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A Woo Fighter Swan Song

First, the swan song: three undergraduate students are on their way to The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 this year, but they need your help. They have raised about half of the amount they need to cover registration and travel expenses, but they still have nearly $1,000 to raise. Please consider purchasing a WooDoo Doll – a fun outlet for your frustrations, loosely based on the voodoo doll – or making a direct donation. Every little bit helps.

To skip the news, scroll down for more information about these students, the adorable WooDoo Dolls, and for a link to donate.

Yes, I said “swan song”.

As some readers may know, I will not be returning to teach at CSU, Northridge in the fall. I resigned from my position for several reasons, most of which I hope will become clear in the coming weeks and months as I write more about my experiences of the last decade. If you are interested, bookmark my personal blog ICBS Everywhere, which will soon be a ‘real blog’ again as I will have much more time to write.

In the meantime, there are many questions to answer about what I will do now and where this leaves the organization(s) I have started. Woo Fighters will continue in some form, but not as it is today. The mission of the organization was to motivate students to become activists for science and scientific/skeptical thinking. Since I will no longer have students – at least in the traditional sense, the focus must change.

In addition, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the name of the organization. I like it. I like the term “woo” to describe pseudoscience and I find “Woo Fighters” catching and fun. However, many whom I respect find the term bordering on offensive. Although I often make fun of what I deem to be some of the sillier beliefs, I have always spoken out against the ridicule of believers. That distinction is lost on some.

The final ‘nail on the coffin’ for the name comes from my son, who started the first “Junior Woo Fighters” club at his middle school. The club was very successful and I hope that he continues it next year, however, they quickly settled into calling the group a “Skeptics Club” and that is the name that stuck. So, “Woo Fighters” wasn’t such a great name after all.

I will keep the site up for now, but will eventually archive the entries somewhere accessible to all. As for the organization, I need to spend more time thinking about my personal goals before I make any decisions about rolling it into another organization, but Woo Fighters will ‘die’, at least in name and at CSUN, at the end of this summer.

I feel somewhat sad at its passing, especially before it had the opportunity to gain a great deal of momentum. That said, there are several reasons to call it a success. Not only did several students discover that they are excellent writers and critical thinkers, some discovered a community of people who think like they do. At least a few will become activists or educators focused on changing the world one thinker at a time.

I am especially proud to announce that Dylan Keenberg, who attended his first TAM last year with your help, fulfilled his promise to submit a proposal for a Sunday talk this year and has earned a spot at the podium!

Among the new TAM-goers this year are three of my most capable and promising undergraduate students.

Kameron Nason (Kami) and Heather Rees served as teaching assistants for research methods courses during my last semester. Kami has her sights on a career as a therapist. She has been drawn to skepticism in the past year as she has learned more about science and has become more comfortable with uncertainty.

Heather is a self-described “scifi geek” whose plans include research in social and cognitive psychology and university teaching. She is deeply concerned with gender issues and thinks that encouraging critical thinking will reduce social inequalities.

Loretta Aguilar learned about skepticism in my applied cognition course last fall, but like most skeptics, she was once very interested in psychic phenomena and astrology. She hopes to learn more about the promotion and teaching of critical thinking and skepticism so that she can help family and friends make better choices. Loretta is currently planning a career in clinical psychology.

These three are among the brightest and most motivated students I have had the privilege to teach. They are all looking forward to meeting more like-minded people and learning more.

How you can help

To raise the money needed for registration and travel expenses, we have been very busy making WooDoo Dolls – a fun outlet for your frustrations, loosely based on the voodoo doll. The online prices include shipping, but if you are planning to attend TAM9, you may be able to pick up one directly from the students for only $5. These dolls are handmade and rough-looking, but sturdy. Choose from 5 options for hair color to personalize your doll.

If you are not interested in a doll, but would still like to help, please consider making a direct donation of any amount. Every little bit helps!

