Archive for June, 2009

The Sleeping Prophet of Willow Bunch

Posted in Skeptic on June 25, 2009 by koinosuke

In the Saturday, June 13th, edition of the Star Phoenix the entire front page was dedicated in to an eccentric group, recently arrived from British Columbia. What made this group so unusual, is that it is headed by a self proclaimed prophet named Alan Patterson, also known as Alan Harmony. Alan Patterson is the project manager of a group called the Pacific Way Foundation. This group seems to be formed around Patterson’s belief that dreams can predict the future. Patterson even claims that he dreamed about moving to Saskatchewan. Talk about a self fulfilling prophecy!

Patterson has other motives for this move; he believes that all of Vancouver, and possibly the entire West Coast, will sink into the ocean within the next 10 years. How does he know this? It was revealed to him in a dream. All of this is reported credulously in the Star Phoenix. There was no attempt to verify or even dig a little deeper into Patterson’s a.k.a. Harmony’s claims.

Alan Patterson has bought the Willow Bunch school and is planning on turning it into an Academy dedicated to teaching the public on how to decipher their dreams. Dream interpretation is a large and varied class of nonsense. A simple Google search can turn up many so-called dream dictionaries. The images found in dreams are supposed to have a hidden meaning, and by looking them up in the dictionary, the dream can be understood.

I am one of the lucky ones who can remember many of my dreams. I’ve tried looking up some of the images that appeared in my dreams, mainly musical notations. I was informed that a seeing either a sharp or flat makes a difference between a positive or negative outcome. I wonder if the authors of the dream dictionary are aware of enharmonic notes. In Western musical theory a D sharp is the equivalent (the same pitch) as an E Flat. As it happened, I was studying musical theory before going to sleep. Is that not a far more likely explanation for the appearance of musical notation in my dreams? Dreams are the swirling detritus floating around in our subconscious. The images and people that appear are very personal to the dreamer, and another person is not likely to have any more insight than a dreamer herself. That being said, having dreams that can be recalled is a lot of fun, and I consider myself lucky to remember the dreams that I do.

Alan Patterson is styling himself after Edgar Casey, the so-called Sleeping Prophet, who would descend into a trance and spew out prophecies. Edgar Casey was spectacularly wrong about many things. Within 10 years we will know if Alan Patterson is wrong about Vancouver falling into the ocean. I am not holding my breath. Patterson has made other prophecies which he did not share with the reporter. I am sure we will hear of them after the event takes place.

One of his other concerns, other than Vancouver falling into the ocean, is the possibility of asteroid or comet impact. His foundation does advocate taking steps to mitigate this possibility, which is admirable, but these steps are not spelled out. His concern about near Earth objects has less to do with the state of the scientific survey of the sky, and more to do with prophetic dreams. I too have had a dream about an asteroid impacting the earth, but I would hardly call this a prophetic dream unless predicting the sun will rise tomorrow is also considered a worthy prophecy.

Even stranger is a book entitled “Orwell’s 1984 revisited”; this book argues that this work of fiction contained a prophecy. One of his main lines of evidence for this is, and I quote, “The main province of Orwell’s Oceania had a population of 300 million. In October, 2006, The day United States of America reached that number: coincidence?”. Let me answer that. YES. In this case it is not even a very striking coincidence. Orwell’s fictional Oceana included the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Clearly the US is only part of the whole, and I might add, the story takes place in Great Britain. Patterson also claims that “1984” predicted the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. “1984” was published in back in 1949 and it would have been nice to know about the attack before the events of September 11. 2001. What was Alan Patterson doing when he could have saved countless lives? He had decades to warn people! By some strange coincidence I had recently reread “1984”, and I do not remember the part about hijacked planes flying into commercial buildings. “1984” does seem to anticipate the brutal repressive regime of North Korea, but then “1984” was meant to be a warning.

Patterson’s book advocates self defence without involving the authorities, and even names the enemy. Who is the enemy? I cannot tell you as I would have to spend $24 to buy the book.

I was browsing the Pacific Ways Foundations website when I found an even more disturbing article on research into possible treatments for HIV and diabetes. The Pacific Ways Foundation has allegedly funded a study treating AIDS and diabetes with a single herb. These two diseases do not resemble each other in either their causes or their treatments; it is highly unlikely that any substance would be found that would treat both of them. What is this miracle medicine? A West African herb that was seen in the dream by a man who cannot remember its name. I used the word “allegedly” because if this were truly happening it would be highly unethical and illegal. Before a researcher has the privilege and permission to experiment on human beings, he or she must first show results in a test tube and an animal model. No sane university will allow a study with human subjects based on a dream. Patterson anticipated that sceptics would be, well, sceptical. As proof he appeals to Edgar Casey’s terrible track record for predictions. Patterson, of course, describes Edgar Casey as being 100% accurate. What is extremely disturbing is that this “research” is directed at and for Africans. HIV is a serious problem in Africa, mainly due to lack of medication, and good health information. This continent does not need a useless treatment that somebody came up with while asleep. I am not sure why diabetes has also been singled out, but telling insulin-dependent diabetics that this dream therapy is better then insulin can get very fatal, very fast. Check out the brochure; it is an abomination. I hope that if this study is going on, it is not being conducted in the sloppy unethical manner described in the pamphlet.

A keeping a dream diary writing down your dreams is harmless fun, but if you start to take it seriously, dreadful consequences can occur. Imagine the stress if you truly believed the Vancouver would be destroyed with all its inhabitants. Or image the damage that could be done if invented medicines were offered for deadly conditions. I think the Star Phoenix did a terrible job of reporting this story. What happened to the investigation part of journalism?

Discovery Institute Censorship

Posted in Media, Skeptic with tags , , on June 14, 2009 by koinosuke

Censorship has never, and will never be a part of science. Somebody please explain that to the Discovery Institute. Not only do they not allow comments on any of their blogs, they are now taking the same openness of debate to Youtube. Youtube is an unlikely battleground for science education, but there are many dedicated individuals taking the time to produce educational videos. When those videos deal with evolution the comments section and video rating become a battleground, some individuals have even been threatened with violence, or in this case, legal action. Now Discovery Institute is stooping, if such a word is valid, to the same level. A Youtuber’s account has been threatened by a false copyright claim filed by Casey Luskin, of the Discovery Institute. In this admittedly embarrassing video Casey Luskin is seeing parroting all sorts of elementary and childish creationists claims. Claims, I might add, that have not been relevant for over a 100 years. All that DonExodus2 j did was call them out on the nonsense. Now DonExodus2 is fighting back, and we can help. Time to show the Discovery Institute that you can’t censor the Internet. Make sure to watch the video, and if you can spread it around. Leave a rating and add a comment for all those hard-working Youtubers that are taking the time to produce these videos.

This the offending video be sure to pass it around.

Robert Sawyer Lecture [Updated]

Posted in Media, news with tags , on June 9, 2009 by saskskeptic

[Updated McNally Event to July 28]

Robert Sawyer is in Saskatoon for the next two months as the Canadian Light Source’s writer in residence. He will be giving a free public lecture “Science Fiction as a Mirror for Reality” at the Saskatoon Frances Morrision Library Threatre, Wednesday, June 17, 2009, at 7:00 p.m. with a reception to follow.

He is also going to be at other Saskatoon, Regina and Calgary events:

# EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Launch Party
Featuring a reading by Robert J. Sawyer
Venturion Art Gallery
Suite 104A
214 – 11 Avenue SE
Calgary, Alberta
Saturday, June 13, 2009, doors open at 6:15 p.m.; events begin at 7:00 p.m.

# Bookstore Reading & Signing
Book & Brier Patch
4065 Albert Street
Regina, Saskatchewan
Saturday, June 20, 2009, 2:00 p.m.

# Book Launch for Distant Early Warnings: Canada’s Best SF
McNally Robinson
3130 8th Street East
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Tuesday, July 28, at 7:30 p.m.

Book Launch for Distant Early Warnings: Canada’s Best SF
McNally Robinson
3130 8th Street East
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Tuesday, July 28, at 7:30 p.m.

On Pet Food or the Power of Anecdotes

Posted in Media, Skeptic on June 3, 2009 by koinosuke

One of the most delightful parts of my childhood were the pets we kept in our home. One dog, and one cat. What I learned from this was that dogs eat dog food, and cats eat cat food. Till now I never questioned that.

