The Lower Quote, As If You Didn't Know, Is By Richard Dawkins, Son.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

UFC 94

I've been on a bit of a blog-break for a couple of weeks, as you may or, more likely, have not noticed. Tonight is UFC 94 with the main event of Georges St. Pierre and BJ (Baby Jay) Penn. Lyoto "The Dragon" Machida is also fighting Thiago Silva, which should be way great as well. Some people don't like Machida because they say he's "boring" - I say those people have no idea what they're talking about. When Silva comes out tonight all full of chicken blood and gun-powder trying to KO Machida, he's going to get a face full of shin-bone and fist meat resulting in a whole lotta nappytime. Mark my words.

My third favorite fighter is also on the card - Jon Fitch. He and his ultra-awesome opponent, Akihiro Gono, had the best moment ever at the weigh-in when Gono came out wearing spandex, zebra-striped shorts and a huge afro wig. He then offered it to Fitch and this amazing photo was the result:Fitch Goes Afro!
(Hat tip to the greatness that is Fightlinker and MMAJunkie)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Pope Benedict Covered Up Child Rape - Yawn

Cheery title for a Sunday night, eh?

In case you were wondering about the punchline involving a child-raping Catholic priest, boy, are you in luck or what? The full explanation is going to be in a BBC documentary spilling the proverbial beans about Pope Benny's...ahem, excuse me, Cardinal Ratzinger's... involvement in ordering bishops to move child molesters to alternate parishes in lieu of, you know, sending them to jail.

Is anyone really surprised by this? The abuses of the Catholic church are staggering when you look at them. The body-count, both in abuses and deaths, is hard to fathom. Sexual abuse of children plus the cover-up of said, and the lack of basic awareness with respect to condom use - especially in Africa where the church still has a hold and out-dated, childish concepts like "excommunication" continue to scare death - keep AIDS/HIV way up in the 'ways people die' column.

The title to this post is not meant in any way to diminish the pain and suffering experienced by the victims. It is intended to highlight the blatant obviousness of corruption and power-hunger that the Catholic church has had for a very very long time. The Vatican is not in the religion business, it's in the power business. The sad part of it all is that there are millions of "faithful" who just won't buy into the reality and will instead wallow in the vague words of the bible and the words of a Pope more concerned about Institution than Followers.

The Catholic Church needs to die. Today. If you are a Catholic - stop it. Seriously.

(h/t to Jake over at The Good Atheist (dot net))

Thursday, January 15, 2009

First Skeptic's Circle of 2009!

Bug Girl has the first Skeptic's Circle of the year up over at her place. Go check it out with the LOLBugs to keep you company - it's a ball of fun!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Men's Health Cites Acupuncture Study...Sort Of

I bought the most recent issue of Men's Health - the one with Lance Armstrong on the cover - and in it on page 28, there is a little blurb on acupuncture that says:
A new Brazilian study found that when people with chronic neck pain underwent weekly acupuncture and physical therapy sessions, they saw a 21 percent greater reduction in pain than people who received only the physical therapy. Acupuncture may ease the muscle spasms that contribute to neck pain.
No study citation, no link or journal was listed, just some study from Brazil. Ok, well, let's take a look, shall we?

Here's an acupuncture study from Brazil that looks at myofascial pain (myofascial refers to the thin, almost cellophane-like covering that is around muscles), but it's not "chronic neck pain". Plus in the above study, there's no sham acupuncture. Much like this study, also from Brazil. And ta daa! It shows positive results! Quelle surprise!

So maybe I just don't have the access to the journals and special medical secret handshakes and Matrix pills to get to the correct Brazilian study that decreases neck pain. Darny darn. I do think it'd be great if more people would realize that sham acupuncture is necessary in all studies that supposedly test "energy pathways" and "chi" and all that other (non-existent) mystical mumbo jumbo.

Pain is extremely placebo-responsive, and as such, you have to take your selected pool of study participants and divide them into at least three groups (double-blinded, of course): 1. actual acupuncture received, 2. sham acupuncture received, and 3. normal treatment received (muscle relaxants, physiotherapy/massage, etc...). I would include a fourth group as well, if possible, and that is the 4. no treatment at all group.

