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, March 24, 2018

Black coffee

Thanks to a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia, I now have an even lower opinion of humanity than I did before.

It's not the first time this has happened, of course, and won't be the last.  It's kind of an occupational hazard when your daily task is to comb the interwebz for crazy woo-woo ideas.  But this one is kind of in a league of its own.

Or maybe I'm just fed up.

The claim I'm referring to is that now we're being told that if you want to be healthy, you need to drink a charcoal latté.

I'm not making this up.  A recipe I saw -- and there are apparently dozens -- includes coffee, cashew milk (can't use dairy products), date syrup (can't use sugar), and powdered activated charcoal, to make "the chicest drink on the market."  Myself, I have a hard time imagining how this wouldn't taste like licking a barbecue grill that had been drizzled with honey, but chacun à son goût.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Thus far, all we have is a weird new food craze, not inherently weirder than Fireball-flavored bagels and ice cream sundaes topped with chili-coated grasshoppers.  What makes the charcoal latté claim stand out is that the people pushing it are not only claiming it tastes good, but that it will "detox" you.

So we're adding a nice dollop of quack alternative medicine to our morning unusually black coffee.  As I've pointed out maybe 397 times before, if you are healthy, there is absolutely no need to "detox" because your kidneys and liver are "detoxing" you just fine as you sit there.  Plus, the whole thing is based on vague and poorly-understood science anyhow; I have never found a single person recommending "detox" who could name a specific toxin that the procedure eliminates, much less one that wasn't being eliminated naturally via your excretory system.

It gets worse, though, because here we're not talking about adding ground-up organic papaya seeds and Mongolian yak milk to your coffee; we're talking about activated charcoal, a substance with a legitimate medical purpose -- it is used in cases of poisoning to absorb toxic substances from a person's digestive tract.  Or an animal's, which I know because of our border collie Doolin, who ate a dozen exquisite and expensive chocolate truffles after swiping them from the kitchen counter, and had to have activated charcoal forced down her throat, following which she puked up charcoal and partially-digested chocolate all over the back seat of my wife's brand-new Mini Cooper.

It's moments like this that I question why anyone in their right mind would own a dog.

But I digress.

The reason the activated charcoal thing is a terrible idea is that it is absorptive -- not only of toxins you may have inadvertently swallowed, but of biologically-active substances of all sorts.  Such as any medications you may take.  So in an ill-advised attempt to flush unspecified and most likely nonexistent toxins from your body, you stand a good chance of binding and inactivating your medicines.

I.e., substances you're taking because they've been prescribed by someone who actually understands organic chemistry and human physiology.

So my recommendation: have at it with the chili-coated grasshoppers, but avoid the charcoal lattés.  I feel ridiculous even having to say this, but apparently it's become a "thing," and once someone is a "thing," you know that all the trend geeks are just going to have to try it.  Which, I suppose, is just another example of natural selection in action.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Bee all, end all

Why in the hell are people still listening to Gwyneth Paltrow on health-related matters?

It's a rhetorical question, really.  People still reject the commentary of experts and embrace the opinions of the drastically unqualified in a lot of realms other than medicine.  But when it comes to mistakes that can kill you quickly and painfully, taking bad medical advice really can't be beat.  Which is what a 55-year-old woman found out when she underwent a Paltrow-approved procedure called "bee acupuncture," and proceeded to die of anaphylactic shock.

If you're wondering if "bee acupuncture" can possibly be what it sounds like -- yes, it is.  I didn't know about it, either, until a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link to an article about it a couple of days ago.  The way it works is a "practitioner" holds a live bee in forceps, and puts it on your skin, squeezing the bee until it gets pissed off and stings you.  In a 2016 article in the New York Times, Paltrow said it's a wonderful therapy:
[G]enerally, I'm open to anything.  I've been stung by bees.  It's a thousands of years old treatment called apitherapy.  People use it to get rid of inflammation and scarring.  It's actually pretty incredible if you research it.  But man, it's painful.
Then she tells us about something called a "sound bath," wherein you lie back and expose your body to "different frequencies" to "achieve a meditative state."  "That may even be too hippie for me," Paltrow said.

But back to the bees.  There's no particularly convincing evidence that acupuncture by itself works; there have been studies that show a higher-than-placebo improvement rate in patients subjected to acupuncture, and some pretty convincing evidence that any improvement is due to endogenous opioids produced in response to someone sticking a needle into your skin.  So I'm still doubtful about the whole thing.

Then you bring bees into the picture, and you add the whole extra frisson of the possibility of dying of an allergic reaction.  If you're curious, the woman who died of anaphylaxis after her bee treatment had been stung before -- this was her twenty-fifth bee acupuncture session -- and never had a problem other than localized swelling.  This time, her blood pressure dropped, she went into shock, started gasping for breath -- and because she wasn't receiving this quasi-medical treatment in a hospital or clinic, had to wait for thirty minutes for the ambulance to arrive.  They treated her with an epi-pen, but the damage was too great.  She lingered in the hospital for a few weeks, but never regained consciousness, and ultimately succumbed to multiple organ failure triggered by the reaction to the venom.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So this brings up my initial question, which is why the hell you'd take the medical advice of a woman whose main qualifications for dispensing such dubious wisdom is being rich enough to start her own "natural health and alternative medicine" company.  There seems to be a huge drift in this country toward distrusting experts (i.e. the people who have actually put in the time to understand the subject in question) and trust instead overconfident laypeople whose stock in trade is folksy "that seems like it should work" anecdote and wacko quack remedies.  In fact, the outcome of the presidential election can be looked at as a rejection of expertise -- replacing people who were career politicians who, whatever else you can say about them, know how government works with people whose philosophy can be summed up as "wing it, hope for the best, and when shit blows up, claim that everything is okay and that it's Obama's fault anyhow."

At this point, I'm beginning to shrug my shoulders when I hear about people who injure themselves after falling for Paltrow's nonsense, and instead simply saying, "Natural selection at work."  It sounds harsh, and I'm normally more compassionate than that, but honestly, I don't see much difference between this and the folks who still take up smoking even though the medical establishment showed that smoking causes lung cancer fifty-odd years ago.  If you're dumb enough to do it anyhow, then you deserve what you get.

But it does make me wonder how far Paltrow and others like her are going to have to step over the line before the FDA will say, "I don't care if you say 'This product is not intended to treat, cure, or diagnose any medical condition' on the packaging, you're killing people and you fucking well need to stop."  (Okay, the FDA probably wouldn't phrase it like that, which is why I don't work for the FDA.)

In any case, let me make it clear, for anyone still considering buying products from "Goop:" you're doing so at your own risk.  Gwyneth Paltrow is not a medical professional, nor even a well-informed layperson, she's a nut who jumps on any bandwagon that sounds appealing, and markets highly-priced and dubiously effective health aids that have not been rigorously tested for efficacy or safety.

In other words: caveat emptor.  But in this time, the buyer might have to beware of bodily injury or death.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Shiny happy energy

As part of the ongoing effort by my readers to drive me completely insane, today I have two links that were sent to me with a "You Gotta See This" message.  And far be it from me not to want to share the experience with all of you.

I'll just assume you're showering me with thanks right now, shall I?

The first has the encouraging title Love Has Won, which sounds awfully nice although you'd think if love really had won, I'd have heard something about it.  When I read the news, it seems to be as much of a raging shitstorm as ever.  Be that as it may, the site is pretty optimistic about everything.  It opens with a bang:
With the arrival and crystallization of the God and Goddess energies within Gaia’s new energy grid the depolarization process begins!  The old eon worked on polarization of the masses and of the individual.  The new eon works very differently! 
It may come as no surprise that humanity has become highly polarized these last few years.  This polarization was the manifestation of the last of the old eon energetics.  The process that is now underway neutralizes all polarization completely and leaves the masses and individuals squarely in the same life circumstances but without the polarization or sense of urgency previously experienced.
Okay!  Right!  What?

