Archive for March, 2013

Here we go again! “Militant Atheism” and Communism

Thu Mar 28, 2013 2:55 am by theyounghistorian77

Another day, another documentary purporting to educate us all on “hidden truths” about the USSR when in reality, the “hidden truths” have been known about since even before the collapse of the USSR. This time however to the interests of all of us secularists and atheists, the entire emphasis on the film being “Militant Atheism, in the Former Soviet Union”. (Watch the trailer)


How MonsterQuest gives creationists a platform

Wed Mar 27, 2013 9:09 pm by he_who_is_nobody

As you already know, I sat through several days of the History Channels pseudo-documentary MonsterQuest (the joy) and much to my surprise, in two of the episodes we find creationists. Now, I knew the History Channel had gone off the deep end by having this show in the first place, but I did not think it would stoop down to allowing creationists on their channel. Than again, one must ask themselves, what is the major different between an average creationist and an average crypto-zoologist?

Nevertheless, I digress. The first episode I noticed that allowed a creationist on was entitled “Flying Monsters” (episode 15, season 3). This episode deals with a group of creationists from Genesis Park, which mounts annual expeditions to Papa New Guinea in search of pterosaurs (or Ropen). Now, the History Channel did do a wonderful job editing out (what I can only suspect to be) the vast majority of the crazy coming from the creationists on this program, but they let a few things slip. At ~10 minutes in, Garth Guessman (the head creationist), while holding a copy of an old map says; “This is an old sea chart from 1595 depicting Papa New Guinea, and it has animals depicted on here that are similar to pterosaurs that could very well be distant memories of legends of possible pterosaurs.” I kid you not! That was what set the alarm bells off in my head, but it was not until around the end of the program at ~40 minutes in when he said, “Every culture in the world has stories of dragons. And if you think about it, they also have stories of people killing dragons. And when you ask the question what happened to dinosaurs, people never want to put that together.” This statement made me look into this person. Sure enough, he is a Young Earth Creationist (YEC) hoping that if he finds evidence of pterosaurs in Papua New Guinea that will somehow disprove evolution.

However, in this episode, not only do they have a YEC, but they also have an actual paleontologist (Dr. David Martill) whose specialty is pterosaurs. I truly wish I could get my hands on some of the unedited material for this episode. I would love to see the reaction from Dr. Martill when dealing with the inanity of the YECs.

However, this was not the only episode to feature creationists in it. While researching the above episode, I thought back to one of the first episodes I watched entitled “The Last Dinosaur” (episode 18, season 3) which was about Mokele Mbembe, thought to be a sauropod. This episode was not as bad as the first one I talked about (in terms of creationism, it is a terrible show after all), but the narrator was the worse part of this show. At ~13 minutes in, they talk to a creationist who went to Africa to take a picture of a living dinosaur (no doubt, because he thought that would somehow disprove evolution); instead, he took pictures of what were three toed tracks of something large (most likely a rhinoceros). The creationist claims they are most likely from a sauropod, yet gives no evidence as to why. This mistake can be forgiven, because he is nothing more then a creationist, however the narrator starts talking about how sauropod tracks have three toes and starts showing pictures of fossil dinosaur track ways (the tracks are from theropod dinosaurs). I cannot really get mad at the narrator because he is only reading a script, but whoever wrote that script is a moron. Sauropods had five toe tracks, and the pictures that they showed were of theropod dinosaurs, a very different animal. Did I mention how terrible this show is?

I feel very upset that this show ever aired on the History Channel. I think it is bad enough that the History Channel allowed crypto-zoologists to run amuck on their channel, but to allow creationists…

I do not have anything else to say because words cannot describe how disappointed I am with the History Channel. This is a channel that I feel, when I was in high school, did a far superior job teaching me history than my actual high school. It is just upsetting to see it slip this far.

Faulty Premises 1

Wed Mar 20, 2013 5:25 pm by Laurens

Faulty Premises Part 1

Last time we discussed how to dissect an argument, by finding its premises and the conclusion. I also spoke briefly about non-sequiturs—something which is known as a logical fallacy. There are many different kinds of logical fallacy, all of which when used weaken the strength of an argument. In this post I will outline some of the more common logical fallacies, not only so that you can spot them in the arguments made by others, but perhaps more importantly, you can spot them in your own.

