Elementary, my dear Watson

February 15, 2011

Yes, I know Sherlock Holmes never said that, but it made for a good title to an entry on IBM’s Watson computer’s first official Jeopardy match.

Here’s the complete episode:

All in all, Watson did remarkably well, tying Brad Rutter and leaving Ken Jennings in the dust. Of course, Watson is not without his weird mistakes like when he rang in with the same answer Ken Jennings got wrong seconds earlier, which met Alex Trebek’s amused response: “”No, Ken said that.”

Later, Watson slipped up on the question: “Stylish elegance, or students who all graduated in the same year.”

“What is chic?” ventured Watson.

“What is class?” Rutter correctly answered.

They also showed a clip of earlier practice matches where Watson gave an answer so wrong, the stand-in host responded, “That wasn’t wrong; that was REALLY wrong.”  And in the actual official first game, when given the clue, “From the Latin for ‘end’, this is where trains can also originate”, Watson rang in with “finis”, an answer it was 97% confident in, while we saw its next two best guesses were “Constantinople” with 13% and “Pig Latin” with 10%. The answer turned out to be “terminal,” which was even among Watson’s top three guesses.

But those kinds of errors seem few and far between, while most of the time Watson is a force to be reckoned with, knowing everything from Beatles’ songs to The Lord of the Rings. And once asked to name a particular literary villain, Watson knew the answer related to Harry Potter. Had it gotten a chance to ring it, Voldemort would have been its second guess, behind Harry Potter and with Albus Dumbledore as its third highest ranking guess.

And in one instance I think Watson was even cheaply marked incorrect for saying, “What is leg?” when the correct answer was, “missing a leg.” In that instance, Watson had the key element of the answer but simply didn’t clarify that the leg was missing.

Though for all the ridiculous bad answers, Watson can still manage to blow people away with how much it can figure out, like when it correctly guessed the TV show “Survivor” as the answer to the practice game riddle: “Heroes & villains abound! Colby, Coach & Rupert doth return to the fray but Boston Rob, The Tribe hath spoken,” which caused audible gasps and the stand-in host responding, “REALLY? How do you know that?”

Tonight, they continue into Double Jeopardy. This is shaping up to be a great match.

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News From Around The Blogosphere 2.11.11

February 11, 2011
Grainy B&W image of supposed UFO, Passoria, Ne...

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1. Jerusalem UFO video exposed as fake – Okay, so the video looked pretty poor to begin with, giving us nothing but a tiny moving ball of light but it’s still fun to apply more analysis to it anyway. Steven Novella had already done a great critical analysis of the video here where he observed that the video largely consists of a still image with added effects to create the illusion of shaky-cam video footage, but now Phil Plait has found a video posted on YouTube that actually exposes the specific digital editing tricks used to create the illusion of a shaky camera. Unlike other alleged UFO videos, there’s no ambiguity here. This video is a deliberate fake and its been busted cold.

2. Creepy head-mask to punish ‘rude, clamorous” women – Okay, I just thought this story was really cool. This mask was used between 1550 and 1800 to punish women considered to be spending too much time gossiping or quarrelling. When wearing the mask, it’s impossible to speak. Some of these masks, like the one pictured, even had a bell on them to add to the wearer’s humiliation.

3. Robots to get their own internet – European scientists are working on a network that would allow robots to share and store what they discover about the world:

Called RoboEarth it will be a place that robots can upload data to when they master a task, and ask for help in carrying out new ones.

Researchers behind it hope it will allow robots to come into service more quickly, armed with a growing library of knowledge about their human masters.

4. Scientology continues to have a terrible week – I already briefly wrote about the incredible, super-long New Yorker piece by Lawrence Wright on Scientology apostate Paul Haggis, which mentioned that the cult is currently under an FBI investigation for human trafficking. But there are so many highlights to the piece. After finally managing to read the whole article, I got to where Wright talks about fact-checking L. Ron Hubbard’s claim that he was injured during military service and was miraculously healed by the methods now practiced as part of Scientology. After Scientology Spokesman Tommy Davis gave the New Yorker thousands of pages of documents and allegedly admitted that if this Hubbard story didn’t check out, it’d mean all of Scientology was a fraud, Wright and his New Yorker fact-checkers went through the pain-staking process of getting military archivists who are experts in such documents. Those experts concluded that the documents were false, that there was no record of Hubbard’s injuries or of the officer who allegedly signed some of the documents, and that the documents lied about his education and the metals he’d received. Now the New Yorker has even put up a copy of at least one of the documents to show readers precisely how we know it’s a forgery.  Wright has also been turning up on various radio shows to discuss his findings (here and here). It just keeps getting worse for Scientology and they can’t seem to catch a break.

