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.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The fact of the matter

A couple of days ago I made the mistake of participating in that most fruitless of endeavors: an online argument with a total stranger.

It started when a friend of mine posted the question of whether the following quote was really in Hillary Clinton's book, It Takes a Village:

It isn't, of course, and a quick search was enough to turn up the page on Snopes that debunks the claim.  I posted the link, and my friend responded with a quick thanks and a comment that she was glad to have the straight scoop so that she wasn't perpetuating a falsehood.  And that should have been that.

And it would have been if some guy hadn't commented, "Don't trust Snopes!!!"  A little voice in the back of my head said, "Don't take the bait...", but a much louder one said, "Oh, for fuck's sake."  So I responded, "Come on.  Snopes is one of the most accurate fact-checking sites around.  It's been cross-checked by independent non-partisan analysts, and it's pretty close to 100% correct."

The guy responded, "No, it's not!"

You'd think at this point I'd have figured out that I was talking to someone who learned his debate skills in Monty Python's Argument Clinic, but I am nothing if not persistent.  I found the analysis I had referred to in my previous comment, and posted a clip from a summary of it on the site Skeptical Science:
Jan Harold Brunvand, a folklorist who has written a number of books on urban legends and modern folklore, considered the site so comprehensive in 2004 as to obviate launching one of his own.[10] 
David Mikkelson, the creator of the site, has said that the site receives more complaints of liberal bias than conservative bias,[23] but insists that the same debunking standards are applied to all political urban legends.  In 2012, reviewed a sample of Snopes’ responses to political rumors regarding George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama, and found them to be free from bias in all cases.  FactCheck noted that Barbara Mikkelson was a Canadian citizen (and thus unable to vote in US elections) and David Mikkelson was an independent who was once registered as a Republican.  “You’d be hard-pressed to find two more apolitical people,” David Mikkelson told them.[23][24]  In 2012, The Florida Times-Union reported that‘s urban legends researcher found a “consistent effort to provide even-handed analyses” and that Snopes’ cited sources and numerous reputable analyses of its content confirm its accuracy.[25]
And he responded, "I disagree with you, but I respect your right to your opinion."

At that point, I gave up.

But I kept thinking about the exchange, particularly his use of the word "opinion."  It's an odd way to define the term, isn't it?  It's an opinion that I think single-malt scotch tastes good with dark chocolate.  It's an opinion that I detest the song "Stayin' Alive."

But whether Snopes is accurate or not is not an opinion.  It is either true, or it is not.  It's a little like the "flat Earth" thing.  If you believe, despite the overwhelming evidence, that the Earth is anything but an oblate spheroid, that is not "your opinion."

You are simply "wrong."

Now, I hasten to add that I don't think all of my own beliefs are necessarily correct.  After all, I haven't cross-checked Snopes myself, so I'm relying on the expertise of Brunvand et al. and trusting that they did their job correctly.  To the best of my knowledge, Snopes is accurate; and if anyone wants me to think otherwise, they need to do more than say "No, it isn't" every time I open my mouth.

But to call something like that an "opinion" implies that we all have our own sets of facts, even though many of them contradict each other, with the result that we all do what writer Kathryn Schulz calls "walking around in our little bubbles of being right about everything."  It's a little frightening how deep this mindset goes -- up to and including Donald Trump's shrieking "Fake news!" every time he hears something about him or his administration that he doesn't like.

I can understand wanting reality to be a different way than it is.  Hell, I'd rather teach Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts than biology in a public high school.  But wishin' don't make it so, as my grandma used to say, and once you grow up you need to face facts and admit it when you're wrong.  And, most importantly, recognize that the evidence won't always line up with your desires.  As President John Adams put it, "Facts are stubborn things.  Whatever our wishes, inclinations, and passions, they cannot alter the facts and the evidence."

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

One language to rule them all

The aphorism "No matter what you know, there's always more to learn" is something you'd be likely to see on one of those cheesy "motivational posters" that cheery type-A personalities like to pin up on office walls, but there's a lot of truth to it.  I rather prefer the formulation credited to Socrates -- "The more I know, the more I realize how little I know."

I ran into a fun example of this principle yesterday, when a member of the online linguistic geekery group Our Bastard Language posted an article from The Public Domain Review called "Trüth, Beaüty, and Volapük," about a constructed language (or "conlang," in the lingo of the field) called Volapük that I had never heard of before.

My M.A. is in linguistics, but my field of study was historical/reconstructive linguistics (my thesis was about the effects of the Viking invasions on Old English and Old Gaelic, and should have won some kind of award for research that has absolutely no practical application).  But even though conlangs aren't my specialty, I've always had a fascination from them.  There are a remarkable number out there, from the familiar (Esperanto, Klingon, Elvish) to the obscure but fascinating (such as John Quijada's Ithkuil, which attempts to express concepts in a combinatory way from the smallest possible number of root words).

A sample of Tolkein's lovely Elvish script [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But despite my interest in conlangs, I had never run across Volapük, which is strange because next to Esperanto, it's apparently one of the most studied constructed languages ever created.  It was the invention of a German priest named Johann Schleyer, who not only wanted to create a regularized speech that came from familiar roots (to Europeans, anyhow) and was easy to learn, but was also "beautiful sounding."  Schleyer had an inordinate fondness for umlauts, which he added because he thought that "A language without umlauts sounds monotonous, harsh, and boring."

Which reminds me of the credits in Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail, especially the "A mööse once bit my sïster" part.  One of Schleyer's contemporaries couldn't resist poking some gøød-natured fün at him over his umlautophilia, and published the following limerick in the Milwaukee Sentinel:
A charming young student of Grük
Once tried to acquire Volapük
But it sounded so bad
That her friends called her mad,
And she quit it in less than a wük.
To my ears, it doesn't sound bad at all, and kind of has a Scandi-Slavic lilt to it.  Here's a sample:

The author of the article in The Public Domain Review, Arika Okrent, attributes the relative failure of Volapük to its plethora of umlauts and the easier word roots of its competitor Esperanto, which currently has about two million fluent speakers (an estimated 1,000 of which learned it as their first language).  I'm a little doubtful about that; certainly umlautiness hasn't discouraged anyone from learning Finnish.  I think it's more that the idea of a universal language is one of those high-flown ideals that won't ever catch on because most people are going to be resistant to giving up their native tongue in favor of an invented system of speech, however easy it is to learn.  Language is such a deep part of culture that to jettison our own mode of communication runs counter to every social instinct we have.  (Note that one of the most common things conquerors do to conquered people is to outlaw the speaking of the native language -- it's a sure way to deal a death blow to the culture.)

Even so, I find the whole conlang thing fascinating, and was tickled to run across one I'd never heard of.  Every so often I have students who participate in an independent study class I teach in introductory linguistics, and the final project is to invent the framework of a language -- a phonetic and phonemic structure, morphological scheme, and syntax, along with a lexicon of at least a hundred words.  They then translate a passage from English into their language.  (One of the best ones I've ever seen did a charming translation of Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar.)

The result of this project is twofold -- students find out how hard it is to create a realistic language, and they learn a tremendous amount about the structure of our own language.  And that's just from producing a rudimentary skeleton of a language.  For people like Schleyer, who created a rich and fully functional language, it was the result of many years of devotion, hard work, and love for language itself.

So it's kind of a shame that people didn't appreciate Volapük more.  Schleyer's dream of having a language that would bring the entire world together in a common mode of communication may be as far off as ever, but even so, it's a beautiful dream.  Even if it would mean making friends with the mäjestïc ümlaüt.

