Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Cats and quakes

I ran across two stories yesterday that fall squarely into the "You People Do Realize You Have Bigger Problems To Worry About, Right?" department.

In the first, we have a senior Saudi cleric who has issued a fatwa on people taking selfies with cats.  Well, not just with cats.  Also with wolves.  But since cat selfies are way more common than wolf selfies (more's the pity), I can see why he specifically mentioned the cats.

The subject came up because of a question asked at a talk that Sheikh Saleh Bin Fawzan Al-Fawzan was giving, in which someone asked about a "new trend of taking pictures with cats which has been spreading among people who want to be like westerners."  Al-Fazwan was aghast.

"What?" he asked.  "What do you mean, pictures with cats?"

Because that's evidently an ambiguous phrase, or something.  Maybe it has subtleties in Arabic I don't know about.

So the questioner clarified, and after he got over his outrage, Al-Fazwan gave his declaration.  "Taking pictures is prohibited," he said.  "The cats don't matter here."

Which is kind of odd, given that he was being filmed at the time.  But rationality has never been these people's strong suit.

"Taking pictures is prohibited if not for a necessity," Al-Fazwan went on to say.  "Not with cats, not with dogs, not with wolves, not with anything."

Wipe that smirk off your face, young lady.  Allah does not approve of you and Mr. Whiskers.

So alrighty, then.  Now that we've got that settled, let's turn to another thing we had a prominent Muslim cleric worrying about, which was: gay sex.

Of course, gay sex seems to be on these people's minds a lot, and also on the minds of their siblings-under-the-skin the Christian evangelicals.  But this time, the cleric in question, Mallam Abass Mahmud of Ghana, has said that the practice is not only prohibited because it's naughty in Allah's sight (although it certainly is that as well), but because it causes...

... earthquakes.

"Allah gets annoyed when males engage in sexual encounter," Mahmud said in an interview, then went on to add, "Such disgusting encounter causes earthquakes."

As an example, he says that this is why Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.  Although as I recall from my reading of Genesis chapter 19, it wasn't an earthquake in that case, but having "fire and brimstone rained down upon them... so that the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace."  But I guess since gays are apparently the most powerful force of nature known, there's no reason why they couldn't also cause a volcanic eruption or something.

On the other hand, if gays having sex is causing the ground to shake, they must really be enjoying themselves.  I don't know whether to feel scared or jealous.

What crosses my mind with all of this is that there are a few more urgent concerns in the Muslim world than worrying about cat selfies and two guys making love.  Human rights, tribalism, poverty, wealth inequity, corruption, terrorism, radical insurgencies, drought.  To name a few.  You have to wonder if focusing their followers on nonsense is simply a way of keeping the hoi polloi from realizing what a horror much of the Middle East has become under the leadership of people like this.

And given the reactions they got -- which, as far as I can tell, was mostly nodding in agreement -- it appears to be working.  So if you go to Saudi Arabia or Ghana, just remember: no kitty selfies or gay sex.  Or, Allah forfend, you and your gay lover having sex then celebrating by taking a photograph of the two of you with your cat.  That'd probably just cause the Earth to explode or fall into the Sun or something.

Friday, May 27, 2016

A win for sanity

Earlier this year, I did a post lamenting the fact that a woman who is apparently insane was running for a position on the Texas State Board of Education, and (at the time of the post) had the support of 50% of the voters polled.

Her name is Mary Lou Bruner, and she gives every evidence of being a few fries short of a Happy Meal.  She claimed that President Obama was addicted to drugs and financed his college tuition by being a male prostitute.  She blamed the JFK assassination on the Bad Guys "not wanting a conservative president."  She thinks the dinosaurs went extinct because there wasn't enough vegetation for them to eat after the biblical Great Flood.  She said that climate change was dreamed up by Karl Marx.  She thinks that Obamacare is going to mandate forced euthanasia of the unfit.

Last but not least, she said that school shootings are caused by the teaching of evolution.

