Friday, June 01, 2012

Transhumanism and Me

Transhumanism doesn't get that much air-play in sceptical circles these days. I suppose it's because the underlying premises haven't shifted much in recent years, and the groups on both sides are waiting to have their hypotheses falsified or supported by evidence.

I thought it might spark a bit of debate to air my own views on it, so here goes.

What Is Transhumanism?

It's complicated, but in a nutshell it's the belief that, as humans, we are, or should be, advancing towards a state where we can no longer be considered human.

It's hardly a new idea - Nietzsche coined the term "superman" to describe someone who was better than human. Eugenics was all the rage in the first half of the 20th century - the notion that we could improve our species through selective breeding. (it wasn't just the Nazis)

Transhumanism isn't so much about improving our species as a whole, as it is about improving ourselves as individuals. It's about overcoming the limits of our human bodies and giving ourselves abilities we would otherwise have lacked.

As you might expect, technology is pivotal to this. And I'm not just talking about cyborgs (although that's certainly part of it) - ordinary medical technology is very much involved.


The premise goes like this: through technology we have already enhanced ourselves to an enormous extent. A normal person today lives twice as long as those just a couple of generations back. That same person can see and hear things their ancestor didn't know existed, can have conversations with other people over vast distances, can access the sum of all human knowledge in seconds, are immune to diseases that once ravaged whole communities, can travel at speeds previously thought impossible, can fly as far as the moon and back. Compared to our great, great grandparents, we are already supermen (and superwomen).

Pictured: us

Given that we've already conquered so many of our limitations, says transhumanism, why should we assume that the rest of our limitations are insurmountable? Why accept any frailty, obstacle or defiency?

Why Indeed

I agree with transhumanism in this respect. I think it's reasonable, and even desirable, to overcome things like the need for sleep, the inability to subsist in a vacuum, reliance on chemical fuel and even death. Yup, death.

Transhumanists put forward a number of ways of overcoming the termination of the physical body. These range from the indefinite extension of the body's life-span through advanced medical technology (essentially making death itself a thing of the past) to downloading our memories and thoughts into new brains (thus making us redundant and duplicable).

Go on. You were thinking it.
I don't think any transhumanists are advocating living forever. I think we all agree that that would probably be pretty boring. Rather the intent is to introduce an element of choice into something that we previously couldn't choose: Instead of nature deciding when we live or die, we get to choose that for ourselves. A hundred years long enough? Cool. Prefer to live for five hundred? A thousand? A million? It's up to you.

I rather fancy the number 5000. That's my goal. That should give me enough time to get through my daily ToDo list and my list of goals on Schemer. More or less.

That's the point behind transhumanism, though. Not so much making everyone better, although that would be nice. It's more about giving people choices about their lives and the ways they choose to live them. Contraceptive pills have given women the option of having babies or not (some even allow women to choose whether they want to menstruate at all). Cosmetic surgery allows people to choose their own appearance. Stimulants and sedatives allow people to choose their own sleep/wake cycles (with varying degrees of success so far, but they're getting better). These and other choices are the ones advocated by transhumanists.

The Heroes of Transhumanism

There are a few notable figures of champion the transhumanist movement. Although I think they have worthwhile things to say, I'd guard against assuming that they speak for all of us. Everybody has some crazy ideas, and these guys are no exception. Names you're likely to come across include Ray Kurtzweil and Aubrey de Grey. Have a listen, but try not to take them too seriously.

Don't take Aubrey too seriously.

Of course there are all kinds of moral, ethical and practical considerations around the notion of transhumanism, all of which are worth discussing at length. I invite you to use the comments section below to get started on it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Googling the Wikipedias

One of the podcasts I listen to every week is the Naked Scientist. In fact, I listen to a number of their podcasts, but the one  I'm referring to here is the one from local radio.

Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk have a weekly segment every Friday morning on Redi Tlhabi's show. Redi has a half-hour talk to Dr. Chris Smith, the original Naked Scientist during which listeners are invited to call in and ask science-related questions.

Chris is fantastic at it. His instant recall of an enormous variety of scientific facts and concepts is very impressive; And I particularly like the way he handles people who call in with questions about pseudoscientific topics. He's always gentle and sincere, and never condescending. He's really, really good at it.

What drives me up the wall, however, is how many of the questions are stupid.

They say there's no such thing as a stupid question. I disagree. If you're calling into a national radio show and making millions of people listen to you ask a question that you could have answered yourself with 30 seconds of googling, it's a stupid question.

I'd say that about 80% of the questions asked of the Naked Scientist fall into this category, ranging from people who don't know that the Earth orbits the sun to people who think Homeopathy is medicine. I'm assuming that these aren't performance art, like most of the submissions to Yahoo! Answers.

It's politically incorrect to scorn people for being ignorant. And I'm sympathetic to that position. I agree with the sentiment of this XKCD comic, which puts forward that it's more rewarding to tell someone something for the first time, than it is to make fun of them for not knowing it.

And I'm not trying to make fun of anyone here, really. I know full well that the education system failed many of us, particularly when it comes to science. My complaint here is more about the lack of self-sufficiency that seems to be prevalent, at least among the callers of the Naked Scientist.

Let me give you an example. One guy called in a week or two ago and asked Chris "Why is [some everyday occurrence] called a phenomenon?"

Chris was taken aback. The question was so stupid that he didn't understand it. After asking the caller to repeat it, he realised that the caller didn't understand what the word 'phenomenon' meant. Chris graciously told him what it meant, and swiftly moved onto a brief and elegant explanation of the everyday occurrence in question.

Now, this caller was a grown man. Obviously he wasn't educated, but he was at least clever enough to listen to a radio show called The Naked Scientist, to operate a phone, and to formulate a question. Did it not occur to this guy that maybe his understanding of the word 'phenomenon' was incorrect? Could he not have spent 30 seconds looking up the definition of the word in a dictionary or on Google before calling the radio station and wasting all our time?

It occurs to me that I come across this kind of attitude all the time. People I deal with daily (and I probably do this myself) would rather ask someone else for an answer than try to find it themselves. The number of questions I've been asked about obvious and easy-to-find things has driven me, on more than one occasion, to respond with a link to Let Me Google That For You.

I applaud Chris and the rest of the Naked Scientist team for their patience in dealing with callers of this calibre. And if you're thinking of calling the Naked Scientist, do us all a favour: check Wikipedia first.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Force As Medicine

Today I shall heap scorn upon Reiki, because it deserves it.

What Is Reiki?

