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, March 31, 2016

A win for anti-woo

I so often write about topics that make me (and at least some of my readers) want to do repeated headdesks that it's nice to have an opportunity to write about something where the good guys came out ahead.

I'm referring to the decision by Robert DeNiro, co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, to pull anti-vaxxer Andrew Wakefield's film Vaxxed from being shown at the festival.  DeNiro said:
My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family.  But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for. 
The Festival doesn’t seek to avoid or shy away from controversy.  However, we have concerns with certain things in this film that we feel prevent us from presenting it in the Festival program.  We have decided to remove it from our schedule.
Given that the premise of the film is antiscientific horseshit, I and other folks who value evidence and logic over hysteria and misinformation applaud his decision.  Said David Gorski, over at Respectful Insolence:
Freedom of speech means that Andrew Wakefield and anyone he’s conned “persuaded” into believing his pseudoscience can make whatever sort of propaganda film they want, provided they can find the resources to do so.  It also means that the Tribeca Film Festival can screen that same pseudoscientific antivaccine (but I repeat myself) propaganda film if its organizers so desire.  However, it also means that journalists and, yes, bloggers can criticize Tribeca for its decision, refute Andrew Wakefield’s long history of promoting antivaccine misinformation about the MMR, and pre-emptively demolish the conspiracy theory at the heart of Vaxxed.  That’s not “censorship.”  It’s just more speech.
Which is it exactly.  But given that it's conspiracy theories that started the anti-vaxxer movement in the first place, it's not to be wondered at that DeNiro's decision immediately unleashed a screeching horde of anti-vaxxers who claim that Big Pharma had threatened DeNiro into pulling the film.  Even less surprising is that the charge was led by none other than Mike "The Health Ranger" Adams, of Natural News:
To try to strong-arm De Niro into pulling the film, intense shaming pressure was brought to bear against Robert De Niro by the vaccine totalitarians, who told De Niro this documentary was so dangerous that no one should ever be allowed to see it.  Vaccine safety, they insist, can’t even be allowed to be DEBATED, they insist!  Only one side of the debate may be seen by the public, and that one side must be the 100% pro-vaccine side which ridiculously claims that “the science is settled” even when no one is allowed to see the science they don’t want you to see.
"The science they don't want you to see."  Better known as "discredited studies that have been replicated over and over with no results."

Of course, Adams defines "science" as "whatever agrees with my preconceived notions," so this is a distinction I wouldn't expect him to make.

But he's not done with his ranting yet:
De Niro discovered that even declaring yourself to be pro-vaccine isn’t enough to appease the vaccine totalitarians.  The mere granting of any public platform to this explosive document is very nearly a crime in the eyes of the corrupt, fraudulent vaccine industry and all its arrogant zealots. 
As more pressure was brought against De Niro for defending the free speech of what might be one of the single most important documentaries of our modern age, he caved.  He pulled the film from Tribeca, participating in the censorship that was demanded by the vaccine totalitarians.  The film’s page on Tribeca was also memory holed — it used to be found at this link — and De Niro felt compelled to issue a follow-up statement today that appeases the demands of the vaccine fundamentalists.
"Vaccine fundamentalists."  Or, as the rest of the world calls them, "medical researchers."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

It would take a stronger man than I am not to indulge in a little bit of schadenfreude over Adams's apoplectic rage.  Too often the decision goes the other way -- indulging the anti-science types because they tend to shriek the loudest.  The fact that DeNiro has swayed in the other direction should be heartening.  DeNiro has an autistic son himself, and has gone on record as indulging in some sympathy toward the anti-vaxx movement -- showing that dealing with difficult situations can lead people in either direction, toward considering evidence-based solutions or gravitating to irrational ideas out of desperation.  Not being in his shoes, I can't imagine what it's like, but it's a positive sign that he's taken a step toward rationality.

Of course, Adams isn't gonna see it that way.  To him, it's just one more Big Pharma conspiracy.  To which I say: give it a rest, dude.  The good guys won this time.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The cult of ignorance -- and "do-it-yourself braces"

In his wonderful essay "The Cult of Ignorance," Isaac Asimov wrote something that still resonates, 36 years after it appeared in Newsweek: "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been.  The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'"

This tendency on the part of Americans to assume that democracy means that all ideas are equal, and everyone's utterances equally valid, often drives us to do ridiculous things.  We discount the conclusions of scientists, preferring instead the evidence-free declarations of politicians, actors, and athletes.  The criticism "they don't understand the common, working-class people" is frequently lobbed in the direction of the intelligent.   This sense that the well-educated are either impractical or else actively evil leads us to elect the unqualified because they "seem like regular folks," even though you'd think we'd all want our leaders to be selected from the best and smartest we have.  But somehow there's this sense that being smart, well-educated, and thoroughly trained gives the experts an ivory-tower insulation from the rest of us slobs, and probably leaves them immoral as well.

What it actually accomplishes, though, is to give your average guy the idea that he knows a great deal more than he really does.  Called the Dunning-Kruger effect, it makes the unskilled overestimate their knowledge and underestimate their ineptitude.  And just yesterday, I ran into a new phenomenon that illustrates that amazingly well: do-it-yourself orthodonture.

I'm not making this up.  Put off by the high costs of orthodontic treatment, the inconvenience of having braces (sometimes for years), and the mystery of how a few brackets and wires could straighten out crooked teeth, people have said, "Hey, I could do that."  Now that 3-D printing is easy and cheap, people print themselves out resin brackets, affix them to their teeth with glue, and start yanking.  Lured by testimony that such a course of treatment could reduce the costs to under $100 and shorten the duration of brace-wearing from three years to as little as sixteen weeks, the idea has been spreading like wildfire.

[image courtesy of photographer Jason Regan and the Wikimedia Commons]

But folks -- orthodontists have to go through extensive training for a reason.  It's not enough to peer in a friend's mouth and try to replicate the friend's orthodontic hardware on your own teeth.  One of the DIY-ers, a fellow named Amos Dudley, has posted pictures of his changed smile on the internet, an alteration that took only four months.  But orthodontist Stephen Belli says that looks can deceive:
I’d like to see an X-ray, because he’s probably caused some irreparable harm.  He moved these teeth in only 16 weeks.  You can cause a lot of problems with that.  If you move a tooth too fast, you can actually cause damage to the bone and gums.  And if you don’t put the tooth in the right position, you could throw off your bite.
And why did Dudley take on his own orthodontic work?  "Because," he said, "I wanted to stick it to the dental appliance industry."

A stance that apparently gave him the impression that he knew enough to start shoving around his own teeth.

I find this attitude impossible to understand.  I consider myself reasonably intelligent, but I know I'm not smart enough to be responsible for my own medical care.  Similarly, I know I don't have the training to understand the latest scientific findings in most fields, nor to come up with solutions to the nation's economic problems and foreign policy.  This is why we have experts.

Which is why it really pisses me off when someone comes up with the latest pseudo-clever meme about how to fix everything, such as this one:


When I first saw this one -- and it's been posted far and wide -- my first thought was, "Can't you do simple arithmetic?"  If you don't see what I mean, try this: let's raise the salaries of the soldiers and seniors to, say, $50,000 a year.  Accepting the numbers they've quoted here, this would require an extra $12,000 for each soldier and an extra $38,000 for each senior.  Multiply each of these by the number of active-duty soldiers (1,388,000) and seniors on Social Security (59,000,000) in the United States, respectively, to see how much money we'd need.

Then, using a similar calculation, figure out how much we'd save yearly by cutting the wages of retired presidents (of which there are currently four -- Carter, Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr.  You can even be generous and throw in Obama if you like), the House and Senate members (535 of them), the Speaker of the House (1), and the Majority and Minority leaders of each branch of congress (4), down to $50,000 each.  See how much you save.

Falls a little short, doesn't it?

I mean, for cryin' in the sink, people.  If it was that easy, don't you think someone would have thought of this by now?

