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.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The year in review

So it's the last day of 2015, and we here at Skeptophilia HQ would like to wish you all a very happy 2016.  This has been a year of milestones, including hitting 1.5 million lifetime hits (many thanks to my loyal readers for that) and seeing my first two novels published in paperback (Kill Switch and Lock & Key, available at fine bookstores everywhere, not to mention Amazon, links provided in the right sidebar, hint-hint).

I thought it might be entertaining to take a look back at some of the stories we've covered this year, and perhaps we'll be able to glean some kind of hopeful trend that the world overall is becoming less likely to fall for silly nonsense as time goes on.  So on this New Year's Eve, sit back and let's take a trip back in time to look at...

...2015 in review.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

We started off January with a bang, with a claim by Jim Stone of the site Environmental Terrorism that we shouldn't get vaccinated, because the government is secretly putting nanobots in vaccines that will have the effect of eating your brain and making you not believe in god.  Apparently the people behind all of this are, unsurprisingly, the Jews, who were implicated because the nanobots, which look suspiciously like bacteriophage viruses, are shaped a little like a Star of David.  If my own experience counts for anything, I had a flu shot this year, and have not noticed any particular uptick in my atheism, nor have I had any strange cravings for matzoh balls or gefilte fish.  But I'm certainly keeping an eye on it.

In February, we had another in the long series of claims that President Obama is the Antichrist, and secretly wants to convert all Americans to Islam, take away all of our guns, and release various disease-causing microorganisms into the American citizenry to cause havoc and despair.  (No word on whether one of those was the Jewish zombie nanobots we reported on in January.)  What impresses me about all of this is that if Obama is an evil arch-villain, he's a really bad one, because (1) none of the awful things his detractors have suggested he was up to have actually happened, and (2) if you look around you, the economy has actually improved; gas prices, the deficit, and unemployment are down; and in general, the country doesn't seem any worse off than it was seven years ago when he was elected.  However, it's not like the people who make these claims are doing so because of logic and hard evidence, so the good economic news will probably be cast as a smokescreen by Obama to distract us from all of the evil Antichrist activities he's up to.  You know how that goes.

March began with a viral post claiming that until recently, humans were unable to see the color blue, and the reason is that ancient languages had no word for "blue."  Put another way, if you don't have a word for something, you can't see it.  This claim fails on two counts -- first, that it doesn't square with the physiology of color perception (in fact, the retina has cones that have a peak absorption in the blue region of the spectrum), and second, there are plenty of ancient languages that have words for "blue." But the fact that it's clearly wrong didn't discourage people from reposting it all over the place, often with delighted comments like, "Wow!  I didn't know this!  This is so cool!", lo unto this very day.

In April, some researchers in Sweden showed us once again how easy our perceptual and cognitive systems are easy to fool with a clever experiment that convinced participants that their bodies had become invisible.  Besides the interesting light it sheds on (and right through, in fact) how our brains perceive the world, the experiment is being hailed as the first step in developing sensurround virtual reality.  Holodeck, here we come.

May brought us a baffling story about a British doctor who is knocking himself out writing papers trying to explain homeopathy using quantum mechanics.  The particular paper linked in the post is kind of a must-read, given that no one (to my knowledge) has ever tried to apply the Schrödinger wave equation to chakras before, and also because it has the unforgettable line, "the safest treatment strategy might be for the practitioner to proceed via gradual removal of the symptoms."  Which I have to agree with.  Having doctors proceed by making the patients' symptoms worse is seldom advisable.

In June we had an international incident in which a group of tourists from Canada and various countries in Europe decided to climb Mount Kinabalu in the province of Sabah in Malaysia, and celebrated their reaching the top by taking off all of their clothes for some naked selfies.  The whole episode evidently angered the gods, who responded by causing an earthquake five days later that killed eleven people.  The fact that none of the victims were the people who had gotten naked on the mountaintop didn't stop local officials from attributing the earthquake to god's wrath, so they rounded the tourists up and threw them in jail.  It took weeks and lots of intergovernmental wrangling to get them all released.  So just remember, if you're in an earthquake-prone region: the gods do not want to see your naughty bits, and if they are forced to look they will respond by smiting the absolute shit out of someone else.

In July we had the start of the scary government activity called Jade Helm 15, which was a highly secret and covert operation designed to overthrow the government of Texas and result in the declaration of martial law and the guillotining of innocent civilians, despite the fact that the military leaders who were in charge had multiple public briefings about it beforehand, with question-and-answer sessions and media releases.  That's how secret and covert Jade Helm 15 was.  And of course, the citizen-militia-types decided that they would turn out to keep an eye on the proceedings, and intervene if necessary, which didn't turn out to be necessary because Jade Helm 15 apparently was exactly what the military leaders said it was, a training operation for ground troops.  But this last in a long line of failed predictions won't stop the conspiracy theorists from deciding that the next time it'll be martial law for real, cross our hearts and hope to die.

Speaking of failed predictions, August saw the publication of next year's Farmer's Almanac, which predicted that we here in the Northeast were going to have a horribly cold, snowy winter.  Apparently, no one bothered to tell the Weather Gods this, because so far, we've hardly had any sub-freezing temperatures, and in fact it hit 70 F on Christmas Eve right here in upstate New York, a.k.a. the Frozen Tundra.  But just like with the Jade Helm conspiracy theorists, I doubt that'll have much effect on the true believers.  I'll make a prediction of my own, which is that Almanac sales next year will be just as high as this year, despite the fact that their forecast basically sucks.

In September we had another viral claim, this one even stupider than the idea that the ancients couldn't see the color blue; that if you eat more than six bananas, you'll die.  This one not only is wildly wrong, it's known where the claim started -- British comedian Karl Pilkington, who had included it in one of his standup routines.  But because comedians are considered more credible sources on dietary information than nutritionists, Death by Banana Overdose made it into mainstream media -- including the BBC.

October finally brought us some good news, when an anti-vaxxer organization called Safe Minds contributed $250,000 to fund a study of the connection between vaccines and autism, and the study turned up... no connection.  Surprise, surprise.  Once again illustrating the accuracy of Neil deGrasse Tyson's quote that "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."

November gave us a quick way to see if you're being targeted by the Illuminati; type your name into a Microsoft Word document, and see if the spellcheck function underlines it in red.  Red underline = too bad, you're scheduled to be terminated.  Which is good news for the John Smiths of the world, and not such good news for the Zbigniew Mstislavitches.  Maybe the Illuminati have something against people with odd names, I dunno.  In any case, neither my first, middle, nor last name got flagged, which is kind of strange given how much I ridicule the Illuminati.  You'd think that if they'd red-underline anyone, it'd be me.

In December, yet another worldwide cataclysm failed to show, this time in the form of the Christmas Eve Death Asteroid.  I don't know about you, but I'm getting sick and tired of these unreliable apocalypses.  If there's to be death and carnage and destruction, I want it at least to show up when it's scheduled.  I'm tired of having my last fling of sin and debauchery, and then nothing happens, and I have to go back to work all tired and hungover and disappointed.

So okay, maybe this year hasn't shown any progress toward decreasing silliness.  I suppose on the one hand, I should be glad, because such nonsense is what keeps Skeptophilia in business.  Also, I'm firmly of the opinion that you can't be deadly serious all of the time, and it's a good thing that periodically we're able to have a hearty laugh at how completely weird humans are.

In any case, allow me to renew my wishes that you have a wonderful New Year's Eve, and a happy and productive 2016 to come.  See you all next year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A case of the willies

The topic for today's post comes from a loyal reader of Skeptophilia via a source I don't even look at any more, namely The Daily Mail Fail.

I avoid sources like this for the most part for two reasons -- first, they're low-hanging fruit, as skeptic-fodder goes, because whatever actual information they include is usually sensationalized, exaggerated, or outright wrong.  Second, I have no particular desire to send readers to those sites and boost their hit-counters.  They get enough ad revenue from their regular readers as it is; I would really rather not add to it.

So when a frequent contributor of topics for this blog sent me the link, I was reluctant to click on it, much less write about it.  But when I read the title of the article, I just couldn't help myself.

Because the title is, "God Made Eve from Adam's Penis, Not His Rib, Claims Religious Academic."

The gist of the story is that Ziony Zevit, professor of biblical studies at American Jewish University in BelAir, California, has come up with the idea that the Hebrew word "tsela" -- ordinarily translated as "rib" in the creation story -- instead "refers to limbs sticking out sideways from an upright human body."

So why the penis?  Why not, for example, the arm, which in most guys sticks out way more sideways than our penises do?  Two reasons, says Professor Zevit:  first, the number of bones in the arms and legs, not to mention the number of ribs, is the same in men and women, and you'd expect men to have one less bone somewhere if god had snitched one of 'em to make Eve.  Second, humans are among the few mammals that lack a baculum, a bone that reinforces the penis, which is why dogs (for example) so seldom need Viagra.

So anyhow.  After I recovered from nearly injuring myself laughing over this, I thought, "Okay, let me check my sources, here.  It is, after all, The Daily Fail.  They probably are misrepresenting Professor Zevit, or possibly even making it all up."

Hugo van der Goes, The Fall of Adam (1470) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But even stopped clocks are right twice a day, as my dad used to say.  This time The Daily Fail actually got it right.  Zevit did indeed make that claim, pretty much as outlined above, and his entire argument (if I can dignify it by that term) appeared in the September/October issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

If you're amused so far, wait until you hear the reaction from the readers of the journal.

"I write to express my disappointment with your magazine. I wish to cancel my subscription," wrote Sue Glaze of Maryland.  'That is plainly not a Bible teaching. I do not need and will not read articles that damage my faith or attempts to cause me to doubt what I know is the truth from the Bible."

Another reader, Reverend Randall Krabill, was equally outraged.  "How does Ziony Zevit's article have anything to do with Biblical archaeology?  I have never purchased a tabloid magazine in my life -- and I have no intention of ever doing so.  I certainly didn't realize that was what I was doing when I subscribed to BAR."

Another pastor, Don Brubacher agreed, calling the claim "outlandish," and supporting his opinion by going right to the top.  "As Jesus scathingly said: 'You blind guides! You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.' (Matthew 23:24)."

This last comment is even funnier when you realize that people like Brubacher and his ilk have no problem accepting talking snakes, or a 600-year-old Israeli man rescuing kangaroos from Australia prior to a worldwide flood, but there is no way they'll accept that god made women from a piece of Adam's willy.

Of course, pretty soon the other biblical academics started to weigh in, and most of them were equally unimpressed.  Alan Hooker, a blogger on the topic of the Old Testament, pointed out a possible problem with Zevit's claim:
Firstly, the Hebrew text of Genesis 2:21 does not support the authors’ thesis. It reads, “Then Yahweh of the gods caused a trance to fall upon the man (Adam), and while he slept, he took ahat missalotayv…”  The phrase ahat (lit. “one of”) missalotayv (“from his tselas”) implies that whatever Yahweh took from man, there was more than one of them to begin with.  The construct form of ahad (one) coupled with the plural of tsela lends more weight to the traditional idea that this is a rib bone, and not the baculum.
Can't argue with that.  Most guys are equipped with only one wang, not to mention zero wang-bones (to use the technical terminology).  So Hooker may be on to something, there.

Of course, given that I am starting from the standpoint of not believing any of it, the whole argument strikes me as ridiculous.  They're taking a Bronze Age fairy tale, and trying to use scientific evidence to sort out how the fairy tale can actually be true.  But as usual, that leaves the most mystifying thing of all unsolved -- how, if Eve was made from any part of Adam, she (and every other woman since then) has two X chromosomes, while Adam presumably had an X and a Y.

Oh, wait.  "God works in mysterious ways."  Never mind.

So anyhow, that's today's episode of "How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?"  The whole thing leaves me with the general feeling anyone participating on either the pro-rib or pro-penis side of the argument is, in a word, insane.  Me, I'm done thinking about it, and in fact I think I need to go read some Richard Dawkins just to restore order to the universe.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Wagering everything we've got

Prior to the 20th century, lung cancer and emphysema were rare diseases.  When someone contracted either of these diseases, doctors took notice, simply because they occurred so infrequently.  But with the turn of the 20th century came the rise of tobacco consumption, and the formation of the big tobacco companies -- R. J. Reynolds, Lorillard, and Philip Morris -- who cashed in on the fad, and quickly rose to be formidable forces in the marketplace.

Doctors soon noticed the uptick in lung cancer rates, and it wasn't long before they figured out the strongest predictor of lung cancer occurrence.  Way back in 1939, Franz Hermann Müller of Cologne Hospital published a study of 86 lung cancer patients and a similar number of cancer-free controls, and found that the cancer sufferers were far more likely to have smoked than the cancer-free individuals did.

And of course, that information eventually found its way to the higher-ups in the tobacco industry.  As Robert Proctor points out in his paper "The History of the Discovery of the Cigarette-Lung Cancer Link: Evidentiary Traditions, Corporate Denial, Global Toll," it is clear from the documents that the people in charge of Big Tobacco knew about the connection -- but suppressed the evidence, or lied about it outright.  Proctor writes:
Tobacco industry insiders by the mid 1950s clearly knew their product was dangerous.  In December of 1953, when Hill and Knowlton were exploring how to respond to the uproar surrounding the publication of carcinogens in cigarette smoke, one tobacco company research director commented in a confidential interview: ‘Boy! Wouldn't it be wonderful if our company was first to produce a cancer-free cigarette.  What we could do to competition!’  Another remarked on how fortunate it was ‘for us’ (ie, for cigarette manufacturers) that smokers were engaging in ‘a habit they can't break’.  The mid-1950s cancer consensus was clearly (albeit privately) shared by the companies; and the reality of addiction was also starting to be conceded—at least in internal industry documents. 
UK cigarette makers also commented on the lung cancer consensus.  Three leading scientists from British American Tobacco (BAT) visited the USA in 1958, for example, and found that with only one exception all of those consulted—including dozens of experts inside and outside the industry—believed that a cancer connection had been proved.  Alan Rodgman at Reynolds  four years later confessed that while evidence in favour of the cancer link was ‘overwhelming’, the evidence against was ‘scant’.  Helmut Wakeham at Philip Morris about this same time drew up a list of dozens of carcinogens in cigarette smoke.  None of this was made public; indeed the tobacco industry throughout this time and for decades thereafter—until the end of the millennium—refused to admit any evidence of harms from smoking.
The result?  Proctor estimates that at current worldwide cancer rates, there is a death from lung cancer every twenty seconds.  90% or more of them would not have occurred had the individual not been a smoker.

1950s pro-smoking advertisement, meant to cast doubt on the link between lung disease and cigarettes [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Appalled?  Then consider, if you will, the parallels between this situation and the current campaign of disinformation and denial being waged by petroleum companies with regards to anthropogenic climate change.

According to an investigative report done by Inside Climate News, in 1978 Exxon launched its own carbon dioxide monitoring program, after reports that scientists were looking at a connection between carbon dioxide levels and global average temperature.  Between 1979 and 1983, Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Phillips, Texaco, Shell, Sunoco, Sohio, Standard Oil of California, and Gulf Oil formed a task force to monitor and share climate research.

And what came out of this joint effort was, at first, an acknowledgement of the problem.  In 1980, Bruce S. Bailey of Texaco made what would be today a mind-boggling statement coming from a petroleum executive: that "an overall goal of the Task Force should be to help develop ground rules for energy release of fuels and the cleanup of fuels as they relate to COcreation."

But they very quickly realized two things; the problem was far bigger than they'd thought, and reducing carbon dioxide release was going to be very bad for business.  Soon, the delegates from the petroleum companies were singing a far different tune.  The CO2 and Climate Change Task Force was renamed the Climate and Energy Task Force, and by 1990 they had formed the Global Climate Coalition -- a lobbying group whose sole purpose was to cast doubt on anthropogenic climate change, and to make certain that the United States government did nothing to curb fossil fuel use.

As a communication between members of the GCC, recently made public by the Inside Climate News report, put it: "Unless 'climate change' becomes a non-issue, meaning that the Kyoto proposal is defeated and there are no further initiatives to thwart the threat of climate change, there may be no moment when we can declare victory for our efforts."

As far as the scientists employed by the oil companies, they certainly knew what was going on.  One, Raymond Campion of Exxon, wrote to colleague J. T. Burgess in 1979 that "warming of the atmosphere... may be noticeable in the next twenty years," and that natural oscillations in weather patterns would "worsen the effect."  They even requested input from the scientists; in 1980 John A. Laurmann of Stanford University was asked to address the members of the GCC, and told them that "the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is projected to double by 2038, [and] would likely lead to a 2.5 degrees Celsius rise in global average temperatures with major economic consequences...  [M]odels show a 5 degrees Celsius rise by 2067, which would result in globally catastrophic effects."

Their response?  To make sure that the information never gained traction beyond the scientists themselves.  Henry Shaw, a scientist at Exxon, said that such information shouldn't become common knowledge because it "may alarm the public unjustifiably."

The result was that until the mid-1990s, most people in the United States had never heard of climate change.  It got out eventually, of course -- but rather than making the fossil fuel industry retreat in disarray, they stepped up their campaign of denial in the media, and made sure that the advisory posts on the subject of energy production and the environment were occupied by pro-industry individuals.  For example, after George W. Bush was inaugurated in 2001, he appointed Philip A. Cooney, a former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, as chief of staff of the Council on Environmental Quality.

Does the phrase "fox in charge of the henhouse" come to mind?  Especially given that when Cooney resigned in 2005 -- after allegedly doctoring reports to cast doubt on scientific consensus on global climate change -- he went to work for ExxonMobil?

And this is the group of people who are still, ten years later, driving climate policy in the United States.  They are still spending millions of dollars in a disinformation campaign, still funding candidates for public office who are unwilling to take away the petroleum industry's carte blanche, and still doing whatever they can to convince us that the last ten years of record-breaking temperatures and insane weather have nothing to do with anthropogenic carbon dioxide.  Jack Gerard, the current president of the American Petroleum Institute, has said that any federal mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is "destructive government interference."

But eventually the "la-la-la-la-la, not listening" stance of our government toward climate scientists will be revealed as what it is -- catastrophic mismanagement by the individuals who were elected to safeguard the citizenry of the United States.  Eventually the climate itself will cast a harsh light on the past forty years of evidence suppression and outright falsehoods.  And if this year is any indication, "eventually" might be coming awfully quickly.

Because this time, we're not talking about people getting cancer because they were misled by unscrupulous tobacco companies who cared more about the profit motive than they did about either public health or the truth.  This time, the stakes are higher.

This time, we are in a game with people who have a proven record of lies, evasions, and half-truths -- and what is being gambled on is the long-term habitability of the Earth.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Parsing political correctness

Haters of political correctness have a new target, and that is the Concerned Students of USD, who are demanding that the powers-that-be at the University of San Diego remove a statue of Father Junípero Serra from campus.  Serra was an 18th century Franciscan monk who founded the first nine Catholic missions in California, in locations from San Diego to San Francisco.  Serra's detractors -- and there are many -- have identified him with the policies of colonialism, conversion, subjugation of Natives, and eradication of pre-existing cultures in favor of Spanish Catholicism.

There are a lot of people speaking up against the move, however.  Nathan Rubbelke, writer for the conservative-leaning online journal The College Fix, was clearly in favor of keeping Serra's statue where it is.  "With his settlement, he converted, baptized and educated thousands of Indians," Rubbelke writes.  [I]n a secular sense, one might see Serra’s mission as colonialism, but that a religious perspective offers a different view."

He goes on to quote USD historian Michael Gonzales, who said that it was unfair to hold Serra responsible for the destruction of the California Native society, because the majority of the deaths were caused by disease.  "While scholars can criticize Serra and the Franciscans for lacking medical training," Gonzales said, "they cannot be held accountable for failing to understand the spread of diseases and microbes."

As you might expect, the truth is more complex than that.

Junípero Serra [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

First of all, it must be pointed out that the University of San Diego is a private Roman Catholic university.  Of course the people in charge there support Serra, who just this year was elevated to sainthood by Pope Francis.  They are starting out from the standpoint that however many Natives ended up dying (for various reasons), Serra was saving their immortal souls by establishing Catholicism in the region, so on balance, he was doing god's work.  It's unsurprising that they want to celebrate the person who was one of the founders of the faith in California.

And as far as the Concerned Students of USD, didn't you notice that you were attending a Catholic school?

That said, Serra's treatment of the Natives wasn't as beneficent as Rubbelke and Gonzales would like us to believe.  A Frenchman, Jean de la Pérouse, was a visitor to the Spanish missions of the 18th century, and was appalled at the way the Natives were being treated:
Corporal punishment is inflicted on the Indians of both sexes who neglect the exercises of piety, and many sins, which are left in Europe to the divine justice, are here punished by iron and stocks.  And lastly, to complete the similtude between this and other religious communities, it must be observed, that the moment an Indian is baptised, the effect is the same as if he had pronounced a vow for life.  If he escape, to reside with his relations in the independent villages, he is summoned three times to return, and if he refuse, the missionaries apply to the governor, who sends soldiers to seize him in the midst of his family, and conduct him to the mission, where he is condemned to receive a certain number of lashes with the whip.
Individuals who escaped more than once were brought back and whipped to death.

Robert Archibald, director of the Western Heritage Center of Billings, Montana, wrote the following as the conclusion of a paper about Serra and the missions in the Journal of San Diego History:
The missions were not agents of intentional enslavement, but rather rapid and therefore violent social and cultural change.  The results were people wrenched from home, tradition and family, subjugated to an alien culture and contradictory values.  Predictably these people did not submit to such treatment voluntarily and force became a necessary concomitant.  The result in many cases was slavery in fact although not in intent.  The principle emerges that decent people whose motives as judged by their own standards are excellent, have frequently violated other people who live by different standards.
Whether you're Catholic or not, it remains to be seen whether anyone should celebrate an individual who was, at least in part, responsible for such atrocities.

There's a difference between political correctness and cultural sensitivity.  A recent article in The Atlantic, "The Coddling of the American Mind," highlights this.  The authors, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, explore how in recent years the expectation that controversial issues be treated even-handedly and with sensitivity has morphed, in many colleges, into a demand that no potentially offensive topics be broached at all:
For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works...  The current movement is largely about emotional well-being...  [I]t presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm.  The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.  And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally.
So the same criticism that was levied earlier against the Concerned Students of USD can be aimed at what the article calls the "trigger warning movement" -- if all you want is to remain comfortable and to have your current beliefs and ideals left unchallenged, why are you in college?  Colleges should be about pushing against your boundaries.  Not to give offense deliberately, mind you; but to encourage you to question your own stance, and to understand more deeply that not everyone sees the world the way you do.  As I tell my Critical Thinking students every year, "You might well leave this class with your beliefs unchanged.  You will not leave with your beliefs unexamined."

