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Tag Archives: Science

Check out this article on Sarah Palin. Speculative, anecdotal and ridiculous but I wouldn’t put it past her saying something like this.

Huffington Post

“Palin said “she had seen pictures of human footprints inside the tracks,” recalled Munger”

Really? No…really? What pictures? Did she draw them with her crayons in grade 2? WHERE?! WHEN!? WHAT!? I’m hungry.

It’s now spring and for some reason my immune system finally decides to shit itself and tell viruses to invade my body and give me a cold. Lame.

I was coming home from a friend’s place the other day when I decided to drop into the pharmacy to get some cold and flu tablets to ease my symptoms. I generally frown upon these sort of tablets because they don’t really do anything to actually get rid of the cold, but today I thought I would give it a try so that I wasn’t sick for a whole month, like last time.

So I entered the pharmacy and headed for the front desk where I asked the sales assistant if she could help me with some cold tablets. She handed me a pack of tablets and I promptly told her I wanted to have a read of the packet before I purchased it. With cold and flu medicine I worry that the ingredients might be homeopathic. Some tablets are herbal but I am afraid that some companies tend to blur the lines between herbal and homeopathic. I’m not great with chemical names so I gave up pretty quickly and took the medicine to the counter.

“Erm, I was just wondering… Are these tablets homeopathic?”

I asked.

The woman looked at me and said,

“No, do you want those? We have them and I can get them for you.”

I explained to the woman that I was just checking if the tablets were homeopathic because I wanted actual REAL medicine and that I could “get water out of the tap” if I wanted to. She smiled and laughed (being the charismatic devil that I am) and declared that she agreed with me. I found this interesting because she was so quick to offer homeopathic woo woo in place of real science-based medicine even though she completely disagreed with it. Seems like the customer is always right. This made me wonder how many people actually use homeopathic and other alternative medicine(credited: Jovial and Jocular) quackery when they get colds. This was in no way a scientific study, but from this I could see how likely it is that a substantial amount of people must request homeopathic remedies during the winter season.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. The assistant explained to me that the homeopathic remedies are kept in a completely different section to the real medicine, so at least they aren’t mixing it in and misleading their customers completely. I was tempted to ask her more questions about the homeopathic and alternative medicine products they sold but I didn’t want to harass her. However, I did leave the shop feeling a whole lot better knowing I had put my brain to use before buying medicine!

Ah skepticism, will you ever do me wrong?

Skelliot.

I am still without an internet connection, but to tide this blog over I thought I would post an email conversation between my mum and my older brother.

My mum is a gorgeous person who always wants to believe the best about everyone she comes in contact with and is fascinated with the paranormal. My brother is similar but has learned the painful (for him) lesson that his eagerness to believe in the paranormal means that it is necessary to apply critical-thinking and the skeptical toolbox when confronted with extraordinary claims to avoid being sucked into anything and everything.

This is the email from our mum to my brother Josh (not his real name) edited to remove private details:

Hi Josh ,

I am just about to set off to go, but before I go I thought you would be interested in chasing up on the web these two guys: Bruce L. Cathie and Frank Scully, you may know of them already! Bruce Cathie is a fascinating guy and reminds me a bit of you (very generous). They write about Harmonics/natural reality, UFOs , Anti-gravity, electro-magnetic fields and the energy grid etc. Frank Scully’s forte is flying saucers.

Let me know what you think. Perhaps we could meet up for lunch next week to discuss. Love you.

Mum x

My brother’s reply:

Hello,

I tried to find stuff about what Bruce is saying – it’s not easy. The only thing that turns up is prompts to buy his books. The books look cool! Very much like many I’ve read before, although those are clearly labelled for what they are – science-fiction.

I found a forum thread where people were discussing his work but the comments were laughable. Stuff about the moon can only be explained by it being artificially created and the like. That’s how it’s obvious that those folks were scientifically illiterate. They will say “science doesn’t know *everything*” as if that means that “science doesn’t know *anything*”. We know all about moons!

This is the only thing I have to go on regarding the sorts of things Bruce is selling, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now and say that those forum comments are not indicative of his claims. However, it does say something about the type of people who are interested in purchasing his books.

