Wolfram Alpha is amazing, but it has a fundamental flaw.

Wolfram Alpha is amazing. Go play with it now.

Some people really, really don't get it. They are frustrated that it isn't google, which of course it was never meant to be. If you're not sure what it is then I recommend the (overlong) intro video.

But basically, It's a data engine. A fact machine. It lets you pull and push and manipulate data.

For instance you could compare the mean wage of chiropractors vs journalists in seconds (topical!). Or do some maths. Or do lots of things.

It's some topical data about two professions.

And this is all the info your are given for your 'source'

It's finicky and has plenty of holes in it, but it's only just gone live and it is brilliant. I can't stress that enough.

Now on to why it sucks.

The cultural effects of a 'computational knowledge engine' that can both quantify and manipulate data is huge. But the ability for it to be misused is also huge. We all love wikipeida, but when journalists use it for their primary source of info it gets a little worrying. To offset that Wikipedia has a big list of references at the bottom of every page.

Rather than establish itself as an authority figure (despite the wishes of some of the more 'enthusiastic' admins) Wikipedia works hard to tell you how it knows something to be true, otherwise [citation needed] rears its head.

I don't get that same feeling from Wolfram Alpha. Firstly, the references are tucked away from view in a little pop up window rather than being an inherent part of the page. Secondly, the Primary source for everything I've tried so far is:

Wolfram|Alpha curated data, 2009

Which just isn't good enough. It is setting Alpha up to be an authority figure for data. But this isn't information that Wolfram et al. have discovered and published. This is information that Wolfram has collated.

Now, to be fair, 'background' sources are listed. And whilst they are most likely the true source of the data presented, no single study or report or finding is indicated to be where any specific fact came from. For example Alpha has decided that the UK produces 1.8 billion barrels of oil a day. Has it taken an average of the studies it looked at? Or has it weighted them? It doesn't tell me.

Every piece of data when fed into Alpha should have been tagged with details of where it came from. But it isn't. It's a mind boggling strange omission.

So much so that I can't help but feel this, may possibly, add weight to widespread opinion that Stephen Wolfram is a little bit, erm, arrogant. This letter that Richard Feynman (apparently) wrote to Stephen Wolfram is rather illuminating on the subject. The cynic in me whispers that Alpha wants to be your reference, not your intermediary.

Wolfram|Alpha is an amazing achievement, and one I will use an awful lot. (even if it is just to plot nonsense) Stephen Wolfram should be immensely proud of it.

But I can't help thinking how much more important Alpha would be as a proper research tool if it was a little bit more willing to explain where it learnt to be so clever.

The Skeptic's News Fart Digest #2

Here we go with the second round up of the 'skeptish' news of the last week.

REMEMBER: This material is presented as is. A skeptical interpretation of the material is left to the reader. I haven't read everything I've posted here in detail, so if you take anything here on face value based on it being linked here you've messed up.

  • When invading a country like Iraq it is extremely important to not make it look like a religious war. I mean putting Bible quotes all over your Top Secret reports would send a bad message. So I'm glad Rumsfeld et al. didn't do that.
    And the posters are here.
    and more stuff here.
  • George Carlin on UFO believers VS Religious Believers.
  • The Daily Show on the LHC (thanks Naomi!)
  • Ackward Questions about Jesus from the brilliant Outnumbered. Outnumbered is a bit depressing because by liking it I feel a bit old.
  • Been catching up with Mormanism this week. It see,s to be a bit, er, mental. As this 7minute cartoon will attest.
  • Child won't say 'Amen' so a woman along with One Mind Ministries starve the boy to death thinking that when he resurrects the demon possessing him will be gone.
  • Armando Iannucci sneaks into US state department. Just like how he has sneaked into my heart.
  • No goggles were needed for old chemistry sets. And they are beautiful. Relatedly here are some amazing magazine covers.
  • Who would be a female under islamic law?
  • Remember last week there was a guy who was sued and lost because he was critical of creationism in a science lesson? He's responded to what happened on Salon. I haven't read enough about this to settle my mind one way or the other, but if you have a secular school (which is a good thing) then being critical of religion is the same as promoting it.
  • Church literally being worn away by sin. Religious speech writers must be creaming themselves with tortured metaphor possibilities.
  • Don't shoot the scientists
  • The American Patriot's Bible exists. Hell you can buy it on Amazon.
  • Witch hunts, murder and evil in Papua New Guinea.
  • BNP members don't exist
  • Cardinal Cormac Murphy thinks that I'm not fully human. Well I think he's a big stupid poopy head.


Tonight (monday) is the meeting for Simon Singh's response to the libel ruling against the BCA. In The Penderel's Oak in Holborn, London. I'll be going and reporting back, so say hi.

