The Skeptic Canary

The blog of Dr Tom Williamson, atheist, humanist, skeptic and Norwich City fan!

Archive for the ‘bullshit’ Category

Channel 5 airs atrocious “Did we land on the Moon?” conspiracy documentary

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Moon flag

Did we land on the Moon? Yes. Yes we did.

I’ve just spent the last hour launching a furious diatribe on Twitter having sat through one of the worst pieces of television it has ever been my misfortune to witness. Channel 5 have just broadcast a “documentary” (and I use the term very loosely) asking “Did we land on the Moon?”. They trotted out the same tired old arguments, let me just run through a few of them:

  • How could the flag fly if there was no atmosphere? – They had a pole running through the flag
  • How come shadows appeared at different angles? – Perspective. The moon is quite big.
  • How could they have used those chest-mounted cameras? – They practised before they went.

 

I could go on, but pretty much every Moon hoax conspiracy has been debunked many times on clavius.org. However, this program went far beyond the usual shite, and got pretty damn sickening. In 1967, the Apollo 1 mission ended in tragedy when three astronauts (Gus Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee) died in a cabin fire. A terrible accident? Not according to the documentary. They went so far as to ask if the three astronauts could have been killed because they “knew too much”. Unbelieveable. I find that this kind of lazy sensationalism an afront to the memory of those brave, pioneering heroes.

I also find it incredibly distasteful of Channel 5 to broadcast such a shoddy and morally bereft program about the Moon just days after the death of Patrick Moore. If you really want to watch “Did we land on the Moon?” the page for the program on Channel 5′s website can be found here. There is talk on Twitter of complaining about the program to Ofcom. I don’t know what the grounds for complaint would be but I will certainly consider it.

At least Brian Cox has the right idea.

 

Written by Tom

December 12th, 2012 at 9:39 pm

Merseyside Skeptics Psychic Challenge Results and Golden Duck Nominees

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It’s Halloween, which means that the results of the Merseyside Skeptics Society’s Halloween Psychic Challenge are out! Not surprisingly, the test found no evidence of psychic ability. The guys have done a great job with the publicity, even getting an article on the BBC News website!

This week has also seen the Good Thinking Society announce the shortlist for it’s very first “Golden Duck” award. I talk about both the MSS Psychic Challenge and the Golden Duck award nominees in my latest car vid, enjoy!

Written by Tom

October 31st, 2012 at 1:08 pm

An Acupunture Meta Analysis from the University of York

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I wanted to bring people’s attention to a worrying study on acupunture, in part by written by researchers from my old alma mater, the University of York. The study itself is a meta analysis of 29 randomised clinical trials of acupuncture in back pain, neck pain, headache, and osteoarthritis which comes to the conclusion that acupuncture is effective for chronic pain and is suitable as a referrel option. I think the study suffers from certain biases and the conclusion reached by the authors is simply not supported by the evidence presented, but rather than give a detailed examination of it myself I shall recommend Steve Novella’s article on Science Based Medicine. I’m just rather concerned that a university which I still have a great affinity for is promoting such controversial treatments.

Written by Tom

September 12th, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Posted in bullshit,science

Merseyside Skeptics put Shuzi to the test

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The guys at the Merseyside Skeptics Society (MSS) have been busy with some world class skeptical activism! The people that brought the ludicrous nature of homeopathy to the world’s attention with the 10:23 campaign have cast their eyes on a wristband made by the company Shuzi. The band makes all sorts of claims, similar to Power Balance bracelets (and we all recall what nonsense they were).

Unimpressed by Shuzi’s claims of it’s “Nano Vibrational Technology” being able to “unclump” and “improve communication” in your blood, the MSS devised a simple but comprehensive protocol to test the Shuzi band. They enlisted the help of a rugby player, who was tested to see how many kicks he could make when we was wearing either a genuine Shuzi band, or a “sham band (a Shuzi band with the “chip” removed). He attempted 50 kicks with and 50 without the band, but what I found impressive about this test was the blinding. In this sort of test, it’s hugely important to remove as many biasses as possible. The bands were covered by a sweatband, so the rugby player did not know which was which, and the identity of each band was kept a secret from the experimenter. The results were unsurprising. When wearing the real band, the player scored 26 out of 50, and with the “sham” band he scored 22. Although he scored more with the real band, this difference is not statistically significant. I’ve taken the liberty to illustrate the results in a graph.

Shuzi graph


As you can see, the above graph is pretty dull, not really showing much of a difference between the two tests. However, imagine I am a marketeer for Shuzi and I want to make this graph look as good as possible. I could do something like this:

shuzi exciting


Look at how much better this is! It’s the same data, except it’s in 3D, the Shuzi bar is a gold colour, and most importantly I’ve changed the axis so that the Shuzi bar is so much bigger than the sham bar. See how a little creative presentation can make your data look so much better than it is?

Anyway, it has to be said that they’ve got a good deal of press coverage from this. It’s appeared in the local Liverpool Echo, and even made it onto the Daily Mail of all places, making a nice change from the pseudoscientific guff we are all used to. Job well done guys!

Written by Tom

September 4th, 2012 at 6:01 pm

wisdomofchopra.com has a smart new design!

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wisdom of choprawisdomofchorpa.com, a site that generates Deepak Chopra style pseudo-profound meaningless quotes, has had a major facelift thanks to the generous guys at peltenberg.eu. It’s certainly a vast improvement on my own design! Thanks guys, much appreciated! Go and check it out:

Written by Tom

August 29th, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Posted in bullshit,internet

Brilliant scientists are open-minded about paranormal stuff. So what?

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On Twitter, JREF President DJ Grothe made me aware of a blog post written by John Horgan at Scientific American entitled “Brilliant Scientists Are Open-Minded about Paranormal Stuff, So Why Not You?”. You won’t be surprised to hear that I have a few problems with that article. The title alone set my skeptic senses tingling. The “Brilliant scientists…” bit smacked of an appeal to authority, and the “open-minded” part immediately got Tim Minchin singing in my head.

Once I started reading the article, it didn’t fail to disappoint on the logical fallacies front. Straight away it mentions that Alan Turing believed in telepathy, and goes on to state that Carl Jung was a proponent of synchronicity (coincidences). I’ve already written about this, but it’s worth repeating: having an excellent scientific mind does not make you immune to irrational beliefs. In science, ideas are judged on their own merits, not by the individual who proposes them. For example, the double Nobel prize winning scientist Linus Pauling believed that taking copious amounts of Vitamin C (overwise known as megadosing) could ward off colds and even be used as a cancer therapy. But today, modern medicine does not recommend such a use of Vitamin C. Why? Because it was tested and found not to work.

That’s an absolutely key part of science: the ability to test. The “paranormal” on the other hand, is by it’s very nature not testable. If it was, it wouldn’t be paranormal, it would just be normal. We would be able to test it as a part of science. I’m very much of the opinion that declaring something to be “outside of the limits of science”, as Freeman Dyson does, is nothing but a cop out, reminiscent of the creationist cry of “God did it”. The article also quotes Brian Josephson:

Yes, I think telepathy exists, and I think quantum physics will help us understand its basic properties.

This is another example of the fact that having a Nobel prize doesn’t stop you from getting science wrong, as Josephson has done here. In short, you need to demonstrate something before you can start explaining it. Calling on quantum physics to explain telepathy is a pointless endeavour if you can’t demonstrate telepathy in the first place!

The Paranormal

Saying “it’s paranormal” explains nothing




So, onto “open-mindedness”. A particular problem I have with the article is that Horgan says the following about psychologist William James:

I love James, who throughout his career achieved a rare balance between skepticism and open-mindedness.

I find the idea that skepticism and open-mindedness are contradictory  to be rather bizarre. It seems as if Horgan is making the classic mistake of confusing skepticism with cynicism. To be skeptical of something is to question it. If your questions are answered and you accept what is being presented, your are still skeptical! On the other hand, being open-minded should not mean that you just blindly swallow everything anyone says. When it comes to the paranormal, I am open minded. I’m open minded to good quality, repeatable, peer-reviewed evidence.

Hogan finishes with a position which I always rather irritating:

Unlike the boring, foregone conclusion of the Higgs boson, the discovery of telepathy or telekinesis would blow centuries of accumulated scientific dogma sky high. What could be more thrilling!

For a start, I’m pretty sure the discovery of the Higgs boson was never a “foregone conclusion” and it certainly wasn’t boring (not to me anyway), but it’s the wishful thinking that really annoys me. In science, you have to have a precedence to do something. You wouldn’t say “I dreamed that jelly beans cure cancer, so I’m going to set up a multi-million dollar trial to see if they do”. In the case of the Higgs boson, the mathematics behind it provided a very elegant hypothesis which was tested at CERN. Things like telekinesis are tested, but are repeatedly found to fail such tests. Whether or not it would be thrilling if such phenomena exists is irrelevant. It would be thrilling for me if an enormous diamond was buried under my house, but that doesn’t mean I’m planning to have my house leveled and a diamond mind built now does it?

So, in conclusion: yes, brilliant scientists believe in the paranormal. Yes, you should be open minded about it. Are either of these facts enough for you to believe in the paranormal? I would say no.

Written by Tom

July 29th, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Posted in bullshit,science

Wisdom of Chopra is looking for a designer!

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wisdom of chopraIt’s been just over a month since I launched wisdomofchopra.com and my word has it been nuts! About six weeks ago I was told that I was going to be made redundant from my previous web development job, and for some reason I thought to myself “right then, I’ll make a website this weekend!”. Naturally, I went on Twitter looking for inspiration, and came across a tweet suggesting that the words of one Deepak Chopra were indistinguishable from a selection of profound words randomly thrown together (I think it was the New Humanist account, but I’m not sure). Having had experience with making rather crude random sentence generators I thought I could fairly easily make a website which took the words of Chopra and stuck them together. After just two nights of hard graft, wisdomofchopra.com was born.

I really wasn’t expecting much from it, but I am still amazed by the response it has generated. In that initial weekend, it got over 20,000 hits! It has been fairly extensively and positively blogged about (including by PZ Myers, so he’s not all bad! ;) ) and even ended up being used on the SGU podcast! I extended the site, adding a quiz to see if people could tell the difference between real Deepak Chopra quotes and those generated by the website. I think my proudest moment in this whole episode was trying the quiz out on an Indian ex-colleague who has actually read some of Chopra’s books, he only managed three out of seven before angrily giving up! As I write this, there have so far been 28,578 responses to the quiz, of which 19,131 have been correct. That means that just 66.92% of the responses have been correct. If any statisticians are reading this, could you tell me if that is significant or not?

To take it to the next level, I really need a web designer to take a look at wisdomofchopra.com. Could you take the website and make it look really good? Although I’m quite good at programming (I got another web dev job pretty much straight away in case you are wondering) my design skills are rather lacking. I can’t offer that much in the way of pay (well, maybe something), but you’ll certainly be credited on the site and it will look good on your CV. So, if you are a web designer at any level, please get in touch!

Written by Tom

July 24th, 2012 at 10:24 pm

On the bizarre arrogance and willful ignorance of PZ Myers

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Sigh. The skeptidrama doesn’t stop. I don’t feel happy writing about it, but something has gone down that I feel is serious enough that I just have to write about it. Please, if you’d rather not get involved (and I would have every sympathy if you didn’t) please stop reading now.

PZ Myers is someone I’ve always greatly admired. I’ve loved his fights against creationism and intelligent design, and I’ve admired his brazen no-nonsense approach to things like Eucharist desecration. I was very happy to meet him at TAM London 2010.

PZ Myers

Myself being a pathetic fanboy back in 2010

But now, a fellow skeptic has been incorrectly labelled as someone who uses vulgar gendered insults (specifically c**t) against Rebecca Watson, and PZ is largely to blame. Coffee Loving Skeptic (henceforth referred to as CLS) has given his version of events, complete with actual evidence of what was said and when. PZ Myers has responded with his version, lacking such evidence. Seeing as Rebecca Watson’s tweet was a reply to one of mine, I feel compelled to give my version of events.

I saw a tweet from CLS saying that PZ had blocked him. Seeing as Twitter is a public forum, I thought I’d ask PZ why he did that. Although he was under no obligation to do so (I don’t usually expect a response from celebs on Twitter), he replied saying that he didn’t believe that he had. With two people who I tend to trust saying conflicting things, I thought it might be a Twitter bug (certainly not unknown) and asked CLS to check again. He then provided conclusive evidence that PZ was blocking him. In the meantime, Rebecca Watson had replied to PZ saying that CLS was the guy who called her a c**t, and after he begged to be unblocked called her a c**t again. This is clearly untrue, and possibly a case of mistaken identity. CLS then wrote his blog post where he clearly showed that he DID NOT call Rebecca Watson a c**t. PZ then produced a few tweets mentioning “entitlement”, and went on a rather baffling blocking spree more reminiscent of the climate change denier James Delingpole.

