1.28.2016

Dawkins, NECSS, and Working Together

The recent news is that Richard Dawkins was un-invited from the NECSS conference because of a tweet he sent that many found offensive. Of course it caused all sorts of uproars and divisions. Sigh… how tiresome; and at a time when there is real work to be done.

I was reminded of this short SkepticBlog post I wrote way back in 2009, another time I found myself frustrated with those supposed friends of science communication who seem to place a higher priority on finding things wrong with their allies.

Diversity has value only when it’s real diversity, and that means diversity of opinion in addition to ethnic or gender diversity. Many self-declared “champions of diversity” would do well to actually practice what they preach. / read more…

1.25.2016

The X-FIles (2016) Ep. 1 Review: Everything You Know is Wrong

This article contains spoilers for the first episode of The X-Files (2016).

xfiles1

Imagine a world where aliens are real, the paranormal is practically normal, and every single conspiracy theory is true. No, I’m not reading Infowars or listening to an episode of Welcome to Night Vale. I’m talking about a newly refurbished The X-Files, which premiered Sunday night to much advertised fanfare and the squeeeee! of Mulder/Scully shippers everywhere. As someone who was a believer when the show first aired (and also a fan) but is now a stout skeptic, I thought it would be fun to take a skeptical look at the new series.  / read more…

1.22.2016

Susan Gerbic: Vampire Slayer

Members of the “Boston Direct Action Project,” dressed as vampires to impersonate public relations associates of the World Bank, Washington DC. Via Wikimedia.

Susan Gerbic at The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry has put out the call for all vampire slayers. Does this mean that we should all stock up on garlic, holy water and get some really high collars for our shirts? No, this type of vampire is not going to directly consume our blood. But, in my opinion, the type of vampire she refers to is more evil and harder to metaphorically kill than the traditional vampire. It is called a grief vampire, a.k.a. a psychic medium. This type of vampire feeds off of the grief of surviving family members and the natural fear of death that we all have. The E! Television Network is premiering and promoting a new show called Hollywood Medium with Tyler Henry. It’s similar to The Long Island Medium Theresa Caputo, whose own show is off the air currently and facing litigation due to claims of fraud. I find those fraud charges ironic, since cold reading itself is merely a sham party trick, even without the cheating methods allegedly used by Caputo. I am personally disgusted by the displays on these shows. Susan Gerbic feels, as do I, that we need to nip these shows “in the bud,” for obvious reasons. / read more…

2015 Technology Predictions: Some Good, Some Bad, None Impressive

For a couple of years now I’ve been following Mark Anderson’s yearly top 10 tech at Strategic News Service. It is claimed that he has a 94% success rate (though it’s unclear if this claim comes directly from Anderson himself). Last year, I calculated his success rate at closer to around 60% (and it had been worse in prior years), so I was eager to see how he did it this year.

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1.13.2016

We’re All Bad at Math; or, Should Skeptics Play the Lottery?

 

Bad Lottery Math

Bad lottery math, attributed to “Philipe Andolini.”

The image above has come across my Facebook feed at least a dozen times. It appears that most people are sharing it without a critical look. And yet I am the one that gets vilified when defending the ideas behind common core math!

Let’s talk briefly about how easy one could see how this doesn’t make sense: if every person had 1 million dollars, then 10 people would have $10 million. So 100 people would have $100 million, and 1,000 people would have $1 billion. It becomes a pretty far stretch to give the other 299,999,000 people in the US the leftover 0.3 billion dollars and expect everyone to end up with $4.33 million each.

This is my defense of common core: we are really bad at estimating. The process of common core is what those of us who use math regularly (like me teaching a physics class) would do in our heads to see if an answer is reasonable. This is is important in other fields, too. Imagine if a doctor says to give a medication at 0.1 mg per kg of body weight. If the pharmacy is directed to prepare 100 mg of medication, would that be a reasonable dose for an average adult? I’ll leave the answer as an exercise for the student.

As for the meme above: if the multi-state lottery association distributed the money to everyone in the US, you’d have just about enough for a decent cup of coffee or a happy hour beer. Please get your math right!

The Lottery is for Those Who Don’t Understand Math

Given that people seem to be bad at math, it is no wonder the lottery is so successful. It is interesting, however, to see the debate among skeptics as to whether or not skeptics should play the lottery, given that we should, presumably, know math and statistics a little better than the average person. According to the Powerball website, the odds of winning the jackpot is 1 in 292,201,338. In other words, it’s impossible to win. You have no chance. Really. At my age I have about a 1 in 1,000 chance of dying this year. If I really thought I could win the Powerball jackpot, I should also put my name in for president (1 in 10,000,000).

