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, March 17, 2018

Preventing the unknown

Some days it's no great mystery why the general public is dubious about scientists.

I mean, a lot of it is the media, as I've discussed here at Skeptophilia ad nauseam.  But there are times that the scientists themselves put their best foot backward.  As an example, consider the announcement from the World Health Organization this week that their Research & Development Blueprint for priority diseases includes "Disease X."

A disease that is as-yet unidentified.

The blueprint itself says this:
Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease, and so the R&D Blueprint explicitly seeks to enable cross-cutting R&D preparedness that is also relevant for an unknown “Disease X” as far as possible.
On the one hand, there's a grain of sense there.  Recognizing the fact that there are "emerging diseases" that are apparently new to humanity, and that could cause epidemics is the first step toward readying ourselves for when that happens.  (Recent examples are Ebola and Lassa fever, Marburg virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and chikungunya.)

The Ebola virus [image courtesy of the World Health Organization]

But still.  What the WHO is telling the public is that they're putting time and effort into preventing an epidemic from a disease that:
  • may not exist
  • if it does exist, has unknown symptoms, origins, and mode of transmission
  • may or may not be preventable
  • may or may not be treatable
  • may or may not be highly communicable
  • may or may not be carried by other animals
  • is of unknown duration and severity
Is it just me, or does this seem like an exercise in futility?

Like I said, an awareness of the unpredictability of disease outbreaks is a start, but this seems like trying to nail jello to the wall.  Each time humanity has been faced with a potential pandemic, we've had to study the disease and how it moves from one host to another, scramble to find treatments for the symptoms while we're searching for an actual cure (or better yet, a vaccine to prevent it), and do damage control in stricken areas.  So I can't see where the "Disease X" approach gets us, except to put everyone on red alert for an epidemic that may never happen.

I think my eyerolling when I read about this comes from two sources.  First, I'm all too aware that life is risky, and although it's certainly laudable to try to reduce the risk as much as you can, the bare fact is that you can't remove it entirely.  After all, none of us here are getting out of this place alive.  And second, there is an unavoidable chaotic element to what happens -- we get blindsided again and again by bizarre occurrences, and the professional prognosticators (not to mention professional psychics) get it wrong at least as often as they get it right.

So there probably will eventually be a new emerging epidemic.  On a long enough time scale, there's probably going to be a true pandemic as well.  I hope that with our advances in medical research, we'll be able to respond in time to prevent what happened during the Black Death, or worse, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 to 1919, that killed an estimated 40 million people (over twice the number of deaths as the battlefield casualties of World War I, which was happening at the same time).

In one sense, I take back what I said about not being able to do anything about it ahead of time.  We can give ourselves the best shot at mitigating the effects of an outbreak -- by funding medical research, and encouraging our best and brightest to go into science (i.e., education, a topic I've also rung the changes on more than once).  Other than that, I'm just going to eat right, exercise, and hope for the best.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Fighting the avalanche

Wednesday was the National Walk Out Day for the #NeverAgain movement, and it's estimated that over a million high school students walked out of their classes to protest the government's inaction on gun law reform -- and the fact that many elected officials are in the pockets of the NRA.  While some school districts were supportive of their right to protest, others chose to punish the ones who participated with penalties up to and including suspension or paddling.  (Yes, there are schools that still inflict corporal punishment on students.)

And of course, the backlash from the general public against the students who participated went full-bore almost immediately.  A quick perusal of social media was enough to gauge the vitriol being hurled at them.  One person I saw called them "lazy little snowflakes."  Others said they were only walking out so they could claim justification for skipping class (odd, then, that in our area -- where many schools were closed because of a snowstorm -- students showed up anyhow so they could stand in solidarity with the rest of the protesters).  They were called names (a politician from Maine called #NeverAgain leader Emma González "a skinhead lesbian").  They were accused of being tools of the radical left.  Most frustrating -- at least for me, looking at it from the outside -- is the level of condescension from adults, the implication that there's no way that these young adults could possibly have a relevant opinion, or one that the adults themselves should take seriously.

What this demonstration has proven, however, is that the adults who are misjudging and/or dismissing these teenagers are doing so at their own risk.  There is no sign of this movement going away, or being at all quelled by the snark being hurled their way, or how they are being portrayed in social media and (most of) the conservative press.  A banner was put up on a fence near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday with a particularly trenchant quote from Douglas herself:

The last time I've seen an anti-establishment uprising this powerful was the anti-Vietnam-War protests of the 1960s and early 70s.  The same kind of insults were lobbed at protesters back then; they were ne'er-do-wells, hippies who just wanted to tear down the rule of law, stoners whose opinion didn't count and shouldn't be taken seriously.

Today's establishment should look at the results of that episode as the cautionary tale it is.

It's worth considering looking even further back in history, however, and recognizing that civil disobedience is how this country was founded.  And while we call the people who launched the American Revolution are called "the Founding Fathers," they were by and large young people.  In 1776, James Monroe (and French ally the Marquis de Lafayette) were 18, Aaron Burr 20, Nathan Hale 21, Robert Townsend 22, George Rodgers Clark 23, and James Madison 25.  While some of them were in their thirties and forties -- notably George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams -- the Revolution was not fought, or even led, by staid, dignified elder statesmen.

These kids have stood up to politicians all they way up to the president of the United States; they are not going to be silenced by disdain.  And it bears mention that a significant portion of the teenagers who are participating will be of voting age by the November elections; virtually all of them will be voting by November 2020.  And trust me, they are not going to forget the elected officials who have ridiculed them and dismissed their opinions.

Whether you agree with them or disagree with them, this movement is not going to be stopped.  The wise among us will at least engage in an honest dialogue with them.  The foolish will discount their power and try to stand in their way, or even pretend they don't exist.

If these young adults are snowflakes, prepare for an avalanche.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Closing the books on homeopathy

There comes a point when there is absolutely no reason to continue investigating a claim for which there is no evidence (or significant evidence against).  Pursuing it beyond that point is a waste of money, time, and effort, and can only be explained by people's desperation not to have their pet idea proven wrong.

That point has been reached by homeopathy.  It is useless, unscientific horseshit.  Case closed.

But if by some chance you still were unconvinced, consider the paper that was withdrawn last week from the journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  The title of the journal itself makes me wince a little; to paraphrase Tim Minchin, when alternative medicine has the support of evidence, it is thereafter known as "medicine."  But setting that aside for a moment, the paper in question was written by father/son team Aradeep and Ashim Chatterjee, and claimed that the homeopathic remedy "psorinum" was effective in treating cancer.

Without even knowing what "psorinum" is, any claim that a homeopathic "remedy" can cure cancer is about as close to medical fraud as you can skate without committing an actual crime.  If you don't know how "remedies" are created, the quick explanation is that you take a substance of some kind and dilute it past the point where there is any of it left, and then use the resulting water to treat whatever condition has symptoms like the ones created by ingesting the original substance.

For example: the homeopathic sleep-aid "calms fortĂ©" is made by diluting caffeine.  I shit you not.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

In the case of "psorinum," however, we have an additional level of "what the fuck?" to add; the "remedy" is made by diluting...

... wait for it...

... fluid from the blisters of someone who has scabies.

