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.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

Dear readers,

I'm going on a short break from Skeptophilia.  Next week, I'm heading down to Fayetteville, Arkansas to meet the fine people of Oghma Creative Media.  We'll be discussing the release on April 14 of my latest novel, Kill Switch, through Oghma's Fleet Press imprint.

Kill Switch will be available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other bookstores, and will be available both in print and for Kindle or Nook.  But what's it about, you might be asking?

Mild-mannered high school teacher Chris Franzia comes home on the last day of school to find two FBI agents waiting for him in his driveway.  They tell him that there's been a string of murders in the past month, and the only commonality is that all of the victims were in a particular graduate class at the University of Washington thirty years earlier.

And Chris is likely to be the next one in the gunsight.

After two near misses convince Chris that the FBI men were telling the truth, he flees on a cross-country race against time, trying to stay one step ahead of an invisible, implacable enemy who is tracking his every move.  The problem is... Chris has no idea why they're after him.  But figuring that out is now literally a matter of life or death.

So check it out when it hits the shelves.  It is, in the words of one reviewer, "a conspiracy theorist's wet dream."

One other bit of news:  a friend of mine has started a Secular Services Directory, a site that acts as a clearinghouse for businesses that are secularist/atheist friendly.  Here's the gist of it, from their "About" page:
This national directory is the brainchild of a couple who are both long-standing secularists.  Over the years, we’ve encountered ignorance, misunderstanding, and even prejudice in seeking out services that support our values.  We’ve often wished that there was a resource to identify businesses that operate on a basis of critical thinking and rationality.  For years we’ve joked that it seems just about every affinity group out there has its own directory, except us. 
Until one day we had the thought, “Why don’t we just build one ourselves?”  So we did.  Welcome! 
Now, there are a lot of settings where a person’s religious or spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof) don’t really come into play.  For instance, whether or not our grocer or the gas station on the corner operates along secular lines doesn’t really matter to us. 
But for more personal services where we’re most vulnerable — medical care, legal advice, mental health counseling, and so on — we want to feel secure that we don’t have to deal with proselytizing or judgment on top of the needs we’re trying to meet.
We hope you find value in what we’re creating, and welcome any support or assistance you feel moved to offer.
So I hope you'll visit their site, and if you own a business, that you'll register it with them.  At the very least, you can give their Facebook page a "like."

Thanks again to all of my loyal readers for visiting Skeptophilia and for your support and positive comments.  I'll be back on Monday, April 6 with more news from a skeptical view.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Modern-day Caligulas

Is it just me, or do a lot of high-profile members of the evangelical wing of Christianity seem to have lost their minds lately?

I mean, it's not like they haven't been saying some odd things for a while.  Pat Robertson, for example -- who at this point must be what, 148 years old? -- has been entertaining us for as long as I can remember.  But now we've got apparently insane hyper-Christians, many of whom have been elected to public office, making statements that under normal circumstances would qualify a person for medical supervision.

First we have Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, signing into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which "prohibits state or local governments from substantially burdening a person's ability to exercise their religion — unless the government can show that it has a compelling interest and that the action is the least-restrictive means of achieving it."  All of which sounds pretty innocuous until you realize that what prompted the bill was a series of cases in which Christian-owned businesses wanted government protection for their decision not to serve gays and lesbians.

Making it clear that this was what the bill was about, Eric Miler of Advance America said about the bill's passage, "It is vitally important to protect religious freedom in Indiana.  It was therefore important to pass Senate Bill 101 in 2015 in order to help protect churches, Christian businesses and individuals from those who want to punish them because of their Biblical beliefs!"

And despite this, Governor Pence swears that the RFRA has nothing to do with discriminating against LGBT people.  "This is not about discrimination," he said, in a press conference.

The state is already beginning to experience a backlash.  Supporters of non-discrimination policies have begun pulling out of Indiana, most dramatically the software company Salesforce, which operates a S&P 500 corporation headquartered in Indianapolis.  "We have been an active member of the Indiana business community and a key job creator for more than a decade," Scott McCorkle, CEO of the Salesforce Marketing Cloud division, wrote in a letter to Indiana lawmakers. "Our success is fundamentally based on our ability to attract and retain the best and most diverse pool of highly skilled employees, regardless of gender, religious affiliation, ethnicity or sexual orientation.  Without an open business environment that welcomes all residents and visitors, Salesforce will be unable to continue building on its tradition of marketing innovation in Indianapolis."

But what Pence and the Indiana state legislature has done is sane compared with what we're hearing from other right-wing Christian elected officials.  How about Senator Sylvia Allen, a member of the State Senate of Arizona, who last week proposed a way to fix the problems in the United States: mandatory church attendance.

In a debate over laws governing carrying concealed weapons, Senator Allen suddenly made the following statement, which should be an odds-on contender for the 2015 Non Sequitur Award:
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 does that have to do with concealed-carry laws?  I have no idea.  Neither, apparently, did the rest of the senate, who just sort of sat there staring at Senator Allen with their mouths hanging open.

Then we have State Representative Gordon Klingenschmitt of Colorado, who on his television show Pray in Jesus's Name commented upon a brutal attack on a pregnant woman that occurred earlier this month, and said that the attack had happened because of the "curse of God upon America for the legalization of abortion."  Worse, still, when people reacted with outrage to Klingenschmitt's statement, he informed us that he has the right to say any damn thing he wants to, because, you know, 'Murica.
I'm against evil and I'm in favor of good. If other people are offended by the Bible, that's okay, they don't have to agree with me or come to my church or watch my TV show.  It's a free country.  If you're offended because I quote the bible in church, I ask you to forgive me but I will not apologize for quoting the Bible in church.  If the government is now going to step into my church on Sunday and say "oh, you're not allowed to do that because you are an elected official," I would ask people to take a step back and think about how the government should be protecting your freedom of worship on Sunday and maybe cut me a little slack.
Then we had a war of words between conservative Idaho State Representative Paul Shepherd and a LGBT activist named Dylan Hailey.  Shepherd had forgotten to renew his subscription to the website domain name, so Hailey bought it and converted it to a website describing the struggles of LGBT individuals in Idaho.

Well, Shepherd wasn't going to take that lying down.  In an interview with Melissa Dalvin of Idaho Reports, Shepherd made an analogy that "WTF?" doesn't even quite cover:  "Slave owners were very good Christians and good people," Shepherd said.  "They weren't terrible, rotten, horrible people.  And that's how I see gay people."

And it wasn't just the elected officials.  It appears that because of a byzantine rule regarding the way proposals for laws work in California, an attorney named Matthew McLaughlin may be in position to force lawmakers to consider a bill called the "Sodomite Suppression Act."  Here's an excerpt:
Seeing that it is better that offenders should die rather than that all of us should be killed by God's just wrath against us for the folly of tolerating wickedness in our midst, the People of California wisely command, in the fear of God, that any person who willingly touches another person of the same gender for purposes of sexual gratification be put to death by bullets to the head or by any other convenient method.
Now, nobody thinks that this bill has a chance of passing -- it's doubtful if even people like Klingenschmitt and Shepherd would vote for something like this.  But just the very fact that it's under consideration is terrifying.

You know, the whole thing makes me think about the Roman Empire.  It worked pretty well for a while, you know?  Then all of a sudden, you had people like Caligula having his horse elected to the Senate and ordering his armies to whip the ocean because he wanted to teach the god Neptune a lesson, Nero singing songs in praise to himself while watching people being burned alive, and Elagabalus, who made up his own religion revolving around the idea that prostitution was holy, and killed anyone who refused to join it.