Jack of Kent's blog is covering it all and the facebook page has details of the event.

Wednesday sees the normal Skeptics in the Pub night. Which looks to be a cracker:

Edzard Ernst's team of 10-15 researchers have tried for the last 15 years to critically evaluate “alternative medicine”. Much of the resulting evidence has now been summarised in the book ‘Trick or Treatment’ by Simon Singh and myself. As it turns out, alternative medicine is more “trick” than “treatment”. In my talk, I will report about some of the often amazing milestones on my long journey toward the truth.

Generation Rescue's Insane Video. Jenny MCarthy and Jim Carrey fight vaccinations and MMR.

Just a quick heads up. Generation Rescue is Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey's anti-vax and autism site.

Watch this video. I've never seen anything, anything like it.

I haven't time to talk about it in depth. And it has left me speechless. It's tragic, sad and insane and I can't give it the response it deserves. But by pimping it here I hope the better qualified BadScienceBloggers will snap it up.

I've heard rumours Oprah is giving McCarthy her own Chat show. Please, please, please, please, please don't be true.

A few highlights for those that can't watch the video:

  • Vaccines contain Mercury, Aluminum, Ether, Antifreeze and Human aborted fetal tissue.
  • Kids eating Dairy & Gluten is the same as them smoking a joint.
  • The Secret works
  • When IranandIraq attacks the brain in turns on Rambo mode and then kids can't think.
OK, i'm taking the last one out of context (not that the context makes it better). But bloody hell.
EDIT: Also I still seem to be having picture issues for some people (but not all). Sorry.

BBC appoints Muslim as head of religious broadcasting: Daily Mail begins the idiocy.

This is Aaqil Ahmed. He is a practising Muslim. And on Monday he was appointed Head of Religious Broadcasting for the BBC. This will be FUN.

Anyone who has ever read the Daily Mail knows that it doesn't like 'the BBC', 'the Muslims', Immigrants, being 'politically correct', and crucially any deviation from a bizarre belief in a cultural Golden age that ran from 1935 to 1955. One where there was NO CRIME, teenagers loved their mothers and we all went to an ENGLISH Church.

So you can imagine the fallout that this will cause in certain circles. Personally I can not WAIT for The Christian Voice's response. They've probably thrown up a lung whilst clasping a copy of the BBC recording of 'Jerry Springer The Opera' to their chest.

Anyway this is the Daily Mails article:

By Stephen Glover. After lots of heartfelt disclaimers that he isn't a racist (which I'm sure he isn't) he then goes on with a few choice comments:

I imagine that having a Methodist preacher at the heart of the BBC was more than it could stomach.

The BBC does not like God, unless perhaps it be a Muslim, Hindu or Sikh version.

And best of all:

At every possible opportunity it will wheel forward one of those professional atheists who are not happy to live silently with their own non-belief but are determined to shove it down everyone else’s throats.

One of the most popular religious stance in the UK (i.e. that of none) being represented in religious programming is balance. Sorry it is lodging in your throat Steveo.

He goes on to blame this appointment on the "secular tide" that is taking over the BBC. Apparently atheists prefer Islam.

For all I know, Mr Ahmed may prove himself remarkably sympathetic to the sensibilities of Christians in his new job. One cannot, however, count on that, and it is interesting that he has said there should be more coverage of Muslim matters in the media.

Will this, on the BBC, be at the expense of an already reduced number of Christian programmes?

In all kinds of ways the publicly funded BBC does not reflect the views of the public it is supposed to serve.

No doubt its secular suits assume that Britain is as anti-Christian as they are. They’re out of touch again. In appointing Aaqil Ahmed they do not simply offend against this country’s Christian heritage and traditions. They also further weaken the hold and authority of the BBC.

I have to put up with lots of religious programming. But I also have to put up with 'My Family,' Horne and Corden' and 'Three Pints of Larger and a Packet of Crisps.' The BBC caters for a bunch of audiences less mentally coherent than myself* but in return I get Outnumbered, Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle and, and...

No sorry. I can't think of an equivalent 'good version' of Three Pints. It's like trying to find the good version of the HIV**.

I have no doubt that a lot of people in the UK do like to think of ourselves as a Christian Nation, but not in any sense that applies to people who are actually religious. If you will allow me a tortured metaphor It's akin to red phone boxes.

Religion, yesterday.

Christianity in England is like a Red Phone Box. We all love the Red Phone box. It is part of our heritage.

But you wont catch us using it unless we really have to. It looks nice as you pass by it, but once you actually get inside a phone box it gets really creepy. Full of dirt and urine and weird sexual promises. But despite the fact we never use them (except when a tourist friend wants you to photograph them in one***) I'm sure we all want them to keep popping up across the landscape. Just don't ask us to pay for them.

