, singing “Toora Loora Looral” for the twelfth time in a row!)

But it’s not good marketing to write an article that says some kids are born worse sleepers, and that parents wind up lulling them to sleep or cosleeping more often, but that there’s nothing you can really do about it.  People want to have directions on how to fix infant and toddler sleep problems, and the ammunition to judge those smug, freaky AP parents who don’t let their babies cry themselves to sleep.  Subtle, equivocal results just aren’t sexy.

And this speaks to the larger issue of the diminishing quality of science reporting.  In a recent episode of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Steven Novella pointed out that every major news article got the “Did dinosaur flatulence warm the Earth?” study totally backwards, no doubt because it’s a more charming, clickable headline if dinosaurs farted themselves to death, regardless of what the science actually says.  He also mentions being interviewed and having reporters feed him quotes.  They didn’t care what their expert source actually thought or what the evidence showed – they just wanted a ventriloquist’s dummy with some letters after his name to mouth their preconceived angle on the story.

Luckily, Emily at Double X Science has a good checklist to run down when you see a showy “science” headline: The Double X Double-Take Checklist for Reading Science News is a great list of suggestions that will help you avoid being taken in when science journalism goes to the dark side.

I suggest you keep that checklist (and possibly that barf bag) handy whenever Time addresses attachment parenting.

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Reason Rally Report

We did indeed drive to Washington for the Reason Rally, and I think it worked out pretty well.  I wish the weather had been better – we wound up leaving before PZ, Randi, Dawkins, and Eddie Izzard were up because it was just too cold and miserable.  But I was satisfied that I got to go and be counted among the crowd, and it was especially great to see Adam Savage, Greta Christina, and Tim Minchin.

The crowd was impressive for such a rainy day.  I’ve seen estimates ranging from 8,000 to 30,000, and we’ll never know for sure, since they couldn’t get a satellite image through the cloud cover, plus the length of the event (9 hours or so) and the weather meant people came and went.  But it was definitely crowded, as well as diverse – families and young adults up through senior citizens, and a pretty good mix of ethnicities – which is a great improvement over the mostly-old-white-guys demographic of the Godless March a few years ago.  The camera people really seemed to enjoy getting shots of little kids and grandmas while Tim Minchin was singing “The Pope Song” (comprising at least 50% foul language).

Most importantly, the crowd was happy and upbeat.  There were a couple of negative opinions voiced onstage (including Dawkins’ unfortunate exhortation to publicly ridicule and mock religious people, rather than frankly questioning religious ideas and institutions), and a few cranky protest signs, but the event mostly stuck to David Sliverman’s expressed purpose of “Yay us!”  I was also moved by the appeals to be as out as possible.  I confess, as out as I am, I tend to avoid the subject in casual conversation, even if it naturally comes up.  I’m now inspired to be more open about my participation in the non-believer community even with people who don’t know me well.  It would be nice to believe that I could be totally out and open, even when the time comes for me to look for employment again, but I don’t think I’m that bold yet.

For those who couldn’t be there, here are some highlights:

Adam Savage’s speech, which culminated with the outstanding, much-quoted sentiment,

And finally, I have concluded through careful empirical analysis and much thought that somebody is looking out for me, keeping track of what I think about things, forgiving me when I do less than I ought, giving me strength to shoot for more than I think I am capable of. I believe they know everything that I do and think, and they still love me. And I’ve concluded, after careful consideration, that this person keeping score is me.

Tim Minchin’s performance, including Confessions, If IDidn’t Have You, Thank You God, The Pope Song, and Storm (all of which are so, so, not safe for work, in case you couldn’t guess).

Please remain calm! Tips for staying rational during emotional discussions.

[Guest Post by theskepticalhippy]

I consider myself a skeptic.  I also consider myself a bit excitable.  These traits, however adorable, can work against each other.  Getting emotionally worked up during a discussion can completely color your point-of-view and remove you from logic.  I will, almost unexpectedly at times, attach myself firmly to a POV with very little information and often for motives that go well beyond “learning”.  My emotional charges into discussions are exhausting at times and I have learned that being involved in a discussion (and by “involved” this can simply mean observing the discussion) is much more rewarding when I leave my emotions and preconceived notions at the door.

