Posts Tagged‘skepticism’

Weapons Grade Bollocks.

You might notice that I don’t usually post on the same topic more than once per week. That’s because I’ve usually said all I can think about for that area and posting again just feels like I’m repeating myself. So in essence skepticism was done for the week after I posted my rant yesterday about alt-med and I set off on trying to find something else new and interesting to blog about. So you can imagine my frustration when over a morning coffee a news story pops up that flared up my bullshit detector and sent me into a wild skeptical flail. The story itself? Ghosts appearing in photos in a cemetary:

DOES this photograph show the figures of two children, born nearly a century apart, walking in their own paranormal playground?

The family who took this picture while on a ghost tour in Picton, NSW,  swear there were no children inside the St Mark’s Cemetery.

Which begs the question: who, or what, is out there?

Local legend has it that the two children are David Shaw and Blanche Moon, who died 60 years apart.

Just so I don’t explode from the sheer amount of stupid that’s emanating from the media outlets that are lapping up this story (even when it’s not a slow news day, what with Prince William being here) let me tear down why this story, and indeed all stories like this, are pure weapons grade bollocks.

The first problem I see with this story is that the picture was from a digital camera. It’s not explicitly stated but the family said when they “uploaded” the photos they saw the children who weren’t there when they took the photo. Right off the bat this shows that they could have easily been altered and the lack of the original hi-res photo makes inspection for alterations difficult. The reporter on the news this morning said inspection of the photo showed no alterations since the noise appeared to match the background.

Ok sure it’s not like we can add in noise to pictures afterwards… oh wait yes we can. It’s rather trivial to put objects into a photo that weren’t there in the first place, blur them slightly and then add film grain over the top to make it appear like the photo was an original. Plus the size of the image floating around is ridiculously small with JPEG compression knocking out a good whack of detail. Additionally none of the images on the web contain the EXIF data either, which is basically a fingerprint of data the camera leaves on every shot it takes. This has all the makings of a faked image if I ever saw one.

What gets me though is that the locals were so quick to jump on the bandwagon and say who the children were. I mean really can you even make a face out in those pictures? As far as I can tell they’re the same kid and you’d have zero chance of identifying anyone with a shot that blurry. So of course the local legend must be right since the picture is of 2 kids. Usually something like this would flounder on the back pages but somehow its made its place amongst a prince visiting our country and the tragedy in Haiti. Smells like a PR stunt to me.

As you can probably tell I never buy this kind of bull that seems to come my way every so often. These kinds of things play on people’s inbuilt fear of death and hopes for an afterlife, something which I don’t believe should be used for material gains. Whenever you see something like this take a step back and ask yourself “How hard would it be to fake that?”. 99.999999999999999999999% of the time you’ll think of ways pretty quickly, in the other cases it’s a complicated illusion that will take you a lot longer to pick apart. There’s a reason why a lot of magicians out there are also rabid skeptics.

A Skeptical Christmas.

Whilst I’m not a religious man myself (well not in any way you could define with mainstream religion, but that’s another complicated story) I do enjoy the Christmas/New Year period. It’s a great time to take stock of the past year and set goals for myself in the coming year. Still there’s parts of it that have started to give me a fair whack of cognitive dissonance, mainly around the whole Santa thing and the story that we perpetuate with our children. There’s one part of me that enjoys the whole wonder aspect of it and creating that awesome family experience that you can enjoy year after year (until they get old enough to ask questions) but on the other hand the skeptic in me rises up and starts asking me the most poignant question “Will you do the same with your kids?’. In all honesty I can’t say for sure what I will do.

If there’s one thing I’d like to avoid with my future offspring it would be intentionally making them social pariahs. I know what its like for kids who are just a little bit different and they’re going to cop enough flak as it is without me telling them all their friends are idiots for believing in Santa. So there’s a fine line to tread between being a good skeptic and being a good parent. Although there is the possibility that the people of the modern skeptic movement (who are by and large members of my generation) may instead take the alternative, meaning the social norm will shift. That’s not something I’m going to count on though.

