How skeptics and the credulous differ

Youtube user C0nc0rdance discusses skepticism, “psi of the gaps”, and the difference in thought processes behind the scientifically minded and credulous “woo-believers”, specifically when confronted with anomalies in the data. You’ll find a lot of overlap between creationism, astrology, ghost-hunters, psychics, et cetera. This kind of thinking is what I, as a skeptic, have made it my business to fight.

All tied up in a neat little package. People believe strange things for a number of reasons, most of them to do with selection bias and some sort of emotional investment in having their chosen hypothesis turn out to be true. Any time you’re dealing with someone that believes in something very strongly, but has no evidence to back it up, you’ll get these creeping failures to analyze evidence in their proper context. You’ll get cherry-picking, or manipulation of the data, or even manipulation of the data-collecting methodologies. You’ll get the kind of knock-down, drag-out fight we get around these parts now and then, like the astrology dust-up. You’ll also specifically get the kinds of arguments about studies that Robert Currey attempted to make, about what studies showed what, and what studies were worth keeping, almost entirely on the basis of what proved and disproved what he was trying to say.

Harper wants Canada to have its own Fox News

Evidently Stephen Harper is not satisfied with running a minority government like one long game of chicken, or having the truth inconveniently turn up every time they try to pull the wool over Canadian citizens’ eyes (remember “unreported crimes are skyrocketing” as an excuse for pouring billions into unnecessary new jails? You should — it wasn’t THAT long ago!). Now our favorite local tin pot dictator has gotten envious of the propaganda machine available to the right-wingers in the States and wants to make a Schedule-1 cable channel (on every TV watcher’s dime!) for Fox News.

But wait, you say! Fox News is already on most Canadian cable packages! Oh, but therein lies the rub — that particular channel is quite hostile to Canada, and wouldn’t toe the Canadian Conservatives’ line. That’s why Harper, Murdoch and Ailes all met to discuss creating Fox News North, a move that would be entirely funded by every cable-subscribing goon in the country, most of whom would have no idea they were doing so (and probably wouldn’t care). George W explains.

Mr. Harper not only plans to create a right-wing Conservative-talking-points style network here in Canada, but he would like it to be a Category 1 digital station, meaning it will be a mandatory part of one of the digital cable packages and funded partly by every viewers cable television fees. There is currently a petition being prepared by that will run in major Canadian Newspapers once 100,000 signatures are collected.
The bigger issue here is not whether Canadians want or need a right wing news agency. The issue is why a sitting Prime Minister is actively working to get a license for any network. Another good question is why a former spokesman for our Prime Minister should be in charge of the political coverage of Sun Media group, one of the largest media consortiums in our country.

Stephen Harper needs to focus on the task of running a country, not on building a conservative propaganda feedback loop. The network itself would also require a systematic dismantling of CRTC regulations regarding balanced coverage during our election cycle, something I can only imagine would make Little Stevie beam with joy.

Go sign the petition. The last thing we need is a far-right propaganda machine of Fox News’ ilk, further coarsening our political dialog and driving the polarization that’s happening all around us — a polarization that smacks uncannily of having been engineered to ruin the good thing we have. Or, rather, had. At this rate, if we ever shake Harper free from his position of power, rebuilding the democratic processes that have already been shat upon is going to take far longer than a term or two. Much of the damage of polarization and of coarsening the political discourse is already done. We’re no longer, as it were, “above” that kind of nonsense.

Some code showing how the Mars Effect actually works

Found some interesting code in an old edit (excised for being “original research”) in the Wikipedia article for the “Mars Effect” discovered in one of astrology’s centerpiece studies. I note that Robert Currey has not moved from the astrology thread that won’t die, nor has he deigned fit to respond to my charges that he is repeatedly steering the conversation away from his arguments’ weak points. The fact that, when he came out swinging, he didn’t mention the Gauquelin study that produced the purported Mars Effect is interesting. It suggested to me that he felt it was weak. I can see why now.

