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.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Tactical assault weasel

So the Large Hadron Collider is having problems again, this time because a weasel chewed through a power cord and shut down the whole operation.

I am not making this up.  Nor is this the first time that an animal has wrought havoc with the world's largest particle accelerator.  In 2009, a gull dropped a baguette on "critical electrical systems," and shorted the whole thing out, causing damage that required several months to repair.

These sorts of things have caused an immediate bout of eyebrow-raising amongst the woo-woos, who tend to have the belief that nothing happens by accident.  If oddball problems arise, then it is not simply because the world is a bizarre and chaotic place (an observation that in my opinion explains a good 90% of the weird events that happen).  It is an indication of a conspiracy, or a bad omen at the very least.

And the fact that twice, animals have shut down the LHC?  That can't be happenstance.

And as I predicted, already the wingnuts are beginning to ferment with speculation regarding the possible explanations for the recent Weasel Attack.  Here are a few selected comments from online news sources that carried the story:
  • What would make a weasle [sic] eat a power cord?  There's something they're not telling us.
  • This isn't the only time this has happened.  A few years ago a seagull damaged the Large Hardon [sic] collider and now its [sic] happened again.  Nature and God are trying to tell us something that we are not supposed to be doing this.  What happens when its [sic] fixed and started up and something goes wrong?  We should take this to mean that the Large Hardon [sic] collider should be shut down permanently.
  • Some scientists believe that this is happening because in the future CERN has created a black hole or something else bad, and they're sending us messages back in time to stop us.  We better listen.
  • We sink billions of dollars into something a weasel can destroy.  How fucking stupid are we?
  • Once was a weird thing to happen.  Twice is too much to be a coincidence.
Okay, let me address a few of these points.
  • Why does a weasel eating a power cord mean there's "something they're not telling us?"  As far as I can see, all it means is "a weasel ate a power cord."
  • I'm sorry, but the mental image I get whenever someone writes CERN's facility as "the Large Hardon Collider" is so hilarious that I can't even stay serious long enough to consider anything else they might say.  I may have a juvenile sense of humor, but there you are.
  • As far as how fucking stupid we are, as a species, I think you can find a whole lot of pieces of evidence along those lines other than building a piece of expensive and fragile equipment.  There are far better examples to choose from of how fucking stupid we are.
  • When one weird thing happens, it can't be a coincidence, because a "coincidence" is when two similar events coincide.  Thus the name.
  • If CERN created a black hole in the future, my guess is that there wouldn't be an Earth around at that point, much less scientists to send a Tactical Assault Weasel back in time to stop it from happening.
Doesn't this have the look of a time-traveling vandal from the future?  [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Be that as it may, Arnaud Marsollier, head of press for CERN, has said that the repairs will only take a couple of weeks.  The Large Hadron [note the spelling] Collider should be back online, and ready to smash atoms and/or end the universe as we know it, by mid-May.

Unless the scientists in the future send some other animal emissary back in time to wreck it again.  Maybe this time with a highly-trained Military Attack Wombat with a strategic banana peel.  You can see how effective that would  be.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Educating your way out of superstition

One of the trends I find the most discouraging is the increase in superstition and religious fanaticism in other parts of the world.

Not that we don't have it here in the United States, mind you.  But I like to tell myself that it's on the wane, whether that's wishful thinking or not.  In a lot of places, however, it's undeniable that violent religious mania is on the rise, and I'm not just thinking about Muslim extremists in the Middle East.  Equally worrying is the explosion in religious-motivated violence in west and central Africa, where the Christians and the Muslims seem to be trying to outdo each other in who can cause the most havoc.

We have Boko Haram in Nigeria and Chad, a Muslim extremist sect specializing in capturing young girls and selling them into what amounts to slavery.  Because that's evidently not spreading misery around effectively enough, Nigerian Christians are also being encouraged by religious leaders to seek out, harass, and kill "witches" -- some of them mere children.

The same sort of thing has been reported from Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, Gambia, Uganda, and elsewhere -- and those are only the cases that made the news.  Hundreds, possibly thousands, of similar cases undoubtedly never get reported.

So it was with tremendous pleasure that I found out that there is an orphanage in Uganda that was founded specifically to combat such practices -- where orphaned children are not only given care, they are raised to respect reason and logic over fear and superstition.

Called BiZoHa, the orphanage is in Kasese District in southwestern Uganda.  It was an outgrowth of the Kasese United Humanist Association, led by humanist leader Bwambale Robert Musubaho, who has spent his whole adult life fighting the zealotry that is commonplace in his country.  "I’m so concerned with how there is massive indoctrination and dogmatism and a brainwashing of the minds of children in orphanages," Musubaho said in an interview with Inverse.  "My goal here is offer an alternative, so that when these children grow up they are in the position to think freely, to be critical of everything.  One of the reasons I was motivated to open this orphanage was to send a message to the people of Muhokya and the world that we people of non-belief also care about the well being of others, especially children."

Which is about as refreshing a message as any I can imagine.  My experience is that if you can train children to use reason to understand the universe, they are set up to approach their whole lives that way.

It hasn't been easy.  Uganda is a staunchly religious country where there is a presumption of religiosity.  Musubaho considers himself an atheist, a stance that most Ugandans cannot even imagine.  "The religious conservatives continue to wonder how one can live without a belief in a god," he said.  "I am not shy when telling them who I am as a person, and I am always proud to call myself a non-believer.  This has given me a platform to tell them that you don’t have to believe in a god or gods to be a good person."

Which, I have found, is an uphill battle even in a country where there isn't an automatic assumption that you belong to a religion.  "How can you be a moral person?" is one of the most common questions I'm asked when people find out I'm an atheist.

As if the only thing restraining people from stealing, raping, and murdering is being under threat from a deity.  Myself, I hope you're refraining from murdering me not solely on that basis.

So as always, the important thing is mutual understanding, and Musubaho is approaching the whole thing the right way.  I strongly urge you, if you are able to afford it, to contribute to BiZoHa.  This is a place where your contributions can make a direct difference for children, and foster a humanist message in a country that is in sore need of it.

And their message is spot-on.  Right in their mission statement are the words, "Rely on Reason, Logic, and Science to understand the universe and to solve life’s problems."  Which is a standard that should be followed everywhere.

Equally poignant is the sign at the entrance to BiZoHa that reads:  "Education is the Progressive Discovery of Our Own Ignorance."

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A panacea for aging

As a relatively healthy 55 year old, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about aging.  I've got creaky knees sometimes, but still run regularly.  I have a few minor issues -- mild high blood pressure that is completely in check with meds, eyesight that used to be better than it is now, a little bit of tinnitus.  But I'm well aware that I've been lucky.

It might be that luck that makes me avoid thinking of things like knee replacement surgery, cataract surgery, heart valve replacements, prostate enlargement.  Worse still, dementia, strokes, cancer.

So put simply: I don't mind aging, I just hate all the stuff that can come with it.

[image courtesy of photographer Chalmers Butterfield and the Wikimedia Commons]

That's why I've watched with interest the research regarding anti-aging therapies.  What we know of the mechanisms of aging has been expanding exponentially; we now have a lot of understanding of the role of telomeres (caps on the ends of chromosomes that shorten as you age, providing a sort of biological molecular clock), apoptosis (pre-programmed tissue death), and oxidative stress (chemical damage from diet and naturally-produced toxic byproducts in the body).  Of these, the telomeres have received the most attention, especially when it was found that reactivating telomerase -- the enzyme that in the young prevents degradation of the telomeres -- doesn't simply halt aging, it can reverse it.

So it was with considerable interest that I read an article that was sent to me by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia yesterday.  Entitled, "First Gene Therapy Successful Against Human Aging," it tells us about a researcher who has performed the first trial of a genetically-based anti-aging therapy -- by testing it on herself.

