Psychic fails to predict her utter failure

This isn’t surprising, but it is an excellent example of what not to do if you’re trying to win fame and fortune as a psychic. It should hopefully serve as an object lesson for why one needs to consider the simpler solution when someone claims special knowledge, but honestly, I don’t expect it will change anyone’s mind — some people appear to be hard-wired to simply accept special claims uncritically.

A woman visited a rural farmhouse in Houston, Texas, and evidently smelled something foul and decomposing, and spotted a bunch of blood on the porch. She made the conclusion that the residents were mass-murderers and reported a tip to police that via her psychic powers, she’d determined that there were dozens of chopped-up bodies buried nearby. Turns out the blood was from the family’s daughter’s boyfriend having attempted suicide, and the smell from a freezer that’d failed allowing the meat within to go rotten.

So not only was the tip unhelpful, it was all a waste of time and energy. “There’s no validity to the report,” one law enforcement official confirmed.
[...]
Police must follow up on all credible tips about crimes, including those from dubious sources. They routinely deal with liars, hoaxers, jailhouse informants with dubious motives, people with drug habits and mental illnesses, and so on.

Police cannot simply ignore a lead or tip even if it comes from a psychic — after all, just because a person claims to be psychic doesn’t mean that he or she is not involved in a crime. Suspects in criminal cases who have inside knowledge of crimes sometimes try to pretend that the information they have came from psychics.

I don’t suspect this particular “psychic” was involved in any of the events that transpired at the homestead, mostly because she was so spectacularly wrong on everything. I suspect this woman saw these few clues and via her superpower of overactive imagination, lept to a conclusion that did not follow from the evidence.

I can probably also ascribe a motive to her — psychics are big money. A really good pretender could earn a hundred thousand bucks for four hours “work”. All you need is a few lucky hits under your belt (and who doesn’t make wild predictions that occasionally come true?), and a shameless PR engine at your back, and you too could be on the path to insane riches by claiming to have special knowledge about how this universe works.

This particular story has the happy ending that not a single person was murdered at this ranch, and this so-called psychic failed miserably to springboard a lucky guess into a profitable career of lying to and/or cold-reading people. But even if she was absolutely correct on all the details, with the number of people in this world and the number of them that have made at least a few guesses about wildly improbable events, is it any sort of surprise that people will get one or even a few of these wildly improbable guesses totally and completely correct?

If you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. If you hear a psychic prediction, think “prior knowledge” not “special knowledge”.

Update: Hilarious. Reuters reported “Up to 30 Bodies Found Near Houston, Some Children”. Then corrected themselves. Meaning they reported, uncritically, exactly what the psychic claimed.

A few podcasts from this weekend on skepticism and atheism

Meant to get these up on Monday, but I was hoping for a chance to listen to them first. Unfortunately, I’m now on a road trip to PEI for work, in the car with some coworkers, and am probably expected to interact with them rather than holing myself up in my iPhone’s ear buds. So, I’ll just queue this up to post while I’m on the road.

Having met Desiree Schell at Science Online 2010, I can tell you she’s a witty, warm and clever human being whose podcast Skeptically Speaking is always worth a listen. She generally tends to stay out of atheist arguments, because it honestly seems sometimes that both sides are presenting less than their best faces — with the most popular and eloquent firebrands on each side trending toward significantly less than civility in the argument. However, on the weekend, she discussed with Greg Laden and Mike Haubrich the intersection between skepticism and atheism on Minnesota’s Atheists Talk Radio. I didn’t get to listen to this live in toto, but I’ve heard snippets of it while the live net stream would allow it.

