When Antiscience Kills: Dowsing for Bombs PDF Print E-mail
Written by Phil Plait   
Wednesday, 04 November 2009 13:39

We at the JREF are no fans of pseudoscience, as you may imagine. Dowsing is a practice that falls squarely in that field. It's the idea that you can detect an object -- usually water, but sometimes gold, or people, or whatever -- using a y-shaped branch, or copper tubes, or some other simple device. Dowsers never really have a good explanation of how their devices work, but they tend to claim 100% accuracy.

However, the JREF has tested dowsers many, many times as part of our Million Dollar Challenge. Not to keep you in suspense, but the money still sits in the bank. In other words, time and again, the dowsers fail. When a real, double-blind, statistical test is given, dowsers fail. Every single time.

That's all well and good, and you might think it's just another silly idea that nonsense-believers adhere to despite evidence. If someone wants to waste their money on a dowser, well, caveat emptor.

But what if your life depended on it? What if thousands of lives depended on it?

Carl Sagan Day: November 7 PDF Print E-mail
Latest JREF News
Written by Phil Plait   
Thursday, 05 November 2009 00:00

If you're anywhere near southern Florida on Saturday, November 7, then you need to get yourself over to the Broward College, which is holding the very first celebration of Carl Sagan Day!




It's in honor of Sagan's birthday, which is on November 9th. He would've been 75 this year. Sagan inspired a generation of astronomers, and in reality a whole generation of people to look at the sky and appreciate the -- yes, I'll say it -- cosmos. Celebrating his life is a great idea, and the folks at Broward College have a full day planned (the schedule is online in PDF and Word formats). A lot of good speakers will be giving talks, including astronomer Jeffrey Bennett (who wrote Max goes to the Moon series of kids' books), skeptic and "Point of Inquiry" podcast host D. J. Grothe, and NASA astrobiologist and impact expert David Morrison (via satellite). The JREF's Phil Plait will be giving his Death from the Skies! talk, too. They'll be showing "Cosmos" continuously in one room, with kids' activities in another. There's a planetarium show in the evening, too.

And this will be very special: our very own James Randi will be there, talking about Sagan. The two were friends. Randi has a lot of personal insight on the man and will have wonderful things to say. This is a don't-miss opportunity, folks.

Proud sponsors of the event include the JREF, the Center for Inquiry, and the Florida Atheists and Secular Humanists. For more info, there's contact info on the Carl Sagan Day website. Also, there's a writeup in the Broward/Palm Beach New Times. This really will be a fun and wonderful tribute to Sagan, and we hope to see you there!

Miracle or Child Abuse? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Phil Plait   
Wednesday, 04 November 2009 00:00

In Russia, thousands of Muslims are flocking to see a baby who has verses from the Koran mysteriously appearing on his body:

I'd like to be very clear here: this is not pareidolia, our ability to see patterns in random objects. The verses are clearly there, and not just random. As one pilgrim said, "It's proof that Allah exists, that he is all-mighty..."

koranbabyHowever -- and perhaps this is just me here -- it seems far more likely that instead of an actual miracle, someone is maybe, y'know, writing the verses on the baby. The mother says the baby is cranky when the words appear, which (if she's being truthful) you might expect if someone is scraping or otherwise irritating the baby's skin to make the words appear. I'll note that the words fade with time, too, just as expected if this is a fraud.

SWIFT Seeks Writers, Wisdom, Gripes PDF Print E-mail
Written by Brandon K. Thorp   
Tuesday, 03 November 2009 00:00

In the coming weeks, we’re going to try giving Swift a serious overhaul. We’d like to see our frontpage brimming with original reportage, controversial commentary, intelligent critiques of critical thought (or its conspicuous absence) in popular media, profiles of skeptics and woo-woos, book reviews, and thought-provoking essays.

Psychic Computers? Not Quite... PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Wagg   
Monday, 02 November 2009 00:00

The media is abuzz about an apparent discovery by two doctors, Jack Gallant and Sinji Nishimoto, who have invented a "psychic computer." The computer can read a person's thoughts, and display them on a screen as a video. Sounds far-fetched? Well, it is, and it's too early to tell what exactly these two have invented.

As the Times UK reports, the study has not been peer reviewed, so we can't be sure what they're doing, but it appears that using an fMRI, a machine that can read brain activity, and a computer with a custom algorithm, they can reproduce people's thoughts on a screen.

If I understand it correctly, it works like this: when you think of a color or a shape, certain areas in the brain activate. The fMRI can read these activations, and through the algorithm, reproduce the conditions necessary for that to happen. A green square would produce a distinct pattern, the fMRI would pick it up, report it to the computer, who then decodes the pattern back into a green square. This all happens real time, so the image appears as a video.

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