Not Saussure

April 3, 2007

Skepticism and Pseudoscience

Filed under: junk science, scams — notsaussure @ 12:45 pm

Via The Art Of The Prank, a link to an exclusive video (lives only on that site, apparently, but is available for download as a podcast) in which

Skeptic Magazine founder Michael Shermer takes us on a hilarious romp through the strange claims we humans put forth as truth – from alien encounters to Virgin Mary sightings on pizza pies, to hidden messages revealed while playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ backwards – and explains the evolutionary and cognitive basis for these lapses in reason…

Brief adverts at the beginning and the end, but the 17-odd minutes in between are highly entertaining. I particularly liked the special hi-tech dowsing rod, for which apparently at least one US school has paid $900, that enables teachers to dowse for marijuana in students’ lockers. Apparently it really works; if you open enough lockers you’ll find pot in some of them; the video makers apparently conducted tests under controlled conditions, with two sealed boxes, one containing pot and the other not. Spookily, the dowsing rod detected the one containing the pot 50% of the time.

The Art Of The Prank is a new, collective blog, appropriately started on April 1st, in which

you will find insights, information, news and discussions about pranks, hoaxes, culture jamming & reality hacking around the world – past, present and future – mainstream and counter culture. You are invited to contribute to its development. May your journey be filled with more than your expectations.

It was started by one Joey Skaggs who, according to his website,

has been called everything from the World’s Greatest Hoaxer to a royal pain in the ass. He’s been threatened, assaulted, summonsed, subpoenaed, arrested, deposed, dismissed, trivialized, maligned, even thanked and praised. In fact, Skaggs is America’s most notorious socio-political satirist, media activist, culture jammer, hoaxer, and dedicated proponent of independent thinking and media literacy.

In a similar vein, Boing Boing reports that Uri Geller has used his paranormal powers to get YouTube to remove a video of him being debunked by the American illusionist James Randi.   Fortunately, the video is available here.

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March 29, 2007

Interpreting the results

Filed under: junk science — notsaussure @ 7:29 pm


Millions of Britons could be in the wrong job, according to a survey which determines whether workers’ personalities match their careers.

The study of more than 2,300 adults, in which they were asked to select one of four shapes and eight colours which they felt described themselves, revealed that three-quarters were in jobs that did not suit their characters.

It found that 40 per cent of bankers and accountants described themselves as “warm” and “people-oriented”, and a similar number of secretaries thought they had leadership skills.

The personality test, conducted by private healthcare provider Bupa, also discovered that only 6 per cent of those in creative jobs saw themselves as “expressive and eccentric” while only one in ten politicians and civil servants chose shapes and colours which suggested they had people skills and logical personality traits.

To be accurate, unless the Telegraph report has missed something out, the test never asks you to describe yourself in terms like ‘warm’ or ‘expressive’; as the report says, it asks you choose colours and shapes and then to answer questions about your likes, dislikes and so forth.

An alternative interpretation of the data, of course, to the one that we’re all in the wrong job is that the test results are meaningless.

The test is at I thought I was a purple triangle, but the results mean that apparently I’m really a pink square. I think I’ll survive the shock.

There’s a way to test it, though; apparently I could have great fun with a squiggle (colour immaterial). I’m not making this up, I swear. So, if there are any unattached squiggles of the female persuasion who’re looking for some fun with a middle-aged square pink widower reading this….

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March 7, 2007

Not a place to take Richard Dawkins

Filed under: junk science, Religion — notsaussure @ 4:37 pm

Via Boing Boing, a droll mini-documentary about a visit to Dinosaur Adventure Land, a young earth creationist theme park in Pensacola, Florida, which is apparently so weird that even other Creationists have disavowed it. The attraction was founded by a Mr Kent Hovind, who is current serving 10 years for 58 counts of tax fraud.

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December 12, 2006

At last some good news…

Filed under: Education, junk science, Politics — notsaussure @ 9:17 pm

From The Telegraph

A group of Christian academics promoting the Biblical story of creation in school science lessons have been told to end their campaign.

In a letter, officials at the Department for Education and Skills told the group that creationism and its more recent off-shoot, intelligent design, have no place in the national curriculum and schools should refuse to use their teaching materials.

