Tag Archive: debunking

May 28 2010

Why psychic abilities probably aren’t possible

Usually when someone is arguing that psychics aren’t real, they talk about cold reading, self-delusion, and the willingness to believe. In other words, they explain how a psychic is doing what they’re doing.

I’m going to try a different take. I’m going to try to show that what psychics claim to be doing is impossible, by using evolution as our guide.

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May 14 2009

Recommended Podcasts

I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts while at my computer (especially while playing WoW) and also on my MP3 player in the car, and when out for a walk, and whenever I have the time. I listen to a LOT of podcasts, and I’m always looking for more. Here are my favorites, and if you know of any others that I’d probably like, please post a link.

What the hell is a podcast?

It’s like radio, but on a computer. Most podcasts are published via an RSS feed that links to the files on the podcaster’s server. You can just download them manually if you want, but there are programs out there that will let you subscribe to the podcast feed and automatically download new episodes when they become available. The program I use is MediaMonkey, which is probably the greatest audio program ever. Other people use iTunes, though I don’t know why. I think WinAmp can handle podcasts too, and I’m sure there are others. Anyway, on with the show.

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March 30 2009

Is PETA really euthanizing most of its shelter animals? Yes.

PETR
This image doesn’t really have anything to do with this story, but I made it a while ago and I think it’s funny.

Here’s one I heard about a few months ago, but didn’t think about much until it popped up again today on Digg, as most things do.

As the story goes, PETA (the animal rights group) euthanized 95% of all the animals it took in during 2008. Wow. But, is it true?

While researching, I quickly found my way to a site called “PETA Kills Animals”, which seems to be the source of this claim. They have the data they used all wrapped up in a nice PDF file and a table of data showing the exact numbers, from 1998 to 2008. And yes, the data shows, without a doubt, that PETA is euthanizing huge numbers of animals. Case closed, I’ll share the site on Facebook to make myself feel good. Right?

However, someone on Digg doubted the numbers, and claimed the numbers were much lower. Another poster chimed in with links to the data directly from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. (PETA’s headquarters are in Virginia.) That site has PETA’s data from 2004-2007, so that’s the date range I’ll be sticking with for the rest of this article.

I looked at the exact numbers, and at first glance something seemed wrong. In 2007, PETA took in 8362 animals, and euthanized 1815 of them. That’s definitely not 95%; it’s 22%. Huh?

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March 21 2009

Energize your mind with new-age bullshit


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When I started this blog, I thought I’d be writing primarily about cool science news items, and shedding light on the latest scams, and maybe even writing about politics and religion if I had time. Well, as you can see by the Categories box to the right, I had that completely backwards. The problem is that I really don’t have much to contribute to a scientific news item, besides “this is cool”.

However, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying pseudoscientific claptrap when I see it, and this certainly qualifies for that description:

If you watched that video, you’re probably either thinking “that’s obvious nonsense” or “wow, maybe I should start doing that”. Actually, you’re probably also thinking “that’s the worst reporting I’ve ever seen” and I agree with you there.

A classic joke among us skeptics goes something like this:

Q: “What do you call alternative medicine that actually works?” A: “Medicine.”

A lot of people are inclined to believe in alternative medicine, because they see it as a viable alternative to modern medicine. What many people don’t realize is that there’s really no such thing as “alternative medicine”. There’s medicine, and then there’s unproven and disproven treatments. This “Superbrain Yoga®” seems to be a mixture of both unproven and disproven treatments. Continue Reading

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February 25 2009

Debatable Tactics

Blow2Debating is like boxing: you wail on your opponent until they cough up blood. Figuratively.

I went to a debate between Dan Barker (whom I wrote about briefly a couple days ago) and Dinesh D’Souza last night, in Willey Hall at the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis campus). The topic was “Can We Be Good Without God”, which I’m a little surprised is still a subject of debate at all.

My simple answer to that question? Of course; we do it every day. It’s just that many of us don’t realize it. What that question is really asking is, can we be good without a belief in a god. Specifically, the Christian version of God, although the debate wasn’t limited only to that. Dan took the affirmative position (yes we can be good), and Dinesh took the contrary position (no, we can’t).

Dan started out by trying to show why the Bible isn’t a reliable source of morality, and how most people ignore its immoral passages, proving that morality exists outside and independent of religion. However, I think he glossed over a few too many things, and may have made some assumptions he shouldn’t have. For one, I think too often he assumed that his audience was more familiar with the Bible than they actually were. Ironically, it seemed like the atheists in the audience knew exactly what he was talking about and which passages he was referring to, because many of us actually read the Bible and not just follow the current feel-good pop version of Christianity that basically ignores the Bible and focuses on Jesus as the ultimate invisible friend.

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October 6 2008

Book Review: “50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God” by Guy P. Harrison

I couldn’t find a good image on the net to steal, so I just tossed my copy in the scanner. I do plan to actually buy the book someday.

This is the book I wish everybody on the planet would read. Or at least my friends and family.