Monday, May 29, 2017

A call to violence

I suppose it's more or less inevitable that the vast majority of religious people pick and choose which standards and precepts they want to adhere to.  Even the most literal of biblical literalists, for example, usually don't keep the dietary and dress laws laid out in Leviticus.  I'm far from knowledgeable about Islam, but I expect the same is true there; even the ones who claim to live down to the letter of their Holy Book still ignore the passages they find inconvenient.

In part, of course, that's because all of those Holy Books are rife with internal contradictions.  On its simplest level, there are mutually contradictory factual passages that obviously can't be true at the same time, such as the following bits from 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles:
Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he began to reign, and he reigned in Jerusalem three months. —2 Kings 24:8 
Jehoiachin was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned three months and ten days in Jerusalem… —2 Chronicles 36:9
That stuff is kind of trivial, honestly, and only a problem if you believe that every last word in the bible is divinely inspired and infallible.  A little more troubling are the ones that address deep philosophical questions, and give you different answers depending on where you look, such as this quintet of passages:
I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. —Genesis 17:7 
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt... —Jeremiah 31:31 
For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. —Hebrews 8:7 
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. —Matthew 5:18 
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance -- now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. —Hebrews 9:15
So the old laws are everlasting... but wait, they're not... oh, yes, they are, nothing will disappear from the law until Jesus returns... oh, wait, no, there's a new set of laws...

I'm sure that biblical scholars of a literalist bent have a way of arguing around all that, but that sort of apologetics has always struck me as little more than sophistry.  And, of course, the fact that no matter what you believe, you can find support for it somewhere in the bible, means that even people who espouse crazy and/or dangerous beliefs can claim that they're biblically inspired.

Which brings us to Dave Daubenmire.

Dave "Coach" Daubenmire has been for years a spokesperson on the more fringe-y edges of the Religious Right.  His weekly webcast, Pass the Salt Live, does all of the usual stuff -- slamming LGBT people, demanding religion (specifically Christianity) be mandatory in public schools, firing away at the "secular left."  But now Daubenmire has gone one step further.

He's saying that Christianity needs to be more violent.

In last week's installment of Pass the Salt Live, Daubenmire crowed about Donald Trump's cringe-worthy shove of the Prime Minister of Montenegro during a photo op, and Representative Greg Gianforte's body-slamming a reporter who asked him a question he didn't want to answer.  Daubenmire said:
The only thing that is going to save Western civilization is a more aggressive, a more violent Christianity.  Look at [Trump].  They’re all little puppies, ain’t nobody barking at him … He’s walking in authority.  He walked to the front and center and they all know it, too, man.  He just spanked them all... 
The Lord is showing us a picture of the authority we should be walking in.  People are sick and tired of it.  They’re saying, ‘Yes, a fighter! Go, dude, go!’ … Who won?  The dude that took the other dude to the ground [Gianforte].  That should be the heart cry of Christian men.  From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of God has suffered violence and violent men take it back by force.
But just wait a second, now.  Isn't that exactly what people of Daubenmire's stripe hate about Islam -- that acting under the perceived precepts of their religion, they're committing violent acts?  Of course, he sees Islam as an evil false religion, so I suppose it's no wonder he doesn't get the parallels.

Still, you'd think he'd at least be aware of what happens when you have angry, fearful Christians in charge, imposing their views by violence -- horror shows like the Inquisition, the witch trials, the Crusades.

Although I'm guessing that Daubenmire wouldn't find any problem with those, either.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And what happened to the passage from Matthew 5, "If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek as well?"  But as I've said, people of this type are awfully good at ignoring the passages they'd rather not live by.

Me, I see Daubenmire as more dangerous than the societal ills he rails about on a weekly basis.  It's his kind of rhetoric that leads to people doing seriously batshit stuff, such as the white supremacist in Portland who killed two people in a train station who were defending some passengers from his ethnic slurs.  Once you've decided that your views -- white supremacy, jihad, or "taking the kingdom of God back by force" -- are justification for committing violence against your fellow human beings, you've taken the brakes off of morality.  After that, the only difference between you and the Inquisition is scale.

And you've also put yourself outside of the bounds of reasonable discussion.  There's no appealing to logic with someone who has abandoned rationality.  The best one can hope for is that that most of the people who listen to Daubenmire and others of his ilk are themselves not going to take him literally.  

But as we've seen in the past, and as the people of Portland saw first hand last week, all it takes is one violent, self-righteous extremist to put innocent lives at risk.  And they nearly always claim that their own reasons for committing such acts are virtuous -- same as Dave Daubenmire wishing more Christians were like Donald Trump and Greg Gianforte.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Rage overload

It has gotten lately that I can't look at the news without repeatedly screaming, "What the hell is wrong with you people?"

And I'm not talking here about people doing bad stuff themselves, although there is certainly enough to scream about in that category, too.  I'm talking about people being willing to cast their votes for idiots, liars, moral degenerates, and people who are out-and-out batshit crazy, so that they can get into government and do bad stuff on a grander scale.

Let's start at the top, with the President of the United States.  Donald Trump has been involved in cringe-worthy stuff on a daily basis since the American electorate chose for some reason to elect a narcissistic compulsive liar to the highest office in the land, but I don't think I've cringed quite so hard as I did yesterday.  Because Trump, who when he was in kindergarten evidently never learned the rule "Don't budge," said, "Move," and shoved his way in front of the Prime Minister of Montenegro so he could be at the front of the photo-op.  And because that wasn't humiliating enough, he gave one of his typical poorly-informed, word-salad speeches at a meeting of NATO leaders -- and it was so bad that the other members laughed at him and rolled their eyes.

World leaders not even trying to be subtle about laughing at Donald Trump

How's that Making America Great Again going for you these days, Trump voters?  It's turning out to be more Making America An International Laughingstock, as far as I can see.

It's not only things happening overseas that are making me wonder if I should admit that I'm an American when I visit South America this summer.  There's enough crazy shit happening right here on American soil for me to fill ten blog posts with non-stop ranting.  In the interest of brevity, let's just look at two.

First, this week lawmakers in Arizona saw fit to appoint one Sylvia Allen as chairperson of the State Education Committee.  Allen, who gives every appearance of being only marginally sane, has appeared in Skeptophilia before; first for babbling about chemtrails during a hearing about mine safety, and then for blurting out, during a hearing about laws governing concealed weapons, that all of the problems in the United States would be solved if we just made church attendance mandatory.

Oh, and did I mention that she's a young-Earth creationist?  There's that.

This, Dear Readers, is the person who will be overseeing the education of children in an entire state.

But nothing pegged my Rage-O-Meter quite as much as when I found out that Greg Gianforte had won the special election to fill the seat in the House of Representatives vacated when Ryan Zinke was appointed Secretary of the Interior.  Why is this infuriating?

Because two days ago, Gianforte assaulted a reporter.  In front of a large crowd.

Which, you'd think, would have been the end of it.  Game over, Gianforte loses.

But no.  Exit pollsters asked voters if the incident had changed their vote... and almost no one said it had.  One person even said, "It's about time our politicians start standing up to these damn reporters."

Yes.  You read that right.  This person thinks that our elected officials are justified in assaulting a person who was doing his job, which is to report to the public what our elected officials are doing.  In fact, this person apparently believes that the reporter was himself to blame for being assaulted.

So Gianforte went on to win the election by a six-point margin, with crowds cheering "You're forgiven!" when he brought up the assault in his election speech.  It's reminiscent of the comment Donald Trump made last summer, that he could "shoot someone in Times Square" and not lose a bit of his support.

Oh, and did I mention that Gianforte is also a young-Earth creationist?  There's that.

It's getting to the point that I regret it every time I look at the news, because I'm bombarded by more examples of how credulous and ignorant a significant slice of my countrymen are -- and how willing they are to overlook immorality, sociopathy, anger management issues, dishonesty, and downright looniness from the people they vote for, as long as the candidates trot out the party line.  "Values voters."  "Patriotism."  "Religious freedom."  "Small government."  "Deregulation."