For the record, I'm not making any of this up, and the actual quotes (should you wish to risk injury from repeated headdesks) are in my original post.  And despite her evidently having a screw loose, she had serious support amongst the voters in Texas.  Unsurprising, given that this is the same state that approved history textbooks that had passages claiming that the Africans brought over in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries weren't slaves, they were "guest workers" who had been "brought in to work on agricultural plantations."

So I was feeling pretty pessimistic about the whole thing.  This is why it was with combined surprise and delight that I learned yesterday that Bruner was resoundingly defeated in the runoff election by Keven M. Ellis, the president of the Lufkin School District school board.

"The voters did their homework," Ellis said in his victory speech, which is a phrase I'd definitely like to hear more often.

A spokesperson for the Texas Freedom Network, which has been vociferous in their criticism of Bruner, was less circumspect.  "Texas escaped an education train wreck tonight."

You have to admit, though, she looks mighty good wrapped in an American flag.

What I find interesting is that even Tea Party stalwart Grassroots America, which had backed Bruner initially, withdrew their support the week before the election.  Grassroots America has typically supported candidates who advocate for bringing religion into public schools, mandating the teaching of creationism and/or intelligent design, and excising any mention of climate change from science curricula.  But apparently, Bruner was too loony even for Grassroots America to support, and they quietly pulled their endorsement.  Spokesperson Jo Ann Fleming said that the move was made because of "inaccurate oral and written statements Ms. Bruner made in a meeting with superintendents."

Because evidently calling the president a gay drug-addicted prostitute isn't sufficiently crazy.

Anyhow, the good news is that children in Texas have been issued a reprieve.  I was certain she was going to win, and I've never been so glad to be wrong.

Now, if only the voters will apply the same kind of careful consideration to the elections this November.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fact-free zone

It's a theme that has cropped up over and over here at Skeptophilia; the fact that people spend a lot more time reacting from emotion than they do from rational thinking.

But the fact of its being familiar doesn't mean it's not maddening.  Which is why I responded to a recent paper that appeared in Perspectives on Psychological Science a couple of days ago with a wince and a facepalm.

Entitled "Evidence for Absolute Moral Opposition to Genetically Modified Food in the United States," and written by Sydney E. Scott and Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania and Yoel Inbar of the University of Toronto, the paper had the following depressing conclusion:
Public opposition to genetic modification (GM) technology in the food domain is widespread (Frewer et al., 2013).  In a survey of U.S. residents representative of the population on gender, age, and income, 64% opposed GM, and 71% of GM opponents (45% of the entire sample) were “absolutely” opposed—that is, they agreed that GM should be prohibited no matter the risks and benefits.  “Absolutist” opponents were more disgust sensitive in general and more disgusted by the consumption of genetically modified food than were non-absolutist opponents or supporters.  Furthermore, disgust predicted support for legal restrictions on genetically modified foods, even after controlling for explicit risk–benefit assessments.  This research suggests that many opponents are evidence insensitive and will not be influenced by arguments about risks and benefits.
Catch that?  45% of the people surveyed think that GMOs should be illegal regardless of the risks or benefits.  In other words, regardless of the evidence.  Apparently, a little under half of the respondents could be presented with persuasive evidence that GMOs are risk-free and have proven benefits, and they still would be against them.


It's a discouraging finding.  There are a great many issues facing us today that drive an urgent need to make smart decisions.  We need to be making those decisions based on facts and logic, not on knee-jerk gut response and inflammatory rhetoric.  Climate change, policy on vaccines, regulation of alternative medicine, even the oversight of public education -- how can we do what's right if we're making decisions irrespective of the facts?

Of course, part of the problem is that even people with access to the facts often don't know the facts.  Witness the study released last week in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology that showed that 80% of respondents wanted to have laws mandating labeling identifying all foods that contain DNA.

