Category: "Debunking"

Sceptics needed - Yeovil Psychic Society stumbled upon

Incredible, just tonight I stumbled upon the Yeovil Psychic Society's website. These people claim they are "Challenging the Accepted". Apparently these guys have been around for 30 years now. I wish they came upon my radar sooner.

I say we get some rational people together and found a Yeovil Sceptic Society, we can claim we're "Challenging the Bullshit".

Just a few things they've got wrong as I quickly went through their latest newsletter.

Earth is the only planet not named after a pagan God.

You forget Earth's other name, its Latin name, like all the other planets have. Terra, the Roman goddess of farmland, pregnancy and earthquakes.

Venus is the only planet that rotates clockwise.

...[From the North poles]. So does Uranus.

It's filled with astrology nonsense, and worse still (from a population health standpoint) pseudo-medical mumbo jumbo like the already well debunked slight of hand magic tricks, psychic surgery. The Turin Shroud makes an appearance too. Jeez, can't these people get something new, something that wasn't already shown to be a forgery?

Come on give us something fresh! Saying that though, that's the trouble with people who are closed minded to the possibility of being wrong.

So why not come along to our next meeting, you are guaranteed a warm welcome!

I doubt that.

Only using 10% of our brain, psychics and Father Christmas

So I ran into this nonsense again, someone saying that we only use 10% of our brain. *Sigh*.

To anybody who actually sits down and thinks about it for a while, it is obviously false. For example, how many times have you heard of somebody having a stroke, in the part of the brain they don't use and therefore being unaffected, or how many times have you heard of somebody having a brain injury, but being unaffected by it. If what they say is true, then we should hear of people stabbed in the head which caused severe damage to their brain but they suffer from no retardation. Of course in reality, typically such a wound is fatal, and even if it is not, it does cause some loss of brain function.

We use our entire brain, we can measure activity in the brain using tools like an MRI scanner, and the whole thing gets used at least some of the time.

The brain consists of about 2% of our body mass, yet it consumes, by various estimates from blood flow etc, about 20% of the body's energy. The brain is an extremely expensive organ and if 90% of it was unused, evolutionary pressures would trim it down to size.

Unfortunately over the years this has embedded itself in the public concious, I know the first time I ever heard of it was when I was a child watching the film Flight of the Navigator, every now and then I catch it said on the TV.

What really bugs me however is how it gets used by the woo woo crowd.

They use this 10% thing to support anything they want. For example...

We only 10% of our brains, therefore the other 90% is used for psychic power/talking to god/ESP/telekinesis/{insert personal belief here}

This doesn't work for two reasons.

1) Argument from ignorance, we don't know what this 90% is used for therefore it must be {insert personal belief}, without any evidence to support that position.

2) The argument is built upon a false premise, in that the 10% thing is actually false anyway.

I stumbled upon which seems to be a haven of nonsense over on Yahoo! Answers. Here we see somebody called Milly ask:

If we really do only use 10% of our brain, is it potentially possible that someone can be genuinely psychic?

Well to start off with, no we don't. You don't really need to go any further, but I will anyway.

Yes it is possible that somebody could be psychic.

So let's speculate on a method for this to work, I'll assume by psychic, one means being able to read other people's minds (ones who are alive) as the term psychic is very broad.

Nature gives us four forces to work with, we can dismiss the nuclear forces as they only apply at the atomic level, we can also dismiss gravity, which correlates with mass as our brain isn't that massive, and even if it were, there would be no way to reasonably alter the mass to be able to send data. That leaves us with the electro-magnetic force, specifically the EM spectrum.

Due to the size of our heads, one can rule out the longer radio wavelengths, to be realistic we'd have to start somewhere near the microwave area of the spectrum, once we get to the infra-red it becomes hard for us to control the signal without our body heat getting in the way, by the time we reach visible, it gets worse, can you imagine how bright a light you'd need to shine through your skull? You'd have to spend all day eating to stand a hope in hell of generating so much energy, by the time we're at these frequencies the brain would simply cook itself, touching your head would be like touching a 1000 watt light bulb, then of course if it were visible, we'd be able to see it with our eyes, I don't remember the last time I saw somebody with a glowing head.

