The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘argument from ignorance’

The Dark Side of Ghost-Hunting

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 30, 2013

I’ve posted many times before about so-called ghost hunters and ghost hunting, and much of the time it has been in either good fun (by spoofing them) or a bit more serious in challenging them to be more rigorous in their methodology.  However, in this post I want to point out the danger(s) involved in ghost hunting; as is so often illustrated on the What’s The Harm? website, when people buy into pseudoscientific and non-critical thinking, it can have profoundly negative effects.

Case in point: recently some moronic ghost hunters in New Orleans decided that in order to get the spirits supposedly inhabiting an old mansion from the 1850s to “come out and play” that they needed to set fire to the place.  The result: it completely burned to the ground…

Ghost Hunters Burn Down Historic Mansion

… The mansion, built in the 1850s, had survived through many incarnations, operating as a boarding house, a hotel and even an illegal gambling house. Though the mansion had been shuttered in recent years, its owner, the Arlene and Joseph Meraux Charitable Foundation, had plans to renovate the building. …

… The fire at LeBeau broke out at about 2 a.m. local time Friday, Nov. 21, and the building was almost completely destroyed by the time firefighters arrived. The ghost hunters had been trying to produce a reaction from the spirits they assumed resided there, by doing what TV ghost hunters call “provocation,” essentially making loud noises, yelling taunts at the ghosts and banging on walls. Frustrated that their efforts failed to yield any spirits, the group decided to light a fire. Whether this was intended to smoke the spirits out or simply burn the place down, the resulting flames soon reduced the mansion to ashes and four brick chimneys.

While many ghost hunters engage in harmless (and fruitless) fun, as this case shows, there can be a dark, dangerous side to the pursuit. In the wake of popular ghost-hunting TV shows, police across the country have seen a surge in people being arrested, injured and even killed while looking for ghosts.

In 2006, a woman was critically wounded looking for ghosts in a private house near a cemetery; she and a friend were trespassing, and the house owner mistook them for vandals and shot them. In 2010, a North Carolina man died while ghost hunting with a group of friends, hoping to see the ghost of a train that crashed years earlier. The ghost train did not appear — but a real train came around a bend and killed one man who couldn’t get out of the way in time. … [emphasis added]

Note the backwards thinking here: the ghost hunters in question were so hell-bent on “proving” the existence of the ghosts supposedly haunting this mansion that, when all else failed, they actually burnt the damn place down!  It is revealing that the thought that perhaps there were no ghosts/spirits in the place at all seems to have never occurred to them, so strong was their confirmation bias in favor of all evidence pointing towards the existence of the ghosts/spirits…

facepalm

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Classic Skeptical Scene from “Ghostbusters”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 31, 2013

One of the things I like to do on Halloween, besides handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, is watch scary and spooky themed movies.  I recently re-watched one of the great ones from the 1980s: Ghostbusters.  Did you ever notice that the character of Peter Venkman is actually kind of a skeptic?  This fact is outlined in the following hilarious scene from the opening of the movie, where Venkman essentially calls out his colleagues for engaging in an argument from ignorance in his typical deadpan way as they search for a ghost

**Dialogue from 0:19 – 0:38**

Ray Stantz: “Look!”

Egon Spengler: “This is hot, Ray.”

Ray: “Symmetrical book stacking, just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947.”

Peter Venkman: “You’re right, no human being would stack books like this.”

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, humor | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Denver UFO: Yup, It’s Unidentified… So What Does That Mean?

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 18, 2012

Over the last few days there has been a media sensation built up around a UFO in the Denver, Colorado area.  Here’s a closeup of the object in question:

Image source

The story has garned a great deal of attention, as evidenced by this video clip from a local news station…

Indeed, the news team does a so-so job of investigating this UFO, though there is a lot of sensationalizing in the report (surprise, surprise!), but there is one point I would like to emphasize in greater detail which this report totally glossed over.  That is the fact that this thing, whatever it is, is unidentified… as in Unidentified Flying Object.  Repeat after me three times: unidentified flying object… Unidentified flying object… UNIDENTIFIED flying object!!!

