Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Congrats to Jen (aka BlagHag)

So I've been working like mad on two papers that are due in a few days, as well as finishing all my grading for my course that just finished yesterday.  Hence, I haven't posted much of anything these past two weeks, other than a few funny cartoons and videos I've found.  So I didn't post anything here about Boobquake as it was happening.

Of course, if you didn't know about boobquake already, where the hell have you been?  It became a surprise media firestorm.  It even made it on The Colbert Report!  Jen recently posted the results, and as expected, there was no significant change in the number or severity of earthquakes.  No surprises, of course.

Now that my work has quieted down a bit, I wanted to congratulate Jen on such a successful campaign for skepticism and science.  Using mockery can be dangerous, especially when mocking a religious belief, but she executed it perfectly.  She kept it about being inquisitive and skeptical, and relying on science, rather than accepting what someone else has to say.  People exposed to this event are now know a little bit more about skepticism than they did before, and that's a great thing.  So congrats Jen, and keep up the great work that you do!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Friday, April 23, 2010

New Comments

So at first, DM's trolling comments were kind of funny, and made theists look stupider than they actually are.  Now, it's become obnoxious, repetitive and somewhat aggressive.  I'm not a fan of moderating comments, but in this case I'm getting tired of him/her (whoever this moron is) taking up huge chunks of comment space with mental patient rantings about Deepak Chopra and random Aztec gods (no joke, take a look at some of his links).  I want to encourage discussion, and have no intention of censoring people who want to discuss my posts, regardless of their position.  But posting the same irrational screeds repeatedly, with no connection to what's being discussed, then I'm going to blacklist you.

To do this, I've installed a new commenting system from Disqus that will let me moderate comments more effectively than I can with the default Blogger comments.  You'll have to register with a Disqus account in order to continue commenting here.  This is sort of a test post, we'll see if the new comment system works.

EDIT:  In case there was any confusion, I'm not moderating comments by checking every comment before it gets posted.  Once you register for Disqus, your comment will get posted immediately.  Disqus just lets me block specific users in various ways, unlike the default Blogger commenting system.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bill Nye: Snake oil salesman?

Brain Dunning (of the Skeptoid podcast) posted a story over at skepticblog, about a product called Activeion.  Activeion is a spray bottle, which is claimed to "ionize" water, making it an incredibly effective cleaning without the need to use harmful chemical products like ammonia or phosphoric acid.  In full disclosure, I'm not a chemistry expert, and I don't know enough to say with certainty that the claims Activeion is making are bogus.  However, I know that Dunning does his research, so I'm assuming he knows more than I do.  Plus, the explanations made by Activeion on their website are pretty hand-wavy and dumbed down, a classic pattern used by snake-oil salesmen.  For instance, they claim that their ionized water lies flatter on a surface than regular water.  Therefore, the surface with the ionized water on it is wetter, and will get cleaner.  Again, not an expert, but sounds like BS to me.  (Oh, add these bottle are selling for $169-$329.  Apparently the more expensive ones make the water puddle even flatter!)

Given that it is likely this product is pseudoscientific nonsense, it was painful to see Bill Nye the Science Guy as a spokesman.  He is in a 9-minute video on the Activeion page (go down to the bottom, where it says "How Does It Work?"), explaining this product the same way the website does.   I remember watching his shows as a kid, and was certainly a big part of me becoming the big science dork I am today.  His hows were engaging and got lots of kids interested in science.  Watching that video was such a disappointment.

Perhaps I'm wrong, and that this product really does work, and there's some solid science behind it.  The website makes a number of claims, including that the water kills 99.9% of bacteria, and the H1N1 virus, that should be easy to test.  I'm skeptical of this, of course, and sad to see someone like Bill Nye stoop to potentially be selling "homeopathy for dirt" (as a Twitter user described it).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Adam Savage on Humanism

I went to Harvard on Friday, because the Harvard Secular Society was giving Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman (a.k.a. The Mythbusters) the The Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism.  It was a great time, and both Adam and Jamie gave inspired speeches on the values of science and humanism.  Adam's speech has been published online at Boing Boing.  I highly recommend you read it, and forward to anyone you know who might enjoy it.

It was given the title Food for the Eagle, after a story he recounted at the end of his speech:
There may be no purpose, but its always good to have a mission. And I know of one fine allegory for an excellent mission should you choose to charge yourself with one: Carlos Castaneda's series of books about his training with a Yaqui indian mystic named Don Juan. There's a lot of controversy about these books being represented as nonfiction. But if you dispense with that representation, and instead take their stories as allegories, they're quite lovely.

At the end of The Eagle's Gift, Don Juan reveals to his student that there's no point to existence. That we're given our brief 70-100 years of consciousness by something the mystics call "The Eagle," named for it's cold, killer demeanor. And when we die, the eagle gobbles our consciousness right back up again.