The Perl code in question:

#This perl script calculates the number of associations with a significance level equal to or greater than the Mars Effect on a random sample in a number of studies (iterations)
#==variable parameters==
my $numiter = 10000; #number of iterations to perform: more is precise but slow
my $sample = 535; #size of sample
my @planets = ("Venus", "Mars", "Sun", "Moon", "Neptune", "Saturn", "Jupiter", "Pluto", "Uranus", "Mercury"); #list of "planets"
my $keysector = 119; #this much or more need to be born in "key sectors"
my $numberofsectors = 12; #number of sectors
my $output = "output.txt"; #output file
my $encounter = 0;
open OUTPUT, ">$output";
for(my $iterations = 0; $iterations < $numiter; $iterations++) {
  my %planets; 
  my $sector;
  for(my $k = 0; $k {$sector}++;
  foreach my $p(@planets) {
    for(my $sector1 = 1; $sector1 <= 12; $sector1++) {
      for(my $sector2 = 1; $sector2 {$sector1} + $planets{$p}->{$sector2};
          if($sample >= $keysector) {
print OUTPUT "$encounter encounters in $numiter iterationsn";
close OUTPUT;

The code generates, once per iteration, a totally random selection of 535 natal charts with each of the common heavenly bodies (the planets, sun and moon), and places them each in one of the twelve “key sectors”. The natal charts are then summed, to see how many of them have a specific planet in a specific sector, in order to try to identify a “Planet Effect” similar to, and as statistically significant as, the one shown in the Mars Effect study. In fact, the number required to call it as statistically significant is identical to that of the Mars Effect study.

By default, it runs 10,000 such simulations. The more you run, the more accurate the number you’ll get. Every time I’ve run it, I’ve had over 60% of the “studies” come back as significant. Frankly, that means this “effect” is a statistical happenstance that’s very likely to happen given any random sample of data. The fact that the natal charts were completely generated at random should work against such a possibility, as if astrology has anything to it, this random generation should not work nearly as often. This means there’s a very good chance of finding such an effect with ANY randomly selected group of people. And the other fact salient to this discussion, the fact that Gauquelin threw out basketball players, suggests to me that he saw the basketball data as not showing the effect, so he went ahead and threw it out to make a stronger case than he had.

Fascinating stuff.

The State of the Astrology Non-Debate

The thread over at Funk Astrology where Jamie Funk has pretty much cast me as an inquisitor hunting astrology heretics, wherein I’ve asked several times that someone actually show up and address the questions in my post, has netted us a number of amusing trolls but nobody actually addressing my post. Oh, I mean, you get the odd person saying “astrology just works, and science can’t explain it”, which pretty much equals “ya gotta have faith”, and people saying “you haven’t studied it, therefore you don’t understand it”, which equals the Courtier’s Reply, but the fun is short-lived.

Especially if all you get in the way of an actual attempt at a falsification is “tell us your personal information so we can do a chart on you”. Never mind that a) pretty well everything you could ever want to know about me, my life’s history, my personality traits, etc., are all on my blog and all you have to do is sit down and read; and b) even if I told them how they’re wrong they’d probably turn around and say I was lying or they’d make up excuses for why THEY’RE right and I really DO have the personality traits they think I do; and c) they’d probably just end up saying I’m a bitter old curmudgeon with a closed mind (or whatever else they’re projecting onto me at the moment). Meh. Frankly, I’m just not interested in a bunch of wackos having my personal information, even if I have a lot of personal information right here on this blog already.

I did promise I would cross-post my original article into the Deepwater Horizon thread at Jamie’s blog, and that IS something I welched on. When I went to do the cross-posting, I honestly forgot that I had said explicitly where I’d post it. So yes, I was a jerk in that respect. I said I’d give Jamie today (with his barbecue and spending time with his fiancee Marina), and I managed to not post there myself (and ignore my own blog for the most part!) for the day as well. So I haven’t been stoking the fires. Tomorrow, as long as the topology hasn’t shifted significantly, I’ll copy my “smells like Funk” post over into a comment on the Deepwater Horizon thread and fulfill my original promise.

I just posted this comment, my way of reminding everyone exactly what I wanted to talk about, and what I wouldn’t be goaded into discussing. I couldn’t resist taking one comment from someone who evidently believes personal attacks that are easily falsified qualify as debate, and throwing a few facts in their face. I don’t think I did much fire-stoking here, do you?

I’ve promised myself I wouldn’t spend much time online today, but I just can’t let this particular comment pass.

It’s evident you didn’t read my blog, or the comments therein. I can tell because you think nobody in my family or circle of friends has ever consulted an astrologer. In fact, in one of my comments, I pointed out that I married an ex-astrologer. She did all sorts of natal charts for people, and she thought she was “the real deal” and that horoscopes in papers and interpreting sun signs were crap. She has since discovered it was all selection bias, mind you, and that reality is really cool when you let it tell you about itself, but hey. That won’t stop any of you from making assumptions and insinuations that can be so easily disproven just by going over to the offending article and actually reading it.