I am not entirely to blame for my biases.  Neuroscience and psychology have shown that decision making is an emotional process.  Jonah Lehrer (Journalist with a BS in Neuroscience) presents evidence in his book “How We Decide” that in order to make effective decisions, we have to listen to our emotions.  Basically, the consequences of our choices make an emotional “imprint” by giving us constant feedback.  This creates an expectation.  When the expectation is fulfilled, we get positive feedback in the form of a dopamine release.  This is what many would call our “gut reaction”.  Despite the negative connotations gut reactions can have, these emotional reactions to events can be quite wise and learned.  Lehrer presents several examples of how a well-trained individual can readily rely on their emotional reactions to novel events.  However, it is this strong emotional  connection to decision making that can also make for bad decisions and set us up to continue making bad decisions.

No matter how highly evolved our brains are, they were shaped within an environment that made it impossible for humans to spend a good deal of time on every decision that is to be decided.  Those who could quickly decide were the ones who successfully propagated.  However, this quick-thinking can lead to a variety of bad decisions and erroneous conclusions.  We tend to bias our first experience with the subject/event/whathaveyou with more weight than subsequent experiences.[1]  We pay less attention to opinions that do not support our own.[2]  Dozens of logical fallacies have been identified (Michael LaBossiere has two books on logical fallacies, one book lists 42 and the other book lists another 30).  And, not surprisingly, the environment itself can lead a person to chose “left” when they should have chosen “right”.  All of these decisions are driven by emotion.  It can leave us stubbornly attached to a point-of-view even when presented with evidence that strongly suggests (or outright proves) our opinion to be incorrect.

Being aware of all of this can definitely help but it’s of little consolation when a conversation leaves you feeling stabby.  So, what is one to do?  Well, you can pick up the book, A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston, but that won’t help you later today when a Facebook status compels you respond provocatively.  Luckily I have some tips to keep you emotionally level and rationally sharp when conversing.  [You may notice a slight internet-centric theme.]

1.    Survey Your Environment – Are you feeling hot, cold or hungry?  Are your children screaming in your face or pulling at your hem?  Did your husband just tell you his parents are staying the week?  Before engaging in a conversation that could turn into an argument (I’m using the word ‘argument’ to mean: discourse intended to persuade), first decide if the environment is conducive to proper, logical, discussion.  If not, see if you can change your environment.  If you cannot do that, it would probably be best to refrain from the discussion until the environment improves.

2.    Allocate Appropriate Time – This is tied closely to the first tip.  Do you have the time to explain to your friend that acupuncture has, in fact, been properly studied and found to be no more effective than placebo?  If not, you may not want to invest the emotional energy into the discussion, especially if these kinds of discussions are known to raise your blood pressure.

3.    Assume The Best Of Your Audience – So, let’s say that you just put the kids to bed, have a glass a wine in your hand, a warm soft blanket on your lap and have a good two hours to dedicate to lively discourse.  To prevent strawmen from escaping from your fingertips and other such logical fallacies, one must assume the best of their audience.  I recently read a Cracked.com article that summoned up my thoughts on this fairly well::

“In many ways, everyone who is different from us is a bewildering, inexplicable enigma. They arbitrarily hate the things we like and like the things we hate, and behave in ways we can’t predict. That makes us hate them a little. We end up concluding that these people (members of the opposite sex, opposing political party, owners of a rival video game system) are just one-dimensional stock characters placed as obstacles or foils in the movie that is our life.
…it’s all due to the fact that we not only do not understand each other, but don’t even try.”

It reads like a bummer but it goes through and lists ways in which we can better understand each other.  For instance, not just picturing yourself in their shoes, but picturing THEM in THEIR shoes:

“Instead of learning two or three facts about people in a different situation and trying to fill in the rest by picturing ourselves if those two or three facts were true about us, you get a lot further much faster by just putting yourself away for a bit and maybe asking, or reading about, what a typical day for the other person is like.”

It boils down to assuming that those with a differing point-of-view came to their POV honestly and with at least some logic and rationality.  I believe this approach encourages the “why” and “how” questions that lead to a productive discussion.

4.    Does This Really Matter? – If you find yourself going ‘round and ‘round about whether or not Bigfoot is a mammal or some type of mammalian/reptilian hybrid, ask yourself if the truth of that particular discussion really matters to your day-to-day life.  If not, take a deep breath and reconsider furthering the discussion.

