Posts Tagged ‘Critical Thinking’

The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science

January 27th, 2009 No comments

I haven’t blogged about critical thinking for a while now, but that is not at all due to the fact that I have lost interest in it, or no longer think it is valuable.

On the contrary, I think that we all owe it to ourselves to approach claims and facts presented to us critically and with healthy skepticism. After all, these two things are how we protect ourselves from being taken advantage of.  It’s that simple.  Everytime you ask questions about something, you gain more knowledge.  It is with knowledge, and knowledge alone, that you can help yourself to avoid the common pitfalls and traps employed by scheisters, con-artists, and advertisements.

Robert L. Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland has posted a very good entry over at The Chronicle related to the Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science.  This reminds me a lot of Brian Dunning’s excellent introduction to critical thinking, Here Be Dragons, The Movie

It is important to understand that Robert and Brian are only pointing out warning signs.  No one is making the claim that just because any of these signs happen to be present means that something is definitely a scam.  It just means that, upon noticing something like this, it should trigger a red-flag for you, and cause you to ask perhaps a few more questions that you might otherwise do so.

Do yourself a favour and check out the post here.

Above all, remember: think critically.  No one else is going to do that for you, and the people that put forward these kind of claims will do everything in their power to shut down your skepticism and critical thinking.


Vaccines and the Rave board

October 24th, 2008 No comments

It’s a slow Friday at work. I’ve managed to get on top of all of my tasks and projects by the end of this week, and I have been very busy lately, so I do not feel too guilty to be enjoying the downtime and writing a blog entry. Hopefully my sins do not cost me dearly!

Anyhow, my friend Graham has, for some odd reason, taken it upon himself to debate some loonies over at Victoria’s local rave board. I don’t blame him for it – like the XKCD cartoon shows, when someone states ridiculous theories and ludicrous claims, then claims everyone else is an idiot for not buying into it, it’s hard not to bite. And, above all, it makes me proud when my friends show skeptical attitudes. After all, I think that skepticism and critical thinking are some of the wisest traits someone can possess, so it’s nice to see those reflected in my friends.

Reading through the posts, I saw one that stuck out like a sore thumb, as the vaccination controversy has been raging for a while:

To Vaccine or not?

They’re giving out free flu vaccinations at my work this week. Personally, I am opposed to vaccinations. I can see their worth for extreme cases (for example the small pox vaccine in the 1800’s) but I don’t see how people who are young and healthy would risk increased chances of alzheimers (due to combining mercury with aluminum and formaldehyde and then injecting it in your arm) and ultimatley damaging your immune system to fight off things naturally.

I’m curious what everyone else thinks about this?

I’m also looking for reading material on the subject that anyone has.

The post was already responded to by people, most of them offering poor advice, some of them offering good advice, and, as usual, one of them by resident wingnut “mike” telling her to “avoid getting injected with anything at all ever, the consequences will be worse in the longrun than anything in the short term” (Mike has obviously never suffered through smallpox).

Due to the large volume of responses, I find it difficult to reply to this person that may be asking an earnest question (I phrase it that way because she may just be looking to have her own opinion confirmed for her).

On the surface, this seems like a good question. Hey, at least she’s asking it right? Right off the bat though, we’ve got a problem. She’s asking a board devoted to raving in Victoria. I have no problem with the rave scene in Victoria, and it’s been a huge part of my life for ten years now (much more so in the earlier part of that decade than now). However, is this really the best place to go for medical advice?

The next is the major problem with the post – seeing their worth for extreme cases, but risking alzheimers. First of all, vaccines aren’t given out for things that aren’t worth vaccinating. The flu shot might be considered a vaccine, but if it is, it’s a temporary one at best. Most vaccine’s are given to you to cover you from infection for a longer term, usually upwards of a decade until you need to get another shot.

Second, this person is simply repeating misinformation that she’s probably heard as a result of the large-scale lunacy being put out by the anti-vaccination crowd. Vaccines do in fact use some small doses of aluminmum, though nothing that is considered to cause long-term effects. You can read more about it here on Wikipedia, or other reputable sites, such as Quackwatch. Large clinical studies have been done showing that aluminum-containing vaccines do not have any evidence of being a serious health risk, or to justify changes to immunization practice. Formaldehyde? I don’t see any reputable links stating that vaccines are mixed with formaldehyde, but perhaps I’m just missing the right links. Any comments directing me in the right direction would be good.

Third is the most common misconception about vaccines – that they daamge your immune system, or that they weaken it by not training it to fight off the problem. This is based on a poor understanding of how vaccines work. Our immune system is an impressive thing, capable of adapting to and fighting off millions of different types of contaminants, viruses, and bacteria in our body. One thing that our immune system has evolved is the ability to strengthen and get better at fighting the same contaminant the next time it comes around. This makes sense – you’ve learned from the battle, next time you can use that knowledge to beat it more swiftly. When you are administered a vaccine, you are given a dead or sterile version of the infecting agent, such that it still triggers your immune system’s response, but does not have the ability to actually infect you and start replicating itself at your expense. Incidentally, the flu shot works the same way, and when someone tells you “I don’t get the flu shot becomes I always get the flu because of it”, they are incorrect.

Getting vaccines does not harm your immune system or make it weaker. It strengthens your immune system, and basically gives it a chance to spar with the bacteria without the risk of you getting harmed in the process. Vaccines are a positive thing, and possibly one of the most substantial medical advances our society has ever created.

What about the flipside? What’s the harm in not getting a vaccine? Well, there are a couple. Part of this problem is what is called herd-immunity. When enough of the population are vaccinated against a given infectant, it becomes very difficult for that thing to propagate itself, as it ends up getting killed too quickly. Smallpox and Polio are both in this situation, and have almost dried up as a result of immunization. Some people, unfortunately, will not have their immune system develop this proper response, and the vaccine for a given contaminant simply will not work for them. These people rely on herd immunity in order to stay safe. When you choose not to vaccinate yourself or your child, you decrease the level of her immunity. If enough people stop vaccinating, we end up with a weak level of herd immunity, and then the people that wish to be rendered immune, but cannot be, will fall victim to the infectant.

What else? Well, it’s irresponsible. You should vaccinate your children, because you have a responsibility to them, and it’s the safe thing to do. Just because someone is “young and healthy”, does not mean that they cannot fall victim to an infectant, or that they will be able to fight that illness off. If you have the opportunity to dramatically increase your or your child’s chances of fighting off an illness, shouldn’t you take that opportunity?

Most important of all, learn about reputable sources to look this stuff up. I recommend:

  • PubMed
  • A great resource to search for all published medical studies. This is a great place to go and look up random claims people tell you about, and to determine for yourself how legitimate a quoted study is.

  • QuackWatch
  • Probably the best place to go when you have medical questions that you’re unsure of, or are facing claims made by people around you that you may doubt. QuackWatch is an excellent resource, and a great way to dig down to the truth.

  • Skepticality’s Forums
  • Skepticality has a good set of forums, with intelligent members. People will be more than happy to help you out with any questions you may have and any claims that you may have heard. Don’t be scared off by skeptics – use them as a resource, or better yet, join us! These forums, I guarantee, will be a much better source of information than your local rave forum.

Zeitgeist Addendum – “It turns out we may have gotten some stuff wrong guys..”

October 20th, 2008 No comments

A few weeks back a friend of mine recommended that I watched Zeitgeist, a documentary that I later found out was pretty much just a potpourri of most of the larger, current conspiracy theories. Although I thought the movie was quite poor, I did enjoy the opportunity to watch it and apply critical thinking to many of the claims made. You can read that review and analysis here if you haven’t already seen it.

Well, the makers of that film are back, and they’ve put out the sequel, Zeitgeist Addendum. This time a different friend recommended the movie to me, in a mass e-mail. Now, let’s cover some things off right at the start. I hate mass e-mails telling me to do something. They raise an immediate warning flag, simply because of the consistency with which the claims that seem to get forwarded around are completely fallacious and pseudoscientific. At least my friend apologized for the mass e-mail, but… that doesn’t get you off the hook. I wrote him back and asked him what he thought about the first movie, and why this one would be different. His response was that Addendum offered a possible solution to the problems that are put forward in the film. Well, let’s find out how well that holds up to scrutiny. Cock one eyebrow, clench your teeth, and read on..

The movie starts out using many of the same techniques we’ve come to know from the first movie. Compelling music is played over top of, clips from random speeches. The editing and production, as before, are done well, which is important whenever you want to get your message out there, regardless of how valid your message may actually be. This is definitely one of the positives about the movie.

The first attack begins with an unstated major premise as the movie starts talking about how monetary policies have reached religious proportions, and represent unregistered interests of a great majority of the population. The unstated premise here is that the majority of the population has the knowledge, or even the desire, to really drive something as gnarly and complex as the economy. There is no doubt that many of us would like to see our country’s economy run properly, but that does not necessarily mean that we would be adding value by simplistically letting the public, for the most part uneducated in finance and economics, steer this machine.

