Monday, September 5, 2011

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Rainbow Choice

What is the scientific evidence that homosexuality is genetic?  Truth be told, little evidence has been shown.  And for reasons I shouldn't have to explain to you, to say that homosexuality is a trait passed on from one generation to the next, especially in the animal kingdom, is a little absurd, withstanding genes interacting with one another causing genetic anomalies.  Now, what is the evidence that homosexuality is biological?  Well, plenty.  In fact, all of the evidence points in that direction. 1) A gay man, no matter how hard he tries, cannot make himself straight.  He will, in fact, have a better chance of succeeding in suicide than conversion, at a clinic such as Marcus Bachmann's. 2) Homosexuality happens in nature. Naturally in nature.  Each year, more species are found to have homosexual minorities, from penguins to meer kats. 3) Homosexual males and females have been shown in tests to have physical differences (not only in their mannerisms, but physical, biophysical differences) from straight members of the same sex, as well as similarities between gay members of one sex, and straight members of the other.

These are just three examples of what I'm going to cover in this blog.  Skepticism gives me a pretty wide range of subjects to deal with, and this one is one that I've been itching to do since I first heard that there was one of these camps only tens of miles from me - an embarrassment on an otherwise blue state, to say the least.

Despite, many people choose to remain denialists of biological homosexuality, and choose to remain ignorant of the evidence.  This is nothing new, and per usual, it stems from religion/superstition in most cases.  They cannot accept that God would create people who are an abomination against Jewish tribal laws written by people who sacrificed cows to the sun, and believed the world to be flat.  It is truly a disorder if I've ever seen one, and trust me, I've seen my share.  How can these people, putting superstitious nonsense aside, actually think people would make a decision to be a ridiculed and oppressed minority?  How can people think one can chose their own sexual orientation?  I didn't choose to be straight, nor did any actual straight person (barring those like Marcus Bachmann who are putting on an act because they hate something about themselves).  I guess the only answer is this: Willful ignorance.

Willful ignorance is a powerful force in this world, and is leading the crusade against science in our world.  You see it with evolution, climate change, the mapping of the human genome itself, and you certainly see it with homosexuality.  Naivity is another force because there are those who capitalize on the naivity of others by providing either misleading information, or all-out lies.  Among the top of these activists who hasn't been caught with another person of the same sex, or a child of the same sex, is the reverend Fred Phelps.

Phelps is the head of the Westboro Baptist Church - the group that protests military funerals because they feel the deaths of soldiers to be God's retribution against the sinful culture of the United States, Canada, and Europe.  Their website is entitled, if that gives you any precept of whom we're dealing with here.  Phelps has been quoted in saying many things regarding gays, such as this:

"It’s NOT OK to be gay. It will damn the soul, destroy the life, and doom any nation that tolerates such evil. God Hates Fags is a profound theological statement, which America needs more than it needs oxygen or bread."
The first thing I'd like to point out is that nowhere in Moslow's necessities of life is theology, let alone violent, hateful theology.  I'm pretty sure I need to put water and food into my body more than I need to "accept" that "God hates fags."  Secondly, and with less jest, the entirety of this statement is theologically based, and therefore, meaningless.  Phelps does, however, openly claim that homosexuality is a choice, and that any homosexual can choose to be straight, and should do so immediately.

Phelps is not alone in this belief.  Among the many crazies in history like Rabbi Yehuda Levin, Bishop Harry Jackson, Michael Marcavage, Madeline Crabb, Pat Buchanann, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and others, one of today's leading crusaders against homosexuality is James Hartline.

James Hartline had this to say regarding homosexual behavior:

"I am a man with the greatest of concern for my fellow Christian. In my daily course of life, I see the great burden being thrust upon the American Christian by satanic forces who are determined to wipe out every vestige of Biblical influence in this once godly nation. Everyday, I speak with moms and dads who are brokenhearted that their sons and daughters have had their vulnerable minds hijacked by advocates representing the Spirit of Sodom. Those dark, socialistic engineers of a resurrected Sodom are determined, in their rebellion against the throne of God, to plant a massive crop of what the Bible calls the 'Vine of Sodom'."
I'm seeing a pattern here.  Could it be that the world's leading anti-gay activists are all people of deep-rooted religion?  That can't be.  There must be someone of a scientific origin with a scientific argument against homosexuality, right?  I mean, just one?  Maybe?  Someone who won't say something like, "Gay sympathy in schools will destroy America, the world, and quite possibly the universe."  I happened across one who was pretending to take a scientific approach to homosexuality.  His name is Luiz Sergio Solimeo, the author of the book Defending a Higher Law: Why We Must Resist Same Sex "Marriage" and the Homosexual Movement.

This book explores the scientific arguments that homosexuality is physiological, and contends that science cannot prove the claims that homosexuality is "genetic," or irreversible.  He also says the animal homosexuality argument is nothing more than a myth.  Would you like to read more?  I surely would.  Here is how he sums up his reasoning that the animal argument is a false argument:

"The reasoning behind the animal homosexuality theory can be summed up as follows:
- Homosexual behavior is observable in animals.
- Animal behavior is determined by their instincts.
- Nature requires animals to follow their instincts.
- Therefore, homosexuality is in accordance with animal nature.
- Since man is also animal, homosexuality must also be in accordance with human nature.
This line of reasoning is unsustainable. If seemingly "homosexual" acts among animals are in accordance with animal nature, then parental killing of offspring and intra-species devouring are also in accordance with animal nature. Bringing man into the equation complicates things further. Are we to conclude that filicide and cannibalism are according to human nature? In opposition to this line of reasoning, this article sustains that:
  1. There is no "homosexual instinct" in animals,
  2. It is poor science to "read" human motivations and sentiments into animal behavior, and
  3. Irrational animal behavior is not a yardstick to determine what is morally acceptable behavior for rational man."
Let me just run through this step by step, as the author has seemingly taken a religious turn, no matter how much I tried to find an argument that wouldn't.  The first problem with this argument is that he's done what so many others have: used the classic reductio ad absurdum to discredit the initial argument.  He's claiming that if we justify one behavior because it's natural in the animal kingdom, then we have to justify them all.  This is like comparing homosexuality to murder or cannibalism.  Oops, no wait, that exactly what he just did.  He doesn't seem to understand social construct.  We have many instincts as animals that we've slowly honed out of ourselves, or teach against, in modern society, because they don't fit in with what we define as civilized culture.  We don't condone murder, cannibalism, infanticide, rape, racism, sexism, or any of these other components that are merely extensions of our animal brains; most of which are summed up with the word xenophobia

Xenophobia probably helped us a lot in our evolution, as it is a form of false positive reasoning.  I don't know if that other tribe is here to kill me or befriend me, but I have nothing to lose if I take the highroad and fear them.  Fear leads to hate, and hate leads to murder: yet another activity that we don't condone as humans (at least secular culture doesn't).  However, to align homosexuality with any of these natural instincts is inane at best.  We have natural instincts to eat, sleep, cry, sweat, drink, fornicate, procreate, consume, and so on, yet we don't compare these things to murder.  Why not?  It's the exact same thing.  The only difference is that the instinct to fornicate and procreate is slightly altered within homosexuals, although, most homosexuals still feel parental instincts and maternal/paternal clocks just like the rest of us.

The reduction of all instincts into one broad spectrum of contempt is an intentionally misleading, dishonest argument and holds absolutely no scientific water.  In the same respect, xenophobia seems to be an instinct that this author has absolutely no problem with.

Aside from this point, this argument neglects to dispute homosexuality as a natural behavior, which is the entire point of the animal kingdom argument.  I would also like to point out that this man must be either a psychologist (sorry to pick on the field again, but this is one of my largest complaints about the philosophy of psychology itself) or an engineer, as only one of those two groups would make a comment so stupid as to say that it is "poor science to read human motivations and sentiments into animal behavior."  There is not a human instinct, action or presupposition that is not an extension of our animal instincts placed on a more complex scale.  Any biologist will tell you that; any neurologist will tell you that.

He went on to say:
"To explain this abnormal behavior, the first observation must be the fact that animal instincts are not bound by the absolute determinism of the physical laws governing the mineral world. In varying degrees, all living beings can adapt to circumstances. They respond to internal or external stimuli.

Second, animal cognition is purely sensorial, limited to sound, odor, touch, taste and image. Thus, animals lack the precision and clarity of human intellectual perception. Therefore, animals frequently confuse one sensation with another or one object with another.

