Archive for the ‘Skepticism’ Category

Don’t Try This at Home

According to AP reporter Paul Davenport, police responded to an out of control exorcism in Phoenix. It didn’t go well.

Officers responding to a report of an exorcism on a young girl found her grandfather choking her and used stun guns to subdue the man, who later died, authorities said Sunday.
The 3-year-old girl and her mother, who was also in the room during the struggle between 49-year-old Ronald Marquez and officers, were hospitalized, police said. Their condition was unavailable.

The relative who called police said an exorcism had also been attempted Thursday.

“The purpose was to release demons from this very young child,” said Sgt. Joel Tranter.

Now there are a couple of things to think about here.

I’d start by asking what rituals were being used here? Obviously we need more information to be able to avoid this doctrine. I mean, it obviously can’t be a Catholic exorcism because the child was the granddaughter of the exorcist. So, we need much more information here.

But while we’re at this. Let’s take a look at some of the possible ramifications.

Has anyone considered the idea that the exorcism was a partial success? The child was saved and the demons hopped over to the grandfather, who, unable to defend himself, died?

His death obviously can’t be brought in connection with the stun guns. I mean those folks have been telling people for years just how safe stun guns are. Wouldn’t to see want all that PR money get wasted, just because one little exorcism went awry.

But more seriously, just like skeptics always say: <b>these kinds of beliefs</b> (not to mention non lethal weapons) <b>do cause harm</b>. Sometimes the harm is immediate and causes national headlines. Sometimes the harm is low level, causing economic turmoil and unhappiness in an individual family. But these things do cause harm – every day.

When we have a president in the White House who isn’t fact but faith based; when we have an Attorney General whose only connection with reality is the point where his butt meets the witness chair; when we have newspapers, radio and television stations increasingly hammering on the idea that there are always two sides to any story and there is no objective reality; is there any question that this will happen?

I don’t really know what’s worse. The fact that the grandfather died. Or the thought of that young girl growing up in that environment.

But I do know one thing. Don’t try exorcism at home (or anywhere else) !

Perpetual Pause

There are unsmiling faces and bright plastic chains
and a wheel in perpetual motion
And they follow the races and pay out the games,
with no show of an outward emotion.

And they think it will make their lives easier
For God knows up til now it’s been hard.

Alan Parsons Project – Turn of a Friendly Card

The impossible dream, making money from nothing, winning the lottery, creating a perpetual motion machine. But some people are made to take chanced and bet millions on a long shot.

The latest highly publicised flop came last week when the company Steorn managed a very public belly flop.

You see, last week Steorn, a start-up company that took out a full page ad in last years Economist, had planned a very public demonstration of their newest form of the perpetual mobile. Skeptics, fans, and er- investors waited with baited breath to view one of the 24/7 video streams planned to go on the air on July 5th. Hopefully the bait wasn’t too good. The show was first delayed, then cancelled. Why? Just too hot. You know those pesky little TV lights. (Yeah. But it’s a dry heat!)

There is a wonderful video of Steorn CEO Sean McCarthy “Taking one on the chin” about how poorly the demonstration worked out. entitled the story they filed about the Dublin based company “Powered by Blarney?

Sad but true.

Unfortunately the general media reaction was perfectly summed up by Ben Goodacre in his Bad Science column in Saturday’s Guardian,

As we’ve already seen with the long history of perpetual motion claims you only need one or two experts, and as far as the media are concerned, there’s a story. And when the negative evidence comes in – like this week with Steorn, say – there is a deathly silence. Shh.

So, on July 4 a scaled down version of Steorn’s technology was to be displayed at the Kinetica museum in Spitalfields, east London, in front of live webcams and blinkered naysayers. But sadly the doors have remained locked, and the most you can see on the live webcam is an immobile perspex disc – designed to show some special arrangement of magnets – and a statement about technical difficulties possibly caused by “intense heat from the camera lighting”.

I was looking forward to it. At first the device was supposed to lift a weight, but then Steorn announced that it would simply rotate. Steorn’s chief executive, Sean McCarthy, said that the company “decided against using the technology to illuminate a light bulb, because the use of wires would attract further suspicion from a scientific community that has denounced the invention as heretical”.

I wonder what the penalty in Irland is for fraud? Perhaps the Alan Parson’s Project had it right. Just not in the first part of the song, but the reprise.

There are unsmiling faces in fetters and chains
on a wheel in perpetual motion,
who belong to all nations and answer all names
with no show of an outward emotion.

And they think it will make their lives easier,
but the doorway before them is barred.

Totally Meta

For a poor an economically challenged liberal, I have a dirty secret. I sneak over to the WSJ about once a day.

Well, the secret isn’t that dirty: I don’t read the editorials (ick, ick, ick). Nope. I’m a fan of Carl Bialik, The Numbers Guy.

I’m more or less against fact-based science discussions. Especially when statistics are used by people who haven’t looked at the work. But Bailik has a great way of making numbers seem accessable. His discussion of the meta-analysis on the disparaged drug Avandia is a case in point.

The big news yesterday that the diabetes drug Avandia may pose cardiac risks was based on something called a meta-analysis. It’s a type of research that has some significant drawbacks, but also some unique advantages.

In a meta-analysis, researchers pool results from different studies — in this case, Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Steven Nissen and statistician Kathy Wolski analyzed 42 studies. Those studies were done by many different people, and as you might expect, there was wide variation between them. Sometimes Avandia was compared with a placebo and sometimes with alternate treatments. Adverse events — namely heart attacks shown to occur with higher frequency among Avandia users — may not have been identified consistently across the different trials. And if they weren’t, Dr. Nissen would have no way to know, because he was looking at study summaries and not patient-level data. The limitations of this “study of studies” filled a lengthy third paragraph in an accompanying New England Journal of Medicine editorial.

So why, then, use meta-analysis at all? Because for drug dangers that are rare enough, even studies of thousands of patients might not suffice to separate a real risk from random statistical variation. Combining tens of thousands of patients who underwent the treatment separately, under different protocols and supervision, may be the only way to clear thresholds for statistical significance.

He goes on to clearly describe the strengths and weaknesses of the technique; explaining the importance of the variable currently called p; when meta-analysis are useful and to explain why both sides tend to fight over the issue of whether a meta-analysis is valid.

I love statistics. (Actually, since I haven’t discussed this face to face with statistics, I should probably call it a crush, but you get the idea.)

As an example, most people, when confronted with a statistics example involving doctors, cancer patients and risk would probably change the channel. Me – I buy the book! From Joel Best’s More Damn Lies and Statistics (the sequel to Damn Lies and Statistics),

Consider the following word problem about women receiving mammograms to screen for breast cancer (the statements are, by the way, roughly accurate in regard to women in their forties who have no other symptoms):

The probability that [a woman] has breast cancer is 0.08 percent. If a woman has breast cancer, the probability is 90 percent that she will have a positive mammogram. If a woman does not have breast cancer, the probability is 7 percent that she will still have a positive mammogram. Imagine a woman who has a positive mammogram. What is the probability that she actually has breast cancer.

Confused? Don’t be ashamed. When this problem was posed to twenty-four physicians, exactly two managed to come up with the right answer. Most were wildly off: one-third answered that there was a 90 percent probability that a positive mammogram denoted actual breast cancer; and another third gave figures of 50 to 80 percent. The correct answer is about 9 percent.

Let’s look carefully at the problem. Not that breast cancer is actually rather rare (0.8 percent); that is, for every 1,000 women, 8 will have breast cancer. There is a 90 percent probability that those women will receive positive mammograms – say, 7 of the 8. That leaves 992 women who do not have breast cancer. Of this group 7 percent will also receive positive mammograms – about 69 cases of what are called false positives. Thus a total of 76 (7+69=76) women will receive positive mammograms, yet only 7 of those – about 9 percent – will actually have breast cancer. The point is that measuring risk often requires a string of calculations. Even trained professionals (such as doctors) are not used to calculating and find it easy to make mistakes. [my emphasis]

That is why fact-based science discussions fail. Not because the facts are wrong, but because any discussion of the issue won’t fit into a 30 second interview and boil down to a 25 word text snippet.

This is where framing science needs to be used. You need to be able to tell a story about how science works, how scientific uncertainty works without getting people nervous. Perhaps the fundamental difference between a scientist and a non-scientist is that the latter sees danger in uncertainty, the former sees an opportunity to write a grant proposal.

To be able to frame science, you need ideas, examples, and good stories. Like the Avandia study discussed by the Numbers Guy or some of the topics on the very entertaining Freakonomics blog by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.

But sometimes – I just love the idea for itself. Statistics about statistics. Because that is just sooo totally meta.

Sniffex – Probably Just Had Hayfever (Updated)

Update: A commenter pointed me to the very useful Sniffexquestions blog. Not that you shouldn’t read my stuff. But any Sniffexquestions you might have, will be answered there. (S)he even has the report of the test shown below.

James Randi, of JREF, Sharon Weinberger, lover of government mind control stories and Imaginary Weapons (now in paperback!) and Bruce Schneier, crypto-guy have all pointed to the Sniffex modern munitions dowsing rod foolishness.

