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Tree silhouette that looks like a cat

Not quite pareidolia, but an insight into the brain’s (or Brian’s) faulty model recognition engine.



Aphids for Jesus

Tree Has Patrons Crying For Joy – Philadelphia News, Weather and Sports from WTXF FOX 29.

Christians in the USA declare aphid excretions as miraculous.  WTXF – What The Xtian Fuck?

Where is everybody?

Not on Fermi ground…

Just over two years ago Mike Hallowell vomited a confused mess of an article over a page in the Shields Gazette, generally having a go at an imagined army of ‘rabid’ sceptics who dared to cast doubt on the belief that extra-terrestrials are visiting our planet in UFOs.  I found nothing convincing in his argument, nor in his lengthy responses to my blog post dissecting his nonsense.

Tonight he’s tilting at sceptics again, regurgitating the same arguments, albeit with a twist at the end where he offers a different opinion on the source of UFOs.  I could offer a similar robust critique to tonight’s article, but my original response pretty much stands up to the same teetering Jenga tower of logical fallacies.  Essentially he’s trying a play on the Fermi paradox but without any serious analysis of elephant in the room: where is the convincing incontrovertible evidence?  As Fermi said “Where is everybody?”  All of the ‘sceptics’ I know agree that there is a good probability that there is life elsewhere in our galaxy of 300 billion stars, and further into the universe.  Indeed, the ‘irrational’ Carl Sagan was hugely optimistic that life was out there.  It would be sad if there wasn’t.

But that doesn’t mean ETs have been here (yet at least), and there’s nothing that definitively proves that they have.  The best challenge Hallowell could muster for the lack of evidence was this painfully desperate gambit

One sceptic argued with me that “not a single piece of evidence exists that UFOS ever visited 
earth” .

This is a staggering claim, and one which could only be verified by searching every square inch of our planet – overground, underground, land-based and oceanic.

That’s right.  His argument is ‘you can’t say there’s no evidence if you haven’t found that there’s no evidence’.  Not a single piece of evidence has been found that flying horses exist or have existed either, but there are many people who suffer the delusion that flying horses existed.  Perhaps evidence for them is underground or underwater somewhere.

The headline to the article was “UFO sceptics’ claims are wearing thin”, but the burden of proof doesn’t lie at the feet of sceptics, it’s with those who are making claims of visitations by ETs.  Perhaps we will be visited one day, or perhaps it will be us who visit life on other worlds.

Amusingly, Hallowell spent nearly the whole article telling us how sceptics are wrong to doubt that extra-terrestrials have visited Earth, but then finishes with an astonishing

Do UFOs hail from other planets, and are their occupants truly extraterrestrial? Or, could they instead be interdimensional and hail from an alternate dimension or parallel world?

Personally I plump for the latter idea…

That’s right, he lambasts sceptics for not believing in something he doesn’t believe in.

Not so super psychics

If there’s one consistent feature of claims of psychic ability, it’s that they fail to show when exposed to close scientific scrutiny.  Since Harry Houdini started to explore the world of mediums in the 1920s, no definitive evidence of psychic ability has been conjured up, and not for want of trying by successive generations of scientific exploration.  So yesterday’s report that two professional mediums were unable to show any psychic ability under test conditions isn’t really a big surprise, particularly when you consider that nobody has been able to accurately describe a measurable mechanism by which psychic powers work.

The series of tests, carried out by Goldsmiths, University of London, in partnership with The Merseyside Skeptics Society, found that the two mediums performed no better than chance.  Was the test a definitive refutation of psychic abilities?  No.  But this test now adds to the many others where a person who has claimed to be in possession of psychic powers has been unable to prove them.

At least these two mediums had the nerve and belief in themselves to have their abilities tested under blind test conditions, and they deserve credit for that.  It is a pity that one or more of the big hitters in the world of professional mediumship didn’t use this test as an opportunity to prove themselves.  Are they afraid of something?

This raises for me a question about the claims of mediums and the services they provide.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard a medium sagely admit that there are some dishonest mediums out there cynically taking money off people.  But how does the average consumer know that a medium can do what they say they do?  A domestic gas engineer needs to be qualified to touch your gas fire or boiler.  A financial adviser has to pass exams to give you advice about your investments.  For many service industries, the consumer has an expectation that the one providing the service has some objective measure qualifying them to provide that service.  Surely mediums, some of whom earn millions from their claimed psychic abilities, should have to pass a series of blind tests to show they are consistently and significantly better than chance before they can ask their clients for money, and more importantly, trample all over their emotions and mental wellbeing?  Shouldn’t there also be a way to ‘strike off’ discredited and dishonest mediums found to be making it up, to protect their industry and protect people, some of whom are vulnerable, from being ripped off?

