Make Your Own Homeopathic Remedies … and Play Dough!

November 18, 2010

My fellow blogger, littlez2008, posted on how to respond on forums to those pushing homeopathy. So I suggested using the following recipe from a Usenet posting submitted by a “Naturally Cheap” person (who was actually me, but don’t tell anyone!). Just cut and paste into any discussion (you don’t need to tell the source, and you are quite welcome to also be “Naturally Cheap” anytime!): Read the rest of this entry »

PWR Podcast Ep. 33: Ben Radford

October 29, 2010

On the latest episode of Parenting Within Reason, we interviewed paranormal investigator and Skeptical Inquirer editor Ben Radford. If you’re a fan of mystery shows you may have seen him featured once or twice. Here are a few clips…

Ben spoke to us about the myth of razor blades in apples, and the statistical unlikelihood of sex offenders molesting little children on Halloween night.

For some reason, we’ve decided that Halloween is particularly dangerous when it’s actually relatively safe. The crossing guard at my daughter’s school encouraged me to come to the school-sponsored “Trunk or Treat”, which she described as a “safe” Halloween experience. I do think it’s well-intentioned and nice for our school to offer this service, but please don’t do it in the name of “safety”. Aren’t there more accurate reasons, like building community or having fun?

Also during the podcast, we were joined by our guest co-host, Blake Smith, co-host of Monster Talk, to discuss his paranormal experiences and monster expertise.  Blake mentioned a time when he was deployed overseas and experienced what he believed, at the time, to be a haunting. The most chilling event that occurred during this haunting was waking up to the sensation of someone sitting upon his chest only to turn on the light and discover that nobody was there. Many years later, Blake realized that he was actually experiencing hypnagogic “sleep paralysis”, which is a natural phenomenon that combines the hallucination of lucid dreaming with the paralysis of REM sleep. It feels very real and very intense. Here’s a little video about it…

I’ve actually experienced hypnagogic sleep paralysis on a few occasions. I usually wake up with a feeling of absolute helplessness because I can’t move my body, and then I imagine an intruder entering my room to murder me and my wife. On the few occasions that this has happened, I’ve been woken up by my wife who is annoyed that I’m mumbling like a jackass. Little did she know that a murderer was about to kill her and that I was powerless to stop it, or at least that’s what I believed during the hypnagogic episode. It’s very unpleasant.

I’ve also had an instance in college where I woke up with the sensation of floating above my own body. At the time, I attributed the experience as a metaphysical out-of-body-experience. The truth is that my semisomnambulant mind was acting according to natural neurological stimuli. Nothing supernatural at all, but try telling that to the hippie college version of me.

In the spirit of being honest about our “true believer” pasts, I’m wondering if any of you ever experienced mysterious phenomena that you couldn’t explain at the time. Please, do tell. Very interested to hear your stories.

Dang Amy, Tell Me How You Really Feel!

October 24, 2010

Amy Tuteur has a great post about “Pseudo-knowledge” up on her blog.  She goes to town on vaccine rejectionists, alternative medicine advocates, and home birth advocates for getting their information on the internet but having no actual medical knowledge.

It is certainly true that advocates of alternative health have often done a great deal of reading. And it is true that they have learned lots of new things. But what they fail to understand is that they have acquired pseudo-knowledge. It has the appearance of real knowledge; it uses lots of big words, and it often includes a list of scientific citations. There’s just one teensy problem; it’s not true.

The appearance of real knowledge is what can trip a lot of us up.  It’s what made me consider the alternate vaccine schedule at one point.  Since none of us on this blog are scientists or doctors, it is obviously somewhat ironic to post this next quote from Amy’s article here, but here goes:

The truth about health education is both simple and stark. You cannot be educated about any aspect of health without reading and understanding scientific textbooks and the scientific literature. Period!

Don’t waste your time perusing the internet. Unless you are willing to confirm what you read on the internet by reading the scientific literature, you can’t be sure you’ve learned anything.

So, yeah, it’s sort of funny that Dr. Amy is telling people to stop wasting time reading health advice on the internet…but she’s giving this advice on the internet.

Don’t bother to tell the rest of us that you are “educated” because you’ve demonstrated nothing more than your gullibility. You haven’t acquired knowledge, you’ve acquired pseudo-knowledge, and it marks you as a fool.

