Saturday, November 21, 2009

Anonymous Comments

I'm pretty tired of putting up with not only stupid comments, but anonymous stupid comments.

So, anonymous commenting is now turned off (again). I welcome you to discuss anything you like here on my blog (stupid comments included), but you're going to have to take some level of ownership of what you say.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Carnival Time!

This month's Carnival of the Africans is up over at The Skeptic Detective. Go thither!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Thank You, Dr Borlaug

You won't hear or see this story in the mainstream media, because they are ignorant and stupid.

This weekend, the greatest human being who ever lived, Dr Norman Borlaug, died at the age of 95.

Dr Norman Borlaug saved a billion lives. He was more awesome than every other awesome person ever, combined.

Thank you, Dr Borlaug. Thank you.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Answering "Dr" Prinsloo

My comrade-in-reason Angela, the Skeptic Detective, alerted me to an anomalous article she picked up on her Skep-dar. On his website named 'Biocura' a Homeopathic "doctor" named Johan Prinsloo (Jnr) has written a lengthy article in which he claims to address the questions and challenges to Homeopathy posed by sceptics.

He's certainly not alone in this attempt, and ordinarily I wouldn't have given the page a second glance, but Angela pointed out that he refers to lil' ol' me in his article, by name. I'm far too arrogant to let that slide, so here begins my response to his article.

(Update 2009-09-03: Since I posted this, Prinsloo has made some non-trivial changes to the text of the page. Luckily I saved a copy of the text as it was when I was composing my response. You can find that here. Google Cache has a copy of it too, that's here.)

He begins the piece with this:
"It is against my principles to debate the validity and efficacy of Homeopathy with ignorants."
Setting aside his attempt to turn an adjective into a noun, thus coining a new term, he then contradicts this assertion by launching into a tirade of no less than 5600 words attempting to do exactly that: debate the validity and efficacy of Homeopathy with "ignorants".

He then defines an "ignorant" as follows:

On this page, reference to the word ignorant shall mean :
Any so-called scientist or "expert" that expresses him/herself on the subject of Homeopathy, it's validity or efficacy, but who -
  • Is not a qualified Homeopath;
  • Has not studied Homeopathy to the extent that a Homeopath does;
  • Has not conducted extensive research on Homeopathy in accordance with the scientific principles of Homeopathy under the supervision of a qualified Homeopath;
  • Does not possess sufficient experience in the practical application of Homeopathy in a clinical setting;
  • Who is not registered as a Homeopathic Practitioner in South Africa and / or does not meet the requirements for such registration;
  • Who is not an expert on applied Homeopathy.(*)With respect to Homeopathy, that is an ignorant in my opinion and someone not worthy of my time.

(*) Howard Stephen Berg, The World's Fastest Reader, defines an expert as "someone who has read at least 25 books on a particular subject".

You see what he's doing here? This is a textbook case of the Argument from Special Pleading. In essence, he is asserting that only somebody with special knowledge (knowledge that he, himself, just happens to possess) is qualified to engage in any sort of meaningful discussion on the topic of Homeopathy. He seems to be of the opinion that this will allow him to summarily dismiss the arguments of anyone who does not already possess it as being worthless.

(Before we go any further: isn't it interesting that he excludes any and all Homeopaths who are not South African? What's that about?)

Let's play a game. Let's take his definition and see if we can apply it to another situation. I hereby coin a new term, I shall call it "Flarpojip". A Flarpojip is a person who is:

  • Is not a qualified film and television producer;
  • Has not studied buses to the extent that a film and television producer does;
  • Has not conducted extensive research on film and television productions in accordance with the scientific principles of film and television producer under the supervision of a qualified film and television producer;
  • Does not possess sufficient experience in the practical application of film and television producer in a commercial setting;
  • Who is not registered as a Film and Television Producer in South Africa and / or does not meet the requirements for such registration;
  • Who is not an expert on applied film and television production.

By Prinsloo's argument, someone who is a flarpojip can have no valuable positions when it comes to films or television. Just about any film critic you may encounter (like Barry Ronge) shouldn't be paid attention to, and you would be justified in refusing to discuss last night's episode of Lost with any of your friends or family who happen to be flarpojips.

It is interesting, then, that Prinsloo includes in his website a page he calls "Legal Stuff". Is Prinsloo a qualified attorney or advocate? If not, what justification does he use to post anything of a legal nature on his website? Has he even read 25 books on the subject? I doubt it.

Forgive my brief foray into an Argument from Absurdity... but I take it my point is made. It's not necessary to hold any sort of formal qualifications in a subject in order to have valuable and accurate information on it. While I can't guarantee that the information I possess about Homeopathy is either valuable or accurate, I can still present it in the context of an argument, in the interests of the pursuit of an adequately precise approximation of the truth.

And, unfortunately for Prinsloo, since I am the one advocating the Null Hypothesis, the burden of proof falls more heavily on him to substantiate his extraordinary claim: that Homeopathy works.

Let's move onto his argument.

No wait... looks like there's some more logical fallacies first.

Under the section entitled "Allow me to explain", Prinsloo asserts that
"the vast majority of medical practitioners and specialists have good working relationships with the South African Homeopathic fraternity and there exists a healthy mutual respect between the medical professions and the Homeopathic Profession in South Africa."

An interesting claim, to be sure. I'd be interested to see the evidence Prinsloo has to support it. But wait... he doesn't offer any.

Instead he continues his rant against "ingorants", and makes this alarming claim:

"Unfortunately, as with anything else in this world, there is always a small number of self-centred individuals with their own agendas and probably backed by some pharmaceutical company or grouping, that has to infect our healthy source of drinking water with some unwanted pest or virus."

