Category Archives: Speaking Out

Wizardly Skepticism

Skeptics CircleThe ceiling of the great hall was studded with stars, the milky way splashed across the centre of it, mimicking the night sky outside Hogwarts. The long house tables were groaning under the weight of hundreds of bowls, plates and platters. Ron Weasley was in the middle of his second large helping of chocolate ice cream when, with a bright flash, all the food vanished. The buzz of conversation died down as Professor McGonagall stood and surveyed the room.

“Students of Hogwarts, I cannot describe how happy I am that you were all able to attend this special summer school session. These are dark times we live in and so it was decided that some extra tuition was required. Today we will not be discussing spells or magical creatures. We will not be examining charms or magical herbology. Today we will be teaching you something which is common to the Wizard world and the muggle world. Sadly it has not been taught enough here, just as it has not been taught enough in muggle schools.”

“I am talking about critical thinking. In a world filled with magic, strange creatures, weird plants and dark lords it is easy for us to fall into the common trap of believing everything we see. It is a dangerous trap because even in the wizarding world we can be fooled by our senses and tricked by our beliefs. We must evaluate everything we see and hear, weigh the evidence and make a judgement on whether we want to accept what we have seen or heard.”

“To illustrate the demands of skepticism and critical thinking, we have for you today a group of guest speakers. We have even made the unprecedented decision to invite a few muggles into Hogwarts.” A buzz of conversation rose up at this point and the students were looking around for muggles.

“Pay attention please. Now our first topic tonight is a topic which affects wizards and muggles alike. Autism is something for which we have no cure either magical or medical. We are not even able to say what causes Autism. Some people believe they know the cause, but as Kevin, whose daughter is autistic, will tell us, belief is not enough.”

The doors to the Great Hall opened wide and a man strode in carrying a small box. Harry Potter turned to Ron and whispered “It’s a laptop computer!” to gasps of amazement from Ron and the other Gryffindors sitting nearby. Kevin launched into his speech on the importance of critical thinking.

At the end of Kevin’s presentation, Professor Sprout stood and addressed the students. “In herbology we often examine cures for magical maladies, but we are far from being experts. Madame Pomfrey is an expert and it is experts like her that we should turn to for diagnosis and cure. My old friend Prometheus has agreed to come here to explain why mere experience of something does not make one an expert.”

With a flash of fire, Prometheus appeared and without ceremony launched into a tirade against pseudo-experts. As soon as he finished, he vanished again in an equally impressive spout of flame.

After a brief pause, Mr Weasley appeared out of one of the fireplaces, brushing ashes off his robe. Ron whispered excitedly to Hermione and looked proud as his Dad addressed the room. “While we’re on the subject of cures, in the muggle world they have these wonderful things called farmanimals which muggles take to cure themselves of maladies. Yes Hermione? Farma what? Oh Pharmaceuticals, right right. Well anyway they are very exciting but apparently some unscrupulous types try to sell the uh, pharma, thingies, on this incredible thing called the interweb!”. Hermione interrupted again, “It’s the internet!”. “What? Oh, yes, ok, well anyway my muggle friend Joseph is here to tell us about this dubious activity.”

After Joseph had sat down again, Hagrid stood up at the head table. “Right well, theres this bloke right and hes a muggle n’all but that don’t matter cuz muggles are ok wiv me but he’s gone and said that the ‘arry Potter story is just a story. Blimmin good story if you ask me but anyways he says its popularity shouldn’t be used to further personal agendas wotever that means. I’ll let Mark explain it better.

Mark spoke his piece and then got sent flying by Hagrid patting him on the back for his efforts. Professor McGonagall started to rise but sat again looking surprised as Hagrid started speaking again. “Now when Mr Dumbledore, bless ‘im, gave me the care of magical creatures job, he taught me all ’bout evolution. See even the critters I look after all evolved, just like we did and the muggles did. Everyone knows that dunt they? Well it seems like some muggles dont so we thought that in case some of you lot werent sure we’d better talk about it. I aint no expert on it though so I found some other people to give you all the info you need.

Hagrid sat down and and a man wearing muggle clothing approached the front of the hall. He introduced himself as Red State Rabble, funny names some of those muggles have, and told the students about a muggle movie pretending to be science while actually promoting religion.

Following on from that, another muggle was brought in by Professor Flitwick and introduced as Chris, who delivered an entertaining review of an article about Intelligent Design seen in a muggle magazine.

After Chris sat down, there was a long pause and gradually the attention of the whole room was on one man sat on the edge of the head table. He was staring raptly at the star-studded ceiling, completely lost in thought. Hagrid poked him, making him almost fall off his chair.

“What? Oh, sorry, I get lost in the stars so easily. But that’s not what I’m here to talk to you about today. My name is Phil and I want to tell you about a very misguided muggle world leader who thinks evolution is not the answer.

After Phil had given his very eloquent speech, he sat back down and went back to staring at the stars. The doors to the great hall crashed open and the sound of rock music filled the room as a man appeared surrounded by smoke, clutching a bright purple guitar. The Rockstar sang two songs, one about Deception from ID proponents and one about that muggle world leader mentioned previously by Phil.

Before Hagrid could get up again, Professor McGonagall was on her feet and speaking. “Some of those last speeches touched on the subject of religion. For those of us not familiar with the muggle world this is very strange concept and I for one would love to hear more about these quaint, antiquated customs which cause so much tribulation to those poor muggles. Let me introduce Jay who will tell us about the historical ignorance of biblical prophesy advocates.”