5.    Treat Differing Opinions As Learning Experiences – I find this useful in spirited exchanges.  Become observant, like Jane Goodall, just watch the behavior of those gentle apes so you can simply learn from them.  Not only can this distance yourself emotionally from the discussion (“I’m only here to observe!”) but you can take that opportunity to review your own behavior (“Am I being an asshole?”).  Pragmatically, the best way to properly engage with someone in a polarized discussion is to honestly and openly accept their views and then build from them.

6.    Don’t Assume You’re Right – Many times we enter into a discussion with some level of confidence that we are correct.  If you enter into a discussion without this assumption, you are less likely to get yourself emotionally attached to whatever opinion you happen to have.  Like tip #5, removing this assumption can leave you more ready to possibly change your mind, or at the very least, keep the discussion rational and respectful.

Discussions can be difficult but if you keep your emotions in check, even the most trying discussion can be a productive one.  I hope you find my tips useful the next time you contemplate tackling a topic that needs your rational and skeptical input.

Footnotes::
1.  Hoeffer, S., Ariely, D., & West, P. (2005). Path Dependent Preferences: The Role of Early Experience and Biased Search in Preference Development. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 101, 215-229.

2.  “Confirmation Bias.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Feb. 2012. Web. 05 Jan. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias&gt;.

Learning about the solar system

Isn’t this cute?  I saw it on Pinterest, and it really is adorable.  Unfortunately it also gives the impression that:

  • All the planets are bunched around the sun such that they jostle each other as they orbit
  • In fact, Mercury, Mars, Neptune, Earth, and Venus seem to share the same orbital distance, as do Uranus and Saturn
  • All the planets are close in size – Mercury is about half the size of Jupiter
  • There are stars sprinkled amidst the planets (though arguably those are distant stars in the background, I suppose)
  • We’ve sent the space shuttle zooming out to visit Jupiter and Uranus
  • Maybe the astronauts were visiting the one-eyed green aliens out in that vicinity
  • And of course, Pluto is a planet

Now, I know this picture isn’t meant to be Serious Science Education – the planets all have adorable little faces, after all.  But I do think kids get very wrong ideas about the solar system from popular media (check out Bad Astronomy!), and this made me search out some fun and illuminating ways to show them how things really are.

For a fabulous demonstration of the scale of our solar system, check out this half-mile-wide web page.  Make sure your scrolling hand is in good form first!

For a more hands-on demonstration, you’ll need a roll of toilet paper and about 120 feet of space to work in, if my guesstimate is right.

On a nice day,  you could find an outdoor area where you can go 1,000 yards in a straight line (good luck!) and make a model of the solar system in which the Earth is a peppercorn, Mercury is a pinhead, and the sun is an 8 inch ball.  At Home Astronomy also has some other fun astronomy activities for kids.

If you have an old car that’s got 230,000 miles on the odometer, you can tell your kids the car could have driven to the moon!

You can read stories and watch movies, and talk about how science fiction writers have attempted to deal with the ridiculous amount of space between us and other planets – warp drives, cryogenic “sleep,” mass effect relays (yes, I’m impatient for the new game to come out), and so on.  And don’t forget to talk about the problem of communication over vast interstellar distances, which inspired Ursula K. LeGuin to imagine the ansible, a device which has become a standard part of scifi writing.

And regarding Pluto, you can watch the charming and funny Neil deGrasse Tyson in The Pluto Files.

I’m not saying don’t watch dumb Hollywood movies that get astronomy all wrong, or buy cute prints for the nursery with goofy aliens on them.  Just that it’s a good idea to balance out the “facts” that get mangled for dramatic or artistic purposes with some fun and amazing education on how things really are.

(Since I criticized her solar system piece, I should point out that Steph Says Hello has a lot of really cute, fun artwork you should check out.)

Fun books for skeptical families

While I want my children to have freedom of conscience and choose their own belief path, of course I hope that they wind up believing as I do.  And in any case, I want them to have a good perspective as well as critical thinking skills when they evaluate the field of possible religious and philosophical beliefs.  So while I avoid authoritarian indoctrination, I admit I do guide them towards skepticism and religious literacy (knowing about lots of religions, rather than being taught one religion is just the way it is).

If you’re a parent at all interested in this approach, get yourself over to Dale McGowan’s blog The Meming of Life.  After all, he literally wrote the book on Raising Freethinkers, and his work has inspired my approach.  I’m not as good as he is about getting the kids out and about, seeing churches and mosques, going to UU religion classes, or anything like that.  But that’s more because I’m an anti-social hermit than any flaw I might see in the suggestions.

