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, March 29, 2017

One man's meat

A couple of days ago, my son and I were chatting, and he asked me if I'd ever heard about the concept of "high meat."

I told him I hadn't.  "High meat," he explained, is when people take the probiotic movement one step further, and eat meat and fish that have deliberately been left out until they are thoroughly spoiled.

It is an occupational hazard of writing here at Skeptophilia that occasionally someone will tell me about some damnfool claim, and it turns out they made it up just to see if I'll believe it.  The problem is, having written for seven years about the depths of nonsense to which the human mind can sink, it's hard for me to dismiss any claim out of hand.

After all, any species that can come up with downloadable medicines and homeopathic water is clearly capable of idiocy far beyond anything I could conceive of.

But I figured I'd hedge my bets, especially since my son has a reputation for being a bit of a wiseass at times.  (Can't imagine where he got that from.)  I said, "This is a joke, right?"

He assured me that it wasn't.  So I did some research.  And sure enough: there are back-to-nature types who are so back to nature that they want to recapture what it was like to be a hyena eating carrion in the hot sun of the African savanna.

Don't believe me?  Take a look at this article from the New Yorker by Burkhard Bilger, wherein he visits people who have various takes on the probiotic idea, finally ending up in the home of Steve Torma of Asheville, North Carolina, who has pushed the whole thing to the ultimate.  Torma makes his own "high meat" by letting raw meat or fish decompose in jars.  Then he eats it.  Bilger writes:
Torma ducked into the back of the house and returned with a swing-top jar in his hands. Inside lay a piece of organic beef, badly spoiled.  It was afloat in an ochre-colored puddle of its own decay, the muscle and slime indistinguishable, like a slug.
Even Torma seemed to recognize that it wasn't a very appealing diet.  "The first couple of bites," Torma said, "can be rough going."

There are a variety of other sites where I found out way more about this practice than I ever wanted to know.  The site Local Harvest has directions for preparing "high meat," attributing any resistance we might have to eating said decomposed glop to "prior conditioning."  The Raw Paleo Diet Forum goes into considerable detail about consuming "high meat," and says that if you end up with explosive diarrhea after eating it, not to worry because it's just your body "purging itself of toxins."

Okay, let's see.  Where do I begin?

Cooking, and food preservation strategies in general, caught on primarily because the people who used them were less likely to die of food poisoning.  There are a lot of bacteria out there that would be very happy to make you violently ill -- E. coli, Listeria, Cryptosporidium, and Salmonella come to mind -- and since decomposition happens because of the digestion of organic matter by bacteria, if you eat decomposed food, you are approximately 1,582,614 times more likely to get bacterial food poisoning than the rest of us.

And the symptoms you get are not from the body "purging itself of toxins."  What it is doing is attempting to purge itself of the pathogenic bacteria you were stupid enough to consume.

Consider, too, that we are evolved (not "conditioned") to avoid rotten stuff.  Decomposing meat contains two chemicals -- tetramethylenediamine and pentamethylenediamine -- that are so foul-smelling that their more common names are "putrescine" and "cadaverine," respectively.  Our noses are early-warning systems, giving us valuable information that is essential to our survival.

Including, for example, "Don't eat something that smells like a putrescent cadaver, you fucking moron."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

It's not that the whole probiotic thing is a bad idea.  Some fermented food -- pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi, for example -- are fermented with specific strains of bacteria to produce particular flavors and odors.  These bacteria are also chosen on the basis of (1) tasting reasonably good, and (2) not killing you.  (Many of these bacteria are part of a healthy intestinal flora, which has been shown to protect you from diseases like ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.)

Eating things that have rotted with your ordinary, garden-variety bacteria, however, is a good way to spend the next few days on a first-name basis with your toilet.  There's a reason we have strict sterilization protocols for food, such as cooking, canning of vegetables, and pasteurization of milk.  It reduces the likelihood of the Bad Guys getting into your digestive tract.  Consider the FDA's stance on pasteurization: "Raw milk is inherently dangerous," their guidelines on dairy safety state.  "It should not be consumed by anyone at any time for any purpose."

So that's unequivocal.

But if you want to try out life as a vulture, have at it.  Me, I'm gonna stick with "low meat," medium-rare, with a large glass of red wine, which not only tastes great but is much less likely to give me horrible bacterial infections.  Call me particular, but I'm just kind of finicky that way.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Governmental facepalms

Because we evidently needed another reason to facepalm over a Trump appointee, today we consider: John Fleming, assistant secretary for health technology at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Fleming has some decidedly peculiar ideas.  In his book Preventing Addiction: What Parents Must Know to Immunize Their Kids Against Drug and Alcohol Addiction, Fleming states that opiates are proof of the existence of god:
Were it not for these drugs, many common and miraculous surgeries would be impossible to either undergo or perform.  In my opinion this is no coincidence at all.  Only a higher power and intellect could have created a world in which substances like opiates grow naturally.
Which brings up a couple of troubling questions:
  1. Why do these miracle substances intelligently created by a deity so often lead to addiction and the potential for overdose?
  2. If opiates are a blessed gift from god because they "grow naturally," why are people of Fleming's stripe virtually all against the legalization of marijuana?  Seems like an intelligent deity's creation of marijuana could be argued not only from the standpoint that it "grows naturally," but because its consumption is so beneficial to the tortilla chip industry.
 It's a bit like Dr. Pangloss said in Voltaire's masterpiece Candide:
It is clear, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end.  Observe: noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles.  Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches...  Consequently, those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best.
When, of course, rather than giving us noses to support spectacles, god could just have given us all perfect eyesight rather than noses built to support spectacles.


[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This, however, is not the only bizarre thing in Fleming's book.  He says there's a correlation between tattoos and drug addiction:
Body art comes into play in drug addiction as well, although obviously, not all who have a tattoo are addicts.  A sailor who gets a single tattoo on his arm or an adult woman who has a small butterfly tattooed on her lower abdomen are not necessarily drug addicts or even rebellious — just dumb, at least temporarily!...  When you see that your child has become interested in body art or has a fascination with the Goth or other subculture, then be on alert, because your child is likely headed into rebellion and possible drug experimentation.
So this makes me wonder how my two rather large tattoos haven't resulted in my being addicted to cocaine or something.  Despite the size and elaborate nature of my own body art, maybe I'm still in the category of "temporarily dumb."

Last, it turns out that Fleming himself might not have much right to point fingers about temporary stupidity, because he is one of the people who fell for the story in The Onion that Planned Parenthood was building an "$8 billion abortionplex."  Then, not having learned the lesson "if you're not smart enough to recognize satire and fake news, at least be smart enough to check your sources," he delivered a speech on the floor of Congress in 2013 to communicate the alarming news that the Department of Defense was starting to round up and court martial Christians so as to "create an atheist military."

Where, you might ask, did Fleming get this "information" from?

From Breitbart, of course.

So come on, folks.  Is it too much to ask to have a few government appointees who are competent, intelligent, and sane?  Because the ones we have now, in my dad's trenchant phrase, couldn't pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were printed on the heel.

Myself, I'm beginning to wonder if this is an elaborate experiment being run by alien scientists to see how long it takes us to figure out that the whole American government is some kind of huge put-on.  The question they're trying to answer is whether we'll just go along with it unquestioningly.  At some point, maybe they're expecting us to say, "Okay, ha-ha, very funny.  Game's up.  Come out of hiding, alien overlords, and give us back some semblance of normalcy."  I don't know how else you'd explain people like Fleming, not to mention Steve Bannon, who looks like he's spent the last ten years pouring Jack Daniels on his breakfast cereal.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The hydra of horrible ideas

For today's post, we will focus our attention on a Skeptophilia frequent flyer -- Representative Lamar Smith, who is narrowly edged out by Senator Mitch McConnell as the world's most punchable face.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Smith is in the news this week because of his appearance as a keynote speaker at the 12th annual conference of the Heartland Institute, a petroleum-industry-funded "think tank" dedicated to casting doubt on climate change science.  Smith has been unrelenting in his attacks on the scientific community, which makes it even more appalling that he has since 2013 been the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, a committee that also includes not only the virulently anti-science Dana Rohrabacher but Bill Posey of Florida, who believes that vaccines cause autism.