I saw one comment on Wil Wheaton’s social media, which suggested: “Just put the amount you would have gambled into a savings account and you’ll almost certainly end up with more money in that account than you ever would have won.” This is true. If the $2 per drawing was put into savings at 6% for 10 years, you would have $2,612. Not bad! Just sticking it in the mattress would total $1,920—also a nice chunk of money.

I could apply this to anything I spend money on. I could have skipped that second viewing of Star Wars, saving $20 (with snacks). I could cancel Netflix—I really don’t watch it that much—and save $8 a month. One of the wines I really like is about $16 per bottle. We all know wine tasting is mostly BS, but I just like the taste of this one wine. Should I skip it and go with the Two Buck Chuck? My point is that we all make decisions to spend on things we don’t need. It is really about the value they give back to us. I enjoy having Netflix at the ready. I enjoy that glass of wine on Friday night.

I admit it: I bought a ticket for the $1 billion+ jackpot this week. I know I won’t win. But that 30-minute conversation with my spouse about what we would do with that kind of money was really fun. It also feels a little like goal-setting, because some of our dreams are really ones we have and are working towards. The value in it wasn’t in planning on winning and making changes to our spending habits. The value was in how it felt to dream—just like seeing Star Wars as a kid made me dream of being an astronaut.

There are certainly economic and political arguments to be made against government-run lotteries. There are social arguments against them as well. I’m not arguing those points here. It isn’t a justification or criticism of the existence of lotteries. That is a much longer blog post—and probably not something handled on Skeptoid!

So for skeptics who refuse to buy a ticket: your reasons are valid and reasonable. I have no problem with that. For those skeptics who participate in the office pool or buy that ticket “just because,” that’s OK, too. I am pretty sure you understand you won’t win, but extract the joy out of dreaming. For me, it was $2 well spent.

1.13.2016

Shortening Your Cold

The delicate operation of catching a cold on a photo. Via Wikimedia.

The holidays can bring joy to individuals. Unfortunately joy is not the only thing brought into your home on the holidays: getting together with family and friends is also a big part of spreading the cold virus. The common cold is actually a variety of self-limiting viral infections. The most common type is the rhinovirus. Rhinoviruses always exist in the environment and you can get them any time of year. In winter, several factors promote the spread of the common cold. In particular, people are mostly indoors, in dry air environments, and we tend to spend a lot of time in groups, such as children in school, parties, and holiday shopping. All of these factors tend to promote the spread of the common cold. For a variety of reasons there is no cure for the common cold. The good news is that colds are self-limiting, and only with extreme rarity can they cause a complications that lead to more serious illness. / read more…

1.5.2016

Did You Hear the One About Chipotle and the Pro-GMO Plot?

181px-2008-10-05_Chipotle_Mexican_Grill_in_DurhamA new conspiracy theory is making the social media rounds in the wake of last autumn’s Chipotle Mexacan Grill E coli outbreak: that the outbreak is a deliberate effort to sabotage Chipotle’s recent commitment to GMO-free foods and, more broadly, the chain’s commitment to “better” ingredients. Not to worry, Chipotle fans — it’s far more likely that the outbreak was caused by kitchen ne’er-do-wells than by pro-GMO villains. / read more…

1.1.2016

Should You Make a New Year’s Resolution?

It’s a new year, and this year, like every year, there will be a glut of articles and Facebook posts about New Year’s resolutions: those grand promises we make to ourselves to make our lives so much better … at least for a couple of weeks.

There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of New Year’s resolutions, both from our collective personal experience and from what any number of published polls about resolution-keeping have consistently confirmed: that individuals likely won’t stick to them, that they probably will fall back into old habits, and that they probably will make themselves feel awful about it.

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ESP: not pseudoscience but a new European Skeptics Podcast

I’ve written previously on these pages about the active european skeptical organizations. I wrote about the European Skeptics Congress in Stockholm in 2013. I got it from good sources that this year in London was also a blast (couldn’t attend sadly because of other obligations), and now there is also a European Skeptics Podcast, ESP for short.

0a024695e0-ESP_logo_final_1500 for website

Another podcast you say? Yes, but this one has a very specific European focus. There are tons of good podcasts, but in the States and in Europe (both in English and other languages), but this one has a specific European scope. Their goal is to bridge the different skeptics and skeptical organizations in order to create a specific European skeptical forum and meeting place. / read more…

Enjoying Movies, with Science of Course!

With all the hype going on for the new Star Wars film release in a couple of weeks, it’s a good idea to also consider why we enjoy movies, from a scientific point of view. What makes us go to a crowded movie theater, sit next to a smelly Wookie, and watch an ultrafast flickering succession of still photographs, and enjoy it?

A frame from the Lumiere brothers’ movie “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” (1895), which is said to have made audiences jump in shock. Via WikiMedia.

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