David Morris, writing in the Alternet, describes the reality of religious faith:
…when it comes to organized religion, no burden of proof is required. On the contrary, by definition, religion requires faith and faith renounces evidence. Taking a proposition "on faith" means to consciously and willfully refuse to examine the facts.
And that is one of the basic problems I have with religion.
Morris goes on to suggest we replace the word “faith” with “superstition”, and asks us to examine a statement by George W. Bush in this light:
I believe in the power of superstition in people's lives. Our government should not fear programs that exist because a church or a synagogue or a mosque has decided to start one. We should not discriminate against programs based upon superstition in America. We should enable them to access federal money, because superstition-based programs can change people's lives, and America will be better off for it.
I have already replaced “religion” in my lexicon with “fairy tale” (as in “what fairy tale are you?” or “what fairy tale do you believe in?"), and replaced “bible” with “book of fairy tales”. Replacing “faith” with “superstition” does seem to be the next logical step.
The World Health Organization estimates that Vitamin A deficiency causes 500,000 cases of child blindness a year, and 6,000 deaths. Five years ago, it was claimed that genetic engineering could help solve this problem with “Golden Rice” – so called because of its color, produced by the beta carotene engineered into it. Beta carotene is a precursor to Vitamin A.
Critics claimed there was not enough beta carotene in Golden Rice to make it viable – some claimed you would have to eat several pounds of the stuff daily, for it to do any good. While they probably exaggerated the problems, it did look to me as though the benefits of Golden Rice were overstated. However, I could never quite figure why the anti-GM group got so angry about Golden Rice. OK, so perhaps it wasn’t the solution, but that’s hardly a reason to use Golden Rice as proof that GM foods were evil and would result in ruin for the world. (I exaggerate, but not by much.) I always said, Golden Rice was a new technology – future versions might have enough beta carotene in it.
Well, the future is here:
British scientists have developed a genetically modified strain of rice they believe could combat childhood blindness and prevent deaths due to vitamin A deficiency.
The plant is an improved version of "golden rice", a GM crop released five years ago that is enriched in beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A.
The release of golden rice met with widespread criticism from anti-GM groups, which claimed it did not contain enough beta-carotene to have any beneficial effect.
The new strain, golden rice 2, contains more than 20 times the amount of beta-carotene in its predecessor, or enough to provide 100% of the recommended dietary allowance of vitamin A from just 70g of rice, according to its developers.
And they’re giving it away free.
I still don’t know if it’s the answer. Someone said that just eating a carrot a day would give as much beta carotene. Maybe it would. But would they all eat that carrot daily? Perhaps they’d be more likely to eat the rice? I say it’s worth a try.
I expect the anti-GM crowd will still use Golden Rice as part of the reasoning to ban all GM foods. I hope they prove me wrong.
A thorough analysis of the Koran reveals that the US will cease to exist in the year 2007, according to research published by Palestinian scholar Ziad Silwadi.
The study, which has caught the attention of millions of Muslims worldwide, is based on in-depth interpretations of various verses in the Koran. It predicts that the US will be hit by a tsunami larger than that which recently struck southeast Asia.
There you have it – a definite date. (Well, year.) Remember that on 01.01.08 as you’re ringing in the happy New Year.
Of course, this particular “prophet” will have his excuses and rationalizations for why Armageddon didn’t arrive (although he will hope no one remembers by then). They all do. Remember this nut job who, two years ago, told us Planet X was going to destroy the world? Did she admit she was wrong? Don’t make me laugh. She wasn’t the only one though. Get a load of these: hundreds of failed prophesies from 2800 BC to the present day.
The big one in NewAge (rhymes with sewage) circles is 2012 – the supposed end of the Mayan calendar (which it isn’t). Anyway, there’s hardly a kook in town who doesn’t think something bad is going to happen then. And we’ve got seven more years of listening to them banging on about it. By 2007 I might be wishing for that tsunami.
Once again, I had to change the headline. The BBC headline says: Acupuncture ‘cuts blood pressure’. I added a "does not" because their article says:
Acupuncture combined with electronic stimulation can lower high blood pressure, US researchers say.
Get that? Acupuncture combined with electronic stimulation. Later the article says:
When the acupuncture was applied on its own, it had no effect on blood pressure.
OK, lets get something straight here. Acupuncture is the manipulation of “qi” (oddly, pronounced “Chi”) by inserting needles at key points in 12 “meridians”. That's what it is. So despite what these testers have arbitrarily decided to call it, running electrical current through needles is not acupuncture. The ancient Chinese, who supposedly dreamed all this up, had no clue what electricity was, and so certainly had no idea it might be used therapeutically.
Unfortunately, proponents of acupuncture (remember, that’s the thing with the “qi” and the magic needles), will falsely claim this study shows acupuncture works. It doesn’t, since they specifically say: when the acupuncture was applied on its own, it had no effect on blood pressure..
Furthermore, I note that Dr Longhurst of the study team said:
…acupuncture triggered the release of chemicals in the brain that in turn dampened the response of the cardiovascular system.
As I wrote before, this is just an assumption. He can’t possibly know this from the study, the way it is described in the BBC article.
The real conclusion of this study is that acupuncture is not even a placebo.
It seems Tom Cruise is pushing his Scientology beliefs more and more these days, including on his current film set where:
Cruise had sponsored a "Scientology tent," offering what his spokeswoman, Lee Anne De Vette, called "assists" - a kind of massage administered by volunteer ministers - along with religious literature
But Ms. De Vette, who is Mr. Cruise's sister, said he had been inviting colleagues to learn more about his religion in order to combat what he viewed as prejudice against a group that some critics have branded an exploitative cult.
"It's lack of understanding that breeds bigotry," said Ms. De Vette
Well, I hate bigotry, and if that bigotry is the result of a lack of understanding I feel I should do something about it. So I offer information on Scientology from Operation Clambake, specifically the Xenu Leaflet. Read the full leaflet (and the Clambake site), to see how crazy Scientology really is, but here are the key points:
Scientology has been described as a "Bait-and-Switch" fraud. This has a definite meaning in US law. It describes a fraud where a person is seemingly sold one thing only to find out that it is another and more expensive thing and so they pay more than they would have paid had they known what it was all about. Scientology is the definitive example of this. It starts out with Dianetics, a supposed science of the mind that will greatly improve a person’s thinking and health at a seemingly reasonable cost. People are attracted in, they receive some Dianetic processing only to be told that it only works on a few people and so to benefit they must receive the very expensive Scientology auditing instead at $200 per hour. This they do and reach the dubious state called Clear only to be told that they are then "at risk" and must move at all speed to the more advanced level of OT III, parting with thousands of dollars all the while. When they reach OT III a great secret is told them. That is that they are full of the souls of space aliens murdered 75 million years ago and to achieve spiritual benefits they must pay to have them removed. The processing at this level costs $400 per hour. The whole of the Scientology religion is a continuous bait-and-switch fraud with the whole purpose of extracting the maximum amount of money from people.
