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Randi and the race-car driver

by Donald Prothero, Dec 05 2012

Most of us have read about homeopathy, and its claims to be an effective form of medicine. It was first developed by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann in 1796, and based on the old Greek and Medieval “Principle of Similars,” or the idea that “like cures like.” For example, Hahnemann observed that cinchona bark helped treat malaria in sick people, and caused similar symptoms in healthy people, so he reversed the logic and reasoned  that whatever causes similar symptoms can be used to treat it. (Cinchona bark does contain natural quinine, a cure for malaria). He argued that if poison ivy causes skin rash, then diluted poison ivy is a cure for skin diseases. But his theory of “likes cure likes” was pure Medieval alchemy and mumbo-jumbo, completely invalidated when modern chemistry developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This archaic version of pre-modern medicine has persisted virtually unchanged until today. The ingredients used in homeopathy sound like those of a witch doctor or medieval apothecary  (or something out of Harry Potter’s potions class): snake venom, ground honeybee, crushed bedbugs, live eels, wolf milk, arsenic, poison ivy, diseased tissues (including pus, tumors, feces, plus urinary discharges, blood and tissues from sick individuals), quartz, gold, oyster shell, and common salt. Their other ingredients, known as “imponderables”, supposedly “capture” electromagnetic energy by exposing alcohol or lactose to sunlight, X-rays, or lightning.

What makes homeopathy different from other alternative medicines that use bizarre ingredients is their key method: dilution. All these substances are then ground into fine powder to make a “tincture”, diluted in water, and then diluted over and over again. The “hitting” or “shaking” technique by the homeopath is very important because of “kinetic energy input” and its effect on their medicine. (This is just a fancy way of saying that more shaking probably mixes a solution better, but it is given a mystical mumbo-jumbo meaning in homeopathy). A typical homeopathic remedy has a “strength” of “30C” in their terminology. This means that the original agent has been diluted 30 times by a factor of 100 each time. A simple calculation means that this material has been diluted by a factor of 1 x 1060, or 1 followed by 60 zeroes (in common terms, one part “tincture” in one million trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion parts of water). There are only 3 x 1025 molecules of water in a liter, so for all intents and purposes, there are no molecules of the “active ingredients” left and the homeopathic remedy is just water and nothing more. At this concentration, a patient would need to swallow 1041 pills (a billion times the mass of the earth) or 1034 gallons of elixir (a billion times the volume of the Earth) to consume even a single molecule of the substance. Even a stronger homeopathic solution of “12C” has only a 60% chance that one molecule of the tincture is present. Yet according to homeopathic theory, the medicine is stronger the more it is diluted. Most homeopathic remedies have been diluted so much that they are just small bottles of water. In effect, homeopathy has become the modern “water cure.” Continue reading…

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Touching History

by Michael Shermer, Oct 12 2010

Skeptical Luminaries right to left: paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, Center for Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz, the Amazing One himself, and psychologist and magician Ray Hyman

On Sunday, October 3, a group of skeptics gathered in Falls Church, Virginia to celebrate James Randi’s 82nd birthday. What an amazing meeting it was … er, an astonishing evening I mean, as Randi prefers to retain the “amazing” adjective for his moniker, James “The Amazing” Randi. Take a look at just a few of the giants present in the above photo — the legends of skepticism (from right to left: paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, Center for Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz, the Amazing One himself, and psychologist and magician Ray Hyman). Continue reading…

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?eb ecneicsitna nac yfoog woH

by Phil Plait, Aug 12 2009

One of the funny things about the Universe is, there’s only one way to be right, but an infinite number of ways to be wrong. For example, I know that the science of astronomy is getting better every day at describing the overall state of the Universe, approaching the ability to describe just how things work. We may never achieve that ultimate goal, but we get ever closer. Moreover, I know that astrology is completely wrong, and provably so. Even better, there are a hundred different flavors of astrology, each of which claims to work, yet none of which actually does.

See? One way to be right, lots of ways to be wrong.

So once you slip off that narrow path of reality, you are surrounded by an infinitely deep fog of nonsense which just gets thicker and more difficult to navigate the farther off the path you stray. I suspect there is no actual wrongest thing in the vast reaches of antiscience, because its illogic goes on forever.

But if I had to choose, I bet reverse speech would be in the Top Ten.

You know this idea; you take what someone says, reverse it, and find out that Paul McCartney is actually Bigfoot. Or something like that. The people who claim this is real — and yeah, they’re out there, and just as earnest as any other zealot who kneels at The Pulpit Of Nonsense — never give a reason why this works, or a mechanism that explains how reversing the time variable in a recording should yield anything but comical noises.

