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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Educating more than the sheep

I have had frequent cause to bemoan the fact that we in the educational establishment are teaching 21st century students using a 19th century model.

Let me explain what I mean.  Back in the 19th and early 20th century, it was critical for a well-educated person to know lots of facts.  If you were conversing with a doctor about your health, and you didn't know the names of basic human organs and tissues, you were likely to be entirely lost, and unless you had a medical text handy, there was no way to figure it all out.  On a less dire level, even when I was a kid (1960s and 70s) if you didn't know something -- perhaps even a simple fact, like what is the name of the cellular structure that provides cells with energy -- you had to go and look it up in an encyclopedia or textbook, if you were lucky enough to own them.  Failing that, you took a lengthy trip to a library to see if you could dig it up.

Or you just decided that it wasn't worth the time and stopped worrying about it.

(Nota bene: it's the mitochondria.)

Now?  Most students have access either to cellphones or to other internet-connective devices.  Access to facts and terminology is trivial.  Sometimes a student will ask me something I don't know the answer to -- such as yesterday, when someone wanted to know the gestation period of a sheep -- and within seconds, answers are being shouted out from all over the room.

(Nota bene: it's 152 days.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Far more important than simple facts are two things, one of which is taught less often than mere terminology, and the other of which is hardly taught at all.  The more common one is process.  Not just the name "mitochondria," but how it goes about breaking down glucose to release energy for cellular function.  Not just the names of Mendel's four laws of genetics, but why they work (and why there are cases where they don't -- thus, "non-Mendelian inheritance").

Process, though, is hard to teach.  It requires not only that the teacher thoroughly understand it, but that (s)he finds ways to make the subject accessible to students.  It's much easier simply to teach laundry lists of disconnected facts and terms -- but I would question if such a thing is actually "education."

Teaching process, though, is downright common when compared to the other more important skill, which is how to tell false claims from true ones.  Okay, fine, you can look something up on your cellphone, tell us the gestation period of a sheep in five seconds flat.  How do you know if it's right?  How could you tell if it were false?  What does it mean if the source of the information has a bias or an agenda -- admittedly unlikely in the case of pregnant sheep, but a huge deal with respect to science, current events, or politics?

The sad truth that today's students are not being taught to sift fact from fiction was highlighted by a study released last week by some researchers at Stanford University that came to the rather horrifying conclusion that middle, high school, and college students, when presented with various combinations of news articles, opinions, outright falsehoods, biased stories, "sponsored content" (i.e., advertisements), and unsupported claims, couldn't tell one from the other.  Across the board, students scored very poorly on their ability to question source validity, discern bias, and tell real news from fake news.

"Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there," said Sam Wineburg, lead author of the study.  "Our work shows the opposite... What we see is a rash of fake news going on that people pass on without thinking.  And we really can't blame young people because we've never taught them to do otherwise."

To combat this, however, would take a major overhaul of the way we teach.  Unlikely, given the increasing reliance on easy-to-measure "learning standards" -- most of which are taught and assessed using shallow, vocabulary-based factoids, not deep understanding (which is hard to quantify, and therefore to the policy wonks at the state and federal Departments of Education, doesn't seem to matter).  Couple this with the ongoing slicing of funding from public schools, and you can easily see why there's a significant incentive to keep doing things the old way.

But as the study by Wineburg et al. shows, what we're doing is inadequate for preparing young people to be smart consumers of media in the 21st century.  It's no wonder "fake news" has gotten such traction; the consumers can't tell it from the real thing.  Unsurprising, too, that our tendency to place ourselves in echo chambers where we only hear opinions we already believed, and therefore are unlikely to question them, makes for increasing political polarization and people making decisions based on what they think they understand rather than the actual facts.

If this is going to change, we'll need a bottom-up revamping of how teaching is done, and a rethinking of what it means to educate children in the 21st century.  Otherwise, we'll fall victim to the old adage -- "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got."

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Defending science vs. defunding science

I keep wanting to bring you some good news, honestly I do.  But lately all I've seen is more reason to fuel my inner pessimist.

The latest assault on any Pollyannas that are still floating around comes from Bob Walker, senior adviser to President-elect Trump, who has stated the incoming administration's intent to defund NASA's Earth Sciences Division.  In an interview with The Guardian, Walker said:
NASA’s Earth Science Division is set to be stripped of funding in favor of exploration of deep space, with the president-elect having set a goal during the campaign to explore the entire solar system by the end of the century.
Which might, on first glance, not sound that bad, just a defunding of one program in favor of another...  Until you realize that the Earth Sciences Division is the branch of NASA that is studying climate change.

Then, if you're like me, you have an "aha" moment.

Walker went on to say:
My guess is that it would be difficult to stop all ongoing NASA programs but future programs should definitely be placed with other agencies.  I believe that climate research is necessary but it has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing.  Mr Trump’s decisions will be based upon solid science, not politicized science.
In other words, the climate scientists have not come to the conclusion the President-elect and his advisers want, so time to pull funding from the bastards and hand the money to agencies that will come to the politically expedient conclusions.

And who, exactly, is at fault for "politicizing" climate science?  It certainly isn't the climate scientists themselves, who are simply studying the data itself (i.e., the facts) and would be much happier if the politicians and petroleum lobby would just butt the hell out.  It's legislators like James "Senator Snowball" Inhofe and Lamar "Harass 'Em Till They Give Up" Smith.  And, it must be said, the President-elect himself, who went on record as saying that climate change was a "hoax perpetrated by the Chinese."

Hell, climate change denial is a part of the Republican Party platform.  They have received millions of dollars from the fossil fuel industry to finance a disinformation program, all too similar to the one waged against the medical establishment by the tobacco industry to weaken the public perception of the connection between smoking and cancer.

Oh, but do go on about how the nasty liberals and crooked climate scientists are the ones who politicized this.

[image courtesy of NASA]

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy was unequivocal about what a terrible move this is:
If this slashing of NASA Earth science comes to pass, it will be a disaster for humanity.  This is no exaggeration: NASA is the leading agency in studying the effects of global warming on the planet, in measuring the changes in our atmosphere, our oceans, the weather, and yes, the climate as temperatures increase.  They have a fleet of spacecraft observing the Earth, and plans for more to better understand our environment.  That’s all on the chopping block now.
Equally strong were the words from Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research:
It could put us back into the ‘dark ages’ of almost the pre-satellite era. It would be extremely short sighted...  We live on planet Earth and there is much to discover, and it is essential to track and monitor many things from space.  Information on planet Earth and its atmosphere and oceans is essential for our way of life.  Space research is a luxury, Earth observations are essential.
Interesting that all of this is taking place during a year when there has been record heat and drought and a record low in the Arctic sea ice.  Interesting, too, that the military industrial complex has no problems whatsoever in accepting this "politicized science;" this summer a top military advisory board stated that climate change was a "threat to national security" and that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's most recent report was a "clarion call to action."

So there you have it.  Another reason for weeping into your coffee, at least if you have respect for science and give a damn about the long-term habitability of the Earth.  Me, I'm just apprehensive about what I'm going to find out when I read the news tomorrow.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The end of the social experiment

In case I needed another reason to be glad that I'm only a few years from retirement, a few days ago President-elect Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to the post of Secretary of Education.

Betsy DeVos [image courtesy of photographer Keith A. Almli and the Wikimedia Commons]

It would be hard to find a less qualified person.  It is debatable whether DeVos has ever set foot in a public school.  She did not attend one as a child, nor did she send her own children there.  She does not have a degree in education, nor has she ever taught, even in a private school.  Her sole connection to schools is her near-rabid support of vouchers, which would funnel money away from public schools and into private (including religious) schools.

