Friday, July 20, 2012

How to become an internet sleuth.

I read a crazy and humorous article this evening. It lead me on a bit of an adventure. I enjoy being critical about what I see, hear, and read about and this took me on a satisfying journey of cyber-sleuthing to find out whether I could believe what I was reading.

First off, here is the article:

The alleged newspaper article.
The article is pretty darn funny. But is it too funny? Could the husband of a former beauty queen really be that stupid? Would everyone involved really let it all go on for six months? What are the chances of two sterile men getting involved in such a hilarious turn of events? Most importantly, is it possible that this is actually just a joke that has ended up being copypasta'd far and wide across the internet without context? Let's see.

The best tool in the armchair skeptic's kit is the internet itself.

For a start, I tried to google the names of the people involved to see whether I could find out more about this article. Finding some extra court documents or official records would be pretty great. No luck. All I could find were exact replications or commentaries on this original article. This in itself does not look so good for the truth of the story as a joke is more likely to be spread uncritically.

However, I did notice that some websites were offering the story alongside a photo of Traute. That's somewhere to start!

Traute... is that you?

I tried googling the name of the model, 'Traute Soupolos', and narrowed it to a google image search. She's a famous beauty queen / model, she must have loads of pictures, right? Wrong. All I could find was the same image repeated multiple times (or irrelevant images). It's not looking good that Traute's portfolio only seems to contain one image. She should fire her PR person.

Further investigation on the usage of this photo revealed that the beautiful, bikini-clad Traute Soupolos is in fact a Mexican beauty queen, Laura Zuniga. Zuniga got into the news when she was arrested at a military checkpoint along with some other naughty fellows who were driving a truck filled with guns and money.



Searching for key names in the original article but adding "hoax" on the end (it amazes me that people don't do this more) lead me to discover one or two other people also investigating this article's veracity. One of them provided the source: it was first published by Jet magazine in 1978 (click to see for yourself). In fact, the current article making the rounds is an exact copy of the original story.


Wikipedia says that Jet, "contains fashion and beauty tips, entertainment news, dating advice, political coverage, health tips, and diet guides, in addition to covering events such as fashion shows." Although there may be a chance that this article was a piece of original, hard-core journalism, there is the chance that it was originally posted without proper confirmation of its truth purely for entertainment value.


One person who investigated the article also says, "I figured that since [the original story came from] Stuttgart, Germany, that it would be easy enough to find - the article mentions court documents. Not Speigel, not even local Stuttgart newspapers had ever heard of any Soupolos, let alone a Demetrius or Traute and while there are plenty of Franks, there was not a single Frank Maus anywhere.

The story wasn't picked up by any major media and isn't available online at any reputable source, although it did get Farked."


So, we know certain things:

1) The original source is not necessarily a bastion of die-hard journalism and places a high value on entertainment.
2) The story is mostly spread uncritically without proper attribution.
3) False additions have been made to the story, in some cases, such as the photo of "Traute".
4) No additional information about the people in this story or the legal aspect to the case is readily available.

A fifth and more subjective observation is that the ongoing value of this story appears to be in humour rather than because of the intellectual or legal aspect of the Soupolos' unfortunate situation.

Conclusion?
Hoax. What was probably intended originally as comedy has now entered the status of urban legend and appears to be taken seriously (and propagated) by some readers earning it the title of 'hoax'.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

'Dreamtime' [Trance/Chillout]

A while ago I got some mixing equipment so I could DJ. It's fun to mix other people's music but any aspiring trance-addict ultimately wants something more: their own songs.

I'm aiming at getting some "real" software to produce my own tracks on but, for now, I decided to try my hand at GarageBand. I figure if I learn a little about composition before I can get better software then I'll be more prepared to learn on the more complex system.

Without further ado, here is my latest (only, and first) song, "Dreamtime."



Video: Dreamtime by Sacris.


The footage is from a trip I did with my friends, Sharyn and Simona, at Lake Daniels.

I know it's a first attempt but I'm pretty pleased with it. I've learned loads already. I may even go back and remix the same song once I learn more!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japanese Tsunami filmed from street level

This utterly astounding video shows what a complete horror it must have been like to live through the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

This brave camera man begins filming on the street and slowly backs up a ramp as the destruction increases. Thank goodness the waters stopped rising eventually (though it didn't stop houses from washing away).



[Video: The tsunami like you've never seen.]

Friday, February 25, 2011

CHCH Quake - ambo officer's perspective

Danny Watson, from NewsTalk ZB, reads out a moving, grim, and educational letter written by an ambulance officer regarding his time on the day of the recent moment magnitude 6.1 earthquake here in Christchurch.

