Bigfoot Has Heart Attack, Dies En Route to Press Conference

August 14, 2008

Skeptics everywhere are waiting with perfectly normal breath for the imminent press conference: two professional Bigfoot hunters are claiming that they’ve finally bagged a specimen. There’s even a decidedly nasty photo of the find with what looks like an extra from Planet of the Apes stuffed in an ice cream freezer.

The hunters claim several Bigfoots were spotted walking upright in the area the body was found but won’t reveal the location “to protect the creatures”.

The proud caretakers of the alleged Bigfoot body are promising DNA evidence and more convincing documentation soon.

As we know all too well, the follow-up stories will rarely get bigger headlines than the original claims… even if these guys are later exposed as the most blatant of liars. The result is that the idea of Bigfoot will get another cultural “bump” (in internet message-board parlance). The specific content of the “bump” rarely even matters for such things: even the embarrassment of exposed fraud or ridiculous mistake won’t undo the interest generated.

For two guys with a business based around Bigfoot, that’s a pretty hefty motive for shenanigans. They’re going to have quite a burden of proof here.

Update: Looks like we won’t even have to wait. A “legitimate” Bigfoot research outfit makes a pretty open and shut case for “hoax.” All the guys in question have a history of outright hoaxing, and their story here doesn’t hold up either.

They even have a prediction on how everything will go down that sounds right to me:

But instead, here’s what you might expect from the press conference: Biscardi will waltz in with two smiling impostor Russian “scientists” … who will say whatever Biscardi has paid them to say about the “body” that he’ll never allow the press to examine in the flesh.

Another Intelligent Design Supporter Enters the “Witless Protection Program” (Casey Luskin Graduate Award)

July 28, 2008

It’s that time of year again: time for the “Intelligent Design Undergraduate Research Center (IDURC)” to announce the winner of the prestigious Casey Luskin Graduate Award for the promotion of Intelligent Design.

Of course, by announce, I mean, announce the mere existence of such a person and not, you know, reveal the name of the winner. That’s because, as I noted last year, the apparent true purpose of the award is to gain press off of the supposedly “protective” anonymity of the recipient:

The recipient of the 2008 Casey Luskin Graduate Award will remain anonymous for the protection of the recipient. The many students, professors, and scientists who have been denied degrees or tenure and removed from positions and jobs for no other reason than acceptance of—or even sympathy to—intelligent design theory is very telling of the importance of keeping these bright young minds out of the crosshairs of those opposed to open-minded investigation and critical thought.

But, just as was the case with the previous recipient, the air of secrecy is sheer nonsense. The winner, as described by IDURC director Samuel Chen, was himself the president of an ID-promotion club (IDEA) and even worked directly with IDURC: i.e. he held a public position supporting Intelligent Design. That sort of gives the game away right off the bat: someone who is openly on record as supporting ID in the first place is not in any serious need of secrecy because of an obscure crackerjack award.

I guess we can all thank our lucky stars that Samuel Chen is not in charge of protecting the covert identities of CIA agents.

But then, CIA agents face real dangers when their identities are exposed. Intelligent Design proponents only face professional problems when they try to repeatedly pass off untestable claims and sloppy arguments as science: the same treatment that any scientist would receive if they did the same in any field. And with countless religious biologists at the top of their fields scratching their heads over allegations of discrimination, that makes the anonymity of the “Casey Luskin” award little more than a PR gimmick.

Which is, I suppose, perfectly fitting for an award named after Luskin, grand pontiff of pompously confused PR.

(Note: “Witless Protection Program” trademarked by Reciprocating Bill with HT to Quidam.)

“DNA-Based” Perfume Scam Gathers Steam

July 21, 2008

Longtime Skeptic’s Carnival readers might remember an item I wrote about “DNA-based” perfume way back when. Well, it seems that “My DNA Fragrance” has taken a step up in the world, securing a couple of celebrity plugs and a mention on E!’s Chelsea Lately Show. Their website no longer features jangling flash-based music, but instead a bunch of sweaty spokesbodies writhing in silk to a new slogan: “The scent is in you!”

