Saturday, 31 May 2008

Did you know...?

I love trivia; those little "did you know?" boxes always draw my attention in an article, book or website. Maybe it's because the facts in them are often so quirky and interesting - and sometimes amusing as well. There are some of which one must be careful, however - for residing in these normally-trustworthy, friendly little boxes lurks something awful. Something twisted.


That's right, dear reader: what you read under the heading of "Did you know?" may not be as sacred as we would like - particularly on the intertubes. I came across a list of "useless facts" recently, and while some I know to be true, and others I can believe, there were some in there that set off my scepticism alarm. These are the sort of things that are never questioned simply because they are trivia - who in the name of Hel cares? Well, I do. I just don't like the idea of ignorance being spread through trivia quizzes etc., masquerading as fact. Maybe that's just me. Here's a couple of examples for you.

Mel Blanc (the voice of Bugs Bunny) was allergic to carrots.

This is exactly the sort of "Did you know" I normally enjoy - completely pointless and yet amusing due to the irony. The irony is a little too perfect, though - and a quick search on the Mighty Wiki page for Mel Blanc reveals the story behind this pseudo-fact:

One oft-repeated story is that he was allergic to carrots and had to spit them out to minimize any allergic reaction; but his autobiography makes no such claim; in fact, in a 1984 interview with Tim Lawson, Blanc emphatically denied being allergic to carrots.

Well, without actually following this through into the actual transcripts of the interview, I would have to say that that about wraps it up for me as far as that little urban legend is concerned. Shall we move onto one which is a little less clear-cut and more, well, strange?

Studies show that if a cat falls off the seventh floor of a building it has about thirty percent less chance of surviving than a cat that falls off the twentieth floor. It supposedly takes about eight floors for the cat to realize what is occurring, relax and correct itself.

Firstly, I'm not even a little bit fooled by that catchphrase of credulity "studies show"... Did they really start dropping cats out of windows of varying height? I feel quite confident in saying probably not. Secondly, I've seen cats fall before - from slightly lower altitudes; they right themselves within a split second - and it's an instinctive reaction, not something that they have to take the time to relax and mentally work their way through. I think if your cat takes eight floors of descent to "realise what's occurring", it becomes a natural selection issue anyway.

Ah, "Did you know?" boxes. If you're not careful, they can make even the more sceptically-inclined drop their guard for a moment, because we read those boxes expecting to see something a little on the edge of credibility. If it sounds unbelievable, then do everyone a favour and read up on it before spreading it around to your family and friends.

Snopes is Dead Handy in this regard, as is the Mighty Wiki.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Blink 6: Beaten to it.

I was planning a nice short entry in my "In the Blink of a Sceptical I" series to start me back after being MIA in Essayland - this one about the preposterous claim that vaccines cause autism. They don't. The "rise" in autism is a statistical anomaly caused by broadening definitions, greater vigilance and improving detection methods.

However, while reading through my week's worth of RSS updates, I found that I had been beaten to it on this score. Rebbecca Watson of Skepchick.org - a woman with whom, it seems, I am more deeply enamoured every time she blogs - explains it all on her parody Crap-Based Medicine blog:

Do Vaccines Cause Autism?

She has such a way with words.

Substantial post to follow sometime in the next few days.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

The anti-progressive sceptic

It is a sad and oft-times tediously annoying fact that the word "sceptic" has many differing connotations. I've mentioned this before, but it's something I continue to come back to mentally so I thought I'd subject you all to it as well. Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, recently defined "skeptic" simply as "someone who insists on seeing the evidence" - I'm probably paraphrasing but that was the jist of it.

And here's the etymology. The Greek word "skepsis" has an ambiguous meaning also - which has somehow either found its way through to the present day, or is simply coincidentally re-asserting itself now. It could mean "doubt" or "inquiry"; I would say that Phil's definition falls under the latter of those, and sadly the general definition in the public mentality falls under the former.

This is certainly not helped by those who term themselves sceptics in relation to a particular controversy, such as climate change sceptics, moon landing sceptics, or AI sceptics. Unsurprisingly for those who know me, it's the latter on whom I wish to focus today - though much of what I say can be generalised. Use your discretion in this regard.