Listen here (7m 20s).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

2011 Christchurch Quake

On the day of the big quake I shot this little video. Everything was a bit chaotic and at the time I was still struggling to get in contact with my friends and loved ones. I think this helped a bit because it felt like I was getting a message out - even if the video stayed on my phone until today.

When I reflect on how I am safe and most of my friends seem to be safe I still get a little emotional. With so much loss and disorder around me, I'm thankful that I can even say the words, "I'm safe".




Even as I write this message aftershocks still rumble the building around me. My love goes out to the families of Christchurch in the Red Cross shelters, the rooms shared with 12 others, the tents, the last-minute hostel accommodation. I wish peace on those who don't have a home anymore, who saw their world crumble with a mudslide, who struggle with the flooding and the fires. I have no words worthy enough for those who still search for news of their sisters, brothers, children, and friends.

If you are looking for a missing person in Christchurch OR have any information about a person, please use the Google Person Finder.

Please consider donating to the Red Cross 2011 Earthquake Appeal (link is currently broken on my end, but it should hopefully work).

For other ways to help or for more information, start here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Wonder of Life.

Someone once said that the cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths. We are surrounded by endless mysteries, beautiful and bizarre, which could take an entire life to explore.

Pick a direction, point, and you will find yourself looking at something of almost endless beauty, depth, and wonder.

A kinesin 'walking' through a cell.
Own own body is a thing of wonder. The human body teems with tens of trillions of cells, some foreign and some native, which weave the life sustaining processes we all depend on. A vast collaborative enterprise, our bodies perform wonders that could boggle the imagination. More than that, each individual cell is like a world unto itself, a tiny universe of molecular machines that shunt, walk, build, and push. If we could take a trip inside our cells we would see them alive with activity. Some of these processes and activities are understood already but many more wait to be explored. In the future, some of us will have their hearts stirred by these tiny worlds living within us and will discover some of these elegant truths about our bodies. They will go on to expand the set of human knowledge even about something as familiar as ourselves.

Tubeworms near a hydrothermal vent.
The world in which we live is also a thing of beauty. Countless species thrive in almost every environment. Around deep sea hydrothermal vents, fissures spouting scalding water and minerals, communities of sea creatures form in the depths. Deep pockets of high salinity create strange, dark underwater 'lakes' with tube-like creatures growing beside them like plants on some alien world.
Shark fins for asian markets.
In the sunlit forests, hills, and plateaus of the world, our more than 8,000 endangered species struggle for survival in a wilderness increasingly threatened by the expansion and market-forces of humanity. But the exotic is never far from home. Step into your back yard and take a handful of soil. In the palm of your hand you could be holding almost 200 species of bacteria all unknown to science. Future generations will need to carry hope with them as they explore a biosphere that is, incredibly, largely undiscovered; hope enough that destructive habits can be changed, hope in the nature of people, hope for our world.

A model of a high energy xray beam.
When our species was younger we looked at the stars and saw things like our fate or warring gods. We imagined that the celestial bodies were some marionette moving on crystal spheres, spinning on perfect geometric shapes, or fixed to vast domes. The sky and all it conjured within us was a source of fascination and a sense of the numinous; it inspired the thoughtful with wonderment, awe, and a connection to something greater than ourselves. The new kind of poet today will know that nothing has changed in the awe that our cosmos can create. Black holes foam with energy as particles spontaneously appear, as if from nowhere, with some being drawn in and the others escaping. Vast beams of high energy particles, powerful enough to destroy worlds, jet across space in distances greater than the breadth of a galaxy.
Our sun next to the largest star.
Ponderous stars hang in our sky, some so large that it would take millennia to fly around. The edge of our universe, so distant that it would take a beam of light 14 billion years to reach, provides its own mysteries to scientists and philosophers alike. There is no shortage of wonders in our cosmos and the doorway to adventure is remarkably easy; a warm jacket, a cloudless night, a telescope, and perhaps the company of friends can begin a lifetime of exploration.

The passionate, the empathetic, and the inquisitive will own the future. Look around you at the marvelous world with its wonders inconceivably great and small. Perhaps you can help teach others to follow this rewarding path of love for life and all that is in it.

--

Want to know more?

A CGI voyage inside a cell

Stephen Fry visits some of our endangered species

The BBC takes an unprecedented film journey around our planet.

E.O. Wilson discusses saving life on earth and the Encyclopedia of Life

The Scale of the Universe - interactive flash

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Anatomy of Pseudoscience

Call it "Woo"*, pseudoscience, irrationality, or quackery; it has a distinct style.