It’s well possible to come to either belief via the other first. I was an atheist who “believed” (loosely) in karma as a teenager, but grew out of it and into true skepticism the more I researched various nonsense religions and realized the similarities between them and the “whack-a-mole” nature of various other strains of bullshit pseudoscience. No matter how many significant pillars you sledgehammer out from under a fundamentally unfalsifiable or unscientific belief system, the people who believe it are going to prop it up with some other makeshift prop or simply hang it from a sky-hook so that no evidence against it may even be considered. How many conversations have you had with someone who earnestly believes “The Secret”, or Scientology, or homeopathy, or astrology, Christianity, or anti-vaccination, where no matter what piece of evidence you present that runs counter to their claims, no matter how damning the evidence against, their faith in their flavor of nonsense is at best static, at worst strengthened? Ed Yong blogged about this phenomenon recently, in context of Harold Camping’s failed rapture predictions and his doubling-down. Camping’s now saying “the Rapture happened but nobody was worth saving; God in his mercy is sparing us the tribulation and the world will end on schedule in October.”

Science doesn’t work like that. When presented with evidence to the contrary, science is not static — scientists may dig in their heels if they have a vested interest in their theories, but science itself will self-correct over time. Some scientists, like the unbelievably awesome Scicurious, swallow their pride and admit when they’re wrong, when they’re fooled, when they were making judgments with insufficient evidence or having seen only those papers that support a position but none that refute. In scientifically minded circles, this gains you popularity — not to enforce lockstep, but to reward selfless humility for the betterment of the sum of human knowledge.

Scicurious and Desiree discussed this event and its repercussions Sci encountered for having unabashedly admitted when she was wrong about bees and cell phones, on Desiree’s podcast the same day that Des did Atheists Talk. They also discuss, given the studies that have been put out recently, the idea that cell phones reduce sperm count or fertility. The whole idea that cell phone radiation can hurt you is a good example of whack-a-mole pseudoscience. Remember Science vs Garlic, and the comments thread that ensued? Frankly, the discussion didn’t go anywhere but to the same few sources and the same specious claims about low-frequency electromagnetic radiation, none of whom were anywhere near scientific consensus on what a cell phone can and cannot do to your body. I should have gone back to it, but my wedding day was impending, and I honestly got distracted.

At least the science is still coming in, and it’s still saying this nonsense is nonsense. If I had gotten the chance to send in a question, it would have been this:

How long must we humor people repeatedly suggesting the same thing over and over again, and perform tests of all stripes to conclusively prove their beliefs wrong, when they’re just going to come back and find some new way to suggest it again despite it being thoroughly refuted? It’s like this XKCD comic. At absolute best, you’ll get organizations like the WHO looking at all the studies, shrugging and saying the data’s inconclusive, but that one can’t rule out the possibility of cell phones causing X disease. At worst, you’ll get exactly the same, only the media will also report it as though a link was found between cell phones and cancer. When do you get to say “enough is enough?”

I ask that question often on this blog, about a lot of things. I never get a satisfactory answer.

Oh, by the way. Desiree is a Canuck. As though there wasn’t enough to love!

The war on drugs has failed, empirically.

The multi-billion-dollar industry that is the War On Drugs, which has imprisoned countless people for simple possession and spurred development of for-profit prisons across America, “has failed”, according to a report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

The major players in the war are, of course, circling their wagons:

The office of White House drug tsar Gil Kerlikowske rejected the panel’s recommendations.

“Drug addiction is a disease that can be successfully prevented and treated,” said a spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“Making drugs more available – as this report suggests – will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe.”

The government of Mexico, where more than 34,000 people have died in drug-related violence since a crackdown on the cartels began in December 2006, was also critical.

Legalisation would be an “insufficient and inefficient” step given the international nature of the illegal drugs trade, said National Security spokesman Alejandro Poire.

“Legalisation won’t stop organised crime, nor its rivalries and violence,” he said.

“To think organised crime in Mexico means drug-trafficking overlooks the other crimes committed such as kidnapping, extortion and robbery.”

Because Al Capone was able to build an empire of kidnapping, extortion and robbery without black-market hooch, I’m certain. How many of these arguments were used verbatim to justify prohibition? How many of the arrests were of kingpins, rather than for simple possession — and how many of the “drug trafficking” arrests were of people possessing small stockpiles that may have been intended for personal use? Seriously, I hear about people being arrested for growing one or two pot plants and the media plays it up like they’re drug kingpins. It’s ridiculous nonsense, and it has to stop.

