Sunday, April 30, 2006

That study on astrology

Here's the abstract from that study.

The relationship between date of birth and individual differences in personality and general intelligence: A large-scale study

Peter Hartmann, Martin Reuterb and Helmuth Nyborga

We investigated the relationship between date of birth and individual differences in personality and intelligence in two large samples. The first sample consisted of 4000+ middle-aged male subjects from the Vietnam Experience Study; personality was measured by the MMPI items converted to EPQ (scales) and a large battery of cognitive tests were factored to derive general intelligence, g. The second sample consisted of 11,000+ young adults from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth from 1979. g was extracted from the ten subtests of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.

In no cases did date of birth relate to individual differences in personality or general intelligence.

A further goal was to test Eysenck’s notion of possible relationships between date of birth and the popular Sun Signs in astrology. No support could be found for such associations.

We conclude that the present large-scale study provides no evidence for the existence of relevant relationships between date of birth and individual differences in personality and general intelligence.

Some remarks by leader of the study Peter Hartmann.

When considering the current scientific standing with respect to Sun signs, it becomes clear that there is little or no truth in [them]... This does not necessarily mean that all astrology is without truth, but only that the independent effect of Sun signs is most likely to be irrelevant.... As for the weekly horoscope based on mere Sun signs, then according to the current scientific standing, there is probably more truth in the comic strips.

Latest study made them see stars yet again

Thousands of years since it was cooked up and that pseudoscientific poppycock astrology is still around infesting minds. About a year ago the Bad Astronomer minced it to bits. Now the latest and perhaps the biggest (German-Danish) correlational study of some 15,000 individuals tells us that "in no cases did date of birth relate to individual difference in personality or general intelligence."

Still, belief (or should we say faith?) in astrology remains. Regarding that study former president of the British Astrological and Psychic Society Adam Fronteras countered:

We've had these reports many times before. Because such research tests one or two factors only, it's a bit like judging a work of art using only one or two colours or a book by reading two pages. Astrology is much more complex than that.

Maybe it's irreducibly complex.

So where's the substantiation from them that their vaunted astrological cause and effect phenomena are real? The important questions they can't seem to answer are: What is or are the mechanisms by which the positions of planets and other celestials objects determine an individual's personality? How do they know that these heavenly bodies have an effect? How do they measure these effects? How do they test and verify their claims? Where's the evidence?

Meanwhile, astrologer Marlene Houghton asserts that "Astrology is a metaphysical doctrine, not a science, and cannot be easily judged by the narrow instrument that is science." Metaphysical? They claim that empirical objects--planets--have an empirical effect--determination of personality/behavior. And that they have some formula to arrive at this. Whose legs is she trying to pull? She got one thing right though. Astrology is no science. Never was and very very very doubtful it ever will be.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Weightless questions indeed

Bob Park informs us that Islam is going high tech.

Malaysia is preparing to send one of its citizens to the ISS in 2007 on a Russian mission. It will probably be a Muslim, so a computer program called Muslims in Space has been developed to answer these weightless questions. It wouldn't be the first time an astronaut has prayed, but others haven't needed a computer.

Allah needs his daily dose of praises from his toadies. And as you know there are a set number of times they have to drop on their knees and bow toward Mecca. But aboard the International Space Station astronauts circle the earth some 16 times every 24 hours which means the poor Muslim up there has to perform this ritual nearly 7 dozen times everyday. With such a prayer load there's not much else a Muslim spaceman will be doing. He probably won't even be able to get enough snooze. On the bright side the religious hallucinations sleep deprivation will elicit may inspire more crackpots to take to the heavens (I suggest giving them a one way ticket to deep deep space).

To make pleasing Allah more challenging the astronaut will have to wash himself everytime he prays. Try doing that in weightless conditions and where water is scarcer and more priceless than in the Arabian deserts.

I wonder what the software is meant to do. Will it be doing the praying, beaming verses and supplications down to Mecca via radio waves (and bouncing them off satellites should Mecca not be in the line of sight)? Maybe it's suppose to fire the thrusters and turn the entire space station in the direction of Mecca. Or maybe it's going to be a million dollar alarm clock.

(Won't be surprising at all if one day these god-deluded fanatics put an Islamic satellite in geostationary orbit over Mecca.)

Nuts in space.

Friday, April 28, 2006


Yet another well-meaning but deluded individual:

At 9 a.m. Saturday [April 29, 2006] at Eden Park's Mirror Lake, tai chi teacher Vince Lasorso will kick off what he calls the Greater Cincinnati 30-Day Experiment for Peace. The goal: get at least 3,000 people - or about 1 percent of the city's population - to pray or meditate for 30 days, thereby creating a "peaceful field of consciousness" that he said would change "the energetic climate in which thoughts are formed." ... He says studies have shown that if 1 percent of a community practices meditation and other inner peace techniques, the crime rate can dip more than 20 percent.

It's the old Maharisihi crap being regurgitated yet again. Look at this way. Even if prayer has never been shown to work (with even the best and largest scientific studies showing it to be an utter waste of time and effort) the deluded will continue believing otherwise. Even a 100% failure rate does not disuade them from abandoning their delusion. My father used to say some people never learn until they crash into a concrete wall. Well, these nutcases have a 100% crash rate and still haven't learned and just will not learn. Why? Because admitting defeat would spell psychological death for them. Can you imagine the depression from that disillusionment? How much of themselves have they invested? How much of their worldview would crumble? What little would be left if they bite the bullet? Could they recover from it?

Lasorso has already prepped his mind for the inevitable: "'I'm confident this will have an effect (on crime),'" he said. "'I don't know how measurable it will be.'" That's faith for you. If no statistically significant decrease in crime rate occurs--patent falsifying, confuting evidence--he will still go on believing. Besides he has at least one excuse ready--he probably won't be able to attract 3,000 woowoos to Eden Park to join him in the practice of his delusion.

On the other hand, should there be a statistically significant dip in crime rate, Lasorso will no doubt make a big deal of his project's "success." Never mind how unwarranted that may be. Who in Cincinnati has ever heard of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, right?

Physicist Bob Park's shoot from the lip response succinctly describes Lasorso's pipe dream: "Pure malarkey."

