Monday, June 30, 2008

The Amazing Meeting 6 summarized, part three

This is part three of my summary of The Amazing Meeting 6 (intro, part one, part two, part four, part five).

Friday night was my one late night out, as I went with a group of Denver and Boston skeptics (and one local friend) to Gallagher's Steakhouse at the New York, New York Casino. On the walk down the strip, we passed some 9/11 truthers holding signs promoting a website promoting their views. I told one that he should check out 911myths.com, to which he responded, "That's funny." He ended up going off on a rant about how I was sticking my head in the sand, to which Iunproductively responded in an off-color manner about where he was sticking his head. We had a fantastic, though expensive, meal, and I ended up leaving my camera at the restaurant. Fortunately, I was able to retrieve it even though the restaurant had closed.

Saturday morning I had breakfast with an attorney from Florida and a regular attendee of hacker's conferences from Pennsylvania; we talked a bit about criminal hacking on the Internet and copyright law.

Michael Shermer on the Skeptologists and why people believe in unseen things
Michael Shermer gave the first talk of the day. He began by talking about how he recently accepted some money from the Templeton Foundation in return for editing a booklet of thirteen essays on the question "Does science make belief in God obsolete?", which he agreed to do on the condition that he could pick at least some of the people to write answers to the question. Respondents included Kenneth Miller, Victor Stenger, Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Pinker, and Stuart Kauffman.

He then showed a segment from a TV show pilot, "The Skeptologists," that is now being pitched to the TV networks. The show features Yau-Man Chan, Mark Edward, Steven Novella, Phil Plait, Kirsten Sanford, Michael Shermer, and Brian Dunning investigating claims using the tools of skepticism. The segment shown was of Shermer, Sanford, and Novella investigating health claims made for wheat grass, such as that because it contains chlorophyll which is molecularly similar to hemoglobin, it turns into hemoglobin when you consume it.

Shermer then went on to give a talk about "why people believe in unseen things," arguing that we engage in learning by association (something illustrated by Banachek's memory workshop) and have a tendency to make type II errors (incorrectly accepting a belief in something false) over type I errors (incorrectly rejecting a belief in something true). He gave a brief review of some evidence that when we process a sentence in order to understand it, we go through the same steps as entertaining that it is true, and to exercise skepticism about it requires additional effort; disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection after the process of comprehension. This kind of acceptance of knowledge presented by others makes sense for a child growing up, especially in a hostile environment where survival is at stake.

Humans also tend not to be persuaded by or even remember being told that something is false--the negation can be forgotten while the statement being denied is remembered as true. A flyer put out by the CDC to rebut myths about flu vaccines turned out to have the opposite of the desired effect, at least by certain groups of people--after 30 minutes, they remembered 28% of the false statements as being true, and after three days the percentage jumped to 40%. (Also see Sam Wang and Sandra Amodt's op-ed in the June 27, 2008 New York Times, "Your Brain Lies to You.")

Shermer didn't mention the study I've linked to, but rather later near the end of his talk referred to some fMRI studies by Sam Harris, Sameer Sheth, and Mark Cohen (PDF) about evaluating statements as true, false, or undecideable, comparing reaction times to different types of statements.

Agency and the intentional stance
Shermer talked about the work of Pascal Boyer and Daniel Dennett on agency and the intentional stance--that we tend to assume by default that everything that happens not only has a cause, but is caused by an agent, and particularly one that means us harm. Such an assumption may make evolutionary sense to enable survival, though it clearly doesn't work well for accurate explanations of the world. But such appeal of agency lies behind intelligent design theory, and attributing supernatural intentions to natural phenomena. Shermer called this "The God Illusion" rather than "delusion," because he, like Boyer and Dennett, see it as a normal cognitive illusion rather than something delusional or pathological.

He went on to talk about folk intuitions as being the engines of all sorts of beliefs. He gave examples from folk astronomy, folk biology (the elan vital), folk psychology (mind/brain dualism), and folk economics (centrally planned economies). He compared natural selection and Adam Smith's invisible hand, observing that many people misconstrue one or the other as being something magical or directed. He observed that we have folk intuitions that have evolved for a particular environment, yet do not work well at the huge or tiny scales.

Then, more controversially, he referred to folk politics, viewing societies as an extension of the family, and referred to "intelligent government theory," the "God of the government" theory, and "the government illusion," drawing an analogy to intelligent design, God of the gaps, and the God illusion, respectively. But where intelligent design says "I can't imagine how X could have evolved, therefore it must have been designed," he described "intelligent government theory" as based on the faulty reasoning that "I can't imagine how X could be done privately, therefore a government must do it." The difference here, as I've already mentioned, is that we know that governments exist and do provide services. The libertarian argument about private provision of services vs. government provision of services is one about whether government is necessary, or moral, or more efficient than private provision of services. To my mind, such arguments are well worth having, but come down to questions of competing values (e.g., liberty vs. justice) and empirical evidence about costs and benefits of competing approaches. It's not really analogous to the question of the existence or nonexistence of gods, unless perhaps one takes that to partly be an issue about the pragmatic value of belief in an illusion vs. truth.

Sharon Begley
Newsweek science writer Sharon Begley gave a talk titled "Creationism and Other Weird Beliefs: The Role of the Press," with a subtitle "hint: don't get your hopes up." She was very pessimistic about the press being helpful in promoting critical thinking. She began by telling the story of the Tichbourne Claimant. In 1854, Roger Tichbourne was lost at sea off the coast of Brazil. He had been raised in France to the age of 16, then in England. He was very thin, and had blue eyes and tattoos. His mother refused to accept that he was dead, and placed ads in newspapers seeking him. Some 20 years later, a man from Wagga Wagga, Australia contacted her, claiming that he had not previously contacted her because he wanted to achieve success on his own accord, under the name "Mr. Castro," but had failed to do so. This man, the Tichbourne Claimant, was obese, spoke no French, had no tattoos, had brown eyes, and was an inch taller than Roger Tichbourne, yet she accepted him as the genuine article.

According to Begley, the role of the newspaper is not to educate. In the early years of the AIDS crisis, public health officials asked for the press to run informative stories, and they complied, but this was not helpful because:
  • The scientific ignorance of the American public.
  • The capacity for rational thnking is not identical to the disposition to employ rational thinking.
  • There is a disconnect between factual knowledge and belief, as exhibited in the case of Mrs. Tichbourne.
  • Public attitudes towards the press are negative.
  • The press has a commitment to "balance."
  • Common sense is not common.
She gave some statistics on polls of Americans' agreement or disagreement with the statement that "Human beings as we know them developed from earlier species of animals":

1985: 45% agreed, 48% disagreed, 7% unsure.
2005: 40% agreed, 39% disagreed, 21% unsure.

By comparison the percentage of agreement in Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden was over 80%; of OECD nations only Turkey had a lower percentage of acceptance than the U.S.

Evolution, gay marriage, and abortion are all highly politicized in the U.S. in a way that they aren't in Europe or Japan.

But if the question was "Can natural selection explain appearance and change over time of animals," 78% of Americans agreed. Yet 62% agree that "God created humans as they are today." This, according to Begley, is because Americans have a view of human exceptionalism.

She went through a list of facts that are beyond dispute, which were presented to Americans for acceptance or denial. Two examples:

More than half of all genes in humans are identical to those in mice. 33% agree
More than half of all genes in humans are identical to those in chimps. 38% agree

Only 9% of Americans know what a molecule is. Because of this, while sports writers can use abbreviations such as ERA and RBI without explaining them, Begley says she cannot assume her readers know anything at all, and recently learned that she can't even refer to DNA and expect her readers to know what she's talking about.

She observed that a disposition to critical thinking is associated with being more curious, open-minded, open to new experiences, conscientiousness, being less dogmatic, less close-minded, less authoritarian, and likely to rely more on epirical and rational data than on intution and emotion when weighing information and reaching conclusions. But you have to both have the skills and want to think critically in order to apply them. In addition to Tichbourne as an example of someone who had the skills but didn't want to apply them, she noted that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's son was killed two weeks before the end of WWI, and he went to a medium who claimed to contact his son, which he very much wanted to believe. Alfred Russell Wallace, who formulated evolution by natural selection parallel to Darwin, was also a believer in ghosts, levitation, spirit photography, and clairvoyance. And she noted that a statement Penn Jillette made the previous day sounded like he was rejecting climate change on the basis of a dislike for Al Gore. (UPDATE, July 4, 2008: Sharon Begley wrote about this at the Newsweek blog, and Penn Jillette responded in the Los Angeles Times. I think Penn more accurately reports what happened than Sharon Begley did--he really did say that he didn't know, and that people he knows and considers reliable tell him that anthropogenic climate change is real. One thing Penn gets wrong is that Teller didn't mention Gore's name when he said that carbon credits are "bullshit modeled on indulgences.")

