Posts Tagged 'The Skeptics Guide'

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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Psychic Predictions for 2010 – Sylvia Browne

I always enjoy listening to the SGU‘s New Year’s podcast and their take on psychic predictions for the coming year (and for the past year), but since for some reason iTunes isn’t letting me download it (GRRRRRR!!!), and also since I’m not sure if they’ll do that this year, I decided to look for myself at one of the most famous psychics, the despicable Sylvia Browne‘s psychic predictions.

And here are her brilliant insights

Around 2009 to 2010, I predict Americans will start working on what I like to call our “buts.” There are problems that we are aware of that make the global community smaller. We have liked to say, “Our system works”..but……Children are not properly fed, clothed, educated, protected or given adequate medical care.

…Many in our population do not have a place to call home.

…Some of our youth get more attention from gangs and drug dealers than they do positive role models.

…People who are ready, willing and able to work cannot find decent jobs.

…Our elderly are not cared for properly either financially or medically.

…Some death row inmates are innocent.

…Some elected officials and large corporations do not think of the welfare of the people as a high priority – they’d rather just increase their bank accounts.

I predict we’ll develop strong resolve and resources to address these problems and come up with some good solutions.

She does go on to give some actual predictions, rather than just statements of what’s already happening and what won’t change any time soon:

I predict a great rise in skin cancer in children until 2010. There is a lot of media coverage about the UV rays and many products to protect people against them. But people are still often careless when it comes to the sun. Then again, people could pay attention – and reverse this prediction right out from under me. I would certainly be all for that!

Great technique, Sylvia, make sure to make excuses for your predictions before they fail.

I predict the President elected sometime between 2008 and 2020 will die in office from a heart attack. The Vice President who will finish their term will have an unpopular and mistaken intention to declare war on North Korea. By that time, North Korea will have weapons of mass destruction. In the middle of efforts to declare war, I predict the Vice President will be assassinated.

This is a pretty bold prediction, that both the President and the Vice President will die or be killed in office, but she gave herself a nice big window of time. It’s unlikely that anyone will call Sylvia up in 2020 and say “ha! Your 2010 prediction was soooo wrong!”…maybe I will…

I’m pretty ignorant of North Korean issues at the moment, but don’t they currently claim to have WMDs? Anyways…

There will be a worldwide investigation into the Vice President’s death with both pleasant and unpleasant surprises. A lot of attention will be paid to one of the investigative congressional committees and serious accusations will be made regarding missing funds. Finally, it will be revealed that their accusations are part of a conspiracy to damage the American people’s faith in their government, with the media manipulated to “fan the flames,” and the committee will be vindicated in the end.

Politics as usual, no?

I predict we can truly say “goodbye” to the common cold in 2009 or 2010. The solution to the common cold involves heat. Keep in mind that the body’s first response when we develop a cold is to come down with a fever. Many doctors today no longer rush to push patients to take temperature reducing medications when they come down with a fever, unless the fever is dangerous. They feel the immune system is the patient’s best medicine and should be given a chance to fight back. So as the immune system fights a cold with heat, the cure for the common cold certainly may lie in this first signal to heal.

Okay Dr. Browne…but last time I checked a fever is not one of the symptoms of a cold.

I predict that a small cubicle will become available in doctor’s offices sometime in 2009 and it will be heated to a very precise temperature. There may be a special vapor placed into the cubicle. Patients will stand in the cubicle for approximately five minutes and the rhinitis germ will be destroyed.

Medical researchers everywhere are rushing to their labs to test out Sylvia’s amazing idea! Why did none of them think of this sooner?? A warm vapour cubicle, of course!

Another wonderful bit of good news on the health front with this discovery – since this cubicle can easily take on the rhinitis germ, many people that have breathing problems with allergies and asthma complications will find some breakthroughs as well. We will see this cubicle discovery used for healing for those with breathing disorders. The cubicle will become available in 2009 or 2010.

I wonder when the magic vapour cubicle will become available at the Sylvia Browne store?

I predict hypnotic past-life regression will become available through a group of trained psychologists on both the east and west coasts of the U.S.A. in 2009. It will prove to be quite a success and will be widely practiced by 2011.

Sorry about the lolcats, but I have one more…the resemblance is uncanny:

Separated at Birth?

It’s Been a Year Since I Lost My Religion

A year ago today my life began to change in a big way. On October 3, 2008 Bill Maher’s movie about religion, Religulous, was released in Canada. At the time I was a Christian, but I decided to see the movie because I was intrigued by the previews. I had never been exposed to such outright criticism of religion.

I didn’t know who Bill Maher was (honestly…people find this hard to believe), so I didn’t know what to expect. What I saw was a crass, in-your-face dump on faith. But rather than feeling offended I felt inspired by the closing scene of the movie. Maher said:

Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking…keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and distruction.

The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt.

I started to allow myself to doubt my beliefs, and to consider that the Bible was probably just a fairy tale.

A short time after I had seen the movie I was in a book store and noticed Christopher Hitchens’s book God is not Great, and decided to pick it up. By the time I finished reading the book I was an atheist, and wondering how I ever believed in a god in the first place!

I was now very fascinated with the topic of religion, and picked up Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Dawkins introduced me to the world of skepticism of all sorts of beliefs. I discovered that there was a whole online community of skeptics.

I filled up my iPod with podcasts that allow me to learn while I’m working:

The Atheist Experience
The Conspiracy Skeptic
Hunting Humbug 101
Point of Inquiry
The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe
The Skeptic Zone
Skeptoid

I also got into reading blogs that kept me up to date on the big stories in the atheist and skeptical communities:

Bad Astronomy
Friendly Atheist
NeurologicaBlog
Pharyngula
Skepchick

And I’ve been doing my best to get a fairly well-rounded understanding of science. Some of my favourite books:

The Elegant Universe – Brian Greene
Death From the Skies! – Phil Plait
Quirkology – Richard Wiseman
Trick or Treatment – Simon Singh
The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins

I’m being opened up to a whole new, fascinating, mind-boggling, incredible, inconceivable, evidence-based, beautiful and awe-inspiring universe.

It has been quite a year! I’ve been taking in so much information that I needed to start this blog in order to articulate some of my thoughts, and to try to take part in what others in the skeptical community are doing. I’m learning and growing every day, and I can’t wait to see where I’m at in a year’s time.

If any of the people involved in the podcasts, blogs and books I mentioned above happen to stumble upon this blog entry, I just want to say thanks!

I think that the best thing that I’ve learned in the last year is the importance of science. Science is the most useful tool that we have, and I’m excited every time I see someone promoting it to the wider public. It seems to be on the increase and that’s so encouraging.

I’ve rambled on long enough, but I just felt the need to reflect on the past year. Thanks for reading!

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The Amazing Meeting 7 in Las Vegas

I haven’t posted much new lately, but I have a very good reason for that!

I’ve been in Las Vegas for the past week for The Amazing Meeting 7 (TAM 7), an annual conference on critical thinking.

It was a fantastic experience! I met some cool people, saw some of the skeptics I admire most speak, and also had a fun visit to Vegas.

I’ll be posting lots about what I learned at the meeting, so watch for that over the next couple of weeks!

TAM7


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