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kottke.org posts about pseudoscience

Here’s how we know the Earth is round

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2017

Flat-Earthers aside, people have known that the Earth is round since at least the 3rd century BC. This quick video explores a few of the ways we know the world is spherical, some of them quite simple to recreate as experiments. See also Top 10 Ways to Know the Earth is Not Flat.

(5) Seeing Farther from Higher

Standing in a flat plateau, you look ahead of you towards the horizon. You strain your eyes, then take out your favorite binoculars and stare through them, as far as your eyes (with the help of the binocular lenses) can see.

Then, you climb up the closest tree — the higher the better, just be careful not to drop those binoculars and break their lenses. You then look again, strain your eyes, stare through the binoculars out to the horizon.

The higher up you are the farther you will see. Usually, we tend to relate this to Earthly obstacles, like the fact we have houses or other trees obstructing our vision on the ground, and climbing upwards we have a clear view, but that’s not the true reason. Even if you would have a completely clear plateau with no obstacles between you and the horizon, you would see much farther from greater height than you would on the ground.

This phenomena is caused by the curvature of the Earth as well, and would not happen if the Earth was flat.

Update: Carl Sagan explains how Greek astronomer and mathematician Eratosthenes figured out how the Earth was round in ~200 BC.

(via @preshit)

Cooling the mark out

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 18, 2015

Earlier this month, the NY Times ran a piece about a NYC psychic who bilked a man out of more than $700,000. But, says Louis Menand, aren’t psychics always ripping people off?

But was there any point at which Ms. Delmaro’s services were legit? Is the distinction between crooked and uncrooked psychics meant to turn on the eye-poppingness of the sums involved? If I told you I was going to build a gold bridge to the other realm and charged you fifty bucks, would that not constitute fraud? There are no bridges to the other realm. If you charge a man to build him one, you’re taking money under false pretenses.

Where the psychic went wrong though was in failing “to cool the mark out”, aka insure that he accepted his loss so he didn’t run to the police.

The classic exposition of the practice of helping victims of a con adapt to their loss is the sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1952 article “On Cooling the Mark Out.” Like everything by Goffman, it’s worth reading if you want to know what much of life is really all about. (If you don’t, you can skip it.) “After the blowoff has occurred,” Goffman explained, about the operation of a con, “one of the operators stays with the mark and makes an effort to keep the anger of the mark within manageable and sensible proportions. The operator stays behind his team-mates in the capacity of what might be called a cooler and exercises upon the mark the art of consolation. An attempt is made to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.” What happened stays out of the paper.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s pseudoscience

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 02, 2014

It is sad to see Gwyneth Paltrow promoting pseduoscience hucksters like Masaru Emoto in her very popular Goop newsletter. It begins:

I am fascinated by the growing science behind the energy of consciousness and its effects on matter. I have long had Dr. Emoto’s coffee table book on how negativity changes the structure of water, how the molecules behave differently depending on the words or music being expressed around it.

And later on in the letter, Dr. Habib Sadeghi continues:

Japanese scientist, Masaru Emoto performed some of the most fascinating experiments on the effect that words have on energy in the 1990’s. When frozen, water that’s free from all impurities will form beautiful ice crystals that look exactly like snowflakes under a microscope. Water that’s polluted, or has additives like fluoride, will freeze without forming crystals. In his experiments, Emoto poured pure water into vials labeled with negative phrases like “I hate you” or “fear.” After 24 hours, the water was frozen, and no longer crystallized under the microscope: It yielded gray, misshapen clumps instead of beautiful lace-like crystals. In contrast, Emoto placed labels that said things like “I Love You,” or “Peace” on vials of polluted water, and after 24 hours, they produced gleaming, perfectly hexagonal crystals. Emoto’s experiments proved that energy generated by positive or negative words can actually change the physical structure of an object.

Riiiight. Paltrow should stick to recipes, fashion, and workouts and leave the science to people who actually understand it lest she wander into Jenny McCarthy territory. There’s nothing wrong with asserting that thinking positively will improve your life, but connecting it with quantum physics and the like, without rigorous scientific proof, is dangerous and stupid.


posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 05, 2008

Flat-earthers are people who believe, here in the 21st century, that the Earth is flat. (Believers in a round earth are called globularists.)

Disc Earth

And what about the fact that no one has ever fallen off the edge of our supposedly disc-shaped world? Mr McIntyre laughs. “This is perhaps one of the most commonly asked questions,” he says. “A cursory examination of a flat earth map fairly well explains the reason — the North Pole is central, and Antarctica comprises the entire circumference of the Earth. Circumnavigation is a case of travelling in a very broad circle across the surface of the Earth.”

If, like me, you have questions about how the Earth could possibly be flat, some of them are answered in the Flat Earth FAQ.

Q: “What about the stars, sun and moon and other planets? Are they flat too? What are they made of?”