Which may seem a long way from do-it-yourself braces, but it's all the same thing, really; the attitude that a completely untrained individual is just as good as an expert at solving complex problems.  The cult of ignorance is still thriving here in the United States.  But despite our desire to think that everyone's ideas are on equal footing, ignorance will never be as good as knowledge.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Misplaced nostalgia

I've never really understood people who pine for "the good old days."  I'm not saying that the time we live in is perfect, mind you; but I find that real nostalgia requires a very selective memory.

This comes up because of Donald Trump's slogan, "Make America Great Again."  Someone finally thought to ask him when he thought America was great the last time -- in an interview in the New York Times, Trump was asked what era he'd like to return us to.  His answer is as myopic as it is enlightening:
I'd say that the first time would be the time of military and industrial expansion at the start of the 20th century.  If you look back, it really was, there was a period of time when we were developing at the turn of the century which was a pretty wild time for this country and pretty wild in terms of building that machine, that machine was really based on entrepreneurship...  And the late '40s and '50s, it was a time when we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war, we were pretty much doing what we had to do.
It's no real wonder that Trump looks back with fondness at the first part of the 20th century.  It was the era of the Robber Barons -- people like John Jacob Astor, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew W. Mellon, James Buchanan Duke, Leland Stanford, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, who became rich on the backs of the working poor.  The actions of the Robber Barons represent the beginning of corporate control over the government.  It was an era of unbridled free enterprise, which sounds good until you see the outcome -- a veritable plutocracy that continues up to this day.

Poor children working in a glass factory at midnight (1920s) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Similar things could be said about the post-World War II United States, a time in which we became a nuclear power, had our fingers in the governments of other countries (either by their invitation or not), and were setting ourselves up for the debacles in Southeast Asia and the Middle East of which we are still dealing with the consequences.  It was the last time the white patriarchy would go unchallenged, and was immediately followed by the civil unrest of the 1960s, in which so many institutions, social mores, and political edifices would be shaken to their roots.

So of course those are where Trump would like to return us -- to a time when there was unprecedented opportunity, as long as you were a rich, white, well-connected man.  If you were female, if you were a minority, if you were from the lower classes, well, pretty much sucks to be you.

I'm too young to remember the 50s, but I certainly remember the 60s and 70s well enough.  I grew up during the decades when we as a society were still struggling with throwing off enculturated rules of a social structure that prior to that time had been accepted without question.  When I was in high school, in the mid-70s, minorities were beginning to see more acknowledgement of their fundamental human rights -- but the powers-that-be were so terrified of the outcome that on Prom Night, they decided to crown a black Prom King and Queen and a white Prom King and Queen, because what if they had only one vote, and there was (gasp of horror!) a black King and a white Queen?  Can't have that.  There were several classmates of mine who were LGBT, but 100% of them were still in the closet -- some until years after graduation.

Boys couldn't have long hair, or they'd be brought into the principal's office and have it cut off.  Girls were tracked into home ec, boys into shop.  One female friend told me, years after, that she was told not to take physics by her counselor, because "why would a girl need physics?"  Fortunately for her, she basically told him "the hell you say," and took it anyway.

So the "good old days" turn out to have been good only for the select few.  To claim otherwise requires ignoring not only our own history, but the day-to-day reality of the vast majority of American citizens.  But it's not surprising that Trump turns a blind eye to the inequities of the 20th century; he, and people like him, are the ones who profited from them.

Despite the problems we face, I'll stay right here in the 21st century.  I'll take the growing pains and risks and uncertainties of 2016 over the unquestioned white male privilege of the Gilded Age and the post-World War II eras.  I have no particular desire to don the rose-colored glasses that would be necessary to look back in sentimental nostalgia at a period when things were not nearly as good for everyone as people like Trump like to claim.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Lying for Jesus

Keep 'em scared.  Convince people that their way of life, their very existence, is threatened.  Tell them that if they don't fight back, the Bad Guys will win, will erase every trace of their culture and belief systems from the country.

After all, fearful people do two things that are very useful.  They double down on their beliefs -- and they are easy for the unscrupulous to manipulate.

That's a lesson that evangelical preacher Jim Bakker and his pal Rick Wiles, host of the ultra-Christian radio show TruNews, have learned all too well.  Despite the fact that 83% of the citizens of the United States self-identify as Christian, Bakker and Wiles have taken it on as their mission to convince that overwhelming majority that they are a desperately embattled minority who faces persecution and eventual extinction if they don't, for god's sake, do something.

Lying For Jesus, is how I see it.

Jim Bakker [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

In an interview last week on TruNews, Bakker and Wiles make it abundantly clear how this extermination plan is going to go.  Bakker said:
Be ready.  Be ready.  Are you ready to serve God if they're gonna cut your head off?  Years ago, God spoke to me, and I was supposed to start preaching it, but nobody would accept it.  How are you gonna tell people that the church needs to be ready to have their heads cut off, to say, "I'm willing to die for the gospel of Jesus Christ?"  There is such fear in the church... I mean, fear.  Not just fear of ISIS, not just fear of one thing, but fear of not being politically correct.  I tell you, you will be murdered if you preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. 
Wiles, of course, agreed, instead of doing what I would have done, which is to point out that not only has no one been murdered in the United States for preaching the bible, but church attendance seems to be as strong as ever, and just last week the Religious Right successfully sledgehammered their views into law in North Carolina, making it legal for Christians to discriminate against LGBT individuals in the name of "religious freedom."

But people like Bakker and Wiles never let a little thing like reality interfere with their message.  Bakker goes on:
It's over, people!  The gospel is over in the United States of America!  We have turned our back on the Bible.  We can't preach the Bible anymore.  I could tell you stories that would curl your hair... If I told you what I have been through and what I go through and what I am facing, because of what we would call the old-fashioned gospel, which is simply the Bible.  Anyone who wants to stand on the absolute word of God -- you don't have much...  Everyone's talking about Donald Trump.  Who would have thought that we would have a man running for president who needed to say, "Next Christmas, we're going to say 'Merry Christmas' again?"
Well, that got lots of applause from the studio audience, given how evidently in their pretend world the 17% of us who aren't Christian are winning a war on the 83% of the United States who are.  The only possible response, of course, is to fight tooth and nail to maintain the hegemony they have had for over two hundred years, and which is showing no sign of going away any time soon.

And speaking of lying, Wiles then suggests that whenever you go to a store and have to give your name to be called for an order, you should say your name is "Merry Christmas" so the clerk has to say it over the microphone.  Because, apparently, lying outright to a clerk is exactly what Jesus wants you to do.

This idea also got lots of applause.

Seeing the support he got from that point, Bakker decided to pursue it:
How can this be a point on which to run for president?  How can it be?  How can it be almost illegal to say "Merry Christmas?"
"Almost illegal?"  Sort of like "almost pregnant?"

Rick Wiles then asks a question:
Going back to the spiritual uprising; who is telling us that we can't say "Merry Christmas?"
Exactly, Rick.  Good question.

But Bakker, of course, has a response:
[If you prayed or said "Merry Christmas" in public] they would threaten to arrest you.  They would threaten to mow you down with a machine gun. 
Even Wiles seems to realize that they're on shaky ground at that point.  He asks:
They're gonna come in with guns, into a high school graduation, and shoot you for saying the Lord's Prayer? 
But Bakker hasn't gotten where he is by backing down:
Not right now, but they will.  They will if we don't stop them. 
Ah, yes.  "They."  By whom he means, apparently, atheists like me.  Who, by the way, could not care less how much time Bakker, Wiles, or anyone else spends in church, how many times they thump the bible, or what they preach on the street corner.  We honestly don't give a rat's ass if they stand on their roofs in July, stark naked, shrieking "Merry Christmas!" at passersby all day long.  All we want is for Bakker and his ilk to keep their beliefs out of our schools, laws, and public buildings.  Beyond that, they can believe any damn fool thing they want to.

The frustrating thing about all of this is that Lying For Jesus works.  If you tell people often enough that they're embattled and besieged, they'll believe it.  Even if the messenger is a guy who resigned from his first ministerial post because of a sex scandal (in which he offered to pay $279,000 to the victim to keep silent), and in a separate incident was imprisoned for five years on fraud and conspiracy charges.

