30 June, 2009

New Zealand Psychic Challenge

I spent a month in New Zealand in July 2006 driving around in a campervan. It's a beautiful country and their passion for outdoor/extreme sports meant every day was an adventure. Some friends of mine were living in Wanaka, on the South Island, at the time so I stayed there for a few days. It was here I visited a place called Puzzling World, which is 'a world unique attraction specialising in puzzling eccentricity'. It's a fun place and would be great to visit with kids, but the exhibit that caught my attention was located close to the entrance and was garnering little attention from the visitors. It was the Stuart Landsborough's Psychic Challenge...

In 1994 Stuart, a member of the New Zealand Skeptics Society, created a challenge to test those who claim to deal in the paranormal.

Psychics – we challenge you to use psychic means to find two halves of a promissory note hidden within 100 metres of the Challenge display at Puzzling World, New Zealand.

Find the notes and NZ$100,000 is yours!

Each official challenger will have to pay a fee of NZ$1,000. If the challenger fails, this money will be given to charity. Since 1994, four people who claim to have psychic ability have accepted the challenge. All have failed.

It's a bit like James Randi's challenge, except that this already has a specific goal, while Randi's will allow you to propose an experiment (and the prize is a million US bucks). Landsborough has hidden two halves of a promissory note on the grounds of the establishment. The psychic has to use their powers to deduce the hiding places, i.e. they are not allowed to rummage around. The reason for splitting it in two is that if enough psychics attempt to find one item, eventually one would hit upon it by chance alone. The odds of finding two distinct hiding places are so remote that if someone was successful, it would have to be considered a valid claim of psychic ability.

The rules are:

• All challengers must make an appointment with Stuart Landsborough.

• Each challenger is required to deposit One Thousand dollars (NZ$1,000) with Stuart Landsborough before the challenge commences.

• If successful, this amount along with the NZ$100,000 will be awarded to the challenger. If unsuccessful, the NZ$1,000 will go to a charity of Stuart Landsborough's choice.

• The challenger will sit opposite Stuart Landsborough facing AWAY from him. This is to avoid any chance of visual/non-verbal indications from Stuart.

• They may ask questions for 30 minutes, however Stuart can only "think" the answers.

• The challenger will have up to 60 minutes to search within the 100 metre radius and offer TWO exact search sites (ONE for each part of the promissory note).

• To win the $NZ100,000 prize the challenger must find BOTH parts of the promissory note.

• Witnesses to the challenge are permitted and media coverage may include relevant information about the challenger. Should the challenge fail or succeed both the challenger and Stuart Landsborough have the rights to publicise the results.

• No major earthworks or damage to buildings needs to be undertaken however any damage caused will be covered by the challenger.

• Regardless of success or failure, after the result is known Stuart will show the true locations of the hidden promissory notes. Naturally, after the challenge they will be again hidden, but in different locations.

It's a great idea and it really exposes the nonsense that is alleged psychic ability. Don't forget, most of these 'psychics' relieve vulnerable (and somewhat stupid) people of their hard-earned cash, much like a con artist. But it's funny that when they are given an opportunity to actually prove their powers and win cash money to boot, they shy away. In fact, there have only been a handful of attempts in about 15 years, all of which have failed miserably. As Landsborough says:

"Where are all these competent psychics when you want them?"

Perhaps they got a vision ahead of time that they would fail, so decided to stay at home...


25 June, 2009

Uncertainty About Free Will

Martin Heisenberg, son of the famous Werner, wrote a piece concerning the uncertainty of the existence of free will in Nature last month.

Our influence on the future is something we take for granted as much as breathing. We accept that what will be is not yet determined, and that we can steer the course of events in one direction or another. This idea of freedom, and the sense of responsibility it bestows, seems essential to day-to-day existence.

Yet it is under attack as never before. Some scientists and philosophers argue that recent findings in neuroscience — such as data published last year suggesting that our brain makes decisions up to seven seconds before we become aware of them — along with the philosophical principle that any action must be dependent on preceding causes, imply that our behaviour is never self-generated and that freedom is an illusion

Heisenberg is a neurobiologist at the University of Würzburg, where he studies brain function in Drosophila. He argues that in order to gain insight into free will, it is advantageous to study animal behaviour, such as the motor behaviour of E. coli.

As with a bacterium's locomotion, the activation of behavioural modules is based on the interplay between chance and lawfulness in the brain. Insufficiently equipped, insufficiently informed and short of time, animals have to find a module that is adaptive. Their brains, in a kind of random walk, continuously pre-activate, discard and reconfigure their options, and evaluate their possible short-term and long-term consequences.

