Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Meat Puppets

Before I started this blog (in fact in the events that directly caused it), my major internet hangout was Wikipedia. My main project for the short time I was there was turning the Telepathy article from a piece of wooish propaganda and something respectably neutral. I've since become a bit disillusioned with Wikipedia's insistence on being neutral over everything, even reality, but that's another story.

Anyways, on Wikipedia as with everything that reaches a certain level of popularity, there were trolls, vandals, and ideologues. Most of them got banned sooner or later, and then most of them created a new account to try to circumvent the ban. Some of them would create multiple accounts in order to give a false appearance that their opinion was more popular. Either of these types of new accounts became known as a Sock Puppet (a term also used in various other places on the net).

But it turned out that not all of the accounts that appeared to be sock puppets actually were, even when they acted just like sock puppets. These accounts turned out to be piloted by people who were recruited by the suspected sock puppeteer for the sole purpose of supporting their view. These accounts became known as "Meat Puppets," as they were essentially people turning themselves into puppets for someone else to act through. Wikipedia eventually came up with a policy regarding meat puppets, which essentially amounts to treating them exactly as sock puppets. They may be piloted by an actual person, but that person isn't bringing their own views to the table; just parroting another's. This way, meat puppets get no votes.

Unfortunately, modern democracy hasn't recognized this problem, and would likely be hesitant to do anything about it even if it did. You can see meat puppetry on the small scale where people recruit friends or family who wouldn't otherwise vote to vote their way. The vote they cast isn't an informed vote, but it's treated as such by the system. Not too long along, I was pressured by one of my friends to do just such a thing and vote for her preferred candidate in a university election. Deciding to avoid looking like a jerk, I evaded the issue, implying that I would do so. It's hard to resist the pressure, but I feel it's important.

Sometimes, though, it gets even worse, and there are full-scale campaigns for meat puppetry. Ever heard of Revenge of the Cradle? It's a political tactic that involves a minority group having significantly higher birthrates than the majority group in order to eventually become the majority. The term was first used by the French Canadians in Quebec as the name for their tactic to gain a majority. You can see the results today, with French-Canadian families commonly having 10-15 children.

The tactic goes back even further than this though. It has been used both by Christian and Islamic groups as a tactic to gain a majority of the population in many areas. They don't come out and say that's what they're doing, but it's the result of their religious commands to "Go forth and procreate" which are reinforced by the religious leaders. (Note that nowadays it's going on much more in the Muslim world. Their birth rates are significantly higher than those of other groups in many mixed areas.) Natural selection acting on societies has led to the societies that produce more children being more survivable and common, so even without intending it in the first place, their procreation has become a political tool.

I'll make no bones about it, this practice is despicable. Imagine a child in a French-Canadian Revenge-of-the-Cradle family. She's young and naive, and she asks her mother about the meaning of life and her purpose in it. What's the mother to say? The child's entire purpose in life, the reason that she was born, was so that when she reached the age of majority, she'd vote French. She's not allowed to think for herself; she's only meant to vote the way her parents intended her to. And they say atheists don't have respect for life.

Proceed with your information binge...

Sunday, January 28, 2007

How to debate an IDiot

The following is based on no debate, past or present (though it would be fun to see it in the future), and is simply the product of my fevered imagination.

Reverend White (IDiot): ...As you can see, due to the immense fine-tuning of universal constants necessary to result in life, the universe as we see it could not have come about simply by chance. Therefore, we have no choice but to accept that it was indeed God who created it.

Nate Black (Atheist and professional Alter Ego): Okay, first of all, you've proven no such thing about the universe coming into existence "by chance." Even if all your math were correct (which it isn't), the best you've shown is that, if a single universe were created, it's unlikely that it would turn out exactly like this. You're completely ignoring not only good math but the fact that science makes no demand for only a single universe with one set of laws existing. Come on, your own theory goes and postulates a god that doesn't follow the same laws of this universe!

But besides that, there's one other big problem: You jump from "There must have been a designer" to "Our particular version of God must have been the designer." You're completely ignoring any alternative desiger.

White: Well come on, what other logical choice is there for a designer? It was Alvin Plantinga who proved that "God is the best explanation for the beginning of the universe." If you've got a better explanation, I'd like to hear it!

