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, February 28, 2017

Ignoring the experts

The new book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, by Thomas Nichols, could not have been published at a better time.

We have an administration that is relentlessly committed to creating their own set of "alternative facts" and labeling as fake news anything that contradicts the narrative.  Criticism is met with reprisal, honest journalism with shunning, facts and evidence with accusations of bias.  The message is "don't listen to anyone but us."

Nichols's contention is that we got here by a steady progress over the last few decades toward mistrusting experts.  Why should we rely on the pointy-headed scientists, who are not only out of touch with "real people" but probably are doing their research for some kind of evil purpose?  You know those scientists -- always unleashing plagues and creating superweapons, all the while rubbing their hands together in a maniacal fashion.

I have to mention, however, that this was something that always puzzled me about 1950s horror films.  Those scientists who were part of an evil plot to destroy the Earth -- what the hell was their motivation?  Don't they live here too?

Be that as it may, Nichols makes a trenchant point; our lazy, me-centered, fundamentally distrustful culture has created an atmosphere where anyone who knows more than we do is automatically viewed with suspicion.  We use WebMD to diagnose ourselves, and argue with the doctor when (s)he disagrees.  We rate our folksy "look at the weather we're having, climate change can't be real" anecdotes as somehow having more weight than the hard data of actual trained climate scientists.  We accept easy solutions to complicated problems ("Build a wall") instead of putting in the hard work of understanding the complexity of the real situation.

What does she know, anyhow?  [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Nichols was interviewed a couple of days ago in the Providence Journal, and shared some pretty disturbing observations about the predicament our culture is in.  "The United States is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance," Nichols said.  "Worse, many citizens today are proud of not knowing things.  Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue."

Of course, Nichols is not the first person to comment upon this.  Isaac Asimov, in his 1980 essay "The Cult of Ignorance," wrote something that has become rightly famous: "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been.  The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'"

This, Nichols says, is not only pernicious, it's demonstrably false.  "People can accept the idea that they are not seven feet tall and can't play basketball.  [But] They hate the idea that anybody is smarter than they are and should be better compensated than they are.  This is a radical egalitarianism that is completely nuts."

What is weirdest about this is that we unhesitatingly accept the expertise of some people, and unhesitatingly reject the expertise of others.  "You put your life in the hands of an expert community all day long," Nichols says.  "Every time you take an aspirin or an over-the-counter medication, every time you talk to your pharmacist, every time your kids go to school, every time you obey the traffic directions of a police officer or go through a traffic light.  When you get on an airplane, you assume that everybody involved in flying that airplane from the flight attendant to the pilot and the ground crew and the people in the control tower knows what they are doing."

And yet when we are told that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists accept anthropogenic climate change, a substantial percentage of us go, "Meh, what do they know?"

The difficulty is that once you have fallen into the trap of distrusting expertise, it's hard to see how you could free yourself from it.  As the adage goes, you can't logic your way out of a position that you didn't logic your way into.  Add into the mix not only the rampant anti-intellectualism characteristic of our current society, but the fundamental distrust of all media that is being inculcated into our minds by the rhetoric from the Trump administration, and you've created a hermetically sealed wall that no facts, no evidence, no argument can breach.

So Nichols's conclusions are interesting, enlightening, and deeply troubling.  His arguments are aimed toward the very people who will be the most resistant to accepting them.

And with our current leadership deepening divisions, distrust, and suspicion of experts, it's hard to see how any of this will change any time soon.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Worldwide lunacy

I experience a peculiar twist on schadenfreude when I find out that other countries have politicians who are as apparently insane as the ones we have to deal with here in the United States.  It may not be nice of me, and I certainly wouldn't wish our current situation on anyone, but I have to admit that there is something ineffably reassuring about knowing that we don't have the market cornered on pernicious looniness.

This comes up because of an article I was sent a few days ago by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia about a political candidate in Australia who thinks that the current worldwide trend toward LGBT rights and marriage equality is due to...

... gay Nazi mind control.

I kid you not.  Michelle Meyers, of the right wing One Nation party, went on a bizarre screed on Facebook a week ago, which included the following:
It’s a carefully contrived but disingenuous mind control program, melded together by two Norwegian homosexuals who graduated from Harvard…  Utilising many of the strategies developed by the Soviets and then the Nazis, they have gone on to apply and perfect these principles so as to make them universal in their application—but with devastating results considering the counterproductive nature of such “unions.”
"Counterproductive?"  In what sense?  Can you please describe to me the "devastating results" of giving official approval to the expression of love between consenting adults?

Of course, that's not all Meyers has to say.  People like her never just leave it at one or two loony statements.  She posted a photo on her website of herself next to a cushion with stripes of different colors, and wrote that the rainbow has become an emblem of a "sexually corrupt and morally bankrupt society...  The rainbow has been raped and sullied. its colors have been purloined and paraded as a trophy of the culture war being waged worldwide.  But its fruits are bitter, it’s [sic] victory hollow and its legacy toxic."

Michelle Meyers of One Nation

Lest you think that Meyers and One Nation are just a group of fringe wackos, Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett just brokered an agreement with One Nation, with Barnett's Liberal Party allowing One Nation to direct their preferences to the party in regional and local elections in exchange for their support for Barnett being re-elected as Premier.  The implications of this deal with the devil were not lost on the director for One Nation in Western Australia, Colin Tincknell, who said, "It’s great, it a great deal for One Nation.  It looks like it will get us some seats in the upper house in Western Australia."

As far as whether the voting public will go for it, the elections are on March 11, so we'll see what happens.

Lately I've felt like I'm watching the world spiral out of control -- things were far from perfect, but at least seemed pretty stable, through much of my adult life.  Now, just in the last year, we have Brexit, Trump's victory and the resulting chaotic shitstorm in Washington, far right candidate Marine Le Pen standing a good chance of a victory in the 2017 French presidential election (something that has business leaders seriously spooked -- Eric Adler, CEO of PGIM Real Estate, said that a Le Pen win could "blow up the EU"), aggression by the Russians, missile launches by North Korea... I am seriously concerned that we might be seeing the first signs of a slide into another catastrophic world war.

So my schadenfreude over Australia's nutcake politicians is tempered by a very real fear that this is just another symptom of the ultra-nationalism and authoritarianism that seems to be sweeping the globe lately.  It's all very well to roll our eyes at people like Meyers -- but when people of that stripe get voted into office, as they were in November here in the United States, the laughter begins to ring pretty hollow.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Thus trumpeteth the prophets

Dear Readers:

Next week I'm going to take a brief hiatus from Skeptophilia -- so my next post will be Monday, February 27.  Keep sending comments and ideas for future posts, however!


Because we needed something else to facepalm about, now we have some ultra-Christian Trump supporters claiming that Donald Trump's victory was (1) ordained by god, (2) predicted in the bible, and (3) indicates that we are approaching the End Times.

Well, at least #3 is not far wrong, to judge by the new administration's first month.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Viktor Vastnetsov [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

As far as the others, though, I'm predictably a little dubious.  Apparently the whole thing started when bible historian and End Times expert David Montaigne pointed out two places where the word "trump" is used in the bible, to wit:
1 Thessalonians 4:16: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first.”
1 Corinthians 15:52: “Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
So naturally this can't be the word "trump" as in "trump card;" it has to refer to The Donald.  Montaigne writes:
I am not suggesting that Donald Trump absolutely *IS* the last trump – but since the LAST TRUMP is one of the most clear and final signs in end times prophecy, can we overlook the possibility that a presidential candidate named Trump is being used as a sign by God?
Yup.  You can guess what they think "trump of God" means.

Biblical prophecy specialist Erika Grey said it even more forcefully:
In end time Bible Prophecy we know that the EU is going to become the greatest most powerful world empire to have ever existed and it is going to be an economic powerhouse. 
With BREXIT and Donald Trump in Bible Prophecy the EU is still going to move forward despite taking these bumps.  With Donald Trump as president there is a new sheriff in town and the era of EU, US relations has come to an end, but with the new president will come a geopolitical shift and the EU will continue to move forward even to the surprise of some EU officials.
And it wouldn't be complete without some commentary from Pat Robertson, who said that because Trump was foreordained by the bible to be president, to criticize him is to "revolt against what God's plan is for America."

