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On miracles

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on June 2, 2009


As I’ve often mentioned in this blog, philosopher David Hume famously said that “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish,” setting the bar for believing in miracles properly high.

Unfortunately, many people blatantly ignore Hume’s advice, moving that bar so low that banal coincidences suddenly count as “miracles,” reinforcing their preexisting supernaturalist view of the world. One such instance took place in the q&a session after a nice talk I attended a few days ago at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture. The talk was by Lawrence Bush, author of Waiting for God: The Spiritual Reflections of a Reluctant Atheist.

Bush gave an eminently sensible talk, starting out with the common observation of coincidences to which human beings attribute special meaning (a secular version of Carl Jung’s discredited idea of “syncronicity”). As Bush wryly commented at one point, while it is a good idea to pause and reflect on what happens to us in life, it is rather egomaniacal to imagine that the universe is sending us messages (often through catastrophes, personal or affecting others) just so that we can learn from our experiences.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, given the somewhat new-agey flavor of some (but by all means not all!) chapters of the Society for Ethical Culture, the q&a was as irritating as Bush’s talk had been level headed. One questioner in particular related a touching story of his adoptive grandmother being diagnosed with cancer and given six months life expectancy. The grandson reacted constructively to that abysmal prediction, using the remaining time to travel with his grandma to places where she had always wanted to go. Turns out the woman lived three years, which allowed for more travel and what I’m sure are indelibly good memories.

But then the grandson went back to the doctor and pointedly asked: “You said six months, she lived three years. What are the chances of that?” To which the doctor apparently replied with a no-nonsense (if a bit insensitive, assuming things really went that way) “One in seven hundred.” The conclusion of the story is that the questioner asked “What is the difference between 1/700 and a miracle?” strongly implying that his grandmother had of course been the beneficiary of a miracle.


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The misuse of the title “doctor”

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on June 2, 2009

Why is it that so many pseudo-scientists like to affix “Dr” in front of their name, even when they are not real doctors and even when they do everything in their power to undermine the very science that bestows that title upon people? Latest case I ran across is “Dr. Ramsey” over at who is gloating over acupuncture in this entry. Now  a real doctor would know that over and over it has been shown that the meridian theory of acupuncture does not hold, that it doesn’t matter where you stick the needles or even if you stick them at all. But that would be a real doctor. According to her own profile page at the above mentioned website “Dr. Ramsey” is:

a highly regarded naturopathic physician, lifestyle expert and facilitator. She completed her Bachelor of Science degree at Thomas Jefferson University, practiced as a Registered Nurse for 10 years in Cardiac Surgery and Emergency Room settings and has now maintains a private practice in Paradise Valley, AZ for the last 10 years. She is a member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, The Arizona Naturopathic Medical Association, The Institute of Functional Medicine, and the International Hormone Society.


***bangs head against table***

At least others have some sort of PhD which technically gives them the title “doctor” but this one has the audacity to call herself a doctor with only a bachelors degree! And by the way a Bachelors of Science in what, I would like to know? What was her actual major? I guess this goes to show what kind of people go on to become naturopaths, eh?

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Homeopathy Qualifies for the Million Dollar Challenge

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on June 2, 2009

A quick clarification from the man himself. James Randi apparently has been asked by some homeopath bozo to put it in writing, in the JREF website that homeopathy is eligible for the Million Dollar Challenge and he obliged. Now let’s see how many homeopaths will line up to first embarras themselves and then rationalize it all away..somehow!

Skeptify this poll

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on June 2, 2009

How does PZ Meyers, the Pharyngula Dark Lord, find all these polls that need fixing? I guess it must be his readers that send the links in. Either way he points us to another poll that needs some skeptifying. This one asks the following no brainer:

How old is the Earth?

about 6000 years old
about 4.5 billion years old
I am not sure

Skeptify brothers and sisters. Skeptify!

Age of Autism – Age of Denialism!

