Posts Tagged ‘Steve Novella’

Podcast review: Skeptics Guide to the Universe


The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe is a juggernaut of skeptical commentary, this long-running show is hosted by neurosurgeon Steve Novella. He is joined by the “Rogues”: Bob and Jay Novella (two of Steve’s brothers), Skepchick Rebecca Watson, and Evan Bernstein. I learn something every episode, but after a few years, I think the main reason I listen is because it’s part of the background of my life. I want to know what’s going on with them. I want to keep up on news in the international skeptic community. I want to see if I can ever improve my results in the “Science or Fiction” quiz.

There is a lot of personal interaction, and it may take new listeners a bit of time to get up to speed on that. But it is also packed with regular features, all with a science/skepticism theme, such as:

  • This Day in Skepticism (neat historical tidbits)
  • A news roundup with commentary (keeping abreast of breaking news in science and pseudoscience)
  • Who’s that Noisy? (try to identify where the sound comes from, or who is speaking)
  • Science or Fiction (try to identify which science news item is the fake; listen to the rogues’ reasoning as they try to puzzle it out themselves)
  • Quickie with Bob (short nuggets of fun science news)

One might glean, listening for long enough, that one or more of the hosts are atheists, but that isn’t what the show is about, and I think that this is generally a believer-friendly podcast. Only when religious figures step into serious science do they become fair game. I think anyone who identifies as a fan of science in any way should enjoy this show. Give it a try.


Exploring language


Thanks to Steve Novella of the Neurologica blog, I have discovered a new toy to play with: the Google Ngram Viewer. I’d like to share it with you, and encourage you to play as well.

You may have heard of all the books that Google has been digitizing for their Google Books project. (It caused some stir among publishers and writers – it seems to have been sorted out now.) Well, the Ngram Viewer is a very Google-esque* way of looking at word count statistics from that huge collection of books.

Let’s say you’re curious about the relative popularity of two words – say, “humanist” and “atheist“. Well, you enter them as search terms, and voila:

humanist/atheist unigram graph, 1800 to 2000

Relative frequencies of “humanist” and “atheist” in the Google Books corpus, from 1800 to 2000.

We can watch the relative frequencies of these words over time. Unexpectedly (to me at least), we see “humanist” (blue) overtake “atheist” (red) during the first half of the twentieth century, following a couple of decades (20s and 30s) tracking together.  I’ll leave it up to readers to try to infer the reason for this inversion.

The term “n-gram” (yes, pronounced the same as “engram”, but there’s no connection to neuropsychology or Scientology) is used in corpus-based linguistics to denote sequences of words. A unigram is a sequence of 1 word; in the graph above, we compare the frequencies of two unigrams (relative to the total number of unigrams in the corpus). A bigram is a sequence of 2 words. Trigram: 3 words. From there on, it is common just to use the number: 4-gram, 5-gram, etc.

One more unigram comparison that I thought was interesting: function words. Check out this graph comparing “the”, “and”, “of”, “for”, “a”:

Unigram frequencies for selected function words, 1800 to 2000.

Unigram frequencies of “the”, “of”, “and”, “a”, “for”, from 1800 to 2000.

What is interesting here is that the relative (and even the absolute) frequencies show very little change over two centuries. Think about all of the change in the language that those two centuries represent – from shortly after the founding of America to around the time of the latest millennial fever. And these five words have shown such amazing constancy. Sure, there is some change, but compare those to the changes in other graphs, and the difference is clear.

So, let’s check out a bigram comparison. Here’s a chart of “national debt” and “social security”:

Bigram frequencies for "national debt" and "social security"

Bigram frequencies for “national debt” and “social security” from 1800 to 2000.

I’m no political scientist, but it looks like interest in social security leaped onto the scene in the late 30s, and has been slowly climbing ever since, while talk about national debt (in the English-speaking world) has steadily declined basically since the earliest samples in this corpus.

I could go on all day about this, but I’d rather leave it to you now. Before you take off to do your own informal surveys of this delicious data repository, let me offer a couple of caveats.

First, the numbers are only as reliable as the sources. What are the sources? Google gives some information on this. They note some sources of error; they also acknowledge some inherent biases. For example, there are more computer books in recent years than in the 1800s. Whether this is a problem or not depends on the sort of question you’re asking, and how you are interpreting it.

