Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Weighty matters

Despite all of the daily litany of depressing and/or fury-inducing news, I'm pleased to say that the scientists are still hard at work showing us more of the internal workings of the universe, giving us better insights into the nature of the cosmos even as most of the rest of us focus on the minuscule doings of one species on a tiny planet around a completely ordinary star in the edge of a spiral galaxy that is one amongst billions.


Not to denigrate my fellow humans, of course.  I rather like being human, and I'm awfully fond of the little floating green-and-blue sphere where I live.  But it's nice to know that while we focus on our petty concerns, we have people who are looking outward, not downward.

The discovery I'm referencing is the observation by LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) of the collision of two neutron stars.  Neutron stars are the phenomenally dense cores of exploded giant stars; their matter is so compressed that, in the famous comparison, one teaspoon of neutron star-stuff would weigh as much as Mount Everest.

What is stunning about this observation isn't just the thought of what it would be like to see two such dense objects collide; in fact, the collision itself is just part of what's fascinating about this event.  Other amazing features are:
  • In the moments before the collision occurred, the two stars were circling their center of mass at a rate of a thousand times per second.
  • The collision not only created gravitational waves and a burst of light across the spectrum, it's thought that such events are what create a lot of the heavy elements in the periodic table.  So yes: the gold in your ring was very likely formed in a cosmic cataclysm.
  • It is possible that the combined mass of the two stars exceeded the mass limit for a neutron star, and after the collision the stars immediately vanished -- became a black hole.  That point isn't settled yet.
The coolest part of all of this, however, is that the light and the gravitational waves from the collision arrived at detectors at the same moment -- showing that gravitational waves do indeed travel at the speed of light, which is one of the predictions of the General Theory of Relativity.  Put simply: Einstein wins again.  

If that doesn't put relativity into the "proven beyond a shadow of a doubt" column, I don't know what would.

The result was a flurry of papers being published, including one in Astrophysical Journal Letters that had 4,500 authors from 910 different institutions -- which surely must be some kind of record.

Daniel Holz, astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, who worked on the LIGO project, said, "I can't think of a similar situation in the field of science in my lifetime, where a single event provides so many staggering insights about our universe."

So maybe it's time to take a step back from the dreary ongoing march of political news and think a little bit more about the bigger picture.  I mean, the really big picture.  The one that encompasses the entire universe in which we live.  And now, because of a cataclysmic event 130 million light years away, one piece of which we are now able to view with greater clarity and understanding.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Merry Christmas mandate

Last week, Donald Trump addressed the "Values Voter Summit," a group of people whose Values apparently include supporting a thrice-married serial philanderer whose main claim to fame is embodying all Seven Deadly Sins in the same person.

Notwithstanding the mindblowing irony of someone like Trump addressing issues of morality, the Values Voters were wildly enthusiastic about the speech.  The part that got the most rousing round of applause was when he informed the Values Voters that he was going to make it legal to say "Merry Christmas" again:
America is a nation of believers, and together we are strengthened and sustained by the power of prayer.  George Washington said that “religion and morality are indispensable” to America’s happiness, really, prosperity and totally to its success.  It is our faith and our values that inspires us to give with charity, to act with courage, and to sacrifice for what we know is right.

The American Founders invoked our Creator four times in the Declaration of Independence -- four times.  How times have changed.  But you know what, now they're changing back again.  Just remember that...  Religious liberty is enshrined in the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights.  And we all pledge allegiance to -- very, very beautifully -- “one nation under God...”  To protect religious liberty, including protecting groups like this one, I signed a new executive action in a beautiful ceremony at the White House on our National Day of Prayer, which day we made official.

We are stopping cold the attacks on Judaeo-Christian values...   And something I've said so much during the last two years, but I'll say it again as we approach the end of the year. You know, we're getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don't talk about anymore.  They don't use the word "Christmas" because it's not politically correct.  You go to department stores, and they'll say, "Happy New Year" and they'll say other things.  And it will be red, they'll have it painted, but they don't say it.  Well, guess what?  We're saying “Merry Christmas” again.
Okay, just hang on a moment.

"People don't talk about" Christmas any more?  Then explain to me why this year the department stores started putting up Christmas decorations in September.  And I'm going to say this loudly, one more time, as plainly as possible:

I know a lot of liberals, atheists, agnostics, secularists, and what-have-you.  And not a single one of them gives a flying rat's ass if you say "Merry Christmas" or not.  The only two things I have ever heard any of them gripe about, apropos of the Christmas season, are the following:
  1. Saying "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas" is polite because it's an acknowledgement that not everyone thinks like you do.  It's a way of saying, "I realize you may have a different set of beliefs, and that's okay."  It's not a slap in the face to Christians, it's not a way of belittling or eliminating Christmas from the national consciousness (hell, the retailers wouldn't let that happen anyhow), and for cryin' in the sink, it's not an "attack on Judaeo-Christian values."  It's simply saying, "I recognize that my beliefs and attitudes are not the center of the whole damn universe."
  2. For the same reasons outlined in #1, Christmas displays should not be put up at the expense of taxpayers.  No one has any objection to privately-owned businesses, much less homeowners, putting up Christmas displays using their own money.  Hell, I'm about as atheist as they come, and I don't care if you want to put up a Christmas display so garish that it interferes with air traffic and then stand on your roof wearing nothing but a Santa hat shouting "Jesus is the Reason for the Season!" at the top of your lungs.  Whatever floats your boat, you know?  But if you're using tax money -- i.e. money collected from all American citizens, regardless of their beliefs -- you shouldn't be putting up displays promoting one religion (or, honestly, any religion at all).
And the whole "America is a nation of believers" thing is more than a little troubling.  What does that imply?  That by not being a believer, I'm not an American?  Or that I should just pack up and leave?  If you think that last bit is just me being alarmist, only two days ago I saw a post of a photograph of a sign in a shop window (don't know where it was taken) that said, "Here, we are ONE NATION UNDER GOD.  We say Merry Christmas.  We defend ourselves.  We salute the flag.  We worship Jesus.  And if you don't like it, LEAVE."


To which I'd respond, if I had the chance: I don't honestly care what you do.  You can live at the church and surround yourself with American flag wallpaper and salute it 24/7 with a gun in each hand, if that's what you want.  But if you imply that I'm not an American -- if, in fact, you're saying I don't have a right to live here -- because I don't do the same thing, I think you're sorely misunderstanding both the Right to Free Speech and the Separation of Church and State.

What it boils down to is that 99% of non-religious people don't object to, or even care, what others believe.  They're more concerned with not having a requirement of belief rammed down their throats. Okay, there are some asshole atheists who do disparage Christianity and Christians, and would love to see religious belief eradicated.  But you know what?  If you think that assholery is limited to the atheists, you aren't looking at other groups very carefully.

But messages of tolerance and live-and-let-live don't sell well to the perpetually outraged members of the Values Voter Summit, who think that Christianity is besieged and that Donald Trump is the Second Coming of Christ at the very least.  So if any people of that stripe are reading this, allow me to reassure you.

Relax.  Chill out.  We atheists have no intention of doing to you what you'd like to do to us.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The shadow knows

One of the most terrifying sleep-related phenomena is sleep paralysis.

I say this only from hearing about the experiences of others; I have never had it happen to me.  But the people I've talked to who have had episodes of sleep paralysis relate being wide awake and conscious, but unable to move -- often along with some odd sensory experiences -- such as feelings of being watched or having someone in the room; hissing, humming, or sizzling noises; a tingling in the extremities that feels like a mild electric shock; a feeling of being suffocated; and (understandably) the emotions of fear and panic.