So far this entire thread has devolved into telling me that I don’t have any facts to back me up, or that I follow some kind of scriptural dogmatic science religion, or personal attacks on my character. I don’t mind those. I’m actually quite used to them. I’ve fought for years on the internet against creationists trying to replace scientific teachings with “the earth was made by God six thousand years ago, evidence be damned”, so I’ve had every one of those attacks levelled at me. I’m pretty inured at this point. The only one of you that seems to have their heads about them is Rob, who (while he incorrectly assumes I fear character assassination) actually understands that this “debate” isn’t going to go anywhere as long as it’s driven out of some kind of attempt at hectoring.

Everything else, about people trying to peer-pressure me into proving religion is true by quoting the bible err sorry, proving astrology is true by doing my natal chart, can stop barking up that tree. Unless someone decides to be super-creepy as Deb suggested they should (I work in IT, I know how easy it is to obtain personal information about someone without their consent, but if you do it, you’re doing it without my consent, ergo creepy, capisce?), there will be no interpreting my astrological influences when you could find out everything you could ever want to know about me, my personality, et cetera, from my blog.

I’ve set the terms for what I want to actually talk about — that being my concerns about astrology, how it could work, and how I suspect it probably can’t. I’d like evidence to back up that the planets have any sort of influence on humankind whatsoever, outside of the few we know — Jupiter sweeps away asteroids, giving us a better shot at life; the moon drives our tides and churns our oceans; and the sun provides us with all the energy we need to overcome entropy. I know, I know, you can do a chart and find out why things happened after the fact via your framework, but have you ever tried doing up the wrong date for an event and explaining that event with the incorrect chart? Have you noticed how you can pretty well explain any event with any chart if you try hard enough? Outside of post-hoc rationalizations (e.g. doing charts after events), what proof do you have that there’s any kind of effect? Have you measured that effect? What drives the effect, and how does it affect only who and what it does?

Those questions, and more, are asked in my post, and I strongly welcome any of you to answer them. You know, rather than this unproductive and one-sided screaming. Again, if nobody’s interested in actually debating what I’ve posted, I’ll consider the matter closed, with no willing participants. I’d prefer Jamie do it, since he’s the one who challenged me, but if someone can give me any kind of explanation outside of “science can’t explain astrology” (which equals “you need faith”) in my mind, please take a shot at it! That’s why I’m here, and I’ll leave if I don’t get it.

(On second thought, if you just want to be rid of me, thinking I’m nought but a troll, then maybe you should just stand around and call me names and demand my birth information some more. I know when nobody’s serious about actually defending their beliefs in the context of the evidence to the contrary.)

So long as nobody’s actually addressing the content of my post, my interest in this fight is waning rapidly. I feel like I’m beset by jackals, but every one of them toothless and clawless and they’re busy trying to gum me to death. It’s nothing I won’t survive, but it’s getting really irritating.

Deepwater Horizon foretold by astrology!!! (Well, post-told)

When I need a dose of post-hoc rationalizations for recent events based on a pseudo-random number generator formula and what happened the some previous time the numbers came out exactly the same way, I look to astrology.

To add to what I mentioned about the role of Ceres conjunct Pluto, Pluto iself rules mining and deep underground. Deepwater Horizon had been working the Tiber oilfield, “the deepest oil and gas well ever drilled“. This is so very Plutonic, pushing the boundaries to the extreme, penetrating deeper than ever before. Pluto does demand payment for journeying to his underworld.

The event chart shows a Boomerang Yod aspect pattern. A Yod is formed when two planets quincunx another. Here it is the Sun and Neptune that quincunx Saturn. The Boomerang is formed when another planet is opposite the action point, in this case Uranus is at the reaction point. So the action point was Saturn, the structure of the oil rig. Quincunxes create a builup of energy which needs constant adjustments to be relased safely. If the energy bottles up too much then something has to give. Neptune oil and the ocean creating tension with the rig. The Sun made this special configuration for only a few days, and the pressure created by this extra quincunx is what makes these Yods so intense. The buildup of energy looks for realease at the reaction point and Uranus is unexpected events, and explosions.

Seriously, what is all this gobbledygook? I’m going to have to get Jodi to translate or something. Perhaps they could do a piece on historical oil rigs and how all THEIR random planetary alignments ALSO meant their rigs were doomed to failure, despite being completely different? Perhaps they could explain how corporations are subject to the same effects as people based on their incorporation date? Or maybe they might want to admit that the positions of the planets, stars and other astronomical phenomena have no bearing on your everyday life, outside of Sol which warms us and Luna which drives our tides.

