Personal Heroes

Ken and I were fortunate enough to take part in the Amazing Adventure 5: Skeptics of the Caribbean sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation randi.org It was a wonderful, rum-soaked seven days full of laughter, bonding and skepticism.

We were also treated to the presence of the Amazing One himself, James Randi. For those of you not familiar with Mr. Randi, go to YouTube and search. He has been working to expose charlatans for a good number of years. His favorite adversary was Uri Geller. Yes, that spoon-bending guy.

Scientists actually studied what they called The Geller Effect. Mr. Geller never admitted that what he was doing was nothing more than a trick. He constantly swore that he was just doing something that came naturally to him. Scientists were actually fooled by this. If he were, after all these years, to admit what he had been doing, he would be sued for fraud by multiple agencies.

Randi also took part in the first card trick ever done in outer space. He created the Alpha Project projectalpha.html which fooled paranormal researchers for over two years. Banachek, who grew to have a full career in stage magic and mentalism, was one of the Alpha Kids.

He was also kind enough to take a personal interest in my own journey as a fledgeling skeptic. I have been very fortunate to be able to spend some one on one time with him. Thanks to Randi’s kindness and advice, I’m finding my footing in the skeptical world.

Another personal hero that I’ve mentioned in previous articles is the wonderful George Hrab of Geologic Podcast fame: The Geologic Podcast Home. His humor and insight have influenced my development as a skeptic. He’s the one that taught me, and keeps reminding me, that personal heroes are people just like me. Even though they’re giants, they still put their pants on one leg at a time.

From George I also learned patience in dealing with non-skeptical people. He was the first person I heard say that you cannot change the mind of a True Believer but you CAN plant the seed. He uses an adage from Patrick Swayze’s movie Road House. “Be nice. Be nice until it’s time to not be nice.”. And so, I try very hard to be nice even when I want to apply a baseball bat upside the head to knock some common sense into some of these people.

On the other end of that spectrum is my personal hero, Penn Jillette. From Penn I learned that it’s okay not to believe what everyone else believes. I’ve never really been part of the herd even though I spent most of my life trying VERY hard to be just that.  Please don’t misunderstand me, Penn is a very kind and compassionate man. It can be seen in some of the Bullshit episodes and his video blog episode about the man who gave him the Gideon pocket Bible. He just has zero tolerance for so-called psychics or other charlatans that cause harm or take advantage of people. This is evident from ANY of the episodes of Bullshit. I hope one day I’ll get the privilege of meeting him so that I can tell him personally what a difference he made in my life.

I am an adult, but I’ll tell you what; THESE are the people I want to grow up to be.

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You Don’t Have To Be A Rocket Scientist

No, Really. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist…or any kind of scientist for that matter, to be a skeptic. Learning a new way of thinking is pretty scary. You wonder if you’re doing it right. Especially when you read posts on the JREF forum. It’s hard not to feel a little less than intelligent.

The wonderful think about the skeptic community is that we are a pretty diverse group. We have members of all ages, genders, ethnicities and education levels. One of the major players in the skeptical world, James “The Amazing” Randi, didn’t finish high school. He has traveled the world performing magic and working to educate people about charlatans and frauds. Mr. Randi is working on his 10th book currently.

Penn Jillette is a graduate of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Clown College.  Teller, his partner, formerly taught high school Latin has been a guest lecturer at Oxford University and appears to have attended MIT. So even within famous skeptical partnerships there is a wide range of educational background.

Penn has written numerous essays and a book, “Sock”. His communication is insightful and thought-provoking. While he comes across as brash and overbearing, his writing indicates a much greater depth.

And then there’s me. I’m one of those jack of all trades types. I don’t have a formal college degree though I’ve attended Northwest College as a photojournalism major. Turns out I have no talent for photography so I dropped out. Then I tried animation at the Art Institute of Atlanta. I changed majors to graphic design because the redundancy of drawing frame after frame with only minute changes drove me nuts.

After a year and a half of graphic design I quit because I didn’t see how a degree in that field could be of help to anyone. I saw it as crass manipulation and I didn’t want to manipulate people on a mass level. Or any level for that matter.

Later I spent a year with the psych department of the University of Maryland. That’s where I took what would later become my favorite college class ever. Statistics. Even though I felt like my brain was leaking out my ears and half the time I didn’t think I had any clue what I was doing, that course taught me how to read medical studies and evaluate research. This is probably the most important skill I have.

Unfortunately after that year I didn’t feel that I could, in the end, be of help as a psychologist. I don’t think I have what it takes to listen to people’s problems day in and day out for years on end. So I dropped out.