But don't let that dissuade you from believing everything he says.  Especially if what he says is "be afraid."

There's a part of this fear, though, that is very real.  And that is the fear of rational people that the rest of the citizenry is going to make decisions based in irrational fears like the ones Bakker and Wiles are peddling.  We've got an election coming up, and more than one of the candidates is capitalizing on that sense of being constantly at risk.  So ask yourself: do you want the voice of reason to be swamped by people who are accepting the fact-free scare-talk of a huckster who somehow, bafflingly, still gets people to listen to him?

Because if that comes to pass, maybe there's a reason to be afraid, after all.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The bunny trail

Tomorrow is Easter, the most important celebration of the Christian calendar, a time when believers are reminded about such things as eternal life and redemption and salvation.  Also, therefore, time for the wacko fringe element to remind everybody that they better not get their kids chocolate bunnies, because this will cause children to hippety-hop right to hell.

[image courtesy of photographer Josef Türk Jun and the Wikimedia Commons]

At least, this is the claim of "Shirlee" of the site Real Bible Stories, in her post "Easter Bunny Brings Satan's Communion."  And I'd like to be able to tell you that this is a parody site, but "Shirlee" appears to be entirely sincere.  Here's what she has to say:
Easter. For many, it conjures images of a basket-toting rabbit bearing chocolate bunnies. The White House hosts an Easter Egg hunt, as do many churches.  What’s wrong with that?  It’s a celebration of spring, and fertility, and...  Yes, fertility. I’ll bet you didn’t know Jesus was a fertility god, did you? 
What’s that you say? He’s not? 
Then why are you worshiping rabbits — an unclean animal, consumption of which is abomination to God — and hunting for colored eggs on the celebration of His Resurrection?
Yes, well, in Leviticus 11:6 the bible also says that rabbits "chew the cud," which they don't.  But don't let that stop you from taking the whole thing as the literal truth.

And wait until you hear who is responsible for this perversion... you'll never guess.

It's... the Catholics:
Yes, Catholics. The inheritors of the Babylonian religion, who have perverted every aspect of Christianity with the ways of Nimrod and Semiramis (Ishtar)! 
Satan has found a very clever way of perverting Christianity...  He used the Catholic cult to inject his own rituals — those directed at any number of false gods, and even a false Savior — into Christian worship!  Think about it...  Whenever you idolize the Easter bunny, or trade eggs, or even fast at Lent, you are worshipping Satan!
Huh.  I was raised Catholic, and even back then, I was always in it for the chocolate.  But I suppose that's only to be expected from a former cult member who made it worse by giving up religion entirely.

"Shirlee" then goes into a long diatribe on the origins of Easter and how the "Catholic cult" (her words) has twisted the whole thing into a fast-track into hell.  She also more than once uses the phrase "Bunnies of Satan," which I think would be a great name for an all-girl metal band.

She ends with a scary question:
Will your kids be chomping on chocolate eggs and rabbits tomorrow, taking the Devil’s Communion?
In all seriousness, I find it hard to imagine living my life in such perpetual fear.  The idea that there's this evil guy who is constantly trying to find ways to grab you, and that even something like a Russell Stover Chocolate Bunny Rabbit could provide him ingress, is so horrid that if I believed it, I wouldn't want to leave my house.  Ever.

It does make you wonder what's appealing about this world view.  Once you've bought in, though, it's clear why people stay.  If you have let yourself become convinced that everything is a threat, and the only way to avoid burning in agony forever is to follow the bible word-for-word, it's unsurprising that it's difficult to cut free.

Unsurprising, too, that people like this get their knickers in a twist over anything that's different.  Which is why an elementary school in Kennesaw, Georgia has cancelled a yoga program designed for  alleviating student stress because parents thought it was "sorcery."  Kids and staff are now forbidden from saying "namasté" to each other.  One parent wrote:
Now we can’t pray in our schools or practice Christianity but they are allowing this Far East mystical religion with crystals and chants to be practiced under the guise of stress release meditation.  This is very scary.
Yes indeedy.  We don't want students de-stressed.  We want them scared.  We want them to be aware, 24/7, that anything they do, any tiny misstep, could potentially lead to their spending eternity in hellfire.

The administrators, of course, caved; no way could they push back against the people who raised the stink, because then you'd have Fox News blathering on for weeks about the War on Christianity even though Christians make up 55% of the population of Kennesaw.

So anyway.  Me, I'm just looking forward to next week, when all of the remaining Bunnies of Satan are gonna be on sale.  It may be the Devil's Communion, but it sure as hell is tasty.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Rising tide

At what point does choosing to ignore the facts cross the line into being morally responsible for what happens?

Because I think we've reached that point with respect to climate change.

Folks, we've been warning people about this since the early 1980s.  James Burke's seminal documentary After the Warming first aired in 1989, and predicted not only the dire consequences of anthropogenic climate change, but the resistance of the powers-that-be to doing anything to halt it.  (If you watch it now, many of its predictions sound like history -- his timeline for what was going to happen from 1990 to the present came so eerily true that it almost makes me want to believe in precognition.)  However much Al Gore is derided for his politics, his 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth has also proved to be prescient.

Scientific paper after scientific paper -- peer-reviewed, based in hard data -- has demonstrated incontrovertibly that our world is warming.  There is no controversy amongst the climate scientists any more.  And still we shrug our shoulders at politicians who brand climate change as "liberal claptrap" (Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California), or those who say that if it's real at all, it will be "beneficial to society" (Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma).  Scientists who research climate have faced gag rules, funding cuts, and harassment from the likes of Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, who somehow, bafflingly, has ended up chairing the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

This all comes up (again) because of a study by Columbia University climate scientist James Hansen et al., who last week released a paper in the Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics that is rightly scaring the absolute shit out of anyone capable of reading a scientific paper (thus disqualifying Rohrabacher, Inhofe, and Smith).  The title of the paper is unequivocal: "Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms: Evidence From Paleoclimate Data, Climate Modeling, and Modern Observations that2◦C Global Warming is Highly Dangerous."  (Note: the link is to a draft released last year; the paper itself appeared after extensive peer review, and with only minor modifications, in JACP last Tuesday.)

[image courtesy of photographer Angskar Walk and the Wikimedia Commons]

If the title by itself doesn't spook you enough, take a look at this excerpt from the abstract:
There is evidence of ice melt, sea level rise to +5–9 m, and extreme storms in the prior interglacial period that was less than 1 ◦C warmer than today.  Human-made climate forcing is stronger and more rapid than paleo forcings...  We argue that ice sheets in contact with the ocean are vulnerable to non-linear disintegration in response to ocean warming, and we posit that ice sheet mass loss can be approximated by a doubling time up to sea level rise of at least several meters.  Doubling times of 10, 20 or 40 years yield sea level rise of several meters in 50, 100 or 200 years... Ocean surface cooling, in the North Atlantic as well as the Southern Ocean, increases tropospheric horizontal temperature gradients, eddy kinetic energy and baroclinicity, which drive more powerful storms...  Recent ice sheet melt rates have a doubling time near the lower end of the 10–40 year range. We conclude that 2 ◦C global warming above the preindustrial level, which would spur more ice shelf melt, is highly dangerous.  Earth’s energy imbalance, which must be eliminated to stabilize climate, provides a crucial metric.
Co-author Eric Rignot put it more bluntly in an interview with Slate:
Ice sheet loss is non linear by nature.  You push the ice sheet one way, they do not react; you push them more, they start reacting; you keep pushing and they fall apart...  If we get there, we won't be able to fix it.
Among the scarier predictions of the Hansen et al. paper is a sea level rise of five to nine meters.  Do you recognize what this means?  The states of Florida, Delaware, and most of southern Louisiana would be underwater.  As would the nations of Bangladesh and the Netherlands.  All of the world's coastal cities would be inundated, with the exception of a few that have higher ground, like Seattle and San Francisco -- which would then become a string of islands.  This isn't talking about frost-free winters and warmer summers, and having to run your air conditioner more; this is talking about turning a significant proportion of humanity into eco-refugees.

