Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

Archive for December 2008

Happy Psychics and Some Not-So-Psychic Predictions…..

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It’s been said that desperate times call for desperate measures. This old adage would appear to be true considering the recent coverage by a number of news outlets of the increase in business seen by psychics since the troubles on Wall Street began a few months ago. One such report, on Albuquergue’s KOAT.com, provides some insight from a local psychic named Ana Anaya, who feels that the economic turmoil has led to an increase in those who are willing to believe. 

“I have been so busy because of the stock market,” she said. “I have a lot of people who have lost their jobs.”

This isn’t surprising to me at all. I have seen a similar situation in the world of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” time and time again. Individuals with chronic conditions or terminal illnesses who are desperate often find temporary comfort in the arms of quacks. They are told that all will be made well if a certain diet or treatment regimen is followed, that they can be cured despite what the heartless and misinformed mainstream doctors are telling them. Psychics are using the exact same schtick to gain unwarranted attention from folks. Only instead of promising a cure for their cancer or other terrible malady, they are promising a better financial future. But both take money in exchange for fairy tales. A patient may improve while using some bogus remedy, or an investor’s portfolio might rebound, but these outcomes were not a result of the remedy or known by the psychic.

So what were Ms. Anaya’s predictions for the new year?

“Things are definitely going to get better absolutely — it will be really good for people.”

 and

“Gas prices will definitely go up, I have to tell you,” she said. “I’m sorry to say.”

Wow that is some lazy prognostication. Did she really need her cards to tell her that? The economy is the worst it has been since the great depression and gas prices are lower than they have been in over 5 years. Once again I have to mention the similarity between this and quackery. The principle of regression towards the mean is apparantly useful in many forms of woo. People with chronic illnesses often have ups and downs, good days or weeks and bad days or weeks. Patients tend to reach out for help when they are at their worst and they would improve regardless of what therapy is instituted. Gas prices are bound to go up again and the economy, as predicted legitimately by just about every expert out there, is going to improve in 2009.

This kind of psychic predicting is obviously just an attempt at grabbing the low hanging fruit. Psychics, like Sylvia Browne and her ilk, often make long lists of predictions for the upcoming year or so, and they are typically filled with a mixture of the obvious and the highly unlikely. When the no-brainers come to pass they can claim credit, and if they get lucky with one of the absurd ones they can claim credit all over the mass media. Here are some examples from Browne’s 2008 and 2009 predictions:

“…Children are not properly fed, clothed, educated, protected or given adequate medical care.”

“…People who are ready, willing and able to work cannot find decent jobs.”

“…Some death row inmates are innocent.”

“I predict a great rise in skin cancer in children until 2010. There is a lot of media coverage about the UV rays and many products to protect people against them. But people are still often careless when it comes to the sun. Then again, people could pay attention – and reverse this prediction right out from under me. I would certainly be all for that!”

“I predict the President elected sometime between 2008 and 2020 will die in office from a heart attack. The Vice President who will finish their term will have an unpopular and mistaken intention to declare war on North Korea. By that time, North Korea will have weapons of mass destruction. In the middle of efforts to declare war, I predict the Vice President will be assassinated.”

“In 2008, I predict doctor’s offices will have a high-tech “aura scanner” for patients that come to see them. This will be a highly developed version of an MRI. A patient will stand on a rotating disc and an infrared light will scan the body looking at their aura.”

   There are many more than that but it is a good cross-section. As you can see, many of her predictions aren’t even predictions but are simply the stating of obvious fact. One would be a fool to claim that every child in the world will have adequate medical care during this two year period, or that hunger will be wiped from the face of the planet. Also, there has never been an unemployment rate of 0% and there sure as heck won’t be one in 2008 and 2009. You get the point. The latter predictions are at least actually claiming something that isn’t obvious, but the one on skin cancer is ridiculous. What kind of psychic prediction incorporates such an obvious escape clause? She is apparantly only psychic when she’s right and the rest of the time is just making an uneducated guess. But then again, I haven’t had my routine doctor’s office “aura scan” yet so what do I know.

Stop Sylvia Browne!

Written by skepticpedi

December 31, 2008 at 9:08 am

Sense About Science…..

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Today I discovered an organization from across the pond called Sense About Science.