Thank you for your support and readership over the last two years! Look for me at the TAM9 workshop “Skepticism in the Classroom”. I will be making suggestions and providing resources for critical thinking education at various ages. I will also be presenting at Dragon*Con again this year in September.

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WooDoo Dolls are Here!

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Professional Standards Among Psychics

CA PsychicsLast night, as I was falling asleep, I heard on the radio an ad I had never heard before: Click here for a link to the ad audio

It was for California Psychics, apparently a huge organization that has its hands in everything ‘psychic’. I did a little Google search and found that they’ve been around for a while, and they’ve been discussed recently, such as on the JREF forums.

The part that I find extremely fascinating from the radio spot is this line: “At California Psychics, we thoroughly test our psychics to make sure they’re professional, have real gifts and communicate clearly.” I’m not sure whether to laugh or turn my head to the side and grunt, much like a dog does when it can’t figure out what the hell is going on. Ok, I understand the professional part; you don’t want some crazy person running their mouth off to a customer like they’re in a liquor store–that drives the customer to hang up the precious pay-by-minute phone call. This goes for communicating clearly too. Nothing weird about that. Gibberish doesn’t make the money either.

But “have real gifts”? How do they even do this? How is this even verified. Some sort of committee? Do they combine their powers, ask Captain Planet if the applicant is legit, and then have a psychic party? I like how the gifts part is shoved in between two normal and regular job applicant qualities. Perhaps they were thinking, “if we throw it in the middle, people won’t hear us talking crazy on the radio”. Let’s be honest, if someone had “real gifts” don’t you think they’d be cashing in on James Randi’s generous donation to their personal psychic fund? In the ad, the woman speaking describes the process, but it is very vague and non-committal. Also, it could be an actor/fictional person. Either way, I see no real gifts.

Furthermore, at the end of the ad is an invitation for a free reading. If the reading isn’t the best I’ve ever had, it’s apparently free. Speaking for myself, that would be the case every time.

So next time you here this radio ad, remember that it is the duped paying the advertising fees.

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New 13th Sign of the Zodiac!

Apparently there’s a new zodiac sign. They added “Ophiuchus” in last month of the year. So if you loved your old one, you might not have it anymore. Personally, I was right on the cusp of Taurus and Gemini. Some horror-scopes had me as setting Taurus and others had me as a rising Gemini. Well, all that doesn’t matter now, because I’m firmly a Taurus now, according to the new breakdown.

The real tragedy? I can’t act all Gemini-y anymore. I’m gonna have to change my entire behavior because of this new shift. Behavior fit for a Taurus! Although astrologists claim it shouldn’t affect our horror-scopes, which basically means it is a bunch of malarky anyway.

Tell me, did yours shift?

On a side note: This means all zodiac is unlucky now. Sorry horror-scope readers.

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Vaccines and Autism: Faked

Sorry about the breaks between postings here on Woo Fighters. I will try to increase my postings as I come across interesting things on the internet.

This story came out a few days ago: Medical journal: Study linking autism, vaccines is ‘elaborate fraud’

This the type of thing we here at Woo Fighters love to see. It is truly important scientific findings are accurate and real. Fraudulent data only hurts the scientific community, and as a scientist, I hate to see that this doctor meant to use his fake data for profit. Unfortunately for him, knowledge is, by and large, free. Of course this man denies any wrongdoing or fraud. Perhaps one day he will relent.

The story can also be found here: British Doctor Faked Data Linking Vaccines to Autism, and Aimed to Profit From It

Anderson Cooper: Autism & Vaccines

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Silly News Magazines: Confusing Correlation with Causation

I was perusing a website today and I stumbled across a headline that bothered me:

Does Being Left-Handed Make You Angry?

In this Time Magazine blog on health-related news, the author discusses findings from a correlational study of tympanic membrane temperature and dominant handedness.

Without going into the integrity of study, my main beef is the way the title is presented by Time and the aggregating website. It implies a general causation between being left-handed and more prone to anger. The word “make” is the hook. I strongly doubt the researchers used the words the blog post did.

