Tag Archives: skepticism

Star Trek: TNG – Devil’s Due

30 Dec

by Brianne Bilyeu aka biodork

The Hubby and I are crawling our way through Star Trek: The Next Generation – all of ‘em. Thank you, Netflix. Star Trek: TNG is well-known for its emphasis on rationality and humanism; it promotes science, exploration, critical thought and solving mysteries by examining evidence and facts. It advocates acceptance – and at the very least, tolerance – of different types of people, dress, attitudes and cultures. We’re in the thick of season four right now, and I recently saw three episodes in a row that really drove home how rational and skeptical The Next Generation was, and which inspired me to do a write-up on one particular episode, The Devil’s Due.

I watched TNG as a teenager, but this is the first time I’ve watched it since becoming aware of the skeptics movement, so I’m seeing the show in a whole new light. Or maybe just with a brighter light.

Episode 13: The Devil’s Due
Air Date: February 4, 1991
Director: Tom Benko
Writers: Philip Lazebnik, William Douglas Lansford

Ardra, The Devil of Ventax II. Image Source

The Ventaxians are convinced that their world is coming to an end. In the distant past, their ancestors signed away their freedom and possession of the planet to the Devil – in this culture called “Ardra” – in exchange for 1000 years of peace. At the start of the episode, 1000 years have passed since the signing of the contact, and there have been warnings of Ardra’s coming: tremors and claims of visions of the devil.

The Enterprise has answered a distress call from Ventax II sent by a planet-based Federation science team; their lab had been overrun by panicked doomsday-preaching Ventaxians. Upon the away team’s arrival on the surface, Ardra herself appears to the crew and the Ventaxian leader to claim “her planet”. Ardra is able to instantaneously change her appearance, to cause tremors to start and stop at her command, and she even makes the entire Enterprise starship disappear!  But Captain Picard smells a phony. He describes Ardra as being a flim flam artist to his crew, and accuses her of being a fake in front of the Ventaxian leader. Picard convinces Ardra to settle the dispute through arbitration by offering himself up to be her slave should he lose.

During the trial Picard attempts to prove Ardra a fake, and she attempts to prove that she is the Devil. In the end Picard and his crew are able to discover the source of her “powers”: a cloaked starship and fancy holograph and transporter illusions. They reveal Ardra’s trickery for the Ventaxian leader by taking over her ship and “stealing her powers”. We learn that the woman posing as Ardra is a notorious scam artist known throughout the sector. She is arrested by the Ventaxians and the Enterprise leaves with another mystery neatly solved and stored away in a captain’s log for future generations to review.

Wikipedia calls out this episode as an illustration of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” and notes that the leader of the science team on Ventax is named “Dr. Clarke”.

Simplifying Skepticism: Correlation vs Causation

23 Dec
Ben's Gravatar

by Benjamen Johnson

A few days ago I pondered:

…how am I going to relate concepts like confirmation bias or correlation versus causation to my children? They’ll be lucky if formal schooling will introduce them to these concepts before college (even then it’s iffy). I think the seven year old mind can grasp these concepts if they are explained properly and the sooner they learn them the less baggage they will have to throw away when they do embrace them.

To address this issue, I started by giving a simple analogy of anomaly hunting that related it to a jigsaw puzzle. Continuing on that track, today I thought I’d present one of the best (and most entertaining) examples on TV about the correlation equals causation fallacy.

First a bit of background: Ned Flanders panics because he sees a bear on the street. So the whole town overreacts and demands the city to do something about it. They over-respond to the townspeople’s concerns in classic fashion by creating the Bear Patrol. The scene starts with homer outside proudly watching the bear patrol canvas the city.

Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.
Lisa: That’s spacious[sic] reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Thank you, dear.
Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
[Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
[Lisa refuses at first, then takes the exchange]

— Quoted from the Simpsons Archive [Much Apu About Nothing]

I don’t think I could come up with a better example and I’m not the only person who’s used this to demonstrate that correlation doesn’t imply causation. Criticalthinking.org.uk uses it as an example in a course on critical thinking: The Unofficial Guide to OCR A-Level Critical Thinking.

I think I’m going to watch this episode this afternoon with my kids.

