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The Pope, the Church, and skepticism

Posted in Bad Astronomy by Skepdude on April 14, 2010

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Introduction

This is a bit of a long post. As such, I’ve broken it up into sections, to help me corral my thoughts, and make it more likely people will actually read what I’ve written before leaving comments.

Yes, that’s a hint. I’ve spent quite some time wrestling with these issues the past two days, and I’m interested in rebuttals as well as supporting arguments. I urge people to comment, but please read what I’ve written first, and please keep it civil.

So.

By now you’ve probably heard that the Pope is in trouble. A letter written and signed by him seems to indicate that he was complicit in, at the very least, holding up discussion on what to do with an Oakland priest who was a pedophile. That’s pretty awful, even more so when considering that it took him four years to get around to even writing this letter after he was informed of the trouble, and during that time the priest was still working with children. At worst, it looks very much like Ratzinger, at the time a Cardinal, may have actively stalled the Church’s actions against the priest.

Let me be as clear as I can here: if Pope Ratzinger in any way stalled or prevented an investigation, Church-based or otherwise, into any aspect of child molestation by priests, then he needs to be indicted and brought to trial; an international tribunal into all this is also necessary and should be demanded by every living human on the planet. Obviously, a very thorough and major investigation of the Catholic Church’s practices about this needs to be held. It is a rock solid fact that there are a lot of priests who have molested children, and it’s clear that the Church has engaged in diversionary tactics ever since this became public (like the abhorrent Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone who says homosexuality lies at the heart of this scandal).

The skeptic community has been up in arms about this, as one would expect, since organized religion is a major target of skeptical thinkers. There have been rumors and misinformation about all this, including a dumb article (one of Rupert Murdoch’s papers, natch) that said that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins — both noted skeptics and atheists — were going to try to arrest the Pope if he visited England. This has been debunked by Dawkins himself.

But the idea of Dawkins swooping in to arrest the Pope got a lot of people fired up, notably in the skeptic community. A lot of folks have sounded off about what the skeptic community should do about this as individuals, as organized groups, and as a whole.

But the ideas being tossed around, to me, are a bit confused. The bottom line is, what role does the skeptic movement, such as it is, have in all this?

It depends on which part of this issue you mean. First there’s the Pope’s behavior. Then there’s the Church’s behavior, and then why the Church did the things it did. Finally, there’s the issue of the skeptics’ behavior.

Here are my thoughts.

1) The Pope

This is actually pretty cut and dried.

I agree in part with Rebecca Watson’s premise that the Pope needs to be called before justice. However, I do in fact care who does it and why; more on that below. But the important thing is that there is a fair trial and justice is served.

Basically, it seems that the Pope was putting the Church before the children, children who were being sexually molested. That is so abhorrent that words fail.

However, I don’t know if this is specifically a skeptical issue. It’s more a human issue, and a criminal issue. If the Pope had said that the Bible says it’s OK to molest children, then yeah, critical thinking and skepticism come into play. But if he was trying to protect the Church and was breaking laws (moral or civil) to do it, then see my comment above re: resignation and indictment. That’s something anyone should understand, whether or not they are a skeptic.

Skepticism deals with issues of the paranormal, issues with faith, issues where scientific evidence can be used to test a claim. In this case, I don’t see skeptics needing to be involved more than any other interest group.

2) The Church

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Randi, skepticism, and global warming

Posted in Bad Astronomy by Skepdude on December 17, 2009

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Yesterday, James Randi posted an entry on the JREF’s Swift blog about global warming. In it, he expressed some doubt over the consensus that humans are causing global warming. He does not doubt that warming is happening, as he made clear, just the role of humans in that change.

Unfortunately, one source he used in his essay was the Petition Project. This was an attempt by global warming denialists to muddy the climate issue, and one that has been thoroughly trashed — it’s really just as awful as the similarly ridiculous, and just as thoroughly nonsensical, attempt by the Discovery Institute to get a petition by scientists who doubt evolution. Randi also made a claim about the complexity of global warming, and how difficult it is to model, casting some uncertainty on it. As he said, this makes it very difficult for someone not well-versed in the field to come to a well-informed decision on climate change.

