Archive for the conspiracy thinking Category

Skeptical Blogging and Preaching to the Choir

Posted in conspiracy thinking, pseudoscience, skepticism with tags , , , , , , on June 26, 2010 by cpolsonb

The first time I seriously considered starting a blog was at a local Perth Skeptics event. The guest speaker was Kristjan Wager who runs the ProScience blog. He was talking to us about skeptical blogging in general, what got him started, what it involves and how he has found it. One of the guests there asked a rather pointed question about whether skeptical blogging serves any practical purpose, and whether we are merely “preaching to the choir” as they say. I’ve heard this sort of sentiment repeated elsewhere; the view that the blogosphere is merely an “echo chamber” of like minded individuals patting each other on the back. These people argue that our efforts would be best served elsewhere, maybe handing out leaflets on a street corner or engaging in direct confrontation of forums. In my short time as a blogger I have found that the reality is actually very different.

Thanks to the in-depth traffic statistics that wordpress keeps for all it’s blogs, I have been able to observe where the majority of my traffic comes from. Contrary to the echo chamber hypothesis, my statistics indicate that a good deal of traffic comes from search terms not typically associated with the skeptically mindset. Right up front the big exception to this conclusion is from very top search term “richard dawkins” or “dawkins” which has accounted for a full 9.54% of my total views. Who’s to say however that all those people searching for dawkins are doing so from a skeptical mindset? After dawkins the most popular search terms of all time are “omega point theory criticism” which I will concede seems like a directly skeptical search. Then you get into “global temperatures” & “earth’s atmosphere” which while still scientific indicate that non-skeptics may be stumbling upon my skeptical rundown of climate change denial.

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Layman Answers to some Climate Denial Arguments

Posted in conspiracy thinking, pseudoscience with tags , , on March 15, 2010 by cpolsonb

This one goes out to those of you who are somewhat confused about climate change and where the most recent science lies. I’ll try to keep the questions and answers as non-technical as is possible. I’m not going to go over the details with a fine tooth comb, think of this more like a quick primer on how to defend yourself from common climate denial arguments. Much of the information I’m going to pull from comes straight out of the March/April 2010 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, and an article by David Morrison.

As a quick preface it’s useful to mention that the scientific argument over whether the planet is warming has died down considerably over the last decade. Note that I say ‘scientific’ argument as there remains a small but dedicated group of ideologically driven denialists who dispute even this. Since the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) latest report many who didn’t support the warming hypothesis have been swayed. The real scientific questions now lie in extracting the degree to which humans are forcing climate change. This human induced climate change or change acceleration is referred to colloquially as AGW (anthropogenic global warming). The questions that remain to be resolved are all a matter of degree, very few people and almost no climate scientists deny that the planet is warming at all.

I will now attempt to (very) briefly cover some of the most common arguments put forward by people who are either intentionally distorting the facts to serve an agenda or are too lazy to properly research climate change. These arguments range in goal from questioning whether climate change is a negative to disputing the accuracy of recordings and even accusations of fraud. Thanks once again to David Morrison’s fantastic article for most of this info.

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“The Bad Man Punted Baxter”

Posted in conspiracy thinking, health, pseudoscience, skepticism with tags , , , on February 19, 2010 by cpolsonb

A couple of weeks back I received a private message on a forum I frequent that is completely unrelated to skepticism. The forum is westgamer, a discussion site for fellow West Australians who are fans of the nerdier side of life (table-top gaming especially). A friend of mine had recently started an off-topic thread on “conspiracy theories” and I’d challenged a few of the things he had to say. A couple of private messages were sent back and forth culminating in him sending a few consecutive challenges for me to investigate. First up was a real softball for debunkers:

“So been checking out more conspiracy type stuff, and came across a book called the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Was wondering if you have done any research into this subject and what your thoughts are on it.”

To which I replied.

“I hadn’t heard out this book in particular before you brought it to my attention but I’m very familiar with the family of conspiracies it falls into (that being anti-jewish conspiracies).

Even a rudimentary search on non-conspiracy peddling websites quickly reveals the book to be a hoax for a whole host of reasons. It’s actually quite interesting that this book is viewed widely as the beginning of contemporary conspiracy literature. I admit that most of what I read about it is from the wiki article (and the references that lead from it). There just doesn’t seem to be enough in this one to deserve a closer look, it’s been thoroughly debunked since the 1920’s. It is summed up nicely as follows “It is also one of the best-known and most-discussed examples of literary forgery, with analysis and proof of its fraudulent origin going as far back as 1921.” It’s really just a hate-filled anti-jewish hoax for which the only arguments as to it’s validity are necessarily improbable, improvable and immature.

Awesome find though, it’s great to read about this sort of stuff. If you find anything else of stand-out interest throw them my way as well. I hope you don’t take personal offence at any criticisms I have though. I very little patience for conspiracies like the above though, ones that are bred purely from prejudice and bigotry against a people who have suffered horrific injustices.”

He followed that one up though with a much meatier, much more complex and challenging to debunk conspiracy theory. I’ll post his message followed by my reply in full. One massive regret is that I didn’t reference my reply to him (something which I endeavour to do in all similar instances). So in the meantime before I find time to go back and fully reference my reply if there are any particular points you’d like to challenge or see a reference for just leave a comment in the post notes. Bare with me there was a lot of mis-information to wade through :P

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Diet Dilemma? What’s the Catch?

Posted in conspiracy thinking, health, pseudoscience, skepticism with tags , , , , on February 17, 2010 by cpolsonb

While stopping by my former workplace just a few days ago I came face to face yet again with one of my most hated conspiracy theories/pseudosciences. A friend and ex workmate of mine Drew asked whether I still suffer from the regular headaches that plagued me while I worked there. “Why yes” I replied and briefly mentioned some medical avenues I’m exploring to treat them. His follow up was “because I was speaking to Troy the other day and he was telling me about how diet coke can lead all sorts of problems like headaches”. Drew went on to mention how the artificial sweetener aspartame has been linked to all sorts of problems and cited a study on rats as evidence. Now Drew is a nice guy, he was genuinely interested in what I had to say and seemed to take a lot on board. The Aspartame scare was nothing new to me; in fact it is one of the most common examples of scientific paranoia that I encounter in day to day life. Let’s take a look at some of the claims from aspartame critics and evaluate the scientific evidence. I could never dream of covering such a broad topic in real depth but I wish to draw attention to a few main points.

I’ll start with a very brief and non-technical overview of aspartame. Discovered in 1965 aspartame’s chemical name is aspartyl-phenylalanine-1-methyl ester. It is one of the most commonly used artificial sweeteners world wide and is only applied in relatively small amounts (it’s around 180 times sweeter than sugar). If you’re a fan of diet drinks like Diet Coke, Pepsi Max, Sprite Zero etc. then you almost certainly consume aspartame on a regular basis.

Aspartame sits in big pile along with mercury-amalgam fillings, vaccines, fluoridated water, food from the microwave, bottled water and many other byproducts of science that are criticized heavily despite having been studied intensively and proven to be safe for regular use. A literature review examining the body of peer-reviewed research surrounding aspartame published in the journal of “Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology” found the following:

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