Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 28, 2014

Astrology: What’s the Harm?


Introduction

I’ve very rarely covered astrology on this blog (~5% of posts get tagged with it), mostly because there’s very little to say about it beyond the standard, “It doesn’t work!”, “There’s no physical reason why it should work,” and “Different astrology systems around the world conflict with each other but claim similar results, therefore it’s standard ‘psychic’ cold reading.”

But, this story has been making the rounds lately, and it’s rare I get to even peripherally address a “What’s the Harm?” with respect to astronomy-based pseudoscience, so let’s get into it.

The Story

From the BBC: Astrology-Loving MP Seeks Health Answers in the Stars. The story is about David Tredinnick.

Insert collective groan.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way: Astrology does not work. I have addressed this numerous times on this blog (here and here) and once on my podcast (Episode 6).

If you don’t like that, well, I also scored numerous astrologers’ predictions to see how well they do at predicting things. They don’t work. For example: in 2010, 2011, and not only once, but twice in 2012.

It lacks a mechanism (which in itself isn’t a deal-killer because there could always be something we don’t know about), but it also simply and utterly fails whenever it is tested.

So What?

Normally, I honestly don’t care that much. Yes, it’s annoying to me as a scientist, and as a critical thinker. Yes, I think it leads to magical thinking. And people spend money on bull Taurus. But in general, beyond time wasted, money wasted, and it being a gateway to other magical thinking, there is little harm in this.

Except when someone asks what I do and I say that I’m an astronomer and they say, “Oh, I heard that Mercury was in retrograde now, what does that mean?” Which is why I now tell people that I’m a volcanologist who studies volcanoes in Hawai’i.

So, live and let live. In general.

And then this guy comes in and messes with that mentality:

A Conservative MP has spoken of his belief in astrology and his desire to incorporate it into medicine.

David Tredinnick said he had spent 20 years studying astrology and healthcare and was convinced it could work. The MP for Bosworth, a member of the health committee and the science and technology committee, said he was not afraid of ridicule or abuse. “There is no logic in attacking something that has a proven track record,” he told BBC News.

…Recalling the experience in the House of Commons, he said he had been invited to take part because of his “radical agenda” on complementary medicine – he is vice-chairman of the government’s herbals working group. … “I am absolutely convinced that those who look at the map of the sky for the day that they were born and receive some professional guidance will find out a lot about themselves and it will make their lives easier,” he told MPs.

… [H]e now wanted to promote astrology, which was not just predicting the future but gaining an insight into personal problems. He stopped short of suggesting astrological readings on the NHS, but said he wanted to raise awareness of it as an alternative among patients and clinicians.

(I removed some of the paragraph breaks, since the BBC seems to think that every sentence needs its own paragraph.)

So, yeah …

The Response …

… has been ridicule. As it should. Some of the skeptical bloggers took a crack at it, like Sharon over at Doubtful News, and today a guest post by Andy Wasley at The Friendly Atheist.

I don’t think it’s worth me spending time going through every single sentence in there and how he’s wrong. I’ll leave that “as an exercise to the reader,” as the saying goes, or for you to full out the particularly ridiculous bits in the Comments.

The Problem

I’m not going to pretend that we don’t have (in my opinion) idiots on the US Congress and Senate. Some of the people sitting on Science committees are about as anti-science as you can get, rejecting evidence-based science in favor of everything but. So it’s nice to point out a tu quoque that other countries have their loons, too.

The problem is that if this were any normal person, it’d be another eye-roller. But he’s not a normal person. Or, he is, but he’s not in a normal position. He’s a member of the UK Parliament’s Health and Science & Technology Committees (that’s Health Committee, and Science & Technology Committee). And he believes in altmed and astrology. And he thinks that astrology not only has a proven track record of success (despite all objective tests), but he seems to want to implement it in some way in some official capacity.

This is a man who has serious power to control policy and money in the UK.

And, this is not only not an isolated case, but it’s also a good example of the common phenomenon where one form of magical thinking makes way for others. In this case, I don’t know what came first, but it’s very likely that either his believe in astrology made believing in altmed easier, or his belief in altmed made his belief in astrology easier.

These kinds of things rarely are seen in isolation. The thinking goes like this (and I’m not just surmising or musing here, I’ve heard people say it): If they start to accept one thing that’s “outside the mainstream” or something “scientists keep telling us is wrong, well” (the thinking goes), “what else have they been trying to hide from us? What else that they say is fake is really real?” It might sound like the “slippery slope” fallacy, but it’s not. One kind of pseudoscience belief is often a gateway into others.

Wrap-Up

And normally, as I said towards the beginning, I wouldn’t care. Do what you want, believe what you want, so long as you’re not really harming other people. And generally I’d prefer if you not harm yourself, but you have the right in most countries to do that, at least in some form or another if not all forms. (E.g., you might be institutionalized if you try to slit your wrists, you may have your child taken away from you if you insist on praying for them to get better from cancer instead of having chemo.)

But this is a case where one kind of magical thinking has lead to another. And this guy has power to affect £millions ($millions x1.7) and millions of people.

And he’s not alone.

So, while belief in astronomy-based pseudoscience may not be on the forefront of what most skeptics consider to be important, I would argue that it should be. We shouldn’t discriminate or rank or prioritize quite as much as some may try. Convincing someone when they’re 14 that astrology is Taurus-poop may just prevent them from trying a raw food juicing diet to cure themselves of pancreatic cancer 40 years later. Or from passing a resolution when they’re on a school board in 30 years that creationism should be taught alongside evolution.

July 26, 2014

Joining the Cast of ATS Live

Filed under: conspiracy theories,interview — Stuart Robbins @ 5:34 pm
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Ive been forgetting to mention this in the podcast for over a month now, but since we go live in 40 minutes, I finally remembered for here:

Many moons ago (2 lunations?) I was interviewed on the “Above Top Secret” Forum’s live internet radio show, “ATS Live.” It’s a three-hour program, it goes out 6-9PM Pacific Time, 9PM-12AM Eastern Time, and convert for yourself for other time zones because I dislike timezones. This followed my appearance on their Wednesday night program, “Reality Remix” (different hosts, different show, just tied together because of the ATS forums).