Simple Skepticism: Anomaly Hunting

19 Dec
Ben's Gravatar

by Benjamen Johnson

Yesterday I listened to the latest For Good Reason podcast, where D. J. Grothe was interviewing A. J. Mass, author of How Fantasy Sports Explains the World. While following AJ explain how fantasy sports and skepticism intersect, it really hit home to me that unless you can simplify the tools of skepticism and relate them in a way someone can apply them to their own life, their eyes will glaze over until you start talking about something they do care about.

This lead me to thinking, how am I going to relate concepts like confirmation bias or correlation versus causation to my children? They’ll be lucky if formal schooling will introduce them to these concepts before college (even then it’s iffy). I think the seven year old mind can grasp these concepts if they are explained properly and the sooner they learn them the less baggage they will have to throw away when they do embrace them.

I’ll start with anomaly hunting, but first some guidelines:

  • Rather than use definitions, I’ll use try to use analogies.
  • I’ll pick topics and examples from everyday life, not skepticism topics like ghosts and conspiracies.
  • I’ll try not to condescend to my audience, I want the explanation to be simple yet universal. It should apply to a seven or seventy year old.
  • I’m not looking for an analogy that correlates 100%, just something good enough to get the point across — it is an analogy after all.

So here’s my example for anomaly hunting:

Imagine you are putting together a 100 piece jigsaw puzzle of a yellow happy face. You place the last piece and you discover there’s still a piece missing. You look at the incomplete puzzle and conclude that since it’s missing part of its smile it can’t possibly be a happy face, it’s a sad face. Even though all the rest of the mouth pieces form a smile, you are convinced that if you find the missing piece, you’ll prove your theory that it is a sad face.

It sounds absurd when you put it this way, but then again if you step back and take a look at the anomalies that some people pick to support their theories, they are no less absurd. All the rest of the pieces of the puzzle point to one conclusion, but they ignore them and concentrate on the one piece that is a mystery.

I know it’s not perfect, but again my goal in this exercise is to get the general concept across.

Banachek Visits the University of Minnesota

4 Dec

by Brianne Bilyeu aka biodork

Banachek is a world-renowed mentalist, magician and skeptic. He is the director of the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge. He has helped expose frauds and phonies who prey on people for money and fame. And last Thursday he stopped in at the University of Minnesota for a one-night-only show in the Great Hall of Coffman Memorial. I heard about the event via Facebook, so much thanks to the person who included me on the invite!

Banachek guides the audience into choosing the exact same phone number that he chose before the show – one specific number out of all possible in the entire Minneapolis white pages!

The Hubby and I walked into the hall at about 6:45pm – 15 minutes prior to the show start – to find maybe 30 people in the gigantic hall and Banachek pacing the aisles. We were greeted by Banachek as we came in and were recruited into his opening demonstration – more on that later. By the time the show started, there were maybe 100-200 people in the audience, including a good showing of people from the Minnesota Skeptics, Minnesota Atheists (MNA) and of course, from the host group of the event, Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists (CASH).

A heavily blindfolded (yes, that’s black duct tape under the mask) Banachek has just correctly guessed that a seemingly random object provided by a seemingly random audience member being held above his head by a different audience member is a long screw.

The Opening Trick. Fool moi, the skeptic? Surely not!

The opening bit was a card/”body language reading” trick.  Before I tell you the audience’s perspective, I have to go back to when the Hubby and I walked into the auditorium. When Banachek greeted us, he had a deck of cards in his hands. He shuffled the deck and had the Hubby and I flip the middle of the deck up halfway so that we could see one card, but so that Banachek couldn’t. We were told to think very hard about the card, to remember it because he might call on us during the show to try and guess our card. He told us that he was going to use our body language to guess which cards we had drawn.

When the show started, Banachek told the entire audience to think of a card, any card from a deck. Then he picked four people from the audience, who I’m sure appeared random to most observers (BUT: he never claimed we were random – I listened to his language. It’s the audience’s fault for assuming such, if they did!), and then one by one correctly guessed each of our cards.

He made a big show out of reading our body language – how we were holding our hands, our arms, where we were pointing our eyes, etc. He even called me out as probably being with one of the skeptics’ groups because I was trying so hard not to give anything away, which was true. 

