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, April 18, 2015

The derp is strong with this one

Here we go again.

First, we had people who believe that J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is actual history.  Next, we had people who think that H. P. Lovecraft's pantheon of elder gods is real.

Now we have people believing that people time-traveled backwards (or forwards; sources differ on that point) from the Galaxy Far Far Away, all for the purposes of including Master Yoda in a medieval manuscript.

First the facts, okay?  There's a 14th century manuscript called the Smithfield Decretals, which are some of the expositions of Pope Gregory IX on points of canon law, written in France and then brought to England and illuminated.  It currently resides in the British Library, and its graceful calligraphy and odd illustrations are what prompted a use of one of the images from it in a newspaper interview with Julian Harrison, the Library's curator of pre-1600 manuscripts.  Interestingly, Harrison has quite a following; his blog, Medieval Manuscripts,  gets an average of 36,000 hits a day, and his Twitter feed has over 24,000 followers.

Who knew the Medieval Period had so many fans?

But anyway, Harrison made an offhand comment in one of his posts about the image of Yoda in the Smithfield Decretals, and it got picked up in the interview.  So, without further ado, let's take a look:

Other than the fact that his expression is not so much "wise Jedi master" as it is "derpy and confused," I think we can agree that this is quite a match, yes?

Apparently, so do the woo-woos.  This thing has been popping up all over on sites like Mysterious Universe and CosmosTV, prompting thousands of people to comment.  And while some of them are undoubtedly posted for the humor value, I'd say a good 3/4 of them have the ring of truth.  Here's a sampler.  (Spelling and grammar are as written, so you can get the full effect):
  • The Force is real.  I've felt it and am still learning how to control.  With a powerful Master you can transcend time and space.
  • Because of Quantum Mechanics and the Many Worlds Theory scientists now believe that everything is possible somewhere.  So why is it crazy to say there's a universe where Yoda exists.  And if that universe intersects with us, that could explain this.
  • Art imitates life.  George Lucas didn't make up everything.  These monks who drew this had to have a model right?  This is too close to be a coincidence.
  • The Jedi religion has more morals than the Christians.  Master Yoda is somebody I would follow not a priest.  Maybe him appearing here will show people were on the Dark Side.  Look at the world and you have to agree.
  • Mocking something doesn't make it not true.  Their is no reason this couldn't really be Yoda.  Just because something is wierd it doesn't mean that you can just pretend it doesn't happen.
Yes, of course!  Wierd real Yodas!  Intersecting universes and the Force because of quantum mechanics!  Ha ha!  Please tell me you people don't know where I live!

And learn some critical thinking skills, they should.

Anyhow.  I'm always amazed at how little it takes to set these people off.  And, of course, given that the trailer for the next installment of the Star Wars saga was just released, and has been inducing multiple orgasms in the crowd who (1) wanted to become a tie-fighter pilot, (2) dreamed about owning a light saber, (3) had the hots for Luke and/or Leia, and (4) went into a prolonged period of mourning when Obi-Wan died, I suppose it's not going to die down any time soon.

And honestly, I have to admit that I'd take Yoda over Sauron and the Elder Gods, if I had the choice.

Friday, April 17, 2015

All in the family

Racists have cast about for years for some sort of scientific basis for their horrible worldview.  Evidence that their race is the superior one in intelligence, physical strength, or vigor, or simply support for their contention that interracial marriages are bad in a biological sense.

Of course, the problem for people who turn to science is that science often provides answers whether you end up liking them or not.  And inquiries into a biological basis for race have shown that any real genetic variations between different ethnic groups are tenuous at best.  Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, one of the leading specialists in human population genetics, says:
Human races are still extremely unstable entities in the bands of modern taxonomists…  As one goes down the scale of the taxonomic hierarchy toward the lower and lower partitions, the boundaries between clusters become even less clear.  There is great genetic variation in all populations, even in small ones. 
From a scientific point of view, the concept of race has failed to obtain any consensus… the major stereotypes, all based on skin color, hair color and form, and facial traits, reflect superficial differences that are not confirmed by deeper analysis with more reliable genetic traits and whose origin dates from recent evolution mostly under the effect of climate and perhaps sexual selection.
Now, let me make it clear that this doesn't mean that there are no differences between racial groups.  It's just that those differences are primarily social and cultural, not biological, which neatly kicks the legs out from underneath some of the racists' primary arguments.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And it's been known for years that lumping together all dark-skinned Africans as "black" is ignoring the fact that there's more genetic variability on the African continent than there is in the entire rest of the world put together.  The Zulu and the !Kung people of southern Africa, for example, are more distantly related to each other than a typical white American is...