The reason all of this comes up is an article that appeared over at the site Mysterious Universe last week about "shadow people."  The piece was by Nick Redfern, whose name should be familiar to anyone who is an aficionado of cryptozoology; Redfern has been involved in a number of investigations of the paranormal, and is the author of books such as The Roswell UFO Conspiracy, Shapeshifters: Morphing Monsters and Changing Cryptids, The Real Men in Black, The New World Order Book, and a variety of other titles I encourage you to peruse.

So Redfern has a pretty obvious bias, here, which is why I was already primed to view his piece on the Shadow People with a bit of a jaundiced eye.  Let me let him speak for himself, though.  Redfern tells us that there are these entities that we should all be on the lookout for, and then tells us the following:
Jason Offutt is an expert on the Shadow People, and the author of a 2009 book on the subject titled Darkness Walks: The Shadow People Among Us.  He says there are eight different kinds of Shadow People – at least, they are the ones we know about.  He labels them as Benign Shadows, Shadows of Terror, Red-Eyed Shadows, Noisy Shadows, Angry Hooded Shadows, Shadows that Attack, Shadow Cats, and the Hat Man.
Shadow Cats?  Why only cats?  Cats, in my experience, are already conceited enough that they don't need another feather in their caps.  Of course, the positive side is that Shadow Cats wouldn't be very threatening.  My cats specialized in two behaviors: Sitting Around Looking Bored, and Moving Closer To Where We Are So We'll Appreciate How Bored They Are.  If their Shadow versions are no more motivated, it's hard to see why you'd even care they were around, since Shadow Cats presumably don't eat, drink, or use a litter box.  They'd kind of be a low-impact paranormal home décor item.

On the other hand, I'm just as glad there are no Shadow Dogs, because then we'd have yet another source of the really obnoxious noise that dogs make when they are conducting intimate personal hygiene, a sound my wife calls "glopping."  Our two dogs glop enough, there's no need for additional glopping from the spirit world.

But then there's "Hat Man."  On first glance, that seemed fairly non-threatening, but Redfern tells us that Hat Man is the scariest one on the list:
I sat and listened at my table [at a conference, speaking to an attendee] as he told me how, back in July of this year, he had three experiences with the Hat Man – and which were pretty much all identical – and which were very familiar to me.  He woke up in the early hours of the morning to a horrific vision: the outside wall of his bedroom was displaying a terrifying image of a large city on fire, with significant portions of it in ruins. It was none other than Chicago.  The sky was dark and millions were dead.  Circling high above what was left of the city was a large, human-like entity with huge wings.  And stood [sic] next to the guy, as he watched this apocalyptic scenario unravel from his bed, was the Hat Man, his old-style fedora hat positioned firmly on his head.  The doomsday-like picture lasted for a minute or two, making it clear to the witness that a Third World War had begun.  On two more occasions in the same month, a near-identical situation played out.  It’s hardly surprising that the man was still concerned by all this when we chatted at the weekend.
So he talked to some other people, and more than one person mentioned seeing Hat Man, and always associated with images of doom and destruction.  Toward the end, he mentions the fact that one of the people who'd seen Hat Man suffered from sleep paralysis... which kind of made me go, "Aha."

In a paper by Walther and Schulz back in 2004 entitled, "Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis: Polysomnographic and Clinical Findings," it was found that people who suffered from sleep paralysis showed abnormal patterns of REM and non-REM sleep, and (most interestingly) fragmentation of REM.  REM, you probably know, is associated with dreaming; suppressing or disturbing REM causes a whole host of problems, up to and including hallucination.  Another paper -- Cheyne, Rueffer, and Newby-Clark, in 1999, "Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Hallucinations during Sleep Paralysis: Neurological and Cultural Construction of the Night-Mare" -- has another interesting clue, which is that during sleep paralysis, cholinergic neurons (the neural bundles that promote wakefulness and REM) are hyperactive, whereas the serotonergic neurons (ones that initiate relaxation and a sense of well-being) are inhibited.  This implies that the mind becomes wakeful, but emotionally uneasy, before the brain-body connection comes back online.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem here is that if you're in sleep paralysis, or the related phenomenon of hypnagogic experiences (dreams in light sleep), what you are perceiving is not reflective of reality.  So as creepy as Shadow People are -- not to mention "Hat Man" -- I'm pretty certain that what we've got here is a visual hallucination experienced during a dream state.

Not sure about the Shadow Cats, though.  I still don't see how that'd work.  Given my luck at trying to get my cats comply with rules such as "Stay The Hell Off The Kitchen Counter," my guess is that even feline hallucinations wouldn't want to cooperate.  If you expected them to show up and scare some poor dude who was just trying to get a good night's sleep, they'd probably balk because it wasn't their idea.  Shadow Dogs, on the other hand, would be happy to climb on the sleeping dude's bed and glop right next to his ear.  They're just helpful that way.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Permafrost permayouth

You might have heard about people consuming pills of dried shark cartilage as nutritional supplements.  They're still widely available, in fact.  It's supposed to be anti-carcinogenic.  Why, you might ask, did people get this idea?

Because, the purveyors of shark cartilage pills say, sharks don't get cancer.  So if you grind up shark parts and consume them, you won't get cancer either.

There are just two problems with this practice:
  • Sharks actually do get cancer, something that has been known since at least 1908.
  • Shark cartilage has been tested and found to have no beneficial therapeutic value whatsoever.  It is, however, kind of critical for the shark itself, and the practice of killing sharks for their cartilage has led to widespread decline in sharks in many parts of the world.
This did not stop two of the most prominent cartilage shark spokespeople, I. William Lane and Linda Comac, from writing a book called Sharks Don't Get Cancer When the book was completely trashed by scientists and other reviewers, Lane responded by writing a second book four years later called Sharks Still Don't Get Cancer.

His publisher wisely recommended that Lane eliminate the subtitle he was planning to use, which was So Take That Nyah Nyah Nyah Nyah pfffttptbtbtbtbtb.

As usual, we have people who aren't letting little things like evidence and facts stand in the way of their claim.  You can still buy shark cartilage pills in many pharmacies, including a brand called, I kid you not, "BeneFin."

I bring all this up because yesterday I ran across a story about a woman who is doing something even stupider than consuming shark cartilage to prevent cancer; she is injecting herself with bacteria so she won't age.

It's not just ordinary, garden-variety bacteria, either.  These are bacteria that had been frozen in the permafrost of Siberia for, by some estimates, 3.5 million years, and now have been resuscitated by the thaw.  A Russian professor of geology named Anatoli Brouchkov noticed that the Yakut people who live in the area have a reputation for long lifespans, so he decided that (of course) it had to be because they were drinking melted permafrost water that had the bacteria in it.

Couldn't be genetics, or diet, or anything.

So he treated some plants, fruit flies, and mice with the bacteria, which has been dubbed "Bacillus F."  Brouchkov that they "seemed to have a rejuvenating effect," although gives no details about how he knew.  How do you distinguish between a rejuvenated houseplant and a tired, listless one?  Do non-rejuvenated fruit flies fly about in a dejected fashion?

Be that as it may, Brouchkov is certain enough of his claim that he's drinking water with Bacillus F in it himself.  But an actress who calls herself "Manoush" has gone a step further; she is now injecting herself with the bacteria.

