Friday, July 31, 2009

I'm Starting to Read about the History of Psi Research

I'm about halfway through "Ghost Hunters; William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death" by Deborah Blum. It is basically the history of psychic research from the beginning of the spiritualist movement in the mid-nineteenth century.
It is remarkable how similar it is to the attitudes and activities of psychic research today.

Many serious scientists, even at the beginning, like Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, refused to have anything to do with what they saw as irrational superstition. Others, like Alfred Russel Wallace wanted to use the scientific method to study it empirically and others just wanted to debunk everything.

As is still true today, a lot of charlatans and con artists were exposed by the researchers and professional magicians were especially good at that kind of debunking, but there remained those who really preferred to study reports of phenomena that were less easily dismissed. This latter group tended to get marginalized by mainstream scientists and respected scientific journals refused to publish their papers. Not much has changed.

I don't know what direction the book will take from here, but if I think it's interesting, I'll write a review, (personally I think the butler did it).

The Power of Religion?

The news over the last few days has included articles about the trials of parents whose children died and about a man who fell and broke his wrist. The trials were both for the prosecution of parents whose children died while family and friends prayed for a cure instead of taking a child to the hospital. In neither case have I seen it reported that the parents have given up their faith in the healing power of prayer, so apparently, no one has learned anything from these experiments. Could these people be so brainwashed that they can't see a simple cause and effect relationship, or could it be, maybe, that if they turn away from their religion they have to admit they killed their own children.

Oh, the guy who fell and broke his wrist was the Pope. It would seem that even he can get no special protection from his religious beliefs.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Missing Birth Certificate Unsolved Mystery

I thought the baloney about Obama's birth certificate would have died down by now, but it seems more conservative pundits are jumping on the bandwagon. Lou Dobbs, the self-appointed guardian of America's borders, picked up the birth cert banner and is keeping the story alive even though the head of CNN told him that researchers had determined that there is nothing to the claim of doubts about Obama's citizenship. This is yet another example of things that are good when it benefits the GOP but bad when connected to the Dems.

Remember a few years ago when the Republicans wanted to abolish the rule requiring the President to be born in the US? That was when they thought they could get Arnold Schwarzenegger elected President. Now that the shoe's on the other foot, a President born outside the US will put us on the slippery slope to anarchy. By the way, does anyone else think it's ironic that John McCain was born in Panama?

So, aside from being a Democrat, could there be any other reason why an Austrian might be a better choice than a Kenyan? Hmmm, what could be the difference between the two? It turns out that the answer was available in comments on some of the political blogs. Consistently President Obama is referred to, not primarily as a liberal or a thief or any of the usual labels, but as "that nigger." So, apparently the reason why people are clinging to this discredited paperwork problem is that they are so bigoted that they can't accept that a black man could be the legitimately elected President of the United States.

All through the 1960s and 70s as I was growing up the talk was about leveling the playing field and righting the wrongs perpetrated on the minorities up to that time. I honestly believed that racial prejudice would be a thing of the past by now. Of course, I also thought that we'd all be commuting in our personal flying machines. Still, if the Republican party doesn't disassociate itself from this kind of hate, the GOP will lose the support of everyone who at least needs to appear unbiased, like all the rich CEO's and be left as the party exclusively of white supremacists and religious fanatics.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Facts Are Just an Opinion

I was drawn to the Pew Research Center's website because of their recent survey on public perception of science, but I stuck around to look at some of their other data and, as readers of science and freethinker blogs already know, conservative xians and political conservatives are, on average, less educated, less knowledgeable about science and less trusting of science data. Although I don't have hard data to back this up, it's been my observation that conservatives are also much more inclined toward information bias.

I base this last observation on the proliferation and avid following of right wing TV and radio programs and the greater inclination of conservatives to censor and suppress opposing views in comparison to liberals. This combination of ignorance and information bias makes them the ideal targets for propagandists who want to obscure the facts.

If Rush Limbo says that global warming is a liberal conspiracy to destroy America, then decades of observation and testing become irrelevant and if the pastor says the world is 6000 years old, well you know. What I'd like to know is why is this legal?