While I love this statement, I also don’t quite think that believing these kinds of things marks you as a “fool.”  Gullible, maybe, but it’s easy to be fooled.  It is embarrassing to hear anti-vaccine folks talk and repeat the same misguided statements.  Sadly, I hear this kind of talk too often where I live, and now our pertussis epidemic may be the outcome of this ignorance, which continues to be passed on through the grapevine and on the internet and in the parks in my neighborhood.

But I do remember being fooled and scared by this kind of talk.  The vaccination rates are most down in LA among people just like me–the well educated and slightly suspicious of authority.  We’re the target audience for the anti-vaxers.  The pseudo-knowledge sounds pretty impressive to us, and that is the problem.

New York City UFOS or Gran Via Balloons?

October 14, 2010

*UPDATE (from livescience)* This afternoon officials from the Milestone School in Mount Vernon identified the “UFOs” as some of the helium balloons that escaped from an engagement party held for a teacher at the school shortly before the sightings. The wind direction at the time would reportedly have taken the balloons to within sight of people in Manhattan’s Chelsea area. The article below remains as it was originally written.

A fleet of “UFOs” were sighted above New York City on October 13th. What were they?

The unlikeliest answer would have to be extra-terrestrial space craft. It’s strange that people would automatically assume this, but comments about alien visitors are spilling out of forums and comments sections all over the web.

Occam’s Razor says that the simplest explanation is probably the most correct. So, if it’s not ET flying over New York City, what could it be? Well, the guys in this video seem to have it figured out…

Balloons??? How could people possibly confuse alien space craft and balloons? We tend to see what we want to see, and let our imagination fill in the blanks. Once news of UFOs started spreading from one person to the next, confirmation bias kicked in and believers began to imagine the “mother ship” approaching the city.

But check this out… on the same day that balloon-like UFOs were spotted over NYC, there was a ceremony to celebrate the centennial of the construction of Madrid’s “Gran Via” avenue. During the ceremony, a fleet of yellow balloons were released into the midtown skyline.

I’m not saying that this definitely explains the NYC UFO mystery, but it would be an amazing coincidence if balloon-like space ships were spotted above NYC on the same day that a mass of balloons were released in the same city.

ANNOUNCING: Parenting Within Reason

October 5, 2010

The co-hosts of Podcast Beyond Belief would like to invite you to the next phase of our efforts… “Parenting Within Reason

We’ve decided to rebrand our podcast as “Parenting Within Reason” to better identify ourselves as a resource for freethinking parents. We are still the official podcast of Foundation Beyond Belief, but we’re hoping that the new name will be more accurate and descriptive of our content, and more welcoming to a wider spectrum of parents.

Hopefully, you’ll like the improvements we’ve made to the show. We have a new surf rock inspired theme song, musical bumpers in between segments, and finally, voice overs from our “Voice of Reason”, Mr. George Hrab.

We’re also spicing things up with weekly guest co-hosts – eventually, we’ll discuss whether we’d like to invite someone new to the show. Please let us know if you would like to participate, or if you have a favorite.

Our new podcast name does not require you to resubscribe. We’ll be using the same feed and starting with episode 30. Our first guest will be Kate Miller of Charlie’s Playhouse and our first guest co-host will be Mike Meraz of the Actually Speaking podcast.

You can visit our feed page at…

Episode 30 was just published!

Part of this rebrand is an effort to maintain a higher standard of ethical integrity. We’ve received complaints in the past that we include too many anecdotes and not enough facts. Admittedly, we use the science reporting merely as a spring board for discussion, and none of us are actually scientists (nor ever claimed to be), but we do our best as busy parents to contact original sources and explore all angles of the research.

We welcome corrections, and we encourage dialogue and communication about anything we may have misinterpreted. Please let us know. We read every letter.

You can write us at

Please subscribe to the new “Parenting Within Reason” facebook page. This allows us to send you updates to our latest episodes, news about our previous guests, videos, links, etc. Plus, we’ll start using the discussion page for anyone who wants to talk about the latest episode or ask questions. The original PBB page will be deleted toward the end of the week.

Thanks again for listening. We work really hard on this podcast with very little time in our busy schedules as parents. It means a lot to know that people subscribe and enjoy the show.

