11/13/14

Comets, Aliens and Conspiracy Wingnuts


Image from RosettaThe European Space Agency has accomplished one of the greatest engineering and scientific achievements in human history this past week. Not only did it get a space vehicle into orbit around a comet travelling at more than 55,000 km/hr (34,000 mph), it landed a probe on the very rough surface of that comet. Outstanding, brilliant, superb… the superlatives fail me when trying to describe this event.

The Rosetta spacecraft chased Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for ten years (since March, 2004) travelling almost four billion miles (6.4 b km) to rendezvous with the small chunk of icy rock, currently about 510 million kilometres away from Earth.

The rubber-duck-shaped comet is about 2.5 miles across at its widest: a tiny body compared to even a  mid-sized asteroid, and it’s blacker than coal. Even finding it in the emptiness of space is a remarkable feat, let alone establishing an orbit around it and sending back stunning photographs. But if that isn’t incredible enough, yesterday Rosetta deployed Philae, a tiny lander, to settle on the rapidly rotating comet, to take photos and conduct experiments – a feat so remarkable it defies description.

This is the sort of scientific effort we should be celebrating worldwide, shouting about it from the rooftops. But apparently the wingnut crowd has a different view. They think it’s an alien spacecraft the ESA is secretly monitoring (with the nefarious military and secret government agencies, of course).

It took almost no time for the conspiracy theorists “identified” UFOs, towers and alien monuments, faces, radio towers and even a pyramid in the photos broadcast from the comet. The internet is polluted with this kind of nonsense.

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11/10/14

Camping’s madness carries on


ScoundrelHarold Camping has been dead for almost a year, but his legacy lives on. Not just in the broken dreams of his deluded followers, but in the many lives he destroyed through his madness.

You would have thought that, having predicted the end of the world several times, and been wrong each one, because of the general embarrassment of anyone who gave him even the slightest credence, he would be buried and forgotten, except as a caricature of religious nuttiness. And a scam artist.

But no, Camping continues his malice, even after death, like a modern-day Jacob Marley dragging his chains with him. This week, a post by Rick Paulus on Vice.com reminded us that Camping’s undead zombie continues to infect the gullible through the radio.

I’ve written about Camping and his malevolent lunacy in the past; two posts, one in late May, 2012 and before that on March 8, 2012. Camping is perhaps the worst recent example of a religious predator preying on his flock. True, the flock proved mindless, easily-fleeced lambs happily led to Camping’s slaughter, but that doesn’t excuse Camping’s voracious depredations.

His defenders called him a sincere believer and praised his Biblical scholarship. Claptrap. Camping was an immoral con artist; an unprincipled huckster who sold his own wacky interpretations of faith.*

And I mean sold. He conned millions from his followers ($18 million was donated to his cause in 2009 alone). The directors (he was one of the three-person board) and programmers at Family Radio did not step in to stop him or halt his broadcasts, even after his prophesies failed to come true. Like Camping, they have never been criminally prosecuted. But they did sell off a lot of their assets after Camping died.

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11/2/14

Debunking Homeopathy. Again.


Homeopathy. It’s absoHomeopathic cartoonlute bunk. But you already know that. All those forms of ‘magic medicine* are bunk, of course, but homeopathy has a special place reserved for it in the kingdom of codswallop.

Codswallop is dangerous to the mind, and often to your wallet, but homeopathy compounds that by being dangerous to your health, too, even fatal, as Penelope Dingle discovered. Yes, homeopathy can kill you, if you take it’s fake cures instead of actual medicine or treatment.**

But, you ask, if a placebo works (in some cases), what’s wrong with it? As Joel Gottsegen wrote in the Stanford Daily last week, it’s the pseudoscience baggage that attends its use that is equally dangerous:

Helping people with chronic pain via the placebo effect is nice, but there are many ways to achieve this effect that create less collateral damage. Giving someone a sugar pill is relatively simple. Creating an enormous ideological framework that clouds people’s judgements about mainstream medicine is not. The biggest problem with practitioners of alternative medicine is that they often deny the soundness of scientific studies as a measurement of the efficacy of a treatment. This is a dangerous sentiment. If Deepak Chopra were to discover a new form of medical treatment that helped sick people, it should be possible to test that the treatment is actually working. By denying the validity of the scientific method, alternative healers free themselves from any kind of accountability.

The Atlantic Magazine quoted Steven Salzberg, a prominent biology researcher at the University of Maryland at College Park, saying homeopathy is a…

…cleverly marketed, dangerous quackery. These clinics throw together a little homeopathy, a little meditation, a little voodoo, and then they add in a little accepted medicine and call it integrative medicine, so there’s less criticism. There’s only one type of medicine, and that’s medicine whose treatments have been proven to work. When something works, it’s not all that hard to prove it. These people have been trying to prove their alternative treatments work for years, and they can’t do it. But they won’t admit it and move on. Of course they won’t. They’re making too much money on it.