Now go back and read how Cruise’s tent will offer “assists” for free. (As with those mythical drug dealers, the first hit is always free.) Note the “along with religious literature” comment – that’s the “Dianetics”.
The leaflet goes on to tell of:
the alien galactic ruler Xenu who was in charge of Earth and 75 other planets in this part of the galaxy some 75 million years ago and how he cured overpopulation by paralysing the people of the other planets, flying them to Earth in DC-8 space planes, arranging them round a volcano to murder them with H bombs. Not done with that these souls of these murdered people were gathered up and boxed, taken to cinemas and shown films for several days. The end result being that the souls clustered together and now inhabit people in their thousands. And of course they must be removed at huge expense.
And you thought homeopathy made no sense.
How do they get people to believe in this crap? The short answer is, in small steps. Each step requires you to believe just a small thing. You accept the first thing and then you are asked to believe another small thing. Plus, if the technology helps you then it’s working, but if it doesn’t help this means you have a problem (not the Scientology), a problem that only more Scientology can fix. (Can you say, un-falsifiable?) Before you know it, you believe a whole load of unbelievable crap. Or, as one ex-Scientologist writes:
If you watch the hour hand of the clock, can you see it move? I escaped from the cult when one day I noticed that although I didn’t see the hour hand move from midday, it was now 6pm! Simply put, I woke up and compared then with now.
Scientology is a half-baked mix of discredited psychotherapy and regression therapy, idiotic and simplistic rules and bad science fiction presented as profound spiritual truth. It was made-up by L. Ron Hubbard (“El Ron”), in the 1950s. It claims to be science-based, but in reality it is the opposite. Science is evidence based, allows dissent, and requires different scientists to check each other’s work. Scientology allows no dissent from the writings of El Ron. He was the one and only “scientist”, his word is law, and since he is now dead nothing new can ever be learned, nothing can ever be discarded. The problems with this should be obvious.
See the celebrities who follow it. Makes you wish for more Kabbalah. Almost.
One of the excuses for why there is only weak evidence for psi, is that psi is claimed to be a weak signal, not strong and reliable like, say, a telephone or a radio. This is supposedly the reason why parapsychological experiments only show small anomalies that need complex statistical sampling and meta studies to reveal. It’s supposedly the reason Zener cards and similar forced choice experiments don’t work as well as free response tests where the subject writes down or draws their impressions, and a judge has to determine if the “psychic” has scored a hit or not.
It’s true that some signals are weak and unreliable, so I thought it would be useful to compare psi with a real weak signal, and to see how real scientists deal with the problem. Discover Magazine (you’ll need a subscription), describes a relevant problem with the recent Huygens mission to Saturn’s moon, Titan.
Huygens was designed to land on Titan and transmit signals back via the Cassini orbiter. Huygens transmitted signals through two radio channels, A and B. These were very weak signals which would need to be picked up by the close-by Cassini spacecraft, amplified, and broadcast home via Cassini’s large antenna. The problem was, someone had forgotten to tell Cassini to listen to both channels. Cassini was only recording channel B. Channel A was just leaking away into space. Unfortunately, some experiments were only transmitted on channel A, a key experiment being one to measure Titan’s winds:
The concept behind that experiment was beautifully simple: Beam a signal to Cassini, which would record subtle radio distortion caused by winds blowing around Titan. By analyzing that distortion, researchers could reconstruct Titan’s weather patterns. The experiment relied entirely on channel A.
With no way to recover this weak signal from Huygens, the experiment could have been lost. Fortunately, since the launch of the spacecraft in 1997, the sensitivity of radio telescopes on Earth had improved. The scientists got 17 radio dishes around the globe to listen in to the signal. The result was a success:
“We will recover 100 percent of the mission goals, with the same science outcome.” As proof, he showed a crisp plot of the signal as received by the Parkes and Mopra dishes in Australia and by the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. Early results show Titan’s high-altitude winds bluster westerly at 250 miles per hour. By summer Gurvits expects to have a map of wind patterns accurate to about two miles per hour—all extracted from a two-watt signal that originated nearly a billion miles away.
That’s how real science works: improved technology enables even a weak two watt signal to be decoded from a billion miles away, to give reliable, useful data. Compare that with parapsychology: weak supposed “signals” that do not improve with better technology, but tend to disappear when experimental controls are tightened, with no useful or reliable data ever produced. In fact, no use that I can think of has ever been made of “psychic” data. The obvious conclusion is that psi is not a weak signal, it is no signal. If you’re a real scientist, anyway. Not if you’re a parapsychologist.
I came upon an article by Loyd Auerbach entitled RANDI’S CHALLENGE - A Big “So What!” (sic). (Now you see.) Auerbach was someone I’d previously only heard of as a “ghost hunter”. He’s one of these people who as I recall sets up electromagnetic detection devices in “haunted” sites and when he records some “anomaly”, claims he’s detected a ghost. Idiot. Anyway, he’s been bagging on Randi’s million dollar challenge, and he thinks he’s discovered a killer argument to put it down, and cover the fact that no one has been able to claim it. He asks a straw man skeptic: if a psychic won the million, would it “prove” the paranormal is true? I’ll quote a couple of lines from his article:
If someone won Randi's million dollars, would YOU accept that psychic abilities are real? Or even just possible?" I asked.
"Huh?" said the Skeptic.
"Would mainstream Science accept the probability of psi, if not the reality, if some psychic won Randi's million?" I asked.
"Uh-uh-huh?" said the Skeptic.
"Would the organized Skeptics accept that psi is real, or would they be more likely to believe that Randi was simply fooled, scammed out of his million? Would you?" I asked.
He concludes that since this made-up skeptic would still not believe in the paranormal, the challenge is a waste of time.