I suggest a better title: Does being Left-Handed Relate to Issues with Anger? Of course, I’m no journalist, and that title may not grab readers.

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TAM 8 Summary – Sunday (Part 1)

Paper presentations make up the majority of Sunday, with a handful of workshops taking place in the afternoon. Checking out of the hotel and preparing for the trip home required us to miss a few talks, but those that I did see were very interesting.

Brian Hart started off, discussing actions taken by the Independent Investigations Group to combat licensure of alternative medicine-related continuing education units (CEUs) for registered nurses by the California Board of Registered Nurses (CBRN). Stemming from CBRN’s licensing of CEU provider Clearsight – which offered courses in “energetic medicine” and “seeing energy”, among others – the Independent Investigations Group set out to test the licensing methods of the CBRN by creating their own CEU provider. They formed the California Foundation for Institutional Care (CFI Care) and offered courses in apophenia (pareidolia), möbel kinesiology (furniture moving), Chinese sheyou (Chinese snake oil), and other dubious healing techniques. Startlingly, CFI Care received CBRN certification, which was only revoked when the Independent Investigations Group actually provided instruction to a handful of confused nurses. Hart’s anecdotal talk struck a balance of hilarity and horror that was simultaneously entertaining and unnerving – I thoroughly enjoyed it. You can read more about this investigation and results here.

William M. London next presented on Fallacies and Falsehoods at the 2009 Cancer Control Society Convention. Present at the convention were a variety of alternative medicine supporters, which is troubling since there is little to no evidence that their techniques work. Much of the alternative medicine techniques were classified under “integrated medicine”, which often oversimplifies and distorts cancer as a single, general illness that must be cured holistically. In reality, there are many different forms of cancer that must be individually researched and treated. London posited that alt-med saturation in cancer care results in three types of harm: indirect harm of people being diverted away from beneficial scientifically-based treatments, direct harm of poisoning and illness from treatments such as coffee enemas and enzyme treatments, and psychological harm of patient stress from having to choose among vast numbers of treatment approaches. I found this talk to be informative and the reality that these ineffective treatments are chosen by those in dire need to be tragic. Such a predicament where lives hang in the balance really brings the importance of scientific advocacy to the foreground.

The stage next filled with a panel focusing on Global Climate Change and the Responsibility of the Skeptic Movement, consisting of moderator Massimo Pigliucci, Daniel Loxton, James McGaha, Michael Shermer, and Donald Prothero. The heated discussion began with the panel’s takes on the attitudes that should be taken when scientific topics raises public interest. Shermer voiced that Skeptic Magazine covers both sides of the climate change debate while emphasizing the science therein, Prothero echoed the thesis of Pigliucci’s earlier talk by arguing that there are very few climate change experts and the skeptic community has no grounding to critique them. Loxton answered that there are two perspectives in the skeptic community: those that want to debate about which side is correct, and those (like himself) who focus on educating the public about controversies so they can make their own informed decisions. McGaha interjected that skeptics put too much support into science as always correct, to which Prothero passionately replied that minimizing the findings and progress of science because of past mistakes is a fallacy.

Pigliucci next asked how skeptics can know if climate change is a scientific controversy or just a media controversy. Shermer argued that political and religious aspects do affect the scientific discussion and that skeptics should stay out of public policy and politics. Prothero added that if you want to see scientific biasing you just have to follow the money, much of which comes from oil companies, tobacco companies, and right-wing organizations that have “beat the bush hard enough” to find climate change denying scientists. After brief discussions of the skepticism movement and resources for skeptics, each panelist gave concluding remarks. Prothero emphasized that with climate change being so complex, we as laypersons should not let biases (such as religious and political perspectives) get in the way of scientific truth. Agreeing that science is a revisionary field, Loxton rallied for anyone who thinks they can bring down a foundation of science to submit a paper for peer review and to do so. McGaha reiterated that scientists are always trying to come up with new ideas and failing and warned that we have to be careful about worshiping science as a religion, concluding that science is flawed but it does work in the long run. Finally, Shermer agreed with Loxton’s remarks with the caveat that skeptics should always check the sources of whatever they are researching.

