Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

Posts Tagged ‘Skepticism

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

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Below is an adaptation of a talk I gave as part of a panel at DragonCon, called “How to Combat Woo”.  My fellow panelists included Phil Plait, PhD, also known as the Bad Astronomer, D.J. Groethe of the Center of Skeptical Inquiry and host of the podcast “Point of Inquiry”, Jeff Wagg, Communications and Outreach Manager of the James Randi Educational Foundation, and Maria Walters, founder of the Atlanta Skeptic Society and columnist on the blog.

My son attended the Naval nuclear power school a few years ago, including a crash course in chemistry, physics, electronics, thermodynamics, other subjects needed to operate and maintain a nuclear power plant. The students tend to be top achievers, interested in science and math, and would frequently ask for the theory. They wanted to know WHY not just how. The instructors would answer “this is outside the scope of this course, please just accept this so we can move on.” So my son and his classmates drew large black dots on the backs of their calculators, with Sharpies. When they were told to accept information for the sake of expediency, they’d ‘push’ this button and say “I believe.”

I told you that story so I can tell you this story. All of us have a button labeled “I believe” that we push. The button may be as simple as “I believe that my spouse loves me.” Or “education is a positive thing for society.” But most people of the world have other buttons that they push. I believe in magic, ghosts, witches, homeopathy, aliens, psychics, conspiracy theories, or one of a hundred versions of a god. And that button might as well be drawn in Sharpie, because it doesn’t work anymore, it is ALWAYS pushed.

I’m an engineer by training, and like to draw diagrams and pictures. I can’t think without a pencil or marker in my hand. If you’re like me, you think that if you can just explain something, a scientific topic for example, clearly enough, that your audience will nod their heads and say ‘oh, yes, now I see! You’re right, and I will adjust my thinking.”

The problem with those buttons that are painted on, they have to wear off. We, as skeptics, want to slice right through the armor that believers have plated up around themselves, which have built up by custom, upbringing, anecdotes, personal experiences, fuzzy thinking, and from lack of exposure to the scientific method.

It took me almost three years to get my own mother to check Snopes before she forwarded emails to me. I’m her daughter, you think she would trust me, but I still have to carefully work with her on issues with her health. Just this week, she told me, rather reluctantly, that she had gone to a chiropractor for some lower back pain, because ‘she was desperate”. This, from a woman with chronic kidney disease that reads my blog posts. I had to persuade my aunt to throw away her bowel cleansing kits and pills to ‘improve her liver function” even though she couldn’t tell me what her liver function was supposed to be functioning as. But, now they check Snopes, and were at least embarrassed to tell me about the chiropractor. These are intelligent women, but they have been told their entire life that these things work.

And, indeed, they DO feel better after a visit to the chiropractor. It’s a bit harder to explain the concept of ‘regression to a mean’ to them. But I could not do it AT ALL with a single clear, simple, unemotional explanation.

Rather than creating the Grand Canyon in a 40-day flood, presenting skepticism to those with a painted-on “I Believe” button is more a process of rain beating the mountains down into the ocean, of the weeds splitting the foundations. It is slow, it is one-on-one, and it can be frustrating. However, this is how we teach, one person at a time.

Written by Geek Goddess

September 6, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Skeptical Pearls #2: Beware the Testimonial…..

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Faster than a speeding case report. More powerful than a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Able to leap peer review in a single bound. Look! Up on the internet! It’s a story. It’s an anecdote. It’s a testimonial!

Every implausible and unproven quack therapy, from acupuncture to quantum healing, comes bearing testimonials of its effectiveness. These stories are typically brief, to the point, extremely powerful and, across the board, absolutely worthless. To anyone with a decent skeptical filter in place, the reliance on testimonials is an obvious sign of a complete lack of credible support for one’s claims. Yet to far too many people there is no introductory phrase more meaningful than “In my experience”. And no amount of published contradictory data or number of explanations from critically minded experts can match the effect from just one of the seemingly neverending supply of these uncontrolled, unblinded, and often tall, tales.