The problem is that now any demand for reconsideration of our attitudes toward historical figures is thrown together with what Lukianoff and Haidt call "vindictive protectiveness" -- the implication that any discomfort college students experience is crossing the line into what amounts to the deliberate provocation of PTSD.

The problem is, conflating the two is simply incorrect.  You cannot equate the mindset of hypersensitive college students who expect to glide through life without ever being offended with the expectation that institutions of higher learning adopt a clear-eyed view of history, and a little bit of cultural sensitivity.  Asking an African American student to read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is hardly the same thing as having a bronze statue on campus of a sadistic bigot who thought he was doing god's will by torturing Natives who didn't want to adopt his beliefs.  Dismissing them both as ill-founded "political correctness" is drawing an oversimplified false analogy.

In other words, wrong.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A reason to keep going

This week we are seeing the final installment of the wonderful Washington Post weekly column "What Was Fake On the Internet This Week?"  It's not that the writer, Caitlin Dewey, has run out of material, that a wave of logic and skepticism has swept across the interwebz, rendering her job pointless.

Actually, it's the opposite.  After doing the column for a year and a half, Dewey is feeling defeated.

I understand her despondency, and I won't say I don't feel something of the same myself at times.  Dewey not only feels up against a rising tide of credulous idiocy, but also the inevitable money motive of the clickbait sites -- Now8News, The World News Daily Report, Before It's News, Above Top Secret, Infowars.  These all straddle the line between honest attempts to peddle a viewpoint, however crazy, and a completely pragmatic desire to devise headlines that get people to click the links and activate the advertising revenue it brings.

Dewey writes:
Frankly, this column wasn’t designed to address the current environment.  This format doesn’t make sense.  I’ve spoken to several researchers and academics about this lately, because it’s started to feel a little pointless.  Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.
Pretty hard to argue that point.

I was talking to my son about the problem yesterday evening, and his initial response was to agree with Dewey.  What she -- and I -- are attempting to do largely amounts to what my dad used to call pissing in a rainstorm.  (Had a way with words, my dad.)  But on reconsideration, Nathan said, "Well, think of it this way.  Let's say that of the people who read your blog, 90% are already rationalists and skeptics, and are only reading it for the amusement value, or to validate their own opinions.  That's still 10% for whom the issues are still in play.  How many hits do you get a day?"

"About a thousand, give or take," I said.

"So, that's a hundred people you're reaching every day who still might be convinced.  It's like the swing states in an election.  They may be few in number, but they're the ones whose votes count the most."

Smart kid.  And as he put it, "Having a hundred swing voters a day read your posts isn't too damn bad, when you think about it."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Couple that with an email I got yesterday from a loyal reader, who had the following to say:
Merry Christmas to you and yours, Gordon.  I want to take this opportunity to tell you how much I appreciate the time you put into being a voice of reason in the whirlwind of craziness.  I can't imagine how you keep plugging away at this, but dammit, someone needs to be saying these things.  Kudos to you, and I hope Skeptophilia is around for many more years.
It's not only the personal validation of Fighting The Good Fight that keeps me going; it's knowing that there are people who are still reading, thinking, and talking, and who might in some small way be inspired to keep it up by reading what I write.  Yes, the internet is full of sensationalist trash and clickbait sites; it's an awfully good conduit for bullshit.  But it also links minds from across the world, and I can't help but feel optimistic about that.  As ZestFinance CEO Douglas Merrill put it, "All of us is smarter than any of us."

So if you're reading this, thank you, whether you've come here because you're undecided, come to have your opinions validated, or come to scoff at someone you disagree with.  If you're still reading and thinking, you're doing what you need to do.  Even if there will always be people in the world who renounce logic and reason, there is nothing to be gained by the logical and reasonable amongst us staying silent.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Idiocy one-upmanship

A loyal Skeptophilia reader and frequent commenter sent me a reply to yesterday's post, about the office of Education Committee chair being filled by a creationist chemtrail-believer who thinks that the nation's problems would be solved if church attendance was mandatory.  The message said, in toto, "I see your Sylvia Allen, and raise you a Michele Fiore," followed by a link.

The link was to a story from ThinkProgress called "Nevada Lawmaker Says Cancer is a Fungus, Recommends Simply Washing it Out."  In it, we read about Michele Fiore, who has a weekly radio show, wherein we hear the following:
If you have cancer, which I believe is a fungus, and we can put a pic line into your body and we’re flushing, let’s say, salt water, sodium cardonate [sic], through that line, and flushing out the fungus…  These are some procedures that are not FDA-approved in America that are very inexpensive, cost-effective.
Inexpensive and cost-effective, sure.  But they aren't FDA-approved for a reason, to wit, injecting salt water and sodium carbonate into a cancer patient's pic line would have the unfortunate side effect of death.  Sodium carbonate, also known as washing soda, is a strong base, and is often used in soap manufacture, taxidermy, and as a silver polish.  You wouldn't want to drink the stuff, much less have it injected directly into your bloodstream.

Based on other places she's dispensed such wisdom, apparently she didn't mean sodium carbonate, but sodium bicarbonate.  In other words, baking soda.  Which likewise is perfectly fine for making biscuits, but is not meant to be put in a cancer patient's pic line.

If you're doing repeated facepalms over this, I haven't told you the most appalling part: Fiore served as Majority Leader of the Nevada State Assembly, and would still be in the position if not for her removal a few weeks ago (not for catastrophic stupidity, which at least would have been heartening, but for financial improprieties).  Worse still, up until last month, she was the CEO...

... of a health care company.

Her company, "Always There 4 You," says on its "About" page:
Always There 4 You is a locally-owned and operated business.  It has been serving the community for over 10 years. Your health and safety are secure with us.  If you don't want to worry your family members or trouble them with your daily care.  If you live by yourself and are either elderly or disabled, live a simpler life by getting aid from the kind and friendly staff of Always There 4 You.  We are trained to help you in all sorts of areas, With our in-home healthcare, you can get help with washing, bathing, preparing meals, dressing, taking medication, and doing light housework.  You'll also make great friends and companions!  Make life easier on yourself by getting help from Always There 4 You.
You'll also, apparently, get "sodium cardonate" in your pic line if you get cancer.

Encouragingly, the powers-that-be seem to be on to her, because in November Fiore lost her license to provide health care, and "Always There 4 You" closed.  Fiore was unrepentant, and blames the closure on harassment.  "The never-ending barrage of government red tape and regulations has made being in business not worth being in business," Fiore said, showing once again her knack for articulate exposition.

Oh, but you'll never guess what else!  She's also in favor of murdering refugees, not only here on American soil, but anywhere in the world!  She'll do it herself, in fact:
What, are you kidding me? I'm about to fly to Paris and shoot ‘em in the head myself!  I am not OK with Syrian refugees.  I’m not OK with terrorists.  I’m OK with putting them down, blacking them out, just put a piece of brass in their ocular cavity and end their miserable life.  I’m good with that.
So, think about it.  You've lost your health care license, you were removed as Assembly Majority Leader because of a million dollars in unpaid tax liens, you advocate shooting innocent people in the head, and you give health advice to desperately ill people even though you apparently don't know the difference between sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate.  What do you do?

You run for Congress, of course.

This is, I kid you not, a photograph from Michele Fiore's promotional 2016 calendar.

I would like to say, "Ha ha, I'm just kidding."  I would like even more to say, "Oh, but don't worry, there's no way she'll get elected."  But it's becoming increasingly apparent that you can be completely immoral, and also stupid to the point where it's a wonder you can walk without dragging your knuckles on the ground, and still win the majority of the votes.