So the governmental oversight of scientific research in the United States falls clearly into the category of "heaven help us."  There's no doubt that Smith is in the pocket of the fossil fuels industry; they are far and away his largest donors, having funded his campaigns to the tune of $600,000.

And no one can say the industry isn't getting what they paid for.  Smith's talk at the Heartland Institute was fairly crowing with delight over the opportunity they have to completely gut any environmental legislation they want, given the appointment by the Trump administration of anti-environmental climate change deniers to damn near every leadership post in Washington.  "I think the president has ushered in a permanent change in the political climate," Smith said, to cheers from the audience.  "And by that I mean I think he’ll keep his promises and that he’ll do exactly what he said.  You’re seeing that in his appointments, like Scott Pruitt at EPA, for example.  So … I don’t think you’ll have any disappointment on any of those issues."

When an audience member suggested that Smith stop using the term "climate science" in favor of "climate studies" and "scientific research" in favor of "politically correct science," Smith agreed with a grin, and said he'd go a step further.  "I’ll start using those words if you’ll start using two words for me," Smith said.  "The first is never, ever use the word progressive.  Instead, use the word liberal.  The second is never use the word 'mainstream' media, because they aren’t.  Use 'liberal' media. Is that a deal?"

More cheers.

Most alarmingly, Smith said he's planning on increasing the pressure on research scientists to publish only results that support the goals of his political backers.  In fact, he spoke at length about his plans to craft legislation to punish federally-funded researchers who publish data that contradicts the party line -- in other words, that doesn't meet his warped concept of peer review, which means essentially having to pass a governmentally-set purity test.  To hell with what the evidence says; science becomes whatever the conservative agenda says it is.

The timing of this meeting is not without irony.  Just this week, research was published in Nature that the amount of warming we've already seen is leading to "devastating" bleaching of coral reefs; that climate change is enhancing the conditions that lead to life-threatening "smog events" in Beijing and elsewhere; that the winter of 2016-2017 showed "exceptional... periods of record-breaking heat" in the Arctic; and that last month was the second warmest February in the 139 years such records have been kept -- the warmest was February 2016.

But to Smith and his cronies, none of that matters.  It's all "politically correct climate studies."

All of this illustrates one rather sobering fact; for those of us on the left-ish side of things who breathed a sigh of relief when Paul Ryan's disaster of a health care bill died on the floor of the House last week, the fight is far from over.  This administration is proving to be a hydra of horrible ideas.  Destroy one of them, and two more appear in its place.

And this time, one of the hydra's heads is wearing the smarmy, smirking face of Lamar Smith, which is a mental image that will haunt my nightmares for some time to come.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Hell's gate

As a diversion from less cheerful subjects like what is currently happening in Washington, D. C., today we will consider: the Gates of Hell.

The interesting thing about the whole concept of hell is that it's connected to Christianity, and yet there's not much of a mention of it in the bible.  The Old Testament version, Sheol, was not really the traditional flaming inferno; it was more of a gray, dreary place cut off from hope and light, sort of like Newark but with less traffic.  The concept of a fire-and-brimstone version of hell doesn't seem to come up until the New Testament, for example Matthew 10:28 and Mark 9:43, where we are introduced to such fun notions as "the fiery furnace" and "unquenchable fire" into which you get pitched if you break the Ten Commandments and commit the Seven Deadly Sins, unless you're also a billionaire fast-talking con man, in which case you get elected president of the United States instead.

Wait, I said I was going to keep this post apolitical.  My bad.

Because of the mention of fire, there's been a picture developed that hell is a hot place underground, which has of course connected it in some people's mind with volcanoes and other subterranean phenomena.  There are a variety of places on Earth that have been considered possible candidates for gates to hell, three of which I describe below.

First, we have the Batagaika Crater in Siberia, which locals have nickname the "Hellmouth."  It's a pretty impressive feature, to be sure:


At its widest, it's a kilometer across and 87 meters deep, and is getting bigger.  The crater has nothing to do with hell, though, unless you're talking about the manmade hell we're creating by ignoring the human causes of climate change; it's something geologists call a megaslump, when removal of groundwater and thawing of permafrost cause massive subsidence.  So it's pretty awful, but doesn't have much to do with the punishment of the damned.

A second candidate is the Necromanteion of Baiae, a tunnel system near the city of Naples which apparently hosted a magical oracle who was supposed to be able to communicate with the spirits of the dead.  She would enter the tunnel, breath the magical vapors, and come back and tell the locals what the dead had to say for themselves, which mostly was confusing, garbled nonsense, that the oracle's handlers then got to interpret whatever way they wanted.


What the dead probably should have told the oracle was "it's a stupid idea to breathe magical vapors in an area of high volcanic activity," because the gases coming out of the tunnel were high in sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, both of which are quite toxic, and explain her confusion without any magical explanation needed.  Baiae is near the Campi Flegrei, or burning fields, an area of fumaroles and boiling mud pits that illustrate that Mount Vesuvius didn't exhaust its capacity for violence when it destroyed Pompeii in 79 C. E.

Last, we have Darvaza, in the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan.  Like Batagaika, Darvaza is due to the actions of people -- in this case, a natural gas drilling facility that went very, very wrong.  At some time in the 1960s -- given that we're talking about the Soviets, here, there's no certain information about precisely what happened when -- the ground collapsed underneath a gas-drilling rig, and during the collapse the methane seeping from the walls of the crater ignited.  People expected that it'd burn itself out quickly.

It didn't.


Darvaza is still burning today, and has become a tourist attraction for travelers who don't mind the fact that (1) it reeks of sulfur, (2) if you stay there long enough, the fumes will make you violently ill,  and (3) there are no amenities for miles around.  But if you're an adventurous sort, it's certainly something you won't see anywhere else on Earth.

So that's a trio of candidates for being the doorway to hell.  If none of these float your boat, however, there are actually dozens of others.

And that's not even counting Newark.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Drawing the line

One of the things I've liked the most about my seven years writing here at Skeptophilia is that it's given me the opportunity to think, learn, and reconsider my own views.  The point of skepticism, it seems to me, is to be open to revising one's stance if presented with new information or better arguments, and thus refining one's own perceptions.

Yesterday's post, about a couple of incidents in colleges where speakers with unpopular views were harassed or threatened with being banned outright, elicited a couple of comments from loyal readers that got me thinking about what I'd written.  And while I won't say it's completely changed my mind, it has made me realize that the topic is far more of a minefield than I'd realized.

[Note: I am quoting them with their permission.]

