Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

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And you thought that intelligent design was bad for Texas education

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It appears that there are more efforts to undermine the quality of science education in Texas.  First we have the whole teaching of “strengths and weaknesses of evolution” debacle.  Now, some in the state government are trying to bypass higher education boards to allow unqualified and illegitimate institutions to grant higher degrees.

This news comes form the good people at the NCSE:

House Bill 2800 (PDF), introduced in the Texas House of Representatives on March 9, 2009, would, if enacted, in effect exempt institutions such as the Institute for Creation Research’s graduate school from Texas’s regulations governing degree-granting institutions.

The timeline is clear.  The Institution of Creation Research (ICR) moves to Texas in 2007.  The Texas Higher Education Coordination Board denied the ability of the ICR to grant masters degrees on April 24, 2008.  Now, less than a year later, Leo Berman introduces a bill (HB 2800) that would allow the ICR to again offer masters degrees in creation science (I am not sure about PhDs).

So what has changed with the introduction of this new bill?  If qualified, certain “institutions” would not require the board’s approval to grant degrees.  House Bill 2800 will provide exceptions for institutions that don’t accept state funding, don’t accept state-administered federal funding, are nonprofit, and have substantial coursework.  As the NCSE points out, the ICR would fulfill these requirements.

In my opinion, these are pretty loose guidelines.  Undoubtedly, the ICR will be the first to benefit from these changes, but who is next?

Written by bort901

March 13, 2009 at 8:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Grey-faced Sengi and what it means for the existence of bigfoot

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grey-faced-sengi

Grey-faced Sengi

Recently, Galen Rathbun and Francesco Rovero discovered a new species of mammal in the mountains of Tanzania.  The new species is a member of the elephant shrew group and is called the grey-faced sengi (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis)  It is a relatively small animal (<1kg) that lives on the forest floor.  There are only two known small populations in the world.

The grey-faced sengi was initially discovered using camera traps in 2005.  Rathbun and Rovero subsequently traveled to some very remote mountain tops in Tanzania to study the animals.  During a two-week excursion, they were able to find, study, and capture several specimens.

Does this discovery lead to an increased possibility that there is a sasquatch lurking around the forest of North America?  Although the grey-faced sengi is a relatively large animal to have been just discovered, it is a great deal smaller than bigfoot.  Yet, this animal was easily observed in a camera trap.  It seems much more likely that a large animal such as bigfoot would be seen in these traps quite frequently, if it exists.  The ease at which the scientists were able to find the new animal also is a strike against the existence of bigfoot.  The expedition to the mountains of Tanzania only lasted two weeks.  Even in this short period of time, they were able to find and catch many examples of the sengi.  People have been looking for bigfoot for at least the last 50 years and they still haven’t found any solid evidence.

The comparison of the search for bigfoot with the search and subsequent finding of the grey-faced sengi helps to illustrate the improbability of the existence of bigfoot.  Together with the total lack of conclusive evidence (like droppings, fur, remains, heat signatures) despite their size and the necessary large breeding population brings the odds of their existence to nearly zero.  However, no one can conclusively say that something does not exist, but we don’t know if the invisible pink unicorn exists either.

For an audio interview with Galen Rathbun about the discovery, listen to the Are We Alone podcast (towards the end, but the whole episode is good)

Written by bort901

February 4, 2009 at 8:53 am

Posted in Cryptozoology

Tagged with ,

Astronomy vs. Evolution

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IYA2009yoe2009There is a battle brewing.  On one side is Astronomy; on the other is Evolution.  This is the 400th anniversary when Galileo first used his telescope to examine the night sky.  It is also the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the origin of species. All of these events have coincided in 2009 to make a battle between the Year of Astronomy and the Year of Evolution.  So who will win out in this battle of “year of”s?  Everyone, of course!

Year of Astronomy festivities:

International Year of Astronomy 2009

365 days of astronomy

galileoscope

Year of Evolution festivities:

Year of Evolution 2009

Darwin 2009 in Houston

Many more events are planned in both Astronomy and Evolution.  Enjoy!

Written by bort901

January 29, 2009 at 3:23 pm

Posted in Announcements

Two 150 ft crosses allows Grace Community to claim Houston as theirs.

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I am personally not a very religious person.  I am also not ant-religion. However, I do get offended and a little worried when a particular church proclaims that the city I live in is theirs.

