Politics Secularism Skepticism

The Responsible Believer – my #TAM2014 talk

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to present a paper at The Amaz!ng Meeting, held in Las Vegas. Here’s the YouTube video of my presentation, with the text pasted below that.


Day 4 at #TAM2014

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series TAM

downloadThis year’s TAM concluded yesterday, with Randi remarking (during the closing address) that this was the best TAM he’d attended. Seeing as he’s been to all of them (13 in total, I think), that’s a strong statement. All I can say is that it’s the best of the two that I’ve attended, and that’s largely due to the high quality of the majority of the talks.

As usual, there were many good evenings and afternoons with friends old and new, but that was simply a bonus. The panels, talks and informal discussions were tremendously rewarding on an intellectual level, not only in terms of skeptical activism, but also for me as a teacher of critical thinking, in that many of the participants are involved in the same or overlapping fields.


Day 3 at #TAM2014

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series TAM

I’d wager that everybody’s batteries run dry at some point over the four days of TAM. Not their cellphone batteries, I mean (even though this is true also), but rather their ability to remain awake for yet another interesting-looking talk. Yesterday – day 3 – was the day I ran out of juice, so I don’t have all that much to report, given that I missed a fair number of sessions.

Elizabeth Loftus’s talk was the first I attended. If you don’t know her, she’s a psychologist with a special interest in memory and how it can deceive us, and this was indeed the topic of her talk, titled “The memory factory“. She took us through some very interesting examples of how eyewitness reports are far less reliable than one might think (or, hope), and left me thinking that I’d hate to be in a situation where my fate depended on someone else claiming they saw or didn’t see something! She’s published a bunch of books on the topic, so there’s plenty to read if you want to know more about this.

Then next session of note to me was Steven Novella on “How to think like a skeptical neurologist“. Steve Novella has been on quite a few panels this year, but has been consistently worthwhile. This talk was on the difficulties of teaching medical students how to diagnose patients, in light of cognitive shortcomings like the representativeness heuristic. Most people who read my posts would be aware of who Novella is, but if you’re not – and care to listen to podcasts – I’d highly recommend The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, a podcast that pre-dates Facebook, Twitter and the like.

The last two sessions of the day were presented by two of the most effective and inspirational science educators out there. First up, Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist, and formerly Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. One of the things we have her to thank for is her role as one of the scientific advisors to the plaintiffs in the Dover trial, which resulted in the ruling against teaching creationism or intelligent design in public schools.

Her talk focused on hoaxes, pranks, urban legends and frauds. Besides the many humourous examples of pranks that she presented to us, her talk was a sobering reminder of the harms that can sometimes accrue from our not being sufficiently skeptical of stories we circulate via word-of-mouth or the media.

One particularly sad case she related was that of Oliver, the “chimpmanzee” who came to prominence in the 70’s and 80’s as a purported chimp/human hybrid. Unfortunately for Oliver, he ended up appearing more human than he was via abusive treatment such as removing his teeth, and Scott used this to remind us that we need to extend the net of possible victims in hoaxes beyond merely “our” sort of animal, the human sort. This seems an opportune time to remind you, or let some of you know, about sites like Snopes and the Museum of Hoaxes, both of which catalogue ways in which we have been (and continue to be) deceived.

Last up, Bill Nye (“the science guy”), previously a mechanical engineer at Boeing and now a science educator. This is one you simply have to watch when the TAM videos are released in (if history is any guide) 6 or 7 months time. While he did perhaps spend a little too long speaking about the debate he recently had with the nutbag creationist Ken Ham, the talk was nevertheless an inspirational – and highly entertaining – example of how to communicate complex ideas in an accessible fashion. (Though, I must confess that it’s fun hearing about just how strange Ken Ham’s beliefs seem to be!)

Immediately after the Nye talk, we decamped to the speaker’s reception, where we got to hobnob with Randi, Dennett, Tavris, Novella, Gorski and too many others to mention. Some of the magicians who are involved with TAM, or simply hanging around TAM, did some mind-boggling close-up card magic right at the tables too, which was quite the treat.

Now, it’s midday on the last day of TAM, and I’ve already concluded my talk, which I’ll most likely right a little something about tomorrow. For now, I’ll close with the news that 13 Reasons To Doubt, a book of essays by myself and other Skeptic Ink writers, was released yesterday, and is available as an e-book from Amazon.


