Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Sex, character, and hypocrisy

I know that I'm not exactly a model of restraint when it comes to holding my tongue about outrageous statements, but you'll have to take my word for it that I really tried with this one.

It was only after about the tenth time I saw a screencap of a woman's Twitter post, along with people sharing it and saying "fuck yeah!" and high-fiving each other that it pushed me over the edge.  Here's the image:

The layers of "I Don't Get It" here are so numerous that I don't know where to start.  But I'll try.  In no particular order:
  • The fact is, it's the conservatives who, as a group, are extremely concerned with what people do with their naughty bits.  (Yes, I know.  "Not all conservatives."  Look at the voting records of Republicans with regards to LGBTQ equity, and afterwards we'll talk.)
  • The issue isn't that he had sex.  The issue isn't even that he had sex with several women while he was married to several other women.  The issue is that he lied about it (repeatedly), paid these women off and then denied it, and this for some reason hasn't lost him one iota of support from the "family values" faction, which is more and more seeming not so much about "family values" as about "we'd make a deal with the devil if he got us what we want."
  • These same people who are (1) defending Trump, and (2) lambasting the folks who dare to criticize Dear Leader, are by and large the ones who had a two-year case of the vapors surrounding the revelation that Bill Clinton got a blowjob from Monica Lewinsky.  Or do rules of moral conduct only apply to Democrats?  (Nota bene: I am not defending Bill Clinton.  He not only cheated on his wife, he used his position of power to seduce an intern.  It was the behavior of an asshole, pure and simple.  That said, if you blast Bill Clinton and defend Donald Trump -- who did the same thing, only more often -- you are a hypocrite.)
  • No, Trump wasn't elected to be America's pastor, although given how he's characterized by the Religious Right, he might as well have been.  But how elected officials act in their private life -- whether they act with honesty and decency, whether they admit it when they screw up and try to make amends insofar as it's possible, and how their words line up with their actions -- are all indications of who they are as people.  And if you're telling me that's not important, you're wrong.  People who will lie, cheat, betray, and defraud in their private lives are highly unlikely to turn into saints after the ballots are counted.  Character does matter.  Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, or any other position on the political spectrum.
So the fact is, all of this does have to do with his presidency.  Which is obvious if you consider how Fox News, Sean Hannity, and the other Trump apologists would have reacted if President Obama had done 1% of what Trump has done, and thus far, gotten away with.  When prior to the election, Trump bragged that he could shoot someone in plain sight on 5th Avenue and not lose a single supporter, I thought at the time he was just engaging in his typical hyperbole.

Now, I see that it's the literal truth.

Look, I know we all tend to give politicians we like a bye on questionable behavior.  For one thing, the sunk-cost fallacy pushes us to stick with someone when we've put a lot of our time, effort, money, and emotional energy into seeing him or her elected.  But this goes way beyond sunk-cost.  This amounts to a significant subset of Americans -- 39%, by the latest polls -- who look at the mounting scandals, accusations, and unethical (if not illegal) behavior, and shrug their shoulders.

Or disbelieve it.  Or don't even hear about it.  (Speaking of Fox News.)

So don't start with me that this is about liberals suddenly turning into prudes, or how these allegations have nothing to do with Trump's presidency.  And if you really think that "Jordan Rachel" made a good point in her now-viral tweet, you're being disingenuous at best, and a willful hypocrite at worst.


This week's featured book on Skeptophilia should be in every good skeptic's library: Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things.  It's a no-holds-barred assault against goofy thinking, taking on such counterfactual beliefs as psychic phenomena, creationism, past-life regression, and Holocaust denial.  Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, is a true crusader, and his book is a must-read.  You can buy it at the link below!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Relics of a lost world

There are times that I get impatient with people doing what I call hypothesizing in a vacuum -- coming up with pointless "what ifs" that are unverifiable.  A lot of it seems to me to be useless mental messing-about that doesn't tell us anything new about how the universe actually works.

