Context Is Key

A frame from the viral Haiti UFO video

One of the most important things to consider when evaluating the legitimacy of information found on the internet is context. The original context of a piece of information includes vital details about its creation or distribution, such as who created it, and why. It’s common for information on the internet to be distributed without its original context. This results in the information being misinterpreted and misattributed, as people try to fill in the gaps for themselves. This is often how urban legends get started. A story with a small grain of truth to it is distributed without context, new contexts are invented.

Information distributed without context is prone to misinterpretation

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Context is Key

<a title='By Lenin and McCarthy (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons' href='' srcset=FRapoc billboard chico” width=”300″ height=”220″ />
By Lenin and McCarthy

The End is Nigh, at least if you believe Harold Camping. Camping, a former engineer and Christian broadcaster, used numerological principles to calculate the date of the Rapture , in which “the Elect” are taking up to heaven, and non-believers are left behind. The date that Camping chose for the rapture was May 21st, 2011, based on various calculations taken from the Bible. On this date all of the true followers of Christ (about 3% of the population) would be called into Heaven. Everyone who have ever died will be raised from their graves, those who died as saved Christians will be taken up to heaven, the unsaved will have their lifeless bodies scattered across the earth. A series of massive earthquakes would occur around the globe, at 6pm local time. Exactly 5 months later, on October 21st, 2011, the world will be completely destroyed.

Naturally, May 21st came and went, and nothing happened. In a statement made by Camping on May 22nd, he was “flabbergasted” that the Rapture did not occur, and was seeking answers as to why. On May 23rd, he made a statement on his Open Forum radio program, saying that May 21st was actually an “invisible” judgement day, in which all humanity was judged spiritually. The “true” date of the rapture is October 21st, today.

He has already started the backpeddling. He’s gone from “May 21st is definitely the day”, to “May 21st was the spiritual rapture, the end of the world is in October”, to, in a recent statement “The end is going to come very quietly, probably in the next month”.

Camping was awarded the 2011 IgNobel award for mathematics, “For teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations”

Its easy to dismiss guys like Camping as harmless, delusional crackpots. He clearly believes what he is saying is true, and probably thinks that he’s helping people by warning them of imminent apocalypse. However doomsayers like Camping are dangerous. Camping spent an estimated $100million promoting the May 21st event, purchasing thousands of billboards across the US and several caravans painted with warnings of the Rapture. His radio show reaches millions of listeners across the country, and a good number of them trust his predictions.

Aside from the massive waste of money spent on advertising (how many homeless people could $100million have helped?) there are more dire consequences of the words of doomsday prophets like Camping. In March, 2011, Californian mother Lyn Benedetto told her daughers to lie down on their beds, then cut their throats with a box cutter, before attempting to cut her own. All three survived the incident. When questioned why she did it, Benedetto said that the Tribulation was coming, and she wanted to prevent her daughters from suffering. The children are now in the care of child services, and will likely be psychologically scarred for life from the incident.

On the predicted day of the Rapture, 14 year old Nastya Zachinova, terrified by the predictions of Camping, hung herself after school.

The predictions of guys like Camping affect lives. No matter how crazy they may appear to the majority, there will always be some people who believe them. Some of the believers will already been in an unstable state, and the confident predictions of an influential person like Camping may be enough to push them over the edge. After the failed prediction of May 21st, Campings followers have been declining, however there are some who still believe. When his October prediction inevitably falls through, more and more of his followers will start to realise that they’ve been conned.

Which brings me to my own prediction. Today will come and go, the world will NOT end, and in the next few days and weeks we will see a statement from Camping explaining how he must have made a miscalculation and the actual date is X, or that perhaps God has spared the earth for another millenia. What we will NOT see is Camping admitting that he’s wrong, apologise for wasting millions of dollars on spreading fear and propaganda, and announce that he will no longer try to predict the end of the world.

The End is not Nigh

Occupy Wall Street Crowd 2011 Shankbone

Source: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons

I decided to post a follow up to my previous post on the Occupy Wall Street photoshopped image, to clarify a couple of details and dispel some of the rumours going around.

Firstly, the origins of the image itself. The original photoshopped image was produced by digital artist Scott Lickstein, who intended it to represent a “virtual 99% turnout”, ie what the OWS protests would look like if all of the people supporting the movement online could turn up at the protests in person (thanks Terrance for the info). Whilst Lickstein’s other work certainly has a political bent to it, this piece was never intended to mislead people into believing it to be a real image. I mention this because it appears that Lickstein has had accusations levelled at him of deliberately faking the image to misinform the public and/or discredit the movement. To the best of my knowledge this is not the case.

The crowd in the original Google maps image along the south-east side of  Broadway is real, and captures a protest of New York City fire fighters against the cutting of twenty fire companies by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in June, 2011 (thanks Erik for the link). Lickstein expanded the crowd to fill the streets around City Hall to represent all the online supporters of the movement.

The image was picked up on the web by some people believing it to be real, and several individuals added their own captions to the image implying that the image is a real representation of the protests, and that the mainstream media was covering it up. This was when it came to my attention, and I decided to demonstrate that the image is fake and try and prevent it from being further disseminated as truth. I was not the first person on the internet to point it out as a photoshopped image. » Continue Reading…

I’ve posted a follow-up post to this article to clarify a few details and put to rest a few rumours.

