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.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Tell me what you like

I always wince a little when I see those silly things pop up on Facebook that say things like, "Can you see the number in the pattern?  Only geniuses can!  Click 'like' if you see it, then share."  And, "Are you one of the 5% of people who can think of a city starting with the letter E?  Reply with your answers!"

I'm certainly no expert in online data analysis, but those seem to me to be obvious attempts to get people to click or respond for some purpose other than the (stupid) stated one.  People still share these things all over the place, much to my perplexity.

What I didn't realize is how deep this particular rabbit hole can go.  Until I read an article that came out last week in Motherboard called "The Data That Turned the World Upside Down," by Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, that illustrates a far darker reason for worry regarding where we place our online clicks.

The article describes the science of psychometrics -- using patterns of responses to predict personalities, behaviors, even things like religious affiliation and membership in political parties.  Psychometric analysis used to rely on test subjects filling out lengthy questionnaires, and even then it wasn't very accurate.

But a psychologist named Michal Kosinski found a better way to do it, using data we didn't even know we were providing -- using patterns of "likes" and "shares" on Facebook.

Kosinski had discovered something groundbreaking -- that although one person's "likes" on Facebook doesn't tell you very much, when you look at aggregate data from millions of people, you can use what people click "like" on to make startlingly accurate predictions about who they are and what they do.   Grassegger and Krogerus write:
Remarkably reliable deductions could be drawn from simple online actions. For example, men who “liked” the cosmetics brand MAC were slightly more likely to be gay; one of the best indicators for heterosexuality was “liking” Wu-Tang Clan.  Followers of Lady Gaga were most probably extroverts, while those who “liked” philosophy tended to be introverts.  While each piece of such information is too weak to produce a reliable prediction, when tens, hundreds, or thousands of individual data points are combined, the resulting predictions become really accurate.
By 2012, Kosinski and his team had refined their model so well that it could predict race (95% accuracy), sexual orientation (88% accuracy), political party (85% accuracy), and hundreds of other metrics, up to and including whether or not your parents were divorced.  (I wrote about some of Kosinski's early results in a post back in 2013.)

The precision was frightening, and the more data they had access to, the better it got.  A study of Kosinski's algorithm showed that ten "likes" were sufficient to allow the model to know a person better than an average work colleague; seventy, and it exceeded what a person's friends knew; 150, what their parents knew; and 300, what their partner knew.  Studies showed that targeting advertisements on Facebook based on psychometric data resulted in 63% more clicks than did non-targeted ads.

So it was only a matter of time before the politicians got wind of this.  Because not only can your data be used to predict your personality, the overall data can be used to identify people with a particular set of traits -- such as undecided voters.

Enter Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, an online data analysis firm, and one of the big guns with respect to both the recent U.S. election and the Brexit vote.  Because Nix started using Kosinski's algorithm to target individuals for political advertising.

"Only 18 months ago, Senator Cruz was one of the less popular candidates," Nix said in a speech political analysts in June 2016.  "Less than 40 percent of the population had heard of him...  So how did he do this?  A really ridiculous idea.  The idea that all women should receive the same message because of their gender—or all African Americans because of their race."

Nix went on to explain that through psychometrics, political candidates can create laser-focus appeals to specific people.  The approach became "different messages for different voters," and Donald Trump's team embraced the model with enthusiasm.  Grassegger and Krogerus write:
On the day of the third presidential debate between Trump and Clinton, Trump’s team tested 175,000 different ad variations for his arguments, in order to find the right versions above all via Facebook.  The messages differed for the most part only in microscopic details, in order to target the recipients in the optimal psychological way: different headings, colors, captions, with a photo or video...  In the Miami district of Little Haiti, for instance, Trump’s campaign provided inhabitants with news about the failure of the Clinton Foundation following the earthquake in Haiti, in order to keep them from voting for Hillary Clinton.  This was one of the goals: to keep potential Clinton voters (which include wavering left-wingers, African-Americans, and young women) away from the ballot box, to “suppress” their vote, as one senior campaign official told Bloomberg in the weeks before the election.  These “dark posts”—sponsored news-feed-style ads in Facebook timelines that can only be seen by users with specific profiles—included videos aimed at African-Americans in which Hillary Clinton refers to black men as predators, for example.
All in all, the Trump campaign paid between $5 and $15 million to Cambridge Analytica for their services -- the total amount is disputed.

Of course, it's impossible to know how much this swayed the results of the election, but given the amount of money Trump and others have spent to use this algorithm, it's hard to imagine that it had no effect.

All of which is not to say that you shouldn't "like" anything on Facebook.  Honestly, I'm unconcerned about what Alexander Nix might make of the fact that I like Linkin Park, H. P. Lovecraft, and various pages about running, scuba diving, and birdwatching.  It's more that we should be aware that the ads we're seeing -- especially about important things like political races -- are almost certainly not random any more.  They are crafted to appeal to our personalities, interests, and biases, using the data we've inadvertently provided, meaning that if we're not cognizant of how to view them, we're very likely to fall for their manipulation.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Disbelieving your own eyes

In May of 2015, the brilliant and acerbic Andy Borowitz wrote a piece for The New Yorker entitled "Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans."  Borowitz wrote:
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.”
I wonder if Borowitz realizes how literally accurate his satirical piece is.   Because Brian Schaffner, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, has just published research showing something that even given humanity's fact-resistance, is kind of mind-blowing.

In the first, and less surprising part of the research, Schaffner showed the now-famous aerial photographs from Obama's and Trump's inaugurations to 1,388 people, and asked them which was which.  Unsurprisingly, given the claims by Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, and others, a significant percentage of Trump voters thought the Obama photograph (clearly showing more people) was Trump's, and vice versa.

Obama's inauguration [image courtesy of photographer Senior Master Sergeant Thomas Meneguin, U. S. Air Force, and the Wikimedia Commons]

Of course, all that shows is that people believed what Spicer said, and/or that the photograph itself had been misrepresented in the press.  So far, nothing too shocking.  But the amazing -- and alarming -- piece of Schaffner's research is best described in his own words:
For the other half, we asked a very simple question with one clearly correct answer: “Which photo has more people?”  Some of these people probably understood that the image on the left was from Trump’s inauguration and that the image on the right was from Obama’s, but admitting that there were more people in the image on the right would mean they were acknowledging that more people attended Obama’s inauguration. 
Would some people be willing to make a clearly false statement when looking directly at photographic evidence — simply to support the Trump administration’s claims? 
In fact, about 15% of the Trump voters responded, with no apparent hesitation, that the photograph containing fewer people actually had more.  (I'm not sure if I find it heartening that 85% of Trump voters correctly identified the photo with the bigger audience, however, given that 41% still thought it was from Trump's inauguration.)