But the BBC shouldn't be making shows for the express purpose of allowing Stephen Glover et al. to flick past them on a sunday morning before watching Shipwrecked.

Let it make shows for the people who actually believe in these weird things. Not the 'culturally religious'. Oh and if Stephen Gover really wants balance in the programming he needs to get the Beeb to employ a secular agnostic as its head.

* I was talking about 'CBeebies' what did you think I was talking about? Shame on you.
** Almost did a PIN number.
*** This part of the tortured metaphor represents weddings. I told you it was tortured.

The Skeptic's News Fart Digest #1

Welcome to the first News Fart Digest collecting all the interesting skeptical nonsense I stumbled upon in the last 7 days.

It's just an idea I'm trying on for the next 4 weeks to see how it goes. Let me know what you think.

Oh and one last thing, don't assume that just because something has been linked here that it is true, or it's opinions supported. The volume of links means that I've not had time or inclination to properly vet them. So treat them skeptically and pipe up in the comments if you find anything interesting.

Anyhow, link dump ahoy.

  • A 'Martian Skull' has been found on Mars by 'UFO spotters' or so claims the Telegraph. It seems some people were pissing about in a forum somewhere and they've been turned into an Silly Story for the Telegraph. Sans references to obscure anything of worth.

  • Daily Mail Commentors freak the hell out when a pop-sci article informs them that their ancestors were once black.

  • I get countless emails asking to see masked Mexican wrestlers like Renegado and Mr. Tempest looking at an image of the Virgin Mary emblazoned onto a griddle. Well your prayers have been answered.

  • Harvesting the power of prayer. By putting dynamos in prayer wheels.

  • The Catholic churches works hard to promote Dan 'The famous man looked at the red cup' Brown's Demons and Angels Movie by getting in a huff about it.

  • Jonathan Myerson trots out the 'If you have nothing to hide you've nothing to fear' idiocy like it even looks like a valid argument. And that's before you realise he's talking about DNA, a database of which would produce massive amounts of false positives. On the flip side here is AC Grayling being a bit more sensible.

  • Chris Matthews interviews Republican Mike Pence on Evolution and Science. "Do you believe in Evolution?" leads to 5 minutes of squirming. How do you pretend to be pro-science when you try to appease religious fundamentalists?

  • Nine month old girl dies when parent only treat her eczema with homeopathy. Tragic. Important to note that the Dad was a homeopath. It is too easy to get the impression that homeopaths are quacks and con artists. But it is more complicated than that - he truly believed in what he preached. And we must bare that in mind when we interact with CAM.

  • The View (basically an American version of 'Loose Women') once again makes you fear for humanity. The 'pretend there is a debate' argument from IDers is really working.

  • Jokes about atheists. Oooh you been served dude.

  • Pilots sit inside the heads of giant iron birds and fly them through the sky.
    Which is awesome.
    Pilots wear cool uniforms whilst sleeping with attractive people all around the world.
    Which is awesome.
    Pilots tell the 'voluntary' ID card scheme to bugger off. Which is awesome.
    Ergo - Pilots are awesome.

The pilots' union has protested to ministers that the £18m scheme cannot be regarded as voluntary when they are being told they will not qualify for an "airside pass" without them: "ID cards will have absolutely no value as far as security is concerned. This is nothing other than coercion and promises that ID cards would be voluntary have been broken," Jim McAuslan, Balpa general secretary, has told ministers. "We will resist."'

  • Teenager successfully sues teacher for criticising creationism.

  • America's young are giving up on organised religion.

  • Pope Benedict XVI, who you may remember for being at the heart of the global cover up of child abuse before he levelled up to pope, has talked in the middle east warning them about the misuse of religion.
    I mean I pretty much agree with what he said but the words Pot, Kettle and Black keep popping in my head...

"Some assert that religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world and so they argue that the lesser attention given to religion in the public sphere the better," he said.
"Certainly, the contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions, sadly, cannot be denied.
"However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society


How you read ties into how you use your body. The SNARC effect is
fascinating stuff.

A damn great article: "Diet and health. What can you believe: or does
bacon kill you?"

A student edits wikipedia to show that the mainstream media use it as a
primary source of info.
But I can talk, I'm posting this here without fact checking it.


Simon SIngh's libel case with the British ASSociation of Chiropractors (BAC) hasn't been going very well and he has been found guilty. Basically because he used the word 'Bogus.' Bill & Ted would be livid. This Bad Science Forum thread is probably the easiest way to link to all that is going on.


This weeks links were borrowed, stolen, repatriated, consumed, perpetuated
and regurgitated from:
General Surfing/Twitterers/Twatters/Ben Goldacre/Reddit/Bad Science Blogs/
High Weirdness Newswire...