I was unaware that Randi had just posted his essay when, yesterday, I wrote a post asking for donations to the JREF. Obviously, the comments focused on Randi’s post. While some were fair, I was taken aback by the vitriol of many of the comments; some people were out-and-out calling Randi a denialist, which is ridiculous. Other comments were worse.

Needless to say, this made quite a splash in the skeptical blogosphere as well. Posts and comments sprouted up everywhere about it. Some were thoughtful, others, um, not so much. I was surprised by how many skeptics were quick to vilify Randi, again accusing him of being a global warming denialist. I got emails from people fearing for the skeptical movement as a whole!

Instead of rending my garments over this, I read Randi’s post carefully, and then sent him a note outlining why the Petition Project is a crock, as well as saying that yes, mathematical models of climate are very complex, but that doesn’t change observations indicating the reality of global warming or our role in it. Randi told me he was writing a followup, so I decided not to say anything about it here until his new post went up. I wanted to make sure I had all the facts before commenting.

Randi posted that followup blog entry today. As I expected, he took the new information into account, admitting that he was unaware of the dubious nature of the petition, and re-affirming that he is not denying global warming is occurring.

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Mainstream scaremongering over Gardasil

Posted in Bad Astronomy by Skepdude on August 20, 2009

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Gardasil is the brand name of a vaccination that protects young girls and women against the human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that has been positively linked with cervical cancer along with other horrible diseases. It also can trigger cancers in men as well.

I’ve written about this topic before; 4000 women in the United States die every year alone from cervical cancer, an appalling 1/3 fatality rate for those diagnosed with the disease. Tens of millions of people — both men and women — carry HPV.

Gardasil protects young women from ever getting HPV. These women have a substantially lower chance of contracting the virus and getting cervical cancer. I consider that a very, very good thing.

But you wouldn’t think so if you read the New York Times, or the (Australian) ABC News. Both posted articles playing up the dangers of Gardasil as revealed by a new government study of the vaccine. That would be fine if it were true, but both reports, in my opinion, unfairly inflate the apparent danger. The ABC article is particularly egregious, with a headline saying “US doctors question Gardasil side effects” when it’s clear from the article that this isn’t really the case.

What are the dangers? The worst one would of course be death. In a study of the vaccine, there were 20 deaths of young girls at some time after they got the shot. Twenty! That sounds like a lot! However, there are two MAJOR problems with that statement:

1) There is no obvious link between the deaths and the vaccination other than in time. One girl died from drug abuse. Another from hepatitis, and others from embolisms, cardiac failure, and other problems. While these are all very sad — and as a father of a young girl at the age to get Gardasil, my heart aches for those families — none of these can be directly tied to the vaccination.

2) There were 20 deaths out of 7 million girls who received the vaccine. Those odds are 1 in 350,000. That’s roughly the same odds as dying from falling off a bed, chair, or other furniture.

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The AVN is reaping what they sowed

Posted in Bad Astronomy, Skepdude by Skepdude on August 7, 2009

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I’m not shedding too many tears over the tsunami of bad press the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) is receiving right now.

I’ve written about them before, oh yes. They are the ones headed by Meryl Dorey, the woman who says vaccinations are dangerous, who says no one dies of pertussis, who says that it’s better not to vaccinate, who insinuates (at the 11:50 mark of that video) that doctors only vaccinate children because it’s profitable for them. She says that, even though on that live TV program she sat a few feet away from Toni and David McCaffery, parents who had just lost their four week old daughter to pertussis because she was too young to be vaccinated yet and the herd immunity in Sydney was too low to suppress the pertussis bacterium. This year alone, three babies in Australia, including young Dana McCaffery, have died from pertussis.

Not enough parents are vaccinating their children. And groups like the AVN spread misinformation about vaccines, spread it like a foul odor on the wind.

