Saturday, August 27, 2011

Uncle Arthur Lies About Science

When I saw a hilariously terrible bit of scientific misinformation called "Did Charlie make a monkey out of you?" over on Scotteriology, it reminded me of my very first encounter with the Theory of Evolution.  When I was a wee toddler my parents used to read to me from a delightfully traumatizing series called "Oom Attie se Slaaptyd-stories" (better known to the rest of the world as "Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories") by the Seventh Day Adventist author Arthur S Maxwell.  To say that this left me with a slightly incorrect impression of what evolution actually claimed would be a massive understatement.  I remember that even as a five year old, I was stunned that people could believe something as utterly ridiculous as evolution!  Since teaching evolution was a taboo under the state run Christian National Education in the Old South Africa I was a committed young earth creationists until deep into my grownup years.  In my defense though, I went all those years hearing only the version of the Theory of Evolution as told by Christian Apologists - so really I had no idea what evolution was really all about.  To may shame it took me almost three decades before I actually bothered to look it up for myself and found out what science actually had to say without the filter of fundamentalist Christianity blocking my reception. 

So for nostalgia's sake I decided to dig up the story and read it again.  I have to say, it was worse than I remembered!  When it comes to accurately portraying the theory of evolution, Uncle Arthur makes Kent Hovind look like Richard Dawkins!  I can't describe to you just how incredibly dishonest it is because if I tried you would think I'm making things up.  So instead I decided to just post the entire story right here.  Now I admit I'm not up to speed on copyright law but I'm fairly certain one is allowed to post someone else's work provided you cite it properly and don't claim it as your own.  If I'm wrong about that, please do correct me.  Also, since I only have the Afrikaans copy of the story and was unable to find the original English online I had to translate it myself.  So then what follows is not the original words of Arthur S Maxwell but rather the Afrikaans translation by C. van der M. van Wyk translated back into English by me.  The original story ('n Storie Wat Nie Waar Is Nie) appears on page 71 - 75 of book 5 of the Bedtime stories series.  Sit down when reading this, don't drink anything that will burn your sinus cavities if you snort it by accident or ruin your computer if you spit it.  I promise that I translated this as accurately and as close to the original text as possible, keeping the grammar, punctuation and sentence structure as far as possible.  It may appear at times that I tweaked it to make it sound more ridiculous but I assure you I took no such liberties - this is the exact story I heard as a child. 

BTW, if anyone can get me the original text of this story I would very much appreciate it!
Not even kidding!

"A story that isn’t true
copyright Arthur S Maxwell

I don’t mean that my story isn’t true.  On the contrary, it’s very reliable.  See, I know the boy who told it to me, and he wouldn’t tell a lie to save his life.  I’m going to call him “David” to protect his true identity.

David came back from school one day and told his dad the story he heard that day.  It went like this:

In the history class the teacher wanted to tell start right from the very beginning of things and so he told this funny little story.  He said that life on earth began as a little bit of slime in the ocean.  This bit of slime grew and grew and eventually broke up into little pieces.  One piece decided to become a fish, another piece a plant, and another crawled out on land and decided to become a worm.

From this first fish, first plant and first worm came all other fishes, plants and animals.  At least that’s what the teacher said.  Then he tried to follow the history of the worm until, billions and billions of years later, it became an animal with legs!  How ridiculous!  This worm, he said, started crawling until he grew a wart on his belly.  This wart later became a leg.  Some worms got four warts and so grew four legs.  Others got many warts and they turned into centipedes.

Animals got eyes, he said, because the light of the sun shone on them.  The sun burned a freckle on them and the freckle later became an eye.

Then as millions of years went by, some of the worms whose warts became legs turned into dogs, some into cats, some into leopards and lions and tigers and giraffes and so on.  The teacher then told them that one group of worms later developed arms and legs and became monkeys.  The most advanced of the monkeys were playing with sticks one day.  By chance they happened to rub the sticks together and made a spark.  That is how they learned to make fire and the warmth of the fire caused their hair to fall out and they became people.

So then, this is the story that David’s teacher told him that day.  It’s a story that is told to children the world over.  But, it is not a true story.  Do not believe it!