As Alan Levinovitz of Slate wrote:
The process of embracing a charlatan’s empowering vision is not rational, which means that rational arguments are unlikely, in isolation, to dispel it.  Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that people cling tenaciously to their worldviews, and conflicting data may actually strengthen their beliefs.  (Just look at this family who thinks Trump is “a man of faith who will bring Godliness back.”)  To renounce Trump would mean admitting that one’s worldview—of a country wracked by carnage, as the president put it in his inaugural address, and a truth-telling hero who can heal it—is fundamentally mistaken.  And that can also mean confronting existential panic without a panacea.  It is much easier to forgive Trump for not locking her up than to wrestle with such truths...  It’s also much easier to convince yourself that a crowd is larger than it appears, particularly when the man you’ve put your faith in is arguing the same thing.  And in the case of the photographs, it didn’t take much to come up with an explanation for the apparent discrepancy.  Trump himself supplied it: Mainstream media manipulated both images to make it appear as if Obama’s had more.
Okay, I know I have biases just like everyone, and (like everyone) am probably wrong about some of my beliefs.  But what I completely do not get -- to the point of complete and utter bafflement -- is how people could be so wedded to their own biases that they would take incontrovertible hard evidence that they were wrong, and instead of changing their beliefs, disbelieve the evidence.

"No," they seem to be saying.  "I can't possibly be wrong.  It must be what I'm seeing right in front of me that is a lie."

Bill Nye compares this sort of thing to a belief in astrology, which persists despite huge amounts of evidence against it.  "For example, if somebody believes in astrology, it takes them about two years to get over it," Nye said.  "You have to show them over and over there’s no such thing as astrology, it doesn’t really work, and then they let go.  But everybody’s expectation that you’ll let go in a week is not going to met...  So we have to work, I think, diligently in the science community to fight back.  Of course there are the facts, we start with those.  But there’s this human nature thing on both sides to fight back.  We have our bubble over here, they have their bubble over there."

All of which means that rationalists have their work cut out for them.  I've seen over and over the extent to which humans react to new information primarily from an emotional, not a logical, standpoint; but over and over I'm astonished at how deep this tendency runs.  Andy Borowitz's quips about "fact-resistant humans" made me laugh, but I'm afraid in the last week or so my laugh has rung rather hollow.  Because the people currently in charge of the United States seem hell-bent on using this avoidance of the facts to their benefit, in terms of consolidating power and silencing the opposition.

And if it works, I'm afraid we're in for a really, really rough few years.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Locking yourself into error

I got in a rather interesting -- well, I suppose you could call it a "discussion" -- with a Trump supporter yesterday.

It came about because of recent posts here at Skeptophilia that have been pretty critical of the president, his appointees, and their decisions.  After a few minutes of the usual greetings and pleasantries ("You're a liberal lackey who sucks up what the lying mainstream media says without question!", stuff like that), I asked her what to me is the only pertinent question in such situations:

"What would it take to convince you that you are wrong?"

"I'm not wrong," she said.

"That's not what I asked," I responded.  "I asked what would it take to convince you that you are wrong.  About Donald Trump.  Or about anything."

"What would it take to convince you?" she shot back.

"Facts and evidence that my opinion was in error.  Or at least a good logical argument."

"People like you would never believe it anyway.  You're swallowing the lies from the media.  Thank God Donald Trump was elected despite people like you and your friends in the MSM."

"And you still haven't answered my question."

At that point, she terminated the conversation and blocked me.

Couple that with a second comment from a different person -- one I elected not to respond to, because eventually I do learn not to take the bait -- saying that of course I have a liberal bias "since I get my information from CNN," and you can see that the fan mail just keeps rolling in.

Of course, the question I asked the first individual isn't original to me; it was the single most pivotal moment in the never-to-be-forgotten debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye over the theory of evolution in February of 2014, in which the moderator asked each man what, if anything, would change his mind.  Nye said:
We would need just one piece of evidence.  We would need the fossil that swam from one layer to another.  We would need evidence that the universe is not expanding.  We would need evidence that the stars appear to be far away but are not.  We would need evidence that rock layers could somehow form in just 4,000 years…  We would need evidence that somehow you can reset atomic clocks and keep neutrons from becoming protons.  Bring on any of those things and you would change me immediately.
Ham, on the other hand, gave a long, rambling response that can be summed up as "Nothing would change my mind.  No evidence, no logic, nothing."

The whole thing dovetails perfectly with a paper released just two days ago in the journal Political Psychology.  Entitled "Science Curiosity and Political Psychology," by Dan M. Kahan, Asheley Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the paper looks at the connection between scientific curiosity and a willingness to consider information that runs counter to one's own political biases and preconceived notions.  The authors write:
[S]ubjects high in science curiosity display a marked preference for surprising information—that is, information contrary to their expectations about the current state of the best available evidence—even when that evidence disappoints rather than gratifies their political predispositions.  This is in marked contrast, too, to the usual style of information-search associated with [politically-motivated reasoning], in which partisans avoid predisposition-threatening in favor of predisposition-affirming evidence. 
Together these two forms of evidence paint a picture—a flattering one indeed—of individuals of high science curiosity. In this view, individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected—do not turn this feature of their personality off when they engage political information but rather indulge it in that setting as well, exposing themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations about facts on contested issues.  The result is that these citizens, unlike their less curious counterparts, react more open-mindedly and respond more uniformly across the political spectrum to the best available evidence.
And maybe that's what's at the heart of all this.  I've always thought that the opposite of curiosity is fear -- those of us who are scientifically curious (and I will engage in a bit of self-congratulation and include myself in this group) tend to be less afraid about being found to be wrong, and more concerned with making sure we have all our facts straight.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So I'll reiterate my question, aimed not only toward Trump supporters, but to everyone: what would it take to convince you that you are wrong?  About your political beliefs, religious beliefs, moral stances, anything?  It's a question we should keep in the forefront of our minds all the time.

Because once you answer that question with a defiant "nothing could convince me," you have effectively locked yourself into whatever errors you may have made, and insulated yourself from facts, logic, evidence -- and the truth.

Friday, January 27, 2017

State-approved brain drain

In the early 1930s, a cadre of scientists in Germany saw the handwriting on the wall with respect to the rising forces of German nationalism, and founded a model for scientific research that they called Deutsche Physik (German physics) or Arische Physik (Aryan physics).  The proponents of this model for science -- including physicists Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark -- claimed that research had to be state-approved and in line with the ideology of the German nationalist movement, in contrast to the Jüdische Physik (Jewish physics) of Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, and others.

As the Deutsche Physik movement's stranglehold on science increased, researchers who flouted the new rules were the targets of suppression and outright harassment.  The powers-that-be responded by clamping down further.  All scientific papers had to be approved by a board made up not of scientific peers but of party loyalists.  Because of this, many of the finest minds in Germany fled the country, including not only Einstein and Schrödinger but Leo Szilard, Hans Bethe, Lise Meitner, James Franck, and computer scientist John von Neumann.

When a German journalist spoke to Adolf Hitler about this loss of scientific talent, and asked him who would be the brains of the country if the trend continued, Hitler responded blithely, "I will be the brains."

The new administration here in the United States is evidently taking a page from the Deutsche Physik playbook.  Just yesterday they announced that all research work by scientists associated with the Environmental Protection Agency would have to be evaluated before release on a "case-by-case basis" -- by a panel of non-scientist party loyalists.

