Posts Tagged ‘skeptictionary’

This is my Skeptictionary entry on the whole Mayan calendar 2012 apocalypse idea.

So, according to some, the Mayans believed that…

Actually, you know what? I’m just going to wait this one out. In just over three years, the point’ll be moot, and I think I’ll save myself the effort. It’s not going to happen, people.

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One day I will write up an actual conspiracy theory article myself. I’ve made a start on a couple, but with the case of 9/11 in particular, I find myself getting bogged down in some really complex and intricate arguments. For now, I’m just putting this up here as a placeholder.

To summarise, though, my position is that the standard, widely held explanation for the events of September 11th 2001 is by far the most likely scenario. It was an attack on the United States by Al-Qaeda, orchestrated by Osama bin Laden, in which a group of Muslim extremists engaged in suicide missions, forcibly taking control of four commercial airliners mid-flight and attempting to crash them into strategic locations, with the aim of causing terror and destruction. The US government did not know about the plot ahead of time, and was not involved in its execution. The twin towers weren’t lined with explosives. The planes weren’t really missiles in hologram disguises. There is no good reason to suppose the existence of any conspiracy beyond that conducted by bin Laden and a bunch of dedicated religious fanatics in a cave somewhere.

I plan to look at some of the truthers’ arguments in the future. For now, these guys pretty much seem to have it covered:

Debunking 9/11 does exactly what it says on the tin, with crazy thoroughness and rigour and brilliance.
911Myths also answers a lot of supposedly probing questions often asked about many aspects of the attacks.

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People have been doing magic for thousands of years. It’s never worked.

A bold and sweeping claim, perhaps, but no-one who knows me would deny either that I am bold or that I sweep. So I stand by it. Ideally, waving your hands and casting spells is the sort of idea that people grow out of a good while before they’re allowed to drive. (Or at least they’ll learn to understand fantasy as distinct from reality by the time they’re old enough to cause any significant damage to the world around them.)

Something like therapeutic touch has been around for millennia. The basic premise really does still amount to just touching someone, or waving your hands near them, and healing them with magic. And not just while in character as a level 8 cleric tending to your party’s injured wizard. Some people really think they can manipulate human physiology on exactly such a basic level.

The specific method of therapeutic touch was first devised in the 1970s, and still doesn’t seem to have gone away yet, despite being the same old ineffective nonsense as ever. They do some magic, and supposedly it makes things better. They use terms like qi and bio-energetic fields instead of magic, but it’s no more scientific (or less vague and indefinable) than just going “Ta-da!” and expecting things to happen. No physicist or chemist can tell you what this supposed energy field is, how it interacts with the rest of the world, how it fits in with the Standard Model of particle physics, or what consistent measurable effect it has.

An effort is sometimes made to make it sound scientific, but any claim involving the magic word “quantum” in conjunction with words like “natural” or “holistic” (as they so often do) should be examined with great suspicion, particularly when made by someone trying to sell you something. Quantum theory is a model of the behaviour of matter on an atomic scale, and encompasses the indeterminate nature of the existence of particles when their attributes are measured. Things on a quantum scale behave weirdly, and very unlike they normally do in the real world (i.e. on the much larger scale that we’re used to living in).

It does not mean that reality can be rearranged anyway you choose simply by wanting it hard enough, or that the nature of matter can be manipulated in any meaningful way. It does not imply the existence of any sort of mystical energy field which can be accessed, influenced, or understood, by something as macroscopic, unquantum, and irrelevant as the human mind. There is nothing like this in the entirety of physics. Leave the quantum alone. Seriously, put it down, it’s clear you don’t know how to handle it safely. Have some Fuzzy Felt.

The point about measurable effects may be the most important, however. Not fitting in with our current theories needn’t be an absolute barrier. There was a time when we didn’t have a clue what a neutrino was, but they were still out there doing their thing all the while, and eventually we noticed them. And because we kept noticing them, and they always cropped up in the same circumstances and behaved in the same way, we couldn’t ignore them. And if there’s some qi flowing through everyone which has any rules to its existence at all, we should be able to notice it. If it’s there.

