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.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Winner by a nose

A lot of Trump supporters are frustrated that Their Boy didn't do so well in the debate Monday night.  I mean, it would take a serious pro-Donaldite to feel like his performance was anything but a blustering, sometimes baffling word salad.  It's unsurprising considering his penchant for extemporizing -- a strategy that may play well when you're at a rally composed of your loyal followers, but doesn't exactly work on the national stage while being watched by (allegedly) more people than tuned in to the last Superbowl.

But the problem is, when someone you're counting on doesn't come through, you start casting around for an explanation.  Because obviously it couldn't be your candidate's fault, right?

Of course right.

So first, we had Donald himself blaming his poor showing on a faulty microphone.  How that could have an effect I don't know, given that we could hear him just fine.  Maybe he thought that the mic was magically turning his eloquent words into incoherent babbling like his comments on cybersecurity:
I have a son.  He's 10 years old.  He has computers.  He is so good with these computers, it's unbelievable.  The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough.  And maybe it's hardly doable.  But I will say, we are not doing the job we should be doing.  But that's true throughout our whole governmental society.  We have so many things that we have to do better, Lester, and certainly cyber is one of them.
Yeah!  Okay!  What?

But Trump wasn't the only one to claim that there was fishy stuff going on.  There's a conspiracy theory making the rounds that the moderator, Lester Holt, was deliberately throwing the debate for Hillary Clinton.  And not only that; Clinton herself was signaling him by giving him threatening coded hand gestures by scratching her nose.

I'm not making this up.  According to the video, Clinton scratched her nose six times.  She apparently did this to let Holt know if he was asking questions to Trump that were too easy or ones to her that were too hard, to coerce him into sidestepping awkward topics, and allowing Clinton to (and I quote) "interrupt and score with a zinger."

Never mind that according to a PBS staff writer, Trump interrupted Clinton 51 times in two hours.  Never mind that Trump himself was sniffing constantly during the entire debate, and no one's claiming that he was secretly signaling someone, possibly his coke dealer.

I mean, seriously, folks.  If you don't like Hillary Clinton's politics, that's absolutely fine by me.  But the idea that she was communicating with Holt in code so he could skew the debate in her favor is...

... kind of stupid.

For one thing, Lester Holt is a registered Republican.  Why on earth a registered Republican (who has been a respected figure in journalism since the early 1980s) would throw a debate in favor of a  Democrat is beyond me.  I have a feeling it's beyond the people making the claim, too.  After all, these sorts of things aren't about rationalism and logic, they're about the world conforming to their own personal view of things.

Damn the evidence, full speed ahead.

But even so, I've seen this claim surface on social media more than once in the past couple of days, and mostly the comments have been on the order of "I knew it would be rigged" and a knowing nod.  And this strikes me as a dangerous trend.  It's the approach of the toddler, you know?  If you don't get your way, if your every wish isn't immediately met, it's the whole world's fault.  It couldn't be that you're interpreting things wrong, or (heaven forfend) you might not understand what's going on.

Nope.  Can't be that.  Has to be a conspiracy.

All the more reason for me to stay right the hell out of politics.  I'm always reminded of the quote by Dave Barry: "When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command.  Very often, that person is crazy."

The problem is, in order to get elected, the crazy person also has to have followers.  And they're often even crazier.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

I smell a rat

I think I've made my position on GMOs plain enough, but let me just be up front about it right out of the starting gate.

There is nothing intrinsically dangerous about genetic modification.  Since each GMO involves messing with a different genetic substructure, the results will be different each time -- and therefore will require separate testing for safety.  The vast majority of GMOs have been extensively tested for deleterious human health effects, and almost all of those have proven safe (the ones that weren't never reached market).

So GMOs are, overall, as safe as any other agricultural practice -- i.e. not 100% foolproof, but with appropriate study, not something that deserves the automatic stigma the term has accrued.

There are a great many people who don't see it that way.  One of the most vocal is Gilles-Éric Séralini, who made headlines back in 2007 with a study that alleged that rats fed genetically modified corn showed blood and liver abnormalities.  When the study was published and other scientists attempted to replicate it (and failed), the results of Séralini's study were attributed to "normal biological variation (for the species in question)."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Undeterred, Séralini went on in 2012 to publish a paper in Food and Chemical Toxicology about long-term toxicity of glyphosate (RoundUp) that is still the go-to research for the anti-Monsanto crowd.  He claimed that rats dosed with glyphosate developed large tumors and other abnormalities.  But that study, too, failed in attempts to replicate it, and it was withdrawn from FCT, with the editor-in-chief stating that the results were "inconclusive."

So if you smell a rat with respect to Séralini and his alleged studies, you're not alone.

But there's no damage to your reputation that can't be made worse, and Séralini took that dubious path last week -- with a "study" that claims that a homeopathic remedy can protect you from the negative effects of RoundUp.

So, to put it bluntly: a sugar pill can help you fight off the health problems caused by something that probably doesn't cause health problems, at least in the dosages that most of us would ordinarily be exposed to.

Being that such research -- if I can dignify it by that name -- would never pass peer review, Séralini went right to a pay-to-play open-source alt-med journal called BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  Steven Savage, a plant pathologist, had the following to say about the study:
The dose is absurd.  They gave the animals the equivalent of what could be in the spray tank including the surfactants and the a.i. (active ingredients).  If glyphosate or its AMPA metabolite ever end up in a food it is at extremely low concentrations and never with the surfactant.  Unless you were a farmer or gardener who routinely drinks from the spray tank over eight days, this study is meaningless.
Furthermore, Andrew Porterfield, who wrote the scathing critique of Séralini I linked above, pointed out an additional problem:
Scientists have been sharply critical of the study’s methodology and conclusions... the paper has no discussion on the natural variability in locomotion or physiological parameters, making it impossible to tell if anything was truly wrong with any of the animals.
And if that weren't bad enough, Séralini proposes to counteract these most-likely-nonexistent health effects with pills that have been diluted past Avogadro's Limit -- i.e., the point where there is even a single molecule of the original substance left.  There have been dozens of controlled studies of the efficacy of homeopathy, and none of them -- not one -- have shown that it has any effect at all except as a placebo.

So we have doubtful health problems in animals that were not evaluated beforehand for health problems being treated by worthless "remedies" that have been shown to have zero effect in controlled studies.

Of course, considering how powerful confirmation bias is, I'm not expecting this to convince anyone who wasn't already convinced.  I will say, however, that we'd be in a lot better shape as a species if we relied more on reason, logic, and evidence -- and less on our preconceived notions of how we'd like the world to be.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Algae aura

Can I just say that I am sick unto death of people misrepresenting science?

Some scientist somewhere makes a discovery, and it seems to take only milliseconds before every woo-woo with a favorite loony idea about how the world works is using it to support their claims.  These people have taken confirmation bias and raised it to an art form.

I saw a particularly good (or bad, as the case may be) example of this yesterday in an article by Michael Forrester called "People Can Draw Energy From Other People The Same Way Plants Do," that is getting passed all over social media.  So let me illustrate my point by telling you what some of Forrester's conclusions from this scientific research are, and afterwards I'll tell you about the actual research itself.

See if you can connect the two.

Forrester says that we absorb "energies" from our surroundings.  He never defines what he means by "energy," but I'm pretty sure it's not the standard physics definition, because he includes stuff about being around "negative people."  He cites "psychologist and energy healer" Olivia Bader-Lee, who says:
This is exactly why there are certain people who feel uncomfortable in specific group settings where there is a mix of energy and emotions...  The human organism is very much like a plant, it draws needed energy to feed emotional states and this can essentially energize cells or cause increases in cortisol and catabolize cells depending on the emotional trigger...  Humans can absorb and heal through other humans, animals, and any part of nature.  That's why being around nature is often uplifting and energizing for so many people.
We're then given specific recommendations for how to "absorb and heal" efficiently.  These include:
  • Stay centered and grounded
  • Be in a state of non-resistance
  • Own your personal aura space
  • Give yourself an energy cleanse
  • Call back your energy
I was especially interested in the "energy cleanse" thing, and fortunately, Forrester tells us exactly how to accomplish this:
The color gold has a high vibration which is useful for clearing away foreign energy.  Imagine a gold shower nozzle at the top of your aura (a few feet above your head) and turn it on, allowing clear gold energy to flow through your aura and body space and release down your grounding.  You will immediately feel cleansed and refreshed.
So all I have to do is imagine it, eh?  Given that I work with teenagers, I wish the "owning your personal aura space" was something that would happen if I imagined it.  Teaching a room full of tenth graders is like trying to herd puppies.  Since yelling "BACK OFF" is seldom effective, it'd be nice if all I had to do was to picture my "aura space" (gold-colored, of course) and the teenagers would be repelled backwards in a comical fashion, sort of like Yoda did to Count Dooku at the end of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.