Intertwined amongst all that is over 500 hours of training in various disciplines of hypnotherapy. There is no formal degree in hypnosis, though I looked at several unaccredited “universities”. When we moved to Florida my hypnosis practice collapsed. I still have that skill set though because I am a skeptic, I have set it aside. We still do not really understand how hypnosis works. I’ll be covering that in a later article.

Then, of course, there is all the time and money spent on training in Reiki, crystal healing and herbalism.

The point of this long, rambling bit of text is that even though there are lots of people with big, intimidating degrees from MIT, Oxford and Harvard, it’s people like you and me, the average person, that makes the skeptical movement grow. We learn new ways of thinking and exploring our world right here in our own living rooms. We go to skeptical events, we share ideas with others that may or may not be skeptical.

This is how the skeptical movement grows. With people like us just being skeptical.

Why It Doesn’t Work – Homeopathy

There has been furious debate for years about whether or not homeopathy actually works.  The main contention is that homeopathic blends are created individually for each person based on the determinations of a homeopath.  These results can be explained by what is known as the Placebo Effect. This effect has been explained very well by Dr. Ben Goldacre in this video:

To quote Dr. Stephen Barrett:

Homeopathic products are made from minerals, botanical substances, and several other sources. If the original substance is soluble, one part is diluted with either nine or ninety-nine parts of distilled water and/or alcohol and shaken vigorously (succussed); if insoluble, it is finely ground and pulverized in similar proportions with powdered lactose (milk sugar). One part of the diluted medicine is then further diluted, and the process is repeated until the desired concentration is reached. Dilutions of 1 to 10 are designated by the Roman numeral X (1X = 1/10, 3X = 1/1,000, 6X = 1/1,000,000). Similarly, dilutions of 1 to 100 are designated by the Roman numeral C (1C = 1/100, 3C = 1/1,000,000, and so on). Most remedies today range from 6X to 30X, but products of 30C or more are marketed.

A 30X dilution means that the original substance has been diluted 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times. Assuming that a cubic centimeter of water contains 15 drops, this number is greater than the number of drops of water that would fill a container more than 50 times the size of the Earth. Imagine placing a drop of red dye into such a container so that it disperses evenly. Homeopathy’s “law of infinitesimals” is the equivalent of saying that any drop of water subsequently removed from that container will possess an essence of redness. Robert L. Park, Ph.D., a prominent physicist who is executive director of The American Physical Society, has noted that since the least amount of a substance in a solution is one molecule, a 30C solution would have to have at least one molecule of the original substance dissolved in a minimum of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water. This would require a container more than 30,000,000,000 times the size of the Earth.

Oscillococcinum, a 200C product “for the relief of colds and flu-like symptoms,” involves “dilutions” that are even more far-fetched. Its “active ingredient” is prepared by incubating small amounts of a freshly killed duck’s liver and heart for 40 days. The resultant solution is then filtered, freeze-dried, rehydrated, repeatedly diluted, and impregnated into sugar granules. If a single molecule of the duck’s heart or liver were to survive the dilution, its concentration would be 1 in 100200. This huge number, which has 400 zeroes, is vastly greater than the estimated number of molecules in the universe (about one googol, which is a 1 followed by 100 zeroes). In its February 17, 1997, issue, U.S. News & World Report noted that only one duck per year is needed to manufacture the product, which had total sales of $20 million in 1996. The magazine dubbed that unlucky bird “the $20-million duck.”

Actually, the laws of chemistry state that there is a limit to the dilution that can be made without losing the original substance altogether. This limit, which is related to Avogadro’s number, corresponds to homeopathic potencies of 12C or 24X (1 part in 1024). Hahnemann himself realized that there is virtually no chance that even one molecule of original substance would remain after extreme dilutions. But he believed that the vigorous shaking or pulverizing with each step of dilution leaves behind a “spirit-like” essence—”no longer perceptible to the senses”—which cures by reviving the body’s “vital force.” Modern proponents assert that even when the last molecule is gone, a “memory” of the substance is retained. This notion is unsubstantiated. Moreover, if it were true, every substance encountered by a molecule of water might imprint an “essence” that could exert powerful (and unpredictable) medicinal effects when ingested by a person.

This brings us to the concept of water memory. My understanding is that a homeopathic remedy is started with distilled water. Water is distilled by boiling the water and then condensing the steam into a clean container, leaving most if not all solid contaminants behind. Yet, if water actually has memory, this would imply that even distilled water would retain the memory of the substance(s) it has come in contact with. This includes everything from concentrated orange juice to human waste.