It’s not true, because God tells us in the Bible that He made all things.  They didn’t “evolve” over millions and billions of years from a speck of slime in the ocean.  He made everything Himself through His wisdom and Omnipotence.  We read in the Psalms:  “By the Word of the LORD the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of His mouth. … For He spoke, and it came to be; He commanded, and it stood firm.” (Ps 33:6,9).  Regarding mankind we read:  “So God created mankind in His own Image, in the Image of God He created them; male and female He created them.” (Gen 1:27). 

See just how ridiculous this untrue story sounds that’s being told to so many boys and girls today?  If you just think about it you may just burst out laughing!  That first speck of slime in the ocean, who put it there?  Who made the sea so that it could grow there?  Who made the land upon which the first worm crawled when it became tired of the ocean?

And just think of all those poor worms with the warts under their bellies.  How did the warts form on just the right places so that legs could form on a spot where they would be useful?  And why didn’t they get more warts on their legs so they could stick out in all directions?

Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?  And just think about those eyes!  Oh dear!  The sun shone on the freckle until an eye formed they say.  But why did the sun have to pick a freckle right next to the nose?  And then again another freckle right on the other side of the nose as well?  Why not a freckle on the back of his head, on one of his legs or maybe on his tail?  Why didn’t eyes grow all over the body?

Also, if it really was the light of the sun that changed the freckles into eyes, why didn’t it make them strong enough to look into the sun?  Why did these same sunbeams have to go and make eyelids to keep the light out?  Finally, what about those poor monkeys who supposedly changed into people.  They lost their hair because they invented fire and didn’t need hair to keep them warm?  No way!  Why didn’t they lose the hair on their heads as well then?  And why don’t cats lose their hair today if they sleep in front of the fireplace?  And why do monkeys in warm climates still have their hair?

No children, this story isn’t just untrue but it also sounds like nonsense.  It was thought up by people who didn’t love the Bible and tried to find a different explanation for the origins of things.  If you ask me I think their story is a thousand times harder to believe than the simple Biblical story of creation."

Have you ever in your life seen a strawman brutalized quite like this?  It's like Uncle Arthur is actually an Atheist missionary in disguise!  It would be pure genius actually, because if you want kids to realize that their religious leaders are lying to them/don't know what they are talking about/are ridiculously ignorant about things they claim to be knowledgeable about, then tell them a story as ridiculously false as this that can be easily demolished with but a handful of actual facts.  I can promise you, they will never trust their church again.

To be read ironically by adults, never seriously to children!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Heaven is so Surreal!

How do you know if someone drugged you?  As a kid I firmly believed that you knew that by checking the bottom of your cup for a dark gooey residue.  See there was this TV show I watched as a small child and that is always how they realised someone got drugged.  I wish I knew what show that was but that's really the only thing that stuck in my mind.  Plus it was the 80's and thanks to the Apartheid sanctions South African TV was a strange mixed bag of whatever old shows someone would sell us that got dubbed into Afrikaans so even if I remembered the title I doubt it would help much!  I suspect it may have been a German production from the 60's or 70's but I have no way of confirming that.  All I know is that if they suspected someone was drugged they checked the bottom of the mug or glass and boom - dark goopy residue.  Once someone snuck them some drugged milk and there was a gooey substance on the milk cap.  So for the longest time I assumed that all drugs (when slipped into drinks) left a gooey residue behind and I would always check after I drank something.  I had almost forgotten about that completely but then I saw this video:

At first I was like "He he he, this guy in the purple suit sure brings back memories from the movies the Pastor would sometimes show when I was a kid!" and then came those "heavenly reenactment" bits and I was like "Riiiiight, that is kinda weird and corny but it fits the genre I guess" but then the thing after 2:13 happened and I was like "WTF just happened?!?  Am I high?  Did someone slip me LSD without telling me?".  That was when I just had to check the bottom of my mug to be sure...

But no, that actually happened and you watched it happen.  And no, that wasn't satire or a Poe, that was 100% real.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

How gay is ABBA?

I am a huge ABBA fan.  There, I said it.  I loved them since childhood (probably because they were at their peak when I was a fetus) and I never grew out of it.  I had the Readers Digest ABBA collection on tape as a teen and I have the same songs on my iPod today.  You know what my parents rented for me on my 16th birthday?  ABBA: The movie.  It was one of my best birthday's ever.  So to sum up, I really really love ABBA.