So, what’s an anti-social hermit to do?  Why sit around the house and read, of course!  Here’s a sampling of the books we’re reading these days that give some perspective on myth and religion, as well as a smattering of books from my YA days that I feel helped set up my brain for skepticism.

Currently we’re reading Stories from India, from Usborne Books.  I really love this book – it has Rama and Ravana (looking suitably creepy), Ganesha destroying a buffet, and a jackal who fell into a vat of dye and became revered as a god, until the monsoon came and washed him off.  They’re interesting and fun stories, beautifully illustrated.  And they give some insight into how stories about gods and magical creatures go, which is great inoculation for when someone comes to your kid with a Bible and tells them it’s the Truth.  The reading level is just a bit of a challenge to my intelligent-but-not-a-smooth-reader 8yo.  We take turns reading aloud.

Simlarly, we have the classic D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths.  I remember reading this in 5th grade, and loving it.  It covers the standards: the birth of Aphrodite, Persephone and Demeter, the Labors of Hercules, and so forth.  But it also has some gems not so widely known, such as the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, a couple who survived a flood sent by Zeus to punish mankind for wickedness, and Atalanta, a badass girl who gave the guys a run for their money in hunts and foot races.  (If you grew up listening to Free to Be You and Me, you’ve heard a verion of her story.)  The stories are often somewhat rambling and they tend to flow into each other, so it can be hard to say, “We’re just going to read about Orpheus tonight,” or to quickly grab the book for reference.  But still, this is a winner.

On my list to buy/borrow, I’ve got Trickster and Anansi Does the Impossible, which will take off nicely from the themes of tricky animals and gods in Stories from India.  I admit I’m also setting her up to fully appreciate the awesomeness that is Anansi Boys, when she’s old enough to read it.

Another book we have on our shelf, but which is a little bit advanced for Chloe right now is The Number Devil.  It’s all about a boy who hates math, and a devil who teaches him all about the cool tricks of math and how amazing it can be.  I looked at the start of the book, where he talks about infinity (you can always add one to any number), and it seems very fun and intriguing.  I think I’ll have a better appreciation of math when we’ve read it, never mind my kid!

Now, to hearken back to my early teen years.  I was a voracious reader, and ironically I loved anything with a supernatural theme.  It probably started with John Bellairs/Edward Gorey novels or The Girl with the Silver Eyes.  I quickly progressed to The Chronicles of Prydain.  My uncle gave me ‘Salem’s Lot when I was 12, and I’ve read almost everything King has written since.  I tore through Lois Duncan’s entire catalog in short order (this was long before I Know What You Did Last Summer became a silly movie franchise), and I still remember my utter delight at finishing the Belgariad, only  to discover that there were 5 more books about Garion & company.  Oh, and A Wrinkle in Time – I’ve actually been meaning to re-read those.  They were spellbinding when I was a kid!

Weirdly, I think reading fantasy, science fiction, and horror can contribute to a skeptical mindset.  Maybe it gives your brain practice at thinking about magical stuff, while knowing it’s all pretend.  Maybe these books use their fantastical settings to explore ideas and themes that question our conventional beliefs.  I do know that lots of freethinkers seem to be nerdy types with a common love for these titles, as well as D&D, zombies, Joss Whedon, and video games.  Do these interests lead to disbelief, or do those of a skeptical bent gravitate to geek culture?  Hell, maybe it’s just the reading that drives the inclination to inquiry. In the end I don’t care – I just want to share these awesome reads with my kids for pure enjoyment, and if it helps give them a skeptical outlook, all the better.

Science Fair!

Monday was the science fair at school.  Chloe had her project all ready (no last minute prep!), and it was pretty cool.  Her hypothesis was “Touching school books to do homework will make your hands just as dirty as coming home from school and not washing your hands.”

As I helped her with the experiment, we came to the conclusion that the only practicable way to compare the microbe growth was to simply estimate the percentage of the agar surface area covered by colonies.  Since she was going to be estimating, I suggested that we blot out the identifying information on each Petri dish photo, to avoid biasing the estimate.  Do you know how difficult it is to explain bias and blinding to an 8 year old?  Actually, if you’re a skeptic you probably do, because I think the general populace tends to have a similar uncertain idea of what it’s all about.  At first she thought I was talking about lying.  It took a while for the idea to sink in for her – we can perceive and remember things differently depending on our expectations.  (No, I did not have her read the Alexander Skarsgard post!)

