Exposing PseudoAstronomy

September 26, 2012

What’s a Skeptic?


This short post is meant to be a bit interactive, at least through the comments. The subject is, what is a skeptic?

I use the term to describe myself: I’m a skeptic. Or, perhaps just like the PC term being that someone “has schizophrenia” versus “are schizophrenic,” I am skeptical. I would put forward that a good scientist is skeptical, and that anyone who is a critical thinker is skeptical.

But people like Alex Tsakiris, George Noory, Mike Bara, and others whom scientists would generally term “pseudoscientists” also say that they themselves are skeptical, and that people like me are “close-minded skeptics/debunkers.” Meanwhile, people like Michael Horn claim that “skepticism” is a religion.

I could go through lengthy etymology and modern usage that might make an English major or a language scholar swoon, but no one else, really. Instead, this is how I define the term, and why I think that people such as those whom I term “pseudoscientists” are anything but skeptical:

To be skeptical means to reserve judgement on the veracity of a new claim that is different from what has been previously established. The established idea is effectively the null hypothesis — the idea that will stand if the new one is shown to not have enough supporting evidence. The evidence for the new claim must be evaluated on its own merits, and if valid, it must be weighed against the evidence for the established idea. To be accepted, the new idea must have at least as much evidence for it as the old claim, and it should also explain why the evidence in support of the old claim is faulty and/or be evidence for the new claim just as well. Any idea that’s rejected is always subject to re-analysis upon submission of additional data.

So, for example, if someone makes a claim that — oh, I dunno — there’s a kilometer-sized ziggurat on the Moon, that’s the new claim. The null hypothesis is that there is no ziggurat on the Moon. There are many different lines of argument that support the null hypothesis (no one to build it, no astronaut talking about it, no other photographs showing it), while there is one photo circulating the internet that is the evidence for it. When examining that individual photograph, many anomalies come up that indicate it is more likely than not that the ziggurat in that one image is fake. With doubts as to the authenticity of the single image with the ziggurat, the evidence for it is very small, and it is completely overshadowed by the evidence for the null hypothesis.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that there is no ziggurat, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As another example, one could take astrology. The null hypothesis is that astrology does not work, and there is no known physical mechanism that would allow it to work. Evidence that people have put forward for astrology working is, in sum and substance, anecdotal (“I got a reading and it was accurate!”). In fact, I saw an astrologer recently argue that because more people believe in astrology than any one religion, and since Americans spend $hundreds of millions of dollars on astrology per year, that it’s real. Meanwhile, every large, controlled experiment that has tried to test the validity of astrological predictions has shown a negative result.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that astrology does not make accurate, specific predictions, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As a scientist, I operate the same way. When I write a paper, I have to provide evidence to support my conclusions. If my conclusions contradict previous work, I have to go through the evidence that others have used to support their conclusions and show that it was wrong, wrongly interpreted, and/or can support my conclusions just as well. If I can’t do this, then no one is going to believe me over the established results that do have evidence.

Anyway, these are my musings on the subject. The idea for this post came while listening to yet another pseudoscientist (who shall remain nameless …) claim to a large audience, “Hey, I’m a true skeptic – not like those debunkers – and that’s why I can openly look at the evidence for [paranormal claim] and accept it!”

What are your thoughts? Do you agree, disagree, and why?

August 2, 2012

Podcast Episode 46: Immanuel Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision”


The many times requested episode on Immanuel Velikovsky has arrived, and it’s arrived for the first anniversary of my podcast. Yup, the first episode, on the “dark side” of the moon, came out August 1, 2011. Hard to believe that it’s been a year.

This episode’s main segment is over 20 minutes long, and yet it’s an incredibly abridged episode discussing a distillation of his ideas from “Worlds in Collision,” his first book. I go over some of Velikovsky’s bio, the politics surrounding him when he introduced his book in 1950, and then a few of the lines of evidence he used plus several refutations of his argument.

This episode may seem a tad preachy at some points. It’s hard when talking about Velikovsky to address his evidence because there really is none for his claims, so I used it to discuss how one should and should not go about science, and how Velikovsky failed at it. Rather than using available observations and making his ideas, and then forming testable predictions from them, he instead threw out most branches of science and relied on scattered myths throughout the world for his evidence. Sorry, that ain’t how it’s done.

As the first anniversary episode, I go over some obligatory stats at the end. I’m relying on all of you to increase them for August 1, 2013. 🙂

November 7, 2010

Follow-Up 1: Major American University Advertising Pseudoscience


Introduction

This post is a follow-up to my first post from two weeks ago, “Major American University Advertising Pseudoscience?” I strongly suggest reading it first.

