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, September 30, 2016

Winner by a nose

A lot of Trump supporters are frustrated that Their Boy didn't do so well in the debate Monday night.  I mean, it would take a serious pro-Donaldite to feel like his performance was anything but a blustering, sometimes baffling word salad.  It's unsurprising considering his penchant for extemporizing -- a strategy that may play well when you're at a rally composed of your loyal followers, but doesn't exactly work on the national stage while being watched by (allegedly) more people than tuned in to the last Superbowl.

But the problem is, when someone you're counting on doesn't come through, you start casting around for an explanation.  Because obviously it couldn't be your candidate's fault, right?

Of course right.

So first, we had Donald himself blaming his poor showing on a faulty microphone.  How that could have an effect I don't know, given that we could hear him just fine.  Maybe he thought that the mic was magically turning his eloquent words into incoherent babbling like his comments on cybersecurity:
I have a son.  He's 10 years old.  He has computers.  He is so good with these computers, it's unbelievable.  The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough.  And maybe it's hardly doable.  But I will say, we are not doing the job we should be doing.  But that's true throughout our whole governmental society.  We have so many things that we have to do better, Lester, and certainly cyber is one of them.
Yeah!  Okay!  What?

But Trump wasn't the only one to claim that there was fishy stuff going on.  There's a conspiracy theory making the rounds that the moderator, Lester Holt, was deliberately throwing the debate for Hillary Clinton.  And not only that; Clinton herself was signaling him by giving him threatening coded hand gestures by scratching her nose.

I'm not making this up.  According to the video, Clinton scratched her nose six times.  She apparently did this to let Holt know if he was asking questions to Trump that were too easy or ones to her that were too hard, to coerce him into sidestepping awkward topics, and allowing Clinton to (and I quote) "interrupt and score with a zinger."

Never mind that according to a PBS staff writer, Trump interrupted Clinton 51 times in two hours.  Never mind that Trump himself was sniffing constantly during the entire debate, and no one's claiming that he was secretly signaling someone, possibly his coke dealer.


I mean, seriously, folks.  If you don't like Hillary Clinton's politics, that's absolutely fine by me.  But the idea that she was communicating with Holt in code so he could skew the debate in her favor is...

... kind of stupid.

For one thing, Lester Holt is a registered Republican.  Why on earth a registered Republican (who has been a respected figure in journalism since the early 1980s) would throw a debate in favor of a  Democrat is beyond me.  I have a feeling it's beyond the people making the claim, too.  After all, these sorts of things aren't about rationalism and logic, they're about the world conforming to their own personal view of things.

Damn the evidence, full speed ahead.

But even so, I've seen this claim surface on social media more than once in the past couple of days, and mostly the comments have been on the order of "I knew it would be rigged" and a knowing nod.  And this strikes me as a dangerous trend.  It's the approach of the toddler, you know?  If you don't get your way, if your every wish isn't immediately met, it's the whole world's fault.  It couldn't be that you're interpreting things wrong, or (heaven forfend) you might not understand what's going on.

Nope.  Can't be that.  Has to be a conspiracy.

All the more reason for me to stay right the hell out of politics.  I'm always reminded of the quote by Dave Barry: "When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command.  Very often, that person is crazy."

The problem is, in order to get elected, the crazy person also has to have followers.  And they're often even crazier.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

I smell a rat

I think I've made my position on GMOs plain enough, but let me just be up front about it right out of the starting gate.

There is nothing intrinsically dangerous about genetic modification.  Since each GMO involves messing with a different genetic substructure, the results will be different each time -- and therefore will require separate testing for safety.  The vast majority of GMOs have been extensively tested for deleterious human health effects, and almost all of those have proven safe (the ones that weren't never reached market).

So GMOs are, overall, as safe as any other agricultural practice -- i.e. not 100% foolproof, but with appropriate study, not something that deserves the automatic stigma the term has accrued.