It's an "alternative therapy" modality that involves waving your hands at someone to cure what ails them. Seriously.

But without the dramatic poses

Of course that's not what the Reiki practitioners will claim, They say things like how they're "manipulating the human energy field (aka "ki") and restoring healthfulness and creating wellbeing.". You know what that statement means? Approximately nothing.

And that's what Reiki is: nothing.

Surely There's More To It Than That?

Nope. Not really.

In order to become a Reiki practitioner, you have to go through a course, lasting several weeks. You learn all about reading auras, chakras, healing symbols and all sorts of things like that. And you know how useful any of that stuff is? Zero.

Okay, let's look at it a little more closely. There are a number of basic premises that the practice of Reiki are based on. I'll unpack them a bit:

  1. The human body has an energy field
  2. Illness is caused by disturbances in that energy field
  3. Adepts can manipulate the energy fields of others in order to correct those disturbances, and therefore treat and cure illness.
Premises 2 and 3 are based on premise 1. Luckily for us, premise 1 is a factual statement, and is therefore testable.

The Human Energy Field

People who make this claim generally don't understand what energy is. Which is inexcusable, because it's in early high-school physics text books. Everyone should know it.

Energy is the measurable work potential of an object. It's a measurement of how much a given object can affect the motion of the objects around it. Energy is stored in various forms: chemical (as in food or a battery), potential (as in putting an object in a high place, or setting a fly-wheel spinning) and so on. It can be transmitted to other objects through direct contact or radiation.

Energy is also locked up in mass. Matter is an organised form of energy, and through the right processes, you can destroy matter, thereby releasing the energy it holds. This happens in small measures through ionisation or nuclear fission and fusion, or in more efficient ways through matter/antimatter annihilation.

Pictured: fiction
Energy is not a glowy, sparkly cloud that hovers around things. You've probably gotten that impression from Star Trek, and that's an unfortunate result of lazy writing - it's not a reflection of reality.

So what is an energy field? It's not really a thing. You could describe a magnetic field as an energy field - it's an area where electrons flow around a magnet. Or you could describe the area into which an object releases electromagnetic radiation as an energy field. That's pretty tenuous though, and nobody would take you seriously if you claimed that Neither of those are very good descriptions, and it's certainly not a scientific nomenclature.

The real question is whether or not the human body has anything that can be described as an energy field, and the answer is kind of. The human body uses electricity for internal communication. When electricity flows, it creates an electromagnetic field, the strength of which is proportional to the voltage and or ampage of the current. Human electrical signals aren't very strong, so the EM field we generate isn't either. It may as well not be there.

You can test that yourself: hold a compass in your hand. If the compass points to magnetic North instead of to you, the Earth's (pretty weak) magnetic field is stronger than yours.

This clearly isn't the big, glowy energy field that the Reiki people are talking about. There simply isn't anything in or around the human body meeting that description.

Without an energy field to speak of, the second and third premises of Reiki fall down. There's no there there. But what about epidemiological data? Even if they have the mechanism wrong, are they still doing anything?

Epidemiological Evidence

There's plenty of evidence showing that Reiki fails to perform in double blind trials - indicating that it's not doing anything. Probably my favourite example is one that was performed on a related modaility: Therapeutic Touch.

Therapeutic Touch is basically exactly the same as Reiki, only with a more Western sciencey sound to it. And it was debunked by a 11-year-old girl.

Emily Rosa, a small child from Colorado, devised a test that would show whether or not Therapeutic Touch (and, by implication, Reiki) has anything to it. TT failed the test. It has no effect. 

Smart kid

So Where Does That Leave Us?

Reiki has no mechanism, no effect, and no point. People who practice it probably do so because they want to help people, which is a noble intent. But the most they're doing with Reiki is delivering a placebo. Their time and efforts would be better spent learning an actual skill. Waving your hands at people is only a skill for musical conductors, traffic pointsmen and Jedi Knights.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Ima say it: Geek Pride Day Should Go

Yesterday, the 25th of May, was international Geek Pride Day. I didn't want to post this on the 25th and spoil everyone's fun, but it's something that probably needs to be said.

At the risk of sounding like a hipster crying "I was a geek before it was cool", that's kind of how it is. Geeks are cool now. I know, right? When did that happen?

It happened a couple of years ago. I can't point to a specific time or event, but it happened around the time when Facebook started to catch on with non-geeks, and Apple launched the iPhone. Suddenly these things that were previously the domain of geeks, were popular and desirable amongst people in general (as some geeks call them, "muggles").

Not only are muggles (I hate that word, by the way, but it fits) suddenly infiltrating the formerly geek-only tech domain, but they also seem quite comfortable with the idea that they need geeks to make all that stuff go. Geeks are now respected.

Not everyone has heard the news, I'll grant you. There are still a few troglodytes around who snigger at the geeks in the IT department. But they're catching on. The first time they need helping installing WhatsApp on their BlackBerry, they tend to learn a little humility.

This has led to two things happening:

1. The Geeks have Won

Look around. This is it. This is what victory looks like. I know we're probably all still reeling from traumatic high-school careers, but that was before. This is after. While we were wrestling with our Ghosts of Wedgies Past, the world changed, and we're the ones in charge now.

New World Order
The richest men in the world are geeks. The biggest companies in the world sell the products we buy and love. "Geek chic" is a real thing. Comic book superhero movies are ruling the box office with an Iron gauntlet fist. The world's economies, governments and even militaries are utterly dependent on the technologies we invent, design, maintain and sell.

This is the age of the geek. It's time we stopped trying to convince everyone that we're cool, and started to see that the rest of the world already knows that we are.

And they're pretty intimidated by us, too. Every time the newspapers freak out over the privacy concerns of Facebook's new redesign or Google's new product, it's not really privacy they're worried about. They're scared that the geeks, who in their minds are indistiguishable from ninja-wizards, will use their mysterious sourcery to affect their lives in some nefarious way.

Want an example? Watch The Social Network - look at how Mark Zuckerberg is portrayed. He's an arrogant, selfish, power-hungry asshole with a super-villain-esque glint in his eye. That movie wasn't made by geeks - it's a muggle's-eye-view of what they fear about us: that we are secretly ambitious, capricious god-men, powered by science-magic and bent on world domination. Whether or not it depicts The Zuck accurately is really beside the point; It's not about him, it's about us.

Mark Zuckerberg: Ninja wizard

I certainly think there's room to celebrate the things we enjoy about "geek culture", but I think the "pride" part of the name is an anachronism. Pride of being the best may be rational, but throwing it in everyone else's face is uncool. It's what we used to hate about jocks. Do we really want to be that guy?