Black: First of all, he didn't prove it, he said it. And as for a better explanation, how about... oh, I don't know... me? Fine! I admit it! I created the universe. Are you happy?

White (stunned): You did not create the universe. You're just a human, not a god.

Black: Well, I'm more powerful than your god. Pray to him with all your heart, he does nothing. Pray to me half-heartedly and there's a good chance I'll do something.

White: He works in mysterious ways!

Black: And I work in obvious ways! For instance, if I think you're a bastard, I go over there and slug you. If your god thinks you're a bastard, he waits until you're dead, then he maybe does something to your soul - which may or may not exist. Maybe. Who do you think is more capable of performing the very obvious action of creating a universe?

White: You did not create the universe!

Black: Prove it!

White: What? Why should I have to prove it? You're the one who made the outrageous claim!

Black: So the person making the outrageous claim should be the one to prove it? Interesting. Well, didn't I already show that my outrageous claim was more reasonable than your outrageous claim? Why don't you start by proving that?

White: It's believed by billions of people worldwide, while your claim probably isn't even believed by you! Isn't that enough?

Black: So if I go around and convince billions of people of my claim, reality will suddenly change and it will become true? Try again.

White: Well, we have a book written by our God as evidence that he created the universe.

Black: I could write a book saying I created the universe. I could even make sure it doesn't contradict itself and makes a lot more sense.

White: Well our book was written two thousand years ago, it wasn't something written in the past few days!

Black: So if I wait two thousand years after writing my book, that will also cause reality to change and make it true?

White: No, because you didn't create the universe!

Black: A claim which you still have yet to prove.

White: You're the Anti-Christ, aren't you?

Black: What gave it away?

Proceed with your information binge...

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Satirist on Religion

My regulars will likely remember a few times in the past where I mentioned people's ability to recognize satire, highlighting the example of my University's paper's columnist, Brendan Pinto. In the past, I've defended him from people who have grossly misinterpreted his intentions. Today's a bit different, because this time he took on religion.

That's not to say he actually took on religion; rather, his satirical persona did. So in actuality he's either criticizing atheism or arguments against religion. I may have defended him in the past, but that's no reason not to disagree with him now. I have no sacred cows here - only spherical ones. So, let's dig into his article:

If there exists one uniting cultural force that crosses civilizations and connects the vast majority of humankind, it would have to be the hallowed institution of religion.

If there exists one uniting cultural force that crosses civilizations and connects the vast majority of humankind, it would have to be not being Canadian. Yeah, that's a pretty pointless claim, whatever you put in there. Also a bit of an appeal to popularity. Seems he can't help a few of his own beliefs slipping in. Notice how he also called it "hallowed," something most atheists would never do.

A tightly organized and fervently followed set of beliefs, held sacred by hundreds of millions of followers, providing instructions on how to live a moral life via divine revelation. Pffft. What a bunch of A-holes.

Billions of followers, actually. And the instructions are only partly on actual morals, a lot of it is on perceived morals. That is to say, it's instructions just made up to make the followers think they're better than others because they follow these crazy rules and others don't. (Read Leviticus sometime. It's full of ridiculous commandments like "Thou shalt not shave.") I'll agree with the "A-hole" part though. (And note: You're allowed to say "asshole" in a university paper; we're all adults here.)

Co-ordinating the veneration of a deity is and will continue to be the most destructive force on the planet. You need look no further than the billions of lost man-hours and wasted productivity spent in churches, temples, mosques, and whatever the hell scientologists meet in. This doesn’t even begin to include the even longer stretches of time devoted to daily prayers and reflection. With all this time spent not working, you’d think these people were hippies.

Agreed. What exactly was he trying to satirize here, I wonder? Religion is a frakking huge waste of time, and that's one of my big beefs with it.

The most notable violence incited by religion occurred during a horrific series of wars known as the Crusades. These battles were not meant to stop in-fighting among the Christians of Europe following a relative stabilization of its borders and stem the violence the aimless warriors were committing against the peasantry of the West. No, they were started because Jesus, between sermons on peace, love and helping the poor, wanted people to kill all non-Christians for the glory of his name. The Muslim army wasn’t pushing west to expand a growing Empire; it was just following the instructions in the Koran to, and my Arabic is a little weak, quote "slaughter those Jesus lovers." Look it up.