Hearteningly, some Christians are speaking up and saying "that's ludicrous."  None of the critics has more gravitas than Dr. Samuel Lamerson, professor of New Testament Studies and president of Florida's Knox Theological Seminary.  About the idea that Trump is mentioned in the bible, Lamerson said:
First of all, it only works in the English language.  The New Testament was written in Greek.  Second of all, it only works in the King James Version and some other older translations.  Many other translations will have ‘trumpet’ instead of ‘trump...'  I think that often people forget that the book of Revelation was written 2,000 years ago.  The notion that what the Scripture says applies to the shape of the political world today is to totally misunderstand what exactly is going on there.
Well, yeah.  In fact, if you want to mess around with etymologies and semantics, two can play that game.  So let's look at a different use of the now-infamous syllable:
trumpery (n.) -- something without use or value; rubbish; trash; worthless stuff -- from the French tromperie (deceit, trickery), originally from the French verb tromper (to deceive).
There's also an 18th century use of the word "trump" as a verb, meaning "to fart loudly."

I propose that's the prophetic angle we take on this.  Even I, as an atheist, could get behind believing that there's a deity who so arranged the world so that our current president's name meant "loud, deceitful flatulence."

Friday, February 17, 2017

Tax-funded Bigfoot hunt

There was a bit of an uproar amongst science-minded types in New Mexico last year when it became known that Dr. Christopher Dyer, executive director of the University of New Mexico - Gallup, had allowed the university to sponsor a conference and an expedition to hunt for Bigfoot.

Dyer himself is an anthropologist, and therefore should know better.  But this didn't stop him from throwing himself and his school into the event.  Speakers were given honoraria up to $1,000, plus reimbursement for airfare, food, and lodging,  Expedition participants were even given snowshoes -- again, at the expense of the university.

Below is a jpg of the poster for the conference, courtesy of the wonderful site Doubtful News:

For those of you not up to date on your cryptozoology, Jeff Meldrum is the guy who along with Melba Ketchum was responsible for a lot of the pseudoscientific "Bigfoot is too real!" nonsense that's been around in the last few years.

And Meldrum is not the only one with a dubious background.  "New Mexico naturalist Rob Kryder" is also a True Believer, who thinks that the aforementioned Melba Ketchum's "study" was completely convincing despite the fact that her citations were bogus, and her data consisted of a rambling screed that can be summed up as "We have proof, dammit."

Kryder got into a snarling match with KRQE, the station that broke the story about the university-funded goodies all of the participants were getting.  Kryder didn't like the skew eye he and his fellow squatchers were being given, and responded thusly:
To KRQE: In response to your pseudo-investigation and false and misleading special report on the UNM/KX Bigfoot study, the evidence, funding and the blatant lie to the public about the proof of the species.  We at KX challenge you, KRQE to send your presumptious and biased investigative reporter Larry Barker out in the field for just 12 hours with my team.  And if you do, and Larry B isn’t a BF believer by morning, we agree to do all posssible to raise the $7k and pay back the #UNM account for the cost of the public disclosure conference on behalf of Dr Dyer. — The location – The Sandia Mountains just outside Alb NM, home of #KRQE and Larry Barker.  And after, to interview myself and Jeff Meldrum to present the truth of the matter.
So take that.  Of course, KRQE declined to take Kryder up on his offer, but instead decided that if the squatchers wanted to play hardball, they'd be happy to join in.  Larry Barker contacted Senator George Munoz, who is on the State Legislative Finance Committee, and Munoz decided that enough was enough.  So he sponsored a bill making it illegal to hunt Bigfoot on the taxpayer dime.  Here's the text of the bill:
Public funds shall not be expended by a state higher educational institution for the purpose of looking for or catching a fictitious creature, including:
(1) bigfoot;
(2) sasquatch;
(3) yeti;
(4) abominable snowman;
(5) Pokémon;
(6) leprechauns; or
(7) bogeyman.
I have to say that I love that he included Pokémon.  But it does leave open hunts for El Chupacabra, for which New Mexico has been an epicenter of sightings.  My feeling is if you don't include El Chupacabra, and Sheepsquatch while you're at it, you may as well not bother.

But it's certainly a step in the right direction.  I know I wouldn't be happy if Cornell was sending biologists up to our local cryptid hotspot, Connecticut Hill, to look for the famed Connecticut Hill Monster.  As much as I'd love it if there actually was some sort of weird creature stalking around in the woods only twenty miles from my house, the funding for finding it really shouldn't be defrayed by the government or taxpayer-funded institutions of higher learning.

So it'll be interesting to see if the bill gets passed, and more importantly, if other states follow suit.  I'll also be waiting to see what rejoinders Kryder and Meldrum have for Senator Munoz, because you just know they won't take this lying down.  And if they get Melba Ketchum involved, we'll really have a battle royale going.  I can barely wait.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Flat like a pizza

There's a saying in Senegal: "There are thirty different kinds of lunacy, but only one kind of common sense."  I found an especially good example of that yesterday over at Inverse, where I found out that there is a feud brewing between the Pizzagate conspiracy theorists and the Flat Earthers.

If you're not familiar with "Pizzagate," it's the idea that Hillary Clinton, George Soros, et al. have been using pizza restaurants as fronts for a nationwide child trafficking operation, and also that you can turn anything, however ridiculous, into a scandal if you simply add the suffix "-gate.".  The whole thing got started with some (allegedly) coded emails between Clinton and staffers over getting pizza for lunch, and blew up from there.  It's resulted in harassment and death threats for the owners of the pizza restaurants involved, and has refused to go away despite repeated thorough debunkings.

Well, there's nothing like believing in one ridiculous idea to make you think that everyone else's ridiculous ideas are completely laughable.  David Seaman, who is a prominent Pizzagate "truther" (as of the writing of this post, his latest tweet says, "Friends: if something happens to me, I want big fucking protests in front of COMET PIZZA in DC every day.  Sickos"), made the tactical error of calling out the Flat Earthers, via yet another tweet, this one saying, "I have it, on authority, Flat Earth is PAID DISINFORMATION to distract from Pizzagate & other Wikileaks reveals to come."

Here's a direct quote from an informational video Seaman made about the topic:
So Flat Earth theory is some kind of weird disinformation campaign, some sort of psyop to make people not believe. The fact that it shows up so closely whenever Pedodate and Pizzagate are mentioned, the fact that that’s when it pops up, I think it’s designed to muddy the waters … whoever’s pushing it continually, it does appear to be a disinformation campaign.
So basically, people are getting checks (from Soros himself, presumably, since he's someone who would have the necessary discretionary income) to convince everyone that the Earth isn't an oblate spheroid, because that would cause us all to be in such disarray that we'd ignore the idea that Hillary Clinton is running a pedophilia ring in the back of a dozen or so pizza restaurants.

Sure.  Makes total sense to me.

Well, far be it from the Flat Earthers to take that lying down.  One of them, Maggie Sargent, took to Twitter in high dudgeon a couple of days ago, and had hot words for Seaman:
All the Flat Earth people are saying is to question everything we have been told.  NASA is run by the federal government and if the federal government can traffic children and cover it up perhaps they made up the entire idea that the earth is round and it's all supposed to take us away from God.  I don't know what to believe either way but you shouldn't be rude to the flat-earth people.  There is a perfectly logical thought process between pizzagate and Flat Earth.  Not everybody thinks like you do.  We're all just trying to figure it out here so you should always be gracious to everyone who questions the government.
Yes!  Right!  What?

Of course, we probably shouldn't expect too much of Sargent, because one of her recent tweets was:
What if the Earth is a dimension?  Not flat, not round.  But like a video game.  This stuff is coming into my Consciousness for some reason.
What the hell does that even mean?  "The Earth is a dimension?"  Like, for example, width?