So next November, keep your eye on Nevada.  We might just have someone in Congress who will make Louie Gohmert look like a Rhodes Scholar by comparison.

Thursday, December 24, 2015


Here in the United States, we have a fine old tradition of electing people to public office who are entirely unqualified to fulfill their duties.

Several of those have been frequent fliers here at Skeptophilia.  We have Lamar Smith, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, despite being a rabid climate change denier who gets off by finding new and creative ways to cut the budget for NASA.  We have James "Senator Snowball" Inhofe, who somehow ended up in charge of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, even though he calls anthropogenic climate change a "conspiracy" and has vowed to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency.  We have individuals like Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Louie Gohmert, and Rick Brattin, each of whom alone would be sufficient evidence that having an IQ lower than your shoe size is not necessarily an impediment to winning a majority of the votes in an election.

In fact, I'm beginning to think that there's some kind of mathematical rule of politics in which (vote count) x (IQ) = a constant.

So I suppose it should come as no great surprise that this week, Sylvia Allen was appointed to be the chair of the Arizona State Senate Committee on Education.

[image courtesy of photographer Gage Skidmore and the Wikimedia Commons]

Allen's been here before, too.  Regular readers might recall her statement from March of this year, in which she interrupted a hearing on concealed-carry laws to offer the following puzzling insight:
I believe what's happening to our country is that there's a moral erosion of the soul of America.  It's the soul that is corrupt.  How we get back to a moral rebirth I don't know.  Since we are slowly eroding religion at every opportunity that we have.  Probably we should be debating a bill requiring every American to attend a church of their choice on Sunday to see if we can get back to having a moral rebirth.
What this has to do with concealed-carry laws, I have no idea.  Probably Senator Allen doesn't, either.  After all, this is the same woman who posted on Facebook that she believes in chemtrails and weather manipulation:
Ok, I do not want to get into a debate about weather.  However, I know what I see weekly up here on the flat where I live outside of Snowflake.  The planes usely [sic], three or four, fly a grid across the sky and leave long white trails streaming behind them. I have watched the chem-trails move out until the entire sky is covered with flimsy, thin cloud cover.  It is not the regular exhaust coming from the plane it is something they are spraying.  It is there in plain sight.  What is it they are leaving behind that covers the sky? 
Things are happening all around us that we see everyday and just don't get what it is.  I think we throw the "conspiracy theory" at people when we don't understand or have the information they have so we try and explain it that way.  Plus we just don't want to believe that our government would do anything terrible to us.  Well, just a few examples, the IRS attack on the Tea Party, Benghazi, wire taping [sic], Fast and Furious just to name a few and we think that they would not manipulate our weather?
It almost goes without saying that she's also a creationist:
The Earth has been here 6,000 years, long before anybody had environmental laws, and somehow it hasn’t been done away with...  We need to get the uranium here in Arizona, so this state can get the money from it.
And this, dear readers, is the person the Arizona Senate chose to lead the oversight of education in the state.

I keep thinking we're getting to a point where we're wising up, that we're figuring out that when we elect idiots, they (surprise!) do idiotic things.  But I guess we're not done yet.  Sylvia Allen, a woman who not only knows nothing whatsoever about science but is apparently functionally illiterate, is now in charge of such issues as school funding, curriculum oversight, and assessment reform for an entire state.

I'd like to end on a positive note, but I don't see one here.  All I can say in conclusion is that some days, it's hard to remain an optimist.  Lately, I'm more sliding over to the "we deserve everything we get" camp.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Murky waters

Yesterday I ran into the latest completely bogus suggestion from the alternative medicine nuts:

"Hydrogen-rich structured water."

Plain old water, apparently, isn't good enough, we need special water, water that is different by virtue of having lots of properties that make complete sense as long as you failed high school chemistry.

They start off with a bang:
You have probably heard that the human body is two-thirds water. It may surprise you to know that over 99 percent of the molecules in your body are water molecules. So how is it possible that 99 percent of the molecules don’t do anything?  That question inspired leading scientists to put water under a microscope.  What researchers discovered was a fourth phase of water known as structured water.  Meaning, the molecules are structured or ordered for cells to absorb them.
There are only a few problems with this paragraph, to wit:
  • Two-thirds does not equal 99%.
  • The water molecules in your body actually do lots of things, which is why if I took all of the water out of your body, you would die.
  • You can't see water molecules under a microscope.
  • There are actually eleven known phases of water, each of which exists at various ranges of temperature and pressure, as shown on the diagram below:

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So already we're off to a great start, with one of the highest bullshit-to-text ratios I've ever seen.

Then we're told that not only is this product "structured," it's "hydrogen-enriched," so that it is "Powered to flush toxins and waste...  Activated to replicate and convert energy...  Energized for lasting alertness... [and] Optimized for better hydration."

Now, there are two ways they could add hydrogen to water; as hydrogen gas (gases are soluble in water; witness seltzer), or as hydrogen ions.

Neither would be a good idea.

If you add hydrogen gas to water, presumably under pressure (the way they make soda), then when you open the bottle, it'll fizz out, just as the carbon dioxide does when you pop the cap off a beer, which you'll probably need to do to recover from the stress of reading all of this.  The problem is, forcing hydrogen gas into water under pressure and then giving it to an unsuspecting person is problematic, from the standpoint of the fact that hydrogen gas is explosive.

Remember the Hindenburg?

Yeah, that.

Adding the hydrogen in ionic form isn't any better.  When you add hydrogen ions to water, you've created what chemists call an "acid."  The more you add, the more acidic it becomes, and the more the pH of the solution drops.  Plain old lemonade has a pH of about 5 or so, depending on how strong you make it; this corresponds to a hundred-times higher concentration of hydrogen ions than plain water (pH of 7).  Commercial vinegar has a pH of about 3, meaning it has a hundred times higher concentration still (recall that pH is a logarithmic scale; each pH point corresponds to a tenfold change in the hydrogen ion concentration).

So if the hydrogen-enriched water people are right, we should all be drinking vinegar.  Or, better yet, the sulfuric acid from your car battery, which at a pH of about 1 has a million times more hydrogen ions than pure water does.

Healthful stuff, battery acid.  Really "hydrogen-enriched."  It'd certainly flush out the toxins, rather in the way that Drano cleans out the pipes in your kitchen.  I doubt you'd feel all that "activated and optimized" afterwards, however.

Once again, we have a product that is so much snake oil -- water with some minerals added, that is then marketed as the next big thing in health.  The only benefit from this stuff is to the bank accounts of the people who are peddling it.

So there you are.  How to make water even, um, waterier.  Or something.  And how we should all give up on regular old water.

Myself, I'm thinking of switching to scotch.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The right to blaspheme

There is a fundamental difference between criticizing an idea and criticizing a person.

Ideas stand or fall based upon their consonance with the known evidence.  If I believe that aliens have abducted my dogs and replaced them with synthetic life-forms so they can spy on me, that statement is either true or false, and presumably should be resolvable by applying a little science and logic.

Okay, that's a facile example, and I recognize that; but honestly, any statement someone makes can be treated that way.  If you are making a claim about the way the world works, that claim is testable.  More importantly, testing the claim requires that we criticize it, push and prod at it and see where its weaknesses (if any) lie.  If certain realms are made off-limits to criticism, the result is that their truth value can't be analyzed.  They have to be accepted on faith alone -- i.e., without question, whether or not the evidence you have agrees or disagrees.

Which is why British MP Keith Vaz's declaration of support for anti-blasphemy laws is so wildly wrong-headed.