Actually, I hope I'm wrong, here.  Because once the Roman Empire more-or-less imploded, the whole place was overrun by barbarians, and that wasn't much better.  So let's hope we can replace our own modern-day Caligulas with people who are interested in sensible governance.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Divine message recognition module

Superstition in general leaves me a bit mystified.  As long as I can remember, I've never understood how people can believe in good luck charms and actions that will curse you to its opposite, or that some purely natural phenomenon is a sign from god... or a message from his infernal counterpart.

This is why I responded with frank bafflement at people's reaction to the photograph that went viral this week in the aftermath of the tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma.

The photo was reposted tens of thousands of times on social media, usually with messages like, "God is with us even in difficult times!" and "Praise the Lord!  He is here!"  This elicited two main questions in my mind:  (1) Aren't telephone poles always shaped like a cross?  And (2) if the Almighty wanted to send the people of Oklahoma a sign of his presence, wouldn't it have been more considerate to do it without smashing the shit out of the town first?

This last question is especially pertinent, given that Moore has been hit by tornadoes seven times in the past twenty years, with the ones in 1999 and 2013 being particularly devastating (the tornado in 1999 cut a 38-mile-long swath of destruction, and resulted in the highest windspeed ever measured on the Earth's surface -- 301 miles per hour).  So my guess is that given the choice between receiving a cross-shaped sign from god, and not being blasted to smithereens by a tornado again, most of the citizens of Moore would choose the latter.

So I found people's responses to the photograph pretty perplexing.  Of course, I had the same reaction to the kerfuffle over the cross-shaped chunks left in the wreckage after 9/11:

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Because, after all, this is what the intersection of two girders looks like.  But this one resulted in a war of words between people who wanted to clear away the debris and people who saw this as a holy message from god and wanted it left as-is.  In the end, it was installed on a pedestal at Ground Zero, and has become an object of devotion by the religious.

[image courtesy of photographer Samuel Li and the Wikimedia Commons]

Once again, I find this kind of incomprehensible.  You'd think if god wanted to send a sign to the faithful, a bunch of writing in the sky an hour earlier saying "THERE ARE CRAZIES WHO HAVE HIJACKED AIRPLANES AND ARE ON THE WAY TO DESTROY THE WORLD TRADE CENTER, GET OUT NOW!" would have been more to the point.

Note that this is a completely separate question from the question of whether an all-powerful deity exists in the first place.  My only point here is that if there is a deity, then leaving behind cross-shaped debris after something has wreaked destruction, ruin, and death is a pretty peculiar way to communicate with his followers.

On the other hand, I guess if it brings people solace after a tragedy, there's some benefit to it.  It's better than despair, after all.  But while I went through times in my life when I desperately wanted to believe in the supernatural -- during my teens and early twenties, I was pretty much constantly casting about for evidence of such phenomena -- the whole "Sign from God" thing never made sense to me.  Which is probably why it used to piss me off no end in English Lit classes when the teacher would tell us that in chapter 3, the Clouds In The Western Sky were foreshadowing the horrible events that would unfold for the Main Character And His Doomed Lover in chapter 7.  "Oh, come on," I recall thinking.  "They're clouds.  As in big blobs of condensed water droplets.  They don't give a rat's ass about the Main Character And His Doomed Lover."

Nor, I suspect, does the broken telephone pole in Moore, Oklahoma have anything to do with a divine message.  It's a striking photograph, yes, but no more than that, especially given that telephone poles are already more-or-less shaped that way.

Or maybe I'm just missing the Divine Message Recognition Module in my brain.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Hydra heads and creation museums

Apparently having one Creation Museum in the United States (in Glen Rose, Texas) wasn't sufficient.  So in 2007, a bigger and better one opened in Petersburg, Kentucky.  Then those museums started having some financial problems due to declining attendance, with projects like the infamous "Ark Encounter" being put on hold because of loss of revenue.  So clearly, there was only one possible solution.

Build yet another Creation Museum.

This is getting ridiculous.  Fighting these things is becoming a little like trying to lop off the heads of a really stupid Hydra.

This one is in Boise, Idaho, which certainly makes sense, site-wise.  Boise is the capital of Idaho, a state where over 80% of citizens are Christians, where last month a group introduced a proposal to have Idaho officially declared a "Christian state," where just two weeks ago three legislators boycotted an invocation given in the Senate because it was delivered by a Hindu.

So I have no doubt that yet another expensive boondoggle meant to celebrate a completely counterfactual and unscientific view of biological and geological science will turn out to be wildly popular.

At least, that's the hope of Douglas Bennett, who is one of the museum's founders, and who is (mystifyingly) a trained geologist.  How someone who has a degree in geology can actually subscribe to the idea that all of the Earth's sedimentary rocks were laid down by one cataclysmic flood five-thousand-odd years ago is beyond me.  You'd think that the single question, "Where did all of the water go afterwards?" would be sufficient to raise questions for anyone with scientific training, wouldn't you?

Of course, if the rain was magicked down by god, maybe it was magicked away again.  Or maybe there's a big floor drain at the bottom of the ocean.  I dunno.

Be that as it may, what perhaps sets this museum apart from the others its that for each exhibit, there will be the biblical explanation side-by-side with the explanation that comes from actual science.  "The museum is dedicated to the fact that creation science can explain the evidence we see in the world around us and that it is not just religion," Bennett said. "Because we feel we don't have anything to hide.  If we put both out there, a person that's actually seeking the truth will look and say, 'Ah, the biblical explanation fits what I see in the world around us a lot better than evolution.'"

Me, I find this troubling.  Because you can bet they didn't hire an actual evolutionary biologist or geologist (I'm discounting Bennett, here, for obvious reasons) to write the scientific explanations.  I'm pretty certain that the point/counterpoint was written by people who buy the whole creation story wholesale, which means that the scientific explanations will be misrepresented, oversimplified, or just plain wrong.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So this whole enterprise sets up the evolutionary side of the argument (i.e., reality) as one great big straw man.  I probably shouldn't let this bother me; after all, it's unlikely that the museum is going to convince anyone who wasn't already convinced.  But this kind of slick, hyped-up marketing makes the anti-science crowd even more convinced of their beliefs -- that the scientists are a bunch of godless charlatans trying to bring the world to wrack and ruin.  It's also appealing to children, who are more easily convinced, especially when their parents are telling them that anyone who tries to show them evidence to the contrary is making an evil, Satan-inspired end run on their immortal souls.

And the last thing we need is yet another generation growing up with a lousy understanding of science.

Oh, yeah, and I haven't told you about the other thing the Idaho creationists are trying to do.  They're wanting to raise money for a "life-sized Ark" that will be next to the interstate somewhere between Boise and Nampa.

Because we all know how well that ended for the Kentucky "Ark Encounter" project.

So on the whole, I suppose I should be glad that the creationists are sinking their funds into these kinds of mare's nests.  The more money they put toward building monuments to silly, counterfactual worldviews, the less they'll have to put toward buying congresspeople who support their views.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The twisted moral sense of Phil Robertson

Websites that cover news about religion, atheism, and matters of belief have been buzzing in the last day or so because of a speech Phil Robertson (of Duck Dynasty fame) gave at a political "prayer breakfast" in Florida.