We have libel and slander laws to protect individuals from having lies told about them, but if corporations and "think" tanks spend millions of dollars to spread lies that injure scientists, teachers, learning institutions and museums, that's just a difference of opinion and it's protected by our free speech rights.

I suspect that ignorant, fundy politicians and politicians worried about losing fundy votes have a lot to do with this difference in legal protection, but I can't help wondering what would happen if university presidents and museum directors started bringing lawsuits against groups like the Despicable Institute claiming that the plaintiffs' reputation and business were damaged by anti-science propaganda. In a perfect world it would bankrupt the lying scum.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Can’t Do Anything Constructive? Then Ruin the Ones Who Can

Today, John Boehner (R-OH), the house minority leader, led a group of about 100 Republican House members in protesting against the Obama’s health care plan by giving one minute speeches that each included the question “Where are the Jobs,” according to an article on the Roll Call website. After about two hours of this, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) got up and reminded them that the job losses were worse under the Bush administration.
Boehner said that his constituents want to know about jobs, but I suspect his constituents also want to know how they’re ever going to afford health care. The truth is that this has nothing to do with what his constituents want. The Republicans just want to link all of Obama’s policies together, paint them as bad decisions and try to make them fail. They’ve even said as much in interviews, and it’s because they think if Obama’s efforts fail, more people will vote for Republicans in the next election.
Maybe this strategy will work for the Republicans, but if I were one of the 11.4% of John Boehner’s constituents who is unemployed or one of who knows how many that is working but can’t afford health insurance, I think I would be at least as interested in seeing some effort made to assure me that some disease or injury won’t leave my family bankrupt and homeless. The current Republican strategy has nothing to offer but a warm feeling because the GOP won. Hurray! The stimulus failed and we’ve lost everything in the recession. Hurray! My daughter has pneumonia but if I take her to the hospital, I can’t afford to feed the rest of my family. Hurray! The energy plan failed and I can’t afford gas or find any alternative fuel sources so I can’t drive to work or heat the house. Let’s all go vote Republican.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Family at C Street Horror Show

I just blundered onto the scariest things I’ve ever read concerning our government and religious fundamentalists. Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) and Gov. Mark Sanford of SC have both been linked to the C Street House run by a secretive, conservative religious group called the Family that seems to have strong political connections all over the world. All of the inside information on the group and the house seem to come from a single source; Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who stayed in the C Street House for a month and then wrote the book “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.” Here’s a link to an interview with Sharlet in the “Las Vegas Sun” and a video of part of the investigation being done by “The Rachel Maddow Show.” See what you think.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

My Corgi Gave Up Her Legs for Science

Jesse, my Pembroke Welsh Corgi is showing off her gams in honor of a study posted on "Not Exactly Rocket Science". Heidi Parker, leading a team of scientists from the National Human Genome Research Institute has found that short-legged dogs have and extra copy of the FGF4 gene for bone growth causing them to become, um, short-legged. It is hoped that this discovery will lead to effective ways of dealing with dwarfism in humans. Hurray for short legged dogs, oh, and Heidi Parker's team too.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Apparently I need to attack P.Z. Meyers

In a recent post on Pharyngula, while P.Z. continued his verbal sparring with Mooney and Kirshenbaum, he mentioned that when people attack him on his blog, the regular Pharyngula commenters tend to go to the attacker's blog and leave comments. Well, I figured since I'm mostly only talking to myself over here, this would be a great way to increase traffic. So here goes: P.Z. Meyers is a big poopie-head! Wow I can almost sense outraged squidophiles racing to their keyboards now.

Ohio Churches Think They’re the Fun Police

Governor Strickland of Ohio has decided to allow slot machines at horse racing tracks, because the state is out of money and he needs to find a new source. I’m not a big supporter of the idea, since I’ll never use the slot machines and the people who will use them the most are gambling addicts. At the same time I don’t think it’s the job of the government to illegalize everything that could be addictive, so, friends and relatives of gambling addicts, show some spine and take control of the car keys and charge cards. The Ohio church people, however, think that it is the responsibility of the government to illegalize anything that they think is immoral.

OK, church people, take a walk around the neighborhood and look at the other houses of worship. Do they believe all the same things that you believe in your church? No, that’s why they’re in different buildings. So what makes you think that whatever is believed in your building should be imposed on everyone else in Ohio?