Unfortunately, the facelift doesn’t seem to have been accompanied by any further explanations of what the heck “based on your DNA” actually means, leaving my skepto-meter solidly at “scam.” In fact, it’s potentially a scam on the level of “naming a star” after someone.

All we know, still, is that you pay nearly 100$ for a Q-tip to swab your cheek, mail it back to them, and then they supposedly have this sample sequenced in a lab. Sometime later, you receive some  “personalized” perfume in an aluminum spray bottle. What happens in between, and what “personalized” even means when translating DNA sequences into smell, is anyone’s guess. They aren’t telling:

Your DNA sample is processed into a numerical sequence similar to a social security number. No one can use this code to deduct any genetic information. Your DNA is used as the blueprint to create a one-of-a-kind fragrance from your genetic code. No two people have the same genetic sequence. Therefore, no two fragrances can smell alike.

My DNA Fragrance™ is made through our revolutionary fragrance formulation process using your genetic sequence as the blueprint to create your exclusive elixir. In the fragrance industry fragrance formulations are a highly guarded trade-secret.

If I took a section of your sequenced DNA (particularly a string without any “identifiers” as they claim), assigned colors to each codon, and then made an image out of it, it would look like, well, random noise. And there are a zillion different ways one could “map” genetic sequences onto another medium such as mixed perfume scents. The results of any one method would technically then be “unique” to you, but the arbitrary choice of method means that you could end up with just about anything at all as an end result.

Why would assigning DNA sequences to smells be any different? The method of translation is everything here. I could build a perfume mix based on the number of moles on your back if I wanted to: the key is not uniqueness, but rather how the source information relates to some final goal. Without telling anyone what the goal of that matching is, and how the DNA sequences help reach it, talking about the final perfume being “based on” your DNA would be just pseudo-scientific psychobabble. So either they are looking for particular genetic markers that in some way relate to genetically determined body odor (thus allowing the company to compliment it with a specific mix of perfume scents), or they’re just arbitrarily translating genetic gibberish into nasal gibberish.

However, if this company has actually identified all the specific genetic markers that determine someone’s body odor, it’s news to me. And news to biologists. While there’s certainly evidence that some significant portion of BO is genetically determined, even top geneticists aren’t anywhere close to having a complete map of the genes determining one’s natural “musk,” let alone knowing all the different genetic variations possible throughout the world’s population. Does this Beverly Hills company know something that top geneticists don’t? Unlikely.

Worse, as I noted in my original article, even if they did have such a process, it would be a tremendous waste of effort. What someone smells like is not some sort of mysterious secret that only your genes can reveal. Noses can do it directly, and on the cheap. Mailing in a patch of a sweaty, pit-stained T-shirt would be a lot more direct and effective way to get information on someone’s unique stench.

Of course, this is all assuming that they even bother running the expensive DNA sequencing at all. Without any information on how your DNA would be mapped to specific scents, this company has a tremendous incentive to simply pocket the huge lab fee, skimp on or entirely omit the sequencing/mapping process, and then just send customers randomly mixed scents. How could anyone argue that they had gotten things “wrong?” What would “wrong” even mean, without any idea of what the translation process is aiming at or trying to match?

In light of all of this, the new testimonials are a hoot:

There are a couple of things that we noticed that might intrigue you too. Glynis insists that there is an element of the fragrance that smells just like the children when they were tiny babies and believe me the look in her eyes tells me something is going on there!

Babies in general have a pretty distinct and recognizable smell, and perhaps the perfume happened to contain an element of that. But if the implication is that the perfume managed by design to capture not only what this specific woman smelled like, but also her children too, then that’s even more implausible than the original sales pitch.

I also noticed that as she moved her hands close to her face the scent would trigger Goosebumps down her arms; something she did not notice herself until I pointed it out to her.

Sounds like a mild allergic reaction to me!

Of course, maybe I’m just spoiling the fun here: giving someone a perfume “tailored to their DNA” may not really mean anything scientifically, but people obviously appreciate the overall sentiment (hence the marketing appeal).

Well, too bad. There’s lots of fun to be had in the world, and not all of it involves buying into dodgy, poorly defined product claims. And for more than 100$ minimum, we’re talking about serious amounts of money that could be spent on sentiments that actually make sense when you think about them.