Ah, here we go, some actual arguments. First of all, I'd put the Inquisition and Witch Hunts above the Crusades, and it's a lot harder to defend those. As for the Crusades themselves, there may have been other reasons, but religion was the tool used to mobilize the masses. Crusaders were promised a free ticket into heaven if they died on a crusade. Muslims who die in religious war are promised a free ticket into heaven plus 72 virgins. You think incentives like that don't encourage warfare a bit too much?

As for stopping the in-fighting that was going on, trace it back. What was causing all of that in the first place? Minor religious differences, n'est pas? So, the crusades just refocused the warfare caused by religion. As for the Muslim side, why did they have to expand? It was because their religion commanded them to procreate more than a society with fixed borders could sustain. Religion at fault again.

Religion has been used to spur conflict almost as much as patriotism and ethnic allegiances.


I say while we are abolishing religion, we get rid of the other two as well.

One world government, I like it. If we all live in the same nation, we can't very well declare war on ourselves, now can we? And if we don't have "ethnic allegiances," we also won't have racism. The problem is that we'll lose out on unique cultural contributions to art, but I'm sure you knew this. The thing is, a balance has to be reached somehow.

Even more recently we see the dangers of religion. The scandals involving lewd and lascivious acts of marauding Catholic priests committed against alter boys. If it weren’t for the Catholic Church, we wouldn’t have molestations. The strict moral teachings of religions inevitably lead to these heinous acts.

Let's see, the church demands its priests be perfectly celibate. Masturbation's also a sin, so that's out of the question. That's going to put a lot of pressure on anyone, and it's not surprising that some are going to burst. Of course, there would be pedophiles without the church, but this way it's harder on them. Plus you're giving the ones that already exist an unrivaled opportunity to abuse young boys without fear of reprisal. The church's obsession with upholding its holy image is what caused them to go on a massive cover-up, allowing pedophiles to abuse kids even longer. The church authorities are apparently the most religious people out there, and they care more about maintaining their image than protecting innocent children.

Now the odious religious types would have you believe that it is not the institution, but the individuals who are at fault.

Which might be valid if the institution either knew nothing about it, or did everything they could to stop it. Neither applies here.

They will yammer on about how it is not that the ideas of a religion are harmful, but the exploitation of their influence by those in power to oppress or do harm.

Any idea can be abused. Some tend to be more prone to abuse than others, however. Compare the basic Skeptic's message of "Critical Thinking = Good." That one's pretty hard to abuse. Now look at the basic religious message, appropriate to pretty much every religion, of, "Us = Good. Them = Bad." Yeah, that's not prone to abuse in the slightest. (Don't worry, checks are in the mail to replace any broken sarcasm detectors.)

If this is true, Jesus and Mohammad should have known that their warning to follow God’s laws are going to be taken out of context and kept the message to themselves. Seriously, what kind of a prophet are you if you didn’t see that coming?

More importantly: What kind of god doesn't see this coming? And what kind of god sees it happening and does nothing? That's right, the kind that doesn't actually exist.

Deep in the heart of all religious dogma lie the seeds of hatred waiting to germinate in the rich, fertile potting soil of the idiot population.

Sadly, it's true.

It isn’t just extremism or zealotry. Religion in and of itself is wrong.Because the concept of religion is built upon the idea that the core ‘truths’ espoused by the religion are absolute and immutable, this idea gets extended to every bit of dogma associated with that set of beliefs. This is what makes every religion wrong in every possible way — no exceptions.

Extreme literalism is indeed a problem, as is the cognitive dissonance that it creates when the truths contradict themselves.

You may be asking how I could be so sure about this. I know that I’m right because this can be one of two things — a logical fallacy in the form of a false dichotomy or the unequivocal truth, and since I never speak in false dichotomies, it must be true.

Is it just me, or does that sound a bit too much like something religiosos use to defend their claims to the truth?

As an atheist, I see the harm religion does and know that the only way to make this world a better place is to eliminate it entirely. You know, how that Stalin guy tried to do. Taking the nation he built as an example, we see that eliminating religion will lead us to a Utopia free of suffering and ignorance.