It is, frankly, mind-boggling that someone who claims he is "an adjunct Professor at JFK University" and "holds a degree in Cultural Anthropology… and a graduate degree in Parapsychology", could spout such monumental stupidity. Although his obvious misunderstanding of the scientific method might help explain the abysmal nature of parapsychological research.
I’ll explain. The answer to Auerbach’s question is: no, if someone won Randi’s million it would not prove they were psychic. The reason, as any science undergraduate (let alone an “adjunct Professor”), should know, is that one experiment never proves anything. Experiments have to be repeated, preferably using different methods. Certainly they need to be replicated by others. Many times. More importantly, science doesn’t attempt to prove things true; it tries to falsify things – prove them wrong. The principle of falsification is incorporated into the scientific method due to the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent:
Any argument of the following form is invalid:
If A then B
B, Therefore, A
If I am in Calgary, then I am in Alberta. I am in Alberta, thus, I am in Calgary. (Of course, even though the premises are true, I might be in Edmonton, Alberta.)
Or as Auerbach would have it:
Do you see the fallacy? If someone wins the million, there could be several other reasons to explain why, apart from being psychic. Pure luck or cheating are just two of the obvious explanations. But what Auerbach is missing is the first part: if psychics were real they would win Randi’s million. And yet no one has. Randi’s challenge will never prove psychics real. But each time they fail (or refuse to take the test because they know they would fail), they prove psychics are not real. (Technically, the hypothesis that psychics are real is falsified. Many times. And in science, when a hypothesis is falsified enough times, you eventually decide it is probably false.)
This is the basic problem with parapsychological research – the sort of stuff Auerbach wastes his time on. They are trying to prove the paranormal true by finding things that they think they would see if the paranormal were true. But there are many other reasons to explain the results of parapsychology that don’t require us to believe in psychics. Their problem is they have no theory to falsify. This isn’t science. In Auerbach’s own words (punctuation corrected), parapsychology is not a benchmark for science... Why should we care?
That’s what my sister told me in response to my astrology fails tests piece - “I’m a typical Gemini”. Well, of course you are. So am I. I’m a typical Gemini too. So I’m told.
People try to guess your star sign, and with me they often start with Gemini, because I have two or more distinct “sides” to my personality, or something. If I was Gemini, people would say, there, that shows astrology works, because you’re a typical Gemini. But I’m not Gemini, so they don’t say that.
The next guess is usually Virgo, because my place is pretty clean and tidy, well organized etc. If I was Virgo, people would say, there, that shows astrology works, because you’re a typical Virgo. But I’m not Virgo, so they don’t say that.
People have guessed Leo, because I can be a bit arrogant occasionally. (I know, hard to believe reading this blog, but that’s what some say). Or it might be Sagittarius, because I can be blunt to the point of upsetting someone (ditto). Sagittarius upset people without realizing it, but Scorpio upset people and they know they are doing it – they just don’t care or even want to have that effect. Either of these can describe me on occasion, and I have had both Sagittarius and Scorpio guesses. Of course, if I were a Leo (or Sagittarius or Scorpio), people would say, there, that shows astrology works, because you’re a typical Leo (or Sagittarius or Scorpio). But I’m not any of these either, so they don’t say that.
Eventually they give up and I tell them I’m Libra. They always say, of course! You’re artistic, intelligent, good at business etc etc – a typical Libra. This always comes after I have told them which sign I am.
Someone who believed in astrology would take that as confirmation that astrology works – I have Libra characteristics, I’m a Libra, so astrology works. They selectively remember the hits (Libra characteristics I have), and ignore the misses (characteristics of Gemini, Leo etc etc that I have). They also ignore other misses – characteristics of Libra I don’t have. Easy to do when the rules are ambiguous and open to interpretation.
And if the sun sign doesn’t fit they can bring in the position of the Moon and any number of planets at the time of birth. If you can’t make something fit with all those variables you’re really not trying.
OK, I changed the headline. The actual headline on the BBC article was “Acupuncture – pregnancy pain cure”. But considering there were no controls for placebo, I think my headline is more accurate. (Full study .pdf)
First, a reminder of what acupuncture is, from Bob Park:
Here's the picture: a few thousand years before it was known that blood circulates or germs cause disease, doctors who had never dissected a frog, claimed that yin and yang could be balanced by inserting needles into the right points, among the hundreds of points strung along 12 meridians. They called it "acupuncture," from the Latin acus, needle and punctus, prick. Which is odd, because they were Chinese. But if they figured out acupuncture, they must have been smart enough to learn Latin. Scientists today can't even find the meridians.
Nor, might I add, have they ever been able to detect the “qi” (pronounced “chi”), that supposedly runs through these “meridians. (As an aside, why is it pronounced “chi” but written as “qi”? Surely the Chinese wrote in Chinese characters so why can’t we just write “chi”? Oh never mind.)
NCCAM states that the body has more than 2,000 acupuncture points; the ones you use depend on the illness you are trying to fix. How did the ancient Chinese figure all this out? They didn’t, they made it up, just like medieval European doctors with their four “humors”. We now know that “humors” don’t exist; the only mystery is why people still believe in “qi”. The trouble for acupuncture is that studies show it doesn’t matter where you stick the needles. What does matter is that the
victim patient believes you are sticking them in the right place. In other words, if acupuncture works at all, it is not by releasing blocked “qi” at the correct specific points (out of 2,000), on a “meridian”. Most studies conclude acupuncture doesn’t work or if it does it is a placebo. So you’d think a new study would control for placebo. Think again.
This is a description of the study, from the BBC article:
The team studied the effect of three six-week treatment programmes on 386 pregnant women suffering from pelvic girdle pain, which it is thought is caused by hormones affecting ligaments and muscles.
One group were given a standard home exercise routine, a second received the exercise routine and acupuncture, while the third had a specialised exercise regime aimed at improving mobility and strength.
No attempt was made at sham acupuncture to control for placebo. Why not? It’s not as if this is a new idea, many studies have been done with this procedure. It’s inexcusable. As is the additional comment:
Pregnant women should be avoiding drugs so acupuncture, which releases the bodies natural painkillers, should be of benefit.