 
I was recently inspired to consider pseudoscience again when the news went viral about the changes to the astrology system. Parke Kunkle, who I'm assuming teaches astronomy at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, hit the headlines when he pointed out that our more-than-2000 year old astrology charts required updating in light of the precession of the earth's rotational axis. Basically, due to the earth's wobble, our angle in orbit changes very gradually over time. The result is that the sky we see is a very different sky to the ancient forefathers of astrology and, accordingly, a reading of astrology based on accurate solar and stellar positioning would mean that people actually have very different birth "star signs" than they do on the (conventional western) "tropical astrology" system. It also means that the typical twelve signs of the zodiac should be extended to include at least one long-overlooked one, my own new sign: Ophiuchus.

 
You can read a good article about the recent astrology news here (Hat tip: Jonathan from Spritzophrenia).
You can also read a very funny take on the whole thing by NZ comedian Raybon Kan here (Hat tip: Mumsy dearest).

 
When I read the various articles, saw people's panicked responses (especially the people with zodiac tattoos), and heard astrology proponents respond in defence of their methods, I quickly realised that an excellent case study in the anatomy of pseudoscience was forming.

 
Added Bonus! If you're really dedicated I'll give you a treat at the end in the form of an entertaining and enlightening video.

 
Dubious or pre-scientific origins.
It doesn't always take much to get a good falsehood or fallacy ingrained in society. Sometimes it just takes time. It may be highly likely that ancient astrologers were simply doing the best science available to them at the time... possibly with a fallacy or two thrown in for good measure (we'll get to that). But why do people take it seriously these days? The Weight of Ages adds a street cred that is hard to fabricate. Astronomy and astrology were quite closely aligned in ancient India (2000 BC), Babylonia (1600 BC), and astrology was also practiced amongst the ancient Greeks (300 BC). It is mentioned in the Rig Veda but, realistically, we can't put a finger on who dreamed up the idea first. With celestial beings, bodies, and forces being seen to control crops and weather, it isn't too hard to imagine the cultural leap taken into the anthropologically significant spheres of Birth and Fate. Even if Astrology could be narrowed down to the origin in one group or person, you will find that the actual details of this original context will have been carefully groomed over time by skilled storytellers who are already committed to making the tale run in their favour.

 
Conclusion? 'Good' pseudoscience enjoys unquestioned Tradition, opaque origins, and charismatic yet unscrupulous (or naive) founders.

 
Inability to be explained by clear, up to date science.
Some fringe explanations for natural phenomena are simply not provable in principle. Unfortunately, this makes them either (1) deeply significant or esoteric universal mysteries, or, (2) completely unpractical, purposeless, unscientific nonsense. Caveat emptor.

 
Another possibility is that a fringe explanation is correct and not yet accepted by the prevailing and relevant community of experts (whether they happen to be Village Elders, Shamans, Physicists, etc). This area is what Michael Shermer calls, 'the borderlands of science' (he even has a book about it). This is good, this is fun, and this is where cool heads prevail and entrenched ideas cause problems. (A fellow blogger, Santi, has two in a series of relevant posts about critical thinking and worldviews here and here.) Plenty of currently accepted knowledge or serious theory started out life in this camp. Good scientists or thinkers aren't afraid of the borderlands. Neither are they afraid of trying running with an idea that may fail in the name of knowledge.

 
The third option is that some fringe explanations are only difficult to explore in practice. This is the exciting area where innovation and creativity rules. Whole contemporary scientific disciplines have 'bootstrapped' themselves into existence by running with a fantastic idea decades before their core mechanisms were fully understood (consider when DNA, the essential part of heredity, was discovered). This is an area where honesty needs to rule, of course, because "I'll prove it later, honest" can only get you so far.

 
Conclusion? Good pseudoscience needs moving goalposts, highly creative and adaptable people with the ability to invent ad hoc workarounds, and proponents who lack true investigative rigour. Pseudoscience thrives on mystery and people who feel that "unprovable in principle" isn't a methodological barrier for truth seekers.

 
"Aries: today you will be asked to choose between Loyalty and Cynicism. Follow your heart."

 
Refusal to change in light of relevant new facts.
As Shelley Ackerman, from this article, said:
"This [new astronomy information] doesn't change your chart at all. I'm not about to use it ... I've told all of them not to worry about it."
Astrologers didn't change their systems for every new change, she said.
"...when there are new discoveries you don't change the entire system; you just work with it to see if and where it fits into the existing system."
Astrology, like any pseudoscience, doesn't need to change any further than is required to maintain basic relevance in the eyes of society. If people are happy to use a 5,000 year old system devised to discern fate or fortune then why rock the boat? Even better if the entire system can be justified in its immutability; no explanation needed, no update required, no effort gone into creating an accurate synthesis with any future data.

Conclusion? Good pseudoscience tries to find ways to create internally logical systems of thought that don't require support or credibility from any outside sources. Cracks in their defense will let in the light of contradictory evidence and so are quickly patched up by careful and clever sympathisers.