"We'll take a look at what's happening so that the voice coming from the EPA is one that's going to reflect the new administration," Doug Ericksen, head of communications for the Trump administration's EPA transition team, told reporters.  "Obviously with a new administration coming in, the transition time, we'll be taking a look at the web pages and the Facebook pages and everything else involved here at EPA. Everything is subject to review."

And if that doesn't draw the comparison with pre-World War II Germany starkly enough, yesterday the chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee -- Lamar Smith, who has had this position for years despite having no scientific training whatsoever -- said, "The national liberal media won’t print [the truth about scientific research], or air it, or post it.  Better to get your news directly from the president.  In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth."

Who will be the brains of America once all the scientists have fled harassment and the suppression of their research?  Donald Trump will, of course.  Just listen to Dear Leader and all will be well.

Listen and believe.

The thing is, the universe is not compelled to conform with the political ideology of today's Deutsche Physik movement any more than it was compelled to conform to the one back in 1933. Einstein's Jüdische Physik Theory of Relativity turned out to be correct, and Hitler's insistence on state approval of research, and the resultant brain drain, hamstrung German science for decades.

At least we have some scientists and organizations that are speaking up rather than being cowed.  When the EPA, USDA, and National Parks Service were forbidden to use Twitter and other social media to communicate with the tax-paying public about research and current events (i.e., the facts), many of their staff set up "rogue Twitter accounts" -- allowing free and unfettered communication instead of the two other choices open to them -- quoting the party line, or silence.

But this, of course, is not the way science is supposed to be.  As astrophysicist Katie Mack put it:

Neither the climate nor anything else in the scientific world is responsive to political spin.  Eventually, of course, this will become apparent regardless, as it did with the German physicists -- when they found out that their anti-relativity, anti-quantum mechanics version of things was simply wrong.  The risk is that by the time that happens, it may well be that our best and brightest will have fled to places where scientific research is supported instead of oppressed.

What we have to ask ourselves is whether this is a risk we're willing to take.

And we also need to ask why it makes sense that we have placed the oversight of scientific research into the hands of non-scientists -- worse, anti-scientists -- like Lamar Smith, Dana Rohrabacher, James Inhofe, and yes, Donald Trump.  Are we truly willing to jettison the last two centuries of scientific advancement and dedication to the scientific method in favor of state-sponsored, state-approved, party-line-only pseudoscience?

Because that is the direction we're heading if we don't start speaking up.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

It's not what you say, it's how you say it...

There's a controversial idea in the realm of linguistics called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  Named after linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, the gist is that the language you speak strongly influences your brain, and your model of the world.  Thus, ideas that are easy to express in one language might be difficult or impossible to express in another.

I'm not just talking about linguistic lacunae, which are "holes" in the lexicon of a language.  An example from English is that we have no generic singular term for cattle.  Think about it; there's sow/boar/pig, billy/nanny/goat, stallion/mare/horse -- but bull/cow... what?  Oddly, we have a plural generic term -- cattle -- but no singular.

Sapir-Whorf goes much deeper than that.  It's not just talking about missing words; it implies that our entire framework for understanding can differ depending on the language we speak.  I ran into the real heart of Sapir-Whorf when I read the splendid book The Last Speakers by K. David Harrison, in which the author traveled with and interviewed people who are the last fluent speakers of some of the planet's dying languages.  The most amazing passages in the book occur when Harrison is in Siberia and is talking to some nomadic hunter-gatherers who speak a language in which there are no words for right, left, in front of, or behind.  Everything is related to the cardinal directions, and to being upstream or downstream of the river they use for travel.  Thus, the computer on which I'm writing this post isn't in front of me; it's northwest of me.  My space heater is north of me, the door of my office east of me.  When Harrison tried to explain our concept of left and right to them, they first didn't even understand what he was talking about, and when they did get it, they laughed.

What an arrogant, narcissistic culture you come from, they told Harrison.  You interpret where everything is relative to your own body?  And if you turn around, everything in the whole world changes position?  And two different people think the same object is in a different place because they're facing different directions?

In this case, it very much appears that the language these Siberian nomads speak alters the way they see the world -- and that model of the world reflects back and alters or constrains the language.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Sapir-Whorf has fallen a bit out of favor in the last couple of decades, and in fact was already waning in influence when I got my M.A. in linguistics in 1996.  But a study that came out this week in the American Journal of Political Science has brought it back to the forefront -- with the claim by Efrén O. Pérez and Margit Tavits that speakers of languages that lack a distinction between present and future tense make different decisions regarding political issues that will have an impact on the future.

In their paper, titled, "Language Shapes People's Time Perception and Support for Future-Oriented Policies," their study looked at bilingually fluent speakers of Estonian (which lacks a future tense) and Russian (which has one).  They found that when those people were interviewed in Russian, they tended to be less supportive of policies that would provide benefits in the long-term future than when they were interviewed in Estonian.

The authors write:
Can the way we speak affect the way we perceive time and think about politics? Languages vary by how much they require speakers to grammatically encode temporal differences.  Futureless tongues (e.g., Estonian) do not oblige speakers to distinguish between the present and future tense, whereas futured tongues do (e.g., Russian).  By grammatically conflating “today” and “tomorrow,” we hypothesize that speakers of futureless tongues will view the future as temporally closer to the present, causing them to discount the future less and support future-oriented policies more.  Using an original survey experiment that randomly assigned the interview language to Estonian/Russian bilinguals, we find support for this proposition and document the absence of this language effect when a policy has no obvious time referent.  We then replicate and extend our principal result through a cross-national analysis of survey data.  Our results imply that language may have significant consequences for mass opinion.
Which I find absolutely fascinating.  I've long been of the opinion that our stances about many things -- not least our political opinions -- are far more fluid than most of us think.  The "well, it's my opinion, of course it's not going to change!" attitude that many of us have simply ignores that fact that most of our decisions are strongly contextual.

And now, it appears that one of those contexts may be the language you're using.

I'm aware that a lot of linguistic researchers these days have some serious doubts about the applicability of Sapir-Whorf, but I still think this is an interesting first look at a case where it may well bear out.

Anyhow, that's our look at some cool new research for today.  Me, I'm off to eat breakfast and get some coffee, which at the moment are southwest of me.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Talk me out of my pessimism. Please.

So I've been getting pretty political lately, here at Skeptophilia headquarters.

Some of you are probably glad to see me address more serious topics, while others might wish I'd get back to Bigfoot and ghosts and UFOs.  For those latter, I'd ask your indulgence for (at least) one more politically-oriented post, that I was spurred to write because of comments from readers.

The conservative members of my audience have responded to my admittedly liberal bias with reactions varying from encouragement to outright scorn.  Some have said, "Come on, now, it's not going to be bad.  Just wait until some of the new administration's ideas are enacted, and you'll see that it'll make things better."  Others have said "buck up, Buttercup" or "suck it up, Snowflake" or other such helpful phrases.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So I thought, in the interest of trying to understand those who disagree with me -- the basic gist of yesterday's post, and more or less the overarching theme of this entire blog -- I'd address the part of my readership who are saying that things are going to be fine, and ask some specific questions.