She commented on some of the negative letters she has received any time she writes about evolution or critically about claims like alien abductions. When she wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about the discovery of Tiktaalik, she received several letters which she read excerpts of, three examples of which were the standard argument that "evolution requires more faith" than believing that God did it, a letter asking "where are the billions of 'transition fossils,'" and one asking, "if you are terminal will you call on Darwin or God?"

Don't count on the press
The "reality-based community" must contend with contrarian politicians, the masses' distrust of elites, and new sources of news. With regard to the last point, she pointed out that Googling evolutionary biology terms often brings up Answers in Genesis sites prior to sites with accurate information.

The journalistic conceit of objectivity, she said, is imported from political disputes where there are two contrary sides. (I actually think that notion of balance is as often mistaken in politics as it is in science--there may only be one side with any valid support, or there may be more than two sides deserving of representation, though the latter is more common in politics than in science. But dualism is a misrepresentation in both circumstances.)

Uncommon common sense
Begley made the following points, which had some overlap with Shermer's talk:
  • Evolution is not intuitive.
  • Common sense can mislead us about the physical world.
  • Our brains are driven to see patterns.
  • We have a habit of imputing consciousness to inanimate objects.
  • Someone is staring at me from behind. (People tend to have and respond to such feelings. I can't remember if she actually discussed Rupert Sheldrake's studies of this, or of the skeptical critiques by Robert Baker or Richard Wiseman.)
She gave the example of an experiment with a sweater at Bristol University. Students were shown a ratty old sweater and asked who would be willing to put it on in return for a payment of twenty British pounds. Most indicated a willingness to do so. But if they were then told, oh, by the way, this sweater belonged to a murderer, many of the hands would go down--as though evil were a property that contaminated the object. What she didn't mention is that similarly, the value of something associated with someone of status has the reverse effect--e.g., if the sweater were claimed to belong to Einstein. The effect of status on objects is one that is clearly prevalent even among skeptics, who are as likely as anyone to enjoy collecting autographs and memorabilia, or objects like ping pong balls used on a television show (see Adam Savage's talk, below).

Derek and Swoopy
Derek and Swoopy, the hosts of the official Skeptics Society podcast, "Skepticality," gave a short talk about their show and noted that they now have about 35,000 listeners per program, and that the top two skeptics' podcasts, "Skepticality" and "The Skeptics Guide to the Universe," have over 4 million downloads between them. They reported that after some successful skeptical panels at science fiction conventions, Dragon*Con 2008 in Atlanta this Labor Day weekend, a conference so large that it occurs at four hotels, will have four full days of skeptical content, a "Skeptrack" featuring James Randi, Michael Shermer, Phil Plait, Ben Radford, Alison Smith, George Hrab, and others.

Steven Novella
Dr. Novella gave a talk on "Dualism and Creationism" covering the history of dualism in philosophy of mind, evidence from neuroscience, and a discussion of modern dualism. In his discussion of dualism in philosophy, he attributed to Descartes a notion of computation occurring in the brain and a position he called "consciousness dualism." I think perhaps that gives Descartes too much credit, though he did think that "animal spirits" flowing in the brain caused signals from perception to be projected on the surface of the pineal gland, which was the seat of the soul and consciousness.

He referred to the advocacy of property dualism/epiphenomenalism by David Chalmers, and observed that his views would not be acceptable to most of those who advocate dualism. Chalmers's position is that most mental activity is physical brain activity, but there's a remaining hard problem of consciousness posed by the conscious properties of perception and feeling known as qualia, which distinguish unconscious zombies that could behave just like us from real people. He gave Deepak Chopra as an example of an individual who is essentially a denialist about contemporary neuroscience, an anti-materialist who supports "quantum woo," Eastern mysticism, and what he called "substrate consciousness," a feature of the universe itself.

Evidence from neuroscience
Novella gave the following points to summarize the evidence from neuroscience:
  • Brain anatomy and activity correlates with mental activity.
  • There is no mind without the brain.
  • Brain development correlates with mental development.
  • If you damage the brain, you damage the mind.
  • Different states of consciousness correlate with different brain states.
  • Turn off the brain and you turn off the mind.
  • The mind does not survive the death of the brain.
  • MEG (magnetoencephalography) can be used to provoke specific mental effects, including inducing out-of-body experiences at will.
My notes on the last point suggest that Novella said that MEG could be used to induce OBEs. There were a couple of recent studies about two different methods for inducing OBEs, but I don't recall either of them using magnetic induction (e.g., this 2007 Science paper). I'm skeptical of Michael Persinger's claims of magnetic induction of religious experiences (also see this 2004 Nature article).

We're in the process of reverse-engineering the brain, and the materialist model of consciousness is working pretty well. The elements of consciousness are increasingly identifiable and localizable, and our ability to reconstruct them in artificial intelligence will be the ultimate test.

Novella defined consciousness as the moment-to-moment functions of the brain, when it is processing information reflectively, and presenting it to the part of the brain that is paying attention. (Is it really commonly accepted that attention is localized to a particular part of the brain?) We are trying to assess our consciousness with our consciousness.

The vitalism analogy
Novella stated, referencing Daniel Dennett, that just as life is an emergent property of living things, consciousness is the sum of the easy problems about consciousness, leaving no remaining residue of a hard problem, just as there is no elan vital for biology.

Egnorance
Novella then talked about neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, who he said makes the mistake of confusing the question of "does" with "how." That is, because we don't know the details of how consciousness is physically generated, it must not be the case. He compared this to the "God of the gaps" argument--whatever is currently unexplained must be caused by something supernatural.

Defenses of dualism
Novella then went through a few rhetorical strategies used to defend dualism. One is that any day now, evolution (or materialism) will collapse. But they've been saying this in the evolution case for 100 years. (Glenn Morton has a nice article titled "The Imminent Demise of Evolution: The Longest Running Falsehood in Creationism," which offers 178 years of such quotes.)

Another is to generate false controversy, and say that until the argument is resolved, it's legitimate to accept dualism.

Then there's the claim of impending acceptance, the converse of the imminent demise argument--that Deepak Chopra's views are about to be accepted by the entire world, for example.

The need to change science--Novella said that B. Alan Wallace, a Buddhist, has argued that we need to reintroduce subjective evidence into science. Novella suggested that subjective evidence can't be scientific evidence, which I think is a slight overstatement--a self report is a valid source of data, we just need to have a way to correlate those self reports with other evidence.

In his conclusion, Novella stated that the purpose of modern Cartesian dualism is to provide intellectual cover for a belief system--presumably including various religious views about immortality as well as Deepak Chopra's views.

It's worth noting that Keith Augustine of the Internet Infidels has done a lot of work presenting the evidence against survival of death and the possibility of immortality, as well as critical of claims that near-death experiences are evidence of survival. He has recently published a four-part series of articles in the Journal of Near-Death Studies on the subject, which have been accompanied by responses from NDE researchers. He is also working on an anthology which will respond to recent arguments for dualism. I urge Novella to contact Augustine, as he might have some contribution to make to that anthology.

Jeff Wagg
Jeff Wagg of JREF stated that there is a possibility of a future TAM in the UK, and that TAM7 will be in Las Vegas on July 9-12, 2009 at the South Point Casino. There will also be a JREF Mexican Riviera cruise in March, 2009, which still is looking for speakers.

Jim Underdown
Jim Underdown of the Center for Inquiry, Los Angeles reported that the Independent Investigations Group, a skeptical group that does paranormal investigations, would be giving an award for best TV show or movie that debunks pseudoscience to Penn & Teller's Bullshit!, and a lifetime achievement award to James Randi.

