The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for the ‘physics denial/woo’ Category

“Doctor” Oz Fails at Medicine AND Physics as He Pushes Cell Phone Fear-Mongering

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 18, 2013

This recent silliness by “Doctor” Oz came to my attention: apparently, during a recent show he took seriously the notion that women shouldn’t carry cell phones in their bras because it could give them breast cancer.  My skeptical colleague Dr. David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine summarizes Oz’s idiocy and fear-mongering here…

… The story aired on December 6 and was entitled Why You Should Keep Your Cell Phone Out of Your Bra. The entire segment, lasting ten minutes or so, is one blatant piece of fear mongering. Even by the usual low standards of a typical Dr. Oz segment, this one was bad. How bad? I’ll give you a taste. Let me start just by asking what you might expect in a segment claiming a link between an environmental exposure of some sort and a specific cancer? You’d expect some actual scientific evidence, wouldn’t you? Some epidemiology, perhaps, showing that women who hold their cell phones in their bras have a higher risk of breast cancer, perhaps with some relative risks that were at least statistically significant. You might expect some scientific evidence suggesting why the proposed mechanism is plausible. You might even expect that there would be convincing (or at least suggestive) evidence that women who put their cell phones in their bras, when they develop breast cancer, develop it more frequently on the side where they stick their cell phone. These would be reasonable things to expect that, even though they wouldn’t be convincing proof, would at least raise concerns.

There was none of that at all. Zero. Nada. Zip. In fact, I was shocked at how evidence-free this whole segment was. Usually Oz at least tries to slather a patina of scientific evidence on his pseudoscience. OK, maybe not usually, but he does at least sometimes try when he’s not doing a story on alternative medicine, “complementary and alternative medicine,” or “integrative medicine,” anyway. Not here. It’s as if Dr. Oz’s producers weren’t even trying for this one. …

If you want a good analysis that thrashes the hell out of Oz’s claims from a medical perspective, definitely read through all of Dr. Gorski’s blog post.  Seeing as how I’m not a medical doctor, I won’t rehash his analysis here; but I am a physics professor, so what I can do is go through the basic physics of why it is implausible that cell phones are even physically capable of causing cancer.  In fact, I’ve written numerous posts on this topic already…

Electromagnetic Fields & Cancer Myths

This first post is probably the most thorough on the fundamental physics of how electromagnetic radiation/waves (also known as light) are generated and propagate; also included is a basic primer on the different kinds of EM waves, the EM spectrum, what role frequency and energy of light play in these issues, and the all important difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.  Here’s the upshot: cell phones emit non-ionizing (i.e. non-cancer causing) radiation.

Maine Legislator Pushes Cell Phone-Cancer Woo

This article about a hysterical politician in Maine points out the implications of allowing basic scientific literacy to be trumped by the kind of psuedoscience and fear-mongering propagated by “Doctor” Oz and his ilk.

Cell Phones STILL Don’t Cause Cancer

Just a more up-to-date article outlining some more research from the Institute of Cancer Epidemiology in Denmark after it looked at more than 350,000 people with mobile phones over an 18-year period.  Conclusion: even while looking for supposed long-term negative effects, none were found.

 

Posted in environmental hysteria, media woo, physics denial/woo, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Hilarious Lesson in Critical Thinking: “Why Can’t You Use Phones on Planes?”

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 18, 2013

I just wanted to share a hilarious video from the folks at CollegeHumor.com titled “Why Can’t You Use Phones on Planes?” or, as I like to call it, “Airplanes are magic!”  It is, in my opinion, I neat and quick little lesson on critical thinking and how we often accept the most silly explanations without much thought.  It’s also really damn funny (note there is a little strong language).  Enjoy :)

Why Can’t You Use Phones on Planes?

Why Can't You Use Phones on Planes

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

More Evidence Against Those Supposed “Faster-Than-Light” Neutrinos

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 20, 2012

In the ongoing story of the supposedly “faster-than-light” neutrinos discovered last year, there is another big mark against this claim being the real thing: the failure to replicate the phenomenon in an independent experiment.  As I stated then, most especially when dealing with an extraordinary claim such as this, one cannot begin to draw any conclusions until there have been separate, independent attempts to verify and replicate the results.  Until then, we should suspend judgment and remain skeptical of extraordinary claims.

Well, more of that judgment is now in… in a recent BBC News article, it is reported that a team (called Icarus) independent from the original research team (called Opera) from the same facility, Gran Sasso, in Italy failed to find the apparent “faster-than-light” signal which caused such an uproar last September:

Neutrinos clocked at light-speed in new Icarus test

An experiment to repeat a test of the speed of subatomic particles known as neutrinos has found that they do not travel faster than light.

