This year, Australian Skeptics celebrate our 36th consecutive annual convention, the world’s longest running skeptical event. It will be held online in October 2020. You can find details and buy tickets here.
That's right, folks. The weekly update was delayed a couple of days because I was under an embargo and couldn't release a book review until the book went on sale.
It's a book. A book about a crook. (1/9/2020)
Brian Deer's book about Andrew Wakefield is finally here, and it's a beauty!
In 1996 I was commissioned to write a book about the Internet. It was to explain it to people who didn't know anything about it or the technology behind it or what it could be good and bad for. There was some hysteria about the possibility of a flood of pornography filling our lounge rooms so I actually had to research porn (it was boring!) to answer the inevitable questions in interviews. I also looked for other forms of bad information, because it was obvious even then that there would be dubious information coming down the tubes. One of the bad things I found was a group of web sites spreading fear about vaccinations. I commented at the time that none of the pornography I was forced to watch was as offensive as some of these sites.
In 1999 I started paying more attention to the anti-vaccination sites and it wasn't long before I was sneeringly told that a paper by a Dr Andrew Wakefield had been published in The Lancet (the world's second-most prestigious and influential medical journal) which proved that the MMR vaccine caused autism. As I had experience of people citing unlikely research results in the hope that nobody would check, I read the paper for myself (I had access to the medical library at Westmead Hospital) and it proved no such thing – it only suggested there might be a link. There were several red flags on the paper, one of which was that the editors of The Lancet felt the need to include an editorial statement implying the clichés "further research is needed" and "the science is not settled".
I have some good news and I have some very good news (1/9/2020)
This is of course a massive tragedy for anti-vaccination liars, because it means that fewer children will die or be disabled by a disease that should have joined smallpox decades ago by being totally eliminated. Let me predict some of their responses to the news:
Despite what the loonier environmentalists say, we have only ever been able to deliberately drive two things to extinction – smallpox and rinderpest. We could do it with polio and measles too, if we could make anti-vaccination liars go extinct first. Would it be mean of me to hope for that?
This is a much more practical idea than that of suspending the trains on rotating cats with buttered toast strapped to their backs, running on a carpeted track. The effect wore off as the butter solidified and because they rotated axles and bearings were required and needed maintenance but the doctors just need to be strapped to the carriages, and in any case it is easier to control a collection of doctors than it is of cats. There is no cliché "Like herding doctors" and they are already conditioned to doing as they are told and claiming that vaccines work and that patients with stuffy noses should be added to the COVID-19 statistics. The only problem would be keeping up the daily supply of apples, but that's what illegal immigrant fruit pickers are for.
Curse you, COVID-19 chaos (5/9/2020)
I wasn't supposed to be here this weekend. I was supposed to be driving around the excellent pine forests near the town I live in taking photographs of cars competing in the New South Wales Rally Championship and writing articles about the event for newspapers, but all motor sport has been abandoned or postponed because of restrictions on travel and assembly. The rally will now happen on October 10, unless the restrictions are extended for another month (which sadly seems a bit likely).
Don't you hate it when reality interferes with your hobby? Here are some photos of the roads to be used that I took for an article promoting the rally in the local paper. The only piece of good luck was that I hadn't filed the story when the news of the postponement broke.
Speaking of whom ... (5/9/2020)
Earlier this year I paid some attention to Solihin Millin, a kook showing weapons grade stupidity by trying to sue the Australian government over vaccination policies, claiming that vaccination is unconstitutional and illegal under international law. He wasn't very happy when the High Court flicked his complaint into the bin, but that's life. Finding himself flat on his face he followed the advice in the Frank Sinatra song "That's Life" and picked himself up and got back in the race by organising massive protests against any and all restrictions placed on the citizenry because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
On this very day, September 5, millions of people were going to take to the streets across the country, defying the police and the politicians who made the rules. To make sure that the rest of the population took notice, one of the sites chosen for the protest was the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, because nothing is more certain to attract sympathy to a cause than a rabble rousing desecration of a war memorial.
Protestors turned up in their tens, but Sol wasn't among them because he had been arrested for inciting people to break the law. He was obviously not happy about this, and has now decided to take legal action against the Victorian police for among other things "misprison (sic) of treason.