I was late to the “Don’t Be a Dick” party

September 14, 2010

Phil Plait – Don’t Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

This is Phil Plait’s speech from TAM. I didn’t get to go and have missed much of the raging debate over how to debate that’s been happening on skeptic blogs. (I’m busy changing diapers and earning a living, not to mention occasionally writing screenplays.) Phil touches on many of the same ideas I just posted about.

My favorite quotes:

“Not everyone is born a skeptic.”

“How many of you lost your faith because someone called you an idiot?”

His story about talking to a high school girl who is a young Earth creationist (very end of the speech) is pitch perfect. I speak as someone who went to a governor’s school like Phil describes in Georgia, so I feel like I know this young girl.

The Latest Study Showing No Link Between ASD and Vaccines…and How We Present Information to Friends Without Unfriending

September 14, 2010

First, let’s just get to the links. A recent study, published in Pediatrics, shows no association between thimerosal and autism:

CONCLUSIONS In our study of MCO members, prenatal and early-life exposure to ethylmercury from thimerosal-containing vaccines and immunoglobulin preparations was not related to increased risk of ASDs.

This was apparently a long awaited study. Here are some links with comments about the study by doctors whose blogs I like to read. Their posts might help to understand the study. The first post by Steven Novella explains the background of the study as well. Actually, if you read any of these links, that’s probably the one to focus on. (It’s the shortest and easiest to read.)

And here’s Orac’s take on it.

And here are a whole bunch of other links you can read, if interested. This list is courtesy of Orac. Well, not exactly courtesy. I’ve simply swiped the link to Liz Ditz’s blog from his blog.

While I found Steven Novella’s post very helpful, I was slightly depressed to read his conclusion:

No one study, especially an observational study, is ever very compelling. I don’t think this one new study changes the scientific picture of vaccines or thimerosal and autism. But it is one more study that fails to show any correlation between thimerosal exposure and risk of developing autism or ASD. This comes on top of multiple independent lines of evidence all pointing away from the notion that vaccines or thimerosal are a significant cause of autism.

The scientific community is likely to see this as further confirmation of a lack of association between vaccines and autism – just one more piece of the big picture. The anti-vaccine community is likely to dismiss it as either hopelessly flawed or as part of the conspiracy. In other words – this study is unlikely to change anyone’s mind on this issue.

Sure, maybe not. I haven’t been trying to be a spokesperson for vaccines for very long, so maybe I’m not jaded yet. I’m still sorting out how to talk to people about this issue without offending them or freaking out myself, which is what I’d like to discuss in this post.

Colin gave me some props lately for speaking up on Facebook about vaccines. And well, thanks, but honestly, I’ve screwed up as a skeptical spokesperson a few times, too. It has been really hard to find my voice, and I’ve unfriended two people over this issue. But I think I’ve finally achieved some kind of competence after some trial and error. Here are my basic rules for presenting information without devolving into bad feelings.

1. Give information–links, studies, or what have you–in writing. Email is good. Facebook works. Posting comments is fine. Debating verbally is absolutely pointless for me. I just say, “I can email you some information if you’d like to read it.” I’m not a doctor or a scientist. I’m just a geek who reads a lot about vaccines, so I’d rather let the information do the talking. I am on two mommy support boards, and of course there are tons of woo types on both. Anti-vaccine loons, people advertising amber teething necklaces–oy. It’s tough. Rather than go head to head, I just try to present the facts in writing–other people’s writing.

2. This advice is actually from the moderator of one of those blogs, and I think it’s good, although I balk somewhat at the compromise-like quality of this language. Use “It is my understanding that” or “From what I have read” when presenting information. This kind of toning down of facts does tend to take the emotional charge out of your statements. I think it kind of waters them down, but it pisses people off less, which might make them actually look at what you’re presenting. And in all honestly, it’s just the truth. This is what I have read and understand to be true. To claim any more than that is a little arrogant really. Speaking or writing this way also implies that you’re open to additional information and willing to read and understand more. The moderator was actually posting this information to cut off a thread about homeopathy in which I apparently offended some people by saying that homeopathy doesn’t work. On the sly, many people from the support board emailed me to say thank you for having the “courage” to speak out against the “homeopathic vaccinations” that were being touted by one poster. But these people were too scared to speak up themselves and face the vitriol they might incur. I got more supportive responses than mad responses, but let me tellya’, the mad responses are pretty daunting. People can be super mean, and I don’t enjoy conflict like that. I spoke up because I didn’t want anyone to get a homeopathic vaccination and then have their kid get measles. I felt a responsibility to say something, so I did.

