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.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Opening the floodgates

I was discussing with a friend a couple of days ago the devastating floods that have hit Texas, caused by an aberrant weather pattern that is showing no signs of going away any time soon.

"Given that there are so many climate change deniers in Texas," my friend asked, "what do you think they'll blame it on?"

"Oh, I dunno," I responded.  "Probably gay people and President Obama, I'd guess."

You know, there are times I'd rather not be right.

Flooding in Houston [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Just yesterday, a woman who called into Bryan Fischer's American Family Association-sponsored radio talk show Focal Point had the following to say:
If God is judging Texas, it’s because of the witchcraft and sodomy that we’ve allowed to run rampant...  [T]he places that are underwater [are] are overrun with witchcraft and sodomy.  If you go into those areas, you can just see it...  Houston has a whole area that is like Sodom and Gomorrah.  It even has a sodomite mayor.
What I'm wondering is how god could design a flood that would only hit witches and gay people.  I mean, it's not like there's any way to stop flood waters from wiping out pretty much anyone in their path, so unless god in his Infinite Wisdom and Mysterious Ways induced all of the sodomites and witchcraft practitioners to build their houses on low ground, he's pretty much smiting everyone at the moment.

It brings up the rather amusing mental image of god at a a giant computer that has a map with flashing red lights every time someone has the wrong kind of sex, and a pull-down menu for different kinds of natural disasters that can be unleashed.  "What?  Fellatio in Tulsa, Oklahoma?  THIS CALLS FOR A TORNADO."

But you'll be relieved to know that there's not just sex and witchcraft behind the floods, there's also the looming, sinister, evil, all-powerful figure of...

... Barack Obama.

Why would President Obama send floods to Texas, you might ask?  Is it just because Texas is conservative?  Because if that's it, he should be flooding most of the southeastern United States.  There has to be more to it, right?

Of course, right.  Obama is flooding Texas because they caught on to what he was doing regarding Jade Helm 15.

For those of you who have not been keeping up with the latest conspiracy theories, Jade Helm 15 is a set of military maneuvers taking place in Texas that were a front for a government takeover of the state that was so top-secret that the Army announced what they were intending to do three months early.  That's how sneaky these guys are.  "I have an idea!  Let's confuse and confound them by telling them all our plans!  They'll be so baffled by this ploy that when we follow through with them, they'll be caught completely unawares!"

So apparently Obama got mad that the Texans were on to his cunning plot, and weren't just cooperating and letting him and his thugs declare martial law and herd everyone into FEMA Death Camps conveniently disguised as WalMarts.  He got so mad, in fact, that he used his super-powerful weather weapons to teach Texas a lesson.  Says writer Susan Duclos:
As I'm looking through breakingnews [sic] headlines, and seeing the continuous references to the extreme weather so concentrated over TX, and coupled with the continuous chemtrailing that happens throughout the US, I can't help but think that what is going on right now as part of the Jade Helm "exercize" [sic], could not actually be the domestic roll out of weather warfare on an agressive [sic] scale. We know they can control the weather to at least some degree. We know that the chemtrailing over CA and in the Pacific moddifies [sic] the jet stream to both keep CA dry and to force that precipitation east towards TX and other southern states.  We know that Jade Helm is "pretending" that TX is a hostile enemy that must be engaged.  The millitary is already rolling out across the state as part of this "drill".  Why then, is it not reasonable to assume that as part of this "mock civil war drill" that they would not practice using the tools that they have in their arsenal?

Let me just recommend, Ms. Duclos, that you not only use your computer's function called "spell check," that you consult a dictionary and look up the definition of the word "reasonable."

So there you have it: this isn't a weather event, it's either a punishment by god for gay sex and witchcraft, or it's the result of a weather weapon wielded by Barack "Professor Evil" Obama.  Myself, I just hope that the rains stop, because there's been enough devastation and death already.  And also so that these loons will shut up and go back to their previous hobby, which is probably pulling on the straps of their straitjackets with their teeth.

Friday, May 29, 2015

On a mission

There's something inherently odd about missionaries.

Now, I've met some nice ones.  There were a couple of Mormons who dropped by last fall to chat with me about religion, and when I told them (amiably) that I was an atheist and really didn't think they'd convince me otherwise, they offered to help me stack firewood.  I told them no, but I was kind of touched that they thought that since they couldn't help me in one way, they'd give a shot at helping with another.

Then, there were the Jehovah's Witnesses, both female, who rang my doorbell on a blisteringly hot day a couple of summers ago.  I was in the front yard weeding the garden, and heard them talking -- and I came out from around the corner of the house, shirtless, dripping with sweat, and disgustingly grimy.  They looked a little shocked, but it was too late to retreat gracefully.  That was one conversion attempt that I think they were perfectly glad to terminate unsuccessfully.

So it takes a good degree of bravery to go on a mission, even in the relatively safe territory of the rural United States.  You never know what you're going to run into -- and it could, of course, be much worse than half-naked gardeners.  Add to that the additional risk of missionary work in other countries, where you could be putting your safety or even your life at risk, and you have to have some grudging admiration for these folks.

But even so, there's something a little... condescending about the concept of missionaries.  "Hey, you're probably wrong about everything you believe," they seem to be saying.  "And since I'm right, let me tell you all about it!"  Where they've been successful, missionaries have done a pretty fine job of eradicating not only preexisting religions, but local culture, artifacts, traditions, and sometimes language as well.

Which is why the proposal by Pope Francis I to canonize Father Junipero Serra, the founder of 21 missions in 18th century California, has met with some pretty stiff opposition.

Serra has been hailed by Catholic leaders as the man who brought Catholicism to California, and who was responsible for educating the Native Americans who lived there -- the latter claim being pretty patronizing in and of itself, given that people who had lived successfully in a place for millennia can hardly be regarded as "uneducated" just because they couldn't read and write Spanish.  As far as Serra's treatment of the Natives -- while he and his followers didn't rush in and kill them all, like their countrymen the Conquistadors did in Central and South America, he certainly didn't treat them like equals.  Serra wrote:
The view that spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of the Americas; so general in fact that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule.
Whatever you think of his intentions and his methods, the outcome is certain; the Natives were forced to abandon their languages, customs, and kinship ties in favor of Serra's imposed Spanish culture and religion.  Miranda Ramirez, whose Native ancestry can be traced back to people who were part of the Carmel Mission, said, "We lost everything (because of Serra)...  We were not allowed to be with our people. We lost contact with cousins, we lost the family ties.  Our language was gone."

Steven Hackel, who has written a biography of Serra, was equally critical.  "One can point to certain moments in the historical record when Serra does protect Indians," Hackel said in an interview with Al Jazeera America.  "But the larger story I think is one in which his policies and his plans led to tremendous pain and suffering, most of it unintended on his part, among Native peoples.  If one looks at the legacy of Serra's missions and what he was trying to do in California, there's no question that his goal was to radically alter Native culture, to have Indians not speak their Native languages, to practice Spanish culture, to transform Native belief patterns in ways that would make them much less Native.  He really did want to eliminate many aspects of Native culture."

Not only did Serra's actions eradicate the cultures that were already there, his insistence that the Natives abandon their villages and land has led to a further injustice -- the United States government only recognizes Native American tribes who have had uninterrupted cultural identity as meriting legally recognized membership.  Since the tribes that Serra converted back in the 18th century lost everything, even their languages, today they can't get federal recognition of their status as Natives.  Writes Karen Klein, in her piece for the Los Angeles Times entitled "What California Indians Lost Under Junipero Serra":
Because the missions mixed different Native American groups together and forced all of them to give up much of their cultural identity, many of these groups cannot meet the requirements of continuous cultural and geographical identity required to be federally recognized tribes, with the many benefits such recognition bestows. It’s one of the most painful ironies in California history — robbed of their culture by white missions the first time, and then, because of that first theft, robbed by the U.S. government a second time. 
The pope cited Serra’s role as the “evangelizer of the West” in announcing his canonization. But many see his role more as one of forced conversion rather than persuasive evangelism. I’m sure the pope realizes this; the church has recognized in the past, at least, that there were some serious problems with California’s early mission history. Perhaps that seems like a regrettable but small part of the story from the viewpoint of the Vatican, but here in California, the irreparable harm done to Native Americans is not easily minimized.
I know the argument in Serra's favor -- that he was a man of his time, that he honestly thought he was helping the Natives because he believed that without his intervention, they'd burn in hell for all eternity.  Nonetheless, there's the troubling fact that his efforts pretty much singlehandedly destroyed an entire culture.

