News From Around The Blogosphere 5.20.11

May 20, 2011

1. The Catholic Church figures out who’s really to blame for their child abuse cases – A study commissioned by the completely unbiased the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has come out suggesting that all that child fucking the Catholic Church is so addicted to is really the fault of 1960’s hippies. It also apparently retroactively explains all that church sex abuse we know about from the 19th and early 20th centuries too. Amazing thing, that free-love 60’s movement!

2. CDC prepares for zombie apocalypse – In conjunction with Zombie Awareness Month, the CDC recommends planning ahead for a zombie invasion much as you would any other disaster. Of course, the point of this is to get people thinking about how to protect themselves from any disaster. The idea is rather brilliant. By framing it around zombies, they’ve gotten massive media attention, which they would not have if they were warning people about, you know, actual real threats people should be prepared for…which is waaaay less interesting to the media than who got kicked off Dancing with the Stars this week or what Lady Gaga is eating for breakfast. Steven Novella also discusses this story here.And don’t forget:  Cardio, beware of bathrooms, seat belts, double tap.

3. 60 Minutes discusses dangerous, anti-government Sovereign Citizens cult – Wasn’t familiar with them before but even a brief Google search turns up enough evidence that these people are nuts. And what’s really sad is that many people are calling the 60 Minutes piece biased and are actually defending these crazies simply because the Sovereign Citizens exploit anti-government, libertarian rhetoric.

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You’re pitting WHO against Stephen Hawking?!

May 18, 2011

"Suck it, bitch!"

The other day, the world’s most famous living physicist Stephen Hawking made headlines with an off the cuff remark he made about heaven:

“I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first,” he told the newspaper.

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

And all of a sudden, people went ape shit, and several people called out the genius physicist for his statements. So who were these brave intellects who entered the ring against Stephen Hawking? Evangelical and former child actor Kirk Cameron, for one.

According to Cameron:

“”To say anything negative about Stephen Hawking is like bullying a blind man. He has an unfair disadvantage, and that gives him a free pass on some of his absurd ideas. Professor Hawking is heralded as ‘the genius of Britain,’ yet he believes in the scientific impossibility that nothing created everything and that life sprang from non-life,” the former TV star tells E! News.

I do agree on one point. Hawking does have an unfair advantage…actually knowing stuff.

Then ABC Nightly News with Diane Sawyer pitted Hawking against a random 12-year-old kid who we’re told had a near-death experience where he gained access to easily accessible information. ABC even framed the story as one versus the other. It’s almost like this kid had some sort of internet or something.

Then a religious physicist named Scott M. Tyson criticized Hawking with a bunch of logical fallacies, which Steven Novella details in his latest article. And finally, there is some writer for The Guardian who states that he’d stake his life that Stephen Hawking is wrong, which PZ Myers references in his piece explaining how not to argue with Hawking.

I’d love to be able to say there was no clear winner in any of these battles but just look again at the people going up against one of the greatest physicists of our time: an actor, a journalist, a 12-year-old kid? It’s sad that not only do these laypeople think can contend with Hawking but that the media seems to think they’ve got what it takes to be fair opponents. That’s like a boxing match pitting Mike Tyson against…well, a 12-year-old.

Sorry media but it wasn’t even close. The winner and still champion is Hawking, who only wins this battle of wits on the grounds that he’s way smarter than you and is a leading expert in the subject.

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Power Balance bracelets debunked on CBS

May 16, 2011

Steven Novella and Project Alpha alumni/mentalist Banachek expose these bracelets for the shameless scams that they are.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Power Balance bracelets debunked on CBS, posted with vodpod
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Dr. Steven Novella vs. Dr. Oz

April 26, 2011

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I don’t care for Mehmet Oz. And it’s not just because the beliefs he espouses are so wacky he feels he needs to always be seen in his medical scrubs to convince people that he is a legitimate doctor. No, it’s because of the actual beliefs he espouses and the harm it does to those who follow his crackpot advice.

Now don’t get me wrong. He is a real doctor. He’s a heart surgeon, and from what I understand, a very good one. The problem is that despite his expertise in one very specific area of medicine, he insists on speaking out of school by talking about all manner of medical treatments, real as well as bogus, playing off of people’s ignorance about medical specialization. People generally think any medical doctor is some form of general practitioner who knows everything about medicine when more often than not, they just know a lot about one area of medicine. A cardiac surgeon may know an awful lot about the heart but there’s no reason to assume they significantly more about the foot than the average laymen.

