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.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Viral stupidity

My dad used to say that ignorance was only skin deep, but stupid goes all the way to the bone.

There's a lot to that.  Ignorance can be cured; after all, the etymology of the word comes from a- (not) and -gnosis (knowledge).  There are plenty of things I'm ignorant about, but I'm always willing to cure that ignorance by working at understanding.

Stupidity, on the other hand, is a different matter.  There's something willful about stupidity.  There's a stubborn sense of "I don't know and I don't care," leading to my dad's wise assessment that on some level stupidity is a choice.  Stupidity is not simply ignorance; it's ignorance plus the decision that ignorance is good enough.

What my dad may have not realized, though, is that there's a third circle of hell, one step down even from stupidity.  Science historian Robert Proctor of Stanford University has made this his area of study, a field he has christened agnotology -- the "study of culturally constructed ignorance."

Proctor is interested in something that makes stupidity look positively innocent; the deliberate cultivation of stupidity by people who are actually intelligent.  This happens when special interest groups foster confusion among laypeople for their own malign purposes, and see to it that such misinformation goes viral.  For example, this is clearly what is happening with respect to anthropogenic climate change.  There are plenty of people in the petroleum industry who are smart enough to read and understand scientific papers, who can evaluate data and evidence, who can follow a rational argument.  That they do so, and still claim to be unconvinced, is stupidity.

That they then lie and misrepresent the science in order to cast doubt in the minds of less well-informed people in order to push a corporate agenda is one step worse.

"People always assume that if someone doesn't know something, it's because they haven't paid attention or haven't yet figured it out," Proctor says.  "But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth—or drowning it out—or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what's true and what's not."

[image courtesy of Nevit Dilman and the Wikimedia Commons]

The same sort of thing accounts for the continuing claims that President Obama is a secret Muslim, that Hillary Clinton was personally responsible for the Benghazi attacks, that jet impacts were insufficient to bring down the Twin Towers on 9/11 so it must have been an "inside job."  Proctor says the phenomenon is even responsible for the spread of creationism -- although I would argue that this isn't quite the same thing.  Most of the people pushing creationism are, I think, true believers, not cynical hucksters who know perfectly well that what they're saying isn't true and are only spreading the message to bamboozle the masses.  (Although I have to admit that the "why are there still monkeys?" and "the Big Bang means that nothing exploded and made everything" arguments are beginning to seem themselves like they're one step lower than stupidity, given how many times these objections have been answered.)

"Ignorance is not just the not-yet-known, it’s also a political ploy, a deliberate creation by powerful agents who want you 'not to know'," Proctor says.  "We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise.  Even though knowledge is accessible, it does not mean it is accessed."

David Dunning of Cornell University, who gave his name to the Dunning-Kruger effect (the idea that people systematically overestimate their own knowledge), agrees with Proctor.  "While some smart people will profit from all the information now just a click away, many will be misled into a false sense of expertise," Dunning says.  "My worry is not that we are losing the ability to make up our own minds, but that it’s becoming too easy to do so.  We should consult with others much more than we imagine.  Other people may be imperfect as well, but often their opinions go a long way toward correcting our own imperfections, as our own imperfect expertise helps to correct their errors."

All of which, it must be said, is fairly depressing.  That we can have more information at our fingertips than ever before in history, and still be making the same damned misjudgments, is a dismal conclusion.  It is worse still that there are people who are taking advantage of this willful ignorance to push popular opinion around for their own gain.

So my dad is right; ignorance is curable, stupidity reaches the bone.  And what Proctor and Dunning study, I think, goes past the bone, all the way to the heart.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


I am often stunned by the level of credulity exhibited by some folks.

Take, for example, the incident that occurred a few days ago at a four-day motivational seminar called "Unleashing the Power Within" hosted by speaker Tony Robbins.  According to the article, Robbins's seminars cost between $1,000 and $3,000 to attend, and the high point of the thing is that you get to walk barefoot on red-hot coals.

[image courtesy of photographer Jens Buurgaard Nielsen and the Wikimedia Commons]

Me, I'd pay $1,000 to avoid having to walk on red-hot coals.  But these people evidently thought this was a great idea.  And to be fair, apparently there are circumstances in which you can walk on coals and not get burned -- and a good, physics-based explanation of how that can happen.

The problem is, it doesn't always work out that way, and when it doesn't, major ouchies occur.  Which is what happened last week in Dallas, Texas...

... to thirty seminar participants.

Now I can see how one person could get burned, or two, or maybe even three.  But you'd think that when the 23rd person shrieked "HOLY FUCK MY FEET ARE BURNING OFF" that the remaining participants would go, "Okay, maybe not."  What did Robbins do, line the participants up in decreasing order of intelligence, or something?

So Dallas Fire Rescue was called in, and thirty people were treated for injuries.

"It felt like someone had taken a hot iron and pressed it against my feet " said seminar participant Paul Gold of West Palm Beach, Florida, who suffered second-degree burns on both feet.  "In hindsight, jumping off would have been a fantastic idea.  But when you're in the spirit of the moment, you're kinda focused on one task."

I dunno, I think I'd have to be pretty damn focused not to think of getting off a bed of hot coals when my feet are about to burst into flame.

Gold added that he thought he'd signed a hold-harmless waiver before participating.  He signed something, he was certain about that, but isn't sure what it said.

Which supports my contention that the firewalkers weren't chosen for their critical thinking ability.

Another participant, Jacqueline Luxemberg, said that part of the problem was that a lot of the participants weren't following the leaders' directions, but were concentrating more on taking selfies and videos.  So look for a rash of Facebook photos with captions like, "This is me just before my lower legs caught on fire."

Look, I'm all for facing your fears.  There is something pretty empowering about facing down something you thought you couldn't handle, achieving a goal you were sure you would never manage.  But there are far better ways to do it than tromping across a bed of red-hot charcoal briquets.  For one thing, whether you get burned or not has nothing to do with your mental state -- it's physics, pure and simple.  Second, there's a decent chance you'll end up with blisters all over the soles of your feet, which has got to make walking uncomfortable for a week or two thereafter.

And third, you're putting thousands of dollars into the hands of people who are trying to convince you that walking on hot coals is a great idea.  Myself, I can think of lots of other uses for a thousand bucks than giving it to Tony Robbins.  Add to that the woo-woo mystical trappings a lot of those people weave into their presentations, and I'll get my motivation elsewhere, thanks.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Taking offense

A few days ago, Neil Gaiman wrote the following perceptive words:
I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase “In these days of political correctness…” talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin.  And I thought, “That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’.  That’s just treating other people with respect.” 
Which made me oddly happy. I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase “politically correct” wherever we could with “treating other people with respect”, and it made me smile.

You should try it.  It’s peculiarly enlightening. 
I know what you’re thinking now.  You’re thinking “Oh my god, that’s treating other people with respect gone mad!”
Which I agree with, for the most part.  Gaiman is right that people often use "political correctness" as a catchall to cover their own asses, to excuse themselves for holding opinions that are bigoted or narrow-minded.  To me, the phrase has come to be almost as much of a red flag as when someone starts a conversation with, "I don't mean to sound racist/sexist/homophobic, but..."

On the other hand, there is an undeniable tendency in our culture to equate "offensiveness" with "having our opinions challenged."  Witness, for example, the professors at the University of Northern Colorado who are being investigated for offending their students -- by presenting, and asking students to consider, opposing viewpoints.