Sadly, even outright harm and suffering, or the complete lack of achieving the claimed benefit, are often unable to shake the faith of one who has stepped over the line that seperates credulity from a more critical approach to one’s health. It is far too easy to rationalize away these failures, placing the blame on themselves or the medical community, when the stranger whose gout was cured by taking goat urine supplements is trusted more than the family doctor. Perhaps the believer doesn’t realize that the near totality of the testimonials seen on television or on the internet are fabricated. Maybe they don’t realize that a significant number of them, as is often the case with fraudulent cancer cures, even when provided by real people are found to be the former words of the now deceased, victims of their disease process, their lack of critical thinking skills, and the bastards profiting off of them. It is more likely, however, that the undue influence of testimonials is hard-wired in the human brain, a remnant of something which at one point bestowed a survival advantage on our primitive ancestors.

There is a reason why quacks rely on testimonials. And that is because they don’t have science in their corner. Sure they will jump on poorly designed studies, usually coming out of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and published in biased pseudojournals, and tout them as proof of their legitimacy. But they will just as quickly denigrate methodological naturalism and the methods of so-called “western science” when better studies come along revealing their pet delusion to be a charade. The testimonial circumvents this problem, rendering science irrelevant. This is a recipe for disaster, or at the very least a lighter wallet.

Proven treatments don’t need stories. In my line of work I often am faced with parents who refuse recommended practices such as vaccines and the administration of intramuscular vitamin K for newborns. When I am discussing the care of a child with parents, and presenting them with treatment options or evidence-based prophylaxis regimens, I don’t tell them about the time I used a particular treatment and how it cured the patient, or how I had this one kid who suffered a poor outcome because they didn’t get something I recommended. There are too many uncontrolled variables in most clinical situations to trust such anecdotes.  I have to rely on good data, which should not consist of anecdotes regardless of how many I might collect over my career. I would be no better than the quacks I often rant about were I to attempt to manipulate parents with emotional testimonials.

Written by skepticpedi

May 12, 2009 at 11:54 pm

Breaking it Down: How Americans are Special Pleading…..

with 2 comments

Taking a handicap spot

14%- “Of course doctors don’t think it works. You can’t expect to understand my healing powers with western science!”

21%- “God organized fossils that way to make it look like evolution is true… a test.”

25%- “My psychic abilities are always blocked whenever a skeptic is around.”

13%- “Recent high definition images of the surface of Mars don’t show any evidence of alien civilization because NASA is covering it all up!”

15%- “We haven’t found any physical remains of Bigfoot because it is an elusive creature and it is rare for fossils to form in the first place. So it is unreasonable to ask for that kind of proof that Bigfoot exists.”

12%- “Other researchers may be easily fooled but I have over thirty years experience in investigating ghostly visitations. I can tell the difference between a hoax and the real thing.”

Written by skepticpedi

May 8, 2009 at 6:22 pm

Posted in General Skepticism

Tagged with

Simply Brilliant: A Must See Video on Being Open-Minded…..

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Written by skepticpedi

April 7, 2009 at 10:06 pm

Skeptical Pearls #1: If It’s Too Good To Be True…..

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One of the more common approaches that attending physicians take when teaching medical students and residents is the use of clinical pearls. Rather than cold, hard facts, such as the most common form of congenital adrenal hyperplasia being 21-hydroxylase deficiency, these pearls of clinical wisdom are more akin to generally accepted rules of thumb. My personal favorite example is the admonition to avoid poking the skunk. Poking the skunk occurs when labs are ordered which aren’t necessary in the care of the patient. Checking a basic metabolic profile when all you really need is the serum sodium is risky. In fact, it seems that the less vital a particular lab value is to management decisions, the more likely it is going to come back as falsely abnormal, which often leads to further unnecessary tests. I don’t like to stick needles in babies, although you might not think that if you spent a day with me at work, so this particular clinical pearl comes up pretty often on my rounds.

I also make a point, on an almost daily basis, to incorporate pearls of critical thinking into my teaching of medical professionals in training. Naturally, these tend to focus on my particular area of interest, the myriad and often contradictory therapies falling under the umbrella term alternative medicine. As I’ve said many times before, I prefer terms like unscientific medicine, or quackery to be quite honest, over alternative medicine, integrative medicine, or complementary medicine. These are manipulative marketing terms used to lull the general public into acceptance with a false air of legitimacy, and the academic community into the application of a double standard to the evaluation of safety and efficacy of these therapies. There is only one legitimate means of determining whether a treatment works, and that is with science.

