Sunday, November 15, 2009

Skepticism 102

I had long ago promised to write about what came out of Skeptrack at Dragon*Con. It's taken some time to process, and there have been many other distractions (life, work, etc) but here I finally begin...

I've written previously about what it means for me to be a "skeptic" so I guess you could call that "skepticism 101." So say you are already on board with the whole idea. As Daniel Loxton asked, what do you do next?

One of the simplest things that you can do it just talk to your friends and family about what you think. Don't be shy when you hear a friend claim that childhood vaccines cause autism. Be genuinely curious when someone wants to tell you their ghost story. It's easy to rag on homeopathy or make fun of Jenny McCarthy when you know you are among like-minded people at skeptical blogs, forums, and meetings. But eventually, the topics that you care about will come up in conversation with your buddies, and they don't all read skeptical blogs all day long... I mean.... I'm working!

I'm not confrontational by nature. Grumpy at times, yes, but I'm pretty shy when it comes down to it. (Despite the volume, honestly!) And sure, we all see the productive arguments and unproductive shouting matches that occur online, but real life conversation doesn't always go that way. The first thing that you can do when someone brings up a topic that you are skeptical about, even passionate about, is listen. I know, it's hard, sometimes the first thing to come to mind is "WTF, dude, Oprah is a ditz!" Listen to your friend, discuss it like you would anything else. Even on a topic that is as well scientifically validated as the safety of vaccines, just having the right answer doesn't end the conversation. The science is there, but so are the fears and emotions. The science is there, but it hasn't been properly communicated to everyone. Most people just want to make up their own minds, and you may be able to plant the seed that leads them to the answer.

Most of the time, you really won't know the answer. You didn't personally see their UFO or ghost, you weren't there when they "cured" themselves with homeopathy. You probably can't say for sure what they saw or felt or what really cured them. But you do know a few things about the field, so share that. Plant the seed of doubt, let them investigate for themselves. Or help out! I'd love to see a really crazy UFO and try and figure out what it is.

There are times for impassioned, even asshole skepticism. But some of us just can't pull it off well, and besides, having a beer with your colleagues is probably not that time. Chances are, they aren't swindling people out of their money with fake cures. They are probably just as curious as you are. And who knows, you may grow your own skeptic! That said, I still cherish the online arguments, even as a spectator. It's good training for your own critical thinking, and maybe it can help with some of those listening skills I mentioned above.

So, we use the word "skeptic" to describe ourselves, although technically the term is misleading. Skepticism is a process, there is no one way to be a "skeptic." But we use the word and it's there and sometimes your friends will ask, "Well what does that mean?" For a while I wasn't sure what to say. When I was at Dragon*Con at Skeptrack, I asked this question of a bunch of people there, but being scatterbrained as I am, I didn't write it down or record anything. But a general picture began to emerge... a skeptic is someone who asks questions... a skeptic is a science advocate... a skeptic values critical thinking... a skeptic likes to do their own research and see the evidence. We like to be seen as inquisitive, not curmudgeonly, though the latter is more likely where the stereotype lies. We're open-minded, not closed-minded, nor are we "conspiracy theorists", though some of those have tried to co-opt the term.

I tend to hang out with science-types and with grad students. It's just a function of where I am in my life. In my experience, they are more likely to respond to honest discussion and critical thought, not appeals to emotion. We live and breathe this stuff every day, poking holes in articles once a week in journal club, watching peer-reviewers poke holes in our own work. (Aside: there is nothing "peer" about it when you are a wee student. It's frakking terrifying!) So maybe I have yet to delve into the world of the believers, but I think there's plenty to do right here.

Cross-post from One Astronomer's Noise.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dragon*Con Post-Op by Nicole

Cross post from One Astronomer's Noise. See you at Monday's Drinking Skeptically!

Holy. Frakkin. Wow.

So, I attended, no, experienced my very first Dragon*Con. It was on a scale of something that I have never seen before. Tens of thousands of freaks and geeks, many in costume, descended upon downtown Atlanta to laugh, squee, drink, and just be themselves (or whoever they want to be) for a while.

