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Psychic Backing Away From $1 Million Psychic Challenge

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment

File:Psychic reading.jpgA prolific Toronto-area psychic named “Psychic Nikki” recently made headlines by saying that she would be interested in taking the ‘Psychic Challenge’ offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).

The JREF offers a $1 million prize to any person who can demonstrate psychic abilities. What is the catch? Well there is none, really.

You just have to demonstrate a statistically significant ability to predict future events (beyond that of chance) in a controlled scientific experiment. The terms of the experiment are agreed upon by both the “psychic” and the JREF and the experiment itself conducted by a third-party.

Easy, right?

Unfortunately, of the hundreds of people who have attempted the test, none have been able to demonstrate that they are, indeed, psychic.

Enter “Psychic Nikki”.

On August 31, 2011, the CBC reported that Psychic Nikki was considering taking the challenge,

“I would say yes, I would take [the] challenge because I have enough faith in my own abilities if I was available,” Toronto-based psychic Nikki told CBC News.

“I am the real thing so I don’t have to worry about this stuff.”

The statement came after a high-profile challenge by James Randi to famous psychics to come and prove their abilities.

Psychic Nikki was quite confident. She has, by her own claim, predicted

the Sept. 11 attacks, the Japan tsunami and the deaths of Michael Jackson, crocodile hunter Steve Irwin and Anna Nicole Smith.

Though despite predicting these events, she did not bother trying to prevent any of them. You can actually check out her Twitter feed to see some of her predictions, which include:

I’m pretty sure people riot/protest in Paris every week…

Been 10 days, nuthin’ yet on that  one…

And my personal favourite,

The predictions are rather vague (excepting the Mona Lisa one), which is odd considering her website states that

She is an audient clairvoyant – the ability to see and hear and come up with specifics.

Psychics use specialized strategies to appear like they are foretelling the future. For example, they will make a large number of vague predictions (called “Shotgunning”), and then claim victory when any individual prediction comes close to the truth. Predicting an earthquake in California at some point will probably end up being true, but it is hardly convincing evidence of psychic ability.

Now, as revealed on the JREF website, Psychic Nikki has started distancing herself from the challenge.

The JREF called Nikki on Sept. 2, requesting an email address to send her information about the Million Dollar Challenge. After CBC News published a followup story on Tuesday, Sept. 6, Nikki returned the JREF’s call, leaving a message in which she promised “I will try to contact you in the next couple of days for sure.” The JREF called her back within an hour, again offering to send information about the Challenge and answer her questions.

A full week after Nikki promised to call the JREF “in the next couple of days,” she still had not responded.

She also commented on the challenge on the Dean Blundell show on September 9th. Most notably she said that

This test is controlled, that’s why I don’t want to take it

Which is basically the point. Once “psychics” find out that the test will be fairly testing their abilities, they either back away or ultimately fail the test. That is bad for business.

This is not at all surprising, but it is a bit refreshing to see it get coverage in big news outlets like the CBC. I expect that attention to this story will slowly dissipate once Psychic Nikki stops talking about it, but the point as been made.

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Ryan

5 Things I’ve Learned From One Year of Blogging

May 30, 2011 3 comments

Happy Anniversary! A Quantum of Knowledge went online one year ago today!

It seems like the older you get, the shorter the years get. Because it certainly doesn’t seem like a year since I started blogging.

But it has been. 312 posts. 63,000 hits. Not to shabby :)

From what I’ve read, the majority of blogs die out in the first few months after creation. So how do you keep it going?

There are a few tidbits I’ve picked up over the past year that have not only kept me blogging, but kept me loving blogging.

1. Write about what YOU find interesting.

Too often I find myself trolling the news trying to find stories that I think others might be interested in. But this inevitably causes problems.

First, if I don’t find the subject interesting, I’m not going to do a good job writing about it.

Second, you never know what people will find interesting. If you try to pick topics based on what you think people will like, you are just playing a guessing game.

Stick with what you know. Because if you write about things you like and you find fascinating, you will write great posts that people will want to read and share with their friends.

2. Post OFTEN!

It doesn’t have to be a long post. If you are busy, treat your blog like a Twitter feed. Or just post a video you thought was funny. Just post SOMETHING!

Regular posts not only keep your readers coming back, but they keep you in the habit. Just like an exercise routine, you need to keep it up regularly in order to make it a habit.

After you keep a regular schedule for a few weeks, it will be a cinch to continue posting all the time!