Elizabeth Parrish, CEO of the gene tech firm BioViva USA, injected herself in September 2015 with two of her company's experimental anti-aging compounds.  One was designed to slow down muscle mass loss, the other to reverse the stem cell depletion that is connected with a whole host of age-related disorders.  The test was ostensibly to demonstrate the safety of the procedure.  But when Parrish was tested in March 2016, it was found that her telomeres had lengthened an amount corresponding with a reversal of aging of about twenty years.

I had to read that part twice, just to make sure I'd read it right.

Parrish, understandably, was elated.  If these results check out, she could well end up a multi-millionaire, if she doesn't end up with a Nobel Prize in Physiology.  "Current therapeutics offer only marginal benefits for people suffering from diseases of aging," Parrish said in a statement. "Additionally, lifestyle modification has limited impact for treating these diseases.  Advances in biotechnology is the best solution, and if these results are anywhere near accurate, we've made history."

Indeed.  Of course, anti-aging therapies open up a whole new realm of ethical problems.  First, how much will they cost?  If the precedents set by the pharmaceuticals industry are any indication, they'll be out of the reach of any but the 1%.  Will they be paid for by insurance?  Unlikely; as much as one could argue that reversing again would, in the long run, save insurance companies money, insurers have not exactly been at the forefront of preventative medicine.  I remember vividly being more than a little outraged when I was preparing for a trip to Southeast Asia, and was told that my health insurance wouldn't cover anti-malarials.  The drugs themselves weren't that expensive -- the issue for me wasn't really the money.  "Don't they see," I fumed, "that paying thirty bucks for a bunch of anti-malaria pills is smarter and far cheaper than paying for combatting an actual case of malaria for the rest of my life?"

But no.  Apparently they didn't see that.  So there's no way, at least at first, that insurance companies are going to spring for anti-aging therapies.

Also, let's suppose that we could slow down aging, to the extent that human life expectancy would be doubled.  From what we know about the mechanisms of aging, what that would mean is that we could expect a much longer period of virtual stasis -- a 120 year old might well look more or less the same as he did at 40.  If this sort of thing became widespread, it'd likely have a serious effect on the world population -- especially when you consider that although women would probably still go through menopause in their forties (the mechanisms of menopause are probably not related to the other factors involved in aging), men would stay fertile for much, much longer.  Unless something went wrong with the plumbing, a 130-year-old guy could well still be fathering offspring.

Then, there's the problem of the economic impact.  What about retirement?  If I at 55 still felt like I did when I was 25, I probably wouldn't be ready to retire from the work world.  But to spend the next sixty years still teaching the same thing in the same school?  I love my job, but for me that falls into the category of "Just shoot me now."  So people would probably have multiple careers, not to mention be much more likely to go back to school to be retrained to do something completely different.

And we'd have to.  No way could the retirement and social security systems, in the United States at least, support a whole bunch of retiring 60-year-olds for the last eighty-odd years of their lives.

There are some upsides.  When an expert individual dies -- a scientist, doctor, researcher, teacher, historian, musician, artist, writer -- that represents an irretrievable loss of information.  People who were making unique contributions to society could do so for much longer, and have much longer to train the next generation.

So the whole thing would turn society upside down.  On a personal level, I won't lie; it's tremendously appealing.  I figure that sooner or later, my luck's bound to run out, and I'll end up with some sort of age-related nonsense to deal with.  We all do, eventually.  But if I could forestall that by another hundred years -- well, all I can say is, sign me up, ethical issues be damned.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Message in a bottle

The possibility of communicating with an alien race has been a mesmerizing idea for decades.  Even if the science fiction movies of the 1950s mostly depicted aliens as bug-eyed dudes with rubber masks who were intent on destroying civilization as we knew it, the fact that there were so many such movies indicates the level of fascination we had even back then.

Then came the 60s, and Lost in Space, which was so abysmally bad as to be comical, but which had one episode in the first season called "The Sky is Falling" that transcended the idea of extraterrestrial-as-monster; it featured a family of silent aliens (who, to save on makeup and costumes, looked like humans in vaguely Ancient Greek clothing) who were thought to be hostile -- until it turned out that all they wanted was to keep their family members safe, and to meet friendship with friendship.  It was a unique approach back then, and stands out in my mind as one of the best episodes they ever did (not that there was all that much competition in that regard).

Although we've had other horrific concepts of creatures from other planets -- Starship Troopers, Alien, and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to name three -- they're counterbalanced by stories like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and, most strikingly, Star Trek: First Contact, which featured a scene that still strikes me as one of the coolest visual images ever -- the first time a human, physicist Zefram Cochrane, shakes hands with a Vulcan:

My thought, when I saw this movie in the theater when it first came out, was, "This would be the coolest thing ever."

Unfortunately, given the distances involved, it's unlikely that we'll ever be visited -- or that we'll ever visit another star system ourselves.  That doesn't mean we can't communicate, though; all it means is that we have to do it a different way.

The idea of sending a message to the stars is near and dear to the heart of journalist Jon Lomberg, who helped Carl Sagan in the design of the golden disks that were sent up on the Voyager missions in 1977.

This time, though, Lomberg wants to go one step further -- he wants to send a detailed digital message from Earth to the New Horizons probe, currently somewhere out past the orbit of Pluto, with the idea that the probe will then carry the message into space.  Where it is possible that it could be intercepted by an intelligent race of extraterrestrials, and the message decoded.

Lomberg wants contributions of what to say -- so he started a site called One Earth: New Horizons Message where people can submit what they'd say to an intelligent alien if they were in Zefram Cochrane's shoes.  "This will be a message from and to the Earth," Lomberg said.  "The very act of creating it will be a powerful reminder that we all share the same, small planet.  We are truly one Earth."

Which is just immensely cool.  I don't know if I'll submit anything -- I don't know that I can come up with anything profound enough to warrant saying to an alien race, and honestly, in Cochrane's place, I'd probably have been so gobsmacked that I would not have been able to get out anything more articulate than "Ub... ub... ub... ub... ub."  But I encourage you to go to the site if you can think of something better than that.  Maybe your submission will be chosen for transmission to New Horizons, where it will then be stored in memory more or less indefinitely.

And perhaps, one day, the probe will be picked up by a passing spaceship, and the message in a bottle decoded.  You have to hope it'll work out better in the end than it did for the alien race in one of the all-time best episodes that Star Trek: The Next Generation ever did, "The Inner Light."  (I've seen this one several times and still cry like a little girl at the end every single time.  If you've seen it, don't lie -- you do, too.)

So that's today's cool science stuff.  If you decide to submit something, post it here in the comments.  Not only are the aliens eagerly awaiting your message, I have to admit to some curiosity, myself.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

License to hate

I know that social media lends itself to vitriol, but for sheer ugly invective I don't think I've ever seen anything like the posts regarding the controversy over who gets to use the restroom in North Carolina.

House Bill 2, titled the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, was signed into law by Governor Pat McCrory in March.  The bill prohibits transgender individuals from using the restroom for the gender they identify with; they have to use their restroom based on what genitalia they have.

Notwithstanding the fact that it's gonna be hard to enforce -- what are they going to do, have an armed guard outside the restroom making everyone drop trou before they let them in? -- supporters of the bill laud it as preventing "perverts" from going into the "wrong bathroom."  "One of the biggest issues was about privacy," North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore said.  "The way the ordinance was written by City Council in Charlotte, it would have allowed a man to go into a bathroom, locker or any changing facility, where women are -- even if he was a man.  We were concerned.  Obviously there is the security risk of a sexual predator, but there is the issue of privacy."

So the issue of safety for transgender individuals is not a concern?

I'm sorry, gender is not as simple as what equipment you were born with.  There are at least four different biological constructs related to gender -- anatomy, chromosome makeup (XX or XY), sexual orientation, and brain wiring (i.e. what gender you feel yourself to be).  These don't line up the way you'd expect a considerable amount of the time, and that's not even considering the fact that some of these are a spectrum (i.e. bisexuality).  So looking at gender as a black and white, either/or situation is simply ignoring the reality.

The whole thing has been cast as a way of keeping sexual deviants out the bathroom -- i.e., as a way of protecting innocent cisgender people.  The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of people who commit sexual crimes are cisgender; a study by the Human Rights Campaign last year was unable to find a single substantiated case of a sexual crime committed by a transgender person.