This comes as a pleasant surprise to those of us who remember Tony Blair’s notorious response to Jenny Tonge in 2002

Q5. [40149] Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): Is the Prime Minister happy—[Hon. Members: “Yes.”] Is the Prime Minister happy to allow the teaching of creationism alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in state schools?

The Prime Minister: First, I am very happy. Secondly, I know that the hon. Lady is referring to a school in the north-east, and I think that certain reports about what it has been teaching are somewhat exaggerated. It would be very unfortunate if concerns about that issue were seen to remove the very strong incentive to ensure that we get as diverse a school system as we properly can. In the end, a more diverse school system will deliver better results for our children. If she looks at the school’s results, I think she will find that they are very good.

and who noted his rather sanguine approach to the topic only last month in an interview with New Scientist:

One subject that is of great concern to scientists is creationism. There has been a suggestion that creationism is being taught in some British schools. What are your views on this?

This can be hugely exaggerated. I’ve visited one of the schools in question and as far as I’m aware they are teaching the curriculum in a normal way. If I notice creationism become the mainstream of the education system in this country then that’s the time to start worrying. As I’ve said, it’s really quite important for science to fight the battles it needs to fight. When MMR comes out, or stem cells, or GM, that’s the time to have a real debate.

To my mind, that’s a bit like agreeing it would be a cause for concern that most schools taught Roman history from Shakespeare’s Roman plays but since only a few are, that’s no need to worry. It also reveals that he fundamentally (if I may use the term) misunderstands some of the religious basis for opposition to stem cell research and, consequently, why scientists might well see the debate about creationism as relevant to stem cells. After all, if you start teaching the theory — held by a great many more people than believe in creationism, I’d think — in biology lessons that human life begins at conception, is a gift of God and involves a soul, then a good deal follows, as Ruth Kelly would doubtless be happy to explain.

Be that as it may, the article continues,

But this week Jim Knight, the schools minister, issued its strongest statement yet that creationism or intelligent design have no place in science lessons.

Answering a Parliamentary Question on Monday, Mr Knight said that the DfES had written to Truth in Science outlining its position.

“Officials have responded that schools are under a duty to follow the science programme of study which sets out the legal requirements of the national curriculum,” he said.

The letter also states that neither intelligent design nor creationism is a recognised scientific theory and they are not included in the science curriculum.

“The Truth in Science information pack is therefore not an appropriate resource to support the science curriculum. The letter also mentioned that the department is working with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to ensure that schools are completely clear as to the reasons for this position.”

However, he said that such material would be appropriate in religious education lessons.

“Creationism can be explored in RE as part of developing an understanding of different beliefs,” he said, adding that it was up to schools and local authorities to “set the syllabus for how this should be done”.

(In the interests of accuracy, perhaps it should be noted the final quote comes from a Written Answer from the week before.)

Showing their approach to the notion of evidence, the somewhat ironically-named Truth In Science website takes this to mean nothing like what anyone else would think:

The national curriculum is a minimum standard. It exists to guarantee that every young person receives a basic education. Teachers are free to go teach more than the minimum requirements of the national curriculum. Even if intelligent design is “not included in the science curriculum,” this simply means that it is not compulsory in all schools. It does not constitute a ban.

The views of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster on this set-back are yet to be determined.

On which subject, I think I’ve found a design for a Season’s Greetings card that’ll wind up the Daily Mail good and proper.

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November 27, 2006

Cracking the crime before it’s even committed.

Filed under: civil liberties, junk science, Law, UK — notsaussure @ 7:23 pm

Blimey! First we have Jamie Oliver sorting out school meals. Then Blair sends in SuperNanny to sort out unruly children, and now, presumably on the assumption that this may not work in all cases, they’re thinking of sending in Fitz, from Cracker, to solve crimes before they get committed.

Criminal profilers are drawing up a list of the 100 most dangerous murderers and rapists of the future even before they commit such crimes, The Times has learnt.

The highly controversial database will be used by police and other agencies to target suspects before they can carry out a serious offence. Pilot projects to identify the highest-risk future offenders have been operating in five London boroughs for the past two months.

The Soham murderer Ian Huntley and the serial rapist Richard Baker have been used as examples of the type of man police will identify. (more…)

September 9, 2006

Something fishy?