Results announced in September suggested that neutrinos can exceed light speed, but were met with scepticism as that would upend Einstein’s theory of relativity.

A test run by a different group at the same laboratory has now clocked them travelling at precisely light speed.

The results have been posted online.

The results in September, from the Opera group at the Gran Sasso underground laboratory in Italy, shocked the world, threatening to upend a century of physics as well as relativity – which holds the speed of light to be the Universe’s absolute speed limit.

Now the Icarus group, based at the same laboratory, has weighed in again, having already cast some doubt on the original Opera claim. …

This is an excellent example of how real science, especially cutting-edge science, progresses.  Claims are not taken at face value; they are always open to criticism and are not necessarily accepted (especially if they go against well-established theories such as Einstein’s relativity) without good, strong, repeatable evidence.

In short, as Carl Sagan stated: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

And the evidence in support of the claims of “faster-than-light” neutrinos seems to be getting less extraordinary every day.

Posted in physics denial/woo, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Difference Between Science and Pseudoscience: A Humorous Lesson via the “Faster-Than-Light” Neutrinos

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 11, 2012

Okay, I was just browsing online a bit, and I came across this funny little gem.  Yeah, I had to share it, because it makes a really good point about the difference between science and pseudoscience/religion…

NewTrinos

by Nadir on March 9, 2012 at 8:14 am

newtrinos

A lifetime ago by internet reckoning and two weeks ago via calendar, news came of the faulty cable/GPS-sync connection as a possible reason for the Faster-Than-Light Neutrino scandal of late 2011. This is not yet completely confirmed but I won’t say I’m not going to be disappointed if this is verified as the cause, though it seems likely. It’s anticlimactic. Not that anyone actually expected FTL travel here, I was at least hoping for a more interesting explanation for the error. The 60 nanosecond fast data is apparently explicable as a result of a bad connection between the GPS receiver and an electronic card in the computer.Yawn.

Now, in fairness, no one involved ever claimed FTL travel, only that they got that result. And they kept trying to disprove it. So what I’m saying is if you got overexcited and invested in fraudulent companies such as ‘the Neutrino-Warp-Drive Enterprise” you only have yourself to blame.*

One thing however, did come out of all this that shined a recent if not really new, light on a fundamental difference between science and religion. Many scientists were sought for comment and every one I saw or read, despite being pretty skeptical and awaiting further data, never completely rejected the idea out of hand. Solid, time tested ideas exist in science, and dagnabbit the universal-speed-limit is one of ‘em; but there are still no sacred cows or prophets. Knocking down or modifying a theory (or just trying to) only serves to strengthen the endeavor for truth, and never weakens it. This is the opposite of how religions operate, and anyone trying to make science and religion comparable, as seen in arguments time and again, has to deal with this massive cleavage.

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo, religion, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

“Faster Than Light” Neutrinos Likely the Result of a Bad Cable Connection

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 23, 2012

**Update (2-25-12):  It seems the situation is a bit more complicated than previously thought, and there is another potential source of error that has been discovered.  More details at this CERN link:  http://press.web.cern.ch/press/PressReleases/Releases2011/PR19.11E.html

*****************************

Last September you may recall quite a bit of buzz going around about the supposed discovery of faster-than-light neutrinos.  While the media was going nuts about it, and while various cranks were crowing about “the physics establishment being overturned”, a number of scientists and science bloggers (including me) expressed great interest in this experimental result while also providing a cautious dose of skepticism about the entire affair.  That’s because a theory that is so well-tested as Einstein’s relativity could be overturned or radically adjusted by such a result only if we were absolutely sure of the outcome; and, at the time, not even the scientists who announced the FTL result were very sure of it…

This tended to be the general view among physicists about the apparent “faster-than-light” neutrinos :)

Well, it seems our skepticism was well-founded.  From a recent post on the Science Insider blog, it looks as if the “faster-than-light” neutrino signal (which amounted to a discrepancy of 60 nanoseconds or 0.000 000 060 seconds) was probably the result of a bad cable connection…

BREAKING NEWS: Error Undoes Faster-Than-Light Neutrino Results

It appears that the faster-than-light neutrino results, announced last September by the OPERA collaboration in Italy, was due to a mistake after all. A bad connection between a GPS unit and a computer may be to blame.

Physicists had detected neutrinos travelling from the CERN laboratory in Geneva to the Gran Sasso laboratory near L’Aquila that appeared to make the trip in about 60 nanoseconds less than light speed. Many other physicists suspected that the result was due to some kind of error, given that it seems at odds with Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which says nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. That theory has been vindicated by many experiments over the decades.