Yikes. I certainly hope he was speaking metaphorically there. The suggestion that there is some sort of Big Pharma conspiracy working to contaminate the water supply is worrying. If he was speaking metaphorically, however, it's only slightly less worrying: it means that despite all the qualifications he claims to possess, Prinsloo can't seem to string together a coherent analogy... at least not one that makes any sense to me.

He then makes references to the three (yes, three) institutions who offer post-graduate courses in Homeopathy in South Africa. He points out that these courses are offered exclusively to medical post-grads... in other words, real doctors.

What he's attempting to do here is called the Argument from Authority. He's trying to usurp borrow an air of legitimacy by demonstrating that these otherwise respectable institutions and medical practitioners have offered some measure of endorsement to the enterprise of Homeopathy. Unfortunately, we can't infer that legitimacy at all. Only three institutions offerring courses seems a little low, and Prinsloo declines to mention any of the so-called medical practitioners by name who he claims support Homeopathy.

So not only was that a fallacious Argument from Authority, but it was a bad attempt at one too.

Okay, on to the actual argument.

No, wait. It seems we're not there yet. In the section titled "The creators of filth" Prinsloo takes some more time to cast scorn upon 'ignorant' experts who appear on television, radio and print media attempting to discredit Homeopathy. It seems that these authorities are not to be listened to, according to Prinsloo.

So let me get this straight: We should be paying attention to the experts who agree with Prinsloo, but not to those who don't. The sole differentiator between them, it seems, is the fact that they either agree with him or not... not on any other professional grounds. Interesting.

Okay, next stop... the argument.

No wait, another delay. First we must stop at the section labelled "But why not?" in which Prinsloo summarises and restates the article so far. Nothing new here. Let's press on to the argument.

So, we're about a third of a way through, and we finally see something that seems to actually be about Homeopathy: the section entitled "Highly Diluted Immeasurable Substances". Hooray!

This is where it starts getting confusing.

Prinsloo asserts that not all Homeopaths advocate the Homeopathic "Law of Infinitessimals", or the dilution of preparations to the point where not a single molecule of active ingredient remains. (Actually he says that "The issue of dilution of Homeopathic substances has NOTHING to do with Homeopathy." That's a pretty blatant falsehood, but I'll generously chalk it up to hyperbole, and give Prinsloo the benefit of the considerable doubt). Again he declines to provide any evidence of this, but luckily I happen to know how to use Google. It seems that there really is an ongoing debate over this amongst Homeopaths. I find this encouraging... it means that not all Homeopaths are quite as insane as I thought. Thanks for enlightening me, Prinsloo!

Perhaps I've misjudged Prinsloo. Maybe he's not a complete idiot.

Oh dear.
"one milligram / 1mg means one part per million(1:1,000,000) of the active ingredient".
Um, no. It seems I have been too generous. One milligram (1mg) of ingredient diluted into 1mg (one milligram) of solution is a ratio of 1:1. It seems that Prinsloo suffers from the same inability to count zeroes as his super-diluting colleagues do.

Prinsloo then gives us a brief, inadequate and inaccurate lesson on Homeopathic dilution codes. The innacuracy stemming from the error I mentioned above. It seems that they don't teach arithmetic at Homeopathy School.

Then he says
"You will find that most Homeopathic medicines on the open market fall within [the range of 1:10 and 1:10 000]. Now where is the "highly diluted", immeasurableness in that?"
Another interesting claim. I wonder what he bases it on. Unfortunately I'll have to continue wondering, as he yet again declines to provide any citation. (I guess since he's the expert, we're just supposed to take his word for it.)

Next stop, the section labelled "Lack of Scientific Research in Homeopathy".

To summarize Prinsloo's argument here, he claims that it is humanly impossible for any given practitioner to possibly read any and all research papers that are published, and that some selection bias is at work. Therefore, when a medical practitioner claims that there is insufficient research into Homeopathy, he is only revealing his own selection bias, in that only Homeopaths would take the time to read the research papers on Homeopathy. (That's a pretty heavy summation... Prinsloo seems to lack the rhetorical sophistication to use terms like "selection bias". Perhaps he prefers to invent new words, like using "ignorant" as a noun, or "murking".)

Surprisingly, this argument is actually logically viable. I quite like it. Or rather, I would like it if it weren't profoundly misinformed. ("profound" is my new favourite word. I wonder if I can turn it into a noun.)

The thing is, we are now living in the 21st century. Research papers and scientific journals are still published on paper, but fewer and fewer people use them that way: because its inefficient. It's far easier and quicker to use a search engine, like Google. That's what I use. Alternatively there are services that archive reputable journals digitally, and make them available to the public online... one such service is PubMed. Any seeker after truth with adequate access would likely use one of these resources before making a claim that research into Homeopathy is infrequent, of poor quality or sparse.

In fact, quite a few seekers after truth have done just that, and guess what they found? That there is a considerable amount of research into Homeopathy. They also found that the trend in this research suggests that the better the study, the smaller the purported effect, and the best studies show that Homeopathic preparations perform no better than placebo.

So, Prinsloo: good argument. But wrong.

Now we get to the good bit. It's good because I'm in it: "The IGNORANTS" (his allcaps, not mine).

Prinsloo starts by making this curious statement:
"The one thing that always catches my attention is the fact that generally the skeptics of Homeopathy also tend to be anti-religion or at least skeptical of religion." (emphasis not mine)
Funny... I've noticed the same thing. Here's my question: so what? He doesn't appear to draw any connection between that observation and whether or not the criticisms we sceptics offer are viable. A poorly executed attempt at Poisoning the Well perhaps? Who knows?

He points to the South African Skeptics forum as being the lair of "another typical bunch of ignorants". For those of you who are not familiar with it, it's pretty much what is claims to be: a web-based forum for South African sceptics. I've posted there from time to time, but I don't participate as often as I'd like to.