He explains that the mystics, to give thanks to the eagle for the brief bout of consciousness they're granted, attempt to widen their consciousness as much as possible. This provides a particularly delicious meal for the eagle when it gobbles one up at the end of one's life.

And that, to me, is a fine mission.

If I had to believe in a mythology, I'd like it to be that one.  Much more empowering and beautiful than a crucifix and a burning bush.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Friday, April 16, 2010

Dilbert on Homeopathy

World Homeopathy Awareness Week comes to a close today, so I'm sharing today's Dilbert cartoon on the subject:

Simon Singh wins his libel suit

In case you missed in on all the other skeptics' blogs, Simon Singh has won his court case against the British Chiropractic Association.  The BCA is discontinuing the case.

This is great news, but we must remain vigilant on the issue of libel reform.  It is important that the libel laws in Britain change, or there will be more frivolous lawsuits like this in the future.  Simon spent two years and tens of thousands of dollars fighting this case, neither of which he can reclaim.  If you live in the UK, make sure you write your MPs to tell them how important libel reform is.  If you don't, tell anyone you know who does live in the UK, sign petitions, do whatever you can.  There is a link in my sidebar to Sense About Science.  Find out more there and sign the petition.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The New Last Supper

Over at Rational Crank, there is a new version of the Last Supper:

"Each of the people in this picture has accomplished more for humanity then any of the guys in that other painting."

Agreed.  I'd love to have been there.   You can also find a list of all the people shown, with a brief description on Rational Crank as well.

Via Phil @ Skeptic Money

World Homeopathy Awareness Week

Today is the first day of World Homeopathy Awareness Week!  So I want all of my readers to be aware of what homeopathy is and how it "works."

Here's how the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative medicine describes homeopathy:

The term homeopathy comes from the Greek words homeo, meaning similar, andpathos, meaning suffering or disease. Homeopathy seeks to stimulate the body's ability to heal itself by giving very small doses of highly diluted substances. This therapeutic method was developed by German physician Samuel Christian Hahnemann at the end of the 18th century. Hahnemann articulated two main principles:
  • The principle of similars (or "like cures like") states that a disease can be cured by a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people. This idea, which can be traced back to Hippocrates, was further developed by Hahnemann after he repeatedly ingested cinchona bark, a popular treatment for malaria, and found that he developed the symptoms of the disease. Hahnemann theorized that if a substance could cause disease symptoms in a healthy person, small amounts could cure a sick person who had similar symptoms.
  • The principle of dilutions (or "law of minimum dose") states that the lower the dose of the medication, the greater its effectiveness. In homeopathy, substances are diluted in a stepwise fashion and shaken vigorously between each dilution. This process, referred to as "potentization," is believed to transmit some form of information or energy from the original substance to the final diluted remedy. Most homeopathic remedies are so dilute that no molecules of the healing substance remain; however, in homeopathy, it is believed that the substance has left its imprint or "essence," which stimulates the body to heal itself (this theory is called the "memory of water").
Homeopaths treat people based on genetic and personal health history, body type, and current physical, emotional, and mental symptoms. Patient visits tend to be lengthy. Treatments are "individualized" or tailored to each person—it is not uncommon for different people with the same condition to receive different treatments.
Homeopathic remedies are derived from natural substances that come from plants, minerals, or animals. Common remedies include red onion, arnica (mountain herb), and stinging nettle plant.

So we have the principles of "like cures like" and "law of minimum dose."  In other words, if a large amount of some substance causes you to become sick, then a very small amount will make you better.  Supposedly, the way this works is that the diluting medium (usually water), keeps the woo-woo energy from the substance, even when there isn't a molecule of the substance left in the actual treatment.

Well, they must have research that suggests these principles have some merit, right?   Of course they do!  They're in well-respected journals, such as Homeopathy and Homeopathy 4 Everyone (yes, it actually uses the number '4').  OK, I guess it's possible that those journals are a bit biased, let's look at what some studies in some more mainstream pharmacology journals have to say about homeopathy.**

From A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy in British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology:

Eleven independent systematic reviews were located. 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. Similarly, there was no homeopathic remedy that was demonstrated to yield clinical effects that are convincingly different from placebo. It is concluded that the best clinical evidence for homeopathy available to date does not warrant positive recommendations for its use in clinical practice.
How about Evidence of clinical evidence for homeopathy in European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology: 
Conclusions: There is some evidence that homeopathic treatments are more effective than placebo; however, the strength of this evidence is low because of the low methodological quality of the trials. Studies of high methodological quality were more likely to be negative than the lower quality studies. Further high quality studies are needed to confirm these results.
But I think Tim Minchin said it best:
Science adjusts its views based on what's observed. Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved. If you show me that, say, homoeopathy works, I'll change my mind. I'll spin on a fucking dime. I'll be embarrassed as hell but I will run through the streets yelling "Its a miracle! Take physics and bin it. Water has memory." And while its memory of a long lost drop of onion juice is infinite, it somehow forgets about all the poo it's had in it. You show me that it works and how it works, and when I've recovered from the shock, I will take a compass and carve 'fancy that' on the side of my cock.  (From Storm)
So go out and let everyone know that it's World Homeopathy Awareness Week, and teach them about what homeopathy really is.  You can find some more WHAW fun with Orac over at Respectful Insolence (some very funny videos available there).