Anti-Evolution Doc Expelled Really Is Trying for a Theatrical Comeback!

July 19, 2008

Looks like those vague hints and rumors were indeed authentic: Ben Stein’s anti-science opus Expelled is going to be re-released later this summer.

The rationale, however, strikes be as pure hype:

“We had many individuals and groups who had planned to see the film, but decided not to because the cloud of doubt this lawsuit brought to the film,” noted one of the film’s producers, John Sullivan.

Riiiiight. Because an obscure lawsuit based on copyright claims that few people outside of nuts like myself that follow these things ever heard about had a chilling effect on ordinary moviegoers.

Now, it might have been reasonable for Sullivan to note that the Ono lawsuit hurt the distribution efforts of the film, which it almost certainly did, and that this hurt their momentum.

But this production has always favored incoherently overwrought rhetoric over honest appraisal. Does Sullivan really expect anyone to seriously believe that any moviegoers at all avoided the film because of the lawsuit? Were they afraid that Ono would have thugs stationed outside the theaters threatening anyone who dared to watch it? Conflicted fans of both the Beatles and Ben Stein that held off declaring their allegiances until the legal issues were resolved?

“We came out of the gate with strong momentum only to have our integrity questioned by this frivolous lawsuit. While we’re thrilled with the film’s having earned nearly $8 million during its first run; we’ve heard from enough people and groups who want to see it in their theaters that we’ve agreed to re-release it this time without an undeserved cloud over its head.”

Because, of course, the only “cloud” over the film’s head was an obscure copyright lawsuit and not, well, you know, most critics panning it, sciencebloggers raking it over the coals for its distortions and slander, the ADL condemning it, and so on.

And this paragraph makes the “cloud” reasoning even more ridiculous. People obsessive enough to demand the immediate re-screening of a film which will likely be out on DVD in a few months are not the sort of people who would have stayed away the first time… based on the mere existence of a copyright lawsuit against the film.

“We will not be silenced. In fact it will have the opposite effect: we will re-release it and allow millions of Americans to go to the box office and register their vote against Ms. Ono and her attempt to keep them from watching our film.”

As John Pieret has pointed out, something is funky with the math here. Given that Expelled made about 7.5 million during its run, and ticket prices were generally in the range of 8 dollars and up, then at best the film got about a million viewers (not counting the fact that some percentage of people would have been repeats). The odds are astronomically low that any hypothetical second run would match that, let alone exceed it.

And indeed, despite all the hype, it looks like the producers know that, and that the “re-release” is not quite akin to a remastered Star Wars. At the end of the article, they note that they have 1000 prints of the film ready to go. Which is a rather far cry from “1000 different theaters already booked to show the film”: the sort of thing you might expect from an announcement about an impending re-release. As far as I can tell, this is all just hyperbolic way of announcing that the producers, free from the injunction, are now willing to lease out old prints to anyone who wants them.

Which all strikes me as sort of pathetic coming from an outfit that once seemed to sincerely believe that they would be sparking off a vast nationwide movement. We still don’t know whether the filmmakers actually broke even after their production and marketing costs.

Your Brain Makes Its Decisions Without You: More on Free Will and Identity

July 2, 2008

There’s little doubt that conscious experience is one of the most perplexing phenomenon that… well that it has ever encountered. Not only do we not know what our inner “observing” subject is, we don’t know how to even think about what it is. Why am “I” (whatever it is that’s experiencing anything at all) linked to not just to a body, but to a specific body? Why aren’t “I” someone else? Why is it “like” anything to be a human being, rather than our brains simply carrying out choice and action without any seeming internal passenger?

Philosophers and Theologians have long tried to lay claim to the mystery with concepts like “Soul” or “Free Will” that purport to explain conscious experience or the nature of willed choice, but their attempts have never delivered any actual tangible, additional insight into the phenomenon. Later attempts like “qualia” have only put more names to things we still do not understand. And perhaps it’s no surprise that these attempts have been so unproductive: their ultimate aim has always seemed less about increasing our knowledge, and more about a turf war over which school or ideology can assert exclusive right to this most precious of philosophical possessions.

