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Some fact checking from last night’s Presidential Debate

A major US presidential debate took place last night, between the two main candidates: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. We’re not going to discuss any politics but what we are going to do is a bit of fact checking, especially on aspects where science can chip in. NPR has done a full fact-checking on the entire debate – if you want to get a comprehensive view of what the candidates said, I recommend reading it.

Climate change is a hoax

Hillary Clinton: Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. I think it’s real.

Donald Trump: I did not — I do not say that.

In fact, he did, several times. Most notably and easy to check, in a Tweet from 2012:

Furthermore, as  As PolitiFact noted: “On Dec. 30, 2015, Trump told the crowd at a rally in Hilton Head, S.C., ‘Obama’s talking about all of this with the global warming and … a lot of it’s a hoax. It’s a hoax. I mean, it’s a moneymaking industry, OK? It’s a hoax, a lot of it.'”

The US energy policy

Donald Trump: Our energy policies are disaster. Our country is losing so much in terms of energy, in terms of paying off our debt.

Ironically, the US has increased its oil and gas production during President Obama’s time in office. The U.S. has been the world’s leading producer of natural gas since 2011 and the top producer of oil since 2013. Oil is also cheaper than it was during the Bush administration, though arguably that doesn’t have much to do with the US administration.

Debt-free college

Hillary Clinton: So let’s have paid family leave, earned sick, days let’s be sure we have affordable childcare and debt-free college.

The last part was a central aspect of Hillary’s presidential run. She has announced a plan for tuition-free public college for working families.

First of all, this applies only to in-state students who go to a public college or university and second of all, even if the government would pay for the tuition, that would still leave the student to deal with boarding and accommodation costs, which make up more than half of the average $18,943 sticker price at a four-year public university, according to the College Board. So tuition free does not equal debt free.

Stop and frisk

Donald Trump: Now, whether or not in a place like Chicago, you do stop and frisk which worked very well Mayor Giuliani is here worked very well in New York.

An analysis by the NYCLU revealed that New Yorkers have been subjected to police stops and street interrogations more than 5 million times since 2002, and that black and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics. Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent.

Also, studies by researchers at Columbia University and elsewhere say the widespread use of stop-and-frisk resulted in relatively few arrests or illegal gun recoveries. Lester Holt, the moderator, also added that stop-and-frisk was ruled unconstitutional specifically because it overwhelmingly targeted black and Hispanic people.

Donald Trump: No, you’re wrong. It went before a judge who was a very against police judge.

Lester Holt was, in fact, right. Stop-and-frisk was ruled unconstitutional by a federal district judge.


Hillary Clinton: Now I believe in community policing and in fact violent crime is one half of what it was in 1991; property crime is down 40 percent. We just don’t want to see it creep back up.

While it is true that crime has reduced significantly since 1991 and has almost reached historic lows, things aren’t all rosy. An FBI report shows that violent crime increased by nearly 4 percent between 2014 and 2015, with murders rising by nearly 11 percent. A few major cities in the US are largely responsible for the rise.


All in all, the topic of science wasn’t brought up at all, aside for the remark on climate change. There were many more dubious statements from both candidates, as well as some which were outright false (most of them on Trump’s side). If you want to learn more about the validity of their claims, again – NPR has a great article up.

Do chimps have accents? New research casts doubt on it

A study published by British researchers caused a storm among biologists; the question on everyone’s lips – do chimps have accents?

Sophie Pearson / University of York

Initially, a group of eight researchers studied a group of chimps moved from a Dutch safari to a Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, concluding that the primates can replace the vocal sounds their native group used for objects, in this case apples, with those of their new group. In other words, they are able of vocal learning and adaptation and can develop their own accent. But not everyone is convinced.

“There are a number of problems with the original study,” said Dr James Higham, from New York University. “Some of these relate to the methods used, while others are fundamentally a misrepresentation of what the data actually show.”

Dutch chimps used a high-pitch to denote apples, but after three years in Edinburgh, they switched to the lower pitch that the Edinburgh chimps use. This seems logical, but the data set is very limited. Another team re-analyzed the results, and came up with a different, more conservative conclusion.

“This was a pretty drastic example of exaggerated claims based on a thin data set,” Fischer said. “Some people are more happy to accept a wild explanation. Others aren’t.”

Dr Simon Townsend from the University of Warwick, who co-wrote the original study with colleagues in York and St Andrews said that it’s normal for this type of things to happen – it’s how science works – but he refuted the new claims.

“We think that we’ve addressed the points that they bring up. It’s an interesting critique of our research – and this is exactly how science works.”

