Not quite seven signs of the apocalypse

Wacky newsA 2014 story on Salon, titled 7 things Americans think are more plausible than man-made global warming made its way around Facebook again, recently. It lists seven statistics about things Americans believe in more than they believe that human activity has caused climate change. It got a lot of shares and likes.

Climate change is, of course, fact, and as Peter Schickele once said, “Fact is fact. You can’t argue with fact…”

If you accept those facts, it seems a scary read: seven signs of the apocalypse… But before you start calling for a wall across our border to keep the crazies from migrating north, read on.

First, these figures were selectively pulled together to weigh against the American belief in human-caused climate change, not to present a coherent overview of American thought or education. They may be true, but they are not unbiased. And there is little to no correlation between these issues. As Darrell Huff wrote in his 1954 book, How to Lie With Statistics:

Even if you can’t find a source of demonstrable bias, allow yourself some degree of skepticism about the results as long as there is a possibility of bias somewhere. There always is.

Climate change is a hot topic during the presidential primary nomination campaign because Americans are split along party lines: Republicans are non-believers and Democrats are believers (see here). It is not so much a matter of belief in or understanding of the science than it is an issue of ideology. But we never get to know the what party the respondents support.

We will never know if people don’t believe in climate change because that’s what their party tells them to believe.

There are other similar partisan lines: immigration, taxes, medicare, gun control, for example, that are ideologically-based beliefs, rather than based on any research, data, or sometimes even common sense. However, the Slate piece draws in several disparate items – none of them election issues – in its article. Do they relate to belief in climate change? Not really.

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Nibiru nuttiness

CodswallopI’ve written about the wingnuts and their mysterious planet Nibiru – the so-called Planet X – in the past. It’s one of the furthest wacky conspiracies on the fringe of wackiness, and fairly recent. It mostly sprang whole cloth from the brain (if I can call it that…) of uber-wingnut Nancy Lieder, whose website, ZetaTalk, has been spewing diaphanous piffle of the most banal sort since 1995.

Lieder claims to be in psychic contact with aliens called the Zetas (stop laughing), and has conned a whole bunch of exceptionally gullible folks into believing her (although there have been some bitch-slap moments with former followers along the way).

Here’s how she describes what it’s all about on ZetaTalk:

ZetaTalk answers cover such subjects as portents of a Pole Shift and how this relates to the Transformation in process; how life in the Aftertime following this shift will be different from today; the self-centered or service-minded spiritual Orientation of humans as well as aliens from other worlds and how inadvertently giving the Call to aliens can put you in touch with one group or the other; how Visitations can be more easily interpreted when spiritual orientation is understood; how visitors from other Worlds are watched by the Council of Worlds, which has set Rules regulating their behavior; why we are only gradually getting acquainted with our visitors from other worlds, and what will allow the Awakening to occur faster; to what extent the Government is aware of and interacting with the alien presence; the true nature and reason for the Hybrids being developed by the Zetas to merge the best from both Zetans and Humans; why aliens can disappear and move through walls, and what both physical and spiritual Density changes will be like in the future; what the Zetas have to say about our Science theories; what the Zetas as students of human nature have concluded on what Being Human means; and straight ZetaTalk about our Myths.

I know, my head hurt too, trying to read that convoluted, run-on drivel. And the random acts of capitalization. Sorry for that, but it needed to be put out so you’ll realize just how many cattle this woman is shy of a herd.

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Anti-GMO = Anti-Science

FrankenfoodsThe politics of persuasion play a bigger role in the anti-GMO movement than science. Like so many anti-science movements before them – the anti-gluten fad, the anti-vaccination idiocies, creationism, the HIV and Zika virus conspiracies, chemtrails and on and on. Like them, anti-GMO is built on a combination of ignorance, fear and gullibility. And it’s all codswallop.