Third, an animal's instincts direct it towards its end and are in accordance with its nature. However, the spontaneous thrust of the instinctive impulse can suffer modifications as it runs its course. Other sensorial images, perceptions or memories can act as new stimuli affecting the animal's behavior. Moreover, the conflict between two or more instincts can sometimes modify the original impulse.

In man, when two instinctive reactions clash, the intellect determines the best course to follow, and the will then holds one instinct in check while encouraging the other. With animals that lack intellect and will, when two instinctive impulses clash, the one most favored by circumstances prevails.

At times, these internal or external stimuli affecting an animal's instinctive impulses result in cases of animal 'filicide,' 'cannibalism' and 'homosexuality.'"
Once again, the reductio ad absurdem argument returns; therefore, I will not explain it again.  Once is enough for such an intellectually void and scientifically odious argument.  I will, however, mention that the author seems to have a very unclear perception of not only consciousness, but also brain activity in general.  It almost appears as if he's using arguments that would be made by a phrenologist.  Is animal behavior bound by the physical laws of the governing mineral world?  Interesting way of putting it, but yes, to an extent.  We do, however, obviously have a great ability to evolve and adapt to our circumstances.  Adapting to circumstances and climate is what drives evolution, and hence, is the reason we're here right now to talk about adapting.  And of course all animals respond to internal and external stimuli.  This is what shapes our lives and most of our decisions.  This is granted, but I'm still not seeing the connection with homosexuality.

He says something in his second paragraph that sort of confuses me a bit, though.  He states that all animals "lack the precision and clarity of human intellectual perception.  Therefore, animals frequently confuse one sensation with another or one object with another."  So, how then to animals form packs if they frequently confuse other members of their species?  I always thought that sight and smell were two of the primary functions of animals that allowed them to detect those with whom they're familiar, but according to Solimeo, the frequently confuse these senses as well.  In other words, he's saying that animals can't really tell a tree trunk from a lion?  Because if that were true, I'm not so sure evolution would have brought us this far.  This argument could be true of some animals that display homosexuality. 

With my background in evolutionary biology, needless to say, I've done my fair share of work with fruit flies.  Fruit flies are certainly an evolutionary anomoloy.  Some of them have developed a third and fourth wing, which are both entirely dysfunctional, if not completely useless and disruptive to their existing, functional wings.  They have an uncanny ability to smell food as well, but seem to have a horrible ability to sense one another with smell.  The problem is that this is how fruit flies identify mates.  They identify possible mates through smell, which they are actually quite horrible at, hence, this could easily explain homosexuality in fruit flies.

However, other animals don't seem to have any problem at all identifying mates: animals as small as dung flies.  In fact, an evolutionary trait of some animals is the ability to disguise themselves as the opposite sex in order to confuse other male contenders.  They will mate with a female while other males pursue them, and quite often unsuccessfully (obviously) fornicate with them in between the initial male's copulations.  This vastly decreases sexual competition, which is certainly to the advantage of the male fish with this ability.  The most noted creature with this capability is the Goodeidae.  If the Goodeidae family of fish were incapable of detecting the sex of another fish, then this evolutionary adaptation wouldn't work one bit, or at least, would not work most of the time.  But it does, and it continues an amazing success rate among this teleost family of fish.

In another case, there is a species of albatross knows as the Laysan (Phoebastria immutabilis) which are known for their lesbian couples.  The species is a monogamous species, but does not always pair up with mates of the opposite sex.  In fact, the female's, in over one-third of observed cases, mate with a male, then split with the male to pair up with a fellow female Laysan albatross.  They do this for a very good reason: It greatly benefits the species.  Female Laysans have learned what many human women have yet to learn, which is that the female sex is much more successful at child-rearing than is the male sex.  They also use this technique to avoid divorce, as with a female partner, she is not likely to be lured away to fornicate with another female.  This is a case of homosexual coupling, but not homosexual mating.  It is a perfectly illustrates a deliberate sociobiological system wherein homosexuality is practiced, and certainly not by mistake.  And if this can illustrate a successful mating program wherein homosexual coupling is successful, what does it say for humans who do the same?  The success rates are similar, as children raised in homosexual households seem to grow up as better-adjusted individuals and average significantly higher levels of both education and income.  But I guess that could just be the gay agenda, right?

I won't spend too much time on this argument, as it's irrelevant, but I've heard it enough to make a slight mention.  There are those who claim that our culture is flying deeper and deeper into a fiery pit because the media is forcing a gay agenda upon us with shows like Will and Grace, Modern Family, Queer Eye, and others.  Can I just say that I've watched all of these shows and I don't feel any significant homosexual tendencies.  In fact, I'm also a fan of Rick and Steve, and my life has yet to spin into a circle of gay orgies and drugs, so I think I'm all right.  What isn't mentioned when these people spout this conspiracy thesis is the fact that the gay community needs shows like these to show bigoted, straight, religious people that they're just like everyone else: the same problems, the same confusions, but with one added stress to their lives.  The gay community needs good PR just like the atheist community does; just like the Muslim community does; just like the Christian community does; just like the Jewish community does.  And all of these sects have their own media PR circles, just as they should.  Bigots are everywhere and hate everyone, and nobody is safe from them.  And frankly, being an atheist myself, I know what it's like to be a part of a minority who is constantly demonized, and every homosexual on this planet feels the same.  We need it.

So, while I'm still looking for a truly scientific argument against homosexuality, I'm starting to wonder if I'll ever actually find one.  I know that there probably aren't any, but I'm still looking.  It just appears to be the logical conclusion, based on contemporary as well as traditional research, is that homosexuality is a result of many composite factors, including genetics, environment, and hormonal influences, which when commingled, make the proverbial "perfect soup."  One cannot isolate purely in a genetic format, as far too many genetic twins differentiate in sexual persuasion, as has been illustrated in the studies performed by the Twin Studies of Bearman and Bruckner (2002).  In this light, one cannot base it too far on upbringing either.  This does not mean, however, that the genetic option isn't a factor.  It could even be a rather large one.  Maternal linkage has been a long-studied hypothesis with very significant results.  In Hamer et al (1993), Sanders et al (1998), and Hu et al (1995), a link was made on the X chromosome, gene marker Xq28.  In rigorous studies, they found that a significant number of gay men tested in their studies had relatively high amounts of gay uncles or cousins on their mother's side.  The standout marker was, as I mentioned before, Xq28.  This study was later refuted in 1999 by Rice et al, which argued that there was no evidence at all of linkage of microsatellite markers at Xq28.  But this was not the end, as later Meta-analysis has showed that additional genes must be present to account for heritability of sexual orientation.  A later study performed in 2005 scanned the genomes of the subjects and families who participated in both Hamer and Hu, and added additional subjects, concluding that while Xq28's significance may have been overstated in Hamer, two other genes showed near significance, and one other, 10q26, showed significant maternal loading, thus adding validity to the family studies previously thought to be refuted.

One thing not mentioned in any of these studies was birth order, which I would really love to look at in the Twin Studies performed by Bearman and Bruckner.  Later sexual orientation studies included a lot of wild claims, but some of them turned out to be incredibly valid, which was the case in Blanchard and Klassen's Fraternal Birth Order study of sexual orientation (1997).  The two concluded the younger a brother is in the family, the greater chance of being a homosexual.  In fact, each older brother adds as high as a 48% chance of homosexuality.  This conclusion wasn't reached by statistics, however.  There is strict, hard science to go along with it.  An in-utero environmental causation has been shown that is linked to a maternal immune response linked to HY antigens.  HY antigens are involved in the sexual differentiation of vertebrates.  Maternal H-Y antibodies remember and react to specific H-Y antigens.  Much like any other antibody, it is going to attack anything it perceives as an invader, which, unfortunately for the younger brother, is going to be his H-Y antigens, and therefore, decrease the antigens' ability to masculinise the brain.  Obviously, this effect varies, which has been the origin of much of its criticism, but it still stands today as a prevailing theory, and none of its opponent "external sibling order" hypotheses have come to explain the link between boys of later birth moved into adopted households without adopted brothers who are also prone to this effect.