Nonetheless, the newspapers all have articles about how church people have vowed to fight the Governor’s decision with law suits and protests. The governor, himself is an ordained Methodist minister (it hurts my brain to write that) so it doesn’t take much extrapolation to conclude that not all religious types are in agreement, but that seems to be irrelevant to the outraged guardians of goodness.

Here’s the thing, church people, there’s a place for you to dictate your version of morality; your church. The job of a religious group is to impose their beliefs and moral codes on the people who have agreed to be part of that group, then if one from your group breaks the no slot machine rule, they can be shunned or stoned or forced to clean up after the potluck or whatever. What you do not have the right to do is go out into the greater community and say “All you people who have no prohibition against video slot machines in your sacred texts, must, nonetheless, be deprived of video slot machines so that we are not tempted to break the no video slot machine commandment of our religion.” So, to use the popular sheep herding analogy: go tend your own flock and keep your nose out of other flocking people’s business.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Followers of Space Gods and Sky Gods Are a Lot Alike

I started watching a program about people who believe extraterrestrials helped build our civilization, thinking it might be good for a laugh, but after several minutes of observing how much their method of collecting and presenting information was like the techniques used by creationists, I had to change channels or lose the will to live. When I first read Chariots of the Gods as a teenager, I thought it sounded kinda cool, but when I realized that it gave aliens credit for all the great works of civilization, reducing the humans to spectators or unskilled labor, it just pissed me off.
The show covered all the usual examples; the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Nazca Lines, Machu Pichu, Palenque, et cetera. The alien supporters first argued for what creationist would call irreducible complexity. These great works were far too complex, precise and big for measly humans to have created. The Nazca lines, they assert, are only visible from the air, so they must be for alien spacecraft and the sarcophagus lid at Palenque illustrates a man in a spaceship. Furthermore, all the petroglyphs and cave paintings show people in space suits.
The Great Pyramid must have been alien built because too many blocks had to be made and moved in too short of a time, the ramps would be too long, and the base is too closely aligned to the compass points. This makes perfect sense if you disregard the skilled workers’ village, the tools, the internal ramps, the ability to see the North Star, and previously built pyramids that clearly show their evolution of pyramid building.
The lines and pictures on the Nazca plain look a little like airport runways, they include drawn representations of animals that are hard to make out while standing on the plain and it’s weird because nobody lives there. The lines actually mark underground water sources, some of which are still there, all the designs are visible from the hills adjacent to the plain, so aircraft are not required, and even if they were only visible from above, most such art has a religious connection and many religions have sky gods who could be the intended viewers; spaceships aren’t necessary.
Machu Pichu is just amazing and no one is sure how or why it is there. Since Machu Pichu is largely still a mystery, space aliens is the only logical explanation, right?
The lid of the sarcophagus of King Palenque looks like an illustration of a man in a spaceship and he’s buried in the middle of a pyramid, so he must be really, really important, like a god from outer space. The biggest problem for alien adherents with this assertion is that the Mayans had a written language which has been translated, so we know exactly who King Palenque was (he was a king) and we know what the picture on the lid represents (the king going to his afterlife). While we’re on the subject of pictures, crude drawings of people with headdresses may look like they have space helmets, but we already knew that people wore headdresses.
Like I said, advocates of chariots of the gods are a lot like creationist; they start with a preconception and try to make the evidence fit their beliefs rather than basing their beliefs on accumulated evidence, they select the data that seems to fit and ignore, remain ignorant of, or disparage anything that doesn’t fit, and invent lies to cover whatever is left over. I wonder if the space alien gods taught them those techniques.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Supporters of Palin Unite, If You Can Read the Map

I had a real WTF moment yesterday when I noticed an article that said, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll, 43% of Americans were at least somewhat likely to vote for Sarah Palin for President in 2012 and of that group 19% were very likely to vote for her. I thought it must be some kind of a joke; 19% of American voters couldn't possibly be that stupid. On reflection though, I realized that I shouldn't be surprised at all.

First, Palin is opposed to abortions and I've said before that pro-lifers would vote for Satan if he ran on a pro-life platform. Too many voters have only that one criterion for choosing a candidate, and all other information is either ignored or deemed irrelevant.