First, lets get something clear: almost every single thing you eat today has been modified. Tomatoes, corn, beef, chicken, salmon, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, peas, apples, almonds, peanuts, wheat, potatoes, bananas, milk, cheese, yeast… aside from some wild fish and wild game, everything you eat is the product of selective breeding, hybridization, grafting, careful feeding, vaccinating, fertilizing, antibiotics, hormones, spraying or a combination thereof. And the result is genetic modification. Not necessarily genetic engineering, but the result is the same.

Look at corn. It’s been played with by humans for the past 10,000 years. The ancestral teosinte bears no resemblance to the corn on the cob on your plate. Today’s corn is genetically very different from its ancestor. Archeologists found 4,440-year-old corn in Mexico and the genetic structure revealed how humans modified the plants deliberately and systematically to create better, bigger produce. Genetic modification for millenia.

Of course no one called it that, back then. Today we have genetic engineering and biotechnology and, since most of us really don’t know exactly what they entail, what the research is, what the techniques are, we find them scary. Somehow a farmer hybridizing plants in a field feels safer, more “natural” than a scientist doing it in a laboratory. Nonsense.

More to the point, what you see as “corn” in the supermarket is just one of many thousands of varieties grown in North America. Could you even tell the difference between the basic categories of dent, sweet and pop corn from looking at it in a field? What about flint, flour and pod corn? I couldn’t. But okay, the bag of frozen niblets says it’s “sweet” corn. What does that label actually mean to you, the consumer? As opposed to sour corn? Salty corn? You’ve got your label, now what?

The corn you eat is already genetically modified to be insect resistant, to be more drought-resistant, to be herbicide tolerant. Most of that was done over the past several decades to improve crop yields or to counter pests, predators and disease. You’ve been eating it for years.

What some people often don’t consider is that those modifications are helping reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides, irrigation and even fertilizers, which is better for the environment.

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432 vs 440Hz: Science or Codswallop?

A432 vs A440Canadian band Walk Off the Earth posted excitedly on Facebook that they had just recorded a new song. Great. I like WOTE and look forward to their new song.

What was really different about that notice was that they also said they had changed their instruments from the standard A440 to A432 tuning, and it made a huge difference to them:

For all the music nerds out there, you might want to look into this. This has not been 100% proven but the evidence is building. When we were in the studio recording our latest album “Sing It All Away”, we decided to experiment with recording our songs in A=423Hz and also Standard A=440Hz. When we compared the 2 different tunings we unanimously chose the 432 tuning as the one that made us feel better. Hence, our album was performed and recorded in this obscure tuning.
Anyway, this is a cool read and if you’re feeling fancy, try tuning your guitar to 432 and give it a jam. You might feel the vibrations of Mother Nature in your soul!

Do you smell woo hoo in that? What difference would a mere 8Hz make? After all, it’s barely audible; a mere 1/6th of a tone.

Plenty, according to some. It’s become one of those internet true believers’ issues. But is it real or just hogwash? Objective reality or merely subjective? Let’s start with a little history and some science (and not the woo hoo Mother Nature stuff…).

A440 means that the middle A (A above middle C, or A4) is tuned to produce a note at the frequency 440Hz. One Hertz or 1Hz is one cycle per second. Your typical North American electrical current is 60Hz. The range of human hearing is roughly 20Hz to 20KHz (20,000Hz), but we are most sensitive in the range between 1K and 4KHz (some reports say 2-5KHz) – much higher than either A432 or A440.

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The ‘Sharing Economy’ is a Hoax

Time MagazineStop calling it the sharing economy. It’s an oxymoron, like ‘creation science’ or ‘sustainable capitalism.’ It’s not collaborative: it’s the new indentured servant economy. If you believe these corporations are all about sharing and collaboration, then you’re mightily gullible. You’ve been had.

These are big, multi-billion dollar corporations whose executives are millionaires. They are more akin to drug cartels than to cooperative economics. The economic similarities are evident: both use others – the users or subscribers – to break the law for them, to generate their wealth for them, to do their dirty work, then leave those users to face legal, moral and social ramifications – and costs – on their own.