Certainly, this effect may even grow deeper, as the physiological differences between straight men and gay men, as well as straight women and gay women, as well as the similarities between gay men and straight women, seem to fall right into this theory of the brain not undergoing proper masculinisation.  As reported by the BBC in 2008, studies have found that gay men and straight women share have an equal average proportion of brain hemispheres.  Straight men and lesbian women also share extraordinarily similar hemisphere proportions, including one anomaly: slightly larger right hemispheres.  According to a paper published in Science by Simon Levay (1991), the average size of the INAH 3 (the third interstitial of the anterior hypothalamus) in gay men is approximately the same size as it is in women.  It's significantly smaller and the cells are far more densely packed than they are in those of heterosexual males.  McFadden (2002) also notes that the functioning of the inner ear and central auditory system in bisexual women and lesbians far resembles the functioning of non-gay men, far more than it does straight women.  These are two significant physiological differences between heterosexuals and homosexuals of the same gender that primarily relate to the brain.  I'm leaving out research that states other differences such as the varying size of the suprachiasmatic nucleus, as well as varying activity in the amygdala, between straight and gay men, simply because these trial results have yet to be duplicated enough times to appease my hungry scientific mind.  Whereas in the case of the INAH3 study, it was duplicated with the same results by its largest detractor, which in science, means everything.

While I'll always say that correlation does not mean causation, many rather significant correlations have been made to varying brain activity as well as the relative sizes of certain areas of the brain and sexual preference.  What this means is that this is an area of sexual orientation science that needs to be explored further, and if trends predict anything, more significant variations will certainly be found, leading us to conclusive evidence of the cause(s) of homosexuality.

But in the end, I will always say that the best test of all is the Myth Busters form of investigation: Just ask.  We all know at least one homosexual.  Just ask him or her if he or she chose to be this way.  Not only will you get a resounding no, but you'll also receive a question in return: Why the hell would I have chosen to be this way?  It's not that, in asking such a question, they're admitting to being ashamed of who they are.  They are, however, illustrating how their lives have been, being so different from everyone else, and probably having to keep such a huge part of themselves secret from their friends and family for years upon years upon years.  Who in the world would choose such a thing?  A better question: Why do we live in a society where people have to hide who they are.

Whether homosexuality is a combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors, or if one of these factors are dominant, it's obvious that a conscious choice was not made by the individual that determined his or her sexual identity and/or orientation.  And let us also keep in mind that even though most scientists would refer to homosexuality as a genetic defect, that doesn't imply negative connotation.  My height is a genetic defect, and so is the color of my eyes.  Any kind of genetic abnormality is a defect.

In summation, there is no evidence to suggest that homosexuality is a choice, nor is there evidence to suggest one can alter their sexual preference any more than they could alter the shape of their face or the length of their arms through sheer will.  There are mountains of evidence to suggest that homosexuality is biological and, to loosely use the term, genetic.  Environmental factors are also at play, but only when combined with preexisting biological components.  Homosexuality is in no way, shape, or form a choice consciously made by humans or other animals.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Anti-Evolution Argument for the Month of August

This is a new feature of The Smiling Skeptic.  Instead of tackling the counter-points to evolution in one blog, which would be a very long one, I've decided to break the counter-points down to a month-by-month basis.

Since this is a new feature to the blog, I want to get something out of the way before we begin.  The most common argument against evolution is that it's "just a theory," and therefore, has no business being taught to children as fact, put before other hypotheses such as special creationism (Intelligent Design), transpermia, or panspermia.  There is, however, a fundamental flaw to this argument: The words just and theory don't, under any circumstances, belong in the same sentence with one another.  This is purely a misunderstanding and an indictment of the disconnect between the scientific community and the general populace.

The common colloquial definition of the word theory is an opinion, hypothesis, or conjecture.  The scientific definition of the word theory is very different.  In its scientific context, the word refers to an interpretation or idea that has been proven correct through experimentation or with other types of evidence.  The word theory applies to evolution just as it applies to gravity, the heliocentric theory of the solar system, and for that matter, the big bang.  The word means, in this context, fact.

That said, I don't blame the general public for making this argument.  It has a right to.  This is actually our fault.  And on behalf of the scientific community, I would like to take responsibility for this misunderstanding.  You see, while those of us of scientific disciplines speak amongst one another, we utilize the word theory completely interchangeably with the word hypothesis.  Amongst ourselves, we can infer from context which word the other person means.  But when we're talking to the general public, we shouldn't do this.  It confuses people.  When we're on television or radio shows, we should not use the two words interchangeably, because we're making matters worse, and giving those who would capitalize on the disconnect just that much more fodder to try to convince the public that science is one big conspiracy.

When you mean theory, then say, "theory."  When you mean hypothesis, then say, "hypothesis."  Especially when addressing those outside the community.  Every time we say the term string theory when we really mean string hypothesis or superstring hypothesis, or superstring interpretation, we're making things worse.  Every time we say many worlds theory, when we really mean to say the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, we're making matters worse.  This puts hypotheses on the same level as proven fact.  So, in conclusion, let's stop this, heh?  After all, we're supposed to be the smart ones.

Now, onto that matter at hand.  I've also decided to take one of the easier arguments this month, because it is one of my favorites - whenever I'm approached with it, I get a little fuzzy inside.  This, of course, is the second law of thermodynamics.

This is a favorite of mine for a lot of reasons. (1) It is a perfect example of the religious cherry picking certain aspects of one type of science in order to refute another unrelated science. (2) The use of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, in this context, also refutes the First Law of Thermodynamics, which makes it an even easier argument to refute.  Let's begin, shall we?

I'm sure we'll all familiar with the laws of thermodynamics.  The zeroth law states that if systems A and B are both in thermal equilibrium with system C, then system B would have to be in thermal equilibrium with system A.  The first law is the law of the conservation of energy.  The second law is the law of entropy in closed systems.  And finally, the third law is the law of absolute zero.  That said, lets concentrate on the second law for now: "In all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves a system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state."

A great way to illustrate what this law means would be to stop breathing right now.  Stop breathing and see what happens to the inside of your body.  You'll feel it as it happens - well, some of it.  What you won't feel is your cells not replicating or repairing themselves.  You won't feel your body as it stops producing hormones.  You won't physically feel your blood as it stops sending oxygen to your brain.  Despite not physically feeling any of this, your body is basically shutting down, because it needs to inhale something in the range of four parts nitrogen and one part oxygen, and expel carbon dioxide in order to properly function, just like it needs food and water.  You've made the decision to raise your bodies entropy by cutting it off, thus making it a mostly closed system.  Your body is in some ways, a closed system all the time, but its entropy is low, because, for the most part, it is an open system with a constant exterior replenishment of its needed fuels.  But despite your constant intake of fuel, your body still begins breaking down the second you're born, as even with this energy, your linear chromosomes' protective telomeres become gradually shorter, reducing their repairing effects, as well as their protection against chromosome fusion.  Telomerase is an enzyme that allows for this deterioration to be prevented in children, but it gradually decreases in the body, causing the telomeres at the end of chromosomes to start to fray and shorten.  There are, of course, options for prolonging this process, but make note that you are currently dying, and will someday complete the process.

One could also use the broken down car analogy, which is very popular: If your car runs out of gas (its external fuel) you will have to utilize the energy stored in your body and turn it into kinetic energy in the direction of the gas station.  Only when you replicate this process again (unless you get a ride) and put fuel into your car, will it run again.  In other words, it won't somehow start making its own fuel.  It's entropy increases with every measurement in which you drive it, because you're burning the fuel of an isolated system.

The Second Law is demonstrably true, yes.  But does it work as an argument against life's 3.7  billion-year (at least) evolution from unicellular microorganisms into the complex multicellular life we see today?  Not in the slightest.  There are many reasons for this, and they can all be summed up in one sentence: Earth is not an isolated system.  Every single atom of our being was forged in the furnaces of space (or the freezer of space, depending on the particular atom).  Every element on this planet was born in space during stellar collisions and/or explosions.  Without greenhouse gases trapping heat from the sun, we would all freeze to death.  Almost every bit of the body's essential vitamin D is absorbed from the sun.  Every single plant on the planet is provided its life by the sun, in the process known as photosynthesis.  Every animal we eat relies on either plants or smaller animals that live off the earth's flora and fauna, which feed off of the sun.  And the animals in group A all the way down rely on the sun for many things from essential vitamins, to the development of serotonin.  Without the sun, we would not last very long.  The sun is our fuel, and since the sun is an external body - well outside the earth's atmosphere - the earth is in no way considered to be an closed system.  This is why the earth flourishes.