3. This point is my own, and it’s really hard for me, but I’m getting better. Be prepared to walk away from a debate without winning. When you’re posting on blogs or mommy boards, you’re in front of an audience, and I think it’s important to make your point and get the heck out without getting upset. The two boards I post on are for emotional support, so bringing up topics that are polarizing just wrecks everyone’s mood. So I try to make it clear that I’m posting for everyone’s information and that I understand everyone can read and make their own decisions. I do believe that people (like the people who emailed me about my homeopathy posts) are grateful for the information, and I might sway someone who is mostly quiet on the boards. But the regular posters who are all about the woo and the conspiracy theories–meh, it’s best to just respond politely but briefly with links and factual information and leave it at that. Debate isn’t helpful, and people are watching. I try to handle myself politely and respectfully (even if I feel not at all polite or respectful). I suppose it’s a good rule of thumb for many situations anyway, but my point here is that in the end it is probably more persuasive to those who are sitting on the sidelines and reading. At least I hope so.

4. Try to remember when you didn’t have the information either. This one is tough for me, too. I’ve done so much reading at this point that it is almost impossible for me to believe that other people haven’t done the same reading, but they haven’t. A friend with a new baby asked me if I spaced out my shots, and why was there so much autism when there were more vaccinations, and it was all I could do not to scream in frustration. This is a guy from a great school, so why doesn’t he know what’s up? But I took a breath and remembered having a newborn myself and facing all those fear mongering rumors, the terrifying videos of autistic kids on YouTube, the first Google searches that turned up the wackaloon, misguided information–look, that stuff is scary. When I think about it now, it’s actually amazing that I didn’t freak out and do the “alternate schedule.” I live in the epicenter of that kind of thinking. But I have a lot of skeptical friends, so I found the good information and followed the vaccine schedule without fear. (Well, almost. I admit I was somewhat nervous when we went to get the MMR–and I’m embarrassed to admit that now, but that’s where my friends are probably at, too, so it’s good to remember my own twinges of fear.) When I think about how scared I was, it helps me to be reassuring when I say I feel totally comfortable with the vaccine schedule. And it’s better to be helpful and reassuring than to be mind meltingly frustrated that this topic still even comes up. At least, that’s what works better for me.

Any other advice from those of us who are on the front lines of rationalism? I am really hoping that in some small way, I can contribute to my son’s elementary school actually not being at risk for a measles outbreak, which according to an LA Times Article from last year, it is. Vaccination rates have dropped so low that herd immunity is now at risk. Oh California, I love you but you frustrate me.

What do you keep in mind while trying to be a skeptical spokesperson?

Dragoncon 2010: Reporting Back

September 7, 2010

The best times at Dragoncon are the times in-between panels when you’re meeting friends, having conversations with scientists and authors, and wandering through a crowd of costumed characters.

The action kicked off at the Star Party cancer benefit at Emory University. I began the night with a nice long conversation with Dale McGowan about the future of Foundation Beyond Belief and possible changes with the podcast that I will be implementing soon. He also told me about his new super secret children’s book idea, which sounds FANTASTIC (and apparently controversial – but not really).

Then, I wandered over to visit the Australian skeptics and spoke with Dr. Rachael Dunlop about the recent victories against the AVN, an anti-vaccine organization in Australia. I was also quite interested to hear Dr. Rachie’s opinion on Aubrey De Grey, a British Saruman-like scientist who insists that the chances are probable that we will reverse the effects of aging within the foreseeable future. Dr. Rachie is a cell biologist specializing in degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.  Aubrey and Dr. Rachie met and seemed to be at odds, but I have no idea how that conversation turned out. I’m intrigued.

I also introduced Sean Faircloth, lobbyist for Secular Coalition of America, to Will Phillips, precocious 10 year old and gay rights activist. Sean played devil’s advocate to Will’s humanitarianism; it was an inspiring moment that I’ll never forget. Why are people living in poverty less worthy of civil disobedience than LGBTQ? According to Will, poor people aren’t dehumanized and denied the right to marry. Score one for the kid! Sean and I both encouraged Will to expand his activism beyond the gay community and stand up for anyone who is oppressed. I’m pretty sure Will doesn’t need my advice… he will be going far in life, I’m positive.