What is equally unequivocal is the suicide attempt rate by transgender individuals.  A study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that 41% of transgender individuals attempt suicide, compared to 4.6% for the rest of us.

Wonder why that is?  Maybe it's being on the receiving end of bigoted legislation, not to mention vicious slander in the press every single day, you think?

But none of that seems to matter.  Hype, prejudice, hatred, and invective are the order of the day on this issue.  Just yesterday, Liberty Council President Anita Staver posted a tweet saying that because of the uproar over transgender people using the bathroom, she was planning on bringing her Glock .45 into the ladies' room with her, because it's her "bodyguard."

Odd, isn't it, that the Liberty Council's mission statement "is to preserve religious liberty and help create and maintain a society in which everyone will have the opportunity to discover the truth that will give true freedom."

Except, apparently, if you were born different.  In that case, you can get shot just for looking for a quiet place to pee.

What points out even more starkly the hypocrisy of this stance is that when a high-profile right winger -- former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert -- is accused of sexually abusing four boys, there has been a rush by his colleagues to defend him.   Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said about Hastert that he is "a good, godly man with very few flaws and who doesn’t deserve what he is going through."

So this isn't about preventing sexual crimes.  Just like the Jim Crow laws in the Deep South were never about water fountains.  This is about finding a license to hate people who aren't like you -- and, as DeLay shows, making any number of undeserved excuses for the ones who are.

The vitriol continues.  Just yesterday I unfriended someone on Facebook who posted a meme threatening violence against any transgender person who went into "the wrong bathroom."  I try to be tolerant -- I have friends of various religions (and no religion at all), of all places on the political spectrum, and with just about every ethnic background you can think of.  So as you can imagine, I see lots of things in my Facebook feed that I disagree with.

Which is entirely fine by me.  Liking you doesn't mean always agreeing with you.  But if you imply that you have the right to harass or physically injure someone who isn't exactly like you, that crosses a line in our relationship beyond anything I'm interested in repairing.

For those of you who are still on the fence about the whole "bathroom bill" issue, I have a suggestion.  Find some people in your community who are transgender, and talk to them.  I have had three students who are transgender and who have opened up to me about it, and I can say honestly that I learned more from hearing about their experiences than I could have learned from any number of news articles.  Do you doubt that transgender is real?  Go to a local center for LGBT equity -- most communities have one.  Walk in with an open mind, and get to know real people who deal with this prejudice every single day of their lives.

And until you have the courage to do that, stop posting inflammatory memes on social media.  First, you don't know what you're talking about.  Second, you come off sounding like just as big an asshole as the "separate but equal" bigots did back in the 50s and 60s.

And third, you're missing out on learning about the experiences of people who are not like you.  Which is about as critical a lesson in personal growth as anyone can have.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The right to blaspheme

It's time to quote Voltaire again:

"I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

This is a concept that is apparently new to musician and religious activist Pat Boone, who last week called for criminal charges to be filed against Saturday Night Live over a skit ridiculing the Religious Right's insane persecution complex.

In an interview with Alan Colmes, Boone said:
There is a vitriol, I would say there is almost a hatred, of people who dare to take the old-fashioned truisms, the old traditional stands about moral right and wrong.  They absolutely, they do not want any restriction on what they might do...  There have been restrictions, as you know, the movies, there used to be a censor board in the movies that declared what should be appropriate for family audiences and not.  Then they went to a rating system, which is in a way a regulation...  I think the majority of American citizens, and they ought to be the arbiters, not a few people in robes, it ought to be the American people who determine what they want coming into their homes...  There's an FCC, you know that, don't you?  The FCC does make regulations, it's just a question of what they'll declare off limits...  You cannot do blasphemy, yes...  I think 90% of the American public would say, "Yes, I agree."  And if the public doesn't have anything to say about it -- it's the public airwaves...  [A proper punishment for allowing blasphemy on the air would be to] lose license.  Just like any other law, if you disobey the law, you're punished for it, and you lose the ability to keep doing it...  The network, or whoever's responsible for the shows -- there should be regulations, yes, that prohibit blasphemy.  Now of course it's hard to determine what obscenity, what profanity, what blasphemy is.  But to call God by some profane name -- I think anybody with a rational mind would agree that that's blasphemy.  
This is twisting together so many different threads that it's going to take some thought to tease them apart.  But let's give it a try, shall we?

First, there's the conflation of what's on the air and what is approved for family viewing.  Saturday Night Live is clearly not a child-friendly show; no one claims that it is, and it's on at an hour when most younger people are long asleep.  So talking about "family friendly programming" is irrelevant here, unless you want all programming to be appropriate for five-year-olds (and honestly, this sounds kind of like what Pat Boone wants).

Pat Boone [image courtesy of photographer Gage Skidmore and the Wikimedia Commons]

Second, there's the issue that if people object to what's on television, they have an incredibly powerful recourse: turn the fucking thing off.  My wife and I don't have regular television -- we own a TV and use it to watch Netflix and the like, but we made a conscious decision not to get satellite (we're too far out in the middle of nowhere for cable).  This decision is reinforced every time we're in a hotel and we flip the TV on, do the round of the channels (all hundred-some-odd of them) and discover that amazingly enough, all that's on is garbage.  With lots of commercials.  So if Boone et al. don't like what's on Saturday Night Live, they shouldn't watch it.  No one has them tied to a chair with the television on.

Third, though, there's the deeper issue of free speech.  Let's say the tables were turned, and Pat Boone and his evangelical pals were to make a nasty film ridiculing atheists.  (Some would say that's what Harold Cronk's God's Not Dead actually is, in fact -- portraying atheists as ugly-minded people who set out deliberately to destroy the faith of Christians, and who furthermore have thought processes approximately as deep as a kiddie pool.)  I might not like it.  I pretty certainly wouldn't watch it.  After all, I get enough hate mail here, there's no reason why I would want to subject myself to what is basically an hour and a half long screed sneering in the direction of my particular worldview.

But you know what?  My not liking something is not equivalent to my saying that no one can say it.  If you're religious, you have every right to say that atheism is every awful thing you can think of.  You can do anything up to what would amount in the eyes of the law as slander or libel.  (Those are fairly narrowly defined, and shouldn't be hard to avoid.)  I wouldn't be happy about it, but the First Amendment protects your right to say it.

But the last problem is something that Boone himself touches on -- it's impossible to define obscenity, profanity, and blasphemy, because those are (1) based on personal lines that are different for each individual, and (2) often contextual.  A sex scene in a movie, where it contributes to the plot, is (in my opinion) not obscene.  (In fact, I've written sex scenes in a couple of my novels -- in ways, I hope, that are neither obscene nor gratuitous, but genuinely contribute something to the story other than titillation.)  When it comes to profanity, it is entirely situation-dependent, something I explain every year to my students.  The whole thing about swearing, and the real reason why teachers object to it for the most part, is not because it's inherently wrong, but because you have to learn when it's appropriate.  Saying "fuck you" to a buddy in a funny situation, with a smile, could be entirely reasonable and result in no ill feelings.  Saying the same thing to your boss could get you fired.

Best to learn the distinction early, and err on the side of caution when using strong language.

The hardest one of all is blasphemy.  Some people -- apparently, Boone included -- think that any criticism, any ridicule of religion, is blasphemous.  The Saudis agree; people in Saudi Arabia are routinely whipped, jailed, or beheaded for speaking ill of Islam.

I'm not sure we should be following their example, however.

But that's the difficulty, isn't it?  When does criticism of a religion cross the line into hate speech?  The law as it stands is pretty clear; it's hate speech if it implies "immediate danger or an imminent breach of the peace."  Beyond that, you're free to be as critical as you like.

I may or may not like what you say.  But as long as you don't threaten my person, that is completely irrelevant.

Because that's what "free speech" means.

