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Aggregating Skeptical Thought

Rhinestone-encrusted cigarette lighter/tape recorders

Like any good Skeptic a large part of applying skepticism comes down to understanding to some extent human psychology.  Understanding how people think or why they think the way they do can go along way to understanding someone else’s beliefs.

Any good Skeptic should also be fully prepared to turn their critical eye on themselves. Knowing common logical fallacies people make can be used to improve the quality of your own arguments but also highlight weaknesses in other’s arguments.

When evaluating medical claims of herbal supplements I usually apply a “back of the envelope” litmus test to such claims. Failing this litmus test doesn’t inherently disqualify something 1) because its not a fool-proof system 2) I’m not a medical doctor but it does raise some red flags.  Some of those tests are:

“Kitchen Sink” claims
Does this [insert alt med herb/treatment] claim to cure all known diseases, like cancer, memory loss, toxicity and diarrhea simultaneously?

Argument from Naturalness
Does it seem like the biggest thing this [insert herb/claim] has going for it is that its “All Natural”. It shouldn’t need to be said but the claim “natural” is a meaningless term. I’m sure you love your All Natural Wheatgrass/Guava/Arsenic fruit smoothie but I’ll pass.

Does it have Side Effects?
If it doesn’t have any side effects it probably doesn’t have any *main* effects either.

I’ve never really compiled a list of these little litmus tests before and this is certainly not complete. I’d be interested in hearing anyone else’s tests or if someone has already put together a list of these before.

Just like “alt-med” claims there are other little litmus tests that could be applied in specific areas such as investments. Certainly all claims should be thoroughly understood but sometimes you need a cheat sheet.

Here’s a list from U.S. News & World Report on investment scams, The Psychology of Investing Scams. Below is a brief outline to a rather brief article.

While the old adage “if its too good to be true” should always be followed, here are some specific variations on a theme.

The “Phantom Riches” Tactic
If you are guaranteed decent (or extraordinary) and steady returns on an investment, you could end up in a Madoff-style investment/Ponzi Scheme.

The “Source Credibility” Tactic
Anybody can claim to be a financial planner but his she really? Is she registered with an accredited/recognized trade group, like the National Association of Personal Financial Advisers. Are the products sold/marketed registered with the SEC?

The lack of credentials or the registered status of an investment doesn’t disqualify it from being a sound investment but you’ve just removed some level of independent verification and you really, really need to understand how the investment vehicle can generate capital including the risks. You’ve certainly increased your homework.

The “Social Consensus” Tactic
This is fundamentally peer pressure. Everyone else is investing in mortgage-backed securities. Why aren’t you? This is a tough one because in many instances because, “I invested in something because [insert person whose judgment you trust] invested as well.”

The “Reciprocity” Tactic
I call this the “there’s no free dinner” rule. If you are given a free dinner at a nice restaurant and all you have to do is sit through an investment seminar, be prepared for the hard sell. You’ll see this with Buyer’s Clubs where you’ll get a key to a “new car” and all you have to is sit through the sales pitch. The Nigerian Email scam is a grandiose version of this, although this one plays very much to someone’s greed.

The “Scarcity” Tactic
Just as you might assume, “this opportunity will only last for the next 10 minutes so CALL NOW!!!” I think QVC or HSN have perfected this tactic, there’s a reason they show a running clock and slowly dwindling numbers of “items left in stock”. Any long-term investment (and most short-term ones as well) worth being involved in will not disappear overnight. The rhinestone-encrusted unicorn cigarrete lighter/tape recorder on the other hand is only available While Supplies Last.

Cross-posted at FreeThought Fort Wayne

Filed under: Health, Internet, Skeptic, , , , ,

What is RSS?

This is the first in a series of posts for FreeThought Fort Wayne to assist its members (and readers) in being able to get the most out of their internets.

Who is this for?

You’ve probably heard the term RSS before but haven’t been able to get any clear direction or information on what it is exactly. This first post will be dedicated to the non-geeks out there. You know who you are and I won’t hold it against you 😉 I will publish a second half of this discussion that will delve a little deeper into some advanced features of RSS, despite how simple RSS really is there is an incredible amount of power in the protocol. 