As Sharon put it over at Danger Room

Penny stock schemes are a dime a dozen, but you gotta love ones that involve far-fetched military technology. A few months ago, I received in the mail information on Sniffex, a company touting a dream technology in the age of terror: a hand-held explosive sniffer. The company’s claims about its uses — sniffing through concrete and at great distances, sounded a bit too wonderful. I tossed the brochure — labeled “hot stocks on the street”– in my pile of possibly stupid weapons, and promptly forgot about it.

Others didn’t. Famed magician and uber-Skeptic James Randi unearthed a Navy report evaluating Sniffex, and from the snippets he published online, it’s rather damning

Bruce Schnieder picked up the story. His intrepid commenters found the more interesting stuff. One reader describes a blind test of the Sniffex ‘product’ conducted at Bob Hope airport . “Tourism and Safety 2006”, a conference for law enforcement professionals held at the Anaheim Hilton Hotel in April of 2006 [Updated: See Comments – Thanks MY]. Now the videos of this blind test of ‘detection equipment’ are up at YouTube. The test is simple. Several envelopes, 9 filled with salt, 1 filled with gun powder – now use the Sniffex ‘device’ to find the dangerous one.

It starts off with a description of how Sniffex works (like the energy source – YOU!).

Then a simple test is proposed

And they huff, and they puff, and huff again. But they can’t find the explosive.

My favourite part? Perhaps the ever-present elevator music in the background. Like some surreal cross between Heidi and 24, frantically search for the nuke while “What A Wonderful World” plays as a soundtrack. Perfect.

Despite all the negative waves being sent their way, Sniffex is still being pushed on it’s European site with a “patented method based on detection of magnetic interference.” As a matter of fact, they even have a patent number: 6,344,818. See – down at the bottom

Oh!. Maybe they don’t have that patent any more.

Status: Patent Expired Due to NonPayment of
Maintenance Fees Under 37 CFR 1.362
Status Date: 03-08-2006

So not only do they have a device that doesn’t work, they can’t even keep their patent “working”.

Heads Up: Mark CC=Woo Killing?

Mark Chu-Carroll has an excellent post up over at Good Math/Bad Math.

He manages to roll a precise and coherent definition of tautology together with an anti-creationist smackdown, an explanation of why all scientific theories can be described to be tautologies and a personal explanation of why all this means so much to him.

Perhaps the best part is how well he points out the fallacy of using tautologies to attack evolution.

The theory of gravity? If you let go of something, it will fall – therefore, if you let go of something, it will fall.

Relativity? Light bends when it passed through a gravitational field – therefore, if I shine a light through a gravitational field, it will bend.

Evolution? The things that survive to reproduce are the things that survive to reproduce.

All true statements and the last, a classic creationist canard.

The question is about trying to describe why and how things survive and not simply claiming they have survived. The theory of gravity isn’t as much about saying that something will fall but rather in predicting how it will fall.

But creationist attack scribblers like Casey Luskin or ‘Dr’ Michael Egnor don’t ever seem to understand this. I present medicine á la Dr. Egnor. If you give a patient a remedy, they will get better, therefore, if you give the patient the appropriate medication they will get better. (Saves research costs – just give the patient what they need to get better.)

Why are you still here? You should be there reading his stuff.

Galactic Tsunami

Well. Since we are obviously doomed today, just thought I’d say. It’s been nice.

On the other hand, I suspect we’ll be reading each other on Monday. So could someone please give me somewhere to sort this rather bizarre video about the “Scientific Verification of Vedic Knowledge.”

This sounds like someone who has had way too many Quaaludes and is making a case for the a literal reading of the Vedas. Actually he seems to be pointing out that ancient India was like way ahead of our science. Oh. And they had nuclear weapons. So here’s my WTF?!!!!

Is fundamentalist Vedic thinking an issue? Do we need a literal reading of the Vedics. Does this mean they will stop teaching evolution in India now?

So. I hope to get better informed by Monday.

Or we’ll all be dead – killed by the Galactic Tsunami . So whatever.

Astrology: A Real Class Act

Scientists and skeptics have long pointed to the fact that there is no science in Astrology. Au contraire mon amis.

A recent doctorial thesis shows that there are topics to be studied in astrology. They just don’t have anything to do with – well – astrology.

Katja Furthmann, newly baked PhD, is a linguist and devoted her time and effort into exploring the language used in those clever little newspaper horoscopes.

From the Berlin Paper,

Over the course of two years, Furthmann read some 3,000 horoscopes [poor dear] in German newspapers and magazines as part of her doctoral research at the University of Greifswald in eastern Germany. Her doctoral thesis, a 550-page tome called “The Stars Don’t Lie: A linguistic analysis of published horoscopes” … has been named the winner of the Commerzbank Foundation prize at the university.

“I love reading horoscopes,” Furthmann said. She studied them for her masters, and decided to continue focusing on them for her doctorate. “I don’t believe in horoscopes, but I’m fascinated by how they manage to be both very general and very specific at the same time,” said Furthmann, whose degree combined German, communications, and British studies.

In her thesis, Furthmann shows how horoscopes are written to be relevant to their target reader. “The texts are written in such a way that they are relevant to a huge number of people as well as to the individual,” she said.

During a presentation of her work, Furthmann pointed [German] out that there are 7 ingredients to a ‘good’ press – scope.

  1. Generics (Not just for medication anymore)
    This is best achieved using things like: but; on the other hand; as well; even though. An example might be “You are very thrifty but have a tendency to splurge occasionally.” Always mix your assertions with opposites.
  2. Use “Umbrella Terms”
    The use of terms with either abstract meanings or multiple definitions allows a broad acceptance of the information being presented. For example you might say something like “You have great depth” which can be taken to mean your education, your faith, to your propensity to always let McDonalds SuperSize you.
  3. The Theory of Relativity
    When describing a characteristic, always use terms that soften or diminish the term. Thus, instead of using always you need to use sometimes. “New”, “slowly,” “often,” “quickly,” “slowly,” “occasionally” are all words that make horoscope writers hearts beat just a little faster. How slow is slowly? Faster than it sometimes is.
  4. General and timeless truths
    Adages or proverbs are excellent for vague explanations. “The early bird gets the worm.” “There is a time and place for everything” work just as well as statements that can’t be proven. “You have a secret admirer.” or “We think you are a military combatant but we can’t tell you why because it’s classified and you can’t get clearance.”
  5. Specify the Unspecific
    Using phrases and metaphors can fill empty meaning with deeper significance; things like “Reach for the stars” or “Life can be a path filled with loss and success.” You can fill your horoscope with the meaning and weight of the ages without having left the comfort of your chair. Remember life is like the weather (it changes), , a party (from pass the beer to I can’t believe you drank that!), an adventure (now where did I put that map?), a road (why don’t you just stop and ask for directions). Metaphors – yeah. Metaphors are good.
  6. Pseudoscience is nice.
    Talk about stars and houses, ascents and descents, angles. Show that you know the names of not only constellations but planets. The odd angle tossed in for good measure works well. And don’t worry about whether any of the information is true or false, no one will check your work. Something like “Mars ascending in the third house of Leo could mean conflict. Especially since the elithiotetic angle to Jupiter is 26°, you need to be particularly careful in the coming weeks.”
  7. Promote Closeness and individual involvement
    Speak directly to the reader. This means YOU. It suggests both a direct understanding of the reader and personal insight to that individual’s world. Depending on the demographic, try to use the appropriate vocabulary and/or slang (Note: I will not attempt an example here because any endeavour would point out just how hopelessly out of date my knowledge of English slang really is.)

None of these techniques will come as a major surprise to those who look at horoscopes. Write your own for fun and profit – um – fun. Look here’s one. The Horoscope of the Seven Elements.

Your sign points to
your having a knack for organisation. Sometimes however, because of your specific nature, this skill can be more or less developed. If you haven’t discovered your talents yet, keep trying. Perhaps success is waiting just around the corner.

The famous astrologer Aesop said, “Slow and steady wins the race.” You need to take your time and carefully choose your route through the straits you are navigating. Sometimes the waters merely appear deep and calm when the danger is closer than you think. But remember, even if your boat seems to be floundering now, the worst storm will pass and bring a bright new morning.

Due to the aphelesic coverage of the sixth partition of Saturn combined with an unusually high rate of orbital alignment, your star will be rising in the near future. Keep on trying, success is just around the corner.

Did I miss anything? Oh, yeah. I don’t have any demographic data on my readership.

Perhaps the more disturbing part of the study isn’t that the stars don’t seem to be able to tell us about our future. No. Furthmann found out something even more troubling.

According to the study, horoscopes in magazines and newspapers are devoted to predicting the future based on the demographic models of their readership. No real mystery there. But the way they adapt the texts is interesting.

The horoscopes are far more likely to play down risk and investment in publications directed at lower income brackets. High risk and increased consumption are more likely to be aimed at those readers who could afford it.

Thus, where a newspaper designed for the working class might recommend putting off that big investment, the lifestyle magazine will encourage taking that extra time out and spending a little more on yourself. A manager magazine will encourage taking charge having self confidence.