Day 2 at #TAM2014

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series TAM

10522439_10204090633403483_1996658285948963115_nAs was the case last year, the second day of TAM is rather brutal – there was a complete day of programming, running from 09:00 until around 18:30, followed by various dinners and then concluding (for some, of course) with Penn & Teller’s Bacon and Donut party.

We left the bacon madness at 01:00 or so, meaning that the phone call at 07:00 was rather unwelcome. It was also rather pointless, seeing as it was from some Spanish person who has been calling us since the early days of July, even though our Spanish has not improved one iota since the first of her 8 or so attempts to share her thoughts with us.


Day 1 at #TAM2014

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series TAM

Yesterday was the first day of official programming at TAM (see yesterday’s post for my Day 0 experiences), and it was as much fun, and as stimulating, as expected. The problem is: with such a packed schedule (well, to be honest, with every night involving a few cocktails at the bar until late in the night), it’s going to be difficult to post updates that are as comprehensive as I’d like. I’ll try to do better tomorrow (if circumstances – those being Penn & Teller’s Bacon and Donut party – end up allowing for a post at all).


Day 0 at #TAM2014

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series TAM

The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) is an annual science, skepticism and critical reasoning conference held in Las Vegas, happening this year from tomorrow through Sunday at the South Point Casino in Las Vegas. You can find the full schedule on Lanyrd if you’re interested in knowing what’s going to be happening, and you can follow proceedings on Twitter with the hashtag #TAM2014.

Science Skepticism

CAM regulations “draconian, misleading and insulting”, says Leon Louw

The South African Department of Health (DoH) published regulations related to complementary medicines in 2013, and these regulations have left Leon Louw, executive director of the Free Market Foundation, somewhat displeased. In the opening paragraph, he tells us:

In the name of science, they might promote rather than curb scams and pseudoscience. Instead of protecting consumers, they erode access to products and information. They subject supposedly unscientific Cams to supposedly scientific allopathic standards. Notwithstanding the regulations and the pretentious explanatory memorandum, the difference between the two is smaller than protagonists of science assume.

Those “supposedly”‘s – along with scare-quotes around words like “unscientific” and “scientific proof” at other points in the column – seem to signal that Louw thinks the DoH has fallen prey to some sort of biased “scientism”, whereby they expect that CAMs should satisfy criteria that (according to Louw) even allopathic medicine cannot.

Science Skepticism

Pseudoscience Friday – Sweden abandons “diet dogma” (not), and sugar addiction

This entry is part 12 of 30 in the series Noakes

There are some pieces of information that one could call “zombie facts”, for two reasons – first, they are compromised in terms of their mere existence (zombies don’t exist, and these aren’t facts) and second because they are very difficult to kill.

In February 2012, we learnt that Keanu Reeves had died in a snowboarding accident, and it took myself and a few others most of the day before we managed to get South African Twitter to stop circulating this zombie fact.

When pointing out that the website in question has a footnote attesting to being 100% fake made no difference, I started tweeting that I – and many others – had died also. Go ahead and die for yourself, if you like, by editing this URL.

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 12.13.12

Science Skepticism

Pseudoscience Friday – The DA swallows Food Babe’s babble

downloadIt’s taken less than a week for dedicated time-wasting to begin, for some members of the Democratic Alliance in the Eastern Cape. Soon, they’ll bring this time-wasting to Parliament, if we are to trust this DA statement telling us that MP Annette Steyn will take questions on the issue of Sasko (and others) adding ADA to their bread to the relevant Minister.

Briefly, for context: ADA (Azodicarbonamide) is a chemical used in bread production (as well as in the production of yoga mats, among other things), and ADA is legal for use in quantities smaller than 45 parts per million. It helps with both bleaching of bread, and giving it a lighter and fluffier texture.

And, says the Eastern Cape DA,

according to the World Health Organisation ADA is known to cause respiratory problems such as asthma, allergies and skin problems. Scientists are of the opinion that ADA has the potential of causing cancer.

Furthermore, the

people most affected by this potential health risk are the poor people of the Eastern Cape who do not have access to information about ADA. They are the very people who need the most protection from questionable foodstuffs that could compromise their already precarious health status.

The fact that something is a legal additive doesn’t mean it’s safe, of course. However, the fact that a chemical can be dangerous under certain circumstances does not mean that it’s unsafe under other conditions – for example, in the production of bread. As this superb Guardian article reminds us, it’s the dose that makes the poison.

