SciBlogs

Archive 2009

It’s TAM Australia, baby! Mike Kilpatrick Nov 30

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Apologies for the lack of updates recently. Rest assured my skeptical brain has been working while the rest of me has been slightly worse than useless.

I’ll be back with more regular updates now Real Life (TM) has once again deigned to allow me some spare time.

And what better way to celebrate my impending return than with the announcement of TAM (The Amazing Meeting) Australia?

The Amazing Meeting
has been held since 2003 and has become the premier meeting for skeptics worldwide. Unfortunately for those of us outwith the United States it can be very expensive to attend.

Earlier this year the first international TAM took place in London and it was widely acclaimed.

And so hot off the back of that was the announcement that Australia will become a focal point for skeptics all around the world from 26-28th November next year.

It’s a major coup for the Australian Skeptics and the list of skeptical attendees is already looking impressive.

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe
cast (Dr Steve Novella, Bob Novella, Jay Novella, Evan Bernstein and Rebecca Watson) had already announced they would travel to Australia next year but this will now coincide with TAM Australia.

And if that isn’t exciting enough, Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning and skeptical podcaster and singer George Hrab will also be making the long trip.

Oh, and a certain diminutive magician widely loved by the entire skeptical community has also said he intends to be in Sydney.

One of the greatest things about the skeptical community is how in touch the ‘leaders’ are with the base. I’ve exchanged e-mails, Facebook messages and Tweets with the biggest names and it’s amazing (no pun intended) to be able to do that.

And the highlight had to be an e-mail from the man himself, James Randi. I sent him some birthday wishes last year and I was stunned to receive a message back from him.

It was short, amusing and has become my most treasured e-mail. I’ll be hoping Randi has fully recovered from his recent health issues so I may shake his hand next November.

Congratulations Australian Skeptics and I can’t wait to meet everyone next year.

I’ll be looking for cheap tickets to Sydney every day from now on!

It’s TAM Australia, baby! Mike Kilpatrick Nov 30

3 Comments

Apologies for the lack of updates recently. Rest assured my skeptical brain has been working while the rest of me has been slightly worse than useless.

I’ll be back with more regular updates now Real Life (TM) has once again deigned to allow me some spare time.

And what better way to celebrate my impending return than with the announcement of TAM (The Amazing Meeting) Australia?

The Amazing Meeting
has been held since 2003 and has become the premier meeting for skeptics worldwide. Unfortunately for those of us outwith the United States it can be very expensive to attend.

Earlier this year the first international TAM took place in London and it was widely acclaimed.

And so hot off the back of that was the announcement that Australia will become a focal point for skeptics all around the world from 26-28th November next year.

It’s a major coup for the Australian Skeptics and the list of skeptical attendees is already looking impressive.

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe
cast (Dr Steve Novella, Bob Novella, Jay Novella, Evan Bernstein and Rebecca Watson) had already announced they would travel to Australia next year but this will now coincide with TAM Australia.

And if that isn’t exciting enough, Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning and skeptical podcaster and singer George Hrab will also be making the long trip.

Oh, and a certain diminutive magician widely loved by the entire skeptical community has also said he intends to be in Sydney.

One of the greatest things about the skeptical community is how in touch the ‘leaders’ are with the base. I’ve exchanged e-mails, Facebook messages and Tweets with the biggest names and it’s amazing (no pun intended) to be able to do that.

And the highlight had to be an e-mail from the man himself, James Randi. I sent him some birthday wishes last year and I was stunned to receive a message back from him.

It was short, amusing and has become my most treasured e-mail. I’ll be hoping Randi has fully recovered from his recent health issues so I may shake his hand next November.

Congratulations Australian Skeptics and I can’t wait to meet everyone next year.

I’ll be looking for cheap tickets to Sydney every day from now on!

Skepticism can be fun Mike Kilpatrick Oct 29

No Comments

Skepticism can sometimes be a bit of a dry topic.


Good skeptical blog posts about efficacy of natural products may necessarily be hundreds (or thousands) of words long and include multiple references.

Not that that’s a bad thing, of course.

But it doesn’t always have to be that way. Sometimes less can say more.

And just recently I discovered a blog which does that brilliantly.

The guy’s name is Crispian Jago and his blog has given me a huge number of laughs over the last few weeks.

His satire of South Park (called ‘Skeptic Park’ of course) is just perfect (part one, part two) and the time and effort he must have put into his Simpsons Skeptic video makes me feel way too lazy.

And I’ve already linked to his video showing how nonsensical homeopathy is by using his own urine as an example.