I see a whole new area of research opening up here. The conspiracy theorists can now look at this and proclaim that horoscopes are a plot by the New World Order to keep the lower classes in their places. The Illuminati are using this to keep the innocent in slavery. I see it all so clearly now. Of course how could I have been so foolish. * forehead slap *

For anyone willing to make a donation to the JREF archives and probably make this woman’s week, look at trying to order Katja Furthmann: „Die Sterne lügen nicht. Eine linguistische Analyse der Textsorte Pressehoroskop.” 1. Auflage 2006, 546 Pg with 42 ill., Bound. 67,90 € [D]. ISBN 3-89971-323-0; unipress. [German]

But remember. The take home lesson here is, no matter where they are to be found, it has been scientifically proven that horoscopes are a real class act.

Finding Words

I had promised to fire another broadside in the on-going, online discussion about evolution in schools

Dr. Esler pointed me to the following summary of the history of the struggle to teach evolution as published in the New England Journal of Medicine. I would point him to the far more complete discussion of the issue in Eugenie Scott’s book Evolution vs. Creationism. Of course her book isn’t available for free or online. Fortunately, since it doesn’t contain the word scrotum, it is probably still available at a local library.

If I had more energy, I would point out the fact that all the secular attacks outlined in the article seem to have been responses to people attempting to regulate scientific learning in classrooms. (In the case of the Scopes trial, they were successful for almost 50 years…) I would argue that is the problem. What are often perseved to be secular attacks on religion are simply an attempt to describe the world without recourse to God; to use naturalistic explanations and not supernatural apologetics to define how the universe works.

There was nothing new in the article, but it is a nice summary of the three main battles fought in the American war on science. (A war only really being fought in truly religious countries – countries like America and Turkey.)

Interestingly, I found the summary rather disjointed from the rest of the article. After showing reaction after reaction to efforts by religious groups to remove or derail the teaching of evolution in public schools the author sums up this way.

Of course, the theory of evolution cannot answer all questions about how life emerged or how the human brain developed, nor is evolution even relevant to the question of where the original matter of the universe came from. There is plenty of room for diverse opinions and beliefs on these subjects. Alfred Russell Wallace, for example, who, simultaneously with Darwin, proposed the theory of natural selection as the engine of evolution, believed that the development of the human brain could be explained only by divine intervention. Nobel laureate John C. Eccles, in his treatise on the evolution of the human brain, was unable to account for the unique individual self and concluded: “I am constrained to attribute the uniqueness of the Self or Soul to a supernatural creation . . . which is implanted into the fetus at some time between conception and birth.” And Stephen Hawking speaks for himself and probably for most physicists when he concludes that if and when scientists are able to construct a unified theory of the universe, humans will still be confronted with the nonscience questions of why we and the universe exist, and “about the nature of God.”

The quest to banish religion from politics and government is ultimately, as the Jesuit priest Robert Drinan notes, “hopelessly unrealistic, because religions are by their nature intended to create cultures, even civilizations.” Religion and government are not inherently incompatible, and they necessarily have formal and informal relationships with each other. Nor are science and religion inherently incompatible. Nevertheless, religion is not science and should not be taught in science class. In the United States, the higher power that prevents this is the First Amendment.

I guess I just have to pass.

If the point is to say government and politics are ridden with religious feeling, more today then say 230 years ago, I would have to agree. Secular beliefs are being pushed farther and farther into the gutter. They are being demonised.

But to point at, say, Iraq and decry the horrible sectarian fighting while proudly proclaiming America to be a ‘Christian Nation’ is, for me, deeply troubling. Wouldn’t an amendment to the constitution be simpler or at least honest? Revoke the first amendment and simply proclaim America Christian. Sixty percent of the American population would probably support the idea. Even the some members of the Jewish population would probably support the issue. I’m pretty sure Debbie Schussel would go along with it.

I really don’t think science answers all the questions. If it did, we wouldn’t need continuing research. I find it interesting that the author of the article seems to a priori define the limits of future research on evolution. I find it interesting that the author manages to mix decent with modification with the concept of the origin of the universe and the big bang. (Did Darwin go there? I think not.)

If the point is to say that science hasn’t answered all questions yet. My response is – well yeah. If the point is to go quote mining, for possible philosophical comments by scientists, there are whole books for that kind of thing. If the point is to say science will never answer the question, I would ask how you can be sure. Did Newton envision rockets to the moon? Would he have said you can’t get there because – well – you just can’t?

But even to point me to the article, is to misunderstand my point. It is to misunderstand what I am fighting for, or perhaps what I am fighting against.

My argument is simply that science is the process for understanding how things work and that is what needs to be taught.

I agree, science does effect both philosophy and religion. We no longer simply postulate that matter is made up of basic elements, we measure them, we refine them, we manipulate them. Most of us no longer follow the idea that the world is flat, or that the sun orbits the earth; both religious beliefs that were changed by science. But religion didn’t change the science, the science forced a re-interpretation of the religious doctrine.

I guess, I can’t stop people from feeling threatened, by feeling that their very beliefs are threatened by science. I would say that, for some – like the flat-earthers, those beliefs are threatened. I question the idea that the solution is to stop science, to stop teaching science, to make strawman arguments (“…nor is evolution even relevant to the question of where the original matter of the universe came from” – I mean, WTF?).

But on the other hand, I do get upset when people, using religious apologetics, nevertheless claim to support science. People who use science and genetics daily but claim it just doesn’t work. I seem to get so upset that I can’t even find the words to properly express my outrage, to express my position.

Since I seem to be having trouble getting my feelings across, I guess I’ll just wait a couple of weeks and let those people most effected speak out. Not the doctors, not patients, the the high school students themselves (Hat Tip: Bug_girl/Skepchick)

2007 National High School Essay Contest

Why would I want my doctor to have studied evolution? If you are a high school student in the United States, we want to hear your answer to that question. Send us an essay of not more than 1,000 words by March 31st. There are prizes for students and rewards for participating teachers.

If I’m having trouble finding the correct words, I sure hope these kids won’t.

Discovering Uncovering Allah

Perhaps the Discovery Institute should invite Dr Oktar Babuna to speak.

The Discovery Institute would like American schools to ‘teach the controversy’ about evolution, Dr Babuna would probably be more than willing to oblige. You see Dr Babuna is a Turkish neurosurgeon and doubts evolution. Indeed he does more than doubt, he actively disbelieves evolution.

But for some reason, I doubt the Discovery Institute will be inviting Dr Babuna anytime soon. You see, while both sides think evolution needs to be discounted, Dr Babuna is a creationist. That might not be too bad but he is also an Islamic creationist.

From the Florida Alligator,

What students learn about evolution in books is “fake” and has no scientific value, a Turkish neurosurgeon said to about 50 students Tuesday.

Human life is a result of Allah, not evolution, said Dr. Oktar Babuna, a controversial Muslim speaker.

In his speech, which was sponsored by Islam on Campus and cost $3,000, Babuna argued against Darwinism and said the only way to understand life on Earth is through Allah and the teachings of the Koran. Babuna said it is scientifically impossible for evolution to have occurred.

The fact that this information comes to my attention today can only be seen as either a bizarre case of synchronicity or a divine act of Allah.

There are a couple of things to look at here.

It has long been known that Turkey, although one of the most western Middle Eastern countries, trails behind all western countries in understanding and acceptance of evolution. According to Seed last November.

… It teaches evolution in its schools, but, even so, appears to be losing the science education battle. In 1985 the minister of education mandated that creationism be included in science textbooks. By the late 1990s, the BAV [Bilim Araştirma Vakfi (“Scientific Research Foundation”)] was attacking scientists who opposed a creationist curriculum via slander and death threats. The cumulative damage to science has been significant. Ümit Sayin, a neurologist at Istanbul University and outspoken critic of Turkish creationism, estimates that the number of university-educated Turks who understand evolution has dropped to 20 percent from 40 percent over the past 15 years.

BAV, founded in 1990, grew from the Turkish fringe into a global media empire. Oktar claims to have 4.5 million followers worldwide, who read his hundreds of books and essays and have seen the dozens of television documentaries that BAV produces and provides free of charge to Turkish TV stations. BAV’s Web sites offer downloadable PowerPoint presentations and questions to challenge science teachers. The foundation organizes anti-evolution conferences and petitions and runs a telemarketing scheme to sell books by Harun Yahya (Oktar’s pen name), which are available globally in 29 languages. Only Oktar and his lieutenants seem to know where the money for all these initiatives comes from, and they’re not telling.

But the BAV does seem to be making quite a bit of progress. They also produce a free textbook. The Atlas of Creation had already been covered by the Templeton Foundation in November.

In February, news circulated that a large number of these anti-evolution textbooks were surfacing in France. Surfacing is perhaps the wrong word, they were being mailed to tens of thousands of schools and universities for consideration as alternative teaching materials.

Of course evolution wasn’t the old target. That evil-doer Darwin was the main target. The coverage at Yahoo cleverly points out the real point of the book.

The book features a photograph of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center with the caption: “Those who perpetuate terror in the world are in fact Darwinists. Darwinism is the only philosophy that values and incites conflict.”