One professor was reported for asking students to think and write about conflicting views of homosexuality in our society.  As part of the assignment, the professor had asked students to consider the following:  " Is this harmful?  Is this acceptable?  Is it legal?  Is this Christianity?  And gay marriage: Should it be legal?  Is homosexuality immoral as Christians suggest?"

Note that the professor wasn't saying that homosexuality is immoral, or that the answer to any of the other questions posed above was "yes;" (s)he was asking the students to consider the claim, and creating an evidence-based argument for or against it.  The student filing the complaint didn't see it that way.

"I do not believe that students should be required to listen to their own rights and personhood debated," the student wrote.  "[This professor] should remove these topics from the list of debate topics.  Debating the personhood of an entire minority demographic should not be a classroom exercise, as the classroom should not be an actively hostile space for people with underprivileged identities."

Because learning how to counter fallacious arguments with facts, and answer loaded questions rationally, somehow creates an "actively hostile space."

[image courtesy of photographer Fredler Brave and the Wikimedia Commons]

The second professor's case is even more telling, as it came about because (s)he had assigned students to read the famous article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt called "The Coddling of the American Mind," which addresses precisely the problem I'm writing about in this post.  After reading the paper, the professor asked the students to consider the questions raised by the article, specifically the issues of "trigger warnings" for minorities such as homosexuals and transgender individuals in reading controversial material.

"I would just like the professor to be educated about what trans is and how what he said is not okay because as someone who truly identifies as a transwomen [sic] I was very offended and hurt by this," one student wrote in the complaint.

The university complaints office backed the student.  The professor was instructed not to interject opinions into his/her lessons -- including those of the authors who wrote the article.

So there's something to be gained by having students avoid all opinions that they disagree with?  If they think they're not going to run into those once they leave college, they're fooling themselves -- and if they haven't been pushed into thinking through how to respond to bigots and people who are simply ignorant, they're basically choosing to be intellectually disarmed adults.

Students should be forced to consider all sorts of viewpoints.  Not to change their minds, necessarily, but to allow them to think through their own beliefs.  I tell my Critical Thinking students on the first day of class, "You might well leave this class at the end of the semester with your beliefs unchanged. You will not leave with your beliefs unchallenged."

Now, note that I am not in any way trying to excuse teachers (on any level) who try to use their classrooms as a field for proselytizing.  I only have the one source for the incidents at the University of Northern Colorado, and there might be more to the story than I've read.  If these professors were using their positions of authority to press their own bigoted viewpoints about gender and sexual identity on their students, they deserve censure.

But I suspect that's not what's going on, here.  We've become a polarized society, with half of us lambasting the political correctness movement and simultaneously feeling as if their right to free speech makes it acceptable to offend, and the other half afraid to voice an opinion for fear of treading on some hypersensitive individual's toes.  What's lost is the opportunity for civil discourse -- which, after all, is one of the best and most reliable pathways toward learning and understanding.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Score card

It's the last week of June, and I just wrapped up another school year.  My 29th overall, which still seems kind of impossible to me until I realize that a child of a former student graduated from high school this year.  Then it seems pretty real, along with a realization of "Good lord, I'm getting old."

So I've been at this for a long time, and with, I think, some measure of success.  Which is why I read my letter from the school district awarding me my numerical grade for the school year with a mixture of amusement and irritation.

I won't leave you hanging; I got an 81.  I got an 84 last year and a 91 the year before that, so according to the state rating scale, I'm becoming incrementally less competent.  It can't, of course, be because the metric is flawed, that the three grades are comparing different assessments of different students put together in different ways.  No, in the minds of the geniuses at NYSED, this number means something fundamental about my effectiveness as a teacher.

In fact, that's what an 81 gets you; a designation of "Effective."  You have to have a 92 to be "Highly Effective."  If you're below 75, you're "Developing."  I'm glad I didn't land in that category.  If after 29 years at this game, I'm not "Developed," I don't hold out much hope.

What amused me most about all of this nonsense was the paragraph that said, and I quote:
Please remember that your scores are confidential and should not be shared in any way.  In accordance with state regulations, the parent of a child in your class may request your composite score and rating as well as that of the principal.  For your own protection, teachers are strongly discouraged from sharing their own scores outside of the district process.
Which is a recommendation I'm happy to toss to the wind (along with the aforementioned letter).  If we keep our scores and the way they were generated under wraps, it allows the statistics gurus at the State Education Department to keep everyone under the impression that they actually know what they're doing.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Let me get specific, here.  My 91 two years ago was based upon the scores of my Critical Thinking classes and my AP Biology class.  Critical Thinking is an elective, and while the day-to-day work is difficult (requiring a lot of thinking, surprisingly) the material that is suitable for an exam at the end of the year is actually quite easy.  So my students performed brilliantly, as I would expect.  Additionally, that year's AP class was an extremely talented group who knocked the final exam clear out of the park.

Fast forward to last year.  My score last year was based on a combination of my Regents (Introductory) Biology class and my AP Biology classes.  Because of a strange policy of piling students who are classified as learning disabled into the same class, last year's Regents Biology was half composed of students who have been identified with learning disabilities.  Many of these students were hard-working and wonderful to teach, but it's unsurprising that that part of my grade went down.  My two AP classes last year were a friendly, cheerful lot who also happened to be somewhat motivationally challenged, and who by the end of the school year were far more invested in playing Cards Against Humanity than they were in studying for my final.  So that accounts for the remainder of the decline in my score.

This year, my score was a composite once again between Regents and AP Biology, but this time my Regents classes were among the most talented, hardest-working freshman and sophomores I've ever had.  My AP class was small but outstanding, but because of the way the scoring is done, they would have to score on my (very difficult) final exam higher than a target determined by their score on the (far easier) Regents Biology exam for me to have that student's score count in my favor.  On the part of my assessment that came from my AP class, I got a grand total of three points of of a possible twenty -- mostly because of students who got an 81 or 82 on an exam where their target was 85.

So my three scores in three consecutive years have absolutely nothing to do with one another, and (I would argue) nothing whatsoever to do with my competence as a teacher.  But because there's no idea that is so stupid that someone can't tinker with it to make it even stupider, next year the State Department of Education has informed us that we'll be assessed a different way.  Our joy at hearing this pronouncement was short-lived, because once we heard how they're going to score us, we all rolled our eyes so hard it looked like the email was inducing grand mal seizures.

Next year, unless over half of your students are in classes that take a mandated state exam at the end of the year, 50% of your score will be based on an average of the "Big Five" exams, the ones that all students have to take to graduate -- English, US History, Algebra I, Global History, and Biology.   (The other half, fortunately, will be based on evaluation by an administrator.)  If you think you can't have read that correctly, you did; the half of the high school band teacher's grade (for example) will come from students' scores on exams that she had absolutely nothing to do with.  Even for me, who teaches one of the "big five" -- less than half of my students next year will be in Regents Biology, so I'll be getting the composite score, too.

But don't worry!  Because students mostly score pretty well on these exams, and the score will be calculated using the time-honored statistical technique of averaging averages, we'll all look like we're brilliant.  So in effect, they took an evaluation metric that was almost completely meaningless, and changed it so as to make it completely meaningless.

Because that's clearly how you want an evaluation system to work.

All of this, it must be said, comes from the drive toward "data-driven instruction" -- converting every damn thing we do into numbers.  Couple this with a push toward tying those numbers to tenure, retention, and merit pay, along with a fundamental distrust of the teachers themselves, and we now have a system that is so far removed from any measure of reliability that it's almost funny.

Almost.  Because NYSED, and other state educational agencies, look upon all of this as being deadly serious.  It's all very well for me -- a veteran teacher of nearly three decades who is looking to retire in the next few years -- to laugh about this.  I wouldn't be laughing if I were a new teacher, however, and I'd be laughing even less if I were a college student considering education as a profession.

