Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Snake oil classification

As you may have noted, I have a serious problem with "alternative medicine" manufacturers who put on their bottles of snake oil, "Not intended to treat or cure any medical condition" when right on the bottle (in much larger print) it says that said snake oil will treat and/or cure a medical condition.

The disclaimer, for better or worse, apparently gets them off the hook if they're sued by someone who (for example) took homeopathic one-part-in-a-quintillion dilutions of weasel spit to cure their constipation and found themselves as plugged up as ever.  But it still bugs me, because however you slice it, these products are being touted as medicines, when in fact the vast majority of them are worthless -- and stop people from seeking out legitimate treatments that actually might work.

But now, the infamous "Goop" -- Gwyneth Paltrow's company that suggested, for example, that women with problems in their naughty bits should stick jade eggs into their vaginas (no, I'm not making this up) -- has come up with an even more sophisticated way not to take responsibility for the foolishness they peddle:

They've classified their products and "wellness" suggestions into different categories of foolishness.

I found this out from Dr. Jen Gunter's blog, which is a wonderful source of straight scoop about all things alt-med.  Dr. Gunter has gone all-out in fighting Gwyneth Paltrow's multi-million dollar health scam company, and what she uncovered this time is a doozy.  Here's how Paltrow is now dividing up her health products and recommendations:
  • For Your Enjoyment: There probably aren’t going to be peer-reviewed studies about this concept, but it’s fun, and there’s real merit in that.
  • Ancient Modality: This practice is nearly as old as time — many find value in it, even if modern-day research hasn’t caught up yet (it’s possible the practice will never attract its attention).
  • Speculative but Promising: There’s momentum behind this concept, though it needs more research to elucidate exactly what’s at work.
  • Supported by Science: There’s sound science for the value of this concept and the promise of more evidence to come soon that may prove its impact.
  • Rigorously Tested: The validity of this concept is pretty much undisputed within the world of M.D.’s, D.O.’s, N.D.’s, and Ph.D.’s.
So they're conveniently leaving themselves an out if someone sues them.  "Ha ha," they can say.  "We labeled this one as 'for your enjoyment!'  There's real merit in the fact that you abandoned your chemotherapy for a coffee enema!  What fun!"

In the "speculative but promising" category, Gunter found such claims as drinking goat's milk to "rid yourself of parasites," and that eating apricots are "energy-shifting" and "transformative," but only if you eat them after three PM.  That's when their "energy-shifting" capacity is highest.

Because fruit, apparently, can tell time.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

Gunter, hearteningly, is having none of it.  She writes:
As far as I can tell with the GOOP rating system “enjoyment” means second-hand information from a ghost; “ancient” is code for biologically implausible, but sells well; and “speculative, but promising” is the fringe hypothesis of a naturopath or “Integrative” doctor.  I am pretty sure we won’t see too many “backed by science” posts because there aren’t many complementary products to sell alongside in the GOOP shoppe.
Because, after all, this is all about one thing: money.  Paltrow's quack cures and sham health aids are a multi-million dollar industry, and (as P. T. Barnum famously observed) there's a sucker born every minute.  Not only that, there's the even more unethical side of this; that some of her customers are people who have chronic diseases that are unresponsive even to the best medical care, or who are facing treatments that work but result in dreadful side effects (such as chemo and radiation therapy).  So out of desperation, and buoyed up by a false sense of hope from Paltrow's shtick, they buy what she's selling -- jeopardizing their own health, and in some cases, risking their lives.

If you think I'm overstating my case, check out the site What's the Harm?, which looks at specific instances of "alternative medicine" harming or killing patients.  The website is extensive; their header says they've found evidence of "368,379 people killed, 306,096 injured and over $2,815,931,000 in economic damages."

So I'm unimpressed by Paltrow's new system for classifying nonsense.  The fact is, if you're ill, you should seek out the help of a trained professional, not look for a cure from an actress who figured out that alternative medicine is one hell of a cash cow.  Regardless of how cleverly she markets her snake oil.

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This week's recommended read is Wait, What? And Life's Other Essential Questions by James E. Ryan.  Ryan frames the whole of critical thinking in a fascinating way.  He says we can avoid most of the pitfalls in logic by asking five questions: "What?"  "I wonder..." "Couldn't we at least...?" "How can I help?" and "What truly matters?"  Along the way, he considers examples from history, politics, and science, and encourages you to think about the deep issues -- and not to take anything for granted.