The film tells us that economics are generally viewed with boredom and confusion (as are many other disciplines that require expertise and specialization to fully understand, such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc.). We are told that “The complexity of economics is a mask designed to conceal the most socially paralyzing structures humanity has ever endured”. Unfortunately, this really doesn’t reflect reality. Anyone that has spent any time looking into the latest financial crisis understands that the complexity is absolutely baked in to something that represents the sum total of all of the interactions and exchanges that make up our existence. Imagine every single way that you spend money throughout the day. All of these exchanges. Now imagine that amount being multiplied out to the whole population, and then try to convince yourself that tracking, accounting for and managing that mess doesn’t need to be complex. Hmm.

The film then enters into a half-baked explanation of how new money is injected into the economy, including a discussion of how US treasury bonds are created, and how they add towards inflation. I say this explanation is half-baked because it misses a lot of the finer details. This is not my area of expertise, and I don’t want to get bogged down trying to explain the process. However, the conspiracy skeptic has already done an excellent job analyzing these kind of claims and the whole money is debt angle (the main proponent of moving away from a money-based system is the republican senator Ron Paul). I highly recommend his review here.

The film covers some more ground, now approaching the topic of inflation, and implying that is solely a consequence of introducing more money into the system. Although this is definitely one of the prime causes, there are certainly other factors, such as changes in the real demand for goods and services, or changes in available supplies such as during scarcities. For more information, read the Wikipedia article on the subject. Needless to say, this is just one of the many over-simplified explanations that Addendum applys to complicated problems.

Addendum then takes a whacky (false) premise, and bulldozes forward with a ludicrous argument that hinges on that premise being true (which it isn’t): Since all of the money that banks create is counterfeit and not real, (this claim is based on one court case many years back), the money that you borrow for credit cards and mortgages is invalid, and so is your debt.

The movie confuses economic policy that applies on different scales and attempts to discredit one model with the other – this is a fallacious approach, and it’s not surprising that the makers have reached some of the conclusions that they have. At the macroeconomic scale, money is created out of debt, and then Addendum flips this to apply that notion of debt to the microeconomic model, focusing on people. This leads us to faulty statements like “Because money is entirely based on debt, people do what they always do to alleviate debt. They work”. Wait a second here. We work to get paid and earn money. This money then becomes ours. Trying to take the macroeconomic model and apply that to microeconomics is a fallacious approach. Addendum is far from the first documentary to mix up the scales of different models, another example being the fallacious reasoning that the movie What the bleep do we know? used to try and apply what occurs at the level of quantum mechanics to our macroscopic world. This poor line of reasoning earned them a pigasus award for being the media outlet that “reported as factual the most outrageous supernatural, paranormal, or occult claims”.

There’s one discussions about using economics to get a hold of foreign assets, and manipulate economies for our own gains. This is certainly reasonable, and we see things like hostile takeovers, economic sanctions, and trade embargos being used on the global scale to affect the kind of change that a country feels will benefit them the most. However, we need to be careful not to commit the fallacy of the slippery slope here, like Addendum does. Affecting economics to some degree does not imply that we can completely control or steer its course. Economies are very tricky things, and in many ways represent an emergent property of millions of individuals doing what they can to make money, and earn a living. You can only predict things like this to a certain extent.

Now we are treated to a very long interview with some guy dubbed an “economic hitman” talking about assasination plots, etc. He uses many terms that throw up red flags like “lots of weird stuff was going on”, and “There’s no question that this person was assasinated”. These throw up flags because we’re not given any context or sources to back this up. Why was it no question? Is that his opinion? Was it actually investigated and determined that was the case? If so, why didn’t he mention that? A lot of weird things happening coincidentally are not sufficient evidence for us to assume that they are in fact related to each other. That being said, it’s important to understand that I’m not saying they were not related, just that we do not yet have sufficient evidence to make that conclusion. Remember, a good skeptic always withholds judgement until there is sufficient evidence to support it.

The movie is intertwined with many of the same cheesy techniques from the previous movie to push us towards the agenda that Zeitgeist wants us to buy into, such as showing scenes from a movie that have someone making their points for them, without citing where this is from. This has the effect of leading us to believe that we are watching someone actually state a fact consistent with Zeitgeit’s agenda, but that is in fact just a scene from a movie, and not really sufficient evidence of anything. It’s subtle, and sneaky. Remember, before you allow yourself to just take what you’re being told in a documentary at face value, make sure you can at least determine what the source is.

Addendum tells us that the word terrorist is an empty term, and Al Qaida is made up. We’ve already covered off terrorism in my previous review of Zeitgeist, so let’s leave this for now. We can all agree that the United States’ administration has used the 9/11 terrorist attacks for a great deal of wrongdoing, but this does not mean that terrorism does not exist, or that the term is empty. Fortunately though, the film and I agree on something – the states are spending a ton of money on preventing terrorism (which has even lead to some ridiculous things like someone working for the TSA stealing over $47,000 worth of high-tech equipment from passengers), an event that may occur, rather than funnel that money into something like resistant-tuberculosis or diabetes research, both diseases that definitely are killing lots of people on a daily basis.

The movie now provides us with its own perceived truism, that efficiency, abundance and sustainability are enemies of profit. This is very simplistic. To some extent, it is true that scarcity is an enemy of profit. If you can limit supply, then the demand for the product will allow you to charge more. However, for items that have a fixed price, a large number of competitors, or numerous other situations, this model does not hold true. Artificially changing the supply or prices can also backfire on you. In decades past, when cigarettes were being smoked with great frequency, the large corporations selling them got together and agreed to raise the prices together, and thus inflate the price artificially. However, this backfired when it made room for new companies to enter the market and sell their products at a cheaper price to consumers. They grabbed marketshare from the big companies, and the larger companies realized that they would not be able to increase their profits with this technique.

Incidentally, this natural balancing is part of what led many economists to believe in the laissez-faire economic policies that have now led us to where we are. Additionally, efficiency may help lead to an abundance if you can create and extract your product faster and sell it at a consistent price, thus making more profit. If that isn’t an option, you could theoretically create your product at a faster speed, and then warehouse it, in order to avoid having too much supply. Lastly, you could take the additional time and resources you now find yourself with and put that towards investing in different avenues for gain. The claim that these things are enemies of profit really is based on a fairly sophomoric understanding of the way things work. As usual, this approach is immediately appealing because it makes sense on an intuitive level. However, as soon as you start to look into it, you can see that these assertions fall apart.

A resource-based economy is advocated for in the movie. However, I don’t really understand why the movie feels that this would be a solution. Watching further, we are treated to the talking head (Jacque Fresco) they’ve had on for the last forty-five minutes or so that we don’t need petroleum, we don’t need electricity. This is a facile statement. We don’t technically need anything other than food and water. However, our economy and our society have evolved to make use of these resources. Just because we don’t tecnically need them doesn’t mean that we could just stop using them outright and everything would be fine. As awareness of the problems caused by over-use of these resources becomes greater, we are starting to see people make a shift away from this lifestyle. However, just like you can’t change your own habits overnight, society and governments require time, patience, and focus in order to affect large-scale changes.

Next we’re told that abundant alternative sources of energies already exist, and could easily be used and replace our current models. This is fallacious. There are many barriers to entry for making switches to alternative sources of energy. The least of which is that petroleum is an efficient source of energy that has been packed together over the course of millions of years. Yes, it is damaging to the environment, and yes, it is not a renewable resource. However, that does not change the fact that it is very cost-effective, and relatively cheap for us to extract and make use of the product. Switching to alternative resources requires setting up a supply chain to extract, process and delivery these resources (this in itself is a large undertaking, and requires a large amount of time to complete). We also need to have a good financial reason to do this, because, ultimately, we are selfish creatures. It’s not because companies want to make a quick buck (even though they would love to).

If companies went through all of this effort to create alternative fuel sources, and then started to sell it, they would likely have to sell it for a higher price per unit than they can petroleum. Why? Well, to start with, because petroleum is easy and efficient. Additionally, economies of scale dictate that the massive supply chain that already exists for petroleum means that it is even cheaper to extract and distribute than is our new and burgeoning resources. If you are presented with paying X for one energy, or twice that amount for a different energy, which are you going to choose. Maybe you will say now that you would do it for the environment and pay more, but history and human nature have shown us that this is wishful thinking, and that we will ultimately move towards using whatever will allow us to accomplish our goals for the least amount of money.

Solar energy is another resource mentioned, which is definitely an option. However, the claim is made that there are many advanced mediums today that can harness one-hundred percent of the sun’s energy, or a significant amount, and would be valid if they did not need to compete with existing energy sources on the market. This is true, but what does that mean? That theoretically we could just wipe out oil from the map, stop using it completely, and then use sun? The reason that these technologies are not able to get mainstream acceptance yet because of this competition is because they are too expensive to be feasible. Only time and further research will help us bring that cost down. Ending the use of oil outright will not lower the price of these technologies. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

Zeitgeist Addendum tell us that as technology grows, the need for human labour will diminish. This claim is made by the movie, which then states that based on this, the notion of the monetary based labour system is a fraud. This is pretty silly, and once again, is a simplisitic view of the way things. If you look at history, technology does in fact remove a large number of jobs for humans, and, then creates new jobs in other areas. Computers have removed the necessity for a large number of filing jobs that were filled in the past, however, this new industry has created new jobs, and that is now the reason we have people like me working in software.