So Boone, as one might expect, is proposing something that contravenes not only the First Amendment, but any standard we have for separation of church and state.  Because face it; he wouldn't be saying this if it were Islam being ridiculed, would he?

Yeah, thought not.

In our current offense-sensitive culture, you have to wonder if we're moving that way.  Boone and his friends have demonstrated over and over that they have a persecution complex, and want Christianity to receive protections from the law that are offered to no other worldview.

It's to be hoped that our leaders will recognize right from the outset what a slippery slope that is.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Prince, chemtrails, and conspiracies

If you needed any further indication that the woo-woos of the world have no particular concern whether there's any evidence to support their views, witness the fact that there are already conspiracy theories floating around regarding why Prince died two days ago at age 57.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

First, we have Alex Jones, who more and more is looking like he's spent too many hours doing sit-ups underneath a parked car, claiming that Prince died of the "chemtrail flu."  Whatever the fuck that is:
The artist known as Prince has died suddenly of a mysterious illness, just like Merle Haggard, and both men previously spoke out against chemtrails many have suggested are responsible for a surge in respiratory illnesses...  A mysterious illness has been spreading across the U.S., coinciding with massive chemtrail spraying – and it’s possible the two are linked.
Sure.  "Possible," even though the flu is different from chemtrails in that the flu actually exists.

Then we had anti-vaxx wacko Gary Barnes over at the dubiously sane site Truth Kings claiming that no, it wasn't the flu that killed Prince, it was the flu vaccine:
The medical emergency which caused the plane to land [following one of Prince's concerts] remains unclear, but suspicion is now high that Prince was potentially given a flu shot injection or heavy doses of Tamiflu.  Prince suffers from epilepsy, and the flu shot can be deadly for those suffering from that illness.  The key will be the discovery of Prince being given a flu shot, which isn’t clear as of yet.  However the situation seems to reflect such potential.
Right!  There's always the potential for the world to change itself in order to conform to your lunatic views!

But no Parade of Wingnuts would be complete without a contribution from Mike "The Health Ranger" Adams of Natural News, who says that Barnes et al. are crazy -- Prince did not die from a flu vaccine, because Prince was way too smart for that, and knew that flu vaccines are deadly:
I find it highly unlikely that someone who holds a concern about chemtrails would allow themselves to be injected with a flu shot. In his interviews, Prince comes off as extremely well informed about certain agendas, meaning he almost certainly knew full well how vaccines carry an increased risk of autism for people of African-American descent.
Of course.  The way to dispel one crazy rumor is to replace it with an even crazier rumor.

Can I just point out one thing, here?  As of the writing of this post, Prince has not even been autopsied.  All we know is that he was feeling ill for a week before his death.  We have no information about what he was suffering from, nor whether it was potentially life-threatening.  In fact, we have no information at all.

But wait... isn't that suspicious in and of itself?  No information means... a cover-up!  And chemtrails and deadly vaccines and conspiracies!  *pant pant gasp gasp*

Okay.  For fuck's sake, people, can't we wait and actually have some evidence, any evidence, before we start sailing off into the ether?  Oh, never mind; evidence might contradict what they've already decided is true, and we can't have that.

So anyway.  The sane ones amongst us are mourning the passing of another extremely talented and innovative entertainer, the latest in an all-too-long list of inspirational people we've lost in 2016.  As for the rest of the yammering conspiracy theorists out there: just shut up, will you?

Friday, April 22, 2016

Unreal estate

Thanks to a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia, I found out yesterday that those of you who would like a nice place to retire can now buy property...

... on Mars.

I'm not joking, although the people who set up the site may well be.  Here's the idea:
Own an acre of land in our Solar System’s 4th planet; package includes the deed, a map with location of your land, and a Mars info eBook.
Which sounds like it's completely aboveboard, given that it comes with an official deed and an informational booklet and all.

Home, sweet home.  [image courtesy of NASA/JPL]

They go on to give us more details:
Buying land on Mars sounds like a plot line in some futuristic sci-fi flick about billionaires.  In truth, it's a modern-day possibility for thousandaires.  Buy Planet Mars gives astrophiles the chance to buy one acre of land on the Red Planet.  Much like the purchase of a star, Martian Land Packages include a map charting your acre's location, an owner's deed, a NASA report on Mars exploration, and a photo eBook.  These packages are issued digitally, meaning they're available for download immediately after purchase.
Yes, thousandaires, as long as they have more money than sense.  An acre of land on Mars costs $35, which sounds pretty cheap, until you realize that (1) you're never going to go there, and (2) even after you purchase it, you don't really own land on Mars, because (3) the person selling the property on Mars doesn't technically own what he's selling.

Which evidently is not apparent to the 210 people who have paid actual money for this unreal estate.  The seller's Groupon page has a lot of positive testimonials, such as the following:
  • When you can't afford land in California, might as well invest in the future!
  • “It's fun, thought provoking, unique and a great conversation peace [sic] I have never owned property, how could I pass it up?
  • Fun gift, who knows what it could be in the future?
Worthless!  Yay!  Isn't that fun?

Okay, I know I'm coming across as a humorless curmudgeon here.  Which is hardly fair, because I'm not humorless, although my wife contends that I've been a curmudgeon since infancy.  And after all, I'm the guy who was fully in favor of everyone purchasing alien abduction insurance.  (After posting that one, an anonymous reader of Skeptophilia purchased alien abduction insurance for me, and made my dog the beneficiary.)

So maybe I should be encouraging people to buy property on Mars.  You never know, maybe one day we'll have manned missions to Mars, and you could go visit your homestead.  Although this didn't work out so well for Matt Damon in The Martian.  As I recall, it became uncomfortably breezy.  And the upshot of it was that you might want to consider doing something with your land other than potato farming.

Anyhow.  If you've got an extra $35 that you can't think of doing something more productive with, which in my opinion would include using it to start a campfire, you can buy an acre of land on Mars.  If you do, make sure to post here and let me know the details.  I'm especially curious about the deed, because you have to wonder under whose jurisdiction it's being issued.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Silencing the experts

First, we had Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper imposing a rule on scientists mandating that their research pass government approval (i.e., not say anything that contradicts the party line) before they could publish it.  That rule was, fortunately rescinded within nanoseconds of Justin Trudeau winning the election last November, once again allowing scientists to speak to the media freely.

Then, here in the United States, we have such intellectual featherweights as Lamar Smith and James Inhofe at the helm of committees overseeing scientific research -- making about as much sense as putting weasels in charge of a henhouse.  The result has been round after round of budget cuts for scientific agencies, a pledge to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency, and a campaign of harassment against climatologists researching anthropogenic climate change.

Now, presumably because this has all worked out so well for Canada and the United States, the leadership of the United Kingdom are doing exactly the same thing.

According to an op-ed piece by Robin McKie in The Guardian, the Cabinet Office has decided that researchers paid by government grants will be banned from lobbying for changes in laws or regulations.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I'm sorry, but isn't science supposed to inform government, and not the other way around?  The universe really doesn't give a rat's ass if you're liberal or conservative; data has no political spin.  The desperation of politicians to muzzle scientists when the science they're working on is inconvenient for the dominant political agenda is maddening at best and dangerous at worst.  Despite forty years of warnings from the scientific community, we here in the United States have sat on our hands with respect to all of the problems that come with runaway fossil fuel use -- environmental degradation from oil drilling and fracking, skyrocketing levels of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, and a global temperature rise that is predicted by mid-century to melt most of the Earth's remaining on-land ice, raising sea levels enough to inundate nearly all of the world's coastal cities.

And why?  Because of a disinformation campaign waged by anti-science politicians who are being funded (i.e., controlled) by the petroleum industry.  (I can't even bring myself to call them "climate change deniers" any more; at this point, the data are so completely clear that in order to disbelieve in climate change, you'd have to ignore the evidence deliberately and completely.)