There's another problem though, and that brings me to my second point.

2. The Word "Geek" Is Now Meaningless

Now that geeks are cool, everyone wants to be one. As you might expect, people seem to think that if they can somehow find a way to apply the label "geek" to themselves, they get to usurp some of our awesomeness. And they're right... at least they have been.

Originally, "geek" (in this context - I'm not talking about the archaic definition) was used to describe a nerd, a dweeb or a dork. The terms were interchangeable. It was a person who was interested in technology, science-fiction, was socially awkward and unattractive. But about a decade or so ago that started to change.

Geeks, dorks, dweebs and nerds started drawing lines in the sand, and distinctions were made between the four. Here's probably the best depiction of it I've seen:

I think that's a good way of defining it. if only it had stayed there.

While the definitions of "nerd", "dweeb" and "dork" have remained somewhat static, "geek" (being the most glamourous of the four) has drifted. After a while, the obsessiveness component of it became the dominant one, and before we knew it, anyone with a passionate interest in something could call themselves a geek.

That meant that musicians, sportspeople (and their fans), wine enthusiasts and just about anyone with a hobby was now a geek of some description. And as Facebook (and it's entangled services) started filling the time of those who lacked a specific hobby, those people, too, started calling themselves geeks. In other words, the subset of the the world population now potentially identifiable as geeks was approaching 100%.

Pictured: just about everybody

So if everyone is a geek, what's there to be proud of? We're no longer a group apart. If we ever were an elite class (a matter for debate), we certainly aren't that anymore. Geeks are everybody, and everybody is a geek.

Geek Day

I'm all for celebrating the history of geekdom, and the ascendency of the geek lifestyle and culture. Let's have a Geek Day to remember our past struggles and our present triumph. To remind ourselves that today's downtrodden could be tomorrow's leaders. Let's celebrate society's progress.

But geek pride is an outdated notion, and I won't be celebrating that anymore. In fact, I'm probably going to stop self-applying the geek label, as it's now basically synonymous with "human".

Friday, May 25, 2012

What Is This I Don't Even

I've been staring with morbid fascination at the whole Spear debacle. I don't really care that much about it, but it's been pretty hard to avoid, so I've kept more or less up to date. I don't know how to parse any of it, so I figured I'd just share a few thoughts.

Firstly, it seems to me to have been just one stupid thing after another. Probably the most baffling thing to me in all of this is why anybody cares... it seems to just be a few obsessed people spinning their wheels in futility.

As I said, I haven't been paying very close attention, so I may well have some details wrong. And I don't care enough to do extensive reading about it. But this is how I understand things:

The Painting

So this artist, Brett Murray, painted our crooked President, Jacob Zuma, with his bi'ness hanging out. I'm assuming Zuma didn't sit for the painting himself, so Murray presumably painted an imaginary Little President on there.

My response to this: "Heh."

It's some pretty low-brow social commentary. It's not without it's place, but I don't think it's all that interesting. As my sister says, it's "cartoonism". Mildly entertaining, but not even worthy of a "lol".

The Suit

The painting made its way to an exhibition at the Goodman Gallery for some reason. I guess there's no accounting for taste. This made the messiah President Zuma lose his goddam mind. So he sued the gallery to have the painting banned.

My response to this: "Um, what?"

Zuma is so offended that someone painted (not photographed, mind you... painted) him with someone else's twig & berries on him, that he wants to have it banned. Banned. Regardless of the legalities of this notion, it's just plain stupid. My first thought was that obviously the boerewors in the painting is way bigger than Zuma's own, and it's embarrassed him in front of all his wives. (Yes, international reader, that's plural. Our president is a proud polygamist).

This bit is probably the most significant part, in my mind. If someone can sue someone else for displaying a cartoon of them, that says some pretty bad things for freedom of speech. Political cartoons are an important manifestation of public commentary - even when they're dumb.

I'll grant that it's potentially defamatory, but should it be banned? Absolutely not.

And besides, in the age of the Internet, what's the first thing that happens when you try to censor something? Everybody makes a copy of it and posts it on their own website (as I have done). It's called The Streisand Effect.

The Public Outcry

A lot of people, apparently, think that Zuma is legitimately upset about all this, and they demonstrated and performed and vandalised the gallery and so on.

My response to this: "Meh."

Plenty of people will get up in arms about anything. Don't care.

The Vandalism

Two guys, within seconds of each other, and in front of press and public, defaced the painting by smearing paint all over it. They were arrested on the spot, but they'd already ruined it.

My response to this: "Lol, wut?"

I still don't get it. Last I heard their names have been made public, but it's still not clear why they did it. The youngest of the two men was quoted on the scene as saying "It's an insult.", but who knows what he meant by that. The older of the two is apparently an art professor.

One leading hypothesis: it's performance art. The two vandals collaborated to make some sort of public statement.

I have no idea how true that is, and I still don't really care. Having seen the footage, though, it's kind of surprising just how calm, confident and deliberate they were in doing it.

The Breakdown

During the court proceedings yesterday (whether it was Zuma's censorship suit or the trial for the vandals I'm not clear on, and don't care enough to check) Zuma's lawyer broke down in tears in court. And then the judge forbade the TV networks of broadcasting the footage of it (although the BBC aren't bound by that ruling)

My response to this: *facepalm*

Here we have the Streisand Effect again.

This whole thing is just flippen crazy. None of it makes any sense, and, as far as I can see, it's all just stupid! A mediocre screenwriter couldn't put this story together, because it's just so inane!

But I guess there's nothing else interesting happening this week. Like the SKA decision or the Dragon module docking with the ISS.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

South African Crank of the Week: Tracey-Lee Dorney

Listeners of the Consilience podcast will know that I have a somewhat unhealthy obsession with people claiming that cellphones cause cancer, or whatever similar claim. That and bees. And especially when people say that cellphones give bees cancer.

As far as I know, this week's Crank hasn't claimed that cellphones kill bees, but you never know when she might start. It's certainly the sort of thing she might say. This week I present to you Tracey-Lee Dorney!

"It killed my tree ded!"
Tracey Who?

Dorney has appeared in the news several times over the last few years in which she actively and aggressively promotes the claim that cellphones (and related technologies) are killing you, and making your family (and even your trees) sick.

She is the spokesperson (and apparently the only member) of the Electromagnetic Radiation Research Foundation of SA. And she has a website full of all kinds of stories about how cellphones, cellular towers, WiFi, and just about any wireless data connectivity is bad for you. It's complete with upsetting images of babies being irradiated and lists of scary symptoms.