Manoush, best known for such A-list blockbusters as Zombie Reanimation, The Shrieking, Philosophy of a Knife, and The Turnpike Killer, says she started taking the bacteria because like many of us, she's not so fond of the idea of getting old.  "Aging is a disease," she says.  "It is a genetic flaw to me.  Even as a teenager I could never accept the concept of getting older one day.  I don’t care what people think. I will stop at nothing to look and feel younger.  Nothing."

Which, I think we could all agree, would leave us with no option other than injecting 3.5 million-year-old Siberian permafrost bacteria directly into our bodies.

Manoush is absolutely convinced she's now aging backwards.  Me, I'm not sure.  I'm not fond of the gray hair, stiff joints, and crow's feet I've gotten in the past few years, but I don't think the answer is to jump on some loopy idea about anti-aging bacteria.  In fact, injecting bacteria into yourself is kind of a bad idea in general; perfectly normal, ordinary skin bacteria become a serious problem if they get into your bloodstream.  A friend of mine's father, in fact, almost died of a Staphylococcus aureus infection when his thumb got skewered by a rose thorn.

Staphylococcus aureus, I should point out, is a ubiquitous part of our skin flora.  On the surface of your skin, it's harmless.  Inside you, it can result in blood sepsis, which is a quick and spectacularly nasty way to die.

Staphylococcus aureus [image courtesy of the National Institute of Health]

So as much as I'd like perpetual youth, I'm not going to get in line behind Manoush for my bacteria injection.  I'll put up with the gray hair, which I'm told makes me look "distinguished," which isn't as good as "drop-dead sexy," but I guess I'll deal.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The time-traveling drunk from 2048

As if we needed another thing to worry about, today we have: a time traveler from 2048 who has come back to tell us that next year the Earth is going to be invaded by aliens.

According to the story, which I have now been sent 14,398 times, the time traveler is named Bryant Johnson, and he showed up in Casper, Wyoming last week with a dire message for humanity in general, and the president in particular.  (Although it must be mentioned that he asked to speak to "the president of Casper," which is a little peculiar.)  According to radio station KTWO, which broke the story, Johnson was drunk at the time because being drunk helps you to time travel.

Which certainly squares with my experience with alcohol, and also reminds me of the following exchange between Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
Arthur: What are you doing?
Ford: Preparing for hyperspace.  It's rather unpleasantly like being drunk.
Arthur: What's so bad about being drunk?
Ford: Go ask a glass of water.
Johnson being drunk is also why he landed when he did.  Apparently he was aiming for early 2018 and missed.  Just as well; it'll give us more time to prepare for the invasion.

Johnson's not the first person who has ventured into the past to warn us about dire events.  There was John Titor, who back in 2000 and 2001 posted on a number of online bulletin boards that he was a military guy in 2036 who had come back to warn us that there would be a nuclear war in 2004 that would cause the government of the United States to fall, which would be terrifying if it hadn't turned out to be completely wrong.  And it's not like Titor's warning caused us to do anything differently; I don't see any evidence that humanity's overall derpy behavior changed in any way following Titor's pronouncements.

Then there's Håkan Nordkvist, a Swedish guy who was fixing his sink and got transported to the year 2042, where he met himself at age 70 and "had a great time," returning with a photograph of him and himself:


I find this upsetting primarily because nothing nearly that interesting happens to me when I work on the plumbing.

Then, we have the "time-traveling hipster" who shows up in a photograph taken in British Columbia in 1941:


The gist of this one is that he's wearing a style of sunglasses that didn't exist back then, which some researchers looked into and responded, in effect, "Yes, they did."  So while his clothing is pretty casual, there's no reason to believe he wasn't from 1941, although admittedly he could be a time traveler anyhow who changed his clothes so as to fit in.  You never can tell.

In any case, I'm not inclined to worry much about this latest person to show up from the future.  For one thing, it was easy enough to check up on him and see if he actually has a past.  Which he does.  And given the fact that most of us have a significant online presence whether we want to or not, it was only a matter of time before something like this appeared:


So there is apparently nothing to worry about next year, invasion-wise.

Me, I'm a little disappointed.  The way things are going, I would welcome our Alien Overlords.  Given the news I read daily, however, I have to wonder why the aliens would want to come here, because as far as I can see, there's no particular evidence of intelligent life here on Earth anyway.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Course correction

I suppose you could say that everything I write here at Skeptophilia has the same overarching theme; how to tell truth from falsehood, how to recognize spurious claims, how to tell if you're being had.  But helping people to do this is an uphill struggle, and just how uphill was highlighted by a meta-analysis published last week in the Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, which had the rather dismal conclusion that we debunkers are kind of fucked no matter what we do.

Of course, being academics, they didn't state it that way.  Here's how the authors phrased it:
This meta-analysis investigated the factors underlying effective messages to counter attitudes and beliefs based on misinformation.  Because misinformation can lead to poor decisions about consequential matters and is persistent and difficult to correct, debunking it is an important scientific and public-policy goal. This meta-analysis revealed large effects for presenting misinformation, debunking, and the persistence of misinformation in the face of debunking.  Persistence was stronger and the debunking effect was weaker when audiences generated reasons in support of the initial misinformation.  A detailed debunking message correlated positively with the debunking effect.  Surprisingly, however, a detailed debunking message also correlated positively with the misinformation-persistence effect.
Put more simply, the authors, Man-pui Sally Chan, Christopher R. Jones, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania, and Dolores Albarracín of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that when confronting misinformation, a detailed response generates some degree of correction -- but makes some people double down on their incorrect understanding.

So it's yet another verification of the backfire effect, which makes it a little hard to see how we skeptics are supposed to move forward.  And the problem becomes even worse when people have been taught to distrust sources that could potentially ameliorate the problem; I can't tell you how many times I've seen posts stating that sites like Snopes and FactCheck.org are flawed, hopelessly biased, or themselves have an agenda to pull the wool over people's eyes.

It's like I've said before: once you convince people to doubt the facts, and that everyone is lying, you can convince them of anything.

[image courtesy of photographer John Snape and the Wikimedia Commons]

"The effect of misinformation is very strong," said co-author Dolores Albarracín.  "When you present it, people buy it.  But we also asked whether we are able to correct for misinformation.  Generally, some degree of correction is possible but it’s very difficult to completely correct."

The authors weren't completely doom-and-gloom, however, and made three specific recommendations for people dedicated to skepticism and the truth.  These are:
  • Reduce arguments that support misinformation: the media needs to be more careful about inadvertently repeating or otherwise giving unwarranted credence to the misinformation itself.
  • Engage audiences in scrutiny and counterarguing of information: schools, especially, should promote skepticism and critical thinking.  It is beneficial to have the audience involved in generating counterarguments -- further supporting the general idea of "teach people how to think, not what to think."
  • Introduce new information as part of the debunking message: give evidence and details.  Even though "misinformation persistence" is strong even in the face of detailed debunking, there was a positive correlation between detailed information and correction of misapprehension.  So: don't let the backfire effect stop you from fighting misinformation.
It may be an uphill battle, but it does work, and is certainly better than the alternative, which is giving up.  As Albarracín put it: "What is successful is eliciting ways for the audience to counterargue and think of reasons why the initial information was incorrect."

I think the most frustrating part of all this for me is that there are biased media sources.  Lots of them.  Some of them (so-called "clickbait") post bullshit to drive up ad revenue; others are simply so ridiculously slanted that anything they publish should be independently verified every single time.  And because people tend to gravitate toward media that agree with what they already thought was true, sticking with sources that conform to your own biases makes it unlikely that you'll see where you're wrong (confirmation bias), and will allow you to persist in that error because you're surrounding yourself by people who are saying the same thing (the echo-chamber effect).