The best thing about this book is that it conveys the reasoning behind atheism without being even remotely condescending toward believers. It wasn’t written to convert people, or prove who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s just trying to inform.

Not only does the book inform you about atheism and, being a book with a “western world” mindset, Christianity, but it also delves into many other world religions, some of which I’ve never even heard of. Harrison seems to have led a fascinating life so far, traveling the world and seeing many different types of people and cultures, and he gladly shares some of his stories and experiences while at the same time using them to illustrate the idea he’s trying to convey in a given chapter.

The format of the book is ideal for this sort of topic. Each of the titular 50 reasons is given its own chapter, and each chapter can be read on its own, without having read any of the previous chapters. The chapters are, on average, about 7 pages long. This means that each chapter covers its intended topic thoroughly without going overboard with unnecessary prose or over-elaborate explanations.

No matter what you believe, this book will give you a lot to think about.

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August 31 2008

Bevans the Atheist – Why I don’t believe in Christianity

Series: Bevans The Atheist

  1. Introduction
  2. Why I don’t believe in Religion
  3. Why I don’t believe in Christianity
  4. Why I don’t believe in God (coming soon)

NOTE: I’m currently re-writing this post. I don’t think I’ve adequately explained my true feelings on this matter.

If you read my previous posts in this series, you may have noticed that I’m basically explaining my belief system backwards, because I feel like that’s the best way to explain it. Or maybe I’m saving the really good stuff for the end. The root question of religion is whether or not there is a god/gods, and that will be covered in my next post in this series. Then there’s the “what’s he like” question, which is covered by specific religions, which I’ll be addressing in this post. Then there’s the “how do we know that X religion is right” question, which I at least partially addressed in my previous post in this series. That’s kinda confusing, isn’t it? Oh well. On with the show.

This is probably going to make a lot of people very angry.

People who accept some form of Christianity believe certain things that set it apart from other religions. Some of the most important are:

  1. God created the universe.
  2. Jesus is the son of God (or he is God…or something).
  3. Jesus is the savior of mankind.
  4. Jesus died to redeem our sins.
  5. Jesus came back from the dead.
  6. Jesus is coming back someday, and he’s totally gonna fuck us up.
  7. The Bible is friggin’ awesome.

I’m going to save #1 for my next post, because it’s a big’un.

Let’s start with #7. Christians believe many things about the Bible, like:

  1. It’s literally true.
  2. It’s figuratively true.
  3. It’s a guide to leading a better life.

Those are huge simplifications, and I’m not even covering all the angles, but I want to stay brief and readable here; if this gets too long, I’ll have to distribute this post in paperback form. (That’s a joke of course – there is no limit to how much you can write in a digital format.)

Well, we know that the Bible isn’t literally true; at least not the whole thing. Genesis is obviously completely wrong. We’ve discovered things like evolution and the big bang and archaeology and stuff. This fact shouldn’t shock you. Also, there are countless contradictions and errors.

So is it figuratively true? Well, that’s an extremely vague way to put it. I guess you could say that such an indefinable idea can be applied to the Bible. There are so many different stories in the Bible that you can read that you’ll inevitably come across one that makes you say “gee, that’s kinda like _____” and it can help you in your everyday life. But the same can be said of other ancient texts, or the Iliad, or the works of Shakespeare, or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the 4th season of King of Queens (if there even was a 4th season) or whatever you have sitting on your coffee table.

So, does the Bible really help you lead a better life? Again, it basically comes down to which text you choose to guide you. There’s certainly a lot of good stuff in there, like “love thy neighbor as thyself” and all that. But there’s also a lot of horrible, insane stuff in there. Even ignoring the entire Old Testament, for every inspiring passage, there’s one that makes me wonder why the book has sold as well as it has. There are far more reasonable, well-written, and helpful books out there that can help you lead a better life.

To better understand the Bible, I strongly urge you to check out the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible.

Now, let’s examine the elephant in the room: Jesus.

Pretty much everything we know (or think we know) about Jesus comes from the Bible. And as we’ve established, the Bible is full of contradiction and error. Not only was the New Testament written decades after Jesus’ death and supposed resurrection, but it has been translated, mistranslated, reinterpreted, and rewritten numerous times over the centuries. For example, the idea that Mary was a virgin comes as a result of a mistranslation in the King James Bible. The word for “young woman” was mistaken for the word for “virgin”.

You know, I’m having a really hard time putting my thoughts into words here. I’ve read, watched, and listened to a lot of fascinating info on the origins of the Bible and the story of Jesus for my entire adult life, and there’s a whole lot of very compelling reasons to doubt it all, but putting dozens of sources together into cohesive sentences here is…daunting.

Well, to pull myself out of the corner that I’ve written myself into here, I’ll instead focus on what I DO believe about who Jesus was.