So the feud continues, with each side arguing that their lunacy is the right lunacy, and everyone else's is actual lunacy.  And the rest of us are just sitting here like this:

So that's our dip in the deep end of the pool for today.  Me, I'm just waiting for the crystal energies, HAARP, and Illuminati people to get involved, and it'll be all-out war, until finally they just self-annihilate in a massive explosion of daftness.  I've already got my popcorn popped.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The specter of bias

Back in 2005, a study by David Kelly (of the University of Sheffield) et al. showed something simultaneously fascinating and unsettling; that racial bias begins to crop up in children as early as three months of age.  The authors write:
Adults are sensitive to the physical differences that define ethnic groups.  However, the age at which we become sensitive to ethnic differences is currently unclear.  Our study aimed to clarify this by testing newborns and young infants for sensitivity to ethnicity using a visual preference (VP) paradigm.  While newborn infants demonstrated no spontaneous preference for faces from either their own- or other-ethnic groups, 3-month-old infants demonstrated a significant preference for faces from their own-ethnic group.  These results suggest that preferential selectivity based on ethnic differences is not present in the first days of life, but is learned within the first 3 months of life.
I suspect, although this is yet to be rigorously tested, that this tendency of like-prefers-like comes from the fact that in our ancestors, strangers -- i.e., people who don't resemble us -- were more likely to be dangerous.  A built-in tendency to develop an aversive response to faces that look different is unfortunate, but certainly understandable given the fact that our forebears, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, lived lives that were "nasty, poor, brutish, and short."

It's easy enough to think that by the time we become adults, most of us have unlearned these natural tendencies.  I consider myself to be unbiased with respect to race or ethnicity -- and I suspect most of my readers think the same thing about themselves.  But a pair of studies that just appeared last week that appeared in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology give us the uncomfortable truth that racial and ethnic bias may not be that easy to expunge.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Let's start with the one called, "Whites Demonstrate Anti-Black Associations But Do Not Reinforce Them," by Jordan Axt and Sophie Trawalter of the University of Virginia, that looked at how easy it was to instill and/or eradicate negative racial associations.  Axt and Trawalter write:
White Americans, on average, associate Black people with negativity (Nosek, Banaji, & Greenwald, 2002), and have an easy time learning that Black people are associated with negative information.  Not surprisingly then, they have an easier time associating negative experiences (e.g., an electric shock) with Black vs. White faces (Olsson, Ebert, Banaji, & Phelps, 2005).  For example, in one study, participants received a mild electric shock while viewing either Black or White target faces.  Subsequently, they viewed Black and White target faces without receiving the electric shocks.  All the while, researchers measured participants' skin conductance responses as a proxy for fear, and found that White participants who had been shocked while viewing Black vs. White target faces then had an easier time learning to fear the Black vs. White target faces, and also had a harder time unlearning this association between Black faces and negative outcomes.  This pattern of results is consistent with the notion that Whites have an easy time associating Blacks with negative information.
Once acquired, though, these negative associations are rather resistant to strengthening, and a protocol intended to instill positive associations with people of other races strengthened far more easily, a result that is at least a little cheering:
Across five studies, the IGT paradigm revealed an intriguing asymmetry in participants' acquiring and strengthening of racial associations.  White participants readily demonstrated an association that paired Black faces with negative outcomes, supporting earlier work showing that Whites are better at learning an association between racial outgroups and aversive stimuli (Olsson et al., 2005).  However, Whites in our studies were then unwilling or unable to strengthen this initial anti-Black association.  Conversely, White participants were less able to initially acquire an association that paired Black faces with positive and White faces with negative outcomes, but were willing and able to reinforce this association.
So it's encouraging that these biases can be modified in a positive direction.  But the second study suggests that such subconscious prejudice may not be as eradicated as we might wish.

The paper called "Welcome to the U.S., But Change Your Name," by Xian Zhao and Monica Biernat, explored the reaction of professors -- who as a group, you'd think, would be more cognizant of the dangers of racial bias -- to receiving inquiry emails from someone with a Chinese name versus ones from someone with an Anglo name, and also of undergraduates presented with a lecture using the same distinction.  The researchers found a disquieting pattern:
In Study 1, an email from a Chinese student requesting a meeting about graduate training was sent to 419 White professors with the name of the sender being varied (Xian versus Alex).  Use of the Chinese name led to fewer responses and agreements to meet than using the Anglo name.  In Study 2, a lecture recording from an international graduate student was presented to 185 White undergraduates with the name of the lecturer varied (Jian versus John). The preference for Anglo names over Chinese names was apparent among those high in assimilationist and low  in multicultural ideologies.
It'd be nice to think that in the 21st century, we're beyond dealing with racism, but the neurological underpinnings are still there.  The attitudes are not that easy to eradicate even in the best of times, and with the current upsurge in xenophobia, suspicion, and stereotyping we need to be even more on guard for letting these flawed perceptions influence our behavior.

In short, it's not enough to say "I'm not a racist" and be done with it.  The specter of like-prefers-like bias is too deeply ingrained in us to dismiss so quickly.  And it's easy enough to criticize those tendencies in others; it's as important -- possibly more important -- to be on guard for the same biases in our own perceptions of our fellow humans.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Left-wing conspiracies

The rather regrettable human tendency to assume that everyone in Our Tribe is honest and clever and valiant, and everyone in the Other Tribe is dishonest and cunning and weaselly, makes up for in appeal what it lacks in any kind of supporting evidence.

The fact is, all of us, regardless of tribe, are capable of exhibiting the full spectrum of human behavior.  I got a stern reminder of that yesterday from (of all places) Buzzfeed, a site which I had honestly stopped looking at because of their tendency to publish sensationalist, overhyped garbage.

But this particular article, called "Behind the Rise of the Anti-Trump Twitter Conspiracy Theorists" by Charlie Warzel, is unusually well researched -- and has a cautionary conclusion for any of us on the Blue side of things.  Warzel lays out clearly the fact that although the left is awfully quick to point out the conspiracy theorists on the right -- people like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck, for example -- they seem to be blissfully unaware when they're engaging in exactly the same kind of behaviors themselves.

"[T]he Blue Detectives," Warzel writes, "are increasingly active in theorizing that Trump and his associates are involved in a dizzying multidimensional plot — and, crucially, are always 10 steps ahead of the American public... which suggests a cunning on the part of the Trump administration and Russia to distract, dodge, and outwit the American public while bolstering its coffers and power."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Warzel cites people like Adam Khan, who tweets under the handle @Khanoisseur, and specializes in linking together facts and figures and other people's tweets into what looks like a massive flow chart.  Khan insists he's not a conspiracy theorists, but is "merely asking questions."

"I’m not manufacturing anything new," Khan says.  "But I’m taking this piece of reporting from this journalist and showing clearly how it aligns with something else out there.  And put together, I think it shows there’s a bigger story.  If nothing else, I hope my work leads to more people doing their own investigative journalism."

The problem is, just as with people on the right like Rush Limbaugh (and Trump himself) saying "I'm just asking the question," the result is almost never "people doing their own investigative journalism."  The ones who are primed to believe whatever explanation is being offered tend to swallow it without question.

Thus confirmation bias rears its hideous head once again.

The tendency is not confined to bloggers and tweeters.  Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich slipped into that dangerous territory himself last week, with a claim that Breitbart and ultra-conservative firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos had engineered the riots at Berkeley to give impetus to Donald Trump to tighten his grip on college campuses:
There is the possibility that Yiannopoulos and Breitbart were in cahoots with the agitators in order to lay the groundwork for a Trump crackdown on universities and their federal funding... Hmmm. Connect these dots...  I don’t want to add to the conspiratorial musings of so many about this very conspiratorial administration, but it strikes me there may be something worrying going on here.
Of course, Reich never lays out his evidence for all this, because he doesn't appear to have any.  It's merely "likely speculation."

And his disingenuous "I don't want to add to the conspiratorial musings" doesn't impress me at all.  If you don't want to add to "conspiratorial musings," you keep your damn mouth shut until you have some hard evidence.

The irony isn't lost on conservative blogger Mike Cernovich.  "It’s even happening to people who have reputations in the media for being pretty normal," Cernovich said.  "I saw this great meme the other day that said if there’s ever a terrorist attack in America under Trump, the left is going to go full Infowars. And I think that’s totally true..  Honestly, that’s why I’ve pivoted with my brand, and my trolling today compared to a year ago is mild.  They’ve adopted that fringe-level mentality aggressively.  People on left are making themselves look ridiculous and so I see it as an opportunity to look reasonable by comparison."