Filed under: Education, fish oil, junk science, Omega-3 — notsaussure @ 8:37 pm

The BBC report

About 5,000 secondary school pupils are to be offered daily doses of fish oil supplements in the hope it will have a direct impact on exam results.All Year 11 pupils in County Durham will be encouraged to take the omega-3 “eye q” pills until their GCSE examinations in summer 2007.

The initiative is the brainchild of the county council’s chief schools inspector Dave Ford.

But charity Food and Behaviour Research said more research was needed.

Mr Ford is convinced the fatty oils can improve concentration and learning.

He said: “We are able to track pupils’ progress and we can measure whether their attainments are better than their predicted scores.”

Such claims are rather questionable, however, despite The Daily Mail’s not-unpredictable excitement and the (rather more important, to my mind) fact that we have it on the highest authority that Jeeves was so brainy a chap because he ‘practically lives on fish’. The BBC report goes on to raise some of the questions:

But Dr Alex Richardson of Food and Behaviour Research said some pupils should take dummy pills to determine whether supplements improved performance generally.She said: “Proper trials of omega-3 have shown benefits for some children. However, the real burning question is whether they will help children in general.

“The Durham project is taking for granted that fish oils will help. There is no control and there must be a placebo.

“You cannot give omega-3 to every child and then say that the supplements have made a difference.”

The Food Standards Agency looked at these claims a couple of months ago and found them rather fishy unproven; they may well, apparently, be useful for children with ADS — and doing something about that will obviously help the kids’ academic acheivement — but the notion that they enhance people’s learning abilities in general is certainly unproven.

This exercise, however, certainly isn’t going to prove anything one way or the other, other than the disingenousness of the study’s promoters, as Ben Goldacre explains at some length in The Guardian:

The Eye-Q study is a cheap promo for Equazen’s Eye-Q range: there is no placebo, in fact there is no control group whatsoever. They’re going to the trouble of giving 5,000 children the tablets, six a day, under the watchful eye of the nation, hyping the study, with all their hopes pinned on success, and then they’re going to measure their performance against … what the council predicts it should have been without the tablets.

This is – let me be quite clear – a rubbish study, which has been designed in such a way that it cannot provide useful results: it is therefore a waste of time, resources, money, and parents’ goodwill.

In the name of fairness, I decide to put this modest proposal to Dave Ford, chief schools inspector for Durham, the mastermind behind the project. Then it all gets a bit weird. “We’ve been quite clear,” he says, “this is not a trial.”

Well, hang on. I call up to tell you it’s a bad trial, and suddenly that’s OK because it’s not actually a trial? The Press Association called it a trial. The Daily Mail called it a trial. Channel 4 and ITV and everyone covering it all present it, very clearly, as research (damning quotes and clips at In four solid years of moron baiting, this is definitely the most surreal defence I’ve come across. I look at Durham council’s press release for it. They call it a “trial” twice, and a “study” once. You are giving something and measuring the result. Your own descriptive term for this activity is “trial”. How is this not a trial? To excuse you out of a hole?

On a wider question, though, what if a properly designed study does show that such supplements actually do some good? Should schools be encouraging children to take them?

This may seem a foolish question — who doesn’t want to help children do well at school? — but I’m not completely sure of the logic that (rightly, in my view and probably everyone else’s, if the pills work) applauds giving children pills to enhance their academic performance but frowns upon doing the same to enhance their acheivements on the athletics field.

You may argue that steriods (or whatever) are bad for you when taken to excess, but that’s an argument for banning — or at least controlling the adminstration of — certain substances for athletes on health grounds, not for banning performance-enhancing drugs per se, surely?

The argument that athletes thereby gain an ‘unfair advantage’ doesn’t really wash, at least as far as I’m concerned, since the same could be said of having the good fortune to be born in one country rather than another; a competitor representing (e.g.) the USA is doubtless likely to have had access to valuable sponsorship and training opportunities that wouldn’t be available to him were he representing Albania, but we don’t complain that this gives Americans an unfair advantage over Albanians in the Olympics.

Somehow, though, I doubt we’ll be seeing headlines about doping scandals in school league tables any time soon.

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