This is really just basic scientific competence. If we can’t notice the stuff in some way, then believing that it exists is pointless. And if we can notice it, then we should be able to make sure it is where we think it is. If we back it into a corner, it won’t vanish into the aether, like the aether did.

However, in practice, the bio-energetic field that TT practitioners claim to work with has an annoying habit of completely disappearing whenever we try and look at it close up.

The most famous example of this came about after a nine-year-old girl had an idea for a school science project.

Emily Rosa invited twenty-one experienced TT practitioners to come and test out their skills, and to see if this human energy field really could be so easily detected by those who claimed to be experts. She sat each of them in turn at a table, and had them reach their hands through two holes in a partition. Rosa herself was on the opposite side, holding her own hand over one of the practitioner’s hands, either the left or the right. For each of ten “trials”, she would flip a coin to choose which of their hands to pick, hold her hand slightly over that hand, and ask them to tell her which of their hands she’d chosen.

According to all the standard claims of TT, this should have been easy. They should have been able to feel the energy from her body radiating outwards, if it was really present and “tactile as taffy“, as these things apparently usually are. But when they didn’t know what they were supposed to be feeling, the effect vanished. In this blinded experiment, the group of practitioners made 123 correct predictions out of 280 attempts between them. That’s slightly crappier than the most likely result of pure guesswork.

In 1998, Rosa’s results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. There have been some criticisms about the testing, and doubts about the validity of the results, but Larry Sarner has already addressed these in ample detail over at Quackwatch. Even if Rosa was biased against TT, there was no real opportunity for that to affect the results; the ability that she was testing (to physically feel a human energy field) was exactly in line with what practitioners say they can do; and so forth.

But even if there were ways in which her methodology could have been tightened up, why has that not been done? Why have the people complaining about the poor quality of her research not done higher-quality studies and produced some successful results? If Rosa’s study is so flawed, it should be a single inconclusive anomaly, among a plethora of better controlled and more scientifically rigorous published papers. If that were the case, then we could acknowledge that the nine-year-old girl may not have thought of everything, and had mistakenly set things up in a way which didn’t recognise the genuine effects of this phenomenon. But all the evidence would imply that she pretty much nailed it. All the positive data we have on therapeutic touch comes from anecdotes and personal accounts, which aren’t enough to prove anything. All they can do is prompt us to wonder whether there might be something interesting going on here, and come up with some scientific tests to find out.

And we know what happened when we did that.

It’s not just science fair evidence against it, though. The Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking also tested a TT practitioner in 1996, in conjunction with the good ol’ JREF. That didn’t go well for therapeutic touch either. The participant, Nancy Woods, mentioned one factor which people used to criticise Emily Rosa’s study – she said that when the body is normal and healthy, there’s nothing for her to detect, but being close to an injured or painful body part is what provides a noticeable sensation. (Remember, though, that the practitioners Rosa tested were confident in their ability to detect energy fields in her perfectly healthy hands.)

So, the testers enlisted someone with chronic wrist pain and some nasty-sounding medical conditions with Latin names, and Woods agreed that she’d be able to tell this lady’s wrist apart from a healthy equivalent in another person. And indeed, in the preliminary “open” test, her magic powers seemed to be working fine. Ten times in a row, she tried using TT to detect the energy field from the injured wrist, and she got it dead on the money every time. Pretty impressive… but not really. The open test meant that she could see whether she was waving her hands over the woman with the wrist problem or the healthy chap. Under those circumstances, yes, therapeutic touch seems to work amazingly well.

But when you change that one tiny detail, and simply don’t tell her the answer beforehand, those energy fields suddenly become a lot less reliable. Their effect – and with it, any evidence that they actually exist – completely vanishes.

When Woods only had her TT sense of the energy fields to rely on, her success rate dropped to 11 out of 20. When you have to pick one of two options, being right about half the time doesn’t really require particularly impressive magical powers. It was working flawlessly mere moments before. Whatever can have happened?