I guess the problem here is that I'm starting from the admittedly silly assumption that when people use scientific terms, they actually understand what they mean.  Things like "depolarization," "crystallization," "energy," and so on.  I did read the entire piece to try to determine what the author was trying to tell us, and what I got out of it was that if you can depolarize your energetics, you will take part in ascension, an event that will make the Earth's aura really pretty.

Or something like that.

The aurora.  Not aura.  Which are not the same thing.  [Image courtesy of NASA]

So you don't have to read the whole thing, which I wouldn't suggest in any case unless you have a bottle of scotch handy, let me cut to the chase and let you take a look at the last paragraph:
Energetic activity will remain at the level of its origin unless transmuted consciously to other levels.  To creatively manifest something physically, the process must be driven by physical life force energy.  This means either hard physical work or magical tantric practices.  The astral levels have segregated and the beginning of all great cycles activates the lowest level first, that of life force energy and magic.  That is where we now find ourselves, in a completely magical world.  All the upper astral levels are energetically dead in regards to manifesting things physically.  All other energies will remain in their respective levels unless consciously transmuted.
So I guess that clears that up.

Then we have the site Earth Keeper: Energy Activation of the New Planet Earth, a somewhat flashier site that starts out by telling us about an event to be held in the third week of September in Little Rock, Arkansas, that is called, I shit you not, "ArkLantis."  It is, we are told, a "Crystal Vortex Star-Gate Event," which sounds pretty impressive.  I have to share the description of the event with you, because putting it into my own words just wouldn't convey the full effect, particularly since I wouldn't capitalize every other word:
Join the Earth-Keeper Family in the Incredible Transformational Energy of the Sacred Ark Crystal Vortex ...  The Epi-Centre of the Crystalline Shift.  Arkansas is a Geological Wonder, Containing the Largest Singular Strata of Quartz Crystal on the Planet. Beginning in Little Rock, The Amazing Crystal Deposits Extend 177 miles SW from Little Rock to Hot Springs National Park & onward to Talimena Ridge.  Within the Astonishing Crystals are Rare World Renowned Deposits of Magnetite (at Magnet Cove), the Toltec Mounds Pyramids, Renowned Natural Thermal Healing Springs, Aquifers, Mystical Massive Caverns, Sacred Mountains, Crystal Clear Rivers, Holy Lakes, Amethyst, and an Active Diamond Mine ( Crater of Diamonds State Park).  Arkansas was A Crystal Colony of the Benevolent Law of One Atlanteans.  There are Utterly Astonishing, Enormous Crystals Beneath Arkansas the Size of Buildings.  Three Temple Crystals Were Placed in the Underground Caverns Before the Final Sinking of Atlantis.  The Energy Has Awakened & The Crystal Vortex is Now the Most Potent Crystalline Energy Field on Earth ! Come Experience this Amazingly Sacred Vortexial Land of Ancient Atlantis, Spirit, Multidimensionality & Vision.
I have a good many friends in Arkansas -- it's the home of Oghma Creative Media, which publishes my books -- and I bet they'll be as gobsmacked as I was to learn that what is now Arkansas was once part of Atlantis.

Although, isn't the whole point that Atlantis sunk to the bottom of the ocean?  Arkansas, last time I went there, was dry land.  So that's kind of odd.  Maybe they were kept afloat by the Crystalline Shifted Sacred Vortexial Transformational Energy or something.

You can see how that could happen.

Downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, and/or Atlantis [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Anyhow, many thanks to my loyal readers, who with the best of intentions keep making me do near-fatal faceplants directly into my keyboard.  Me, I wondering how to recover from the aftereffects of reading Love Has Won and Earth Keeper in preparation for writing this post.  I guess my only reasonable option is to have a second cup of coffee, since it's still a little early for a double scotch.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Odd eulogies for a great mind

The Earth lost one of its most brilliant minds last week -- British physicist Stephen Hawking, who expanded our understanding of everything from black holes to the Big Bang.