Maybe Bruce is not such a good science-fiction writer so he needs to spread his potential demographic to the scientifically-ignorant in order to turn a profit. This seems quite likely from what I have seen. I’m sure there is a line of argument that I should read a book before I comment further – but then again, if he had any useful claims to make then they would be in the public domain by now.

I’d like to see what you found interesting about his claims – did you have a specific link you can send me please? All I could find was his revenue raising endeavours. What’s with the L. in the name – I guess he wants it to be memorable?

Regarding Frank Scully. Ooo, the Roswell myth – this is a fun one! It’s a fascinating story in myth-making. As you know, I’ve been interested in this since I was a kid. Very hard to get to the facts because they are well hidden amongst the multi-billion dollar industry of woo woo that has built up around it, but it’s not impossible once you know where to look. Joe Nickell (now there’s a truly fascinating person for you to look up) – an investigator of paranormal claims with CSI ( http://www.csicop.org ) – has thoroughly flushed out the facts on this one.

It didn’t take long to find out who Frank Scully was. He’s a guy who, in 1950, wrote a book about the government having “flying saucers” and aliens in their possession. The book was based on a story told to him by two men. It turned out later that the men were hoping to sell him a device which detected petroleum and was based on alien technology, so they fabricated the story using bits from a science-fiction movie “The Flying Saucer” that came out a year earlier, and which keyed into the confusion that snow-balled from the so-called “Roswell incident”.

Frank’s book was very successful. People were eager to be excited by his story, and those who were willing to accept such extraordinary claims at face-value took the story and ran with it – feeding the creation of what now is one of the most profitable franchises in the world.

Was there anything in particular about Frank’s books you found interesting? Any link you want to send me to look at? You are right – it’s all really interesting.

Josh. x

In our discussions, I told my brother that I worry that mum thinks we just shoot down whatever she says regarding the paranormal and that it seems like she maybe wanted to find common ground on this subject. Josh agreed but said he thinks it is great that she is willing to discuss these things with us despite knowing we are “evil skeptics”. Maybe some part of her is beginning to see that hearing the other side of an issue might not be such a bad thing?

My brother said this to me, which I think is a useful point to remember when talking to loved ones who you think would benefit from a little more knowledge about skepticism:

I want to show her that skepticism is all about being interested in paranormal stuff. That is the common ground.

Cloning is cool

Most people in Australia would know of the Thylacinus cynocephalus, more commonly known as the Thylacine or the Tasmanian Tiger. For those of you that don’t know what the creature is let me give you a quick run down.tazzy tiger

The Tasmanian Tiger is not a tiger at all, and despite its looks it isn’t a canine either. It was a marsupial predator that roamed Australia, and more recently, the small state in Australia, Tasmania. It bears a striking resemblance to a common dog and is defined by its tiger like stripes on its back towards its hind legs that continue down its long tail.

The last Tazzy Tiger died in 1936 in captivity.

Well, the ol’ taz tiger may be set to walk the forests of Australia once again with new advancements in cloning technology. Dr Andrew Pask and Professor Marilyn Renfree from the University of Melbourne have managed to insert a Thylacine gene into a mouse embryo. The gene used was the proα1(II) collagen (Col2a1) gene which controls the growth of bone and cartilage. The embryo continued to grow with the gene in place so that is definately good news for extinct species.Embryo

However, this doesn’t mean that the whole creature can be resurrected and there is still a lot more work to be done before that can be achieved. Even though it may never happen, damn its fun to think about. Dinosaur cloning is probably out of the question but if the technology is developed then you can be sure it will be possible to see Mammoths and other extinct mammals in reserves and parks (à la Jurassic Park). That would kick ass!

Check out these links.

The Research Article http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0002240

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thylacine

http://www.dailytech.com/Jurassic+Park+in+The+Real+World+Scientists+Partially+Clone+Extinct+Mammal/article11839.htm

http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2008/05/20/2249769.htm?site=science&topic=latest

This isn’t an overly skeptical story, but it’s about tech and tech is cool.

Today I was browsing ye ol’ Interwebz and I came across a really cool story. Swinburne University in Melbourne are developing a new network administration tool that is bound to make their industry a whole lot more fun!