There has been no study since which has shown significantly different results, and demonstrated anyone’s ability to consistently achieve the claims of TT in a true blinded test, let alone actually curing anyone. (If you think I’m wrong, send me a link to where it’s happened.) And until we have some similar, legitimate evidence that the proposed mechanisms of therapeutic touch are the most likely cause of what’s going on – ruling out all the usual bad reasons why people buy into alternative medicine, on the basis of multiple anecdotes or personal experience and so on – there’s simply no reason it should be believed.

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It’s logical fallacy hour again, here in Skeptictionary corner. These tend to be a little lighter and less research-intensive, and I don’t want to wait another month before being able to post something else, so I’m scaling down a bit from the recent mammoth on homeopathy. [Spoiler from the future: I ended up rambling on for over a thousand words on this anyway. But at least it only took me a week this time.]

Therefore, A causes B

So, what’s the deal with the latin up there in the main title? Damn Romans, you’d think they invented being wrong, the way they get to name everything about it.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc translates to “After it, therefore because of it”. It refers to the idea that, because two things were seen to happen in sequence, the thing that happened first must have (or probably) caused the thing that happened next. It’s fallacious reasoning because, as is commonly pointed out, correlation does not imply causation.

Some examples:

I had a hole in my sock when I attended an event or competition featuring my local team of sportsmen or athletes, and they won! It must be my lucky sock!

I let a spiritual homeopathic healer acupuncturate my feet with his natural quantum reflexopractic needles, and just two weeks later my minor cold had been completely cured!

I did a traditional tribal rain-dance for three days straight, and sure enough the heavens finally opened, and the gods gave us water for our crops!

A guy at work bought a car out of the paper. Ten years later, Bam! Herpes.

The Family Guy gag (the last of the list) highlights how ridiculous this kind of reasoning can be, but it’s often more subtle and pervasive than that, and the first three quotes are exactly the kind of ideas that do genuinely persuade people that they’ve discovered some secret magic which gives them power over the universe. Throw in a good dose of confirmation bias, and it’s easy to become convinced that your choice of tattered footwear can affect a soccer game several miles away, and to write off all the times it hasn’t worked as minor, irrelevant aberrations.

We like finding patterns to things, and it’s a big advantage in nature to be able to connect related concepts and predict the future. If I know that tigers tend to make rustling noises in bushes, then when I hear a rustling bush I can run away before I see the tiger, without having to have his presence confirmed by seeing his teeth where my arm used to be. This sort of low-level prognostication comes in handy for a burgeoning species.

But it’s an instinct that can lead us astray, in our enthusiasm to build up a neat, logical picture of how things in the world are ordered, because sometimes things aren’t very neat or logical. When two things appear to be occuring in tandem, there might be other things going on more complicated than simply “therefore A causes B”.

For instance:

B causes A

I know that post hoc implies a temporal sequence, so the thing that happens later can’t really go back in time and cause the thing that already happened first. So maybe I’m really talking about the more general cum hoc fallacy (“with it”, rather than “after it”), but whatever. Sometimes you might just have the causitive effect backwards.

Hospitals must be unbelievably dangerous places to go. Have you seen how many sick and dying people are in there?

You know, it’s pretty suspicious how the police always seem to turn up after a crime’s been committed. Returning to the scene to admire their handiwork, perhaps?

That kind of thing, though there are probably some less silly examples I could have thought of if I’d got more sleep last night.

Some third thing C causes both A and B

In this case too, the correlation is real. You will likely find that instances of these two things you’re looking at tend to go together. But it’s not simply that one causes the other – there’s actually something deeper going on beneath both of them.

I’ve noticed that people with grubby teeth seem to get lung cancer more often than the rest of us. Does the cancer spread to the teeth? Or is the yellow stuff they get on their teeth giving them cancer?

Everyone keeps getting presents when they put a tree inside their living room. I guess their hospitality is being rewarded by a generous wood-nymph.