I don't know if John Searle has ever been explicitly termed an AI-sceptic, but he certainly is one. I'm currently writing an essay on his arguments against the Turing Test, and while they're very intelligent, eloquent and influential, one can't help but get the impression that he is simply against the idea of an intelligent machine or computer program from a very ideological perspective.

It has been suggested that Searle's objections to the possibility of machine intelligence will one day simply be made obsolete by the progress made in the scientific and technological fields; that he and his supporters will have to give up their position when faced with the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Eventually, proponents of AI claim, there will be a program which is capable of passing the unrestricted Turing Test. I find this a hard assertion to disagree with, as it's a little like denying that there could be intelligent life somewhere in the galaxy - it makes no sense to rule it out simply on the grounds of what we can observe today.

However, I don't think that any evidence will persuade "Searleans" away from their anti-AI prejudice, and Searle's Chinese Room Argument gives them the perfect excuse. It is based on a program that is capable of passing the unrestricted Turing Test, and as such, means that even if a machine did everything it could to fool you into thinking it was a human, the "AI-sceptics" are still able to deny that it thinks for itself, or understands in any way what it's saying and doing. The only reply one can give to this is to say that there is exactly the same amount of empirical evidence for the program's understanding as there is for a human's understanding.

This is the fundamental difference between sceptical doubt and sceptical inquiry - the former can lead to dogmatism and an arrogant refusal to face evidence and adapt one's ideas to suit. The latter is true open-mindedness, in the most beneficial sense. But I'll admit bias in that regard.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Fictional Sceptics #1: Lisa Simpson

She may be perpetually eight years old, but Lisa is the voice of reason in Matt Groening's The Simpsons.

Off the top of my head, I can think of a few examples of Lisa's scepticism in action - the most obvious of which is the episode The Springfield Files (starring the voices of The X-Files stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, as well as Leonard Nimoy). I'll share with you the wonderful opening line delivered by Mr Nimoy:

"Hello, I'm Leonard Nimoy. The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It's all lies - but they're entertaining lies; and in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer, is no.

That really sets the scene for the whole episode. The basic storyline is that Homer gets tanked up at Moe's Tavern and has to walk home - through the woods. He gets spooked by various things along the way, and finally comes across a glowing, willowy figure who approaches him and tells him not to be afraid.

Everyone is sceptical of his story at first, especially Lisa who quotes odds from "Junior Skeptic Magazine" of alien life visiting Earth. Finally however, they manage to capture shaky, hazy video footage of the "alien" which, despite the poor quality, snares the attention of the entire town. Meanwhile, little Lisa insists "There must be a more logical explanation."

And indeed there is. As all the town stare aghast at the glowing figure (and threaten to break its legs), Lisa steps forward with a flashlight and cuts through the glow to reveal a certain Montgomery Burns. He's high on painkillers and had a vocal chord scraping; the glow comes from a lifetime of working in the nuclear power plant. Occam's Razor in action.

This is only one example of many, of course; mysteries abound in The Simpsons, and with few (if any) exceptions, Lisa is the voice of logic and reason. A true skepchick.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008


Today, the news rang out that the Vatican officially recognises the possibility of extraterrestrial life. I caught this news from the BBC, wongaBlog and Unscrewing the Inscrutable. As I search for the topic in my RSS feed, I find that Way of the Woo and Pharyngula now also carry commentary on the matter.

Now, one of the arguments you sometimes hear from the frothing lips of creationists is that dinosaurs never existed (fossils are there to test our faith), because it's nowhere mentioned in the Bible. Where, pray tell, does it mention extraterrestrial life? Nowhere that I've heard about. You'd think, if the Bible were the word of God, he might have mentioned somewhere that we weren't his only creation - his only world-building project.

I'd like to present you with an analogy which occurred to me, in thinking about the Vatican's latest madness. It's a desperate act taken to appear relevant to an increasingly outward-looking society; it's an aging dad trying to convince his kids he's still cool. "Look," he cries, as he gets to his feet to the dismay of his offspring. "I've still got it - the old moves are still sharp!" He proceeds to strut some abysmal approximation halfway between the rock & roll two-step of his youth and the moves he's seen his kids watch on MTV. Accordingly, his children react in the only way they can:

"Please, dad, you're embarrassing everyone."