First, he cites the post I made about my Homeopathic Suicide Attempt. He offers a very erudite and well-measured evaluation of my argument:
"Quite amusing".
Seriously? That's all you have to say? I thought it was hi-freaking-larious! You don't even want to take the time to address the glaring errors and logical fallacies I employed in those videos? Fine.

Prinsloo then picks on a user called johanvz (with whom I am not acquainted. Johanvz commented on the thread wothout offerring any real criticisms of Homeopathy. I suppose that's why Prinsloo chose him: Prinsloo doesn't seem to like dealing with actual arguments.)

Then... oh then... Prinsloo makes the mistake of setting his sights on the aforementioned Skeptic Detective. Oh dear.

He starts by referring to Angela's jokes about Christianity. Again, so what?

Thankfully, he doesn't stop there. He quotes a comment she made in some or other article he posted online, in which she cites some of the examples in which Homeopathy was shown to be ineffective (specifically James Randi's expose of Jacques Benveniste's flawed research back in 1979).

Prinsloo's rebuttal (paraphrased): "James Randi and Jacques Benveniste are not Homeopaths". Wow. That was awesome. Tell us again how that makes Angela's comment innaccurate? I think I missed that part.

In the next section, "A Few Surprising Facts on Research in Medicine", Prinsloo lists about thirty "facts". He doesn't mention any citation for those "facts", nor does he provide any context on how they relate to his argument. I guess we're just supposed to assume that they support it, and that we should take his word for them.

In the following section, Prinsloo quotes an article from the Royal Society of Medicine which states the (pretty obvious) claim that research papers submitted by teams who recieve funding from the pharmaceutical industry will tend to demonstrate a degree of bias in favour of the intervention being tested. Again, he does so without making any allusions to how (if at all) this study supports his argument or refutes those of "ignorants".

It seems that at this point in the article, Prinsloo has grown as weary of writing as I have of critiquing his babbling. Instead of concluding his position, he finishes off by posting another lengthy article from the Alternative Medicine Digest (a clearly impartial source) ill-informedly (see what I did there? Turned an adjective into an adverb!) dismissing the concepts of "science" and "proof". And again, Prinsloo neglects to demonstrate the relevance of it.

So, what have we learned from all of this?

Well, I learned that the Law of Infinitessimals isn't adhered to by all Homeopaths. I also learned that if his thinking is an incoherent as his writing, it doesn't surprise me at all that "Doctor" Prinsloo has devoted his professional career to the advancement of a nonsense pseudoscience, and the unethical "treatment" of patients with intervetions that have no reasonable support for their efficacy.

Oh, and we learned that you don't have be an expert terminologist in order to be able to make up words.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Carnival of the Africans #10 - August 2009

That's right, gang, it's Carnival time right here on 01 And The Universe! And what a carnival it will be... it's been an exciting month in the world of scepticism and science in Africa.

With no further ado, I present to you, in no particular order, this month's featured posts:

Let's start with Angela, the Skeptic Detective. In "How To Eat Fruit" Angela examines a sample of woo she picked up at work - supposed health benefits of eating fruit in particular ways. In "Bullshit is Organic Too" Angela exposes some of the silly claims surrounding organic agriculture in light of new research.

Next is Richard Harriman, the Botswana Skeptic. Richard has been Irritating "traditional doctors" in the name of consumer protection, and to our ongoing entertainment.

In a similar vein, Doctor Spurt from Effortless Incitement has been posting some morbidly amusing fliers from traditional "healers" and woo practitioners in his area. Specifically Dr Raju, Dr Mama Simba and Dr Maama Mzei Ndimungoma.

More seriously, George Claassen from Prometheus Unbound reveals some alarming statistics regarding science education in a number of countries, and most notably South Africa and Egypt.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas from The Science of Sport posted this illuminating piece on a topic that has saturated local media for the last few days: Caster Simenya.

Michael Meadon of Ionian Enchantment gave us this intriguing piece on a related subject: Fun With Sex.

Simon Halliday from Amanuensis touched on a similarly topical issue: Health Care, Insurance and Credit Markets.

The anonymous author of Bullshit Fatigue examines some questionable budgeting decisions in the office of South Africa's new Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor.

Bongi from Other Things Amanzi shares a frightening anecdote of his own brush with sangomas stealing body parts for "muti".

Tim Beck from Reason Check brings us up to speed on the World Health Organisation's position on homeopaths treating African HIV patients with nothing more than water and happy thoughts.

Michelle, the Skeptic Blacksheep, performs an extensive analysis on a number of particularly odd products, all of which are made of woo.

When you're done with all that reading, it's time to relax with some easy listening: Leonie Joubert of Scorched was interviewed by Jenny Crwys-Williams on Radio 702 about her new book, Invaded. Here's the podcast!

That's about it for this month. One more thing before we go: the latest version of the African Science Blogroll:

That's it, gang. Live long and prosper!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Carnival of the Africans - Call For Submissions!

Guess what! Carnival of the Africans is coming to 01 & the Universe again! That's right, I'll be hosting all the sceptical and sciencey goodness for Africa right here in a few days' time.

So, if you've got some goodies about science or scepticism in Africa, send me some links so I can include it! Send it to owen(dot)swart{at}gmail(dot)com. Please try and get them to me by the 27th.

Don't forget to take a look at the guidelines over at Ionian Enchantment. Okay, go!

Friday, August 07, 2009

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Carnival of the Africans #8 (Rather Late Than Never Edition)

Hey gang. This is a few days late, but in case you missed it, here's your (hopefully) monthly dose of science and scepticism from and about Africa: Carnival of the Africans!

This month hosted by Simon Halliday over at Amanuensis! Yay!

