Category Archives: Skepticism

Why Scientology Won’t Go Away

Skeptic Circle
Skeptic Circle

Most UFO cults don’t stay around for very long; they either self destruct, like Heaven’s Gate or fade away, like the Aetherius Society. Even the Raelians have slowly faded into obscurity.

Scientology though refuses to die. Despite being declared a criminal organisation in Canada and other countries. Despite the huge amount of negative press they’ve had on the internet and elsewhere. Despite horrific stories like Lisa McPherson. Despite the now common knowledge that Scientologists believe in a galactic empire commanded by Xenu. Despite all these things, Scientology hangs in there on the edge of obscurity. And I think I know why.

L Ron Hubbard was a cheap hack and a fraud, but he wasn’t stupid. He and his followers set up programs that have an air of legitimacy. Underneath the thin veneer of respectability they are all bullshit, but that little bit of polish makes them appeal to the weak, down-trodden and credulous; the people they are aimed at. Let’s take a look at some of those programs:

Applied Scholastics

This is the “get ’em while they’re young” approach; a learning methodology developed by Hubbard to teach kids basic literacy. It sounds great; teaching kids to read is a noble endeavour, so there you have that air of legitimacy. But this program was developed by a guy who could barely write himself (have you tried reading Battlefield Earth?); a guy who had no background or experience in teaching young kids. And when you strip away all the polish it’s just another way to get people into the “church”.

There is also nothing particularly new or special about Hubbard’s “study tech”. The prime concept of Applied Scholastics is: if you don’t understand a word, look it up in a dictionary. Secondary to that, kids should not tackle complex subjects until they’ve finished the simple ones. That’s it, there’s not much else to it. This is hailed as revolutionary by Scientologists but it really isn’t.

Narconon

OK so if the “get ’em while they’re young” approach fails, how about “get ’em while they’re weak”? Targetting the weak and downtrodden is how Scientology gets most of their recruits. Narconon is a perfect example. Narconon targets drug addicts, people who have hit rock bottom and have nowhere else to go. Drug rehabilitation is another noble cause, something that can be offered for the good of society; but once again it’s just a front, a veneer of respectability to draw people in.

Once again we’re talking about a system developed by a man with no background or experience in the field. Hubbard wasn’t a doctor and had no medical training, he just made this stuff up, and it shows. Narconon involves pumping addicts with huge amounts of vitamin and mineral supplements and then putting them in a sauna to “detox” their bodies. After that they have to perform “TRs” (training routines), a standard Scientology technique involving things like yelling at ashtrays (yes, really). For this, patients pay up to $30,000 and risk getting brainwashed into the “church” or worse.

Criminon

Continuing with the targetting of the weak and downtrodden, Criminon is another Scientology front. This time aimed at another weak segment of our population, prisoners, Criminon is a “rehabilitation program” for criminals. Again it sounds noble and philanthropic, but it’s just another front, just another way to get recruits.

Criminon isn’t very much different from Narconon, it includes the “purification” methods of vitamins, minerals and saunas, as well as written tests and the mandatory reading of Hubbard’s “A Way To Happiness” wherein he sets out his commandments. Criminon, like Narconon, has no scientific basis and no scientific evidence to support its efficacy. It’s the ramblings of a madman and yet too many people take it at face value.

Citizens Commission on Human Rights

Ooh, that sounds important and special doesn’t it? Human Rights, causes don’t come much nobler. But what is the Citizens Commission on Human Rights really? Yes, it’s another Scientology front group. CCHR is basically an anti-psychiatry organisation. Hubbard hated psychiatrists, claiming that every one could be accused of murder and mayhem. The stated goal of CCHR is to fight against the supposed “human rights crimes” committed by mental health professionals. What they’re really doing is pushing Scientology.

Other Groups

I could go into detail about all the other Scientology front groups, but I think you get the idea. Scientology creates organisations that sound respectable, that sound like worthy causes, but in reality they’re just pushing a UFO cult. Some other examples of Scientology fronts are:

  • Americans Preserving Religious Liberty (previously Alliance for the preservation of religious liberty)
  • The Cult Awareness Network (previously legitimate until it was sued into bankruptcy by Scientology)
  • The Way To Happiness Foundation
  • Concerned Businessman’s Association of America
  • HealthMed Clinic
  • World Literacy Crusade
  • Downtown Medical
  • ABLE (Association for Better Living and Education)
  • Better Family Relations Association
  • Foundation for Religious Tolerance
  • East Hollywood People Against Crime
  • Environmental Task Force
  • Foundation for the Advancement in Science and Education (!)
  • International Academy of Detoxification Specialists (targetting firefighters after 9/11)
  • Library Donation Service (to get Hubbard’s crappy books into libraries)
  • Second Chance (AKA Narconon AKA Scientology)

Don’t they all sound wholesome and lovely? Sadly they’re not. They’re the tendrils of a “church” desperately trying to stay alive and rake in as much money as possible.

The many arms of Xenu if you will.

Jean Tremblay doesn’t care about Human Rights

The Quebec Human Rights Commission has quite rightly ruled that city councils, including Saguenay, should stop praying before or during council meetings because it violates religious freedom.

Sadly, the mayor of Saguenay, Jean Tremblay, doesn’t care about human rights because apparently he’s a religious bigot:

“I know they prefer me to stop, but I won’t do that,” he told CBC News. “For me, God is much more important than the commission. When I arrive on the other side, maybe in 10 years, 20 years, I don’t know, they won’t ask me if I follow the commission, they will ask me if I follow God. And I follow God.”

He also said that the 30 second prayer addresses all religions… Is that so Mr Tremblay? Do you mention Vishnu in that prayer? And Mohammed? What about Xenu? Buddha? The Flying Spaghetti Monster?

What about us atheists? How does the absence of religion fit into a religious prayer exactly? Or are we expected to leave the room while you wish to your imaginary sky friend?

Here’s an idea for you Mr Tremblay: Pray at home before you go to the meeting, or stop off at a church on your way. That way you’re only wasting your own time, not everyone elses.

