Quackery! Part 2

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Feb 202008
 

DuckFollowing on from my article Quackery! regarding discredited doctor Joseph Chikelue Obi suing www.quackometer.net, it now appears from The Register that Quackometer’s domain hosting company Netcetera have capitulated and that Quackometer is (currently) no more. Frivolity and ignorance. Boo!

The good news is that an alternative domain hosting company with backbone has been found and that Quackometer will soon be back online. Another victory for truth and justice! Hurray!

Copyright © 2008 Kulvinder Singh Matharu – All Rights Reserved

Feb 192008
 

The CTO of Opera Software, Håkon Wium Lie, must be feeling the pressure. The Opera browsers are not taking over the market place. No, Microsoft’s IE browsers and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers are the big players here with Apple’s Safari increasing its presence, and Opera having a bit part.Dunce

But rather than emulate Firefox’s successes, Opera Software opts to complain to the EU about Microsoft in the same vein that Netscape tried many years ago. This is not the way to go. Opera need to improve their software. Their mobile versions are rubbish as it takes several keystrokes to get the browser and its Java environment running. And their desktop versions have given me such a lot of headache that I no longer test my pages for Opera behaviour…IE and Firefox are the kings here. So Opera Software, pull your finger out and don’t go crying to the EU. And it isn’t just me, but a lot of people think that Opera are wrong.

Now, Håkon Wium Lie recently published an article at The Register…the article is damming evidence of the pressures being felt by Opera as Håkon Wium Lie deliberately misleads on the current situation regarding Microsoft’s new IE8 standards-mode switching.

As detailed in my previous article, a proposal has been put forward to use meta-declarations for switching IE8 to full standards-mode rather than rely on DOCTYPE-switching. Håkon Wium Lie implies that because there was an uproar over this proposal that Microsoft should remove this feature and instead rely on DOCTYPE. Well, his suggestion totally ignores all the arguments that other respected web developers and web standards experts have made as to why meta-declaration standards-mode switching is probably the right thing to do. Just look at Jeffrey Zeldman’s article “Version Targeting: Threat or Menace?”, Eric Meyer’s article “From Switches to Targets: A Standardista’s Journey” and Aaron Gustafson’s article “Beyond DOCTYPE: Web Standards, Forward Compatibility, and IE8″. I agree the proposal is controversial but Håkon Wium Lie implies that everyone is against this idea. That is so false.

Håkon Wium Lie also implies that Microsoft isn’t keen on standards and are holding back web development. This doesn’t stack up with what the new IE team have been doing over the last couple of years or so. IE6 was in the doldrums for a long time, but the new IE team have produced a far superior standards-compliant version in IE7, and now they’ve developing  IE8 (currently in beta) which probably puts the browser right up there at the cutting edge of standards-compliance. And this development wasn’t done at the behest of someone with a big stick from the EU! So don’t lie Lie!

Håkon Wium Lie is trying to use the well-known techniques of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) rather than use smarts to develop and market his company’s software. So, Håkon Wium Lie, what do you want to do? Rest on the laurels of your past achievements and act like a cry-baby, or get off your back-end and start producing software and a business model that can take on Microsoft’s IE browsers and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers? Well?

Copyright © 2008 Kulvinder Singh Matharu – All Rights Reserved

Feb 192008
 

Just had a shock! From DC’s Improbable Science article on “Quackademics in USA and Canada” I found out that the Natural History Museum in London promotes the pseudo-science and quackery of homeopathy. It’s bad enough with blithering Prince Charles et al doing the wacky talk, but to have an esteemed science institution doing the same is something that is hard to take! NHM, why oh why? And it also seems that the same homeopathic “practitioner” is also working with the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, London. I don’t have the Kew details but it makes me shudder!leaf

In previous articles I expressed a desire for critical thinking and the use of the scientific process (ie common sense!) to lead us to the truth. Have the NHM forgotten what true science is? Or are they just pandering (ie for money!) to the masses who blindly accept homeopathy despite all the real scientific evidence that indicate the falsity of homeopathy?

I’m going to think twice about providing monetary donations to the NHM when I next make my visit there as I do not want my money squandered on what has repeatedly been shown to be a lie. And that, my friends, hurts me the most as the NHM has provided me with good memories over the years. Somehow we must push back the ignorance that is being foistered on us all. I can’t believe that I’m going to quote Carl Sagan again so soon after my previous article but I feel compelled to do so:

We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces. – Carl Sagan

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge. – Carl Sagan

I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true. – Carl Sagan

Copyright © 2008 Kulvinder Singh Matharu – All Rights Reserved

Feb 172008
 

A lot of people ask “What’s the harm with homeopathy?” After all, it’s only water. Homeopathy had its uses when it first started in the 18th centuary as the “treatment” generally caused less harm than the more traditional treatments at the time. But things are now different. Science has moved on and our knowledge has increased. Proper science-based treatments are very successful…not 100% successful as our knowledge is still growing and there’s still a lot to learn. But we’re getting there. I agree, though, that mistakes have been made in the past but hopefully such mistakes can be minimised.Voodoo Doll

The problem these days with so-called “alternative treatments” (and that’s a bit of a loose term that can be interpreted differently by different folks depending on their point of view or agenda) are mainly two-fold from an initial health perspective:

Firstly, some alternative treatments, such as homeopathy, may not, in themselves, cause direct harm but can stop people from seeking proper medical care. Such alternative treatments also include the “healing touch” of various religious scam artists in the US, UK, Europe and other parts of the world. This can and has led to death.

Secondly, there are other alternative treatments which do cause direct harm.

