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March 1, 2014

Note from mum (1/3/2014)
I've been absent for the last couple of weeks because I'm packing and looking for somewhere else to live. This takes time, and the aggravation of having to deal with estate agents who carefully listen to what I need and then say things like "We have exactly what you need for only $150 per week more than you can afford to pay, but they don't allow pets so you can't bring your dog" doesn't help. Things will return to normal shortly. In the meantime, here are some things which will soon be appearing in print.

Are all vitamins good for you? (1/3/2014)
The vitamin company Swisse came to the attention of regulators recently over claims in their advertising. Now they have tried to buy some respectability.

Australasian ScienceThe Best Research Money Can Buy
Imagine you are a university administrator and someone approaches you with an offer of $15 million for your research budget. You would leap at it, because that amount of money can fund a lot of resources. I worked in a very sophisticated laboratory once that cost $8 million to build on an empty block of land, so even if you were to create the facilities from scratch there would still be money left over for running costs.

An offer of this amount has been made to at least two Australian universities over recent months, plus another two who are rumoured but not yet confirmed. The first three rejected the offer, which was finally accepted by La Trobe University. You might wonder why anyone would refuse this, but it was because the donation was tied to doing specific research into the products of a single company,  the vitamin manufacturer Swisse. Swisse have come in for some attention from the ACCC recently for the wording used in their advertisements, but as all distributors of vitamins at least suggest some amorphous benefits from using their products this isn't enough reason to refuse to take their money.

You can see the rest here.

Conscientious objection requires a conscience (1/3/2014)
Anti-vaccination liars are up in arms about new rules protecting children from the inaction of irresponsible parents. They are resorting to religious claims.

Bending your conscience to fit your opinion
Forty-five years ago Australia was participating in a war in Vietnam. Because the volunteer Army wasn't big enough, conscription was used to build up the numbers. On their twentieth birthday (a year before becoming eligible to vote) young men had to register. Every three months a ballot of birthdays in that quarter was held and men whose birthdays came out of the barrel could look forward to two years in uniform. If you missed out you were "deferred" not "absolved" and on at least one occasion the total number of men registered in a quarter was less than the Army needed, so people who had been previously deferred were give two weeks to get their affairs in order and get themselves down to the induction centre.

If someone was called up there were three legal ways to avoid doing the two years' service. (Hiding in Australia or another country was possible, but not legal. Not turning up triggered an automatic two-year gaol term, suspended until you were located.) These were rejection on medical grounds (and you had to have a serious medical problem), full-time university study (in a time of expensive university fees, the default option for the sons of the wealthy), and conscientious objection.

You can see the rest here.

See more from Judy Horacek here

Tooth truth? Maybe not. (1/3/2014)
I saw this image at least twice in the last week on Facebook promoting methods of tooth whitening. One was using a mixture of toothpaste, sodium bicarbonate, and strong hydrogen peroxide, the other was saying that the result came from rubbing the teeth with banana skins. As I said, both were using the same before and after pictures to prove how effective their recommended idiocy was.

I wasn't about to fill my mouth with dangerous chemicals (and H2O2 at the concentration needed for this effect is very dangerous indeed, which is why tooth whitening preparations using it should only be applied by dentists) and banana skins taste bad, so I looked for a safer, better tasting, and more convenient method. I found it right there on my computer – Photoshop. All I had to do was reduce the level of yellow in the "Before" image and I got this:

Amazing, isn't it? A software solution to discoloured teeth. And the longest part was loading the program. If I'd had more than a couple of minutes to spare I could have done an even better job.

The moral – don't believe every miracle cure your Facebook friends tell you about, not even the one weird trick that you won't believe that will cause you to lose weight. Maybe don't even believe any of them.

The other miracle cure news for the week was that as well as marijuana (which cures everything), all fruit and vegetables found in your greengrocer's shop will cure cancer. The exception seems to be cauliflower, but that doesn't matter because I hate cauliflower. If I were an evil person I could start a meme about the curative properties of cauliflower. Hmmm, while I've got Photoshop open ...