A logical fallacy is, as the name implies, a use of false logic to support a conclusion. The best way to highlight exactly what a logical fallacy is, is through showing examples of them.


Ad hominem

An ad hominem is when something derogatory is said of a person making an argument or holding a position in place of an actual argument. An example of this is as follows:

Creationists are stupid therefore creationism is false.

The statement ‘creationists are stupid’ by itself is not a logical fallacy (though not a particularly nice thing to say), it is only when the derogatory statement is used as a premise for the conclusion that it is a logical fallacy. Even if the statement is valid, it does not follow from it that the conclusion is true, therefore it is a fallacy.


Argument from ignorance

(Argumentum ad ignorantiam)

This fallacy is when someone argues the following:

We don’t know that X is false

Therefore X is true

A few common example of this would be:

Science doesn’t know everything, therefore it is reasonable to conclude that the supernatural exists.

Telepathy is possible – we don’t know everything about the human brain after all.

All that can really be derived from an absence of knowledge is the conclusion; we don’t know. A specific area of ignorance does not make a positive claim plausible or even possible. When one makes a positive claim such as ‘the supernatural exists’ or ‘telepathy is possible’, it needs to be supported with positive evidence. An area of ignorance does not allow one to fit anything that one likes into that gap.


Argument from personal incredulity

This fallacy is committed when someone states that they cannot believe how something could be true and then uses this to support their conclusion that this is something is false. A common example of this would be the creationist argument:

I do not understand how something as complex as the human eye could have evolved by chance, therefore evolution is not true.

The logical error committed here is that one’s personal inability to comprehend something is grounds for dismissing it. In reality this is not true, and whilst you personally might not be able to understand something, this does not mean that nobody can. In the above example, there have been numerous instances in which scientists have explained precisely how the eye could evolve via gradual incremental steps (I’d recommend Richard Dawkins’ book Climbing Mount Improbable for such an example). ‘I don’t understand X’ means nothing when used as a premise.


Post hoc ergo propter hoc

(Correlation does not imply causation)

Post hoc ergo propter hoc is Latin for ‘after this, therefore because of this’. This fallacy is made when someone assumes a causal link between two things simply because one occurred before the other. In formal terms this fallacy is written thus:

X occurred before Y

Therefore X caused Y

An example of this fallacy would be:

Since the MMR vaccine was introduced diagnosis rates for autism have risen, therefore the MMR vaccine causes autism.

The argument is assuming that there is a link between these two events; the introduction of the MMR vaccine and the rise in diagnoses of autism. However these events following each other does not necessarily mean that one caused the other. Therefore in order to accept the conclusion as valid the person presenting the argument would need to demonstrate that there is indeed evidence of a causal link between the two events that extends beyond the fact that one event preceded the other.

There are cases in which correlation does imply causation, however in these cases there is more evidence to support the claim of causation than the fact that the two phenomena occurred around the same time. X occurring before Y by itself is not sufficient grounds for claiming that X caused Y.


I shall end this here for fear of rambling on too much. I will endeavour to highlight more examples of logical fallacies in the next few posts of this series. Until then I can point the interested reader towards the following links, should you wish to know more:

Wikipedia’s list of logical fallacies

The Nizkor Project – Fallacies

I hope you have enjoyed this post. Feel free to respond with any comments, questions, ideas, suggestions, disagreements or whatever in the discussion thread.

The great vaccination scare

Sat Mar 16, 2013 9:56 pm by Inferno

Most of you will have heard of the MMR vaccine controversy. A man, Dr. Wakefield, suggested that the MMR vaccination increased the likelihood of autism in infants and children. People stopped vaccinating their kids, which resulted in a few thousand cases and a few deaths. All of them could have been avoided, had it not been for Dr. Wakefield.

As we know, people don’t learn from their mistakes, the deep-rooted fear still possesses them. In a previous blog entry, I talked about my homeopath/M.D. aunt, among other things. She’s a lot of things I could make fun of, but one of the things that makes me sad is that she also opposes vaccines. She went to Kenya without a single vaccination, even though yellow fever is a deadly disease. Her whole family is the same, they all oppose vaccinations.
Recently, I talked to a friend of mine. She’s also against vaccinations, because they can “harm your immune system”.

