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.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Doubt, experiment, and reproducibility

Yesterday I got a response on a post I did a little over a year ago about research that suggested fundamental differences in firing patterns in the brains of liberals and conservatives.   The study, headed by Darren Schreiber of the University of Exeter, used fMRI technology to look at functionality in people of different political leanings, and found that liberals have greater responsiveness in parts of the brain associated with risk-seeking, and conservatives in areas connected with anxiety and risk aversion.

The response, however, was as pointed as it was short.  It said, "I'm surprised you weren't more skeptical of this study," and provided a link to a criticism of Schreiber's work by Dan Kahan over at the Cultural Cognition Project.  Kahan is highly doubtful of the partisan-brain study, and says so in no uncertain terms:
Before 2009, many fMRI researchers engaged in analyses equivalent to what Vul [a researcher who is critical of the method Schreiber used] describes.  That is, they searched around within unconstrained regions of the brain for correlations with their outcome measures, formed tight “fitting” regressions to the observations, and then sold the results as proof of the mind-blowingly high “predictive” power of their models—without ever testing the models to see if they could in fact predict anything. 
Schreiber et al. did this, too.  As explained, they selected observations of activating “voxels” in the amygdala of Republican subjects precisely because those voxels—as opposed to others that Schreiber et al. then ignored in “further analysis”—were “activating” in the manner that they were searching for in a large expanse of the brain.  They then reported the resulting high correlation between these observed voxel activations and Republican party self-identification as a test for “predicting” subjects’ party affiliations—one that “significantly out-performs the longstanding parental model, correctly predicting 82.9% of the observed choices of party.” 
This is bogus.  Unless one “use[s] an independent dataset” to validate the predictive power of “the selected . . .voxels” detected in this way, Kriegeskorte et al. explain in their Nature Neuroscience paper, no valid inferences can be drawn.  None.
So it appears that  Schreiber et al. were guilty of what James Burke calls "designing an experiment to find the kind of data you reckon you're going to find."  It would be hard to recognize that from the original paper itself without being a neuroscientist, of course.  I fell for Schreiber's research largely because I'm a generalist, making me unqualified to spot errors in highly specific, technical fields.

Interestingly, this comment came hard on the heels of a paper by Monya Baker that appeared last week in Nature called "1,500 Scientists Lift the Lid on Reproducibility."  Baker writes:
More than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist's experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments.  Those are some of the telling figures that emerged from Nature's survey of 1,576 researchers who took a brief online questionnaire on reproducibility in research... 
Data on how much of the scientific literature is reproducible are rare and generally bleak.  The best-known analyses, from psychology and cancer biology, found rates of around 40% and 10%, respectively.  Our survey respondents were more optimistic: 73% said that they think that at least half of the papers in their field can be trusted, with physicists and chemists generally showing the most confidence. 
The results capture a confusing snapshot of attitudes around these issues, says Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland.  “At the current time there is no consensus on what reproducibility is or should be.”
The causes were many and varied.  According to the respondents, the failure to reproduce results derived from issues such as low statistical power to unavailability of method to poor experimental design; worse still, all too often no one bothers even to try to reproduce results because of the pressure to publish one's own work, not check someone else's.  As as result, slipshod research -- and sometimes, outright fraud -- gets into print.

How dire is this?  Two heartening responses described in Baker's paper include the fact that just about all of the scientists polled want more stringent guidelines for reproducibility, and also that work of high visibility is far more likely to be checked and verified prior to publication.  (Sorry, climate change deniers -- you can't use this paper to support your views.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

What it means, of course, is that science bloggers who aren't scientists themselves -- including, obviously, myself -- have to be careful about cross-checking and verifying what they write, lest they end up spreading around bogus information.  I'm still not completely convinced that Schreiber et al. were as careless as Kahan claims; at the moment, all we have is Kahan's criticism that they were guilty of the multitude of failings described in his article.  But it does reinforce our need to think critically and question what we read -- even if it's in a scientific journal.

And despite all of this, science is still by far our best tool for understanding.  It's not free from error, nor from the completely human failings of duplicity and carelessness.  But compared to other ways of moving toward the truth, it's pretty much the only game there is.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Drought of the imagination

The observation that politicians tend to lie is so obvious as to hardly need comment.  As far back as 2,400 years ago, Plato observed, "Those who are too smart and honest to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are stupid and dishonest."

It's disheartening how little has changed in two millennia.  We are still electing liars and crooks, which means that we ourselves are falling for the lies.  After all, we keep voting for them despite the fact that just about everyone knows full well that most politicians will say and do damn near anything to get elected.

Which brings me once again to Donald Trump.

I had told myself I wouldn't do another post on Trump, that I'd said what I had to say.  Honestly, I hate talking politics anyhow.  I'm pretty non-partisan in the sense that I don't vote any party line, and that I can support a wide range of candidates as long as they approach holding office from the position of respecting facts, being open-minded, and telling the truth.

Unfortunately, this narrows the field pretty severely right from the get-go.

