Saturday, October 20, 2012

Weekend Post - They're just charlatans

We’re surrounded by people who are deceiving us. I’ll be charitable and acknowledge that some of them are doing it out of ignorance, some of the ones selling us “alternative” health remedies and potions. I’ll be charitable. I suspect that a few of them genuinely believe the rubbish they say when they claim acupuncture, homeopathy, reflexology and QXCI machines actually DO something. Of course there’s precisely no evidence that they do anything, there’s even an enormous body of evidence suggesting that they do nothing at all but maybe these people haven’t seen that yet.

They’re the naïve, perhaps even gullible ones who believe they’re actually helping. My disdain is reserved for other groups.

Firstly I have moderate contempt for those that secretly suspect that their cures, potions and practices are nonsense but deliberately close their eyes to the evidence, presumably because they’re making an income out of it. And yes, despite the way “alternative” practitioners present themselves, they’re in it for the money. Their products and services aren’t free. Luckily for them there’s more than enough people who are easily conned by smart-talking salespeople selling pseudoscience and miracle cures. Who want money.

There’s another group whose outlook on life is reliant on nonsense: the believers in magic. It somehow fits into their worldview that science is bad, progress is evil, that there are magical explanations for complex phenomena and that fairies, hobgoblins and thokolosi exist. They believe in nonsense in a deep, almost religious way. For them nothing would be better than humanity turning it’s back on progress and diving back into the dark ages when we were all “more in touch with nature”. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that we were also more in touch with smallpox, dysentery, staggeringly high levels of child mortality and a life expectancy in the 30s.

Then there’s the least palatable crowd, the ones for whom I have complete contempt. The people who know they’re lying. Amongst this despicable group you can find a horrible mixture of so-called traditional healers, fake TV evangelists and my pet hate, psychics.

I suspect that everyone reading the Weekend Post knows that so-called traditional healers are charlatans. You’ve only got to read the stories in the tabloid press about how many are arrested, how many are illegal immigrants and the cons they pull on their unsuspecting victims. Like the fake termite mound one group of them created that contained a cellphone and speaker. A fellow crook could then call it and produce the voices of ancestors to convince the victim to part with more cash. Complete crooks.

You might think this is comical but presumably the (admittedly very gullible) victims were presumably desperate for help.

TV evangelists are worse. Perhaps the best example I know to illustrate how corrupt they can be is Peter Popoff.

Popoff was (and remains) a con-man. His ability to “see” the personal details of sick people who came to his miracle conventions was remarkable. He would “know” everything about his gullible victims in the audiences, including the illnesses they were suffering and even their home addresses. Of course this was all a huge con. The attendees had all filled in a questionnaire as they arrived and then Popoff’s wife would read the details to him over a radio link to a tiny receiver in his ear. After Popoff’s scam was exposed by James Randi he rapidly went bankrupt but that didn’t stop him bouncing back a few years later appearing on TV selling “miracle spring water”, “holy sand” and more cons.

You can still see the same thing happening with a variety of TV evangelists. The people who attend the meetings often are required to supply their personal details before they attend. These days it’s simple for the evangelist’s support team to then discover all sorts of things about the worshippers before they attend.

That approach is called “hot reading” and is a common technique also use by so-called psychics. A little Googling can unearth all sorts of facts about you that you might have thought were secret.

The other technique used by psychics is a little more clever. “Cold reading” involves a mixture of educated guesswork and responding to the clues the victims give as they talk with the psychic. Here’s a simple example. I sense, through the newspaper you’re holding, or the web page you’re viewing, that you’ve lost a relative or friend whose name starts with M, or perhaps S or E? If you respond by telling me it was one of your grandparents I can also be fairly certain they had some chest problems in the year before they passed away? Or perhaps problems with mobility? Of course a psychic does this face to face. The moment he sees your eyes light up he’ll know he’s onto something and will seize that as proof he has a connection with your lost relative. You’ll conveniently overlook the initials he got wrong or the non-existent chest complaint.

Psychics and TV evangelists use these techniques repeatedly to produce their fake miracles. The reason is simple: money, large quantities of it. The good news is that just a little knowledge of psychology and of hot and cold reading can help people see through their tricks.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"Quack company litigates against its critics"

A South African "quack company" has decided that threatening legal action against people who expose their quackery is a good idea.

They're wrong.
"Solal Technologies is suing Kevin Charleston for R350,000 because he wrote on the Quackdown website that Solal Technologies' magazine, Health Intelligence is a "disguised marketing programme for Solal Technologies, a company that actively promotes pseudoscience and aggressively attempts to shut out valid criticism of its advertising."