I feel obliged to say at this point that I am not making this up.  The site Homeopathy Plus, which is the source of the link above, says the following about "psorinum:"
Those who need Psorinum usually lack vitality and are prone to mental disturbances.  They catch infections easily, especially colds, and recover slowly.  Skin complaints are common and if unattended will be dirty and offensive but these days with frequent bathing and access to steroids, are less likely to be so.  The person is also likely to be anxious about health, work, poverty and the future which leads to depression, despair and sometimes, suicidal thoughts.
You read that right.  If you're depressed because you're poor, the treatment is to ingest serially-diluted scabies pus.

Anyhow, the Chatterjees wrote a paper suggesting that "psorinum" could treat cancer, and evidently that was too much even for Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  When it was found that (1) the "ethics board" that cleared the study the paper was based on was identical to the Board of Directors of a clinic the Chatterjees owned, and (2) both the father and the son were practicing medicine without a license, it was too much for the authorities, too, and the pair were arrested.

This, unfortunately, is not a unique occurrence.  Papers supporting homeopathy have, one and all, been shown to be cherry-picked, if not outright fraudulent.  100% of the controlled scientific studies of homeopathic claims have resulted in zero evidence in favor.

So enough people-hours and research grant money has been wasted on this.  Homeopathy was a ridiculous claim from the get-go, but it was only fair to test it.  The research community did so.  It failed.

Case closed.

Now, the next step is to get those useless sugar pills off the shelves at CVS and other pharmacies.  I know the principle of caveat emptor applies, and if you're choosing to waste your money on fake treatments, you deserve what you get.  But the companies that make this stuff are profiting off the general public's gullibility and ignorance, people are taking quack remedies for serious conditions instead of seeking out legitimate medical help, and the Food & Drug Administration needs to put a stop to it.

As far as the Chatterjees go -- to quote a friend of mine, "I hope they bring them some 'psorinum' sugar pills in jail to cure their 'anxiety about the future.'"  To which I can only add: "Would you like some highly-diluted skin lotion for that burn?"

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Guest post: An interview with K. D. McCrite

A few years ago, I met author K. D. McCrite, whose series The Confessions of April Grace is beloved by both kids and adults for its beautifully-drawn characters and whimsical, sometimes screwball comedy storylines, all seen through the eyes of her title character, a girl growing up in rural Arkansas.  It wasn't until I'd known K. D. for some time that I found out that she had an alter ego -- Ava Norwood, the pseudonym under which she writes dark, gritty modern novels that only share with her other books a signature crystal-clear writing style.

K. D. herself is a deeply spiritual woman, despite the fact that her Norwood novels have more than once cast organized religion in a harsh and unfavorable glare.  We've become fast friends even though we don't have the same philosophical outlook -- in fact, our differences have led to some really interesting discussions, and far from distancing us, those conversations have deepened our friendship.

I thought it'd be interesting to hear her views on spirituality, writing, and how she reconciles her beliefs with her unflinching Norwood novels.  So she's my guest interviewee on Skeptophilia today.  I hope her answers get you thinking.  And I also hope you'll check out her novels, to which I've included links at the end of this post.


GB: How does a spiritual person -- which you clearly are -- deal with the capacity for abuse inherent in organized religion?
KM: That’s not easy to do.  The life of a Christian should be simple: follow the example and teachings of the one who showed us the way.  Jesus was not an abuser, or a loser, or liar, or snob, or swindler.  He moved among all classes of people, showing no favoritism for wealth or status.  When people came to him, he did not turn them away.  He gave generously from what he had, and he served others.  Whether we believe he’s the son of God or we don’t believe in god at all, we probably agree the example of his life is the right way to live, if we want peace and contentment in our lives.  So when people claim to be Christian, but are wrapped up in ego, materialism, power, status, and legalism, I get a little hot under the collar.  No wonder Christianity now carries with it a repugnant image.  I rarely call myself a Christian any more.  I prefer Follower of Christ, and I do my best to live up to his example.
GB:  Tell me about your Ava Norwood novels, and how you reconcile your own beliefs with your writing, especially given the fact that some of the most despicable characters in them are representatives of organized religion, and yet consider themselves holy and sanctified.
KM: My books penned under the name of Ava Norwood feature people who have fallen into some kind of religious existence built on sand.  That is, their lives are set to collapse because what they are doing is foolish and weak.  I’m mixing metaphors here, but a reader should know when he opens an Ava Norwood novel, the characters are going to reap what they sow by the end of the story, good or bad.  It’s my hope that the books are thought-provoking, even enlightening.  If not, I hope I have at least offered a great read.

GB:  So you write in two different styles/personas.  One as Ava Norwood, and the other as K.D. McCrite, who writes family-friendly fiction that sometimes touches on Christian values.  Is there ever an issue with one fan base getting offended by the books in the other genre?
KM:  This is always a concern to me.  The Ava Norwood books have strong language, and graphic scenes of a violent or adult nature.  But let me be clear: the language and the scenes are not gratuitous.  They are true to the life and nature of the characters, and without them, the story would be weaker and have less impact than I intend.  I recognize that some people prefer their reading fare to be squeaky clean, and I understand.  I recommend that, rather than being offended or upset that I have chosen to use profanity, sex, or violence in a realistic way, they leave books by Ava Norwood unopened.  Otherwise, the purpose of the story is diluted or ignored because the offended reader can’t get over the portion that upset them.

Then we have the K.D. McCrite books, written for anyone from eight to 108.  Unfortunately, the audience for them restricts itself because of the lack of violence, sex, and language.  There are readers who seem to believe that there is no story without those elements.  However, I’ve been told by numerous people that “I assumed I wouldn’t like the book, but once I started, I really enjoyed it.”  The fact is, humorous, heart-warming stories can be every bit as gripping as something darker and grittier.  But how will these readers ever know that if they judge the books without reading them?
GB:  How would you answer a fan who did get offended?
KM:  "Offending someone was not my goal while writing this book, and I’m sorry you feel that way."  How else can one respond?  Not everyone is going to like everything.

Here are links to some of K. D.'s books -- I've read many of them, and thoroughly enjoyed them, both the ones she writes under K. D. McCrite and those she writes under Ava Norwood.  Give them a try!

As K. D. McCrite:
In Front of God and Everybody (April Grace #1)
Cliques, Hicks, and Ugly Sticks (April Grace #2)
Chocolate-Covered Baloney (April Grace #3)
Pink Orchids and Cheeseheads (April Grace #4)
Eastgate Keeps On Singing (Eastgate Cozy Mysteries #1)
Coming in the future: The Case Files of April Grace -- a series about a grown-up April Grace, who has become a private investigator...
K. D. has also written extensively for Annie's Mysteries, a fiction book club.

As Ava Norwood:
If I Make My Bed in Hell
Poured Out Like Water

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Leadership by the unqualified

I'm going to ask a question that will undoubtedly be uncomfortable for the 33% of Americans who are still in support of what our current administration is doing:

Why are you content to have people in jobs for which they are manifestly unqualified, and about which they display nothing short of catastrophic ignorance?