Go on... the party is there, not here. Off you go then!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Friday, June 12, 2009

Is Science a Religion?


If only I could leave it at that. But unfortunately I am all-too-often confronted with the accusation that science is just like any other religion. The accusation invariably comes from believers of some or other supernatural thing - something that scientists have been unable to verify (or have perhaps conclusively disproven). In other words, it's a kind of ideological attack tactic, intended to bring science down to the level of a religion, and to thereby make the findings of science just as questionable and open to interpretation as any silly superstition or fantasy.

Fortunately for those of us who value reality, calling science a religion does not make it so. But why? What is it about science that separates it from religion? Is it not true that adherents of just about any other religion would describe their faith as something other than religion (be it a "personal relationship with Jesus", a "philosophy" or a "way of life")?

To understand this, we must first define the terms. What are science and religion?

What is Religion?

Simply put, religion is a kind of belief system that necessarily incorporates some sort of supernatural power. That power exercises some manner of control over the lives and destinies of humans, and is generally an object of worship or at the very least adulation. The proclamations of that power are recorded in some way by a prophet or avatar who receives those proclamations via personal revelation, and generally form the basic canon of sacred texts upon which the practice of that religion is based.

In most cases, the practice of religion takes the form of a series of rituals designed to invoke the supernatural power and call its blessings upon the faithful. This will also often extend to a code of behaviour by which adherents are supposedly bound - often taking the form of moral guidelines and restrictions on food and sexuality.

The core feature of a religion is that it is based on personal, divine revelation where the supernatural contacts the prophet (and sometimes the individual adherents) directly and privately in a way that cannot be verified by any objective observer. Remember that part for later.

What is Science?

In it's simplest form, science is a mechanism for separating fact from fiction. It is a process consisting of asking questions about the world, and attempting to answer those questions. The fundamental backbone of science is the scientific method, which goes more-or-less as follows:

  • A phenomenon is observed.
  • An explanation is invented as to why the phenomenon took place.
  • A test is derived to determine the accuracy of the explanation (which has now become a hypothesis).
  • The test is performed and the results recorded.
  • If the hypothesis is shown to be false, it is discarded, and a new explanation is invented. If the hypothesis is confirmed by the test, the entire history of the project is recorded in writing and submitted to a journal for it to be published.
  • Once published, the report is evaluated by the community of other scientists interested in that kind of phenomenon. Some of them will attempt to replicate the experiment to see if they obtain similar results. If they don't, the original study is discredited. If they do, the hypothesis becomes a theory, and the human race's understanding of the world in enhanced a little bit.
The exact tools and methods employed by scientists in this process vary as widely as there are phenomena to observe. Each specialty and sub-specialty has its own particular tools which are constantly being improved through the same scientific process.

The most important aspect of all this is the repeatability in the peer-review part of the process. If the results aren't replicable, they are worthless. Science rests on public revelation: the necessity for anyone with the appropriate tools and methodology to be able to obtain the same results regardless of who you are.

So What's the Difference?

The core difference is that between public and private revelation. While religion rests on things that must be believed to be seen, science rests on things that must be seen to be believed. In this way, science is the polar opposite of religion.

Science assumes that something must be proven before it can be accepted - defaulting to the null hypothesis. Religion insists that faith is a virtue, and belief without evidence (or in spite of evidence to the contrary) is a necessity.

What About the Big Questions?

This is an area of some contention. Many people believe that both science and religion are attempting to answer the big questions in life: "What is the meaning of life?", "Why is there something rather than nothing?" "Why do bad things happen to good people?" and so on. Perhaps that is true.

The key difference comes in the approach to those questions. Religion and its adherents attempt to answer those questions with a simple, placating response: "God did it." Science is not satisfied with this as a response, for two main reasons: God cannot be shown to exist, and telling us who did it tells us nothing about how it was done.

In fact, religious dogma often gives us demonstrably false information instead of satisfactory answers. The book of Genesis gives an account of the beginning of the universe that is wrong in just about every possible way - every factual claim is incorrect, and can be shown, through public revelation, to be so. Where religion attempts to hold onto false and archaic myths, science discards the incorrect and creates new myths: ones that have the distinct advantage of being true.

The perception of science as a dogmatic institution with lab-coated, crazy-haired theorists and researchers as its clergy is a false one propagated by the religious. I would suggest thinking twice before invoking the "science as a religion" argument next time - in doing so you are only revealing your own ignorance.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Last Two Instalments of God Idols Are Up!

That's right, the first series of God Idols is over... check out the last two episodes!


And Scientology:

Keep your browsers peeled for the next project from HeiOnLife Productions. It's gonna be awesome!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

God Idols - Judaism

Kick it old school, yo. DJ Heime's about to bust a rhyme up in heyaaaaaaa!


Monday, April 06, 2009

It's Over

At the risk of sounding pessimistic and defeatist, after seeing this morning's NPA announcement, it seems like it's time to pack up and go home.

Only problem is, this is home.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sceptics in the Pub - Gauteng #5

If you live in South Africa's Gauteng province, and you're reading this, you're probably the sort of person who would be interested in joining me and a host of other local sceptics for a night at the pub!

We'll be meeting next Monday (the 6th of April) at Ogilvy's Pub on Tonnetti Street in Midrand. We'll start arriving around 18:30 and we'll be there as long as they keep serving us drinks.

View Larger Map

For more of the fun, join us on Facebook where you can catch a preview of our motley crew of regulars.

See you there!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I Get Voicemail, Unfortunately

Since the announcement of Google Voice last week, I've been thinking a lot about telephone etiquette, particularly when it comes to cellular phones, and extra-particularly when it comes to voicemail and Internet-enabled smartphones.

