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.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Fake news agenda

If you needed something else to feel discouraged about, a study released this week in the journal New Media & Society found that fake news and political clickbait sites had twice the effect on the media landscape in the United States as legitimate sources and fact-checking sites.

Authored by Chris J. Vargo, Lei Guo, and Michelle A. Amazeen, "The Agenda-Setting Power of Fake News: A Data Analysis of the Online Media Landscape From 2014 to 2016" looks at not only the influence that fake news has on politics and culture, but how difficult it is to fight it.  The authors write:
Journalists have little ability to proactively fight fake news. Even worse, partisan media can be susceptible to its influence.  Other news organizations fight fake news. The BBC, for instance, has announced a commitment to debunk fake news that is shared widely on social media Fact-checking organizations have become another bulwark against fake news with PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, ABC News, the Associated Press, and Snopes all fighting it on Facebook.  However, this reactive desire to thwart fake news has required traditional media to divert resources—in the form of time and attention—to fighting it.  What is worse, by being forced to respond to fake news journalists may be affording fake news websites with the ability to push topics, issues, and even attributes into the public agenda.
The worst part of all, of course, is the fact that many of these partisan media sources wield tremendous influence over voters' understanding of the issues:
The relationship between fake news and partisan media is worthy of particular attention. Instead of valuing balance, fairness, and objectivity, partisan media often frame stories in a way to advance certain political agendas driven by in-group or tribal identification.  Traditional partisan media include cable news (e.g. Fox News) and talk radio (e.g. the Rush Limbaugh Show).  The Internet has contributed to the proliferation of new forms of partisan media: partisan websites and blogs such as Drudge Report and Daily Kos.  With the emergence and popularity of social media services, partisan news coverage is more popular than ever before.  Moreover, these social media networks facilitate the spread of misinformation via automated, anonymous accounts which target users already engaged in conversation on a particular topic.
Crown that with our current administration's tendency to shriek "Fake news!" whenever there's a news story they don't like, and you have a complete political clusterfuck, and one that I see no way out of any time soon.

Lead author Chris J. Vargo isn't much more optimistic than I am.  "Fact checkers largely were independent in what they chose to cover, but their topical focus didn’t really translate very well to other media," Vargo said.  "The media landscape isn’t listening to fact checking as much as it is to fake news, which is particularly troublesome...  I think the big thing that I’m realizing across these studies is that anything can distract us."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem is that exaggerated, sensationalized, or outright false headlines are much more likely to grab our attention than are headlines about the actual issues, which (by comparison) are often boring.  Add to this a heaping helping of confirmation bias -- our tendency to believe with little evidence things that conform to our preconceived notions -- and it's no wonder that the folks who detested Hillary Clinton's politics fell for the whole idiotic "Pizzagate conspiracy" last fall.

Vargo remains optimistic, however, and cites the fact that even in the face of partisan media and fake news sites, the responsible and balanced media have soldiered on even in the face of repeated attacks.  "Our study found that to a small degree, yes, fake news does influence what the press talks about." Vargo said.  "But largely, the press has the ability – and maintains the ability – to cover the issues that are most important to a society today."

Of course, covering the important issues and getting the voters to listen are two entirely different things.  Encouraging people to stop paying attention to such serial offenders as Fox News and Daily Kos, and to get their information from places like BBC, is proving to be pretty difficult.  After all, once you have a government leader convince you that 99% of what you hear on the most reliable media sources is fake, and that fact-checking sites are biased and unreliable, you are set up to believe damn near anything.

So unfortunately, I don't share Vargo's optimism.  I think the last vestiges of my positive attitude toward people's ability to think critically were shattered when Fox News persuaded the evangelical Christians to support a sociopathic serial adulterer who lies every time he opens his mouth, claiming that he was the perfect embodiment of the Ten Commandments.

After that, I don't hold out much hope for the collective brainpower of humanity.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Music and the mind

Despite being a 30-year veteran teacher of what is referred to as a "core" discipline -- science -- I have always been vociferous in my support of increasing the emphasis on arts, music, and electives.  In fact, I find the use of the word "core" a little insulting to the teachers and students in these latter subjects.  It makes it sound like science, math, English, and social studies are central to a child's education, and everything else is just peripheral fluff.

