Category Archives: SCIENCE

Discover… The Power of Stuff!

My daughter (and I, when I’m too lazy to work on writing like I should), watches a lot of Discovery Kids Channel. It has a lot of non-U.S. programming that’s a few years old, but much of it is educational or at least semi-educational while still being entertaining.

Well, I discovered a couple of days ago that Hasbro acquired controlling ownership in the channel, and they’re giving the channel a complete makeover including a new name (The Hub) and programming line-up. I took a look at the new line-up, and saw something interesting, but not surprising considering who bought them: the educational programming is being replaced with high quality shows like “Transformers”, “G.I. Joe”, “Pound Puppies”, “Family Game Night”, “Clue”, and the like. Your basic 30-minute product commercials.

I took a look at the shows that my daughter watches on the channel, where they’re made, and their focus, and found this:

Continue reading Discover… The Power of Stuff!

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Feel Wonder and Connection

Atheists experience transcendent wonder and awe at the magnificence of the universe and the fact that we’re part of it. We just don’t think these experiences have anything to do with God, the soul, or any sort of immaterial entities or forces. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

One moment, if you will, to allow me to share with you one of the many things that makes my heart speed up with excitement and provides me with a sense of true and sincere awe and wonder that no religious idea, story, or thought has ever quite matched:

(This is a photo of a distant galaxy, edge-on. Click the image to read more about it.)

Humanism: What both atheism and science are not.

ethics

“Can science provide a morality to change the world?

NO.”

This is from a recent blog post by biologist and outspoken atheist, PZ Myers in the posting: A priest, a scientist, and a Communist discuss morality. It’s a really interesting post about a talk he spoke at (with the aforementioned priest and Communist) on the topic of morality, at the University of Chicago. This position that Myers has, that science is not the provider of a system of morality, is actually a very common approach by most scientists and is probably a surprise to many religious people.

“As I’ve said repeatedly, science doesn’t provide a morality. What it does provide, and what I optimistically and subjectively think will motivate people, is that it provides rigor and a path to the truth of the world.”

I’ve encountered many people (often religious, but not always! Many are people who believe strongly in the supernatural like ghosts and ESP, and/or pseudoscience like homeopathy and vaccine denialism) who are of the opinion that science is just another religion, or at least a philosophy. This utter misunderstanding of what science is is quite frustrating — mainly because they will pound the table with absolute certainty decrying science as being something it’s absolutely not, due to their own complete misunderstanding of science.

Continue reading Humanism: What both atheism and science are not.

The cold truth of global warming.

Frozen Trees by Andrea L. Etzel

Over the couple frigid weeks I’ve seen more than a few comments on the Intertubes mocking “global warming” because of the unusually cold weather. A few on Facebook, some on Twitter, a few blogs, and even a Web comic I follow made a snarky global warming mock.

If the mockery is meant as an ironic joke, I tee-hee right along with it. 🙂 But I suspect that most, if not maybe all, of the comments I’ve seen have been meant as a sincere dig at the idea of global warming. (Interestingly, nearly every one has been by someone who appears to hold a “conservative” worldview. I have suspicions why, but for this post I’m only going to focus on science, not socio-politics.) And, naturally, when you have a concept called “global warming” and yet you’re in weather that freezes skin within minutes, it’s only natural to play with the apparent contradiction. But I think it’s important to understand why this is not a contradiction at all.

The most important thing to remember, (whether it’s in this case or other topics that involve complex trends, theories, or processes), is to not confuse a data point with the trend. That is: the particular weather in a particular area on a particular day, with the overall average climate for the entire planet over the course of decades. See the huge difference in these two things? The weather for, say, southwest Missouri, or even the entire middle America, for two weeks in 2010 is just one tiny data point in a trend for an entire planet over the course of 100 years. An extremely cold patch of weather does not disprove the concept of “global warming” (which is a subset of “global climate change”) any more than a very hot patch proves global warming! An unusually hot summer is also just a data point in the trend and should not be examined independently when a much larger trend is being investigated.