I presume by this he meant the idea that acupuncture might work by releasing endorphins. Well firstly, that’s not acupuncture. (Remember, acupuncture is the magic thingy with the “qi” and the “meridians”.) Secondly, I’m not aware of any studies that have actually shown that acupuncture, if it works, does so by releasing endorphins - it’s just an assumption. I’d be prepared to accept “releasing endorphins” as a possibility. But it’s a bit much to state it as a fact. (And there are easier and less invasive ways to release endorphins than by sticking needles in people.)
In truth, acupuncture only works for subjective things such as pain and nausea. And even then, if it works, it is probably due to the usual reasons people think alternative therapies work. Namely, placebo, misdirection (the needle makes you forget the other pain), the cyclical nature of the illness (it goes away by itself), incorrect diagnosis to start with, temporary mood improvements due to the personal nature of the treatment, psychological investment of the patient in the success of the therapy and other medicines the patient is taking. And for acupuncture, possibly endorphins.
Mind you, “placebo, misdirection, cyclical nature of the illness, incorrect diagnosis to start with, temporary mood improvements due to the nature of the treatment, psychological investment of the patient in the therapy, other medicines the patient is taking and possibly endorphins - pregnancy pain cure” would be too long for a headline. I’ll stick with my original.
This is from the “I wish I’d said that” file. James Randi in his column yesterday reports that the Archbishop of Genoa is advising people not to read “The Da Vinci Code” because (and I’m not making this up):
There is a very real risk that many people who read it will believe that the fables it contains are true.
…sees no conflict in the fact that a very much more popular book — also written with a background of actual historical characters and places — has similarly attracted a huge number of persons who have chosen to accept and embrace the conviction that its contents are not fables, but factual.
Critics … warn that without appropriate parental guidance, reading the Bible may make children unable to enjoy quality children’s literature. “Enjoying books such as Harry Potter or the Narnia series requires the ability to suspend disbelief... When children are taught that the Bible is absolutely literally true, and that a story like Noah’s Ark actually happened, the imagination is completely stifled – it’s very detrimental.”
(More at the link.)
With his obvious passion for the truth, the Archbishop will want to stick them on any Da Vinci Codes or Bibles he happens to see lying around.
That was the question I was asked: how would you prove to a blind man, that photography exists?
I knew what he was getting at. We had been discussing psychics. He was a firm believer in psychic powers, had had psychic experiences, and regularly visited a psychic. His point was, since I had not experienced psychic powers, I would never be able to believe in what he “knew” to be true. You could never prove to a blind man that photography exists, and likewise no one would ever be able to demonstrate to me that psychic powers were real.
It took me about ten seconds to think of a way to show he was wrong. This is what I said. Give the blind man a camera, a tripod and a remote shutter release. (Ideally the camera is a Polaroid, or a digital with an instant picture facility.) Everyone leaves the room but the blind man. He takes a picture of himself, and holds up a number of fingers (1 to 5) at random. The sighted person comes back into the room, looks at the picture and says “you were holding up X fingers”. If he gets the right number, and continues to do so every time this experiment is performed, the blind man will eventually conclude that photography is real. Technically, he will conclude the hypothesis that “a camera can record a visual image”, might be true.
He will want to repeat the experiment with different rooms and different sighted people. He will want to tighten his controls to make sure no one can see through the window or the keyhole. He will want other blind friends of his to do the same experiment successfully. But essentially, he will be convinced by this method.
The believer went quiet. (It must be annoying when your analogy is turned against you.) But I decided to push it further. I wanted to ask him some questions.
My first question was, if you did this 1,000 times, and the sighted person got the correct number of fingers (say) 225 times out of 1,000 (where pure chance would be 200 times), would the blind man believe that this “anomaly” was proof of photography? Wouldn’t he expect nearly 1,000 correct out of 1,000? What if when the controls were tightened, the result was reduced to close to 200 correct – pure chance? What if the sighted person was found to have cheated?
What if the blind man had to do a drawing and hold it up in front of the camera, instead of his fingers? The sighted person had to write down what he thought the drawing was of, and then a judge got to grade the description based on the photograph of the drawing? Say the blind man drew a circle and the sighted person thought it was a tree, and the judge rated that 7 out of 10 because a tree is roughly circular? Would the blind man be convinced?
What if the blind man had to select one drawing from four “targets” and hold it up in front of the camera, instead of his fingers? The sighted person is shown the four targets and asked to rate the degree to which each matches the one in the photograph. If the sighted person assigns the highest rating to the correct target, it is scored as a "hit." If the sighted person gets a hit, say 35% of the time (when chance would predict 25%), would the blind man be convinced? What if the person running the experiment was in the room when the photo was taken, and prompted the sighted person during the judging process - would the blind man be convinced then? What if numerous other experimental errors were noted?
What if a scientific body spent 25 years researching whether sighted people could guess how many fingers blind people were holding up in front of a camera, but concluded that there is ultimately very little, if any data that support the hypothesis that they can?
What if a conjuror offered one million dollars for any sighted person who could successfully perform the five finger test, but no one was able to do it?
Wouldn’t the blind man say to all this, “why can’t you just tell me how many fingers I’m holding up?”
The guy didn’t want to answer. He conceded his analogy was about me not having had a psychic experience. But apparently the analogy didn’t apply if I turned it around to his beliefs.
And they say skeptics are closed minded.
See my post Pretty Soon for a lighthearted look at the history of parapsychology.
Check out the fourth edition of the Skeptics' Circle — “a blog carnival aimed at gathering the best skeptical writing from around the blogosphere into a handy bi-weekly digest”, hosted this week by the excellent Two Percent Company.
Skeptico modestly points out some of his posts are featured (blush).
You may have seen the NBC TV program “Medium”, starring Patricia Arquette as a psychic detective who helps police solve crimes. The program is based on the supposedly true story of Allison DuBois, who claims to have a backlog of 200 murder cases she is working on. (Why a backlog? If she’s psychic why doesn’t she just tell the police the names of the 200 murderers? OK, rhetorical question.)
The people at the excellent “Two Percent Company” blog are devoting this whole week to examining, as they put it, the dubious claims of Allison DuBois. This is a subject that is well worth investigating, and based on the first two days information I highly recommend reading it each day this week.
I don’t want to comment specifically on DuBois – I’ll leave that to Two Percent Company. But as a general comment, there is no good evidence that psychics have ever helped police solve crimes. In fact, the evidence is that so-called psychics, with their made-up tips, waste police time, hinder investigations and ultimately torment the parents of missing children with false hopes that are later dashed.