So this suggests that decisions are not simply responses to external stimuli but they can be made internally, not only by humans but by all life, albeit randomly in many cases. The fact that a bacterium changes direction at all in the absence of external stimuli supports this view. Heisenberg argues that this is a rudimentary form of free will even if the bacterium is not conscious of itself and is not conscious of its random 'decision' to change direction.

Some define freedom as the ability to consciously decide how to act. I maintain that we need not be conscious of our decision-making to be free. What matters is that our actions are self-generated. Conscious awareness may help improve our behaviour, but it does not necessarily do so and is not essential. Why should an action become free from one moment to the next simply because we reflect upon it?

I like this idea.

To extrapolate, neurons in the brain must be firing randomly almost constantly in tandem with what you might call unrandom or controlled firing (just a hunch, I have no data to back that up). It seems possible that random firing of neurons in our brains might be the actual source of consciousness and free will. Throughout evolution, as brain size increased, more complex animals may have evolved consciousness, which allowed them to control and use these random firings to their advantage, e.g. the ability to make a decision which seems wrong in the short term but is actually beneficial in the long term. This decision making process, which goes against the immediate external stimuli, is what I would call free will. A decision based solely on external stimuli is simply what we call instinct. So free will is random in less complex organisms but is actually somewhat self-controlled in humans and some other species.

Robert Doyle has responded to Heisenberg in the latest edition of Nature and seems to agree.

The philosophers' standard argument against free will is simple and logical. If our actions are determined, we are not free. If nature is not determined, then indeterminism is true. Indeterminism implies that our actions are random. If our actions are random, we did not will them.

Heisenberg's proposal makes freedom a normal biological property of most living things, and not a metaphysical mystery or a gift from God to humanity. The genius of this proposal is that it combines randomness with an adequate macroscopic determinism consistent with microscopic quantum mechanics.

Interesting stuff.

Now, it's nice and sunny in Dublin and I think I'm in the mood for some ice-cream.

Or am I?


18 June, 2009

PZ slates Sye TenB's website (or Insane Presuppicon Goes Down In Flames)

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers has given his opinion of Sye TenB's silly little website. In case you haven't heard of this guy, he's a presuppositionalist with a rather high opinion of himself.

PZ's verdict is that it is......


.......a silly little website.

It's a dreary exercise in the fallacy of the excluded middle. You are lead through a series of binary choices, in which you are asked to choose one alternative or the other, with the goal of shunting you to the desired conclusion, which is, of course, that God exists. Building on a fallacy is bad enough, but even worse, it can't even do that competently — it cheats. All of the options are designed to bounce you to only one line of reasoning, and if you don't play the designer's game, it gets all pissy at you and announces that you aren't serious and you should go away. Some proof, eh?

Over 200 comments and no sign of Sye yet. Hopefully when he checks his Google alerts for his own name he will show up there and defend himself. I would dearly love to see him try his circular nonsense on the vultures at Pharyngula.

BigMKnows, one of the commenters there, has posted his own refutation of the site which is also worth a read



Upon waiting one hour and eleven minutes for a response Sye said:

Mob eh? Crickets here, crickets there. I have better things to do than wait around for your responses.



June 27, 2009 2:09 AM

Well, after evading questions for over 200 comments, there has been no response from Sye for 48 hours. Using his own time-scale, I guess that means he's packed up and moved on...


13 June, 2009

First Article Published!!

Well folks, as I mentioned in my first post, I have been trying to break into science communication. Good news! I was commisioned to write an article for The Scientist, which is now published, on an immunology exhibition in Trinity College Dublin called Infectious: Stay Away. It's a great exhibition where the visitors get to participate in many of the exhibits, including one where they extract their own DNA for use in an on-going population genetics study. A subscription is required to read the article, but the good news is it's free to sign up! Here is a taster:

At the entrance, I'm greeted by a team in outbreak gear -- full overalls and face masks -- who insist that I proceed into the decontamination zone. Here, I'm screened and electronically tagged to monitor my infection status throughout my visit. This jarring introduction is perhaps one of the most innovative ideas in Infectious -- the world's first simulation of a live epidemic. The electronic sensor around my neck can communicate and infect other sensors when in close proximity, and by periodically infecting a random visitor with an "electronic virus", the exhibition curators can monitor the spread of that virus as it infects the influx of visitors.

As I navigate through Infectious, I find a lab bench with several microscopes inviting me to get up close and personal with parasites, bacteria and the bioterrorist's favourite, anthrax. Nearby, a mosaic of Petri dishes lines the wall, each having being kissed by a visitor over the weeks since Infectious opened. A multitude of microorganisms grow in the dishes, some conforming to the outline of lips. I admit, this particular part of the exhibition makes me think twice about being amorous ever again.

