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Natural Disaster in Gambia

"Whatever you do there are bound to be skeptics, but I can tell you my method is foolproof. Mine is not an argument, mine is a proof. It's a declaration. I can cure AIDS and I will."A natural disaster is being reported today by Reuters out of Gambia.  

The President of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, is putting his citizens in extreme risk by telling people that his slurry of “natural” herbs can cure people infected with HIV and/or AIDS.

He went on television this past Sunday night to proclaim that he  “…prevailed to cure HIV/AIDS to the point that 68 are being discharged today”, whatever his definition of discharge means.

This “President” is a dangerous man.  He came to power as part of a bloodless coup, and has retained an iron grip on his office ever since via elections, described as ranging from having “serious shortcomings” to being deemed “not fair or free”.

Aside from his despotic rise, he fancies himself a medicine man  – so his declarations of being able to cure HIV and AIDS using herbs is not new (he’s been boasting this since 2007).  Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this tyrant’s “medical advice” is that he is convincing (i.e. intimidating) infected people to stop taking their antiretroviral drugs.

He has hob-nobed with the likes of The President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -not surprising since the government of Iran has also declared “drug-free” cures for HIV and AIDS (birds of a feather?)  – and they have both boasted of a deepening cooperation between their regimes. Fortunately, they have since parted ways since those crazy 2007 days (the only silver lining in this whole post.)

There is no ambiguity on where he stands on homosexuality.  He has threatened to cut off the heads of any homosexual he finds in his country. He has all the humanitarianism of a school of piranha.

Still not convinced of the quality of this person?  Well then, take a second and absorb this quote from Gambia’s president:

 “If you don’t believe in God, you can never be grateful to humanity and you are even below a pig.”

Folks, this person can’t disappear from the earth fast enough.  In the meantime, the natural disaster and living nightmare that is the reign of Yahya Jammeh continues, to the collective detriment of the world, and most immediately, the HIV infected citizens of Gambia. 

A Grief Reminder

My friend Mark sent an article my way today via Facebook. Courtesy of The Hartford Courant (the oldest continually running newspaper in America, for the moment), their ‘Business’ section of the website reports that a local engineer is manufacturing “hand held devices” for “effects associated with paranormal.” That is the “business” side of the story.

The other side of the report is that the engineer was inspired to create these devices due to the death of his 17-year old daughter back in 2004. Since that time, he has seen and heard things which he can only interpret as the spirit of his daughter trying to communicate with family members.

Mark’s first thought about the matter was that of sadness. Mark’s second thought suggested the notion is preposterous. I agree with Mark and his assessment of the priority of these two very different aspects of the article.

George Hrab just gave a fantastic talk at NECSS this past weekend about the subject of the loss of loved ones, and the grief and pain associated with such losses. The Courant article is quite timely in this regard, as I try to borrow George’s wisdom and add those pearls to my own set of thoughts on the matter. One of George’s many points was that people have a tendency not to talk about death and all of its unappealing aspects, arguably the worst of which is the sense of pain felt by the bereaved. We are very clumsy and socially unrehearsed when put in the position of having to interact with people in such a state of mind.

I was able to summarize, if not reinforce the thoughts I had before George’s talk, that there are no easy answers to questions concerning the complexities of the human psyche. This may seem a rather obvious thought upon reading, but we have to continually remind ourselves that humans have a tendency to seek out the easiest of answers from a given set of possibilities.  This seems especially true when our emotions are in compromised states. I liken this to our pattern seeking tendencies  – where the human brain has a disposition to make order out of, what is otherwise, chaos. We want to find reasons for things which may, in reality, have no reasons at all.

With this in mind, I don’t think we need to analyze why the father is interpreting the sound of a ringing doorbell, or the sight of the television changing channels as something paranormal. In my book, he gets a pass, and should not be the object of criticism or ridicule.

The second, and less important, aspect of the story is the engineering, and hence, the apparent “business” side of the story. Although I could go off on a rant about how The Courant did a poor job of reporting and categorizing this story, I will hold off on that for perhaps another day when I talk about the “rag” status of this newspaper.

Strictly from an engineering position, or more simply a general scientific position, I would like to see the test results for these devices.  There is no mention in the article about how it has been proven that any of his devices work. There is no information concerning the mechanisms at action in such devices. It is taken for granted that ghost-detecting devices actually work at detecting anything other than mundane phenomena.

The story was also covered on television this past weekend as an episode of  ‘Ghost Adventurers’, which airs on The Travel Channel. One of the quotes in the article from the host of the tv show reads:

“Gary is a very, very talented electrical engineer and he’s helped companies, massive companies, in that aspect in order to do things better.”

This is an argument from authority logical fallacy. Gary might be a talented electrical engineer, but this is not a way of proving that the technology actually works. What really matters are tests, results, unbiased data, and replication. Then we can start to have a serious conversation about the technology being accepted as genuine by the likes of the business section of The Hartford Courant.  

Did the writer not think to reach out to organizations skeptical of these claims for an alternate point of view?

Perhaps he did, yet this being a rather uncomfortable subject to try and tackle (especially from a business standpoint), perhaps he made a decision, either consciously or subconsciously, to avoid one of the stickier facets of the story. Lets face it, its hard to ask tough questions – questions that contradict the claims of the claimant, even for the sake of playing devil’s advocate – of a person so grieved.

And this goes back to one of George’s points again:  people are generally poor and clumsy communicators when it comes to the things they say to other people when the subject pertains to the death of loved ones.

I could go off further and on different tangents regarding this story, but I’m cutting myself short to help preserve the main point I am trying to drive home, which is this …

Good skeptics work hard at trying to understand the world around us, and in that search for a more complete comprehension of the cosmos, we remain mindful of human nature, inclusive of human culture, and understanding of human imperfections.


Word Magnets for Skeptics from SGU!

We’ve had a few new additions to Skeptical Robot, our merch shop, and my absolute favorite is this sweet set of more than 200 Word Magnets for Skeptics. You can make tons of classic skeptical phrases and even create your own freeform poems on topics like homeopathy, evolution, vaccination, Bigfoot, aliens, and nano-robots. And since the set comes courtesy of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, there are even a few in-jokes you can make (plus the names of all the co-hosts)! Here are a few options: Continue reading Word Magnets for Skeptics from SGU!

O! Say Can You See …

We have not one, but TWO delicious examples of pareidolia in the news this week. Pareidolia is the phenomena of seeing patterns in objects, such as a face in the clouds. The human mind has a natural disposition to try and make order out of chaos, and faces are the most common pattern discerned out of randomness. This is because some of the very first images burned in to our brains as infants are that of faces, primarily a mother’s face, for obvious reasons. 

Today, we have a chicken nugget purported to look like the famous profile of George Washington. Have a look at this picture of the nugget along side the US quarter dollar. The only truly amazing thing about this nugget is that it fetched $8100 at auction on eBay!  Jesus!

Speaking of which, the other image is that of Jesus on a tortilla (again). This is a more readily reported sighting – the face of Jesus “appears” (note the quotation marks) on all sorts of objects – glass windows, oil stains in parking lots, in the knots and stumps of trees, on all sorts of food items, and so on. Is it any co-incidence that the most “popular” (there are those quotation marks again) person in history (Jesus Christ) “appears” so frequently in all kinds of objects all over the world? So far, there are no reports of the tortilla being auctioned.

But in the case of the chicken nugget, the nugget’s owner, Rebekah Speight, to her credit, raised the money on eBay for charity. Good for her!  

To Rebekah Speight’s discredit, she’s giving the money to children so they can attend a summer church camp where they will probably learn to be more inclined to see the face of Jesus in tortillas, wallpaper prints, and fecal matter. The irony is bitter.

I would have much rather seen her donate the money for kids to go on a summer trip to Washington DC so they could learn more about the importance of historical figures in US history, such as George Washington.

February 29

The calendar is one of the most amazing creations of humankind. Including its most obvious of utilities (keeping track of our days and seasons) the calendar is a validation of scientific principles, such as the correct application of the process of predictability – which is to say, a good scientific theory will make certain predictions as a means of testing its validity. So by most measures, the accuracy of The Gregorian Calendar is a pretty damn good system. One big reason why the calendar works as well as it does is because of the concept of Leap Day and Leap Years.

Unless you are still using an abacus instead of a computer, then you know that February 29 is the Leap Day of The Gregorian Calendar. Since this irregular day will be upon us shortly, I thought I’d consolidate some interesting tidbits about February 29.  

So I did, and in no particular order, here are the tidbits that caught my attention:

– We have it burned in our brains that Leap Day occurs every four years.  This is mostly true, however there is an exception:  there is no Leap Day on years ending in ’00, with the exception of ’00 years divisible by 400 (such as the year 2000.)

– There are efforts occurring in US universities where researchers are trying to come up with alternative calendars to ultimately replace The Gregorian Calendar, thereby eliminating the need for Leap Day and Leap Years. Here is the recent SciAm article about this very subject.

– In the early 1700’s in Sweden, they had their own calendar for about a dozen years, and their Leap Years also included February 30!

– February 29 is also known (in some circles) as Saint Oswald Day. And so it is said … in the year of our Lord 992, “On Leap Year Day, February 29, he died after kissing the feet of the 12th man and giving a blessing.” (May The Lords and Saints Preserve Us!)

– Superstitious Grecians (people from Greece) consider Leap Year an unlucky year to get married, and don’t even think about getting married on February 29th in Greece!

– Legend has it that Christopher Columbus took advantage of a lunar eclipse on February 29 in 1504 to get himself out of a perilous situation.

– It is reported that Leap Day has tripped up Google. Their ‘Blogger’ program will not allow existing users born on February 29 to update their profiles, an annoyance to leapers (people born on February 29) who use social media. The company plans to fix the glitch, but we shall see!

Here is a stupid astrology thing about people born on February 29.  I know ‘stupid astrology’ is redundant, but I’m taking liberties today.

And finally … on more of a personal note …

– On February 29 in 1980, Gordie Howe of The Hartford Whalers scored his record-setting 800th career goal.  I mention this because I am forever a Whaler’s fan, even though the team is 15 years gone.

Happy February 29th everyone!  Lets do this again in about 4 years!