3. Talk about yourself

Even if you write your blog anonymously, you should still talk about yourself.

What are your personal feelings on an issue? Have you been happy or sad lately? Did you just go on vacation? If so, where to?

In my case, even though I blog about science, I’ve found that some of my most popular posts were actually about me and not science news.

Whether it be where I spent my weekend, or my Top 10 Sci-Fi Movies, people seem to like hearing about my life. And I’m happy to oblige them.

Not only that, but I’ve found that personal anecdotes do wonders when trying to explain a complicated subject. Inserting a funny personal story into a technical post makes it much more readable.

4. Don’t be afraid to take a break now and then

If you haven’t blogged in a while, it can feel like a weight on your shoulders. You start to think,

“I haven’t posted in a while. I really should…but Dancing with the Stars is on…”

And the more days you miss, you more you feel like you should blog. But when you start feeling like you should, you really don’t want to.

So my advice? It’s ok to miss a few days of blogging. It’s even ok to miss a week or two. In fact, you should probably put the blog aside on purpose every now and then so you don’t get burned out!

And if you’ve intentionally taken a break from blogging, you will soon find that you miss it. You will want to blog again.

5. Do it because you love it

“Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”
— Richard P. Feynman

The same goes for blogging. In my case, spreading the word about good science or disparaging pseudoscience may be in the best interest of the public; but that’s not why I do it.

I do it because I love writing. I love writing about other things that I love. Science, video games and other geekery, it’s all good.

And if you enjoy the fact that you are blogging, it will show through in your posts. People will be drawn to come back and keep reading your stuff.

So that’s it. That’s what I’ve learned. I hope you all have enjoyed the blog so far, and I hope you continue to enjoy it!

Just so nobody panics, I’m not REALLY retiring

April 11, 2011 Leave a comment

My last post jokingly suggested that I was considering retiring from blogging, after an xkcd cartoon summed up my feelings on the media’s science reporting.

And even though I have not posted anything in the last few days, I can assure you that I am in no way considering retiring from blogging.

I just like it too much!

But yes, things have been quite busy for me lately. Usually I spend my lunch hour writing a post or two while I catch up on the news. But the past little while I haven’t even checked my Google Reader. I actually have no idea how far behind I am in my reading, because it currently says I have 1000+ items to get through!

See? Told ya...

You would think I could catch up on the news on the weekend, but I generally don’t post much on the weekends. That’s my time to avoid the frustration of psychics and anti-vaxxers making the news. I did that this past weekend by reading a good chunk of “Knife of Dreams“, which is Book 11 of the Wheel of Time series (I almost gave up after Crossroads of Twilight, but luckily reviews of the Brandon Sanderson authored books have indicated that the series will pick up again).

So I will be back in full force soon. I can’t let CBS journalists get away with anti-vax quackery or let psychics pretend that predicting the Vancouver Canucks will win the Stanley Cup is any kind of impressive prediction!

The Beauty of Science

March 25, 2011 1 comment

Scientists don’t like pseudoscience because it diverts attention away from the awesomeness of the natural world. The natural world instills a sense of wonder in scientists because of its diversity and complexity.

Pseudosciences hate real science because it points out the how ridiculous their claims are. But many people are more familiar with pseudoscience (bigfoot, UFOs, psychics etc) and it is these pseudosciences which instill their source of wonder in the world. As a result, many people feel scientists “ruin their fun” or “take the wonder out of everything” when we try to explain why these phenomena really aren’t that incredible.

I believe it was Ned Flanders who once said:

Science is like a blabbermouth who ruins the movie by telling you how it ends. Well, I say there are some things we don’t want to know. Important things.

But in fact the opposite is true. Scientists see the beauty in all things. Whether it be a mathematical proof, a chemistry demonstration, or a physics equation. (I have often hear physicists refer to Maxwell’s Equations as “beautiful”).

Maxwell's Equations. You don't have to know what they mean to know that they look cool!

If you read the xkcd webcomic, you know that I was inspired to write this post because of the comic posted today

So just because scientists spend their day in a lab or in front of a computer screen, this doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate the world around us. We probably appreciate it more than the average person.

It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.  – Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994)

Oprah Guest Chooses Alternative over Traditional Medicine. The Results are Unfortunate.

December 6, 2010 Leave a comment

A few years ago, Oprah had a guest on her show by the name of Kim Tinkham. Ms. Tinkham explained that she had breast cancer, but after reading “The Secret” she decided to forgo conventional treatment and instead pursue “alternative therapies”.