But the one which gave me the biggest laugh was his video ‘The Benny Hinn Show‘:
Isn’t it amazing how a 79 second video can entertain but also make a serious point at the same time?

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about Science, Reason and Critical Thinking because it also has some interesting, well written posts which aren’t focussed on humour and there are some great videos from The Amazing Meeting in London.

So the best thing to do it head over there and subscribe to his RSS feed. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Skepticism can be fun Mike Kilpatrick Oct 29

No Comments

Skepticism can sometimes be a bit of a dry topic.


Good skeptical blog posts about efficacy of natural products may necessarily be hundreds (or thousands) of words long and include multiple references.

Not that that’s a bad thing, of course.

But it doesn’t always have to be that way. Sometimes less can say more.

And just recently I discovered a blog which does that brilliantly.

The guy’s name is Crispian Jago and his blog has given me a huge number of laughs over the last few weeks.

His satire of South Park (called ‘Skeptic Park’ of course) is just perfect (part one, part two) and the time and effort he must have put into his Simpsons Skeptic video makes me feel way too lazy.

And I’ve already linked to his video showing how nonsensical homeopathy is by using his own urine as an example.

But the one which gave me the biggest laugh was his video ‘The Benny Hinn Show‘:
Isn’t it amazing how a 79 second video can entertain but also make a serious point at the same time?

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about Science, Reason and Critical Thinking because it also has some interesting, well written posts which aren’t focussed on humour and there are some great videos from The Amazing Meeting in London.

So the best thing to do it head over there and subscribe to his RSS feed. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

TVNZ’s psychic step too far Mike Kilpatrick Oct 09

No Comments

I’ll wait with baited breath for the accusation of being ‘closed-minded’ and the pearl of wisdom that ‘science can’t explain everything’ because those are the two things I read and hear most when I write or speak about psychics.

But sometimes it’s worth hearing that rhetoric because the story is much more important, and that’s the case today.

I imagine many of you are familiar with the disappearance of west Auckland todder Aisling Symes and the police search to find the two year old.

Stories like this really tug on my heart strings, particularly with two young-ish kids of my own.

I can only imagine the pain the parents are going through at the present time, particularly their desperation to hear anything which could help re-unite them with their baby.

But even knowing that the decision of TVNZ to put self-proclaimed ‘metaphysical researcher’ (ie psychic, medium) Deb Webber in contact with her parents is beyond the pale, in my opinion.

Media columnist John Drinnan wrote about the story eloquently in the NZ Herald this morning, so I recommend jumping over there and reading his words.

But the only thing I don’t agree with Drinnan on is his characterisation of TVNZ’s role as unsettling. I’d go way beyond that. It’s utterly disgraceful.

Psychics, in my opinion, fall into two categories – those who know they aren’t psychic and are deliberately using hot and cold reading techniques and those who seriously believe they have the ability to talk with dead people but are just good cold readers and intuitive.

I have no reason to doubt Webber doesn’t seriously believe she has the gift of talking to the spirits.

But that doesn’t mean she is and it certainly doesn’t mean TVNZ should be facilitating any kind of meeting with parents who will be struggling to deal with the situation they find themselves in.

What makes it worse is TVNZ have a relationship with Webber because of her part in Sensing Murder, a show which to my knowledge – and of course I’ll amend this should someone provide evidence to the contrary – has never resulted in the solving of an unsolved case.

The state broadcaster then used the knowledge they had filmed Webber and she had ‘some information’ on the case to ask “how seriously are police likely to take that information” at a media conference.

Unfortunately Drinnan’s piece doesn’t say what the police response to that inappropriate question was.

Is it too much to hope the police aren’t going to waste precious resources on what is likely to be nothing more than an educated guess based on the history of these types of disappearances?

The last thing this devastated family need to hear is the words of a person who has been caught talking with the spirits of dead people who didn’t exist.

Unfortunately I can’t bring you Eating Media Lunch’s deliciously satirical take on Webber and her ability to speak with non-existant spirits because the Sensing Bullshit segment has been removed from YouTube due to “use violation”.

In my opinion the search for young Aisling should be left to the professionals and not because the spirits are telling me so.

Common decency is.

Here are some links if you want to read some more about psychics and the Sensing Murder television show:

Skepdic on psychics
CSI’s story on ‘psychic’ John Edward
Skeptico’s psychic debunking
Sensing Bullshit
Sensing Murder

TVNZ’s psychic step too far Mike Kilpatrick Oct 09

2 Comments

I’ll wait with baited breath for the accusation of being ‘closed-minded’ and the pearl of wisdom that ‘science can’t explain everything’ because those are the two things I read and hear most when I write or speak about psychics.