What, you think the CEOs of Uber rent their own BMW’s or Audi’s seats out to strangers and drive them around when they’re not in the office? That the CEOs of Airbnb rent their spare rooms – and they have a lot in their mansions – to strangers for weekend stays? No: you do it for them so they don’t have to take the risks. They’re laughing at you all the way to the bank.

And to icing the cake: these firms get their service providers to put their own property and even their lives at risk – and the lives and safety of their customers – without having to compensate them for it! It’s a capitalist wet dream! A gold mine of cash flowing one way into the corporate coffers. Open another bottle of that bubbly, James, we’re expanding.

As Dean Baker wrote in the Guardian in 2014:

…this new business model is largely based on evading regulations and breaking the law… If these services are still viable when operating on a level playing field they will be providing real value to the economy. As it stands, they are hugely rewarding a small number of people for finding a creative way to cheat the system.

You’re not getting to “share” your home or your vehicle: you’re working for a company to help buy someone a new yacht. Someone who doesn’t give a shit about your welfare, safety or income. You’re contributing to the 1%. Shame on you.

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The Flat Earthers Respawn

Flat earthWhile flat-earther might be a metaphor for a certain kid of myopic, political stupidity (think of your local council…), I learned this week that it’s also a thriving online subculture of rabidly pseudo-science wingnuts.

A couple of entertaining articles about the flat-earthers appeared on the UK’s Guardian paper site (here and here) this week (and in the HuffPost, too). They surprised, but also disturbed me. I hadn’t actually believed in flat-earthers as a modern reality: while I knew of their former existence, I thought the concept was simply a trolling mechanism to expose the silliness of other pseudo-science like creationism or anti-vaccination fears.

But, no, I was wrong. There are, apparently, people who actually believe passionately in this nonsense; a very active community exists online and right now they’re having a hissy fit over one of their own’s comments. Comments which, to an outsider, sound a lot like the gostak distims the doshes.*

I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised: the internet has allowed all sorts of madness and wackiness to gain an audience, from Donald Trump to the Food Babe, from local bloggers to chemtrail conspiracists and anti-vaccination idiots. But a flat earth? Really? That’s pretty sad. The Easter bunny is more believable.

What’s disturbing is that anyone could believe such nonsense in this day and age. This stuff is seriously loony.

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Putting Homeopathy to the Test

HomeopathyHomeopathic products often make a lot of outrageous claims. Given that these products are just water, or sometimes water and sugar, anyone with a gnat’s worth of common sense doesn’t believe those claims. Nor are they backed by any evidence. It’s no wonder homeopathy is called the “air guitar of medicine:”

It should not be a shock to learn that homeopathy has no basis in scientific fact – should anyone doubt this I invite them to peruse Edzard Ernst’s systematic review of the practice.
Homeopaths have gone to incredible lengths to avoid having their air guitar of medicine tested in any rigorous fashion. Instead, they have created their own self-justifying means of establishing that it works. They call this “homeopathic proving”.
A “proving” typically involves a dozen people, who will take a homeopathic remedy and record their thoughts, feelings and even dreams. These diaries are then used to “discover” what the remedy can supposedly cure.

Ernst’s review of more than 2,000 studies, referenced above, noted (emphasis added):

Collectively they failed to provide strong evidence in favour of homeopathy. In particular, there was no condition which responds convincingly better to homeopathic treatment than to placebo or other control interventions.

Ernst’s study reviewed 225 research papers, 11 independent studies and 1,800 medical studies on the health effects of homeopathy and found no reliable evidence in them to back its homeopathy’s claims of effectiveness. It didn’t work any better than any other placebo. In fact, the study concluded, “homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are serious or could become serious.”

In simple terms: homeopathy is bunkum and don’t use it if you’re sick. It doesn’t work. It can’t work because it is not based on science, not on research, not on medical principles, not on chemistry or biology. It is based on magic and superstition.

That’s what you get when you buy a homeopathic product: magical pills.

