Stephen Fry meets a ‘reparative therapist’

Gentle bemusement and delicate debunking ensues.

The question I always want to ask these people is whether the reverse is possible: whether with the right psychological tinkering, they themselves could be switched from heterosexual to homosexual. They always seem to be so certain that their conventional sexuality is such an intrinsic and essentialist part of their identity, yet the premise of their therapy is that sexuality must be so much more fluid.

Good work, Minnesota talk radio

For once, I approve. Corey Cove, a talk radio host on KFAN in Minneapolis had that shameful and shameless psychic fraud, Chip Coffey on his show…and he shredded the kook. None of that Oprah/Larry King style simpering credulity, he just ridiculed his predictions and demanded that he back up his claims with evidence.

Coffey was upset and complained that the host was rude to him and called that unprofessional. You know, I’ve been on a few radio shows, and I never go into them on the assumption that the host will suck up to me; I expect that I will have to defend my ideas, and I actually prefer it if the host is open about any disagreement.

I guess psychics don’t get very far if they can’t demand deference.

How can smart atheists be bamboozled by Joseph Atwill?

Atwill is this guy who claims to have evidence that Jesus wasn’t real: Christianity was a cunning product of a Roman imperial conspiracy, intentionally designed to placate those troublesome Jews, and he claims to have a Roman confession that he’ll reveal next week.

I think a few too many atheists are seeing “Scholar Says Jesus Was Fake” and are not thinking any more deeply than that. The whole idea is ridiculous.

The Roman idea of social engineering was to plant a legionary fortress, or retire a bunch of legionaries, into an area that they wanted to pacify. Incorporating regional gods into their pantheon by synonymizing them, sure; far-fetched long-term plans that would require centuries to mature into a tangible result, no.

Has there ever been a religion that was created by a government that actually caught on? Most religions die young; they have a very low success rate. It’s not a smart investment — it’s like buying a lottery ticket. If Romans had been in this game of inventing religions to win over the natives to Romanism, we’d see more examples of failures than long term success.

What would you think of a conspiracy theorist who announced that Joseph Smith had been a secret government agent with the mission of persuading a large number of people to settle that barren Utah territory? Or that L. Ron Hubbard was J. Edgar Hoover’s boy, part of a plan to provide an alternative to the Communist Party for impressionable youth? There are always people to whom a conspiracy theory is attractive, but more rational people would just laugh at the very idea.

Finally, as Russell Glasser points out, real scholars don’t spring the evidence on their audiences by press release or by public lecture — it is first reviewed by independent scholars for authenticity.

If you’re one of the many atheists who gleefully forwarded this to me or credulously mentioned it on twitter…hello, there. I see you’ve already met the good friend of so many half-baked wackos in the world, Confirmation Bias.


Richard Carrier demolishes Atwill in detail.

Are we done with Bigfoot yet?

Yeah, I think it’s over. Ketchum’s group — you know, the one that collected possum hairs and sequenced random garbage and called it Bigfoot — now is airing a Bigfoot video, supposedly the best evidence yet. You be the judge.

They spent half a million dollars gathering that, and they couldn’t even hand the camera over to someone who knew how to focus.

The SETI boondoggle

Here’s Seth Shostak pumping up SETI again, and now he’s predicting contact with aliens within 20 or 25 years, or by 2030.

I don’t buy it for a minute, and I think his whole argument is ridiculous.

As these guys always do, they have a small set of arguments. One is the argument from very big numbers: there are 1022 stars in the known universe, and the current data shows that a significant fraction of them have planets, and they’ve even observed a few of them that have earth-like temperatures.

I say, big whoop. The other big numbers we could throw around are the distances of these stars from us and each other, which completely negate the bonus of large numbers. We’re simply not going to get an accidental signal from elsewhere; signal strength is going to drop off as the inverse of the square of the distance, so we’re not going to pick up some broadcast from an alien civilization. They’re going to have to aim a signal at us (one unexceptional star out of 1022), and they’re going to have to invest a significant fraction of the energy output of their star to get the signal to us.

I would ask, from the example of the sole technological society we know about, are we doing that? Why do we expect other civilizations are going to do that, and specifically send a signal to us?

But the most objectionable part to me, personally, is the short section titled “Biology: An Easy Thing?” Life arose very early on Earth, and there is good reason to expect that we are not unusual, and the emergence of life as an outcome of normal planetary chemistry probably is common and likely. Biology is only easy, though, if you’re willing to point to a stromatolite and leap immediately to the conclusion that life will build radios. There’s a rather wide chasm there that Shostak elides. The ubiquity of bacteria in no way implies the ubiquity of technology. The specific kind of intelligent life that builds telescopes and radios and artificial intelligences is going to be really rare: I can understand how an astronomer might get excited about incremental increases in likelihood by discoveries that maybe 70-80% of stars have planets, and maybe planets orbiting red dwarf stars would have habitable zones, but those numbers do not compensate for the fact that in the 4 billion year long history of life on earth, the technology to even dream of collecting signals radiating from other stars is only a century old. Only one 40 millionth of this planet’s existence contains that kind of capability.