I want to be very clear on this point because, as I expected, the Internet is already abuzz with talk of alien spacecraft, government cover ups, and conspiracies galore.  And those leaping to this dubious conclusion (that the thing is “obviously not of this world”) are committing what is known as an argument from ignorance – that is, in one breath they will admit that we don’t have enough information to conclude what it is, but then in the next breath they will say, quite emphatically, that it HAS to be an alien spacecraft.

And such thinking contains a direct contradiction: the argument basically says that because we don’t know, then we know.  With reasoning as loose as this, one can “justify” the existence of leprechauns, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, or Invisible Pink Unicorns!  What the heck is wrong with saying “We don’t know” and just leaving it at that?

Incidentally, while the possibility of a plane or helicopter has been ruled out, it is likely that the object in question is a bug of some kind.  There is a very good article on this point over at the Illuminutti blog…

… OK – everybody now… it’s bugs.  This bug-UFO is especially bad because on some of the shots the insect actually hovers and moves around like an obvious insect. The videographer did not notice them because they were small fast-flying insects. Or perhaps they did notice the insects, but did not connect them to the unfocused black dots buzzing about on the video. It is also possible they know exactly what they are, but is just pranking  the local news station (hence the anonymity).

One or two shots in there are probably birds. You can see an apparent wing flap. Birds and bugs are common sources of UFO artifacts in the video age. They are small objects close to the camera that will appear as out-of-focus dots and streaks that can be mistaken (by the willful or truly incurious) for objects that are large and farther away. The fact that no one saw them live and there was no radar tracking should be a clue, but for the believer can just add to the mystery.

The lameness of this video being presented in breathless terms as a compelling UFO might have something to do with the declining interest in UFOs. Anyone with a genuine interest – enough to join a UFO group and try to find real evidence that UFOs are visiting ETs, would probably get tired of all the bugs and lanterns after a while. …

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

“Mysterious Planet-Sized Object” Is… A Planet!

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 9, 2011

A couple of days ago I came across this article titled “Mysterious planet-sized object spotted near Mercury” and it contained some shocking images.  I reproduce some of these images and related commentary from the article below…

The mystery image of a “cloaked alien ship”… the Romulans, perhaps?

… Theorists have seized on the images captured from the “coronal mass ejection” (CME) last week as suggestive of alien life hanging out in our own cosmic backyard. Specifically, the solar flare washing over Mercury appears to hit another object of comparable size. “It’s cylindrical on either side and has a shape in the middle. It definitely looks like a ship to me, and very obviously, it’s cloaked,” YouTube-user siniXster said in his video commentary on the footage, which has generated hundreds of thousands of views this week. Now, how this user was able to determine that the object was “obviously” a cloaked spaceship with no other natural explanation remains as much a mystery as the object itself. …

Note the staggering level of argumentation from ignorance here.  I like to call this sort of reasoning (if you can call it that) from various UFOologists the “alien-of-the-gaps”, because much like the related “god-of-the-gaps” argument from ignorance, what they do is find some kind of strange image and/or phenomenon for which they do not have en explanation and then they immediately give it an explanation unsupported by evidence.  In short, because they don’t know what it is, they know it’s aliens!  Huh?!

This, of course, is a direct contradiction and points out just how ludicrous the general argument from ignorance can be.  If the object is an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO), then by definition it is unidentified – which means that you admit right off the bat that you don’t know what it is!  So if you don’t know what it is then how can you suddenly turn around and, seemingly without any kind of scientifically-valid or evidence-based reasoning, state that it is an alien spacecraft?  Using such loose argumentation, I could just as easily claim the object in question is Santa Claus (but no, that would be silly).

Of course, a little more research shows that astronomers actually have figured out what this “mysterious planet-sized object” is hanging around next to the planet Mercury.  It seems the answer is that the object is… the planet Mercury itself.  Here’s a fuller explanation from the article…

Of course, there’s another scientifically sanctioned explanation for the curious images, though we’re not certain that skeptics and UFO enthusiasts such as SiniXster will endorse it. Natalie Wolchover of Life’s Little Mysteries put the question to scientists in the solar physics branch at the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). They’re the people who analyze data from the Heliospheric Imager-1 (HI-1)–better known in this context as the camera that shot the footage in question.