The head of the British Homeopathic association has been quoted as saying that she doesn’t really know how it works. It just does. Homeopaths use the excuse that medical science doesn’t always understand how medicine works. The difference here is that science is attempting to find out why it works.

Recently homeopaths in Australia have been forced to admit that there is no actual substance in their remedies. See the article here: http://www.drugs-forum.com/forum/showthread.php?t=116560 And here: http://jonn.co.uk/badhomeopathy/modules/news/article.php?storyid=112

In 2005 The Lancet published a body of studies. These studies concluded that homeopathic “remedies” are no better than placebos: http://www.medpagetoday.com/PrimaryCare/AlternativeMedicine/1609

Okay, so if there’s nothing in it, what’s the harm? The problem is that people are using homeopathy instead of medical science to treat themselves and their children. Of course people are entitled to do as they wish with their own bodies. When it comes to eschewing real medical treatment for their children, HERE is where there is a major problem.

http://whatstheharm.net/homeopathy.html 437 people have been harmed or killed due to the use of homeopathy over science.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why it doesn’t work.

Thank you for joining me for the first installation of WIDW. I hope you learned something today.

Wakefield Conspiracies Begin

Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s work in autism has been discounted and his paper retracted by the Lancet.  He is being called a fraud because it has been discovered that he falsified data in his study that linked vaccines to autism andrew-wakefield-exposed-as-fraud.html

According to the above article investigative reporter Brian Deer, “confidential medical documents and interviews with witnesses have established that Andrew Wakefield manipulated patients’ data, which triggered fears that the MMR triple vaccine to protect against measles, mumps and rubella was linked to the condition.”

He continues on saying “None of this will matter to anti-vaccinationists,” he writes, “who view Wakefield as . . . a persecuted scientific hero . . .” And he nailed it dead on. Dr Rachael Dunlop confirmed just that when she shared this on Twitter: WakefieldWitchhunt.jpg

According to the diagram, The Lancet, The Sunday Times and Paul Offitt were all influenced by “Profiteers of the 20 Million Dollar Vaccine Industry”. The creator of this diagram has called the retraction by The Lancet a witch hunt. The author also claims that “21 autism organizations in the US and UK filed perjury charges against the head of the Lancet for lying about Wakefield’s disclosures of his conflicts in the GMC hearing not relevant to the fact that the Lancet retracted Wakefield’s article the following week” anatomy-of-witch-hunt.html

I hope someone can explain to me what that last quote means. I can’t quite make sense of it. What conflicts are they referring to? Is this their way of saying that Wakefield did NOT commit fraud?

Oh no. no indeed. As this article will show why_am_i_not_surprised_it_looks_as_thoug.php Wakefield is guilty of the same things that the antivaxers accuse Paul Offitt and many other doctors of.

I know from listening to James Randi speak that you cannot change the mind of a True Believer. All we can do is plant the seed and hope that somehow the truth will take root.

Being Skeptical About Emotional Issues

When an issue strikes close to home it is difficult to be skeptical about it.

A few days ago my oldest son suggested that homosexuality is a genetic disorder. As a bisexual woman, my hackles automatically raised and I became highly offended. When I calmed down, I realized that because this is something that affects me personally, I was letting emotion get in the way of being a good skeptic. The post I wrote in response to Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s comment that atheists “aren’t fully human” is a good example of that.

Now that I have calmed down, I have looked into it and here whataregd is the definition of a genetic disorder: A genetic disorder is a disease that is caused by an abnormality in an individual’s DNA. Abnormalities can range from a small mutation in a single gene to the addition or subtraction of an entire chromosome or set of chromosomes.

A disease has three definitions:

  1. A pathological condition of a part, organ, or system of an organism resulting from various causes, such as infection, genetic defect, or environmental stress, and characterized by an identifiable group of signs or symptoms.
  2. A condition or tendency, as of society, regarded as abnormal and harmful.
  3. Obsolete. Lack of ease; trouble.

So by definition # 2 from Answers.com, some people can define homosexuality/bisexuality as a genetic disorder because they regard it as “abnormal or harmful”. BUT, by definition one, he’s wrong.

His argument is that, within the parameters of mating, compared to almost every other species that mate to reproduce, that genetically it could be a disorder. Though he agrees that ‘aberration’ might be a better word. It was too funny. Hubby witnessed this yelling match that eventually degraded into “I’m more right than you are!”, followed by laughter.

