The Skeptic Digest
Subject: Skeptical Digest 20.2 (Summer 2007)
Date: June 24th 2007
>>>Skeptical Digest 20.2 (Summer 2007)
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>>>Skeptical Stats>>>Dubious News>>>In this issue>>>Administrivia>>>Skeptics in the Pub>>>
>>>SKEPTICAL STATS>>> 1. Percentage of Kellogg's Frosties sold that are eaten by men over 18: 65
2. Percentage of the UK working age population that is disabled: 20
3. Number of her children that Ada Mason, who died Britain's oldest woman at 111 in February 2007, outlived: 5 out of 5
4. Average number of deaths in Britain annually that are attributable to vending machines: 12
5. Profits made, per second, by Tesco supermarkets: £77
6. In January 2007, number of Papua New Guinea women tortured into confessing they were witches and then murdered: 4
7. Number of spybots embedded in the official Web site for the 2007 Superbowl: 1
8. Number of different types of tools made by chimpanzees observed in Senegal: 26
9. According to a recent study from the Wrexham Maelor Hospital, number of women in Britain ever sexually assaulted after their drinks were spiked with Rohypnol or GHB: none
10. Annual income received by the Howard de Walden Estate from its 92 acres of real estate in Marylebone, including Harley Street, from which the Estate has banned abortions and cosmetic surgery: £47 million
11. Percentage differential between men's and women's prize money on the pro tennis tours despite Wimbledon's move to parity: 22
12. Number of people registered for surveillance in the first few years
of the US National Security Entry-Exit Registration System created
after the 2001 attacks: 80,000
13. Number of those investigated under NSEERS who were detained and/or sent for deportation hearings: more than 13,000
14. Date when MIT Media Lab head Nicholas Negroponte predicted the Internet would have one billion users: by the end of the 20th century 15. Date when the Internet actually had a billion users: late 2005
16. Number of tapes of angels singing placed online by Florida retired Air Force officer Jim Bramlett: 4
17. Number of UFO sightings added to an online database run by police officers over the last five years: more than 200
18. Amount of the Challenge prize offered by Sir Richard Branson to anyone who can come up with a way of removing one billion tonnes of carbon per year from the atmosphere: $25 million
19. Cost of equipment including an infrared laser thermometer used by Alabama's South-Eastern Paranormal Society to detect cold spots left by ghosts: $2,100
20. Number of children in China Orphaned by AIDS: 75,000
21. Number of former US vice-presidents who have won an Oscar: 1
22. Year in which swallowing live goldfish was a fad: 193923. The record number of goldfish swallowed: 300
24. Cost of the LawnBott Evolution, which can mow tip to 33,000 square feet of lawn on a single battery charge: $2,500
25. Annual cost, per capita, of the Queen (or a minute's attendance at theWorld Cup England versus Portugal game), in 2006: 62p
>>>Computer security professor Matt Blaze, a mathematician and cryptography expert at the University of Pennsylvania, claimed James Randi's million-dollar prize in January. In a posting on his blog (at www.crypto.com), Blaze explained the means by which he and his colleague Jutta Degener successfully visualized the contents of a box Randi had created as part of a remote viewing experiment. In creating such a challenge, Randi's foundation, Blaze explained, faces the problem of both hiding the contents of the box and assuring psychics and would-be challengers that the test is fair. Randi solved this problem by publishing an encoded description of the box's contents on the Foundation Web site (www.randi.org). It is: 0679
After examining this code for a while, Blaze and Degener thought the first ten digits could be the ISBN of a published book. Looking it up, they discovered those digits are the ISBN of the 1995 edition of the Random House Webster's College Dictionary. In the library copy they eventually found, the 14th entry from the bottom on page 275 is the definition for compact disc. Blaze and Degener therefore concluded that's what the box contained, correctly. Blaze noted a couple of further points. Quite apart from the fact that they were able to crack the published code, because the rules for creating the code were not specified it would still be possible for Randi to cheat by claiming the code had a different meaning than the one the psychic divined. Second, that cryptographically encoding the string wouldn't help, in part because the workings of cryptography are too complicated for most people to understand. In the meantime, Blaze decided to forego collecting the million dollars. For sceptics, though, the story is abit alarming. If it's this difficult for Randi, with all his years of experience, to devise a test that can't be cracked and blocks cheating on both sides, what hope is there for the rest of us?
>>>In late February the journal Current Biology ran a paper by Jill D. Pruetz and Paco Bertolani from the Department of Anthropology at Iowa State University reporting that chimpanzees have been observed using tools to hunt other animals in Senegal. The chimps were seen identifying appropriate tree branches, breaking them off, removing the bark, and sharpening the tips with their teeth. The paper includes a picture of one of these spear-like tools; it measures about 28 inches long. Overall, chimps have been spotted using tools in over 25 different contexts: opening hard nuts, trying to extract bush babies from cavities in branches or tree trunks (one of the uses for those spears). Curiously, although hunting is a predominantly male activity among chimpanzees, tools are more commonly used by females and immature males. (Maybe not using them is the chimp version of being macho.) So far, no one has reported finding a large, black monolith nearby playing Thus Spake Zarathustra.