A fellow skeptic (President of the Granite State Skeptics Travis Roy) recently posted a request on the Skeptoid mailing list regarding an image that has been making the rounds on Facebook. The image is an aerial shot of a supposedly huge turnout for the Occupy Wall St protest against corruption and greed. What appears to be thousands of protesters clog the streets of New York near the City Hall, with a caption stating:

Occupy Wall Street Turnout: My TV says nothing. The only thing I hear is its [sic] a small 100 person turn out. Turn off your TV. Ask your friends. Dont [sic] trust the media they lie!

After a request from Wettstein (and a warning from my hosting provider) I have removed his plagiarised propaganda image from my site. However the original can be found on Google Image Search.

My skeptical colleague saw this image and immediately smelled something fishy. Travis noticed that the image was an aerial photo of New York City Hall, whereas the protests were happening several blocks away at Liberty Square. He sent the image to the mailing list for other opinions. To my eyes the mass of protesters looked out of place, the crowd looked too uniform and dense to be real. I took the image into Photoshop to see if I could pick up any pattern to the image. My original thought was that they had used the clone tool to make a smaller group of people look much larger. Not being able to find anything obvious, I started to wonder where the background plate may have come from. Immediately Google Maps came to mind. I looked up the location featured in the image, and then I saw it: » Continue Reading…


A picture of my kitten Guinan (I promise not to make a habit of posting cat pictures)


Charles DarwinAfter my post a couple of weeks ago about Not Being a Dick, I got into a spirited debate with a colleague on Facebook with regards to skepticism and evolution. He challenged me to answer these 15 “unanswerable” questions for evolutionists which were devised by the Creation Ministries International website. I was unable to devote the time to properly answer the questions at the time and so I have decided to post my response in the form of a separate article. I’ll admit some of the questions I was unable to answer, partly because currently science does not have the answers, and partly because they are beyond my own personal knowledge. But here goes.

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A selection of stories on medicine, skepticism and religion in the media from the last couple of weeks.

Alternative medicines in Australia not receiving proper testing and approval by TGA – “A report released last week by the Australian National Audit Office found that up to 90 per cent of alternate medicines on sale in this country failed to comply with health and safety rules.”

Comment: This is hardly surprising. Its been well known for years that so called “alternative medicines” are not subject to the same rigorous standards as conventional medicine. The mere fact that treatments like homeopathy are still stocked in many pharmacies is evidence that the industry monitoring is pitiful.

Tribunal bans ‘smash’ doctor – “A Bankstown GP who called himself the “Spinalmigrainologist” has been banned from practising medicine after using a dangerous “smash through” technique to try to heal patients…Among the grievances were that Dr Gorman forcefully adjusted the back of a five-year-old boy and supplied drugs to a morphine addict.”

Comment: This sounds like chiropractic on steroids. Not only are his treatments based on no scientific evidence but his actions are clearly unethical (supplying opiates to an addict? – nice job)

Vatican admits ‘grave failures’ in Ireland abuse scandal – “The Vatican today acknowledged “grave failures” over the handling of a child sex abuse scandal involving priests in southern Ireland.”

Comment: I’d say that’s an understatement. The mere fact that the Vatican has a document which issues orders of secrecy when it comes to sex abuse accusations indicates that these “failures” are in fact deliberate and institutionalised.

Is awe still possible in a secular age ? – “In a Nietzschean world without God or gods, is enchantment still an option? In a world bereft of the Platonic forms of beauty and goodness, in a world where we “know” that love and wonder boil down to brain chemistry and synaptic firings, is it pure superstition to hold on to a sense of transcendence? In other words, can a secular world be re-enchanted?”

Comment: An interesting discussion on the idea of awe and non-belief. I completely agree with the author’s opinion. Awe and wonder are certainly possible in a secular world; the existence or non-existence of God doesn’t detract from the beauty of a sunset, the delicate dance of the planets, and infinite depths of the cosmos, or the intricacies of the processes of life.

In the News

Jim  Henson’s famous creations The Muppets have been entertaining children for decades. The Muppets are an internationally recognised troupe of puppet characters that Henson created in the 1960’s, which became an integral part of the children’s television show Sesame Street in 1969. Since that time the loveable characters have appeared on their own TV show, feature films, cartoons, TV talk shows and endless streams of merchandising products.

What is less well known about Jim Henson’s characters is the fact that nearly all of the seemingly innocent, loveable characters hide a darker, more serious aspect. They all suffer from some form of mental illness or personality disorder.

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The Muppets and Mental Illness

  • September 2nd, 2011
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The issue of gay marriage,  or marriage equality in Australia has become a hot topic in recent months. Prominent politicians have made statements about their personal opinions, the community has been polled for their perspectives, bills have been put forth to the Senate to try and amend the Marriage Act, there have been protests and demonstrations and a lot of vitriolic discussion on the Internet about this controversial issue.

I’d like to lay out some of the main arguments that have been put forth by opponents of gay marriage, and explain why I believe every one of these arguments is flawed and without merit.

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The Gay Marriage Debate

Taken at the Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens, South Australia

Mossy Path