Aleaping we will go

It’s February 29th today, so I thought, like 90% of bloggers on the planet, I would do a post about leap years.

Those silly people who think our planet is less than 6000 years old also sometimes think that the leap year thing is because science somehow screwed up and we have to fudge the numbers occasionally or that it’s because the Earth’s orbit is speeding up.

In fact, the leap year was refined over many years, starting with the romans who added an extra month every couple of years, basically whenever they felt like it, to keep the seasons in sync. Then Julius came along and realised the seasons were still all messed up, so abolished the extra month concept, replacing it with a slightly longer year of 365 days (it was 355 before) with extra days added to various months. There was also an extra day added every three years to try to keep the seasons lined up, but it wasn’t enough and they drifted again. A few years later the period was changed to four years, and things were better, but not perfect.

It wasn’t until the 1500s that someone realised that things weren’t quite right. It happened to be a Pope, Pope Gregory XIII to be precise. He noticed that if things carried on, Easter would eventually bump into Christmas, and we obviously couldn’t have Jesus being nailed to the cross on the day he was born, so he changed the rules, with the help of Kepler’s astronomical observations.

The Gregorian Calendar has been used ever since, and the leap year calculation remains unchanged. The calculation Gregory implemented is one I’ve used many times in computer programs. A year is a leap year if it’s divisible by 4 but not divisible by 100 except when it’s divisible by 400 (that’s why 2000 was a leap year).

Our year now averages out to be 365.2425 days long which is accurate enough that we’ll only be out by one day after 4000 years.

We need more Popes like Gregory XIII, even though he was a bit of a bastard to the English and Irish.

Happy Darwin Day

Today is Darwin Day, a day to celebrate the life of a man who built the foundations of the biological sciences we know today and a day to celebrate science and reason in general. I wanted to write something appropriate for the day but  I couldn’t think of anything topical so I decided to step back in time and explain how I got interested in science.

When I started senior school (that’s high school in North American terminology) the sciences were still split into three subjects (combining them was a huge mistake as far as I’m concerned), physics, chemistry and biology. I was lucky enough to have excellent teachers in all three.

My physics teacher, Mr Williams, was probably close to retirement but he was still an inspirational teacher. His passion was electronics so we spent a lot of time on electricity but he still managed to cover the other aspects of physics. It was his fault that my bedroom was often cluttered with pieces of dismantled electronics.

My chemistry teacher, Mr Vine, was one of those scary, strict teachers (he once threatened to expel me for throwing magnesium powder into a Bunsen burner flame)  but it was the kind of strictness that fostered respect. He also had a slightly inept side which caused at least two classroom evacuations: one when he accidentally dropped a large chunk of sodium down the sink and the other when he made mustard gas in the special gas chamber but forgot to turn on the extraction fan. He taught us well though, and I loved the practical aspect of chemistry but hated the theory side.

My biology teacher was my favourite teacher of all time. His name was Mr Tann. The last I heard he was an assistant head teacher, which seems a shame to me because teachers like that should be teaching, not becoming administrators. His teaching method involved sitting on his desk facing us, next to an overhead projector, scribbling notes and diagrams in many colours on the roll of transparency on the projector. Sounds dull but somehow he managed to make it a fascinating subject, and his practical sessions were always amazing.

Because of Mr Tann I also joined the pet club, a lunchtime club looking after the various animals in and around the biology lab. We looked after rats, hamster, gerbils, locusts, frogs, a piranha, ducks, chickens, rabbits and a hive of bees. It was because of this club, and the biology lessons themselves that I seriously considered becoming a veterinary surgeon. It was only the thought of having to spend another seven years at veterinary college that made me choose the easier option of computer science.

In my last year in senior school, Mr Vine the chemistry teacher took us on a school trip to London, and I discovered the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Sadly I don’t remember who the guy was giving the lectures that year, but I remember thoroughly enjoying the entire lecture we went to. There were explosions and strange chemical reactions and interesting scientific gadgets and gizmos and an animated and passionate speaker.

From that year on it became part of my Christmas tradition to watch those lectures on BBC2. There is a different speaker every year and so it was in 1991 that I got to hear Richard Dawkins for the first time. His series of lectures were, of course, about evolution and I learned a huge amount in those five days. I immediately went out and got a copy of The Blind Watchmaker and followed it up with The Selfish Gene.

I was fascinated by evolutionary theory, and I was equally fascinated by the fact that some people didn’t accept it. I read some of the reasons behind this skepticism and they made no sense to me. I spent some time on the talk.origins newsgroup trying to understand these arguments and eventually trying to persuade these people that they were just plain wrong. A futile endeavour, but at the time an entertaining one.

Since then I’ve moved from newsgroups to blogs, but I still have an interest in evolution and the attempts to create a controversy over it. I followed the Dover School Board saga with mounting dismay and was thrilled with the happy ending. However it was a small victory in an ongoing battle; right now in Florida several counties are trying to introduce creationism into the science classroom and I’m sure that’s not the only state with these problems. Even in the UK there have been rumours of creationists making inroads and I hope the rampant political correctness going on over there doesn’t make that alleged controversy easier to preach.

Homeopathy on the ropes

Some good news from the UK today, apparently NHS trusts are rejecting homeopathy. This is despite people like Prince Charles trying to stick their nose into the debate; maybe when he’s King he can make a royal decree, but until then it’s a downhill slope for homeopathy. Only 37% of NHS primary care trusts still offer homeopathy services and at least 8 major homeopathy contracts have been canceled in the last year.

Homeopaths are saying they will survive, and maybe they will, but only as an insignificant service preying on the weak and gullible.

Is it possible to be an Christian atheist?

In a recent interview with the BBC, Richard Dawkins defined himself as a “Cultural Christian”. In his terms this means he’s interested in Christian traditions such as Christmas carols but he doesn’t have the underlying belief.

So can you be a Christian atheist? I’m not so sure. It’s all a question of definitions, but in my mind a “Christian” is someone who believe that Jesus Christ was the son of god, and by implication that a god exists. Therefore, cultural or otherwise, I am not a Christian.