But sometimes it’s worth hearing that rhetoric because the story is much more important, and that’s the case today.

I imagine many of you are familiar with the disappearance of west Auckland todder Aisling Symes and the police search to find the two year old.

Stories like this really tug on my heart strings, particularly with two young-ish kids of my own.

I can only imagine the pain the parents are going through at the present time, particularly their desperation to hear anything which could help re-unite them with their baby.

But even knowing that the decision of TVNZ to put self-proclaimed ‘metaphysical researcher’ (ie psychic, medium) Deb Webber in contact with her parents is beyond the pale, in my opinion.

Media columnist John Drinnan wrote about the story eloquently in the NZ Herald this morning, so I recommend jumping over there and reading his words.

But the only thing I don’t agree with Drinnan on is his characterisation of TVNZ’s role as unsettling. I’d go way beyond that. It’s utterly disgraceful.

Psychics, in my opinion, fall into two categories – those who know they aren’t psychic and are deliberately using hot and cold reading techniques and those who seriously believe they have the ability to talk with dead people but are just good cold readers and intuitive.

I have no reason to doubt Webber doesn’t seriously believe she has the gift of talking to the spirits.

But that doesn’t mean she is and it certainly doesn’t mean TVNZ should be facilitating any kind of meeting with parents who will be struggling to deal with the situation they find themselves in.

What makes it worse is TVNZ have a relationship with Webber because of her part in Sensing Murder, a show which to my knowledge – and of course I’ll amend this should someone provide evidence to the contrary – has never resulted in the solving of an unsolved case.

The state broadcaster then used the knowledge they had filmed Webber and she had ‘some information’ on the case to ask “how seriously are police likely to take that information” at a media conference.

Unfortunately Drinnan’s piece doesn’t say what the police response to that inappropriate question was.

Is it too much to hope the police aren’t going to waste precious resources on what is likely to be nothing more than an educated guess based on the history of these types of disappearances?

The last thing this devastated family need to hear is the words of a person who has been caught talking with the spirits of dead people who didn’t exist.

Unfortunately I can’t bring you Eating Media Lunch’s deliciously satirical take on Webber and her ability to speak with non-existant spirits because the Sensing Bullshit segment has been removed from YouTube due to “use violation”.

In my opinion the search for young Aisling should be left to the professionals and not because the spirits are telling me so.

Common decency is.

Here are some links if you want to read some more about psychics and the Sensing Murder television show:

Skepdic on psychics
CSI’s story on ‘psychic’ John Edward
Skeptico’s psychic debunking
Sensing Bullshit
Sensing Murder

Auckland Skeptics in the Pub Mike Kilpatrick Oct 03

No Comments

Ever since I became aware I was a ‘skeptic’ I had struggled to find any kind of skeptical community to feel a part of.

That changed when I discovered podcasts like The Skeptics Guide to the Universe and even more so when I started using twitter regularly.

In fact, I conversed more with skeptics in Australia than I did with any in Auckland or even New Zealand.

But then I ‘met’ unifex on twitter. He is the organiser of Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub (SitP), webmaster of skepticsinthepub.net.nz and he offered some of his meetup.com credits to allow us to start Auckland SitP.

I set up the first meeting expecting 20 or so skeptics to crawl out of the Auckland woodwork but on the 10th September around 50 turned up at the Horse and Trap for the inaugral meeting.

Our numbers were definitely boosted by the attendance of special guest Kylie Sturgess, an Australian skeptic and a member of the Skeptic Zone podcast team.

She shared some of her experiences, recorded a conversation with a group of us to form part of the podcast (which you can download in mp3 format here) and even had time for some video shooting:

The meeting was a little disorganised, partly because no-one had any idea what was expected from the meeting, but despite that it was successful and plenty of ideas were shared for the next meeting.

And so this Thursday at 7.00pm another group of skeptics will gather at the Horse and Trap to listen to Matthew Dentith give a talk about conspiracy theories, have a beer and some snacks and do some networking.

If you’re in the area feel free to drop in and check it out, and ideally join the group online so you can keep in touch with what’s happening and help us build up our Auckland group.

Of course, if you’re in Wellington or Christchurch then feel free to join their groups and head along to their meetings instead.

I promise you won’t regret it.

Auckland Skeptics in the Pub Mike Kilpatrick Oct 03

No Comments

Ever since I became aware I was a ‘skeptic’ I had struggled to find any kind of skeptical community to feel a part of.