There are a great many people who don't see it that way.  One of the most vocal is Gilles-Éric Séralini, who made headlines back in 2007 with a study that alleged that rats fed genetically modified corn showed blood and liver abnormalities.  When the study was published and other scientists attempted to replicate it (and failed), the results of Séralini's study were attributed to "normal biological variation (for the species in question)."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Undeterred, Séralini went on in 2012 to publish a paper in Food and Chemical Toxicology about long-term toxicity of glyphosate (RoundUp) that is still the go-to research for the anti-Monsanto crowd.  He claimed that rats dosed with glyphosate developed large tumors and other abnormalities.  But that study, too, failed in attempts to replicate it, and it was withdrawn from FCT, with the editor-in-chief stating that the results were "inconclusive."

So if you smell a rat with respect to Séralini and his alleged studies, you're not alone.

But there's no damage to your reputation that can't be made worse, and Séralini took that dubious path last week -- with a "study" that claims that a homeopathic remedy can protect you from the negative effects of RoundUp.

So, to put it bluntly: a sugar pill can help you fight off the health problems caused by something that probably doesn't cause health problems, at least in the dosages that most of us would ordinarily be exposed to.

Being that such research -- if I can dignify it by that name -- would never pass peer review, Séralini went right to a pay-to-play open-source alt-med journal called BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  Steven Savage, a plant pathologist, had the following to say about the study:
The dose is absurd.  They gave the animals the equivalent of what could be in the spray tank including the surfactants and the a.i. (active ingredients).  If glyphosate or its AMPA metabolite ever end up in a food it is at extremely low concentrations and never with the surfactant.  Unless you were a farmer or gardener who routinely drinks from the spray tank over eight days, this study is meaningless.
Furthermore, Andrew Porterfield, who wrote the scathing critique of Séralini I linked above, pointed out an additional problem:
Scientists have been sharply critical of the study’s methodology and conclusions... the paper has no discussion on the natural variability in locomotion or physiological parameters, making it impossible to tell if anything was truly wrong with any of the animals.
And if that weren't bad enough, Séralini proposes to counteract these most-likely-nonexistent health effects with pills that have been diluted past Avogadro's Limit -- i.e., the point where there is even a single molecule of the original substance left.  There have been dozens of controlled studies of the efficacy of homeopathy, and none of them -- not one -- have shown that it has any effect at all except as a placebo.

So we have doubtful health problems in animals that were not evaluated beforehand for health problems being treated by worthless "remedies" that have been shown to have zero effect in controlled studies.

Of course, considering how powerful confirmation bias is, I'm not expecting this to convince anyone who wasn't already convinced.  I will say, however, that we'd be in a lot better shape as a species if we relied more on reason, logic, and evidence -- and less on our preconceived notions of how we'd like the world to be.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Algae aura

Can I just say that I am sick unto death of people misrepresenting science?

Some scientist somewhere makes a discovery, and it seems to take only milliseconds before every woo-woo with a favorite loony idea about how the world works is using it to support their claims.  These people have taken confirmation bias and raised it to an art form.

I saw a particularly good (or bad, as the case may be) example of this yesterday in an article by Michael Forrester called "People Can Draw Energy From Other People The Same Way Plants Do," that is getting passed all over social media.  So let me illustrate my point by telling you what some of Forrester's conclusions from this scientific research are, and afterwards I'll tell you about the actual research itself.

See if you can connect the two.

Forrester says that we absorb "energies" from our surroundings.  He never defines what he means by "energy," but I'm pretty sure it's not the standard physics definition, because he includes stuff about being around "negative people."  He cites "psychologist and energy healer" Olivia Bader-Lee, who says:
This is exactly why there are certain people who feel uncomfortable in specific group settings where there is a mix of energy and emotions...  The human organism is very much like a plant, it draws needed energy to feed emotional states and this can essentially energize cells or cause increases in cortisol and catabolize cells depending on the emotional trigger...  Humans can absorb and heal through other humans, animals, and any part of nature.  That's why being around nature is often uplifting and energizing for so many people.
We're then given specific recommendations for how to "absorb and heal" efficiently.  These include:
  • Stay centered and grounded
  • Be in a state of non-resistance
  • Own your personal aura space
  • Give yourself an energy cleanse
  • Call back your energy
I was especially interested in the "energy cleanse" thing, and fortunately, Forrester tells us exactly how to accomplish this:
The color gold has a high vibration which is useful for clearing away foreign energy.  Imagine a gold shower nozzle at the top of your aura (a few feet above your head) and turn it on, allowing clear gold energy to flow through your aura and body space and release down your grounding.  You will immediately feel cleansed and refreshed.
So all I have to do is imagine it, eh?  Given that I work with teenagers, I wish the "owning your personal aura space" was something that would happen if I imagined it.  Teaching a room full of tenth graders is like trying to herd puppies.  Since yelling "BACK OFF" is seldom effective, it'd be nice if all I had to do was to picture my "aura space" (gold-colored, of course) and the teenagers would be repelled backwards in a comical fashion, sort of like Yoda did to Count Dooku at the end of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.