So it was a little surprising that I reacted as positively as I did to the paper that appeared last week in the International Journal of Astrobiology called, "The Silurian Hypothesis: Would It Be Possible to Detect an Industrial Civilization in the Geological Record?" by Gavin Schmidt and Adam Frank.  The authors write:
One of the key questions in assessing the likelihood of finding such a civilization is an understanding of how often, given that life has arisen and that some species are intelligent, does an industrial civilization develop?  Humans are the only example we know of, and our industrial civilization has lasted (so far) roughly 300 years (since, for example, the beginning of mass production methods).  This is a small fraction of the time we have existed as a species, and a tiny fraction of the time that complex life has existed on the Earth’s land surface (∼400 million years ago, Ma).  This short time period raises the obvious question as to whether this could have happened before.  We term this the "Silurian Hypothesis."
You're reading this correctly; the authors are trying to parse whether we could detect the presence of an industrial civilization on Earth -- if it last existed, say, 250 million years ago.

They're not the first ones to think about this.  It's showed up in fiction, most notably in the short story "At the Mountains of Madness" by H. P. Lovecraft, wherein some explorers in Antarctica discover a colossal ruin that is not centuries, or even millennia, old, but tens of millions of years old -- when Antarctica was far north of its present location and had a tropical climate, and when it was inhabited by an intelligent civilization that was decidedly not human.  Being Lovecraft, of course this discovery presages several of the main characters losing important body parts, but I still remember that when I first read this story, when I was maybe fifteen years old, it wasn't the horror element that struck me most; it was the idea that maybe 90 million years ago, the world hosted a non-human intelligence of which most of the traces had been wiped out.

Schmidt and Frank first look at the likelihood of we ourselves becoming fossils, and they conclude that the answer is -- it's not very high:
The fraction of life that gets fossilized is always extremely small and varies widely as a function of time, habitat and degree of soft tissue versus hard shells or bones.  Fossilization rates are very low in tropical, forested environments, but are higher in arid environments and fluvial systems.  As an example, for all the dinosaurs that ever lived, there are only a few thousand near-complete specimens, or equivalently only a handful of individual animals across thousands of taxa per 100,000 years.  Given the rate of new discovery of taxa of this age, it is clear that species as short-lived as Homo sapiens (so far) might not be represented in the existing fossil record at all.
So the mind-blowing outcome of this reasoning is that the vast majority of species that have ever lived left no fossil record at all -- and that our knowledge of prehistoric life is so scanty that using the word "incomplete" to describe it is a woeful understatement.

[Image courtesy of Wellcome Images and the Wikimedia Commons]

As far as our artifacts, they're not much more hopeful:
The likelihood of objects surviving and being discovered is similarly unlikely. Zalasiewicz (2009) speculates about preservation of objects or their forms, but the current area of urbanization is less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, and exposed sections and drilling sites for pre-Quaternary surfaces are orders of magnitude less as fractions of the original surface.  Note that even for early human technology, complex objects are very rarely found. For instance, the Antikythera Mechanism (ca. 205 BCE) is a unique object until the Renaissance.  Despite impressive recent gains in the ability to detect the wider impacts of civilization on landscapes and ecosystems, we conclude that for potential civilizations older than about 4 Ma, the chances of finding direct evidence of their existence via objects or fossilized examples of their population is small.
Of course, the thing is, all it would take is one single artifact; you don't need an entire city to be preserved (as it was in Lovecraft).  We've made a number of very durable things -- of which, surprisingly, glass is one of the most resistant.  Most metal objects corrode on the scale of a human lifetime, much less millions of years; and plastics, long thought of as indestructible, are likely to break down to microscopic dust within a few centuries.  Any Jurassic-era plastics would long since be undetectable.  But a single glass marble or fragment of a drinking glass, encased in sediment -- that'd definitely do the trick.