So what do you do with someone who is acting out of what, for them, are pure motives, but who nonetheless (1) uses questionable means to attain those ends, and (2) is probably wrong in any case?  The Muslim leaders in the Middle East who advocate publicly flogging and/or decapitating heretics are, after all, operating from much the same worldview.  Better to punish one person severely for errors of faith rather than have everyone face the wrath of Allah.

My own view, of course, is pretty unequivocal; the whole shebang is really just a bunch of antiquated superstition, and no one has a right to push anyone else into belief.  Or disbelief, for that matter.  We all are capable of using our brains, and if given the freedom, to evaluate the evidence we have and decide how we think the universe works.

No missionaries necessary.

And to put it bluntly, that the Roman Catholic religion produced people like Serra should be more a cause for shame than celebration.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Whole lot o' shakin' going on

To all of my readers in California:  I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but you're all gonna die.

I know, I know, I should have told you about this sooner, so you could do something about it, but I didn't even know about it myself until yesterday, and by then it was too late.  I mean, just think if everyone had tried to leave the state yesterday evening.  The traffic would have been worse even than usual, and where would they all have gone?  I mean, it's not like Oregon wants 'em.

If you're wondering what all this is about, I'm referring, of course, to the fact that California is going to be destroyed by an earthquake today.  9.8 on the Richter scale, no less, and caused by the alignment of Mercury and Venus, or something.  Scary shit.

How do I know this?  Well, there's this article in IN5D Esoteric Metaphysical Spiritual Database, which as authoritative sources go, is pretty much unimpeachable.  In it, we learn that Nostradamus predicted this, and since Nostradamus's predictions have proven as accurate as you'd expect given that they're the ravings of an apparently insane man who did most of his writing after a bad acid trip, we should all sit up and pay attention.  Here, according to IN5D, is the quatrain in question:
Le tremblement si fort au mois de may,
Saturne, Caper, Jupiter, Mercure au boeuf:
Vénus aussi, Cancer, Mars, en Nonnay,
Tombera gresle lors plus grosse qu’un oeuf. 
English translation: 
The trembling so hard in the month of may,
Saturn, Capricorn, Jupiter, Mercury in Taurus:
Venus also, Cancer, Mars, in Virgo,
Hail will fall larger than an egg.
The site goes on to clarify:
On May 28, 2015 towards the end of the day UTC time, and continuing on May 29, there will be a series of very critical planetary alignments whereby Venus and Mercury are really being charged up on the North-Amerca [sic] / Pacific side.
Wow.  Pretty scientific.  Bad things happen when Venus and Mercury get "really charged up."  Time to get outta Dodge, apparently, not to mention Los Angeles.

Okay, astronomer Phil Plait says we should all calm down.  In his wonderful column Bad Astronomy in the magazine Slate, he says:
First, there is simply no way an alignment of planets can cause an earthquake on Earth. It’s literally impossible. I’ve done the math on this before; the maximum combined gravity of all the planets under ideal conditions is still far less than the gravitational influence of the Moon on the Earth, and the Moon at very best has an extremely weak influence on earthquakes. 
To put a number on it, because the Moon is so close to us its gravitational pull is 50 times stronger than all the planets in the solar system combined. Remember too that the Moon orbits the Earth on an ellipse, so it gets closer and farther from us every two weeks. The change in its gravity over that time is still more than all the planets combined, yet we don’t see catastrophic earthquakes twice a month, let alone aligning with the Moon’s phases or physical location in its orbit.
He goes on to say that Mercury and Venus aren't aligning anyhow, at least not the way the prediction claims (I mean, they're always aligned with something; two objects always fall on a straight line, as hath been revealed unto us in the prophecies of Euclid, and said line includes an infinite number of other points).  So the whole thing is pretty much a non-starter.

This hasn't stopped it from being shared around on social media, of course.  It'd be nice if articles like Phil Plait's would get shared around as often as the idiotic one in IN5D, but that, apparently, is not how things work.  People still gravitate toward predictions of doom and destruction, even though said predictions have had an exactly zero success rate.

So my guess is that if you live in California, you have nothing to worry about above and beyond the usual concerns over wildfires, mudslides, droughts, earthquakes, and Kylie Jenner spotting 75 chemtrails in the sky and posting a hysterical claim that they're killing honeybees.

The usual stuff, in other words.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Leaving the echo chamber

It is natural, I suppose, to surround oneself with people whose political, religious, and philosophical beliefs we share.  We tend to get along best with people whose values are aligned with our own, and having the same opinions makes conflict less likely.  So what I'm going to suggest runs completely counter to this tribal tendency that all humans have.

Anyone who aspires to a skeptical view of the world should seek out interactions with people of opposing stances.

I won't say this isn't frustrating at times.  Hearing our most cherished viewpoints criticized, sometimes stridently, brings up some pretty strong emotions.  But there are two outstanding reasons to strive for diversity in our social circles, and I think that both of these make a cogent argument for overcoming our knee-jerk reactions to having our baseline assumptions called into question.

First, being exposed to a wide range of opinions keeps us honest.  It is an all-too-human failing not to question things when everyone around us is in agreement.  This can lead not only to our making mistakes, but not realizing them -- sometimes for a long time -- because we've surrounded ourselves with a Greek chorus of supporters, and no one who is willing to say, "Wait a minute... are you sure that's right?"

Second, it becomes less easy to demonize those who disagree with us when they have faces.  You can slide quickly into "those awful conservatives" or "those evil atheists" -- until you meet one, and spend some time chatting, and find out that the people you've derided turn out to be friendly and smart and... human.  Just like you.

How to build an echo chamber [adapted from Jasny, Fisher, et al.]

The danger of living in an echo chamber was illustrated vividly by a new peer-reviewed study led by Dana Fisher, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland.  Fisher et al. looked at how attitudes about climate change in particular are affected by being surrounded by others who agree with you.  They found that networks of people who are already in agreement, sharing information that supports what they already believed, create a context of certainty so powerful that even overwhelming scientific evidence can't overcome it.

"Our research shows how the echo chamber can block progress toward a political resolution on climate change," Fisher said in an interview.  "Individuals who get their information from the same sources with the same perspective may be under the impression that theirs is the dominant perspective, regardless of what the science says...  Information has become a partisan choice, and those choices bias toward sources that reinforce beliefs rather than challenge them, regardless of the source’s legitimacy."

Lorien Jasny, a lead author of the paper, emphasized how important it was to venture outside of the echo chamber.  "Our research underscores how important it is for people on both sides of the climate debate to be careful about where they get their information.  If their sources are limited to those that repeat and amplify a single perspective, they can’t be certain about the reliability or objectivity of their information."

While the study by Fisher et al. was specifically about attitudes regarding climate change, I would argue that their conclusions could be applied in a much wider context.  We need to hear opposing viewpoints about everything, because otherwise we fall prey to the worst part of tribalism -- the attitude that only the members of the tribe are worth listening to.  It's why liberals should occasionally tune in to Fox News and conservatives to MSNBC.  It's why the religious shouldn't unfriend their atheist Facebook friends -- and vice versa.  It's why my friend and coworker who tends to vote for the opposite political party than I do is someone whose views I make myself listen to and consider carefully.

