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Silly News Magazines: Confusing Correlation with Causation

I was perusing a website today and I stumbled across a headline that bothered me:

Does Being Left-Handed Make You Angry?

In this Time Magazine blog on health-related news, the author discusses findings from a correlational study of tympanic membrane temperature and dominant handedness.

Without going into the integrity of study, my main beef is the way the title is presented by Time and the aggregating website. It implies a general causation between being left-handed and more prone to anger. The word “make” is the hook. I strongly doubt the researchers used the words the blog post did.

I suggest a better title: Does being Left-Handed Relate to Issues with Anger? Of course, I’m no journalist, and that title may not grab readers.

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TAM 8 Summary – Friday (Part 1)

The experiences that I obtained through Friday’s offerings can be categorized no more acutely than inspirational. The day’s talks covered a number of topics and were given by experts in a variety of fields, each tethered to the sturdy foundation of critical thinking. The diversity of subjects made each segment intriguing and that the topics are kept from attendees beforehand provided a welcome anticipation. The later programming brought a startling and substantial community issue into light and with controversy came the possibility of a renewed emphasis of openness in skepticism.

The day began with the cast of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe recording a live podcast. Topics included the Million Ghost March (which was eventually revealed by an audience member as a parody), black hole jets of ions that create massive spheres of gas, an obesity study, and Climategate. Of note is that the obesity study concluded that being obese leads to inactivity (not the other way around), so the best preventable method appears to be combining exercise with a reduction of caloric intake. Regarding Climategate, the SGU cast explained that a third review concluded that there was no tampering of data whatsoever. The cast was entertaining to me and I enjoyed observing the humorous dynamics of the group.

After an opening by D.J. Grothe, Phil Plait, and TAM’s master of ceremonies Hal Bidlack, Michael Shermer took to the stage. His presentation, entitled The Believing Brain, focused on the meaning of believing and that human beings form beliefs first and then seek out evidence to support these beliefs. As pattern perceiving organisms our default position is to assume all patterns/beliefs are real, which minimizes the number of potentially dangerous type II errors committed. Agenticity stems from natural beliefs in a body-spirit duality and along with paternicity results in beliefs of supernatural, superior agencies. Finally, the confirmation bias fuels the gathering of evidence that supports preexisting irrational beliefs. Shermer’s sequence is in line with what I have studied in psychology and his introduction of the concepts of paternicity and agenticity provide some more efficient means of explaining supernatural belief formation.

Next, the Secular Coalition for America‘s Executive Director, Sean Faircloth, discussed secularism in politics. Faircloth argued that while independent thinking once had a place in early United States politics, this is no longer the case. Whereas secularism was prominent in the 1700s and Abraham Lincoln always had secular values, anyone in support of this position today would not be elected because of the sway faith has in the current political climate. In response, SCA aims to lobby Congress on issues of the separation of church and state, along with advocating for regulation of faith-based organizations to protect United States citizens. Before this presentation I was unaware of the SCA and will be doing some further investigation to determine if their position is something I want to support, although it seems like a good cause.

Next up was a panel entitled Women in Skepticism, comprised of moderator Rebecca Watson, Carol Tavris, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Pamela Gay, Ginger Campbell, and Harriet Hall. Throughout the Q&A session there was a consensus that the skepticism, atheism, and science communities need more culturally diverse members and gender parity. Harriet Hall noted that she has never had discrimination experiences within the skeptic community. Pamela Gay argued that by working toward integrating gender parity and cultural diversity into the skeptic community, there would be more diverse role models and that would result in skepticism reaching more people in the United States. I agree and feel that the skepticism community (at least as represented by TAM) has much to gain in these respects.

Following the panel, TAM attendees got an informal and more intimate glance at James Randi through an interview focusing on his work and friendship with Johnny Carson. Jamy Ian Swiss conducted the interview, which touched on Randi’s debunking of Uri Gellar and Peter Popoff. Randi explained that the failure of Gellar on Carson’s show was his doing, since he knew Gellar’s trick and told Carson’s prop guy to put rubber cement on the film cans to prevent him from spinning them and figuring out which one contained a hidden item. Randi next divulged that when he went on Carson’s show to expose Peter Popoff, he did not tell Carson how Popoff’s scam worked so he was completely caught off guard and understandably angry at the reveal. This interview was charming and entertaining, exemplifying how exciting and fun skepticism can be – which is of great importance and assistance in promoting skeptical inquiry and combating the stereotyping of the skeptic community as serious, condescending scientists.