What is RSS?

Any good discussion of RSS would be missing something if it didn’t at a minimum discuss what the abbreviation RSS stands for. RSS currently means Really Simple Syndication and there is a reason for this rather untechnical name. You’d expect RSS to mean Robot Super Scripting or include some kind of Star Trek reference but you’d be disappointed (or not). 
The idea behind RSS is to provide a standard and universal way in which to describe and distribute content. I use the term “Content” very deliberately because RSS can be used for just about anything on the web such as web site articles, news articles, blog posts, podcasts, advertising and even weather updates. Virtually any kind of information you want to distribute via the Internet can be “packaged” into an RSS feed and distributed to anybody with an RSS reader. 
The name can be broken down to describe exactly what RSS does. First, for the Syndication part, think of syndication like TV. When a show like Seinfeld is in PrimeTime, the timeslot and advertisers are tightly controlled, however when its sold for syndication a network like the CW or WGN can air the syndicated Seinfeld episodes whenever they want with whatever advertisers they can get. When an organization like the New York Times decides to “syndicate” their articles on the web via an RSS feed they are largely giving up the ability to decide when that content can be “aired”. If I have an RSS reader (which is nothing more than application or website that knows how to read RSS feeds) I can get to that content whenever and wherever I like. 
The “Really Simply” part of RSS means that the way in which the content (i.e., articles, blog posts) are described is pretty basic. In fact, if you were “look under the hood”; RSS includes a title, description, website link and some basic information about the publisher of the content. That’s it!
With such basic information you can put just about anything into that like the following (all information is made up):
Publisher: CarReviews.com
Item #1
Title: 2009 Hyundai Sonata Limited
Description: This is a very nice car, yada, yada, yada. Gratuitous Seinfeld reference.
Date: 8/1/2008
Item #2
Title: 2009 Toyota Prius
Description: You might not be sure if you are driving a car or toaster but it gets great mileage.
Date 7/30/2008
The above example says that the Publisher of this feed (CarReviews.com) can be found at http://www.carreviews.com and that they have 2 items in their RSS feed, Item #1 describes a 2009 Hyundai Sonata and Item #2 describes a 2009 Toyota Prius. Imagine using that same format for describing a news article at the New York Times:
Publisher: The New York Times
Website: nytimes.com
Item #1
Title: Obama unveils his housing stimulus package in Phoenix, AZ
Description: yada, yada, yada
Date: 02/19/2009
So even though RSS is a “web” thing it can be used to describe pretty much anything. I say “pretty much” because there’s probably something out there but I can’t think of anything that can’t be described but I’ve been drinking and well, you know…
 