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News From Around The Blogosphere 2.7.11

February 8, 2011

1. FBI investigating Scientology for human trafficking – A recent profile on ex-Scientologist and Oscar-winner Paul Haggis in the New Yorker also discussed an ongoing FBI investigation into the allegations of abuse by Scientology’s leader David Miscavige, and the enslavement of members of  the Sea Org:

The laws regarding trafficking were built largely around forced prostitution, but they also pertain to slave labor. Under federal law, slavery is defined, in part, by the use of coercion, torture, starvation, imprisonment, threats, and psychological abuse. The California penal code lists several indicators that someone may be a victim of human trafficking: signs of trauma or fatigue; being afraid or unable to talk, because of censorship by others or security measures that prevent communication with others; working in one place without the freedom to move about; owing a debt to one’s employer; and not having control over identification documents. Those conditions echo the testimony of many former Sea Org members…

And speaking of Scientology…

Tom Cruise

2. Is fictional Unitology in ‘Dead Space 2′ related to Scientology? – The videogame’s creative director says the similarities are just a coincidence, saying the inspiration came from Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World”, but his dismissal seems less than convincing given the similarities.

3. One flu vaccine to rule them all? – Researchers may have found a universal flu vaccine to end all flu vaccines. Though it’s worth noting that the trial had only 22 subjects, but bigger studies are in progress.

4. That time of year again for another ‘invisibility cloak’ story – Every year there’s another story about an invisibility cloak on the way with the requisite reference to Harry Potter. Here’s the latest one about a cloak that hides objects, rather than people, and without the use of metamaterials.

5. 1 in 8 U.S. biology teachers are creationists- This is a shocking statistic. Roger Ebert had an appropriate response to this on Twitter, analogizing this to the hypothetical statistic of 1 in 8 math teachers believing 2+2=5.

6. Florida court sides against anti-vax mom in custody battle – This is great news to hear a court rule so decisively against a parent specifically because their anti-vaccine beliefs directly endanger that child’s life. Hopefully, this will help set a precedent in all U.S. courts.

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The greatest moment in ‘Family Feud’ history

February 7, 2011

I have no love for Steve Harvey. He’s a hypocritical, sanctimonious bigot who’s condemned atheists as immoral people whom are undeserving of love (here and here). Keep in mind that Harvey is divorced and his ex-wife hates his guts.

So when the Friendly Atheist put up this clip of him hosting The Family Feud, I couldn’t help but re-post it in all it’s glory:

I love when Harvey pushes the guy’s hand off him in complete revulsion. If you pause it at the right point, you can actually see the exact moment Steve Harvey’s heart breaks in two.

Television at its best!

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My dog ate my homework or conversations with brick walls, part 2

February 6, 2011

Okay, so the other day I reported an exchange I had with a commenter on an older article calling himself Dusty. Dusty is a devoted believer in psychic phenomena and not a big fan of those who aren’t, particularly James Randi, who he despises…for some reason. Well while mostly ignoring my responses, he wrote three more consecutive ones, which I responded to. Then he wrote another comment that mostly ignored what I said previously, which I have now just responded to, but which he’ll probably never see.

In any case, I decided to make another post featuring our exchange for educational (and entertainment) purposes. Since his three comments were posted together, I’ll treat them like one long comment and, like my previous article, I will intersperse my responses to specific passages immediately after those passages in [brackets] and in BOLD.

So here we go with those first three comments:

It’s late and I don’t have time to respond in detail right now…..
However, one of the passeges in Carter’s book sums it up for me when it comes to Randi [Your friend Carter doesn’t seem to know much of anything about Randi’s Challenge, or else you didn’t read his book very thoroughly because I’ve already addressed numerous misconceptions you’ve had about Randi’s Challenge. Of course, again, if you don’t like that challenge, you can apply to the far more difficult challenge of proving psi to the scientific community by producing peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate this phenomena exists. Of course when you tell me that you already “know” this phenomena exists despite its lack of compelling scientific evidence because you don’t understand how flawed human perception is and don’t seem to know what a coincidence means, I find it nearly impossible to ignore your admitted bias on the subject and to take you seriously. Knowledge should be proportional to the available evidence; if you’re going to say you know something despite the evidence, this is called blind faith, and it’s not a virtue when doing science.]

“With regard to his “challenge” Randi has been quoted as saying, “I always have an out”… That’s not Chris’s quote, but he does site the source….