Suddenly the red light on my electronic tag begins flashing. I have become infected. I give a suspicious glance to the person next to me and make my way to the disinfection station, where an animation representing each visitor and their role in the spread of the virus plays. I stare at this real-time visualisation of the infection kinetics as the ease with which viruses can spread through a crowd hits home.


12 June, 2009

Fake Paper About Nothing Accepted for Publication

This would be hilarious if it weren't for the implications...

A guy called Philip Davis, a Cornell university PhD student, along with Kent Anderson, submitted a scientific paper entitled 'Deconstructing Access Points' to The Open Information Science Journal. The paper was 'peer-reviewed' and accepted for publication pending the $800 fee. Nothing strange about that you say...?


The thing is that the paper is about nothing. That's right. It makes no sense at all. The authors created a computer programme that wrote the whole paper for them. It reads and is presented like a real scientific paper, but on closer inspection it says nothing at all. It's just a mish-mash of non-sensical statments...

As the authors explain:

Using SCIgen, a software that generates grammatically correct, “context-free” (i.e. nonsensical) papers in computer science, I quickly created an article, complete with figures, tables, and references. It looks pretty professional until you read it. For example:

"In this section, we discuss existing research into red-black trees, vacuum tubes, and courseware [10]. On a similar note, recent work by Takahashi suggests a methodology for providing robust modalities, but does not offer an implementation [9]."

So following submission, the fake paper was apparently peer-reviewed and then, without receiving any reviewer comments at all, they received an email confirming that it had been successful:

This is to inform you that your submitted article has been accepted for publication after peer-reviewing process in TOISCIJ. I would be highly grateful to you if you please fill and sign the attached fee form and covering letter and send them back via email as soon as possible to avoid further delay in publication.

They immediately retracted the paper and have explained the whole thing on their blog. It is a a huge embarrassment for the peer-review process and 'open access' publishing and the people involved should be ashamed. Well, it turns out they are because two have already resigned over this debacle, namely TOISCIJ editorial board members Bambang Parmanto and Marc Williams, although apparently neither were involved in this paper's journey through the editorial process. The question is, of course, was anyone involved?

I have to point out this bit:

The manuscript was given two co-authors, David Phillips and Andrew Kent. Any similarity to real or fictitious, living or dead academics is purely coincidental, as was their institutional affiliation: The Center for Research in Applied Phrenology based in Ithaca, New York. If the acronym didn’t reveal the farce right away, phrenology is the pseudoscience of reading personality traits from the lumps on one’s head.

LOL! It's a serious issue, but you've got to laugh at that!!


09 June, 2009

If They Won't Admit You've Beat Them, Join Them...

During a debate with presuppositionalist scmike in the comments section over at Ryk's blog, a few things came to mind. As I discussed in the last post, a common presupper claim is that, through revelation, they have a source of absolute truth, i.e. God. Any attempt to debate how they can be certain of their revelation will lead to the presupper claiming that an omniscient omnipotent being could reveal things to a person in such a way so that person could know them to be certain. It's an 'easy-way-out' claim since it is seemingly impossible to refute, although many have tried with varying levels of success.

Instead, I have simply counter-claimed that a different omniscient omnipotent being has revealed something to me in such a way that I know it to be certain, including a revelation that the presupper in question is a liar. In the same way, it is impossible for the presupper to refute my claim. In fact, both claims are equally plausible, reinforced by the fact that the presupper will just say something like 'at least you are not an atheist anymore'. This shows the underlying motives of these internet presuppers; they care little for the truth, they just like trolling atheist websites and blogs.

So since they cannot refute the claim of a revelation by a different omniscient omnipotent being, then they cannot seriously insist that their worldview is proven by 'the impossibility of the contrary'. In the debate with scmike, my different omniscient omnipotent being was Ryk's big toe, but in an earlier debate with Sye TenB I said it was The Invisible Pink Hammer (Presuppers please note that these two beings are in fact the same being but just different, kinda like Jesus and God). Neither have been able to refute my claims. Were they to try, they would simply be refuting their own claims. This shows the empty nature of their supposed argument.

Scmike said that I had no proof to substantiate my alleged subjective revelation, implying that his revelation was substantiated by the bible. Well OK, I am now going to write down the words of Ryk's big toe here, as channeled through me:

Ryk's big toe created the heavens and the earth and the universe. Logic, morals and any other abstract immaterial stuff you can think of reflect the nature of Ryk's big toe. Also, scmike and Sye TenB are liars.

There...now there is objective proof to substantiate my claims. This will have to suffice, unless of course scmike is of the opinion that an omniscient omnipotent being cannot channel it's words and revelation through humans in order to create a written record of such revelation?