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Ordered list of credible fictions

I love Bruce Sterling's "Design Fiction Slider-Bar of Disbelief," a list of fictions in ascending order of credibility:

9.4 New age crystals, lucky charms, protective pendants, mojo hands, voodoo dolls, magic wands

9.3 Quack devices, medical hoaxes

9.3 Fantasy “objects” in fantasy cinema and computer-games

9.2 Physically impossible sci-fi literary devices: time machines, humanoid robots

9.2 Perpetual motion machines; free-energy gizmos, other physically impossible engineering fantasies

9.0 State libels, black propaganda, military ruses; missile gaps, vengeance weapons, Star Wars SDI

8.9 “Realplay” services, “experiential futurism” encounters, military and emergency training drills, props and immersive set-design, scripted personas

8.8 Online roleplaying scenario games

8.7 Net.art interventions, diegetic performance art, provocative device-art scandals

8.6 Guerrilla street-theater; costumes, puppets, banners, songs, lynchings-in-effigy, mock trials, mass set-designed Nuremberg rallies, propaganda trains

8.5 Fake products, product forgeries, theft-of-services, con-schemes, 419 frauds

Spoiler alert: the list ends with these:

1.0 Engineering specifications, software code

0.5 Historical tech assessment of extinct technologies, the “judgement of history’

0.0 The ideal and unobtainable “objective truth” about objects and services

Design Fiction: The Design Fiction Slider-Bar of Disbelief

Venn Diagram of Irrational Nonsense: chart of woo


Sometimes, when confronted with woo, it is hard to know exactly what sort of woo you're dealing with. To simplify this challenge while sparing you the agony of enduring any more explanations of ear-candling or aromatherapy than is strictly necessary, Crispian Jago has compiled a handy Venn Diagram of Irrational Nonsense.

The curiously revered world of irrational nonsense has seeped into almost every aspect of modern society and is both complex and multifarious. Therefore rather than attempt a comprehensive taxonomy, I have opted instead for a gross oversimplification and a rather pretty Venn Diagram.

In my gross over simplification the vast majority of the multitude of evidenced-free beliefs at large in the world can be crudely classified into four basic sets or bollocks. Namely, Religion, Quackery, Pseudoscience and the Paranormal.

However as such nonsensical beliefs continue to evolve they become more and more fanciful and eventually creep across the bollock borders. Although all the items depicted on the diagram are completely bereft of any form of scientific credibility, those that successfully intersect the sets achieve new heights of implausibility and ridiculousness. And there is one belief so completely ludicrous it successfully flirts with all forms of bollocks.

Religious Bollocks ∩ Quackery Bollocks ∩ Pseudoscientific Bollocks ∩ Paranormal Bollocks = Scientology

The Venn Diagram of Irrational Nonsense (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

Illustrated guide to insanity, 1883


"Types of insanity, an illustrated guide in the physical diagnosis of mental disease" from 1883 is not just a frightening look at the inhumane treatment of people with mental health problems in the 19th century, it's also full of sensitive charcoal portraits of inmates in various asylums, along with their tragic personal histories: "X______ has been melancholic for some years, and the disease is drifting into dementia."

Types of insanity, an illustrated guide in the physical diagnosis of mental disease [with manuscript notes] (1883) (via Retronaut)

Correlation between autism diagnosis and organic food sales


Redditor Jasonp55 has a neat demonstration of the perils of confusing correlation with causation, and his well-chosen example makes this a potentially useful chart for discussing this issue with friends who won't vaccinate themselves and their kids.

/r/skeptic, I was practicing GraphPad and I think I may have discovered the 'real' cause of autism... (imgur.com) (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

Stanislaw Burzynski, dubious cancer doc, gets off on legal technicality

Oncologist and cancer-woo-debunker Orac has more on the legal details that allow this man to keep practicing medicine in Texas: "the dubious doctor known as Stanislaw Burzynski, who charges desperate patients with advanced (and usually incurable) cancer tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars to participate in his 'clinical trials' of antineoplastons, compounds that he claims to have isolated from urine and that he now represents as a promising new treatment that can do much better than existing therapies with much less toxicity, even though there’s no evidence that it can."

The Texas Medical Board has abandoned its prosecution of Burzynski, as noted in a previous Boing Boing post here with guest commentary by fellow anti-cancer-woo writer Robert Blaskiewicz.

The legal underpinnings of the case will be interesting to some, and too tedious for others, but here's the tl;dr from Orac's post: the outcome does not make the case that Burzynski's "science" is valid. The board simply found that, "as a matter of law, the TMB couldn’t bring action against Burzynski on the basis of actions performed by doctors under his supervision."

Read the rest

Blood type determinism in Japan

On the BBC, Ruth Evans describes a widespread Japanese superstition about the relationship between blood-types and personality. Apparently, the modern junk-science belief originates with a crank called Masahiko Nomi who published a "a book in the 1970s" about it, and his son Toshitaka has continued the family tradition with more woo books and an "Institute of Blood Type Humanics." However, Evans implies that the origin of this belief is the eugenics-grounded ideology of the Imperial militarist Japanese government of the 1930s, who "formed battle groups according to blood type."

It's apparently a very widespread belief. Employers ask prospective employees for their blood-types. Dating sites use blood-type to make matches. Blood-types form part of the plot in manga, anime and games. And big companies, sports teams, politicians and teachers are all known to discriminate based on typing:

The women's softball team that won gold for Japan at the Beijing Olympics is reported to have used blood type theories to customise training for each player. Some kindergartens have even adopted methods of teaching along blood group lines, and even major companies reportedly make decisions about assignments based on employees' blood types.

In 1990 the Asahi Daily newspaper reported that Mitsubishi Electronics had announced the creation of a team composed entirely of AB workers, thanks to "their ability to make plans".

These beliefs even affect politics. One former prime minister considered it important enough to reveal in his official profile that he's a type A, whilst his opposition rival was type B. Last year a minister, Ryu Matsumoto, was forced to resign after only a week in office, when a bad-tempered encounter with local officials was televised. In his resignation speech he blamed his failings on the fact that he was blood type B.

Not everyone sees the blood type craze as simply harmless fun.

It sometimes manifests itself as prejudice and discrimination, and it seems this is so common, the Japanese now have a term for it - bura-hara, meaning blood-type harassment. There are reports of discrimination against type B and AB groups leading to children being bullied, the ending of happy relationships, and loss of job opportunities.

Japan and blood types: Does it determine personality?

Quack medicine pills made from babies and super bacteria smuggled from China to South Korea

The South Korean customs department is going to target its inspections in order to intercept shipments of Chinese quack medicine tablets made from the flesh of babies and foetuses, which are sometimes infected with superbacteria. From the BBC:

"It was confirmed those capsules contain materials harmful to the human body, such as super bacteria. We need to take tougher measures to protect public health," a customs official was quoted as saying by the Korea Times.

Inspections are to be stepped up on shipments of drugs arriving from north-east China, Yonhap news agency reported.

The Dong-a Ilbo newspaper said that capsules were being dyed or switched into boxes of other drugs in a bid to disguise them.

Some of the capsules were found in travellers' luggage and some in the post, customs officials said.

Allegations that human flesh capsules were being trafficked from north-east China into South Korea emerged last year in a South Korean television documentary.

The thing I don't get is why the rip-off artists who sell these things don't just fill the tablets with sugar and say they're full of powdered baby. It's not like the credulous dunces buying the stuff will be able to tell the difference, and surely sugar is easier to get hold of.

S Korea 'to target powdered human flesh capsules' (via JWZ)

Spooky delicious pizza


Chef Mom's mozzarella ghost and olive spider Hallowe'en pizza literally made my mouth flood with saliva. Spooky, spooky drool.

Slice the fresh mozzarella. Using a ghost cookie cutter cut out some ghost shapes. Place the ghosts on top of the pizza sauce. Using the finely chopped olives, place eyes on the head of the ghosts. Bake the pizza for about 5 - 6 minutes, or until the cheese is fully melted.

Once the pizza is baked, make spiders by sticking the rosemary leaves into the green olives. Place the spiders next to the ghosts and serve.

Spooky ghost pizza recipe (via Neatorama)

High-flying financiers subscribe to high-ticket astrologers


According to Heidi N. Moore's report in Marketwatch, thousands of high-flying Wall Street traders secretly rely on advice from "financial astrologers" who tell them what the stars and planets predict for the market. One trader requests his newsletter in a plain brown wrapper so that his colleagues won't know his secret.

Financial astrologers like Karen Starich say traders know they're up against a lot of rich, smart people.

"They want to have that edge," she says. "They want to know what the future is."