Just north of Houston, Texas is the Grace Community Church.  It is your average megachurch, except for a peculiar billboard next to the freeway.  On this billboard is a picture of a large cross and the proclamation:

Marking our city

After staring at this billboard everyday while I am stuck in traffic, I decided to check out what exactly they mean by “marking our city.”  I had assumed that they were talking about their complex of church buildings. They aren’t.  The city in question is actually Houston itself.crossproject_markhouston

Their intentions can be found on the church’s website. They are planning on building two 150-foot tall crosses, one on each side of Houston on  I-45.  According to the website (emphasis mine):

These will stand as a proclamation of the Grace of God over Houston with a prayer tower inviting people to pray for God to move in our city

There is also a quote from Lou and Paula Gallardo (could this be the guy from Amerisciences?) that says:

A cross at each end of the city is a great dream and will draw people to God in an unprecedented way. I want Houston to be marked for God.

I know I am making a mountain out of a mole hill, but it still bothers me.  The assumption that everyone in the city believes the same as they do disturbs me.  Or worse, they know that others don’t think the same, but they don’t care or they want to convert the nonbelievers.

More information can be found here.

Written by bort901

January 24, 2009 at 10:07 am

Levels of pseudoskepticism

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Last week, I wrote how there were different levels of skepticism.  There a similar levels of pseudoskepticism.  Pseudoskepticism is the practice of promoting an unsubstantiated idea or theory using the language of skepticism.  Denial is a big part of the philosophy, but many logical fallacies are also to blame.  Frequently, the word skeptic is placed after theory.  For example, evolution skeptic and global warming skeptic are commonly seen.  Of course the word skeptic is not necessary and pseudoskepticism can take many forms.  The point here is that you can still have healthy skepticism towards any topic, but conclusions shouldn’t be be based on pseudoscience or plain old denial.

Below I have listed the different levels of pseudoskepticism as I see them.  Just like with my levels of skepticism, I don’t want this post to insult anyone, but to hopefully open people’s eyes to the shenanigans all around us.  I will be using examples from Intelligent Design proponents as I am most familiar with the movement’s methods and techniques.

Level 1 pseudoskeptic

The first level of a pseudoskeptic is someone who doubts a particular idea or theory.  There is a small difference here between the real skeptic and the pseudoskeptic.  The key difference here is that a skeptic will look at the evidence before coming to a conclusion.  In intelligent design, a skeptic would look at the two sides and conclude that there is a scientific consensus and actual evidence for evolution, while none exists for intelligent design.  The level 1 pseudoskeptic would look at the same evidence and conclude that since there is not perfect evidence for either, neither one is more likely to be true.     

Level 2 pseudoskeptic

The second level of pseudoskeptic is someone who has made up their mind for the pseudoscientific side of a debate in spite of the evidence to the other side.  This person outright denies that there is evidence contrary to their position.  They rely heavily on logical fallacies to prove their point.  They also claim that they are the real purveyors of science.  For example, evolution skeptics (or ID/creation proponents) outright deny that their are transitional fossils.  They also argue that evolution could not possibly happen because they couldn’t imagine how random mutation and natural selection could lead to the current state of life’s diversity (argument from personal incredulity).

Level 3 pseudoskeptic

A third level pseudoskeptic is someone who is spreading their false skepticism through a  website/podcast/ etc.  These people are actively trying to undermine real scientific observations and conclusions.  These people will often rely on non-experts or non-peer reviewed studies.  Anecdotal evidence or anomalies will also be presented.  In fact, anything but actual science will be presented.  One example from an evolution skeptic is Denyse O’Leary.  She has several blogs which attack evolution through the techniques mentioned above.  She has no real scientific training, but that doesn’t stop her from spreading her pseudoscientific wares.

Level 4

The highest level of a pseudoskeptic is someone who is well known throughout the pseudoskeptic circles.  These people have a large influence over the similar minded people.  One thing that makes people like this so dangerous is that they sound like the voice of reason to the unsuspecting.  It is not apparent without prior knowledge that they are not giving the accurate or complete story.  Often these people have no real training in the subject that they are focusing on.

One prime example of someone that has reached this stage is Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute.  Luskin exhibits all the characteristics.  He may not be as recognizable as Richard Dawkins or James Randi, but he certainly is well known in the “evolution skeptic” circles.  He repeatedly denies the existence of evidence for evolution, comments on scientific discoveries of which he is nowhere near qualified, and relies heavily on logical fallacies.