But why I’m talking about Mehmet Oz now is because my skeptical mentor Dr. Steven Novella was invited onto Oz’s show to argue a more science-based point of view on bogus–err, I mean”alternative” “medicine”:

Surprisingly, according to Novella, the piece wasn’t that poorly edited against him. Unfortunately, the format in which the show was structured was heavily weighted against him. As can be seen from the clip, the show was framed around the highly biased idea that doctors who don’t share Oz’s particular brand of faith are “afraid” of discussing it when obviously Novella talks about it almost every day on his podcast and many blogs. Also, Oz always got the final word on each topic and Novella wasn’t given a real chance to rebut those rather large claims. For instance, when discussing acupuncture, a promoter of the bullshit treatment was given the platform to insist it was backed by copious research after Novella said it wasn’t, and then Oz reiterated what she said as the final word on the topic without given Novella another chance to speak.

Suffice it to say, it was very clear why such shows make terrible venues for having real scientific debates about fringe medical claims. Though it was still great that Novella had the opportunity to speak before Oz’s audience and dispel a few myths about what Oz’s critics are saying.

Orac also wrote about this here.

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Vaccine denialists declare first week of November Vaccine Awareness Week

October 18, 2010

I've been infected! OH NOES!!

I just got my flu vaccination today, so that may mean the zombie apocalypse has begun. But it seems quite appropriate that the day I got my vaccine, anti-vaxxers Barbara Loe Fisher and Joe Mercola declared November 1-6 “Vaccine Awareness Week” (VAW). Of course their real agenda is to use this time as a vaccine misinformation week. But the defenders of science-based medicine are more than happy to embrace this week themselves and, thanks to Orac, are now planning to organize to take vaccine awareness back from the ideologues.

Steven Novella is also game as is PalMD. And they’re inviting other science bloggers to join in writing articles debunking anti-vaxxer bullshit.

Now they’re collecting their own army of expert bloggers but even though I’m not a medical professional or even a scientist, I’ve certainly got an intermediate understanding of many of the facts that anti-vaxxers ignore and so am more than happy to help at least drown out some of the anti-vaxxer noise that week with some good information. So stay tuned. If they want a vaccine awareness week, we’ll give ’em one.

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Science vs. religion and how I discovered the skeptical movement

April 8, 2010

Frequent readers probably know that I’m a huge fan of Dr. Steven Novella, who’s an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, president of the New England Skeptic Society, blogger, and lead host of the most popular skeptical podcast in the world, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. Novella is a major reason I call myself a skeptic today.

I’ve been an outspoken atheist for some time but it’s only been about three years that I’ve even known about the skeptical movement. It was the autumn 2007 that I first discovered James Randi. Randi was being interviewed by an internet atheist radio show I listened to and on their website, they’d linked to some videos of Randi on YouTube. One of those videos was a lecture Randi gave to Yale University years ago. It was the standard Randi lecture but it was the first time I’d seen it. And at the time I was still a bit of a believer in a number of classic paranormal claims but was already sort of realizing that there wasn’t much to them. Randi’s Yale lecture pushed me one small step closer to renouncing my woo woo beliefs.

Around that same time I discovered YouTube videos of Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine. And I found myself liking a lot of what he had to say. And by the time, later that fall, I caught Shermer debating the evidence for alien visitation on The Larry King Show, I’d already moved to a position where I completely agreed with Shermer that the evidence just wasn’t there. Shermer’s opponents in that debate were Stanton Friedman and Buzz Aldrin, both long-time heroes of mine. It was during that debate though that I realized my hero Stanton Friedman was a complete nut.

The one issue that I did take issue with Shermer on though was that in many of the videos I’d caught of him on YouTube, he rejected the label “atheist” and embraced the label “agnostic.” Then on November 15, 2007 I attended an atheist event where several famous faces were in attendance, one of whom was Michael Shermer. I briefly talked to him about the current Uri Geller television show at the time that also featured skeptical magician Criss Angel. I wanted to ask him about the “atheist” label issue but didn’t get around to it. But when I heard him use the label himself later that night my concerns were alleviated.