(My brother works in Cincinnati. I wonder if he'll be anywhere near Eden Park tomorrow.)

Two deads are better than one

Gary Schwartz has taken scientific protocol to new heights. We've all heard of double blind studies. To further improve the reliability of science he's now given us "double deceased" experiments.

Each [experiment] takes place in two different centres, there are two mediums and two sitters who have never met each other and each deceased person the medium alleges to contact has to bring another deceased person with them for verification. The readings are then scored for accuracy.

Medium: What is your name?

My dead grandma: Elizabeth.

Medium: Is that true?

My dead grandpa: Affirmative.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

I, robot

To be human we need time to be aware of ourselves:

Self-awareness, regarded as a key element of being human, is switched off when the brain needs to concentrate hard on a tricky task, found the neurobiologists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

The team conducted a series of experiments to pinpoint the brain activity associated with introspection and that linked to sensory function. They found that the brain assumes a robotic functionality when it has to concentrate all its efforts on a difficult, timed task – only becoming "human" again when it has the luxury of time.

A, B, C, D, ...

Letters in All Writing Systems Traced Back to Nature

The shapes of letters in all languages are derived from common forms in nature, according to a new hypothesis.

The idea, in some ways seemingly obvious and innately human, arose however from a study of how robots see the world.

Robots employ object recognition technology to navigate a room by recognizing contours. A corner is seen as a "Y," for example, and a wall is recognized by the L-shape it makes where it meets the floor.

"It struck me that these junctions are typically named with letters, such as 'L,' 'T,' 'Y,' 'K,' and 'X,' and that it may not be a coincidence that the shapes of these letters look like the things they really are in nature," said Mark Changizi, a theoretical neurobiologist at the California Institute of Technology.

Changizi and his colleagues think letters and symbols in Chinese, Latin, Persian, and all 97 of the other writing systems that have been used through the ages have shapes that humans are good at seeing.

It's hardly surprising that Chinese characters can be, so to speak, traced back to nature. They're pictograms. Of course, needless to say Chinese characters have through the centuries evolved toward ever more stylized and simplified forms of the originals.

Back to the English alphabet, I really feel antsy about Changizi's claim that "it may not be a coincidence that the shapes of these letters look like the things they really are in nature." With regards to that i'm wondering what he has to say about such letters as B, C, D, G, O, P, Q, R, S, U. On the one hand, it's almost a truism to say that any alphabet will have some correspondence with things we see in nature (straight lines, curves, circles, ...) On the other hand, unless there's a strict operational definition, there's enough leeway to force fit alphabets, characters, and what have you to confirm the hypothesis. Given that the news item is for popular consumption and doesn't have the rigor of a journal article, I'm giving Changizi the benefit of the doubt.

(I'd also be interested to see the precursors of the modern alphabet and how many of them have the distinct corners/junctions Changizi talks about. Moreover, it may be instructive to know what the connection is between the written letter and its pronunciation. For instance, Which came first? I put my money on the oral tradition.)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Rehydration therapy

Over in Greece they've recently discovered that the 15-year old corpse of a monk has hardly decomposed. Of course it's being hailed a miracle by the deluded. Medical experts on the other hand are attributing the whole thing to low humidity inside his casket.

Well, I'm not convinced dry air is preserving his body. I want proof! So how about having him Fedexed down here to the tropics and exposing his pristine body to our 90% humidity. Let's see how long this miracle remains one.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Dr. Zach's Evolution 101

For those who haven't been tuning in yet, molecular biologist Zachary Moore has a most essential series of podcasts on the evidence for evolution called Evolution 101. You can catch the latest on his podcast feed, while past episodes can be found in his freethoughtmedia page. Transcripts of the lectures are available as well (particularly useful for all those biochemical terms that necessarily accompany the discussion).

Evolution 101 is more than highly recommended. It's science and scientific evidence that shows us how we know that different species are related to one another, that evolution is both theoretically robust and factual.

By the way, the resource on talkorigins that Dr. Zach alludes to in his Molecular Evidence podcasts (podcasts #108-114) is Dr. Douglas Theobald's 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Molecular Sequence Evidence.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Feng shui the Middle Eastern way

You'd think only the superstitious Chinese would be meticulous about which direction their beds, doors, furnishings, and what have you should face. Turns out Prophet Mo's followers are very picky as well.... particularly with their loos.

The Home Office said two new toilet blocks are being installed as part of a refurbishment at Brixton jail in south London.

Faith leaders had told prison bosses it was unacceptable for Muslim inmates to face Mecca while using the toilet.


400 straitjackets please

A gathering of some of the most severely deluded.

Creationists who argue that science supports the Bible's account of the origins of the world are holding their first major conference in Britain this weekend amid an increasingly acrimonious debate over the issue.

Nearly 400 people, including a number of clerics, gathered in a Christian centre in Derbyshire yesterday to hear academics defend the view that God made the Earth in six days about 6,000 years ago.

How fucked up can someone's mind get? Apparently, there are no limits.

Sweeney's Letting Go of God

A friend just forwarded the following link. The entry's almost a year old. No matter. Julia Sweeney's "autobiography" is timeless. Click on the speaker icon to listen. (The torrented file lacks "seeds" so forget about downloading the file for now.)

Sweeney is awesome! If I could I'd force every Christian kith and kin of mine (which is about, oh, 95%) to listen to her a dozen times. But even if I could have my way I strongly doubt it would deconvert any of them. Belief is tenacious, however stupid and ridiculous what a person believes in may be. (Unconvinced? Just listen to that nutcase Tom Cruise and his scientology babble.) After listening to Julia Christians will simply engage their cognitive dissonance machinery and spout a litany of lame rationalizations to save their investment (no one likes being disillusioned--it's one hell of a downer). So after being contested and debated by rationalists and skeptics, after getting cornered, and when all else fails they'll just slip out through the ultimate backdoor--"God is a mystery"--and plunge at a rate of 9.8 kilometers per second per second into an epistemic abyss of no return.... If only that were the end of them.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

ODing on cortisol

From Bob Park this week:

When our Pleistocene ancestors saw movement in the tall grass, their brains released stress hormones, increasing heart rate and respiration, dilating eyes to increase awareness and diverting blood from the digestive tract to arms and legs. The body was preparing to fight, or run very fast in the opposite direction. Carnivores in the tall grass are not a problem today, but there is plenty to fear. It's a lousy feeling that hits you right in your blood-deprived stomach. If anxiety persists due to war in Iraq, terrorists, bird flu, arctic melting, gas prices, or Rumsfeld, the brain switches to a long-term strategy. The hypothalamus, which controls emotion, tells the adrenal cortex to release cortisol, another stress hormone that raises blood pressure and increases blood glucose levels. New findings from Harvard Medical School links cortisol levels directly to depression for the first time. You're being manipulated by your hypothalamus. You can try to persuade your brain that there are no tigers, or take antidepressants that boost serotonin, another hormone that constricts blood vessels, countering the cortisol.