For those who don’t know, Above Top Secret is one of the largest conspiracy-discussing websites on the internet.

I apparently did good, after talking about astronomy and space ‘n’ related topics (a bit of the conspiracy, but really we talked more about mainstream science than I had anticipated, so I threw out my notes about Bob Lazar and “Element 115″). I say I “did good” because they have since had me back as a regular panelist. Weekly. Except when I’m super-busy or am out of town, like when I was at TAM two weeks ago.

The topics for each show can be found on this forum, and they are posted a few hours before the show. Tonight is episode 219. Usually, the first hour discusses a few topics on the ATS forum, the second hour is an interview (I got to ask Nick Pope a question about a month ago, for example), and the third hour is more about some ATS forum topics.

All the panelists tend to offer their opinion / expertise (more opinion) on the topic at-hand. I usually have my line on mute because I have little to say about, for example, the Israeli war last week (well, I had a lot to say, but I chose to remain apolitical and so didn’t say anything). Or on the consciousness of trees.

But usually about once an episode, I’ll “cue” in and offer my opinion or some tidbit or fact, like some skepticism about the 9/11 attacks being a nuke. Tonight I might cue in on a video about the beginning of the universe to the end of Earth in 2 minutes, or about biologists warning of the 6th mass extinction on Earth (caused by us).

Some of the panelists call me “The Professor,” or “Doc,” or whatnot, and despite some appearance of on-air tiffs, we seem to get along fairly well.

Anyway, the point of this post is to let you know yet another outlet where you can find me these days, and to advertise for the show a bit. As I said, I’m not always on, and I rarely talk more than 20 minutes total, but it is still interesting and you might have it on the background while you play poker with your friends on Saturday nights or some such thing.

Update: I was apparently so excited to be on last night that it slipped my mind: You can listen by following the links here.

July 22, 2014

Everyone’s Talking About Ken Ham Denigrating Space Exploration — Let’s Stop Talking About It


Okay folks, this is going to be a short post because I’m sick of it already. People are talking about Ken Ham, the CEO of Answers in Genesis who “debated” Bill Nye in February, wrote on his blog yesterday that space exploration is silly because it’s a search for aliens who don’t exist and would be damned anyway because of Jesus’ Love™. (I’m paraphrasing here.) If you really need a link, I’ll point you to Jerry Coyne’s blog post on it.

Ham may believe this. I wouldn’t be surprised. But you know what? I don’t care. And neither should you. And you shouldn’t be talking about it, and you shouldn’t be linking to his site (which is why I am not).

True — I have talked about AiG’s work in the past on this blog and in my podcast. But it was a specific science claim where we could learn something about science by exploring the claim.

This is just stupid. This seems almost certainly a cry for publicity under the adage “Any publicity is good publicity!” He had to know it would create controversy and that people would ridicule him. But in doing so, he would get publicity. People talking about him and his ministry and his (by most accounts) failing museum. The Bill Nye debate was almost six months ago, and they saw an immense surge in support and donations around that time, so much that their failing fundraising effort (such that they were issuing junk bonds) for a Noah’s Ark theme park suddenly was viable and they raised all their money.

Let me repeat: What Ken Ham said here was stupid. We know it was stupid. Even if he’s right that there’s no alien life out there, exploring space to learn more about the world/universe in which we live is worth it for its own sake. Now, can we stop talking about how stupid Ham was in saying this? Can we stop giving him publicity? I’ve dealt with pseudoscientists (or just idiots) who just say inflammatory things to get publicity. You haven’t heard about a lot of it on here – especially some recent stuff – precisely because I don’t want to give them publicity.

July 21, 2014

Podcast Episode 116: The Electric Universe, Part 2, with Dr. Tom Bridgman


Sun models from the
Electric Universe. Do
The predictions work?

Practically on time comes part 2 of the two-part overview of the Electric Universe. This one is also a bit heavy with the math, so I recommend heading over to Tom’s site for more information and many, many more details.

So, um, with the deadline for a major grant program coming up in a few days, that’s it folks!

July 14, 2014

No, Yellowstone Is (Probably) Not About to Erupt

Filed under: doomsday,geology,skepticism,volcano — Stuart Robbins @ 10:51 am
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This post falls under the pre-emptive part for bad media reporting in the charter of this blog. Many media sources are reporting that roads are melting in Yellowstone National Park, in this particular case, closing one of the more popular areas off.

The obvious implication for any “Earth Changes” conspiracy person is that the Yellowstone supervolcano (supervolcano being a term invented just a few years ago in a TV special) is gonna blow. Which means that most of North America will be completely uninhabitable after people within a several hundred kilometer radius die very, very quickly from the event. And worldwide severe weather changes because of the massive amounts of ash.

I want to nip that in the bud, so to speak. At issue is statistics and probability. The Yellowstone area is the site of a massive volcano (for Earth, with a caldera 10s of miles across. Just for the record, that would be a somewhat small volcano on Mars, where for example the Arsia Mons volcano has a caldera that is about 100 km in diameter (~65 miles). Last year, it was reported that the magma chamber under Yellowstone – which is responsible for all the thermal features – is twice as large as previously thought (which isn’t as dangerous as it seems).

The large “supervolcanic” eruptions took place 2.1 Mya, 1.3 Mya, and 0.64 May (millions of years ago). And OHMYGAWD if you take an average of 3 WE ARE OVERDUE FOR A MASSIVE ERUPTION AMIRIGHT!!!!!

Except there’s the rub. We have never observed a supervolcano erupt. I hate to bring in Ken Ham’s “Were you there?” thing, but this is really a case where it’s very difficult for volcanologists to understand how these erupt, the frequency with which they erupt, how to predict when/if they’ll erupt, and what the precursors are to an eruption. It should also be noted that Yellowstone has had smaller eruptions more recently than 640,000 years ago, such as flows that have been dated to 70,000 years old.

Anyway, Yellowstone is an active thermal feature. Hydrothermal because water is involved. It’s no secret that it could explode again. What is lesser known is that it may never explode again. We just don’t know. But what is also clear is that we have no way to predict it. And not knowing means that there’s a certain argument from ignorance fallacy that can be invoked — because scientists don’t know (or won’t tell us because of the conspiracy), then the doomsday guy making the definite claim can clearly know better and tell us what’s gonna happen. (FYI, that’s sarcasm.)

