“I need to get to the top of one of those pyramid schemes”

July 14, 2009

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I got back early yesterday from TAM7 and it was awesome.  Way better than anything I expected.  However, on the EARLY trip back to the airport, I was confronted by ignorance.  Almost immediately, our taxi driver launched into an attempt to sell MonaVie.  Really?!  It’s 2009.  People are still falling for this?  I guess people have believed in God for thousands of years.  There are probably many things one can do in order to recognize a pyramid scheme, but I figured I would  list one major alarm:

You have to buy into the idea. Why do people who are already involved always try to sell you the idea instead of the product?  You could argue that it’s less work and more money to sell in bulk (get rich quick).  But why don’t they sell it in bulk to retailers?  Why can’t I find it in stores?  And why, if I go to their website, can’t I purchase the product there?  It only allows me to enroll in their sells program.

This is exactly what happened with our taxi driver.  Instead of asking if we wanted to buy some of his product, he launched into a speech (probably memorized) about how we could be making tons of money.  In fact, it was his “ticket out of taxi driving.”  Good luck buddy.

Coming from THE skeptical conference of the year, you might be expecting a fierce debate ensued.  But the facts are: I was coming off heavy binge drinking, as well as a record lack of sleep, and I had never heard of MonaVie; and I wasn’t about to humor him by asking.  I just wanted to get to the airport and for him to shut up.


That Faker Was Cheated

July 14, 2009

We haven’t talked about it yet, but the Northwest Skeptics were at TAM 7, and we had a really sweet time.  I espeically enjoyed Sundays Million Dollar Challenge.  For those of you who don’t know.  The James Randi Educational Foundation has a million dollars that they are willing to give away to anyone who can prove the existance of the paranormal.  On Sunday of TAM, we got to witness a live testing.  The woman who was being tested was Connie Sonne, who is a self proclaimed dowser.  She says if cards are arranged in front of her face down, she can tell which card is which.

If someone accepts this challege, they work with the JREF to figure out an acceptible protocal they can all agree on.  The first part of her test was to callibrate her powers by dowsing some cards face up.  She did this and clearly felt that her powers were working fine.  Next she had to dowse some cards sealed in small envolopes and then sealed in larger envolopes.  I don’t want to go into all the details of the test here, because it was rigorus and you can find it online, but in order to prove that she had powers she needed to get three out of three tests right.  Her odds of doing this were 1/1000.  She got zero.   This wasn’t really a shock.  It would have been cool, if she had got some or all right, because it would have raised some awesome questions about things like this.  However, dowsing has been tested before many times and failed many times, so I am not shocked that it failed once more.

There are some funny things about what happened after the test.

A poster on the JREF forums  said this.

She said before she took the test how she would interpret failure – that the mysterious entities responsible for her abilities had decided that the world was not ready for them to be revealed after all.

I don’t know if she really said this or not, but it is interesting.

She did post this on the forums though.

Hi out there…now I know why Banacheck was “the card handler”. I have been cheated. I did find the right cards. And there is one more thing. At the stage, Banacheck said to me BEFORE he even looked in the envelope I had cut…and here is spade ace, the one you looked for!!!! I first hit me now about that ….but maybe you can see it yourself if someone get the video. I don`t care about the money, that wasn`t the reason why I came. So no matter what you think out there……I was CHEATED!!!!!

Connie

This doesn’t really surprise me either though.  Of coarse she was cheated.  People at the JREF were probably tricking her all along.  Even though she agreed to have Banacheck oversee the  test, as well as all the protocals.  I wonder what she will do since she was cheated.  She should probably sue the JREF for fruad since she has proof.

Wait, instead this is what she said.

I can and will demonstrate everything. I can and will ensure you, that Ì have been cheated. I allready have the evidences. Check my name out in first in september. I will get a website where I will put it ALL, also in english. AND all the evidences about Maddie. So you can THEN decide if I´m deluded or not!! I can only say now….most of you people out there are wrong, very wrong. My last words here on this site.

Connie

So what we have  here is another person who failed the MDC and can’t believe it, so they rationalize.  She failed a test that was more riguroius than anything she has tried on her self.  She does know the protocal, all she really has to do is do the same test again using someone else as a mediator.


A good trend

June 12, 2009

 

On may 30, Newsweek printed  this article ripping into Oprah for her constant support of “Alternative Medicine” and pseudoscience.  It was nice to see mainstream media holding her responsible, or at least calling her out for the crap that she promotes.   I understand that it is her show, and she can do what ever she wants, I was just glad to see that someone called bullshit on her.  Perhaps she will slowly get more critical of what she talks about.

 

The other article was from the Associated Press on June 10, which discusses the 2.5 billion dollars spent over the last decade on researching “Alternative Medicine”, and found that none of them are shown to work.  

 

I am excited to see these things in the news.  I don’t think these articles will change any ones mind, but they both emphasize science and critical thinking, as well as call out bogus stuff.


Celebrity Based Medicine

May 13, 2009

  When discussing technology, we are often referring to advancements in information access. It is now, more than any other time in human history, easier to access large swaths of information on topics that nearly range the entire imagination. With access to the internet we are literally seconds away from the answers to billions and billions of questions. Information has become so easily accessible that one can, without formal education, become somewhat proficient in any topic they so choose. This personal education is often referred to, in jest, as a degree from Google University. While this kind of education is ultimately a wonderful thing, it is vitally important that we do not make the mistake of confusing it with expertise.

    In our culture, celebrities possess by definition, an elevated status. Many of them use this elevated status to speak out, to help their opinions be heard. This is often a fine thing, for celebrities in this country tend to present a kind heart and represent reputable charities that are worth contributing to. It does not escape this observer that they often do this as much to promote charity, as to increase their celebrity status, but a good deed is a good deed, is it not? However, there are certain topics that when celebrities speak on, we as citizens should, if not legally, then at least culturally, hold them more liable for their words.

    Jenny McCarthy is one such celebrity, who, armed with a degree from Google University and her “mommy instinct”, is promoting a cause that’s on the wrong side of science, truth, and humanity. Through her organization Generation Rescue (GR), she promotes the idea that autism is caused by vaccines. While GR’s website states that their mission “is to support continued research on causative factors and treatment approaches for [neurological disorders]” they are most publicly active at promoting the idea of a link between vaccines and autism. A link that does not exist.

    A little background on vaccines is necessary here. In the late 1920’s vaccine production companies began using a mercury based preservative called thimerosal. In 1996, as a precautionary measure, the preservative was ordered to be removed from all vaccine’s, and by 2001 no vaccine’s in the US contained thimerosal. This was purely precautionary, since around the same time several studies were being concluded, and the reports were unanimously showing that thimerosal was not neurotoxic in the doses available in vaccines, as was the concern (Baker).

    However, in 1998, research by Dr. Andrew Wakefield was published in The Lancet, a medical journal, supposedly linking the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. The doctor claimed “that the families of eight out of 12 children attending a routine clinic at the hospital had blamed MMR for their autism, and said that problems came on within days of the jab” (Deer, Wakefield). This article sparked a disaster in vaccination rates, with inoculations falling from “92% to 80%” and thus removing our “herd immunity”, the condition where a highly vaccinated population can effectively defeat the spread of diseases, even to those who have not been inoculated. Without this herd immunity, rates of measles have risen dramatically, even resulting in the death of two children. Furthermore, in February 2009 it was discovered by journalist Brian Deer that Dr. Wakefield had ‘cooked’ or ‘fixed’ the data he presented to The Lancet as justification for his conclusions: 

“In most of the 12 cases, the children’s ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records. Although the research paper claimed that problems came on within days of the jab, in only one case did medical records suggest this was true, and in many of the cases medical concerns had been raised before the children were vaccinated” (Deer, Wakefield).

Alongside the incorrect data, Wakefield had several patent applications in process for new MMR vaccines, providing a clear conflict of interest in the research presented (Deer, Revealed). Also, all attempts to duplicate Dr. Wakefield’s findings in further studies have failed(Hornig)(Tozzi). There is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

    The evidence against a link is so overwhelming that when it was brought to the federal court, in his conclusion briefing, Special Master Hastings had this to say about the evidence for a link:

“The petitioners in this case have advanced a causation theory that has several parts, including contentions  that thimerosal-containing vaccines can cause immune dysfunction, that the MMR vaccine can cause autism, and  that the MMR vaccine can cause chronic gastrointestinal dysfunction. However, as to each of those issues, I concluded that the evidence was overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners’ contentions. The expert witnesses presented by the respondent were far better qualified, far more experienced, and far more persuasive than the petitioners’ experts, concerning most of the key points. The numerous medical studies concerning these issues, performed by medical scientists worldwide, have come down strongly against the petitioners’ contentions. Considering all of the evidence, I found that the petitioners have failed to demonstrate that thimerosal-containing vaccines can contribute to causing immune dysfunction, or that the MMR vaccine can contribute to causing either autism or gastrointestinal dysfunction. I further conclude that while Michelle Cedillo has tragically suffered from autism and other severe conditions, the petitioners have also failed to demonstrate that her vaccinations played any role at all in causing those problems” (Hastings).

Again, there is no link between vaccines and autism, the scientific evidence clearly refutes any such claim. Any perceived links between the vaccine schedule, thimerosal, and MMR, are all entirely coincidental.   

    One might wonder how Jenny McCarthy fits into this whole thing, and it would not be fair to leave out her motivations. When he was two years old, her son Evan was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is only natural that one in her position would want to know why this has happened to her son, and no one would fault her there. That desire, combined with the fact that there is currently no definitive answer to the question of cause for autism, makes it easy to see why some have clung so strongly to the failed vaccine hypothesis. If the story could end here, it would simply be another sad tale in the fight against ASD, but this is not a harmless belief.

    The inaccurate belief that vaccines can cause autism is a dangerous belief to hold. Its perpetuation leaves children unnecessarily unprotected from many preventable diseases, it endangers other children and adults who may not be able to get the vaccines because of complications, like allergies, and without herd immunity these entirely preventable diseases can spread throughout the world reaching pandemic proportions. With Jenny McCarthy exploiting her celebrity, and now that of her husband Jim Carrey, to promote a belief of this sort, the danger is immense.

    As a society, we should not look to our celebrities for much more than entertainment. Certainly we should not use them as a source of medical information. These are matters of life and death, and in these situations of utmost importance, should expertise not be a requirement to make such statements? Can we hold Jenny McCarthy responsible for the deaths of unvaccinated children whose parents trusted in her for sound advice? Can we blame the parents? How have we have lost sight of the value in elitism, the value in expertise, and the value in science?

 

Bibliography

Baker, Jeffrey. “Mercury, Vaccines, and Autism: One Controversy, Three Histories.” 

    American Journal of Public Health 98.202 Jan 2008 244-253. Web.13 May 2009.     

    <http://www.ajph.org/cgi/content/abstract/98/2/244&gt;.

 

Deer, Brian. “MMR doctor Andrew Wakefield fixed data on autism.” 

    The Sunday Times of London 8 Feb 2009 Web.12 May 2009.

     <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article5683671.ece&gt;.

 

Deer, Brian. “Revealed: the first Wakefield MMR patent claim describes “safer measles vaccine”.” 

    Web.12 May 2009.

     <http://briandeer.com/wakefield/vaccine-patent.htm&gt;.

 

Hornig M, Briese T, Buie T, Bauman ML, ‘and’ Lauwers G. “Lack of Association between Measles Virus Vaccine 

    and Autism with Enteropathy: A Case-Control Study.” PLoS ONE (2008) Web.13 May 2009.     

    <http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0003140&gt;

 

Tozzi A, Bisiacchi P, Tarantino V, De Mei B, D’Elia L, Chiarotti F, ‘and’ Salmaso S. 

    “Neuropsychological Performance 10 Years After Immunization in Infancy With Thimerosal-Containing Vaccines.” 

    Pediatrics 123.226 Jan 2009 475-482. Web.13 May 2009. 

    <http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/123/2/475&gt;

 

Hastings, Special Master. “Case Decision.” U.S. Courts: Federal Judiciary. 12 Feb 2009. 

    U.S. Courts. 13 May 2009

     <ftp://autism.uscfc.uscourts.gov/autism/vaccine/Hastings-Cedillo.pdf>.


On the topic of other skeptic/science blogs.

October 8, 2008

I’m fairly new to the skeptic movement having only really come into it in the last year or so. In that time I’ve come across many a blog, which seems to be the medium of choice for skeptical expression, and I just wanted to note my opinions on those I read often.

The Neurologica Blog:

Hosted by Dr. Steven Novella, president of The New England Skeptical Society and who is also the blogs sole contributor. This is by far my favorite blog. Dr. Novella is eloguent, motivated, and one of the most intelligent people I know of. He confronts and surmounts near flawlessly every claim I’ve seen him counter. His back and forth with Michael Egnor on the duality (or lack thereof) of the human mind was one of the most stimulating things I’ve ever read. I’ve read almost every post, and done research on a lot of them. His points are well thought out, well organized and well presented. A daily must read for any skeptic.

Pharyngula

Hosted by ScienceBlogs and contributed to by the now infamous PZ Meyers. This blog is a pretty good read, especially when PZ is posting one of his articles on peer reviewed research. Reading him discuss evolution is always a treat. Atheism also takes the front page often at Pharyngula, and mostly its good stuff. The eucharist scandal was at first interesting but dragged on for far too long. The nonsense posts have increased as of late and so I mostly scan through his stuff. A pretty good read most of the time.

Bad Astronomy

Hosted by Discovery magazine and contributed to by the new JREF president Phil Plait. Plait is a professional astronomer and does great work in describing the forces at play in space. His video posts with squishy brain suns and candy planets have been some of the most informative and yet entertaining things I’ve seen. A truly motivated skeptic with a great personality and a love for space that is near unrivaled I’d bet. His talks on debunking the moon hoax are a must watch for any skeptic. His posts are most often science, especially space, and skeptic related. Even if he was not the president of the JREF this would be a must read for any skeptic, but especially for those who find themselves looking up at night, dreaming.

The Rogues Gallery

Hosted by The Skeptics Guide to the Universe and contributed to by the podcast members, plus a couple of others. I really like this blog because of its diversity. On any given day you might get an article about technology or therapeutic touch. The writing is pretty good and the skeptics are top notch. A good read.

The Long Run Blog

Hosted by WordPress, founded by Jon Blumenfeld and Brett Spurr, The Long Run Blog is one of my favorite additions to the skeptic world. It seeks to bring skepticism to the crazy world of finance and it does a great job of it. Jon’s descriptions about how the federal reserve actually works is what got me good and hooked into this blog. His departure has not gone unnoticed, but the blog remains strong. Brett’s posts on social security acutally works and his debunking of some common myths were great stuff, and Karl Mamer’s posts on scams have been fun and informative. The coverage of the credit crisis has been refreshing because of their well informed positions, which are realistic and well thought out. If you have any interest in finance, this is a definite.

Respectful Insolence

Hosted by ScienceBlogs and contributed to by a cancer surgeon going under the nom de plume Orac. Next to The Neuroligica Blog this might be my favorite. Often posting on peer reviewed research, and battling pseudo-science where ever he sees it Orac presents clear and concise arguments. His defense of vaccines against the non-scientfic claims being thrust at them has been fantastic. His posts are often filled with well researched and well cited information. He ventures into politics now and then, but mostly where it meets science or medicine. I find Orac to be both informative and entertaining. Don’t miss out on this one.

SkepChick

The post rate has gone through the roof at Skepchick and mostly they aren’t of any worth anymore. Still, there are great people that frequent the site and if you’re looking for something on the lighter side of intellectual blather this is a good site to peruse. Rebecca Watson, SGU member and founder of SkepChick is funny, witty and a great skeptic. I try to keep an eye out for posts on SkepChick that are longer because they usually represent the kind of content that I enjoy. Not a bad site, just not for me as much anymore.

Science Based Medicine

Founded by Dr. Steven Novella, co-edited by Dr. David Gorski, and contributed to by a slew of talented professional MD’s. This is another site from which I read every post, even the crazy long multi-parters from Kimball Atwood. The topics cover all forms of medicine, with much time spent debunking alternative medicine,  as well as philosophical claims about proper medical practice and the business of medicine.  The coverage of chelation treatment for autism was great, and Dr. Gorski’s essay on the dangerous interactions between medicine and marketing is necessary reading. For those interested in medicine, and a scientific and skeptical approach to its applications this is all required reading.


Atheist vs Agnostic: A second helping

September 29, 2008

I think the difference in the terms lies in the falsifiability of the claim to which the terms are being applied. For gods, I am an atheist to every god that has been defined in such a way that the deity has impact on the material world. I have seen no evidence for any of these claims, and much against.

As for the gods that are inherently unfalsifiable, the gods of personal feeling, the gods I have so often seen faith retreat to when the hard questions are asked. To those gods I remain agnostic.

For clarity I’ll point out that I’m quite certain a god who has impact on the material world, but whose methods of impact are the same as those which nature uses is in fact an unfalsifiable god.


Atheist vs Agnostic

September 28, 2008

I have heard the debate on Atheist vs Agnostic for a while and I figured I would put my feelings about it here.  First off I am an atheist, so this post is basically reasons why I am not agnostic, I will clarify what i mean by atheist though.  I find it interesting that to the world it is better to be agnostic than atheist.  Maybe people feel like they can convert you or that there is hope for you yet if you are an agnostic, while if you are an atheist there is no hope.  Maybe it is the fact that atheism is contrary while being agnostic is neutral.

The trouble with both of these words, maybe with all words, is that the aren’t very clear.  I have heard a few definitions for agnostic such as:  someone who doesn’t know if a god exists, someone who doesn’t care if a god exists, someone who is waiting for the evidence before deciding.  Dictionary.com defines agnostic as:

1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.

2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study.

3. of or pertaining to agnostics or agnosticism.

4. asserting the uncertainty of all claims to knowledge.

Atheist is  meant as someone who doesn’t believe in a god, although I feel like there is a stigma about it meaning that someone won’t believe in a god, someone who doesn’t believe no matter what.

The thing is, I feel like absolute belief either way is a bad thing.  Science knows that it can’t prove anything 100%, it never tries.  All science does is say this idea fits the evidence so far.  If there is a lot of evidence it says this is a fact, knowing that if new evidence comes along, the fact may change.

This should be the behavior of all intelligent and rational people, everyone should be agnostic about everything.  In the practical sense, we still say “I believe the sky is blue”, or “I believe the Earth revolves around the sun”.  No one claims to be agnostic about fire being hot.  So in this general sense I am agnostic.  I know the answers may change based on evidence.  This post is specifically about feelings toward a god though.

Obviously no one KNOWS if a god exists or not.  Believers like to say they have spoken to their god, but there are other possibly simpler explanations, so I don’t like that definition, because again, everyone should be agnostic.  Someone who doesn’t care if a god exists is a legitimate definitions, I just don’t think it applies to me.  We as humans are always searching for answers to where we came from, whether it was a god or some multi-verse is very interesting, on a more personal level though, it is important because if there was a god and he was like the god in the bible, I would like to know so I could avoid going to hell.  That place sounds like it sucks.

Which comes to the next definition, waiting for evidence.  This is where I clarify what I mean by atheist.  I am an atheist toward all of the current religions I know about.  I am not agnostic toward them because there is a ton of evidence against them.   They don’t make any sense, and have nothing in them that couldn’t have been written by someone of their time period.  Evolution is a great example.  There are massive amounts of evidence for evolution, none of which is described in any holy text that I have every seen, and it is a process that takes away the need for a creator.  I Am agnostic toward the Idea of a god/creator/higher power because, just like I said before, this is the behavior of rational people.  Maybe our universe is just some colony of bacterial on some other creatures body, the problem with this speculation is that there are infinite “what ifs?”.  So I don’t like to waste my time with them.  So I still call myself an Atheist because I don’t worship or believe in any of this because the evidence just isn’t there.

I don’t want to go into it to much but I do want to point out what Richard Dawkins and many other say.  “We are all atheist to something”.  Maybe it is Zeus or maybe unicorns, but we come to this through logic and evidence.  I find it interesting that a Christian is just as logical as me when it comes to Islam.  They know it isn’t true, but when it comes to their own religion, logic flies out the window.

The last point I want to make is the “maybe it is unknowable” argument.  I don’t like this either, because I feel like it is an excuse to stop looking for an answer.  Just like the Christian answer to “What created the big bang?” If you just say god, and that is the end, that just sucks.  No need to look any further once god come into the picture.  I feel the way about the “unknowable” answer. If something is unknowable then why keep looking.  The thing is you can never know if something is unknowable so why use it even as a place holder answer.  So I am an Atheist in this respect too, I think that it wasn’t a god that created us, so we had better keep looking.

So that I why I am an atheist and not agnostic.  This all reminds me of a quote from a religious friend of mine, and it kind of ties with what I said early.  He said that what he didn’t like about atheist was that “they think we are wrong”.  The we he was talking about was Christians.  What I don’t like about this is the shifted burden of proof.  He was right that I do think he is wrong, but I think he is wrong because lack of evidence.  It is the responsibility of the religious to find proof for their beliefs if they want to be taken seriously.  Anyway, that is why I am not religious.