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Monday, June 29, 2009

You can't trust your eyes


This absolutely delightful optical illusion has been doing the rounds on the Internet the last couple of days, so we felt like commenting on it too, as well as sharing some of our other favorites.

If you haven't seen it before, prepare to have your mind blown: What you see as green and as blue, are the exact same color! Go ahead, open it up in your image editor application and see for yourself.

When confronted with an image like this, our eyes do not analyze every "pixel" as a computer screen would. Instead, it tries to make the best it can of it, to try and understand the pattern, to understand and interpret the image instead of just seeing it. Since it looks like the orange stripes are passing through the whole picture, the colors simply must be different, says our brain. How wrong it is.


Similarly with this one. We see an object casting a shadow, we know that the square B is shadowed, therefore it must be really lighter than it is. Again, your brain overcompensates for something, and it gets confused.



Here, all the lines are in fact straight and parallel. They do not curve, nor do the boxes change shapes.

The purpose of these three images is to demonstrate that our eyes are quite easily fooled. This is not even a tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the different tricks our eyes can pull on us. We think we see patterns in noise. We see faces in everyday objects. Don't trust your eyes.

They are not digital cameras performing perfect representations of the real world. They provide a mess of information to your brain, which then tries its darndest to make sense of it all. It tries to interpret. It tries to understand. And when faced with something as confusing as these, it fails quite spectacularily.

Always aspire to try to confirm what your eyes tell you in some way. Impressive as the biology and technology in them is, they have their faults and there are plenty of things out there in the world that try to exploit those flaws. Don't get fooled. Always question what you see.

I will finish this article with the same words The Bad Astronomer used when describing the first picture: "So the next time someone swears they saw Jesus, or a UFO, or a ghost, show them this picture. What you see in life is absolutely and provably not what you get."

Link from: Bad Astronomy and about half the rest of the Internet.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Making up election results, the bad way


Time to talk a little about Iran.

Well okay, this isn't a political blog so we won't really talk about the Iran situation itself. It was just a piece in the Washington Post regarding the numbers of votes each candidate in Iran got for each district, to add more credence to the accusations that the election was rigged. (Not that there's much doubt of that of course, but this is some interesting extra evidence). And numbers (as opposed to politics) are fun and interesting! And chock full of science!

I don't have the numbers themselves so I can't double-check what "the experts" cited in the Washington Post piece have analyzed, but it sounds plausible enough for me.

The hypothesis is this: Humans are very bad at coming up with random numbers. If the numbers were rigged, we could be able to see patterns in the result numbers that indicate that they were chosen by a human, and not the true result.

We can focus on the last two digits of a vote number. These last two digits are not significant to the overall outcome in a country with fourty million votes. In a normal voting distribution, we will expect to see each of the ten numbers possible for the last digit about 10% of the time each. If you asked a human to give you a random number, they will not give you an even distribution. The number 5, being in the middle, does not 'seem random' to us, and thus we do not choose it when asked to make a random number. 3, 7 and 9 (7 in particular) are numbers that seem much more random to us, and we tend to pick those when asked for a random number.
The numbers look suspicious. We find too many 7s and not enough 5s in the last digit. We expect each digit (0, 1, 2, and so on) to appear at the end of 10 percent of the vote counts. But in Iran's provincial results, the digit 7 appears 17 percent of the time, and only 4 percent of the results end in the number 5. Two such departures from the average -- a spike of 17 percent or more in one digit and a drop to 4 percent or less in another -- are extremely unlikely. Fewer than four in a hundred non-fraudulent elections would produce such numbers.
In addition, this works too when being asked for a two-digit random number. Humans are more likely to pick a number with two adjacent digits (for example 23, 87 and 65) than a number without adjacent digits (16, 93 or 52). A two-digit number where both numbers are the same (22, 55 or 88, for example) are also avoided by us.

We've blogged about randomness and our inability to deal with it before. The findings of the Washington Post are what you would expect if you took what we have learned about randomness, and applied it to the Iranian elections. Humans are distinctly non-random creatures and because we always try to see patterns in noise, we are also ourselves incapable of generating true random noise for purposes of randomness.

The lesson is: If you're going to rig an election, use random.org for your random numbers, rather than trying to come up with them yourself.