They are using the Quake 3 open source engine to create a visualization of network usage and activity! The project, named L3DGEWorld, will allow the user to walk through their network interacting with specific computers and files. They will be able to enforce firewall quarantines by shooting certain files and computers as well as, through bouncing objects and varying colours, tell how a node is operating.

I think one of the coolest things about this program is the virus scan functions. When a virus scan is made a ripple of energy can be seen traveling through the 3D world and washing over files like a shock wave. Imagine quietly tinkering away on a particular PC only to turn around and be faced by a huge slovenly worm virus, then having to blast it into oblivion. Sounds like some fun for a usually boring job filled with changing numbers, letters and black DOS screens.

Chicky check it out.

http://caia.swin.edu.au/urp/l3dge/tools/l3dgeworld_2.3/

Just the other day I found a show, that you might have heard of, called Britain’s Psychic Challenge. Basically they have a group of “psychics” who take on certain challenges to test their mental prowess. Now I know what your thinking, ‘oh dear here we go another psychic proponent show’. Well, yes and no. They had a team of three skeptics who watched over the proceedings who tweak challenges so that they are more scientific or so that the psychics find it harder to cold read. The question, ‘are they really “skeptics”?’ still stands but I am fairly convinced they were genuine as they didn’t say anything dubious throughout the show.

The tasks on the other hand were fairly basic for even the most amateur cold reader. The first “challenge” was set in an hotel that was once a nunnery, and at another time, an orphanage. The “psychics” were asked to walk around the house and tell the testers what they felt/detected. All of them felt the presence of a little girl, a nun and an old man. All of these were previously identified, to the viewer only, as ghosts that had been previously sighted in the building. At first this seems astounding but when you examine it closely it becomes obvious cold reading. Firstly, what are the first things you would think of, as a cold reader, when you step into an old building that has many rooms. Well, you would think of an orphanage or something similar, and usually orphanages were run by catholic nuns, and generally there would be an old man in there somewhere. Heck, you may as well cover all the bases of what the building could have been in the past, you’re sure to get a hit sooner or later. Apparently the girl ghost had been seen running around barefoot, and what do you know, one of the “psychics” identified a “curly haired little girl” who was running around barefoot. Again, an easy case of educated guess work, most little girls don’t wear shoes inside anyway so, at surface level, this sounds like an extraordinary hit. However, some of the other “psychics” were so far off the mark with any prediction that I almost felt embarrassed for them…almost.

In the next challenge the psychics were asked to identify the maker of a clay pot out of four people. Needless to say the results were dismal. Only two of the “psychics” guessed the right person and it was obvious when a few members of the group picked a particular gentleman, that they were cold reading the peoples clothing to guess the maker. After the psychics had had a go at it, they brought in “non-psychics” off the street to give it a shot. Four out of the four non-psychics guessed the right pot-maker. Embarrassing.

The following challenge was fairly straight forward. They had approximately fifteen women in a room and gave the psychics two handbags with about three items in each. They then asked the psychics to give the hand bags to their rightful owners. NONE of the psychics managed to give even ONE bag to the right owner. The group of random non-psychics however, managed two hits.

The final challenge was the most interesting but also the easiest to debunk. They sent the psychics to the oldest pub in Yorkshire. The building was built in the 1600’s so obviously it must have a rich history. From the beginning the viewer was informed that the cellar of the place doubled as a makeshift surgery and hospital for sick soldiers in a civil war at the time. When the psychics entered the cellar they began fishing for hits. One of them asked if it had anything to do with Guy Fawkes and when he was told no, he went to the next obvious option, a hospital or hideout, as if he was checking off a list. One of the psychics even went so far as to say the positions of the beds! “The beds were positioned along the sides of the walls” he said. Ok, lets think about this. Firstly, where else do you put beds in a tiny cellar/hospital. If the beds were in the middle of the room wouldn’t it be a tad hard to navigate between the patients? So this is just logic and not psy at all. Secondly, what was happening in England when this old building was built. Seeing as most of the buildings in Yorkshire with cellars are fairly old it would be obvious they existed through some sort of war. Which war exactly doesn’t matter because even if they just say “sick people in the past” it’s a hit! And what do people who are scared and injured do when they are in a war? They go underground! That being said, even with such an easily cold read location only two of the “psychics” managed to get a hit. They all failed to mention a specific time, the best they could do was say “old” or “way back in time”.