A: The sun and moon, each 32 miles in diameter, circle Earth at a height of 3000 miles at its equator, located midway between the North Pole and the ice wall. Each functions similar to a “spotlight,” with the sun radiating “hot light,” the moon “cold light.” As they are spotlights, they only give light out over a certain are which explains why some parts of the Earth are dark when others are light. Their apparent rising and setting are caused by optical illusions. In the “accelerating upwards” model, the stars, sun and moon are also accelerating upwards. The stars are about as far as San Francisco is from Boston. (3100 miles)

BTW, the “ice wall” is what separates the edge of the earth’s disc with outer space or whatever ether or monsters are beyond the earth. We know the wall as Antarctica. I call shenanigans on all this…it’s gotta be a hoax. Nobody’s this ignorant, right? Please?

The seven warning signs of bogus science. #2: “

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 22, 2006

The seven warning signs of bogus science. #2: “The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.” (via cd)

The Dover, PA evolution vs. intelligent design

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2005

The Dover, PA evolution vs. intelligent design ends with the judge ruling against the teaching of ID in the classroom because it violated the “constitutional ban on teaching religion in public schools”. “We find that the secular purposes claimed by the board amount to a pretext for the board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion.”

Interview with Richard Dawkins about religion, evolution,

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2005

Interview with Richard Dawkins about religion, evolution, and intelligent design. “If it’s true that [evolution and natural selection] causes people to feel despair, that’s tough. It’s still the truth. The universe doesn’t owe us condolence or consolation; it doesn’t owe us a nice warm feeling inside. If it’s true, it’s true, and you’d better live with it.”

Interview with “incompetent design” theorist Don Wise. “

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2005

Interview with “incompetent design” theorist Don Wise. “The only reason you stand erect is because of this incredible sharp bend at the base of your spine, which is either evolution’s way of modifying something or else it’s just a design that would flunk a first-year engineering student.”

There’s a Charles Darwin exhibition at the

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2005

There’s a Charles Darwin exhibition at the Natural History Museum in NYC through May 2006. A tidbit not reported in the US press: the exhibition failed to attract corporate sponsorship because “American companies are anxious not to take sides in the heated debate between scientists and fundamentalist Christians over the theory of evolution”. Pussies.

Update: This letter sent into TMN throws some doubt on the whole lack of corporate sponsorship angle. (thx, chris)

Introduction from Edward O. Wilson’s new book

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2005

Introduction from Edward O. Wilson’s new book on Charles Darwin’s “Four Great Books”.

Not only is Intelligent Design bad science,

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2005

Not only is Intelligent Design bad science, it’s also bad religion. “Self-defeating and incoherent, Intelligent Design is worse than useless, not only as science but also, one imagines, for religious folks who might be attempting to understand God by working backwards from the world as their body of evidence.”

Kansas is in quite a state

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2005

I know I’m not supposed to be paying attention to anything other than my Asia trip, but I read about the Kansas Board of Education approving the teaching of “theory” of intelligent design in public schools in the South China Morning Post this morning and…


What the hell, Kansas? And those poor science teachers in Kansas public schools…what are they supposed to do? Teaching pseudoscience as real science, that’s like asking the math teachers to tell the kids that 2+2=5 because God said so. You can’t quit, because then those kids will really be lost. If you don’t teach that ID is valid science, you’ll probably get reprimanded or fired. So what to do? I have a couple of suggestions:

1) Teach your students about evolution, and then tell them about intelligent design, just as the state curriculum says. Then spend some time going over what science is, what a theory is, and so on. Apply the definition to each. That way, you’ve taught ID by the books and then demonstrated its relationship to science.

2) Or, as long as you’re teaching your students that a higher power designed the world/universe, why not take it a step further and tell them about your personal and scientific belief in The Flying Spaghetti Monster? As long as science can include anything now, why not a supernatural being made from pasta?

Update: There appears to be hope. In Dover, Pennsylvania:

In that small, relatively conservative Pennsylvania town, voters booted all eight Republican pro-intelligent design school board members who were up for re-election and replaced them with Democrats who oppose the curriculum policy. Dover is not some bastion of liberal politics; it’s more like Kansas than parts of Kansas are.

(thx, steve)

“The only debate on intelligent design that

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 21, 2005

The only debate on intelligent design that is worthy of its subject”. Hootingly funny. (And I have no doubt that someone from the other side of the debate could construct something equally as amusing, so…)

Astrology is valid science?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2005

Not from The Onion: US biochemistry professor admits that astrology would be considered valid science according to his own personal definition. Said a spectator of Pennsylvania ID trial: “I can’t believe he teaches a college biology class”.

March of the Penguins has become a

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 13, 2005

March of the Penguins has become a favorite for conservative moviegoers, who cite it as making a good case for monogomy, intelligent design, and a pro-life stance on abortion. I wonder if liberals watch the film and come out advocating universal health care…all those dead penguin babies could have been saved with proper medical care.