05/9/14

Sometimes Our Opinions Just Don’t Matter


Crazy notionsThe headline for this piece comes from a recent article in Time Magazine: “Dear CNN: Sometimes Our Opinions Just Don’t Matter.” The article isn’t – as you might have thought – about local bloggers. It’s about critical thinking. Or rather, the lack of it, on CNN’s part.The lack of it on the part of local bloggers I’ll save for another day.

CNN has been running almost non-stop coverage of the plane’s disappearance, repeating in endless loops the same, paltry information they have, then trying to spin that into yet another story. It’s obsessed with the disappearance, to the point where CNN has been mocked by other media for its coverage.

CNN ran a poll about the missing Malaysian airliner. Most of which, as the Time article points out, is moot. And one of the questions was whether or not aliens or time travellers hijacked the plane.

So CNN issued the results of a poll today about the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Should the search continue? Are the searchers looking in the right area? Oh, and could the plane’s vanishing have been caused by “space aliens, time travelers or beings from another dimension“? (At least “somewhat likely,” said 9%.)

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04/8/14

The dangerous idiocy of the anti-vax movement


Measles outbreakMeasles is on the rise in Canada. There have already been many cases in 2014: in PEI, London, Ottawa, southern Alberta, Regina, Qu’Apelle, Calgary, Fraser Valley (320 cases), Hamilton, Halton, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Waterloo, Nanaimo and other locations. Eleven cases in Ontario this year alone. Nine in Alberta.

That ancient, deadly foe we recently believed we had conquered, is coming back. And it’s going to kill children again, this time with the complicity of their parents.

Fifty years ago, science found the cure and made a vaccine for it. In 2000, the United States optimistically declared ongoing measles transmission had been eliminated. But it’s come back.

So have mumps and whooping cough – both easily and safely prevent by vaccinations. Both are deadly threats to children again.

Who’s to blame? And why is this happening? Why are people putting children at such risk?

It’s because of the anti-vaccination movement, a cult of pseudoscience, anti-medicine sentiments, gullibility, fear, superstition and mostly quackery promoted by witless and devious celebrities and greedy marketers, then spread on the internet to people who jump on every passing bandwagon. Parents who get their medical advice from unreliable online sources – mostly lies, rumour, gossip and unfounded allegation, like all conspiracy theories – or from quacks, not doctors.*

Health Link Alberta tells us how easily measles can spread:

Close contact with an infected person is not necessary to catch measles.
It is an extremely contagious airborne disease that can spread by coughing and sneezing, and through air currents.
Although there is no specific treatment or cure for measles, it can be prevented through immunization.
The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is part of the routine childhood immunization program in Alberta.
Children should receive their first MMR dose at 12 months and the second between the ages of four and six years. Both doses are required to be fully protected.

The anti-vaxxers are creating a public health disaster. Rather ironically, North American parents have that in common with the Taliban:

In Pakistan, polio remains an epidemic because the Taliban has banned aid workers from vaccinating children. They say they fear that vaccination efforts are simply a ruse meant to disguise espionage. Health workers attempting to distribute vaccines there have been attacked and killed. A total of 101 polio cases have been reported in the country as of mid-November, and another 240,000 children have not been vaccinated.

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04/1/14

Is this the end of the gluten-free fad?


 

Gluten-free fad madnessLast November, when I first wrote about the gluten-free diet fad, I bemoaned how an everyday protein, a staple in human diets for many millennia, had become demonized by the diet fad crowd. In fact, the gluten-free fad rapidly grew into a multi-million-dollar industry in Canada to accommodate that vulnerable intersection of consumer fears and gullibility.*

Back when I was writing my piece, the National Post had a piece that indicated while nine million Canadians were allegedly on a gluten-free diet or avoided gluten for non-medical reasons, only 1% of us – about 330,000 people – actually have Celiac disease (of whom only 33,000 are actually diagnosed with it).

A whole lot of people have self-diagnosed themselves with gluten-sensitivity, based more on what they’ve seen on TV or read on the internet, rather than on actual medical advice, let alone the results of tests. But that’s a psychosomatic illness, not a real one. And in fact, some people may simply be faking it (i.e. if you claim a gluten allergy and yet you still drink beer…) or because it fits with their other pseudoscience interests or fads.

As one writer says,

Are you into reiki, homeopathy, or the healing power of crystals, magnets or Head of the Class reruns? You might be a phony celiac.

Many self-diagnosed “sufferers” seem likely instead to have “orthorexia nervosa” – “an extreme or excessive preoccupation with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy.” An obsession with righteous eating. Psychiatric Times calls it a “disease that masquerades as health.”