Two notable stories where she was involved was in trying to get an iBurst tower taken down in Fourways (she succeeded, even though the people complaining about symptoms had no idea that the tower had been switched off for months). She also claimed that MTN's LTE pilot was scorching the trees in her garden.

Why Is She a Crank?

Because she's promoting nonsense. Unlike Danie Krugel, who I wrote about last week, I don't think Dorney is a deliberate fraud. I think she sincerely believes the stuff she says. And it's understandable... cellphones are complicated, and if you lack a certain level of scientific literacy, it's easy to mistake any scary-sounding claim as science. That seems to be what Dorney does.

The "research" part of her website's name seems to refer mainly to her doing research on the Internet - looking for anything she can find that lends support to her a priori conclusion. She also had a tangential involvement in a "study" that was misguidedly conducted by a couple of high school kids, that proved exactly nothing.

But let's look more closely at her specific claims. It's tricky, because there are a lot of them. But the basic idea seems to be that cellphones and similar technologies make you sick. The idea isn't crazy on the surface... I mean, it's radiation, right? Problem is, real science is usually more complicated than scary words.

Real science - no scary words

But it's not so complicated that we can't understand it. See? Pretty colours!

The elecromagnetic spectrum includes all kinds of radiation made up of photons. That includes light, radio, infrared, ultraviolet, X-Rays, gamma rays and microwaves. There's nothing qualitatively different about these different forms of radiation - they're all basically the same thing, just at different energy levels. Once a given beam of radiation has an energy level of a certain value, we call it "infrared" instead of "microwave". That's it.

But, on the higher end of the spectrum, the waves have so much energy that they can actually cause an atom to shed one of its electrons - thereby turning it into an ion. This is called ionising radiation, and it includes the parts of the EM spectrum from the upper ultraviolet, through X-Rays up to gamma rays. Ionising radiation can be bad, because it can damage your DNA, leading to coding errors which can potentially lead to cancer.

Not that kind of X-rays
So, as a rule you want to minimise your exposure to ionising radiation. A little bit every now and then is probably fine, but the less the better.

Non-ionising radiation doesn't hurt you like that. Too much infrared or visible light can dump energy into a surface. If that surface is your skin, it could potentially burn you. But again you'd need quite a lot of it to get that effect - like a high-powered laser or sunlight focussed through a lens.

Microwave ovens use, as the name suggests, microwaves. But it's a little more complicated than you might expect. The oven doesn't just bathe its contents with microwaves and heat your food that way. Instead it emits a high level of microwave radiation, but it switches the orientation of the field back and forth at high speed. This causes the water molecules in your food, which are slightly magnetic, to vibrate back and forth. That vibration is what causes the heating. It's also what causes metallic objects to spark in there - they build up a hell of a charge from the alternating field. Even though microwaves emit quite a lot of radiation, you'd have to be inside the oven, with your molecules vibrating, to have any ill effects from it.

How does that relate to cellphones? Well they also use microwave radiation. Microwaves are just higher-energy radio waves, and they're suitable for high-bandwidth data transmission within the Earth's atmosphere. Cellphones, and most similar technologies, use signals encoded in microwaves (like morse code in a beam of light) to talk to each other. They don't alternate their fields like microwave ovens do, and they use orders of magnitude less energy than ovens (your cellphone uses about 2 Watts,compared to your oven's 500 Watts).

In other words, if we're talking about electromagnetic exposure, a few minutes in the sun will expose you to way more radiation (including some ionising radiation) than talking for hours on your cellphone.

The whole premise is flawed.

But we don't need to understand the premise if there's epidemiological data to support an effect. If people are getting sick from cellphones, then something must be causing it, even if we don't know what. So are people getting sick from cellphones?

No. Study after study after study shows no link between cellphone use and mortality or cancer. Although cellphones have only been popular for 15 years or so, and long-term data is still coming in, so far there's no reason to conclude that cellphones cause any harm whatsoever. There's no effect. None.

So Dorney's well-intentioned crusade is fundamentally wrong. She's promoting bad science, but for a good reason. Although I tip my hat to her intent, her passion would be better served if she weren't blinded by her own inability to understand what science shows us about the world. A good person she may be, but as long as she scares people with nonsense, she remains a crank.

Have someone you'd like to nominate as a Crank of the Week? Head over to Google Moderator, submit your suggestions and vote for your favourite.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Free" WiFi

As you may recall from my recent post about WhatsApp, I have strong feelings about things claiming to be free that aren't, in fact, free.

Another example of this that I've come across lately is that of "free" WiFi at restaurants and coffee shops. As you might suspect, it's seldom free. Which is kind of stupid.

The way I see it, if a place offers free WiFi, there's a good chance that I'll spend the entire day there using it. While I'm there, I'll probably order several cups of coffee, have a meal or two, and make the place look busy. All of those are good things. That being the case, combined with the relatively low cost associated with putting together a reasonably fast, unlimited ADSL-backed Internet connection, it makes pretty good business sense to make it available.

And some places do. Examples I've come across include McDonalds in Rivonia (which is free to everyone, you don't even have to go inside to use it) and the Slug & Lettuce, also in Rivonia. Theirs is free for paying customers, which is fair. Even some Virgin Active gyms have free Internet for members.

Compare this to places like Mugg & Bean in Killarney Mall: they (like so many others) have their WiFi provided by some other commercial venture. When you sign up with that third party, you get half an hour of mediocre connectivity per day. If you want more, you have to pay a pretty steep premium per additional half hour.

While that billing model makes sense in a world where Internets are hard to come by, this is no longer such a world. When I see a 3rd-party login screen on a coffee-shop's "free" WiFi, my initial reaction is thinking them cheapskates. I make a mental note to not return there, instead favoring places without that restriction.

So, if you or someone you know operates an eating establishment, and you'd like to attract customers rather than scare them away: be a good person and offer actual free WiFi. You can still secure it so that only customers will have access to it, and it won't cost you much extra (if it costs you anything at all).

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Scientific Method

I'm frequently astonished by a lot of people's attitudes towards science. Specifically how easily they can accept one set of science's findings without question, while simultaneously rejecting others.

My favourite example of this is when someone uses the Internet to make or share any anti-scientific claim. They do this with complete confidence in every piece of technology involved in that process: the keyboard they type on, the screen they read from, the processors, memory chips and other transistors inside their computer, their Internet connection... all the way to the screen of the person the message is intended for.