Saturday, June 16, 2018

Illuminating a prison

In the unit on ethics in my Critical Thinking class, we always discuss a variety of experiments that have been done to elucidate the origins, characteristics, and extent of human morality.  Among the ones we look at are:
  • Philippa Foot's famous "Trolly Problem" experiment (1967), where a person is presented with two scenarios, both of which result in one death to save five people -- but in one, the death is caused by an action with a mechanical intermediary (flipping a switch), while in the second, the death is caused by the person shoving someone off a bridge with their own hands.  The interesting result is that humans don't view these as equivalent -- having a mechanical intermediary far reduces the emotional charge of the situation, and makes people much more likely to do it, even though the outcomes are identical.
  • The "Milgram experiment," conducted in 1963 by Stanley Milgram, which looked at the likelihood of someone hurting another person if commanded to do so by an authority figure.  Turns out, most of us will...
  • The Zurich tribalism experiment, done in Switzerland in 2015, wherein we find test subjects are willing to inflict painful shocks on others without activating their own empathy centers -- if the person being shocked is wearing a soccer jersey of a team the test subject didn't like.
  • Karen Wynn's "baby lab" experiment (2014), which found that even very young babies have an innate perception of fairness and morality, and want helpful individuals rewarded and unhelpful individuals punished.
The last time I taught the class, I included a fifth experiment -- the notorious "Stanford prison experiment," done by Philip Zimbardo in 1971.  You've probably heard about this one; it involved 24 Stanford students who had all undergone personality screening to weed out anyone with a tendency toward sociopathy.  The 24 were split into two groups -- the "prisoners" and the "guards."  As Zimbardo recounted the outcome, the guards very quickly banded together and acted with cruelty and disdain toward the prisoners, and the prisoners responded by sabotaging whatever they could.  Several of the prisoners broke down completely, and the experiment had to be called off because some of the prisoners were obviously in such mental distress that it would have been inhumane to continue.

Sing Sing Prison, 1915 [Image is in the Public Domain]

Zimbardo became famous instantly, and his results used to explain everything from people who'd been collaborators during the Holocaust to William Calley and his men and the perpetration of the My Lai Massacre.  When banding together against a perceived common enemy, Zimbardo said, we'll be much more likely to behave immorally -- especially when (as the Milgram experiment suggests) we're being ordered to behave that way by an authority.

There are two problems with this.

First, in 2001, psychologists Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher tried to replicate Zimbardo's results, and found that it didn't work.  What they suggested was that the outcome of the Stanford prison experiment weren't because the "guards" saw the "prisoners" as enemies, but because the guards were identifying with the experimenters -- in other words, their activities were being directed by an authority figure.  So the experiment boils down to a rehash of what Milgram did eight years earlier.

But there's a darker side of this, which I just found out about in an article in Medium by Ben Blum called "The Lifespan of a Lie."  In it, Blum makes a disturbing claim; that Zimbardo hadn't done what he claimed, which was to break the students into groups randomly and give them no instructions other than "guards control prisoners, prisoners obey guards;" he had actually coached the guards to behave cruelly -- and may have even encouraged one of the prisoners to go into hysterics.

The most famous breakdown, that of "prisoner" Doug Korpi, was dramatic -- he was locked in a closet by a guard, and proceeded to have a complete meltdown, screaming and crying and kicking the door.  The problem, Korpi says, is that it was all an act, and both he and Zimbardo knew it.  "Anybody who is a clinician would know that I was faking,” Korpi told Blum.  "If you listen to the tape, it’s not subtle.  I’m not that good at acting.  I mean, I think I do a fairly good job, but I’m more hysterical than psychotic."

At least some of the guards were acting as well.  One of the ones that had (according to Zimbardo) exhibited true cruelty toward the prisoners, Dave Eshelman, said his whole persona was a put-on.  "I took it as a kind of an improv exercise,” Eshelman told Blum.  "I believed that I was doing what the researchers wanted me to do, and I thought I’d do it better than anybody else by creating this despicable guard persona.  I’d never been to the South, but I used a southern accent, which I got from Cool Hand Luke."

Zimbardo, of course, denies all of this, and spoke to Blum briefly -- mostly to say that the experiment was fine, and the claims of fraud all nonsense.  Instead, he said that Haslam and Reicher's failed attempt at replication was "fraudulent," and the experiment itself valid.  "It’s the most famous study in the history of psychology at this point," Zimbardo told Blum.  "There’s no study that people talk about fifty years later.  Ordinary people know about it.  They say, ‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m a psychologist.’  It could be a cab driver in Budapest.  It could be a restaurant owner in Poland.  I mention I’m a psychologist, and they say, ‘Did you hear about the study?’  It’s got a life of its own now.  If he wants to say it was all a hoax, that’s up to him.  I’m not going to defend it anymore.  The defense is its longevity."

Which, of course, is not much of a defense.  Some really stupid ideas (I'm lookin' at you, homeopathy) have been around for ages.  I do find it rather upsetting, though, and not just because I've been teaching an experiment for years that turns out not to have gone down the way the researchers claimed.  It's a stain on science as a whole -- that we accepted the results of an experiment that failed replication, mostly because its outcome seemed so comforting.  People aren't inherently immoral; they act immorally when they're placed in situations where it's expected.  Alter situations, it implied, and people will rise to higher motives.

Well, maybe.  There are still a lot of questions about morality, and the other four experiments I teach have borne up to scrutiny.  We do harm more easily when we're one step removed from the person being harmed, when an authority figure tells us to, when the harmed person doesn't belong to our "tribe," and when the recipient of punishment is perceived to have deserved it.  But simply banding together, Lord of the Flies-style, to visit harm upon the helpless -- the evidence for that is far slimmer.

And I suppose the Zimbardo experiment will have to be transferred to a different lecture next year -- the one I do on examples of scientific fraud and researcher malfeasance.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a classic: the late Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  It's required reading for anyone who is interested in the inner workings of the human mind, and highlights how fragile our perceptual apparatus is -- and how even minor changes in our nervous systems can result in our interacting with the world in what appear from the outside to be completely bizarre ways.  Broken up into short vignettes about actual patients Sacks worked with, it's a quick and completely fascinating read.





Friday, June 15, 2018

Follow the compass needle

I have to resist the temptation of scoffing too quickly, but sometimes it turns out to be justified.

This comes up because of an article from Body Ecology called "Could the Direction You Sleep In Improve Your Health and Well-Being?" that a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me yesterday.  The contention of the article is that should never sleep with your head pointing north or west; east or south is best.  Fail to follow this advice, and you're seriously risking getting some horrible disease.  It then goes into some "Eastern medicine" goofiness and stuff about "feng shui" that has no scientific validity whatsoever.

The article states, cheerfully, "[S]cience and eastern medicine both agree" that sleep direction makes a difference, a claim that made me snort derisively.

But one thing caught my eye, which is that the article said there's been a study -- a real study, not some hand-waving mystical nonsense -- that showed people who sleep oriented north/south have shorter periods of REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep than people oriented east/west.  There was no link provided, nor even a mention of where or by whom the study had been conducted, but I thought I'd give the author the benefit of the doubt and try to track it down.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Evgeniy Isaev from Moscow, Russia, Sleeping man. (7174597014), CC BY 2.0]

After some digging, I found the paper they were referencing.  It was from way back in 1987, and was written by three scientists in Germany, one at the Max Planck Institute, and the other two at the University of Munich.  Entitled, "Dependence of a Sleeping Parameter from the N-S or E-W Sleeping Direction," wherein eight male subjects were subjected to EEGs for eight nights each, alternating nights while sleeping oriented north/south with nights oriented east/west.  The authors write:
The only significant difference occurred in REM latency which was 5.5 min shorter in E-W direction (p< 0.02).  Other sleep parameters which could be interpreted as stress parameters (sleep latency, intermittent awakenings, percentage of stage 1, stageshifts, movement times) were not different between the two positions.  The same goes for the other parameters.
So the Body Ecology got the facts wrong; the north/south sleepers didn't REM less, they had longer REM latency -- the time from the onset of sleep to the first episode of REM.  And that was only by five and a half minutes.  In fact, there was a great deal more difference between the REM latency of all the subjects for the first four versus the second four nights, regardless of what direction they were oriented -- a difference of 22 minutes.

Nevertheless, the authors conclude hopefully:
The adaption effects are balanced out by the fact that two paired subjects slept always in different directions. The fact that among the sleep parameters REM latency is affected by the position of the bed... seems to support our interpretation because mainly REM latency reacts to external influences. Therefore the most probable interpretation of our observation is the assumption that the geomagnetic field influences humans differently depending on their positions relative to the field direction.
I'm no statistician, but it seems to me that eight subjects studied for eight nights, resulting in a difference in REM latency of five and a half minutes and no other significant changes, is pretty weak evidence that there's anything to see here.  It's also significant that the article was published in 1987 -- and I couldn't find a single other study of the claim since that time.

The piece in Body Ecology also mentions a second study (once again, no link) claiming that other mammal species respond to the Earth's magnetic field.  That's not so far-fetched; it's known that many bird species exhibit magnetotaxis, which is orientation based on an internal compass.  (This was discovered by a study way back in 1971 done right here at Cornell University.)  But the mammals claim was new to me, and appears to come from a 2008 study at the University of Duisberg-Essen (Germany) claiming that satellite images of herds of deer and cattle showed that they preferentially oriented their bodies north/south.  The authors don't bother to speculate as to why they would do this, and claim to have controlled for such factors as prevailing wind direction and the angle of the sun.  But a 2011 study tried to replicate the results and failed -- there was no preferred orientation.  Cattle and deer did pretty much what you'd expect they'd do, which is stand around eating stuff facing any way that happens to be convenient.

Of course, weirder things have been claimed.  A 2013 paper in Frontiers of Zoology said that a two-year study of dogs showed that they preferred to poop while aligned north/south.  Which raises a question: who even thought of looking into this idea?  I mean, thinking outside the box is one thing, but this is a bizarre question to ask.  Maybe the scientists, like me, tire of having their dogs turn in circles 832 times before relieving themselves, and wanted to know why they were doing it.

Unsurprisingly, this study was questioned, too, most rigorously by Duncan Forgan over at Research the Headlines, who had the following to say:
On the other hand, the dog’s magnetoception (if it possesses it) does not appear to be particularly effective in general.  When the researchers pooled all the data (calm and not-calm magnetic fields), they saw no evidence of alignment at all, meaning that dogs can only rely on this sense if the magnetic field behaves itself, which only happened during around a third of the researcher’s observations. 
It also means that if you own a dog, you are probably unlikely to notice any alignment, unless you’re willing to only note your pup’s pooping practices when you’ve previously measured a stable magnetic field.
An experiment which, frankly, I am not nearly interested enough to carry out.

Anyhow.  It looks like my scornful reaction to the original article is more or less warranted, and any evidence that humans respond behaviorally (or any other way) to the Earth's magnetic field is questionable at best.  If it floats your boat to turn your bed so your head is facing east, knock yourself out, but I'm guessing any difference you notice will be because you expected there to be a change -- i.e., the placebo effect.

For what it's worth, though, I sleep with my head pointing north, and I'm a notorious insomniac.  It's only one data point, but make of it what you will.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a classic: the late Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  It's required reading for anyone who is interested in the inner workings of the human mind, and highlights how fragile our perceptual apparatus is -- and how even minor changes in our nervous systems can result in our interacting with the world in what appear from the outside to be completely bizarre ways.  Broken up into short vignettes about actual patients Sacks worked with, it's a quick and completely fascinating read.





Thursday, June 14, 2018

Prophecy pages and prayer rugs

Apparently a new strategy amongst the severely religious is to send out broadside literature through the mail. I know this because a friend of mine got one.  However, given that (1) my friend didn't request the letter, and (2) it was warmly and personally addressed to "Occupant," you have to wonder how successful this strategy is going to be.

It's not like junk mail is as lucrative a business as it used to be, given that you can send out ten thousand emails for less than the cost of a single snail-mail letter.  But evidently this hasn't dissuaded some of these folks from trying the old fashioned way.

Anyway, how this all came up is that a couple of days ago, my friend came up to me, grinning, with some papers in his hand, and said, "When I got this, I immediately thought that you should have it."   I've found that since I'm mostly known for my interest in woo-woo crackpots, this is seldom a good sign.  And sure enough, this letter was way off to the "Wingnut" end of the spectrum.