First, it's undeniable that President Trump and his new appointees -- not to mention the Republican-controlled House and Senate -- have a lot of us pretty worried.  And despite the "Snowflake" and "Buttercup" responders, it's not simply because we're pissed at having lost.  I'm 56, and I remember vividly the presidencies of Reagan and both Bushes, and I can never recall being this specifically upset at this many things, this early into the administration.  Without even trying hard, I came up with the following, all of which happened in the last few weeks:
Okay.  You get the picture.

I've been dragged, rather unwillingly, into political discourse largely because I am so alarmed at the direction our leaders are taking.  Honestly, I used the words "liberal bias" earlier, but I'm really more of a centrist; I do think we need to rein in spending, I do think we've got a good bit of government bloat, and I do think the "nanny state" concept -- protecting people from their own stupidity and poor judgment -- has gotten out of hand.  But this?  I look at this list of actions, all in a little over two months since the election, with nothing short of horror.  I see a corporate interests über alles approach, a move toward less transparency, a morass of conflicts of interest, a complete disregard for any kind of consideration of the environment, and a reckless surge forward to reverse changes in policy on medical insurance coverage and lending practices without any clear vision of how to improve them -- or what impact those might have on low-income families.

So, conservative readers: you tell me not to worry, that everything will be fine, that Trump et al. are going to Make America Great Again.  Okay, convince me.  However I think Donald Trump is kind of repellent, personally, I have no desire to see him fail.

The stakes are way too high.

I'm a facts-and-evidence kind of guy, and I'm listening.  I promise to consider carefully what you say, if for no other reason because I hate being a gloom-and-doom pessimist. 

On the other hand, if all you have to say is "suck it up, Snowflake," my response is gonna be "go to hell."  So be forewarned.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Red truth, blue truth

At the same time that social media has opened up possibilities for long-distance (and cross-cultural) contact, and allowed us to befriend people we've never met, it also has had the effect of creating nearly impermeable echo chambers that do nothing but reinforce confirmation bias about our own beliefs and the worst stereotypes about those who disagree.

This is being highlighted in a rather terrifying fashion by The Wall Street Journal in their feature "Blue Feed, Red Feed," which they describe as follows:
To demonstrate how reality may differ for different Facebook users, The Wall Street Journal created two feeds, one “blue” and the other “red.”  If a source appears in the red feed, a majority of the articles shared from the source were classified as “very conservatively aligned” in a large 2015 Facebook study.  For the blue feed, a majority of each source’s articles aligned “very liberal.”  These aren't intended to resemble actual individual news feeds.  Instead, they are rare side-by-side looks at real conversations from different perspectives.
It's worth taking a look.  Here's a small sampling of a "red feed" for the recent "alternative facts" interview with Kellyanne Conway:
AWFUL LIBERAL Hack Chuck Todd Attacks #Trump – Kellyanne Conway Rips Him Apart (VIDEO)
Jim Hoft Jan 22nd, 2017 10:39 am 273 Comments
The liberal media today is in the sewer.
More Americans believe in Sasquatch than the crap coming from the liberal media.
After eight years of slobbering all over failed President and liar Barack Obama the media has suddenly decided to take on this new administration.
Today Chuck Todd went after Donald Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway on Meet the Press.
Kellyanne Conway ripped him a new one.
Notice how this condescending ass snickers as Kellyanne answers his question!

The Trump administration should boycott this horrible show immediately.
Contrast this with the "blue feed" on the same topic:
If you are puzzled by the bizarre "press conference" put on by the White House press secretary this evening (angrily claiming that Trump's inauguration had the largest audience in history, accusing them of faking photos and lying about attendance), let me help explain it. This spectacle served three purposes: 
1. Establishing a norm with the press: they will be told things that are obviously wrong and they will have no opportunity to ask questions. That way, they will be grateful if they get anything more at any press conference. This is the PR equivalent of "negging," the odious pick-up practice of a particular kind of horrible person (e.g., Donald Trump). 
2. Increasing the separation between Trump's base (1/3 of the population) from everybody else (the remaining 2/3). By being told something that is obviously wrong—that there is no evidence for and all evidence against, that anybody with eyes can see is wrong—they are forced to pick whether they are going to believe Trump or their lying eyes. The gamble here—likely to pay off—is that they will believe Trump. This means that they will regard media outlets that report the truth as "fake news" (because otherwise they'd be forced to confront their cognitive dissonance.) 
3. Creating a sense of uncertainty about whether facts are knowable, among a certain chunk of the population (which is a taking a page from the Kremlin, for whom this is their preferred disinformation tactic). A third of the population will say "clearly the White House is lying," a third will say "if Trump says it, it must be true," and the remaining third will say "gosh, I guess this is unknowable." The idea isn't to convince these people of untrue things, it's to fatigue them, so that they will stay out of the political process entirely, regarding the truth as just too difficult to determine. 
This is laying important groundwork for the months ahead. If Trump's White House is willing to lie about something as obviously, unquestionably fake as this, just imagine what else they'll lie about. In particular, things that the public cannot possibly verify the truth of. It's gonna get real bad.
It's not like they're looking at the same thing from two different angles; it's more like these people aren't living in the same universe.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Add into the mix a paper published this week in PNAS Online by Michela Del Vicario, Alessandro Bessi, Fabiana Zollo, Fabio Petroni, Antonio Scala, Guido Caldarelli, H. Eugene Stanley, and Walter Quattrociocchi of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science in Lucca, Italy.  The study, called "The Spreading of Misinformation Online," not only describes the dangers of the echo chamber effect apropos of social media, but the worse problem that it insulates us from correcting our own understanding  when we're in the wrong. The authors write:
Digital misinformation has become so pervasive in online social media that it has been listed by the WEF as one of the main threats to human society.  Whether a news item, either substantiated or not, is accepted as true by a user may be strongly affected by social norms or by how much it coheres with the user’s system of beliefs.  Many mechanisms cause false information to gain acceptance, which in turn generate false beliefs that, once adopted by an individual, are highly resistant to correction...  Our findings show that users mostly tend to select and share content related to a specific narrative and to ignore the rest.  In particular, we show that social homogeneity is the primary driver of content diffusion, and one frequent result is the formation of homogeneous, polarized clusters.  Most of the times the information is taken by a friend having the same profile (polarization)––i.e., belonging to the same echo chamber...  Users tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization.  This comes at the expense of the quality of the information and leads to proliferation of biased narratives fomented by unsubstantiated rumors, mistrust, and paranoia.
It would be easy to jump from there to the conclusion that there's no way to tell what the truth is, that we're all so insulated in our comfortable cocoons of self-approval that we'll never be able to see out.  That's unwarrantedly pessimistic, however.  There is a method for determining the truth; it involves using evidence (i.e. facts), logic, and an unrelenting determination to steer clear of partisan spin.  Giving up and saying "No one can know the truth" is exactly as unproductive as saying "my side is always right."

Still, all kind-hearted ecumenism aside, I'll end with a quote from the eminent Richard Dawkins: "When two opposing points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie somewhere in the middle.  It is possible for one side to be simply wrong."