Schmidt and Frank aren't the only scientists to consider the question.  Alan Weisman, in his fascinating book The World Without Us, considers the sequence of events that would occur if humanity disappeared, and concludes that not only would life march on just fine, most of our impacts would be gone in short order.  Within three days, he says, all the lights would have gone out; the loss of electricity would have results like the entire New York City subway system, and most of New Orleans, flooding.  Structures in tropical climates -- like the Panama Canal and most cities within twenty degrees either side of the Equator -- would be overgrown and swallowed by jungle within a few decades.  Within five hundred years, Weisman says, just about all that would be left is aluminum cookware, plastic residue, some of the more durable glass objects, remnants of buildings, especially in dry climates, and monuments like Mount Rushmore.

And that's after five hundred years.  Which is 0.001% of fifty million years -- and even that time span doesn't bring us back to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

What's fascinating about this study is that Schmidt and Frank aren't trying to tell us that there have been ancient civilizations in previous eras; they're simply considering the question of whether it'd be detectable if there had been.  And the answer is: probably not.  Even such factors as an industrial civilization's impact on the climate and the chemistry of the atmosphere might not leave traces that would still be discernible a hundred million years later.  The authors end their paper thusly:
Perhaps unusually, the authors of this paper are not convinced of the correctness of their proposed hypothesis.  Were it to be true it would have profound implications and not just for astrobiology.  However most readers do not need to be told that it is always a bad idea to decide on the truth or falsity of an idea based on the consequences of it being true.  While we strongly doubt that any previous industrial civilization existed before our own, asking the question in a formal way that articulates explicitly what evidence for such a civilization might look like raises its own useful questions related both to astrobiology and to Anthropocene studies.  Thus we hope that this paper will serve as motivation to improve the constraints on the hypothesis so that in future we may be better placed to answer our title question.
Which is it exactly.  Science isn't just the description of what we know, it also asks questions like "What would the universe look like if X were true?"  The ability to create a model of some version of reality, and then see if the predictions of that model line up with the evidence, is a powerful tool for understanding.

So as bizarre as it seems, apparently it is likely that even if there were a highly advanced industrial civilization that got wiped out by the Permian-Triassic Extinction 252 million years ago (along with damn near everything else; paleontologists Jack Sepkoski and David Raup, who specialize in studying the cheerful topic of mass extinctions, have estimated that the Permian-Triassic event obliterated 95% of the species on Earth), we would probably not have a single detectable trace of it left.

But maybe, just maybe, there's an Eldritch Cyclopean City still awaiting discovery somewhere.  Like Antarctica.  If so, though, I'm not going to be the one who explores it.  When that happened in Lovecraft's story, it resulted in a number of people having their brains sucked out by Shoggoths.

Which could seriously ruin one's day.


This week's featured book on Skeptophilia should be in every good skeptic's library: Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things.  It's a no-holds-barred assault against goofy thinking, taking on such counterfactual beliefs as psychic phenomena, creationism, past-life regression, and Holocaust denial.  Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, is a true crusader, and his book is a must-read.  You can buy it at the link below!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Fuzzy thinking, alarmism, and GMOs

There's a fundamental problem when elected officials are charged with creating laws and policies surrounding issues that they simply do not understand.

This is where we currently stand with GMOs.  GMOs, or "genetically-modified organisms," get a great deal of negative press from the all-natural folks, who have nicknamed GMO crops "frankenfoods," claiming that they cause everything from allergies to autism.  Of course, that by itself is ridiculous; modifying genes isn't going to result in the same risks and benefits every time you do it, because (and it pains me to have to point this out) different genes do different things.  A papaya that has been genetically modified to be resistant to ringspot virus is not going to resemble in any way a strain of corn that produces the caterpillar-killing BT toxin.  The only commonality is that both of them were the result of humans tinkering with DNA.