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

Robertson's speech centered around a gruesome story about an imaginary atheist family.  Here's a transcript (warning: it's ugly and upsetting):
I’ll make a bet with you.  Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him.  And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him.  And then they can look at him and say, "Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged?  Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this?  There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?" 
Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, "Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this?  But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun.  We’re sick in the head, have a nice day." 
If it happened to them, they probably would say, "something about this just ain’t right."
There are a number of things going on here worthy of commenting upon.

First, Robertson seems to enjoy talking about this way too much.  Doesn't it seem that he's saying that the only reason he isn't raping and murdering people himself is that god is watching him and judging him?  You have to wonder if it's people like me you should be afraid of... or people like him.

Second, he's implying that there's no way that Christians would do such a thing, that it must be the non-religious people who are running around committing atrocities.  Discounting studies about the religious affiliations of people incarcerated for violent crimes -- such studies rely on self-reporting, and are notoriously inaccurate -- let me just point out that there was a group of people in American history who did exactly the sort of thing he's describing.  Raping, murdering, mutilating, and then gloating over the bleeding bodies of their victims.  It was the Klansmen of the post-Civil-War South -- almost all of whom were "decent, god-fearing Christians," who, when they'd washed the blood from their hands, donned their Sunday best and went to church.

The third problem is that he's saying that if you're an atheist, you must believe that there's no right and wrong, no morality; that without some code of conduct coming in from an outside agency, we'd steal, rape, kill each other.  Funny that this doesn't happen in the natural world, then, isn't it?  There's no god of wolves sending the lupine equivalent of Moses into the pack with tablets filled with rules, and yet wolves share food, care for each other, and rarely kill (or even seriously injure) each other.  Work by Dutch behaviorist Frans de Waal and others has shown that non-human social animals do show deeply moral behavior, which is exactly what you'd expect in the evolution of species that live in large groups.  (Nota bene: Just like humans.)

But the fourth, and deepest, problem is that the twisted behavior Robertson is describing is not forbidden in the Christian bible.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  This sort of thing is commanded by god.  Consider this lovely passage:
They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and soul; and everyone who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, was to be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.  [2 Chronicles 15:12-13]
Killing atheist wives and children.  Sound familiar?

Oh, but maybe they weren't doing it on god's command, they were just doing it because they thought it was god's command.  Then how do you explain this?
Then the Lord thundered, "Bring on the men appointed to punish the city!  Tell them to bring their weapons with them!"  Six men soon appeared from the upper gate that faces north, each carrying a deadly weapon in his hand.  With them was a man dressed in linen, who carried a writer’s case at his side. They all went into the Temple courtyard and stood beside the bronze altar.   
Then the glory of the God of Israel rose up from between the cherubim, where it had rested, and moved to the entrance of the Temple.  And the Lord called to the man dressed in linen who was carrying the writer’s case.  He said to him, "Walk through the streets of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of all who weep and sigh because of the detestable sins being committed in their city." 
Then I heard the Lord say to the other men, "Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked.  Show no mercy; have no pity!  Kill them all—old and young, girls and women and little children.  But do not touch anyone with the mark.  Begin right here at the Temple." So they began by killing the seventy leaders. 
"Defile the Temple!" the Lord commanded.  "Fill its courtyards with corpses. Go!"  So they went and began killing throughout the city. [Ezekiel 9:1-7]
Ah, yes, the god of love, ordering his followers to fill the courtyards with corpses.

Then we find out that we're supposed to kill not only non-believing men, women, and children, but also their animals, and destroy the town, as well:
Suppose you hear in one of the towns the Lord your God is giving you that some worthless rabble among you have led their fellow citizens astray by encouraging them to worship foreign gods.  In such cases, you must examine the facts carefully.  If you find it is true and can prove that such a detestable act has occurred among you, you must attack that town and completely destroy all its inhabitants, as well as all the livestock.  Then you must pile all the plunder in the middle of the street and burn it.  Put the entire town to the torch as a burnt offering to the Lord your God.  That town must remain a ruin forever; it may never be rebuilt.  Keep none of the plunder that has been set apart for destruction.  Then the Lord will turn from his fierce anger and be merciful to you.  He will have compassion on you and make you a great nation, just as he solemnly promised your ancestors.  The Lord your God will be merciful only if you obey him and keep all the commands I am giving you today, doing what is pleasing to him.  [Deuteronomy 13:13-19]
But you know, despite all of these divine commands to kill nonbelievers (along with their spouses, children, and the whole shebang), Christians rarely ever do that.  It's almost like they're getting their sense of right and wrong from... somewhere else.

I wonder where that might be.

I think it might be fitting to end with a quote from the show True Detective, wherein Detective Rust Cohle says:  "If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of a divine reward, then brother, that person is a piece of shit."

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Scandinavian Jesus and nukes over Charleston

I ran into two examples of complete batshit lunacy in the last couple of days, and they're kind of interesting in juxtaposition.

The first was linked on the r/conspiratard subreddit, a site devoted to ridiculing conspiracy theories.  It's called "Theory: Jesus 'Yashua's' Nazarene," and if you're puzzled by the title, I can say with some authority that it makes more sense than the article itself.

The author, a man who understandably wants only his first name ("Neil") to be known, tells us some pretty earthshattering stuff.  First, we're told that there's a reason that Jesus is often depicted in the United States as a white-skinned dude with blond hair and blue eyes; it's because he was actually Scandinavian.  But not to worry -- he's not being racist, "Neil" says, because he thinks everyone is Scandinavian:
We wonder today if there is a bloodline group alive today that has the same bloodline that Jesus (Yashua) was born with and I SAY YES. This bloodline is not large in number but they represent about 10% of the global populations and can be found primarily in the United State but on all continents as well.

These descendents have a rare blood factor and have prehistoric ancestors that can be tracked back to an area in the world known as the “Garden.” This original people group on earth were what we refer to today as Scandinavians. Believe it or not, the oldest mummies all over the world had blonde hair, which also tells us that our original ancestors were Scandinavians. I mean all of us. It does not matter what color your skin is today, your original ancestors on earth were Scandinavian. When Jesus (Yashua) said we were all brothers he meant it literally.

So there you are, then.  Don't discriminate against people of other skin and hair colors, unless they're red-haired.  Then it's okay.

Then we hear about how "Neil" realized all of this when he found out that Scandinavians all have Rh-negative blood types, and so, apparently, did Jesus:
Science can track this Scandinavian Bloodline from the exact location Jesus (Yashua’s) Nazarene tribes lived in Northern Israel back in time thousands of years before Jesus (Yashua) was born. Jesus (Yashua) was not a Jew as people have falsely labeled him, he was a Nazarene and was probably born in the same Nazarene village where ran his ministry from in Northern Israel. The Bible clearly states that Jesus (Yashua) was a Nazarene.

The Nazarenes were Scandinavians who apparently had the PURE Rh Negative bloodline factor, which can be tracked back in time to the original human race that was born on this planet in a part of the world that was known as the “Garden”.
The problem with this -- okay, one of the many problems with this -- is that only about 16% of Scandinavians are Rh negative.  The two groups who have the highest incidence of Rh negative blood are the Basques of Spain and the Berbers of Morocco, both of whom have a percent incidence of the gene somewhere in the high 30s to low 40s.  And neither Spain nor Morocco are anywhere near Scandinavia.  And neither place is known for its blond, blue-eyed people.

But this guy doesn't let a little thing like "facts" stop him.  He goes on to tell us how there was a letter from "Pontius Pilot [sic]" that the Vatican is covering up, and it says that Jesus had hair "colored like a chestnut shell or walnut shell," which clearly is the same thing as blond.  He did not have red hair, "Neil" reiterates, making me wonder if he once had a bad experience in Ireland, or something, because he seems pretty vehement on the topic of the Ginger Jesus Theory.