But I digress.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Okay.  So you're probably wondering what scientific research led Forrester and Bader-Lee to come to this conclusion.


The discovery by a team of scientists in the Biotechnology Department of Bielefeld University (Germany) that a species of algae can digest cellulose.

If you're going, "Um, but wait... but... how... what?" you should realize that I had exactly the same response.  I spent several minutes thinking that I had clicked on the wrong link.  But no.  In fact, Forrester even mentions the gist of the research himself:
Members of Professor Dr. Olaf Kruse’s biological research team have confirmed for the first time that a plant, the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, not only engages in photosynthesis, but also has an alternative source of energy: it can draw it from other plants.
And from this he deduces that all you have to do to be happy is to picture yourself underneath a gold shower nozzle.

I've seen some misrepresentations and far-fetched deductions before, but this one has to take the prize.

I get that people are always casting about looking for support for their favorite theories.  So as wacky as Forrester's pronouncements are, at least I see why he made them.  But what baffles me is how other people can look at what he wrote, and say, "Yes!  That makes complete sense!  Algae that can digest cellulose!  Therefore aura spaces and energetic vibrations of happiness!

Okay, I admit that I can be a hardass rationalist at times.  But seriously, what are these people thinking?

Not much, is my guess.

So anyhow, watch out for those negative energies.  Those can be a bummer.  But if you're feeling like your vibrations are low, don't despair.  I hear that getting into psychic communication with algae can help.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Witch politics

Is it too much to ask that people leave their bizarre mythology out of politics?

I mean, our political situation at the moment is surreal enough.  We don't need anything to make it more embarrassing to the world at large.

Which is a message that needs delivering to televangelist Jim Bakker.  Bakker hosted an interview with Robert Maginnis, of the Family Research Council, a far-right evangelical organization that was classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010 because of their stance on LGBT issues.  In the interview, Bakker opined that President Obama was showing his preference for Muslims by appointing Abid Qureshi to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. (in Bakker's mind, "one out of hundreds of federal appointments" apparently constitutes a "preference"), when Maginnis made an even wackier pronouncement -- that our federal government is being controlled by witches:
I know that there’s demonic forces in that city.  I have personally met people that refer to themselves as witches, people that say they advise the senior leadership of the country.  We invite within the federal government people to advise us, and often some of those advisers, I think, have evil motivations, things that you and I would not approve of.
Honestly, I doubt the current trend of micromanagement in our federal government has anything to do with witches.  The whole modern Wicca religion has as its principal motto "As long as it harms none, do what you will," which is about as opposite to the government's approach as any I can think of.

But a statement being ridiculous never seems to deter these people.  Because whether it was spurred by Maginnis's remark about witches or not, last week a bunch of evangelicals at the Midwest Vision and Values Pastors Leadership Conference in Cleveland decided to protect Donald Trump from demonic attack by laying hands on him.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Darrell Scott, pastor of New Spirit Revival Center, who hosted the conference, told the audience that a "nationally known minister told Donald Trump that if you choose to run for president, there’s going to be a concentrated Satanic attack against you...  He said there’s going to be a demon, principalities and powers, that are going to war against you on a level that you’ve never seen before and I’m watching it every day."

So to ward off this nasty demonic stuff, Scott’s wife led some of the attendees in a "laying on of hands."

"God we ask you right now that Your choice is this choice," she said.  "God, I ask that you would touch this man, Donald J. Trump.  Give him the anointing to lead this nation."

I have to admit that I find it baffling that the evangelical wing of Christianity has flocked to Donald Trump the way they have.  Aren't adultery and divorce, not to mention hoarding money and refusing to pay people who work for you and admitting in a televised debate that you don't pay your federal taxes, considered sins?  Okay, I get that the right wing Christians would disapprove of Hillary Clinton's stance on gay marriage and pro-choice.  But Trump as a person seems pretty antithetical to everything Jesus preached, including "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's".

Okay, I'm an atheist, so what do I know?  But still, even from my perspective outside of the system, it strikes me as bizarre.

No more bizarre, of course, than claiming that the government is being run by witches.  So I guess whatever else you can say, you have to admire their consistency.  Even if what it means in this case is "consistently batshit."

Monday, September 26, 2016

RNA attack

It's a common strategy.  If simply spouting alarmist rhetoric doesn't cause your target audience to panic sufficiently, throw in some quasi-technical nonsense to make it sound like your position actually has scientific merit.  Unfortunately, it has a way of working, as people like Vani "The Food Babe" Hari discovered when she launched her "if you can't pronounce it, you shouldn't be eating it" campaign, which if it succeeded, would rob your diet of most of its essential nutrients, leaving behind only easy-to-say stuff like "starch."

It's the old "if you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit" approach dressed up in new clothes.  It's a favorite strategy of such anti-science types as the anti-vaxxers and anti-GMOers (who in many cases are one and the same).  Witness the latter's latest sally against the scientific establishment, which revolves around the claim that if you're eating GMO food, it contains RNA (true) and this RNA can alter your own genes (false).

I learned about this bizarre statement from Sterling Ericsson's wonderful blog A Science Enthusiast, wherein we learn that the anti-GMO cadre have gone from the diffuse claim that all GMOs are bad to proposing a specific mechanism by which they do their dirty work -- they contain "engineered RNA" that then can get into your cells and interfere with your normal cellular processes.  And to the non-scientific, even the actual research can certainly sound like the stuff of science fiction; gene-modification techniques like CRISPR, switching genes on and off with RNA interference, inserting DNA from one species into another to generate organisms that express "foreign" genes as they would their own.

[image courtesy of Christopher Bock, the Max Planck Institute, and the Wikimedia Commons]

My objection to the anti-GMO stance has always been that it lies squarely in the midst of the package-deal fallacy; just as our "natural" genes have thousands of different functions, each GMO is different from all the others.  GMOs are no more all bad than genes are, and each one has to be tested for safety individually.  (And they have been, extensively.)  But the addition of the "ingesting engineered RNA" claim adds a whole new layer of pseudoscience to the anti-GMO stance.  Rather than making it stronger, it makes it weaker, and (further) shines a harsh light on exactly how unscientific the claim itself is.

Because all of the food we eat contains nucleic acids, DNA and RNA both.  If you eat lettuce, you're eating (among other things) lettuce DNA and RNA.  If you eat a hamburger, you're ingesting the genetic material from cows (and tomatoes and whatever else you like on your burger).  If you eat "Slim Jims," you're consuming DNA from... well, whatever the hell organism "Slim Jims" are made from.  I dunno.  But presumably it was some kind of living thing at some point that had its own genetic material.

And miraculously, we don't start expression lettuce, cow, tomato, or Slim Jim genes, nor do any of those interfere with our own gene expression.  The reason is that in your small intestine you have enzymes called nucleases that break down the DNA and RNA of the organisms we eat, specifically to prevent us from accidentally incorporating foreign genetic material into our cells, which could cause us to express foreign proteins (depending on what they were and where they were produced, this could certainly be deleterious).  So the DNA and RNA in our food -- which is there even in the most organic-y of organic free-range locavore diets -- never survives the passage through our digestive system intact.

That includes any "artificially engineered" DNA and RNA, because your body can't tell the difference between the genetic material that came from a healthful, natural, non-engineered peach and that which came from BT corn purchased directly from Monsanto.  It all breaks down, natural and artifical alike.  If there's a health effect from eating GMOs, it doesn't come from the DNA and RNA -- it comes from the proteins they produced within the genetically modified organism before you ate it.