The theories of Charles Darwin are “the true source of terrorism,” it said.

The books sent by post from Germany and Turkey began arriving in French schools and universities about 10 days ago.

The French ministry of education was not amused. The connection I am making here is that some of those textbooks were mailed, not from Turkey, but from Germany.

Now, usually, all this Islamic creationist propaganda would just be grist for my evolutionist mill. That would be if I had not found a minor bit of information linking our Dr Babuna to another doctor I have discussed recently.

If the photos don’t lie, (and who knows they might be doctored in some weird Darwinist plot to overthrow the universe), it seems Dr. Babuna suffers from chronic lymphocytic leukemia or CLL. He has been treated in Seattle as well as the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas. Now the MDACC has been mentioned on Dr Esler’s blog before because Dr Esler is a haematologist – in Texas.

I seem to have fallen down the wrong rabbit hole this week.

Now. I don’t think this was just chance. How could all these things just happen?! Within one week! Blind chance? Think of the odds. Evolution? I don’t think so. Descent with modification?! Ha! Don’t make me laugh!

There is obviously a guiding hand here; an overarching design. I am definitely going to have to rethink the error of my ways. I need to make a decision; to finally take a stand.

What do I do this weekend – read the Bible, read the Koran or watch simply Twilight Zone episodes?

Still, my remaining psychic powers do give me one small bit of knowledge. Despite his involvement in denouncing evolution and his connections to Seattle, Texas, haematology and medicine in general, I know something else about Dr. Babuna.

I know the Discovery Institute won’t ever be inviting Dr Babuna to speak.

Because, despite all the things I have uncovered, they just don’t want to discover Allah.

Not Just Crops Any More

Step this way one and all.

The 55th Skeptics’ Circle: The Number Of The Skeptic is now online for your perusal and education.



Since I have nothing of import and have expended my snark doing anti-anti-evolutionary commenting here, I just thought I’d point you to the Wonkette coverage about the Secret Global War on Garage Door Openers. (SGWGDO?!)

I had to think of Sharon Weinberger’s Washington Post cover story and the follow-up on her blog (don’t miss the comments) about Mind Control Targeted Individuals when I read the last quip.

The reason, as usual, is 9/11. After the terrorisms, the military took back a whole chunk of radio spectrum that had been used by garage-door-opener manufacturers. It’s happening across the country and even in Canada, where secret American spy facilities blast the hapless northerners with mind rays.

Obviously the reason all those people keep ‘hearing’ things in their head. It’s just a side effect of the SGWGDO.

Aside: Don’t forget my original post about tin-foil underpants because I have been following this story for like – forever!

Quicky: Creationist Bashing

Just a quick heads-up on this absolutely wonderful article by Bruno Maddox on the soon to be opened creation museum in the fine town of Hebron, Kentucky. The article, published in the latest issue of Discovery, begins thusly…

In the beginning, wrote God in His epic, loosely autobiographical best seller, The Bible, the Lord made the heavens and the Earth. Pondering from the vile comfort of the Marriott in Hebron, Kentucky, I assumed that this single statement represented the bulk, if not the entirety, of creationist ideology. Hence the name, I reckoned in a flash of insight. God created everything; if something exists, then God created it. Yes, that’s what they believe, those creationists.

A creationist group called Answers in Genesis, which believes in the literal, scientific truth of the Bible, has decided to spend $27 million building a creation museum only minutes away by cab from this unlovely spot. When it opens in May, the museum is going to try to dazzle people with the wonder, beauty, and sheer scientific cunning exhibited by God during that action-packed week when He willed everything that exists into being. Yet the museum’s founders have chosen to set it in one of the few spots on Earth that could plausibly have been designed by chimpanzees.

There is another great irony to the project, it occurs to me as I finish my coffee and rise to meet my driver: that of God almost certainly not existing.

… and simply gets better.

Two side stories here.

First, you might take note of one of the persons mentioned in the article, Ken Ham. He is a man of obviously high integrity,  and who has a reason for living in Kentucky and not Austrailia.

And second, don’t forget the wonderful idea from the SciBlogger and gray parrot lover, Shelley Batts about what to do when these museums start to open. Something about Annoy-a-trons

Darwinistic Redoubts

It is rare that I get viscerally upset. Usually I simply have a passing feeling of unease leading into a rather grumpy day.

But this post got me rather riled up despite its rather innocuous start,

What is the most significant year to remember in relatively modern history? Is it 1776? Is it 1941? Is it Sept 11 2001?

Some will argue that the answer is 1859, the year Darwin published his Origin of Species.

While I could quibble about the fact that Sept. 11 2001 isn’t a year but a date, I would prefer first to point out who is writing this. Vance Esler is an oncologist born, raised and working in Texas. Not only does he treat people with various types of cancer, he is actively and proudly involved in research, recruiting patients for clinical trials.

Thus the third paragraph in his post is a bit of a breath-taker…

This book has been credited with providing the foundation upon which secular progressives began to build concepts which have led to the steady removal of God from public thought and life. After all, if life is only the result of random events occurring in a random universe, and not the product of an intelligent design, then it becomes so much easier to marginalize religious thought and influence in society.

Uh Oh.

We all know where this will lead and yes indeed it does move on into a rant about the political incorrectness of challenging evolutionary science.

Dr Esler points to the infamous ‘challenge’ to the theory of evolution from the Discovery Institute (DI) and signed by 700 scientists! Those “who have reached the epitome of their fields” in “engineering, mathematics, computer science, biology, chemistry or one of the other natural sciences.“

He does ‘forget’ to mention that PhDs in things like physics and mechanical engineering rarely involve deep discussions of evolution but no matter – 700 is an impressive number. And, being involved in research and scrupulously fair, Dr Esler directly linked to the similar list of unequivocal evolution supporters at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE)

Wait – he didn’t!? Hmm.

As of this writing (Feb. 21, 2006), the NCSE list has 790 signatories.

There is a catch. In order to sign the exclusive Discovery Institute list one must be a PhD in something sciency.

For entry onto the NSCE list one must not only be a PhD in something sciency but also be named ‘Steve.’ (Well, “[n]ot just Steve, but also Stephens, Stevens, Stephanies, Stefans, and so forth. Etiennes and Estebans are welcome.” You get the idea.)

You see, even though most scientists understand that research isn’t directly conducted by opinion poll, the Steve list shows clearly that not only is there resounding support in the scientific community for evolution, but the sub-set of scientists named Steve supporting evolution is larger than the DI list.

Oh! And while there aren’t many biologists on the Discovery Institute’s list, about 2/3 of the Steve list are. (Perhaps closer to their field of expertise. No?)

The rest of Dr Esler’s post is taken almost verbatim from the WorldNetDaily website, but what really got me going was his personal summation.

There is a another site called for physicians who have similar concerns. As a hematologist/medical oncologist who deals with the disastrous results of mutations every day, I can readily attest to the fact that most mutations are fatal, and it stretches credulity to think one could actually result in the appearance of an entirely new species. Needless to say, I have added my name to that list. [my emphasis]

I won’t touch the fallacy “Argument from Personal Incredulity.” I’ll let Wikipedia do that. Or perhaps you might just want to Google it.

But that other thing – the “most mutations are fatal” quip? Is that a ‘fact’ ‘Dr’ Esler?

So this rather detailed discussion for lay-people about mutations not only not being fatal but not even harmful is just so much hemp haze?

Q: Doesn’t evolution depend on mutations and aren’t most mutations harmful?
A: No. Most mutations are neither harmful nor helpful.

That’s the short answer. The long answer is that mutations can be neutral (neither helpful nor harmful), strictly harmful, strictly helpful, or (and this is important) whether they are harmful or helpful depends on the environment. Most mutations are either neutral or their effect depends on the environment. [My emphasis]

Dr Esler, have you ever heard of people having six fingers? Are the mutations to the H5N1 virus lethal to the virus or good for the virus and potentially harmful to us?

To sum up I would like to quote Dr Esler again. This time from another one of his posts.

It is one thing to place one’s property in the hands of a repairman or craftsman. It is another to place one’s life at risk. Such relationships are historically based upon trust. So whom do you trust? Do you follow the advice of the tall, good-looking, affable young man who borders on cocky because everyone thinks he is so great? [Barack Obama] Or do you rely upon the quiet, thoughtful physician who listens to your complaints and says, “I need to think about this.” There is no easy answer. Trust can take time to grow.

So right now I remain skeptical about non-physicians trying to rank physicians based upon dubious criteria and poorly collected data. I also maintain a healthy skepticism of doctors who are always right, always know what to do, and who register highly on my BS Detector.

Sir, I don’t know whether you are a “quiet, thoughtful physician” but a skeptic you are not.

I do not put my trust of evolution in the hands of electrical engineers or oncologists but in the hands of evolutionary biologists. Something about my feeling about non-specialists trying to rank things based on “dubious criteria and poorly collected data.”

You sir, are not an expert in mutation. You sir are not an expert in evolution. You sir, are an expert on cancer. You sir, register rather highly on a detector of mine.

