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Monthly Archives: February 2008

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.

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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.

America

Just last year, after a long and deserved wait, we ousted our long time government and it’s leader, Johnny boy. But that isn’t the end of our political woes. Soon we must endure another grueling election, the only thing is, we don’t get to vote in this one. The USA Presidential Election is as important as our own federal election was, if not more! Not only does USA and its president effect us, it greatly effects the rest of the world, as we all know very well. They are one of the permanent nations in the UN board and currently they can (and do) do basically anything they want!

The presidential race is broken down into two major groups. The Democrats and The Republicans. Currently they are choosing their candidates for president in the primary elections. Generally the Republicans consist of people of religious belief of varying extremes. The most extreme being notably, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.

Thankfully, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, recently dropped out of the runnings. This guy is basically bananas but as we all know there is no lack of “bananas” in the presidential race and no lack of crazies who will vote for them. Romney says awesomely fallacious statements such as,

“I am concerned that, unless America changes its course, we could become the France of the 21st century,”

What does this mean!? France is the France of the 21st Century. I cannot fathom what he means by this. Is he concerned that America will become cultured and have public health care? It sounds like this is something the American people should want! But again this is a man who thinks his god lives on a planet called Kolob and will give him his own planet to rule when he dies.

Mike Huckabee is a huge danger to America’s future and to the world. We have seen how an openly evangelical American President can effect everyone by just looking at George Bush’s track record. G Dub cut funding to government science programs and did away with the Presidential Science Adviser as well as banning stem cell research. Huckabee could be even more dangerous than Bush because he wants to change the American constitution so that it more accurately supports the Bible. I’ll let this quote do the talking.

“… I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living god. And that’s what we need to do — to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view.”

What a bloody nut job. While I highly doubt that Huckabee will win the election, it is still worrying to think that people will vote for him, I know some Australians that would given the chance.

The democrats seem to be the safer choice for both Americans and the world. In my opinion, Clinton is the favourable option. This is because she openly supports a scientific future for America and in turn the rest of us, and she is the only presidential candidate to vocally support evolution as the fact it truly is. It’s going to be a tight race between Obama and Clinton though, so we can only sit and hold tight while we wait for the American people to decide the fate of the western world. It is a sad thought, but we are so heavily influenced by the USA that this might be one of the most important elections for Australia! If only we could vote in their elections then maybe it would be fair.

Skelliot.

Respect

All around the world there are hundreds of different religions. Some differ greatly, some very little. Most require the closing of ones mind to the world’s facts and even outright denial, as others promote a higher learning of our body and mind, but even in these rare ideologies there are extremes. While religions the world over are all different, they share a common characteristic. From Mormon to Muslim, Hindu to Voodoo that characteristic is respect. They demand the up most respect from non-believers and other religious dogmas alike.

Atheists, agnostics, scientists and freethinkers however, are publicly attacked and deplored if they put forward their point of view (more so in America than Australia) in the public media. I write today because of the number of recent books that have discussed this issue in great detail and to great effect. Some of these titles include The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, The End of Faith by Sam Harris and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. There are many more but these are probably the most notable in recent times.

While each of these books puts forward a slightly different case, they all have the same basic message. Why should we respect religion when it breeds intellectual de-evolution and when it doesn’t respect non-believers?

I recently had a discussion with a person of Muslim faith, in which I was told I should respect Allah and respect his (the persons) beliefs. Firstly to respect Allah would be going against my view that god most probably doesn’t exist. Secondly, it angered me because this person obviously wasn’t respecting my disbelief in Allah as he tried to persuade me why the Muslim faith was the one true faith. I accept that he believes in a god, but this doesn’t mean that I, or anyone else for that matter, should respect his particular beliefs. Just because you believe something is true doesn’t mean more logically minded people should pussy foot around you and tell you what you want to hear. The believers surely do not do this for me so why should I in turn respect their strange and illogical ideology. There is a difference between showing respect to an individual and showing respect to an individuals ideology.

While we can show a moderation of understanding towards someone’s beliefs this doesn’t mean we have to faun over them and work hard to not offend them. If you disagree with something someone says you should challenge it and question them. If they are offended by this then that’s their choice. This goes equally so for religious matters but is also relevant for pseudo-scientific matters. Next time you have religious dogma forced on you against your will, stand up for yourself, and remember that disbelief holds just as much (or even more) respect as even the most widely believed religion.