I missed my calling in quackery

Deepak ChopraI missed my calling. I realize that, now I am semi-retired and counting my pennies. But I could have been like Deepak Chopra: rolling in dough, had I been astute enough to see the trends. Too late, I suppose, for me, but maybe not for you.

All my life I have criticized and lampooned New Age notions as fuzzy-headed, pseudoscience codswallop. But I should have embraced them because, it seems, there’s money to be had in conning and conniving. Lots of it. Instead of debunking and deconstructing the diaphanous piffle that gets spewed from these folk, I should have been plagiarizing from them. 

I’m a writer. I could easily tossed together a word salad of New Age bafflegab liberally spiced with buzzwords, phrases and aphorisms lifted from classical and Oriental sources. Written a pretentious self-help book full of woo hoo, like Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret” or “The Power” – bestselling pap for the hard of thinking. Both of which were the butt of a merciless critique in 2010 in The New York Times:

“The Power” and “The Secret” are larded with references to magnets, energy and quantum mechanics. This last is a dead giveaway: whenever you hear someone appeal to impenetrable physics to explain the workings of the mind, run away — we already have disciplines called “psychology” and “neuroscience” to deal with those questions. Byrne’s onslaught of pseudoscientific jargon serves mostly to establish an “illusion of knowledge,” as social scientists call our tendency to believe we understand something much better than we really do. In one clever experiment by the psychologist Rebecca Lawson, people who claimed to have a good understanding of how bicycles work (and who ride them every day) proved unable to draw the chain and pedals in the correct location.

Or I could have written a New Age book that tossed science and reason out the proverbial window and filled the pages with pseudoscience nonsense, like that supreme wingnut, Masuro Emoto’s cringeworthy book, The Secret of Water. He claims water’s feelings can be hurt by yelling at it. Stop laughing: that’s just what landed me here. Follow the path to riches instead. Embrace your inner con artist.

My book would be replete with similar deep-sounding but essentially meaningless statements and nebulous epithets that no one can quite counter because to do so makes the challenger seem shallow and dim. Like these (can you guess the sources?):

“The unexplainable unfolds through existential molecules.”*
“Your heart is the continuity of a symbolic representation of facts.”*
“The goal of meridians is to plant the seeds of karma rather than desire.**
“You and I are dreamweavers of the quantum soup.”**
“There is no fixed physical reality, no single perception of the world, just numerous ways of interpreting world views as dictated by one’s nervous system and the specific environment of our planetary existence.” ***
“No matter how closely you examine the water, glucose, and electrolyte salts in the human brain, you can’t find the point where these molecules became conscious.” ***
“Consciousness conceives, governs, constructs, and becomes the activity of the body.” ***

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The meaning of dreams

Jack kerouacJack Kerouac woke up most mornings in the 1950s and scribbled into a bedside notebook what he could remember of his dreams. Characters from his novels interacted with fantasies and real life events. The result was eventually published in 1961 as his Book of Dreams; 184 pages of mostly spontaneous or stream-of-consciousness writing, as this excerpt shows:

WALKING THROUGH SLUM SUBURBS of Mexico City I’m stopped by smiling threesome of cats who’ve disengaged themselves from the general fairly crowded evening street of brown lights, coke stands, tortillas-Unmistakably going to steal my bag-I struggled a little, gave up-Begin communicating with them my distress and in fact do so well they end up just stealing parts of my stuff! We walk off leaving the bag with someone-arm in arm like a gang to the downtown lights of Letran, across a field-

I was browsing through Kerouac’s book this week, looking for common themes that overlapped his and my own dreams. After all, there are dream elements that have been reported so often they’re considered part of the human experience: falling, being chased, flying, being naked in public (the latter, I’m sure, is every politician’s dream…).