The first wrote:
While a person who makes up part of a vulnerable demographic for whatever reason absolutely has the right to avoid going to an event where they might be exposed to hate speech, simultaneously, allowing others on a campus to hear opinions that confirm them in thinking that hate speech against other people is a thing that is acceptable in society today seems overly affirming to people that perhaps don't deserve any audience at all. 
Not every campus speaker speaks hatefully, or on hateful topics, and you're right that unless we are exposed to all sides of an argument, we cannot develop informed opinions on that argument.  It's also incredibly difficult to draw a line in the sand that says 'these words are hateful, these words are just provocative, and these words are fine' - and I'm not sure that we should. 
So how do we listen to all sides of an argument that involves hate speech without making the victims of the hate speech feel that we are supporting the existence of said hate speech against them?   
I'm not sure there's an answer to this out there, but figured I would see what you thought.
I responded:
It's a tough question. I agree that to the disempowered, even having speakers who hold those kinds of views feels like tacit acceptance.  But I still think that the way to combat that is to work toward empowering the disempowered -- the professors encouraging them and supporting them in speaking up, even helping them to formulate questions and criticisms, or showing up with them to a talk -- is much better than denying the speaker the right to speak.  Like in the case with Stanger [the professor at Middlebury College who was assaulted after inviting Charles Murray, a political scientist with controversial views about the genetics of race and intelligence, to speak at the college] -- she was up front that she disagreed with Murray, but wanted him to present as an opportunity for her students to engage in reasoned discussion (and, perhaps, refutation of Murray's arguments).  It didn't work out that way, and the violence that ensued proved nothing.
She wrote back:
But that assumes that the students who feel disempowered by the topic of the speech will be able and stable enough to attend, listen to a speech that denigrates and attacks them (politely), before being able to disagree or question someone with which they disagree...  [You] might liken it to sitting down to listen to an hour of your worst childhood bullies argue about why they should have bullied you, or even to sitting down to listen to an hour of explaining why you shouldn't exist as a person at all. 
Some people are strong enough to do that, but not all of them are, no matter how much empowerment their professors try to share with them, which is why they would be the ones that don't attend - but then we have no one to question and debate.
And it turns out that the views of Laura Kipnis, whose talk at Wellesley prompted a group of faculty to draft a letter suggesting that such speakers be barred from presenting on campus, are not as academic and dispassionate as she claimed.  In a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kipnis makes some statements that would strike many of us as ethically questionable -- that sexual relationships between professors and students are okay because when she was in college, "hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum...  We partied together, drank and got high together, slept together."  She scoffs at the idea that such relationships could result in a more powerful individual victimizing a less powerful one, or using that power differential for their own gain.

And she doesn't hesitate to engage in low blows against people who disagree with her.  About a man whose attitudes about inappropriate humor and unwanted sexual advances Kipnis considered puritanical and overly delicate, she even went so far as to suggest that his nervous coin-jangling in response to her questions was masturbatory.  In an academic journal.  Kipnis writes:
I recalled a long-forgotten pop-psychology guide to body language that identified change-jangling as an unconscious masturbation substitute. If the leader of our sexual-harassment workshop was engaging in public masturbatory-like behavior, seizing his private pleasure in the midst of the very institutional mechanism designed to clamp such delinquent urges, what hope for the rest of us?
So it seems like Kipnis is dancing pretty close to the line herself.

Another reader commented:
I'm generally with you on this topic, but I think we have to take off our privilege blinders.  Neither you or I would ever be compelled to take time from our schedules and prepare/engage in a "scholarly debate" with someone who says we are part of a genetically inferior race, or that our family members should be immediately locked up and deported. It's very easy for us straight white dudes to keep things civil when our humanity is never attacked.
Which is also spot-on.  My own attitudes about speakers being denied the right to speak based upon controversial viewpoints would probably be very different if I myself was a minority.  As the reader commented, being a white straight male makes it awfully easy for me to be on the side of free speech -- since that free speech is seldom used to harass or demean me.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So I'm left with the conclusion that this is a great deal harder than it seemed at first.  To fall back on the basic rule of banning only speech that promotes criminal acts or violence is to ignore the fact that free speech has been used many times in the past to incite hatred, discrimination, and marginalization.  And ignoring that fact is only one step away from tacit acceptance.

On the other hand, where to draw the line is problematic.  I still believe that colleges do students a terrible disservice by insulating them from controversy; prohibitions against hearing speakers or reading books or papers that voice dissenting opinions are, by and large, antithetical to the reason we have education in the first place.  But the complexity of this issue, and the spectrum of where those controversial views might fall, make it a far thornier decision than I had realized.

Many thanks to my readers who took the time to respond to yesterday's post -- especially the ones who challenged me on what I wrote.  After all, having written a piece about how important it is to be pushed into reconsidering your preconceived notions, it would be a little hypocritical of me not to be willing to engage in a bit of that myself.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The silencing of dissent

The word education comes from the Latin verb educare, meaning "to draw out of."

Too many people involved in the educational process forget this.  Education is not trying to see how many facts we can stuff into students' brains; it's seeing how we can foster their growth, challenge their preconceived notions, help them to see the universe in a new way.

Which is why what happened at Wellesley College this week is so completely antithetical to the spirit of education.

On Monday, a committee of Wellesley professors presented a letter to the community of the college.  I quote  part of the letter below, but the entire text is available at the link provided if you'd like to read it:
Over the past few years, several guest speakers with controversial and objectionable beliefs have presented their ideas at Wellesley...  There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty at Wellesley.  We are especially concerned with the impact of speakers' presentations on Wellesley students, who often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers' arguments.  Students object in order to affirm their humanity.  This work is not optional, students feel they would be unable to carry out their responsibilities as students without standing up for themselves.  Furthermore, we object to the notion that onlookers who are part of the faculty or administration are qualified to adjudicate the harm described by students, especially when so many students come forward.  When dozens of students tell us they are in distress as a result of a speaker's words, we must take those complaints at face value. 
What is especially disturbing about this pattern of harm is that in many cases, the damage could have been avoided.  The speakers who appeared on campus presented ideas that they had published, and those who hosted the speakers could certainly anticipate that these ideas would be painful to significant portions of the Wellesley community.
The letter was spurred by the appearance on campus of Laura Kipnis, writer and self-described feminist who has criticized Title IX implementation, and who has decried a "culture of sexual paranoia" on American college campuses.  Kipnis, for her part, was shocked by the faculty committee's response.  She wrote:
I find it absurd that six faculty members at Wellesley can call themselves defenders of free speech and also conflate my recent talk with bullying the disempowered.  What actually happened was that there was a lively back and forth after I spoke.  The students were smart and articulate, including those who disagreed with me. 
I’m going to go further and say — as someone who’s been teaching for a long time, and wants to see my students able to function in the world post-graduation — that protecting students from the ‘distress’ of someone’s ideas isn’t education, it’s a $67,000 babysitting bill.
Which is it exactly.  The goal of college -- hell, the goal of education in toto -- is not to insulate you from the trauma of ever hearing ideas you disagree with, it's to open your mind to consideration of other answers and other ways of thinking.  It's not supposed to be comfortable.  In fact, if you come out of college with your views completely unchanged from what they were on your first day as a freshman, the college has failed.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Note that I'm neither defending nor opposing Kipnis's views.  In fact, my opinion on Kipnis's views is entirely irrelevant.  But the idea that a college would block a speaker simply because his or her ideology runs counter to that of "dozens of students," and thus cause them to be "in distress," is ridiculous.

The bottom line: the only speakers who should be prevented from speaking on college campuses by decree are those who recommend criminal activity or violence.  Other than that, if you disagree with the views of a speaker, you have three options: (1) don't attend; (2) stage a non-violent protest; or [best of all] (3) show up and ask questions that push the speaker toward addressing whatever it is you disagree with.

Which is also why what happened at Middlebury College (Vermont) last week is so appalling.  Professor Allison Stanger, of the Department of International Politics and Economics, had invited Dr. Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute to give a talk.

The AEI is a pro-capitalism conservative think tank.  Murray rose to some notoriety with his 1994 book The Bell Curve, which proposed that intelligence was largely inherited, and was a better predictor of job success, likelihood of committing a crime, and financial status than is the socioeconomic status of the parents.  Murray was roundly condemned as a racist for writing about intellectual differences between different ethnic groups, and his book is still a subject of controversy today.

Murray never got to speak.  His appearance at the lectern was greeted by shouts of derision.  After it became clear that he was not going to have an opportunity to say anything, he and Dr. Stanger left -- but a screaming mob followed them, attacked Dr. Stanger's car, and resulted in her receiving a serious concussion and whiplash.

Stanger herself was astonishingly philosophical about the whole thing.  She writes:
It is obvious that some protesters made dangerous choices.  But with time to reflect, I have to say that I hear and understand the righteous anger of many of those who shouted us down.  I know that many students felt they were standing up to protect marginalized people who have been demeaned or even threatened under the guise of free speech. 
But for us to engage with one another as human beings -- even on issues where we passionately disagree -- we need reason, not just emotions.  Middlebury students could have learned from identifying flawed assumptions or logical shortcomings in Dr. Murray's arguments.  They could have challenged him in the Q. and A.  If the ways in which his misinterpreted ideas have been weaponized precluded hearing him out, students also had the options of protesting outside, walking out of the talk, or simply refusing to attend... 
More broadly, our constitutional democracy will depend on whether Americans can relearn how to engage civilly with one another, something that is admittedly hard to do with a bullying president as a role model.  But any other way forward would be antithetical to the very ideals of the university and of liberal democracy.
So the professors at Wellesley, and the students who rioted at Middlebury, are examples of exactly the opposite of what colleges should be about.  Once again, as long as you are not promoting violence or criminal activity, you should have the right to express your views.  Students learn more by being exposed to unpopular opinions, and learning to frame their arguments rationally and logically, than they will by belonging to an institution where unpopular opinions are suppressed.

And the professors and administrators should be unequivocal in their support of this.

The price of being cowed by the letter from the professors at Wellesley and the violence at Middlebury is the conversion of colleges into comfortable little bubbles of confirmation bias, where only the majority opinion is ever heard, understood, or argued with.  And if you need an example of where that can lead, you have to look no further than the echo chamber of our current administration, where yes men and women have insulated the president from the consequences of his own lies, and any dissent is labeled as fake news at best, and treason at worst.

Intellectual discomfort is not bad for you; in fact, you should seek out opposing opinions.  It keeps you honest about the soundness of your own views, and helps you to craft arguments against positions you disagree with based on the facts of what your opponents believe.  It hones your mind, improves your grasp of the real situation, and fosters dialogue and open communication.

Which should be the outcome of education in any case.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Humble pie

I think one of the most important attitudes to strive toward is a willingness to re-examine our beliefs if new evidence comes up.

It was that, more than its in-your-face religiosity, that always bothered me the most about the bumper sticker I used to see that said, "Jesus said it, I believe it, and that settles it."  And, to be fair, I've met people who were as close-minded about other things -- the controversy over the alleged dangers of GMOs and vaccines, the ethics of everything from capital punishment to abortion to eating meat, and a hundred different stances on political issues.

And then there's the person I know who once said, "If you don't believe that other species should have exactly the same rights as humans, I'm sorry -- you're wrong."

I believe it, and that settles it.

Highlighting the dangers of this attitude, and the advantages of adopting some sense of proportion about our own worldviews, was a study from Duke University published this week in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.  Called "Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility," this paper makes a strong case that we can go a long way toward improving communication, reaching consensus, getting along with our friends, neighbors, coworkers, and relatives, and (most importantly) recognizing when we ourselves are wrong by ditching our arrogance.

"If you think about what’s been wrong in Washington for a long time, it’s a whole lot of people who are very intellectually arrogant about the positions they have, on both sides of the aisle," said study lead author Mark Leary.  "But even in interpersonal relationships, the minor squabbles we have with our friends, lovers and coworkers are often about relatively trivial things where we are convinced that our view of the world is correct and their view is wrong."

[image courtesy of photographer David Shankbone and the Wikimedia Commons]

I think this may be the feature of the current administration here in the United States that bothers me the most -- the steadfast determination never, ever to admit error.  Confronted by incontrovertible fact, the reaction is not to say, "Okay, I was wrong," or even to retreat in disarray; they attack, deflect, distract, try to discredit, screech about "fake news" and "alternative facts," and promise reprisal against anyone who says different.

"Death before reconsideration" seems to be the motto these days.

So the study's results were illuminating, but hardly surprising.  Intellectually humble people, they found, are more likely to applaud someone who changes his/her mind based on new evidence; the arrogant tend to label this as a "flip-flop," and consider it a sign of weak-mindedness.  The arrogant, when reading an article with which they disagree, are more willing to label the author with pejorative adjectives -- immoral, incompetent, dishonest, cold.

Most interestingly, intellectually humble people are far better at discerning strong arguments from weak ones -- leading one to the conclusion that the arrogant tend to make snap judgments based on what they already believed, while the humble wait to see what the evidence says.

A fascinating bit of the study was that they found no correlation between intellectual humility and political leanings, which is another blow to the "my side is right about everything" attitude of the intellectually arrogant.  "There are stereotypes about conservatives and religiously conservative people being less intellectually humble about their beliefs," Leary said.  "We didn’t find a shred of evidence to support that."

A result I find fairly heartening.  It's important for us to realize that our own team doesn't have the market cornered on truth, and to keep our minds open to the fact that we might, in fact, be seeing a biased view of the world ourselves.

Which, now that I come to think of it, is pretty much the definition of "intellectual humility."

"Not being afraid of being wrong – that’s a value, and I think it is a value we could promote," Leary added.  "I think if everyone was a bit more intellectually humble we’d all get along better, we’d be less frustrated with each other."

To which I can only add: amen.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

There goes the sun

New from the "Oh, No, Here We Go Again" department, today we have: people flipping out over the fact that we're going to have a total eclipse this summer.

To be sure, it's a pretty cool event.  The path of totality will go from Oregon to the Carolinas, and at its widest will be 60 miles in width.  The last time a total eclipse of this magnitude happened in the United States was 99 years ago, so I suppose it's understandable that people are taking notice.  (In fact, I know more than one person who is making plans to visit the path of totality -- but if you're planning on joining them, you might well be too late.  Apparently hotels in cities in the eclipse's path started filling up a couple of years ago.)

But of course, there's nothing like a weird astronomical event to get woo-woos of all stripes all fired up.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Take, for example, the End Times cadre, who think that a completely explainable and predictable feature of the Earth's position in space -- no weirder, really, than standing in someone's shadow -- is a sign that the Rapture is upon us.  Never mind that the other 1,583,294 times these people have been absolutely certain that the Rapture was imminent, cross our hearts and hope to die, what actually happened was: nothing.

They're not going to let a little thing like a zero batting average discourage them.

"The Bible says a number of times that there’s going to be signs in the heavens before Jesus Christ returns to Earth," said Gary Ray, writer for the Christian publication Unsealed.  "We see this as possibly one of those...  We think it’s God signaling to us that he’s about to make his next move."

Ray, however, is ignoring the fact that even if you buy into his worldview, there's the inconvenient little scripture verse about how "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.  But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only," from Matthew 24, which is inconvenient because not only does it imply that people like Gary Ray are talking out of their asses, it also states outright that Jesus said he was going to return and the world would be destroyed (along with other special offers like the sun being darkened and the stars falling from heaven) before the people listening to him were dead, and that kind of didn't happen.

Ray, though, does not seem unduly bothered by this, and in fact says that the eclipse will be super-significant because the full moon will be near the constellation of Virgo the Virgin, which of course will make everyone think of the passage in Revelation 12, "A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.  She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.  Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads," despite the fact that being a virgin and being pregnant are mutually exclusive conditions.

Unless you count the alleged Immaculate Conception, which frankly, still sounds a little sketchy to me.

