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.

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:

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.

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.

Dreaming Skeptically

I have been able to read in my dreams since I was a teenager. It’s nothing new. This morning was different. I found myself analyzing details of the dream WHILE I was dreaming. In other words, I was aware, in the dream, that I was examining specific aspects of it with a critical eye.

I dreamed that we lived in a beautiful old Victorian house. Our sons, instead of being 21 and almost 20, were 6 and 4. We had been out at night and when we came home there was a strange woman there in the parlor. She told us that her friend had called her because she had become very frightened and didn’t want to leave the kids alone.

It was at that point I noticed on the left hand wall there were seven large pieces of paper. While Hubby spoke to the stranger I looked at them more closely. At first it looked like jumbles of letters in a spidery hand. Then I realized that all the words and sentences had been written backwards. I thought, why would anyone write such complex sentences backwards?

Then I noticed the giant mirror on the right side as Hubby was telling the stranger “That chair you’re sitting in has been a real hot spot of activity along with most of the upstairs”.

In the mirror I could see that one of the pieces of paper on the left read “Give a portion of your gold each day to keep the ghosts at bay.”. And, in the dream, I realized that someone was trying to scam us because the “hot spots” Hubby was talking about was where the ghost hunters said there was lots of paranormal activity. So even in my dream I was analyzing the evidence that was presented to me and came to the conclusion that the ghosts or “hot spots” weren’t really real and that someone was trying to scam us.

I no longer ascribe meaning to dreams. They are simply the brain’s defrag process. It just amazes me that I have integrated skepticism so deeply into my life that now I’m even dreaming skeptically.

Newer Is Better

Today’s Logical Fallacy, at the request of our friend Sara is, the Appeal to Novelty or, Newer is Better.

Where yesterday’s Appeal To Tradition tried to use the idea that older is better as factual evidence, the Appeal To Novelty tries to pose the idea that because something is new it is automatically better.  This is a fallacy because it assumes that because something is new it is automatically better.

This fallacy has the following form with X’s being played by a pony today

1) Pony is New.

2) Therefor Pony is correct or better

Western culture seems to be prone to this fallacy especially when it comes to technology. The media and advertising have continually bombarded the US with the notion that newer is better.  The idea of progress and modernization (that has somehow become entangled with evolution) creating a “great big beautiful tomorrow”, to quote Walt Disney and the Carousel of Progress, also contributes to this fallacy.

An example of this fallacy might look like this: There are many people who love their ebook readers (Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Sony PRS-700, etc). They’re a big technological craze and although it has slowed a bit, there are still those that claim that eventually ebooks will replace their analog cousins.

Another example might be: (Using an invented product)

1) Introducing the brand new Titanium Pony! It doesn’t require feeding, Titanium Pony is always ready to play and best of all it doesn’t leave road apples! Get YOUR Titanium Pony today!

2) The Titanium Pony is better because it’s new.

In some cases this is NOT a fallacy though. Fresh fruit is better than rotted fruit. This is not because it is new or novel. So there ARE times when new is better and it is not a fallacy.


Appeal To Tradition

Today’s Logical Fallacy: Appeal To Tradition

This is borrowed from http://www.nikzor.org

Appeal to Tradition is a fallacy that occurs when it is assumed that something is better or correct simply because it is older, traditional, or “always has been done.” This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

  1. X is old or traditional
  2. Therefore X is correct or better.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the age of something does not automatically make it correct or better than something newer. This is made quite obvious by the following example: The theory that witches and demons cause disease is far older than the theory that microrganisms cause diseases. Therefore, the theory about witches and demons must be true.

This sort of “reasoning” is appealing for a variety of reasons. First, people often prefer to stick with what is older or traditional. This is a fairly common psychological characteristic of people which may stem from the fact that people feel more comfortable about what has been around longer. Second, sticking with things that are older or traditional is often easier than testing new things. Hence, people often prefer older and traditional things out of laziness. Hence, Appeal to Tradition is a somewhat common fallacy.

It should not be assumed that new things must be better than old things (see the fallacy Appeal to Novelty) any more than it should be assumed that old things are better than new things. The age of something does not, in general, have any bearing on its quality or correctness (in this context). In the case of tradition, assuming that something is correct just because it is considered a tradition is poor reasoning. For example, if the belief that 1+1 = 56 were a tradition of a group of people it would hardly follow that it is true.

Obviously, age does have a bearing in some contexts. For example, if a person concluded that aged wine would be better than brand new wine, he would not be committing an Appeal to Tradition. This is because, in such cases the age of the thing is relevant to its quality. Thus, the fallacy is committed only when the age is not, in and of itself, relevant to the claim.

One final issue that must be considered is the “test of time.” In some cases people might be assuming that because something has lasted as a tradition or has been around a long time that it is true because it has “passed the test of time.” If a person assumes that something must be correct or true simply because it has persisted a long time, then he has committed an Appeal to Tradition. After all, as history has shown people can persist in accepting false claims for centuries.

However, if a person argues that the claim or thing in question has successfully stood up to challenges and tests for a long period of time then they would not be committing a fallacy. In such cases the claim would be backed by evidence. As an example, the theory that matter is made of subatomic particles has survived numerous tests and challenges over the years so there is a weight of evidence in its favor. The claim is reasonable to accept because of the weight of this evidence and not because the claim is old. Thus, a claim’s surviving legitimate challenges and passing valid tests for a long period of time can justify the acceptance of a claim. But mere age or persistance does not warrant accepting a claim.

Examples of Appeal to Tradition

  1. Sure I believe in God. People have believed in God for thousands of years so it seems clear that God must exist. After all, why else would the belief last so long?
  2. Gunthar is the father of Connan. They live on a small island and in their culture women are treated as property to be exchanged at will by men.Connan: “You know father, when I was going to school in the United States I saw that American women are not treated as property. In fact, I read a book by this person named Mill in which he argued for women’s rights.”
    Gunthar: “So, what is your point son?”
    Connan: “Well, I think that it might be wrong to trade my sisters for cattle. They are human beings and should have a right to be masters of their own fate.”
    Gunthar: “What a strange and new-fangled notion you picked up in America. That country must be even more barbaric then I imagined. Now think about this son. We have been trading women for cattle for as long as ourpeople have lived on this island. It is a tradition that goes back into the mists of time. ”
    Connan: “But I still think there is something wrong with it.”
    Gunthar: “Nonsense my boy. A tradition this old must be endorsed by the gods and must be right.”
  3. Of course this mode of government is the best. We have had this government for over 200 years and no one has talked about changing it in all that time. So, it has got to be good.
  4. A reporter is interviewing the head of a family that has been involved with a feud with another family.Reporter: “Mr. Hatfield, why are you still fighting it out with the Mcoys?”
    Hatfield: “Well you see young man, my father feuded with the Mcoys and his father feuded with them and so did my great grandfather.”
    Reporter: “But why? What started all this?”
    Hatfield: “I don’t rightly know. I’m sure it was the Mcoys who started it all, though.”
    Reporter: “If you don’t know why you’re fighting, why don’t you just stop?”
    Hatfield: “Stop? What are you crazy? This feud has been going on for generations so I’m sure there is a darn good reason why it started. So I aim to keep it going. It has got to be the right thing to do. Hand me my shooting iron boy, I see one of those Mcoy skunks sneaking in the cornfield.”

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