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Blink 5: I ain't no damn dirty ape!

Oh, but you are.

It's another favourite misconception of the anti-evolution crowd that so-called "Darwinism" (a term I strongly object to) claims that we are descended from monkeys. Ironically, their denial of this is accurate but misguided.

We are not descended from monkeys - we share a common ancestor.

The real confusion comes with the terminology, when the uninformed start using the terms "primate", "ape", and "monkey" interchangeably - and also get mixed up over which categories apply to humans.

Humans are not monkeys; we are, however, apes - and indeed primates. So if you were to say "humans are descended from apes", it's a tautology really - like saying John Smith is descended from Smiths. It's necessarily true simply by virtue of his belonging to that family. The same goes for "humans are descended from primates" - except that, in this case, so are monkeys. If the above image (click to enlarge) doesn't explain the difference as clearly as you'd like*, do please check out the very useful Wikipedia entries for monkeys, apes and primates for explicit definitions of each group.

Rebecca Watson put it in beautifully simple terms (SGU #146) with an analogy:

"Basically, we're all a bunch of cousins, grandpa's dead."

Can't top that myself.

* I do actually have an issue with the image - group #6 is captioned "apes and humans", whereas I would have made it "apes (including humans)", because the former implies separation where none exists.

Friday, 9 May 2008

"Deep Esteem"

Oh those crazy Catholics and their inability to feel the slightest bit of cognitive dissonance. It takes a special kind of mind to continue spouting this kind of nonsense.

Yes, this is about the "news" that Britain's top Catholic, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, has called on religious believers to be more tolerant of atheists and other non-believers. Here's the BBC article. I agree with him on a couple of points - that "proper talk about God is always difficult", and that "God is not a 'fact in the world'". It's an issue of faith, not of reason.

This, to me, is the desperate act of someone who realises that reason is winning. The only way religion can survive is by retreating to its last stronghold where nobody can touch them - faith. It denies any kind of logic, proof, or sense - in fact, anything we routinely use to gather information about the world in which we live.

The real cognitive dissonance, however, comes when you come back from examining the implications of what he said to the words themselves. The first phrase of the BBC article:

The Archbishop of Westminster has urged Christians to treat atheists and agnostics with "deep esteem".


Anyone else recalling the special places in their crazy Catholic afterlife reserved for unbelievers, particularly those who are outspoken as such? Lakes of fire wasn't it? Something like that anyway. Not exactly places in which one might comfortably feel accepted and treated with anything remotely resembling "deep esteem".

The Daily Mash says it better than I.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Worst. Gift-Giver. Ever.

[Inspired by this comment from SKIRRID5 on the UK-Skeptics forum.]

God created Man in his own image, and He did give unto him the greatest gifts of all, given not even to his angels: free will, and rationality. For he prized Man above all his creations.

Then He said unto Man, "I have given unto thee the most valuable gifts of all. Now whatever you do, don't use them or you'll go to Hell."

And God did walk from that place, chortling to himself.


Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Television Liberation

This afternoon, I ventured to the cinema to catch the Iron Man film (awesome, by the way). Among the trailers was an advert for Virgin Media, touting their latest innovations - presented by Samuel L. Jackson. Two quotes which stood out in my mind were along the lines of "Now there's never 'nothing on'", and "This is television liberation".

I hope I'm not the only one for whom these words conjured up not a brightly-lit, happy and carefree future of on-demand entertainment, but rather a dystopian vision of unthinking, couch-ridden zombies hypnotised by the room's only source of light and information.

There are few things that have happened to me which liberated me more than moving into a hall of residence in which my TV signal was virtually non-existent. I ceased to be spoon-fed my information by patronising and oversimplified documentaries; I got my news from a variety of sources and was able to weed out the sensationalism which so litters television and the dead tree press.

My apologies for the rant, but if anyone mentions "television liberation" to me again, I'll define it for them in a single word:


Monday, 5 May 2008

Quaint beliefs...

Periodically in the news, you'll hear about a backwards society somewhere in the world who have stoned, burned or otherwise persecuted someone on some charge of sorcery, wizardry or witchcraft. There's not a lot you can do except shake your head in dismay and consider yourself lucky you don't live there. Oh, those poor deluded [blank]ians, you say. Maybe one day they'll live in a modern civilised society where we habitually scoff at such things.