Crowd partying at the Marriott bar

Some classic superheroes, at least one with a new spin! Lots more pictures, including some of Tim and me in costume, are on Picasa and Facebook.

I actually spent a lot of my time at Skeptrack. I finally got to meet many wonderful people that I had only know of through their writing or podcasts or through Twitter. We had SUCH a blast! These intelligent, creative people are each in their own right a force of nature, so the congregation of them in one place was simply spectacular. Conversations started early in the day with the first panels, and stretched well into the next AM. I don't think I can do justice to each and every person that I met there so I'll just say, thank you! And a special thanks to Derek and Swoopy of Skepticality for all of us even being there.

The closing Skeptrack panel

I've come away with a lot of great ideas and inspiration for various things I'd like to write and do. As usual, it will take time for any one to come to fruition in my "spare time" (hahaha). But as a number of the panelists stressed at various points, each one of us can do something, even something little, to advance skeptical thinking in the culture around us.

Some other highlights from the Con:

The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast won the "Best Infotainment" Parsec Award! Congrats to the whole team who work tirelessly to put this project together, and each and every one of the contributors to the cast.

George Hrab accepted this little gem on behalf of the cast.

The world record attempt at the most people dancing "Thriller" was attempted! I was not present, but the video is fantastic.

The pre-Dragon*Con Star Party was a success! The event was sold out, and then some, while guests mingled, chatted, and honored the late Jeff Medkeff. Kudos to Maria Walters and the Atlanta Skeptics for organizing (and driving us around, and just for everything!), Pamela Gay and Phil Plait for giving kick-ass talks to a tipsy, rowdy crowd, and the Bradley Observatory at Agnes Scott for hosting and for letting Pamela and I talk to their students during the day. Despite the clouds, we got some good views of the Moon and Jupiter. I have to say, the Galileoscope is a really neat tool for introducing astronomy. I would recommend a tripod, however, though sitting on the concrete in your new dress to balance it on the back of a chair is also perfectly acceptable. Except maybe to my dress.

Randomly walking past celebrities in the hallway and in the bathroom was so weird. I did a double take for both Michael Trucco and Felicia Day. I also got to enjoy Felicia Day's Guild Q&A and a really fun BSG panel with Michael Hogan and Mary McDonnell. So it wasn't all Skeptrack all the time, I got out and geeked out a bit, too.

I got pissed with the FDO. Really. A lot of us did... I'm surprised the bar ever let us back. That was one of at least four* (maybe five if Geologic gets posted!) live podcasts I got to attend, the others being Skeptic Zone, SGU, and a hilarious, hilarious Amateur Scientist. And we finally got to hear Christian Walters on that latter podcast! Special thanks to him for driving my ass around Atlanta and helping us find a hotel and for even getting me to come down there in the first place.

So, check out my pictures, and look forward to some new skeptical thoughts to come! If I met you and haven't friended you on Facebook or Twitter yet, go ahead and say hi!

The flight home. Oh no, how did they find me! Oh, that's how. Props to the BA for that recommendation.
*Ack, apologies. I can't remember what was recorded for podcast and what wasn't!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Meet you at Dragon*Con?

So I decided yesterday to go to Dragon*Con this year. I can drive down there and stay in a hotel that has a shuttle bus to get me downtown. There's a good "Skeptitrak" of skeptical talks to take in, with talks by all our favorite podcasters & bloggers. There's a science track and a space track, so there's no shortage of things to do. I'll go early, on Thursday, so that I can attend the Cancer benefit star party in Decatur that Phil Plait & Pam Gay are hosting. I'll bring along my "Death From The Skies" and have Phil sign it!

Squee! I'm such a fanboy!
Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Congratulations, you may be psychic!

Weekly World News, that bastion of scientific credibility, has reported that 53% of people are psychic, based on a study done at the University of Virginia on the townspeople and students of Charlottesville.

Say what now?

