Category: Skepticism

Oumuamua and the Alien Hypothesis

By Steven Novella

One year ago, in October 2017, astronomers detected the first confirmed interstellar visitor to our solar system – an asteroid dubbed Oumuamua. The name is Hawaiian for “scout”, as if the asteroid is a messenger from a distant system. A Hawaiian name was chose because the object was discovered by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii. Determining that Oumuamua was an interstellar object was not difficult – the determination was based on its trajectory. It was traveling really fast, too fast for any object originating from our own system. It’s velocity would also take it out of our system – it was moving too fast to be captured by the gravity of our sun.

All of that is cool enough, but astronomers carefully analysing the trajectory of Oumuamua discovered (and published their findings in June 2018) that its acceleration could not be explained entirely by gravity. Some force was pushing, ever-so-slightly, on the object. This acceleration could be explained by outgassing, if there were any volatiles on Oumuamua that were heating up as it got closer to the sun. These gases would be like tiny rocket engines. Observations of the object did not detect any comet-like tail, which is why it was thought to be an asteroid. But if this new observation were correct, then it would have the ices and gases associated with a comet.

Oumuamua was discovered 40 days after its closest approach to the sun, when it was already on its way out of our solar system. At this point it should have been slowing down a bit from the pull of the sun’s gravity, but instead it was speeding up slightly. This could be explained by outgassing caused by heat from the sun.

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The God Engine

By James Alcock

Whatever its form, religion is powerful and pervasive and, for billions of people, obviously important. Yet, while major religions such as Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism have endured since ancient times, others, despite having enjoyed great appeal for centuries, have disappeared into the history books. No longer does anyone worship Zeus, the supreme god of the ancient Greeks; Marduk, the Babylonian god of creation; Bast, the Egyptian goddess of protection; Jupiter, the supreme god of the Romans; the Incan Apocatequil; or the Aztec Huehueteotl. Those bygone gods were central figures in highly developed theocracies and were as real to their devotees as are today’s deities to contemporary worshippers.

The continuing power of religious belief in all its many contradictory forms suggests that it serves important functions. Indeed, some researchers consider religion to have become culturally important because fear of the deity promoted social solidarity, cooperation, trust, and self-sacrifice. Important behaviors were either mandated or declared taboo by religion, and believers had little choice but to accept that a powerful supernatural being had deemed them so. This social control in turn increased the likelihood of the survival and reproduction of individuals as well as the long-term survival of the group itself. As religion became deeply established within a group, the religious beliefs and rituals taught to young people contributed an important part of their social identities, and their corresponding roles and duties further contributed to the functioning and cohesiveness of the group.

However, the prevailing view in modern psychology is that religious belief developed not because of those functions but rather as the automatic byproduct of brain systems that evolved for everyday cognition. That is, belief in the supernatural is a natural consequence of the way our brains work, a product of a metaphorical “God Engine” that endows it both with significant power over the lives of people and the groups to which they belong and with strong resistance to change. In other words, a number of automatic processes and cognitive biases combine to make supernatural belief the automatic default.

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Medical Doctor: 90% of Goop’s “Wellness” Products Aren’t Supported by Science

By Hemant Mehta

Gwyneth Paltrow recently sat down for an interview with the BBC, and when the reporter pointed out that many of the products she sells on Goop are in the “area of pseudoscience,” she offered this jaw-dropping defense: “We disagree with that whole-heartedly.

Paltrow also claimed she was met with resistance because she was trying to help women “empower” themselves… by selling them expensive crap with no scientific backing. Of course it’s pseudoscience. Jesus Christ, she sells jade eggs women are supposed to stick up their vaginas in order to “cultivate sexual energy,” “develop and clear chi pathways in the body,” and create “kidney strength.” Good luck finding any of that backed by a paper in a major journal.

But now, Dr. Jen Gunter, a frequent critic of Paltrow and Goop, has done the world a favor and fact-checked every “wellness” product on Goop’s website in order to gauge the amount of pseudoscience on it.

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Peer-reviewed homeopathy study sparks uproar in Italy

By Giorgia Guglielmi

A study1 that claims to show that a homeopathic treatment can ease pain in rats has caused uproar after it was published in a peer-reviewed journal. Groups that promote homeopathy in Italy, where there is currently a debate about how to label homeopathic remedies, have held the study up as evidence that the practice works. But several researchers have cast doubt on its claims.

The authors acknowledge some errors flagged in an analysis of the paper by a separate researcher, but stand by its overall conclusions. Senior author, pharmacologist Chandragouda Patil of the R. C. Patel Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research in Dhule, India, also says that the results are preliminary and cannot yet be applied to people, and that he hopes that the team’s findings will encourage other researchers to conduct clinical studies.

Researchers have presented evidence in support of homeopathy before — famously, in a 1988 Nature paper2 by French immunologist Jacques Benveniste that was later discredited. This latest claim has attracted attention, in part, because it passed peer review at the journal Scientific Reports. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its publisher Springer Naturewhich also publishes Scientific Reports).

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The Lie Generator: Inside the Black Mirror World of Polygraph Job Screenings

By Mark Harris

Christopher Talbot thought he would make a great police officer. He was 29 years old, fit, and had a clean background record. Talbot had military experience, including a tour of Iraq as a US Marine, and his commanding officer had written him a glowing recommendation. In 2014, armed with an associate degree in criminal justice, he felt ready to apply to become an officer with the New Haven Police Department, in his home state of Connecticut.