Charleston will be defending himself against Solal’s charges. He will have the support of the Treatment Action Campaign. He will be represented by SECTION27. The case, when it comes to court, promises to be an important test of the right to freedom of expression, and the duty of companies to market their products honestly and accurately."

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Weekend Post - Skeptical feedback

Anyone who writes or blogs about science, critical thinking and skepticism is obliged to take criticism. Its part of the job description. It’s also one of the cornerstones of the scientific method. You open your ideas to criticism from others. That criticism can be both positive and negative of course, at its best it’s constructive, opening up the ideas to correction, improvement or perhaps even rejection.

Some belief systems aren’t as logical. I once had a conversation on radio with a senior representative of the so-called Church of Scientology who defended their habit of keeping their “teachings” secret until recruits had paid enough money to climb high enough up their preposterous levels of “Operating Thetans”. They claimed that all religions had secret scriptures like theirs but this is simply hogwash. I don’t share the belief systems of my Christian and Muslim fellow columnists in the Weekend Post but I’ll admit this. Neither of them will hide any of their beliefs from you and me. In fact, like all legitimate religions they seem rather proud of their beliefs. There are no hidden scriptures in a genuine religion. The most senior adherent, whether it’s a Pope or an Imam, believes the same things as the most humble new entrant. Not so the Scientologists. Only when you’ve given them your life savings do they share with you the psychotic claptrap about alien spirits, galactic overlords and evil psychiatrists.

But science is above all of that. Science, and the people who think the scientific method is the most useful intellectual tool we have, are prepared to take criticism. Even when it’s utterly silly.

In March I wrote about the misuse of the word “quantum”. My point was simple. On almost every occasion when you hear or read the word “quantum” you can be certain that the person speaking or writing is about to talk rubbish. I said that very clearly. So few people have a real grasp of quantum physics that you have to be very careful who you listen to. Here’s a simple rule I think works. Never trust anything you read about quantum physics unless the author is either a specialist in quantum physics him or herself or the author names the physicist he or she is quoting. Unless the scientist quoted is called Feynman or Hawking you should do some Googling before believing anything that is said. Trust nothing that is said about quantum physics by a journalist until you have consulted someone who knows a little. All stories written by reporters about time travel, teleportation or multiple universes must not be believed.

Above all, anything you read that refers to quantum physics and also mentions consciousness, healing or God was written by someone who doesn’t understand any of the above.

I got a response about that article I wrote. Someone who preferred to remain anonymous said that my use of:
“words like rubbish to discredit views you don't agree with is a bit intolerant. Nothing in this world is absolutely certain including even our precious science. wisdom whispers: 'when you feel most certain, you should doubt yourself more'. Pride leads to a rapid fall, Lucifer can testify to that.”
Let me take the points one at a time.

Actually it IS acceptable to use words like “rubbish” to discredit view I don’t agree with when those “views” either have no evidence to support them or are based on lies. The claims I was criticizing were, in fact, based on lies, deliberate distortions and fraud. I specifically referred to the “bogus ‘therapists’ offering their health-related services using a device often called the QXCI.”

The QXCI machine claims to be a biofeedback tool that combines:
“the best of biofeedback, stress reduction, Rife machines, homeopathic medicine, bioresonance, electro-acupuncture, computer technology and quantum physics.”
That, I’m afraid is a deception, a lie and a fraud. It’s all utter and complete rubbish.

The complainant also says that nothing is absolutely certain. I agree entirely but at any current moment science has actually given us the best available explanation for the world and it’s contents. The fact that there is doubt doesn’t mean you can replace the doubt or gaps in scientific knowledge with fairytales.

As for doubt, yes, that’s a core part of the scientific method. That takes some confidence to understand.

As for the business about Lucifer, don’t you think it’s interesting that the name Lucifer, often given as the Christian boogeyman, the Devil, can be translated as “bringer of light”? It’s almost as if they didn’t like illumination and preferred their flock of sheep to remain in darkness. But maybe that’s just playing with words.

So sorry to the reader who complained, I’m not planning to change my thoughts or my words about quantum claptrap. It’s hogwash, nonsense and utter rubbish used by either the naïve, ill-educated or the fraudulent. Anyone selling such silliness deserves to be in the rubbish heap.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Weekend Post - GMO Bad science

c/o Natural News
You may have seen recently a horrible picture of a rat covered in tumours, supposedly as a result of consuming genetically modified food. If you didn’t then do a Google image search for “GMO rat tumors” and you can see for yourself. The pictures show a rather large white rat being held up by a “scientist” with enormous and gruesome bulges (the rat, not the scientist), some even bigger than the rat’s head. Along with these pictures were headlines including “study concludes that rats fed genetically modified corn grew massive tumors”, “shocking cancer findings” and others saying that GM foods cause “tumors, organ failure and premature death”.

