Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, The Skeptic Zone, Point of Inquiry

The Skeptic Zone this week featured a "Think Tank" with D.J. and entertainer Maynard and an interview by Richard Saunders of Travis and Dale Roy of the Granite State Skeptics in the great state of New Hampshire.  

The GSS was started by the Roys after a few false starts including not quite becoming a chapter of the The New England Skeptical Society.  It was not detailed why this union failed to take place, but Travis did share that in part he was inspired to jump into skepticism by the SGU.  (Honestly, it seems to me nearly everyone in skepticism today that was not involved in the movement including me before 2005 was called to action by the SGU.)  Travis was also inspired by the apparent healthy amount of woo his brother-in-law believes, which while motivating might make for awkward Thanksgiving Dinner conversation.  The husband and wife team shared that while a young organization and a bit out of the metropolitan mainstream, they have had some local success with organizing skeptical meetings, going on ghost investigations, and garnering some local press coverage.  Maybe it is a possible New England thing, but family seems to be the way to go in New England Skepticism.  The Novellas and the Roys dividing up the turf like two organized crime families, or it could be coincidence.  Travis Roy did bring up that he believes there might be a larger amount of haunted sites in New England as it is the oldest part of the nation, which was an interesting point.  While not an expert, I do think out West they do have a large amount of Indian spirit ghost alleged haunts.  Overall, I thought it was interesting to hear from a new and still growing skeptical organization.  The discussion at times seemed a bit awkward, but I suppose they have not had the time to gain the polish of the Rogues which likely will come with time and experience.

The Think Tank this week was Richard, Dr. Dunlop, and Maynard.  There were no bus announcements in the background, but a crying baby stepped in at one point to fill in.  The group discussed the Westall UFO flap of 1966, which we learned was covered by Brian Dunning of Skeptoid at the urging of Maynard.  Richard has also made an appearance on Australian media likely as the Token Skeptic (sorry Ms. Sturgess) about the incident.  It was an interesting discussion as Maynard is not a person steeped in Skepticism, so the discussion with Maynard that just because something cannot be completely explained does not mean it is a space craft from planet X was interesting.  It is a nice to reinforce how a good rational/skeptical mindset is supposed to work.  

Maynard talked about the need for making money and getting ratings in the media and entertainment industry and how it affects commercial shows and news organizations.  A thorough science journalist department for a television program is expensive and boring to the public, but a regular dose on the latest in bra technology -that's a winner.  

Dr. Dunlop shared how she received a case of wine from an Australian winery, which was very kind.  However, it can only be shared if Samuel Hahnemann does not make an appearance on the show for six months.  I think it is a fair trade.  I love to ship some Reese's peanut buttercups down to Oz as a thank you token for being so cool, but I do not think I'll require a quid pro quo.

The Think Tank was rather enjoyable, and I think future Tanks with a non-skeptic in the mix would be worth continuing.  I am not advocating a woo-steeped clairvoyant or James Van Praag sit in with Dr. Dunlop and crew, but having a "regular" person in the circle keeps it interesting.  

Over in New England, the Rogues of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe were down one Rebecca Watson but up one Pamela Gay and Frasier Cain of the Astronomy Podcast as guest Rogues.  Gay and Cain fit in quite nicely.  They were requested to appear on fairly short notice, and this is the second time in recent memory that Dr. Gay was asked to appear on short order.  I think they ought to place her on retainer.  

One of the topics discussed was the successful launching and testing of a not so secret X-37B spaceplane which could be scaled up to ferry astronauts into low Earth orbit and help service the ISS.  This discussion lead to the recently cut or at least severely cut back Constellation Program and discussion of the launching of the Falcon 9 rocket by the private company SpaceX.  While I agree I'd like to see the future of space exploitation taken over by the private sector, and NASA very well might have needed a good old shake up, I am still dubious on halting a heavy lift booster program that will be most useful in space exploration.  The more I think about it, the more I like the "2001" model where private company Pan Am took care of local space flight, but the government in Odyssey went off exploring monoliths and Jupiter.  I suspect that canceling a program without a replacement could make it difficult for anything to be restarted.  (I will try not to get back on my NASA soapbox for at least three more months or more if somebody will pay me off in t-shirts or candy.)