And that one, I don't know how to address.  It'd be nice if the fringe media would act more responsibly -- but we all know that's not going to happen any time soon.  So I'll just end with an exhortation for you to broaden the media you do read -- if you're conservative, check out the arguments on MSNBC every once in a while (and give them serious thought; don't just read, scoff, and turn away).  Same if you're a liberal; hit Fox News on occasion.  It may not change your mind, but at least it'll make it more likely that you'll discover the holes in your own thinking.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

It takes balls

A new restaurant has opened up in the pricy Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo, and it specializes in broth and sushi made from fugu.

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular culinary item, fugu is Japanese blowfish.  If you have heard about this stuff, most likely it's because it is wildly poisonous if not prepared correctly.  Correct preparation means removing all of the poisonous parts, especially the testicles of the male blowfish, one of which could easily kill an adult.  Don't worry, the website tells us; the reviewer ate some fugu sushi in ramen broth and didn't die.  He goes on, in fact, to tell us that if risking your life to experience the "pleasant, meaty texture" of fugu once wasn't enough for you, you can also order it deep-fried, and furthermore, they sell "canned fugu," which I'm thinking is never going to replace tuna.

I doubt, for example, that when I meet some friends for lunch at our local café, that I would order a fugu melt even if it was on the menu.

[image courtesy of photographer Jarek Tuszynski and the Wikimedia Commons]

In Japan, you have to have a special license to prepare fugu.  Apparently, if you prepare it correctly, it greatly decreases the likelihood that you'll die.  The poison, tetrodotoxin, is one hundred times more poisonous than potassium cyanide.  It is a sodium channel blocker, and as a result paralyzes the muscles, including the heart and diaphragm -- all the while leaving you conscious and aware of the fact that you're dying.  It is only found in particular tissues in the fish, and all of those tissues have to be scrupulously removed in order for the fugu to be safe to eat.  You can imagine, with something that toxic, it doesn't take much of a mistake to kill you -- it's difficult to be sure you've got every last tiny scrap of the poisonous tissue.  This is why in order to serve fugu in Japan, you have to pass a rigorous licensing exam, to show that you know how to cook so as not to kill your customers.

My question is, why would you take a chance like that in any case?  I like risk as well as the next guy, but I'm perfectly happy exercising that part of my personality by skinnydipping and riding rollercoasters.  I'm not so much interested in eating the Toxic Testicles of Death.  

I wish I were making all this up.  In Japan, fugu is considered a delicacy, a word that should immediately raise your suspicion level.  In my opinion, the word "delicacy" is used only to describe food that, under normal circumstances, would never be consumed by anyone who was not participating in a fraternity initiation.  Other foods I've heard described as delicacies are hákarl (Icelandic fermented shark meat, which is described as having "a very strong ammonia-like taste") and lutefisk (a Norwegian fish product produced by soaking whitefish in lye; it is served with a mustard sauce that informed sources tell me "smells exactly like vomit").

On the other hand, in the interest of honesty, I must admit that when I was in Malaysia a couple of years ago, I tried durian, a fruit with such a strong odor that cutting one open is illegal in hotel rooms and on public transportation.  Food writer Richard Sterling describes it as having an "odor... best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock."  Despite this, and probably because my sense of smell is shot after 30 years of working in a biology lab, I tried it... and thought it was delicious.  (The closest I can come to describing the taste is a cross between raspberry yogurt and almonds, but that doesn't really do it justice.)

I wouldn't come close to hákarl or lutefisk, however.  I'm an adventurous eater, a trait I've developed from years of overseas travel, but I do have my limits, and rotten fish is one of them.

Of course, even fermented shark and lye-soaked whitefish only put you in danger of tossing your cookies, or perhaps having your friends and family seriously question your sanity.  Fugu adds the frisson of possibly killing you.  It is the Russian roulette of delicacies.

Me, I don't see the appeal.  Maybe fugu tastes really great, I don't know.  The point is, so does dark chocolate, and you're not risking paralysis, coma, and death from eating it.  Still, I'm sure that people will continue to eat fugu, and people will continue to die.  In fact, in 2015 five men in Wakayama were poisoned when they specifically asked to eat fugu liver, which is one of the toxic bits.  The restaurant was closed, although it seems like this is more a case for a Darwin Award than it is for a citation against the chef.

So if I ever get to visit Japan, which I very much hope I will, I'm not going to try Death Sushi.  I don't really need a boost to my machismo that badly.  I'll stick with dark chocolate, or if I'm ever in Southeast Asia again, pig-shit gym-sock fruit, which really was pretty tasty.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Patchwork

We've had psychic vampire repellent.  We've had people selling "raw water."  We've even had jade eggs that women are, for some reason, supposed to insert into their vaginas.

So the whole alt-med community has really been working overtime lately.  Which is why I shouldn't have been surprised when a loyal reader sent me a link to something called "Amino Neuro Frequency Patches."

I know how you feel, dude.  [image courtesy of photographer Alex E. Proimos and the Wikimedia Commons]

What are "Amino Neuro Frequency Patches," you might ask?  I know I did.  Here's what the website says:
ANF is a revolutionary holistic approach to pain and inflammation.  Practitioners examine the body following the nerve paths and focus on finding the root cause of the patient’s problem.  They apply ANF discs to the skin to reduce pain, remove inflammation and prevent it from spreading via the nervous and lymphatic systems.  They use the discs in conjunction with manual therapy.
I'm guessing the "manual therapy" they're referring to is writing out a check to pay for the discs, and the course you're supposed to take before you're allowed to use them.  (No, I'm not kidding; you actually have to sign up for an online course before they'll send you your patches.)

So how could this possibly work?  The website explains that, too:
It uses a combination of frequency emitting wearable devices, the ANF Discs.  Each disc is applied directly on the skin and activated by the body heat.  They transmit a unique range of frequencies through the neurons in the body.  The nervous system picks up these frequencies, starting a self-healing and self-regulating process.  By improving the nervous system signaling directly at the cellular level, the effect of the treatment is much faster and has remarkable durable results.  The ANF Therapy does not require the use of any drugs or chemicals...  The connection from the patch to the body is made through the nervous system and the seven layers of bio energy the body naturally produces, the patch providing the signal to promote cellular communication to reduce stress and anxiety while restoring imbalances, as an example.
Okay, first, let's get something clear.

Frequency isn't some kind of hand-waving, Cosmic Connection To The Quantum Energy Field concept.  (Now that I think of it, neither are "quantum," "energy," and "field.")  Frequency means the number of times something oscillates in a given amount of time.  It's measured in units called hertz, which is an oscillation per second.

So a kid on a swing has a frequency.  A guitar string has a frequency.  Light has a frequency.

Your intestines do not have a frequency, unless something is making them vibrate, which sounds painful.