This study was published by the "parapsychology division of the University of Virginia School of Medicine" in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. Although the article does not name specific researchers from the study, the division of which they speak is most likely the Division of Perceptual Studies, founded by Ian Stevenson in 1967. Dr. Stevenson was a psychiatrist and researcher who devoted decades of work to collecting past-life experiences and evidence of reincarnation. Unfortunately, though he carried out this work all over the globe until his retirement in 2002, he did not produce scientifically compelling evidence to back claims of such experiences. I encourage you to read his entry in Bob Carroll's Skeptic's Dictionary, which is fascinating and quite thoroughly researched. He also co-founded the Society for Scientific Exploration, which is deserving of a separate post, already in the works and long overdue. (I've been busy... yadda yadda...)

Naturally, the UVa library has a subscription to the journal, so I look forward to finding it in the Alderman stacks later this week when I get a chance. Unfortunately, I can't find a version online, or even an abstract at the moment. According to the article, however, the study was a self-reported survey of 622 participants. Until I get a look at how the participants were selected, it's hard to say whether this is an accurate cross-section of the American population, as is claimed. (Maybe we are just special?) One researcher is quoted in the article as saying,
50% of America is psychic – the results of this survey confirm this fact.
I'm skeptical that any researcher into the paranormal would make such a sweeping and incorrect statement, especially if they expect to be taken seriously. The lack of a name attached to the quote only encourages my notion that this was made up whole cloth by a "reporter". At any rate, a self-reporting survey is no way to prove that a phenomenon exists. Serious scientific studies need to be double-blinded and carefully controlled before a claim can be shown to have validity. Participants in this survey report such paranormal experiences as déjà vu, out of body experiences, apparitions, hauntings, and more. Although these may be terrifying to a person in the moment, a more rational explanation is often to be found. A few years ago, a team of neuroscientists reported that they may have found a biological cause for that eerie feeling of déjà vu. Paranormal investigators such as Joe Nickell have found rational explanations for many hauntings and paranormal claims over the decades. Many psychics have stepped up to take James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge, and none have passed preliminary testing. If half of us were psychic, someone would have noticed by now.

So, this article was published in a cheesy tabloid with a screaming, Vulcan-ish child on the logo. So what? Most people running across this article will snicker and move on. A small percentage, no doubt, will add it to the pile of "evidence" for their already-cherished beliefs in the paranormal. I'm more interested, personally, in what the survey-study itself has to say, and how much more widely it is reported, especially locally.

Muchas gracias to for the link! Also, kudos to them on the clever title.
Cross posted at One Astronomer's Noise

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Correlation, Causation, and Coincidence

I've been running around again. I'm back to CVille and to work, but before that I was out of town and away from my computer for almost a week, driving to New York, then flying to Georgia, with my "little" brother to get him set up for his new life in grad school. (I use the quotes because the 21-year-old is 6'2, more than a foot taller than me!) During my travel, I got a little reminder of one of my favorite logical fallacies:
Correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

Detecting baloney with the best of 'em... Carl Sagan.

This one comes in handy when reading that "studies show that more people with x do y." Such articles are usually written to give the impression that x causes y, when no such thing can be concluded from the work. This fallacy can also be used in an argument about anything, and it has of course been parodied in a few places.

So here is my example from my travels. On June 25th, I had two flights, one from Newark to Atlanta, and then from Atlanta to Valdosta. This was also the day on which Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson passed away. The news of each one broke while I was in-flight, so I learned of each when I turned my iPhone back on after landing. And I thought, well that was weird, two flights and two highly publicized celebrity deaths! Surely, strange but a coincidence. The next Sunday, I had the same flights back, in reverse. After the first flight, I learned that the news of Billy Mays's death had broken while I was in flight. At this point, it's safe to say that there was a correlation between my flights and celebrity deaths. However, is this a good reason for me to miss my next flight, as to prevent another one?

Well, no, I took the last flight (bumped to first class, mind you) without guilt, knowing that I would not be the cause of loss of life in that way. Just because two things occur simultaneously, without a plausible method for their connection, or other supporting evidence, there is no reason to think that one has caused the other, or even that they have a similar cause. (Do pirates expel less carbon dioxide? I didn't think so.) Well surely, this situation is an amazing coincidence? Okay, but for all of the possible coincidences that *could* occur to all people, all over the world, is it any surprise that a small fraction of them do happen? As a pattern-seeking species, we look for significance in random events, but sometimes we just have to accept that they are random. Think about that the next time you want to associate one seemingly random occurrence with another, or try to find meaning in life's coincidences.