For example, when Chandra Levy went missing, detectives on the case received numerous tips from psychics, none useful. In an interview with the Washington Post, Executive Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer said:
The psychic ones, frankly, I don't think we give much credence to. I don't mean to start a war with all the psychics, but they haven't proven very useful… You (sic) got 100 different psychics, and they've got 100 different places. They've got her in a cave. Some have her in Nevada. Some have her in water. How can all these psychic radars be all over the country? Who's right?
Another person unimpressed with psychics is Mark Klaas. His 12 year old daughter Polly was tragically kidnapped and murdered in 1993. He naturally has very strong opinions about the “psychics” who called in with their tips, and writes on his KlaasKids Foundation webpage:
In truth, that psychic detectives contribution to the case was counter productive. As always seems to be the case with psychic predictions, her interference created distraction. Law enforcement resources are diverted toward useless endeavors as phantom leads disappear into thin air. One cold and dark November evening many of us were lurking around somebody’s property because the psychic said that it held the key to my daughter’s disappearance. With the heightened sense of paranoia that already existed in the community that property owner would have been well within his rights to blow us away on the spot for trespassing. We were very fortunate that night, because although he did angrily confront us, he had absolutely nothing to do with the crime we were investigating.
In the end, and despite their protests, there is not even one case of a psychic truly assisting or solving a missing child case. It’s just smoke and mirrors. Their references do not support their claims and law enforcement cannot acknowledge their existence. Instead, their wishful thinking collides with your desperate hope and leaves you diminished.
There are many more examples.
These so-called “psychics” are not harmless. They waste police time that could be better spent on activities of the kind that have been shown to work. Unfortunately this NBC program will probably make matters worse, as another generation of creduloids have their silly beliefs validated.
On the bright side, DuBois is better looking than Sylvia Browne. Not that that’s saying much.
Check out this week’s “Grand Rounds” - the weekly roundup of the best posts of the medical blogosphere. This week it is being hosted by the awesome Respectful Insolence (a.k.a. "Orac Knows") blog. Skeptico is honored to have two of his posts selected to be included alongside those of actual (cough) doctors (which Skeptico is not).
Great job, Orac.
Here’s my challenge to proponents of astrology: show me how those ancient people figured it all out. You know, all those detailed rules, and charts you use. I’m not talking about the astronomical data – where the sun and planets were at given times. I’m talking about the meaning given by astrologers to the astronomical data: how did they ever work out which specific astrological aspect affected which personality characteristic and in what way? Because if they didn’t derive it somehow, they must have just made it up. And if they made it up, it’s very unlikely to be true. So my challenge to you is prove me wrong: show me it was not made up.
I’ll give you an idea of what I mean. If you want to know how we originally figured out any scientific fact, the information is available somewhere, and you can often repeat the experiment to test it for yourself. For example, if you want to know how Galileo knew that the planets orbit the Sun and not the Earth, you can read how he observed the phases of Venus through his telescope. What he saw was exactly what you would expect to see if Venus did orbit the Sun. If you have a decent amateur telescope you can confirm Galileo’s observations yourself.
Likewise, if you want to know how we first calculated the speed of light, you can read about Olaf Romer’s observations of Jupiter’s moons. Romer observed that when the Earth was farthest away from Jupiter, the innermost moon took 11 minutes longer before it reappeared from behind the planet, compared with when Earth was closest to Jupiter. He deduced that this additional time was due to the extra distance the light had to travel, and from this he calculated the speed of light. Again, you can confirm these measurements if you want to, although the speed of light has also been confirmed many other ways since then (all documented).
And if you want to know how Eratosthenes figured out the circumference of the Earth in 205 BC, even that information is available. (He measured the differing lengths of shadows at midday, at different latitudes. )
Every scientific fact, from how Maxwell derived his famous equations to how we know about the strange behavior of the quantum world, was derived from observation and experiment. It’s all recorded somewhere, it can all be checked, and nothing is known by magic. No accepted knowledge was simply “made up” because it sounded right; we always know how it was derived and tested. Where is the equivalent body of knowledge for astrology?
Any cursory study of astrology will reveal a host of detailed charts, tables and rules to be followed to determine what makes up a person’s personality. The National Council for Geocosmic Research, a “non-profit organization dedicated to raising the standards of astrological education and research” (the same people who brought you the double blind test that astrology failed), have a Research Director who is “here to support you in your astrological research efforts”. Their “research” page even has a free program called NeuroNet, that you can download to help you look for correlations between astrological aspects and personality traits. (Of course, correlation is not causation, and from a brief look at their data, their research doesn’t show anything like what they think it shows, but let’s ignore that for now.) The manual for this program states:
Before the computer era, it was impossible to make proper statistical researches
Note, not difficult: impossible. So how did the Babylonians, 3500 years ago, and those that followed, do the impossible?
I have posed that question to many believers in astrology. They usually refer to “ancient texts”, but no one has yet been able to produce references to such documents. One person sent me the history of astrology by Robert Hand, but this just tells us how ancient texts were translated, and how one set of myths was incorporated into another. It tells us nothing about how it was derived. Another person told me the ancients must have carried out large scale personality tests and correlated them to the zodiac. The idea of the ancient Babylonians conducting some kind of massive personality survey is patently absurd, but even if we play along with the idea, still no one can show me the data. Face it, they don’t exist.
Of course, we have a pretty good idea how astrology really started. The ancient peoples didn’t know what those stars and planets up in the sky really were; they just saw pictures in the sky (constellations), and imagined them to be real – messages or omens from the gods. They thought that if you were born under the sign of, say, the lion, you would have characteristics of the lion. They thought the same for the other pictures in the sky, and for the planets that they named for gods. This method of thinking is extremely primitive. It’s the same principle as voodoo: stick a pin in the voodoo doll’s stomach, and the victim feels pains in his stomach. Do it to the doll and the same is done to the person. It is known as sympathetic magic. Sympathetic, because the stomach of the person feels the same as the stomach of the doll. And magic, because there is no known way that this would ever work. It is, of course, nonsense.
