The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘Ben Radford’

Bigfoot DNA Claims: Big Discovery or Big Bullsh*t?

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 4, 2012

Okay, no doubt by now some of you have heard all about the news that some “scientist” claims to have sequenced the DNA of Bigfoot, concluding that Bigfoot is at least partially human.  Specifically, according to the following LiveScience.com article by my skeptical colleague Benjamin Radford

‘Bigfoot’ Is Part Human, DNA Study Claims

Genetic testing confirms the legendary Bigfoot is a human relative that arose some 15,000 years ago — at least according to a press release issued by a company called DNA Diagnostics detailing supposed work by a Texas veterinarian.

The release and alleged study by Melba S. Ketchum also suggests such cryptids had sex with modern human females that resulted in hairy hominin hybrids, but the scientific community is dubious about her claim.

“A team of scientists can verify that their five-year long DNA study, currently under peer-review, confirms the existence of a novel hominin hybrid species, commonly called ‘Bigfoot’ or ‘Sasquatch,’ living in North America,” the release reads. “Researchers’ extensive DNA sequencing suggests that the legendary Sasquatch is a human relative that arose approximately 15,000 years ago.”…

Ooh!  Bigfoot-human hybrid freaky furry sex!  Are you interested yet? ;)

Seriously, this is just beyond stupid, folks.  And a little deeper look at the article points out exactly why this whole thing is, at best, viewed with a decidely skeptical eye and, at worst, deserves to be roundly derided in every corner of the Internet for the cryptozoological flummery it most likely is:

… So where’s the evidence? Well, there is none. Not yet, anyway: Ketchum’s research has not appeared in any peer-reviewed scientific journal, and there’s no indication when that might happen. If the data are good and the science is sound, any reputable science journal would jump at the chance to be the first to publish this groundbreaking information. Until then, Ketchum has refused to let anyone else see her evidence. … [emphasis added]

So let me get this straight: she puts together a press-release claiming that she’s made this amazing discovery that could very well change most everything we know about human/hominid anthropology and evolution, yet she is unwilling to allow her scientific peers to see the evidence and examine it for themselves?

That’s kind of the opposite of the way science is supposed to work, Dr. Ketchum.  You would think that a supposedly serious researcher would know that – that is, assuming that she’s a serious scientific researcher and not just some kind of glory-seeking pseudoscientific crypto-hack.  When making such an extraordinary claim, not allowing your scientific peers to examine your evidence is tantamount to saying “I’m right because *poof* magic!”  In other words, it is not convincing at all, and it speaks to your credibility being somewhat minimal.

Last, but certainly not least, there is a very well-worded criticism by Ben Radford about how one is, exactly, to know that the DNA sequenced is actually that of a previously uncataloged Bigfoot-ish creature (a question which I had in mind when first hearing the claim):

… How did the team definitively determine that the samples were from a Bigfoot? Did they take a blood or saliva sample from a living Bigfoot? If so, how did they get that close, and why didn’t they simply capture it or photograph it? If the samples were found in the wild, how do they know it wasn’t left by another animal — or possibly even a hunter, hiker or camper who left human genetic material?

Previous alleged Bigfoot samples subjected to DNA analysis have been deemed “unknown” or “unidentified.” However, “unknown” or “unidentified” results do not mean “Bigfoot.” There are many reasons why a DNA sample might come back unknown, including that it was contaminated or too degraded by environmental conditions. Or it could simply mean that the animal it came from was not among the reference samples that the laboratory used for comparison. There is no reference sample of Bigfoot DNA to compare it with, so by definition, there cannot be a conclusive match. …

Of course, I suppose the answers to these and similar questions will have to go unanswered because we expect Dr. Ketchum to act like a real scientist and share her samples, data, research, and methodology for actual peer review and analysis.  Hah – silly us! :)

Posted in cryptozoology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments »

Where are the Psychic Security Agents?

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 3, 2010

With all of the attention that airline security has gotten of late, specifically regarding new security procedures put in place by the United States’ TSA, I think it is worthwhile to ask a seemingly tongue-in-cheek question which has a serious side: where are the psychic security agents?

Think about it, seriously… if psychics really could read minds, or talk to the dead, or somehow get “forbidden” information through whatever method of divination they employ the way many of them claim, then why the hell aren’t these people working for the TSA by probing the minds of suspected terrorists?  The question kind of harkens back to one asked by many people a little over 9 years ago: Why didn’t any of these psychic gurus see 9/11 coming before the fact?

In any case, I want to give the last word on this to skeptical investigator Ben Radford, who wrote a really good article on the matter.  Check it out…

Psychics and Airline Security

Analysis by Benjamin Radford
Thu Dec 2, 2010

Security-zoom

Amid all the discussion, anxiety and outrage over heightened airline security this holiday season, there’s one group of people whose important information is conspicuously absent: psychics.