For the record, the US soccer team did get beaten by Brazil right before take-off of our last flight. A small death for some? Only if looking too hard for patterns.

Cross-posted at One Astronomer's Noise

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Happy Jesus

Saw this ad the other day and it cracked me up. Gettin crucified ... it's fun!


Friday, May 8, 2009

SciAm, You Disappoint Me

(cross-posted on One Astronomer's Noise)

I recently subscribed to Scientific American with the intention of keeping up to date with a broad range of scientific topics, and reading their in-depth magazine articles to compliment the barrage of short news stories we get flooded with everyday. I've been pretty happy with that so far, and have also been getting their daily email updates on news stories, which I browse through if it looks interesting. Yesterday, there was a story called "Is Cellulite Forever?" with the tagline,
Some claim creams can bust the bulgy bane of many, whereas others swear by pricey procedures. But what is cellulite? And can it really be banished for good? A doctor gives the bottom line.
I have a really positive body image, in a large part thanks to bellydance. Nevertheless, when someone claims that they will shine a scientific spotlight on a topic that is related to beauty and is shrouded in so much pseudoscience, my interest is piqued. Imagine my surprise when the article interviewed an "osteopathic physician... [who] runs a clinic for mesotherapy (injections of homeopathic extracts, vitamins and/or medicine designed to reduce the appearance of cellulite)." Homeo-whatnow?

Homeopathy, briefly, is the belief that "like cures like" and that an extremely diluted solution of a substance that causes a symptom will cure that symptom. Homeopathic remedies have virtually no trace of the so-called active ingredient in them, and thus fail every scientific study of their potency. Not to mention, the very philosophy flies in the face of everything we know about physics and chemistry. In a word, it's pseudoscience. So now, Scientific American is interviewing a doctor that espouses pseudoscience to talk about cellulite in a strictly scientific light? My skeptical sense is in overdrive.

Unfortunately, I don't know much about the science of cellulite and how it works. In fact, that's why I clicked on the link to the article! Now, I'm motivated to learn more about it, in order to check on the claims presented in the interview. Some portions seem reasonable, even testable, such as the origin of cellulite, why women may get more as they age, why it's more prominent in women than men, etc. If anyone can get back to me on the science behind those, I'd appreciate that! I'm very much a non-expert but curious.

But then he delves into some pretty heavy cultural biases, claiming that cellulite only became a problem in the 1970s because we became a sedentary culture and don't work physically. It appears to be based on anecdotal evidence of him finding old photographs or photographing women around the world. (Excuse me, may I take a picture of your buttocks for research?) Surely, calories in vs. calories burned has a lot to do with fat retention in the body as a whole (science!), but will eating organic foods, not working at a desk, and wearing a thong really reduce your cellulite? How does fat loss in general affect already thin women who have cellulite?

On the third page, my incredulity really spikes. He talks about the use of various creams to target the fat itself that "transports fats into the [cells'] mitochondria to be used as energy" or "by blocking the making of fats by the alpha receptors." Last time I checked, creams do not target cells very far inside the body. And although you may be able to firm up the skin itself, there appears to be no scientific proof that creams reduce cellulite. Next he talks about sucking, rolling, even using radio waves to break up the fat. You can find a bit on questionable cellulite reduction schemes at Quackwatch. His claims are dubious, even if you look past the introduction.

Hey, I know how we can make cellulite problems go away! Get over it. Proudly wear that bathing suit and show the world that we're not all Barbie dolls. Staying fit and healthy is a generally good thing. Worrying over the appearance of bumpy fat in the butt, not so important. Until science-based medicine tells us that cellulite is a health threat, I won't worry about mine.

And Scientific American? Shame on you. I expect your work to be held to a higher standard of scientific rigor.

UPDATES! Rebecca of Skepchick wrote a lovely post entitled "The Top 5 Things Wrong With SciAm’s Cellulite Article" and PZ Myers asks, "SciAm, how could you?"