Unfortunately, the powers-that-be appear to have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, ratcheting up the laws and building bigger for-profit prisons, or even state prisons that are commissioned by cronies of the people in power. Even the argument that one can make a lot of money legalizing, standardizing and taxing recreational drugs (and thereby fund an underfunded medical system) evidently falls on deaf ears when the money isn’t going directly into certain people’s cronies’ pockets.

This is a humanitarian cause. The mere fact that these demonized recreational pharmaceuticals do a mere fraction as much damage as alcohol, yet alcohol is a cash cow for the government (especially in Canada, with its provincially-run liquor commissions), is proof enough that the current abolitionist situation is not one based on evidence. If there were the merest scintilla of evidence that drug prohibition was worth the body count both in deaths and in lives ruined for which it’s directly responsible, then I’d be all for it.

But there is of course no such evidence to be had.

White holes! (There’s a joke in there somewhere)

I’m too pumped about this possible find to bother hashing out the obvious body-part-related jokes available to me at the moment. White holes, AKA “little bangs”, AKA “time-reversed black holes”, AKA “a bunch of shit just suddenly barfed out into our spacetime at a random place and time with absolutely no warning”, may have been witnessed for the first time ever in a gamma ray burst (sans accompanying supernova) that we recorded back in 2006.

According to the linked io9 article:

A gamma ray burst back in 2006 didn’t fit with our understanding of where they come from – its long duration (102 seconds) meant that it had to be created in a supernova explosion, and yet there were no supernovas there for it to have come from. Its discoverers actually said that “this is brand new territory; we have no theories to guide us.”

Now, five years later, it’s being suggested that we might actually have caught sight of a white hole. The fierceness and duration of the explosion could well fit with a white hole briefly popping into existence, spewing out some matter, and then quickly collapsing into itself, resulting in this massive explosion. Although it’s not the most likely explanation – after all, it invokes something that many astronomers have concluded is exceedingly unlikely, verging on impossible – it can’t be immediately discounted.

The trouble is that we’ve found out all we’re going to from this particular burst, so all we can do now is wait for another of these strange hybrid bursts and see how it behaves. If these hybrid bursts really are white holes, then the universe is about to get a lot stranger.

The white hole phenomenon was postulated as part of the general theory of relativity, though physicists believed it was only possible at the Big Bang where initial conditions were much, much different than we see today because as far as we can tell, there’s no plausible mechanism by which they could emerge in our universe’s present state. A white hole acts exactly opposite to how a black hole would — matter is constantly streaming out of it (or at least until that matter is used up from its source), and nothing can ever enter, not even light. An Einstein-Rosen Bridge connects a black hole to a white hole, allowing faster than light travel (though losing any structural integrity) between two points in the universe. This is the concept that sci-fi generally piggybacks on when it postulates wormholes, Stargates, and other means of exploring this vast universe of ours.

Because the bridge connecting the two disparate places must travel outside the boundaries of the universe, and time only means something inside the context of the universe, you get instant travel. Of course, everything passing through a black hole has got to miss the theoretical singularity to get shunted through any Einstein-Rosen Bridge intact, which (as far as any math seems to be concerned) is a theoretical and practical impossibility. The really cool part about this is the fact that if this is true, where a white hole appears would suddenly collapse under its own weight and become another black hole, perpetuating the cycle possibly infinitely. The really hairy bit about this is, how does a white hole and a black hole match up? It’s plausible that, since this universe is probably 11-dimensional, those two spots are near one another on one particular dimension that doesn’t correspond with the three-plus-one we’re used to interpreting. It could mean the universe is very knotted or braney, and it could provide good evidence for the possibility that one black hole’s connected to a white hole in another universe entirely, if our universe happens to be near another one on that dimension. Who knows? Perhaps every black hole is connected to a white hole in another universe, and vice versa.