Seldom is a thought given to how any of that stuff was designed or invented. Nor to the fact that the very same scientific method was used to produce that technology as whatever it was they were denying in the first place, be it evolution, anthropogenic climate change, synthetic pharmaceuticals... you name it.

The assumption seems to be that there are different scientific methods depending on what kind of science we're talking about. Perhaps "assumption" is too strong a word, since that implies that someone's given it some thought and arrived at that conclusion, but I suspect it's not even that. It's more likely some kind of intuition... a gut feeling. In my experience, I find it more effective to think with my brain than with my digestive system.

What Is The Scientific Method?

Perhaps the education system has something to do with this failing. I remember being taught "science" in school that bore little to no resemblance to what I understand it to be today.

What I was taught to call the "Scientific Method" was something like:

  1. Produce the question (which we never did. It was always given to us by the teacher - thus eliminating any sort of creativity from the process)
  2. Define the method (again, given to us beforehand)
  3. Document the results
  4. Draw conclusions.
And that was it. 

Problem is, in reality the process doesn't stop there. After #4 you go to publication, peer review and then replication. These are arguably the most important parts of the process - the parts that distinguish science from things like alchemy and just making things up. Let's look at them quickly:

  1. Publication: after writing a fully detailed paper on your experiment, you submit it to a scientific journal to be published. The journal will have its panel of adjudicators (usually experienced volunteers from the branch of science the journal deals with) look through your work and get back to you with any questions, corrections or other criticism that may be required. After as many iterations of this process as are needed, your paper may be deemed worthy of publication.
  2. Peer review: Once published in the journal, your colleagues and counterparts in the rest of your field will have the opportunity of evaluating and commenting on it. Although some of the peer review has already happened while going through the publication phase, this is a much wider audience with a wider variety of expertise.
  3. Replication: If any of your colleagues or counterparts find your work interesting, they may try to replicate your results in their own labs. They'll try to match (or improve upon) your methodology, and will then publish their own results. If their results match yours, your study gains weight. If theirs don't match yours, then you obviously did something wrong, and your paper will be discredited. Back to the drawing board for you.

What Good Is It?

The thing about science and the scientific method is that it's self-correcting. If someone makes a mistake and produces dodgy results, their mistake will eventually be discredited and pushed aside in favour of other studies that are stronger. Any errors are found and eliminated by the scientific community as a whole. Good ideas are upheld, bad ideas fall away.

Science is the only way of knowing anything. By testing the world, and retesting, and retesting, we can eventually reach a point where we can start to make reliable predictions about it. This is how we learn as babies, too: by testing gravity again and again, we learn that things will tend to fall towards the ground, and not towards the sky. We'll learn that it hurts to touch hot things, and that some things reliably taste better than others.

A scientist

Science is the formalisation of that same process of discovery, of testing and retesting, and of drawing reliable conclusions. The scientific method includes collaboration with all other scientists everywhere, combining all the studies into a single literature so as to draw even more reliable conclusions.

But Science Gets Things Wrong

Well yes and no. Individual scientists (or teams of scientists) get things wrong all the time. The vast majority of hypotheses turn out to be false. Even whole communities of scientists can be mistaken about things.

But again, science is self-correcting. Those errors are eventually found and eliminated, making way for better and more accurate understanding.

Poison or panacea?
Ask a journalist.
Something that probably goes a long way to promoting the idea that science gets things wrong is the news headlines that constantly report this or that "breakthrough", which either yields nothing or is refuted again by some other "breakthrough" months or years later.

The problem here is that people in the media often understand the science no better than most people. They use the word "breakthrough" because it sells papers (or click-throughs or whatever), without really understanding what it means. 

Science seldom works in breakthroughs - sudden, paradigm-shifting new insights that change how things are done. They happen from time to time, but they're rare. Generally science works slowly, in a steady stream of small, incremental discoveries. Each new discovery contributing in a small way to the broader understanding of the world.

That right there is the biggest failing, in my opinion, of the scientific method as we know it today: it's slow. Really slow. Some erroneous ideas have to wait until their proponents literally die of old age before they're successfully overturned. While that may not be a big deal when it comes to cosmology or palaeontology,  it can be a big deal when it comes to medicine or agriculture. In those fields, slowness costs lives.

I imagine that its frustration with that slowness that drives people to embrace quackery. When they keep hearing "We can cure your disease in the next five to ten years." from the scienctific medicine fraternity, but the homeopath says "I can cure your disease right now." why would they want to wait? Especially if they're not equipped to discern that homeopathic interventions are a scam.

Science Isn't Perfect

Also as a result of the slow progress of science, in the short term it can't correct for unscrupulous behaviour of individual scientists, teams or organisations. Where science and industry meet (like in pharmaceuticals) the profit motive can inspire fallible human scientists to behave badly.

The pharmaceutical industry has a known history of pushing products through testing, not being adequately open with their results and that sort of thing. It's a problem, and people have died as a result. Science as it is today isn't quick enough to deal with that, so it falls on other institutions like courts and governments to place strict regulations on those sorts of industries.

Andrew Wakefield
Even scientific journals arent impentrable to the unethical. The case of Andrew Wakefield is a lesson in that respect, where a researcher behaved unethically, possibly forging his results and ultimately getting a wothless paper published in a highly prestigious journal. This error is largely responsible for the resurgence in anti-vaccine activism in the 21st century and has also cost lives. It took close to a decade for the journal to retract the paper, but the damage was already done.

But, again, science is self-correcting. Despite its current imperfections, it improves itself with time. As methods arise to compensate for these deficiencies, they too will be incorporated into the practice of science, and things will get better.

To misquote Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda: "[Science] isn't the best way to [know anything about the world], it's just the only way."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

South African Crank of the Week: Danie Krugel

Like last week's Crank of the Week, Michael Tellinger, Danie Krugel has made a name for himself in the media peddling some pseudoscientific nonsense.

Unlike Tellinger, however, I am now convinced that Krugel is not simply a self-deluded ideologue, but is, in fact, a deliberate fraud.

Trying to locate a better barber
That's an assessment I only made very recently, though. I'm not a detective or a court of law, so I can't make any legal claim that his actions are fraudulent. What I can do, however, is apply my sceptical insights and skills to the material available to me, and draw a conclusion based on that. And it what it looks like to me is an intentional fake.

Let's look at the history of the case.

Danie Who?

Danie Krugel is a former police officer from Bloemfontein who more recently became employed doing security work at the University of the Free State.