If you were a skeptic, then you might know that true sceptics realise that scientists understand the limitations of their own knowledge. Dr Esler, while your knowledge of cancer might be broad, it does not lead you to be able to make judgements about the validity of evolution.

But I am sure you are a religious person, full of integrity. I am sure that you are convinced your position is correct and intellectually honest.

Thus, I wonder if you would be willing to put up a sign in your practice along the lines of “I DOUBT DARWIN – EVOUTION IS DESTROYING TEXAS” or something along those lines. That way your patients would know what they are getting into. While you are at it why not take a picture of the sign including your partners and post it to your blog?

But somehow – I doubt you will.

And because I feel this doubt, I felt forced to man the redoubts – for Darwin.

Athiest Scum

I live in Germany, so when I watch CNN I get the nicely toned down, CNN-International version of the Cable ‘News’ Network.

Usually I ignore it unless something obviously newsy and obviously visible happens. That way I can avoid both the attempts of ‘news’ anchors attempting to make things like Bulgarian oil import levels interesting or international soccer fouls scandalous. I also have the benefit of avoiding Larry King and getting the urge to break something.

Thus when the first comments about the CNN atheist ‘coverage’ crossed into my radar, I simply thought it was pretty standard water-bong um water-cooler um blog conversation. Teresa convinced me that not everyone had heard of this. Thus my own memeage (and obsequious grovel in honor of Richard Dawkins).

It all started so innocuously, so “far and balanced.” On the exceptionally originally named program Now hosted by Paula Zahn, CNN broadcast a report on the discrimination of atheists in America.

Then came, in typical truthiness tradition, the discussion panel. Since the topic was atheism, the producers a CNN put together a panel of experts. Karen Hunter, journalism professor (Christian), Debbie Schlussel, attorney and columnist (Jewish) and Stephen A. Smith, ESPN analyst (Christian). A fine group of experts to discuss discrimination of atheists.

Transcript here.

Um. Wow!

Now this will probably surprise many, but CNN oddly got flack for this.

I mean really. A journalism ‘professor‘ telling us “What does an atheist believe? Nothing.“ Debbie Schlussel, ‘attorney,’ explaining “freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.“

The only person attempting to support the atheist side was Mr Smith, sports analyst. (And Sir I thank you.) Unfortunately he was ill prepared for the discussion (and how many people do you know, who have facts and figures on atheism on hand – um – in head?). On the other hand, Smith felt pressured enough to say, “We’re a Christian country. There’s no question about that. I love the Lord. So does Karen, so does everybody that I know.“

What is so off base here? *ahem*

Oh! And I won’t even touch the background banner slander comments questions.

Apparently, a few wackos wrote to CNN pointing out that it might have been a ‘good’ idea to have included an atheist on the panel. So, in standard, “We didn’t really do anything wrong but some ‘people’ are bitching” manner and in honor of Darwin Day (just to show how screwed up the discussion of evolution and religion really is), they did a second segment. This time they gave Richard Dawkins a (very short) chance to put forth a case for atheists. And they had a slightly more balanced panel. With an atheist! Yeah! (Full coverage at OneGoodMove)

Of course we couldn’t have this discussion either without those helpful ‘discuss among yourselves questions’ on the background banner. Questions like “Do Atheists Bring Intolerance On Themselves?” – Answer: I don’t know. Does CNN bring scorn and derision on itself?

Fortunately, and perhaps to help the beleaguered Mr Smith , a new and improved YouTube remix of the original appeared. With helpful answers and showing the repeated missteps.

I got the link from PZ Meyers who, unfortunately, had already concluded that the whole episode “convinced me of a couple of things. I apparently have not been militant enough, and am going to have to work harder at aggressively promoting godlessness. And I’m adding CNN to my list of news agencies to ignore, along with Fox.”

While I firmly support the last position but increased militancy will only play into the hands of the evil presented here. Increased understanding not increased militancy is the answer. Explaining that atheist is not Satanist and what the belief entails. Well. At least attempting to explain that before you get run out of town; tarred and feathered; or lynched.

One question on the February rebuttal show never got answered and I find it critical. Where do atheists get their morals? I would respond. Which is more important, where the American constitution came from or the ideals it represents? Most atheists have given morality and ethics a lot of thought. Indeed morality and ethics are almost as important to atheists as the question of the number of angels dancing on pins was to medieval theologians. But are the origins or the ideals more important. So, please, give me a step by step run down of the origins and precursors t0 the American constitution. When we finish that, I’ll feel obligated to you to discuss my ethics.

But I, thank God, do not live in a Christian nation. And am not forced to defend my rights to believe in –um – nothing?

(Hat Tip to BlondSense for my first contact on this. And to Trees/AnomalousData for showing me it was necessary to write it.)


The 54th Skeptics Circle is up at Action Skeptics.

And You Thought Western Psychics Were Crazy

For some reason my web surfing has become mired in an amazing amount of anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist bile as well as the reactionary anti-anti-Semitic, anti-anti-Zionist propaganda lately. There is so much disinformation being thrown around right now, it is getting difficult to see the arboretum for the conifers.

But while trying to do research on Memri and the Palestinian Media Watch, I came across this gem.

Ick, Ick, Ick.

Even though I shouldn’t, I’ll just ignore the entire misogynic feeling in the clip. (Well not quite. The girl just had to be a virgin right? This needs to be really, really clear, right? The girl will grow up to do abominable things…hmmm. Then there was the male announcer interrupting the (admittedly very cute) female newsperson? And the fact that the hottie newsperson spent the entire clip trying desperately not to laugh out loud? And let’s be clear on this. She was hot but she also seemed to be the only intelligent, sane person in the room, OK?)

But the fact is, this isn’t all that much more silly than some of the things shown on western television. (Fox and alien autopsies anyone?) Sure different possessives – um – possessors for different folk. Islam has Djinns, Catholics – the devil, Ted Haggard – Homosexuality. All pretty much the same thing.

I’m just hoping one of Ted’s exorcists doesn’t start presenting the trophies he got in the last couple of months. Bleach.

A Sceptics Lot

I know something about you. Yes, YOU.

I know the digit “1” is really important to you. Not just as a number you see often. It is a number that is personally attached to you. Not just as something you strive to be. It is part of your everyday life, it might be either in your telephone number or as part your address perhaps that of someone you know. I also know it is written on your birth certificate – it is part of your birthday.

But this knowledge doesn’t make me feel any better. Indeed, I find the power to divine this kind of information more than depressing.

Before I tell you the sad tale of my powers, I’d like to relate another story; the story of a nine year old girl who was also able to do things other girls her age couldn’t do.

Her name is Emily Rosa and she was interested in the Therapeutic Touch. For those not familiar with TT, I’ll let them do the explaining.

Therapeutic Touch is a contemporary healing modality drawn from ancient practices and developed by Dora Kunz and Dolores Krieger. The practice is based on the assumptions that human beings are complex fields of energy, and that the ability to enhance healing in another is a natural potential.

Therapeutic Touch (TT) is used to balance and promote the flow of human energy. It is taught in colleges around the world and has a substantial base of formal and clinical research. This research has shown that TT is useful in reducing pain, improving wound healing, aiding relaxation, and easing the dying process. It can be learned by anyone with a sincere interest and motivation towards helping others.

Ms Krieger also has written that TT is helps improve conditions from PMS to headaches, to cancer to AIDS.

Emily Rosa found the idea of someone being able to detect and change the flow of human energy to be intriguing and decided to do a test for a science project. She asked TT practitioners to help her show the effects of TT. Twenty-one people agreed to be tested, each admitted to having more than one year of experience in using TT and one had even produced training videos on the technique. Each agreed to the test protocol.

Emily allowed the TT practitioners to ‘feel’ the energy of her hands and pick one most suitable. Emily then when behind a screen through which her subject would place each of their hands. The question was simple, over which hand did Emily hold her ‘test’ hand. The practitioner simply needed to feel Emily’s energy flow.

It turns out that the subjects were right almost half the time (41 percent). The practitioners were relieved and ecstatic. They felt they had shown their point; they hadn’t been wrong all the time.

But in reality the results were devastating. At least for the reputation of TT (despite detractors). You see a coin toss would have gotten it right 50 percent of the time. To be statistically significant, the practitioners would have needed to get 8 out of 10. One managed that; only to lapse back to 6 out of 10 on a second re-test.

This didn’t help those who sell Therapeutic Touch books, CDs, DVD’s etc. It did help Emily though. She got featured on Scientific American Frontiers and she became the youngest author ever published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and has since moved on to college to study. She also got the blue ribbon at the science fair.

But what happened and why were the TT practitioners relieved? That’s because they didn’t understand statistics. And few outside science understand statistics either.

That’s what got my radar spinning the other day when a commenter, Mom4Truth, left a response to a post last week.. She feels her mother has a gift and she explained to me,

There is a piece of advice that came to me through my mom that I always try and remember. It is that for every person her gift helps, there are dozens of others that it won’t.

I do think Mom4Truth is probably truthful on a number of different levels. I think she believes her mother. I believe her mother might be honest about thinking she has a gift. And finally she probably doesn’t understand the problem with what she said.