Randi came up and said that some years ago he had terminated his relationship with CSICOP because they had asked him to stop going after Uri Geller, who was suing him repeatedly (and had also sued CSICOP as a result). Randi said that Geller only won once, in the Japan case, where the judgment was lowered from slander to insult, and that while Geller was suing for millions he was only awarded a small amount. The amount was 500,000 yen against Randi, and a larger amount against the Japanese magazine which reported Randi's erroneous statement that Dr. Wilbur Franklin of Kent State University had killed himself after Randi discredited Geller, who Franklin had endorsed as genuine. Franklin had actually died of natural causes, and Randi attributed the Japanese magazine statement to a mistranslation of the phrase "shot himself in the foot," though Randi had been quoted in a U.S. publication in English making the same statement about Franklin killing himself out of embarrassment over Geller's exposure. Geller also won a case in Hungary for a statement by Randi that called Geller a swindler, though Randi was not named in that suit. After Geller sued Victor Stenger in Hawaii, CSICOP and Prometheus in England, and CSICOP and Prometheus in Miami, Prometheus Books added errata slips to Stenger's Physics and Psychics and to Randi's The Truth About Uri Geller regarding an incident where Geller was sued in Israel for breach of contract and not, as those two sources stated (Stenger relying upon Randi), "arrested." The Miami suit was eventually won by Prometheus and CSICOP on the grounds that Geller had knowingly filed after the statute of limitations had expired, and Geller paid them slightly less than half of the fees, costs and sanctions that were originally awarded and dismissed his appeal. Contrary to the impression Randi has sometimes given, the vast majority of Geller's lawsuits were not about paranormal abilities, but about accusations of other kinds of impropriety, such as fraud, criminal acts, plagiarism, and so forth. Geller gives his version of events on his web page.

Now, apparently as a result of this award, Randi said he would like to forgive and forget, and resume his relationship with CSICOP (now CSI).

The Skeptologists
During lunch was a showing of the full pilot episode of "The Skeptologists," which also included a segment on the tools used for ghost hunting, testing them aboard the Queen Mary in order to see what they actually measure. I missed all but the ending, but it was shown again on Sunday, about which more later.

There were several more speakers on Saturday--Phil Plait, Adam Savage, Matthew Chapman, Richard Wiseman, and a panel discussion ostensibly on "the limits of skepticism," but I'll save that for further summary tomorrow.

On to TAM6 summary, part four.

Summer sale on Teach the Controversy shirts

We've purchased a few of these designs, at 25% off... I didn't get them in time for TAM6, but I wore the element one this weekend. Kat and I each have one of the "because we know that dinosaur bones were really planted by beelzebub" shirts, and I've got the "because we know that the earth sits on giant elephants which in turn ride on an even gianter turtle" one along with the "because we know that the real periodic table of elements only numbers five" shirt.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Amazing Meeting 6 summarized, part two

This is part two of my summary of The Amazing Meeting 6 (intro, part one, part three, part four, part five).

Friday, the conference gets started

More skeptics from around the world began to show up on Friday. Checking in at the registration desk entitled each person to a name badge, a folder of materials, a laser pointer/reading light (which many put to use during the conference, sometimes to the irritation of a speaker or emcee Hal Bidlack), and a copy of An Objectivist Secular Reader, edited by Dr. Edward Hudgins. The book argues for common cause between skeptics and Objectivists "and the often-related libertarian perspective." I happened to sit next to Hudgins through part of the conference, and spoke to him a bit between sessions, and found that we have some common friends and acquaintances. He said that he thinks the libertarian viewpoint does fit well with skepticism, which was a point made later in the conference by Michael Shermer by drawing an analogy between anti-authoritarianism in the religious sphere to anti-authoritarianism in the political sphere--but of course governments actually exist, so the real underlying question is what legitimizes or justifies authority, which is a question also relevant in the scientific sphere. I'll say more about this later when I summarize Shermer's talk.

Hudgins was working on a presentation for an upcoming speaking event which included statistics about changes in U.S. religious demographics over the last several decades, showing a rise in nonbelief. I asked to look at one page that showed a breakdown of U.S. religious adherents by sect, and pointed out the huge growth among Pentecostals (something I've previously written about here). This growth indicates to me that there's more to religion than dogma and doctrine, and that a purely intellectual critique of beliefs and practices that are held for reasons that involve emotion and community is doomed to failure.

I think that one of skepticism's strengths is that it is a method, not a doctrine, and that turning it into dogma or trying to link it to a specific set of conclusions about religion or politics (or science, for that matter) is an enormous mistake that serves only to limit its appeal. Skepticism is at its best when it teaches people to think critically for themselves and at its worst when it tells people what to think. I'll have more to say on this subject when I summarize Sunday's talks, which included one by Don Nyberg railing against "religious pseudoscience."

Friday morning I sat down to breakfast with a young couple from Texas, whose names unfortunately escape me. He had just completed a semester of medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico, and she had finished a degree in neuroscience. We were soon joined by Tony, an Australian who had been living with his partner in Mexico City for the last several years and was now on his way back to Australia by way of a trip around the world. There was a strong international presence at the conference, with dozens of Australians in particular, probably due to the strength of the Australian Skeptics organization.

After breakfast, I went up to the conference room to hear the end of the recording of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast which was being recorded live in the room, but somehow I completely failed to meet Steven Novella, one of the podcast's hosts, through the entire conference. I had hoped to at least say hello and introduce myself, since we were cosigners of a letter to Skeptical Inquirer back in 1999.

Hal Bidlack opens the event
The conference officially kicked off with an introduction by Hal Bidlack, who is running for Congress in Colorado Springs, CO, a part of the country which would be greatly helped by a critically thinking legislator. He mentioned that two prominent skeptics have died since the last conference, Arthur C. Clarke and Jerry Andrus. Andrus was a regular attendee of Skeptics Society conferences and JREF conferences, known for setting up his optical illusions and his willingness to explain them patiently to all.

Randi's welcome
Hal then introduced James Randi, who was looking more frail than the last time I saw him in person, though he said that his health is much better than it has been in the recent past. Randi pointed out that a light, a chair, and a table commemorating Jerry Andrus and his illusions was set up in the back corner of the conference room, and will be set up at future Amazing Meetings as well--while noting that this is for us to remember Jerry.

Randi announced that the JREF library is up to 2282 books, that this conference had about 900 attendees, and that it attracts more women and young people than any other skeptics conference. My impressions supported that conclusion. He also stated that there are UK and Dutch skeptical TV series in the works, and ended by saying that he wanted everyone at the conference to come up, greet him, and shake his hand (which I had already done on Thursday when I ran into him by the registration desk).

Ben Goldacre on homeopathy
The first official conference presentation was by Ben Goldacre, M.D. of www.badscience.net, who spoke about "squabbles about homeopathy." Goldacre described the basic arguments against homeopathy. The main argument against it is that its extreme dilutions are so extreme that a single molecule of a 30C diluted substance would be found in not an Olympic-sized swimming pool, but in ten thousand million million million million pools. A 55C dilution would be equivalent to a universe-sized sphere filled with water with a single molecule of the diluted substance in it. Goldacre observed that a label of a homeopathic remedy that says it is safe because it contains "less than 1 ppm" of the diluted substance is quite an understatement. The homeopaths respond that this is irrelevant; what makes the homeopathic remedy work is that "water has memory," and its structure has somehow changed to reflect being in contact with the diluted substance. But, Goldacre asked, why does it remember the remedy and not, say, having been in Nelson's colon or the Queen's bladder, or in contact with countless other substances? The homeopathic answer to that is that the memory only comes into effect through "succussion," when the remedy is in the water and the container is banged ten times firmly against a wooden striking board (for instance).

As homeopaths do want to present their work as scientific, they have been willing to engage with skeptics. Goldacre reported that his website was given permission to reprint papers from the journal Homeopathy on water memory, which were then critiqued in the JREF Forums, and the critiques assembled into a response which was submitted to and published in the same journal.

But Goldacre points out that the standard anti-homeopathy arguments have been made at least since John Forbes, Queen Victoria's physician, made them in 1846, but they have proven ineffective in persuading homeopaths and users of homeopathic remedies from giving them up. He says the arguments are "irrelevant," because homeopaths are persuaded that their remedies actually work. But that's just not so, he argued. While one might think that homeopathy is like anesthetics where we don't know how it works but it does, with homeopathy we have no good explanation for how it could work and we also have evidence that it doesn't work any better than a placebo.

He then went on to talk about how the placebo effect is a genuinely fascinating scientific anomaly far more worthy of interest than homeopathy. In pain relief, four sugar pills are more effective than two, salt water injection is more effective than sugar pills, and commercial packaging make placebos more effective. He argued that the extent to which homeopathy works is indistinguishable from the placebo effect, as demonstrated by a proper meta-analysis of homeopathic trials, reducing the weight of those which have flaws such as poor randomization and poor blinding.

Keynote by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was clearly the rock star of skepticism at the reception on Thursday night, surrounded by adoring fans (perhaps it was his hat, as P.Z. Myers suggests), gave the keynote address to the conference. When he began, many people had been shining their laser pointers on the wall above the stage, and Tyson informed the audience that he would express his "geek dominance." He instructed everyone to point their laser pointers above the door on the opposite side of the room. Once everyone had done so, he pulled out his laser pointer--shining from farther away than anyone else, since he was up on stage--and shined a large green dot that outshone all of the red dots.