Orthorexia is marked by the compulsive and rigid imposition of a set of ideals about what is correct to consume and the distress that ensues when actual eating does not adhere strictly to these ideals. In anorexia, the goal of food restrictions is to lose or to avoid gaining weight, so the focus is directed toward how eating (or exercising or purging) affects the morphology of the body. Orthorexia instead is a preoccupation with ideas of health or other philosophical ideals.

A food blogger lists some of the symptoms of orthorexia:

  • Feeling virtuous about what they eat, but not enjoying their food much
  • Continually cutting foods from their diet
  • Experiencing a reduced quality of life or social isolation (because their diet makes it difficult for them to eat anywhere but at home)
  • Feeling critical of, or superior to, others who do not eat as healthily they do
  • Skipping foods they once enjoyed in order to eat the “right” foods
  • Choosing to eat foods based off of nutritional value, instead of eating what they’re craving
  • Feeling guilt or self-loathing when they stray from their diet
  • Feeling in total control when they eat the “correct” diet

So maybe that’s the real culprit here.
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02/1/14

Debunking the Adam Bridge


 

 

Adam's bridgeA story popped up on the internet in late 2013, recycled in early 2014, claiming “NASA Images Find 1.7 Million Year Old Man-Made Bridge.” Claptrap. It’s not a bridge. It’s simply a natural tombolo: “a deposition landform in which an island is attached to the mainland by a narrow piece of land such as a spit or bar.”

The conspiracy theorists and some religious fundamentalists disagree.

It’s been called the Adam bridge, the Rama, Sethu (also Rama Setu – setu is Sanskrit for bridge), Ramar and the  Hanuman bridge, and Setubandhanam.

According to the legends in the Ramayana, the great Hindu epic poem, it was

…built by the Vanara (ape men) army of Lord Rama in Hindu theology with instructions from Nala, which he used to reach Lanka and rescue his wife Sita from the Rakshasa king, Ravana.

It’s a twisting stretch of shoal  and sandbank in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka, about 18 miles (30km) long (depending on where you measure from, it can be reported as long as 35km). At high tide, the water is about 12 feet (4m) deep on average (apparently it ranges from 1m up to 10m deep in some places). The chain of shoals is roughly 300 feet (100m) wide.

It was reportedly passable on foot up to the 15th century until storms deepened the channel: temple records seem to say that Rama’s Bridge was completely above sea level until it broke in a cyclone in 1480 CE.

Let’s clear the first fallacy right away: the discovery of the “bridge” isn’t new, nor did NASA recently “discover” it in a photograph. Wikipedia tells us:

The western world first encountered it in “historical works in the 9th century” by Ibn Khordadbeh in his Book of Roads and Kingdoms (c. AD 850), referring to it is Set Bandhai or “Bridge of the Sea”. Later, Alberuni described it. The earliest map that calls this area by the name Adam’s bridge was prepared by a British cartographer in 1804, probably referring to an Abrahamic myth, according to which Adam used the bridge to reach a mountain (identified with Adam’s Peak) in Sri Lanka, where he stood repentant on one foot for 1,000 years, leaving a large hollow mark resembling a footprint.

The tombolo was photographed by NASA’s Gemini missions back in 1966 (photo here). However, that was before the internet existed to let wild and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories go viral.

Another NASA mission in 2002 produced a second photograph of the region (photo here) which, of course, spun the online conspiracy theorists off on a wild goose chase trying to “prove” it was the remains of a human-made structure connecting Sri Lanka with India.

Well, it isn’t. Wikipedia tells us it’s long been known as a natural formation, but that geologists differ in their views as to how it formed:

In the 19th century, there were two prevalent theories explaining the structure. One considered it to be formed by a process of accretion and rising of the land, while the other surmised that it was formed by the breaking away of Sri Lanka from the Indian mainland. The friable calcerous ridges are broken into large rectangular blocks, which perhaps gave rise to the belief that the causeway is an artificial construction… which essentially consists of a series of parallel ledges of sandstone and conglomerates that are hard at the surface and grows coarse and soft as it descends to sandy banks.
Studies have variously described the structure as a chain of shoals, coral reefs, a ridge formed in the region owing to thinning of the earth’s crust, a double tombolo, a sand spit, or barrier islands. It has been reported that this bridge was formerly the world’s largest tombolo before it was split into a chain of shoals by the rise in mean sea level a few thousand years ago.
Based on satellite remote sensing data, but without actual field verification, the Marine and Water Resources Group of the Space Application Centre (SAC) of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) states that Adam’s Bridge comprises 103 small patch reefs lying in a linear pattern with reef crest (flattened, emergent – especially during low tides – or nearly emergent segment of a reef), sand cays (accumulations of loose coral sands and beach rock) and intermittent deep channels…
The geological process that gave rise to this structure has been attributed in one study to crustal downwarping, block faulting, and mantle plume activity while another theory attributes it to continuous sand deposition and the natural process of sedimentation leading to the formation of a chain of barrier islands related to rising sea levels…
Another study explains the origin the structure due to longshore drifting currents which moved in an anticlockwise direction in the north and clockwise direction in the south of Rameswaram and Talaimannar. The sand was supposedly dumped in a linear pattern along the current shadow zone between Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar with later accumulation of corals over these linear sand bodies… another group of geologists propose crustal thinning theory, block faulting and a ridge formed in the region owing to thinning and asserts that development of this ridge augmented the coral growth in the region and in turn coral cover acted as a `sand trapper’.

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12/28/13

Psychics 2013: the silly, the scams, the failed predictions


Joke...Action News, an ABC affiliate, ran a late-year story with the headline “Psychics interpret pets’ thoughts.” No, it’s not April Fools’ Day: this was December 26. Yet the reporter treated it seriously; just like it was a real story; actual news, rather than a steaming heap of superstitious dung. That reporters for any media outlet treat would such codswallop as “news” calls into question their ability, their competence and their education.

Lorrie The Pet Psychic has been tuning into the thoughts of animals for 18 years, appearing on Oprah after she helped locate a local dog who was blown away by a storm and then found alive.
“I feel very honored, you know, because I get to give animals a voice. Especially with the older pets that are getting ready to cross over and their owners get to say goodbye,” said Lorrie.

I don’t know whether to laugh at Lorrie’s ludicrous statements, or weep at the gullibility of people who have used her “services” for 18 years.

“Cross over”? You mean die. Kick the bucket. Shuffle off this mortal coil. Run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. Pet ghosts talking to former masters? Sheesh… if dead pets could talk, why don’t these “:psychics” get messages from dead raccoons, or other roadkill? The mouse that died in the trap? the bird caught by your cat? Wouldn’t the afterlife ether just crackle with that noise?

Psychics and so-called clairvoyants feed on people’s fear of mortality; they create a culture of alternate realities and other worlds populated with dead people (and pets – or is it all animals?) in order to suck the money from your wallet when they pretend to be in contact with people who “cross over.” Now, it seems, they can contact pets, too, living and dead.

“I think he likes his hair a little longer,” said Psychic Eve. “He prefers it that way. He feels more, I don’t know, macho more desirable.”

That’s what another self-described “psychic” told the credulous reporter, who dutifully wrote it down and printed it. Come on – a dog being “macho” over its hair? What journalism school taught you to be so naive?

To add insult to intellectual injury, the reporter then lists contact information so the simple-minded readers can call these “psychics” and give them their money.

If you want to know what sort of justification “pet psychics” give to their clients before denuding them of their finances, on How Stuff Works, you can get pages full of their gibberish:

According to most pet psychics, you communicate with your pets telepathically all the time, without even knowing it. Your cat hides and your dog gets ready to play because of signals you send with your mind, not because of your actions… According to pet psychics, electromagnetic energy surrounds and penetrates everything in the universe, much like the force in “Star Wars.” This energy is part of the radio spectrum, but scientists haven’t figured out how to detect it. Pet psychics can use energy to contact animals, no matter how far away the animals are or whether they are still living.

Enough to make your brain hurt, isn’t it? The real message, though, is buried in the article:

For a fee, they then relay telepathic messages to and from pets. The pets don’t even have to be present — often, psychics use photographs or descriptions to make contact.

There’s the hook in the worm: a fee. Of course they charge a fee because they make their living fleecing the gullible.

I have a tough time telling my black cats apart some days even when they’re sitting side by side. Who would be dim enough yet willing to pay someone to “telepathically” converse with a photograph of a black cat?

Here’s what my dog would say if a “pet psychic” could communicate with it:

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

And I learned that without shelling out money to a “psychic!”
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12/19/13

American belief in evolution is growing: poll


Alien SaintA new Harris poll released this month shows that Americans apparently are losing their belief in miracles and gaining it in science. The recent poll showed that American belief in evolution had risen to 47% from its previous poll level of 42%, in 2005.

True, it’s not an overwhelming increase, and it’s still less than half the population, but it is an improvement. Belief in creationism dropped 3% during that time, to 36%. Good news, of course, but don’t break out the champagne yet. There’s other data and it’s not all so good.

At the same time more Americans are believing in the science of evolution, American belief in many religious teachings is falling. Belief in miracles, heaven and others has dropped since the last poll:

  • 72% believe in miracles, down from 79 percent in 2005;
  • 68% believe in heaven, down from 75%;
  • 68% believe that Jesus is God or the Son of God, down from 72%;
  • 65% believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, down from 70%;
  • 64% believe in the survival of the soul after death, down from 69%;
  • 58% believe in the devil and hell, down from 62%;
  • 57% believe in the Virgin birth, down from 60%.

CNS News also tells us the poll shows:

  • Absolute certainty that there is a God is down vs. 10 years ago (54% vs. 66% in 2003).
  • Outside of specific religious samples, the groups most likely to be absolutely certain there is a God include blacks (70%), Republicans (65%), older Americans (62%), Baby Boomers (60%), Southerners (61%) and Midwesterners (58%), and those with a high school education or less (60%).
  • There continues to be no consensus as to whether God is a man or a woman. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans (39%) think God is male, while only 1% of U.S. adults believe God is female. However, notable minorities believe God is neither male nor female (31%) or both male and female (10%).
  • 19 percent of Americans describe themselves are “very” religious, with an additional four in ten (40%) describing themselves as “somewhat” religious (down from 49% in 2007). Nearly one-fourth of Americans (23%) identify themselves as “not at all” religious – a figure that has nearly doubled since 2007, when it was at 12%.

The Harris Poll has some not-so-good news to report, as well. According to the pollsters, more Americans believe in ghosts, reincarnation and UFOs than in 2005:

  • Reincarnation: 25%, up 3%
  • Ghosts 42%, up 1%
  • UFOs 36%, up 1%

I’m not sure whether to blame this lapse in critical thinking on ‘reality” TV or the internet. Either way, it’s troubling.

Belief in witches is down to 5% to 25%, and belief in astrology remains unchanged at 29%. Belief in angels is down 6%, but still staggeringly high at 68%. Imaginary beings are losing followers, while pseudoscience still hangs in there. The good news, if one reads it thus, is that belief in the science of evolution is finally higher than the belief in witches, ghosts, UFOs, astrology, creationism and reincarnation. But not angels.

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12/4/13

Pyramids in the Ice: Hoax


Hoax pyramidsWhat is it about pyramids that excites the imagination? Their shape? Their size? Height? Age? The complexities and difficulties in their building? Or the sheer grandeur of them?

And what is it about them that get the cranks and conspiracy theorists so fired up? What is it about these  constructions that convince some folks they’re made by – or for – aliens? Or that there’s some bizarre coverup by governments to keep people from knowing the “truth” about them?

This week I noticed some odd search terms showing up in my stats page: “antarctica”  and “pyramids” in the same line. Not something I’d expect to see in my posts. What silliness is this, I asked myself. That’s gotta be worth exploring. And whoa! I stumbled into a major conspiracy theory I must have missed!

Antarctica, the fifth largest continent, is 98% covered in ice that averages a mile thick. It’s the coldest place on the planet, with temperatures as low as -89C (-128F).  But it wasn’t always so. The continent broke away from the Gondwanaland super-continent starting about 160 million years ago. After that it drifted until it arrived where it is and started gathering ice.

It’s been covered in ice for about 15 million years, although before that it was a fairly temperate region. During the entire, short duration of human existence (historically speaking)*, it has been an inhospitable, ice-covered place. And for most of that, it has also been bereft of human habitation.

Antarctica wasn’t even discovered until the early 19th century,although many speculated that a southern continent had to exist, simply for symmetry’s sake. But the extreme conditions, the treacherous oceans that surround it, the dangers of ice, cold and wind simply made it impossible for humans to get there without a reasonably well-built ocean craft. But we did, even though many died in the process of discovery.

Today, the continent hosts a population that ranges between 1,000 and 5,000, depending on season; mostly scientists. Today, too, you can shell out a healthy piece of cash and take a cruise ship to the Antarctic and spend a day oggling penguins or walk on an ice shelf. But you couldn’t live there easily or for long without significant effort and equipment. The rather limited food sources and complete lack of any vegetation larger than tiny, hardy plants mean you have to ship or fly in most of your food, medicine, clothing, building supplies, fuel and everything else for survival.

You can’t build pyramids there. No one can. There isn’t a lot of ground to build on – although there are small places called the Dry Valleys – and there’s no evidence that anyone dug a quarry in any of them to get the stone necessary to build a pyramid. Besides, the valleys suffer from unfortunate katabatic winds: high speed cold winds that can reach 320 km/hr. Even if you could withstand the winds, dryness and cold, you’d have to dig through a deep layer of gravel to reach bedrock – tough, ancient granite, not the easier-to-cut -and-shape limestone and sandstone used by many cultures for monuments.

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