"Stalin was an atheist, therefore atheism is bad." That's one notch removed from an argument ad Nazium. And not a vertical notch, mind you, a horizontal notch. I'm tempted to point out that Hitler himself was quite religious and turned WWII era Germany into something of a theocracy with a few new rules that made the Fuhrer something to be worshipped, but that would be stooping to his level, so I won't.

Unfortunately, we are stuck in this society with all the preachy pious jerk-offs breathing down our necks, day in and day out ,telling us "killing is a sin, lying is a sin, stealing is a sin." Shit, everything is a sin according to someone.

Um, nowadays, religiosos seem to be saying more along the lines of, "Gay is a sin, evolution is a sin, questioning is a sin." And you can say "Shit" but not "Asshole"? What the frak is up with that? (A little satire of my own, if you couldn't tell.)

You can read the entire article here, though I've quoted pretty much the entire thing.

I suspect that this article is going to spawn a lot of hate from religious people who didn't get it. If I can compress my thoughts into about 500 words or so, I might throw them for a loop and send in a letter arguing with the point he actually tried to make.

Proceed with your information binge...

Friday, January 19, 2007

Skeptic's Circle #52

The latest Skeptic's Circle is now up, courtesy of Frank the Financially-Savvy Atheist. Go check it out.

To take a page from Bronze Dog, this is an open thread for you guys, but talking in anything but questions is FORBIDDEN.

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Betelgeuse: Evidence for God

Today in my astrophysics class, we were discussing stellar masses and densities. We looked at both ends of the spectrum, from the dense-as-rock Sirius B to the ultra-low-density Betelgeuse.

Exactly how low-density is Betelgeuse? Well, let me put it this way: You've probably often heard that Saturn has a density low enough that it could float in water given a large enough body of water. Well, Betelgeuse is light enough that in could float on air. In fact, its density is only 1/10,000th that of air.


Hell, the thing's essentially a vacuum, barely more dense than the average nebula or interstellar dust. The odd thing is, interstellar dust and nebulae don't radiate light like we know Betelgeuse does, so how can Betelgeuse do it? How can something that, as we've shown, is essentially nothing, be so bright?

This is an obvious contradiction in astrophysics we have here. In fact, there's one, and only one, way to explain this miraculous light: God did it. And not just any god, the Christian God, also known as YHWH or Yahweh in the Old Testament or the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. He's obviously capable of doing it, and it makes perfect sense that he would: A huge beacon to his glory.


See how ridiculous the argument from large numbers sounds when taken out of the context of biology? The same easily-apparent flaws in this argument apply just as well to Intelligent Design:

"Essentially zero" - The density of Betelgeuse is so low it's taken to be essentially zero. This completely ignores the fact of how frakking huge it is (larger than the orbit of Jupiter). When you multiply this size by the density, you get a mass of around 20 times that of our sun. Get it? Small number X really large number = large number. Similarly to how even a low probability multiplied by billions of years of time can become quite likely.

Of course, ID tends to have other problems that make it even worse than the argument-from-Betelgeuse. The big one here is that they generally get the science wrong so they get an even lower number than reality.

"...therefore, God." - They've "proven" that Betelgeuse can't generate light on its own, so they immediately jump to God. And of course, not just any god, but their God. There's no serious consideration that it could be another god doing it, or even - heaven forbid - some other scientific explanation.

Proceed with your information binge...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

O'Reilly to commit career suicide

Against all reason, Bill O'Reilly has agreed to appear on The Colbert Report this Thursday, and he's let Stephen Colbert appear on The O'Reilly Factor. What could he possibly be thinking?

Well, maybe he's thinking that The Colbert Report is serious again. I wouldn't put it past him.

On the other hand, judging by his past actions, O'Reilly does seem to have a tendency to make the worst possible publicity move. Maybe he just decided it's been long enough since he made a complete ass of himself.

This isn't to say I'm not gleeful that this is happening, I'm just slightly baffled. Ah well, not that it matters. Fare thee well, Bill O'Reilly's career.

Proceed with your information binge...

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Official Opening of the Night Museum

Alright, it's officially open for browsing! You can head to the lobby of the Night Museum at The Lobby, or you could simply browse it like a blog here.

And if you're interested in learning more about the behavior of Spherical Cows, there's an exhibit on them available (with more information than was given in the initial presentation).