In a discussion over anti-Muslim statements on media, Miqdaad Versi, Assistant Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, said, "Muslim communities need to be able to respond to accusations [against] Muslims, or against the Prophet, in a more effective way... Whether there should be legislation is something that really is a more complicated question."

Vaz, in response to Versi's comments, went further.  "I have no problem with the re-introduction of anti-blasphemy laws in the UK," Vaz said. "Religions are very special to people.  And therefore I have no objection to [a blasphemy law] … but it must apply equally to everybody.  If there were to be new blasphemy laws, it should apply to all religions.  If we have laws, they should apply to everybody...  If somebody brings it forward in parliament I'll vote for it… Obviously it depends what's in the bill. But I have no objection to it being brought before parliament and having a debate about it."

Which is a dangerous step toward the type of repression of free speech you see in so many places in the world -- the end result of which is a dictatorship like Saudi Arabia, where you can be sentenced to death by beheading for "offending the prophet."  Or, in the case of poet Ashraf Fayadh, simply for bringing to light the government's determination to keep a stranglehold on all forms of free speech.

Don't get me wrong.  Ridiculing people's dearly-held beliefs isn't nice.  But once you start legislating which ideas are off-limits for ridicule, where do you stop?  Is all satire forbidden?  Do all religions fall equally under the hands-off policy?  (That seems to be what Vaz intends, but if you look around the world, it seldom works out that way in practice.)  What about other dearly-held beliefs?  What if someone is a passionate believer in astrology?  Or spirit survival?

Do we really want to try to figure out which ideas merit protection from criticism, and which do not?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Religious claims are, at their basis, no different than any other claim.  By suggesting that we set them aside from criticism, we are making an imaginary distinction, and then trying to legislate behavior regarding which side of the distinction some statement falls.

Note, however, that I'm not talking about true hate speech, in which people or groups are threatened or insulted.  Here, we're talking about ideas.  And in the realm of ideas, free speech has to trump "niceness."  While I might not like it if someone ridicules my atheism (for example), making such speech illegal is the first step down a very troubling path.

I'll end with a quote by one of my favorite writers -- someone more people in our modern, offense-phobic society should read:

Monday, December 21, 2015

There were giants in the Earth

So our conspiracy theory of the day is: the US government is hiding living giant humanoids to create a race of hybrid super-soldiers.

This, at least, is the contention of one Steven Quayle, who in a video that (should you have fifteen minutes and are not otherwise occupied) you definitely should watch.  The opening shows Quayle, interspersed with science fiction movie clips and backed up by atmospheric music, delivering the following scary lines:
I believe that the big lie that is going to be placed, hoist [sic] upon the world, is that the aliens created mankind... Most people do not understand the evil.  Most people can't even embrace the fact that this isn't about old bones.  When I say mind-blowing, it will also be heart-freeing.  If I start talking about fallen angels having sex with Earth women, they snicker.  Well, that snicker tells me they've already made up their minds.  The super-soldier program is one of the most, well, almost unbelievable, yet so believable, programs that the US military is involved in.
Further along in the video, Quayle assures us that he doesn't believe in alien overlords.  Nope.  That would be ridiculous.  The Annunaki, he says, aren't aliens, they're fallen angels.

Which is ever so much more believable.

Worse yet, they're still around.  "They [the scientists] are starting from the premise that all of the giants are gone.  We're starting from the premise that there are modern-day giants now, and they're not suffering from acromegaly or some pituitary disorder, but they're literally going to fulfill the biblical statement of Matthew 24 where Jesus says, 'Just as in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the coming of the Son of Man.'"

The whole thing, Quayle says, is a "multi-thousand-year cover up."

Then, of course, the Smithsonian comes up, because no discussion of archaeological conspiracies would be complete without the Smithsonian being involved.

"It's interesting, Tim," Quayle said to the interviewer.  "There's evidence of the bias of the Smithsonian, and their contempt for out-of-place artifacts -- every time giant bones were found, it didn't matter if it was on the West Coast, the Arctic, the Antarctic believe it or not, the East Coast, the Ohio River Mounds, they always have a fabulous cutoff point, being once the Smithsonian is notified, and those bones are sent to the Smithsonian, they're never heard from again."

A giant skeleton in Brazil, or a clever example of Photoshop, depending on which version you go for

"The point has been to keep this biblically-relevant topic out of the minds of the people," Quayle adds.

Why, you might be asking, would the Smithsonian -- and other scientific research agencies -- go to all of this trouble?  After all, careers are made from spectacular discoveries like these.  If the bones were real, not to mention the Annunaki, you'd think that archeologists would be elbowing each other out of the way to be the first to publish these findings in a reputable journal.

The reason, of course, is that the government is intimidating the scientists into silence so that they can keep secret the fact that these giant dudes are still around, and are being used in sinister genetics experiments to create a race of human/giant super-soldiers.

Shoulda known.

Quayle also tells us that he won't appear on camera unless he gets the final say on video and audio edits, and that "No one has been willing to agree to that."  Which makes it kind of odd that he's on camera telling us that.  And that he now has his own video production company and has videos on YouTube.

Of course, he might have been right to avoid the spotlight.  He says he's afraid for his life, that he's being followed by the Men in Black.

"I'll be lucky not to be killed one day.  People have disappeared, Tim.  People who know about this, who have evidence."

And once again, we could convince ourselves that all we have is a lone wacko with access to recording equipment -- until you start reading the comments, of which I will give you a mercifully short sampling:
  • People say that it takes place in the future. But I think it takes place in the past. The year is 800 after all. And it seems to have the message that you can't beat the titans without mixing with them. Rendering man almost extinct. No wonder Noah and his sons were the only real men left.
  • Do you guys feel the Neanderthals are a creation of fallen angels?
  • They are from the Nephilim thats why Neanderthal DNA has only entered the human gene pool through men and why Neanderthal DNA is the source of being white. Enoch 105 says the children born to fallen angels were white. Anakim were white blonde giants, Amorites were white Red heads and some were giants, then the Horites were normal sized white hairy cave men with brow ridges. Thats why Hitler thought if he just got enough blondes to have children, sooner or later they would get a superman. 
  • there's stones thousands of years old talking about the ANANANAKI
So there you have it.  Giant Anananaki (if I've counted the "Na's" correctly) being hidden by the government so they can have lots of sex with Earth women, who will give birth to a race of immortal super-soldiers, as hath been prophesied in the scripture.

You'd think, though, that if the US has had this super-soldier program for decades (as Quayle alleges), they'd have brought 'em out by now.  Just think what a race of super-soldiers could do about, for example, ISIS.   So my scoffing doesn't mean that I don't think that ferocious giant half-human, half-fallen-angel dudes wouldn't be useful.

It's more that I think Quayle and his followers have a screw loose.

But that's just me.  And if I end up being taken prisoner by a troop of white hairy cave men with brow ridges and used in sinister scientific experiments, I suppose it'll serve me right.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

All I want for Christmas is a Death Asteroid

So it's December, which means it's time for Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Our Fellow Humans, and Death Asteroids.

I'm not sure what it is about this time of year that brings out the fatalism in so many.  You might recall that the Mayan Apocalypse, for example, was scheduled on December 21, 2012, prompting mass panic amongst the woo-woos until December 22 rolled around and it became apparent that contrary to popular expectation, the world had failed to end on schedule.

It's disappointing when you can't even count on an apocalypse to show up on time.

In any case, this year, the End of the World is going to be brought about by an asteroid with the euphonious name 2003 SD220, which is scheduled to make a near pass to Earth on Christmas Eve.