Problem is, the moment a guy (let's say me) declares their love for ABBA, other guys are immediately like "dude, that is sooo gay".  On that note, I have 3 things to say:
One, I really don't care what you think my taste in music says about me.  Judge me by my words and deeds and I will consider what you have to say but judge me by the music I enjoy and you can bite me.  I will enjoy the things I enjoy and you can love it or shove it.
Two, I may be heterosexual but I don't view gays as subhuman deviants so calling gay is probably not the sick burn you think it is.
Three, why exactly is ABBA gay?

Look I get it, I watched "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" too, I know a lot of people in the gay community looves them some ABBA.  Good for them, ABBA made great music!  I just don't quite understand how this particular Swedish pop band became the gay icons they are, that's all.  Not to rain on anyone's parade (see what I did there?) but I have to wonder if anyone bothered to actually listen closely to ABBA's song lyrics?  Check out these snippets from their song "People need love":

"Man has always wanted a woman by his side to keep him company
Women always knew that it takes a man to get matrimonial harmony
Everybody knows that a man who's feeling down wants some female sympathy"

"Flowers in a desert need a drop of rain like a woman needs her man
If a man's in love and his woman wants the moon
Then he'll take it down if he can"

Call me nitpicky but that sounds less "Gay Pride Parade" and a lot more "Focus on the Family".  This is quite typical of their music too, it's all about the agony and the ecstasy  of old fashioned hetero luvin'.  For crying out loud, they have a song called "One Man, One Woman" - which sounds like something James Dobson would play before railing against the evils of the homosexual agenda and lifting DOMA!

Again, not trying to denigrate anyone's musical choices here or to "take back ABBA" or anything like that.  I just really have to wonder how ABBA went from the most hetero band of the 70's to the gay icons they are today.  I'm genuinely curious!

Was it the outfits?  It was, wasn't it?

Monday, August 15, 2011

How the media makes sausage

I'm feeling a little shocked by my own naivety right now.  If you asked me if I thought the media was sometimes dishonest in the way they told a story I would have immediately said that, yes they most certainly are!  Yet despite that, if I saw someone saying something on TV or heard them say it on the radio I believed it to be accurate.  Quotes in print I'm easily skeptical of, thanks to countless encounters with Creationist quote mining but somehow when I see video my skepticism gets short circuited.  I knew that reporters make edits but I never really knew how to spot them so I usually just trusted whatever I saw.

Not anymore.  British reporter Peter Hadfield (aka youtuber Potholer54) posted this video sharing the tricks of the trade.  Now that I've seen how they do it I'm definitely going to be more vigilant in future!  Granted, not all edits are malicious - I'd like to think that most are simply made due to time constraints - but even an innocent editing mistake can completely alter a quote.  Point is, seeing is not believing! 

So if you're brave enough to take a peek behind the curtain, here is Potholer54's video on the tricks of the journalistic trade:

(Video apparently blocked in the UK and Ireland for copyright reasons, unblocked version available here)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The New Radiation

Ever notice how comic book superheroes all seemed to get their powers from radiation at one time?  A crew of astronauts get bathed in cosmic radiation and become the Fantastic Four.  A young boy is blinded by radioactive waste and becomes Daredevil.  A scientist gets hit by a massive dose of gamma radiation and becomes the Incredible Hulk.  A student is bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes Spiderman.  I can keep going for quite a bit here.  In the movies and comic books of yesteryear radiation either created giant monsters (Godzilla) or gave people superhuman abilities.  Ever wonder why this was such a popular notion?  Could radiation realistically give a person superpowers?  The answer of course is yes, but only if by "superpowers" you mean radiation poisoning, cancer and agonizing death!

Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting anyone tried to give themselves superpowers through radiation poisoning.  Also, I'm not suggesting that the silly folks of the last century actually believed that would work if they did try it (no, leave that for the incredibly stupid people of today).  All I'm saying is that it at least seemed like a plausible mechanism a couple of decades ago.  This was after all the days before Google when - if you really wanted to understand something - you had to go to the library and search through a lot of books to get all the info you wanted.  So naturally some people were happy to instead get by with the little knowledge they had and as the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  The little people did know was that nuclear power was amazing and immensely powerful not to mention the fact that radiation can affect your cells on a molecular level, altering your very genetic code.  Of course the results of this were never pretty but you can see on some level why people wouldn't immediately call shenanigans on the trope that radiation is magical, at least as far as their fiction was concerned.

