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Posts Tagged ‘skepchick’

While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.


Skeptics vs. anti-vaccination campaigners is never a dignified fight.

Certainly not everyone who fears for the safety of their children because of this scary mercury they keep hearing about is a terrible person. In fact, I’d guess that a majority of the people who actually believe in a connection between childhood vaccines and autism are good people, mostly caring parents who’ve heard some startling medical claims from numerous sources and are just trying to do the best for their child.

But the people we tend to hear from are the more vocal and devout proponents of an anti-science, anti-vaccination agenda, based on fear-mongering and pushing an ideology beyond any concern for such petty trivialities as evidence.

These are the people who cross over into the realm of “utter, despicable fucks”.

One of the Skepchicks, Elyse, talked about her experiences as a target of some vicious and personal attacks, as a result of her campaigning against Age of Autism, an organisation whose remit seems to wander little further than repeating anything negative they can possibly find to say about vaccines.

As Elyse describes, the people behind Age of Autism posted a copy of her Facebook profile picture (which included her 6-month-old daughter), lied about the things she’s said, and then sat back and let their fans react.

They’ve called me ugly. They’ve called me negligent. They’ve threatened to call child protective services on me. They’ve vaguely threatened violence. They’ve threatened my face. They’ve threatened to rape me with broken thermometers.

Classy stuff. And it’s another example of the overwhelming imbalance between the two sides in this sadly ongoing debate.

They think we’re endangering children with autism.

We think they’re endangering children with death, from diseases that we know how to stop people getting.

Even aside from the little matter of which camp can actually back up their position with evidence, the skeptics have much more reason to be pissed off about the irresponsible endangering of children’s lives.

Yet which way do the torrents of vicious, hateful abuse, and threats of violence always, always flow?

(Okay, maybe not always always; I’m sure some science supporters have at some point been needless dicks about this as well. But those would be fringe individuals getting roundly condemned for it by the majority of their side. This is a mainstream organisation at the forefront of the movement. No scientific groups carry themselves like this.)

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Yeah, I’m back, apologies for the sloth. I’ll try and stick to the other six next time.

Or:

Yeah, I’m back, apologies for the sloth. I don’t know how he got in here, but he chewed up my internet connection pretty good and then fell asleep on top of the router. There was no shifting him, and the tech support guy wouldn’t touch it until I’d got him out the way.

Anyway. Here are some things.

– I didn’t realise that Everybody Draw Mohammed Day was a thing until too late, but luckily I did happen to include a likeness of the sacred prophet in my last post anyway, just for the hell of it.

– But that was last week. Today is the day that Boobquake is upon us. This one merits a little background, if you’re not familiar. An Iranian cleric made some waves recently by claiming that immodestly dressed women cause earthquakes. Or, the impure thoughts that women give men by dressing revealingly is what causes an increase in tectonic activity. Something stupid like that, anyway.

This is obviously some pretty sexist bullshit, so one intrepid blogging bosom-owner decided to take action. Her suggestion was that for one day – today – women deliberately wear more revealing and immodest clothes than normal, and see how the plates of the Earth’s crust respond. Could the might of female indecorousness truly provoke a boobquake?

It’s a fairly light-hearted bit of fun, but some people don’t like it, even if they’re not demented Muslim clerics. I’m not going to get into the debate about the scientific rigour or feminist implications of this right now, but Maymay has some good ideas. I think trying to get together a whole new movement on the same day was possibly a tactical mistake, but a Femquake sounds like something I could get behind.

Of course, I also had to spend way too much of my work day on Twitter earlier trying to come up with names for what the male equivalent of such an event as a Boobquake would be. The best I could do at short notice was Ballcano.

Also, the Skepchicks talk about breasts.

– There are no inconsistencies in the Bible. And, there are lots of inconsistencies in the Bible. I’m both right!

– Hey, you remember how loads of Catholic priests raped hundreds of children, and the Pope was among those who covered it up? And did you hear about this jokey memo circulated among the British Foreign Office recently, regarding the Pope’s upcoming UK visit, which made some silly suggestions of ways he might like to spend his time here, such as opening an abortion clinic, or performing a duet with the Queen? Those two things, they’re not quite on the same scale, are they? I mean, one of those is proportionately far worse than the other, right? Between the child rape conspiracy and the list of jokes?