When you have these groups, you can then take the blinded doctor/statistics analyst and let them check out all the data to see which patients seemed to do the best. Once that's done, then you go back and see which groups they came from and determine your results.

Is that too much work? It sure was for the dude who dropped the piece into Men's Health.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A Primer on Skepticism

After three years of doing this blog, I figured that there just might be some folks out there who need a refresher on what it means to be skeptical. This can serve as a loose guide on critical thinking in general with some examples that most of us have seen before, and also might be useful in talking to novice skeptics or trying to converse with believers who could benefit from being led in a friendly way towards another way to look at the world.
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed" Albert Einstein.

"Science is like a blabbermouth who ruins a movie by telling you how it ends! Well, I say there are some things we don't want to know! Important things!" Ned Flanders

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool". Richard Feynman
Section One:
Ok, so what is science? When someone tells us something, what are the tools we use to evaluate what they have claimed? These are questions that have to be answered before we can become effective critical thinkers.
"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." Sherlock Holmes from A Scandal in Bohemia
Critical thinking has become somewhat of a catch-phrase, and in becoming so it has lost a portion of its meaning. Employing critical thinking involves looking at all sides of a claim before making a decision AND leaving that decision up to re-evaluation upon receiving new evidence.

Importantly, we have to understand the difference between a skeptic and a cynic:

Skeptic: from skeptikos thoughtful, from skeptesthai to look, consider

Cynic: a faultfinding captious critic; especially: one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest

There is an important distinction there to keep in mind and in your pocket to refresh any person who mistakenly calls you out as the latter.

Take a look at these pictures:
Helicopter and Shark
9/11 Plane?
What can we say about these? If you saw them in an email that gave you a story about the first one being nominated as National Geographic's Photo of the Year, taken off South Africa during a naval training exercise; the second being a photo from the World Trade Centre recovered from film found in the rubble of Ground Zero, would you believe the stories?

For most people, they would likely just say, "wow" to themselves and maybe show a co-worker or something, then go on with their day. It's not something worth worrying about or expending energy on. They are, however, great chances to exercise our skeptical muscles.

The first picture is amazing enough that you would have to ask yourself, "Why didn't I see this all over the evening news? ...or in the pages of, say National Geographic?" Maybe it's not so amazing after all, particularly when you find the original picture of the jumping shark somewhere else without the helicopter. Google-images is a wonderful thing.

The second seems likely enough at first glance, but not enough people think about seemingly unconnected, yet obvious things. Think about the temperature of September 11, 2001. In New York that day, it was 73.1F, or 22.8C, which means why is the man in the picture wearing a big coat and winter hat? Also, how did delicate film fall through over a hundred stories of falling debris, rubble and burning jet fuel, to be developed with no distortion or ill-effects whatsoever? Seems too good to be true.

A good general rule is that if it seems too good, it usually is.

If I said to you, "Hey, go to the bank machine and get me out $10,000. I'll take it and in my plan, I'll turn that investment into a 6x profit ($60,000) in six months." Do you get me the money? Of course not. But why not? What would be some questions you'd have for me? (thanks for the edit note, gb)

1. How does your plan work?
2. Is your plan legal?
3. What will you charge me and what does your fee include?
4. Have others done this with you?
5. What have the others, if applicable, thought of your plan?
6. Can I talk to some of others you've dealt with?

Basic questions that should leap into your mind when a Nigerian comes a-emailin'. Let's take this skill and apply it to some "therapies" out there in the public domain and see what pops up. Imagine you're a lawyer cross-examining a defendant or witness.

Cranio-Sacral therapy (CST): With this so-called "therapy", the bones in the skull are "adjusted" to allow or facilitate the healing of various conditions/ailments. Most folks out there don't know about their bodies, so they'll fall for this line from a seemingly knowledgeable person. This is the main problem with pseudoscience - it presents people (CST practitioners, homeopaths, herbalists, reikists, acupuncturists...) as qualified to talk about health-care when most of them know little about physiology, anatomy or actual scientific methodology. Then ignorant lay-people get convinced that their "chi" is out of balance and they need someone to push on their hard palate to re-adjust their energy flow - possibly avoiding or missing out on actual medical help that may get them through their difficulties. Most people won't take the time to look at the criticisms of a therapy they're using because they're financially invested in it and don't want to look foolish.