If the earth were a closed system, as the creationists seem to think, then why is there still life at all?  Why would all life not deteriorated and succumb to entropy, as would a colony of bacteria inside of a tightly sealed glass jar with a limited supply of food would?  Because we're not in a sealed glass jar - we're on an open rock, floating through space that is in almost perfect harmony between gravity and centrifugal force (honorable mention for the role dark matter plays in that process as well).

Now that we've established - more than, really - that the earth is not in any way a closed system, and that the Second Law of Thermodynamics in no way applies to the life on the planet earth, lets step back a little bit to the First Law.  As I mentioned before, this is the greatest cherry-pick in pseudoscience history, because the second law is used to argue one aspect of science, while these same people choose to deny the existence of the first law, which disproves their entire hypothesis.  The first law of thermodynamics is the conservation of energy.  It clearly states this: Energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot under any circumstances be created or destroyed.  Every time we create kinetic energy, we're able to do so only because our body has stored other types of energy.  A neutron may decay, but it will decay into another particle, such as a muon, or it will collide with oxygen to make nitrogen.  All energy and matter on the planet and in the universe is the product of a cyclic transformation.  When we die, the atoms that make up our face could easily one day be the same atoms that make up another person's legs.  The carbon atom (the second most abundant atom in your body, just behind oxygen) that acts as a central composite piece to any amino acid in your body could easily have been nitrogen at one point.  Any singular atom of Nitrogen-14 that you breathe today could have been Carbon-14 at one point, and vice versa, as Carbon-14 eventually decays back into Nitrogen-14.  But keep in mind the half life of Carbon-14, which is 5730 years, give or take 40 years or so. This only means that in 5730 years, half of the atom would have decayed.  In another 5730 years, half of the remaining half would have decayed.  And so on, and so on, until you once again have a Nitrogen-14 atom, which could once again interact with cosmic radiation in the upper atmosphere, starting the Carbon-14 process all over again, or if it were to bond with oxygen, it would create carbon dioxide.  Just like it could easily decay into another atom.  Atoms go on to bond with other atoms in order to share electrons, and other atoms bond with them, and others with them, and this is how we have matter.  When that matter breaks down, those same atoms will surely bond again, creating something else.  We are, if there ever was one, a grand example of the success of recycling.

The point of all of this rambling is that creationists make up the majority of the world's evolution denialists, yet creationists seem to think that energy can be created, yet it cannot be.  How did God create all of this energy and matter in violation of his own thermodynamic laws?  And since God would have to be energy and matter himself in order to exist, who then created God?  The Big Bang Theory (as much as I hate to use that term, as it was originally meant to be derogation) compensates for this quite easily, in that something didn't come from nothing, as the creationist would have you believe.  Instead, all of the energy and matter in the universe was compressed into one incredibly dense point, until it exploded, spreading out all of the matter and anti-matter that we know today, and from this chaos, emerged the chaotic system of space that we have today, where there is only order because of chaos.  There are other hypotheses as well, but most of them stem from the big bang, because not only have most of the big bang's predictions confirmed, as with the gradual expansion of the universe, but also, we've taken photos of the central point itself.  Lets remember, when we look into space, we're looking back into time because photons (light) can only travel so fast, and we only see because of reflections of light.  Many of the stars we're seeing in the night sky may have already been destroyed, and we'd never know it with the naked eye.  Our galaxy is 100,000 light years across, so it can take upwards of 100,000 years for us to see something happen in space in our own galaxy.  Our galaxy is one of 10,000 that we've already discovered, many of which could have been completely destroyed millions, if not billions of years ago, and we'd never know it.  Light itself stands as the single greatest evidence against the 6,000 year universe hypothesis, as if the universe is only 6,000 years old, then why can I see Andromeda, which is 2.5 million light years away?  According to creationists, we shouldn't be able to see God create Andromeda for another 2,494,000 years.  The second piece of evidence against creationism, included in the matter of light, is the photographic evidence of the big bang from NASA.  And, of course, The first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed.

Thank you, and thanks for reading.  And don't forget to bring up Andromeda next time you're in a heated discussion about the age of the universe and of the age of the earth.  It's kind of a debate killer in and of itself, assuming your opponent understands light and human vision.  But I guess we can never assume that, can we?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

I Have the Power...Bracelet

Oh, so many absurdities.  What is it about our civilization that seems to force at least a marginal percentage of the population into complete ignorance of empirical value?  What is it that has us put any level of trust into unsubstantiated claims - admittedly unsubstantiated claims?  There's a reason the psychic hotline commercials flash the words For entertainment purposes only at the bottom of your television screen.  There is a reason that the overpriced bottles of water you buy at your local homeopathic shops can never make any actual medical claims (and should be forced to read, "Very expensive pee inside.").  But what is the reason for the lack of disclaimer in the human brain that should say, "Hey, just because athletes are wearing this, doesn't mean it has any real-life relevance.  Maybe, just maybe, they're being paid to promote the product like the incredibly, unusually hot woman at the bar who keeps ordering the same drink and keeps talking to random guys about how good it is.."

In this particular sense, I'm talking about something I noticed back in 2008, and apparently I was a year behind the trend, per usual.  The trend is called the Power Balance bracelet, and packs within it some of the most unbelievably unsubstantiated, and at times, impossible, claims I've heard since I was first introduced to Astrology as a teenager.  These claims are also admittedly unsubstantiated by the makers of the product, which you can read about here in an article from Yahoo! Sports from January of this year.

The claims in particular is that these bracelets have the ability to interact with the body's natural energy to increase balance, speed, endurance, flexibility, strength (by 500%), and from something I read about a while ago, I heard they're also known to cause Spidey-Sense.  Now keep in mind, I'm not talking about the power bracelet worn by Link in The Legend of Zelda, I'm talking about a real life item here, that actually claims to have similar powers of magic and mystery, while interacting with an energy field just as magical and mysterious.  Even the great and powerful Shaquille O'Neal swears by them, citing they're the secret to his success.  Though, I don't remember him doing anything of note since I was a kid (and by "of note" I don't mean Shaq-Fu) and Power Bracelets have only been out since 2007.  Are they retroactive?  Do they posses the power of reverse time travel on top of all of their mystical powers?

The Evidence
Just briefly, for the sake of argument, let's examine the evidence in favor of the Power Balance bracelet.  The first piece of evidence is that the makers say the bracelets give you powers.  The last piece of evidence is that paid spokespersons say they give you powers.  Since both of these are merely unproven conjecture, let's move on to the evidence against the bracelets.  A study was performed by the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) in 2010 which used actual scientific methods - imagine that - to determine the effects of the bracelets vs that of placebo.  Four bracelets were used in the experiment, with only one of them being an authentic Power Balance bracelet.  All four were wrapped in tape so that none of the participants, nor the scorekeepers of the event, knew which person was wearing the authentic one.  According to the athletic trial results, in each trial, the results of placebo were exactly the same as the results of the bracelet. Zero statistical significance.  Conclusion A: Power Balance bracelets are placebo and nothing more.

Next, researchers at RMIT's School of Health and Sciences duplicated the above experiment, finding the same result.  Something to note: These researchers were chiropractors.  If you have people as low in the field of pseudoscience such as chiropractors saying that your product is bunk and has no empirical truth to it, that really says something.  Conclusion B: Power Balance bracelets are placebo and nothing more.

The website's own videos, before being removed earlier this year, showed videos of people stretching without, then with the power bracelet on their wrists.  One person would stretch a few times, then apply the bracelet, and stretch again, showing increased flexibility.  Problem A: There's no way of actually knowing if the person was stretching to their fullest extent in the first place.  Problem B: We have no time scale as reference.  Problem C: A person always becomes slightly more flexible from one stretch to another.  This is why it's called stretching in the first place.  This shows intent to provide misleading experimental results, and to me, in what I refer to as the d factor, counts as negative evidence, as deceptive experimental presentation not only demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the product, but that the producers of the conclusions know the product are completely aware.  Conclusion C: Power Balance bracelets are placebo and nothing more; and their product is knowingly deceptive (d=3x10^-4).

