Monthly Archives: October 2008

Fundie Friday

Today’s fundie is:

Name: Children.

Defining Characteristics: Frightening obedience to authority.

Fundie message: Whatever their parents (or other authorities) brainwash them into.

Why dangerous: The future is doomed. If kids are taught to blindly follow authority and not think for themselves, it will be very hard for them to develop into rational thinking adults.

Bottom Line: If parents are going to a protest, they should probably leave the kids at home. Kids are pretty bright, but they don’t have the abstract cognitive capabilities to make sense of what’s going on when two groups of people are yelling obscenities at each other. Kids are generally concrete thinkers and are inclined to trust authority figures. This makes them a vulnerable population. If we taught kids how to think and not what to think, we’d all be better off for not taking advantage of them and raising them to be unthinking sheep who fight with other people who think something else.

A week of Halloween myths – Day 5

This week I’m doing a special 5-part series related to spooky Halloween-related myths.

Today’s myth: Halloween.

There are several myths related to Halloween.

Friends and parents used to tell me tales of razorblades in apples, poison in homemade goods, needle marks in store-bought candy, etc etc. Thanks, you really made my Halloween fun and not at all scary and paranoid. Tales of poisoning are urban legends. Although some assholes in rare cases have tried poisoning, in general people are safe to eat their goods on Halloween as publicized cases were found out to have been targeted at specific victims. It’s rare that someone will be malevolent enough to commit such a random act of violence and at the same time be ok with being unable to witness the pay-off (as the victims will have been long gone before eating the candy).

However, there are documented cases of pins, needles, and razors in Halloween food. Although cutting up ones mouth is painful, it is a mere annoyance compared to death by poisoning. Should the sharp object enter the GI tract, though, it could cause some life-threatening damage. As these are solid objects, there are precautions that can prevent harm such as breaking the food into smaller pieces before eating or slicing into fruit rather than taking a bite. So although it is possible that this could occur, the chances are remote and injury is preventable with a cursory examination of the food. No need to be so anxious as to avoid Halloween festivities altogether.

A few hours of web research on crime statistics brought me nothing. Perhaps someone with better searching skills can update me on this, but I was unable to find misdemeanor (or any other) crimes broken down by month and could not find individual Halloween statistics that weren’t from “concerned parent” type blogs. So I was unable to conclusively determine if there is an actual peak in crime on Halloween, as parental convention has it. I would be very grateful for this information if anyone has it. There may be an increased likelihood of mischief (toilet papering, egging, broken jack-o-lanterns, etc), but these events are certainly nothing to be concerned about — annoyed, maybe, but not concerned. In the case of crime, however, I was unable to determine if there was anything to justify people’s paranoia that criminals (actual criminals committing actual crimes) will be about on Halloween more so than any other night.

General Weirdness
Don’t worry, they’re just costumes.

I already covered witches. Weird doesn’t necessarily mean bad, scary, or evil.

In general, Halloween is a night for fun, candy, and hi-jinks. Sure there might be some dicks out there, but in general people are just out for a good time. So there appears to be no need to be any more vigilant on Halloween than any other night (unless I find crime statistics to tell me otherwise — in which case, I will update). However, I suspect that the same precautions on Halloween as any other night (walk home with a friend, etc) will go a long way in being more safe without having to increase general paranoia and spoil everyone’s fun.

Drink in moderation, folks!
Thanks for reading my Halloween special series!

UPDATE: Please see comments section for more information.

A week of Halloween myths – Day 4

This week I’m doing a special 5-part series related to spooky Halloween-related myths.

Today’s myth: Superstitions. There are objects, numbers, events, and sayings that bring “good luck” or “bad luck”. There will be actual imminent retribution for failing to act on compulsions following a specific “unlucky” antecedent.

– The number 7.
– Throwing salt over shoulder.
– Rabbit’s feet.
– Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

– The number 13.
– Black cats crossing one’s path.
– Walking under a ladder.
– Breaking a mirror.

Above are some examples of superstitions in our European-descent society. There are many examples of superstitious beliefs. Some are shared among cultures and some are unique to a specific culture.

Essentially, all superstitions are fabricated OCD behaviours. Folklore and societal convention dictates that after event X happens, Y consequence will occur unless one performs Z behaviour. Furthermore, A object will protect against B if used according to C traditions. So event X happens or B object/person forebodes and we’ve been raised with the neurosis of compulsively performing an action or carrying around random objects “just in case”. Knock on wood.

I think the most damning evidence against superstitions is the simple fact that not all cultures share the same ones. Are some cultures luckier than others because they have the correct neuroses? Unlikely.

Superstition is based in ignorance (bias, misunderstanding, pattern seeking, etc), magical thinking (I can influence an event with some outside action or object), cause/correlation confusion (the Pats won the Superbowl all the years before I bought my jersey, now they suck and Brady is hurt — clearly my Bruschi jersey is unlucky), and fear of the unknown (I’d better do this because I’m scared of what will happen if I don’t, so I’m just covering my bases).