One example of a very helpful critical thinking pearl that should be applied to the claims of a large number of so-called alternative approaches to health, is that there is often an inverse relationship between the number of symptoms or conditions supposedly treated by a therapy and the number that is actually treated. This is better expressed with the adage that if something is claimed to cure everything, it almost certainly cures nothing.  The number of alternative medical modalities that fall into this category are numerous and experiencing seemingly exponential growth, however the most important example because of its acceptance by the general public as a legitimate and science-based practice is that of chiropractic.

Though nobody, even chiropractors themselves, have been able to define themselves in a way that allows a consistent and practical understanding of just what it is that they do, there are some safe generalizations which can be made. For instance, they tend to be spine-centered rather than the oft advertised “holistic”, and a significant percentage of them categorize themselves as “straight”. This distinction shares a dichotomous relationship with self-described “mixers”, which as the name implies are prone to incorporating a wide variety of decidedly non-spine centered therapies into their practice such as acupuncture, applied kinesiology, or nutritional supplementation, as well as some science-based modalities like standard physical therapy.  Mixers outnumber straights by a large margin, and though they do make use of other therapies, they still primarily focus on the correction of a non-existant entity known as the subluxation.

Subluxations in the chiropractic sense, as opposed to the legitimate medical diagnosis, are as polymorphous as one would expect of something invented out of whole cloth* by a former magnet healer and spiritualist over a hundred years ago. Since 1895, the term has evolved into many different forms with all stages still believed in by varying numbers of chiropractors today. The manifestation which likely is accepted by the largest number of currently practicing chiropractors involves a proposed “complex of functional and/or structural and or pathological articular changes that compromise neural integrity and may influence organ system and general health”. This definition is so slippery as to be rendered utterly meaningless, and is a prime example of the inability of chiropractors to be able to establish a standard definition of who they are and what they do. This fact actually benefits chiropractors however, as it allows for a near limitless scope of practice and the ability to bill many insurance companies for the treatment of a phantom condition.

Regardless of whether a chiropractor is a straight or a mixer, they are likely to claim that they have special insight into your particular complaint regardless of what it is. With rare exception, chiropractors assert their ability to treat not just common musculoskeletal complaints, a category of conditions falsely considered by many to be their area of particular expertise, but the entirety of known medical maladies. Many will even treat one or more of a growing number of fictitious conditions such as adrenal fatigue or Wilson’s Thyroid Syndrome. This is often done overtly with outright claims of personal success in curing conditions ranging from asthma to zoster, with some even touting their ability to treat serious life-threatening illnesses like cancer and HIV.

Straight chiropractors take a different approach, boldly claiming only to treat subluxations, which then allows for the innate healing power of the human body to heal any disease state under the sun via an unimpeded spinal conduit. A critical evaluation of the medical literature reveals a far different reality however. After a little over a century of existence, there is essentially no good evidence that chiropractic care is effective in the treatment of any medical condition, or any made up one either. The one sliver of an exception is the treatment of acute lower back pain, which does appear to resolve under the care of a chiropractor. What they may not want you to know is that it has not been shown to work any better than more standard treatments such as physical therapy and the use of ibuprofen.

*The top link on google when inserting the phrase “invented out of whole cloth” takes one to an article on the history of chiropractic

Written by skepticpedi

February 27, 2009 at 9:16 pm

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

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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 ,

104th Skeptics’ Circle: The Skepticism Review and Education Program Edition…..

with 11 comments

Welcome to the Skepticism Review and Education Program (SREP). SREP is designed to deliver an unparalleled educational program to all those individuals interested in the myriad aspects of skepticism, critical thinking, and the use of reason as a guide through life. It is available for all members of the skeptical community and for anyone who wants to gain a more detailed understanding of this important subject. The following questions are based on submissions from a number of experts on skepticism. Answers will be provided upon completion of the exam.

If you are perhaps unsure if you have come to the right testing facility, please read the following two discussions on the true nature of skepticism by Seth Manapio from Whiskey Before Breakfast…The Blog and Sam Ogden from Space City Skeptics: “Again with the Definitions” and “What is Skepticism?“.

