Category: skeptic

ask the universe

The universe – an incomprehensibly large expanse strewn with billions of galaxies, each full of billions of stars. And it’s expanding. Then toss in dark energy and dark matter, even though no one currently knows what that means. Add gravity and stir. 

Maybe, like me, you have heard someone ask the universe for help. They’ll say something like, “I want to live in a tropical paradise, so I’ll put the intention out there and see if the universe supports me.” However, I’m pretty sure that the actual universe doesn’t care if you live or die, let alone where you live. Go ahead, just ask it if it cares. 

Yet some people believe that an invisible force underlying all reality will “support” them if their wish is in cosmic alignment with … universe energy! Or something vague like that. Years ago, I held a similar belief – everything is made of consciousness, so you can do anything. It’s kind of like “the secret,” which says that if you really want something you’ll get it. After all, you create reality, so the world will rearrange itself according to your desires. 

In other words, it’s magic. Some people will make ridiculous claims that quantum physics somehow supports this belief in magic. It doesn’t. Go ahead, ask a quantum physicist at the nearest university physics department. I’ll wait. 

These beliefs are not different than the old “praying for what you want” gambit. If your prayer (intention) comes true, the lord (universe) has granted your desire, and if it doesn’t come true, it wasn’t just part of the deity’s plan (energies not in alignment). 

Ask the universe to send you a bag of dog chow. Tell the universe you want to meet the love of your life. Ask it to resurrect a dead tulip. Best of all, ask it for something really vague, such as to make everything work out according a plan you can’t know about. That’s the universe’s specialty.

And if the actions of the universe are indistinguishable from random chance, well, maybe that’s how it prefers to operate.


… and let the flying spaghetti monster sort ’em out

In my own corner of the Internet, where skeptics hang out, I’ve been watching sometimes crazed arguments between so-called “social justice warriors” and those opposed to overdone “political correctness.” This little war has played out for a few years now.

For me, awareness of this business started an eternity ago in Internet time, way back with Rebecca Watson’s “elevatorgate.” Yes, I hate that “gate” naming habit, but we’re stuck with it. (We could call the whole trend “gategate,” couldn’t we?). Watson made a moderate, and to my mind reasonable, aside part way through a video. She pointed out something that a man did that made her uncomfortable and said, “Don’t do that guys,” then returned to her topic.

Amazingly, many people responded to that one short bit in a crazed, hyperbolic fashion, with death threats and repellent misogyny at the extreme end. It was like some hillbillies yelling, “We don’t want no advice from no dang woo-man.” Not what I expected from the skeptic crowd, though a hopefully small percent of them.

There have been various wars and “gates” after that, involving different personalities in skeptic as well as atheist social media. Many are about feminism, some are about the limits of free speech or just what is acceptable in public forums. Absurd extremes abound on both sides.

On some sites where skeptics and atheists congregate, there was a ridiculous self-purging of almost all speech that might be construed as offensive. People were booted off sites left and right for the temerity of having a different opinion on one issue or another. For these sites, it seemed like every week another “big name” in the skeptic world was found to have failed a behavior or opinion test and was summarily denounced and shunned.

I found myself ping-ponging between these sides, repelled by the trollish threateners and creeps on one extreme and disgusted by the self-righteous smugness on the other. Sometimes I’d get to the point of thinking, “The hell with all of ’em, and let the Flying Spaghetti Monster sort ’em out.”

Now for a brief detour. Per Wikipedia, the phrase, “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” originated in a Christian crusade in Southern France. An abbot named Arnaud Almaric was said to be speaking to a soldier who was worried about killing true Catholics in the course of the war. Almaric allegedly said, “Kill them. For the Lord knows those that are His own.” Neat way to absolve yourself of blame.

Needless to say, I don’t want anyone to die, but I’m tired of the back and forth and divisions this has created. The best treatment of the issue I’ve heard is Steven Novella’s discussion with Julia Galef on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, episode #555. It helped illuminate why I’ve felt sympathy for both sides of the issue. When each side cogently and without bombast provides its best argument, there are reasonable points to be found.