So, why do I care? Why don’t I treat this as a piece of tit-for-tat that just isn’t worth my attention? I care because someone has pretty much been libelled as someone who calls women c**ts, firstly by Rebecca Watson to her 24,000-odd followers, and then by PZ Myers with his 100k followers, when he retweeted her. So combined, Rebecca Watson and PZ Myers have let it be known to about 125,000 Twitter accounts that CLS is someone who uses gendered insults against women, when this is clearly not the case.

It’s also very frustrating that all that’s required from Rebecca Watson (at least if she wants to be civil), is a quick acknowledgement of her error and an apology. Instead, PZ has repeatedly obfuscated the issue by trying to make out that it’s about “entitlement” and moaning about being blocked on Twitter. This is dishonest and evasive. I’ve amended the Twitter exchange to show the sort of thing that would make things so much better:

  • PZ Myers: Don’t know that I did. He has a protected account, apparently. RT @skepticCanary: why did you block @TPRyan007 ?
  • Rebecca Watson: @pzmyers That’s the guy I blocked for calling me a cunt. He emailed begging me to unblock, then called me a cunt again when I didn’t. Ha ha
  • Rebecca Watson (if she was being civil): Sorry everyone, @TPRyan007 did not call me a cunt

Is that really too much to ask?

Written by Tom

June 27th, 2012 at 8:55 pm

Nastiness on Reddit: a result of unlimited free speech?

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You may have noticed that Reddit, in particular the “subreddit” r/atheism, has been getting a lot of attention in the skeptical community. That’s not that surprising given that Reddit is one of the most popular sites on the Internet, regularly dealing with around 67 million hits per day with an Alexa rank of 124. The atheism subreddit is currently readily accessible from the Reddit front page.

The concept of Reddit is quite straightforward. It’s described as a social news website, where users find or generate content that they think is interesting and post it to one of the many “subreddits”. Other users can then add their own comments and either “upvote” or “downvote” the posts. The most popular posts appear on the front page of Reddit, which Reddit itself refers to as the front page of the Internet. As you might expect, any post which ends up here receives a huge amount of traffic!

Unlike Facebook or Twitter, Reddit carries the burden of a gigantic double-edged sword: it is almost completely uncensored. As a result, pretty much anything is available on Reddit. Have a look at the highly NSFW /r/spacedicks to see what I mean. Actually, don’t.

As a result of this lack of moderation, Reddit can be an uninhibited playground of ideas where you can criticize any world religion or batshit crazy post without fear of censorship. However, it’s infested with various idiots, bigots of all kinds, and probably the most prevalent of all, trolls. Although a lot of these people on Reddit repulse me, I have a coping mechanism.

Firstly, I never expect too much. I know that if I need advise on any serious matter, I’m not going to get it on Reddit. After that, I set my default position on Reddit to “meh”. In other words, I need a good reason to care about something I read if I see it on Reddit. If it’s an insult, I’ll ignore it. If it’s a weak pun that Steve Wright would be proud of, I’ll ignore it. If it’s funny, insightful, intelligent etc I’ll read it and take it on board. As an example, I made a Rage Comic a little while ago after a mildly traumatic experience in the shower:

I’m a big fan of anything that grabs people’s imaginations and develops organically, so I’m right at home with the sillyness and general flippancy of Rage Comics. It took me about 30 seconds to make this comic, and it received quite a lot of upvotes and a fair few comments. They ranged from the utterly ridiculous but imaginative to the insulting:

fag

Only fags and women use conditioner. Let’s hope you’re a woman.

Nice eh? I know people have experienced much worse than that, but the point is I didn’t react (yes, I’m aware of the irony of writing about it here). I just ignored them and carried on, the trolls remained unfed. Unnecessary drama avoided. If you are being trolled/insulted on Reddit, the best thing you can do is rise above it and ignore it.