There are thousands of people who claim to have psychic powers. Some, like convicted felon Sylvia Browne, are New York Times best-selling authors; others are seen on talk shows; still others, like Alison DuBois (of NBC’s Medium), serve as consultants for their own television shows.

While many dismiss psychics as frauds or mere entertainers, tens of millions of Americans believe in psychic abilities. For example, a 2005 Baylor Religion Survey found that nearly one-fifth of American women (and one-tenth of men) believe that psychic powers exist.

What do psychics have to do with national security? Everything — if they are real. [emphasis added]…

Posted in humor, psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Skepticism & Science at Dragon*Con 2009

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 7, 2009

Well, I’m starting to wind down here at Dragon*Con in Atlanta, which I have basically concluded is Mardi Gras for geeks – a lot of people dress up & party, and I was no exception.  Below was my small contribution to the party atmosphere :)

pirate-matt

On a serious note, while Dragon*Con is essentially a big science-fiction convention & general geek-fest, there is a very serious science & skeptical presence here.  The Skeptics track is now in its second year, and it seems as if it grew out of a desire to counter or provide a rebuttal to some of the more woo-ish paranormal nonsense that you see here.  For instance, there is a track which seems quite heavy on the paranormal woo called the X-track where all manner of ghost hunters do their thing.  With so many people attending Dragon*Con who can actually distinguish fact from fiction, it’s no wonder that many people are interested in the actual science & skepticism tracks.

I will outline all the things I did here – lecturing on the Large Hadron Collider & particle physics, participating on the Science of Star Wars panel, moderating the Darwin’s Bulldogs panel on teachers combating creationism, and participating on the Skepticism in the Classroom panel – in future posts.  What I want to discuss for the rest of this post is why it is that I think having skeptics present at events like Dragon*Con is important in the first place…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Psychic FAIL: The Sad Case of Jaycee Dugard

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 1, 2009

In 1991, at the age of 11, Jaycee Dugard was abducted, and she was recently discovered in the back yard of a couple’s home in Antioch, California.  In the 18 years that she was held captive, she was beaten, raped, and otherwise abused – even to the point of being forced to give birth to her rapist’s children.  Needless to say, this poor woman has gone through a nearly unbelievably horrific experience.  And even more sadly, the psychic scumbags are hard at work attempting to claim credit for the “discovery” and “successful recovery”of Miss Dugard.

As skeptical investigator Ben Radford points out at LiveScience.com…

Amazingly, a Reno psychic is now claiming the case proves the accuracy of her abilities.

Dayle Schear, who was paid by Jaycee’s parents to help locate their daughter, says she told Jaycee’s mother not to give up searching for her daughter: “I looked her in the eyes and I said… eventually she’ll walk through the door, you’re going to see her again.”

Schear also claims that she correctly described the general area where Jaycee was being held. The psychic’s “information” is typical of what happens when missing persons are eventually found, dead or alive. Psychics come forward years later after the person was found to make retroactive claims about how they “knew” certain pieces of information.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Doomsday Comes to the Movies

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 20, 2009

A recent article by Ben Radford provides an excellent skeptical analysis of a doomsday pseudoscience being popularized in the new movie “Knowing”, which stars Nicolas Cage as a professor who decodes a string of numbers that supposedly predicted past disasters and also predicts an upcoming apocalypse.

knowing

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the trailer for the movie which pretty clearly lays out the plot and the pseudoscience behind it…

The skeptic shown briefly in the trailer (the guy who tells Cage’s character to “just step back a moment”) hits it dead on – given enough random data, pretty much anyone can find pretty much any pattern for which they are looking. As Ben Radford goes on to elaborate in the article…

Though the plot is fictional, this scenario has occurred many times in the real world. In 1997 Michael Drosnin published a best-selling book titled “The Bible Code,” in which he claimed that the Bible contained a code (hidden in numbers and letters) accurately predicting past world events. Drosnin’s work was later refuted, with critics demonstrating that the “meanings” he found were simply the result of selectively choosing data sets from a vast sea of random letters.

Similar “hidden codes” were found in other books such as “Moby Dick” and “War and Peace,” demonstrating that any sizeable text can produce such codes if you look long enough.

In psychology, the tendency for the human mind to find coincidences, patterns, and connections in random data is called apophenia.

The main problem with the pseudoscientists & conspiracy theorists who cater to this style of doomsday thinking is common among the woo crowd… they count the hits & ignore the misses, and in order to count the “hits” as true hits, they have to massage and arrange the data!

So, while I find Nicolas Cage to be a good actor and enjoy a good disaster flick, I anticipate an unfortunate amount of woo-related activity due to this movie, the recent economic downturn, and prophecies of impending world doom related to the year 2012. All of this put together makes for a nice mix of irrational fear out of essentially nothing. And while fantasy does make good movies, it makes lousy real life.

Posted in media woo, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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