Surprisingly, I'm not talking here about Trump himself, although I'd argue that those charges could just as easily be levied against him.  The fish rots from the head on down, as the saying goes.  But here I'm referring to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who was interviewed by Lesley Stahl a few days ago on 60 Minutes, the results of which are nearly unwatchable, if you (like me) hate seeing someone completely humiliating themselves in public.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

What's especially appalling about this interview is that Stahl was not trying to nail DeVos to the wall.  In fact, some of her questions strike me as softball.  And DeVos still couldn't give a coherent answer.  As an example, Stahl asked her if, under her leadership, schools in her home state of Michigan had gotten better.  After all, she allegedly got the nomination from Trump because of her work promoting charter schools there, so her influence in Michigan far predates her appointment to the Department of Education.  Here's her answer:
I don't know.  Overall, I -- I can't say overall that they have all gotten better.  There are certainly lots of pockets where the students are doing well.  Michigan schools need to do better.  There is no doubt about it...  I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.
"I don't know?"  The Secretary of the Department of Education is asked about the current status of schools in her home state, and she says, "I don't know?"  For one thing, how can she have gone into this interview not having at least prepared an answer for this question?  I mean, if there's an expression that means the opposite of "out of left field," that's what this question was.

And she can't talk about schools in general, because they're "made up of individual students attending them?"  What the hell does this even mean?

But those were far from the only problems.  When Stahl asked her if she'd visited any underperforming schools, DeVos answered with a flat no.  Stahl, whose cool, collected persona slipped, betraying a moment of pure astonishment, said, "Maybe you should."

DeVos looked confused, and echoed, "Maybe I should."

Then DeVos tried a salvo of her own.  "The federal government has invested billions and billions and billions of dollars in the educational system," DeVos said, "and we have seen zero results."  Stahl, who unlike DeVos had actually done her homework, said that this wasn't true -- that test scores over the past 25 years had risen steadily.

DeVos gave her a walleyed stare for a few seconds, and said, "What can be done about that is empowering parents to make the choices for their kids.  Any family that has the economic means and the power to make choices is doing so for their children."

"What can be done about that?"  What can be done about what?  Rising test scores?  Heaven knows, we can't have that.  And what on earth did that non-answer have to do with the question Stahl asked?

And on and on it went.  I honestly at some point had my hands over my eyes because I couldn't bear to watch.  But after the video clip was done, and I had recovered from being that long in a state of wince, I started to get mad.  How is this woman qualified to run the Department of Education?  My sense is that she would be out of her depth in a kiddie pool, and the sole reason she is in the position is that she is a multi-millionaire plutocrat who donated to Donald Trump's election campaign.

So, to the conservatives who've read this far: how can you accept this?  This honestly has nothing to do with party.  Betsy DeVos would be drastically unqualified regardless what her political leanings were.  But there she sits, on the Cabinet of the United States, and she does a public interview in which she comes across as a blithering idiot...

... and not a single Republican leader has anything to say about it.

C'mon, people.  At some point sound leadership has to outweigh party affiliation.  It is ridiculous that our country's educational system -- our hope for the future -- is being run by a woman who, in my grandmother's words, "don't have the brains that God gave gravy."

And these sorts of things keep happening, and over and over, not one damn thing is done about it.  All I can say is, I hope that in November, people will remember this and vote out the kiss-ass rubber stampers who are giving Trump and his rich cronies a bye on everything from appointing nitwits to canoodling with porn stars.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Woo-woo casserole recipe

Today, I ran across a truly wonderful site, if by "wonderful" you mean "bizarre."  It is called Divinorum Psychonauticus, which loosely translated from sort-of Latin means "Spirit Sailor of the Divine," even though to my ears it sounds like a spell from Harry Potter.  The site is subtitled "Where science fears to tread, art staggereth."  Whatever the fuck that means.  Its creator, Erich Kuersten, seems to be a raving wingnut, although in his defense he's up front about that.  In his "About This Author" paragraph he calls himself "legally insane ten times over," although in his posts, he seems entirely serious; I saw none of the hallmarks of Divinorum Psychonauticus being a spoof site.  In any case, I bumped into the site because of the post, "The Bigfoot-Ancient Alien Connection: Solved!", whose title seemed to promise great things.

I was not disappointed.

The first thing I noticed was how deftly the article explains why we haven't seen Bigfoot.  It is not, as many think, because Bigfoot doesn't exist.  It is also not, as others explain, that Bigfoots are intelligent, wary primates who live in trackless wilderness with plenty of places to hide.

No, it's because Bigfoots have all of their junk DNA turned on, and that allows them to time travel.  In Kuersten's words:
Our DNA is tampered [sic] down, which is to say a lot of our 'junk DNA' is disconnected. We're like parrots with clipped wings, while Bigfoot's are unclipped. If we could access all 100% of our brain, 'turn on' the dormant DNA, we could do some of the things Bigfoot does, such us 'skipping' through time, being able to wink in and out of existence (and thus avoid capture).  In fact this is why they are so evasive... they're on the run if you will, from the castrating scissors of the Greys.
Well, I have to admit that if a gray alien with castrating scissors was chasing me, I'd try to avoid capture, too.

Kuersten then adds a nice seasoning of biblical "history" to the mix:
The story of the Great Flood and all that - the Annunaki went to wipe us all out and start again because they made us in their image and likeness and with many of their powers, their ability to tap into the higher dimensions of consciousness (there are nine total), to vibrate their Kundalini energy in and out of existence and forward and backwards through time, and into alternate dimensions.  So when the sasquatch /earlier race learned how to 'wink out' they no longer wanted to mine gold for their masters.  They had the power to hide, and went on the run.  The next wave of humans (the Annunaki/Greys spliced with early ape hominid DNA) had these aspects of the brain shut off, the wings clipped.  But the flood couldn't reach the high up mountains, which is why the bigfoot and yeti are often found there. 
Is that why that is?  I'd always wondered.  The Himalayas, for example, have always seemed to me to be a singularly inhospitable place, what with all that snow and ice and thin air.  If I were a primitive hominid, I would choose somewhere rather nicer to live.  Maui, for example.  But evidently the reason you never see sasquatches on the beach, wearing swim trunks and sipping drinks with little umbrellas, is because they got stranded up in the mountains after the Great Flood and now, 4,000-odd years later, they still haven't been able to find their way down.

But why, you might ask, are Bigfoots frequently seen getting in and out of UFOs?  I know I've asked that question myself, and usually my response has been, "hallucinogenic drugs."  But Kuersten disagrees:
The reason Bigfoots are sometimes found getting into and out of UFOs is explainable as either a kind of bigfoot terminator or traitor, working to infiltrate the bigfoot colonies, or various 'friendly' alien visitors--the equivalent of, say, Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves
Okay, now I understand!  Some of the Bigfoots are in cahoots with evil aliens.  Or friendly aliens.  Or Kevin Costner.

Figure 1.  My expression while reading all of this.

And finally, how does Kuersten know all of this, as clearly there is no way you could get here via any of the more standard ways of thinking?  By this time, you will not be surprised to find out that the answer is: spirit animal guides.
I asked my 'channeled' guru panther animal spirit guide.  Believe it or not, that's what he 'told' me, in the weird non-linguistic way that spirit guides will.  Now, he's quite a trickster as I've learned on more than one occasion.  But this all makes a lot more sense than some of the daffy theories (I've heard), so I'm posting it here.  Make of it what you will, and remember, the truth is so strange no language can encompass it, so never be afraid to leave language at the door when entering the higher planes! 
Oh, I will, Erich.  I left language with baggage check, and am ready to be x-rayed by the TSA (Transcendental Safety Authority) before boarding my astral plane! 