The book also talks about someone that Randi refused to test… Again, Chris backs up the sources. [Now I would very much like to see evidence that Randi has said what, according to you, Mr. Carter has said he said as I suspect that he either said no such thing or has been horribly quote-mined by an ideologue who is simply looking for any means of poisoning the well of his critics. That being said, in the grand scheme of things, who the fuck cares what Randi has or hasn’t said or whether his particular challenge is legitimate, as if psi were real and empirically falsifiable, there are many equally lucrative alternative avenues of demonstrating it is real that have yet to yield the results you happen to like. When all you do is focus your energy on ad hominem attacks against your critics and making up endless excuses for failure instead of actually demonstrating empirically that the phenomena is real, this is a massive red flag.]

Randi is far from the Saint that you make him out to be, but you can continue to worship him, that’s fine.

enuff said….

Cynics need to step away from the lab and at least acknowledge the possibility that science doesn’t have all the answers regarding our brains and consciousness, and perhaps there are things well beyond our comprehension, and until mainstream science can humble itself enough to do so, it’s just going to be the same old arguments over and over again.. [Simply demanding scientific claims be proven with the appropriate level of evidence is not cynicism…at least that’s what the invisible leprechauns tell me. And when you condescendingly suggest that science needs to “humble itself”, you reveal nothing but your fundamental ignorance of how science works. Science is not just a body of knowledge but a method for determining what is true, the best method we have. And if you’ve ever spent any time doing science or even knew any professional scientist, you’d know that science is nothing but humble. Science is a meritocracy where good ideas go far while bad ideas get discarded like used condoms. The arrogance here is coming from you who state outright that you just “know” what is true regardless of the evidence.]

Some people can’t just accept the possibility of existence beond their physical senses. …..It’s just too hard for them to grasp, so the best way out of it is to refute any possiblity. Well, in the end, the joke may be on them. [I am more than willing to accept any belief that has can be empirically demonstrated to exist under proper controlled conditions. Otherwise, we’re just dealing in magical thinking here and your beliefs are no more legitimate than saying Harry Potter is real. Again, evidence talks whereas endless excuses don’t. But I guess some people can’t just accept that the possibility that they’re wrong and have been horribly misled by fools…if’s just too hard for them to grasp, so the best way out of it is to make excuses for why their beliefs fail every legitimate means of testing. Well, in the end, the joke is on them.]

I meant to also say that your blind belief in Randi just blows me away..

Another quote that I totally agree with is:

“Given his countless disparaging and insulting remarks concerning parapsychology and his financial stake in the debunking movement, he can hardly be considered an unbiased observer”…

Again, your trust in him blows me away… I’d much rather prefer a non-biased group of scientists doing the testing that had absolutely NOTHING to do with Randi whatsover, and I’ve felt that way about Randi for a long time, even when I was a hard core skeptic myself. Something about him has always rubbed me the wrong way… I’ve just never had a good feeling about the guy. I just don’t think his ego would allow him to be wrong. Sorry, that’s just the way I feel. [I have met hundreds of people in the skeptic community and have yet to meet anyone who had “blind belief in Randi.” Again, that’s not what the skeptical movement is about. In fact, it couldn’t be more dissimilar to how you describe it. Our goal is science advocacy and merely ask that beliefs be proportional to the evidence. In fact, when Randi started flirting with climate change denial claims, many in the movement harshly criticized him for it.
http://www.nycskeptics.org/blog/?p=1713&cpage=1#comment-491
http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/12/say_it_aint_so_randi.php
http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/12/randi_responds.php
http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/12/17/randi-and-global-warming/
http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2009/12/james_randi_anthropogenic_global_warming.php
http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2009/12/james_randi_anthropogenic_global_warming_1.php

Our scientific positions are in no way reliant on James Randi thinks. And my patients has run out on this pathetic attempt to dodge the scientific evidence against you by pretending its all a conspiracy by James Randi and his cult of deniers who just won’t accept the amazing evidence despite your admitted inability to present any evidence.

There is no such “debunking movement”, only a movement that values truth and demands extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And I have no more “trust” in him than anyone else. I too harshly criticized him for his flirtation with climate change denial. You seem to be projecting your own admitted blind faith onto those who disagree with you. Well sorry but you don’t know what you’re talking about and have clearly not made any genuine attempt to understand the position of those who disagree with you. And the only reason Randi “rubs you the wrong way” is because he disagrees with you, not because you have any good reason to believe he’s behaved poorly. It’s unfortunate that you can’t seem to put your own beliefs under scrutiny and would rather invent accusations against those who disagree with you than accept the possibility that you’re wrong. And if Mr. Carter has any legitimate evidence of foul play, again, he can sue Randi with my blessing.]

Here’s an other post to chew on…One of the things that I’ve experienced in the past is precognative dreaming. [What about all those mornings where your dreams did not have any similarity to events that happened in the real world?]

For example, I’e been meditating for about 25 years now on a daily basis and prior to the meditations, I didn’t have any psychic experiences, nothing.