Climate scientist Anna Liljedahl, of the University of Alaska, has said that the trends she's seeing are evidence of runaway warming.  The situation in the Arctic is dire.  The permafrost is experiencing widespread melting, with a resultant additional contribution of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere:
The scientific community has had the assumption that this cold permafrost would be protected from climate warming, but we’re showing here that the top of the permafrost, even if it’s very cold, is very sensitive to these warming event...  At the places where we have sufficient amounts of data we are seeing this process happen in less than a decade and even after one warm summer.
We have reached the point where ignoring the facts and ignoring or ridiculing the predictions of the people who are trained to understand the Earth's systems is a profoundly immoral stance.  There's a principle from Roman law that applies here: "Qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit."  "Those who remain silent, when they should have spoken up, may be considered to have agreed."  If you support politicians who are complicit in hoodwinking the American citizenry with regards to the magnitude of this problem, you participate in that immorality and bear some of the responsibility for the outcome.

Which in this case, is increasingly looking like it will be horrific on a scale we have never seen before.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Texas flood fossils

I get really fed up with the media.

I make a significant point in my Critical Thinking classes that there is no such thing as unbiased media -- that even the decision of what qualifies as news introduces a bias into reporting.  Add to that the slant that every news source has, and it underscores how important it is to take what you see, read, and hear with a big ol' pinch of salt.

But still.  There are times that poor reporting just pisses me off.  Take, for example, the story that appeared on KCEN-TV, out of Temple, Bell County, Texas last week, wherein we find out that a man in Tyler, Texas has found some fossils in his back yard that were deposited during the biblical Great Flood.

Tyler resident Wayne Propst was poking around in his aunt's front yard when he found some fossilized shells.  He cleaned them up with a toothbrush, then called a "fossil expert" named Joe Taylor who confirmed that they were from the time of Noah.

Propst was thrilled.  "From Noah’s flood to my front yard, how much better can it get?...  Now all I got to do is go in front of my aunt's house and pick up something from back when it all began.  I don't even have to search anymore.  What's really interesting to me is we're talking about the largest catastrophe known to man, the flood that engulfed the entire world."

Yes, and we're also talking about an event that left behind no geological evidence whatsoever, and therefore almost certainly never happened.  But don't let that stop you.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Propst's aunt, Sharon Givan, who owns the property where the fossils were found, was equally excited.  "To think that like he says that we have something in our yard that dated back to when God destroyed the earth.  I mean, how much better could anything be," Givan said.

Which brings up what is, to me, the most troubling thing about the whole Noah's Ark story.  This is supposed to be an edifying tale, right?  About a guy who listened to god and he and his family got saved from destruction?  But what the religious seldom focus on is that according to the bible, everything else on Earth died.  Animals, plants, infants, children, people from other cultures who had no part in what was happening.  It is, honestly, one of the most unpleasant stories in the entire bible (and there's a lot of competition in that regard).

I got in a discussion with a biblical-literalist Christian about this one time.  How, I asked, can you justify the death of little babies because god decided that everyone but Noah's family was too wicked to live?  How can babies be "wicked?"

And she said -- no lie -- "God knew that the babies would grow up to be evil just like their parents, so he killed them to wipe out the evil in the land, root and branch."

Which is one of the most flat-out amoral statements I've ever heard.  Genocide?  Including women, children, and infants?  No problem, as long as god says they deserved it.  My general impression is that a god who operates on that kind of basis would hardly be worthy of worship.

But I digress.

The contents of this story should not really surprise anyone who lives in the United States.  There is still a strong thread of fundamentalism here, especially in the southern states, and young-earth creationism is alive and well (and the fight against teaching it as science in public schools is ongoing).  But why in the hell is it considered news that a guy believes in Noah's Ark?  We don't have news stories with titles like, "Hoboken Woman Still Getting Messages From Magic Unicorn."  (Although I have to admit, I'd read that article.)

The worst part is the last line in the article, which says, and I quote: "For the record, we have not independently verified if the rocks are in fact historic."  Meaning what?  You're gonna send a reporter down to look at the fossils and say, "Okay, they look like they're from the Great Flood to me?"  You haven't radioisotope dated them yourself?  You are unaware that fossils are, in fact, old?

Or that you're considering, heaven forfend, asking an actual fucking paleontologist to weigh in on this?

I know that a lot of media has devolved into clickbait and/or pandering to the whims of whoever wails the loudest, but is it too much to ask that we expect that news sources at least attempt to present real news stories in as unbiased a manner as they can manage?  The media gets away with this bullshit because we as consumers tolerate it.

It's time to demand more from our newspapers, radio and television news, and online media.  When you see or hear a story like "Tyler Man Says He Found Fossils From Noah's Flood," write or call in to let them know that it's unacceptable.  There always will be trash news sources -- I doubt The Daily Mail is going anywhere soon -- but the only way things will change is if we start letting the powers-that-be know that we expect more.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

I'm so blue

In today's contribution from the "There's Always A Stupider Claim" department, we have one-upped yesterday's post about tachyon-infused jewelry with a site that tells you how to make "Blue Solar Water."

According to the site with the euphonious name "Ho'oponopono," making "Blue Solar Water" is simple.  Here's how a "Blue Solar Water" enthusiast, Mabel Katz, explains it:
1. Get a blue glass bottle. Any color blue, from light blue to dark blue will work.
2. Fill with tap water and cover with a non-metallic lid -- cork, plastic, even cloth wrapped with a rubber band will work because the purpose of the lid is just to keep the dirt and bugs (that Love Blue Solar Water) out.
3. Place in the Sun for an hour or more.  Mabel comments that when left longer, it is sweeter.
4. When done, your Blue Solar Water can be stored in the refrigerator in any container -- glass, plastic, etc.
5. ENJOY!  How Much Blue Solar Water to drink?  Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len once shared that, for the sole purpose of CLEANING memories, he drinks a gallon and a half of Blue Solar Water a day!
So, yeah.  "Cleaning memories."   Katz tells us that it's useful for erasing your memory, which I find a troubling idea.  I already have to re-enter a room three times to remember why I went there.  I'm not sure I need anything that's going to make me forget more than I already do.


[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But that's not its only use.  Check it out:
- Add some to your Coffee, Tea, Cocoa, Juice, etc.
- Add Blue Solar Water to everything you cook -- Pasta, Soup, Oatmeal, scrambled eggs, etc.  Remember, just a drop of Blue Solar Water will solarize all of it.
- Add some Blue Solar Water to your washing machine when washing clothes.
- Spray some in your dryer.
- Add it to your radiator to make your car hummmm.
- Add it to your bath water.
- Spray yourself with Blue Solar water after showering.
- Spray rooms with Blue Solar Water.
- Gargle with it.
- Wash Floors with it.
- Wash your car with Blue Solar Water.

These are just a few of the ways that we have used Blue Solar Water.  Have FUN with it and be Creative in finding new ways to CLEAN with Blue Solar Water.
I have to admit, that none of these are a problem, if it floats your boat (and I'm sure that "Blue Solar Water" will make your boat not only float, but "hummmmm.")  After all, it's just water.  Like, plain old water.  So if you get a happy feeling by spraying water all over your house, then don't let me stand in your way.

There's a problem, however.  I live in upstate New York, where the sun only comes out when it thinks no one is looking.  How can I "solarize" my water when the sun isn't shining?  Well, fortunately, Mabel Katz is way ahead of me:
[A] very small amount of Blue Solar water, even one drop, added to regular water will solarize it.  You can also solarize it under an incandescent clear light (blue bottle) for an hour, or an incandescent blue light (clear bottle) for an hour.
So that's convenient.  She even has an answer for what to do when you run out, or don't have time to "solarize" any more water:
You can also use it mentally. Mentally repeat "Solar Water"  This will work when you REALLY cannot prepare it or have access to it.  God will do it for you ONLY when you cannot do it physically.
Which raises magical thinking to a whole new level.  "Here's how to make the magic water... but really, all you have to do is think about magic water and the magic will happen!"

