Exposing PseudoAstronomy

September 21, 2014

Philosophy: On Skepticism and Challengers


Introduction

I’m taking a break because I don’t want to work on this proposal at the moment. I’m great at procrastination, when I get around to it.

Anyway, I want to muse philosophical-like for a few minutes, reacting to some recent things I’ve heard regarding skepticism and people challenging your views.

“Healthy” Skepticism

George Noory, the now >1 decade primary host of late-night paranormal radio program Coast to Coast AM, had Dr. Judy Wood on his program for the first two hours of his “tribute” to the September 11, 2001 (I refuse to call it “9/11″ because I think that trivializes it — we all have our quirks) terrorist attacks. Judy Wood is author of the book, “Where Did the Towers Go?” Her thesis is that a directed “zero-point energy” weapon “dustified” the towers, or that they suffered “dustification.”

It was a very difficult interview for George, I’m sure, since Judy refused to speculate on anything. I’m also growing slightly more convinced that he may have questions written down on cue cards because he asked the exact same question a few minutes apart (“how much energy is required to ‘dustify’ the towers?”) and she refused to speculate both times. Just repeating what she “knows she knows that she knows.” She is also incredibly defensive and clearly doesn’t know what the word “theory” is.

All that aside, early in the interview, George did a tiny disclaimer saying that they always get people writing or calling in saying that doing shows like that is unpatriotic and/or disrespectful to everyone who died in the attacks and the aftermath. But, that it’s healthy to have skepticism and to always question the official story.

*cough*

Okay, George, you are correct in theory (yes, I used that word purposely), but completely wrong in practice. Skepticism does not mean doubting or denying or not accepting everything. Skepticism, as we use the term today, means to not accept something unless we have good evidence to do so. It’s a method of investigation, to look into claims, examine the evidence, and put it in context with all the other evidence and plausibility given what has been established about the way the world works.

At least, that’s how I tend to define it, and it’s how I tend to practice it.

Do I believe “the government” on everything? No. For example, President Obama recently announced that the US is going to take on ISIS in some form or fashion, but that there would be “no boots on the ground.” Given past experience when politicians have said that, and given the realities of ISIS and the Middle East area in general, I’m … shall we say … “skeptical,” and I will reserve acceptance of his statement until it actually plays out.

Do I believe that NASA “tampers” with photographs of the moon to “airbrush out” ancient ruins and alien artifacts, or do I accept what “they” give us? (I put “they” in quotes because “NASA” is an organizational administration within the federal government; it’s the people involved who do everything, and it’s contractors and grant awardees who deal with data and other things.) I accept what they give us. I tend to not question it.

Why? Because of past experience and my own experience in investigating the claims to the contrary. I look at other images of the area from multiple spacecraft. From spacecraft from other countries. They are consistent. They don’t show different kinds of anomalies you’d need in order to have the scenario that the conspiracists claim is happening. They do show what you’d expect if the data were faithfully represented, as it was taken, after standard spacecraft and basic data reduction steps (like correcting for geometric distortion based on how the spacecraft was pointed, or removing artifacts from dust on the lens).

George, there is a difference between healthy skepticism – looking into claims – and beating a dead horse. Or beating over 3000 dead victims to a terrorist attack.

There is no plausibility to Dr. Wood’s arguments. Her claims made to back them up are factually wrong. (Expat has addressed some of them in his blog, here, here, here, and here.) She is ridiculously defensive, refuses to delve further into her model to actually back it up, and has a name for herself only because people like you give her airtime to promote her ideas. True skepticism is to examine the arguments from both sides and draw a conclusion based on what’s real and what’s most probable. Which has been done by thousands of people who debunk every single claim the conspiracists make about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But you won’t go to them. You bring on Dr. Wood, or people from the Architects and Engineers for Truth.

A one-sided investigation is not faithful, not genuine, and is disrespectful to everyone.

Challenging Your Conclusions

In a related vein, but completely different context, I was reading through my RSS news feeds and came upon the headline to the effect (because it’s disappeared from my feed since I started to write this): Michelle Obama explains to school children that challenges [probably, though I read it as "challengers"] are a good thing.

So true. Most people in the skeptical movement know that this is “a True.” Most scientists know this is “a True.” Most pseudoscientists are vehemently against being challenged.

I’ll take the subject of my last blog post to illustrate this example, not that I want to pick on him per se, but he’s the last person I listened to in detail that I can use to illustrate this point, other than Dr. Wood, who I discussed much more than I want to in the above section. Mike Bara.

Mike was somewhat recently on another late-night (though not quite as late) internet radio program, “Fade to Black,” where Jimmy Church is the host. It’s on Art Bell’s “Dark Matter Radio Network,” where I was also a guest several months ago. I have since called in twice to the program, both times to discuss the possibility of debating Mike Bara on some of his claims.

The very brief backstory on that is Mike was on Coast to Coast, and basically attacked me. I called in, George said he’d arrange a debate, then stopped responding to my e-mails. A year later, the same thing happened, and George actually e-mailed me (I couldn’t call in because I lost power that night — happens sometimes in the mountains of Colorado, though we now have a generator), he wanted to arrange a debate, he claimed on air that I had stopped responding to his e-mails … and then he stopped responding to mine so the debate never happened. Later, I learned that it was Mike who may have dropped his acceptance. I related that to Jimmy.

Jimmy asked Mike if he’d be willing to debate me, and Mike’s response was effectively, “what do I get out of it?” Mike opined that what I (Stuart) would get out of it is a platform and attention which, according to Mike, I so desperately want (or maybe that’s Michael Horn’s claim about me … I get some of what each says is my motivation a bit confused). Meanwhile, Mike already has attention, so he said that he wouldn’t get anything out of it and therefore didn’t want to do it. Jimmy countered that it would make great radio (which I agree with).

I did call in, but unfortunately Mike got dropped when Jimmy tried to bring me in. It was the last 10 minutes of the program, anyway, so I told Jimmy what I thought we both (me and Mike) would get out of it: We would each have to back up what we say, and when challenged, it forces us in a radio setting to make our arguments concise, easily understandable, and actually back up what we’re saying.

That’s what we do in science: We have to back up what we say. We expect to get challenged, we expect to have people doubt our work, we expect to have people check our work, and we expect people to challenge our conclusions. Only the best ideas that can stand up to such scrutiny survive. That’s how science progresses. That’s where pseudoscience fails. Science is not a democracy, and it is not a communistic system where every idea is the same and equal as every other idea. It’s a meritocracy. Only the ideas that have merit, that stand up to scrutiny, survive.

The point of science is to develop a model of how the world works. If your model clearly does not describe how the world works and make successful predictions (and have repeatable evidence and have evidence that actually stands up to scrutiny), then it gets dropped.

Final Thoughts

I hope you found these musings at least mildly interesting. And let me know if you agree or disagree. Challenge my ideas, but if you do so, make sure you back them up!

September 19, 2014

A Quick Post on Pareidolia


First, the subject of this post: A study into pareidolia has won an Ig Nobel Prize. (If you don’t know what the Ig Nobels are, go to the link and read.) This study has six authors and is published in the journal Cortex: “Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia.” (sorry, it’s behind a paywall)

Why am I posting about this? Well, some of my run-ins over the years have involved Mike Bara, most notably with respect to a lunar ziggurat (his belief in a step pyramid on the far side of the moon). The argument, which took place over the course of several months, never involved pareidolia, but in the course of the argument, Mike made this statement:

“The actual truth is that there is no such thing as “Pareidolia.” It’s just a phony academic sounding word the debunkers made up to fool people into thinking there is scholarly weight behind the concept. It’s actually a complete sham. … The word was actually first coined by a douchebag debunker (is that my first “douchebag” in this piece?! I must be getting soft) named Steven Goldstein in a 1994 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Since then, every major debunker from Oberg to “Dr. Phil” has fallen back on it, but it is still a load of B.S. There is no such thing.”

In other words, very explicitly stating that pareidolia does not exist. He thinks it’s a made-up term (it’s not, or it isn’t any more made up than any other word in language) for a made-up thing. When pressed about this point, Mike has claimed that his stance is at least partly based on the “fact” that there are no scientific studies that talk about pareidolia. That there are neurological disorders about people seeing things that aren’t real, but nothing on pareidolia.

Even if that were true (it’s not — at the very least, the above-mentioned paper proves that), just because a term is not described in medical studies with clinical research (and it is, the above-mentioned paper proves that) does not mean the phenomenon is not real.

I’m looking out my window now and I see a cloud that looks exactly like a mouse, complete with two ears, a snout, an eye, and a long body with tail. That doesn’t mean there is a giant mouse in the sky, nor does that mean that my brain is subject to some rare neurological disorder. It means I’m like every other person: My brain subconsciously (or consciously sometimes) tries desperately to fit randomness into something familiar.

That’s what pareidolia is, and it is a real phenomenon regardless of what you want to call it and regardless of whether scientific studies use the term or have researched it. (As a side-note, there are plenty of real phenomena and real things that have not been specifically and formally researched – much less published – in the broad disciplines of science. I’m in the midst of writing several research proposals at the moment, and a key part to these is past work — in several cases, there simply isn’t any, I’ll be the first person to study them. That’s part of the point of science.)

Now, if Mike happens to see this post and deign to respond, I suspect he will claim it’s one study, or it’s done by skeptics, or some such thing, and continue to deny that pareidolia exists. Why? I of course cannot know the workings of his mind, but I would suspect that it’s because that admission would then require a re-evaluation of most of what he claims, since much of his “evidence” for ancient aliens on the moon and Mars and elsewhere is simply pareidolia. Such as the tank or airplane hanger on the moon, or cities and faces on Mars. And he’s unwilling to do that, so he fights very hard to defend his claim that pareidolia is not only a made up term, but a made up phenomenon that doesn’t exist.

Remember that the next time you see Micky Mouse on Mercury, or a smiley face with a colon and close-parenthesis : )


Side-Note: I wanted to give you all a brief update on my silence lately. I’m still very busy. I’m in the middle of proposal-writing season and just submitted a grant proposal on Wednesday, have another due in 2 weeks, and two more due three weeks after that. Plus, I’m changing jobs, which means desperately trying to tie up several projects on one end while starting others on the other end. I am very much hoping to get back to things after the October 3 proposal is due, but I’m not sure yet if that’ll be when everything calms down or if it’ll be a bit longer.

September 1, 2014

Podcast Episode 117: Eyewitness Accounts and UFOs, Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Loftus


Human memory,
UFO reports, and their
Reli’bility.

Finally, a new episode is out. I saw Dr. Elizabeth Loftus talk at TAM this year, and I asked her to come on the podcast to discuss her research into human memory and how malleable human memory is, with implications for UFO reports.

I tend not to discuss UFO = aliens much on my blog or podcast. That’s because so much of the claimed evidence these days has mostly to do with eyewitness reports which I really find fairly unconvincing. I also find the Argument from Authority angle – that this was a report made by a “trained observer” or someone with “impeccable credentials” – very off-putting, for it really doesn’t mean their memory is any better than anyone else’s, it’s just an attempt by the proponent to make it sound more trustworthy.

What Dr. Loftus discusses in the roughly 15-minute interview are some of the details of her research over the past three decades into how much human memory can be manipulated. She hasn’t studied UFO reports in particular, so could not directly comment on that, but she is familiar enough with them and with the topic of how to interview a witness and how manipulate memory in general that she could comment on it.

Do to ongoing ridiculously large and numerous time commitments, I’m not sure how many episodes I can put out this month, so it’s possible that this one is it. Hopefully not, but we’ll see.

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 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
Tags: , , , , , ,

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
Tags: , , , , ,

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
Tags: , , , , ,

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
Tags: , , , , ,

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.”

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