Being interested in a particular tradition does not immediately make you part of the belief system behind that tradition. Enjoying Christmas carols doesn’t make me a Christian, it just means I enjoy some of the music that was inspired by Christianity. I’m sure there are Buddhists who enjoy Sarah Maclachlan’s beautiful rendition of Silent Night, but they wouldn’t call themselves Buddhist Christians.

I love Christmas, but I’m not a Christian, Yom Kippur fascinates me but I’m not Jewish, I enjoy the festival of light but I’m not Hindu, I dress my son up at Halloween but I don’t believe in witches.

By calling himself a cultural Christian, Dawkins is effectively redefining the word Christian, or maybe creating a new definition when used in conjunction with the word cultural. Either way, it doesn’t sit quite right with me.

The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing

I’m reposting this article in full as the original author was forced to remove it from his site after legal bullying from the Society of Homeopaths. I’m not the only one to repost it. When will people learn that suppression of information by legal means will never work on the internet?

The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing

by Le Canard Noir

The Society of Homeopaths (SoH) are a shambles and a bad joke. It is now over a year since Sense about Science, Simon Singh and the BBC Newsnight programme exposed how it is common practice for high street homeopaths to tell customers that their magic pills can prevent malaria. The Society of Homeopaths have done diddly-squat to stamp out this dangerous practice apart from issue a few ambiguously weasel-worded press statements.

The SoH has a code of practice, but my feeling is that this is just a smokescreen and is widely flouted and that the Society do not care about this. If this is true, then the code of practice is nothing more than a thin veneer used to give authority and credibility to its deluded members. It does nothing more than fool the public into thinking they are dealing with a regulated professional.

As a quick test, I picked a random homeopath with a web site from the SoH register to see if they flouted a couple of important rules:

48: • Advertising shall not contain claims of superiority. • No advertising may be used which expressly or implicitly claims to cure named diseases.

72: To avoid making claims (whether explicit or implied; orally or in writing) implying cure of any named disease.

The homeopath I picked on is called Julia Wilson and runs a practice from the Leicestershire town of Market Harborough. What I found rather shocked and angered me.

Straight away, we find that Julia M Wilson LCHE, RSHom specialises in asthma and works at a clinic that says,

Many illnesses and disease can be successfully treated using homeopathy, including arthritis, asthma, digestive disorders, emotional and behavioural difficulties, headaches, infertility, skin and sleep problems.

Well, there are a number of named diseases there to start off. She also gives a leaflet that advertises her asthma clinic. The advertising leaflet says,

Conventional medicine is at a loss when it comes to understanding the origin of allergies. … The best that medical research can do is try to keep the symptoms under control. Homeopathy is different, it seeks to address the triggers for asthma and eczema. It is a safe, drug free approach that helps alleviate the flaring of skin and tightening of lungs…

Now, despite the usual homeopathic contradiction of claiming to treat causes not symptoms and then in the next breath saying it can alleviate symptoms, the advert is clearly in breach of the above rule 47 on advertising as it implicitly claims superiority over real medicine and names a disease.

Asthma is estimated to be responsible for 1,500 deaths and 74,000 emergency hospital admissions in the UK each year. It is not a trivial illness that sugar pills ought to be anywhere near. The Cochrane Review says the following about the evidence for asthma and homeopathy,

The review of trials found that the type of homeopathy varied between the studies, that the study designs used in the trials were varied and that no strong evidence existed that usual forms of homeopathy for asthma are effective.

This is not a surprise given that homeopathy is just a ritualised placebo. Hopefully, most parents attending this clinic will have the good sense to go to a real accident and emergency unit in the event of a severe attack and consult their GP about real management of the illness. I would hope that Julia does little harm here.

However, a little more research on her site reveals much more serious concerns. She says on her site that ‘she worked in Kenya teaching homeopathy at a college in Nairobi and supporting graduates to set up their own clinics’. Now, we have seen what homeopaths do in Kenya before. It is not treating a little stress and the odd headache. Free from strong UK legislation, these missionary homeopaths make the boldest claims about the deadliest diseases.

A bit of web research shows where Julia was working (picture above). The Abha Light Foundation is a registered NGO in Kenya. It takes mobile homeopathy clinics through the slums of Nairobi and surrounding villages. Its stated aim is to,

introduce Homeopathy and natural medicines as a method of managing HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria in Kenya.

I must admit, I had to pause for breath after reading that. The clinic sells its own homeopathic remedies for ‘treating’ various lethal diseases. Its MalariaX potion,

is a homeopathic preparation for prevention of malaria and treatment of malaria. Suitable for children. For prevention. Only 1 pill each week before entering, during and after leaving malaria risk areas. For treatment. Take 1 pill every 1-3 hours during a malaria attack.

This is nothing short of being totally outrageous. It is a murderous delusion. David Colquhoun has been writing about this wicked scam recently and it is well worth following his blog on the issue.

Let’s remind ourselves what one of the most senior and respected homeopaths in the UK, Dr Peter Fisher of the London Homeopathic Hospital, has to say on this matter.

there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won’t find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.

Malaria is a huge killer in Kenya. It is the biggest killer of children under five. The problem is so huge that the reintroduction of DDT is considered as a proven way of reducing deaths. Magic sugar pills and water drops will do nothing. Many of the poorest in Kenya cannot afford real anti-malaria medicine, but offering them insane nonsense as a substitute will not help anyone.

Ironically, the WHO has issued a press release today on cheap ways of reducing child and adult mortality due to malaria. Their trials, conducted in Kenya, of using cheap mosquito nets soaked in insecticide have reduced child deaths by 44% over two years. It says that issuing these nets be the ‘immediate priority’ to governments with a malaria problem. No mention of homeopathy. These results were arrived at by careful trials and observation. Science. We now know that nets work. A lifesaving net costs $5. A bottle of useless homeopathic crap costs $4.50. Both are large amounts for a poor Kenyan, but is their life really worth the 50c saving?