Some questions:
1. Do the bones in my skull move?
2. Why aren't football players or boxers injured way more often than I see?
3. If it is as easy as pressing on my head to fix my ails, why isn't this in hospitals?

Section Two:
"If anyone can show me, and prove to me, that I am wrong in thought or deed, I will gladly change. I seek the truth, which never yet hurt anybody. It is only persistence in self-delusion and ignorance which does harm." Marcus Aurelius
What do results in clinical trials mean? Do they mean that a therapy is either fantastic or useless?

As an example, let's look at Santa's supposed reindeer. We will do a test to see if reindeer can fly, so we take a sample of 100 animals and take them to the top of a twenty story building. One by one, we send them over the edge and, one by one, they plummet to a predictable messy, gory death on the sidewalks below to the horrified glares of on-lookers young and old alike.

One you have a pile of reindeer bits a hundred deep, what can you officially say about the subject of reindeer flight?

All you can say at this point is that these reindeer, at this time, in this location, under these specific conditions, either couldn't or chose not to fly. That's it. More testing is needed - preferably away from the peering eyes of those pesky PETA jerks.

Only one white crow is needed to prove that all crows are not black, but that crow must be scrutinized heavily to ensure that it is real.

Controlling your variables is crucial in experiments. It is the essence of the problems with anecdotal evidence. "Well, Bobby got acupuncture for his inflamed testicle and it worked great, so it must be real." No, maybe Bobby's testicle got better all by itself. Maybe Bobby got a shot from a real doctor a day before going to the acupuncturist. There are a lot of variables not accounted for in the story and as such, we have to be leery.

It is handy to ask yourself, "if x is true, then what would also have to be logically true?" Let's look at spoon bending as an example: It is supposedly an interaction between the "psychic's" mind and the metal - so why do they always have to touch it? They should be able to bend the spoon while I hold it. Also, if it's a mental interaction, why is it always a spoon that's easily bendable with hands? Get a three or four inch piece of steel bar and bend that. Oddly, "psychics" won't answer these questions.

Science is simply a method for finding out about the world around us, and is structured as follows:

Observation -> Hypothesis -> Experiment -> Results -> Conclusion ->Peer Review

That's it. There's science for you. When you see something like homeopathy, you can apply this template and realize that they came up with a hypothesis after seeing an odd observation, then just went with it all with way to conclusion, skipping over the entire testing phase. If any tests were done (and some rather entertainingly protesty ones were), they generally came out negative, especially when the important caveat that the controls were tight was followed.

Ok, so going back to Santa for a second, let's say you've diligently sat by your chimney for 29 years on Christmas Eve, waiting for the jolly old elf to make an appearance. He never has. You've seen the Grinch so many times that it's etched in your memory forever, but not once has Santa shown his butt.

On that 30th year, are you waiting with the same expectancy as year one? Hardly. Sometimes dousing or reiki or homeopathy can get all dolled up to look sorta like Santa's ass in a chimney, but when you look closer, it's just useless soot that could eventually burn down your house if you don't get it cleaned out.

Section three:
The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike." Delos B. McKown
Carl Sagan really was the man. I'll take my next example from him. I tell you I have a dragon in my garage. You ask to see it so I take you there.

No dragon.

He's invisible, I say.

Let's put flour on the floor so we can see his footprints, you say.

He flies, I say.

Let's throw paint around so we can see him, you say.

Paint won't stick to his scales, I say.

Let's get a thermal camera to see him, you say.

He's not a fire-breathing dragon and he's actually non-corporeal, so that won't work, I say.

Hmm, so is there a dragon at all?
Invisible Man
It sounds strange, but a claim must be falsifiable to be of value. If you can't prove it wrong then there's no use evaluating it. "Psychics" love to take advantage of this one when they say things like, "The missing boy is at the moment, walking by some water." Great, made up information that is of no use except to attempt to convince gullible (and usually sad, desperate) parents that they are of use to them in an investigation.

Section Four: Talking Heads - Not Just a Band from the 80's

Encouraging debate about a topic is the surest way to get to the heart of the matter. Earlier it was mentioned that you should think of yourself as an attorney when checking into something. Don't take the word of "experts", don't rely on anecdotes (the plural of "anecdote" is not "data"), and always always look for glazed-over pre-suppositions.