Written by bort901

January 23, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Levels of skepticism

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I just finished listening to a recent episode of Skepticality where Reed Esau was discussing the “long tail” of skepticism.  They were saying how there appears to be few people in the skeptical movement who are active contributors, while most are simple observers.  This got me to wondering about the different levels of skeptic activism.  No, I am not talking about something akin to a World of Warcraft character levels.  Although a level 37 Skeptic does have a nice ring to it.  What I am really focusing on is the level of skeptical principles, commitment, and contribution.

I firmly believe that skepticism is the best way to look at the world.  Skepticism allows one to “shred off” preconceived notions, magical thinking, and human fallacies leading to a true view of reality.  Living strictly through faith or through willful suspension of disbelief does not lead to the betterment of anyone.  In fact, as the website, What’s The Harm?, nicely points out, being unskeptical can have dire consequences.

Below I have listed four levels of skepticism as I see them.  I don’t want this post to insult anyone, but to hopefully inspire people to try to get to that next level.  Society as a whole will benefit.

Level 1 skepticism

The first level of skeptic is someone who believes they are a skeptic, but may still have some unskeptical aspects of themselves that surface from time to time or that they have allowed a special sanctuary from critical evaluation.  Maybe they are still holding out on one particular pseudoscience or they believe that anecdotal evidence is equal to a well controlled scientific study. These people will benefit from an examination of logical fallacies and on the basic principles of reliable evidence, but everyone has to start somewhere, right?

Level 2 skepticism

The second level would be someone who is fully skeptical as far as it is humanly possible.  They rarely commit logical fallacies and they consistently strive to fact check everything they hear.  Maybe they even attend skeptical group meetings.  Hopefully they even spread critical thinking skills to their family and friends.

Level 3 skepticism

The third level of skepticism is someone who contributes some particular skill or knowledge base for the betterment of other skeptics and society.  Perhaps they run a blog or a podcast, or organize a local meeting of fellow skeptics.  Maybe they watch over online discussion forums and comment section in order to vanquish any sign of pseudoscience or unskeptical thought.

Level 4 skepticism

The fourth and final level of skepticism is something that very few skeptics will ever achieve.  People at this level are essentially the heroes of the skeptical movement.  These are the people that are heads of national skeptical organizations, appear on television shows, and are known outside the skeptical community.  These are people like Michael Shermer and James Randi.

Up next: levels of pseudoskepticism

Written by bort901

January 13, 2009 at 8:59 pm

Want magic water? Just stir…

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Recently, I came across what could be the silliest product that I have a seen all year.*  The product in question is called the stirwand from Quantumagewater.com.  The idea is that you take one of these wands, stir your water with it, and presto! magic water! This product promises to make “water taste better, smoother, and seems “wetter” with a slightly thicker consistency.”  It also can help you clean better, give your house an energized feel, is great for homeopathics, and is good for your plants and animals.  This product is another example of a product that promises to do just about everything under the sun. Always a good sign to be highly skeptical.

The website is replete with pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo that make it appear legitimate.  Terms like “quantum phenomenon,” “high-matrix latice,”  and “hydration potential” are found throughout the site.  It even contains links to “clinical trials” that show the effectiveness of the product.  Let’s take a look at some of their specific claims.

The first claim is that the water will be “wetter” after using the stirwand.  The problem here is on the definition of wetter.  There is a scientific idea of a wetting, which involves the properties of a liquid against a solid surface.  It is not clear if this is a good thing or a bad for your body, because pure water is less “wet” than water with chemicals or detergents dissolved in it.

Next, we find that using stirwands will make the water more resistant to bacteria and mold.  Forget that they don’t even have a possible mechanism for why this would be.  Forget that having bacteria and mold grow in our drinking water is not really an issue for anyone in a civilized nation.  Why don’t they have data to prove this benefit?

Another claim is that given a choice, animals will gravitate to the Stirwand water.  I guess they suppose that animals have some sort of sixth sense about water quality.  All I have to say to that is that a dog will gravitate to another dogs butt before it will go towards a bouquet of flowers.

Let’s forget that these claims are not particularly compelling and ask how do they propose that the stirwand does what it is claimed?  Apparently, the matrix inside the plastic stirwand causes the water to accept ”the imprint of the High Matrix minerals within the Stirwands” through the matrix’s “noninvasive resonance.”  This imprint then somehow changes the consciousness of the water which then manifests itself in a different form.  In other words… magic.