Despite all of this, the British government is going ahead with its policy of keeping the experts out of the decision-making process.  As Robin McKie writes:
The government move is a straightforward assault on academic freedom...  [C]ritics highlight examples such as those of sociologists whose government-funded research shows new housing regulations are proving particularly damaging to the homeless; ecologists who discover new planning laws are harming wildlife; or climate scientists whose findings undermine government energy policy.  All would be prevented from speaking out under the new grant scheme as it stands.
Cambridge University zoologist William Sutherland agrees.  "If they go ahead with this new anti-lobbying clause – and they are leaving it very late if they are not going ahead – then we will have many more poor decisions being made by government for the simple reason that it will have starved itself of proper scientific advice."

The illogic of preventing the people who know the most from influencing public policy is apparently obvious to almost everyone except the ones in charge.  "Politicians don’t have to agree with scientists, but does anyone believe we will make better decisions without hearing what the evidence says on flooding, climate change, statins and e-cigarettes?" said Fiona Fox, head of Britain's Science Media Centre.  "The anti-lobbying clause will send some of our best researchers back to the relative safety of the laboratory and away from the media fray they already fear.  That will be a victory for ignorance and a blow for the evidence-based policy that our politicians claim to want."

"Claim" being the operative word, here, because as we've seen over and over again, most politicians are only interested in science if it supports the views that are expedient for their political agenda.

So the whole thing is infuriating, and it's to be hoped that the outcry from scientists and science-minded citizens will overturn this decision.  In other words, that they follow Canada's example, and not the United States', where (by and large) the anti-science types are still running the show.  Here in the US, my fear is that it will take some kind of catastrophe to demonstrate that letting the tail wag the dog is a bad idea -- and by then, it will be too late.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

To the Moon, Alice!

Coming hard on the heels of yesterday's post about the claim that NASA has discovered a "lost day," thus confirming the Old Testament, today we'll look at the claim over at the site Earth We Are One that NASA has detonated a nuclear bomb on the Moon.

My second question, upon reading this, was, "What is up there on the Moon that is worth bombing to smithereens?"  (My first question was, "What the fuck?", which is rhetorical in any case.)  And the answer (to the second question) is:


Of course.

As the writer explains it to us:
According to a set of images and alleged reports, there are alien structures on the surface of the moon, and NASA launched a 2-ton kinetic weapon to destroy them, despite international laws clearly prohibiting it.
Yes.  Article 12, clause 154 of the International Code of Law reads, "Under no circumstances is it legal to use thermonuclear weapons to bomb the shit out of aliens on the Moon."

Then we hear about NASA's LCROSS mission, which stands for "Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite," although according to the Earth We Are One folks, it is clearly nowhere near as innocuous as the name makes it sound.   NASA tells us that LCROSS's goal was to see if there is water ice in a permanently shadowed crater near the Moon's south pole, and its mechanism was crude but effective; the spent upper stage of the satellite ("Centaur") was deliberately aimed on a crash course with the crater.  The idea was that the orbiter would observe the dust plume ejected by the impact, and analyze it for the presence of water.

Which it found, by the way.

But then, NASA made the mistake of publicizing the fact that when Centaur hit the crater, it "released the kinetic energy impact of detonating approximately 2 tons of TNT (8.6 gigajoules)."  Which is, I have to admit, a crapload of energy.  When the conspiracy nuts read this, they ignored everything but "RELEASED ENERGY IMPACT DETONATING," which of course led them to believe that NASA was shooting nuclear weapons at the Moon.

The writer goes on to explain:
According to many ufologists,-and alleged images which show ‘alien’ structures on the surface of the moon- NASAs LCROSS mission had a more militaristic objective rather than scientific.  Many believe that the 2-ton weapon that was detonated on the Moon’s South Pole was aimed at an Alien Base located there.
Righty-o.  A "militaristic objective."  Because NASA can't be telling the truth, obviously.  They never tell the truth.
This “bombed” moon base might perhaps explain why we haven’t been there in recent years, why would we avoid the Moon so much?  We know that it is a place filled with minerals, it has water (and they really needed to bomb it to find out?) and it would make a perfect outpost for anyone who wants to continue the exploration of our solar system and it would also help us get to Mars and beyond.
No, the reason we haven't been to the Moon -- much less, "Mars and beyond" -- is because the nimrods in Congress have cut NASA's budget to the point that it's a wonder they can afford toilet paper.  Hell, we can't even see fit to provide funding for NASA to study the climate, and that's a little more pressing problem at the moment than alien bases on the Moon.

But of course, no claim like this would be complete without a picture:

Nowhere in the article does it say that this is an "artist's conception," so the unwary reader -- which I suspect are the majority of the readers of Earth We Are One -- might think this is a real photograph.  But if it were, you'd think some of us here on Earth would have noticed it happening, don't you think?

On the other hand, those NASA folks are a wily bunch.  I wouldn't put it past them to point away from the Moon and shout "Look over there!" really loudly at the exact moment the nuclear bomb went off.  That's how sneaky they are.

Anyhow.  I think we can be pretty confident that LCROSS is exactly what NASA tells us it is -- a device for analyzing the composition of the Moon's surface.  There is no evidence of aliens on the Moon, which would make it kind of silly for NASA to waste their money sending bombs to kill them.  So I think we need to spend our time on more critical issues, such as how we have ended up with a presidential frontrunner who apparently doesn't know the difference between 9/11 and 7/11.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The missing day

Can I make the not-very-earthshattering observation that if you are explaining evidence supporting a belief, your argument is not made stronger by lying about it?

Especially if that belief is that your own personal religion is not only superior morally, but 100% true?

I'm referring to a story of dubious provenance that has been showing up all over the place lately, mostly on Christian apologetics sites, and then forwarded by people who (1) don't understand how science works, (2) don't know how to do a Google search to check for accuracy, or (3) would prefer something sound good than be correct.  Or all three.  I ran into it via the site Command the Raven, but other versions I've seen are substantially similar.  Here are a few excerpts, edited only for length:
For all you scientists out there and for all the students who have had a hard time convincing these people regarding the truth of the Bible – here’s something that illustrates God’s awesome creation and shows He is still in control. 
Did you know that NASA’s space programmes are busy proving that was has been called ‘myth’ in the Bible is true? Mr. Harold Hill, President of the Curtis Engine Company in Baltimore, and a consultant in the space programmes, relates the following incident: "One of the most amazing things that God has for us today happened recently to our astronauts and space scientists at Green Belt, Maryland. They were checking out the positions of the sun, moon and planets out in space where they would be 100, and 1000 years from now. We have to know this as we do not want a satellite to collide with any of these in its orbits."
So we're off to a flying start, with the claim that NASA has to be very careful to make sure that satellites in orbit around the Earth don't collide with the Sun or Neptune or anything.  You can see how that could happen.
Computer measurements and data were run back and forth over the centuries when suddenly it came to a halt, displaying a red signal, which meant that either there was something wrong with the information fed into it, or with the results as compared to the standards.  They called in the service department to check it out, and the technicians asked what was wrong.  The scientists had discovered that somewhere in space in elapsed time a day was missing.  Nobody seemed able to come up with a solution to the problem.
Which brings up the awkward question of how you'd discover that a day was missing.  Were the technicians sitting around, monitoring the satellite transmissions, and suddenly one of them got this horrified look on his face and said, "Wait... where the fuck did I put last Tuesday?"  Then all of the other technicians and engineers and physicists and so forth all start searching under desks and in storage closets and behind garbage cans and so on, but to no avail.  Last Tuesday is definitely AWOL.
Finally one of the team, a Christian, said: “You know, when I was still in Sunday School, they spoke about the sun standing still…” While his colleagues didn’t believe him, they did not have an answer either, so they said: “Show us.” He got a Bible and opened it at the book of Joshua where they found a pretty ridiculous statement for anyone with ‘common sense’. There they read about the Lord saying to Joshua: “Fear them not, I have delivered them into thy hand; there shall not be a man of them stand before thee.” (Joshua 10:8). Joshua was concerned because the enemy had surrounded him, and if darkness fell, they would overpower him. So Joshua asked the Lord to make the sun stand still! That’s right – “And the sun stood still and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is this not written in the book of Ja’-sher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven and hastened not to go down about a whole
day.” (Joshua 10:13).