I am sure we are going to hear the usual homeopath bleat that this is just a campaign by Big Pharma to discredit unpatentable homeopathic remedies. Are we to add to the conspiracy Big Net manufacturers too?

It amazes me that to add to all the list of ills and injustices that our rich nations impose on the poor of the world, we have to add the widespread export of our bourgeois and lethal healing fantasies. To make a strong point: if we can introduce laws that allow the arrest of sex tourists on their return to the UK, can we not charge people who travel to Africa to indulge their dangerous healing delusions?

At the very least, we could expect the Society of Homeopaths to try to stamp out this wicked practice? Could we?

Mother knows best?

In many cases the old saying is true, mother probably does know best. There are times when that is not the case though, especially where medical expertise is involved.

Why do parents feel they are more qualified than doctors when determining health treatments for their child? Every time a parent does this, they are putting their child at risk; in cases like the one happening now in Quebec, it is a fatal risk.

Three year old Anael L’Espérance-Nascimento has cancer cells in his brain and bone marrow. His doctors say he needs chemotherapy but of course his parents know better. Instead they plan to feed him organic vegetables to make him better. I’m sure eating organic vegetables is a good thing, but it won’t kill cancer cells, he needs the chemo! Yes, it’ll make him sick, yes, it’ll be horrible for everyone involved, but in the long run it could save his life. Organic vegetables won’t.

This sad story has two saving graces; firstly, organic vegetables are better than some of the very dubious alternative therapies they could have considered, and secondly Anael’s mother has said that if he doesn’t improve they will consider chemotherapy. I hope they don’t wait too long.

Revamped Randi

Skeptics Circle

Since 1986, James Randi, through his Educational Foundation, has been offering a one million dollar prize to anyone who can prove their paranormal powers in a simple test. Prior to that he offered lesser amounts. Of course, so far, nobody has won the prize.

There has been no shortage of applicants though, so many that Randi has decided to change the rules a little. Too many of the applicants are either deluded dowsers or just mentally ill, so to weed out the kookiest kooks and just leave the prime kooks the rules now stipulate that the applicants must have a media presence. They don’t have to be world famous, they just have to have been in the media spotlight with their supposed powers.

The other, more interesting, change to the rules is that the JREF are now going to actively pursue some of the more famous flim-flammers. Not only is Randi going after famous kooks to get them to take the challenge, he’s also on the lookout for behaviour which could constitute a criminal offence.

So to help Randi with his new goals (not that he needs my help but the delusions of grandeur are talking to me again) I’ve decided to compile a list of the more infamous tricksters that I think he should be going after:

  • Uri Geller – famous for his spoon-bending trick in the 70s and 80s, the last I heard he was offering business advice based on crystal woo. Randi’s been after him before and I doubt he’ll ever take the test, but it’s worth a shot.
  • Sylvia Browne – Montel Williams’ favourite “psychic” who is now even more famous for being wrong a lot. She’s a fake and it hurts people. She has agreed to take the Randi Challenge but has since been playing dodge ball.
  • Allison Dubois – the psychic whose claims of helping law enforcement agencies solve crimes and missing person cases inspired the TV show Medium, even though the claims have never been verified. She has refused the challenge before because she thinks Randi is “senile” and “unintelligent”.
  • Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – The creator of Transcendental Meditation and the whole Yogic Flying phenomenon. If he can really fly, and not just bounce about on springy mats, why not prove it to Randi?
  • James Van Praagh – Not only does he claim to be a psychic, he even gives lessons in becoming a medium. Most “mediums” will say it’s not something that can be taught, but not James. Perhaps he can teach Randi?
  • Avani Water – There are many purveyors of so-called “oxygenated water”, but I picked this one because it’s Canadian. They claim that ” Tests and actual surveys [yes, actual surveys!] concluded that the added oxygen helps to promote good-health”. They also claim that “No, AVANI does not contain ANY chemicals.” What, not even water?
  • Russell Grant – I had to mention at least one astrologer, so why not a brit? A mediocre TV celebrity who used to specialise in astrology but has since expanded into tarot and numerology. It’s about time someone put his “skills” to the test.
  • Dr Stefan Schmidt – He claims he has proved that people can tell when they’re being stared at, even over CCTV. That should be easy for Randi to test, right?
  • Maureen and Clayton Marolly – A Montreal couple whose living room has become very oily. They claim that people who bring religious icons leave with oily religious icons. That has to be testable.

Some may claim that the new rules makes it even harder to win the one million dollar prize, but that makes no sense. If someone really did have paranormal powers, fame would find them even if they didn’t want it and there would be no excuse for not taking the challenge.

Dawkins Doesn’t Disappoint

Richard Dawkins was in Montreal on Saturday October 21st, and I attended his lecture “Queerer than We Suppose: The Strangeness of Science”. Although he’s on a tour promoting his new book (The God Delusion), this lecture wasn’t a direct promotion. He steered clear of talking about atheism until he was asked about it in the question and answer session at the end. Instead he talked about quantum theory, the mind’s model of the real world, and the idea of “middle world” where we reside, where rocks are solid and falling hurts. Middle world is between micro world and cosmic world, between the world where rocks are mostly empty space and can be passed through with ease, and the world where rocks are insignificant and light years can be travelled with ease.

It was a great lecture. I don’t think I actually learned anything (apart from a few good quotes), but it was more inspirational than educational. Dawkins managed to get a few digs in at things like intelligent design without turning the lecture into an atheistic rant (not that I would’ve minded that).

My favourite line:

Before 1859 [life] would’ve seemed very very odd indeed, now it just seems very odd.

My favourite quote:

Wittgenstein asked a friend “Tell me, why do people always say it was natural for men to assume that the sun went round the earth, rather than that the earth was rotating?” His friend said, “Well, obviously, because it looks as if the sun is going round the earth.” To which the philosopher replied, “Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth was rotating?”

