Monday, December 6, 2010

Talking the talk? Time to walk the walk

As a skeptic one of the things I would like to see from other people is an open mind. But sometimes it's easy forget you can be equally close-minded in your own beliefs.

It's not an easy thing to do, especially when you think you're being skeptical. Or in this case perhaps a tad cynical.

To say I'm not a fan of the social media phenomenon of changing your avatar or updating your status to support a particular cause is somewhat understating it.

It started with women posting the colour of their bra to support breast cancer awarness and it's been near constant since then.

The latest, changing your avatar to a cartoon character to show your support in the battle against violence on children, seems equally fatuous to me.

I mean who supports doesn't want to see breast cancer eradicated? Would not changing my avatar mean I was somehow advocating violence against children? Of course not.

In fact I made the point vociferously on Facebook and twitter and followed it up in the best way I thought possible - donating some money to the Starship Foundation.

I did this because I strongly believed that one million people changing their avatar will change nothing while actually giving some cash might do some good...

And there I sat, smug because I'd actually did something other than piss around with my picture on Facebook. Until someone sent me a direct message on Twitter.

"Quick question: had the Facebook campaign not been out there, would you still have made a donation today to Starship?"

And that's when it struck - that moment of realising you talk the talk but not always walk the walk.

The truth is I do donate to charity. I've raised thousands over the year. But the chances of me looking for a charity which can help children who have been abused and donating in the next few months was low.

So while I believed I was being open minded and skeptical I wasn't really.

I then had an ongoing conversation with that person who had changed their avatar, researched charities in New Zealand and then donated. And, as she rightfully pointed out, if she had done that then she's likely not to be the only one.

And by my donating I had proved her point. Although I didn't agree in the slightest with the campaign as a direct result I ponyed up cash. In her words 'Surely it's a good thing?"

That was an eye-opening conversation. We started off in polar opposite positions and ended up broadly agreeing. And it felt good.

Now I'm not arguing I was completely wrong. I still wish those who jump to show their support online would actually end up doing something more.

And the only discussion I've seen coming out of the issue has been about the cartoon character, not the problem.

But more importantly for a skeptic it's a gentle reminder that when you hope for people to open their mind you can't afford to close yours.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The healthcare irony

First I'd like to apologise for being away from nzskeptic and sciblogs for so long. This tends to be a pattern with my blogging, but it's not random.

For over a decade now I've struggled with bipolar disorder, particularly the depression aspect which leaves me barely functioning. All my effort goes into my job hence everything else tends to get ignored.

I tell you this not because I want sympathy or because I want to excuse my shoddy blogging schedule, but because I believe it plays a large part in me being the skeptic I am.

It certainly made me face my own failures and question my beliefs which I think led to my skepticism.

But back on to the main topic of this post - the healthcare irony.

I use the word irony (hopefully in the proper, non-Alanis Morrisette way) because the further we develop as a society the more backwards our attitude to healthcare seems to become.

Of course this is a generalisation, but it saddens me greatly people seem to be more inclined to believe something natural is inherently better than a drug that originates in the pharmaceutical industry.

After all the active ingredient in anything, natural or not, is a chemical and at it's fundamental a natural chemical is no different to a manufactured chemical.

In fact a number of the drugs I used to work with were generated using some natural plant material as a starting point (there's that damn irony again!).

But I don't honestly know what it says about us as a society or species that we seem to be intent on believing vast conspiracies are out to harm us or keep us from living a full and healthly life.

The latest to make me question our collective sanity is the so-called miracle cure for AIDS, herpes, hepatitis A, B and C and a plethora of other deadly illnesses, Miracle Mineral Solution.

I first read about this in the NZ Herald on Friday and again at Yahoo!Xtra today.

This product is being sold in New Zealand and around the world and consists of what effectively is an industrial bleaching compound.

(Of course, just because it's a bleaching compound doesn't mean it may not provide some kind of healthcare effect, but that's not the point of this blog.)

What is clear is this product is being marketed as a potential miracle cure and it can't possibly back that up with double-blinded studies.

And so faced with no clear evidence of efficacy the distributor relies on what should be a warning to anyone reading this kind of article - impugning our healthcare system and relying on anecdotal data.

This quote says it all for me: 

"Read Medsafe's list of symptoms and just ask: what would chemo do to you?"