Now, I had a very bad thing happen to me on 911. I was living alone. The morning of the 911 event, I had a dream that morning of a plane flying into a building and the building exploded. Keep in mind that prior to that, I had never ever had a dream about a plane crashing into anything whatsover. I woke up actually shaking. Now, after I had composed myself I walked into the kitchen, had some breakfast and turned on the tv and it was exactly as I had seen it. As a matter of fact I was so shook up about it that I didn’t go to work that day. Never again after that did I have a dream of a plane flying into a building. Heck, I don’t think I had a dream of a plane period. [I once had a dream that I was fucking Angelina Jolie. Still hasn’t happened in the real world. Coincidences happen all the time. And on a long enough time line, the odds of really impressive coincidences happening are inevitable. There’s no mystery here. There’s also no testable hypothesis here. It’s just an anecdote, which on its own is scientifically worthless. And for the record, we dream every night and forgot most of our dreams. And if a plane hadn’t crashed on that day, you probably wouldn’t even remember that dream. This is just cherry-picking from millions of occasions where no such coincidences happened. And since 9/11, I’ve had probably a dozen dreams involving planes crashing into buildings, as I’m sure have countless over people, without it actually coming to pass.]

Now, during that same month I had another dream of my dog getting out and getting hit by a car, and it woke me up suddenly in the middle of the night, trembling again…..I had never even thought about the dog getting out because I knew he couldn’t dig under the fence. So I thought that dream was just a bad coincidence and I went back to sleep for another hour….

Well, I woke up in the middle of the night and found out that one of the neighbors kids had left the gate open and he got out. that was the first time he ever got out. I didn’t know he got hit by a car until later that morning when I found him in the road…He was in the same exact location that I saw him in the dream. There were also a couple of other more minor dream events after that…. [You you can keep listing anecdotes about your dreams but the plural of anecdote is not data, and its certainly not any more compelling. In Iceland, people see elves all the time. That doesn’t mean they’re real.]

Now, I didn’t want this and I was completely petrified as to why it was happening to me…I remember going into meditation and trying to heal my mind with the intent that I didn’t want to know this information. I wanted to be released from the pain that it was bringing me… Well, sure enough it cleared up the next month and I haven’t had ANY horrible pre-event dreams ever again….. In fact, all of my dreams are beautiful. I don’t even have bad dreams.
Now, you would have had to have been in my mind to see the clarity and precision that was in those dreams and just how detailed they were to the actual event..I don’t expect anyone to believe me unless they WERE in my mind. Heck, it was even hard for me to believe. In fact, I didn’t WANT to believe it.

Now with that said, how is one to explain something that comes and goes like that to a scientist? Do I just put my head in the sand and say, “It must have a logical explanation or a coincidence?”[Yes. Because that’s exactly what the word coincidence means.], or do I humble myself and say that the world may be completely different than what we believe it to be. Well, I tend to be a humble guy who believes that science doesn’t have all the answers, so the last reasoning made much more sense to me…. [Just because you don’t understand the definition of the word "coincidence" doesn’t make you “humble” for embracing magical thinking. And refusing to consider you may be wrong and align your beliefs with the available evidence is the exact opposite of humble.] I’m skeptical of my own experiences, so I’m tough on myself.  [Clearly (sarcasm overload!)] But if you would have seen what I had seen, you would have felt the same exact way. [No, I wouldn't. I'm too humble to think I have special knowledge no one else has]

Other than to a few close friends and family members, I really don’t like to talk about those dreams because the pain was just too much….I don’t think it was precognative dreaming either, because it seemed as if I dreamed the events just as they were happening, but to me that was just as bad and just as painful….. Believe me, this is something that I wouldn’t wish on anyone…
Goodnight…….. [Listen, you’re going to believe whatever you want to believe regardless of what I say because you’re just so incredibly “humble”, so I see no place for this conversation to go. I guess you’re just too damned humble to proportion your beliefs to the available evidence. Best of luck to you.]

Now onto the last comment he wrote after presumably reading my above comments:

Well, I know it’s not a coincidence because I don’t dream normal dreams that can happen in reall life. My dreams, while usually awesome and beautiful, usually have no root in real life, as they are usually nonsensical in nature. [The definition of the word “coincidence” is:
“the occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident but seem to have some connection” Please explain how what you describe is not, by definition, a coincidence.] Again, you would have had to have been in my head to even be able to judge something like this. [I once had a dream that my next door neighbor in his 80s was being hailed out by EMTs in a stretcher and a few weeks later, he died. Is that a pretty weird coincidence? Sure, but that doesn’t make it prophetic. You you have millions of dreams that don’t match closely with reality all the time and had 9/11 never happened, you probably would have forgotten that particular dream a long time ago. This is just a classic lottery fallacy, aka the Law of Large Numbers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_Truly_Large_Numbers), where you’re remembering the hits and forgetting the misses. The Law states that with a sample size large enough, any outrageous thing is likely to happen. Because we never find it notable when likely events occur, we highlight unlikely events and notice them more. It’s like you won the lottery and decided that, given the odds of you winning, some force must have deliberately caused your victory even though the odds that someone was going to win the lottery was almost 100% and you just happened to be that person by chance alone.] You would have had to seen the extreme level of clarity and details that I saw…[while these anecdotes may superficially seem impressive, merely noting anecdotes is not science. Science, recognizing how flawed human perception is, requires specific testable, falsifiable predictions that can be repeated and that show measurable outcomes. And to quote Barry Beyerstein, “Anecdotal evidence leads us to conclusions that we wish to be true, not conclusions that actually are true.” If anecdotes were worth their salt, we’d all have to believe that the Martians invaded Grovers Mill, NJ in 1938. Afterall, just look at the extreme level of clarity and details of the accounts.]

That’s the thing, I had never ever dreamed of a plane crash or my dog getting hit by a car EVER in my entire life, and I keep a dream journal and remember all of my dreams, because I practice lucid dreaming on a nightly basis.

But then again, I don’t care if you or anyone else believes me or not, as I know what happened and that’s all that matters. You can scoff, that’s fine. I should have known just to keep my mouth shut.

and I’m sorry but many experiences like this do come as anecdotal nature, that’s just the nature of the paranormal…Sure you can ignore the millions of experiences of others as say they are ALL hallucinations, that’s your right. However, experiences is the best teacher.

Sorry, but you can’t change my mind on Randi.[Cause you're so open-minded] I’ve heard way too many negative stories about the guy to trust him. I would never trust someone who worked as a magician in the first place, and YES, his reputation would be ruined if someone ever passed his test…He knows that as well. He would no longer be the debunker that constantly and rudely put down and lashed out at the paranormal at every opportunity he could…You think he really wants to lose that title? Really? Are you kidding me? [As for your insistence on blacklisting James Randi, a man you’ve never met and know next to nothing about other than he disagrees with you, have at it. I don’t really give a damn. McCarthyism never worked in the past, so I don’t know why you people think it will start working now.]

I had thought by a couple of your earlier posts that you MAY have been more open-minded and at least be a skeptic and not a pseudoskeptic. Somebody who’s a true open-minded skeptic would say:

“Ya know, paranormal experiences are interesting, and even though I can’t accept it without proof, there may be paranormal phenonmena that very well may be valid, but we just don’t have the proof we need right now, but I very well could be wrong on my current assumptions of the paranormal.”…

That’s what a true skeptic would say… I don’t see anything on here reflecting that attitude from you at all, which means that your beliefs are cemented as factual, and no amount of testing(no matter what the results) will ever change your mid… [Oh, don’t you dare pretend I’m not open-minded when I repeatedly asked for proof and you provided absolutely none or pretend you’re open-minded when you flat-out stated that you “knew” your beliefs are true despite a complete lack of empirical evidence. If you’re open-minded, then what would convince you that you’re wrong?]

So yes, we are both wasting our time… [because you are too open-minded to accept the possibility that you're wrong or change your mind while I have no such problem]

Read the following book by Elizabeth Mayer and you’ll see what a true skeptic is who still keeps an open mind..

One final word, by locking in such a rigid anti- metaphysical belief system, you are also locking out an amazing beatiful life that goes beyond any words I can accurately express here…

Deleting this site from my bookmarks as it’s obviously just a waste of my time…
Take Care

[Now you recommended a book and I’ll do the same: Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World.” To quote Sagan, “”Pseudoscience differs from erroneous science. Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively. Hypotheses are framed so they are capable of being disproved. A succession of alternative hypotheses is confronted by experiment and observation. Science gropes and staggers toward improved understanding. Proprietary feelings are of course offended when a scientific hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognized as central to the scientific enterprise. Pseudoscience is just the opposite. Hypotheses are often framed precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated.”]

You just can’t reason with people out of beliefs they didn’t reason their way into in the first place. I used to believe in this psychic crap too but I was never that devoted to it and once I was actually presented with rational arguments, I stopped believing very quickly. All you can do is hope that you’ve planted some kind of seed of doubt in them that others will water down the road.