So anyhow, many thanks to the loyal reader who sent me the link.  It's a little troubling that every time I think I have plumbed the depths of human gullibility, I find that there are many more circles of hell still below me.  Maybe I need to gargle with some "Blue Solar Water" and erase the memory, because if I do any more headdesks, I'm gonna end up with a concussion.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A jewel of a scam

As if there weren't enough ways to prey upon the gullible, in the last few years there has been a dramatic rise in offers for "energy jewelry," which includes necklaces, bracelets, anklets, earrings, and so on, all of which are somehow supposed to improve your health.  I thought this was worth investigating, so I did a Google search for "energy jewelry" -- and it resulted in over 42 million hits. Here are a few from the first page, chosen randomly:
  • EnergyMuse -- leading the world in holistic crystal energy healing and jewelry.
  • Jewelry to harmonize the body's energy fields, auras, and chakras!
  • Energy Shop jewelry, designed to fit your dreams!  Each gemstone has been individually energy-charged and smudged.
  • Energy-ring.com specializes in energy healing gold and silver jewelry, and improves reiki, chakra, and psychic energy by using the Earth's magnetic field through induction coil rings.
And so forth. I checked a few of these sites to see about cost, and the prices seemed mostly to start at $25 - but they went as high as $1500.

That should pay for a lot of energy, I'd think.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So, the basic idea is, give us large quantities of money, and we'll send you a piece of jewelry.  If you wear it, it'll harmonize your psychic energy fields (which don't exist), rearrange your chakras (which don't exist), and improve your aura (which also doesn't exist).

One has to wonder if there's a money-back guarantee.

My all-time favorite fake-energy-jewelry vendor, however, is Takionic.  This company claims that their products "align the body's atoms" so that one can "tap into the limitless energy of the tachyon field."  (Isn't the "tachyon field" one of the things Geordi LaForge was always blathering on about on Star Trek: The Next Generation, in situations where he had to explain why Data was suddenly remembering the future, or something?  That and a "rip in the space-time continuum."  "Captain, if we can introduce a tachyon field into the rip in the space-time continuum, I think we might just be able to return us to our own universe and stop Data from answering questions we haven't asked yet, all before the final credits."  "Make it so, Mr. LaForge.")

Actually, if you're curious, tachyons are hypothetical faster-than-light particles proposed back in 1967 by physicist Gerald Feinberg, which have never been observed and which most scientists believe do not exist.  So it's kind of peculiar that here we have a company that has such an unlimited supply of tachyons that they can sell products full of 'em.

Because if you visit the site (not recommended unless you want to do repeated headdesks), you will see that Takionic has a huge variety of products that will allow you to access this energy source.  It doesn't stop with jewelry -- oh, my, no.  They have tachyon-capturing blankets, eyemasks, headbands, wristbands, night cream, massage oil, belts, scarves, sport suits, toothpaste, and water.  Here are a few of their special offers, right from the front page of the website:
  • Just a few drops of refreshing and wholesome Takionic Water under your tongue will brighten up any kind of day.
  • Tap some beautiful, opalescent Takionic Beads to acupressure points, trigger points, or on any tender spot on your body. We hear many reports o relief of pain.
  • Slip on a pair of comfortable Takionic Insoles to soothe your sole(s). Great if you have to be on your feet all day long.
  • Need to win a game or improve your grades?  Sharper concentration. Greater focus. Clearer thinking. All possible with a Takionic Headband.
  • Wear a smile. Wear a Takionic belt. For any strenuous activity when you neeed more endurance and a little help to smile your stress away.
  • Make your pets happier - animals, too, love this natural energy.
  • Grow healthier plants and vegetables with the Takionic Water.
  • Improve the taste and vitality of your food and drinks.
  • Harmonize your environment with the Takionic Beads and Belt.
Yes, you read that right.  They're selling you (not you personally, I hope) tachyon-infused water. For $35 for a 17-ounce bottle.

Me, I'm wondering if I missed my calling.  If there are people out there who will buy a plastic bottle of tap water for $35, I'm thinking I could be making a helluva lot more money doing that than being a public school teacher.

Anyway, I hope you haven't already been bamboozled by any of these folks and their pseudoscience.  I can categorically state that not one of the claims made by any of these folks -- not one -- has passed any kind of rigorous scientific test.  So, the bottom line is, if you want to be healthy, then eat right, exercise, don't smoke, and don't drink and drive.  Your jewelry may make you look nice, but it's not really going to help you out in any other way.

I'll just finish up by putting in a plug for the one bit of energy-jewelry that does perform as advertised.  It is the Placebo Band, sold for just $5.99 at ScamStuff.   It comes in many lovely bright colors, is labeled "PLACEBO," and has a nice holographic logo on the front.  It comes with the following disclaimer:

"Placebo Band doesn’t come preprogrammed in any way.  If you wish to have your band 'imbedded with frequencies' we suggest placing the band prominently on top of or in front of the largest speaker you have while playing your absolute favorite song ( e.g. "Groove Is In The Heart" by Dee Lite).  Not only will you have listened to something that improves your mood straight away but you will be reminded of the song and that good feeling every time you wear Placebo Band."

ScamStuff also promises to replace your Placebo Band for free if it explodes for any reason.

Who could pass up a deal like that?

Monday, March 21, 2016

The enemy of my enemy is... um... wait.

In today's news from the Unintentional Irony Department, we have religious wingnut and young-earth creationist Ted Cruz calling the anti-GMO cadre "anti-science zealots."

"People who decide that is what they want, they can pay for it already, but we shouldn’t let anti-science zealotry shutdown the ability to produce low-cost quality food for billions across the globe," Cruz said. "GMOs help to provide food for people across the globe and strengthen farms across the nation...  The people who oppose GMOs and want to buy organic food can do that."

Then, because there is no bizarre news story that someone can't comment on so as to make it way more bizarre, we have Ted Cruz being called out by none other than Mike "The Health Ranger" Adams of Natural News, who believes that vaccines cause autism and that the United States government is deliberately and callously killing us all with "chemicals":
[Cruz] insults all those Americans who share ever rising concerns over food pesticides, herbicides and chemical contaminants that the scientific literature overwhelmingly proves can cause cancer.  If only guns could provide personal protection against pesticides, then Ted Cruz might find himself on the right side of this argument... but that's not how chemistry works.  Chemicals are insidious, slow, invisible killers that commit violence on a cellular basis, day after day, meal after meal, until the victim is rendered diseased and ultimately dead.  The primary defense against chemical violence is CHEMICAL AVOIDANCE.
Yup.  That'll work.  Avoid all chemicals.  Presumably including water, oxygen, vitamins, proteins, DNA, and RNA.  Because "that's how chemistry works."

Ted Cruz, as visualized by Mike Adams

He then hits Cruz where it hurts -- his faith:
Perhaps even worse than the betrayal of fundamental constitutional principles of liberty, by going all-in for Monsanto, Ted Cruz joins forces with the most evil corporate entity on planet Earth.  Because Ted Cruz claims to be a supporter of Christianity, Biblical principles and God's creation, his betrayal on GMOs is far more than a political betrayal; it is spiritual treason against God.
And if you haven't already done enough damage smacking your head against your computer keyboard, Adams goes on to tell us that humans were intended by god to do selective breeding, but not to do any other kind of genetic modification:
Monsanto has taken a corn crop that was perfected through natural selective breeding by early humans, then turned it into a food POISON that damages the kidneys, liver and reproductive organs.  This is a treasonous act against humanity, Mother Nature and even God. 
By supporting Monsanto, Ted Cuz[sic] is openly encouraging a devious corporate entity that systematically violates the laws of Mother Nature and believes that Man's engineered (poisonous) seeds are superior to God's seeds that gave rise to nutritious corn via natural selection (humans working in harmony with nature to gradually shape phenotype genetic expression of food crops).
And the coup de grâce comes at the end, where Adams calls Monsanto "Monsatan" and says that by supporting GMOs, Cruz is "aligning himself with the devil."

So we first have climate change and evolution denier Ted Cruz calling the anti-GMOers anti-science, and the vaccines-cause-autism, chemtrail-believing anti-GMOers countering that Cruz has sold his soul to the devil.  Me, I'm wondering what I should think.  My inclination is to let Adams and Cruz fight to the death, because either way, rationalism wins.  But the whole thing reminds me again of the Senegalese saying I have quoted more than once:  "There are forty different kinds of lunacy, but only one kind of common sense."

