Thursday, November 30, 2006

Doggerel #46: "Don't Knock [Woo] Before You Try It!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

I'm often asked to try some form of woo, usually quackery, before I knock it, as if my personal experience will invalidate the absence of controlled studies or even the presence of several negative studies.

The big, inherent problem with such a thing is that I am biased. So are you. There's no getting around that... or is there?

The answer to that is controlled studies, preferably double-blinded, especially if subjective measurements are done. Granted, not everything can be double-blinded, but for most forms of such woo, it's usually not a problem.

For the topic of quackery: here's a quick un-nuanced explanation of how a double-blind clinical trial works:

First, get a large group of people. Randomly divide them into two groups: The control group (also known as the placebo group) and the experimental group. Both groups are treated the same, except in one aspect: Some get the treatment, and others get a fake treatment (sugar pill, whatever). No one involved in the process knows who's getting which until the results are measured. If there's a big enough difference (you can ask someone else how to determine statistical significance), then the treatment is probably having an effect.

Here's how it works out mathematically:

Control group's improvement = Coincidental recovery + placebo effect + 0

Experimental group's improvement = Coincidental recovery + placebo effect + Treatment effect.

If both groups get about the same amount of improvement, I think we can safely conclude the treatment's effect was zero.

That's fairly simple. Now onto things like psychics, astrology and so forth: Double-blinding can be a little trickier with some of these, but the end goal is the same: Information has to be tightly controlled.

An example: A medium claims to be able to perform a reading based on a photograph, and can tell whether or not the photographed person is alive or dead. Have a person without knowledge of the photos hand over a pile. Since he doesn't know, he can't accidentally give any hints. If the medium can correctly guess better than chance, that's positive evidence.

That sort of thing gets trickier (but often still manageable) if the medium requires contact with someone who knows the deceased. In human contact, there's always the risk of large information leakage. If double-blinding isn't possible, why should I believe that the information came from somewhere else if I may have provided it?

Additionally, such "try it yourself" pleas often call on me to rely on one data point. One. In such small sample sizes, the laws of probability can seem more dramatic. If the psychic or whatever makes one particularly lucky guess, it can seem really special since it's usually divorced from context: The psychic has probably made a large number of mistakes with other people. You have to look for the big picture. I'm not about to presume that everything is going to be typical with me.

That's why, even if I had a successful personal trial, I wouldn't be convinced: There's no way to be confident that I'd be a typical case. Large trials designed to eliminate bias are much less subject to human foibles and probabilistic snags.


Doggerel Index

Monday, November 27, 2006

It's Up!

Stop Sylvia Browne is now open to the public, and it's off to a good start. Knowing the job Robert did with Kaz, we can bet Sylvia will be getting the same thorough treatment.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Something to be Thankful For

Was holding this back, but Molly's been doing quite well. Her blood count is staying in the normal range, she's back to her usual level of activity, and so forth.

We've put Squirt in a pet hotel for the holidays so that Kafka (and maybe Molly, when she feels like coming in) can have the run of the house.

Stuff we've learned:

Molly is very much an outdoor cat. She hesitates to come inside. Used a laser to make a spot on the ground for her to pounce. Led her through the door, and she turned right back around as soon as she realized she was indoors.

Molly likes her beef-flavored medicine. She REALLY likes her beef-flavored medicine. I think we can guess what sort of cat food to get her from now on.

On a side note, I noticed one of our local game stores was advertising being open on Thanksgiving, and featured the Wii on their front page. Stopped by and, of course, they were sold out since Sunday. Going to try for the Friday shipment I heard about locally.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Someone Not Making The Same Mistake Twice

Just found another good thread on the JREF forums. This one's much less silly than that one about the R-9 orbital space fighter wave cannon that did 9/11: JREF newcomer sonja got duped by Sylvia Browne and her son, Chris Dufresne, and admits it. It takes a lot of strength to admit you've made a mistake. It takes even more to have that mistake shown to the world as a warning: sonja's currently talking with Robert Lancaster of Stop Kaz fame to tell her story at Stop Sylvia Browne. (EDIT: It's up, now!)

Welcome to the world of skepticism, sonja. I hope you enjoy your stay. We've got magic acts, card tricks, and maybe the ghost of Houdini. He's quiet now, but boy did he know how to put on a show!


The Big Sylvia Brown Thread

48th Skeptics' Circle

Listen to the sound mind and body.

Open thead as usual, except discussion of bumping me off for the insurance money is FORBIDDEN!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Comment Moderation Back On.

Guess who. Maybe if Weapon of Mass Iniquity can learn to talk to the guy going by the name of "Bronze Dog" instead of the PETA-supporting, dope-smoking, sexaholic, absolutely pacifist, morally relativistic straw man going through his head, we can actually get somewhere.

I doubt it'll happen. He still hasn't gotten past thinking evolution involves Polymorph Other, despite the latter being strictly supernatural. (Well, technically spell, or spell-like ability, but you know what I mean.)

NOTE: Notification's been weird. I had to manually check to find out I had a couple of comments waiting. One from Amanda, and another from WoMI along the lines of "You got mad at my gibberish! I win!"