“Sense About Science is an independent charitable trust promoting good science and evidence in public debates. We do this by promoting respect for evidence and by urging scientists to engage actively with a wide range of groups, particularly when debates are controversial or difficult.

We work with scientists to

  • respond to inaccuracies in public claims about science, medicine, and technology
  • promote the benefits of scientific research to the public
  • help those who need expert help contact scientists about issues of importance
  • brief non-specialists on scientific developments and practices

Sense About Science is governed by a Board of Trustees and run by a small office staff. We are supported by an Advisory Council and over 2,000 scientists and other specialists, ranging from Nobel Laureates to postdoctoral fellows, who are signed up to our database, Evidence Base. We also work with younger scientists in our VoYS (Voice of Young Science) programme, which you can read more about here.”

Yesterday the Sense About Science gang released their annual Celebrities and Science Review (PDF), which I highly recommend for some light reading which will likely leave you a bit out of sorts. I remember pulling my hair out over some of the highlighted examples of celebrity nincompoopery when they were current, but I wasn’t aware of most of these, especially the non-American ones.  I look forward to the day when celebrities are not looked upon with such reverence and their words are not hung upon as if spoken by legitimate experts.

Here are some of my favorite (least favorite might be more appropriate) examples of scientific illiteracy amongst the rich and famous:

 “Because of her history of colon cancer she is absolutely convinced the Pill caused the disease. I don’t have a microwave in my house for the same reason”
-Kelly Osbourne

I do question whether Kelly Osbourne is really a celebrity. Maybe in England she is, I don’t know.

My good friend Jenny McCarthy, who is always good for a laugh with her satirical take on anti-vaccine propaganda, had two gems make the list:

“Isn’t it ironic in 1983 there were 10 shots and now there’s 36 and the rise in autism has happened in the same time.”

and

“Parents’ anecdotal info IS scientific information.”

Wait, it isn’t satire. She believes this tripe. My god, she’s a monster.

Tom Cruise’s comment on the reality of the treatment of mental illness was listed under the psychiatry section:

“Psychiatry doesn’t work…..When you study the effects it’s a crime against humanity.”

No Tom, a crime against humanity was when Xenu, the dictator of the “Galactic Confederacy” 75 million years ago, brought billions of his subjects to Earth, stacked them around volcanoes and killed them using hydrogen bombs. Well, that and your appearance in Tropic Thunder.

Demi Moore, mother of actor Ashton Kutcher, is quoted advocating for detoxification via the healing powers of “highly trained medical leaches”.

“They have a little enzyme…..and when they are biting down on you it gets released in your blood and generally you bleed for quite a bit-and your health is optimized…It detoxifies your blood.”

My favorite is Mariah Carey’s explanation for the use of Einstein’s “E = mc2 ” as the title of her 2008 album.

“emancipation equals Mariah Carey times two”

Also of note, today I rediscovered SHAMblog. It is written by Steve Salerno, who also wrote an enjoyable deconstruction of the self-help industry in 2005 called SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless that I think should be read by everyone. His last two posts on the reality of reality television confirm something I’ve thought for a long time, that it is all phony. It’s apparantly even phony even when they make a big production about how not phony it is.

Written by skepticpedi

December 28, 2008 at 6:10 pm

Posted in Science

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More Water Woo From Masaru Emoto…..

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I honestly did not think that I would ever be faced with venturing into the wacky world of Masaru Emoto and his pseudoscientific interpretation of ice crystals again. In fact, I have only recently begun to forgive my frontal lobe for allowing me to watch What the Bleep Do We Know!?.  You may remember Emoto, whose work was prominently featured in that film, as the man who’s 5th-grade level science experiment investigating the effects of making water happy or sad have inspired a growing number of self-professed experts in quantum physics and proponents of watery woo to reach new heights in absurdity. For example, two different bottled water companies have now incorporated Emoto’s pseudoscientific belief system into their products so that they might better take advantage of gullible, and thirsty, consumers: H2Om and Aquamantra.

The makers of H2Om, who take pride in the quality and taste of their water as well as the energetic intention that goes into every bottle, are also very excited about “H2Om’s Vibration Hydration™”.

“Promoting positive energy for people and the planet, H2Om uses words, colors, music, and vibrations as the inspiration and driving force behind our intention infused, interactive natural spring water.”