Talbot sailed through the department’s rigorous physical and mental tests, passing speed and agility trials and a written examination—but there was one final test. Like thousands of other law enforcement, fire, paramedic, and federal agencies across the country, the New Haven Police Department insists that each applicant take an assessment that has been rejected by almost every scientific authority: the polygraph test.

Commonly known as lie detectors, polygraphs are virtually unused in civilian life. They’re largely inadmissible in court and it’s illegal for most private companies to consult them. Over the past century, scientists have debunked the polygraph, proving again and again that the test can’t reliably distinguish truth from falsehood. At best, it is a roll of the dice; at worst, it’s a vessel for test administrators to project their own beliefs.

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WHO Endorses Traditional Chinese Medicine. Expect Deaths To Rise

By Steven Salzberg

A few days ago, a news story in the journal Nature reported that the World Health Organization, which is supposed to be devoted to improving the health and medical care of people around the globe, will for the first time endorse a belief system called “traditional Chinese medicine.” I’m labeling TCM a belief system because that’s what it is–but the WHO will be endorsing it as a set of medical practices.

The Nature writer, David Cyranoski, presents this news in a classic two-sides-of-the-story format, describing the “endless hours” that TCM proponents spent on such important topics as the “correct location of acupuncture points and less commonly known concepts such as ‘triple energizer meridian’ syndrome.” Later in the article (but much later), he points out that scientists have argued that qi and meridians simply don’t exist.

Cyranoski also falls into the trap of using the phrase “Western medicine” as if it were just an alternative point of view. An apt response is this comment from a biology Ph.D. student, who goes by @astrelaps on Twitter:

“What a weak, equivocal article from the world’s preeminent scientific journal. “For those steeped in Western medicine…” is like writing “For those steeped in climate science” or “For those steeped in evolutionary biology” when reporting on climate change denial or creationism.”

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Why Chinese medicine is heading for clinics around the world

By David Cyranoski

Choi Seung-hoon thought he had an impossible assignment. On a grey autumn day in Beijing in 2004, he embarked on a marathon effort to get a couple of dozen representatives from Asian nations to boil down thousands of years of knowledge about traditional Chinese medicine into one tidy classification system.

Because practices vary greatly by region, the doctors spent endless hours in meetings that dragged over years, debating the correct location of acupuncture points and less commonly known concepts such as ‘triple energizer meridian’ syndrome. There were numerous skirmishes between China, Japan, South Korea and other countries as they vied to get their favoured version of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) included in the catalogue. “Each country was concerned how many terms or contents of its own would be selected,” says Choi, then the adviser on traditional medicine for the Manila-based western Pacific office of the World Health Organization (WHO).

But over the next few years, they came to agree on a list of 3,106 terms and then adopted English translations — a key tool for expanding the reach of the practices.

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Sharks, dishwashers and guns: A running list of viral hoaxes about Hurricane Florence

By Abby Ohlheiser

The Internet exists, and so does Hurricane Florence. The inevitable result? An ever-growing tally of online hoaxes about the dangerous storm, hoping to go viral on the good intentions of people who are trying to find and share the latest information.

We’ve been here before. As we have in the past, the Intersect is keeping a running list of unverified rumors, hoaxes and other misinformation about Florence as the storm hits the East Coast. And please, if you see something that isn’t in the post, feel free to send it our way.

Look on this list, ye Mighty, and despair.


**takes a deep breath**

Shark hoaxes are so common during natural disasters involving flooding that their circulation has become a meme. And yet, those who aren’t online all the time seem to fall for these hoaxes every storm. Florence appears to be no exception.

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Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Will Pay $145,000 to Settles Lawsuit Over Vaginal Eggs

By Hemant Mehta

When people make fun of Gwyneth Paltrow‘s pseudoscience-purveying company Goop, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the jade egg.

These were the eggs which women were told to stick up their vaginas in order to — ahem — “cultivate sexual energy, increase orgasm, balance the cycle, stimulate key reflexology around vaginal walls, tighten and tone, prevent uterine prolapse, increase control of the whole perineum and bladder, develop and clear chi pathways in the body, intensify feminine energy, and invigorate our life force.”

“Beauty guru” Shiva Rose, who endorsed the items on Goop’s website at the time, also said the eggs created “kidney strength.”

If you visit the same site today, however, Rose’s answers are very different. Portions of it have clearly been deleted. You will no longer see anything about how the eggs “increase orgasm, balance the cycle, stimulate key reflexology around vaginal walls, tighten and tone, prevent uterine prolapse, [and] increase control of the whole perineum and bladder.” Also gone is the bit about kidney strength.

Why? Maybe because all of that was unscientific bullshit that could cause serious health problems for any women who stick the eggs up their yoni.

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Why Creationists Are More Likely to Buy into Conspiracy Theories

By Kimberly Hickok

When something occurs that’s hard to explain, many people say that “everything happens for a reason” and that the event was “meant to be.”

The thought provides a purpose for what, in reality, was a random, accidental event.

This type of thinking, called teleological thinking, is what gives rise to creationism, which, in this case, refers to the belief that Earth was created by an all-powerful being less than 10,000 years ago. That same kind of reasoning also promotes a belief in conspiracy theories, a new study has found.

“I think the study is a valuable and interesting contribution to work on the ways that our gut intuitions can promote particular non-scientific world views,” said Deborah Kelemen, a developmental cognitive scientist at Boston University, who was not involved in the study.

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