And it’s thoughts like that and the fact that I know so much about you that has me depressed.

I have a problem with sceptics who snark and point at the believers of ‘alternate’ realities. They think that simply pointing out the mistake will ‘correct’ the thinking of the believers. This belittles and misunderstands the nature of knowledge and belief.

It takes very few hits to create a reputation and most misses are forgotten. But thinking people not trained to doubt but brought up to believe will automatically improve their thinking after correction is both foolish and unreasonable. That belief and the general sceptical snarkiness is why I usually feel an outsider not only among ‘true believers’ but also among sceptics who feel forced to deride the practitioners of ‘woo.’ The sceptical snark also has a tendency to alienate believers and is not particularly conducive to teaching.

But it doesn’t matter where the believer thinks the knowledge comes, from spirits, tarot, astrology or God. In my vocabulary all are examples of magical thinking, the practitioners soothsayers. This isn’t meant to be demeaning, to be disparaging. That is simply how I see and name the world.

It gets worse. I also doubt expecting an increase of science education will be a solution. I doubt most people will find any science or math interesting enough to learn enough to overcome the power of evolutionary belief. Sceptics and scientists might not study history, or rhetoric, or the names and meaning of Edvard Munch paintings – all interesting for some but not all. Some sceptics spend time thinking about science but not all. And some ‘true believers’ can be ‘saved.’ But not all. But not all ‘true believers’ are stupid or dishonest. Simply miswired.
On the other hand, people like Emily also give me hope.

And some people, like Sylvia Browne, are con-artists and give me hives.

All one can do is repeat, explain and understand and wait for evolution to catch up. We have had millions of years to evolve woo. We have had a couple of centuries to respond. We need to teach and not deride; wait and lurk, strike when possible. That – and jail and abuse the con-artists.

Oh. And the number one?

Think about it.

In a two digit address, I have an almost twenty percent chance of being right. That holds for three and for digit addresses as well. If you are in America and live on a long street, any address higher than 9999 will probably have a 1 in it. Then there’s your telephone number, your postal code. If I still don’t have a hit, try your partner, parent or prodigy. Perhaps the house next door. Yeah. There will be a 1 there somewhere. That I can be pretty sure of.

And since you are able to read this, I can assume you’re older than 7 and the first digit in your birth year will be a one. That I know.

Unless you are over a thousand years old. And THAT, I doubt. A lot.

That’s my lot, a sceptics lot.

Feeding PETA

Sure, like many, I enjoy the occasional Supermodel PETA no-fur-just-skin publicity stunt. But, although I have more hair on my legs than on my head and I have a weakness for grumpy-faced Land-Lobsters, I can’t stand People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – the organisation. I’m sorry but I just can’t go there.Land Lobsters

PETA and their more extreme cohorts from the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) are now campaigning against Oregon researcher Charles Roselli. The story of misunderstanding leading to distortion leading to lies is being run in today’s New York Times.

Charles Roselli set out to discover what makes some sheep gay. Then the news media and the blogosphere got hold of the story.

Dr. Roselli, a researcher at the Oregon Health and Science University, has searched for the past five years for physiological factors that might explain why about 8 percent of rams seek sex exclusively with other rams instead of ewes. The goal, he says, is to understand the fundamental mechanisms of sexual orientation in sheep. Other researchers might some day build on his findings to seek ways to determine which rams are likeliest to breed, he said.

But since last fall, when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals started a campaign against the research, it has drawn a torrent of outrage from animal rights activists, gay advocates and ordinary citizens around the world — all of it based, Dr. Roselli and colleagues say, on a bizarre misinterpretation of what the work is about.

The story of the gay sheep became a textbook example of the distortion and vituperation that can result when science meets the global news cycle.

Perhaps most vile is the article run in the British broadsheet, The Sunday Times, in December of last year. They spun the story not only to include gay sheep but mind control. In what can only seen as a very strange form of journalistic excess, the Sunday Times reporters imagined bizarre experiments on sheep brains.

The scientists have been able to pinpoint the mechanisms influencing the desires of “male-oriented” rams by studying their brains. The animals’ skulls are cut open and electronic sensors are attached to their brains.

By varying the hormone levels, mainly by injecting hormones into the brain, they have had “considerable success” in altering the rams’ sexuality, with some previously gay animals becoming attracted to ewes.

Likely the sheep were dead and the sensors were measuring something like hormone levels but that wasn’t important to the reporters at the Sunday Times. Properly packaged anything can be both true and false and sensational enough to sell papers.

Of course the Sunday Times isn’t the institution it used to be. It’s one of the cogs in Rupert Murdoch’s media machine.

Perhaps it’s worst journalistic faux pas was publishing the faked Hitler Diaries ‘discovered’ by the German magazine Stern in 1983. That episode also clearly pointed to the Murdoch philosophy. According to Robert Harris’s Selling Hitler, subscriptions to the Sunday Times rose by almost 50,000 during the early hype. After the fakes were exposed, subscriptions remained 20,000 above pre-hype levels. A win-win situation for Mr Murdoch. (Of course for some reason the Sunday Times never did a book review on the bestselling Selling Hitler. I wonder why?)

Murdoch realizes that sensationalism, true or false sells papers, books and ‘news’ channels. He isn’t concerned with moving information, he is concerned with moving money. And, he does a very good job.

While homosexual behavior in animals is well documented and even the religious right has toned down the “Crime Against Nature” hype in anti-gay rhetoric, the underlying cause for the seemingly anti-evolutionary behavior is still largely unclear. That is the reason people do research.

But there is a language barrier to be overcome. When a scientist talks about discovering the controls for homosexuality in sheep, it doesn’t mean he wants to control the sheep, he wants to understand the mechanism. The activist wants to see evil. The NYT article continues,

In an interview, Shalin Gala, a PETA representative working on the sheep campaign, said controlling or altering sexual orientation was a “natural implication” of the work of Dr. Roselli and his colleagues.

Mr. Gala, who asked that he be identified as openly gay, cited the news release for a 2004 paper in the journal Endocrinology that showed differences in brain structure between homosexual and heterosexual sheep.

The release quoted Dr. Roselli as saying that the research “also has broader implications for understanding the development and control of sexual motivation and mate selection across mammalian species, including humans.”

Mr. Newman, who wrote the release, said the word “control” was used in the scientific sense of understanding the body’s internal controls, not in the sense of trying to control sexual orientation.

So scientists are “naturally” trying to control Mr Gala. Note some fairly normal people think the government is naturally trying to control our minds, but that’s something for a different post…and wardrobe. People like PETA and ALF want to see evil everywhere. It is how they generate support; it is how they generate funding.

An excellent example of misplaced activism was the attack on a deer farm in Scotland last year when ALF tore down fences to free the enslaved herbivores. The herbivores were quite happy where they were, thank-you-very-much.

Fences were cut in four fields at Reediehill Deer Farm near Auchtermuchty and graffiti including “Scum” was spray-painted on the ground.

However, none of the 50 to 60 red deer tried to escape.

The farm, run by Fletchers of Auchtermuchty, is free-range and Nichola Fletcher, who owns it with her husband John, said the wrong people were targeted.

The couple pride themselves on their animal welfare practices, and Mrs Fletcher said, “These people have made up their minds without coming to find out about us.

“I would love to invite them for a cup of tea and explain to them what we are trying to do here.

Great. Tea with the enemy. Where are all the dynamite carrying owls when you need them?

Although there are many species that exhibit homosexual behavior, for me, I always think ‘lion’ when I think of non-human gays. (I am also not alone.) So maybe we should just bring these two things together, PETA and gay lions. Preferably in a cage.

So, here’s my solution, let’s feed PETA to the lions.

(And yes, this post was totally about reposting the NRA Animal Terrorist picture again.)

I’m Getting A Feeling

Phil Plait, Bad Astronomer, after getting back from The Amazing Meeting 5 dropped his telescope and picked up the story about the Sylvia Brown misstep.

For living in the US and with no access to – um – media or those living outside the US, Sylvia Brown is a self proclaimed psychic. (Of course with no access to media, how are you reading this? Are you psychic?) Where in Germany one can find psychics in the backs of cheap magazines and on late night television. Psychics in the US are of a different calibre. It is not unusual for psychics to get airtime on both daytime talk-shows and primetime specials.

But what’s special about this case?

James Randi has the rundown. The parents of the recently recovered kidnap victim Shawn Hornbeck consulted both Brown and psychic James Van Praagh while searching for their lost son. Brown claimed that the child (11 at the time) was dead and had been aducted by a “dark-skinned man, he wasn’t black – more like Hispanic.” She also claimed he wore dreadlocks and drove a car with fins. She also described where the body would be found. Needless to say, the person arrested for the abduction and captivity of Shawn, who is “still with us,” was white. dreadlock-less and not connected to any of the other bullshit she produced on that day. Another good source for the story is skeptico.

There is a nice wrap up done by Anderson Cooper. Phil presents the video and I thought I would just including it here for my click-lazy, non-sceptical reader(s).

What I find really interesting are the clips showing Larry King interviewing Sylvia Brown. One has to wonder if there will be a King / Cooper spat at CNN. I would however rather watch Cooper over King. (And Jon Stewart over both).