And that is how the detailed rules of astrology were written and added to over the centuries. Supposed characteristics of one of the pictures in the sky are assigned to a person, depending on where the Sun, Moon or planets were in relation to the magic picture at the time of birth. But it was never derived from factual data; it was made up fairy-tale fashion. And if it was made up, it is highly unlikely to be true. At the very least, astrology’s doubtful provenance means we would need extraordinary evidence that it works, before we should accept it does. But we are only offered weak evidence. And when tested, astrology fails again and again.
So my challenge to believers in astrology is: prove me wrong. Show me how the ancient peoples worked out all those detailed rules that you use. And please show your work.
Alternatively, if you can’t show how it was derived, isn’t it about time you admitted that it’s just a load of made-up nonsense?
You can answer by hitting the “comments” button below.
Before commenting, you should read the replies to this question by three astrologers. They were:
Penny Thornton, and
Click the links above for their individual detailed replies and my comments. Also see my summary of their replies and my conclusions.
Since many people are apparently having trouble understanding what this thread is all about, I thought I would try to spell it out one more time:
This thread was set up to challenge proponents of astrology to explain how all the detailed astrological rules were derived. I am leaving the comments section below open for anyone to post their explanations, or links to same.
Take note: the comments section below is not open for people to post how hard it is to do this, how astrology works for you, how skeptics are closed-minded, how it doesn’t matter if astrology is real or not, or any other drivel you care to write. If you want to whine about these things get your own blog.
Post details of how astrology was derived, showing all your work, or do not post at all. Posts that violate these rules will be summarily deleted.
The BBC has an item today, in pictures, on quack medicine. About time. So I looked at the pictures of the instruments relating to the quack cures – bloodletting, electric shocks (yes, you are supposed to try this at home), leeches etc. All well and good. But it seemed to me that some things were missing. For example, where were the pictures of the homeopathic pills, acupuncture needles, and ayurvedic medicines? Where were the references to chiropractic and “subluxations”? Where were the therapeutic touch or reiki practitioners, the naturopaths etc? Then I got it. These were just the quack cures of the nineteenth century and prior. The quack cures of today weren’t there.
I’m trying to imagine the arguments made about whether these old quack cures worked, and the justifications for say, leeching or bloodletting, that must have been given. “It’s rather closed minded of you to dismiss leeching, science doesn’t know everything, leeching can’t be tested, it’s been around for centuries, it worked for me - my cold went away in a week after I was leeched” etc etc. The only thing they wouldn’t have been able to misinterpret to back up their claims, would be quantum mechanics – “there is now scientific evidence that the consciousness of the leech interacts with the diseased blood molecules at the quantum level to blah blah blah” - but only because it hadn’t been discovered then.
The alt.med pushers of today are the leeching and bloodletting proponents of yesteryear. And with their dogged refusal to test their therapies to see if they actually work, they are about as likely to produce anything useful as the quacks who insisted bloodletting worked. Only an open minded examination of the efficacy of therapies – open minded enough to accept they might not work – will result in the discovery of new effective treatments. Louis Pasteur (who didn’t recant on his deathbed, by the way), didn’t discover germ theory by refusing to test his theories or by wittering on about what the ancient peoples knew or about how science doesn’t know everything.
Don’t be so closed-minded – it’s time for your bloodletting.
A San Francisco rant.
that someone own a building for five years before he or she can … go out of the business of being a landlord.
In San Francisco, the Ellis Act is generally used by real estate speculators to evict all the renters in a building so that it can be sold to individual buyers as a tenancy in common. In the case of two- and three-unit buildings, for instance, that means two or three people jointly owning a property that each can then occupy a unit in. Later the buyers enter the condo-conversion lottery in order to become owners of their units.
I’ll translate that for those not familiar with the surreal, upside-down economics of San Francisco. This is a government run lottery for property owners. The prize is to be allowed to live in your own property and / or be able to sell it if you want, and not have to rent it out under rent-control. You read that correctly: some property owners in San Francisco have to enter a lottery to see if they are allowed to stop renting out their property to rent-control tenants. And they wonder why rents are high in San Francisco. Jeez, you’d think people would be lining up to buy properties to rent out at rents decided by the government for as long as the government decides you should do so.
And the paper knows who the bad guys are: it’s the “greedy individuals (who) are also gentrifying neighborhoods and destroying race and class diversity”. Wow. So running any kind of property business, or just wanting a home of your own, is “greedy”. Thanks for clearing that up.
And it also knows who the victims are: it’s the “displaced tenants – in many instances seniors, people of color, people with AIDS, or working-class folks – (who) have to shuffle for a new place in a market where the rents are still immorally high.” Of course – renters should have the same rights and privileges as property owners, but without all the pesky inconvenience of actually buying a property. (You know, finding the property, finding the money for the down-payment, qualifying for the loan, investing the time, paying the legal fees, buying the property, paying the property taxes, paying to insure and maintain the building, and taking the risks.) But, of course, they still shouldn’t have to pay those “immorally high” rents.
Property is expensive in San Francisco, and life is difficult for lower income people, seniors etc. But why is it the job of a small group of people – private property owners – to solve this problem out of their own pockets? Here’s an idea. Allow property owners to do what they want with their properties – rent them out or live in them, or leave them empty, whatever. Then abolish rent control so that more property owners are likely to want to rent their properties out. Standard economic theory would indicate that rents would then come down to something less “immoral”.
Ha! It’ll never happen. Alice in wonderland is alive in this city – black is white, up is down and the laws of supply and demand can be repealed just because the City government says so.
According to Health Canada, a recent study reported in JAMA showed that many Ayurvedic medicines contain high levels of lead, mercury and/or arsenic. One product was:
found to contain arsenic levels in excess of 40 times the maximum allowable concentration for drugs. Described by its labelling as a blood purifier used for skin diseases and as a treatment for digestive problems, SAFI is available as a liquid in a 200ml bottle and packaged in a lime green box, bearing a black and red label on both the front and back. Consumers are advised not to use this product.
Good advice. Of course, even many evidence based medicines can have bad effects, some unexpected. For example, critics will quote recent studies of Vioxx and similar drugs as evidence that western medicines can also be harmful. There is some truth in this. But western medicines, because they are evidence-based, are usually beneficial too, and so there is a risk / reward trade-off to be made.
With many alternatives such as Ayurvedic, there is no evidence that the treatment does any good, (and often evidence that it does no good), and so the risk has no balancing reward at all. Instead they offer:
a false hope based on an unscientific imagination seeped in mysticism and cheerily dispensed gibberish. Science is unnecessary to test Ayurvedic claims since "the masters of Ayurvedic medicine can determine an herb's medicinal qualities by simply looking at it
CBC News illustrates a basic problem:
Practitioners and followers believe the heavy metals in the products carry therapeutic value.