Tyson's talk was called either "Adventures in Science Illiteracy" or "Brain Droppings of a Skeptic" (a title cribbed from George Carlin). He began by saying that he had something to do with Pluto's demotion from being a planet, and that anybody who didn't like it should "get over it." The rest of his talk wandered over a large range of topics that have come up in the Q&A sessions of his lectures:

UFO Sightings: When people say they've seen a UFO, be sure to remind them what the "U" stands for. Typically, those who claim they've seen a UFO start by saying it was unidentified, then end up "inventing knowledge of everything" about it being an extraterrestrial spacecraft.

Alien Abductions: Tyson said that eyewitness testimony is the lowest form of evidence in science (though it's certainly not worthless, and even the scientific literature is a form of testimony about the results of experiments). He pulled out his iPhone and said that if he had one of these 10 years ago, he'd have been burned at the stake. If you get abducted by a UFO, you should take something not of this earth in order to prove your alien contact. He showed a slide of a cover of the book "How to Defend Yourself Against Alien Abduction" and said that "I bought it, read it, and heeded its advice--and I have not been abducted."

Inept Aliens: They travel trillions of miles to get here, then crash.

Conspiracy Theory: They tend to tacitly admit insufficient data. If an argument lasts more than five minutes, both sides are wrong.

Astrology: If you read a horoscope to a group of people and ask if it describes them, approximately 2/3 will agree that it fits them. Most Scorpios are actually Ophiuchans.

Birth Rates and Full Moons: Average human gestation is 295 days; the lunar cycle is 29.5 days. Full moon birth = full moon impregnation.

Behavior and Full Moons: The pressure of an extra pillow is a trillion times greater than the tidal force on a cranium.

Surviving Terminal Cancer: If someone gets three diagnoses from physicians giving them 5-7 months to live, then lives for five years, they credit God for their survival, rather than blaming doctors for a poor diagnosis.

Swami Levitation: Tyson suggest 1,000 cans of baked beans would generate sufficient flatulence to become airborne.

Moon Hoax: Modern technology is so advanced that some people can't believe it. But if you learn the rocket equation and look at how much fuel was in the Saturn V, if the launch was fake, what was all that fuel for?

Mars "Virus": In 2003, the Earth was the closest it had been to Mars than in the previous 60,000 years, which led to multiple stories (including in subsequent years) that some virus would jump from Mars to Earth. Tyson pointed to the side and said "Japan is that way." He jumped a few feet to the side in that direction, and then said he is now as much closer to Japan as Mars came to the Earth from its average distance.

Fear of Numbers: 80% of building on Broadway in NYC have no 13th floor, due to an irrational fear of the number 13. (Yet who actually does fear 13?) And why don't we use negative numbers on elevators for subfloors? Or negative numbers in financial ledgers, instead of parentheses? (Actually, I suspect that's to avoid ambiguity with hyphens in dollar ranges, rather than a fear of negative numbers.)

Naming Rights: Tyson pointed out countries that put scientists on their money--Isaac Newton on the English one-pound note, Einstein on Israeli money. The U.S. has only one scientist--Ben Franklin--on money, on the $100 bill, but with no symbolism to represent his scientific work--no kite, no key, no lightning rod. He also pointed to Gauss and the Gaussian distribution on British money as British support of science, but Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in The Black Swan, points out that the financial field goes grossly astray by trying to using Gaussian distributions to describe phenomena that are not Gaussian. Taleb points to Gauss on British money as ironic and inept rather than pro-science.

Tyson also looked at the names of the elements, with slides of the periodic table that showed which ones were discovered when, and by which countries. While the U.S. was not the top country, it has discovered nearly all of the most recent elements. Tyson explained that Sweden has discovered so many elements because Ytterby cave was rich in undiscovered elements, and yielded the names of the elements Yttrium (39, 1795), Terbium (65, 1843), Erbium (68, 1843), Ytterbium (70, 1878), and Scandium (21, 1879).

Jury Duty I: Tyson described being called for jury duty. He was asked what he did, he said that he was an astrophysicist. When asked what he teaches, he said "a course on evaluating evidence and the unreliability of eyewitness testimony," at which point he was promptly dismissed.

Jury Duty II: Tyson was called for jury duty again, and made the first cut of jurors. The facts of the case were described--the defendant was charged with the possession of "2000 mg" of cocaine. When the jurors were asked if they had any questions, Tyson asked, "why did you describe it as 2000 mg instead of 2 g, about the weight of a postage stamp? Aren't you trying to bias the jury by making it sound like a large quantity of drugs?" At which point he was promptly dismissed.

Math?: Tyson pointed out a headline bemoaning the fact that "half the schools in the district are below average." He also pointed out an article that pointed out that 80% of airplane crash survivors had studied the locations of the exit doors upon takeoff as a suggestion that this is a good idea--but it didn't give the percentage of the nonsurvivors that had done the same. If 100% of the nonsurvivors had also studied the exit locations, would that be an argument not to do so?

Tyson responded to the common observation that the lottery is a tax upon the poor, saying that no, it's a tax on the innumerate. Similarly, he pointed to the subprime mortgage mess as a mathematical illiteracy problem.

Bayer ad in Physics Today: Tyson described an advertisement that Bayer placed in Physics Today asking how to get students interested in "why heavy things fall faster than lighter things." The ad was later changed to "why heavy things fall as fast as lighter things."

George W. Bush: Tyson said that he lives closer to Ground Zero in Manhattan than the height of the WTC towers, and showed some photographs he took on September 11. He attended a science medal presentation at the White House since he was on the presidential advisory committee; at that event Bush stated that "Our God is the God who named the stars." However, 2/3 of all stars with names have Arabic names, because from 800-1100 Islam was very supportive of math and science, giving us the names of algebra and algorithm, and the Arabic numerals. But in the 12th century, Imam Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111), the St. Augustine of Islam, stated that "manipulating numbers is the work of the devil."

There are 1.2 billion Muslims, yet they've only earned 2 of 579 Nobel prizes (one in physics, one in economics), while Jews, who are 1/80 as numerous, have earned 143 Nobel prizes, and thus have had 6,400 times the impact of Muslims on modern science. He wondered how much more contribution they would have made if it had not been for al-Ghazali's position of influence on Islam.

Intelligent Design: A 2004 SUV ad said, "In the world of SUV's, it's the survival of the fittest." In 2005, it was changed to "Its features are nothing short of a miracle."

Tyson argued that the intelligent design idea--stopping investigation with "God did it"--has historically stopped scientific inquiry. He argued that Newton could have developed Laplace's perturbation theory if he had not stopped his inquiry and appealed to God for the explanation of planetary movements that conflicted with his theory.

Stupid Design: Leukemia, vision loss with age, Alzheimer's, exhaling most oxygen we inhale, our inability to smell CO or CO2, the fact that we eat, drink, and speak through the same opening (vs. dolphin design--dolphins can't die laughing). Tyson also mentioned the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which killed 70,000 people, mostly Christians who had gathered in churches that Sunday mornings.

Religious People in the U.S.: Tyson observed that most people in the U.S. are religious--about 90% believe in God. When you look at educated people, holding a master's or Ph.D. degree, it drops to about 60%. When you look at scientists, it's about 40%. The most elite scientists--Nobel prizewinners, National Academy of Science members, etc.--it drops to 7%, with physicists and biologists as the least religious. But he pointed out that the 7% is still a substantial number of people--you cannot blame the general public for being religious if we don't understand why 7% of the most educated elite people are religious and pray to a personal God.

Bible in Science Classroom: He observed that there aren't scientists picketing in front of churches demanding equal time for science, referred to Matthew LaClair's confrontation with his history teacher for proselytizing in the classroom (a story broken by this blog), and read his letter to the editor of the New York Times about the case:
To the Editor:

People cited violation of the First Amendment when a New Jersey schoolteacher asserted that evolution and the Big Bang are not scientific and that Noah's ark carried dinosaurs.

This case is not about the need to separate church and state; it's about the need to separate ignorant, scientifically illiterate people from the ranks of teachers.

Neil deGrasse Tyson
New York, Dec. 19, 2006
Albert Einstein and God: Tyson pointed out the content of the recently published 1954 letter from Albert Einstein, and how religious believers who have claimed Einstein as one of their own have been in error.