The astronauts and scientists said: "There is the missing day!"
So there was much rejoicing.  But then one of them pointed out that it wasn't a whole day that was had been found -- it was only 23 hours and 20 minutes.  Which left 40 minutes unaccounted for, "which could mean trouble 1000 years from now."  Why it isn't trouble now, I have no idea, but concern for our distant descendants sent the NASA folks back on a search for the missing 2/3 of an hour.

And you'll never guess where they found it.

The bible.  See, I told you you'd never guess.
As the Christian employee thought about it, he remembered somewhere in the Bible which said the sun went backwards. The scientists told him he was out of his mind, but once again they opened the Book and read these words in 2 Kings. Hezekiah, on his deathbed, was visited by the prophet, Isaiah, who told him he was not going to die. Hezekiah asked for some sign as proof. Isaiah said: “Shall the sun go forward ten degrees, or go back ten degrees?”  And Hezekiah answered: “It is a light thing for the shadow to go down ten degrees; nay, but let the shadow return backwards ten degrees.”  Isaiah the prophet cried unto the Lord, and He brought the shadow ten degrees backward, by which it had gone down in the dial of Ahaz.” (2 Kings 20:9 -11). Ten degrees is exactly 40 minutes! Twenty-three hours and twenty minutes in Joshua, plus 40 minutes in 2 Kings accounted for the missing day in the universe!
Which would have been the cause for even more rejoicing, if the whole thing hadn't been made up.  I mean, it doesn't take a rocket scientist (a real one, I mean, like they have at NASA) to find the story eye-rollingly ridiculous, but it has been so widely circulated -- I've seen it three times on Facebook just in the last week -- that it actually has a Snopes page dedicated to it.  In it, we find out that Harold Hill was the president of Curtis Engine Company of Baltimore, but that's pretty much the only thing in the story that is true.  First off, Hill wasn't a NASA consultant.  It turns out that Hill was an evangelical Christian with a fairly loose interpretation of the word "true," because he'd read about the "lost day" legend in a book by Harold Rimmer entitled The Harmony of Science and Scripture and decided that the story would carry more punch if he claimed he'd witnessed the whole thing happening.  He embellished his account -- adding, of course, accolades such as "NASA consultant" for himself -- and repeated it many times in public speeches.  He even devoted a whole chapter to it in his 1974 book How to Live Like a King's Kid, apparently because by then, he'd told the tale so many times that he actually was beginning to believe it.

John Martin, Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still over Gideon (1816) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And now with the amazing bullshit conduit that is the internet, the story has roared into life again.  Snopes writer David Mikkelson says about it:
To those who've given over their hearts to God and the Holy Word, this is a deeply satisfying legend.  Faith is, after all, the firm belief in something which cannot necessarily be proved, a quality that can leave believers (especially those who find themselves in the midst of non-believers) feeling unsatisfied.  As steadfast as their certainty is, they cannot prove the rightness of the path they tread to those who jeer at their convictions.  And this is a heavy burden to shoulder.  A legend such as the "missing day explained" tale speaks straight to the hearts of those who yearn for a bit of vindication in this life.  Being right isn't always enough: sometimes what one most longs for is sweet recognition from others.
Which may well be the case, but doesn't take away from the problem of a devout follower of a religion that considers "Thou shalt not bear false witness" as one of its fundamental teachings passing along a story that is essentially one long lie.  It makes me wish that as a corollary of the ninth commandment, Yahweh had seen fit to add, "And this meaneth that thou shalt spend five minutes and do a Google search before thou post this shit on Facebook."

So anyway.  No, NASA is not spending its woefully tiny budget paying scientists to verify the Old Testament.  There's no evidence whatsoever of a "lost day," because against what clock would you be able to verify that time had stopped 3,000 odd years ago?  I'd be much obliged if the people who think that god is going to bless them if they pass along this nonsense would just stop already.  Thank you.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Fire and brimstone

There are times that I believe that whoever is running the universe has a wicked, wicked sense of humor.

Many of you will remember virulently anti-LGBT pastor James David Manning, of the Atlah World Missionary Church, who won the World Championship Weird Diatribe Award in 2014 by saying that no good Christian should patronize Starbucks because they put the "semen of sodomites" in their cappuccinos.  So the guy obviously has a screw loose, but that doesn't stop him from having parishioners flock to his church, nor did it prevent his getting a national venue for defending his epithet-laden, spittle-flecked screeds on Hannity & Colmes.

So I read with interest a new development regarding Manning and Atlah; he stands a good chance of losing his church building because of non-payment of creditors.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Manning, of course, isn't going to take this lying down.  His first response was, "We don’t owe the taxes.  We’re tax-exempt.  We’re a church, for crying out loud!"  Illustrating that he not only has odd attitudes toward sexuality and morality, he evidently doesn't understand the difference between "paying your debts" and "paying your taxes."

But according to Manning, the fact that he owes over a million dollars to various people and agencies is not why his building is being foreclosed.  "This foreclosure is a bogus foreclosure," he said, "inspired by the [New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio administration, probably prompted by Obama, to finally try to shut up my very strong voice against this wicked and immoral activity of sodomy."

So you can imagine what he thought when he found out that the first agency in line to buy the building if he loses it is an organization...

... that helps homeless LGBT youth.

When I heard this, I tried to put myself in Pastor Manning's shoes.  And I think he... I mean, he must be...  it must be such a terrible... um...

BA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA *falls off chair*

Sorry, I couldn't help myself.  This is simply too perfect.  I know that as a staunch, if unorthodox and rather single-minded, evangelical Christian, he doesn't believe in karma.  But seriously.  It's almost like things were set up so as to give his particular sensibilities a painful twist.

Predictably, Manning himself was outraged.  When he found out about this, he held forth with a curse that is bizarre even by his standards:
The next time you get poked in the butt, a flame, when that man pulls that penis out of you, a flame will shoot out of you!  I got the word in my mouth!  You think AIDS was bad?  You ain’t seen nothing yet!  Thus sayeth the lord!  I’m the lord’s servant!  I’m the sodomite slayer!  You gonna see, it’s gonna be a wonder to behold!  You’re gonna see the power of God fall upon Harlem!  Tell these faggots, either they get outta town or flame and fire gonna come outta their butthole.  And anybody that sympathizes with ’em, they gonna have a flame shooting outta their vagina.  You gonna need asbestos panties!  God has sent the word!  Ye shall be justly afflicted!  God will destroy you!
Now I don't know about you, but I think the ability to shoot flames out of your ass isn't an affliction, it's a superpower.  Just think of what that could do!  If some bigoted jerk starts hurling epithets at an innocent gay guy, all he has to do is turn around, drop trou, and toast the sucker.

And I won't even get into how a vaginal flamethrower would be a serious deterrent to rape.

So anyway.   Manning was unhinged to begin with, but at this point it sounds like he's completely lost his grip.  The foreclosure hearing is supposed to occur later this month, so stay tuned.  Because I think that no matter what happens, we're in for some fireworks.

Literal or metaphorical.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Knowing the score

New from the "Merciful Heavens, Please Tell Me We're Not Fighting This Nonsense Again" department, officials at the New York State Department of Education are proposing using student scores on AP exams and the SAT test as a means for evaluating teachers and administrators.

How many times does it need to be said?  Standardized test scores are not a measure of teacher effectiveness.  Okay, if I was completely incompetent, my AP Biology students would probably all tank the exam.  But beyond that, my students' scores are far more indicative of their ability to comprehend technical material, their curiosity, and their work ethic than it is of anything I happen to be doing.  I have had years where every single student in my class has gotten a score of 3 or above (usually sufficient to obtain college credit).  Other years, I have not had a single 5 (the highest score) and a commensurately high number of 1s and 2s.  What happened?  Was I competent one year and completely ineffective the next?

Add to that the fact that the College Board, in their infinite wisdom, completely restructured the exam four years ago, and I don't think the scores actually mean much of anything from the standpoint of what I am doing in class.