But why don’t the latest thermal melting of roads mean that it’s gonna erupt?

Because it happens frequently. Earthquakes happen there frequently. Sulfur dissolving away metal grates happens there frequently. Like, every year. And that whole video thing last year of bison all stampeding out of the park because they knew it was gonna erupt? That was a video of bison running INTO the park, but that didn’t stop conspiracy and doomsday websites.

I think that the only reason we’re hearing about this particular example is that it melted a road to a popular feature. Keep in mind that very little percentage of the park is a road. So if a capricious thermal feature is going to migrate around and warm a part of the ground to the melting point of asphalt, the likelihood of it being a road is very small. Meaning the likelihood of it being a popular road is even smaller. Meaning the likelihood of it being something that’s widely reported is even smaller.

So … is Yellowstone gonna blow? Maybe. But this latest event should NOT be construed as an increase in activity that indicates an imminent eruption.

July 13, 2014

#TAM2014, Day 3, Morning and Afternoon

Filed under: general science,skepticism — Stuart Robbins @ 2:17 pm
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Stuff to Noon

Pulling my stomach out of bed from last night’s buffet took awhile, but I was up and out at 7:45 to practice my talk once more. Went well, I thought, so I got ready and went down to the main room.

I don’t have a great estimate of the number of people doing the talks, but it was well over 200, which is more than saw the workshop I did last year. I thought the paper sessions went fairly well. I’m of course biased, but besides my own, personally I think the best talks were the first and the last. Robert Stern made a potentially very dry topic (dissociative identity disorder, and whether diagnoses are reasonable or accurate) very humorous through his own research. Meanwhile, Steve Cuno was all about how advertisers know what they know about you, and the secrets of the industry that They Don’t Want You to Know.

We were also well under-time, which I thought should’ve meant Ray Hall (the moderator/”curator”) hold the talks to the schedule so that there was a minute or three of down-time. But, it all worked out because Steve got a lot of questions.

Regarding my presentation, despite remastering it for a 16×9 aspect ratio based on the skewing I’d seen in other presentations, the presentation appeared squished vertically, instead of stretched horizontally. P—ed me off. It was very difficult to hear the audience and read their reactions. Apparently there were some laughs, but my presentation was NOT really the one with a lot of jokes, so there wasn’t that much laughter intended. The reaction I had from people talking with me afterwards was that it was reasonably well received.

It was also really, so far as I can tell, the only basic debunking talk at TAM. There’s a lot of theory, a lot of techniques or tools, but very very little basic exercises in the simple thing that most skeptics spend most of their time actually doing: Going through the exercise of investigating a claim and seeing where the evidence leads.

After decompressing, I was still talking with people through Michael Shermer’s talk, 11-12, so I didn’t see/hear it. The coffee break that followed went from 12 to 12:30 instead of 12 to 12:15. We were told later that Patricia Churchland, who was slated to give the 1:45-2:15 final talk, couldn’t make it, so we’ll end a half hour -> 15 minutes early.

Talk: The Mind of the Science Denier

Donald Prothero gave this talk. I liked it. It was highly opinionated, very anti-Republican because of their anti-science positions (since I know some conservative people read this and I have some friends who are conservatives, it was ONLY the anti-science part of the Republican party that he ranted against).

His basic argument was not really an argument, but rather to talk about some of the basic goals of science, and some of the modern scientific controversies that really should not be controversies. The science is settled. But … politics.

A quote: “An inconvenient truth is always going to get less popularity than a reassuring lie.”

Talk: Amazing!

Massimo Polidoro gave the next talk, another flip in the program. He started at 1:02. I was called out of the room to talk with some people at that point, so I was not able to see the majority of Massimo’s talk. From the bit I did see, it was about his new book project, a biography about James Randi. Appropriate to discuss at TAM.

Talk: Looking into the Psychic Mirror

Richard Saunders, a speaker who has talked at every TAM I’ve been to, gave the final talk. It was good. It was basically some highlights of what he’s been up to as president of the Australian Skeptics in the last year. I think he’s a good speaker, and it was funny and entertaining.

Closing Remarks

I had to run to the Little Astronomers’ Room so missed the beginning of DJ’s closing remarks, getting back when he was announcing that there were 78 walk-ups, for a total of 1110 attendees, and an additional 2 countries represented.

Randi was up on the stage at 2:30 for some closing remarks and developments at the JREF. Among his prepared marks, Randi announced that that they are trying to focus more on the E part of the JREF — Education. That there should be more educational projects coming. He also announced that there will be a new director joining the Board of Directors at JREF, Adam Savage. There were very loud applause to that.

His remarks ended at 2:16, at which point the official events for TAM 2014 concluded. He got a standing ovation except for some shmoes in the front row.

I’ll be back for the Million Dollar Challenge tonight.

#TAM2014, Day 2, Afternoon

Filed under: general science,skepticism — Stuart Robbins @ 1:25 am
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Panel: Junk Science, Neuroscience, and Psychological Science

This panel was moderated by a tall guy with lightly greying hair, whose name was not on the program and I didn’t catch if he said it. The panel had Scott Lillienfield, Sally Satel, Carol Tavris, and Robert Kurzban on it. It started just after 2:00 and ended at 3:01.

The panel started out being asked what they thought was the biggest pseudoscience in their particular field. I was writing out my recipe for candied pecans for a friend of a friend, so didn’t quite catch everything, butI remember that it sounded interesting and nothing I would disagree with.

- “Psychostitutes” are psychologists who just “do it for the money.” And, since he said it and said it has his name on it on Urban Dictionary, the moderator is Sheldon W. Helms.

- An interesting point that was raised towards the end of the panel was that psychologists and psychiatrists – clinicians in general – often see the most severe cases of [insert whatever]. That most people aren’t like that. An example used was that it took an enterprising psychiatrist (psychologist?) several decades ago to think that, maybe gays and lesbians are not all mentally disturbed. Because the only ones that they had seen to that point were ones who were disturbed by the non-normal behavior and concerned about peer pressure and the need to conform and not be persecuted. She went out and thought, “hey, maybe they’re not all ill, maybe it’s just I’m seeing the ones who are particularly disturbed by it because of societal pressure!” And went out into the community and learned that it was just a very small portion.