My favourite exchange at the end:

Audience member: Why are the world leaders all insane?
Dawkins: They’re not all insane, are they? Well, ok, looking south of the border…
Audience member: We now have our share of south of the border here.
Dawkins: Oh, I can only convey my sympathy and hope it doesn’t last.

What is Agnostic?

When someone tells me they are agnostic, I’m never entirely sure what they mean. To say you are agnostic without qualification is almost meaningless. Without specificity you may as well say “I don’t believe in anything” or “I believe in everything”.

There are two things you need to specify to bring meaning to your agnosticism.

The first is what exactly it is you’re agnostic about. For example, I am agnostic about dark matter. It helps solve some discrepancies in physicists equations, but we don’t really know what it is or if it really exists. The probability seems to be that it does exist, but that probability isn’t high enough for me to accept it. Therefore I am dark matter agnostic. To steal an example from Richard Dawkin’s new book, I’m also agnostic about life on other planets. Once again there is a reasonable probability that it exists, but the numbers are too vague to be sure.

You may say that stating you are agnostic about god is specific enough, but it’s not really. God means many different things to many different people. Are you agnostic about the Christian god? The Muslim god? Thor? Zeus? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? Are you agnostic about a god who created the universe then left it alone or about a god who created the universe and still oversees it?

I’ve also heard things like “I’m agnostic because I have a feeling there might be something else out there”, or “I’m agnostic because there must be more to the universe”. This to me is like saying I’m willing to believe in anything that doesn’t seem to exist because, well, it might. By this definition we were all agnostic about ipods until five years ago, we just didn’t know it then. I don’t know about things I don’t know about is a pointless statement.

The second thing needed to qualify agnosticism is the degree of your agnosticism. Absolute agnosticism about something means you think there is equal probability of it existing or not existing. If the probabilities are unequal, then you are partially agnostic one way or the other. I’m absolutely agnostic about dark matter (mostly because “dark matter” doesn’t really offer anything explanatory), but I’m only about 25% agnostic about life on other planets and I’m well over 90% agnostic about the possibility of alien visitation.

Because nothing can be disproved, strictly speaking we are agnostic about anything which may exist. We are agnostic about fairies, Santa Claus, the flying spaghetti monster and a Christian theist god. It is our degree of agnosticism which pushes us towards afairyism, asantaism, afsmism or atheism. As our degree of agnosticism approaches 100%, at some point we have to assume non-existance and abandon agnosticism for awhateverism. I am 99.9% agnostic about any supernatural entity therefore my agnosticism becomes atheism.

If you consider yourself agnostic, you must ask yourself what it is exactly you are agnostic about, and how agnostic you are about it.

One of my heroes.

Every Christmas, the Royal Institution in London puts on a series of lectures aimed at young people, known, strangely enough, as the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. They’ve been going on every year since 1825 when Michael Faraday started them, only stopping briefly when World War II was happening.

I attended the lectures when I was about 14, and watched them on BBC Two every other year. One speaker in particular became a hero of mine. His five lectures debunked many of the arguments against evolution and filled in many of the gaps in my own knowledge on the subject. Since then I’ve read his books and articles and kept a lookout for TV and public appearances.

Richard Dawkins is an eminent evolutionary biologist and a fierce atheist. He is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Along with his new book, he also has a new website, which went straight onto my sidebar. And he’s coming to McGill on October 21st; colour me excited.

Science of natural remedies

Skeptics Circle Those who believe in alternative medicines often claim that science is somehow fighting against them, that science will never validate the therapies they believe in. Reasons given are many: the therapy won’t work under controlled conditions; science doesn’t consider the emotions of the patient; big pharma are conspiring to ridicule alternative medicine to increase their own profits; the studies are flawed; and the old favourite, well it works for me.

Sometimes though, science surprises the alties by validating one of these therapies. Take this recent study for example which shows that berberine, a substance used in ancient chinese medicine, may actually be useful against diabetes and obesity:

The researchers found that a dose of the compound, given orally, caused blood sugar levels to go down, led to fewer fats circulating in the bloodstream, made insulin work better and lowered the animals’ body weights.

Unlike the alternative medicide purveyors though, who will no doubt be marketing this stuff much more vigorously based on this study, scientists are cautious:

We would not recommend that anyone attempts to use this as a treatment in its current form as this research only focuses on animals. We will wait to see the results of further research with interest.

So what will happen if these findings are replicated and berberine is found to be safe and effective? If it works, it will be used in the treatment of diabetes and obesity and it will be medicine without any need for the “alternative” qualifier.

Rediscovering America

Skeptics Circle

If there’s an area which requires nearly as much skepticism as science and pseudoscience, it’s history. Historical revisionism can be caused by simple errors or by malice aforethought. The classic case of the latter is of course Holocaust denial.

But let’s look at a more benign example. Consider if you will the discovery of “the New World”. All over the USA Christopher Columbus is celebrated as the discoverer of America; he has schools named after him, he even has his own national holiday. Alongside him is Amerigo Vespucci who holds the impressive distinction of having two continents named after him. Do they deserve these credits?

Christopher Columbus was a pretty lousy explorer. He spent most of the time on his famous journeys wandering around the West Indies convinced he was somewhere near Japan. He even threatened to cut the tongues out of any of his men who said otherwise. He failed to realise Cuba was an island and thought the native people were asian, hence the term Indians. He returned to spain with almost no booty from his voyage. He was eventually stripped of his admiralty and died in complete obscurity.

OK, so he was a bit of a loser, but he was still the first European to set foot on the New World, right? Well no, not really. It is well documented that Leif Erikson, a viking, settled in Greenland about 500 years before Columbus stumbled into Cuba. There is also documentation to suggest that Leif ventured further west, possibly as far as what is now Virginia although nobody is really sure. Christopher Columbus never actually set foot on what is now the USA.

As for Amerigo, yes he did make some journeys to the Americas, probably two, but only as a passenger. Some probably fraudulent letters appeared in his hometown of Florence claiming he had captained the ship and discovered the New World. These letters were picked up by a cartographer who was making a new map to include the newly discovered continents. Taking the letters at face value he used the feminine latin form of Amerigo’s name to name the new land masses. And so they became the Americas. Amerigo also never, as far as we know for sure, set foot on what is now the USA.