The sad truth is that none of us is free of bias, so it is even more important to question stuff you hear from Your Tribe -- because that's what is most likely to hoodwink you, most likely for you to accept without question.  That tendency simply to go, "Yeah!  Right on!" when we see something that appeals to our preconceived notions blinds us to the truth, and prevents us from correcting our errors even when they're right in front of our faces.

So do what I always tell my Critical Thinking students to do; make sure you're getting your news from a variety of sources.  If you're conservative, watch MSNBC every once in a while.  If you're liberal, watch Fox.  You probably won't agree with what you hear, and it might even piss you off, but it'll pull you out of the comfy little echo chamber where most of us are content to live our lives.

And don't just listen -- consider what they're saying carefully.  Training yourself to think about what you're hearing and seeing is good practice, and not something that comes naturally.  It'll make you far less likely to fall for unfounded conspiracy theories -- no matter on which side of the aisle they originated.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Evidence blindness

It is a sad fact of human nature that it is far easier to delude people than to un-delude them.

Once someone has accepted some counterfactual stance, you have all sorts of things working against you.  There's confirmation bias (the tendency of people to accept ideas they find appealing with little to no evidence), the backfire effect (the baffling fact that presenting people with evidence contrary to their beliefs can make them double-down on the belief in question), and the induction of cynicism when people discover they've been lied to (making them disbelieve everything they hear, including you).

This is why it was disheartening, but also unsurprising, to read the survey conducted by Public Policy Polling that found that among the Trump voters surveyed, over half said that their support for the president's executive order on immigration was at least in part due to the horrors of "the Bowling Green Massacre."

I would have thought by now that everyone on the planet Earth who has not been in a cave for the last three weeks would know that the "Bowling Green Massacre" is an invention of Kellyanne Conway, the Trump spokesperson whose grasp of the truth is so tenuous that if she said the sky was blue, the chance of it being some other color is nearly 100%.  She talked about the mythical attacks by Iraqi immigrants in Bowling Green, Kentucky on three separate occasions (so much for it being a "slip"), despite the fact that no one in Bowling Green has the slightest clue what she's talking about.

Of course, the problem is, the people who were already primed to believe her accepted it without question, and even after it was shown that she had lied (three times) it was easier for them to conclude that everyone else was wrong.

Or, of course, that the lying, crooked media had covered up the story of the Massacre.  Just two days ago a Facebook friend of mine posted a screed about how she and her husband are cancelling their subscription to the local newspaper because "all they print is lies" and "it totally has a liberal bias" and "it does nothing but slander the president."  (And allow me to add that we're not talking The New York Times or The Washington Post here; this is a town newspaper in the Deep South.  Rampant liberal bias down there, apparently, despite the fact that the whole area is as hardcore Republican as you can get.)

[Public Domain image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Fact resistance is getting to be a real problem.  For example, ask most people -- actually, on either side of the aisle, because I think this is a common misconception -- why we should restrict immigration.  Usually the first answer is "jobs," but a close second is "crime."  Those immigrants are poor, and besides, they don't have our 'Murikan sense of morals and ethics.  Invite 'em in, and watch the violent crime rise.

However, the facts don't support this.  Actually, they support the opposite contention, as counterintuitive as that might be.  A study just released last week in the Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, which looked at the last forty years of trends, found that there is no connection between immigrants and higher crime rate.  Lead author Robert Adelman, professor of sociology at the University of Buffalo, said:
Facts are critical in the current political environment.  The empirical evidence in this study and other related research shows little support for the notion that more immigrants lead to more crime...  Our research shows strong and stable evidence that, on average, across U.S. metropolitan areas crime and immigration are not linked.  The results show that immigration does not increase assaults and, in fact, robberies, burglaries, larceny, and murder are lower in places where immigration levels are higher... 
This is a study across time and across place and the evidence is clear.  We are not claiming that immigrants are never involved in crime.  What we are explaining is that communities experiencing demographic change driven by immigration patterns do not experience significant increases in any of the kinds of crime we examined.  And in many cases, crime was either stable or actually declined in communities that incorporated many immigrants.
The problem is, it is unlikely that this will make any difference at all.  The connection between immigrants and crime has been so tightly welded in the American mind by people like Conway and her boss, Donald Trump (think of his repeated use of the phrase "bad hombres" to refer to Mexicans), that a little thing like forty years' worth of data won't make the slightest dent in their certainty.  It seems like immigrants would be likely to commit crimes; therefore it must be true.

Evidence be damned.

I wish I had some kind of clever idea what to do about this.  The fact that a dishonest spokesperson for the current administration has a significant fraction of Americans believing in a violent attack that never happened makes me wonder if it can be fixed.  It'd be nice if people were more prone to looking at the facts and saying, "Well, okay, I guess I was wrong, then," but the sad truth is that people are way more likely to say, "Nope.  Nope nope nope.  These 'facts' have to be wrong."

All of which reinforces one thing in my mind; the most important thing we need to be doing in public schools is to teach critical thinking.  Information, long the currency of educators, needs to take second seat to thinking skills and methods for evaluating evidence.  Hell, the kids in my biology class can look up the definition of "endoplasmic reticulum" in twenty seconds flat on their cellphones if they need to know it.  What can't be looked up is skepticism as a way of thinking, the ability to question what you're reading or hearing, the understanding that media is inherently slanted and if all you do is listen to MSNBC or Fox News you're not getting the whole story -- that's the stuff they need to have solidly under their belt before they go out into the real world.

And become the next generation of voters.  Which privilege, it is devoutly to be wished, they will exercise more carefully than the current generation has.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The devil made me do it

One of the human tendencies I find the hardest to comprehend is the bafflement some people feel when they find out that there are people who disagree with them.

Being a center-left atheist from conservative, Christian southern Louisiana, I have never been under the illusion that everyone agrees with me.  Further, I am convinced that the people who do disagree with me are, by and large, good, kind, honest people who believe what they do for their own heartfelt reasons.  While we've come to differing conclusions about the way the universe works and how governance should happen down here on Earth, mostly we respect each other despite our differences, and mostly we get along pretty well.

But there's a contingent on both sides of the spectrum who seem entirely incredulous that people who disagree with them actually exist.  And I ran into several interesting examples of this just yesterday, revolving around leaders of the Religious Right who are so befuddled by the fact that there are folks who don't support Donald Trump that they can only explain it by proposing that said dissenters are motivated by Satan.

Starting with Pastor Lance Wallnau, who was asked on The Jim Bakker Show what he thought about the Donald Trump's inauguration.  Wallnau replied:
What I believe is happening is there was a deliverance of the nation from the spirit of witchcraft in the Oval Office.  The spirit of witchcraft was in the Oval Office, it was about to intensify to a higher level demon principality, and God came along with a wrecking ball -- Trump -- and shocked everyone, the church cried out for mercy and bam—God knocked that spirit out, and what you’re looking at is the manifestation of an enraged demon through the spirit.
So, of course, only people under the influence of the devil himself would object to all of this.  About the Women's March on Washington, he said that the people who showed up to celebrate Trump were motivated by god, and the people who protested... weren't:
[The crowd that chered at the inauguration] was, in a great measure, the Christian community showing up in Washington to celebrate God’s intervention...  The people attending Trump’s inauguration represented the people of God that went to Washington to celebrate the mercy of God... those who went to the following day’s Women’s March on Washington were the people of the devil that came in order to fight it.
Wallnau isn't the only one who ascribes criticisms of Trump to a demonic source.  Rick Wiles, conspiracy theorist par excellence and purveyor of End Times nonsense, said that Satan was involved -- but so was Satan's right-hand man here on Earth, none other than Barack Obama:
We are witnessing a full-blown Marxist/communist resistance movement, a revolution in America.  The chief banker funding the Purple Revolution is billionaire George Soros and the chief community organizer directing the insurrection in the streets is none other than Barack Hussein Obama …  My gut feeling says Barack Obama is on the phone day and night and he is directing the protests, he is organizing, he is giving clear instructions to the people what to do and how to carry it out.