I've never really been comfortable talking on the phone. I find it to be awkward, inefficient, impersonal and intrusive.

Voicemail and answering machines have mitigated the intrusiveness of it to some extent - if my phone rings and I'm not able or inclined to answer it, the caller can leave a message for me to respond to later. But given more recent advances in real-time communication, namely the Internet-enabled handheld device, voicemail has become more of a cumbersome annoyance than a useful tool.

For example, if I happen to be in a meeting (which unfortunately happens with increasing frequency these days) I'll probably be unable to answer an incoming call. Which means I'll have to wait until after the meeting before I can check my messages, write down phone numbers and things on a scrap of paper (which I don't possess - I don't use paper) and call the person back to have an inefficient voice-only conversation that will almost certainly have to be followed-up with an email afterwards anyway. Or, more likely, I will have to leave a message on their voicemail system, and wait for them to call me back again.

A colossal waste of time.

If, instead, the original caller had simply sent me an email, it would have been delivered discreetly to my mobile device in real time. During the meeting I could take a glance at it (since I use my device for taking notes in meetings anyway), and, if it's urgent, fire off a quick response then and there. Plus I would have on record the caller's email address, thus allowing me to see who it came from, and therefore be able to contact them with ease again in the future. Easy, quick, efficient, and no trees needed to die.

This is why I need a service like Google Voice - it transcribes voicemail messages to an email and captures the caller's contact details too. Since I live in the 3rd World, and can't get Google Voice, I've had to resort to changing my outgoing voicemail message to instruct callers to send me an email instead of leaving a voice message. They still leave me voice messages anyway, but that's another story.

How do you feel about voicemail? Essential business tool , or antiquated white elephant?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

God Idols - Buddhism

This week's action-packed episode features my amazing wife, wearing a sheet! Woohoo!

Watch, rate, favourite...

Monday, March 09, 2009

Zuma is (still) an Idiot

I'm with StupidThe entity designated Kingdom Mabuza penned this article in the Sowetan today in which he rattles off some quotes that ANC President Jacob Zuma spewed at a rally attended by religious leaders over the weekend.

Zuma is still pushing his imagined divine mandate message. Here's the money-shot:
“We in the ANC know God. When the ANC was born, it was baptised. We have respect, we are beautiful, we conduct ourselves in a good way.”
It was at that point that my irony-meter exploded. 

I'm Also With Stupid
In the very same article, ANC Crybaby Youth League President Julius Malema is quoted:
“Helen Zille was a political toddler... That is the same with all those who left the ANC after stealing from us. They are corrupt and that includes the arms deal.”
If this is the sort of behaviour that Zuma claims is "beautiful" or "good", then my concerns for the future of our country deepen. The contrast of double standards is so stark, I can't imagine how it wouldn't be obvious to any ANC supporter.

God Idols - Pentecostal


It's time for the next episode of God Idols. This week we're hearing from (Pastor) Cletis from Topeka, Kansas!

Here's the link:

Thursday, February 26, 2009

God Idols - Amish

Holy barn raisin'! I haven't posted this one yet!

Go and watch this week's episode of God Idols at once! And don't forget to rate it!

Monday, February 16, 2009

God Idols - Jean Claude

The next episode of God Idols is up! This is the one in which I sing for the Internets for the first time. That's right, I'm now an Internet Celebrity, check me out:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I Get Hate Mail - I Think

I'm so excited! I just recieved this email:

Check this out.
I like Star Trek.
I like the old ones, the "next generation", the movies ect [sic].
In fact I have probably watched and seen everything even slightly related to Star Trek.
I have read uncountable sci-fi books, magazines ect. In fact lately I have been noticing more and more people who don't have the foggiest idea that Omni magazine ever excisted [sic] or what it was about.(I am getting old)

I beg you not to take this as a [sic] attack of any kind.

Dude you have to lose the star fleet [sic] uniform, the whole star fleet [sic] officer as  a [sic] "occupation" shit.
Because that is what it is if you are relating it to who you are, and what you do.
Quit blogging and go out and meet real people for the first time face to face,


P.S. if you can count how many women you've had on one hand leave the computer off until you can't be sure if you have forgotten some when counting.

It's difficult to follow, but despite the author's assertion that it is "not [an] attack of any kind" I think this is hate mail!

I particularly enjoyed this bit: the author took the time to add me to his Gmail Contacts. Look at the name he used (I've obscured my email address):

What do you guys think? Does this qualify as hate mail?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

God Idols: There Can Only be One

After many weeks of tireless effort (on the part of my lovely and talented wife, Heidi), dressing funny (on my part) and even shaving my beard (yikes!), the first episode of our new YouTube reality series God Idols is up for your pleasure and entertainment!

Many thanks to our dedicated team of co-conspirators: Michael Meadon, Angela Butterworth, Gustav Bertram and James Hough (who also sacrificed his beard to the cause).

Keep your browsers warmed up for the next riveting episode!

Friday, February 06, 2009

I've Been Slacking

I've been so wrapped up with YouTube, predictions and Klingon Kriminals that I've been falling behind on my sceptical duties!
Let me catch up on that quickly.
First of all, Monday night was the third Joburg Sceptics in the Pub. Fortunately James over at Acinonyx Scepticus posted an excellent write up of it here.
Secondly, the first 'for real' post has gone up on our team blog, Intrepid Aardvark. Angela (aka The Skeptic Detective) posted this damning criticisism of Acupuncture. Go. Read. Subscribe.
Okay, we're up to speed again!

In Which I Get Link-love from

Link loveImagine my surprise when Heidi noticed that I had suddenly shot up on the Afrigator stats this afternoon. The traffic here increased by about 500% in the last two days! Holy crap!

After a little looking around, I found out that the good folks over at had picked up my post on the "Klingon Kriminal" yesterday, and sent hordes of faithful readers headed my way.