There is also something else that needs to be discussed. And that is the road to truth. Belief in untruths does not allow the human race to progress. Here are three quotes from Carl Sagan which are particularly relevant here:

“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. The bamboozle has captured us. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true. We have a method, and that method helps us to reach not absolute truth, only asymptotic approaches to the truth – never there, just closer and closer, always finding vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities. Cleverly designed experiments are the key.”

Going back to the dangers of pseudo-science and alternative medicines. People can get caught up in the lies, and these can and have led to suffering and death. Charlatans who promote these dangers are everywhere and it’s a worrying trend that they’re increasing. All I can do right now is  point people in the right direction and hopefully they can be positively influenced or help others to see the dangers.

A website www.whatstheharm.net has started recently started which I came across in an article by Skeptico earlier last week. What’s the Harm allows you to search for incidents where pseudo-science and alternative medicines have caused harm. The site also allows you to add you own stories. Hopefully such a resource will help to combat the increasing dangers, risks and ignorance wrought by pseudo-science, alternative medicines and, of course, the charlatans.

Copyright © 2008 Kulvinder Singh Matharu – All Rights Reserved

Feb 142008
 

Well, just the other day I saw an episode of the BBC’s Horizon programme titled “How to make better decisions”. I nearly barfed! It wasn’t as bad as their “The Dark Secret of Hendrik Schön” episode but it certainly ranks as a very bad science programme.

I don’t want to say too much about the corny equations for decision making or the need to be organised and prepared.

But I do want to say something about the extraordinary claim that Horizon presented with regards to the “scientist” who stated that the human brain could sense the future (about 3 seconds in the future) using some unknown quantum mechanism. It was presented in a way that could lead a significant number of people to think it was all true, and the programme did not go into much detail about how the “scientific” tests were undertaken (eg randomness of the picture slides, use of sequences forming patterns, use of “double blind”tests…was the scientist aware of what the pictures were in advance and was he in the same room as the subject hence offering an unconscious transfer of information? etc).Horizon - illustration by Kulvinder Singh Matharu

As is commonly said these days, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And the evidence that Horizon presented was far from extraordinary…it was practically non-existent! No peer-review or independent duplication of experimental results were presented. And it’s been seen over the last few decades how easy it is for scientists to be fooled by so-called psychics and even for the scientists to fool themselves. The James Randi website is a good place to start research into this area. The claims and the lack of detail on the experiments undertaken had a certain “woo” about them. Look at http://www.watchingyou.com/woowoo.html for an idea of “woo” behaviour.

I’m not sure what Horizon were thinking. Their recent programmes have been far from impressive. For example, the recent episode “What on Earth is wrong with gravity?” presented by Dr Brian Cox took over twenty boring minutes to get near to the real point of the programme…that quantum theory likely holds the answers to a true understanding of gravity. Even the last twenty minutes of the programme was mostly window-dressing without much substance. Sigh. I really used to like Horizon but it just frustrates and disappoints these days.

Just noticed on the programmes credits at the end that they reference “The Institute of Noetic Sciences” which has a very questionable reputation and which is strongly associated to quackery. I’m not saying that the Institute is a quackery organisation only that there have been questions raised on the quality of their research. Do your own research and follow the evidence.

Just remember to use Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit from his wonderful book “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark” as listed in my other article.

Copyright © 2008 Kulvinder Singh Matharu – All Rights Reserved

Feb 142008
 

Carl Sagan’s book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark” includes ideas and tools for skeptical thinking.

The following are recommended as tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent reasoning:Candle

TOOLS

(1) Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
(2) Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
(3) Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).

They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.

(4) Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you have simply run the with first idea that caught your fancy.

(5) Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.

It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.

(6) Quantify, wherever possible.

If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are thruths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.

(7) If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.

(8) Occam’s razor.

If there are two hypothesis that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.

(9) Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (ie. shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle – an electron, say – in a much bigger Cosmos.

Feb 132008
 

Walking back from work today and seeing an ambulance screeching past I was reminded of two recent incidents which still totally baffle me.

Incident 1:

It’s broad daylight and I’m walking down the high street. I hear the sirens of an ambulance in the distance and I can see the flashing lights (oh about a quarter of a mile away). I “instinctively” decide not to cross the road but keep walking on this side of the street and wait for the ambulance to pass before crossing over. So about 30 seconds later the ambulance is just about to pass me but to my horror I see two teenage girls dart across the road right in front of the ambulance. Well, the ambulance had to take avoidance action so there wasn’t an accident. C’mon, what were those girls thinking? I have NO IDEA!Police

Incident 2:

Again, it’s broad daylight and I’m walking down the high street. I hear the sirens of a police car in the distance and see the flashing blue lights (about a quarter of a mile away). I had already crossed the road by this point so am just strolling home. To my horror (and disbelief!) I see this old man just ahead of me (perhaps in his late 60s or early 70s) start to cross the road right in front of this high-speed police car with its siren at full blast and lights blazing. I don’t know how the driver avoided hitting that old man! What gives with that old man?!!

My thoughts:

I don’t have many thoughts on this yet as I haven’t reached a conclusion. Two incidents a few days apart. One with two teenage girls, and another with an old man. Both nearly ended in disaster. What motivates someone to decided that they need to cross the road with an emergency vehicle screaming past? What did they think would happen?

My admiration goes out to the drivers of these emergency vehicles. No matter how many audio-visual cues and advance warning they give they always need to be on the lookout for idiots crossing the road. I’m baffled. I really am.

Copyright © 2008 Kulvinder Singh Matharu – All Rights Reserved