I don’t have a problem with assuming that he did exist. But his story has been so distorted over the years – adapted to fit the prophecies, merged with other savior stories, and so on – that it’s probably impossible to know who he really was. My guess is that he was just one of many charismatic philosophers of the time, and he happened to draw a bigger crowd than the others. He had a lot of good things to say, and a lot of people liked him. He upset the status quo, and was executed as a result. No miracles, no magic, no resurrection, no coming apocalypse (except that which we create for ourselves). To me, he’s a historical figure like Shakespeare or Homer (why do I keep going back to those two?) in that there are doubts about whether they even existed.

Maybe he believed that he was really the son of God. If so, he was unfortunately deluded, because (as I’ll explain in my next post in this series) there’s no such thing. All in all, he seems like he was a good guy, so I hate to have to take him down a few pegs like this. My ingrained Christian indoctrination is making this topic very uncomfortable.

If, right now, you’re thinking “that was all crap!”, I pretty much agree with you. In this post, I tried to succinctly explain my true feelings about Christianity, and I failed miserably. But I’ve laid down a framework, and I’ll be coming back to this post to revise and add to it as I am able. Really, there’s so much to talk about on this subject that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get everything written out definitively.

I also wanted to point out why I’m not providing any links to my sources for what I’m saying here. For one, I don’t feel like it. I’d wind up spending way too much time tracking down my sources and linking them here. And really, would it matter if I did? I’m not trying to convince anyone here; I’m trying to say why I’ve come to the conclusions that I have.

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August 18 2008

The 21-gram soul

Ah, the mainstream media doing what it does best: reporting science.

This is a pretty interesting concept.

As the story goes, a doctor named Duncan MacDougall proved that the soul exists because he found that people weigh less (about 21 grams) after they die than they did just before death. These results were reported in the New York Times numerous times after the study was performed…in 1907.

I guess science reporting was as crappy 100 years ago as it is now. But, rather than just dismiss this out of hand as we probably should, let’s analyze it a bit.

First, it’s pretty lazy logical thinking to assume that, even if there IS a difference in weight, that it automatically means that it’s the result of the soul leaving the body. It’s only 21 grams (or 3/4 of an ounce), so we’re not talking about a whole lot of weight. I’m no doctor, but I can think of a few ways that this could be attributed to something besides a phenomenon that has never been proven to exist.

  1. Breath leaving the body. Contrary to popular belief, air DOES have weight, though it’s very low. When a person dies, their lungs deflate, and a lot of air is expelled from the body. I wouldn’t even bring this up, except for the fact that the missing weight is only 21 grams. It also goes hand-in-hand with my next idea:
  2. Moisture leaving the body. Your breath has moisture in it, after all. Just breathe on a piece of glass and it’ll fog up. When the breath leaves the body, it takes some moisture with it. I’m guessing that the moisture is probably heavier than the actual air.
  3. Snopes has what I think is the most reasonable explanation, from the American Medicine journal:

    “…MacDougall…failed to take into account the sudden rise in body temperature at death when the blood stops being air-cooled via its circulation through the lungs….[The] sweating and moisture evaporation caused by this rise in body temperature would account both for the drop in the men’s weight and the dogs’ failure to register one.”

    More on the dogs later.
    (I feel like a real reporter or something. I just used a quote from a medical journal.)

  4. Were such large scales in 1907 even able to measure with such accuracy? Maybe I’m underestimating the technology of the time. MacDougall says in his paper that his “scales were sensitive to two-tenths of an ounce”. That doesn’t seem accurate enough to me, especially considering how difficult it must be to balance a body on what must be a pretty large scale.

Anyway, we’re still talking about 21 grams here.

Let’s examine the study itself now. Was the study well done? What was the sample size?

Six. He weighed six people before and after they died. This is nowhere near a sufficient sample size for any scientific or medical study. Except that two of the six subjects weren’t able to be weighed, so really it’s just four people in this study. Only one of the 4 actually lost 3/4 of an ounce, and the others were far less exact. This study is quite a mess.

Ok, I think I’ve beaten this into the ground. However, MacDougall still may have stumbled upon something here. Maybe somebody has duplicated his results over the years. Well, I did do some limited searching for similar studies, and I didn’t find any evidence that supports MacDougall’s claims, although that doesn’t mean that the evidence isn’t out there. In fact, I did find one study that showed that the body actually increased in weight after death, but it was a pretty lousy study too, and they were weighing sheep.

You know, these days it would be very easy to perform our own scientific study of this “phenomenon”. Some modern hospital beds have built-in scales and automatic monitoring that could easily detect this weight loss, if it’s happening. It should be fairly easy to look at the weight logs of a few thousand people who died in a hospital equipped with these beds and figure out if they’re losing any weight when they die.

Of course, even if you established that they do, you still need to establish that it’s linked to the soul leaving the body, and to do that you would first need to prove that the soul actually exists. Good luck with that, and remember Occam’s Razor.

On a related note, I just sent this subject in to Skeptoid as a suggestion for a future episode. I’d love to hear Dunning’s take on it, but I’m sure he’s got much more important stories to tackle.

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