What do you mean RSS Feed? Or RSS Reader?
I’ve touched on them a bit earlier but to be specific an “RSS Feed”  (or simply “feeds” or “news feeds”) is a list of items (like our car reviews above) with some information about who is publishing those items. An “RSS Reader” is a stand-alone program (like Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes) or a webpage (like NetVibes, Google Reader, Bloglines), either way it’s simply a program or website that can translate an RSS feed into something that is easily readable by you and me. RSS Readers are also referred to as Aggregators or News Readers. 
As an example, click on the NetVibes link (http://www.netvibes.com) and fill out the little bit of information they want to know like your city and your interests and they will generate an entire website of information. The website they generate in my opinion is crazy and chaotic but every single bit of information was generated as a result of an RSS Feed. In fact, it’s fair to say that NetVibes.com is an entire website of RSS feeds and that it is one big RSS Reader. I show you this not to scare you ( or give you a seizure) but to show you what can be done and all the different kinds of information that can be syndicated, like stock tickers, youtube and vimeo videos, Wired.com articles and Google calendars, Oh! and the current weather. 
Now that we have talked about the “idea” of RSS and some ways in which it’s used, i.e., syndicating car reviews or articles on nytimes.com, as well as some common terminology that you might find out there on the Internet,  let’s talk about how to use these things. 
How to use RSS?
128px-feed-iconsvgBefore you can use RSS you have to be able to find an RSS feed. Any decent website, blog or podcast will very clearly label their feed. It will be labeled as “Subscribe to our feed” or “Subscribe via RSS” or simply “Subscribe” (like FreeThoughtFortWayne.org, look in the upper right hand part of the webpage). Often times the RSS feed will be identified by an orange icon with white “radio” waves (See the image to the right).
Most RSS Readers that you use will ask you to setup new RSS Feeds. To setup a feed you will need to copy the URI (or URL) of the RSS feed into their program.This is usually the address in your web browser (see below).
Using Google Reader as an example, in order to “subscribe” I have to type in the URL (website address) of an RSS feed to subscribe to it. 
So to subscribe to the RSS Feed for The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast I will need to type in the following URL:
http://www.theskepticsguide.org/feed/rss.aspx?feed=SGU (to find this URL go to http://www.theskepticsguide.org and click on the “Subscribe via RSS” link)
Another great example is the news site for the BBC. I’m an avid watcher of BBC news. I don’t watch FoxNews (optionally Faux News) or even MSNBC or CNN. I watch the BBC. When I want to see the “high level” news for the day I go to the website http://news.bbc.co.uk/. And what do you think I see in the upper-right hand corner of their website? You guessed it, our familiar “orange icon” from above and the words “News Feed”. When you click on the icon or link it opens the current news feed. Here’s what it looks like right now using Apple’s Safari web browser
untitled1
So to take advantage of RSS feeds like the Top News from the BBC, sign up for a webpage like BlogLines.com or Google Reader and begin finding blogs, websites and news organizations you want to get information from. Make sure once  you have found an RSS Reader you like  such as BlogLines and “subscribe” to the various websites URL’s.
Why Use RSS Feeds?
Actually that’s a good question. If I can just go to the NY Times or the BBC or the FreeThought Fort Wayne blog, why bother with all the complication of an RSS feed and something to read it with on top of all that? The question you ask actually highlights the very reason why RSS feeds are increasingly popular. How often do you just go to 2 or 3 websites? After all your question asks about 2 or 3 websites (the NYTimes, BBC and FreeThought Fort Wayne). What happens when you want to know about new articles on 43 different websites*? Now you are talking about a bit of a headache aren’t you?
What an RSS feed and a subsequent RSS Reader allows you to do is tp subscribe to multiple (and many) websites and quickly go through the articles for only those stories that interest you. I love Slate.com but they publish 100 articles a day. Without some mechanism to filter or quickly list recent content there’s no way I would be able to stay on top of the most interesting (to me) content being published.
Another option is the ability to save “searches” in various search engines. For example, I frequently search Google for the following, “Fort Wayne” and “Skeptic” (or “atheism” or “humanist”). I basically want to know anytime Google sees a news article that combines Fort Wayne and the word Skeptic (or Atheist or Humanism). This is a tedious task to type this information into Google on a daily basis. What if I could save my search criteria and with the click of a button perform that search. What if I could simply open an RSS feed that automatically lists the search results? That would be really cool. Guess what!? Subscribe to the following URLs and they do just that. 
Conclusion
There is really nothing inherently scary about RSS. It’s just a very easy way to share any kind of information. RSS is largely seen as a “web” thing but it’s really not. In my professional career we use RSS as a way to universally (and securely) share information between the company I work for and our clients. What I find most ironic about RSS is that for many getting information via a website is “cutting edge” but for many in the business world that is “so 2005”. If I can’t provide our client’s data in RSS we are really behind the times.
* I personally subscribe to 43 different RSS feeds. That includes all saved Google searches, blogs, news feeds and podcasts. And in all honesty I’m not really tyring. There’s really a lot of content being generated by various blogs, etc. that I’m just not taking advantage of.

Filed under: Atheism, Internet, Skeptic, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Bigfoot, oh how I’ve missed thee

When is the last time you heard anything in the news about bigfoot? I was beginning to think that he might not be real. Actually why is Bigfoot always referred to as a he? I would assume there would have to be some she’s as well. Maybe they self-fertilize in some way which might explain why they don’t need to maintain a breeding population that would make their existence obvious.

Anyway, I just ran across this latest sighting of Sasquatch in Borneo. Pretty typical story, not a lot of detail but that’s ok because it actually reveals enough details to sound fishy (or sasquatchy).