The first thing I opened was a large, garishly-colored piece of textured paper that has a pattern around it in crimson and gold that looks a little like a Persian rug.  After unfolding it, I said, and I quote, "Holy shit!"  Because facing me was a nearly life-sized image of Jesus' face, eyes closed, wearing a crown of thorns.  As luck would have it (and sine apparently I'm not the only person who's come across one of these), I was able to find an image of it online:


One disconcerting thing is that the face looks to my eyes more like Jase Robertson from Duck Dynasty than it does like my concept of The Lord And Savior, but that may just be me.  Be that as it may, the instructions on the bottom read:
Look into Jesus' eyes you will see they are closed.  But as you continue to look you will see His eyes opening and looking back into your eyes.  Then go and be alone and kneel on this Rug of Faith or touch it to both knees.  Then please check your needs on our letter to you.  Please return this Prayer Rug.  Do not keep it.
My first thought was that if I was staring at this picture and its eyes opened, I would probably want to be alone for an entirely different reason, namely that I would think I'd lost my marbles.  But then I thought: maybe there's some reason why people see this happen.  I know that staring fixedly at something does mess around with your visual integrative system, creating afterimages and all sorts of odd effects.  So I looked closely at the drawing, and I noticed that in the center of each eye was a faint dot, with a lighter spot up and to the left -- like a ghostly image of a pupil and a point of light reflected from the surface of a human eye.  Stare at the picture long enough, I'd guess, and those features might make the eyes begin to look as if they were open.

So I folded up and put away the "Prayer Rug," because that picture is freakin' creepy, and picked up the next one, which said, "Please don't open this prophecy until after you have placed your prayer page (page two of our letter to you) and the Prayer Rug back in the mail before sunset tomorrow or the next day.  God will help you to do this.  You will see."

Now, you have to wonder why anyone would need God's help to put something in the mail, but I may be reading this wrong.  In any case, I threw caution to the wind and opened the secret prophecy.  The prophecy turned out to be a page of fine print, and I frankly do not feel like copying the entire thing, but the gist of it is that God knows I'm not happy with my life, and that in fact he has the impression that I'm kind of a pathetic sonofabitch.  (I paraphrase slightly.)  But in order to have ENDLESS JOY (capitalization theirs) all I have to do is allow God's spirit to work through me by praying a lot and sending a donation to the church that sent this letter.

The remaining pieces of paper were the checklist of what I'd like them to pray for on my behalf (after I saw Jesus' eyes open on the "Prayer Rug"), and some testimonials from folks about what they'd gotten.  Some of these included:
  • strength
  • spiritual blessing
  • a money blessing
  • happy family life
  • miracle healing
  • a good loving companion
  • a secure future
  • protection from evil
  • salvation
  • true love 
All of which sound pretty awesome, but honestly, I think I'll spare them the trouble.  Given my rampant atheism, I think God (if he actually exists) would not have a particularly strong motivation to shower me with gifts even if these people prayed for me because I'd sent them a checklist and returned their "Prayer Rug."

Honestly, how do the groups who send this stuff out think this could possibly work?  (As a religious strategy, not a money-making opportunity, since the way that works is pretty obvious.)  I guess that since they seem pretty sincere about wanting to do good stuff for total strangers, I can't argue with their motives.  There was none of the "Oh, and if you don't believe what we're saying, you will BURN IN AGONY FOR ALL ETERNITY HA HA HA HA" business you usually see with missives of this sort.  So, as these things go, it was pretty friendly, as long as you discount the scary drawing of Jesus.

But I still must ask the question -- if they think that God knows everything and has a plan for everyone, and will always make sure everything works out for the best (for all of which there was ample evidence on the "prophecy page"), isn't it contradictory to believe that they could change someone's destiny by praying, using the person's wish list of stuff (s)he'd like to have?  Do they think that God is sort of like Santa Claus, reading a kid's Christmas list and going, "I didn't know little Billy wanted a Lego set!  Well, we'll just have to have the elves make him one!  Ho ho ho!"  If there is a God, I somehow can't imagine that he works that way.

So, the open question is what to do with the letter, "Prayer Rug," and the lot.  I think I'm going to give it back to my friend.  After all, it was addressed to him ("Occupant"), so if anyone should get all of the bad luck from not returning the "Prayer Rug" to the church, I think it's only fair that it should be him.  Okay, I opened the Prophecy before I was supposed to, but if I seal it back up with a little piece of scotch tape, maybe God won't notice.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a classic: the late Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  It's required reading for anyone who is interested in the inner workings of the human mind, and highlights how fragile our perceptual apparatus is -- and how even minor changes in our nervous systems can result in our interacting with the world in what appear from the outside to be completely bizarre ways.  Broken up into short vignettes about actual patients Sacks worked with, it's a quick and completely fascinating read.





Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Waiting for the Reichstag Fire

Back in November of 2015, I wrote a post that got a lot of pshaw-ing by people who ordinarily would be fairly close to me in political outlook.  In it, I compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler -- and the lead-up to the 2016 election to the situation in Weimar Republic Germany in the mid-1930s.

Some of the naysayers thought I was being an alarmist -- that okay, Trump had some pretty reactionary ideas, but (1) they weren't really so far out of the mainstream of conservative ideology, and (2) if he did go off the beam too badly, we have a system of checks-and-balances set up that will rein him in.  Others admitted that Trump was an amoral sociopath who was interested in nothing but self-aggrandizement and stroking his over-inflated ego, but they argued that he wasn't going to get very far.  I had one person say to me, "There's no way that man could ever get the Republican nomination, much less win the presidency.  Calm the hell down."

I don't like being wrong any more than the next guy, but believe me when I say that this is one time I'd have been delighted to be completely off-base.

And every time I think we've reached the absolute nadir, that surely someone is going to step in and stop our slide into a true fascist dictatorship, something worse happens.  Witness the poll by the Washington Post that found that over half of the Republicans surveyed would be in favor of Trump suspending the 2020 presidential election "as long as necessary," and more specifically until he could see to it that we'd "weeded out illegal voters."

If Congress got behind the move, the support rises to 56%.


First, let's just put out there that Trump's repeated claim of "millions of fraudulent voters" has not a shred of evidence behind it.  An exhaustive study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that the incidence of voter fraud in the United States was right around 0.0003%, regardless of whether you looked at local, state, or federal elections.

Put bluntly, the president is lying for the sole purpose of whipping up fear of evil "illegals" rigging elections in order to manipulate his followers into supporting his becoming Dictator-for-Life.

And just as with Hitler, a lot of effort is going into making Trump seem superhuman.  Instead of the racial purity ideologues (although there's a measure of that, too), here what we have is the Christian evangelicals treating Trump as inviolable, God's representative on Earth.  Don't believe me?  Just two days ago, Leigh Valentine, host of Faith and Freedom on Bill Mitchell's "Your Voice America" network, said the following:
Let me tell you, whether you believe it or not, [Trump] is speaking words of life over our country and over this nation, and every word he speaks, I see the hand of God upon it.  He is a very, very smart man and he knows what he is doing.  He knows the art of the deal and a lot of this is God’s deal, let me tell you.
Then there's the story in The Atlantic this week wherein we read some pretty alarming stuff.  Back in January 2016 Thomas Wright, a Brookings Institute scholar, warned that Trump had a "fondness for authoritarian strongmen."  More chillingly, a senior White House official who (unsurprisingly) declined to be named described Trump's policy in three words: "We're America, Bitch."

If someone can explain to me how that's different from Deutschland über alles, I'm listening.

No wonder Trump is disdainful of an articulate negotiator like Justin Trudeau, and as I write this is overflowing with praise for a bloodthirsty, ruthless dictator like Kim Jong Un.

So what we have here is a president who is a wannabe autocrat and has no intention of turning over the reins of power when his term is up, and a Congress that seems to think its job is kissing Trump's ass and rubberstamping whatever he proposes.  The whole time, the state-supported propaganda mill over at Fox News is convincing the masses that as long as we do what Der Führer says (and salute at the right time, and don't do anything outright treasonous like kneeling during the National Anthem), everything will be fine.  America will be great again.

Still doubtful about the parallels between where we are and Weimar Germany?

All we need is the final ingredient -- this era's Reichstag Fire.  Something calamitous that ignites a frenzy in his supporters, and allows Trump himself to say, "See, I told you so."  And at that point, the slide into catastrophe might well be unstoppable.

******************************

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a classic: the late Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  It's required reading for anyone who is interested in the inner workings of the human mind, and highlights how fragile our perceptual apparatus is -- and how even minor changes in our nervous systems can result in our interacting with the world in what appear from the outside to be completely bizarre ways.  Broken up into short vignettes about actual patients Sacks worked with, it's a quick and completely fascinating read.





Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Everything in this blog is true

Regular readers of this blog may remember that about a year ago, a student of mine attempted to kill me by sending me a video clip of an apparently pathologically stupid woman attempting to defend the practice of homeopathy via misquotes from Stephen Hawkings [sic], a claim implying that mass and volume are the same thing, and a bizarre quasi-analogy that involves throwing a bomb at your neighbor's house because his dog pooped in your yard.  This student, who by all appearances is a moral and upstanding young man, nevertheless induced me to watch something which he knew might well have the effect of making me choke on my own outrage and die in horrible agony.