As I wrote a few days ago, the AVN will be investigated for their propaganda about vaccines. And now Dick Smith, an Australian businessman and founding skeptic there, has sponsored a devastating ad created by the Australian Skeptics. The ad ran in The Australian, a national newspaper, on Thursday:

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Texas: careening toward doom

Posted in Bad Astronomy by Skepdude on July 7, 2009

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So Texas had its brief shining moment of light when the state Senate rejected creationist goofball Don McLeroy’s bid to once again head up the Board of Education. McLeroy was the guy who famously said, “Someone has to stand up to experts!” when talking about the science advisors contacted by the BoE to advise them on, y’know, science.

And even in that very post I said that this win was at best temporary, since the same Governor Rick Perry who picked McLeroy in the first place would pick his replacement.

And guess what? I hate being right all the time. It looks like Perry may pick über-far right religious zealot Cynthia Dunbar to replace McLeroy.

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Jackodolia

Posted in Bad Astronomy by Skepdude on July 1, 2009

Chiropocalypse

Posted in Bad Astronomy by Skepdude on June 10, 2009

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The first panicky retreat in the war on free speech in the UK has begun.

As I wrote last week, the British Chiropractic Association is suing science journalist Simon Singh for saying that chiropractors practice “bogus” medicine. Instead of defending what they do with research and testing, they are acting to silence Singh and chill anyone else who may want to expose what they do.

This attack on free speech has been rippling outward over the past few days, and now there is an ironic twist: the McTimoney Chiropractic Association has strongly warned its practitioners to take down their websites and replace any information on their techniques with just brief contact information. Why would they do that?

Because of what we consider to be a witch hunt against chiropractors, we are now issuing the following advice:

The target of the campaigners is now any claims for treatment that cannot be substantiated with chiropractic research. The safest thing for everyone to do is […] [i]f you have a website, take it down NOW.

Heh. Gee, why the heck would anyone want to make sure that a chiropractor — a person who will be futzing around with your spine — be able to substantiate their claims with (gasp) RESEARCH?

It’s very telling, isn’t it, that the McTimoney group isn’t telling its people to only stick with proven methods, but instead to take down any claims that might get them sued.

Interesting.

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Oprah: Shame on you.

Posted in Bad Astronomy by Skepdude on June 8, 2009

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So last week, Newsweek printed a heroic front-page article detailing the antiscientific medical swill Oprah Winfrey has been routinely doling out to her audiences. This nonsense includes, of course, Jenny McCarthy, as well as dangerous quackery by Suzanne Somers and others. The article really slams Oprah hard, as well it should.

Unsurprisingly, Oprah has released a statement about this, and it’s full to the brim of fail. I wouldn’t call it a lie, but it’s spinning like a newborn pulsar:

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Oprah drinks the antivax Kool Aid

Posted in Bad Astronomy by Skepdude on May 4, 2009

I knew that Oprah Winfrey was prone to antiscience; she has all sorts of New Age nonsense on her show, and the one time Randi was on in recent years he found the experience frustrating; Oprah unabashedly promotes all kinds of superstitious garbage.

But now she’s gone way, way too far: she’s signed Jenny McCarthy — notorious for her misleading statements about vaccines and autism — on for a multi-platform deal.

McCarthy has advocated a link between autism and vaccinations for years. She has written and spoken about it at length in very large venues like Oprah’s and Larry King’s shows, but her claims are wrong. Worse, they’re dangerous: by claiming vaccines are dangerous, she is scaring parents into delaying or even preventing their children from being vaccinated.

I don’t think this threat to the health of our children can be overstated: we have already seen a dramatic rise in outbreaks in preventable diseases due to the rise in media presence of antivax claptrap, and there have been deaths of children, deaths of babies, because of it.

And now Oprah is giving the premier mouthpiece for this movement a huge loudspeaker.

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Edgar Mitchell is at it again. Yawn.

Posted in Bad Astronomy by Skepdude on April 22, 2009

A lot of folks have been asking me if I heard that Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell has been talking about UFOs again, and CNN felt the need to carry the story.

The thing is, this isn’t a story. Mitchell isn’t saying anything new, and it’s certainly not surprising that CNN would write this fluff piece.

I’ve written about this before: Mitchell is an Apollo hero, but that doesn’t give him any authority at all when it comes to flying saucers. And, of course, he still has no real evidence at all for his claims. It’s a rehash of the same tired old stories, and there aren’t even blurry photos for this one.

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