If you don’t, a very brief summary is:

  • The University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder) is a Research I university with 4 Nobel Prize winners on staff, 3 in physics and 1 in chemistry.
  • CU-Boulder has licensed Power|Force to use CU’s logo on PowerForce’s products and CU-Boulder is actively advertising for the product.
  • The product is a bracelet that, in the company’s own words, was “developed to work with your body’s natural inner force … [because] within each Power Force powerband are ions that work with your body’s energy.”
  • This is a fundamentally meaningless statement and in the opinion of many, fraud.
  • This was pointed out to CU-Boulder administration, which replied in an e-mail claiming that magnetic therapy (no mention of ions) is a clinically verified science.
  • See my first post as to why that is not true.

Edited to Add: Rachael, the respondee, has posted her reply to the correspondence I copy below on her own blog. I recommend you read it. I found it humorous that in both of our follow-up posts, we switched around where originally I was the aloof, polite, rational one and she was snarky, and for this follow-up I was more flippant while she was more diplomatic.

Further Correspondence

I was one of three people whom the original person notified of the advertising of PowerForce by CU-Boulder during football games (that person prefers to remain anonymous, but I have verified the basic claims in my previous post). One of the other people was less lazy than I, and in addition to writing her own blog post about this, sent a letter onto CU-Boulder’s administration. Her reply (and I have received permission to include the reply on my blog as well as post her name), comes not from the Chancellor’s e-mail this time, but Bronson Hilliard, the “Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson” at CU-Boulder.

Dear Rachael:

Allow me to answer your query regarding the University’s athletic marketing of the “Power Force” Power Band.

First, let me explain that the previous response that went out to a few individuals who e-mailed Chancellor DiStefano was supposed to be a reply on behalf of the chancellor by a staff member in our Buffalo Sports Properties office, not areply from the chancellor himself. I apologize for the way the reply was worded – it was confusing as to who the author actually was.

Regarding your query: members of the senior administration staff have carefully reviewed your concerns, looked into the University’s contract with the company that markets the bands, examined our peer universities’ relationships with the company, and reached the following conclusions:

· As you suggest, the claims of the company regarding the efficacy of the band aren’t based on firm scientific ground. However, the band is being marketed by through the athletic department as a novelty with affinity-inspired athletic branding that is unique to CU Athletics. The symbol it uses – the charging Ralphie – represents CU sports teams, not the university as a whole, and certainly not its research entities.

· In the same spirit, our sports-labeled products include everything from sweat bands to golf tees tolawn gnomes. These are all designed to create affinity and build school spirit, not to be literal representations of the University and its academic work.

· Likewise, the company is offering the same Powerforce Power Bands for universities that include Cal, Penn State, Missouri, Pitt and a host of other peer schools. These are quality institutions that, like us, have elected to promote a novelty item with an athletic logo for affinity and commercial purposes.

I appreciate your concern and that of your fellow graduate students and otherskeptics. Your respect for science and the scientific method is manifest inyour concern, and your dedication to advancing our highest academic values is impressive.

We do not believe in the end, however, that novelty items like the “Power Force Power Band” are threats to these values.

Sincerely,

Bronson R. Hilliard, director of media relations and spokesperson
University of Colorado at Boulder

An Analysis of Mr. Hilliard’s E-Mail

In this analysis, I am going to translate Mr. Hilliard’s message from that of a media relations person to what it actually says (implies) to those of us who have been pursuing this. My translations are in quotes, my comments are not in quotes. Note that I am not actually claiming that Mr. Hilliard actually said the things I put in quotes, these are just my translations from what I infer.

First Paragraph Translation: I’m not certain to what this is referring, perhaps Rachael in her original e-mail accidentally complained that the message about magnetic healing came from the Chancellor, which it actually did, though in the form of a forward from someone else. Regardless, this paragraph is unimportant as it is stated.

Second Paragraph Translation: “Here’s what we’ve decided:”

Third Paragraph / First Bullet Translation: “Agreed, PowerForce’s claims are meaningless, but I’m being as cagey as I can in stating that. But we’re not actually claiming it works, we’re just marketing it. Oh, and by the way, that CU logo? That doesn’t actually represent CU.” I would consider this an Inconsistency fallacy. Another person has suggested it’s simply an “absurdity” fallacy (not a formal logical fallacy, mind you, but one that works just as well). This claim might be, on paper, true, but anyone in the general public who sees any logo related to CU is not going to separate a sports logo from an academic logo or whatever Mr. Hilliard is claiming.

