Sunday, August 26, 2012

Magic never fails. Even when it does..

Magic seems to be a pretty powerful force, provided you never actually test it.  I recently posted about the striking miners of the Marikana mine who believed that the magic of a medicine man would protect them from being harmed by guns.  This belief made them fearless, up to the tragic point they decided to test the magical protection by attacking the police.  As inevitably happens when someone tests magic, the magic failed and 34 people died.

So with the magical protection failing so spectacularly you would probably think that this medicine man was in a lot of trouble for the failure of his spells.  That would seem like the logical conclusion, but only if you have no prior experience with magical thinking. 

Magic never fails, even when it fails completely.  If your magic doesn't work, blame it on a bunny:

"Mineworkers at Lonmin's Marikana mine believe the killing of a rabbit was the reason the shooting happened, according to a report on Saturday.

The surviving mineworkers claimed that the medicine man who was alleged to have told them his muti would make them invincible had warned them not to kill the rabbit, the Saturday Star reported.

"The traditional healer warned all of us several times on the day not to kill the rabbit but some among us decided to chase it around the hill and killed it," mineworker Khabo Khabo told the newspaper.

"I still honestly believe that if it wasn't for the healer far more lives would have been lost on the day. If we had let the rabbit free all of the dead would still be alive," Khabo said.

A worker at the memorial service, held at the mine earlier this week, agreed.

Last Thursday, a total of 34 people were killed in a shooting near the mine when police tried to disperse striking miners. More than 70 people were injured.

The medicine man had reportedly promised the workers that police guns would malfunction when they faced them if they followed his instructions and took his muti.

Police video footage taken from a helicopter before the shooting showed the medicine man performing rituals as workers stripped naked before him in long queues.    "

This happens every damn time.

A deranged cult leader proclaims a date for the Rapture/Armageddon, the date passes completely uneventfully aaaand nothing happens to the deranged cult leader.  His followers swallow whatever lame excuse he comes up with, keep on supporting him and waits with mouths agape, ready to swallow the next doomsday prediction.

A charismatic faith healer/prosperity gospel preacher promises supernatural health and wealth and sick people stay sick (or get better because they went to a doctor PRAISE THE LORD!) and the only person who gets rich is the guy sending around the collection plate.  Does anyone call bullshit?  Never!  They accept his explanations that they just didn't have enough faith/didn't tithe enough/had unconfessed sin in their hearts and humbly try to believe harder and plonk down more cash in the collection plate.

So why expect anything different when the magical protection against bullets completely failed to do anything against bullets?  Of course they will put the blame on themselves (and the rabbit) because the magic man is NEVER to blame!

It's the perfect con.  You can make up anything you want, provided you do it convincingly enough, and people will damn near worship you.  You never have to worry about failure either, if your bullshit gets exposed bullshit your followers will just blame themselves.  Provided you can think up some kind of excuse!  Don't worry, it doesn't have to be a good excuse, it can be as dumb as the crap you're peddling!

I think I was wrong, magic is a powerful force regardless of whether you test it or not.  You can test a magical claim a hundred times and watch it fail a hundred times and those who buy into it will never accept that it's false.  Magic can't make you bulletproof but magical thinking has perfected the art of invulnerability!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why is Global Warming like the Internet?

Quick, without looking it up, who invented the internet?  It's Al Gore right?  Has to be!  It's one of those things you don't even have to look up, everyone knows it!  So how weird was it then during the opening ceremony of the London Olympic games when that weird inflatable house lifted up and they introduced the inventor of the World Wide Web:

This guy!!                      (From the really great photo recap)

Clearly NOT Al Gore!  It's Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the real inventor of the World Wide Web.

So you know what other thing everyone knows Al Gore invented?  Global Warming?  Yeah it turns out he didn't invent that either!

I don't know why but for a lot of people Al Gore is the face of Global Warming.  For reasons I understand even less, people seem to be under the impression that he invented it, as if Global Warming was something no one knew about until the late 90's.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Global Warming isn't some evil conspiracy that was hatched in the last decade or so, climate scientists have been warning us about it decades before anyone knew who Al Gore was.  Want proof?  (Trick question! You should always demand proof!)  Here you go:

Global Warming discussed in 1956:

And in 1958:

And again in 1979:

The potentially disastrous effects of greenhouse gasses and global warming was well understood by the 1950s.  It's nothing new.  Heck, Global Warming was even a plot point in the classic movie "Soylent Green"!  Global Warming is like the Internet - Al Gore may have talked a lot about both but he invented neither!

One more thing.