And like I said, those have been tested to a fare-thee-well.  But this is not likely to persuade the anti-GMOers, for whom the naturalistic fallacy is very nearly one of the Ten Commandments.

So anyhow, be on the lookout for this.  Call it out for the nonsense it is.  As I've said many times before, you do not make your point stronger by leaning on poorly-understood science.  All you do is make it seem like the rest of your claim has little merit as well -- which in this case, seems to be the truth.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Willful ignorance and Irish slavery

Prompted by yesterday's post regarding the tendency of some people to amplify their feelings into facts (and in the process, ignore the actual facts), a loyal reader of Skeptophilia put me on the trail of a fine, if disturbing, example of this phenomenon: the claim that there were Irish slaves, and they had it worse than the African ones did.

I had seen a version of the claim before, posted on Facebook.  This is the one I ran into:

My impression was that it was just one more in the long line of claims intended to make white people feel like they have no reason to address the sordid history of North America with respect to their treatment of minorities and indigenous peoples.  "Hey, y'all," it seems to say, "we had it bad too, you know."

What I didn't realize until today was that there's a far uglier implication here, made plain in some of the websites where you see the above posted; that not only were the Irish oppressed (a point no one with any knowledge of history would argue), but that Irish immigrants to North America were oppressed by the African Americans.  If you look at those websites -- which I would not recommend to anyone who has a weak stomach or slim tolerance for racist garbage -- you find claims that Africans and Mulattos enslaved, raped, tortured, and killed Irish slaves, especially Irish women, all through the 18th and first half of the 19th century.

The claim is thoroughly debunked by history scholar Liam Hogan, who addresses each piece of the claim, uncovering the bogus nature of the supporting evidence.  Some of the "evidence" is outright falsification; for example, one website uses gruesome photos from Andersonville Prison and the Holocaust and claims that they were pictures of Irish slaves; another shows a drawing of 18th century psychopathic murderer Elizabeth Brownrigg flogging a servant, and claims instead that it is a drawing of a poor Irish slave in the early United States being whipped.  In fact, the claim that the Irish were enslaved at all is mixing up indentured servitude with chattel slavery, a distinction that none of the slave owners back then were confused about in the least.

All of this would be another exercise in believe-what-you-want-to-believe if the whole idea hadn't been taken up by the white supremacists and neo-Nazis.  The "Irish slave" trope figures into the whole mythology you see on websites like Stormfront, revolving around the idea that the whites are in constant danger of being attacked and destroyed by people of color.  And as strategies for convincing followers go, it's pretty powerful.  If you can persuade yourself that white privilege is nonexistent, that the whites all along have had it as bad as the minorities, it is only a short step to the attitude that any demands made by minorities that the whites address institutional racism are ill-founded and unfair.

Frighteningly, that's exactly what's happening.  Donald Trump's running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, has gone on record that institutional racism only exists if we talk about it:
Donald Trump and I both believe that there’s been far too much of this talk of institutional bias or racism in law enforcement. We ought to set aside this talk, this talk about institutional racism and institutional bias, the rhetoric of division.
The Trump campaign chair in Ohio, Kathy Miller (who has since resigned), went even further, blaming President Obama for racism, and claiming that it didn't exist before he became president:
If you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last fifty years, it’s your own fault. You’ve had every opportunity, it was given to you. You’ve had the same schools everybody else went to. You had benefits to go to college that white kids didn’t have. You had all the advantages and didn’t take advantage of it.  It’s not our fault, certainly... Growing up as a kid, there was no racism, believe me.  We were just all kids going to school. 
I don’t think there was any racism until Obama got elected.  We never had problems like this...  Now, with the people with the guns, and shooting up neighborhoods, and not being responsible citizens, that’s a big change, and I think that’s the philosophy that Obama has perpetuated on America.
Well, of course you didn't experience racism, you nitwit.  You're not a minority.  As for the rest of it, this surpasses willful ignorance.  I'm not even sure what you'd call it.  Especially since the interviewer said to Miller that some people would take exception to what she'd said, and she responded, "I don't care.  It's the truth."

So here's a particularly awful example of what I was talking about yesterday; people elevating their own feelings, biases, and prejudices to the level of facts.  Taking the fact that for a white person, talking about racism can be uncomfortable, and using that discomfort as an excuse for believing that racism itself doesn't exist.

Well, I'm sorry, but the world doesn't work that way.  The truth doesn't change because thinking about it makes you feel wonky.  And neither can you substitute your mythology for actual history as a way of whitewashing the role your ancestors (and mine) had in oppressing other cultures.  All that does is perpetuate the very attitudes that created the problem in the first place -- and makes it less likely that our children and our children's children will live in a world where everyone is treated fairly and equitably.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Turning feelings into facts

A couple of days ago, I saw the following screed posted:
Do you think that Obama is intentionally trying to destroy America?  Anyone who doesn't see it or believe it is either blind, or prejudiced because of a like's such a shame that our first African American president has done so much destruction to our nation!...  Pray very hard that Trump wins because for all his faults he truly loves his country and we WILL NOT survive Hillary Clinton.
I try like hell to avoid politics here on Skeptophilia, partly because I'm not knowledgeable enough to comment on most political topics, partly because I see most issues of governance as so hopelessly complicated that it's unclear that there even is a solution, and partly because most folks enter any political discussion so completely opinionated that it's hard to see how anything I could say would change anyone's mind on anything.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But this statement was so extreme that it was tempting to post a response, a temptation I successfully resisted.  The comment rankled, though, and ultimately I felt like I had to respond in some way, so here we are with today's topic.

What I find most bizarre about the statement itself is that if you look around you, America is pretty much loping along as it always has, miraculously undestroyed after eight years of Obama's leadership.  And if you dig a little deeper -- by which I mean not simply shrieking an opinion but examining the facts -- you find something even odder.

The Balance, a non-partisan economic and financial media source, just posted an article yesterday that the U.S. economy is pretty healthy -- in fact, the article's author, Kimberly Amadeo, said it's "very nearly a Goldilocks economy."  In the past few years the GDP has grown at an ideal annual rate of between 1.8 and 2.5 percent.  U.S. manufacturing has grown even faster -- up 2.6% this year, and forecast to remain around that rate for the next four years.

What about the deficit?  Since President Obama took office, the deficit has dropped by 2/3, from $1.4 trillion to $489 billion.  (Now, I agree that $489 billion is still a pretty huge number, but at least it's moving the right direction.)

Likewise, the unemployment rate has shown a steady drop, from a high of 10% in October 2009 to 4.8% today.  Even the crime rate -- one of Trump's major issues -- has dropped steadily, and in fact has been on the decline since a peak way back in 1994.  (The same holds true even if you just look at the rate of violent crimes involving guns; so despite the hype in the media, you're actually less likely to be killed by a gun now than you were twenty years ago.)

What about those illegal immigrants "pouring across our borders?"  According to a study by the non-partisan Pew Research Group, the rate of illegal immigration has been stable for years, and in fact was considerably higher in 2007 than it is now.  (You might argue that it's still too high -- but the fact is, it's actually lower today than it was during George W. Bush's presidency.)

Even the common claim that "Obama is comin' for your guns" has turned out to be horseshit.  Look around you.  We're still as heavily armed as ever.

About the only statistics I could track down where Obama's track record kind of sucks is the male/female wage gap (which has barely moved in the past twenty years), the racial wage gap (just a couple of days ago a study by the Economic Policy Institute announced that it's the highest it's been in forty years), and the wealth gap between the richest and poorest (which is going the wrong way -- up -- and has been for thirty years).

So okay, you think that Obama is destroying the nation.  Maybe even deliberately.  Can you show me one metric -- just one -- that shows that that's true?

I mean, I get it if you don't like his policies on pro-choice/pro-life, LGBT issues, and so on.  Those tend to be divisive and engender high emotion.  But if you're trying to tell me that the United States has gone to wrack and ruin in the past eight years, can you show me why?