If you're not satisfied with this selection from Divinorum Psychonauticus, there's also "Remembering my 2012 Galactic Alignment Euphoria, Non-Duality, Quetzlcoatl Visions, Cult Leadership, and Inevitable Fever," "The New Line of Alien-Human Hybrids - Wilkommen auf der Future!", and "Uma Thurman is From Venus."  And yes, in that last one, he is talking about the planet Venus, i.e., the place with an atmosphere of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid, where the surface temperature averages 462 C.  (I've heard people say that Uma Thurman is hot, but I don't think that's what they meant.)

Figure 2: Uma Thurman's home world

So anyway.  That's our brief foray into the deep end of the pool for today.  It's kind of like a recipe for a woo-woo casserole, isn't it?

In a large mixing bowl, place 2 lbs. finely ground Bigfoot. Add:
  • a chopped Annunaki
  • biblical references to taste
  • 3 tbsp. references to poorly-understood science
  • 1 cup higher dimensions of consciousness
  • 1 cracked UFO
  • 1 pint time travel
  • 1 spirit guide (preferably "panther," but "weasel" will do)  Mix well. Place in a greased baking dish, and bake at 350 F until well-done  Serve immediately.
Pairs excellently with most wines.  In fact, the more your guests drink, the more palatable the casserole will seem.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Natural smackdown

For today's piping hot serving of schadenfreude, we have: YouTube has terminated Mike Adams's account.

Adams, you probably know, is the wingnut who founded Natural News, which is the world's biggest clearinghouse for loony alt-med claims and unfounded conspiracy theories about things like "toxins."  Amongst other completely wacko ideas, Adams claims that:
  • AIDS is not caused by HIV.
  • Infectious diseases in general are not caused by germs.
  • We're all being poisoned by "chemtrails."
  • Evidence-based medical research is a huge shell game being played by doctors, scientists, and "Big Pharma," with the aim of keeping us sick so they can keep making money.
  • GMOs are all hazardous to human health.
  • Homeopathy works.
So this termination is actually a big deal.  The account's entire library of videos was deleted, meaning that if someone linked or embedded one of them on a secondary site or blog, they will now show as "This Video Is No Longer Available."

Before you start yelling at me about the First Amendment and free speech, allow me to state for the record that "Free Speech" doesn't mean you have the right to say anything, anywhere, with no consequences.  I can claim the First Amendment protects my right to tell my boss to fuck off, and no court in the land will side with me if I'm fired.  YouTube quite rightly has rules to play by, and if someone's account violates those rules, it is entirely within their purview to delete their videos.

Adams, predictably, had a complete meltdown, just like he did when Google took steps to stop him from gaming their search engine optimization software to propel his links to the top of search pages.  He, of course, claimed that the action taken was not because he violated one of Google's policies; this was a targeted attack against his message.  And now YouTube has joined the ranks of the persecutors.  Adams said:
In the latest gross violation of free speech committed by radical left-wing tech giants, YouTube has now deleted the entire Health Ranger video channel, wiping out over 1,700 videos covering everything from nutrition, natural medicine, history, science and current events. 
Over the last two weeks, YouTube has been on a censorship rampage that’s apparently run by the SPLC, a radical left-wing hate group that despises Christianity, the Second Amendment and patriots in particular.  Hundreds of prominent conservative video channels have been targeted for termination by YouTube, leading many independent media leaders like myself to call for government regulation of YouTube to protect free speech and end the tyranny.
The SPLC, allow me to point out, is the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, hate crimes, and extremists in the United States, and only gets involved with YouTube if there's a video that promotes ethnic, racial, or religious hatred.  So targeting the SPLC is nothing short of bizarre.

But the long and short of it is, YouTube is a privately owned, for-profit company, and there is no reason in the world that it should have to host Mike Adams's nutcake screeds if the Board of Directors says it doesn't want to, any more than I should have to allow Adams to do a guest post on Skeptophilia because he claims it's his right under the First Amendment.  So in fact, what he's doing right now is whining because he flouted the rules and got caught at it, and is trying to deflect the blame on the liberals and tech giants and (for fuck's sake) the SPLC.

Myself, I have to admit my reaction to this was: ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.  Much as I advocate for the right of free expression and the principle of caveat emptor, it really would be a better world if we had fewer people making crazy and potentially dangerous claims.  So I'm afraid I can't work up much sympathy for Adams.  In fact, what I really wish is that he would take Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and Gwyneth Paltrow along with him.  That would really be some schadenfreude I could get behind.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Safety shift

It's simultaneously amusing and a little frightening how sure we all are of our own opinions.

When challenged, we tend to react either with incredulity or with anger.  How on earth could anyone believe differently than we do?  Our own beliefs arise, of course, from a careful consideration of the facts, of the world as it is.  If you think differently, well, you're just not putting things together right.

And not only do we use our certainty in our own rightness to make judgments about others, we also use it to cement our own conclusions over time.  I recall with some discomfort the time I was being interviewed on a radio program, and the host asked me a perfectly legitimate question for someone who is a self-styled skeptic, namely: has there been a time that I have been challenged in one of my beliefs, and after analysis, turned out to be wrong?

Well, it was a fair knock-out.  I could only recall one time that, in the (then) five years I'd written Skeptophilia, that a reader had posted an objection that changed my mind.  (If you're curious, it was about the efficacy of low-level laser therapy on wound healing; she came at me with facts and data and sources, and even if I'd been inclined to argue, I had no choice but to admit defeat and retreat in disarray.)

But other that that?  When I get objections, I tend to do what most of us do.  Say, "Oh, how sad for you that you don't agree with me," and forthwith stop thinking about it.

What's so appalling about this is how easily those seemingly set-in-stone root beliefs can be changed by circumstances outside of our control, and often, without our even knowing it's happening.  Which brings me to a simple but elegant experiment done at Yale University by John Bargh, Jaime Napier, Julie Huang, and Andy Vonasch that appeared in the European Journal of Social Psychology late last year.  The experiment springboarded off a longitudinal study done at the University of California that showed that the more fear a child expressed over novel situations in a laboratory at age four, the more conservative (s)he was likely to be twenty years later.  Conservatives, it has been found, are more likely to regard the unfamiliar with suspicion, and in fact, have higher activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with anxiety.  Liberals, on the other hand, have a greater degree of trust in the unknown (whether justified or not), and tend to be less fearful of new people and new experiences.

So what Bargh et al. decided to do was to see if the opposite might hold true -- if changing people's sense of being safe would alter their political stances.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And they did.  Bargh's team guided participants through an intense visualization exercise, which for some participants was about having the ability to fly, and for others being invulnerable and safe from harm in all situations.

The results were dramatic.  In Bargh's words:
If they had just imagined being able to fly, their responses to the social attitude survey showed the usual clear difference between Republicans and Democrats — the former endorsed more conservative positions on social issues and were also more resistant to social change in general. 
But if they had instead just imagined being completely physically safe, the Republicans became significantly more liberal — their positions on social attitudes were much more like the Democratic respondents.  And on the issue of social change in general, the Republicans’ attitudes were now indistinguishable from the Democrats.  Imagining being completely safe from physical harm had done what no experiment had done before — it had turned conservatives into liberals.
This study has a couple of interesting -- and cautionary -- outcomes.