Another simplistic claim: Without money, the majority of the crimes created today would not occur. A lot of us worry about crime, and wish that it didn’t need to be there. However, I think that many of us understand that it is a necessary evil that comes with change, technology, and growth. As we as humans continue to grow up, we also must accept new responsibility that comes with that growth. Removing money will not change the fact that people can be greedy, hateful, spiteful, passionate, and will disagree with one another. To assume that taking money out of our society will end the majority of crime is to pull the wool over your eyes and ignore our own shortcomings.

We’ve listened to Jacque Fresco talk on and on for quite some time now. He has a lot of naive ideas that he and the makers of this movie obviously thing are worth your time, but I haven’t heard anything yet that gave me the confidence that his vision is tempered with realism. Here’s an example: “You see a sign on the highway that says slippery when wet. Instead of the sign, put abrasive surface on the highway, so that the car doesn’t slip when it gets wet”. These are the sort of statements that most of us will make from time to time when we don’t have the domain knowledge that experts in their fields do. This example is a pretty simple solution, don’t you think? Is it possible that there is a reason that this isn’t currently done, given how simple it is? Some people may choose to jump to the conclusion of “Because the government doesn’t care about its people”, but maybe there’s a simpler explanation, such as “We tried that, but it ended up wearing down people’s tires faster and causing more accidents”. Listening to this guy talk just doesn’t convince me that he’s tethered his optimism to the reality that we live in.

Another problem here is the claims that removing money from the equation means that people would just start being generous. People have been bartering since as long as we have lived in a social system. The monetary system just provides a way for us to have a universal item of barter for which we can then provide that to anyone. We could remove money from the equation, but you’re still going to need to barter for goods and services. You’ll just find it an awful lot less convenient if you don’t have something I need, when you need something from me. Many of these ideas fall short because of the fact that they rely on an idealized vision of how human’s interact with one another, much like extreme forms of communism do.

Woo, we were just told by the movie what success is. This is a fairly patronizing and condescending thing to do, since the entire notion of success is really subjective to the individual. Using the film’s own definition of success to push its agenda doesn’t really add much to the mix. We end this section with more obnoxious stand-up comedy, like they used in the first one. Again, a semi-subtle way of bashing the opposing view without actually having to back that up with any evidence.

The next bit strikes me as quite interesting – hypnotic imagery is shown on screen as narratives are played at us. This is mostly interesting because it seems fairly sneaky. If I was making a film complaining about people being treated as sheep, and how they had the wool pulled over their eyes, I would try to stay true to my own message, and avoid using tricks like this (regardless of whether or not they actually have any net effect).

Zeitgeist ends with a proposed solution, which includes a lot of gems, and by gems, I mean foolsgold. Some of these are boycotting large banks by moving your banking and credit cards to other banks. Again, this is simplistic, and completely misses how complicated and intertwined everything in the economy is. The next advice I partially agree with: turn off mainstream TV news, the notion being that these are partisan and controlled by corporations. I only partially agree because it’s important to listen to all sides of an argument (hey, I’m sitting through the second Zeitgeist movie here, so at least I’m following my own advice). Just make sure you get your news from multiple locations and sources, and you will be sure that you are receiving an accurate portrayal of what is really going on.

Another item is to boycott the military. Again, this is very simplistic (do you see a trend here?) – war is no doubt a negative thing, but is it something that we can just walk away from, or is it simply part of the human condition? It is also false to believe war does not bring any benefit, as a large amount of innovation (nuclear power for example) has come from war efforts. I’m not in favour of war myself, and am a pacifist. However, that doesn’t mean that I am naive enough to believe that simply boycotting the military altogether would actually achieve the proposed ends.

The last solution is to join Zeitgeist’s movement. I would advocate against doing this, for the reasons that I have listen above. In short, I don’t think this is a very well thought-out or well-researched movement. If you want to make a difference, do things by acting locally to solve a lot of these problems, such as reducing the amount of waste you create on a daily basis, reducing the amount that you drive, and eliminating your debt. Act locally, but think globally. Joining the Zeitgeist Movement is not going to really achieve anything. But don’t take my word for it.. Do your own research and determine how you can best affect the positive change that you want to see in the world around you.

Thoe movie ends with a cheesy cinematic showing a bunch of people getting fed up and throwing down the trappings of their everyday life, and then as soon as they’ve done this, the world becomes shiny and colored. It’s cute rhetoric, but again, doesn’t really teach us anything, and is simply used as a way to push your towards the maker’s own agenda.

The biggest problem with Zeitgeist Addendum is how simplisitic it’s approach, questions, and proposed answers all are. Every analysis looks only at the very surface, and then draws assumptions based on that. When I was young, I always used tell my dad that if I was in a car falling off a cliff, I would wait until the last minute, and then just jump out of the car. My thinking was that the car was falling, I would just get up and jump out. It’s not until we grow older, and learn about gravity, how we are also falling with the car, and why you cannot jump up to just negate your momentum, that you understand how simplisitic your perceived view was. Unfortunately, the makers of Zeitgeist have never taken the time to look any deeper than these initial naive conclusions. There is a reason that we have specialists in fields, and that is because those fields are very complex. It is understandable for people to look at our economy and want to blame economists, but honestly, they are human, just like us, and they want what is best for themselves, their friends, and their family as well. They know their stuff, and they know it well, and they will gladly try and explain to you how the economy works, and why it is so complex. It’s too bad that the makers of this movie never really sat down and talked to enough of them.

On a positive note, I must admit that I’m quite impressed with how a good a job the producers of the movie did with what I assume is a limited budget. The production on the documentary is good, and it definitely makes the movie easier to watch. However, the unfortunate part of this is that someone has clearly spent a lot of time and effort to put forth such a misguided effort. In that regard the movie is a little bit saddening, as the people have their hearts in the right place (a desire to affect positive social change), but have been let down by our educational system. If we really want to see positive change in the long run, the hope lies in our education system. How can you help towards that effort? Spend the time to research claims that are presented to you (thoroughly), and be willing to offer alternative explanations to people that strike you as misguided in their thinking. Help encourage skepticism and critical thinking, rather than condescending and stomping on other people’s beliefs, and above all, act locally to affect the positive change that you want to see in the world around you.

Annnnnd, now I scrub my hard-drive clean of this movie.

Esoteric Agenda

September 23rd, 2008 No comments

Looks like I’m following a trend here. One of the things that critical thinking is very applicable to is cinema. We documentaries are a very popular form of disseminating information these days, and for every good documentary by people like Al Gore and Errol Morris, there are poor documentaries made to support an agenda with very little fact checking and reliable research.

Filtering through these documentaries can be confusing, and rich media content like feature-length movies are very evocative.

Esoteric Agenda is the second movie that my friend recommended I watch. Based on Zeitgeist, this movie was even more of a challenge to avoid approaching with a bias. However, a good skeptic doubts, rather than denies, and so that is the approach that I have to take.

The first piece of information that is covered by the movie is the Mayan calendar. Let’s get the elephant out of the room. There has been a lot of fuss made lately about the Mayan calendar, and the fact that a bunch of people believe that they predicted the world would end in December 2012. This is not in any way accurate, and even if they did make that prediction (they didn’t), there is no reason whatsoever that we should place any value in this prediction.

There are often lots of claims made that we are supposed to believe because “it comes from an ancient civilization”. This is the fallacy of argument from antiquity – that is, the belief that we should accept a claim simply because it comes from an ancient civilization or source. This is actually opposite to the way science works. As time continues to pass, we continue to test new hypotheses, and add to our body of knowledge.

If you’re genuinely interested in understanding how the Mayan calendar operated, and what this misinformed claim of a prediction is based on, Brian Dunning of Skeptoid has written an excellent (and succint) explanation here.

The next claim made is that Nostradamus actually predicted the end of the age in December 2012, just like the Mayan calendar. Problem number one: there is no source whatsoever provided for this information (a pattern that will soon start to repeat itself). Problem number two: claiming Nostradamus successfully predicted something is just not going to work. Nostradamus’s so called predictions were written out in a book as sets of quatrains – four lines of text for each quatrain. These were written in French, a bit of Italian, some Greek, and also some Latin thrown in. Not only that, but Nostradamus intentionally obscured the meaning of each quatrain through the use of metaphor and symbolism.

If you take an honest look at the claims made by people saying Nostradamus predicted something, you can see that the claim of Nostradamus successfully predicting something is unfalsifiable. His quatrains are frequently interpreted to fit any prediction the person stating a claim wants to make, and if an event occurs that would contradict one of his quatrains, it’s simply brushed off as not being the event that was predicted by that quatrain.