Up next was Barbara Drescher, who discussed Skepticism as a Gateway to Scientific Literacy. Drescher proposed that skeptical inquiry leads new researchers – be they in college, high school, or even middle school – to a better understanding of scientific methodology than scientific demonstrations. She argued that because science fair topics usually revolve around questions that have already been answered, students mostly memorize procedure and learn little about the scientific method. In lab studies, undergraduates tend to focus on method and this approach is riddled with biased reasoning that fails to make inferences. If instructors were to reduce research options to types of scientific inquiry, it would facilitate understanding of the scientific method more effectively and result in new contributions to the science field, instead of simply demonstrating aspects of a preexisting theory.

The Virgin of Guadalupe was the focus of the next talk, given by Brian Dunning. Stating that the supposedly-miraculous phenomena has already been debunked, Dunning instead spoke about the positive aspects of the religious figure in Mexican history and culture. In Through the process of syncretism, Archbishop of Mexico Alonzo de Montúfar utilized a portrait (by Marcos Cipac de Aquino) of the Virgin Mary as a name and face for the Aztec goddess, Tonantzin, which resulted in the baptizing of around eight million Aztecs. From this point onward, Marcos’ portrait of Mary permeated deeply into Mexican culture, not only as a miraculously divined icon but as one of the most popular and influential art pieces of all time. Dunning concluded that these historical and cultural implications are important for skeptics to understand above and beyond debunking the religious claims that circle the work.

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TAM 8 Summary – Saturday (Part 2)

Bringing the first batch of Saturday’s humor (besides MC Hal Bidlack of course!), David Javerbaum held a Q&A session about being executive producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In response to accusations that The Daily Show is sexist, Javerbaum replied that the letter was the kind of reporting that the show debunked hundreds of times when it was used in Iraq War journalism and that “the thesis was there before the claim”. He stated that The Daily Show doesn’t feel they have a responsibility to do journalism before comedy. In closing, Javerbaum was asked about if any guests ever did an appearance without knowing what they were in for, to which he replied that people love to be on television, even at the expense of their shame, intelligence, and image. Javerbaum was very entertaining and as an avid Jon Stewart fan I loved hearing his “man behind the curtain” takes on various topics.

Aliens Among Us: Are They Already Here? was the title of the next talk, given by James McGaha. Focusing on technological and intelligent life, McGaha explained that believers in extraterrestrials assume that there “must” be many aliens and that they are most likely hostile. McGaha argued that postmodernism plays a large role in believing, since the stance that nothing is certain means any evidence isn’t really proof enough to stop believing. Citing a number of equations used in estimating the amount of complex life in the universe that could travel to Earth, McGaha concluded that it is highly unlikely and nearly impossible that extraterrestrials would ever make physical contact. McGaha’s presentation was very dense and many of the equations and theories went over my head, but I did enjoy his discussion about believers.

The Paranormal Investigations panel was next on the schedule and it featured moderator Juila Galef, Ben Radford, Karen Stollznow, Joe Nickell, and James Randi. Regarding the JREF Million Dollar Challenge, Randi explained that those that do take up the challenge honestly don’t know that they will fail and that while every participant is asked to perform a double-blind study, no one ever does. At the same time, however, Radford, Nickell, and Randi all emphasized that these people are just confused and should be treated with respect, not contempt. When asked how modern technology has altered the paranormal investigation field, Nickell explained that the body of work done is very helpful and was unavailable decades ago, while Randi explained that there are more tools for investigators, such as the transmitter he used in debunking Peter Popoff. Finally, Galef asked what are some hallmarks of bad investigation, to which Radford replied “looking for ghosts with the lights off” and Stollznow answered that using irrelevant equipment is always a giveaway. This panel was another enjoyable one, as it was great to hear Randi talk about the Million Dollar Challenge and Ben Radford’s contributions were highly entertaining.