A choice pullquote from the end: “Jupiter getting closer to conjunction with Uranus could amplify the unpredictable nature of this event.” Or you could just admit that you’re not predicting anything at all, of value or otherwise with your crazy formulae and charts! If it’s so unpredictable, why are you so readily able to explain why it happened with all your astrological number legerdemain? How come you people can only ever rationalize why things happened the way they did, and never give us any kind of useful, testable, repeatable prediction about the future? Hindsight is 20/20, so it’s impossible for you to get it wrong, since all you have to do is tell us how Yods are so desperately devastating and how Ceres is totally a conjunct of Pluto.

Meanwhile, back in reality, Ceres is a Kuiper belt object whose mass is only 4% that of the Moon, is about 10° inclined in its orbit, and is further away from us than Mars. The only known force that can travel over such great distances is gravity, and its mass is so small it’s unlikely that, if every other object in the solar system were to suddenly disappear, it would even start dragging Earth anywhere toward it in the next few million years. More likely the other way around, as the Earth is over six thousand times more massive. And quincunxes are odd geometrical forms emergent from our wholly man-made mathematical formulae that comprise the bulk of the pseudo-random number generator that is astrology. It tells us nothing interesting about reality, or else someone might have maybe started forecasting what dates and locations cause quincunxes and start warning people of their impending doom.

Selection bias is a nasty little feedback loop for those who think they’ve got the universe figured out with their mumbo jumbo formulae and just enough knowledge of history to pick only those events that match your wholly-invented scenarios, ain’t it?

Meanwhile, the oil’s still pluming. Someone might want to consider actually doing something about it.

Abiogenesis is not spontaneous generation. Period.

During a brief skirmish I had the other day on Twitter with young-Earth creationist Joe Cienkowski (of self-published anti-atheist tract fame), he asserted that the theory of abiogenesis is the same as the now-disproven hypothesis of spontaneous generation. This is, of course, as with pretty well every other assertion about science ever made by Joe, patently false.

Spontaneous generation held that life in its present form today could form from non-life, and did so all the time — for instance, aphids sprang from dew on plants, maggots emerged from rotting meat, and mice were created from wet hay. In 1859, Louis Pasteur performed experiments that put the final nail in the coffin of the hypothesis. He proved definitively that life does not spring, fully formed and unbidden, from any recipe of inorganic or dead organic matter. So the question of the origin of life was reopened for the first time in centuries.

Abiogenesis, on the other hand, does not predict that life in any form known today — not even the simplest single-celled life forms — were created in some flash of magic or through some arcane recipe of components. That would be creation, in the sense of a personal creator deity. Rather, it predicts that, as life is made up of chemical reactions, and the constituent components of life can self-arrange given certain conditions, there is some point in Earth’s early history wherein a chemical chain reaction went runaway and breached the fuzzy barrier between chemistry and biology. All biology is is one single long, unbroken chemical reaction that can be traced back to whatever initial condition sparked it billions of years ago.
[Read more…]

Why prayer is nonsense – part 4

3 – But everyone knows prayer works!

This is part 4 in a series of posts on prayer. Please use the links at the top and bottom of each post to navigate through the parts. The master post is here.

even if it IS useless, what’s the harm?

Despite the evidence that most types of prayer do absolutely nothing, there are still large sections of society that employ and thus validate prayer as a worthwhile action, especially in times of desperation. Some employ it while in direct danger or out of utter helplessness, some employ it for shallow political purposes, and some genuinely believe that doing so intensely enough or in large enough quantities will actually convince their omniscient, all-powerful deity to change his course. As I’ve discussed earlier, the various qualities you apply to your deity, specifically, will flavour how you go about praying and under what circumstances. But what doesn’t appear to vary at all, is how people perceive this so-called “harmless” act. This section of my series on prayer will demonstrate that the baseline for the potential harm of prayer is anywhere on the scale but “wholly harmless”. Prayer is capable of real and tangible harm, as long as you understand that it’s not the praying itself that directly causes this harm.
[Read more…]

Why Prayer is Nonsense – part 3

2 – Know your deities

This is part 3 in a series of posts on prayer. Please use the links at the top and bottom of each post to navigate through the parts.

but everyone knows prayer works!