The claimed mechanisms seem ludicrous, but what about those clinical trials that they mentioned?  They are completely worthless (even worse than the one skepticpedi found).  Actually, the trials are worse than worthless, because they give the impression  of legitimacy to the stirwands.  Here is a short list of the obvious problems from their most recent “clinical trial.”

  • No control group – they did not even include a group of people that did not use stirwands.  Without this control group, it is impossible to tell what if any beneficts come from the tested product
  • Only 50 participants – The more participants, the better the study.  With such an easy and harmless product, obtaining more than 50 volunteers shouldn’t be a problem.
  • Nobody was blind -  The study didn’t even pretend to be scientific.  Every participant knew when they were consuming the treated water.  Every researcher also knew.

So how much will this stirwand cost you?  If you act now, you can get your own pretty plastic stirwand for the low low price of just $79.95!  But wait there is more! You can get an 8-piece set for only $549.95!  Act now!

*I know its only the second week of the year, but still.

Written by bort901

January 13, 2009 at 8:14 pm

A primer on the mind-brain debate

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human brainA major contention of the spiritually inclined is that the mind is separate from the brain.  In other words, they believe the brain is simply a biological organ that is in some way controlled by a metaphysical “mind.”  Others believe that the brain is sufficient to explain all that we think, feel, and experience.  In this post, I am going to provide a brief overview of the skeptical thinking of this issue.

Nomenclature

A brief note about nomenclature.  Some call the belief in a spiritual mind and a physical brain “dualism.” The belief that there is only the physical brain is sometimes called “materialism.” I prefer not to use this language as the term “materialistic” already has a negative connotation.

Occam’s razor

The default position when deciding between two hypotheses is to initial accept the one that introduces the least amount of variables.  In the  mind-brain debate, it is clear that the a spiritual basis for mind relies on many unproven and arbitrary variables.  In the spiritual basis, you have to introduce the idea of spirit.   Then you have to bring in the idea of how the brain communicates with this spirit.  On the other side, the only variable that has to brought in is the brain itself, and I am pretty sure it exists.

Evidence

As with every debate, determining reality comes down to which side has the evidence.  The idea of a spiritual mind has no evidence.  In fact, out-of-body experiences and deja vu were formerly thought to only have underlying spiritual causes.  However, these phenomenon have been reproduced under laboratory conditions indicating that they all have underlying physical causes.  Of course modern science has not shown that the brain is sufficient to produce every characteristic that we associate with a human mind.

Quantum mechanics

Whenever a supernatural theory gets challenged, it seems to be that they always fall back on the idea of quantum mechanics. Pick your favorite pseudoscience and some proponent has likely invoked the world of quantum mechanics to explain their unscientific ideas.    The mind-brain debate is no exception.  The problem with using quantum mechanics to explain these pseudosciences is that quantum mechanics operates on a scale that is simply too small.  Such small scale phenomena do not have any appreciable effect on comparably large scale structures like neurons.  These effects are in no way large  enough to explain all of the characteristics that are ascribed to them.

Brain changing the brain

An argument put forth by the spiritual mind proponents is the idea that the brain can’t change the brain.  They claim that only an outside force, such as the spirit, can change our brains.  This line of reasoning is flawed, because we have good evidence that the brain does in fact change itself through experience.  One clear example comes from the process of learning something.  We can see biochemical changes happening in the brain when an animal learns.  Furthermore, we can see a change in the connection of two neurons in a petri dish simply by repeated stimulation of one of the neurons.  These examples show us that the brain can change itself.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

One subject that invariably comes up when discussing the mind-brain debate is the status of AI.  The spiritual-mind proponent will often ask why we haven’t been able to reproduce a human mind if it is only made out of matter.  The obvious answer here is that the technology to perform such a feat is a long ways away.  Still, the proponents argue that it will never happen.  I guess only time will tell, but we can look at past successes and current technologies as a clue to our future.

deep blueThere was a time in recent memory that some people believed that a computer would never be able to beat a human at chess.  That all changed in 1997 with the victory of IBM’s Deep Blue over Garry Kasparov.  The idea seems ridiculous now, but many said it would never happen.  Such a defeat by a computer shows us an example of unexpected computer success.  In fact, it has been said that Garry Kasparov believed that Deep Blue was cheating because he saw intelligence and creativity in its moves.

Another example of where AI is making steady progress is in what is called the Turing test. Briefly, a computer/program is designed to be able to reproduce written human interactions so accurately that a person could not tell the difference between a real person and the computer when tested.  The test is typically all done through the keyboard so the subject can not tell which is which by sight or sound.  The latest round of testing showed that 3 out of  12 judges were fooled into thinking the program was a human.  Although this might not seem that impressive, the programs have been making impressive and steady gains every year.  This year’s winner was named Elbot and an online version can be found here. Try it out, it is a lot of fun.

Conclusion

This post is a simple overview of the debate between those that believe the mind is controlled by some outside factor and those that believe that the brain is sufficient to produce a mind.  There are numerous other nuances and ideas in the debates that I didn’t bring up (such as common logical fallacies, qualia, free-will, brain injury, etc.), but I think it is clear that on the surface that the physical brain hypothesis holds all the cards.

Written by bort901

December 23, 2008 at 12:59 pm

Posted in Science

Evolution is not eugenics

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Michael Egnor has a post over at the Discovery Institute’s evolution news and views blog where he basically says that evolution has not done anything for anyone.  He writes:

Darwin’s positive legacy to real medical science is non-existent.

and

Darwin’s theory was (and is) indispensable for only one thing in medicine: eugenics.

First off, he gets it completely wrong about eugenics being a legacy of Darwin. If eugenics is essentially human breeding, then doesn’t it make sense that eugenics has its roots in animal and plant breeding and not evolution? Eugenics and breeding are in fact the opposite of evolution: neither is subject to natural selection, a central tenet in evolutionary theory.

So what about Darwin’s theory not having anything positive to do with modern medicine? To ignore the theory of evolution’s benefits to science and medicine is absurd. Evolution permeates through everything in biology. We can study model organisms only because we know that we have similarities due to common ancestry. We can compare regions of genes and proteins between species only because of evolutionary theory. There are many other benefits of knowing that evolution occurred, but these two alone are sufficient to show the absurdity of Egnor’s claim.

Egnor’s post is a typical example of the tactics utilized by intelligent design proponents. The post is titled ” Is P.Z. Myers Attending a Conference on Eugenics?” Right away, you can see that Egnor is going for a little bit of character assassination by associating P.Z. Myers, a well-known evolution proponent, with eugenics. At the same time, Egnor is connecting evolution with eugenics, a truly reprehensible practice. The post itself is replete with examples of denial of the utility of evolution. These tactics really shouldn’t be a surprise, but they are worrisome. This is particularly true with respect to the current battle over the teaching of evolution here in in Texas.

Written by bort901

November 25, 2008 at 7:12 am

Posted in Evolution

Tagged with

Turkey, tryptophan, and a Thanksgiving myth

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800px-traditionalthanksgiving1Thanksgiving day is coming and along with it comes a popular myth that gets repeated without question.  The tryptophan in turkey causes the drowsiness that one feels after a big thanksgiving meal.  It seems to be ingrained in our culture.  Even Jerry Seinfeld used turkey in an episode of his hit comedy series to trick his girlfriend into falling asleep.  We have all heard this myth and probably repeated it to others, but how much truth is there really to this claim?

There is a small inkling of truth behind tryptophan leading to drowsiness, but it is indirect at best.  Tryptophan is used by the brain to produce the compound melatonin, which is a sleep inducing hormone released at night.  However, tryptophan is not limited to this function and is used as a precursor for serotonin, a precursor for niacin, and is a key amino acid found in every protein.  More importantly, tryptophan has not been shown to be an effective sleep aid in well-controlled studies.  Therefore, its direct action as a depressant is questionable.

503px-male_north_american_turkey_supersaturatedMore importantly, is turkey even really high in tryptophan?  Wikipedia has a nice table of the content of tryptophan in various foods.  Turkey is not especially high in overall levels or even in concentration of tryptophan.  Chicken and beef contain about the same levels of tryptophan.  If the culprit making you tired after eating turkey is tryptophan, then why wouldn’t you be just as tired from eating those meats?

So why do people feel sleepy after a large Thanksgiving meal?  Undoubtedly a large part is simply due to the vast amounts of food consumed.  It is also thought that eating large amounts of carbohydrates leads to increases in insulin, indirectly leading to increased transport of tryptophan into the brain.  Couple that with a period of excitement followed by a period of relaxation at the dinner table, perhaps a little alcohol consumption, and you have a recipe for drowsiness.

So enjoy your turkey with a little healthy dose of skepticism!

Written by bort901

November 21, 2008 at 8:21 pm

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