Needless to say, I survived the first murder attempt.  Not satisfied with failure, however, this same student has tried again, this time sending me a link to a website called “Truthism.com.”

I must say that as murder attempts go, this one was pretty inspired.  The homeopathy clip was only about eight minutes long, while this website took a half-hour to read thoroughly – thirty minutes of my life that I will never again get back, and a half-hour during which I made many muffled snorting noises, rather like a bulldog with a sinus blockage.  In case you’re understandably reluctant to waste that amount of time, or possibly risk dying of Exploding Brain Syndrome, I present below a summary of the gist of the Truthism website.
  1. Everything on this website is true. 
  2. If you doubt anything on this website, you are at best asleep, and at worst a mindless sheep who is being led about by evil government disinformation specialists. 
  3. Many things which turned out to be true were disbelieved, even laughed at, at first.  Therefore if you disbelieve and laugh at this website, it must be true. 
  4. You do not have access to government Top Secret facilities and records.  Therefore, anything this website claims is in those facilities and records must be true, because you can’t disprove it. 
  5. Science is just another means for the ruling elite to control the populace. 
  6. The ruling elite also invented religion and morality as a way to control the populace.  The fact that science and religion are often in conflict is an indication that they are both wrong. 
  7. The current ruling elite are the same individuals who created the Egyptian and Mayan pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Nazca lines. 
  8. These individuals, for good measure, also created humanity itself. 
  9. Because the ruling elite aren’t actually people, but are super-intelligent reptiles from another planet. 
  10. Called “Annunaki.” 
  11. Did I mention that everything in this website is true? 
  12. The fact that many ancient cultures depicted snakes in their art is proof that the earth is being ruled by reptiles from outer space. 
  13. The caduceus, the symbol of medical science, is a pair of snakes coiled together.  It looks a little like a DNA molecule, which is the repository of all the genetic information in the cell. 
  14. There you are, then. 
  15. If that doesn’t prove it to you, then consider the following chain of logic: Crop Circles, Area 51, Ancient Astronauts, the Face on Mars, Freemasons, the Hollow Earth Theory! 
  16. Ha. That sure showed YOU. 
  17. And as a last piece of evidence; everything on this website is true.
I have to point out, at this juncture, how much it cost me to write all this out for you.  I can hear the pathetic little death screams of the neurons in my frontal cortex as I’m writing this.  But being the selfless reporter that I am, on the front lines of investigation, I’m willing to undergo significant risks to my own health, safety, and IQ in order to bring this story to your doorstep.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons SacroHelgo, 96ccb1 0c4b6a2ddbb4425f89f032a6f6ec9a19а, CC BY-SA 4.0]

And you know, it’s not as if I can’t see the attractiveness of this as a theory.  Think how positing the existence of evil, super-powerful cold-blooded reptilian alien propaganda specialists would explain, for example, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  But alas, it’s not enough simply to like a theory, it has to fit with the data, and at the moment, the lion’s share of the evidence is in the “against” column.  So, sad to say, we must conclude that despite the website’s repeated claims of being true, its domain name should probably be changed to “EgregiousBullshitism.com.”

And with that said, I think I should go lie down for a while and recover from this latest assassination attempt.  If this keeps happening, I may have to hire a bodyguard.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a classic: the late Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  It's required reading for anyone who is interested in the inner workings of the human mind, and highlights how fragile our perceptual apparatus is -- and how even minor changes in our nervous systems can result in our interacting with the world in what appear from the outside to be completely bizarre ways.  Broken up into short vignettes about actual patients Sacks worked with, it's a quick and completely fascinating read.





Monday, June 11, 2018

Psychedelic uplift

In a study released last week by a team of psychologists working at the University of British Columbia, we find that in an extensive survey of 1,266 men from the ages of 16 to 70, guys who had used psychedelic drugs (specifically LSD or psilocybin) had a statistically significant lower likelihood of abusing their partners.