Now, don't mistake me.  This doesn't mean you should put up with assholes.  The social conventions still apply, and disagreeing philosophically doesn't mean you call the people on the other side idiots.  I have chosen to disconnect from people who were rude and disagreeable -- but I hope I'd do that even if they shared my political views.

Put simply, we need to be pushed sometimes to overcome our natural bent toward surrounding ourselves with the like-minded.  When we do, we become less likely to fall prey to our own biases, and less likely to pass unfair judgment on those who disagree with us.  The work by Fisher et al. shows us how powerful the echo chamber effect can be -- and why it's critical that we get ourselves out of it on occasion, however comforting the illusion of certainty can be at times.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Death sounds and Mexican demons

Allow me to reiterate a plea I've made more than once in Skeptophilia; would everyone just stop and learn a little bit of science and a few critical thinking skills before forwarding every damn thing you see on Facebook and Twitter?

I say this because of two stories I ran into in the last couple of days.  The first was sent to me by a friend and loyal reader of this blog -- not because he believed it himself, allow me to point out, but because he was in awe that anyone did.  It involves a claim that there's a "death sound" that is so amazingly intense that it can kill you instantly if you hear it.  Here's the direct quote:
There's a sound that is 36 octaves below middle C, that is so low that it kills you.  The sound waves literally kill you.  And this sound is only found in dark matter (for what we know).  This is so cool.
I love science!
Well, the originator of this claim may "love science," but I'd settle for less love and more understanding.  Because the number of ways in which these five short sentences don't make sense are so many and varied that it may set a record for bullshit-to-verbiage ratio.

Let's start with there being a sound that's 36 octaves below middle C.  Middle C has a frequency of 262 hertz (give or take), and for those of you who aren't physics-adept, one hertz = one vibration per second.  For each octave the pitch drops, the frequency goes down by a factor of a half.  (So one octave below middle C would be 131 hertz, two octaves below would be 65.5 hertz, and so on.)

This means that a sound 36 octaves below middle C would have a frequency equal to 262 divided by 2 raised to the 36th power hertz.  This is what is known to mathematicians as "a really freakin' small number."  Put simply, a sound wave at that frequency would correspond to one pulse of the sound passing your ear every 3,040 days.

So what we have here is the equivalent of someone shouting "WAAAH" in your ear, waiting 8.3 years, and then shouting "WAAAH" in your ear again.  The sound itself isn't going to kill you, but you might well die of boredom from waiting around for it.

Then there's the problem that it isn't the frequency of a sound that's dangerous to your hearing (or other bodily functions), it's the amplitude.  Amplitude corresponds to loudness and/or energy transfer capacity, so it's easy to see why high amplitude sounds can be dangerous.

Last, the "dark matter" part of this is just bizarre.  I tried to find out what this could possibly be about, and I did find an article about a discovery in astrophysics in which certain black holes have been discovered to create compression waves in the gas clouds surrounding them (i.e., sound waves) of extremely low frequency.  One, a black hole in the Perseus cluster, generates compression waves with a frequency 57 octaves below middle C.  (For you music geeks, apparently this means that the black hole is singing a B flat.)  No one is claiming that this sound can kill you, although being near a black hole certainly could -- and for the record, black holes have nothing whatsoever to do with dark matter.

Moving on to our other story, we have a new goofy psychic phenomenon that is buzzing on Twitter and other social media platforms.  It goes by the alliterative name of the "Charlie Charlie Challenge," and apparently has gotten so much hype that the hashtag #charliecharliechallenge is now trending.

So the idea is that there's this Mexican demon named Charlie, and you can summon him as follows.  Draw a cross on a piece of paper, thus dividing the paper into four rectangles.  Write "No" on the upper left and lower right, and "Yes" on the upper right and lower left.  Then place a pencil along one of the lines of the cross, and balance a second pencil at right angles to the first, as shown below:

Then you say, "Charlie, Charlie, are you here?"  The balanced pencil is supposed to rotate to give you the answer.

Once again, there are a variety of problems here.  First, if the pencil rotates to "No," then who's moving the pencil?  Even if this works, it's not very interesting, given that apparently all Charlie has to say is whether or not he's there.

Second, do you really think it's that easy to summon a demon up?  I'd think that demons would have much more important jobs to do, such as giving career advice to Ann Coulter.

Third, of course, we have a much simpler explanation for all of this, which is that a precariously-balanced pencil is going to be easy for stray draughts to move, as well as any other minor jostling.  So if you do this, the balanced pencil is eventually going to rotate one direction or the other whether there are demons present or not.

Fourth, a Mexican demon named "Charlie?"  "Charlie" is neither convincingly Mexican nor particularly demonic sounding.  You'd think he'd at least be called Mefistófeles or something.  Although I have to admit that saying "Mefistófeles, Mefistófeles, are you here?" is a bit of a mouthful.

So what we have here is basically a kids' game along the lines of "Bloody Mary," with the difference that we now have online social media to assure that such bullshit gets lots of traction.  

Anyhow, there you are.  Death sounds and Mexican pencil-rotating demons named "Charlie."  Further indication that the most powerful information-processing system ever built is now primarily used as a conduit for nonsensical claims and humorous pictures of cats.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mike Huckabee, Josh Duggar, and hypocrisy

Rape and pedophilia are two of the most unforgivable crimes.  From the horrific emotional scars they leave in the victims, to the complete disconnect from anything remotely close to human empathy in the perpetrator's mind, attacks of this sort turn my stomach so quickly that I can barely stand to read news stories that cover cases of rape or child molestation.

It is why I have, up to now, avoided dealing with the whole debacle surrounding Josh Duggar, and the allegations that when he was a teenager, he molested five little girls, including his younger sisters.  It seemed to me that the police were dealing with it, and the backlash against the hyper-Christian, ostensibly ultra-pure family would take care of itself.

The Duggars have been the darlings of the Christian Right for some time; their TLC show 19 Kids and Counting was held up as an example of how good Christian families should behave.  Everything was about traditional family values and going to church and dedicating your life to Jesus.  When the allegations surfaced, it was a devastating blow; the "reality show" was cancelled, and Josh Duggar resigned his position as a lobbyist with the Family Research Council, an organization that raises money and support for conservative causes.

Which is as it should be.  You get accused of something like this, you retreat in disarray.  So far, nothing much to comment, unless you count exclamations of disgust.

But then the support for Josh Duggar began to surface.  His family came out on his side, which was unsurprising until you think about the fact that some of the alleged victims are his sisters.  Josh's parents, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, said, "Back twelve years ago our family went through one of the most difficult times of our lives.  When Josh was a young teenager, he made some very bad mistakes, and we were shocked.  We had tried to teach him right from wrong.  That dark and difficult time caused us to seek God like never before."

Which, you'd think, would include getting his victims some counseling from professionals trained to help molestation victims, something that there's no indication ever happened.  Josh, on the other hand, was told what could happen to him if he did it again, and was sent to "stay with an acquaintance and do manual labor."  Apparently, in their eyes, this did the trick; Josh Duggar said he's patched it all up with Jesus. "I asked Christ to forgive me and come into my life," he said.  "In my life today, I am so very thankful for God's grace, mercy and redemption."

So far, still not something that's all that surprising.  In this worldview, if you apologize to god, you're just hunky-dory no matter what you did.  When this happened, I still thought, "Nope.  Not going there."

But then Mike Huckabee got involved.