Another thing to note is that “global warming” is, while not exactly a misnomer as the globe is warming on average, misunderstood. As the globe warms up, glaciers and ice caps significantly melt, that actually cools down some areas of the ocean and changes the salinity and significant weather-affecting ocean currents. This can have an ironic result of colder averages for some areas. But more importantly, as average global temps increase, this causes more atmospheric humidity which has an effect of (and this is very important) colder and harsher winters in some areas (including ice storms in the U.S. Ozarks regions), stronger and longer storm periods (like tornado season in the U.S. Ozarks regions), and longer and stronger hurricanes on average. It’s easy to just focus on the term “global warming” and not realize that the implications of the concept are more complex and even counter-intuitive.

Some material to consider:

http://www.skeptic.com/the_magazine/featured_articles/v14n01_human_induced_climate_change.html

(…Note especially the last paragraph.)

http://www.skepticalscience.com/How-do-we-know-global-warming-is-still-happening.html

http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/science/global-warming-faq.html

Those are a little technical, these kind of simplify it down a bit and discuss the impact:

http://www.climatecentral.org/library/faqs/how_do_we_know_it_is_not_a_natural_cycle

http://m.discovermagazine.com/2009/jun/30-state-of-the-climate-and-science

I hope this helps somewhat in understanding what is meant by “global warming.” This is a perfect example of the metaphor “missing the forest for the trees.” Sometimes it’s hard to understand “the forest” when your experience is based on encountering single tree after single tree.

Science is real.

They Might Be Giants - Science Is Real
They Might Be Giants - Science Is Real

A few days ago, Rebecca over at Skepchicks posted a post featuring some videos of songs from They Might Be Giant’s new album: Here Comes Science. It’s a kid’s album (that can be thoroughly enjoyed by adults!) extolling the many and varied benefits of science.

The first YouTube video she posted is for the album’s opening song: “Science is Real”. My initial feeling is of delight as I’ve always loved They Might Be Giants, and their wonderful nerdiness. I love that they want to pass their own love for science on to kids. While all the songs on the album appear to be fun tunes about some aspect of science, upon giving the opening song, “Science is Real,” a second thought, I find it extremely sad that they have to actually put a song on the album that has to purport the reality of science. That we live in a culture that has to constantly be explained to that science is reality. It’s very depressing.

Reminds of how I found out, just today, that there’s a compelling and critically better-than-average film being released this month that dramatizes a bit of Charles Darwin’s life, his marriage, his family, at the time of his writing On the Origin of Species. It has big name actors, and is a major film, not an indie flick (nothing wrong with indie flicks! But there’s a point here…), but no one in the U.S. wants to distribute it to theaters here. Because of the “controversial nature” of Darwin and evolution. (::face palm::)

Here’s a movie that’s all set to be released and enjoyed around the world, but here in this “modern” country where we just barely beat Turkey and have a ways to go before we reach Latvia for the number of people to accept the reality of evolution, we can’t see it because the subject is Charles Darwin. It’s not even a documentary, it’s not made to be “challenging” or controversial, it’s not written or filmed to be a polemic…it’s just a drama about a famous man and his personal life during the time he did something to make him famous. But Ooohh NOooo! It has to do with an aspect of science which has stood the test of time and testing for 150+ years, but the conservative evangelicals in our country have such a loud, strident, and pernicious voice (which has made us a laughing-stock for the rest of the world that’s not controlled by an Islamic regime) that film distributors are leery of releasing an otherwise completely non-controversial film here.

Embarrassing.

*sigh* Time to go back and watch some of those light-hearted, fun, toe-tapping songs by They Might Be Giants and get myself back in a good mood.

Normalcy of the future.

Bruce Sterling is a favorite scifi author of mine. Granted, his CRYPTONOMICON had some serious storytelling flaws, it was still brilliant. And SNOW CRASH is classic. I still need to read ANATHEM….

Anyway, he writes SF so brilliantly because he understands the notion that for the future, or alternate-tech, to be believable, it needs to be acceptable, normal to those who live in it. Here’s a very brief but wonderfully rich article where he discusses the nascent science (and thus SF) concepts that are gee-whiz-bang! now, and how they will look when they’re part of the culture:

Keep on questioning!

Brian of skeptoid.com recently posted a listener mail response episode. He makes good points, and you don’t have to have read/listened to his past episodes to get something out of this one:

http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4169

The best part of the whole thing, though, is at the end when he summarizes thus:

“That’s what I think is the biggest tragedy of those who accept the supernatural: They’re missing out on the wonder of science. When you look at a 30-ton block of coral and conclude that magic must be the only way a single small man could have moved it, you have stopped trying to learn, and you miss out on a truly delightful and creative application of mechanics.