As best I can tell, Larry King is the ultimate talk show verbal slut. He’ll have almost anyone on his show who can create audible verbalizations, it isn’t terribly important whether those verbalizations have any basis in reality or fact. Larry King will simply claim to be presenting the opinions, offering people with something to say a forum to say it.

Of course I don’t know whether Larry King would deem it appropriate to interview Holocaust denial experts like Willis Carto, Mark Weber or white supremacist April Gaede (it would be interesting television) or whether he would ask National Vanguard leader Kevin Alfred Strom to appear. But he has no problem repeatedly inviting people like Sylvia Brown or James Van Praagh. The latter is entertainment, the former tasteless. Mr. King I beg to disagree; and I suspect Pam and Craig Akers would agree with me.

I have to applaud Anderson Cooper and of course James Randi and Phil Plait for continually bringing this kind of thing to light. I will also do my linkage good dead for the day and point readers and Google to Robert Lancaster’s page about all things Brown-ian. He has the myths, the misses and the videos. If you do nothing else, add this to one of your posts today. Maybe someday, we can get StopSylviaBrown above Sylvia Brown in Google searches.

Stop Sylvia Brown

Of course I’m a little psychic myself and I’m getting a feeling right now. A feeling that Cooper and King might not really like each other. And one of them has something to do with dreadlocks, and fins, near water, in the dark…

Not Christmas Unless the Nazis Go Free

I was going to write a post about the fact that Deborah Lipstadt is blogging again but some of her first posts pointed me to a different topic.

In case you don’t know, Deborah Lipstadt is a professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. One of her major research areas is studying holocaust denial and one of the biggest holocaust deniers is David Irving. When Professor Lipstadt published her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, she didn’t think too much about the occasional comment about David Irving. She assumed he was proud of denying history. That was until her book was put on sale in England.

Around the time Lipstadt’s book came out, bookstores in Britain had had just about enough of Mr. Irving’s right-wing Nazi (not neo-Nazi, he does the original stuff) propaganda. Therefore they refused to carry his then newest book work scribblings screed about Josef Goebbels. Irving smelled Jewish conspiracy and looked around for someone to blame. He found a target in Professor Lipstadt and her British publisher Penguin books.

British libel law is almost the exact reverse of the American version. If someone sues for libel, it is the defendant who must prove the truth of the matter and not the plaintiff to show untruth. Irving sued, represented himself (what was that comment about people who represent themselves having fools as clients?) and lost spectacularly. In a damning judgment, Judge Sir Charles Gray blasted Irving,

The charges which I have found to be substantially true include the charges that Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-semitic and racist and that he associates with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.

If you want to learn about Holocaust denial, what claims are made and how wrong they are, you can get everything for free at the Holocaust on Trial website, a project supported by Emory. The site includes almost all the expert reports produced for Professor Lipstadt, the trial transcripts and the complete judgement. (As entertaining and educational as the Dover judgement.) You could of course also buy either the book by Deborah Lipstadt or, for a slightly different perspective, you could read Michael Shermer’s excellent Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?

Why is any of this relevant now?

Over a year ago, David Irving was sentenced to 3 years in an Austrian prison for having denied the Holocaust in Austria. (Actually, it’s not quite that easy. Irving denied the Holocaust long ago at some neo-Nazi meeting in Austria; the Austrian state department declared him persona non grata and denied him entry into the country; he entered; about two years ago he was put on trial and put in prison. Phew!) Holocaust denial is a crime in many European countries including France, Germany and Austria and Irving is denied entry in these and a couple of other countries. Irving, after serving 13 months of his sentence, was released and, on December 21, sent back to England (who have to let him in). It was a repent David Irving that appeared before the Austrian courts. The Telegraph brought the following heart rending rendition,

The appeal court said it had made its decision to release Irving early due to the “exceptional long time since the crime”, as well as his defence that he no longer denied the Holocaust.

The judge, Ernest Maurer, said: “We expect Irving will leave Austria immediately. We don’t suspect he will commit another offence.”

Appearing handcuffed in court for the appeal verdict, Irving looked at the judge and said in German: “Thank you, your Honour.”

Of course, an almost unrecognizable, repentant David Irving isn’t something you see very often – or it appears – for very long. Shortly after landing back in Britain, Irving was also back in the business of anti-Semitism, racism; in short, all the things we recognize him for. The Guardian pointed out on December 23,

The discredited British historian David Irving came under fire last night for making racist comments a day after flying back to Britain following a year in prison in Austria for Holocaust denial.

Mr Irving, 68, who was released from a three-year sentence in Austria after undergoing what the judge said was an “impeccable conversion”, told a press conference that he supported the drunken anti-Semitic comments made by Mel Gibson that Jews were responsible for all modern wars. He also boasted about his success as an author during the 1970s by referring to his cash purchase of a “nigger brown” Rolls-Royce.

Well, at least he managed almost 24 hours.

According to the Austrian newspaper, Der Standard (German), the *cough* ‘activist’ judge involved in the case isn’t a completely unwritten page himself. He has close ties to the FPÖ, the far right political party run by Jörg Haider. As a matter of fact, he has made enough right-wing judgements, that he even managed to have a book written about one of his cases dealing with a neo-Nazi detractor. From the publisher,

The court battle handled [in this book] touches on the important themes, right-wing extremism, Social Darwinism [Biologismus] and national socialism. And the sole judge [as opposed to a panel] in the case, Ernest Mauer, is neither unknown nor uncontested.

So where all this does that leave us? Not far from where we started a couple of years ago. The judge in Austria is remaining true to form as is David Irving. Deborah Lipstadt is blogging again (although it is difficult to tell on which blog).

And Michael Shermer? Is there anything we can do for one of the leading sceptics of our age, one of the people who goes around bashing frauds and psychics, doing online debates with the likes of Deepak Chopra? Professor Lipstadt found a present for him too. You see there is this channeler in Florida who claims Anne Frank has forgiven Hitler…

So, I may have missed these Christmas doings last year, but hey, here’s a belated Merry Christmas to all. To all except the neo-Nazi, Holocaust-denying slugs out there.

Stem Cells ‘Sited’

There is a new web site up giving some basic information about stem cell research. The information is basic, but for those who have no science background, it is probably a good start.

Even though the site claims to be absolutely neutral on the issue of stem cell research, it does make one major assumption, that stem cell research, either on embryonic or adult stem cells- will eventually lead somewhere. Also note the language involved in the site is also inherently pro-science. For example the site prefers to use the more talking-point acceptable adjectives unlimited and limited as opposed to embryonic and adult. Is that bad? No. Is it neutral. No again.

Do I think stem cell research is inherently unethical? No. The unethical part of the discussion is the disingenuous arguments coming from the anti-choice, religious right trying to claim that unused embryos created during in-vitro fertilization are the moral equivalent of a 5 year old child. These people leave a slime trail.

On the other hand, I have long since lost the ability to believe that scientific progress is either good or inevitable.

For example look at today’s article in the New York Times about one of the main pharmaceutical companies cancelling trials of a new heart medicine.

The news came to Pfizer’s chief scientist, Dr. John L. LaMattina, as he was showering at 7 a.m. Saturday: the company’s most promising experimental drug, intended to treat heart disease, actually caused an increase in deaths and heart problems. Eighty-two people had died so far in a clinical trial, versus 51 people in the same trial who had not taken it.

Scrutiny of Other Heart Drugs Could Grow After Failed Trial (December 4, 2006) Within hours, Pfizer, the world’s largest drug maker, told more than 100 trial investigators to stop giving patients the drug, called torcetrapib. Shortly after 9 p.m. Saturday, Pfizer announced that it had pulled the plug on the medicine entirely, turning the company’s nearly $1 billion investment in it into a total loss.

The abrupt decision to discontinue torcetrapib was a shocking disappointment for Pfizer and for people who suffer from heart disease. The drug, which has been in development since the early 1990s, raises so-called good cholesterol, and cardiologists had hoped it would reduce the buildup of plaques in blood vessels that can cause heart attacks. Just last Thursday, Pfizer’s chief executive, Jeffrey B. Kindler, said publicly that the drug could be among the most important new developments for heart disease in decades and that the company hoped to get Food and Drug Administration approval for it in 2007.

We’ll leave the fact that the headline – “End of Drug Trial Is a Big Loss for Pfizer and Heart Patients” – alone is an abomination and inherently assumes heart patients would have benefited more from medication than from improved diets and permanent mobility training. The fact that Pfizer is forced to stop trying to produce a drug which demonstrably didn’t work is just that – a fact. It is a big loss for Pfizer, the investors will be sorely missing the 1 billion dollar investment. But that is the kind of thing that is at stake here. Not making people healthier.