Then, there's the fact that we won't have to wait another 99 years to see a total eclipse in the United States; there's going to be another one on April 8, 2024, which fortunately for me looks like it'll pass right over my house.  Ray, though, is excited not because of a second shot at seeing a stunningly beautiful astronomical event; he thinks it's significant because where the paths of the two eclipses cross, it makes a letter X.

*cue scary music*

So he's interpreting this to mean that god is warning us that he's going to X out the United States for our wickedness or something.

It also brings up the question of what shape Ray thinks two intersecting lines would create if this weren't an omen.

So what we have here is a deity who is warning us about the End Times using an event that astronomers predicted decades ago, despite the fact that previous astronomical events like lunar eclipses resulted in nothing special happening.  My advice: see if you can find a spot to view the solar eclipse on August 21, because it promises to be pretty cool.  And don't cancel any plans you might have for August 22.

Chances are, we'll all be here, un-Raptured, for some time to come.

Monday, March 20, 2017

All I need is the air that I breathe

The smog in Beijing, China is legendary.  People wear filter masks to go to the grocery store; if you work outside, you have to wear breathing protection on the worst days or you're likely to end up with bronchitis or worse.  The culprit is not only automobile exhaust, but the thousands of unfiltered coal-burning stoves that many use to heat their houses.

All the way back in 1993, studies demonstrated the toll on human health.  Xiping Xu (of the Harvard School of Public Health) et al. published "Air Pollution and Daily Mortality in Residential Areas of Beijing" in The Archives of Environmental Health, and had the following to say:
The relationship between air pollution and daily mortality in 1989 was examined in two residential areas in Beijing, China.  Very high concentrations of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and total suspended particulates (TSPs) were observed in these areas...  A highly significant association was found between ln(SO2) and daily mortality.  The risk of total mortality was estimated to increase by 11% (95% confidence interval [95% CI] = 5%–16%) with each doubling in SO2 concentration...  When mortality was analyzed separately by cause, the association with a doubling in SO2 was significant for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (29%), pulmonary heart disease (19%), and cardiovascular disease (11%), and marginally significant for the other nonmalignant causes (8%), but not statistically significant for cancer (2%).
In the intervening 24 years, the problem has only gotten worse.  In 2015, Robert A. Rohde and Richard A. Miller of the University of California-Berkeley published a study called "Air Pollution in China: Mapping of Concentration and Sources" showing evidence that the excess mortality in China due to air pollution amounts to 1.6 million deaths a year -- 4,400 a day.

Air pollution, say Rohde and Miller, is a major contributor to 17% of all the deaths in China.

Beijing is hardly the only place this is a problem.  Mexico City's population, topography, and lax pollution standards have given it some of the worst air in the world.  A study by Brent Duke of Stanford University found that a third of the city's population suffers from some kind of respiratory ailment directly attributable to pollution exposure.  On the worst days, simply breathing the air is the health equivalent of smoking forty cigarettes a day.

The reason all of this comes up is that there is a new insane science-denying idea floating around in the Trump administration; that air pollution has no ill effect on health.  And one of the prime movers of this claim is Steve Milloy -- a member of Trump's transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

"My particular interest is air pollution," Milloy said.  "[Scientists studying the health effects of air quality] validate and rubber-stamp the EPA’s conclusion that air pollution kills people.  EPA scientists are paying for the science it wants."

In fact, Milloy calls into question not only the health effects of breathing polluted air, but the health effects of smoking.  In a piece called "How Stupid is Air Pollution 'Science'?" he wrote for Breitbart in January, Milloy writes:
In breathing fresh air, the typical adult inhales about 1 microgram of PM2.5 [microscopic particulates] every 6 minutes. 
But a smoker will inhale somewhere between 10,000 to 40,000 micrograms of PM2.5 from one cigarette… that is, in that same 6-minute period. So in the same brief time period, a smoker will inhale 10,000 to 40,000 times more PM2.5. 
Somehow though, despite the much greater inhalation of the supposedly deadly PM2.5, only 2,000 more smokers die annually from PM2.5-related heart-lung causes that non-smokers — according to air pollution “science” anyway.
Which should win some kind of award for pretzel logic.

Of course, to win that award he'd be competing against himself, because he's also responsible for something he has titled, with no apparent sense of irony, a "Fact Sheet" on air pollution that runs counter to every legitimate study on the topic.  This "Fact Sheet" is so full of straw men, cherry-picked data, and outright lies (such as the statement that no study has ever demonstrated that long-term exposure to fine particulates causes increased risk of mortality) that you'd think that even a quick Google search for peer-reviewed studies on the subject would be sufficient to dismiss it.

But no.  In fact, if you do a Google search for "PM2.5 science" what actually heads the list is Milloy's "Fact Sheet."

So you can't simply dismiss this as the crackpot ideas of a few cranks.  These people have clout, an audience, and (worst of all) the ear of the president.  They are deeply in the pockets of corporate interests, and are one by one assuming leadership positions in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior.

What we are heading toward is the dismantling of all of the hard-won pollution standards that have, in the last few decades, improved the air in places that used to be nearly unlivable -- like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.


It's not that we've solved the air pollution problem here in the United States.  Los Angeles, Denver, Houston, and Chicago, to name four, still have serious issues with smog, largely due not only to population size but to topography and prevailing weather conditions.  But at least over the past four decades, since the passage of the Clean Air Act, we've been heading in the right direction.

If Milloy and his cronies have their way, we'll be doing a complete about-face.

My own solution to this would be to send Milloy to Beijing during a bad smog event and lock him outdoors for a few days.  Failing that, the only answer is that we need to keep close watch on this administration's likely move toward ripping up the standards for air and water pollution, based on the claim that they're "bad for business."  Call your representatives, and let them know that they can't get away with this.

The air you breathe and the water you drink depends on it.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The budget from hell

I know many of us are reaching outrage saturation with the horrorshow that is the current presidential administration, but the recently-released budget is so awful that even the pessimists have been taken a little aback.

Entitled "America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again," this document accomplishes nothing but punishing groups that pissed off Trump in one way or another, repaying corporate interests for their support, eliminating protections for minorities, the elderly, the poor, and the environment, and slashing medical and scientific research programs to the bone.  Put more simply -- in the words of Washington Post writer Eugene Robinson -- this budget makes America "dumber, dirtier, hungrier, and sicker."

Think I'm exaggerating?  Here is a (very much abridged) list of programs the budget would eliminate entirely:
  • "Energy Star" home appliance energy efficiency program
  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program
  • Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Program
  • National Endowment for the Arts
  • National Endowment for the Humanities
  • Corporation for Public Broadcasting
  • Great Lakes Restoration Initiative
  • Community Development Block Grant Fund
  • NASA Office of Education
  • Appalachian Regional Commission
  • Institute of Museum and Library Services
  • Economic Development Administration
  • Global Climate Change Initiative
  • McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program
  • Minority Business Development Agency
If you doubt that this is anything more than a symbolic flip of the middle finger at Trump's enemies -- mostly what Robinson calls "fancy-dancy elites who define and consume high culture" -- consider that the budgets of three of his top-priority cuts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, total a little less than $750 million annually.  To put that into perspective, that's a little less than four times the amount that Betsy DeVos contributed to the Republican Party in her successful attempt to purchase the position of Secretary of Education.  It's right around the same amount that Trump himself holds in personal and corporate loans, and is half what his son-in-law, Jared Kurshner, paid for 666 Fifth Avenue back in 2006.