Another problem, of course, is that we've been tinkering with DNA for a long, long time, which makes the USDA's definition of GMO sound a little ridiculous.  The USDA says that genetic modification is "The production of heritable improvements in plants or animals for specific uses, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional methods."  It's the "more traditional methods" that's a little funny; because by that definition, not only is virtually every food you eat a GMO (unless you're subsisting on wild nuts, berries, and roots), so is your pet dog.  Selective breeding -- which has been done for millennia -- is one of those "more traditional methods" the USDA is referring to, as evidenced by the fact that typical store-variety tomatoes, corn, apples, broccoli, oranges, and soybeans (sorry, tofu-eaters) occur nowhere in the wild.  Nor does this guy:

Trust me, this is not a product of natural selection.  [Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So we've got a problem right at the outset, which is that a scientifically-correct definition of GMO includes genetic modification by artificial selection, which means that pretty much everything in the grocery store should be so labeled; and if you include only recently-developed genetically engineered crops, you're throwing together all sorts of products whose only similarity is how they were created.

That's not even the extent of the problem, however.  At the end of last month, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the USDA would not label as GMO anything created using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing protocol.  The press release gave a rather bizarre justification for this decision:
Under its biotechnology regulations, USDA does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques as long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests.  This includes a set of new techniques that are increasingly being used by plant breeders to produce new plant varieties that are indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods.  The newest of these methods, such as genome editing, expand traditional plant breeding tools because they can introduce new plant traits more quickly and precisely, potentially saving years or even decades in bringing needed new varieties to farmers.
Did you catch that?  The USDA won't regulate crops that "could otherwise have been developed" by traditional techniques, and ones that are "indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods."  Which, actually, is pretty much every GMO ever created.  How do you figure out whether a particular strain "could otherwise have been developed" or not?  So we've gone from labeling every damn product in the store to labeling nothing at all.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I think CRISPR/Cas9 has phenomenal potential, not only for developing disease-resistant strains of crops that are currently seriously threatened (including, unfortunately, chocolate, oranges, and bananas), but in curing genetic diseases in humans.  And as I said before, it's scientifically inaccurate to regulate -- or even label -- all genetically modified food products the same way, as if the means by which they were produced is the only relevant issue.  My research into the topic has demonstrated to my own satisfaction that the vast majority of GMO foods are completely safe for human consumption, and a great deal of the fear-talk about them comes from people who don't have a very good understanding of what genetic modification is, or how it works.

As Tirzah Duren put it over at Real Clear Science:
Mandatory labeling of GMOs makes no sense both from the technical side and from the practical.  The definition of GMOs is misunderstood even by the organization who made them.  This lack of understanding translates into a sloppy policy that does little to inform consumers.  Examining the regulation of GMOs highlights a truth, which is the government cannot regulate what it does not understand...  [T]he major shortcoming on GMO regulation... is that the people making the rules do not understand what they are making rules about.
And neither, unfortunately, do many of the consumers.  I'm reminded of the situation a few years ago where freeze-resistant strawberries were developed by splicing in a gene for a natural antifreeze protein produced by certain species of fish, and people flipped out, because they believed of one or more of the following:
  1. They thought the strawberries would taste like fish.
  2. This meant that the strawberries were no longer vegan.
  3. They thought the strawberries were produced by some bizarre half-plant, half-fish creature in a lab.  (No, I'm not joking.)
It also gave rise to foolishness like this:

Note that saying that all GMOs are safe is just as ridiculous to say that all of them are harmful.  Each one has to be evaluated and tested on its own merits and risks.  But this kind of alarmism, fear-talk, and elevation of the naturalistic fallacy into the law of the land is simply ignorant, not to mention encouraging us to think with our emotions rather than with our brains.

Anyhow.  I suppose it's no surprise that having a citizenry that is largely ignorant of science results in the election of leaders who are largely ignorant of science.  It's still a little disheartening, though -- especially when those ignorant leaders are charged with developing policy regarding issues that they clearly don't understand.


This week's featured book on Skeptophilia should be in every good skeptic's library: Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things.  It's a no-holds-barred assault against goofy thinking, taking on such counterfactual beliefs as psychic phenomena, creationism, past-life regression, and Holocaust denial.  Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, is a true crusader, and his book is a must-read.  You can buy it at the link below!

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Nazi coins from the future

In the latest from the "News Stories That Make Me Want To Take Ockham's Razor And Slit My Wrists With It," we have a claim about an odd coin allegedly found near a construction site in Mexico.

