Archive for June 2006

The Skeptical Scientist

June 30, 2006

Ever hear of the Mars Effect? I first heard about it in 1978, reading an article in Sky and Telescope. It seems like there is a correlation between a person’s athletic abilities and the position of the planet Mars in the sky at the moment the person is born. “But wait!”, you say. “Isn’t that astrology?” Sure ’nuff is. And that’s a problem. You see, the correlation – a measurable, repeatable, testable (and therefore, verifiable) effect isn’t supposed to be there. That’s what science tells us. That’s what scientists believe. Yet, it is there, and this poses a problem for some.

What’s surprising is the ‘some’ for whom this poses a problem.

In 1976 Michel and Francoise Gauquelin, calling themselves ‘chronobiologists’, published their paper in The Humanist, claiming their discovery of the Mars Effect. Not many paid attention, but a Harvard biologist and statistician named Marvin Zelen did. That’s not remarkable, but both Zelen and his collaborator, one George Abell from UCLA (yes, the famous astronomer whose book was the classic astronomy text for over 25 years), formed, in 1977, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Well, they didn’t form CSICOP only to answer the Gauquelin claim, but it was their first big task. I used to subscribe to their journal, The Skeptical Inquirer.

Richard Kammann was part of that group, and spent four years attempting to replicate and debunk the Mars Effect. In his words:

In Part 1 of this two-part paper I shall show that Abell, along with Professor Paul Kurtz, the Chairman of CSICOP and former editor of The Humanist, and Professor Marvin Zelen, statistician at Harvard University and Fellow of CSICOP, have persisted in offering to the public a set of demonstrably false statistical arguments against the Mars effect in spite of four years of continuous and steadily mounting criticism of their illogic.

Oh, I forgot to mention that CSICOP has a fifty member council, and some of the names on that council from those days may sound familiar… like B.F. Skinner, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan…

(For a detailed chronology, try here). So Kammann publishes his paper in 1982, essentially saying that Kurtz, Abell have intentionally misrepresented data and results to fit preconceived notions. There is no more damning accusation in the world of science and academia.

People at The Skeptical Inquirer have their own side of the story, of course:

The hypothesis states that Mars occupies certain positions in the sky more often at the births of sports champions than at the births of ordinary individuals. However, in-depth analysis of the Mars effect hypothesis reveals massive bias in the data collected by Gauquelin…
The so-called Mars effect has haunted science for forty years now, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It most likely has been an illusion after all.

The problem is that a man named Rawlins had in 1981 effectively debunked the supposed science (um… read that in scare quotes) done by Abell and Kurtz when he proposed an experiment that showed the bias referred to by above was not actually there. He showed it can’t be. That experiment was done by Kammann. His results, and the reaction by the SCICOPS community, can be found here.

Sigh. If you’ve with me so far, you may be wondering why people like Abell and Kurtz, instead of responding to Rawlins with something like “Then there’s something about the data we do not yet understand.” decide to get all defensive and refer to him only as “that amateur astronomer” (in actuality, Rawlins may have been an amateur astronomer, but he was not an amateur statistician. Orbits, he could handle).

Now Kurtz and George Abell are not fools, and I doubt that they are (or, were) really malicious people. Abell in particular was an established scientist with a long history of major contributions to both science and the public, and he had nothing to prove (and clearly, much to loose) in this kind of squabble. But he and Kurtz were human, and certainly stubborn in their beliefs, especially those beliefs that had brought them great success in life.

I think that the skeptics were not skeptical of their own skepticism. That’s a mental disorder to which scientists, as humans, are prone (as are we all), akin to the problem self-described progressives have with tolerance (they are not tolerant of intolerant people).

This ugliness comes up in other places, most recently, a bruhaha over string theory. Some say string theory has the potential to solve one of the greatest problems facing physics today, the unification of the four fundamental forces in nature. Others say it’s so off the mark that it’s “not even wrong”. Hum… Richard Feynman was saying the same thing about quantum mechanics in the 1980s.

More reading.


The NYT is Angry With Bloggers

June 27, 2006

Yesterday I wrote about a trifle; the curfuffle in a curfuffle-pot called “kosola”. The publishing of national-security secrets is a much more important thing.