And, as I mentioned earlier, "Make America Great Again."

As long as you say the magic words, it doesn't matter what you do.  The voters will still follow right behind you, mooing loudly, and pull the lever on your behalf.

Even writing this is making me have to check my blood pressure.  So I'll end this here, by simply repeating what I started with: What the fuck is wrong with these people?

Friday, May 26, 2017

Pet peeve

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia, who also happens to be a veterinarian, sent me a message saying, "They're coming for me!" along with a link to a site entitled, "Autism Symptoms in Pets Rise as Pet Vaccination Rates Rise."

The site, which I hardly need to point out is rife with confirmation bias, claims that vaccinating pets against such diseases as canine distemper, feline leukemia, rabies, and Bordetella is triggering behavioral changes similar to the ones seen in humans that have been vaccinated.  The problem, of course, is that there are no behavioral changes in humans due to vaccination; as I have described repeatedly, there is no connection between vaccination and autism (or any other behavioral or neurological condition).  None.  Nyet.  Nada.  Bubkis.  Rien.

But a little thing like no evidence and no correlation isn't enough to stop some people, particularly people with an ideological ax to grind.  The author, Kate Raines, cites a Dr. Nicholas Dodman, who has studied compulsive behaviors in dogs.  Raines writes:
Presenting the evidence from his study at the 2015 American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, Dr. Dodman reported an autism-like condition, noting that “the vast majority of affected dogs were males, and many had other strange behaviors or physical conditions that accompanied the tail chasing, such as explosive aggression, partial seizures, phobias, skin conditions, gastrointestinal issues, object fixation and a tendency to shy away from people and other dogs.”  He and his associates were further able to establish that two biomarkers common to children with autism were also present in the affected dogs.
Which is all well and good, but doesn't establish any kind of correlation between those behaviors or biomarkers and vaccination.  The only evidence she brings out is anecdotal; that some dogs exhibit temporary increases in irritability or aggression following the rabies vaccine, and those symptoms "mimic the ones described in discussions of canine autism."

Oh, and there's the tired old Motive Fallacy argument; that since makers of vaccines profit from sales, they have a motive for covering up any bad side effects, which proves that said side effects exist.  The illogic of which you'd think would be apparent to anyone, but evidently not.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But there is something here to explain, and that's the "autism-like condition" Dodman and others describe -- and which I am in no way trying to dismiss.  Presumably it does have some underlying cause.  Raines kind of gives away the game herself by saying that the symptoms are "idiopathic... or congenital," both of which would imply that vaccines had nothing to do with it.  I have to wonder if some of it has to do with recessive genes affecting behavior showing up in inbred dog populations; Raines mentions that Dodman was studying compulsive behavior in Bull Terriers, which (like most pure breeds) have a very tightly restricted gene pool.  (The most extreme example of this is the English Bulldog, the entire breed of which is descended, over and over, from 68 individuals selected back in 1835.)

My veterinarian friend had an interesting perspective on this.  She writes:
[D]ogs don't have autism.  Most vet research shows OCD like behavior in dogs does have a genetic component, but these dogs don't have issues with being social with other dogs, being overstimulated, or anything else, and mostly recover if you give them a job to do, like flyball or herding...  Most of it we see in high energy high drive dogs (collies, guard dogs, those sorts) that are in home environments that don't stimulate them much - so they go find their own, whether that's herding small children or licking their legs until they bleed or spinning in circles for hours.  So superficially similar to some autistic behavior, but 95% of those dogs respond very quickly to environmental enrichment, and the rest to anxiolytics.
But once again, it is unlikely that the arguments of a person who is an expert in her field will sway someone like Raines, who clearly has no particular need for evidence or logic to convince her.

So the bottom line: vaccinate your pets.  You're not going to trigger them to develop autism or obsessive-compulsive disorder, but you will protect them from horrible diseases like canine distemper, which is fatal 50% of the time even with the best veterinary care. Your pets depend on you for everything -- love, food, shelter, protection, and medical care.  If you fall for Raines's claptrap, you will fail their trust in you, and in all likelihood, put them at a significant and unnecessary risk.

And, in general, don't be swayed by emotionally-charged, fact-free arguments.  Find out what the experts and researchers have to say, and think for yourself.  Don't forget that we make our best decisions with our brains, not our guts.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Good vibrations

My stance as a skeptic sometimes makes me something of a magnet for wackos.  There are the earnest types who are driven nuts by the fact that I scoff at their favorite brand of nonsense (homeopathy, ghosts, and conspiracy theories seem to be favorites).  And then there are the ones who find my blog because Google keyword searches seem to pick up on words like "psychic" and "haunting" and miss important words like "ridiculous" and "bullshit."

As an example of the latter, my blog was linked yesterday by Christie Marie Sheldon, who has a website called "Love or Above."  I include this link some trepidation.  So for those of you who would prefer not to look at it and thereby murder scores of valuable brain cells, I will include a summary of its main points.

The headline says, "Are your vibrations helping or hurting you?"  This is followed up by: "Your personal vibration frequency could be the ONE thing holding you back from abundance, happiness, and success.  Discover how to raise it, so you can finally start living from the vibration of Love or Above."

Allow me to interject that in the interest of keeping this PG-13 rated, I will consider the obvious joke about "Personal Love Vibrations" to be already made, and we will move on.

Christie's website then goes on to say, "Ever notice how some uncannily lucky people can almost effortlessly attract good things into their lives?"  These people, she claims, are leaders, have opportunities at work, good relationships, and a healthy attitude toward money.  Myself, I just figured that people like this were smart, hard-working, and well-adjusted, but no: it's because they have a personal energy vibration score, not to mention probably a credit rating, of over 700.

All emotions, Christie explains, vibrate at a particular frequency.  Shame, for example, vibrates at a frequency of 20. (At this point, I was shouting at the computer screen, "20 what?  Hertz?   Megahertz?  Pounds per square inch?  Fluid ounces?  Furlongs per fortnight? Where are the fucking units?" This caused my dog, Grendel, to look extremely worried because he thought I was yelling at him, meaning he was presumably "vibrating at a frequency of 20.")  Apathy vibrates at 50, Desire at 125, Anger at 150.  Then we move on to more positive emotions; Willingness is 310, Acceptance is 350, and so on.  She says, if you vibrate at 1000, you are an "Enlightened Master."   I guess that at that point, you're vibrating as fast as you possibly could.  Any faster and you might just vanish in a flash of Quantum Psychic Aura Energy, or something.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

She goes on to explain that the vibrational energy of the Earth, at the moment, registers at 207 on her Cosmic Vibration-o-Meter.  This is somewhere between "Courage" and "Neutrality."  So, basically, most people average out at somewhere between "Yes, I can!" and "Meh."  Which seems about right, frankly.  But then she says that we should all be vibrating at 500 or above, because 500 is the frequency of "Vibrations of Love."

As proof of how personal love vibrations work, she presents two experiments done by people we should automatically believe because they have "Dr." in front of their names. Dr. William Braud, of the "Mind-Science Foundation" in San Antonio, Texas, found that he could extend the life spans of red blood cells by having the owners of these red blood cells "think positive thoughts about them."   And Dr. Masaru Emoto did an experiment in which he sent a variety of positive or negative emotional thoughts into glasses of water, and then froze the water, and he found that the happy water made pretty, symmetrical crystals, and the unhappy water made disorganized, ugly crystals.  Christie then asks us a poignant question: since our body is full of red blood cells and water, what kind of damage could we be doing to ourselves with negative thoughts?  The implications are staggering.  I don't know about you, but if I ever froze to death, I would definitely want the water in my body to form attractive-looking crystals.  Think of the humiliation if at my funeral, my friends and family said, "I guess it's just as well he died.  Did you see those ugly-ass ice crystals?  He must have been vibrating at 180 or lower."