A Deeper Concern
What you're looking at in a Power Bracelet is a silicone version of a power crystal.  Yet, even after the company was forced to recant any and all claims that power crystals improve your performance in any way, people still buy them.  People still sell them in airports.  People can still by them on websites for ovarian cancer, which is deeply troubling to me, as it doesn't take a marketing genius to see the implications of that.  You can still buy them online for the same price they were before they were forced to admit their product was absolute hokum, and people still buy them.  Their projected sales in 2011 aren't that far off from their $30 million in sales the previous year.  Now, we all know definitively that the power of this product is entirely a work of fiction, but - I can't stress this enough - people are still buying them!

The company can legally no longer use the term "performance technology" in their ads or their packaging.  The company can legally no longer claim that their product increases performance of any kind beyond that of placebo.  The company had to, at its own expense, release a series of ads correcting previous claims of the bracelet increasing a person's strength, flexibility, or performance.  They can legally no longer say the bracelets are designed to work with the body's natural energy field.  Plus, they legally had to offer full refunds, with postage, to each and every person who had ever purchased their product.  The makers of the product were forced to publicly denounce their own product in front of the world to drive the point home that their product is for entertainment purposes only.  What more do you need?

This is indicative of a much deeper problem than just one product.  This is, itself, the entire reason I write this blog: People will continue to believe things, even at their expense, no matter the lack of evidence, or even the contrary evidence to the affects of a product, entity, or practice.  I understand that people these days have a level of mistrust toward science, and are therefore always looking for alternatives.  This is one of the reasons for the vast disconnect between science and the general populace.  Science is hard to follow in many ways for someone who doesn't maintain an interest.  "How can those physicists and cosmologists know the age of the universe when they weren't there?" someone may ask; although, if they read a little deeper and followed the fields with a level of interest, they would actually see how simple it is for them to know using very easy step by step processes.  They may also say that organizations such as the FDA are unreliable for certain reasons.  While I will admit there are conflicts of interest.  I don't understand for the life of me why most of it is made up of pharmaceutical executives (those who've only worked on the financial and monetary side of medical science) instead of the scientists who actually produce the medicines in the first place (those who may actually know what they're talking about and have a substantiated authority on matters of medicine).  However, this does not make the FDA untrustworthy in the long run.  In fact, I would venture to say that if even the FDA won't approve something, that says something about the value of the product itself (I refer you back to the Chiropractor point I made before regarding the magic bracelets).

I understand the distrust toward modern science, but it is entirely unsubstantiated and based on misunderstandings and disconnects.  Scientists are here to help people and make the world a better place.  If we weren't, we wouldn't have gone into our various fields, which, on average, have very limited earning potential.  Therefore, if the entirety of modern science is telling you that you're just throwing money down the drain by purchasing a product, then why would you not listen and at least investigate a little?  The claims made by power bracelets are no more absurd than the claims made by astrologers, psychics, homeopathic retailers; and I think most people know that none of those fields are worth the paper their professions' names are written on.  Why, then, do people still continue to visit the astrologer, the psychic, the homeopathic doctor, and the chiropractor?  Is it a pure lack of critical thinking, or are people really just that lazy that they'll just believe what they're told by any quack with a website (because they won't give just anybody one of those)?  I personally believe the latter.

Laziness is not a trait unknown to humans.  Let's face it: Many people would rather drive four blocks to the convenience store than walk it, even though it's only a few blocks away, and the walk might actually be beneficial to you and to the environment.  But that's not the laziness I'm talking about.  I'm referring to intellectual laziness, when combined for a desire for power and an unwillingness to do anything to gain it, this causes people to resort to believing crazy claims in the hopes that they can get that one hour workout in five minutes; they can see into the future to see what they should be doing in the present; they can burn a candle and speak a few archaic words and they'll somehow get rich; and worse than any of it, they'll actually believe a single word written in The Secret.  This creates a need for faith in people which is ultimately destructive to them.  These people will pump as much money as they can into crazy products, churches, sprititualists, "advisers", and other entities in order to obtain something without having to work for it.  Combine this physical laziness with intellectual laziness, and you have someone who would rather go broke than not subscribe faith into every shortcut that is offered to them, no matter how absurd it sounds, and no matter how unsubstantiated it is.  Just believing what they're told and having faith is easier than reading a little bit about such claims.

Intellectual laziness is a trait that is so common among people that it sort of hurts to think about - which is coincidental of me to say, because looking at so many people in this country, one would assume that thinking must be painful or at least incredibly straining.  Yes, it is easier to just believe what you're told than to compare all of the available evidence and come to your own educated conclusions.  Yes, just thinking that everything happens because it happens, is a lot easier than questioning why and how things happen.  It's much easier to just walk down the sidewalk without thinking about it at all, instead of thinking of all of the physical principles you're applying when walking, not to mention what's happening under your feet at the subatomic level with every step you take.  Many people don't find this interesting, and I think the only reason for this is because it all seems too daunting.  The big words; the hard equations; the imagination; the scientific method and process; it's all so much harder.  Yet, you'll notice that when you read one book on science, you have to read another, and another, and another, until you're a sponge soaking up information and you're doing your own experiments at home, in time, based after your own original hypotheses.  The problem is that most people don't take that first step because of a laziness that is brought about by fear - the fear that they may not be able to understand it.  But the more you read, the easier it all becomes, until you're up at 5:00 AM conclusively disproving the young earth creation story using the speed of light with one hand, and eating your Cheerios with the other (read about this here on August 1).

Just that one boost could be the difference between a life of ignorance and a life of scientific inquiry and success.  But most never receive that boost.  Their parents never encourage it, or they never get over the fear of feeling stupid, or they didn't have the best teachers, or any number of reasons.  Maybe they grew up in a cult and never had access to scientific papers.  Who am I to judge?  What I can do is say that this first step is something that we, as a society, need to start concerning ourselves with.  People need to see just how cool the universe is before they can develop an interest.  If that scientific interest were to be developed in more people, we would see psychics, astrologers, and Power Bracelets diminished within just a generation or two.  And how great of a world would that be?

Thanks for reading.  Next week, I'll be posting a few experiments I performed with face-to-face psychics and telepsychics a few years ago that were quite fun to perform, and should be very fun to read.  And on the first of the month, I'll be introducing a new feature to the blog called Monthly Arguments Against Evolution, where I'll be choosing one particular argument against the theory of evolution to burn to the ground on a monthly basis.  Keep smiling and always be skeptical.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Psychics Never Seem to Know When They're Not Psychic

"I realize that there is no concrete scientific evidence for psychic abilities (at least no evidence that's available to the public). However, has this stopped the US government and many local police forces around the nation from employing psychics? No, it hasn't. This has been going on for decades. Even China has what they call 'remote viewers'. I realize that our government isn't always good and ethical, but they (collectively) are very intelligent. Would they continue to waste money on psychics if they determined that such powers did not exist? I doubt it. 

There is a lot of information that they withhold from the public. I doubt that we'll ever know the full story behind 9/11. Did President Bush play a role in it? We may never know. Did aliens really crash land in Roswell? We may never know. Do true psychic powers (which can only be supernatural) really exist? We don't know that either, but we can make some logical inferences based on the government's activities.

Yes, I know that the psychic phone friends and the tarot card readers on the street corners are almost all phonies, but this does not mean that all psychics are.

Skepticism is a useful tool in distinguishing fact from fiction, but I encourage all of you to avoid the trap of denialism."

I happened across this query on Yahoo! Answers just last week and it got me thinking about a few things.  The first was that I was confused as to how this person managed to confuse skepticism with denialism.  Denialism is a matter wherein a person denies the validity of an event or an entity despite the amounts of evidence in favor of the phenomena.  Good examples of this would be the holocaust, evolution, germ theory, and others.  Skepticism on the other hand is the complete opposite.  Skepticism is ordering levels of acceptance based on the amount of evidence in favor or in contrary to a particular phenomena, and coming to the conclusion that there is not enough evidence to support a hypothesis, or none at all, in many cases.  Good examples of this would be alien abduction, special creationism, astrology, ghosts, chiropractic medicine, homeopathic medicine, dolphin therapy, and in this case, psychics.  So, let us never confuse skepticism with denial, as they are certainly two very different things, opposite one another.