This is outright sedition, and we have laws in the United States against sedition….  What the Democrats are doing, and the news media and the Obamanista bureaucrats inside the government agencies, what they are doing is, these are acts of sedition. 
You wanna get God worked up?  You know what sedition reminds Him of?  Lucifer.  It all goes back to Lucifer because what Lucifer did in heaven was commit sedition …  So all acts of sedition are inspired by Lucifer. 
Those who are opposing Trump are not only breaking the laws against sedition, but are also breaking God’s laws.
Not to be outdone, Pat Robertson had to join in the fray, and said this week on his show The 700 Club that not only are the protests motivated by Satan, they're not even real:
They’re paid for, many of them, and George Soros and those like him are paying the bill to make all these demonstrations look like the nation is rising up against this ban; it’s not. The people of America want to be safe from terrorists.
Okay, it's not that I expect these three guys and others like them to do anything but celebrate Trump from the rooftops, although I am still a little mystified at how the family-values, Ten-Commandments-touting, live-like-Jesus Christian Right ever embraced someone like Donald Trump in the first place.  Given that now Trump is their Golden Boy, I suppose they have their reasons.  But what I completely fail to understand is how you can be so wedded to your worldview that the only way you can conceive of people disagreeing with you is by postulating that they must be motivated by Satan.

Or, at the very least, Barack "Antichrist" Obama.

I've recommended more than once Kathryn Schulz's amazing TED Talk "On Being Wrong," in which she makes a powerful case that we not only need to be aware that others can disagree with us without their being stupid, evil, deluded, or immoral, but that considering the possibility that we ourselves might be wrong about our views is one of the most mind-altering, liberating steps we can take.  In any case, being so invested in our theories that we have to ascribe our own views to god and our opponents' views to the devil seems to me to be so arrogant as to be entirely incomprehensible.

So maybe there are people whose existence baffles me, after all.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The eyes have it

Two nights ago I had dinner with some friends at my favorite local eatery, Atlas Bowl (best burgers I've ever had, bar none), and true to form I arrived ten minutes before they did.  So I was sitting at the table waiting for them, having a nice cold pint of beer, and I happened to overhear a conversation going on at the next table.

A very earnest, if hipsterish, young man with a fedora and a goatee was holding forth to two women about a mutual friend.  "He's trying change his eye color using meditation," he said.

One of the women sounded a little dubious.  "Really?  How would that work?"

"Well, I don't know how it works," he said, "but he's researched it.  He wants purple eyes."

"Have they changed yet?" the other woman asked.

"I dunno.  I don't think so.  But he's still working on it."

As for me, I was trying to give no indication that I was eavesdropping, but I'm afraid that I was sitting there looking like this:

After a few minutes, my friends showed up, and some time into our meal (after the folks at the next table had finished dinner, paid up, and left), I told them about the conversation.

One of my friends gave me an incredulous look.  "Dude," he said, "does this loopy shit follow you around, or something?"

Sadly, I think he might be correct.  I do seem to overhear or otherwise run into more "loopy shit" than most people -- or perhaps it's just dart-thrower's bias.  I've simply trained my mind to be more aware of it, so I notice it more often than other people might.

Anyhow, when I got back home, I thought, "how widespread is this claim, that you can change your eye color through meditation?"

So I googled it.

Holy crap.  It turns out this isn't just one misinformed hipster.  This is actually a big thing.  There are multiple websites and YouTube videos about it, giving you helpful directions on how to end up with purple eyes (or whatever color you prefer).  And I'm thinking, "How have I not heard about this before?"

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The whole thing is called biokinesis, and is used not just to change your eye color, but to change your hair color, hair texture, skin color, presence or absence of freckles, height, and (go big or go home) your DNA.  Check out this website, wherein we are given as proof a highly convincing gif of a girl who blinks and her eyes change from dark brown to light blue.

So how does this work?  I mean, it doesn't, but how do they claim it works?  Perhaps a direct quote would explain it best:
The Secret is the belief, it is the faith that does not doubt or questions, but one that really felt with emotion and feeling, without faith or belief not we as people, because we have something called Subconscious that creates our reality on the basis of the experiences that we've had in this plan that we call "reality" if it were not our 5 senses do not know how this is really the world, or we think it is.  
Open the mind my friends to quantum physics is there to prove things that until then were seen as "science Fiction" or "Illusion", are now making much more sense than the physics of Newton had.
Okay, readers, plug your ears, 'cuz I'm gonna yell.


*takes a deep breath*

Okay, I feel a little better now.

But really.  I'm all in favor of meditation, but your eye color (and all of the other characteristics aforementioned) are not going to change simply because you wish you had sparkling blue eyes.  The fact is, there's this pesky little thing called DNA that controls your eye color.

Oh, wait.  The biokinesis people think meditation can change that, too.

I truly understand people's wish to have reality be other than it is, all the way down to being dissatisfied with our appearance.  I have fervently wished for some years that my hair color was other than the rather indeterminate shade of dirty blond I was handed by my parents, and heaven knows I'd improve my other features if I could.  But barring plastic surgery, which I am nowhere near vain enough to go for, there aren't any other options.

Not even "meditating about quantum physics."

But I do have to wonder why I run into this stuff so often.  At least I had enough common sense not to turn to the guy at the next table and say, "Um, you do realize that's ridiculous, right?"  I felt like I had no choice but to tell my loyal readers about it, however.

And if the young hipster who was sitting next to me a couple of nights ago should read this, allow me to apologize if I snorted into my beer a couple of times over something you said.  Don't take it personally.  It's an involuntary reaction I have when people around me talk bullshit, especially when it has to do with purple eyes.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Nevertheless, we persist

I've found it increasingly hard to be optimistic about the future, lately.

Consider what's happened in only the last two days:
  • The stupendously unqualified Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education by a 50-50 vote in the Senate, broken by Vice President Mike Pence's vote in favor.  DeVos's nomination for the position is perhaps best explained by a direct quote from her:  "My family is the biggest contributor of soft money to the Republican Party.  I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence.  Now I simply concede the point.  They are right.  We do expect something in return.  We expect a return on our investment."
  • Donald Trump lied in a claim alleging that the media doesn't cover terrorism because of "reasons":  "All over Europe, it's happening," Trump said.  "It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported, and in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn't want to report it.  They have their reasons, and you understand that."  The Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-check site Politifact debunked this completely -- western media overreports terrorism as compared to media in other parts of the world, and in fact, stories about terrorist attacks dominate all sorts of media across the board in Europe and North America.
  • Donald Trump lied again when he said that the homicide rate in the United States is the "highest it's been in 45 to 47  years," when in fact it peaked in the mid-1990s and has been declining ever since.
  • Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to Donald Trump, stated that any criticism of Trump would be labeled "fake news":  "There is a monumental desire on behalf of the majority of the media, not just the pollsters, the majority of the media to attack a duly elected President in the second week of his term," Gorka said. "That's how unhealthy the situation is and until the media understands how wrong that attitude is, and how it hurts their credibility, we are going to continue to say, 'fake news.'"  Add to that a tweet from Trump himself stating that "any negative polls are fake news."
  • Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced by Mitch McConnell from reading a letter from Coretta Scott King calling into question the fitness for office of Jeff Sessions, nominee for Attorney General.  McConnell used a rule that stops a senator from criticizing another senator on the Senate floor, and the vote to shut Warren up went (predictably) along party lines.  "She was warned," McConnell said. "She was given an explanation.  Nevertheless, she persisted."  Warren shot back, "They can shut me up, but they can't change the truth."
It's easy to get overwhelmed.  We are so bombarded by crazy claims, bluster, egregious lies, and outright suppression of dissent that it's understandable why some people are choosing to turn off the news entirely.

In my opinion, that is an unacceptable response.  I know it's exhausting and demoralizing, but that is precisely why we need not to give up.  The doublespeak and accusations of "fake news" any time someone criticizes the President or his staff needs to be countered, immediately and hard.