The next bit is about clocks being made to imply that time is something external. I’m not even sure what the point of that is, but I do know that clocks are simply a way for us to make the passage of time something that is tangible, rather than an abstract concept. It is very difficult to get a mental grasp on a concept as illustrious as time. Clocks help us do that. I guess you could look at clocks as evil, if you wanted to, but I’m not sure why you would.

I’m now ten minutes into the movie, but so far all that I’ve been treated to is a speech that has been prepared by someone, along with images on the screen. There have been no sources cited, and nothing to actually back up the information that is being spewed out at me. This, in itself, is a red flag. A red flag doesn’t mean that what is being said is incorrect. A red flag is just a reason to turn up your skeptical sensors a little bit higher and continue to question what you’re being told.

Because this movie is produced a lot more cheaply than Zeitgeist was, it’s a lot more difficult for me to maintain focus on the movie. As such, I’m switching in and out of it, and taking notes as I hear something worthy. An interesting sound bite caught my attention as I was vacuuming, and I had to turn off and rewind to listen again. That was this:

“If this is your first time hearing about the ocult, pay close attention”

First off, why aren’t you paying close attention in the first place? It’s almost like the makers of the film are acknowledging how dull their movie is. That aside, the insinuation is that we haven’t heard about the upcoming information because it’s groundbreaking news. Now, that’s a little odd. First of all, why would this news only be getting revealed in a movie like this one, that didn’t even make it to theatres? Maybe a better question, though, is: Why is this is the first time I’m hearing about this? Which is more plausible, that the occult is that secret, and that the only people that were able to “break the news” are the guys behind Esoteric Agenda, or that this is a pretty fringe claim being made?

Honestly, even secret societies like the Skull and Bones club of Harvard has an entry in Wikipedia documentating a lot of stuff about it. Wikileaks releases tons of information on a weekly basis that is supposed to be “highly secret”, most recently the contents of Sarah Palin’s Yahoo E-mail account. Ask yourself, if the occult was that serious, and had their hands in that much stuff, would they really be able to keep it that secret?

We’re finally given a source, and it’s an IRS document called IRS publication 6209. I opened this up to look through it, and holy man, it’s huge and dense. I tried to read through some of it, but we’re not told where in the document the information is that purports to show things like how we dont’ have to pay income tax, income tax is illegal, we’re not protected by the constitution (well, I’m not anyhow, since I’m Candian, but you get the point). For a good explanation of one of the more applicable (but still wrong and not valid) ways that income tax could be evaded, check out the Straight Dope entry on the matter here.

We’re told that the CIA, FBI, NASA, and one other organization were never part fo the US govenrment, and that the government only holds shares in these organizations. I’m not even sure how shares would operate, since these are not corporations or companies, and do not have stock that would be traded around. What is true is that the FBI, based on what I was able to research on the internet, is in fact a part of the US government, but does in fact act outside of the jurisdiction of the government. The reasoning behind this is actually fairly sound, in that the FBI does in fact need to be able to do things like investigate the president and other aspects of the US government, should that be where the trail of a case leads them.

Ah, I looked up the basis for these claims, and as you would expect, they’re far from watertight. First off, this entire claim, which, I think we can accept, is a very significant claim. Bordering on extraordinary. We would expect a claim like this to have some pretty significant evidence. Instead of that, we get two court cases. One of which relates to trying to determine whether an individual working for one of these organizations was in fact working for the Federal Government, or a private corporation (more of an issue of semantics than anything else), and the other case being about an attempt to determine whether or not one of these organizations could be sued under the Federal Tort Law. These cases are not the kind of cases that would determine such a massive exemption as that which they are being cited in support for. You can read the summary of the second case here. Don’t worry, that’s a short read. Main fact to remember? We’d need to see much better evidence before it was reasonable to just toss our chips in with this claim. Next.

Still not convinced? No worries. It turns out, these claims are actually based on an e-mail that’s been getting sent around for quite some time. As it typical with this kind of thing, you can find the urban legend quoted in many many many different places, but actually finding any good skeptical writing on the item is tough. I searched and found that someone had already taken a critical walk through the whole thing. Take a look at this page and you can see that most of these claims are based on poor understandings of the law, or precedence cases. That page is available here. It’s unfortunate that it’s always the misinformation that seems to get passed around from inbox to inbox, rather than the corrective details. If only the makers of Esoteric Agenda had bothered to do the same kind of research I just did, they would have been able to avoid quoting fallacious material to support their agenda.

Now we get mention of the Skull and Bones club, and how meetings of these types happen often, but no word of it reaches the public, even though, we are told that major media is present at these events.

Everything I have read suggests that these events ARE secret, and media is not present. Which is more reasonable – that the media are present, but somehow are paid off enough to prevent even one whistleblower from blowing the lid off of this, or, that this information is not factually accurate? Which of those two items is more plausible? It doesn’t matter what we want to believe, we have to seek out the answer that is the most plausible.

Finally we get to the first thing that I believe to be accurate in this film: The statement that “In order to win a game, you should use strategy and secrecy to achieve your victory. Why would it be any different in the global political arena.”

I agree with this, but this heuristic alone does not explain anything in particular, and is simply stated to attempt to give weight to the other claims being made. Nothing about this fact actually helps us prove the veracity of the claims being made – it is simply being used to increase the mental bias that you have and to make you feel more supportive of their statements.

Now we get crappy footage of some guy that is using the strategy of a chess master to attempt to further the above. He’s claiming that the one world order has patience and have been planning this for 50,000 years. Wow. If you look back at any single prediction of the future, even 50 years back, it’s pretty hilarious how far off they got a lot of things. To believe that people could plan something over the course of 50,000 years is a pretty massive stretch of the imagination.

This guy also tells us that the ancients knew about astrology, which we have not forgotten. Astrology is completely pseudoscientific, and gives us nothing at all. Rolling in your beliefs with this really doesn’t do you any benefit. And once again, the fallacy of argument from antiquity.

Now we’re told that every US president has a direct blood line relation to a British monarch. That’s quite a claim. What would we say that a direct bloodline actually means? We’re told that George W. Bush is Queen Elizabeth’s 13th cousin. I don’t even know what a 13th cousin would be, so I looked it up. Here’s what that means:

George W. Bush and Queen Elizabeth shared one great great great great great great great great great great great great grandparent. WOW. That is some loose criteria for a direct bloodline. If we’re going to go back 13 generations, I bet you that I can find some pretty crazy relations that I have with various monarchs or royal families. Is this really that significant? It certainly doesn’t strike me as very good evidence to support the claims that the movie makes for “only family members in the new world order get to be in control of the governments”.

Another gem – we’re told that the same emblems are shown on every single military uniform, such as:

  • Fleur De Lis
  • Skull

These are pretty loose criteria for emblems. There’s also many possibl reasons for why the emblems could have a lot in common. To think of one, skulls would be a good emblem because they represent death, and could strike fear into the hearts of your enemy. The film doesn’t bother looking into any other claims, and just jumps into the assumption that these are all indications of a new world order and a one world government. This is lame, and also falls victim to the same question that I asked of Zeitgeist. Are they really smart and organized enough to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, but make the mistake of using the same emblems on their uniforms? Come on…

Here’s another classic quote: “Connecting the dots is up to you, but make your own decisions, instead of settling on the conclusions that are being placed in front of you.”

This movie is guilty of exactly the kind of thing it is warning you against accepting and settling on in the quote above. Do not just accept what is being said here. QUESTION it (please).

There is an important distinction to be made here and one that both Zeitgeist and Esoteric Agenda get wrong. Critical thinking doesn’t mean that you just accept the opposite point of view to that of the mainstrea. It means that you have to question claims made on both sides, and then analyze and select the best and most plausible of those claims.

Zeitgeist and Esoteric Agenda also both commit the fallacy of presenting a false dichotomy. This is where you present two potential explanations for a given piece of evidence, and then argue as though those are the only two plausible explanations. In Esoteric Agenda, they make claims, and then, when their own (poor) analysis shows that it doesn’t fit with the mainstream point of view, they assume that this is proof of their own point of view. This is not how science works, and not how good research is conducted.

In summary, just because the government lies about some things (and I think we can all agree that this happens) doesn’t mean that what this movie claims is true.

The movie makes the claim that by searching for New World Order on Google, you will be overwhelmed by the number of people trying to get information out there. However, this amounts to nothing more than the bandwagon fallacy: the fallacious attempt to convince us that something is correct or accurate just because a bunch of people believe it. Claims need to stand up on their own, regardless of how many people do, or do not believe in them (yes, the bandwagon fallacy works in both directions).

We’re told by Esoteric Agenda to look past the common claims that we are told. This is an excellent idea. However, the movie wants you to stop looking any further as soon as you arrive at the same convoluted conclusion that it is putting forth. Critical thinking is good, but only if you apply it equally to everything that you are told, rather than just the mainstream opinion.