First, the facts of the situation, insofar as I could find out.

The coin is highly weathered, and has some phrases in both German and Spanish.  It says "Nueva Alemania" ("New Germany," in Spanish) and "Alle in einer Nation" (German for "all in one nation").  There's a swastika on one side and the Iron Cross on the other, and a blurred date ending in "39."  (If you want to see a video that includes shots of the coin, there's a clip at The Daily Star showing it and its finder, Diego Aviles.)

So that's the claim.  Now let's see which of the three possible explanations proffered to account for it makes the most sense to you:
  1. It's a fake.
  2. It's an obscure coin, dating from the late 1930s, and could be potentially valuable as a historical artifact.
  3. The date actually reads "2039," so it's a coin from 21 years in the future, at which point a Nazi state will rule Mexico if not the rest of the world, except that one of the future Nazis time-slipped backwards and dropped the coin, only to be found by Aviles.  Since the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, the Nazis have been hiding out in Antarctica, from which they will burst out some time between now and 2039, to initiate World War III and take over the entire world.
Yes, apparently there are people who think that explanation #3 is spot-on.  So it's like someone reworded Ockham's Razor to read, "Of competing explanations that account for all of the known facts, the most likely one is the one that requires 5,293 ad-hoc assumptions, breaking every known law of physics, and pretzel logic that only someone with the IQ of a peach pit could think sounded plausible."

But maybe I'm being a little uncharitable, because there are people who add to #3 some bizarre bullshit about it having to do with the "Mandela effect" and parallel universes and alternate realities.

Myself, I'm perfectly satisfied when I can explain things using the regular old reality.  But that's just me.

NOTE: Not the coin they found.  This one's a real Nazi coin.  [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Over at Mysterious Universe (the first link provided above), Sequoyah Kennedy does a pretty thorough job of debunking the whole thing, ending with the following tongue-in-cheek comment that rivals this post for snark:
Maybe the only explanation is that the Antarctic Nazis develop time travel in the near future, go back in time to the 1930’s, and try to convince the Mexican government to side with them in WWII by giving them a commemorative coin, which won’t work, because that’s a ridiculous and insulting way to forge an alliance.  The commemorative future coin will then be thrown away and left to sit in the dirt until it’s unearthed in 2018.  It’s the only rational explanation, really.
Indeed.  And we should also take into account that the story was broken in The Daily Star, which is the only media source I know that rivals The Daily Mail Fail for sheer volume of nonsense.

So the coin may well exist, but I'm putting my money on "fakery."  Even the idea that it's a real coin from the 1930s doesn't bear much scrutiny, because Mexico and Germany weren't on the same side in World War II, so it'd be pretty bizarre to have some kind of Mexican Nazi currency lying around.

Of course, when the Stormtroopers come roaring out of their secret bases in Antarctica and Cancun, I suppose I'll have to eat my words.  Occupational hazard of what I do.


This week's Featured Book on Skeptophilia:

This week I'm featuring a classic: Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  Sagan, famous for his work on the series Cosmos, here addresses the topics of pseudoscience, skepticism, credulity, and why it matters -- even to laypeople.  Lucid, sometimes funny, always fascinating.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Food vibrations

Apparently, Australia being nonexistent and people selling homeopathic black holes weren't enough, so a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link to a site called "iTOVi," which sells "nutritional scanners."