Bob covered a story of an artificial bacteria being created, and he and Dr. Novella breaking down why this is important.  A bacteria was not created from scratch, but rather "the shell" of a bacteria cleaned out of DNA and replaced with a manmade copy of another species of bacteria was implanted and shown to work.   While not exactly bacterial Frankenstein, it does show a proof of concept and techniques that DNA can be manipulated and placed into a cell to make it come to life.  I find the whole area fascinating, but also scary.  Let's face it, someone could make a super cold bug that could kill off millions with such technology, while at the same time use this technology to create algae that turns sunlight in to gasoline.

Dr. Novella covered a story of a new possible analgesic that was discussed by poking mice knees with acupuncture needles as post poking adenosine is created that causes an apparent analgesic effect.  This shows a possible avenue for a new drug to fill the adenosine receptors in people to have a similar pain numbing property.  Unfortunately, the media has latched onto the whole "acupuncture" needle and used it as evidence that acupuncture works, which is quite a leap.  To read more on this topic go to Dr. Novella's blog or even more in depth at Respectful Insolence.

The Rogues covered how new studies about the Martian Moon Phobos reveal that in one to ten million years it will crash into the surface of Mars.  Jay asked if Phobos could be saved if lifted into a different orbit, which the astronomy pair indicated could be done.   Thus launching the great "Save Phobos" campaign of 2010, which I am sure Richard C. Hoagland will take seriously if he hears about it and use it as evidence that aliens live inside of it or some such nonsense.

Speaking of Jay, the Rogues discussed how the giant Guatemalan sinkhole was mistaken by Jay (and frankly myself too) as being fake, or at least it appeared to be a fake photograph.  Dr. Novella pointed out how brother Jay was anomaly hunting in the pictures, which just goes to show even Novellas are pray to imperfect thinking.  The picture is quite scary and it does appear fake, it really does.  Sadly, this appears to be more frightening of a prospect to me than earthquakes or a hurricane.  One minute your house is there, and the next is dropped down a hundred feet into the Earth.

Overall I thought Gay and Cain made a very nice fit as guest Rogues and it was very light hearted episode.  I especially thought the Science and Fiction portion of the show was very well played by Dr. Novella this week.

Point of Inquiry Chris Mooney was on deck to interview Naomi Oreskes on her new book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.  Oreskes discusses a connecting thread between a number of less than scientifically grounded campaigns regarding tobacco, the Reagan Era Strategic Defense Initiative "Star Wars," ozone depletion, acid rain, and currently with global warming/climate change.  The guiding thread in all these campaigns was the George C. Marshall Institute* set up in the mid-1980's as a science and public policy think tank which initially engaged in campaigning for Star Wars.  After the fall of Soviet-backed communism, Oreskes discusses how the group instead of toasting to success did what many institutions do when their job is done, they meddle in other fields.  GMI then moved into raising doubts about the cause and existence of acid rain, and the ozone hole, and finally flamed the flames of questioning the existence of global warming.  GMI tooks its cue from the earlier battle of the science over the connection between tobacco use and cancer in not so much making up facts, but pushing the buttons of doubt.  The doubt button pushed is based on side avenues of doubt that exist with any research, but pushed to make it seem an entire proposition or theory is completely questionable.

The most interesting part of the interview for me was a side discussion regarding the attacks against Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring - a seminal work of environmental pollution leading to the banning of DDT.  There is a popular movement to condemn Carson as a murderer of millions of third world children based on the idea that with no DDT to kill malaria-infected mosquitos millions of children die needlessly due to malaria.  I've heard this and thought hum-m-m-m what's more important stopping malaria or saving nature and possibly preventing human cancers.  Apparently, DDT before it was even banned quickly stopped being an effective method to kill mosquitos as the sly deadly critters evolved resistance to the chemical.  I really ought to learn more about this topic.

I must admit.  I have doubts that a large percentage of science questioning and doubt raising campaign can all lead back to one think tank.  My gut tells me its a bit too pat of story, but it was a thought provoking interview.

*It's a shame, but clearly they are trying to trade on the good name of Gen'l Geo. C. Marshall who is one of the under-appreciated figures of the mid-20th Century.  

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