In 2007 he made an appearance on the bastion of journalistic integrity, Carte Blanche, self-applying the superhero moniker "The Locator", and claiming that he could find any person, living or dead, anywhere in the world.

What's He On About?

It seems that Krugel invented a machine that allows him to use DNA and Quantum Mechanics to somehow track people over vast distances. Seriously. That's what he claims.

Like Spock's Tricorder. (This explains the haircut too)

On his television debut, he was claiming that he had used his device to find the victims of Gert van Rooyen, a paedophile and serial killer who was active in Pretoria in the 1980's. Van Rooyen's victims' bodies were never found, but Krugel thought his magic box invention was up to the task.

Gert van Rooyen's victims

Although Krugel's search did yield a few human bone fragments, they didn't belong to van Rooyen's victims. Didn't stop Krugel (and Carte Blanche) from counting it as a hit.

A few months later, Krugel was in the headlines again, this time for sticking his nose into the case of the dissapearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007. He used his mysterious box to point out some spots where he thought the girl's body could be. The police rightfully ignored his interference, and nothing came of it. They also ignored a raft of other chancers using their gimmicks of choice to try and find little Maddie and make a name for themselves off the McCanns' tragedy.

Krugel seems to prefer little, blonde,
white girls.

Not long after, Krugel made some noise about adapting his device for medical purposes: using it to detect cancer inside people's bodies. Then he went quiet.

I don't know if he was active or not, but some years passed when there was no mention of him in the media. Until last week - the 5th anniversary of Maddie's disappearance.

Why Is He A Crank?

Well, because he's promoting nonsense. Not only is there no known mechanism through which his machine could work, but he also refuses to let anybody take a good look at it. In fact, only recently has he allowed anyone to see it in operation. Here's the video:

In case you didn't want to waste your bandwidth on it, let me give you a prĂ©cis.

It starts off with Krugel sitting behind a desk, wearing an aluminium helmet and with a grey caterpillar on his upper lip. He goes into a long schpiel about the police ignoring his evidence in the McCann case. He says that he hopes they'll pay attention to him now "...for Madeleine".

Seems sweet and sincere, right? Sure. Why not.

He goes on to do a demonstration of his invention. First he takes a hair-brush which he says belonged to Madeleine McCann. He removes a hair from the brush and fastens it to a plate with a little hole in it. Behind the hole is what looks like one of those little LED presentation pointers, which Krugel calls a "laser". He doesn't explain how information can be passed from the hair to the "laser".

Krugel fires his "laser" across the hair and near to another device he describes as a "grabber". The grabber is literally a black box with a little blue button on it. He makes no mention of how the grabber works, only that it somehow picks up the "frequency" of the hair. Note he doesn't shine the "laser" at the grabber - he shines it past the device. He doesn't explain how information can be transferred from the "laser" to the grabber.

Then he takes the grabber and puts in on top of another device which is clearly labelled as the "KTT" ("Krugel Theory Tester", apparently). He just puts in on top of the large, circular display on top of the device and doesn't explain how information is transferred from the grabber to the KTT.

Then the camera angle changes. This is important. Up till now, he's been sitting behind a desk, with all the devices sitting on the desk in front of him. Now we're looking down, over his shoulder, as he's holding the KTT with one hand. In his other hand is the hair brush. As he waves the brush in front of the device, the needle on the KTT's display follows the brush like a compass follows a magnet (with a bit of a time-lag)

Looks pretty compelling, except for this:

Do you see it?

His left hand is hidden from view, underneath the device. Why is it there? Why isn't the device on the table? Why does he need to be touching it? 

He doesn't explain that. And I'm pretty sure I know why: he's operating some kind of switch or dial under there to make the needle move. I've watched the video many times, and because the quality isn't great, and the camera is hand-held and shaky, it's difficult to tell for sure. But it looks to me like his arm is flexing. That means his fingers are working under there. That's right: deliberate fraud.

As always, I'm willing to be proven wrong. I wrote to Danie in 2007 proposing that I assist him in doing a double-blind trial to determine the device's accuracy. He ignored it, but the offer is still open. Not only that, but if his device passes the test, I'll support his application to the JREF for their million Dollar prize. And I won't even ask for a finders fee when he wins the Nobel prize for physics.

That's right, the Nobel prize. See, Danie's device simply cannot work according to the laws of the universe as we know them today. Although he talks about it being "science", the mechanism he claims is unknown to science today. If it were real, we'd have to throw out the laws of physics as we know them, and that would entitle him to a Nobel prize.

Danie claims not to me motivated by money (as far as I can tell, he hasn't asked for payment for his services so far), which is fair. But if that's the case, why won't he publish the design for his device for free online, so that everyone can build their own KTT and find their own loved ones? He doesn't explain that either.

I was once the administrator of a website called Stop Danie Krugel. I let it lapse because there hadn't been any reports of his activites in years. Looks like it's time to resurrect it. I'll gladly accept donations to that end, if you'd like to support it. Hit me up on Google+ if you're keen.

Do you have a crank in mind you'd like me to cover in future editions of this series? Head over to Google Moderator to vote on the ones already suggested, and feel free to suggest more.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why Michael Tellinger Is Wrong - Part 1 of N

Given the popularity of my inaugural Crank of the Week post last week, I've decided that I'll need to spend some more time examining Michael Tellinger's claims more closely.

One thing: I'm not going to spend any money buying his books. I'm going to rely on the material he makes free on the Internet (of which there is a lot) and syntheses of his ideas from sources I trust.

Pictured: Buyer's Remorse
If you think my analyses could benefit from having his books around, I welcome donations to that end. If you bought a copy of Slave Species of God, which you're embarrassed to have sitting on your bookshelf, but can't bring yourself to throw away, here's your opportunity to get rid of it. Ideally I'd prefer an electronic copy though, if such a thing exists.

If you'd like to do that, drop me a message on Google+ and we'll make arrangements.

Right, with that out of the way, let's get started.

One of the claims that both Tellinger, and his intellectual progenitor Zecharia Sitchin, promote is that of a geographic pole shift caused by a gravitational interaction with the planet Nibiru 10 000 years ago or so. This claim doesn't exist in isolation, however - it's taken as fact (by them) in supporting many of their other claims.

So if we were to show this claim to be false, the rest of them should all come tumbling down like a house of cards. Getting them to admit that would be another matter altogether.

Why Do They Make This Claim?

As far as I can tell, the genesis of this idea is in the book of Genesis itself. (lol! See what I did there?)