Or even hairier, some physicists postulate that this entire universe is the ejecta (via the Big Bang) from a black hole in some other one. Perhaps there’s a constant interchange of matter between any number of universes. It would certainly explain why this universe “began”, given that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. We might just be the result of some other universe’s Big Crunch. This theory, if correct, would certainly lend credence to M-Theory and would explain away a lot of issues that physicists presently have with the Big Bang.

The paper at arXiv has more details about this 2006 phenomenon and the (admittedly unlikely but awesome) postulate. Super cool.

We are free to “presuppose” that there is a reality here, because there is.

Sorry for the sporadic posting schedule, once again. Been running myself ragged over work. Need to tone that down a bit.

There’s a piece over at Cosmic Variance by Sean M Carroll, the brilliantly titled Physics and the Immortality of the Soul, that dovetails perfectly with the “denouement” to an otherwise ongoing “conversation” (and I use that term loosely) going on over at George’s place. The crux of the discussion is that we, as atheists, do not appeal to some transcendental force to explain why reality has the rules that it does. Beyond that, we apparently have faith (e.g. presuppose the Law of Non-Contradiction) in order to go on making sense of this universe, such that the universe doesn’t up and change the rules on us every time we think we have a handle on things.

Carroll talks about this concept this way, in context of a dispute he’s having with someone on the verifiability of the concept of life after death:

Our conviction that green cheese makes up a negligible fraction of the Moon’s interior comes not from direct observation, but from the gross incompatibility of that idea with other things we think we know. Given what we do understand about rocks and planets and dairy products and the Solar System, it’s absurd to imagine that the Moon is made of green cheese. We know better.

We also know better for life after death, although people are much more reluctant to admit it. Admittedly, “direct” evidence one way or the other is hard to come by — all we have are a few legends and sketchy claims from unreliable witnesses with near-death experiences, plus a bucketload of wishful thinking. But surely it’s okay to take account of indirect evidence — namely, compatibility of the idea that some form of our individual soul survives death with other things we know about how the world works.

Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?

I’m applying this same principle — the non-fallacious version (definition IV) of the argumentum ad ignorantium — to explain why this universe has the rules it does.

We do not know it to be otherwise. The pooled, collective knowledge of humankind (also known informally as “science”) contains record after record of things happening in non-contradictory ways. Things cannot both be and not-be in the same way at the same time. Simultaneously, things MAY be different elsewhere simultaneously. If M-Theory holds true, it’s well possible that we live in an 11-dimensional universe where every single way that a universe could have been created, was created, simultaneously, at the Big Bang singularity event. We live in THIS universe, with its rules of non-contradiction, only by virtue of the mechanistic nature of this universe.

In other words, we’re here to experience this universe, only because this universe is capable of sustaining life like us. In all the vastness of this universe, we don’t know how often life (especially sentient life) has emerged, but it would be egocentrism to claim we’re the special ones, we’re the only ones. In ignorance of the evidence of other forms of life, or other ways the universe can be, we have to use the evidence that we have accumulated in order to make the best guesses we can. We know through observation that this universe is a mechanistic one, where fundamental particles behave in predictable manners if you know all the variables. One of those ways that these particles behave, involves the inability for them to be something else at the same time in the same place or in the same way. Thus, the law of non-contradiction holds, though it was no more imposed on this universe by our codifying it than the sky made blue because we gave that hue a name.

This universe operates something very close to a fractal. We know certain derived properties of these particles, and we know the amazing complexity that these particles gain when “zoomed out” to the atom level. We know how the elements interact with one another. We know that some of these elements form molecules. We know some of these molecules form amino acids, which can self-replicate and self-arrange in the presence of their constituent building blocks. We know these amino acids can, given enough time, become microscopic organisms, which can, given enough time, become multicellular organisms, which can, given enough time, become sapient meat computers.

We know all of this provisionally based on the concept that the information we have on-hand is the only information we have to make that judgement, and we know that we may not have all the information and may have to revise our body of knowledge as that new information becomes available.

