Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, November 9, 2007

How to Spot an E-mail Hoax

Hoax Fairy PictureI've written about this a couple times before (actually, re-reading that second one, I still think it's pretty good and would recommend it to people who haven't read it, yet), and I've seen it written about in places far more popular than my website, but people still seem to be as gullible as ever.

I don't personally receive many hoax e-mails myself, anymore. I think I've sent enough people links to Snopes, that they've either started checking their e-mails themselves, or gotten so fed up with me that that they took me off their distribution lists. But, my wife still gets quite a few, and working at a spot where she's not allowed onto the Web to check, she'll forward the e-mails to me and ask me to check them for her.

Well, she sent me one the other day about a supposed Amber Alert, after having received quite a few from the same person. When it comes to missing children, it really seems so easy to just forward it on, and you almost feel bad being skeptical about it, but it still doesn't do anybody any good to forward on a hoax. Actually, I'd bet that if you're constantly getting fake Amber Alerts, you're not going to pay as much attention when a real one finally comes your way. The thing that really caught my eye about this one, was that it was completely missing a date, and most of the information (physical description, last location seen, etc) that you'd expect to see in such an alert. So, I was nearly positive it was a hoax before even looking it up, but I still checked just to be safe.

Well, that got me to thinking - it really is pretty easy to spot most e-mail hoaxes before you even try to verify them. So, I thought I'd post a quick list of the tip-offs I use to spot hoax e-mails.

  1. It's an e-mail Okay, that might sound a little sarcastic, but really - be skeptical of any information you get from an e-mail, especially one that's been forwarded. Much more often than not, they're hoaxes or lies.
  2. No date This is probably the biggest tip-off for anything supposedly coming from an official organization (virus warnings, amber alerts, product recalls, etc.), but applies to news and current events, as well. Even if the message might have been true originally, chain e-mails have a way of long outlasting their useful life, and may be describing something from 10 years ago or more.
  3. No references If a person on the street you'd never met before told you an outlandish story that they'd heard from their friend, who'd heard it from a friend, who'd heard it from a friend, would you believe them? So why would you believe it when it comes from an e-mail? Look for the original source of the story.
  4. Too good to be true Usually, when a story sounds too good to be true, it is.
  5. Politically related A lot of the time, people let their emotions get in the way of their good sense. If a story villifies someone's political enemies, they seem to shut off their critical thinking skills entirely (well, I guess a lot of people don't really have all that good of critical thinking skills to begin with, but that's a topic for another time).
  6. Religiously related These e-mails could go in the Too good to be true or Politically related categories, but I get so many of them that they deserve their own mention. Just because an e-mail has the word "God," don't give it a free pass. Treat it just as skeptically as you would any other e-mail.
  7. Send this email to everyone in your address book If an e-mail has a phrase like this near the end, you can almost be positive that it's a hoax.
  8. Factoids Any time an e-mail consists of a long list of trivia, you can be just about sure that most of those facts are wrong, or at the very least misleading. I've even got an article on my main website where I researched every single claim in one of those types of e-mails.
  9. It's an e-mail Yes, this bears repeating. Most chain e-mails floating around the Internet are hoaxes or lies - be very skeptical of any information you get via e-mail.

There still are some amazing true stories out there, and every once in a while I'll be surprised, when I go to Snopes (and don't forget - Snopes can be wrong, too) and learn that a story from an e-mail actually did happen. Still, with the ratio of junk to good, you're best off being skeptical of every e-mail until you've verified it.

More info:'s "Signs of Common eRumors"

Monday, October 8, 2007

Debunking a Columbus Myth

Portrait of Columbus from the painting,  Virgen de los Navegantes, by Alejo FernándezWell, today's Columbus Day, so I thought I'd write a little entry about it. (Actually, I'd planned on writing it a year ago for Columbus Day, but didn't get around to it in time.)

Here's what prompted me to write this - my family and I were talking, and my wife and daughter were rubbing it in how they both got Columbus Day off when I didn't. Well, me being the type of father I am, I asked my daughter what Columbus did that's so special that he's got a day named after him. She responded with the typical proving the world was round. Ugh. She was just repeating what her teacher had taught her, so she didn't do anything wrong, but how does this story continue to get taught?

I won't bother to give too much detail here - just go to the Wikipedia entry on Columbus, and read the Navigational Plans section. Basically, by Columbus's time, most people knew the world was round. Eratosthenes had even calculated the diameter to within a few percent 1700 years prior. The reason why Columbus had such a hard time securing funding, was because he believed the Earth was a whole lot smaller than most other people thought. He thought the Earth was around 15,700 miles in circumference, when in reality it's around 25,000 miles. Nobody knew about the Americas at the time. They figured that in theory, if you sailed west from Europe, you would eventually get to Asia, but that the trip would be so long, there'd be know way to take enough supplies on the ship to get you there. In fact, Columbus was lucky the Americas were there, or he wouldn't have had enough supplies.

added 2007-10-10 After reading through this entry again, I realized I forgot to mention something. The answer I was expecting my daughter to give was that Columbus discovered America. I was all prepared to tell her about the Vikings and others that made it to the Americas before Columbus, and the fact that Columbus never realized he'd discovered a new continent, even though it was his voyage that really did spark the major wave of European exploration of the new world. But for her to bring up the old myth of proving the world was round, it really took me by surprise.

More Info:
I have a new post mentioning Columbus's ruthlessness, not just his incompetence, Happy Exploration Day.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

TV Host Not Sure if Earth Is Round or Flat

Now, I don't use this blog much simply to post links to other sites or other people's blog entries. I mean, this blog isn't popular enough that a link from me would really increase traffic to another site at all, so I usually only link to other sites when I have something to add. But this topic strikes a chord with me, so I thought I'd include this link.

For years, I've been saying that rejecting evolution was about like rejecting that the Earth was round. I thought that doubting a roughly spherical earth was such a ludicrous position, that it would only be the craziest of the crazies that thought that way. Surely, in the United States, where everybody gets an education, any reasonably normal person would know the shape of our planet. Well apparently, my definition of "reasonably normal" doesn't include talk show hosts:

Sherri Shepherd, co-host of The View, stated that she isn't sure if the Earth is round or flat.

You can read more about it here.

To be fair, after watching the clip, from the way she's talking I get the feeling that she may have made a poorly worded statement just for the argument, and that she didn't really believe it, but she refused to back down from her point because she didn't want to admit that she was wrong. I'll admit, I've sort of done that before, but never with an arugment so stupid as that, and never one that was very far from my actual position. So, even if this woman's not dumb as a post or comletely ignorant, she was willing to say she wasn't sure what shape the earth was during a debate and not be completely embarrassed by that. So, even giving her the benefit of the doubt, she obviously doesn't have that much respect for knowledge.

I never watch The View, so I don't know what their show's all about. Maybe it's kind of like an upscale Howard Stern - have a moderator bring in a few crazies just for entertainment value. If that's the case, they certainly do a good job at it. I just hope that it's not a respected talk show, that people listen to for informed debate. On the other hand, I haven't heard much from the other hostesses, so I don't know if they all have views as weird as that Shepherd lady - maybe she's just the comic relief or the designated punching bag, to make the other three look good.

Anyway, I'm shocked a person with that mindset could get a job that pays that well, spouting off that type of nonsense, too. Where do I sign up?

added 2007-09-21: I just talked this over with a guy I know. He thinks I'm being too generous - he thinks she's just a moron. But, we both agreed, that even if she was doing it to defend a previous argument, unless it's some philosophical point about solipsism or a Matrix type universe, any argument that requires you to admit that you don't know if the earth is round or flat is a really, really bad argument.

Friday, September 7, 2007

My Hundredth Blog Entry & An Announcement

Foreword & Disclaimer Added 2007-09-14

Okay, in the feedback I've gotten to this (from a blog comment, e-mail, and a especially some real, live conversations), people seem to have a problem with the word, "atheist." Atheist has different shades of meaning depending on who you ask, and in the more popular usage, perhaps I'd be better described as agnostic. In the comments to this entry, I brought up the term, "freethinker," and I'm beginning to think that I might like that even better, since, as I point out in another comment, I think the thought processes we use to arrive at our conclusions are as important as the conclusions themselves. And by stressing the process, and not always the final destination, it allows you to find more commonality with people who came to different conclusions. My point is, if you're reading this entry, please don't get hung up on the term, "atheist." Please read what my actual position is.

I'd also add, that if you read this, and find it very objectionable, and also happen to know where I work, don't take it as a reflection of the others where I work or the company. As far as I know, I'm the only non-believer. Plus, every other week when we go out to eat as a group, somebody always says a prayer (never me, of course).

Doing some maintenance on my blog recently, I noticed that I had 99 entries so far. That makes this entry 100. So, for my hundredth entry, I wanted to make it something kind of special. So, I have an announcement:

I'm an atheist.

Okay, so it's not an earth shattering announcement, but it's something I've been wanting to get off my chest for a while now. It probably comes as no surprise to many people - indeed, my family and many of my friends already know. And anybody that reads this blog and the essays on my main website would have seen how I'd been moving away from Christianity (such as this essay, where I'd finally decided that the Bible isn't divinely inspired). And, I've been leaving comments on other blogs discussing my atheism, even though I wasn't open about it on my own blog. I'd even already received some e-mail from people accusing me of being an atheist long before I actually became one, simply because I accepted evolution.

Okay, first things first, let me get a few things out of the way (by quoting and paraphrasing from other essays I've written). I didn't become an atheist just because I didn't like going to church Sunday mornings, or because I didn't want to have to follow the rules anymore. I don't "hate God" (it's a little hard to hate an entity you don't believe in). I read the Bible. I studied science. I read up on philosophy. I became an atheist because that's the way I think the universe really is. And don't confuse atheism with Postmodernism or Nihilism. I still think there's an objective reality. I still worry about how to be a good person. I just no longer see a god as being part of that.

Second, don't confuse atheism with certainty - I'm not absolutely one-hundred percent certain about anything. However, I'm about as sure that the Earth is a globe that orbits the Sun as I am that the Bible was written by people, and that a God as presented in the Bible doesn't exist. I'm not as certain that no type of divine being exists at all. I don't see an absolute reason why there would have to be one, and I haven't seen any good positive evidence for such a being, so the default position is to doubt its existence. But, I still can't be positive that a god/gods doesn't exist. So, I leave open the slight possibility that gods could possibly exist, but I base my worldview on the idea that they probably don't.

Continue reading "My Hundredth Blog Entry & An Announcement" »

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes

Sorry for not making a post last week, but I was on vacation with my family (who am I apologizing to? I don't have any regular readers). So, here's a short post to make up for not having one last week, and I'll try to write up something else before the end of the week.

Actually, this is just quick follow up to the post about Massai Barefoot Technology Shoes. I mentioned in the beginning of that post that it was in a pharmacy where I originally saw those shoes. To be exact, the pharmacy was Harvest Drug & Gift. I'd already intended contacting them about the shoes before visiting their website, but once I did actually visit the site this past Monday, I saw just how prominently they were displaying MBT shoes. So, I sat myself right down and wrote them an e-mail, copied below.

I recently visited your store and saw the MBT shoes you had on display. They piqued my interest, so I did a little research about them. Admittedly, I'm neither a doctor nor a scientist, but from the information I could find, I did have some concerns regarding these shoes. I would assume that as doctors, your primary concern is the well being of your patients, so I thought you might be interested in what I found.

I have a detailed write-up of what I found on my personal website at:
[link - I included the actual url in the letter, but it's so long it screws up the formatting on this page.]

Here are the major points:
  • MBT shoes do show promise, but the studies to date have only been preliminary - more follow up studies are needed to confirm their efficacy.
  • There haven't been enough clinical studies done with these shoes to identify possible negative side effects.
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are serious side effects possible from long term use of these shoes.
  • One study which examined relieving knee pain in patients with knee osteoarthritis did not find a big difference between MBT shoes and "conventional" New Balance sneakers.

In light of the anecdotal evidence suggesting negative side effects, the lack of clinical studies addressing the issue, and considering that at least one study found significantly less expensive shoes accomplishing nearly the same results, I would suggest being very cautious in recommending these shoes to your customers, and possibly even recommending that they only use the shoes under the guidance of a physician or physical therapist (as was suggested by one therapist quoted in one of the articles I found). Perhaps you already do counsel your customers in such a way, or do have some warning signs posted that I missed, in which case this e-mail is completely unnecessary. Or perhaps you know of some studies which do address side effects, in which case I'd be grateful if you could pass them on to me so that I could update the article on my website.

Jeff Lewis

If I hear anything back from the pharmacy, I'll post it on this blog. But seeing as how it's been a couple days already without even an acknowledgement of receipt, I'm not holding my breath. Maybe I'll try snail mail if I don't hear back from them within a couple weeks.

Added 2009-07-08 I realize that I mentioned my original MBT post at the beginning of this entry, but I just want to be sure that readers don't miss it. It contains a much more in depth look at the shoes, and has generated a good discussion in the comments section::
A Skeptical Look at Masai Barefoot Technology Shoes


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