So anyway.  On and on it goes.  My point is that when this site got posted on public media, "Neil" and his "theory" got excoriated.  "What kind of idiot would believe this?" one commenter wrote.  "I live in hope that wackos like him are few in number."  Another wrote, "This has to be a troll.  I flatly refuse to believe that there are people who are that ignorant."

Which brings us to our second story.

Last week, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum gave a speech in South Carolina.  The event was sponsored by Frank Gaffney, which should already put you on high alert -- Gaffney is known as a birther/truther nutjob who believes that America is soon to be under Sharia law.  So no wonder it attracted some peculiar people.

I mean the audience, not Santorum.

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

So anyway, Santorum gives his spiel about how Obama is leading America into ruin, the usual blah.  But it really got interesting during the question-and-answer session, when a woman stepped up to the microphone and said this:
Mr. Santorum, thanks for being here, my name is Virginia, I'm a retired schoolteacher, a political activist and a lifelong resident of South Carolina.  I have the same question that I asked Senator Cruz.   I'll preface it by saying that I think Michele Bachmann [unintelligible] that Boehner made a deal... my question is on defending this country, and what you did for national security, and sealing these borders and protecting the United States.  I've fought that battle all my life.  I'm losing, and that's because I'm not getting help from my congress...  Why is congress rolling over and letting this communist dictator destroy my country?  Y'all know what he is, and I know what he is.  I want him out of the White House.  He's not a citizen.  He could have been removed a long time ago...  Everything he does is illegal, he's trying to destroy the United States.  Everyone knows this.  The congress knows this.  What kind of games is [sic] the congress playing with the citizens of the United States?  Y'all need to work for us, not for the lobbyists that pay your salaries.  Get on board, let's stop all this, and save America.  What's going on, Senator Santorum?  Where do we go from here?  Ted told me I got to wait till the next election.  I don't think the country'll be around for the next election.  Obama tried to blow up a nuke in Charleston a few months ago... he's trying to destroy our military, he's fired all the generals and all the admirals that said they wouldn't fire on the American people if he asked them to do so, if he wanted to take the guns away from 'em.  This man is a communist dictator, we need him out of that White House now.
So.  Obama is a communist who has gone around firing all of our military leaders, somehow without that action making national news.  And furthermore, he tried to drop a nuclear bomb on Charleston, South Carolina so that he can get the military to shoot American citizens and then take away their guns.

Kind of makes Scandinavian Jesus seem... sane, doesn't it?

But here's what's interesting.  Unlike "Neil," whose public appearance in an online forum resulted in his getting his ass handed to him, "Virginia" was treated as if what she said made perfect sense.  Santorum could have taken this as an opportunity to say, "Look.  Let's not believe counterfactual nonsense.  Yes, we do disagree with the president and the Democrats on what the right course of action is for the country; but we're not helping our cause by making ridiculous claims that obviously aren't true."  Instead, here's how he responded:
First, I object to your laying the blame on me, because I'm not a sitting member of the Senate.  I'm not responsible for any of that stuff.  [applause]  But I will tell you this.  You've hit on one point that I absolutely agree, and it's that this is a complete lack of leadership.  The bottom line is, and I can tell you, when President Obama issued that executive order, and I don't care what the executive order was about, when he issued an executive order, an executive action that said that he was not only not going to enforce the law, that he is actively going to change that law, make new law, and be able to act, enforce the agencies to act pursuant to that law, he did something that you mentioned.  The word "tyrant" comes to mind.  It is not, the president does not have the authority to do these things.  The president has done a lot of dangerous things.  This is the most dangerous thing the president has done.
Yes, you read right.  A former senator, and current candidate for the Republican nomination for president, apparently believes that President Obama tried to nuke Charleston.

And this, Dear Reader, is why I write this blog every day.  If we don't start insisting that people sift fact from fiction, if we let crazies like "Neil" and "Virginia" blather away without calling them out on their nonsense, we end up with people like Rick Santorum, who evidently has the critical thinking ability of an avocado, being a serious contender for nominee for the highest office in the land.  Maybe I'm creating a false analogy, here; but to me, it's all the same thing.  Once you decide that facts and logic don't matter, then you'll swallow anything, whether it's some crackpot theory about Jesus having blond hair and Rh-negative blood, or the president having a plan to drop a nuclear bomb on an American city so he can take away our guns.  The only difference is the details.

It all goes back to something Voltaire said, almost three hundred years ago, a saying that I have posted above the whiteboard in my classroom:  "Those who can be made to believe absurdities can be made to commit atrocities."

Monday, March 23, 2015

Andrew Cuomo, education, and the lie between two truths

The episode of The X Files called "E.B.E." contained what may be the most insightful quote that the series ever generated.  Fox Mulder's informant, the man who is never known as anything but his code name of "Deep Throat," says:  "And a lie, Mr. Mulder, is most conveniently hidden between two truths."

That statement is especially accurate when the truths are stated outright and the lie is implied.  And this is a lesson that apparently was well learned by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's Director of State Operations, Jim Malatras.

In an op-ed piece in the New York Daily News, Malatras once again places the blame for New York's "failing schools" in the laps of the teachers and administrators, and lauds Cuomo's plan to hitch teacher evaluation, retention, and salaries to high-stakes standardized tests.  Malatras writes:
Public education should be the great equalizer — a system that helps every child learn in order to achieve a brighter future... (O)ur current system fails to deliver on that promise. That must change. 
And the governor has a plan to do it.  He will attract the best and brightest teachers by providing full scholarships to those who enter the profession.  He will create a fair and objective evaluation system, rewarding good teachers and providing unprecedented support and mentoring.  He will turn around failing schools and transform them into community schools.  He will continue to expand early education... 
If the Legislature enacts these reforms, we will spend an additional $1.1 billion in aid — bringing education spending to the highest level in state history.
This "fair and objective evaluation system" involves tying 50% of teachers' numerical scores to student performance on tests prepared at great cost by companies such as Pearson Education, despite a long history of inaccuracies and errors and scholarly research that showed as long ago as 1999 that standardized tests are a poor measure of both student achievement and teacher quality.  Not only would the governor's plan lead to veteran teachers facing revocation of their tenure if their students fail to hit the benchmark score, it would also tie scores to a $20,000 incentive for "highly effective teachers," and require five consecutive years of "effective" or "highly effective" ratings for a new teacher to achieve tenure.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo [image courtesy of photographer Diana Robinson and the Wikimedia Commons]

Malatras includes a couple of truths in his piece.  He states correctly that New York has the highest per-capita spending on education ($19,522 per student).  He also says that the bottom line should be the students -- their learning, their achievement, their mastery of skills.  No one, I think, would disagree with that.

But the lie is hidden there, and hidden well, because it's implicit in a true statement he makes at the end of the fifth paragraph of his piece.  Malatras writes:
But the governor is not willing to throw more money into the system as it exists today. A system where 64% of our third- through eighth-graders are not proficient in math, 69% are not proficient in English language arts and a quarter of high school students fail to graduate in four years. A system where nearly 110,000 students sit in 178 failing schools, and nine out of 10 are minority or poor.
Did you catch that?  In the failing schools, nine out of ten children are minority or poor.