I got back onto this old horse of an argument recently when a Facebook poster responded to my posts urging residents to get a flu vaccine by saying, “If you care for your health, take a homeopathic alternative with no added toxins.” No added anything, really, since homeopathic “remedies” are simply placebos and what you get in those little pills is a little sugar and nothing else.

Taking nothing does just that: nothing. If you care about your health – and that of others – you’ve already had your flu shot. Homeopathic “remedies” will not prevent the flu from spreading or infecting anyone. In fact they’re actually helping spread disease.

In short: homeopathy is bunk, and dangerous, unhealthy bunk at that. It’s taken off these days because of the internet-driven conspiracy-theory gullibility that pervades our culture. Terms like “Big Pharma” are used to scare people who are already deeply suspicious of government, corporations, developers, Liberals, contrails, medicine, vaccinations and science. Ooh, scary…

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10/31/14

Social Media, Public Opinion, and Jian Ghomeshi



Star CartoonI doubt anyone in North America is unaware of the furor surrounding CBC’s recent firing of radio show Q’s host, Jian Ghomeshi last week.*

In case you were on the moon when it happened, you can read some of the many stories on the Star and other news sites (just Google it…).

It’s a complex story; about the seesaw between workers’ and employers’ rights; about sex and consent; about abuse and violence against women; about privacy and personal rights; about social media and cyber-bullying; about justice and law; about media and declining reporting standards; about the public forum and the nature of spectacle; about victims and the various shades of truth. And it’s about double standards.

Fascinating, difficult, and troubling. It challenges us to think about our own beliefs and ideas; about how we react eagerly to scandal; how we view the glitterati as both outsiders and those we emulate; how we obsess over stardom; how we view sex and behaviour; how we view male and female sexuality; and how we treat – and judge – both others and ourselves. But little of that actually gets into the news or the commentaries. Mostly what gets into them is sensationalism (such is the level to which most media have fallen; how can modern media maintain its audience without crass sensationalism?). Plus a mixture of salacious gossip, accusations, self-righteous moralizing,and chest beating in the editorials and online.

But not always. Christie Blatchford recently wrote an excellent column (and I don’t often agree with her perspective, although I respect her as a writer) about how these things should be tried in courts, not by the public:

My concern is that the allegations in this story are criminal matters — these are claims of sexual assault and violent physical assault — and they ought not to be tried in the court of public opinion.
There are no safeguards in that court, no testing of the evidence, no rules or boundaries.
As Abe Lincoln famously said, “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.”
Sorry for the interruption, now back to the lynching.

It’s important to keep in mind that, so far, no one has filed a complaint with the police about Ghomeshi’s actions. Yes, I know a police complaint does not indicate guilt, but it does open a more intensive investigation outside of the forum Facebook and Twitter offer. An objective one, too.**
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10/23/14

Crito: Doing What’s Right


Collected DialoguesIn his dialogue, Crito, Plato has Socrates gently admonish his friend, Crito, for his concern over what the uneducated public might think, or might spread by rumour and gossip, and encourages him instead to focus his attention on those ‘reasonable people’ who know the facts and in doing what is right:

“Why, my dear Crito, should we pay so much attention to what ‘most people’ think? The really reasonable people, who have much more claim to be considered, will believe that the facts are exactly as they are.”
(Trans. Hugh Tedennick, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Bollingen Series LXXI, Princeton University Press, 14th printing, 1989)*

Had this been written today, Socrates might tell his friend not to be concerned with the chatter on social media; look to informed people rather than simply those posting on Facebook and Twitter.

Crito, however, replies with a caution:

“…one has to think of popular opinion as well. Your present position is quite enough to show that the capacity of ordinary people for causing trouble is not confined to petty annoyances, but has hardly any limits if you get a bad name with them.”

Socrates then says he wishes people had the same capacity for doing good as they do for doing harm, but adds that, although they may put him to death, the masses do not change who you are: “They cannot make a man wise or stupid; they simply act at random.”

He later comments that, “…one should not regard all the opinions that people hold, but only some and not others…” Crito then agrees with his statement on opinions that, “one should regard the good ones and not the bad… the opinions of the wise being good, and the opinions of the foolish, bad…”

“In that case, my dear fellow,” Socrates continues, “what we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us, but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority who represents the actual truth.”

Socrates wants to hear from a moral expert; without finding one, he has to make up his own mind on what is right and wrong.

Crito, one of Plato’s shorter ethical works, is ostensibly about the death of Socrates, but it’s really about how to live an ethical life even under dire circumstances: wrongdoing damages the soul and must be avoided.