But I digress.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Okay.  So you're probably wondering what scientific research led Forrester and Bader-Lee to come to this conclusion.

Ready?

The discovery by a team of scientists in the Biotechnology Department of Bielefeld University (Germany) that a species of algae can digest cellulose.

If you're going, "Um, but wait... but... how... what?" you should realize that I had exactly the same response.  I spent several minutes thinking that I had clicked on the wrong link.  But no.  In fact, Forrester even mentions the gist of the research himself:
Members of Professor Dr. Olaf Kruse’s biological research team have confirmed for the first time that a plant, the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, not only engages in photosynthesis, but also has an alternative source of energy: it can draw it from other plants.
And from this he deduces that all you have to do to be happy is to picture yourself underneath a gold shower nozzle.

I've seen some misrepresentations and far-fetched deductions before, but this one has to take the prize.

I get that people are always casting about looking for support for their favorite theories.  So as wacky as Forrester's pronouncements are, at least I see why he made them.  But what baffles me is how other people can look at what he wrote, and say, "Yes!  That makes complete sense!  Algae that can digest cellulose!  Therefore aura spaces and energetic vibrations of happiness!

Okay, I admit that I can be a hardass rationalist at times.  But seriously, what are these people thinking?

Not much, is my guess.

So anyhow, watch out for those negative energies.  Those can be a bummer.  But if you're feeling like your vibrations are low, don't despair.  I hear that getting into psychic communication with algae can help.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Witch politics

Is it too much to ask that people leave their bizarre mythology out of politics?

I mean, our political situation at the moment is surreal enough.  We don't need anything to make it more embarrassing to the world at large.

Which is a message that needs delivering to televangelist Jim Bakker.  Bakker hosted an interview with Robert Maginnis, of the Family Research Council, a far-right evangelical organization that was classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010 because of their stance on LGBT issues.  In the interview, Bakker opined that President Obama was showing his preference for Muslims by appointing Abid Qureshi to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. (in Bakker's mind, "one out of hundreds of federal appointments" apparently constitutes a "preference"), when Maginnis made an even wackier pronouncement -- that our federal government is being controlled by witches:
I know that there’s demonic forces in that city.  I have personally met people that refer to themselves as witches, people that say they advise the senior leadership of the country.  We invite within the federal government people to advise us, and often some of those advisers, I think, have evil motivations, things that you and I would not approve of.
Honestly, I doubt the current trend of micromanagement in our federal government has anything to do with witches.  The whole modern Wicca religion has as its principal motto "As long as it harms none, do what you will," which is about as opposite to the government's approach as any I can think of.

But a statement being ridiculous never seems to deter these people.  Because whether it was spurred by Maginnis's remark about witches or not, last week a bunch of evangelicals at the Midwest Vision and Values Pastors Leadership Conference in Cleveland decided to protect Donald Trump from demonic attack by laying hands on him.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Darrell Scott, pastor of New Spirit Revival Center, who hosted the conference, told the audience that a "nationally known minister told Donald Trump that if you choose to run for president, there’s going to be a concentrated Satanic attack against you...  He said there’s going to be a demon, principalities and powers, that are going to war against you on a level that you’ve never seen before and I’m watching it every day."

So to ward off this nasty demonic stuff, Scott’s wife led some of the attendees in a "laying on of hands."

"God we ask you right now that Your choice is this choice," she said.  "God, I ask that you would touch this man, Donald J. Trump.  Give him the anointing to lead this nation."

I have to admit that I find it baffling that the evangelical wing of Christianity has flocked to Donald Trump the way they have.  Aren't adultery and divorce, not to mention hoarding money and refusing to pay people who work for you and admitting in a televised debate that you don't pay your federal taxes, considered sins?  Okay, I get that the right wing Christians would disapprove of Hillary Clinton's stance on gay marriage and pro-choice.  But Trump as a person seems pretty antithetical to everything Jesus preached, including "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's".