More importantly, as Novella points out, there ought to be a middle ground that doesn’t squash free speech excessively, or allow excessively offensive behavior. Defining that “excessively” is a huge sticking point, of course, and complicated by trolls who only want to incite and inflame.

Don’t know if we’ll ever get there, but working toward a middle ground is worthwhile. Imagine having to grow up and communicate like rational semi-adults. Until then, I ask you to remember who boiled for your sins, and who ought to whack the most antagonistic arguers with a heavy meatball.



mutated and organic

Just when you thought it was safe to eat all-natural, organic, everything-free food … when you thought it was okay to buy crops grown in sunny fields and harvested by laughing, healthy family farmers wearing all-cotton overalls … this terrible knowledge is revealed:

Thousands of foods we all eat today were bred from crop varieties that were produced using atomic radiation. Both radiation and toxic chemicals are and have been used to mutate plants in order to create new varieties. It’s been going on since the 1940s. Your favorite organic food may come from a variety produced this way.

Needless to say, the gamma rays used to produce an ancestor of the Ruby Red grapefruit have absolutely no effect on you, the eater. It would be crazy to think otherwise. You are simply eating a variety of produce that was generated that way.

But logic doesn’t enter into this. The same people who think that GMO food is going to hurt them might be terrified. (Never mind that GMOs are rigorously tested, highly regulated, and arguably safer than cross-bred plants.) People may soon demand labeling of all food that comes from a variety generated by toxic chemicals or radiation. They may only buy vegetables developed by cross-breeding or selective breeding and nothing more modern than that.

What the heck, let’s go back to the days before our fruits and vegetables were modified by breeding. They probably looked like this. Or better yet, let’s only eat items that have fallen off a tree or a bush in a forest. Or maybe things that have naturally washed ashore on a beach, like an old jellyfish, warmed by the sun. Delectable! Aged jellyfish just melt in your mouth.

Useful Mutants
Crop Seed Mutation Breeding Increasing
Delicious Mutant Foods

aspartame – chemical from the fiery depths of hell?

Today I bought some cough drops that contain aspartame. Because I had a vague recollection of some controversy surrounding the safety of aspartame, I decided to look up some details to see if it was really Satan’s own sweetener. Here’s some of what I learned:

When eaten, aspartame breaks down into phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol.

Phenylalanine – This an essential amino acid that you can buy in pill form at health food stores. It’s found in soybeans, cheese, nuts, and meats. It should be avoided by people with a genetic disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU).  

Aspartic acid – Another amino acid; also available as a supplement in health food stores. It’s found in soy, fish, lentils, peanuts, meat, and eggs.

Methanol – This is a wood alcohol. It’s naturally produced in the human body during metabolism. It’s toxic in large enough doses. Fortunately, the amount generated by aspartame is tiny — there is much more methanol in a liter of 100% fruit juice or tomato juice than in a liter of aspartame-sweetened soda pop. Your fear of aspartame should be considerably less than your fear of fruit and tomato juice.

In other words, if you don’t want these three substances in your body, for god’s sake, stop eating nuts and drinking fruit juice! You would have to drink somewhere between 16 and 19 cans of aspartame-sweetened soda in a day to reach the daily limit set by the FDA. Tomato juice is more potent, however, so keep that in mind when you’re guzzling V-8.

The Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority have approved aspartame as safe, and the American Cancer Society agrees. By the way, there have been hundreds of studies, so the safety is pretty solidly backed up. And, since there have been hundreds of studies, it would be very suspicious if you didn’t have a few that suggest that it might be unsafe. So if you delve into the research, be smart – look at the whole picture, the cumulative evidence, and look at exactly what the study says and how rigorous it is. 

Yet there are scare websites that talk about “aspartame poisoning,” shocking stories about aspartame damage, “aspartame detoxification” programs, and more. But when it comes to down to actual hard evidence that it causes harm, it’s pretty thin. What the heck is wrong with people and their crazy scary stories, anyway?