But in any nation connected to the internet there are enough gullible folks that homeopathy manages to fool someone. Like alien abductions, 9/11 conspiracies, feng shui, acupuncture, crystal therapy, psychic surgery, angels, bigfoot, chemtrails, gluten-free fads, detox fads and other wacky notions and conspiracies, homeopathy has a ready audience of people willing to open their wallets, and close their minds.

As a writer noted in The Herald, it’s hard to combat superstition with science:

Many preventable deaths and serious illnesses have been caused by the use of homeopathy over real medicine. And qualified, caring, medical experts worldwide are at their wits ends trying to counter the hype and nonsense spread by many in the homeopathy business who are trying to increase the huge profits they make out of their sugar and water pills.

That’s what it’s really all about: that huge profit. Scamming the public out of its money.

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Apocalyptic Wingnuts At It Again

Not gonna happen
The end-of-the-worlders are again predicting the immanent destruction of the planet. This time it will happen on 22-23 September, 2015. You might recall the world ended in 2000, 2003, 2009, 2012 and again in 2013. So this is what it looks like after the end…

The latest wingnut theory is that an asteroid will land in the Caribbean that month, swamping Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It will create 300-foot tsunami waves up to the east coast of the USA. Florida will be completely inundated. As you might expect, the source of this fantasy is a religious wingnut:

Efrain Rodriguez a musician and a prophet for 41 years. A sound testimony’s brother .He belongs to the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal, MI,(International Movement) a faithful and the first and oldest Pentecostal church in Puerto Rico

And the religious wingnuts* tie it all in with the zany Book of Revelations and the imaginary “Rapture” that has somehow avoided arriving for the last two millennia.  But, of course, you can buy their book or video, to get the whole picture (ka-ching!). Might as well spend your money on them now, since you’re about to die in a few months… or not…

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Bad Thinkers and the Unknown Knowns

Critical thinkingI came across an interesting piece on bad thinking online recently. In it, the author argues some of the points I’ve mentioned in the past about people who believe in conspiracy theories, gossip and other online codswallop:

The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal.

In the piece, the author, Quassim Cassam, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, argues that the fault lies in how these people process information, not the quality or quantity of that information. They are, in other words, bad thinkers. They have intellectual vices or intellectual bad habits:

Gullibility, carelessness and closed-mindedness… negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking… Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Humility, caution and carefulness are among the intellectual virtues…

Cassam uses a fictional character, Oliver, and his obsession with 9/11 conspiracies despite evidence that all of his conspiratorial notions can be proven wrong.

Oliver is gullible because he believes things for which he has no good evidence, and he is closed-minded because he dismisses claims for which there is excellent evidence. It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that what counts as good evidence is a subjective matter. To say that Oliver lacks good evidence is to draw attention to the absence of eye-witness or forensic support for his theory about 9/11, and to the fact that his theory has been refuted by experts. Oliver might not accept any of this but that is, again, a reflection of his intellectual character.

But 9/11 is only one of so many of these conspiracies and bad ideas that are like pond scum on the internet. Their following can’t all stem from bad thinking. Some might be from laziness – after all, assessing a claim properly can be hard work and our brains are our body’ biggest energy user. Some people may not have the energy (couch potatoes, for example) to expend. So it’s easier to accept a claim – no matter how fatuous – than investigate it (something the media are prone to do).

Some are actual cons and deliberate hoaxes that hook the gullible. While others – like angels and ghosts – may be superstition or wishful thinking (aka faith). Other examples may simply be eccentric expressions of our personality.

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Extraordinary Claims

Extraordinary claimsAs the poster for the Centre for Inquiry notes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s a popular catchphrase for the skeptical movement, but should be an intellectual policy for everyone.

Regardless of what is being claimed, it requires evidence at the same level of the claim.

Anecdote is not evidence, please note, especially personal anecdote even with the corroboration of other witnesses. People often “see” what they choose to see, and interpret events and objects according to preconceived ideas. Seeing UFOs instead of ordinary aircraft, or chemtrails instead of mundane contrails are examples of this. Evidence is something concrete; a body of facts, not simply interpretation or disingenuous claim.