Of course things have changed since then.  The Information Age dawned, people stopped believing that radiation was a magical explanation for the implausible and found new magical explanations.  Today however, some people choose not to save it only for their fiction, instead they actually believe in the magical explanatory powers of their New Radiation in real life.

Probably the most famous example is the one in the comic above.  Pretty much all New Age woo peddlers explain away their ridiculous claims with the magical power of Quantum Mechanics.  I am currently reading The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and it brought me to a profound realization - I am not smart enough to comprehend Quantum Mechanics!  It's fascinating stuff and what little I can understand blows my mind but the moment it goes past the most basic concepts I can feel myself starting to get lost.  Things just get so strange and so utterly counterintuitive that I have to admit I make little sense of it.  But even so, even though I understand so very little of it I am quite confident in saying that quacks like Deepak Chopra understand much, much less of it than I do!  Lucky for them, the same goes for a lot of the population so they are free to make their nonsense sound rational and scientific by using terms from Quantum Mechanics.  Just like with radiation, people know very little about Quantum Physics but what they do know is that it's fascinating and exciting and seems to overturn a lot of the "old science".  All of that is true of course but it does not therefore follow that you can wish things into existence (a la The Secret) thanks to Quantum Mechanics or that Quantum Physics show that positive thinking alters reality (a la Chopra).  None of that is true.  Like it or not, you're going to live your life within the boundaries of standard, boring old Newtonian physics - which only breaks down for incredibly big and incredibly small things, neither of which you deal with at all.  So while quantum particles can and do spontaneously pop into existence out of nothing, the same will never be true of a new Porsche no matter how hard you wish!

Quantum Mechanics isn't the only New Radiation in the world today of course but it's pretty prominent.  Another form, extremely popular for the conspiracy minded if no one else, would be the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Same story as the others, the Dead Sea Scrolls are mysterious, exciting and people don't know much about it - making it a perfect form of New Radiation.  What people know is that these are very ancient Biblical manuscripts that have been hidden unmolested for many centuries.  What many people therefore believe is that it shows all kinds of crazy things about the Bible, Jesus and how the Church has totally been hiding the truth, man!  We can mostly thank people like Dan Brown for that one.  After reading The Da Vinci Code, a friend of mine was utterly convinced that the Dead Sea Scrolls said that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had kids.  In fact you can make up just about any wild conspiracy about the Bible and claim the Dead Sea Scrolls show it's all true and people will believe you; despite the fact that you could probably find the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls (in English) in your nearest bookstore.  The reality of the scrolls - while fascinating to historians and scholars - are not that exciting to someone looking for Catholic conspiracy and the dirty secrets of Jesus.  The actual contents of the scrolls are:

"The Dead Sea Scrolls are traditionally divided into three groups: "Biblical" manuscripts (copies of texts from the Hebrew Bible), which comprise roughly 40% of the identified scrolls; "Apocryphal" or "Pseudepigraphical" manuscripts (known documents from the Second Temple Period like Enoch, Jubilees, Tobit, Sirach, non-canonical psalms, etc., that were not ultimately canonized in the Hebrew Bible), which comprise roughly 30% of the identified scrolls; and "Sectarian" manuscripts (previously unknown documents that speak to the rules and beliefs of a particular group or groups within greater Judaism) like the Community Rule, War Scroll, Pesher on Habakkuk (Hebrew pesher פשר = "Commentary"), and the Rule of the Blessing, which comprise roughly 30% of the identified scrolls."

In other words, lots of fascinating Old Testament Judaism stuff, zero sexy New Testament dirt.  Still, just like Quantum Mechanics, the Dead Sea Scrolls may yet function as the New Radiation for a quite while before it's replaced with something else.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Quacks vs Chemistry

"How can you be so sure there is nothing to it all?"  That is probably the number one question skeptics get asked.  It's a very good question too, in fact I would argue that a skeptic should be the first one asking himself/herself that question.  If you don't accept that there are ghosts, why is that?  How can you be so confident that Alternative Medicine isn't really medicine?  You need to know the answer to such questions or risk coming across as completely closed minded and ignorant instead of informed and skeptical.  Now depending on the subject the long answer can be rather long but the short answer almost always turns out to be: Science.  Science may not be perfect but it is peerless in differentiating truth from falsehood and while it can't always tell you what the correct answer is with 100% certainty, it is fantastic at telling you what the wrong answers are.  That is why I am very confident in dismissing the nutritional claims of someone like Mike "the health ranger" Adams as complete quackery.  How can I be sure?  Because his claims don't stand up to scientific scrutiny.  Worse, you need only an elementary school science education to know that he doesn't know what he's talking about at all.