As I was leaving that night I saw several fliers for other upcoming events and one of them was a Saturday afternoon lecture hosted by a group calling itself the New York City Skeptics. The speaker was someone I’d never heard of by the name of Steven Novella. It sounded interesting enough and so I attended. And I was so impressed by Dr. Novella’s lecture that when he mentioned that he hosted a podcast, I decided to check it out. And today, it’s my favorite podcast. I also now write for the New York City Skeptic’s official blog, the Gotham Skeptic. But since that lecture, Novella and the other skeptical rogues on the podcast have become my biggest skeptical influences and were the biggest reason I’m part of this movement.

But as Steven Novella reminded me this week, there is at least one issue we do not see eye to eye on, and that’s whether science and religion can coexist peacefully. While he identifies as an “agnostic” and feels science is agnostic toward the untestable claims of religion, I disagree.

The problem I have with this position is that just about every issue skeptics address is unfalsifiable. Maybe our primitive science just can’t detect the water memory of homeopathy and anyone testing the efficacy of homeopathy is sending out negative vibrations that screw up the tests. Maybe vaccines really do cause autism but all the data to the contrary has just been faked by an omnipotent evil conspiratorial force that will stop at nothing to poison us with toxins in the vaccines. Sooner or later, every form of pseudoscience, denialism, and paranormal claims moves its goalpost outside the bounds of falsifiability. And yet we never seem to have this conversation when it comes to homeopathy or ghosts or vaccines. But some skeptics seem to feel they need to apply special pleading to religion because it’s religion.

Few people seriously argue the “hard atheist” position that we know with certainty that no gods exist. The principle argument is that there’s no evidence to believe that one exists and the burden of proof lies with those claiming otherwise. And it’s because the burden of proof is on the believer, that once they introduce an unfalsifiable position, they fail to meet the burden of proof and thus automatically lose the debate. This is true whether we’re talking about homeopathy or religion.

But for all intents and purposes one can reasonably conclude that gods almost certainly don’t exist. It seems that some don’t want to put their nickel down on a position and risk the minute possibility that they could be wrong. But I have no problem being wrong. I’ve been wrong before and I’ll be wrong again. And if one day new evidence is presented that proves a god does exist I’ll gladly admit that I’m wrong. But until then I have not been sufficiently persuaded that I am wrong. Take the Bible. The very first verse of the book is objectively and scientifically wrong by many orders of magnitude. And it only gets worse from there. It’s scary to me that in another universe we might all be having this same insane discussion over whether science can conclusively dismiss The Cat In The Hat.

At a certain point it’s unreasonable to keep a case open. If Judge Ito was an agnostic, the OJ case would still be running because maybe one day new evidence would drop from the sky. No, make a bloody decision, at least provisionally, and move on.

Now to be fair to Steven Novella’s position, he does address the unfalsifiable claims of pseudosciences like homeopathy. However, I don’t happen to find his answer particularly satisfying.

I don’t feel that once the true believer makes it a faith argument that the skeptic just has to take it on the chin and has to concede that they can’t disprove it. There are certain ideas that are simply too idiotic to even entertain in intellectual discourse and that line in the sand is falsifiability.

Unfalsifiable claims about reality have no place in intellectual discourse and are cause an immediate disqualification from the realm of science. The believer hasn’t met their burden of proof so they’re done. Case dismissed. We can proceed to mock them. What you don’t do is keep a case open indefinitely just in case new evidence one day comes to light. It’s about practicality. If a claim can’t be demonstrated or doesn’t say anything useful about our reality, why am I paying lip service to it? It’s utterly useless. It’s garbage. And I have no problem being honest enough to tell the believer this, especially since it’s proven far more persuasive than being coy and overly agreeable. And at least they’ll know that I respect them enough to be honest with them instead of treating them like fragile children. And sure there are skeptics who believe in some god or another. There are skeptics who believe in ghosts too. They’re simply wrong.


Is John Benneth the Lewis Black of the crank world?

April 4, 2010

Not long ago, a homeopathy proponent by the name of John Benneth made a YouTube video responding to Steven Novella’s criticism of homeopathy. That video, titled HOMEOPATHY: Jew of Nazi Medicine, was one of the most hilariously vitriolic and delusional videos you’re likely to ever see:

But that video pales in comparison to Benneth’s latest video, which one would swear was an April Fools joke if Benneth didnt’ have a history of supporting homeopathy. This new attack on Steven Novella, titled “Yale’s Nigger Homeopathy” may be the funniest piece of unintentional comedy I’ve seen this year with Benneth’s almost Lewis Black style ranting (minus Black’s intellect and actual wit).

But I don’t want to oversell it so judge for yourselves: