Embarrassing Engineers #3

I go away on a business trip plus vacation day and what do I find when I get back, more embarrassingly irrational posts on an engineering mail list. Since this is becoming a regular occurrence I’m stealing the The Bronze Dogs’ idea of a numbered series of posts. These old posts are numbers one and two of the series.

The first thread I read started with someone linking to this news item where Dr. Herberman uses the pseudo scientific practice of getting publicity by engaging in science by press release. Sorry Doc, if you want to be taken seriously you need to wait until you publish a useful study before you go to the press. Two blogging Doctors I read, Orac and PalMD, have posted good information on this press release.

The first crazy reply post contains this glaring lack of the rational thought and curiosity needed for good engineering.

15 years ago I ditched my one and only ever mobile phone (a Motorola M301) when I got worried by the way it seemed to heat my eyeballs up and leave my face tingling strangely. The land line suits me fine thanks!

WTF, heating up his eyeballs and a tingle in his face and he doesn’t investigate this phenomenon. If he does a simple test to show this isn’t just in his mind then he’ll be making a big step towards some new science. Here’s a quick and easy test design that will work for preliminary testing.

  1. Have a friend in another room randomly set the phone on or off, record the setting and put it in a cloth bag to hide what state the phone is in
  2. Another friend who doesn’t know whether the phone is on or off brings the phone near his head.
  3. He tells this second friend what state he thinks the phone is in and the friend records the result.
  4. The 2nd friend now returns the phone to the first friend in the other room.
  5. Repeat steps 1 through 4 enough times to make sure there is a statistically significant sample of test runs to rule out random chance.

If he is truly sensitive to the tiny signal from a cell phone he’ll be able to tell whether the phone is on or off almost 100% of the time, after all his eyeballs will warm up when it’s on. He wouldn’t even need to get it right every time, just significantly better than random chance to be well on the way to proving he can feel the EMF. To be certain he feels the field he’ll need to replicate the test a few times eventually using trained scientists to confirm the test procedure is correct. The next sentence from him shows why he doesn’t do it:

The website I most often referred to when encouraging people to explore this issue was http://www.powerwatch.org.uk/ , which appears to be quite academically and scientifically rigorous.

Now it makes sense, he believes he is electrically hypersensitive, a mixture of hypochondriac and conspiracy theorist. Once you fall this deep it’s no wonder you never want to do even a simple test to see if your beliefs are true. If this condition really existed then it can be very simply and accurately tested similar to the way I outlined above. People have been claiming this phenomenon is real for decades and all the properly conducted tests I’ve seen results from show it isn’t real. A few papers are here, here and here, the FDA’s Cell Phone Facts page is also a good source of information on this topic. Another list member added this to the thread:

I am not sure why cell phone only. To me every things wrong.

1. TV, Microwave, thirty water, drugs any kind, PC monitor, food specially meat, artificial drinks etc. main reason for cancer:

1. weak immune system
2. too much toxic in body
3. not enough oxygen in body
4. I am sure there are more

Oh no, it’s everything popular with the newage crowd including the toxins, I wonder if he’s buying Kinoki pads or using some of the dangerous quackery. Dr. Novella just did a nice blog post covering some of the dangers of this kind of thinking.

There is no such thing as legitimate “detoxification” treatment. Anyone claiming that a treatment detoxifies the body is a charlatan of one type or another. The concept has a psychological appeal – it is easy to imagine bad stuff being drawn out of or purged from our bodies. We evolved an emotion of disgust to help us avoid true toxins and harmful substances in our environment and food – so the detox scam is just playing off of this emotion. But there is no science behind it – so beware.

Fortunately for me a rational list member replied changing the topic title to “Cell phones causing cancer nonsense” and including no comment other than a link to the very rational Professor Bob Parks’ reaction. Whew I didn’t want to write a reply and delve into this level of craziness myself.

Then I start reading a thread about Al Gore’s latest project to try to get us off our butts and do something about fixing our pollution creating energy addiction. A nut job who has appeared in previous blog posts and shown over and over again on the list that he is incapable of rational thought posts this gem.

It would be cheaper to simply invade Saudi Arabia and take the oil. Sooner or later, somebody else will if we don’t.

Wow, the stupid it burns.

Embarrassing Engineers the next generation

This report in the Michigan Daily highlights one of the next generation of illogical and irrational engineers. The article starts out with this gem.

Engineering senior Israel Vicars didn’t think it was a coincidence when he walked by a drunken girl who had fallen over in a parking lot and desperately needed help.
Vicars attributes his ability to safely return the girl to her residence hall to the power of united prayer.

OK so did the praying levitate the girl and allow him to lightly push the girl back to her home. If that happened then there’s be a million dollar prize waiting for Israel Vicars if he can demonstrate the effect. Prayer sometimes has a good effect on the psychological state of some people whom practice it. However, no prayer has ever been shown to do anything in the physical world. Instead people like this guy use confirmation bias to claim that something wasn’t a coincidence or random chance it was their prayers that did it.

With sloppy thinking like this I shudder to think how this guy is going to handle real world engineering problems. I sincerely hope Israel Vicars doesn’t work on engineering projects that will waste my tax dollars or lead to safety problems due to his magical thinking.

Hat tip to: Pharyngula: Let’s all pick on the University of Michigan!

