Recent Entries in Skeptic

  Science: Be Very Afraid

It was the MMR story that finally made me crack. My friends had always seemed perfectly rational: now, suddenly, they were swallowing media hysteria, hook, line and sinker. All sensible scientific evidence was twisted to promote fear and panic. I tried to reason with them, but they turned upon me: I was another scientist trying to kill their baby.

Many of these people were hardline extremists, humanities graduates, who treated my reasoned arguments about evidence as if I was some religious zealot, a purveyor of scientism, a fool to be pitied. The time had clearly come to mount a massive counter-attack.

Science, you see, is the optimum belief system: because we have the error bar, the greatest invention of mankind, a pictorial representation of the glorious undogmatic uncertainty in our results, which science is happy to confront and work with. Show me a politician's speech, or a religious text, or a news article, with an error bar next to it?,12980,928140,00.html

Bob Carroll always knew he was a skeptic. His skepticism started when he was young, with a disbelief in Santa Claus, and it has led the professor of philosophy to spend more than three decades studying the psychology of deception and self-deception, questioning most things supernatural and paranormal and explaining the principles of sound logical reasoning to others.

In 1994, he began publishing a Web site for the doubting Thomases of the world to use as a hub to educate themselves about a wide variety of hoaxes, quackery and pseudoscientific phenomena that can take advantage of a human's trusting nature.

The Skeptic's Refuge Site address:

The man who lost to Pat Buchanan in a struggle for Reform Party presidential campaign funds in 2000 has announced plans to start a second U.S. government: the U.S. Peace Government.

John Hagelin, a physicist based at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, said he is not talking about secession.

"This will be a complementary government headed by people with expertise in science. Its focus will be to create a prevention-oriented, problem-free administration in the nation," said Mr. Hagelin, who was the Natural Law Party's presidential nominee in the last election.

Hagelin aide Julia Busch said the proposed U.S. Peace Government would function solely in an advisory capacity and wouldn't usurp the responsibilities of the federal government.

Mr. Hagelin said it would concentrate on issues such as violence, international conflicts, drug abuse, education, health care and food safety.

Phil Plait, 38-year-old astronomer and skeptic, was on the California State University, Northridge, campus Friday, punching holes in the tenacious myth that American astronauts never landed on the moon.

Given the crowd, Plait didn.t have much persuading to do. His talk was sponsored by the university.s Department of Physics and Astronomy, and the room was full of people who know one end of a telescope from the other. But many Americans cling to the view that the landings were staged . 6 percent of those surveyed in a 1999 Gallup poll had their doubts, uncertainty fed by a steady stream of television shows, books and videotapes that claim that NASA was part of a vast government conspiracy

  Is It Good for the Jews?

Two weeks ago, a group of senior intelligence officials in the Defense Department sat for an hour listening to a briefing by a writer who claims . I am not making this up . that messages encoded in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament provide clues to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. One of the officials told me that they had agreed to meet the writer, Michael Drosnin, author of a Nostradamus-style best seller, without understanding that he was promoting Biblical prophecy. Still, rather than shoo him away, they listened politely as he consumed several man-hours of valuable intelligence-crunching time. Apparently he has given similar briefings to top officials of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.

Scientists must be the evangelists against the well-financed effort to undermine science education, especially evolution, a physics professor said Monday.

Scientists have become society's bad guys, as portrayed in the television series The X-Files where the truth is out there and don't trust anyone, said Lawrence Krauss, a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

Krauss, speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said religious dogma and pseudoscientific nonsense have marginalized science at the highest levels of government and the schools.

For example, after the Columbine High School shootings, U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay suggested the tragedy occurred because evolution was taught and children learned they were "nothing but glorified apes," Krauss said.

Other signs that pseudoscience is replacing real science are studies that show most school children believe in astrology and 63 percent of all adults are unaware that dinosaurs died before the first humans walked the earth, he said.

"Part of science is that you submit conclusions to your peers based on experiments, and if it doesn't work, you throw it away," he said. "Science is far more interesting than pseudoscience."

Well-financed religious groups are attacking schools that teach science, especially those that teach evolution, he said.,1299,DRMN_49_1752310,00.html

Last month, Germany's Federal Finance Office granted the Church of Scientology full tax-exempt status, clearing the way for the organization to be recognized as a bona fide religious group. Scientology was founded in the United States nearly 50 years ago by L. Ron Hubbard, an engineer and novelist. Many political leaders in Europe have accused the group of being a cult and the German decision comes at a time when here in the United States, a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the church awaits trial.

By the church's own estimate, Scientology has spread to more than 150 countries since the organization was first founded in 1954. Church officials say as many as 640,000 people may be joining the Church of Scientology each year. And 80 percent of these people boast an annual income that's higher than the U.S. national average. More than half of all Scientologists say they were Christian before joining the group.