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Editor of Science News discusses misuse of statistics in science and journalism

My Alma Mater!

Siegfried began by giving the recipe for what makes science "news," (ie. the first report of something, advances in a hot research field, and an issue that contradicts previous belief.) He then gave the recipe for incorrect science, which happened to be the same as what makes science "news."

Click here for full story.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Fun with Skepticism

“The UltraMind Solution: The Simple Plan to Sharpen Your Mind; Boost Your Mood; Increase Your Memory; and Even Reverse Autism, ADD, Depression, Alzheimer’s and More…”

I was a little dismayed this past weekend to see such trash playing on my local PBS. As this article notes, PBS is discrediting itself by running such dubious claims. (Fair disclosure: the author disputes the article here.)

In a fit of mild rage, I wrote to WVPT. My letter follows:


I turned on WVPT this morning to see you were running a show by a man claiming to cure Alzheimer's, depression and ADD with some breakthrough vitamin method.

I don't have to do much research to realize that his claims are overblown, and thus, highly suspect. Surely if he had found a solution to deal with issues like Autism or dementia, he would have a Nobel prize by now.

I'm very disappointed to see my local PBS playing an infomercial like this. Most folks trust that PBS will air shows that are of a high quality and that have been, in a sense, "peer reviewed" for substance and factual content. By seeing this infomercial played on WVPT, viewers may assume it's a legitimate health program.

Assuming the cost of this show was very cheap or even free, and that this may have had a part in it being played, I would suggest instead filling that time slot with a re-run of Virginia Farming, an old movie, or even just the station call letters with music.

Thank you for your time,
Amanda Snyder
Charlottesville, VA

And they wrote back! (contact info removed to protect the writer from spammers and malcontents....)

Good morning, Amanda. Thank you for taking the time and interest to write.

I hear and understand your concern. It is true, Dr. Hyman would love for our viewers to buy his book – and of course, we would like viewers to do so through WVPT where the money will support the programming cost. The UltraMind Solution program fully outlines for viewers the ideas presented in his book and there is no attempt to sell viewers a specific vitamin or food for which he makes a profit. It is hard to turn on the news today without hearing someone proclaim that making more healthful life choices can improve many aspects of our lives. Dr. Hyman has earned the respect of many of his colleagues in making that point in a manner that most of us can do and understand.

Just like those who give news analysis, financial strategies or exercise tips, this is simply one more piece of information we can all use in making our own decisions about how we can live our best life.

Again, thank so much for writing.

I hope you always find many entertaining, educational and informative programs on WVPT.


Director of Programming
WVPT/WVPY - Virginia's Public Television
"Our job is to make the agony of decision-making so intense you can escape only by thinking." Fred Friendly

Only on WVPT! Only because of you!

I'm really disappointed in their response. It clearly indicates that the money takes precedence. I encourage everyone to write to PBS about this show.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Watch all of "Cosmos" online for free at Hulu

In 1980, the landmark series Cosmos premiered on public television. Since then, it is estimated that more than a billion people around the planet have seen it. Cosmos chronicles the evolution of the planet and efforts to find our place in the universe. Each of the 13 episodes focuses on a specific aspect of the nature of life, consciousness, the universe and time. Topics include the origin of life on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere), the nature of consciousness, and the birth and death of stars. When it first aired, the series catapulted creator and host Carl Sagan to the status of pop culture icon and opened countless minds to the power of science and the possibility of life on other worlds.

Click here to watch.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Nuns taking backseat to Nones

According to the American Religious Identification Survey 2008, available at, the percentage of Americans claiming no religion has now increased to 15 percent.

However, the acutal number of those who claim to be atheist is still small. The report stated that 1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic, but based on stated beliefs, 12 percent are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unsure), while 12 percent more are deistic (believe in a higher power but not a personal God). The number of outright atheists has nearly doubled since 2001, from 900,000 to 1.6 million.

Additionally, within the Christian segment, the subset of "non-denominational Christians" increased to 2.5 million in 2008 from 200,000 in 1990. The report suggested that this growth is associated with increased megachurch attendance.