The implicit lie is that the governor's plan -- hitching the careers of teachers to a flawed metric generated by high-standards exams -- is going to fix the inherent impediments faced by children who grow up in poverty and disadvantage.  So how about Governor Cuomo and Jim "Yes-Man" Malatras consider research by Regina Enwefa, Stephen Enwefa, and Robert Jennings, that found that the single metric that correlated best with students needing special education services was poverty:
Today’s youth in poverty, who need skills to match the rapidly changing directions of our society, are failing academically.  More than seventy-five percent of poor youths have below average basic skills and almost fifty percent are in the bottom fifth of basic skills because of poor reading and math skills.  Poverty alone can cause low academic achievement. Poverty along with cultural and linguistic differences, tends to lower academic achievement and result in very high drop out rates.  Though educators try to meet the academic needs and demands of children and their families with disabilities, they too face barriers.  Inadequate staffing to meet the needs of today’s increasing numbers of poor children clearly affects the child’s ability to perform.
So Governor Cuomo's opinion is that this is some kind of coincidence, and that these children's failure to achieve is the result of poor teaching?  Easier, of course, to blame the teachers and the administrators and the schools rather than addressing the actual cause of the problem.  Easier to pretend that you can use an identical "fair and objective evaluation system" to generate an assessment both for a teacher of AP students in a rich school in Westchester County and a special education teacher teaching disadvantaged children in inner-city Buffalo.  Enwefa et al. write:
Global policymakers are working relentlessly in an attempt to determine ways to restructure education with significant focus on educational services for children with disabilities.  If our government indeed wants to help poor families of children with disabilities out of poverty, and then there must be a fundamental change in policy.  Policy makers must look at poverty itself, rather than at specific problems that could result from poverty...  Budget-cutting policies in areas of housing, education, health care, and employment need to be re-examined.  It is clear that policies targeted at raising family incomes can contribute to increasing children’s cognitive development and academic accomplishments.
Of course, that's not the only problem with Jim Malatras's clever little smear piece.  You can also lie by omitting facts.  He conveniently fails to mention that despite the high per-pupil expenditure in New York, the state education budget is 5.1% lower today than it was in 2008, and the unfunded state mandates have multiplied every year.  The shortfall, of course, has had to be made up by increases in property taxes, already some of the highest in the nation -- until the governor instituted a 2% tax levy cap, and took even that source of revenue out of districts' hands.  The result: devastating staffing cuts and loss of program.

So to recap: Governor Cuomo's plan is to ignore the root cause of failing schools, and instead tie teacher retention to standardized tests that even if they measured what they're supposed to measure, unfairly penalize teachers in poor schools and teachers of students with disabilities.  At the same time, he's reduced funding, increasing the burden on taxpayers to make up the difference, and expected schools to continue functioning the same -- no, better! -- than before.

By any measure you like, Governor Cuomo is failing New York's children.  A pity, isn't it, that politicians can achieve an "ineffective" rating without any consequences?

I wonder why that is.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Blocking the light

I'm not sure if it's troubling or reassuring that the United States isn't the only industrialized country who has problems with superstitious, hyperreligious wingnuts.

Over here, of course, it's usually about the fact that you can't say anything about evolution without it blowing up in your face.  The issue has become so contentious that a lot of politicians, especially those who are courting conservative voters, won't even go there.  Witness Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's response when someone at a question-and-answer session a couple of weeks ago asked him if he accepted evolution.

"For me, I'm going to punt on that one as well," Walker said.  "That's a question a politician shouldn't be involved in one way or the other.  So I'm going to leave that one up to you."

Saying that "a politician shouldn't be involved" in a discussion about science is diametrically opposed to good sense.  It's the anti-science sentiment that is rampant in the U.S. that has kept us in this mess over climate change, for example.  But Walker's response is disingenuous at best; even if he does accept evolution, he's afraid to say so for fear of alienating his religious voter base.

Other countries have been facing the same sort of thing, and have responded differently.  France has, for example, outlawed the hijab; women can face a 150 euro fine for being in public with a face veil, and possibly be forced to take "citizenship instruction" as well.  This has prompted half the country to laud the Sarkozy government's ruling for supporting French culture, and the other half to cry out against its legislating intolerance and über-nationalism.

Britain is having its problems, too.  Christianity has been on the decline in the UK for some time now; Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Great Britain, went on record all the way back in 2001 as saying that "Christianity is almost vanquished in the UK."  Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, agrees, and said last year that "Britain is no longer a nation of believers...  We are a post-Christian nation."

Post-Christian, however, doesn't mean irreligious.  Immigrants now form the most religious sector in both France and Great Britain.  And as France found out, this means that the powers-that-be have to figure out how to respond to demands for acceptance and tolerance of all sorts of beliefs that we less-religious folks find pretty mystifying.  This is what led to the decision by a school in Southall, a suburb of London, to deny schoolchildren the opportunity to see yesterday's total solar eclipse, citing unspecified "religious and cultural reasons" for doing so.

Most people who are knowledgeable about the situation think this was out of deference to the school's large Hindu population.  Many devout Hindus apparently believe that seeing an eclipse makes you impure, and that the only way to combat this is to "bathe immediately after an eclipse and chant the name of god in order to overcome the powers of darkness."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Okay, I recognize my bias here.  But really, people, what century are we in?  A couple of days ago, I wrote about the contingent here in the United States who believe that the eclipse is a portent of the End Times.  Now we have a different bunch who think that the purely mechanical movements of the Sun, Moon, and Earth result in your having to take a shower and do a little chanting so you won't be "unclean."  I'm all for letting people believe what they want, but denying an entire school the opportunity to see a rare astronomical phenomenon because some of them believe in what is (let's be honest, here) a ridiculous superstition is taking political correctness too far.  It's blocking the light in an entirely different way.

And there were some parents who agreed.  Vehemently.  The Evening Standard interviewed Phil Belman, whose seven-year-old daughter attends the school.  Belman said:  "My child went in having spent an hour preparing and making up her pinhole camera.  This is an issue about scientific matters versus religious superstition.  I am outraged - is it going to be Darwin next? We will be like mid America."

Did any of my fellow Americans wince just now?  That's how the rest of the rationalistic, science-accepting world sees us.  If you're a superstitious wingnut, you're "like mid America."

So like I said, I've always been a pretty live-and-let-live kind of guy.  But at some point, don't we need to start calling out goofy superstitions for what they are?  No, I'm sorry, your belief that 666 is an evil number doesn't mean that you will be allowed to flout company policy.  You can't sue someone for calling creationism "superstitious nonsense," because that is, in fact, what it is.  No, you can't expect an employer to hire you even if you don't want to work on Sunday.

And for cryin' in the sink, you shouldn't deny kids the right to learn some astronomy because some of them will want to rid themselves of unclean forces of darkness afterwards.  The appropriate response is, "I'm sorry you believe that, but this is science.  Bathe when you get home.  And when you're a little older, you might want to have a chat with your parents about what possible evidence they have that these beliefs are true."

Friday, March 20, 2015

Heated exchanges

The battle over climate change seems to be heating up.  If you'll pardon the pun.

I'm taking this as a good sign.  As long as the climate change deniers were able simply to wave their hands and say, "Pfft, it's not happening," and the only ones who reacted were the scientists, it was easy enough for politicians to ignore the whole thing.

And the disinformation campaign worked.  A poll last year showed that 23% of Americans disbelieve in climate change altogether, and another 37% believe the Earth is warming up, but that the shift is unrelated to human activities.  This by itself shows that relying on popular opinion to figure out what's true and what's not is specious reasoning, given that 97% of climate scientists (i.e. the experts) think that climate change is anthropogenic in origin.