According to sources familiar with the experiment, the 60 nanoseconds discrepancy appears to come from a bad connection between a fiber optic cable that connects to the GPS receiver used to correct the timing of the neutrinos’ flight and an electronic card in a computer. After tightening the connection and then measuring the time it takes data to travel the length of the fiber, researchers found that the data arrive 60 nanoseconds earlier than assumed. Since this time is subtracted from the overall time of flight, it appears to explain the early arrival of the neutrinos. New data, however, will be needed to confirm this hypothesis. [emphasis added]

If true (and my money is on it being true), it wouldn’t surprise me at all. When I was an undergraduate doing research work in a mass spectrometry lab, it took me and my lab mate a couple of days to figure out why the damn thing wasn’t working properly. After almost two days of checking everything (every setting, every seal on the chamber, every line of code), what was the error?

Answer: a bad BNC cable *facepalm*

And I was just working on a lousy table-top sized mass spectrometer.  I can barely imagine the level of complexity in dealing with an experiment of the scale of the CERN-OPERA operation; the fact that they could have missed a lone, loose fiber optic cable doesn’t surprise me at all.

While I’m pretty certain that this error (or similar ones) will explain the situation, I still think it is worthy for some outside research group to attempt a replication of the original, apparent FTL neutrino result.  I say that because it could be worth really nailing down exactly what went wrong in this whole experiment so that other researchers don’t make similar mistakes in the future.  Of course, there is the outside chance (however infinitely remote that may be) that perhaps there is something legitimate to the FTL result.

Either way, science marches on and we learn something about the universe.  Neat, eh? :)

Posted in physics denial/woo, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Physics Proves the Existence of Ghosts?

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 24, 2011

I’ve blogged here before about “professional” ghost-hunters and their woo.  And in many cases I have taken such “professionals” to task for not really following any kind of decent, consistent protocols (such as knowing how their instrumentation works, duh) but instead favoring stories that seem to be a combination of the Blair-Witch Project and various kinds of techno-babble.  But now I just have to mention a couple of things about how many ghost-hunters just seem to get basic physics (pardon the pun) dead wrong.

My skeptical colleague Ben Radford recently wrote an article for LiveScience.com on this very point…

Do Einstein’s Laws Prove Ghosts Exist?

… Despite years of efforts by ghost hunters on TV and in real life, we still do not have good proof that ghosts are real. Many ghost hunters believe that strong support for the existence of ghosts can be found in modern physics. Specifically, that Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientific minds of all time, offered a scientific basis for the reality of ghosts. …

Now hold on a minute.  As we’ve seen before, it is not uncommon for pseudoscientists and cranks of all kinds to try glomming onto Einstein’s coat-tails as one of the most well-known and respected scientists of the 20th century as a way of trying to gain traction for their ideas.  It is as if they think that by simply invoking Einstein’s name and theories, despite the fact that they have no real understanding of those theories, that it will somehow, magically make them correct.  Of course, this simply displays a fundamental flaw in the thinking of ghost-hunters, because it shows they have no real knowledge of how science (much less physics) works.

Specifically, in this case the ghost-hunters are claiming that Einstein’s theory of relativity “proves” the existence of ghosts:

… For example, ghost researcher John Kachuba, in his book “Ghosthunters” (2007, New Page Books), writes, “Einstein proved that all the energy of the universe is constant and that it can neither be created nor destroyed. … So what happens to that energy when we die? If it cannot be destroyed, it must then, according to Dr. Einstein, be transformed into another form of energy. What is that new energy? … Could we call that new creation a ghost?”

This idea shows up — and is presented as evidence for ghosts — on virtually all ghost-themed websites as well. For example, a group called Tri County Paranormal states, “Albert Einstein said that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change from one form to another. When we are alive, we have electrical energy in our bodies. … What happens to the electricity that was in our body, causing our heart to beat and making our breathing possible? There is no easy answer to that.” … [emphasis added]

Actually, the answer is pretty easy, as long as you understand how energy is related to matter as outlined in Einstein’s theory.  It can all be summed up in what is probably the most well-known, but one of the least understood, equations in all of science… Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments »

Cell Phones STILL Don’t Cause Cancer

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 1, 2011

Okay, I’ve said it before, and no doubt I will have to say it again, but here goes… there is no causal connection between cell phone use and cancer!  Not only is it physically implausible, but there is no solid research showing such a connection; in fact, the research shows quite the opposite, as evidenced by this recent article from the BBC News…

Mobile phone brain cancer link rejected

By Nick Triggle Health correspondent, BBC News

man uses phone
Mobile phone safety has been much debated over the past two decades

Further research has been published suggesting there is no link between mobile phones and brain cancer.

The risk mobiles present has been much debated over the past 20 years as use of the phones has soared.

The latest study led by the Institute of Cancer Epidemiology in Denmark looked at more than 350,000 people with mobile phones over an 18-year period.

Researchers concluded users were at no greater risk than anyone else of developing brain cancer.