I have to have my cortisol level checked. And I have to have my serotonin levels boosted--without all the intolerably nasty side effects of SSRIs.

Friday, April 21, 2006

I've just been contacted by the police

Last year I sent a letter to the the Singapore police informing them of a "magic stones" scam which was being perpetrated via international mail, and which had a Singapore return address. In that snail mail I included the various printed material I received. If I recall correctly the magic stones were advertized as coming from Peru and touted to have healing or whatever powers. Can't remember how much they were selling the gravel for.

Today I almost deleted an email which I thought was spam. Turns out it's a correspondence from the Commercial Crime Squad of the Central Police Division HQ. Whoa! According to the officer who wrote me they've been thus far unsuccessful in tracking down the people behind this fraudulent operation. Drats! Another bunch of scumbags got away.

Was really quite a surprise to hear from the Singapore police. I find it amazing that one year after they even bothered writing and keeping me updated. They've even kept all my contact info on file (on second thought that may not be such a good thing. I solemnly swear I will never again chew gum during my future trips to Singapore). As for me I've almost forgotten about the magic stones junk mail. Shame on me.

From the looks of it the Singaporeans do take these matters seriously, including correspondences from foreigners--as it should be of course. Kudos to Singapore! (If it isn't obvious yet, I'm hardly impartial. I simply love that country. Am just about ready to snap up a copy of Lee Kuan Yew's From Third World to First : The Singapore Story. Wonder if it'll ever be on sale.)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

And belief in the resurrection lives

Believer: It was so uplifting to listen to our priest's Easter message. I now believe more than ever the resurrection is a fact.

Skeptic: Must've been a moving homily. So, how do you know the resurrection's real?

B: Well, the gospels say so. St. Paul says so. Or haven't you read the Holy Book?

S: How do the gospel writers, Paul, et al. know that it is true?

B: It has to be since there were witnesses who saw the risen Christ.

S: How did you know there were witnesses?

B: The writers say so.

S: 1. How do you know that the biblical writers were telling the truth, that they were writing something historical rather than something fictional/symbolic/metaphorical, and 2a. How do you know that the so-called witnesses weren't lying, weren't exaggerating, weren't blowing things out of proportion and 2b. that what they perceived was in fact a resurrection and not something else (such as a hallucination)?

B: Well I trust all of them.

S: Why do you trust them?

B: Because I do.

S: So you in fact don't know that the resurrection is real. You just trust your sources.

B: Hey, I do know the resurrection is fact, is historical, is true!

S: How?

B: Because I believe it to be so!

S: Yes, obviously you believe, and believe very strongly. But how do you know that your belief is correct?

B: Because there's a very long tradition to that belief.

S: And how does the fact that there've been billions who believed over thousands of years, and the fact that organizations big and small have institutionalized this belief, and that theologies have woven doctrines around it make this belief true?

B: Are you implying that billions of people have been wrong all this time? How can all of us and all our theologians be wrong?

S: How many millions or billions do you think had believed the earth was the center of the solar system and the universe? Did your tradition believe in the Copernican or the Ptolemaic model?

So, do any of your theologians and clergy have evidence that the resurrection is true?

B: I believe as biblical scholar Monsignor John Meier does that "historians can never prove the Resurrection in the same way" they can verify "Jesus existed and that certain events reported in the Gospels happened in history." And that is because the "resurrection stands outside of the sort of questing by way of historical, critical research that is done for the life of the historical Jesus."

Be that as it may, the authors of the bible tell us it is true.

S: Aren't we back to square one here?

B: You skeptics and nonbelievers just won't accept any evidence we present, will you?

S: You certainly are right that we don't accept just any kind of evidence. We will consider only good evidence. Frankly, you haven't offered any. And I haven't come across anyone who has.

B: Ok, wise guy, we know the resurrection is real because as Meier rightly says "not everything that is real either exists in time and space or is empirically verifiable by historical means."

S: Do you have evidence for that new claim of yours--that not everything real exists in time and space? How do we find out whether that is true or not? What test can we conduct to determine its veracity?

B: Aha! You can't disprove it, can you?!

S: Probably not, but the crucial question is, Can you and Meier substantiate it? Do you have any piece of evidence at all that it isn't merely an ad hoc hypothesis? If you don't have a means to verify it then how do you know it's true?

B: I don't need evidence. I don't need to test anything. I know the resurrection is true!

S: Well, again for the nth time, How do you know that?

B: I just know it! It's intuition, gut feel, whatever you call it.

S: Is your intuition always correct?

B: I don't know, and I don't care. I know this time it's on the mark.

S: Of course. But how do know it's right this time?

B: I just know it!! Just as I know that you're going to burn in Hell for having no faith in our Lord and posing all these silly, blasphemous questions! Now get off my case!

Monday, April 17, 2006


One hell of an Easter homily.

At the heart of Christian belief is a lie: that this man was tortured to death long ago, and that afterwards he came back to life. Oh, and also that he wasn't a man at all, but a god. There is no evidence for these claims that defy all reason and experience, but we're asked merely to believe. To have faith. To trust the words of priests.

I refuse.


Christianity has taken the lie and amplified it millions-fold. If one man came back from the dead, why not everyone? It's the wet dream of every snake-oil salesman, the ultimate con: an irresistible promise, made with no evidence whatsoever, with a payoff deferred to another world, another time…and the suckers line up in droves to pay up.