And we know why this stuff seems to work when it’s presented to you: if someone primes you with a phrase that they want you to hear when speech is reversed, it really does sound like what they claim. Of course, if they don’t tell you what it is, ten different people will come up with ten different phrases.

But why should logic, reason, and mechanics stop someone from just making stuff up?

Which brings me to the hilarity that is the EVP Reverse Speaking website. They claim that by reversing your speech you can learn The Great Truths (which, if it were true, would be that reverse speech is really, really silly). They even have examples! And what examples they have, oh yes indeed.

On this page, they reverse my own speech. Yeah, me, your host and Beloved Internet Personality™. And not just me, but also sound bites from Randi and Michael Shermer, just to hit a skeptical trifecta.

Now, I hate to make fun of people, but at some point, really, it’s simply impossible not to. In this case, this stuff is truly well and remarkably ridiculous.

An example: they start with an interview I did with Randi at TAM 5. They take the audio, reverse it, and make claims that are… well, here. Listen for yourself:



Did you listen? Try again, a couple of times. What did I say, reversed? They claim I said, "Their walls hit," clearly meaning Randi hit an astral wall when he had his heart attack a few years ago.

Uh, yeah.

Funny. To me it sounds like I’m saying, "They’re all sh*t," which, had they made that claim, might actually sway me to their side. Just a little bit.

And the best part? They didn’t even excerpt the whole sentence I said! They cut the last bit of the sentence out, so what they use is, "Thanks a lot, Rand." Note the missing i at the end; not Randi, just Rand. So they had to edit out part of Randi’s name to make their point… whatever the heck their point is.

The rest of the site is full of incomprehensible gobbledygook just like that. It’s like someone took a bunch of ideas, wrote them down on postcards, cut them up into bits, rearranged them, and then created a website based on what they found. I suggest, dear reader, that you take a look around there. It will remind you of just how silly claims can be, and just how far we skeptics have to go.

!drawrof revE

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Fear & Loathing (and Freedom & Skepticism)
in Las Vegas

by Michael Shermer, Jul 14 2009
photo by Daniel Loxton

TAM7 boasted over 1000 attendees.

The Amazing Meeting 7 and Freedom Fest were both held over the same weekend in Las Vegas, the former at the new and beautiful South Point Hotel and the latter at the classic old Bally’s hotel and casino. I spoke at both and attended as many talks as I could fit in while shuttling back and forth between events. Some impressions:

Business is definitely down in Vegas. Every taxi driver I asked put the downturn at about 35% lower than normal, and between the two casinos we passed the new MGM-backed casino under construction but now abandoned due to lack of funding to complete construction. There were never any taxi lines and room rates at both hotels were well below the normal too-high rates. Nevertheless, there seemed to be plenty of folks at the slots and tables, trying to recover their 401K losses, obviously having never taken a basic course in probabilities (my system: I give the casino $500 and ask if I can play for a couple of hours: “you’re going to get the money anyway and I just want to have some fun.” I’ve never had success with this sytem.). Continue reading…

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Preaching to the Choir

by Brian Dunning, Nov 06 2008

In my podcast Skeptoid, I cover a lot of topics. Some of them are fresh to many listeners, some of them, not so much. I’ve talked about tales as hoary as Roswell, The Amityville Horror, Bigfoot, and The Philadelphia Experiment. Things we’ve all heard a thousand times, and about which there’s often not much new to say.

Am I preaching to the choir? Am I wasting my breath? Am I repeating old information to an audience that’s already tired of hearing about it? If I were, that would probably be a waste of time. Maybe skeptical outreach should avoid the old subjects.

Continue reading…

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The Big Tent of skepticism

by Phil Plait, Oct 29 2008

Note: This post is a modified version of an email I sent to someone who was concerned about the state of the skepticism movement. I think it should have a broader audience.

I am privileged to be the President of the James Randi Educational Foundation. I’m a skeptic, and I try to live my life that way (usually succeeding, I hope). Randi was one of the largest motivators for me to be a critical thinker, and my friendship and admiration for him go back many years.

Yet, as Randi himself has pointed out, he and I have very different backgrounds, both academically and in general. Randi comes into skepticism from his being a phenomenal conjurer, stage magician, and trickster. I come from the angle of being formally trained as a scientist, specifically an astronomer.

Continue reading…

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