In fact, it'd make me look closely at what other career options I had.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Take the wheel

One of my favorite units to teach in my Critical Thinking classes is ethics.

I'm no expert in the topic; not only do I not have a degree in philosophy, I have a way of seeing everything in so many different shades of gray that most of the time it's hard for me to make a decision regarding my own ethical standards.  I still love the topic for a number of reasons -- because it brings up issues that the students themselves often haven't considered, because it provokes fantastic class discussions, and because it appeals to the risk-taker in me.  I seldom ever know where the discussion is going to go ahead of time.

We usually start the unit with some exercises in ethical decision-making, presented through a list of (admittedly contrived) scenarios that force the students into thinking about such issues as relative worth.  Examples:  there are two individuals who are dying of a terminal illness, and you have one dose of medicine that can save one of them.  Who do you save?  What if it's two strangers -- what more would you need to know to make the decision?  A stranger and a family member?  (This one results in nearly 100% consensus, unsurprisingly.)  A stranger and your beloved dog?  (Are bonds of love more important, or is human life always more valuable than the life of a non-human animal?)  And for the students who say they'd always choose a human life over their dog's... what if the human was a serial killer?

Some students are frustrated by the hypothetical nature of these questions, although the majority see the point of considering such issues.  And there are situations in which such decisions need to be thought through beforehand -- such as in the case of self-driving cars.

Self-driving cars are an up-and-coming technology, designed to eliminate cases of human-caused automobile accidents (caused by fatigue, impairment, loss of attention, or simply poor driving skills).  And while a well-designed self-driving car would probably eliminate the majority of accidents, it does bring up an interesting ethical dilemma with respect to how they should be programmed in the case of an unavoidable accident.

Suppose, for example, there are three pedestrians in the road at night, and a self-driving car is programmed to swerve to miss them -- but swerving takes the car into a wall, killing the driver.  In another scenario, a truck is in the lane of an oncoming self-driving car, and in order to miss colliding with the truck, the car has to cut into the bike lane -- striking and killing a cyclist.  How do you program the car to make such decisions?

Google's Lexus RX 450h Self-Driving Car [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This was the subject of a paper in Science this week by a team led by Jean-François Bonnefon at the University of Toulouse Capitole in France.  They created a survey that described the problem, and asked the following question: should self-driving cars be programmed to minimize casualties at all costs, even if it meant sacrificing the driver's life?  Or should they be programmed to save the driver at all costs, even if it meant putting others' lives at risk?

The results were fascinating, and illustrative of basic human nature.  Over 75% of the respondents said that a self-driving car should be programmed to minimize casualties, even if it meant that the driver died as a result.  It's a variant of the trolley problem -- more lives saved is always better than fewer lives saved.  But the interesting part came when the researchers asked respondents if they themselves would prefer to have a car that was so programmed, or one that protected the driver's life first -- and the vast majority said they'd want a car that protected them rather than some random pedestrians.

In other words, saving lives is good, provided that one of the lives saved is mine.

"Most people want to live a world in which everybody owns driverless cars that minimize casualties," says Iyad Rahwan, a computer scientist at MIT who co-authored the paper along with Bonnefon and Azim Shariff of the University of Oregon, "but they want their own car to protect them at all costs...  These cars have the potential to revolutionize transportation, eliminating the majority of deaths on the road (that's over a million global deaths annually) but as we work on making the technology safer we need to recognize the psychological and social challenges they pose too."

You have to wonder how all of this will be settled.  While driverless cars have the potential to reduce overall accidents and automobile fatalities, the programming still requires that some protocol be determined for decision-making when accidents are unavoidable.  Myself, I wouldn't want to be the one to make that call.  I have a hard enough time making decisions that don't involve life and death.

But it does give me one more interesting ethical conundrum to discuss with my Critical Thinking classes next year.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Risk and brain amoebas

We humans are poor at assessing risk.

It's something I've commented upon before; we tend to vastly overestimate the likelihood of being harmed by something gruesome and unusual (such as a shark attack), while vastly underestimate the likelihood of being harmed by something commonplace (such as smoking).  This leads to missed opportunities and unnecessary anxiety in the first case, and ignoring truly dangerous behaviors in the second.

This comes up because of an article I've seen posted now several times, about an Ohio teenager who died from an infection by the "brain-eating amoeba" Naegleria fowleri.  The 18-year-old victim appears to have been infected while on a whitewater rafting trip near Charlotte, North Carolina, and several days later came down with the fever, chills, and headache associated with primary amoebic meningioencephalitis, which is as horrifying as it sounds.  The microorganism gets into your system through inhaled water, and it travels through the olfactory nerves to the brain.  There it turns from eating its usual food source, bacterial films in freshwater sediments, to consuming your brain cells.  The disease has a 97% mortality rate.

Naegleria fowleri [image courtesy of the CDC]

Unfortunately, the story (although correctly reported, for the most part) is inducing widespread hysteria from people who evidently missed the following line: "The CDC reported 37 infections in the 10 years from 2006 to 2015."  Let me put that statistic a different way; given the current population of the United States (318 million), that amounts to about one death per hundred million people per year.  Even if there were three times as many cases that go unreported -- unlikely, given the severity of the symptoms and the likelihood of dying as a result -- it's still a tiny, tiny risk.

Interestingly, these numbers are ten times smaller than the likelihood of your being crushed to death by a piece of your own furniture (303 deaths in the last ten years).

So here are a few of the comments I've seen posted in the last couple of days, edited to reflect the far more likely scenario of your being killed by a falling television cabinet.  I've inserted "television watching" and equivalent phrases for "swimming" and "hard hat" for "nose plug."
  • I wish I hadn't read about this!!!  I'm never sitting in front of an unsecured television cabinet again.
  • Just in time for summer.  So much for television watching.
  • They should post warning signs on television cabinets!  It could have prevented this tragedy.
  • Every time I'm sitting in front of the television, I'm gonna think about this.
  • I'm protecting my kids from this.  They'll never watch television again without wearing a hard hat.
There.  I hope that sounded as ridiculous to you as it did to me.  And remember; there is ten times the justification for making those statements as there is for making equivalent statements about brain-eating amoebas.

Note that I'm not trying to minimize the tragedy of what happened.  A young life cut short is always sad, especially given how unlikely an occurrence it was.  What is completely unjustified is the panic that these sorts of stories always induce, even in people who should know better.  The U.S. National Whitewater Center, where the young woman is thought to have been infected, has responded by hyperchlorinating their well water, and health officials in North Carolina have recommended "holding your head above water when taking part in warm freshwater activities" and "avoid(ing) water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high water temperature and low water levels."

So when are you supposed to go swimming?  January?

The bottom line is that everything you do is a risk.  Most of the risks are quite small, and chances are that you do several things every day without a thought that are orders of magnitude riskier than your being killed by brain amoebas.  If you really want to lower your risk of illness and death, quit smoking, eat a healthy diet, drive carefully, find ways to reduce your stress levels, and get enough exercise.

And keep an eye on any unsecured television cabinets.  They're just waiting for an opportunity to strike.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Finding yourself

Today's story is more of a puzzlement than anything else.  It came to my attention thanks to a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia, who sent me a link to a site called What3Words with the message, "People will surely be making up conspiracy theories about the secret meaning of THESE words being attached to THAT place.  So I thought you might want to get the jump on them by making up your own."

