Posts Tagged 'Pseudoscience'

Pseudoscience of the Month

You may have noticed that lately I’ve lacked inspiration for posts – I’ve been feeling a bit like all I ever talk about is atheism. I have so many ideas for upcoming posts about atheism, but I didn’t want this blog to only be about my skepticism of religion, I want it to be about my skepticism in general. I suppose the reason that I’ve resorted to posting mainly about atheism is that I spent most of my life immersed in religion, so I have a lot to say on the subject.

Obviously there’s nothing wrong with writing what you know, but I feel like if I’m going to continue to identify myself with the skeptical community I ought to give these things that I dismiss as pseudoscience a fair shake. I think my reasons for dismissing things such as astrology or ghosties as pseudoscience are sound, and I don’t feel that I need to spend years researching the subjects to realize that they’re just not plausible. But I recently started reading Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer, and it has helped me to realize that there’s a lot to learn about science and nature and humanity from critically examining these weird things that people believe.

So here’s the plan. Each month I’m going to choose a pseudoscience or a topic that’s popular for skeptics to look at, and immerse myself in it. I’ll read blogs about ghosts, listen to podcasts about cryptozoology, I’ll subscribe to relevant Google Alerts, and I’ll look at the best evidence in favour of those things I don’t believe in. I’ll also read what the skeptics have to say on the subjects, and I’ll form my own opinion by blogging about what I learn. Sound like fun?

“Pseudoscience of the Month” is a poor name – any better ideas?

Here are some ideas for months I have so far (I’m taking suggestions):

  • Astrology
  • Creationism
  • Ghosts
  • Psychics
  • Near Death Experiences
  • 9/11 Truth
  • Acupuncture
  • Herbal Medicine
  • Climate Change Denial
  • The Anti-Vaccine Movement

Oh btw: I’m not doing homeopathy ever! It’s been beaten to death by other people and there’s no way I can spend a whole month reading about dilutions and sugar pills.

I also want to tackle some common sense ideas, things that I go along with but that skeptics are…uh…skeptical of. I can only think of two for now:

  • Organic Food (is it really healthier/better for the environment)
  • Positive Thinking

December will be the first month, what do you think would be a good topic for that holiest of months? The historicity of Jesus? Creationism? The “America is a Christian nation” myth? Although all of those things may go against my initial push for starting this “of the month” thing – which is to not limit myself to talking about religion all the time.

I also want to invite any of you that have blogs to join me – the more the merrier! I’ll link to your posts and we can all learn from each other.

Sound like a plan?

Applying Skeptcism to Airport Security

Skepticism is commonly applied to things like ghosts, UFOs, psychics, alternative medicine, and other pseudoscientific claims. But a recent episode of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe reminded me how the tools of science and skepticism can be used to figure out what works for just about anything.

Airport security has been on everyone’s mind lately with the failed underwear bomber and the new scanners that see through your clothes, so I appreciated the SGU’s interview with so-called “security guru” Bruce Schneier.

They spoke about what the evidence shows with regards to what works in airport security. I’m going to pull some highlights, but if you want to give it a listen you can download it here, or it’s episode 235 on iTunes.

Since 9/11 our trip through airport security has become plagued with rules such as limits to the size of shampoo we can carry, to having to discard your fingernail clippers, to putting your shoes through scanners. But according to Schneier these have basically been a waste of money, and the things that have proven to be effective are reinforced cockpit doors and convincing passengers to fight back. This is what stopped the underwear bomber.

Security measures that are put into effect in airports are not decided on by what evidence shows will work, but rather politics drive what’s put into place, which is driven by the stories that are told of previous terrorist attacks.

Schneier points out that we’re always fighting the last battle: “Take away guns and bombs, terrorists use box-cutters; take away box-cutters and knitting needles, they put explosives in their shoes; we screen shoes, they use liquids; we limit liquids, they put explosives in their underwear…”

He says there is a psychological need to focus on what terrorists used in the last attack, similar to the power testimonials have to drive other pseudoscientific claims. But terrorists already know what they can’t use, so the money that’s going towards things like plastic baggies for storing bottles of liquids would be better spent on intelligence, so plots can be foiled before they reach the security checkpoint.