Local businessman Tan Soon Kuang from the Daro district said that each footprint measures 47 inches from heel to toe and 17 inches sideways, clearly too gigantic for any normal human being.

47 inches??? That’s 1.2 meters to anyone not in the U.S. That’s a freaking HUGE foot. Not just a size 20 or something outlandish. Let’s put that in perspective on an average sized man, 5′ 10” (or 1.77 meters). If you were laying down and this guy stepped on you, his heel would be on your face and his toes would be at your knees. Now imagine what kind of creature would be attached to those feet.

I measured my foot and a co-workers (who now will avoid me like the plague) and then extrapolated the rough foot-to-height ratio, 1-in foot length to 7-inches in height. If we were to assume fairly normal proportions to a man then this creature would be 27 feet tall (8.25 meters). I would think someone would have noticed a 27-foot hairy man roaming around the forest. Even if we assume the Bigfoot has half the foot-to-height ratio, he would still be 13 feet tall and look more like a hairy clown. Again I would think that someone would have noticed a creature tall enough to walk by your house and look in a second-story window.

I’m not saying it’s not possible, well, yeah, that’s kind of what I’m saying I guess. In case, you were wanting to visit and were wondering if it would be difficult to visit,

The villagers are now clearing up the footpath leading to the large footprints in anticipation of more people coming to have a look at the footprints.

That’s convenient.

If you can’t afford to travel to Borneo to try (and by some miracle) find a 25-foot creature you could just borrow the money because Bushnell Outdoor Products and Field & Stream magazine are offering a $1,000,000 prize for a verfiable photo of real live Sasquatch. Who’s going to judge this contest,

A panel of judges consisting of Field & Stream editors will select the winning entries based equally upon the criteria of quality of picture and relevance to contest.

It’s not as bad as it might seem since they are also running parallel to this contest a “Best Attempt to Cheat Bushnell out of $1M” contest as well. They are actually offering a prize dedicated specifically to the fakes they will inevitably receive. That is actually genius. I’ll be interested to see how many of the fakes will look very convincing. I’m thinking about doing this myself. I know 2 insanely tall guys and a guy in my neighborhood who’s an avid hunter and probably has a trail camera. Now all I need is a gorilla suit and some beef jerky and we’re set.

Filed under: Internet, , , , , ,

Breaking News: Science is Hard

I know this is old news but man it’s funny, http://www.theonion.com/content/node/38575

Money quote,

“We now believe that the [Law of Difficulty] theorem is 99.999% likely to be true, after applying these incredibly complex statistical techniques that gave me a splitting headache,” Farian said. “A theorem is like a theory, but, I don’t know, it’s different.”

Filed under: Internet, ,

Pat Condell on the movie, Fitna

As you can imagine Pat Condell has something to say regarding the Dutch movie, Fitna. I had previously posted on the subject and even provided the video links to it, which are now removed from YouTube, cowards. 

 Here’s the Youtube video.

Found via FriendlyAtheist

Filed under: Internet, Religion, , , , ,

Geert Wilder’s Fitna (strife) released

Something that continues to fascinate me since hearing of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s life is Dutch politics. In recent weeks a “right-wing” Dutch politician, Geert Wilder, has produced a short film, called Fitna (the word strife in arabic). It portrays Islam in a rather negative light. Actually it’s pretty blunt about the problems with Islam within a democratic, pluralistic society. Ok, fine, it’s actually a bit Michael Moore in its portrayal of Islam. Like Michael Moore’s filmmaking, the truth is all in how you tell the story, or put that story together. Each individual part can be true but when put together it may not tell the whole picture.

Geert Wilder’s Fitna, basically says that Islam is a religion of hate. One could certainly make that argument (and he does) but I wonder if his approach, a) won’t change anybodies mind and b) will likely get him killed. Of course, if a muslim kills him it only goes to reinforce the point, but still. As a film, it’s more like a PowerPoint presentation. The Hirsi Ali/Van Gogh film, Submission Part 1, was much more artisticly done.

Here is the only English Version link I could find, http://www.liveleak.com/e/7d9_1206624103, and WordPress doesn’t let me embed from there (at least I can’t figure it out).