In any case, I think the blinding served its purpose, since the results came up inconclusive.  In a way, I think this is better than the experiment coming out “right” and 100% confirming the hypothesis.  I’m so glad the fair guidelines emphasis that even a failed experiment does not equate with a failed science project, and students should analyze what happened and put it in the report.  In our case, the experiment didn’t fail as such, but the inconclusive results led her to think about ways we could redo the experiment and get a clearer answer, and what factors might have influenced the outcome.  She now has first-hand experience that a small sample size means you can’t really rely on the results!  She also had some great ideas about variables that might have influenced the bacteria growth, like how much homework she had, whether some of it was on the computer, and even whether she rode a different (perhaps germier) bus home from school on a particular day.

As it turned out, she didn’t win any prizes, and we were both a little bummed.  But this project has taught her so much – clearly she’s learning to think about things in a scientific way.  She’s been introduced to the idea that our perceptions can be tricksy, and science involves avoiding perceptual pitfalls.  She learned about translating her observations into concepts and sharing those concepts with others – probably the hardest part of the project.  She struggled with writing the report, but persevered.  And maybe best of all, she learned to work on a school project a bit at a time and get it done with plenty of leeway, so it wasn’t too stressful!

The other thing that makes me proud is that her reaction to losing was to be a little upset for a few minutes, then start planning for next year’s project, and pondering how to make it a winner.  She has great spirit!  Unfortunately her current idea is a hydroelectric generator that powers a “water volcano,” which will . . . power the . . . um generator.  Yeah, it’s a perpetual motion machine.  But hell, plenty of intelligent people have fallen into that trap.  I told her to write down all her ideas, and we’ll talk about them as we get closer to the next fair.  At some point I’ll talk to her about systems running on energy, and for instance sound being an emission of energy – so if the hydroelectric generator makes sound, that means energy is leaving, which means eventually . . . I’ll try to be all Socratic and let her figure it out.  It’ll be fun.

The Quest for the Zero-Risk Option

“Sleep training might be harming your child’s brain – why would you take that risk?”

“Drugs have so many side effects!  I’d rather use natural remedies.”

“Parabens are hormone disruptors.  I always use preservative-free cosmetics.”

“I’ve researched the risks of vaccines, and I just can’t expose my child to all that danger.”

This is a theme I’ve noticed in the reasoning of “natural family living” devotees.  Usually these folks are just genuinely concerned about exposing themselves and their families to unnecessary risks.  But they’re missing something very important – there is no such thing as a risk-free option.  Every choice we make is a choice between two different sets of benefits and drawbacks.  I can hardly think of a life decision that will have no downside.  (Perhaps the decision not to smoke.)  Even most benign choices that are generally recommended for our health do have drawbacks.  Exercise is almost always a good decision, but it’s not risk-free.  Exercise brings the risk of injury, as well as frequently involving monetary and opportunity costs.  A healthy diet full of unprocessed fruits and vegetables is of course highly recommended by just about everyone, but again, this can be expensive and time-consuming compared to processed starch and fat obtained at the drive-through window.  Maybe that’s not a significant drawback to most people, but it is a drawback.

With this in mind, let me revisit those quotes, with a more balanced look at the relative risks:

Sleep training can involve babies crying for minutes or even hours.  We know that cortisol levels rise when babies cry, and that in other circumstances continuously elevated cortisol levels can cause serious health effects.  On the other hand, adequate sleep is vital for the health of both babies and parents, and continued sleep deprivation can cause serious health effects.

Medications often have potential side effects, some of which are bad enough to make taking the drugs unhelpful for a particular person.  On the other hand, any remedy that can have a positive effect can have a negative side effect, whether it’s a capsule or an herb, and of course most natural remedies are not proven to ameliorate any health condition, so relying on them involves a greater risk of leaving the original condition untreated.

There are indications that parabens do get into our systems through cosmetics, and it’s possible they have endocrine-like effects.  On the other hand, parabens are used to prevent bacterial growth in cosmetics, and it’s not clear that their actual presence in human tissues or their hypothetical contribution to breast cancer is more dangerous than the potential for smearing a happily thriving colony of staphylococcus on your face every morning.