The second thought that came to mind was something I've often wondered in the past: just how much money to state and local governments put into hiring psychics, and to what effectiveness do psychics solve crimes?  I haven't been a "believer" in psychics since I reached the age of reason, just like I haven't been a "believer" in vampires since that age, but I wondered if my skepticism could be put to the test by the hard numbers. And can I find hard numbers without having to rely on statistics, of which I'm foremost skeptical?  Hard numbers and statistics are two very different things, of course, so how hard can it be?  I could utilize the gift that is the Freedom of Information Act to find the dollar amount the federal government, and at least my own state government puts into special crime investigation, and within that, I could find the hard dollar amount that went into psychics.  Finding the amount of crimes that were solved with the help of psychics, and how large a role the psychics played in solving said crimes would be a whole different matter, and would involve some personal investigation of my own.  Damn it!

Before I get to the topic, however, here are the subjects I will not be discussing in this blog: The "we only use 10% of our brain" argument.  I will not bring this up because this is actually a myth - a commonly accepted myth, for whatever reason, which, with the slightest bit of research on something as trivial as Google, can be immediately dispelled and debunked.  If we only used 10% of our brains we would be vegetables, if even that.  I also will not discuss telekinesis, as that is a subject for another time, and a whole other volume of hokum. I will also not discuss Peter Venkman's research into the paranormal, but I still think Ghostbusters was a pretty awesome movie.  This blog will deal with extrasensory perception, precognition, parasense, a sixth sense, and other related subjects.

Stargate Atlantis?
I happened to find one source of a program that I found a little bit disturbing, not because of the nature of the program, but how long it went on without any conclusive results, and how expensive it was.  The operation I'm talking about is the federal government's Stargate Project.  Don't confuse this with Crazy Ronnie's Star Wars Initiative, mind you, but this was equally as insane.  The Stargate Project was started in the early 1970s to experiment on the value of remote viewing.  For those out of the loop, remote viewing is a form of ESP, and is the ability to use paranormal means to seek impressions about distant, unseen places or targets.  From the 1970's to 1995, the US government spend twenty-million dollars per year funding this research, and in over two decades of applying the phenomena to rigorous scientific research, not one bit of conclusive evidence was reached to add to the validity of remote viewing phenomenon.

The studies that were done were certainly conflicting.  Dare I take us back to my argument against statistics, but this is yet another example of how easily manipulated they are, and how they do not under any circumstances function as stand-alone scientific evidence because of their insurmountable amounts of variables.  I need bring to your attention no more example than these conflicting conclusions.  Just before the operation closed, a  report was run buy the American Institutes for Research (AIR) which had a council primarily of two members, Professor Jessica Utts and Dr. Ray Hymen.  The reports were performed based on the collected data of the man who took over Stargate in 1985, Dr. Edwin C. May, who was a long-time government employee working in programs dealing with precognition and ESP, and whose education is in Low Energy, Experimental Nuclear Physics.

Professor Jessica Utts' study found that subjects who claimed clairvoyance were correct about certain information at a rate of 5% to 15% above chance, citing statistically significance.  In her side of the report to the AIR, she all but claimed these numbers to be proof of the existence of ESP and precognition.  On the other hand, the information collected by Dr. Hyman was entirely different.  According to the Hyman's data, remote viewers were correct about information only 20% of the time.  Being wrong about information 80% of the time is hardly above chance in my opinion, and apparently in his as well.  He responded to Professor Utts' results, saying her claim of evidence of precognition is entirely premature, and that "present findings have yet to be independently replicated."  He also argued that the subjects' reports included large amounts of irrelevant information, and when the subjects' reports were on target, the information supplied was often vague and completely general in nature, much like ancient prophesies, which can be applied to just about anything.  These are two very conflicting results based on the same data.  I think what worries me even more is that Professor Utts is a long-time proponent of significant changes in collegiate level statistics education, arguing that the current curricula does a horrible job in teaching students how to properly interpret statistical results.  She also argues that classes don't spend enough time on the misconception that correlative studies show causation.  Although I most certainly agree with that second part, as anyone who read my last paper knows, I'm not so sure that she actually understands what she's saying.  Either that, or she's learned a lesson since 1995, and is blaming her education for the public embarrassment that should have been her side of the AIR report.

Of course, I do not know the exact amount of control that went into these experiments, nor do I know if either of these groups collecting and interpreting the date were following the strict guidelines of the scientific method to begin with.  I do know that Dr. Edwin May was, and still is, a proponent of psychic phenomenon, so it would be hard for me to say that the experiments performed, or the data collected and interpreted between 1985 and 1995 were unbiased and approached with skepticism the way they should have been.  In other words, statistical evidence for psychic phenomena exists, but it was bias to begin with.  According to the report itself, "Information provided was inconsistent, inaccurate in regards to specifics, and required substantial subjective interpretation."  As for hard evidence, still, absolutely no evidence whatsoever for the validity of psychic phenomena exists.  Total dollar amount for the Stargate Project: based on the information provided, the full cost of the project was $400 million dollars, and surely more, as the total cost of the project after it was transferred to the CIA in 1995 is not provided.  For additional information on Stargate and the AIR's conclusions visit here:

Otherwise, private research is done all of the time from private funding, most of these exercises take place at universities, such as Washington University's $5 million grant of recent, which resulted in the same failure as the government's remote viewing project.  However, there has been one study that may show evidence for the existence of psychic phenomena.

Is This Your Porn?
Professor Emeritus Daryl Bem (psychology) at Cornell University recently published a paper called "Feeling the Future" in the magazine The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  A former stage magician, Bem has a long interest in the study of psychic phenomenon, having specialized in mentalism.  He was apparently a skeptic up until the point when he ran into noted parapsychologist Charles Hornorton at a convention hosted by the Parapsychological Association.  Bem soon began work on the empirical side of attempting to prove psychic phenomena, and to provide controlled evidence that can be replicated by independent researchers. 

Bem's experiment was as such: He put a computer screens in front of 100 students - fifty male and fifty-female - on either side was a curtain.  Behind one curtain would be a blank wall, and behind another would be an image.  Many of the images were erotic in nature, but not all of them.  The point was, obviously, to get the students to choose the screen on which was the erotic image.  Bem hypothesized that the group would be able to identify the correct screen roughly 50% of the time, as would say the laws of chance (1 of 2 options = 50% chance of success), however, that those shown the erotic images would have a higher hit rate.  I'm already blown by what Mr. Bem is considering to be a control in this experiment, but I'll digress.

Of the 100 sessions in Bem's experiment, those shown non-erotic images chose the correct curtain 48.8 percent of the time - well within the bounds of chance.  Those shown erotic imagery, however, scored a hit rate of 53.1 percent.  According to Bem, this was a substantial difference, but may I remind you that even statistically, this is not a significant difference, and scientifically, 53.1 percent is still well within the bounds of probability and chance - only a marginal percent higher than 50%.  If the results would have stated somewhere around 60%, I would be interested.  If the results showed somewhere in the area of 70%, I would actually be quite amazed and I would want to replicate the experiment myself.  If the results were 80%-90%, I would bow down and tell Mr. Bem that he very well may have stumbled upon evidence of ESP and precognition.  However, 53.7% is hardly impressive, and as I said before, well within the boundary of chance.  Why was there a difference between the two groups?  Also mere chance, as variables would dictate, if you were to show one half of the group two blank computer screens, you would probably see the same, if not a greater difference.  However, this would be called a control, and I see no evidence of one here.  Another point to ponder: This research carried over the course of eight years, with the experiment being replicated nine times, so I must wonder how many of those experiments differed in percentage, as we seem only to be receiving the average percentages.  What were the results of each individual test?  Was it conclusive 100% of the time that students overwhelmingly chose the proper computer containing the erotic image against those who were tested without the erotic images?  What were the percentage of students who chose the blank screen in each experiment?  Were there more women than men who chose any of the above results?  Where is this information?  You would think it would be important, at least for a scientist, which a psychologist plainly is not.  Especially this one, it would appear.

Now, onto a greater problem with this experiment.  In his own words, "The remarkable finding is that their psychological responses are observed to occur about 2-3 seconds prior to the appearance of the picture, even before the computer has decided whether to present a non-arousing or an arousing picture."

Yet, a half a year later, the study has yet to be replicated independently, which would indicate little more than a fluke result.  I also have not seen the entirety of the results to see if he managed to somehow score a difference between precognition (knowing what is coming) and anticipation (expecting something may come), nor have I seen what the orders of the photos were, which would well explain the anticipation.

With two highly-publicized studies, we see absolutely no evidence at all for precognition, and other studies not worth mentioning, over the past, fifty years, have come to the same results: Excited non-skeptics of precognition being met with a chorus of, "Here's what you did wrong."  I suspect that no results in the future will prove anything further from this trend.  So, why with such a lack of evidence for precognition, to police departments across the United States, Great Britain and Australia continue to pump worthwhile state money into such a worthless practice?  Why are television shows abundant on the topic of psychic investigators?