Jay’s speech was long but very interesting, captivating everyone in the room except for a few unruly boys at the Slytherin table. Following directly on from him was the wizardly Brent Rasmussen who told everyone about a blogger who is worried about losing his soul during apparating! Of course everyone knows how safe apparating is.

When he sat down, Cornelius Fudge appeared from another one of the fireplaces, brushing floo powder out of his hair. “As you know, the ministry of magic takes interference with muggles very seriously. We only allowed tonight’s gathering to include muggles once we had assurances that memory charms would be used to remove all memory of this event from the muggles minds. We are very careful that wizarding activity is not noticed by the muggle world. Imagine our panic then when rumours of strange happenings in what the muggles call the “Bermuda Triangle” reached us. After much investigation we were able to confirm that there was nothing at all strange about this area, and certainly no wizard activity there. Blog Caribe is here to tell us that some muggles agree that there is nothing to the Bermuda Triangle myth.

The students enjoyed an enlightening speech about this strange and non-existant phenomenon before Filch the caretaker came in carrying a small transparent plastic box containing flashing lights. “I found this on the front steps, probly some joke by them Weasley twins. I’ll thrash ’em with thorns if I ever get my ‘ands on ’em.”

“I beg your pardon sir, but I am not a joke.” The voice was coming from the box! “I am Orac and I’m here to participate in this evening of critical thinking.” Filch hastily dropped Orac on the head table and practically ran out of the room.

Orac continued “As you heard from the last speaker, muggles will often believe something for no other reason than hearsay and gossip. They are also capable of seeing patterns or images where none exist. A grey blob on a wall suddenly becomes a religious icon. The imagination exhibited is a fantastic thing, but it can be taken too far. I’m going to address an example of this imagination gone crazy. First I’ll tell you about a statue that folk thought had come alive and then on a happier note, someone who didn’t let their imagination get the better of them.”

“Excuse me if I might interrupt?” said a man at the back of the room. “My name is Lord Runolfr and I think I have an explanation which covers much of the last few speeches. You see, muggles, and even some wizards, suffer from what is known as illusory causation“.

Orac seemed a little put out by the interruption, but begrudgingly conceded that Lord Runolfr had a very good point. His flashing lights suggested he was about to launch into another speech, but before he could speak another voice spoke out. “You know, that also explains some of the things I wanted to speak about. Sorry, my name is Skeptico and I’m here to tell you about a gullible family who were convinced their child had been a fighter pilot in a previous life . After some investigation I was able to explain most of the story without resorting to dreams of reincarnation. I’d also like to tell you about supposed government mind zapping conspiracies, obviously the work of a delusional mind! And finally, on a more serious note I want to impress on all of you here today the importance of arguing based on facts and data instead of using the dark art of ad hominem attacks.”

Once Skeptico was finished with his trio of skeptical delicacies, Professor Binns, the ghost teacher of the history of magic stood, to muted groans from the students and thanked Skeptico before launching into a long and incredibly boring preamble about the similarities and differences between wizard history and muggle history. Half the room were nodding off and Hagrid was snoring loudly before Professor Binns finally got to the point. “Whichever history we talk about it is important to remain as factual as possible. Changing history can be a terrible thing, and historical revisionism is a scourge that must be routed. Brian has joined me to talk to you about an example of historical revisionism by misquoting and fabrication.

Brian delivered his speech on the dubious claims of John Ray, and also went on to tell everybody about his exclusion from a group of climate sceptics who wouldn’t let him in because he was too skeptical.

Once Brian was seated again, Professor McGonagall stood. “That brings us to the end of this incredibly enlightening evening. I hope you’ve all learned how important it is to think critically about everything. In case you need even more information on this crucially important subject, I recommend you contact our good friend James Randi, a wizard of high standing who chooses to live in the muggle world in the hope of educating them to think as critically as he does.

(Thanks to everyone for their submissions. The next skeptics’ circle will be held on August 18th, over at Atheism Guide. For the full schedule, see the main Skeptics’ Circle site).

Skeptic’s Bar

I’m pushing this post to the top as a reminder. I need submissions!

Skeptics CircleThe thirteenth Skeptic’s Circle, hosted by Orac, was a fine success, helped along by much fine ale drinking. Much was discussed, from anti-vaccination conspiracies to young earth creationism and intelligent design.

The 14th Skeptic’s Circle will be happening in two weeks time, and I have the pleasure of being the 14th host. I have a very special venue planned, but before I can finalize those arrangements I need some skeptical submissions! If you’re having skeptical thoughts and you need to get them off your chest, then blog about them, and send me a link.

Submissions can be sent here. I have heavy-duty spam-filters in place, so if your mail bounces or you don’t get a response from me, leave a comment here and I’ll find another way to contact you.

Potter Hysteria

Skeptics CircleFirst it was the religious busy-bodies wringing their hands and crying that the Harry Potter books were devil worship and must be banned. Now even a few psychologists are finding fault, suggesting that the Harry Potter story has become too dark, too violent, too scary for children. The final group of naysayers are those who just poo-poo the books as bad literature and over-hyped rubbish.