A non-GLBT example was people who have schizotypal disorders, where the ones you see in hospitals are the ones the medication DOESN’T work for, the ones who are the most severe cases in general. And yes, you should spend your time focusing on those people who are most prone to harm themselves or others, but you have to realize that they are at the end of the spectrum, that most people with [insert whatever] are closer to the societal norm, or very controllable with medication.

Talk: A Year of Skeptic Win

This was supposed to be yesterday’s 3:00, now today, by Jamy Ian Swiss. He started at 3:03. I started this thinking that I would copy his list for you. Let’s see how I do …

Oh, and while he’s giving his intro, I thought I’d mention: One would be Sylvia Brown died. We of course have nothing to do with that, and shouldn’t celebrate death. But, this is definitely a significant event in skeptic stuff over the past year.

0. Swiss opened with a joke that a claimed psychic with a storefront near his home has all these banners and signs indicating clairvoyance, psychicness, etc. And there’s a sign on the door saying “Please Ring Bell.” Um …

1. “Psychic” Rose Marks convicted in Florida. Wikipedia on her.

2. “Psychic Sally” Morgan embarrassed after “contacting” the spirit of a woman who was … sitting in the audience. I remember hearing about this one on Skeptics with a K. Here’s an extended blog post on the event; you should read it, it’s good.

3. James McCormick’s conviction for selling fake bomb detectors was upheld. For the maximum. “You’ve got blood on your hands.” Here’s Jamy’s blog post about it.

4. Jenny McCarthy and Sherri Shepherd are both “leaving” The View. A massive daytime talk show in the US. McCarthy is THE face of the anti-vax movement these days, and Sherri Shepherd is a young-Earth creationist.

5. Dr. Oz and the Terrible, Horrible, No good, Very Bad Day. mmmmmmmmm … Very nice win on this one. I loved John Oliver’s take on this, I highly recommend it.

6. “Cosmos Squashes Creationism Under the Weight of Evidence.” I don’t think I need to provide a link to that one. Do any internet search, and yeah … them creationists ain’t-n’t happy. I’ve listened to several ID the Future podcasts with the IDers ranting against it.

7. Deepak Chopra embarrasses himself by offering a $1M prize. If you haven’t heard about this, it’s great. I’ve been following it on Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution Is True” blog. Sharon Hill has also been posting about it on “Doubtful News.” Here’s one of many links talking about it. Of course, Chopra got himself on the HuffPo about it. Jamy got a bit worked up at the end, personally issuing a challenge to Chopra, offering to pay for a suite and to come talk to us at TAM. His “psychic” prediction is that Chopra won’t do it. He also called him as the “Not-so-deep-Deepak.”

Jamie is a showman. His talk was engaging and interesting. Some of my own pet-peeves, however, were on full-display in his talk: (1) He read from his notes. A lot. (b) He went 8 minutes over his allotted time, ending at 3:41. To me, it’s just very rude, thinking that you’re more important than other people so you don’t have to follow the rules everyone else does, or you’re so important that people want to listen to you more than the other speakers. Just a pet peeve … some of us work really hard to make sure our talks fit within the allotted timespan.

Talk: A Rare and Beautiful Thing

Talk by Daniel Loxton. Started at 3:43. This talk was about his work with Junior Skeptic Magazine. His talk was based somewhat on – or at least informed by – that work, talking about how “skepticism is beautiful.” I stayed for a few minutes, but then had to leave to take care of something for work. The life of a scientist …

I did stay long enough to hear him comment about how he was losing his notes off the screen, and he had to pause a few seconds to get them back. I’ll repeat a pet peeve from yesterday with Karen’s talk: You need to be prepared to give your talk without notes. It’s the mark of a good speaker, and you never know what A/V issues there may be when you get up there on-stage.

Talk: How to Think Like a (Skeptical) Neurologist

This was given by Steve Novella, and he started right on 15-minute-late time at 4:30 (because of Jamy running late). Steve finished at 5:04. See my previous rant about Jamy.

I thought Steve’s talk was reasonably good and interesting. Topical. And generally about the topic of the doctor telling the patient that they are wrong. Well, more about why the doctor has to ask the questions they do, because the patient’s memory and thoughts about what is expected are different from reality.

Talk: Playing with Deception: Frauds, Hoaxes, Pranks, and Urban Legends

This was a talk I was looking forward to, given by Eugenie Scott. Other than Phil Plait debunking FOX “news”‘s docudrama on the Apollo moon “hoax” stuff in the late 1990s, and before his interview with Art Bell debating Nancy Lieder in 2003, Eugenie Scott was one of my very early forays into skepticism. I was introduced to her through my GEO/BIO/[etc.] 225 class, Evolution, taught by Patricia Princehouse, in the Fall semester of 2002 (there, I’ve dated myself a bit). Prof. Princehouse had Eugenie come to the university to give a talk, and I went to a reception for her, and got really interested in her work at the NCSE. I got the opportunity to tell Dr. Scott that at the first TAM I went to in 2012.

- “Just because you sincerely believe something doesn’t make you any less wrong!”

- “There’s a difference between ignorance and stupidity. Ignorance is curable.”

The thrust of Dr. Scott’s talk was frauds versus hoaxes, and how hoaxes are very different from frauds. I’m not going to get into the difference here, but perhaps at a most basic level, hoaxes she classified as more harmless and done in fun, frauds are more done with malice to hurt someone or something.

Scott’s talk ended at 5:28, and Randi came out at 5:29 to come out and present her with the JREF Award for Skepticism in the Public Interest. In my never-humble opinion, LONG over-due. She got a standing ovation by about 2/3 of the audience.

THE Keynote Talk: by Bill Nye

Bill Nye Giving Keynote Talk at #TAM2014

Bill Nye Giving Keynote Talk at #TAM2014

W00t! Started at 5:31, ended at 6:30.