While some of the experiments were questionable, this show strongly grounds itself on the side of the skeptics and for this I am thankful. So many programs support psy and woo that it’s almost ridiculous. I have only seen one episode but I hope that the rest follow the trend. Who knows, maybe in the end they will admit they have no powers? Not likely.

Skelliot.

Venter

Craig Venter is the scientific bad arse of our time. My cool’o’meter goes of the chart when I think about this topic.

Fairly recently (I’m slightly out of date with this one so I apologise), Venter and his team created the first synthetic gene in the lab. This is the next step on his quest to create the first synthetic life form or meat machine, as I like to say.

myogenti

Up until now the longest synthetic DNA chain consisted of 32,000 base pairs, this has changed with Venter’s DNA chain reaching 583,000 base pairs. This is still a long way short of a fully operating organism, which in the case of bacteria is about 10 million base pairs in their DNA, but it is definitely a step in the right direction and the numbers of base pairs will only increase as time goes on.

Venter has been asked what these organisms, if made, could be used for. He mentioned that they could be used for a multitude of things because they could be specifically coded for particular jobs just like a computer program! One notable function is the creation of a new bio-fuel but the applications are basically endless. I won’t go into the more nefarious uses for this technology, such as biological warfare.

As you can probably understand, these studies and achievements are fairly controversial. Taking fire from mainly religious voices accusing Venter of playing “god”. On the other hand it may (but probably won’t) silence a few of the more outspoken creation and ID proponents out there, such as Kent Hovind who went on record on an internet radio station saying that he would believe evolution if a synthetic life form was created in the lab. That being said, its more probable that creation/ID proponents will use this to support their claims, stating that it only proves that life can be created.

Even with these unavoidable obstacles this is going to be a good thing for our species. We will just have to wait and see what happens with this and hope that these fringe studies don’t get slammed anytime soon.

For further reading check out these links.

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23128478-27702,00.html
http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2007/10/craig_venter_claims_artificial.html
http://www.engadget.com/2007/10/07/artificial-life-created-as-scientist-makes-sythetic-chromosome/

Skelliot.

Quack

You’re six years old and sitting in a bubble bath. The water is warm and cosy. You sit and listen to the crackle of forever popping miniature bubbles and ponder what it is mother will be cooking for dinner. Across the heaving mass of water you spot your good friend Carl the rubber duck. You grasp him in your tiny little hands and squeeze him.

“QUACK!”

he says.

Maybe he doesn’t like that, you think to yourself. You’re getting bored and you think of things that you can do while in the bath. You look back at the yellow duck in your hands and decide that it would be fun to see what happens if you push the duck to the bottom of the bath. So you tenderly force Carl to the bottom of the bubbly ocean and then you release him. Wow! He shot right back up to the surface. Again you push the duck to the bottom of the bath and release him. He did it again! Straight back up every time!

After doing this for a good five minutes you start to become displeased with this outcome and you try harder and harder to make the bastard stay down! It is futile, the duck just keeps coming back up. Curse you hydrodynamics!

Most skeptics and free thinkers will understand what I am trying to say here and have probably come to this point in their skeptical life where it seems almost pointless to argue anymore. The more we argue it seems the more opponents we meet. Just log onto youtube.com and look at any creation vs evolution video to see what I mean. People who we have debated previously pop up again and again with more vigor than the last time. This seems to be the case with most creation/ID and pseudoscience proponents.

It gets very very frustrating but it is our duty as skeptics and freethinkers to challenge these ideals no matter how long they take to sink to the bottom of our cultural bath. We may think that we cannot win and we probably cannot, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference by speaking and thinking rationally and challenging what people say.

The best way to do this is to learn the mechanism of arguing! Identifying logical fallacies and rhetoric are great weapons in any debate. If you are interesting in learning the logical fallacies (there are many but there is commonly used ones you will recognize) then please check out this link to the New England Skeptical Society. The more you know about debating the more you can easily combat your opponents. Also, another great debate on evolution vs creation can be found here at the Australian Skeptics website.

