This blog suspended until further notice

Posted in Uncategorized on August 4, 2008 by moonflake

I’m going to admit the obvious: that other responsibilities (such as the job that pays me cashy money) prevent me from keeping up with blogging. The content of these posts takes a lot of research, and I simply don’t have the time or the energy to do it any justice.  Therefore it is with a sad heart that I bid you farewell for now. Thank you to those who have been faithful companions on this journey – your comments,  insights and support have been valued more than you may know.

Sapere aude, friends.

The Philadelphia Experiment

Posted in Colleagues/Work, Conspiracy Theories, Ufology on May 5, 2008 by moonflake

Last week a colleague asked me if I knew about the Philadelphia Experiment, and admitted that he thought it might actually have happened. Frankly, aside from seeing the movie many many years ago, I had not really done much digging into this particular conspiracy theory. I didn’t really need much in the way of exact or detailed knowledge of the story to form the conclusion that it was rubbish – what I know of physics is more than enough. But suffice to say that my interest was peaked, so here is the story of the hoax that became known as the Philadelphia Experiment.

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Expelled should be

Posted in Stupidity on May 2, 2008 by moonflake

There’s been a lot of buzz around the new shockumentry “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”. Wikipedia has a fairly well referenced account of the events so far, but I’ll summarize briefly for those who may not have been following the debacle.

The movie has worn many faces in its journey so far: it claims to be a documentary about how Big Science has been expelling its members should they show any inclination towards believing Intelligent Design. It ends up being a rabid anti-evolution propagana engine whose trump card involves blaming all evolutionary biologists for the Holocaust. But once upon a time, for as long as it was convenient to fool a few big names into giving interviews, it was masquerading as a little film called “Crossroads”, which was supposedy about investigating why creationists still cling to their beliefs about evolutionary theory in the face of overwhelming evidence. Mainstream critics think it is a poorly-made, amateurish attempt at filmmaking, scientists think it’s a pack of lies, and the christians think it’s Oscar material.

Ignoring all the deviations into fantasy, the core premise is basically this: they bring forward a number of people who have recently claimed to have been ‘expelled’ by Big Science because of their beliefs. What we really have is a volunteer editor who pulled a last-day-on-the-job fast one by slipping an ID paper past his journal’s review process, a sub-par astronomy professor who failed in his tenure application because his research output was not up to scratch, a teacher whose contract was not renewed after several students lodged complaints about her, a professor whose university wanted him to make some changes to his website before they would continue to provide him with free hosting for it, a journalist who suffered apparently nothing as result of her poorly-researched articles, and a pro-ID advocate who had some people say some mean things about him on the internet.

Given that this content doesn’t exactly make for stirring stuff, it’s no wonder that the Expelled team had to jazz things up a bit. But let’s assume for just a minute that they didn’t have to lie and resort to hysterical theatrics to draw this pity party out into a feature-length film. Let’s assume for a moment that they could find even one, just one, person who had legitimately been fired from their job as a scientist or educator as a result of their pro-ID stance, and with an otherwise sterling and exemplary record. What I want to know is, even in that situation, would Big Science be wrong?

Seriously, let me put it a few different ways so that you can see what I mean. Would we be suprised at any of these headlines:

  • Biology teacher fired for advocating Stork Theory
  • NSF denies astronomer funding for Sun Sign Astrology research
  • National Geographic editor ridiculed by colleagues after slipping pro-Flat Earth article into print
  • Doctor “shocked” by online response after blog post encouraging the medical establishment to study The Force
  • Cambridge professor ordered to remove his Raelian Research Center page from the university website and return funding received from the Raelians
  • Journalist’s integrity questioned after article claiming “There was no Holocaust”

Can you imagine your child coming home from school and telling you that their teacher was teaching them how to cast spells and hexes, and they needed a newt for homework? You’d be on the phone to the school in a jiffy. What would follow may be summarized by a brief animation of the becloacked hag being booted out of the school and her broomstick following swiftly after. No one would raise an eyebrow, except perhaps a few velvet-clad, Anne Rice-reading pagans protesting something about white magic. Certainly no one would make a movie about how advocates of Witchcraft are being expelled from schools across the country by Big Education, and it’s Salem all over again and the principal is personally responsible for the Inquisition (cleverly intercut with scenes from Joan of Arc, for which they are swiftly sued by Luc Besson).

The whole thing is ludicrous. Ben Stein may as well have made a movie about how second-rate hacks at the denoument of their careers are making fools of themselves in cinemas across the country, and being unjustly harrassed by Big Critics.

Boy Corrects NASA. Man bites dog. Science journalism fails.

Posted in Science, Stupidity on April 21, 2008 by moonflake

In yet another international whoops for science journalism, a fantastic hoax has been spread around the globe thanks to Agence France-Presse getting their foot royally wedged in their mouth.

According to AFP, and parrotted around the world:

A 13-year-old German schoolboy corrected Nasa’s estimates on the chances of an asteroid colliding with the Earth, a German newspaper reported on Tuesday, after spotting the boffins had miscalculated.