1. Which of the following spells from Magicks of the World is most effective?

A. Seduce a Professional of Choice Sex Spell
B. The Mysterious Shrinking Wallet Spell
C. Vegas Victory Money Spell
D. Break Them Up Love Spell

Submitted by Lord Runolfr from The Saga of Runolfr.

2.  What is the most effective means of handling an internet troll?

A. Shouting “Hey, isn’t that the third Billy Goat Gruff behind you!”
B. Staying completely still in the hopes that they will wander off, because troll vision is based on movement
C. Calmly and rationally countering their flawed arguments if only for the benefit of other readers
D. trollsuit

Submitted by Perky Skeptic from The Perky Skeptic.

3. Which of the following is not a method commonly used by practitioners of alternative medicine to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of healthcare consumers?

A. Legislation
B. Circumventing peer review
C. Marketing
D. Use of therapies that actually work

Submitted by PalMD from the white coat underground.

4. In addition to home decorating, the ancient Chinese science of Feng Shui can also be applied to which of the following aspects of daily life?

A. Diet
B. Parking
C. Internal Organ placement (1)
D. Day trading

Submitted by Bing from Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes.

5. Have you ever seen a UFO?

A. Yes
B. No
C. Not since last night’s probing
D. jIH ghaj ghoS Daq chargh lIj qo’! (2)

Submitted by Yoo from Stochastic Scribbles.

6. Which of the following best supports the theory of human klugery rather than intelligent design?

A. Klugery? Isn’t that some kind of sport involving downhill sled races?
B. No fossil record evidence of a monkey giving birth to a human
C. The human mind
D. Something about a banana (3)

Submitted by Greta Christina from Greta Christina’s Blog.

7. When debating conspiracy theorists, what response are you least likely to hear?

A. “That evidence was manufactured.”
B. “The conspirators are exceptionally good at secrecy and at hiding evidence of the truth.”
C. “The media are in on the conspiracy!”
D. “Has anyone seen my copy of Skeptical Inquirer?”

Submitted by Greta Christina from Greta Christina’s Blog.

8. The term “evidence” is used properly in which of the following statements?

A. You don’t have any evidence that catnip won’t treat my child’s fever
B. There is little convincing evidence that echinacea is effective in preventing the common cold
C. A lack of evidence from scientific studies that licorice root is effective in treating asthma means that there is evidence that it doesn’t work
D. There is no strong evidence either way for the use of milk thistle to increase a mother’s supply of breastmilk

Submitted by Andrew from the evolving mind.

9. Brother XII, an infamous early 20th centurly cult leader, was known by what other title?

A. Edward Arthur Wilson
B. The Egyptian god Osiris
C. Theosophist
D. All of the above

Submitted by Dr. Vitelli from Providentia.

10. Which of the following is not a weakness in the concept of evolutionary psychology?

A. Many aspects of human behavior, such as addiction, are not necessarily heritable but a result of social enfluence
B. Similarities  between identical twins may be based on the intrauterine environment as well as genetic effects
C. It has yet to explain the origin of life or that extra rib
D. Ignoring the potential role of so-called “junk DNA” on gene expression

Submitted by Gadfly from Socratic Gadfly.

11. Which of the following criteria is not important when evaluating the methodological quality of research on the psychological effects of induced abortion.

A. Use of an appropriate comparison group
B. Whether or not it has been featured on a segment of Oprah
C. Controlling for preexisting mental health status
D. Use of valid mental health measures

Submitted by Rense Nieuwenhuis from Curving Normality.

12. Which of the following responses to continued increases in the rates of measles infections in the UK would be most effective?

A. Graphic billboards that display the potential sequelae of vaccine-preventable illnesses
B. A public flogging of Andrew Wakefield
C. An ad campaign featuring the Spice Girls
D. A new Saturday morning cartoon called Jabby’s Playhouse featuring Jabby, an anthropomorphic talking hypodermic needle filled with rainbows and lollypops

Submitted by Dr. Aust from Dr. Aust’s Spleen.