Spelling the name of the supposed offence incorrectly twice (it's "misprision") suggests that no lawyers were harmed in the production of the legal claim. Also as "misprision of treason" is an offence of inciting treason I'm not sure how the cops were actually doing that, as Sol and his associates seem to be suggesting that they committed treason, not asked other people to do it. Or something. Treason is, of course, a federal offence, not a state one, but let's not get all nitpicky here.
By the way, treason is quite clearly defiled in the Commonwealth Criminal Code:
I'm not sure how the Victorian state police enforcing state regulations fits any of these criteria, but I'm not a lawyer. And neither are Ben Shaw or Solihin Millin.
We look forward to the next chapter in the continuing saga of Sol's legal battle to overturn centuries of case, constitutional and statute law and lead us into a world where the law is based on opinion, feelings and whatever you want it to be today.
Let's change someone's mind. Just joking! (12/9/2020)
Here are some suggestions which seem to be followed by many of the people I see "debating" in online forums.
But seriously, it can be very difficult to engage a true believer in any form of meaningful conversation. There are a whole lot of psychological reasons why people cling to beliefs and ideas which are demonstrably wrong, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying. Michael Shermer's book is a useful text, as is his short paper How To Debate A Creationist.
Speaking of creationism, I was saddened to hear of the death in August of Glenn Morton. Glenn had recovered from the mind rot of Young Earth Creationism, but he is best remembered for Morton's Demon – the idea that some people have a filter on their brains which stops conflicting ideas and arguments from even being considered. I wrote about this for Australasian Science magazine some time ago.
Sometimes you don't need the work (12/9/2020)
When I retired from being an IT consultant and found time to do useful work, I sort of reinvented myself as a freelance journalist. I'd been a member of the relevant union for some time and I'd been writing about science and critical thinking for many years and had even written business columns for various newspapers, but my main writing now is for my hobby of following car rallies around the place. I subscribe to a mailing list for freelancers where we can gripe about heartless editors and slow payers, and one of the things that happens on the list is members occasionally post details of possible writing jobs that they either aren't qualified for or don't want, giving every one else the opportunity to pitch.
A couple of these prospects came up in the last week and they were for science writers so right up my alley of experience.
Hi everyone Anyone interested in the work below? You need experience / to show you can translate scientific findings into consumer content. This came via a friend of a trusted friend – I have no more detail than the below: "I have been approached by another client of mine, an ASX listed beauty company, which is in desperate need of a content writer to translate scientific findings into a media release and blogs. The company has a scientifically validated, TGA approved, anti-aging hair care product, which is sold throughout Australia, Japan and the USA. They are a fast growing company with a great product, but the beauty industry is competitive and therefore they need to keep pushing out content. The client needs a content writer for both a short term project and then also potentially for an ongoing part-time engagement."
I shot off an expression of interest but I was a bit slow and someone got there first. I was a little disappointed
I've had a bit of experience writing about science for a non-scientific audience, so I'd be interested.
I reread the original email and something didn't sound right. First of all, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, doesn't "approve" anything – it maintains registers of therapeutic goods and monitors compliance with regulations. I did a quick check of things in my bathroom and only the usual suspects (Betadine and Isocol antiseptics, for example) had the requisite TGA registration numbers on them. Nothing on the hair shampoo, so I thought I'd check the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods for products containing both the words "hair" and "care".
A search for "shampoo" produced the same non-result. I suspect that this would have been a very short contract if I'd got it, because it seems that you could translate "translate scientific findings into a media release and blogs" into "rewrite bullshit to hide the truth".
Here's the second one:
I was wondering if you might be interested in writing some articles for us once you better understand what we do and stand for. …… which is about natural plant extracts ( we make these in our factory in Melbourne ) that deliver amazing health and wellness benefits to humans and animals….diabetes, obesity , cognitive performance , inflammation and more…..we are passionate about reducing methane and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and about reducing the use of antibiotics. …
The company claims to be in the natural flavour business (one of my oldest friends used to run such a business, but he was a bit more honest about what he did) but a perusal of their web site suggested that their main area of "research" (and selling) is in the anti-aging qualities of sugar cane. All the research is published on their own web site without the inconvenience of peer review or interfering journal editors.
And here was my reply:
As much of my science writing over the last couple of decades has been about exposing the nonsense of "alternative" medicine, I think I'll pass on this one.
I really would like to be paid to write stuff, but my conscience didn't retire when I did.