So next time you are confronted with Carl the proverbial rubber duck, whip out your arsenal of free thought and try to identify the lies. And most of all, don’t give up.

Skelliot.

Do you think he saurus?

You stand on an expansive open prairie knee deep in strange fern like plants. Their rubbery branches brush against your legs as the warm breeze washes over you. You look out towards the towering mountains, covered in conifer trees. You hear a strange noise from there. Like a loud moan of a dying cow and you wonder what it could be. In fact, you wonder where you are also, this land seems different, like nothing you have ever seen.

You hear a faint rumbling coming from behind you and you turn to see what it is. There is nothing there. The rumbling gives way to a dull roar, and then the earth beneath you really starts to pulsate. From behind a copse of conifer trees comes a huge long necked quadrupedal creature, and as it extends from behind the trees you see that it is almost sixty meters in length. This creature is massive and it is not alone. A whole herd of these beasts lumbers around the bend. These creatures are called Amphicoelias. Close relatives of Diplodocus but almost twice the length.

As these massive creatures casually stroll past, you now manage to grasp the immense size of these monstrosities. It’s nearly the length of a Boeing 747!

Well in case you couldn’t guess you are now standing in the late Jurassic, 150 million years ago. These animals were the largest land animals to ever exist and maybe the largest animals to exist in the future. To get to this point try and imagine the amount of different animals that have been and gone with the final culmination being a creature of such colossal size that it is almost the size of a 747 Jumbo jet.

Lets also think about how many other dinosaurs and other animals there were even before this time slot of a 150 million years ago and lets think about how many have existed since then! I wanted to write this article because I want to try and convey how lucky we are that we even exist, how lucky we are that we have had such a rich and diverse Earth history.
The Ancestor's Tale, Richard Dawkins
We don’t need magical stories from old books to give us awe in the world and to make us excited of our existence. All we need to do is look back and be humbled by what we see. Our existence is such a small dot in the evolutionary time line of Earth and the universe and it is wonderful that we are alive today to look back on it. If you are interested in looking back at the worlds evolutionary history and getting a grasp of the vast amount of time it has taken to get to us, check out The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. This book will truly enrich anyone’s understanding of the world we live in. It certainly opened my mind to how big the world is and how little we actually know about it.

Skelliot.

Imagine standing on the summit of a mountain 12 kilometres high. From this point you can see the vast red landscape of dust and rock beneath you. High speed winds beat against the metal armor of your transport and every gap is rapidly filled with fine flecks of dust. If you were to step outside of your warm vehicle you would surely be frozen solid in a matter of seconds, and if not, you would probably suffocate. You are on top of Arsia Mons.

As you look out below you, 12 kilometres down you can see tornadoes ripping across the surface of the planet, each is 8 kilometres high and about as wide as 5 football fields and at the base of each is a brilliant blue light. You can clearly see the potency of the electricity crackling beneath the tornadoes and you are glad that you are safe up on your mountain. You watch as these dust devils skim across the surface of the red earth whipping rocks high into the air.

You look away from the weaving dance of the dust devils towards the north. There is a huge canyon 6 kilometres deep there and from this vantage point you can clearly see the immense scale. Far in the distance beyond the canyon you can see fluffy white clouds above the polar cap of the planet and you wonder what could be over there.

This is Mars.

Recently I have been thinking a lot about this place. It truly is exciting that one day we could be there walking on the Martian surface, perhaps discovering life or ancient life long gone. What’s even more exciting is that this could all be happening within my life time, in the next 40 years or so we may have the first missions to Mars. Not to mention our return to the moon.

I was wondering, if asked, would you go to Mars? I know I certainly would. Even if there were no chance of coming back. I’m not trying to sound emo here but let me rationalize it for you. In my thinking, what could be more exciting, interesting and life fulfilling than going to another planet let alone the moon! Nothing you see there will be the same as Earth, everything will be new and beautiful. I cannot think of anything on Earth that would give the same feeling.

So, if a scientist came to you in 40 years and asked you to go to Mars, Would you?

Skelliot.

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