8.7.2014

IMO: Breaking the Laws of Physics

Mass-energy equivalence

Mass-energy equivalence via Pixbay.com

This new technology breaks the laws of physics! That, or something similar, is such a common refrain in both popular culture and in fiction. There seems to be something secretly delightful in knocking down such an arrogant target as a so-called physical law. Your science can’t hold back the truth! Laws are made to be broken! Perhaps. / read more…

8.5.2014

Barack Obama and Golf: A Skeptical Analysis

The great thing about math is that it doesn’t take sides. Whether or not something is greater or less than something else doesn’t change at all based on what you happen to think about that thing.

A perfect example of this is President Barack Obama’s hobby of playing golf. When hits the links, pundits on both sides of the aisle chime in with what they think about it, whether it’s right for him to do it and how it looks to the rest of the world. And they’re all right. And all wrong. It’s a matter of opinion, and only that. / read more…

If You Don’t Like The Truth… Litigate It Away

Snake oil salesmen and woo purveyors have deep pockets; in the United States money means influence and power (probably the same everywhere). Despite the claims of being corporate-paid shills and/or disinformation agents, scientific skepticism is primarily funded by small, private, grassroots donations. As a whole, the skeptical community is a large, well-informed collective that does have influence. Monetary support for skepticism is a drop in the bucket compared to the money or influence of people like Dr. Oz (whose net worth is estimated at $14 million), Deepak Chopra (estimated at $20 million), or the resources of the US supplement industry (whose annual sales were estimated at $30 billion in 2011). Recently there has been a concerted effort to silence or minimize skeptical criticism of pseudoscience. Some, like Deepak Chopra, offer farcical, impossible challenges. There are examples of idiotic and troubling personal attacks, such as Mike Adams’s recent screed calling GMO advocates “Nazi Collaborators.” Frequently there are threats of lawsuits like threatened action by the quack Stanislaw Burzynski against skeptic blogger Rhys Morgan. Sometimes actual lawsuits happen, as in the case of the British Chiropractic Society suing Simon Singh for libel. Affluent woo purveyors easily have the resources to intimidate skeptics and to mute criticism. / read more…

A philosophical note on the outbreak of World War I, 100 years ago

This weekend we commemorate the start of hostilities 100 years ago in World War 1. Direct and indirect causes were, of course, already long in the making, and you can find a lot of information about it in the media. For a good and very thorough introduction, I recommend Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast series on “Blueprint for Armageddon”.

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8.2.2014

A Quick Example of the Effect of Climate Change

By Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

[Writer's note: Both me and my math checker missed a decimal error - my fear when I wrote this! Thanks to a comment I had to check my calculation again. I will fix the error of inland inundation below.]

Because I wanted to use the following quick calculation as a reference for a future blog post, I wanted to publish this as its own post. I think it will serve as a nice example of why we cannot underestimate even small changes to our climate.

Before getting to my calculation, I want to state here that I am not making a statement about what actions we should take to address climate change, at least not in this post. While most of the scientific community agrees there is climate change and humans play a part in it, there are those who still want to deny either one or both of those positions. While some of those scientists do also advocate changes to government policy to reduce carbon emissions, that is a separate discussion from what I am trying to accomplish today. For this post, I will assume no government actions and try to avoid advocating for such changes. / read more…

7.31.2014

A Ghost Upon the Stair…

It seems that a paranormal research group, Sefton Paranormal Investigations, claim to have recorded a video of a ghost upon a staircase at Stanley Palace in Chester, Cheshire, England. Have they finally, at long last, captured the elusive proof of ghosts I have longed for? Let’s take a look.

Detail of a screen capture from a YouTube video of a possible ghost at Stanley Palace.

Detail of a screen capture from a YouTube video of a possible ghost at Stanley Palace.

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7.29.2014

Stop Comparing Everything You Don’t Like to the Nazis

The lazy shorthand for calling something or someone evil is to compare them to the Nazis. It’s a cheap and easily-understood way of demonizing something you personally don’t like. Call it guilt by association, with an association that usually isn’t real.

Not surprisingly, you find an enormous amount of these false comparisons among conspiracy theorists in the alternative medicine community. Even just a basic search reveals conspiracy and natural health websites spouting rumors of a vast counterfactual history of the Nazis. They theorize that it was really Hitler’s Germany that won the war, and is now ruling us through complicated plots meant to keep us fat, sick, stupid and weak. / read more…

7.27.2014

Truvada, the Preventative HIV Drug

The preventative HIV drug Truvada, one of several HIV pre-exposure prophylaxes (PrEP) endorsed by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease control, has renewed discourse surrounding sexual health in the LGBT community. The drug represents a major breakthrough in the decades-long struggle to control the AIDS epidemics, but critics fear that Truvada may encourage some to engage in unprotected sex, spreading other STIs and increasing the danger of HIV contraction among those who take the drug sporadically or not at all.
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7.24.2014

“Wooo! What A Workout”

A senior citizen trying to slow down his process of aging by physical fitness exercises. Via Wikimedia.

We all want to be stronger, better looking, and more healthy. We all want it to be easy. Everyone is looking for “the method”—a straightforward method to get the most out of your workouts. After dietary pseudoscience, exercise is the next worst category of pseudo-scientific misinformation. The Internet and television are full of ideas and/or anecdotes recommending this or that. Exercise is a complex issue and, simply put, you are a custom build. There is no shortage of someone selling something to “make their workout better.” Like dietary “woo,” there is usually scant evidence and large amounts of ideological proselytizing.

In fact the evidence related to proper exercise is complicated and nuanced. Complicated science is ripe for exploitation. I myself have fallen prey to some of this type of chicanery. For example, I once had a pair of strength shoes, parodied as “Jimmy’s shoes” in an episode of the 1990s television show Seinfeld. They were advertised as isometric training shoes that would allow the wearer to jump higher. Not a shining moment as a nascent skeptic but still an excellent example, in my opinion, of the exploitation of plausibility. Needless to say workout routines, devices, and supplements are often completely based upon anecdote and athlete endorsements.

Lets look at some common workout advice skeptically. / read more…

7.23.2014

Origins the Series

My brother Abe sends me a lot of cool videos and articles about science: recent research, new inventions, educational materials, or the work of grad students who are sharing presentations of their findings on YouTube. This week he sent me this great video series, describing current theories for how life first appeared on Earth and how complex features like genetic code, sex, and intelligence evolved. It also provides some excellent rebuttals to common misconceptions and counterarguments:

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