Hawking's death also attracted attention for another reason, which is that he was an outspoken atheist.  In an interview in 2014, Hawking said:
Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe.  But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by "we would know the mind of God" is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t.  I’m an atheist.
As far as death and the afterlife, he was equally unequivocal, something made more interesting still because of his fight against the depredations of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.  You'd think that if anyone would have engaged in some wishful thinking about the possibility of life after death, it would be a man who was confronted daily with evidence of his own mortality.  But Hawking said, "There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."

And of course, the spokespeople for the God of Love and Mercy didn't even wait until the poor man's body was cool to start crowing about how he was currently roasting in hell.  I must admit that two people who are frequent fliers here at Skeptophilia -- Franklin Graham and Ken Ham -- at least had fairly measured and compassionate responses.  Graham, who is best known for his fiery vitriol and anti LGBTQ stance -- said the following:
I wish I could have asked Mr. Hawking who he thought designed the human brain.  The designers at HP, Apple, Dell, or Lenovo have developed amazing computers, but none come even close to the amazing capabilities of the human mind.  Who do you think designed the human brain?  The Master Designer — God Himself.  I wish Stephen Hawking could have seen the simple truth that God is the Creator of the universe he loved to study and everything in it.
Ham wrote the following:
A reminder death comes to all. Doesn't matter how famous or not in this world, all will die and face the God who created us and stepped into history in the person of Jesus Christ, to die and be raised to offer a free gift of salvation to all who receive it.
Which, considering some of their statements on other issues, is actually pretty mild.

But the response from other quarters wasn't even that measured.  The site Catholics Online claimed that Hawking had experience a deathbed conversion, similar to the (also false) claims made about Christopher Hitchens when he died in 2016:
Before he died, Stiph [sic] Hawkins [sic] who did not believe in God requested to visit the Vatican.  “Now l believe” was the only statement he made after the Holy Father blessed him.
Well, that may have happened to "Stiph Hawkins," but it sure as hell didn't happen to Stephen Hawking.

But that was far from the most outlandish claim made upon Professor Hawking's death.  That award has to go to Mike Shoesmith, of the conservative Christian PNN Network, who said that Hawking's amazing beat-the-odds lifespan after his ALS diagnosis was because Satan wanted to keep him alive long enough to fight against the message of Billy Graham:
So, in 1942, that is when Billy Graham’s ministry really takes off, and who do you think was born in 1942?  Stephen Hawking.  Stephen Hawking comes from a long line of atheists — his father and all these people — so I believe the devil said, "OK, this guy was just born and I’m going to use this guy. This guy is already primed to accept my message that there is no God. He is already primed for it, he is going to be awash, immersed in atheism all his years as a child, I’m going to take over this guy’s life." 
I believe Stephen Hawking was kept alive by demonic forces.  I believe that it was the demonic realm that kept this man alive as a virtual vegetable his entire life just so he could spread this message that there is no God.
Then when Billy Graham died a couple of weeks ago, I guess Satan just said, "Okay, I'm done with you," and let Hawking die as well.

Me, I'm kind of appalled that there are people who would try to score points off any person's death, much less an august personage such as Professor Hawking.  The whole thing gives lie to their claim of being on the moral high ground by comparison to us ungodly heathen slobs.  Be that as it may, I'd rather remember Stephen Hawking for his brilliance, his contributions to our understanding of the universe, his modesty, and his sense of humor.  As evidence of the last-mentioned, I direct you to this compilation of Hawking's amazing comedic chops, and encourage you to put aside all the people who are using his life and death for their own purposes and have a good laugh with one of the greatest minds humanity has ever produced.  I suspect that Hawking would really prefer our sending him on his way with a smile rather than a eulogy of pious platitudes in any case.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

An instrument of the divine will

There are people for whom the line between reality and fantasy gets so blurred that at some point, I'm not even convinced they know whether they're telling the truth or not.

That's my impression of Kevin Zadai, who was a guest last week on the television show It's Supernatural!, hosted by Sid Roth.  The show itself is about using accounts of the supernatural to bolster up the claims of evangelical Christianity, and Roth himself is essentially a televangelist.  Most of the stuff on the show is the usual fare -- accounts of being led one way or another by Jesus, with positive results (of course), miraculous recoveries from illness, amazing escapes from being injured during natural disasters, and so on.  But last week, Zadai took a different twist on the whole thing.