Let’s look at anti-vaccers claims:

Vaccines are not effective, vaccines are not safe, vaccines are not moral or vaccines are against my religion.

We can dismiss the last two claims out of hand. If you don’t want to use them due to your religion then your religion is pretty fucked up.
I also reject the case for personal liberty. If your idiocy is putting other people at risk, you have no say. Period. Your rights should be stripped away to protect the rest of the population.

So we’re left with two questions:

1) Are vaccines effective?

2) Are vaccines safe?

The efficacy-question is easily answered: Vaccines are among the few things to come out of the pharma-industry that are so very obviously effective that we shouldn’t even have to think about this.

Forbes recently posted a short article on the topic. The following info-graphic was compiled from a recent article, linked in the Forbes-post.

Vaccines Info-graphic

Smallpox was once one of the most prolific killers, with an estimated 300-500 million killed just from Smallpox alone. And now, it’s virtually eradicated.

Thanks to vaccines? I think the above is ample evidence to that extent, but there’s more. The following graphic (Wikipedia) was compiled for the prevalence of rubella, but it could equally have been compiled for any other vaccine. It always follows the same path: A vaccine is introduced and given, the prevalence of the disease goes down.

Prevalence of rubella


So on to the second argument: Safety.

When I was a baby, I was immunized against MMR. The batch I received was tainted, I fell ill. I could have died, but was given medication and survived. But even in the best of circumstances, people can have adverse reactions to the immunizations.

Here’s the deal though: These reactions are incredibly unlikely to happen.
A paper from a  few years ago discussed this and came up with the following conclusion: “[T]he expressed doubts about the safety of vaccines are unjustified.”
That’s it really. Vaccines are an effective and safe way to counter several potentially deadly diseases. To eradicate these diseases, we all need to take the vaccines. If you don’t immunize yourself, you not only put yourself at risk but also the rest of the population, by allowing the disease to survive.

I don’t think any argument can be made that vaccinations are dangerous or ineffective. If you think there is, please, I need a laugh right about now.

Habemus Papam! And what do believers say?

Fri Mar 15, 2013 10:58 pm by Inferno

A new Pope has been elected. I won’t comment on the choice, it’s obviously the outcome of an internal political struggle and a need to show that people outside of Europe are represented in some way or other. Note that the Pope is still white, so no thought was given to true multiculturalism. It may even be considered that he only grew up in Argentina, but because his parents were Italian he can’t be said to be South American with a straight face. It’s been said that this Pope, just like the last one, will result in a decline in followers and possibly even help speed along atheism, but while the former is almost certainly true the latter is up for debate.

That all of this clashes with the idea that God elects the Pope is glaringly obvious, but I’ll skip all of that and focus on something else entirely: What are the responses by believers to the new Pope?

To look at that, I’ll pick some comments from FB, twitter or newspapers and check what people are saying.
The choice of comments is not representative and merely reflects the biases of the author.


The first comment comes from one of my friends, posted on FB. The English translation reads:

Francesco I. from Buenos Aires. A good choice. A good prayer.

How this guy knows that it was a good choice is a mystery to me. Others have already complained that this Pope was a bad choice, being a homophobe, conservative, anti-progressive kook. It also once again calls into question what any of this choosing has to do with God’s will. If God were choosing, we’d have a Pope in the first few minutes by unanimous vote but NO!, it sometimes takes ages to elect a new one.

The second thing is the “A good prayer” bit. It can be understood in two ways, one of them is entirely bizarre.
1) After seeing that a new pope was elected, said friend prayed and felt good about it. Slightly weird, but not bizarre.
2) He or someone else prayed for the outcome to be what it is or prayed for a good outcome. The second bit is subjective, so I’ll address the first. If that really were the case, why did God answer those prayers and not the other ones? What happens to God’s will if he has to bow down to your prayer?