I can see his point that, purely from a mammalian mating standpoint, homosexuality could be a harmful aberration. If homosexuality was the norm in non-human animal species, the population would drop significantly and many species would simply become extinct.

His entire point to the argument he posed was that, from an outside perspective, the genetic disorder idea is one possible theory. As skeptics we should be able to look at all points of view even when it hits close to home.

He’s right.

Darwinism vs Intelligent Design

I want to start by saying that I know just enough about both Darwin’s theory of evolution and Intelligent Design to get myself in trouble. I’m hoping that my ideas and comparisons of the two will kick-start a discussion here.

What I know about Darwin’s theory: Charles Darwin, after visiting the Galapagos Islands, theorized that animals changed over long periods of time through what he termed “natural selection”. Natural selection, as I understand it, is that a dominant trait is sustained and reproduced over time while non-dominant traits like a vestigial tail, slowly cease to be because it is no longer needed. Other scientists took this theory and ran with it extending it to ALL living creatures.

What I know about Intelligent Design: From watching Ben Stein’s documentary I came to the conclusion that Intelligent Design is an offshoot or step up from creationism. Creationism states that the Judaeo-Christian god created the earth and everything on it in seven calendar days. Intelligent Design theorizes that everything is so very complex that there must be some intelligent designer or architect that either started it all or designed it. Whether that designer is god or something else, no one will say. Apparently if it’s not god it’s “something”.

Intelligent design is a bit vague. It also doesn’t seem to show a great deal of testable evidence to support the theory that “something” created the world and all life on it. I did once hear that fossils were put here to test our faith and give us something to think about but no dinosaurs actually existed.

As for Darwinism, I understand that the theory is considered flawed. In what respect, I am not educated enough about it to really understand. I do know that Darwinism is a jumping off point for the theory of evolution that we have today. In fact, evolution is so widely accepted that it is no longer called a theory.

I think I understand where the ID people get stuck. They seem to think that because Darwin’s theory might have been flawed, the entire idea of evolution is either wrong. It’s a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water in my opinion. With that in mind they get bogged down with the idea that other scientists have refined Darwin’s ideas and evolved them, for want of a better term, into what we know as evolution today.

I think where evolutionists get bogged down is that the idea of intelligent design goes against how scientists are trained to think. Since ID people believe that complexity = a designer, scientists hear, ” Correlation MUST equal causation!”. Which is the total opposite of a scientific method. So occasionally you get some very frustrated people whose head just explodes.

ID people are seeking to put order to chaos. The idea that everything was just a great big happy accident IS downright frightening for some. They’re trying to make sense of things that sometimes are just beyond our comprehension at this point in human development. Humans have an overdeveloped sense of pattern recognition. It served us well in much earlier times but now we see things like the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s human nature.

What are your thoughts? Is there a compromise? How would it work?

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed 2

Ben Stein hosts this documentary which “examines the criticisms and hostilities that exist in today’s scientific field (both academic and professional) towards peers and journalists who subscribe to or even entertain the perspective of Intelligent Design in science”.

I have unfortunately failed to make it all the way through this film as of this writing. At the one hour mark, I set it aside for the time being. The cinematography and editing make it extraordinarily difficult to follow. The interviews with such notables as PZ Meyers pharyngula and Richard Dawkins richarddawkins.net along with Intelligent design proponents at The Discovery Institute www.discovery.org and more are interspersed with black and white film clips from what appears to be the early years of the Berlin Wall. There are other nonsensical clips inserted to act as confirmation of a point that had just been made by an interviewee.

In all honesty this looks like something a first year film student would throw together the night before a project was due while he was still high. Now IF you can get past that, the movie asks a valid question.

According to the narrative, a group of scientists, teachers and a journalist have all either been fired, censured or generally had their careers ruined for bringing up the question of Intelligent Design. Details are sketchy as to the content that led to the censure/firing, etc. The film indicates that in the cases shown, merely mentioning Intelligent Design or writing about it led to the firings. IF this is the case, why were these people censured so severely?

In the film, the main argument for creationism seemed to be that since a single cell is so complex, there must have been a designer. Most of those interviewed shied away from the idea that the designer was the Judaeo Christian god. They instead asked that the concept that “something greater than ourselves” be investigated as a possible theory for the origin of life.

It seems a reasonable request until you consider that they can’t or won’t even define what that “something” might be. They are simply theorizing that because everything is so complex that it could not possibly have happened by chance. Their example of why it couldn’t was an animation of a guy and a bunch of slot machines.