“We believe that everything in the universe contains a vibrational resonance or frequency. As powerful as water is, it is receptive and sensitive. We are made of water.”

“There are several distinctive vibrational frequencies that are incorporated in each bottle of H2Om.”

A buck fifty a bottle and all it does is promote positive energy for people and the planet…..I’ll give you 35 cents. Now if it transported matter I’d be interested. Aquamantra is no less giddy with excitement, not about random quotes from classic Simpsons episodes but about the potential of their bottled water to change your life.

“Aquamantra: Premium Natural Spring Water is simply, water that resonates with the energy and frequency of your well-being. The quality of your thoughts determine the quality of your life and NOW your water. We deliver powerful messages to you through the mantras, I AM GRATEFUL™,I AM HEALTHY™, I AM LOVED™ or I AM LUCKY™ .”

The stupid, it not only burns, it apparently also vibrates.

Dr. Emoto, who received his doctorate in alternative medicine from the Open International University for Alternative Medicine in India, which is listed between Hollywood Upstairs Medical College and the Correspondence College of Tampa on the international list of unaccredited diploma mills, achieved his fifteen minutes with an infamous experiment. He took samples of water and exposed them to a variety of words, sounds, and pictures, subjectively categorized as good, bad, ugly, beautiful, etc, etc, and then took pictures of the resulting ice crystals that formed when these samples were cooled sufficiently.

He discovered that the ice crystals exposed to good things were beautiful to look at and the ones exposed to bad things were ugly and deformed. He naturally figured that the words, pictures and sounds pass along information to the water via vibrations and an observer effect he bases on, wait for it, quantum physics (said in a booming and echoing voice). The stupid, it burns, vibrates, and is apparently quite a gossip.

What Emoto actually does in his unblinded experiments is take multiple pictures of the ice crystals and pick out the ones that support his hypothesis. I hope I didn’t ruin that for anyone.

Masaru Emoto resurfaced into my awareness this past weekend when I picked up a copy of one of my favorite magazines, Natural Awakenings. I can think of few more enjoyable experiences than curling up on the couch with a copy of Natural Awakenings in one hand, and a fresh glass of organic Himalayan goji berry juice in the other while a recording of whale songs plays in the background. I find it really helps to cleanse my chakras and realign my energy. Okay, I read it to laugh at the crazies.

In the December issue, Emoto is interviewed by Natural Awakenings Naples/Fort Myers editor Linda Sechrist. In the interview, he discusses some of his current endeavors, such as the Emoto Peace Project:

“The idea for the Emoto Peace Project came to me in May 2005, while I was at the United Nations. One of the topics discussed during the UN’s initiative, “International Decade for Action: Water for Life, 2005-2015,” highlighted how education has not conveyed water’s importance to all children globally.”

One has to wonder just why Emoto was present at a meeting to establish plans to cut in half the number of people in the world that lack access to potable water and basic sanitation by the year 2015. Regardless of why he was there, he claims to have been inspired to write a 32-page children’s picture book,  The Message from Water: Children’s Version. This book is the core of the Emoto Peace Project, and he has high hopes that it will have a major impact on the world once its “graphic demonstrations of how the molecular changes in the structure of water are affected by energy vibrations, thoughts, words, ideas, music and the water’s surrounding environment” are accepted by leaders in education.  There are actually resources for the education of children on the vital importance of water provided on the UN’s website for the program, however, there isn’t a link to Emoto’s book or any mention of him at all.

After reading the book, I found myself at a loss for words. I seriously can’t imagine that many children would buy into its overflowing silliness, and certainly no leaders in education. But perhaps I shouldn’t be so confident considering how easily young children can be indoctrinated. That, and the battles that frequently rage in this country over attempts by leaders in education to teach creationism in our public schools. Angry ice crystals and healing vibrations aren’t any less plausible than the Christian creation myth are they?. And his website includes a number of pictures of him surrounded by large groups of smiling children holding up copies of the book, many of them having been taken in American cities. Somehow this guy is getting access to our children after all. 

Here are some of my favorite statements and graphics from the book:

“How would we know if one type of water is good or bad? Here’s and idea, let’s take a look at photographs of crystals found in frozen water.”

emotowater

 

 emoto21

Trust me, there is much more. But despite the laughable content, Emoto truly seems to think that this book is going to change the world once it reaches its target audience of 650 million children. 