While many have wondered if the declining economy and hard times will cause folks to cling tight to religion, the Pew Forum notes that church attendance is largely unchanged.

In related news, one of UVA's own writes about how the Obama administration may contribute to the decline of religion at


Friday, March 13, 2009

"Why science should become an integral part of our lives"

Richard Dawkins' "Break the Science Barrier" is online in its entirety.

Though I resent the use of bluegrass music to introduce the section on creationism, this is a great show to help motivate you to preach the Good News ... of Science!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sea monster in Borneo?

I wish! But probably just photoshop. Seems unlikely that a giant snake would be such a stereotypical shade of "Snake Green."

Inheriting mother's memories?

At our last discussion meeting, the Skeptics touched on topics ranging from crime, evolution, free will and ethics.

Myself and others had mentioned seeing a few stories lately about offspring inheriting their parent's experiences, but I couldn't remember the exact details! (sometimes my short-term memory really fails me... an unfortunate trait for a Skeptic... haha)

Some recent stories on the topic:

A Comeback for Lamarckian Evolution?
Two new studies show that the effects of a mother's early environment can be passed on to the next generation.

How your mother might affect your memory
A new study in mice suggests that a mother's childhood experiences may affect the brain function of her offspring.

Photo credit

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Does God's watchful eye keep us in line?

Skeptics member JC recently wrote a great letter to the editor, which appeared in the Hook!

The Hook published an essay a couple months ago discussing if we need the guidance of religion or God watching over us in order to inspire kindness.

Unfortunately The Hook made JC edit down his letter, but the original Hook essay, JC's published letter and his original longer version are all available here (click on essay):

(Essay wasn't available online - so this file is a scan. PDF may take a minute to download).

We had a good discussion related to this topic at tonight's meeting! So what do you think, does religion or a watchful god contribute to good behavior or altruism?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Skeptical Podcasts

This has been bouncing around Twitter a bit as of yesterday: Skeptcast. It's a great little resource for those looking for something to listen to. These podcasts are educational, entertaining, and skeptical! I'm already subscribed to a bunch of these, and I enjoy them immensely. Warning, you may LOL or cheer out loud at work while listening!

Monday, February 2, 2009


Counterknowledge looks like a cool skeptical book. The title is such a great word to describe pseudoscience and quackery. The blog for the book looks far more interesting and involved than the usual promotional sites for such books. I found this from the author of the Fallacy Files, an excellent resource devoted to a topic that all skeptics, and all people for that matter, should master.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A guide to Skeptical Etiquette

Tip o' the martini glass to the Bad Astronomer who links to a great piece of writing by

Thursday, January 29, 2009

What is a Skeptic?

There's been some discussion on the email list about the name of our group, and I'd like to throw in my two cents here.

To say that someone is a skeptic does not say much about that person's religious beliefs, or lack thereof. In fact, it may be that religion is the farthest thing from that person's mind. As an atheist, I lack belief in a god or gods. But that can be a pretty boring topic of conversation time and time again. Morally, I align myself with much of secular humanism, but I'd rather do good things than talk about what is good. No, I was never so great at philosophy.

Skepticism, for me, is a whole other ball game. To be a skeptic is to challenge and question everything, whether it be belief in a god, talking to ghosts, alternative medicine, or a new product that is being sold on a television commercial. Every person uses a bit of skepticism when making every day decisions, and everyone can stand to use a bit more. For this reason, I think that to be a skeptic is the most practical way to be, and that skepticism is actually the most inclusive term. Anyone can apply observation and critical thinking skills to a problem, even if it does take time to hone those skills. A person armed with a "baloney detection kit" at all times is acting as a skeptic. Most of us will have our skeptical alarm bells set off if a stranger in a parking lot offers to hold our purse while we load groceries into our car. My skeptical alarm will surely sound whenever I hear a claim for diet pills or magnetic therapy. Most people will balk if you tell them that the Virgin Mary appeared on your grilled cheese sandwich. Skeptics are the ones with the answer when someone asks, "What's the harm in believing?"