The findings, published on the British Medical Journal website, come after a series of studies have come to similar conclusions. …

Posted in environmental hysteria, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Halloween: The Perfect Opportunity to Promote Skepticism!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 27, 2011

My favorite time of the year is almost upon us: Halloween! :D

I love Halloween not just because of the candy, the costumes, and the decorations (when else can you be a complete freak and it be socially acceptable?) but also because of the wonderful potential for promoting skepticism and critical thinking about various paranormal claims.  Let’s face it: at this time of the year, ghosts, witchcraft, psychics, and various other kinds of woo are on everyone’s minds, so why not take advantage of that fact and use it to inject the skeptical viewpoint on things?  I have found this to be a very effective teaching technique over the years, so that’s why I pass it along to you.

So in the spirit of the season (pardon the pun), allow me to share with you some links to various Halloween-ish skeptical resources that you can use, including a few of my earlier blog posts on the subject…

A Skeptic’s Halloween

Snopes: Halloween Legends

South Park Spoofs “Ghost Hunters”

Halloween Lesson, Part 1: Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics”

A Historical Halloween & Skepticism Lesson: The 1938 “War of the Worlds” Broadcast by Orson Welles

Halloween Lesson, Part 2: The Haunted Physics Lab

Happy Halloween!!!

Posted in aliens & UFOs, education, ghosts & paranormal, humor, magic tricks, physics denial/woo, psychics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Physics and Martial Arts: My Interview with The Secular Buddhist

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 8, 2011

While I was at Dragon*Con in Atlanta last month, I did a lot of things.  Among them was to be interviewed by my friend and skeptical colleague Ted Meissner, a.k.a. The Secular Buddhist.  For a long time, Ted and I have wanted to do a discussion on physics and the martial arts, because we are both skeptics and have a history of martial arts training.  And, believe me, if you have been engaged in martial arts training for a considerable amount of time, chances are that you’ve heard some really goofy claims out there.  From “no-touch knockouts” to “shielding with chi”, there’s a lot of nonsense being spread around in the martial arts world, and Ted, me, and Brian Gregory (of Virtual Drinking Skeptically) take it all on.  Enjoy! :)

Episode 85 :: Matt Lowry and Brian Gregory :: Physics and Martial Arts

Matt Lowry the Skeptical Teacher, and Brian Gregory of Virtual Drinking Skeptically join us to talk about the myths and facts of the physics of martial arts.

I remember a television show called “That’s Incredible”, and indeed it was. One particular episode had a self-proclaimed martial arts master, James Hydrick who could — supposedly — move pencils and turn phone book pages with his extra-normal powers. This was debunked with a few flakes of packing material on another show, showing how this charlatan was simply using his breath to cause objects to move.

But there are people who mistakenly believe their own press, who think they really do have supernatural powers, or that they are enhancing their strength with invisible fields of cosmic energy. As you can see in one of the embedded videos on the web page for this episode, one fellow comes drastically close to severing his own arm because of this unfounded delusion. It is important for us to question with confidence, to ask for evidence, or else all claims are equally true, and equally, potentially, harmful.

Matt Lowry

Matt Lowry

Matt Lowry is a high school physics teacher (plus a part-time physics & astronomy college professor) with a strong interest in promoting science education & critical thinking among his students and the population in general. He is a self-described skeptic, someone who believes in Carl Sagan’s adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” His blog The Skeptical Teacher is to allow Matt to expound upon various topics related to skepticism, science, and education.

Brian Gregory

Brian Gregory

Brian Gregory is a software engineer that has recently discovered that most of his assumptions about life are wrong; including beliefs, expectations, roles, etc. This transformation, fueled by the Internet, Social Media, Podcasts, and traditional media, has sparked his passion for science, reason, and the naturalistic worldview. Drinking Skeptically is “an informal social event designed to promote fellowship and networking among skeptics, critical-thinkers, and like-minded individuals”. These “real life” groups meet around the country to provide an opportunity for skeptics and skeptic-friendly people to talk, share ideas (and yes, drink) in a casual, relaxed atmosphere.

In case you didn’t notice the Explicit tag in iTunes on this episode, let me just give you an extra warning here: this is an explicit episode. We’re not talking porn, but there may be a light seasoning of expletives. Also be sure to check out the episode page for this episode on The Secular Buddhist website, as I’ve embedded a lot of the videos we talk about on that page. So, sit back, relax, and have a nice… skeptical drink of you choice!

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

FTL Neutrinos, Skepticism, and Humor

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 25, 2011

Regarding my previous blog post on the supposed discovery of faster-than-light neutrinos at CERN, I just wanted to share this humorous bit from the web-comic XKCD which sums it all up quite nicely.  Enjoy! :D

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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