The SATs are even worse.  I used to teach SAT math prep courses in the evening until I became so frustrated by the "learn how to game the test" approach of most of the curricula we used that I decided to make extra pocket money a different way.  My considered opinion is that your SAT exam score tells you exactly one thing -- how well you did on the SAT test.  A study two years ago found little correlation between SAT score and success in college.  More troubling still is the fact that the one of the strongest correlations of SAT exam scores is with parental income; on average, students from the wealthiest families outperformed the students from the poorest families...

... by 400 points.

So is the idea here to further penalize teachers and administrators who work in schools in high-poverty areas?  Because that's sure as hell what it sounds like.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

New York State education officials are either unaware of these problems or else are ignoring them.  Ira Schwartz, Assistant Commissioner of Education, said in a memo, "The proposed changes would recognize efforts to encourage student participation and success in college preparation courses."

And unfairly penalize schools and teachers where other factors interfere with student success in these measures.  So Schwartz and Mary Ellen Elia, the State Commissioner, are either being disingenuous or else are once again proposing using standardized test scores as a way of instituting a top-down micromanagement approach that stifles creativity, destroys morale, and virtually eliminates local control.

"In December, the state’s education policymaking body suspended the use of those tests in teacher evaluations for the next four years," wrote Monica Disare in Chalkbeat New York.  "The moratorium is meant to give the education department time to redo the evaluation system.  This announcement, especially the references to SAT, AP, and other exams, offer early signs of how state officials will sort out that task and which new metrics they are exploring."

Also some early signs that what we're looking at is more of the same.  Evidently the Test 'Em Till They Can't See Straight approach, both here and in other states, has not been diminished despite objections from educators and the increasingly powerful opt-out movement.  You have to wonder what would make a difference.  Perhaps when they realize that they're driving experienced teachers from the profession, and discouraging college students from pursuing education as a career.

Or maybe that will just give them the impetus to gut the public school system completely, and replace it with corporate-run for-profit schools designed on the factory model.  Which is increasingly seeming like what they want.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Jones vs. Beck vs. reality

It's always amusing when two conspiracy theorists go for each other rather than spending their time calling the rest of us sheeple.

This time it is Glenn Beck and the fortunately inimitable Alex Jones, who have come to verbal blows -- no physical ones yet, at least that I am aware of -- over the presidential race.

First, we had Beck throwing down the gauntlet when he reacted angrily to political commentator Matt Drudge photoshopping Marco Rubio to look like a midget.  "I don't know what the hell has happened to Matt Drudge," Beck said.  "Ever since he started hanging out with Alex Jones, he's gone to this weird conspiratorial place where you can't even trust the news coming from him any more."

Notwithstanding that Beck himself is a complete fruit loop who appeared in a Huffington Post article three years ago entitled "The Top 9 Glenn Beck Conspiracy Theories," which featured such gems as:
  • Obama advisor Cass Sunstein is a Nazi who is going to create a "Second Bill of Rights," so we all need to buy guns right away.
  • Don't use Google, because They are watching everything you do and you'll end up getting arrested.
  • The Entertainment Industry Foundation -- presumably including honorary board member Rupert Murdoch -- are "Maoists" who are taking over all media to push a communist agenda.
  • President Obama is going to release Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, currently in prison for his involvement in 9/11, as a way of appeasing his Muslim friends in Egypt.
  • The Department of Education, through a secret protocol called "System X," is deploying sensors in chairs in public school classrooms -- and also portable MRI machines -- as a way of collecting information on students for thought control.
Have you noticed a commonality between all of these?  Besides the fact that in order to believe any of them, you'd have to have a quarter pound of Laffy Taffy where the rest of us have a brain?

That's right: none of them actually happened.

But Glenn Beck is too smart to let a little thing like a zero batting average discourage him.  So he has now accused Matt Drudge of taking his marching orders from Alex Jones to discredit Beck's favorite presidential candidates (Rubio and Cruz).

And far be it from Alex Jones to take that lying down.  Especially given that he thinks that Donald Trump represents the Second Coming of Christ at the very least.  So he responded with a diatribe that even by his standards is pretty extreme.  Here's an excerpt:
The cult leader, Glenn Beck, he is now an official religious cult leader.  He’s the false prophet and his messiah is Ted Cruz...  Beck is a cynical, twisted, weirdo who will end up destroying himself. He is an egomaniac, super-narcissist, probably psychotic, in my view, and he’s insane and wants to be a cult leader. 
Moses has returned, you didn’t know?  The two prophets of Revelation, it’s Ted Cruz and Glenn Beck, you didn’t know?  He says it’s a priesthood he’s starting.  Oh yeah?  Oh really?  The liberal, hardcore shock jock that was hired right before 9/11 and gotten ready to come out to be the synthetic Alex Jones?  I’ve been told that by the executives involved where they sat — and he’s an actor — and watched weeks of my videos and shows and said, "Take this and mix it with Oprah." That’s what I was told by the executives that used to run his operation.  He’s a mixture of Oprah Winfrey and Alex Jones, all in a big, weird doughboy’s body.  A cult leader.  A Nellie high priest.  Scared to death, by the way, dozens of security people.
So I guess that told Beck a thing or two.

Me, I find the whole thing hilarious, given that my contention is that they're both a few fries short of a Happy Meal.  After all, do the adjectives Jones used to describe Beck -- egocentric, super-narcissist, probably psychotic -- sound like anyone else you can think of?

Hello, Pot?  This is the kettle...

So anyway.  While the rest of us sit back with a bowl of popcorn to watch the hilarity, two of the conspiracy world's inadvertent comic geniuses do their best to tear each other limb from limb.  Like I said: fine with me.  The more time they spend doing that, the less time they'll have to try to convince anyone else.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Different strokes

So once again, a member of the extreme evangelical fringe of Christianity has launched a campaign against our taking pleasure in something which we are biologically hard-wired to find pleasant.

Mack Major, a Christian writer from Philadelphia who owns the site Eden Decoded, has written an article that claims we shouldn't masturbate because masturbation can "summon a sex demon."

Here's a direct quote, in case you think I am making this up:
There are such things are sex demons.  And the danger in masturbating is that one could inadvertantly [sic] summon a sex demon to attach itself to you through the act of masturbating.  And once that demon attaches, it is difficult to get it to leave.  It will drive you to masturbate, even when you don’t want to. You’ll be hit with urges to play with yourself so powerful that only an orgasm will allow you some temporary relief.
Notwithstanding the fact that if this were true, the millions of teenage boys worldwide would be keeping the sex demons busy 24/7, Major seems convinced that by engaging in what a friend of mine calls "shaking hands with the unemployed" you are writing yourself a one-way express ticket to hell.

Major is also vehemently against any use of gadgets for increasing your enjoyment, even if those are used with a partner.  Erotic toys provide yet another means of ingress for those pesky sex demons:
Many of you who are reading this have sex toys in your possession right now.  And whether you want to accept it as fact or not: those sex toys are an open portal between the demonic realm and your own life.  As long as you have those sex toys in your home, you have a doorway that can allow demons to not only access your life at will, but also to torment you, hinder and destroy certain parts of your life as it relates to sex and your relationships.
Which highlights yet again my disagreement with the devoutly religious over the definition of the word "fact."

Besides the scary sex demons, it turns out that pleasuring yourself can also cause volcanic eruptions, and he's not using that in its justifiable metaphorical sense.  He means literal volcanic eruptions.  He tells us all about the pornographic scenes found on the walls of Pompeii, many of which involved the god Priapus, who was depicted as a naked dude with an enormous hard-on.  And he links that directly to what happened:
He [Priapus] was really popular in the ancient city of Pompeii… The walls of many of the homes and palaces were painted with detaield frescos of very graphic pornographic sexual scenes… Keep in mind that Pompeii was suddenly destroyed and thousands of lives were wiped out in an instant.
So yeah, that was a really unhappy ending.  Be that as it may, it's hard to see the pyroclastic flow from Vesuvius as having anything to do with jacking off, or there'd be a major explosion underneath every adult theater in the United States every single night.  And the headquarters of PornHub would right now simply be a giant smoking crater.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The exasperating thing about all this is that masturbation is 100% normal, nearly everyone does it, it relieves stress, helps you sleep, and (for men) decreases the risk of prostate cancer.  What we have here is simply another way for the extremely religious to make everyone feel guilty, uptight, and anxious over something entirely harmless, and to maintain their control by convincing their followers that they're hellbound if they don't follow the leader's advice to the letter.