But I guess The United States of Leif doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Some other USA myths:

  • The Pilgrims did not land on Plymouth Rock
  • James Otis never said “Taxation without representation is tyranny”
  • Betsy Ross probably had nothing to do with creating the new flag
  • Thomas Jefferson didn’t really want to write the Declaration of Independence, and when he did it was partially plagiarised and heavily edited by the Committee of Five
  • Independence was declared on July 2nd, and the Declaration was read out on July 8th (with no accompaniment from the Liberty Bell) and signed gradually over the following months. Nothing very exciting happened on July 4th

Those wacky Fundies

Fundies Say the Darndest Things is a website devoted to finding some of the more interesting quotes from Christian web boards. Here are a few of my favourites:

“Abiogenesis is proven to be impossible. Therefore, intelligent design exists in nature. Therefore, neo-Darwinism is demolished as a tenable theory because its fundamental assumption of atheism is proven false.”

QED, obviously.

“I have to consult my brother but I believe I remember him telling me fossils can be manufactured in laboratories in a matter of hours.”

I knew a guy whose friend’s cousin’s girlfriend’s dad said the bible was full of crap!

“the theory of deevolution, si that the lunatics that run around a devoling and are turning into monkeys again. But then there are a few how think that the luneys that run around and kill people are acuttally smarter than us, and are evoluiong.”

Uhh, what?

“Well, I don’t think a woman will win the presidency in the near future. I just don’t think that it would be a good idea at the moment or possibly ever, I agree with Skynes, SOME women are unpredictible, and that would be really bad. Or you could get a femi-nazi for president and they pass a bunch of stupid laws against men, which would be obsured”

Totally obsured. Men are never unpredictible.

“What strikes me as odd that is, given the current state of genetics, no one has compared simian dna to homo sapien. The differences should be obvious and radical.”

What a good idea! Someone should do that!

“Evolutionism has not been proven!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! IT is a theory!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Look at all those exclamations, it must be true.

“Planned Parenthood has a morbid interest in the sexuality activity of other people’s children.”

Yes helping children understand the changes happening to them is a BAD thing. BAD Planned Parenthood. BAD!

“Unlike you, we believe Jesus should be sought before inquiring about a medical doctor.”

Pains in your chest? Difficulty breathing? Call 1-800-JESUS-SAVES.

“The evolution theory is falsiable because there is biblical evidence against it and i dont look foolish when i have biblical evidence”

No, no. Not foolish at all.

“Gays want to ascribe their guilt and shame to repression of society, but I don’t really know of many places where anyone is shamed for being gay in this day and age.”

Yeah, Matthew Shepard wasn’t shamed or repressed at all.

“It seems that religion should be defined as only those that believe in [the Christian] God. Other types should not even be recognized. That is what logical, God-fearing people would do. ”

Gotta love those logical, god-fearing people.

Egocentric Intelligent Design

Skeptics CircleThe proponents of “intelligent design” creationism have always been stuck with two questions which they are unable to satisfactorily answer. These thorns in IDs side cast doubt on the whole “theory”. I hope to answer them today.

The first is “Who is this designer?”. Creationists didn’t have a problem with this because the answer was god, but the ID crowd try as hard as they can to avoid that answer even though everyone knows they’re talking about god and they don’t have any alternative explanation. Mentioning a god has a serious effect on their claim that ID is scientific so now they just avoid the question.

The second difficult question for the IDers is “If we are designed, who designed the designer?”. I’ve yet to see any reasonable answer offered to this one, certainly nothing scientific. The best answer the IDiots can come up with is:

One need not fully understand the origin or identity of the designer to determine that an object was designed. Thus, this question is essentially irrelevant to intelligent design theory, which merely seeks to detect if an object was designed.

Which amounts to sticking their fingers in their ears and singing “LA LA LA LA I CANT HEAR YOU”. If you found a beautiful piece of sculpture, or an exquisite painting wouldn’t you be interested in who made it? Do these people have no curiosity?

I would like to offer my very own creation myth, which I call the Egocentric Intelligent Design Theory. I believe that in, oooh, let’s say 4000 years time, humanity will be so technologically advanced that they finally develop the ability to travel in time. A mad scientist will get the idea of travelling back in time to give humanity a kick start and make our species even better than it is. He travels back to the beginning of time and fiddles with the building blocks of life. He jumps around in time throughout Earth’s history, tweaking bits of DNA here and there and intelligently designing a better world. What he doesn’t know is that he’s creating exactly the same human species as he himself is and he is in fact the pinnacle of his own design.

My theory has all of the same “scientific evidence” behind it as ID does, but it answers those two tricky questions:

Who was the designer? One of us.
Who designed the designer? He did.

It also answers another tricky question:

Why aren’t the designs perfect? Because the designer was only human.

So now that I’ve gone beyond what ID was able to tell us about the origins of life, I think EID should be taught instead of or at least alongside ID in any science classroom where ID is taught. I’m off to Kansas with my petition.

I know because I think

Skeptics CircleThe people out in woo woo land have what they consider an excellent weapon against us skeptics. It starts with the question “Have you tried it?” and ends with the question “Well if you’ve never tried it, how can you know it doesn’t work?”. They don’t seem to see the obvious fallacy in this argument. This weapon is a dud.

The most common examples I’ve seen of this argument are:

“Scientology worked for me. You won’t know if it works for you unless you try it!”

“If you’ve never been treated with [insert alternative therapy of your choice], how can you know it doesn’t work?”

“You’re just not attuned to people’s auras, you won’t really understand them unless you experience them.”

This is nonsense, and I’m going to use this argument in some different ways to illustrate why it’s nonsense:

“If you’ve never responded to a Nigerian email offering you millions of dollars, how do you know you won’t get paid?”

“If you’ve never slit your wrists, how do you know you would die?”