Monday, January 23, 2017

An obituary for facts

Of all of the things to be appalled about over the last few days -- and there is a wide selection to choose from, something for everyone -- nothing chilled me like the announcement by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer that the crowds attending Donald Trump's inauguration set a record.

"This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period," Spicer said.  "That's what you guys should be writing and covering."

Which, of course, is blatantly and demonstrably false.

Then, when Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway was asked about Spicer's claim on NBC's Meet the Press, she said that it wasn't a lie -- that Spicer had simply given the public "alternative facts."

On the face of it, this may seem like a small matter -- the people who are in charge of presenting Donald Trump's public face to the media stretching the truth to assuage the new president's ego.  But think about it.  What Spicer and Conway are saying is, "Facts don't matter.  Accurate reporting doesn't matter.  All that matters is believing what you're told."

And even more terrifying is that Trump's followers, by and large, did believe what Spicer and Conway said.  "I don't believe one damned thing that comes from the crooked, bought-and-sold mainstream media," one person posted on Facebook.

"The liberal press will do anything to disparage our president," said another.  "No lie is too big or too small as long as it casts him in a hateful light."

This last one is the same person who posted the following photograph:

And I've already seen the following three times, with a caption of "Finally allowed back in the White House:"

We're being consistently steered away from respecting facts and evidence toward ideology, belief, confirmation bias, and a cult of personality -- an approach far more consistent with North Korea than with the United States, where Dear Leader is the center of near-worship on the basis of everything from his flawless statesmanship to his golf game.

But that's the direction we're heading.  Unsurprising, then, that governmental positions are being filled with people who have the same attitude-- predominantly climate change deniers (Tom Price, Rex Tillerson, and Scott Pruitt) and young-Earth creationists (Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, Jeff Sessions, and Vice-President Mike Pence himself).  None of these views are based on logic, rationality, or fact; they're either blind, doctrinaire belief in the face of evidence, or confirmation bias to accept a claim because it's politically or economically expedient.

What blows my mind is how far this ignore-the-facts approach can take you.  If you believe that the crowds at Trump's inauguration were yuuuge, then that's what they were, photographs (or any other evidence) be damned.  If you think the Earth is 6,000 years old, none of the mountains of evidence showing this to be untrue will convince you -- but you will swallow that Beowulf was an "eyewitness account of dinosaurs showing that they coexisted with humans," as was just claimed this week by Answers in Genesis spokesperson and "scientist" Andrew Snelling.

And once you believe that facts and evidence don't matter, it's apparently a small step to believing that a thin-skinned, narcissistic egomaniac who is a serial adulterer and (by his own admission) guilty of sexual assault could be the anointed one of god.

As George Orwell put it in 1984, "The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.  It was their final, most essential command."

We've got a rough road ahead.  I'm cheered by the numbers of people who turned out for the Women's Marches Against Trump -- literally millions of people came out for what were almost entirely peaceful demonstrations against what this administration stands for.  But we've got our work cut out for us.  We have elected and appointed officials, and (apparently) a significant slice of the voting public, who have written the obituary for a fact-based understanding of the world, in favor of "alternative facts" that fit the way they wish things were.  And I'm at a loss for how to approach this.  Because once you've decided that anything other than evidence is the best guide to determining the truth, I have no idea how you could be convinced that you were wrong about any belief you might hold.

Heaven knows I'm not infallible myself, but I do have one thing going for me; if you think I'm wrong, show me the evidence.  I might not like it, but faced with the facts, I'll have no recourse but to say, "Huh.  I guess I was wrong, then."  But if the media lies 100% of the time (except when they say something you happen to have already believed), when your favorite political figure has no flaws and was elevated to the position by god himself, when the hard evidence itself is suspect -- you have erected an impenetrable wall around yourself, locking yourself in with nothing but your ideology for company.

And a nation full of people like that might be the most dangerous thing in the world.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Protecting the arts from ideology

It's the end of first semester at my school, which means my Critical Thinking classes are finishing up and ready to move on, and I'm preparing to start with a whole new group in a week and a half.  The first semester students are currently working on their final papers, which is a critical analysis of how their thinking has changed since the beginning of the class.

I received one paper early -- they're not officially due until next Thursday -- and one paragraph from it stood out.  The student wrote:
One thing that has become apparent to me through this course is that you can't separate critical thinking from creativity.  Critical thinking really means applying creativity and a broader perspective to everything -- seeing that there are many paths to understanding, and for most things in life, there is no single right answer.  This is why I believe that cutting arts education, which is happening in many schools, will have negative impacts on every subject.  By eliminating the arts, we are taking away one of the fundamentally unique things about being human -- the ability to create something entirely new.  How can we find creative solutions to problems if we've been taught that the most creative endeavors have no value?
Well, first, her perceptivity absolutely took my breath away.  Her observations are not only spot-on, they are even more pertinent than she may have realized, because just yesterday an announcement was made that the Trump administration is considering balancing the federal budget by (amongst other things) eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts.

It brings to mind a similar move that was proposed in England during World War II -- to eliminate funding for the arts in favor of diverting the money to the military.  Winston Churchill famously responded, "Then what are we fighting for?"

Which is it exactly.  Our lives are made immeasurably richer because of the arts -- not only art per se, but writing, music, theater, film, and dance.  The NEA has supported arts and artists of all genres, not to mention programs to encourage the next generation of creative young people.  So you might be asking yourself, why would the new administration target such an organization?

Make no mistake about it; this is an ideologically-based salvo.  It's not about saving money.  The NEA's contribution to the federal budget last year was $148 million out of a $3.9 trillion total, a portion that Philip Bump explains thusly:
If you were at Thanksgiving and demanded a slice of pecan pie proportionate to 2016 NEA spending relative to the federal budget, you'd end up with a piece of pie that would need to be sliced off with a finely-tuned laser.  Put another way, if you make $50,000 a year, spending the equivalent of what the government spends on these three programs would be like spending less than $10.
The conservative powers-that-be have targeted the arts for one reason and one reason only; artists are not controllable.  If you give people the power to create, they will do so -- but won't necessarily create something that makes your political party, religion, or gender comfortable.  One of the most widely-publicized examples of this is the NEA-supported work of American photographer Andres Serrano, who made headlines (and received death threats) for his piece Piss Christ, which was a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine.

Sometimes the role of art is to shock, to jolt us out of our complacency.  I know as a writer, I am conscious of the fact that I'm writing to entertain -- but at the same time, if my readers' brains are the same when they're done with my book as they were when they started, I've failed.  All of the arts are about expanding our awareness -- twisting our minds around so we see things in a different way.

That twisting process isn't necessarily comfortable.  And for those of us who value conformity -- those who would like to see everyone follow the rules and march in tempo and draw inside the lines -- it can be profoundly frightening.  But that's exactly why we need the arts.  The capacity for turning your brain around and altering your perspective is not learned by rote.