Like I said…stoned first year film student.

I’m bothered by the idea that these people supposedly all lost their jobs and careers, or nearly so, because they discussed an alternative idea. The makers of this film took pains to equate the censures and firings with Nazi Germany. Obviously an extreme example. It poses the question, however, “At what point does freedom of speech cease to be free?’. I hope someone will investigate this further and find out why these people were treated like this..

WIDW – A Family Story

Welcome to the first installment of the “Why It Doesn’t Work” series. Today I’m talking about the ideomotor effect. ideomotor.html

When I was little we had a Ouija Board in our house. It was fun to play with because the little planchette seemed to skate across the surface of the board all by itself. When I had sleep overs, we had “seances”. It was fun and kind of scary because ghosts were talking to us by moving what we called “The little thing”.

Girls at that age were, as they are now, boy crazy. So of course the big thing we all wanted to know what “What are the initials of the man I’m going to marry”. Even then I found it a little odd that one set of initials that came for me was MM. Those were my maiden name initials. It was fun to get ANY kind of feedback, no matter what the initials were. We all just laughed and guessed who it would be, naming boys we knew at school.

When I got a little older, my Mom told me a story about her grandmother (my great grandmother). She and her friends were having their own “seance” while they waited for my great grandfather to arrive. One of the questions that she asked was “When will my husband die?”. The planchette pointed out the date of the following day.

According to my mother, my great grandfather died in a car accident that next evening while on the way home from work.

I have not verified this story with any of the other relatives. I don’t know if this is true or if it is just part of the family mythology. Either way, my mother swears by this story.

Here’s why a spirit or ghost did not predict the death of my great grandfather: Ideomotor effect.

The ideomotor effect is an unconscious motor behavior. In other words, we do it without realizing that we’re doing it. Dowsing and a pendulum work the same way. What happens is that our muscles twitch involuntarily. It’s similar to when we breathe without thinking about it. If you hold a pendulum you’ll notice that after a brief period it will start moving on it’s own. This is an example of the ideomotor effect.

Here is a video that shows an example and explains in further detail how the ideomotor effect works:

Homeopaths Admit It’s Just Water

Thanks to an intentional mass overdose in Australia, homeopaths in that country have been forced to admit that there isn’t even a single molecule of substance in their concoctions. Please see the article here: http://bit.ly/ce6OYn

For those not familiar, homeopathy follows the concept that “like cures like”, so if you’re vomiting, you would take a homeopathic preparation of nox vomica, an agent that makes you vomit. Homeopathic preparations are highly diluted. This is an article about how to make your own homeopathic remedies: http://bit.ly/cM4FW4

As you can see from these instructions, by the time you are done dilluting, there is nothing left of the original substance. There comes a certain point called the Avogadro Constant http://bit.ly/1o0hZQ where, after you have diluted a substance so far, not even a single molecule remains.

Homeopathy relies on a concept called “water memory”. According to them, water retains a “memory” or non-chemical imprint of the original substance. By that reasoning, the water would “remember” everything it has come in contact with. Like, oh, urine, feces, beer, etc.

Thanks goes out to the skeptics who “overdosed” themselves and put their bodies on the line for science.

Jumping on the Bandwagon

Today’s Logical Fallacy is called Bandwagon, also known as Peer Pressure. In this fallacy, the threat of rejection by a peer group (peer pressure) is used in place of fact or evidence.

This type of “reasoning” had the following format. Normally I would replace the big, scary X with something small, cute and fuzzy. But there’s only one in today’s format. So let’s take a deep breath, approach it slowly and talk quietly to it.

See? It’s a nice little x.

1) Person P is pressured by his/her peers or threatened with rejection.

2) Therefore person P’s claim X is false/true.

A real life adult example would be keeping up with the Joneses.

Jill: “Sweetheart, I heard that John is getting Marsha a new Porsche Cayenne for Christmas. No one drives mini vans in our neighborhood anymore. Let’s go get a new Cadillac Escalade. We HAVE to keep up appearances, after all.”.

Here Jill, Person (P) is feeling pressured to maintain an appearance of affluence in order to avoid possible or perceived rejection by her neighbors or community.

A simplified example would be:

Bob: Now Rob I know you believe that the earth is round but here in this community we don’t put up with that kind of nonsense

Rob: Don’t be silly! I never believed that.

This is a logical fallacy because a threat of rejection does not qualify as evidence.

Please note that the drive to “belong” can be a powerful incentive to overspend as in the first example or capitulate a firmly held belief as in the second example.

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