It's worse, however, than a simple lack of qualifications.  The Acton Institute, where DeVos is a board member, recently published a piece called "Bring Back Child Labor: Work is a Gift Our Kids Can Handle" which included passages like the following:
Operating out of a justified fear of the harsh excesses of “harder times,” we have allowed our cultural attitudes to swing too far in the opposite direction, distorting work as a “necessary obligation of adulthood,” a gift too dangerous for kids.  Working from these same distorted attitudes, the Washington Post recently published what it described as a “haunting” photo montage of child laborers from America’s rougher past. 
The photos surely point to times of extreme lack, of stress and pain.  But as Jeffrey Tucker rightly detects, they also represent the faces of those who are actively building enterprises and cities, using their gifts to serve their communities, and setting the foundation of a flourishing nation, in turn.
The author, Joseph Sunde, was the recipient of a firestorm of criticism over the article, so he changed the title to remove the "Bring Back Child Labor" part, and appended the following disclaimer:
Given the recent attention drawn to this post, permit me to clarify that I do NOT endorse replacing education with paid labor, nor do I support sending our children back into the coal mines or other high-risk jobs, nor do I support getting rid of mandatory education at elementary and middle-school ages.
No?  So what does "Bring Back Child Labor" mean?

What is the most maddening about all of this is that the majority of students I teach do work, and I see the stress that they deal with trying to juggle school, homework, job, extracurricular activities, and family obligations.  The idea that kids today are lazy whiners who need a return to some 1920s-style discipline is a convenient falsehood for those who want to gut the public school system.

DeVos and the Acton Institute are deeply invested in what amounts to defunding public education.  They focused for a time on Michigan, trying to push a "school choice" agenda there (an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful), showering huge amounts of money and gifts on Republican candidates in exchange for their support.  Detroit Free Press writer Stephen Henderson denounced DeVos as engaging in "a spending spree that would swell to $1.45 million in contributions to the party and to individual candidates by the end of July," adding that "in Michigan, children’s education has been squandered in the name of a reform “experiment," driven by ideologies that put faith in markets, alone, as the best arbiters of quality, and so heavily financed by donors like the DeVos clan that nearly no other voices get heard in the educational conversation."

Michigan Board of Education President John Austin, in an apt if somewhat mixed metaphor, said that "It’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, and hand-feeding it schoolchildren...  DeVos’s agenda is to break the public education system, not educate kids, and replace it with a for-profit model."

And if you needed anything else, there's also a good likelihood that she's an Intelligent Design Creationist.  She grew up in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church; her parents, Edgar and Elsa (Brockhuizen) Prince, are major donors to the Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council;  and her husband, Dick DeVos, came right out with "teach the controversy" bullshit when he was running for Michigan governor in 2006:
I would like to see the ideas of intelligent design — that many scientists are now suggesting is a very viable alternative theory — that that theory and others that would be considered credible would expose our students to more ideas, not less.
By the same argument, I suppose teaching students alchemy in chemistry class and astrology in physics class would "expose them to more ideas, not less."

And funny how whenever one of these clowns tries to ramrod ID or creationism into public school classrooms, they always say that "many scientists" are in favor of it without telling us who these scientists are.  "Cite your sources" apparently doesn't carry any weight in politics, for some reason.

So in the next four years -- assuming DeVos is confirmed, which is likely given the Republican majority in both the Senate and the House -- look for a further siphoning of funds away from public schools, more emphasis on draining resources and talent from poor inner-city schools, and more efforts to hamstring science education.  I've taught for thirty years, and I've weathered some ups and downs in that time, but I can't recall a point at which I felt so genuinely pessimistic about the future of public education.  In a purely selfish sense, I'm glad I'm retiring, probably some time in the next five years, and can get myself right out of this mess.  But it breaks my heart that this great social experiment in educating all children, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or religion, may be coming to an end.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Mouse talk

Being a linguistics geek, I've always been fascinated with the mechanisms of communication.  My interests span such topics as the evolution of human language, how one language (or culture) influences another (the topic of my master's thesis), the question of how we would understand language in a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence, and whether vocal communication in other species is actually language.

The conventional answer to the last question has usually been "no."  Language, as defined by linguistics, is "arbitrary symbolic communication."  The arbitrary part is because except in certain rare cases, such as onomatopoeic words ("pop," "splat," "bang," etc.), there is no logical connection between the sound of a word and its referent.  Except in our minds, there is nothing especially doggy about the sound of the word "dog."

So is vocal communication in other animals language?  The singing of songbirds is clearly communication, but it lacks one important characteristics of human language; the flexible productive ability of language to communicate different concepts in different contexts.  Birdsong is for the most part (within a species) limited in range to a few different sounds, and once learned, never changes.

Some species, however, get closer to language than that.  Some birds, notably corvids, have a wide range of vocalizations, and are also some of the most intelligent birds.  Dogs vary their tones depending on context -- I can tell from the tone of my dog's barks whether he's seen a squirrel, someone's knocked on the front door, he wants to be let in, he's hungry, or my wife's just come home.  One step closer are whales and dolphins, whose vocal communication appears to be complex and responsive -- but whether it qualifies as true language is an unsettled question.

However, a new study, which appeared this week in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, suggests that human language may not be as far removed from vocalizations in other animals as we may have thought.  The paper, entitled "A FOX-P2 Mutation Implicated in Human Speech Deficits Alters Sequencing of Ultrasonic Vocalizations in Adult Male Mice," by Jonathan Chabout, Erich D. Jarvis et al., has shown that mice have the "Forkhead Box Protein 2" (FOX-P2) gene, just as humans do -- and a mutation in that gene impairs vocal communication in mice, just as it does in humans.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

"This study supports the ‘continuum hypothesis,’ which is that FOX-P2 affects the vocal production of all mammals, and not just humans," Jarvis said.  "Mice do not have the complex vocal learning behavior of humans and song-learning birds.  Nonetheless, we find that the same FOX-P2 mutation in mice and in humans leads to overlapping effects on sequencing of vocalizations. In particular, against a background of preserved syllable acoustic structure, we see reductions in the length and complexity of syllable sequences."

I find this fascinating, because I've always been of the opinion that there's a lot more going on inside the brains of non-human animals than we've typically been willing to acknowledge, and a great deal more similarity than difference between human cognition and cognition in other mammals.  So in a way, I find this result unsurprising.

But still, what was drilled into me in my college linguistics classes -- that humans were the only animals that had language, and that there was a hard-and-fast divide between the vocalizations of humans and those in other species -- was a surprisingly deep-seated bias.  It's one I'm glad to jettison, however.  My other geeky passion is evolutionary biology, so the idea that there is an unbroken continuum in the animal world in terms of what we have to say, and the genetic underpinning thereof, is pretty damn cool.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Five channels plus the facts

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt of New York University has pioneered research into what he calls the "five channels of morality" -- the five foundations of human morals and ethics worldwide.  These are compassion/harm, fairness/cheating, in-group loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and purity/degradation.

As Haidt describes in a wonderful TED talk called "The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives," liberals tend to have a "two-channel" model of morality (placing emphasis on compassion and fairness) whereas conservatives have a "five-channel" model (placing nearly equal emphasis on all five moral bases).  (And if you decide to listen to his talk, especially those of you of the conservative persuasion, don't get pissed off and shut it off after the first five minutes -- because it sounds like he's hammering on the conservatives at first, but takes a rather surprising right-hand turn halfway in and makes a powerful point that we all have something to learn from the other side.)

Four researchers at Cornell University have used Haidt's model to analyze why some people are so reluctant to take action on climate change, and to see if there's a way to frame the problem that might be more successful at convincing the folks who are currently sitting on their hands.  Janis Dickinson (Natural Resources),  Poppy McLeod (Communication), Robert Bloomfield (Management and Accounting), and Shorna Allred (Natural Resources) released a paper last week in PLOS-One called, "Which Moral Foundations Predict Willingness to Make Lifestyle Changes to Avert Climate Change in the USA?"  Their research found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that an identification with morality based on compassion and fairness predicted a desire to act on climate change, whereas an emphasis on in-group loyalty, authority, and purity predicted a reluctance to act.