On the other side of the argument, other psychologists are saying the books are a good tool to teach children about death and about some of the bad things that happen in the real world. Teachers and parents are just happy that something has made kids get back into reading. And of course the fans themselves will proclaim the genius of the novels at every opportunity.

Whichever camp you look at, the fans or the naysayers, they are both incredibly vocal. Do a search on Google News for articles about Harry Potter and you’ll find hundreds of them. I don’t remember seeing such prodigious output for one book or series of books (ok, The DaVinci Code came close).

Do the books hurt their readers or help them? Who cares? I’ve been reading fantasy literature since I was a kid. I read things at a very young age which had a lot more violence in than anything JK Rowling has written. I’ve read books that I’ve enjoyed more than Harry Potter, and I’ve read a lot of books that I enjoyed less.

No book has ever affected my real life behaviour (unless you count setting up a secret club after reading the Secret Seven series). No single book has shaped my religious, spiritual or moral beliefs. No book has made me commit a crime, or perform a ritual sacrifice, or sent me into therapy.

If adults are worried about the effect literature is having on children, they should stop concentrating on one specific book or series of books. Instead they should be concentrating on teaching children to understand and recognize the difference between reality and fantasy; between real life and fiction. They should be instilling critical thinking skills into children from the earliest possible age. The same goes for TV, movies and video games.

Encourage children to read. Encourage children to question and talk about what they read. If they get scared or upset, comfort them and remind them it’s just a story. If they ask difficult questions, answer them in a reasoned, logical and non-judgmental way.

Ghosts? What Ghosts?

Skeptics CircleThe Houghton mansion in North Adams, Massachusetts is a Victorian home which is now a Masonic temple. Sounds like an interesting place to visit. But wait, there’s more! It is also the headquarters of the Berkshire Paranormal Group who say that the house is one of the area’s most haunted buildings. Apparently The evidence gathering continues…, which suggests that some evidence must already exist; I rushed to explore their site and find it.

First of all there’s the photographic evidence. I won’t reproduce the photos here, but follow the link to see the amazing evidence yourself.

The first photo shows a small white blur in an upstairs window. Apparently this shows that There is clearly someone or something standing just inches away from the window. Clearly! Maybe I need to have my eyes tested. I’ve squinted and peered at the picture but all I see is a white blur.

The second photo shows an orb roughly in the direction that some guy is pointing. I’m not even going to bother explaining the orb phenomenon, as James Randi has debunked it so many times already. Search for orbs on his site and you’ll find it popping up in many of his commentaries, like this one.

The next few photos show more of those silly orbs, as well as some “rods” and light streaks. All artifacts of the photographic process and certainly not evidence of anything paranormal.

This photo has to be my favourite though. It’s ridiculously blurry, doesn’t show anything at all, and yet the caption says Remarkable photo appears to show the ghostly figure of a dog-like animal at the entrance to the kitchen. These people may be nuts, but they certainly have a vivid imagination.

The rest of the photos are more of the same, but this one caught my eye. It shows a row of chairs, which according to the caption have a Horizontal mist in front of them. Now maybe it’s just me, but that mist looks a lot like a ghosted (no pun intended) image of the chairs themselves. Could it be another example of a shaky photographer? Surely not.

As you might guess, I haven’t been convinced by the photographic evidence, so I had a look around to see what else there is. I followed all the links, I read all the text. I found nothing. But apparently Official BPG investigation & results [are] coming soon!. That’s good then, I can’t wait.

The Berkshire Paranormal Group is headed by Ron Kolek. Apparently he is a self-proclaimed skeptic. Judging by this article though he’s about as skeptical as a radish.

Evolution requires the greater faith?

Skeptics CircleI came across this letter to Fredericksburg.com while looking for news to be skeptical about. I can certainly be skeptical about this:

The famous evolutionist George Gaylord Simpson stated, “The meaning of evolution is that man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

Do these writers believe they are just a mistake of life? What is the purpose of life if we really have no purpose?

First of all, just because we resulted from a natural process, that doesn’t make us a “mistake”. It also doesn’t mean we have no purpose. Our purpose is our own to choose, we don’t need any kind of higher being to tell us what our purpose should be. Resulting from a purposeless process does not make us purposeless.

In real life, evolutionists do not base their conclusions on “scientific” evidence.

Really?! This is going to be good…

The assumptions they make are based on naturalism, the doctrine that “nature is all there is,” and materialism, the belief that matter is all there is (i.e., the fundamental particles that make up both matter and energy).

Scientists don’t need to make those assumptions. If the evidence points to an all-natural explanation, then why do we need to look to the supernatural? The natural world provides overwhelming evidence to support current evolutionary theory. If the supernatural does exist, it is un-necessary.

There is nothing “scientific” about these evolution assumptions. (Ask any real scientist–no, I’m not one.)

No, you’re definitely not.

And it would imply that they make their conclusions hoping there is no God. If there is no God, then life is indeed purposeless.

Oh the fallacies just keep on coming. Firstly, there are plenty of evolutionary scientists who still believe in God (strange but true), and even those who don’t are not hoping God doesn’t exist, they just see no need for having any God in the picture. As for that second sentence, well as I said above, we don’t need any higher beings to tell us our purpose.

It takes more faith to believe in evolution and no God than it does to believe in creation of the human race by “intelligent design.” Therefore, evolution is just another religion, goes really well with New Age thought, and we should not teach it in public schools.