>>>The indefatigable Sid Rodrigues (thanks, Sid!) who maintains The Skeptic's news blog (ukskeptic.livejournal.com) recently included a pointer to a story from Continuity Central questioning the oft-repeated statistic that "80 percent of businesses affected by a major incident close within 18 months". Where, the writer, Mel Gosling, asked, does this statistic come from? Everyone quotes it as true, but no one cites a source. Vendors do, however, find it useful for frightening businesses into developing continuity plans (always a good idea in any case). We have quoted it ourselves. We have also tried ourselves to find a source - and failed. Gosling cited three examples suggesting it's not true. One: foot and mouth disease. No contingency plans among farmers and small rural businesses; after 18 months less than 10 percent folded. Two: Carlisle floods in 2005. Only 90 percent contingency plans; less than 20 percent closed. Three: the 1998 Omagh bombing. Probably no contingency plans; majority of businesses still trading in 2006. We would be interested in hearing from anyone who can cite a verifiable source for this statistic.
>>>The Advertising Standards Authority ruled in February that Channel 4 personality Gillian McKeith may not continue to call herself "Dr" after a complaint was submitted by a regular reader of Ben Goldacre's BadScience.net. Goldacre, who saw a draft of the adjudication - it went unpublished when McKeith agreed to stop using the title in her advertising - notes that McKeith's claimed qualification came from an unaccredited American correspondence course. McKeith was also recently censured by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency for selling herbal pills she claimed promoted sexual satisfaction.
>>>There's an American saying that goes like this: if it doesn't move and it should, spray it with WD-40; if it moves and it shouldn't, use duct tape. Duct tape (also known, in the film industry, as "gaffer's tape") is the cure-all for everything from rattling cars to terrorist activity. We had not, however, heard that in 2002 a small study suggested that duct tape was also the way to get rid of warts. Apparently, you're supposed to apply it to the affected area and leave it on for a week, then soak the area and rub it with pumice stone. Now it turns out that duct tape isn't as effective at this as they thought it was. The New York Times recently reported that a newer study that examined the data from 60 studies looking at different removal methods concluded that the most effective method is applying salicylic acid, which works about 73 percent of the time. The duct tape treatment only works 16 percent of the time, according to the latest tests. It's probably better this way. Now you can save your duct tape for the really important things - like eliminating rattles and squeaks that otherwise might make you think you were being haunted.
>>>IN THIS ISSUE OF THE SKEPTIC (20.2, Summer 2007)
- The Evolution Controversy (Nell Barrie) An Open Letter to the Public about Young Earth Creationism (Julian W. Kirchherr) Do 17 percent of people in Britain really believe in "intelligent design"? (Adam Buick)
- Editorial (Victoria Hamilton and Chris French) Hilary Evans's Paranormal Picture Gallery Hits and Misses (Wendy M. Grossman) Rhyme and Reason (Steve Donnelly) Philosopher's Corner (Julian Baggini) Sprite (Donald Rooum) ASKE News Letters
- Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism by Paul Boghossian Newton: a Very Short Introduction by Rob Lliffe Contact With Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears About Encountering Extraterrestrials by Michael A G Michaud Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life by Mark Vernon Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach A Teaspoon and an Open Mind by Michael White
>>>SOURCES FOR SKEPTICAL STATS>>> 1 Kellogg (quoted in The Guardian); 2 Disability Rights Commission 2006 briefing; 3 Guardian; 4 www.cherwell.org; 5 Evening Standard; 6 CNN; 7 The Register; 8 Current Biology; 9 Evening Standard; 10 BBC; 11 Daily Tennis; 12,13 Illusions of Security, by Maureen Webb; 14 personal interview; 15 Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox; 16 www.choicesforliving.com; 17 News Shopper; 18 www.virginearth.com; 19 Times Daily; 20 The Blood of Yingzhou District; 21 Academy Awards ceremony 2007; 22, 23 The Worst Case Scenario Almanac - History; 24 Business Week; 25 the Queen's accountants (via the Guardian)
Thanks to this issue’s clippings contributors: Judith Wood, Steuart Campbell, Tom Ruffles, Ernest Jackson, the Wizard’s Star List, Skeptic News, Phil McKerracher. A special thank-you to Sid Rodrigues, who persistently and indefatigably keeps filling The Skeptic's blog (http://ukskeptic.livejournal.com) with news stories and pointers.
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>>>SKEPTICS IN THE PUB>>> Skeptics in the Pub meets (usually) on the third Thursday of every month at 7:30pm at the Old King's Head, 45 Borough High Street, London (nearest tube: London Bridge). The entry fee is £2 to cover the guest speaker's travelling expenses and sundries. Free sandwiches and chips are provided first-come, first-served, at 7.00pm. Non-skeptics welcome. Turn up at any time during the night. Detailed directions, a list of upcoming speakers and a map of how to get to the pub can be found at www.skeptic.org.uk/pub.
Thursday 19th July 2007
Timothy Good "Need to Know: UFOs, the Military and Intelligence"
Thursday 30th August 2007
Victor Stenger "God: The Failed Hypothesis"
The talk will be followed by informal discussion in a relaxed and friendly pub atmosphere. Skeptics in the Pub is a regular evening for all those interested in and/or skeptical of the paranormal, alternative medicine, psychic powers, pseudo-science, UFOs, alien abductions, creationism, Fortean phenomena, cult religions, water-divining, lost civilizations, etc. Further information and mailing list announcements available from pub at skeptic.org.uk. Suggestions for speakers or offers to speak are gladly welcomed.
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