Huckabee, a contender for the Republican nomination for president, has been vitriolic in his stance against LGBT rights.  In a speech just last month sponsored by the Family Research Council, Huckabee said that legalizing gay marriage would lead to Christians being arrested for their beliefs:
If the courts rule that people have a civil right not only to be a homosexual but a civil right to have a homosexual marriage, then a homosexual couple coming to a pastor who believes in biblical marriage who says ‘I can’t perform that wedding’ will now be breaking the law.  It’s not just saying, ‘I’m sorry you have a preference.’  No, you will be breaking the law subject to civil for sure and possible criminal penalties for violating the law….  If you do practice biblical convictions and you carry them out and you do what you’ve been led by the spirit of God to do, your behavior will be criminal... Christian convictions are under attack as never before.  Not just in our lifetime, but ever before in the history of this great nation.  We are moving rapidly towards the criminalization of Christianity.
And this same man, who has over and over again claimed that marriage between two same-sex people in a committed relationship is an abomination, has come out unequivocally in support of Josh Duggar:
The reason that the law protects disclosure of many actions on the part of a minor is that the society has traditionally understood something that today’s blood-thirsty media does not understand — that being a minor means that one’s judgement is not mature.  No one needs to defend Josh’s actions as a teenager, but the fact that he confessed his sins to those he harmed, sought help, and has gone forward to live a responsible and circumspect life as an adult is testament to his family’s authenticity and humility... (F)ollowing Christ is not a declaration of our perfection, but of HIS perfection.   It is precisely because we are all sinners that we need His grace and His forgiveness.  We have been blessed to receive God's love and we would do no less than to extend our love and support for our friends.  In fact, it is in times like this that real friends show up and stand up.  Today, Janet and I want to show up and stand up for our friends.  Let others run from them. We will run to them with our support.
Then, there's the fact that when the story about Josh Duggar hit the media, Judge Stacy Zimmerman ordered that the file on the allegations be destroyed.  No reason was given, and Springdale Police Department spokesperson Scott Lewis said that this was unusual -- that records of this kind are typically kept indefinitely.  But the situation becomes a little clearer when you add to that the fact that when Huckabee was the governor of Arkansas, he twice appointed Zimmerman to serve on influential committees, and that she gives prominent mention of her ties to Huckabee on her re-election website.

Gotta stick together, you know.  Can't have any nasty allegations stinking up the party of the pure of heart.

The whole thing has such a nauseating smell of hypocrisy that I barely know where to begin.  The man who in his stump speeches has been all about "traditional family values" rushes in to support an accused pedophile, while simultaneously expressing revulsion toward consenting adults who happen to be attracted to members of the same sex.  The fact that the Duggar family is "saved" somehow puts them outside of the realm of criticism; the media that has brought to light these charges is "blood-thirsty," and Josh himself is "responsible and circumspect" because he "confessed his sins."

So let's make sure that a judge orders the documents destroyed, and pretend the whole incident never happened.

I think that it's the self-righteousness that bothers me the most.  Even the mealy-mouthed "we're not perfect" declarations by the Duggars, and by Huckabee about them, smacks of "but because we're saved, we're going to heaven no matter what, so we're still better than you godless scum."  They've set themselves as paragons; just the fact that they felt the need to have a "reality show" about their family speaks volumes.

Yes, I know, I'm not perfect myself.  I've done bad things, things that I very much wish I could go back and undo.  I've tried to make amends when I could, and (most importantly) tried not to repeat my mistakes.

The difference is, I know that the times I've fallen short morally can't be fixed by apologizing to some invisible Sky God.  Forgiveness comes from the people you've hurt, not from Jesus.

Nor, incidentally, from Mike Huckabee.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Money, allegiance, and faith

Someone I know posted a cartoon on social media a couple of days ago.  It had a pissed-off looking old woman on it, and the caption was, "It's 'One Nation Under God," or bite my ass and leave."

I've always been a little mystified about the fervor with which some people demand that those words be in the Pledge of Allegiance.  The same fervor is invoked when anyone mentions taking "In God We Trust" off our currency.  Besides the fact of marginalizing people in this country who are not religious -- a number that by recent polls now amounts to one in five -- these statements also imply that Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, and members of other religions who do not worship the Judaeo-Christian god have no place here.

More to the point, however, I've never heard a cogent argument for why those phrases should be part of our statement of allegiance to our country, or on our money.  In the first case, you're expecting people either to recite a statement in public that is, for them, a lie, or else refuse (or at least refuse to say that line) and invite censure.  But even more mystifying is the statement of faith on currency.  What happened to "The love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10) and "Render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar's, and unto God those things that are God's" (Mark 12:17)?  It seems to me a little odd to put a religious statement on something that the bible repeatedly derides as bad.  (Remember "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?")

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Be that as it may, every so often you hear vitriolic attacks launched against people who, like me, would like that language removed, not because we object to other Americans believing in any god they want to, but because the implication that we all have to believe that way is exclusionary.  You can pray anywhere you like; contrary to popular belief, you are free to pray in public schools, as long as (1) those prayers don't interfere with what's going on in the classroom, (2) you're not requiring anyone else to pray along with you, and (3) such prayer is not school-sponsored.  (I'm guessing there's a lot of praying going on immediately prior to my final exam, for example.)  Why the demand that there be public, government-endorsed language that seems to exist only to make a good quarter of American citizens feel that they aren't welcome in their own country?

As more and more people recognize that such statements are not only disrespectful but unnecessary, the people who want to keep them where they are become more and more desperate.  Take, for example, what religious writer Jessilyn Justice had to say last week about her views and those of radio talk show host Paul McGuire. Apparently, Justice and McGuire think we have to keep "In God We Trust" on the dollar bill, because otherwise we're going to initiate the End Times:
Money and spirituality are heavily intertwined, says eschatology professor and prolific author Paul McGuire.

"The world system is a control system that is both spiritual and economic," McGuire said at the Prophecy in the News conference.  "Money is all about captivity, slavery and control.  That is its essential purpose.  It's [sic] essential purpose is not an economic instrument of exchange.  It's about control and the occult and spirituality." 
McGuire points to one of the founding theories of atheism, Darwin's theory of evolution, and Space Odyssey co-author Arthur C. Clarke to connect atheism, money and the occult: Science is magic. To remove God from the money would allow the occult to take over. 
McGuire says the dollar bill is bursting with blatantly occult symbols, meaning the United States economic system is based on magic and sorcery opposed to logic and principles.

"The world system of economics is based on magic and illusion.  It's based on your willingness to believe in it," McGuire said.  "It's about the manipulation and control of the masses. That's what Jesus is talking about when he's talking about Mammon and the world system."... 
The answer?  To keep God in money, McGuire says, which could mean leaving Him on the bills, as well.
Well, first of all, Arthur C. Clarke didn't say "Science is magic," he said, "Magic is science we haven't understood yet," which is kind of the opposite.  And second, I don't think having "In God We Trust" on our currency has had much effect in keeping money from being about manipulation, power, and control.  If that's why the phrase is there, it's not working.

But third, something I've found puzzling is why a lot of the Christians go on and on warning us about preventing the End Times.  You'd think they'd be knocking themselves out to encourage us atheists to do stuff to bring the End Times on, because don't they believe that the first thing that will happen is that all of the holy people will be assumed bodily into heaven?  Meaning that after that, they won't have to deal with all of the annoying people who don't believe exactly like they do?  You'd think they'd be saying, "Go ahead.  Take "One Nation Under God" out of the pledge.  See what happens next.  Ha ha ha."

But they don't.  Most of the stuff I've read is all about making sure that individuals and governments do everything they can to prevent the End Times, which is a little peculiar if you really believe that you're going to get your eternal reward in heaven and all the bad guys are going to get their just deserts.

Almost sounds as if they aren't completely convinced that stuff is true, either.

So the bottom line is, unless you believe in some sort of occult magical significance of the words, there's no good reason to keep statements of religious faith in the Pledge of Allegiance and printed on our money.  But given that McGuire was right about one thing -- this isn't about logic and principles -- I'm expecting that change isn't going to happen any time soon.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The cost of scientific ignorance

Arrogance (n.) -- having or showing the insulting attitude of people who believe they are better, smarter, or more important than other people; exaggerating one's own worth in an overbearing manner.