"You don't have to die," the priests wheedle, "you can live forever."

How many millions have fallen for that tempting lie? How many have died? All of them. How many have seen the promise fulfilled? None of them.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Wacky World of Woowoo

The Father willed that His Son be sacrificed.
Jesus willingly acceded to His Father's orders.
But Jesus = God.
Ergo, God killed God.
In other words, God committed suicide.
However, God did not really die.
In fact, nobody really ever dies.

The umagnetizable Dawkins

Michael Persinger's contraption can induce strange experiences, including religious ones. However, Richard Dawkins brain seems to be alien in nature--no trips via Persinger's headgear. Perhaps a magnetic field a thousand times stronger will do the trick and zap this evil atheist idol of ours into having god delusions.

(via Pharyngula)

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Awash with discoveries

Some of the more recent news in evolution have been 1. molecular exploitation as a mechanism for molecular complexity and 2. the discovery of the fossil of Tiktaalik roseae--a transitional form between fish and tetrapods. Now there's the discovery of the fossils of Australopithecus anamensis--"the earliest known member of Australopithecus"--right between fossils of the later species Australopithecus afarensis and an earlier one Ardipithecus ramidus.

Since their remains don’t overlap, scientists think the three species are directly related, evolving one from the other, rather than being cousins that shared a common ancestor.

"This discovery fills the gap between Ardipithicus and Australopithecus," said study team member Tim White, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

The fossils were discovered in the Middle Awash valley in Ethiopa, an area where "scientists have found the fossils of nearly 250 hominid specimens embedded within more than a mile of stacked sediments representing time periods that stretch back 6 million years." "'Here is one place on Earth where you have 12 separate [sediment layers], one stacked on top of another, whose fossils have filled in many of the gaps in human evolution over the years,' White told LiveScience. 'Many of the links are no longer missing.'"

I suppose it's yet another find the Discovery Institute will be downplaying.

Is there no end to the torrent of evidence for evilution?!

Friday, April 07, 2006

Is the Geller curse real?

His Amazingness James Randi--who incidentally will be back at the reins of Swift next week--points us to an interesting article by the Sun. It talks about what apparently is the curse of that cutlery mangler Uri Geller. Sports fan "John [Atkinson] found Uri more often than not scuppered the chances of sportsmen and teams he was trying to help." Nothing new really. Swift has been keeping us informed of Geller's forays and granstanding in the field of sports, and his dismal performance at it.

Among his various flops:

Geller asked televiewers to touch an orange spot on their tv sets to help England win the Euro '96 Football Championship. England was knocked out of the competition by Germany.

In 2001 Geller predicted David Coulthard would win the British Grand Prix. Coulthard crashed during the first lap and was out of the race by lap 3.

In the same year Geller used his "powers" to make Tim Henman win the Wimbledon Championship. Goran Ivanisevic beat Henman during the semi-finals.

Earlier this year Geller "helped" the Scottish Falkirk soccer team. Inverness Caledonian Thistle won instead.

The examples provided by the Sun do seem to indicate that Geller has a malus touch, that being favored and helped by Geller means disaster. However, by themselves these failures don't tell us whether there's any relationship between Geller's intervention (prediction of a win or paranormal assistance) and a team/player's performance.

The problem with the data (as those in the Sun and in Swift) is that they're insufficient for us to arrive at a conclusion about the relationship between the two variables. Specifically, we don't have the outcomes of the competitions entered into by the same players/teams when Geller made no intervention. We need these data in order to know whether there is a relationship, whether there is a correlation. Merely looking at the partial data curently available to us we can easily end up with an illusory negative correlation which leads us to believe there's some sort of a Geller curse.

The following 2 x 2 table summarizes the information required for computing the correlation.

Geller intervened, i.e.,
predicted a win or assisted in a paranormal way
(Variable 1)
(Variable 2)


The data that we lack are those for cells b and d.

Before proceeding, it is important to keep in mind a couple of pitfalls in looking for and presenting evidence: selective attention and confirmation bias (or in this case we can perhaps call it disconfirmation bias). We usually will look for and zero in on examples and evidence that confirm our position (in this case Geller's failures). Not infrequently we present these and only these as evidence. An example would be psychics and marketing people who are unscrupulous or ignorant enough to cherry pick only hits and successes, hoodwinking the naive into buying into their products and services. But such selectiveness can hide the true picture. The Sun article may have been aware of this in that it does, in fairness, cite one instance when the purported assistance by Geller was followed by a positive result (boxer Peter McDonagh won). Of course whether or not this is the only time Geller scored a hit we don't know.

From my reading of the two sources above I gather there have been at least 8 unambiguous instances when Geller bombed out. And as the Sun article says there is at least one time when fate was kind to Geller. Plugging those numbers into our table we have:

Geller intervened?
Team or Player

As can be clearly seen half the table is empty. Let's now toy around with various hypothetical numbers for cells b and d to see how they affect the correlation.

1. Let's say we find out that Tim Henman had played in Wimbledon in two other years and never made it to the semis either. Let's suppose as well that the other teams and players also lost in events very similar to the ones they played for which Geller made predictions and did his psychic hocus pocus. All in all let's say we uncover 100 events and all were losses.

Team or Player

Computing for the correlation we obtain +0.32 (see endnote for equation). What this means is that rather than a curse there is in fact a weak positive correlation between Geller's intervention and sports performance. Certainly no Geller curse to speak of when the correlation is positive.

2. Now what if out of those 100 events there were 11 wins and 89 losses? The correlation would be, for all practical purposes, zero, meaning there is no relationship whatsoever between the two variables. There is neither a curse nor a Midas touch.

3. Let's increase the number of wins even further and bloat it to say 80. As you probably can guess the correlation has swung over to the negative.

Team or Player

Give the above data the correlation coefficient is now -0.43. There is now a moderately strong negative relationship between the two variables. And as we increase the value in cell b relative to cell d the correlation becomes stronger such that when cell b = 100 and cell d = 0 the correlation becomes -0.94. With such a high correlation there would be reason to consider talk of a Geller curse. And there certainly would be very good reason to put all your money on the other team.