Head NRL group scientist Russ Howard and lead ground systems engineer Nathan Rich say the mysterious object is in fact Mercury itself. And what we’re seeing in the footage is the equivalent of Mercury’s wake, “where the planet was on the previous day,” as it travels through the solar system on its natural gravitational path:

To make the relatively faint glow of a coronal mass ejection stand out against the bright glare of space—caused by interplanetary dust and the stellar/galactic background—the NRL scientists must remove as much background light as possible. They explained that they determine what light is background light, and thus can be subtracted out, by calculating the average amount of light that entered each camera pixel on the day of the CME event and on the previous day. Light appearing in the pixels on both days is considered to be background light and is removed from the footage of the CME. The remaining light is then enhanced.

So there you have it.  The object in question is basically an artifact that results from the combination of taking multiple images of that region in space over multiple days, the planet Mercury moving in that time, and processing the light in the image to enhance the coronal mass ejection to make it more visible.

What stuns me about situations like these is just how quickly so many people are willing to invoke magical thinking and jump to conclusions (the “cloaked alien ship” explanation) in the absence of any real evidence.  What is it about openly and honestly admitting that sometimes the most truthful answer is simply “we don’t know” that disturbs so many people?  That, to me, is the real mystery.

 

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Bill O’Reilly Doubles Down on the Stupid: “How’d the Moon Get There?”

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 2, 2011

Recently, I’ve posted about how Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly displayed a great deal of scientific ignorance when he tried to argue that God exists because “we cannot explain the tides”.  Of course, scientists do know how the tides work (as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson states: it’s gravity from the Moon, duh); but rather than admit his error, Bill O’Reilly has decided to double down on the stupid.  Just watch this…

Once again, O’Reilly makes the all-too-common argument from ignorance, specifically the god-of-the-gaps argument. Of course, we actually do have scientific answers to many of the questions brought up by Mr. O’Reilly.  Let us examine some of his statements/claims… Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in physics denial/woo, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Bill O’Reilly’s “Tides = God” Argument is Demolished by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 29, 2011

As a humorous follow-up to my recent post called God, Gravity, and the Anti-Science Lunacy of Bill O’Reilly, I just wanted to share a hilarious clip from The Colbert Report with you.  In it, Colbert does a marvelous job of, in his satirical way, calling Bill O’Reilly to the carpet on his god-of-the-gaps argument when he says:

Now, like all great theologies, Bill’s can be boiled down to one sentence: “There must be a God, because I don’t know how things work!”

In addition, Stephen Colbert is surprised when astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson drops by for a visit and explains why the tides actually work :)

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Shooting of Congresswoman Giffords & Skepticism When It’s Needed Most

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 12, 2011

I’ve waited a few days before making this post, partly because I wanted to give myself some time to reflect and partly because I wanted to see if cooler & more rational heads would prevail.  Of course, from the title, you can see that I’m making some remarks concerning the horrific shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona this past Saturday.  As we all know by now, the shooter – Jared Loughner – not only shot Giffords point-blank in the head, severely wounding her, but others were killed (including a 9 year-old girl & a federal judge) and many more were wounded.

Events moved fast on Saturday, and – in some cases – the media moved even faster, sometimes to the point of even getting major parts of the story wrong in a misguided effort to “get it first.”  For example, you can see how some outlets, such as National Public Radio, mistakenly reported that Rep. Giffords had died in the attack. But that isn’t the most unnerving thing…

Like many, I was shocked & dismayed when I heard the news, and I immediately went to the Internet to read more… and what I read shocked & dismayed me even more.  Within an hour of the reporting of the event, I saw all manner of accusations being slung around.  This pointing of fingers had a decidedly political slant on it, with some liberals blaming the Tea Party rhetoric and “loose gun laws” for the actions of the shooter, while some conservatives insisted that the killer “must have been an illegal immigrant” or that it “had to be a set up to make Republicans look bad.”  Not only that, but I saw that conspiracy theories were being spun faster than you could say “9/11 coverup”.

I decided to go to one of my favorite skeptical online forums – the JREF Forum – to discuss the situation, and I was sadly disappointed to find that the behavior among many of my so-called skeptical colleagues was no better than that which I saw elsewhere online.  Take a look at the JREF thread on the topic, and you’ll see what I mean.