The Centre lists many claims as the poster indicates – a list that continues to grow – along with a brief introduction to each: claims, evidence and conclusion. Some like leprechauns, the Easter Bunny, tooth fairy, dragons and Xenu seem pretty obviously mythological or (like Xenu) totally fabricated. Others will certainly raise an argument among some religious believers  or the superstitious – angels, magic, Heaven, hell, the afterlife and similar religious topics included (it does not yet list Santa Claus, but I expect it will come)..

As RationalWiki puts it,

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence was a phrase made popular by Carl Sagan. It is central to scientific method, and a key issue for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere.

The actual phrase was coined by sociologist Marcello Truzzi, but it has been around in other forms for several centuries. In his 1748 work, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (chap. 10.4.), David Hume wrote:

In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence… No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.

Simply because a lot of people believe in something, or accept it as factual doesn’t mean it is true. In a letter to Adam Smith, Hume wrote:

Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood than the approbation of the multitude…

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Lucy and the 10% Brain Myth

LucyWe watched the film Lucy on iTunes last night and, while reasonably entertaining, its plot is founded on a persistent bit of pseudoscience: that people only use 10% of their brain capacity. It’s so widespread a myth that Wikipedia has a page on it that opens:

The 10 percent of the brain myth is the widely perpetuated urban myth that most or all humans only make use of 10 percent (or some other small percentage) of their brains. It has been misattributed to many people, including Albert Einstein. By extrapolation, it is suggested that a person may harness this unused potential and increase intelligence.

Sure, we all know people who don’t appear to use much of their brain’s potential power, but the simple truth is that we all use all of our brain’s capacity. We evolved a big brain to handle the growing demands of increased consciousness, speech and sophisticated motor control, and that’s what it’s for.

Sure, not all of it is used in a conscious manner. Much of the brain’s function is taken up in processing, storing and interpreting the huge bandwidth of information that is fed to it every second of every day. Even acts we do daily and take for granted – like walking upstairs with a cup of tea in one hand while talking – take a huge amount of processing power. Sight, balance, motor control, memory, logic, vocalization, muscles control… the brain takes care of it all without spilling a drop.

Your consciousness – the ego – doesn’t see all this work going on and never will because you would quickly be overwhelmed by the huge amount of data being managed by your unconscious. Yes, yes, a lot of people don’t appear to even use the whole capacity of their conscious brains – anti-vaxxers, chemtrail wingnuts, creationists and some local bloggers come to mind – but that’s just a portion of what the brain does. Critical thinking is a skill one has to acquire and practice, not an inherent brain function.

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It’s Official: Homeopathy is Bunk

Still Bullshit
“Homeopathy not effective for treating any condition, Australian report finds,” reads a headline in The Guardian this week. Well, that’s hardly news. But it repeats saying anyway. It’s a story about the latest in a series of studies that again and again debunk homeopathy as a treatment and conclude it is useless.

Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) “…thoroughly reviewed 225 research papers on homeopathy to come up with its position statement,” the paper reported.

And on Gizmodo they said:

An analysis of over 225 medical studies and 1,800 scientific papers has found that homeopathy is ineffective as a health treatment. Its authors urge that “people who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments.”

The scientists waded through a total of 1,800 reports; but only found 225 were actually controlled studies that lived up to the rigorous scientific standards required to make any claims of benefit stand up. So if any of them concluded homeopathy wasn’t bunk, it was because they failed the basic test for scientific rigour.

As The Smithsonian reported:

After assessing more than 1,800 studies on homeopathy, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council was only able to find 225 that were rigorous enough to analyze. And a systematic review of these studies revealed “no good quality evidence to support the claim that homeopathy is effective in treating health conditions.”

Homeopathy is called an “alternative medicine” – which is bafflegab for claptrap. There is medicine or alternatives, and they don’t meet in the middle. It’s up there with the likes of iridology, reflexology, reiki, aromatherapy, healing crystals, naturopathy and magic incantations for utter medical buffoonery.

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