David Gorski has written a post today at Science-Based Medicine about Ms. Tinkham, and the news is quite sad. She pursued a pseudoscientific treatment called “alkalinization” supported by one Robert O. Young, who believes there is “no such thing” as cancer and that this type of illness is caused by “excess acidity” in the body. It goes without saying, but this is totally without scientific merit.

But Ms. Tinkham followed this therapy, and for a few years her health was stable. But unfortunately, she is no longer doing well and is not expected to live through the year.

[Update: I am sad to report that Kim Tinkham passed away on December 7, 2010.]

Why do people seek out these types of therapies? Dr. Gorski explains it quite well:

In fact, Kim Tinkham made it explicit by saying that Young and his wife had told her what causes cancer by saying “there is no such thing as cancer.” Again, remember that Young thinks that cancer is the body’s reaction to cells “poisoned” by too much acid, and he really does say that there is no such thing as cancer. He even goes on and on about how acid being “deposited into the fatty tissues” and thereby causing cancer. From a scientific standpoint, it’s a load of rubbish, pure pseudoscience without any good scientific evidence to back it up. But Young can assert his nonsense about tissue being due to acid “spoiling” tissues with utter sincerity. He looks completely convincing–if you don’t know anything about cancer biology, and most people don’t know much, if anything, about cancer biology. Give him a woman who is afraid, who wants concrete answers, and who has demonstrated that she is fairly clueless about breast cancer, and he can convince her that he has the answer and can cure her. The reason, it appears to me, is that Tinkham (and women like her) just want to believe that someone knows what’s wrong with them and how to fix it. Knowing how to fix it isn’t enough; they want an answer to the question, “Why me?”

Quacks are only too happy to provide that answer.

You can and should read the whole sad story at Science-Based Medicine. People wonder why I get upset about alternative medicines, and this is why. Ms. Tinkham’s cancer was treatable, but has now metastasized into other parts of her body.

It is wholly depressing, because she is a victim. A victim of quacks who prey on the vulnerabilities and wishful thinking of sick people.

I’m ashamed to live on the same planet as those people.

“There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.”

December 2, 2010 2 comments

That’s what was postered on the side of buses in Toronto, Calgary and Montreal last year. And they are planning to do it again.

The Centre for Inquiry (CFI) is launching a campaign which would see similar ads on the sides of buses in Toronto starting in January, pending final approval from the Toronto Transit Commission. This  year’s campaign is “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence”, and compares the belief in God and Allah to the belief in Bigfoot and Tarot reading.

Photo From Centre for Inquiry

The campaign’s website says:

Why is belief in Big Foot dismissed as delusional while belief in Allah and Christ is respected and revered? All of these claims are equally extraordinary and demand critical examination

Assuming they get approval to run the ads in Toronto, the CFI hopes to move the campaign into other major Canadian cities. 

Justin Trottier, national executive director of the Centre for Inquiry said about the campaign
 
I’d love it if everyone saw the ads and know the point of the campaign is to emphasize not the kind of knee-jerk debunking to anything suspicious but that we’re interested in a genuine debate, a conversation about so-called extraordinary claims. We’re not here to mock people who believe in these claims
 
But of course, there is mixed reaction from both the religious and atheist communities. Many religious leaders felt that the ads were designed to ridicule people’s faith. Others felt that their beliefs can stand atop the belief in Bigfoot, so a discussion on the topic would be welcome.
 
Some in the scientific and atheist communities felt that the ads were too confrontational, and that this was not the proper way to elicit a discussion on these topics.
 
My opinion is that extraordinary claims certainly do require extraordinary evidence. Bigfoot, psychics and the like all need proof before we can accept them as facts. But religion is built on faith; the belief without proof. I maintain my right to believe in a God or not, just as the rest of the world should. Challenging those beliefs on a bus is not a proper forum for this discussion.
 
Furthermore, if people want to worship a God I do not believe in, it is not my place to challenge them about it. They have as much right to believe as I have not to believe. However, if religion starts to influence government policy, then it definitely becomes fair game to argue the proper place of religion in politics. Thankfully, this is not as big a problem in Canada as it is in the USA.
 
I’d love to hear what  you guys think about this issue, so please take a second and answer this poll below, or leave a comment.
 

Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer? See What a Real Expert Says

November 24, 2010 6 comments

I’ve written about the issue of cell phones and Wi-Fi and the supposed health risks associated with their use. The resounding scientific evidence shows they are perfectly safe, but the media continues to stoke fear in the public with unbalanced coverage.

When reading a news story about this sort of thing, I always wonder why they don’t ask an actual expert. The answer is that an expert would say how implausible the story is, and that they are silly for reporting it.

That doesn’t sell newspapers.

Instead, they find the one person on the fringe who maintains that there is a magical mechanism by which non-ionizing radiation can harm us. But thankfully, Phil Plait posted on his blog today something I have been looking for a long time.

I’m not a researcher (anymore). I don’t have a Ph.D, so I can tell you what I think, and I can tell you I know what I’m talking about, but I will never have as much credibility as a real university professor in physics or electrical engineering.

Enter this talk by Professor Christopher Davis from the University of Maryland’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. It was given at a National Capitol Area Skeptics meeting, and posted on YouTube. It’s in 5 parts and each part is about 13 minutes long.

It is a fascinating talk and not too technical, so you don’t need a science background to understand the main points. He even touches on backscatter x-ray scanners which have been in the news quite a bit lately. Enjoy!

Pseudoscience for Christmas Anyone?

November 22, 2010 Leave a comment

I don’t fly very much. And when I do, I am usually so engrossed in my headphones that I don’t bother looking at the crap they have for sale in that catalog sitting in the pouch in front of me.

SkyMall apparently does good business selling products to weary travellers. I never really knew what kind of stuff they had in there, until I read this article in the L.A. Times about some of the alt-med nonsense that evidently graces its pages.

The one product that simultaneously had me chuckling and my blood boiling was the Aculife Therapist Deluxe, a do-it-youself acupuncture tool. Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medicine which has become popular in North America because, well…the Chinese must know what they are doing right?

Putting aside the fact that acupuncture has never consistently shown any effect greater than a placebo, let’s look more closely at this product which was developed in Ireland (wait…what?).

Aculife Therapist Deluxe. From SkyMall Website

Aculife claims to work by using magnetic pulses instead of needles to stimulate acupuncture points in the hand. Even though traditional acupuncture uses points all over the body, this product claims to do the same thing, but using only your hand. Their evidence?

Otzi, a 5,000 year old mummy found in the Alps during 1991, has spurred a whole new vigor into modern research of the Ancient Chinese medical practice of acupuncture. Recent examinations of the mummy found that Otzi has a number of tattoos that coincide with acupuncture points that would be used to treat various ailments from which he was suffering.

While it is true that Otzi had some tattoos which show some similarity to acupuncture points, it could just be a coincidence as there are a large number of acupuncture points. Also, Otzi had no tattoos on his hand, but Aculife makes no mention of that.

Map of relevant points in the hand, according to Aculife.

Combining magnets with acupuncture is like mating Bigfoot with the Loch Ness Monster. Two pseudosciences for the price of one. But by using the “latest ancient technology” (wait… what?) Aculife claims to be able to treat (from their ad on Amazon):

hypertension, insomnia, fatigue, asthma, ulcers, hemorrhoids, high-blood pressure, rheumatism and muscle pain. You can even have a simple ailments treated like stiff backs, muscles and neck from constant travel or strenuous workouts.

One of the keys to having a product sell well is to have a large demographic to sell to. And you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t suffer from at least one of the aforementioned ailments.

So does it work? One of the customer reviews on the SkyMall website claims that he used the product for a toothache. The results?

the pain was still there but more bearable.

My favourite review came from Robert Strohmeyer of PCWorld:

I did spend a little more than an hour zapping myself while following the dubious included “Acupoints” chart. The result? It’s probably not as uncomfortable as a dog-training collar, but likely just as effective for most maladies.

Basically this is yet another alt-med product using pseudoscience, anecdotal evidence and the placebo effect to make a profit. And at a $200 price tag ($250 at Amazon!) it is making quite a profit indeed.

On a related note, likeminded folks at Skeptic North are planning a field trip to the Whole Life Expo next Sunday in Toronto, “Canada’s largest showcase of natural health and green living”. It is usually a great place to find all kinds of wacky “health” products, so if you are in the area you should check it out.

Ontario Says “No” to Cell Phone Warning Labels

November 5, 2010 1 comment

And it’s the right call. For two reasons:

  1. There is no conclusive scientific data to support any adverse health risks associated with short, moderate, or long-term cell phone use.
  2. A warning label would serve no purpose, other than to instill fear into the users.