Of course, that hasn't stopped people from claiming that they do.  Here's a concise list of some alleged frequencies of different things:
Genius Brain Frequency 80-82 MHz
Brain Frequency Range 72-90 MHz
Normal Brain Frequency 72 MHz
Human Body 62-78 MHz
Human Body: from Neck up 72-78 MHz
Human Body: from Neck down 60-68 MHz
Thyroid and Parathyroid glands are 62-68 MHz
Thymus Gland is 65-68 MHz
Heart is 67-70 MHz
Lungs are 58-65 MHz
Liver is 55-60 MHz
Pancreas is 60-80 MHz
Colds and Flu start at: 57-60 MHz
Disease starts at: 58 MHz
Candida overgrowth starts at: 55 MHz
Receptive to Epstein Barr at: 52 MHz
Receptive to Cancer at: 42 MHz
Death begins at: 25 MHz
Fresh Foods 20-27 Hz
Fresh Herbs 20-27 Hz
Dried Foods 15-22 Hz
Dried Herbs 15-22 Hz
Processed/Canned Food 0 Hz
The amusing thing about this is the implication that the faster something vibrates, the better it is.  If you think that's true, I propose an experiment: I'll sit for an hour listening to someone play the cello, and you sit for an hour listening to someone play the piccolo, and we'll see which one of us has a headache afterwards.

And I have to admit that I burst out laughing when I saw that a can of asparagus doesn't vibrate at all.  How this is supposed to translate into "bad for you," I don't know, although I will agree to the extent that canned asparagus is one of the most disgusting things the human race has ever created.

So once again, we have some completely unscientific horseshit being passed off as serious medical advice.  My recommendation: don't trust anyone whose knowledge of actual scientific terms convinces you that they failed high school physics.  Good rule of thumb, that.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Voodoo in the brain

I'm sure you've heard about the placebo effect, but have you heard of the nocebo effect?

If you know a little Latin, you can guess what it means.  Placebo is Latin for "I will please;" nocebo for "I will harm."  The nocebo effect occurs when you expect something to cause you unpleasant symptoms, and even though what you've consumed is harmless, you experience the symptoms anyhow.

We've known about the nocebo effect for some time.  It gained prominence due to investigations of "voodoo curses," where someone was cursed through a voodoo ritual, and lo and behold, the cursed individual sickens and dies.  Skeptical researchers don't credit this with voodoo actually working; they have come to realize that when a person thinks they're going to become ill, perhaps even die, the expected outcome manifests in the body.

[image courtesy of photographer Marie-Lan Nguyen and the Wikimedia Commons]

A recent study gives us an even better lens into the nocebo effect, and how the brain influences health.  Any medical researcher will tell you that people in clinical trials of medications will often stop taking the pills they were given, usually citing unacceptable side effects.  What is less well known is that a substantial fraction of the people who end up dropping out of the trial actually were receiving an inert substance.

So the control group, in other words.  They were taking a sugar pill, but because they expected to have side effects from the medication, they went ahead and had side effects anyhow.

The most recent study, which was published in Science last week, was the work of four researchers at the University Medical Center of Hamburg, the University of Colorado, and Cambridge University, and had the unwieldy title, "Interactions Between Brain and Spinal cord Mediate Value Effects in Nocebo Hyperalgesia," and it had a fascinating result:

People in the control group of pharmaceutical clinical trials are more likely to have spurious unpleasant side effects if they're told the medication is expensive than if they're told it's cheap.

Furthermore, they have pinpointed the areas in the brain that are responsible for the foul-up.  The authors write:
Value information about a drug, such as the price tag, can strongly affect its therapeutic effect.  We discovered that value information influences adverse treatment outcomes in humans even in the absence of an active substance.  Labeling an inert treatment as expensive medication led to stronger nocebo hyperalgesia [negative side effects] than labeling it as cheap medication.  This effect was mediated by neural interactions between cortex, brainstem, and spinal cord.  In particular, activity in the prefrontal cortex mediated the effect of value on nocebo hyperalgesia.  Value furthermore modulated coupling between prefrontal areas, brainstem, and spinal cord, which might represent a flexible mechanism through which higher-cognitive representations, such as value, can modulate early pain processing.
Which is kind of amazing.  People who experience unexpected side effects are often labeled as hypochondriacs -- i.e., that they know perfectly well they feel fine, and are making up or exaggerating their symptoms out of fear or a desire for attention.  What's really happening appears to be far subtler.  Because of an expectation of harm, the brain actually manifests the symptoms the person feels they're likely to have.  Labeling the medication as expensive increases the subject's sense of having put something unusual into their bodies, resulting in more anxiety and worse side effects.

For me, the most interesting thing about this is the interaction of the brainstem and spinal cord, two parts of the central nervous system that are usually regarded as controlling completely involuntary responses, with the prefrontal cortex, often considered the most advanced part of the human brain -- the part that is associated with reasoning, decision making, and logic.  The fact that a freakout (to use the scientific terminology) in the prefrontal cortex activates a response in the brainstem is astonishing -- and also explains why people who experience the nocebo effect can manifest actual measurable medical symptoms.

And why some of them die.

All of which brings home once again how incredibly complex the brain is.  We're living at an exciting time -- the point where we're finally beginning to understand the thing in our heads that artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky called a "three-pound meat machine."  And, apparently, how easy it is for the machine to get fooled.  Kind of humbling, that.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The girl who loves bugs

After this week, I think we all need something to cheer us up, so today I'm going to tell you about: an eight-year old girl whose passion for entomology led her to co-author an academic paper in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

Sophia Spencer, who is from Ontario, worked with Morgan Jackson, who curates the insect collection at the University of Guelph, to write the paper.  The topic is a fascinating one; how to use social media to make science more accessible and understandable to the public.  The entirely appropriate outcome: the hashtag #BugsR4Girls trended on Twitter.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The whole thing started when Sophia's mother became concerned that teasing from the other kids in elementary school would discourage her from her love for bugs.  So Sophia's mom wrote the following, to the entomological department at the University of Guelph:


The result?  The Entomological Society of Canada got wind of this, and put out a tweet that said, "A young girl who loves insects is being bullied & needs our support.  DM your email & we'll connect you!  #BugsR4Girls."

The response was immediate and overwhelming.  Sophia got tons of support from scientists, and ultimately got into a conversation with Morgan Jackson.  Together they came up with the idea of authoring a paper on the topic of how to use social media in the interests of science -- so that other children who love scientific pursuits won't have to put up with what Sophia did.  She writes:
It felt good to have so many people support me, and it was cool to see other girls and grown-ups studying bugs.  It made me feel like I could do it too, and I definitely, definitely, definitely want to study bugs when I grow up, probably grasshoppers… If somebody said bugs weren’t for girls, I would be really mad at them…  I think anything can be for anybody, including bugs.
To which I can only say: amen.

The happiest conclusion of all this is that Sophia's bullying problems at school have all but evaporated.  When her peers saw the response she got -- not to mention the amazing honor of being a co-author of an academic paper at age eight, which has to be a record -- all of a sudden, Sophia said, she's become "cool."  The kids who teased her for loving bugs now line up to take a look in her microscope and ask her to identify weird and interesting insect life they come across.

All of which supports a contention I have had for years; one of the best ways to find happiness is to discover a true passion, something that you love to do or to learn with no particular thought of utility.  I know my two obsessions -- music and running -- have pulled me up many times after bad days at work, or just general glumness.  Kudos to Sophia for persisting in the pursuit of hers -- and to Morgan Jackson, and the other scientists who responded, for making sure that a girl who loves bugs has an opportunity to fly.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Sounding the dog whistle

Given the other news this week, I think a lot of people have missed the story about a vote on a resolution in the United Nations, to wit, that countries "that have not yet abolished the death penalty... ensure that it is not imposed as a sanction for specific forms of conduct such as apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual same-sex relations... ensure that it is not applied on the basis of discriminatory laws or as a result of discriminatory or arbitrary application of the law... [and] ensure that the death penalty is not applied against persons with mental or intellectual disabilities and persons below 18 years of age at the time of the commission of the crime, as well as pregnant women."