Starich chargest $237 annually for her newsletter, which 300 traders subscribe to for news of what will happen to the stock prices of companies, or even bigger, to the Federal Reserve. She sees dark times ahead in the Fed's horoscope.

"They now have Saturn squared to Neptune, which is really bankruptcy," Starich explains.

Astrology guides some financial traders (via Lowering the Bar)

(Image: Astrological Clock, Torre dell'Orologio, Venice, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from spencer77's photostream)

Tobacco enemas for everyone!


Out of the depths of historic woo rises the ancient and leathery tobacco enema kit. Gaze with horror. Gaze!

Made by Evans & Co of London, this apparatus was used to revive people who were ‘apparently dead’, by making use of tobacco’s stimulant qualities. The bellows were used to blow tobacco smoke up the rectum (or into the lungs) … Tobacco enemas were popular from the 17th to the early 19th century. [Source]

Tobacco Enema Kit, 1774 (via Richard Kadrey)

Tinfoil hats actually amplify mind-control beams


A group of MIT students decided to test the performance of different tinfoil beanies to see how various designs (the "classical," "fez" and "centurion") interacted with commonly used industrial radio applications. They found that all three designs actually amplified these mind control rays radio waves, suggesting that the tinfoil hat meme might be a false-flag operation engineered to trick the wily and suspicious into making it easier to beam messages into their skulls.

Among a fringe community of paranoids, aluminum helmets serve as the protective measure of choice against invasive radio signals. We investigate the efficacy of three aluminum helmet designs on a sample group of four individuals. Using a $250,000 network analyser, we find that although on average all helmets attenuate invasive radio frequencies in either directions (either emanating from an outside source, or emanating from the cranium of the subject), certain frequencies are in fact greatly amplified. These amplified frequencies coincide with radio bands reserved for government use according to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). Statistical evidence suggests the use of helmets may in fact enhance the government's invasive abilities. We speculate that the government may in fact have started the helmet craze for this reason.

... We evaluated the performance of three different helmet designs, commonly referred to as the Classical, the Fez, and the Centurion. These designs are portrayed in Figure 1. The helmets were made of Reynolds aluminium foil. As per best practices, all three designs were constructed with the double layering technique described elsewhere [2].

A radio-frequency test signal sweeping the ranges from 10 Khz to 3 Ghz was generated using an omnidirectional antenna attached to the Agilent 8714ET's signal generator.

On the Effectiveness of Aluminium Foil Helmets: (via The Atlantic)

Pastor claims holy black currant drink will cure cancer, HIV, diabetes

The Manchester Evening News's Richard Wheatstone has done a good investigative series on the Victorious Pentecostal Assembly Manchester, which hard-sells a "holy" cure-all (made from black currant drink and olive oil) that the church's leader, "Pastor Mbenga," claims will cure cancer, HIV and diabetes. In one article, the reporter presented himself to Mbenga, saying that he was worried about his uncle's cancer. The pastor advised him to pray and buy a lot of miracle cure, which the pastor would bless. The pastor's hard sell included stories of people with cancer and diabetes who "had been able to throw away their medication after making a full recovery." The pastor instructed the reporter to dilute the blessed sugary drink three to one with olive oil and administer it to his uncle, whereupon "God will take over with divine intervention and the cancer will disappear."

When subsequently cornered, the pastor insisted he harmed no one and framed his sales of the "cure" as an issue of religious freedom:

He said: "It is the word of God, it is in the scriptures that God can heal these illnesses and that is the message we are passing on to people.

"I wasn’t aware of that law, but we live in a free society and if this is what people believe then people should be free to believe in it and carry out their faith.

"We have seen divine intervention in the past where people have been healed of terrible diseases and believe that God has the supernatural power to bring about miracles.

"This is what we believe and we are just trying to help people, trying to help them live a better life by giving them the power through God to make changes in their lives. We are not hurting anyone."

Pastor: We are trying to help ... we aren’t hurting anyone (via ERV)

Boots keeps selling quack remedies intended for babies, even after they are banned from US import over fears of broken glass

Boots, which styles itself a "pharmacy-led Health & Beauty retailer" has caught a lot of flack for selling homeopathic "remedies" that contain no active ingredients. One report actually found a Boots pharmacist referring customers who asked a five-year-old child with a three-day bout of diarrhoea to homeopathic sugar pills (advice that could potentially kill the patient by leaving the underlying condition untreated).