If a chemical name makes you scared, go ahead and use stevia, even though it’s not as well studied as aspartame. It’s also considered safe if you don’t eat tons of it. But beware, the active ingredients of stevia are chemical compounds, stevioside and rebaudioside. Everything you put in your mouth is a chemical. Your spit is made of chemicals.

A day is coming when we won’t have to eat or breath chemicals, and that is the day after we die.

(Our friends at Snopes debunk the deadly aspartame myth, and their argument is based on the science.)


carbon dioxide – is it all hot air?

More commentary from my favorite climate contrarian! I’ll put
Schn00dles’ remarks in italics and my comments following. He’s referring to this post.

Hi Dan. Let me say before starting, that being a contrarian (or a brake) is not as fun as it might be supposed. The information and the graphs are all made available in handy publicity forms for the people who sign on to the current public band wagon. Disagreeing responsibly takes some diligence. Thank goodness this discussion is taking place in internet times. Otherwise, building a rebuttal of current hysteria would be a real tough task. So, to begin.
Surely CO2 can serve to trap heat in the atmosphere, but as Dan’s study shows, so do many other molecules and particles. And surely the sun is the biggest provider of heat. One study does not the earth shake. And I doubt if you had the climate science to disprove this study, you would win a Nobel. Generally, negative studies are not selected for publication, or grants. Moreover, few scientists want to dedicate their lives following around other scientists in order to disprove their findings. Plus, billions of dollars have been spent to find a positive relationship between C02 levels and global warming. With several billion dollars in research grants I could probably find the bones of Adam and Eve.

In other words, you’ve got nothing to contradict the research finding that CO2 is the main driver generating global warming. If you think the entire world’s climate science community was unable or unwilling to fairly examine the CO2 evidence in peer review and study replication, and that they’ve been unwilling to do so for decades, and they’ve managed to hide that fact even though it’s all published in plain sight, then you truly fit the quote about conspiracy theorists. By the way, there is much more than one study on CO2. If you want more references, there are plenty here on the IPCC pages.

As for the second point, I believe Dan is cleaning up the historical record in hindsight. Check out this fun snippet from 1972:

This supports exactly what I said: there were reports in the popular press but little in science press and journals. To refute what I said, you need to show that a significant fraction of the climate science community was predicting global cooling. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.)

For the third point, you have to ask, “Gee, why does it stop at 650,000 years ago?” Well, the final graph is quite instructive. If you look at C02 levels, proceeding back in time, they began to rise enormously about a million years ago – all accomplished without the benefit of modern industrial techniques.

That’s right. No one is claiming that the only possible source of CO2 in the entire history of the world is modern industry.

Now look at what the climate was like during these periods.
(My graphs aren’t showing. But what it indicates is that we have been in an ice age for the past 3 million years approximately.)

Shocking but true. High CO2 and ice coexisted in the deep past. How could this happen? One example: if volcanic activity clouded the entire atmosphere of the planet, you could get high levels of CO2 along with high albedo — increased reflection of sunlight from the earth — and that lack of sun causes cold. (One of the wilder plans to stop warming is to pump tons of reflective material high into the atmosphere.) But the situation today is different than three million years ago. Today the preponderance of evidence shows increasing COto be the major driver of warming.

Finally, I’m very glad that Dan brought up the current legislation surrounding second hand smoke. The science of second hand smoke hazard has been very well debunked:
But still we are stuck with the hysterical legislation which ensued.
Well, not many people like to breath second hand smoke anyway.

Really? A 1998 editorial by the Cato Institute? Well that sure trumps the current findings of the World Health Organization, the National Institute of Health, the CDC, the U.S. Surgeon General, the National Cancer Institute, the EPA, the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, America Medical Association, etc. etc. etc.

But when you make C02 a “pollutant” as defined by a federal agency… how would you feel about not being allowed to breath unless 50 feet from the entrance of any public building? Or, more realistically, about some bureaucrat determining your level of energy usage – entirely on the basis of their bureaucratic whim? E.g. No outdoor bbq? Drive less than 10 miles per day? Closure of important industries, and on and on…?
Global warming cynics are not your enemy here, friends.