Edit: Ooh, originally it looked like YouTube were going to be a bunch of chicken shits (like Network Solutions) but here it is.

Double Edit: Guess what? YouTube are a bunch of chicken shits. These videos don’t work anymore, I’ll see what I can do to get them from BitTorrent and then post them for good. Ah, Google Video to the rescue (ironic that Google Video has it but YouTube, owned by Google, won’t play it).

Filed under: Atheism, Internet, Religion, , , , , , ,

He was only 15

I hesitate to post this because well just watch… I know I can’t watch it again because something will get stuck in my eye again, stupid… um… eyelash.

Found via UDreamOfJanie

P.S. Looking for someone to blame? Start with this fucker (I’m talking about the guy in the picture, not the blog).

Filed under: Internet, , , , ,

Arthur C. Clarke has died

I just read that Arthur C. Clarke has died (1917-2008) in his home in Sri Lanka. He is of course most famous for 2001: A Space Odyssey but I remember his work in the Rendezvous With Rama and the subsequent sequels.

The article reports that Clarke expressed the following three wishes,

for ethnically divided Sri Lanka to find a lasting peace, for the world to embrace cleaner energy resources, and for extraterrestrial beings to “call us or give us a sign.”

Interesting that he would wish for something better the people locally, something better for mankind in the present and for something amazing for mankind in the future.

On top of all of that I hear for the first time (which isn’t surprising since I don’t keep up with these things) that Rama is being made into a movie starring Morgan Freeman. I’m not holding out much hope, there is so much in those books that I don’t know how they are going to make them into a decent movie.

Filed under: Internet, Science, ,

Christopher Hedges doesn’t believe in atheists

Somehow I missed this really good interview with Christopher Hedges the author of American Fascists, a scathing attack on the Religious Right in America, about his new work I Don’t Believe in Atheists.

Christopher Hedges has debated by Dawkins and Hitchens,

I haven’t read the new book but it’s now on my evergrowing and seemingly never shrinking list of books to read. In his debates, watch the youtube video to see an example of this, his primary criticism is that there is this belief among the New Atheists, or Secular Fundamentalists as he calls them, is that once you remove religion the world will be great and that Religion was holding us back. And I have to agree that that criticism is legitimate in the sense that that does seem to be the way many of the New Atheists arguments seemed to get boiled down to. In addition, if you simply replace Religion with Atheism as the new set of “moral” standards you have essentially replaced something (religion) with a nothing (atheism) and therefore that criticism stands as well.

What I think perhaps Christopher Hedges best illustrates is that many of the New Atheists arguments are “against” religion but not specifically “for” anything and therefore leave a whole that must be filled. I personally think that is a legitimate criticism. There is a basis for morality or at least a basis for how we determine that morality.

What I anticipate happening in the coming years is a flood of books by authors whole we be dubbed as the New Moralists or New Philosphers. These books will actually put forward in laymen’s terms the basis for a new morality which anybody who reads this stuff will recognize as simply Humanism or some variant of it. These books will also come under attack as well but for different reasons. These new books will actually make “positive statements of belief” that can be directly attacked as opposed to the current batch of books whose “negative statements of belief” are really just attacks themselves. Of course, you will also have these new beliefs attacked as being morally relativistic however the current books by the New Atheists do a pretty good job of showing religions, particularly Christianity, are morally relativistic as well, although the phrase “subject to interpretation” is more appropriate, such as the rights of women, slavery and racism.

I think Hedges makes some great arguments that I hope some of the New Atheists and others will take to heart and  move the debate forward away from the irrational basis of religion and towards this so called “New Enlightenment”.

Filed under: Atheism, Internet, Politics, , , , , , ,

The true meaning of Islam, Submission Part 1

Since I just posted on Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel I thought I would provide a link to the short film that her and Theo van Gogh created, called Submission, Part I. It is a damning commentary on muslim attitudes towards women. The video was so inflammatory that it ended up getting Theo van Gogh killed.

If you read Infidel this short film will have so much more power for you. You will also have a better understanding why this film pissed off so many muslims (the truth hurts).

Filed under: Atheism, Internet, Politics, Religion, , , , ,

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