Science Skepticism

We “orgone” to die. No matter what the quacks say.

mq1The message at The Amaz!ng Meeting (or, TAM) earlier this year was “Fight the Fakers”, with the point being that it’s no much use ridiculing the victims of quackery or woo-woo for being taken in by charlatans. Sometimes, we’re desperate for a cure, or for hope, and this leads us to believe things we might not otherwise.

Also, some quacks and fakers genuinely believe that they have magical powers, or that they have cottoned on to some sort of secret. For example, even though I haven’t been shy of expressing my view that Professor Tim Noakes sounds increasingly like a pseudoscientist, I have no doubt that he’s sincere in believing what he tells his disciples, whether or not he ends up being right or wrong.

Of course there are difficult boundary cases, where we really should know better, and can’t escape taking on a healthy portion of the blame either for misleading others, or allowing ourselves to be misled. The distinction I’m making, though, highlights that there is more that is blameworthy about your conduct if you know you’re deceiving people, or if you’re knowingly on the side of deceivers.

An example of the latter – being on the side of the deceivers, and against common-sense, or science – has recently come to my attention via 6000, and involves a TEDx organising committee ignoring the lessons learnt in the Sheldrake affair. In case you’re not familiar with Sheldrake, he’s a fairly controversial scientist who wants you to to believe in “email telepathy” (never mind the humdrum sort of telepathy in dogs and other non-human animals) in addition to various other odd things.

Sheldrake (and Graham Hancock, he who believes the Ark of the Covenant is real, and that aliens built the pyramids) spoke at TEDx events, but  both of their talks were removed from the TEDx archives following widespread protest regarding TEDx being used as a vehicle to promote pseudoscience. These episodes led to a joint TED (the mother-ship) and TEDx policy reminder that pseudoscience was not welcome at these events.

So why, then, is Ivan Jakobović, inventor of the water-powered car and the “orgonic launcher” (which – as you no doubt know already – fires the universal life force “orgon” into the air, to strip pollution from the atmosphere), speaking at TEDxMaksimir today? And furthermore, why is it that Željko Svedic has been banned from today’s TEDx event for pointing out that Jakobović is a crank, and that TEDx events are not supposed to host cranks?

You can read all about it on Svedic’s blog, including what he recalls of the abusive phone call he received from the TEDxMaksimir folk, before they deleted his comments from their Facebook page, refunded his registration fee, and posted the following announcement:

Mr Zeljko just got a phone call he will be refunded entrance fee.. ..We need to protect speaker reputation.. ..Ivan Jakobović will speak about his rich experience as an inventor.. of the inventions Mr Zeljko is criticizing (ozonic exhaust) was already presented by Ivan on our first TEDx event in 2010.. ..that invention was sold and is successfully produced in Canada.. ..Thank you Mr Ivan Jakobović for sharing your rich experience with us and for honoring us again.. Karlo Matić, TEDxMaksimir license holder

There are numerous fantastic talks on both TED and TEDx. But by contrast to when TED began, and you could normally expect a fairly high level of quality (and, sanity) in the presentations, it now seems to be more and more of a lottery. The TED – and especially the TEDx – brand no longer offers any guarantee of the content being worth watching, and judging from this episode, some licence-holders of TEDx events don’t seem at all concerned about upholding the standards they’re supposed to.

It’s about time that TED either enforce those standards more rigorously, or instead shuck off the TEDx brand entirely. The latter seems to make more sense, seeing as there seems to be a TEDx on every street corner these days, never mind in every big city – making it an impossible undertaking to ensure quality is maintained. But until something changes, I’ll keep ignoring TEDx entirely, except for when it’s someone I know on the programme.

General Politics Religion

Regardless of all else, Christmas is still a holiday

And for that, we can give a little bit of thanks. Thanks, to the conventions of calendars, and ostensibly secular states who continue to pay their respects to religious traditions. I don’t mind – as I’ve said before, this atheist thinks it entirely justified that our public holidays are mostly on religious holy days. But mostly, I can’t mind times like this, because the holiday offers a most welcome break not only from work, but also from the never-ending human stupidity that is reported in the news.

The stupidity goes on, of course – it’s just that less of it is reported. Here’s a lovely example, from IOL (today), explaining how the police in Swaziland are making victim-blaming in cases of rape their official policy. Yep, it’s true – police spokesperson Wendy Hleta

said the use of the 19th century law would be applied to anyone wearing revealing and indecent clothes. Women wearing revealing clothes were responsible for assaults or rapes committed against them.

“We do not encourage that women should be harmed, but at the same time people should note acceptable conduct of behaviour,” she said. The act of the rapist is made easy because it would be easy to remove the half-cloth worn by the women. I have read from the social networks that men and even other women have a tendency of ‘undressing people with their eyes’. That becomes easier when the clothes are hugging or are more revealing.”

2012 had good bits too, of course. Plenty of good company, good food and wine, and an exciting and productive year of work, both at the university and on the Daily Maverick (which you should of course be reading, if you aren’t already doing so). And on the secular activism/atheist etc. front, the unremitting infighting, misunderstanding and so forth shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that it seems we are making progress. The 2011 UK census results, released earlier this month, contain some quite interesting data. You can read the key stats here, but the piece of information that leapt out for me was this:

Between 2001 and 2011 there has been a decrease in people who identify as Christian (from 71.7 per cent to 59.3 per cent) and an increase in those reporting no religion (from 14.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent).

Also, remember that even among those who self-identify as Christian, being a Christian no longer seems to mean much of significance – at least in terms of where you get moral guidance, which metaphysics you subscribe to, and so forth. The Richard Dawkins Foundation data, released earlier this year, revealed that (for Christians in England):

  • 15% of them have never read the Bible
  • 32% believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus
  • 24% say that the Bible is inferior to other sources of moral guidance
  • 54% look to their own “inner moral sense” for guidance on morality, and only
  • 10% seek moral guidance from “religious teachings and beliefs”
  • 50% do not consider themselves to be religious

So that’s good. Here at home, I’d be lying if I reported that there seems to be any decrease in irrational beliefs. The churches seem to be going along strongly, and we’ve got a possible 7 more years of the buffoonish Jacob Zuma – a strong ally of theirs – as President. Besides religious belief, the continued dearth of good science journalism (with the occasional and honourable exception of the Mail & Guardian) isn’t helping to limit the growth of quackery, of late most prominently visible in the form of the formerly respectable scientist, Tim Noakes.

Yep, I’m also tired of all the medical journals banging on about the Bible. And Louis Agassiz himself still seems to be waiting for people to agree with his purported “great scientific truths” of a) the falsity of the theory of evolution, and b) scientific racism. I don’t know about you, but I’d be a little more wary of citing someone like that as an authority on how hypotheses gain acceptance. I guess that’s mostly because I eat too many carbs, though. I should be careful, in case I end up developing homicidal urges:

Anyway – merry Christmas to you all, whatever Christmas might mean to you. See you next year. And if you don’t know Tim Minchin, take a listen to his Christmas song, below.