First, the researchers did not look at how long-lasting these changes were, so even for those who think the changes were a good thing (probably my left-leaning readers), there's no guarantee that the leftward shift was permanent.  Second, consider the fact that the shift occurred by having people visualize an imaginary scenario -- i.e., something that isn't true.  Even if the shift was long-lasting, I have some serious qualms about changing people's beliefs based on having them imagine a falsehood.  That, to me, is no better than having them persist in erroneous beliefs because of a lack of self-analysis.

But to me the scariest result of the experiment by Bargh et al. is to consider how this tendency is exacerbated -- or, more accurately, manipulated -- by the media.  Conservative news sources thrive on inducing fear.  (As one example, think about the yearly idiocy over at Fox News about we atheists' alleged "War on Christmas.")  By the same token, liberal media tends to focus on stories that make you feel better, at least about the usual left-wing talking points -- stories, for example, of immigrants who have succeeded and become model citizens.  In both cases, it's powered by our tendency to shift rightward when we feel threatened and leftward when we feel safe -- and, in both cases, to keep listening to the news sources that reinforce those feelings.

I'm not at all sure what to do about this, or honestly, if there's anything that can be done.  We all have our biases in one direction or the other to start with, and we're pretty likely to seek out news sources that corroborate what we already thought.  A combination of confirmation bias and the echo-chamber effect.  But what the Bargh et al. study should show us is that we can't become complacent and stop considering our own beliefs in the sharpest light available -- and always keep in mind the possibility that our own opinions might not be as carved in stone as we'd like to think.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

A hole in your argument

There are some legends that stick around despite the fact that they are demonstrably false.

At least for some of tall stories, you can see how they'd persist.  Tales like Slender Man, the Black-eyed Children, and crazed murderers with hooks for hands have been around ever since the tradition of telling scary stories around campfires began.  So while they're not true -- at least, there's no evidence for any of them of the kind that would convince a skeptic -- you can at least understand why someone might fall for 'em.

In some cases, though, there are claims that are made that are easily verifiable.  And when someone does bother to verify them, and finds that they're false, and yet people still believe -- that I can't comprehend.

As an example of this, take the tale of "Mel's Hole," a supposedly bottomless pit near Ellensburg, Washington.  Ranker ran a story on the legend a few days ago, based on a radio piece that ran a while back on the paranormal show Coast to Coast, and tells us about the meat and bones of the story.

A guy named Mel Waters called in to Coast to Coast to tell the hosts about a hole on his property in central Washington State.  It was, Waters said, nine feet in diameter and lined with bricks.  It predated Waters, he said; locals, and before that the indigenous inhabitants of the area, knew about it -- and avoided it.  It was cursed, they said.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Waters, though, got interested in it, and decided to see how deep it was.  He put a weight on the end of some fishing line, and lowered it down the hole.  After he'd released 80,000 feet of line, it still hadn't gone slack -- i.e., the hole itself was over fifteen miles deep.

Already I was getting a little suspicious.  It's hard to imagine anyone having the patience to release fifteen miles of fishing line into a hole in the ground.  But be that as it may, it was far from the weirdest thing Waters claimed.  Here are a few of the things he told the Coast to Coast folks:
  1. Animals, especially dogs, were terrified of the hole, and had to be dragged to get them close to it.
  2. If you yelled down it, there was no echo.
  3. If you brought a radio near it, it would play music from decades ago.
  4. A bucket of ice lowered into it came back up magically transformed into a "warm liquid" that was flammable.
  5. A tranquilized sheep lowered into it was pulled back to the surface dead, seemingly "cooked from the inside," and had inside it an animal "resembling a fetal seal with human eyes staring back at him" that Waters immediately chucked back in.  Neighbors said they'd seen something like that around the mouth of the hole on several occasions.
But far and away the weirdest claim about the hole is that it could bring animals back to life.  A neighbor, Waters said, had a dog who died, and the neighbor did what any bereaved pet owner would do, namely, look for a random hole in the ground on someone else's property to throw the body into.  But the dog not only didn't stay in the hole, it didn't stay dead.  Waters said he'd seen it running around in the woods afterwards -- wearing the same collar it was wearing when the neighbor threw it in.

So far, pretty spooky stuff.  But there are a variety of problems here, the most serious of which is, if you claim there's a giant magical hole in the ground, your story kind of falls apart if it doesn't exist.

Which it doesn't.  Not only that, geologists say that a fifteen-mile-deep hole would be impossible, especially near the seismically-active Cascade Range.  But even accepting that magic might in this case trump modern geological science, no one has been able to find the hole -- even a guy who claimed to know where it was and believe in its powers, one Gerald Osborne, led a thirty-person expedition in 2002 that found zero holes.

Last, and most damning of all, local reporters have dug into property records in Kittitas County, and have found no record that a man named Mel Waters ever owned property there -- or even lived in or near Ellensburg.

So the whole thing is clearly a hoax, and Waters himself non-existent.  And that, you would think, would be that.

But as we've seen over and over, with woo-woos, that is never that.  You can have the most sterling argument, demonstrate the lack of evidence until the middle of next week, and they'll still say, "Yeah, but."  And thus, the legend of Mel's Hole persists, lo unto this very day.

As for me, I'm sticking with science.  Call me unimaginative, but there you are.  As the inimitable 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."  I don't think he was talking about fictitious holes in the ground, but it applies equally well to them.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Liars and truthers

Words matter.

People with a commitment to the truth should demand that media and politicians make their statements using unambiguous language, and not hesitate to call them out when they don't.  Obfuscation is the next best thing to telling outright untruths; it misleads and confuses just as much.  Which, no doubt, is what was intended.

It's why my blood pressure spikes every time I hear how the media usually deals with the blatant falsehoods spoken by Donald Trump and Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  They're not "alternate facts," not "opinions," not "differing interpretations."  They're lies.  And we should not waver in identifying them as such.

But the word I want to address today is "truther."  It's been appended to the loony claims of most of the current conspiracy theories.  We have 9/11 "truthers," Sandy Hook "truthers," flat Earth "truthers."  And it's a word the media, and everyone else, needs to stop using.  These people are not only not speaking the truth, they have no interest in the truth whatsoever.  All they want is to bend the facts to fit their warped view of how the world should work.  Any evidence that doesn't fit their claims is ignored, argued away, or labeled as a fabrication.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This comes up because of a pair of self-identified "truthers" who were arrested a couple of days ago for harassing the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, Frank Pomeroy.  This is doubly horrific; not only did Pomeroy have to deal with the massacre last November of his parishioners by shooter Devin Kelley, Pomeroy's fourteen-year-old daughter was killed in the tragedy.

But to people like Jodi Mann and Robert Ussery, this is just more fuel for the fire.  The "Deep State" engineered the event, they said, during which no one was actually killed.  Grieving friends and family members were played by "crisis actors."  The whole thing was staged to turn people against supporting the Second Amendment, which is the first step toward confiscating all guns and the government imposing martial law.

And the Sutherland Springs massacre isn't the only thing Mann and Ussery claim didn't happen.  According to Ussery and Mann's website, Side Thorn, neither did the mass murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Boston Marathon, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and the Jason Aldean concert in Las Vegas.  All of them were complete fabrications.

