Monday, August 27, 2012

The Baloney Detection Kit: Baloney, Pseudoscience, and Ghost Hunters

Dr. Michael Shermer's 10 Skeptical Questions


The human understanding is no dry light, but receives infusion from the will and affectations; whence proceed sciences which may be called "sciences as one would." For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride; things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affectations color and infect the understanding. -Francis Bacon, Novum Organon, 1620

"We tell children about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy for reasons we think are emotionally sound, but then disabuse them of these myths before they are grown. Why retract? Because their well-being as adults depends on them knowing the world as it really is. We worry, and for good reason, about adults who still believe in Santa Claus." -Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1996

"I don't believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth fairy. Of course not!
But Leprechauns, those Irish bastards... that's whole different story!" -Richard Joyce, This Post, 2012  

   Wikipedia tells us: "Bologna sausage (English pronunciation: /bəˈloʊnjə/ or /bəˈloʊni/), also known as boloney, baloney or polony, is an American sausage derived from and somewhat similar to the Italian mortadella (a finely hashed/ground pork sausage containing cubes of lard that originated in the Italian city of Bologna, IPA: [boˈloɲɲa]. U.S. government regulations require American bologna to be finely ground, and without visible pieces of lard. Bologna can alternatively be made out of chicken, turkey, beef, pork, venison or soy protein.
   Bologna bowl: Occasionally bologna is heated up so it takes the shape of a bowl, which may be filled with cheese or other fillings." But only occasionally.
   Pork sausage containing cubes of lard.
   Interesting. I imagine that if manufacturers used my invention of non-fat lard in the production of bologna the result would be much healthier for consumers.
   I have to admit I love bologna and always have. In fact I'm told that it was one of only three things I would eat as a small child (the other two being peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and Estonian sauerkraut stew with blood and barley sausage, served with Baltic sprats laced with bacon in sour cream sauce).
   I eat everything now... except bugs.
   I had no idea it was made with chunks of lard until yesterday. I also have to admit that sounds really disgusting, but it is a sausage, and the idea of sausage and what it's made of, in and of it self, is somewhat disgusting.
   I don't care, I love it anyway. I just had a slice not more than thirty minutes ago (as I write this), with some eggs, and cheese, and an English muffin (and a green pepper I picked from our garden).
   It was good. I could easily make myself another breakfast sandwich right now, but I shall restrain myself because I must stick to my diet.
   However interesting pork sausage and lard is it is not the kind of boloney Dr. Carl Sagan was looking for when he wrote the chapter, "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection," in his seminal work, "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark."
   No, I'm almost positive (almost) he had this alternate definition in mind, also from Wikipedia: "In American English, baloney is also a colloquial expression for "nonsense," or "bullshit." Daniel Cassidy [American writer, filmmaker and academic] suggested that it may have derived from the Irish-Gaelic bollaireacht, pronounced bullairaċt, a noun that describes the act of bragging, prating, babbling, blustering."
   Alright now that we've gotten that cleared up let's get to it shall we?
   "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark." was a syntheses of Dr. Sagan's ideas on critical thinking, which can help us to navigate our way through various somewhat popular ideas that have little validity, scientific or otherwise, such as statements made by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, or upon examination of the pseudosciences, such as: astrology, 2012 millenarianism, Moon landing conspiracy theories, ancient astronauts, the face on Mars, The Bermuda Triangle, the Flat Earth Society (yes, it still exists), climate change denial, theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, mediumship, cryptozoology (the search for Bigfoot, and Nessie of Loch Ness, etc.), electronic voice phenomena, extrasensory perception, ghost hunting, conservatism, psychic surgery, psychokinesis, ufology, conversion therapy (to change a person's sexual orientation), hypnosis, phrenology, subliminal advertising, alternative medicine, biorhythm, chiropractic theories, colon cleansing, crystal healing, faith healing, magnetic therapy, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, urine therapy, scientific foreknowledge in sacred texts such as the Bible and Koran, creation science and intelligent design, dianetics, feng shui, perpetual motion, cold fusion, anti-aging creams, alchemy, and a few others.
   Notice there is no mention of Leprechauns.
   A lot of people spend a lot of time participating and advocating for the above activities for various reasons. None of them have proven to be scientifically valid pursuits, and therefore a waste of valuable time, energy, and resource.
   So why do they do this?
   Climate change deniers tend to be motivated by greed, backed by large business interests that maintain a vested interest in keeping alive the hoax that there is widespread disagreement within the scientific community as to the validity of meteorology and climate science. There is not. However, when much of the media reports on this subject (just as with intelligent design, and certain political arguments), it tends to give both sides of the debate equal measure, which helps to perpetuate the myth that climate change deniers have a valid argument.
   The majority of pseudosciences provide a form of solace to those who believe in them. Who wouldn't like some insight to their future simply by reading the astrological colum in the daily newspaper or on an Internet site? I sure would if I thought it were true. But as Dr. Sagan pointed out, and I quite agree, the only verifiable influence the stars and planets could possibly have on any of us is that of their gravitational influence. How the planets are aligned at the time of our birth, such as the closest planet to us, Venus,  may have some measurable affect upon us. Venus is a very massive object. Yet an obstetrician, who is much smaller and less massive than Venus, is much closer to us when we are being born, and more than likely will exert a greater degree of influence upon us than Venus, which is much, much further away.
   Some of the pseudosciences (as well as many religions) feed off of our fear of death and the unknown, such as mediumship, and ghost hunting. It is comforting to think there may be a life after this one, after all death is inevitable (for the time being). I can certainly understand that. I indeed wish it were true. But there is no evidence for that hypothesis, none that either religion, or mediumship and seances, or ghost investigations supply at least. And there is no logical explanation as to why there should be a life after death. For what purpose? Why must we go through a life, only to go through the painful horrible barrier of death, and only then  can we be reborn in another life that may or may not be eternal. Sounds like some kind of sick joke to me.    No one so far has come back from the dead (even the resurrection of Jesus myth is strange upon examination. The various manifestations of Jesus after the crucification display a markedly different Jesus Christ than before he was put to death, as reports of those who say they saw him clearly indicate he acted in a more ethereal manner than human) in any verifiable manner, to tell us what's it like on the other side, so how can we know? 
   It's not my intention to waver into theological arguments at this time, but to demonstrate how the Baloney Detection Kit can be utilized for more practical applications.
   Now please remember that the tools we find in the Baloney Detection Kit are strictly mired within the framework of the three part scientific method we have discussed on many occasions. 1. Propose an idea, theory, or hypothesis; 2. test that idea, theory, or hypothesis vigorously by experiment; 3. Have the results of that experiment verified by peers.
   So let's choose a subject, any subject. Which do you want? That God is a woman (as David Letterman purports) and obviously hates the GOP and it's policies, the proof being she has sent  Tropical Storm Isaac to Tampa just before the start of the Republican National Convention?
   Well, I have no way of disproving that, so let's move on. 
   Ghost hunting you say? Fine with me. I have to make another confession. I've wanted to tackle this subject for some time now.
   Wikipedia tells us: "Ghost Hunters is an American paranormal reality television series that premiered on October 6, 2004, on Syfy (previously the Sci Fi Channel). The program features paranormal investigators Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson who investigate places that are reported to be haunted. The two originally worked as plumbers for Roto-Rooter as a day job while investigating locations at night. Since the show's success, the series now takes precedence in their lives, but they are still honorary employees with the company and continue to do jobs for them if time permits."
   "Call Roto-Rooter, that's the name, and away those troubles down the drain. Rotor Rooter."
   I love that jingle.
   Why are plumbers particularly suited to ghost hunting? The rational is that plumbers are more familiar than most of the structures of buildings, and local phenomena, such as noises and vibrations, that those building or structures manifest.
   Okay, that sounds reasonable. I'll buy that.
   Anyway, "Ghost Hunters," (which has garnered some of the highest ratings of any Syfy reality programming) and it's various spin offs have been on the air for a little less than 8 years now, and as far as I know they've yet to catch one freaking ghost! Now if you hunting something for 8 years you would expect to catch something! But no, not one ghost to bring back so others can observe, measure, and fondle it.
   I've watched the show a couple of times through out it's run, and every episode is pretty much like every other. These two guys go to a different location each week, check out the place and learn its ghostly history, then come back at night, turn off all of the lights (why? Why must it always be dark? I've seen "Ghostbusters." Those ghosts weren't at all shy), using night vision technology to see and record the proceedings, then bump into each other, exaggerate every little creak and moan a building may have, and basically scare each other silly. They later analyze all of their "data," and produce a final judgment of whether what they experienced was an actual ghost or not. Or else they fudge by stating some kind of paranormal activity was present, but they don't know what it was exactly.
   Why they're not even trying to catch a ghost!
   Well, a lot of people would like to believe that there is an afterlife, and a real, bonafide ghost would go a long way in supporting that belief.
   But they as of yet have not provided a real ghost, or really any of what would be called scientific evidence to support the theory that ghosts exist (although they employ measuring instruments that should help them if indeed they come across one).
   Maybe they'll find one someday, but it's my contention that up until now, they have not.
   So let's bring out the first tool of Dr. Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit (finally), the only one that directly equates with Dr. Michael Shermer's (famous skeptic and sex symbol) 10 skeptical questions. Both versions of the kit are closely related due to being intimately tied to the scientific method.