But as the infomercials used to say, "Just wait... there's more!"  Trump's "Make America Great Again" agenda also apparently includes hacking away at medical and scientific research.  The National Institute of Health will have their budget cut by 19%, jeopardizing grants supporting university research into new medications, diagnostics, and treatments.  The Department of Energy would see an 18% cut in every program they oversee -- except the maintenance, development, and production of nuclear weapons.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Then there's the elimination of programs like Meals on Wheels and Head Start.  Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney was asked by CNN's Jim Acosta how he can justify cutting funding for programs that help children and the elderly.  Acosta said, "Just to follow up on that, you were talking about the steel worker in Ohio, coal worker in Pennsylvania, but they may have an elderly mother who depends on the Meals on Wheels program or who may have kids in Head Start.  Yesterday, or the day before, you described this as a hard-power budget.  Is it also a hard-hearted budget?"

Mulvaney responded, “No, I don’t think so.  I think it’s probably one of the most compassionate things we can do.”

Acosta, understandably, was aghast.  "To cut programs that help the elderly and kids?" he asked.

Mulvaney shot back, "You’re only focusing on half of the equation, right?  You’re focusing on the recipients of the money.  We’re trying to focus on both the recipients of the money and the folks who give us the money in the first place.  And I think it’s fairly compassionate to go to them and say, 'Look, we’re not gonna ask you for your hard-earned money, anymore, single mother of two in Detroit … unless we can guarantee to you that that money is actually being used in a proper function.'"

Yes, you read that right: the Director of the Office of Management and Budget just said that providing education to preschoolers and meals to infirm elderly persons is "not a proper function" of taxpayer dollars, and to cut such programs is "compassionate."

What is most appalling about all of this is that most of the programs on the chopping block are hardly big-ticket items.  And even if all of these cuts are maintained, it's not going to reduce spending, or the burden on the American taxpayer, because you still have to factor in Trump's call for a 9% increase in the funding for the military -- already by far the biggest recipient of federal funds -- a total amount of $54 billion.

Oh, and I haven't even told you about the coupling of a huge increase in military spending with a proposed cut to the State Department -- an amount totaling 28% of their budget.  The approach seems to be "fuck diplomacy, we need firepower."

Appalled yet?  Maybe you'll reach the tipping point if I tell you about Trump's three weekend getaways at his own Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, costing taxpayers $10 million, and the projected $183 million a year we're paying to put Melania Trump up in Trump Tower because she doesn't want to live in the White House.

So the whole thing isn't about money, waste, or smaller government; it's about ideology, revenge, greed, and saber-rattling.  As Washington Post writer Alyssa Rosenberg put it: "Maybe [Republicans] don’t care about the arts personally, or the tourism revenue that can flow from a museum that has federal support, or the opportunity for kids in their district to get a glimpse of something that allows them to see the world in a new way.  Maybe it’s just too much fun to tweak liberals or too painful to target corporate subsidies in a way that might make big donors cranky.  But if we’re going to have this idiotic conversation every time Congress takes a crack a passing a budget, I wish we could just admit that cutting federal support for the arts and humanities is a way to fight the culture war, not to tackle the federal debt."

So the whole thing is a disaster, unless you are (1) a military contractor, (2) the CEO of a fossil fuel company, or (3) independently wealthy.  For most of the rest of us, the "Blueprint for Making America Great Again" simply adds to a military budget that already is higher than the next eight countries put together, and kills programs that foster health, research, a clean environment, the arts, and protections for children, minorities, and the elderly.

All of this puts me in mind of the quote from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, which is as pertinent now as when he said it, sixty years ago: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.  This world in arms is not spending money alone.  It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.  This is not a way of life at all in any true sense.  Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron."

Friday, March 17, 2017

Delayed justice

Today's post revolves around an ethical question: is it right for a country to seek extradition of a man for war crimes -- if the alleged criminal is 98 years old and has Alzheimer's?

The question comes up because of the case of Michael Karkoc, whom Polish officials claim was a SS commander during World War II who ordered the massacre of 44 civilians.  Prosecutor Robert Janicki is "100 percent" certain that Karkoc was an officer and founder of the "Ukrainian Self Defense Legion," which in 1943 was responsible for the murder of the villagers of Chlaniow in retribution for the killing of USDL commander Siegfried Assmuss.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Upon emigrating to the United States, Karkoc never mentioned his membership in the USDL -- he said he'd "worked in a labor camp."  Investigators found no record of his participation in SS-led groups.  He was granted admission, moved to Minnesota, married, fathered four children, and has lived there ever since.

Now, Polish officials want to see him prosecuted and jailed for his crimes.  "This case shows that there is still a possibility, a chance to bring those responsible before a court and I think we should never give up the chance of exercising justice," said Polish prosecutor Andrzej Pozorski.

As far as Karkoc, it's pretty clear he has no memory of what he did, and is confused by what's happening.  An interview with a reporter for the Associated Press resulted in Karkoc's saying merely, "I don't think I can explain."

So my question is: should he be returned to Poland to face justice?

Generally, there are three reasons to support punishing criminals with jail (or worse):
  • Retribution.  They did bad things, they deserve to have bad things done to them.
  • To protect the rest of us from evildoers who might commit further crimes.
  • To serve as a warning to others not to break the law.
I'm not clear that any of these applies here.  It would be a different thing if the man was capable of understanding what was going on, as in the case of John Demjanjuk, who was elderly but clearly in the possession of his faculties.  Here, we have a person who (if the allegations are correct, which they seem to be) did horrible things 74 years ago.  Had he been apprehended earlier, it would have been entirely just to see him prosecuted.

Now, I'm not sure I see what the point is.

Retribution only makes sense if the person being punished understands why.  It's the reason we have laws preventing the death penalty in cases where the criminal is intellectually disabled.  It's pretty certain that even if he was jailed for the rest of his life, he wouldn't have any real idea why.

The second reason for jailing criminals makes even less sense in this case.  A 98 year old man with dementia isn't a threat to anyone.

The only possible justification comes from the third reason -- to serve as a warning.  To let war criminals know that even if they get away with what they've done for a time, they will not escape forever, and that if apprehended they will face prosecution no matter what.

Which I suppose I can see.  But honestly, even from this argument, it's hard to see what society gains by pursuing this.

I'm finding it hard to come to a clear answer here.  I'm certainly not trying to excuse what he did; the actions of the Nazis are rightly held up as the very worst of what humanity can do.  It's not an argument from humanitarian grounds -- "leave him alone, he's just a little old man" certainly wasn't a standard applied by the concentration camp guards, nor, it must be imagined, by Karkoc himself when he ordered the massacre of the villagers of Chlaniow.

But I'm still having a hard time seeing what the point of prosecution is in this case.

Perhaps one of my readers who is better able to tease apart ethical conundrums will weigh in, here.  Because with the punishment of Michael Karkoc for war crimes, I can't believe that anyone, including society as a whole, really wins.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Science news briefs

Okay, after some recent posts that fall into the "I don't want to live on this planet any more" category, time to go to my happy place, namely: some cool recent science news.

First, we have a study of "starquakes" -- turbulence in the outer layers of stars -- giving us information about the conditions in the gas clouds from which those stars formed millions of years ago.

A study of 48 stars in a cluster in the Milky Way, which condensed from the same gas cloud, showed that their rotational axes are all aligned.  According to Dennis Stello, of the University of New South Wales, it had been assumed that chaotic forces in the primordial gas cloud would have scrambled the stars' angular momentum, and made it impossible to determine that they had come from the same origins.  "Just as seismologists use earthquakes to understand the interior of our planet, we use starquakes to understand the interior of stars," Stello said.  "Our new study provides the first evidence that this approach is a powerful way to gain insights into processes that occurred billions of years ago, close to the beginning of the universe."