This Thread is Teh Silly!

Just thought I'd drop this JREF thread for your perusal before it goes off the front page of the Conspiracy Theories section. Fear not, though, for it will likely return.

Monday, November 20, 2006


I'm in a strange mood at the moment. Ask me anything in the comments. There's a very likely chance that you'll get a silly answer.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Doggerel #45: "Why Are You So Obsessed?"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Regular readers can probably guess what I'm going to get around to: Motivations are irrelevant to the arguments that are being presented. Alleged obsessions are irrelevant to the validity of an argument. A sound argument is a sound argument. There's no getting around that.

There is, of course, some truth to the obsession, if you can call a strong opposition to letting people get hurt an obsession. If you've been directed here by a skeptic, this may be news to you: People get hurt by paranormal beliefs, quackery, fundamentalism, and so forth. Quackery can harm people in a wide variety of ways, including supposedly hopeless cases. People have died from quackery. "Psychics" can drain lots of money from desperate people. Religion can make people perform atrocities. They're all capable of damaging a person's ability to think critically. Nearly all of these involve lots of people who claim that their magic is exempt from science, despite the fact that they claim to have exactly what science measures: Results.

What really annoys me about this bit of doggerel is that it often implies that there's no value to learning the truth. It seems some have made it explicit: I've seen a few skeptics quoting woos who called them "reality-obsessed" as if that was a bad thing. Is escapism a virtue, now?

What's sometimes even worse: Many woos don't even understand our position, and claim we're obsessed with something that we're not. As a skeptic, I'm not obsessed with disproving the existence of the paranormal: I'm "obsessed" with making the paranormalists prove it. There's a big difference. The universe would be a niftier place if the paranormal existed, but I'm not going to expend energy on hypothetical scenarios if the big promoters aren't going to expend energy on proving them under proper scientific protocols. Their passion often vanishes when it comes to such things.


Doggerel Index

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What I Really Want For Decemberween

I mentioned that I was considering once again changing the site template to turn this into the Bronze Blog, since Ryan's been away (though he stopped by recently). I'm still interested in some changes, so stuff I'd like, since I don't know html:

1. A "Recent Comments" section. The old topics get their fair share of trolls, and I'd like to let the rest of you know about it, rather than being the only one who gets a notification.

2. Some tips on how to change the borders, background, and so forth with minimum fuss. I was thinking of making some kind of tesselation of bronze hexagons.

3. Some automatic way for Ryan and me to include avatars in our posts without having to go through a copy/paste ritual.

4. A giant pile of format suggestions. Everyone has their text/background color preferences, and I'd like to know how to maximize legibility.

5. Would also like block quotes to be more than simple indented text while we're at it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

I Believe in Joe Pesci

I love the ol' amazing one. He's chock full of good advice.

Recently I was watching a video of Randi being interviewed on a news program in Australia when the anchor asked him "Do you believe in god?"

Personally, I think that's a rather intrusive question simply because my answer will only serve to villify me in the questioner's eyes. But Randi's answer:

"Which one?"

I tried that today. Shut that dude up pretty quick, especially when you bust out a paraphrase of the old quote "I believe in one less god than you do. When you can understand why you dismiss all other god/s, you'll understand why I dismiss yours."

Praise be to Pesci.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Okay, I've Vented. Now I Need a Cyber-Hug.

Weapon of Mass Iniquity descended further into the depths of depravity than I thought possible shy of committing war crimes in one of my comment threads.

For all the not-insane theists out there: I need a reminder that there are theists out there who actually enact love and kinship, rather than deal out hatred and deceit. Theists who use honest inquiry and understanding, rather than base means and fell designs. Theists who understand that morality is more than a set of arbitrary rules to get you into happyland.

If you're out there, don't hesitate to make a joyful noise.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Molly Update

Well, Molly's blood count has gone back up since she spent some more time at the vets' place. Still no word on a cause, yet. For now, about all we can do is hope the current round of medication'll work. Hopefully, we won't have to make the hard decision.

We're worried this might be a genetic thing, rather than an environmentally-caused problem.

SUPER UPDATE: The vets have determined it's a blood parasite. Molly's doing pretty well so far on antibiotics. She's more alert, now. Now we just need to give her some recovery time followed by lots of rounds of chasing a point of laser light on the ground. All the iron and resulting appetite increase made her fat.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Photographic Evidence! Well, a Screenshot, Anyway

Seems that in one of Orac's posts, "Common Sense" is vigorously denying the existence of something that's viewable from one click. EDIT: Looks like it may have been a case of technical difficulties.

Anyway, the fact that someone can file a complaint claiming vaccines turned their kid into a superhero doesn't really speak for the quality of the database.

A vaccine-powered superhero would be cool, though: Prevent crimes before they happen. Probably wouldn't get as much fanfare, though, since prevention isn't really that showy.

I came, I clicked, I saw. Here's a screenshot:

Click for full size
Right-click my pic to download the full-sized version. Flickr's being a little weird.

47th Skeptics' Circle

It's up, up, and away!