But even from my admittedly cynical standpoint, Donald Trump raises dishonest bullshit to unprecedented heights.  He's not the stupidest person in politics; that dubious honor would go either to Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas (who asked if the Mars Pathfinder mission had seen the flag that Neil Armstrong had planted yet) or Republican Louie Gohmert, also of Texas (who said that cutting food stamps was a benefit to poor people because it would keep them from becoming obese).

Trump, however, may well be the biggest liar of the bunch.  And I don't think he lies because he's shooting from the hip; I think he lies with complete forethought and understanding of what he's saying and why.  He is a brilliant strategist -- and, I believe, entirely amoral.

Let's consider his statements last week to a rally in Fresno, California.  It's hard to give a political speech in California in the last couple of years without at least addressing the catastrophic drought they've been facing.  It's first and foremost on many people's minds, given the threat to drinking water and agriculture as the rivers run dry and the aquifers disappear.  And what did Trump say?  I'll give you the direct quote, because you won't believe me otherwise:
We’re going to solve your water problem. You have a water problem that is so insane. It is so ridiculous where they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea.  They [the farmers] don’t understand — nobody understands it.  There is no drought. 
If I win, believe me, we’re going to start opening up the water so that you can have your farmers survive.
I beg your pardon?  There is no drought?  All Trump had to do, all along, is wave his hand and say, "The drought does not exist," and it would just acquiesce and move on to trouble another nation, possibly Mexico, assuming it can cross the wall he's planning to build?


And all we have to do, apparently, is to elect Trump, and he will "open up the water."  Environment be damned.  The water will do what Donald commands.  Otherwise, it will be fired.

To a lot of Trump's naysayers, these are just gaffes, slips of the tongue, speaking without thinking things through first.  I think it's more insidious than that.  Trump knows full well what he's doing, what sort of message plays well with the crowds he's attracting.  He's well-loved among people who distrust science, disbelieve that the climate is changing because of human activities, and think that our leader should be able to bully nature into doing whatever he wants. 

As such, he's wildly popular among the pro-fossil fuel contingent, and his talking points reflect that.  A couple of days ago, he promised that if he is elected, he would "cancel the Paris Climate Plan" that has made some motion toward addressing runaway fossil fuel use and anthropogenic carbon dioxide.   The move was no accident; it was calculated to win support (financial and otherwise) from the fossil fuel industry.  Don't believe me?  Consider his statement to a meeting of oil industry representatives in Bismarck, North Dakota three days ago:
Regulations that shut down hundreds of coal-fired power plants and block the construction of new ones — how stupid is that?... We’re going to deal with real environmental challenges, not the phony ones we’ve been hearing about.
Which reminds me of another quote, this one by George Bernard Shaw: "A government with the policy of robbing Peter to pay Paul can be assured of the support of Paul."

So it's no surprise that the petroleum industry loves the guy.  But what gets me most is the fact that Trump can lie outright to the crowds who attend his rallies, and they continue to cheer.  At least the other candidates are subtle about it; Trump, evidently, has the approach of "go big or go home:"
And you know I should say this, I’ve received many, many environmental rewards. You know, really.  Rewards and awards. I  have done really well environmentally and I’m all for it.  You know we want jobs.  We have to bring jobs back.  And if we can bring this part of the world water, that we have, that we have, but it’s true, I’ve gotten so many of the awards.
Do you know what "environmental rewards and awards" he's received?  I did some digging and I found...

... one.  In 2007, a golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, owned by Trump, received an award for "environmental stewardship through golf course maintenance, construction, education and research."  And that's it.  One golf course, apparently, constitutes "many, many environmental rewards... so many of the awards."

So Trump keeps bullshitting, and the people keep cheering.  More ironic still, many of the same people loudly complain about the dishonesty of the government -- while this man stands in front of them, uttering outright lies, and none of them bat an eye.

The whole thing is profoundly discouraging, not least because I'm not particularly enamored of the other option I'm likely to be offered in November.  I hate being put in a position of voting not to support a good candidate, but in an attempt to prevent a horrible candidate from winning.  That, however, appears to be what I'm going to have to do.  Unless I can simply wave my hand, unleash my Jedi mind tricks, and say, "These are not the candidates you're looking for," and have the whole lot of them go away.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Cats and quakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

... earthquakes.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 27, 2016

A win for sanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fact-free zone

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Thoughts on a drive-by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So would David Bowie.

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

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Signs of the times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Monday, May 23, 2016

Crowdfunding the scientific method

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

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

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

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Holy genome, Batman!

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

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

...in the genetic code.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 20, 2016

As hath been foretold by Mr. Prophecy

Worried about the End Times?  Concerned that you and your family might not prosper during the Apocalypse?  Upset that the Four Horsepersons might end up trampling your prized daffodils, or that the Beast With Seven Heads might eat your poodle?

Do I have news for you.

We now have hope, thanks to Jason A. Prophecy.

At least I think that's his name.  On his YouTube video called "The World in 2017: The End of America" that's how he's listed.  Or maybe he's using it in the sense of "A Prophecy by Jason."  It's ambiguous.  So I will continue to consider Prophecy his last name, because I think that gives what he has to say considerably more gravitas.