An idea in science must be put on a pedestal and allowed to be hammered away at by anyone who cares to throw something at it. This is how theories are tested. Those that stay on the pedestal become well-tested and time-tried (think gravity or evolution). Very few pseudo-science practitioners (if any) encourage this sort of testing because their pet ideas would not stand up, and they know it. These people get very defensive when questioned - which is the reaction of dogma, not science.

We cannot be attached to an idea just because it is our own or we adhere to the concept. In fact, the examples I cited above of gravity and evolution have both undergone significant changes from when they were first proposed - the latter so much that Charles Darwin would have a hard time understanding it now!

The scientific method was devised to keep subjectivity out of the lab and experimentation. When people don't understand this, you get examples like Therepeutic Touch (TT). People feel what is expected of them; "helped" patients tell wonderful stories about healing; the anecdote pile grows and grows.

Looking closer, TT is all about a practitioner being supposedly able to feel and manipulate a human energy field (HEF). This has never been shown to exist, let alone detect with bare hands, let alone work with it, let alone heal illness by working with it. It's an entire fraudulent health field house of cards that people jump into on the fourteenth floor, never looking down to see what's under them.

Most scientists worth their salt would love for an idea like TT to be true. It would be a fantastic route to exploring a new aspect of physiology and get recognized with a Nobel Prize in medicine. Alas, Alfred is not shaking in his boots about the potential of giving away the prize money to one of those folks anytime soon.

Section five:
"You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else."
Sounds harsh, right? Yes, science can be harsh at times, but it is part and parcel of being in a field that sometimes you have to give up beliefs you've had for a long time. Sometimes wanting to believe in something so strongly affects us physically; if someone tells us a convincing story, our tendency to take it as fact is unparalleled.

I saw a magic show once where a man had a key. He put it in my hands and put his hands around mine. When I opened my palms, the key was bent and the magician told me to touch it - lightly! - because it was hot. Sure enough, when I touched the key, it was hot.

Except it wasn't. I now know how that trick was done and only the heat from our hands was involved, but if I wasn't into magic a little bit, I would have sworn until this day that that key heated up.

Herein lies an interesting quirk about the "therapies" we've been discussing - many complimentary or alternative medicine (CAM) therapies need the patient to believe what is happening is working for it to actually have any effect at all. However, if it is the patient's belief that is healing/helping them/causing any effect, then the "therapy" itself is pointless and it is only the quality of the story that needs to be solid. You have to become entangled in psychology, not medicine.

CAM is comforting and for this reason, it is liked. It is an alternative (although an ultimately tragic) option from traditional allopathic medicine (TAM). Sometimes the truth can hurt. A lot.

Section Six:
The statistics on sanity are that one out of every four Americans are suffering from some form of mental illness. Think of your three best friends. If they're ok, then it's you." Rita Mae Brown
Statistics are just not well understood. If people understood the concept of homeopathy and some basic statistics/large number theory, no one would ever buy homeopathic crap. Let's look at another example, however.

A large number of misinterpretations occur when we talk about "miraculous" events. Take this fella.
Ganesha is a very popular god in India. Asked generally for siddhi or "success", and buddhi, "intelligence", Ganesha is the god of wisdom, literature, and fine arts. Ganesha is worshipped usually alongside with Shiva, Vishnu, Devi and Surya, plus sometimes a sixth god, Skanda.

Now look at this:
Ganesha potato
It's a potato, in case you can't see it well. It was bought by a fruit and vegetable exporter in India named Najmuddin Alibhai Jessani and was about to be eaten when his sister-in-law noticed the "resemblance" to Ganesha. Their living room was turned into a shrine where 60 - 70 people a day came to visit and left gifts of marigolds and, of course, money. (News clip, September 4th, 2002)

Ok, how many potatos do you think Mr. Jessani has to deal with during the run of a typical week as a fruit and vegetable exporter? Probably a lot. Let's run some quick numbers with respect to odd occurrences, shall we?

There are about 350 million people in Canada and the United States combined, ballpark. That means that in any given day, 350 legitimate one-in-a-million happenings are going to occur. Every day. 350 x 365 = 127,750 in a year. How many of those roughly 128 thousand are going to just melt your head?