One of the things which seemed lacking during the chaos of my Saturday afternoon, much of which was spent in online discourse & surfing the Web for news of the incident, was a willingness to step back, apply some basic critical thinking, and wait for reliable information from the proper authorities to come to light.  It was, and still is in many ways, a time of great fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, and – unfortunately – in such times all too many of us will succumb to extraordinary arguments from ignorance in an attempt to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.  I lost my cool a bit and said some pretty rough things, some of which I share here:

… Especially in this politically charged environment, the last thing we need to go doing right now is jumping to conclusions, pointing fingers at “the other side”, and basically engaging in rampant & irresponsible confirmation bias. From what I’ve seen on this thread so far, there are way too many so-called skeptics displaying blatant irrationality in this regard – you should be better than that. …

In addition to other criticisms, some people mentioned a very dubious argument in response.  They stated something to the effect that “when a politician gets shot, what reason for it is there besides politics?”  Of course, facts can be stubborn things, and I responded with a very important fact: that when President Reagan was shot in 1981 by John Hinckley, Jr., Hinckley’s motivation wasn’t political; instead, he was attempting to assassinate the President as a way of gaining the attention of actress Jodie Foster, with whom he was disturbingly obsessed.  Therefore, it is well within the realm of possibility that what motivated Jared Loughner’s actions is entirely non-political.

What this shows is, in my view, the fact that there is nothing inherently special about those who label themselves as “skeptics”.  We are irrational & emotional creatures just like the rest of humanity, and in times of great stress we also feel the sometimes overwhelming pressure to dismiss our better, more rational natures in a desperate attempt to grab onto something, anything which seems like it might provide us with some measure of comfort.  But, as we skeptics are wont to say, simply because something feels right doesn’t mean it’s real.  And thus, simply because there are those who view the world through an overly-political lens doesn’t mean that reality conforms to that view.

And now, as I write these words, it seems that we still don’t have any idea exactly why it is that Jared Loughner went on a rampage, spilling blood and scaring a nation.  The suspect himself isn’t talking, early indications from the investigation point to Loughner having some kind of mental instability.  Unfortunately, without more information, we may never really know why he did what he did.

In closing, I want to share with you some very important words from Jon Stewart of The Daily Show regarding this tragedy and how people are reacting to it. These are the most mature, rational, and – yes – skeptical words I’ve heard uttered on the matter, and I hope that we all take them to heart:

Posted in politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

God, Gravity, and the Anti-Science Lunacy of Bill O’Reilly

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 7, 2011

Oh man.  As a high school & college physics professor, I have to say that I’ve heard some pretty bad arguments regarding physics in my day, but I think this one is worth a mention: Fox News celebrity Bill O’Reilly displays his gross ignorance of basic physics by… well, by ignoring gravity.

Bill O’Reilly on Science: You Can’t Explain the Tides

Apparently, Bill O’Reilly has never heard of the moon. In a debate Tuesday with Dave Silverman, head of the American Atheist group behind this, the Fox host tried to prove the existence of God by citing the unknowable mysteries of the tides. “I’ll tell you why [religion is] not a scam, in my opinion,” he told Silverman. “Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that. You can’t explain why the tide goes in.” …

Yup, he’s ignoring gravity and replacing it with God.  Just watch the video for yourself (the relevant part begins at the 1:40 mark)…

Wow… just, wow.  Apprently, Mr. O’Reilly has never studied the universal law of gravitation (which is standard in any high school physics class) which explains quite clearly – without any mention of God, Zeus, Thor, or Santa Claus – where tidal forces come from.  Essentially, tides in Earth’s oceans exist because one side of our planet is closer to the Moon (or the Sun, both exert tides) than the other.  Thus, the side closer to the Moon (Sun) is pulled slightly more than the side further away from the Moon, resulting in the tidal bulges which lead to the rising and falling of the oceans.  This article on Wikipedia (ever heard of Google, Mr. O’Reilly?) and graphic can help illustrate the point I’m making:

Graphic of tidal forces; the gravity field is generated by a body to the right. The top picture shows the gravitational forces; the bottom shows their residual once the field of the sphere is subtracted; this is the tidal force. Source: Wikipedia

Essentially, O’Reilly is making a stunningly stupid argument from ignorance (in this case known as the god-of-the-gaps) by saying that just because he doesn’t know how the tides work, then that must mean that his version of God is real.  Of course, it might be interesting to ask Mr. O’Reilly’s feelings on the matter after he’s had a lesson in basic physics – would he then conclude that the tides are evidence against the existence of God?  That precarious position is precisely why serious theologians & philosophers do not engage in arguing from ignorance.