I was sent a link to his video by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia, with the message, "Good news for those of us who are probably damned in any case."  So I sat down and watched it.

Well, I watched part of it.  The whole thing is a little under an hour long, and patient man though I am, I'm not going to sit through 52 minutes of a guy telling me that America Is Doomed over and over.  To save you the trouble of watching it yourself, let me summarize his main points.
  • America is doomed.  In case I hadn't made that point clear enough yet.
  • President Obama is going to be the last president of the United States.  Interestingly enough, Mr. Prophecy doesn't seem to consider the upcoming conflagration to be Obama's fault, which is kind of unusual amongst these types.  It was going to happen anyway, he says, and Obama just happens to be the one who's going to bear the brunt of it.  So unfortunately, we don't even have the satisfaction of saying "Thanks, Obama" after the Seventh Seal is opened.
  • World leaders, including the Pope, know all about this because it's predicted in the bible.
  • Yes, I know that the bible doesn't say anything about the United States, because it was written two millennia too early.  Instead, in the bible the United States is code-named "Babylon," so everywhere you read "Babylon" you should understand that the writers meant "the United States."  (Which reminds me of the anecdote about Reverend William Spooner, of spoonerisms fame, who was preaching to his congregation one Sunday morning and noticed that everyone was looking at him with an expression of complete bafflement.  He suddenly brightened up and said, "Oh!  I'm so sorry!  Everywhere I said Aristotle, I meant St. Paul.")
  • The reason that Babylon is referred to as female in the "Holly [sic] Book" is because what it's really talking about is the Statue of Liberty.
  • Babylon is going to be destroyed.  *cue scary music*
  • Vladimir Putin is going to be the one who causes America/Babylon's downfall, because he's the evil "king of the north" mentioned in the Book of Daniel, chapter 11.
  • So what Putin is going to do is to launch an "electromagnetic pulse weapon" to knock out the entire electrical grid of the United States (the implication is that it will also cause automobiles and airplanes to malfunction and crash), and then invade and destroy us.
So while I'm watching this, I'm thinking, "If we're all doomed, why is he bothering to warn us?  This is a little like shouting 'Look out for the ground!' at a guy who's fallen off a cliff."  But then at the end, we get to the good news that the alert reader who sent me the link had referenced:

Mr. Prophecy has written several books about how to survive all of this nasty stuff, and they can all be yours for only $39 (plus postage and handling).

He tells us that he was tempted to give them away for free, but "people don't value what they don't pay for."  Evidently, surviving the apocalypse is not a sufficient motivator.  You also have to think, "Dammit, I paid cold hard cash for this book!  I'd better actually read it and find out how not to die!"

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So anyway.  Predictably, I'm not going to buy the books, because (1) I suspect that when the authors of the bible said "Babylon," they meant "Babylon," (2) even Vladimir Putin is smart enough not to launch an attack against the most heavily-militarized country the world has ever seen, and (3) I have better uses for $39, which in my opinion would include using it to start a campfire.  

And I'm not worrying about Obama being the last president, honestly.  I'm spending more of my time worrying about who's gonna be the next one.  I wonder if the Book of Daniel had anything to say about that?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Remembrance of immorality past

Like most of us, I try to act morally.  I do my best to tell the truth, respect others' feelings and belongings, follow through when I say I'm going to do something.

But like most of us, I fall short sometimes, much to my own chagrin.  It's inevitable, I suppose; we all stumble, make mistakes, succumb to temptation, indulge in fits of peevishness and anger and envy.

I recall those moments with considerable embarrassment, however.  And now two researchers have published research suggesting that we remember fewer of our unethical moments than we believe we do.

Maryam Kouchaki of Northwestern University and Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School collaborated on research that appeared this week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Entitled, "Memories of Unethical Actions Become Obfuscated Over Time," the gist of the study was as follows:
Despite our optimistic belief that we would behave honestly when facing the temptation to act unethically, we often cross ethical boundaries.  This paper explores one possibility of why people engage in unethical behavior over time by suggesting that their memory for their past unethical actions is impaired.  We propose that, after engaging in unethical behavior, individuals’ memories of their actions become more obfuscated over time because of the psychological distress and discomfort such misdeeds cause.  In nine studies (n = 2,109), we show that engaging in unethical behavior produces changes in memory so that memories of unethical actions gradually become less clear and vivid than memories of ethical actions or other types of actions that are either positive or negative in valence.  We term this memory obfuscation of one’s unethical acts over time “unethical amnesia.”  Because of unethical amnesia, people are more likely to act dishonestly repeatedly over time.
Which is a little disheartening.  I've been aware for years that memory is far more plastic and unreliable than we are most times willing to acknowledge; but I've always thought that its malleability was random, and that we were equally likely to forget or modify the memory of anything with equal emotional charge.  (It hardly bears mention that highly charged memories are more likely to be recalled than emotionally neutral ones are, regardless of content.).