Quintessence Nook (12/9/2020)
In September 2000 all Sydney's hopes and fears crystallised as the Olympic Games came to town. We residents were suddenly internationalised – signs saying "Look right" were painted on roads near pedestrian crossings so that people who came from countries where they drive on the wrong side of the road wouldn't wander into traffic, because "000" and the international "112" ways of calling emergency services from mobile phones were too hard to understand we could temporarily call the cops by dialling "911" (but English people didn't get "999" and had to adapt), public telephones were labelled "Pay Phone" in case visitors were mystified by free-standing telephones with coin slots, a blue line painted on the roads to indicate the route of the marathon appeared overnight as if the work of aliens, nobody brought a walrus but there was still magic in the air.
Let's have a nostalgic look back at what was happening at Quintessence of the Loon that month. As well as the Olympics there was a special edition that month looking at scientists, some more mad than others.
The Olympic Games
Certius – Altius – Fortius – Loonius
With the Olympic Games starting today, it is time to look at the sports that the IOC forgot. Why are these highly-entertaining and physically-challenging sports excluded? Here is just a sample of the sports that the rest of us play without any hope of gold medals, fancy body-hugging uniforms or volume discounts at the pharmacist's shop. (Thank you to to Carol Gerten-Jackson for the fine picture of an athlete wrestling a python. Python wrestling will be a demonstration sport in 2004.)
|Cricket Spitting||Dwarf Throwing||Unicycle Hockey|
|Goldfish Swallowing||Kangaroo Boxing||Llama-assisted Golf|
|Peanut Butter Wrestling||Pike Fighting||Cetastrian|
The Olympic Games
On the eve of the closing ceremony, it's time to list a few more sports that the IOC forgot to include in the Olympic Games. In my research for this item, I found my next holiday destination. I've driven through Wooli, home of the Goanna Pulling Championships, but I didn't know how much fun you could have there. June busts out all over as Wooli hosts the Goanna Pulling, and you can also go to nearby Grafton for the Weekend of Trucking and the miniature horse show. Bliss! It doesn't get any better than this!
|Bog Snorkelling||Goanna Pulling||Kite Fighting|
|Zorbing||Bathtub Racing||Extreme Yoyo|
|Standing Still||Worm Charming||Gurning|
It's twenty years on, and the web sites for all of these alternative sports have been sucked into a 404 vortex. I can't even remember what some of them were, but "Cetastrian" had something to do with riding dolphins.
James Henry Graf
Some would say that the new millennium is here. Others would not, but they can be safely ignored. Mr Graf is sure and tells us here about what is going to happen, and it is not a pretty picture. Harassed and hounded by the forces of evil, he stands alone in warning us that what happened (and is happening even today) to him could be the fate of all of us. Well, of all of you, because I am in Australia where things are safe. For the moment, that is, because who knows what secret deals and civil rights negations are being arranged and agreed by the rich and powerful assembled here for the athletics carnival? Why, the government issued me with a special identity pass only the day before yesterday. They say it is a ticket to the Olympic Games, but I know that it has a microchip in it.
[I notice Mr Graf allows quoting from his site providing that it is not for invidious purposes. I hope I am not invidious]
Mr Graf wrote in with comments, which you can see here. Someone else was really upset and you can see what she had to say on the same page.
The Key to the Mystery: Thiaoouba Prophecy, future of humanity…
I'm all for learning about things. None of us know all that we should know about how the world works, how we got to be where we are, and who we really are. This book was a revelation to me. In fact it was a bigger revelation than Revelation. Just consider this quote from the site, and see if you don't want to rush out and know more: "This book clarifies practically ALL myths, doctrines and mysteries on Earth and reveals clear logic, beauty and majesty of the Universe, in which EVERYONE OF US has important role to play. There are no theories in this book. No wishful thinking or products of imagination of the author. This is an exact report of the Reality of the Universe." Still, I would be happy to know half of that if I could have one of those shirts (and I love that sculpture in the background).
Brunardot's Reality: a Paradigm Shift!
Another synthesis of physics and metaphysics, but this time with lots of mathematics. So much mathematics that it would make your head spin. Here's a sample: "with radius "r" and vector "v" as squares of integers; and, diagonal "d," perigee "p," and Brunardot Iteration "i," above the first iteration, as Natural Prime numbers; also, force "F," energy "E," and the Harmonic Ratio "HR" are integers; soliton "s" is an even integer and Light "L" is an integer divisible by 4; and also, included is a simple series and a right triangle; all components, so described, are generated by . . . any, single integer . . . with limitless iterations. (Except for "0" and +1, which generate the quaquaversal axes of Reality.)" I don't know about you, but any theory in physics which ignores the quaquaversal axes just looks incomplete.