The good news is that the measure passed, 27-13.

The bad news is that the United States was one of the 13.

This puts us in the company of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and China.  The Trump administration has not addressed why the United States voted "no," and at the time of this writing, there is no explanation on the State Department website.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Call me cynical, but this sounds like a dog whistle to the Religious Right to me.  The current administration has made it clear that they are determined to undo every specific protection LGBTQ individuals have, and to place the Bible ahead of the Constitution in determining the law of the land.  No surprise, given Mike Pence as vice president; he went on record as saying that prohibiting same-sex marriage was an "enforcement of god's law," and that if made legal, it would trigger "societal collapse."

My general feeling is that if all it takes to make your society collapse is giving official recognition to the expression of love between two people who happen to be of the same gender, then your society was kind of a house of cards to start with.

A significant number of the members of Trump's cabinet are evangelical; in fact, it was revealed two months ago that five members of Trump's advisory staff -- Pence, Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, Jeff Sessions, and Rick Perry -- attend a weekly Bible study session in a room in one of the government office buildings on Capitol Hill.  Reverend Ralph Drollinger, who runs the study group, is well known for this sort of thing; he runs Capitol Ministries, whose stated purpose is to "evangelize elected officials and lead them toward maturity in Christ."  About Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Drollinger said, "He will go out the same day I teach him something and I’ll see him do it on camera and I just think, 'Wow, these guys are faithful, available and teachable and they’re at Bible study every week they’re in town.'"

Predictably, no one in the administration sees any potential breakdown of the separation of church and state in all this.

But back to the United Nations.  I'm well aware that UN resolutions have no teeth, so even if the United States had voted to support the measure, it wouldn't have made a substantive difference in the way LGBTQ individuals, atheists, and the ex-religious are treated.  But as a symbolic gesture, it sends a hell of a message.  The fact is, we are siding with countries where I, as a blogger who has been openly critical of Islam, would be jailed and flogged at best, and at worst hauled out into the public square and beheaded.

If some member of the faithful didn't murder me first, as has happened over and over to atheist bloggers in Bangladesh.

Oh, but wait: you know what else Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, China, and the United States have in common?  They're all on the United Nations Human Rights Council.  Huh.  Funny thing, that.

In any case, I sincerely hope I'm wrong, that there was some other subtlety I'm missing that triggered the "no" vote.  It's hard for me to stomach the idea that I live in a country whose administration honestly wants to see gay people and atheists killed.  I shouldn't be surprised, however; the current favorite for Jeff Sessions's old Senate seat in Alabama is Roy Moore, who said that "Homosexual behavior is crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one's ability to describe it."

Moore currently is leading his opponent, Doug Jones, by an eight-point margin.  So maybe it's not that outlandish after all.

So until proven otherwise, I'm sticking with my initial conclusion that all of this is about Donald Trump reinforcing his image among the Religious Right as a godly man. I suppose this is understandable enough; heaven knows his actual behavior would never lead you to that conclusion.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Soul singer

A couple of days ago, a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link with the message, "I thought I'd seen it all."

Well, I can say from painful experience, never give the universe an opening like that.  Every single time I think I've found the weirdest, goofiest claim ever, people take it upon themselves to come up with something even loonier.

This is why today we're looking at how Lady Gaga's announcement that she has fibromyalgia was her way of admitting that she'd sold her soul to the Illuminati.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

That, at least, is the contention of a group of people who evidently have been doing sit-ups under parked cars, as reported by Mariel Loveland, writing for Ranker.  These folks claim that the documentary describing the singer's chronic illness, Five Foot Two, was filled with hints about the real cause of the disease.  Loveland writes:
According to Anonymous, at one of these very same Lower East Side Clubs she sold her soul to the Illuminati for fame and fortune.  But Gaga, always one to push the envelope, reportedly went about "donating" rather than selling her soul to the organization.
Which is pretty darn generous.  I know I'd want something in return for my soul, and more than just membership in the Illuminati.  I mean, don't they have some kind of signup bonus?  Like back in the day, when you'd sign up for a checking account, the bank would give you a toaster or something.

So according to Loveland's informant, the Illuminati were waiting for her after a concert, to make her an offer she couldn't refuse.  Here's her alleged account of what happened:
…This man, a strangely ageless man in a suit, spoke to me.  He was leaning against the wall smoking, and he said to me, "I think you've got what it takes. Do you want it?"...  I asked what 'it' was I thought he was coming onto me, but he smiled and said, "Everything.  Success.  Fame.  Riches.  Power.  Do you want it all?"
Kind of tempting, that would be.  So she went for it, and sure enough, she became famous and rich and so on and so forth.  But like Faust and so many others have discovered, you can't just sell your soul to the devil and expect to get off with a slap on the wrist:
[T]his chronic pain is caused by conflicting forces battling for supremacy inside herself...  The singer allegedly wants to "rid her body of the dark spirituality" that she welcomed via "Satanic rituals early on in her career."  These dark forces allegedly cause her chronic pain...  They may give you special powers, outer beauty, talent, and wealth for a while, but it doesn’t last.
And of course, no claim of the Illuminati would be complete without a contribution from Alex Jones.  About a concert where she appeared to float upwards, followed by some flashing lights, Jones said:
They say she’s going to stand on top of the stadium, ruling over everyone with drones everywhere, surveilling everyone in a big swarm.  To just condition them to say "I am the Goddess of Satan" ruling over them with the rise of the robots in a ritual of lesser magic.
Which, I think we can all agree, is the only possible explanation for a pop singer doing something flamboyant.

Then we get to hear all about how Gaga's actual name, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, contains an anagram of the name Lina Morgana, a different pop singer who Gaga supposedly murdered, and how Gaga keeps flashing the All-Seeing Eye symbol during her concerts, either as a sign of her soulless condition or as a desperate plea for help from her fans.  The upshot is that we should all either boycott her concerts, or else rescue her from the Forces of Evil, whichever version you decided to go for.

At that point, my eyes were crossing, so I didn't get any further in the article.

I think what bothers me about all of this is not that loony people have come up with conspiracy theories.  That, after all, is what loonies do.  But here we have this poor woman, who through no fault of her own has contracted a debilitating disease, and she makes a documentary going public with her struggles, and she's repaid by raving wackazoids like Alex Jones claiming that she got her just deserts for taking up with the Bad Guys.

The object lesson here is that fame comes at a price, and I don't mean "your soul."  It means your privacy, and in a lot of ways, your chance at being treated compassionately and empathetically.  All the more reason why I'd never want to be famous, not that it's all that likely in any case.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The skulls speak

Given that everything in the news yesterday made me want to turn off the lights, curl up in a ball in the corner of my office, and whimper softly, today I'm taking a day off from more serious topics.  Ergo: we're going to look at: alien skeletons, and the DNA evidence thereof.

For years there has been buzz in the woo-woo world about the Nazca skulls -- a set of humanoid skulls with frontally-flattened foreheads and elongated craniums.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

To be sure, they're weird-looking, and demand an explanation.  The stick-in-the-mud, fuddy-duddy old scientists have claimed for years that they're humans that were practitioners of (or victims of) artificial cranial deformation, which is known to have been relatively common amongst the natives of Central and South America.