Link gotten via Freakonomics blog.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Daniel Hauser appears to be getting better!

Remember back a couple of weeks? A poor Minnesota boy was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, and the parents, who were fans of natural remedies, did not want to treat him with conventional medicine, but preferred alternative treatments.

The State ordered him chemotherapy. The mother responded by kidnapping her son and running away with him to prevent his treatment. Fortunately, the state got hold of them and managed to get him into a proper hospital.

Guess what! It's working! Hauser's cancer is shrinking, and it started to do so almost immediately after treatment was started.

The family though, does not want any of that. They still claim that the vitamins they have been feeding him after he was admitted to the hospital, are the cause of his betterment.

They seem to not realize that they had been giving him alternative treatments for months earlier to no effect. But the ones they're giving him now after he's received chemotherapy, they're what's causing his improvement!

Yeah. Nothing the hospital can do would prove to these people that chemotherapy made him better, and not vitamins. (They could take him off the chemo and watch him get worse again only to start him up again and watch him get better, and repeat until the family sees the point, but this would hardly be an ethical way to yo-yo a boy's life just to prove a point) They are so ingrained in their beliefs that the family will likely never admit that getting Daniel to the hospital saved his life, forever claiming that their own treatments fixed it.

Link gotten from: Friendly Atheist

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Homeopathic Medicine has an effect!

Yes it's true. Us naysayers have finally been proven wrong about Alternative Medicine, in that in the news lately have been a story about a homeopathic remedy actually having an effect on some people. A negative one, but an effect the very same. Oh and it wasn't actually a homeopathic drug, it was only labeled as one. So yeah, the title of this post is somewhat in jest.

For those of you not in the know, homeopathy is based on the magical properties of water, in that water remembers what it has been diluted with, continuing to grant its effects. The more you dilute something homeopathically, the stronger the effect will get.

Samuel Hahnemann came up with the idea in the late 1700s, that 'Like cures like.' For example, if you are suffering from hay fever, with red eyes and a runny nose, you could cure that with something that produced the same symptoms. Chopping onions will also give most of us irritated eyes, so that could be used as a cure for hay fever.

The astute of you will have noticed that, if you think about some other symptoms you can cause, that most of them are bad in themselves. To continue with the onion example, the onion is actually releasing irritants into the air and into our eyes, and that is why our body tries to expel it by crying. So it itself is not a good thing. In fact, in order to cause bad symptoms, we have to use poisonous or harmful ingredients ourselves, as remedy.

So Hahnemann 'discovered' the magical properties of H2O, plain water, in that it does a grand thing. It remembers what has been put into it, but only the essence. So to cure hay fever, but to avoid overdosing his patient on onions, he would dilute the onion essence into water, 1 part in 10. Shake it ten times back and forth, ten times up and down, ten times in and out, and now you have a '1C' solution, which is the unit used for the Concentration of homeopathic remedies. If you take one part of that solution and dilute that into another ten parts of water, you get a 2C solution. In homeopathic terms, the 2C dilution is actually more potent than the 1C dilution. We can continue diluting this way, take another part of the 2C concoction and put into another ten parts of water, and you get a 3C dilution, even stronger. The next time you visit a place where they sell these things, check out the descriptions. They'll often be 20C or 30C dilutions, meaning they have one part in 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 of the actual original ingredient. This is literally less than a drop in the ocean.

But I digress, other than the initial background of homeopathy. The reason this is in the news now, is an American firm which marketed a homeopathic nasal remedy. The American Food and Drug Administration have gone out with a warning this week against the product, Zicam. It contained Zinc, in non-homeopathic doses, and this led to a loss of smell in a number of patients. As opposed to normal homeopathy which is 100% placebo, Zinc up the nose has an actual demonstrable effect.

Zicam was never tested for this, because it was labeled and marketed as homeopathic. The proper pharmaceutical companies have huge amounts of regulation and legislation making sure their products are well-tested, documented, and safe. Homeopathic producers have no such rules and regulations, so they do not. Normally, this only parts a fool with their money, as homeopathic remedies are 100% water. But this time, they sold an actual drug, only they did so unsafely because they were not regulated. The Food and Drug Administration did not test Zicam, as it was a homeopathic remedy. Alternative Medicine often gets special treatment compared to proper medicine.