Second, there are different numbers of books in different time periods. They actually go back as far as 1500, but you get problems when, say, a particular year only has one book published. (Check out the results for that nice constant graph of function words, if you go back to 1500.)

Third, always always keep in mind what it is that you’re measuring. These graphs do not measure belief (search “bigfoot, ufo, unicorn“). They do not measure popularity or approval (search “murder, charity“, or the “national debt, social security” illustration above). They simply measure how often people mention the words (or bigrams, trigrams, etc) in published books. (Periodicals are excluded.)

Having said that, it is still a delightful way to while away a day. If you’re stuck for ideas, here are a couple of classic sources of interesting patterns:**

  • What are the relative frequencies of different number words? Is there anything systematic here? Any surprises?
  • What are the relative frequencies of gender-marked pronouns (“he, she”, for example)? How about gender-marked nouns (“man, woman”)?***

Have fun, my merry scientists!


* Google-esque: powerful, easy to use, with the potential to distract me from real work with its endless possibilities to explore.

** Before doing any search, see if you can guess what the results will be. Form a hypothesis, give a reason for your expectation. If the results agree with your expectation, congratulations! If not, see if you can explain why. Does this new explanation generate predictions about some other word frequency pattern that you could now test?

*** There is at least one pair of gender-marked nouns that seems to reverse the general trend. Can you find them? Why would they be different?

Homeopathy awareness


Steve Novella at the Neurologica blog just pointed out that this is the British Homeopathic Association’s “Homeopathy Awareness Week”.

He is right – I think we all need to be more aware of just how homeopathy can affect our lives. I encourage you to read Steve’s post, which gives a quick history and an overview of what homeopathy entails. (See also the Science-Based Medicine blog.)

I also encourage you to look at what the carefully-assembled evidence from multiple scientific studies has to say about homeopathy. I recommend Ben Goldacre at Bad Science for this – here’s a list of his Bad Science blog posts about homeopathy, and here’s a particularly good overview. Also, anyone who can’t imagine that their experiences with homeopathy could be “just placebo effects” should really listen to his two-part programme on the BBC about the placebo effect. You don’t need to look to homeopathy for some mind-blowing, magical-seeming effects. There’s plenty in the real world of scientific medical research. And read his book, Bad Science.

Bottom line: Real medicine is about proving something is safe and effective, and abandoning it as soon as it is shown to be either unsafe or ineffective.

Alternative medicine is about believing something is safe and effective, and rejecting, ignoring, or suppressing any evidence to the contrary.

It hurts people. It hurts people because alternative practitioners encourage distrust of real medicine in general. It hurts people because they take homeopathic treatments instead of real medicine. See for example this tragic story about Gloria Thomas Sam, a nine-month-old girl who died horribly because she was given homeopathic treatment rather than real medicine for eczema. Eczema!

Real medicine isn’t infallible. But its researchers abide by strict rules of evidence: something must be proven both safe and effective before it is used in medical practice. Real medicine is self-correcting.

Homeopathy, and most alternative “medicine” modalities, are not self-correcting.

I encourage everyone – adherent, opponent, and uninterested layperson – to become a little more aware of homeopathy this week.

Photo credits:

Bad Science cover art from Bad Science blog (assumed fair use).

Novella on science


I am always looking for good, concise ways to define science and to explain why it is key to a realistic understanding of the world around us. This recent post by Steve Novella on his blog, Neurologica, opens with a pretty good summation of science and the skeptical outlook that underlies it:

There are numerous ways in which thought processes go astray, leading us to false conclusions, even persistent delusions. Skepticism, as an intellectual endeavor, is the study of these mental pitfalls, for a thorough understanding of them is the best way to avoid them.

Science itself is a set of methods for avoiding or minimizing errors in observation, memory, and analysis. Our instincts cannot be trusted, so we need to keep them in check with objective outcome measures, systematic observation, and rigid control of variables. In fact bias has a way of creeping into any observation and exerting powerful if subtle effects, leading to the need to completely blind scientific experiments. Good scientists have learned not to trust even themselves.

For more skepticism and science from Steve and company, I enthusiastically recommend you check out the Skeptics Guide to the Universe. It is a fun and informative podcast that covers all sorts of cool and unusual topics – from current science to skeptical thinking to evaluating paranormal claims.