When you dismiss medical science because of its imperfections and turn instead to magic-based therapies, you abandon any meaningful understanding of how your own body actually works.

When you settle on a conspiracy theory as the explanation for what happens in world news, you effectively stop searching for other sources, and you miss out on the real causes and motivations that drive what happens in politics and economics.

The answer is to be more skeptical, and to require a higher standard for what you believe. Keep on thinking, keep on questioning….”

SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson on social responsibility.

Last week, on Earth Day, during my university’s day-long thingie on “social development” and environmental concerns, SF author Kim Stanley Robinson spoke for a bit on social responsibility for humanity’s future. He said some great things, I took notes, he signed a book of mine and we had a very brief conversation. Here’s a summary of what he said, mostly paraphrased quotes, and a lot I’ve forgotten. I’ll try not to digress too much.

KSR is an award winning Utopian author (with a PhD) who’s written, among many other critically acclaimed works, the Mars trilogy and the “Science in the Capital” trilogy. The former is about terraforming Mars and “Utopian” society that develops there, and the latter is about the effects of global warming. In his regular life, KSR is an “American-leftist” and works for social change and climate change awareness. (He made interesting comment that when he started writing, “utopian fiction” meant writing about perfect society, nowadays it means simply society surviving. Kind of indicative of some significant social change.) His talk was in dedication to Dr. Bill Burling who he collaborated with and edited a book of critical essays about KSR. (Dr. Burling was my professor and mentor who I recently mentioned passed away.)

Alright, so, what he said:
Continue reading SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson on social responsibility.

2013: The year I prophesy to be…

…the year after nothing happens.

Hooray for CNN.com! Usually I tear my metaphorical hair (it’s the only hair I have left) at CNN.com for their almost consistently credulous “reporting” of “unexplained” events. UFO sightings, ghosts caught on film, angels, psychics to the CEOs….all met with not just an open mind but heads with brains that have fallen out. If in an entire article about crying statues or blurry ghosts walking around a gas station, there is any skepticism, it’s usually some token (partial) sentence like: “some say the oddly moving indistinct shape is a bug on the security camera’s lens, but most people around here, like Susie L., believe it’s an angel…Joe S. tells us ‘this used to be an Indian burial ground after all’….”

And then, some days ago, CNN.com posted an article on the whole 2012 brouhaha:

The article discusses the whole origin of why some people are freaking out over 2012, and then takes a skeptical look at why, and more importantly, why it’s ridiculous (my editorialization) and baseless. The article is cogent, succinct, interesting, grounded, and completely reasonable. I’m shocked and aghast! Pleasantly so.

For an even more in-depth examination of the 2012 scare-mongering, the various reasons why some Chicken Littles are claiming doomsday (by, among other things, retrofitting both complete pseudoscience and contorted real science to coincide around the end of the Mayan calendar), and a rational debunking of it with a lot more respect than I’m willing to give it–check out:

I never get tired of being inspired. The debate is old, though.

I came upon the subject through a blog entry on Skepchick:

I started watching the video apology the creationist is “forced” to give for unethically and possibly illegally invoking DMCA to try to extort a critic of his to remove his critical videos. I got bored and stopped watching it. While I’m glad justice prevails and no slimy lawyers had to get involved (no offense to my friend* who’s a lawyer; he’s a public defender and not a civil suit lawyer anyway *grin*) I get no pleasure fr0m the schadenfreude inherent in celebrating his (just) public apology.

I watched a couple of the Thunderf00t YouTube videos in which he categorically refutes the creationist VFX’s video claims, and they’re extremely well-informed, researched, reasoned, evidenced-based, etc etc yadda yadda. I don’t mean to imply the videos refuting the creationist are boring or uninspired in any way–they’re quite good (if a bit rough in the audio quality) and I would absolutely recommend them to anyone interested in the debate between empirical reality and Biblical literalism…

Thing is, it’s getting tiring to me. I’ve spent nearly eight years now actively following and reading and watching all I could get my “hands” on regarding the fight between evolution and creationism, and I feel like, not that I’ve seen it all (although I am seeing the same old creationist misunderstandings/fallacies/mistakes/lies and the same old empirical evidence/logical reasoning/evidentiary refutation fr0m the evolutionist side over and over), it’s more like I’m tired of the existence of the debate itself. It’s become obvious this will never end. It’s like digging a hole in water.

