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The 90th Meeting of the Skeptics' Circle

July 3, 2008

91st MeetingThe Skeptics' Circle

Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?The time has finally arrived! This week's update to The Millenium Project hosts the 90th Meeting of the Skeptics' Circle, and a fine mixture of youth and experience combined with a soupcon each of quality and quantity go to make it the best meeting ever. But I would say that, wouldn't I?

As every resident of the US knows, the streets of Australia are full of kangaroos. We locals don't usually notice them, but I actually saw two of the hopping beasts in the main street of the miniopolis of Cowra the other evening and this got me thinking about how kangaroos have big feet but they aren't Bigfoot. Then along comes Skeptigator with a story about not just Bigfoot, but Hugefoot - a foot measured in feet!! Read it and be amazed. You can even get a million dollars for pictures, but if you are planning to go to Borneo take a wide-angle lens.

Earlier this year I was placed in the embarrassing situation of having two broken cars at the same time. Now Socratic Gadfly has told me where I should go to get them fixed in the future. I would think that once a car was repaired at God's Garage it would stay fixed, and you would never have to worry that you were being charged for parts you didn't need.

One of the three big news stories around my place this week has been the rather outrageous new laws which protect participants in the coming World Youth Day from being annoyed (the other stories are a particularly nasty murder at the aforementioned Cowra and a couple of politicians behaving badly). It seems that when the Pope gets here we can't wear t-shirts which challenge young Catholics and we certainly can't offer free condoms to the flocking throng. How timely, then, that Greta Christina should remind me about The Pope's Cologne. We all know from advertisements that perfume is a powerful aphrodisiac so I hope that the condomless youngsters camping out in Sydney next week don't splash too much of this around, otherwise the confessors will have to work double shifts.

Greta sneaks in a second entry with some comments about how being a radical about absolutely everything can result in an extreme form of conservatism and conformism. We have all probably noticed this to a degree (I am still surprised at the proportion of quackery believers who are also holocaust-denying creationists who believe in astrology, with all beliefs based on opposition to orthodox scientific thinking), but if we are not careful it can even happen to us. Serious stuff worth considering.

Over at the Natural Variation autism blog, Joseph takes a look at Anthropogenic Global Warming, one of those matters where deniers like to call themselves skeptics. Out here in the farming community there is very little doubt that the climate has changed over the last several decades, although nobody is sure of the cause. I have decided to apply both the Precautionary Principle and Pascal's Wager and have my car modified to reduce my carbon footprint. Perhaps God's Garage could convert it to run on biodiesel. They must have some spare time now that the drought has ensured that there's no water to turn into wine.

I have two daughters and four nieces and my brother has spent many years researching techniques for early detection of cancer of the cervix, so the subject of human papilloma virus is never far from my family's consciousness. I have been known to be impolite to anti-vaccination liars who oppose the HPV vaccine. (Imagine that - me being impolite.) It therefore took me only a fraction of a picosecond to agree to include a piece from the Science and Progress blog which looked at the idiocy and venality of the HPV deniers. My only complaint is that he didn't hold the soldering iron against the genitals of the execrable Mike Adams for long enough.

[Unfortunately, the excellent Science and Progress blog at awayfromthebench has gone to join the Grand Rounds Invisible.]

Theo Clark is part of the team responsible for the excellent book Humbug! He has something to say about the use of the old Argument from Popularity to support some woowoo, in this case medical quackery. The example given is of how Australians spend much more on alternative medicine than they do on real medications. The full professor of quackery quoted forgot to mention that the number he used for the amount spent on alternatives included such non-alternatives as vitamins, massage and exercise at the gym while the amount spent on real medicines left out the many billions of dollars dispensed by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. At least, I assume he forgot. I wouldn't want to accuse him of distorting the facts.

Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes, now there's an informative blog title. What is also informative is that there are people who believe that unicorns actually existed. Unicorns. Things like horses with horns growing out of their foreheads. What was it Ira Gershwin wrote about "The things that you're liable to read in the Bible"? Unfortunately, Bing (a metapseudomym, apparently) was a little bit too restrained in his comments about the unicorn believers so instead I was going to include his discussion about how Scientific American ran an article about how you can retrofit Homer's Odyssey to astronomical facts in the manner of Bible apologeticists hammering the words of Moses (who was almost as real as Ulysses) to fit science. I couldn't decide between the two items so I tossed a coin. Heads the unicorns, tails Homer's eclipse. The coin landed on its edge and stayed there, so both stories stayed in. And if you believe that I have some frozen unicorn steaks to sell you, complete with a bottle of barbecue sauce made from a recipe brought back from Bermuda by Ulysses.