She ends, of course, with a sales pitch for her program, the "Love or Above Energetic Breakthrough Kit."  To show how awesome it is, she displays a photograph of herself at an event that I swear I am not making up: The "Awesomeness Fest."  There are further details, including descriptions of a technique called "Space Cleansing," but at that point my remaining brain cells were crying for mercy so I had to stop looking at the website.

I suppose it's an occupational hazard, being a skeptic, that people want to convince you.  After all, the word "skeptic" implies that there's a chance you might be swayed.  This is, in fact, true; but the difficulty, of course, is that what sways a skeptic is empirical evidence, or failing that, at least a logical argument.  When you have neither, all you have is a severe case of Doubt, which vibrates at a frequency of around 110.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Politics in the pulpit

New from the "Wow, You Really Didn't Think That Through All That Well, Did You?" department, we have: Texas Governor Greg Abbott signing into law a bill that will prevent the government from subpoenaing pastors based upon what they say in the pulpit.

This is yet another one of the so-called "Religious Freedom" laws, designed to give carte blanche to anyone who does anything as long as it's part of their religion.  Want to discriminate against someone?  Claim that your religion considers the person a sinner.  Want your kid to get out of having to learn about other cultures or other beliefs in school?  Claim that your religion considers the knowledge of such information a threat.

Or, now: want your pastor to be able to stump for a political candidate?  Claim that preventing him/her from doing so is allowing the government to "pry into what goes on in churches."

That, at least, is how Governor Abbott sees it.  Upon signing the bill, Abbott said:
Freedom and freedom of religion was challenged here in Houston, and I am proud to say you fight back from the very beginning... Texas law now will be your strength and your sword and your shield.  You will be shielded by any effort by any other government official in any other part of the state of Texas from having subpoenas to try to pry into what you’re doing here in your churches.
Which brings up a problem that I think about every time someone starts snarling about how much better it was when we had prayer in schools.  My first question would be, "What kind of prayers?"  Because generally the religion people want in schools -- and in all the arenas of public life -- is just one religion, namely their own.  It's curious how a lot of the same people who would love to see prayers to the Christian god reinstituted in public schools pitch an unholy fit when students even learn about Islam, and would probably spontaneously combust if students were told to bow down and pray to Allah.

Which is the problem with Abbott's new law.  Are the pastors who are now protected from subpoenas based on what they preach only the Christian pastors?  Because this law could easily be invoked to protect extremist Muslim mullahs preaching "Death to America" from their pulpits.  The whole idea of separation of church and state is that you are free to subscribe to whatever religion you choose, or no religion at all, and all religions are treated equally under the law.  What Abbott clearly intends here is that Christian churches have rights that other institutions do not have.

And the reason Abbott and the bill's author, Senator Joan Huffman of Houston, came up with this is abundantly clear.  There is an increasing push by evangelical Christians to consolidate their power in order to influence political races.  They wielded considerable clout in the last presidential election; without people like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. throwing their support behind Trump, you have to wonder if the election might not have gone the other way.  Some preachers went even further, and said that if you don't vote for Trump, you are committing a sin because you're going against God's Chosen One.

How a narcissistic, sociopathic, adulterous compulsive liar ever got to be God's Chosen One is beyond me.  But there you are.

Myself, I have no problem with a church getting involved with politics, as long as it brings with it the price of losing tax-exempt status.  Once churches become the religious arm of a political party, they should be paying taxes on donations the same way any other political organization does.

But Abbott would probably consider that "religious persecution."

So this is a law that is inherently unfair in intent, almost certainly will be unevenly enforced if it's enforceable at all, and is likely to be challenged in the courts in any case.  Another exercise in governmental waste of time, solely to grandstand a little and appease Abbott's hyperreligious base.

Because, apparently, our elected officials have nothing better to do.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


The skeptic community (if such a thing actually exists) is all abuzz because of the recent publication in the journal Cogent Social Studies of an article by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay called "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct."  If you read the article, you'll see immediately that it's a hoax.  It contains such passages as one in which they say the "concept of the penis" is responsible for climate change, and defend that claim thusly:
Destructive, unsustainable hegemonically male approaches to pressing environmental policy and action are the predictable results of a raping of nature by a male-dominated mindset.  This mindset is best captured by recognizing the role of [sic] the conceptual penis holds over masculine psychology.  When it is applied to our natural environment, especially virgin environments that can be cheaply despoiled for their material resources and left dilapidated and diminished when our patriarchal approaches to economic gain have stolen their inherent worth, the extrapolation of the rape culture inherent in the conceptual penis becomes clear.
Boghossian and Lindsay, both of whom write for Skeptic magazine, do a good bit of har-de-har-harring at the fact that their spoof article allegedly passed peer review, as does Skeptic's founder, Michael Shermer.  Shermer writes:
Every once in awhile it is necessary and desirable to expose extreme ideologies for what they are by carrying out their arguments and rhetoric to their logical and absurd conclusion, which is why we are proud to publish this expose of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed journal today.  Its ramifications are unknown but one hopes it will help rein in extremism in this and related areas.
In fact, Boghossian and Lindsay hint that their hoax shows a fundamental problem with all of gender studies:
The most potent among the human susceptibilities to corruption by fashionable nonsense is the temptation to uncritically endorse morally fashionable nonsense.  That is, we assumed we could publish outright nonsense provided it looked the part and portrayed a moralizing attitude that comported with the editors’ moral convictions.  Like any impostor, ours had to dress the part, though we made our disguise as ridiculous and caricatured as possible—not so much affixing an obviously fake mustache to mask its true identity as donning two of them as false eyebrows.
Denigrating all of gender studies based upon a sample size of One Paper seems like lousy skepticism to me.  They didn't do a thorough analysis of papers published in the dozens of journals that address the subject; they found one journal that accepted one hoax paper uncritically.  Sure, it says something about Cogent Social Studies -- which, it turns out, is a pay-to-publish journal anyhow, ranking it a long way down on the reliability ladder -- but that no more discredits gender studies as a whole than the Hwang Woo-Suk hoax discredited all stem cell research.

To me, this is more of an indication that Boghossian and Lindsay, and by extension Michael Shermer, have an ax to grind.  The hoax itself appears very much like a cheap stunt that Boghossian and Lindsay dreamed up to take a pot shot at a subject that for some reason they hold in disdain.  When the hoax succeeded, they crowed that the field of gender studies is "crippled academically."

Kind of looks like confirmation bias to me.  Sad, given that these three are often held up as the intellectual leaders of the skeptic community.

[image courtesy of artist Ju Gatsu Mikka and the Wikimedia Commons]

I do think there's one important lesson that can be drawn from this situation, however, and it's not the one Boghossian and Lindsay intended.  It's that the old adage of "if it's in an academic journal, it's reliable" simply isn't true.  I recall, in my college days, being told that the "only acceptable sources for papers are academic journals."  This wrongly gives college students the impression that all journals have identical standards -- that Nature and Science are on par with Cogent Social Studies and The American Journal of Homeopathy.

This makes a true skeptic's job harder (not to mention the job of college students simply trying to find good sources for their own research).  It is incumbent upon anyone reading an academic paper to see what the track record of the journal is -- if its papers have been cited by reputable researchers, if the research they describe is valid, if its authors have reasonable credentials.  Boghossian and Lindsay did show that we are right to be suspicious of papers that appear in pay-to-publish journals.  Beyond that, what they did strikes me as a lot of mean-spirited dicking around.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Heavenly message delivery service

A while back, I wrote here at Skeptophilia about a business called "After The Rapture Pet Care" that (for a small fee) would pair holy pet owners up with well-meaning sinners, so that when the holy people were Raptured up to heaven, their pets would have someone to look after them.