This belief has led them to do things that any sane person would consider completely incomprehensible.  In the case of Pastor Pomeroy, the pair spray-painted "The Truth Will Set You Free" on a poster put up for friends of the pastor's slain daughter to sign.  Ussery and Mann demanded proof from her father that the girl even existed, demanding to see her birth certificate or other evidence that she wasn't -- as they claimed -- an invention of the media.  Ussery, Pomeroy said, repeatedly followed him around screaming threats, including one that he was going to "hang Pomeroy from a tree and pee on him while he's hanging."

So finally, the pair have been arrested for harassment.  Fortunately.  They've also sent threatening notes to the students-turned-activists who survived the Stoneman Douglas shooting.  They are, they said, actors, and the shooting was "100% a staged drill."

One of the students, Cameron Kasky, has responded to this allegation with his characteristic humor and grace, tweeting, "Anyone who saw me in last year's production of Fiddler on the Roof should know that no one would pay me for my acting."

The problem is, that's not going to stop Ussery and Mann and others like them.  These people are on a crusade, and welcome being arrested as a chance to give their lunacy a public forum.  But what prompted me to write this was not the craziness of an obviously false claim.

It's that the media has been consistently calling Ussery and Mann "truthers."

No, they are not truthers.  They are either delusional or else are outright and blatant liars.  They are promoting a dangerous conspiracy theory that has no basis in fact, and besides that, are attacking grieving family and friends of people who were victims of mass murderers.  There is no "truth" about this at all.

It's a deranged false claim, and the people promoting it are guilty of threats and harassment.  Pure and simple.

We need to stop soft-pedaling things.  It gains nothing, and in this case, subtly lends credence to people who do not deserve it.  The media -- and by extension, we who consume it -- need to be unhesitating in labeling a lie as such.

That is how you become a "truther."

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Space warp

I honestly don't understand how there are people who don't find science exciting.

Yes, I know that identifies me as a science nerd.  No, I don't care.  I just can't fathom how you wouldn't find it fascinating to comprehend a little more about the way the universe works.

This comes up because of an article by Jake Parks I ran into a couple of days ago over at the site Astronomy, called, "Star is Confirmed Single and Ready to Test Einstein’s Theory."  Despite the sound of the title, this has nothing to do with a nice-looking young Hollywood actor who is ready to go out on the dating circuit.  It's about a confirmation of a corollary of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity -- the idea of gravitational redshift.

The idea here is that the presence of a massive object actually warps the fabric of space -- stretches it in rather the same fashion that a bowling ball would depress the surface of a trampoline.  This, in fact, is what gravity really is; the fact that the Earth travels in an elliptical orbit around the Sun is because the Sun's enormous mass bends space, and the Earth travels along the lines of that curvature. (Picture someone rolling a marble toward the bowling-ball-on-a-trampoline I referenced earlier for a two-dimensional analog.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Where it gets really interesting is that if you have a light-emitting object travel past something that's highly massive, not only would its path change, but it would bend the light being emitted.  Because the space itself is stretched by the presence of the more massive object, the light would be stretched out -- red-shifted -- as it tries to "climb out of the gravity well."

It's never been observed before -- but astronomers have a good chance of observing it in a few months.  A star called S0-2 is going to be making a pass in front of Sagittarius A, the supermassive black hole at our galaxy's center.  As the star moves between us and the black hole, its light should be significantly redshifted -- a finding that would be a major win for Einstein's theory.

"It will be the first measurement of its kind,” said Tuan Do, deputy director of the Galactic Center Group, who co-authored the study.  "Gravity is the least well-tested of the forces of nature.  Einstein’s theory has passed all other tests with flying colors so far, so if there are deviations measured, it would certainly raise lots of questions about the nature of gravity!"

It was recently proven that S0-2 is not a binary (double) star system -- an important bit of information, as if it had been, it would have significantly complicated the possibility of observing the predicted redshift.

"We have been waiting 16 years for this," said Devin Chu, study co-author and graduate student of astronomy at UCLA.  "We are anxious to see how the star will behave under the black hole’s violent pull.  Will S0-2 follow Einstein’s theory?  Or will the star defy our current laws of physics?  We will soon find out!"

Can't you just hear the excitement in his voice?

I can already hear the naysayers as well, though -- how much money is being put into this research?  What useful outcome will it generate?  I don't know the answer to the first question, and I don't much care; but the answer to the second is, "we don't know yet -- and that's the point."

There are hundreds of discoveries that were made by scientists doing basic research -- what might appear to the layperson as simple messing around with something that interested them.  Here are a few of my favorites:
  1. Henri Becquerel was investigating the effects of phosphorescent minerals on photographic plates in his lab, and used a rock to weight down some plates wrapped in black paper.  When he developed the plates, they had a smudge in the middle, as if they'd been exposed to light, which was impossible.  Turns out the rock was uranium ore.  The result was that he'd just discovered radioactivity.
  2. Roy J. Plunkett was experimenting with some chlorofluorocarbon gases he thought might have a use as coolants.  One of his formulations didn't work so well, but condensed out into a solid film on the inside of the container.  He examined it, and found that it had a very low coefficient of friction, and that water and other substances seemed not to adhere to it.  He named it "Teflon."
  3. George Beadle and Edward Tatum were studying something few of us would find interesting -- metabolic pathways in a mold species called Neurospora.  They found that there were varieties of the mold that seemed to be unable to metabolize certain nutrients, a finding that was mystifying until they proposed that these varieties were missing a key enzyme.  They made the guess that those enzymes were missing because there was a defect in a specific gene -- and that's how a study of mold led to the "One Gene, One Protein" model of gene expression.
  4. Harry Coover was trying to find a new material to use in making the lenses in plastic gun sights.  He was working with a group of chemicals called cyanoacrylates, but found that they were too sticky to be useful in lens making.  One of them, though, struck him as being useful for something else.  He sold the patent to Kodak.  They named it "SuperGlue."
  5. In the early 1990s, some researchers at Pfizer were working with a compound called UK92480, which showed promise for opening up blood vessels in patients with angina pectoris.  It worked okay, but the researchers' ears perked up when male test subjects noted an unusual side effect of taking the compound.  They patented it under the trade name "Viagra," which has brought great happiness, lo unto this very day.
And so on and so forth.  My point is, we need to be doing basic research.  No, the gravitational redshift experiment might not ever amount to anything practical.  But then again, it might.  The point is, we don't know, and if we limit research to things we already expect are going to be useful, it's going to hobble science -- and rob us of the next generation of serendipitous discoveries.

Besides, there's a value simply in knowing.  We are at a point in our civilization where we have the technology and insight to unravel the deep secrets of the universe, and it's worthwhile doing that for its own sake.  The inspiration and joy we get from understanding one more bit of the world we live in is a worthwhile end in and of itself.  As the eminent astronomer Carl Sagan put it:  "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."

Monday, March 5, 2018

Mass shooters and broken homes

One of the hardest things to get past is the natural tendency to accept something unquestioningly simply because it sounds like it should be true.

It's a special form of confirmation bias -- which is using scanty or questionable evidence to support a claim we already believed.  Here, it's more that we hear something, and think, "Okay, that sounds reasonable" -- and never stop to ask if the evidence supports it.

Or, actually, that the evidence presented is even correct.  I ran into an example of that a few days ago at the site Dr. Rich Swier.  It's a video by Warren Farrell, social activist and spokesperson for the "men's rights movement," in which he makes the contention that there is a single factor that unites all the school shooters -- growing up in a home without a father.

Farrell says:
The single biggest problem that creates school shootings is fatherlessness.  Either minimal involvement with dads, or no involvement with dads.  This often comes after divorce, and the 51% of women over the age of thirty who are raising children without father involvement.  Sometimes it starts with fathers being involved, but after two years of not being married, 40% of fathers drop out completely.  That combination accounts for 100% of school shooters.  Adam Lanza, Stephen Paddock, Nikolas Cruz, Dylan Roof.  They're all dad-deprived boys.  We don't see this among girls; we don't see this among dad-involved boys.  The solution is father involvement.  We can start that in school.  We can start that with fathers being involved in PTAs.  Changing the culture, letting men know that the most important single thing they can do in their life is not to be a warrior, outside in the killing fields, but to be a father-warrior.  Be involved not just in PTAs but in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, coaching, in giving up high-paying jobs to spend more time with your children.  
Sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn't it?  Moreover, it's hard to think of a reason why we wouldn't want fathers to spend more positive interactive time with their children.  So it's easy just to say, "Oh, okay, that makes sense," and not to question the underlying claim.

Because it turns out that what he's saying -- school shooters are created by fatherless homes -- is simply untrue.  The contention seems to have originated with a Fox News story, and the whole thing took off, despite its simply being factually incorrect.

[image is in the Public Domain]

Now, mind you, there are cases of mass shooters who grew up in dysfunctional, fatherless homes.  Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, was the son of a bank robber who spent most of his son's childhood in prison.  The father of Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland school shooter, died when his son was five, and he was left with a mother who apparently was abusive, and eventually he was farmed out to relatives and friends.  Dylann Roof, the Charleston church shooter, was the product of divorce, and his father was allegedly physically abusive not only to his son but to his second wife.

But consider some of the others.  Adam Lanza, the Newtown school shooter, was the child of a couple who divorced when he was in fifth grade, but his father remained involved.  When Lanza's anxiety and apparent obsessive-compulsive disorder made it impossible for him to attend high school, he was taken out and jointly homeschool by his mother and father.  Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 2007, was the son of a pair of hard-working Korean immigrants who were "strong Christians" and had sought help for their son, who had shown signs of sociopathy and withdrawal all the way back in first grade.   Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was not the product of divorce, and if anything, his father sounds more stable than his mother.  Neither Eric Harris nor Dylan Klebold, the Columbine High School shooters, were the products of broken families, or even dysfunctional ones; nothing I could find (and there are thousands of sites out there dedicated to the tragedy) indicated that either boy grew up in anything but a perfectly ordinary upper middle class home.

So it's not sufficient to say, "Okay, that seems reasonable."  If you have a claim, it better be supported by all the evidence, or it's time to look elsewhere.  I'm certain that the awful home situations of Paddock, Cruz, and Roof contributed to their anger and eventual violent attacks; but clearly this isn't (as Farrell claims) proof that "the cause of mass shootings is fatherlessness," and his contention that 100% of mass shooters were functionally fatherless is simply wrong.

Once again, the situation is that we need to question our own biases.  The cause of mass murders in our society is multifaceted, and admits no easy solution: bullying and the resultant sense of powerlessness that engenders, the difficulty of obtaining consistent mental health services, poverty, child abuse, split families, radicalization/racism/fascist rhetoric, the easy availability of guns, and the culture of glorifying violence undoubtedly all play a role.

Certainly, we should all commit ourselves to doing what we can to remedy any of those problems; but claiming that one of them is responsible for a complex issue is facile thinking.  And as tempting as it is, such oversimplification never leads to a real solution.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Extremist think tank

Sometimes, and I say this with all due affection, my fellow humans scare the absolute shit out of me.

This comes up because of a story I ran into a couple of days ago over at Right Wing Watch, which is a place you definitely don't want to hang out if you want to maintain the opinion that the people around you are rational, or necessarily even sane.  This particular piece, by Peter Montgomery, is entitled, "Prophets Gather at Trump's Washington Hotel to Unleash Angel Armies on his Deep State Enemies," and is basically about how those of us who have criticized the president are about to get what we deserve, and boy are we really gonna be sorry.

The host of the event was Dutch Sheets, executive director of Christ for the Nations Institute, which is dedicated to remodeling society in government along biblical lines.  In other words, turning the United States into a Taliban-style theocracy, with all that implies for non-religious people like myself.    When asked about the conference, Sheets said, "There's never been anything on planet Earth like what's about to happen," which is true in that I can't imagine another scenario where self-professed Christians spent hours singing the praises of someone whose major claim to fame is a world speed record in commandment-breaking.

The battle, Sheets said, wasn't just about Trump, but about "whether the devastation caused by fifty years of anti-Christian activity will be reversed or, God forbid, continue...  The antichrist forces are almost rabid in their anger over the potential loss of progress."

By "anti-Christian activity," what he seems to mean is legislation requiring people to treat folks of other ethnic origins, religions, and sexual orientations with dignity.  If you can imagine.  Anyone who stands in their way, Sheets said, needs to be "removed" -- up to and including members of Congress and the Supreme Court (and since the only way Supreme Court members are "removed" is through resignation or death, that comment should definitely give you pause).

Sheets wasn't the only one who spoke at the conference, of course.  One speaker called Trump "the father of this nation" and that his decision to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was "history-making" and "prophecy-making."

What is most frightening about these people is their complete, unadulterated self-righteousness.  One speaker, evangelical activist Cindy Jacobs, said that god had told her personally that it was time to "convene the courts of heaven" and that the conference attendees "are God’s enforcers in the earth for His will to be done."  Another said that their duty was to "destroy all God’s enemies and all the enemies of America, in the name of Jesus Christ."

Sheets himself made a rather frightening prediction. Trump, he said, "would accomplish everything Almighty God sent you into that house to do, regardless of who likes it or who doesn’t... he will receive a visitation from heaven that will give him an intimate knowledge of Jesus Christ."  About anyone who tries to fight against Trump's agenda, he had the following to say:
You will fail!…  The Ekklesia [people who are Christian] will take you out.  The outpouring of Holy Spirit will take you out. Angels will take you out.  You are no match for any of the above.  You are no match for father, son, Holy Ghost, or his family or his angel armies.  You are no match for his word.  You are no match for his prophetic decrees….  So we push you back.  And we say your finest hour has come and gone, and the church now rises to the place that he has called us to walk in ….  We now rise up and I call that new order into the earth.
As long as Sheets and his pals are counting on the angels to come down and do all of this, I'm not particularly concerned, as there's no evidence that angels exist.  My fear is that we'll have a repeat of what always happens when extremists of all stripes don't get their way -- they stop waiting for God or Allah or what-have-you to take care of matters, and pick up a weapon to take care of it themselves.

I mean, really.  Will someone please explain to me how these people are different from ISIS in anything other than the details?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So that's our scary bit of news for the day.  I maintain that most of my fellow humans are really pretty nice people, trying to do what they can to keep themselves and their loved ones safe and happy.  The problem is, a small minority of wingnuts like these can do an incredible amount of damage in a very short period of time.  And given the rhetoric people like Sheets and Jacobs are spewing, it's only a matter of time -- especially given the collision course their Chosen One is currently on with the law.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Stress test

These days, it's pretty critical to find a way to reduce your stress.