There are several "journalists" who keep writing authoritative but ridiculously incorrect articles which attract the immediate attention of true believers in quackery and are cited and quoted incessantly as evidence of the evil of organised medicine and its handmaidens, the medical societies, journal publishers, pharmaceutical companies and vaccine manufacturers. I have already mentioned Mike Adams, and I get referred to his drivel at least once each week. Another of the same ilk is David Kirby, who might be even more dangerous as he seems to concentrate on lying about vaccinations and gets to do it in publications which have a veneer of respectability. It was good to see his latest discharge of sewage being given the Epi Wonk treatment. Sadly, I have already seen Epi's criticism being dismissed by the simple tactic of answering with a complete verbatim reproduction of Kirby's original nonsense, apparently on the assumption that the more something is said the truer it becomes.

When one has a deadline, such as a specified time when people expect to see a Skeptics' Circle meeting documented on one's web site, one becomes very conscious of time. I was rather intrigued, therefore, so see Skeptico's exchange of emails with yet another crackpot unorthodox scientist who apparently has proved that time does not exist. This is only a minor discovery, however, as the lunatic unorthodox scientist has also discovered many other important facts about the universe, most of which have been unnoticed or unrecognised by hide-bound traditional scientists working within the constraints of orthodoxy. And he has written a book about it. Not so surprisingly, the book was published by one of those outfits that publish whatever the author pays them to print. I must contact the publisher to see if they can assist me, because I have had no enthusiasm from the regular outfits for my book of unicorn casserole recipes.

Hello, here's Theo Clark back again for a second bite of the dodo cutlet. He wants us to identify the particular logical fallacy used by a well-known exponent of woowoo. Ironically, what the wooist is challenging is Occam's Razor which, if applied to this particular wooist, would offer as the simplest answer with the fewest assumptions the idea that the wooist didn't have a clue about whatever it was that he was talking about. And for those who wonder how Theo managed to get two entries accepted in different emails it's my penance for ripping off one of his father Jef's cartoons a couple of weeks back without proper attribution.

Colin calls himself Skeptic Dad, and speaking as a father myself I have had many opportunities to be skeptical about things said by offspring. As an example, the application of Occam's Razor to the smell of peppermint is to assume recent smoking or drinking, but I digress ... Colin has unearthed what appears to be the genesis of a wonderful conspiracy about how Hillary Clinton was beaten in the race to become a presidential candidate. To an outsider from the other end of the Earth the whole process of spending several fortunes to find candidates who will spend more fortunes to gain the votes of people who vote as proxies for other voters who might not even decide to vote or might have their chads hanging if they do, thus allowing judges to vote as proxies for the proxies, seems to be too complicated for even the most brain-wrinkled conspiracy theorist to synthesise. Making a film about a moon landing would be easier (and cheaper).

A real flakeWhat would a Skeptics' Circle meeting be without a contribution or two from The Boss, Orac? His first one addresses something which causes me to reach for the St John's Wort to overcome depression - the growth of nonsense in medical schools. I always feel embarrassed by the fact that the university which granted me my couple of testamurs was the first real university in the world to open a school of chiropractic, but things are much worse now and it seems that even prestigious medical schools appear to think that they are inadequate if they lack a department of woowoo. Tragic. Tragic for the doctors being trained in these places. Tragic for their patients. Tragic for science.

Orac's other entry is a totally unjustified attack on Jenny McCarthy and the concept of Indigo Children. I say unjustified because I have had one of these creatures living in my house for several years. Imagine calling Jenny McCarthy a "flake"! She might be a clueless idiot who wouldn't know if a tram was in her pants until the conductor rang the bell, but that doesn't make her a flake. She might have the brains of a nematode and the conscience of a cane toad, but calling her a flake is unjustified. It is an insult to chocolate bars, which know more about vaccination than she knows about, well, about anything really.

The final entry comes all the way from Australia and is a nicely serious way to close the meeting. We all have collections of skeptical books, but Podblack Cat offers a list of recommended reading. As she is a fearsome English teacher, you will get all these books and read them. There will be a test and those who fail will have to stay back and polish the Tarot cards.

91st MeetingThe Skeptics' Circle

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