The second comment can be found here at HuffPo:

Just a matter of time before all the criticism and nasty comments show up before the man has a chance. Pope Francis’ religous beliefs and convictions belong to him. He doesn’t have to justify those beliefs. You may not agree with his beliefs. At least acknowledge that he too is entitled to free speech. We keep getting away from that. Live and let live. No one should be bound and gagged because they reject abortion, reject same sex marriage and reject life styles. As long as that person is civil towards fellow mankind….why, why do others condemn? I don’t agree with abortion. I don’t agree with same sex marriage. This doesn’t mean I don’t love others. I simply do not agree…what is so bad about that? OK…I’m ready for all the ugly feedback. :)

I find it strange that a Pope’s religious beliefs belong only to him. Isn’t he supposed to guide his sheep in their faith-struggle? Even worse, isn’t he supposed to uphold the views presented in the Bible? (He is upholding the whole “no gays” part, so that’s not what I’m complaining about. I’m complaining about the commenter’s views that he can have other views.)

The second part about not “binding and gagging” people because they reject “… life styles” is a wicked idea. People who condemn others because of personal choices that do not harm others (i.e. homosexuality, etc.) is despicable and should not be tolerated in anyone, even less so in people who present a business or a group of people. People get fired about such comments every day, but the Pope is applauded for them. We live in a weird world.

Many other posts are either along the lines of

He was the best we could hope for. Thank GOD

or rationalisations of both his crimes and the crimes of his predecessors.

All of this should lead to some kind of point, right?
Well, going through about 500 comments or so on the BBC, NY-Times, HuffPo, Guardian and some Austrian newspapers’ sites, I noticed three things:

1) There are more people critical of the new pope than there are people endorsing him. It seems that even Christians are aware that he may not have been the best choice.

2) The ones who do protect the pope are very often ignoring large parts of his history. The few who acknowledge that he did some evil things in his past sweep that under the rug and claim that this has no effect on his current stance.

3) Christians who did neither of those, that is to say neither endorse in a weird way nor reject him, post things that are supremely weird.

This post was just a short insight into the weirdness of “moderate” and “enlightened” Christians. Nothing will follow.
I do have one question though: How long do you think it will take before the new Pope says something really stupid? And I’m not talking about the statements issued a few hours after his election á la “homosexuality is bad”, I’m talking “AIDS is bad, but not as bad as condoms”-stupid.

My guess? Before summer.

How MonsterQuest disproved Bigfoot

Tue Mar 12, 2013 5:50 pm by he_who_is_nobody

A far lesser known hobby I have is dealing with crypto-zoology (I have not dealt with this for years). However, recently I sat through a marathon of MonsterQuest to see how much new information cryptozoology has compiled. The only thing that I have learned is that the crypto-zoologists have all but disproved Bigfoot and all other land based cryptids with just one episode.

The main difference in the MonsterQuest pseudo-documentary compared to most other cryptid pseudo-documentaries I have seen is the use of trail cameras. A trail camera is a camera left in the wilderness for weeks to years taking pictures or video of anything that sets the motion detector off. Now, the episode of MonsterQuest that disproved land based cryptids is entitled “Lions in the Backyard” (episode 7: season 1). This episode deals with reports of black cats seen in the U.S., and of course, they were unable to show any black cats in the U.S.

However, how does an episode about black cats in the U.S. disprove Bigfoot and all other land based cryptids? Well, in the episode they eventually get to a section at ~21 minutes in where they talk to two actual biologists that use trail cameras. The two biologists explained that jaguars used to live in the U.S. (mostly the southwest) during historic times, but were now thought to be extinct in the U.S., thanks in large part to humans. Nevertheless, they were able to show, using trail cameras, three separate individual jaguars in Arizona; essentially proving that jaguars are expanding their territory back to somewhat historic ranges. Furthermore, they were able to prove this over an 8-year period.

Now, trail cameras are in use all over the U.S., not just by crypto-zoologists, but also by actual zoologists and hunters. Does anyone truly believe that something the size of Bigfoot, or any of the other cryptids crypto-zoologists love to talk about, could go undetected by these trail cameras for decades when they photographed several jaguars in 8 years? In addition, the photographs are not ambiguous, they were able to determine that two of the three individuals were male (the other remains unknown at the airing of this episode), that is how wonderful the pictures of these animals came out.

In every episode of MonsterQuest that dealt with a land based cryptid, trail cameras were placed in the areas the animals were thought to roam and yet no photographs of the cryptid were ever produced. I must point out that MonsterQuest only sets up these cameras for perhaps a month or two, but the actual crypto-zoologists, zoologists, and hunters have trail cameras that are in use for most (if not all) of the year, for years! One would think that if these cryptids were real, at least one of them would be captured on camera in the decades that trail cameras have been in use.