But while there’s no guarantee that science can ever fully explain consciousness, there can also be no doubt that if you want to learn at least something about it, rather than merely discover new names for things you still don’t understand, neurologists have far more to offer than most traditional philosophers and theologians at this point. And, indeed, what science is revealing is far weirder than we could have ever imagined from any armchair.

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Medved Can’t Stand Up to Rauch On Gay Marriage

June 30, 2008

I’ve made no secret that I’m a big fan of libertarian Jonathan Rauch. His book “The Kindly Inquisitors” is one of the best defenses of free speech and free inquiry in the modern era. And he made what is probably the best conservative case for gay marriage in his 2004 book, “Gay Marriage: Why it is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.” Most recently, he had an essay published in the Wall Street Journal, recounting that latter argument in brief: “Gay Marriage is Good for America

Well, talk-show roustabout Michael Medved isn’t impressed by Rauch’s argument. But, as you’d expect from a fellow of the Discovery Institute, bad ideas ensue.

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Intelligent Design Fan DaveScot Demonizes Chance

June 25, 2008

Over at Uncommon Descent, helper-honcho DaveScot has a post up claiming that Richard Lenski’s now famous E Coli. evolution paper commits a fatal error right in the first paragraph.

I started reading Lenski’s full paper myself to see what raw data was provided and I got no farther than the first paragraph beyond the abstract when I encountered a bias error that a chance worshipper (sic) would never notice. My emphasis:

At its core, evolution involves a profound tension between
random and deterministic processes. Natural selection
works systematically to adapt populations to their prevailing
environments. However, selection requires heritable variation
generated by random mutation
, and even beneficial mutations
may be lost by random drift. Moreover, random and deterministic
processes become intertwined over time such that future
alternatives may be contingent on the prior history of an evolving

The bold portion is patently wrong. Selection operates on any heritable variation whether random or not. That the authors would use the language they did (random variation) and the peer reviewers didn’t notice it is testimony to the chance worshipper (sic) bias that pervades evolution

In case you missed him repeating it for emphasis, DaveScot has recently begun to refer to scientists as “chance worshipers,” proving that if you can’t argue on par with someone, your best fallback is to ridicule them with cutesy names that belittle their arguments by implying that they are mere dogma.

But why is it that scientists like Lenski so often speak of “random” mutation? Because that’s exactly what they observe when they look at how variation emerges in genomes over time. While it’s true that selection could, in theory, work on non-randomly selected traits, that’s just not what we see happening in practice, and not particularly relevant to what Lenski is describing in any case. In fact, the whole point of Lenski’s paper is about the power of contingency: the way even random events open or close doors of possibility.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that DaveScot doesn’t quite understand what scientists mean by “random” in this context. No biologist literally means that events like mutations occur with no causal explanation: that literally anything can happen to anything. What they mean is that the mutations that do occur, caused by all sorts of different processes, copying errors, and so on, are not correlated in any observable way with the outcomes they generate.

This misunderstanding quickly gets DaveScot into trouble when he tries to provide evidence that mutation isn’t random:

The Scripps researchers, in a nutshell, discovered that E. coli, when stressed (such as running out of food as in Lenski’s experiment or in the presence of antibiotics in the Scripps experiment) selectively increases the mutation rate on certain genes. Thus the mutations in this case are not random but rather directed at a certain area in an attempt to solve a certain problem.

But the paper in question does not, in fact, suggest that the mutations in question aren’t random. What it describes is a particular mechanism E. Coli have for essentially inducing more copying error (reducing the fidelity of inherited traits) in response to environmental pressures. There’s no evidence that the E Coli. are actually specifically choosing certain mutations over others based on any foreknowledge of whether those mutations will be beneficial or not. All they’re doing is tossing the dice more often on a particular set of genes.

And while the fact that a particular set of genes is singled out for modification is certainly interesting an interesting feature (though not unlike many other genetic known features that conserve certain parts of the genome), it’s still just a mechanism within the E Coli. itself, not a mark of intelligent intervention, intelligence, or foreknowledge.