13. According to a speaker during the recently held lecture meeting on Weird Science at the London CFI, twelve percent of UK students except as fact what pseudoscience supported belief?

A. Astral projection
B. Fairies
C. Young Earth Creationism (YEC)
D. Bowler caps

Submitted by Martin Freedman from No Double Standards.

14. Which of the following is a Darwin quote is being used as propaganda by the Discovery Institute to support the push for Academic Freedom in high schools and universities?

A. “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”
B. “If people came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys? And furthermore, why are there no monkey people swinging to work on power lines, which are something you don’t know about yet but trust me on this one folks.”
C. “I…..really…..believe that…..natural selection……..wrong…..”
D. B and C

Submitted by Jack from Homologous Legs.

15. Do Ninja Kitties steal more when there’s a full moon?

A. Yes, secondary to feline tidal waves
B. Yes, Joe Rogan told me that they do and he knows more about the moon than anyone
C. No
D. No, but only because they are distracted by the large saucer of milk in the sky (4)

Submitted by Kylie Sturgess from PodBlack Cat.

16. Which of the following claims regarding autism epidemiology has recently been credulously publicized by the mainstream media?

A. The genetic influence on autism is a multifactorial
B. Autism is a condition of developmental delay, not of developmental stasis
C. Autism is caused by an imbalance of body humours and/or adrenal fatigue
D. Increases in the reported rates of new autism cases are secondary to an environmental exposure and not to increased awareness or diagnostic drift

Submitted by Michelle Dawson from The Autism Crisis.

17. Which of the following is not an example of an effective use of one’s psychic powers?

A. Failing to see that your client actually committed the crime you are helping to solve
B. Sensing that your client’s dead grandmother had a name starting with an A, C, D, G, K, M, P, R, T, or W (5)
C. Predicting that reality television is a dying genre
D. All of the above

Submitted by Skeptico from Skeptico (6).

Answer Key: 1. B  2. C  3. D  4. A  5. A  6. C  7.  D   8. B  9. D 1 0. C  11. B  12. A  13. C  14. A  15. C  16. D  17. D 

1-2 wrong: Excellent. You’ve mastered the SREP. Go and share your preternatural Randiesque critical thinking skills to the world by writing a blog or starting up a local skeptics club.

3-4 wrong: Pretty good but maybe you didn’t read all of the posts. Even Novella was wrong once, I think. Try again and I bet you’ll do much better.

5-7 wrong: Not so good. You should immediately go back to the beginning and reread every post. You were perhaps distracted or drunk. Rebecca Watson is that you?

8-10 wrong: That’s pretty bad. Wake up! You’ve been sleep reading again, probably because of all those homeopathic sleeping pills you took. Now go back to sleep and try again later.

11-13 wrong: Terrible. Did you even read the posts? Try clicking on the highlighted words and then read what pops up.

14-17 wrong: Amazing. You’ve done so poorly it can’t be by explained simple stupidity. There must be a more sinister force at play here. At last, proof of the paranormal! 

(1) Should only be attempted by Mehmet Oz
(2) “I have come to conquer your world!” in Klingon
(3) The atheist’s worst nightmare by Ray Comfort
(4) Kitten’s First Full Moon is a classic 2005 Caldecott Medal winner and one of my daughter’s favorites
(5) Or Z
(6) Not Skeptiko

The next edition of the Skeptics’ Circle will be hosted by A and Z over at It’s The Thought That Counts in two weeks.

Written by skepticpedi

January 28, 2009 at 11:42 pm

What is Skepticism?…..

with 4 comments

The following post was submitted by Sam Ogden, an organizer of the Greater Houston Skeptic Society who also posts regularly at Skepchick.

At each gathering of the still fairly new Houston Area Skeptics, I meet folks just discovering their skeptical sides. Critical thinking skills may be somewhat innate in humans, and perhaps that is what has drawn these particular people to skeptic groups. They already seem predisposed to questioning things, just as any seasoned skeptic would, and they have no trouble following a line of reasoning for any given topic. But often the newer members are not yet familiar with what skepticism is exactly. Basically, they lack the language to describe it.

 So I wrote this item specifically for those people who may be new to skepticism, and who may not yet have a firm grasp of what exactly it’s all about.

 So . . .