Proceed with your information binge...

Saturday, January 13, 2007

What did I tell you?

Well, I was hacking browsing through the Library of Congress the other day, and look what I stumbled upon. I bet you feel pretty silly for thinking I was joking, now don't you?

(Found via JanieBelle. Make your own.)

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Exit Light

I promised you new features to be unveiled today, and the wait is over! If you're wondering what I'm talking about, check here.

So, today I present to you the grand opening of The Night Museum, and the emergence of my alter ego, Nate Black. The Night Museum will be used primarily to mirror modern society, putting them on exhibit within it. Through this method, I Nate will expose its flaws and teach you how to find and correct them in yourselves.

Plus, if I'm ever feeling particularly pissed off, Nate has carte blanche to take over and tear anyone he wishes a new one.

Proceed with your information binge...

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

De-Lurk, Lest the Terrorists Win

You heard me. It's de-lurking week, which means that if you've been lurking around here, now's your chance obligation to drop me a comment. I know there's at least one of you out there, and if you don't comment here, you will be nagged. You know who you are.

Proceed with your information binge...

Saturday, January 06, 2007

More Random than Random

And here you are with the final sample article I wrote up:

Quick quiz: What do streak-shooting basketball players, Princeton’s Global Consciousness Project, and iTunes’ Smart Shuffle feature have in common. If you said, “They’re all the result of people misinterpreting random data,” then you’re reading this out loud and probably getting strange looks right about now (You’re also right).

The human mind doesn’t do well with the random, but, as with most flaws in human perception, there’s actually a good reason for this. In harsher times, when survival was less of a given than it is today, there was a distinct evolutionary advantage to finding patterns. A human who noticed many patterns was more likely to spot the pattern indicative of a predator, or realize that a seed dropped into the ground last year had turned into a sprout this year. A few extra patterns spotted may incur slight inconveniences, but it’s still a lot better than dying because you missed one.

The flip side to this is that now humans aren’t good judges of random data, and start to see patterns where there are none. For instance, take the following three strings of numbers, representing a random choice from 4 numbers:


One of them is completely random, the other two aren’t. Which one do you think is the random one? Human instincts lead most people towards the second or third choice, but it’s actually the first one—which deviates the most from the expected distribution and looks streakiest—which I generated randomly. It has too many 4’s and 1’s and absolutely no 3’s, but that was the way the dice rolled. In the long run, random data will indeed average out, but streaks are to be expected in the short term.

So let’s go back to the examples I listed at the beginning of this article. It’s a commonly-held belief that in basketball, players are prone to streak shooting, often referred to as the “hot hand.” After a few successful shots, a player is believed to “loosen up” or “get into a groove.” The reverse supposedly happen after a few misses. To determine whether or not this actually happens, Gilovich et al. examined the records of the Philadelphia 76ers during the ’80-’81 season. The results were surprising, to say the least: It turned out that after a series of baskets, players were less likely to score again. On the other hand, after a series of misses, players were more likely to land a basket. What was really going on is that people were noticing the streaks that inevitably arise in random data and believing them to be non-random.

A similar situation arose with the shuffle feature on iPods at one point. Apple received numerous complaints and inquiries from people who claimed that their iPods were playing favorites. Some artists or albums seemed to show up much too often, while others too rarely—if at all. Their software engineers went over the random number generator again and again, and they found nothing wrong with it. And yet people wouldn’t believe them. Eventually, they decided they had to address it somehow, so they came out with the “smart shuffle” feature. It allowed people to decrease the likelihood that multiple songs by the same artist would be heard within a small amount of time. As Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder described it, “We're making it less random to make it feel more random.”

My final example is the worst of the bunch: Princeton’s Global Consciousness Project. This project was inspired by work done in PEAR (The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research), and it essentially boils down to people watching random numbers and trying to judge if they see deviations during major world events. And, surprising as it may not be, they’re able to find deviations from a perfectly chance distribution around every major event (and plenty of deviations around absolutely nothing, but they don’t talk about them). They claim that these deviations are due to some “quantum energy field” in the world caused by human consciousness. In the eight years that the project has been active, all it's accomplished is spotting streaks in random data while wasting mass amounts of time and money, all of which could have been saved with just a little bit better understanding of what 'random' means, but no one's stepped in to put a stop to it, so far.