The website tells us that the scanner is designed to "provide a list of top oils and supplements your body has a response to."  How, you might ask?  Well, here's their explanation:
Our portable nutrition scanner allows you and your clients to receive personalized product responses at any time of day!  How? The  iTOVi scanner uses innovative and institutionally recognized technology to measure the body’s response to electronic frequencies.  The scanner records the body’s reaction to these frequencies and matches the user with products that have complimentary frequencies.
So we're on thin ice already, but it gets a lot thinner.  I went to the page on "technology" -- call me a doubter, but I always want to know how things work.  And I wasn't disappointed.  We're told that everything, biological and non-biological, vibrates at a particular frequency, including "supplements and essential oils."  The machine figures out your vibration with a technique that should sound vaguely familiar:
During an iTOVi scan the device passes small electrical currents through the skin to measure the body’s resistance to frequencies, each of which is the natural energy signature of various supplements and oils.  The passing of electrical frequencies induces a measurable response from the body which is then recorded and shown in the iTOVi report.
If you're thinking, "but... isn't that how a polygraph machine works?", you're spot-on.  Polygraph machines -- which, to be up front, are of dubious use in telling whether people are lying -- measure small changes in skin conductivity, which occur primarily because of the amount of sweat a person has on their skin.  Sweat, being weakly saline, is quite a good conductor; and since the theory is that a person would sweat more under conditions of emotional stress (such as lying), changes in skin conductivity could give interrogators a clue about someone's veracity.

A polygraph machine [Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

You may have noticed that nothing in the preceding paragraph mentions "frequencies."  That doesn't stop the iTOVi people, who claim that these conductivity changes are a clue to the body's "frequency," and they derive one from the other by means of an unspecified algorithm.  We're never given any specifics -- not even the number of Hertz we all should be shooting for.

Most of the places that blather on about "frequencies" (and "energies" and "vibrations" and "resonance") seem to think that the higher the frequency the better.  I did some digging and found the website "Vibrational Frequency 101," which I read, at great cost to the cells in my prefrontal cortex, which were screaming in agony by paragraph three.  It features passages like the following:
First off, we are not just our physical body {aka matter}. We are all made up of energy – all matter is – and bound together by an energy field. We’re talking atoms, protons, and neutrons…  This is science, people! 
So, everything vibrates with an energy. And, the higher the energy, the higher the frequency.  Positive feelings and thoughts evoke a higher frequency vs. negative feelings and thoughts evoke a lower frequency. 
The energy we’re made up of connects us to all living things and the universe.  When you really break it down, we are all just balls of energy walking the planet. 
Our energy is blocked when we experience negativity, fear, or you guessed it… unhealthy substances.  Think about it.  When you consume really unhealthy food, alcohol, or drugs, doesn’t your energy feel low, or dull or blocked?  Low vibrations mean a dampened energy field. It also means a disconnection to other things, the universe, and ourselves...  Plus, a constant negative state can lead to sickness and disease in the body.
For example, "fresh organic vegetables" supposedly have "high vibrations," while deep-fried food has "low vibrations."

Look.  You can say "this is science, people!" and "institutionally recognized technology" all day long, but until you can show me, using an oscilloscope, that kale is vibrating at 14,500 Hertz and KFC is vibrating at 7 Hertz, I'm calling bullshit.  Besides, if our food really is vibrating, shouldn't we be able to hear it?  You know, like kale emits this high-pitched whistle, and KFC a low, sad buzz, or something?  But despite listening carefully to my bowl of oatmeal this morning, I heard nothing but my wife sighing in resignation at her husband doing yet another ridiculous thing in the name of scientific research, and my dog wagging his tail, the latter presumably figuring that if I was doing something weird with my food, maybe it meant he was going to get some.

In short: the entire claim is nonsense.  You, and your organs, do have a natural (or resonant) frequency, because everything with mass does.  (Think of the natural swing rate of a kid on a swingset -- it's hard-to-impossible to make the swing oscillate at any other frequency.)  But all this means is that if your body is shaken at that frequency, it'll make (for example) your spleen vibrate, which sounds painful.  It has nothing to do with "feelings" or "negativity" or, for fuck's sake, "essential oils."

And, in fact, if you really believe that higher frequencies are better for you, let's run this experiment.  You listen to a piccolo playing a high D at full volume for an hour, and I'll listen to a cello playing a low note.  Let's see who comes away from the experience with a headache.

So about iTOVi: save your money.  The whole claim is nonsense, as you might figure out if you see the notorious disclaimer on their page, "This device is not meant to treat, cure, or diagnose any illness, nor should it be construed as medical advice."  Which, as always, is a good indicator that what it's proposing is horseshit.