 What is skepticism?

 The easy answer is, skepticism is doubt. Definitions from printed books and Internet dictionaries alike all say skepticism is something along the lines of:

 “. . . an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object. . . .”

 And I suppose for a quicky definition that’s as good as any. I mean, skeptics tend not to believe things just because. They’re usually the ones saying things like, “Hold on a minute. I don’t think that’s right.” There very well seems to be a high level of doubt among skeptics.

 But the truth is, there is more to skepticism than having doubts about something. Doubt doesn’t imply any curiosity. It doesn’t address a desire to know, to be as certain as possible about a given idea or claim. It doesn’t hint at a process by which one can determine efficacy, accuracy, or even reality. At best, doubt can be said to be an element of skepticism, though if we say that, we must understand that doubt is not a necessary element of skepticism. One can certainly use skepticism without harboring any doubts.

 So skepticism is not just doubt. But what is it?

 Skeptic magazine defines skepticism as:

 “. . . . a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. . . . .”

 And it’s the last part of that definition that I find most useful. Like science, skepticism is a method.

 This is why science and skepticism are intrinsically tied together. This is why many people use the terms interchangeably. The two methods are like members of the same family. And they work pretty much the same way.

 Let’s take a closer look at the scientific method.

 The scientific method is a method of discovery that is based on gathering observable, empirical, and measurable evidence for a particular phenomenon. It is highly reliant on the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of the observed phenomenon, and design experimental studies to test those hypotheses.

 These steps must be repeatable in order to dependably predict any future results. If they are not, they are discarded for another approach until the scientists can come to a conclusion about the particular phenomenon that is most probably true. It takes time and effort, but the rewards (and our level of understanding) are immeasurable.

 Simply put, the scientific method is the single most valuable tool ever conceived for understanding the universe around us. Not only are we able to figure out how things work and why, but through science, we can even manipulate our environment to better our lives. The conclusions we draw from doing good science are as honest and as accurate as reason allows. Science is that powerful.

But the scientific method is problematic; at least where regular folks are concerned.

It’s just not practical to apply the scientific method to everyday claims and situations. I mean, there are phenomena we encounter on a daily basis that spark our curiosity, and our desire to discover. Perhaps strange things are happening in our neighbor’s house, and we want to know if it’s haunted. Perhaps the claims of homeopathic medicines pique our interests, and we want to know if they really work. Perhaps our co-workers insist the bright lights in the sky last night were alien space craft, and we want to know if that’s true. Unfortunately, the majority of us simply don’t have the means to set up lab experiments, test hypotheses, repeat the tests, have peer groups study our data and scrutinize our tests and repeat them, and have independent lines of inquiry from all over the world repeat the process. The scientific method is just too bulky and cumbersome for us.

That’s where skepticism comes in.

We can look at skepticism as an express version of the scientific method; sort of a travel or pocket version that we can apply to everyday claims, ideas, and situations. It is a tool that basically does the same thing as the scientific method — it relies on evidence and the analysis of that evidence to draw conclusions that are most probably true — but it’s more practical for regular folks to use.

If we observe phenomena, or encounter outrageous claims, or encounter seemingly amazing ideas in our everyday lives, we can examine any evidence that may be present. We can leave any biases we may have behind and rely on a critical analysis of the evidence to discover what is most probably true about the phenomena.

By the way, the good critical thinker will use the qualifier “most probably true” because he or she knows the strength of his or her conclusion is a function of the strength and proper analysis of the evidence. He or she also knows that new evidence can be introduced at any given time, and if warranted by the new evidence, the initial conclusion must be altered.

Good scientists and good skeptics go where the evidence leads them, but they do not deal in absolutes. They are always ALWAYS looking for stronger, possibly even subversive, evidence. This is precisely how we know the conclusions drawn through science and skepticism are so strong. Sound scientific principles and sound skeptical proposals must take all comers and stand up to the scrutiny. That is an integral part of the method. One cannot close the door to new evidence and call oneself a scientist or a skeptic. Even if it looks as though an idea is invincible, even if it looks as though there is nothing in the universe that can challenge a conclusion of science or skepticism, the method must remain open to new evidence. Always.