Here are a few things I think are critical:
  • Don't soft-pedal.  Label lies as lies, not "misspeaking" or "opinions" or (heaven help us all) "alternative facts."  I'm heartened to see headlines from major media now saying "President Trump Lies About ___________" -- it's about time they start labeling lies as such.  (And note that this means lies from both sides of the aisle.  Truth isn't one thing for one party and a different thing for the other.)
  • Don't be afraid to take chances.  Don't be stupid about it, but realize that this is gonna be risky -- fighting the establishment always is.  Also, don't forget the adage that "all politics is local."  Join in protest marches.  Write letters.  Organize.  Keep it legal, and (when possible) keep it positive, but be willing to expend some of your time and effort during this critical period when we still have a chance to affect things.
  • Let your views be heard.  When I started this blog seven years ago, it was in an attempt to find my voice -- a major and (initially) scary step from someone who is, to be honest, a socially awkward, shy introvert.  Find whatever forum works for you, whether it's blogging, social media, or standing in front of a filled auditorium firing up the troops.
So let's turn Senator McConnell's words into a rallying cry.  "Nevertheless, she persisted" -- this should become the motto of the resistance.  Let them continue with their lies and half-truths and attempts to silence the opposition -- nevertheless, we will persist.  Let them continue to demonize free speech and the press when they are criticized -- nevertheless, we will persist.  Let them continue to use their majorities in the House and Senate to circumvent our government's checks and balances, in the hopes that no one is watching or no one cares or no one is strong enough to speak up.

Nevertheless, we will persist.

I will end with a quote from one of my heroes, the incomparable Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in reforming environmental policy and supporting women's rights in her home country.  "The only way to accomplish anything is to keep your feelings of being empowered ahead of your feelings of discouragement and inertia.  There is no one solution for everything, but there are many solutions to many of the problems we face.  There is no excuse for inaction."

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Politics and the classroom

A couple of days ago, I was asked an interesting question by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia.
If you're comfortable with it, would you do a piece about what you tell your students about politics and current events?  Or maybe you're not allowed to be political in school.  I'd just be interested to understand how to accept the seriousness of all this without feeling like crawling into a hole and hiding from fear, and I know you would have a way to be honest and forthright without scaring your "kids."  How do you approach this?
It's a difficult question.  The simple, quick answer is that in general, I try to be as apolitical as I can manage.  Since I teach biology, this isn't hard most of the time (the current administration has had little effect on, for example, photosynthesis).  I do periodically have students who want to argue about politics, either with me or with their classmates -- I have one class this year that has a couple of left-wing Social Justice Warriors and a couple of diehard Republicans, and several times I have had to say to them, "This is not the venue for duking it out over political issues.  Save that for outside of class."  And to their credit, they've all acquiesced, and more or less get along (although that might be more because they sit in diagonally opposite corners of the classroom -- by their choice, not mine).

Sometimes, though, that simple answer doesn't quite cover all eventualities.  For example, I'm unequivocal that creationism and intelligent design are not science and are completely unsupported by the evidence.  I do tell my intro bio students that I have no desire to change their minds on religious matters, which may be a little disingenuous of me, because I treat evolution as a fact.  On the other hand, I'm being honest in the sense that students can be successful in the unit on evolution, and come into no conflict with me at all, by simply learning what evolutionary theory is about, irrespective of whether they believe it's true.  It is, as I always say, like learning about communism in a political science class.  This doesn't make you a communist.

These days, though, I don't get much flak over my obvious acceptance of the evolutionary model.  I've taught in this district for 25 years, and by this time, most people know me well enough to realize that I'm a staunch evolutionist but also am not going to get in someone's face about it if they believe otherwise.  Honestly, in the last five years I've had more conflicts with students over climate change than over evolution -- the politicization of that issue has of late been more pervasive and more vitriolic even than the whole evolution vs. creation fight.

But I'm fairly unequivocal there, too.  The evidence strongly supports anthropogenic climate change.  There's no real doubt about that any more.  If you choose to disbelieve it, or to think that 98% of climate scientists are in some kind of immense, evil conspiracy to lie to us so as to give us clean, renewable energy and unhook our economy from the Middle East, and are being challenged by a plucky band of honest and courageous multimillionaire petroleum companies, then that's your business.

The hardest decision, however, comes when I see an issue that I feel is of national (perhaps international) importance that has no connection to the curriculum I'm teaching.  At what point is it incumbent upon me to make sure my students are steered in the direction of taking an appropriate stand on ethical or moral issues?  I've more than once compared the events of the last six months to the rise of fascism in Weimar Germany; wouldn't it have been the ethically right action for a teacher in Germany of the early 1930s to urge his/her students to fight the Nazis, to contradict their anti-Semitic and Aryan-purity rhetoric, to stand up against the evils of the times?

I think most of us would answer "yes," but the problem is, the appropriateness of these actions is only apparent because we see what the outcome was.  We know about World War II, the Holocaust, the wholescale destruction of much of the established order in Europe and elsewhere.  We have access to information that our hypothetical German teacher would not have.  How can teachers here and now decide when (or if) it's appropriate to make a political stand in the classroom, when there is no way to know what the outcome is going to be?

This is one of the reasons that I have chosen not to discuss politics in my classroom.  The possible benefits of doing so, in affecting events in an uncertain future are, in my opinion, outweighed by the breach of ethics that would come from my pushing my political views on a young, impressionable, captive audience.  Things would have to be a great, great deal worse before I'd take that step.  I do encourage them to watch the news (including suggesting to them to get their news from a variety of sources), I urge them to take a stand on issues that concern them, and (for the ones old enough) I tell them they should vote.

Other than that, I really have no business bringing politics into the classroom.

I think I'm more or less successful in being non-partisan, to judge by my Critical Thinking classes.  I always tell them that I'm not going to divulge my own opinion on anything we discuss; my job is to needle everyone into clearer thinking, whether or not I agree with them.  One class was particularly insistent about knowing my political leanings, so when someone brought it up (again) on the last day of class, I asked them to guess where they thought I was on the political spectrum.  No one chose far right (I suppose that's understandable enough, given my obvious acceptance of evolution and climate change).  Other than that, it was a nice bell curve.  A few said center right, a lot said center, a few said center left, one or two said far left.  A couple insisted I must be a libertarian.

So I guess I'm doing something right.  Or left.  Or center.  You understand what I mean.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Legally haunted

Have you ever heard of the New York Supreme Court Case, Stambovsky v. Ackley?

I hadn't, until yesterday.

This came up because of a link someone sent me to an article called "There’s A House That’s So Terrifying It Was Legally Declared Haunted By New York State."  And my question, of course, was "what does it mean to be 'legally haunted'?"  If a ghost shows up in a house that is not legally declared to be haunted, do you have the right to call the police and have it arrested?  If so, how could you send a ghost to jail, when according to most people, ghosts can pass through walls, not to mention steel bars?

Be that as it may, the story centered around a house owned by a family named Ackley in Nyack, New York, a town on the Hudson River.  Soon after the Ackleys moved in, they began to have odd experiences, the most alarming of which is that family members reported waking up having their beds violently shaken by an invisible entity.  According to the article, they "learned to live with the spirits," which became easier when one of them apparently figured out that all they had to do to stop the sudden awakenings was to ask the ghosts not to shake their beds during the night.

Which I thought was pretty doggone amenable of the spirits, until I read the next part, wherein a young guest showed up to visit the Ackleys and died immediately of a brain aneurysm [emphasis theirs].  So that's not very nice.  There were also footsteps, slamming doors, and "gifts for the children [left] randomly through the house."  So you can see that with gifts on one end of the spectrum and brain aneurysms on the other, the haunting turned out to be quite a mixed bag.