And we'll need that sort of creativity, considering some of the issues we're currently facing.  As Albert Einstein put it, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

So this ideological shot-across-the-bow needs to be fought, and fought hard, even if you haven't always agreed with every project the NEA has supported.  We need our artists, and more importantly, we need our government and business leaders, our doctors, scientists, educators, and engineers to have the skills that the arts teach.  As my student put it -- if we devalue the arts, we devalue the creative approach to all aspects of life.

And to the artists, writers, musicians, actors, dancers, and all other creative people out there: keep creating.  Keep exploring, keep pushing the boundaries, keep making us see the universe in a different way.  Don't let your unique voice be silenced.  Even though things seem dark right now, recall what one of my favorite visionaries -- J. R. R. Tolkien -- put in the mouth of his iconic character Frodo Baggins, as he faced the overwhelming might of Mordor:  "They cannot win forever."

Friday, January 20, 2017

Giving incompetence a chance

One of the most common things that has been said to me by Trump supporters is "give him a chance to govern."  And although I've been pretty vocal in my criticism of the President-elect, his rhetoric, and his decisions, no one would be happier than me if the prognostications of doom I'm hearing don't come true.  After all, the health of our democracy, our standing in the world, and the long-term survivability of the planet is far more important than any schadenfreude I would get from seeing someone I don't like fail.

But as far as giving people a chance, there are times when what a person says or does makes me disinclined to put them in the position of being able to do worse -- or simply to follow through on what they've already said.  I'm under no obligation to "give a chance" to someone who has shown no sign of competence.

Which brings me to Betsy DeVos.

I was appalled enough when she was first nominated for the position of Secretary of Education.  DeVos is a multi-millionaire whose staunch support of vouchers and charter schools in her home state of Michigan has been, by and large, an abysmal failure.  In an article written last month for the Detroit Free Press, Stephen Henderson has outlined the results -- a weakened public school system, and a host of charter schools whose lack of oversight has generated year after year of failure.  (One of them, Hope Academy of Grand River and Livernois, scored in the first percentile for academic performance in 2013 -- and despite of that, two years later had its charter renewed.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I still held out a modicum of hope that her confirmation hearing would show that she wasn't as bad as she seemed.  That hope, unfortunately, was destined to be dashed.  Her testimony at the hearing was a rambling, disjointed birdwalk that at times left me thinking, "What did she just say?"  She showed herself to be unprepared -- no, worse, she showed herself to be entirely incompetent.  As an example, she revealed during questioning that she didn't know the difference between academic proficiency and academic growth, terms that any first-year teacher would know.

As should the Secretary of Education.

It'd be nice to think this was just a stumble.  We all do that sometimes -- choke on something we should have known, or do know, and afterwards think, "Wow, I sure screwed that up."  But the entire hearing was full of "stumbles" like this.  When Virginia Senator Tim Kaine asked her if she supported compliance with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act as a requirement for receiving federal funding, she replied, "I think that's a matter best left to the states."

So wait a moment.  It's up to the states to determine if they'll follow a federal law?  One that mandates equal access to facilities and services for all students, regardless of disabilities?

That response, however, became a refrain.  On a question regarding guns in schools asked by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, she once again said, "I think that's best left for states and locales to decide."  Allow me to point out that Murphy represents the district in Connecticut where the Sandy Hook massacre took place.  When he understandably responded with incredulity, DeVos went into a bizarre description of how she knows of a school in Wyoming where they keep a gun to protect students from "potential grizzlies."

The response was so weird that #PotentialGrizzlies trended on Twitter for hours afterward.

Most of her testimony was a rather clumsy dance to avoid answering questions directly.  When given a long list of statistics regarding the failure of schools in Detroit, she responded that she thought Detroit schools were actually doing quite well.  Asked about her stance on science education, apropos of the teaching of evolution and climate change, she said, "I support the teaching of great science."

Well, forgive me for being a little dubious on that point, given DeVos's history of supporting groups like Focus on the Family and the Foundation for Traditional Values, both of which have worked tirelessly to eliminate the teaching of evolution in public schools.  Not to mention her own words, "Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God's kingdom."

The supporters of the President-elect are saying, "Give her a chance."  Well, you know what?  I am under no obligation to "give a chance" to a person who has shown herself to be wildly unqualified for the job she's been nominated for.

Imagine if this was the approach taken in business.  A CEO interviews a candidate for a job, and the prospective employee refuses to give direct answers to questions, and in general shows himself to be a terrible choice for the job.  If the CEO didn't hire him, would you tell him, "You should have given him a chance?"

Worse still is the realization that the "chance" we're being asked to take here is to risk the education of millions of children.  We have no option at this point but to give Donald Trump a chance; after today, he'll be the president whether we like it or not.  We are not, however, required to give a chance to his incompetent nominees.

That's why we have confirmation hearings.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Thus sayeth Lord Steven

I'm not in the habit of using Skeptophilia as a forum to give publicity to weirdos, but sometimes I find a member of the Wingnut Coalition that is so delightfully out there that I just have to tell you about it.

In this case we have a guy who calls himself "Lord Steven Christ."  As if "Christ" was Jesus's last name or something.  (Although musician and stand-up comic Stephen Lynch did riff on this idea in his song "Craig," which is about Jesus's bad-boy brother, Craig Christ.  Note: the song is hilarious, but at the same time runs pretty close to the edge of sacrilege more than once, and is highly NSFW.  You have been warned.)

Anyhow, Lord Steven's website is a sight to behold.  First off, he's very fond of having photographs of himself all over the place, usually shirtless and in mid-flex.  It also has links to three dozen or so videos, the general gist of which is that the Earth is concave and the sky is made of glass.

I'm not making this up.  So now we've gone one step past the Flat Earth lunacy; the Earth is actually shaped like a bowl.  The reason we can't see this -- why, for example, someone with a telescope can't see Japan over there on the other edge of the bowl -- is because "light bends to the center so you can't see the other side."  Whatever that means.  But anyone who doesn't believe this, Lord Steven says, is delusional.  He says that NASA and the other pesky people who investigate the universe and have come up with different answers are "lie-n-tists."

But the most interesting part of his spiel is his take on religion, because in his opinion there should be only one religion, and that is the religion of Lord Steven.  In fact, he wrote a letter to Pope Francis demanding that he turn over the keys to the Vatican forthwith, which I include in toto below because it's just that wonderful:
Dear Jorge Bergoglio: 
As your fellow Jesuit colleagues should know very well, I am the Returned Christ.  I am awaiting exaltation to world authority over all mankind.  I am ready to establish my Kingdom. 
According to the Malachy papal prophecies, you know that you, by taking on the name Francis di Pietro, have fulfilled the office of the last pope dubbed as Peter Romanus. According to the prophecy you are called to feed the people.  You are to feed them with the truth of the reality of the Kingdom of God, in which I am on the verge of establishing.  You are also commanded to tell the people that I, Christ am back, returned in a new body with a new name "Steven", the Crowned One.  You are commanded to help educate the people of my return and the hoped for liberty and righteousness to all the people that fear my name. 
You also should know that I am the "Dreadful Judge" that is mentioned in the Malachy prophecy, which also states that Rome will be destroyed.  I am here to execute judgment upon the entire Earth, and to educate the masses about taking cover prior to the hail descending from the sky, and the sun burning up the Earth. 
I am here to implement my universal mark upon humanity.  This will separate the sheep from the goats.  All who submit and wear my Seal of the Living God will be protected and blessed, those who refuse will be left to perish outside of safety. 
I command you to conceal not my identity and my message to the masses.  For the time is short and judgment is at hand.  You are to point them to me as the returned Christ. 
I expect a quick response from you confirming your obedience to me. 
The Lord Steven Christ
So that's pretty unequivocal.  I haven't heard what, if anything, Pope Francis responded, but I'm guessing that Lord Steven's demands were ignored given that I haven't heard anything about Francis resigning.  As far as the rest of his message, I have to say it's pretty nice of him to Educate the Masses before the hail descends and Earth gets burned up by the Sun, but I'm a little less enthusiastic about Perishing Outside of Safety.