At the end of the day, if you want the level of free speech Reddit offers, you’re going to have to accept that it also extends to people who you wouldn’t cross the road to save. As you can’t get rid of them, the best thing you can do is not encourage them. Don’t feed the trolls.

Written by Tom

April 25th, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Nancy Malik shows us how NOT to conduct a poll on homeopathy

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For those not aware “Dr” Nancy Malik is one of the more prevalent Internet homeopaths, happily promoting the anti-science quackery we know as homeopathy. She attracted the attention of skeptics with a very long (and now defunct) Google Knol which supposedly contained hundreds of peer reviewed articles which provided evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy. Despite pretty much every link being scrutinized and rubbished by the wonderful Xtal Dave, Malik has moved the list to her new blog, amusingly entitled “Science-based Homeopathy” (a contradiction in terms if ever there was one).

Malik has come up with a poll about medicine, presumably in an attempt to gather evidence on the popularity of homeopathy. However, as I type this it’s not looking too good for homeopathy.

As you can see, conventional medicine is currently surging way ahead of all the alternatives to medicine. Ironically, if Malik wanted to set this poll up to get the result she wanted, she’s done pretty much the opposite of what she should have done in all cases. Let’s have a look at some ways to knobble a poll, and where she’s gone wrong.

1. Ask a leading question to point the responder towards the answer you want them to give

Malik asks “Which medicine you prefer when fall ill”. Apart from the embarrassingly bad use of English, it doesn’t steer people towards homeopathy. For example, a lot of quacks say things along the lines of “if you’ve tried everything else, why not try homeopathy?”, so why doesn’t Malik’s question attempt to represent that?

2. Place the answer you want people to give at the top

The answer presented first will obviously be the one that the respondent looks at first, so if you want a certain answer to come out on top, put it before all the others! Malik fails here by putting ‘conventional’ first, the answer that she presumably does not want people to pick.

3. Present the options you do not want people to pick in an unfavourable light

As mentioned above, Malik uses the term ‘conventional’ medicine. Alternatively, you could term it “evidence based” or “science based” medicine (which both sound good), but if you were a devious homeopath set out to discredit it you could call it something else. Homeopaths often like to call conventional medicine “allopathic” (treating like with non-like), as if it was some sort of polar opposite to homeopathy. You can also confuse people who don’t know what ‘allopathic’ is by doing this, something that Malik fails to do.

4. Split the vote of the options that you don’t want people to pick

A simple tactic, splitting the vote involves presenting more options than necessary for those that you don’t like. For example, say that you were out with friends and you wanted to get a cup of coffee, whereas your friends fancied a pint of beer. If you were to vote on where to go, you could present one coffee house and six or seven pubs. That way, everyone who wants a beer will vote for different pubs, but those who want a coffee will all vote for the same coffee shop, increasing the proportion of the ‘coffee’ votes.

So, for Malik’s poll, she could have quite easily presented all the non-evidence based practices as one option, perhaps calling it “alternative and complementary therapies”, and split up ‘conventional’ into several options, but once again this was not done. Another fail!

Taking all that into consideration, here is how I would have presented Malik’s poll if I was looking for a result that favours homeopathy:

“Which form of medicine would you prefer to use?”

  • Complementary and alternative therapies
  • Allopathy
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • High street drugs

With this poll, I’ve tried to apply the rules mentioned above to get a result in favour of homeopathy. For a start, I’ve rephrased the question to ask people what they would prefer to use, rather than what they actually do use. Who wouldn’t prefer to use lovely natural plants and gentle sugar pills? Second, I’ve placed the CAM option at the top to give it the most prevalence. I’ve also avoided using the term ‘homeopathy’ altogether, instead lumping all the alt med guff into “Complementary and alternative therapies”. That sounds nice doesn’t it? On the other hand, for conventional medicine I’ve tried to split the vote by using the terms “allopathy” (hoping that people won’t know what it is and therefore not check it), pharmaceuticals (scary big pharma) and “high street drugs” (no one likes the sound of “drugs”, especially when in close proximity to the word “street”).

Perhaps Nancy could use this for her second poll?

Anyway, I suggest you vote in Nancy’s poll before she takes it down!

Written by Tom

February 28th, 2012 at 8:30 pm

Posted in bullshit,homeopathy