Herein lies the root of the problem. Pharmaceuticals need to prove that their stuff works before they are allowed to sell it. In most cases, this takes years of testing and documenting. Alternative companies however, are exempt. They do not need to prove that their medicaments do what they claim to do. They do not need to prove all the side effects. Zicam was not a homeopathic remedy, although it was marketed as one. It had much too high a concentration of Zinc to be that. But when they applied the label Homeopathy to it, could go straight to market without oversight.

Zicam was only sold in America, not here in Norway. But we are not immune to the problem either, not by a long shot. When the old 'Quack law' was repealed in 2004, it opened up possibilities for alternative treatments by non-medically-trained-professionals. Fortunately we still have strict laws regarding their advertisements and what a treatment can claim to do. Still, as long as alternative treatments get special treatments in the certification tracks, we can risk the same happening again. And perhaps with an even more dangerous effect than loss of smell.

If you ever thought, or if anyone ever thought, even rationally, 'What's the harm of selling water to people if it makes them feel good?', we just found a potential cause of harm. Without oversight, this industry can place whatever they like, without much testing, onto the market. Which people will then happily ingest and inject. And that could prove dangerous, as Zicam has just demonstrated for us.

If the Alternative Medicine community want to be taken seriously, they will need to succumb to all the same rules, regulations, testing and documentation as big pharma. Though I don't see that happening anytime soon.

Friday, June 19, 2009

PETA and turning a fly into ten hens

Animal rights is a difficult topic. On the one hand, we should appreciate that other organisms than ourselves can feel pain and confusion, but on the other hand, had there not been animal research, most animal rights protesters would not live long enough to protest.

The latest kerfuffle over animal rights is courtesy of the US President. During an interview, a large fly started zooming around Obama's head, and the President finally slapped the fly dead between his hands, commenting "I got the sucker".

PETA has started making a fuss over the incident; “Well, I guess it can’t be said that President Obama wouldn’t hurt a fly” (found on the PETA blog). They are also sending non-lethal fly-trappers for the White House, to avoid any future incidents.

Now, had PETA been Jainists, who seek to never harm a living being (monks sweep the road in front of them to avoid stepping on insects), I would understand their sentiment. However, PETA have been involved in a number of violent demonstrations bringing humans to harm, and they seem to have no qualms about that. It is much more important to them to save defenseless animals (they typically use familiar animals like dogs and horses in their propaganda videos) than to help their fellow humans lead healthy, safe lives.

Personally, I find their tactics and policies hysterical and partly reprehensible. The Wikipedia entry on PETA mentions their affiliation with the Animal Liberation Front which was listed in a draft planning an overview of domestic terrorist threats from the Department of Homeland Security.

Also, they euthanize animals that they rescue, claiming that the only way to end some animals´ misery is to put them to sleep forever.

Now, concerning insects. Sure, they might feel pain and fear. However, it is impossible not to kill insects in one´s lifetime. It may not be that we swallow eight spiders a year in our sleep, but I am sure most people have inadvertently stepped on a few, or even slapped a few so hard in a reflex reaction that we all have a few on our consciences. Sure, killing one at will is a little different, but for a man with the power to declare war on nations, I think we can let this one slide.

The President also has a more pressing need than Joe Sixpack to concentrate and speak fluently, which can be difficult with buzzing insects flying around one's head. Would it be in any way practical or even utilitaristic for Obama to have fetched a fly-removal device in the middle of an interview for safe removal of a house fly? No. If anything, it could have damaged his reputation as a forceful decisionmaker and worthy of being the most powerful man in the world. He will probably need to make some tough decisions later in his career, and I am happy he dealt with this little issue swiftly and calmly.

It is absurd to me to use resources the way PETA does, and still claim to be morally superior to the American President. If Obama's biggest fumble so far is to swat a fly, then I am looking forward to the next couple of years.

I think the logical next step for PETA is to join the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.



For more dirt on PETA, see the Penn&Teller Bullshit! episode by the same name, or find the South Park Episodes that bring up PETA for a lighter treatment. Reading the Wikipedia entry is also quite sobering.