Okay, I'm an atheist, so what do I know?  But still, even from my perspective outside of the system, it strikes me as bizarre.

No more bizarre, of course, than claiming that the government is being run by witches.  So I guess whatever else you can say, you have to admire their consistency.  Even if what it means in this case is "consistently batshit."

Monday, September 26, 2016

RNA attack

It's a common strategy.  If simply spouting alarmist rhetoric doesn't cause your target audience to panic sufficiently, throw in some quasi-technical nonsense to make it sound like your position actually has scientific merit.  Unfortunately, it has a way of working, as people like Vani "The Food Babe" Hari discovered when she launched her "if you can't pronounce it, you shouldn't be eating it" campaign, which if it succeeded, would rob your diet of most of its essential nutrients, leaving behind only easy-to-say stuff like "starch."

It's the old "if you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit" approach dressed up in new clothes.  It's a favorite strategy of such anti-science types as the anti-vaxxers and anti-GMOers (who in many cases are one and the same).  Witness the latter's latest sally against the scientific establishment, which revolves around the claim that if you're eating GMO food, it contains RNA (true) and this RNA can alter your own genes (false).

I learned about this bizarre statement from Sterling Ericsson's wonderful blog A Science Enthusiast, wherein we learn that the anti-GMO cadre have gone from the diffuse claim that all GMOs are bad to proposing a specific mechanism by which they do their dirty work -- they contain "engineered RNA" that then can get into your cells and interfere with your normal cellular processes.  And to the non-scientific, even the actual research can certainly sound like the stuff of science fiction; gene-modification techniques like CRISPR, switching genes on and off with RNA interference, inserting DNA from one species into another to generate organisms that express "foreign" genes as they would their own.

[image courtesy of Christopher Bock, the Max Planck Institute, and the Wikimedia Commons]

My objection to the anti-GMO stance has always been that it lies squarely in the midst of the package-deal fallacy; just as our "natural" genes have thousands of different functions, each GMO is different from all the others.  GMOs are no more all bad than genes are, and each one has to be tested for safety individually.  (And they have been, extensively.)  But the addition of the "ingesting engineered RNA" claim adds a whole new layer of pseudoscience to the anti-GMO stance.  Rather than making it stronger, it makes it weaker, and (further) shines a harsh light on exactly how unscientific the claim itself is.

Because all of the food we eat contains nucleic acids, DNA and RNA both.  If you eat lettuce, you're eating (among other things) lettuce DNA and RNA.  If you eat a hamburger, you're ingesting the genetic material from cows (and tomatoes and whatever else you like on your burger).  If you eat "Slim Jims," you're consuming DNA from... well, whatever the hell organism "Slim Jims" are made from.  I dunno.  But presumably it was some kind of living thing at some point that had its own genetic material.

And miraculously, we don't start expression lettuce, cow, tomato, or Slim Jim genes, nor do any of those interfere with our own gene expression.  The reason is that in your small intestine you have enzymes called nucleases that break down the DNA and RNA of the organisms we eat, specifically to prevent us from accidentally incorporating foreign genetic material into our cells, which could cause us to express foreign proteins (depending on what they were and where they were produced, this could certainly be deleterious).  So the DNA and RNA in our food -- which is there even in the most organic-y of organic free-range locavore diets -- never survives the passage through our digestive system intact.

That includes any "artificially engineered" DNA and RNA, because your body can't tell the difference between the genetic material that came from a healthful, natural, non-engineered peach and that which came from BT corn purchased directly from Monsanto.  It all breaks down, natural and artifical alike.  If there's a health effect from eating GMOs, it doesn't come from the DNA and RNA -- it comes from the proteins they produced within the genetically modified organism before you ate it.

And like I said, those have been tested to a fare-thee-well.  But this is not likely to persuade the anti-GMOers, for whom the naturalistic fallacy is very nearly one of the Ten Commandments.