Just in case you couldn't imagine Boots being more profit-led (rather than "pharmacy-led") marvel at the fact that the company refuses to withdraw products from Nelsons, a homeopathic manufacturer, even after the US regulator banned Nelsons products over fears that their sugar pills (which include "teething remedies" that are meant for babies) contained fragments of broken glass.

Boots's answer to a concerned customer? "Don't worry, the broken glass isn't in the stuff they sell to us."

How could Boots know that the lax production standards applied only to shipments to the US? The products are made in Wimbledon. Do Nelsons have ‘lax Fridays’ where they all bunk off to the pub while the US export runs are made?

This response lacks any credibility.

I wrote to Boots when I received this to ask how they can be confident that these problems do not affect the UK. I have received no response.

Of course, we know Boots have a rather cynical attitude to the homeopathic products they sell. When giving evidence to parliament, Paul Bennett, professional standards director and superintendent pharmacist at Boots, admitted they have no evidence these products work, but sold them because they could.

One then might understand they were unconcerned about the homeopathic pills not being manufactured correctly – it does not matter one jot if the sugar pill receives a drop of magic ju-ju juice – it’s just water. But why would Boots be unconcerned that their products lack the quality control procedures to prevent glass entering products? To remind you, Boots sell homeopathic babies teething powders – a completely useless product, but may make the baby forget its teething pain if it crunches down on shards of glass.

Boots Unconcerned About Nelsons Production Problems.

Life with an "electromagnetic sensitivity"

The Guardian's Laura Page profiles Phil Inkley, a British man who believes that he is sensitive to electromagnetic radiation, and claims that he experiences convulsions and blackouts when exposed to WiFi and mobile phone signals. He lives in a caravan in the woods, with an Ethernet cable running to a distant mobile Internet dongle that connects his laptop to the rest of the world. He says that the research disproving electromagnetic sensitivity was sponsored by the mobile industry, and compares it to Big Tobacco-sponsored research "disproving" the link between smoking and cancer. Inkley says he used to earn his living fixing computers and that he isn't a technophobe.

I remain convinced that electromagnetic sensitivity is vanishingly unlikely, and that the research disproving it looks good. But I feel for this guy, whose symptoms are real, and who has not found anyone who can help him with them, and has been driven to a pretty awful life as a result.

Phil's GP simply informed him that there was no convincing evidence that electromagnetic radiation has any detrimental health effects. He then contacted the Health Protection Agency, leaving several messages, but no one ever got back to him - until he received a voicemail telling him not to call again.

In 2005 the HPA reported that considering only whether electromagnetic radiation was a causative factor was not meeting the needs of sufferers, although continued research in this area was essential. Whatever the cause, EHS symptoms are real and they can be severe and extremely disabling. Sufferers are not getting the support they need.

Phil describes his condition as "living in a nuclear war". He asks: "Can you imagine what it's like when your environment becomes so aggressive to your health?" His voice trembles and he looks desperate.

Phil could certainly do with moral support and financial help to stop him slipping further towards the edge of society. But what he really wants is for people to believe he is right about the causes of EHS. He'd like more independent studies to be undertaken and seriously considered.

Here's a good summary of the research refuting electromagnetic sensitivity.

The man living alone in the woods to escape Wi-Fi and mobile phones

(Image: Cellular Mast Disguised as a Tree, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from barbourians's photostream)

Homeopathic doses of the Berlin Wall and tap water


Ainsworth, a "remedy store" sells "homeopathic" "remedies" -- diluted-to-nothing, heavily shaken essences of substances that are good for what ails ya, providing whatever ails you is treatable by placebo (and they're happy to sell you "remedies" for potentially serious illnesses that are otherwise eminently treatable provided you're willing to use science instead of profitable nonsense on very tiny stilts in connection with them).

Anyhoo, Ainsworth will sell you homeopathic dilutions of all kinds of random stuff: the Berlin Wall, Kitten chlamydia, Shake N Vac, Microwave, Ultrasound, and yup, tap water.

Don't worry, it's all on the up and up -- they've got a royal appointment to both the Queen and Prince Charles. Proving once again that being born to a certain bloodline qualifies you to rule wisely.

Remedy Store (Thanks, @benburry!)

(Image: The fall of the Berlin Wall - November 1989, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from gavinandrewstewart's photostream)