So if we were to communicate using the EM spectrum, it would probably be around microwave wavelengths, this is the same frequencies that mobile phones, and 802.11 devices use.

As our brain does have an electrical current, it also generates an electro-magnetic field, however this is a by-product of the electrons whizzing around in our heads, and cannot encode any information. Also it is extremely weak, and we need sensors on the skull itself to stand much hope of even measuring it. So I believe we can rule this out going forward.

OK, so let's say we use microwaves, what we'd need is some form of transmitter in our brains, which can vary the microwave signal so we can encode our thoughts along with it. Also the psychics would need a receiver in their heads.

So yes Milly, it is possible. You don't have to break the laws of nature to do it.

However. From an evolutionary prospective it would be an expensive system to develop, the energy required to send out a constant stream of thoughts would drastically increase the amount of energy our brain uses. We also have ways to communicate which cost very little, we can send information through sound waves by banging things, or by changing the pitch of sounds using our vocal system.

Of course, these alone don't rule it out they just make it less likely to develop.

We could be generous and grant psychics the use of an undiscovered force, which costs very little energy and doesn't require much in the way of transmitters or receivers.

However still, they fall flat on their faces. We've been doing experiments with psychics for over a hundred years now, and nothing, nothing at all, negative, no effect.

Why? It's an easy experiment to do, it costs very little it is something that could be done in every secondary school in the world. We don't need to spend $8 billion building 20km particle accelerators to do it. It is cheap and easy to do.

I believe the reason they fall flat on their faces is because there is no effect going on.

However it seems some of the people answering Milly's question, seem to have an inability to think critically.

Personally, I am not ready or willing to write something completely off, like psychic abilities, because there is no definitive proof of it.

Right? So the fact that it is for starters implausible, and the fact they've failed every study done has no impact on you at all?

There is no way to prove psychic abilities without a doubt

Of course there is, do the studies and show there is an effect. If somebody could accurately read, for example images somebody else was being shown 70% or 80% of the time and if those studies were replicated in other centres, with everything doubled blinded and sound methodology. That would prove that person has the ability to see what somebody else is seeing, it would prove something is going on.

So don't give me that wishy washy nonsense.

but since it can't be disproved either, I think the only responsible thing is to be (at the very least) open to the possibility of it.

You cannot disprove a negative. That is unfairly placing the burden of evidence.

To illustrate my point. To prove Father Christmas exists, all one would need to do is grab the bugger as he's crawling down the chimney and see if there's a flying sleigh above your roof.

To disprove Father Christmas we could for example stay up Christmas Eve and see if he crawls down the chimney. If he doesn't does that disprove Father Christmas? No. Maybe he didn't visit our house this year because we were naughty. So then what would we need to do? Grab every person on the planet, lock them up, or put a camera monitoring them all to see if any of them is Father Christmas? No, maybe he's hiding, OK so we search every building, cave, swamp and igloo on the planet, does that disprove him? No. Maybe he's invisible, and so on.

You get my point, proving Father Christmas exists is relatively simple. Disproving him beyond all doubt is impossible, not only does it require a planetary study, heck even that isn't enough maybe he lives on the Moon, or Mars, and so on and so on. This is the same reason one cannot disprove a divine all-powerful being.

If psychics think there's a real effect going on PROVE IT, the burden of evidence is on YOU.

The default position any thinking person should take would be...

1) Implausible, therefore my position is doubtful.

Lots of studies get done and then...

2) No effect detected with plenty of good solid studies, therefore it doesn't exist.

You should be open to the possibility, but never so open minded that your brain falls out. If you base your opinions on the evidence then you have nothing to worry about, nobody will laugh at you and say you were wrong if new evidence comes in and you update your opinions. Because that is the rational, and intelligent thing to do, base your opinions on such matters on the data.

However if you stick to your guns and say hmm there's something going on, or maybe there's something going on, ignoring all the evidence you deserved to be laughed at. You'd be nothing but a crank, like so many so-called psychics...

Creeping around, spouting nonsense and woo woo thinking, avoiding scientists or rational people and making money off innocent people all at the same time. Can anybody say fraud and jail time?

To sum up...

1) We need and use all of our brain, the 10% thing is nonsense, spread by the likes of the media and psychics out to prove whatever nonsense they want.

2) Psychics = con artists.

3) I cannot disprove the existence of Father Christmas, that doesn't mean he exists.

Homeopathic mumbo jumbo needs to be booted out of the NHS

The Guardian published an article written by Jeanette Winterson (not a scientist), on why she thinks homeopathy is wonderful.

Another reason why topics like this should be covered by dedicated science writers. Dedicated science writers would not base an entire article on one anecdotal experience.

Picture this. I am staying in a remote cottage in Cornwall without a car. I have a temperature of 102, spots on my throat, delirium, and a book to finish writing. My desperate publisher suggests I call Hilary Fairclough, a homeopath who has practices in London and Penzance. She sends round a remedy called Lachesis, made from snake venom. Four hours later I have no symptoms whatsoever.

She then has the nerve to go on and say:

Right now, though, a fierce debate is raging between those, like me, who trust homeopathy because it works for them, and those who call it shamanistic claptrap, without clinical proof or any scientific base.

This shows exactly what is going on here. The science which clearly demonstrates it offers no benefits vs. her (and every other true believers') anecdotal experiences.

In science anecdotes are worthless.

Who here has woken up one morning with a temperature and felt a bit rough yet through the course of the day felt much better? Did any of you walk down or up some stairs during the course of the day? You did? Wow, walking up and down the stairs is a cure!

Or maybe it was tapping on that plank of wood, spinning around on your chair, or having a bit to eat. Or heck, maybe that thing called the immune system fought it off by itself.

The trouble with anecdotes is they're uncontrolled and introduce far too many variables to know what exactly is going on, who knows what she took before taking the sugar pill. They're also isolated, perhaps there were a hundred other people who were also in Jeanette's position, yet they didn't take any sugar pill and felt better anyway. With anecdotes we don't know what the bigger picture is.

Only by doing controlled studies can we account for those variables. Such studies have been done and show homeopathy doesn't work.

Here's James Randi going over homeopathy (I didn't want this post turning into a huge rant of why it doesn't work). So I'll hand you over to him:

This sort of nonsense is funded by the NHS (they recently put £25 million into opening a Homeopathic hospital), and that is not on. The NHS needs to fund things that actually work, things that have been tested and have scientific evidence to back them up. If people want to waste money on sugar pills, they should do it with their own money.

Religious fundamentalists and anti-homosexuality nonsense

So the religious lunatics are at it again. The rise of fundamentalism in the United States is a real problem and needs to be stamped out.

This time Reverend Ken Hutcherson and his (to quote the Telegraph) "evangelical megachurch has vowed to take over Microsoft by packing it with new shareholders who will vote against the company's policy of championing gay rights."

Microsoft is fairly well known in the United States for supporting a solid policy of employee diversity. There's a group within Microsoft called the Gay and Lesbian Employees At Microsoft (GLEAM). A lot of technology companies are typically quite liberal (well apart from Apple and Adobe, who unlike most others give more money to the Republican Party) when it comes to matters such as this, and I'm surprised haven't yet been the target of more religious nonsense.

This guy is asking millions of evangelical Christians, Jews and the like to buy up Microsoft stock so they can vote against these policies within the company.

Here's a few of the things this guy has had to say:

"I consider myself a warrior for Christ. Microsoft don't scare me. I got God with me."

"I told them that you need to work with me or we will put a firestorm on you like you have never seen in you life because I am your worst nightmare. I am a black man with a righteous cause with a whole host of powerful white people behind me."

"Microsoft stepped out of their four walls into my world so that gives me the right to step out of my world into their world."

"They tried to turn their policy into state policy, making their policy something I had to submit to. And my playbook tells me you don't submit to sin."

Now I know most people in the UK would dismiss the guy as a nutcase, and rightfully so, but increasingly in the United States these people are becoming ever more powerful and they influence millions of people.

Never in the UK have I met somebody who told me that being gay is a life choice, yet on my forums, the majority of members of which are American it is a frequent area of argument. Of course there is zero evidence to support these claims, but when you're dealing with people who place faith above hard scientific facts nine times out of ten you're wasting your time discussing it. If their pastor or priest has told them it is a life choice and a sin, it is probably too late. That method of thought - or lack of thought must be stopped.

This is why faith must be attacked by reason, the scientific method is the most powerful invention we have ever made and we should use it to investigate everything. Religion has been getting a free ride for far too long, and people in the United States must openly challenge it and reverse the damage that has already been done. A secular country where God is mentioned in the pledge of allegiance and mentioned in the country's motto has something seriously wrong with it.

In the UK too fundamentalism is on the rise, creationism is being actively taught in some schools, children can be divided up into faith based schools, some Jewish communities and of course Northern Ireland spring to mind which creates segregation which can well follow them throughout their lives.

Imagine a world without religion

It is time people make a stand against religion, although the majority of religious people are perfectly decent, by their support of putting faith above reason they allow generations of people to be indoctrinated into something that simply has no basis in the real world.

All too often we see fundamentalists causing the spread of HIV by telling people that condoms are evil, we see deadly diseases break out because parents refuse to vaccinate their children, this has cropped up many times throughout Africa killing thousands of people, all because some church said the vaccines gave people aids. Then we have people blowing themselves up because they have been indoctrinated into believing there is an afterlife.

It needs to be stamped out, I believe religion should be a strictly private matter, the intervention of religious ideology in society should be stopped, it is dangerous and regressive. Things look far too similar to the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire, where science was suppressed the Great Library burned and civilisation in Europe collapsed into a thousand years of religious darkness. Never again.

I feel more religious book burnings coming on

Dumbledore, the old guy in Harry Potter is gay. From the BBC:

Harry Potter author JK Rowling has revealed that one of her characters, Hogwarts school headmaster Albus Dumbledore, is gay.

You know it was bad enough with religious fundamentalists in the United States trying to get the Harry Potter books banned (here, here etc), for evil witchcraft and the like, now they'll be at it in full force again.

I can see the headlines now...

"Gay witchcraft - the new threat to Bible-believing Americans".

I give it a week until some fundamentalist nuts call for a ban, or a public burning (Reverend Lovejoy style), or some other crazy thing.

So long Perry DeAngelis

I checked my feeds this morning to see that Steven Novella posted the sad news about the loss of Perry DeAngelis.

Perry's popularity was easy to understand – Perry had presence. The power of his personality went into everything he did, and every relationship he had. He made his opinions known and actually delighted in not sugar-coating them. Truth and reason were very important to him, so much so that he felt the truth had to be brutal. He would not diminish it with mere social nicety. This also means that when he expressed friendship, you knew he meant it.

The SGU will not be the same without you.

And remember, chi spelled backward is crap.

- Perry DeAngelis, a human being of some note.

So long Perry. You lived in such a time where science and technology had advanced far enough that your opinions and thoughts can be recorded, stored and distributed not only throughout the world, but down through time as well, you pushed our science and understanding forward in your own way to help make this possible. As a result people shall be reading what you have written, and listening to what you have said, throughout the history to come. In this sense it is science and technology that has unlocked the ability for people to hear you, no matter where you were or when you were. It is science that allows you to speak from beyond the grave.

Science 1 – Mystics 0.

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