[image courtesy of photographer Michel Royon and the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, it appears, we are wired to be selective -- remembering the pleasant memories in which we acted according to our own moral codes, and forgetting the unpleasant ones in which we breached ethical standards.  "We speculated…that people are limiting the retrieval of memories that threaten their moral self-concept and that is the reason we see pervasive ordinary unethical behaviors," Kouchaki wrote.  "Strong consequences might reduce unethical amnesia with your rationale.  However, the emotional pain caused by remembering severely negative consequences could work as even more motivation to forget that we acted immorally in the first place."

It might be natural for us to forget our misdeeds, but it's hardly constructive.  I've often cast a wry eye at the pop-psychology approach to good mental health that involves getting rid of "guilt feelings."  You know what?  There are times when we should feel guilty.  When we hurt someone's feelings or person, lie, cheat, steal, or slander, we should remember those actions with humiliation.  Those feelings are an impetus not only to make up for what we've done (insofar as it is possible), but never to repeat it.  Without those brakes on our behavior, how much more damage would we do to each other?

So Kouchaki and Gino's study turns out to be a bit of a cautionary tale.  We sometimes lie to each other -- but what we humans seem to excel most at doing is lying to ourselves.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The price of precaution

There's a fundamental idea in ecology called the precautionary principle.  Put simply, the precautionary principle says that it's always easier and cheaper to prevent environmental damage than it is to clean up the mess afterwards.

Note that this is not saying we can predict and prevent every disaster.  Mother Nature has a mean curve ball.  But there are all too many instances of the powers-that-be hearing, acknowledging, and then ignoring the advice of the scientists and other experts, with devastating results.

Let's look at a quick example before I tell you what this post is really about.

The Everglades were once a sawgrass, cypress, mangrove, and palmetto wetland encompassing most of the southern tip of Florida.  Through this wetland flowed a 100 kilometer wide sheet of water slowly making its way to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.  The wetland acted as a natural filter, and the water entering the sea was remarkably pure and sediment-free.  The area was home to hundreds of native species, some found nowhere else on Earth, and hundreds more used it as a stopover point on migration.

The Everglades [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem is, you can't raise cattle, grow oranges, or build houses in a wetland.  So in the first few decades of the 20th century, the Everglades were "improved" -- that is, turned into a patchwork of swamp with 2250 kilometers of canals, levees, and spillways designed to drain land for settlement.  The 160 kilometer long Kissimmee River was “straightened” by the Army Corps of Engineers for flood control; it’s now 84 kilometers long and has drained the wetlands north of Lake Okeechobee, which farmers turned into cow pastures.

In 1947, ecologists saw what was happening, and lobbied for protection.  In that year the founding of Everglades National Park attempted to conserve part of it, but you can't draw an arbitrary line around a piece of land and assume that what happens outside the line won't matter.  Continued development progressively cut off the water flow to the wetland, and in the following years between 75% and 90% of the park’s wildlife (depending on how you count the toll) disappeared.

Fast forward to 1990, when finally the Florida state government took notice -- prompted not by the recognition that Everglades National Park is one of the most damaged national parks in the United States, but because without the wetland, farmers and landowners were beginning to see problems.  The Everglades acted as a water catchment, and its reduced size caused a loss of fresh groundwater.  Not only did this compromise agriculture, it led to saline intrusion into wells, and the opening up of limestone sinkholes -- some big enough to swallow houses.  The sediment and fertilizer runoff that was once filtered by the marsh was now being ejected into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, killing fish, fouling coral reefs, and clouding the water.

The result was that in the late 1990s the government of Florida reluctantly agreed to the world’s largest ecological restoration project, to be carried out between 2000 and 2038.  It plans to restore the Kissimmee River to its original course, buying up farmland and creating new wetlands for both wildlife habitat and to filter agricultural runoff, and to create 18 large reservoirs to supply drinking water and slow down freshwater diversion.

At a cost to taxpayers of $7.8 billion.  To, if I haven't hammered in this point strongly enough, undo everything that we've done in the past eighty years, and return things back to where they would have been if we hadn't screwed them up royally in the first place.

This all comes up because two days ago, Crestwood Midstream, the company that is planning to expand natural gas storage in salt caverns underneath Seneca Lake, received a last-minute two year extension from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on their rights to use the site.  It had been hoped that FERC would come to their senses and deny the permit, but whether money talked or the officials at FERC simply shrugged and said, "Well, nothing bad has happened yet," they chose to allow the Texas-based company to continue in this reckless and irresponsible practice.

Seneca Lake [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Just how reckless and irresponsible are we talking about, here?  All it should take is one statistic to convince you: salt cavern storage accounts for only 7% of the total underground storage of natural gas in the United States, but was responsible for 100% of the catastrophic accidents from natural gas storage that resulted in loss of life.  

A major accident here in the form of a cavern breach wouldn't just endanger the workers at Crestwood Midstream's facility in the Town of Reading; it would result in the salinization of the south end of Seneca Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the Northeast, and the source of drinking water and water for irrigation for tens of thousands.  It would imperil the Finger Lakes wine industry, one of the biggest sources of revenue and tourism in the area.