Everyone prays when your time comes or when you get into trouble, even atheists — or so the aphorists would have you believe. Belief in the power of prayer is seemingly omnipresent, with daily reinforcement of the concept from other people that believe likewise. You see the reports on the news of the one little boy that walked away from a horrific plane crash (who was saved by God — never mind that everyone else on the plane was *not*). You know the story of the hurricane that tore through a small town and left only the church standing. You’ve heard about the “light at the end of the tunnel” when a dying person’s neurons start misfiring and they gasp out their last coherent words immediately prior to oblivion. The media, populated in equal measure to the society at large with theists, use phrases like “miraculous” or “divine providence” or “act of God” in describing rare events.

In the presence of such widespread and self-reinforcing memes, it’s difficult to imagine how to shake the general populace’s belief that prayer does anything. The only way I can see, as with pretty much every other problem humankind faces, is through judicious use of science. Sound logic will, of course, only get you so far.
[Read more…]

Why prayer is nonsense – part 2

1 – First, define prayer

This is part 2 in a series of posts on prayer. Please use the links at the top and bottom of each post to navigate through the parts.

know your deities

In the monotheistic religions that make up the bulk of religions in the Western world, the variety of qualities ascribed to deities are so diverse as to populate the complete spectrum from the deist’s “the entire universe is God” (replacing nature with deity), to “God created everything exactly as suggested by my holy book and all the accounts therein of his intervention in history are absolutely true”. As there are as many postulated gods as there are people who believe in gods, one cannot argue against so many deities without letting a few slip through the cracks. Therefore, instead of breaking things down by deity, it will be far more useful to break things down by the properties postulated for the specific gods people happen to believe in.

In concert, some of these properties are mutually exclusive. Unsurprisingly, those couplings also cause the most grief when it comes to figuring out whether praying to your particular deity is worthwhile. Many of the properties that are suggested by humans for their particular flavor of deity are impossible in the scope of the universe we understand today. Many are redundant and require you to believe some very narrow views of the universe to accept their possibility. Many outright refute the body of evidence we humans have collected so far. For the purpose of this series, I will by and large ignore these problems, taking the special pleading arguments necessary to resolve such issues for granted, with one caveat — I will absolutely use the fact of the problems to argue against prayer in the matrix planned for part 5: “So why pray?”.
[Read more…]

Humanists Sending Ambassadors to Canada’s Prayer Breakfast

Theo Bromine, an occasional commenter on this blog, is apparently more active in humanist circles than I’d realized. She serves presently as President of the Humanist Association of Ottawa, and is apparently making some tangible inroads with the government’s nonsensical National Prayer Breakfast — Canada’s answer to the American National Day of Prayer. She sent along the following information, which I am more than happy to post for the benefit of those who are interested:

As you may know, the Canadian Religious Right Wannabees are holding the Canadian version of the Prayer Breakfast this week. It is sponsored by the “Canadian Fellowship Foundation” (which is not directly or officially linked to the US-based Fellowship Foundation, aka “The Family”, but it’s hard to believe that the similarity of names is a co-incidence). Members of the Canadian Secular Alliance, and the Humanist Association of Ottawa will be attending this event.

The National Prayer Breakfast, as described by its sponsors is:

an annual ecumenical event, where men and women from differing backgrounds gather together with our elected public officials to pray in the spirit of Jesus Christ for Canada. The Prayer Breakfast has been faithfully attended since 1964. In fact, except for 1968 when an federal election caused the Breakfast to be canceled, the National Prayer Breakfast is the single longest continuous event held annually on Parliament Hill. The first National Prayer Breakfast was held in Ottawa in June of 1964.

(See for more information)

CSA and HAO think that someone’s definition of “men and women from differing backgrounds” needs expanding, and we requested (and received, somewhat to our surprise) invitations to pay $40 for breakfast and/or $50 for dinner the night before. Everyone is invited to follow our live coverage of the dinner (starting at 6:30 pm EDT, Monday 10 May) and breakfast (starting at 7:30 am EDT, Tuesday, 11 May), here:

Emphasis mine, because I couldn’t agree more. People who believe that praying to Jesus Christ will actually change anything about your country’s course are, in my estimation, far less than a majority. Consider not only that there are a great many non-Christians, there are also Christians that believe prayer is for showing fealty rather than imploring that change be enacted. And with the broad sampling they purport to have of the Canadian populace in attendance, it’s only right that non-theists — skeptics, humanists and atheists alike — see some representation in these proceedings where our elected officials are taking active part.

I won’t mince words, folks. Prayer does nothing but waste time and give you the false sense of absolution of any responsibility for the situations you are in. It gives only false hope where going out and doing something with your hands aside from clasping them in prayer might actually achieve something great instead. Be the change you want to see. Don’t pray for it.