The fact that we live in a comprehensible universe that can, at least in one tiny pocket of it, sustain us — that fact alone is not sufficient to prove God. The God hypothesis is not even necessary, given how little evidence for “direct intervention” by an all-powerful deity we need invoke to develop a clear picture of how our universe could have developed mechanistically since the Big Bang.

We may not know what happened at that event, and our euphemistic placeholder name of “Big Bang” is a guess that happens to fit with the evidence we have at the moment. It may not hold true in other universes, should they have emerged from the Big Bang in other dimensions. We know that the math we’re doing right now mostly fits with the M-Theory model, but it’s hairy math, and it’s new math. Another, better, model may supplant it. But it is the best model to explain not only the evidence we see, but why we’re in a comprehensible universe that supports us. That should be enough for now, you’d think. That some people see it as the “gap” into which they can stuff their god is a testament to how tenacious old ideas (like the God idea) can be in the face of all the new stuff we’re learning.

Never mind that most theists still don’t have any evidence for their specific conception of God outside of their faith. They shouldn’t get to shove God into a gap that’s already long since closed (like that there’s something instead of nothing), much less one that we’ve only just discovered a potential solution for.

The Politics of the Null Hypothesis

If you’ve been in the blogosphere as long as I have, you’ll know that certain arguments about science stem not from the science itself, but from a desire to affect political change despite the science based on one’s own personal biases. In the case of IQ and race, much of the “controversy” appears to come from people who really, really want intelligence to be race-related, so as to give themselves cover for racism, latent or otherwise. Notwithstanding the potentially hairy idea that IQ is even a proper proxy for “intelligence”, people will argue for a genetic link for certain aspects of humanity based only on the most tenuous of lines of evidence, ignoring gigantic confounds like motivation or affluence. Why? For no other reason than because they’ve already decided this must be the case. It’s a rampant case of selection bias, with a helping of argumentum ad ignorantium on the side, suggesting that because we don’t know the cause of a particular trait, it must therefore be genetic.

The ineffable Stephanie Zvan has written up a guest post on Scientific American (!!!) about this very topic, and about the politics at play in a number of genetic-intelligence proponents’ arguments.

Nothing about the field of IQ studies is free of political influence. It’s naive to believe that any kind of research on a purported measure of individual merit could be politics-free in a self-proclaimed meritocracy with wide inequalities. Binet’s original work was meant to determine which children should have access to additional educational resources. IQ scores are used occasionally to sort out “inappropriate” candidates for various jobs, including those whose IQs are too high for a role. IQ as a proxy for merit is used to argue that a group does or does not face discrimination in educational or career opportunities. This is all terribly political.

The question isn’t whether there are politics surrounding this issue or where. They’re everywhere. The question is where does the politics get in the way of the science? Again, the answers don’t favor Pinker’s view of a fatwa against genetic explanations of individual differences.

I can’t think of a better person to take on a nuanced meta-analysis of this argument, especially given that it appears every bit as cyclical as say the accommodationism debate, the gender debate, the nuclear power debate, et cetera, et cetera. Given how entrenched the players are in this argument, and how much influence they wield in scientific fields, it’s terribly sad to see their arguments go unanswered. I’m grateful that Stephanie stepped up, and I can only hope her popularity snowballs from there.

There’s a damn good reason I’ve dubbed her “Our Lady of Perpetual Win“. And it’s not because she has an adorable nose.

(But she does, by the by.)

How to solve AronRa’s phylogeny challenge

The solution to the challenge as presented in AronRa’s video is, of course, multifold.

– One, we create an open-source phylogeny display/explorer program. Something like this may already exist.

– Two, we create a wiki run either by paleobiologists or via a democratic system wherein every registered user gets to vote on every change, and use as the starting point the existing data collated by Palaeos and Tree of Life. The Palaeos wiki is a good example, but it depended too heavily on the contributions of the original contributor, and will likely take a long time to catch up to the depth of the original.

– Three, the data supplied on the wiki has a downloadable/editable database that can be incrementally synchronized between users via registered user accounts, so researchers might contribute suggestions for changes that are peer-reviewed by the people in charge.