... to a person from Japan.

And just last month, Iain Mathieson of Harvard University punched another hole in racist genetics when he released his research team's findings that the genes for white skin are only about 8,000 years old.

According to Mathieson et al.:
(M)odern humans who came out of Africa to originally settle Europe about 40,000 years are presumed to have had dark skin, which is advantageous in sunny latitudes.  And the new data confirm that about 8500 years ago, early hunter-gatherers in Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary also had darker skin:  They lacked versions of two genes—SLC24A5 and SLC45A2—that lead to depigmentation and, therefore, pale skin in Europeans today... 
Then, the first farmers from the Near East arrived in Europe; they carried both genes for light skin. As they interbred with the indigenous hunter-gatherers, one of their light-skin genes swept through Europe, so that central and southern Europeans also began to have lighter skin.  The other gene variant, SLC45A2, was at low levels until about 5800 years ago when it swept up to high frequency.
The reason the two light-skin genes took hold in northern latitudes is thought to be vitamin D synthesis -- while having dark skin is an advantage in equatorial regions, from the standpoint of protection from ultraviolet skin damage, dark skin inhibits endogenous vitamin D production in areas with low incident sunlight.  So once the mutations occurred, they spread rapidly, but only in regions at high latitude.  This explains why even distantly-related equatorial groups have dark skin (such as the Bantu and the Australian Aborigines), and even distantly-related high-latitude group have light skin (such as the Swedes and the Inuit).

And apparently the gene for blue eyes is of equally recent vintage.  The earliest genetic evidence for the gene HERC2/OCA2, which causes blue eyes, is in southern Sweden from about 7,700 years ago.  The gene's provenance might date back to 10,000 years ago, but certainly not much before that.

So all of us descend from dark-skinned, brown-eyed people.  Sorry, white supremacists.

Of course, given that there is good evidence that around 70,000 years ago, an eruption of the Toba Volcano in Indonesia caused climate shifts that killed nearly all of our ancestors -- best estimates are that there were only 10,000 humans left on Earth after the bottleneck occurred -- we're all cousins anyway.  After that event, those 10,000-odd survivors can be put into two groups; the ones who left no descendants at all, and the ones who are the ancestors of everyone on Earth.

It'd be nice if we could count on people using science to inform their behavior, but we don't have a very good track record in that regard, do we?  I mean, think about it; we're still pushing the fossil fuel industry as the world warms up and the climate destabilizes around us.  So unfortunately, even when we have direct and incontrovertible evidence that what we're doing isn't reasonable, we usually continue doing it.

And I guess the argument that the genes for white skin are 8,000 years old is going to gain no traction whatsoever with the people who believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

But still, it'd be nice, wouldn't it?  Just as the first photographs of the Earth taken from the Moon changed a lot of folks' perspective on our place in the universe, it'd be wonderful if research like this could alter us from "those people... they're not like us" to "we're all one family, and we're all in this together."

Thursday, April 16, 2015

E.T. called. Your lunch is ready.

It's okay to be ignorant, as long as it doesn't become a way of life.

Even the best educated of us don't know stuff.  Lots of stuff.  Socrates, after all, had a point when he gave his famous answer to followers who asked him, "How can you be so wise?"  "If I am wise," he said, "it is because I alone of men realize how little I know."

It is our response to ignorance that counts.  And it seems to me that when people are asked for information about which they are ignorant, they generally have one of two reactions:
  1. They act like it's perfectly okay to be lazy enough not to want to know the answer.  This is the "oh, well, I'm not good at science" thing I sometimes hear from students.  (My usual answer -- "Work harder, then" -- seldom has any result except their looking at me like I have three heads.)
  2. They start making stuff up.  This often happens when the person in question is one of those types who has to know everything, or when the answer that's being sought is so critical or so interesting that (s)he just can't bear saying, "I don't know, and we may never know."
As an example of the latter, consider the recent odd astronomical discovery that the dwarf planet Ceres has two mysterious bright spots that show up intermittently on NASA photographs.  

[image courtesy of NASA]

The writer of the news article linked above, Mariette LeRoux, seems a little put out that scientists aren't explaining the spots.  All we know, she said, is that the spots "behave differently," as if they are not being caused by the same phenomenon.  Federico Tosi, who analyzes data from the Dawn probe's Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, said, "For sure, we have bright spots on the surface of Ceres which, at least from a thermal perspective, seem to behave in different ways."

Which summarizes the observations, and tells us exactly nothing beyond that.  And that is what scientists should do, given that this is all they have at the moment.  They're still trying to find out more, or come up with a model of what could explain the spots, so they're not falling upon one horn of the dilemma.  But they're also not just inventing wild ideas when they have almost nothing to go on, and thus are avoiding the other horn of the dilemma as well.

Which is more than I can say for the woo-woos, who are having a field day with this.  Here are a few of the "explanations" (if I can dignify them by that word) I've seen on such sites, since the observation was made a month ago:
  • The spots are a signaling device that was placed on the surface of Ceres to keep an eye on us and relay information to our Alien Overlords to let them know when we were getting too uppity.  Prepare for an imminent invasion of the Earth.
  • Ceres is a hollow artificial sphere, inside which is a fantastically old civilization.  This enormous spacecraft has been battered over the eons by meteorite impacts (see all the craters?) and finally the external hull has cracked, and we're seeing light leaking out.
  • This is an Illuminati base to which our leaders periodically teleport.  Why any Illuminatus would want to go to Ceres -- which, last I checked, was cold, colder even than upstate New York -- is beyond me.  You'd think if they were having a convention, they'd choose Hawaii or Costa Rica or somewhere like that.
  • Ceres is a giant weapon that is heading for the Earth, and these are the targeting lasers.  Yes, I know that Ceres has been in a completely stable, nearly circular orbit since its discovery in 1801, but silly things like "facts" never discourage these people.
So anyhow.  We start with "there are two mysterious spots on Ceres" and end with alien superweapons.  All of which makes me want to take Ockham's Razor and slit my wrists with it.

But on a happier note, there's a second story this week that reinforces science's stance that it's always better to be patient in our ignorance, and look for natural answers, than to jump to ridiculous and outlandish ones.  Some aberrant signals that have been picked up by the Parkes Radio Telescope, and that were being considered by the UFOs-and-Aliens crowd as possible candidates for signals from extraterrestrial intelligence, were shown to be...

... coming from the microwave oven in the observatory's staff break room.

(Note: these are not the Fast Radio Bursts I described in my post last week; but some completely natural, earthly source may be the explanation for those, too.)

To demonstrate this, astronomer Emily Petroff ran the microwave oven three times, each time opening it before the timer went off.  And each time, the radio telescope recorded a peryton -- an odd, narrow-band signal.  Petroff writes:
The two ovens responsible for most or all of the observed perytons are from the same manufacturer (Matsushita/National) and are both in excess of 27 years of age though still working reliably.  Our tests point clearly to the magnetron itself as the source of the perytons since these are not detected unless the oven door is opened. 
Further, our analysis of the peryton cluster of 23rd June 1998 implies the perytons are a transient phenomenon that occurs only when the magnetron is switched off.  That we have observed perytons from at least two ovens over 17 years suggests that they are not the product of an unusual failure or fault but are inherent to, and long-lived in, at least some common types of oven.
So there you have it.  How to steer between a state of lazy ignorance and a state of absolute certainty. Navigating your way past these obstacles is critical if you want to know the real answer -- and neither make up loony ideas, nor simply shrug your shoulders and accept being permanently ignorant.