I woke up Friday morning eager to start the day, only to wait in the badge registration line for two hours. Waiting for your badge is the only lame thing about dragoncon, so take an ipod and plan on listening to a few episodes of your favorite podcast. Once I obtained my badge, I was ready to visit the skeptrack room to check out the morning panel featuring magician and celebrated debunker, James Randi. Randi, the ol’ curmudgeon, took some jabs from the other panelists… you could tell that they were all very friendly with each other after years of attending conventions, cruises, and secret meetings of the illuminati (mwa ha ha ha).

For lunch, I met KO Myers (of Grassroots Skeptics fame) for an informal lunch with other regional skeptic organizers, but I couldn’t concentrate on too many conversations because I was too busy thinking about my costume that I would be donning shortly after the meal. As I stated in my last article, I decided to go full-tilt geek (or at least in my world), and re-visit an old villain from G.I.Joe Vs. Cobra.

Somebody on Facebook said that the photo looks like something a crazy mixed bag of nuts would take just before going on a killing spree. Hmm… I was going for ninja saboteur action figure come to life. Anyway, the thrill of wearing a costume was really so much fun. And since there were so many other fanatics dressed up, I looked normal enough that most people just ignored me. Except for a nice girl who asked to take a photo of me. Thanks random girl!

Once out of my camo garb, I went to see Heidi Anderson’s panel on sex. Bravo to her for managing to educate a packed room of adolescent-minded geeks the appropriate labels to use for people of alternative sexual lifestyles. I found out that I’m a cisgender heterosexual in a closed relationship. I will say it loud and proud… I AM CISGENDER!!! Whew… glad I got that off my chest. Now go look up the definition so you can announce it to your friends too.

I finished the evening by hanging out with Blake Smith (of Monster Talk fame), Daniel Loxton (of Junior Skeptic fame), Rob Tarr (of here fame) and Laurie Tarr (of here fame). I shared with them my ideas for the future of skepticism, that we will soon welcome politics into our range of acceptable targets. There’s no reason that fact-checking, of the sort done by Politifact, should be considered outside the realm of skepticism. I plan to talk more about that later.

Saturday was a blur. I walked out of my hotel and ran smack into the Dragoncon’s Saturday morning parade of geeks (which was awesome and I will never miss it again). My friend Austin and I were trying to get to the WTF Foundation’s vaccine booster clinic to get our T-Dap when we ran into Rebecca Watson (of Skeptic’s Guide fame). She was trying to get her booster too. After fighting a throng of tourists and costumed characters, we finally found the store front for the vaccine clinic and walked in to introduce ourselves. Here’s Rebecca getting her vaccine shot…

Did I mention Sean Faircloth, lobbyist for Secular Coalition for America? He was a fantastic speaker, who really knew how to capture the attention of his audience. So, I’m doing him a favor by asking everyone to visit and signing up for the SCA “Action Alerts”. The fundamentalist Christians have the ear of congress, do you?

Ben Radford (Skeptical Inquirer editor and paranormal investigator) did not have the most organized Paranormal Investigations workshop, but it wasn’t his fault. The paranormal track director sabotaged him by insuring that the room to his workshop would be locked and unavailable. Yes, I am starting a mini-conspiracy theory against the paranormal track, but I don’t care. Finding a room for Ben’s workshop is a long story that involves running from hotel to hotel with an amiable Australian, finding myself opening the door for “The Cigarette Smoking Man” from X-Files, and enjoying a Warren Zevon tune with custom Radfordized lyrics (well done Rob).

At this point in time, I was starting to panic about the live episode for Podcast Beyond Belief. Laurie needed tea bags, I needed to write my script outline, John Paul needed parenting science, and Heidi needed a break… the big moment was drawing near. So, I worked on the podcast, met up with my wife, and ate some delicious Jamaican jerk chicken. Then we headed back for the live recording, which surprisingly involved one less co-host and one extra Australian. But, it all worked out and you can listen to the episode when it’s published.