Socrates awaits his fate in his prison cell and is visited by his friend, Crito, who encourages Socrates to flee into exile. Socrates says no, and accepts his coming death calmly. However, the dialogue has much to say to us today outside of its historical context.

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10/21/14

Logical Fallacies


Dilbert
Post hoc fallacyLast night at council I referred to seeing what I believed was a post hoc fallacy in a report, or more properly a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Yeah, I probably annoyed some folks in the audience because I used Latin words and that confused them. But hey, they already think I’m a jerk because I can spell words like egregious and nefarious without using spellcheck, so I doubt I lost any votes over it.

It means an error in assigning a causal relationship between two or more coincidental events. For example:

  1. I combed my hair a different way and I came down with a cold.
  2. After a few days, I combed my hair the old way and the cold went away.
  3. Therefore combing my hair a different way gave me a cold.

This is an easy one to see through, but you’d be surprised how many people apply this logical fallacy to their thinking. For example, the typical chemtrail conspiracy theory:

  1. I saw contrails from a plane overhead.
  2. My skin got itchy afterwards.
  3. Therefore the government is spraying something from jet planes that is making me sick.

Which pretty much sums up the whole nonsense around chemtrails. People naturally look for events that explain what they already believe to be true (confirmation bias). When causality does not exist between events, what you often find is merely wishful thinking.

Post hoc fallacies are part of a group of related informal, logical fallacies that fall under the general non causa pro causa group.* The Fallacy Files describes this category as:

…the most general fallacy of reasoning to conclusions about causality. Some authors describe it as inferring that something is the cause of something else when it isn’t, an interpretation encouraged by the fallacy’s names. However, inferring a false causal relation is often just a mistake, and it can be the result of reasoning which is as cogent as can be, since all reasoning to causal conclusions is ultimately inductive.

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10/19/14

Skepticism Too Easily Slides Into Cynicism


CynicismYears spent in the media, plus decades of independent practice as a writer and social critic honed my native skepticism into a protective psychological barrier against a wide range of social ailments and inappropriate, often dangerous beliefs. It has made me question motives, statements, logic and conclusions, and search for the underlying truths. It motivated me to explore, to examine, to dig deep. To try to understand, not simply deny.

It’s an easy slide, however, from a healthy skepticism to a soul-destroying cynicism – using the modern sense of the word. Modern cynicism encourages acceptance of the notion that everything is bad, rotten and evil except the viewer; cynics become too lazy, too self-assured of their own faith and beliefs to investigate further. They draw conclusions from surface appearances without going deeper; and blanket everything with negativism.

Skeptics, however, keep enough of an open mind to continue asking questions. Healthy skepticism is often paired with conscious awareness, emotional intelligence and ruthless compassion:

In order to have more freedom and empowerment in our lives we need conscious awareness, healthy skepticism, emotional intelligence and ruthless compassion. The more we practice these skills, the less we’ll be subject to manipulation and exploitation and the more unencumbered we’ll be in pursuing true happiness and fulfillment…
Our skepticism will bring out the best in the upstanding people and institutions and will bring out the worst in those that are dishonest and corrupt. By asking questions and observing the reactions and responses of those we’re questioning, we’re able to discover who we’re really dealing with and make informed choices with respect to them.
To question things is to take back control of our lives, because knowledge and understanding bring us power and choice and enable us to act on our own behalf in the best, most informed manner. Not accepting everything at face value and being skeptical about the underlying motivations of those who want to lead us, advise us or profit from us is a wise course of action for all the above reasons.

Cynics simply don’t believe in anything but their own surety. They don’t feel the need to go looking for the roots and the causes that skeptics hunt and wrestle with. Cynics are negative, skeptics are searching for answers. Cynics don’t have to take responsibility for things because they’ve already decided the world is against them: skeptics look for answers and meaning to make things connect and work.

You cannot shed light into the darkness if you’re convinced that there’s some ulterior motive behind the light. That’s why conspiracy theorists are for the most part cynics in the dark. Scientists, on the other hand, are generally skeptics with candles.

I’ve tried, through my life, to keep my skepticism healthy and active; a tool to fuel my curiosity, while dampening the trend to assume a cynical approach. I have tried to use skepticism in the way of free inquiry, as taught in the Kalama Sutra. After all, the word comes from the Greek skepsis, meaning “inquiry.” Not doubt.

I’m not always successful in avoiding the cascade into cynicism – it’s easier and faster, requires less effort and thought, especially with social media, but overall I believe I have stayed above it.

The philosopher Denis Diderot wrote in Pensées Philosophiques (1746):

Scepticism is the first step towards truth.

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