Accepting solid evidence requires no faith. Invoking the supernatural because you’re not happy with the explanation provided by science is what requires faith. If evolution is a religion, then so is aerodynamics, astronomy, botany, and any other scientific endeavour you care to mention.

And it is definitely humanism, which the U.S. Supreme Court has declared to be a religion.

This article will clarify what humanism is. Religious humanism is just one type of humanism. Teaching evolution has nothing whatsoever to do with religious humanism.

The letter I’ve referred to here is by Karen Kuzdzal. I did a quick search and found this letter also by her. A select quote:

I praise God for President Bush, and for the wisdom God gave him to pull us out of the environmentalist-wacko Kyoto global-warming agreement and for gutting the Clean Air Act.

It scares me that there are people like this.

I’m confused

In Canada you can choose to marry whoever you want.

In Canada it is ok to use marijuana to ease your pain and suffering.

In Canada contraception is ok, whatever form it takes.

In Canada you can burn the flag if you want.

In Canada it is understood that sometimes abortion is necessary.

In Canada torture is a violation of human rights. Always. The end does not justify the means.

In Canada you can be an atheist and still be considered a citizen.

In Canada law is secular and religious freedom is guaranteed within that law.

In Canada you can’t have your home taken away for a shopping mall.

In Canada you can take books from the library without fear of persecution.

In Canada the authorities need to have probable cause and a warrant before searching your home.

So I’m confused; which country is the Land Of The Free again?

Psychic surgery is a crime in Canada

Skeptics CircleIf other countries took this kind of action there would be a lot less quackery in the world. Toronto police have branded ‘psychic healer’ Alex Orbito a fake, and charged him with fraud and the posession of the proceeds of crime.

Mr Orbito hails from the Philippines, where he has undoubtedly fleeced many poor and gullible people of their life savings. Mr Orbito uses the old and oft-debunked trick of pretending to push his fingers into the bodies of his victims and extracting blood and tumors. What he ‘extracts’ are, according to the Toronto police, parts from a chicken. For a two minute conjuring trick like this, he was charging gullible Torontonians $135 and managed to make $80000 in 3 days.

It’s sad to see that a trick that has been debunked so often and by so many people is still fooling the weak and desperate and separating them from their hard-earned cash. It’s heartening to see that the Canadian police are willing to step in and do something about it.

Apparently news of Mr Orbito’s visit was spread by word of mouth. Hopefully the news of his arrest and the arrest of his promoter will be spread in the same way.

Another clueless celeb

Skeptics CircleHaving hooked up with Tom Cruise, it was inevitable that she would get into Scientology too. Yes, to quote Katie Holmes: I have looked into [Scientology] myself and I really like it and I think it’s really wonderful. When will celebrities realise they’re being used to legitimize a criminal cult? Wasn’t Battlefield Earth enough of a clue? Don’t these people ever do a bit of research into what they’re getting into?

Scientology is a “religion” which was created on a bet by L Ron Hubbard, a hack sci-fi author with delusions of grandeur. His infamous quote:

Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous, If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way to do it would be to start his own religion.

Hubbard used his sci-fi background to create a creation myth involving an ancient galactic empire ruled by Xenu who hid billions of people in Earth’s volcanoes and detonated atom bombs in them to kill everyone. Yes, L Ron Hubbard was a complete nutcase (or a genius con-man, you decide).

I would imagine that unless the Scientology celebs ever visit places like xenu.net, they never hear about these dark secrets of the Scientology cult. They’re treated with kid gloves, the Scientology PR machine hard at work to keep them as figureheads and not freak them out by telling them the truth.

Scientology is a criminally convicted cult in Canada. They were fined $250,000 in 1985 when it was discovered that some of their members had infiltrated government offices and stolen confidential documents. They did this because those government organisations were perceived enemies of Scientology. It’s not just Canada either, this site has a list of all the countries where Scientology has been caught being a bad little organisation.

In 1995 Lisa MacPherson was declared dead on arrival at a hospital in Clearwater, Florida. Clearwater is where the HQ of the Scientology organisation is located. Lisa had been kept there in isolation for days after having a psychotic break. She was underweight, dehydrated, and covered in bruises and bug bits. This is what Scientology does to its members.

Tom Cruise, Jenna Elfman, John Travolta, Juliette Lewis, Kirstie Alley, and all the other Scientology celebrities are being abused in their own way. Their public profile is being used to promote a criminally negligent ufo cult which only exists to make money from the weak and the gullible.

Katie, have fun with Tom if you want, but please stay away from his “religion”.

Alcohol and Me

Summer sunshine brings with it a craving for cold beer straight from the bottle. Any meal is enhanced by a glass of good red wine (well ok, except breakfast). A night out at one of Montreal’s Irish pubs isn’t complete without a pint of Guinness or oatmeal stout. There’s something incredibly satisfying about ending the day with a glass of single malt whiskey if I’m feeling flush, or shine if I’m feeling poor.

Yes, I enjoy alcohol. I’m also happy to say I’ve never had a problem with it. I drank a lot in my late teens and early twenties, but thats just what boys living in Essex do. Nowadays I drink in moderation. I can’t remember the last time I was drunk. I never drink and drive. Drinking doesn’t make me abusive or obnoxious. I don’t “need” alcohol, I just like it.

Drinking in moderation has been shown to lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, be good for the heart and reduce the risk of stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney stones, gallstones, arthritis, stress and depression.