But what was Pfizer trying to produce? A drug that is supposed to turn bad cholesterol into good cholesterol. According to the Weight-control Information Network, half of America is overweight and a third are obese. Do I really believe those exact numbers? No, not really. Oh the values are correct, but I don’t think that all overweight people need to fit some fantasy number designed to make statistical analysis easier. On the other hand the trend is obvious. Pfizer knows that one way to make money is to allow people to eat what they want and be able to reduce heart problems. The NIH is trying to get people to stop eating what they want. Pfizer ran up against a scientific wall after investing about a billion dollars in a lifestyle drug. Lot’s of very intelligent, caring people hoped the drug would work, that it would be effective. They found the path led nowhere. Perhaps because the hypotheses – good and bad cholesterol instead of good eating habits and exercise -is a path leading to failure.

Do I think stem cell research is a canard? Is it something that is cynically being pushed as a possible wonder cure, a new lifestyle drug? No. But the possible advantages and the possible side effects are so unknown, so impossible to estimate that the noise being generated to do further research, to be the first to get the money making patent, honestly makes me ill.

Researchers can’t predict if a certain line of research will pan out. Basic scientific research is just that – basic. There are failures and successes. Some hypothesis will pan out – others will fail. But to turn the issue into talking points. To speak of limited and unlimited cells is also disingenuous. Unfortunately to be able to do the basic science, to convince an increasingly fundamentalist American public, the misdirection is probably necessary. But don’t forget that it is ultimately big money that wants the research to be done.

The need to get ‘first patent’ and not ‘first patient’ is at the heart stem of the issue.

(Hat Tip: Toby Barlow/Huffington Post for the stem cell website.)

Quicky: Skepchick is Psychic

Sure. You might think she’s a sceptic with one of the hottest sceptical calendars available for pre-ordering.

But I think she’s just a psychic – um – without sceptics clothing.

Though hospital spokespeople seem to be claiming that the primary goal is to provide medical relief to suffering people, a huge component is obviously conversion, as evidenced by the Jesus movie playing in the lobby and brochures that say the key to stopping terrorism lies in converting Muslims to Christianity, [at this point I rolled my eyes] an idea that I know just inspired a massive concurrent eye roll among my audience.

She knew what would happen. She can see across time and space… OMG!

Bravo! Bravo! Bad Astronomy Blogging

Phil Plait got just a little hot under the collar after a few people attacked his rant irritated but rational response to the rape of the constitution last week.

A must read.

Bravo BA! Bravo!

Heads Up: James Inhofe – Climate Alarmist

Over at ScienceBlogs, Matthew Nisbet (among others) is all hot under the collar about Mr Bonehead Senator James Inhofe. .

Mr Inhofe gave a floor speech attacking the media coverage of global warming and specifically Andrew Revkin’s new book The North Pole Was Here. Revkin is blogging back and requested links to his Amazon Blog. There you go Mr Revkin. You, dear reader, might do the same thing. Revkin’s book is aimed specifically at younger readers (age 10 and up) so if you are looking for something for your children, it might be a good idea to check it out.

 Don’t miss David Roberts deconstruction of this speech over at at the environmental blog Gristmill

Mr Inhofe on the other hand might want to go feed a polar bear – with his brain. Wait! Then the poor little polar bear would go hungry. Never mind.

Ghost? Busted!

I admit it. I have a really vivid dream life. Fortunately, I usually forget what I’ve dreamt even before I finish dreaming it. Yesterday was a bit different. I had a dream about filming a sceptics program in India showing how dishonest the peddlers of healing crystals and Ayurveda are.

The dream started with me entering an esoteric shop and asking the healer to help me. I claimed I was having some problems and inquired what I’d need to do to get some relief. The shopkeeper was very calming and said I would need to hold a diagnosis stone in order for him to pick up the negative vibrations. He could then study the vibrations and prescribe a treatment. (And yes, I know Ayurveda doesn’t work this way. It was a dream.)

I should note here, that what I was dreaming wasn’t my going into the shop itself, but rather my reviewing my video, taped using a hidden camera, of my going into the shop. So we have a dream of a video of a shop selling imaginary charms. Wow, how anti-existential do you want to get for one night?

Back to the dream; I am handed a rather beat-up piece of dark glass and told to hold it while concentrating on my problems. I solemnly hold the piece of ‘crystal’ and pretend to concentrate on my problems while the shopkeeper/healer looks very concerned. While doing this, I mentally write the narration saying that the peddler would be better off selling this type of trinket to foolish tourists as an example of glass beads traded to Indian merchants by the British in the previous century. “These beads are very rare and highly valued”; sort of a reverse trading-worthless-trinkets-to-the-gullible kind of thing. But I digress. After a little while he remarks that it should be long enough and asks for the glass stone diagnostic crystal .

Looking very serious he holds the crystal in both hands, wringing it like a wet rag, moving his hands back and forth as if he were trying to wash any evil from the stone. He does an excellent job of pretending to pick up the vibrations from the stone and makes a really cool grunting/humming/tsking sounds before pronouncing his diagnosis.

I have an energy blockage of some kind. It is extremely serious and I am lucky to have come to his shop when I did, otherwise things would have gone very, very wrong. He is one of the few people who knows how to treat this and he proceeds to collect several different crystals, powders and herbs explaining what I need to do to ‘unblock’ and ‘recenter.’ None of his explanations seem either comforting or comfortable but I act relieved and pay a rather exorbitant sum for the rather worthless collection of dead plants and pebbles.

I later do the journalistic pounce thing, returning to the shop and forcing the poor guy into the defensive, mumbling and defending his way of life. I feel like the ‘Oh, aren’t I just the really impressive journalist, protecting you, dear viewer, from giving your hard earned tourist dollars to some impoverished healer/seller of stones.’ Color me Ralph Nader.

For most people that would have been enough for one dream. Me? I’m just getting warmed up. Now enter the second shopkeeper.

This time it is not a he but a she. We have moved to a new town and are in a much more middle class, upscale shopping district. The woman is the image of the professional sub-continental business woman, well-dressed, urban, intelligent and confident. She greets me, listens to my claims and hands me a stone. I can already tell, for whatever reason, she just isn’t buying my baloney; a reverse sceptic if you will.

I hold the stone while she watches more distracted and annoyed than helpful. I make a show of trying to imbibe the rock with whatever bad vibrations I might have, attempting to wring the stone just like the guy in the previous shop. It worked for him, right?

I give the stone back to the woman who holds it briefly in both hands. No wringing or grunting here, just a slight frown. She shifts position slightly, grasping the stone tighter, then places the stone to her forehead, pretending that the proximity to her brain will help her pick up any negativity. I can tell she hasn’t bought my charade and is simply going through the motions of her own play-acting. Sure enough after a few seconds, she coolly informs me that she can detect no problem. Perhaps I should try western medicine. The sceptic exposed!  She’s really good; I am majorly impressed with the up-market quackery.

Ha! But I have a back up plan. I pretend to be really relieved to hear this. You see, I’ve only been living in India for about 3 months. A few weeks ago, a co-worker had invited me to a wedding in his village. I had been honoured and went along for the experience. For some reason, during the ceremony I managed to disgruntle the village witch who proceeded to curse me. Actually, she hadn’t cursed me; she had called upon some ghost to haunt me. Ever since then absolutely nothing has gone right. My project is behind schedule, I feel sick, and my sex life has gone downhill into a valley of nothingness. I hadn’t quite believed in the witch and am just so relieved that the healer is on the same wavelength. All this gushes out in a too fast, “Thank God I’m not possessed!” kind of speech. Excellent acting if I do say so myself.

This is not what the woman had expected. Now she looks rather nonplussed and a slight look of doubt crosses her face. She recovers immediately and responds with the perfect explanation. She couldn’t use the stone to test whether I was being haunted or not. The stone only works for finding internal problems. She would need a much more complicated ritual to find out whether my problems were spectral, not spiritual. I would need to return later after she had made certain arrangements. She warns me this ceremony would not be without risk to her and is fairly expensive. She’d need some money up front to prepare but, as she hastened to point out, she wouldn’t charge me for my previous consultation if I go ahead with the next step. I just need to spend some money to save some money. Nice bait and switch.

What’s the sceptical journalist to do? I’m in. The rest is fairly predictable. I return later to incense and nonsense. The standard semi-serious mumbo-jumbo* but I am impressed by the really nice outfit the healer wears during the second session. After declaring me to be ghost ridden, she tells me of a priest I must immediately visit to rid my self of evil spirits. I go to priest, get exorcised. Finally, I return doing the journalistic pounce thing all over again. Pow! Zap! Aren’t I just the investigative reporter?

*I know. This is Hindu not voodoo, but what’s mumbo-jumbo in Hindi?

This dream was weird on a number of levels. I don’t mean the sceptic thing. Just think what Freud (Verry, Verry interesting. I zink ve must follow ze reason for ze stones. Vhat do stones say to you?) or Moses (You will think you are sick in the first season of the year. After feeling better, a more dangerous and foreboding illness will encroach in the second season. This too will pass.) might have said about this.

What I find strange is the absolute lack of inducing factors for this dream. Sure, I’m a sceptic but I’m neither a journalist nor a fan of India. The closest I’ve come to seeing anything about India in resent months was a program about horse racing in Uzbekistan. And I haven’t even started looking at Ayurveda silliness yet. So what caused this dream? Perhaps it was the mind-warping, kamikaze memory molecule from earlier.

I have to say, I don’t have even a ghost of an idea.