Roadhouse Blues
Why is it that Patrick Swayze is dead right now?  Living in Minneapolis, one of the suburbs of my fair city is called Edina.  Edina is the home one of the "real life ghost mediums" who acted as, among many others, an inspiration of The Ghost Whisperer.  Her name is is Echo Bodine.  Her books have sold substantially well and she currently does live readings with the accompaniment of a keyboardist.  The subject at hand is not Echo, however, but her brother, Michael Bodine, who my poor fiancee must deal with every time he saunters into her store to sign his literary nonsense.

Michael was the personal psychic of many stars including Lewis Black (that one surprises me) and Melanie Griffith, but most notably, Patrick Swayze, who died in 2009 of pancreatic cancer.  I in no way intend any disrespect to Swayze or his family in this piece, nor do I intend to make light of pancreatic cancer, which is one of the deadliest forms of cancer known to date.  However, that being said, why was Patrick Swayze dead at 57?  The average lifespan - though at a very embarrassingly tied with Cuba at 36th in the world, underneath islands that most people have never heard of - is 75.6-years-old for men.  Fifty-seven seems to be a pretty early age of death, not only for a man who was, admittedly, in pretty impeccable physical shape for most of his life, but more notably, had a psychic by his side to tell him what the future held for him.  Swayze could have easily detected his cancer early enough to cure it, had his psychic informed him, or had he known about it.  But how could he not?  I don't want to hear another psychic explain, "It doesn't work that way," I want to hear just one give me a real answer as to why psychics can detect some things but not others.  And if it's in a heirarchy of importance, I would think pancreatic cancer would be up there.  And considering what Swayze paid this man, I think most certainly Swayze's family is entitled to a refund.

This may be a bit of a tongue and cheek example, but it's the dominant example.  Therefore, why, again, are our state and federal government paying to hire these people?  Why are our tax dollars being spent to fund hokum, with a statistical success rate of 1 in 17, though, I'm still skeptical of statistics, even when they work in my favor.  You must realize that 1 in 17 is far lower than the rate of chance, and it's far, far lower than the success rates of our best detectives, who rely on investigation and evidence to solve crimes, instead of superstitious nonsense.

In Summation
What are we doing funding this type of investigation and research?  How many times do results need to be found inconclusive?  How many years is it going to take to develop proof of something that is allegedly so common?  Let's go back to chance for a moment, maybe a statistical expert out there can conclude how it could be that after hundreds of years of investigation and experimentation, absolutely no hard evidence has ever been found that precognition, or any sort of psychic ability for that matter?  It was only months after Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was released that hard evidence started to turn up.  It was only half a century after the standard model was developed that all but one of the particles it predicted have been found.  Speaking of...where is that elusive Higgs boson anyway?  I guess that's a topic for a later date.

For our federal government or state governments to spend a dime on psychics or psychic research is, in this man's opinion, a violation of the separation of church and state, as to date, psychic activity is nothing more than primitive superstition, and not hard, empirical fact.  I suspect that will never change.  For those who disagree, by all means, take those millions of dollars that James Randi has had up for years for anyone who can provide proof of psychic ability.  Hell, I'll offer a few grand myself.

Thanks for reading,
The Smiling Skeptic
C. Allen Thompson

This Skeptical Heart Goes Out to Norway

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, only days ago, a government center in Norway was bombed by an alleged lone extremist, who then followed a group of young Labor Party members to an island Summer camp, killing at least 80 in a heinous shooting.  I know that my heart, as well as any heart beating in the chest of any reader of this blog, goes out to the friends and families of the victims of this crime.  I can personally think of no worse reason for a person, young or old, to die than for political beliefs, or for the religious beliefs of a nut-job conspiracy theorist, and conspiracy theorist this man was, and then some.

When the story first broke, the mainstream media system of knee-jerk churnalism immediately blamed the bombing and shooting on Muslim extremism, going far enough to say that this was carried out by an off-shoot of Al Qaeda.  There was, of course, absolutely no evidence to point to this, but every outlet, including various ones for which I commonly have respect, seemed to forget about journalistic integrity with this mass, mindless response.  I guess that as a country, when we think of terrorism, we think of Islam immediately, despite the thousands of years of Christian and Jewish terrorism, which got a massive head start on today's extreme Muslims.  And thanks to the shooter, Anders Behring Breivik, a right-wing, radical Christian, those numbers are starting to even out once again.

Breivik was not only a right-wing lunatic, but he was also a member of the famed Order of the Knights Templar, a common reference in his 1,500 page war plan, wherein he set out to kill hundreds in the name of reversing the effects of a global conspiracy to turn all of Europe Marxist first, then secondly, then to force the Islamic colonization of the entirety of the European Union.  Something not so common about this incident is that we have the privilege of taking a trek into his mind after the crime with this video, which perfectly outlines what is a dangerous combination of mental illness and belief in conspiracy theories and religion.  Take a look:

This video gave me chills, to be honest.  The repeated justifications of anti-multi-culturalism were enough, let alone the vastness of the conspiracy theories that reigned within.  Now is hardly the time for me to do a blog about conspiracy theories, but trust me when I tell you it's coming.  Now isn't even the time for me to do a blog on media skepticism, though, this would be a perfect chance for me to highjack a situation in order to illustrate the necessity for it.  Instead, what I'm doing is sharing with you the mind of a killer, and going into the depths of his illness, when aligned with antiquated ideas, conspiracy theories, and fundamentalist religion.  These four things proved to be fatal for almost 100 people, and maybe even more.  Who knows how many others out there are like him?  Who knows how many of the United States' Tea Party will act out like this?  There seems to be a strong resemblance in belief structures and political ideology, not to mention their extremism about such topics.

In conclusion, I just want to send my sincere condolences out to the friends and family of those lost, as well as to those who were wounded in the bombing or the shooting that followed.  You were the victims of a madman, and nothing less.  Stay strong and be with courage.  For those of you who would like to donate to the victims or to the families of the victims, visit the here for a list of Norwegian charities, or call your local, preferred charities and inquire.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

That's Allstate's Stand. Are you a Virgo?

There are plenty of reasons to encourage critical thinking among people.  There are people who refuse to have their children vaccinated because they have a personal hypothesis - without evidence of any kind - that vaccines cause autism or lower Intelligence Quotients among children.  There are grown parents who don't seek medical attention for their children because they feel that faith and prayer will cure the child better than modern medicine.  There are even people in this day and age who deny the holocaust ever happened, think the universe is 6,000-years-old, and believe in vampires.  What do all of these people have in common?  A clear lack of critical thinking and a clear lack of regard toward the eminence and implications of evidence.

The worst part of all is how this translates in our society.  We have senators arguing against emissions regulations by quoting from the bible, saying that God won't let the world end until he's good and ready.  We have states in the south suggesting prayer to solve their budget crises.  And how many people do you know who are undoing the goodness that is human evolution, and also subjecting themselves to illnesses that humans thought they'd done away with a century ago, by subscribing to raw food diets?  I'm going to talk about one particular instance in which a clear-cut lack of critical thinking could end up costing you money, and probably already has.

Click here to read a rather disturbing study that was performed by the car insurance company Allstate.  The study cited this:

The company said its comparison of 2010 claims data against the revised astrological calendar found Virgos were involved in 211,650 collisions last year, 700 percent more than the 26,833 crashes involving Scorpios, the safest drivers on the zodiac calendar.

Had this just been a mundane study, wherein a reputable insurance company wanted to waste some money to appease the "new age" audience with some unsubstantiated and unproven statistics, that would be one thing.  Had this been a "joke" (damage control), because car insurance companies apparently like to waste money on humor, that would be another as well, but according to other sources, that's not the case.  In fact, according to Allstate's own current policies, that's not the case.  Insurance companies already use matters such as a person's credit, a person's sex, and even a person's personal life to measure the accountability and habits of a person, and the amount they should be paying for insurance. 