What3Words turns out to be a "universal addressing system" that divides the entire world into 57 trillion three-meter-by-three-meter squares, and gives each of them a unique address made up of three random words.  My classroom, for example (or at least one three-by-three block of it) is extras.equine.outsmart.  As the "About" page explains it:
The world is poorly addressed. This is frustrating and costly in developed nations; and in developing nations this is life-threatening and growth limiting. 
What3Words is a unique combination of just 3 words that identifies a 3m x 3m square, anywhere on the planet. 
It’s far more accurate than a postal address and it’s much easier to remember, use and share than a set of coordinates. 
Better addressing improves customer experience, delivers business efficiencies, drives growth and helps the social & economic development of countries.
Which may well be true, but still strikes me as kind of weird.  Why do we need that kind of accuracy?  My classroom floor, for example, is about 7 meters by 12 meters in area.  So this means that just in my classroom alone, there are on the order of eight different "addresses."  If I cross the room, I've moved from "extras.equine.outsmart" to "ranch.speculated.dressing."  So what does that gain me?  If I order a pizza, and the delivery person can't find me when I'm six meters away, the pizza place needs to hire a new delivery person, not use a better addressing system.

I have to admit the map is fun to play with, though.  The assignment of the words seems random to me, although there may be a deeper structure there than I'm seeing.  The site explains:
Each What3Words language is powered by a wordlist of 25,000 – 40,000 dictionary words.  The wordlists go through multiple automated and human processes before being sorted by an algorithm that takes into account word length, distinctiveness, frequency, and ease of spelling and pronunciation. 
Offensive words and homophones (sale & sail) have been removed.  Simpler, more common words are allocated to more populated areas and the longest words are used in 3 word addresses in unpopulated areas.
I'm a little disappointed at the removal of the offensive words, because that could create an opportunity for a great deal of barbed hilarity.  Just think, for example, if the headquarters of the Church of Scientology were located at "bloody.fucking.nonsense."

And it does offer more precision, especially in areas that lack ordinary street systems (the site says it's already being used by the postal system in Mongolia).  But here in the United States, I'm not sure what's to be gained, especially since (most) house numbering systems are pretty logical.  You'd expect that 101 South Street would be next to 103 South Street, and across the road from 102 South Street, and most of the time you'd be correct.

What3Words addresses, on the other hand, don't tell you much of anything.  Good luck figuring out what "huge.mutant.weasel" is next to, for example.  The nuclear power plant, probably.

I guess some street addresses are equally bizarre, however.  [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

There's also the problem of minor misspellings making a huge difference.  One corner of my classroom, in Trumansburg, New York, is "extras.equine.outsmart."  On the other hand, "extra.equine.outsmart" is in Salem, South Dakota, and "extras.equine.outsmarted" is in southern Peru.  At least if you're trying to find 219 East Main Street, Trumansburg, New York, USA, you won't be off by 6,000 kilometers.

And since there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the choice of words, I'm afraid my friend is quite right; it's only a matter of time before the conspiracy-minded start "discovering" their own meanings for What3Words addresses.  A search for the What3Words address "all.seeing.eye" came up with nothing, as did ""  Most of the addresses I've seen are simply weird and random.  But there are bound to be some combinations that raise eyebrows, and believe me, someone is gonna find them.

Anyhow, that's our news from the "Who Even Thought Of This?" department.  So I'll sign off from my comfortable office at "mango.trinkets.embedding," and am heading for a nap in my hammock over at "," which seems a little misnamed.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Blaming the victims

I would like, just once, to be able to read the news without being outraged.

Lately that wish has been a losing proposition.  Every other news story these days provides enough material to fuel thermonuclear-level fury in anyone who has a shred of sensibility and compassion.  It's reached the point where I'm thinking of avoiding the news altogether.  It seems preferable to remain ignorant than dying of a self-induced aneurysm.

Today's contribution from the Fountains of Rage Department hearkens back to the story of Brock Turner, the Stanford student who raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and got a slap-on-the-wrist six month jail sentence.  To add to the injustice, Turner's father and friends rose to his defense, never once mentioning the victim; the father expressed grief over his son's having to pay such a price for "twenty minutes of action."

At least in this case the victim found her voice, writing a letter to her attacker that was so poignant and powerful that it brought me to tears.  The judge in the case, Aaron Persky, has been the target of a well-deserved backlash because of his caving to white male privilege and victim blaming, and in fact was removed from another sexual assault case by Santa Clara county district attorney Jeff Rosen. "After ... the recent turn of events, we lack confidence that Judge Persky can fairly participate in this upcoming hearing in which a male nurse sexually assaulted an anesthetized female patient," Rosen said.

Well, yeah.  And it'd be nice if this kind of retribution were served around more generally.  Instead, we have two news stories that illustrate that even this level of justice is far from the rule.

First, we have a case in England where a wealthy Eton student who was found in possession of 1,185 images of child pornography was allowed to be tried under a false name in order to "protect his family's reputation."  In addition, he received no jail time -- he was given an eighteen-month suspended sentence.

The student, who was tried under the name of Andrew Picard, would probably have remained comfortably anonymous if it hadn't been for an article in The Daily Mirror that slipped up and revealed his true identity as Andrew Boeckman, son of Phillip J. Boeckman, a wealthy lawyer whose clients have included Goldman Sachs and J. P. Morgan.  The article vanished from the internet -- "mysteriously," says Summer Winterbottom in Evolve Politics -- but is still available in a cached copy, the link to which is in the article cited above.

Andrew Boeckman ("Andrew Picard") [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The judge in the case, Peter Ross, seemed more sympathetic with Boeckman and his family than he did with the victims, some of whom were toddlers.  "Your family didn’t deserve that (suffering) but it is a consequence of this sort of offending," Ross said during the trial.  "Inevitably your privileged background and where you were going to school added a degree of frisson to the reporting."

Story #2 comes from my home state of New York, where a bill to help the survivors of child abuse was killed in the State Assembly by passing the deadline without coming to a vote.  The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, would have increased the time a sexual abuse case could be pursued by five years, created a six-month window to revive old cases, and treated public and private entities identically in cases of sexual abuse.  The Assembly, however, saw fit to let the bill fail rather than allowing it to come to a vote.

Angry yet?  Just wait.  Because Catholic League President Bill Donohue crowed about the demise of the Child Victims Act, saying that Markey is a "principle enemy of the church" and that the act was a "sham."

Then he made the following statement, which I had to read three times before I could honestly believe my eyes: "This was a vindictive bill pushed by lawyers and activists out to rape the Catholic Church."

I beg your pardon?  Curious choice of words, given that what you're gloating about is protecting rapists.  But not content even with that outrageous statement, Donohue had the following to say in addition:
If the statute of limitations were lifted on offenses involving the sexual abuse of minors, the only winners would be greedy and bigoted lawyers out to line their pockets in a rash of settlements.  The big losers would be the poor, about whom the attorneys and activists care little: When money is funneled from parishioners to lawyers, services to the needy suffer.  The Catholic League is proud of its role in this victory.
How about the "big losers" now, who are the victims of predators who use their position of power and authority to inflict harm on children?   Donohue, and the members of the New York State Assembly who were complicit in this decision, have chosen to protect a powerful and wealthy institution rather than giving aid to the victims of sexual abuse.

Bill Donohue [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But that's what people like Donohue, and British Judge Peter Ross, and California Judge Aaron Persky excel at; swiveling the blame around so that the victims become somehow culpable in their own injury.

The bottom line is that no institution, family, or individual should be above the law, regardless of their wealth, power, or self-perception of holiness.  The first priority in these cases should be the welfare of the victims, and seeking justice for the damage that has been inflicted upon them.  And the fact that people like Ross, Persky, and Donohue are in a position to deflect our attention from that priority makes them guilty of perpetuating a culture in which rape victims, however young, are to blame for their own suffering.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Remembrance of things past

Sometimes science uncovers things that are profoundly unsettling.  The problem is, as Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out, "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe it."

Believing it, though, can run counter to our own intuition.  Consider, for example, the work of Julia Shaw, psychologist and lecturer at London South Bank University, which indicates that much of what we think we remember is simply wrong.

Shaw is a specialist in "false memory," our brain's ability to craft completely convincing memories of events that never happened.  And they're not minor and uncommon glitches, but pervasive and unavoidable.  "The question isn't whether our memories are false, it's how false are our memories," Shaw says, in an interview with Scientific American earlier this year.  "Complex and full false memories (of entire events) are probably less common than partial false memories (where we misremember parts of events that happened), but we already naturally fill in so many gaps between pieces of memories and make so many assumptions, that our personal past is essentially just a piece of fiction."

Nor are they always about small and insignificant pieces of our past.  In a study by Maryann Garry and Matthew P. Gerry, of the University of Wellington (New Zealand) Department of Psychology, the researchers found that complex and detailed false memories could be implanted by the simple expedient of a cleverly doctored photograph -- inducing one test subject to "remember" taking a hot-air balloon ride that never happened.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I find this deeply unnerving, mostly because of how rock-solid my memories seem to me.  "Of course it happened that way," my brain says to me.  "I remember it.  I can picture it.  It happened."

Shaw and others, however, have conclusively shown that this is a fallacious stance.  "I have always been self-conscious about my autobiographical memories, since I have always been really bad at remembering things that happen in my personal life," Shaw says.  "I am pretty good, on the other hand at remembering facts and information.  This is part of why I was confident my research on creating false memories could work, since if my memory was like this surely there must be others out there whose memories also don't work perfectly."

Which turns out to be an understatement.  "While I was always cautious about memory accuracy (as far as I remember, hah!)," Shaw continues, "now I am convinced that no memories are to be trusted. I am confident that we create our memories every day anew, if ever so slightly.  It's such a terrifying but beautiful notion that every day you wake up with a slightly different personal past."

For me, emphasis on the "terrifying" part, especially considering how much faith most of us have in our memories.  Eyewitness testimony is considered one of the strongest pieces of evidence in courts of law, and the work of Shaw and others has shown that it is in fact one of the weakest.  But on a more personal level, it's distressing to realize that so much of what we think of as our personal history might well be false.  It brings to mind the numerous instances when my wife and I have argued over the way a particular event happened.  Each of us was dead certain we remembered it right.  In fact -- it might be that neither of us was right.

The scariest thing to me is that there seems to be no way to tell the false memories from the accurate ones.  "[O]nce they take hold false memories are no different from true memories in the brain," Shaw says.  "This means that they have the same properties as any other memories, and are indistinguishable from memories of events that actually happened. The only way to check is to find corroborating evidence for any particular memory that you are interested in 'validating'."

Which, of course, isn't always possible.  So the unsettling truth is that what you remember of your past is a patchwork quilt of real events, partially misremembered events, and complete made-up bullshit your brain has invented.  The next time you're arguing with a friend over something in the past...

... remember that.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Tuna meltdown

So we're starting the week with another hoax.

I probably wouldn't even bother to address this one if I hadn't already seen it four times.  It's an article from the site News 4 with the scary title, "Massive Bumble Bee Recall After 2 Employees Admit Cooking a Man and Mixing Him With a Batch of Tuna."

[image courtesy of artist Duane Raver Jr. and the Wikimedia Commons]

If you click the link -- and I don't for a moment suggest you should, because I don't want to be responsible for giving News 4 any more hits on their hit tracker -- you will notice something rather strange; although the headline starts with the words "Massive Bumble Bee Recall," the article mentions nothing about a recall.  Nada.  It goes into a rather horrifying story of one José Melena, who was performing maintenance inside a 35-foot-long industrial oven when two coworkers dumped 12,000 pounds of tuna into it and turned it on.  It wasn't until the oven was opened two hours later that the accident was discovered and Melena's body found.

Awful.  Nauseating, even.  The problem is that despite what the headline says, Melena's death and the recall have absolutely nothing to do with one another, and in fact, happened four years apart.  Not only that, Melena was not deliberately cooked and then "mixed with a batch of tuna."

Melena's death happened in October of 2012, and resulted in the California plant's Operational Director and its Safety Manager being charged with violating Occupational Safety & Health Administration rules that caused a death.  Bumble Bee Foods was fined $1.5 million.  The tuna, needless to say, was all destroyed.

The recall, on the other hand, happened in March of 2016, and sounds like it was a pretty minor incident.  Here's the recall notice:
Bumble Bee Foods, LLC announced today that it is voluntarily recalling 3 specific UPC codes of canned Chunk Light tuna due to process deviations that occurred in a co-pack facility not owned or operated by Bumble Bee.  These deviations were part of the commercial sterilization process and could result in contamination by spoilage organisms or pathogens, which could lead to life-threatening illness if consumed.  It is important to note that there have been no reports of illness associated with these products to date.  No other production codes or products are affected by this recall.
So as you can see, the two are completely separate events.  If you're concerned about having bought one of the cans of recalled tuna, the link I posted above has a list of the can codes affected.

Which took me all of five minutes of research to verify.  Too much, apparently, for some people, because the article seems to be causing widespread meltdown.  Here are some of the comments I've seen posted :
  • EWWWWWWW I'm never eating tuna again
  • I wonder what else is in canned food that we never find out about?
  • This kind of thing probably goes unreported all the time -- surprised this one got out
  • I'm throwing out every can of tuna in my kitchen.
  • Why were those two not charged with murder?  Our legal system fucking sucks.
  • Corporate America will do anything to turn a buck, why did they have to be forced to do a recall, and why am I only now hearing about this?  Nothing in the MSM, of course.
Yes, well, the reason there's nothing in the MSM (mainstream media) is that the story is being completely misreported.  The original incident definitely made the news -- I remember seeing it when it happened -- but the blending of the story with the recall notice is a pure falsehood.

So once again we're back at "check your damn sources before you post something."  If you're a worry-wart, and still have uneaten Bumble Bee tuna from March, give a glance at the can codes if you like.  But don't worry that there's bits of human mixed into it.

That's soylent green, not tuna.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Legalizing hypocrisy

I cannot stomach pious hypocrisy.

Unfortunately, that's all we're being served by Congress at the moment with respect to providing protection to LGBT individuals.  Only days after one of the worst mass murders of gays and lesbians ever, the House of Representatives voted to block a bill protecting LGBT employees of federal contractors.  The sponsor of the bill, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, thought it'd be a no-brainer.

"It’s hard to imagine that any act that is so horrific could lead to anything positive," Maloney said.  "But if we were going to do anything, it would be a very positive step to say that discrimination has no place in our law and to reaffirm the president’s actions in this area.  Seems to me a pretty basic thing to do."

Seems so to me, too.  The House disagreed.  So do the majority of state governments, apparently.  At the time of this writing, less than half of the states in the US (22, to be precise) have anti-discrimination laws that address sexual orientation.  Only 19 specifically address gender identity.

Instead, many states are now moving toward passing laws legalizing discrimination against LGBT individuals based on "deeply-held religious ideals."  Three -- Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee -- already have such laws.

You know what?  If your religion impels you to discriminate against a minority, you need to find a different fucking religion.

So the pious hypocrites keep pretending to care, while simultaneously sandbagging every piece of legislation that might actually make a difference.  And the toll keeps rising, not only because of well-publicized events like the Orlando massacre, but because of the ongoing pressure on LGBT individuals to hide and/or deny who they are.  No surprise, is it, that suicide rates are four times higher among LGBT youth than straight ones, and nearly a quarter of transgender individuals have attempted to take their own lives?

Oh, but never mind all that, because House Rules Committee chairman, Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, said his "thoughts and prayers" were with the people of Orlando after the attack.  That should be enough, right?  Then he turned around and joined the others in voting to block the anti-discrimination bill, and when interviewed about it all, even denied that Pulse was a gay nightclub. "It was a young person’s nightclub, I’m told," Sessions said.  "And there were some [LGBT people] there, but it was mostly Latinos."

Because "Latino" and "gay" are apparently mutually exclusive categories.

So to Sessions and his colleagues, I have the following to say: you can take your thoughts and prayers and stick them up your ass.  Sideways.  Your thoughts and prayers accomplish nothing.  Your actions, on the other hand, perpetuate prejudice and discrimination.  You and and the rest of Congress had the opportunity to make a difference.  Instead, you chose to side with the bigots, all the while uttering mealy-mouthed platitudes designed to feign a stance of compassion.

Well, you're not fooling anyone.

Nor are the powers-that-be in North Carolina, where there's been an ongoing battle over the law prohibiting transgender individuals from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identification because of some bullshit argument about protecting women from attacks, and yet which authorized the destruction of 72 rape kits containing genetic evidence from open/unsolved cases of rape and molestation.

Right, North Carolina officials.  Explain to me again how much you care about attacks on innocent women and children, and how the bathroom bill was totally not about discrimination against LGBT individuals.

And the right-wing media continues to misrepresent the situation, and people continue to be suckered.  Just a couple of days ago, I saw a post on Facebook from a friend of a friend that might be the most vile thing I've ever seen on social media.  This woman went on for paragraphs about how sick she was of the liberals destroying the moral fiber of America, and how she was furious that "gays and lesbians now have more rights" than she does, and how there's an agenda to take away all of the rights from straight white working-class Americans.

I felt physically ill after reading this.  More rights?  Such as what?  Such as the right to walk down the street holding hands with the person you love without being afraid that you'll be harassed, attacked, perhaps killed?  The right to ask someone out in a bar without having the nagging fear that if you guess wrong, it might be the last mistake you'll ever make?  The right to marry, the right to expect service in a place of business, the right to hold down a job and not be the subject of discrimination over something you can't control?

At least if you're going to hold these sorts of beliefs, then be up front about the fact that you're espousing a doctrine of hatred against an entire sector of our society.  Don't try to hide behind a pious shield of false and twisted morality.  Maybe you're the ones that need to re-read a few passages in your favorite book, most especially Matthew, chapter 23:
[T]hey say, and do not.  For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers... Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.  Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Cancer, coffee, and science reporting

Given the way science is presented in the media, it's no wonder a lot of average laypeople have the impression that scientists don't know what the hell they're doing.

The situation is worst, I think, with respect to health research.  I hear students say it all the time:  "Meh, everything causes cancer."  "Doesn't matter, if they say it causes heart disease today, tomorrow they'll say it won't."  Some of it, of course, is wishful thinking on the part of people would like to live on bacon double cheeseburgers with no impact on their fitness, but a lot of it comes from the way medical research is reported.

Take, for example, the article in The Independent a couple of days ago, "Very Hot Drinks 'Probably' Cause Cancer, UN Says."  Starting with the quotation marks around "probably," which I'm guessing were supposed to indicate that the word was a direct quote from the paper, but comes off sounding dubious.  But worse, take a look at how the research was reported:
The World Health Organisation is due to make a number of announcements today on health concerns and benefits of drinking hot beverages such as coffee.  In 1991, the IARC announced coffee "possibly caused cancer."  However, the health body is expected to revise that today to suggest other than concerns over temperature, there is insufficient evidence to say coffee itself causes cancer...  It is believed the temperature, rather than the substance of the drinks, causes cancer of the oesophagus and becomes a risk once beverages have a temperature above 65 C, AFP reports.  The announcement follows a review of more than 1,000 scientific studies on whether there is a link between coffee and cancer, conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
The impression you get is that the researchers were convinced that coffee was a carcinogen, and now they're saying no, it's not, but hot beverages in general are bad.  Only toward the end of the article do you find out that almost no one drinks beverages at temperatures above 65 C, because that's scald-the-mouth territory.  And the 65+ C liquid would have to still be at that temperature by the time it hits your esophagus (owie) in order to boost your risk of esophageal cancer.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So in fact, the research is indicating that almost no one is going to see an increase in cancer incidence from drinking hot beverages, which is exactly the opposite of what most of the article leads you to believe.  In fact, the article doesn't even mention the central issue -- that the problem isn't the temperature, it's the repeated tissue damage and resultant inflammation.  Research has shown that anything that causes chronic inflammation of the esophagus will increase the risk of cancer -- thus the connection between gastro-esophageal reflux disorder and cancer.

Of course, that's not the impression you get from a quick reading of the article, and especially not if all you did was read the headline (which I think is sadly common).  A less-than-careful perusal makes you come away with the idea that you're going to get cancer from sipping your nice cup of hot cocoa -- which is clearly not true.

No wonder people get the impression that the medical researchers, and scientists in general, don't know what they're doing.

I know everyone doesn't have a background in science, so I'm not expecting that the average person is going to read and thoroughly understand an academic paper on cancer research.  So it really is up to the media to make sure they're communicating correctly the gist of what's been found -- and this article in The Independent illustrates that the tendency is to do a pretty piss-poor job.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The price of free speech

It's been kind of a grim week here at Skeptophilia.  The news over the last few days has been seriously depressing, what with the current political situation, the attack in Orlando (and the chest-thumping by ideologues that followed), and the ongoing turmoil in so many parts of the world.  And much as I'd like to return to my happy world of making fun of people who believe in Bigfoot, aliens, and telepathy, I'm afraid we have (at least) one more rather dismal topic to cover.

This one comes up because of Newt Gingrich, who (according to informed sources) is currently hoping to be chosen as Donald Trump's running mate.  And in what looks like a bid to align himself with Trump's "'Murica!  Fuck Yeah!" platform, Gingrich has proposed recreating the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

[image courtesy of photographer Gage Skidmore and the Wikimedia Commons]

You probably know that the original such committee was founded back in the 1930s, first to keep track of (and stop) any infiltration into the United States by the Nazis, and later to do the same thing with the communists.  The committee did nab a couple of Soviet spies -- notably Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers -- but in the process blacklisted hundreds of people whose only crime was attending communist party meetings (or even being friends with someone who had).  Eventually, criticizing the government was all it took (as folk singer Pete Seeger found out).  Careers and reputations were ruined, and the gains in terms of national security were debatable at best.

Now, of course, the target is different; Gingrich wants to go after people with Islamist leanings.  "We originally created the House Un-American Activities Committee to go after Nazis," Gingrich said during an appearance on Fox and Friends this week.  "We passed several laws in 1938 and 1939 to go after Nazis and we made it illegal to help the Nazis.  We're going to presently have to go take the similar steps here... We're going to ultimately declare a war on Islamic supremacists and we're going to say, if you pledge allegiance to ISIS, you are a traitor and you have lost your citizenship.  We're going to take much tougher positions."

Which sounds like a credible position at first.  I certainly have no reason to defend people who have dedicated themselves to ISIS, or whose political and religious beliefs impel them to come over here and harm American citizens.

But the problem is, how do you find out who those people are before they act?  The FBI already monitors people who are suspected Islamists, not that such efforts are foolproof.  But Gingrich seems to be proposing further measures, taking legal action against people who have committed no crime, who have only subscribed to the wrong ideology.

Me, I find this troubling.  It's a slide toward imprisoning people for thought crimes, and one step away from abrogating the right to free speech.

And lest you think I'm overreacting, here; just two days ago, Donald Trump revoked The Washington Post's press credentials because he objected to perceived criticism by the media.  "Based on the incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting of the record setting Trump campaign," he said in a statement, "we are hereby revoking the press credentials of the phony and dishonest Washington Post."

The Post's executive editor, Marty Baron, replied:
Donald Trump's decision to revoke The Washington Post's press credentials is nothing less than a repudiation of the role of a free and independent press.  When coverage doesn't correspond to what the candidate wants it to be, then a news organization is banished. The Post will continue to cover Donald Trump as it has all along -- honorably, honestly, accurately, energetically, and unflinchingly.  We're proud of our coverage, and we're going to keep at it.
Which is it exactly.  If free speech means anything, it must involve allowing citizens to criticize the government.

So the whole thing is moving in a decidedly scary direction.  Look, it's not that I don't appreciate how hard it must be to craft policies that will protect American citizens, insofar as it is possible, from outside threats.  I can't imagine being tasked with monitoring anyone who is suspicious, and making the right call with respect to when to move in and make arrests -- especially given the backlash either way if you're wrong.

But I do know that restricting the right to free speech, muzzling the media, and harassing Americans for perceived "un-American activities," is not the way to go.  We tried it once before, and it didn't work out so well.  The price of free speech is risk -- but it's a cost that is well worth what you gain.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Complexity, uncertainty, and motives

Humans are complex beasts.

I know, it doesn't take a Ph.D. to figure that out.  (Fortunately for me, since I don't have one.)  But I was thinking about this today with regards to Omar Seddique Mateen, the perpetrator of Sunday's slaughter of 49 men and women in an Orlando nightclub.  Mateen himself was killed in the incident, leading to speculation about his motives for committing such a horrific act.

Immediately after he was identified, his obviously Middle Eastern name fueled talk that he was acting on anti-LGBT beliefs that came from Islam.  This idea was bolstered by the revelation that in a 911 call he made in which he pledged himself and his actions to ISIS.

Then his father came forward, and said that his son had committed the crime because he was "angered over seeing two men kissing."  So for a time, it seemed like the origin of his violent acts was clear enough.

But the father added a comment that made a lot of us frown in puzzlement: he said that his son's actions "had nothing to do with religion."  Really?  If so, why would he be angry over two guys kissing?  It's not like rational secularism would give you the impetus to be so furious over gay guys showing affection that you'd shoot up a nightclub.

Shortly after that, Mateen's ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, came forward and said that Mateen had been physically and verbally abusive to her.  In her statement, Mateen comes across as not just angry, but mentally unstable.  "He was two totally different people," Yusufiy said.  "He would turn and abuse me, out of nowhere, when I was sleeping...  He was not a stable person.  He beat me.  He would come home and start beating me because the laundry wasn't finished, or something like that."  As far as his religious ideology, she said he was religious, but had never expressed sympathy with ISIS, terrorist organizations, or extremists.  "He wasn't very devout," Yusufiy said.  "He liked working out at the gym more."

Then things got even murkier when it was revealed that Mateen himself was a "regular" at Pulse himself, and "used gay dating apps."  This put yet another spin on things -- that Mateen was gay and leading a double life, pretending to be straight to keep the peace with his conservative father.  The image developed of Mateen as a tortured young man, steeped in self-loathing, who used the attack as a way of atoning for his own "sinfulness" through jihad against homosexuals.

Here's the problem, though.  It's always a losing proposition trying to parse the thoughts and motives of someone who died without leaving any hard evidence about what he was thinking at the time.  And even if he had -- left a note, called a friend, whatever -- there's still the problem that we'd only have his own words from which to draw a conclusion.

It's frustrating to say, "We don't know, and almost certainly will never know."  After a tragedy, we want to know the reason, to understand how such appalling things could happen.  Somehow, if we could just pin the cause on one thing -- Islam, availability of guns, mental instability, his anguish over being a closeted gay man, growing up in a narrow, judgmental household -- we could attain closure.

But in this case, it doesn't seem to be possible.  His motives could be any or all of the above, or something else we haven't even considered.  People seldom do anything based on one straightforward, clear reason, much as it'd make life simpler if that were so.  At this point, it's probably pointless to engage in further speculation; we need to be putting our thoughts and efforts into helping the survivors and the families of the victims, and -- most importantly -- taking steps to build a society in which such horrific acts never happen again.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Ghoul agenda

Once again, the United States has been hit by a mass murder.  Fifty confirmed dead, more than that injured.  My heart is torn in half thinking about over a hundred people who had only intended to spend a fun night dancing, drinking, and socializing, and found themselves the targets of a terrorist.

But you know what galls me more?  Before the bodies cooled, before family and friends had been notified, before all of the victims had even been identified, there was an explosion of rhetoric designed for one purpose and one purpose only; to use the tragedy to score political points.  These ghouls couldn't even wait a few days before twisting the deaths of fifty people to serve their own ideologies.

Let's start with Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who shortly after the massacre tweeted a verse from the bible -- Galatians 6:7.  "Do not be deceived.  God cannot be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows."  Patrick was immediately excoriated for his callous response, and as a result deleted the tweet, following it up with a statement about how "stunned and saddened" he is over the event.  Some have generously speculated that Patrick's post had nothing to do with the Orlando killings -- he does post bible verses on a daily basis -- but given his anti-LGBT vitriol in the past, I'm to be forgiven for being somewhat doubtful of that.

Others were less equivocal about it.  Firebrand evangelical preacher Steven Anderson stated that he was happy the massacre occurred, because after all, the victims were "just disgusting homosexuals at a gay bar."  Anderson went on to point fingers at others he said were going to use the tragedy to gain political ground, in a statement that should be an odds-on contender for the 2016 gold medal in Unintentional Irony:
But the bad news is that this is now gonna be used, I’m sure, to push for gun control, where, you know, law-abiding normal Americans are not gonna be allowed to have guns for self-defense.  And then I’m sure it’s also gonna be used to push an agenda against so-called “hate speech.”  So Bible-believing Christian preachers who preach what the Bible actually says about homosexuality — that it’s vile, that it’s disgusting, that they’re reprobates — you know, we’re gonna be blamed.  Like, “It’s all extremism! It’s not just the Muslims, it’s the Christians!”
Because saying that homosexuals deserve to be gunned down because of their sexual orientation is, apparently, "not hate speech."

But Anderson's statement brings us to the whole conflict over gun ownership.  Because it wasn't even an hour after the murders hit the news that I saw this:

And this:

And this:

Then, there's this post implying that it's Obama's policies that are at fault here:

Because obviously, there can't be any reason for those statistics other than, you know, Obama.

Not to be outdone, Donald Trump commented on the killings, but as befits a sociopathic narcissist, made it all about him.  "Appreciate the congrats for being right about radical Islamic terrorism," he tweeted.  "I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance.  We must be smart!"

How about some mention of the victims, here?  No, of course not.  That would distract from his incessant focus on himself.  And because that wasn't enough, he followed it up by a sly implication that Obama was not only complicit, but in agreement with the shooter.  He "gets [the motives of the killer] better than anyone understands," Trump said in an interview yesterday.

Then the conspiracy theorists got involved.  The Pulse massacre was a "false flag."  The shooting victims weren't really shot, they were "crisis actors."  And combining all of the above, for a trifecta of heartless lunacy, we have none other than the inimitable Alex Jones, saying that the shootings and the recent killing of singer Christina Grimmie were false flags engineered by Obama to outlaw guns.

I just have one question, here.  What happened to the tradition of a moment of silence when tragedy occurs?  What happened to showing some respect for the people who have died, and those whose lives have been changed irrevocably?  What about compassion?

And most of all, what about forgetting about yourself and your narrow little worldview for a while, and putting yourself in the shoes of people who are suffering?

Yes, there have been tremendous outpourings of sympathy.  There have been donations of time, money, and blood for the victims.  Such times bring out the best in us, pull us together, tap into unknown wellsprings of love and caring.

But for some, it only tightens them down on fears, anger, and hatred.  And for those people, I have only one thing to say: shut the fuck up.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Meme wars

It's time we all make a commitment to the truth.

I am sick unto death of people trying to score political points by spreading around falsehoods on the internet.  With the access to technology most of us have, it usually takes less than five minutes to check on the veracity of what you're about to post before you post it.  Instead, people seem content to spread around bullshit that conforms to their preconceived notions, whether or not it's true.

This is inexcusable.  And it needs to stop.

And yes, it's both sides of the political aisle that are guilty of this.  Let's start with this one, that was making the rounds a few months ago:

Ted Cruz never said that.  Snopes has a link to a transcript of the entire speech he made at Liberty University on the 23rd of March, 2015.  That line appears nowhere.

The worst part?  When I told the person who posted this that it was fake, his response was, "Yes, but I'm sure he believes it.  He could have said it."

You know what?  I don't give a flying fuck what Ted Cruz, or anyone else, could have said.  The fact, is, he didn't say it.  Claiming that he did is a lie.  Don't try to tell me that the truth doesn't matter.

Next up, Elizabeth Warren:

That's another big nope.  Snopes says it's "unproven," but adds, "We were unable to locate any interviews, footage, clips, tweets, or other instances in which Elizabeth Warren said anything remotely resembling the phrase quoted above."

I.e., she didn't say it.  Moving on.

There's this one, attributed to Mitt Romney:

Not only did Romney not say that, Laura Ingraham didn't air a show on that date, and Romney was not her guest at any time in early 2014.

The false attributions don't stop at political figures:

This one started making the rounds right after Prince died, so he conveniently couldn't say "I never said that."  Fortunately, Snopes did.

How about this one, trying to discredit Donald Trump:

The people at researched this one exhaustively.  Trump never said any such thing, not in 1998 or any other year.

Most appallingly, there's this one:

No, sorry for those of you who'd like to believe this; Hillary Clinton is not an "advocate for rapists."  In 1975 she was a defense attorney.  Do you know what a defense attorney's job is?  Go ahead, I'll wait while you look it up.

The truth is that Clinton was appointed to defend the accused rapist, Tom Taylor, and according to the chief prosecutor, Mahlon Gibson, "Hillary told me she didn’t want to take that case, she made that very clear."  Snopes goes on to say:
As for the claim that Hillary Clinton "knew the defendant was guilty," she couldn't possibly have known that unless she were present when the incident in question occurred.  Even if she surmised that the defendant was likely guilty based upon the evidence and/or his statements, she was obliged to operate under the rules of the U.S. legal system, which assume the accused to be innocent until proved guilty.
And so on and so forth.

You know what?  I don't honestly care what political party you belong to, whether you're liberal or conservative or something else entirely.  I don't care who you're planning to vote for next November, or if you're sick of the whole shebang and decide to stay home.

But I do care about the truth.  So for all of you people with the fast-forward-finger out there; take five damn minutes and check to see if what you're posting is true before you post it.  If posting stupid stuff politicians do and say gets you off, then there's certainly enough to choose from without spreading around outright falsehoods.   You are helping nothing, and proving nothing, by circulating bullshit because it lines up with what you'd like to be true.

What you're doing is making yourself complicit in a lie.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Brexit conspiracies

Even people over here across the Atlantic have been watching the whole Brexit controversy closely, and wondering whether the powers-that-be in Great Britain will elect to remain part of the European Union, or leave it and steer their own course.  I'm not nearly well-informed enough in global politics and economics to comment either way, but of course I did have to take a look at an article over at Politics that said that there have been conspiracy theories popping up all over the place that have to do with the issue.

Now, I may not be very savvy politically, but I do know my conspiracy theories.  (What that says about  my priorities I would prefer not to consider.)  So naturally I had to check out the article.  The author, Adam Bienkov, says that there are five conspiracy theories that have arisen regarding the Brexit controversy, to wit:
  1. The "Remainers" have planted sleeper agents in the "Leave" campaign.
  2. The online voter registration site crashed hours before the deadline to register, and the crash was staged by the government to prevent people from registering.
  3. The news media is biased toward the "Remain" campaign.
  4. The government has been sneakily registering non-British EU citizens who are living in the UK to vote.
  5. There is a cadre of academics and experts who are working together to defeat the "Remain" campaign.
So I read all of this, and I'm thinking, "That's it?  That's the best you can do?  Sleeper agents, website crashes, and biased academics and news broadcasters?"

What, no chemtrails?  No government-run execution camps with guillotines for dissenters?  No HAARP-style weather modification stations to unleash chaos?  No claims that every damn thing that happens is a "false flag?"  No shape-shifting Reptilian alien overlords from another planet?  (Not even Nigel Farage?  I'd think that'd be a gimme.  The first time I saw him, he immediately struck me as looking like someone whose facial muscles were being operated remotely by a species that had only recently learned the rule "When expressing interest, raise the eyebrows and open the eyes wide.")

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And not even a single claim that whatever side of the issue you're arguing against is being controlled by an evil cadre of Jews?

C'mon, British people.  You can do better than this.  I'm not normally someone who waves the Stars & Stripes and runs around shrieking "'Murica!  Fuck yeah!", but in this case, I'd say we're kicking your asses.  Okay, you got us with regards to beer quality, humor level in comedy shows, cleanliness of public transport, attractive accent quotient, and overall level of civilization, but when it comes to conspiracy theories, you don't even have a shot at a bronze medal.

I know it's probably galling to have to look to your American cousins for inspiration, but admit it; we got this down cold.  When it comes to dreaming up cockamamie explanations for perfectly ordinary events, the Yanks are the tops.  (Although I must say that the Russians are contenders.  Just in the last couple of years, we've had Russians claiming that a funny-looking rock was a spaceship, that Vladimir Putin attacked the Crimea to get control of a Jurassic-age super-powerful alien pyramid, and that every historical account that occurred before the early Middle Ages is a fabrication by an evil consortium of historians.  Not to mention various reports of Bigfoot, a topic they seem to take awfully seriously.)

So I'm not suggesting that we Americans get complacent, mind you.  It's times like this that I'm glad we have people like Alex Jones and Jeff Rense on our side.  But the recent British attempt to break into the world of batshit lunacy was really kind of embarrassing, and I would encourage any British readers of Skeptophilia to pay close attention to how we do things over here, and follow our model.

I'm confident that you can rise to the occasion.  Any country that produced both Monty Python and Eddie Izzard is definitely not lacking in the quality control department.  So I'm counting on you.  I'll be watching the news over the next few weeks, waiting for words like "Illuminati" and "truther" and "Nibiru" and "police state" to show up in British media sources.  Let's see what you got.