Yes, you read that right.  Not genetically modified DNA; DNA, period.  To make it even worse, 33% of the respondents thought that non-genetically-modified tomatoes "did not contain genes," and 32% thought that "vegetables do not contain DNA."  As Katherine Mangu-Ward put it over at Reason.com, "When it comes to genetically modified food, people don't know much, they don't know what they don't know, and they sure as heck aren't letting that stop them from having strong opinions."

The problem is, the people who shriek the loudest tend to be the ones with the least comprehension of science.  Senator James Inhofe, who for some baffling reason is the chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, thinks that holding up a snowball disproves anthopogenic climate change.  The alt-med/anti-vaccine crowd still believe Andrew Wakefield's discredited study linking vaccinations to autism, despite overwhelming research demonstrating that there is no connection -- and anyone who argues otherwise is said to be "a shill for Big Pharma."  (Makes me wonder when my first Shill Check is going to arrive.  Soon, I hope.  I could use the money.)

Only rarely does anyone look at the evidence and say, "Oh.  Okay.  I guess I was wrong, then."  And the paper by Scott et al. seems to support the contention that if I'm waiting for this to happen, I better not be holding my breath.

Of course, along with resistance to change, another natural human inclination is the whole "Hope Springs Eternal" phenomenon.  So I'm not giving up on blogging, at least not any time soon.  Despite the rather dismal conclusion of the recent research, I'm still hopeful that we can make change, incrementally, by picking away wherever we can.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Thoughts on a drive-by

Note to the guy who roared past me this afternoon as I was out on a run, yelled, "Faggot!  Put a shirt on!", and threw a half-full can of soda at my head:

First, about the epithet.  That's a word that has been hurled at me many times before, starting with the cretins in the locker room in eighth grade, despite their having no information whatsoever about my sexual orientation.  Not that they cared, I suspect.  The mere fact of my being tall and thin, and caring more about playing music and writing stories than I did about football, made me suspect in their eyes.  I was called that, and equivalent words, with clock-like regularity throughout high school and even into college, by people who evidently thought their mission was to make others' lives as powerless and miserable as possible.

I didn't defend myself against the claim then, and I'm not going to do it now.  Back in my public school days, arguing the point would have simply brought more negative attention my way, not to mention being futile.  Now, however, my reasoning is different.  If the gentleman in the jacked-up pickup truck had stopped to discuss the matter with me, I would have just shrugged my shoulders and said, "Why does my sexual orientation make a difference to you?"  I'm not going to defend myself against an accusation that isn't shameful either way, and is, frankly, no one's business but my own and my significant other's.

Second, I run shirtless when the weather's warm because I like to.  Why that is a problem I have no idea.  One of the simple pleasures of our short summer here in upstate New York is the feel of the sun and wind on my skin, and I'll be damned if I'll forgo that because you think I'm too old, too skinny, or too whatever.  At 55, I finally have reached a point where I'm not ashamed of the body I was gifted by my genetics, and I'm not going to let the snarling of a neanderthal whose IQ matches his hat size shove me back down into self-loathing.  Spent too long there already, and never intend to go back, thanks.

Somehow, I think Mr. Rogers would be on my side in this matter.

The upshot of it all is actually kind of empowering; the startling discovery that you, and people like you, can't hurt me any more.  I have no need of your approval.  I don't care if you think I'm ugly, skinny, gay, or all of the above.  I wish I'd realized all this forty years ago, but we all move at our own pace.

And in the end, all you did is to put a damper on a single afternoon's run.  Tomorrow morning, I'll wake up and I'll be fine.  I'm still going to run, still going to shed the shirt when I feel like it, and still enjoy being outdoors in the sunshine.

You, on the other hand, will wake up tomorrow morning, and still be an asshole.  So on the whole, I believe this means that you lose.

So would David Bowie.

Oh, and finally: your aim sucks.  You missed me with the soda can by about fifteen feet.  I picked up the can, and I'm going to return it to the redemption center and get your five cents' deposit.  Have a nice day.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Signs of the times

I'll be right up front with you.  I have no idea what to do about the problem of immigration, illegal and otherwise.  In my admittedly rather apolitical brain, this whole issue seems so intractably complicated as to admit no reasonable solution at all.