Skeptics aren't just curmudgeonly naysayers, either. Most that I've met have a deep appreciation for science, and the wonderful ways in which our universe works. For them, reality is enough to explore. There is no need for the "supernatural." Look at all the fabulous things we can learn through evidence and reason! For example, every atom in your body, that is not hydrogen or helium, was formed in the core of a massive star many billions of years ago, or in the explosive aftermath that marked its death, called a supernova. In the words of one of the greatest skeptics of the modern age, and one of my personal heroes, Carl Sagan, "The Earth and every living thing are made of star stuff." I highly recommend Sagan's Demon Haunted World to anyone for an introduction into Sagan's thought processes, and I have a copy that is available to borrow!

So, I guess that's why I'm happy with the name Skeptics' Group, or Skeptics' Society, or CVille Skeptics, or Skeptical Badasses, whatever sounds coolest. It's a positive way of saying, "we're a thinking bunch of people, and nothing is safe from our rational approach to life!"

I'd also encourage you to check out a longer article, "What is Skepticism?" by Sam Ogden over at Skepchick. It talks abut skepticism as a handy-dandy toolkit for investigating claims, whether it be everyday or not-so-ordinary, and how it is like "science express."

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Goat detained over armed robbery

This news item from Reuters probably prompts laughter, but it should also prompt some concern.
LAGOS (Reuters) - Police in Nigeria are holding a goat on suspicion of attempted armed robbery.

Vigilantes took the black and white beast to the police saying it was an armed robber who had used black magic to transform himself into a goat to escape arrest after trying to steal a Mazda 323.

"The group of vigilante men came to report that while they were on patrol they saw some hoodlums attempting to rob a car. They pursued them. However one of them escaped while the other turned into a goat," Kwara state police spokesman Tunde Mohammed told Reuters by telephone.

"We cannot confirm the story, but the goat is in our custody. We cannot base our information on something mystical. It is something that has to be proved scientifically, that a human being turned into a goat," he said.

Belief in witchcraft is widespread in parts of Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation. Residents came to the police station to see the goat, photographed in one national newspaper on its knees next to a pile of straw.

We skeptics are fighting an uphill battle against the most ridiculous superstitions. This alone is difficult, but we also have the additional problem of convincing "moderate" types who dismiss the skeptical position as patronizing, dogmatic, or even religious. Emphasizing stories like these can probably sway lots of those people. What's the Harm? is a good site for more fodder like this.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Seen at Barnes & Noble:

At first I assumed it's just kind of a gift-type item; sort of just for a giggle.

Then I realized, maybe not? I just can't fathom that someone would take a bible hunting (and also need that bible to be invisible by deer), so perhaps it's for fashion? Why take a plain old brown bible to church, show everyone you are a hunter with your camo bible!

Yes, I will whip out my camera at Barnes & Noble in the name of blogging. :-)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Life on Mars?

NASA announced today the discovery of plumes of methane cropping up over various spots of the Martian surface. Such a phenomenon is most likely caused by recent geological or biological activity. Either one would be scientifically interesting, but to find microbial life living on Mars right now would have a huge impact on how we view our existence as a species. Is life so common that it independently sprang up on adjacent planets? Did one planet "seed" the other with life? How tenacious is life, and how well can it survive is seemingly inhospitable environments?

Methane out gassing on the Red Planet has been puzzling planetary scientists for some time. Today we find that there is more of it that was expected, and that the abundances change with the seasons. Read more about this story from, some of my favorite bloggers: AstroEngine, SpaceWriter, SarahAskew, and Universe Today. Don't forget, of course, the official NASA press release!

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, now. Remember, in 1996, images of possible microbes in a sample of Martian rock (ALH84001) captured the public imagination. Today, after extensive testing of the samples, most scientists are convinced that the structures are non-biological in nature. So although the possibilities are tantalizing, we must remember to ground ourselves in science and be very thorough before making sweeping conclusions.

There is still a lot of science to be done and great results to discover, even if they aren't paradigm shattering. Hopefully, these areas of methane enhancement will be targets for future rovers and landers.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Monday, January 12, 2009

Podcast alert

UVA Astronomy Professor Ed Murphy with the top 8 space stories of 2008


Does religion make you nice?