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Prayer for pay

One of the inevitable downsides of a blog such as this one is that I tend to focus on negative stuff.  People who believe (and peddle) nonsense, charlatans, hoaxers, dupers, swindlers, and thieves.  And the world being what it is, a sizable percentage of the aforementioned no-goods never get caught, never get stopped, never have to recompense their victims what they've stolen.

Today I'm going to look at a case where the good guys won.  The story, which was sent to me by a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia, starts out like so many of the others -- but then ends on a happy note.

The scam was the brainchild of one Benjamin Rogovy of Seattle.  It was a website called "Christian Prayer Center," where you could sign up to have prayers said for you (or for a friend or loved one) -- as long as you donated.

All major credit cards accepted, of course.

More insidious still was that if you signed up and gave Rogovy your credit card information, you were put on a list for "continued prayers," and billed monthly -- unless you specifically clicked "No, Thank You."  And as you may have experienced with other such auto-bill sites, once you were on the monthly billing list, getting off of it wasn't easy.

Complaints began to roll in, some coming from as far away as Singapore.  Unfortunately, there was little the authorities could do.  Because the Christian Prayer Center was a licensed business, and it's hard to see how you could claim that you hadn't gotten what you'd paid for (no one said your prayers were going to be answered, after all), Rogovy was making money hand over fist from people who were either desperate or gullible or both.

Finally, however, Rogovy stepped over the line by including fake testimonials and made-up religious leaders as a way of increasing his take.  And it worked, for a while; records show that he raked in $7.75 million from over 165,000 people over a period of three years.  Hard as that is to believe.  But once the false information started showing up, that gave Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson leverage to go after the sly bastard.

And he succeeded.  Last week, as part of a settlement, Rogovy agreed to return millions of dollars to the people he'd bilked.  "What I will not tolerate," Ferguson said in a statement, "is unlawful businesses that prey upon people —taking advantage of their faith or their need for help— in order to make a quick buck."  A Facebook page appeared called "Christian Prayer Center SCAM" warning people away from the site.

People seeking a refund for money they've sent to the Christian Prayer Center and its sister site, Orcion Cristiana, have until June 12, 2016 to file a claim with the Attorney General's office.

The one cloud behind all of this golden lining is that people like Rogovy rarely ever go away.  As we saw this week with Peter Popoff, the lure of relieving the faithful of their filthy lucre is simply too tempting.  Until the Attorney General's office mandated that it be shut down, the Christian Prayer Center's website had a sanctimonious message stating, "We thank you for all the prayers, and we cherish the opportunity to have created a place where Christians could meet to support each other."  As of the writing of this post, the Center's Facebook page was still up, with a pinned post at the top of the feed saying, "If the Christian Prayer Center adds value to your lives and you think online prayer is important, please type "Yes" or "Amen" to our wall!  We love to hear praise reports and testimonials," and the following image:


Because apparently the answer to "What Would Jesus Do?" is "use false claims to take money from people and claim he's praying for them, but actually doing nothing."

So it's to be hoped that the judgment against Rogovy will put a stop to the money pouring into the Christian Prayer Center.  The problem is, of course, that even if this puts Rogovy out of business, there's always another swindler waiting in line.

If there's a sucker born every minute, as P. T. Barnum observed, there are probably two thieves born in the same amount of time.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Voting for the voice of god

Below I present to you a series of quotes.  You'll see a pattern pretty quickly.
  • It’s the natural law of God. We have a theocracy right now.  You know, the only thing worse than not being elected president would be to be elected president without God’s blessing. I can’t think of a worse place in the world to be than in the Oval Office without God’s hand upon you.  -- Mike Huckabee
  • It was as if there was a presence of the Holy Spirit in the room and we all were at awe and Ted, all that came out of his mouth, he said, ‘Here am I Lord, use me.  Here am I Lord, I surrender to whatever Your will for my life is.’  And it was at that time that he felt a peace about running for president of the United States. -- Rafael Cruz, speaking of his son, Senator Ted Cruz
  • I feel fingers [of god]...  I finally said, ‘Lord if you truly want me to do this, you’ll have to open the doors, because I’m certainly not going to kick them down.  And if you open the doors I will walk through them.  And as long as you hold them open, I will walk through them...  I believe God will make it clear to me if that’s something I’m supposed to do.  I will run if God grabs me by the collar and asks me to run. -- Ben Carson
  • Our goal is eternity.  The purpose of our life is to cooperate with God’s plan, and I believe that's what this [the presidential race] is about...  To those who much has been given, much is expected, and we will be asked to account for that, whether your treasures are stored up on earth or in heaven.  And to me, I try to allow that to influence me in everything that I do. -- Marco Rubio
  • We have prayed a lot about this decision, and we believe with all our hearts that this [Santorum running for president] is what God wants. -- Rick Santorum
  • My relationship with God drives every major decision in my life.  Our country is at a crossroads and we need a proven conservative leader who is not afraid to fight for what is right — even when it’s not politically expedient.  My decisions are guided by my relationship with God. -- Scott Walker
  • He and his wife believe they are touched by God, and that this is his time.  It's like – they can't lose – that's the sense of it.  I don't know if he'll win the nomination, but I'm absolutely sure he'll be one of the last two Republicans standing. -- an anonymous supporter and financier, speaking of Governor Rick Perry
So what we have here is a host of presidential candidates who are all basically claiming that god told them personally that he wanted them to run.  Fortunately, one of them at least is aware that god can't simultaneously support everybody:
I think sometimes, while people say, “we’re praying about this, we’re asking God,” that’s fine, but it seems like the criteria that I’ve been told for selecting candidates seems very secular.  It’s about well, this person is polling well, this person has the cash.  And I’m thinking, you know if these guys were going up against Goliath they would’ve insisted that it was the big guy, with the king’s armor—they never would’ve allowed that shepherd boy with the five smooth stones, and with Gideon’s army, they would’ve run for cover when God got Gideon’s army down to 300. -- Mike Huckabee, speaking about his rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz
But of course, since he's implying that because of all of this, god's supporting him, I'm not sure we've gained any ground, here.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And of course, the other problem is that the unifying theme between all of these guys is that none of them are going to get the Republican nomination.  (We could argue over whether Ted Cruz still has a shot, but I think that realistically, he's done for.)  So what's going on here?  Was god trolling all of them?  Or saying, basically, "Yes.  It's my will that you run" without adding, "... but you're all gonna lose."  Or just telling them what they wanted to hear, because the almighty didn't want to hurt their feelings?

The problem is exactly what Susan B. Anthony observed -- "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because it so often coincides with their own desires."

So anyway, it's all rather amusing to we non-religious types that one of the only Republican candidates who didn't claim to be anointed by god -- Donald Trump -- is looking like a shoo-in for the nomination.  Of course, the downside is that Donald Trump winning the nomination doesn't only mean that the God Squad didn't get it, but that, um, Donald Trump will have won the nomination.  So my laughter is ringing a little hollow at the moment.