The unsurprising part is that, by and large, the liberals have been pushing for action for years and the conservatives resisting it.  (An overgeneralization, I realize, as there are exceptions on both sides, but it's largely true.)  And since Haidt showed that the two-channel model corresponded to a liberal outlook and the five-channel model a conservative outlook, it's not to be wondered at that the correlation holds with respect to climate change.

What I still don't get, however, is why so many conservatives still don't believe in climate change.  I mean, consider it this way.  Suppose there's good reason to believe that there's a violent intruder, bent on causing you harm, in your house.  There are various courses of action you could take -- hide, flee, fight back, call the police -- but under no circumstances is it helpful, or even logical, to pretend that the intruder doesn't exist.

This seems to me to be the stance being taken by the vast majority of the conservatives currently in congress, not to mention the leaders of the incoming administration.  The evidence is at this point completely incontrovertible; not only is the world warming and the climate destabilizing, but the cause is fossil fuel burning, and we are fast approaching a point of no return, if we haven't already gotten there.

Consider just one metric, which is on my mind because the latest report just came out a few days ago -- the extent of polar sea ice.  The Cryospheric Science Laboratory at NASA announced that both the Arctic and Antarctic ice pack are currently at record lows -- and that air temperatures in the Arctic, in November, are 35 degrees above average.

Yes, you read that right, and it's not a typo.  Last week it was raining near the North Pole, in November.

The climate scientists themselves are in no doubt about what this all means.  "The interaction between Arctic ocean temperatures and the loss of ice formation leading to continuing record minimums is clearly a climate change signal," said Thomas Mote, Professor of Geography at the University of Georgia.

[image courtesy of NASA]

I can understand, even if I disagree with, the stance that we shouldn't act on climate change.  The arguments could be from the standpoint that divesting from fossil fuels would destroy our economic infrastructure, that renewables aren't currently set to take up the slack and/or would be too expensive to install on a national scale, or even that it's too late to do anything anyhow.  I've even heard people (Matt Ridley comes to mind) say things like "humans have weathered much worse than this before now, we'll be fine."

All of those things we can talk about.  They're a little like deciding what's the right approach to the intruder in my earlier analogy.  But the stance that congressional leaders like James Inhofe, Lamar Smith, and Dana Rohrabacher are taking is not to question what we should do about climate change, but to question whether it's happening at all.

And that, honestly, has nothing to do with Haidt's "five-channel" model of conservative morality.  That's simply insane.

I do think that the research by Dickinson et al. is valuable in that both conservatives and liberals have a lot to learn about talking to each other in a way that the other side will understand and respect.  In many ways, neither side speaks the other's language.  But at some point, there's the issue not simply of talking policy, but taking the attitude that what the science tells us is true.

And that is neither conservative nor liberal nor anything else.  Despite what the politicians would have you believe, scientific facts have no spin.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Making the world safe for hypocrisy

Republicans are currently having a meltdown over the reception that Vice President-elect Mike Pence got when he showed up at a performance of the Broadway musical Hamilton a couple of nights ago.

President-elect Trump, never one to sit by silently when Twitter is waiting, jumped in with the following: "Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing.  This should not happen!" and followed it up with "The Theater must always be a safe and special place.  The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence.  Apologize!"

The rumor went around that the cast had booed Pence, and that started up the outrage machine.  "Boycott Hamilton!" trended on Twitter, which is kind of funny in that the musical is sold out months in advance, so any potential boycotters would have a long wait.


But what is appalling about all of this is that as usual, these people are reacting to what they think happened, not to what actually happened.  So let's start by setting the record straight.  The cast did not boo Pence; the audience did, and then the cast told them to stop.  Here's a transcript of what the cast said:
There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen.  There’s nothing to boo here.  We’re all here sharing a story of love.  Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical...  We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir.  But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.  All of us.
That is the message that President-elect Trump called "harassment" and for which he demanded an apology.

I thought this called for a response.  My initial thought, which ended with "... and the horse you rode in on," on reconsideration struck me as lacking in subtlety and depth of thought.  So here is a more measured, nuanced take on the whole thing.

The group who is screeching that Hamilton should be boycotted is by and large composed of the same people who flipped out when Starbucks changed their cup design, saying Americans should boycott the coffee company because they're "anti-Christmas and anti-Christian."  They are the ones who had conniptions at the protests over Trump's policies that have been staged in cities throughout the United States, and who have even suggested making such demonstrations criminal offenses.  They are the ones who claim that every time anyone demands separation of church and state, it's a direct attack on freedom of religion.

And yet, with no apparent sense of hypocrisy, the loudest "freedom of religion" types are now the ones who are actively supporting a government registry for Muslims, including those who are American citizens.  The ones who are having a meltdown over what the cast of Hamilton said to Mike Pence are the same ones who don't bat an eye at people who call the Obamas every derogatory name you can think of (the most recent being the characterization of the First Lady by a West Virginia mayor as "an ape in heels").  The ones who think that Mike Pence is such a delicate snowflake that the cast of Hamilton should apologize for hurting his feelings are the ones who ridicule liberals as "whiny safe-spacers" who "can't stand it if everyone doesn't get a trophy" when there is a demand that the incoming administration treat all Americans, including LGBT individuals, atheists, and minorities, with respect and equal access to rights.

In other words: "a safe and special place" means that Americans can feel free to ridicule, degrade, and strip the rights from anyone who isn't a white Christian, but if those who are on the receiving end of such treatment respond, it's "harassment."  Freedom of speech and freedom of religion only apply if they're the right speech and the right religion.

I've been trying like hell to stay out of politics, but I think this marks the point where I've given up resisting.  I see our country heading toward a very, very scary place, led by a cadre of people who take umbrage at anything outside of their narrow little worldview, demanding apologies of people who challenge them and (when those are not forthcoming) responding with vitriol, hate speech, and threats.

So, frankly, I've had it.  My previous posts on recent political developments, where I tried to be measured and polite, to ask for reconciliation and compassion, were met with comments such as (these are direct quotes) "Stop your fucking whining, you lost" and "Get over yourself" and "I bet you'd never call out the ultra-left-wingers for all the shit they do."  (The latter, at least, should be obviously wrong to anyone who has read this blog for any length of time; I've always thought of myself as an equal-opportunity critic.)

So fuck being apolitical.  At this point, not to speak up against what is happening in this country would be tantamount to supporting it.  So this may lose me blog followers at best, and friends at worst, but don't expect me to stay silent.  I am hereby vowing to call out hypocrisy wherever I see it (and yes, that includes the liberals), to stand up for the people that the incoming administration has vowed to oppress, to be an advocate even if it puts me right in the bullseye.

In other words: I am choosing to place myself right outside the "safe space."  Deal with it.  You, and the horse you rode in on.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Designer genes

In the movie Gattaca, the future has become a divided society -- split between the "valids" (people who were conceived through in vitro fertilization and genetic selection/modification) and "invalids" (people conceived the old-fashioned way).  The invalids, who have (as all of us currently do) a random mix of good and bad traits from the parents, can't get jobs, can't get insurance, have no access to higher education.  Why should the society put money and effort into people who are of average intelligence and have a much higher susceptibility to hereditary disease, when there are plenty of people who have already been screened -- actually, selected -- to be genetically superior?

Gattaca centers around one man, Vincent (played by Ethan Hawke) who is an invalid -- but is determined to rise above his station.  It's a beautiful, inspiring, and deeply troubling movie.  Because the underlying premise of the movie -- that humans can modify their own genetics at will -- is very close to being realized.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a genetic modification protocol that allows scientists to (more or less) edit DNA one gene at a time.  The medical implications are immediately obvious; this opens up the possibility of not just treating, but curing, such devastating genetic disorders as cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease, and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The ethical implications are equally breathtaking.  Once gene-by-gene editing becomes possible -- and we're nearly there -- what will stop people from modifying other genes, such as those for appearance, behavior, and intelligence?  Will we enter a brave new world of "designer babies," such as the ones in Gattaca?