I just wanted to post a link to this brief but very interesting article on, "Does Religion Make You Nice."

The end is particularly poignant. The author notes that Danes and Swedes are particularly happy countries despite their rampant godlessness, but also points out that they still attend church (they just don't believe in God.) This points to the importance of community.

"American atheists, by contrast, are often left out of community life. The studies that Brooks cites in Gross National Happiness, which find that the religious are happier and more generous then the secular, do not define religious and secular in terms of belief. They define it in terms of religious attendance. It is not hard to see how being left out of one of the dominant modes of American togetherness can have a corrosive effect on morality. ...

"The sorry state of American atheists, then, may have nothing to do with their lack of religious belief. It may instead be the result of their outsider status within a highly religious country where many of their fellow citizens, including very vocal ones like Schlessinger, find them immoral and unpatriotic. Religion may not poison everything, but it deserves part of the blame for this one."

This highlights the importance, then, of groups like The Cville Skeptics! And it also gives some value to the possible group motto of "A church for the rest of us," which I couldn't decide if it was appropriate or not. ha!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Molecule self-replicates in lab


"Obviously what we're trying to do is make a biology," says Gerald Joyce, a biochemist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. He hopes to imbue his team's molecule with all the fundamental properties of life: self-replication, evolution, and function.

Whole story:

Photo credit

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Reminder: Social Hour Jan. 22!

Click here to join & RSVP!

Book Club Proposal

Greetings! I recently read a couple reviews of Eric Maisel's new book, The Atheist's Way and thought it would make a great book club selection.

A tidbit from Maisel's blog:
A charmingly apt anonymous saying: “Atheism is a non-prophet organization.” Therefore each atheist must make his or her own way. The very essence of making personal meaning is nominating yourself as the hero of your own story and making your own way in life, listening for echoes in the observations of others but never following in another person’s footsteps. Your circumstances are unique; your causes are yours to choose; one day you can play, one day you can be serious, one day you can rest, one day you can exhaust yourself. Make your own way: even the slightest pull to follow opens the door to mischief.

If we get at least 10 people interested, that would be a viable number to declare a book club. Moreover, if folks are interested, we can arrange to have a free telechat with the author!

If you're interested in joining the book club, e-mail cvilleskeptics (at) gmail (dot) com. (let me know if you'd rather just read the book or read the book and do the telechat).

If you'd like to start a book club but with a DIFFERENT title, email me that too!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Is "Dear Abby" a skeptic!?

Well I've read enough of her column to surmise that, at the very least, she regularly panders to the religious, but this particular response made me say Woah!

DEAR ABBY: I have a "pennies from heaven" story you might appreciate. My best friend, "Darrel," was a smoker who collected quarters. His apartment had two distinguishing features -- stacks of quarters and the smell of secondhand smoke. Because we were both busy people, we had seen each other only twice in about a year, but maintained a phone and e-mail friendship.

I had planned a trip out west to spend time with family and had e-mailed him about it. Unbeknownst to me, Darrel had been very ill, and he died the day I sent the e-mail. I learned about it while I was in transit to my destination. There was nothing I could do. I had no way to get to his funeral and no way to say goodbye.

When we reached our hotel -- part of a smoke-free chain -- my husband and I opened the door to our room and were greeted by a familiar odor. It smelled just like Darrel's apartment! And when I walked to the dresser to unpack, two quarters were sitting on top. It was then that my husband and I agreed that Darrel had stopped to say goodbye on his way to heaven. -- QUARTERS FROM HEAVEN

DEAR QUARTERS: Please accept my sympathy for the loss of your friend. I'm glad you received some comfort in your time of need. However, it's entirely possible that the guest who occupied the room before you broke the rules and puffed away in a room that was supposed to be nonsmoking. I hope you notified the front desk so you could be switched to other accommodations, and the room could be thoroughly cleaned and deodorized to prevent someone with a sensitivity to smoke from walking in and experiencing a severe allergic reaction.

Thursday, January 1, 2009