Western scientists say heavy metals pose a health risk because they accumulate in vital organs.
Alternatives, unlike real medicines, do not need to be tested for safety (or efficacy), and can be marketed in the US as long as it cannot be proved they are harmful. The problem with this should be obvious. Proponents of alternatives often promote the benign nature of their therapies as opposed to the supposed dangers of therapies that actually have been shown to work. Clearly they are often as wrong in this assertion as they are in their claims for the efficacy of their products.
I don’t normally open obvious junk mail, but one with the subject “Alternative remedy may help cancer” was irresistible. They are selling some crocodile extract pills called “the antidote”:
The Antidote is a unique Anti-Microbial Peptide offering the widest range of healing power on the market today. It kills all known deadly VIRUSES and BACTERIA in the body. The initial research was carried out over several years ago by the BBC.
The Peptide is a Protein Extract from Crocodylus Porusus, the largest living crocodile in existence and the most ancient living species on earth (over 20 million years old). A Peptide is a Natural Protein made up of Amino Acids strung together that destroy powerful viruses and bacteria by penetrating their membranes.
The Antidote have simply taken the crocodile’s best weapon against infection and made it functional for human application.
Get that? Kills "all known deadly VIRUSES and BACTERIA" Just the deadly bacteria, mind you, it leaves the good stuff alone. (Wow, how does it know?) It must be true though, because not only do they have testimonials, they also have “clinical trials” – with12 subjects. Oooh! No controls, but we don’t need no stinkin’ controls when we've got testimonials.
The interesting thing is, the url is "crocinamillion". Now, I think perhaps there is a little hyperbole involved here: I can’t really believe it really is a croc “in a million”. A croc in a thousand, maybe. However, I’m prepared to overlook the exaggeration. These people should at least be given some kudos: virtually all altie remedies are a croc, but at least these people are willing to admit it.
(Some days, this column just writes itself.)
“I’ve got yer antidote right ere. Come and get it.”
Following my review of Peter Jennings’ “Seeing is Believing” UFO special, I was pleased too see that James Randi broadly agreed with my assessment of the show. He gave it an "okay rating”, and congratulated ABC on “having called in adequate representation in the form of real scientists”.
Randi comments on how the eyewitnesses featured on the show were unshakeable in their certainty about what they'd reported, and unable to imagine that they could be mistaken. As a professional conjuror, Randi is an expert on how people are fooled, and how they fool themselves, and gave some examples from his own experience.
His first example was of his escape act from a sealed coffin in a swimming pool. The director of the TV show covering the stunt, afterwards recounted the episode, and described how Randi had been handcuffed and then tied into a straitjacket before being placed in the coffin. He specifically remembered the clicking of the handcuff ratchets, and the heaving actions of those who had strapped Randi into the jacket. However, Randi states that no straitjackets or handcuffs were ever involved in this stunt.
The director insisted his memory was correct, and to settle the dispute arranged a viewing of the actual film made of the stunt. Randi recounts:
Of course, no handcuffs nor straitjacket showed up. As we watched, (the director) became increasingly agitated, and was astonished that his memory could have played him so falsely, he being an experienced and intelligent observer. We finally worked out that he had recalled another set of appearances by me that he'd seen, and he'd melded them all together. It was very difficult for him to have to admit that he'd not only so badly mis-related the event, but had also persisted in his error despite the clear logic I'd offered him of the impossibility of his account. His faith that his memory truly represented the actual event had overwhelmed any common sense that he could have applied to the situation. Most importantly: if that kinescope of the show had not been available, he would have — I'm sure — continued to maintain his delusions. And the fact that he'd gladly agreed to view the film when I made the suggestion, showed his honest error in giving his account!
I can relate to that “melding of memories” phenomenon: it happened to me just over a year ago. Around midday one day, I walked into town, taking an unusual route under the freeway by the bus terminal – a route I had never taken before. I was surprised to find a hobbyist / professional camera store next to the greyhound terminal, right under the freeway. I remembered thinking it was in a bit of a dodgy area. I wandered in and took a quick look around.
A few months later, I needed to get some 35mm slide film, and so I went to where I remembered seeing the camera store. I found the greyhound terminal, but no camera store. I figured, maybe I had confused the street, maybe it was the next street, still under the freeway, and walked one street over. No luck. I spent about half an hour looking for this store. I then stopped to think carefully, and figured the route I must have taken home that day. I followed that route, and found the camera store. Here’s the thing: it was three streets over, and over 300 yards from the freeway underpass. Nowhere near the bus terminal. Nowhere near the freeway. Somehow I had melded the unfamiliar memories of the bus terminus with the unfamiliar memory of the camera shop. And the funny thing is, I still remember the camera store being under the freeway even now, although I know it’s not there. (I do also now remember where it really is, by the way.) If I hadn’t tried to find it again, I would still be sure it was under the freeway.
Of course, that’s just an anecdote. It doesn’t prove that those who swear they saw alien spacecraft had false memories. But it does show the imprecise nature of memories: they are not like a tape being played back. And unlike Randi’s film director, or me, the people who say they saw ETs have no chance to revisit what they saw, to check it out. They can not be sure if they had a false memory or not, and neither can anyone else, which is why their testimony is not considered to be good scientific data.
I am sure about my false memory, though. At least, I think I am.
It is idiot week on TV. I just heard Bill Maher (HBO) say that vaccines don’t prevent disease. Also, that Pasteur recanted on his deathbed. So what? Modern medicine relies on more recent studies than just Pasteur - his theories have been confirmed and improved upon, even if he did recant. But wait - he didn't recant. In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny: “what a maroon!”
Just look at this from UNICEF. The vaccine didn't have any effect on Polio, Bill? Really?
And what about measles, pertussis, smallpox… ?
It must be idiot week on the History Channel. A friend reminded me that as well as the two hour Nostradamus special (commented on yesterday), they also ran a feature on the Bible Code, the book by Michael Drosnin. This idea – the belief that secret messages and predictions are encoded in the Bible – is really just too stupid even for me to waste time debunking. I merely repeat the challenge made by the book’s author in 1997:
When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick, I'll believe them.
