Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Oh the Irony

This article tells you everything you need to know about psychics - they are self-deluded proselytizers. I especially love the text below the picture of a local psychic on the side-bar. It reads:

"Mesa resident and psychic reader Don Davis sits at his work station in Wellspring Metaphysical Books in Mesa. Davis doesn't believe that a license for psychics in Mesa would help keep the con artists out."

Um, yeah. Keep fightin' those con artists buddy. What's that called again, when you attribute your own undesirable traits onto other people in order to distract from yourself? Hang on, I have to look that up for a sec... ah yes, it's called Freudian projection. 

DS

Friday, June 20, 2008

Another Child Killed by Faith

I'll never cease to wonder how these people can justify these things to themselves after the fact. 

In this case, unlike the many, many other cases around the country, the kid was old enough to think for himself. Unfortunately he was irreversibly indoctrinated by his parents for 16+ years to believe that God would save him. But now what? God did not save him. Furthermore, God saves scads of people every year who have the exact same condition. He lets them live even though they get this evil treatment from a hospital. Doesn't that tell us quite a bit about God's will? If he hates medicine so much, wouldn't he kill all of those people who seek the treatment, and let people like Neil Beagley live? Aren't faith healers and Christian Scientists presuming to understand God's will?

I know these people have an astonishing capacity for mental gymnastics when it comes to these things, but how about dropping the cognitive dissonance just a smidge, huh?

DS

Thursday, June 19, 2008

*Gasp* A Well Thought Out Article On Vaccines!

Alright, so it's on the Opinion Page of the Indianapolis Star. It's still a very well written article that describes the tactics of the anti-vax crown to a tee. And it summarizes the evidence for the safety of vaccines, uh, also to a tee.

There is also some troll leaving inane comments below the article, so we should counter him by leaving positive comments in support of Richard Feldman.

DS

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Homeopathic Challenge

Here's a wise British fellow who is putting his money where his mouth is. Homeopathy is becoming a pretty major problem in the U.K., and this guy is offering money for proof that it works.

For those who don't know, homeopathy is the practice of prescribing water to cure any disease. That's it in a nutshell anyway. You can read about the ridiculous details in this great four-part blog at Science Based Medicine. The crazy thing is that people of influence (questionable though it may be) such as Prince Charles have been promoting it, despite it being proven worthless time and time again.

With Randi's challenge coming to an end, I think that these local challenges are going to be popping up more and more. It's really a nice way to take the true believers to task.

DS

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Alternative Medicine Awareness

As described in this Telegraph article, A Department of Health Report in the U.K. is recommending measures to "stamp out poor practice among herbalists". Unfortunately is sounds like a similar plan to requiring the licensing of  psychics. Especially since any practice of CAM can be described as "poor", since it is useless.

The article says there are ~2,000 herbalists working in the U.K., and the CAM market earns 200-million pounds a year (that's probably like $50, right?). The report plainly states that there is "little evidence for many of their claims". Yet they recommend that practitioners study for honors degrees in herbal medicine or acupuncture, or otherwise demonstrate their proficiency and knowledge. How about proving that it works first?

DS

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Definiton of Skeptic

Thank you Dr. Novella!

Just the other day I was trying to explain to a friend about my local skeptical group, which I am actively involved with. He kept cutting me off and asking simple questions like "so you don't believe in anything?", and "are you skeptical that the holocaust took place?".

I slowly conveyed to him the definition of skepticism and, since he too is a scientist, he conceded that it was a worthwhile movement. But, he added, we obviously have a perception problem and should change our name to something less pejorative. (There are many problems with this suggestion, not the least of which is that it has been tried and failed as pointed out in Dr. Novella's blog).

Anyway, it was nice to see on the SGU blog a (fairly) concise definition for skepticism:

"A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion."

Link to this anytime someone asks "what is a skeptic"?

DS

Vice-President Material?

I saw an interview with Bobby Jindal this morning on NBC. Now, I had heard various reports of this guy's inanity, but I was pretty shocked to hear him say on national television that he wants his children to be taught "alternative theories" to evolution (read: creationism).

And this is who the Republican's are claiming to be the frontrunner for the VP spot? I did a little research and found this fantastic opinion piece by (the amazing) Barbara Forrest. We should all keep an eye on what she says about Jindal, because she seems to be keeping an eye on him.

It's imperative that we get some sort of campaign going that very clearly and logically explains to the average American why teaching alternative theories to evolution does not equate to teaching the problems within evolution. The issue is that it sounds so very reasonable on first glance, that people are disarmed by it and say "why not teach the controversy"? In fact, teaching the controversy is not what these people want at all (despite the clever catch-phrase). Debates within evolutionary biology should be and are taught. What they want is to downgrade the definition of science so that it includes their personal beliefs. There was a nice interview on Science Friday this week with Ken Miller (listen here, it's ~30 min). He did a great job of explaining it and I'd love to hear if he had some ideas as to how to convey these points to people across the country. The best part of the interview was when a 10 year old kid called in and asked Dr. Miller if he thought evolution was being forced upon children. He responded by saying (I'm paraphrasing here) "no more than algebra is being forced upon them".