So, to you new guys... uh... welcome! 

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Klingon Kriminal

My news feed is all a-flutter this morning about a kid in Colorado Springs who robbed a couple of convenience stores armed with what journalists describe as a "Klingon Sword".


It's not true. Here's an image from the surveillance footage:

Granted, that weapon he's holding certainly has a Klingon look to it. Here it is, zoomed in:

The few media reports who have done a little research claim that he's wielding a "batleth" (Klingon for "sword of honour"). Here's a picture of a batleth:

The batleth is a four-pronged, two-handed sword. It's wielded in such a way that all four prongs are facing forward, like this:

If you look back at the surveillance footage, you'll see that kid is brandishing a two-bladed dagger, that kinda looks like a batleth to the untrained eye, but the mere fact that he's holding it the wrong way round should tip you off that it's not one.

What's he's holding there is this:

The Valdris. A two-bladed, fantasy-styled dagger, roughly 60cm long, made of stainless steel (so it's designed to be an ornament, not an actual weapon).

This kid probably is a nerd, and may well be a Star Trek fan, but this is no Klingon weapon. It's not even a Star Trek weapon. Just to set the record straight.

I suspect that the journalists in question recognised the vague shape of the dagger as being reminiscent of the batleth, and jumped at the opportunity to belittle the offender by labelling him as a "Star Trek nerd."

UPDATE: Turns out the clerks at the convenience stores identified the weapon as a batleth. They were both wrong.

How Did I Do?

I'm sure you remember that at the beginning of 2008, I made a list of 22 predictions for the coming year.  (Or rather, I hope you remember... I completely forgot.)

Although it's already February, I guess now is a good time to look back at how I did:

1. The winner of the United States presidential election will be a tall, good-looking man. Or will at least be the tallest and/or best-looking of the available candidates. He will be a Church-going Christian.

Well we all know who won the 2008 US presidential election: President Barack Obama (woohoo!). Let's look at all the things I predicted about him:

[He] will be a tall, good-looking man. 
President Obama is 186cm tall. That's about 8cm taller than your average African American male (and about 9cm shorter than I am... FYI). That makes him pretty tall. In fact it makes him a full 13cm taller than his rival, Senator John McCain.

As for good-looking, you decide:
I think it's pretty clear which of these two men is better looking. And yes, despite rumours to the contrary, President Obama is, in fact, a Church-going Christian.

Okay, so that's one hit so far.

2. Scientists will make startling new discoveries about Dark Matter and/or Dark Energy that will threaten to overturn our understanding of the cosmos.
Well, not really. While there were a bunch of interesting stories about discoveries relating to Dark Matter and Dark Energy in 2008, none of them really came close to threatening to overturn our understanding of the cosmos. While some psychics might claim it as a hit, I'll take it as a miss.

3. The South-East coastal regions of the United States will be lashed by several severe storms during the summer.

That was an easy hit. There were seventeen such storms.

4. Many people will be left homeless and some will be killed in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and parts of Mozambique in the first quarter of the year as a result of floods.
5. Hundreds, possibly thousands of people will die in natural disasters (such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or tsunami) in the Pacific regions and parts of the Middle-East.
6. Danie Krugel will not acknowledge our challenge.
I have no web links to back this one up, but I assure you it was a hit.

7. Astronomers will discover many new exoplanets and identify several new places where life might exist.
Fifty new exoplanets were discovered in 2008. And one new place where life might exist was identified: Enceladus. Hit!
8. I will complete my 29th trip around the sun.
Hit! In fact right now I'm well into the second half of my 30th trip!

Next I made a cluster of four related predictions:

9. The petrol price will increase substantially after the oil price increases.
10.The petrol price will increase substantially after the oil price decreases.
11. The petrol price will increase substantially after the Rand/Dollar exchange rate improves.
12. The petrol price will increase substantially after the exchange rate worsens.

The gist of the first two was that the fluctuations in the petrol price were not related to fluctuations in the oil price.

You can see in the graph above that the petrol price (blue line) does seem to track more-or-less with fluctuations in the price of Brent Crude (red line). So I'll give myself one hit for that one.

The next two made a similar claim with regards to the Rand/Dollar exchange rate.

As you can see, there is virtually no link between the Rand/Dollar and the petrol price, despite the frequent claims to the contrary. I think I deserve two hits for that one.
13. A prominent South African government official will be accused of fraud or misappropriation of funds, but those accusations will disappear and never result in formal charges.
I wasn't able to find any specific examples of this, but considering the ANC's decision in 2008 to disband the Scorpions, they have effectively all gotten away with any and all corrupt and fraudulent activities they may have committed (and probably did commit). I didn't get the details right, and I severely underestimated the scope of what was going on. That being the case, I'll take another miss on this one.
14. A formerly obscure website will suddenly become very popular, prompting "experts" to claim that it will drastically change the way we communicate or do business.
One word: Twitter. Hit.
15. It will not substantially affect the way we communicate or do business
I'm still using Facebook. And Email. And IM. And the telephone. What about you?
16. The South African Reserve Bank will increase the prime lending rate.
Tricky. Prime was increased in June 2008, but then it was lowered again to it's former level in December. I didn't say that they wouldn't lower it again, I suppose, so I'll generously grant myself another hit.
17. It will be revealed that Iran was never attempting to produce nuclear weapons. This will not prevent President Bush from claiming that Iran is a major threat.
18. A number of people will be trampled to death by a crowd in Saudi Arabia in the last weeks of the year.
Close, but it's a miss.
19. Israel will engage in violent encounters with its neighbours. There will be casualties on both sides, but Israel will report that they have fewer than the other side.
Hit. 330 to 4 at last count.