The whole thing is reminiscent of the interview with Newt Gingrich in which he said that people feel increasingly unsafe from violent crime.  The interviewer said, "Violent crime across the country is down."  Gingrich responded, "The average American... does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer."  The interviewer -- who at this point seemed to be trying to stop herself from laughing in his face -- said, "But we are safer, and it is down."  Gingrich said, "That's your view."

The interviewer said, "No, it's not my view, it's a fact..."

Gingrich interrupted with a patronizing smile and said, "What I said is also a fact."

And this seems to me to be the heart of the problem.  We are at the point that your "feeling" that we're spiraling into chaos trumps my facts that we're not.  Or -- scarily -- that if you're feeling something strongly enough, it becomes a fact.  The world, then, is constrained to fitting into whatever your particular narrative says it is.

Which is all very well until people start voting on the basis of ignoring facts and relying on feelings -- because that is a strategy that can lead to disaster.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Chemical round-up

Yesterday's post about people who are fact-resistant is an easy segue into today's topic, which is: a viral post I've now seen at least a half-dozen times on social media that claims that there's RoundUp in vaccines.

The article, written by one Catherine J. Frompovich, starts with the following:
An absolute BOMBSHELL has just hit Big Pharma's vaccine industry!
Which, in my opinion, is a phrase that means, "Nothing important has happened."  Every time we hear that there's an ABSOLUTE BOMBSHELL that's going to (1) destroy Hillary Clinton, (2) destroy Donald Trump, (3) expose the lies of Big Pharma, or (4) cause a devastating scandal in Congress, we wait breathlessly...

... and nothing happens.

Of course, the people making the claim have an explanation for that; the "MSM" (Mainstream Media), who in this worldview is second only to "Big Pharma" as a stand-in for Satan himself, has covered the whole thing up.

In this case, we find out that a research scientist named Anthony Samsel has discovered traces of glyphosate (better known under its trade name as the herbicide RoundUp) in vaccines.  Then we're given the following alarming information:
In high school chemistry aren’t students taught the importance of chemical interactions, especially when mixing several chemicals in a laboratory beaker?  What can happen?  An explosion!  A similar chemical reaction occurs within the human body — the largest living, working test tube on earth, however it causes adverse health effects, not an explosion.
So, what you're saying is: if you put "chemicals" together, they explode, except that we're talking about putting chemicals together here, and they don't explode?

But even so they're really really bad.  Because they're chemicals.  So q.e.d., apparently.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Then, of course (since it's RoundUp), we immediately launch into the argumentum ad Monsantum fallacy, which is to claim that anything even tangentially connected to Monsanto must be evil.   The implication is that Monsanto is deliberately tainting vaccines with their nasty chemicals for some diabolical reason, most likely to get rid of anyone who is stupid enough to fall for their cunning plans.

The whole argument falls apart, however, when you start looking at the details.  Going to the blog that brought Samsel's research to the public eye, we find out that there have been traces of RoundUp found in vaccines, most likely due to the inclusion of animal-derived products such as glycerine, but the amounts are almost all less than one part per billion.  Still, that doesn't tell us much about toxicity -- Frompovich is correct that some substances are toxic in vanishingly small quantities.  But then you look at the end of Samsel's data table, and you find out that "gummi bears" have quantities of RoundUp that are on the order of eighty times higher than any of the vaccines studied.

Interesting that there's all of this hoopla about Big Pharma and toxins in vaccines, but there's no mention of the role of Big Gummi in poisoning our children's candy.

A further, and more serious, problem comes to light when you start digging into the background of Anthony Samsel himself, and his alleged studies linking glyphosate to every human malady except the common cold via scary-sounding biochemical pathways.  An exposé by Tamar Haspel three years ago found that the supposed peer-reviewed research Samsel and a woman named Stephanie Seneff conducted into the presence of glyphosate and its effects on human tissue almost certainly never occurred.  Haspel writes:
Samsel and Seneff didn’t conduct any studies.  They don’t seem interested in the levels at which humans are actually exposed to glyphosate.  They simply speculated that, if anyone, anywhere, found that glyphosate could do anything in any organism, that thing must also be happening in humans everywhere.  I’d like to meet the “peers” who “reviewed” this.
Worse still, neither Samsel nor Seneff is a biochemist, or even a cellular biologist. Seneff is a computer scientist at MIT; Samsel is a "consultant" who does "charitable community investigations of industrial polluters."  As Haspel put it, "I think it's fair to say that they probably went into this with a point of view."

And if you needed one further death-blow to the whole argument, the woman who wrote the ABSOLUTE BOMBSHELL article, Catherine J. Frompovich, is a staff writer for...

... The Daily Sheeple.

So to those folks who keep circulating this article and ones like it, I'm respectfully asking you to stop.  There's enough misinformation out there on health in general and vaccines in particular.  To say it for probably the 13,537th time: vaccines are safe, effective, protect you and your children from diseases that can kill you, and have a very very low likelihood of side effects.  Myself, I'll take the chance of the health effects of minuscule amounts of glyphosate rather than those from getting the measles, hepatitis A, or even the flu.

On the other hand, I am having second thoughts about gummi bears.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The index case for fact-resistance

I think a standard question for anyone who holds an anti-science stance -- so climate change deniers, antivaxxers, people who are pro-homeopathy -- should be: "What would it take to convince you that you are wrong?"

I'll be up front that this idea is not original to me.  It was the single question that still stands out in my mind as the most important in the infamous Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate.  Nye responded, in essence, that one piece of information that could not be explained except by the young-Earth model is all it would take.  Ham, on the other hand, said that nothing could convince him.  No evidence, no logical argument, nada.

And therein, folks, lies the difference between the scientific and anti-scientific view of the world.

It is a question I wish had come up during a hearing this week in the House Committee on Science (controlled, as I have mentioned before, almost entirely by anti-science types).  The topic was the subpoenas being sent out to climate scientists in an attempt to intimidate them into backing down on their (at this point incontrovertible) claim that the world is warming up.  One of the people who spoke in favor of the subpoenas was Ronald Rotunda, professor of law at Chapman University.

This in itself is an odd choice.  Rotunda is a lawyer, not a scientist.  Wouldn't you want the scientists -- i.e., the people who know what the hell they're talking about -- to weigh in?  Of course, it doesn't take a genius to see that wasn't the point here.  The point was getting some talking heads to reinforce the view of the committee that climate change is a hoax.  But what happened afterwards is pretty interesting -- and heartening.

Rotunda was trying to make the case that the scientists disagree on the idea of climate change and (specifically) sea level rise, and cited research by Harvard geoscientist Jerry Mitrovica, claiming that it showed that the melting of the Greenland ice cap would actually cause the sea level to fall.  Of course, Rotunda was completely misrepresenting Mitrovica's work; Mitrovica had shown that due to a combination of gravitational effects and isostatic rebound (the lifting of land masses when a weight such as an ice cap is taken from them), the sea level around Greenland as measured from the coast of Greenland might fall.  What Rotunda conveniently forgot to mention was that the melted ice combined with the aforementioned factors would cause the sea level to rise more elsewhere.

That's not what the representatives on the committee wanted to hear, of course, so it never came up.

Coastal Greenland [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

What's encouraging in all of this depressing business is the response of one person on the committee -- Bill Foster of Illinois, the committee's only trained scientist (he started his career as a physicist).  Foster listened politely to what Rotunda was saying.

But he wasn't buying it.

What Foster did was brilliant -- he merely asked Rotunda to explain how his claim worked.  "I was fascinated by what seemed to be apparent support of an argument that the Greenland ice sheet would melt, and thereby lower the sea level," Foster said, "and I was wondering if you can expound on how exactly the physics of this works."

Rotunda, who apparently has less understanding of physics than your typical 12th grade physics student, immediately began to babble.  "When the ice sheet melts, all the gravity that was then part of the island of New Greenland [sic] disappears into the ocean, it just goes away.  And that ice has been pushing Greenland down, and now Greenland will be moving up, because the water is all over the place."

All I can say is that if I gave explanations like that in my high school classes, I would quite rightly be tarred and feathered.