That changed when I discovered podcasts like The Skeptics Guide to the Universe and even more so when I started using twitter regularly.

In fact, I conversed more with skeptics in Australia than I did with any in Auckland or even New Zealand.

But then I ‘met’ unifex on twitter. He is the organiser of Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub (SitP), webmaster of skepticsinthepub.net.nz and he offered some of his meetup.com credits to allow us to start Auckland SitP.

I set up the first meeting expecting 20 or so skeptics to crawl out of the Auckland woodwork but on the 10th September around 50 turned up at the Horse and Trap for the inaugral meeting.

Our numbers were definitely boosted by the attendance of special guest Kylie Sturgess, an Australian skeptic and a member of the Skeptic Zone podcast team.

She shared some of her experiences, recorded a conversation with a group of us to form part of the podcast (which you can download in mp3 format here) and even had time for some video shooting:

The meeting was a little disorganised, partly because no-one had any idea what was expected from the meeting, but despite that it was successful and plenty of ideas were shared for the next meeting.

And so this Thursday at 7.00pm another group of skeptics will gather at the Horse and Trap to listen to Matthew Dentith give a talk about conspiracy theories, have a beer and some snacks and do some networking.

If you’re in the area feel free to drop in and check it out, and ideally join the group online so you can keep in touch with what’s happening and help us build up our Auckland group.

Of course, if you’re in Wellington or Christchurch then feel free to join their groups and head along to their meetings instead.

I promise you won’t regret it.

Where’s the harm? Mike Kilpatrick Sep 30

No Comments

It’s a question that’s often asked about natural alternatives to pharmaceutical medicines and often there is no harm. (That doesn’t mean there’s any benefit either, but that’s for another day.)

But that’s not true in this heartbreaking case from Australia.

If the death of a child isn’t hard enough, living with the knowledge you could have done something to save them must be a burden which can never be shaken off.

Unfortunately for Thomas and Manju Sam that is the reality. They’ve both been jailed for the manslaughter of their daughter Gloria because they didn’t care for her as they should have.

Essentially they treated a very treatable condition – eczema – with homeopathy and ignored advice to get her seen by a real doctor.

This ended with the death of the nine-month-old in May 2002.

Now I have very little sympathy for the Sams. They obviously didn’t set out to have their daughter die a slow and painful death so it may be that I appear heartless.

But when you read that Thomas Sam had “an arrogant approach to what he perceived to be the superior benefits of homeopathy compared with conventional medicine” then I find it hard to feel sorry they’re spending time in prison for this.

And the reason I feel like that is because in the wide spectrum from conventional treatment to full-on woo, homeopathy is as psuedoscientific as they come.

My own (anecdotal) surveys have found people don’t tend to know exactly what homeopathy is. They appear to know it’s natural and have some vague idea it might be something to do with herbs.

But it’s way worse than that.

At it’s heart homeopathy uses the idea “similia similibus curentur” or let likes be cured by likes.

This premise came after the founder of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, developed symptoms of malaria after swallowing some quinine-containing cinchona bark (quinine is a drug used to cure malaria).

This may sound vaguely plausible, and is often confused for the effect that allows vaccinations to work, but that is different.

In vaccinations a foreign antigen is used to provoke a response from the immune system meaning the body is prepared should the disease be encountered.

But that antigen isn’t just any old thing which causes the same symptoms of the disease – often it’s simply a weakened or inactive form of the actual pathogen.

And it gets worse. Homeopathy also works on the premise that the more dilute the sample the stronger its effect, something which is counter to all logical thinking.

Here’s the excellent Science-based Medicine’s take on the so-called law of infinitesimal doses.


The law of infinitesimal doses also runs contrary to chemistry, pharmacology, and thermodynamics. Homeopaths today use dilutions of substances which essentially remove all traces of the substance from the final dilution.

There is not likely to be even a single molecule of the original drug in the final remedy which is given to the patient.

Homeopaths conclude from this fact that the substance is transferring its essence to the water into which it is diluted. The more it is diluted, the more potent is the water.

They offer, however, no possible explanation for how simple water molecules can contain the essence of far more complex substances.

Modern homeopaths have also tried to rescue the notion of infinitessimals by invoking the concept of water memory. They claim that water molecules can form a structure that contains the information of the homeopathic remedy.

However, such claims are fanciful to the point of invoking magic and are devoid of any evidence. Water structure is very transient and ephemeral.

They last moments and could not survive repeated dilution, let alone ingestion, absorption into the body, and transport to whatever their alleged site of action is.