20. The flying car will not be released to the consumer market.
21. A woman in either North Africa or the Middle East will be treated to unfathomable cruelty after breaking an oppressive and misogynistic law. She will then be pardoned after significant international pressure is exerted on her government. The law will not be changed.
Miss. She wasn't pardoned.
22. The world as we know it will not end.

That was a fun game, wasn't it? I scored 16/22. I win!

The point of this whole exercise was to demonstrate that with a little bit of common-sense, some vagueness, a dash of general knowledge and a touch of science, it's quite easy to make a set of predictions with a high rate of accuracy. No psychic powers necessary!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Unified Feed

I had an idea for a new (for me) use for the otherwise very useful RSS tool, Yahoo! Pipes.

Up till now I've been using it to help filter some of the feeds I have coming into my Google Reader, to try and remove some of the clutter. But it occurred to me that I could use it for my outgoing feeds too.

So that's what I've done. I've created a pipe that aggregates the feeds from my various publishing sources into a single feed.

So for those of you who have previously subscribed to my blog, Google Shared Items or Facebook items, you can now subscribe to one feed and get all of those, along with my Twitter updates, Picasa Web Gallery, and even my few and far between YouTube videos.

It's one-stop Owen Swart shopping! Woohoo!

So yeah, there's a little badge on the sidebar to your right. Or else you can visit the pipe itself and subscribe from there. I can't decide if it's awesome or just unbelievably arrogant, but I thought I'd throw it out there in case any of you guys wanted it.

If you like it, or dislike it, or have something similar set up for yourself, please drop a comment!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Wedding - The Movie!

My lovely and talented wife has just uploaded a short version of our wedding video (that she edited herself) set to The Nearness of You - Norah Jones (our song).


Monday, February 02, 2009

Theme for the Day: The Stupid People Are Winning

After spending some time this weekend reading and dealing with commenters on the Internet (not you guys, the other commenters), I have drawn the conclusion that the stupid people are winning.

Here is more proof:

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Carnival of the Africans #6

Where did the time go? It's Carnival time again! Woohoo!

Go take a look over at The Skeptic Detective to see the latest instalment of the Carnival of the Africans - a carnival of blogs relating science and scepticism in Africa.

Go on then!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Wedding

At the Sceptics in the Pub last month, Ivan asked me whatever happened in my search to find a secular marriage officer. So I thought it might be a good idea to do a follow-up post.

As regular readers will know (and new readers can quickly find out) in September 2008, Hide and I got married.

One of my duties in planning the wedding was to try and track down a marriage officer. This was no mean feat. Neither of us are religious, so we wanted to keep religion out of the ceremony. The problem was that in South Africa, you need to be either a magistrate or a member of the clergy of a state-recognised religion in order to perform weddings.

I was hoping to find a former clergyman who had apostatised or something, but those were near impossible to find too. So eventually we settled on a Christian pastor, Conrad Kruger, who was prepared to perform what he referred to as a "civil" ceremony.

We basically wrote a script for him, which he recited more-or-less correctly for the ceremony. We based the script on a "traditional" one we found online, and basically stripped out and reworded the religious references. If you like, you can read it here.

If you're keen to see the wedding photos, check them out here.

Back to Basics: Homeopathy

I've touched on the idea of homeopathy several times in the past, but I thought it might be a good idea to go through a quick description of what it is and why it doesn't work.

What is it?

Homeopathy is an alternative theraputic modality. It was invented by a man named Samuel Hahnemann in the late 18th century, when mainstream medical technology still included things like leeches, bloodletting and trepanning. Hygiene hadn't been invented yet, and imbalances in the Four Humours were thought to be the cause of disease.

At that time, a patient undergoing medical treatment was more likely to die from secondary infections and and side effects from treatment than to recover, so Hahnemann created what he believed to be a gentler alternative: Homeopathy.

Homeopathy is based on two main principles: Similia Similubus Curentur and Dilution. Let's look at each of those separately.

Like Cures Like

Similia Similubus Curentur (or Like Cures Like) is based on a "fight fire with fire" approach to handling disease. An idea not all that dissimilar to the use of vaccinations in modern medicine, but in a much more primitive form. It's primitive because Homeopathy employs this approach reactively and at a symptomatic level, rather than pre-emptively dealing with the cause.

The process begins with a "Proving", in which a healthy patient is given a dose of a particular substance, and is observed to see what symptoms it induces. Once the symptoms have been documented, that substance is then used to treat sick patients who demonstrate that same cluster of symptoms.

For example: caffeine would inhibit the ability to sleep in a healthy patient. So the Homeopath will treat an insomniac (who is already unable to sleep) with caffeine. Or the Homeopath might treat a patient suffering from a fever with chilli, and so on.

On the surface this seems counter intuitive. And that's exactly what it is. There is simply no known mechanism through which this might work. It's simply a ridiculous idea, and Homeopaths would need to present some pretty extraordinary evidence to prove that it works. The problem is that that evidence simply isn't forthcoming.


Somehow, Hahnemann got into his head a very strange idea: that the more you dilute a substance, the more potent it becomes. 

When we talk about dilutions in the context of Homeopathy, we're not talking about dissolving a teaspoon of sugar in a glass of water. That wouldn't be potent enough! We're talking about dilutions so great that we need superscripts to be able to write the numbers!

For instance, it's not uncommon for us to see Homeopathic remedies available at 200C. This is Homeopathic code for a dilution of 1 part active ingredient to 10^400 parts of water. (10^400 is a number with a 1 in the front and 400 zeroes behind it. I'm not going to type all that out. As far as I know, that number doesn't have a name.)

The problem comes in with a well-understood concept in both chemistry and physics called Avagadro's Constant. Avagadro's Constant tells us that once you get to a solution of 1:10^23 , you only have one molecule of the active ingredient left in the mixture.