Maybe god could tell Donald that he was destined to become president.  Given god's batting average so far, it'd pretty much assure that he'd lose.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Starve a cold

Today from the Unintentionally Hilarious Department, we have a paper that made its way into PubMed that has the title, "Pharmacoeconomic Comparison Between Homeopathic and Antibiotic Treatment Strategies in Recurrent Acute Rhinopharyngitis in Children."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Here's a quick summary of the objectives and results, as quoted from the abstract:
Objectives: A pharmacoeconomic study to compare, in terms of: medical effectiveness, quality of life and costs two treatment strategies ('homeopathic strategy' vs 'antibiotic strategy') used in routine medical practice by allopathic and homeopathic GPs in the treatment of recurrent acute rhinopharyngitis in 18-month to 4-year-old children. 
Results: The 'homeopathic strategy' yielded significantly better results than the 'antibiotic strategy' in terms of medical effectiveness (number of episodes of rhinopharyngitis: 2.71 vs 3.97, P<0.001; number of complications: 1.25 vs 1.95, P<0.001), and quality of life (global score: 21.38 vs 30.43, P<0.001), with lower direct medical costs covered by Social Security (88 Euros vs 99 Euros, P<0.05) and significantly less sick-leave (9.5% of parents vs 31.6% of parents, P<0.001)... Homeopathy may be a cost-effective alternative to antibiotics in the treatment of recurrent infantile rhinopharyngitis.
What makes this hilarious is that the authors of the article, Melanie Trichard, Gilles Chaufferin, and Nicolas Nicoloyannis, are apparently unaware that because acute rhinopharyngitis (better known to most of us as a "cold") is viral in origin, antibiotics are entirely useless for fighting it, and no competent doctor would prescribe them in this situation for a child or for anyone else.  So saying that homeopathic "remedies" are as good for fighting colds as antibiotics is akin to the following claims:
  • crystals are as effective as aromatherapy for setting broken bones
  • blood-letting has the same success rate as seeing a witch doctor for curing brain cancer
  • Tarot cards have the same likelihood of telling you your future as palm-reading
  • peanut butter is as effective as chocolate pudding as a window-cleaner
The maddening thing is that you can still find homeopathic "remedies" (i.e., pills or liquids with no active ingredients) being sold for lots of money on pharmacy shelves, despite study after study showing that they are worthless.  The most recent study, just last year, generated the following conclusion:
The review found no good quality, well-designed studies with enough participants to support the idea that homeopathy works better than a placebo, or causes health improvements equal to those of another treatment. 
Although some studies did report that homeopathy was effective, the quality of those studies was assessed as being small and/or of poor quality. These studies had either too few participants, poor design, poor conduct and or [sic] reporting to allow reliable conclusions to be drawn on the effectiveness of homeopathy. 
According to CEO Professor Warwick Anderson, “All medical treatments and interventions should be underpinned by reliable evidence. NHMRC’s review shows that there is no good quality evidence to support the claim that homeopathy works better than a placebo.”
Dr. Steven Novella, a vocal and articulate supporter of science-based medicine, put it more clearly:
[The] pattern is now clear – gold standard clinical evidence shows that homeopathy does not work. Homeopaths do not respond by either producing high quality evidence of efficacy or by changing their views to account for the evidence.  Rather, they whine about the game being rigged against them and try to change the rules of evidence, so that weak studies that are almost guaranteed to be false positive are used, or studies that are not even designed to test efficacy...
For some reason we cannot summon the political will to do what reason demands (and what multiple systematic reviews by government bodies have recommended) and finally expel homeopathy from modern health care. 
Still there are researchers, either because they are true believers or just naive, calling for yet more research into homeopathy, such as the proposed Toronto study of homeopathy for ADHD.  The demand for more research will never end.  The public, however, should no longer support this profound waste of resources.
What is amazing is that the homeopaths themselves won't admit that the game is up.  How many failed studies do they need?  I realize that this would mean they were out of a job, but for cryin' in the sink, at what point do you say, "Okay, I guess I was wrong?"

I guess the answer to the last question is, "Never."  "Death before admitting we're ripping people off by selling them useless remedies," that's the motto of the homeopaths.  Anyhow, I'm done here.  I've got to go clean my windows.  The last time didn't work out so well.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Too high a price

If you wanted a further demonstration of why religious leaders and religious organizations should be subject to the same laws as the rest of us, consider the ruling last week in Louisiana in which a judge struck down a rule requiring priests to report suspected child abuse.

The rule, part of Louisana's Children's Code, faced the challenge because of the case of Father Jeff Bayhi.  Bayhi had been sued by Rebecca Mayeaux, who had confided to Father Bayhi during confession that she was being molested by a sixty-year-old parishioner.  According to Mayeaux, not only did Bayhi not tell authorities, he gave Rebecca some stomach-turning advice:
Two years ago, Mayeux told us she went to Father Bayhi seeking advice when she was 14, because she trusted him more than her parents. Court records show when Mayeux went to Bayhi, Rebecca says he told her, “This is your problem, sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.”
When Mayeaux sued, Bayhi claimed that his religious freedoms were being infringed upon, based on the Roman Catholic doctrine of the inviolability of the "seal of confession."  And last week, State District Judge Mike Caldwell ruled that Bayhi was right.

I have a personal reason for finding this appalling.  When I was a teenager, I knew Father Gilbert Gauthe, who was one of the first priests tried and convicted for pedophilia.  He was the assistant pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Broussard, Louisiana, where my grandmother worked as the priest's housekeeper and cook.  Gauthe never approached me inappropriately -- fortunately for him, because my grandmother would have strangled him with her bare hands if he had -- but while he was there, he became a Youth Group and Boy Scout leader.  During his tenure in Broussard and in three other parishes, he molested dozens of young boys -- some say as many as a hundred.

Father Gilbert Gauthe (ca. 1983)

Part of the problem was that Gauthe was a charmer.  I remember that well.  He was funny, personable, and friendly; everyone liked him.  Even after he was caught, it was hard to believe that someone like him could do such horrific things.  His defense lawyer, Ray Mouton, found it difficult to stay impartial. "No one would have believed this nondescript, mild-mannered, soft-spoken person could have done the things he was charged with," Mouton said. "And then he began to speak about these things and being in that room with him was the creepiest experience of my life."

And the whole time Gauthe was hurting children, Bishop Gerard Frey knew what was happening, but because of the shame it would bring on the church, refused to turn Gauthe in.  Instead, he was transferred from parish to parish, bringing him into contact with fresh groups of children to violate.  Even when he was caught, the church leaders tried to do damage control for their own reputations rather than helping the victims.  "The church fought me at every turn," Mouton said.  "They wanted me to plead him out and make it go away."

Mouton himself was so disgusted by the whole thing that it drove him not only out of his law career, but out of the church as well.   "I honestly believed the church was a repository of goodness," he said.  "As it turns out, it wasn't...  When I decided to take that case, I destroyed my life, my family, my faith.  In three years, I lost everything I held dear."

And Caldwell's ruling last week, hailed as a "victory for religious liberty," is making it easier for predators to remain free, and for church leaders who are complicit in their abuses to retain their veneer of holiness.  Father Paul Counce, canon lawyer for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, explained that priests can be excommunicated for violating the seal of confession.

A fate, apparently, that carries a higher price than all of the lives ruined by pedophiles who will never come to justice.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Miracles for sale

Two of the many things I do not understand have to do with fake faith healers (not, in my opinion, that there's any other kind).

The first is how, after a fake faith healer gets caught at his game, he has the gall to ignore the fact that he was caught in a lie, and do the same thing again.  If I were taking people's money by claiming I could do magic, and I got nailed as a phony, I would be so humiliated I would never want to show my face in public again, much less stand up in front of a sellout crowd and shout, "Jesus is acting through me to heal you (despite what you may have heard from my detractors)!"

The second thing is how there can be sellout crowds after someone is uncovered as a fraud.  Are people really that gullible?  Is I-Want-To-Believe really that powerful a driver?

The answer to both questions is provided by none other than Peter Popoff.  Popoff, you might recall, is a hands-in-the-air hallelujah-praise-be type of televangelist, who claimed to be getting messages from god but turned out to have been getting them from his wife via an earpiece.  Besides being clued in on names, illnesses, and other personal details about the people in the audience, Popoff also received edifying messages like "Keep your hands off her tits... I'm watching you."

And although the evangelicals do think that god is obsessed with telling people not to have sex, I kind of doubt that's the way the Almighty would have phrased it.