The A/V people couldn’t even get Bill Nye’s stuff right, focusing on him instead of the very few slides that he wanted at very few portions of his talk. Like a picture of him on stage with Ken Ham.

Obviously, the keynote talk focused on Nye’s recent (February) highly publicized debate with Answers in Genesis’s Ken Ham. I wrote about my thoughts previously on this debate on my WND Watch blog. He transferred about half-way through to talking more about science literacy and his advocacy as CEO of the Planetary Society of space exploration and asteroid hazard mitigation.

I was engrossed in the keynote so didn’t really jot down notes. All I’ll say is that Nye lives up to the hype. Very good speaker, very good topic, very much in control of the audience, and even good slides. Well, I did get one quote, when talking about the necessity to have 10-11 new species every single day based on Ham’s beliefs, since the Ark: “Wow! And they trust you to drive?!”

And another: “One test is worth a thousand expert opinions.” –Tex Johnson.

Afterwards

I dashed out right after the Nye keynote so that I could meet some people to go to a buffet dinner on the Strip. That also meant I didn’t go to the speakers’ dinner or the LGBT meet up. But, the buffet was very … filling. And worth going to once.

July 12, 2014

#TAM2014, Day 2, Morning

Filed under: general science,skepticism — Stuart Robbins @ 12:44 pm
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Panel: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe

Presented by the classic Novellum (Steve, Bob, Jay), Evan Bernstein, and the guest panelist was Banachek. They started at 9:06 and ended at 10:05.

We started with A/V issues, Where it took about 4 minutes for Steve’s slides to appear on the screens for everyone. I’m going to tell the A/V folks to have my slides up the entire time during my talk tomorrow morning. My talk requires people to see my slides, not me. So … hopefully it’ll all work out. We’ll see.

When Randi interrupted the panel at about 9:43, to add some commentary on the news stories. A/V flashed up Steve’s next slides in the middle of the camera following Randi on stage. This is almost morbid entertainment to me at this point, the A/V issues.

Wrap-up: I enjoyed the SGU panel this year more than last year. To be honest, SGU is still in my podcast queue, but I’m several months behind. It’s just not at the top anymore, perhaps because it’s so main-stream now. Or the commercials. But I found the live panel this year fairly interesting, and entertaining, with only the joke about Jay getting permission to use an Indian accent going on about 2x longer than it should’ve.

Talk: Great Moments in Australian Science

This talk was by Karl Kruszelnicki. It started at 10:07. And ended at 10:37.

- “A rat is a creature that if killed in sufficient numbers will lead to a Ph.D.”

Wrap-up: This was a fairly interesting talk in general. I had no idea what it was going to be about. He’s a good speaker. And showed a preview for the movie “Lucy” which looks interesting, but unfortunately is based on the premise of a woman who can start to use >10% of her brain and so gets super powers. Sigh. Anyway, as I said, I found this talk entertaining, interesting, both skeptical, and having to do with the brain. So far, possibly the best talk.

DIE, MICROSOFT, DIE!!!!!

The coffee break was next. It turned into a 45-minute escapade for me and Ray Hall, fighting to get my Keynote presentation made on the Mac to work on PowerPoint on his Windows computer. He apparently didn’t even know that the presentation had movies because they hadn’t worked originally.

I gave him a new version, newly exported as PPTX, all the movies contained in the file. Three played fine, two didn’t, but stuttered a bit at times after not playing for 10 seconds or so.

Tried pasting in the movies again. FYI, all were a few MB, all were a MP4 format. So, I converted one to WMV, and it worked. The other if converted to WMV would be 3GB. But then when Ray re-pasted the MP4, it worked. *insert eye roll here* Then we fought with getting the movies to play on-load.

I had already stripped the idiotic Dissolve transition version of PowerPoint, but then had to go in and fix formatting and fonts throughout the presentation. It now seems like it’s going to work, but I’ll be in the main room at 8:30 tomorrow morning to check, running through the entire 12-minute presentation and all movies to make sure they correctly play from start to end at the correct speed.

We finished just before 11:30, meaning I missed Julia Galef’s “How to Change Your Mind” and the first half (or so) of Paul Offit’s “The 1991 Philadelphia Measles Epidemic: Lessons from the Past.”

Talk: The 1991 Philadelphia Measles Epidemic: Lessons from the Past

Presented by Paul Offit, and it ended at 11:47. What I saw, I thought was interesting and an interesting case study. Key quote: “Your religious beliefs don’t allow you to martyr your children.”

Keynote Talk: The Memory Factory

This was a talk by Elizabeth Loftus, and it started at 11:49, so we were only running 4 minutes late at this point. She ended at 12:41.

It’s hard for me to summarize Elizabeth’s talk. Her last TAM talk was in 2011, so the year before I started to go, which was silly because that was the TAM that was astronomy-themed. Elizabeth talked about A LOT of various studies that she and her group has done into memory. A LOT of studies. I think the real take-home message, though, was that memory of humans is incredibly malleable, and that even people who are 100% certain of something can very, very easily be wrong. VERY.

I’m going to try to get in touch with her to come on the podcast and talk about some of her work with the implications for UFO reports, since the vast majority of modern UFO stuff is simply eyewitness testimony, by “completely trustworthy and trained observers.”

July 11, 2014

#TAM2014, Day 1, Afternoon

Filed under: general science,skepticism — Stuart Robbins @ 7:23 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Panel: The Psychology of Pseudoscience in Medicine

The first panel of the afternoon featured three people in the program — Steven Novella, Harriet Hall, and David Gorski. They added two people, I think Paul Offit and Scott Williamson. One of those five was the moderator, and it wasn’t Steve nor Harriet. It started at 2:10. The panel wrapped up at 2:46, at which point several questions from the audience were taken. They ended at 2:59.

It started with A/V issues, slides not progressing/working/etc. Is it worth ranting again? Not right now, I only worked in a 10-minute nap. FYI, the slides not being up issues continued.

- Harriet Hall: “I think the concept of mind-body medicine is stupid.” Rather, it’s all one thing.