Up next was Simon Singh‘s talk Alternative Medicine, Chiropractic, Libel and the Battle for Free Speech. Covering the history of the two-year libel lawsuit brought up against him by the British Chiropractic Association, Singh spoke out against libel laws in science. Although there is some evidence that back pain can be alleviated through chiropractic, claims that it can remedy non-back issues such as asthma are unfounded. The Libel Reform Campaign is working to ensure that statements against alternative medicine that are grounded in scientific evidence can no longer be drug into expensive and lengthy legal battles, since they should be protected under free speech rights. That organizations peddling unfounded healing methods would file a lawsuit of the kind Singh had to defend against was discomforting to me, but that Singh fought the long battle and came out victorious was a courageous and very important precedent.

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Quackwatcher Dr. Steve Barrett is Under Attack

The details are covered very well by Orac, who says:

The favored laboratory of anti-vaccine practitioners and the “autism biomed” movement, a commercial laboratory known as Doctor’s Data is suing Steve Barrett, the man who maintains the excellent resource Quackwatch, for criticism Dr. Barrett leveled against it, criticism that Doctor’s Data richly deserved (in my opinion, of course).

Fighting these battles is extremely expensive and no legal defense funds exist for grassroots activists. Please blog about this to raise awareness and donate what you can to Quackwatch to help Dr. Barrett defend his right (and our rights) to tell the truth.


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Bigfoot a No-Show Again? Hmph.


This has been a very difficult post to write.

On June 10th I posted a solicitation for donations to help us raise $2800 to send four students to The Amazing Meeting 8. I stated that this was a test, and in many ways it was.

You see, I have been skeptical about the skepticism movement’s ability to inch forward at a faster rate than we slide backward. Frankly, I have many concerns about the current community that I hope to address at my blog in the near future. Mostly, I worry that the work is neglected as it is overshadowed by the community itself. Given the benchmark of more than $1500 in 8 hours I discussed in my original post, this was a test of how enthusiastic people are about moving the cause forward.

So, did you pass? Well, I guess that depends on how you look at it. I have mixed feelings myself.

First Things First

Thank you. Thank you to everyone who retweeted, shared, or blogged about this effort. I cannot tell you how much those gestures mean to me and these students. I am fully aware that many people are barely able, if at all, to afford the trip themselves and the support you gave by sharing links and in every other way was extremely valuable.

To those who were able to donate, I will thank you so often that you will be sick of hearing about it.

The Results

In two weeks, we raised $670, not including a donation from me. That will send a Woo Fighter to TAM8.

Bigfoot will not be at the meeting, but a Woo Fighter will. The donations will cover the conference registration and hotel room with a little bit left over for meals. What it does not cover will be added to my donation, which covers website hosting and some significant materials to help the members raise funds on their own for next year (super-secret stuff, mostly, but I have already hinted at a few things if you are paying attention).

Most of these donations were made in the first week and I declared the first goal met. Christos was very, very excited and all of the plans were made.

Then, this morning, Christos received some sad news which prompted him to arrange travel Greece to be with his family for a while. He was grateful to the donors and concerned that the efforts would be wasted, but I assured him that even this close to TAM there were Woo Fighters who would be both excited and able to take his place. I am extremely happy to announce that Dylan Keenberg will be attending and, to show his gratitude, has committed to blog as much about his experiences as possible.

Please introduce yourself if you see him. He really does look a lot like Penn Jillette when he dresses in a suit and ties his hair back.

The Test

Well, $670 is nothing to sneeze at and it is sending a very worthy student to a conference at which he will gain valuable knowledge and experience that I am certain will be put to good use. He will meet many great people, make some friends, and be inspired.

As promised, I will help, inspire, and nag him to submit a proposal to present next year.

The mixed feelings I have are related to those left behind, but they have more to do with the distribution of the donations. What I had hoped for was that the hordes of people who read blogs, participate in discussions, attend meetings like TAM, and identify with the movement, but do not tend to be active in outreach, would donate a few dollars each – small donations in large numbers that I believe make up the bulk of what is collected when money is thrown together quickly for a specific purpose. If the masses had responded this way, I would be thrilled with the nickels and dimes and the votes of confidence that came with them. That is not at all what happened.