He related to Roth how he'd gone in for a dental procedure, and he had a reaction to the anesthetic, and his heart stopped.  While he was dead (for want of a better word), he went to heaven, where he met Jesus:
… [Jesus] told me that I didn’t have enough depth in my prayers, that I didn’t have enough access to the depths of my heart, and He explained it…  In Psalm 16, David wrote that, prophetically, for me, He said. Jesus said that David wrote that Psalm, and He memorized that Psalm, because when He was in the depths of Hell, He said He rehearsed that Psalm over and over again, and He said, “I cleared a way out in that place for you, and for everyone, in Messiah, to pray from those depths.” 
He said, “I prayed Myself out of Hell because I had the Psalm 16, and I prayed that continually, and then the Holy Spirit came and resurrected me.”  And he said, “When you pray, you pray with that kind of a fervency, where you know who you are based on the scripture.”  Because He said, “I had no witness when I was down there.  I had no Holy Spirit help.”  He said, “If the Father had not given the command,” he said, “I would sit down there until He gave the command for Me to be resurrected. That’s how much I trusted Him.”  He said, “That’s where you pray from. You pray from those depths. That trust.”
So far, nothing too unusual.  People who have near-death experiences often meet supernatural personages, although interestingly enough, it's always the ones that come from whatever religion they already believed.  If a devout Christian had a near-death experience and met Ganesha, for example, I might be more willing to sit up and take notice.

But then Zadai took an abrupt left turn.  When Roth asked him for more details about his meeting with Jesus, Zadai happily complied -- and said that Jesus had taught him to play the saxophone.

I am not making this up.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The Messiah, Zadai said, had a pretty nice instrument, and was happy to give him a lesson on it:
...This particular one He had was a soprano sax.  It was a beautiful gold saxophone... He was standing there, and He had this saxophone in His hands, and He started to play it over me…  He took it away from His mouth and handed it to me and He said, “You play.”  And I go, “Lord, I can’t play like that!” 
He said, “That’s because you’re doing it wrong.”  He said, “Let me show you.”  He said, “Stand up.”  So I stood up...  And I looked around and He goes, “See all that around you?”  He said, “That’s the Holy Spirit and the presence and glory of My Father.”  He said, “That’s always there.”  He said, “What’s wrong is that you’re not breathing in Heaven first.”  He said, “Breathe that in first, and then blow it through your horn, and it’ll work out just fine.”  So I took a big breath and all this gold air around me went inside of me, and I put that horn that He handed to me in my mouth, and I blew, and it was exactly like Jesus had played.
Well, I play a wind instrument, and I have to admit that standing up while you play and using your breath to support your tone isn't bad advice.  But this image I have of Jesus playing the soprano sax... well, it's just not working for me.  I know he's supposed to be super-powerful and all-knowing and whatnot, but I honestly never considered that his abilities would extend to having good blues chops.

Now, what strikes me about this is not Zadai making a weird claim.  After all, weird claims are a dime a dozen, and are in fact have been the bread and butter of this blog for going on nine years.  I'm not even surprised about Roth's generally positive reaction, because televangelists, like a lot of talk show hosts, thrive on people saying and doing weird shit, because face it, weird shit sells.

What surprises me is the audience's reaction.  No one -- not a single person -- started laughing.  No one got up and walked out.  Instead, they looked at Zadai as if he were the recipient of a holy miracle.  The audience cheered and shouted "Hallelujah" and "Praise Jesus."  Some audience members were in tears.

I mean, I know that the audience was made up of people who were devout Christians; I'm sure they take great pains to screen out professional scoffers such as myself.  But even so, don't they draw the line somewhere?  What would it take to make them frown and say, "Wait a minute..."?  Would they believe it if someone said Jesus had paid off his credit card bills?  That the Lord had given him some golf tips?  That he got a divine suggestion to play one more round on the roulette wheel at the casino?