Fourth Paragraph / Second Bullet Translation: “I hope that what I’m saying is convincing you. ‘Cause, you know, we market other stuff like clothing with the CU logo but I’m saying that those don’t represent the University, either. I mean, a hoodie can really be risqué and we don’t want people to think CU administration really wants to present that image!” Alright, I may have gone slightly over the top with that translation, but in all seriousness, how naïve can a director of media relations be? Or how naïve does he seriously expect us to be? This is a False Equivalency fallacy. He’s attempting to shift the burden of proof to us, which I would claim that I (and others involved in this) have more than met (again, see my first post on this). What my/our point, though, is how can the bracelet and its extraordinary claims be considered a “novelty” that’s simply “designed to create an affinity and build school spirit” if they are being sold with the $29 price tag that claims it comes with magical ions … versus sweatpants that cost the same in the CU bookstore as they would at Target; this is not the same thing (the false equivalency fallacy). No one claims that the garden gnomes that CU sells are going to be like the garden gnomes in Harry Potter, but the claims that come with the bracelets are about as magical as that book/movie series.

Fifth Paragraph / Third Bullet Translation: “By the way, lots of other kewl skools also license this stuff, why don’t you go bug them? We’re just doin’ what everybody else is.” Follow-up: “Oh, everyone else is jumping off a cliff? Sure! I’d love to!” Yeah, that’s pretty much what it boils down to, a very very Skeptics 101 fallacy of Argument ad Populum (AKA Argument from Popularity). As a fellow skeptic pointed out in e-mail to me, this is actually an opportunity for CU-Boulder to take the high road and show these other schools that they are giving their name and logo to this company. As opposed to taking what many may consider a coward’s approach: hiding behind these other schools and jumping on the “everybody’s doin’ it!” bandwagon.

Sixth Paragraph Translation: “By the way, the space bar on my computer isn’t working. But isn’t it cute that there are some of you trying to pursue this? [Insert some trite compliments.]” I don’t think much more needs to be said about this paragraph but I in my infinite verbosity will, anyway. If what preceded it had been different – perhaps owning up and taking some responsibility – then this paragraph would not have come off quite as patronizing as it does. It also was interesting that a Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson for CU-Boulder with a student-staff-administration population of well over 40,000 wouldn’t check over his e-mail to look for mistakes as simple as missing spaces between words.

Seventh Paragraph Translation: “For all those reasons, we’re not doing anything about this.”

Final Thoughts

Mr. Hilliard’s e-mail, whether intended or not, and whether ignorantly or not, is naïve in the middle and patronizing at the end. He seems to not realize – or hopes that we don’t realize – that people aren’t going to think of these as “novelty items” in the same way they are going to buy a golf tee as a “novelty item” or a CU-Boulder logo-infused shot glass as a novelty item. Any normal person is going to (1) see a CU logo and (5) assume CU is endorsing it, skipping all those intermediate steps Mr. Hilliard seems to think will lead them to a different conclusion. No one is claiming that a CU-logo-branded mug is going to imbue your morning coffee with extra energetic forces to get you through the day, and because of that charge you an extra $20. But that’s the basic claim of PowerForce – a fairly meaningless jumble of words sewn together like magnetic poetry on your refrigerator.

Rather than actually stand up and admit that there is a problem here that needs to be addressed, this latest e-mail adds yet another layer of naïveté on CU-Boulder, this time in the office (via the Director) of Media Relations. It now seems that this issue has been studied (re: “members of the senior administration staff have carefully reviewed your concerns”) and they are happy with (a) actively promoting a pseudoscientific product, (b) being associated with a company that – to anyone who knows the basics of human physiology and/or chemistry and/or physics and/or critical thinking – is making things up, and (c) allowing that company to market products with the University’s logo and name.

We also have the Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson for CU committing at least three formal logical fallacies: Inconsistency, False Equivalency, and Argument ad populum.

Yet again, I would call on all of you to contact the administration and let them know what you think. Alternatively or in addition to, you might do so at some of the other schools that license PowerForce, especially if your own school is swept up in this.

I also encourage you to get the word out. WordPress in the last several weeks added the common “sharing” buttons that let you tweet/facebook/digg/reddit/stumbleupon/wordpress my posts to let others know about them. Even if you don’t want to get directly involved by contacting school administrations, I encourage you to pass this post along via any or any combination of those links that are pretty easy to use. Someone among your hundreds of Facebook friends or Twitter followers may decide to send a message along to the administration.

Edited to Add: Rachael, the respondee, has posted her reply to the correspondence I copied above on her own blog. I recommend you read it. I found it humorous that in both of our follow-up posts, we switched around where originally I was the aloof, polite, rational one and she was snarky, and for this follow-up I was more flippant while she was more diplomatic.

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