Version for the non-comic geeks.

Open thread as usual, except jokes about Batman being gay are FORBIDDEN! We all know he isn't.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Doggerel #44: "You're Just Rude!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Often, skeptics are accused of being rude by woos (if you'll forgive some of the inherent rudeness of that term), and it's not uncommon for the woos to be right about that. We can be very harsh in our tone, and I think it's understandable: We often have to deal with people who won't address fundamental questions. We often have to reply to cookie-cutter responses that don't address the issue. We have to spend time pointing out logical fallacies that are commonly presented in all caps. We're often aware of the various problems that arise from the lack of critical thinking. It can really wear you down at times.

Woos are often rude and don't seem to be aware of it. They commonly throw out insinuations of sinister motives, attempts to claim inherent moral high ground, straw men, etcetera.

And all of that is irrelevant. Sometimes a forum thread needs a call for everyone to cool down, but pointing out the rudeness of others seldom does anything to contribute to the argument. In fact, it often serves as a red herring to distract people from the argument, rather than promote it. If someone's claiming to levitate, I'd rather argue about the validity of test protocols than the rudeness of a word like "woo."


Doggerel Index

Monday, November 06, 2006

More Not-Good News

After some improvement time and apparent normality, Molly's starting to get bad again: Her blood count is going back down. Seems we're likely going to get her medication changed to something (hopefully) more effective. If that doesn't work, we'll have to face the pet expense dilemma.

SUPER UPDATE: Molly's just fine, now. Was a blood parasite, and antibiotics fixed her right up.

He's Not As Cool a Villain as Megatron.

Bumped into this via Silly Humans.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Dense, Symbolist Tome

Okay, so this post won't be nearly as dense or tome-y as Moby Dick. My brother suggested I post my endorsement for one of the atheism symbols floating about at Pharyngula. AA picked the "empty set" symbol while I went for this:

I like this symbol since it could be plausibly linked to something else if you find yourself in a situation hostile to atheists. I'd say it's the logo for the Airex corporation from Wipeout:Pure. It also kind of looks like a sleeping abstract question mark.

Of course, that sort of thing may not work out for you. I just kind of like the way it looks. Feels vaguely upbeat, which is one of the things I believe PZ was going for.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Pet Peeves #1: Anime

Since they've been making literary criticisms over at Action Skeptics, Good Math, Bad Math, and probably lots of other places, I might as well do my sharing of whining and moaning about problems with the things I love. The topic today is clichés and such that I'm sick of. I'm fairly anime-oriented in this one, but some of these things are pretty universal:

1. Let's save the world! I really hate it when the stakes start inexplicably going up to that level. Saving a city, kingdom, or space colony is good enough. No need to get absolutely everyone involved.

2. The power of universal positive thinking: It's mostly in kiddie anime, but it occasionally leaks out into other things to my annoyance: Everyone in the world gives their positive thoughts, power, whatever to the heroes who use that to vanquish the villain.

3. Power level 10^42: Dragon Ball Z is obviously THE biggest offender. As I see it, character power curves are supposed to level off. At that point, conflicts are supposed to get more innovation-oriented: The latest villain has some gimmick that makes him hard to combat effectively. The heroes' job is to figure it out and overcome the problem.

4. I'm THE hero! The rest of you are just extras!: I hate it when a series picks one character to do all the big heroics while the others helplessly watch. If you've got a team of heroes, they should work together. The new guy is entitled to shine just a little more, but each person should serve a purpose other than buying time for the alpha character to arrive.

5. I'd like to thank all the little people for doing nothing: Just once, I'd like to see the nameless soldiers of the JSSDF kick the monster's keister without help from the über-mechs piloted by kids with nothing but spunk.

6. Über-mechs piloted by kids with nothing but spunk: Whammy: I tend to dislike the idea of super-mechs when you've got a world full of mechs. If they're super-prototypes secretly built by elite organizations, that's fine. If there's a mech shop around every corner, you'd expect the gap between production models and super-duper prototypes to be much smaller. Double-whammy: Kids shouldn't pilot mechs so easily. If the kid was genetically engineered, born, and raised in the military to fight, I can deal with that. Some middle-schooler climbing into a machine he's never seen before and gaining instant top-gun status not so much. He should have trouble just looking for the ignition key.

7. Pink explosions: Seems to be a recent phenomenon in anime. I know the big orange balls are unrealistic, but I'll take them over the pink explosions. Personally, I'd rather see something like a mech getting swiss-cheesed by shells, or maybe one big hole in the pilot area followed by a limp fall.

8. Sentient, silent mechs: If a mech is sentient, it should have some way to communicate beyond sometimes getting stubborn when someone other than The Chosen Pilot tries to operate it. Organic and magical mechs get more leeway on this front.

9. "Energy": DBZ's another big offender, but not the only one.

10. "They thought of themselves as gods.": Often used to describe the ancient extinct civilization that made The Big Mistake. More likely, it was just a bunch of people complaining about how long it takes to teleport to work plus a handful who tinkered with something new and didn't have enough failsafes.