In summary, as long as we don't have information for all the cells we can't conclude anything about the relationship between the two variables and thus the so-called curse may be illusory, just as it would've been had it been the other way around--that more teams and players won than lost when Geller intervened. Belief in a Geller curse is just like belief that walking under a ladder brings bad luck. It is a superstition. And it is insufficient information and lack of proper analysis that lead to erroneous conclusions about the relationship between two events--a purported cause and an (observed) effect.


Correlation for two variables in a 2 x 2 table is obtained by computing for the phi coefficient of association:
            ad - bc
r = -------------------------

Note: the denominator is raised to the power of 0.5, i.e., we take its square root.



Vyse, Stuart A. 1997. Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 114-119.

Irreducible complexity bites the dust

Biologists are finding out how complexity arises.
How natural selection can drive the evolution of complex molecular systems—those in which the function of each part depends on its interactions with the other parts—has been an unsolved issue in evolutionary biology. Advocates of Intelligent Design argue that such systems are "irreducibly complex" and thus incompatible with gradual evolution by natural selection.

"Our work demonstrates a fundamental error in the current challenges to Darwinism," said [Joe] Thornton. "New techniques allowed us to see how ancient genes and their functions evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. We found that complexity evolved piecemeal through a process of Molecular Exploitation—old genes, constrained by selection for entirely different functions, have been recruited by evolution to participate in new interactions and new functions."

The scientists used state-of-the-art statistical and molecular methods to unravel the evolution of an elegant example of molecular complexity—the specific partnership of the hormone aldosterone, which regulates behavior and kidney function, along with the receptor protein that allows the body’s cells to respond to the hormone. They resurrected the ancestral receptor gene—which existed more than 450 million years ago, before the first animals with bones appeared on Earth—and characterized its molecular functions. The experiments showed that the receptor had the capacity to be activated by aldosterone long before the hormone actually evolved.

Thornton’s group then showed that the ancestral receptor also responded to a far more ancient hormone with a similar structure; this made it "preadapated" to be recruited into a new functional partnership when aldosterone later evolved. By recapitulating the evolution of the receptor’s DNA sequence, the scientists showed that only two mutations were required to evolve the receptor’s present-day functions in humans.

"The stepwise process we were able to reconstruct is entirely consistent with Darwinian evolution," Thornton said. "So-called irreducible complexity was just a reflection of a limited ability to see how evolution works. By reaching back to the ancestral forms of genes, we were able to show just how this crucial hormone-receptor pair evolved."

Psychics who prey on the grieving ought to suffer the same fate

Grigory Grabavoi, the Russian who promised to resurrect the children who died in the Beslan siege in September 2004 has just been arrested.
NTV television said police had burst into a seance on Wednesday night and dragged the self-proclaimed healer away through a back entrance despite opposition from believers.
So much for breaking news from the beyond. Grabavoi should continue the seance in his cell and interrogate the spirits why none of them bothered to tell him to skeddadle. (Maybe Sylvia Browne had warned them of this con man and conspired to have the competition eliminated).

Belief engine

Another review of Lewis Wolpert's Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

[R]ather than just arm wrestling with God's faithful, his book attempts to survey the science underpinning all intuitive beliefs, including religion, that humans stubbornly cling to, in spite of the best efforts of rational enquiry to displace them: credence in the paranormal, magic and superstition; faith in alternative-health therapies; the conviction that sooner or later we're bound to win a lottery jackpot. Our belief engine, Wolpert concludes, works on wholly unscientific principles: "It prefers quick decisions, it is bad with numbers, loves representativeness and sees patterns where there is only randomness. It is too often influenced by authority and it has a liking for mysticism."

It may be worth reading psychologist James Alcock's CSICOP article The Belief Engine.

[O]ur brains and nervous systems constitute a belief-generating machine, an engine that produces beliefs without any particular respect for what is real or true and what is not. This belief engine selects information from the environment, shapes it, combines it with information from memory, and produces beliefs that are generally consistent with beliefs already held. This system is as capable of generating fallacious beliefs as it is of generating beliefs that are in line with truth. These beliefs guide future actions and, whether correct or erroneous, they may prove functional for the individual who holds them. Whether or not there is really a Heaven for worthy souls does nothing to detract from the usefulness of such a belief for people who are searching for meaning in life.

Nothing is fundamentally different about what we might think of as "irrational" beliefs -- they are generated in the same manner as are other beliefs. We may not have an evidential basis for belief in irrational concepts, but neither do we have such a basis for most of our beliefs. For example, you probably believe that brushing your teeth is good for you, but it is unlikely that you have any evidence to back up this belief, unless you are a dentist. You have been taught this, it makes some sense, and you have never been led to question it.

Every Christian knows exactly what it is like to be atheist

Excerpt from an April 2006 interview with Sam Harris.

How do you define the differences between an atheist and an agnostic?

“Agnosticism” is a word that was brought into use by T.H. Huxley. I don’t think it’s a particularly useful word. It tends to be defined as the belief that one can’t know whether or not there is a god. An agnostic is someone who thinks we don’t know and can’t know the truth of a position. So it’s a non-committal attitude.

But it’s not an intellectually honest position, because everyone is walking around presuming to know that there isn’t a Zeus, there isn’t a Poseidon, and there isn’t a Thor. Can you prove that Thor with his hammer isn’t sending down lightning bolts? No, you can’t prove it. But that’s not the right question. The right question is, “Is there any reason whatsoever to think there’s a god named Thor?” And of course there isn’t. There are many good reasons to think that he was a fictional character. The Batman of Scandinavia.

The problem for religious people is that the god of the Bible is on no firmer footing, epistemologically, than these dead gods. Which is to say that nobody ever discovered that Thor doesn’t exist, but that the biblical god really does. So we have learned to talk and use the word ‘god’ in a way so as not to notice that we’re using a very strange word and evoking a very vacuous concept, like the concept of Thor.

And therefore the definition of an atheist is?

And atheist is not someone who can prove that there is no Thor. An atheist is simply someone who says, “show me the evidence,” and who is unconvinced by evidence like:

“Here’s a book that was dictated by the creator of the universe, and in it, it describes all kinds of miracles that people claim they witnessed, but these people have been dead for 2,000 years, and in fact none of the authors of the book are the people who claim to have witnessed these events, and they wrote the book a hundred years after the events in question.”