I didn’t attend much of anything on Sunday because I wanted to spend time with my extended family in Atlanta. But, I did get to see Laura Phillips (quick witted mother of young activist, Will) kick some major ass on the “Raising Skeptical Geeks” panel. She was so impressive, as was Laverne Knight-West, that I nearly forgot Adam Savage (of Mythbusters fame) was on the panel at all. My only gripe was that the panelists spoke about Santa very casually without regard to the fact that multiple children in the audience were probably having this year’s Christmas dashed on the rocks of skepticism. Be careful prominent skeptics that you don’t snap Santa’s beard in front of the kiddies, unless they’re your own, ok?

That’s basically my Dragoncon experience. Wish there was more time to see more stuff and more friends, but my experience at Dragoncon was extremely fun. I intend to go back again and again, as long as they keep having a skeptrack. Thanks to Derek and Swoopy (of Skepticality fame) for basically volunteering their time to make this happen every year. You guys rock!

By the power of Dragoncon! I HAVE THE POWER!!!

August 30, 2010

In two days, I’ll be driving down to Atlanta with Rob and Laurie Tarr. I’m sure we’ll be geeking about the nerd buffet that will be waiting for us in Dixie. This year, I’ll be wearing a costume…

I used to be a big GIJOE fan in my younger years, so I thought I’d put my nostalgia on display for all to see. Wish me luck that I don’t get tackled by law enforcement toting my submachine gun around the city.

I’m also going to be proudly displaying a new shirt that I designed (available for sale on Zazzle).

I support Phil Plait’s message that better science communication comes from less sarcasm, less name calling, and less insults. Basically, don’t be a d***! I’ve personally seen people turn away from my message when I’ve gotten snarky in articles I’ve written in the past. I’m not saying I’m a perfect example of a nice skeptic, but I strive to be a better communicator than I’ve been in the past. So, sign me up for Phil’s team… oh, and go check out his new Discovery Channel show, BAD UNIVERSE. The first episode aired last night, and in this clip, he makes a dirty comet just like we learned on Podcast Beyond Belief from Nicole Gugliucci on a recent episode…

Podcast Beyond Belief will be recording our live episode on Saturday night at the Hilton. We’ll have three special guests to talk about our most common areas of interest on the podcast. On the subject of atheism/secular-humanism, we’ll be bringing back our blogfather, Mr. Dale McGowan. On the subject of health/medicine, we’ll be talking to Shorty Award Winning Australian, Dr. Rachie Dunlop. And on the subject of skepticism and education, we’ll be talking to the amiable Australian, Ms. Kylie Sturgess.

For those who can’t attend, the skeptic track will be live-streaming some of the panels. Unfortunately, Podcast Beyond Belief will not be streamed because we are guests on the podcast track, so you’ll have to wait to listen to the actual episode when it’s published. However, we’ve been given permission to record two panels that are relevant to our listeners… “Raising Skeptical Geeks” (featuring Adam Savage from Mythbusters) and “Skepticism in the Classroom”. So, when those episodes are published, just listen to them with your eyes closed, picturing yourself surrounded by steampunkers, superheroes, and fairies.

See you at the con! And if you see a grey camouflaged saboteur – say hello.


August 4, 2010

Anyone reading this in the Indianapolis area can see me give my two presentations tomorrow at Gencon, a gaming convention with a grassroots skeptic presence. I’ll be speaking about the origin of modern monsters ancient creature myths and how they might have entered our collective consciousness. I’ll also be giving my inside perspective on acupuncture – I will bring real props and everything!

You can also see me, along with the other co-hosts of Podcast Beyond Belief, at this year’s Dragoncon! In fact, we are going to be recording a live episode for the podcast track, featuring special guests, such as our mentor, Mr. Dale McGowan. We’re very honored and excited to have the podcast be included in this year’s schedule. It was only a year ago at Dragoncon that we dared to mention the idea of creating a podcast for skeptics and parents. A year later, and we are fast approaching 25 episodes, so we’ve come a long way since then!

Some of us will also be in attendance at the Star Party, supporting their fundraiser for cancer research in honor of Jeff Medkeff. Be sure to watch for us there!

And to top it off, we plan to have a skeptical parent meet-up at a bar again this year. Dale McGowan should be with us for that, and we’ll provide details later.