On the other hand, alcohol abuse kills thousands of people every year and causes problems for millions more. Long term abuse increases the chances of getting breast, mouth or throat cancer as well as destroying your liver.

I wondered if there was a proper definition of “drinking in moderation”. The generally accepted opinion seems to be two drinks a day for men, or one drink a day for women. A drink being 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits. I fall well below that level as I don’t drink at all on most days and rarely have more than two when I do. Oh and not drinking for 10 days then having 20 beers in one night is not good. It doesn’t quite work like that.

All this typing has made me thirsty…

Where’s the Equality?

Whether you think Belinda Stronach was right or wrong to defect from the Conservative party to the Liberals, surely she deserves the same amount of respect as any male politician?

With her ex-fellow conservatives calling her an attractive dipstick, a whore and a prostitute and the National Post referring to her decision as a Blonde Bombshell I start to wonder if it’s possible for women to be taken seriously in Canadian politics.

Take the blood

Skeptics CircleThis article reports on a 14 year old BC girl who was refusing blood transfusions on religious grounds. She’s a Jehovah’s Witness. Two judges have ruled that she is too young to make that decision so she must have the transfusions.

I’m in two minds about the decision. I’m a firm believer in individual rights and individual choice. If she really doesn’t want transfusions then she should be able to choose that option. It has to be an educated choice though, so I hope that someone other than her fellow JWs has sat her down and explained everything to her. Sadly, JWs aren’t allowed to associate with non-JWs, so even talking to a doctor about her options is against the rules and could have her disfellowed.

This article spurred me into examining some of the JW beliefs. They may seem harmless enough, but they are actually quite an insidious organisation. They control their members through guilt and fear. Members are actively encouraged to turn each other in for rule violations. Violations can be anything from smoking to reading religious material not published by JW. An unrepentant follower can be shunned and disowned by his fellow JWs.

That kind of environment can only result in massive indoctrination for anyone growing up in it. That 14 year old girl, and others like her, have effectively been completely brainwashed. They are under complete control by their cult and that control must be incredibly difficult to break.

So what about the blood thing? The JWs most controversial rule is based on a few lines from the bible which state that we should not eat blood. Back in the ’60s the JW ruling based on these scriptural references was that blood transfusions, organ transplants and vaccinations were not allowed. Since then the rule has been relaxed to the point now where everything up to partial plasma blood transfusions is allowed. Nobody has managed to explain why it’s ok to receive partial plasma but it’s not ok to receive full plasma.

Science tells us that a blood transfusion provides no nourishment. The blood is not digested by the body. So how does a blood transfusion break the scriptural rule that we may not eat blood? That’s another question the governing body of JW has failed to answer. This site has all the information you need on the blood transfusion controversy.

Featured on the cover of an Awake! magazine from 1994 are the photos of 26 children, ages varying up to 17 years, with the caption: “Youths Who Put God First.” Inside the magazine proclaims: “In former times thousands of youths died for putting God first. They are still doing it, only today the drama is played out in hospitals and courtrooms, with blood transfusions the issue.”. The main article, ‘Youths Who Have “Power Beyond What Is Normal”‘ tells the stories of three of these children who died after refusing blood treatment. This to me is a callous disregard for human life. The magazine is treating these children as martyrs when in fact they are innocent victims of a cult of guilt and fear.

Should religious freedom stretch this far? Should an organised religion be allowed to endanger the lives of it’s followers? Barbaric practices like the hindu sutee (widows being burned alive on their husband’s funeral pyre) have been outlawed for many years, so banning a dangerous religious practice would not be setting any precedents. Telling people to refuse blood transfusions is life threatening. It should not be allowed.

Skepticism from Kansas

Skeptics CircleThe 7th Skeptics Circle is now online over at Thoughts From Kansas. Joshua has done a great job of compiling this set of skepticism, debunkery, critical thinking and hard science.

I particularly enjoyed this article about supernova 1987A. Fantastic writing, and a great rebuttal to young earth creationism.

Oh, and I have to mention a success from the last Skeptic’s Circle: It seems I managed to convince Lynn Ann Maker to stick to the private investigating side of her business and forget the psychic side. Let’s hope it’s in deed as well as in word.

Critical Thinking

Skeptics CircleI am a critical thinker. I am a skeptic. Sometimes that’s seen as a bad thing; I hear comments like “You should be more open to new ideas”, or “How can you be so skeptical when you haven’t tried it?”. Is being skeptical the same as being close-minded? I don’t think it is. I haven’t tried eating rat poison, but I know it will make me sick because I’ve examined the evidence. I have an open mind, it’s just not so open that my brain falls out.

Nearly seventy years ago, thousands of Americans were fooled into believing that a radio broadcast of War of the Worlds was real news, that their country was actually being invaded by hostile martians. I would hope that we’ve learned to think more critically in the past seventy years, but sometimes I’m not so sure.

Every year, thousands of people are scammed out of their money by lottery scams, pyramid schemes, “Nigeria” scams, psychics, astrologers, bizarre products with unfounded medical claims, faith healers, religions, cults, fake charities and more. It seems that when it comes to health, wealth or happiness, some people are willing to believe anything.

The people who believe these things are apparently unable to examine and evaluate the information they are given. They don’t understand the need to gather more information from other sources before accepting something. Would these people convict someone of murder just because someone told them he was a murderer?

