Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 5, 2014

How to Not Understand Science and Use that to Say Science Is Wrong


Introduction

Given the large amount of work I spent on my two-part 1.75-hr podcast episodes on James McCanney’s “science,” I thought it appropriate to get a Swift blog post out of the effort. This post was geared more towards a general audience and so I used one of McCanney’s quotes to discuss a common problem that we face as scientists, we face as science communicators, and we face as skeptics (where “we” is a different group in those three instances, and I consider myself a member of each).

This is reproduced from what I originally sent the editor on the JREF Swift blog.

Swift Blog Post #3

As a scientist and attempted science communicator (and skeptic in my copious free time), one of the difficulties I face is that science is not other-people-friendly. In fact, most of us work on tasks so specific that we often face difficulties explaining what we do to colleagues, much less people who are not scientists, so it’s rarely even other-scientists-slightly-outside-our-field-friendly.

Since I also play a skeptic on the internet, I have the added issue that terms, phrases, and analogies I may try to use to explain a concept could very easily be misconstrued by a pseudoscientist to support their pet idea. For example, if I talk about an “image anomaly,” to other scientists, this means something like a spot of dust on the lens (usually appears as a darker doughnut shape on the image) or a cosmic ray that makes a bright spot or streak. To a pseudoscientist, it could mean an apartment complex on Mars or an alien space ship near the sun.

This especially becomes an issue when people use those misconceptions to turn around and say that some well established model in science is wrong, and spread those views.

For example, I recently completed a two-part podcast series (episode part 1, part 2) on the ideas and misconceptions of “Professor” James McCanney (I place “Professor” in quotes because he is introduced as such, but he has not taught for over 30 years after he was fired from two teaching jobs, and he does not have a doctorate). Mr. McCanney has many misconceptions about the universe, but one that struck me was this, stated on the Coast to Coast AM radio program on 30 August, 2007:

“When astronomers take their picture of the universe, and they start looking back, and they say, uh– ‘We’re looking back in time,’ and now scientists say they’ve seen objects that are only 500 million years after the Big Bang. But the only problem is they’re in all directions, when we look out in all directions. So if you actually were seeing objects that were only 500 million years after the Big Bang, they would have to be consolidating in some location in the sky near where the original Big Bang had to be. But that’s not the case, they’re all over the sky.”

This was one of his primary stated reasons for saying the Big Bang was wrong, doesn’t make sense, and observations do not support it.

The problem is that this is a gross misunderstanding of the science, and because of that misunderstanding, he concludes that the science is wrong. This example is, in part, a manifestation of an issue we scientists face: Trying to explain a geometrically and spatially complicated idea that goes against your every-day experience.

The analogy in common culture for the Big Bang is that it’s an explosion. In our every-day experience, explosions happen at a specific place. Therefore, if the Big Bang was an explosion, shouldn’t it have happened in a certain place? Ergo, shouldn’t what Mr. McCanney said – that we should see stuff only get younger towards the original spot of that explosion – be correct? And if the evidence doesn’t show that, doesn’t it mean the Big Bang is wrong?

Herein lies the problem with your every-day experience: The Big Bang model holds that the universe did not “start somewhere,” but rather it “started the somewhere.” You cannot have the event that created the universe – all of space and time as we know it – happen within the universe itself. It’s like saying that you, yourself, started in your big toe, or your ear, and grew out from that. But you didn’t: Your entire physical self started with your entire physical self (a single cell) – you cannot point to a specific part of yourself where you started.

The same is the case with the universe. The reason why there is no center of the universe, or no specific spot where we can look towards where the Big Bang occurred, is that it was an explosion of space, not in space.

Another common analogy that’s used is to think of a balloon. The surface of that balloon is a 2D representation of the 3D universe. That 2D representation is warped in 3D, just as our 3D universe is likely warped in 4D or higher spatial dimensions. If you think of a squished, completely deflated balloon, you could say that it’s just a tiny speck and that surface (our universe) doesn’t yet exist. Now, blow air into the balloon, and the surface exists and expands. If you were on that surface and you looked in any direction, you would see the surface. If light travelled really slowly, then you would see that surface as it appeared further back in time.

And that’s what we see when we look out into the universe: As we look farther and farther away, we look further and further back in time, and we see a much younger universe. In all directions. Including the cosmic microwave background radiation, which if what the universe “looked like” just about 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

This observation is what one should and would predict if the Big Bang is the correct model for the initial stages of the universe’s existence.

To bring this full-circle, this kind of observation – the very one Mr. McCanney says contradicts the Big Bang and that’s one reason why he doesn’t believe it – is actually an observation that supports the Big Bang.

But, trying to grasp why this is what you should predict from the Big Bang model is not easy. It goes against what you normally think of when you think “explosion.” Or of really anything happening in the universe, which, by definition, is everything we’ve ever observed or experienced. It is a common misunderstanding, but it’s one that comes from an attempt to simplify the science in a way to easily explain it to non-scientists.

That’s why, as skeptics, we always need to be aware of simplifications and analogies used by science communicators: While it may be done with the best of intentions to try to convey a complex concept, it can introduce further misunderstandings. And, given the right person (or wrong person, depending on your point of view), that misunderstanding can be used to promote pseudoscience.

November 3, 2014

Podcast Episode 119: The Norway Spiral


The Norway Spiral
Is now a catch-all for lots
Of diff’rent ideas.

The long-expected but -delayed Norway Spiral episode is out. It has a little bit for everyone, nearly 5 minutes of Richard Hoagland, and I leave you to make up your own mind in the end.

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.

Due 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 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 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.”

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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