Because, after all, isn't accepting your ignorance, and ceasing your efforts to find out answers, that much more awful state called "being stupid?"

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Pharmacies, the FDA, and homeopathy

It seems like mostly what I cover in this blog is bad news.

People believing crazy stuff, bizarre actions people take (or refuse to take) because of their superstitious beliefs, mind-bending cases of illogic.  But today, I want to deliver some good news to anyone who thinks that rationalism and evidence should carry the day:

The FDA is finally moving toward taking a stand on homeopathy.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Next Monday and Tuesday, April 20 and 21, 2015, from 9 AM to 4 PM Eastern Daylight Time, the FDA has actively solicited input from stakeholders regarding the preparation and sales of the preparations that homeopaths refer to as "remedies" but the rest of us call "water" and "sugar pills."  These stakeholders include, but are not limited to, "consumers, patients, caregivers, health care professionals, patient groups, and industry."  The hearing is to be held at the FDA White Oak Campus in Silver Spring, Maryland, and required preregistration (which unfortunately closed two days ago; I didn't find out about this until yesterday).  However, you can watch a live webcast of the proceedings if you're so inclined (information about how to do this can be found here).

Even if the opportunity to present publicly has passed, you can still voice your opinions to the FDA review board in writing until June 22.  Here are the questions they are trying to resolve:
  • What are consumer and health care provider attitudes towards human drug and biological products labeled as homeopathic?
  • What data sources can be identified or shared with FDA so that the Agency can better assess the risks and benefits of drug and biological products labeled as homeopathic?
  • Are the current enforcement policies under the CPG appropriate to protect and promote public health in light of the tremendous growth in the homeopathic drug market? Are there alternatives to the current enforcement policies of the CPG that would inform FDA’s regulatory oversight of drugs labeled as homeopathic? If so, please explain.
  • Are there areas of the current CPG that could benefit from additional clarity? If so, please explain.
  • Is there information regarding the regulation of homeopathic products in other countries that could inform FDA’s thinking in this area?
  • A large majority of human drug products labeled as homeopathic are marketed as OTC drugs. These products are available for a wide variety of indications, and many of these indications have never been considered for OTC use under a formal regulatory process. What would be an appropriate regulatory process for evaluating such indications for OTC use?
  • Given the wide range of indications on drug products labeled as homeopathic and available OTC, what processes do companies currently use to evaluate whether such products, including their indications for use, are appropriate for marketing as an OTC drug?
  • Do consumers and health care providers have adequate information to make informed decisions about drug products labeled as homeopathic? If not, what information, including, for example, information in labeling, would allow consumers and health care providers to be better informed about products labeled as homeopathic?
If you are a medical researcher or health care provider, it's crucial to get information to the FDA that would give them leverage to remove these worthless "remedies" from pharmacy shelves.  It's critical, however, that any submissions not be simple rants.  Make them evidence-based, and specific to the questions for which the FDA is seeking information.  Sharon Hill, over at Doubtful News, directs you to frame your responses thusly:
If you are in the medical profession, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND YOU SPEND SOME TIME TO SUBMIT COMMENTS.  If you have pertinent info as an educator, parent, or consumer, your voice is needed also...  You can submit either electronic or written comments to or Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, rm. 1061, Rockville, MD 20852.  Organize your comments to identify the specific questions or topic to which they refer and be sure to reference the docket number.
Let me reiterate what I've said before: there is no scientific evidence that homeopathy works, and no logical mechanism by which it could work, given that the dilutions involved result in there being not a single molecule of the original active ingredient left by the time the preparation is sold.  There is no reason these quack cures should be sold in pharmacies, even with any number of disclaimers on the label, given the potential for uninformed or misled consumers to take them rather than seeking out legitimate medical help.

And high time for the FDA to take a stand on this.  Let's make sure that they get the information necessary for it to be the right stand.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Astrological interior design

It's always interesting when woo-woos meld together different traditions, apparently not recognizing that if you have a ridiculous idea, it's not going to become more accurate if you combine it with several other ridiculous ideas.