I think that for that kind of fund raising, the plea needs to be shared, retweeted, or reposted by someone with an insanely large readership, such as PZ Myers or Phil Plait. Nothing like that happened. It seems that Woo Fighters is not yet on their radar or perhaps they donot find it a worthy cause to promote. Whatever the reason, we did not see the volume of hits that would be needed for anything remotely like Jen McCreight’s effort.

But…

$670 came from 11 people.

It should be clear that most of them were quite large.

I did not get permission to name names (I neglected to ask), but I will name two people who have publicly acknowledged their donations in blog posts about the drive. In addition to a very generous donation, Kylie Sturgess devoted two entire posts to this effort, mentioned it repeatedly, and is probably responsible for the surprising proportion of donations from Australia. Heidi Anderson, of She Thought also devoted a post to it and made a sizeable donation. These are two of the most selfless people I know, although neither would characterize themselves as such. I am very proud to call these women friends.

The plea was passed on by The Godless Monster, and I, of course, blogged to my small readership. It was retweeted by many and shared through email and other means.

I am disappointed in the community in general because these wonderful nods – the donations and the promotions – came almost exclusively from people like Kylie and Heidi, who have already devoted all of their spare time – and much of their not-so-spare time – to the cause. They work hard, not to promote themselves, but to promote the cause, the work. They are engaged in real outreach, real education in critical thinking. They do their part already.

And yet, it is exactly these people, the ones who do the work, who know best what the movement needs. It is the opinions of these people which matter most to me. So their approval is priceless. It tells me that we (the movement) are indeed on the right track, whether the hordes understand what that track is or not.

I hope that each of these 11 people will tune into the blog during and after TAM8 for Dylan’s updates and be pleased with what they have done. I am.


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Science Education? No, it’s time for fat education.

This “skepticism stuff” is largely about teaching people to think critically and intelligently, under the assumption that doing so will improve the length and quality of all of our lives. Skepticism is indeed a process, and why I think it’s great and essential for us to spread it far and wide, maybe we’re aiming too high. Providing competent medical care to children and shaping the mental workings of future generations are all well and good, but you’d really have to be an optimist to think we’re ready to begin at that level.

So let’s start a bit lower. Have you ever read the comments sections provided under news articles posted on websites for news agencies such as CNN and NBC? It’s definitely an experience. They’re often so bad, someone actually wrote a script that transforms particularly bad YouTube comments into Richard Feynmann quotes.

Some of my favorite bizarre things to read are posted by what I can only describe as “fat denialists”. That is, these people are suspicious of science’s “opinion” that being overweight is unhealthy. Realize I’m not saying that everyone has to be skinny to be beautiful, or that to be “hollywood skinny” is even genetically attainable for the hardest of dieters and exercises. I’m talking about people who view scientists professing the unhealthiness of high calorie and sedentary lifestyles as enemies of humanity.

There are two locations I’m drawing the following comments from, the first being an article about caskets made specifically for the overweight, the second being a promotional video for a new ABC Summer program titled “HUGE” (I’m not even making that up).

The mistrust is pretty rampant here:

I would tell people go with the weight that makes you feel good and not let these know-nothing-and-I-have-a-degree-to-prove-it doctors from telling you other wise…

It is SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT to love yourself for who you are on the INSIDE than who you are on the outside. I plan on being large for the rest of my life just to prove that to people.

There is nothing worng with being HUGE but there is something wrong about not loving yourself enough to take care of yourself

The assumption that average weight individuals must be unhappy, and that being large and “living life to the fullest” are equivalent statements are probably the worst pieces of rhetoric here. I don’t even need to link you to a bunch of journal articles to show you that being overweight is bad for you. In fact, along with smoking it’s the greatest cause of death in the United States. And all the top causes of death in the US share one characteristic: “preventable”.

These fat denialists are a growing community whose continued existence is being actively encouraged. I don’t see how we can promote more advanced forms of personal responsibility in light of the failures of such basic ones.

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Smoking & Alzheimers

So I came across this video (pretty well produced) on recent “information” on the link between smoking cigarettes and Alzheimer’s disease:

(My apologies on getting the video embedded. For some reason WordPress does not like the HTML the site has given, even though the preview work. Go figure…)

I’m pretty impressed by the investigation. The interview at the end with the representative of an Alzheimer’s organization in Oregon is spot on: Common sense.