There are two things I learned from watching MonsterQuest; the first is that crypto-zoologists appear to be just as dogmatic as creationists are when it comes to their preconceived notions. I know that this information does not definitively disprove Bigfoot and his kin, but it seems to be very compelling evidence that any rational person should consider.

The second is I really want a trail camera now. Here in New Mexico there is a lot of wildlife that would be very interesting to photograph without human interference. Seeing the price tag on most of the trail cameras makes this dream something that will probably never happen for the simple fact that I do not think I would waste that much money on a hobby. However, one can dream.

Edited by Dean, 12/03/2013
Reason for edit: Grammatical corrections.

Have some vision!

Sat Mar 09, 2013 1:13 pm by Inferno

As I might have said already, I’m training to become a teacher. In my studies, I’m often confronted with interesting kids (both negative and positive) and equally interesting colleagues (also both negative and positive).

The funny part? With kids, the positive outweigh the negative about 10:1 or 20:1. But teachers? It’s the other way around, 1:10 or 1:20. The amount of stupid, unmotivated, socially incompetent, bored and vision-less teachers I’ve met is appalling. I recounted the one event where a teacher declared us to be “different from other animals because we evolved”. That’s fairly stupid, but it can easily be corrected by a somewhat competent biology teacher.

But what happens if you get teachers who are unwilling to teach a certain concept simply because it’s “hard to teach”? No kidding, that’s what a teacher said on Thursday, March 7th. Note that this took place one day before International Woman’s Day. Here’s the conversation from a seminar. The teacher (~30 years of experience) was in the audience:

Teacher: So basically, I don’t teach students from other countries that it’s important to treat women in the same way as men because their parents will come to school and complain. Plus, the parents don’t even want to shake hands with me because I’m a woman so why should I bother?

* Nods of approval from the audience*

Me: I don’t want to sound offensive, but what you’re doing is actually against the law. The Austrian curriculum says, among other things, very specifically that we have to teach “tolerance towards others, minorities and other cultures”. I’d suggest that “others” includes women. A different law (which I’m unable to recall at this moment) also states that we have to raise kids to be “mündige Bürger”, which I’d translate as mature/responsible citizens. Part of that is adhering to the basic norms we’ve got in our culture, in this case treating women equally well as men.

The teacher wasn’t able to respond, obviously, so that was that.

Now I put it to you that this is not exclusive to teaching. You’ll have idiots in every job, people who’ll stall progress. But I’d also argue that teaching is so incredibly important that we have to single it out. We raise the next generation, we are responsible for the future. If we fuck up badly, everything is potentially fucked.

End rant.
My message? Have some vision! Don’t let other people wear you down, don’t forget the ideals you had when you were young. Stick to them, no matter how hard it is.

Evidence-based medicine: Introduction Part 2

Fri Mar 08, 2013 4:48 pm by Inferno

In my first post on medicine I talked about the various dangers that can arise from medicine that’s neither effective nor particularly harmful. In my second post, I talked about one particular alternative medicine, PSE, showed that it’s not based on any evidence whatsoever and most likely does not work, though that can’t be confirmed because in it’s 15-year runtime it has yet to be properly and fairly tested. That’s fairly common in alternative medicine.

In this post, I want to tackle an argument you can often hear from advocates of alternative medicine: “Why should I want evidence when all the “evidence-based” medicine isn’t based on any actual evidence?” I’ll also give an introduction into evidence-based medicine, albeit a very brief one.

For the purpose of this post, I’ll recommend two excellent books:

Goldacre, B. (2012) Bad Pharma – How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients

Evans, I., Thornton, H., Chalmers, I. & Glasziou, P. (2006) Testing Treatments – Better research for better healthcare

About 90% of my examples come from these two books, mainly because they give nearly all the relevant sources. (Meta studies and so on)

As Evans et al. document: (P.13-14) As a parent, the most horrible thing that can happen to you is your child dying. Naturally, parents will immediately do what a doctor tells them if it’s said to reduce infant suffering and death. In 1946, Dr. Benjamin Spock‘s book “Baby and child care” suggested babies sleep on their backs. In 1956, he revised that statement, saying:

There are two disadvantages to a baby’s sleeping on his back. If he vomits he’s more likely to choke on the vomitus. Also he tends to keep his head turned towards the same side… this may flatten the side of the head… I think it is preferable to accustom a baby to sleeping on his stomach from the start.