There.  Just thought I'd clear that up, right at the outset.  Because evidently Jeb Bush needs to consult Webster's before he starts throwing the word around.

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

The subject comes up because of a campaign stop in New Hampshire that the presidential hopeful made earlier this week, in which he brought up the topic of climate change.  He was specifically responding to President Obama's comment that climate change was a national security risk -- something just about every climate scientist in the world would agree with, given its projected effects on sea level, storm intensity, and shifts in rainfall.

Bush, however, disagreed.   "If the president thinks this is the gravest threat to our national security," he told the crowd, "it seems like he would say, 'let's expand LNG (liquefied natural gas) as fast as we can to get it into the hands of higher carbon-intense economies like China and other places. Let's figure out ways to use compressed natural gas for replacing importing diesel fuel, which has a higher carbon footprint,'"

This conveniently ignores the role that methane itself has in climate change.  It is true that natural gas produces less carbon dioxide, both per pound of fuel and per kilowatt-hour of energy, than coal does; however, leaked natural gas from fracking is already outweighing any savings in the carbon budget that would be accrued from switching from coal to gas.  In a paper from last October by Schneising et al., the authors write:
In the past decade, there has been a massive growth in the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of shale gas and tight oil reservoirs to exploit formerly inaccessible or unprofitable energy resources in rock formations with low permeability.  In North America, these unconventional domestic sources of natural gas and oil provide an opportunity to achieve energy self-sufficiency and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when displacing coal as a source of energy in power plants.  However, fugitive [i.e., accidental/unreported] methane emissions in the production process may counter the benefit over coal with respect to climate change and therefore need to be well quantified.  Here we demonstrate that positive methane anomalies associated with the oil and gas industries can be detected from space and that corresponding regional emissions can be constrained using satellite observations... calling immediate climate benefit into question and indicating that current inventories likely underestimate the fugitive emissions.
But then, Bush goes even further, accusing the scientists who have brought such data to light "arrogant:"
Look, first of all, the climate is changing.  I don't think the science is clear what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural.  It's convoluted.  And for the people to say the science is decided on, this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you.   It's this intellectual arrogance that now you can't even have a conversation about it.
Governor Bush, let me clarify some of the "convolution" for you; speaking with authority about a topic on which you are an expert is not arrogance.  Arrogance is when you exaggerate your knowledge for the purposes of self-aggrandizement.  (Cf. the above definition.)  And ignoring the evidence, and stating that the science is "unclear" when it is not, is one of two things; if it's done unwittingly, it's called "ignorance;" if it's done deliberately so as to placate voters and tell them what they want to hear even though you know it is untrue, it's called either "pandering" or "lying outright," depending upon how harsh you want to be.

And of course, it is exactly this sort of thinking that is why the House passed a bill last year forbidding scientists to give expert testimony on their own research.  Can't have those arrogant scientists tooting their own horns, dontchaknow.  Gotta make sure we're only taking advice from reg'lar folk.

You know, folk who don't know what they're talking about.

I don't know how we got here, in a place where being knowledgeable about a field makes you arrogant, and being an expert on a topic makes you biased.  The politicians, I think, have largely forgotten that in science we're talking about facts and evidence, not opinions and beliefs.

Put succinctly, stating that the data support a causal connection between fossil fuel use and climate change is not arrogant.

It's simply true.

Thursday, May 21, 2015


One of the most frustrating things about the country I live in is the extent to which money drives policy.

So often, it doesn't matter if you're right; all that matters is whether you have enough cash to sway the people making the decisions.  Questions of justice, fairness, even of truth and falsity, are superseded by whoever can buy the most influence.

Every so often, though, someone will try to change that.  It's an uphill battle, of course.  Trying to reduce the influence of wealthy people is hard, because the people who want things to stay this way are... wealthy.  They've bought themselves into power, and will buy their way into remaining in power if they possibly can.

One of the worst aspects of this is the SLAPP -- strategic lawsuits against public participation.  SLAPPs are suits initiated by rich people or corporations for one reason only; to tie up their less well-heeled opponents in protracted, expensive legal battles.  The ones filing the SLAPP couldn't care less if they win.  Winning isn't the point.

Bankrupting their enemies is.

[image courtesy of photographer Brian Turner and the Wikimedia Commons]

The two most commons sorts of SLAPPs are those filed by industry against environmental organizations, and those by charlatans against their critics.  The cost for the legal feels to defend oneself against a frivolous lawsuit is astronomical, and it's often easier to cave in -- to stop the environmental activism, or withdraw the criticisms, than it is to pursue the defense in the courts.

Dr. Steven Novella, for example, has been dragged for several years through the ordeal of defending himself from a libel suit by Andrew Wakefield, author of the discredited study that linked vaccination to autism.  In spite of the fact that Wakefield's study was withdrawn by The Lancet as "utterly false," and Wakefield's devastating smackdown in 2010 by the British General Medical Board (Wakefield was convicted by the board of three dozen charges, including having acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly" in his published research), he has still pursued a vindictive lawsuit against Novella, who has been one of his most outspoken critics.  Novella writes:
What I learned when I became the target of a SLAPP suit (that is still ongoing) is that anyone with money can take away your free speech at will. It works like this: if you express an opinion publicly that someone else doesn’t like because it is critical of them, their beliefs, their business, etc. then they can hire a lawyer and send you a cease and desist letter. You are now faced with a dilemma – take down your blog, article, podcast, video, or whatever and allow your free speech to be suppressed, or potentially face tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. 
Except for those few states with effective anti-SLAPP laws (California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Texas and the District of Columbia – Florida just passed one which has not yet gone into effect), if you refuse to remove your free speech and you get sued, then expect to spend large sums of money and years of your life defending your rights. Here’s the thing – even if the case against you has zero merit and no chance of winning in the end, the lawsuit is a financial game of chicken. There is no way to shut the case down early. There is no bar for meritless cases. 
The net effect of this is that if someone has money they can shut down your free speech at will. This, of course, has a chilling effect on free speech that can go way beyond the one instance of speech being targeted.
A similar case is that of Harvard medical researcher Dr. Pieter Cohen and three other scientists who are being sued by Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals, Inc., for a scholarly paper they wrote regarding a supplement that may contain biologically significant doses of an amphetamine isomer.  Cohen et al. wrote:
Consumers of Acacia rigidula supplements may be exposed to pharmacological dosages of an amphetamine isomer that lacks evidence of safety in humans. The FDA should immediately warn consumers about BMPEA and take aggressive enforcement action to eliminate BMPEA in dietary supplements.
Hi-Tech has sued the researchers for a total of $200 million in compensatory and punitive damages for libel and slander.

Both the environmental and the free speech aspects of this practice are profoundly distressing to me.  The idea that rich corporations are driving our environmental policy and squelching the ability of scientists and writers to criticize, or even bring to light, what is going on, is something that should raise red flags for anyone who values the truth and fair play.  The implications cut deep; even as a blogger, I've had my worries about pissing someone off, and getting sued.  I can't afford the legal fees -- so whether I was in the right or in the wrong, such a lawsuit would have the effect of shutting me down pretty much instantaneously.

There's a hope, though; Representative Blake Farenthold (R-TX) has introduced a bill into congress called the SPEAK FREE Act, which would have the effect of establishing a procedural mechanism for dismissing frivolous lawsuits rather than pursuing them at the expense of the defendants.  The defendant has the right to file a motion showing "that the claim at issue arises from an oral or written statement or other expression by the defendant made in connection with an official proceeding or about a matter of public concern."  It then falls back on the plaintiff to demonstrate that his/her case has merit.  If that cannot be established, the case is summarily dismissed, and the court costs are borne by the plaintiff.