And report that the analysis of Moby Dick was indeed performed, and the predicted assassinations of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, as well as Rene Moawad, Leon Trotsky, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy were duly found. Nuff said.
The History Channel Monday night screened a two-hour special on Nostradamus – apparently it’s 500 years since he was born, or something. I suppose that is history, of a kind. The program was pretty bad. True, they did have Michael Shermer on to debunk a few of the interpretations. Penn & Teller too. But the skeptical portion was at most ten minutes out of a two hour show. The overall impression given was that Nostradamus really did predict the future. Which is pretty stupid because he did no such thing.
One of the things that set me on the skepticism road was Nostradamus. I first heard of him in the early 1970s, when his predictions began to be featured in several newspapers. I was fascinated by the idea, and decided to buy a book with all his prophesies, one by Erica Cheetham – a celebrated Nostradamus interpreter. It lists the entire ten “centuries”, in the original French, with English translations, and Cheetham’s interpretations. I remember being excited that I was going to know more than anyone else about these prophesies – I would be the expert, and couldn’t wait to read it.
As I read the book, it struck me that there was a big difference between Cheetham’s interpretations and what Nostradamus actually said. At least, I found it hard to see how the vague wording applied to the specific events ascribed to them. Sometimes I actually said out loud, “no he didn’t!” to one or another thing that Cheetham claimed Nostradamus meant. One of my favorites was 5:28, that Cheetham said was about the assassination of King Umberto of Italy in 1900. In Cheetham’s own words: “Nostradamus seems to imply that the assassin had his arm in a sling, which was not the case in this instance.” Then why does it predict the assassination of King Umberto of Italy in 1900?
I didn’t understand how it was that I didn’t get these predictions that everyone else seemed to be so sure about. It took me several years before I really accepted that Nostradamus didn’t predict anything, and that the books, newspapers, TV etc were just wrong. (I now know the media just goes with whatever is good for ratings.) But it’s obvious, really. Write up 942 vague four-line predictions, be sure to include plenty about war and pestilence, great leaders and armies rising and falling, natural disasters and the like, cover all known nations on Earth, use confusing symbolism, be as ambiguous as possible, wait 500 years, and many of your predictions will seem to have come true. Add bad translations from the French to English, and the huge liberties the interpreters allow themselves, and we’re off to the races. What finally did it for me was the realization that you couldn’t figure out any of Nostradamus’ so-called predictions until after the thing they were supposed to be predicting had actually happened. To me, that didn’t seem like much of a prediction. More of a post-diction, if that’s a word.
Still, I had to admit he made a couple of good guesses. He predicted the fire of London in 1666 (actually just 66 – but still good), and Hister is pretty close to Hitler. But, I figured, coincidence.
Then I read James Randi’s “the Mask of Nostradamus”, one of my recommended books. It’s a surprisingly interesting read, covering a lot of ground. Among other things, Randi examines the many predictions Nostradamus made for people during his lifetime. Included were some very rosy predictions for Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France, who wanted to know the fate of her children. He correctly said they would all be kings, but neglected to say that was because they would all die young, leaving no descendants. In fact, Nostradamus specifically predicted that Catherine’s son Charles, who would become Charles IX, would “live as long as (Milord Conetable), who (shall see his) ninetieth year”. Unfortunately, Conetable died three years later aged 77, and Charles IX died at age 24. Randi examines many other specific prophesies drawn up for people of the day, and finds that Nostradamus’ predictions, where they can be checked, were almost always wrong. It’s a telling indictment on his supposed ability to predict affairs even further in the future.
Randi explains the “fire of London” prediction. Nostradamus hadn’t forecast the year “66”. In the original French, Nostradamus wrote (2:51) “vingt trois les six”. Cheetham had translated that as “three times twenty plus six” (66). Looking at it again, even I know enough French to say that vingt trois is twenty three, not three times twenty (which would be trois fois vingt). Nostradamus was writing about the execution in his lifetime of 23 protestant heretics, in groups of sixes.
As for Hister, a Google search of Hister and Danube will reveal 25 pages of links informing you that “Hister” was the old name of the lower Danube. Nostradamus was writing about events that happened in his day, on or by the Hister, not of Adolf Hitler in the future. Of course, the Nostradamus interpreters on the TV show said that Nostradamus, when writing about Adolf Hitler, decided to write the name of the river Hister, as a kind of “anagram” (which it isn’t) of Hitler. If you think that makes any kind of sense then you’ve never heard of Occam’s Razor. Or as Penn said, “why wouldn’t Nostradamus have just written Hitler?” Why indeed?
Randi goes on to debunk another eight of the more popular interpretations, including (not) predicting the death by jousting of Henry II of France, (not) predicting the Montgolfier balloons, and (not) predicting Napoleon.
I recommend getting the book. It’s a good antidote to people who insist on quoting Nostradamus at you. And if that doesn’t work you can hit them with it.
In an unprecedented move today, the US Department of Commerce and the European Commission on Product Safety (ECPS) announced a joint recall of the human race. Citing shoddy workmanship, poor design and premature failure of the units, the recall is meant to force the manufacturer, Intelligent Design Inc., to address these complaints.
I just don’t get these TV ads for Nu Fit. This is the company that sells a shoe stretching device, a “50 dollar value for only $19.95” (if I call in the next five minutes, although the ad is repeated every 15).
Shoes too tight? Insert the wooden shoe stretcher, turn the wheel and you stretch the shoe longer. Turn the lever and you stretch it wider. “I can now fit into all the hottest styles”, says one satisfied customer. Why? Don’t the hottest styles come in a size bigger? Am I the only one in the country who yells “why don’t you buy shoes that fit”, at the TV screen? I am. OK, perhaps I am.
And it’s always $19.95, no matter what they’re selling. But the “value” varies. If I buy, say, the shoe stretching device, “a 50 dollar value for only $19.95”, am I getting a worse deal than, say, the leather repair kit, “a $60 dollar value for only $19.95”? I’m saving $10 less. Those bastards at Nu Fit are ripping me off! I’d like to know how many shoe stretching devices they actually sold for $50. My guess is zero. Ditto the leather repair kit at $60. According to Cargo Magazine the leather repair kit doesn’t work anyway, so perhaps Nu Fit isn’t such a bad deal. But only if you insist on buying shoes too small to start with.