Jennifer Michael Hecht discussed the history of doubt next, opening by stating that the history of doubt is longer than the history of faith and citing depictions of doubt from 600 BC. Hecht explained that Plato discussed atheistic concepts in identifying the youth and that it was Plotinus that turned Plato’s good into god. During the Cold War, questioning religion was made treasonable as a communist act and this disdain has remained ever since. A poet and philosopher, Hecht voiced the value of poetry as it relates to science and the natural world, arguing that poetry echoes the amazement in the natural. Hecht feels that the experience of humanity cannot be guided solely by science and that for very historical reasons we have shut out poetry to deny that humanity cannot be scientifically contained. I admired Hecht’s mastery of the subject and her fluid presentation style. As someone who appreciates artistic expression, it was also great to hear her support of poetry as a valid form of portraying humanness.

Paul Provenza was up next, and he gave a humorous-yet-thoughtful presentation focusing on his book ¡Satiristas! He explained that all the comedians he interviewed for the book (including the late George Carlin in his final interview) are free, critical thinkers. Much of the presentation consisted of Provenza reading selected passages from the book, many of which focused on discussions of religion and atheism. Along similar lines, Provenza expressed some confusion about the skeptics versus atheists issue, stating that he feels that all skeptics must be atheists but that “everyone has a process”. Provenza also explained that he feels God cheapens the wonder of the natural world. In conclusion, he reitorated that we can’t force people to doubt, but we can be there when questions arise and that making people laugh eases the tension of presenting a new paradigm. Provenza’s free-form talk was a funny and thought-provoking presentation that was a great demonstration of how humor can facilitate easier discussion about difficult topics.

Finally, Keynote Speaker Richard Dawkins was interviewed by D.J. Grothe about skepticism, atheism, extraterrestrials, and science fiction. Dawkins and Grothe discussed atheism first, with Dawkins expressing that it is hard to be skeptical without investigating your own theism and that insofar religion affects the real world, it must be scrutinized. Dawkins also argued that a universe with an intelligent creator at its base would clearly be very different than our universe, even if the differences were not testable. Grothe asked if there is a hierarchy of woo-woo claims, to which Dawkins replied that there is and you can organize them based on importance, such that the existence of God is much more important than the existence of Bigfoot. Similarly, he expressed that he finds graphology to be “extremely plausible” and homeopathy “extremely implausible”, so plausibility can also be a organizational component.

Moving on to extraterrestrial life, Dawkins stated that its existence is plausible given the number of stars in the universe, even intelligent life. He felt that anyone who commits that the origins of life are Earth-specific, then they are committing that the event is so stupefyingly rare that all those searching for the chemical theory should quit. Grothe asked what the chances are that there is alien life that humans could see as godlike, to which Dawkins explained that it would not take much time for evolution to form such beings. However, they would not be godlike since they came from natural and rational processes, so worshiping them as gods would be absurd.

As Dawkins is currently working on The Magic of Reality, a book for children, Grothe turned the attention to Dawkins’ views on fiction. Dawkins explained that he loves science fiction that takes science seriously and isn’t completely undisciplined. Contrastingly, he feels that fantasy fiction prepped him for religious belief and that “what might have been a natural skepticism [in his childhood] was dulled through fantastic fiction”. At the same time, Dawkins emphasized that science will not progress without imagination and going beyond what is currently accepted. Grothe asked if Dawkins could now not enjoy fantasy, to which he explained he definitely can enjoy all sorts of fiction, in that he finds suspending disbelief and getting in the head of another person or character very interesting.

Finally, Grothe requested some information about Dawkins’ new work. Regarding the title, he explained there are three types of magic: irrational magic, conjuring (tricks), and the Carl Sagan magic of the universe, to which Dawkins’ title refers to. Each chapter in the book focuses on a question, such as “what is the sun?” or “what is an earthquake?”, and first explains various myths about the phenomenon before providing the correct scientific explanation.

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