I believe critical thinking should be a mandatory part of education throughout elementary and high school. It should be given as much importance as reading, writing and arithmetic. Children should be given the skills they need to evaluate information objectively and with healthy skepticism. Children should be taught to question everything and accept nothing at face value.

Let’s give our children the skills they need to survive in an information rich world and vaccinate them against gullibility.

Psychic or Lucky?

Skeptics CircleAccording to this article, Lynn Ann Maker used her psychic abilities to find the body of a missing man. 30 year old Greg Wallace disappeared after heading off to work one morning. His car was found abandoned near a pond. Let’s hear about the amazing work Ms Maker did:

For reasons Maker can’t fully explain, she felt the need to wade into a nearby pond in an area police had already searched.

For reasons she can’t explain? Maybe because the pond was near the abandoned car? Maybe because drowning is not an uncommon cause of death? Maybe because if a body can’t be found it’s likely to be buried or submerged? No of course it can’t be any of those things, it must be because she had a spooky feeling:

“I kept feeling he was near the car,” she said, which led her to the nearby lake.

Such incredible insight, she must be psychic, right? If a man had gone missing, and you found his car near a lake, where would you look?

On Maker’s Mystical Touch Web site, the 33-year-old psychic offers services as a medium, a palm reader and a “psychic detective” specializing in murder and missing persons investigations. She describes herself as a “psychometrist,” meaning she has to touch personal items to receive her visions.

It’s funny, I’ve searched around and can’t find any other success stories involving Lynn Ann Maker, and yet she claims to specialize in murder and missing persons investigations. I thought maybe her website (UPDATE: site is now dead) would have more incredible success stories, so I went and had a look around. The main page is “under construction” with no links, but digging a bit deeper I found a couple of other pages. Her services page says:

What I do is provide closure for families and law enforcement when ever possible. I feel there is nothing to loose. If I can’t find the person or solve the cold case, then what is lost. Nothing would of changed, But if I can assist in solving a cold case or find a missing person, then there is closure! That is why I do what I do! Closure for people!

Bad spelling, awful grammar, and a penchant for exclamation! Still no sign of any other success stories though, no evidence of her psychic abilities at work. What about the News page? That only has two articles about Greg Wallace. Maybe all her other articles are archived somewhere? Or maybe there aren’t any.

Her About Me page is so badly written that I can’t bring myself to quote any of it. Needless to say it doesn’t contain anything concrete.

Finally I found her References page. Now I must’ve hit the gold, right? Now I’ll find all the contact information for all of this incredible psychic’s successes. Wait, I just see another article about Greg Wallace, I don’t understand.

After exploring Maker’s credentials, I think I have to agree with the FBI agent on the case, so I’ll leave you with his words:

Gary Rothwell, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Perry office, confirmed that Maker found the body, but added, “In my opinion, it’s a coincidence.”

UPDATE: She updated her site today. She even approved my comment to her guestbook (sadly with the link removed, I wonder why?) It still doesn’t have any useful content though.

Is it acupuncture or is it ECT?

Skeptics CircleI came across this article at the BBC about a study that claims that Acupuncture ‘cuts blood pressure’. I found this a little hard to swallow, so I read on.

What the study actually found was Acupuncture combined with electronic stimulation can lower high blood pressure. So wait a minute, they’re sticking needles in rats, then passing an electric current through them. Is that acupuncture? I thought acupuncture was an ancient Chinese healing technique. Since when did the ancient Chinese have electricity?

Either it’s acupuncture, or it’s giving people/rats electric shocks. As far as I can tell there hasn’t been any attempt to test the electric shock treatment on its own, but the article does say: When the acupuncture was applied on its own, it had no effect on blood pressure. So in other words, acupuncture, that ancient chinese healing technique, did nothing.

The lead researcher, Dr Longhurst then goes on to say: “This suggests that acupuncture can be an excellent complement to other medical treatments, especially for those treating the cardiac system.” No, no, wait, it doesn’t suggest anything of the kind. It suggests that giving people mild electric shocks might have some temporary beneficial effect on blood pressure. The only thing it suggests about acupuncture is that it doesn’t do anything.

Misleading headlines like Acupuncture ‘cuts blood pressure’ give people false hope and keep the alternative medicine bandwagon rolling along. Shame on you BBC.

Weird coincidences

Last night I had a strange dream. In my dream I was walking to the train station, as I do most mornings, when I decided to steal a manhole cover. I managed to conceal it on my person until I was on the train, when I hid it under the seat.

The really strange thing is this (subscription required, sadly). Apparently Pointe Claire, the next village over from us, has suffered a spate of manhole cover thefts in the last couple of days.

If I wasn’t a skeptic, I might think I was psychic, that I’d had a premonition or a vision. Of course, that’s nonsense; It’s just one of those weird and freaky coincidences. Either it’s a completely random coincidence, or I subconsciously overheard someone talking about the thefts yesterday. Or maybe I’ve been sleepwalking and stealing manhole covers.

Don’t label your baby

Skeptics CircleDid you believe in a god when you were six months old? What about when you were one? Or two?

The chances are you can’t answer those questions. Yet we as adults are quick to label our children. Jewish parents won’t say “We will teach our child about Judaism, and we hope she will grow to up to accept our faith”. Instead they will say “Our baby girl is Jewish”. Catholic parents will send their child to a catholic school, before that child has had a chance to decide his theological beliefs. Christian parents will have their child christened before she has any idea what that means. For some reason we see nothing wrong with imposing a belief system on an unformed intellect.