However, the real reason I’m reposting this video for more to see is the source/fact checking that went into the production. It is a clear sign that we all must take the time these days to determine where information is coming from and if it can be trusted/believed. Too often we see newspaper/online articles purporting some new study that links things with other things that seem extremely unlikely, and at the same time, there isn’t a link or a citation of the study. We cannot be persuaded just because the article says “researchers” or “scientists”. It’s important for people to be informed, but it should be WELL-informed. Scientists get things wrong too, and of course, there are some who just make stuff up.

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This Is a Test. Please Pass It. Please?

One of the primary goals of the Woo Fighter’s first year was to raise funds to send its members, especially the CSUN students, to The Amaz!ng Meeting 8.

Each year I leave TAM feeling recharged and ready to face another year of teaching and promoting skepticism, science, and critical thinking. I strongly believed that the experience would leave these new skeptics with a similar feeling, motivating them to recruit (giving them something to recruit with, forming bonds with other skeptics, and giving them ideas for events and products to promote the cause.



However, a late start to becoming a recognized organization, the poor timing of TAM (which prevents us from applying for grants from the school, which could only be used for current students anyway), and a general lack of ideas for how to raise these funds has left us with less than a month to go and no goals met.

This morning I discovered that, upon hearing that her proposal for a Sunday presentation was accepted, Blag Hag Jennifer McCreight managed to raise over $1500 in less than 8 hours, simply by asking.

Well, gee. It did not actually occur to me to simply ask people to help out. I assumed that people who wanted to help would donate to the TAM scholarship fund, but of course it is not possible to know whom you are sending to TAM when you contribute to such a fund. So, it occurred to me to test the community’s commitment to encouraging a new generation of skeptics to strive for quality activism by finding out if we can match in 2 weeks what McCreight did in a few hours.

I have 4 well-trained young Woo Fighters – all scientists – who, if they could afford to go to TAM8, would jump at the chance and would use what they learned wisely. None are scheduled to speak this year, but I will make this promise: every Woo Fighter who is able to attend TAM8 because of you will submit a proposal for a Sunday paper next year, and I will personally oversee this process to ensure that they produce a high-quality presentation on a relevant topic or original research.



Furthermore, if at least 2 of them are funded I will personally guarantee that Bigfoot will make an appearance at TAM8.

So, if you want to meet Bigfoot, Please help us out.

By my calculations, if they are able to share a room and carpool, each Woo Fighter will need ~$700 for conference fees, hotel, gas, and food.

You would be helping to send, in this order, the following people:

Christos Korgan: An enthusiastic and intelligent undergraduate psychology student who will be applying to graduate schools next year and will serve on the board of Woo Fighters of CSUN in the fall.

Matthew Newton: A recent graduate and our most popular blogger, Matt will be attending Old Dominion University in the fall, working toward a PhD in Applied Experimental Psychology.

Dylan Keeberg: Also a recent graduate and another popular blogger, Dylan is starting his doctoral studies in the fall as well, at the Chicago School for Professional Psychology, where he hopes to conduct research in an effort to develop evidence-based therapies from humanistic and existential theories.

If we get this far, you will get to meet Penn Jillette’s doppelganger!
Isn’t that an incentive? no? Well, how about Lawrence…

Lawrence Patihis: Also a brilliant recent graduate, Lawrence will be pursing his PhD at University of California, Irvine in the fall, working with Dr. Elizabeth Loftus – false memories, anyone?

But sadly, if we do not raise the funds, none of these students will be able to attend TAM8 this year. If we raise enough for these students, you will have shown me that this community cares about more than just having a good time – you care that the torch is passed, and that the torch itself is important, too. These are the skeptics who will show people that candle in the dark that Carl Sagan always talked about 20 years from now and, I hope, pass it on to their students.

Please do not let us down!


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Woo Fighters on Skepically Speaking Tonight!

Alex Swan, president of Woo Fighters of CSU Northridge, will be talking to Desiree on the “Speaking Up” segment of Skeptically Speaking tonight!

You can listen to the show live at 5pm Pacific Time. The show will also be converted to a podcast and available for download on iTunes in a few days.


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