First, this guy tries to poison the well of his critics, accusing James Randi and the JREF of moving the goalpost without presenting a single example of this happening. Then he himself moves the goalpost by insisting that though he “knows” psychic phenomena exists, it may just be too “subtle” and “unpredictable” to be falsifiable with any scientific test…but he still just “knows” it’s real because of a couple of cherry-picked anecdotes involving rather minor coincidences that he feels somehow transcend the definition of coincidence because he doesn’t actually understand what the word “coincidence” means or how likely seemingly uncanny coincidences are to occur on a long enough time line (the answer is very fuckin’ likely). This guy is putting the proverbial cart before the horse, beginning with his conclusion and then working backwards to justify it as he plainly says science can’t test the validity of this phenomenon but still is absolutely certain its real. That’s not science. That’s religion. And it will always be religion unless he can present a hypothesis that can actually be tested.

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Homeopathy is a scam – Happy 10:23 weekend!

February 5, 2011

The second annual 10:23 campaign festivities are upon us again. I’m disappointed that the NYC Skeptics have not organized our own creative grassroots demonstration to educate the public about the bullshit that is homeopathy, but events are being organized around the world.

And even James Randi has produced a video on YouTube to promote the event:

I just want to wish everyone participating in the 10:23 campaign this year all the best. Let’s make 2011 the worst year for homeopaths yet!

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As so-called ‘Vaccine Danger Awareness Week’ ends, Bill Gates declares vaccine-autism link an ‘absolute lie’

February 5, 2011

Last year, the anti-vaccine community introduced what they called “Vaccine Danger Awareness Week,” (VDAW) where they devoted a whole week to doing what they do all the time anyway, churn out loads of propaganda for their minions to spread around. Well the good news is that this year VDAW passed almost without notice. In fact, I only heard about it a few days ago and I follow this issue much more closely than most. Age of Autism doesn’t even seem to be involved. As far as I know, this event is only being represented on Facebook.

But that being said, I found it very fitting that this week saw Bill Gates popping up on The Daily Show and now CNN discussing the importance of vaccination. And in the latter, he directly called out the vaccine-autism hypothesis as an “absolute lie.”

Of course Age of Autism responded in their usual way, by making outrageous libelous accusations against Gates, as Orac discusses here, but here’s the full CNN clip in all it’s glory:


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My dog ate my homework or conversations with brick walls

February 4, 2011
Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other ...

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I just had a moderately lengthy exchange in the comments section of an old article from a year and a half ago that I thought would make a great post on its own. The conversation concerned Psi research or alleged psychic phenomena and spanned two comments from someone calling themselves “Dusty” with my comments after each one. The first comment is short enough for me to just print my full response after it, but for the sake of easy readability, I will intersperse my responses to specific passages in the second comment immediately after those passages in [brackets] and in BOLD.

Here’s the first comment:

The James Randi Foundation is a complete joke. There are some areas I’m skeptical in when it comes to metaphysics, but I would never have a professional trickster such as James Randi develop tests and determine in his mind whether or not my ability is valid or not… See Chris Carter’s book “Parapsychology and the Skeptics”. It will open your eyes when it comes to the not so great James Randi, and it will also explain how skeptics have an answer for everything…The book will give MANY examples of how PSI has been proven and yet ignored by the skeptics, even when the tests worked in favor of PSI… It’s basically the book that skeptics were hoping was never written…..

James Randi does not develop the tests used for the challenge. Both parties agree on a reasonable protocol. And Randi himself is usually not even directly involved. Also, the tests are conducted in a scientific fashion that require measurable outcomes, so it’s not a matter of whether you can convince someone but whether the tester performs the measurable outcome they agreed they could achieve. For instance, if an alleged dowser claims they can find water 80% of the time, they conduct a test where they must score 80% or higher. It’s that simple. It doesn’t matter what James Randi or anyone else thinks. When you agree to the do the challenge, the JREF enters into a legally binding contract with you that requires them to pay if you indeed do what you claim you can do. If they refuse, you can sue them. Of course that problem hasn’t come up yet. The typical response is applicants simply making up excuses after the fact to explain away why they failed. And then they can choose to reapply after one year (they never do). So if these are the accusations by Mr. Carter in his book, he is not only misrepresenting the facts but is potentially committing libel.

You also seem to completely fail to understand what skepticism is, as evidenced from your “It’s basically the book that skeptics were hoping was never written” remark. My goal as a skeptic is not to deny aspects of reality I might not like; on the contrary, my goal as a skeptic is to align my beliefs as closely with how the world really works as possible. If psychic powers really existed, I’d be thrilled…as would any scientist. It would open up a whole new area of science to be explored and could effect major positive change to the world. We could close down the CIA and the NSA while replacing all our intelligence agents with psychics who could determine when and where a terrorist attack was going to take place in advance. The TSA could dispose of all these metal detectors, x-ray scanners, and pat-downs and hire psychics instead to smoke out anyone planning to blow up or hijack a plane. There is no shortage of valuable roles psychics could play to make our world a better place. And I for one would welcome that if there was any compelling evidence for it. Unfortunately however, there is not and the alleged studies that believers put forward as proof of this phenomena are horribly not compelling to the scientific community, nor to science-informed skeptics.