On the other hand, there are lots of people who think they're not human at all, that this is the best evidence we have for aliens.  An advanced extraterrestrial race, they tell us, visited the Nazca area centuries ago, leaving behind not only these skulls but the "Nazca lines," a set of elaborate and huge drawings, the designs of which are really only clearly visible from the air, that some woo-woos (for example Erich von Däniken) think are ancient landing strips for alien spacecraft, even though it's hard to see how you'd land a spacecraft on a landing strip shaped like a monkey.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But as far as the skulls go, scientists now have a way of settling these kinds of questions -- DNA analysis.  So last month they got samples from the Nazca skulls, and also from a mummified body from the same area, studied the DNA, and found out...


We skeptics are absolutely reeling with shock, let me tell you.  The woo-woos, on the other hand... well, let me put it this way: the link I posted, from Disclose.TV, gives you the impression that they were extremely reluctant to tell us the outcome of the tests.  Nigel Watson, a British UFO researcher, still thinks they're aliens, just "extremely closely related to humans."  Dr. Konstantin Korotkov, who made a name for himself a few years ago for claiming that he'd photographed a soul leaving the human body (he hadn't), also weighed in, said that "the DNA didn't come from a chimpanzee or a monkey, but it may not be human, only human-like."

Whatever that means.

The problem with taking that stance is that it fails the test of falsifiability.  A fundamental rule of science is to consider what it would take to prove your claim wrong.  If the answer is "there's nothing that could prove it one way or the other," or -- as in this case -- that any contrary evidence you get, you immediately brush aside as sorta kinda supporting your claim if you tilt your head and squint at it real hard, then you're not looking at a falsifiable claim.

In other words, it's not science, it's confirmation bias and hand-waving speculation.

In any case, for most of us, this conclusively settles the point -- the Nazca skulls, and other frontally-flattened skulls, are 100% certain to be humans whose skulls were squashed as infants, for some unknown reason.  The UFO and extraterrestrials cadre, including the devotees of wingnuts like von Däniken, are going to have to look elsewhere for evidence.

Although given their rather loose definition of the word "evidence," I'm sure they'll find something to fall back on.  They always do.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Lying to your face

My last post was about how reluctant I am to post about politics.  So, predictably, this post is about: politics.

I've been watching the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico with something akin to horror. Not just for the suffering of the people -- which is considerable -- but for the callous indifference with which Donald Trump is addressing the situation.  First responders have said that the extent of devastation is unknown at this time, but we do know that 95% of the island is still without power, almost 60% without potable water, and 72% without access to telephone service.  San Juan's mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, appealed to the federal government for help, and what did Trump do?

Chide the Puerto Ricans for "wanting everything to be done for them."  Point out how far in debt they are.    Pat himself on the back for his "fantastic response" to the disaster.

Others -- most others, in fact -- were not nearly so complimentary.  General Russel Honoré, who headed up President Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was scathing.  "The mayor's living on a cot, and I hope the President has a good day of golf," Honoré said.  "The President has shown again he don't give a damn about poor people.  He doesn't give a damn about people of color.  And that SOB that rides around in Air Force One is denying services needed by the people of Puerto Rico.  I hate to say it that way but there's no other way to say it."

All of which brings up something I've mentioned before; Donald Trump lies every time he opens his mouth.  He has such a tenuous grasp on the truth that columnist Chris Cilizza has said that he's "living in an alternate universe."  Here are a few of the recent lies Trump has told, none of which he's backed down from:
  • FEMA and the first responders in Puerto Rico engaged in a "massive food and water delivery."  The fact is -- and this has been confirmed by people there on site -- there's been no widespread distribution of food and water, because most of the roads are still impassable. 
  • When Mayor Yulín Cruz said that what he'd said was flat out wrong, he lashed out at her, saying that evidently the "democrats had said you must be nasty to Trump."  Any contradictions between what he said and what's coming out of Puerto Rico are false, because the "press is treating him unfairly."
  • His lies don't just center around the hurricane and Puerto Rico.  No, he's been lying for ages.  Another recent one centered around the proposed health care bill.  Trump said, more than once, that the Senate actually did have the votes to pass the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but there was "one senator who is in the hospital."  They didn't, and there wasn't.
  • And, of course, there's been no meddling in anything by the Russians.  At a rally for Luther Strange, who lost his primary bid to take Jeff Sessions's seat in the Senate to the spectacularly right-wing Roy Moore, Trump said it was "... the Russian hoax.  One of the great hoaxes.  Are there any Russians in the audience?  I don't see any Russians."  This, despite the fact that the heads of the FBI, CIA, and NSA, and the former Director of National Intelligence, all agree that there is overwhelming evidence of Russian interference in the election.
  • This pathological lying is not just by Trump himself, but by members of his administration.  Apropos of the proposed tax reform bill, Gary Cohn, director of the White House Economic Council, said, "The wealthy are not getting a tax cut under our plan."  Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin concurred, adding that the bill, if passed, would reduce the deficit by a trillion dollars.  Not to be outdone, Trump himself weighed in, saying that he wouldn't benefit at all personally from the bill.  Howard Gleckman, of the Tax Policy Center, says that all three of these are blatant lies.  "There is no plausible way Congress can fully fund all of the tax cuts in this outline while complying with its constraints on revenue-raisers," Gleckman writes.  "Businesses would receive the biggest tax cuts, which would ultimately benefit the highest income households... Tax cuts for corporations and, especially, pass-through businesses, would mostly benefit the highest-income households."  Of the benefit to the economy, Gleckman was unequivocal:  "Despite the president’s promises, it is implausible that this plan would permanently boost the economy.  Trillions of dollars in lost revenue would add to the federal debt, raise interest rates, and make it more costly for businesses to invest.  Those costs would offset the benefits of lower corporate tax rates and expensing."
  • He said at a rally in Charlottesville that the U.S. had become a "net energy exporter for the first time ever just recently" -- implying, of course, that it was his policies that had caused this.  The problem is, the claim is flat-out false.  Politifact analyzed this statement from every angle they could think of, and no matter how you interpret it, it's wrong.  
And so on and so forth.  And yet... and yet... there are still people defending him.  Today I saw someone post that the well-deserved backlash Trump is receiving because of his petty, nasty, vindictive response to the Puerto Rico disaster is because "they always want to find a way to criticize the United States of America."  No, "they" (whoever "they" are) aren't criticizing the U.S., they're criticizing the President, who has once again shown himself to be a narcissistic asshole who takes any questioning of his words or actions as a personal assault.

Oh, and Puerto Rico is part of the United States of America.  Awkward, that.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So this brings us back to a place we've been before; at this point, defending Donald Trump is to side with a man who has zero respect for the truth, and lies continuously, apparently without any twinge of guilt.  He's warped people's attitude toward the media to the point that all he has to do is shriek "fake news" or "lying reporters" and they believe every word that comes out of his mouth (and disbelieve anything contrary that they see, hear, or read).

In short: supporting this man at this point is unconscionable.  I don't care what your political affiliation is, what race, what religion, or anything else.  If you are still in support of Donald Trump, you are putting yourself behind one of the worst people ever elected to public office in the United States.  And I honestly don't know how you can sleep at night.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Fake news reflex

I have never been one to post political stuff on social media.

For one thing, I don't think it changes anyone's mind.  Besides the fact that most people simply rah-rah the stuff they already believed and ignore everything else, there's also the tendency of folks to read the headline only -- one study that compared clicks to shares found that 59% of the links shared to social media had not been opened by the person sharing them.

Then there's the fact that most of the time, I just don't want to get into it with people.  That may be surprising coming from someone who writes a blog that is sometimes controversial, occasionally downright incendiary.  But when I get on social media, I'm really not looking for a fight.  I'd much rather see funny memes and pictures of cute puppies than to get into a snarling match over, for example, how, where, and how much we should respect the American flag.