In other words, this acts as an anti-SLAPP law.  It takes nothing away from legitimate libel and slander suits; it simply makes it far harder for wealthy individuals or corporations to pursue frivolous lawsuits that have, as their sole aim, bankrupting the people they're attacking.

I strongly urge you to support this legislation.  You can find out ways to make your voice heard here.

So as disheartening as our Money-Talks system of government can be, here in the United States, it's encouraging that sometimes people stand up.  It happened only a couple of weeks ago, with the unprecedented slapdown of billionaire Harold Hamm, CEO of the petrochemical corporation Continental Resources, Inc.  Hamm had demanded that the University of Oklahoma fire scientists who were researching the connection between hydrofracking and earthquakes, reminding the administrators along the way of the huge amount of financial support he'd given the university.

The effort backfired.  An email from Larry Grillot, Dean of the College of Earth and Energy, was made public, and it said in part, "Mr. Hamm is very upset at some of the earthquake reporting to the point that he would like to see select OGS staff dismissed."  Grillot came down on the side of the scientists, saying, "Foremost for us is academic freedom," and politely told Hamm to shove off.

This announcement was tempered, however, by the passage immediately afterwards of two bills in the Oklahoma state congress that makes it illegal for community governments to ban fracking.  So the news, as always, was a mixed bag.

But the University's stance, and the anti-SLAPP bill, are both important steps toward reducing the influence that money has on policy.  We have a long way to go before our government can be called anything but a plutocracy; but we should all support any movement in the right direction.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Font of knowledge

Punching yet another hole in our sense that humans are at their core a logical, rational species, filmmaker Errol Morris has done an elegant experiment that shows that our perceptions of the truth value of a statement are influenced...

... by what typeface it's set in.

Morris conspired with The New York Times to run a part of David Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity that looks at the Earth's likelihood of having its habitability destroyed by an asteroid collision.  (Deutsch's conclusion: not very likely.)  Afterwards, the readers were invited to take a survey entitled, "Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?" which ostensibly measured the degree of pollyanna-ism in the reader, but was really set up to see to what extent readers bought Deutsch's argument that humanity has no real cause to worry.

The variable was the font that the passage was written in.  He used six: Baskerville, Helvetica, Georgia, Comic Sans, Trebuchet, and Computer Modern.

40,000 people responded.  And the results were as fascinating as they were puzzling; Baskerville had a 5-person-out-of-a-thousand edge over the next highest (Helvetica), which may not seem like much, but which statisticians analyzing the experiment have declared is statistically significant.  Cornell University psychologist David Dunning, who helped design the experiment, said:
(The score spread is) small, but it’s about a 1% to 2% difference — 1.5% to be exact, which may seem small but to me is rather large.  You are collecting these data in an uncontrolled environment (who knows, for example just how each person’s computer is rendering each font, how large the font is, is it on an iPad or iPhone, laptop or desktop), are their kids breaking furniture in the background, etc.  So to see any difference is impressive.  Many online marketers would kill for a 2% advantage either in more clicks or more clicks leading to sales.
The whole thing is a little disturbing, frankly -- that our perceptions of the truth are so malleable that they could be influenced by a little thing by what font it's set in.  Morris writes:
Truth is not typeface dependent, but a typeface can subtly influence us to believe that a sentence is true.  Could it swing an election?  Induce us to buy a new dinette set?  Change some of our most deeply held and cherished beliefs?  Indeed, we may be at the mercy of typefaces in ways that we are only dimly beginning to recognize.  An effect — subtle, almost indiscernible, but irrefutably there.
 Morris was interviewed about his experiment, and was asked a particularly trenchant question: When people read this for the first time, how do you hope that will change their own perception of the world?  Morris responded:
I'm not really sure. I'm not even sure what exactly to make of the results, in truth.  Everything I do—everything I write about and everything I make movies about—is about the distance between the world and us.  We think the world is just given to us, that there's no slack in the system, but there is.  Everything I do is about the slack of the system: the difference between reality and our perception of reality.  So in the sense that this essay lets us further reflect on the world around us, and even makes us paranoid about the slack in the system, then I think it's a good and valuable thing.
And I certainly agree.  Anything that makes us aware of our own biases, and the faults in our logic and perceptual systems, is all to the good.  We need to realize how inaccurate our minds are, if for no other reason, to reinforce how important science is as a tool for improving our knowledge.  Science, relying as it does on human minds for data analysis and interpretation, is far from perfect itself; but as a protocol for understanding, it's the best thing we've got.  Without it, we have no way to winnow out the truth from our own flawed assumptions.

So watch for more and more articles and advertisements appearing in Baskerville, because you just know that the media is going to jump on this study.  And I hope that this once and for all stops people from using Comic Sans, because I can't see that font without thinking of Garfield, and heaven knows that's not a good thing.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

That rabbit's dynamite!

After dealing in recent posts with such topics as standardized testing, controversies over legislation allowing the teaching of creationism in public school science classes, and the consequences of civil disobedience, I'm sure what you're all thinking is, "Yes, but what about BunnyMan?"

BunnyMan is a cryptid I'd never heard of, that apparently haunts the town of Clifton, Virginia, in Fairfax County.  And according to an article over at Mysterious Universe, we're not talking some gentle, fuzzy little Peter Cottontail, here.  BunnyMan is more like the scary evil rabbit from Donnie Darko.

Author Brent Swancer, who is also the person who four years ago warned us about giant Sky Jellyfish attacking Japan, tells us that sightings of BunnyMan have been going on for over a hundred years.  The whole thing started with the escape in 1904 of two inmates from an insane asylum, Douglas Grifon and Marcus Wallster, in the woods near Clifton.  Wallster was eventually found, hanging from a bridge railing, with a note saying, "You'll never catch me, no matter how hard you try.  Signed, The BunnyMan."  Grifon was never found.  And thus began a century's worth of mysterious deaths and sightings of guys in bunny suits.

You may be laughing by now.  I know I was.  Swancer, however, is entirely serious, and describes numerous encounters with the long-eared lunatic.  And he tells us that this thing is the most foul-tempered rrrrrodent... -- well, let's hear an example or two in his own words:
Two of the most intriguing and bizarre accounts of the Bunny Man surfaced in 1970.  The first incident occurred on October 19, 1970, when an Air Force Academy cadet by the name of Bob Bennett was allegedly with his fiancée and parked his car on Guinea Road in Burke, Virginia, so that the couple could talk.  It was at this time that they noticed a white figure moving outside of the vehicle.  Moments later, the front window was smashed into a cascade of glass, and an ominous voice warned “You’re on private property and I have your tag number.”  The horrified couple sped away and as they screamed down the road they noticed a small hatchet on the floor of the car.  When questioned later by the police, Bennett would insist that the attacker had been decked out in a full bunny suit, and he told his superiors at the Air Force base the same thing.  As ridiculous as the story sounded, Bennett would continue to insist it was true long after the incident.
Then, later that same year, BunnyMan had another run-in over people trespassing in his private Carrot Patch:
Just two weeks after the Bennett incident, the Bunny Man struck again.  Paul Phillips, a private security guard for a construction company, reported that he had seen a man-sized rabbit in front of a house under construction.  When approached by Phillips, the rabbit was reported to have said “All you people trespass around here. If you don’t get out of here, I’m going to bust you on the head,” after which it started to furiously hack away at the unoccupied house with an axe.  Allegedly, when the startled Phillips went back to his car to get a firearm, the “bunny” swiftly escaped into the woods and disappeared.
Swancer's article is chock-full of other stories about people meeting this buck-toothed bad guy in northeastern Virginia.  In fact, the Colchester Overpass, the site of numerous suicides by hanging, has also been the site of so many appearances that it's supposedly called "BunnyMan Bridge" by locals who don't mind losing any credibility they might have had.

