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The Woo Review

Yes, folks, I'm back after a long hiatus. The reasons for being away don't matter, but one of them was an experiment to test two theories related to evolution. One is Intelligent Design, which says that someone (who can't be called God otherwise the theory can't be taught in US schools) designed us to be perfect like we are. The second is teleological evolution, which says that evolution works towards some predetermined goal and is not just some random process that wanders along making things good enough for the time being.

To test these theories I broke my ankle. Examination of the x-rays and consideration of the time it took until I could walk without the need for crutches or an enormous plastic boot showed that if the human ankle was designed by anyone, that designer must have been clueless. Also, if the ankle is the result of continuous improvement towards some design goal then humans have a lot of evolving still to do.

This is the fourth time I have had problems with that foot over the last few years. At The Amazing Meeting in 2004 and the Global Atheist Conference in 2012 I developed plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the tendon which runs along the bottom of the foot. Just before the 2011 Sydney Mardi Gras parade I slipped and twisted something, preventing me from showing solidarity with my gay atheist friends by walking with them in the parade. I broke my ankle coming home from SkeptiCamp in May. If there is a god, he seems to be escalating the warnings he is giving me about his displeasure at my attending atheist and skeptical events.

Which brings us to the Australian Skeptics National Convention at the end of November. It's in Melbourne this year from November 30 to December 2 and you can read all about it here.

James Randi will be there, together with an excellent lineup of speakers from both Australia and elsewhere. I'll be there doing media work, so look for the man with the camera and microphone who is walking very carefully and trying not to tempt any supernatural beings, either real or imagined.

So what's this "Woo Review" business? Well, I plan to alternate articles here between serious stories and a fortnightly (roughly) roundup of what's happening in the world of pseudoscience, nonscience and generally weird thinking. I try to avoid clichés like the plague so I'll stay away from putting things in Good, Bad and Ugly pigeon holes, but feel free to make your own decisions.

One thing that certainly was good was the announcement of the Choice Shonky Awards. These are presented annually by Choice Magazine to products that they think don't meet their high standards of usefulness or value for money. The six winners this year were:

  • Samsung, for a washing machine with a 4-star water efficiency rating according to a sticker on the front but which used 224 litres of water to wash a small load of clothes. This compares with the best machine tested by Choice which only used 37 litres.
  • Jetset Travelworld, for a possibly illegal condition in the fine print of their contracts which prevents people from claiming refunds for things promised, paid for but not delivered.
  • Nature's Way Kid's Smart Natural Medicines, for a collection of homeopathic preparations supposedly useful for the treatment of childhood illnesses. Some of these bottles contain homeopathic strychnine and arsenic, but as they are homeopathic there isn't really anything there except very expensive water. (At $2,000 per litre you wouldn't want to use this water in your Samsung washing machine!). I pointed out to the Choice people that as some of these bottles of nothing had homeopathic "X" dilutions of some things there might accidentally be a molecule or two of active ingredient in some bottles, but the principle remains. Nobody honest should be selling this stuff and no parents should be using it to treat anything that might be wrong with their kids. Choice have asked the ACCC to have a look at these products.
  • Ticketek/Ticketmaster, for slapping ridiculous surcharges on concert and event tickets (eg $5.20 if you print your own ticket at home or $7.50 to collect it at the venue). Plus a credit card charge as well, although you can't pay them any other way.
  • Toblerone, for making chocolate bars that can't be evenly split into the serving sizes specified on the packs.
  • Cabcharge, for their excessive surcharge for paying by credit card. They charge 10%, the banks charge them about 1%.
  • Liquipel, an invisible, nanoparticle coating that costs $99 and is supposed to protect your mobile phone from water. It works about as well as you can see it, which is not at all.

Another good thing this week was a test of psychics in London. They were asked to match some facts they were given about some people to the actual people and managed to score just about what guessing would have given. The psychics rationalised it all afterwards of course, by saying that the tests weren't really designed to test psychic powers. Did I mention that they were not saying this before the tests took place, when everything seemed to be satisfactory?

Something that really falls into the "bad" category is the news of the deaths of two significant people in the skeptical movement. It hasn't been a good few weeks for the pioneers of organised skepticism. On October 12 James Gerrand, one of the founders of Australian Skeptics, died at the age of 93. The other founder, Mark Plummer, died last year. I met both of them at various skeptical gatherings, although both had been out of the front line for some years. A few days later, on October 20, Paul Kurtz died. I met Paul at the 2000 World Skeptics Conference. He was the driving force behind the establishment of CSICOP, now CSI, and can truly be called the man responsible for organised skepticism existing at all. Someone had to be first, and he was it. I and my friends are here doing what we do because of these men, and they will be missed.

This article was published on the Yahoo! 7 News Blog on November 2, 2012
Yahoo! 7 News

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