Do I feel sorry for the immigrants, most of whom are coming from corrupt countries with horrific standards of living, with no access to medical care, decent housing, clean food and water, and education for their children?  Of course I do.  In their place, I'd almost certainly be trying to get out, too, whatever the risk or the cost.  However, I also recognize that illegal immigration is... well, illegal.  And if it's against the law, we should either enforce it or else change it.

I also sympathize with the concerns of a birdwatcher/naturalist friend of mine who lives in Sierra Vista, Arizona, only fifteen miles from the Mexican border, who says, "We're being overrun.  This used to be a safe community, but the people trucking the illegals across the border are criminals, pure and simple.  Many of them run drugs and guns along with their human traffic.  I love this place, but not a day goes by that I don't think of getting out, moving further north."

I understand as well the concerns of people who see their culture changing more in a decade than it had in the preceding two hundred years.  This is especially striking in western Europe, where the influx of Muslims has led to some areas coming under something very close to Shari'a law -- people drinking alcohol, women dressed "immodestly," couples displaying affection, anyone showing signs of being homosexual have been harassed, and in some cases, assaulted.

Yes, I know that those incidents aren't as common as the media coverage would lead you to believe, and that for every clash there are thousands of white Europeans and Muslims living side by side in peace.  All I'm saying is that I can see where the fear comes from.

Unfortunately, we humans have a bad tendency, which is to pretend that impossibly complex problems have easy solutions.  "Build a wall."  "Deport 'em all."  "Seal the borders."  And as tempers get high, the rhetoric on both sides becomes increasingly vitriolic -- to the point that desperation sets in, and people are willing to lie to hammer their point home.

The whole thing comes up because of some photographs of street signs in England that have been making the rounds of social media in the last few weeks.  I've seen three so far:




The photos are usually accompanied by a hysterical caption to the effect that them Mooslims are infiltrating everything, to the point that even the street signs have to be captioned in Arabic.  And because the idea here is to engage the emotions and disengage the brain, the response has been uniformly horrifying, condemning the government officials who agreed to the sign change, railing against the immigrants who pushed for its necessity.

The problem is (well, one of the problems is) that the signs are photoshopped.  Put more bluntly, the claim is a bald-faced lie.  How do I know?  Well, a couple of reasons.  First, the Arabic script below the signs doesn't spell out the names of the towns; it's pretty clear that whoever Photoshopped these simply grabbed whatever Arabic text they could find and spliced it in.

In fact, not only does the Arabic below "Harrogate" not say "Harrogate," it says "salaam alaikum."  Which, you have to admit, would be an odd thing to put on a street sign.

Some of the people who have been forwarding the photographs around have further muddied the waters by claiming that the script is Urdu, presumably to stir up sentiment against Pakistanis.  It's not Urdu, it is (as I mentioned earlier) Arabic.  Not that facts seem to matter much, here.

Most damning of all, the photos themselves are simply downloads from Google Street View, and in the originals, the signs have no Arabic subtitles.  Take a look, for example, at the original of the top photograph:


This is clearly the same photograph -- the intrepid Photoshopper simply cropped it and spliced in the Arabic text.  In fact, if you look closely, you'll see that even the clouds are in exactly the same position in the two photographs.

What appalls me most about this is not that some hate-mongering bigot lied.  Hate-mongering bigots tend to do that, after all.  What appalls me most is how easily people fell for it.  We have become so terrified of The Other that when presented with further evidence of a takeover, we don't even stop to consider whether it makes any sense.  We swallow what we're given, and it further bolsters the fear, further squelches the rationality.