I’ve had experience with this before as well. Working in childcare around this time of year usually garnered questions from kids along the lines of “Is Santa real”. I’d worked out the best line for this was “What do you think” with the majority of kids then giving me their own idea without me having to supply my own. It was a good tactic and served to keep the skeptic at bay whilst remaining approachable with the kids. There would be nothing worse than being a childcare worker known amongst the kids as the guy who killed Santa for them.

Is there a happy middle ground we can reach here? It’s deeply entrenched in most western worlds that we perpetuate this lie (don’t fool yourself, you’re lying to your kids), even to the point of getting companies like Air Services Australia to create websites and put their CEO on TV to spout this Santa nonsense. It’s great PR for them but it also shows how far we’re willing to perpetuate a fallacy for a very small section of the population. It’s been irking me every morning when I wake up to watch the news and I see fluff pieces like this on TV, but at the same time I don’t want to go around stomping on other’s childhoods just because I have a skeptical agenda to push.

It seems the skeptic and libertarian are duking it out again.

There’s another side to this tale to: the moment of realisation when you find out that Santa isn’t real and you begin to question what your parents tell you. Many of us have been through this moment and it usually comes at a time when we’re beginning to question the world around us. The realisation that your parents lied to you is astounding since you’ve been told from an early age that lying is unacceptable. Indeed to not perpetuate the Santa lie could very well be tantamount to denying your children a coming of age ritual that our society has been performing for several generations. Do we, as parents (or when we become them), have the right to deny them this? Maybe staying through the 5~8 years of perpetuating the Santa myth would be worth it to instill that lesson in your children that the only real facts are the ones you can verify yourself.

Gargh I’m still not comfortable with that proposition.

In the end what parent’s do with their children is their business and I’m not going to go about telling them what they should and shouldn’t do. Going against social norms is, especially for children, an easy way to see yourself ostracized and can be really devastating, something you’d want to avoid in those early years of a child’s life. After bashing this all out I still don’t know where I stand on all this and I’ll just have to keep letting the skeptic, future father and libertarian in my head duke it out until a clear winner comes out or they all collapse in on each other.

It’s going to be an interesting few days that’s for sure 😉

Facts Abound, Fear Remains.

Once something is ingrained in the public’s mind it becomes increasingly difficult to convince them of the opposite idea. Initial thoughts turn into innate biases and anecdotal evidence becomes undeniable fact. I can’t really put the whole blame on the public themselves since we don’t all spend the hours required to fact check everything so some of the blame rests with the media and their reporting of such things. One of these such things is the link between mobile phones and cancer which, despite a fair body of evidence to the contrary, still manages to rear its ugly head at the dinner table. Even with evidence like this people will still choose to believe the anecdotes over fact:

A very large, 30-year study of just about everyone in Scandinavia shows no link between mobile phone use and brain tumours, researchers reported on Thursday.

Even though mobile telephone use soared in the 1990s and afterward, brain tumours did not become any more common during this time, the researchers reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Some activist groups and a few researchers have raised concerns about a link between mobile phones and several kinds of cancer, including brain tumours, although years of research have failed to establish a connection.

What interests me the most about this is that although people will still spout things like “cell phones cause cancer” they will still go ahead and use them day after day. I think the main reason behind this is the fact that although there might be a chance that it does increase your risk of cancer (most of the studies still conclude that the 20~30 year usage range needs further studies) it is so low that it doesn’t really affect them. The same can be said for smoking and unhealthy eating since for the most part the damage is so low and slow that you don’t notice it building up on you. This was very true with cigarettes 50 years ago when doctors would recommend them to their patients, not knowing the long term health problems the addictions would incur. The mental gymnastics people employ for their self destructive habits is quite amazing sometimes.

The real issue here is one of education since the method of communication (mass media et al) with the public at large is not particularly suited towards this kind of critical thinking. This has become quite apparently recently with the whole Emissions Trading Scheme legislation which, thanks to an almost soap opera-esque leadership spill in the Liberal party, has pushed Tony Abbott and his bizarre ideals on climate change. Right now it appears he’s attempting to make it look like the Rudd government is trying to tax us all for no appreciable benefit, when he can do the same for basically free. Trying to find some solid information on his policy leads me to mostly dead ends but the few articles I could find on it would see Abbott attempt massive carbon sequestering, something which does not solve the underlying problem. Let’s also not forget that Abbott has also promoted a climate change denier in the form of Nick Minchin (to call him a skeptic is completely misleading), a man who 14 years ago was a second hand smoke “skeptic”. He’s right up there with the other loonies who believe that this whole carbon thing is an attempt to deindustrialize the western world (and bring in communism, that’s right climate change is a COMMUNIST CONSPIRACY!!). You can see why I’m worried about these people pushing their views on the wider public of Australia, they’re disregarding all evidence in favour of pushing party lines.