Well I’ve got some bad news. Sometimes bad shit happens to people at random. Sometimes the weather is bad and it’s mostly due to the Earth’s temperature and water cycle and not at all due to lack of sacrifices and prayers. We can’t control any of it. We might convince ourselves that we can though if we forget about confirmation bias and correlational rules. So again we have a problem of cognition — people just aren’t that good at ignoring random happenstance. They will try to repeat events by repeating perceived related actions, or will try to not repeat events by not performing other perceived related actions. And vice versa.

And we have a problem of mechanism. How are these rituals affecting daily events (other than to waste people’s time)? How does me carrying a rabbit’s foot on a key chain affect all the people and events around me to the extent that nothing “bad” will happen? How does the luck object know what are the good events and what are the bad events? Does luck always work the same way? If so, why are there so many ways to get it? Why is luck so inconsistent — i.e., why can I be somewhat “lucky” during a time in which I should still be feeling the consequences of an action that caused me “bad luck”?

That all being said, if someone believes really hard with all their might that because they broke that mirror they will have 7 years of bad luck, they just might — in a sense. However this would be an internal mechanism related to the person’s anxiety and behaviour and not because of an outward “luck” mechanism. Essentially, the person may become much more likely to attribute ordinary negative events (that might have happened anyway) to the problem with luck. They may become much less likely to perceive positive events and negative events together as the general flow of life.

The rational person, however, buys a new mirror and moves on with his/her life without the fear of “bad luck”. They perceive negative and positive events as caused by the randomness of life. They “prevent” bad luck by not pretending there is any such thing as luck at all. They take responsibility for actions, learn from mistakes, and feel good about accomplishments.

That seems like a much more fulfilling way to live life than to be a scared sheep at the mercy of fate and luck.

A week of Halloween myths – Day 3

This week I’m doing a special 5-part series of spooky Halloween-related myths.

Today’s myth: Ghosts are real.


Ok let’s back up a bit here. First I’ll summarize the “evidence” for ghosts:

– Photos/Video: Some amorphous blob, out-of-focus object, lens flare, air lint, something-or-other? Nope. Ghost.

– Eyewitness Accounts: People waking up in the middle of the night and seeing weird shadows may describe such events as ghost sightings. People often describe sudden temperature drops, “feeling a presence”, etc.

– Ghost Investigators: People who go on TV to measure uncalibrated EM readings in various ghostly areas.

– Strange Occurrences: For example, a TV turns on/off by itself, a plate falls off a counter, etc.

– Famous Hauntings: Come on, you’ve seen Unsolved Mysteries. A house where a murder has occurred is prime real estate for ghosts.

Now let’s explain every one of those things rationally:

– Photos/Video: Out of context photo anomalies have been passed off as pictures of ghosts since the invention of photography. Photos and videos are no longer the bastion of evidence they once were due to the ease with which any schmuck with Photoshop can invent any photographic evidence they’d like. Also, a picture isn’t perfect every time so a person doesn’t need to alter it to show something odd. Anything up close to the lens and out of focus, particularly something white, will look ghostly simply because it’s out of focus and hazy. There are also various errors that occur during film processing such as scratching, hairs, dirt, double exposures, etc. on the film AND in digital photos we can get some wacky images just by waving a light around, for example.

– Eyewitness Accounts: It’s no coincidence that a lot of ghost sightings happen at night. Our fight or flight response is primed to wake us up if there’s an “emergency” so we’re less objective in evaluating random shadows and noises. It’s understandable that a tree hitting the window could be perceived as something spooky at the time. There are also some sleep disorders that can freak people out and lead to unusual feelings/experiences such as sleep paralysis and night terrors. And let’s not forget good old fashioned dreams. Finally, there are already several folklore legends about what happens when there is a ghost around, such as temperature drops. So if someone is in a room and feels a sudden draft they might think it was a ghost. How do they know it’s a ghost? The temperature dropped. They didn’t see a ghost, they just “felt” it. A rational person would have put on a sweater. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

– Ghost Investigators: How objective are people who already believe there is a haunting at the site of their “investigation”? How accurate are measurement tools that are uncalibrated with no evidence that ghosts actually emit the energy they’re measuring? How do we know that ghosts produce EM readings at all? Because there’s EM readings at haunting sites. How do we know the sight is haunted? The EM readings. Someone claiming to be doing science is not the same as them actually doing science.

– Strange Occurrences: It’s not within my scope to explain every single weird occurrence in peoples lives. But I will say this: Ockham’s Razor. What explanation requires the fewest assumptions? Either a ghost did it (requiring several assumptions — ghosts are real, ghosts can interact with the environment, there is some mechanism by which this interaction occurs, etc.) or something else. There’s always a rational explanation.