On the other hand, these are the same people who think that god cares about the outcome of the Superbowl.

Never mind.

I'm not bringing this up to be scornful (honestly, I'm not).  It's more that I'm curious about how someone could believe in a deity that is so bent on micromanaging everything that he takes the opportunity of a near-death experience to teach a guy a few riffs on the soprano sax.  Of course, in Matthew 10:29, Jesus himself says, "Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will."  So as bizarre as it seems to me, at least it's scripturally consistent.

What I get least, however, is how anyone can find this worldview comforting.  Do you really think it's reassuring that Jesus is always watching you?  Twenty-four hours a day?  To me, that's more "creepy stalker" than it is "light unto the world."

So the whole thing leaves me a little baffled, frankly.  Maybe my own scientific view of the universe seems a little impersonal, but at least I don't have to worry about the spirit of Stephen Hawking watching me while I take a shower, or something.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Bigotry self-defense

I had a bit of an epiphany yesterday.

I was scrolling idly through Facebook, as one does, and came upon a post from an acquaintance claiming that anti-gun liberals were putting red light bulbs in their front porch sockets to let everyone know their stance.  The post crowed about how this would alert criminals that the house was undefended, and ended with the line, "Leave it to a dumbass liberal retard."

Besides the issue of characterizing about 50% of your fellow citizens as stupid, there's the issue of the r-word, which really sets me off.  So I responded, "Keep your ugly invective to yourself."

Within moments, I had two responses, one from a total stranger, who wrote, "LMAO looks like you hurt the feelings of a dumbass liberal retard snowflake."  The other was from the original poster, who wrote, "You're saying that's not a stupid thing to do?"

I responded only to the second -- the first wasn't worth my time -- and said, "I question whether anyone would actually do that, or if it's a bullshit claim made purely to ridicule people you disagree with.  But that's not the point.  The point is that anyone who calls someone a 'retard' has automatically lost the right to claim the high ground."

That prompted another puny defensive response.  At that point, I wrote, "Done with you.  G'bye," and unfriended the person.

The weird thing was that this didn't end it.  She immediately sent me a friend request and a private message, saying, "I hope you don't think that's what I actually believe."  I had to read it twice because I couldn't quite fathom someone writing that after what had gone before.  I responded, "So why did you post it, then?"

She said, "Because the gun issue really pisses me off."

I decided to try one more time.  "That's something we could discuss.  But what you posted was a childish insult, not an argument."

Still no luck.  "All I'm saying is that the whole issue makes me mad."

Okay, done for good this time.  Didn't bother responding, and deleted the re-friend request.

There are a few things about this that appall me.

First, I know we all react in anger sometimes when confronted with dissenting opinions on issues we feel strongly about, and sometimes use language we regret.  But the response then is "sorry I offended," or "you're right, that was over the line," or even "my apologies, I'll delete the post."  Here, the attitude was more "death before backing down."  Note that I didn't even challenge her on her stance on gun laws; we never got that far.  All I did was call her on her nasty choice of words, and I couldn't even get her to look at my side of that.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Second, what gets me even more about this is how this kind of language has turned into a dog-whistle for the angry and the biased.  "Liberal retard" (or "libtard"), "Republican retard" (or "republitard" or "repugnican") has become a code word for "people I consider worthless because they disagree with me."  "Snowflake" means "someone I don't need to apologize to despite the fact that I'm being deliberately and egregiously offensive."  And another one, which didn't come up but probably would have had I pushed the conversation -- "politically correct," which means "anyone who makes the unreasonable demand that I treat the people in other demographics with respect."

What this whole exchange did is made me mad enough that I've decided I'm done trying to soft-pedal my own insistence that the people I choose to surround myself act with respect.  I have deliberately maintained my contacts with people of varying worldviews -- religious and non-religious, conservative and liberal and every other political gradation -- in an effort to be open-minded and consider other viewpoints rather than locking myself in a world where I can delude myself that everyone thinks like I do.  And, to be fair, the vast majority of my friends and acquaintances treat each other kindly and, when they engage in discussion over controversial issues, do so respectfully.

There's the minority, though, who consider their own beliefs unassailable and anyone who disagrees with them hopeless idiots at best and actively evil at worst, and I've been hesitant to call them out because (1) I dislike conflict, (2) I'm of the opinion that online arguments seldom accomplish anything, and (3) I don't want to be one of those people who isolates himself from anyone who holds different opinions and turns every social contact into an echo chamber.  But the rather banal exchange over Facebook yesterday made me realize that notwithstanding my desire to listen to other viewpoints, I don't have to let myself get bombarded by bigotry, insults, and ugliness every time I turn on my computer.  I wouldn't choose to associate with someone who acts like that in real life; why should I do so on social media?

It's also reminded me that there's a line between listening to dissenting opinions and giving tacit approval to prejudice and vitriol.  And while we should all endeavor to do the former, there's no reason in the world why any of us should accept the latter.

So I think I'm going to be a little quicker with the "unfriend" button from now on.  I probably will still try to challenge people when they make outrageous statements, but if they refuse to back down, there is nothing to be gained by continuing to listen.  At that point, goodbye and have a nice life.

And if that makes me a "politically-correct snowflake," so be it.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Preventing the unknown

Some days it's no great mystery why the general public is dubious about scientists.

I mean, a lot of it is the media, as I've discussed here at Skeptophilia ad nauseam.  But there are times that the scientists themselves put their best foot backward.  As an example, consider the announcement from the World Health Organization this week that their Research & Development Blueprint for priority diseases includes "Disease X."

A disease that is as-yet unidentified.

The blueprint itself says this:
Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease, and so the R&D Blueprint explicitly seeks to enable cross-cutting R&D preparedness that is also relevant for an unknown “Disease X” as far as possible.
On the one hand, there's a grain of sense there.  Recognizing the fact that there are "emerging diseases" that are apparently new to humanity, and that could cause epidemics is the first step toward readying ourselves for when that happens.  (Recent examples are Ebola and Lassa fever, Marburg virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and chikungunya.)

The Ebola virus [image courtesy of the World Health Organization]

But still.  What the WHO is telling the public is that they're putting time and effort into preventing an epidemic from a disease that:
  • may not exist
  • if it does exist, has unknown symptoms, origins, and mode of transmission
  • may or may not be preventable
  • may or may not be treatable
  • may or may not be highly communicable
  • may or may not be carried by other animals
  • is of unknown duration and severity
Is it just me, or does this seem like an exercise in futility?

Like I said, an awareness of the unpredictability of disease outbreaks is a start, but this seems like trying to nail jello to the wall.  Each time humanity has been faced with a potential pandemic, we've had to study the disease and how it moves from one host to another, scramble to find treatments for the symptoms while we're searching for an actual cure (or better yet, a vaccine to prevent it), and do damage control in stricken areas.  So I can't see where the "Disease X" approach gets us, except to put everyone on red alert for an epidemic that may never happen.

I think my eyerolling when I read about this comes from two sources.  First, I'm all too aware that life is risky, and although it's certainly laudable to try to reduce the risk as much as you can, the bare fact is that you can't remove it entirely.  After all, none of us here are getting out of this place alive.  And second, there is an unavoidable chaotic element to what happens -- we get blindsided again and again by bizarre occurrences, and the professional prognosticators (not to mention professional psychics) get it wrong at least as often as they get it right.

So there probably will eventually be a new emerging epidemic.  On a long enough time scale, there's probably going to be a true pandemic as well.  I hope that with our advances in medical research, we'll be able to respond in time to prevent what happened during the Black Death, or worse, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 to 1919, that killed an estimated 40 million people (over twice the number of deaths as the battlefield casualties of World War I, which was happening at the same time).

In one sense, I take back what I said about not being able to do anything about it ahead of time.  We can give ourselves the best shot at mitigating the effects of an outbreak -- by funding medical research, and encouraging our best and brightest to go into science (i.e., education, a topic I've also rung the changes on more than once).  Other than that, I'm just going to eat right, exercise, and hope for the best.