Dewey B. Larson and Reciprocal Systems
Here is a man who has all the answers. His research brings together sub-atomic particles and cosmology into a unified system of theory that not only explains the holes in relativity, but shows up such ill-considered "theories" for the houses of cards that they are. It was amazing that people were able to build atom bombs, space craft and computers with the little (and misguided) knowledge that they really had about space, time and gravity. Another thing that I like about Mr Larson (he holds no higher degree and eschews mathematics) is that he is a polymath. Not only has he reinvented physics (without the maths), but he has answered the great problems in economics, unemployment and the business cycle, again without all that useless mathematics. And there's even more – he is a philosopher as well. I'll bet he could play the violin, too.
It's that time of the year again (19/9/2020)
With the Spring Equinox* coming up I'm taking a short break to do some celebrating and a bit of travel. I've often pointed out to believers in astrology that people born on the equinox at the cusp of Virgo and Libra are predestined to be skeptical atheistic critical thinkers who like science. If this is challenged I simply tell them to look it up in the ancient texts and they usually nod sagely and wander off.
(* It's the Spring Equinox up over here in Australia. Northern Hemispherians can make their own arrangements.)
Existentialist question – how do you take a holiday when you are retired and don't have a job to take time off from?
Also, I have some behind the scenes maintenance to do on the site this week, so I'm spending my time doing that instead of writing new stuff. Normal transmission will resume shortly.
So, where's he been? (26/9/2020)
I mentioned last week that I had a bit of background maintenance to to on this site and it was taking up much of my time. Part of this was a change to streamline the way that the site history works. This involved inspecting every monthly archive page for the last twenty years, and that's a lot of pages. Some of the facilities in Microsoft Expression Web helped, but it was still like excavating for a swimming pool using a dessert spoon or cutting the lawn with nail scissors. It's all done now so I'll be able to get back to real work soon.
The other job was fixing (actually deactivating) links to Google's Usenet archive. Google took over the archive a few years back and have been progressively making it more useless ever since. Many of the links were in the old and wonderful CCRG Correspondence File and the GAL Chronicles, and even though I had to do the editing it gave me an opportunity to reread some of the enormously entertaining drool and mouth foam from Mr William P O'Neill of the Canadian Cancer Research Group and his combined amanuensis and alter ego, the Gutless Anonymous Liar. One thing it reminded me of was the day that the champagne flowed like wine and all the staff at the Ratbags Institute were given the day off to celebrate. I remember how everyone was in the canteen singing along.
|Oh, happy day (Oh, happy day)|
Oh, happy day (Oh, happy day)
When William died (When Billy died)
Oh, when he died (When Billy died)
When William died (When Billy died)
We laughed and laughed that day (Oh, happy day)
Oh, happy day (Oh, happy day)
As I said at the time:
And one last thing … (4/5/2013)
I hoped it wasn't someone playing a cruel April Fool's joke when I saw this news in the Ottawa Citizen on April 1.
Yes, folks, the beloved William P O'Neill of the Canadian Cancer Research Group and its descendants has gone to the great cesspit in the sky, taking the Gutless Anonymous Liar with him. Sadly, he died quickly and not of cancer. I posted a message to his memorial guest book, but unfortunately some technical glitch prevented it from being published.
I will maintain my own memorial to him here by archiving his correspondence with me and also the wonderful messages he sent wearing his Gutless Anonymous Liar mask. It would be a tragedy for this valuable collection of literature to disappear.
Of course, Mr William P O'Neill wasn't the only person to bloviate, prattle, gibber and screech on Usenet over the years, and I had to do some cleaning up after our old friend, Patrick Timothy Bolen, spokescloaca for cancer quacks and dentists who commit insurance fraud and grope their patients. I still get a chuckle out of Tim's prediction in 2012 that another of his favourite organisations, the crooked Doctors Data testing lab, was going to seize this site and "in a microsecond, [I would be] gone from the internet, a bad memory, like a fart in an elevator". That and when he said that someone was going to close all skeptic web sites everywhere. I have to say this for Tim – he has a weapons grade imagination.
So that's where all the time went.