So anyhow, be on the lookout for this.  Call it out for the nonsense it is.  As I've said many times before, you do not make your point stronger by leaning on poorly-understood science.  All you do is make it seem like the rest of your claim has little merit as well -- which in this case, seems to be the truth.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Willful ignorance and Irish slavery

Prompted by yesterday's post regarding the tendency of some people to amplify their feelings into facts (and in the process, ignore the actual facts), a loyal reader of Skeptophilia put me on the trail of a fine, if disturbing, example of this phenomenon: the claim that there were Irish slaves, and they had it worse than the African ones did.

I had seen a version of the claim before, posted on Facebook.  This is the one I ran into:


My impression was that it was just one more in the long line of claims intended to make white people feel like they have no reason to address the sordid history of North America with respect to their treatment of minorities and indigenous peoples.  "Hey, y'all," it seems to say, "we had it bad too, you know."

What I didn't realize until today was that there's a far uglier implication here, made plain in some of the websites where you see the above posted; that not only were the Irish oppressed (a point no one with any knowledge of history would argue), but that Irish immigrants to North America were oppressed by the African Americans.  If you look at those websites -- which I would not recommend to anyone who has a weak stomach or slim tolerance for racist garbage -- you find claims that Africans and Mulattos enslaved, raped, tortured, and killed Irish slaves, especially Irish women, all through the 18th and first half of the 19th century.

The claim is thoroughly debunked by history scholar Liam Hogan, who addresses each piece of the claim, uncovering the bogus nature of the supporting evidence.  Some of the "evidence" is outright falsification; for example, one website uses gruesome photos from Andersonville Prison and the Holocaust and claims that they were pictures of Irish slaves; another shows a drawing of 18th century psychopathic murderer Elizabeth Brownrigg flogging a servant, and claims instead that it is a drawing of a poor Irish slave in the early United States being whipped.  In fact, the claim that the Irish were enslaved at all is mixing up indentured servitude with chattel slavery, a distinction that none of the slave owners back then were confused about in the least.

All of this would be another exercise in believe-what-you-want-to-believe if the whole idea hadn't been taken up by the white supremacists and neo-Nazis.  The "Irish slave" trope figures into the whole mythology you see on websites like Stormfront, revolving around the idea that the whites are in constant danger of being attacked and destroyed by people of color.  And as strategies for convincing followers go, it's pretty powerful.  If you can persuade yourself that white privilege is nonexistent, that the whites all along have had it as bad as the minorities, it is only a short step to the attitude that any demands made by minorities that the whites address institutional racism are ill-founded and unfair.

Frighteningly, that's exactly what's happening.  Donald Trump's running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, has gone on record that institutional racism only exists if we talk about it:
Donald Trump and I both believe that there’s been far too much of this talk of institutional bias or racism in law enforcement. We ought to set aside this talk, this talk about institutional racism and institutional bias, the rhetoric of division.
The Trump campaign chair in Ohio, Kathy Miller (who has since resigned), went even further, blaming President Obama for racism, and claiming that it didn't exist before he became president:
If you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last fifty years, it’s your own fault. You’ve had every opportunity, it was given to you. You’ve had the same schools everybody else went to. You had benefits to go to college that white kids didn’t have. You had all the advantages and didn’t take advantage of it.  It’s not our fault, certainly... Growing up as a kid, there was no racism, believe me.  We were just all kids going to school. 
I don’t think there was any racism until Obama got elected.  We never had problems like this...  Now, with the people with the guns, and shooting up neighborhoods, and not being responsible citizens, that’s a big change, and I think that’s the philosophy that Obama has perpetuated on America.
Well, of course you didn't experience racism, you nitwit.  You're not a minority.  As for the rest of it, this surpasses willful ignorance.  I'm not even sure what you'd call it.  Especially since the interviewer said to Miller that some people would take exception to what she'd said, and she responded, "I don't care.  It's the truth."

So here's a particularly awful example of what I was talking about yesterday; people elevating their own feelings, biases, and prejudices to the level of facts.  Taking the fact that for a white person, talking about racism can be uncomfortable, and using that discomfort as an excuse for believing that racism itself doesn't exist.