Well, if that wasn't goofy enough for you, one of my Critical Thinking students ran across an even goofier idea last week.  His discovery?

A company called "MySendOff" that has a program they call "Sending Telegrams to Heaven."  The idea here hinges on the fact that most of us have friends or relatives who have died, and whom we would like to contact.  As the website puts it:
[W]hat if you had something you wanted to say to [a deceased loved one]?  Perhaps you had one last pressing thing you wanted your loved one to know but time wouldn’t allow it.  You maybe feeling somewhat guilty or unfulfilled for not saying that one last thing.  Some may even feel somehow responsible for the death and feel the pressing need to apologize and tell the deceased they feel responsible.  They may go on through life with a feeling of discontentment and frustration due to this self blaming.  Another reason for contacting the deceased may be that you want to inform them of new events that happened since their passing, a new birth in a family, a wedding etc.
I'm sure at least some of my readers can relate.

So here's what MySendOff will do for you.  For five dollars per word, you can upload a message to their website.  MySendOff will then find a volunteer who is terminally ill, who will memorize the message, and when the volunteer dies, (s)he will deliver the message to your loved one.

For their part, MySendOff agrees to periodically contact the volunteers to check up on them and make sure they still remember the message.  And -- special offer -- if the volunteer lives a year past the day (s)he was contracted to deliver the message, your fee will be refunded, and the volunteer agrees to deliver the message for free once (s)he does kick the bucket.

It's hard to know where to start, regarding how bizarre this is.  First, there's the idea that MySendOff is somehow getting in touch with hundreds of terminally ill people to act as couriers.  Second, the company is getting five bucks a word for basically doing... nothing.  Other than passing the message to the courier, that is.  You have no guarantee of delivery, given that they're not saying you'll ever know if the recently deceased, formerly terminally ill person successfully contacted your loved one.

I mean, think about it.  The odds are very much against it, right?  Think of all the billions of people who have died.  Even if you think they're all still kicking around somewhere in the Great Beyond, what's the likelihood of being able to find one of them, amongst all the people who have ever died?  Unless the afterlife is some kind of big, IRS-style bureaucracy, where each deceased person is assigned a tracking number upon arrival, so that they can all be located quickly if needed.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 12th century, St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And I hate to bring this up, but what if the terminally ill person arrives at the Pearly Gates, only to find that your loved one is sort of... not there?  I.e., they ended up in hell?  I have to admit, considering most of my relatives, that's a great deal more likely.  Does the courier then have the responsibility to have the message handed over to someone to make a downward delivery run?

Or does MySendOff pair up sinful dead people with sinful terminally ill people, so that the message goes the right direction to start with?

Of course, for me the main frustration would be that I don't so much want to deliver a message to my deceased loved ones, I'd much prefer to ask some questions, which means that I'd like answers, something for which MySendOff provides no guarantee.  I'd especially like to chat with my grandma, with whom I was very close as a kid.  There are all kinds of things I wish I'd asked while she was alive.  How did she meet my grandpa?  (My grandma was from rural southwestern Pennsylvania, my grandpa from southern Louisiana.  They met during World War I, and I'm sure there was a story there, but I never found out what it was.)  After my grandpa died, how did she meet the Dutch expat Catholic priest for whom she became the live-in housekeeper -- a job that lasted forty years until his death at age 86?  And, most importantly, what is her secret chocolate fudge recipe, which I have tried for thirty years to replicate without success?

But MySendOff has no provisions for two-way communication, which is a pity.  I mean, it'd be nice to tell my grandma that I miss her, but if there really is an afterlife, I'm sure she knows that.

So I'm not gonna pay five bucks a word to send her, or any other dead people, a message.  Seems a little steep, frankly.  I'll just wait until I die and can carry my own messages.  It'll be too late to use my grandma's chocolate fudge recipe, but at least we'll be able to have a nice chat about old times.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Killing public schools

One comment I hear every time budgets for public education are discussed is, "You can't fix the educational system by throwing money at it."

This pisses me off on a variety of levels.  First, there's the sense that funding public schools is randomly "throwing money," as if it's inherently irresponsible to provide adequate resources for educating the next generation of citizens.  Implicit in this is that schools will just waste the money anyhow, that school boards spend their time looking for frivolous ways to spend their state and federal funding.

The worst part, however, is that this convenient and glib little quip ignores the truth of a different adage: "You get what you pay for."  If you want to obtain and retain quality teachers, ensure that they have manageable class sizes that optimize student success, and give them the resources they need to deliver top-quality education, you have to pay for it.

And it's not like if you refuse to spend tax money to fund schools, then somehow the money magically stays in your pocket.  Taxpayers will pay either for supporting schools, or for the consequences of a generation of poorly-educated, disaffected young adults whose career choices are constrained by a lack of opportunities in public schools, or who have chosen to go to college and racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans that will take decades to repay.

All of which is why the proposed federal education budget is such a travesty.

The Washington Post calls this "Trump's education budget," which is a little doubtful, given that Trump gives every impression of having never written anything longer 140 characters, much less an actual budget proposal.  The specifics, honestly, have Betsy DeVos written all over them.  The Secretary of Education is a staunch believer in federal funding for private and religious schools -- which she refers to as "school choice" -- and for cutting damn near everything else to the bone.

Here are a few of the provisions of this proposal:
  • cutting a total of $10.6 billion from the overall budget for education
  • cutting funding for college work-study programs by half
  • cutting over a hundred million dollars from programs supporting mental health services and programs providing enrichment, honors, and advanced coursework in middle and high schools
  • ending a program to provide student loan forgiveness for college graduates who work in public service
  • cutting $168 million from grants to states for career and tech programs
  • cutting $72 million from programs for international education and foreign language training
  • cutting $12 million from funding for the Special Olympics
  • cutting $96 million from a program for adult literacy instruction
On the other hand, it:
  • expands support for charter schools and private and religious schools by $400 million
  • adds $1 billion to programs to push school districts to adopt "choice-friendly" policies
"It’s time for us to break out of the confines of the federal government’s arcane approach to education," DeVos said.  "Washington has been in the driver’s seat for over fifty years with very little to show for its efforts."

Betsy DeVos [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

DeVos, of course, is in no position to make that kind of judgment.  She has never worked in a public school, did not send her children to public school, and her main claim to fame, education-wise, is pushing a program in her home state of Wisconsin that funneled $2 billion to private and religious schools despite peer-reviewed studies showing that these programs do not work.  And the situation in Wisconsin is by no means unique -- other states have tried voucher systems, and by and large they have been a dismal flop.  Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times gives one example:
A study released last February by a team of researchers led by Jonathan Mills of Tulane University found that students in Louisiana’s expanded program lost ground in their first two years in the program.  Those performing at average levels in math and reading — that is, at about the 50th percentile — fell 24 percentile points in math and eight points in reading after their first year in the program.  In the second year, they improved slightly in math, though they still scored well below non-voucher students, and barely improved at all in reading.
So let's take those results, and make them national by mandate!  That'd be a great idea!

It doesn't take an expert to recognize the terrible effect that such a diversion of funds has on schools.  You'd think this would be enough for even the most diehard supporter of "school choice" to say, "Oh.  I guess I was wrong, then."

But no.  Data, facts, and evidence have no impact on a doctrinaire ideologue like DeVos, who honestly doesn't seem to give a damn if public schools fail.  In fact, if by her actions public schools do decline, in her mind it will just prove what she's claimed all along; that education in America is in a tailspin.