I admire Kerouac’s efforts to make sense out of what is normally an incoherent jumble of images, actions and ideas. Kerouac, though, seems to have woven his dreams into his wealth of stories, continuing them in his sleep. I can’t tell, however, if in his recording he embellished the dreams with thoughts and memories of his own stories. Some seem like drafts for a novel or those deleted scenes in the feature section of a DVD. As he wrote himself:

“In the Book of Dreams I just continue the same story but in the dreams I had of the real-life characters I always write about.”

Some people remember their dreams, others don’t. Most mornings I can recall fragments of mine, sometimes entire narratives, like Kerouac did. Some mornings they are just snippets that evaporate quickly as I go about the day. A rare few I can recall past the morning, rarer still those that stick with me over the years (and most of those are from childhood, when my brain was more elastic and open).

Sometimes I have lucid dreams, too; dreams when I know I’m dreaming. Dreams in which I’m not only the actor but the director. Sometimes in those dreams I struggle to awaken. Nightmares? Not so much; I had them when I was a child, and still recall a few rather vividly, but few trouble my sleep these days. Night terrors? None, at least none I can recall.

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The 10 Worst?

Tin foil hat
Skeptoid just published its top-ten worst anti-science websites and I’m sure you won’t be surprised at the awardees, especially not the regulars like Mercola, Dr. Oz, Deepak Chopra and Food Babe (aka the Worst Assault on Science on the Internet). Predatory quacks, crackpots and fakirs you will easily recognize. Surprisingly, the uber-wingnut David Wolfe was absent this year.

Some of these sites sugar-coat their nonsense with pseudo-spirituality, usually some mashup of New Age codswallop and ancient mumbo-jumbo. Many ascribe their claptrap to traditional – non-medical, unproven and anti-science – practices like ayurveda or Chinese folk medicine, both of which can not only be harmful but often are damaging to other species and lifeforms. Others use rhetorical bafflegab to confuse people (Wolfe is a master at this tactic).

Having a top ten for pseudoscience and conspiracy claptrap is fun, but it’s identifying the point-oh-oh-one percent of that junk. There’s so much of it that no list – the top 100, the top 1,000 – could even scratch its infected surface. It’s hard to pick which of these hysterical charlatans and con artists should be rated among the top, they are all so despicable, foolish and greedy. Yes, greedy: they are all about the money: they have never been about your wellbeing, health or safety. Everyone of them is selling some snake oil.

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The bucket list, kicked

Kick the bucketNowadays the “bucket list” concept has become a wildly popular cultural meme, thanks to the movie of the same name. Subsequent marketing of the idea to millennials has proven a successful means to derive them of their income, with which they seem eager to part.

I don’t like the concept. The list, I mean, not necessarily the plucking of the millennial chickens who willingly hand over their financial feathers. They get what they deserve.

Bucketlist.org has, at the time of this writing, more than 5.317 million “dreams” for you to pursue. Contributed by more than 450,000 people. And your individual dream? Part of the Borg’s list. Pretty hard to think of something original that the previous 450,000 folks didn’t already add to the list.

Just search “bucket list” on Google and you’ll turn up close to 52 million hits, and a huge number of them are selling something, from New Age codswallop to travel to high-tech gadgets and everything in-between. Nowadays, “your” bucket list is everyone’s bucket list and has become part of a slick campaign aimed at your wallet. At every corner there’s some entrepreneur eager to play Virgil to your hollow life’s Dante, for a price.

A bucket list is, we learned from the film, the wish list of things you want to accomplish before you kick the metaphorical bucket  – i.e. die – as a means to give your previously pathetic life some substance. That notion quickly morphed into a commercial selling point, and it seems I encounter it every day in some new form, usually on social media. It’s up there with posts about puppies, angels, magic crystals, and nasty troll posts about liberals.

The movie is about two seniors undergoing an end-of-life crisis trying to figure out the Meaning of It All. They resolve to avoid dwelling on their inevitable end by taking very expensive trips around the world (Jack Nicholson plays a billionaire…). It’s a cute, moving film. It’s fiction, but also a great marketing idea. We are all susceptible to Hollywood, after all. And, of course, we all have billionaire friends who will buy the tickets, right?