So as soon as you get to a solution of 1:10^24, you have a one in ten chance of there being a single molecule in the mixture. 1:10^25 takes that to one in a hundred, and so on. Once you get to 1:10^400, the chances of there being even a single molecule of the active ingredient in the preparation are far too small to even consider.

So what are they selling? Pure water? Yup. Sometimes they'll dilute the substance in something other than water: alcohol or sugar pills, perhaps. But then they're simply selling pure alcohol or just plain sugar pills. In other words, Homeopathic preparations are nothing more than a placebo.

Homeopaths claim that during the dilution process, if they shake the mixture just right, the properties of the active ingredient are somehow passed into the water, through some sort of magical "water memory". If that's true, then surely the water would still hold the properties of every other substance it's ever come into contact with, wouldn't it? All the water we currently drink could just as easily be considered Homeopathic Dinosaur Urine or Homeopathic Primordial Soup. 

But Why do People Still Buy It?

This is a very good question. One that could just as easily be asked about any number of other fake medicinal preparations. The answer seems to be a little complicated.

It appears to be as a result of a cluster of known bugs in the human brain:
  • The placebo effect: since we often can't tell the difference between a sham intervention and real medicine, we sometimes feel better after taking a placebo.
  • Mistaken causality: the human brain is an extremely sophisticated pattern-recognition engine. It's far too easy for us to assume a causal link between two unrelated instances - the idea that A came before B, therefore A caused B.
  • Anecdotal evidence: hearing the stories of other people who felt better after taking Homeopathic remedies, we'll tend to believe them, and then confirmation bias comes into play - remembering the stories and experiences that confirm our beliefs, and ignoring or explaining away the ones that don't.
What's the Harm?

Another good question: if people feel better after taking a placebo, why not just let them take it to make themselves feel better?

In general I would agree with that. The problem comes in when people turn to Homeopathic remedies first, and don't seek proper medical care that could save their lives. There is a growing list of such such instances over at

Friday, January 23, 2009

Why do people laugh at Creationists?

An intelligent and witty series of videos dissecting a great many Creationist arguments in remarkable detail. Highly recommended!

(Be warned. This playlist includes 27 separate videos at the time of this posting, and seems to be continually growing. If you don't have the time to sit and watch them all in one go, I suggest you subscribe to Thunderf00t's channel, and work through them in more manageable serving sizes.)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Magic Water Cures AIDS? No.

Water Magic
There's some trouble brewing in Tanzania. 

Homeopath, Jeremy Sherr, has travelled to deepest, darkest Africa in search of fertile grounds in which to perform clinical trials on the effectiveness of homeopathic preparations on HIV+ patients who are not taking anti-retrovirals.

It seems he wasn't able to get a test protocol through ethics boards in Europe (and rightly so), so he's taken his show on the road to places where he can get away with murder - quite literally.

New readers might not be aware that homeopathy is a supersitious belief that water can be magically imbued with healing properties, in defiance of too many laws of physics to mention. I've already done a pretty telling demonstration on the complete lack of eficacy of homeopathic products (although not exactly a double-blind controlled study - others have done those).

What makes it even worse is that Sherr has been documenting his efforts on his blog. And when his statements came under scrutiny, he resorted to some historical revisionism to try and cover his tracks.

This guy needs to be watched closely. Keep an eye on his blog here, and watch The Lay Scientist for a breakdown of the events so far, and undoubtedly a continuing commentary on how this will unfold in future.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Life on Mars? No.

This morning, while driving to work I spotted this headline on the side of the road. 

Something about it raised a red flag with me. It seemed too clear, too concise, too simple - and very sensationalist. But, of course, the prospect was exciting. Had data been returned from that various Mars missions that had finally turned up some kind of microbial life?

It seemed unlikely. NASA is under strict instructions not to look for life on Mars. The closest they can come is to look for the necessary conditions to support life, or maybe for indirect evidence to suggest that life may exist on Mars.

Could it be that NASA managed to find life, even without looking for it? Probably not.

I hypothesised that what was really going on here was that NASA (or one of the other space agencies or affiliated research organisations) had made another small, incremental, but possibly significant discovery that pointed towards the possiblity of life on Mars. And that The Times was blowing the whole thing out of proportion.

So I got to the office and looked up the relevant article. It confirmed my suspicions.

In fact, no-one has found life on Mars.

What they have found is pretty cool: that there appears to be a periodic upswing in the amount of atmospheric methane. This suggests that a fairly large amount of methane gas is being produced somewhere on the red planet, being belched out into the atmosphere, and then slowly oxidised over time.

The puzzling bit is the question of where this methane could be coming from. We know of two processes that produce methane in these sorts of quantities: volcanic activity and life. Since we're pretty sure that there's no volcanic activity on Mars, that leaves either life or a third explanation we haven't thought of yet.

This discovery increases the probability that there might be some sort of life on Mars, which is pretty awesome in itself. But it does not tell us that there is life on Mars!

This is what gets to me about stories like this. Some journalist has taken the facts of the story and twisted them into a sensationalist yarn designed to sell papers (or hits on the website). And it works. What it fails to do is give the reader an accurate description of what's actually going on. Anyone who read only the headline, or perhaps only the first paragraph of the article, would be left believing that we now know that there is life on Mars - which couldn't be further from the truth.

What makes this even worse is if life ever is actually discovered on Mars, the magnitude of that discovery will be substantially diminished in the public perception. When the headlines read "Life Found on Mars" for real, the average consumer will think "Big deal! They found that already before, didn't they? Stupid scientists."

While I appreciate the value of getting the general public interested in scientific topics, like the search for life on Mars, I think that misleading them like this does more harm than good.