I’m no defender of big food business and what can only be called their occasional shady business practices but we need to be rational as well as skeptical. What’s the truth behind these freaky rats?

It turns out that the truth is more complicated than the news reports (and the researchers) would have us believe.

The first problem is the “science” involved in the study. There wasn’t much of it.

Firstly the researchers from the University of Caen in France neglected to mention that this particular strain of rat (“Sprague-Dawley”) get exactly this sort of tumor at the drop of a hat. They’re known to develop these enormous growths when allowed unlimited food or if they develop a hormone imbalance after consuming maize contaminated with a particular common fungus, or even if they are just allowed to live to old age. Whether or not they were given GM food, they would probably have developed the gruesome growths anyway. The researchers neglected to mention this in their report. Suspicious yet?

Then there was the rather selective report the “scientists” gave of their results. Their report only gave the results of SOME of the test groups of rats, other test groups exposed to GM food actually ended up healthier than the control group who had not received any GM food. They also neglected to publish any actual statistics from these groups so we could see the actual results. Suspicious yet?

Then there’s a technical detail. Generally in tests like this, the test group (that receive the thing being tested) is roughly the same size as the control group (the ones that don’t). It makes the mathematics simpler. In this case the test group was four times larger than the control group. Professor Anthony Trewavas from the University of Edinburgh, was quoted by New Scientist magazine, saying “these results are of no value”. Suspicious yet?

Sorry to be picky but consider one other thing. The researchers didn’t allow reporters to seek comments from other scientists about the “findings” until after the report was published. Did they have something to hide? Like bad science?

Perhaps if we ignore all of this, gloss over the fact that these rats get the tumors anyway and ignore the scientific skullduggery and statistical weirdness, it might still make sense?

No, still no joy. Every other similar experiment has showed no such effect of GM foods. It’s possible that this one is true and all the others are false but that’s not likely, particularly when you consider one last thing. Who undertook the research.

The lead researcher, Gilles-Eric Séralini, isn’t afraid of declaring his position. He heads the scientific board of the Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering, an organization opposed in principle to genetically modified food. Did I mention that Séralini has a book and film coming out simultaneously, entitled “All of Us Guinea-Pigs Now?” Hardly unbiased. Suspicious yet?

I’m not going to state that GM foods are perfect, that’s not my point. My criticism, along with people infinitely more qualified than I am, is that the science in this case is dodgy. This study is deeply flawed and it’s results can’t therefore be taken seriously. If the critics of GM food want to persuade the people and the scientific community that GM foods are dangerous they need to come up with some real science rather than results like these that can so easily be dismissed. They don’t realize that when they do this they become their own worst enemies.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Yet another visitor dispensing wisdom (and fake degrees)

The papers have advertisements for a forthcoming visitor to Botswana, the hugely esteemed Dr John C Maxwell. He'll be offering "5 Levels of Leadership" at a conference at the Gaborone International Conference Centre. Maybe he's qualified to do that because apparently he's sold over 19 million books.

It's worth reflecting on the "Dr" part though.

His doctorate is Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He's doctorate is in Religion, not in Business, just like his Bachelors and Masters degrees.

But maybe the 19 million books qualify him instead? Actually if you look closely and read a little between the lines, I suspect that much of the writing is actually done by his "Book Writing Partner", Charlie Wetzel.

However what's more interesting is the second place on the menu: "Dr" David Molapo. Like Dr Maxwell, Molapo is primarily qualified in religion. His profile on his web site states that:
"Dr. David holds an Associates Degree in Math and Science, Bachelors in Education from Oakwood University, Masters in Education from Oral Roberts University, Doctorate in Religious Education from International Seminary."
Oakwood University is a private university run by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Oral Roberts University is rather more complex. It's certainly a recognised university, but only if you recognise rather controversial religious and bigoted establishment as "recognised".

My favorite though is "International Seminary". This is a non-accredited establishment of higher learning. Doctorates from this place are as recognized as doctorates written by me on a beer mat after a few drinks.

As always I'm not going to tell you whether you should or shouldn't attend Dr Maxwell's and MR Molapo's conference. If you really want to spend P3,000 on a day's uplifting hogwash that's entirely your business. Just know who's going to be spouting the hogwash. Then decide.