The sheer stupidity in that comment from one of the New Zealand distributors is breathtaking and the fact that such a statement won't convince any believer drives me mental (pun intended).

I could write a 1,000 word post on that quote along, but I honestly don't think it needs further explanation.

And, just for good measure, the Yahoo!Xtra story I mentioned earlier has comments on it.

Can you guess how many are in support of warning people about the medicine and how many are conspiracy theories or anecdotal stories about it doing what it says?

You don't need me to answer that, do you?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

How much do you tell the kids?

With a couple of young kids I've found myself becoming increasingly conflicted about just how 'truthy' I am with regards to those little white lies most parents see as normal.

I'm thinking of things like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and, yes, even God.

Every parent likes to think of their progeny as being intelligent and I'm no different. And with that comes the respect I have and my desire to be always honest with them and let them make their own decisions.

But it's hard. Hard because my innocent babies think the idea of Santa Claus giving them presents for being good is wonderous. And the pain of losing a teeth is overcome by the satisfaction and excitement of knowing that a coin awaits the next morning.

So what exactly should we tell our kids and what shouldn't we?

The most common way I've found of not dealing with this is deflecting the question back to the child in question.

"Does Santa exist, daddy?"

"Hmm. What do you think?"

But I can tell this is only going to get me so far. My eldest is just too inquisitive to let it stand. And they're both able to use my iMac to use the internet and I suspect it's only a matter of time before they try and find a cool Santa website and stumble on the truth.

(For what it's worth all proper parental controls are on to ensure they can't get to dodgy websites but I suspect belief in a jolly fat man with a white beard and sack of presents isn't filtered by this.)

So what do I say when my "Hmm. What do you think" is finally batted back to me with "It's a yes or no question, daddy. Does Santa exist?"

I suspect my skepticism will win through and I'll just confess. Probably out of earshot of the younger one so he can find out the truth for himself.

But is the right way to deal with it? Should I have told them the truth as soon as they understood the concept of the Tooth Fairy?

Or is little while lies to our kids acceptable? I'd be interested to hear from others what they would do, or have done, in similar circumstances.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Atheist bus campaign

I've written in the past how my particular brand of skepticism includes atheism.

I see religion as no different to any other topic - provide me with the evidence and I'll reconsider my stance.

And so on to the news. You may have already read about the decision by NZ Bus to deny the Atheist Bus Campaign advertising space on their buses.

Now to some extent I believe they are entitle to accept and reject adverts as they see fit. But frankly I just wish NZ Bus would grow a spine.

Company spokesperson Siobhan O'Donovan said a number of people found the potential advert ("There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life") 'distasteful or distressing'.

This just winds me up no end.

I see, read and hear things every single day of my life I find distasteful and distressing (I listen to Newstalk ZB so it's not hard). But I have the option to ignore it if I so choose.

The thing I don't understand is why that simple message is so controversial. It's not like the giant billboard of the planes flying into the Twin Towers with John Lennon's famed 'Imagine no religion' lyric which was designed to be deliberately provocative.

The only conclusion I can draw is these people's faith is on such shoddy grounds that even suggesting to them there might be no god is enough to turn them to the dark side.

Frankly I feel sorry for people who found this distressing. If someone was to put up a sign on a bus saying "Atheists are probably going to hell" then I wouldn't be distressed. I'd probably laugh.

In the meantime those things which I (and many people I know) find truly distasteful and distressing - poverty, child abuse, racism, sexism - go unaddressed.

Hey, here's a thought. Maybe NZ Bus could have taken the multiple thousands the atheists were offering to pay and given their bus drivers a raise. Might have helped with the whole poverty thing.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Pyschic schmychic

What do you do when friends pay money to see a 'psychic'? Do you spend time trying to convince them otherwise or do you just accept it and try and explain some of the hits afterwards?

I had often thought about this in the past and had always come down on the side of the former. Then I actually got some friends who paid money to see one and now I'm in the latter.

In fact, I'm now almost past the latter to the stage where I'm not even going to try and explain it because it turns out it doesn't actually matter what anyone else thinks.

And it's not like these people are unintelligent - they're not. These are clever people with good jobs, but seem willing to believe that someone who can make some educated guesses about them is able to see the future or talk to dead people.

The thing that got me (and led to a fair proportion of time speaking about it) was the disclaimer the 'psychic' gave up front - to paraphrase, 'this reading is accurate for today but you may make decisions in the future which will alter this and threfore you cannot come back to me and say this didn't come true'.

To an open-minded person I would have thought this would have raised a massive warning flag - and I like to think my friends are pretty open-minded. But no, this was accepted without question.

This so-called psychic just gave themselves the biggest out in the world and yet neither of my friends even considered this as a bad thing.

And then we got onto the hits - those things which were apparently so accurate that only someone who had special abilities would be able to know them. And yes, some good guesses were apparently made - but nothing beyond the bounds of some decent cold reading and a little research.

So I moved on and asked about things that didn't make sense. One of my friends said the 'psychic' had mentioned a name which didn't mean anything. I thought this would surely raise the alarm bells.

Nope, how wrong could I be. This just meant the person might not have come into their lives at this point, or maybe it was a reference to a family member they weren't aware of. Just great.

So, with tail firmly between my legs, I gave it one last shot. Both still have tapes of their visit to the 'psychic'.

I asked them to listen to the tape with a piece of paper in their hands and to mark all the things that were accurate and could apply only to them, things which were accurate which could apply to lots of other people and things which were inaccurate.

I'm figuring it's never going to be done.

So what do you do if a friend tells you they're going to see a 'psychic'? As much as it grates and goes against everything I stand for, in the future (at least with these friends) I might just bite my tongue.

Monday, November 30, 2009

It's TAM Australia, baby!

Apologies for the lack of updates recently. Rest assured my skeptical brain has been working while the rest of me has been slightly worse than useless.

I'll be back with more regular updates now Real Life (TM) has once again deigned to allow me some spare time.

And what better way to celebrate my impending return than with the announcement of TAM (The Amazing Meeting) Australia?

The Amazing Meeting
has been held since 2003 and has become the premier meeting for skeptics worldwide. Unfortunately for those of us outwith the United States it can be very expensive to attend.

Earlier this year the first international TAM took place in London and it was widely acclaimed.

And so hot off the back of that was the announcement that Australia will become a focal point for skeptics all around the world from 26-28th November next year.

It's a major coup for the Australian Skeptics and the list of skeptical attendees is already looking impressive.

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe
cast (Dr Steve Novella, Bob Novella, Jay Novella, Evan Bernstein and Rebecca Watson) had already announced they would travel to Australia next year but this will now coincide with TAM Australia.

And if that isn't exciting enough, Skeptoid's Brian Dunning and skeptical podcaster and singer George Hrab will also be making the long trip.

Oh, and a certain diminutive magician widely loved by the entire skeptical community has also said he intends to be in Sydney.

One of the greatest things about the skeptical community is how in touch the 'leaders' are with the base. I've exchanged e-mails, Facebook messages and Tweets with the biggest names and it's amazing (no pun intended) to be able to do that.

And the highlight had to be an e-mail from the man himself, James Randi. I sent him some birthday wishes last year and I was stunned to receive a message back from him.

It was short, amusing and has become my most treasured e-mail. I'll be hoping Randi has fully recovered from his recent health issues so I may shake his hand next November.

Congratulations Australian Skeptics and I can't wait to meet everyone next year.

I'll be looking for cheap tickets to Sydney every day from now on!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Skepticism can be fun

Skepticism can sometimes be a bit of a dry topic.

Good skeptical blog posts about efficacy of natural products may necessarily be hundreds (or thousands) of words long and include multiple references.

Not that that's a bad thing, of course.

But it doesn't always have to be that way. Sometimes less can say more.

And just recently I discovered a blog which does that brilliantly.

The guy's name is Crispian Jago and his blog has given me a huge number of laughs over the last few weeks.

His satire of South Park (called 'Skeptic Park' of course) is just perfect (part one, part two) and the time and effort he must have put into his Simpsons Skeptic video makes me feel way too lazy.

And I've already linked to his video showing how nonsensical homeopathy is by using his own urine as an example.

But the one which gave me the biggest laugh was his video 'The Benny Hinn Show':

Isn't it amazing how a 79 second video can entertain but also make a serious point at the same time?

I don't want to give you the wrong impression about Science, Reason and Critical Thinking because it also has some interesting, well written posts which aren't focussed on humour and there are some great videos from The Amazing Meeting in London.

So the best thing to do it head over there and subscribe to his RSS feed. I promise you won't be disappointed.