This is something that genuinely scares me because the public can grab onto the "teach the controversy" thing very fast, and having a legitimate VP candidate (and future pres candidate) makes it that much more likely that they will. Are the evolutionists prepared for the battle?

DS

Saturday, June 14, 2008

More Hollywood Credulity

I've heard two separate interviews given by M. Night Shyamalan in the past week. Both were on science oriented shows, and both left me wanting to pound my forehead against the nearest concrete wall. Last week Ira Flatow interviewed him on NPR's Science Friday, and this week Steve Mirsky did the same on the Scientific American weekly podcast (here and here).

MNS is, in my eyes, a talented screenwriter and director. All the same, I personally lost interest in his movies after Signs revealed his now obvious belief in a greater power that gives the universe some sense of order. That's easy to show in a universe that you've created on your own where aliens are attacking Earth and ghosts speak to small children.  I see no evidence for such order in the universe that I currently reside in.

In these interviews he made it quite clear that he believes there are certain things in our universe that we do not understand, and in fact, will never be able to fully understand. This is utter BS. There are indeed many, many things that we do not yet understand. And some of those things we may never get around to understanding. But there is nothing inherently not-understandable in the universe. Except, perhaps, that last sentence that I wrote. Otherwise though, we base our lives on the premise that there is a reason for everything - arguments from ignorance aside.

He also stated that he became interested in Einstein's increasing belief in God as he aged. Say what? He clearly did not do his research on this, because it has been so thoroughly debunked that had he simply googled 'Einstein' + 'Personal' + 'God' this is what he would have found at the top of the list. And the notion that he became more interested in god later in life can be summed up in this quote from 1954 (he died in 1955):

"It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it"(1).

Religious folks love to portray Einstein as a believer in order to prove that someone who understood so much about the nature of the universe thought that it was designed by a creator. This is clearly not the case. He used the term 'God' frequently, but only when speaking about the natural order of things. And he clearly felt obligated to set the record straight late in life because his quotes were being so abused by people of faith.

A good and thorough review of "The Happening" can be found here. I'm sorry Mr. Shyamalan, but you're simply talking about things that are out of your your league. Scientists can't go about their jobs with the premise that there are "forces at work beyond our understanding". Research would hit a standstill. All progress would end. That sort of speak can only seem logical when you start from an ideology and move out from there. And that's just not the way science works.

DS

1. Dukas, H., Hoffman, B. Albert Einstein: The Human Side

Friday, June 13, 2008

51st

I totally missed the fact that I was making my 50th post.  So I'll celebrate my 51st.  Yay! (that's enough celebration for now)

DS

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sasquatch Ree-Ward

This seems a little redundant, but there is now a $1-million prize being offered by Bushnell (the binocular manufacturers), for verifiable evidence of a bigfoot sighting. This seems to be quite shrewd of them, since they will never have to pay. On the surface it's free advertising.

There may be a downside to the scheme though. By now everyone has heard that Randi will be (sadly) ending his decade-long challenge to reward any verifiable paranormal action with $1-million. The reason? It became too difficult to deal with all of the kooks trying to win the money. I predict that Bushnell will have to close this offer sooner, rather than later, for the same reason. It's no longer free advertising if you have to pay someone to sort through hundreds of blurry photos, or strange hair samples, or bags of feces! Not to mention the lawsuits that will undoubtedly be brought up by those who feel their evidence was valid. Those who believe in bigfoot, tend to not be the most logical of folk.

Keep an eye on this company to see how it works out for them.

DS

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Secret Lives of Herbs

An interesting article in the NY Times science section this week on recent findings that a particular species of plant can recognize its relatives.

Research by a Canadian group (Ontarian, to be exact), found that the Great Lakes sea rocket (the perfect name for a beach weed), aka Cakile edentula, appears to be able to distinguish between plants that are related to it, and those that are not (published in Biology letters - and if anyone can tell me why this was buried in this journal, I will be forever grateful).

The bottom line here is that plants do not have consciousness (which should go without saying...).  But through some yet unknown mechanism they are able to sense when they are in a pot with siblings, and they decrease their root allocation in this situation compared to when they share a pot with strangers (i.e. non-related plants). Presumably, the plants can tell through some chemical signal when they are surrounded by other plants, allocating to their roots in order to out-compete them.  Somehow the signal is different when the surrounding plants are siblings, resulting in decreased allocation (and fitness, importantly).  The difference in allocation seems pretty significant, and the error bars are not enormous. The question remains - what signals are given off by sibling plants telling them to decrease allocation (maybe whoever answers that will have themselves a Science paper).  

The world is a fascinating place on it's own, so please do not try to explain this by invoking psychic ability of plants!

DS