I guess you can't have everything.

He also has other stuff about how he's in favor of the New World Order as long as he gets to be in charge, and that his followers need to get this complicated star-pattern design tattooed on the back of their right hands so he'll know who not to smite.  "Please also be wise and reverent in relating to me," Lord Steven writes, "because there are many proud and bashing people online that do not understand who they are relating to."

Here's Lord Steven's seal, in case you are interested in a hand tattoo.

Then there's his diatribe against Alex Jones, because apparently Lord Steven is of the opinion that like the Highlander, amongst the wingnuts There Can Only Be One.  He says that Alex Jones is a "child," and that it'd help us to see that if Alex would dress up in a bib and a frilly bonnet and hold a rattle.

Which is a mental image that will forever haunt my nightmares.

So anyhow, the whole thing is highly entertaining, in a weird, performance-art sort of way.  I strongly recommend watching some of the videos.  I watched one of them, after fortifying myself with a glass of scotch, and only twice had to pause it and put my head down on my desk to recover.  After a second glass of scotch, though, some of it actually started to make sense, so I decided I'd better either stop watching or stop drinking.

Which was a rather easy choice to make, honestly.

But I felt obliged to pass along the website to my readers, in the hopes that you'll find it as engaging as I did.  Unless, of course, you're a "proud and bashing person," in which case you'll probably just roll your eyes and stop watching.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Honest vulgarity

*Note to the more sensitive members of the studio audience: as the subject of this post is profanity, there's gonna be some profane language herein.  Be thou forewarned.*

My dad had a rather ripe vocabulary, probably largely due to the 29 years he spent in the Marine Corps.  My mother, on the other hand, was strait-laced to the point that even saying the word "sex" in her presence resulted in a raised eyebrow and the Fear-Inducing Stare of Disapproval.  My dad solved this problem by inventing new swear words (such as "crudbug") or repurposing actual words for swearing (such as "fop").  When my mom would get on my dad's case about it, he would respond, completely deadpan,"Those aren't vulgar words, Marguerite," which was true in detail if not in spirit.

It's probably obvious by this juncture that I take after my dad a lot more than my mom.  I tend to have a pretty bad mouth, a habit I have to be careful about because my job involves guiding Tender Young Minds (although I think I could make a pretty good case that most of those Tender Young Minds have a worse vocabulary than I do).  But by this point in my life, my mom's litany of "the only people who need to use vulgar language are the ones who don't have any better words in their vocabulary to say" is ringing pretty hollow.  I may have a lot of faults, but I'm damn sure that a poor vocabulary is not amongst them.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I tend to use swear words on two occasions -- for the humor value, and when I'm mad.  And to me, those are two very valid instances in which to let fly.  I still recall the great jubilation I felt when as a graduate student I first ran across John J. McCarthy's seminal paper on the linguistics of swearing, "Prosodic Structure and Expletive Infixation," in which we find out the rules governing inserting the word "fucking" into another word, and thus why it's okay to say "abso-fucking-lutely" but no one says "ab-fucking-solutely."

Even more cheering was the paper I just read yesterday by Gilad Feldman, Huiwen Lian, Michal Kosinski, and David Stillwell called "Frankly, We Do Give a Damn: The Relationship Between Profanity and Honesty" in which we find out that habitual swearers tend to be more honest, and which also should be the winner of the 2017 Clever Academic Paper Title Award.  The authors write:
There are two conflicting perspectives regarding the relationship between profanity and dishonesty.  These two forms of norm-violating behavior share common causes and are often considered to be positively related.  On the other hand, however, profanity is often used to express one’s genuine feelings and could therefore be negatively related to dishonesty.  In three studies, we explored the relationship between profanity and honesty. We examined profanity and honesty first with profanity behavior and lying on a scale in the lab, then with a linguistic analysis of real-life social interactions on Facebook, and finally with profanity and integrity indexes for the aggregate level of U.S. states.  We found a consistent positive relationship between profanity and honesty; profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level and with higher integrity at the society level.
Besides the general finding that profanity is positively correlated with honesty, I thought the variation in profanity use state-by-state was absolutely fascinating.  Connecticut had the highest levels of swearing, followed by Delaware, New Jersey, Nevada, and New York (not too goddamn shabby, fellow New Yorkers, and I'm proud to have done my part in our state's fifth-place finish).  Utah came in dead last, followed by Arkansas, Idaho, South Carolina, and Tennessee.  One has to wonder if religiosity has something to do with this, given the bible-belt status of most of the states at the bottom of the pile, but establishing any sort of causation was beyond the scope of this study.

Okay, so I'm coming across as self-congratulatory here, but I still think this research is awesome.  Given the amount of grief I got from my mom about my inappropriate vocabulary when I was a teenager, I think I'm to be allowed a moment of unalloyed pleasure at finding out that I and other habitual swearers are more likely to be honest.  So while I'll still have to watch my mouth at school, it's nice to know that my turning the air blue at home when I wallop my shin on the coffee table is just my way of honestly expressing that bone bruises hurt like a motherfucker.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Deadly pseudoscience

In 2012, a 19-month-old boy named Ezekiel Stephan spiked a fever and was obviously in distress.  His parents, a British Columbian couple named David and Collet Stephan, decided not to seek medical attention for their child, instead treating him with "natural" and "alternative" treatments such as extracts of hot pepper, garlic, onion, and horseradish.

The little boy had bacterial meningitis.  By the time they decided to get the boy to the emergency room, he had lapsed into a coma, and hours later he died.

The Stephans were arrested and tried for "failing to provide necessities of life for their child."  David Stephan was said to be "completely unremorseful" and was sentenced to four months in jail.  Collet was put under house arrest for three months.  Both were ordered to perform 240 hours of community service.

And now, the Stephans have gone to Prince George, British Columbia to promote "natural remedies" for Truehope Nutritional Support, Inc., a company founded by his father.  Truehope's EMPowerPlus is one of the "remedies" that "assists with brain function" that they gave to their child shortly before he died.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Dave Fuller, owner of Ave Maria Specialties, a "holistic health" store that carries Truehope products, seems to give nothing but a shoulder shrug with respect to the Stephans' actions.  "Who am I to say that just because something happened that was an accident the guy regrets — his son died — that he shouldn't have a job?" Fuller said.