– Famous Hauntings: Tourist attractions = money. ‘Nuff said.

All in all ghost lore is filled with circular reasoning, a ton of assumptions, and a crushing lack of evidence. Some critical thinking, fear control, and rational explanations will go a long way in helping to realize that that noise was the wind and not a ghost. There is no such thing as ghosts.

A week of Halloween myths – Day 2

This week I’m doing a special 5-part series of spooky Halloween-related myths.

Today’s myth: Wicca and witches are evil.

Witches have been described as people who cast spells, use natural herbs/spices/roots/etc to make potions and elixirs, place hexes on people, worship the devil, engage in “deviant” sexual behaviour, sacrifice animals, eat children, and all sorts of other wild behaviour. They are depicted as old, mole-covered, black-robed women in various movies, television, and books (ex: the wicked witch of the west in The Wizard of Oz). Sometime they are depicted as mighty and beautiful (ex: the white witch in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe). And, to be fair, sometimes there are also “good witches” (ex: Glinda in The Wizard of Oz).

Typically there is a negative connotation to the word “witch”. Some people are afraid of witches and there has been a history of “witch hunts” to this effect. The Salem witch trials are the most famous in North America, where various women were hunted and subjected to inquiry after being accused of practicing witchcraft. Incidentally, there are male witches called warlocks (= way cooler name), but the stereotype is that witches are women.

Most people that call themselves witches today do not possess the typical characteristics of the traditional witch. These people are part of a philosophical/spiritual group called Wicca.

Wicca is essentially a pagan “religion”. The quotes are because it is more of a spiritual group as there are no rigid commandment-like rules, so practicing Wiccans have more freedom in their pursuit of the philosophy. There are many variations of Wicca, but a common theme (which is similar to other more widespread religions) is their own version of the to “do unto others” rule (i.e., “do as ye will, as long as ye harm none“). They do have rituals, but they are usually centered around nature, love, spirituality, contacting the dead, fertility, blessings, charms, etc. They don’t even believe in the devil, let alone worship him.

The traditional view of witches makes an untenable assumption that people have supernatural powers. People are afraid of witches because they assume that the spells and hexes have effects on people. But spiritual groups such as Wicca are pretty harmless, based on their own rules. Either way, there is no method by which a person can have an effect on another person using mental powers. There is no evidence to support telekinesis, ESP, or mind control — as such, there is no mechanism by which a spell could work. Some may argue that it is prayer to certain gods that yields particular results, but again there is no evidence that prayer has any effect on daily events.

So even if witches were the demon-worshiping, baby killing monsters that they are made out to be by (usually) conservative religious groups such as Christians, they wouldn’t be any concern to the rational thinker because their method is ineffective. It’s impossible to hurt or kill someone with a spell.

People are also afraid of the terrifying “blood rituals” and killings. However, you don’t have to be a witch to be a murderer. Prisons are filled with murderers of many religions, so why do witches get all the flack? Also, correlation does not equal causation. It is possible for someone to be a murderer and a witch without being a murderer because they are a witch.

People have no more to fear from a witch than anyone else. They can’t kill us with spells and if they want to kill someone the traditional way, then they are just ordinary murderers who are not worthy of such “supernatural” attention. There may very well be disturbed people that kill and torture animals/people as part of rituals, etc. But the facts are: Wicca does not equal “evil”, there is no spell that could harm anyone, and save some members who go heavy on the eyeliner there is no difference between a witch and any other spiritual person other than semantics (i.e., what they are spiritual about).

A week of Halloween myths – Day 1

This week I’ll be doing a special 5-part series of spooky Halloween-related myths.

Today’s myth: The full moon effect.

Many people believe that the full moon causes strange things to happen. A crime may be committed, or there is an odd occurrence, and someone might say “it must be a full moon”. Folklore tales spread the belief that the moon causes insanity, hence the term “lunacy”. The moon is also linked to various myths such as werewolves.

But a 1986 meta-analysis of “the full moon effect” by Kelly, Rotton, and Culver found that there was no increase in crime, accidents, lunacy, symptom exacerbation, sex, aggression, suicide, etc. during the full moon. Other research has similarly shown no effect.

So, why do people believe there is a moon effect?

To set the tone of the explanation for this apparent phenomenon, I refer you to this comic about the primary full moon logical error. This error is called confirmation bias. Essentially, odd events that happen on a full moon are remembered more saliently than on other days, and uneventful full moons are not remembered. This leads to the false conclusion that more odd events happen on the full moon than on other days.

Another explanation is the confusion between correlation and causation. It is possible for odd events to happen on a full moon, but not be caused by the full moon. This is a very common error in thinking, as humans tend to seek patterns and explanations for events.