One way this kind of fallacy can lead you astray is if you start trying to change one thing by manipulating the other, when actually they’re both just side-effects of some deeper principle, and don’t affect each other at all. (Say, putting up a Christmas tree in June and waiting expectantly for the gifts to accumulate underneath it.) A fascinating example of this can be seen in cargo cults, of which more at some indeterminate future date, maybe.

Blind luck and dumb animals

There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world at any particular moment. There are many variables which go up and down over time. Sometimes, some of these will line up for a bit, with no underlying significance whatsoever, purely by coincidence. Pastafarianism makes good use of this by attributing global warming to a lack of pirates (or possibly vice versa), but a lot of more common magical thinking falls into this category as well.

Get barely over a thousand people flipping coins, and it’s more likely than not that one of them will get ten heads in a row on their first try. If you look hard enough, there’s probably something unique about that one person, to which you can attribute this “luck”.

And if 20,000 people regularly turn up to sporting events and take note of exactly what they’re wearing each time, some of them are going to find pretty convincing patterns between their chosen attire and the performance of their team. (And, again, some of them will see entirely unconvincing patterns but remember the hits and forget the misses.)

I’m sure we’re all mature enough here to be beyond such utter bullshit, but the whole “lucky socks” thing, as I’m going to categorise it, pisses me off enough to be worth focusing on for at least another paragraph. I know you want to feel important, and it’s tempting to leap to what seem like justified conclusions, but can you really not get over that instinct and just grow the fuck up? If you honestly believe that any ritual you compulsively go through actually has any effect on the “luck” of something as unconnected and multivariate as a Cup final, then you are literally too retarded to be allowed to handle crayons without supervision. And by “literally” I of course mean “figuratively”, but you’re almost certainly too moronic to know the difference.

Why would your own magic talisman cancel out every other equally lucky object owned by every single other person watching this sports game, let alone the relative skills and efforts of all the actual players? By what inanely trivial divine law would the outcomes of such events revolve solely around a single banal and irrelevant action by, of all people, you? If circumstances like sports results and the weather are going after you personally, why do they completely ignore everybody else’s schedule but your own?

You are seeing patterns where none exist.

Pigeons believe this kind of thing, or rather they learn to perpetuate arbitrary behaviour patterns in their efforts to achieve an unrelated goal. They’re not animals known for a natural talent for critical analysis, but they’re just about smart enough to realise that, if they were tapping a pattern with their left foot when the food turned up last time, it might be worth tapping it out again to see if it still works. But we’re really supposed to be more intelligent than fucking pigeons, and we really ought to have grown up beyond the point where we think there are mischievous leprechauns pushing footballs around mid-flight based on whether some guy watching the match is wearing the right underwear, or whatever the fuck the logic’s supposed to be.

Stop ranting, this is supposed to be one of your serious and informative bits

Sorry. Where was I? Oh, I think I was about done.

I’ve said before that humans have a crappy natural grasp of things like probability, and maybe that deserves a whole post of its own. But we have things like science, and statistics, which mean we don’t need to rely on our appalling instincts in determining the truth. We can do some tests and look more closely at alleged relationships like this, and if there’s really something there, we can find out more about it. But if we’re not doing any of that, then we’re wandering blindly in a world of wrong ideas, with no way of knowing how misguided are the concepts we’re snatching at.

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I’ve been having fun and feeling useful lately, adding to the Skeptictionary at a pretty good rate, and I’m thinking I might shift my priorities more in that direction, let myself off the rule of posting something at least once a day, and just work on updating that as fast as I can manage it. I like the idea of really developing something there, an actual useful resource, as well as getting in lots of practice at writing well, and giving myself a reason to do some research into interesting areas. Not that anyone’s actually reading this damn thing yet, but I think that’d be cool.

So, I may be slowing down my posting rate a little, and trying to come up with some more substantial material to make up for it. Just thought I should put that down here officially on the record.

And yes, it is a complete coincidence that I’ve decided on this after spending all day slouching around my flat, eating popcorn and watching movies and playing annoying flash games online. Well spotted.

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