I’m just glad that they’ll go down in flames come the next election .

Whilst there are many great educational and skeptical resources available out there most of them aren’t really targetted at the everyman. Skeptics et al have a terrible habit of preaching to the choir

and their rhetoric leaves much to be desired. When your target audience thinks that Ask Bossy is good lunchtime reading you’ve got to change your game plan to match, and that’s a process that many of us (myself included) find quite hard to do. The day that skepticism becomes sexy and cool is the day that I stop writing on the subject, since everyone will be doing my work for me.

Or maybe the ABC just needs to move Media Watch to primetime.

Monday Morning Skepticism.

After spending the better part of my weekend at work and subsequently feeling a bit vindictive I thought I would take this chance to take a jab at some of the anti-science garbage I’d seen a while back. Now I don’t usually like to rag on people for their beliefs as its a quick way to ensure that they never want to talk to you again. As long as you’re not doing any damage to anyone else I’m fine with you believing whatever you want, just be prepared to be bombarded if you ask me what I think 😉 Still I came across this particular video some time ago and I’ve used it mostly for comedic value amongst my scientifically inclined friends:

I’ll admit that my mind was completely in the gutter the entire time I saw the first video (thankyou sex-ed classes that used bananas as sub ins for male wedding tackle) and I didn’t really bother with anything more than sharing it around for a laugh. Interestingly enough I recently came across some evidence that showed that the video is not only hilarious for its unintended euphemisms but it is also based around some pretty glaring false pretences. Check out this article from Damn Interesting, a site renowned for its writings on all things cool and unusually fascinating:

The banana, however, is a freakish and fragile genetic mutant; one that has survived through the centuries due to the sustained application of selective breeding by diligent humans. Indeed, the “miraculous” banana is far from being a no-strings-attached gift from nature. Its cheerful appearance hides a fatal flaw— one that threatens its proud place in the grocery basket. The banana’s problem can be summed up in a single word: sex.

The banana plant is a hybrid, originating from the mismatched pairing of two South Asian wild plant species: Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. Between these two products of nature, the former produces unpalatable fruit flesh, and the latter is far too seedy for enjoyable consumption. Nonetheless, these closely related plants occasionally cross-pollinate and spawn seedlings which grow into sterile, half-breed banana plants. Some ten thousand years ago, early human experimenters noted that some of these hybridized Musa bore unexpectedly tasty, seedless fruit with an unheard-of yellowness and inexplicably amusing shape. They also proved an excellent source of carbohydrates and other important nutrients.

Indeed a quick google fact check shows up many sites showing the original wild bananas as chock full of seeds and would be considered unpalatable when compared to the seedless fruits we are accustomed to today. Whilst they were still considered a staple food for many cultures who inhabited their native areas it wasn’t until after significant amounts of artificial genetic engineering (yes, it can and has happened without a lab. Farmers do it all the time) that the banana shown in the video was in that form. So you see it wasn’t intelligent design or anything like that, it was us humans buggering around with a couple plants to make something we enjoyed more than nature gave us.

I shouldn’t be surprised though, people like the ones in the video aren’t renowned for doing their research on a topic before they start crafting their analogies. This is, of course, because they already know the answer to any question we may posit to them and therefore anything and everything becomes part of their body of evidence. This kind of thinking is what sickens me the most when I hear that creationism may be taught alongside science in some American schools. For creationism to even approach science they would have to be able to craft a testable hypothesis for any and all claims they may seek to make. Since they have yet to do that I won’t even do them the favour of relegating them to pseudo-science since nothing of what they do should ever have the word science associated with it.

Now you’ll excuse me while I get back to work, and subsequently fuel my vindictive mood futher 🙂