An Interesting Dilemma

March 17, 2008

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This picture appears on a blog on the photo-sharing website – Foxsaver. It is a great photograph and one that invites interesting speculation about it. I fear that is exactly what ‘labellaluna’ has done. I won’t repeat the story that accompanies the picture, because frankly I don’t believe it.

Why not?

a) It sounds preposterous.

b) Searching the web has not turned up a corroborating source.

So here it is. A photograph apparently from 1958. Presumably a promotional picture for the Black Cat wine cellar.

Nice picture though.

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Every time someone invokes the supposed power of prayer, I find myself wondering about their sanity. Do they really think that praying do any good? The pope prays for peace – hmm I don’t see it happening; a farmer prays for rain – yeah sure; a prayer for the sick – obviously better than medical treatment, not.

If it is meant to be shorthand for get off your arse and do something,then why does it always involve a request to a god? Why do people not simply say what they mean – “I wish it would rain”, “I wish people would stop killing each other” etc.

Even if you do believe in god, the very idea that by simply asking nicely your wish will be granted, must be hard to justify. Particularly as it obviously doesn’t work.

A beautiful illustration of the nonsense of prayer comes from a posting on the wonderfully named Internet Infidels Discussion Board.

Starting with an illustration of the size of the earth relative to our solar system and working out to other systems in this galaxy to a picture from Hubble of other galaxies, Allied35 poses the following –

“And there’s a guy floating around out there, tinkering with all this… and he gets upset if you perform sodomy… and he gets jealous if you worship the wrong book??? WTF?”

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The Internet Infidels Discussion Board is itself housed on Secular Web a website dedicated to Naturalism. Naturalism is defined in the Wikipedia as “any of several philosophical stances wherein all phenomena or hypotheses commonly labelled as supernatural, are either false or not inherently different from natural phenomena or hypotheses”. The idea being that everything can be tested and if it fails then it is false. There is no supernatural – a phenomenon is either natural or non-existent. Certainly no room there for any supernatural beings.

Because the images are so beautiful, here’s another one.

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Mind Reading

May 18, 2007

(ok so I cheated with this wonderful Julia Margaret Cameron photo – ‘Merlin and Vivian’, but Merlin was afterall a magician)

I know the old adage – “a magician never reveals his secrets”, but if it is good enough for James Randi to reveal his secrets then I have no qualms in passing them on. There is a step-by-step description of a supposed ‘mind-reading’ demonstration on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website which is worth reading.

I have been a fan of Randi’s ever since he took on Uri Geller in the early 1970’s. Randi has continued to campaign against charlatans, hoaxers and magicians posing as psychics. Randi has issued the ‘Million Dollar Challenge’, offering a million dollars to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. Despite the challenge being in existence since 1964, noone has yet been able to pass the test and claim the prize money. Similar challenges have been made elsewhere, including here in Australia.

Randi’s website also includes the wonderful ‘Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural’, which is just that.

Another good source of general information can be found in the Skeptic’s Dictionary.

What to believe (again)

November 29, 2006

In an earlier post, I speculated about the circulation of spurious ‘facts’ and I proposed a principle that one should believe nothing you read on the Internet. I was prompted to revisit this thanks to a circulated email list purporting to explain the origin of various phrases and giving a few ‘astounding facts’.

Following my own rules (see September 11th post), I presumed everything stated was false, but in order to satisfy the sender that I was not simply rejecting it out of hand I decided to research a few of the statements.

Actually I could have saved myself the trouble as one of the assertions was that it is impossible to lick your own elbow, and at the bottom of the email was the statement that 75% of people reading this email will try to lick their own elbow. Really? How was that tested? Clearly an email of ‘facts’ that contains such obvious rubbish has to be laughed off immediately.

However, in my quest to confirm my suspicions about other claims in the email, I did discover a wonderful source of information about the origin of phrases. The Phrase Finder is a wonderful site for the student of phrases. Yes I know it is on the Internet and therefore subject to the Rules, but what I like is the cautious consideration of possible origins of phrases, the inclusion of historical examples, and the clear rejection of the popular but mistaken origins that are often given.

I am pleased particularly to see their rejection of acronym based origins for such words as pom, posh and golf all of which have always struck me as ridiculous.

An added bonus on the site is a list of French and Latin phrases that have been incorporated into English. Altogether a great Internet source.

What to believe

September 11, 2006

You know the familiar look of the email – WARNING shampoo causes cancer; WARNING a virus has just been released that will destroy all the files on your hard disk; WARNING the government has wasted $12 million developing a pen that writes in space while the Russians manage by using pencils.

I am often the recipient of such emails. Not usually directly, but often sent to me by members of my family wanting to know if they are true or not. There is really only one answer to that question. They are not.

The two most recent ones to come my way were something purporting to be a speech by Bill Gates to some high school students giving his 11 Rules For Life; and a supposed letter from Steven Spielberg to Mel Gibson attacking him for being an anti-Semite. The Spielberg letter was easy. The intemperate language was most unlikely to have been Spielberg’s – he’s too experienced a Hollywood hand to put such thoughts into writing and besides, I was pretty sure that he would live in California not New Rochelle, New York! The 11 Rules For Life we not so obvious. They could have been said by Bill Gates and perhaps the only reason for doubting it was that it was being sent in a circulated email.

I assume that everything that is sent in a forwarded email is False unless proven otherwise. But how to prove it? I have got into the habit of checking everything with one or more of the sceptics websites. Truth or Fiction is a good stating place for rumours and hoaxes. Urban Legends Reference Pages are a useful source of exactly that. Medical and scientific claims are easily checked on various sites such as Csicop , Quackwatch, and The Pathology Guy (who has a good section on alternative medicine).

And yet … What am I saying here? Don’t believe stuff on the Internet unless you have checked it on the Internet? Seems like a bit of a contradiction. And it is. Perhaps the only way to act is to go with what seems sensible, especially if it can be verified from several independent sources (noting if they are simply cross-referencing each other; if it is important act on it otherwise ponder on the advice but DON’T SEND IT ON.

So here are my two simple rules for dealing with circulated information.

Rule 1. Nothing you read on the Internet is true.

Rule 2. Some things you read on the Internet might be true but even then it doesn’t matter unless they are asking for money, so don’t send it to anyone else. See Rule 1

At least when you read it on a Blog, you know it’s opinion. Don’t you?