This week's Featured Book on Skeptophilia:

This week I'm featuring a classic: Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  Sagan, famous for his work on the series Cosmos, here addresses the topics of pseudoscience, skepticism, credulity, and why it matters -- even to laypeople.  Lucid, sometimes funny, always fascinating.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Diluted nonsense

Every time I think homeopathy can't get more ridiculous, I turn out to be wrong.

I thought they'd plunged to the bottom of the Crazy Barrel with their announcement of a remedy called "homeopathic water."  This is, unfortunately, exactly what it sounds like.  It's water diluted with water, then shaken up, then diluted again and again.

With water.

So I thought, "This is it.  It can't get any loonier than that."

I was very, very wrong, and found out the depth of my mistake at Frank van der Kooy's site Complementary Medicine -- Exposing Academic Charlatans, wherein we find out that watering water down with water is far from the nuttiest thing the homeopaths make "remedies" from.

Here are a few things that van der Kooy found out form the basis of a homeopathic remedy:
  1. Black holes.  Yes, I mean the astronomical object, and yes, I'm serious.  An amateur astronomer put a vial of alcohol on a telescope aimed at the location of Cygnus X-1, the first black hole to be discovered.  My guess is that said astronomer had consumed a good bit of the alcohol first, and that's how he got the idea.  But after the vial had sat there for a while, and gotten saturated with the Essence of Black Hole, it was diluted to "30C" (known to the rest of us as one part in ten to the thirtieth power).  The homeopaths say if you consume it, it causes you to have a "drawing inward" sensation (because, I'm guessing, black holes pull stuff in).  One person who tested it said it felt like her teeth were being pulled backwards into her head.  Why this is supposed to be a good thing, I have no idea.
  2. Vacuum.  I'm not talking about the machine, I'm talking about the physical phenomenon.  I don't have a clue how you would mix a vacuum in water, nor what "diluting a vacuum" even means.  The "practitioner," however, says it's really good for treating the flu.
  3. The note "F."  Why F and not C# or Ab or something, I'm not sure, but apparently this is made by playing the note F at some water, then diluting it a bunch.  After that, it's good as a "tranquilizer" and "cardiac regulator."
  4. The south pole of a magnet.  Again, I'm not sure what's special about the south pole, but if you somehow introduce south-poliness into some water, you can use it to treat frostbite, hernia, dislocations, ingrown toenails, and "levitation."  (I feel obliged at this point to state again for the record that I'm not making this up.)
  5. Dog shit.  Supposedly, consuming diluted dog shit helps you get over feelings of self-disgust, which you would definitely need if you're consuming diluted dog shit.  It also helps if you dream about dogs, or "feel like your arms and legs are getting shorter," which I didn't know was even a thing.
  6. The Berlin Wall.  A remedy made from a chunk of the Wall -- and not to beat this point to death, but the Wall piece was shaken up in water and diluted a gazillion times -- is good for treating despair.  I could use some right now, because after reading about how many people believe this kind of thing works, I'm inclined to agree with Professor Farnsworth.

Van der Kooy has other examples, and some really amusing commentary, so I urge you to check out his website, as long as you don't mind further declines in your opinion about the general intelligence of the human species.

Once again, I'm struck not by people coming up with this nonsense -- because selling nonsense to make money has been a pastime of humans for a long, long time.  What gets me is that apparently people read this stuff, and don't have the response that I did, which is to snort derisively and say, "You have got to be fucking kidding me."  Instead, they pull out their credit cards and start buying.

So here we are again, shaking our heads in utter bafflement.  At least I hope you are.  I hope you haven't read this and said, "What's he pissing and moaning for?  This all makes perfect sense."  If that was, in fact, your response, please don't tell me about it.  Now y'all will have to excuse me, because I'm going to go take my anti-despair Berlin Wall remedy, mixed well into a double scotch.  That might actually have some effect.