The movie pulls a cute trick here, by stating that the points of views expressed within will be labelled with the term Conspiracy Theory, which has negative connotations, and that this is simply a means used to discredit the movie. This is a classic appeal made in many situations. Often, mainstream scientists will refer to someone that is proposing the latest perpetual motion or free energy machine (a feat that is impossible under the second law of thermodynamics – one of the most fundamental and proven laws observable in our universe) as a crank. These people will then turn around and say that they are being dismissed out of hand, and not being given a fair chance. The fallacy here lies in the assumption that that label is the only means by which they are being dismissed, and likewise, the same applies to Esoteric Agenda’s special pleading. The reality is that most of the claims made in Esoteric Agenda are either ridiculously convoluted (and thus fall victim to Occam’s Razor, at least until we see actual good clean evidence to support these extraordinary claims), or are patently false.

The summary? Esoteric Agenda’s claims are mostly baseless, leaps in logic, or already disproven, AND the claims essentially amount to one massive conspiracy theory.

Another attempt to turn evidence against the movie’s claims into positive evidence for them is the the statement that: If a global secret needed to remain hidden, but emerged among the public, embellishment and adding fiction to it would be the best way to deal with it. Again, we are dealing with the problem of falsifiability. How would you ever prove these claims wrong if you can just flip any negative evidence into evidence that supports your pet theory? Good research doesn’t start with an assumption (there is a massive conspiracy), and then shoehorn the available evidence to support that answer. It starts with questions, and builds a hypothesis based on where the available evidence leads it.

Next up we get treated to some woman that is talking at a nutritionist convention, but we are not told anything about the convention itself, nor about this woman. She is every bit as dubious as the voice-over that has been narrating the movie thus far, but those two credentials (that she’s a nutrionist, and at a convention) are put on the screen to suggest that she has some credibility.

We need better evidence, to support claims like this, than one lone person on the screen making claims on top of a podium. I can put a guy in a lab coat and tell you he’s a doctor, and then make him claim that brushing your teeth gives you cancer. Would you question that claim? How is that any different than this woman’s claim? Maybe the answer is that you want to believe in this conspiracy theory. If that’s the case, you should ask yourself – what would be more rewarding, believing in a conspiracy theory bceause it’s compelling theory, or because you’ve actually analyzed the claims it makes and determined that they are the absolutely most plausible way to explain the world arround us?

Honestly, it’s alright to think that conspiracy theories are neat, and that it would be cool if there really was some power that had this kind of control, but while maintaining that line of thinking, you still need to be willing to look at each piece of evidence, on its own, and see if that evidence being presented is plausible and stands up on its own. As it stands, this lady’s testimony doesn’t really do anything for us without more context to frame what she is saying.

Conspiracy theory #29123219 introduced is that fluoridizing our water supply is a massive conspiracy to kill off large numbers of people. This is an extraordinary claim, so we would, again, expect to see some really good evidence to back it up. Unfortunately, we get one interview, and information provided to us by the narrator. If you do some research online, you can see that there is in fact some valid debate on fluordization. On one side, the American Dental Association states many prominent organizations that endorse this practice, include the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Medical Association. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to this Wikipedia article here, list water fluoridation as one of the 10 greatest public health achievements in the 20th century.

On the other hand, you’ve got what appears to be some decent clinical trials showing that the amount of fluoride present in water could pose health risks to people that consume large quantities of water, and to newborn babies. Fair enough, this sounds like it is worth conducting some further studies.

Does this alone provide any evidence to support that water fluoridization is being done to kill off masses of people? Nope. There’s no good evidence to support this whatsoever, and it’s an astounding leap in logic.

The next person shown talking and presenting claims is someone called Michael Shaw, who is talking about how the goal of the new world order is to destroy the middle class. First of all, this is a silly proposition, and would be nigh impossible to achieve. There exists a middle class because you need people to carry out certain duties. As an example, you can consider a large portion of any government bureaucracy to be the middle class. Without all of these people, there would absolutely be no “One World Government”. If you think that having just one government to oversee all of the world would reduce bureaucracy, you don’t understand how bureaucracy works. Secondly, I recommend checking out Michael Shaw’s website, or at least a website that seems to be strongly supporting him, here. A very nice site. I wasn’t able to find very much on the internet about Michael Shaw, at least the one talking in the video, but what I did find amounted to poorly thought out rants about the US government taking down our society, creating a one world government, etc.

Essentially, Michael Shaw is just one more person that holds the same views as this movie, and really doesn’t offer any new evidence. His presence does nothing to lend credibility to the claims in the movie.

The last piece that I have a note about is related to the so called “Climate Change Conspiracy”. The notion that climate change is being pulled over our eyes as a means to fool us further. The film even makes note that there is a petition with 19,000 scientists signed on to it that disagree with the climate change findings.

Let’s take a quick tangent here. Climate change is a complicated topic, the least of which being because it is so heavily political right now. There are many different approaches to it – Is it actually happening? Is it caused by humans? Is this something that has happened in the past? Is it happening faster than most? etc. The scientific consensus is that climate change is in fact progressing towards a warmer client, and that we are responsible for that change, at least to a significant degree. There will always be fringe scientists that degree with the main consensus, and there will also always be differing opinions on what mechanism is actually causing the observed phenomenon. However, the main consensus is as stated above.

Now, This may sound like a bandwagon fallacy – just because a bunch of scientists believe something, why should I? This is a fair question to ask, and is a difficult one to deal with. In essence, the scientific consensus is an opinion that is reached, independantly, by many different scientists. We have a limited capacity of knowledge, and ultimately have to entrust certain aspects of our knowledge base to certain individuals. In this case, we have to throw in our lot with scientists that study this kind of thing on a daily basis. While it would be weak reasoning to simply follow along with one scientist, a scientific consensus has been reached independantly by the majority of scientists working in a field, and this is the key aspect that separates it from the bandwagon fallacy.

Anyhow, the claim that there are 19,000 scientists that have signed a petition doesn’t hold a lot of water, without telling us how many people exist on the opposite side of the fence. Are these 19,000 just a dedicated part of the fringe? I don’t know without more details. You can read more about this petition project here on Wikipedia. As that article tells, this petition has certainly had it’s share of surrounding controversy.

Anyhow, the movie droned on further, but did not cover a lot of new ground. The best part about this movie, I think, is that it makes Zeitgeist look good in comparison. Unfortunately, this is a pretty bland movie that is fairly poorly produced. It doesn’t really cover any additional ground that Zeitgeist didn’t already try to cram into its 2 hours of screentime, and this could probably be more accurately viewed as a summary of every conspiracy theory that is currently floating around on the internet.

The bottom line is that, at the very least, we should all take this kind of information with a skeptical eye, and do some of our own research. Although writing this blog entry took me about 6 hours (8 if you include the 2 hours I spent watching the film), actually performing the research was as simple as opening up a web browser and searching for some of the claims and names that were presented on screen during the movie.

Bottom line – do your own research. That doesn’t mean watching a movie like this, thinking about the fact that this goes against the mainstream and may initially seem compelling, and then throwing your chips in with this point of view. It means thinking critically about the information presented on both sides of the debate, and looking into the claims that are being put forth.

Time consuming as these kind of things are, it’s actually pretty rewarding to go through a movie like this and debunk the claims, and as a result of the research that necessitates, it certainly provides the opportunity to learn a lot more on the fly. I should also mention that I’m although I thought both this movie and Zeitgeist were pretty terrible excuses for documentaries, I’d like to thank my friend Dan for bringing them to my attention. Just because I thought a movie was bad, or take the time to debunk it, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth spending some time analyzing.

If anyone else has movies of this nature that they think would be worth being put through the skeptical lens, please add a comment or e-mail me and let me know.


September 17th, 2008 No comments

A friend of mine recommended that I watch a movie called Zeitgeist. I wasn’t sure what it was, but he told me it was a documentary about 9/11. Now, most of the ground has been covered for 9/11 these days. The things that remain are usually either related to the consequences and aftermath of the attack, or loony conspiracy theories.

Unfortunately this one falls into the latter camp. Out of respect to my friend, I made a mental note that I wouldn’t go online and read anything about it before I started watching it. Although the 9/11 conspiracy theories fly blatantly in the face of good science and logic, they are still an opportunity to practice critical thinking skills, and I wanted to use this as an opportunity to do exactly that.

I took notes as I watched the movie, and then wrote out my thoughts on each item. As a result, some parts of this entry will flow a little more than others, but I think it all works out in the end. I could spend more time editing this, as I would do in the past, but doing so means that I just won’t end up publishing it, so I think I’m better off just getting this out the door.

Onwards with the movie.

The movie starts out right at the start with a MAJOR premise:

We’ve been lied to by religions, education, and governments. Ironically the movie asks us not to accept authority as truth, but to accept truth as authority, and then goes about setting itself up as an authority on these matters that we should just trust.

Next up we open into a George Carlin standup routine where he jokes about religion and how religions have managed to do a great job pulling the wool over the public’s eyes. In many ways this is probably a fairly accurate statement, but it is definitely a generalization, and, regardless of that, why is George Carlin the first real voice that we hear in this movie? Is he meant to be considered some kind of authority? This doesn’t mean the movie isn’t going to be on point or anything, but it definitely makes me wonder what the intent is of putting a potentially inflammatory comic routine at the start of a movie that purports to be a documentary.