One such story surfaced today, about a teacher who performed a magic trick and lost his job as a result - on a charge of wizardry. I felt the usual dismay, shook my head, and counted myself lucky I don't live there.

"Oh, those poor deluded Floridians", I said. Maybe one day they'll live in a modern civilised society where we habitually scoff at such things.

This is why PZ Myers can't believe in Florida any more.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Fictional sceptics in pop culture

Scepticism needs promoting. If you want me to argue my case on that score, then you'll have to wait for another entry because for this one I'm simply taking it as my major premise. Ready for the minor one?

Pop culture is a major source of potential exposure, particularly given the Western obsession with television. Now all join in as we sing out the conclusion of our little syllogism:

Scepticism needs to tap into popular culture. There. That wasn't too painful was it? Now before we go any further, I'd like to qualify everything that follows with the admission that I don't watch much TV myself and will thus probably be getting things wrong.

I believe it all began in a major way with Scully. She was the sceptic of the X-Files, offsetting Mulder's desperate desire to believe in the paranormal. I need to watch a lot more X-Files before I can legitimately comment further, but all I really wanted to note was the creation of this "historic" character. If there were any major ones before this, please do point it out to me. There was something culturally undeveloped about the Scully character, however (and that's not a criticism) - she was a sceptic as part of her job, in fact it was probably the greatest defining part of the character. It was wonderful to have such views made widely known, and the sceptical outlook thrown into the public consciousness; but the problem was that the strong links between her profession and her scepticism would not have allowed viewers to realise that anyone can be a sceptic.

Cue the next generation of fictional sceptics. Most of these are situated in sitcoms, which is really the perfect medium; the most important reason for this is simply that their scepticism is not their defining feature. They are regular, everyday people (for the most part), who happen to have an outlook on life which is rational and evidence-based. The three that are standing out in my mind at the moment (by no means an exhaustive list) begin with Robin Scherbatsky from CBS's How I Met Your Mother, who was only "outed" as a sceptic in a throwaway comment a few episodes ago. It was a pretty great moment, in which one character was pretending to have seen a ghost and asked Robin to go along with his story. The one being lied to said "Robin you're a sceptic so if you say you saw a ghost I'll believe you." It was a good moment, and I hope they develop that side of her character a bit more in the future.

Next up is Charlie Harper, from another CBS show, Two and a Half men. The great thing about this character is that he's not a "career" sceptic in any way - he's just the guy who shouts "crap!" every time someone mentions chiropractic. He gets plenty of opportunity, too, what with his brother Alan being a chiropractor. So many jokes about his not being a real doctor, and yet somehow it never gets old. But maybe that's just me. The only real problem I see with Charlie is that he's more of a cynic than a sceptic - there's no hint that he's looked into any kind of research on the efficacy of chiropractic, or that he'd even think to bother. The danger here is that, while being a potential vessel for scepticism in popular media, he may be seen more as a naysayer - people who knock "alternative treatments" without thinking about it. There are important differences between scepticism and cynicism which I may well address at some point in the future.

Finally for this post, someone who I consider to be one of the greatest (if not best-known) examples of a sceptical character in popular culture: Doctor John Becker from (yes, CBS again) Becker. He was a bit of an anti-hero character; flawed (horribly, horribly flawed at times) but human - and a great doctor. He routinely spoke against religion, political correctness taken too far, and other such things; he also (like many sceptics) had a bit of a sacred cow in his irrational belief that little people bring him bad luck. Some of the best moments in the whole show were those in which he would praise the glories of science: his normally miserable, gloomy and dour demeanour would immediately brighten with enthusiasm as he talked about the "miracle" of birth and the immense complexity of the human body. It was a brilliantly conceived scene, and me being equally brilliant, I have tracked it down. The only thing you really need to know before watching is that Boyd is a character who "hears God", and who was told by God that his real name, God's real secret name, was Larry. Watch and enjoy.

Speak to me people - any more sceptics in popular culture? Maybe some really obvious ones I've missed?

EDIT: Yes, I missed a couple of biggies. This suggests to me a possible recurring theme on future entries - the first of which may well follow soon.