So that's the next best thing to "What would it take to change your mind?" -- "Can you explain to me how that would work?"  Both of these, in my opinion, should be the immediate go-to questions in any debate on climate change -- or any other discussion that has become contaminated with anti-science.

Of course, the downside of all of this is that the climate change deniers on the Science Committee, with the exception of Bill Foster, all just nodded sagely while Rotunda spewed his bullshit.  If you already have assumed your conclusion, no amount of logic or evidence would ever sway you.

It reminds me of a brilliant satirical piece written by Andy Borowitz for New Yorker earlier this year entitled, "Scientists: Earth Endangered By New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans."  A quote from Borowitz seems an appropriate way to end this post, especially given that the House Committee on Science -- of all groups -- seems to be the index case for fact-resistance:
The research, conducted by the University of Minnesota, identifies a virulent strain of humans who are virtually immune to any form of verifiable knowledge, leaving scientists at a loss as to how to combat them. 
“These humans appear to have all the faculties necessary to receive and process information,” Davis Logsdon, one of the scientists who contributed to the study, said.  “And yet, somehow, they have developed defenses that, for all intents and purposes, have rendered those faculties totally inactive.” 
More worryingly, Logsdon said, “As facts have multiplied, their defenses against those facts have only grown more powerful.” 
While scientists have no clear understanding of the mechanisms that prevent the fact-resistant humans from absorbing data, they theorize that the strain may have developed the ability to intercept and discard information en route from the auditory nerve to the brain.  “The normal functions of human consciousness have been completely nullified,” Logsdon said.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

There goes the Sun

Yesterday I received a friendly email from a loyal reader of Skeptophilia of the "You think that is stupid, wait till you see this" variety.  As well-intentioned as these generally are, I always hesitate to read further, because my general impression of human foolishness and gullibility really doesn't need any further reinforcement.

This one was in response to last week's post about the Flat Earthers, so already we've set the bar for comparative idiocy pretty high.  But as I continued to read the email (yes, I succumbed to my 'satiable curiosity), I found that said bar was cleared in a single leap by this particular claim.

So without further ado: the idea that makes the Flat Earthers look sane and sensible.  Ready?

The Sun doesn't exist.

According to a group of loons calling themselves "asunists," what we're calling the Sun is just an illusion generated by light collected and beamed at the Earth by an array of curved mirrors.  You might be asking, "Light coming from where, exactly?", but that is only the first of the many problems we encounter upon delving into the situation.  Apparently the idea came about when someone googled "solar simulator" and found that there is a device that approximates the radiation spectrum and illuminance of the Sun, and is used for testing solar cells, sunscreen, plastics, and so forth.  So in a classic case of adding two and two and getting 147, they then interpreted this to mean that the Sun itself was a simulation.

[image courtesy of NASA]

Who is responsible for this?  Well, nasty old NASA, of course.  Same ones who keep the Moon hologram going and are suppressing information about the Earth being flat and/or hollow, not to mention the impending catastrophic visit by the fabled planet Nibiru.

What evidence do we have?  The producer of the above-linked YouTube video explains how he knows that the Sun isn't real, and a lot of it seems to be the fact that in some photographs, the outline of the Sun is "fuzzy."  It used to be clear and sharp, but now because of "chemicals in the air" the Sun has gotten all blurred.  So apparently we used to have a real Sun, but now it's been replaced by a simulator which just isn't as good as the real thing.

My question is -- well, among my many questions is -- don't you think someone would have noticed when the real Sun was taken down, and the simulator put in place?  Oh, and what did they do with the old Sun?  Was it sent to the stellar retirement home?  Was it just turned out into the cold vacuum of space, to wander, lost and forlorn forever?

Of course, the question that applies to all of these wacko conspiracy theories is why anyone would bother to do all of this.  Don't you think that if the Sun really was a big bunch of mirrors, the Earth was flat, or whatnot, the scientists at NASA would tell us?  What could they possibly gain by pretending that the Sun exists and the Earth is an oblate spheroid?

The oddly hilarious postscript to all of this is that the whole the-Sun-doesn't-exist conspiracy theory received a boost from none other than Ray "Mr. Banana" Comfort, the outspoken young-earth creationist who a couple of years ago got his ass handed to him when he showed up to distribute creationist literature at a talk by Richard Dawkins hosted by the Skeptic Society.  Well, Comfort has picked up on the "asunist" thing and used it as an argument against atheism (in Comfort's mind, everything is an argument against atheism).  He tells us about his perception of the "asunists" -- mischaracterizing their claim as stating that they believe we're actually in the dark -- and compares that to atheists' conclusion that god doesn't exist.

Which just shows you that there is no idea so completely stupid that you can't alter it so as to make it way stupider.

So to the loyal reader who sent me the email, all I can say is "thanks."  I now am even more convinced that Idiocracy was a non-fiction documentary.  It's time to get myself a cup of coffee and try to reboot my brain so that I make some degree of sense in class today.  Also time to start watching for the sunrise.

Or the solarsimulatorrise.  Or whatever.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Slowing down the copy-and-paste

I'm really interested in research on aging, and I'd like to think that it's not solely because I'm Of A Certain Age myself.  The whole fact of our undergoing age-related system degradation is fascinating -- moreso when you realize that other vertebrates age at dramatically different rates.  Mice and rats age out after about a year and a half to two years; dogs (sadly) rarely make it past fifteen (much less in some breeds); and the Galapagos Tortoise can still be hale and hearty at two hundred years of age.

A lot of research has gone into why different organisms age at such different speeds, and (more importantly) how to control it.  The ultimate goal, selfish though it may sound, is extending the healthy human life span.  Imagine if we reached our healthy adult physiology at (say) age 25 or so, and then went into stasis with respect to aging for two hundred or three hundred years -- or more?

Heady stuff.  For me, the attraction is not so much avoiding death (although that's nice, too).  I was just chatting with a friend yesterday about the fact that one of my biggest fears is being dependent on others for my care.  The idea of my body and/or mind degrading to the point that I can no longer care for my own needs is profoundly terrifying to me.  And when you add to the normal age-related degradation the specter of diseases such as Alzheimer's and ALS -- well, all I can say is that I agree with my dad, who said that compared with that fate, "I'd rather get run over by a truck."

A particularly interesting piece of research in this field that was published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences gives us one more piece of the puzzle.  But to understand it, you have to know a little bit about a peculiarity of genetics first.

Several decades ago, a geneticist named Barbara McClintock was working with patterns of seed color inheritance in "Indian corn."  In this variety, one cob can bear seeds with dozens of different colors and patterns.  After much study, she concluded that her data could only be explained by there being "transposable elements" -- genetic sequences that were either clipped out and moved, or else copied and moved -- functions similar to the "cut-and-paste" and "copy-and-paste" commands on your computer.  McClintock wrote a paper about it...

... and was immediately ignored.  For one thing, she was a woman in science, and back when she was doing her research -- in the 1960s and 1970s -- that was sufficient reason to discount it.  Her colleagues derisively nicknamed her theory "jumping genes" and laughed it into oblivion.

Except that McClintock wouldn't let it go.  She was convinced she was right, and kept doggedly pursuing more data, data that would render her conclusion incontrovertible.  She found it -- and won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1983, at the age of 81.

Barbara McClintock in her laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

McClintock's "transposable elements" (now called "transposons") have been found in every vertebrate studied.  They are used to provide additional copies of essential genes, so that if one copy succumbs to a mutation, there's an additional working copy that can take over.  They are also used in gene switching.  Move a gene near an on-switch called a promoter, and it turns on; move it away, and it turns off.

The problem is, like any natural process, it can go awry.  The copy-and-paste function especially seems to have that tendency.  When it malfunctions, it can be like a runaway copy-and-paste would be in your word processing software.  Imagine the havoc that would ensue if you had an important document, and the computer was inserting one phrase over and over again in random points in the text.

This should give you an idea of why it's so important to keep this process under control.

You have a way of taking care of these "rogue transposons" (as they're called).  One such mechanism is methylation, which is a chemical means of tangling up and permanently shutting down genes.  But the research just released suggests that aging is (at least in part) due to rogue transposition getting ahead of methylation -- leaving random copied chunks of DNA scattered across the genome.