Nico Marquardt used telescopic findings from the Institute of Astrophysics in Potsdam to calculate that there is a one-in-450 chance that the Apophis asteroid will collide with Earth, the Potsdamer Neuerster Nachrichten reported.

Nasa had previously estimated the chances at only one in 45 000, but told its sister organisation, the European Space Agency, that the young whizz kid had got it right.

Here’s NASA’s press release refuting the stupid story. And here’s a blogger who actually bothered to contact NASA’s NEO department, and the German scientist mentioned in the article. Yet again, the international press leaps at your typical ‘man bites dog’ story with gay abandon and a wanton disregard for the facts. Since when did it become ‘journalism’ to simply take whatever Reuters or Associated Press or AFP spits out of their papermill and repeate it verbatim as if you actually did some work? And how does a journalistic giant like AFP spew out such a pile of garbage without checking the facts themselves? Not a single person along this sad, sad trail of journalistic failure bothered to contact anyone involved, until the blogosphere up and schooled them yet again. 

I just have two words for every paper that perpetuated this ridiculous piece: EPIC FAIL.

An Introduction to Homeopathy: Part 2

Posted in Alternative Medicine on April 21, 2008 by moonflake

In Part 1 of this article, we took a look at the origins of homeopathy and the formulation of its theories, which should have alerted almost any reader to the possibility that the theory of homeopathy just doesn’t hold water. However, a surprising number of homeopathy proponents are utterly unaware of this history, just as many of us may be unaware of the history of most of the conventional medications we take for granted. As such, homeopaths will often attempt to justify why or how their favourite remedy works, with arguments that are blind to its origins. In Part 2, we’ll take a look at some of these.

As a caveat, this is only an introduction, so I will merely be touching on some of the arguments. I would greatly encourage further reading on the topic.

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Circumcision ‘death season’ claims more lives

Posted in South Africa on April 1, 2008 by moonflake

Four more boys died this month as a result of traditional initiation rituals in the Eastern Cape, adding to the three boys in December and another earlier this month. As usual, the boys succumbed to the poor conditions of ‘illegal’ initiation schools operating outside the boundaries of hygiene and proper medical controls… in other words, traditionally.

Thanks to a strong effort by the provincial health department, the death toll is down from an average of 24 over the last three years. But it’s not just death that youths have to worry about: every year a number of boys end up having their penises amputated after botched circumcisions, and an unknown number will contract AIDS when the same blade is used on one boy after another. All so that they may be considered to be adults, a state which the mere passing of time bequeaths upon the rest of us in due course and without the prerequisite of genital mutilation.

Yet another point to raise when people ask you “what’s the harm?”

An Introduction to Homeopathy: Part I

Posted in Alternative Medicine on March 29, 2008 by moonflake

The first time I heard about homeopathy was when my sister asserted that she was planning to become a homeopathic doctor. As with many of my sister’s grand plans for life, this came to precisely nothing, but it got me wondering what exactly homeopathy was. The truth of it surprised me, no less so because it seems so prevalent on pharmacy shelves and so easily accepted by the average consumer. Many assume it’s simply a form of ‘natural medicine’ or ‘traditional healing’, but the facts may be surprising even to those who think they know a little about it.

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Happy Equinox of your Choice

Posted in Religion on March 22, 2008 by moonflake

This year, Easter falls the second-closest to the equinox that it can, bringing its traditions in line with its origin as a celebration of the coming spring. It may be of some small interest to those of a religious persuasion that this festival was later co-opted by a young, upstart religion in its efforts to attract pagans who, very humanly, were more reluctant to part with their jovial festivities than they were their gods.

Those in the Northern Hemisphere who wish to ignore the religious hijacking of this holiday and instead celebrate the life-affirmation of the coming spring, with such symbols of fertility as hares and eggs, may easily do so. Not so easily the Southern Hemisphere, where I live. For us, March brings with it the promise of Autumn, and the coming cold. Easter seems an empty parroting of Northern customs… the chocolate egg is indeed hollow for us secular southerners.

One wonders… are there any redeeming qualities of this festival worthy of celebration for the antipodean atheist?

Danie Krugel expands his imaginary product line

Posted in Alternative Medicine, Pseudoscience, South Africa on February 28, 2008 by moonflake

Bloemfontein’s favourite son is at it again, folks. His new product is a mysterious device capable of detecting a substance at a distance provided it is given a sample of that substance…. hang on a second, isn’t this his last product, you ask? Oh no, this time the substance being detected is cancer, so it’s a totally different thing. Never let it be said that Danie Krugel is a one-trick pony.

The original article appeared in the Afrikaans-language Rapport, and the SA Skeptics forum have provided a translation here. In it, Danie supposedly is able to differentiate vials of blood containing cancer from those that do not. Since the ‘tests’ were performed in the office of a local internist, and then by the journos at the Rapport, I hardly think we can consider the results reliable. Perhaps now that Danie has voyaged into the realm of medicine, he will consider submitting his device to a double-blind, controlled trial? Yeah, you’re right, probably not.