This is not a story that anyone would find plausible except for the fact that it was drummed into them by previous generations of people who were taught not to think critically about it.

The thing to reiterate is that every Christian knows exactly what it’s like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims, for instance. Muslims have the same reasons for being Muslim as Christians have for being Christian. They have a book they’re sure was written or dictated by the creator of the universe–because the book says that it was written or dictated by the creator of the universe. Christians look at Muslim discourse and find it fundamentally unpersuasive. Christians aren’t lying awake at night worrying about whether they should convert to Islam. Why not? Because Muslims can’t really back up their claims. They are clearly engaged in a style of discourse that is just not intellectually honest. It’s not purposed to genuine inquiry into the nature of the world. It is a reiteration of dogma, and they are clearly committed to a massive program of self-deception. Every Christian recognizes this about every religion other than Christianity. So every Christian knows exactly what it is like to be atheist. They just don’t turn the same candor and intellectual honesty on to their own faith.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Beating Monty Hall

Prof. of mathematics Jason Rosenhouse recently put my brain through an ordeal with the Monty Hall problem:
You are presented with three identical doors. Behind one of them is a car and behind the other two are goats. You want the car. Monty Hall tells you to choose one of the doors. Regardless of which door you choose, at least one of the two remaining doors will have a goat behind it. Monty Hall, who knows where the car is, then opens one of the doors that has a goat behind it. He then gives you the option of either sticking with the first door you chose, or switching your choice to the other unopened door.

Question: What should you do? Should you stay where you are? Swtich? Does it make a difference?
Because we're left with only two doors to choose from the odds are 50-50 that the car is behind the door we originally picked. Hence, switching is irrelevant, right? Well, that's what I thought.

After making sure I was well aware that my line of reasoning was completely off the mark, Rosenhouse explained in various ways how to understand the correct probabilities of switching and not switching. But guess what? None of them got through to me. I think my brain must be due for a 100,000-kilometer overhaul or something. So I googled and visited Alexander Bogomolny's Cut the Knot site where there were even more explanations. Amongst them the one that finally switched on the bulb was the explanation by Michael Gerard Wilson:
Let's say that you choose your door (out of 3, of course). Then, without showing what's behind any of the doors, Monty says you can stick with your first choice or you can have both of the two other doors. I think most everyone would then take the two doors collectively.
And it made even more sense when I coupled that with Ashutosh Joshi's take on the problem:
The main thing that confuses in the problem is that there are only 3 doors. Lets generalize the problem as follows:

There are n number of doors. One of them has a prize behind it and n-1 are empty. After I select one door the host opens n-2 empty doors and gives me the option to switch doors. Should I switch?

When n is 3 as in the original problem, things get confusing but now let n be a large number say 1000. So there are 999 empty doors.I select one of them and the host shows me 998 empty doors. Now it is clear that it is definitely advantageous for me to switch. There was only a 0.001 chance of me picking the correct door immediately so obviously one can't say that it is now a 50-50 chance. It is still 0.001 that I had picked the right door initially. So the chance of me winning if I now switch is 0.999 or (n-1)/n. Since this is the solution for the general problem of n doors, the answer for n=3 is (3-1)/2 or there is a 2/3 chance of winning if I switch my choice of doors.

Now that I think I get it let me make a stab at explaining it the way it makes sense to me.

Instead of just three doors let's say I'm presented with 100. I'm asked to choose one. The probability that the door I choose actually is the correct one is of course 1/100 or 1%. Monty then gives me a choice whether to stick with my choice or to trade it for the 99 other doors. In other words I being given the chance to bet that the car is behind the 99 other doors instead of the one I initially picked. Furthermore, I am not being asked to pick one among those 99, I'm just being asked to choose between two groups: 1 door or the 99 other doors. Given that the probability of finding the car in the latter group is 99% I'd be crazy not to avail of the option. Continuing with the game, whichever group I choose Monty proceeds to open 98 doors of the latter group.

Choosing the latter group--the 99 other doors--is equivalent to switching to the one door that Monty doesn't open among the 99. In the case of 100 doors, switching when we're down to just two doors gives us a 99% chance of winning the car! Incredible, isn't it?

The same reasoning applies given any number of doors. Likewise, the above explanation also in part addresses (at least I think it does) Rosenhouse's Variation 2 of the problem:
This time there are five doors, concealing one car and four goats. You choose one of the doors. Monty Hall, who knows where the car is, opens one of the remaining goat-bearing doors. He then gives you the option of switching. You make your choice, after which Monty Hall again opens a goat-bearing door. Again you have the option of switching. This process continues until there are only two doors remaining. What is your best strategy?
The best strategy he says is to defer until there are only two doors left and then switch. Alex Bogomolny has probability figures for a 4-door version of this multi-stage Monty Hall problem. I think the general rule is the same as for the single stage version: The probability of getting it right if we switch only at the last moment--when there are only two doors left--is (n-1)/n.

Shermer on prayer studies

I just received the April 5 2006 eskeptic newsletter via email. In it Michael Shermer describes the Benson prayer study. He also discusses the significant flaws in past prayer studies, viz., fraud, lack of controls, outcome differences, file-drawer problem, operational definitions, and theological implications.

(The April 5 eskeptic web page should be up within the week )

Free Inquiry publishes the Prophet Mo cartoons

As reported in God is for Suckers last week, Free Inquiry is publishing some of the Danish cartoons in their latest issue. Editor Tom Flynn on their reasons for doing so:
Free Inquiry considered it important to run a selection of the Danish cartoons. We’ve chosen to publish four in this issue—as I write, the largest number to appear in print in any nationwide U. S. publication. In part, we do this in solidarity with several European newspapers, demonstrating our commitment to the Enlightenment principle of free expression and the fundamental democratic principle of a free press. But as secular humanists we have additional grounds to think it important that these images see print. As noted in the Center for Inquiry’s mission statement, we are committed to freedom of inquiry "in every area of human endeavor," and that emphatically includes religion. No religious teaching, community, or institution should be held immune from criticism simply because it is religious in nature.