Second, she's a fundamentalist xian and fundies think only other fundies should be in office because a fundy would never lie, cheat, steal, fornicate or any of the other sinful things that fundy politicians keep getting caught doing in office. Furthermore Palin would understand that the founding fathers wanted everyone in the US to be xian and have xian teachings and ceremonies in all public venues.

Third, she's a young earth creationist and therefore knows that transitional fossils and Charles Darwin are mentioned nowhere in the bible. Furthermore she knows that all the millions of fossils and libraries full of scientific studies in universities and museums all over the world only represent a vague opinion that is part of a secular plot to undermine xianity. Besides, church ministers with bachelors' of theology degrees from xian colleges are far better educated in earth science than the intellectual elite with their hoity-toity PHd's in biology, geology, archaeology, astronomy, physics, chemistry and their ilk.

Fourth, she's not part of the intellectual elite that think they're so much smarter and better educated than the real Americans who made it all the way through high school and know that if that college stuff were really important there would be reality shows about it on TV. Palin is one of the people, and folks would feel like they could drink a beer with her. She understands that the most important requisite to the US Presidency is being down to earth. People will say of her, "She's just like me. I don't know if Africa is a country or a continent either and I don't think that information is important for someone involved in international politics."

Fifth, she supports the real Americans that are forgotten by most presidential candidates; the ones who scream racial epithets and death threats against the current president at her rallies, the ones who advocate secession from the US, the militant xian radicals who want to impose xianity on all Americans by force of arms, and all the other people who think that anyone who disagrees with their views is not a real American and should be driven out of the country or otherwise disposed of so that only real American ignorance, bigotry, xenophobia, hatred and violence can be found from sea to shining sea.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Boston or Madhatter's Tea Party

I happened to catch part of an interview with an historian who was talking about what led to the Americans' Declaration of Independence, when the interviewer asked him about the Boston Tea Party. The historian described what occurred to motivate the colonists to destroy the shipload of tea and, although I had heard it all before I hadn't made the connection, that the Republican Tea Parties have gotten it all wrong. If you haven't heard about the GOP tea parties (lucky you), they were designed to be rallies against the tax increases under the current administration and trying to harken back to our founding fathers' protests against unfair taxation.

I always thought that these obviously contrived parties masquerading as a grass roots movement were pretty silly since 90% of taxpayers were receiving tax cuts at the time and the only tax increases were actually roll-backs of G. W. Bush's tax cuts for the richest 10% of taxpayers. I sort of imagined corporate boards of directors wearing slogan adorned T-shirts over their power suits while waving tea bags in the air.

What I realized after listening to the historian is, the Republicans who came up with the tea party idea got it all wrong. The Boston Tea Party wasn't about taxes. What happened was that the East India Company had a huge surplus of tea warehoused in England that was killing the old quarterly earnings. The British government had a cunning plan. They loaded the tea on ships and sent them to the American colonies where they would sell all the tea cheaply. The surplus turns to ready cash, the colonists save lots of money on discount tea and everyone goes away happy, right? Wrong; a lot of colonists were involved in smuggling tea into America and selling it. They saw the situation as a big company coming in, selling tea at artificially low prices to put all the colonial entrepreneurs out of business. Therefore, the Boston Tea Party was a protest against business monopolies by big companies and not about taxes.

So, as I said, the GOP got it all wrong because they thought they were protesting taxes like the patriots at the birth of our republic. Actually many of the wealthiest 10% represent businesses that are much more like the East India Company in the way they eliminate their competitors and try to monopolize the market than they are like their forefathers struggling to stay in business, so the modern tea party attendees not only are protesting the wrong thing, they are more likely to represent the side whose tea got thrown over the side.

It's All Science

I read a lot of skeptics' websites because I mostly agree with them and I think they provide a good service by presenting a more materialistic viewpoint. Where my views diverge from some of theirs is, for one, I've seen evidence of ghosts so I can't deny their existence and two, I try to take an agnostic view toward most of the woo stuff.