2003 SD220 [image courtesy of JPL]

Well, near, that is, in the sense of "11 million kilometers away," which is 28 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon.  So we're talking "near" in the astronomical sense, just as geologists consider anything under about 50,000 years old "recent," even though 50,000 years seems like a long time even for someone as old as I am.  But such sensible and soothing words have not had the least effect on the woo-woos, who are jumping about making panicked little squeaking noises about how the asteroid is going to kill us all, notwithstanding the fact that all of the previous Ends of the World they predicted have not, technically, happened.

The asteroid is 2.5 kilometers across and is moving five miles per second, which is a pretty good clip for something that large.  But from there, irrational fear takes over and logic goes right out the window.  It will be close enough, we are told, that its gravitational pull will cause us to experience deadly tsunamis, earthquakes, and the eruption of dormant volcanoes.  And that's if it doesn't actually impact the Earth directly, which would be an "extinction-level event."

Never mind that there are plenty of mountains on the Earth that are 2.5 kilometers tall, and their gravitational pull doesn't cause tsunamis etc.  And they're a hell of a lot closer than 2003 SD220 will ever get.

But maybe it's because it's traveling so fast.  Maybe by some new and undiscovered type of physics, moving fast makes something's gravitational pull increase.  I dunno.

So NASA, who must be really fucking sick and tired of people who don't understand science getting everyone stirred up every couple of months, issued a statement.  Paul Chodas, manager of the Near-Earth Object Office of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the following:
There is no scientific basis -- not one shred of evidence -- that an asteroid or any other celestial object will impact Earth on those dates. 
In fact, NASA's Near-Earth Object Observations Program says there have been no asteroids or comets observed that would impact Earth anytime in the foreseeable future.  All known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids have less than a 0.01% chance of impacting Earth in the next 100 years. 
The Near-Earth Object office at JPL is a key group involved with the international collaboration of astronomers and scientists who keep watch on the sky with their telescopes, looking for asteroids that could do harm to our planet and predicting their paths through space for the foreseeable future. If there were any observations on anything headed our way, we would know about it. 
If there were any object large enough to do that type of destruction... we would have seen something of it by now.
Can't you just hear the annoyed sighing that went along with his writing this?

But of course, that statement had exactly the opposite effect from what Chodas wanted.  If NASA was saying the asteroid is harmless, that must mean they're covering something up.  It must be deadly.  It must, in fact...

... be four times the size of Jupiter.

And yes, there are people who are seriously claiming that.

Why haven't we seen it yet, if it's so big, is something of a mystery.  After all, we can see Jupiter itself just fine, and it's currently 57,000 times further away than the asteroid is.

Maybe the asteroid is made of dark matter.  Makes as much sense as anything else these people say.

As for me, I'm not worried.  2003 SD220 is going to be far enough away that it won't be visible without a pretty good telescope, which is actually kind of disappointing.  So on Christmas Eve, I'll be nestled up all snug in my bed, and I sure as hell won't have visions of Death Asteroids dancing through my head.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The evolution of the anti-evolutionists

Sometimes I see a piece of scientific research that is so brilliant, so elegant, all I can do is sit back in awestruck appreciation.

Such was my reaction to Nicholas J. Matzke's paper in Science this week entitled, "The Evolution of Antievolution Policies after Kitzmiller v. Dover."  And if you're wondering... yes, he did what it sounds like.

He used the techniques of evolutionary biology to show how anti-evolution policy has undergone descent with modification.

I read the paper with a delighted, and somewhat bemused, grin, blown away not only by how well it worked, but how incredibly clever the idea was.  What Matzke did was to analyze the text of all of the dozens of bills proposed since 2004 that try to shoehorn religious belief into the public school science classroom, and generate a phylogenetic tree for them -- in essence, a diagram summarizing how they are related to each other, and how they have changed.

In other words, a cladistic tree of evolutionary descent.

"Creationism is getting stealthier in the wake of legal defeats, but techniques from the study of evolution reveal how creationist legislation is evolving," Matzke said in an interview.  "It is one thing to say that two bills have some resemblances, and another thing to say that bill X was copied from bill Y with greater than 90 percent probability.  I do think this research strengthens the case that all of these bills are of a piece—they are all ‘stealth creationism,’ and they all have either clear fundamentalist motivations, or are close copies of bills with such motivations."

"They are not terribly intelligently designed," Matzke added.  "Some of the bills don’t make sense, they’ve been copied from another state and changed without thought."

He linked the bills to each other by doing statistical analysis of patterns in the text, much as evolutionary biologists use patterns in the DNA of related organisms, and arranged them into a cladistic tree using the "principle of maximum parsimony," which (simply put) is the arrangement that requires you to make the least ad hoc assumptions.

So without further ado, here is Matzke's tree linking 65 different, but related, pieces of legislation:

In particular, he was able to show where the documents incorporated language from a 2006 anti-evolution proposal in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, and how subsequent generations had pieces of it remaining, often -- dare I say -- mutated, but still recognizable.

"Successful policies have a tendency to spread," Matzke said. "Every year, some states propose these policies, and often they are only barely defeated.  And obviously, sometimes they pass, so hopefully this article will help raise awareness of the dangers of the ongoing situation."

So when there are iterations that are better fit to the environment, in the sense that they went further in the court systems before being defeated or (hard though this is to fathom) were actually approved, the anti-evolutionists passed those versions around to other states, while less-successful models were outcompeted and become extinct.

There's a name for that process, isn't there?  Give me a moment, I'm sure it'll come to me.

Okay, it's not that I think this paper will make much difference amongst the creationists and supporters of intelligent design.  They don't spend much time reading Science, I wouldn't suppose.  But even so, this is a coup -- using the techniques of cladistic analysis to illustrate the relationships between bills designed to force public school students to learn that cladistic analysis doesn't work.

I can't help but think that Darwin would be proud. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Deconstructing Wah!

Yesterday, I received a mailing from The Omega Institute, of Rhinebeck, New York, suggesting that I might be interested in taking some of their classes.

Frankly, I suspect that I'd last six hours there before security guards escorted me off the premises for guffawing at the staff.  I first started receiving mailings from them because I was interested in their writing intensives, but (as I found out on my first perusal of their catalog) at least half of their offerings are seriously woo-woo.  One I particularly enjoyed reading about is the use of music in healing, taught by a woman named Wah! (The exclamation point is not me being emphatic; it's part of her name.)  What would possess someone to change her name to Wah! is a mystery in and of itself, but I did go to her website and listen to some of her music, and what I heard seemed to fall into the Overwrought, Therapy-Session-Gone-Horribly-Wrong School of Music.  I didn't find it particularly healing, myself, but maybe the point was that it was healing to her -- I don't honestly know.

A more interesting example, however, are the workshops offered by a fellow named John Perkins that claim to teach you how to shape-shift.  From the description of one of these workshops:
We have entered a time prophesied by many cultures for shapeshifting into higher consciousness.  Polynesian shamans shapeshift through oceans, Amazon warriors transform into anacondas, and Andean birdpeople and Tibetan monks bilocate across mountains.  These shamans have taught John Perkins that shapeshifting - the ability to alter form at will - can be used to create positive change.
Well, okay. I'm willing to accept that some Amazonian shamans believed that they could become anacondas.  I'm also all too willing to accept that certain other, fairly gullible, Amazonian natives believed that the shamans were becoming anacondas.  

But this demands the question, doesn't it, of whether they actually are becoming anacondas.  Some of the disciples of the woo-woo will respond with something like, "reality is what you think it is."  Which works just fine until reality in the form of a baseball bat wallops you in the forehead, at which point you can think it doesn't exist, you can in fact think that you're an Andean birdperson, but what you really will be is a confused, non-Andean, ordinary person with a concussion and a big old dent in your head.