Finally, there is much folklore and tradition surrounding the full moon effect. The moon is a salient feature in the sky that people are very familiar with. Stories and attitudes about the moon are pervasive in our society. Especially with so many events approximately associated with the moon: the calendar month, menstruation, tides, etc.

But even though it’s very sexy with the moonlight and craziness, there is no moon effect.

UPDATE: Here is another article about the full moon effect.

Sylvia Browne’s Predictions for the 2008 Election

Sylvia Browne has a history of making “predictions” for upcoming events that are (or may be) of public interest. For instance, celebrity weddings, natural disasters, and elections. Robert Lancaster has a fantastic Stop Sylvia Browne website dedicated to examining her claims, including this article about election predictions.

Unfortunately, Robert had a stroke a few months back (updates here) and is unable to continue his diligent work at the moment. Browne has recently made another prediction for this year’s election, which I will now examine. I’m a poor substitute, but I write this article in honour of Robert and I wish him a continued speedy recovery.

Here is a video link to Browne’s prediction, which she made following a live webcast. I’ll transcribe what she said:

“[Reading fan’s question:] ‘My question is who will be elected? Barack Obama or John McCain?’ [Her answer:] It’s…getting very close and, um, I – I don’t know. I – I really thought at one time…that it might be the – eh – Barack but I’m leaning a little bit towards John McCain now but that sounds like I’m doing a double thing. But I’m still going to stick with Barack Obama…Uh, because I think people need a new regime, I really do.”

This prediction was made on 18 September 2008. At this time, the polls were very close between McCain and Obama, with Obama up a bit following McCain choosing Palin and Obama choosing Biden as their running mates in late August. (Note: I’m not saying these events are necessarily related, this is just a timeline to place Browne’s comments in context.)

Important Points
Note first that according to the timeline above, anybody who was closely following the election at that time could have made this statement.

Note second that she hedges her bets by saying that she thinks it will be John McCain, but she’s going to stick with Barack Obama. Either McCain wins and her instinct was correct (“I’m leaning towards John McCain”), or Obama wins and her choice was correct (“I’m still going to stick with Barak Obama”). This ensures that either candidate winning could be scored as a hit. She even jokes about hedging her bet (“sounds like I’m doing a double thing”).

Note third that the reason she makes the choice of Obama is not because she’s claiming that she thinks he will win, but because she thinks that he should win. This is a soft claim which allows her to hedge her bets once again. If Obama wins, it’s because she said he would. If McCain wins, well she didn’t exactly say he wouldn’t, just that people need Obama.

That all being said, she made this “prediction” on the spiritnow website which is linked via her Wiki page: “I predict the President elected sometime after 2008 will die in office from a heart attack. The Vice President who will finish their term will have an unpopular and mistaken intention to declare war on North Korea. By that time, North Korea will have weapons of mass destruction. In the middle of efforts to declare war, I predict the Vice President will be assassinated. There will be a worldwide investigation into the Vice President’s death with both pleasant and unpleasant surprises. A lot of attention will be paid to one of the investigative congressional committees and serious accusations will be made regarding missing funds. Finally, it will be revealed that their accusations are part of a conspiracy to damage the American people’s faith in their government, with the media manipulated to “fan the flames,” and the committee will be vindicated in the end.”

It certainly sounds like she thinks McCain will win and someone will shoot the first female president, but she doesn’t explicitly say it. Regardless, if the next president doesn’t die of a heart attack within their term, her prediction is in trouble. She also makes several other specific claims about the government in general.

It is important to note that Sylvia Browne has already made predictions about this year’s election that have not come true. She claimed twice that she thought that a democrat would win the election. However, she also said that Clinton would never run and that Kerry would. Given the low approval ratings for the republican party late in Bush’s reign, it is not terribly surprising that she favoured a democrat at this time.

I don’t want to seem like I’m “picking on her” by pointing out other explanations for why she (or anyone else) could make the above statement and be correct without there being anything psychic involved. I hope simply to illustrate that what she has done in the case of predicting this election is not impressive. She is a nationally known psychic with dozens of books and a multi-million dollar business. As such, she should be held to a standard above what the average psychic could predict, and so certainly above what the average person can predict.

She has made a series of incorrect statements in the past about the 2008 election and most recently she has made statements that are at best unfalsifiable (i.e., either outcome could be considered a “hit”). Ultimately she picked who she hopes will win, in the words of Robert Lancaster, “making her no better than the rest of us”. I agree. Her statement cannot be analyzed for accuracy, because she has structured it in such a way that she could be correct no matter what the outcome. However, I will update with the outcome and provide analysis the best I can.

Just for Fun

  • I predict that Obama will win the election with between 55 and 60 percent of the popular vote.
  • I predict that the US will not be made into a Muslim state the next day.

Let’s see how I do.