** Of course I know that you can find support or opposition for any position if I look in the right scientific journal.  That's why it's not enough to just believe whatever you read, but to critically think about it.  I've read some studies on homeopathy, and some critical of it, and for a number of reasons I believe that it's bunk.  It doesn't correspond with what else we know from basic science (chemistry, physics, etc.), most of the studies that have shown homeopathy effective have shown methodological flaws, and are generally only published in specialty journals that have a higher likelihood of being biased.  All of that said, I don't want anyone to believe me just because I'm saying these things.  I want them to read and think about these things for themselves.  

Monday, April 5, 2010

My Weekend Travels

I traveled to Long Island this past weekend to visit some family and not celebrate Easter :-).  Of course, in my haste to get home, I forgot to pack a power supply for my laptop, so I was unable to get anything done, including writing here.  I was planning on writing a few things, including a post about the next section of the Qur'an (I haven't done one for almost a month... Yikes!  I'll post one soon, promise!)  So I have a few posts coming up that I was planning on writing this weekend, including Juz' 5 of the Qur'an, and my experience outside of the Hitchens/Wolpe debate.  But I had an experience while driving home last night that I thought I'd share while it's fresh in my mind.

So not only did I forget my power supply, but when I turned on my iPod, selected a track (the audio version of Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig, for those interested), and pressed play, it immediately froze, and was useless for the entire trip.  Awesome.  So I was stuck with the radio for the 3½ hour trip.  I flipped through the stations for a while, and found my way to NPR.  They were interviewing Krista Trippet about her new radio program Einstein's God.

What first caught my ear, and stopped me from just changing the station, was that Trippet was mostly honest about Einstein's views about gods.  She made it clear that Einstein didn't believe in a personal god, and that his famous quote "God does not play dice" was a metaphorical statement, so I thought perhaps this was going to be a good explanation of Einstein's views.

Trippet presented the facts pretty accurately.  Unfortunately, she decided it was necessary to shoehorn some pseudo-spiritual nonsense into the fact that Einstein had a reverence for the laws of nature.  Of course Carl Sagan also had a reverence for nature and the universe, while being non-religious (adamantly so, according to what I've read by him).  She also interviews religious scientists Paul Davies and Freeman Dyson, with no mention of scientists who would present an alternative view.  (Admittedly I haven't heard the piece yet, I'll be listening to it later.  But I can guess what Dyson and Davies are going to say, particularly given what Trippet had to say during the interview.)

But the most frustrating part of the interview was an instance of a blatant double standard.  Trippet was discussing the co-existence of science and religion, trying to suggest that the two are compatible with each other.  She mentioned the recent publications that attack religion and suggest that it is not compatible with scientific thinking (obviously referring to people like Dawkins, Harris, etc.), and made the common claim that they are attacking a straw man version of religion, and that mature, liberal, learned religion is compatible with science.

This would be annoying by itself, since this criticism has been answered countless times by many people (including Dawkins and Harris).  But it was contrasted so starkly by what was said only a few minutes earlier during the interview.  The interviewer (I can't remember his name, unfortunately) asked Trippet to explain her faith and what she believed.  Her response was laughable.  She hemmed and hawed for what felt like an eternity, finally answering: "This is what I tell people: If God is god, then we should not be afraid to use our intelligence and skills to learn about the universe and how it works."

(I'm paraphrasing, but this was essentially what she said.  If someone has a transcript of the interview, or a more accurate quote I'll happily correct it.)

So Trippet is claiming that people like Dawkins are attacking a straw man version of her belief system, but she refuses to plainly explain her belief system.  What exactly is Dawkins supposed to do?  He can only examine and criticize people who are willing and able to clearly articulate what their beliefs actually are.  If you aren't willing (or perhaps able) to articulate your belief system clearly, then we aren't going to bother considering it.  Scientific theories requires clarity and unambiguity, so that they can make useful predictions.  The fact that Trippet can't even tell us what she believes suggests its very unlikely to be compatible with a scientific worldview.

My guess is that any effort to explain what she believes would reveal how ridiculous it really is.  Fuzzy language and meaningless platitudes give liberal theists an out.  In reality, when they are forced to express their beliefs clearly, one of two things happens.  Either their beliefs are revealed to be much more like traditional religious beliefs than they would like to admit (literal belief in miracles, a resurrection, etc.), or it turns out they don't believe in the supernatural at all, and just prefer to continue using the language for whatever reason.  Either way, they come out looking more foolish than they did before explaining themselves.  Either way, their beliefs are clearly not compatible with science.