What has been learned from this study has the potential of extending further back in time what we can infer about the conditions that exist as stars are being formed.  "The benefit of studying ancient star clusters is that the interfering dust and gas has gone, yet the stars still preserve the signature of the initial conditions in the cloud where they were born," Stello said.  "Our finding that the spins of about 70 per cent of the stars in each cluster are strongly aligned, and not randomly orientated as was expected, tells us that the angular momentum of the gas and dust cloud was efficiently transferred to the new stars.  It’s remarkable that the imprint of these initial conditions can still be seen billions of years later, by studying tiny oscillations in stars that are many light years away."

From the world of biology, we have a study from scientists at the University of Basel (Switzerland) and Lund University (Sweden), wherein we find that the most efficient and beneficial predators in the world are... spiders.

Using statistical sampling techniques, a team of zoologists has calculated the mass of the prey consumed by spiders, and found that the 45,000-odd species of spiders worldwide consume between 400 and 800 million tons of prey a year, many of which are insects that have the potential of damaging crops or spreading disease.  

"Our calculations let us quantify for the first time on a global scale that spiders are major natural enemies of insects. In concert with other insectivorous animals such as ants and birds, they help to reduce the population densities of insects significantly," said Martin Nyffeler of the University of Basel, who was lead author of the study.  "Spiders thus make an essential contribution to maintaining the ecological balance of nature."

So think about that next time you see a spider in your house and are torn between squashing it or scooping it up and putting it outside.



Not only did a team of scientists led by Stefan Bengston of the Swedish Museum of Natural History identify 1.6 billion year old single-celled fossils from dolomite formed in shallow marine environments in what is now the Vindhyan Basin in central India, they were able to use a highly accurate scanning technique -- synchrotron-radiation X-ray tomographic microscopy -- to see the cellular machinery therein.

So yes: they took a look at the organelles in the cells of a 1.6 billion year old fossil.

And inside it were all of the familiar subcellular bits you learned about in high school biology, indicating that these were indeed eukaryotes (organisms with membrane-bound structures such as nuclei) instead of the more primitive prokaryotes (organisms that lack most cellular organelles, and which include bacteria).  The upshot: complex life has been around a lot longer than anyone realized.

Last, from medical research, we have a groundbreaking study of brain/body computer interfaces led by Ujwal Chaudhary of the Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology at the University of Tübingen (Germany) which allowed patients with locked-in syndrome to answer questions yes or no -- just by thinking about it.

Locked-in syndrome, which is top of my list of disorders I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, occurs when because of an injury, stroke, or neurodegenerative disease (like ALS) a person becomes completely unable to move, but without any loss of cognitive function.  In other words, you are aware but trapped inside a totally unresponsive body.  This condition was brought into the public eye by the phenomenal book (later made into a movie) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who developed LIS after a massive stroke, but who eventually was able to communicate through eye movements well enough to write a memoir of his experience.

The authors write:
Despite scientific and technological advances, communication has remained impossible for persons suffering from complete motor paralysis but intact cognitive and emotional processing, a condition that is called completely locked-in state.  Brain–computer interfaces based on neuroelectrical technology (like an electroencephalogram) have failed at providing patients in a completely locked-in state with means to communicate.  Therefore, here we explored if a brain–computer interface based on functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS)—which measures brain hemodynamic responses associated with neuronal activity—could overcome this barrier.  Four patients suffering from advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), two of them in permanent completely locked-in state and two entering the completely locked-in state without reliable means of communication, learned to answer personal questions with known answers and open questions requiring a “yes” or “no” by using frontocentral oxygenation changes measured with fNIRS.  These results are, potentially, the first step towards abolition of completely locked-in states, at least for patients with ALS.
Which is only the first step toward a brain/computer interface that might allow them to do much more -- at least allowing them to communicate despite having a condition that otherwise would shut them off completely from the world around them.

So there you are.  Some interesting news from science.  I don't know about you, but I feel much better now.  It's nice to know that despite the lunacy in the world, there are still people who are working toward improving our understanding of the universe.

And I, for one, find that very heartening.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Ignoring the collapse

One thing I will never understand, so long as I live, is why people can be induced in such great numbers to vote against their best interests.

Throughout 2016, people warned that Donald Trump et al. were planning on cutting Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, were going to increase the ranks of the uninsured (especially amongst the rural poor) by repealing the Affordable Care Act, and were not only rejecting the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, but actively supported policy that would make it worse.

And yet not only was he elected president, but candidates who supported him and his ideology overwhelmingly won election into Congress and governorships.  And just today we have four news items of note:
  • In a town hall-type meeting in Concord, New Hampshire, former presidential candidate and current Ohio governor John Kasich announced that he was supporting significant cuts to Social Security.  He asked audience members, "What if I told you that your initial benefit was gonna be somewhat lower in order to save the program?  Would that drive you crazy?"  When a couple of attendees said that yes, it would upset them, he responded, "Well, you'd get over it, and you're going to have to get over it."
  • An announcement by the Congressional Budget Office two days ago estimated the number of people who would lose their health insurance under the current administration's proposal at 24 million.  This would nearly double the number of uninsured individuals in the United States.  The biggest hits would be to low-income people in the Southeast and Midwest.
  • Add to this the revelation that despite repeated pledges not to touch Medicaid, the current health care proposal would slash $880 billion in federal funding for the program.  Ron Pollack, head of the health-care advocacy group Families USA, said that the cuts "would put us on a destructive path that would decimate the safety-net Medicaid program for over 72 million people; drastically reduce premium subsidies for working families; and cause out-of-pocket health costs to soar."
  • A study released by Tulane University yesterday showed that sea level rise in coastal Louisiana is four times higher than previously estimated, and that "there is little chance that the coast will be able to withstand the accelerating rate of sea level rise."
What is most puzzling about this is that the people who voted in the current administration, and the conservative members of Congress who are currently rubber-stamping the president's proposals, are largely older Americans and the rural poor of the Southeast and Midwest.  Louisiana, currently experiencing the highest land loss from sea level rise in the world (16 square miles a year -- a football field's worth every hour) overwhelmingly voted Republican.

I know I'm not the most savvy person politically, but I can't even begin to comprehend this.  You would think that especially in fractious times, people would be more likely to vote for whatever candidate was more likely to insure their own personal security.  In a way, of course, the Trump cadre convinced people they were doing exactly that; they played into fear, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, inducing people to accept the blatant lies that violent crime rates were increasing (they're not), that a large proportion of crimes are committed by immigrants (they're not), that acceptance of diversity in society leads to the collapse of a society's morals and culture (it doesn't), and that climate change isn't happening (it is).

But even though the current administration seems to run on the fuel of innuendo, lies, unfounded and unsourced accusations, and "alternative facts," you'd think that the bare truth of people losing their health care, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- hell, even watching their communities sink into the Gulf of Mexico -- would cause them to say, "Wait just a moment, now."  But that hasn't happened.  The most staunchly pro-Trump individuals are the ones who stand to get hurt the most, and amazingly, they are giving every appearance of remaining pro-Trump to the last gasp.

I find this utterly baffling.  I keep waiting for the Trump voters to realize that they elected a master con man who never had the slightest intention of protecting their interests, to acknowledge that they've been had, but it's showing no sign of happening.  

[image courtesy of K. C. Green]

It's probably naïve of me to expect people to behave rationally, not to mention for me to expect that there is a simple explanation of something complex like why people vote a particular way (and stick to a candidate through thick and thin).  But the juxtaposition of the four stories -- Kasich's blithe dismissal of people's concerns about cuts to Social Security, the CBO's announcement that Trumpcare will double the number of uninsured individuals in the United States, the announcement of staggering cuts to Medicaid, and the study showing that southern Louisiana is washing away -- highlights a completely perplexing feature of human behavior.

The fact that once committed to an ideology, people won't change their minds even if the walls are crashing down around them.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A ghost in the machine

A couple of days ago I wrote a piece on a couple of studies that some people (unwarrantedly, in my opinion) are using as support of the claim that our consciousness will persist into an afterlife.  While the desire for death not to be final is completely understandable, the evidence we have of soul survival is at present equivocal at best.

But apparently there is another way people are trying to cheat the Grim Reaper: by creating a digital version of themselves, based upon their social media posts, texts, emails, and so on, that could then chat with their friends after their demise.

Lest you think this is just some bizarre speculation by a fiction author who has, I must admit, a rather febrile imagination at times, it's already been done.  An artificial intelligence researcher named Eugenia Kuyda created a chatbot based upon the tweets, texts, and Facebook posts of her friend Roman after he died in November of 2015, and she regularly has conversations with it.

CNN writer Laurie Segall spoke with Kuyda -- and also with Roman:
I had several long conversations with Roman -- or I should say his bot.  And while the technology wasn't perfect, it certainly captured what I imagine to be his ethos -- his humor, his fears, how hopeless he felt at work sometimes.  He had angst about doing something meaningful.  I learned he was lonely but was glad that he'd left Moscow for the West Coast. I learned we had similar tastes in music.  He seemed to like deep conversations, he was a bit sad, and you know he would've been fun on a night out.
As for Kuyda, she's gone even further down the rabbit hole.  She was at a party several weeks after creating the RomanBot, and had the surreal experience of texting with... it? him?... for thirty minutes before she remembered that Roman was dead, and this was a simulation.

So Segall asked Kuyda to create one for her.  A LaurieBot.  So she did, and Segall got to speak with Segall 2.0.  The experience, she said, was a little unnerving:
I was warm ... or at least my bot was. It responded like me -- quick, rapid fire texts. It loved Hamilton and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.  It was trying to get healthy. My bot made sexual comments and spoke about happiness. 
My bot was also brash, a bit combative.  It worried about being alone, had some trust issues.  It was crude.  A bit funny, thoughtful -- it was me on my best days ... and my worst. 
Then things got uncomfortable.  My bot started pushing back against Kuyda questioning. My trust issues were casually texted back to me...  It was unsettling how flippant my bot was with my emotions.
Although I have had a fascination with AI for years, I have some serious issues with this.  Mostly it revolves around the effects this could have on the grieving family and friends of the deceased.  We already, as a culture, have a hard enough time dealing with death, with letting go of someone we love.  This, to me, gives the bereaved nothing but the false sense that their friend or relative is still with them, prolonging the difficult journey toward acceptance, not only of death in the specific case but of mortality in general.

But does this mean that we've finally, quietly, crossed the line into having a piece of code that can pass the Turing test?  The fact that Kuyda herself, who wrote the damn thing, could forget for a half-hour that she was talking to a simulation, is pretty remarkable.  And if so, does that mean that there really is something there, some pared-down piece of the person's personality?  Are we reaching the point where there really will be a ghost in the machine?

[image courtesy of Alejandro Zorrilal Cruz and the Wikimedia Commons]

Segall clearly wasn't particularly sanguine about her own digital alter ego:
I have mixed feelings about it.  When I die, I don't know if I'd want to give people access to those parts of me -- unfiltered, without context, pulling from conversations meant only for one person. 
I'm not ready to let this digital version of myself into the world.  These are parts of me I didn't realize tech could capture.  The most human aspects of me, spoken back through Laurie bot, felt too strange, too real, too uncontrollable and perhaps too dangerous as we enter an age where tech has the incredible ability to evoke such raw emotion.
To which I can only say: amen.  While it might be intriguing, in a purely intellectual sense, for me to talk to a GordonBot, the idea that something like it could still be around after I die, talking to my friends and family, is a profoundly disturbing concept.  I hope that when it's my turn, my loved ones will be strong enough simply to say goodbye in some appropriate manner.

Like a Viking funeral.  Go to the beach, stick my body in a boat, set it on fire, and send it out to sea.  Followed by lots of music, dance, drinking, and debauchery.  That's the way I want to have my life celebrated. not by having some anemic version of me still hanging around that people can text to.  I hate texting in real life, I sure as hell don't want to do it once I'm dead.

Monday, March 13, 2017

DNA, health, and privacy

The movie Gattaca envisions a near future in which our entire destiny is ruled by our genes.  Not only are we subject to genetic tests as a preliminary to everything -- school admission, job offers, applications for insurance -- the vast majority of births result from genetically screened in vitro fertilizations.  This creates a society stratified in a new way -- made up of "valids" (people who were screened at conception and therefore are free of major genetic defects) and "invalids" (people conceived the old-fashioned way, and subject to all of the flaws that a random patchwork of genes brings).

The result is that invalids can't get any but the most menial jobs.  What employer would take a chance on giving a high-paying technical job to someone with a predisposition to early death from heart disease when there is an equally skilled candidate who is certified disease-free, and who will cost the company (and their insurers) far less in medical bills and retraining costs over the long haul?

The ethical issues that this film brings up are deeply poignant.  But one of the lines that goes by so quickly that it can pass your notice occurs fairly close to the beginning of the movie, when the main character is narrating what life is like in this society.  "Of course, discrimination based on genes is technically illegal," he says, "but there's always a way around that."

He utters this line as a potential employer hands him a plastic jar for a urine test -- ostensibly for drug testing, but which will also give the company anything they want to know about the candidate's genetic makeup.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

We just took a step toward the world of Gattaca a few days ago, and it, like the line about the de facto acceptance of a genetic criterion for employment in the movie, slipped by without many people taking notice.  A proposed change to current privacy law called House Bill HR 1313 passed easily in committee, the vote split exactly on party lines.  Given the current fracas over the repeal/replace drive for the Affordable Care Act, not too many people gave HR 1313 much thought.  But this bill, should it become law, will provide a loophole you could drive a Mack truck through in GINA (the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act), the 2008 law that made genetic information private and explicitly prohibited employers from discrimination based upon it.

If HR 1313 passes, it will allow employers to circumvent GINA -- as long as such genetic tests are part of a "workplace wellness" program.

Before you blame the Republicans, however, realize that we were well on the way to ceding all the power over a person's private genetic data to employers during the Obama presidency.  "Workplace Wellness" laws passed during the previous administration allowed employers to levy a 30% surcharge on employees' health insurance costs if they refused to participate in "voluntary" workplace wellness programs, many of which require screenings for cholesterol, blood pressure, and other health factors. At least with GINA, there was explicit language to stop employers from doing what they did in Gattaca -- collecting private health information from people under the guise of doing screenings for risk factors, and extracting a hell of a lot more from a blood sample or urine sample than the employee bargained for.

If HR 1313 passes, that protection will disappear.  Labeling mandatory screening part of a "Workplace Wellness" program will allow employers to have access to any information on your health that they want -- including a list of the markers you carry showing your predisposition to genetic health conditions.

One more way in which we are headed, as a nation, toward giving far more clout to corporations than we do to individuals.

When Gattaca premiered twenty years ago, it seemed pretty far-fetched.  People were identified when they entered a government building using a finger-prick test.  Criminals could be caught from the DNA on a single eyelash, because everyone's DNA was on record with the government.  If you were stopped on the road and refused a finger prick, the police could still identify you by an iris scan.  In one memorable scene, a woman goes to a genetic screening company to get the low-down on her boyfriend -- after she gives him a nice long French kiss, and thus mixing enough of his saliva with hers to sequence his DNA and find out if he's a good candidate for a long-term relationship.

Now, it's looking like the world of Gattaca is, as it says in the opening sequence, in the "not-so-distant future."

In fact, if HR 1313 passes, it might be right around the corner.