Dara O’Briain tells it like it is

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Dara O’Briain is a comedian and well-known skeptic.  I recently caught up with a stage show he recorded, and thought I would share the 6 or so minute spray in the middle which he gave to all things pseudo-science and religion. Very clever, and very entertaining.



Nostrodamus – the fantasy that keeps on giving

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Is it that time again?

It’s a bit like an asteroid on a long orbit. Every few years it visits the Earth to create some great concern, and then disappears from view. Yes, it’s Nostrodamus time again.

In fact I would say this has happened every decade or so of my life. Someone mentions Nostrodamus or makes a documentary of writes a book, and all of a sudden it’s on.

All of sudden, every logical fallacy in the book permeates the conversation in news and TV circles, and no doubt the internet will be pumped up with them as well.

Firstly, we will have the Nostrodamus scholars, waxing lyrical about the great vision of the man, when all they are doing is retro-fitting vague statements to recent events. It’s kind of reverse paradolia; instead of looking at noise and making out a previously unseen pattern, a current event is taken and superimposed on some general statements, looking for a good fit. Obviously, 9/11 is a good candidate.

This will then happen ad nauseam, with every recent event – reactor melt-downs, global warming, tsunamis, tornados, oil rig failures – you name it, Nostro will have predicted it.

And then will come the conspiracy nutters, claiming that these predictions have been suppressed by governments, and use this for the excuse that the discussion only surfaces every decade or so. Yes, Nostro has been suppressed because governments know they can’t change any of his ‘predictions’.

It’s just that his so-called ‘predictions’ have no predictive power at all. Zilch. It’s not a lot different to your daily horoscope. The statements sound vague, but when you do find the dollar on the ground, you suddenly remember that prophetic statement in Woman’s Day – ‘You will come into money unexpectedly’.

Do I need to lecture you on confirmation bias again? No? Excellent.

I’m not going to quote Nostro – it’s pointless. Just think of any variation of: “A thing will happen to the person at the place when some other thing happens“. I bet that happens, seriously. You can quote me.

Anyhow, brace yourselves for the onslaught of Nostro-accolytes, whose tiny minds will be blown by the unerring accuracy of our most famous fortune teller, and will want to share their insight with everyone.

This is my prediction.




Central State and The Age – I’m really spooked now

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Just what this video was doing on the Melbourne Age website I have no idea. They’ve started this ‘Age.TV’ section, and I suppose they have to publish something.  And I’m sure the quality of the content can only improve after the planned sacking of 1900 staff.

It’s a ‘documentary’ about ghost hunting, set in a disused mental institution called Central State, which apparently closed in 1994, and of course is full of tortured souls.

I really hope I’ve missed the point of this movie – that it’s satire. But I don’t think so. It’s just another execrable piece of self-delusion by people who really want to believe in ghosts. Naturally these people are easy fodder for film-makers who want to cash in on their fantasy.

Yes, it’s another bunch of people who’ve drunk the kool-aid of the paranormal, much like our friends at MyTelekinesis. (Hi guys, where ya bin? It’s awfully quiet when you’re not around. I know, too busy moving stuff around by thinking about it, right?)

I thought we were done with this sort of thing. Dimly lit scenes, inexplicable sounds, ghostly images in the lens, and ‘experts’ who can feel the energy of those poor, tortured souls.

Please don’t bother watching the whole thing. Just skip through randomly. I guarantee that every frame you randomly select will contain the same crap.

In fact, just watch the first few minutes to get the flavour. You will be greeted with the horrifying footage of a ghostly visage in one of the windows, which sends our intrepid film crew into a frenzy. No matter that this ghostly visage clearly looks like a knotted up bed sheet.

What follows is an exploration of the building, in which there’s never enough light. Funny about that. A couple of generators would fix that, but somehow no-one thinks of it. So we have a bunch of brainless twits following each-other through tunnels, bullshit-detecting equipment flashing away, sampling synth stuck on ‘Ghosties’,  mouthing inanities like  ‘yeah, definitely a totally different energy in here’ and ‘there’s something here’. Well, duh. My guess would be half a dozen or so morons. But there I go being all skeptical again.

Really people, can’t we move on from ghosts, holy or otherwise?

And if this is the type of content which The Melbourne Age will have behind it’s shiny new pay-wall, then their new business model will be a bigger disaster than everyone is predicting. I think in future I’ll be getting my news and analysis from The Conversation, unless a mining magnate buys that as well.

MyTelekinesis – I’m converted

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It turns out that I can do telekinesis. Who’d have thought. Inspired by an example by correspondent Viktor, I’ve discovered my inner chi.

Viktor said:

Its intended as a demonstration of psychic ability, not an illusion.
Its about the same thing I’d do if put on the spot.

I realize its not scientific proof, but still food for thought.