Worst still, it would be damn near impossible to clean up.  You think the bill for wrecking the Everglades was high?  That's nothing compared to what it would take to rectify a salt cavern collapse and the resulting explosion.  If it was remediable at all.

And how likely is this?  Is this simply a panicked overreaction?  Another fact might clarify: a mere fifty years ago, a 400,000 ton chunk of the roof of one of the very salt caverns Crestwood is proposing to use caved in.

Imagine what the result would have been had the cavern been filled with natural gas.

Put simply, the precautionary principle isn't alarmism.  Oddly enough, we have no problem with the idea with respect to our homes, health, and lives; why it's so hard for people to swallow with respect to the planet we live on is incomprehensible to me.

And for a government regulatory commission like FERC to give Crestwood carte blanche to proceed with this potentially devastating plan is the height of irresponsibility.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Stopping Marie Curie

I have a simple request.  Can we stop electing morons to public office?

As you might expect, this comment arises because of Louie Gohmert, the Texas representative who has been elected to five consecutive terms despite having only recently mastered the ability to walk without dragging his knuckles on the ground.

Gohmert, you might recall, is the one who said the military's function is to "kick rears, break things, and come home."  He's also the one who took a highly humiliating trip to Egypt (humiliating to the rest of America, although probably not to him, given that you have to have an IQ that exceeds your hat size in order to experience humiliation), in which he and Michele Bachmann made a highly condescending speech in which, amongst other things, they implied that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was responsible for 9/11.

Representative Louie Gohmert [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, Gohmert has beat all previous stupidity records by throwing sexism into the mix.  He was one of four representatives who voted against a bill authorizing the National Science Foundation to utilize funds to recruit women into scientific fields.  When asked why he had voted against the measure, here was his response:
This program is designed to discriminate against that young, poverty-stricken boy and to encourage the girl.  Forget the boy.  Encourage the girl. 
It just seems that, if we are ever going to get to the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., that he spoke just down the Mall, he wanted people to be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.  I know after race has been an issue that needed attention, then gender appropriately got attention. 
But the point is that those things are not supposed to matter. 
It just seems like, when we come in and we say that it is important that for a while we discriminate, we end up getting behind.  And then probably 25 years from now boys are going to have fallen behind in numbers, and then we are going to need to come in and say: Actually, when we passed that bill forcing encouragement of girls and not encouraging of little boys, we were getting behind the eight ball.  We didn’t see that we were going to be leaving little boys in the ditch, and now we need to start doing programs to encourage little boys.
So here is a person who is so steeped in white male privilege that he honestly doesn't get the toll that has been taken on women and minorities by systematic institutional prejudice.  One and all, the people who cry "overreach of political correctness" are themselves privileged -- and don't know what it's like to deal with, every single hour of every single day, others denying you access based on your gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.  They do not understand what it's like to have doors closed to you because of factors that you can't change (and in a fair society, wouldn't want to).

Yes, I know, I'm a heterosexual privileged white male myself.  The difference is that I know I don't know these things.  I'm not blowing hot air pretending that I have any perspective at all.

Gohmert, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be smart enough to recognize his ignorance.  In fact, he went on to say that it's a good thing that such a program didn't exist in Marie Curie's time:
I thank God that there wasn’t a program like this that distracted her.  But according to the bill that we passed today, we are requiring the Science Foundation to encourage entrepreneurial programs to recruit and support women to extend their focus beyond the laboratory and into the commercial world.  Thank God that is not what Madame Curie did.
If you have any doubt about how the brilliant minds of women like Marie Curie, Hilde Mangold, Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Barbara McClintock, and Rosalind Franklin would have benefited from a program like this, read about their lives, and the struggles that they faced simply having anyone in the field take them seriously.  Consider how much more they could have accomplished if the majority of their time hadn't been spent in proving that their credibility, competence, and intelligence had nothing to do with which sex organs they born with.

Gohmert's comments are a profound insult to women everywhere, and to their allies who at least partly understand how sexism still permeates our culture.  Unfortunately, though, I suspect that if such ugly willful ignorance hasn't caused him to lose the election the last five times, it probably won't make any difference in the next one.

Still, one can keep hoping.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Analyzing the backfire

One of the most frustrating phenomena for us skeptics is the backfire effect.

The backfire effect is the documented tendency that people, when confronted with logic or evidence against their beliefs, actually hold those beliefs more strongly afterwards.  Being presented with a good argument, apparently, often has exactly the opposite effect from what we'd want.

This is understandably difficult for people like me, whose writing centers around getting people to reconsider their understanding of the universe using the tools of rationality and critical thinking.  But some recently released research has given us at least some comprehension of why the backfire effect occurs.

Entitled "Identity and Epistemic Emotions during Knowledge Revision: A Potential Account for the Backfire Effect," by Gregory J. Trevors, Krista R. Muis, Reinhard Pekrun, Gale M. Sinatra, and Philip H. Winne, the research was published a couple of months ago in the journal Discourse Processes.  The researchers designed an intriguing test to demonstrate not only that the backfire effect occurs (something that has, after all, been known for years) but to give us some understanding of what causes it.

Prior research had suggested that the resistance we have to changing our understanding comes from the fact that being challenged brings up the whole network of why we had those beliefs in the first place.  In effect, it reminds us of why we think what we do instead of triggering us to reconsider.  The result is a mental arms race -- a contest between what we already believed and the new information.  Given that the new information is usually understood more weakly, the old framework usually wins, and the fact of its having been considered and retained gives it the sense of being even more strongly correct than it was before.

The new research by Trevors et al. focuses on a different facet of this frustrating tendency.  What their study shows is that it is the emotion elicited by being challenged that triggers the backfire effect.  When we feel that our beliefs, and therefore (on some level) our core identity, is being attacked, the negative emotions that arise cause us to shy away and cling to our prior understanding.

Specifically, what the team did was to look at people's attitudes toward GMOs, a subject rife with misinformation and sensationalistic appeals to fear.  They first assessed the participants' attitudes toward GMOs, then gave them an assessment to gauge how strongly they felt about the issue of dietary purity.  They then gave the participants a passage to read that argued against the anti-GMO position, and afterwards asked them questions designed to measure not only how (or if) their ideas had changed, but how they responded emotionally while reading the passage.

[image courtesy of photographer Rosalee Yagihara and the Wikimedia Commons]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the anti-GMOers who ranked dietary purity as a strong motivator were the most angered by reading the passage -- and they experienced the backfire effect the most strongly.  The weaker the emotional response, even if the participant was anti-GMO to begin with, the smaller the backfire.

I'm not sure that this is heartening.  So many of the ideas that we skeptics fight are deeply ingrained in people's idea about how the world works -- and therefore, on some level, entangled with their core identity.  To quote the Research Digest of the British Psychological Society, which reviewed the study:
If persuasion is most at risk of backfire when identity is threatened, we may wish to frame arguments so they don’t strongly activate that identity concept, but rather others.  And if, as this research suggests, the identity threat causes problems through agitating emotion, we may want to put off this disruption until later: Rather than telling someone (to paraphrase the example in the study) "you are wrong to think that GMOs are only made in labs because…", arguments could firstly describe cross-pollination and other natural processes, giving time for this raw information to be assimilated, before drawing attention to how this is incompatible with the person's raw belief – a stealth bomber rather than a whizz-bang, so to speak.
Which is hard to do when the emotional charge on both sides is strong, as is so often the case.  The bottom line, though, is that we humans are fundamentally not particularly rational creatures -- something worth remembering when we are trying to change minds.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

School board theocrats

I ran into two stories yesterday that were interesting primarily in juxtaposition.

In the first one, we hear that evangelical minister Franklin Graham thinks that all school boards need to be run by (surprise!) evangelical Christians.

In an interview with Fox News's Todd Starnes, Graham said:
I want Christians running the school boards.  I want the school boards of America in the hands of evangelical Christians within the next four to six years.  And it can happen and that will have a huge impact because so many school districts now are controlled by wicked, evil people, and the gays and lesbians, and I keep bringing their name up, but they are at the forefront of this attack against Christianity in America.
Implying, of course, that the "implosion of the morality in the United States" (Graham's words) comes, in part, from evil amoral secular people running the schools, and indoctrinating young people's minds in concepts like tolerance and keeping your damned nose out of what other people do in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

Franklin Graham [image courtesy of photographer Paul M. Walsh and the Wikimedia Commons]

But what places this into even starker relief is another story that appeared over at Patheos yesterday.  In this bit of news, we hear about an upcoming evangelical conference in Wichita, Kansas, sponsored by the Christian patriarchy movement Quiverfull, which is devoted to the topic of how parents can arrange marriages between their teenage children.

If this sounds too ridiculous to be real, here are direct quotes from Quiverfull's FAQ page:
Courtship denies the authority of the father over the marriage of their virgin children. While they often give a veto to the parents of the woman, they specifically deny the authority of the father of the groom or the bride to choose a spouse for their children. 
We believe that Scripture teaches quite clearly that the father does have the power to choose a spouse for their virgin child; and we see this in several Scriptural examples.
But isn't this a forced marriage?  Amazingly enough, in their minds apparently it isn't:
Emphatically, an “arranged marriage” (fathers binding their children in the covenant of betrothal) is NOT synonymous with “a forced marriage”, and sadly, secular sources are often more honest in this matter to recognize this clear distinction than other Christians are.  Unfortunately, this idea is far too common in our modern notions, and far too often we are accused of promoting this, either explicitly or implicitly.  When the “liberty” that moderns value (especially Americans) is contrasted with the type of authority and submissiveness that the Bible teaches and demonstrates, it is challenging to us, and this sharp contrast often leads people to jump to the idea of “forced” compliance.  It is difficult for the modern (again, especially Americanized cultures) to come to grips with the idea of willful, joyful submission.
So young ladies, submit to what we're ordering you to do joyfully, and it won't have to be "forced."

Anyway, how young are we talking about, here?
The ‘youth’ ready for marriage has breasts. A woman who is to be married is one who has breasts; breasts which signal her readiness for marriage, and breasts who promise enjoyment for her husband.  (We believe that ‘breasts’ here stand as a symbol for all forms of full secondary sexual characteristics.) 
Lest you think that these people aren't really doing the whole "biblical marriage" thing, here -- yes, they are even requiring that parents of boys pay a "bride price" to the parents of the girl:
A “bride price” is anything paid or given by the man or his representative at the time of his betrothal or receiving his bride. 
Scripture certainly teaches about it… The law concerning bride price (Exodus 22:16-17)
indicates that . . . the bride price was a normal part of the marriage process.  
The bride price plays a significant function: It shows the woman’s value, and the point isn’t that the father gets the money but that he keeps it for his daughter, if her husband should ever abandon her.
And if that's not twisted enough for you, they also go on and on about "The continuing authority of the father over the couple after marriage."

What struck me after reading all this (once I recovered from my nausea) is, "these are the sort of people Franklin Graham wants running our school boards."  In other words, the people he wants to be in charge of protecting the interest of America's youth.  The people into whose trust we should place the well-being of our children.

Who unfortunately are also the people who believe that Deuteronomy 21:18-21 should be followed to the letter:
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’  Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
And, ironically, who the same people who are having a complete meltdown worrying about how children might be damaged by a transgendered person looking for a quiet place to pee.

So as far as agendas go, I'll take the LGBT agenda over this fuckery any day.  As far as I can tell, the LGBT agenda mostly is about making sure that people aren't discriminated against by bigots.  The evangelical agenda seems more to do with turning the United States into an Iranian-style bloodthirsty theocracy run on rules set down by a bunch of illiterate Bronze-Age sheepherders who thought god's first priority was making sure that damn near every natural human impulse was punishable by death.

And I know which one I'd want my own children living in.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Sheeple update

Sometimes I have to check in on the r/conspiracy subreddit just to see what new nutty conspiracy theories are out there.  I try to make sure that I've girded my loins and stiffened my spine beforehand, because the level of complete batshit insanity demonstrated by the regular contributors really has to be seen to be believed.  On my most recent visit, I was not disappointed -- there are not one, nor two, but three truly amazing new conspiracy theories, if by "amazing" you mean "ideas that you would only come up with if you have a single Cheeto where most of us have a brain."

First, we have astronomer Paul Cox inducing multiple orgasms in the Planet X crowd by making a joke while analyzing a video of the recent transit of Mercury across the Sun.  "See that mysterious bright glow on the right side?  What do you suppose that is?" Cox asks, pointing to what is clearly a lens flare.  "Do you think it's the mysterious planet Nibiru?"  He then goes on to say, "We don't cover things up like NASA does."

Well, you don't joke about such matters, not when people like YouTube contributor "EyesOpen37" are listening.  "EyesOpen37" doesn't believe in lens flares.  "EyesOpen37" thinks it's much more likely that a vague, diffuse glow is unequivocal evidence that a huge planet inhabited by our reptilian alien overlords is coming into the inner solar system for a visit, and NASA is desperately trying to make sure that no one finds out about it.

"I wonder if these guys are using this transit of Mercury to warn us about Nibiru?" muses "EyesOpen37," in a tone of voice that indicates that the answer is obviously "yes."  And the people who posted comments on his YouTube submission agree wholeheartedly.  Here's a sampling:
  • Thank you so much for uploading this video!!  And I'm so glad a reputable person has finally spoke out!  Paul Cox is a good person and so are you to release this info!! :)
  • I hope you have this video backed up so you can keep re-posting if it gets deleted!!  WOW!!
  • Want to know how it'll end?  Read Revelation 8:8 on.  Repent and seek your Saviour.  God bless.
  • It's controlled.  How many dead astronomers do we have to date?  Maybe a joke is the only way he can put it out there. Bottom line....he was deliberate.
Yes, there are lots of dead astronomers.  Aristarchus, Hypatia, Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Edmund Halley... the list goes on and on.  There's only one possible answer -- they were all killed to keep them silent about the Planet Nibiru.

Speaking of dead people, our second conspiracy theory is about how Osama bin Laden is still "alive and well and living in the Bahamas."  And of course, there's nothing that lends credence to a wacko idea like saying "Edward Snowden says so."  (The only thing that's better would be saying "Nikola Tesla says so.")  According to the site Humans are Free, Snowden had the following to say about it:
I have documents showing that Bin Laden is still on the CIA’s payroll.  He is still receiving more than $100,000 a month, which are being transferred through some front businesses and organizations, directly to his Nassau bank account. I am not certain where he is now, but in 2013, he was living quietly in his villa with five of his wives and many children. 
Osama Bin Laden was one of the CIA’s most efficient operatives for a long time.  What kind of message would it send their other operatives if they were to let the SEALs kill him?  They organized his fake death with the collaboration of the Pakistani Secret services, and he simply abandoned his cover. 
Since everyone believes he is dead, nobody’s looking for him, so it was pretty easy to disappear.  Without the beard and the military jacket, nobody recognizes him.
Of course, at the bottom of the page, we read the following disclaimer:
Note: The original source of this information has not been validated nor confirmed by any other source.
In other words, even though we're not sure if it's true, you're clearly a KoolAid-Drinkin' Sheeple if you don't believe it.

And since bin Laden is still alive, it must therefore follow that lots of other Big Bad Guys are, too.  For our last dip in the deep end of the pool, we go to the site OrionStar 3000, wherein we learn that Josef  "The Angel of Death" Mengele is not only still alive, he is also the "Zodiac Killer"  who killed seven people in the late 1960s in California.

Now, you might be thinking, "How can Mengele be alive?  He was born in 1911.  He'd be 105 years old by now."  But this just shows that you're not thinking outside the box.  (And by "the box" I mean "anything that makes sense.")  Here's what he looked like in 2001, when he was a mere 90 years old, in a photograph taken at a "Brotherhood of Aryan Nations/KKK/ Bush Fundraiser in Hernando, Florida.":


Which, you have to admit, is pretty good for a 105-year-old.  Here's Mengele during World War II:


So I think we have a definitive match.

As far as how Mengele could still be so spry despite his age, we're told, "Mengele looks much younger than he really is due to years of face-lifts, anti-aging hormone injections & alleged cannibalism!"

And if that wasn't enough, we also find out the following alarming stuff:
  • [SS Lieutenant Colonel] Otto Skorzeny faked Hitler's death!  Nazi Germany Really Won WWII!
  • Hitler lived to be the oldest man in America until he died at the age of 114 years in 2/2004 in the Bethesda, MD Naval Hospital.
  • The son of Tesla's illegal immigrant German Born accountant George H. Scherff Sr., SS Nazi spy George H. Scherff Jr. aka: US Navy Pilot: George H.W. Bush murdered his two TBF Avenger crew members by bailing out of his perfectly good airplane.  Bush became a heroin junkie to try to escape his guilty conscience.
Scarier still, this site doesn't have a disclaimer.  So it must all be true, right?

Of course right.

So that's our fun excursion through CrazyTown for today.  I hope you enjoyed it.  Myself, I'm wondering if I can get a hold of any of that anti-aging stuff.  I'm hoping I don't have to resort to cannibalism.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Mary's tears

A report is in from Fresno, California that there is a statue of the Virgin Mary in someone's house that is "weeping real tears."

The predictable result is that the devout are now flocking to the home of Maria Cardenas, and church officials are declaring that it's a miracle.  Devotees have spent hours kneeling and praying before the statue.  People are collecting the "tears" in vials, and claiming that they have magical powers of healing.  Cardenas states that the tears are "oily" and "smell like roses."

Such stories are not uncommon. There have been enough claims of this type that "Weeping Statues" has its own Wikipedia page.  Weeping statues, usually of Jesus or Mary, have been reported in hundreds of locations.  Sometimes these statues are weeping what appear to be tears.  Others weep scented oil, which is apparently what's happening in this case.  More rarely, the statues weep blood.

The problem is, of course, that when the church has allowed skeptics to investigate the phenomenon, all of them have turned out to be frauds.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

One of the easiest ways to fake a crying statue was explained, and later demonstrated, by Italian skeptic Luigi Garlaschelli.  If the statue is glazed hollow ceramic or plaster (which many of them are), all you have to do is to fill the internal cavity of the statue with water or oil, usually through a small hole drilled through the back of the head.  Then, you take a sharp knife and you nick the glaze at the corner of each eye.  The porous ceramic or plaster will absorb the liquid, which will then leak out at the only point it can -- the unglazed bit near the eyes.  When Garlaschelli demonstrated this, it created absolutely convincing tears.

What about the blood?  Well, in the cases where the statues have wept blood, most of them have been kept from the prying eyes of skeptics.  The church, however, is becoming a little more careful, ever since the case in 2008 in which a statue of Mary in Italy seemed to weep blood, and a bit of the blood was taken and DNA tested, and was found to match the blood of the church's custodian.  Public prosecutor Alessandro Mancini said the man was going to be tried for "high sacrilege" -- an interesting charge, and one which the custodian heatedly denies.  (I was unable to find out what the outcome of the trial was, if there was one.)

Besides the likelihood of fakery, there remains the simple question of why a deity (or saint) who is presumably capable of doing anything (s)he wants to do would choose this method to communicate with us.  It's the same objection I have to the people who claim that crop circles are Mother Earth attempting to talk to us; it's a mighty obscure communiqué.  Even if you buy that it's a message from heaven, what does the message mean?  If a statue of Mary cries, is she crying because we're sinful?  Because attendance at church is down?  Because we're destroying the environment?  (Pope Francis might actually subscribe to this view.)   Because the Saints didn't make it to the Superbowl this year?  Oh, for the days when god spoke to you, out loud, directly, and unequivocally, from a burning bush...

In any case, I'm skeptical, which I'm sure doesn't surprise anyone.  I suppose as religious experiences go, it's pretty harmless, and if it makes you happy to believe that Mary's tears will bring you good luck, then that's okay with me.  If you go to Fresno, however, take a close look and see if there's a tiny hole drilled in the back of the statue's head -- which still seems to me to be the likeliest explanation.