The Ackley House, courtesy of Google Maps

Anyhow, all of this is your ordinary, garden-variety haunted house story until the Ackleys had enough and decided to sell the house.  The buyers, a family named Stambovsky, purchased it, but it turned out that the Ackleys didn't mention the fact that it was haunted by brain-aneurysm-inducing ghosts.  When they found out the house's reputation, the Stambovskys objected, understandably enough, and sued.  The case went all the way to the New York Supreme Court, where the judge sided with the Stambovskys.  The ruling said:
Where, as here, the seller not only takes unfair advantage of the buyer's ignorance but has created and perpetuated a condition about which he is unlikely to even inquire, enforcement of the contract (in whole or in part) is offensive to the court's sense of equity.  Application of the remedy of rescission, within the bounds of the narrow exception to the doctrine of caveat emptor set forth herein, is entirely appropriate to relieve the unwitting purchaser from the consequences of a most unnatural bargain...  Seller who had undertaken to inform the public at large about the existence of poltergeists on the premises to be sold was estopped to deny existence of poltergeists on the premises, so the house was haunted as a matter of law and seller must inform the purchaser of the haunting.
I wondered about how exactly a purchaser could demonstrate that a house was, in fact, haunted.  After all, that's usually what most failure-to-disclose lawsuits usually turn on; you find that the house you just bought has a leaky roof, and show that the previous owners knew about the leaky roof -- but along the way it's incumbent upon you to demonstrate that the roof does, in fact, leak.  How are you going to do that with a ghost?

But upon reading the ruling more carefully, apparently the decision was based upon the fact that the Ackleys themselves had made public the fact that they thought the house was haunted.  So I guess it's their fault for bragging about their ghosts and then deciding not to tell the purchasers before the contract was signed.

You have to wonder, though, if this might be something that should appear on disclosure statements under "Known Pre-existing Conditions," along with leaks, dry rot, damaged windows, broken appliances, and faulty septic systems.  "Ghosts/poltergeists present" -- yes/no/unknown.  "Ghosts that result in death by aneurysm" -- yes/no/unknown.

The article ends by giving us the address of the house in Nyack, but asking us not to go there. "Respect the current owner’s privacy by admiring it only from your screen," they tell us.  Which does bring up the interesting point of who bought the house after the Supreme Court allowed the Stambovskys to back out of the purchase, and whether the new owners have had any weird experiences or untimely deaths.  The article on the legal case (linked above) said that in 2015 the house sold for $1.77 million -- which was, they said, $600,000 higher than comparable houses in Nyack.

So maybe the Stambovskys should have stuck with it, ghosts and all.  Apparently disembodied spirits of the dead do nothing to diminish home value.  I know I'd happily sell my house for a cool $1.77 million.  I'd even sign a disclosure agreement admitting that it's haunted, and I don't even believe in ghosts.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Multiverse massacre

By now, most of you have heard about the Bowling Green Massacre, a horrific attack by Iraqi immigrant terrorists in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway cited as yet another reason we shouldn't accept Muslim immigrants into the United States.  "I bet it’s brand new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized and were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre," Conway said.  "Most people don't know that because it didn't get covered."

Well, as everyone in the United States, with the possible exception of Donald Trump, knows by now is that the reason it didn't get covered is that it never happened.  Kellyanne Conway, whose job description seems to include "make up random shit if it supports what Trump is currently doing," eventually admitted that she'd "made an honest mistake," which is apparently how this administration is labeling outright, bald-faced lies.  The admission, however, didn't stop her from being excoriated on social media.

And also:

Or, best of all, if you'd prefer a twofer:

But because there's no story so weird that people can't work together to make it way weirder, just a couple of days ago claims began popping up on woo-woo websites claiming that yes, actually there was a Bowling Green Massacre, it just happened in an alternate timeline that for some reason only a few of us remember.

Thus, we can add the Bowling Green Massacre to the Berenstain Bears and Nelson Mandela's untimely death as another example of... the Mandela Effect.

The Mandela Effect, you probably know, is a phenomenon wherein someone (or several someones) recalls the past differently than the rest of us, and rather than doing what most of us do, which is to say, "Huh.  I guess I'm remembering wrong, then," said individuals decide that what happened is they have side-slipped into our world from an alternate path in the multiverse in which the event in question (such as the annoyingly moralistic cartoon bears being the Berenstein, rather than Berenstain, Bears) actually is reality.

Here's how one commenter describes his confusion over the imaginary Massacre:
I know the press is (unfairly?) hammering Kellyanne Conway about this and everyone just assumes she made it up, but does anyone else remember an actual Bowling Green Massacre? 
And I’m not talking about the arms smuggling scheme or whatever that all of the articles I’ve read seem to think she might have been talking about.  I mean an actual, honest-to-goodness terrorist attack. 
I definitely recall a bombing in Bowling Green that killed … maybe a dozen people?  I think it happened either at the end of the Bush administration or the first month of the Obama administration.  I’m pretty sure it involved a suicide bomb being set off on a city bus.  The way I remember it was a young Muslim guy–he could have been in his late teens, possibly early twenties? (I’m ashamed to admit this, but I remember seeing his pictures on the news and thinking he was kind of cute.)  He hid an IED inside a dufflebag or knapsack or something and I think he detonated it using an ipod or some kind of portable music player. 
Later, they arrested a second, older Muslim guy.  I think he was responsible for building the bomb.  They were definitely both Iraqi refugees, like Conway said.
Which all sounds pretty persuasive, except for the fact that -- allow me to reiterate -- none of it happened.  But dozens of people chimed in about how yeah, they remember it too, and they added more details about the attackers and the victims and the aftermath, and the whole thing is showing every sign of snowballing.

So I guess there is no end to the mental gymnastics people will go through to avoid being wrong about stuff.  Me, I tend to agree more with Neil deGrasse Tyson: "We have a high opinion of our own brain as a data processing device, when in fact we should not."  Experiment after experiment have shown that our recollection of the past is incomplete at best and full of false memories at worst.  For me, the Ockham's Razor-ish explanation requiring the least ad hoc assumptions is that we're really prone to remembering things wrong, and some of us (e.g. Kellyanne Conway) make the problem significantly worse by inventing new fake stuff to confuse us further.

Of course, there'll be those that disagree with me.  The multiverse is real, and there's a parallel timeline in which Kellyanne Conway doesn't lie every time she opens her mouth.  Those of us who don't recall the Massacre simply live in what one person referred to as a "BGM-null universe."

Or, as I like to think of it, reality.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Reaching for the stars

It has long been one of my dearest wishes to have incontrovertible evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence in my lifetime.  I've been a staunch supporter of SETI; in fact, my screensavers both at home and at work are from "SETI at Home," which pilfers a little bit of the computing power of computers that are on but not currently being used to analyze signals from the Arecibo Radio Telescope for signs of extraterrestrial communications.  My classroom walls have lots of ET-related stuff, including a poster from the Roswell UFO Museum, a sky map showing the location of various exoplanets, and Fox Mulder's "I Want To Believe" UFO poster.

Unfortunately, though, SETI has thus far come up empty-handed, and the accounts of UFO sightings have been, one and all, beneath the threshold of evidence that most of us science-minded types would be willing to accept.  And honestly, it's unlikely that ET, should it exist, has come here.  The distances involved are simply too big.  The same barrier (even more unfortunately) prevents us from going there.  Until Zefram Cochrane invents the warp drive, we're pretty much Solar System-bound.

But that doesn't mean we can't explore -- we just have to find a different way.

One of the most intriguing ones I've seen I had never heard of until yesterday.  Called "Breakthrough Starshot," this is an initiative to send unmanned probes out using the idea of a light sail -- a lightweight craft propelled by light pressure -- to Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun, which just last year was shown to have an exoplanet of its own.  The Breakthrough Starshot site says:
In the last decade and a half, rapid technological advances have opened up the possibility of light-powered space travel at a significant fraction of light speed.  This involves a ground-based light beamer pushing ultra-light nanocrafts – miniature space probes attached to lightsails – to speeds of up to 100 million miles an hour.  Such a system would allow a flyby mission to reach Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years from launch, beaming home images of its recently-discovered planet Proxima b, and any other planets that may lie in the system, as well as collecting other scientific data such as analysis of magnetic fields. 
Breakthrough Starshot aims to demonstrate proof of concept for ultra-fast light-driven nanocrafts, and lay the foundations for a first launch to Alpha Centauri within the next generation.
The cool thing about this is that it removes not only the distance barrier, but eliminates one of the biggest concerns -- which is how, even if we could achieve the kinds of speeds Breakthrough Starshot talks about, we could protect the crew of a manned mission from the effects of being in space for that long.  Just a few weeks ago, a study of identical twins Mark and Scott Kelly showed that Scott, who had just come back from a year aboard the International Space Station, had significantly less bone density than his brother.  (Scott also showed a slight lowering of cognitive function, but it is uncertain if that was an effect of the mission.)