Oh, look what just appeared on Facebook! (1/3/2014)

March 15, 2014

He talks (15/3/2014)
I've been busy with the microphone lately. I gave a talk about the Bitcoin farce to Sydney Skeptics In the Pub and I might even convert the PowerPoint slides into something written one day. A sad part of the night was that my trusty Acer laptop, which has survived five years of rough handling and at least three changes of operating system (Vista, Windows 7 and 8) took a drink of South Australia's fine Coopers beer due to an act of clumsiness. It survived long enough to give the presentation, but once the beer dried out in its insides it decided to stop working. Taking it apart to clean the works can't make things any worse, so it now sits forlornly awaiting the arrival of screwdrivers and the time to use them.

Escaping for a while from the task of preaching to converted skeptics, I gave a talk about philosophy and skepticism to the Sydney philosophy forum Philo Agora.

Philosophical skepticism and what skeptics really do

The word "skepticism" means different things to different people. To philosophers it means a search for the possibility of knowledge, to people in the modern skeptical movement it means a search for the truth, to people who should rightly be called "deniers" it is a disguise they use to pretend to be something they are not.

The talk will look at these three uses of the word with examples of the way it is applied to the activities of the various groups and users. I'm a skeptic but not a philosopher (although I studied it for some years at university), and I hope I'm not a denier, so I will be concentrating on what I know best, which is the practical application of skeptical or critical thought to everyday life.

You can read the rest here.

The new name. At last. (15/3/2014)
It's official. The Australian Vaccination Network now has a new, officially approved and registered business name. After a year-and-a-half of whining about being forced to change from the deceptive name they have announced that henceforth they will be known as the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network. They have also announced that this is no big deal, which raises the question of why they didn't just do it when first asked to instead of wasting the time and money of the courts, court officials, lawyers and AVN members to fight it. But then, common sense and rational action have never been too evident where the AVN is concerned, so behaving idiotically is just standard operating procedure.  It has also been announced that the AVN has relinquished its charity licence (the current one was due to expire in April anyway).

The new name isn't as worrying to real skeptics as you might think. Because the word has been hijacked by fringe groups like climate change deniers, the public is already sensitised to treating the word with suspicion. I know that Australian Skeptics often get asked if the name means that we deny climate change and any anthropomorphic effect on climate (maybe we have to change our name!) but at least we can respond by pointing to science. Anti-vaccination liars can't, so the name might backfire on them. And I can assure you that this will be highly publicised by those of us who are committed to the total destruction of this vile and dangerous organisation. "Stop the AVN" just needs another letter in its name and the fight against unreason will continue.

Bitstrip has something to say about the news.

Benjamin Rush – click for a larger viewIn another change, the AVN's Facebook page will no longer be run by Meryl Dorey or anyone officially connected to the organisation but will be administered (and presumably censored as is traditional) by an anonymous person who does not live in Australia. In a case of the supreme ignorance of irony shown by clowns like anti-vaccination liars, this anonymous moderator has taken the name Benjamin Rush, someone who not only signed the US Declaration of Independence but was one of those hated doctors who supported vaccination and even had a hand in establishing the specialty of psychiatry, a field of medicine despised by quacks everywhere. (The AVN has sold Scientology anti-psychiatry materials from its web site for a long time.)

To add to the woes of the AVN and the joy of sane people, the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission has ordered the AVN to remove all erroneous misinformation from its web site. As this will leave nothing much except a single page with a logo on it, the order is being strongly resisted. I'll write about the hilarious response from the AVN next week because there's a lot to go through, but to give you an idea of the flavour AVN President pro-tem Greg Beattie ordered the HCCC to reply to him in a manner satisfactory to him within seven days. Observers have commented that this is not the way to get bureaucracies to treat you kindly. It's a laugh a minute.

I know that Rich Tennant drew it, but I don't know where this was published.

I go trolling (15/3/2014)
Over a period of a week I found myself in several discussions on Facebook, many of them in forums with "Skeptic" in the title, where people expressed strong opinions about the sort of foods humans must eat, the stupidity of religion and its adherents, the dangers of genetically modified foods, the compulsion of people making bizarre claims to tell their critics to "do the research",  the plausibility of invented currencies, the worthlessness of philosophy, and the use of the term "ad hominem". I decided to put on my trolling hat and nailed these theses to the door of the group with the most offenders. Then I sat back and waited.