Since Banachek explicitly states that he’s not a mind reader, and since how I hold my body or eyes can’t give anything away about which card out of 52 I might be thinking about, and since he didn’t verbally manipulate me into thinking about a certain card (remember I drew my card before the show), it didn’t matter how I held my body. I’m guessing that any little thing I did was enough of a prop for him to work/act with. But I forgot all of that in the heat of the moment. Then and there, standing up among an entire room full of people, with The Magician hemming and hawing as he looked me up and down for any clues he could glean, he made me feel like I was making it hard for him, like he knew that I knew that he was up to trickery and wow, wasn’t I clever, but look – he still managed to read me because he’s The Great Banachek! And that’s where the magic happened.

After the fact I can think back, and I’m assuming the trick was over before the show started – that he did some variation on physically catching a hold of the cards we drew, or cutting our cards to the top of the deck, or  influencing which card we drew… but it looked – and felt – really impressive when he did it! Even to someone who was somewhat in on the trick.

And that was just the first five minutes.

Banachek reassures a dubious Minnesota Skeptics’ Organizer Melissa Lee about his upcoming knife roulette trick.

The rest of the show was even more spectacular than the opening. Banachek is a great performer. He engaged the audience and drew us in with his voice, his arm motions, the way he paced the stage and fiddled with his props. 

At one point he had an audience member hand out 20 sheets of paper to 20 people in the crowd. He had those with paper write down their first name, an interesting fact about themselves and a number from an address or phone number. The papers were collected by an audience member and placed in a bag. Throughout the show he used various methods to accurately guess all three of the pieces of information from several of the papers, including a very odd and obscure fact about one woman who celebrates her fish’s birthday by buying ice cream cake for herself!

Banachek prepares to get “stabbed” in the stomach by an audience member in a tense scene from his knife roulette act.

At the end of the show he spoke about some of his work with the James Randi Educational Foundation. He shared the story of how he and another young man tricked psychical researchers into believing that they had psychic abilities. He spoke about his role in uncovering Peter Popoff’s lucrative faith-healing con (psst…his wife was feeding him information via an earpiece that he then claimed were messages from God).  He gave us time to ask questions, and he took time to answer them.

Banachek helps an audience member bend a spoon with “the power of her mind”!

Throughout the show, Banachek wove in stores and lessons about his act. He emphasized over and over that nothing he did was supernatural. He explicitly showed us how he manipulated us into providing information or how he guided audience members into choosing specific options. On several occasions he’d say “Did that feel like a free choice? It wasn’t.” But he didn’t give away all of his tricks – or even most of them! It was a great show. I would love to see him again, and if you ever have a chance to catch one of his performances, I do recommend you attend!

Inner Dimensional Sound Chamber

10 Oct

by Brianne Bilyeu aka biodork

In August I was visiting family in Bellingham, Washington. My sister had mentioned that Bellingham was a little “woo-ey”, but for the first several days I didn’t see much that I would consider out of the ordinary. They had a natural foods co-op, an acupuncturist, a crystal shop, but nothing really striking. Then one day we were walking downtown and we ran across this gem of a store:

The window decals read:




I’d never heard of an inner dimensional sound chamber. To the interwebs!

I found a website called soundheal.com and these are a few of the things that they have to say about the principles of the magic music box:

Inner Dimensional Sound Chamber is a blending of science and metaphysics in vibrational technology. It provides a low level oscillating energy field which assists with the restoration of cellular integrity.

The sound chamber honors the body’s natural geometric ability to heal itself at the cellular level. It sends specialized music or sound through the structure creating interference patterns.

I do not think these words “geometric” and “interference patterns” mean what you think they mean.

Intent is the primary value to sound therapy. In essence, the frequency (number of cycles per second the sound is vibrating) plus intent equals healing or a positive therapeutic effect.

Ah yes, here’s a classic pseudoscience disclaimer: If you don’t think it’s going to work, then it’s not going to work. It’s all your fault for not believing hard enough.

Through vibrational technology, there is an extreme activation of tissue regeneration. The capacity for tissue regeneration extends to the central nervous system and the brain to healing organs, muscles, and bones.

Well, yes, tissue regeneration can happen in some cases, but their un-defined “vibrational technology” isn’t the mechanism of action by which it takes place.

Sound creates form. In sound therapy, specifically directed tone can change the molecular structure within tissues.

When music or specialized sound in the form of brain wave patterns are played through the hollow structure, there is an additional benefit based on vibrational technology.