So, here’s my breakthrough performance, except that I’ve upped the degree of difficulty: by turning the folds towards me instead of away, and de-cluttering the desk so you can see there are not wires or levers. Also, I’m not much good at sucking, although many my recent correspondents would think I suck bigtime. In addition, I’ve filmed in high def, and made sure to have some nice solid background shapes to enable the viewed to detect any relative movements in the scene. I think that’s as scientific as it gets.

Anyway, sit back and enjoy the mystical stylings of the amazing TheRationalbrain:

Over the coming months I will be honing my skills and attempting more brazen feats of telekinesis, so stay tuned.

And I’ll be emailing Randi my bank account details later today.

“The gift of thinking”

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In response to the post on the Scepti-kids, regular correspondent Luxinvestor was moved to relate her own similar experience in which some teachers, and her Dad in particular, were able to give her the ‘gift of thinking‘. She says:

I have a lot of teachers to thank who took the same type of initiative. And my Dad, for undoing the Sunday School damage each and every week.

Having a mom who grew up in the church, you can understand her believing that her child possibly burning in hell was a true fear for her. God was a big part of my youth. Every Sunday morning and Wednesday night at the Mega church (actually built in the shape of a crown, on the top of a hill mind you) spent being told to be good or else burn for eternity.

But, what I saw as just fun time with Dad the engineer was really learning to question everything. Even Sunday school teachings. To understand the why’s to what my eyes see everyday. My questions were rarely answered by him. I was directed to a primitive Google, known as the library. If my answer was still wrong, I was sent back. That taught me how to properly research and not just believe the first answer that seemed right. And, to show my work. Despite a few calls to poison control, I was still allowed to experiment freely.

He fostered a love of science and critical thinking through PBS afternoons, Carl Sagan specials, science fiction stories (still my favorite genre of books) and a life long subscription to Popular Science/Mechanics. It was fun. It didn’t seem like I was being taught. Unlike the hell fire and damnation of the church.

Needless to say, the Pastor of my mothers church found me exasperating. I demanded to know how these “miracles” were possible. “Have faith” just wasn’t cutting it. Once I was old enough to decide church wasn’t for me, I did investigate the “spiritual” sides of life, herbals and all other types of pseudo-science. Who wouldn’t? It’s sounds awesome! So easy, you don’t have to learn anything. Until you realize it’s complete crap and would probably kill you.

I am thankful to have been given the gift of thinking for myself and to never be afraid to demand proof. He opened the door but let me make my own evidence based choices. These lesson I still use everyday.

Excellent contribution, thanks Luxi.

It’s exactly the sort of thing we need to be doing with kids, but it takes guidance and mentoring and Luxinvestor was lucky enough to get enough of both to break through.

I’m happy to post any similar stories from other readers, so please send them in.

The other take-aways from this story are that 1. Dads are cool, and, 2. Engineers are cool.  Just sayin’.

Scepti-kids – Well done Mr. V.

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Here’s a nice little story to warm the cockles of an old skeptic’s heart.

This is an example of ground-up skepticism, albeit with a gentle push provided by Richard Saunders of the Australian Skeptics. It is an example of a teacher taking on more than they get paid for, in order to help young people deal with the world with their eyes open. It’s an excellent age to set a foundation of skepticism; and if not skepticism as such, at least the ability to ask the right questions rather than take things as given.

I know that the Australian Skeptics have been doing things in secondary schools for quite some time, and it’s an area I’ve personally tried to develop.

But we can’t take this sort of thing for granted. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dept of Education decided to shut it down, although what the kids get up to at lunch time is a matter for them.

Here’s an idea. To counterbalance the Woo-ligious Education component in schools, why not have a Reality Education subject, in which to cover all manner of skeptical thinking? If we got enough penetration however, the consequences would be diabolical. Sales of Blackmores non-medicines would plummet, and several university chiropractic departments would have to close their doors.

One can dream.

Anyone for a cheap Stradivarius?

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Here’s a cute example of the benefits of decent testing in which (at the very least) the subjects are blinded to which item they are testing.

The item in this case is the violin, and the hypothesis being tested was that the legendary Stradivarius has a superior sound to violins manufactured more recently.

Twenty one musicians were given six violins to test – three modern, and three old, including two Strads. The researchers dimmed the lights, and even applied perfume to the chin-rests to mask any telltale smells – such as mustiness I guess.

Not only were the musicians not able to identify the Strads, but they preferred the modern instruments.

This finding demolishes decades, and perhaps centuries, of conventional wisdom, that somehow the Stradivarius is superior. Implied in this is that the maker had some secret skill or ingredient, and this has served to keep the price of each instrument up in the millions.

This example fits nicely into a common category of logical fallacies. Just because something is expensive, old, rare, exotic, or blessed by Tibetan monks, does not necessarily make it  good, or good value.

It also reinforces the need to continue to ask the question about how we know that various claims are true. When it really matters, we should be asking for the evidence for ourselves, or at least seeking impartial opinions. See this post for some rules of thumb on assessing claims.