It is true that the only really weird day, is the one where nothing extraordinary happens at all.

Section Seven: "I can see for miles and miles..." The Who

Objectively, there is no such thing as "alternative" medicine. There is medicine that is proven to work and then the other stuff. Once it is shown to be effective, then it just becomes "medicine". Suggestions of conspiracies and such are cop-outs by people who have no evidence behind them. Once the general public learns to apply skepticism and critical thinking for themselves, less and less chicanery will be foisted upon them and perhaps a new age will dawn.

Well, I can hope, can't I? Isn't that the difference between a skeptic and a cynic?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Reviewing My Predictions

Some of you may remember that last year I did several podcasts to test the waters. I enjoyed them but had troubles getting into iTunes and all that jazz. I'd like to return to doing them at some point with a regular show-type thingy, but that's for another day. Today is to review the predictions I made. Just to recap, in case you weren't around for my sexy voice to lull you into security and woo, here are my predictions, as spoken:

1. Sometime in 2008, Scott Baio will lose his TV show.
2. Lee Majors will lose his right foot in April.
3. Liz Taylor dies in December.
4. Michael Jackson's right eye will fall out at Liz Taylor's funeral.
5. Sylvia Browne will get emphysema and then cancer of the lungs, but won't die. She'll die on Feb. 17, 2009.
6. On May 7, 2008, Pope Benedict will have a heart-attack.
7. Britney Spears will die on June 14, 2008.
8. Danny Boneduce will die in a September, 2008 car crash.
9. A huge cancer treatment breakthrough will happen in November, on the 20th.
10. The east coast of Texas will be smashed in August by a hurricane. Especially Galvaston.

Ok, so how'd I do? Well, the damn Scott Baio thing didn't pan out because he finished the Scott Baio is 45...and Single thing and has now moved on to his next reality series, Scott Baio is 46...and Pregnant. You only wish I was kidding. Best Scott Baio moment ever? When Cartman said:
“…and then these weird aliens came down and took me up into their spaceship and Scott Baio gave me pink eye.”
Ok, so number two didn't come to pass either. As far as my research shows, Lee Majors has both his feet and is is relatively good health. The six million dollars was apparently well-spent.

Righty, Liz Taylor is still alive so that's out. Eight marriages and still kickin'. You can't say that there's no fight in that woman.

Michael Jackson, by all accords still has both of his eyes in his horribly mis-shapen skull and, since Taylor didn't die, his healthy right eye did not fall out at her non-existent funeral. So far, 0 for 4.

As much as I'd like fake-ass "psychic" Sylvia Browne to get lung cancer and die, it seems she has not aquired the condition. Nor emphysema. I'm 0 for 5, but a guy can wish, right? I still have Feb. 17, 09 to look forward to!

Number six also failed to materialize. Pope Palpatine did not suffer a heart attack in 2008 making my goose-egg grow in size. Damn that Palpatine. Damn him to hell.

Obviously I'm going to have to add more to my egg as Britney did not die. I actually hope she gets her shit together and handles her family. (I can't be a bastard all the time...)

Danny goddamn Bonaduce didn't die either. You'd think with the people I picked to die or get sick, I'd have hit one - nope. Just crap luck, I guess. I could just change my picks like "Psychic" Nikki, but then I'd be a dick like her and that's just not cricket, baby.

Cancer treatment breakthrough in November - well, I found a video of a breakthrough from November 2007, and an article from November 2006, but the closest I got in 2008 was May - which at this point, I'll take as a hit because "November" has an "m" in it and if you look closely, you'll see that "m" is just before "n" in the alphabet and as we all know, you can include the letters before as hits...which is also why I'm taking "y" as a hit, because "y" is just a "v" with a tail, which is a common genetic mutation. See! A hit!

Finally, in August, there was Hurricane Gustav that beat the shit out of Haiti, Cuba, and even though none of these places are Galvaston, Texas, I'm going to say that's a hit because LOOK AT ME! I predicted a Hurricane! Nature is at my beck and call! Fear me!

Right, so my predictive abilities are essentially null and void, just like all the other retards who pretend to know what's going to happen. For 2009, I predict that I'll get heartburn tonight and that I'll soon be drinking a root beer and watching Flight of the Conchords. Enjoy.