Vaccines have risks.  Frequent side effects include soreness at the injection site and fever.  More serious health problems are rare, but possible.  On the other hand, vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) are even more risky.  Moreover, a child is at greater risk of injury when you drive them to Whole Foods to pick up some Oscillococcinum than they would be if you get them a flu shot.  (Seriously, more people die in car crashes each year than the total number of people who have even claimed to be injured by any vaccine over the course of 23 years of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.)

When you unpack the assumption that there’s a zero-risk option, suddenly it’s clear that the “natural” option in each case isn’t as superior as it first appears.  Of course, it’s easier to make a buck or get publicity by scaring the pants off people about toxins, “Western medicine,” and vaccine injuries if you don’t include all that pesky factual nuance.  Not only do we consumers have to do some research and hard work to find out about the relative risks of our options, but we have to tolerate the notion that there is no perfectly safe choice, and we will have to expose ourselves to one risk or another.  That’s not a mental place many people want to be, so they turn off their skepticism and simply embrace the notion that “natural is safe and good!”

Memories of naked Alexander Skarsgard

Sadly, this isn’t a racy memoir – I wish I could regale you with tales from my wild youth of actual experiences with a naked Alexander Skarsgard, but no, this is going to be more of that skepticism talk instead.  Sorry.  (For those of you who are disappointed to have landed here from your search for scantily clad Alexander, may I direct you here.  You’re welcome.)

So, yes.  Skepticism.  Ahem.  I started reading Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels around the time that True Blood premiered on HBO.  Thus, I tend to picture the characters as the actors who portray them on the show.  The books are great guilty pleasure fodder – steeped in Mary Sue syndrome and sometimes hilariously badly written, but on the whole, they’re very entertaining and addictive.  Now, I’m about to give some spoilers for the beginning of book 4, Dead to the World.  This occurs right in the first chapter or so, but just in case,

This

is

your

chance

to

look

away

OK.  A friend and I were eagerly awaiting True Blood‘s coverage of book 4.  Among other things, we were wondering if the show would have Eric running down Sookie’s road, completely naked, just like we remembered from the book.  Given that Skarsgard shows a stereotypically Swedish casualness toward on-set nudity, and Alan Ball is hardly squeamish about showing man-flesh, we thought they probably would.

Then some teaser pictures came out, and we saw that Eric Northman was there by the side of the road, looking adorably confused, and he was . . . shirtless?  We were sorely disappointed that they abandoned canon and put a pair of jeans on the Viking vamp.  We periodically complained about it to each other, and wondered why they would make such a stupid change.

Here’s why – they didn’t change anything.  He’s not naked in the book.  Despite the fact that we both very specifically (you might say vividly) remember that Eric Northman was described as running down the road naked, he wasn’t.  When someone informed me of this, I went to look at that chapter, so I could prove that I was right, and I read this:

I had only a moment to notice that the man was tall, blond, and clad only in blue jeans, before I pulled up by him.

And that, my friends, is how human memory works.  Things get garbled.  Relevant details get forgotten, while inaccurate components get inserted.  Some of it is random, but a lot of it is due to bias, or I daresay, wishful thinking.  It’s not that people deliberately confabulate – it’s that things that we expect or would like to be true become true in our recollection.  Other people can even insert new memories in our minds, deliberately or accidentally.  This is one reason why anecdotes are poor quality evidence, why eye witness accounts are a dangerous basis for putting people to death, and why a bunch of people using faddish psychological therapy accused their parents and teachers of horrific crimes that never happened.  Perhaps the scariest thing is that our degree of certainty that a memory is accurate is no guide to how accurate it really is.

So the next time someone tells you that their baby fussed much less once they wore an amber teething necklace, or that their cousin’s child showed no signs of autism until he got the MMR, or that the psychic on TV knew so much about people it must be real, reflect that they’re just reporting their memories of these events.  Aside from all the issues of anecdata, the placebo effect, post hoc ergo propter hoc, and all the problems that make individual reports poor evidence, they’re probably remembering things wrong too – unconsciously skewing the recollection to dovetail with their beliefs and expectations.

My friend maintains that Eric was naked when we read the book, it’s just that somehow all currently available copies of the book have been altered.  Thankfully, she does this tongue-in-cheek, as conspiracy theories are a whole other subject for another day.