Cosmic Perspective: Tyson went through a series of numbers with examples to clarify their magnitude: 1, or 10**0, a clear one. 1,000, a thousand, 10**3, kilo. 1,000,000, a million, 10**6, mega. 10**9, a billion, giga. There are 6,000 astrophysicists in 6 billion people, so astrophysicists are one in a million. (But someone observed that there were 3 astrophysicists present among the 900 attendees of the conference.) McDonald's has sold 100 billion hamburgers--which could encircle the globe 52 times, and then be stacked to the moon and back. At age 31, you will have lived for one billion seconds. 10**12, trillion, tera. 10**15, quadrillion, peta. The number of sounds emitted by all human beings who have ever lived. 10**18, quadrillion, exa. The number of grains of sand on an average beach. 10**21, septillion, zetta. The number of stars in the universe.

Tyson then made a list of the most abundant elements in the universe--hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen--and observed that, minus helium, these are also the same as the key ingredients of life.

He quoted the Bible's "and the meek shall inherit the earth and live in a world of peace"--and suggested that the correct translation should have been "geek" instead of "meek."

APS Conference in Vegas: Tyson closed by referring to a Las Vegas newspaper headline that said, "Meeting of physicists in town, lowest casino take ever."

Alec Jason on Peter Popoff and criminal forensics
Alec Jason, an independent forensic photographer and investigator, described how he helped James Randi in his investigation of the faith healer and televangelist Peter Popoff, who claimed to use the "word of knowledge" to obtain detailed information from God about the people he was healing. In fact, Popoff's wife Elizabeth was collecting the information from people before the show and transmitting it to Popoff via radio to an earpiece receiver he was wearing. Jason described how he went to Brooks Hall a day prior to the Popoff healing event to determine the normal background radio frequency broadcasts, and then scanned for traffic during the event while posing as a janitor at the facility. The device he used was an early Scanlock device, and although Popoff could have used countermeasures ranging such as frequency hopping, codes, spread spectrum, or encryption, none of these were in use and they quickly picked up the sound of footsteps and then Elizabeth Popoff saying, "Hi, Petey. I hope you can hear me, becasue if you can't, you're in trouble."

Randi exposed Popoff on the Tonight Show, and Popoff's career seemed to have been derailed, though it took months for his followers to get the message. But now Popoff is back--and while he was making $12 million a year before, he's reporting over $24 million a year today. The message was a demoralizing one for skeptics--even the exposure of a blatant fraud like Popoff's is not sufficient to keep him from continuing to take money from the gullible and live a life of luxury.

There were some technical difficulties during the first part of Jason's talk, and I found it mostly to be old hat--I've read Randi's The Faith Healers, seen his Tonight Show appearance, and viewed multiple presentations about the Popoff exposure.

The remainder of Jason's presentation was about his work in some criminal cases. In a case in Africa, a body was found with a SIG Sauer P226 pistol on its chest. The question to resolve was whether this was a suicide or a homicide--after firing, the gun remains cocked and has to be manually decocked. A photo of the crime scene was too fuzzy to see clearly whether the gun was cocked, but Jason was able to compare reflectivity hot spots of a cocked vs. a decocked gun to determine that the gun was decocked. As it turned out, this didn't show that it was a homicide, as the first officer on the scene said that he had picked up the gun and turned on the safety--there is no safety on the pistol, and what he had actually done is decocked it, and thus the gun was shown to have been still cocked when the body was found.

Jason also went into a lot of detail in the Frank Zupan case, where Zupan was found at the scene of a vehicle accident where his wife was behind the wheel of their car and dead with gunshot wounds to the head. Zupan testified that they were driving at 25-30 mph when an oncoming car approached, and he thought rocks came through the window and hit his wife, which he then attributed to gunshots. Jason showed that a gun cannot be shot at faster than 10 rounds per second, and if gunfire came from a car approaching at 20 mph, there would be 3 feet of movement per shot. Since Zupan's wife was shot twice in the head and there was no damage to the front windshield, there's no way Zupan's account made sense.

Penn & Teller Q&A session
Penn and Teller had no prepared material, but simply answered questions from the audience. They talked about a wide-ranging variety of subjects, including Penn's radio show (which may come back in a different form), Teller's short film that appears on George A. Romero's "Diary of the Dead" DVD, and the fact that their show Bullshit! is "fair and extremely biased." In response to a question about what they may be wrong about, Penn said that he has symptoms of a believer with respect to his views on art and his libertarian politics. When asked what's the line between reasonable concern for the environment and environmentalist nuttery, Penn answered "I don't know," and Teller said, "carbon credits are bullshit, modeled on indulgences."

Penn stated that he thinks Obama is very classy and positive, but that he doesn't agree with him about anything.

Teller showed a video made by Jeff Levine about cold reading, called "The Cold Reader," based on a story by Matthew Simmons.

George Hrab's music
George Hrab came onstage briefly to play a couple of songs, one titled "God is Not Great" inspired by Hitchens' book, and another about being a skeptic.

P.Z. Myers on bat wings
P.Z. Myers gave a talk that presented some actual science--he first gave a brief description of his field and his own work, and then a summary of work by Chris Cretekos on the genes that control the development of bat wings, and what happens when they are put into rats. Rather than attempt to summarize this myself, I'll point the interested reader to Stephen Matheson's description of the same work.

Richard Saunders on himself and educational materials for kids
Richard Saunders of the Australian Skeptics, author of 17 books on origami, creator of the origami Pigasus for JREF, founder of the Sydney Skeptics in the Pub group, former president and current VP of the Australian Skeptics, chief spoon bender for the Australian Skeptics, and producer of the TANK vodcast, said that he's about to be the most famous TV skeptic in Australia. He will be the skeptical judge on "The One: The Search for Australia's Most Gifted Psychic" show. After spending a lot of time talking about his past and coming achievements, he did a nice demonstration of a dowsing investigation for use by educators to teach children scientific methods. He had six volunteers from the audience as dowsers to try to find a bottle of water placed under one of six plastic bins. First he found the best dowser at detecting the bottle when it was out in the open, then did trials first blind and then double-blind.

Panel discussion on identifying as a skeptic
The day's events concluded with a panel discussion between James Randi, P.Z. Myers, Michael Shermer, Margaret Downey, Phil Plait, Hal Bidlack, and a member of the NYC Skeptics (I didn't catch the name) about skepticism and identifying as a skeptic. Shermer began by saying that we start by assuming everything is false and require evidence to demonstrate that anything is true. I'm not sure that's actually a sound methodology--it's a lot easier to dig yourself into a philosophically skeptical hole where you doubt the existence of an external world and other minds than it is to get out. Our actual belief methods start out with trust--trust in our own senses and in the testimony of others as we learn language and concepts--not with Cartesian skepticism. In my opinion, something like "trust but verify" and "determine the limits and faults in belief-forming methods, and avoid them" is a better procedure than trying to build up all knowledge from nothing or from indubitable foundational premises. In answer to a question about various kinds of deniers referring to themselves as skeptics, Phil Plait observed that skeptics demand evidence, while deniers deny evidence. Those who deny the Holocaust or that man landed on the moon are not skeptics, they are deniers.

At one point, Margaret Downey made a statement that testimony from individuals who claim remarkable experiences are not relevant because "first-hand reports are just hearsay." But this is a mistake--they may be characterized as hearsay to others, but not to those who are making the reports who have actually had the experiences. Further, reports themselves may be collected and correlated with other objective evidence and used to draw scientific conclusions. I think it's a huge mistake to reject individual experience out of hand in the manner suggested; it's generally possible to take a report of an experience and identify possible explanations for what could cause the experience (or the report of an experience and the false belief in an experience).

There was an excellent audience question about how those of us with limited scientific knowledge can come to conclusions about complex scientific topics where we lack expertise to evaluate the evidence ourselves--aren't we taking results on faith? Randi responded to the question, but I don't think he really got the point. I went and spoke with the questioner afterward, and she agreed that he seemed to be answering a different question. I made the point that in such a case we need to determine who are the reliable experts, the trustworthy authorities, and that we have a number of clues we can use to help identify them.

On to TAM6 summary, part three.

The Amazing Meeting 6 summarized, part one

This is part one of my summary of The Amazing Meeting 6 (intro, part two, part three, part four, part five).