And so, the good scientist and the good skeptic leave absolutes out of the equation, but they can be confident their conclusions are most probably true, because they have looked at all of the evidence with a critical eye and without any biases.

Now, the beauty of all this is, we are not obligated to apply skepticism as anything other than curiosity and a personal desire to know and understand things. We are free to use it or not use it as we wish. And that brings me to the message I like to leave with people when talking about skepticism and what it is.

I regularly tell people, “I am not so much a skeptic as skepticism is what I do”. I have a skill set. I have a method of examination that I apply to things that are important to me, but I am free to be tied to an idea, a claim, or a situation by nothing but my emotions, if I so desire.

But I will say that for those important things, a bit of skepticism really does wonders.

Written by skepticpedi

January 22, 2009 at 12:57 pm

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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.”




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

Sam Specious, Private Eye: The Case of the Curious Vampire*…..

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Detective Sam Specious is famous for using his brain to solve cases, or at least for attempting to solve them. What Sam doesn’t realize is just how easily the human brain assigns causation where none exists, finds patterns in random noise, and quickly jumps to conclusions that don’t add up. See if you can use your arsenal of critical thinking skills to take aim at Sam’s errors in thinking.

It was another long day here in Space City, and the seconds passed like flies swimming in blackstrap molasses. I was watching dust bunnies roll across the hardwood floors when the phone rang. A gentleman by the name of Vincent wanted answers to an unusual problem. Unusual or not, he had come to the right place.

I believed that the guy’s name was Vincent like I believe we landed on the moon. When a client uses an alias, I know that there is usually more to the story than meets the eye. Usually it’s a secret lover or an offshore bank account, but this time I was entering uncharted territory. I just hoped that I wouldn’t be taking a fall like some plane over the Bermuda Triangle.

I arrived at Vincent’s mansion just after sunset. The place was enormous, ancient, and in bad need of some feng shui. And though Vincent couldn’t have been a day over thirty-five, his dark and deep set eyes betrayed a far greater life experience. I suspected that Vincent was different when I noticed his pale skin and the way he kept looking at my neck. The jig was up when I noticed the exaggerated incisors and the blood smeared across both cheeks.

After reassuring me that he meant no harm, Vincent described in detail his desire to drink human blood, something which had begun in early childhood. He revealed how invigorated he became with each blood meal, and how he attributed frequent consumption to his seemingly preternatural good health. He even introduced me to his girlfriend, and willing supply of hemoglobin, Esmerelda. After the pleasantries, we got down to business.

Vincent believed himself to be a vampire, but he wanted to know for certain if a medical condition might be to blame for his lust for human blood, sensitivity to sunlight, and heightened senses of smell and hearing. He admitted that although he would never change who he was, even if a cure were to be found, his curiousity regarding a natural cause had gotten the better of him. Frankly, I thought that he was more than a few cards short of a full deck but I knew just who to call.

Arnold Van Helsing is a world renowned chemist with an interest in blood disorders, and he agreed to lend us his considerable expertise. The next morning Van Helsing arranged for as many blood tests as he could think of, and with his brain that’s more than you can shake a dowsing rod at. He checked Vincent’s complete metabolic profile, liver and kidney function, iron level, complete blood count, and red blood cell indices. He even looked at his bone marrow under a microscope. Imaging of Vincent’s brain, a urine analysis, and spinal fluid studies completed what was only the first round of tests. 

The next day, after a breathless Vincent called me with the exciting news, I celebrated with an ice cold glass of Noni juice. Van Helsing had discovered that Vincent wasn’t a true vampire after all, but was merely deficient in iron and magnesium, two components of human blood. A simple vitamin supplement would be all that was necessary to cure him of his vampiric cravings. Vincent said thanks but no thanks, but at least I still got paid for solving the case.

But did Sam and Van Helsing solve the case? Should they be so sure that iron deficiency and hypomagnesemia are really to blame for Vincent’s odd behavior? It sure sounds like a plausible etiology, and lab values don’t lie, right? What do you think? Where has Sam’s reasoning gone wrong?

*This case was inspired by an episode of the excellent National Geographic program Is It Real. I highly recommend the show to everyone.

Written by skepticpedi

December 4, 2008 at 7:37 pm