Now we’re moving into the actual meat of the claims of the first part of the movie. These claims revolve around what, to me, appear to be attempts to discredit Christianity by proving that its story isn’t original or accurate. Before going any further, I should point out that I am not religious, but my wife is, and we both feel that if you’re basing your faith around the fact that your religion of choice comes from a book that was legitimately handed to us by god, you are kind of missing the point.

Due to a similarity in the zodiac shorthand for the chart and the Christian cross, we are supposed to make the leap in logic that Christianity is and always has been based on the stars, constellations, and the zodiac. Is it reasonable to make the assumption that because the Nazi’s took the swastika from Hindu and other Eastern religions, we should assume that the entire facist Nazi movement is actually based on those religious beliefs? We can see pretty quickly that this analogy breaks down, and is more of an interesting coincidence than anything else.

Of course, the movie tells us this as though it is fact (in the disembodied voice of the narrator, who we have no knowledge of, nor where this supposed fact is drawn from other than a hunch).

We follow this up with a nice example of cherry picking data – pulling religious quotes out from the bible that support the statement above, but without showing any of the many pieces of scripture that would counter this. Ironically, many non-Christians criticize those that are by saying that they often cherry pick their own lines of scripture to support their own claims (which some do, and yes, this is also invalid).

The movie meanders further and now mentions ancient civilizations that were supposed to be very aware of the zodiac cycle, and the precession of the earth. Who cares. Ancient societies believed many things, but I’m pretty happy with modern medicine, thanks. Trying to argue that they were right just because they were ancient is the fallacy of Argument from Antiquity – suggest that that which is older is more likely to be correct.

More arbitrary and unsupported claims: apparently Jews blow the ram’s horn because they were prominent during the era of the Ram, in the zodiac cycle. We’re just expected to accept this fact. It doesn’t really prove or disprove anything, but even so, I don’t see any compelling reason to believe in this over any other reasoning for it.

Likewise, we’re told that Christians use a fish to represent Jesus and their belief, but we’re supposed to believe that’s because Jesus’s birthdate was purported to be around the same time that the age of Pisces is started. Not surprisingly, they don’t make any mention of the fact that almost all modern historians (generally a much more reliable source of information than a theologian) agree that Jesus was born a few decades earlier than 1 B.C.

The movie now goes into showing the similarities between Christianity and Egyptian beliefs, scrolling a big wall of text up the screen with similarities between the two, claiming they are staggering. I paused so I could read them. Here are some of the gems:

  • Horus the fulfiller <-> Jesus the fulfiller
  • Horus the founder <-> Jesus the founder
  • Horus the chaser of boastfulness <-> Jesus the humbler of the proud

Aren’t these pretty mundane similarities? Isn’t it reasonable to expect that the main figure of a given religion is going to be endowed with certain properties that inspire awe, such as fulfilment, founding the universe and cosmos, humbling those that are self-righteous, etc.?

I’m not arguing against the fact that many religions have commonalities with each other, and it’s actually one of the most interesting parts about religion, but this isn’t a reason to jump to the conclusion that Christianity is based off of Egyptian beliefs, nor that both of them are necessarily based off of astrological beliefs.

The movie also takes some liberties in what they call a “literary similarity”, such as assuming that The Mysteries in Egyptian texts has the same meaning as as The Miracles in Christian texts. Maybe… but we’re not provided any context with which to make that judgment ourselves. Not only that, but these would be translation from Egyptian Hieroglyphics – that’s pretty tough translation on top of all that. I can cherry-pick quotes and data out of my older blog entries and not show any context in order to imply the same relationship. Without any context, this information doesn’t do us a lot of good.

There’s a good deal of time spent showing that a lot of the bible is plagiarized or influenced by earlier epics, poems, and stories. If you, like I, don’t regard the bible as a book handed to humans by a god, but as a work of man, this isn’t a shocking revelation. We would naturally expect that new works would be influenced by older ones (indeed, we see this happening in all creative aspects of our modern society). Again, many religions share commonalities. What does this prove?

And now more stand-up? Jeez. Come on guys. The movie provides more stand-up as a voice over while it shows pictures on the screen ridiculing what the bible says. Hey, it’s pretty easy to do that, I’ll try:

People that made the movie Zeitgeist actually believe that all religions are caused by the stars, and that 9/11 is a giant conspiracy cover up, even though anyone that has ever worked in any capacity with a government knows that if there’s two things a government can’t do, it’s:

  • Act efficiently
  • Keep secrets

Blah. If you’re going to make some allegations, get on with it. Anyone can sling mud.

The movie claims to analyze the number of historians that have written about Jesus, dismissing three of the four they note outright, because they refer to him as Christ, or “The Annointed”, which is a title rather than a specific reference to Jesus Christ himself. The fourth they dismiss on the grounds that he has been discredited. I don’t see any sources or citations that support these claims.

However, if I go to Wikipedia and type in “Historical Jesus” in my search bar, I’m presented with a page that has many links, sources and citations, and discusses, in a balanced manner, the accuracy and likelihood of Jesus as a historical figure, and what his live may really have been. If you are actually interested in this subject, this is a really interesting page:

And now even more voice-overs. Who are we listening to? Are we expected to just take everything that is being told to us in voice-over as fact, or as some kind of authority? We haven’t yet seen one of these voices attached to a talking head, or with a name or credential supplied. Maybe they’re just telling a story, but it’d sure be nice to see something to let us in on that fact.

Now we enter part 2 of the movie, and things start to get kah-razy.

Looks like we’re entering a 9/11 conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories are interesting, but that’s about as far as they usually go.

We start off being treated to a bunch of news clips, most of which appear to be right at the scene of the event, as people are being rescued. These people are making claims about what has just happened and most of the claims we’re presented with relate to Zeitgeist’s side of the story. Again, with no context as to how many people there were citing the other side of the claims that the legitimate investigations have determined to be true. We have to understand that many of these kind of testimonies are going to be colored with fear, terror, shock, and adrenaline. All of these elements have been proven to affect our memories and the way we remember things.

We end the montage with someone saying “It was like there were explosives in the building” (a claim that was analyzed by Popular Mechanics and shown to be highly unlikely, given that all of the actual recorded evidence (non-testimonial) was consistent with the findings of a structural collapse caused by the weakening of the supporting structure of the building, and not explosions). Lastly we’re treated to a black screen with white text, that has the heading “The 911 Myth”. I guess we know which avenue this movie is going to take.

Before going further, it’s important to note a fallacy committed by the film makers, and that is the fallacy of the strawman attack. They phrase it as follows: (I’m paraphrasing) “The 9/11 damage was caused by planes hijacked by terrorists, under the direction of Osama Bin Laden…”. So far we’re consistent with what has been determined by independant committees. At the bottom, they include something that has already been rejected – that there were no warnings for these terrorist attacks. The same commission that confirmed the damage as the cause of the hijacked planes also confirmed that there were indeed warnings about the attack, and that the government did not adequately heed these warnings.

This is a strawman fallacy because they are building up a metaphorical strawman for their opponent – one that contains some legitimate claims and some already proven false claims. The claim that there were no warnings (along with the other stuff that was true) is then knocked down easily, and then it appears that the whole set of claims were proven false. This is disingenuous, and not what we want to see from good documentaries.

One of the things that irk me with conspiracy theories is that there is never any room for coincidence. Every thing that may be a valid coincidence (example, Bush family eating breakfast with other high-powered families, such as the Pakistani leader), immediately lends support to the theory in question.

We have to ask ourselves – what would prove this theory wrong? For it to be a valid rational pursuit, we need to have clear ideas as to what proves them not just correct, but also incorrect. This is how we do science. The problem is that conspiracy theories pick and choose their evidence – they choose the positive evidence and coincidences that support the theory, but discard any of the many other coincidences that do not, and even go as far as suggesting that the lack of evidence is proof of the theory, since the government must have covered that up. Once you’ve gone this far, you can no longer call what you are doing a theory – it’s bad investigation and junk science.

One hilarious claim the movie makes is that evidence of Osama Bin Laden on a tape that was revealed as potential proof that he was behind the terrorist act was planted because the person in the video has darker skin, and fuller cheeks. Of course, in this case, the American government, who have so far been capable of orchestrating the greatest cover up the world has ever seen (anyone here ever worked with or in the government? We know how likely this is…), but they forgot to hire someone to do proper makeup. This is classic conspiracy theory – the people behind the theory are absolutely brilliant at orchestrating the theory, but they always seem to make these bumbling kind of mistakes. Again, let’s use Occam’s Razor here to slice away the fat. Which is more likely – that Osama’s appearance, the lighting in the video, and his health have changed between various footage and images of him, or that the government planted this evidence to frame him, and that they messed up his make-up. Did you guess government cover-up? Really? Stop reading this blog and go eat some sand.

Here’s another classic exmaple given: George H.W. Bush was meeting with Osama’s older brother, Shafig bin Laden, on the morning of 9/11 at a Carlyle Group function. Wow, really? Another bumbling mistake! How on earth did these guys manage to pull together something this huge, gather together the massive amount of financial resources needed (there is massive overhead to stuff like this – $100,000 from a bunch of countries is not going to cut the costs you would see from planning, overhead, and hush money on this order), and STILL screw up and forget that it’s happening on this day. Doh! Why didn’t we think about having George senior go and do something totally unrelated to the massive thing we’ve been planning for years. Boy, is there egg on our face. Is it possible that this is just a coincidence? That certainly seems more likely to me.

Next up are comments about the Pentagon and terrorists flying them, theories of explosives, firemen making claims about the way floors would fall in a building in this situation (which we really have not ever had good evidence to watch – we can’t pretend to know exactly how something like this is going to happen), and more classic claims of the many 9/11 theories. This subject has already been covered very well by Popular Mechanics, so I won’t bother wasting time getting into it.

Ah, nice, and now I hear the guy’s from Loose Change talking over the footage we’re given. These guys actually debated the people that investigated their claims from Popular Mechanics, and came off as aggressive and angry, but without a lot of good science to backup their claims. If you want to catch that excellent debate, I recommend watching it here. That is a much better analysis of the 9/11 conspiracy that this film is.

We also hear a lot of voice-overs that say things like “There was absolutely no evidence that a plane had hit the building”, but we are never given any idea who that is that is talking. Soundbites are a great way of punctuating footage, but they do not act as valid evidence, and we should always always be skeptical when we’re treated to footage and a soundbite without being given the source. You can tape record my voice and make it grainy, and then play that over footage of your choice to make your own point. Be skeptical. Don’t accept things like this on faith.

Blah blah blah William Rodriguez talking about an explosion from the basement of the WTC tower. The only credential providing for this guy is that he worked in the building for 20 years. Well, that’s reassuring. I’m sure he’s a good candidate to judge how a sub-basement explosion would feel differently from that of a plane smashing into the building.

Now we get really nutty, and the truth is revealed. The United States government staged the attack as a false flag attack on its own citizens in order to manipulate the public towards its own ends. Let’s look at the claim here. The claim implies that the attacks were staged because the public could not be manipulated, as effectively, without making a false flag attack. For example, staging an attack on our own soldiers in foreign soil. Or just using propaganda effectively. Or anything else. Aren’t there other options? If the only goal was to manipulate the populace, wouldn’t it make more sense to do something that slightly less chaotic and random? You can’t really guess at how the public is going to react to something like this. What if riots broke out and general pandemonium occurred? What if the terrorists caught wind of this, and chose to make their own attacks in addition to the ones that the government was supposed to be making. You could argue that with so much of the US infrastructure going towards supporting their own false flag attack, they would have scarcely had any resources left over to deal with legitimate terrorist attacks.

The movie starts to move into claims based around the central banking system of the US, and implying that there is a necessary cycle of creating debt, followed by producing more money to pay off that debt, followed by creating even more debt, etc. People that have any economic background know that this is a pretty sophomoric understanding of the way banking works, and although my own background only goes towards a few classes I took in my undergrad, and the podcasts and financial websites I read these days, I can tell that the view being presented is over-simplified and naive. This is consistent with most of the questions have been asked, and the way most of the evidence has been presented thus far.

A quote is presented by Woodrow Wilson, but is taken out of context, and also leaves out some significant parts. In Woodrow’s quote, he was relating to the statesmen of the US congress how significant a role each of them played in ensuring that banking was not abused – not a condemnation of the country’s banking system. Woodrow actually was responsible for enacting some fairly important changes to the way finance was dealt with in the states, but that’s neither here nor there.

There are other quotes listed, but I don’t care to look them up as well, and this movie’s credibility is already questionable enough that I don’t find this particular evidence convincing.

There is a lot of time spent looking with hindsight back at the way the Federal Reserve responded to various economic crises. Again, anyone with any economic background knows that the economy is a fickle monster, and we are still trying to determine good theories (actual theories) to understand how it operates, and how we can achieve the desired results that we would like to see (minimize recession, maximize growth). Looking back in hindsight and applying post-hoc reasoning loses sight of the fact that during the great depression, the same amount of knowledge and experience that we now possess was not available.

If you want to actually learn about the way banking works, what causes many of the economic problems we are currently going through, and read good critical analysis of the banking and financial claims and statements that we are constantly seeing in newspaper headlines these days, I recommend reading the Long Run Blog. These guys do their research and have worked in and out of financial institutions. Don’t get your economy knowledge from a movie like Zeitgeist.

Oh my god. Now we’ve hit on the claim that “There is no law, whatsoever, that requires you to pay income tax”. Well, that’s it. This movie is awful. Patently, completely, shitty. This issue has been covered on Boing Boing, Google News, and many other sites, and is just one more ludicrous claim that this movie vomits up into my eyes.
There’s actually some hilarious documentation and legal briefs that you can read related to morons like Wesley Snipes that have tried to get away with this evasive maneuver to avoid paying tax. You can bet that the US government doesn’t agree with this movie. If you want to actually read about the history of US income tax, and how it all comes out in the wash, I recommend doing what most people do, and checking out the Wikipedia article for it, here. Now, I’m sure Zeitgeist would argue that “the people controlling the banks just change that article to suit what they believe” or something along those lines. This is the same problem I mentioned earlier with conspiracy theories – there’s never any way to prove them wrong. Any evidence refuting them just becomes evidence supporting them. Garbage.

This whole movie is based on numerous faulty premises. It doesn’t matter how well a theory is argued for if the premises upon which it rests are false. If I tell you that 2 is 3, and then spend two hours proving to you that as a result, 1 + 2 = 4, it doesn’t matter, because my entire argument is based on the false premise that 2 is 3. Figure out why my argument is faulty, and you can skip watching this movie completely.

It’s actually tragic in a way – this movie uses the downward slide of the US’s quality of education as further evidence to support its own point. Ironically, if the quality of education was better, many more people would be looking at this movie critically and seeing how flawed it is. They even have the balls to talk about how people need to learn how to think critically. Geez. This movie would not exist without the problems that it takes issue with. This does not prove or disprove any of the specific points made in the movie, it’s just an interesting tangent.

They end the film talking about the North American Union, and making grand claims about how you haven’t heard about it because it’s totally secret, and only one reporter has had the courage to talk about it. Of course, that’s strange, when you can just look on Wikipedia, and see everything there is about this (not to mention that it has been acknowledged by all three governments, all of which have indicated that there’s no plans to go ahead with this approach). You can read more about that here.

Lastly we get a nice long interview with some guy that was friends with one of the Rockefellers. This really means nothing. We recently have had a lot of press coverage about an astronaut that claims he has definitely seen UFOs, and seen covered up UFO documents. The skeptical community has barely bothered to yawn at this claim. Sure, you’re an astronaut, but that doesn’t mean that you have good critical thinking skills. Shows us the evidence, and then we’ll take notice.

Oh, I’m corrected, they end with a quote from one of the greatest popularizers of science ever, Carl Sagan. Not only that, but Carl Sagan was an excellent critical thinker, and a huge boon to the skeptical community. He would tear this movie apart.

Summary: The people that made this movie have a clear agenda, and that is always something that should cause you to be skeptical. What is the other side of this? You’ve watched this film, but have you really analyzed the other side of things, in the same depth that this film has provided? At the very least, you owe it to yourself to watch that debate, and, ignoring the obvious such as the age difference, listen to the claims made by each side, and how that is being presented. What does the science tell us.

There can be no doubt that the government currently in power has turned the terrorist attack in their favour, and used it to allow them to roll back civil rights and other things. As well, they’ve also engaged in fear-mongering to continue doing this in the face of criticism. I don’t think there are many people that would debate this. But to go from this and use this as evidence to support a theory that the 9/11 attacks were done on purpose by the ruling republican government is a non-sequitur. We do not get the benefit of looking back in hindsight, seeing how things have turned out, and then trying to cherry-pick our data to support that. The theory of an inside job must stand on its own, and it is completely irrelevant how the government has responded to this after the fact. What does the science tell us?

This movie is fairly well produced. I can see why that may entice some people. In terms of most of the conspiracies that it attempts to shoehorn together into one UBERCONSPIRACY, it doesn’t do a particularly good job. Ultimately, nothing new is brought to the table. Illuminati type governments, war-mongering conspiracy theories, the 12 mega bankers that control all of our money, and controlling humans with microchips. This is all fairly well worn territory, and fairly boring stuff when it comes to critical thinking. Not only that but this thing is DAMN long. Two hours isn’t that long when you’re watching something exciting like The Bourne Supremacy, but for a movie that is conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory… ugh.

The one good thing about this movie is that it presents a lot of material to analyze critically, and practice your skills of skepticism. If you can sit through the whole thing, take it as an opportunity to do that and see if you can spot the many flaws and fallacies in the reasoning present.