The bill proposed to put a sticker on all cell phones indicating that there could be an increased risk of cancer from using a cell phone. Not only is this unnecessary, but it’s also wrong.

The scientific data overwhelmingly shows that there is no increased risk of cancer associated with cell phone use.

And what purpose would a warning sticker on a cell phone serve anyway? Would any of us stop using our cell phones? Would we hold it further from our head while we talk on it?

Of course not. Eventually we would get over our initial shock and fear of the warning sticker, read all the buzz-word containing media-frenzy stories about the evils of technology, and then settle back into our normal routine. All in all, this was a bad idea to begin with.

But my oh my, look who turned up to give her opinion on this issue. Our old friend Prof. Magda Havas from Trent University. She turns up in just about every story that involves cell phones, wireless internet, power lines, dirty electricity, and many other stories trying to convince us that technology is bad.

So I want to get something straight about why she keeps showing up. Is it because she is an expert? I would argue not. Her Ph.D. is in botany (the study of plants) so I don’t see how this qualifies her to study electromagnetic fields and their interaction with the human body. The list of publications on her website has very few peer-reviewed articles. Instead, it’s littered with “Letters to the Editor” and other opinion based writing. Not a lot of scientific credibility there.

No, she shows up because media outlets try to get both “sides” of the story, even if one side is way off base. Enter Magda Havas, who is one of very few people in the world who believes in electrosensitivity and kids getting sick from wireless internet. There are so few people who think this way, that they keep going to one person on the fringe to get her opinion. It is sloppy reporting, and not indicative of the evidence.

On CSI, Grissom (who was the best character but left, and now I am sad) always tells us to “follow the evidence” because the evidence will lead us to the truth. If we follow the evidence about cell phones, we see overwhelming evidence that cell phones are safe. Why then, do we continue to read about how evil they are?

William Peterson as Gil Grissom. From Wikipedia

Pseudoscience On ‘How I Met Your Mother’? Noooo!

November 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Do you watch How I Met Your Mother? You should. Why? Just friggin’ do it.

It’s one of my favourite shows, and alas, it was invaded with pseudoscience in last week’s episode, ‘Baby Talk’. (Yes, I know I’m a week behind. Don’t worry, I have a DVR).

Anyway, Marshall (my favourite character) is trying to get his wife, Lily, pregnant. Not only that, but he feels the need to conceive a boy because he has no idea how to raise a girl.

Lily Aldrin and Marshall Eriksen (Played by Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel)

So, his helpful father gives him a few tricks of the trade. The conversation went like this:

Dad: Since the Viking age, the Eriksen men have passed down ancient secrets for conceiving boys. Number one, avoid lemons; they’re baby girl fertilizer.

Marshall: No offense dad, but I doubt there’s any scientific data to support…

Dad: (in mocking, nerdy voice) I doubt there’s any scientific data to support

I had all sons, your grandfather had all sons, your great-grandfather had ALL SONS! SCOREBOARD! So who are you going to listen to: me, or (*mocking tone*) scientific data?

We now know enough about reproduction to know thats its the male sperm that determines the sex of the baby. So Marshall’s family having all boys is not unheard of. King Henry VIII had a similar problem when he could only have girls, unable to sire a male heir. They didn’t know back then what we know now (unfortunately for King Henry’s wives).

Well poor Marshall, desperate to conceive a son, ignores common sense and nerdy scientific data and tries some of his Dad’s tips (with hilarious results).

They include eating pickled herring, pointing Lily north whilst making love, and yes he even dunked his junk in ice water prior to mating!

This is supposed to be funny (and it is), but in reality it has been shown that people are more likely to listen to a friend or family member than (nerdy voice) scientific data. Which is unfortunate, but there is a reason why.

We’ve all heard the old wives’ tales regarding pregnancy myths. They get passed down from generation to generation largely due to confirmation bias.

Example: I’ve heard people say that if you’re ‘carrying low’ it is indicative that the baby will be a boy. If you predict the baby will be a boy, and its a boy, your theory that she was ‘carrying low’ (I’m not even sure what that means) is confirmed in your mind. So you tell the next woman you see that she’s carrying low, so it will be a boy. In your mind, it’s a proven fact.

And people remember if you are right, and forget if you are wrong. It’s the same principle that so many psychics rely on to make themselves seem credible.

So sorry Marshall, it really is just luck of the draw. All the pickled herring in the world won’t guarantee which of your swimmers makes it to the finish line.