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.

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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.

Captain America Against Free Speech?

Recently a new issue of Captain America was released. In it, he and his partner, Falcon, are hunting down a fake Cap who is “deranged and working with white supremacists” according to Canada Free press.com and many others 19825 While looking for the fake Cap, the two super heroes, out of costume for some unknown reason, stumble across a Tea Party Rally and watch from a roof top.

What I find pretty stunning is that both Falcon AND Captain America seem totally clueless as to what a Tea Party Rally even IS. In the first frame, Falcon asks “What the hell is this?” and Cap replies “It looks like some kind of anti tax rally.”. If you listen to any kind of talk radio, read newspapers or watch TV, you KNOW about Teabaggers as they call themselves. How is it that not one but TWO superheroes don’t know about this movement?

Okay, okay, so aside from the fact that they’re not real. We know from past experience that art influence the way we look at the world. Comics are art. It takes talent to create it and such things have been platforms for politics in the past.

This comic is especially disturbing because it implies that protesting the high levels of government spending is subversive. It also implies that the Tea Party protesters are anti-government, racist and violent. I personally never thought I would see the day when a paragon of virtue like Captain America would speak against free speech.

See the comic pages here:

UPDATE: My thanks to Mick for pointing out that I got a bit sucked in by talk radio. There is no place that Captain America actually voices an opinion against free speech. My mistake.

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.

Snakeoil Salesman Gets Blasted On Dragon’s Den

Dragon’s Den is a Canadian-based show in which entrepreneurs pitch their products to potential investors. In the second show of the fifth season, the product “Bruce’s Juice” was introduced to the The Dragons (the title bestowed on the investors).

Bruce’s Juice was supposedly extremely purified water that contained “nano silver”. Whether this is colodial silver or some form of homeopathic silver was not made apparent. The entrepeneur claimed that his product can cure colitis, hepatitis, H1N1 and even cancer. The list of ailments this substance could supposedly cure was limitless.

The man had no medical research to back up his claims. He only presented a booklet with a list of ailments the substance in the bottle could supposedly cure.

He was, I am most pleased to say, BLASTED by The Dragons and told to leave.

Watch this sleazy shyster get his ass handed to him here:

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.

Octomom-Examining The Evidence

Recently on BoobCast.net I wrote a piece on Octomom’s plastic surgery denials. For those not following the debacle that is Nadya Suleman, a year ago on Jan. 26th she gave birth to the first live octuplets. These eight children are in addition to the previous six she already had. Yes. She has 14 children.

Nadya Suleman recently did a bikini photo shoot revealing her new, hot bod. She claims, in an interview with Us Magazine, that she dropped 145 lbs in a year. Suleman went from 270 lbs when she gave birth to 125 lbs simply by working out for 90 minutes 3 times a week and eating healthfully.

This is a lesson in thinking critically and examining the evidence. By the end of this article I will have shown that Octomom is, in all likelihood, lying.

Here is a photo of Suleman not long before she gave birth. Please notice the stretch marks.

Consider, too, with such an incredible weight loss, there would be extra skin.  Yet if you look at her bikini shots, there is no sign of the stretch marks OR the extra skin that would naturally be left over. Suleman claims that her friends call her “Rubberband” because of the way she “snaps back into shape” after giving birth.

I highly suspect that a tummy tuck was involved. If you look closely at her belly button, it is stretched vertically. When a tummy tuck is performed, the skin is released from the muscle wall and pulled downwards towards the feet. The extra skin is then removed. There is also no sign of the stretch marks seen above.

Take a minute to zoom in on this photo. Notice there is no evidence of stretch marks over her hip and lower abdomen. Even if she is as elastic as she claims, where did the stretch marks go? I suspect they went into a medical waste bin somewhere.

I am also curious about something else. If you zoom in closely on the crease of her left hip there is something that may be keloid scarring above the second polka dot from the left. Keloid scars look like bubbles of skin. Keloids can occur when scar tissue keeps growing after the incision is healed. If that IS keloid scarring, where did it come from?

This is just one example of how you can use skepticism in daily life. Examine the evidence and draw your own conclusions. Don’t rely on just one source of information. But don’t stop looking when you find information that fits what YOU think the correct answer is.

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.

Newer Is Better 2

Sara was kind enough to point out to me that my example of Titanium Pony wasn’t a very accurate illustration of the logical fallacy Appeal To Novelty. In my example Titanium Pony doesn’t eat, doesn’t poop and is always ready. These are, as Sara kindly pointed out in her followup comment, improvements.

A better example might be “Buy the new WinMac 5.0! It’s new!!” This is implying that the product is better just because it’s new. Thus it falls into the Appeal To Novelty logical fallacy that I talked about previously here: http://fledgelingskeptic.com/2010/01/21/newer-is-better/

Thanks again to Sara for helping me out.

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