[image courtesy of NOAA and the Wikimedia Commons]

Many politicians, however, have been reluctant to go along.  Now, though, their recalcitrance is being shown for what it is, a willful stubbornness that is finally being cast in the harsh light it deserves.  Whether this will put a dent in the numbers of disbelievers remains to be seen; but at least we're getting more than dead silence in the popular media.

First, we have Senator Ted Cruz, chairperson of the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space, an appointment that has always struck me as putting a weasel in charge of a henhouse.  Cruz appeared on Late Night With Seth Meyers earlier this week, and laid out his ignorance about the endeavor he's supposed to be overseeing thusly:
I just came back from New Hampshire where there's snow and ice everywhere. And my view actually is simple. Debates on this should follow science and should follow data. And many of the alarmists on global warming, they've got a problem because the science doesn't back them up. And in particular, satellite data demonstrate for the last 17 years there's been zero warming, none whatsoever. It's why, you remember how it used to be called global warming, and then magically the theory changed to climate change?
"It's cold outside, so the Earth isn't warming up" is beginning to piss me off as much as the creationists' canard, "if we came from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys?"  Of course, both of these are talking points that appeal to people who don't understand science in general, and who therefore form Cruz's voter base.  But what's interesting is the response to his moronic statement.  Instead of the usual -- which is that the only negative press the story received would be amongst the tree-hugger contingent -- Cruz is getting a shellacking in the popular media.  Kevin Trenberth, a leading climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has been quoted in dozens of places as calling Cruz's statements "a load of claptrap... absolute bunk."  Slate jumped into the fray, with a piece by astronomer Phil Plait that was pretty unequivocal:
What Cruz said, in its entirety, is what comes out of the south end of a north-facing bull... Cruz is right in one sense; we should follow the science. But the realscience, not the nonsense he’s saying. Real science doesn’t cherry-pick one result that appears (incorrectly) to back up an outrageous claim, but ignore the overwhelming amount of evidence that this claim is dead wrong.
The story was also covered by EOnline, the Washington Examiner, and Vice, although we had the aptly-named Hot Air lauding Cruz for his idiotic stance, and calling all but 3% of working climatologists the "left's climate alarmists" and their data-driven science a "liberal fad."

So you can't win 'em all.  But even Cruz came off well as compared to Florida governor Rick Scott, whose administration has banned state employees from using the words "climate change" and "global warming" in official communications.

Because, you know, if you don't say something, that means it's not happening.

The new rule, which many people (including myself) thought couldn't be serious, was implemented for the first time only two weeks after it was put into place.  Barton Bibler, DEP Land Management Plan Coordinator for the state of Florida, was put on involuntary leave last week for uttering the forbidden words.  A press release from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility states:
Mr. Bibler’s official notes on this meeting reflected all of that discussion.  He was directed to remove any hot button issues, especially explicit references to climate change, and then was given a letter of reprimand for supposedly misrepresenting that the ‘official meeting agenda included climate change.’  As he was given the reprimand on March 9th, Mr. Bibler was told to not return to work for two days which would be charged against his personal leave time.
Bibler was told not to return to work until he had filed with the DEP a medical release form from his doctor evaluating him for an unspecified "medical condition and behavior."

Sounds a little Orwellian, doesn't it?  You have to wonder if Bibler is going to find that he has a new doctor, one who works for the Ministry of Truth.

But Scott hasn't had things all his way, either.  On Monday FEMA issued a statement that they would not provide emergency relief money for states that didn't plan ahead for the effects of climate change themselves, which puts Florida squarely in the bullseye, given that when I go upstairs into my attic I've exceeded the elevation gain over the majority of the state.  The new guidelines state:
The challenges posed by climate change, such as more intense storms, frequent heavy precipitation, heat waves, drought, extreme flooding, and higher sea levels, could significantly alter the types and magnitudes of hazards impacting states in the future.  States must assess vulnerability, identify a strategy to guide decisions and investments, and implement actions that will reduce risk, including impacts from a changing climate.
So Scott might want to reconsider his stance, given that a minor sea level rise could result in half of the state he governs being underwater.

All of which leaves me guardedly hopeful.  The science disbelievers still have a strong voice, but at least we're seeing good sense reaching more of the public, given the way these stories have been covered.  I hope the politicians can take action before it's too late; we're already seeing some pretty wild extremes in the weather, including last week's Typhoon Pam, a category-5 storm that flattened every structure on several islands in the nation of Vanuatu and whose death toll is yet to be determined.

But the whole thing puts me in mind of the famous quote from Mohandas Gandhi: "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you... then you win."

We seem to be on the third step in Gandhi's hierarchy, which should give us all reason for hope.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Spells for sale

Today I learned that you can buy magical spells on Etsy.

When I found out about this, I thought, of course you can.  Everything else is for sale, so why not this?  So out of curiosity, I went to the Etsy site of the particular witch I heard about, one Victoria Zasikowski of Cardiff, Wales, to take a look around.

I clicked on the first one on the site, which was "Love and Relationship Spells."  (And for the curious, no, it wasn't because I need any particular help in that department myself.)  There's a description of what we get for our $22.64, and it includes the following:

  • The lighting of a handmade candle that has been consecrated in our honor
  • The use of "spellvelopes," small envelopes of a particular color depending on what sort of spell we'd like cast; the envelopes are burned in a cauldron
  • Messages written in magickal [sic] "Dove's Blood Ink"
  • Chants of spells done in our honor
  • Photographs of the spell casting, sent to us via email; one will be of the burned-down candle, to prove that she let it burn all the way down
As far as what she'll cast a spell for, it can be for any of a number of things; attracting a significant other, separating from someone you've decided you don't like, making sure your lover stays faithful, having more sex, having better sex, attracting back an ex-lover, or finding out about your future lover.

And this is just scratching the surface.  She also does psychic readings of photographs, tarot cards readings, pendulum readings, and past life readings.  And for a cool $188 she will do five days worth of "Black Magick Spells" that will really heat things up in the bedroom for you.

The Magic Circle (1886) by John William Waterhouse [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

As you might guess, this site had me caveat emptor-ing like mad.  Especially when I read the disclaimer that's on each of the pages for specific spells:
PLEASE NOTE THAT NO DECENT SPELLCASTER WILL EVER GUARANTEE A SPELL WILL WORK. If it were oh so simple, we spell casters would all be filthy rich ! YES, there is a very high effectiveness rate for properly-performed magick, but sometimes things don't quite work out. This could be for the following reasons : 
1. A single casting was not suffice [sic], as the situation was too complex or deep rooted
2. Spell castings alone were not enough - the situation might benefit from you yourself working with a range of physical products to pour your own energy into things
3. You have an excessive amount of negative energy about it all, or about it's [sic] chances of working, which poison's [sic] the magick
4. You are being unrealistic, for example trying to win an ex back after 3 years of being without him
5. It might not have been "meant to be". The universe has other plans for you.
Which all sounds mighty convenient.  It boils down to spending 22 bucks for something that might or might not work, and if it doesn't work, it could be the spell's fault, your fault, or the universe's fault.

But before you laugh too hard, how different is this from the practice of petitionary prayer?  The devout are always asking god for things, from the banal ("please lord let me not get in a traffic jam on the way to work this morning") to the catastrophic ("cure my father of terminal cancer").  And of course, sometimes these prayers seem to work, and sometimes nothing happens.  If they don't work -- well "god works in mysterious ways" or "god has something better planned" or "you didn't pray hard enough" or "it was god's will that it happened this way."  If it does work, then hey!  Praise the lord!  He is so wonderful!