"I believed at that time that the planet …was warming. until I did research and found out it was all an orchestrated scam.

planet has gotten colder last 10 years. hence the not so subtle change in the media from saying ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’. it is all connected to trying to make us all pay more taxes for our ‘carbon footprint’. in essence, you should be taxed just for breathing. good scam.   "  Billy Corgan

This is another thing I keep hearing.  They invented Global Warming but then it got cold and now to avoid egg on their faces they're trying to rebrand it as "Climate Change".  Well that sure sounds incriminating, but only if you aren't going to let facts stand in your way.  Ever hear of the IPCC?  That is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  It was established in 1988.  Long before anyone in The Smashing Pumpkins had even heard about Global Warming, in other words.  Global Warming and Climate Change have always been interchangeable terms, there is no conspiracy here.  I prefer Climate Change personally, it's a much more descriptive term.  Climate is changing and the only scam is being perpetrated by the people telling you it's not really happening.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"But it's just plant food!"

I touched on this particular point in my last post on the subject but I think it deserves its own post.  Global warming deniers often scoff at the notion of regulating carbon dioxide by pointing out that it's plant food.  If CO2 is plant food, how can it be bad?  Plants are good so feeding them must be good too, right?  So is it true?  Is CO2 plant food?

Yes, it is.  Carbon dioxide is plant food and plants do grow better with more of it, as anyone with a greenhouse could probably tell you.

Well OK, matter settled!  CO2 is plant food so more of it in the atmosphere will be good!

Well, no.  Actually, it would be very bad.  As with most overly simplistic statements, it doesn't quite measure up to the complexities of real life.  I'll get to the science in a bit but you really don't need a PhD to figure this out, all you need is a garden.  Having a garden will soon disabuse you of all overly simplistic notions about plants, I guarantee it!  For instance, a garden will teach you that:

a) Not all plants are the same!  There are plants you want - like pumpkins and daisies and roses and tomatoes - and plants you don't want - like poison ivy, weeds, thorns and burrs.

b) The plants you want require a lot of care and attention while the plants you don't want seem to thrive under any condition.

c) Lots of things can destroy your garden - too much heat, too much cold, not enough water, too much water, not enough fertilizer, too much fertilizer, pests, weeds... It's a fairly long list!

So, once you've learned these basic things while gardening, ask yourself again if you think more plant food would be good or bad.  Hint:  It won't just be the plants you want getting it.  See if YOU take steroids you become stronger than everyone else.  If EVERYONE takes steroids then all the people that used to kick your ass will still kick your ass but now they will have more muscles to do it with!

Global warming is terrible for plants.  The US Global Change Research Program, a high level cooperative research effort by combined agencies of the federal government, has several “Key Messages” about climate change effects on agriculture:

  • Many crops show positive responses to elevated carbon dioxide and low levels of warming, but higher levels of warming often negatively affect growth and yields.
  • Extreme events such as heavy downpours and droughts are likely to reduce crop yields because excesses or deficits of water have negative impacts on plant growth.
  • Weeds, diseases, and insect pests benefit from warming, and weeds also benefit from a higher carbon dioxide concentration, increasing stress on crop plants and requiring more attention to pest and weed control. 
  • Forage quality in pastures and rangelands generally declines with increasing carbon dioxide concentration because of the effects on plant nitrogen and protein content, reducing the land’s ability to supply adequate livestock feed.
  • Increased heat, disease, and weather extremes are likely to reduce livestock productivity.   

So not only will the plants we like face stronger weeds, they will face more pests.  In warmer weather the pests will also live longer with no winter cold to kill them off.  Added to that will be the damaging effect of the extra heat drying up the plants and evaporating the water.  And when all that extra evaporated water comes down there will be too much of it which is once again very bad for the plants you like.

So in a nutshell, when it comes to more CO2 in the atmosphere the bad far outweighs the good.  Plants need a lot more than just more "plant food".  They need a nurturing environment.  If you don't believe me, go plant a garden.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Magical thinking leads to tragedy

Usually I like to make fun of the crazy claims the local witchdoctors make but I was reminded this week that what they do isn't always humorous.  Believing that a sangoma's magic can give you superpowers can be the death of you.

Last week, police opened fire of a group of striking mineworkers, killing 34 and wounding many more.  Now investigations into what exactly happened are still underway so details are still forthcoming and I'm certainly not going to try to defend the use of automatic rifles and live ammunition by the police.  However, belief in magic seems to have played a role in the tragedy.

According to this report:

Photo: Felix Dlangamandla
"Every morning, a group of men gathered on a hill on the outskirts of Nkaneng informal settlement near the Karee mine in Wonderkop.

There, under the instructions of a medicine man who allegedly hails from Eastern Cape, they stripped naked, stood in single file and waited for their turn to be sprinkled with herbs.

The medicine man used a razor blade on some of the men, making small incisions on their foreheads before smearing a black, gel-like potion on them.

These procedures, it is believed, were part of a process to prepare for battle to make the men invincible against the enemy.

There were stories doing the rounds that on Monday, mine security guards had tried to fire on the striking workers, only for their guns to jam as a result of the rituals conducted on the hill.

“That man over there is unbelievable,” said a young man in Setswana, referring to the medicine man behind the rituals on the hill.

“There are men who sleep on that hill at night. They never go back to the hostel or their homes. They say at night you can’t see anything there because that man has made the hill to be invisible at night.”"