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on June 2, 2009

The deluded folks over at Age of Autism like to cling to the outdated idea that vaccines somehow are responsible for autism, despite the fact that many studies show no such link, despite the fact that their poster boy, Andrew Wakefield, has bestowed heaps upon heaps of shame and humiliation to their movement, despite the fact that they have nothing to support their claims, but some testimonials which they think must trump anything else. The arrogance of their ignorance is truly amazing to watch, if it were not so destructive and dangerous.

Their new post titled, ironically,  “Why Good Parents Believe Myths About Autism and Vaccines” sheds some more light on their arrogant ignorance. It’s the usual conspiracy theory claims about how we are being scared into vaccinating our kids, blah, blah, blah and most importantly it takes on a Newsweek article of the same title, which they don’t even link to, lazy arrogants that they are, which goes to show you what kind of people you are dealing with. They will criticize something but not link to it, even though they gladly link to sites that favor their stupid ideas. And speaking of sites that support the stupid idea that vaccines cause autism, they bring out, what else, the 14 studies website, another ridiculous attempt to discredit the research done on vaccines by basically saying “it’s only 14 studies”. We want more!

I’m not even going to attempt to dismantle the pile of horse shit that the 14 studies website is, but instead I will destroy their credibility by directly addressing on claim on their home page, specifically the following:

By reading and analyzing every published study used to “prove” vaccines do not cause autism, this website will show you that:

Not one study compares vaccinated children to unvaccinated children — every study only looks at children who have received vaccines. This is like comparing smokers who smoke one pack a day to those who smoke two packs a day, seeing no difference in cancer rates, and saying cigarettes don’t cause cancer.

When will the idiots writing these things learn to make up lies that are not easily demonstrated to be lies? It is embarrassing really to make the claim above, which can so quickly be shot down with the shortest amount of research. One needs only to look up the famous Danish Study to see what I mean. The Danish study followed up all kids born in Denmark between 1991 and 1998, ALL 537,303 of them, of which 440,655 received the MMR vaccine and the rest did not. So what did the study report?

After adjustment for potential confounders, the relative risk of autistic disorder in the group of vaccinated children, as compared with the unvaccinated group, was 0.92 (95 percent confidence interval, 0.68 to 1.24), and the relative risk of another autistic-spectrum disorder was 0.83 (95 percent confidence interval, 0.65 to 1.07). There was no association between the age at the time of vaccination, the time since vaccination, or the date of vaccination and the development of autistic disorder.

Would you believe that? They did in fact compare the vaccinated children to the unvaccinated children, which makes the 14 studies website writers at best a bunch of ignorant, lazy buffoons and at worst a bunch of liars! Take your pick, I think I proved my point.

If you’re going to lie about the news, at least make sure it’s plausable..

Posted in Uncategorized by Skepdude on June 2, 2009


In case you have not heard by now, an Air France flight from Brazil to France has was lost over the South Atlantic several hundred miles off the cost of South America.  All passengers are believed lost and the cause of the apparent crash has not yet been determined.   While this is a sad and tragic event, it seems that some are already making up sensational stories to grab attention.

Via Wikinews:

According to the Portugese newspaper Jornal de Notícias, several passengers on board Air France Flight 447 sent text messages to family members shortly before the plane disappeared from radar screens in Brazil. The flight was scheduled to arrive in Paris at 11:10 CET on June 1, 2009.

The messages included “I love you” and “I’m afraid.” So far authorities in Brazil and France have yet to find the wreckage of the plane which disappeared from radar at approximately 01:30 GMT on June 1. There were 228 people on board the plane.

This story has apparently been circulating on Norweigian and Portugese media outlets.   It hasn’t made it to any major English language news sources (that I know of) as of yet.   This is exactly the kind of tear-jerking, morbid, dramatic news that sells papers.    It is the kind of legend that gets better and better over time.   (No doubt someone sent a text message asking that in their memory an e-mail chain letter be started.)