And with that note, I’m free! Time to watch something exciting.

Bicentenniel Update

September 8th, 2008 3 comments

I read recently some very basic tips for maintaining a blog and how to maintain a good readership. The simplest, and most important item was: update regularly. I suck.
Realistically I’m not sure where this blog lies. I had good intentions to update it a while back, in the hopes that it would rejuvenate my interest in sitting down and writing in it. Initially when I started out, this was an outlet for comedy and rants while I sat at my desk in a really boring job that didn’t have much for me to do. Then it became an outlet for me to write about squash, poker, and other things I was actively pursuing. I still pursue those, but I just haven’t had a lot of desire to write about them, and even more so, I don’t feel like there’s any audience for them (which is ridiculous in itself, because based on how often I update, I have a reader-base of zero).
The things that interest me now are the same, and much more. As stupid as it sounds, I love playing Virtua Fighter 5 on my XBox360 (now supporting online play, previously the biggest hurdle to owning a good fighting game on a home console), and I really believe that the depth of that game is on par with my other hobbies. I spend a decent amount of time practicing, seeking out advice, and sparring with friends in order to continue improving. I like to write in order to learn, and that is no exception, but this blog is hardly the place to write long detailed articles about strategy and frame advantages in a nitaku situation. That’s a pretty small niche I’m writing for. So, I made another blog, and write about it there. That’s good, but now I’m cutting down on the time I have available to write here.
What else is there? There’s day to day things I can write about. Small updates about volunteering for the beer festival, or hanging out with friends, and things like that. I don’t know why, but I’ve never enjoyed doing that. I hate it in fact. I can write three paragraphs at most before I lose interest and walk away from the entry. Maybe that’s better suited to Twitter, or Facebook status updates. Working on the management team for VEMF this year was one of the more significant things I did in this half of the year, but you don’t see any blog posts on that one. How come? There’s half an entry written, but I can already tell you it’s not going to get filled out any further.
I love skepticism and critical thinking. If there’s one hobby that I apply on an hourly basis to my life, it’s this one. Is this appropriate to write about? I think it is, and maybe that’s the next direction that this blog goes in. I’ve always aimed to make this a tool that helped me learn, and in concert with that goal, provided other people a way to learn along with me, and avoid the mistakes that I’ve made.
The other piece of advice that I took away from the article on blogging was that you shouldn’t restrict yourself to any one particular area. Be willing to blog about many different subjects, and let your audience choose whether or not they want to read about it. I guess this is the best approach, and maybe I just need to loosen up. Maybe some of the people that tumble past this website would be interested in reading about strategies in Virtua Fighter 5. It can’t really be that much more obscure.
In this vein, I guess today’s topic can be skepticism, and the theory is that I start improving my own ability to update. I sure wish it didn’t take me so long to write out these soliloquies.
There are millions of different pieces of fudgy information that we’re bombarded with on a daily basis. It can get pretty overwhelming without some kind of method to weed these things out. I find skepticism interesting for a number of reasons. First and foremost, authority doesn’t generally like it. Anytime authority has a reason to look at something with a critical eye, I think it’s worth trying to figure out why. Skepticism causes us to question what we are told is true. As a method, it asks only that we question what we are being told, and ask for evidence to support that. Good evidence. Can you think of a reason why we shouldn’t make an effort to follow a method like this in our daily lives? I can’t..
I love how empowering skepticism is. With this tool at your side, you can approach any claim pushed towards you, and you can determine for yourself how likely it really is. You can consider something that a politician has said, and really dig down and determine how likely that is to be true. Simply put, it’s fun to figure stuff out. Everyone likes to understand how a magician is accomplishing their trickillusion.
“This is stupid, I’m skeptical!”, you say. I agree, you probably are. A lot of people are skeptical, to some degree, in their everyday lives. But many of us reserve a special place in our head for our pet ideas and notions. For many of us, that’s religion. For some of us, it’s ideas that we think are neat and fun to believe in, like UFOs visiting earth. Sometimes its a belief in things that we’ve been raised to believe. We often don’t even think to question something that we’ve held to be true since we were kids.
The best thing that skepticism and critical thinking can do for you, above all, is help you feel solid and concrete in your own beliefs and daily values. If you are able to go through your own beliefs with a skeptical eye, and question why you believe in them, what about the evidence you find compelling, and whether or not those beliefs are rational, you’ll come out on the other side with the confidence and consistency that can only be acquired by turning a skeptical eye inwards. This is the type of confidence that allows you to discuss your own beliefs and opinions without getting upset, and without feeling insecure, rather than the type of confidence that is fabricated by buying lots of bumper stickers (support our troops!) and being fervently homophobic, etc.
Let’s end with a simple piece of critical thinking advice for the day: The people that are the loudest often have the least to say, and are the least confident in what they’re telling you. Maintain your cool (and drink milk).


June 12th, 2008 No comments

It’s been a while since I last posted, mostly just because I have zero free time right now. I’d love to sit down and write, as well as relax on a patio and enjoy ice cold beer.
I’m just popping in today to raise two things:
First, this free video is a great introduction to critical thinking, and really worth your time watching. The start is a little patronizing I find, and I’m not a fan of clips of people saying dumb things – it’s easy to do that, and even bright minds like Richard Dawkins can look stupid with clever editing (search on youtube for “Richard Dawkins gets stumped” to see what I mean. If you’re interested, search on Google for that and read about his response to that… Not quite as stumped as the video would leave you to believe)
Video here: Here Be Dragons
If you are interested in broadening the way you think about things, this is a good starting video.
Second, the Canadian Copyright Bill is being pushed through shortly by the MP, Jim Prentice. Most of this bill is pretty crappy, and I’m not a fan. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be, but it’s certainly worth reading about and determining for yourself. If you’re interested in complaining about this bill, which is currently being pushed through without public collaboration, you can do so very quickly to your local representative here:
Copyright For Canadians
Check’em out!

More tools for your Nigerian friends

May 6th, 2008 No comments

It’s time for another tool to keep in your skepticism toolbox. The title alludes to our many apparent relatives in Nigeria that keep sending us letters requesting our aid in transferring money from Prince Eboh to us (by the way, based on the huge sums of money continuously being freed up over there, there must be something like 50% of the World’s wealth locked up in Nigeria).
We all scoff at 419 scammers, because they’re hopelessly stupid and the e-mails they send out are poorly worded and obvious. The key is for us to never fall into the trap of believing that all scams look this way, or that if we can figure out the 419 scammers, we can figure out all scammers. Hey, people are buying into John Edward and dousing so…
Enough blather. Here’s the site: The layout should be familiar, as it’s based off of my old favorite, Wikipedia. There’s rarely enough skeptical material organized in one place, but this is a great start. Check it out and get thinking!

The Little Black Book of Scams

April 24th, 2008 No comments

The e-mail warning me about inadvertently smelling aether cleverly disguised as a free perfume sample has just landed in my inbox again, and that alone is a good enough reason for today’s post.
Today I’ve got a really jazzy little number put together by the Australian government: The Little Black Book of Scams. I don’t have any particular details regarding how the government distributes this, but that’s okay – this is an incredible resource.
The guide is laid out well, which makes for easy reading, and the information is solid. Also, this is produced for Australians, so there are some references that may not be directly relatable to us over here in the North. However, the specific cases can almost all be abstracted up to the general. Even if you just browse through this one, you’re doing yourself a favour!
The guide, in it’s entirety, can be found here.
Some things to note: If you start reading this and the first couple of suggestions seem obvious to you, don’t switch off. Research and history has shown that even the most intelligent of us are able to fall victim to simple scams and common frauds. Use it as a chance to remind yourself of what to look for.
Some of this advice seems like it would be immediately obvious to you when presented with a scam. “There are no guaranteed get-rich-quick schemes”.
“Of course”, you exclaim, “Everybody knows that!”.
Thing is, it’s not always easy to spot a get-rich-quick scheme. I remember going to an Amway meeting and they kept repeating “Make no mistake, this does require work. But [pause] YOU [pause] WILL [pause] GET RICH [applause]”. Wrong. Loads of people lose money in Amway annually, a few people get ridiculously rich, and that’s all based around the idea that as long as you can put in the initial work to get people involved, you will get rich. Repeat: There’s no such thing as a guaranteed get-rich-quick scheme!

Your skeptical dose for the day

March 11th, 2008 2 comments

Nothing too preachy today (yah right, I hear you thinking), just a Wikipedia article that I came across that I thought was a great list.
This is a page containing common misconceptions. It’s always good to take some time now and then to re-examine those things we’ve heard four, ten, hundreds of times, and just assumed to be true.
Here’s the link: Common Misconceptions. Do your critical thinking brain a favour and give it a run down! You’ll feel a little bit more educated, and all for the low cost of only ten minutes of your time. If that doesn’t convince you, then do it for the opportunity to undermine your arch-rival at the next part you’re at when they start talking about how people only use ten-percent of their brains (WRONG jerkstore!).