In fact, for many of us, it's just the opposite.  Think about what classes you remember from your own trip through the school system as being the most inspiring.  For a lot of us, it's those "electives" -- the subjects that are the first ones on the chopping block when funding gets cut.  Further, think about your own life as an adult.  What activities or pursuits bring you the most joy now?  With no slight meant against the math teachers, I doubt very much that most of us look forward to our leisure time so we can sit and do algebra.

Now, I'm not saying that arts and music are more important than science, math, English, and social studies; but they are easily as important.  Which, unfortunately, is not how a lot of the people involved in educational oversight see things.  And what is the most short-sighted about this approach is that the benefits of education in creative disciplines spill over into the "core" courses.

Some experimental support for this contention appeared last week in the journal Neuron, in a paper by Sibylle C. Herholz and Robert J. Zatorre called "Musical Training as a Framework for Brain Plasticity: Behavior, Function, and Structure."  What they found is that studying music improves the ability of the brain to modify its own structure and function in response to new information, a capacity called neuroplasticity.

Most examples of neuroplasticity only are operative during a narrow critical period in an individual's life.  In imprinting in ducklings, for example, their ability to learn who their mother is, and follow her around, only lasts for a few days after hatching.  In humans, language learning works in a similar fashion; our ability to learn language peaks in our early years, declining rapidly after age ten or so.

Which is why another appallingly stupid thing about our educational system is how we teach foreign language -- usually starting in middle school, i.e., when we first start to get really bad at learning a new language.  If we took first-year foreign language courses out of middle and high school, and started a program for preschoolers to be in bilingual classes, they'd come out fluent, without ever memorizing a vocabulary list or verb conjugation pattern.

But I digress.

Anyhow, Herholz and Zatorre looked at the effects of musical training on a lot of different modalities in the brain -- auditory, tactile, motor, and cognitive.  The authors write:
Music requires fine-grained perception and motor control that is unlike other everyday activities, thereby reducing confounding influences of other types of experience.  Also, the framework of musical training allows the study of both short- and long-term training effects...  An important higher-level phenomenon in the context of learning and plasticity is that long-term training can result not only in specific learning, but also creates greater potential for short-term changes to occur quickly.  Musical training not only changes the structural and functional properties of the brain, but it also seems to affect the potential for new short-term learning and plasticity.  Such interaction effects of long- and short-term training have been demonstrated in the auditory, in the motor, and in the tactile domain.
They also consider the role of music in developing social skills and teamwork:
Music also has some reward value beyond the pleasurable sounds and direct feedback—it also has an important role in social interactions, both in contexts of group listening and music making.  While the effects of such interactions during music making have not been investigated to our knowledge, the role of social influences and well-being on brain plasticity has been shown in other contexts.  Important aspects in the context of music and learning could include pupil-teacher interactions and imitation learning, social reward and influences on self-perception, but also negative influences like stress in professional situations and performance anxiety.
All of which makes it that much more wrong-headed to cut music programs -- and by extension, art programs and other areas where students are challenged to be creative, to work collaboratively, to express themselves, and simply to enjoy the aesthetic experience that such experiences provide.

[image courtesy of photographer Nickolai Kashirin and the Wikimedia Commons]

One can only hope that studies like this one will underscore the fact that electives and "core" subjects need to be on equal footing, especially with regards to support and funding by school districts.  Cutting program to the bone to focus exclusively on math, science, English, and social studies is completely contrary to what we know about how children learn -- and what activities enrich their lives and broaden their minds.

Now, I think I'll wrap this up -- I just got the sheet music for a piano transcription of Rameau's "Rondeau des Indes Galantes," and I can't let it just sit there unplayed any longer. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Three-in-one

Two weeks ago I wrote about how some overzealous evangelical Christians have denounced "Fidget Spinners" as being a demonic symbol, so when you spin it, you're invoking Satan or something.  Well, these people are nothing if not versatile.  Because yesterday I found out that some of the same lot are now saying no, Fidget Spinners aren't demonic; in fact, quite the opposite.

They actually represent the Holy Trinity.