A person's sex and credit score have as much to do with their driving habits as their astrological sign.  Both of these matters were determined by statistics, which mean absolutely nothing in the face of reality.  First thing, statistics do not necessarily suggest correlation, and do not ever stand as evidence for causation.  One could find a hundred statistics by a hundred firms to suggest women are better drivers than men, just as one could find a hundred statistics by a hundred firms to suggest exactly the contrary.  It's all a matter of the methodology, which in matters of the business world, not the scientific one, is determined by the preordained result.  In fact, let me show you how easy it is to create a false statistic.  I'll use one of my favorite statistics, which is from the infamous Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which concludes that global warming is a direct result of the decline in piracy over the course of the last 400 years.

As anyone could tell you, temperatures - though you should never equate climate with weather as they are different things - in 1600 were a yearly average of about 54 degrees F.  In 1998, this number climbed to 58.3 degrees F.  Well, on the other hand, let's look at piracy.  Though, piracy is on the rise in recent years, it's too early to make any kind of climactic difference, says my research that I will come up with eventually to fit my conclusions.  According to generally accepted theory, the amount of pirates that rode the high seas in 1600 was close to 7,000 people.  That's quite a hefty number, especially when compared to 1998's depressing number of only 120.  Well, let us do some pretty simple math here.  From this research, I can easily conclude that there is a correlation, and I will arbitrarily conclude causation.  And with that, I will conclude that each pirate in the world is worth exactly 0.000625 of a degree.  I would also conclude that, judging by the math there, the world can only actually get 0.075 of a degree warmer, as that would be the increase in temperature caused by the remaining 120 sea-going swashbucklers giving up their day jobs, putting us at an average yearly temperature of 58.375 degrees F.  Wow, I guess I just proved that the polar ice caps are safe from heating as well.  I wonder why they're still melting then.  Well, they must not be, since I just proved with STATISTICS that they're not.

I hope I made my point about statistics.  So, now that we've proven that statistics, in the world of science, for the most part mean absolutely nothing, at least without proper and open methodology and proper double-blind scientific method.  Now, let's apply that thinking to the study I mentioned above regarding astrology.  Given that astrology applies to everyone, at least in the sense that everyone has had a sign applied to them by these hacks, we can conclude, beyond a shadow of a doubt that one of the twelve would come out on top of the others.  The chances of a tie happening are pretty small, so someone is going to take home the gold.  My question is this: Why only use Western astrology?  Why not apply Chinese astrology as well?  Is there more evidence for the tenets of Western astrology than Eastern astrology?  Well, let me check.  The following is a list of the empirical evidence collected over the course of the past 2,000 years, that suggests the tenets and claims made by either Western or Eastern astrology are viable and should be taken seriously:

(Insert cricket noises here)

Well, that's it.  Quite a bit, huh?  So, I guess to this day nobody has managed to prove that the date you were born and the position of the stars above your head or below your feet (on the other side of the world for you anti-heliocentrics out there) has any affect on your life, personality, love-life, future, family life, or driving habits.  In fact, in the long history of astrology, not one person, even those attempting with all of their might to prove this superstition as a legitimate science, has managed to produce anything.  Well, in the scientific world, one would have to say that after thousands of years with no evidence, and all of the actual evidence being completely to the contrary of astrology, it really ought to go the same route as Geocentricity, Craniometry, Phrenology, or any other pseudoscience or pseudo-hypothesis that has been practiced in the last few thousand years of recorded human history.  Why has it not?

Well, why haven't any of the religious tenets that have since been entirely unproven?  Why haven't any of the religious tenets that have been disproved through miles of evidence, such as the flood of Noah, the life-spans of biblical characters, the biblical age of the earth, the six-day creation, the Hindu world/elephant/tortoise hypothesis?  Well, because these are all religious factors, and no matter how absurd they are, you just cannot criticize them to the level at which they should be criticized, and thus, without opposition in the PC era, they just slowly absolve themselves of any responsibility to stand on evidence, and become part of the public's perception of reality.  Granted, reality exists independently of the observer, but that hardly makes a difference when people can't separate reality from observed reality, because they've not been taught the importance of critical thinking.

How many people wake up in the morning, get the paper, and read their horoscopes?  Quite a few, as the field seems to employ a ton of writers.  How many people believe them?  Far too many.  The problem is - let's say a person's horoscope says not the leave the house or they'll be killed - after a person does what their horoscope says and stays in their home, and nothing bad happens to them, you can't go back in time and prove to them that nothing bad would have happened anyway.  In fact, this may be a trivial matter, but what if something really good would have happened to them that day?  You must think that at least one of the thousands who read the horoscope that morning would have had a much better day had they gone outside.  What if one of them were on their last leg at their job and called in because their horoscope told them to?  Unlikely, yes, but still a matter to think about.  If even one bad thing has ever happened to a person, or one good thing has ever missed a person because of the directions inside of an instructive horoscope, that person has been robbed by pseudo-scientific superstition that has not one leg to stand on in the spectrum of evidence.  It is no different from those who succumbed to muscle problems later in life because of years of seeing a whole other field of charlatan, the chiropractor, who I will certainly touch on in a later blog.

My point in the end is that there is no evidence to show that astrology has any merit at all, and to charge extra money based on a religious chart is nothing more than religious discrimination.  I am a Scorpio.  I share a few of the traits outlined in my vague and common astrological description.  I share a few traits with the predictions made in my birth chart as well - yes, I had one made.  So do most people.  The issue is this: if it were a viable science, then I would share all of the traits described in both my birth chart and my star chart.  All Scorpios would be exactly the same, and every single person born on November 6, 1981 at 4:21 AM (my birthday) would have the same exact same life and personality, according to astrology.  Well, it just so happens an old friend of mine shared my birthday.  An old girlfriend, actually, who was only off by a few hours.  Well, you don't have to educate me in matters of astrophysics, I know how fast planets move, and I know how fast the earth spins as well, making it appear that stars are moving.  But in the world of astrology, apparently, this doesn't make much of a difference.  I wonder, then, why that woman and I had nothing in common, and don't talk today.  You'd think we'd make great bedfellows.

This brings me to another point.  Astrology claims to be the only algorithm necessary for bringing couples together.  Why, then, according to am I not only with a woman of an astrological sign that I'm supposed to hate (I'm in an extremely happy relationship, by the way) but according to the same site, the success of your marriage entirely depends of astrology?  I found this note quite interesting:

The type and location of the best wedding couples in astrology and reception site, officiate and other service personnel are also influenced by the residence of the daily Astrological Sun. The brides and grooms Natal Sun signs may also be used. Although the sign that the Sun resides in on the wedding day is the most significant, the other signs play their role in assisting with the preparations. Each will have some influence in the areas that they govern. Using the energies of the Astrological Bridal Zodiac can result in the bridal couples quest to plan a unique fairy tale best wedding couples in astrology.
I guess your overall algorithm is based in the position of planets on the date of your birth, but the basis of a successful marriage is not communication, compatibility, happiness, sex, or anything else that we crazy scientists have thought for hundreds of years.  Apparently, invisible and undetectable energies must travel through just the right places and just the right times, with the assistance of the sun, you know, the giant burning hydrogen ball in the sky with a mass of about about 2×1030 kilograms that provides us all of our world sustenance by continuing to be a giant burning ball of gas, cares about your wedding, and even dictates your future.  Are you getting chills yet?  Because I am!  What is the evidence to support this?  NOTHING!  In fact, no link has ever been made between the time of day, nor the time of year, of a wedding ceremony that showed the success of the marriage is contingent on that whatsoever.  In fact, considering that marriages fail all the time, from weddings performed at all times of day and times of year, would certainly point to the contrary: There is no correlation at all.  I won't even get into the other signs "assisting with the preparations" part.  We'll leave that for Silvia Brown to try to explain in one of her monthly, ghost-written books.

In the end, I would have to say that this study was a wash, and the statistics mean nothing.  Whether it was a misguided appeasement of the "spiritual" crowd, or a "joke," is completely irrelevant.  And as I've shown, the statistics in this astrology exercise have exactly the same amount of merit as the statistics that increase a male's car insurance over a woman's car insurance.  They mean nothing.  At least no more than would statistics that would figure out a relationship between the time of day a person usually eats dinner, and the likelihood of that person being murdered, raped, raped again, then thrown into a burning pit of fire, ash, and ancient crystals that, together, would form a mythical symbol that would call upon the giant Cthulhu to drive the world into permanent insanity.  You know, on the other hand, I'd kind of like to read that study.  I'll mail it to Allstate so that they can use it to determine life insurance rates.

Thanks for reading,
C. Allen Thompson
The Smiling Skeptic