 Look, I've worked in education for thirty years.  It's not that I think we're perfect.  There's wastefulness, there is misspent money, and I have long decried the increasing focus on trivial content and preparation for standardized tests.  But the solution is not to cut funding to the bone.  Faced with revenue loss, public schools have only one real choice -- reducing staff.  Most of the rest of the line items in school budgets are earmarked or non-discretionary -- school boards have no choice in whether to include them.  The only big-ticket item that boards actually do have control over is salaries.  But since the salary per teacher is set contractually, there's only one option: lay people off.

Which means higher class sizes, cutting of electives, and loss of program.

Not that DeVos would ever admit this.  But look at the actual results of voucher programs and charter schools, nationwide -- not the spin that DeVos puts on it, but real numbers coming from studies such as the ones described by Hiltzik in The Los Angeles Times article linked above.

The conclusion is unequivocal.  And the budget being proposed will, if passed, be a death blow to the schools that can withstand it least -- poor, overcrowded, inner-city schools.

Remember that next time you see Betsy DeVos smile her smarmy smile and say that she's pro-child.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Attractive paranoia

I know two people who are major conspiracy theorists.

One of them believes he's being persecuted by the folks at his place of employment, that they're getting together and deliberately making his life difficult because "they all" disagree with his political and religious beliefs.  He seriously believes that the ordinary, average folks he works with are meeting in secret to try to find new and devious ways to make him miserable.

"Why would they do that?" I ask.  

"Because of who I am," he answers, with no apparent trace of irony.

The other one is more of a global conspiracy type -- there's this Shadow Government run by the CEOs of the Big Corporations, and they have Big Secret Plans for World Domination. (This guy always speaks in Capital Letters.)  He's a major fan of Zeitgeist, believes there are secret plans for a One World Government, thinks that the CIA is putting mind-control chemicals into jet fuel so we get zombified whenever there's a jet contrail, and thinks that there are Men in Black who make dissenters disappear.  Say the words "New World Order" in his presence, and he gets really serious, and looks around to see if anyone overheard.  And of course, when you point out that there's no evidence whatsoever for a Global Conspiracy, he just raises his eyebrow coyly and smiles, as if to say, "Of course there's no evidence.  You don't think they'd just leave evidence hanging around, do you?  These guys are good."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I'm willing to believe that the second guy has just watched too many episodes of The X Files, but it does make me wonder why conspiracy theories are so appealing.  As strange as it sounds, there's a certain attraction to paranoia.  People want there to be a huge master plan behind everything -- sinister or otherwise -- because, I think, it's more satisfying and reassuring that there is a plan.  It's a little disconcerting to think that the universe is just kinda random, that things happen because they happen, and most people are just helpless dorks with no more intentionality than billiard balls bouncing off each other.

I mean, I like The X Files as much as the next guy, but honestly I think the universe is much more like a cosmic Mr. Magoo episode.

In a recent interview in Vox, social psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen, of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, agrees.  "[Conspiracy theories are] a tool to explain reality," van Prooijen said.  "We can’t always know or understand everything that happens to us. When people are uncertain about change — when they lose their jobs, or when a terrorist strike or a natural disaster has occurred — then people have a tendency to want to understand what happened, and also a tendency to assume the worst. It’s a self-protective mechanism people have.  This combination of trying to make sense and assuming the worst often leads to conspiracy theories."

This means, van Prooijen said, that during unstable times, we should expect conspiracy theories to sprout up like mushroom after a rainstorm.  "They’re particularly likely to flourish in times of collective uncertainty in society. Particularly after high-profile incidents that imply a sudden change in society or a sudden change in reality in a threatening way.  Think 9/11, but also think of disease outbreaks [or] long-term threats like an economic crisis or climate change."

This means, too, that they're remarkably resistant to correction.  When the emotional piece is added, it makes people much more likely to dig their heels in than admit they were wrong.  And that's despite that fact that in general, most conspiracy theories are very likely to be wrong.

Robert Heinlein said, "Never attribute to conspiracy what can be equally well explained by stupidity."   I'd add to that that most people don't have the time or interest to conspire.  Conspiracy, after all, takes so much effort.  The first guy I mentioned -- the one thinks that his coworkers are out to get him -- would probably be appalled if he knew how little time and energy his coworkers actually spend thinking about him.  Sorry, buddy, you're not the victim of a conspiracy -- "who you are" is just not that important.  Most of your coworkers spend more time daily thinking about what to have for dinner that night than they do thinking about ways to make your life miserable.

Also, there's just the practical aspect of it.   Conspiracies are hard to manage, because face it, people like to gossip.  Plus, my own version of Murphy's Law is that the overall IQ and efficiency of a group is inversely proportional to the number of people in the group.  Our government isn't so much evil as it is ridiculous -- Congress as 535 Keystone Kops running about while "Yakety Sax" plays in the background, banging into each other, falling down, and having the occasional sex scandal and collusion with Russia, all overseen by President Magoo, whose job is to keep people believing the pleasant myth that his administration has got a handle on everything.

It's not that the government, or corporations, don't do bad things. They do -- sometimes really bad ones. But there's nothing more behind it than simple human greed and power-hungriness and dumbassery, with the occasional plot that is usually about as successful as Watergate. The rest of the world just keeps going on, doing what people do, and rolling our eyes at how absurd it all is.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Confirmation bias, false news, and The Palmer Report

I'm going to make another plea for something that I've requested before:


In these fractious times, it's easy to get your dander up and post, share, or retweet links about controversial stuff without double-checking their veracity.  And you should especially check your sources if you're inclined to agree with them.  Confirmation bias plagues us all, and we are all more likely to accept a claim uncritically if we already thought it was true.

This all comes up because of an article from Business Insider about The Palmer Report.  The Palmer Report is a strongly left-leaning news website run by one Bill Palmer, and has established itself as being about as reliable as Fox News in presenting verified, accurate information.

The Business Insider article describes an incident involving Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts.  Markey went on CNN and said, "Subpoenas have now been issued in northern Virginia with regard to [National Security Adviser Michael] Flynn and Gen. Flynn's associates. A grand jury has been impaneled up in New York."

This resulted in some puzzlement, as no one else seemed to have heard about the impaneling of a grand jury in New York, or anywhere else, for that matter.  Questioned about the claim, Markey identified the source of it as The Palmer Report.

Bill Palmer, apparently, made the claim up out of whole cloth.  But when this became obvious, did he back down, and say, "Oops, guess I was wrong"?

Of course not.  Websites like The Palmer Report have, as their motto, "Death Before Retraction."  Instead of addressing the apparent falsehood, Palmer responded with a dazzling display of circular reasoning and said by quoting The Palmer Report, Markey had "confirmed" that a grand jury had been appointed.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The site has kept Snopes busy lately.  Just in the last week, Snopes has debunked false or misleading claims from The Palmer Report including that James Comey sent out a malicious tweet about Donald Trump and the alleged "pee tape" after he was fired; that Donald Trump had said that "Americans have no right to protest;" and that Trump called up CBS after Stephen Colbert's anti-Trump diatribe and "got him fired."

All of these stories are false.  But they line up very much with what the left would like to be true, so they've all gone viral.

Palmer, for his part, is unapologetic.  "Anyone unfamiliar with my work shouldn't just take my word, or anyone else's word, on its validity," he wrote last year.  "My articles include supporting source links which allow readers to easily verify the facts in question, meaning there's nothing controversial about my reporting."

Believe me because I say it's true, in other words.  And why should you think I'm accurate?  Well, I just told you I was, dammit!

All of which brings up a rather unpleasant tendency; for the left to see all of the right's claims as unfounded supposition and their own as well-sourced, fact-based, virtually self-evident to anyone with a brain.  And vice versa, of course.  The truth is that everyone is prone to bias, and we need to evaluate stuff we agree with even more carefully because of the danger of accepting it without question.