Which is why it was ill-advised of me to post a story from Vice that appeared three days ago, describing a move by Trump administration officials from the Department of Justice to argue in the 2nd Court of Appeals that employers should be able to fire employees for being gay.  The case in question, Zarda v. Altitude Express, originated from an incident in 2010 when skydiving instructor Donald Zarda sued his former employer, alleging that his firing had been based solely on his sexual orientation.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Predictably, I found this appalling, and in a moment of pique, I posted it to Twitter, which auto-posted it to my Facebook.  Most of the responses I got shared my anger at the situation, but one of them said, simply, "Fake news."

And no, she wasn't making a joke.  I know that she's fairly conservative, and this kind of heavy-handed federal government interference in the court system runs pretty counter to the Republican narrative of small government and a hands-off approach to local and state jurisprudence, so I'm guessing that she saw that if it were true, it'd be pretty hypocritical.  (More and more, it's become clear that the current administration wants small government until they want big government, and see no contradiction at all in demanding both, practically at the same time.)

So she just called it "fake news" and forthwith dismissed it. 

It's not, in fact, fake news at all.  I know Vice is pretty strongly left-leaning, so it's reasonable to view what they post through that lens; but a five-minute Google search brought me to the amicus curiae brief filed by attorneys for the Department of Justice, and it's exactly what the Vice article described.  Failing that, there were dozens of media sources -- left, center, and right -- that carried the story, and all said substantially the same thing.

(One hopeful note; given how badly DOJ attorney Hashim Mooppan's arguments crashed and burned in front of Appellate Court Judge Rosemary Pooler, it looks likely that the strategy may have backfired rather spectacularly, as an overview of the case in Slate describes.)

So it obviously wasn't "fake news," regardless of your political persuasion or your attitude toward LGBT individuals, discrimination cases, or Vice.  What on earth could prompt someone to say that?  I know the person who made the comment is quite intelligent, articulate, and well-spoken.  We don't agree on much politically, but we've always been pretty cordial to each other despite our differences.

It's a troubling impulse.  Confirmation bias, where you accept claims for which there is little to no evidence because it fits with what you already believed, is as illogical as rejecting claims because they run counter to the talking points from your political party.

In fact, the latter may well be worse, because that immediate, reflexive, knee-jerk rejection of what you want very much not to be true makes you ignore facts that could flag when you've made a mistake -- when you have a belief that, in fact, is not correct.  It insulates you from catching your own errors in judgment, logic, or simple fact.

Which might well be comforting, but it doesn't lead to better understanding.  Me, I prefer to admit I'm wrong and correct the mistake.  As Carl Sagan put it, "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."

And this extends to political arguments which, although they often involve emotions and competing interests, should still be based on actual factual information.  I'll end with another quote, this one from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts."

Friday, September 29, 2017

Thus sayeth the prophecy

I have written daily on this blog for years now, and I still run into crazies that I haven't heard of before.  I guess this isn't that surprising, given that humanity seems to produce an unending supply.  But given the amount of time I spend weekly perusing the world of woo-woo, it always comes as a little bit of a shock when I find a new one.

This week it was John Hogue, who a student of mine asked about, in the context of, "Wait till you see what this loony is saying."  Hogue is a big fan of "Nostradamus," noted 16th century wingnut and erstwhile prophet, who achieved fame for writing literally thousands of quatrains of bizarre predictions.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Hogue believes that just about everything you can think of was predicted by Nostradamus. Let's start with his claim that Nostradamus predicted Saddam Hussein's rise and fall, only (because being a prophet and all, you can't just say things straight out) he called Saddam "Mabus."  How does Hogue know that Saddam is Mabus?  Let's have it in his own words:
Here, for your review are the two core quatrain prophecies about Mabus, the Third Antichrist, indexed 2 Q62 and 8 Q77 in Nostradamus’ prophetic masterpiece Les Propheties, initially published in serialized form between the years 1555 and 1560: 
2 Q62
Mabus puis tost alors mourra, viendra,
De gens & bestes vne horrible defaite:
Puis tout à coup la vengeance on verra,
Cent, main, soif, faim, quand courra la comete. 
Mabus will soon die, then will come,
A horrible unraveling of people and animals,
At once one will see vengeance,
One hundred powers, thirst, famine, when the comet will pass.
8 Q77
L’antechrist trois bien tost annichiliez,
Vingt & sept ans sang durera sa guerre:
Les heretiques morts, captifs, exilez,
Sang corps humain eau rogie gresler terre. 
The Third Antichrist very soon annihilated,
Twenty-seven years his bloody war will last.
The heretics [are] dead, captives exiled,
Blood-soaked human bodies, and a reddened, icy hail covering the earth.
Let us go through the milestones that [show] Saddam... to be candidate number one...
Being a dead candidate is the first and dubious milestone... Saddam was hanged at the 30 December 2006... 
[Saddam's name] can be found in the code name Mabus.  Saddam backwards spells maddas=mabbas=mabas.  Replace one redundant a and you get Mabus. 
Or if you don't like that solution, maybe Mabus is Osama bin Laden, whom Hogue refers to as "Usama" for reasons that become obvious pretty quickly:
Usama mixed around get [sic] us maaus.  Take the b from bin Laden. Replace the redundant a and you get Mabus.
If you take my first name, Gordon, and rearrange it, you get "drogon."  Replace the "o" with an "a," because after all there are two "o"s anyway, and you clearly don't need both of them.  You can get the "a" from the leftover one Hogue had by removing the redundant "a" in "maaus."  Then you get "dragon."  If you take my middle name (Paul) and my last name, and rearrange the letters, you get "a noble punt."

So this clearly means that a dragon is about to attack the United States, but I'm going to kick its ass.

Basically, if you take passages at random, and mess around with them, and there are no rules about how you do this, you can prove whatever you want.  Plus, all of the "prophecies" that Nostradamus wrote are vague and weird enough without any linguistic origami to help you out.  They make obscure historical and mythical allusions that, if you're a little creative, can be interpreted to mean damn near anything. Here's one I picked at random (Century X, Quatrain 71):
The earth and air will freeze a very great sea,
When they will come to venerate Thursday:
That which will be, never was it so fair,
From the four parts they will come to honor it.
What does that mean?  Beats the hell out of me.  I'm guessing that you could apply it to a variety of situations, as long as you were willing to interpret it loosely and let the images stand for whatever you want them to.  Me, I think it has to do with the upcoming apocalypse on October 21.  Oh, and that climate change is a lie, because the sea is going to freeze.  I'm sure that the Planet Nibiru and global conspiracies are somehow involved, too.

What I find amazing is that there are literally thousands of websites, books, and films out there that claim to give the correct interpretation of Nostradamus' wacky poetry.  Some of them take a religious bent, and try to tie them into scripture, especially the Book of Revelation; some try to link them to historical events, an especially popular one being World War II; others, even further off the deep end, try to use them to predict future catastrophes.  These last at least put the writers on safer ground, because you can't accuse someone being wrong if they're using arcane poetry to make guesses about things that haven't happened yet.

In any case, I'm doubtful that Nostradamus knew anything about Saddam Hussein, any more than he predicted World War II, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the assassination of JFK, or any of the hundreds of other things he's alleged to have forecast.  All we have here is once again, people taking vague language and jamming it into the mold of their own preconceived notions of what it means.  About John Hogue himself, I'm reminded of the words of the Roman writer Cicero, who said, "I don't know how two augurs can look each other in the face while passing in the street without laughing out loud."