What strikes me about all of this is the proximity of Clifton, Virginia to the CIA Headquarters in Langley.  The two are only separated by twenty miles, as the rabbit hops, which I'm sure can't be a coincidence.  After all, I've watched historical documentaries in which Fox Mulder and Dana Scully found out about all sorts of horrible things the government was involved in, including alien hybridization experiments.  So the next step, evil-wise, would be hybridizing humans with various animals, some of which would inevitably escape and terrorize the countryside.  Just be glad it was BunnyMan.  It could have been WeaselMan, PigeonMan, or, god forbid, HornetMan.

I've been at this blog for five years, and by this time, I thought I'd run into every cryptid in the book; but I have to admit, before yesterday I'd never heard of this guy.  So thanks to Brent Swancer for another example of hard-hitting journalism, uncovering the depredations of a vicious rabbit only a stone's throw from our nation's capital.  I feel safer now.  As Elmer Fudd teaches us, forewarned is forearmed.

Swancer ends his article on a cautionary note:
Who, or what, is the Bunny Man?  Is this a case of a ghost, an unsolved crime, a psycho on the loose, some mystery animal, or merely the delusional human psyche working upon its inner fears to create a phantom construct in the real world in the form of scary stories and myth?  The story of a man-sized bunny running around terrorizing, even murdering, people seems to cross over the line from mystery into preposterousness, but many urban legends doubtlessly have their origins in some grain of truth, so who really knows?  For the case of the Bunny Man, no matter how ludicrous it may sound, it might be a good idea to stay away from the Colchester Overpass at night, just in case.
Of course, he misses one possibility, which is "people impersonating a figure from a local legend to stir up trouble," which I think is the most likely solution.  Given the propensity of pranksters to keep such stories going -- consider the copycat phenomenon in the case of crop circles -- it's no wonder that once BunnyMan started being a thing around Clifton, he continued to be seen over and over again.

Any notoriety is better than obscurity, I suppose.

So that's our hare-raising tale for today.  If you're ever down in Fairfax County, keep your eyes open, especially at night.  You might want to bring some carrots along as a peace offering.  I hear BunnyMan has quite a temper.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Knowing the score

One of the beautiful things about science is that it self-corrects.

If the data don't support the prevailing theory, you double-check the data to make sure you're not misinterpreting it, re-run the experiments to make sure they're well controlled, and then if you get the same results...

... you alter your model.

You have no other option.  Science is a method for understanding the world based upon logic and evidence.  If you accept that as a protocol for knowing the universe, you are dedicating yourself to following where it leads, even if you don't like the conclusions sometimes.

A pity, isn't it, that we can't introduce this approach into other fields?

Like, for example, education.  I'm a hard-core linguistics geek; in fact, my master's degree is in Scandinavian linguistics.  (Yes, I know, I teach biology.  It's a long story.)  So one of the things that galls me about education is the fact that we've known for decades that children learn languages better, more easily, and become more fluent the earlier you start them.  Kids put into language immersion classes in preschool learn a second language nearly as easily as the first, without tedious memorization of vocabulary lists and conjugations.

And when do most school districts begin language classes?  Middle school.  Right around the time kids' brains start getting bad at learning languages.

We don't need no scholarly research, educational leaders seem to be saying.  We've done it this way for years, and it's working just fine.

So with that scientific-method approach to analysis in mind, let's look at a piece of research regarding the current fad -- high-stakes standardized tests, now being used to evaluate not only students, but teachers, schools, and entire school districts.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Christopher Tienken, associate professor of Education Administration at Seton Hall University, has just published an interesting, and disturbing, paper in the Journal of Scholarship and Practice.  In it, he shows that he can predict how a school population will perform on standardized tests, using only U.S. Census data.

You read that right.  Give Tienken information on demographics, ethnic makeup, socioeconomic status, community size, and so on, he can tell you how the school will do on standardized tests before the students actually take them.  Tienken writes:
In all, our regression models begin with about 18-21 different indicators.  We clean the models and usually end up with 2-4 indicators that demonstrate the greatest predictive power.  Then we enter those indicators into an algorithm that most fourth-graders, with an understanding of order or operations, could construct and calculate. Not complicated stuff.

Our initial work at the 3rd-8th and 11th grade levels in NJ, and grades 3-8 in CT and Iowa have proven fairly accurate.  Our prediction accuracy ranges from 62% to over 80% of districts in a state, depending on the grade level and subject tested.
I hope you recognize how devastating this is to the claim that standardized tests tell you anything worth knowing about teacher competence.  If census data alone predicts student performance, then how are "underperforming" teachers supposed to improve their scores?  Tienken's research implies that poor teachers will suddenly become more competent... if they move to a different district.

Tienken doesn't mince words about the implications of his study:
The findings from these and other studies raise some serious questions about using results from state standardized tests to rank schools or compare them to other schools in terms of standardized test performance.  Our forthcoming results from a series of school level studies at the middle school level produced similar results and raise questions about the appropriateness of using state test results to rank or evaluate teachers or make any potentially life-impacting decisions about educators or children.
Now, Tienken isn't saying that teachers make no difference; we all, I think, can attest to the power of a truly skilled teacher in making a difference to a child's life.  I had three teachers who stand out as having turned the course of my life in some way -- my high school biology and creative writing teachers, and my first-year college calculus teacher.  Each of them engendered in me a passion for learning and a fascination with the topic, such that I looked forward to each and every class and wanted more when I was done.

But the point is, this sort of thing is not measurable with a standardized test.  The real value of truly gifted teachers is their capacity for making learning relevant and engaging, making dry academic subjects come to life.  And whatever standardized tests are measuring -- a point no one, even the policy wonks at the state and federal Departments of Education, seems to be entirely clear on -- they certainly don't measure that.

So teacher evaluation, astonishingly enough, is best done by a competent administrator, who knows the teacher, the subject, and the students, not by some paper-and-pencil exam.  Who'd'a thought.

And it'd be nice if the people in charge would look at Tienken's research, and do a forehead smack, and say, "Wow!  We were wrong!  Better reconsider how we're applying standardized test scores!"  But given that scientific rules of validity and analysis don't seem to apply to education, I have the feeling that the result of Tienken's study will be: nothing.  We will almost certainly keep moving down the same road, letting test scores drive more and more decision-making, up to and including teacher salaries and retention.

Can't let a little thing like facts get in the way of educational reform, after all.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The problem with Seymour

A few months ago, I made the point that the fallacy called appeal to authority is not as simple as it sounds.

On the surface, it's about not trusting authorities and public figures simply because they're well-known names.  You can convince anyone of anything, seemingly, if you append the words "Albert Einstein said so" after your claim; it's the reason I fight every year in my intro neuroscience class with the spurious claim that humans use only 10% of their brains.  You see this idea attributed to Einstein all the time -- although it's unlikely that he ever said such a thing, adding "apocryphal quotes" as another layer of fallacy to this claim, and the claim itself is demonstrably false.

The problem is, of course, there are some areas where Einstein was an expert.  Adding "Einstein said so" to a discussion of general relativity is pretty persuasive, given that relativity has passed every scientific test it's been put through.  But notice the difference; we're not accepting relativity because a respect physicist thought it was true.  Said respected physicist's ideas still had to be vetted, retested, and peer-reviewed.  It's the vindication of his theories that conferred credibility on his name, not the other way around.

The situation becomes even blurrier when you have someone whose work in a particular field starts out valid and evidence-based, and then at some point veers off into wild speculation.  This is the core of the problem with an appeal to authority; someone having one or two right ideas in the past is no insurance against his/her being wildly wrong later.

This is the situation we find ourselves in with Seymour Hersh.  Hersh is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist whose work on exposing the truth about the My Lai Massacre and the torture of prisoners of war by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib was groundbreaking.  His dogged determination to get at the facts, even at the cost of embarrassing the American government and damaging the reputation of the U.S. overseas, earned him a well-deserved name as one of the giants of journalism.