In the interview they also spoke about the ideas being floated around that profiling people by certain criteria could help weed out terrorists, but Schneier describes how this can actually make airport security worse. If terrorists know what type of person airports are screening for (which can be deduced by flying often), they can avoid being screened by not fitting the profile.

Many people said that the underwear bomber fit the profile of a terrorist, so he would have been caught if security was screening for these characteristics, but in reality there wasn’t much about him that should have roused suspicion. For example, the fact that he paid for his ticket in cash wasn’t odd because Nigeria has a cash economy; the fact that he didn’t check his bags wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, my husband almost never checks bags when he travels; and the rumour about him buying a one-way ticket, well that was just a rumour.

Instead of profiling, Schneier says that random checking is what works best, because terrorists have no way to know whether or not they’ll get checked.

Schneier and the SGUers call current airport security “security theatre”, because really it’s only putting on the guise of good security. To optimize airport security, governments should be putting money towards intelligence.

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5 Bits of Woo I Wish Were True and 5 I’m Glad Aren’t True

The Top 5 Bits of Woo I Wish Were True:

5. Santa Claus – When I was a kid my parents told me that on Christmas Eve a jolly old man in a red suit would come down our chimney and leave me toys that his magical elves made me at the North Pole. How cool would that be?! And now as an adult, I’m thinking that Christmas could be a whole lot more fun if Santa did my shopping for me.

4. Free Energy – There’s always somebody pimping their perpetual motion machine, telling you they’ve got the solution to the energy crisis, but unfortunately they’re either con artists, deluded, or breaking the laws of thermodynamics. Alas! I guess I’ll just have to keep paying the heating bill and filling up that pesky gas tank.

3. The Afterlife – It would be so comforting to know that my loved ones are living on after they’ve passed away, and to know that I would be meeting them again soon. Also, since I became an atheist, I’ve started getting really bad anxiety every time I get in a car. I desperately don’t want to die, because I know this is the only life I get. If I knew that there was an afterlife I would be a lot more relaxed about taking risks, and I certainly wouldn’t be such an annoying back seat driver!

2. UFOs – Imagine if aliens actually visited Earth? Hopefully they wouldn’t be of the anal-probing variety…but it would surely be the highlight of my life to encounter a being from another solar system. I highly doubt the possibility of humans achieving inter-stellar travel in my lifetime, so to have a creature that’s seen the universe from a completely different perspective come to us would be…just…wow.

1. The Power of Prayer – If I thought I could relieve someone’s pain or bring world peace or solve complicated problems by appealing to a higher power, you’d better believe I would be down on my knees every second of every day.

The Top 5 Bits of Woo I’m Glad Aren’t True:

5. Psychic Powers – It creeps me out to imagine a world where certain people could read your thoughts and see your future. My thoughts are private, and I choose what I share with people. To not have the ability to own my most personal feelings would suck. And I have no desire to see my future. That would take the adventure out of life! Althought I wouldn’t mind winning the occasional lottery…

4. 9/11 and Moon Landing Conspiracy Theories – These ideas sicken me because they assume that the government is able to dupe people on a massive scale, and that they are in no way accountable to the people they represent. Politicians have their problems and often do crooked things, but they don’t have nearly the amount of control over the population as these two theories would require if they were true. Plus, humans have been on another freaking world! How jaded do you have to be to deny that???

3. Ghosts – I like the idea of an afterlife, but if I had to spend it walking up and down stairs, making howling noises, and causing loopy psychics to feel cold, I’d rather just be dead.

2. The Dangers of Vaccines – Vaccines save lives, and have helped nearly eliminate certain painful childhood illnesses. Yet there are certain people who, for whatever reason, have decided to ignore the evidence and blame vaccines for everything that’s wrong in the world. I think they should take a stroll through an old graveyard and count the number of babies burried there.

1. Hell – Eternal torment…what a brilliant idea thought up by authority figures to keep their people in line. Nobody should be punished eternally for any mistake they made on Earth. It’s a horrible thing to threaten someone with. Thankfully it doesn’t exist…unfortunately some people genuinely live in fear of fire and brimstone. Sad.


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