Ultrasound is a pretty cool technology with a lot of biomedical applications, including causing physiological changes within cells. But it seems that this company is proposing that playing audible music inside of their specially-shaped box will also get the job done.

All vibrations–from subtle to obvious–have specific effects on us emotionally and physically. These effects are still largely unknown.

And yet they have found a way to utilize vibrations to cause these unknown effects.

Electromagnetic energy forms two counter-rotational fields. One field is magnetic, the other electric. As the fields rotate, they oscillate. This affects the spin ratios at the sub-atomic level. As a field oscillates, it sets the pattern or blueprint for the formation of DNA.

What…I don’t even…*facepalm* Well, it sure sounds fancy and sciency. I have no idea what they’re getting at here – implying that electromagnetic fields cause the formation of new DNA? That electromagnetic fields cause changes in DNA? But the EMF watchdogs tell us that EMFs causes cancer. Wait, does their sound chamber cause cancer? Ouch, now I’m even more confused than before!

The structural design is based on the geometry of electromagnetic fields and the interlocking of specific geometric forms. The interlocking geometric forms produce stars, triangles and a pentagon which are the building blocks for other three-dimensional forms.

Our research suggests that the Inner Dimensional Sound Chamber provides a living field of energy. The energy is created by the geometric structure itself.

Woo-hoo! Geometry creates energy! Go go gadget Interlocking Geometry Team:

Thanks to my sister, Erin for helping me create some geometry-driven energy. Take that, Einstein!

We took this photo about 10 times because the power of the geometric form kept causing us to fall over. That’s 10 unique times we formed our geometric energy field. Somewhere The Doctor is having to keep a universe from collapsing. Geezus…can you imagine the harmonic power we could create if we all played Twister at the same time?

Oh, and if the chamber isn’t enough to thoroughly relax and heal you, this company also sells a “Sound Stool”. It’s a padded seat that houses a speaker.

The sound stool was designed to stimulate the physical body to a point of relaxation.  The vibration of the stool stimulates muscle groups.  In doing this muscle fiber can relax to the point assisting the nervous system to release nerve impingment.

In the sitting position when the user places the hands on the top of the knees, the vibration can be felt from head to toe.  This position facilitates full body stimulation.  The sound stool provides a wide range of  vibrational waves of energy that can be controlled by the user just by changing the music being sent to the stool.  This supersedes a mechanical device many times over.

Really? This is just waaaay too easy. A vibrating chair that relaxes and stimulates? I bet it does. This stool sounds like something I could purchase at the local adult toy store. It reminds me of the devices at the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices that helped cure women of “hysteria”.

But at the end of the day who cares? When I want to relax I go to the spa and get a massage or a pedicure. So if you want to hang out in a woo-ish music box with a piece of vibrating furniture, more power and magical healing energy to you.

But then the company goes beyond promising emotional calm, meditation or orgasms…er…relaxation. They do have a disclaimer on the front page  – “This modality is not intended to replace diagnosis or treatment by a physician.” – but they have no problem implying that their chamber might be beneficial for fibromyalgia, migraines, acute post-trauma (rather vague, but hey, why draw the line here?), neck and back pain, degenerative diseases, lupus, arthritis, asthma, bipolar and depression, neurological disorders, autism, hyperactivity, increase in well-being, change in soft tissue disfunction, structural realignment, and balance, calmness and focus (so if your Power Balance bracelet doesn’t appear to be working, now you have a back-up plan).

And I don’t care if the modality is not intended to replace diagnosis or treatment by a physician. There are people who will use it as a replacement for or alternative to medical care, and they are going to suffer because of this company’s implied claims.

So once again we have a ridiculous, fake promise of healing very serious and real illnesses, back by ridiculous, fake science mumbo-jumbo. They’re blurring the line between good ol’ relaxing fun and medical treatment. So here’s the deal – Not-A-Doctor Brianne sez: For medical advice go to a doctor. For music advice go to your local record store. For naughty adult furniture go to a naughty adult furniture store…or to soundheal.com. But don’t go sit in a magic music box and hope that you can think all of your mental or physical illness or injuries away while listening to a recording of waves crashing on the ocean or whatever they’re passing off as “specialized music”. That’s a sure way to not be healed.