It's endemic in our culture.  Between the chaos and noise, the frustrating jobs, and the continuing parade of bad news in the media, it'd be surprising if you weren't stressed.  And ongoing stress is linked to an increase in the hormone cortisol, long-term high levels of which are in turn connected to inflammatory diseases such as atherosclerosis and acid reflux disorder, and according to some studies, to dementia.

So reducing stress is pretty important, not just in the here-and-now to make your life more enjoyable, but to improve your chances at a healthy future.  So that's why I thought the research from Drexel University I read a couple of days ago was so interesting.

The paper "Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants' Responses Following Art Making," by Girija Kaimal, Kendra Ray, and Juan Muniz, appeared in the journal Art Therapy, and reports that the researchers found a reduction in cortisol levels in participants after spending only forty-five minutes making art -- a result that was irrespective of whether the participant had any prior experience as an artist.

"It was surprising and it also wasn’t," Kaimal said.  "It wasn’t surprising because that’s the core idea in art therapy: Everyone is creative and can be expressive in the visual arts when working in a supportive setting.  That said, I did expect that perhaps the effects would be stronger for those with prior experience."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Kaimal did report that a quarter of the subjects showed an increase in cortisol after making art.  Of this result, she said, "Some amount of cortisol is essential for functioning.  For example, our cortisol levels vary throughout the day — levels are highest in the morning because that gives us an energy boost to us going at the start of the day.  It could’ve been that the art-making resulted in a state of arousal and/or engagement in the study’s participants."

I would also suggest that it's possible the elevated cortisol may have come from frustration, although Kaimal reports that most of the test subjects reported feeling better and more relaxed after the experience, whatever their cortisol levels said.  I can vouch for the frustrations that making art can engender; some years ago, on the urging of my wife, I signed up for a pottery class, and have kept up the hobby since then despite the fact that I have the artistic ability that God gave gravy.  My first attempts looked like ceramics that were either created by a four-year-old or possibly an unusually intelligent chimp.  After four or five years, I was able to turn out pieces that were marginally better, but still looked like they might have gotten Honorable Mention in the sixth-grade art show.  And along the way, I experienced moments of enjoyment and stress-reduction interspersed with long stretches of wanting to fling the lump of clay at the nearest wall.

But I'm kind of a high-stress person anyhow, so maybe my experience isn't typical.  And it bears mention that I have high standards to live up to.  My wife is a professional artist (check out her work here if you want to be amazed), my dad made jewelry and gorgeous stained-glass windows, my mother was an oil painter and a porcelain artist, my older son is a talented cartoonist and caricaturist, and my younger son works full-time as a glassblower.  Somehow in all that, the Art Gene missed me, although in my own defense I can say with some confidence that I have excellent working copies of the Music Gene and the Fiction Writing Gene.

In any case, it's an interesting study.  As I said earlier, anything we can do to reduce the stress and anxiety in our lives is worthwhile.  And who knows?  Maybe I should give more of a chance to art.  Sign up for a painting class or something.  After ten years' practice, maybe I'd be able to do something more than a lopsided house with a yellow smiley-face as a sun.

Or maybe I should just go play the piano.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Time's up

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about some people who allegedly time traveled back here from as far away as the 95th century, which is pretty impressive until you listen to what they actually say (my post includes links to YouTube videos, if you're interested), at which point you are driven to the conclusion that the whole lot of them are loons.

That assessment, of course, is insufficient to get said loons to shut up and sit down, nor apparently to get people to stop believing them.  So today we have:

A time traveler who says another time traveler is responsible for 9/11.

I ran into the story over at Mysterious Universe, in an article by Paul Seaburn.  Seaburn, fortunately, seems as simultaneously amused and mystified by the claim as I am, which is reassuring.  But the guy in the YouTube video (of course he's also in a YouTube video), who says his name is Michael Phillips (born in 2043), is pretty unequivocal about the foul-ups, potential and otherwise, that have been caused by people leaping into the past and messing about with things.  Phillips says:
Another time traveller from, I think it was 2038, he came back, his name was Titor.  He came back to 2000, I do believe, and he thankfully stopped a civil war in America which was supposed to kick off in 2008…  It was decided that America needed a single unifying event to bring the country together and to revert a civil war – and that event was 9/11…  He did change the timeline so the civil war in 2008 didn’t happen.
The person he's referring to is John Titor, a name that showed up on various online sites in 2000 and 2001, and who claimed to be a US soldier from Tampa, Florida, who had jumped back here from the year 2036.  So at least Phillips is citing a real time travel claim, which is one up from what most of these wingnuts do.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But citing a claim is a far cry from showing that it's the truth.  And in the case of Titor, there were a variety of problems that cropped up, problems that Phillips decided it wasn't prudent to mention, so I will:
  • None of Titor's predictions came true.  He, for example, said there was going to be a civil war on US soil in 2004, and I remember 2004 quite clearly and do not recall a war.  I'm pretty sure I would have been aware of it had it happened.
  • He was pretty dismissive of the people back then.  "Perhaps I should let you all in on a little secret.  No one likes you in the future.  This time period is looked at as being full of lazy, self-centered, civically ignorant sheep.  Perhaps you should be less concerned about me and more concerned about that."  Of course, I really can't find much to argue with about this statement. 
  • Also in his favor, he said, "I did not come back here expecting to be believed."  So at least he had that part taken care of.
  • The biggest problem, though, was that research by investigative reporters in 2009 showed pretty conclusively that Titor was a hoax perpetrated by two brothers, Larry and John Haber.  So the fact that Titor seems not to exist kind of punches a hole into the claim that Michael Phillips came back here to protect us from him.
Be that as it may, Phillips has his own dire predictions about our future:
I do want to tell you about North Korea because they do attempt to launch a nuclear weapon at the United States – that happens later on this year in late 2018.  Hopefully we can change the timeline so it doesn’t happen.  That’s a partial reason for creating this video...  North Korea does attempt to attack a US territory – that’s what I’ll call it – in response the US sends two cruise missiles laden with nuclear tips.  Two of those to Pyongyang.  Unfortunately what happens as a result of this nuclear exchange, in 2019 World War Three does happen.  It kicks off.  It wasn’t an unlimited war – nowhere near the scale of World War One or World War Two, however, I have to try and stop it from happening. I don’t want people to die.
So then why doesn't he time-travel back to before Kim Jong-Un was born and give his dad a condom, or something?  Isn't that kind of thing supposed to be what time travelers are good at?

If that wasn't bad enough news, Phillips also said that Donald Trump would be reelected in 2020, and would be succeeded in 2024 by someone named "Michael McIntosh."  Whoever that is.  Oh, in 2022 an earthquake measuring 10.2 on the Richter Scale will hit Los Angeles and level it completely.  Then California will sink into the ocean or something.  Honestly, at that point I kind of stopped listening.

Anyway, there you have it.  Time travelers trying to foil other time travelers.  I probably shouldn't criticize; that's the basic idea of my novel Lock & Key.

Of course, it bears mentioned that there's that little word posted on the spine: