Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 11, 2014

#TAM2014, Day 1, Afternoon

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


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: , , , , ,


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)


– 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.


– 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.

Podcast Episode 115: The Electric Universe, Part 1, with Dr. Tom Bridgman

Overview of the
Electric Universe! Been
A long time coming.

Happy TAM for all those who are here in Vegas, and attending TAM. As my own kick-off, since (for those who don’t know) today’s the first official day of stuff, we have Episode 115 of the podcast, the Electric Universe, Part 1. Part 2 will be out later this month where we’ll get more into the electric sun ideas, and why they fail. In other words, while this episode is an overview of the concept, and a lot of the history, the next episode is going to get more to specific examples of predictions and how the data fail to support them.

And, that’s about it. I’m writing this a day ahead of time, sitting in the Las Vegas airport for an hour.5 waiting for the airport shuttle so I don’t have to pay for a taxi. And I got 3 hours of sleep last night. So …

Oh, and the interview, for those who don’t read the title of the blog post, is with Dr. Tom Bridgman of the “Dealing with Creationism in Astronomy” blog.

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