It will take quite a while before the dust settles and the scale weighs in one way or another – or it may never do, at least not in the near future. But it does highlight a very important aspect: if you want to make bold claims, you need serious evidence to back it up. The initial study may be right, but its conclusions are still debatable – and there’s nothing wrong with it; if anything, it’s the mark of healthy science.


Watch Bill Nye Explain Climate Change to GOP Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn

I love Bill Nye, and I think the world needs more people like him. I don’t mindlessly follow him, I don’t always agree with what he does, but ultimately, his reasoning and actions speak very clearly to me. You can watch the video below and I highly recommend watching it to the very end, especially if you are (or will be) an American voter. I think that everybody with common sense, regardless of his political sympathy or scientific knowledge, should understand what’s happening there, just like when he debated Ken Ham. But I want to talk about something else now – a particular media bias when it comes to climate change.

False balance on climate change

Climate change is a great example of this phenomenon. False balance is a media bias where journalists present an issue as being more balanced between opposing viewpoints than the evidence actually supports. Basically, media gives (approximately) equal time to both climate change supporters and climate change deniers, even though there’s a scientific consensus on the matter.

Wait, what do you mean there’s a scientific consensus on the matter?

The matter of man causing a significant warming on our planet, while highly discussed on the media, is a matter of little debate in the scientific community. Out of 13.950 published papers in peer reviewed magazines on climate change, only 24 deny climate change. The disparity on that is striking, it’s comparable to smoking: there is a similar scientific minority which claims that smoking isn’t really bad for you. But you don’t really see any media debate on that, do you ?

Furthermore, according to both the IPCC, the world’s leading authority in terms of climate change, and a UN panel, man-caused climate change has a certainty of 95%. So why then, one would think, is the media presenting things in an extremely biased and skewed way, when the scientific evidence is so overwhelming? The answer, in general lines, is simple: money.

Climate change has strong connections to by far the world’s most profitable industry: oil. 9 out of 10 top climate change deniers are linked with a specific oil company, and 70% of all climate change denial books have verifiable links to conservative think tanks. This is not a matter of science – it’s a matter of manipulation and media bias. Please, listen to Bill Nye; listen to Marsha Blackburn. Then take a moment to think deeply about that. Inform yourself – and in the end, judge things as you will, but do it in a rational and reasonable way. If anything, listen to what science tells you – not to the media.


Why facts don’t matter in a biased argument

debateEver found yourself in a heated debate with a friend where facts and reasonable arguments simply don’t seem to register? It can be extremely frustrating, shouting makes it even worse. It’s even worse when this happens in an official setting where the stakes are much more important than convincing a family member or friend, like in politics and, sometimes, in journalism. Why do some people maintain their position after being offered valid arguments and facts which any reasonable person would accept? Moreover, why do some people strengthen their position, opposite what should happen, after being offered reasonable arguments against their convictions?

Researchers at Dartmouth University studied this kind of behavior and found that in some instances there’s a sort of “backfire effect”  when you show people facts that contradict their opinions. The psychologists tested this behaviour after they asked participants whether or not they agree with the contents of a dummy story, framed around the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction controversy from the time of George W. Bush.

First, the participants were asked to fill in a questionnaire designed to survey their political orientation,  as well as other aspects of their personality. Some of the questions were framed in such a way that they assessed the participant’s thoughts on his own mortality. These questions were proposed in order to see if there was any connection between fear of death and nationalism. This writing exercise was not found to have any effect on people’s responses afterwards, though.

Each participant was then given two copies of a news story, basically both had the same content only one of the stories was slightly modified in such a way that it contradicted the other. The news story featured out of context quotes of George W. Bush claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction at its disposal. One of the versions of the text, however, also contained  a quote from the Duelfer Report showing that there was no evidence of stockpiles of these weapons and no programs to create them.

Participants were asked whether they agree or not with these reports. People who rated themselves as liberal didn’t agree with the story indifferent whether or not they read the correcting paragraph – a sign of bias. People who rated themselves as conservative agreed with the story. When the story with the Duelfer Report quote was shown, their initial opinion wasn’t shaken – on the contrary they held to their conviction even stronger. This is the backfire effect the researchers were talking about.


Further analysis showed that there were some environmental aspects that would amplify the backfire effect. For instance, if the participant felt the contradicting fact came from a source that doesn’t share his political views, then the participant was more likely to experience this effect. Like a sort of circumspect assumption. In a lot of conditions, actually, the mere presence of the contradicting fact made participants more sure of their initial opinion, instead of making them skeptic or at least doubtful of their initial conviction. Does this mean that presenting contradicting facts in an argument is going make things even worse? Sometimes, yes.

The full study can be read here. [story via io9]