Hey! A New Book!

With me in it! How did I not write about this yet?

The Young Australian Skeptics have put together a Skeptical Blog Anthology, which is now available–proceeds from sales go directly to the Young Australian Skeptics, which is only part of why you should buy several copies. The other reason is, well, the stuff between the covers.

My pal Kylie has the details. And (I don’t think she mentions this on her post, but she reminded me in email, cos I had completely forgotten), I’m in it!

Proof Of God?

Over at Debunking Christianity, John Loftus answers a question. Specifically, the question of “what would it take for you, an atheist, to believe in god?”, and the objection that in reality, our answers are all lip service, that we are closed-minded and unwilling to budge. You can go take a look at his answer, but mine is a bit different. For me, this is one of those questions better answered with another question: What would it take for you, a christian, to believe in someone else’s god?

The same evidence that should be sufficient to convince an atheist, will necessarily disconfirm some religions, given that they disagree with one another, and positively proving one of them may well violate fundamental tenets of another (come to think of it, it might support none; there may be a very real deity that every single religion gets wrong). Gods are intentionally fuzzily-defined; if they were clearly defined, they would be easy to disconfirm. Absolute proof of a specific God would be a believer’s worst nightmare! With so many options, the odds that their own god is the right one are better in the absence of evidence. Besides (he said, cynically), old habits die hard, and the habit of denying empirical evidence has a long history.

Can you imagine what the various reactions of atheists and believers might be, to the sort of evidence that would make PZ check himself into a padded cell? My version, after the jump: [Read more…]

Headline Muse, 10/27

See, I don’t want my prices to rise
But it’s worthless if nobody buys
As I calculate cost,
I’m admitting—I’m lost!
What’s the right rate to charge to tell lies?

Headline: This Way to the Séance

A strange story in the Wall Street Journal. Just another profile of a small business owner… in this case, though, the business is talking to the dead lying to people for money. A weekly group, Séance in the City, meets for fun, to test their psychic abilities, to mingle with one another, and to have Jesse Bravo give them a reading.

“I have a gift and I want to share that with as many people as possible without overcharging them. For two hours, it’s less than a movie ticket and popcorn,” Mr. Bravo said.

Which, of course, brings up the question in the limerick: What exactly is overcharging, when your service consists of lying to people?

In real life, he is a money manager and stock picker; he claims not to use his psychic powers to help him on the job. I believe that, of course. I also believe that if they were actually real, that’s pretty much all he’d use them for, and he wouldn’t advertise the fact for less than six figures. After all, he could make a cool million with Randi if he were really out for money. Convenient, then, that he’s so altruistic, meeting these dozen or so people for only $20 a head for the 2 hour session.

Aside from these meetings, life as a psychic can be a lonely gig. Mr. Bravo’s 88,000 Twitter followers and nearly 3,000 Facebook friends are relentless with their questions, but the friendships are one-sided.

“I get a friend invite and then I get a message with a question,” said Mr. Bravo. “I’m a human being, too. I like to chat and be friendly, and not just be used for my abilities.”

Some advice, then; if you want to make real friends, stop lying to them.

I Got My Wish!

Wrong-again Harold had made a prediction
Wrong-again Harold was once again wrong
Wrong-again Harold believed in a fiction,
But wrong-again Harold kept chugging along.

Wrong-again Harold had plenty of money
So wrong-again Harold bought billboards and such
People who saw them all thought they were funny
But wrong-again Harold, he didn’t care much

Wrong-again Harold misled the believers
Wrong-again Harold expressed no remorse
Wrong-again, wrong-again,
Wrong-again Harold stayed true to his course.

Wrong-again Harold, he looked through the bible
Wrong-again Harold, he did all the math
Wrong-again Harold, he claim’s he’s reli’ble
And gives us the date and the time of god’s wrath

Wrong-again Harold, I feel I should mention,
Wrong-again Harold has done this before;
Wrong-again Harold, he craves the attention—
Wrong-again Harold’s a media whore.

Wrong-again Harold misled the reporters
Wrong-again Harold expressed no remorse
Wrong-again, wrong-again,
Wrong-again Harold stayed true to his course.

Wrong-again Harold’s not much of a story
Wrong-again Harold has nothing to say
Wrong about rapture and heaven and glory
Please, can we just put this story away?

Wrong-again Harold, the media darling,
Radio, papers, the web, and TV
There on your soapbox, you’ve led me to snarling:
Bury this story, and just let me be!

Wrong-again Harold provided the message
Wrong-again Media, added their force
Wrong-again, wrong-again,
Wrong-again Harold stayed true to his course.

That was my verse from the earlier end of the world. You know, the third or fourth prediction. Not today’s.

I know it’s the end of the world today, but I can’t find it in the early editions of any news sites! You know it’s a bad day for parasitic end-of-times cultists when the only ones paying attention are the ones making fun of them.

Prayer ‘Cure’ Kills Three

Throw away your medicines!
God alone can cure!
Trust in Him, repent your sins
Make sure your thoughts are pure!
God can cure your HIV
With love that never fades
Trust in Him, and you will see
He’ll cure you of your AIDS
God’s healing is omnipotent
And infinite in worth
It brings an end that’s heaven-sent
To illness on the Earth
So throw away your medicines
Sing praises to His name!
And when your illness kills you, then
Your lack of faith’s to blame.

Deadly pinheaded faith-healing nonsense, after the jump:
[Read more…]

Prime Time Superstition

Swingingly, blingingly
Overpaid superstars
Buy their placebos to
Wear round their necks

Cause and effect here are
X may cause Y, but then
Y may cause X

NPR’s Scott Simon reports on the expensive and worthless Phiten necklaces worn by so many major league baseball players. One sentence in his report notes that “[i]t’s made by a Japanese company whose website doesn’t even try to claim the necklace gives athletes an extra jolt of balance, calmness or energy.” Smart company, that; if you don’t make claims, you can’t be sued for false advertising.