Seymour Hersh [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem is, Hersh seems to have gone badly off the rails lately.  His latest piece, which he's pursuing with the tenacity of a bloodhound, is about the claim that the public version of the death of Osama bin Laden is a complete fabrication -- that the United States had captured bin Laden all the way back in 2006, and with help from the Saudis was using him as leverage against al Qaeda.  When his usefulness began to wane, they had him killed and then faked a raid against his compound in Abbottabad, then made public the story of the brave soldiers who'd risked their lives to take down a wanted terrorist.

The problem is, as is described in more detail in an article in Vox, the claim is supported by little in the way of evidence.  Hersh's two sources admittedly have no direct knowledge of what happened.  The story itself is fraught with self-contradictions and inconsistencies.  And then, to make matters worse, Hersh has recently begun to claim that the United States government has been infiltrated by members of Opus Dei (a Roman Catholic spiritual organization made famous, or infamous, by The DaVinci Code), that the chemical weapons attacks in Syria were "false flags" staged by the Turkish government, and that the U.S. is training Iranian terrorists in Nevada.

None of these, apparently, have any evidential support beyond "an anonymous source told me."  Hersh, seemingly, has slipped from being a hard-hitting investigative reporter to a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist.

He's not backing down, however.  He granted an interview to Slate in which he reiterated everything he's said.  He seems to spend equal time during the interview defending himself without introducing any further facts, and disparaging the interviewer, journalist Isaac Chotiner.  "What difference does it make what the fuck I think about journalism?" Hersh asked Chotiner.  "I don’t think much of the journalism that I see.  If you think I write stories where it is all right to just be good enough, are you kidding?  You think I have a cavalier attitude on throwing stuff out?  Are you kidding?  I am not cavalier about what I do for a living."

And only a moment earlier, when asked a question he didn't like, he said to Chotiner, "Oh poor you, you don’t know anything.  It is amazing you can speak the God’s English."

This is a vivid, and rather sad, example of why a person's reputation isn't sufficient to establish the veracity of their claims.  No one -- including both Albert Einstein and Seymour Hersh -- have the right to rest on their laurels, to expect people to believe something just because they've appended their name to it.

Claims stand or fall on the basis of one thing; the evidence.  And what Hersh has brought forth thus far is of such poor quality that about the only one he's convincing is Alex Jones.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Ethical lawbreaking

One of the topics we discuss in my Critical Thinking class is when taking a stand on an ethical issue trumps law.

Civil disobedience, in other words, crossing the line into potential arrest and prosecution.

I ask this question because two days ago, I was arrested for being part of a blockade of Crestwood Midstream's natural gas and (proposed) liquefied petroleum gas storage facility alongside Seneca Lake.  As I have described in previous posts, the facility uses geologically unstable salt caverns for this storage, risking catastrophic failure that would result in environmental devastation of the region and almost certainly loss of life.  The plan is, to put it simply, reckless and dangerous, driven by the profit motive of an out-of-state corporation that could simply up stakes and move back to Texas if the unthinkable happens.

We, on the other hand, live here and would have to deal with the consequences.

Yours truly being loaded into the police van after arrest [image courtesy of photographer Carol Bloomgarden]

The fact that Crestwood's plan is wildly irresponsible is not just fanciful or alarmist.  Dr. Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, had the following cautionary words:
The stakes are high.  Industry and government march blithely ahead, ignoring the growing risks of extreme energy development: deep offshore oil and gas, Arctic oil and gas, tar sands, shale gas… and the risky storage of methane and propane proposed for the salt caverns below us here.  We hit 400 ppm carbon dioxide this winter, for the first time in the past few million years; and another greenhouse gas -- methane -- is also at its highest level in the last several million years.  We are near the point of no return, where a much warmer Earth will be with us for the next several thousand years.
Schneising et al. showed in 2011 that the methane in the atmosphere is largely from shale gas and shale oil drilling.  The methane signature they found from this human activity is so large that it was visible from data obtained from satellites.  And methane has a hundred-fold higher impact on global temperature than carbon dioxide does -- making this enterprise even more foolhardy. 
So the impact of what Crestwood is doing here goes far beyond the local damage that a catastrophic mishap would cause.  Simply put, the fossil fuels need to stay in the ground.
And it's not as if there aren't solutions, solutions that could be put in place now if there was the will and the farsightedness to do so.  Howarth writes:
We already have the ability to make the switch to electric vehicles, and electric heat pumps for heating and cooling.  Their efficiencies are far greater than gasoline and diesel driven vehicles, or furnaces and water heaters than run on natural gas or fuel oil.  This would result in a 30% reduction in total use of energy, just from this transformation.  And that electricity should come from renewable sources.  Crestwood is placing our lives and our homes at risk, and moving us closer to global ecological disaster, because of a determination to keep using an energy source that should have been phased out decades ago. 
Switching to energy primarily from wind and from solar has a lower cost today than using fossil fuels, if the health costs of fossil fuels are considered.  In NY, there are 4,000 deaths each year from air pollution caused by fossil fuels, at a cost of $33 billion per year.

Making entire state free of fossil fuels costs $570 Billion. The cost savings from reduced illness and death from fossil fuels over the next fifteen years is enough to pay for the entire cost of the transition to renewables.
The "natural gas is about jobs" argument is equally specious.  Crestwood's projection of the number of jobs created for locals is outweighed fivefold by the jobs available in renewable energy in our region.  Joe Sliker, president of Renovus Solar Energy, said:
The solar industry complements the existing, thriving, and growing winery and tourism industries.  Solar is cleaner, safer, and a more prosperous path forth for families and even for all of the Crestwood employees. 
So, I'm here today for all of the good men and women who risk their lives every single day for their jobs.  I'm here for the welders, the pipe fitters, the electricians, the truckers, and all of the hard working people who go to work every day to provide for their families.  I'm here for those people who lay their lives on the line every morning when they wake up, for those people whose hands bleed while they work, and for the families that love and worry about them. 
I'm here to offer them a choice.  I'm here to tell them that we don't have to support a dangerous facility and risk our lives and the lives of our loved ones in order to have good paying jobs. 
I'm here to offer all of those people a better job.  Today.  Right now.  Our Renovus HR manager is here with a stack of applications.  Come talk to us. 
Solar is rapidly expanding and Renovus is a thriving regional business. In contrast to the eight to ten permanent jobs promised by the gas storage facility, Renovus has added over 50 new permanent jobs just in the past year.
Add it all up.  Crestwood Midstream, and other companies like them, put the lives and livelihood of ordinary people at risk for one reason; to boost their profits and pay their stockholders.  The alternatives are real and affordable and viable.  What is being proposed amounts to reckless endangerment, yet our local and state governments refuse to step in and stop it.

So it was time for me to act.

I know that my arrest, by itself, will have little effect.  I'll appear at court, and likely face a fine, and that will be that.  But the symbolism of people who are willing to risk prosecution for a worthy cause has a far greater reach than that; it is the actions of individuals that make the difference.  And that means all of us who know enough to care about what is happening.  As the amazing Australian singer/songwriter Judy Small put it in her song about social activism, "One Voice in the Crowd," "In the end it's all the same; the buck stops where you are."  (Listen to the whole song at the link below.)

So it's not about the futility of a few people standing up to the actions of a huge corporation.  It's about doing the right thing, and as Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai put it, "Keeping our feeling of empowerment ahead of our feeling of despair."  It's about being willing to put yourself at risk, because the alternative is to accept blindly a far worse risk, one whose consequences may still be felt a thousand years from now.

We all need to act, and the time is now.


To support what is happening here, please "like" the We Are Seneca Lake Facebook page, write your congressperson and/or Governor Andrew Cuomo (here's his contact information), and share this post around.  This message needs to move, and quickly.