Let's be clear here.  This was not an accident.  Bacterial meningitis is a horrible disease, but caught early enough, is treatable.  This couple deliberately ignored their little boy's increasingly severe symptoms in favor of quack "remedies," rejecting modern medicine for alt-med bullshit.  And as a result, their child died.

Unfortunately, this abandonment of science in favor of pseudoscience is becoming increasingly common.  The medical researchers are labeled as shills for "Big Pharma," and their data is rejected as inaccurate or outright fabrication, designed to "keep us buying drugs" or "keep us sick," and any information about low efficacy or side effects is allegedly covered up.

In fact, we're one of the healthiest societies the world has ever seen.  Most of the diseases that killed our great-grandparents' generation are now unheard of (how many people do you know have had diphtheria?).  And yet there are people who want to reject everything that modern medical research has given us in favor of the same kinds of remedies our ancestors used -- that didn't work very well back then, and still don't work now.

It's this same idea that is driving Donald Trump's links to the anti-vaxx movement, most recently his request of a meeting with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an anti-vaxxer who hides behind the "we just want safe vaccines" half-truth -- and Kennedy is now apparently going to head up a "vaccine safety board" to further investigate such nonsense as the link between vaccines and autism, which has been studied every which way from Sunday and always results in no correlation whatsoever.

All of this gives the impression that we need oversight because at the moment vaccines and other medications are simply thrown out willy-nilly by the medical researchers with no vetting at all, and that now we'll finally have someone making sure we're protected from the evils of Big Pharma.  Of course, nothing could be further from the truth; there is already the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices (which has been around for fifty years) which oversees the testing and evaluation of vaccines and provides data to the CDC regarding efficacy and potential side effects.  The same is true for other medications; there is a rigorous set of tests each drug has to undergo, first on animal models and then (if they look promising) on human volunteers, before they are approved by the FDA.

That doesn't mean the process is foolproof.  Humans are fallible, data can be misinterpreted, experiments can fall prey to unintended sample bias.  There's no doubt that the profit motive in the pharmaceuticals and health insurance industries has led to price inflation for medications.  But the drugs themselves are, by and large, safe and effective, and sure as hell are better than horseradish extract for treating meningitis.

But the step from "the system has some flaws and could use reform" to "reject all modern medicine in favor of roots and berries" is all too easy a step for some people, and in the case of the Stephans, it resulted in their son's death.  And, more appallingly, they're still hawking the same stuff despite a very real test case establishing that it's worthless.

The bottom line: science isn't perfect, but as a means of determining the truth, it's the best thing on the market.  And also, the trenchant comment from Tim Minchin's performance piece "Storm:"  "There's a name for alternative medicine that works.  It's called... medicine."

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sifting fact from fiction

President-elect Donald Trump's latest ploy, any time he is criticized in the press, is to claim that what they're saying is "fake news."  (That, and to threaten to revoke their right to cover his speeches.)

Five days ago, he tweeted (of course, because that's how adults respond to criticism) that the Russian dossier alleged to have compromising information on him was "fake news and crap."  The, um, interaction he is alleged to have had with some Russian prostitutes was likewise "fake news, phony stuff, it did not happen."  About CNN, he said the "organization’s terrible...  You are fake news."  He's banned reporters from The Washington Post from attending his events, calling it "incredibly inaccurate... phony and dishonest."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

There are two things that are troubling about this.

One is that Trump himself has been responsible for more than one demonstrably false claim intended to do nothing but damage his opponents.  Kali Holloway of AlterNet found fourteen, in fact.  Trump either created himself, or was responsible for publicizing, claims such as the following:
  • Barack Obama was a Kenyan Muslim and never attended Columbia University
  • Hillary Clinton was covering up a chronic debilitating illness and was too sick to serve
  • Ted Cruz's father was involved in the plot to kill John F. Kennedy
  • Thousands of Muslims in and around New York City had a public demonstration to cheer the events of 9/11
  • Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered
  • 97% of the murders in the United States are blacks killing other blacks (when confronted on this blatantly false claim, he said, "It was just a retweet... am I going to check every statistic?")
  • Millions of votes in the presidential election were cast illegally
  • Climate change is a Chinese hoax
  • Vaccines cause autism -- and that the doctors opposing this fiction deliberately lied to cover it up
And so on and so forth.

So Trump calling out others for fake news should definitely be an odds-on contender for the "Unintentional Irony of the Year" award for 2017.

The more upsetting aspect of this, however, is that Trump is implying that you can't trust anything on the media -- except, of course, what comes out of his mouth.  The implication is that nothing you see on the news or read in the newspaper is true, that the default stance is to say it's all fake.

This is a profoundly disturbing claim.  For one thing, as I've said many times before, cynicism is no more noble (or correct) than gullibility; disbelieving everything is exactly as lazy and foolish as believing everything.  For another, the media are really our only way of finding out what is happening in the world.  Without media, we would not only have no idea what was going on in other countries, our own government would be operating behind a smokescreen, their machinations invisible to everyone but those in on the game.

Which is a fine way to turn a democracy into a dictatorship.

There is some small kernel of truth to the accusation, however; it is true that all media are biased.  That CNN and MSNBC slant to the left and Fox and The Wall Street Journal slant to the right is so obvious that it hardly bears mention.  To jump from there to "everything they say is a lie," however, is to embrace a convenient falsehood that allows you to reject everything you hear and read except for what fits with your preconceived notions -- effectively setting up your own personal confirmation bias as the sine qua non of understanding.

The truth, of course, is more nuanced than that, and also far more powerful.  We are all capable of sifting fact from fiction, neither believing everything nor rejecting everything.  It's called critical thinking, and in these rather fractious times it's absolutely... well, critical.  As biologist Terry McGlynn put it, "When we teach our students to distinguish science from pseudoscience, we are giving them the skills to identify real and fake journalism."

I won't lie to you.  Sorting fact from fiction in the media (or anywhere else) is hard work, far harder than simply accepting what we'd like to believe and rejecting what we'd like to be false.  But it's possible, and more than that, it's essential.  Check sources -- even if (especially if) they're from your favorite media source.  Check them using sources that have a different slant.  Go to the original documents instead of merely reading what someone else has written about them.  Apply good rules of thumb like Ockham's Razor and the ECREE (Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence) principle.  Pay special attention to claims from people who have proven track records of lying, or people who are making claims outside of their area of expertise.

Donald Trump's snarling of "fake news, phony journalism" every time he's criticized should immediately put you on notice that what he's saying is questionable -- not (again) that it should be disbelieved out of hand, but that it should be scrutinized.  Over the next four years, people on both sides of the aisle are going to have to be on guard -- never in my memory has the country been so polarized, so ready to begin that precipitous slide into sectarian violence that once begun is damn near impossible to halt.  Our leaders are showing no inclination to address the problems we face honestly and openly -- so it falls to us as responsible citizens to start sifting through their claims more carefully instead of simply accepting whatever half-truths or outright lies fit our preconceived notions.