Embarrassed by these engineers

In my blog title above I refer to myself as an embedded systems designer rather than an engineer. This is partly due to my embarrassment at some of the insane crap other engineers post on the net and write in books. We need to remember that expertise is real and it matters, engineers are rarely expert at science, philosophy, history or any field of study other than the particular branches of engineering that they practice professionally. Sadly far too many engineers feel the need to spout ridiculous ideas that make me feel ashamed to be an engineer.

Some of the ones that drive me the craziest are the creationist engineers like Forrest M. Mims III at the DI and the fools from the posts here, here, here and, here. Some of the other ridiculous ideas I encounter nearly daily on engineering mail lists include, global warming and DDT denialism, alternative medicine quackery, perpetual motion/free energy schemes and, Google conspiracy theories. This is in addition to the irrational discussions, bordering on religious wars, that I’ve come to expect over choices in programming languages, operating systems, software applications, micros and, test equipment.

I want to make one point very clear, all of the engineering related mail lists I participate in are open to all people. This can make it unclear whether any particular member is actually an engineer or if they are just a layman hobbyist or technician. In the particular case below I believe at least one of, and possibly all, the participants are technicians/hobbyists.

I normally try not to get involved in most of the discussions because I’ve learned that regardless of how much evidence is provided, people with belief in the irrational seldom change their mind. Last week I read a bit that I just had to respond to due to its total confusion of religious thought with data. The topic was global warming and an engineer posted this:

There is no smoke without fire. Looking a little:



That timeline is amazing. It is a major effort and I think that it deserves some
praise. It’s a great website.

I clicked the link thinking there would be something useful there but what do I find, a page titled “Time lines and bible chronology in prophecy and history.“. The page has a content description tag of, “Bible chronology, Ussher chronology, bible timelines time lines, daniel and revelation, end-time prophecy, history, time of the end, daniel, 2300 days years, 1260 days years, 1290, 1335, antiochus epiphenes“. Well I guess praise in the religious meaning is correct but as far as being useful for anything relating to climatology or any other science it is definitely useless. After all a timeline based on a 6000 year old earth, regardless of whether they get some historical dates correct, is not useful for technical purposes. So I responded to the post with this:

A religious site claiming the earth was created in 7 days, 6000 years ago, is hardly a worthy reference for anything other than a theology discussion and theological discussions should not be on the list.

The original poster replied:

This is not about religion. The timeline presented in the referenced site is useful for the period discussed in this thread, and the events presented for the relevant period are relevant and verifiable. If you have a better reference please supply it. Blindly flaming sources based on their provenience will not help a lot.

To refute the credibility of a site, please supply data that contradicts the datapoints discussed in this thread, on that site or elsewhere. I very seldomly respond to messages like yours, but now I felt like saying a few words. Also, the denomination of that site’s author has nothing to do with mine (assuming I would have one), fyi. I am finished now. Let it remain so.

I did not reply to the list because the official policy of the list administrators is theological discussions should not be on the list. Was I guilty of “Blindly flaming sources based on their provenience” ? I don’t think so, I looked at the sites data and said that a clearly religious site claiming a 6000 year old earth was not a credible source of historical data.

Then another list member sent this:

Those who consider only part of the available information are not really looking for the truth.

When you find History and Religon information in the same location, there should be a little more confidence in the information. When they are separated, one should suspect motive.

My jaw dropped when I read that, this person believes that any history that doesn’t include religious ideas taught as fact is bad, WTF! Of course I’m sure he wouldn’t feel that way if the site wasn’t his particular religious viewpoint.

The following days bring more disturbing posts, I just knew that bringing in theology would open the woo floodgates. The first is from the same person who posted the previous response.

I found the topic “Ancient scientists are involved in transgenic experiments with animals and man” to be especially interesting. One of my many interests is pursuing historical support for the people known as “Nephilia” or giants in the bible. Biblical mention is sketchy and so far I have found nothing on the web that seems any more than speculation.

As a student critical of the Bible I find it ambiguous in many places. However, if you want to study the Origin and History of Man it must be included.

This was followed up by this insanity from a new contributor to the thread responding directly to the previous message.

Zecharia Sitchin’s books are a very interesting reading.


Be careful about clicking that link, to steal a phrase from Orac, “the stupid it burns”.

This biblical timeline discussion fork then had another more rational person jump in and go ahead and address the “supply data that contradicts the datapoints discussed in this thread” comment. He pointed out an inconsistency and in response there was much babbling and another biblical history site linked to discuss global warming, WTF! Then there appeared this gem from the poster who had said a few hundred words earlier “I am finished now. Let it remain so.”.

The Biblical ‘creation of the world’ time coincides with the exit from the last ice age, 6 to 12k years ago, with fair precision.

It is one thing to be open minded but you must be careful that you are not so open minded that your brain falls out. I could not find any reference to the last ice age ending < 10k years ago and many estimates are closer to 12k. So, bible 6k plus 66% to 100% is fairly precise, I am not impressed with that kind of precision. People should really avoid trying to mix religion and science it leads to really odd ideas.

Sadly, I’ve got many more examples of this type of embarrassing behavior from engineering lists that I will write about in the future. In closing I’d like to make one observation, many of the list members who make these types of posts are the same ones who have problems with circuits, components or code that nobody else seems to have. So, on the plus side I have a ready reference of engineers that would not be good choices to hire for my employer’s projects. There are enough real problems to overcome in engineering projects, we can’t afford to waste money chasing non-issues caused by engineers with poor critical thinking skills.