So it would appear that these men fearlessly charged the police, armed with machetes, spears and other improvised weapons.  They feared no retaliation because they thought magic would make them invincible.  It did not.

Image by: Alon Skuy from The Times

This is why skepticism is important.  This is why debunking magical claims matters.  Believing in magic is not harmless and it's not something that should be left alone out of cultural sensitivity.  Believing in the unbelievable can get you killed.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

From Snowing to Knowing

A while ago, South Africa was hit by serious snow.  If you don't get why that's huge news then you probably don't live here!  We don't get snow like that.  Never.  But we did!  And everyone totally lost their shit!  Including me!
Snooooooooooooooow!!!  Look at it!  It's snow!!

That's my arm catching the 4 snowflakes that fell here.  It was awesome!!  Last time snow well in Pretoria was the 1960's so this may very well be a once in a century event.

There was a downside of course.  Suddenly facebook was filled with 2 kinds of post.  Firstly pictures like mine of people freaking out in the snow (even though people who live in places where it actually snows wouldn't have even counted what we got) and then there were posts where people were going "Ha!  Global Warming?  What a hoax!"

Misinformation and pseudoscience thrive because it sounds "common sense" and can be stated in short, pithy sayings that fit on a bumper sticker.  My replies to such things tend to fail because I try to be super thorough so my reply ends up being several pages.  Rule of thumb, people who scoff at science don't enjoy reading that much.  So I decided it's high time I learned more about Climate Change, so I could be able to offer clear, sensible answers to anti-science folks that could easily fit on a facebook comment.  Since I understand things better when I try to explain it to someone else, I'm going to figure it out by explaining it to the imaginary people who read this blog.

I should probably have posted this first since I already started yesterday...

Anyway, I got one down already!  The short answer to "Why regulate carbon dioxide?  How bad can it be, we exhale it all the time!!" is:  "Because carbon dioxide is extremely good at trapping and absorbing heat.  So if you have too much in the atmosphere, it traps too much heat, causing the planet to overheat."  I'm going to see if I can do that for the other Climate Change "gotcha!" statements too. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Problem with CO2

"The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is," 
Rick Santorum

"I am strongly opposed to the President’s misguided attempts to regulate carbon in direct contravention of the will of Congress. Carbon dioxide is not a “pollutant” and I will seek an amendment to the Clean Air Act that makes this clear. " 
Mitt Romney

"But there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows carbon dioxide is a harmful gas. There isn’t one such study because carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas, it is a harmless gas. Carbon dioxide is natural. It is not harmful. It is part of Earth’s life cycle. "
Michele Bachmann

"George, the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you’ve got more carbon dioxide." 
John Boehner

Carbon dioxide is totally natural.  We all exhale it, plants consume it during photosynthesis, so why are some people trying to limit it?  You keep hearing people telling you that we need to limit CO2 emissions and that we have to reduce our Carbon footprint, so why this vendetta against CO2?  A friend of mine thinks he knows.  After years of listening to Alex Jones, he has it all figured out - THEY want to label CO2 a "pollutant" so THEY can tax you for breathing!  (Also it's probably going to be used to justify their sinister plot to kill all humans)

So is that true?  In a word, no.  That is not why scientists are warning us against our excessive CO2 emissions.  They aren't claiming that CO2 is dangerous to make money, they are saying that because it poses a very real threat to the world.  How can it pose a threat?  Isn't it both natural and non-toxic?  Yes, it's natural but so is cyanide.  Yes it's non-toxic but so is water and that kills a LOT of people every year.  Those aren't very good argument for the harmlessness of CO2.  So why then? 

The reason there is concern about CO2 levels (and not for instance Nitrogen levels) is because carbon dioxide is really really good at absorbing and trapping heat.  Simple as that.  Here, I'll let the scientists explain:

That's the problem with CO2 - it traps heat on earth and if we have too much of it, it will trap too much heat.

But OK, if you don't believe in Climate Change then you probably don't believe in scientists with all their science either.  After all, if you believe that they are lying through their teeth about Global Warming then how can you believe anything they tell or show you?  It could all be a trick!

Well, you're in luck.  The heat trapping ability of CO2 isn't some esoteric scientific principle that only those with a 5th degree High Exalted Science Dragon qualification can demonstrate!  You can do it too!  Right now!  At home!!  All you need is:

2 Identical clear containers
2 Identical thermometers
2 Identical heat sources (like incandescent bulbs)
a source of CO2.  A gas cylinder used to carbonate drinks would work fine OR go old school and use baking soda and vinegar to make your own CO2

Step 1:  Set up a thermometer and a heat source in each container.  It should go without saying that the heat source cannot be a candle but I'm saying it anyway.
Step 2:  Fill one of the containers with CO2.
Step 3:  Turn on your heat sources, leave for 5 to 10 minutes and compare the readings on the thermometers.  Then turn off both heat sources, leave for 5 to 10 minutes and take readings again.

What did you observe?

If you'd like a visual demonstration of the experiment, here is a video showing it:

So who are you going to believe?  Right Wing politicians or your own lying eyes?