The Amazing Meeting 6 was my first conference of the "Amazing" series of skeptics' conferences, sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation. I've attended a variety of other skeptical conferences over the last fourteen years, from a CSICOP conference at Stanford University in November 1984 to the most recent Skeptics Society conference at Caltech in 2006, with numerous conferences in between. I've written summaries of a few of those for skeptical publications, such as a 1990 Tucson CSICOP UFO workshop and the 1992 Dallas CSICOP conference (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

The attendees at skeptics' conferences are usually older white males--I was one of the youngest attendees, at 19, of the 1984 Stanford conference, by far. This conference, while still mostly older white males, was a much younger crowd with a lot more women than any other skeptical conference I've attended. At one point during the conference, a young man asked a question which began with a statement something like "At 19, I think I'm the youngest person here," at which point whoever had the microphone onstage asked for anyone present younger than 19 to raise their hands--and at least a dozen hands went up. Hal Bidlack, who was an excellent master of ceremonies for the conference, at one point made a point of publicly embarrassing a young man by observing that he was having his 15th birthday.

The conference began on the afternoon of Thursday, June 19 with a series of optional workshops, of which I paid for one, a memory workshop with Banachek. (I didn't attend the earlier workshop on skeptical investigation with Ben Radford.) Banachek's workshop was a two-hour session which gave a basic overview of a number of different kinds of memory systems, with audience participation so that we actually used the systems ourselves.

Banachek began his seminar with a demonstration where he looked at a deck of cards, then split it up into multiple pieces, had multiple people shuffle their respective parts, then reassemble it into two halves, each of which was given to a volunteer on stage. He proceeded to identify which person was holding each card of each suit in the deck, with 100% success. (He did admit that there was some trickery as well as memory to this demonstration.)

Then it was on to the memory systems. First was a loci system, where you associate the items to be memorized with different physical locations--in our case, we learned a list of object associated with different rooms of a house. By creating descriptions with some vivid features, such as a gun laying on a kitchen floor that had been fired, leaving black marks on the kitchen floor, we were all easily able to remember which objects were associated with which room. Next was a brief discussion of acronym-based mnemonics, such as "old elephants have much skin" as a way of remembering the names of the Great Lakes, from east to west.

Next was a linking system, which we spent the most amount of time on. We all learned a list of fourteen items on a grocery list by creating vivid associations between each item and the next in the series. We broke off into groups of about ten each, and each group came up with its own associations. One person from each group was then tested by asking what was the next item on the list, and describing the link they chose to use for the association. Several of us tested each other or were tested by others who were in the workshop on subsequent days of the conference with questions like "what came after tangerines?" I can still generate the full list of fourteen items from memory, as I'm sure most of the attendees of the workshop can, as well.

Finally, we spent a brief amount of time on peg systems and phonetic systems, which can be usefully combined into an extremely powerful memory system of the sort taught by Harry Lorayne. The basics of the system are to create associations between phonetic sounds (consonants only) and the numbers 0-9 (and then farther, as far as you want to go), so that words can be constructed associated with numbers and vice versa. He showed us a 74-digit number, and suggested that such a number could be learned with a phonetic system.

By creating associations between the "peg words" and items to be learned, you can remember lists of things, their relative positions to each other, as well as things like long lists of numbers or cards in a deck. Banachek then revealed that the grocery list we had learned, using the phonetic system he just described, encoded the 74-digit number--thus, by learning the phonetic system, we had already memorized it through our earlier exercise.

This was the first time Banachek had given this training, and so he was not as polished as, say, Harry Lorayne. But it was definitely a handy overview. My only criticism is that it would have been better to spend more time on the peg system if it's possible to do so in such a short time frame, as that's clearly where the most benefit is to be had.

After the workshop, I went out to dinner with some friends to a wonderful Thai restaurant--Lotus of Siam--and then returned for the conference reception. I ended up chatting briefly with Michael Shermer, P.Z. Myers, and some Denver and Ottawa Skeptics, and most significantly to me, finally meeting Reed Esau in person after an online acquaintance of about thirteen years, beginning when he created and I provided the hosting for the celebrity atheists list. Although Reed invited me to several parties, I only stayed out late one night during the conference, missing the fun, but waking up in plenty of time for morning discussions at breakfast before each day's conference events.

On to TAM6 summary, part two.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Alister McGrath scores a conversion for the other team

Christian theologian Alister McGrath, author of The Dawkins Delusion, managed to help persuade Norwegian astrophysicist Øystein Elgarøy that atheists had the better arguments. Elgarøy, formerly a liberal Christian, is now an atheist and a member of the Norwegian Humanist Association.

(Hat tip to DMB at the Talk Rational forum.)

Creationism's latest strategy

Barbara Forrest has an excellent article describing the passage of the recent "academic freedom" stealth creationism bill in Louisiana that's was just signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal and will no doubt serve as a model for other states. She discusses the Louisiana Family Forum, which is behind the bill, as well as the involvement of the Discovery Institute.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ray Comfort concedes banana argument

I just read yesterday at the Friendly Atheist blog that Ray Comfort has conceded that the banana is not really the "atheist's nightmare," and that it's not a good argument. But he is still continuing his habit of saying incredibly stupid things, such as that light is invisible and California wildfires are punishment for same-sex marriage. I find it remarkable that he continues to pass himself off as a "master" when his blog is full of commenters who are vastly more intelligent than he seems to be, who shred his arguments in a manner more amusing, witty, and persuasive than anything he writes.

But then, maybe he's actually an atheist playing the role of an exaggeratedly dumb Christian, in the way that Stephen Colbert plays an exaggerated conservative. After all, there's clearly success to be had and money to be made by being wrong on the Internet. I've speculated in the past that some people are intentionally putting forth bad arguments just to get the traffic from corrections.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid that, despite the fact that people like Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Moore, Michelle Malkin, and the Stop the ACLU bloggers often say things that they clearly should know are false, it's not that they are being ironic parodies like Colbert, it's that they just don't care about the difference between truth and falsehood--they are bullshitters. And it's just scary that there are people who take them seriously as reliable sources of facts.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Taipei 101's 730-ton damper ball

The world's tallest building is the 1667-foot Taipei 101 in Taiwan. One of its features is a 730-ton steel ball, made of 41 steel plates, that acts as a damper against swaying motions of the skyscraper due to wind.

On May 12, 2008, the damper, which sits between the 87th and 89th floors of the building, got a workout from the earthquakes that hit China's Sichuan province. And a YouTube user was there to get footage:



(Via deputydog, which has more information about the damper. Hat tip to Dan Noland on the SKEPTIC mailing list.)

ApostAZ podcast #4

The fourth episode of the ApostAZ podcast is now out, and this time I contributed a segment on "Lucy"'s knee joint.

Episode 004
: Atheism and Freethought in Phoenix- Squared by Greydon Square. Happy Freuder's Day. Inappropriate Teachers and the Children They Burn. Philly Coalition of Reason creates the Sign of the Times, wow. Science and Skepticism Segment by Jim Lippard, "Lucy's Knee Joint". Fleshing Out the Humanity of Godlessness.

Check it out.

(BTW, correction to the podcast: there's a reference to Kenneth Starr that should be a reference to Ken Lay of Enron--but he died of a heart attack, not a suicide or fake suicide like Samuel Israel III. And the quotation about "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" is from Theodosius Dobzhansky. ApostAZ talks about EquallyYoked.com, which this blog has discussed here.)

Help troubled animals, by dowsing

For some reason, I decided to Google the name of a channeler I debated on radio back in 1987, to see if she was still in the business. While I didn't come across any online references to her channeling, I did find her giving positive testimonials for a Sedona teacher of online newage courses that would be a lot funnier if they weren't serious.

The course "Dowsing to Help the Animals" covers the following topics:

How to talk with pets and wild animals
How to find lost pets
How to protect pets and wild animals from danger
How to choose the right and perfect veterinarian
How to improve your pet’s health condition
How to understand and improve troublesome pet behavior
How to remove insects and other pests from your home

AND MORE!

There's also "Help Troubled Species":
With the power of subtle energy technology, it is possible to help troubled species, both on a local and worldwide level.

Dowsing, a simple, yet powerful subtle energy management too, can be utilized to shift circumstances, to communicate with animal and plant life, and to access information on how to best help the creatures that need assistance.

There's also "Dowsing to Help Plants." These courses don't seem to have basic dowsing skills as a prerequisite, though another course, "Making Peace with Earth Energies, Cosmic Forces & More" does, noting that "You must be able to achieve a “yes” and “no” response with a pendulum, other dowsing device, or through muscle testing."

Another course that seems to be a prerequisite for a number of courses on the site is a self-help course in "Chasing the Shadow of Free Will: An Introduction to Belief Codes." This course description claims that "MOST of your troublesome thoughts were inherited from members of your family or are the result of past life experiences" and that the course will teach you to "use intuitive skills to access your subconscious mind and uncover the hidden thoughts (belief codes) that are preventing you from fulfilling your heart's desires." By "clearing belief codes," you can obtain a wide variety of salutory effects.