This causes some confusion for people because (I think) they assume that believing in ghosts means I believe in afterlife as expressed by religions or that I support some of the other beliefs espoused by proponents of channeling and mediumship et al. What I'm really saying is that I've experienced something that I can't explain, but I think it is a phenomenon that others could also experience and I think it deserves more study. If the results of the studies indicated that temperal lobe epilepsy can be caused by visiting Gettysburg, so be it, but I still want to know what's really going on.

I also believe that other psychic claims should be tested and the results should be treated with the same respect as any other psychological study. There is so much we can learn about brain function, perception and cognition, especially with all the tools we now have to track the workings of the brain, that I think refusing to pursue such experiments or not treating the results with respect, is a wasted opportunity.

I realize that the way attitudes are right now, a scientist who even expresses an interest in psychic research could cost him his career, so there may be many people out there right now who would love to be involved in such research but dare not mention it for fear of being marginalized. There are many others, however, who have decided that psy is all bunk and any research, no matter how well done, deserves no concideration. These last mentioned people remind me too much of fundies. They have decided what does exist and what doesn't and no amount of evidence will sway them from their opinion. Anyone who decides before the experiment is done, what is or is not true and/or refuses to accept the results of an experiment because it doesn't match their preconceptions, is irrational, biased and a poor scientist. Results are all that matters. If some one does an experiment with good controls and that can be repeated which proves that under certain stimuli monkeys will fly out of a person's butt, no one has the right to say it isn't true, especially if they haven't even tried to reproduce the experiment.

Unfortunately there are way too many people in the skeptical community that have made up their minds before the fact and sneer at anyone who disagrees with their views. Insisting that psy experiments are useless and their results are invalid isn't very different from creationists insisting that the study of evolution is useless and the results invalid. Any hypothesis has a right to be tested and the proof that comes from it deserves to be accepted, whether you like it or not. Anything short of that is the suppression of knowledge and the intentional perpetuation of ignorance.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Ghost Experiment

Yesterday I was looking for an online video or transcript from the National Geographic Channel show "Is It Real? Ghosts" because it included an interview with Richard Wiseman about a study he did in Mary King's Close in Edinburgh, Scotland. It took a long time to find the video and in the process, I looked at a lot of other videos purporting to be genuine evidence of ghosts. First of all, every aspiring special effects cinematographer over the age of five makes a video that they post on YouTube as real ghost video. Some are really awful, most are obviously faked, but a very small percentage look very real and I couldn't figure out how they could be faked. None of the videos had enough context to give them any real credibility, though, so they were just fun to watch. Considering all the attempts to fool viewers, it would be almost impossible to present any evidence that could convince a skeptic that ghosts are real with anything less than a face to face introduction.

Eventually I got around to watching the show with Richard Wiseman. In case you don't know who he is, He's a noted psychologist, author, magician and skeptic with a really fun blog. On the "Is It Real" episode he was talking about an experiment he did in the reportedly haunted underground chambers of Mary King's Close. His interview didn't really give enough information so I had to do some googling for more information. Wiseman took pictures of four rooms; two are said to have lots of ghostly activity, and two, not so much. The pictures were posted on the internet, so people could vote on which locations looked most scary. The rooms supposed to be more haunted were picked by the internet voters as more scary.

the next step was to place volunteers in the rooms and have them report on the number and type of ghostly experiences they had. Once again, those in the rooms with the reputations reported the most sensations of haunting. Richard Wiseman concluded that a location that is perceived as scary causes people to feel a heightened sense of being haunted (that was my understanding of the experiment in the Cliff Notes version. Sorry, Richard if I got it all wrong.)

The video alone is less detailed and almost sounds like Richard Wiseman was saying that he put volunteers in rooms where ghosts are reportedly seen and the volunteers saw the ghosts, so that proves that ghosts are imaginary. Isn't that clear as mud?

What I would like to have seen as part of the experiment, that I didn't find in my internet search, would be a control group. If volunteers were placed in locations that had similar physical characteristics to the rooms in Mary King's Close, but had no reports of haunting, it would reenforce the results if the control group reported similar experiences. I don't think the experiment as I understood it would convince many people. Those that support the assertion that the Close is haunted would merely say that the participants experienced more ghostly phenomena in the scary rooms because those rooms are more haunted.