The problem:   This almost certainly simply did not happen.   It couldn’t have happened.    The aircraft in question was at least 400 statute miles from shore when it is believed to have first experienced trouble.   That makes it effectively impossible that a cell phone could have gotten a signal from any land-based cell towers.   Even sending a message via a cell phone when over land is a hit or miss proposition.  The aircraft’s metal structure makes getting a good signal difficult and an aircraft may come in and out of cell site coverage within seconds.

It’s possible that a satellite phone could have sent a text message from the region, but satellite phones and messagers require clear line of sight to the satellite to communicate and would not be able to send a message from within an aircraft.   Satellite signals are weak to begin with and the aluminum skin of the aircraft would make sending a text message effectively impossible, except in the extremely unlikely circumstance that a passenger had a straight shot at the satellite out their window.    Even if this were the case, the South Atlantic is not well covered by satellite service and no handheld satellite phones have extensive coverage in the area except for Iridium, which is a very large phone that one is unlikely to have on their person.


More Backpeddaling from David Kirby

Posted in Neurologica by Skepdude on June 2, 2009


Maybe David Kirby, author of Evidence of Harm and one of the major proponents of the notion that thimerosal in vaccines was largely responsible for the recent increase in autism diagnoses, is sincere when he claims he is not anti-vaccine. I say that because he has backed so far off from his stance that vaccines are the culprit – not completely, and without overtly acknowledging his past errors, but has put some significant distance between him current position and his prior certainty.

In his 2005 book Kirby asks the question:

Did the injection of organic mercury directly into the developing systems of small children cause irreparable harm? It’s a plausible proposition, and a hugely important question. If the answer is affirmative, someone will have to pay to pick up the pieces.

He coyly insists he was just asking questions, but the book makes a strong and, in my opinion, one sided case that there is “evidence of harm” – specifically evidence that thimerosal was a major contributor to autism. It also builds a case for a grand conspiracy to hide this fact from the public. Kirby then made a career out of promoting the notion of a link between vaccines and autism with government and professional malfeasance. He became a hero of the anti-vaccine movement.

Yet he insisted, implausibly, he was not “anti-vaccine.” As recently as December 2007 Kirby was writing this nonsense in the Huff Po:

But if thimerosal is vindicated, or shown to be a very minor player, then what about other vaccine ingredients? And what about the rather crowded vaccine schedule we now impose upon families of young children? And what about reports of unvaccinated children in Illinois, California and Oregon who appear to have significantly lower rates of autism? Shouldn’t we throw some research dollars into studying them?

By this time the handwriting was on the wall – thimerosal in vaccines is not linked to autism.  After moving the goalpost several times on the evidence, it could be moved no longer. The removal of thimerosal from the routine vaccine schedule by 2002 was followed by a continued increase in autism disgnoses – without even a blip. The predicted (by Kirby and others) precipitous decrease in autism diagnoses never came.

Kirby and the anti-vaccine crowd moved quietly over to the other ingredients in vaccines, in what has been called their “toxin gambit.” This move, more than anything else, is what convinced me that this was all really about being anti-vaccine. The MMR vaccine was vindicated. Now thimerosal was vindicated. So there must be something else in those vaccines that’s the problem – even though there is no evidence to link vaccines at all to autism.

Now Kirby has quietly backed off even more. He writes:

I believe that most ASD cases have environmental triggers (probably more than one) that activate certain genetic predispositions (again, probably more than one) and create some of the symptoms that we call “autism.” I also believe that vaccines may have played a role in triggering some – though certainly not all – cases of regressive autism. Even if that number is a small minority, it seems sensible to me to study the mechanism of action, in hopes of finding clues to the development of autism in all those other children.

Kirby is slowing moving over to the position of the scientific community he has so long criticized for not listening to parents and being blind to the true causes of autism.  He’s not quite there yet, but now it is mostly a matter of emphasis. His position now seems to be that autism is a complex set of disorders with many genetic and environmental contributions. Congratulations – that is what scientists have been saying for years.