This week's Featured Book on Skeptophilia:

This week I'm featuring a classic: Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  Sagan, famous for his work on the series Cosmos, here addresses the topics of pseudoscience, skepticism, credulity, and why it matters -- even to laypeople.  Lucid, sometimes funny, always fascinating.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Sphere factor

When Flat-Earthers ("Flerfs") talk to Oblate-Spheroid-Earthers ("Sane People"), usually the topic comes up of "what about places that are experiencing night while we're experiencing day, and vice versa?"

I know that when I was in Malaysia three summers ago, it brought home the fact that we're on a spinning ball as vividly as anything could have.  Malaysia is exactly twelve hours different from upstate New York, so when I Skyped home with my wife, I was getting ready to go to dinner while she was getting ready to go to work.  Showing her a horizon with a sunset while she was showing me a horizon with a sunrise was a little surreal.

However, it should come as no surprise that the Flerfs have an answer to that, since they have an answer to damn near anything a rational person could come up with.  But their answer to the "opposite hemisphere" issue is positively inspired:

Australia doesn't exist.

That Australia is a figment of our collective imaginations was brought to my attention by a friend who, and the irony of this is not lost on me, lives in Australia.  My comment to her was that I wished she'd told me ages ago that she was nonexistent.  I mean, friends should own up about stuff like this, you know?  It was a little hurtful that all this time, I've been talking to someone imaginary, and I didn't even know it.

So I guess that means that kangaroos don't exist, either, which is kind of a shame.  [Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

As far as the Flerfs, the article I linked above has some explanations (if I can dignify them by that term) of what they think is going on, apropos of Australia.  Here are some especially inspired ones:
Everything you have ever heard about [Australia] was made up, and any pictures of it you have seen were faked by the government. 
I am sure you have even talked to people on the internet who claim to be from Australia. They are really secret government agents who are surfing the internet to enforce these false beliefs. 
We are not entirely sure why the government made up an imaginary continent, or why it is trying to convince the world that this continent is real, but we can tell you that we know for a fact that Australia doesn’t really exist.
Another person said that any Australians you happen to know are "computer-generated," and said the hoax has been going on for centuries, despite the fact that CGI kind of didn't exist in the 18th century:
Australia is not real. It’s a hoax, made for us to believe that Britain moved over their criminals to someplace. 
In reality, all these criminals were loaded off the ships into the waters, drowning before they could see land ever again. 
It’s a coverup for one of the greatest mass murders in history, made by one of the most prominent empires.
So that's kind of sinister.  But what about people who claim to have gone there, and seen the place, as advertised?  They've got a response for that, too:
[T]he ‘plane pilots’ are in on this secret.  Instead of flying you to Melbourne or Sydney, they fly you to islands close nearby ‘or in some cases, parts of South America, where they have cleared space and hired actors to act out as real Australians.
Well, okay, maybe Australia doesn't exist, but what about other countries in the region?  Does Papua-New Guinea exist?  I have to admit Birds of Paradise are weird enough that they could well be a hoax.

[Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But what about Indonesia?  And Japan?  And China?  I mean, they're all way closer, time-zone-wise, to Australia than they are to us.  Why have they singled out Australia?

Then there's Malaysia, which I can verify exists because as I mentioned earlier, I've been there.  (Actually, I stopped along the way in Hong Kong, but maybe that was secretly part of South America.  I wasn't there long enough to check.)  But given the fact that the flight back -- from Hong Kong to La Guardia Airport in New York City -- had me in the air for sixteen hours, I can say with some certainty that those two places are not located near each other.

Not that I'd expect any of this to be convincing to your average Flerf, who has long ago jettisoned anything like "evidence" as a road to understanding.  Me, I'm still wondering what to do about my imaginary and/or computer-generated Australian friend.  Given that she's the one who sent me the link, it's kind of rubbing my face in it, you know?  On the other hand, if she doesn't actually exist, I probably shouldn't worry about it.


This week's Featured Book on Skeptophilia:

This week I'm featuring a classic: Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  Sagan, famous for his work on the series Cosmos, here addresses the topics of pseudoscience, skepticism, credulity, and why it matters -- even to laypeople.  Lucid, sometimes funny, always fascinating.