[A]s journalists and as U.S. citizens, we have the right to treat sacred matters in the same uncompromising way we might approach any other issue. Inquiry, criticism, satire, even the occasional resort to mockery—all can be within bounds, depending on the context. If we possess that right, it is a right we must defend. It is a right we surely should not quail from exercising. In particular, it is a right we should not quail from exercising for fear of reprisals by outraged believers. Exactly insofar as religious matters have important consequences in politics, society, and culture, it is imperative that they face the same exposure to the rough-and-tumble of public discourse as does any other kind of activity in which human beings engage.

What you want to know about Trudeau

While exploring a new mall the other day I succumbed to temptation and ended up spending some time in a bookstore. One of the items in the bestseller section was the Kevin Trudeau paperweight Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You To Know About. Too bad I couldn't browse through it--the store was keeping it in its virginal state with shrink wrap.

Just visited CSICOP and saw Stephen Barrett's critique of Trudeau's informercial for his vacuous book.

Jesus walked on water ... below zero

Like that currently running Fedex tv commercial on Discovery Channel (Asia) where the delivery guy walks across the river (thanks to a battalion of submerged divers holding up a pontoon), Jesus too may have had some help (from mother nature--His father's brainchild).
Rare conditions could have conspired to create hard-to-see ice on the Sea of Galilee that a person could have walked on back when Jesus is said to have walked on water, a scientist said today.
On the other hand, with all that gale and raging sea (Mt. 14:24)--something that scared the Hell (and Faith) out of Peter--Jesus must've had ice cleats on to even stay on the bobbing ice blocks. And he had to keep himself from being thrown over by the wind and waves and had to jump from one ice sheet to another to reach his minions' boat. That feat in itself would've been a miracle! To top it off Jesus must've had an extra pair of cleats for Peter.

Shoot! Another hypothesis to save a legend drowned.

Moss on mangosteen

Ralph Moss takes a skeptical look at claims for mangosteen as an anticancer: Part 1, Part 2

Coincidentally, I saw XanGo this afternoon in a grocery. First time to see a bottled mangosteen product actually. As Moss says, "what we have here is simply an overpriced fruit drink." Cheers.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Am praying they donate the money to the needy instead

The John Templeton Foundation doesn't like the results of the million-dollar, nearly-ten-years-in-the-waiting prayer study it bankrolled.
Analysts, however, had pointed to methodological weaknesses calling these results into question. In view of both the empirical uncertainties and the potential significance of a non-null result, the Foundation's advisory board advocated that substantial resources be put forth in order to advance methodological rigor in the design and execution of a new "blue ribbon standard" study.
I guess they won't stop until they get positive results.


April 5 erratum: I had egregiously misread the Templeton statement. As KipEsquire clarifies the "methodological weaknesses" refer to those of previous studies. My apologies to the Foundation and to all.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Xanthone Juice: Snake oil and placebo?

Just came across an ad by Xanthone Corporation in the weekly newspaper Village Voice.1 It touts:

A Revolutionary Discovery

Some Health Benefits:

* Anti-Tumor
* Blood Pressure/Fat Lowering
* Anti-Diabetic
* Anti-Arthritic
* Anti-Allergic
* Anti-Depressant/Anti-oxidant
* Anti-Aging
* Anti-Microbial/Viral
* And more

The ad then lists Xanthone's contact numbers and their web address. Well, they certainly weren't kidding when they said "and more." The litany continues at their Complete List of Mangosteen Benefits page.

Here's how they describe their product:
Xanthone Juice™: The Power Formula is what we call it. And, unlike other rejuvenating drinks, its potency has been proven, time and time again, for countless generations. From the sun-baked nipa huts of ancient healers to the sanitized feel of modern research labs, it exerts its power on an incredibly wide range of diseases that afflict the common man. And still the list is growing.... [O]ur product goes through a special cold process and is blended with other fruit extracts to make a tonic drink that is both nutritive and curative [emphases added].... Its history is rich, its potency proven.

But after all those claims right there at the bottom their web pages they have the disclaimer:
Statements about the product efficacy have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. [emphasis added]

Now this isn't just hypocrisy. This is blatant misrepresentation. Their newspaper ad and their online claims are intentionally meant to mislead people. Their print ad does make very explicit therapeutic claims--not for the fruit mangosteen--but for Xanthone Juice, very extravagant claims at that. That's fraud.

On their site they have a link to, supposedly, research material that I presumed would back up the claims they're making for their product. But once you reach the research page all there is a link to PubMed. They neither have quotes from any scientific study whatsoever nor do they provide any citations. Instead they pass the buck to the readers, explicitly telling them to go and look for evidence themselves over at PubMed. Irresponsible is an understatement.

The best they've done is to write an article that, among other things, says:
Some of the known benefits of xanthones based on recent research are:

* Helps boost energy
* Helps prevent and reduce inflammation
* Shows signs of slowing aging
* Helps lower blood pressure
* Helps lower blood sugar
* Helps prevent infections by bacteria, viruses, and fungus
* Effectively treats a variety of diarrheal diseases
* Helps prevent dementia
* Helps prevent allergies
* Helps prevents cataracts and glaucoma
* Helps protect the heart and cardiovascular system
The article provides no references.

Are we to presume that research has shown xanthones to be effective in humans per se? Or could it be that the results are from animal studies, or that what is available to date are merely results from in vitro experiments?