So it's pretty certain that long-term space travel will result in some fairly major changes in metabolism and bodily function, not to mention the psychological strain of being cooped up for years on a spacecraft millions of miles away from terra firma.  The idea that we could get the information we're looking for remotely, without risking human life, is pretty exciting.

Breakthrough is also sponsoring two other programs besides Starshot:
Breakthrough Listen is a $100 million program of astronomical observations in search of evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth. It is by far the most comprehensive, intensive and sensitive search ever undertaken for artificial radio and optical signals. A complete survey of the 1,000,000 nearest stars, the plane and center of our galaxy, and the 100 nearest galaxies. All data will be open to the public. 
Breakthrough Message is a $1 million competition to design a message representing Earth, life and humanity that could potentially be understood by another civilization. The aim is to encourage humanity to think together as one world, and to spark public debate about the ethics of sending messages beyond Earth.
Of the three, however, Starshot is the most exciting to me.  Just the idea that we might, in my lifetime, receive digital images of a planet revolving around another star is one of the most thrilling things I can think of.

So keep your eye on the Breakthrough Project.  It sounds like they're going about things the right way, and that this might be our best hope for finding out if we have neighbors.

Until Zefram Cochrane comes along, of course.  After that, screw being here, I'm going boldly where no one has gone before.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Sliding toward fascism

In psychologist Jonathan Haidt's seminal talk "The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives," he makes an intriguing statement:  "The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve, it's really precious -- and it's really easy to lose."

While I buy Haidt's basic premise -- and you should watch the talk, his claims are fascinating and well backed up by evidence -- I can't help but feel that a significant fraction of today's self-styled conservatives have completely gone off the rails.  True conservatism entails a respect for the rule of law, and protection of the interests of one's own community, state, and country.

In the last few weeks, this has been replaced by a reckless disregard for anything but consolidation of power at any cost.

We have a president whose actions seem hell-bent on alienating every ally we have, and just in the last three days included his disrespectful phone call to the Prime Minister of Australia and a veiled threat to send the military into Mexico to deal with the "bad hombres" down there.  Worse still is the sense that Trump has no real understanding of history or knowledge of international policy; in a conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week, she had to explain to the President what the terms of the Geneva Convention are.

The most frightening thing of all is his capacity for whipping his followers into a frenzy, and their single-minded devotion to him.  People who have received national attention after criticizing Trump have received credible death threats.  Even smaller fish like myself have felt the backlash of questioning Dear Leader; one of my previous posts, in which I asked "what would it take to convince you that you were wrong about Donald Trump?", was vehemently labeled as "psychological manipulation" by one reader.  Ruth Ben-Ghiat writes, in an article in The Atlantic:
Authoritarianism needs that predator edge; that shared understanding that the leader’s body carries within it the potential for violence– and the power to make it difficult to prosecute him.  Trump’s attacks on women; his targeting of Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, and others as dangers to the nation; and the threats from his supporters against the lives of ordinary citizens that follow his criticisms of them on Twitter (such as the union leader Chuck Jones and the college student Lauren Batchelder) all go into the category of things it’s safer not to talk about.  Normalization is actually decriminalization, a willingness to forget that such things were once thought of as lawless behavior.
All of this is symptomatic of a trend I'm seeing toward cronyism and loss of transparency and suppression of dissent.  And if the signs themselves aren't scary enough, read the article "Wait Calmly," by Volker Ullrich, that appeared in the German news source Die Zeit yesterday.  It chronicles the responses of German politicians to the rise of Adolf Hitler -- and how, across the board, the general reaction was, "It'll be fine."  In early 1933, the newspaper Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung published an editorial in which the author stated that he was willing to wait to see if Hitler  would prove "whether he really had what is needed in order to become a statesman."  His ignorance of policy and law was excused, with his followers saying that it was more important that he rebuild Germany as a nation than it was for him to be well informed.

Even after Hitler became chancellor and began to purge the opposition, the "it couldn't happen here" sentiment was rampant. Theodor Wolff, the editor-in-chief of the Berliner Tageblatt, said that even if Hitler wasn't a nice guy, in Germany there was a "border that violence would not cross."  Germans, Wolff said, would protect the "freedom of thought and of speech," would create a "soulful and intellectual resistance" that would prevent Hitler ever from becoming a dictator.

Most appallingly, the chair of the Central Association of Germans of Jewish Faith said, "In general, today more than ever we must follow the directive: wait calmly."

This was printed on January 31, 1933.  Five months later, Hitler and his cronies had suspended the German constitution and fundamental human rights, eliminated political parties, required that radio and newspapers release news that was consistent with the National Socialist party line, and stripped Jews of their equality under the law.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

If that parallel isn't terrifying enough, consider a second one: the similarities between what is happening right now in the United States and the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.  As Andrés Miguel Rondón lays out in his article "In Venezuela, We Couldn't Stop Chávez.  Don't Make the Same Mistakes We Did," Chávez rose to power on much the same kind of wave that Trump has -- populism, nationalism, breaking off ties to allies who were perceived as exploitative or hostile, demonizing the opposition, and playing the role of a plain ol' guy who is just brutally honest and "speaks his mind."  Rondón writes:
The Venezuelan opposition struggled for years to get this. We wouldn’t stop pontificating about how stupid Chavismo was, not only to international friends but also to Chávez’s electoral base.  “Really, this guy? Are you nuts?  You must be nuts,” we’d say. 
The subtext was clear: Look, idiots — he will destroy the country.  He’s blatantly siding with the bad guys: Fidel Castro, Vladi­mir Putin, the white supremacists or the guerrillas.  He’s not that smart.  He’s threatening to destroy the economy.  He has no respect for democracy or for the experts who work hard and know how to do business.  I heard so many variations on these comments growing up that my political awakening was set off by the tectonic realization that Chávez, however evil, was not actually stupid. 
Neither is Trump: Getting to the highest office in the world requires not only sheer force of will but also great, calculated rhetorical precision.  The kind only a few political geniuses are born with and one he flamboyantly brandishes.
Chávez died in 2013, and Venezuela still hasn't recovered from the years of isolationism, corruption, and damage to the governmental infrastructure.  In October of 2016, it was declared by CNN Money to be "the world's worst economy" despite having some of the largest known oil reserves, and there are now widespread shortages of food, medicine, and other necessities, even among the former Venezuelan middle class.

The problem is, the message coming from the Trumpian populists -- I'm not going to slander actual conservatives by using that term -- has been amazingly successful, as Hitler's and Chávez's were before him.  Don't believe the media, they're lying.  Fight like hell against people who criticize Dear Leader.  Anyone who objects to what Trump, Bannon, Spicer, McConnell, Ryan, and others are doing is at best a "whiny, fragile snowflake," simply throwing a snit fit over having lost, and at worst a traitor to America.

In other words, don't question anything that comes from the Party, but ignore everything else.

People keep saying "it can't happen here."  We're not the Weimar Republic, we're not pre-Chávez Venezuela.  What terrifies me is that the same sentiments were widely spoken in the Weimar Republic and pre-Chávez Venezuela only months before dictatorship emerged.  Every democracy thinks it can't fail, can never be upended by fascism -- until it happens.

My own personal difficulty with fighting all of this is that I was taught by my (very conservative) parents to play fair, be nice, not pick fights, stay respectful, let others have their opinions.  But that, I think, is no different than the chair of the Central Association of Germans of Jewish Faith telling his constituents to "Wait calmly."  We can't be silent.  We have to challenge these people on their own turf -- while we still have a chance to.

I'll end with a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien's The Two Towers that I've always thought was heart-wrenchingly poignant.  When King Théoden of Rohan is facing legions of Orcs swarming into Helm's Deep with the intent of slaughtering his people, he looks down on them in despair and says, "What can men do against such reckless hatred?"

And Aragorn replies, "Ride out to meet them."

To which I can only respond: Amen.