A study by Jason Wood et al. of Brown University has found that fruit flies near the end of their life have a far greater number of active transposons than young flies do.  In fact, as they age, the number increases exponentially, the result being interference with gene function and a system-wide degradation.  Most interesting is that they found two genes -- Su(var)3-9 and Dicer-2 -- that when enhanced both substantially increase longevity in fruit flies.  Su(var)3-9 seems to be involved in increasing the methylation rate of rogue transposons, and Dicer-2 in suppressing the transposition process itself.  An increase in the activity of these genes raised the average longevity of fruit flies from sixty to eighty days -- an increase of 33%.

Of course, there's no guarantee that even if these genes turn out to have similar effects in humans, that the longevity increase will scale up by the same amount (if it did, it would raise the average human age at death to around 100 years).  But the whole thing is tremendously interesting anyhow.  On the other hand, I have to say that the idea that we are getting to the point that we can tinker around with fundamental processes like aging is a little frightening.  It opens up practical and ethical issues we've never had to consider before; how this would affect human population growth, who would have access to such genetic modifications if they proved effective and safe, even such things as how we approach the idea of careers and retirement.

Imagine if you reached the age of sixty and could expect another thirty or more years of active health.  Imagine if the effect on humans was greater -- and the upper bound of human life span was increased to two hundred or three hundred years.  It seems like science fiction, but with the research that is currently happening, it's not outside of the realm of possibility.

If you had the physiology and mental acuity of a twenty-five year old, who would want to retire at sixty?  At the same point, who would want to stay in the same job for another hundred years?  I love my students, but that definitely falls into the "shoot me now" category.

The whole thing would require a drastic reorganization of our society, a far more pervasive set of changes than any scientific discovery has yet caused.  And lest you think that I'm exaggerating the likelihood of such an eventuality; remember how much progress has happened in biological science in the last century.  Only a hundred years ago, children in industrialized countries were still dying by the thousands of diphtheria and measles.  There were dozens of structures in cells, and a good many organs in humans, about whose function we knew essentially nothing.  We knew that DNA existed, but had no idea that it was the genetic material, much less how it worked.

Makes you wonder what our understanding will be in another hundred years, doesn't it?

And maybe some of the people reading this right now will be around to see it.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The language of morality

If we needed any more indication that our moral judgments aren't as solid as we'd like to think, take a look at some research by Janet Geipel and Constantinos Hadjichristidis of the University of Trento (Italy), working with Luca Surian of Leeds University (UK).

The study, entitled "How Foreign Language Shapes Moral Judgment," appeared in the Journal of Social Psychology.  What Geipel et al. did was to present multilingual individuals with situations which most people consider morally reprehensible, but where no one (not even an animal) was deliberately hurt -- such as two siblings engaging in consensual and safe sex, and a man cooking and eating his dog after it was struck by a car and killed.  These types of situations make the vast majority of us go "Ewwwww" -- but it's sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly why that is.

"It's just horrible," is the usual fallback answer.

So did the test subjects in the study find such behavior immoral or unethical?  The unsettling answer is: it depends on what language the situation was presented in.

Across the board, if the situation was presented in the subject's first language, the judgments regarding the situation were uniformly harsher and more negative.  Presented in languages learned later in life, the subjects were much more forgiving.

The researchers controlled for which languages were being spoken; they tested (for example) native speakers of Italian who had learned English, and native speakers of English who had learned Italian.  It didn't matter what the language was; what mattered was when you learned it.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The explanation they offer is that the effort of speaking a non-native language "ties up" the cognitive centers, making us focus more on the acts of speaking and understanding and less on the act of passing moral judgment.  I wonder, however, if it's more that we expect more in the way of obeying social mores from our own tribe -- we subconsciously expect people speaking other languages to act differently than we do, and therefore are more likely to give a pass to them if they break the rules that we consider proper behavior.

A related study by Catherine L. Harris, Ayşe Ayçiçeĝi, and Jean Berko Gleason appeared in Applied Psycholinguistics.  Entitled "Taboo Words and Reprimands Elicit a Greater Autonomic Reactivity in a First Language Than in a Second Language," the study showed that our emotional reaction (as measured by skin conductivity) to swear words and harsh judgments (such as "Shame on you!") is much stronger if we hear them in our native tongue.  Even if we're fluent in the second language, we just don't take its taboo expressions and reprimands as seriously.  (Which explains why my mother, whose first language was French, smacked me in the head when I was five years old and asked her -- on my uncle's prompting -- what "va t'faire foutre" meant.)

All of which, as both a linguistics geek and someone who is interested in ethics and morality, I find fascinating.  Our moral judgments aren't as rock-solid as we think they are, and how we communicate alters our brain, sometimes in completely subconscious ways.  Once again, the neurological underpinnings of our morality turns out to be strongly dependent on context -- which is simultaneously cool and a little disturbing.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Medical hacking

I read something today that made me really furious, and the worst part is that I don't even know who the target of my anger is.

The story that pissed me off so completely was a CNN article about a group of Russian hackers who "outed" gymnast Simone Biles, tennis player Venus Williams, and others for being on prescription medication.  Please note that the medications these athletes were on had been previously reported to the US Anti-Doping Agency, and the athletes granted exemptions.  There has been no allegation by the USADA, the United States Olympic Committee, or any of the oversight organizations governing the individual sports that there was any wrongdoing at all on the part of the athletes.

So what that means is, these people's private medical records have been made public, for no reason whatsoever.

Biles responded to the situation with the graciousness I would expect, having watched her being interviewed during the Rio Olympics.  "I have ADHD and have taken medication for it since I was a kid," she tweeted, shortly after the story broke.  "Please know I believe in clean sport, have always followed the rules, and will continue to do so as fair play is critical to sport and is very important to me."

The first thing that outraged me about this whole situation is that these hackers, whoever they are, thought it was appropriate to violate the privacy of athletes for... for what?  I don't know.  Increasingly, hackers such as these guys (who go under the handles "Fancy Bear" and "Tsar Team") and the more famous ultra-hacker Julian Assange are making records public simply because they can, and fuck the consequences.  On one hand, I understand the motivation; I recognize the damage that has been done by covert operations, by there being no transparency and no oversight of the government and the corporate world.  There is certainly a time for whistleblowers to bring to light documents that are being hidden for immoral and unethical reasons.

But that doesn't mean that every record should be made public.  There are government documents that are quite rightly classified as top secret.  On an personal level, there is information -- and that includes medical records -- that are nobody's business but the individual's.

So, I'm sorry, but all documents are not equal.  And no, you don't have the right, simply by virtue of your existence, to see everything and anything that has ever been written down.

But there's a subtler reason why this situation infuriates me, and that's the sly implication that because Simone Biles has ADHD, she should be ashamed of it or apologize for it.  It's an attitude you find toward people with all sorts of mental and emotional illnesses and disabilities -- that somehow, you're making it all up, that you really don't need your medications, that it's not the same thing as a "real" physical ailment.  It's what gave rise to the following, which has circulated widely on social media:

I will be open, here (and note: it is my choice to be public about this; if I did not want this known, it would be entirely my right not to have it known).  I have struggled with moderate to severe depression my entire adult life.  I have been suicidal more than once.  Through a combination of therapy, the support of my friends and family, and proper medication, I now have the ability to function without feeling like I'm constantly lost in a fog of despair.  The idea that someone, under the guise of "keeping your mind open" (note the subtitle on the above photograph) would imply that my medication is a cop-out, that I should throw it away and go for a walk in the woods, is not only ignorant, it is arrogant to the point of being insulting.

And my depression is not a point of shame for me.  It's not somehow my fault, nor is it under my control.  It is no more shameful to have a mental illness than it is to have multiple sclerosis or heart disease or cancer.  The fact that we still look at mental illnesses as qualitatively different from other conditions means that we still have a long way to go, societally, in how we think about human health.

So the fact that Simone Biles and other athletes are in the position of having their personal information made public (especially since all of the athletes in question had cleared their meds with the relevant regulatory boards) is appalling; even worse is the implication is that they need to defend themselves on points that need no defense.

