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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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.

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.

Cardinal Cormack Murphy-O’Connor “Atheists Not Fully Human”

Many previously thought that Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor was a little off his rocker. Earlier this week in an interview he stated that “atheists are not fully human” because we do not “search for transcendent meaning”. In other words, because atheists do not seek the answers to larger questions such as “why are we here?”, “Where do we come from?” and “Is this all that there is?”, atheists have not fully developed their humanity.

This is, from my perspective, a huge presumption on the Cardinal’s part. As an atheist, asking the bigger questions is one of the major reasons many people become atheists. Rather than reaching the conclusion that there is a higher power or grand designer involved, we choose to listen to science and let logic and fact answer those bigger questions. Skeptics weigh the information at hand, weed out the fact from the fiction and use the scientific method to evaluate the facts.

When Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor says things like this, he is speaking out of ignorance. I say ignorance and not stupidity because ignorance can be educated. He seems to be a cognizant man capable of clear thought. He is simply misinformed.

Yes, I understand that what I just said sounds like I’m delusional and living in a candy-coated world. I would just prefer to give the Cardinal the benefit if the doubt. Because if I don’t and he really did know what he was saying, that implies a number of horrifying thoughts.

If atheists and other non-believers are not fully human, or less than human then we can be treated the same way African-Americans were. They were once thought of as less than human and summarily treated like animals. Dictators through the ages have used that “logic” to commit genocide. If the Cardinal truly believes that we are less than human, to what lengths will he go to assure our “humanity”? Are we in for a  modern Inquisition? The ramifications of the Cardinal’s comments are horrifying.

The insult is secondary. I am fairly certain if he was sincere in his statement that it was meant to insult the atheist community as a whole. Perhaps he feels it is justified. After all, high profile individuals in the atheist and skeptical community have said some unkind things about the Catholic Church. Apparently it’s okay to stoop to petty vengeance. Again, that is IF he understands the ramifications of what he said.

I may want to live in a candy-coated world but I’m not naive. I believe that the Cardinal knew full well what he was saying and what it implied. And to that I reply, “Fuck you, you sonofabitch”.

Sorry, dear readers. Sometimes I just can’t be a good skeptic.

***Unfortunately YouTube removed the video of the interview for violations. Please google “Cardinal Cormack Murphy-O’Connor “Atheists Not Fully Human” for other perspectives on this interview.

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:

Christians Accused of Child Trafficking

At this point many people have heard about the 10 men and women from the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho who are charged with child trafficking. They claim it was a terrible misunderstanding brought about by a desire to get the “orphaned” children some help in the Dominican Republic.

Some of the children claim otherwise. One girl, according to ABC News, cried as she told them that she is not an orphan and she thought she was going to boarding school or summer camp. Other children have told authorities that their parents are alive and even gave addresses.

What had these people been telling these children?

According to the AFP  9T8C9f , the Christian group was trying to take over 30 children with them across the border. They had no adoption documentation for any of the children. The leader of the group, claims that the Haitian government told her she could simply take the children across the border.

“Patricia Vargas, head of an international center caring for the children, said some of the older ones had spoken to aid workers and ”say their parents are alive, and some of them gave us an address and phone numbers”.

Ms Vargas said officials at the Haitian Institute of Social Welfare, which deals with adoptions, had told her that most of the children had families.”

According to another article d8UHS7 Border police “saw a bus with a lot of children. Thirty-three children. When asked about the children’s documents, they had no documents,” Haitian Culture and Communications Minister Marie Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue said.

A third article states that along with the 10 US citizens there were two adult Haitians. Even if none of the members of the Christian group spoke Creole or French, the official languages of Haiti, then the two Haitians with them would have been able to find out if indeed the children they were “rescuing” were orphans.

A video here 9irKpC gives further details.

At this point authorities still  do not know where the group got the children from. For the time being, while their families are being located, the children are being looked after at an Austrian-sponsored orphanage.

It is being speculated that the group will be released to the US for trial as the Haitian court system is currently in a state of devastation.

Here is where skepticism in daily life comes in. It is possible that this group just wanted to take the children some place safe and didn’t think things through. The woman in the video said they wanted to “provide a safe and loving home for these kids who have nothing”.

It seems that, according to the group’s “logic”, it was alright to take the children from parents who love them because things are desperately difficult in Haiti right now. If this devastation had taken place somewhere in the US would it still be okay to take children from parents who love them?

Social Affairs Minister Yves Christallin identified the Americans as members of an Idaho-based charity called New Life Children’s Refuge.

”This is an abduction, not an adoption,” he said.

What do you think? Are these well-meaning people without a clue or are they child traffickers taking advantage of a bad situation?

***UPDATE*** index_html

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.

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