Lest you think that I'm engaging in wild speculation, allow me to point out that the first CRISPR-Cas9 experiment on humans is already being conducted.

In the United States, there is an ongoing moratorium on genetic experimentation on humans, but no such restrictions exist in China.  And three weeks ago, man with an aggressive form of lung cancer was brought into West China Hospital in Chengdu, and was given a course of CRISPR-Cas9 modified cells -- his own cells that had been edited to alter their ability to mount an immune response against cancerous tissue.  The cells were introduced into his bloodstream, where (it is to be hoped) they will attack and destroy the tumors.

While details are still forthcoming, research team spokesperson Liao Zhilin has said that "Everything is going as planned."

As with most discoveries, this is a mixed bag.  The idea of being able to use genetic modification to combat cancer is certainly wonderful.  So is the potential for eradicating genetic diseases.  The ethics becomes a little murkier when you start looking at issues like extending longevity -- current research supports the idea that genetic longevity (i.e. independent of other considerations like lifestyle and avoidable risk factors) is controlled by a relatively small number of genes.  It is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that those, too, could be modified by CRISPR-Cas9.

But is this a good idea?  It's one of those things that puts me in an ethical bind.  I'm 56, and frankly, I'm not looking forward to all of the age-related degradation that I have to look forward to in the next twenty years.  If I could do something that would give me another fifty or a hundred healthy years, I'd be all for it.  But the larger question is whether this sort of thing would be good for society if it became widespread.  It would require large-scale restructuring of how we approach such issues as career, insurance, and retirement, not to mention the fact that given that men remain fertile indefinitely if the plumbing still works, you could be looking at a world where guys could still be fathering children at double or triple the current age.

You think we have an overpopulation problem now?

Of course, this presupposes that such age-lengthening treatments would become widely available -- and this opens up another ethical issue, which is equity.  Especially at first, you'd have to expect such opportunities would only be available to the wealthy, further deepening the divide between the genetically-modified haves and the unmodified have-nots.

Gattaca is beginning to look kind of prescient, honestly.

The whole thing puts me in mind of a quote from Michael Crichton, which seems like a fitting place to end: "Science cannot help us to decide what to do with the world, or how to live.  Science can make a nuclear reactor, but cannot tell us not to build it.  Science can make pesticide, but cannot tell us not to use it.  What should we do with our power?  It is the very question that science cannot answer."

Friday, November 18, 2016

Fake news filter

New from the Unintentional Irony department, we have: Alex Jones of InfoWars is launching an effort to combat fake news on the internet.

Yes, the same man who thinks that the Moon landing was staged.  Who had a meltdown, complete with sobbing, on-air because he thought Hillary Clinton was going to win, and "she is the Antichrist."  Who claimed that the U.S. government was adding chemicals to juice boxes to "turn children gay."  Who promotes something called "horny goat weed" to enhance male virility.



I bet you thought I was going to say "okay, I made the last one up."  Ha, shows you what you know.  Also shows you how completely batshit insane Alex Jones is.

"We are launching a fake news analysis center to combat lies and fake stories being pushed by the mainstream media," Jones said in his radio show this week.  "What’s happening is very, very simple.  Mainstream dinosaur discredited media that have fake pollsters and fake media analysts and all the disinformation that’s been totally repudiated and proven to be a lie — they weren’t wrong, they were congenital liars on purpose — they're now desperate attempt is to flood the web through third-party sites they control with so much fake news and disinformation that it discredits the entire web itself, and then they will preside over the false flag they’ve staged and claim that they can only be trusted."

It's not that I don't think that fake news is a problem, as anyone who read my post from two days ago knows.  It's more that putting Jones in charge of deciding what constitutes disinformation is a little like the Scientologists running a cult awareness help center.

Oh, wait.  They did that.

Interesting too that in the same radio show, Jones made the claim that "three million votes in the U.S. presidential election were cast by illegal aliens, according to Greg Phillips of the VoteFraud.org organization.  If true, this would mean that Donald Trump still won the contest despite widespread vote fraud and almost certainly won the popular vote.  'We have verified more than three million votes cast by non-citizens,' tweeted Phillips after reporting that the group had completed an analysis of a database of 180 million voter registrations."

Phillips himself is no newcomer to such claims.  In 2013 he claimed in an article in Breitbart that the 2012 election was "the biggest voter registration fraud scheme in the history of the world."  Funny, then, that independent non-partisan poll monitoring agencies have found no instances of voter fraud in either the 2012 or 2016 elections.  The only "voting irregularities" this time around were caused by machine failures and human error, and amounted to less than a thousand votes nationwide -- i.e., not enough to make a difference.

But that doesn't fit the narrative that the government is being run by an evil cadre of all-powerful Illuminati who will do anything to stay in power.  So Phillips is right, q.e.d.

So anyhow, it's oddly reassuring that Alex Jones isn't going to give up his loony version of reality just because his Golden Boy (or Orange Boy, as the case may be) is now the president elect.  And the fact that he's set himself up as the arbiter of what's real and what's fake is perhaps unsurprising.  We can look forward to many more missives from InfoWars about the "mainstream dinosaur discredited media," so I guess that means I will be tirelessly pursuing stories for Skeptophilia for a while longer.  Especially once this "horny goat weed" starts to kick in.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Raw deal

You know, there are things humans used to do that we've stopped doing, and usually it's for a good reason.  Bloodletting in order to cure infectious diseases, for example.  You would think this would have gone out of vogue sooner than it did, given that the treatment so often had the unfortunate side effect of death.  But these were the days before malpractice lawsuits, so perhaps that explains it.

The problem is, there's a mystique connected to stuff our ancestors did, and a whole "back to our roots" movement amongst people who apparently have an inordinate fondness for surgery without anesthesia and no indoor plumbing.  The idea is that we need to jettison three hundred years of scientific advances, which have made us the longest-lived and healthiest human society the world has ever known, simply because it sounds appealing to do things "the old way."

As an example of this, take the whole "raw milk" phenomenon.  The idea is that the nasty technological processes of pasteurization and homogenization are screwing up the nutritive value of milk, and we need to be going back to the straight-from-the-cow stuff.  This conveniently ignores the fact that the two processes, especially pasteurization, were invented to increase the shelf life of milk and to prevent the consumption of dairy products from being an avenue for such unpleasantness as cryptosporidium, shigellosis, and TB, which used to be a serious problem.  People forget that those diseases have declined not only from the use of antibiotics to treat them, but a combination of better farming practices and higher food safety standards to stop them from spreading in the first place.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Which is something that a couple in Australia should have been told before they gave their three-year-old son raw milk that had been approved as a "milk bath" but had big "NOT SAFE FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION" and "FOR COSMETIC PURPOSES ONLY" messages on the label.  But to hell with that, right?  "Raw" means "natural" and "natural" means "good."  After drinking the raw milk, the little boy developed an E. coli infection that led to blood sepsis and thrombotic microangiopathy, which is as horrible as it sounds.  Symptoms include kidney failure, high fever, and poor blood clotting.  It's almost always fatal.

Which it was in this case.  The child died on October 4.

Under Australian law, the parents apparently can't be prosecuted, although you have to wonder what constitutes negligent homicide if this doesn't.  On the other hand, the case has prompted authorities to propose a new law that will fine someone $60,000 if (s)he knowingly gives someone a product to eat that is labeled as unsafe for human consumption.

Which, of course, is too little and too late for the child, who died solely because his parents are back-to-the-earth morons who have never heard of the naturalistic fallacy.

I know that makes me sound unfeeling, but for fuck's sake, a little boy died here.  If you want to give up technology and medical advances and go live in a yurt in the woods, knock yourself out.  But to visit your Luddite tendencies upon a child who has no voice in the matter is nothing short of child endangerment.  And apparently they're not the only ones who've done this.  Drinking raw milk -- including milk certified for cosmetic use only -- is becoming commonplace, despite the fact that it can be associated with severe health problems.  (Four other children in Australia were hospitalized in the past year with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a complication of E. coli infection, from drinking raw milk.)

The advances we've made in science are called "advances" for a reason.  Yes, I know they have come with tradeoffs -- from pollution to the profit motive -- but on balance, there is a good reason that our average life expectancy is over twice what it was in the Middle Ages.  Childhood mortality is extremely low, and hundreds of diseases that were death sentences a century ago are now completely treatable.

So if you think it's a good idea to jettison all that, that's up to you.  But don't bring your kids along on the ride.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Viral nonsense

One of the most frustrating things about social media is the tendency of a lot of people to post something (or respond to it) without reading any more than the headline.  I got blasted for my post two days ago asking conscientious Republicans to stand up and repudiate the people who are responsible for the upswing in hate crimes, who apparently think that the recent election gives them carte blanche to sink to their worst tendencies.  This caused one woman to shriek, "I am so sick and tired of nonsense like this!  I am GREATLY OFFENDED that you seem to think that all Republicans are racists!"

Which, if you read the post, is exactly the opposite of what I wrote.  My point was that I know most Republicans aren't racists, but it is now their obligation to condemn the ones who are.

Couple the mental laziness of assuming the headline tells you everything you need to know with the unfortunate tendency of people to forward things without checking on their veracity, and you have a real problem.  Of course, the latter is a phenomenon I've railed against so much here in Skeptophilia that I hardly need to mention it again.  But there's a more insidious force at work here -- the fact that people are now creating sensationalized, often incendiary, "fake news" designed for one reason and one reason only -- to score clicks, and therefore advertising revenue.

Let's start with a study called "Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content" led by Craig Silverman of Columbia University that looked at the speed with which stories from these fake news sites can circulate through social media. "Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement," Silverman said. "Many news sites apply little or no basic verification to the claims they pass on. Instead, they rely on linking-out to other media reports, which themselves often only cite other media reports as well... The extent to which a fake news article can get traction was surprising to me."

Max Read, editor of Gawker, put it more succinctly: "Already ankle-deep in smarmy bullshit and fake ‘viral’garbage, we are now standing at the edge of a gurgling swamp of it."

Among the rather unsettling conclusions of Silverman's study is that not only are the consumers to blame, the mainstream media is often content to hit the fast-forward button themselves.  "Many news sites apply little or no basic verification to the claims they pass on," Silverman writes.  "Instead, they rely on linking-out to other media reports, which themselves often only cite other media reports as well."

What is wryly amusing about all of this is that I first heard about this study in none other than The Daily Mail, which published it without any apparent sense of irony.

The BBC in a recent report states that the problem is worse even than a lack of quality control.  There are now websites whose entire raison d'ĂȘtre is the creation of false stories that have the ring of truth, and who then do everything they can to make sure that these stories get the maximum circulation possible.  Sites like The National Report call themselves "satire" -- but no one seems to be laughing.  Unlike The Onion, which is obviously tongue-in-cheek satire to anyone with a reasonable IQ, The National Report isn't trying to be funny.  They're trying to outrage, to scare, to whip up anger -- and to make money.

Site founder and owner Allen Montgomery is up front about this. "There are highs that you get from watching traffic spikes and kind of baiting people into the story," he says. "I just find it to be a lot of fun... There are times when it feels like a drug."

It's big business, too.  "Obviously the headline is key, and the domain name itself is very much a part of the formula -- you need to have a fake news site that looks legitimate as can be," Montgomery says.  "Beyond the headline and the first couple of paragraphs people totally stop reading, so as long as the first two or three paragraphs sound like legitimate news then you can do whatever you want at the end of the story and make it ridiculous...  We've had stories that have made $10,000.  When we really tap in to something and get it to go big then we're talking about in the thousands of dollars that are made per story."

And of course, social media plays right into the hands of people like Montgomery.  It only takes one click to forward a story to your Facebook friends or Twitter followers, and damn the consequences.  The frightening thing is that such garbage circulating around the internet is reaching so many people so quickly, the contention that it could affect elections is well within the realm of possibility.

Of course, far be it from anyone to take responsibility for any of this. Just a couple of days ago, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, said that news stories (fake and otherwise) on social media "surely had no impact" on the election.

"More than 99% of content on Facebook is authentic," Zuckerberg said.  "Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes.  The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics."

Which sounds like nothing but equivocation and denial of responsibility to me.  Not to mention complete bullshit.  99% accuracy of Facebook content, my ass.


As I've said before, it is incumbent upon consumers of all kinds of media to verify what they're reading, especially before they pass it along.  With sites like The National Report out there, and the increasing tendency of people not to think critically -- well, all I can say is, if you can't take five damn minutes to check Snopes, you're part of the problem.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The conspirators shift gears

If, like me,  you find yourself perusing conspiracy websites every so often, you're probably wondering what the conspiracists are gonna do now.

I mean, the whole lot of 'em claimed that Hillary Clinton was in league with the Illuminati at the very least, and at worst was herself the Antichrist.  The election was rigged in her favor, they said, and anyone who got in her way would be steamrolled.  Some claimed that her opponents wouldn't only be shoved out of the way, they'd be assassinated.  She'd win the presidency, then proceed to destroy America.

And then two things happened.  (1) The election was pretty fraud-free, as anyone with any knowledge of the electoral process anticipated.  And (2) Donald Trump won.

Now, if we were talking about normal people here, the expected response would be for them to have a good laugh at themselves, and say, "Wow, I guess we were wrong!  What a bunch of nimrods we are!"  And then vanish into well-deserved obscurity.  Alex Jones, especially, who a few weeks ago was in tears on-air when he spoke of the inevitability of a Clinton presidency, should be clean out of a job.

But these aren't normal people; these are conspiracy theorists.  Which means that the logical thing to do is to assume...

... that Donald Trump himself is part of the conspiracy.

I shit you not.  One week, and they're already turning on him.  Our first contribution from the Loose Grasp On Reality cadre is William Tapley, a right-wing evangelical loony who calls himself the "Third Eagle of the Apocalypse."  (What happened to Eagles #1 and 2, I don't know.)  Tapley says that not only is Trump being controlled by the Illuminati, so is Melania.

The evidence for this?  A mural in the Denver International Airport that has two figures, a man and a woman.  The woman looks vaguely like Melania Trump.  The man, Tapley says, looks as if he is having a lewd act performed upon him by the woman.  For some reason, the only possible conclusion we can draw from all of this is that Trump is a member of the Illuminati.

"Please don’t tell Anderson Cooper what you and I both see," Tapley says, in a video you can watch at either of the links posted above.

Don't worry, Mr. Tapley.  We're not telling Anderson Cooper anything.

If that wasn't enough, we have a second contention, which is that Donald Trump wasn't born in the United States, he was born "Dawood Ibrahim Khan" in the Waziristan region of Pakistan.

While this is funnier than hell from the perspective that Trump was one of the most prominent spokespeople for the whole Obama birtherism thing, I have to admit that as a hypothesis, it doesn't have much to recommend it.  As far as I can see, they just found a photograph of a blond kid in vaguely Middle Eastern garb, and proclaimed that it must be Donald Trump as a child.

Dawood "Donald" Ibrahim-Trump

So it was kind of reassuring to find that the other trending story on conspiracy websites these days is that the earthquake that struck near Christchurch, New Zealand a couple of days ago was caused by a "seismic blasting ship" sent for some reason by President Obama.  Wikileaks, which at this point has damn little credibility left even without this story, apparently said so.  "These is science showing disturbances that are linked to the earthquakes," one commenter said (verbatim).  Which is enough proof for me.

Thanks, Obama.

Anyhow, I find it fascinating how quickly the conspiracy nutjobs are pivoting on Donald Trump.  I guess if your baseline assumption is that you can't get elected without the blessing of the Illuminati, it stands to reason, if I can use the word "reason" in this context.  But at least it's a mood lightener after the last week, which I sorely needed.  Nice to know there are still people out there who are both crazy and relatively harmless.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The right to fear

I keep telling myself "this will be my last political post," but circumstances keep intervening.

The circumstance this time was one of my Facebook friends who posted an article that said that the people who didn't vote for Donald Trump, and who are now in a serious freak-out about the future of our country, are simply sore losers who can't handle not winning.  We are, the author said, "whiny safe-space liberals" who "were told by mommy and daddy that it's only fair if everyone gets a trophy," and therefore we just need to grow up, suck it up, and deal.

My first thought, after reading this, was that it must be nice to see things that black-and-white.  Makes life easy.  In reality, of course, there were dozens of reasons that people voted the way they did (on both sides).  The pro-life/pro-choice issue, considerations of foreign policy and our relations with China, Russia, and the Middle East, concerns over the rights of LGBT individuals, the size of government, the role of the military...  The reason the election went the way it did is not a matter of a single issue.

Neither, I might add, is the reaction of the people who were on the losing side.  Maybe some of 'em are of the sore-loser variety; they do exist.  Those of you who are regular readers of Skeptophilia know that I've railed as hard as anyone about the tendency of colleges to cave in to students who want nothing more than to be continually validated, who demand that above all, they never have their preconceived notions challenged.  The whole "safe-space" concept completely contradicts the real purpose of education, which is to push the envelope, look at other points of view, expand the mind.  (Note that I am referring to "safe spaces" insofar as the term applies to intellectual pursuits; of course students should be safe with respect to discrimination, bullying, or bodily harm.)

But to characterize the protests now going on over the prospects of a Trump presidency as solely due to Democrats being poor losers is to miss the reality.  Not only does such a stance conveniently forget the ugly, and often racist, rhetoric that flew about from Republicans each time Obama won, it also ignores the fact that many of the people who are protesting are justified in being afraid.  Trump's stump speeches marginalized one group after another -- immigrants (legal and otherwise), Muslims, LGBT, women, atheists... the list goes on and on.


Oh, but that was just chest-thumping, a way to get his base excited, right?  He didn't mean any of that stuff literally, it was just the political version of "locker room talk."  Okay, add to that the appointment of Steve Bannon of Breitbart as Chief Strategist of the incoming administration -- a man who was called "a racist anti-Semite" by John Weaver, adviser to Republican Governor John Kasich of Ohio -- and you might understand why a Jewish friend of mine said, "We always heard, 'Never Again.'  I believed that.  I don't now."

And whatever you might say about Trump's intentions, it appears that some of his followers are in no doubt about taking the whole thing literally.  Hate crimes spiked right after the election -- to the point that even conservative media outlet Forbes commented upon it.  There is a new website called "Why We're Afraid," started with the intention of documenting cases where this ominous rhetoric has crossed the line into actual threats.  Here are just a few of the cases this site records:
  • At work at a hospital where I'm a member of the junior staff.  An elder physician came up to me and told me I should get ready to go to the death camp now that Trump was elected.  I'm openly gay, and he knows this.
  • At a church support group.  A women of Latino heritage says that a family member, a child, was told at school that he and his family were going to be sent “back to Mexico.”  The response from a member of the group: “Well, I’m sure you’ll be happier in Mexico.”
  • Overheard at work at a trucking company. Oregon, 11/11/16: “This is a white country.  It’s always been a white country, and now we’re taking it back.”
  • [From a U.S. citizen of Syrian heritage] I was minding my own business pumping gas when a pick-up truck filled with four white males blasting country music drove-by.  As they passed the gas station, the passenger leaned out and yelled, “Trump’s President now take that fucking dirty rag off your head you towel fucking desert nigger before I take it and hang you with it.  Make America White Again!”
  • Woke up this morning to find someone had spray-painted "Die Faggot!  Your time here is over!  Trump 2016" on my car and the side of my house.
I know that like with most ugly acts, these are the actions of a few and don't represent the majority of voters who cast their ballots for Donald Trump.  But for fuck's sake, don't tell the rest of us we have no right to be afraid.  Own up and admit that your candidate did incite such behavior, whether or not he "meant it literally."

And better still, let's hear you repudiate such horrific acts.  You're saying that the folks who don't support Donald Trump are overreacting, that they have no justifiable reason for fear?  Prove it.  Stand up and shout down the people who are, right now, doing these things.  You may have perfectly legitimate reasons for voting for Trump, but it is now incumbent upon you to demonstrate that a Trump presidency isn't going to turn into the horror show that is already, before a week has passed, beginning to unfold.


I grew up in rural southern Louisiana.  The lion's share of my family and high school friends are conservative, and the majority of them voted for Donald Trump.  I know them -- I know they would never condone such things.  So I'm asking them, and any other readers who are conservative: show us that you will not tolerate the scapegoating of minorities and other marginalized groups, that you will stand up for the right of all citizens of this country to live, work, and play without fear of being the targets of harassment and violence.

You want us to pipe down, to be good losers, to "suck it up and deal?"  Okay.  But only if you put your money where your mouth is and show us that we on the losing side have no reason to fear.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Cabinet from hell

Okay, folks, I'm trying not to panic about a Trump presidency.  I won't say that I have a naturally sunny disposition -- my tendency when confronted by adversity is to shriek "Dear god we're all gonna die!" -- but I try to temper this with a "this too shall pass" attitude.

But my desire to keep my hopes for the future on an even keel were given a severe blow yesterday when I found out that the president-elect has chosen Myron Ebell to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and has his eye on either Forrest Lucas (of Lucas Oil) or Sarah "Drill, Baby, Drill" Palin for Secretary of the Interior.

And this has brought out my inner Chicken Little something fierce.

Ebell is one of the most vocal climate change deniers out there (I will not refer to them as skeptics, because that's not what they are -- skeptics respect evidence).  Ebell considered the U.S.'s participation in the Paris Accords to be "clearly an unconstitutional usurpation of the Senate’s authority."  He went on record in an interview in Vanity Fair in 2007 as saying that "There has been a little bit of warming ... but it’s been very modest and well within the range for natural variability, and whether it’s caused by human beings or not, it’s nothing to worry about."

For the record, July 2016 was the fifteenth consecutive "warmest month on record" and 2016 has broken the record for the lowest amount of Arctic sea ice ever recorded.  Which record was set in 2015, which broke the record in 2014, which broke the record in 2013, and so on and so forth.

But do go on, Mr. Ebell, about how the warming is nothing to worry about.

[image courtesy of NASA]

Then for Secretary of the Interior there's Forrest Lucas, CEO and co-founder of the petroleum products company Lucas Oil.  Lucas is not only a virulent climate-change denier, he's battled the federal government over the Endangered Species Act and been an outspoken advocate of opening up federal parklands for oil and gas drilling.  This is the man being considered to run the branch of the federal government in charge of protecting our natural resources?

Of course, he might be okay compared to the other choice, which is Sarah Palin.  I try my best to be charitable, but Palin is not only a nightmare on environmental issues, she might be the most aggressively stupid person ever to hold public office (the only ones giving her a run for her money are Louie Gohmert and Michele Bachmann).  The idea of putting our country's environmental health in the hands of someone who has almost certainly never read anything longer than the back of a cereal box is profoundly frightening.

And the outlandish weather keeps on happening around us, and we keep on sitting on our hands.  The day of the presidential election there was near-record rainfall on the island of Longyearbyen, which only is bizarre once you realize that Longyearbyen is 800 miles from the North Pole and it's the middle of the Arctic winter.

Okay, that's weather, not climate; a one-off, maybe?  Take a look at a study released this week from the University of Florida showing that 80% of the ecosystems studied are already showing effects from climate change.  "Some people didn’t expect this level of change for decades," said co-author James Watson, of the University of Queensland in Australia.  "The impacts of climate change are being felt with no ecosystem on Earth being spared."

The climate change deniers have characterized the scientists as being alarmists, and for the most part the public has bought that perception.  Part of it comes from our unwillingness to admit that there's a problem, because then it becomes incumbent upon us to do something about it.  Part comes from the fact that anything we could do about it would require a serious reworking of our society to lessen its dependence on fossil fuels, and that's pretty uncomfortable to consider.  The reality is, however, that scientists are the most cautious of people; they usually don't go public with information until they're absolutely sure, until their data has been checked and cross-checked and rechecked, because there's a high likelihood that if they jump the gun they'll get caught out and have to publish a retraction.  (Note the difference from politics, where you can pretty much say any fucking thing you want and no one bats an eye.)

So it's a little horrifying when scientists actually do start sound like alarmists, because at that point, we damn sure better sit up and take notice.  Which makes the report that came out just yesterday even more appalling; because it said that we may have already passed the point of no return, that it could be -- their words, mind you, not mine -- "game over for the planet."

"The results of the study demonstrate that unabated human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are likely to push Earth’s climate out of the envelope of temperature conditions that have prevailed for the last 784,000 years," said study co-author, Tobias Friedrich of the University of Hawaii.  "The only way out is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible."

Which, given the current slate of picks for filling government offices, is looking increasingly unlikely.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Taking time for gratitude

I'm going to take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to share something personal.

My first year of teaching Critical Thinking, when I felt very much like I was sort of making the curriculum up as I went along, I had a student in my class named Tamila.  When I saw her name on my class list the first day of school, I had that momentary "oh, no" feeling that all teachers can relate to.  Tamila had a reputation as a tough kid, a hardass, someone with an explosive temper and little tolerance for frustration.  My first few days with that class, I found that my fears were somewhat unfounded; she had a bit of a swagger, some bluster in her mannerisms, but was well-spoken and intelligent, and didn't seem to be walking in with a chip on her shoulder.  Still, she didn't say much in class discussions at first, just sat in the back listening and watching me with intense blue eyes that you got the feeling didn't miss much.

As time went on, Tamila began to open up.  First she started raising her hand, contributing to  discussions, asking questions, challenging what other students said.  It was always in a respectful fashion, and added a tremendous amount to the class.  She shared with us that she had been raised in poverty, and was able to explain in an articulate fashion how that changed her perspective.  She started coming in early (the class was right after lunch) and bringing her lunch along, so we could chat about stuff -- sometimes trivia, sometimes important things, and more than once because she was still thinking about what we'd talked about in class the previous day.

Toward the end of the semester, I assigned the final project, which was for students to write a personal essay explaining how their thinking had evolved over the previous months.  I thought it was a good opportunity for students to do a little self-reflection, consider how their own thought processes worked and why they believed what they did.

Tamila's essay had me in tears.  She told me how through twelve years of schooling, it had never seemed important what she thought -- that in class after class, teachers had simply told her information and expected her to recite it back a couple of weeks later.  Then you get the grade, then you go on to the next course.  Critical Thinking, she said, was the first time anyone had ever truly valued her opinion, and (more importantly) shown her that her opinions had value.  The course had, she told me, given her the confidence to think on her own, and the knowledge that she could figure stuff out when she needed to.

Right after the course ended, though, Tamila took a serious downturn.  She got pretty close to hitting bottom.  I lost touch with her -- I sent her a couple of emails asking how she was doing, but never got an answer.  It was about four years later that I ran into her, quite by accident, at a local restaurant where she'd just gotten hired on the wait staff.  She came up to me with a big grin, gave me a hug, and told me that she was doing well, had been drug and alcohol free for a year, and was optimistic about her future.  We became Facebook friends, and I enjoyed seeing her updates -- frequently about her passion, which was fishing.


A couple of months ago she sent me an email saying that she still remembered Critical Thinking and all of the discussions we'd had about issues large and small.  I responded that I still treasured her final essay -- that it was, to this day, one of the best and most heartfelt ones I'd ever seen.  She responded with a string of emoji smiley-faces and hearts and said that meant an incredible amount to her.

That was the last time I chatted with her.  And yesterday I found out that two days ago, Tamila was killed in an automobile accident.

I'm not posting this to garner sympathy for my own loss of a friend, nor to bring anyone to tears (heaven knows I've shed more than enough since I found out).  It's more to say how thankful I am that I had the opportunity to tell Tamila how much her friendship meant to me, how glad I was that I'd had the opportunity to be her teacher.  She was a young woman who I doubt heard that from very many people, either during high school or afterwards.  That I had the chance to let her know that I still remembered her with great fondness is something I will always be grateful for.

So I'll end this by encouraging you all not to put off telling the people you care about that you love them.  It's almost a clichĂ© to say that you don't know how much time you have left, but it's also the honest truth, and I think we all need to carpe the absolute hell out of every diem we have.  Tamila told me once that I had truly changed her life, and my grief over her death is coupled with a deep gratitude that she also changed mine.

So take the time to be kind and loving and appreciative of the people you see every day.  As for me, I need to close this, because I'm having a hard time seeing the keyboard.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Change of heart

So another election has come and gone, and most of us on both sides of the aisle are more or less recovering from the shock of the results.  I've been known to make some strong political statements in the past -- yesterday's post being a case in point -- but there's a part of me that sometimes wonders why I bother.  I have the sense that those posts are, in essence, futile.  All such ranting does is to make half of the people who see it shout "Yeah!  Exactly!  Right on!" and the other half mumble "Damn ijit."


So it was with great interest that I read a study just released two days ago by the Pew Research Group showing that in fact, some minds are changed by what shows up on social media... just not very many.

According to a survey conducted this summer of over ten thousand U.S. adults, 20% of social media users said that they have had their opinion swayed by something they've seen posted.  Conservative Republicans were the least likely to change (13%) and liberal Democrats the most (25%), which is perhaps unsurprising given two things -- studies have shown that conservatives have a greater desire for certainty and intolerance of ambiguity, and that conservatives tend to have a greater distrust of media in general than do liberals.

Still, it surprised me that so many people report changing an opinion.  We tend to surround ourselves, both on social media and in real life, with people who think like us -- the so-called "echo chamber" effect -- so a lot of us don't get presented with well-thought-out opposing opinions in any case.  But respondents on the Pew survey report being swayed on some pretty important issues.  Here is just a small sampling of responses:
  • Black lives matter vs. All lives matter: I’m white. Initially, I saw nothing wrong with saying "All lives matter" – because all lives do matter. Through social media I’ve seen many explanations of why that statement is actually dismissive of the current problem of black lives seeming to matter less than others and my views have changed.
  • My view on the police has dramatically changed after being faced with case after case of police violence especially against communities of color.
  • More pro-gun laws now due to statistics presented in specialized social media presentations of gun laws elsewhere in the world and their effect on public violence.
  • I would say that I’m for a harder approach on immigration after reading social media.
I don't know about you, but I find this fairly heartening.  The cynical side of me -- never very deeply buried -- has been reinforced considerably by the posturing and snarling I've seen during this election cycle, in some cases by people who previously I had considered to be thoughtful and tolerant.  It's good to know that my pessimism may, in some cases, be unwarranted.  20% may not seem like a lot, but it does attest to a level of flexibility that I had not anticipated.

Nice, sometimes, to find myself in that 20% -- induced to change my mind, in this case with regards to a rather dismal view of my fellow humans.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Buyer's remorse

What I'm about to say has very little to do with conservative ideals.  I have no quarrel with people over their vision of how to make our country run well, whether or not they agree with me.  Honestly, I don't even like discussing politics.  I find that most political discussions come down either to topics that are so unbelievably complex that there probably isn't a solution (like how to keep the economy strong) or ones that are so self-evident that I truly don't understand how anyone can argue about them (such as whether LGBT people should have the same rights that the rest of us have).  So I'm not here to discuss the pros and cons of the conservative platform.

I am, however, speaking to conservative voters.  Because you have just elected to the most powerful office in the country a xenophobic, misogynistic, petulant toddler of a man whose response to being challenged is to throw a tantrum.  I don't at this point care whether he calls himself a conservative or calls himself a liberal, because he is an inveterate liar who will do anything and say anything to prop up his overinflated ego.  If you take a look at what he's said, it's honestly impossible to tell where he stands, because all he truly cares about is achieving and retaining power.  At the same time, his own view is that he's always right -- about everything.  "I think apologizing’s a great thing, but you have to be wrong," he said in an interview with Jimmy Fallon.  "I will absolutely apologize, sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong.”

The man you have just handed the nuclear codes, the man who will appoint the next justices of the Supreme Court and thus shape policy for years, is the single least qualified candidate I've seen in my 56 years on this planet.  He knows nothing about running a country, and yet because he played into your fears and your anger you gave him your vote.  He appealed to the worst and most divisive tendencies in our country, convinced you that the best way to solve our differences is to bluster and sputter, to blame those who are different and ridicule those who disagree with you, and you found that so appealing that you were willing to put him in the White House.

This, to you, is making America great again.

By and large, you call yourselves "values voters," so you voted for a man who said about himself "nobody respects women more than I do," and yet also said, "You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass."  Who said, "You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them.  It’s like a magnet.  Just kiss.  I don’t even wait.  And when you’re a star, they let you do it.  You can do anything.  Grab them by the pussy."


Bafflingly, the same man who cannot conceive that he is wrong about anything is the man who won the lion's share of the evangelical vote, despite making statements that run so counter to the Christian ideal of sinfulness and redemption that he comes off sounding more like Pontius Pilate than he does like Jesus. "I'm not sure I have ever asked God's forgiveness," he told the Family Leadership Conference earlier this year.  "I don't bring God into that picture... When I go to church and when I drink my little wine and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of forgiveness.  I do that as often as I can because I feel cleansed."

He told you what you wanted to hear -- that America is going down the tubes, that our economy is tanking, that unemployment and crime are up -- and you believed him without bothering to check to see if any of that is true.  At the same time, he convinced you that one of the biggest actual problems we currently face -- climate change -- is a "hoax invented by the Chinese."  And once again, you bought the spin, the distortions, the outright lies.

The man who has his hands on the biggest arsenal the world has ever seen is the same man who asked in an interview three times, "Why can't I use nuclear weapons?"  Who said that Vladimir Putin was "not going to go into the Ukraine" after he already had.  Who claims he's going to stop ISIS, push back the Chinese, restore jobs to the U.S.,  and prevent terrorist attacks despite having no actual plans for how he's going to accomplish any of that.  When Fox News's Greta van Susteren pressed him for details on how he planned to combat ISIS, for example, he said he wasn't going to tell her, but it would be a "method of defeating them quickly and effectively and having total victory."  And that, apparently, was enough for you.  What, doesn't it matter to you whether he actually understands foreign policy, all that matters is that he tells you "America is #1" and "We're gonna win?"  This is a government, not a fucking high school football game.

A dear friend of mine was in tears last night watching the results, not because the candidate she'd voted for lost, but because "this is going to result in innocent people dying.  This isn't right."  Having an explosive-tempered, erratic compulsive liar who shows every sign of being an egomaniacal sociopath in the most powerful position on Earth is profoundly terrifying.  And I would be saying that whether he was a Democrat or a Republican, whether he was liberal or conservative.  Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to lead.  He has gotten where he is by playing to our worst character traits, by enflaming our prejudices, fears, and bigotry.  It's no great surprise that he was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.  Most of his talking points come straight from their playbook.

I hold out hope that you will realize at some point what you have done, that when he actually starts to act, you'll have the same kind of buyer's remorse that the Brexit voters had when they saw the result of their vote and thought, "Holy shit, what have we done?"  The problem is that like with Brexit, by the time this happens, it will be too late.  Now all we can do is hold our breaths for the next four years and hope that whatever damage he does is reversible, that our comeuppance won't cost too many dollars, too many job, too many lives.  At the moment, however, I can't even begin to think about that.  I'm too busy being heartsick and afraid for my own country.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Non-prophet

It's a phenomenon I've comment upon before; the mystifying fact that self-styled prophets, who claim to have a direct pipeline to god, continue to have a following even when they're repeatedly wrong.

I mean, it'd make sense if once somebody proclaims "God told me such-and-so," and the opposite of "such-and-so" ends up happening, that people would say, "Oh.  I guess he was lying about speaking with the divine word."  But no.  Charismatic preachers like Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, and Jimmy Swaggart have repeatedly made claims that are supposed to come directly from the heavenly throne -- most of which have to do with us unbelievers being smote (smitten?  smot? smoot?  I've never been entirely sure how to conjugate that verb) -- and none of them ever come true.  Their followers are, as far as I've seen, not discouraged by this.


The latest contender for the False Prophets Lifetime Achievement Award is Lance Wallnau, author, speaker, and "spiritual guide," who started out his losing streak by claiming that god told him that the Cleveland Indians were going to win the World Series because Cleveland was the host for the Republican National Convention while Chicago is President Obama's home town, and (of course) god approves of Republicans while the Democrats are naughty in his sight.

Of course, the problem is that the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.  Wallnau was undaunted, however, and posted a new spin on the situation, saying that he "was initially concerned that a Chicago vs. Cleveland contest may be symbolic of the Republican convention (Cleveland) vs Democratic Obama machine (Chicago)... but flip this situation around and see that the underdog won on a progressive field. (The Cleveland field is owned by Progressive Insurance.)"

Which leaves only one question, which is: what?

I mean, I'm not really expecting Wallnau to make sense, but as an explanation for why he fucked up, it's pretty bizarre.  And because there's no ridiculous statement that you can't make more ridiculous if you just keep talking, Wallnau went ahead and made things worse by making a series of further claims:
  • The Cubs winning the World Series is actually a positive message from god, because the last time the Cubs won was 1908, which was the same year as the Azusa Street Revival that founded the Pentecostal Movement.  (Which is made somewhat less impressive by the fact that Azusa Street happened in 1906, not 1908.)
  • The Cubs' victory represents the breaking of the "Curse of the Bambino," which was the work of Satan himself.  (Whether it's Satanic in origin or not, the Curse of the Bambino has to do with the Red Sox, not the Cubs.)
  • If Trump wins, he'll be 70 years old when he's inaugurated, which is significant because "70 is exactly the number of years since Israel became a nation."  Which is problematic from the standpoint that 2017 minus 1948 is 69, not 70.
But other than that, his prophecies are absolutely spot-on.

Despite all of this, Wallnau is enthusiastic.  His sources say that the "curse over America is breaking and a fresh wind is blowing," and that that the church’s “long-standing losing streak is coming to an end."  He says that 2016 is "going to be the year of God reversing the curse … God pouring out his spirit."

But based on his previous predictions, I wouldn't hold my breath about any of that.

So anyhow.  I guess we'll find out whether his prediction of Trump winning the presidency is correct within a few hours, assuming that there isn't some repeat of the 2000 election nightmare wherein we had to keep our sanity somehow while enduring interminable counts, recounts, suits, and countersuits.  It's bad enough that the elections here in this country start a full two years early; the idea that it could go on for months after the polls close today makes me want to move to Costa Rica.  In either case, though, I'll make a prediction of my own; whether or not Trump wins, Wallnau will continue claiming that he has direct access to the knowledge of god -- and his followers will continue to believe him.