It'd be nice if we had answers, if these horrible problems our world is facing did have simple solutions.  The harsh fact, however, is that if they have solutions at all, they will be ones that are costly and require sacrifices.  But one thing I am certain of: your position is never strengthened by lying.  And to the people who are circulating these photographs, just stop.  What you're doing is making an already awful situation worse.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Crowdfunding the scientific method

As a skeptic, I'm all for testing claims.  That's what the scientific method is all about.  You think you have an idea about how some physical process works?  Design an experiment, collect some data, and see if you can support your hypothesis.

Which is the approach that businessman Paul Salo is taking...

... with respect to whether or not a jet collision could have collapsed the Twin Towers.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I kid you not.  This guy wants to recreate the World Trade Center disaster, in the name of science, to test the conspiracy theorists' claim that 9/11 was caused by explosives planted in the building, not the jet collisions.  So he's started an IndieGoGo campaign to raise money.  Here's how he describes his project:
Many people want to know more about 9-11.  We are like a Mythbusters for September 11th.  It's an important project for many reasons.  Many people doubt various details of 9-11. As the world has changed our trust in government and media has declined significantly.  We want to see for ourselves.  We don't need people to guide our thinking. In this project we will recreate 9-11 to the best of our ability given the funds raised.  Our ultimate goal is a fully loaded 767 and a similar structure to the WTC.  We will crash the fully loaded (with fuel) plane (complete with black box) into the building using autopilot at 500 MPH... 
You can be a part of this.  How will it end up?  Will the plane disintegrate?  Will the black box disappear?  Will the out of date passports we scatter in the plane survive?  You will see it all.  We aren't trying to prove anything either way.  We will recreate the event and let the chips fall where they may.
Which, I suppose, is approaching things the right way.  It only raises a couple of teeny little problems, though: in order to recreate 9/11, you need to purchase, and then destroy, a 767 jumbo jet and a 110-story-tall skyscraper.  Also, given that most skyscrapers are in cities, you have to be willing to smash an airplane into a building in the middle of (for example) downtown Newark.

Or, more accurately, the people who run Newark have to be willing.  Which I have a hard time imagining, even considering that it's Newark we're talking about.

Salo and his team are aware at least of the financial repercussions of his proposal:
We need about $1,500,000 to purchase the plane and building and to pull this complex event off.  The fuel alone is over $100,000!  I'll document everything on 911redux.com and you will be on our newsletter and have full access to our weekly webinar updates.
I'm pleased to report that so far, Salo has received $105 in donations.  Off to the races!  Only $1,499,895 to go!

He's pretty optimistic about the whole thing, although he did admit that there's a possibility that he won't meet his goal.  Undaunted, he says that if he doesn't, he will simply "purchase a smaller plane and building."

Notwithstanding that he is raising cockeyed optimism to unprecedented heights, I can't fault his general approach.  You want to understand something, you design a way to find out.  Crowdfunding is uniquely suited to this type of thing, even if his goal does seem a little pie-in-the-sky.

And his experiment also has the other appeal of Mythbusters: the pure joy of watching things explode.  If Salo really can run this test (even with "a smaller plane and building"), I would watch the hell out of this.  So I wish him the best of luck.  Although if he does succeed, I would caution him against moving on to bigger and better things.  Recreating the eruption of Mount St. Helens, for example, would probably not end well.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Holy genome, Batman!

In yesterday's post, we learned that the bible predicts that Babylon is the United States, and therefore we're all doomed.  A loyal reader of Skeptophilia read this and responded with an email that said, "I see your End Times prophecies, and raise you God's word showing up in your DNA."

He included a link to a site called Gostica: The Spiritual Path, in particular a post called "The Scientists Are Shocked: First Scientific Proof of God Found."  And in it, we hear that passages from the bible have shown up...

...in the genetic code.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I'm not making this up.  I would strongly recommend your taking a look at the actual site, but not while you're drinking anything, because I will not be responsible for coffee sprayed all over your computer screen.

The fun starts, in fact, with the very first phrase of the first sentence: "Linguistic professors at Bob Jones University, long noted for its intellectual rigor..."