- Steve Novella: “When you can’t ever prove that something can’t possibly work, you can never prove that it does work, either.” (slightly paraphrased)

Wrap-up: Don’t take my lack of notes and quotes as being necessarily more or less interested. I found this panel an interesting discussion on “mind-body” medicine versus “mind and body” medicine — approaching medicine from the standpoint of whether you do energy stuff because everything is mind-consciousness that then fixes the body, or treating the mind and body as a physical thing and physical (real) things affect them.

Non-Talk: From Klingon to Close Encounters: Theories About Alien Language

Presentation by Karen Stollznow, which was a schedule change, switching with Jamie Ian Swiss who’ll go in the 3:00 slot tomorrow. I was hobnobbing in the Speakers’ lounge with her a few minutes before-hand and the reason that she started late was that she was not told before that she would not have a computer in front of her, and she needed the slide notes. So … the A/V guys moved the presentation computer from backstage (she would’ve just had a remote) to the lectern so that she could have her slides.

In the interest of disclosure, I’m friends with Karen, and we see each other at parties and outings amongst the greater Denver Skeptics. With that said, Karen, please work on giving presentations without notes. You never know when you will or won’t have promised or unpromised equipment and ability to see or not see notes. It also usually forces you to give a better talk and be more engaging with the audience, instead of remembering to glance down to remind yourself of what you want to say. Your slides (visually and textually) should be enough to remind you what you wanted to say. IF they don’t, then they should be altered (if you can’t follow them, if they don’t tell the story you wanted to tell, then how’s the audience supposed to?). Also, don’t expect to be able to use or be handed a laser pointer (something I’ve had issues with :( ).

I must say that at the very least, while I’m not a fan of George Hrab’s singing (sorry, I’m not), he is a very good Master of Ceremonies at keeping the banter interesting and engaging the audience.

Talk: Why Neuroscience Matters

This talk was given by Ginger Campbell. George Hrab announced at 3:19 that because of the A/V issues with Karen, Ginger would be going (she was slated at 3:30-4:00). So at 3:20, she started. She finished at 3:49, after saying she was bad at not leaving time for questions. I say that any speaker that finishes just at their time limit is okay by me on time.

- “One investigator’s possible correlation is another’s absolute causation.” — A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves by Robert Burton

- Implications for Skeptics: As much as we admire Enlightenment thought, we may need to revise our vision of the ideal of the “rational mind.” And neuroscience literacy is needed for the 21st century so we can make better, more informed decisions, like even things like when should children be allowed to start drinking.

Wrap-Up: I paid attention during this, I swear. But, as with the first talk this morning, I’m not really sure what it had to do with skepticism, other than re-hashing the general materialist vs not paradigm that brain = mind, as opposed to a mind can exist without a brain. She mentioned some things about evolution that I found interesting that I didn’t know (like the entire genome was duplicated in creatures very early on, which let many more mutations happen), but otherwise this should not have been at a skeptics convention. Still interesting, just not as relevant to the topic as I would’ve liked.

At least, that was my impression. If someone else was here and thought differently, let me know in the comments!

Talk: From Klingon to Close Encounters: Theories About Alien Language

Karen started at about 3:52, and she ended at 4:20.

The idea behind her talk was, ¿how would we ever communicate with aliens? How / why would we expect them to “speak” like us? Writers of science fiction usually have devices to get around it, like the babble fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide, translator in Star Trek, or other things. But in the Darmok episode of Star Trek TNG, when the language was translated directly into English, it didn’t work. It was all metaphors.

Karen then showed slides of stupid translations amongst the 6000+ human languages. And we’re on the same planet, of the same species. How could we even think we could start to communicate with aliens, when we can’t even communicate with creatures that use chemicals, color, or taste on our own planet? And telepathy’s fun to think about. What about ancient cultures that we still can’t translate? Think Egyptian Hieroglyphs prior to the Rosetta Stone.

That’s actually one thing I really liked about Stargate: SG 1, where in one of the very first episodes, they had the Translation Episode which all decent sic-fi has to do: How can all these folkseses from different planets all speak-um English? In Stargate, they had one planet, where the Four Great Races from ancient times had all assembled to figure out how to communicate. They simply started with the chemical elements. The episode only used it as a plot device, rather than focusing on the linguistic deciphering, but the language issue definitely had a role throughout the series, pointing to things like the Ancient language being able to be read one way or upside down to mean completely different things, and that being a key to unlocking a very powerful Ancient weapon … or bringer of life.

As another example from sci-fi, there’s the Star Trek TNG episode where the interpreters for a dumb (can’t speak) negotiator, and Data has to learn the sign language so that he can stop a war. Diana Troy explains to Picard that the language isn’t that easy, that the interpretation wouldn’t be perfect because he had communicated with his “chorus” by telepathy which had many more thoughts involved. Her example was to pick up a mug of tea, and say some random syllables stuck together. What did she say? Picard said (effectively), “Cup. No, tea.” Or something like that. But she responded that she may have meant “hot” or “liquid” or “beverage” or “white” (the color of the mug). Without some sort of common experience, common way of viewing the universe, how do you even begin to understand each other and even form that kind of common linguistic translation matrix?

Extended Short Coffee Break

To try to make up a bit of time, the coffee break from 4:00 to 4:15 went from 4:20 to 4:30. I went to the Speakers’ Lounge because Ray Hall said to meet him there at 4 to transfer my talk for Sunday … I thought that meant the coffee break, so I went at 4:20, not 4. Guess I missed him.

But, it was all good — I got to thank Sharon (of Doubtful News) for linking to my Cydonia / Mars movie a few weeks ago. And while talking with another guy (sorry, forgot your name …), Bob Novella came in, and overheard that I was an astronomer. Tomorrow at the SGU live recording, he’s going to be talking about the new story that planets Gliese 581d and g are actually not planets, specifically 581d. He wanted to know if I could tell him a little more about what was going on, why the planet “was” and then “wasn’t” there.

In return for helping him — and I have Miranda Hale as a witness! — he agreed to come on my podcast at some point. So, I downloaded the paper, read through it, read a press release and another story, and tried to summarize it. Without being a guy who does spectra or study stars. My understanding of the story is that the detection of 581d had always been disputed. We use tried and true methods of detection, in this case the red/blue shift of the star, caused by the planet and star orbiting around a mutual center of gravity. This requires that the star itself have no natural variation of red/blue shift. Which can happen in strong magnetic fields. The latest study was much more detailed with respect to the spectral lines of the star, and it updated the rotation period of the star, which now with an updated orbital period of the planet, is twice the planet’s period. Which raises a red flag. And, when they do more detailed study of how these magnetic fields affect the red and blue shift of the spectral lines of the star used to discover these planets, it accounts for most of the signal of what had been attributed to 581d. The “detection” of 581d is now below the level of the noise, meaning it’s no longer a detection, and so far as we can therefore tell, it does not exist in the data.

Got all that?

Talk: Who’s Lying, Who’s Self-Justifying? Origins of the He Said / She Said Gap in Sexual Allegations

This talk was given by Carol Tavris and started at 5:02. Running about 15 minutes behind due to Karen’s A/V issues. For some reason, Carol was awarded 45 minutes for her non-keynote talk. Her talk ended at 5:46, and the claps went noticeably longer than others.

- As soon as the brain makes a hasty decision, especially a hasty one not based on evidence, it will do everything it can to justify that, including ignoring otherwise incontrovertible evidence. The example Carol used the Duke rape case as an example.

- Man: “Rape is just a form of aggressive sex.”
– Woman: “If I hit you no the head with a frying pan, is that a form of cooking?”

- A large point in the last ~1/3 of Carol’s talk was that in her view, feminism should not mean that only men are responsible for “rape.” Women can be wrong, make stupid decisions that lead to sex, etc. For example, if both are drunk, why should the man automatically be the only one held accountable for the sexual act that follows when the woman later decides she didn’t want it? On this point, I’m not sure how I feel. I think “no” should mean “no” no matter what, but I understand the point in theory, that the default should not necessarily be that it’s the man’s fault. But as I write this, Carol is talking about studies where “no”: (1) is hard for sometimes women to say clearly, (2) sometimes hard for the man to hear / understand, and (3) it isn’t always clear that “no” DOES mean “no.” As in, she doesn’t always mean it, it’s a token resistance, it means “convince me,” etc. I think that says more about our culture of sex and culture of language than accountability, though.

Wrap-up: I think from the last paragraph, you can tell that I enjoyed this talk and found it both topical to the conference (“skepticism and the brain”) and skepticism. It was also stimulating (brain-wise -> thinking-wise), and I think that Carol is a good speaker, having control of her audience.

Keynote Talk: Can Churches Survive the New Transparency?

Presented by Daniel Dennett. I missed the first few minutes because I decided to try to make to the lavatory, but there was a mad rush / line so I gave up and came back at 5:49. Dennett was in the middle of a diagram of the Great Tree of Life.

- “I respect their opinions. They’re wrong, but I respect their opinions.”

- AJ Johnson: “The internet is the best thing to happen to atheism since Darwin.”

- Dennett brought up a “recursive hall of mirrors” effect. That in 1975, thousands of people knew that thousands of priests had sexually abused children. Today, millions of people know that millions of people know that thousands of priests have sexually abused minors. That raises an interesting paradigm shift, and various organizations are struggling to cope with that new amount of “mutual knowledge” that “changes the epistemological environment in which all organizations must survive.”

- Dennet spent awhile drawing parallels between cells (biology) and cells (social), specifically the Japanese Tea Ceremony, Debutants, Ponzi schemes, and the Catholic Church. They all have energy capture, reproduction, and a membrane (to keep out the bad and let in the good).

- “It takes 20 years to raise a Christian. It takes only a few minutes to lose one.”

- Drawing a similarity with churches: “If the mafia had only opened a few more daycare centers, maybe they’d still be going strong.”

Wrap-Up: Overall, I’m not sure this keynote was great. I found parts of it really interesting, parts of it not so much. The comparisons between biological cells and social cells was interesting. Unfortunately, an hour is a long time, and you have to have a really good speaker not only for a keynote, but also to just speak and hold an audience’s attention for an hour. Dennett was good … but I’m not entirely sure he’s THAT good. (Says the guy who’s never been a keynote speaker.)

After

Dinner at TAM is always on your own unless you buy into the special dinners which are for fund-raising. Having had a 1000-calorie lunch, I opted to stay in my room and attempt to briefly catch up on sleep for an hour or two. I plan to meet some folks at the infamous (for TAMers) Del Mar lounge around 9, and then head to Penn’s bacon and doughnut party which starts at 11, but I’ll probably head up around 10:30 to get in fast — last year, there was a long line that formed. LOOONNNNGGGGGG.

#TAM2014, Day 1, Morning

Filed under: general science,skepticism — Stuart Robbins @ 11:58 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Introduction

Well, last year I didn’t get past day 1. I thought I would. Yeah … didn’t. So, I thought that this year, I would just try to live-blog this where “live” is me writing, not posting. This will also help keep me awake because of the massive sleep deprivation that usually accompanies TAM. So, this will be a bit more stream-of-what-happened than last time.

Waking Up, First Things

I did not get a meal ticket this year, so I got up between 7:30 and 8:20 (yes, it can take awhile to get up, my pillow has a large gravitational field), and I had a truffle for breakfast. I headed down to the main hall and sat down at the fifth table on the right side in a seat saved for me by THE Karl Mamer and “Nigel St. Whitehall.” We talked very briefly, they read the newspaper, and I worked on proofing a paper that took a year to get accepted and they give me 48 hours to tell them if their typesetting is accurate.

Introductory Remarks, George Hrab

George Hrab did the introduction again this year, and it was a pretty humorous video that included cameos by the Novellum and others. All about Randi exposing The Truth.

The only problem with it was that it exposed the A/V issues bright and early on Day 1, yet again. In this case, the video kept stuttering and pausing, in some cases for a second every-other-second. Fairly pathetic. Allow me to explain why this is not a minor quibble for me: this is a known thing, that A/V at TAM has issues. It is in Las Vegas, at a major hotel/casino. Smaller hotels, smaller conferences, lower budget conferences, and higher budget conferences, all that I’ve been to, don’t have A/V issues.

Okay, I will try not to rant anymore. Here were some of the more humorous quotes by George:

“There are as many answers in Answers in Genesis than history on the History Channel.”