The premise here is that ancient mythology should be read as if it's historical fact. Since the book of Genesis contains a story in which the whole world was flooded, that must, in fact, have happened.

So what could cause a global flood? Rain wouldn't do it, because there isn't enough water to achieve it. No, the only possible cause is a tsunami bigger than any tsunami ever recorded - one capable of travelling thousands of kilometers inland and engulfing, basically, everything.

Way, WAY bigger than this

And what could have caused such a tsunami? The sudden displacement of large bodies of water.

(By now you should be starting to see the tenuous nature of Tellinger & Sitchin's logic - an idea is postulated, then taken as the factual basis for the next idea, which is then the basis for the next, and so on. But we're not there yet, so let's get back to it.)

And what could have caused such displacement? A sudden, violent event that caused the ice caps of the Earth to simultaneously shift loose from their positions, crashing into the sea and instantly melting.

What could have caused that? A violent, geographic pole shift.

A What?

Basically this is when the geographic pole, the axis along which the planet spins, changes. Sounds feasible, right? I mean, why shouldn't that happen?

The Physics

So could a gravitational interaction with planet Nibiru cause a polar shift?


First, there's no planet Nibiru. But I'll deal with that in more detail in a future post. For argument's sake, let's presume that it does exist. Time to put on your Let's Pretend Hat. Ready? Okay.

The silliness of the hat is
directly proportional to
the silliness of the claim.

Problem is, gravity just doesn't work that way. In order to cause the Earth's crust to shift around like that, the gravitational field from the other planet would need something to 'grab onto': a structure of significant mass that would make the planet irregular in shape. Although the Earth does bulge a little at the equator, the variance there just isn't enough to provide the torque necessary to move anything. You'd need a mountain several orders of magnitude taller than Mount Everest (or even Olympus Mons - the tallest mountain in the solar system). And there's no way a mountain that large could ever have existed on Earth.

It didn't work in Star Trek either
So what could do it? Well, according to Dr Stuart Robbins of the Exposing PseudoAstronomy blog and podcast, you could only do this if you had something like a tractor beam from Star Trek: a highly focussed gravitational (or whatever) field aimed specifically at one part of the planet.

And since there's no known mechanism for such a device, and since there's no apparent reason why any super-advanced civilisation (they'd have to be considerably more advanced than Sitchin's Annunaki are supposed to be - a Type II civilisation, or close to it) would want to do that, I think we can safely dismiss that notion.

A quick point here, the geographic pole has wandered a bit over time. Between that and plate tectonics, we know that the polar axis hasn't always been where it is now, in relation to the continents as they are today. But these changes are small and very, very slow. Certainly not significant in recent prehistory, or even since the first humans evolved.

Also, we should be careful not to confuse the notions of a geographic pole shift, which doesn't happen, and a magnetic pole reversal, which happens all the time - geologically speaking. A magnetic pole shift couldn't cause any flooding at all, and probably wouldn't even have been noticed by humans before the discovery of magnetism and the invention of the magnetic compass.

The Evidence

So what actual evidence is there that such a thing happened.

Well, there's the book of Genesis, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Unu Pachakati, Tiddalik, Khun Borom... and so on. The ancient world is full of flood myths, which Sitchin/Tellinger suggests (and then assumes to be fact) is evidence that there was, in fact, a global flood catastrophe - and that those myths are the historical retelling of that event.

Sounds plausible on the surface, right?

Sure it does. Except for the fact that there's no physical evidence supporting that notion. None whatsoever. Sure, people like Graham Hancock put forward silly notions about weathering on the Sphinx and such, but none of those are accepted by people who know what they're talking about.

So how is it that all these cultures seem to share the same myth?

Well, here's the thing: human communities tend to be near water. We need fresh water to drink, and the ocean provides a ready supply of food, as well as migratory and trading opportunities. When you live close to water, there's one thing that's certain: you're going to have to deal with things like floods and tsunami from time to time. Given how destructive and often surprising these events can be, it only stands to reason that those people would record those events in their oral and written traditions.

Does that mean that all those myths must be describing the same event? Nope. Each myth could be describing a separate event, or could even consist of fictionalised or combined accounts of multiple events, rolled into one. Most of these cultures probably experienced multiple catastrophic floods in their times. Also, as cultures move, conquer or are conquered by others, and share their stories with each other, it also stands to reason that their similar myths would blend together over time. This goes a long way to explaining why, for example, the different middle-eastern flood myths are so similar in form, even if they're different in the details.

Noah or Utnapishtim? There's no need to decide.

It also explains why cultures that don't come from near major water sources tend not to have flood myths.

In fact, the notion of a global flood that affected everyone everywhere is, in itself, impossible. Even though most of the Earth's surface is covered in water, there isn't really all that much water on the surface, relatively speaking. Even if the ice caps melted completely, there still wouldn't be enough water to cover everywhere.

See all those bits that aren't blue?

So Where Does That Leave Us?

Well, given that there's no reason to believe that there was ever a global flood, there's no reason to postulate a cause for said flood.

The premise is false, the hypothesis makes no sense, the evidence is misinterpreted (or just made up) and the theory is bogus. There's no reason to accept any of it, and the whole thing, from start to finish, is pure fiction. Jenga!

In other words, when it comes to the ideas of a global flood and a geographic pole shift, Michael Tellinger is wrong.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Science As Magic

A comment Michael Meadon made on the podcast the other day has had me thinking. He was trying to annoy me by saying that the Star Trek universe has magic in it.

I dispute that assertion because in the Star Trek universe, there's (at least the intention of) a scientific basis for everything. Even the truly exotic stuff like Red Matter, weird radiation at the galactic barrier and omnipotent aliens are never meant to be magical or supernatural - they're only ever natural phenomena that haven't been properly described (either to the characters themselves, or to the audience).

Let's also not forget that Star Trek is fiction, written by fallible humans who themselves don't have complete knowledge of all science.

But it got me thinking because Michael's ignorance of the world of Star Trek mirrors the ignorance most people seem to have of our own universe. To them, science is magic.

I can understand why that's the case. The level of scientific advancement our society has made today makes it impossible for any one person to understand all of it.

To most people, even well-educated ones, a cellphone must seem like a magical thing: a little box that lets you communicate with your friends in many different ways, lets you access the sum of human knowledge via Google, and basically lets you live a life beyond the limits of your biological self. All it needs to be recharged with a ritual of connecting it to the Earth and paying it regular tithes.