 
Justified at a crucial point using logical fallacies.
Any explanation requires IF---THEN; information and conclusion; or cause and effect.

 
There are explanations of a whole host of fallacies available on the internet (try here for a big one, and here for a the 'top 20').

 
Consider: IF---THEN.

 
A faulty assumption ('IF') can lead to a logically consistent conclusion ('THEN'). That's not a fallacy, that's just bad data. A fallacy happens when the process of reasoning ('---') is done badly, making the conclusion unjustified. Happily(?), a false assumption can lead to a true conclusion using bad reasoning; in this case an unjustified and accidental answer (even if true).

 
There are probably a small selection of fallacies or errors largely contributing to the success of astrology:
  • Selection bias: the information sample used to justify belief is chosen using a bias. So surveys might be taken only amongst astrology proponents. Friends talk only about their horoscopes to sympathetic friends. Websites about astrology form a community of self-selecting, credulous individuals etc. 
  • Observation bias: only those pieces of data that supports your own position are noticed or remembered. "We see what we want to see." This would go down a treat with a sufficiently ambiguous horoscope reading.
  • Confusing association with causation: Assuming that because two things occurred at the same time they must be related e.g. "my partner left me and our star signs weren't compatible." 
  • Post-hoc ergo propter hoc ('after this, therefore because of this'): This is the act of assuming causation between one initial event and a preceding event, e.g. "my Boss yelled at me on the day that my horoscope cautioned me in the morning paper."
  • Special pleading / ad-hoc reasoning: The Magic Bullet of any pseudoscience, special pleading sneaks in subtle excuses for why any particular evidence or refutation doesn't happen to threaten the pseudoscientific claim at that time. Rules don't apply here, only boundless creativity!

 
Conclusion? Good pseudoscience doesn't like well researched evidence, rigorous peer review, and critically aware reasoning. Pseudoscience slips in bad assumptions or twists evidence to fit pre-determined conclusions using creativity, guile, and complexity.

 
Defended by conspiracy and personal attacks.
Every good organism requires an immune system and pseudoscience is no different.

A key fallacy that often comes into play here is the "ad hominem" attack. That is when somebody breaks the important rule, "play the ball and not the person."
A proponent of pseudoscience may attack the person presenting an idea using personal ammunition rather than addressing whether their ideas are actually correct. The only honest way to show why somebody is wrong would be to show why their evidence is bad, their assumptions are unreasonable, or their reasoning is flawed. The easy option, and the dishonest one, would be to disregard a good idea because it's being presented by an unideal messenger. Of course, everybody on both sides of most major debates would do well to keep this in mind (whether they are scientist/non-scientist or christian/atheist, I think we've probably all seen people do badly in this area).
There a type of ad hominem fallacy worth noting. Known as, "poisoning the well", it is where a pre-emptive ad hominem attack is made against a subject area in order to make conversation emotive and difficult ("only an idiot would think X", or, "Hitler also thought Y").

But as well as personal attacks, pseudoscientists often turn their ad hominems into grand, conspiratorial narratives. Just look at a few easy examples. The 9/11 'Truthers' think that the government is some infinitely capable secretive organisation able to micromanage world politics on a massive scale all while remaining under the radar of competent journalists. The Anti-Vaccine (vaccines cause autism) crowd think that any scientists who tell another story are in the pocket of big pharma. Also, many insular and wacky religious sects tend to suggest that everyone else is being dominated by the forces of Satan. All of these are ways in which ideas can easily be dismissed, regardless of the strength of their evidential support.

Conclusion? Good pseudoscience doesn't want to discuss evidence or progress via a careful, self-critical reasoning process. For pseudoscience to succeed, their proponents need to build up walls of irrelevant personal attacks or create grand conspiracies which create massive cognitive dissonance and allow them to reject any competing opinions outright.

 
And now, committed reader, since you have got this far I present your prize for 'Most Valuable Phrenist':

 

[Video: What a year on Earth really looks like!]


 
As if axial precession wasn't enough, apparently our boring and seemingly static "year" goes all over the show. It just goes to show that the universe really is more complex than our imagination usually gives it credit for. That's one reason why I think the facts are far more entertaining than any pseudoscience we might invent to explain it.

 
*Coined, I imagine, by the father of the modern skeptic movement, The Amazing James Randi.

 
Do you know your zodiac sign?

 
Do you take horoscopes seriously, even a little? On what basis?

 
Do you think horoscopes are nonsense? Are they harmless or are they a problem?

 
What do you think of my essentials of pseudoscience? Agree/disagree? Can you think of more?
 
Presuming nobody is perfect, can you identify any 'woo' in any of your own beliefs? (i.e. not about astrology)