In any case, it is a bit of a shock to find that Popoff's back.  Again.  There was some indication last year that he had returned to his faith healing game, but now he's going at it a different way, by sending people letters claiming they're going to receive lots of money, if only they'll use his "Miracle Spring Water" (a packet of which is sent with the letter), and, of course, send Peter Popoff a donation.  Here's an excerpt of a letter received by one Mark Smith and turned over to authorities (which you can read in its entirety here):
What I have to tell you deals with a powerful sequence of events that will begin unfolding for you in the very near future... I see in the vision of the Lord a series of "Golden Miracle Manifestations" happening for you, Mark, in rapid succession, bringing you phenomenal wisdom, success, prosperity, happiness, and an abundance of supply... 
During the first manifestation I see a sudden release of money.  This financial influx is showered upon you from a totally unexpected source.  I cannot say exactly what the total amount will be, but it is somewhere between £2,700 and £27,000...  It is possible that you will receive much more... 
You will notice that there is a SECOND SEALED ENVELOPE enclosed with this letter.  In that envelope there is: (1) a packet of miracle spring water for you to use; (2) another faith tool that will completely foil Satan's attempt to hinder you and stop your miracle manifestations; (3) an anointed prophecy for you to read out loud... 
Quick now, while God's spirit is moving upon you, release your best financial seed-gift.  Don't let Satan hold you back any longer.  This is your opportunity to take your best action of faith that you can towards your secret miracle pathway that only God can uncover.  Right now, give Him your best gift of £27.00 or more.  There's something about £27.00 that so often releases your faith.
He's then told that if he misses the first "manifestation," god's done with him -- there won't be any others forthcoming.  "Don't let Satan make that happen," Popoff tells him.  So send lots of money right away.  The more the better.

This is apparently only one of 34 different letters that Popoff's sent out recently, asking for cash for miracles -- letters that differ only in their details.  "Send me money, or Satan wins" is the theme of all of them.


And you know that some people will.  There's something about this man that makes common sense and critical thinking go right out the window.

I have to wonder, though, if he may have crossed the line into a prosecutable offense.  I'm no legal expert, but isn't this mail fraud?  Maybe not -- it's not like "miracle manifestations" are a real commodity.  But dammit, there should be some way to stop this guy from ripping people off, preying on credulity and misplaced faith to rake in money hand over fist.

The sad part, though, is that even if he's arrested and prosecuted, he'll just bounce back.  Look at Jim Bakker.  Look at Jimmy Swaggart.   You can't, apparently, keep a bad man down.

Or as P. T. Barnum put it, "There's a sucker born every minute."

Monday, March 14, 2016

Don't drink the water

It's been a while since we've had a new bizarre alt-med claim to poke fun at, so I was delighted when a loyal reader sent me a link yesterday to a site for something called "Starfire Water."

What is "Starfire Water," you might be asking?  Let me allow the website to speak for itself:
Starfire Water™ is a proprietary alkaline (pH 8.5) performance water produced using breakthrough 21st-century quantum water technology.  Starfire Water is treated with ultraviolet ozonation, infrared stimulation and electromagnetism for a negative ion charged water, as in nature, allowing deep, cellular intake through aquaporins, the floodgates to hydration.
So we're starting off the right way, with the mention of "quantum."  Everything in alt-med has to be "quantum."  As far as the rest, it appears to me that the writer of the above paragraph came up with this text by opening the glossary of a college chemistry text and pointing at random words, then stringing them together into sentences.

"Ultraviolet ozonation," my ass.

So then we get to find out how "Starfire Water" is made, and that adds a whole new layer of wacky woo-woo pseudoscience to the mix:
Our process utilizes a centrifugal vortex to implode the water and set the water in motion for several hours. This reorganizes the molecular order into a receptive state to receive high frequency vibration. The water is then passed through a chamber where magnetic resonance imprints a series of frequencies in an infinitely modulating sequence. Molecular order and frequency loading mutually reinforce each other to maintain the transformation of the water. 
The result is a liquid with the water formed into small, biocompatible water crystals that resonate at a designed and predictable frequency. The specific frequencies of the crystalline structured water solution are designed to be amplified by the cells of the human body, and transferred through resonant paths to tissues in need of “tuning”.
So, let's see here.  We have:
  • a "centrifugal vortex."  Because apparently there's another kind.
  • "reorganized molecular order."  Don't want to drink disorganized water, after all.
  • "high frequency vibrations."  The higher the frequency the better, apparently.
  • "infinitely modulating sequences" imprinted by "magnetic resonance."  I have a bachelor's degree in physics, and I have no idea what the fuck that means.
  • "water crystals."  You mean ice?
  • "frequencies of crystalline structured water solution amplified by cells and transferred through resonant paths."  Okay, fine, you win.  I give up.
But one more thing bears relating, which is the diagram that shows the highly scientific method they use to make this stuff:


So evidently electrons get sucked down whirlpools, and positive ions get flung out of it, or something.  But at least now we know how the water is "imploded in a centrifugal vortex."

What this product appears to be is mineral water that they spin around for a while and then sell for six dollars a gallon to unsuspecting gullible types.  And there are a good many gullible types, apparently; even their Facebook page has been "liked" 3,960 times, probably because they make a point of telling us that their water is "treated with S.S.R.T. , Sacred Sound Resonance Transmission, making it the world’s finest premium Cell Ready performance 'living' hexagonal water ever produced."

Which you have to admit sounds pretty impressive.

So that's our dip in the deep end of the ordinary-water-filled pool for today.  Spending an hour pawing through the nonsense on this site -- and believe me, what I've written here represents only the barest fraction -- is making me consider giving up on water entirely.

At the moment, I'm thinking of switching to scotch.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The paws that refresh us

New from the “You’ll Think I’m Joking, But I’m Not” department, I have received word that the Calvary Episcopal Church in Danvers, Massachusetts is offering a worship service for dogs.

The program, called the “Perfect Paws Pet Ministry,” is alleged by Reverend Thea Keith-Lucas to “give area pet owners a greater likelihood of their dogs going to heaven.”  Owners will receive communion at the service, and dogs will receive dog treats and blessings.  Barking will be allowed.

While this has all the hallmarks of a story from The Onion, I assure you that it’s 100% true.

You have to wonder what the bible reading is going to be. Maybe a few verses from the Letter of St. Paul to the Dalmatians: “And the Lord said unto them, ‘To the Good Dogs shalt be given biscuits and squeaky toys and pats on the head, and there will be much wagging and playing of Fetch-the-Stick.  But unto the chewers of shoes, biters of mailmen, and those who pee on carpets shall be said, ‘No! No! Bad dog!’ and they shall they be cast out into the Back Yard, even if it be raining, and lo, there shall be no biscuits.’”

It’s not that I don’t understand the desire of pet owners to hang on to their pets.  If you believe in an afterlife, it’s kind of a sad prospect to think that you are going to live in eternal bliss, and Rocky the Black Lab just… won’t.  Many people feel as close to their pets as they do to their friends, and it’s natural to project onto them our hopes and fears for the future, and to want for them what we want for ourselves.

 
[image courtesy of photographer Noël Zia Lee and the Wikimedia Commons]

It does open up some potentially iceberg-strewn theological waters, however.  If we decide that dogs have an eternal soul, then what about other animals?   I own two dogs and a cat, and I can state that from my perspective, the cat's niche in the religious world seems to fall more into the “Possessed by Evil Spirits” category.  But if pets, why not other animals?  Do cows have an eternal soul?  What about pigeons?  What about slugs?  I don’t know about you, but if there are hornets in the verdant woodlands of heaven, I’d have second thoughts about going there.

The other problem I have with all of this is one that I have with a lot of religious thought, and that’s the idea that because something appeals to you, it’s likely to be true.  A friend of mine once told me, “I can’t imagine a universe where there was no god to guide things and give purpose to life.”  Well, it may well be true that you can’t imagine it, but I can’t see that that has the least bearing on whether or not god actually exists.  Honestly, I’ve found that there seems to be little to no correlation between my finding an idea appealing and its being true.  So it may seem sad to picture heaven without dogs, but it’s hard to see how that has any impact on (1) whether heaven exists, and (2) if it exists, whether dogs are allowed or not.

On the other hand, like many things, I suppose that attending a worship service with your dog isn’t doing any harm, even if the basic theological underpinnings of the idea are a little shaky.  So, if it makes you happy, by all means bring Rex along to church with you.  If it gives him some encouragement to be a Good Dog, all the better.  Me, I think I’ll stay home until Reverend Keith-Lucas hosts a Rite of Exorcism for the cats.