“Vioxx worked for me, you won’t know if it works for you unless you try it!”

“You weren’t at the Battle of Hastings. How do you know it happened?”

These arguments obviously make no sense, and for the same reasons neither do the first examples I gave. We “know” that things don’t work because we are able to think; to use our brains to evaluate the available evidence and make an informed opinion.

I don’t have to join Scientology to find out that it is a money grabbing cult because I’ve read all the literature; I’ve heard the victim testimonials; I know about the cult’s crimes.

I don’t have to take homeopathic medicine to know that they don’t work. I’ve read about the “science” involved and know that it makes no sense. I understand how placebos work.

So next time someone tries to use this argument on you, tell them that if they give you all their money they’ll experience eternal happiness. They won’t know it’s not true unless they try, will they?

The BBC wades in

The waste of everybody’s time happening down in Dover, PA where the school board is being sued by parents over wanting to teach intelligent design in science classrooms, is now being reported on by the BBC. The article is well written overall, but I take issue with the lead-in sentence:

A school board being sued in a US court for questioning the theory of evolution has begun presenting its case.

I don’t understand why they chose that wording. There is nothing inherently wrong with questioning the theory of evolution or any other scientific theory. If theories didn’t get questioned and analyzed their would be no advancement.

The school board are not being sued for questioning evolution, they are being sued for trying to push a non-scientific religious alternative into science classrooms. It’s important to report this accurately and clearly so people far removed from the problem (like Brits) understand how foolish and theocratic the school board are being.

Prince Kook

Skeptics CirclePrince Charles should stick to talking to his plants and keep his kooky ideas to himself. A report was released yesterday, commissioned by the Prince, of all things woo woo and written by an economist (because we all know economists are experts in medicine). The report is supposed to investigate the role of complementary medicines in the NHS (the National Health Service in the UK). I’m not going to reproduce much of it here, but if you want to read it, it’s here.

I’ll just reproduce part of the disclaimer though:

The contents of this publication constitute research, the results of which have not undergone clinical trials or any other form of testing or validation for the purposes of any kind of medical treatment, diagnosis, therapy or advice.

Meaning it’s pretty much useless as a scientific document, but no doubt the NHS will act on it to make the Prince happy.

The conclusions are weak. The report claims effectiveness of the “top 5” complementary medicines; acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal medicine and manipulation therapies, but most of the benefits seem to be in cost. The report seems to be suggesting that the NHS could save money if they used complementary medicines instead of conventional medicines. Whether or not the patient benefits seems to be secondary.

Here are some of the conclusions of the report:

Despite the fragmentary nature of the evidence, there seems good reason to believe that a number of CAM treatments offer the possibility of significant savings in direct health costs, while others perhaps just as expensive as their conventional counterparts can nonetheless deliver additional benefits to patients in a cost-effective way. In addition, the benefits to the economy of a wider application of successful complementary therapies in the key areas could run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

Even though they admit that the evidence is fragmentary (and that’s an optimistic definition), it still comes down to the money. Prescribing alternative treatments is cheaper, who cares if it works or not? If the patient is happy with the placebo he’s received then the NHS has made a saving; who cares about the science?

Funds available for research into the cost-effectiveness of CAM treatments should be increased.

Cost-effectiveness? How about effectiveness? Research should be done to show if any of it works at all, and if it does, how it works. GPs should not be prescribing something which is supposed to work on mythical lines of Chi or molecular memory or some other faith based concept.

…generally speaking CAM appears relatively safe compared to conventional drugs.

Safe because it doesn’t do anything, good or bad? Maybe the money would be better spent researching conventional drugs to make them safer and more effective than they already are?

The legal position of doctors making referrals to complementary practitioners needs to be safeguarded.

Because we can’t trust any of the alternative therapies thanks to the “fragmentary” evidence, so expect to have to sign a release so you can’t sue the GP.

The report trots out all the usual excuses for why CAM can’t be tested and validated in the same way as conventional medicines. Some are valid (the inability to do double-blind for something like acupuncture), some are not (CAM being different for every patient).

I’m sure Charlie means well in his own kooky way, but this kind of report just muddies the water and potentially diverts funding away from good, effective science based medicine into the pockets of charlatans and quacks.

Is Webster wrong?

Skeptics CircleA conversation about atheism over at Stupid Evil Bastard got me thinking about my own atheism. I went over to Websters to find out how they defined atheism. I was a little perplexed by their definition:

Main Entry: atheist
Pronunciation: ‘A-thE-ist
Function: noun
: one who believes that there is no deity

I’m not sure that is correct. I call myself an atheist because I do not believe in a deity. That does not necessarily mean I believe there is no deity. I do not believe in a deity because there is no evidence that a deity exists. For me to “believe” something, I need some evidence. Therefore I can’t believe there is no deity unless there is some evidence that there is no deity. As you can’t really produce evidence for the absence of something, there is no way to believe that something does not exist. You can only assume that something doesn’t exist unless evidence presents itself to tell you otherwise.

So my assertion is that the correct definition of atheism should be:

one who does not believe in a deity.

Did Merriam-Webster get it wrong?

Planes, Trains and GM Food

Skeptico has been posting recently on GM Food, his stance is a little more radical than mine but for the most part I’m in agreement with him. I decided to take a look at some of the common “complaints” about GM food and try to imagine the same arguments applied to manned flight:

It’s “playing god” or unnatural.

Man wasn’t supposed to fly! Those Wright Brothers are playing God by trying to give us wings!

The playing god argument has been used for so many things that it has become meaningless. It assumes the existence of a god and it ignores all the other times that we as a species have “played god”.

It’s wrong to mix genes from radically different organisms.

It’s wrong to be suspended in mid-air!

If you’re going to say that something is wrong, you really should give a reason. Just saying that something is wrong doesn’t make it so.

Religious and vegetarian groups would object to genes from some species.

Hot Air balloonists will object to these new-fangled winged chariots!

There will always be a group of people who object to something. If you object to planes, don’t fly in them. If you object to GM foods, don’t eat them (This brings up the labelling issue. Yes, I think labelling needs to be carefully handled).