Now I don’t have a million dollars to give away but if you think you can prove psychic powers exist under proper scientific controls, I would happily offer $10,000 as the discovery would make me rich, get me a Nobel Prize, and secure me immortality in the history books. Honestly though, if you think you can prove it, I don’t know why you haven’t presented your findings to the scientific peer review to make yourself rich and famous.

Now onto comment two, which presumably meant Dusty read my answer above but then again, maybe not:

The thing is that in my opinion, James Randi will NEVER part with that million dollars.  [Well that’s the real trick, isn’t it. It’s not that you have proof the test is unfair; it’s that its your speculation that the test is not fair because you don’t want to believe that it's fair and simply hasn’t reinforced your bias. Not my problem. Again, if you can prove it's rigged, sue the organization. Have at it and put your money where your mouth is. Otherwise, I don’t appreciate my blog being used to spread libelous rumors.]. He’s got his reputation at stake. He’s known as the debunker that has never been proven otherwise. Do you really think honestly that he wants to lose that title? Because if people think that, then they are naive and just kidding themselves. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. What would happen to his book sales if all of the sudden someone passed the test?? and yes, I’ve read his books, although it’s been awhile since I’ve read “Flim Flam” [Now I’ve already explained to you that how the test works and how it does not conform to the straw man you’ve concocted. It doesn’t matter whether Randi or anyone else wants the applicant to be successful or not; all that matters is that they can actually do what they say they can do. This is like a kid claiming that he failed his Social Studies test because the teacher doesn’t like him when anyone is free to look at the test themselves and see with their own eyes that the kid’s answers do not match the correct answers.]

[But just for kicks, let’s play this little hypothetical game of yours since you prefer it to the cold hard facts of the matter. You honestly think a Nobel Prize and going down in the history books for being the first to scientifically prove psychic phenomena would be a blight on Randi’s reputation? Seriously? Do you also not think there’d be a huge financial incentive for the world’s most famous psychic critic to publish a new book reversing his position on the subject? Hell, given Randi’s expertise as a mentalist, he could make a huge living by pretending to be psychic himself if he wanted. Though at the age of 82, I doubt money makes much of an incentive.]

Regarding that book I mentioned, Chris backs up everthing he says in that book with footnotes and resources to check out yourself. However, He only talks about Randi for about 2 pages, as he tries to cover alot. [Now I haven’t read this book you refer to but again, if he has evidence of fraud, he can sue Randi and the organization. Otherwise, its just speculation and conjecture, which I find no more compelling than your speculation and conjecture.] Most of the rest of the book is giving excellent examples and graphs of documented PSI studies etc, and how even those that were impressive were ignored…. [Now I don’t know which studies this author refers to but I have looked at numerous studies that have been championed by psychic enthusiasts over the years and found them horribly lacking. And if you have a specific study in mind, I’d be happy to research it, though I’m not a qualified scientist in a field that would make me an appropriate choice for peer-review. I do have to say though that given that no psi studies have seemed to survive the scrutiny of the peer-review process, my expectations are not very high.]

In my oppinion, if someone presents a real threat of winning that 1 million dollars, then Randi will just move the goal posts further away.. [Now again, you keep asserting your opinion about a test you clearly have not researched. As I’ve already explained, the conditions for the test are worked out and MUST BE APPROVED BY BOTH PARTIES prior to the challenge for the express purpose of avoiding trickery and the moving of the goalpost on either side. The challenge needs to be arranged to ensure the applicant cannot cheat or reasonably accuse the organization of cheating, or else it defeats the whole point of the challenge in the first place.] I just wouldn’t trust James Randi as far as I could throw him, and I don’t think I’m alone there either. . Randy is the ultimate judge and jury as far as whether or not someone will get that million dollars…[The challenge is arranged as to make it near impossible for an applicant to cheat while making it super easy for an applicant who can actually just do what they claim they can do. For instance, if you claim you can fly, the test might involve the applicant jumping out of a 30-story window. Then they either fly or they don’t, REGARDLESS OF WHETHER RANDI OR ANYONE ELSE WANTS TO BELIEVE IT OR NOT. They make a legal contract to which the organization is legally obligated to obey. So it doesn’t matter if you trust Randi or not. He’s got the U.S. legal system behind him. If you think you can prove the challenge is not legitimate, sue him already. I, like the legal system, respond to evidence, not flimsy excuses like “my dog ate my homework.”]