Bill Keller, in an open letter to the readers of the New York Times, attempts to justify the Times reporting on a secret, but admittedly legal and effective tactics to secure financial data about terrorists overseas. Note that the fact that the US has infiltrated international banking systems to track terrorists is not a secret. The specific tactics are. So now, guess what. They no longer work (and feel free to translate this to mean, “you should feel less safe now, thanks to Bill Keller and the New York Times”).

So where does Bill Keller point the finger? He tells us:

Some of the incoming mail quotes the angry words of conservative bloggers and TV or radio pundits who say that drawing attention to the government’s anti-terror measures is unpatriotic and dangerous. (I could ask, if that’s the case, why they are drawing so much attention to the story themselves by yelling about it on the airwaves and the Internet.)

Ummm… Maybe because this is the 21st century equivalent of reporting on troop locations, sir?

No, I think this is a BIG DEAL, and the Times should pay a big price. Well, except for one thing: The Times, along with most of the press (and especially broadcast news) is irrelevant anyway. They are dinosaurs, and they are dying.

Update 2 Minutes Later:
The Captain, Ed Morrissey, tells us how the Times has just crippled the very program they were demanding after September 11.

A Case of No Honor Amonst Them

June 26, 2006

It started on June 22, with this very odd post by the proprietor of the dailyKos web blog, Markos Zuninga. In short, kos, as he is known, complains of ‘betrayal’ by someone in a closed Yahoo e-mail list called Townhouse and by The New Republic magazine, which printed what kos claims is a private e-mail that puts him in less than a fine light. kos coins the terms kosola, a pay for nice-blog-play quid-pro-quo analogous to the radio industry’s infamous “payola” of the ’50s, to concisely state the gist of the article, penned by New Republic staffer Jason Zengerle.

The article in the New Republic that started the screed, notes that a close kos associate, one Jerome Armstrong, has been tapped by the Securities and Exchange commission for civil action for essentially selling ads on kos’s popular blog in return for a good word from the kos himself. But kos didn’t mind the TNR article saying that. He became offended because, he insists, it accuses him of pulling the strings of the bloggers, reporters and activists on the Townhouse list. So it is passing strange that kos proves the articles’ point thusly:

If you still hold a subscription to that magazine, it really is time to call it quits. If you see it in a magazine rack, you might as well move it behind the National Review or even NewsMax, since that’s who they want to be associated with these days.

By the next day, it was apparent from this post that there was something important to this story, more important than kos just throwing his weight around. Still, kos insists on pulling marionette strings.
Now, if you’ve just read all that, realize that you’ve gotten one side of the story, and it’s the left side. It seems that the other side is more interesting that the first.

If this is to be believed (and I cannot vouch for any of it), then it appears that kos would like a bit of the action for himself. But let’s be kind, and say that this was just a clumsy initial forey into power-politics, or even the mere inner manifestations of someone flexing new-found muscles. Then why did kos pick Ohio to be his political play-pen? The very same Ohio that became the lynch pin of the 2004 presidential election? And why, pray tell, did kos switch sides in a local election in a mere 48 hour period?

When I Become King…

June 24, 2006

There are a few things that will happen immediately when I become King. Using a cell phone in public will become a capital offense, for one (as will the sending of junk mail, spam e-mail and telephone solicitations, of course). The practices of law and insurance offices will be drastically altered, and doctors will be required to make house calls once again. I will probably institute a tax based on height; the taller you are, the more tax you pay (the NBA will be in extremis).

But perhaps the firstest thing to be done is the outlawing of telephone answering systems.

WMD? What WMD?

June 21, 2006

These WMD.

Sigh. Bush didn’t lie, and although every death is a tragedy, compared to Viet-Nam (much less WW I and WWII and Korea), very few have died. More and more the press and political left in this country look like a fifth column (or very, very deluded).

There May Be a Difference

June 17, 2006

On April 9 I noted that it was possible congresswoman Cynthia McKinney would be be indicted by a grand jury the following week for accosting a police officer. I also admitted to some skepticism. Looks like I was right to be skeptical – the AP tells us that this won’t happen.

Matthew Hoy tells us why.

I suspect that there will be price to pay – at the poles by politicians of both stripes – for this non-act*. The calculation that voters simply don’t care, or that a week is forever in politics, or that all politics is local (and this is definitely not a local issue) is off the mark. After all, this time it is their ox getting gored. The unfairness feels personal every time it happens.