Do we really know what we’re doing?

Do those Wright Brothers know what they’re doing? Someone could die in that contraption!

The Wright Brothers probably weren’t entirely sure what they were doing, that’s why they were experimenting. Unless we experiment, we won’t get any closer to knowing what we’re doing.

Have we evaluated the risks sufficiently?

People high in the air seems risky to me, they could all die if something goes wrong!

Well yes everything carries a risk. We can only hope that the risks have been evaluated effectively and that the worse-case scenarios have been considered.

Do we need genetically modified food?

Do we need aeroplanes? People managed for thousands of years without them.

We don’t need planes, but they sure are handy. We probably don’t need GM foods, but there’s a big chance it could solve a lot of problems, especially as our population grows and food resources become more scarce.

It is just going to provide luxuries for rich, and won’t feed the Third World.

Planes are just for rich people, the poor won’t be able to fly!

Commercial airlines, for the most part, service the rich. But look at all the other flight industries. Air ambulances, bush pilots, disaster relief, military backup, search and rescue. Flight has benefited the rich, the poor and the threatened. GM food can do the same.

Agriculture is already too technological. This will only make it worse.

Travelling is already too complicated, flying will just make it worse.

Surely only a Luddite would object to something purely because it is “too technological”. What does that even mean? Ever since agriculture began, tools have been developed to make it easier. Technology is not inherently evil, nor is it inherently good. It just is.

There are better ways to improve resistance and reduce chemicals on the land.

There are better ways to travel!

Better is very subjective isn’t it? Someone I work with prefers trains to planes, but I’d much rather get to where I’m going as fast as possible. Whether GM food is better or worse than any alternative is just an opinion unless there is hard evidence one way or the other.

Get off your knees

What’s happening in Louisiana right now is horrible. Hundreds dead, probably thousands homeless, an historic city in ruins, polluted waters, out of control looting and crime. But Louisiana’s Governor Blanco’s “solution” is not going to help:

Louisiana’s Governor Blanco urged residents to spend Wednesday in prayer and assured them the crisis would eventually be overcome.

Prayer? Prayer didn’t help them yesterday did it? It’s not going to help today either. She should be urging residents to get the hell out of the city/state if they can, or help with the rescue effort otherwise. If neither option is possible, stay home and try to relax; play scrabble or read a book. Prostrating yourself and pleading with the Flying Spaghetti Monster or your deity of choice is just a waste of time.

Vanier Quackery

Skeptics CircleVanier College is one of Montreal’s most respected colleges, offering a wide range of credit and non-credit courses. Sadly that range is a little too wide. Last weekend I was reading through the new course brochure from the college, and found a section entitled “World of the Supernatural”; this did not bode well. In this section I found:

  • Tarot – The Spiritual Journey
  • Relationship Astrology
  • Numerology Workshop
  • Psychic Development Workshop
  • Past Life Workshop
  • Evolution of the Soul
  • Palmistry
  • Zodiac Series

Elsewhere in the course list I found:

  • Introduction to the Chakra system
  • The Principles of Kabbalah
  • Prophesy: Book of Revelation

Those last three should at least be in the World of Supernatural section.

I found it shocking that a reputable educational institution would be offering such courses and I fired off an email to them telling them so. A quote from my email:

How is this educating people? Half of these courses are faith based and seem to be more like worship sessions than serious classes. The other half are pseudo-science and quackery. You even bracket most of them under “The World of the Supernatural”. Is this serious education or just a way for you to make a quick buck out of the gullible?

Here is the complete response I received:

Vanier College is a recognized reputable educational institution and the Continuing Education department has successfully offered different types of courses for many years. As you probably noticed, we offer a wide range of Credit courses for the academically focused students. We also have a selection of LifeSkills courses for those individuals who may wish to pursue other avenues of learning and discovery. Both our Credit and LifeSkills courses have run successfully for many years.

As this reply did not address the points I raised, I replied explaining that I would publish our exchange on my website and forward it to James Randi. I also suggested they might be interested in claiming his million dollar prize. So far I’ve had no further response.

I don’t hold out much hope of colleges like Vanier dropping the quackery courses, as there is obviously a demand for them. The challenge for skeptics everywhere is to reduce that demand so such courses are no longer financially viable. Sometimes it feels like a losing battle, then Randi publishes an email from someone who became less credulous or a snake oil salesman gets prosecuted and suddenly things don’t seem so bad.

Lesson updates

Skeptics CircleWith the Cult of the “Christian” Right clamouring for creationism intelligent design to be taught in school biology classes, I figure the rest of the curriculum needs a radical shakeup too:

History

With the bible being a historically accurate record of the history of the universe, this obviously casts doubt on theories such as the stone, bronze and iron ages of man. These should be replaced with detailed analysis of the great flood and that whole parting of the Red Sea event. Also, for some reason, the word of God stopped being written down about 20 centuries ago, so until the bible is officially updated, all modern history will be ignored.

Geography

The bible states quite categorically that the Earth is a “circle”, and of course, circles are flat, so this whole globe theory has to go. Obviously, unknown currents are driving us around the circle making it seem like we’re on a globe. Alternative maps will be provided.

Chemistry

Experiments to investigate transubstantiation will be added to the syllabus, as well as possible theories for how human bodies can suddenly turn into salt.

Physics

The big bang, aerodynamics, and gravity are all “just theories”, so biblical alternatives must be provided. Seven day creation, the marionette theory of flight, and intelligent falling will be offered as alternatives.

Language

The word of God was written in Aramaic, Hebrew or Greek (depends who you talk to, but we’ll just gloss over that), so these will be the only three languages taught in our schools. All lessons will be held in Hebrew.

Art

The bible has no pictures, so art isn’t allowed.

Physical Education

To be added to the syllabus: Wooden cross carrying; walking on water attempts; “active” praying; stoning practice.

Sex Education

Sex is a sin, don’t do it. Filthy children.

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.

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”.