Authorities from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico have shut down a dubious medical clinic that was treating cancer patients with magnets.

Most of the patients were from the U.S., and about 10 per cent were from Canada. The company was based in B.C., while the treatments were given at a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico.

Mexican authorities closed the clinic, while the U.S. government is suing CSCT Inc. of Naramata, B.C., and the Canadian Competition Bureau has opened a criminal probe.

The Tijuana clinic is typical of many that authorities from the three countries have been trying to shut down. These clinics prey on the desperately ill and charge a lot of money for dubious treatments.

More than 200 scientists "named Steve" yesterday issued a statement backing evolution instruction in public schools, the latest response to state science standards that allow criticism of Darwinism.

The statement, issued in Denver at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), lists people named Steve to illustrate the large number of evolution backers and to honor Harvard evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, who died last year of cancer.

A technique called "brain fingerprinting," which seeks to probe whether a suspect has specific knowledge of a crime, could become a powerful weapon in national security, its inventor believes.

Lawrence Farwell, a Harvard-educated neuroscientist who founded Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories Inc. 12 years ago and runs the company from a small town in southern Iowa, believes the technique could emerge as the next big thing in law enforcement and intelligence.

"From a scientific perspective, we can definitively say that brain fingerprinting could have substantial benefits in identifying terrorists or in exonerating people accused of being terrorists," Farwell said.

But first the controversial technique, which has had some success, must overcome the skepticism of some experts who are reluctant to embrace it.

Brain fingerprinting works by measuring and analyzing split-second spikes in electrical activity in the brain when it responds to something it recognizes.

  Skeptic Pitied

Craig Schaffner, 46, a Fayetteville-area computer consultant, has earned the pity of friends and acquaintances for his tragic reluctance to embrace the unverifiable, sources reported Monday.

"I honestly feel sorry for the guy," said neighbor Michael Eddy, 54, a born-again Christian. "To live in this world not believing in a higher power, doubting that Christ died for our sins.that's such a sad, cynical way to live. I don't know how he gets through his day.

Makers of the Q-Ray ionized bracelet say wearers will have less pain and more strength. But new research at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville suggests the biggest change is lighter wallets and that any benefit comes from something in people's heads.

What skeptical thinking boils down to is the means to construct, and to understand, a reasoned argument and -- especially important -- to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument. The question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion that emerges out of a train follows from the premise of starting point and whether that premise is true.

This is a great resource for any skeptic who needs the means to deconstruct bunk into its baser elements. The examples are the best:

"meaningless question"
(e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa)

CSICOP chairman says legitimate discussion of cloning's importance was seriously undermined by disproportionate coverage of UFO cult's claims

By Kevin Christopher, CSICOP Public Relations Director

January 10, 2002

Clonaid, Ra�l, and the media seem to have got things backwards, says Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). It should have been science first, publicity second. Without a shred of corroborative evidence, the French UFO cult visionary Ra�l (formerly known as Claude Vorilhon) and his strange brand of extraterrestrial futurism were catapulted into the world spotlight by the suspect announcement that Clonaid, the human cloning company founded by Ra�l, had achieved its first success.

Now that it has become clear that the first alleged human clone will not be verified through DNA testing after all, several media watchers are sifting through the smoking wreckage of this crashed media cycle. Kurtz is one of them. In 1997, he debated Ra�l on MSNBC. CSICOP's official journal, Skeptical Inquirer, has covered and criticized many the previous claims and exploits of the Ra�lians.

Kurtz is distressed by the recent coverage. "It exposes the decreasing standards of many in the media business," he says. "Here you have an unsubstantiated claim from dubious sources acting on a bizarre agenda, and it makes newspaper headlines and leads cable news for weeks. Coverage for Ra�l and Clonaid has dumbed down an import scientific issue. Meanwhile, the genuine understanding of scientific issues like therapeutic cloning among legislators and the general public is next to nil, and many in Congress and the Bush administration have been acting to undermine this very type of critical scientific research."

Indeed, a January 9, 2003, Fox News Channel online story by Liza Porteus announced the introduction of a new Human Cloning Prohibition Act bill in the House of Representatives the previous day. "The bill got a jump start this session," writes Porteus, "after Clonaid... claimed it had delivered a human clone baby and had three more on the way." The bill, sponsored by Representative Bart Stupak (D-MI), Rep. David Weldon (R-FL) and 80 other House co-sponsors, would ban both reproductive and therapeutic cloning. This has many scientific groups worried, since therapeutic cloning is a promising technique for replicating specific types of cells rather than an actual embryo. A ban, say researchers, would undermine efforts to find cures for Alzheimer's and diabetes.