No matter how much factual evidence is out there, completely open and available to anyone and everyone who wants to bother looking for it, there’s still armies of people who are quite happy living in worlds of cognitive dissonance (I used to freak out but now I just sigh when people, like this VFX does, decry science as all ideological and full of fantasy and imagination and lies, and then use (a misapplication of) whatever scientific laws and processes is convenient for them to try to prove their creationist argument) and mythological fantasy as far as the eye can see. Change needs to be made and humanity needs to finally enter the 21st century, but the fight is wearying.

In any case, I skipped to the most recent video by Thunderf00t, and the first two-thirds and a refutation of one of VFX’s latest videos using terrible reasoning to accept micro-evolution but claim macro-evolution is “evil.” And the last third of Thunderf00t’s video, though, becomes a philosophical criticism of the concept of “eternal life” as a creation of greedy humans, as the idea of eternal life is not only horrific to sentient beings, but removes all value fr0m life! The fact that we are finite sparks of life in a vast universe gives the ultimate meaning and the greatest importance possible to life. It was a very inspiring closing and for that reason alone I highly recommend viewing it!

*Update, 11 Nov, 08: I had written there all this time, until today, “non-friend”. I have no idea how that typo happened, and I do hope if the friend in question saw that, he realizes that was a mistake. I dunno, maybe I intended to type “non-slimy friend”. 🙂

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One major step closer to space colonization!

The first privately funded, non-governmental, liquid fuel rocket reached Earth’s orbit this last weekend!

Phil Plait comments on it in his Bad Astronomer blog:

It’s kind of funny, when you go to the company’s Web site, the illustrations of the craft look so sci-fi, or like a page from a role-playing game book. 🙂

It took twelve years to get from Russia’s first satellite, Sputnik, to the first moon landing. We have the information, knowledge, and experience from the past to help as well as better technology–they better be able to put a person on the Moon in under ten years or something is seriously wrong. I think private enterprise will be able to get a Moon-walk before NASA’s projected return to Moon goal.

With developments like this, so long as the state of the middle class improves from this current slide toward disenfranchisement and being an even seriously more have-not class, I would like to be optimistic that my daughter will have the opportunity in her lifetime to be able to ride into space. It would be a dream of mine to be able to view our delicate, blue-green home from the inky black of space. *sigh*

Bottom line, we have to be able to get off this planet, and develop the ability soon if there’s going to be any hope for the human race (assuming one wants the human race to be able to survive. I suppose I can accept the academic argument that we should remain on Earth and thrive or perish as a species just like any animal on the planet. Personally, bollocks to that!) Whether it’s because we’ve frakked up our habitable biosphere, or a killer comet, or pandemic disease, whatever the reason–humans are ultimately doomed. It’s just a matter of when: tomorrow; 100,000 years from now. If we can start to colonize space (and arguably spread our locust-like expansion to as yet innocent and unsuspecting planets and moons) we can increase the chance that our species will be around long enough to evolve into more hardy, space-resilient creatures.

Speaking of hardy resilience, our own planet so wants to kill us! Check out this video, also supplied by Phil Plait, on some pesky weather found in Antarctica:

http://view.break.com/487339 – Watch more free videos

Reality gatekeepers.

the brainsI’m listening to an episode of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe where they podcasted from the recent DragonCon, and one of the early cool things discussed on the panel is how telescopes from around the Earth were “linked” together to form a giant virtual telescope the size of the planet, and examined the center of our galaxy. They saw the event horizon and tell-tale evidence of a 40 million solar mass giant black hole!

But what I most wanted to mention was the discussion on the brain and dreams. Prompted by a question from the audience to discuss lucid dreaming, Steven Novella (a neurologist as well as a podcast host) described how a dreamer is in a literally altered state of consciousness (sounds like a “no duh!” statement, but it’s deeper than just the obvious) which is in essence an entirely different you than when you’re awake.

Part of that fundamental difference is the turning “off” of the parts of the brain that compare experience and stimuli to what we understand as “reality”. Thus, when we dream, everything makes sense to our dreaming selves, nothing seems unusual or odd no matter how unusual or odd it is. Unless you can manage to switch that filter “on” while dreaming in which even you then are “lucid dreaming,” knowledgeable that you’re dreaming–although that state tends to last very briefly.