The whole thing, in fact, is maddening -- that hackers are now throwing our private records around just because they can, and the ongoing problem of our society's attitude toward illness and medication in general, and mental illness in particular.  How to stop the first is more of a technological problem than anything else; changing the second is something that is incumbent upon all of us.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Sweet deals

Vested interests are a huge problem in science.

Scientists, like all humans, have biases.  Our perceptual and cognitive apparatus isn't foolproof, and our prior understanding can sometimes blind us to what is actually going on.  A darker tendency, however, is the fact that scientists (once again, like all of us) are subject to the temptations of power, notoriety, and money -- and this can sometimes lead to the publication of research that is seriously flawed.

Science journals all require the declaration by researchers of any conflicts of interest that might bias the research -- if, for example, the study was funded by a group that had motivation to make certain that the scientists reached a particular conclusion.  Conflict of interest doesn't mean that the research is flawed, of course; assuming that is called the motive fallacy.  Having a motive to lie doesn't mean that you actually did.  But a known conflict of interest would certainly make me read the research a lot more carefully -- which is the intent of the policy.

It's pretty suspect, therefore, when research is done where there was a conflict of interest -- and it wasn't declared.  And this appears to be the case with research done all the way back in the 1950s and 1960s casting doubt on the health effects of sugar apropos of heart disease -- and which a study published just last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association has showed was funded by the Sugar Research Foundation.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The study, entitled "Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents," by Cristin E. Kearns, Laura A. Schmidt, and Stanton A. Glantz, casts a skew glance at the influence that industry has had on scientific (in particular, medical) research.  Studies funded by the SRF -- the research arm of the sugar industry -- not only successfully raised doubts on the role of sucrose in inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, but turned the public's eye toward dietary fat as the culprit.

In fact, sugar industry spokespeople not only suppressed information connecting carbohydrate consumption to cardiovascular disease, they suggested that increased sugar consumption would improve health.  The SRF's president, Henry Hass, said in a public speech in 1954:
Leading nutritionists are pointing out the chemical connection between [Americans'] high-fat diet and the formation of cholesterol which partly plugs our arteries and capillaries, restricts the flow of blood, and causes high blood pressure and heart trouble… if you put [the middle-aged man] on a low-fat diet, it takes just five days for the blood cholesterol to get down to where it should be…  If the carbohydrate industries were to recapture this 20 percent of the calories in the US diet (the difference between the 40 percent which fat has and the 20 percent which it ought to have) and if sugar maintained its present share of the carbohydrate market, this change would mean an increase in the per capita consumption of sugar more than a third with a tremendous improvement in general health.
Dietary scientist John Yudkin and others had published research identifying sugar as a factor in increasing the risk of heart disease, but Hass and others with ties to the sugar industry began pumping money into research which had as its goal demonstrating the opposite.

Which is, of course, antithetical to the way research should be done.  Of course scientists have their preconceived notions, their guesses as to which way the data will swing.  But the idea that you'd go into a study with the intent to support whatever your well-heeled funding agency says you should support is frightening.

And the worst part was that the scientists themselves did not openly declare their conflict of interest.  The result is that their research was not given the scrutiny it should have received -- and the industry's role in skewing the public's understanding of the role of nutrition in health has only recently been uncovered.

"This historical account of industry efforts demonstrates the importance of having reviews written by people without conflicts of interest and the need for financial disclosure," the authors write.  "Scientific reviews shape policy debates, subsequent investigations, and the funding priorities of federal agencies... Whether current conflict of interest policies are adequate to withstand the economic interests of industry remains unclear."

While discouraging, such findings are no particular surprise, given the tobacco industry's role in suppressing information about the link between smoking and cancer.  However, it should alert us to the potential for funding to bias research that is going on today -- making it even more imperative that our policymakers give careful scrutiny to "studies" of climate change by groups like the Heartland Institute, whose ties (financial and otherwise) to the fossil fuel industry run deep.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tales from the flat Earth

Having steeped myself in All Things Woo-Woo for some years, you'd think I'd have it all figured out, at least with respect to why people believe weird things.  After all, the topic was the subject of one of my favorite reads, Michael Shermer's book entitled, oddly enough, Why People Believe Weird Things.  (And this book, in my opinion, should be required reading in every high school in America.)

But there's still a lot about the whole woo-woo belief system that mystifies me, and one of the things that baffles me most is why weird ideas come and go -- and then reappear.

I'm not talking about cases where the reappearance was caused by the money motive, as with all of the unreality shows now springing up like fungus after a rainstorm on networks like the This Used To Be About History But Isn't Anymore channel.  Programs with titles like Monster Quest, UFO Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Paranormal Witness, and Real Bigfoots of New Jersey.

Okay, I made the last one up.  But it's not really that much weirder than the actual ones that are out there.  And the plots are all the same; some people go out looking for whatever they're hunting, don't find it, and then high-five each other at the end as if their quest had been a raving success.

So it's no surprise that these shows resurrect interest in the paranormal.  But what is more perplexing to me is why all of a sudden woo-woo ideas from the past will catch hold and rise, zombie-like, from the grave, without there being any apparent monetary incentive involved.

In particular, I'm thinking of the Flat Earth Theory, which is only a "theory" in the sense of being "an idea that someone came up with."  Myself, I'd thought that the whole idea of the flat Earth had gone out of vogue somewhere back in the 15th century (and to be completely accurate, the fact that the Earth is a sphere had been proven without a shadow of a doubt way back in 240 B.C.E. by a Greek scientist named Eratosthenes).

I use the shadow metaphor deliberately, because what Eratosthenes did was to measure the difference in the angle of a shadow cast by a rod in Syene, Egypt, and compared it to the angle of the shadow of the same rod in Alexandria on the same day of the year -- and from the comparison, and using a little bit of trigonometry and solid geometry, came damn close to getting the circumference of the Earth right.

So you'd think that 2,200 years ago, the Flat Earthers would pretty much have said, "Oh.  Okay.  We were wrong."  But no.  They're back, and they're back with a vengeance.  As little as ten years ago, Flat Earthers were kind of a fringe group, and the Flat Earth Society was populated by a membership that seemed to be half True Believers and half people who joined it to have a good laugh.  But now, there is an increasing number of Flat Earthers out there, and they are not amused by us scoffers.

They're mad as hell, and they're not gonna take it any more.

And, according to an article in The Atlantic, they are coming up with additional wacky ideas to add to their view of the world, based upon the premise that if you believe one idiotic idea, appending other idiotic ideas onto it makes it more sensible.  According to Sam Kriss, who wrote the article, not only do they believe that NASA is leading a coverup of all of the evidence for Earth being shaped like a platter (and, therefore, all of the astronomers are too, because apparently NASA uses a substantial part of its ever-shrinking budget to pay off the scientists and keep them from spilling the beans), but the geologists are in on it, too.

Why would the geologists care, you might ask?  Well, according to a small but vocal subset of Flat Earthers, another thing that is fake about the scientific view of the world is... forests.  Because the forests we have now aren't real forests, at least not in the sense that they're like they were back eons ago.  Thousands of years ago, before humans were the common species they are now, there were actual honest-to-goodness forests made of actual honest-to-goodness trees...

... that had heights measured in miles.

What is the evidence for all of this?  Well, some of the stuff that geologists hoodwink the populace into thinking are "eroded volcanic cores," like the Devil's Tower in Wyoming, are actually the stumps of these humongous trees.

[image courtesy of photographer Colin Faulkingham and the Wikimedia Commons]

So anyhow.  I know that this is a nonsensical idea, but what puzzles me is why it's caught on so strongly just in the last year or so.  Social media has been buzzing with stridently vocal Flat Earthers who believe stuff like the aforementioned horseshit about MegaTrees, and who consider skeptics like me either deluded sheeple or else NASA shills.  (Which reminds me, NASA: where the hell is my shill check?  I'm waiting.)