And I was going to say that the difference between the Etsy spell-caster and conventional petitionary prayer was that in prayer, no one's asking you for money.  But then I remembered that just a couple of days ago, the aptly-named American televangelist Creflo Dollar asked his faithful followers to give him $60 million so that he could buy a new luxury jet with which to Spread the Holy Word.

So maybe there's no difference after all, except one of scale.

And interestingly, there's a contingent amongst the witching community that actually thinks it ruins things to ask for money.  Somehow, being associated with profit will damage the energy, or some such.  Zasikowski, predictably, disagrees.  "There is a belief among some that ‘spiritual’ gifts should be given free of charge,= because they are spiritual," Zasikowski said.  "Time and effort spent should apparently be given free of charge, whereas if you are a hairdresser or nurse, etc, it is your right to be paid.  This double standard is ludicrous."

Except that when you're a hairdresser or nurse, your clients have the right to expect that their hair will end up looking nice and their health care needs will be addressed, respectively.  Here, it seems, you stand a good chance of spending $22 and getting absolutely nothing in return but a photo of a burned-out candle.

Anyway.  I'm unlikely to ask Ms. Zasikowski (or anyone else) to cast a spell for me.  For one thing, I'm pretty good with my life as it is.  For another, there are better uses for twenty bucks, which include, in my opinion, using it to start a campfire.  But if you're interested, might I suggest the "Angel Messages Reading?"  In it, she will get in touch with some angels, who will then relay to her messages that they feel "have the most important meaning for you at this time in your life."  However, you are advised that these messages "may not necessarily have anything to do with something directly bothering you."

You'd think angels could be a little more specific than that, wouldn't you?  Oh, well.  Maybe they "work in mysterious ways," too.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Signs in the skies

This Friday is the Vernal Equinox, known colloquially as the "First Day of Spring," a designation we here in upstate New York find grimly amusing, given that we can still get snow in mid-May.  Be that as it may, the day does seem like a turning point, a Day of Significance, a step toward shorter nights and warmer weather.

This year, it's also the day some of us will get to see another landmark natural phenomenon: a total solar eclipse.  Unfortunately, it will only be visible in areas even further north than I am.  The path of totality will spiral counterclockwise from the southern tip of Greenland, heading between Iceland and Scotland, passing over the Faeroe Islands and Svalbard, and finally ending near the North Pole.

[image courtesy of photographer Luc Viatour and the Creative Commons]

And there's nothing like a coincidence to get the apocalyptoids babbling away like mad.  Over at the hyper-religious wacko website World Net Daily, we find out that this is a sign of the End Times.  How many signs that The End Is Near does this make, now?  I haven't kept track.  Probably better that I didn't waste my time counting, because they keep coming even though the Earth is showing no sign of ending.

But they don't let a little thing like a 0% success rate slow them down at all.  "The North Pole can’t really be called the territory of any particular nation or people," [Root Source Ltd.'s co-founder Bob] O’Dell said.  "This is likely a message from God to the entire world."  The article puts a particular emphasis on the fact that this confluence of events only happens once every 100,000 years, which is kind of funny because World Net Daily keeps telling us that the Earth is (1) only 6,000 years old, and (2) is going to end soon, so you'd think that they wouldn't worry much about the timing of the event either way.

But they go on to tell us how significant this all is anyhow:
Pastor Mark Biltz, author of “Blood Moons: Decoding the Imminent Heavenly Signs,” sees a heavenly warning in the consequences of the eclipse, especially for the northern Europeans, who will be most affected. 
In an exclusive interview with WND, Biltz explained, “In Jewish tradition, a total solar eclipse is a warning to the Gentiles and a sign of judgment on the nations. When we look at where the darkness will be, it will be in northern European countries like England and Sweden where we see the rise of Islam and anti-Israel sentiment. Europeans especially should take heed.” 
Biltz also sees significance in the timing of the solar eclipse. 
“An event of this magnitude at the very beginning of the religious new year demands attention. As the Bible tells us, there will be signs in the heavens on the feast days, and this is a very significant sign on a critical day.
Given that the "very significant sign" is mostly going to be visible to polar bears, you have to wonder who god was trying to send a message to.  But He Works In Mysterious Ways, and all that sort of stuff.

And of course, it's not the only sign we're going to be given this year.  There's also the whole "blood moon" thing, better known to sane people as a "lunar eclipse:"
"Only a few weeks after this total solar eclipse, there with be a blood moon over Passover," [Biltz] said. "If the total solar eclipse is a sign to the gentiles, this will be a sign to the Jewish people.
"This comes at a time when American aid for Israel has become an important political issue in the United States. But Israelis know they cannot put their survival in the hands of one who wishes their demise."
So there you are, then.  Two celestial omens and a pot shot at President Obama, all in the same article.

What makes me wonder even more about this worldview, however, is how they can think eclipses are a portent in the first place.  We now can predict eclipses centuries into the future; they occur regularly, often several a year (although extended total solar eclipses are less common).  They're no more mysterious than all three of a clock's hands landing simultaneously on the 12 twice a day.

So the whole apocalyptic prophecy thing implies that if god wanted to, he could make the eclipses happen on a different day, that somehow the timing is a warning of imminent catastrophe, not a purely mechanical outcome of the movements of the Earth and Moon.  Or is it the other way around, that god is required to begin the End Times right after Friday's solar eclipse, that he's been sitting up there twiddling his thumbs until the planets all align?

Either way, it seems like they're implying that god doesn't have much choice in the matter, that either (1) he couldn't make the eclipse occur on a different day even if he wanted to, or (2) he is being forced to bring the world to an end by the position of some random astronomical objects.  Which kind of makes you question how almighty these people think he is.

Of course, I realize that this is not about logic.  It's about putting the fear of the lord into the hearts of the true believers.  And it's also about money; the main promoter of the whole "blood moon" thing is our old pal John Hagee, the multi-millionaire pastor of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas.  Shut off your brains and open your pocketbooks, that's Reverend Hagee's motto.

So anyway.  Don't cancel your plans for April, because I'm pretty damn sure that the solar eclipse isn't warning us of anything but the fact that the Moon goes around the Earth and sometimes blocks the light from the Sun, which we knew anyway.  And the Spring Equinox isn't about anything but axial tilt and the Earth going around the Sun, which most of us also knew, and which will eventually bring warmer weather even to the "four-season climates" like upstate New York.  I hear that this year, summer is scheduled for the second Thursday in July.  I can't wait.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The partisan brain

I tend to avoid politics, both here on Skeptophilia and also in my personal life.  There are two reasons for this: first, I find most political issues such a snarled Gordian knot that I have no idea how anyone could be smart enough to solve them; and second, even on the issues about which I have strong opinions, I've found that arguing with people seldom changes minds on either side.  So entering into an argument that basically is "I think so because I think so," and is unlikely to convince anyone of anything, might be the very definition of the word "pointless."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I do find it interesting, however, to consider why people so seldom shift their political views, even when presented with facts and data to the contrary.  It's like we're stuck in our worldview, unable to move away from the narrow little window we're looking out of.  And now, some scientific research might have an answer for why that is.

Darren Schreiber et al. of the University of Exeter published a fascinating paper last month called "Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans" in the online journal PLOS-ONE, which has as its main claim that there are fundamental differences in brain function between liberals and conservatives.  Studies had already shown that there is a brain structure difference; liberals tend to have more gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, conservatives in the amygdala.  But suggestive as that is, differences in structure don't always imply differences in function, so it was premature to conclude that these structural differences caused individuals to adopt particular political stances.