Add to that the likelihood that any matching civilization might be a thousand light years or more away, and that their signal (although from our example, they probably aren’t signaling; think instead of thinly scattered civilizations all listening casually and unintently for a bit of patterned electromagnetic radiation) can only be received and echoed back over a time span far greater than the duration of any of our cultures, and that puts Shostak’s 16 or 20 or 30 year bet in perspective. That’s a convenient eyeblink on the scale of the time and space SETI proponents tout as an advantage for their calculations.

I do agree with Shostak’s comments about how science isn’t shackled to the narrow hypothetico-deductive method taught in introductory science courses, and that sometimes fishing expeditions are legitimate components of a research program. But I tend to expect fishing expeditions to have slightly better rationales and expectations of useful results than SETI can provide.

A vaccination survey

The survey on vaccination that’s being held up by DJ Grothe is not out yet, but there’s a preliminary summary that was made available. I learned something from even that one page summary: most anti-vaxxers actually do recognize that vaccination is protective, and their opposition is based on widespread misconceptions about side-effects and the evilness of pharmaceutical corporations. There is even a hint about effective strategies to convince reluctant people to vaccinate.

The full results were supposed to be released a year ago. I wonder when we’ll finally get to see them?

Oh, those secular ethics

In case you’re interested, DJ Grothe will be speaking at the Midwest Philosophy Colloquium on the University of Minnesota Morris campus next week. I can’t attend; it’s scheduled at the same time as one of our HHMI student research events.

He’s speaking on secular ethics.

By the way, of no possible relevance at all, I’m sure, Grothe is threatening legal action against Women Thinking, Inc., and is holding up publication of a survey on vaccination outreach, because he doesn’t like that someone reported a bad joke that he made. Which he denies.

Secular ethics in action!

Man, am I glad I have a good excuse to not attend that talk. I’m going to enjoy celebrating students’ summer research instead.


Oh, yay! More examples of secular ethics!

Magic Irish electro-water for sale

Tell me, do you think this announcement is at all credible?

A GROUNDBREAKING new Irish technology which could be the greatest breakthrough in agriculture since the plough is set to change the face of modern farming forever.

That’s a rather…extravagant…claim. And published in the Irish Independent — I looked quite closely for a disclaimer that it was a paid ad, because I didn’t believe it from the first sentence, even before learning what it is.

Then they said what it is.

The technology – radio wave energised water – massively increases the output of vegetables and fruits by up to 30 per cent.

BULLSHIT. I saw “radio wave energised water” and knew immediately that this was nonsense.

Extensively tested in Ireland and several other countries, the inexpensive water treatment technology is now being rolled out across the world. The technology makes GM obsolete and also addresses the whole global warming fear that there is too much carbon dioxide in the air, by simply converting excess CO2 into edible plant mass.

If it’s been “extensively tested”, where are the papers? Show me something that’s been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The most common GM treatments are for pesticide/herbicide resistance. How can water, no matter how energised, make that obsolete? And no, enhanced crop technology does not address global warming. If this scheme actually worked, it would be carbon-neutral, which is the best you could say about it.

Then I looked at the actual method.

The compact biscuit-tin-sized technology, which is called Vi-Aqua – meaning ‘life water’ – converts 24 volts of electricity into a radio signal, which charges up the water via an antennae. Once the device is attached to a hose, thousands of gallons of water can be charged up in less than 10 minutes at a cost of pennies.

Read the Vi-Aqua web page. Yep, it’s a little magic box with some LEDs that you attach to your hose or your water mains. Plug it in or use batteries and it…what? There’s lots of gobbledygook and big claims, but again no data and no papers.

There are testimonials, though. And the most discouraging thing there is that the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, an entirely respectable institution, has endorsed this crap. Prince Charles, have you been dicking around again? It’s also endorsed by a J.J. Leahy, a real lecturer in Chemical & Environmental Science at the University of Limerick, although it says nothing about magic water on his professional page. He studies biofuels.

People have written to Kew; I found one report that Kew replied and confirmed that they endorse it.

One chemist maintains a catalog of these ridiculous water treatment schemes. It seems to be a very common kind of scam.

Vi-Aqua is obvious nonsense. The saddest thing about it is that the Independent is so willing to throw their reputation away with a totally uncritical puff piece about a too-good-to-believe claim, and that Kew is also backing it. The US is supposed to be the central station for wacky pseudoscience, why are the UK and Ireland horning in on our turf? You’ll rue the day, Ireland!