Essentially this means in all likelihood the solution you buy from the health shop or pharamacy is simply a sugar pill or a solution of diluant – most likely water.

It’s no surprise, then, that I would never recommend homeopathy as a means of curing anything – bar thirst.

And I would certainly never allow anyone who recommends homeopathy to treat any of my friends and family if they were ill.

Anyway, humour is often an effective means of getting the message across and this clip from That Mitchell and Webb Look sums it up pretty well:

Unfortunately any examination of homeopathy and its place in treatment of 21st century diseases is too late for poor wee Gloria Sam.

Should you want to read more in-depth information about homeopathy then here are some excellent resource:

Science-based Medicine
Science, Reason and Critical Thinking
Skepdic
Homeowatch

Where’s the harm? Mike Kilpatrick Sep 30

No Comments

It’s a question that’s often asked about natural alternatives to pharmaceutical medicines and often there is no harm. (That doesn’t mean there’s any benefit either, but that’s for another day.)

But that’s not true in this heartbreaking case from Australia.

If the death of a child isn’t hard enough, living with the knowledge you could have done something to save them must be a burden which can never be shaken off.

Unfortunately for Thomas and Manju Sam that is the reality. They’ve both been jailed for the manslaughter of their daughter Gloria because they didn’t care for her as they should have.

Essentially they treated a very treatable condition – eczema – with homeopathy and ignored advice to get her seen by a real doctor.

This ended with the death of the nine-month-old in May 2002.

Now I have very little sympathy for the Sams. They obviously didn’t set out to have their daughter die a slow and painful death so it may be that I appear heartless.

But when you read that Thomas Sam had “an arrogant approach to what he perceived to be the superior benefits of homeopathy compared with conventional medicine” then I find it hard to feel sorry they’re spending time in prison for this.

And the reason I feel like that is because in the wide spectrum from conventional treatment to full-on woo, homeopathy is as psuedoscientific as they come.

My own (anecdotal) surveys have found people don’t tend to know exactly what homeopathy is. They appear to know it’s natural and have some vague idea it might be something to do with herbs.

But it’s way worse than that.

At it’s heart homeopathy uses the idea “similia similibus curentur” or let likes be cured by likes.

This premise came after the founder of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, developed symptoms of malaria after swallowing some quinine-containing cinchona bark (quinine is a drug used to cure malaria).

This may sound vaguely plausible, and is often confused for the effect that allows vaccinations to work, but that is different.

In vaccinations a foreign antigen is used to provoke a response from the immune system meaning the body is prepared should the disease be encountered.

But that antigen isn’t just any old thing which causes the same symptoms of the disease – often it’s simply a weakened or inactive form of the actual pathogen.

And it gets worse. Homeopathy also works on the premise that the more dilute the sample the stronger its effect, something which is counter to all logical thinking.

Here’s the excellent Science-based Medicine’s take on the so-called law of infinitesimal doses.


The law of infinitesimal doses also runs contrary to chemistry, pharmacology, and thermodynamics. Homeopaths today use dilutions of substances which essentially remove all traces of the substance from the final dilution.

There is not likely to be even a single molecule of the original drug in the final remedy which is given to the patient.

Homeopaths conclude from this fact that the substance is transferring its essence to the water into which it is diluted. The more it is diluted, the more potent is the water.

They offer, however, no possible explanation for how simple water molecules can contain the essence of far more complex substances.

Modern homeopaths have also tried to rescue the notion of infinitessimals by invoking the concept of water memory. They claim that water molecules can form a structure that contains the information of the homeopathic remedy.

However, such claims are fanciful to the point of invoking magic and are devoid of any evidence. Water structure is very transient and ephemeral.

They last moments and could not survive repeated dilution, let alone ingestion, absorption into the body, and transport to whatever their alleged site of action is.

Essentially this means in all likelihood the solution you buy from the health shop or pharamacy is simply a sugar pill or a solution of diluant – most likely water.

It’s no surprise, then, that I would never recommend homeopathy as a means of curing anything – bar thirst.

And I would certainly never allow anyone who recommends homeopathy to treat any of my friends and family if they were ill.

Anyway, humour is often an effective means of getting the message across and this clip from That Mitchell and Webb Look sums it up pretty well:

Unfortunately any examination of homeopathy and its place in treatment of 21st century diseases is too late for poor wee Gloria Sam.

Should you want to read more in-depth information about homeopathy then here are some excellent resource:

Science-based Medicine
Science, Reason and Critical Thinking
Skepdic
Homeowatch

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