This isn’t only about whether the paranormal is real, but an issue of ethics and responsibility to fellow citizens.  Sadly, I doubt that mediums will get together any time soon to clean up their industry.

Fortunately for the mediums in this test, another similarly consistent feature of psychic abilities is that they reappear once the the psychic is in control of the environment, so I don’t expect their careers to suffer any adverse reaction from their failure to prove their powers.

Bullshit detection–or how Cameron uses the Kyle method

Most rational people agree that electronic equipment is really bad at detecting ghosts.  EMF meters, ghost boxes and motion detectors are equally rubbish at detecting spirits, ghosts, souls or whatever you would call them.  You wouldn’t expect the UK law enforcement agencies to use ghost boxes to try and ask a murdered man who his killer was.  It would be stupid.  Why?  Because such equipment has not been proven to do what its proponents claim.

However, this doesn’t mean that law enforcement agencies aren’t subject to the same biases and fallibilities as optimistic ghost hunters. 

Today the government has announced that polygraph testing is to be introduced across the UK for serious sex offenders on probation.  This is problematic, as polygraph testing, despite being around for about 90 years, has not been proven and still exists in the realm of pseudoscience.  Almost all psychologists agree that polygraph testing cannot be relied upon to identify if someone is telling the truth.

Despite this, the government wants to use the magic truth divining box – as seen on Jeremy Kyle to see if a chav has been lying to his girlfriend.

From the reports it seems that the test used by the probation service was little more than an elaborate wheeze to trick the offenders into coughing up the truth.  The pilot programme results claimed that:

mandatory lie detector tests prompted sex offenders to:

• Be more honest with their offender managers. A No 10 source said they provided probation staff with more information about the potential risks they pose.

• Make twice as many disclosures to probation staff, such as admitting that they had contacted a victim.

• Admit the tests helped them manage their own behaviour more effectively.

The first two claims rely on several assumptions:

(a) the offenders believed the lie detector works;

(b) the offenders were completely truthful and not leaving out key information;

(c) the offenders were not able to game the test.

The third claim should have the bullshit claxon sounding off in any objective mind.  Of course the offenders are going to claim the lie detector test worked if they think it would be favourable for them.  There would be a self interested motivation for the offenders to tell their interviewers what they wanted to hear.

Polygraph tests rely heavily on the subjective judgement of the person conducting the test, by inference rather than intelligence.  This appears to be little more than casting runes or reading tarot cards, except with the modern sparkle of electronics.  Why not bring back phrenology to spot criminals?

Such a system might work, but it relies on the assumption that offenders don’t wise up to the truth: that polygraph tests are so fallible as to make them worthless.  I can easily imagine offenders in prison training each other on passing these tests.

The government claims the pilot was a success (even the Guardian does), based on nothing more than what appears to be wishful thinking.  That all adds up to a lot of bullshit.

Think logically, think skeptically

A regular commenter on this blog, The Skeptic, has now set up shop and created a blog on WordPress, ‘Bad Thinking‘.  It’s shaping up to be an exercise in using formal logic as part of the skeptical toolkit to examine the extraordinary claims of paranormalists, UFOlogists and any other ‘ists’ who fail to apply critical thinking to their own remarkable assertions.

It promises to be interesting, challenging, funny and if past performance is anything to go by, sometimes upsetting to the self proclaimed ‘experts’ of the weird.

The Skeptic answers

If you read the Shields Gazette, you might have spotted that last Thursday columnist Mike Hallowell used his column to call out a commenter on this blog. the Skeptic.  The article isn’t on the Gazette’s website so I can’t link to it.  Sadly, Hallowell failed to mention that it was this blog, despite lifting a good bit of text from it.  It seems 600 words or so doesn’t provide enough space for courtesy.  The Skeptic has responded to Hallowell’s last comment on the Dangerous Delusion post, but I thought the response was also worthy of it’s own blog post, so with the Skeptic’s permission, here it is.

Update: 3rd January 2012

You’ll note that the rest of this post has now gone.  Mike Hallowell has received advice that some of Skeptic’s comment is ‘definitely actionable’, so I’ve removed the comment from this post.  Similarly, in the interests of self preservation other response comments which Mike Hallowell has been advised as being ‘definitely actionable’ on other threads will be unapproved, and one of my own posts slightly edited.

Some of the comments may return after further consideration.

However, Skeptic’s link to the excellent XKCD site on the ‘current state of the findings of parapsychological research’ still stands:

Update 2: 3rd January 2012

I’ve been told that Skeptic will be starting his own blog on science, skepticism, philosophy and sociology.  Maybe he will revisit this discussion.