And as far as The Palmer Report and the other purveyors of fake news out there, left and right; you are muddying the waters, stirring up conflict and dissent, and making the ugly polarization that is characterizing today's United States even worse.  I have no doubt you know this already, and suspect that you don't care much.  But I will add my own voice to others in saying: if you don't know that the claim you're making is true, shut the fuck up.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Who watches the watchers?

A nearly universal, and rather creepy, sensation is when you turn to look at a stranger -- and find that they were watching you.

This "feeling of being watched" is something we all have experienced from time to time.  I seem to notice it most when I'm driving on the freeway, and happen to glance at the car next to me.  I can remember many times when either the person in the next car was already looking at me -- or else, even creepier, they turn their head toward me at exactly the same time.

However odd this feels, I've always felt like there was a perfectly rational reason for this, and my sense was that it's yet another example of dart-thrower's bias -- the perfectly natural human tendency to pay more attention to (or overcount) the hits, and ignore (or undercount) the misses.

In this case, how many times do you glance at a car next to you on the freeway, and the person in the car is not looking at you?  We don't remember it precisely because it happens so often.  On the other hand, on those rare occasions where someone is looking at us, it stands out -- and is given more weight in our memories.

"Uhhh... did you ever have the feeling that you was bein' watched?"

There's another possible explanation, however, and it has to do with an oddity of our perceptual systems only recently discovered because of a peculiar disorder called "blindsight," in which an individual is functionally blind, but can still perceive some visual stimuli.

Blindsight occurs when a person's visual cortex is damaged, usually by a stroke, but his/her eyes and optic nerve are still intact.  In a dramatic study led by Alan J. Pegna of Geneva University Hospital (Switzerland), it was found that although they are unresponsive to most visual stimuli, people with blindsight still exhibit visual phenomena like "emotional contagion" -- the tendency of people to match the emotions of faces they're looking at.

Apparently, this happens because the information from the eyes does not just travel to the visual cortex, it goes to a variety of other places in the brain, including the limbic system, which is the seat of emotion.  So a person might be able to match the smile in a photograph of a smiling person -- while not, technically, being able to see the photograph.

Pegna's study showed that not only are people with blindsight able to detect the emotion in a face they are (not) seeing, they can also tell when someone is looking at them.  Scanning results of a patient with blindsight showed increased activity in the amygdala -- the part of the limbic system that controls anxiety and fear -- when he was being watched.

So the conjecture is that there may be something more to the sensation of being watched than simple dart-thrower's bias.  It might be that when someone in our peripheral visual field is watching us, it doesn't register in our conscious awareness (through the visual cortex), but our nervous and ever-watchful amygdala still knows what's going on.  And since the limbic system largely functions subconsciously, it feels as if we had some kind of psychic awareness of something we didn't actually see.

Meaning that once again, we have a rational explanation (two, actually) of something that seems like it must be paranormal.  In other words: science wins again.  I have to wonder if something like this might be responsible for some other perceptual oddities, such as déjà vu, about which I have been curious for years but never seen a particularly convincing explanation.

In any case, it's something to keep in mind, for next time you're in a crowded restaurant and you see someone across the room staring at you.  It could be that your amygdala just went onto red alert.  It could also be that people are looking at you because you're drop-dead sexy.  You're welcome to go with whichever explanation you prefer.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The geography of belief

When I first read Richard Dawkins's fiery and controversial diatribe The God Delusion, one of the points he made that struck me the most strongly is that religion is for the most part dependent not on its adherents choosing a particular schema of belief because of its appeal or its inherent logic, but because of simple geography.  Dawkins writes:
If you are religious at all it is overwhelmingly probable that your religion is that of your parents.  If you were born in Arkansas and you think Christianity is true and Islam false, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you had been born in Afghanistan, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination.
Dawkins's point is that this is a strong indicator that specific religions are held by their followers not because of choice, but primarily because of cultural and familial traditions.  There are adult converts, of course, who are choosing a belief system, but most people who are religious belong to the dominant faith in the place where they live.  (In fact, a Pew Research poll just released last week estimates the percentage of Christians who are in the faith because of conversion as adults as less than 6%.)  In other words, for most religious people, they believe it's true not because they were convinced by the evidence, but because it's what they were told by the people around them when they were children.

And now, a team led by Matthew Feinberg of the University of Toronto and Alexa M. Tulett of the University of Alabama has shown that the same thing is true of political beliefs.

In a paper in PLOS-One called "The Political Reference Point: How Geography Shapes Political Identity," Feinberg et al. looked at the spectrum of political stances regionally, and whether geography correlates with not only party affiliation but how terms like "conservative" and "liberal" are defined.  The authors write:
It is commonly assumed that how individuals identify on the political spectrum–whether liberal, conservative, or moderate–has a universal meaning when it comes to policy stances and voting behavior.  But, does political identity mean the same thing from place to place?  Using data collected from across the U.S. we find that even when people share the same political identity, those in “bluer” locations are more likely to support left-leaning policies and vote for Democratic candidates than those in “redder” locations.  Because the meaning of political identity is inconsistent across locations, individuals who share the same political identity sometimes espouse opposing policy stances.  Meanwhile, those with opposing identities sometimes endorse identical policy stances.  Such findings suggest that researchers, campaigners, and pollsters must use caution when extrapolating policy preferences and voting behavior from political identity, and that animosity toward the other end of the political spectrum is sometimes misplaced.
Which makes it all the more interesting how fervently people believe they're correct on political matters.  Just as with religion, a person in rural Kansas who grew up staunchly conservative would likely have grown up liberal had he been raised in San Francisco.

The problem with this argument, though, is that this doesn't fix the problem that most people see their own beliefs as based on sound, well-considered thought, and everyone else's as based on indoctrination.  Instead of recognizing that all of us are more a product of our regional culture than of any kind of systematic examination of our own moral, ethical, and political matrix, it's easier (and on a lot of levels, more comforting) for the rural Kansas conservative to say, "Of course if I was raised in San Francisco I'd be liberal.  I'd have been brainwashed by the damn left wing Democrats before I had a chance to form my own opinions."  (And vice versa, of course.)

So I'm not sure where the research of Feinberg et al., and even the observations of Dawkins about religion, get us.  All of us still tend to cling like mad to our own preconceived notions (and I am very definitely including myself in that "all of us").  But if this line of thought can persuade some of us to re-examine our beliefs, and consider the extent to which we were shaped not by evidence, logic, or rational argument but by geography and family influences, it might be a first step toward not only helping us to think as clearly as possible, but understanding those of us whose beliefs differ from ours.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Unwinding the spell

If there's one thing I understand least about the whole sad spectacle of the Trump administration, it's the fact of his being embraced so warmly (and staunchly) by evangelical Christians.

Okay, I see how they'd have been put off by Hillary Clinton's pro-choice stance.  That, for many of them, is a real non-negotiable.  But most of these people are the same ones who call themselves "values voters" -- who, for example, pitched a fit when Bill Clinton got a blowjob while in office.  And somehow, these same people are able to look past Trump's serial adultery, admissions of sexual harassment if not outright rape, continual lying, and unwavering focus on money (the love of which, I seem to recall, the bible calls "the root of all evil").

In fact, they are able to look past all of this so much that just last week, Trump was the commencement speaker at Liberty University, which shares with Bob Jones University the moniker "The Buckle on the Bible Belt."  Liberty University was founded by Reverend Jerry Falwell, who also founded the Moral Majority back in the late 70s, and it's run today by Falwell's son, Jerry Jr. -- who called Trump "a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again."