It sounds a lot like Dianetics, the core of Scientology--that the key to overcoming negative psychological problems is the elimination of "engrams," memory traces in the unconscious or "reactive mind" caused by negative prenatal (or evolutionary) experiences. The use of the term "clearing" is heavily used in Scientology, and the goal of Dianetics is to become "clear," by completely eliminating the reactive mind so that all behavior is voluntary and consciously chosen. (I'm not sure what Scientologists think about the autonomic nervous system--presumably they have decided that it is distinct from the reactive mind rather than something to be eliminated.)

At any rate, it appears that newage, if not channeling, is still alive and well in Sedona.

God arrested for selling cocaine near Tampa church

Offered without comment.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Amazing Meeting 6


I've returned home after attending my first Amazing Meeting, TAM 6, and it was indeed an amazing meeting, with about 900 in attendance. There were many excellent speakers and talks, and it was a pleasure to meet and have conversations with many of my fellow skeptics at meals and between sessions.

I took nearly 50 pages of notes, which I'll use to write up a more detailed review. If any readers would like to point me to other summaries, I'll link to those as well.

The photo is of an Australian black swan at the Flamingo Hotel, where the conference was held.

Physics teacher Dean Baird has a fantastic collection of photographs from the conference.

UPDATE: Summary part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Fake military for Christian evangelism

Chris Rodda reports on the United States Services Command, a Christian evangelizing "disaster relief" organization that illegally uses U.S. military-style ranks and uniforms, yet rather than being prosecuted for its criminal impersonation, receives awards, recommendations, and commendations from military officers and from President George W. Bush.

The photo Rodda links to has been deleted, but can be found here, where some real military officers express their disgust with USSC's fake soldiers.

(Hat tip to Dispatches from the Culture Wars for the Rodda story.)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Who profits from the war on drugs?

Well, apart from those in the illegal drug business themselves, who benefit from the lack of legal competition, it looks like the big winners are government contractors--DynCorp and now Blackwater.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The real 9/11 conspiracy

Readers of Gerald Posner's Why America Slept know that there has been evidence of Saudi royal family connections to the al Qaeda 9/11 terrorism plot. The final chapter of that book, titled "The Interrogation," is about the capture and interrogation of al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in Pakistan on March 28, 2002 by a team that included American Special Forces and FBI SWAT teams as well as Pakistani police and military. After he was captured, Zubaydah was subjected to interrogation by the CIA in a real "false flag" operation, where he was made to believe he had been transported to a country with a reputation for brutal interrogation. While in fact he was in Afghanistan, he was made to believe he was in a Saudi jail, and two Arab-Americans with U.S. Special Forces played the role of his interrogators.

To their surprise, Zubaydah didn't display fear, but relief. While previously he hadn't even been willing to reveal his identity, he now gave his name, said he was happy to see them, and asked the interrogators to call a senior member of the Saudi royal family, for whom he provided private home and cell phone numbers from memory. That man was Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, a nephew of King Fahd, owner of the Research and Marketing Group, and owner of the Kentucky Derby winning horse War Emblem.

Zubaydah claimed that bin Laden had made a cooperative arrangement with Pakistani air force chief Air Marshal Mushaf Ali Mir, a military official with close ties to the pro-Islamist members of ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency, and that this arrangement had the blessing of Prince Turki of Saudi Arabia. Also according to Zubaydah, Turki had made a deal to provide aid to the Taliban in Afghanistan and would not ask for extradition of bin Laden, so long as his activities were directed away from Saudi Arabia.

Zubaydah also implicated Prince Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki al-Saud and Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabir as supporters of al Qaeda, and stated that Mir and Prince Ahmed had advance knowledge that there would be terrorist attacks against the U.S. on 9/11.

His interrogators were skeptical of his claims, even though information from him was successfully used to capture Omar al-Faruq, a senior al Qaeda operative in Southeast Asia. And when U.S. personnel (not posing as Saudis) confronted Zubaydah about his claims, he denied it all and said that he had made it up. CIA investigation of his claims found nothing to refute them, however, and some corroborating evidence. A report on his claims was submitted to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, each of which responded that the claims were entirely false.

On July 22, 2002, Prince Ahmed died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 43, and on July 23, 2002, Prince Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki al-Saud was killed in a car accident at the age of 41. A week later, Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabir was found dead, having "died of thirst" at the age of 25. Prince Turki was fired from his position as head of Saudi Intelligence on September 1, 2001, and became the Saudi ambassador to Great Britain in 2002.

On February 20, 2003, Pakistani air force chief Mir, his wife, and fifteen others were killed in a plane crash.

None of this appeared in the 9/11 Commission Report, though it might have been planned for that document. This is because the Bush administration censored 28 pages of material about Saudi connections to 9/11 from the report on the grounds of national security.

In 2004, the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Bob Graham, published a book, Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia, and the Failure of America's War on Terror, in which he claimed that Bush covered up evidence that the Saudi government was aiding at least two of the 9/11 hijackers via Omar al-Bayoumi, which Graham discussed in an interview with Salon.com.

More recently, New York Times reporter Philip Shenon's book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, raises the same point about the Saudi government's ties to Omar al-Bayoumi.

I think the full story of Saudi and Pakistani involvement in 9/11 has yet to be told.

None of this involves munitions used to collapse buildings, unmanned drones, missiles hitting the Pentagon, or the innocence of Osama bin Laden, like the crazy 9/11 truth movement's claims. It does involve U.S. political relations with nations that have been key allies in the war on terror, both of which have governments which have been close to collapse, and one of which (Pakistan) is a nuclear power and one of which is the source of most foreign oil imported by the U.S. It's clear why the U.S. would treat relations with these countries gingerly even if they did have members of their governments directly involved in 9/11, and why those countries would want to quietly dispose of the problem.

UPDATE (July 16, 2009): Greetings to Talking Points Memo readers, here because of a link in the comments from a story about a Bush/Cheney CIA assassination program apparently permitted to operate domestically. That commenter seemed to suggest that the CIA might have been behind the deaths described in the above post, which I think is highly unlikely in comparison to the speculation that the Saudis themselves might have taken care of matters.

Phoenix 9/11 truther on hunger strike

Blair Gadsby, a 45-year-old adjunct religious studies professor at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, has gone on hunger strike until John McCain agrees to meet with him about 9/11 conspiracy theories. Gadsby thinks that the U.S. government destroyed the World Trade Center towers and Building 7 with explosives, even though he's apparently read the Popular Mechanics book on Debunking 9/11 Myths, for which McCain wrote the foreword.

In how many different ways is this guy an idiot?

1. He's bought into nonsensical conspiracy theories--his version has both Islamic terrorists flying planes into the WTC and explosives put there earlier, so he must believe something like this.
2. He apparently can't understand the refutations of them.
3. He thinks a hunger strike is a good way to meet John McCain.
4. He's an adjunct professor of religious studies.

Feel free to add to the list.

The sleaziness of Fox and Michelle Malkin

Watch in the video below as Michelle Malkin claims that conservatives have not engaged in any ad hominem or unwarranted attacks on Barack Obama's wife Michelle, even as Fox News places a caption below her, referring to Michelle Obama as "Obama's baby mama," a slang term which the Urban Dictionary defines as:
  • The mother of your child(ren), whom you did not marry and with whom you are not currently involved.”
  • “Basically a woman you had a child or children with who you didn’t marry and are no longer involved with. Usually associated with hoodrats and trailer park b***hes.”
  • “Like herpes, it won’t go away!!!!!”




The always despicable, dishonest, sleazy, and inflammatory Michelle Malkin responded to this by trying to defend it as entirely unobjectionable, which John Scalzi vividly rebuts in his "Fox News Would Like To Take a Moment to Remind You That the Obamas Are As Black As Satan's Festering, Baby-Eating Soul." Fox has merely admitted that the caption showed "poor judgment."

(Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars.)

Friday, June 13, 2008

Oregon Gov. declares June 21 "Day of Reason"

STATE OF OREGON PROCLAMATION

OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR

WHEREAS: Application of reason offers a hope for developing and

implementing intelligent, humane, and ethical interactions among people; and

WHEREAS: Philosophies of reason were emphasized when writing the

Constitution of the United States of America and those of its several
states; and

WHEREAS: Most citizens value reason and seek to apply it in making decisions
and resolving problems in their lives; and

WHEREAS: Educational programs emphasize acquisition of

reasoning skills in preparing for one's future.