I'm hoping that this is just a phase, and that this will fizzle out the same way that Ouija boards did a couple of years ago when there was a sudden flurry of people wanting to communicate with the Spirit World.  But this one is kind of annoying, because the Flat Earthers don't just quietly do their thing -- these people are cantankerous.  They gum up websites like the r/skeptic subreddit with their nonsense, engaging with people who just can't stand to ignore them.

So I'm counting on this being an example of what C. S. Lewis was talking about when he said, "Fashions come and go, but mostly they go."  And in my opinion, this one can't go soon enough.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Cough analysis

So for today's Tempest in a Teapot, we have: Hillary Clinton's health.

A couple of days ago, Clinton collapsed at a 9/11 ceremony, and her doctor ascribed it to a combination of dehydration and pneumonia.  The internet has been buzzing lately regarding the "coughing fits" she's had at speeches, ascribing it to everything from pleurisy to lung cancer.  Because, of course, (1) it couldn't be that keeping a schedule that would kill most of us outright might have some health impacts, and (2) it's clear that she's the only prominent politician who has ever fallen ill.  The incident where President George H. W. Bush puked on Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa was just, um, a fluke.

Or something.

So naturally, over at the r/conspiracy subreddit 19 of the 25 top stories are about Hillary Clinton's health.  Several claimed that she actually died of a stroke (or, in other versions, was hospitalized), and that subsequent appearances were actually a "body double."  More than one site has said that the Democratic National Convention is "scrambling to replace her" and is "in total panic mode."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But no one is as far off the deep end as the YouTube user who goes by the handle "Styxhexenhammer666," which would be the odds-on favorite for winning first place in a "Most Self-Consciously Metal Pseudonym" contest.  "Styxhexenhammer" goes on at length about Clinton's health issues in a video entitled "The Cleveland Cough: Hillary Clinton has begun to Degrade in Health due to Our Magick" and which you all must watch.  Because it's just that wonderful.

What we find out from "Styxhexenhammer" is that he and "tens of thousands of others" have been putting spells of magick on Hillary Clinton.  (The "k" means that it's real, unlike the fake "magic" that people like David Copperfield do.)  And we find out that what "Styxhexenhammer" does is use music for his spells -- some of them are originals, but he can turn covers into magickal spells, too.  Like when he sings The Electric Light Orchestra's song "Evil Woman," it turns into a Spiritual Weapon of Great Force, not just a rehash of a cheesy 70s song that wasn't even that good when it was first released.

But apparently from all of the songs and other magick being launched Clinton's way, her health is in a serious tailspin.  I guess it's understandable, really.  After all, if someone sings "Copacabana" in my vicinity, I become physically ill.  It's hard to see what connection that has to the lyrics, however, unless you count the "punches flew and chairs smashed in two" part, just thinking about which could explain why I have a headache right now.

What strikes me about Styxhexenhammer's video, however, is how well-spoken and articulate he sounds, juxtaposed against what he's actually saying, which is seriously loony.  He goes into how you can shield yourself from such psychic attack, but very few know how to do so; and that a political campaign, being made of dozens or hundreds of power-hungry people, is even more vulnerable than "your typical sheep-like individual."

"It gives me great pleasure," he tells us, "that there are very many people who will never cast their vote for Hillary Clinton because of the actions of people like me."

Is it just me, or does this represent a nice blend of confirmation bias and megalomania?  "I've been singing hostile songs in Hillary Clinton's general direction, and now she's got a bad cough.  Yes -- that was me doing all of that."

Anyhow, the point of all of this is that people get sick.  Even presidential candidates get sick, sometimes.  This does not mean that they are dying (nor even that their aides think that they're dying), that they're so ill that they need a body double, nor most certainly that the whole thing is due to evil spells cast by someone who fancies himself a magickian (what would be the "practitioner of" form of this word?  If you pronounce "magickian" with a hard "k," which it certainly looks like you should, it sounds kind of silly).

So that's our dive in the deep end for today.  I'm hoping that no one takes this as incentive to sing at me.  Because it could be worse than "Copacabana."  It could be "The Piña Colada Song."  Or "Seasons in the Sun."  Or, heaven forfend, "Muskrat Love."

I don't even want to think about what the magickal outcome of those would be.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Thou shalt not watch training videos

In the ongoing effort by a particular cadre of über-Christians to emphasize one or two tenets of their faith and pretty much ignore the rest of it, we have the case of a worker for the Social Security Administration who has said he would rather be fired than watch a seventeen-minute video on respecting diversity (particularly with respect to LGBT individuals) in the workplace.

David Hall, of Tolono, Illinois, has worked for the SSA for fourteen years.  This year, supervisors have required all employees to watch a training video on LGBT inclusion as part of a drive to decrease workplace harassment and increase tolerance and respect.  Hall, however, has refused, and claims he's being discriminated against because he's a Christian.  "I think this is an issue they are prepared to go to the mat with," Hall said, "but I’m not going to give up my faith or compromise my beliefs just to go along and get along.  I don’t believe God wants me to do that."

A few things about this particular case stand out.  First, Hall is claiming discrimination, even though the SSA is requiring everyone to watch the video.  If Hall, as a devout Christian, had been singled out to watch the video, he might have a case to claim he was being targeted.  In this case, however, it's hard to see how he's being discriminated against, given that the definition of discrimination is "the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

A more important point arises when you consider why the video is being mandated.  Remember that the video is not saying (1) being gay is moral; (2) Christian ethical codes are wrong; or (3) you should all run out and have gay sex right now.  What it's saying is that we should treat people with kindness, tolerance, and respect whether or not we are like them or agree with them.  Sorta like what you read in the following quotes:
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. -- Ephesians 4:32 
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.  And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. -- 1 John 4:20-21 
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. -- Matthew 6:14-15 
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. -- Luke 6:35-36
And, most strikingly:
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.  We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. -- 1 Thessalonians 5:11-13
Oh, and the whole "judge not, lest ye be judged" thing.  That, too.

In fact, have you noticed that the bible has a lot more passages about being kind to others than it does about condemning homosexuals?  Funny thing, that.

Because that's the most annoying part of this whole emphasis on LGBT individuals being sinners; it requires you to pretend that a substantial fraction of the bible doesn't exist.  Besides the fact that there is a great deal more emphasis  in the bible on treating people compassionately than there is on the sinfulness of homosexuality, there are a whole slew of other things besides being gay that are considered sins (in fact, some are worse than sins, they're "abominations") and that Christians today pretty much ignore.  Eating shellfish, working (even collecting firewood) on the Sabbath, wearing clothing made of two different kinds of thread sewn together, men trimming their beards, having tattoos, and women speaking in church are a few that come to mind without even trying hard.  Oh, and the fact that no one born of a "forbidden marriage" -- and their descendants, to the tenth generation -- is to be allowed in church (Deuteronomy 23:2).

And then there's "biblical marriage."  Such as the provision requiring young women who were raped to marry their rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), a verse that allows men who conquer other nations to keep any virgins as concubines (Numbers 31:17-18), a rule that when a man dies, his wife must marry his brother (Genesis 38:8-10), prohibitions against marrying outside of your tribe (Deuteronomy 7:3) , and so many instances of deity-blessed polygamy that I won't even try to name them.

So don't even start with any bullshit about the biblical definition of marriage being "one man and one woman."

The bottom line is that here we have this guy who has been given divine revelation that he's not supposed to watch a diversity in the workplace video because to do so would make him naughty in god's sight, while he apparently doesn't give a damn about most of the things in the bible that god supposedly does prohibit.  It's more and more looking like he's using the bible as justification for a lawsuit and his own bigoted inclinations rather than because there's been any real infringement on his right to practice his religion.

The most frustrating thing for me about all of this is that this is the same subset of Christians who accuse us atheists of having wishy-washy morality.  Just yesterday, I saw a comment on Facebook (apropos of the ongoing foolishness about having "In God We Trust" on police vehicles) that said, "Don't give in!  Atheists only whine about their rights being trampled because they don't have the moral backbone to know what is right."  Myself, I'm much more comfortable with someone whose moral code comes from careful consideration than one whose sense of right and wrong was determined by cherry-picking verses they like from their favorite religious text -- and ignoring the rest of it into non-existence.