Near the bottom of their Complete List of Mangosteen Benefits is a list of medical conditions one of which is cancer. Clicking on that we read that the study or studies they allude to are in vitro ones. The problem with such studies is that they don't necessarily translate into effective treatments for humans, not least because in vitro experiments don't tell us what happens to these substances when taken orally and how they would interact with a complex biochemical system such as our body in dosages that are therapeutic. "One test-tube [i.e., in vitro] study or a hundred test-tube studies can't provide strong evidence for an effective treatment in a living human." Likewise, "by themselves, animal studies can't show that a substance is safe for humans." 2

In lieu of scientific studies, what evidence do they present? What else but anecdotes and testimonials. And yet personal stories are of little use in knowing and establishing whether a treatment is efficacious or not. Drs. Stephen Barrett and Victor Herbert's explanation bears quoting in full:
We all tend to believe what others tell us about personal experiences. But separating cause and effect from coincidence can be difficult. If people tell you that product X has cured their cancer, arthritis, or whatever, be skeptical. They may not actually have had the condition. If they did, their recovery most likely would have occurred without the help of product X. Most single episodes of disease end with just the passage of time, and most chronic ailments have symptom-free periods. Establishing medical truths requires careful and repeated investigation -- with well-designed experiments, not reports of coincidences misperceived as cause-and-effect. That's why testimonial evidence is forbidden in scientific articles, is usually inadmissible in court, and is not used to evaluate whether or not drugs should be legally marketable. (Imagine what would happen if the FDA decided that clinical trials were too expensive and therefore drug approval would be based on testimonial letters or interviews with a few patients.)

Never underestimate the extent to which people can be fooled by a worthless remedy. During the early 1940s, many thousands of people became convinced that "glyoxylide" could cure cancer. Yet analysis showed that it was simply distilled water! [1] Many years before that, when arsenic was used as a "tonic," countless numbers of people swore by it even as it slowly poisoned them.

Symptoms that are psychosomatic (bodily reactions to tension) are often relieved by anything taken with a suggestion that it will work. Tiredness and other minor aches and pains may respond to any enthusiastically recommended nostrum. For these problems, even physicians may prescribe a placebo. A placebo is a substance that has no pharmacological effect on the condition for which it is used, but is given to satisfy a patient who supposes it to be a medicine. Vitamins (such as B12 shots) are commonly used in this way.

Placebos act by suggestion. Unfortunately, some doctors swallow the advertising hype or become confused by their own observations and "believe in vitamins" beyond those supplied by a good diet. Those who share such false beliefs do so because they confuse coincidence or placebo action with cause and effect. Homeopathic believers make the same error.

As I posted last year, Quackwatch, in a March 2005 monograph, reported that there is still no reliable evidence for various therapeutic claims in humans:
Mangosteen juice is becoming a popular healthful and medicinal drink. It is usually marketed with the name xango juice. Some marketers claim that xango juice can treat diarrhea, menstrual problems, urinary tract infections, tuberculosis, and a variety of other conditions. There is no reliable scientific evidence to support these claims.

And of course, even if xanthones taken orally are in fact efficacious for certain diseases and are safe in dosages that would be therapeutic, we still wouldn't know if Xanthone Juice is effective. What that particular product actually contains (both active and inert ingredients) and what it can and cannot cause is another issue.


1. EDSA-Ortigas Village Voice, Vol. XII No. 29, April 2-8, 2006, p. 3

2. Schick, Theodore, Jr. and Lewis Vaughn, How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age, 2nd ed., Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1999, p. 219

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Morpheus: Will it be the red or the blue pill?

PZ Myers: Which door will it be for you?

Just barely not significant

I'm already doing way too many blog entries on this, but bear with me; I just need this dose of vindication. The L.A. Times reports that:
Overall, 59% of patients who knew they were being prayed for had complications, compared to 51% of the patients who did not receive prayers. The difference was not considered statistically significant.
Well yeah that's what my calculations told me. It isn't significant at the 99% level. I've just recomputed using a more rigorous method and the numbers still tell me it isn't statistically significant, although just barely. Because it's more or less a borderline case there may indeed be reason for the researchers to rack their brains and offer candidate explanations for the difference, such as the following:
Atrial fibrillation, a fluttering of the heart that can be related to stress, was the most common complication in all groups but was more likely to occur among patients who knew others were praying for them. ... "We conclude that telling people introduces the stress response," said Dr. Charles Bethea of Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City and a study researcher. He surmised that patients thought, "Am I so sick that they had to call in the prayer team?"

On another front and in contrast to Koenig, Dr. Richard P. Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University School of Medicine, offers a critique worthy of consideration.
One problem in the study, he said, was that in addition to the organized prayer, some patients prayed for themselves and received prayers from families, friends, people they work with or their congregations. "They have absolutely no idea how much prayer individuals in any of the groups received," Sloan said. "If we can't know that, we can't draw any conclusions whatsoever about the intervention."

Koenig and the Benson prayer study

Looks like the Benson study has been a long time coming. It was already being touted way back in 1997.

In 1999 when the study was already underway, Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of Duke University's Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health and a religious believer had high hopes for it.
Koenig believes the results will put an end to the conjecture once and for all. "This will either close the book on intercessory prayer," he says, "or open a whole new area of medical science."
Seven years down the road and with the dismal results, Koenig is singing a different tune. Allow me to repost his most recent comments:
"There are no scientific grounds to expect a result and there are no real theological grounds to expect a result either," he said. "There is no god in either the Christian, Jewish or Moslem scriptures that can be constrained to the point that they can be predicted.''

Within the Christian tradition, God would be expected to be concerned with a person's eternal salvation, he said, and "why would God change his plans for a particular person just because they're in a research study?''
Because it did not "open a whole new area of medical science" but instead "close[d] the book on intercessory prayer," it looks as if Koenig is sourgraping and producing excuses to downplay the study.

Koenig rightly says that "science is not designed to study the supernatural." But the Benson study if anything was about a very naturalistic process--the act of praying/supplication per se--done by naturalistic entities called homo sapiens, and about observing very naturalistic effects--post-operative medical conditions. As Carl Sagan noted back in 1996, if religion makes claims that are even in principle testable such claims are rightly within the province of science to investigate.

Supernaturalists like Koenig will of course resort to ad hoc, untestable/nonfalsifiable explanations, to various outs and backdoors, explanations which are immune to disproof. The thing is they don't and can never know that their explanations and background theological assumptions are true. Because its claims are untestable theology is nothing but an exercise in imagination and fantasy, a manufacturer of delusions.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Prayer complicates

The difference in the frequencies of complications found in that prayer study may be statistically significant after all. Bob Park reports today that, "A small increase in complications, attributed to "performance anxiety," was found in a subset of patients who were told that strangers were praying for them. "

Dear Christian friends, I and your supernaturalist peers will definitely be praying for thee.