Dr. Oz testifying at Congress: “it was so good to see an advocate of raw food, get grilled.”

Regarding the re-doing of Cosmos: “Originally it was going to be subtitled, ‘Let’s piss off some fundamentalists.'”

Introductory Remarks, DJ Grothe

1038 attendees, 23 countries represented, including United Arab Emirates, large contingent from Australia, India, Japan, Norway, Russia, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK. (I didn’t get all of countries down.

There were many scholarships this year. Brian Walker funded 20 educators to come to TAM. Sara Mayhew also raised funds for many people to attend. 26 people were funded by JREF forum members.

Perhaps most interestingly, for the first time ever, we get free wi-if in the TAM meeting room (I just switched over to it). Yay!

Oh, and lots of sponsors, etc. etc.

Introductory Remarks, Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer spoke next, probably because his organization was the primary sponsor of TAM.

Introductory Remarks, Randi

Randi was introduced at 9:25, and started by parking his cane and telling it to “stay.”

Randi announced that Massimo Palidoro (sure I messed that up) is writing a book about Randi. And that we are supposed to try to find him, say hi, and offer all information we have about Randi.

Based on a show of hands, it appeared from where I was sitting that well over half of the attendees saw a showing of a documentary that had been made of Randi, “An Honest Liar.”

Randi was getting fairly sentimental about a review of the history of TAM and all of us coming, and he said the following: “I want to thank you from the very bottom of my heart, as if there’s a place down there that stores these things …” He got to the sentimental part after a few minutes and left the stage to a half-standing ovation. I almost wonder if sometimes the jokes are a coping mechanism.

Panel: Can Rationality Be Taught

This panel had: Daniel Dennett, Julia Galef, Barbara Dresher, and Scott Lilienfeld. It started at 9:36, and they went to questions at 10:25 and ended at 10:31.

Based on opening remarks by most of the panel, “thinking is hard” (as Scott put it). Critical thinking / rationality can be taught to some extent, but not all the way. The example that Scott used was brilliant Nobel Prize winners who are at the top of their field, but then believe in the lamest pseudoscience in other fields (my words, not his).

- A point made by Barbara was that intelligence is definitely not equal to rationality or critical thinking. FYI, today I wore my, “Critical Thinking: it’s not just for smart people” t-shirt.

- People get invested in their views, particularly scientists and philosophers (and, I would add, pseudoscientists), and it was argued that that can be a good thing.

- “When we debunk these beliefs, we assume that everyone’s going to be as rational as we are, but that’s not always the case.”

- On backfiring, Daniel was talking about a conference he went to where there was a debate, and afterwards MORE people believed in the pseudoscience. He asked people why, and the response was: “If you smart people work this hard to disprove it, there must be something to it!”

- More on the backlash point, Scott raised the issue that while we can do debunking, and that it can be important, we also have to be careful to emphasize RIGHT information, rather than just focusing on WRONG information.

- Another point raised, I think by Julia, was that we almost inoculate ourselves from realizing that some of our beliefs/thoughts are wrong because it’s SOOOOO obvious that homeopathy and astrology don’t work, but that OUR beliefs look nothing like those, so … .

That was an interesting point for me, something I hadn’t really thought of, and is why I try to be generally open to new ideas. This is why critical thinking is so important. It’s not what you think, it’s how you think about it, how you reach that conclusion. That’s also what separates science from dogma.

Wrap-up: Not entirely sure how much I got out of this panel. It could be my aversion to philosophy or that the panel would have been better for me 6 years ago, when I was just starting to self-identify as a skeptic and didn’t know as much about skepticism stuff. This hour-long panel was followed by a 15-minute coffee break.

Talk: Fifty Shades of Gray Matter: Healthy Skepticism & the Illuminated Brain

This talk was given by Sally Satel. It started at 10:50, ended 11:16.

A/V issues continues this talk, where for some reason the tech people think that we actually want to see the speaker standing there talking most of the time, instead of seeing the slides that the speaker prepared to show to talk with. Sigh.

Anyway, I thought the talk topic was interesting, even though I was familiar with most of it.

- “When we focus only on the brain, we are in neurocentrism.” (or something to that effect)

20140711-110537-39937858.jpg

- The military implemented Operation Golden Flow, which was an attempt to mitigate heroin addiction when soldiers were coming back from Vietnam. It required a urine sample. Oye.

- “No one who is obese chooses to be fat [or maybe she said wants to be fat], but it’s a build up of incremental [feel-good] moments.”

Wrap-up: Overall, I thought this talk was interesting, but I don’t think it had much to do with skepticism. If this were a general science conference, sure! The only real connection was skepticism about whether the brain is the level at which intervention should be, or if it’s more psychological type interventions. I think.

Talk: Uses and Abuses of Brain Imaging: A Skeptic’s Guide

This talk was given by Scott Lilienfeld. It started at 11:17, ended at 11:50.

20140711-112258-40978109.jpg

- Interesting point about The Winner’s Curse, where in fMRI scans, especially with small sample sizes, there is a lot of noise in the imaging technique. To the point that they got a positive signal of brain activity from a dead salmon.

I found this one particularly interesting because it’s the EXACT SAME THING that I see in a lot of astronomy-based pseudoscience. The problem is people simply do not understand the inherent limits of their data. They thi that it’s a pixel, it has a certain value, that value is, well, certain, therefore (insert interpretation). But it’s just image noise.

- He went into issues with reverse inference, something I hadn’t heard of before. But, it sounded basically like the correlation = causation fallacy. Application to fMRI-based lie detectors. Or that you “literally love” your iPhone.

Wrap-up: I thought this was also interesting, and a bit more skeptical-oriented.

Keynote Talk: a History of Skepticism as Detailed in the Pages of Scientific American

This was given by Marriette di Christina. It would have started at 11:52, but due to more technical A/V issues, it was delayed until 11:58. I’ll refer back to my rant at the start of this post: for everything that the JREF pays for for this conference, WTF is wrong with these guys!?!?

I actually did not stay for this keynote, but I left early so I could get a quick lunch and finish up some work and nap before the 2:00 panel.

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