I’m a computer programmer, but if I have a child I won’t say “he’s a computer programmer”. I don’t want to choose my child’s profession, and I certainly don’t want to choose my child’s religious beliefs. All parents influence their children in some way, and maybe a child of mine will grow up to be a computer programmer, or an atheist, or a Formula 1 fan, or a blogger. Until she is old enough to decide those things for herself, I won’t be applying any labels.

Sock Gnomes?

Skeptics CircleOccasionally I lose socks. This usually happens at laundry time. I think that when nobody is watching, sock gnomes break into the washing machine or tumble dryer and steal socks. I think they use them to make little suits out of to keep themselves warm.

I’ve just covered the first two steps of the scientific method.

  1. Determine the problem: Why do socks go missing at laundry time?
  2. Make a hypothesis: I think sock gnomes are stealing my socks. (in layman’s terms this could be called a “theory” which is why there is often confusion between hypotheses and theories. More on that later.)

Now if I’m going to prove my hypothesis, I need to experiment. What I’ll do is install a small camera in my washing machine and record what happens when the machine is left unattended. If there are sock gnomes, the camera will catch them (unless they’re invisible sock gnomes; ut oh my experiment needs fine tuning, possibly involving a bag of flour).

Of course a key piece of the scientific method is replication. If I do see sock gnomes in my washing machine, that won’t be enough for most scientists because they are suspicious and skeptical by nature. They will want to reproduce my experiment on their own washing machines and see the sock gnomes for themselves. If everyone sees sock gnomes, then my hypotheses has been validated.

Once we have data from many experiments (not just with cameras, those scientists are smart, they will come up with different ways to detect the sock gnomes, maybe even catch one!), then we can analyze the data and come up with a scientific theory.

There’s that theory word again. This is where people get confused. In layman’s terms, a theory is a hypothesis, something you might say to your mates over a few beers. “I reckon if you tied a piece of bread butter side up to the back of a cat, then dropped the cat, it would float”. That’s a hypothesis, and your average non-scientist might call it a theory.

It is not the same as a scientific theory. Aerodynamics is a scientific theory. We don’t say “I don’t believe in aeroplanes, aerodynamics is just a theory!”. That’s because a scientific theory is the conclusion of a repeatedly tested and validated hypothesis. A scientify theory has a wealth of analyzed data and observation backing it up. A scientific theory is something we can rely on.

So can a scientific theory be wrong? Well sadly yes it can, but the chances are, if the theory has experimental data backing it up, it is at least partially right. It might need tweaking here and there, it might be missing some crucial details, it might need refining, but that data tells us we have a firm foundation.

Evolution is a scientific theory. It is the conclusion of repeatedly tested and validated hypotheses. It has a wealth of experimental data and observations backing it up.

Sadly my sock gnome hypothesis will probably never become a scientific theory. Sock gnomes could exist and could be stealing my socks as we speak, but I doubt I could get funding for a serious research project into the sock gnome hypothesis. There is as much proof for my sock gnomes as there is for Creationism.

Seeing blue?

skeptics circleAlmost two weeks ago, the first ever Skeptics’ Circle happened over at St Nate’s blog. I was inspired by this to write something for the upcoming second Skeptics’ Circle.

I was having trouble coming up with a topic, until I overheard a strange conversation on the train home from work the other night. A girl was telling her friend how she wanted to get colour contact lenses. Her friend then went on to explain how if you wear them for too long, you will be blind or see everything really brightly for a while after you take them off, and how someone who had to wear them to play a part in a movie went completely blind. This had a definite urban legend ring to it, so I decided to investigate further.

The first thing I found was this Usenet article about an editorial published in Eye and Contact Lens. Although the article talks about coloured lenses, the main problem seems to be that these are over the counter purchases, with no prescription. The problem is that the lenses may not fit right, and cause rubbing. This results in infection and potential blindness.

Eyecare professionals will take careful measurements before prescribing contact lenses, to ensure that these problems do not occur. Buying over the counter contact lenses, coloured or not, is dangerous and can lead to blindness. Getting prescription contact lenses, coloured or not, seems to be fine.

I did discover that the colouring of lenses is an applique, which gives the lens a microscopically less smooth surface than regular lenses, which could potentially cause irritation. Not for the reasons suggested by the girl on the train though.

Also on this page we find the possibility that the coloured part of the lens can potentially enter your field of vision, if the lens moves or the pupil is very dilated. Still nothing about brightness or blindness though.

As for the movie star going blind, I could find no references. Apparently coloured contacts have been used in movies since Audrey Hepburn used them to play a blind women in Wait Until Dark in 1967.

How did we survive?

We grew up in a minefield of potential injury and death. We rode bikes without helmets. We skated without knee pads. Our rooms were painted with lead paint. Nothing in our houses was child-proofed. We rode in the back seat of cars with no seatbelts. We drank water from streams. We ate mud and worms. We went places on our own. We played out after dark. We walked to school. We did not have cellphones. We climbed trees and sometimes fell out of them. We played with matches. When we got hurt it was our fault, there was nobody to sue.

We drank sugar filled drinks and ate copious amounts of candy, but we didnt get fat because we were out playing. All the time. We played bulldog and runouts. We made up games and new things to do. Most of them dangerous in some way. We had fights. We shared the same glass and did not die.