In this case, however, it appears that the earlier researchers were on to something.  In particular, there seemed to be a biological underpinning to the well-demonstrated tendency of conservatives to be risk-averse and liberals to be risk-seeking.  The authors write:
(C)onservatives demonstrate stronger attitudinal reactions to situations of threat and conflict. In contrast, liberals tend to be seek out novelty and uncertainty.  Moreover, Democrats, who are well known to be more politically liberal, are more risk accepting than Republicans, who are more politically conservative.  While ideology appears to drive reactions to the environment, environmental cues also influence political attitudes.  For instance, external threats prime more conservative attitudes among liberals, moderates, and conservatives.
Schreiber et al. set out to see if the different attitudes toward risk would show up on a fMRI, which would indicate that there was a functional difference between the brains of liberals and conservatives:
To test a conjecture that ideological differences between partisans reflect distinctive neural processes, we matched publicly available party registration records with the names of participants (35 males, 47 females) who had previously taken part in an experiment designed to examine risk-taking behavior during functional brain imaging...  Individuals completed a simple risk-taking decision-making task during which participants were presented with three numbers in ascending order (20, 40, and 80) for one second each.  While pressing a button during the presentation of the number 20 on the screen always resulted in a gain of 20 cents, waiting to select 40 or 80 was associated with a pre-determined possibility of either gaining or losing 40 or 80 cents.  Therefore, participants chose between a lower “safe” payoff and a higher risky payoff.  The probabilities of losing 40 or 80 cents were calibrated so that there was no expected value advantage to choosing 20, 40 or 80 during the task, i.e. the overall pay-off would have been the same for each pure strategy.
They found that the two groups did, indeed, show different levels of activity in the two parts of the brain that earlier research had shown to differ:
Consistent with the findings of structural differences by Kanai et al, significantly greater activation was observed in the right amygdala for Republicans and in the left posterior insula (near the temporal-parietal junction) in Democrats when making winning risky versus winning safe decisions. No significant differences were observed in the entorhinal cortex or anterior cingulate cortex. All attempts to use behavior to distinguish Republicans from Democrats were unsuccessful, suggesting that different neural mechanisms may underlie apparently similar patterns of behavior.
The authors are clear in their conclusion that they, too, have established correlation, but are yet to show causation; "One might infer that the differing brain structures identified by Kanai et al. suggest genetic foundations for the differences in ideology," they write, in their discussion of results.  "However, recent work has shown that changes in cognitive function can lead to changes in brain structure."  So how much of the difference they and others have shown is genetic in origin, and how much due to remodeling of the brain's circuitry because of the environment, is still uncertain.

It does support, however, the fruitlessness of political argument.  If there is a biological underpinning to political stance, it's to be expected that it's not going to be easy to change.  There are cases, of course, where it's important to try -- in issues of social justice and care for the environment, for example.  But this research shows pretty clearly that such battles aren't going to be easy to win.

And you have to wonder what a fMRI would show for a generally apolitical person like myself.  No brain activity whatsoever?

Maybe I'm better off not knowing.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Science-friendly illogic

I usually don't blog about what other people put in their blogs.  This kind of thing can rapidly devolve into a bunch of shouted opinions, rather than a reasoned set of arguments that are actually based upon evidence.

But just yesterday I ran into a blog that (1) cited real research, and (2) drew conclusions from that research that were so off the rails that I had to comment.  I'm referring to the piece over at Religion News Service by Cathy Lynn Grossman entitled, "God Knows, Evangelicals Are More Science-Friendly Than You Think."  Grossman was part of a panel at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's yearly Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, and commented upon research presented at that event by Elaine Howard Ecklund, sociologist at Rice University.

Ecklund's research surrounded the attitudes by evangelicals toward science.  She described the following data from her study:
  • 48% of the evangelicals in her study viewed science and religion as complementary.
  • 21% saw the two worldviews as entirely independent of one another (which I am interpreting to be a version of Stephen Jay Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" idea).
  • A little over 30% saw the two views as in opposition to each other.
84% of evangelicals, Grossman said, "say modern science is going good [sic] in the world."  And she interprets this as meaning that evangelicals are actually, contrary to appearances, "science friendly."  Grossman writes:
Now, the myth that bites the data dust, is one that proclaims evangelicals are a monolithic group of young-earth creationists opposed to theories of human evolution... 
(M)edia... sometimes incorrectly conflate the conservative evangelical view with all Christians’ views under the general “religion” terminology. 
I said this may allow a small subset to dictate the terms of the national science-and-religion conversation although they are not representative in numbers -– or point of view. This could lead to a great deal of energy devoted to winning the approval of the shrinking group and aging group that believes the Bible trumps science on critical issues.
Well, here's the problem with all of this.

This seems to me to be the inherent bias that makes everyone think they're an above-average driver.  Called the Dunning-Kruger effect, it is described by psychologist David Dunning, whose team first described the phenomenon, thusly:
Incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are...  What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge. 
An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.
Now, allow me to say right away that I'm not calling evangelicals incompetent and/or ignorant as a group.  I have a friend who is a diehard evangelical, and he's one of the best-read, most thoughtful (in both senses of the word) people I know.  But what I am pointing out is that people are poor judges of their own understanding and attitudes -- and on that level, Dunning's second paragraph is referring to all of us.

So Ecklund's data, and Grossman's conclusions from it, are not so much wrong as they are irrelevant. It doesn't matter if evangelicals think they're supportive of science, just like my opinion of my own driving ability isn't necessarily reflective of reality.  I'm much more likely to take the evangelicals' wholesale rejection of evolution and climate science as an indication of their lack of support and/or understanding of science than I would their opinions regarding their own attitudes toward it.

And, of course, there's that troubling 30% of evangelicals who do see religion and science as opposed, a group that Grossman glides right past.  She does, however, admit that scientists would probably find it "troubling" that 60% of evangelicals say that "scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories."

Troubling doesn't begin to describe it, lady.

That doesn't stop Grossman from painting the Religious Right as one big happy science-loving family, and she can't resist ending by giving us secular rationalists a little cautionary kick in the ass:
[S]cientists who want to write off evangelical views as inconsequential may not want to celebrate those trends [that young people are leaving the church in record numbers]. The trend to emphasize personal experience and individualized spirituality over the authority of Scripture or religious denominational theology is part of a larger cultural trend toward rejecting authority. 
The next group to fall victim to that trend could well be the voices of science.
Which may be the most obvious evidence of all that Grossman herself doesn't understand science.  Science doesn't proceed by authority; it proceeds by hard evidence.  Stephen Hawking, one of the most widely respected authorities in physics, altered his position on information loss in black holes when another scientist, John Preskill, demonstrated that he was wrong.  The theoretical refutation of Hawking's position was later confirmed by data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.  Significantly, no one -- including Hawking himself -- said, "you have to listen to me, I'm an authority."

If anything, the trend of rejection of authority and "personal experience" works entirely in science's favor.  The less personal bias a scientist has, the less dependence on the word of authority, the more (s)he can think critically about how the world works.

So all in all, I'd like to thank Grossman and Ecklund for the good news, however they delivered it in odd packaging.  Given my own set of biases, I'm not going to be likely to see the data they so lauded in anything but an optimistic light.

Just like I do my own ability to drive.  Because whatever else you might say about me, I have mad driving skills.