And that even holds true if you somehow get your nutty claim into a major media outlet.

Someone should have explained all of this to Suzy Strutner, who wrote an article a few days ago for Huffington Post called "Your Birthday Could Say a LOT About What Happens In Your Home."  And we're not just talking about timing of birthday parties, here.  Strutner claims that we should all pay close attention to something called "local space astrology," which seems to combine regular old astrology with ley lines and feng shui to come up with an all-new amalgam that may rival the idea that the shape of your ass can predict your future for sheer idiocy.

Apparently, what you're supposed to do is to get a "local space chart" which identifies the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets at the moment of your birth.  You then lay this chart over the floor plan of your house, and see which planets are where.

Or something like that.

Because I don't see how this could work, okay?  Even if you buy the whole astrology thing, why would my "local space chart" have anything to do with my house?  I was born on a military base in Quantico, Virginia, and I currently live in upstate New York.  So at the moment of my birth, a completely different set of people lived here, who all were born in different places yet, and so on.

Plus, why should it be my "local space chart" at all?  Why not my wife's?  Or our sons'?  Or our dogs'?  Maybe Neptune being in Aquarius is why my one dog woke me up at three in the morning today.  You know, all of the business about the God of the Sea and guys pouring water out of jars made him need to pee.

But Strutner, and Kita Marie Williams, the "astrological interior designer" she consulted for this exposé, apparently don't see anything at all illogical about all this.  Strutner writes that there's a way to get around having bunches of different people in the house:
Ideally, you'd center your entire floor plan around the planets. But that's almost always impossible...  Plus, if many people live in your home, then their ideal room setup is going to be different than yours, since they have a different local space chart.  Instead, learn how the planets make each room for each person.
She gives the example of the "Mars line" being the line of "combative energy," so if your "Mars line" runs through your living room, you should watch exercise videos there, or "meditate there if you need a powerful boost."

But of course, sometimes the lines don't, um, line up so well.  Strutner tells us one example:
Of course, some planet lines may not sync well with the rooms that they intersect. This might debunk household crises like a broken computer, according to astrology expert Gloria Roca.  Roca once consulted a client whose broken computer sat near her home's Neptune line.  The machine likely broke down because Neptune represents slowness and blur, Roca says. Once her client added a photo of a serene mountain -- associated with the earthy and wise planet Saturn -- to the room, the computer started to work just fine.
Righty-o.  Someone should tell that to the people on the Geek Squad over at Best Buy.  Don't bother taking the customer's computer apart.  Just tape a photograph of a "serene mountain" to it and it'll repair itself.

Roca, Williams, and Strutner tell us that we should head off this sort of problem by decorating according to our "local space chart" right from the get-go.  A room that has a "Mars line" should have bright red walls, they tell us, to "bring forth its best energy."  Which sounds like exactly the décor I'd choose, if I was the interior designer for the Marquis de Sade.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But the rest of us might choose something a little more subdued, regardless of what planet's lines run through the room.  Bookshelves are "Jupiterian," we're told, and flower bouquets are associated with Venus.  Which raises a problem; what if a room is multi-purpose?  Many of us read, sleep, watch TV, and have sex in our bedrooms.  Do we have to change the décor every time we want to switch gears?  "I'm sorry, dear, we can make love as soon as I finish repainting the walls."

So anyway.  The whole thing strikes me as ridiculous on a number of different levels.  The astrologers really should go back to telling their clients that because the Moon is in Scorpio, they're going to meet a tall, handsome stranger some time in the next two weeks, and let the ley lines and feng shui nuts do their own thing as well.  Combining them all just leads to a messy conflict of interests, and nobody wants that.

But I probably only said that because the Mercury line under my office intersects with the fifth house of Capricorn, or something.  And also because I'm a little grumpy about being up since three AM.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Airlines and orthodoxy

There are times when my desire to be a live-and-let-live, tolerant, kind human being runs smack into my general annoyance at people whose adherence to superstitious nonsense makes them act irrationally.

The whole thing comes up because of the recent disruption of several flights (most commonly from New York to Israel) by ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who believe that that their religion forbids them to sit next to a woman they're not married to.  According to a piece on the issue in the New York Times:
“The ultra-Orthodox have increasingly seen gender separation as a kind of litmus test of Orthodoxy — it wasn’t always that way, but it has become that way,” said Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at Queens College.  “There is an ongoing culture war between these people and the rest of the modern world, and because the modern world has increasingly sought to become gender neutral, that has added to the desire to say, ‘We’re not like that.’”
While many rabbis counsel that there's nothing wrong with a man sitting next to a woman on public transportation unless he's trying to get sexual gratification out of their proximity -- and it's hard to imagine that being likely on an airplane, although people do weird things sometimes -- there are Jewish men who will make an issue of it.  And hold up the entire flight until someone accommodates their request.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, despite being an atheist, I'm generally of the opinion that you can believe whatever you like, unless that belief involves coercing other people to adopt those beliefs, or passing laws mandating that your beliefs be taught in public schools.  But increasingly, it seems that a lot of people on the more extreme fringe of various religions have been using their own peculiar worldviews to reshape what other people do, demanding that everyone around them fall into line with whatever weird thing their religion demands.

I was having a discussion with a buddy of mine about the No-Gurlz-Allowed attitude of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, and my initial thought was that demanding that the Jewish men cave in and do something that they thought was immoral might be discriminatory:
Enforcing company policies (mixed male/female seating, for example) could easily be claimed as discrimination.  Their religious practices make a demand on them that is impossible to meet unless airlines change their practices.  How is this different from saying that an evangelical Christian has to serve gays?
My friend responded thusly:
There's no discrimination.  The airline sells you a seat.  There's no guarantee if you will be seated next to a man, woman, Muslim, homosexual, transsexual, etc. If this bothers you, it is incumbent upon you to buy two seats so you can guarantee that no one who bothers you will be seated next to you.  Or, you have to hope that you can switch seats with someone else.  But you have no right to hold up a flight if you can't find anyone willing to do that.
And, of course, he's right.  You buy a plane ticket, you know ahead of time that you're going to get at most a single package of stale pretzels to eat on the entire flight, that the person next to you is going to immediately recline his seat so that his head is nearly in your lap... and that you could be seated next to anyone.  If your religion demands that you never sit next to a woman, you have to find an alternate means of transportation.

After all, you're the one who has accepted a belief system that significantly restricts what you can do. It's not the airline's fault you bought in.

An even more interesting question, though, is how far I'd go to accommodate such beliefs, should I be asked to switch seats.  My friend said the following:
Now, would I trade seats with the ultra-Orthodox Jew? If it is an even swap -- aisle for aisle or window for window -- sure. I may even do an aisle for window or vice versa. But I would not swap a window or aisle seat for a middle seat just to be nice to him.
I dunno.  I'd be a little more peevish in that situation, I think.  I'd want an upgrade.  "You want to make demands that everyone in the world meet your needs?  Fine.  You can sit in the middle seat between two space hogs who wear too much cologne and insist on claiming both armrests.  I'll take your nice window seat.  Thanks ever so."

But that's just me.  Like I said, I try to be nice, most of the time, but sometimes the Intolerant Asshole side of me comes out on top.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Dry times

Telling an outright, bald-faced lie on a major issue should exclude you from running for public office.

Yes, I know that would exclude three-quarters of the politicians we now have in office.  But consider: why do we tolerate this sort of behavior?  Instead of saying, "You are lying," we just roll our eyes and say, 'Oh, you know politicians."  As if this is somehow on the same level as a tall tale from a five-year-old, and not an utterance that might not only hoodwink naïve members of the citizenry, but potentially fuck up smart policymaking in the process.

Take, for example, California corporate leader and likely 2016 presidential contender Carly Fiorina, who just a couple of days ago blamed the unprecedented West Coast drought on "liberal environmentalists:"
That's the tragedy of California, because of liberal environmentalists' insistence - despite the fact that California has suffered from droughts for millennia, liberal environmentalists have prevented the building of a single new reservoir or a single new water conveyance system over decades during a period in which California's population has doubled.  There is a man-made lack of water in California - and Washington manages the water for the farmers.  President Obama goes out to California a little over a year ago, calls it a tragedy of global warming and hands out money to a food bank.  This is all about politics and policy, and it is liberal environmentalists who have brought us this tragedy.
First, let's start with the obvious.  Since I don't work as a state employee in Wisconsin or Florida, I'm allowed to utter the words "climate change," so I will.  According to a paper released three months ago in Geophysical Research Letters, authors Daniel Griffin and Kevin J. Anchukaitis state their conclusion bluntly:
(T)he current event is the most severe drought in the last 1200 years, with single year (2014) and accumulated moisture deficits worse than any previous continuous span of dry years.  Tree ring chronologies extended through the 2014 growing season reveal that precipitation during the drought has been anomalously low but not outside the range of natural variability.  The current California drought is exceptionally severe in the context of at least the last millennium and is driven by reduced though not unprecedented precipitation and record high temperatures.
But of course, accepting climate change would be right up there with accepting evolution for anyone hoping for the Republican nomination.  So it's unsurprising that Ms. Fiorina won't come right out and say that the climatic side of the drought was triggered by anthropogenic global warming.

[image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]

Because there is another side of the drought, and that's water usage.  California Governor Jerry Brown at least gave lip service to this aspect of it last week, with an order to cut back on water use by homeowners -- making it illegal to use potable water to irrigate lawns, for example, something that in my opinion should have been done thirty years ago.  Urban water districts have been ordered to reduce water consumption by 25%, although they're not giving any particular details on how to get to that target other than the lawn sprinkler ban.

What is less well-known, though, is that the water use restriction didn't touch two of California's industries: agriculture and petroleum.  Agriculture uses 80% of the state's water supply.  A full 10% goes for almonds alone.  Another 15% goes to producing alfalfa hay, a lot of which is consumed by the dairy industry.  But a study has shown that just the portion of the hay crop that is exported to land-poor countries like Japan represents a water use of 100 billion gallons per year -- enough to supply a million families with drinking water for a year.

Explain to me again, Ms. Fiorina, how liberal environmentalists caused all of this?

Then there's the petroleum industry, that according to a recent estimate uses two million gallons of fresh water a day for oil and gas production.  Included in that are the 70 million gallons of water the state used in 2014 for hydrofracking alone, water that after use is so laden with salt and toxins that it is unsuitable for use for anything else, and is often disposed of by deep-well injection, which in 2014 was demonstrated to have contaminated agricultural and drinking water aquifers in the Central Valley with arsenic, thallium, nitrates, and salt.

Find me a liberal environmentalist who had anything to do with making this practice legal.

Go on, I'm waiting.

Look, it's not like I have solutions for this problem.  The California drought is a tangled skein of climate effects (both natural and anthropogenic), mismanagement, greed, overuse, and poor planning.    Any possible answer will require some serious rethinking of how water is used and how agriculture is managed in arid climates.  Governor Brown's lawn-watering restrictions are going to have exactly zero effect, given that the vast majority of water use in California isn't by homeowners.

And Carly Fiorina's statement that the whole thing wouldn't have happened if only the damn tree-huggers had allowed the building of a couple more reservoirs is an outright lie.

But such smokescreens feed political expediency.  Simple causes imply simple solutions, and it's in the interest of Ms. Fiorina's presidential aspirations to claim that the whole thing can be fixed if only we have a business-first, environment-last leader.  So it's unsurprising, I suspect.

But expedient doesn't mean "true," and it'd be nice if some of our political leaders would acknowledge the fact.

UPDATE:  Apparently Fiorina's statement is a lie even in a more fundamental way; there have been 21 million acre-feet of reservoirs and storage added to California's water management system in the last fifty years.  See this source for details.  Thanks for a sharp-eyed and knowledgeable reader for catching this.