Such ham-fisted arguments are also why natural science separated itself from supernatural causes back in the 19th century as natural philosophy transitioned into what we now call modern science.  It seems that O’Reilly is still stuck in the 1800s.

In closing, despite my atheism, if Mr. O’Reilly or anyone wants to believe in God, that’s fine by me I suppose, just so long as they don’t piss all over science in the process.

Posted in physics denial/woo, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Time Traveler Caught on Film? More Like “Whackjob in a Youtube Video”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 30, 2010

Oh my… some days something crosses my email inbox, and while a part of me says “this is just too silly, let it go” another part of me insists that this is simply something which must be dealt with in the most appropriate manner: by mocking it for the laughing stock that it is :)

Case in point: there is a video circulating on the Interwebs of a filmmaker, George Clarke, claiming – seriously, believe it or not – that he’s seen old footage from a 1928 Charlie Chaplin movie which “proves” the existence of a time traveler!  His evidence consists of his claim that he’s seen what appears to him to be a mobile phone in the hands of a woman in the film.  I’m not kidding, you just have to watch this stupidity in order to believe it…

At the 0:40 point in the video, he makes a blatant argument from ignorance: “Nobody can give me an explanation for what you’re about to see.” Using this sloppy reasoning, he goes on to state later in the video that the only possible explanation has to be that she’s a time traveler holding a modern day cellphone (presumably one which has been upgraded by The Doctor ;) )

I think the best response I’ve seen to this silliness came from a post on the JREF Forum regarding this claim via an appeal to Occam’s Razor. I share that post with you here…

So which is more likely? That someone figured out how to travel back in time and once doing that, figured our how to travel through space roughly 886,973,634,480 miles (based on the Galaxy’s speed of approx 552 Km/s and the travel of 82 years and not counting leap year days or current time vs time that the shot was filmed)? And mind you, that’s not counting in the orbital speed of the Sun in the Galaxy (220 Km/s) over that time.

-or-

That someone of advanced age (and possibly diminished hearing) is wearing and holding onto a hearing assist device of the era?

I know which one I’m putting my money on.

So, because MR. Clarke states that “it’s unexplainable” then he’s going to explain it by appealing to time travel?  Personally, I think that leprechauns are a much more valid explanation, because I simply cannot explain it any other way!  ‘Nuff said.

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Science Creates Artificial Cell and Creationists Spin, Spin, Spin

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 30, 2010

A couple of weeks back, a bombshell of an announcement hit the scientific world: the first artificial cell has been synthesized in the lab. Needless to say, this is a big deal, because it not only has vast implications for bio- & genetic engineering, but the discovery can help fill in gaps in our knowledge of how life evolved naturally from non-life (see my previous blog post on this issue – The God-of-the-Gaps Just Got Smaller: Link Found Between Life & Inorganic Matter)

What’s also interesting is the reaction from some religious & creationist circles concerning this discovery.  First, there is the response from the Catholic Church warning scientists not to “play God”…

Catholic Church officials said Friday that the recently created first synthetic cell could be a positive development if correctly used, but warned scientists that only God can create life.

Vatican and Italian church officials were mostly cautious in their first reaction to the announcement from the United States that researchers had produced a living cell containing manmade DNA. They warned scientists of the ethical responsibility of scientific progress and said that the manner in which the innovation is applied in the future will be crucial.

“It’s a great scientific discovery. Now we have to understand how it will be implemented in the future,” Monsignor Rino Fisichella, the Vatican’s top bioethics official, told Associated Press Television News.

“If we ascertain that it is for the good of all, of the environment and man in it, we’ll keep the same judgment,” he said. “If, on the other hand, the use of this discovery should turn against the dignity of and respect for human life, then our judgment would change.”

I’m all for proceeding cautiously in this particular research, because there is the potential for abuse, just as there is with any kind of new technology.  But read between the lines of what the Vatican is saying – they seem to be implying that, somehow, this artificial life is fundamentally different from “normal” life simply because of the manner in which it was created.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in creationism, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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