Well, Melanie Phillips agrees with you. Um… sort of.

– And lastly, if you don’t want to read an article titled The Truth About Cocaine Vaginas, then I don’t even know you, man.

– Last-minute addendum: I know at least one person reading this was expecting to read something outrageous about interior design. I hope you learned something today about setting your sights too high.

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I’ve mentioned a couple of times that Rebecca Watson has been carrying out something she’s calling The Great Apple Experiment over the past week or so. Inspired by some pretty terrible tabloid-friendly pseudoscience in the Daily Fail, Rebecca has been dutifully re-creating the initial “experiment” that Nikki Owen apparently thinks demonstrates that an apple will respond to being spoken to in a loving or hateful way, or to having loving or hateful words written on its container.

She’s kept a log of her methodology on her YouTube account, and recently unveiled the final state of all three of her apple chunks – one treated with love, one with hate, and one control treated indifferently. Her loyal followers then voted on which sample they thought had degraded the most, and which the least, and some mathemagic was done to the poll numbers to decide whether any apples’ feelings had genuinely been hurt in this experiment.

The reason for the title of this blogpost is that I’ve been doing a similar thing myself. I haven’t been recording my progress as extensively all week, and I’ve been a little more lax with my protocols, but, like Rebecca, I’m planning to tighten this up and repeat the experiment in the near future. I’m ready to unveil the results of my own Meh Apple Experiment here today.

Here’s what my three pieces of apple looked like before being sealed in little transparent jars from the 99p Store for a week:

Now, before you scroll past this next picture, take a look at how they turned out after a week, and make up your mind which had degraded the most, and which the least. Then I’ll tell you which I was treating positively, which negatively, and which was the control. I’ve laid them out in the same order as before, so that you can see the progression, not just the final state – if one looks worse in the end, it may have been a little grubbier to begin with, so this seems like useful knowledge to add. The protocol’s still far from ideal, and my camera appears to have forgotten how to focus on stuff, but never mind, here’s what they looked like after:

So, which do you think was put in the “hate” jar, and spoken hatefully to? Now’s the time to choose.

Picked one?

For me, it’s got to be the one on the right. The other two had gone a bit soft, but didn’t really look that bad, but the right-hand one has that big icky splotch of mould right there. It definitely seemed to fare worse than the other two. So, which was actually the “hate” apple?

None of them. It’s a trick question. In a cunning bit of scientific mischief, I got lazy and totally couldn’t be bothered drawing up and attaching labels to the jars, or talking to bits of an apple like some sort of idiot. They’ve all just been sitting on a shelf for a week, in as close to identical conditions as you could hope for. As it turns out, one of them just seemed to decay a bit more than the others in that time. Does there need to be a reason? Shit just happens.

So. Having smoothly passed off my sloth and disregard for scientific integrity as a clever piece of deliberate subterfuge, I do in fact plan to follow this up with a proper experiment in the near future. But this might as well serve as a useful reminder that chaos is always going to play a part in this kind of thing, and you need to control for randomness. In particular, you need a sample size larger than one.

This is probably what annoys me most about the ridiculous piece in the Mail. Even if you accept that the apple chunk she was nice to really did decay more slowly, she’s holding up this one example of something happening which had a 50% chance of happening randomly anyway as evidence for supernatural forces at work in the universe. Look, if I flip a coin twice, I would expect, on average, to get tails once and heads once – 50% each way. But even if I happen to achieve a massive 100% score one way or the other, my psychic mastery of the physical world may still have a way to go.

There are now many more data points, and I don’t think it’s fair to conclude that the overall result is favourable to Nikki Owen’s claims of magic. And I wonder, of the people who dismissed Rebecca’s experiment due to insufficient scientific rigor, just how closely they examined Nikki’s own methodology to make sure her results were also valid. Or maybe it’s not important to do that, because her data supports what they want to believe.

In her own summary of results, though, I do slightly take issue with Rebecca’s mathematical reasoning. I’m hesitant to be too critical, since she was being advised by a proper maths guy who should know his stuff, but hear me out.

72% of respondents thought that the “love” apple looked the best, and only 10% thought it looked the worst. Between the other two, slightly more people thought the control “indifferent” apple looked worse than the “hate” apple. So Skepchick readers’ collaborative effort to determine which apple was which resulted in a 1/3 rate of success (since they got the “love” one right but mixed the other two up).