I'm going to be a bit busy today, so to give you all something to talk about I'll just make these statements:

  1. There is absolutely no reason not to eat meat or drink milk other than personal preference or diagnosed medical condition.
  2. Not all people with religious beliefs are fools and there is no need to be rude to all of them.
  3. Philosophy is the foundation of science and the scientific method and is as relevant today as it was in Greece in the long distant past.
  4. Anyone with a basic grasp of arithmetic can see why scams like MLM and Bitcoin are scams.
  5. You cannot prove the non-existence of something by assertion. "There is no god" is not a refutation of theological arguments. (Thomas Aquinas might have been wrong, but he was smarter than any of us.)
  6. We have been eating foods with foreign genes in them for a long time without harm. Triticale wheat contains the genes of two different grass species, durum has four, and spelt has six.
  7. "I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable response to a question.
  8. Making a claim and then demanding that others do their own research to prove that you are right is a form of running away, towing the goalposts behind you.
  9. If someone tells obvious lies or makes illogical statements, calling them a liar or pointing out the logic failures is not ad hominem.
  10. Not all atheists are skeptics and not all skeptics are atheists. Many from both groups have no interest at all in the other one.

As could reasonably be predicted, numbers 1, 4, 5, 6, and 9 generated the most comments.

The vegans, soy drinkers, gluten and dairy "intolerant", and animal rights activists were out in force, totally ignoring the words "personal preference" in my statement. I responded that I live in the gluten intolerance capital of the world and I don't believe that all the people demanding special treatment actually have coeliac disease. This picture shows a vegetarian meal at one of my local restaurants which is offered with a gluten-free option. I couldn't help myself so I ordered extra gluten, which is probably why I got two slices of toast.

The arguments then went on to describe the horrors of battery farming, live cattle exports, and the relative protein productivities of various forms of land use, none of which have anything to do with diet choices.

The reference to arithmetic in Point 4 was totally ignored, and I was told that senior banking officials can't comment on Bitcoin because as bankers they don't understand finance, you can buy things with Bitcoins so what does it matter that the promoters tell you that it will replace all currencies, that the reason that almost everyone fails to get rich in pyramid schemes is because they don't work hard enough or do what they are told, and the fact that if I joined Amway in January and did what I was told I would have more than the population of the USA in my downline by Christmas isn't a case of someone promising the unachievable. And what has arithmetic got to do with multiplication, division and geometric progression anyway?

What everyone can achieve in Amway if they
work hard and duplicate properly
MonthAdded to downlinePeople in downline

The comments about Point 5 were wonderful. Everybody missed the point of what I said and concentrated on the examples instead. I was told that no atheist ever attempted to prove that God doesn't exist and was then given arguments for why God doesn't exist. When I provided a reference to a book by a physicist with the words "God does not exist" in the title I was told that I didn't understand and that wasn't what the book said. The best, however, were the comments saying that it is obvious that Aquinas was not smarter than today's Facebook commentators because he was wrong about something 750 years ago, and the thing he was wrong about and which is known today is that there is no god.

I thought the GMO statement would generate more heat, but discussion was rather mild. Perhaps I should have mentioned Monsanto, because that word usually triggers a flood of venom and nonsense.

Point 9 descended into a discussion of semantics (which I would have mentioned anyway if I had gone beyond ten statements). There was argument over what constituted a lie and at what point in a discussion ad hominem applied or became an insult. Opinions ranged from ad hominem being almost anything said about the opposing party or the value of their arguments at any stage of the discussion (which makes it meaningless) to trying to specify a limited set of words and phrases (which is too restrictive). I think someone said that facts were relative anyway, but my eyes had glazed over and that might have been in another thread. I did think of asking if, when someone had been corrected on facts but continued to spout untruths, it would be ad hominem to say "You keep lying because you are an idiot", but that could have caused a meltdown as the two ends of the spectrum were folded in on themselves. It was generally agreed, however, that there are people who are so stupid that they can't absorb facts, but there was some dispute of what to call it if this was pointed out to anyone.

All in all a successful day's trolling. Nobody got hurt (except in the feelings), and I only had to follow one thread for a couple of days instead of having to jump all over the place to see illogical, emotive arguments used in place of rational discussion.


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