To start with, I find it telling that after his spectacular failure in finding Madeleine McCann, and the subsequent pummeling he took in the internation press, Danie has moved away from body-finding and into cancer-sniffing. Allow me to remind you that Danie claimed to know where Madeleine McCann was buried, and yet there has been no digging whatsoever in the area he has marked out. Does this not strike anyone as odd, considering how ingenious Danie was at obtaining digging equipment, able bodies and cameras to upturn an area the size of two football fields, on a similar hunch about the Van Rooyen victims? Frankly, if I knew where that little girl was buried, and no one would listen to me, I would have set to digging that beach up with my bare hands to prove it to them. But not Danie. He slinks back to South Africa, stays quiet for a few months, then suddenly appears with a new shiny silver case containing yet another ‘invention’.

So let’s examine some of the details of this new article. Apparently Danie has ‘loaded’ his device with various forms of cancer already. Immediately this makes me wonder where he got it from. I don’t know about you guys, but samples of cancer are not something I come across in everyday life. Either Danie has been dumpster-diving in medical waste, or someone is supplying him – the man obviously has an accomplice in the medical community. All eyes should at this point be swivelling towards the internist who assisted him in testing the device. I would suspect that Danie did not just walk into this person’s office and claim he was looking for an objective witness with a medical degree, but rather that this is the culmination of a carefully planned scheme. Either that, or Danie is lying about the device being loaded with cancer samples.

There are also some distinct differences between this device and the last. Danie’s previous Matter Orientation Device, which worked on the same apparent principle of like communicating with like, was so sensitive that given any sample it would only detect the source of that sample, and not any other similar source. Given a sample of hair, it would react only to the person from whom that hair was taken, and not just to any hair (or poorly made wig) that happened to be in the vacinity. So I would wonder how it is that Danie’s current device is so much less precise? It apparently goes off in the presence of any cancer. However, cancer as we all know is genetically specific material, so I would expect that Danie’s technology would only register in the presence of the rest of the tumour from which the sample was taken (we look pointedly at the internist again), or perhaps in the presence of the person from which the sample was taken. Unless Danie’s lying again.

And now, this device is only able to detect cancer within 4m, whereas his previous device could find its match anywhere on the entire planet. Again, the device seems somehow weaker than the last… the claims, somewhat toned down. But then again, the case also seems smaller, so perhaps he’s using fewer fairies this time.

All I can say is that I’m looking forward to seeing how this new ruse of Danie’s pans out.

Manto: Western trials not fit for traditional medicine

Posted in Alternative Medicine, Science, South Africa on February 27, 2008 by moonflake

Well, here we go again. Our esteemed baby-killer-in-chief Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has now declared that African Traditional Medicines, while being subjected to research and development, should not become bogged down in ‘western’ clinical trials. Apparently, “We cannot use Western models of protocols for research and development… Clinical trials need protocols for traditional medicine.”

May I remind everyone again that this woman supposedly has a medical qualification? That she is a medical doctor? And yet here she stands, blatantly claiming special privilege for african medicine, referring to clinical trials as ‘western’… and then goes on to warn against “charlatans tarnishing the image of this sector … who promise our desperate help-seeking people all sorts of things that are not practically possible to deliver”. So…. all of them, then?

And then, the coup de grace of evidential reasoning, she quantifies why african medicine is so special that it does not need to be tested… because it has been used for thousands of years. Wow. Really? Under that logic, perhaps we should revert to slavery, forced marriage, human sacrifice and colonialism… all practices with thousands of years of tradition behind them. Perhaps we should go back to other traditional forms of healing: bloodletting, amputation, trepannin and electroshock therapy? Perhaps we should throw out the whole court system and bring back trial by combat? And perhaps we should bring back that wonderful old-time tradition of women not being allowed to hold public office?

Get a few things straight, Manto: traditional does not mean right. There is no such thing as ‘western’ clinical trials, there are only clinical trials, performed everywhere in the world. And there is no such thing as western medicine, chinese medicine or african medicine: there is only medicine, which is the stuff that has been tested objectively and found to work, and all the other stuff that people claim is medicine, which is the stuff that may well be helpful, harmful or placebo, but which we don’t know until we test it.

And then the Doctors for Life International group responded with one of the worst press releases ever, using as their primary argument for testing of traditional medicine, the possibility that we won’t know if it contains human body parts or not if we don’t test it. Oh, and it’s the biggest culprit in fatal poisoning in the country. Nicely done guys. While both your points are 100% accurate, all you serve to do is give her more ammunition to claim that you are only villianizing her precious african medicine and that you don’t understand it.

What needs to be addressed here is the fundamental racism that causes her to refer to all scientific advancements as ‘western’, the reverse of which is that she is basically calling africa an unscientific backwater that rejects all modern understanding of chemistry, biology and medicine. Get it straight: we are all human beings, we all have the same biochemistry, what works on a western person works on an african person works on a chinese person. We are all prone to the placebo effect, we all deserve medicine that works, and we all deserve not to be taking something that doesn’t. We all deserve for you to subject anything you suspect might be useful to clinical trials, so that if it is medicine it can be manufactured and distributed to help the world. And if it’s not, it can be outlawed, to protect the world. The only people you hurt by not doing this, is the africans already taking it.