Okay, I get it: we all want life to make sense, and to have meaning that makes the 9-5 grind worthwhile. But even if our lives are meaningless, we don’t want to die, either. We want to be able to say something we did made the journey worth the effort. But is this the way? Is life simply a series of boxes we check off? A list that keeps growing with more and more items to check? Your self esteem will suffer if you don’t check this off. And this. And this. And this…

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Enough with the astrology claptrap already

Claptrap“No,” wrote Phil Plait on Slate, “NASA Didn’t Change Your Astrological Sign.” Which it didn’t. But that hasn’t stopped the wingnuts from wailing over the recent announcement from NASA allegedly changing your horoscope.

Let’s start with the basics. Plait sums it up nicely:

Astrology isn’t science; it’s nonsense. It’s been tested 10 ways to Sunday and every time it fails. Even astrologers have come up with tests for it, and it’s failed those. Astrology doesn’t work.

Ah, but that doesn’t seem to dampen the belief of those hooked on superstition. Astrology is a business and the sheep must continue to be shorn. So let me take a shot, too. Yes, it’s fish in a barrel, but I love spending my Saturday mornings debunking this claptrap.

Yes, it is made up...

First: astrology isn’t science. Never was, never will be. It isn’t astronomy or psychology: it’s entertainment. Nothing more relevant to your life or your future than your weekend cartoons (and less relevant than the Dilbert cartoon…) or Sudoku puzzle. Sure, even smart people love to read their horoscopes over coffee and toast, and laugh about them, but then they get dressed and move on with their lives. They don’t plan their days around superstition and fantasy.

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Flat earthers? Must be a spoof…

Flat earth and the BibleAt first, I thought a story on Tech.mic titled “Meet the People Who Believe the Earth Is Flat” was satire. You know, a parody of those zany conspiracy theorists who believe in such nonsense as chemtrails, gluten-free, the government staged the 9/11 attacks, homeopathy, vaccines cause autism, Trump is a good presidential candidate, astrology, creationism, climate change is a hoax, Collingwood Council has ethics, and the rest of the rampant silliness and stupidity that haunts the Net.

And it would be easy to write: wingnuts are almost too easy to lampoon. But no one can really believe the earth is flat, can they? I mean, come on: how stupid do you have to be? It’s gotta be a spoof.

Flat earth belief – or more properly, platygeism – goes beyond mere gullibility into the realm of a self-induced ignorance coma. As Rational Wiki succinctly puts it:

It is probably impossible for any single example to fully disprove flat-earthism, simply because there is always an ad hoc explanation for any given, apparently-contradictory phenomenon. However, it’s quite difficult for a flat-earthist to explain away all of the problems with flat-earthism and maintain a consistent theory, mostly because the “evidence” they provide is circumstantial, and generally pulled out of their asses.

But the article referenced a Facebook group, sites and some YouTube videos. A lot of them. If it’s a spoof, it’s a convoluted one with lots of seemingly disparate players. As conspiracies go, this one is easily debunked.

And they weren’t the sort of economic “flat earth” believers Thomas Friedman referenced in his book. Nor are they the metaphorical “flat earther” that Trump supporters are often described as. These are the mythical Dark Ages* sort of flat-earther dressed in New Age clothes. You know, the no-science, no-logic, no-education, superstitious piffle sort of believer with access to the internet. The kind that increasingly populate the dark corners of the web to grow conspiracies and wingnut ideas in the dark.

As I read, I started to get worried. This didn’t look spoofish at all. It looked frighteningly real. As if these people actually believed against all reason, all science, all geography, all physics and all astronomy that, yes indeed, we do live on a flat surface. As if these people were actually the most stupid on the planet and proud of it.

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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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