The Saskatoon Sceptics’ Society was pleased to hear a lecture from Dr. Marion Smart, a expert in animal nutrition, and the co-author of “Not Fit For A Dog: The Truth About Manufactured Food”. Dr. Smart is a sincere researcher concerned about animal nutrition, and the influence that pet food manufacturers have over the veterinarian profession. In fact, she had skipped the chance to be wined and dined by Iams pet food in order to talk with us. Pet food manufacturers market directly to veterinarian students at the University. This aggressive campaign is reminiscent of the strategies employed by pharmaceutical companies marketing directly to doctors. There are great reasons to be concerned about it this. A slick sales pitch is not a substitute for actual research, something that seems to be lacking in the field of small animal nutrition.

In Canada, five companies hold most of the market share. All pet food in Canada must pass the Canadian food inspection agency. This is to ensure that the product meets the safety standards. A different agency, AAECO, sets the nutritional guidelines. These are minimum standards that all foods must meet. The book, has issue with these standards, especially food safety standards. One of the reasons this book was rushed to print was to be current and topical after the largest pet food recall ever. I think we all agree that food safety is important, and the guidelines should be strict, but this book veers into paranoia. There is a difference between sheer incompetence and malevolence. This book can has an agenda of its own; it is advocating raw foods for pets.

Raw foods should not be a controversial idea, after all us humans, eat it all the time. At least, those of us who cook our own meals from scratch. Pet food manufacturers and veterinarians do not, in general, recommend raw food diets, quite the opposite. The authors imply a conspiracy on the part of these institutions — I doubt it.

I think the recommendation to feed pet food, and only pet food, to companion animals is what I like to call public service science. In other words, a public service announcement that is not entirely true, but is said for the benefit of everyone. Other examples of public service science are statements such as, “there is no safe level of second-hand smoke”. Of course there is a safe level. The veterinarian recommendation to avoid giving an animal “human food” most likely has more to do with the desire to avoid obesity, nutritional deficits, and other health problems that could potentially arise. How many pet owners would know the nutritional requirements of their companion animal? Already it has become difficult to get good nutrition information from the internet. Most pet owners would understand that a natural diet for their cat or dog would contain meat. Feeding your lucky dog steak may seem as an obvious solution, but would deprive that dog of essential nutrient. Wolves do not eat steak, rather the energy rich fat and the nutrient rich organs and marrow. The book does contain balanced recipes for dog and cat food, unfortunately some supplementation (vitamins) is still required.

PSA: This is not cat food

PSA: This is not cat food

The most important part of the book for me was the discussion on dry cat food. Food is manufactured using the same process as for dog food, in other words, the kibble is held together with plant matter. This results in a large portion of carbohydrates in the cat’s diet. Felines have no dietary requirements regarding carbohydrates, since they are obligatory carnivores. Dry cat food is packed with unnecessary ingredients. This diet can even lead to health problems as veterinarians like Dr. Smart, are well aware. Here is where the power of anecdote is felt most strongly. I have two of these delightful animals. Both had been raised on a diet of dry cat food. After reading this book I was moved to protest; “But my cats are healthy”. This is anecdotal evidence and not data. Even as a sceptic I was persuaded by my own experiences, clearly more information was needed.

This brings me to one of my biggest complaints about the book: no bibliography. Without it there is simply no way to check the claims made in the book. I did find, after considerable Google digging, a reference that is not only consistent with the information in “Not Fit For A Dog” it also has a full bibliography. My scepticism and my attitude to dry cat food was clearly not in line with the facts. I had to change my mind, and my cat’s food.

This book not only advocates a raw food diet for cats it also advocates for organic farming, a topic to complex to treat here. Conventional farming, the book alleges, have deprived food of essential nutrients  this claim is not bolstered by any tangible research: again, note the lack of a bibliography. Many claims are made, some bordering on ridiculous, but there is no solid data. When I pointed this out to Dr. Smart she was also concerned about the lack of references. Without references it is very hard to take the book seriously.

One of the authors is Michael W. Fox, author of such books as “the holistic dog book: CANINE care for the 21st century” a book that advocates acupuncture, acupressure, homeopathy, and other such dubious therapies. He even advocates for a form of therapeutic touch, the alternative medicine modality that had been debunked by a fourth-grade student. I am going to venture a guess that Dr. Fox is responsible for the flakier parts of the book. One can hope that further versions of “Not Fit For a Dog” will have his contributions excised.

The dubious claims were a black mark on what could be an excellent and thought-provoking book for pet lovers.