Well, I'm sorry, but the world doesn't work that way.  The truth doesn't change because thinking about it makes you feel wonky.  And neither can you substitute your mythology for actual history as a way of whitewashing the role your ancestors (and mine) had in oppressing other cultures.  All that does is perpetuate the very attitudes that created the problem in the first place -- and makes it less likely that our children and our children's children will live in a world where everyone is treated fairly and equitably.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Turning feelings into facts

A couple of days ago, I saw the following screed posted:
Do you think that Obama is intentionally trying to destroy America?  Anyone who doesn't see it or believe it is either blind, or prejudiced because of a like nationality...it's such a shame that our first African American president has done so much destruction to our nation!...  Pray very hard that Trump wins because for all his faults he truly loves his country and we WILL NOT survive Hillary Clinton.
I try like hell to avoid politics here on Skeptophilia, partly because I'm not knowledgeable enough to comment on most political topics, partly because I see most issues of governance as so hopelessly complicated that it's unclear that there even is a solution, and partly because most folks enter any political discussion so completely opinionated that it's hard to see how anything I could say would change anyone's mind on anything.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But this statement was so extreme that it was tempting to post a response, a temptation I successfully resisted.  The comment rankled, though, and ultimately I felt like I had to respond in some way, so here we are with today's topic.

What I find most bizarre about the statement itself is that if you look around you, America is pretty much loping along as it always has, miraculously undestroyed after eight years of Obama's leadership.  And if you dig a little deeper -- by which I mean not simply shrieking an opinion but examining the facts -- you find something even odder.

The Balance, a non-partisan economic and financial media source, just posted an article yesterday that the U.S. economy is pretty healthy -- in fact, the article's author, Kimberly Amadeo, said it's "very nearly a Goldilocks economy."  In the past few years the GDP has grown at an ideal annual rate of between 1.8 and 2.5 percent.  U.S. manufacturing has grown even faster -- up 2.6% this year, and forecast to remain around that rate for the next four years.

What about the deficit?  Since President Obama took office, the deficit has dropped by 2/3, from $1.4 trillion to $489 billion.  (Now, I agree that $489 billion is still a pretty huge number, but at least it's moving the right direction.)

Likewise, the unemployment rate has shown a steady drop, from a high of 10% in October 2009 to 4.8% today.  Even the crime rate -- one of Trump's major issues -- has dropped steadily, and in fact has been on the decline since a peak way back in 1994.  (The same holds true even if you just look at the rate of violent crimes involving guns; so despite the hype in the media, you're actually less likely to be killed by a gun now than you were twenty years ago.)

What about those illegal immigrants "pouring across our borders?"  According to a study by the non-partisan Pew Research Group, the rate of illegal immigration has been stable for years, and in fact was considerably higher in 2007 than it is now.  (You might argue that it's still too high -- but the fact is, it's actually lower today than it was during George W. Bush's presidency.)

Even the common claim that "Obama is comin' for your guns" has turned out to be horseshit.  Look around you.  We're still as heavily armed as ever.

About the only statistics I could track down where Obama's track record kind of sucks is the male/female wage gap (which has barely moved in the past twenty years), the racial wage gap (just a couple of days ago a study by the Economic Policy Institute announced that it's the highest it's been in forty years), and the wealth gap between the richest and poorest (which is going the wrong way -- up -- and has been for thirty years).

So okay, you think that Obama is destroying the nation.  Maybe even deliberately.  Can you show me one metric -- just one -- that shows that that's true?

I mean, I get it if you don't like his policies on pro-choice/pro-life, LGBT issues, and so on.  Those tend to be divisive and engender high emotion.  But if you're trying to tell me that the United States has gone to wrack and ruin in the past eight years, can you show me why?

The whole thing is reminiscent of the interview with Newt Gingrich in which he said that people feel increasingly unsafe from violent crime.  The interviewer said, "Violent crime across the country is down."  Gingrich responded, "The average American... does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer."  The interviewer -- who at this point seemed to be trying to stop herself from laughing in his face -- said, "But we are safer, and it is down."  Gingrich said, "That's your view."

The interviewer said, "No, it's not my view, it's a fact..."

Gingrich interrupted with a patronizing smile and said, "What I said is also a fact."

And this seems to me to be the heart of the problem.  We are at the point that your "feeling" that we're spiraling into chaos trumps my facts that we're not.  Or -- scarily -- that if you're feeling something strongly enough, it becomes a fact.  The world, then, is constrained to fitting into whatever your particular narrative says it is.

Which is all very well until people start voting on the basis of ignoring facts and relying on feelings -- because that is a strategy that can lead to disaster.