That sounds like incredibly sound advice, which is why many parents (millions?) opted to do so. However, there was one serious flaw: This practice, never evaluated, led to an estimated 50,000 deaths. A first study suggesting harm was published mid 1960’s, a second in the early seventies, two further ones in the mid 80’s. It was only properly acted on in the mid 90’s. (In some cases until 2002!)

Now one might argue that this is a case of “evidence-based medicine” gone wrong. I disagree, it’s precisely the opposite. Here, no evidence or very shoddy evidence was provided, which eventually led to tens of thousands of deaths. Had the evidence been appraised correctly right away, many if not most of these deaths might have been avoided.

There are dozens of examples like this in the two books, so I won’t go through them. The authors have gone to great pains to document these cases and I recommend you read about them yourselves. I just want to bring this back to the point I was trying to make: Evidence-based medicine can only function if we look at the evidence carefully and without bias, and if we then act on the evidence as swiftly as possible.

This system is by no means perfect, because humans will always find a way to either intentionally interfere with the process (for political or monetary reasons) or to be so stupid as to fuck up. However, it’s better to have a system that’s based on evidence we can theoretically gather (evidence-based medicine) than basing it on a system that involves nothing more than guesswork. (alternative medicine)

At this point, I should probably point out how incredibly fragile this review process is. Ben Goldacre documents: (P. 69)

Imagine you’re conducting a study on a particular drug. Let’s call it pregabalin, a drug to help diabetics handle pain when their nerves have been affected by the disease. You gather test subjects, you double-blind the study, you do everything you’re supposed to. But some subjects drop out of the study, due to various reasons. It might be that they still feel pain and don’t want to continue or the side effects might be too severe. Whatever the reason, you’re now faced with a problem. You’ve got half a dataset for the drop-out patient. How can you incorporate the results in the study?

The researcher, let’s call him Pfizer, does a clever thing: He uses the “last observation carried forward”-method. That’s a fancy sounding name for “I’ll put down the last result I got into every column. Basically, the patient had pain levels of 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 5, 6, 5, and then dropped out. So Pfizer fills in the last six data-points with all 5’s. Before the study, you will notice, the patient had pain levels of 10.

The research then gets published and your drug looks quite good indeed. But wait! what’s that? Some researchers disagree with your method? But why? Well, the reasoning is this: The patient dropped out, so their pain level is back to 10. Obviously, the side effects were worse than the pain and they stopped using the drug. So we have to put all 10’s for the last six data-points instead of all 5’s. That’s called the “baseline observation carried forward”-method.

The difference between the two methods is staggering: With the LOCF the drug gets overestimated by nearly 25%!

That, you will agree, is quite a lot. Once again it shows: Medicine must be based on the best possible evidence, not on guesswork and shoddy methods.

I’ll leave you with a few points:

  • Biased testing will leave you with incorrect data, thus putting patients at risk.
  • All medicine should be tested and carefully evaluated. Failing to do so puts patients at risk and should be persecuted.
  • Trusting doctors blindly is not always a good choice. Ideally, your doctor should be able to show you what research (s)he’s basing his/her decision on.
  • Basing therapies on theories instead of real-world outcomes is again putting patients at risk.
  • As suggested in my first post, using treatments that are neither directly harmful nor beneficial is also not recommended.
  • Established treatments are not necessarily beneficial: Check and re-check. I explained that partially in my second post.
  • Tests should be as fair as possible, that is to say: Randomised (double-blinded) Controlled Tests (RCT’s), comparing like with like, meta-studies, etc. This requires that potential researchers and future doctors be trained in the best available methods.

I’ll leave it at that and once again recommend the two above mentioned books. Remember, all science needs evidence and we need laws to ensure the best standards.  We need institutions like the Cochrane Collaboration to appraise the available evidence without interference from commercially or politically driven institutions. Read “Bad Pharma”, it’ll really shock you.

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