NOW,

THEREFORE: I, Theodore R. Kulongoski, Governor of the

State of Oregon, hereby proclaim

June 21, 2008

to be

A Day of Reason

in Oregon and encourage all Oregonians to join in this observance.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I hereunto set my

hand and cause the Great Seal of the State of

Oregon to be affixed. Done at the Capitol in the

City of Salem in the State of Oregon on the day,

May 29, 2008.

Theodore R. Kulongoski, Governor

Bill Bradbury, Secretary of State
(Via Serene Journal.)

Annoying song lyrics

Paul McCartney, "Live and Let Die":
In this ever-changing world in which we live in ...

Some say the last part is "in which we're livin'", but I don't think so. One blogger has pointed out that usps.gov has a password hint prompt that asks "In what city were you born in?"


Mike Oldfield, "Crises":
Crises, crises, there's gonna be a crises.

No, there may be multiple crises, but there would be a crisis.


Alanis Morissette, "Ironic" (whole song):

Inconvenience is not irony. Dealt with here.


The Flobots, "No Handlebars":
I can shoot a target through a telescope ...

Not without breaking it, you can't.


Anybody have any other song lyrics that are annoyingly ungrammatical, nonsensical, or stupid, that make you groan inwardly every time you hear them?

UPDATE (July 16, 2008): I can't believe I forgot this one, that I heard today on the way home from work:

The Beastie Boys, "Intergalactic":
... like a pinch from the neck of Mr. Spock.

This lyric is reported online as "like a pinch on the neck from Mr. Spock," or as "like a pinch on the neck of Mr. Spock," the former of which would make perfect sense and the latter of which would make some sense (perhaps referring to an action by a different Vulcan directed at Spock), but neither is what I hear the song say. Judge for yourself, it's at about 3:27 in the video.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

McCain's c-bomb habit

On yesterday's "Daily Show," Jon Stewart pointed out a quote from Cliff Schechter's new book, The Real McCain, where McCain used the word "cunt." I didn't think he made it clear who McCain was referring to when he said it, however. The Raw Story has the quote from Schechter's book:
Three reporters from Arizona, on the condition of anonymity, also let me in on another incident involving McCain's intemperateness. In his 1992 Senate bid, McCain was joined on the campaign trail by his wife, Cindy, as well as campaign aide Doug Cole and consultant Wes Gullett. At one point, Cindy playfully twirled McCain's hair and said, "You're getting a little thin up there." McCain's face reddened, and he responded, "At least I don't plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you cunt." McCain's excuse was that it had been a long day. If elected president of the United States, McCain would have many long days.
Nice. Apparently McCain was known as "McNasty" in high school for his foul-mouthed tirades. Sounds like another LBJ, in that regard.

(Previously, regarding McCain's f-bomb habit.)

Fox story on RESCUE


Fox 10 News in Phoenix did a story last night on how the mortgage crisis is resulting in more animals being turned in to the pound, and more animals being euthanized. The story featured Lisa Thomas from RESCUE, the organization we volunteer with, as well as the Corgi mix named Rascal (pictured) who we've taken out on weekends a few times. Check it out, and please consider donating to RESCUE's Bowl-a-Rama event. (Put Kat's or my name in for the bowler to encourage, and The Lippard Blog as the referrer.)

Milton Friedman's argument for illegal immigration

Will Wilkinson gives a long quotation from an argument by Milton Friedman, along with some explication. The basic argument is that free immigration to jobs is a good thing, free immigration to welfare is a bad thing, and in the absence of a separation between legal residency and eligibility for welfare, the best result is achieved by encouraging more illegal immigration:
But the important takeaway here is this: Friedman’s view is that a certain kind of unrestricted welfare state makes illegal immigration good, because it severs residency from welfare eligibility. Friedman is unequivocal about the desirability of free migration. Anyone really committed to Friedman’s stated view about welfare and immigration should by no means try to restrict immigration, but instead should try to enable illegal immigration. A devout Friedmanite should stand stoutly against every fence, every border cop, every increase in the INS budget, any proposed database check for a new workers’ legal status, etc. I think it makes more sense to argue first for a guest worker program. But if that is in fact impossible, then Friedman has it right: more illegal immigration is the best we can do.
See the fuller discussion at Will Wilkinson's blog.

UPDATE (June 13, 2008): And, of related interest, a discussion of how the benefits of remittances are really the benefits of labor migration, and how Switzerland, despite being difficult to immigrate to, has the highest percentage of foreign-born in its population of any OECD country, also both from Will Wilkinson. The latter provides further evidence for the logical separability of citizenship, residency, work rights, and welfare eligibility.

Health quackery for your car

Just like quack magnetic therapy for improving human health, Alan Archer's product claims to improve fuel efficiency for your car. According to a ridiculously skepticism-free article on ABC15's website:
The gas blaster clamps to your car's fuel line. Two powerful magnets change the molecular structure of gasoline causing it to burn cleaner and more efficient.
Archer, whose company's name isn't mentioned in the article (but it's Adaptive Energy Solutions, LLC according to their website, a company incorporated in September 2003), guarantees that the product will improve gas mileage by at least 10% or your money will be returned. He's probably banking on the fact that most people won't have carefully measured their gas mileage before using it, and the fact that a 10% gain for a car that gets 25 mpg is only 2.5 mpg, well within the range of normal mileage variability given normal variations in driving conditions. There's a quote in the news article from an individual who says "(Ten percent) is a lot when I only get ten miles to the gallon." No, it's only 1 mpg difference, and I bet his 10 mpg is already variable by more than 1 mpg.

Archer's claims for this product, an "adaptive gas blaster," are identical to claims that have been made for similar fuel line magnet products for decades. All of them that have actually been tested have been found to have no measurable effect on gas mileage, and no doubt the same is true of Archer's hokum.

What I find remarkable is that the media continue to uncritically give a forum to hucksters to promote their nonsense. In this case, ABC15 even helpfully provides a link at the bottom of the page where you can click to order a $48 (plus shipping and handling) "adaptive gas blaster."

The money-back guarantee lasts for 60 days, doesn't include the shipping and handling fee, is available for only a limited time, and requires that you have the device installed by an "ASE" (I think they mean AES) mechanic or the guarantee is only for 30 days--I suspect there's a nonrefundable installation fee if they do it for you.

Save your money--you can save gas more easily without buying a bogus product by driving less often and more efficiently.

(Hat tip to Gridman for bringing this to my attention.)

Creationist wants to "violently expel" evolutionists from U.S.

Tom Willis, the creationist responsible for the bogus claim that Donald Johanson found "Lucy"'s knee joint at a great distance from the rest of the skeleton (CC003 in Mark Isaak's Index to Creationist Claims), says that evolutionists should be "violently expelled" from the United States--or at least denied the right to vote:

The arrogance displayed by the evolutionist class is totally unwarrented. The facts warrent the violent expulsion of all evolutionists from civilized society. I am quite serious that their danger to society is so great that, in a sane society, they would be, at a minimum, denied a vote in the administration of the society, as well as any job where they might influence immature humans, e.g., scout, or youth, leader, teacher and, obviously, professor. Oh, by the way… What is the chance evolutionists will vote or teach in the Kingdom of God?

smiley.jpg

But, of course, I myself, am not deluded. "Kingdom Now" theology notwithstanding, I have no expectations that such a proposal will ever be implemented, for the simple reason that delusion is ordained by God to reign until Christ returns. (2 Thess 2:10)

Tom Willis is a fascist as well as a dishonest idiot.

Willis was also behind the Kansas science standards that removed evolution and cosmology from the curriculum in 1999. He is the president of the Creation Science Association of Mid-America.

UPDATE (June 13, 2008): Ed Brayton has awarded Tom Willis a Robert O'Brien award, and quotes more extensively from his nonsense.

UPDATE (August 24, 2008): Wes Elsberry comments on this Willis essay. In comments at Wes's blog, Jim Downard makes this observation:
FYI I majored in Civil War history in college (BA history 1974) and couldn’t resist emailing Willis asking him to specify his claim that slavery advocates used evolutionary justifications (I knew of no such instances in all my study of the issues). Willis promptly replied that while he could do so, he declined to on the grounds that his discussion would grow to book length to cover it properly. He then switched gears and went on for several pages about the Marxism/Nazism/evolution connection and even longer defending the noble qualities of Biblical servitude laws. It is often quite illuminating to ask a straightforward question of someone who can’t think clearly; their replies will usually clarify just why they can’t think clearly.
In light of Willis' more recent remarks, suggesting that evolutionists need to be put into labor camps, I think he's a nut.