We had challenges at school; it felt good to move up to a top class, it felt bad to be put down to a lower class; we learned to deal with it. Some of us sucked at sport. We learned to deal with that too. We had toys that required some imagination. Lego did not have a predefined end-result. We read books. Some things on TV were educational. We had opinions and individuality.

If we did something wrong, our parents punished us. We respected that. If we broke the law we were terrified. We did not have ADD, we were just hyperactive kids. There was nobody and nothing to blame for our mistakes except ourselves.

Will our children grow up to be as innovative and creative as our generation was? Will they be independant, critical thinkers? Will they know how to fix stuff when it breaks? Will they know how to take risks and solve problems? Will they feel responsible for their actions? Will they stand up and fight when it’s necessary?

Who knew?

Apparently, not one single astrologer saw devastation, death and destruction in the stars and planets before December 26th. One guy had the gall after the earthquake to say something like “oh yeah, now I look back at it, I see Jupiter colliding with Pluto which predicts the earthquake, I wonder why nobody noticed”; but beforehand? Nothing. No psychics, mediums or clairvoyants had premonitions of 150,000 people dying. Nobody saw it in the tea leaves. Nobody was told by their god to leave Indonesia because he/she/it planned on smiting the place in the next couple of days.

Despite the fact that these charlatans never manage to get it right, people continue to believe and continue to pay them large amounts of money for the right to be scammed.

The only thing that could have predicted the events of 26th December would have been a seismic early warning system built on scientific foundations. Sadly people will pay to have their birth chart done but they’ll be up in arms if they find out their taxes are being used to pay for some “pointless earthquake measuring thingy”.

Fahrenheit 451?

This quote in relation to banning books with gay characters from libraries made me want to laugh and cry:

“I’ve not read his proposal, and I’m not familiar with him [Gerald Allen], but I do think there are a lot of things allowed in the library that don’t necessarily need to be here, that don’t meet decent moral standards, so I don’t have a problem with some of the material being removed,” says Huntsville’s Kelly Watts.

Don’t meet decent moral standards? Leaving aside the fact that the bible is full of immorality, how many books would be gone with this kind of attitude? Murder mysteries? All gone. Shakespeare? Not much left. Encyclopedias? Full of immorality, burn ’em all.

That covers fundamental morality; you know, the kind that even atheists and progressive liberals have. If we now include fundamental Christian morality, we start running out of books. Science texts? Gone. Anything mentioning sex outside marriage, or abortion, or birth control, or divorce? gone. Anything discussing alternative religions or witchcraft or the occult or the paranormal? Burn ’em, burn ’em all.

Go to your Alabama library today, get your copy of Run Spot Run. It’s all that’s left.

Creationists at it again

Bill Buckingham, a devout Christian who rejected a biology text because it was “laced with darwinism” has succeeded in getting creationism onto the school biology curriculum in Dover, Pennsylvania. This sickens me.

Bill wants to “give the balanced view of intelligent design and Darwin’s theory”. Intelligent design is just a fancy name for creationism, a faith based concept with absolutely no scientific grounding. Darwinism, or natural selection is a scientifically proven theory that has survived and grown for 145 years.

If Bill really wants to provide his students with a balanced view, then he also needs to consider the myriad of other creation myths that exist in the world. Of course this material is more suitable for a comparative religion course, but Bill seems to think it’s biology.

To get a clearer picture of Mr Buckingham, here’s what he had to say about the idea of removing ‘under god’ from the pledge:

“America was founded as a Christian country. While we welcome people from other countries, that doesn’t give them the right to change things. If they don’t want to say it our way, they can go back to the country they came from.”

How enlightened.

People and Computers

There are two types of people, those who understand computers and those who don’t.

There are professional computer programmers who fall into the second category, and taxi drivers who fall into the first.

Given a new piece of software, or an upgrade to an old piece of software, or a new website, someone who can understand computers will be able to figure out how to use it quickly and independantly. Someone who doesn’t understand computers will either need to be shown how it works, or spend a long time figuring it out.

Presented with a new problem or task, someone who understands computers will be able to choose the best software for the job and the most efficient way to solve the problem. Someone who doesn’t understand computers will try to use what they know best even if it’s like hammering a square peg into a round hole.

A programmer who understands computers can pick up a new computer language and start using it, at least experimentally, almost immediately. A programmer who does not understand computers will need training or a big book.

So what is it that puts someone into the understanding computers category?

Is it experience? Well yes, experience is a big factor. The more time we spend around computers, the more familiar we become. Familiarity gives us confidence and reduces fear. I’ve been using computers since I was nine, and that experience has definitely been important.

Is it genetic? I think there is a genetic factor which can make us more able to understand logic and be more intuitive about certain things. I have no idea what, if any, scientific evidence there is for this. As mentioned above I got my first computer at nine. I was writing usable programs within six months, so I think I had some kind of predisposition to that kind of learning.

Is it knowledge? We need a certain amount of knowledge to get going, but I don’t think it’s very much. I don’t “know” half the stuff I do. I don’t remember everything about every language or software I’ve ever used. What’s important is that I know where to look and what to look for when I need to know something. The capacity to learn quickly, efficiently and independantly is more important than the knowledge itself.

I understand computers. I only wish I could be that intuitive when it comes to things like cooking, gardening, art and relationships!