In "Psychedelic Use and Intimate Partner Violence: The Role of Emotion Regulation," by Michelle S. Thiessen, Zach Walsh, Brian M. Bird, and Adele Lafrance, the authors write:
Males reporting any experience using lysergic acid diethylamide and/or psilocybin mushrooms had decreased odds of perpetrating physical violence against their current partner (odds ratio=0.42, p<0.05).  Furthermore, our analyses revealed that male psychedelic users reported better emotion regulation when compared to males with no history of psychedelic use.  Better emotion regulation mediated the relationship between psychedelic use and lower perpetration of intimate partner violence.
Given the role of psychedelics in changing levels of activity of serotonin -- a major mood-regulating neurotransmitter -- it's unsurprising that this correlation exists.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons: This image was created by user Caleb Brown (Joust) at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images.You can contact this user here., 2013-10-22 Psilocybe cyanescens Wakef 378614, CC BY-SA 3.0]

What is more surprising is that apparently, it only takes one use.  Consider, too, that one use of another psychedelic drug -- ketamine -- has been found to relieve many cases of intractable depression, acting in as little as thirty minutes and providing dramatic improvements that last for months.

If you've checked out the links, you may have noticed that none of these studies took place in the United States.  The first one was done (as I mentioned) in Canada; the research on ketamine was the result of two studies done in China.  Here in the United States it's extraordinarily difficult even for neuroscientists to obtain permission to experiment with psychotropic drugs, and there's been strong resistance to easing up these regulations by a group I can only describe as being the Morality Police.  Odd, isn't it, that alcohol -- a clearly mood-altering drug that is responsible for (by estimates from the National Institute of Health) 88,000 deaths yearly -- is legal.  Tobacco, which kills even more than that, is not only legal but is federally subsidized.

Psychedelics are unequivocally illegal in all fifty states.  At least some motion forward has happened with marijuana, which has been known for years not only to be effective for pain relief in terminal cancer patients, but has shown promise as an anti-anxiety medication.  The problem seems to be that marijuana and psychedelics have both become associated with recreational use, and I guess there's a sense that therapeutic agents shouldn't be fun.

I dunno.  Maybe there's a better reason, but if so I've never been able to figure it out.  It seems to me that careful administration of chemicals that can potentially alleviate depression and anxiety shouldn't be dependent on people moralizing about what amounts to this century's version of Demon Rum.

This is brought into sharper relief by the suicide last week of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.  Depression is reaching epidemic proportions.  I use the word "epidemic" deliberately, and not as hyperbole.  Another study, released just three days ago by the US Center for Disease Control, has found that since 1999 there's been a thirty percent increase in suicides in the United States.  Only one state -- Nevada -- had a decrease, and that was by only one percent.  Twelve states had an increase of between 38% and 58%.  The result -- suicide has become the third highest cause of death, and is so frequent it's actually contributed to a statistically significant drop in American life expectancy.

This is a personal one for me.  As I've mentioned before in Skeptophilia, I've suffered from moderate to severe depression and serious social anxiety for as long as I can recall.  The depression is being controlled reasonably well by medication; the anxiety is still a work in progress.  But if I could knock out my depression -- potentially get off antidepressants permanently -- by one hit of ketamine, one use of LSD or psilocybin -- I'd do it in a heartbeat.  And I'd like to hear, if any of my readers are in the no-way-no-how column of the legalization controversy, a cogent argument about why I should not be allowed to do that.

Interestingly, I was asked that very question by one of my oldest friends, even before the tragic suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.  Would I be willing to try it?  Would I do so even before it was legalized?  My answer was an unequivocal yes.  Given a reasonable dosage, and friends to make sure I didn't do anything stupid while high, what exactly would be the risk?  Speaking perfectly honestly, if a 57-year-old middle-class science nerd with no social life had any access to the chemicals in question, I'd already have done it.

Perhaps we're waking up, though.  Like I said, there is an increasing push to legalize certain drugs, and that's encouraging.  (Nota bene: I'm not saying these drugs should be completely unregulated.  There are very good reasons for keeping them away from children, and for making sure that they're not used before someone gets behind the wheel of a car.  But if we can handle those challenges with alcohol, we can handle them with other chemicals.)  It's to be hoped that we'll see reason -- and potentially do something to alleviate the suffering of people whose illnesses have heretofore been essentially untreatable.

And maybe, in the process, reduce some of those suicide numbers, which are absolutely horrifying.

******************************

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a classic: the late Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  It's required reading for anyone who is interested in the inner workings of the human mind, and highlights how fragile our perceptual apparatus is -- and how even minor changes in our nervous systems can result in our interacting with the world in what appear from the outside to be completely bizarre ways.  Broken up into short vignettes about actual patients Sacks worked with, it's a quick and completely fascinating read.