"The media are not serving the public debate by rolling out the red carpet to a pack of ludicrous UFO cultists," says Kurtz. "Coverage of the Ra�lians' cloning efforts only reinforces an ill-informed public's Frankensteinian fears."

Several months ago, Michael Guillen, the former ABC Science Editor who had been organizing the independent testing of Clonaid's results, was pitching a lucrative reality-based TV program about the cloning efforts to Fox Entertainment and other TV networks, according to the New York Times. Guillen has now publicly distanced himself from the fiasco. Nevertheless, on ABC's "Good Morning America" (January 8, 2003), Guillen said he was still holding out hope. "I think there's a small chance [that the claims are true]. And the stakes are so high ... that's why I want to test." That small chance has gotten far smaller, says Kurtz, with every delay and excuse from Clonaid.

An anonymous Food & Drug Administration official told the New York Times that the company's cloning facilities were, in many ways, inadequate for the task. A January 1, 2003, story by Kenneth Chang and Gina Kolata quotes the official about conditions at Clonaid's Nitro, West Virginia, facility. Though the lab-a rented room at an abandoned high school-did have state-of-the-art equipment, "[t]here was no place where sterile conditions could be had." Insects flew in and out of open windows, possibly from a nearby barn. The research staff at the facility amounted to a woefully unprepared graduate student tracking work on cow ovaries with notebooks "inadequate" to document scientific research. Such testimony casts even more doubt on Clonaid's ability to pull off what would be one of the great scientific achievements of the 21st century.

At best the Ra�lian/Clonaid PR coup will do no damage and fade from public memory. At worst, however, as Kurtz and others fear, the UFO cult's media high jinks may be contributing to the death of legitimate cloning research in the United States.

All press queries should be directed to Kevin Christopher, CSICOP Public Relations Director
Phone: 716 636 1425
Fax 716 636 1733

Three Things in Life are Certain: Death, Taxes, and Failed Psychic Predictions, by Gene Emery

Amherst, N.Y.-The Super Bowl will be cancelled after the first half of play. People will be able to go back in time, although there won't be any way to bring them back home.

Psychic forecasts for 2003? Nope.

Those are events that were supposed to come true in 2002 according to the supermarket tabloids whose editors say they gathered the forecasts from some of the world's best psychics.

Actually, psychics and astrologers seems to have fallen on tough times recently, said science writer Gene Emery, who has been following tabloid forecasts since 1979 in the still-fruitless quest to find just one psychic with predictive ability. Emery's annual evaluations frequently appear in Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

"The September 11 terrorist attacks graphically illustrated the idea that people who claim to have psychic powers are frauds or are deluding themselves. Witness the fact that nobody predicted the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, otherwise thousands of deaths would have been averted," said Emery. "Here was an event whose impact resonated around the globe, yet it never resonated with the folks who tell you with great certainty where you misplaced your TV remove control."

Claude Vorilhon, founder of the Raelian religion whose followers claim to have cloned a human for the first time, says its goal is to create eternal life through cloning -- and make a lot of money doing it.

In an hour-long interview Sunday, Vorilhon said a company he founded in 1997 has a waiting list of about 2,000 customers willing to pay $200,000 each to have themselves or a loved one cloned. He said he won't profit directly because he has distanced himself from Clonaid since founding it. But the French native said he won't turn away donations from the company.

Under the surface of Mars lies an ancient, nuclear-powered city left by Martian citizens. At least, that's what a group of space researchers think. And they're trying to prove it by invoking a little-known remnant of President Clinton's last days called the "Data Quality Act" that went into force in October of this year. The filing, dated October 31, 2002, gives NASA 40 days to address the complaint that there is faulty data on Arizona State University's THEMIS Web site.

Hoagland claims to have proof that ASU's Gorelick swapped the July 24 Cydonia image for a manipulated one in order to keep people off the scent -- or get them on it. And Hoagland's arguments are not falling on deaf ears -- starting a five-month feeding frenzy on the Web and on a popular conspiracy radio talk show hosted by Art Bell. The image in question has been viewed 120,000 times from a link on MSNBC mentioning Hoagland's beef with THEMIS.

It's a key belief of conspiracy theorists that the state has shady powers, and so it was remarkable to be told this week that Britain's head of state may share such fears. After the crown's role in halting Paul Burrell's trial, many suspected that the Queen might be the instigator of a conspiracy, but the butler now helpfully presents her as the possible victim of one. The claim by Princess Diana's ex-Jeeves that the Queen warned him about "powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge" suggests that conspiracy theorists have infiltrated the very heart of British power.,2763,836729,00.html

The program, which offered such courses as Near-Death Experiences and Theories of the Paranormal through the College of Sciences, lasted five years and attracted hundreds of Southern Nevadans to classes and lectures.

Its death was handled without publicity by the university, which was criticized quietly by some faculty members shortly after the program's creation.

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