Here’s the bottom line as far as I’m concerned. When you are dealing with something so subtle as PSI, you are dealing with very sublte energies, so new protocols need to be developed that allows for that. [As for the agreed upon protocols, as I said before, the test is always tailored to the specific claimant. If they say they can dowse for water 80% of the time, they have to at least get 80%. That’s all hammered out prior to the challenge in a legally binding written contract. But if someone’s going to show up and claim they can dowse for water with a degree of accuracy not much higher than chance alone, that is not a legitimate claim of psi. I’m sorry that this whole psychic power thing has failed so miserably that its been downplayed to the point where its now “subtle” but again, not my problem. But if the goalpost has been moved to the point where the bar is so low as to be indistinguishable from chance, then honestly why even waste time on it as it clearly would have no practical application anyway?]

Let me ask you this, what if PSI exists, BUT it behaves in very unpredictable ways? [Science deals in falsifiable claims. If something is by nature unfalsifiable or “unpredictable”, then what knowledge of our universe does it give us and what practical application does it serve to waste our time on it? And more to the point, if its not measurable, why not just say it’s a religion and call it a day?]

That’s why Quantum Physics is mentioned so much when it comes to metaphysics, becauase Quantum Physics is whacky and crazy and nobody completely understands it, expecially when it comes to studies such as the double slit experiment and the importance of the observer… So Quantum Physics is mentioned quite a bit when it comes to PSI, because it’s possible that Quantum Physics allows for the existence of PSI more than Classical Physics would, due to it’s strange and whacky behavior. [Quantum Physics is quite different. While there is much for us to still learn about the field and while we understand that there is currently some element of unpredictability to it, it still provides measurable outcomes that have practical applications. It’s falsifiable. And if there’s one thing quantum physics is not, it’s subtle. Now regarding the double slit experiment, it’s not the observer that influences quantum particles but our process of observation. This is an important distinction that people, particularly misguided individuals trying to co-opt real science to justify their pseudosciences, often don’t acknowledge.]

There are too many that think that PSI doesn’t exist because it can’t be reproduced “ON DEMAND” in a lab setting. [Nobody is asking for psi to be produced “ON DEMAND in a lab”, only that it be it can be repeatedly shown to make testable, falsifiable predictions under proper scientific controls, the same exact standard that every currently held scientific conclusion has been held to.] Well, what if PSI doesn’t lend itself to be tested that way? [then what way can it be repeatedly tested that controls for perceptual biases and any other unrelated noise?] What if it happens more randomally and is dependent upon certain conditions that we just don’t understand yet?? [Well then I guess the same thing that happens when your dog really does eat your homework. We say too fucking bad and cry me a river. I, my fellow skeptics, and numerous scientists have bent over backwards trying to develop a reasonable protocol to test this hypothesis that many insist on believing in despite its unproven nature. But where we draw the line is unreasonable, poorly designed tests that aren’t entered into on good faith and which stack the deck unfairly in favor of reinforcing the bias of those who just want to believe no matter what. That’s not how science works.] As an example there’s an excellent book written by physicist Tom Campbell called “My BIG TOE’ that has a chapter covering something called “The PSI Uncertainy Principle” explaining why PSI may not be testible on demand etc…

So why doesn’t the skeptics concentrate more of their energies on focusing on perhaps developing new ways of testing PSI….Just because it’s not often testable on demand does not mean that it doesn’t exist…

On a personal level I know that PSI exists because I’ve seen it happen far too many times in my life to outweigh coincidence … For me, it seems to happen in waves….I don’t want to get into that though because it’s personal, and I’m not out to prove my own belief to anyone, as I know it’s anecdotal. I just smile when it happens :) . [Either develop a specific hypothesis that accounts for this unpredictable phenomena you already “know exists” on faith and fallacious logic or you’re done. That’s it. Science can only go so far to accommodate unfalsifiable, faith-based claims. I for one am growing sick and tired of all the excuses.]

Regarding your comment about how science would be thrilled etc about PSI, MAYBE… Without science understanding how to even explain or test it (see what I wrote above), I don’t think they would ever make the claim that it exists in the short-term..

I do honestly believe though that in time(might be a few decades from now), new protocolls will be developed and an understanding of PSI and Intention will allow for more accepted protocolls. Thus, I do think PSI will be proven eventually, but who knows how long that will take.

(excuse my spelling errors above)…

Sometimes I don’t know why I even bother.

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No fair being incredibly rational and articulate!

February 4, 2011

This kid clearly doesn’t understand politics. He just uses rational arguments and uses only actual words in the English language. Not once did he accuse anyone of being a communist or warn of the downfall of our nation or use non-existent words like “refudiate.” He’s got a lot to learn.


Bill O’Reilly beats Sarah Palin in idiot-off

February 1, 2011
Holy shit! You did not just say that!! Look out, Sarah Palin. Someone’s eying your position as most entertaining moron in the country!

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