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Monday, April 23, 2012

Auditory and logic assault at lunch

It's been an interesting week folks, and I don't know where to start.  Actually I do.  Yesterday, while the family and I were eating lunch at a nice mexican place, I kept over-hearing snippets of the conversation at the booth behind us.  Mostly it dealt with when certain churches were founded and why.  I also overheard bits about "the laying of hands" and so and so's cancer was completely cured.  I tried to ignore her at this point.  They were going from topic to topic, and I was just trying to enjoy a nice day with the family, Then I heard her say "I went and saw Richard Hoagland talk, and suddenly everything made sense!"  I looked at my wife and I think I might have almost yelled "Did she just say Hoagland?"  Apparently I had a look on my face that had my wife start telling me "No, don't do it, don't do it!"  For those that don't know who he is, and without being too judgemental and critical of his work, Richard Hoagland is bat-shit crazy.  He has numerous conspiracy theories, mostly concerning NASA, that have been disproven on every occasion.  A good example is one he had concerning a space shuttle launch.  There was a sensor that was malfunctioning, and according to Hoagland, it would never be fixed with conventional engineering.  (It was built with conventional engineering, wasn't it?) Well, to make an long blog a little shorter, the NASA engineers fixed it with conventional engineering (duct tape and baling wire?) and the shuttle was launched without a problem.  Hoagland also states that the Mars rovers are terminating life on Mars by heating the samples they are collecting, and we are descendants of Martian refugees that fled the planet during a calamity that made it uninhabitable.  He has numerous other theories and books out there, and I mean WAY out there, but if you want a good idea of what Hoagland is about, he is a regular guest on Coast to Coast AM, hosted by George Noory, and Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer himself, has called Hoagland a pseudoscientist with ridiculous claims.  The reason for the rant was the fact that this woman seemed to buy all the wild claims that poured out of Hoaglands cakehole. 

This leads to another topic that has been discussed heatedly at several skeptic meetings and on a lot of the skeptic forums.  When it comes to correcting misinformation, should you be polite, calm, and reasonable, or should you be as loud and emotional as the supporters of Woo are?  Some people say do one, some say the other.  Me, I say do both.  If you're in a debate in front of an audience with someone denouncing vaccinations, and they are yelling, screaming, and trying to win the audiences sympathy for being "misrepresented by the mainstream media" and talking about "the dangerous side effects on children", it is best if you show the intellectual side of the argument, and try to impress the group with facts, but it would be fine to show your emotions over the numbers of sick and dying that didn't get immunized.  If you are talking to a family member about their deciding to use homeopathy and naturopathy to treat their cancer, by all means, get loud and try and make them see sense, almost like an intervention, and who hasn't been there?  An even more balanced approach is to gauge what the opposition is doing, and how their information is being presented, and nearly match them.  I know that it is difficult to make numbers and facts come across as emotionally provoking as some of the "facts" that conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccers, anti-evolutionists, and "natural healers" use, but with a little work, and a lot of good P.R., we can do it, and show the world that we aren't just "liberal minded, cold-hearted science types", but caring responsible science types.

And now for a few definitions that are often confused for real science.  And yes there will be a test, but don't worry, it'll be open book, or is that open internet? This was spawned during a dinner conversation with a good friend of ours, and it brought back a topic I had been wanting to discuss for a while.

Astrology is the study of the signs of your birth i.e. "Cancer is in the house of Pisces". 
Astronomy (astrophysics) is the study of the universe and how it works i.e. "Proxima Centauri is the nearest star to Earth at 4.2 light years.
With these, unless you are using astrology to make important decisions, such as "The stars say to avoid anyone wearing a white coat, so I shouldn't go to the doctor to have this strange bleeding from my ears looked at." (and yes, it happens.  insert facepalm here), the confusion doesn't cause much harm, unless you say it to Neil Degrasse Tyson, then, there may be some harm.

Homeopathy is an alternative form of medicine (and I mean alternative) that uses "a highly diluted toxin to cure a disease".   Basically, you're taking a sugar pill, but I will grant that the placebo effect can do some amazing things.  Currently however, there is NO proof that homeopathy actually works and relying solely on it can be harmful.
Holistic medicine is an approach that takes the entire person into account as to why they are ill, which so far, isn't a bad idea.  But it also deals with imbalances in a persons spirit or Chi.  Some of the ways that a holistic healer will attempt to cure something is :

  • natural diet and herbal remedies
  • nutritional supplements
  • exercise
  •  relaxation
  • psycho-spiritual counseling
  •  meditation
  • breathing exercises
  • acupuncture
  • homeopathy
  • massage therapy                                               (Taken from Wikipedia)