I’m not going to argue policy with you. I might agree with you on some of that stuff. My only points here are that global warming is happening and that COis the major driver. If you deny these things because of policy concerns, it’s a kind of “tail wagging the dog” scenario.

carbon dioxide – the exhaled gas for discriminating breathers

This is a special post for my favorite climate contrarian, Sch00dles, a great guy, good writer and director, and extremely tall human. He raised some objections to the prior post and I have responses.

Hello again. Whereas, the climate worldwide may be getting warmer, it is not evident that this is due to CO2.

It’s pretty evident. Scientists have actually observed CO2 trapping heat in the atmosphere. But more importantly, at no point did scientists just assume that’s what was causing it. They spent decades doing painstaking research, which is available in the IPCC reports and elsewhere. But if you have the climate science evidence to overturn them by all means present it. You may be in line for a Nobel.

There are many inconsistencies in the facts which contradict this theory. Here are several. From the 1970s to the 1990s C02 production was at record highs, while scientists still worried about global cooling.

Wrong. There were some concerns about cooling in the popular press, and among a few scientists, but not in the science press and science research. Most climate scientists were not concerned about cooling and in fact some of the foundational research on warming began in the 70s.

Far greater levels of C02 have been present throughout the world’s history without apocalypse. After all, here we are.

Yes, you can find greater levels if you go back more than 650,000 years! That was before Homo sapiens. And it was probably quite a bit farther back before levels were higher than today. Check out this graph.

Historical records also show that CO2 levels follow rising temperatures rather than precede them.

Not too surprising to find examples of that in earth’s history since things other than CO2 can cause warming. And whenever it gets warmer, more CO2 is released. You get warming, then CO2, then more warming. Good explanation here. More to the point is, as noted above, there is very strong evidence that today’s warming is mostly caused by CO2. 

Singling out CO2 to label as a pollutant in not justified by research. Here’s more:

I might agree with you that COshouldn’t be labeled as a pollutant. It’s a semantic thing – how do you define “pollutant”? Maybe not like this.

As for that article — so a libertarian lawyer with the Heartland Institute denies the scientific consensus? He brings up specious, long debunked arguments and cites the Heartland Institute’s “Climate Change Reconsidered” publication for support. Heartland is the same group that fought against secondhand smoke legislation due to free market ideology rather than science.

This all comes down to my final point. The problem with the claim that CO2 is not the cause of global warming is that you have to search long and hard to find even a handful of actual experts in the subject who will provide any support for this. You can find some, just like you can find a few evolution deniers and anti-vaccinationists, but they are tiny minority.

Evidence behind CObeing the warming driver mounts and mounts. Most climate scientists across the globe agree. What would it take to convince you personally of this evidence?

birds of a cranky feather

Creationists, global warming denialists, anti-vaccine proponents – what do they have in common? They all think scientific consensus is either outright wrong or just an opinion put forth for some political or monetary reason. All three groups are motivated by ideology.

How do we know they’re motivated by ideology? Because they completely ignore equally solid scientific confirmation in areas that don’t push their buttons. You rarely hear a creationist complain about Newton’s laws of motion and want to ban teaching them in school. Not many climate change deniers write editorials trying to tear down the theory behind how bumblebees fly.

Only when a pet belief is threatened do people suddenly become experts or at least doubters regarding a field they know little about.

I’m not saying I’m immune from this sort of thing. In fact, if I was told that chocolate is really bad for me — a slow-acting poison — I would have a difficult time with it, even if the majority of biologists, nutritionists, pathologists, and so on, all converged on the same truth and published it in top peer-reviewed journals.

“You can have my choco when you pry my cold, dead fingers from the wrapper!”

“It’s a conspiracy by Big Flavor – the vanilla and strawberry marketers.”

May we all finally come around when the evidence is in our faces and not be grumpy birds.