The strength of the open format is that it does not depend on individual contributors — neither the proposed application nor the wiki falls apart if the single point of failure, the person involved, happens to either get a life or lose it. One does not have to take on the Sisyphean task of categorizing every creature in the world alone. And granted, like Wikipedia, the weakness is that some idiots will piss in the pool. The advantage is that it is peer-reviewed on the fly, live, by people with a vested interest in having a good, accurate primer for evolution and a usable database for phylogeny and the evidence thereof. All we’d need is to set up rules that trusted moderators could regulate, where uncited additions are discussed and either cited, or reverted, depending on how important that reference happens to be. Controversial pages could be stamped with specific scientists’ peer-review stamps and locked once a number of them agree on what the page should say, roughly.

We can get our shit together on this. We just have to learn to trust others to help us do the job.

(You thought I was going to try to answer AronRa’s REAL challenge, about “created kinds”? Heh. You must not know me very well!)

Pink is for girls, blue is for boys

Remember the ridiculous levels of outrage sparked by this image of J Crew’s president painting her son’s toenails pink? The outrage is being tempered somewhat by the passage of time, but it’s still got some steam left. From The Guardian: Are pink toys turning girls into passive princesses?

So why the proliferation of pink in the toy aisles? Colour researcher Stephen Palmer thinks he might have the answer. He has been investigating how people respond to colour on an emotional level, associating different things – both negative and positive – with different colours.

His study suggests that adults lean towards clean, blue colours (reminiscent of clean water or sunny skies) and shun yellowy-brown or khaki shades that remind us of unpleasant things, such as faeces or vomit.

He also found that it’s relatively easy to twist people’s colour preferences, depending on how they feel about objects of a particular colour. Giving people differently coloured sweet or bitter-tasting drinks can skew their colour preferences. And you can shift someone towards or away from liking red by showing them either pictures of tasty berries and cherries, or yucky blood and guts.

The same link between personal preferences and colour also shows up outside the lab. Students at the University of California, Berkeley – whose branding is blue and gold – show stronger preferences for those shades than the colours of UCB’s arch rival Stanford University (team colours red and white), and vice versa.

If this holds true for children’s toys, then it could simply be that girls like pink because the things they like (regardless of their colour) are pink, and there’s no underlying biological reason for the rampant pinkification of their toys.

I can’t help but be skeptical of evolutionary explanations for cultural conventions like “pink is for girls and blue is for boys”. The color preference studies are interesting, but they certainly don’t rise to the level of explaining why a self-perpetuating meme like gender assignment for colors might be scientifically provable. The null hypothesis, that color/gender conflation is simply cultural rather than evolutionary, holds in the absence of any actual scientific data. I believe that stating as though fact that pink causes passivity and “princess-like” behaviour in girls is pretty much stating that the association is entirely cultural. The fact that the color is not universally associated with females or femininity is good corroborating evidence that rather than being a genetic preference, it is a self-perpetuating cultural meme, probably one whose origin was a very long time ago.

How strawman arguments and shitty authors undermine #atheism

I haven’t read anything by Anthony DeStefano aside from his anti-atheist screeds on various news journals like USA Today, but I have no doubt merely by looking through the title list that he is a man of deep conviction in that which he cannot see. He’s written a book for children called Little Star, all about how the baby Jesus is very tiny but is our Lord. He’s written a book for grown-up children about how awesome a place Heaven is. And he’s written a book about all those things you can’t see but that the Bible assures you are really really real. And since you know other people believe it, they must really really REALLY be real.

So today we have a Serious Author writing a Serious Article in a Serious Journal about how atheists are superstitious “Materialists” who are simply incapable of comprehending that the parts of this natural world that we haven’t figured out yet are actually impossible to decipher, because God wants it that way.

Of course, it’s not quite fair to say that atheists believe in nothing. They do believe in something — the philosophical theory known as Materialism, which states that the only thing that exists is matter; that all substances and all phenomena in the universe are purely physical.

What nonsense.

We’re off to a running start.
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