Proceed with your information binge...

Friday, January 05, 2007

Psyched Out

Here you are with the next sample article I came up with:

This week I’m starting off with a puzzle for you. You’re presented with four cards, showing A, D, 4, and 7. Each card has a letter on one side and a number on the other. Which card(s) must you turn over in order to determine whether the following statement is false? “If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other side.”

Got your answer? Well, statistically, 80-90% of you are going to be wrong. [Okay, now that this is on my blog, I predict that 80-90% of my regular readers will be right.] Most people will say A and 4, but the correct answer is actually A and 7. Think about it: When is the statement false? Only when a card has a vowel on one side and an odd number on the other. So, to determine whether it’s false, we have to test all cases where it might be, which is just the A and 7. Most people don’t think this way naturally, however. It’s human nature to look for cases that would confirm a given statement, rather than statements which would falsify it. This is known as the Confirmation Bias, and it’s one of the most pervasive flaws in critical thinking.

You see this bias taking hold all over the place, but I’m going to focus on just one case now: the psychic. The success of a psychic hinges almost completely on exploiting the confirmation bias. The typical psychic will make numerous “predictions” throughout his or her career. Most of these will be quite vague, allowing the audience to shoehorn them into events on their own. Once the prediction has been shoehorned to match some specific event, it counts as a “hit” for the psychic. If the prediction can’t easily be shoehorned into anything, it’s forgotten. So the predictions become a series of hits with no memorable misses.

When reading people, the same tactic of vague guesses can often be applied successfully, but this isn’t the sole tool at the psychic’s disposal. Most stage psychics, such as the infamous Sylvia Brown, use a technique known as “cold reading,” which relies on the subject’s inclination to try to sort out vague statements and find more meaning in them than there actually is. A statement that gets no reaction is slowly modified until it does garner a reaction, and as soon as the subject responds positively, the psychic immediately reinforces what the subject has said as if it were the original prediction.

For instance, the psychic may start out by saying s/he’s sensing something about December. If the subject or someone close to them was born in December, they’ll say so and the psychic can immediately reinforce this by saying something like, “Yes, I see that.” If it isn’t a birthday, it could be an anniversary, or even just the holidays that sticks out in the subject’s mind. Even if none of this works out, the psychic can expand it to “…maybe a nearby month, January or November?” Success is inevitable.

Not all psychics are this benign, though. Some, such as John Edwards of Crossing Over fame, have been known to use “hot reading.” Hot reading involves actions such as Googling the names of audience members, or hidden accomplices within the audience who chat people up before the show. It’s a lot more direct and successful than cold reading, but it’s also a lot more obviously fraudulent once it’s exposed.

Now, despite all these arguments against how psychics operate, we should still be open to the possibility that telepathy could indeed exist. The best way to determine this is, of course, a scientific trial. Not surprisingly, many such trials have been performed. Some of them actually claimed to show positive results, but they’ve never held up to scrutiny. The rest showed no evidence of telepathy existing. But surely, if a famous medium such as John Edwards wished to prove himself, he could pass such a test easily, couldn’t he? Yet he (and all other famous psychics) has completely refused to be tested by anyone who wasn’t already a believer in telepathy. How surprising.

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Skeptic's Circle #51

The 51st Skeptic's Circle is now up over at See you at Enceladus. Babbler has fortunately had the guts to be the first to step down from going overboard with creativity, so I don't have to worry about the bar being quite so high when it gets around to me. (Though I've already started making preparations, so I'm covered if I do have to be creative.)

Proceed with your information binge...

Clashing HeadOn with the Evidence

Since I'm not sending them in to the paper, I'm free to publish the sample articles I came up with publically. The material isn't quite up my normal niche, but there's no reason not to post it anyways. Here's the first article, and you can expect to see the next two over the next couple of days.

HeadOn. Apply directly to the forehead.
HeadOn. Apply directly to the forehead.
HeadOn. Apply directly to the forehead. (Repeat ad nauseum)

The ad may be annoying, but it does succeed in getting your attention. It’s also succeeded in convincing thousands of consumers to buy the product, leading the producers to create spin-off products with their own annoying commercials.