I have to say that even in my churchgoing days, when I was trying like mad to understand and believe the whole shebang, the idea of the Holy Trinity never made much sense to me.  God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are distinct, but not; and the first one generates the other two, but actually they've all been around forever; and so on and so forth.  The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 tried to clear the whole thing up with the following statement:
[I]t is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds; and in their relations with one another, they are stated to be one in all else, co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial, and each is God, whole and entire.
Which really didn't help much.  Of course, in the interest of fairness I have to say that a lot of quantum physics isn't a whole hell of a lot better.  If you put the Holy Trinity up against quantum nonlocality and Bell's Theorem in a contest of purely counterintuitive weirdness, I'm not sure which would win.

The early church fathers, however, felt pretty strongly about "trinitarianism."  Believing otherwise, or even saying "this makes absolutely no sense," was enough to get you burned at the stake.  To forestall such unpleasantness, some religious folk tried to come up with ways of explaining it in simpler terms, such as the (almost certainly apocryphal) use of the shamrock by Saint Patrick to get across the three-in-one thing.


So I suppose, given the Fidget Spinner's shape, it was only natural someone would think of this.  Apparently more than one priest or minister has made the analogy, to judge by the responses of the parishioners on social media.  Some have been impressed:
You know your priest’s sermons are on point when he compares the Holy Trinity to a fidget spinner.
Others, not so much:
Today I watched a priest use a fidget spinner to represent the Holy Trinity and felt my soul leave my body.
But no one took umbrage over the whole thing as much as Toy Adams over at Unsettled Christianity, who said that to make the comparison was heresy:
Any time folks begin to teach on the Trinity and say, “the Trinity is like….” I immediately brace myself for impact.  Too often something inaccurate is said.  The Trinity is not only beyond our grasp, but if you teach on Him using objects like shamrocks, the states of water, an egg, or a fidget spinner, you are sure to commit heresy. 
Not to be a heresy hunter, but heresy is serious.  Many pastor-types like to joke about being heretics, but, in all reality, it’s spiritually dangerous to flirt with heresies pertaining to the Trinity.
So if the Trinity isn't like a Fidget Spinner, what is it like?  Adams isn't so sure:
The Trinity is the doctrine by which we affirm God’s threeness in God’s oneness, celebrating the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three distinct persons who are of one substance; each person of the Trinity is fully God yet distinct.  To compare the Trinity to a fidget spinner (as with the shamrock) is to commit the heresy of partialism, for it undercuts the full divinity of each person, so as to indicate that each are only one part of a three part God... 
To be spiritually vibrant, we must seek to properly understand who God is.  We know that God is Trinity, but such a mystery we cannot surely comprehend.
Which to me is the difference between this stuff and quantum mechanics.  Because QM is weird, but it is comprehensible.  No one looks at Schrödinger's Wave Equation and throws their hands into the air and says, "Welp.  You just have to take this on faith because it's revealed truth.  Don't expect to understand it."  (Okay, that was kind of my reaction when I took Quantum Mechanics from Dr. John Matese back in college, but I must admit that my attempt to master physics was, by and large, unsuccessful.  Let's just say that when I was 20, studying was not near the top of my priorities list, and leave it at that.)

So anyhow, to me it all seems like a tempest in a teapot, although given my own views I really couldn't be expected to come to any other conclusion.  I guess if the Fidget Spinner strengthens your religious beliefs, that's fine by me.  And if you think it's the "Devil's Yo-Yo" (a term I did not make up), then don't mess with 'em.  Either way, my general feeling is that you'd be better off studying quantum mechanics.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Planetary spin cycle

I try not to spend too much time focusing on completely loony ideas here at Skeptophilia -- wackos are, after all, a dime a dozen, and grabbing the low-hanging fruit is kind of a cheap way to run a blog.  But sometimes I run into a claim that is so earnest, so serious, and at the same time so completely bizarre that it's kind of charming.

That was my reaction when a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link to a site called "Bibliotecapleyades."  I have to admit that I have no idea what that means.  I know that biblioteca means "library" in Spanish, and pleyades sounds a little like "Pleiades," the star cluster that is thought among some of the astro-woo-woos to be the home of the Nordic aliens, who are tall, blond, blue-eyed, and muscular.

Sort of Liam Hemsworth from Outer Space, is how I think of them.

Whether that's the origin of the name or not, I have no idea.  He doesn't mention aliens, but given the rest of the content, I wouldn't be surprised if it came up at some point.

Anyhow, this particular page on "Bibliotecapleyades" is called "Earth Changes: Future Map of the World," and goes into how "international known [sic] and respected futurist Gordon-Michael Scallion" has a vision of how the world is going to end up.  And I do mean "vision."  His ideas aren't based on science (big shocker, there) but on his "ongoing visions concerning the Earth" that he experiences "sometimes as many as ten or more in a day, lasting from a few seconds to minutes."  But instead of seeking professional help for this condition, he started writing it all down, and put them all together into a unified, consolidated picture of what we were in for.

You really should look at the website itself, preferably after consuming a double scotch.  It's just that good.  But in case you don't want to risk valuable brain cells going through it, I present below a few highlights of what's going to happen.  Forewarned is forearmed, you know.
  1. First, we're going to have a pole shift.  Scallion seems unaware that the position of the magnetic pole and the position of the rotational axis of the Earth are related but aren't the same, so he gets a little confused talking about the precession of the Earth's rotational axis (which is true; the Earth wobbles like a top, meaning that Polaris won't be the North Star forever) as somehow triggering a shift in the magnetic pole.  You get the impression he thinks when the poles reverse, the Earth is kind of going to fall over or something.  But he soldiers on ahead, saying that the Earth is going to be like "a washing machine that is out of balance in the spin cycle," and this is going to fling the poles about like damp socks.  Havoc will ensue.
  2. Africa is going to fall apart into three separate continents.  Some waterways will open up in a kind of a "Y" shape, inundating large parts of what is now dry land.  Madagascar is going to sink into the ocean.  Don't ask me why.  The Pyramids will also end up under water, but the flipside is that before then, "there will be great archaeological discoveries."
  3. The news is more positive for Antarctica, which is going to "be reborn, and become fertile land again."  In addition, the relics of the lost civilization of "Lumania" will be found when the ice all melts, and "great cities and temples will be discovered."  I'm not sure how I feel about this.  In the historical document "At the Mountains of Madness" by H. P. Lovecraft, some explorers went into Antarctica, discovered big abandoned cities and temples, and almost all of them ended up getting eaten by Shoggoths.  So we might want to be a little cautious about investigating "Lumania."
  4. The tectonic plate underneath Europe is going to "collapse."  This will cause Scandinavia and Great Britain to sort of slide off the edge into the Atlantic Ocean.
  5. The Middle East will be engulfed in war.  For a change.  But this one will be a "holy war with purification of the land by fire and water," whatever that means.  I hope no one tells the End Times folks about this, because they already spend enough time yammering on about stuff like this, and I really don't want to add any more grist for their mill.
  6. North America also looks like it's in for a rough time.  California will be split up into 150 islands, and the "west coast will recede to Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado."  The Appalachians will be a long skinny island.  At least here in upstate New York it looks like I'll have beachfront property.
He then ends with a disclaimer, a little like the "this preparation is not intended to treat or cure any medical condition" thing you see on bottles of homeopathic "remedies."  He says:
[N]o event or prediction is final.  Predictions are given as probabilities.  Even at this time, consciousness can alter an event, modify changes in a particular area or at the very least help us to prepare for what is to come...  One final note, the areas of change presented in the Future Map of The World should not be taken as absolute. They may differ from a few miles to several hundred miles depending on many variables.  In the end, Mother Nature and our own collective consciousness will have the final say.
Be that as it may, he provides us with a map of the world showing all of the new land contours.  I'd post it here, but I don't know how Gordon-Michael Scallion feels about the copyright on images he's created, so you'll just have to go take a look for yourself if you want to figure out whether it's time to pack up and move.  Here's a map of what the world looks like now, so you'll have a basis for comparison.

[image courtesy of NASA and the Wikimedia Commons]

Anyhow, that's our excursion into the deep end of the pool for today.  Me, I'm not concerned.  He didn't provide a timeline for all of these catastrophes in any case, so right now I'm going to worry about more pressing issues, such as how the hell we here in the U.S. ended up with a spoiled toddler with orange spray-on tan as the president.  Frankly, compared to that, "Lumania" doesn't really bother me much.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Dowsing and statistical significance

A while back, my wife and I and two friends were in a gift shop, and on a rack of books for sale I saw one called Dowsing for Beginners by Richard Craxe.  I picked it up, and flipped through a bit of it.  I was a little surprised -- I never thought of dowsing as something anyone would write a how-to manual about.

Dowsing, for those of you (probably few) who don't know about this practice, is the use of a forked stick (or in some cases) a pair of bent wires to locate everything from sources of water to lost objects.  The claim is that the dowsing rod exerts a pull on the dowser's hands, or actually turns and points toward the desired goal.  As strange as this idea is, I find that of all the odd practices I hear about from students of mine, this one is the one that they will argue the most vociferously for.  This, surprisingly, includes students whom I would normally think of as rationalistic skeptics -- students who scoff at other forms of woo-wooism.

You might wonder how this practice is supposed to work.  Explanations, of course, vary.  The use of willow branches for dowsing for underground water is sometimes explained, in all seriousness, as working because willow trees like growing near water, so the wood is magically attracted to sources of it.  Other people believe that dowsers themselves are "sensitive," so that the dowsing rod itself is only acting as a tool to focus their mysterious ability.  Dowsing for Beginners goes through some nonsense about there being a "universal mind" that everyone has access to, and it knows everything, and therefore when you practice dowsing, you're tapping into a source of knowledge that can provide you with information about where to drill for water or where you accidentally dropped your car keys.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The next question is, does it work?  The simple answer, of course, is no.  Controlled studies have shown no results whatsoever, an outcome discussed at length in James Randi's wonderful book Flim-Flam!  The fact is, my students who know "an uncle of a friend" who successfully dowsed for water are being suckered in by the fact that there's hardly anywhere in upstate New York that you won't hit water if you dig deeply enough.

A subtler problem with practices like dowsing is that a lot of people don't understand the concept of statistical significance.  A fine example of this, apropos of dowsing, is a study done in 1988 by Hans-Dieter Betz, in which six dowsers were said to "[show] an extraordinarily high rate of success, which can scarcely if at all be explained as due to chance."  However, the Betz experimental protocol was highly suspect from the beginning -- Betz and his group evaluated 500 dowsers in a preliminary test, eliminated all but the most successful fifty, and then found that of those, six of them scored much better than you would expect from chance alone.

The flaw is not that Betz hand-picked the subjects -- if dowsing works, presumably some individuals would be better at it than others, being more in touch with the "universal mind," or whatever.  The problem is that even if success at dowsing is pure probability -- i.e., it doesn't work at all except by chance -- some people will do astonishingly well, and that fact means exactly nothing at all.  To explain this a little more simply, let's suppose that we had a thousand people take a random, hundred-question test consisting of four-choice multiple-choice items.  There is no skill involved; you just fill in a paper with a hundred random A's, B's, C's, and D's, and it's graded against an equally random key.  What's your likely score?

Well, 25%, of course, would be the likeliest outcome.  You have a 1/4 chance of getting each question "right," so you would be expected to score somewhere around a 25%.  The problem is, that's just the most likely score; that's not necessarily your score.  In fact, you might score far better than that, or far worse; 25% is just the average score.  In a large enough sample of test-takers, some people would seem to score amazingly well, and it's not that they're psychic, or brought their dowsing rods along to point at the correct answers, or anything; it's just a probabilistic effect.

Same with the dowsers.  Jim Enright, a prominent skeptic, criticized the Betz study, and showed statistically that in a group of 500 dowsers, you'd expect that six or so of them would be high scorers, just by random chance.  Enright described the Betz study not as proving that dowsing is a real phenomenon, but as "the most convincing disproof imaginable that dowsers can do what they claim."  Six above-average scorers out of a sample of 500 is simply not a statistically significant finding.

So, what we have here is a phenomenon that has (1) no empirical evidence in its favor, (2) no scientifically reasonable explanation about how it could work, and (3) a cogent argument that explains away cases where it has seemed to be successful.  However, as usual, people are more convinced by a flashy practitioner of mystical arts than they are by talk of probability and scientifically controlled studies, so I've no real hope that dowsing will become any less popular.  On the other hand, I suppose if it resulted in your finding a good site for your well, or locating your car keys, then who am I to argue?  As Alexandre Dumas famously quipped, "Nothing succeeds like success."

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Flower power

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link yesterday with the note, "Maybe you need this for your dogs."  So I clicked on it, and was brought to a site called "Flower Essences for Animals."

If you're wondering what a "flower essence" is, then allow me to explain. A flower essence is made by floating flowers in water, and exposing them to the light of the sun, moon, or stars, so that the water is "potentized" -- the "energy vibrations" of the flowers are "transferred to the structure of the water." This then creates a "mother tincture" that can be used to treat physical or emotional problems.

[image courtesy of photographer Hong Zhang and the Wikimedia Commons]

And boy, the people who run this website think that flower essences can do everything but balance your checkbook.  If you understandably would prefer not to risk valuable brain cells by clicking the link yourself, I present here a few highlights:
"Flower essences (remedies) are specially prepared extracts of the flowering parts of certain plants. They work through energy fields to heal stress and disease from the inside." 
"Many other essences have been created around the world, not only from flowers, but also from gems, minerals, animals, butterflies, lakes, sacred earth sites, stars, celestial phenomena, and Ascended Masters. Many of them are very useful in helping our animal companions recover from trauma, injury, and stress. These non-flower essences are often referred to as 'energy' or 'vibrational' essences." 
"Essences heal underlying negative emotional states by 'flooding' the patient with the opposite, positive quality. For example, the essence of Holly is love. Use Holly in any situation where there is a lack of love, such as anger, jealousy, or rage. Similarly, the essence of Rock Rose is courage; it is helpful in cases of deep fears, panic, and terror." 
"Since essences act energetically, not physically, they are completely safe and non-toxic. They cannot be overused or misused, and they are compatible with all other treatments, including drugs, surgery, and holistic treatments like herbs and homeopathy. Even if you give the wrong remedy, it will not have any negative effects, but simply no effect."
This, of course, brings up a few questions, to wit:
  1. How do you make an "essence" of a celestial phenomenon?  "Here, have a few drops of Lunar Eclipse?"  Making an "essence" of an animal is even more problematic.  I know if anyone tried to dose me with Essence of Weasel, I wouldn't be happy about it.  And I don't even want to know how they make an essence of an "Ascended Master."
  2. If you are giving your pet something that is completely safe and non-toxic, can't be overused or misused, is compatible with all other treatments, and can be given to the wrong animal at the wrong time with no effect, isn't it safe to assume that the treatment itself is worthless?
  3. Lastly, who comes up with this stuff?  I mean, come on.  How on earth would putting the reproductive organs of a plant into water and exposing it to moonlight "imprint vibrational energy" into the water?  (Whatever the hell "imprinting vibrational energy" is supposed to mean.)  If you want me to believe this blather, then design me an Vibrational Energy-o-Meter, and show that the needle pegs when you put the sensor in flower essence water, and doesn't respond with plain old tap water.  Until then, this just strikes me as a way to rip off the gullible.
And believe me, it's not that I wouldn't welcome such a thing, if it worked.  I own two dogs, who between them are a walking encyclopedia of canine psychiatric issues.   One of my dogs, Grendel, is a tough-looking, barrel-chested mutt whose appearance has "junkyard dog" written all over it, but whose personality has resulted in our giving him a variety of nicknames, including "CreamPuff," "Mr. Fluffums," and "WussieDog."  He's a cuddler, not a fighter.  Plus, he's terrified of nail clippers, squirt bottles, and other hand-held devices, and runs and hides if we are holding one.  Our other dog, Lena, is a coonhound, and has a brain the size of a Cocoa Puff.  She is constantly cheerful, and has this extremely alert expression, which we did not realize until we brought her home was her way of communicating the idea, "Derp?"  When our son was home visiting last time, he looked out of the window, and said, "Um... Dad?  Lena's staring at a tree."  And sure enough, she was.  Not even looking up into the branches, searching for squirrels; staring at the tree trunk from a distance of about six feet, as if she expected it suddenly to burst into flame or something.

She stared at the tree for almost forty-five minutes, then kind of gave a canine shrug as if to say, "Well, I guess it's not going to do anything interesting today," and meandered off to bark at her own reflection in our pond.

Even given our dogs' rampant mental issues, however, I'm not going to waste my time and money messing around with flower essences.  For one thing, they're not cheap -- in the sites I looked at, small bottles of essences start at $15.99.  For another thing, I'm not eager to support people who are hoodwinking the public with pseudoscientific horseshit for which there is not a shred of hard scientific evidence.

And for yet another thing, Grendel would probably be afraid of the dropper bottle.

Friday, June 16, 2017

We'll discuss this at the meeting

Dave Barry once said, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings'."

To which I say: amen.  We are now at the end of another school year, for which there has been much rejoicing, mostly because it'll be another two and a half months before I have to attend another meeting.  I loathe meetings almost as much as I loathe grocery shopping.  Note that I am not talking about quick, to-the-point meetings, where vital information is conveyed in an efficient fashion. I wouldn't classify those as "fun," but I recognize that they're important.  No, I'm referring to meetings such as "educational training seminars," often run by professional seminar-runners (they probably have a fancier sounding job title, but don't deserve it).  Words cannot describe how much I detest these things.  I hate having my time wasted, I hate being expected to pretend I'm vitally interested in something that is pointless, and I hate being spoken to in a patronizing fashion.  And training seminars usually combine all three.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I thought that this type of meeting was unique to the world of education, but I found out I was wrong.   I was discussing this with Carol, and it seems that nursing training seminars are run pretty much the same way as educational ones are.  Here's the way a typical training seminar runs.  If you've never attended something like this, and you think I'm exaggerating, ask a teacher or nurse and they'll happily corroborate what I'm saying.

"Hi!  I'm Penelope Farklewhite-Smythe, and today's program is called 'Making Schools Better.'  We'll be brainstorming some ideas in just a minute, but first, we'll do an icebreaker activity.  On your table are some stickers with blue, red, green, or gold stars.   Pick up a sticker, and stick it to your forehead.  And then find three people with different color stars than you have, and tell them what you ate for breakfast today!"

*five minute pause to mill around discussing eggs, bacon, and breakfast cereal*

"There, wasn't that fun?  I'm glad no one asked me what I had for breakfast, because I was so excited to come to today's training seminar, I couldn't eat breakfast!"

*overly cheerful grin, followed by a brief pause to wait for laughter, which doesn't come, except for the one person in the front of the room who feels sorry for the presenter and thinks she needs the support*

"Today we'll start by brainstorming some ideas.  I've assigned five people to each table.  Each of you has a job.  One of you will be the Scribe.  Once we've brainstormed some ideas for 'Making Schools Better' the scribe will write down each table's ideas on a piece of butcher paper.  Write in red for ideas that Help Students Succeed, green for ideas that Make Teachers Happy, and blue for ideas that Keep Parents From Voting Down The Budget.  Two of you are the Evaluators.  The Evaluators will critique the ideas.  They will rate each idea with five stars for the Most Important down to one star for the Least Important.  The last two people will be the Presenters, and will present the ideas to the rest of the faculty.  But to make it fun, you'll present each idea using only interpretive dance, and we'll all try to guess what the idea is."

You'd think that at this point, there would be guffaws of laughter, followed by the entire faculty (except the supportive person in the front of the room) standing up and leaving.  Astonishingly, this never happens.  Being obedient little sheep, we all follow right along, bleating softly, writing on the butcher paper and giving ideas four stars and doing the interpretive dances.  Never once have I seen anyone stand up and say, "This is the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard, and I refuse to participate."

Which brings us to Skeptophilia's Two Questions of the Day:
  1. Does anyone actually enjoy these sorts of meetings?
  2. Do the seminar-runners actually think that this is the best way to train professionals?  Or are they really sadists who enjoy annoying the absolute shit out of everyone?
No one I have ever talked to thinks these meetings are interesting, or enjoyable, or productive.  I, and most of my colleagues, leave such training seminars so pissed off that we spend the rest of the day looking for a small furry woodland animal to kick.  I also happen to know that the training seminars our school district has participated in have cost significant amounts of money -- some of these professional seminar-runners make upwards of a thousand dollars for a full day's presentation.   Which, incidentally, answers question #2 -- I doubt they really care if it's the best way to train professionals.  I might not care, either, if I could make a thousand bucks by ordering a bunch of presumably intelligent adults to wander around in a room with stickers on their foreheads talking about breakfast.

I find it frankly baffling, however, that the professional seminar-runners remain in business, given that the general consensus is that these seminars accomplish nothing and are therefore a gigantic waste of money and time.  So someone, somewhere, thinks that these things are productive.  Maybe it's the same people who came up with the idea of "paperwork" as being the best and most efficient way of keeping track of information.