And, the fact that Australia, the UK and some countries in Europe have banned ADA in bread does also not demonstrate that it’s harmful either – it might just be that they have succumbed to the fearmongering propagated by the likes of Vani Hari (the self-styled Food Babe), who is so dedicated to over-reacting to the mention of any chemical in food that I’d not be surprised to see her falling for the Dihydrogen Monoxide panic next.

Vani Hari started a petition that was instrumental in getting Subway to remove ADA from their bread, where she cited the same World Health Organisation (WHO) information quoted above. However, she either didn’t read what the WHO said, or she’s happy to lie in service of fearmongering. The DA also don’t seem to have read the WHO report, which says (my emphasis):

Case reports and epidemiological studies in humans have produced abundant evidence that azodicarbonamide can induce asthma, other respiratory symptoms, and skin sensitization in exposed workers.

In other words, factory workers – working with large quantities of ADA – could be at risk. This has zero relevance to 45 parts per million (or less) in bread. Steve Novella addresses this misrepresentation of scientific evidence, alongside other examples, in a superb blog post on Vani Hari’s Subway petition. (Here’s another by him, on Hari’s concerns regarding DoubleTree Hotels adding “antifreeze” to their cookies.)

Then, as David Gorski points out, there might not be any ADA left in finished bread in any case:

Moreover, azodicarbonamide arguably not even in the final product. According to this article, once flour is wetted with water, reaction with azodicarbonamide with the constituents of flour is rapid. In the experiments described, it only took 30 minutes for all the azodicarbonamide to disappear, with trace amounts left. By 45 minutes, there weren’t even trace amounts left.

In other words, what we have here might be worse than simple “chemicals are bad” panic – we’ve might have a homeopathic version of that panic!

Also on the topic of the naturalistic fallacy and pseudoscience, you might want to take a look at this open letter to Woolworths, which manages to combine a moral panic around GMOs with the more sensible point that food should be adequately labelled.

As a friend pointed out on Twitter, it didn’t take long for the food version of Godwin’s Law – namely the invocation of demon Monsanto – to crop up in the comments. But emotion doesn’t resolve scientific queries, and if you want to read a more sober account of what we know and don’t know about GMOs, I’d recommend Grist’s “20 questions” roundup to you.

(Pun fully intended.)

Religion Skepticism

Ken Ham is concerned about Aronofsky’s “psychopathic Noah”

imagesA few nights ago, Ken Ham and a few of his fundie friends went to go and watch Aronofsky’s new film, an adaptation of the Biblical story of Noah. Ham’s blog makes his attitude toward the film clear – it’s “disgusting”, “evil”, and left him feeling “unclean”. It was allegedly also “boring”, which it pretty much the only complaint of Ham’s that might hold some water.

It’s in the review that TIME magazine somehow thought worth printing that Ham turns his irony-meter completely off (assuming irony is something that fits with his rather alien worldview, that is). He says:

Except for some of the names in the movie, like Noah, his sons’ names, and Methuselah, hardly any remnant of the Bible’s account of the Flood in Genesis 6-9 is recognizable. Yes, there is an Ark in the film that is true to the massive biblical proportions, but it did not look like a seaworthy vessel. There were many animals that came to Noah and went on board the Ark, but there were far too many creatures crammed inside and certainly many more than were needed.

So, you’re upset about a lack of realism in a Hollywood movie? That’s par for the course – especially with a big-budget blockbuster. Furthermore, complaining about the number of animals in an ark that supposedly held thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of animals seems pretty rich. Even on Ham’s version from Answers in Genesis, the ark held around 16 000 animals, and Ham’s version is a rather conservative reading.

But regardless of the exact number, the point is that the story is a fable, and you’re a little deluded if you think it literally true, regardless of whether it’s 16 000 or 60 000 animals. And on a more trivial matter, if the film version of the Noah pictures “far too many animals crammed inside”, then Ham seems to be a really quick – and eerily accurate – counter of animals, because I’d imagine that even 16 000 would look like “far too many” when pictured on screen.

Most amusing of all is Ham’s closing observation:

“Noah” is an insult to Bible-believing Christians, an insult to the character of Noah, and most of all, an insult to the God of the Bible. As a result, I believe Hollywood will have a much harder time in marketing future biblically themed movies to Christians.

“Hollywood” must be quaking in their boots, wondering how to cope with the loss of custom from fundamentalist creationist folk. As for me, I’ll skip Noah, and wait for Noah II, “the story of how two koalas get from Mount Ararat to Australia” (as a Twitter friend put it).