So Trump gave a speech that talked up how wonderful and religious he was, and how he'd Make America Great Again, conveniently glossing over the current horrific chaos he's led our government into during the last few weeks.  Here is an excerpt:
Be totally unafraid to challenge entrenched interests and failed power structures.  Does that sound familiar, by the way?  Relish the opportunity to be an outsider.  Embrace that label.  Being an outsider is fine.  Embrace the label, because it’s the outsiders who change the world and who make a real and lasting difference.  The more that a broken system tells you that you’re wrong, the more certain you should be that you must keep pushing ahead...  As long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what is in your heart...  In America, we don’t worship government.  We worship God.
At this point, I'd have leaped up and shouted, "Define we, buster!"  But apparently most of the Liberty University graduates simply smiled and nodded -- in fact, one of them commented afterwards that Trump had given a "kickass speech."

Not everyone was so positive, however.  Twitter erupted in a storm of tweets, many of them from Christians who are outraged by the fact that a man whose most outstanding characteristic is embodying all Seven Deadly Sins in one person has somehow become a spokesperson for the political arm of evangelical Christianity.

Here are a few of the most acerbic comments:
  • Funny that Trump is speaking at Liberty University, a religious institute of higher education, since he is neither religious nor educated.
  • "Trump’s ‘Christian faith" is the worst of his lies.  There isn’t a shred of Christ in him.  Liberty University should call him out, not welcome him.
  • Trump speaking at Liberty University — two words his very existence shits on.
  • In Trump's Liberty University commencement speech, he'll explain how to grab 'em by the cat parts and then become president.
  • With Trump University and Liberty University degrees, you can be a preacher with a casino and three wives and date your daughter.
  • Trump at Liberty University: Lie, lie, lie until you succeed.
Which is it exactly.  The only conclusion I can come to is that people like Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Jim Bakker, and Ralph Reed are supporting Trump for one reason and one reason only; they're rich, powerful men, and under a Trump presidency they're convinced they'll become richer and more powerful.  In other words, they don't give a rat's ass for values or morals, and never have.  All they care about is expanding their own empires, and they believe that hitching their wagon to Donald Trump will further that aim.

Which is kind of pathetic, because it means that they share another characteristic with Trump: the capacity for bald-faced lies.  They have their congregations, followers, and listeners hoodwinked into thinking that they are actually committed to moral behavior.  And somehow, they've succeeded in that deception, given the fortunes they've amassed (mostly due to contributions from their flock), and the power they wield in the religious world.

Lie, lie, lie until you succeed.  The same as Trump himself.

I keep hoping that the truly moral Christians -- which, I believe, are the vast majority -- will wake up and recognize the man they're following for the egomaniacal, sociopathic narcissist he actually is.  But there, we have the sunk-cost fallacy working against us; so many of them have put so much time and effort into supporting Trump and seeing that he got elected president, that to backpedal now would be agonizing.  

But I don't see any other way that our nation can get out of the slow-motion train wreck it's currently involved in.

The whole thing puts me in mind of a quote from C. S. Lewis, from his book The Great Divorce:
I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road.  A sum can be put right: but only by going back til you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.  Evil can be undone, but it cannot 'develop' into good.  Time does not heal it.  The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, 'with backward mutters of dissevering power' -- or else not.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A tincture of madness

As a fiction writer, I have an understandable interest in the neuroscience of creativity.  It's a difficult field to study; getting people to be creative while simultaneously scanning their brains can be tricky.

Now, five researchers at Johns Hopkins have been able to do just that.  A recent paper in Nature by
Malinda J. McPherson, Frederick S. Barrett, Monica Lopez-Gonzalez, Patpong Jiradejvong, and Charles J. Limb entitled "Emotional Intent Modulates The Neural Substrates Of Creativity: An fMRI Study of Emotionally Targeted Improvisation in Jazz Musicians" has shown that creativity requires the interaction between several disparate regions of the brain -- including the ones connected with both negative and positive emotions.

What the researchers did is to take twelve jazz pianists and instruct them to improvise a piece based on emotional cues they got from a photograph of a woman with either a happy, neutral, or sad expression.  They then played their piece while in a fMRI machine, thus giving the scientists a view of what was happening in their brains as they created.

The researchers found there was a distinct difference in the patterns of brain activation depending upon the emotional content of the music the pianists were creating.  The authors write:
[T]his study shows that the impulse to create emotionally expressive music may have a basic neural origin: emotion modulates the neural systems involved in creativity, allowing musicians to engage limbic centers of their brain and enter flow states.  The human urge to express emotions through art may derive from these widespread changes in limbic, reward, and prefrontal areas during emotional expression.  Within jazz improvisation, certain emotional states may open musicians to deeper flow states or more robust stimulation of reward centers.  The creative expression of emotion through music may involve more complex mechanisms by which the brain processes emotions, in comparison to perception of emotion alone. 
More darkly, there's long been a supposed connection between being highly creative and being mentally ill.  The list of individuals who were both is a long one. Ernest Hemingway, Georgia O'Keeffe, Hermann Hesse, Maurice Ravel, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe, Jackson Pollock, Cole Porter, Vincent van Gogh, and Robert Schumann all suffered from varying degrees of mental problems, most of them from clinical depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder.  More than one of these spent the last years of life in a mental institution, and more than one committed suicide.

"The only difference between myself and a madman," Salvador Dalí famously quipped, "is that I am not mad."  Two thousand years earlier, the Roman writer Seneca said, "There is no genius without a tincture of madness."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This, too, has been studied from a neuroscience perspective. A Swedish researcher has demonstrated that Seneca was right; there is a fundamental connection between creativity and mental illness.   Fredrik Ullén, of the Karolinska Institutet of Stockholm, found a significant connection between creativity and the dopamine (pleasure/reward) system in the brain, which is the same system that is implicated in several forms of mental illness, including schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and tendency to addiction.

Ullén administered a test that was designed to measure a subject's capacity for creative thinking -- for developing more than one solution to the same problem, or using non-linear solution methods to arrive at an answer.  He then analyzed the brain activity of the individuals who scored the highest, and found that across the board, they had lower amounts of dopamine receptors in a part of the brain called the thalamus -- one of the main "switchboards" in the higher brain, and responsible for sorting and processing sensory stimuli.

The implication is that creative people don't have as rigid a sorting mechanism as other, less creative people -- that having a built-in deficiency in your relay system may help you to arrive at solutions to problems that others might not have seen.

The connection between the thalamus, creativity, and sorting issues is supported by a different bit of brain research that found that a miswiring of the thalamus is implicated in another bizarre mental disorder, called synesthesia.  In synesthesia, signals from the sensory organs are misrouted to the incorrect interpretive centers in the cerebrum, and an auditory signal (for example) might be received in the visual cortex.  As a result, you would "see sounds."  Other senses can be crosswired, however -- the seminal study of the disorder is described in Richard Cytowic's book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes.

Synesthsia is apparently also much more common among the creative.  Alexander Scriabin, the early 20th century Russian composer, wrote his music as much from how it looked to him as how it sounded.  He describes a sensation of color being overlaid on what he was actually seeing when he heard specific combinations of notes.  The colors were consistent; C# minor, for example, was always green, Eb major always magenta.  And although Alexander Scriabin's synesthesia was perhaps the most intense, he is not the only composer who was synesthetic; the evidence is strong that Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Olivier Messaien also had this same miswiring.

The study by Ullén seems to point toward connecting these physiological manifestations with the phenomenon of creativity itself.  "Thinking outside the box," Ullén said, "may be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box."

So the whole thing is, as you might expect, quite complex.  Creativity, apparently, involves not only the interaction between emotional and cognitive regions of the brain, but between separate cognitive and perceptual modules.  The next time someone asks me where I get the ideas for my novels, however, I'm not sure I want to go into all of this.  I'll probably just stick with my tried-and-true response, which is to smile and say, "I was dropped on my head as an infant."