For instance, in a recent article called "What's really in the food? The A to Z of the food industry's most evil ingredients." he made the following claim:
"Homogenized Milk - The fats in the milk are artificially modified to change them into smaller molecules that stay in suspension in the milk liquid (so the milk fat doesn't separate)"
He goes on to explain how that somehow turns milk evil and such but that's really as far as I need to read to see that he really has no clue.  See if you break up the fat molecules in the milk you don't get smaller fat molecules, you get things that aren't fat or milk or in fact anything remotely like it.  Now since I said you only needed elementary school level science to understand why, let me demonstrate with an extremely simple example.  Behold the mighty water molecule, H2O:

As you probably know, a water molecule is one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms.  So when you break it up into "smaller molecules" what do you get?  Really small water molecules?  No!  You get Hydrogen and Oxygen molecules, neither of which are anything like water molecules!  Put water on a burning pile of wood and you put out the fire, put hydrogen and oxygen on a fire and you get a much bigger fire!  The molecular structure of a substance makes it what it is.  If you break it up you don't get a smaller version of the substance, you get a completely different substance.  It's that simple.

On that subject, a lot of the hysteria surrounding vaccines and autism came from the claim that "ZOMG vaccines contain mercury!!"  That is a lie.  There is no mercury in a vaccine.  There is however something called Thiomersal (C9H9HgNaO2S) in vaccines which is a compound containing mercury.  As I've just pointed out with the water molecule example, there is a very big difference between mercury and a molecule that has mercury in it.  Here is another fun example I bet they taught you in elementary school, table salt - one of the best examples of just how magically amazing chemistry is.  You take Sodium (Na) which is toxic and as an added bonus explodes when you add it to water and Chlorine (Cl) which is so horrifically toxic that they used to use it as a chemical warfare weapon, but when you join them into Sodium Chloride (NaCl) you get ordinary table salt, which doesn't explode in water and isn't toxic at all - in fact it's edible!  Therefore, just as putting salt on your popcorn is not the same as putting chlorine on it, putting thiomersal in a vaccine is not the same as putting mercury in it.  It's elementary!

To study chemistry is to study a world of endless wonder, but not for these quacks.  No surprise there, actually understanding the science of their claim tends to debunk it completely.  They want people to be afraid of chemistry and I'm afraid they've been very successful.  Just look at advertisements, how it always tries to juxtapose "chemicals" with "natural" as in "All natural with no added chemicals"; which is not only terribly lazy language use, it's also complete crap.  Everything is made out of atoms, that is a fundamental truth of everything that physically exists.  Chemistry is the study of how all these atoms interact and behave.  Therefore, chemistry - and chemicals - are everywhere.  Everything you eat, drink, breathe and wear is made of chemicals.  You yourself happen to be made entirely of chemicals.  Chemicals are not evil.  Scaring people with chemistry on the other hand is evil (not to mention stupid and wrong).

So then, when an alternative medicine proponent tries to make their case with "science-y" sounding terms but clearly lack even a basic understanding of what they are talking about, I feel pretty confident in disregarding their claims.  That is how I know there is nothing to their claims - if they had anything they would have presented me with facts, not fakery.  If you want to see the rest of Mike's pseudo-scientific claims from that article dismantled by actual science I heartily recommend Orac's blog post on it: Oh, no, there's protein and salt in my food!  It's choc full of chemistry and good for you!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

What has two thumbs, a coonskin hat and a brand new iPod?

This guy!!
That's right, ME!!  I won it.  I am a winner.  Because I won something.  Suck on it haters!

I know what I may have risked type two diabetes when I drank all that Coke a Cola in order to send in all those entries but I don't care because it was totally worth it!

Unfortunately my obsessive compulsive nature took over the moment I installed iTunes so I may not be able to properly blog (or do anything else) again until every song is filed under the correct album and displays the correct album artwork.  I thought I could be happy with just having my Lady Gaga and Sheryl Crow albums sorted but it turns out that no, I really can not.  I probably should worry more about that personal realization but I can't right now because I AM A WINNER!