“I believe that The Message from Water has the power to effect change by informing individuals that through thinking, speaking and acting with the intention of instilling peace with respect to water, water can and will bring peace to our bodies and to the world.”

On his personal website he lists a number, twelve to be exact, of current problems standing in the way of world peace:

  1. The intensification of the global warming
  2. The diversification of the natural disaster due to global warming
  3. Unstoppable terrorist activities and retaliation
  4. Inveterate internal disturbance and racial struggle by the religious opposition
  5. The various evils that come from the society depending on too much fossil energy
  6. The unstable international economy at the mercy of money games
  7. The failing medical treatment administration by problems with aging and intractable disease
  8. Problematic educational system and increase in abnormal crime
  9. Food issues
  10. Population problems
  11. The issue of various gaps to spread in a global scale
  12. Others

 Luckily, he has a solution to all of them, even number 12:

  • When the whole human thinks about water seriously and understand it, at first you will know that the basis of the life phenomenon is “Resonance = Harmony”.
  • When the theory that water memorizes and carries information is accepted, efficiency of every industrial activities will be improved drastically.
  • Furthermore, when whole people have feeling of love and gratitude towards water, human may get safe and sustainable energy from water.

Emoto believes that when the world finally comes to fully grasp these three points regarding the power of water, all of our worst global problems will be solved. I’ll admit that I would support anything that really could rid the world of the global warming, money games, abnormal crime, spreadable gaps, and others, but I just don’t think that this is going to do the trick.

Written by skepticpedi

December 23, 2008 at 6:25 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

Remember When Zagmuk Used to Mean Something…..

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Editorial
by Sumu-la-El
                
Remember when Zagmuk used to mean something, before it became so commercialized. Before every bazaar started selling Marduk ornaments and 12-stone diamond pendants. You know the ones, where each diamond represents a day of Marduk’s grueling battle with Tiamat, the monster of chaos.

I remember a time in Babylonia when Zagmuk meant a chance to come together as a people, forgetting our petty differences, to assist our patron deity Marduk, the Sun god and creator of the world, in restoring order, beauty, and peace to the barren world by once again repelling the advances of Tiamat. Why the horrible goddess of the sea returns each year I know not. But I do know that it is with our aid that Marduk finds the strength to cleave the hideous chaos dragon in half with his invincible spear.

But these days, most of my Mesopotamian brothers probably don’t even know what Zagmuk is all about. I mean, you can hardly mention Zagmuk anymore without offending somebody, or calling the wrath of the BCLU down upon your village. Nobody seems to even care that tomorrow the sun will remain visible in the great sky for slightly longer than yesterday, marking the turning of the tide in favor of Marduk as he once again attempts to renew the earth for yet another year. Marduk is what Zagmuk is all about and I’m not ashamed to say it.

Written by skepticpedi

December 21, 2008 at 11:29 am

Posted in Satire

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Local Psychic Contacts Area Man’s Deceased Family Member…..

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Houston, TX-While attending a reading by psychic Jim Erwin today, Houston fireman Frank Woods was caught by surprise when the clairvoyant began to communicate with a deceased family member. Woods, who had sought out the expertise of Erwin for help resolving a longstanding personal matter, was initially skeptical.

“I don’t know how he did it, but he definitely found Cousin Mabel,” Mr. Woods explains. “I never believed in this kind of stuff before, but only psychic powers could have revealed that her name started with an A, C, D, G, K, M, P, R, T, or W. And how else could he have know about her lifelong enjoyment of some kinds of food.”

On the subject of his miraculous ability to communicate with the dead, Erwin reveals “I don’t have any control over this. The spirits come to me and give me whatever message they feel must be passed on to the living. For example, how they might have once lived near a boat, or near a body of water, or something blue, or that they liked water, or to fish, or to eat fish.”

Written by skepticpedi

December 19, 2008 at 12:26 pm

Posted in Satire, Supernatural

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Bing! It’s the Skeptics’ Circle #102…..

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The 102nd edition of the Skeptics’ Circle is now up over at Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes. You should check it out, if only for the name.

Written by skepticpedi

December 18, 2008 at 3:36 pm

Posted in Announcements