It is amazing the lengths to which the woo-woos of the world will go to support their beliefs.  My wife Carol, in her nursing program, had to take a course in "alternatives to traditional medicine."  Her own take on this was that if it had been about the role of belief in the efficacy of medicine, that would have been fine; but they didn't stop there.  They started out with therapies for which there is at least some experimental support (such as acupuncture) and from there took a flying leap out into the void, landing amongst such ridiculous and discredited ideas as homeopathy, chakras, and healing through crystal energies.  This last one led to a spectacle that was (according to Carol) acutely embarrassing to watch, wherein the teacher held a crystal hanging from a string over a volunteer's head, to show that the crystal could pick up the volunteer's "life energy" and begin to swing of its own volition.  There was no response from the crystal (surprise!!!) for some minutes, while the volunteer (who was probably seriously regretting raising his hand) and the students in the audience sat fidgeting and looking at each other.  Then, after about ten minutes, the crystal moved.  Hallelujah!  The theory is vindicated!

All of which once again brings up the subject of confirmation bias, a cognitive bias that we here at Skeptophilia have seen all too often.  Basically, if you've already decided on your conclusion, you only pay attention to any evidence (however minuscule) that confirms your idea, and everything else is ignored.  Any movement of the crystal had to be due to the subject's "energy field" -- other hypotheses (such as that the teacher's arm was getting a bit tired after holding the crystal up there for ten minutes, and he moved his hand a little, causing the crystal to swing) are not even acknowledged.

You see what you want to see.  And, if you're lucky, you get to make a bunch of poor college students sit there while you're doing it.

So far, I am sounding awfully self-confident, as I have a tendency to do.  But if I'm being totally honest, I have to look at my own ideas in the same light.  One of the great myths of the last hundred years is, I think, that somehow everyone is biased except for the scientists -- that the scientists have this blinding clarity of vision, that they are objective and unbiased and therefore have cornered the market on truth.  

While there are probably scientists who believe this, the truth of the matter is that most scientists are well aware of their biases.  We skeptics, too, see what we want to see.  

First, we have to believe that the scientific way of knowing leads us closer to the truth -- which statement, of course, you can't prove.  Furthermore, if you're a researcher, you're not approaching a question with a completely open mind; you already have (at least to some extent) figured out what you think is going on, and so when you design your measurement equipment and your experimental protocol, you do so in a way to find what you think it is that you're going to find.  If there's something else going on, you might not even see it unless you're extraordinarily lucky.  Perhaps that's why serious paradigm shifts have so often happened because of some random piece of evidence, from an unexpected source, that someone (often by accident) notices.  It's how Kepler found out that planetary orbits are elliptical; it's how plate tectonics was discovered; it's how penicillin was discovered.

Science doesn't proceed by clear, logical little steps, by people adding brick after brick to an edifice whose plan is already well known and laid out on the table.  Like most of the other things in this world, it proceeds by jerky fits and starts, false turns, and backtracking.  The "scientific method" no more explains how we've accrued the knowledge we have than "life energies" explain the movement of a crystal hanging from a string.

So then, why am I a skeptic?  Why don't I just go and join Wah! and John Perkins?  (Just think, I could come up with a pretentious single syllable name with a punctuation mark, too!  I think I'd be "Huh?")  For me, the single strength of science as a world view is its ability to self-correct.  You claim that plate tectonics exists?  Okay -- anyone with the equipment, time, and inclination can go out there and verify the evidence themselves.  If an experiment is not found to be repeatable (such as the "cold fusion" debacle), it's not explained away with some foolishness like "the energy fields were being interfered with by the chakras of your aura" -- the whole idea is simply abandoned.  The procedures, equipment, and outcomes are out there for peer review, and if they are found wanting, the theory is modified, altered, or scrapped entirely.

Try that with the healing energy of music.  I bet if several of you were sick, and I played some of Wah!'s music for you, some of you would get better.  Some of you might get sicker.  (I suspect I'd be in the latter category.)  And for those of you who got well, how could we be certain that it was the music that was responsible?  Because Wah! says so?  Because the idea that music could have a healing energy appeals to you?  If I've learned anything in my fifty-five years on this planet, it's that there seems to be no connection between ideas I find appealing and ideas that are true.

If anything, the opposite seems to be the case.  I know I'd love it if Bigfoot and aliens were real, faster-than-light travel was not only possible but easy, and I could do magic à la Harry Potter.  Unfortunately, thus far I'm batting zero on all that stuff.

Anyhow, as usual, I've probably pissed off large quantities of people who are into homeopathy, crystal energies, numerology, astrology, faith healing, and so on.  But I'm reminded of a quote from (of all people) C. S. Lewis, whose wonderful character Mr. MacPhee said in That Hideous Strength, "If anything wants Andrew MacPhee to believe in its existence, I'll be obliged if it will present itself in full daylight, with a sufficient number of witnesses present, and not get shy if you hold up a camera or a thermometer."

To which I say, "hear, hear."  On the other hand, if I get visited tonight by an anaconda, I suppose it will serve me right.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Happy Xmas, the war is over

We have a lot of issues facing us as a nation.  How to keep the economy on track, including what to do about revitalizing cities with crumbling infrastructures and sky-high crime rates.  How to reform the health care system, the education system, and the prison system in a responsible and forward-thinking fashion.  What do to about the current volatile world situation, including our stance toward Russia, China, and the Middle East.

In such times, legislators have their work cut out for them.  Many of these problems are damn near intractable; any one of them would be a difficult puzzle for our best and brightest.

So it's no wonder that, given the desperate need our country has for sound leadership, last week three dozen members of the House of Representatives turned their attention to...

... the War on Christmas.

Sadly, I'm not making this up.  Representative Doug Lamborn of Colorado joined with 35 other representatives to sponsor HR 564, "Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected for use by those who celebrate Christmas."  Here, in toto, is what the resolution says:
Whereas Christmas is a national holiday celebrated on December 25; and 
Whereas the Framers intended that the First Amendment of the Constitution, in prohibiting the establishment of religion, would not prohibit any mention of religion or reference to God in civic dialog: Now, therefore, be it 
Resolved, That the House of Representatives— 
(1) recognizes the importance of the symbols and traditions of Christmas; 
(2) strongly disapproves of attempts to ban references to Christmas; and

(3) expresses support for the use of these symbols and traditions by those who celebrate Christmas.
Yup.  That's how I want our government leaders spending their taxpayer-funded time on the job.

You know, maybe I and others of my stripe have not made this clear enough.  So if anyone who believes in the "War on Christmas" is reading this, put on your glasses and get right up close to your monitor, 'cuz I'm gonna make this as clear as I know how.





Okay, I'll stop yelling.  But really.  This is getting idiotic.  From the way these people talk, you'd swear that we atheists are proposing carpet-bombing Whoville.  Okay, there may exist atheists who would make a big deal out of being told "Merry Christmas," insisting that everyone telepathically absorb the information about what greeting they prefer without being told, and taking horrific offense if people don't do so.

[image courtesy of photographer David Singleton and the Wikimedia Commons]

But you know what?  These people (1) are few in number, and (2) are not doing this because they are atheists, they are doing this because they are assholes.  These people would still be assholes if they were devout Christians.  If they were Christians, they would be the type of people...

... who think that everyone who is different than they are is waging a "War on Christmas."

The point is, most people, atheist and religious alike, are perfectly content to live and let live, and only get twitchy when important little pieces of the Constitution like "separation of church and state" are openly flouted.

So there you have it: congressional priorities.  My own opinion is that instead of worrying about a War on Christmas, we as a nation should be more concerned about the War on Intelligence, in which, to judge by the majority of our leaders, Intelligence appears to be losing.  All of which brings to mind the quote by Joseph de Maistre:  "A democracy is the form of government in which everyone has a voice, and therefore in which the people get exactly the government they deserve."