Now, Rebecca’s conclusion is that this result “failed to prove [Nikki Owen's] hypothesis”, because only one of the three apples was correctly placed. I think she’s right, but for the wrong reason. Her conclusion fails to “prove” anything, about any hypothesis, because it also has a sample size of one.

One lone, isolated trial of something like this can’t single-handedly “prove” anything, in the same way that nothing is “proven” about alternative medicine by that one time you took some homeopathy and your ‘flu totally went away after like a week.

Rebecca’s result is compatible with pretty much any hypothesis that doesn’t contain any overwhelming generalisations. It’s entirely in line with the idea that the decay of apples can be slowed by speaking to them lovingly and caringly; it’s also perfectly consistent with the (correct) theory that this is all total bunk. It’s just one apple.

I am personally compatible with the hypothesis that people with a green left eye tend to have a green right eye, because both my eyes are green. There is, in fact, a strong correlation between those two variables, but you’d have to look at more faces than mine before you could conclude that. Also, the existence of other people whose eyes aren’t both the same colour doesn’t completely invalidate the model which says that these two things tend to be associated. I’m also consistent with the hypothesis that people with brown hair tend to wear glasses, but if I were the only human you’d ever studied, you wouldn’t know what to make of that idea either.

No individual data point is going to lead to any useful conclusions on its own here. If we’re going to treat this like an idea that deserves to be checked out, we need to get much more data in before we have any idea what to do with the null hypothesis.

Personally, I wonder how much it’s even worth treating this kind of thing seriously, and the extent to which skeptics are obliged to do proper science on this kind of insubstantive nonsense before we’re just allowed to tell the silly people to go away. But that’s a musing for another time. I’ve rambled way too much on this already.

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My new year’s resolution has been in full force these last couple of days. I’ll write something useful tomorrow, I almost promise.

In the meantime, here’s some awesome Darwin Day artwork. It’s the big D’s 201st birthday today, you know. He’s finally growing into that beard.

Oh, and here’s something Kevin Trudeau wants you to know. He’s going to be fun to write a review of one of these days. I don’t often borrow especially coarse and gratuitously vulgar terminology from the most depraved corners of the internet, but if ever anyone has truly deserved to be cunted in the fuck, Kevin Trudeau is it. (Phil Plait’s write-up is a little more civilised and scholarly.)

Aaaaand teatime.

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It’s Rebecca Watson’s birthday in a couple of weeks, and there’s a competition going to show her some love. I imagine it’ll be won by someone with some actual creative artistic talent, but one of the options was to write some poetry, and you know how I love me some haiku.

Tremble, believers!
‘Cause when Rebecca’s in town,
The woo better run.

She may look lovely,
But diss unicorns and feel
Her Skepchickal wrath.

The hottest body
On the SGU podcast.
(Except maybe Jay.)

I’m no poet, but
I just wrote her four haikus.
That’s how hard she rocks.

(October 18th
Is my dad’s birthday too. True,
Though not poetic.)

[Edited because I'm an idiot and had the wrong number of syllables on the brain when I wrote these last night.]

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Today the woman at the next desk told me a fascinating story about jam, and I typed up the file of a client who was currently of “NO FIXED BOAT”.

And it’s been another long and tiring day so I’m giving myself another break. Sorry. I promise I might possibly maybe get back to writing actual blog entries tomorrow. In the meantime, today’s uber-adequate substitute for myself is sci-fi author, bacon connoisseur, and blogtathlete extraordinaire John Scalzi. If you haven’t read the account of his visit to the Creation Museum yet, then you are unacceptably far behind in your internet culture learnings. It is a thing of beauty.

I quite like this thing of subjugating my opinions to more interesting and intelligent people in other parts of the internet. Maybe I should make it a regular thing to take a week off now and then and just steer anyone looking for news from me over toward someone else instead… Wait, I got how many hits yesterday? Thirty-three? Hmm. Maybe I should keep focusing on actually being interesting myself.

My stats have plummeted since the LHC excitement all died down. Better do something controversial quickly to pick things back up. Umm… hey, show of hands, who reckons I should pose naked for a calendar? Now now, don’t all bounce up and down and squeal like fangirls at once… (Is it obvious that I want to think I have fangirls?)

All this not-blogging is rendering me quite verbose. That’ll do.

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