  • For the most part, fine and dandy.  And who doesn't like a nice massage, but outside of exercise, most of these have at best a placebo effect, and if they are used in place of western medicine for a serious problem, they can lead to death. 
    Naturopathy is basically using plants and herbs to treat problems in the body, and the normal argument is "It comes from nature, so it must be good for you."  This is also called the Natural Fallacy.  Another point that naturopaths make is "Native Americans and the Chinese have used these cures for centuries."  This logical fallacy is called an Argument from Antiquity.  Concerning the "comes from nature" argument, I hate to be the one to point it out, but Arsenic, Cyanide, comets, radiation, scorpions, and Bobcat Goldthwaite are all naturally occurring, but I wouldn't exactly call any of them good for you, especially in large amounts.
    And the last definition is Medicine which is, according to
    1. any substance or substances used in treating disease or illness; medicament; remedy.
    2. the art or science of restoring or preserving health or due physical condition, as by means of drugs, surgical operations or appliances, or manipulations: often divided into medicine proper, surgery, and obstetrics.
    3. the art or science of treating disease with drugs or curative substances, as distinguished from surgery and obstetrics.
    4. the medical profession.
    5. (among North American Indians) any object or practice regarded as having magical powers.
    I personally don't feel that the last definition should have been included, but eh, what can I do.  Once again, the post is longer than anticipated, but I hope that you found something useful in it, and please feel free to leave a comment or question in the box.  I do read everything(so far 1 comment). If you have any topics you would like me to discuss, let me know.  Thanks for reading, and for those that earned the cool points last time, they should have arrived by now, so you should be an even cooler person than before.
    Have a good week folks!
    The Skeptical Okie

    Saturday, April 14, 2012

    Raw milk and skepticism

    Hello kiddos.  How has everyone been?  That's good to hear.  On the last entry I started talking about people in favor of consuming raw milk, and I will admit that I did not get too in depth on the topic.  Part of the reason for that is that when you put "raw milk benefits" in the Google machine, you get  1,880,000 entries.  Most of the come from websites with names like, rawmilktruth, and rawmilkfacts.  Most of them spout a lot of the same concepts that I mentioned last time.  Or at least a lot of the ones I looked at.  I don't know anyone that has enough time to thouroughly go through that many sites.  It took me 10 seconds to find the down side of drinking raw milk, and granted it was mostly from the F.D.A. website, but you would figure that an organization that actually tests foods for safety might know what they are talking about.  The up side is when I put in "raw milk dangers" into Google, I got 2,720,000 hits.  And they come from sites with names like, and wikipedia.  It is one of the few times I've looked up basically what is a conspiracy theory and gotten more real research hits than pseudoscience hits.

    And this brings me to my next point.  If you are curious about something you've seen or heard, or something just doesn't add up, I've got 2 words for you.... Snopes and Wikipedia.  Snopes is pretty good at debunking urban legends, myths and misconceptions, kinda like MythBusters, without the explosions and Adam Savage.  Wikipedia catches a lot of flak for being open-sourced and letting people edit content, but overall, their controls are pretty tight, and generally the information is reliable.  So if you need to research something pretty quick and don't want to wade through a ton of information, those 2 sites are my advise.  The other piece of advise I have is "Think for yourself people." Part of being skeptical is not just accepting what a bunch of talking heads are telling you, but to do your own research and come to an informed decision. Part of the reason that so many misconceptions still exist is that people don't want to find the info themselves.  They would rather trust "the #1 news team in (put your state here)"  than do some digging.  When it comes to science articles, you have to remember that most news organizations have either cut or eliminated their science writers.  The people that are smiling at you through the t.v. and telling you that eggs are good for you, wine will hurt you, and red meat will take years off your life, are just reading from a copy put in front of them.  Part of the reason for this is also ratings and bad releases of scientific research.  A lot of times, a lab or foundation will put out preliminary results from something that they are studying, such as the neutrinos moving faster than light, and they news outlets will run with it and end up blowing it completely out of proportion.  In the case of the neutrino research, they put the research out to have other groups help them figure out what they did wrong, or if they actually had found something that violates the theory of relativity.  When the problem was found, news groups made it sound like the scientists were incompetent saying that they hadn't checked to make sure everything was connected properly.  There are multiple articles all over the web, and frankly physics like this are hard enough to read, let alone have a lay-person like me try and explain them in a coherent manner.  What no one really focused on was the fact that they re-tested it several times and asked other to try an duplicate the experiment.  when no one could, they realized there was a mistake.  That is the great thing about the scientific method-when new information comes to light, a theory can be changed.

    I could keep going, but I need to keep it relatively short, because I'm taking my son to the OKC Zoo tomorrow and  need to get things around.  I know I tend to bounce from topic to topic in these posts, but for those that are reading these, just stick with me.  I'll eventually either make a relevant point or actually become entertaining, kinda like a million monkeys with a million typewriters (does anyone still use those?) in a million years might write an Adam Sandler script.  Personally I think it would only take them about a week.  Until then, be polite, be friendly, but most of all, be yourself!