Intellectual rigor?  The school that has been nicknamed "The Buckle on the Bible Belt?"  The school whose biology program description states, "One of the benefits of studying biology at BJU is that you’ll get a top-notch science education from a thoroughly Christian perspective.  In addition to strengthening your faith in the reliability of the Bible, this perspective will also help prepare you to understand modern secular interpretations of science and apply a biblical worldview to them."?

The school whose behavior code explicitly forbids its students to wear denim skirts, have "fauxhawks," access an "unfiltered internet," or listen to "Rock, Pop, Country, Jazz, Electronic/ Techno, Rap/Hip Hop or the fusion of any of these genres"?

And in any case, who the hell wears denim skirts anymore?

But I digress.

So the "intellectually rigorous scientists" from Bob Jones University started looking at pieces of DNA, including "transposons and retrotransposons" (Ooh!  Big words!), and this is what they found:
[They] began to attempt to translate the decoded segments that W.I.T. was providing. The structure was notably and demonstrably human in nature.  The coding language found, which utilized sequences of twenty-eight independent values, fell easily into the incidence range of known alphabets.  Sequences of independent connected values likewise mirrored the structure of word composition in human languages.  The Linguistic and Philology team at Bob Jones began an extensive comparison of the quizzical script found in the “Junk DNA” with the catalog of every recorded human language; hoping to find similar lingual threads so that they could begin to formulate translations of the message laying hidden in the DNA.  Professors were rocked with sheer awe when they found that one existent language, and one language alone, was a direct translatable match for the sequential DNA strands.
And guess what that language was, and what it said?  You'll never guess.
The Language in the “Junk DNA”, the DNA that scientists had for years discarded as useless, was indistinguishable from ancient Aramaic.  Even more amazingly, as linguists started to translate the code within the human genome, they found that parts of the script it contained were at times remarkably close in composition to verse found in the bible. And at times contained direct biblical quotes. 
On the human gene PYGB, Phosporomylase Glycogen, a non-coding transposon, holds a linguistic sequence that translates as “At first break of day, God formed sky and land.”  This bears a stunning similarity to Gen 1:1 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  Gene Bmp3 has a Retrotransposon sequence which translates to the well-known 1 Cor 6:19 “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own.”  This is repeated over and over throughout the entire sequence of human DNA: embedded equivalent genetic code of ancient Aramaic that seems to translate as the word of god to his people.
Righty-o.  Where do I start?

The first problem with this is that the "language" of DNA is composed of four letters (nitrogenous bases), A (adenine), G (guanine), C (cytosine), and T (thymine).  Perhaps what god is saying is something like "ACT TAG CAT GAG GAG GAG," although to my ears that sounds more like a pronouncement from Bill the Cat than it does like something the Divine Creator might say.  In any case, it's not really possible to spell out English using the DNA alphabet, much less ancient Aramaic.  Even if you make the allowance that maybe the "linguists" were using some kind of correspondence between the letters in Aramaic and the amino acid sequence coded for by a gene, you still only have twenty letters, not 28 as the article claims.

So what the amazingly rigorous researchers at BJU seem good at is making shit up and then lying to the media about it.  But this didn't stop them from shouting their findings from the rooftops:
Matthew Boulder, chief linguist for the project and professor of applied creation sciences at Bob Jones University, issued this statement: “As for the evidence- it is there and it is, to my view, undeniable.  The very word of God, elegantly weaved in and out of our very bodies and souls, as plain as day.  And the beauty of it, that God would lay down the words of truth in our very beings, shows his love and The Miracle.”
"Professor of applied creation science."  Which is right up there with "Professor of applied unicornology" in terms of scientific validity.

So to the reader who sent me the link, all I can say is thanks.  I did read the whole thing, and also the internal links that went to the BJU "research," so you can't say I didn't give it my all.  Throughout I was torn between guffawing and slamming my forehead repeatedly against my computer keyboard.  I hope that's the reaction you wanted.  But I do wonder what my own personal DNA spells out.  Maybe a passage from The God Delusion, you think?