Major ends by telling us one last cautionary note:
When we imagine having sex with another via masturbation, we are actually summoning the power of the spirit realm to manifest the thing we are imagining.
Which is patently ridiculous, because if this were true, Kate Beckinsale and Liam Hemsworth would never have a free moment.

So anyway.  My advice is: in the privacy of your own home, do what comes naturally, enjoy it, and find something else to fret about.  I'm guessing that even if there is a supreme deity, he/she/it has much better things to do in Universe Management than keeping track of what you do in your "Alone Time."

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Debate debacle

I have a particular aversion to seeing people humiliate themselves.  I remember as a kid watching sitcoms on television, and when I knew a character -- even one who richly deserved it -- was going to be put in an embarrassing situation, I often couldn't bear to watch it.

Still, there are certain exceptions.  I have to admit to experiencing an emotion that can only be described as "glee" when I heard that Sarah Palin was going to debate Bill Nye on the topic of climate change.

What, it wasn't bad enough that Ken Ham had his ass handed to him in a debate with Nye?  Ham at least is somewhat articulate, even if he doesn't seem to understand the concept of "evidence."  Palin, on the other hand, often seems to be speaking in some weird dialect that involves replacing every third word with a randomly chosen noun or verb.

Either that, or she does her speeches while drunk.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So a Nye vs. Palin debate would basically be Godzilla vs. Daffy Duck.  It would be worth watching purely for the comedic value.

However, I did wonder what Nye thought he stood to gain by debating her.  When your opponent has a fourth grade vocabulary and thinks that saying "You betcha" followed by a finger-gun constitutes a valid talking point, there's nothing much you can do that will have any effect.  Especially given that the topic is science.

So it was with combined disappointment and relief -- along with saying, "Aha.  That makes better sense" -- that I found out that Nye isn't actually debating Palin.

Palin is debating clips from speeches on climate change Nye has made.

So in effect, she'll have a cardboard cutout of Bill Nye standing there, play some carefully chosen sound bites, state her rebuttals, and declare victory.

The whole spectacle is set to coincide with the release of the petroleum-industry-sponsored propaganda piece Climate Hustle, which will be about as scientifically valid as Andrew Wakefield's anti-vaxx film Vaxxed that caused such a kerfuffle when it was pulled from showing at the Tribeca Film Festival.  The difference is that the anti-science climate change deniers and Tea Party right wingers like Sarah Palin are being funded by people like the Koch brothers, who have considerably deeper pockets than the anti-vaxxers do, and therefore far more influence.

Despite my reluctance to watch a long exercise in self-humiliation, I might watch the Sarah Palin climate change "debate."  If for no other reason, to pick up a few more lines like the following, part of a speech in 2011 in which she was trying to talk about the bravery of Paul Revere:
He who warned, uh, the British that they weren't gonna be takin' away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells, and um, makin' sure as he's riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be sure and we were going to be free, and we were going to be armed.
Yeah!  Right!  What?

So I wonder what she'll have to say about anthropogenic climate change.  And whether she can pronounce "anthropogenic."  My advice: tune in on May 2.  When else will you have the opportunity to watch the spectacle of a person being defeated in a debate by someone who isn't, technically, there?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Vaccination vitriol

If you react to people challenging your beliefs by calling them frauds, shills, or sellouts, it's a pretty good indication that you're on shaky ground yourself.

The topic comes up because of the response the anti-vaxxers had to the shift in allegiance of a woman named Carmit, whose decision not to be vaccinated for whooping cough resulted in her newborn contracting the disease.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Carmit realized her role in her infant's illness, and made a plea for pregnant women to receive a whooping cough booster so that others would not have to go through what she and her daughter did.  "I wish I could turn back time," she said.

Her widely-publicized video brought the anti-vaxxers howling out of the woodwork.  Here's a sampling of the vitriol Carmit had thrown her way.

From someone who evidently has never heard of the No True Scotsman fallacy (or punctuation):
[I]f she's a true anti-vaxxer she'd know about viral shedding from a recently vaxxed person coming too close to her baby It's a RED HERRING The PR trolls must be getting desperate to stoop to this crap You can almost see them sitting around their table working out their next strategy to divide and conquer the "troops"
Well, to start with, whooping cough is caused by a bacteria (Bordetella pertussis), not a virus.  And even with a vaccine for a viral disease, you don't "shed" live virus after being vaccinated.  But why bother with science, right?

Then we have someone saying that there's no way that an honest person could have evaluated the facts and changed her mind:
What a crock of crap.  No anti vaxxer upon learning the truth, there is no going back... ever. 
Then she started to have accusations of being a fake, someone hired by the hospital or the pharmaceuticals industry to hoodwink people:
This woman looks so familiar im [sic] trying to find out from where...  I know I jave [sic] seen her before and thats [sic] a bit sus [sic] as i too think it might all be made up
I just wonder if it's a made up story and she's a paid pharma actor.  Can anyone get her image and use google image search to see if you can find her real name. 
Shill!  She should be ashamed of herself!
Then we heard about how the hospital set the whole thing up:
So many weeks in hospital, sleep deprived, you can be brainwashed to believe anything and they push hard at you with multiple doctors.  My suspicion is that they gave the baby antibiotics which makes whooping cough worse and they have taken advantage of her and got her to read from a script. 
After that, the accusations became even wilder -- including that Carmit's daughter in the video was actually a doll:
GC health is running a campaign to increase pregnant mum vaccines.  The lady is a paid actor with a doll.  It's going ballistic and makeing [sic] people think pregnant women need a shot to save their baby from whooping c.
I'm 95% sure she's holding a doll. 
The kids [sic] neck looks like it's about to break and you never see it move or breath during the whole video.  The lady really does have a baby but this may just be a fake to scare us all. 
Sweetie this is a fake prop baby.  I've been in the film industry for over 25 years.  She is an actress and that is a doll.  Jeez. 
Others chimed in with suggestions for what she could have done instead:
That's Bullshit she doesn't need willing [sic] cough vax she just needs to build up immune system with colloidal silver.
Right.  Colloidal silver.  Which besides being generally useless, has as a side effect turning your skin blue-gray -- permanently.

And then we hear that this is a false flag to distract us from discredited anti-vaxx researcher Andrew Wakefield's film Vaxxed, which came out on the same day as Carmit posted her video:
This story came out on the same day that Vaxxed was released.  The biggest load of crap propaganda.  Have you watched the video?  Obviously an actor.  And her "baby" doesn't move or even breathe.  I call bullshit.
And finally, we reach Conspiracy Theory Nirvana, wherein we find out that the entire story is made up -- neither Carmit nor her baby is real:
That whole story is made up.  It's part of the pro-vax campaign.  Campaigns are organised, so this story is too.  The story is full of contradictions and other absurdities.  Even if you don't know anything about the topic then still it's a very strange story that should raise a lot of red flags.
The whole thing is nauseating.  It's appalling that someone would be so desperate to cling to their counterfactual stance that they would respond to a challenge with slander, accusations of lying, and even doubts that the challenger exists.  What, are you so sure of yourself that you can't imagine anyone looking at the facts and coming to a different conclusion?

Or are you just aware you're on such thin ice that you lash out at anyone who points it out?

In any case, I'll end with a wish for continued good health for Carmit and her daughter.  I'm deeply sorry that on top of illness, you're having to put up with threats, accusations, and libel.  But at least this shows up the anti-vaxxers for what they are; anti-science, anti-fact, and more concerned with their preconceived notions than they are with truth or compassion.