What the ad doesn’t do, however, is tell you what Head On actually does. It implies that it treats headaches, and it tells people to apply it to their foreheads. Later commercials have included people coming onto the screen claiming the product is “great” or “amazing.” The manufacturers, Miralus Healthcare, state that “It can be used by anyone and as often as needed. There are no dosage restrictions or health risks associated with its use.” But not a single claim that it actually does anything, and in fact, HeadOn turns out to do exactly what they claim it does: nothing.

HeadOn, as well as its spin-off products, are what are known as “homeopathic” remedies. Homeopathic medicine works by the very counter-intuitive principle that “Like cures like, and the smaller the dose, the better.” For instance, if a certain plant causes a headache when consumed, then a homeopath would argue that consuming very little of the plant would cause less of a headache. So, if you have a headache and consume very little of this plant, then your headache should go away, by their logic.

What homeopaths generally do to prepare a product is to repeatedly dilute the active ingredient (generally some harmful substance) by factors of ten or a hundred. Supposedly, the more dilutions, the better. A typical minimum dilution of homeopathic products is 6X, which means it’s been diluted by a factor of ten six times (to one millionth the original strength). Many products are sold with even greater dilutions than this, and “Extra Strength” means there’s even less of the active ingredient. With the strongest dilutions, such as the 30X of Golden Seal Hydrastis in one of Miralus’ other products, there isn’t likely to be even a single molecule of active ingredient.

Despite the illogical nature of homeopathy, there are thousands of people out there who will claim that homeopathy does indeed work. Doesn’t this mean there’s something to it? Well, no. This is just what’s known as the Placebo Effect. What happens here is that when people take what they think is a cure for their ailment, they’re likely to claim it actually helped them, even if all they took was a simple sugar pill. These perceptions stem partly from the general cyclic nature of most ailments. Left untreated, most ailments steadily get worse, and then get better on their own. It is when they are at their worst that people go out and look for cures, so it’s no surprise if it gets better soon afterwards. Additionally, positive thinking after taking medicine can lead people to overestimate their recovery, also contributing to this effect.

The problem with homeopathy is that it flies in the face of both common medical practice and logic itself. One of the most important criteria a treatment must demonstrate to be accepted by the medical community is dose-response correlation. This means that the more of the treatment is used, the more effective it is (within some reasonable range). Homeopathy, on the other hand, claims that less is better. As for the logical problems with it, first consider the fact that homeopathic products are sold with multiple applications. By their arguments, wouldn’t multiple applications decrease the overall effectiveness? Now, consider the logical extreme of the dilution process: taking none of the active ingredient at all. Hey, we’re already doing that! Why bother buying it at all? We’re already at maximum effectiveness

Proceed with your information binge...

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The State of the Blog

Well, on the 11th it will be 6 months since I started this blog, so I thought I'd give you guys a general update on my plans and what I've learned about blogging at this time.

First of all, what I've found out: It took a couple months or so to find a niche I could best fill, but I think I've got it now. My most popular posts so far are the Distilled Wisdom series and other more philosophically-oriented posts. I fully intend to keep this up, and will have the next entry in Distilled Wisdom out in a few weeks, once work on my research paper has settled down. I also intend to do a follow-up to The First Lever (three guesses what it'll be called), on how self-interest leads people into wooish beliefs.

Now, I mentioned a few times in the past that I was planning to apply for a column in the school newspaper. I recently found out, however, from talking with people who have been involved with it, that it's not quite that simple. They won't let you have just a column, it seems, and you'll be roped in for tons of other duties as well. With this in mind, along with my overfull schedule and continuing research project, I've decided to forgo applying. Instead, I'll be using my time to concentrate on this blog, keeping up what I've done before, and adding new features. Also, there's one other side-project I have going on which I'll talk about in the future.

Did I say new features? Well, you'll have to wait until the actual half-anniversary to see what I mean. I'm not giving you any hints, either. You'll have to sit there in torture wondering about it. Or you could get a life.

As far as templating goes, I'm also planning to expand the blogroll a bit. I'm going to split it up into a few categories, including an "Anti-Blogroll," which will list blogs which express views disagreeing with me, but which I feel are still well-written enough to be worth reading.

Proceed with your information binge...