There is no reason to suspect that these are any more or less than the various different hologram/magnetic/copper bracelets which have failed tests in the past—and, given the absence of any supporting claims on Phiten’s website, there is every reason to suspect that they know this. But there are testimonials and endorsements, and as Simon notes, millions of dollars worth of superstar athletes in playoffs wearing them.

Surely, if so many superstars are wearing them, there must be a reason! They must have some sort of effect, if the better players are wearing them.

Actually, they are an effect. They don’t cause good performance; they are a byproduct of good performance. As Stewart Vyse notes, the better an athlete is, the more chances he or she has had to associate some trivial (or perhaps heavily-advertised) object or ritual with success. It stands to reason: losers don’t have lucky trinkets.

So it makes perfect sense that more successful athletes will be more superstitious… and it makes perfect sense that there will be people willing to take advantage of that to market worthless crap at exorbitant prices.

The Unknowable and the Unknown

I ponder the unknowable
I do it all the time
I introspect and navel-gaze
And most of it in rhyme
It gives me job security—
A niche to call my own—
Unknowables are permanent,
Unlike the mere unknown.

Unsolvable conundrums
Are my favorite sorts of stuff
Impossibly attractive, I
Just cannot get enough
They have no real solution,
So you can’t get too involved—
It’s really so much easier
Than solving the unsolved.

A question that’s unanswered
Is an open invitation
To poke around, to sniff for clues,
Begin investigation
I much prefer unanswerables
And have since just a pup
Cos none can know the answer, so
I get to make shit up.

A bit of context, after the jump:
[Read more…]

9/11 Conspiracy Theorists Eat Their Own

If you look at all the evidence
There’s only one conclusion:
A government conspiracy
And not just mass confusion.
The seeming contradictions are
Quite easy to condemn;
You say that they’re convincing? Why,
You must be one of them.

Podblack just sent me a link to a series of stories on Slate on 9/11 conspiracy theorists (“Truthers”). I find these people fascinating–I know a handful of them personally–and a wonderful example of belief perseverance in the wild. The linked story is quite unusual (but see below*) in that it reports, in part, on truthers who have come to doubt the consipiracies they have long supported.

More after the jump:
[Read more…]

Keep An Open Mind!

I’m playing channel roulette, watching two shows and trying to see which one is more annoying. One, of course, is ABC’s Primetime: Nightline show on psychics; the other is National Geographic’s documentary on “pint-sized preachers”. Between the two of them, I am reminded often of how important it is to keep an open mind. Important, that is, if snake-oil peddlers are going to make a living. So I thought I’d repost this very old piece from the old blog…

I wonder sometimes, why it is that the people who tell me to “keep an open mind” have theirs utterly closed to the possibility that they might be wrong. An open mind, of course, is willing to follow the available evidence, even if it disagrees with one’s assumptions. An open mind is not one that keeps an issue open after every bit of information says “case closed.” But of course, as I have heard it most frequently, “keep an open mind” is used as a synonym for “agree with me!”

An open window can be a good thing, but a window which cannot be closed is just a hole in your wall. There are times when it is ok to shut the window. You can always open it up again if the evidence says you should.

Anyway, today’s verse:

They told me “keep an open mind,
And you will see—the world’s designed,
And everything that’s in it.
The folks who say mutation’s random?
Open-minded folks can’t stand ‘em
Even for a minute!
You see the touch of God each day
In every strand of DNA
Unless your mind is closed;
When looking at genetic blueprints
Clearly, there are You-Know-Who-prints
For those so predisposed.”

I told them “really, no offense…
I’ll need to see some evidence.”

They told me “keep an open mind,
And never heed the double blind
Experiments of science;
The open-minded person knows
You cannot trust what science shows—
The truth is in defiance!
It’s science that is always changing;
Scientists keep rearranging—
How could it be true?
So put your trust in common thought,
Which needs no facts at all—well, not
In my considered view.”

I told them “that’s a lame pretense…
I’m waiting for your evidence.”

They told me “keep an open mind
While we stick pins in your behind
To fix your aching head;
We’ve got to re-align your back—
Don’t be alarmed to hear a crack
Or have some herbs instead!
Now take a draught of this solution,
Infinite in its dilution,
(That’s what makes it strong!)
So many cures that fit your Karma,
Hard to see just how Big Pharma
Always gets it wrong.”

I told them “you may not commence
Until you show me evidence!”

They told me “keep an open mind—
Our brainwaves, if they’re all combined,
Can lead to lasting peace;
And simply wishing hard enough
Brings health and love and other stuff,
They’ve known since Ancient Greece!
The figure of the Oracle
Was not just allegorical—
It works! Just take a look!
The truth is, if you wish and pray,
It might just happen, come some day—
And Oprah likes the book!”

I told them “here are my two cents—
Please wish and pray for evidence.”

They told me “keep an open mind;
Though in this lifetime you’re confined
Within your mortal part,
In death you find a pure release
And living on in love and peace,
The you inside your heart,
You’ll leave behind this thin façade
To gaze upon the face of God
If, meekly, you submit;
Each death, each illness is God’s will
You can’t reach Heaven’s gate until
The mortal world you quit.”

I told them “such a moral sense!
If only you had evidence!”

She told me “keep an open mind,
And while our bodies are entwined
Our energies commingle.
Don’t roll your eyes, I do implore;
I speak, of course, in metaphor–
And by the way, I’m single.”
From one to ten? She’s my eleven;
Better than some made-up heaven,
Wondrously mundane!
And best of all, I think you’ll find,
Much better than an “open mind”
She keeps a working brain.