1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.

   That's pretty straight forward, and directly related to the third tenet of the scientific method, which again is: Have the results of that experiment verified by peers .
   Have the ghost hunters done this?
   Nope, which may be a factor as to why there's been a concerted effort by various individuals to debunk the claims the show has made.
   Wikipedia tells us: "Ghost Hunters has attracted various critics and skeptics, such as Joe Nickell of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer author Lynne Kelly, James Randi, and Benjamin Radford. The Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society (SAPS) was founded with the intent to recreate and debunk segments of the show."
   Having not seen SAPS findings, an investigation into the ghost hunters in itself does not provide evidence that the ghost hunters have not found ghosts. However the show makes no effort to have another, separate, and independent team of unbiased investigators come into the same locations that the ghost hunters have claimed paranormal activity exists ("paranormal" is a bizarre term that implies experiences that lie outside "the range of normal experience or scientific explanation." Since science is designed to study natural phenomenon anything that is out of "the range of normal experience or scientific explanation," must be invalid).
   The first tool of the Baloney Detection Kit can be applied to almost any situation in the real world in a practical manner.
   For example, has there been an independent confirmation to the claim made by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan that President Obama has stolen $716 billion dollars from the medicare fund?
   No, there has not. All non-partisan fact check organizations have stated this is a falsehood continually perpetrated by Romney and his campaign, and that the $716 billion are estimated savings under the Act from limiting administrative costs to health care providers and pharmaceutical manufacturers, information easily verifiable on the Internet Machine.
   It is unlikely, but not impossible, that if a search were made of the White House, a stash of $716 billion dollars would be found.
   It would seem Mr. Romney is not meeting our vigorous standards of proof, and might be, just might be I tell you, being somewhat less than truthful.
   We shall see.

To be continued

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