    The Skeptical Okie

    Monday, April 9, 2012

    Why is television an epic fail and raw milk.

    Hello everyone, or at least the couple of people that have actually read the blog.  Once again, due to a rather hectic life, the writing schedule is rather sporadic.  But I digress (regress?)  Went on a short bike ride the other day with my wife and son.  As we went along, I noticed our son looking at people mowing their lawns, and I realized that he had never seen someone using a gas powered lawnmower before.  We have and use an electric mower and weedeater.  I hadn't realized that a regular lawnmower, like most of us grew up using, would be a rather foreign machine to him.  The look on his face while riding behind my wife was pretty funny, and I almost took out the mirror on an Acura from laughing.

    While flipping the the channels the other night (Saturday and Easter Sunday to be precise), I noticed that History channel was showing either pawn stars or American restoration.  I can't remember what was on Discovery.  I'm used to them showing some pretty interesting programs concerning religion about this time of year.  History also used to have shows on ancient battles, presidents, and long dead cultures.  Now it's Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and American Restoration.  Discovery has Ice road Truckers, Deadliest Catch, and I think a couple of shows on people buying storage buildings.  What the Hell happened, People???  These channels , at one point, were some of the best programming on t.v., outside of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.  Granted, I did watch Ancient Aliens and Monster Hunters, but mostly for the laugh factor inherently attached to these shows, and the fact that I would be hearing about the items the next day at work.  Now History and Discovery have gone the way of MTV (for the younglings out there, MTV used to stand for Music Television, now I think it stands for Mainly Teens Vaguely).  When I turn on History Channel, I expect to see something about George Washington, not someone in a pawn shop trying to hock his wooden teeth. 

    Have you ever noticed that when you get an idea and work to develop it and,  especially now with the intertubes,  find out that not only has someone beaten you to it, they've done it in a big way.  I was going to start more or less, a skeptical dictionary, in order to help people turn into skeptical samurai and slice apart their opponents arguments.  Well not only is there a web site, found at naturally, but there is also a book by Robert Todd Carroll called The Skeptic's Dictionary.  I will still be putting interesting claims on the blog, and if I can, I'll dissect them and show which logical fallacies they fall under.  Normally, they contain several fallacies all tied up with a pretty bow that just screams  "This idea is nuts!"  Some of them appear to be reasonable, at least on the surface, but just like a clock, they come apart when you open them up to take a closer look.

    A good example I heard on N.P.R. are the raw milk fanatics.  They state that drinking raw milk is healthier than pasteurized milk, mostly because in the process of heating and cooling the milk to kill the microbes, vitamins and minerals are destroyed.  Sounds reasonable, right?  And for the most part, it is true, that some are destroyed, but according to the F.D.A.  "Research shows no meaningful difference between the nutrient content of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk." They also have a theory that raw milk can cure allergies or illnesses.  Once again, according to the F.D.A., there is no scientific evidence showing this to be true.  According to the N.P.R. article, only 7% of the people that support raw milk trust what the Federal government says.  They seem to feel that pasteurization is a government conspiracy aimed at.... I have no idea.  If the government can do everything the conspiracy theorists says it can, then why the hell would they worry about drinking raw milk.  I found a lot of web sites promoting drinking raw milk, but I could not find a P.h.D. or M.D. after any of their names.  Mostly they seemed to be small farmers promoting "healthy, organic milk, as it was intended"  They all said that there was nothing wrong with drinking it, but I found a few things that the F.D.A. is worried about in raw milk, namely:

  • Enterotoxigenic Staphylococcus aureus
  • Campylobacter jejuni
  • Salmonella species
  • E. coli
  • Listeria monocytogenes
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis
  • Mycobacterium bovis
  • Brucella species
  • Coxiella Burnetii
  • Yersinia enterocolitica

  • Sound yummy, don't they?  Yes, I'd like a burger, side of fries and an order of  Campylobacter jejuni.   Most of the pro side of the argument is based on some form of a conspiracy theory, which has been around for a while.  I've personally heard a lot of reasons for and against raw milk, but personally (and I know that this is an appeal to authority and I also know I use a lot of parenthesis) I would rather trust someone that has spent years studying a topic and has evidence to back it up than someone that only has a handful of anecdotes and a general mistrust of authority.

    I know this is a little long, and if you are still reading this, you get 15 cool points, which should be arriving in your mailbox soon.  If they aren't there by the end of the week, tackle your mail carrier and demand to know where they are.  I listen to a lot of podcasts, including Skeptics Guide, George Hrab, Skepticality, and others.  I also try to read some of the blogs that are out there.  My original intent was to be as broad as I could on the topics I try to cover, but know I've decided to narrow it down, most likely to science and education, with a little political stupidity thrown in for a good laugh.  Feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments, and I hope to talk to you (write at you?) soon. Thanks. 

    The Skeptical Okie