But of course there's nothing magical about a cellphone. People who know things about physics, chemistry and computer science understand most, if not all, the processes that make a cellphone do the things it does. They can describe the radio transmissions it makes, the data it processes, the chemicals it uses to store energy and all sorts of other things that are beyond my knowledge of the world.

If I, a scientifically literate person who relies as heavily on my phone as I do can't understand it, what hope does someone without my skills or interests have in doing so? None. To them, it may as well be magic.

So, that being the case, is it any wonder that people are mystified by and even distrustful of technology? Why shouldn't they also embrace other forms of magic when presented to them?

If a cellphone can make invisible rays that give me cancer (it can't, but just for the sake of argument) why shouldn't a crystal pendant use some other invisible process to protect me from those rays?

If I can't explain how the pyramids were built, why shouldn't I accept that magical aliens built them? Surely alien magic is stronger than ours.

If I can't cure cancer with chemotherapy, why shouldn't I try Homeopathy and "natural" remedies instead?

It seems obvious that the solution to this would be education. That would certainly help the the next generation, but what about those of us on the planet now? What about the people thinking that our species is too stupid to invent its own civilisation, or even worse, the ones using crystals or herbs to protect them from cancer?

I don't have the solution, but that's one of the reasons I write this blog and produce the Consilience podcast - in the hope that I can reach someone, and convince them of the idea behind this quote:

"Throughout history, every mystery ever solved has turned out to be NOT magic." - Tim Minchin, Storm
And you thought it would be Arthur C. Clarke

While proper scientists are in their labs exploring the real universe, it's up to the sceptics and science communicators to try and get rid of all the other nonsense - the cargo-cult science and other magical-thinking-derived silliness.

And if you want to watch some Star Trek on the subject, I recommend the Next Generation episode Devil's Due. Excellent stuff.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

What's Up With WhatsApp?

I'm continually astounded by the fact that WhatsApp is as popular as it is. It just doesn't fit in my brain. I have strong feelings about this.

In arguing with people about it, the same points keep being raised. Let's take a sceptical look at them, shall we?

But first...

What Is WhatsApp?

It describes itself as a  "...a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS."

So, in other words, it's an app you install on your smartphone (or Blackberry) that's intended to replace SMS by letting you exchange short messages with your contacts through a different service that, at least by implication, costs less than SMS.

So What's Wrong With That?

Well, nothing. Except that it sucks.

Let's look at how WhatsApp works.

You download and install the app on your mobile device. You set up your account by punching in your cellphone number, then it scans your device's address book looking for other people who have their phone numbers associated with WhatsApp accounts. It then creates its own little contact list where you can initiate conversations with your contacts.

Sounds pretty much like any instant messaging application, right? Right. Except for that whole phone number thing. That was a bit weird.

And weird it is. In fact you cannot use WhatsApp anywhere but on a cellular device.

What if you're sitting at your PC and you want to send or receive messages from there? No can do.

What if you're using a device with a different phone number to the one on your phone, like a tablet for example? That device needs to have its own WhatsApp account with its own number. Unless your contacts have both numbers, they can't send/receive to that device.

What if you're on prepaid and you haven't topped up your data bundle? Can it still send and receive messages? Nope. (SMS can still be received when you're out of airtime, even if you can't send).

Are your conversations at least backed up in the cloud so you can refer back to them later, if your phone is stolen or something? Nope. You can export your data manually and upload it to Google Drive or something, but you have to remember to do it.

Are there open APIs so I can get WhatsApp to work neatly with other services like IFTTT? Nope. Nothing like that.

Is it really free? I'm glad you asked. That point seems to be a matter of dispute. Going to the WhatsApp website, there's no mention of any cost, and several references to it being free. But if you go to download the app, like in the Google Play Store for example, you're greeted with this sentence:

"First year FREE! ($0.99/year after)"
You'd think they'd mention that in their FAQ, but they don't.

Sure, R7.00 a year isn't much to pay. But why pay anything at all when you can get a better service elsewhere that actually is free? (This is in addition to the charges for data used in sending and receiving messages - but that's so little as to be negligible. That's what they mean when they say "...without having to pay for SMS")

What's Better Than WhatsApp?

Well, just about everything, really. My personal favourite is Google Talk.

Let's list the features of interest here:
  • Completely free. No paying for anything ever. (except the same data charges you would pay in WhatsApp, which is also a tiny, tiny amount. And that only applies when sending/receiving messages over your data network, which isn't strictly necessary)
  • Use it on any device connected to the Internet: phone, tablet, PC, netbook, wristwatch... whatever. One account everywhere. People can find you using either your Gmail address or by being in your Google+ circles. Start chatting on one device, and continue the conversation on another without missing anything.
  • All your conversations are backed up to your Gmail account, so you can refer back to them later. This means not having to write down phone numbers, addresses or names. Just search.
  • Runs on the open Jabber protocol, which means you can use any Jabber client to access your Gtalk account. Of which there are hundreds. Open APIs let you use it for various cool other things, like updating your Facebook, Tweeting or whatever.
  • Includes voice and video chat. While these use more data that just text, they're still cheaper than an actual phone call (depending on how much you're paying for data - your mileage may vary)
  • Embedded in the Google universe - use the same account and contact list for Google+, Gmail, Google Drive, Google Calendar, Google Latitude and approximately a floppityjillion others.

Are There Any Good Reasons To Use WhatsApp?

Not that I can see. Podcaster Tim Haak makes a good case for using WhatsApp in addition to other IM, clients which seems to work for him. But I suspect his is an edge-case.

Here's the crux of my argument against WhatsApp and for Google Talk: when I send someone a message, I want to send it to the person, not the device. With WhatsApp (like with SMS) I'm sending a message to the phone, but with Google Talk I'm sending it to the person, no matter which device they happen to be using at the time.

Communication tools are intended to enable communication between people, not devices.

So What's The Sceptical Angle?

When you're comparing two different medical interventions, the rational approach is to look at the proposed benefits and weigh them against the risks, then decide based on that.

In my assessment, the "risks" (or rather, "cost") of WhatsApp is slightly higher than that of Google Talk (again, my favourite example, but it's actually one of many alternatives), but the benefits aren't as high.

I'm not calling for a boycott of WhatsApp or anything. I think it's a pretty good tool, by 2006 standards anyway. But this is 2012, and we have far better tools available now that cost less. Unless you have a very specific reason for using WhatsApp, why use it?

(Go ahead, call me a Google cultist if you like. But you'll note that I didn't mention the new Google+ Messenger as a viable alternative, because it sucks too. Although it doesn't suck as much as WhatsApp.)