I remember an NPR news article a few years ago where researcher is schizophrenia developed a VR goggles and headphones that allowed people to experience a small taste of what it’s like to suffer from schizophrenia. They described the brain as always running in a sort of dream state at the base of consciousness. But that the “normal” person has these filters, like what Steve discusses in the podcast, which filters out the surreal and abnormal from our reality. But people with schizophrenia don’t have these filters. So any bizarre and unusual idea or image or sensory misfire or thought that their brain comes up with in this constant stream of dream-like processing, their conscious brain thinks is totally believable and acceptable.

On the panel was also a co-host of Skepticality, Derek, who suffered a stroke a few years ago. (Young guy, in his 30s, who one day after dinner just dropped and if not for the immediate reaction from present friends and family he’d likely be dead. As it was, he was in a coma for weeks and had to “climb” back into a recognizable form of conscious wakefulness. Then spend months in therapy and had to reconstruct his speech ability–and even now, a few years later, alive and well, he doesn’t quite sound like the person he was before the stroke.

They mention on this panel how his stroke affected his language center, which is intimately tied to our thought-process in that we think in words and language. When that ability of having language is stripped, reality and thinking becomes surreal and untethered and difficult to make sense of. Derek mentions how it took him a year to even make sense of the idea that he was in a coma at one time.

Something else interesting they discuss, is that the impressions he had while “in” the coma, the impressions of people and words and singing, similar experiences many people who had been in comas report as having, he actually did not experience while in the coma but rather as he was waking up–but he had at the time attibuted to from inside the coma.

Anyway, cool stuff. 🙂

“Uncritical thinking kills”

The last few weeks there have been a slew of postings and releases (to feature only a couple) regarding the rise of deadly measles and other once fully contained contagious diseases in the U.K. and the U.S. due to people not vaccinating. Enough people in some places have stopped vaccinating as to weaken the “herd immunity” allowing disease to spread through a community. Fortunately in the U.S. and U.K. people have been getting treatment in time before anyone has died–but people in less modern anti-vaccine propaganda soaked regions aren’t so lucky: “What is the Harm?” Doesn’t it scare anyone that in 2008, because of anti-vaccine scaremongers, polio could make a comeback?

And is it likely that yet another high-quality, indipendent study on the supposed link between Autism and vaccines has come back with a resounding result of “no connection” will make any difference to these people? I seriously doubt it.

Here’s the point of why I’m finally commenting on the subject: Phil Plait just posted his thoughts on the dangers of uncritical thinking in general, and why we cannot with any human conscience sit idly by while superstition and unreason and uncritical thinking can have real, tangible, harmful effects:

… I’m a parent. I sometimes think the most important thing I can do for my daughter is love her, keep her healthy, protect her. But in all of those, there is an overarching responsibility for me to teach her how to live in the real world. And that means showing her how to think. Not what to think, but how. …

His post is sparked by a death as the result of fear around the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which came online this week. Yes, the absurd fear surrounding the LHC, not the LHC itself, resulted in a death. A couple of days ago two classmates walked into class talking about the LHC and in only half-joking tones were asking each other what they thought of the possible results of the LHC–including Earth destroying black holes and reality destroying chain reactions. Two supposedly educated people who have allowed themselves to be duped by a sensationalism spewing mass media which cares only for gaining readership/viewers and nothing for actual facts and truth and real news, who are comfortable with accepting what they’re told and not checking things out for themselves. It would… should, only take a couple of minutes for a person to think:

“Hmmm, the LHC sounds like a massive endeavor involving a lot of scientists, researchers, and technicians to come up with and build it. Something on that kind of scale would surely have been so thoroughly studied that any possible negative effects (especially the destruction of the universe which presumably would include the death of all the scientists, researchers, and technicians and everyone they love and care about) must either be negligible or non-existent.
Although, people have been on large scales wrong before or have been willing to take huge deadly risks–but usually on subjects involving religion, politics, and/or war–not cold and calculating science.
I doubt there’s anything potentially seriously dangerous about this, but I could be wrong. I should check this out by using critical sources that don’t have as their primary agenda to spread entertainment, fear, sensationalism, yellow journalism as “news”….”

Uncritical thinking has nothing to do with intelligence or education, but everything to do with, as Phil emphasizes, how to think. The human brain has evolved awesomely (in the true sense of the word) to be capable of such incredible ability and reason. We’re amazing pattern recognizers. We can deduce and we predict outcomes. But we’re also still incredibly primitive in the amazing capacity we have for logical fallacy and cognitive bias. Because each and every one of us have our own darlings, our own one or ten superstitions we believe in, or mystical/mythical beliefs, we really want to be able to say out of rationalization for our own peccadilloes “Oh, what’s the harm of letting people believe what they want, live and let live.”

The problem is that people die, people harm other people, over uncritical beliefs and thinking. Uncritical thinking has more at risk than a “harmless” $2 /minute call to an astrologer: uncritical thinking can kill. The most important thing we can do is not go around telling people “what you believe is wrong,” but telling people “this is how you examine and test what you believe” and then have the courage to apply that critical reasoning to your own beliefs as you desire to have other people do unto their own.

Vacuum tube relativism and logic.

A quickie:

Here’s a great and even amusing post by Harry McCall in which he uses his experience with guitar salesmen, vacuum tubes, and personal biases to explain how people see “truth” as relative and its criticism often off-limits to those “not a part of it”

I’ve had some heated discussions in the past with a fervent Christian educated in apologetics, both on here and his site, regarding objectivity and relativism. The funny thing is while he and most religious people argue tooth and nail for the concept of objective moral truth, they themselves are some of the biggest practitioners of relativism. Logic tends to escape them in favor of cognitive biases and fallacies.

A great post by Steven Novella on understanding logic and whether the “universe is logical”:

It alternates between the heady and the easy to understand, but it’s a fantastic foundation in understanding the concept of logic as it exists outside the ideas of human perception and awareness–which should aid people in critically thinking about issues of supernatural belief.

Many layers of stupidity regarding security and greed.

Not long ago I posted an article, “On the issue of privacy and protecting civil liberties“. Since then I’ve heard Cory Doctorow discuss more frequently how the underlying problem with the loss of personal data and thus a real threat to our lives (and livelihoods) goes beyond the loss of collected data into the wrong hands–but the gross collection of the data in the first place! A government or private sector company can’t harm you by losing something if it doesn’t have it in the first place.

In one of the latest examples of a lost laptop compromising the identities of thousands, (see my post “Welcome to Amerika, please give us all your most private information” for more examples of governmental error and incompetence resulting in risk to thousands, even millions in some cases), a private company seeing an opportunity to make millions off the chaos and bad will the TSA has created with their ridiculous, worthless, ineffectual, and draconian airport security checkpoints, created a program that would allow people to use the infallible power of money (which the terrahists must not have) to skip the long TSA lines for an express lane.

It seems a company laptop…an unencrypted company laptop (see that “On the issue…” post for info on how inexcusable it is to not have active encryption considering how easy and important it is) has gone missing putting at risk private information of tens of thousands of program applicants.

So, an ineffectual government security group (the TSA) does such a piss-poor job that it opens up a business opportunity for a security company to charge for the pleasure of not having to deal with the TSA. This company evidently has no concept of data security and puts its potential customers at risk of having their lives turned upside down. There’s irony in there somewhere I’m sure.

The danger of belief.

When discussing and criticizing New Age, New Thought, pseudoscience beliefs (like The Secret, crystals, homeopathy, chiropractic, ESP, psychics, Tarot, astrology, chi, feng shui, ghosts, reflexology, etc. ad nauseum) people often say “Oh, what’s the big deal? It’s harmless; let people believe what they want,” it’s often because they themselves have some belief or three that they know fall into the category of superstition and credulity. Subconsciously they think, “Hmm, I better not be too harsh on people who believe in The Secret because I know some know-it-all busybody would have problems with my belief in alien visitation.”

But there is a harm to non-critical thinking and it can be as “small” as spending good money on bunk to as significant as death:

(_Another Child Dies from Faith Healing_.) A cousin of his also recently died due to lack of medical care thanks to religious beliefs. There’s a woman I work with who also believes in faith healing, and has ignored ever-increasing symptoms until she passed out at a chiropractor and was sent to the hospital. Seems she has a brain tumor. (No word yet if it’s malignant or benign.)

There’s no reason for this. I want to try hard not to disparage faith or spirituality, but let’s be realistic here: medical science over the last 200 years has literally turned the worldview of illness in the west completely upside down. What was once thought to be caused by demons and curses we know to be viruses, bacteria, and chemical disorders. No amount of praying has ever repaired anything visibly irreparable and known to be medically incurable or able to go into remission such as amputations or visible horrific burn damage. A recent massive double-blind study showed that of the three groups of heart surgery patients, (one prayed for by large amounts of cross denominational Christians and not told about it, one prayed for and told about it, and one not prayed for) the group not prayed for and the one prayed for and not told had no difference in post-surgery recovery or complications. In fact, the one prayed for and who knew about it fared statistically worse. (Hypothesis is that some of the patients felt increased stress and concern which lead to complications.)

Recently a girl with serious Autism had a teaching assistant who visited a psychic. The psychic told her a student of hers was being molested. She went to the school with her “evidence” and they turned it to the Canadian version of Family Services:

(_Psychics and gullible people do REAL harm_.) Long story short, it was proven without a doubt that the girl was not being molested–the psychic was full of crap (surprise!) The result of her “for entertainment purposes only” seering was to throw a family into upheaval and cost them a great deal of money and emotional distress.

Neurologist Steven Novella has an excellent commentary on this story: _Psychic Alleges Sexual Abuse_:

Any reasonable assessment of the evidence, in my opinion, clearly shows that alleged psychics are frauds – yes, all of them. Some may be self-deluded, while others (by the techniques they use) must be con artists. But they are all frauds – they pretend to do something they cannot do. Spreading false beliefs about reality is harmful in and of itself. But this harm is greatly magnified by great mischief ensues when alleged psychics make serious allegations based upon their intuitions. This elevates fraud to negligence, and perhaps even depraved indifference.

My wife is often a voice of reason to me. When I go off on something, criticizing what I think is irrational thought, she usually has a point of view that pulls me back down to civility. On this issue she suggested that people should be allowed to believe whatever bogus ideas they want, but should be held accountable should negative results arise. Well, of course that makes sense–I don’t think we should outlaw gullibility or non-critical beliefs, that’s fascist and would actually be counter-productive. But there’s a problem: people AREN’T being held accountable because people are scared to death to publicly criticize religion, pseudoscience, superstitions, or other credulous beliefs. From that CNN article on the boy’s death:

After earlier deaths involving children of Followers of Christ believers, a 1999 Oregon law struck down religious shields for parents who treat their children solely with prayer. No one had been prosecuted under it until the Worthingtons’ case [last March].

We have reached a point in our culture where criticizing, examining, demanding evidence for people’s beliefs is verboten. That kind of Christian fundamentalism which eschews modern medicine and science and puts their children in harm damn well deserves to be criticized at its very foundation. All psychics are frauds, period, and should be treated as such by the legal system and society at large. Beliefs which can and often do lead to harm should not be tip-toed around and given a pass because of some misguided desire to give all beliefs respect and tolerance. Some don’t deserve it.

There’s a CNN article yesterday:

It floored me. Because of vaccinations we’ve eradicated polio, a disease which used to kill or paralyze or cripple literally hundreds of thousands of people a year. Measles? Silly measles, we can risk it–why vaccinate. Because measles is a highly contagious disease with a 10-30% fatality rate and killed half a million unvaccinated people in 2003. There’s a reason we vaccinate children–it saves countless lives from many easily preventable diseases. And because of completely non-critical thinking, this process is thrown into question. Because of three converging conditions, this life-saving science is questioned and debated and needlessly avoided by many:

  • Symptoms of Autism reveal themselves at the same age range in which we vaccinate kids–regardless of vaccination. We’ve known this for decades, we see this in places where vaccinations aren’t done. It is coincidence which confuses correlation with causation.
  • We’re diagnosing more cases of Autism because of changes in methodology. It used to be that only the most severe cases of Autism were recognized as such–non-functional, “Rainman” style Autism. Now an extremely expansive continuum of symptom severity is being diagnosed. People with Ausperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning Autism was virtually undiagnosed a couple of decades ago…now doctors are more readily recognizing and diagnosing cases. It’s always existed–we’re just diagnosing it more and it has nothing to do with vaccines.
  • Parents understandably want to blame something. No one, parents, anyone, likes hearing “sometimes things just happen.” People want reasons, they want answers, they want something to blame. It’s completely understandable, perfectly human. It’s why people turn to ideas of “luck” and fortune, ESP, ghosts, aliens, what have you, for explanations to coincidence, accident, unexplained (in their mind) occurrences.

But the bottom line, is test after test, study after study, research after research, prove that there is no link between Autism and vaccines. In fact, one of the most vocal proponents of the connection was invited to help design what was one of the largest and most comprehensive studies examining the possible link. When the data was analyzed and it was becoming obvious that once again there was no link, she took her name off the study and started a propaganda campaign to distance her involvement and try to discredit the study.

Sometimes people want to believe something despite all evidence to the contrary. That’s delusion.

We should hold people accountable for the effects of their beliefs, absolutely. But what happens when those responsible for holding people accountable themselves rely on magical-thinking, superstition, and other woo? People get a pass. Children are being killed by medieval religious beliefs? Well, we have to be tolerant of religion (especially in this country if it in any way involves the words “Christian” or “…of Christ”.) “Psychics” like _Sylvia Browne_ crassly lie to grieving families, feeding on their pain and grief for their own fame and money? Well, it’s for “entertainment purposes” so they’re covered. (Or, hey, in Sylvia’s case it’s a “religious belief”! Two passes in one!) Besides, cultural leaders and gurus like Oprah advocate mysticism, New Age and New Thought, psychic beliefs, and pseudoscience–so, there must be something to it.

And so we continue to support and encourage un-critical thinking and credulous belief in woo as a culture in general, and that affects our legal system, politics, media.

The other day I heard a commercial for some “all natural” prostate health herbal supplement. “And it’s all natural, so you don’t have to worry about those annoying side effects that come with pharmaceutical products.” Got a message for you: poison ivy is “all natural.” Hemlock, toadstools, heroin, arsenic, Ebola, hepatitis, cancer, cyanide, anthrax…all natural, my friends! And here’s another clue: if something, like an herb, is capable of any kind of “positive” biochemical effect on your body, it’s capable of producing unwanted and negative side effects. The only difference, FDA regulated pharmaceuticals go through rigorous testing to find all or most of those side effects, their severity, cross medication reactions. Herbal remedies get none of that testing. St. John’s Wort? All natural, and promotes liver disease. Ginko biloba? All natural, and contributes to heart disease and strokes. (True) homeopathic “medicine” is the safest, being pretty much complete water, so what’s the harm? A lot if people trust water and sugar tablets instead of seeking needed medical advice for symptoms that may indicate something water and sugar don’t affect!

A culture that believes in woo won’t and can’t hold people who harm others or themselves, based on woo, accountable in any significant degree.

Critical thinking vs. emotional appeal, and Einstein.

The latest Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast is really fantastic.

♦ Skepticast #150: 6/4/2008

It starts with a wonderful criticism of the anti-vaccine/autism movement versus reasoned thinking. For example, one of the main tactics of the anti-vaccine movement is to claim vaccines contain known dangerous chemicals. But to do this, they scan ingredient lists and pick out “bad sounding” chemical partial names and hold those up as being a significant and viable ingredient.

It’s like saying: “Salt is dangerous because it contains chlorine!” because they found that salt is sodium chloride. These people paid no attention in high school chemistry when you learned that a chemical when bonded with another creates entirely new properties. And this is just a small sample of the lack of critical thinking among this group. And the media is just furthering this erroneous pseudo-science by giving them all the support they need without offering any kind of skeptical scientific counterpoint.

Also in the show is a great interview with Walter Isaacson, author of the biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe. The fact that he was a relatively uneducated patent clerk may have helped allow him to become the genius on the level of Issac Newton and Aristotle that he was.

And in their weekly game, (spoiler warning!) they discuss the counter-intuitive findings that talking about (read: reliving) a public trauma, like 9/11, is actually potentially more psychologically harmful than keeping it inside!

Good show, I highly recommend it!

Galactic catastrophe!

These pictures from the Bad Astronomer are…amazing! Properly awesome.

♦ When galaxies collide

This is one of my favorites:

APR 148

These are pictures of galaxies colliding. Galaxies. GALAXIES! Not billiard balls, not smoke rings, not anything you can hold in your hand… things that contain BILLIONS of stars and hundreds of billions of planets! Zooming through space at inconceivable speeds and tearing each other up.

The universe is so frakkin’ awesome!!