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, January 21, 2017

Protecting the arts from ideology

It's the end of first semester at my school, which means my Critical Thinking classes are finishing up and ready to move on, and I'm preparing to start with a whole new group in a week and a half.  The first semester students are currently working on their final papers, which is a critical analysis of how their thinking has changed since the beginning of the class.

I received one paper early -- they're not officially due until next Thursday -- and one paragraph from it stood out.  The student wrote:
One thing that has become apparent to me through this course is that you can't separate critical thinking from creativity.  Critical thinking really means applying creativity and a broader perspective to everything -- seeing that there are many paths to understanding, and for most things in life, there is no single right answer.  This is why I believe that cutting arts education, which is happening in many schools, will have negative impacts on every subject.  By eliminating the arts, we are taking away one of the fundamentally unique things about being human -- the ability to create something entirely new.  How can we find creative solutions to problems if we've been taught that the most creative endeavors have no value?
Well, first, her perceptivity absolutely took my breath away.  Her observations are not only spot-on, they are even more pertinent than she may have realized, because just yesterday an announcement was made that the Trump administration is considering balancing the federal budget by (amongst other things) eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts.

It brings to mind a similar move that was proposed in England during World War II -- to eliminate funding for the arts in favor of diverting the money to the military.  Winston Churchill famously responded, "Then what are we fighting for?"

Which is it exactly.  Our lives are made immeasurably richer because of the arts -- not only art per se, but writing, music, theater, film, and dance.  The NEA has supported arts and artists of all genres, not to mention programs to encourage the next generation of creative young people.  So you might be asking yourself, why would the new administration target such an organization?

Make no mistake about it; this is an ideologically-based salvo.  It's not about saving money.  The NEA's contribution to the federal budget last year was $148 million out of a $3.9 trillion total, a portion that Philip Bump explains thusly:
If you were at Thanksgiving and demanded a slice of pecan pie proportionate to 2016 NEA spending relative to the federal budget, you'd end up with a piece of pie that would need to be sliced off with a finely-tuned laser.  Put another way, if you make $50,000 a year, spending the equivalent of what the government spends on these three programs would be like spending less than $10.
The conservative powers-that-be have targeted the arts for one reason and one reason only; artists are not controllable.  If you give people the power to create, they will do so -- but won't necessarily create something that makes your political party, religion, or gender comfortable.  One of the most widely-publicized examples of this is the NEA-supported work of American photographer Andres Serrano, who made headlines (and received death threats) for his piece Piss Christ, which was a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine.

Sometimes the role of art is to shock, to jolt us out of our complacency.  I know as a writer, I am conscious of the fact that I'm writing to entertain -- but at the same time, if my readers' brains are the same when they're done with my book as they were when they started, I've failed.  All of the arts are about expanding our awareness -- twisting our minds around so we see things in a different way.

That twisting process isn't necessarily comfortable.  And for those of us who value conformity -- those who would like to see everyone follow the rules and march in tempo and draw inside the lines -- it can be profoundly frightening.  But that's exactly why we need the arts.  The capacity for turning your brain around and altering your perspective is not learned by rote.

And we'll need that sort of creativity, considering some of the issues we're currently facing.  As Albert Einstein put it, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

So this ideological shot-across-the-bow needs to be fought, and fought hard, even if you haven't always agreed with every project the NEA has supported.  We need our artists, and more importantly, we need our government and business leaders, our doctors, scientists, educators, and engineers to have the skills that the arts teach.  As my student put it -- if we devalue the arts, we devalue the creative approach to all aspects of life.

And to the artists, writers, musicians, actors, dancers, and all other creative people out there: keep creating.  Keep exploring, keep pushing the boundaries, keep making us see the universe in a different way.  Don't let your unique voice be silenced.  Even though things seem dark right now, recall what one of my favorite visionaries -- J. R. R. Tolkien -- put in the mouth of his iconic character Frodo Baggins, as he faced the overwhelming might of Mordor:  "They cannot win forever."

Friday, January 20, 2017

Giving incompetence a chance

One of the most common things that has been said to me by Trump supporters is "give him a chance to govern."  And although I've been pretty vocal in my criticism of the President-elect, his rhetoric, and his decisions, no one would be happier than me if the prognostications of doom I'm hearing don't come true.  After all, the health of our democracy, our standing in the world, and the long-term survivability of the planet is far more important than any schadenfreude I would get from seeing someone I don't like fail.

But as far as giving people a chance, there are times when what a person says or does makes me disinclined to put them in the position of being able to do worse -- or simply to follow through on what they've already said.  I'm under no obligation to "give a chance" to someone who has shown no sign of competence.

Which brings me to Betsy DeVos.

I was appalled enough when she was first nominated for the position of Secretary of Education.  DeVos is a multi-millionaire whose staunch support of vouchers and charter schools in her home state of Michigan has been, by and large, an abysmal failure.  In an article written last month for the Detroit Free Press, Stephen Henderson has outlined the results -- a weakened public school system, and a host of charter schools whose lack of oversight has generated year after year of failure.  (One of them, Hope Academy of Grand River and Livernois, scored in the first percentile for academic performance in 2013 -- and despite of that, two years later had its charter renewed.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I still held out a modicum of hope that her confirmation hearing would show that she wasn't as bad as she seemed.  That hope, unfortunately, was destined to be dashed.  Her testimony at the hearing was a rambling, disjointed birdwalk that at times left me thinking, "What did she just say?"  She showed herself to be unprepared -- no, worse, she showed herself to be entirely incompetent.  As an example, she revealed during questioning that she didn't know the difference between academic proficiency and academic growth, terms that any first-year teacher would know.

As should the Secretary of Education.

It'd be nice to think this was just a stumble.  We all do that sometimes -- choke on something we should have known, or do know, and afterwards think, "Wow, I sure screwed that up."  But the entire hearing was full of "stumbles" like this.  When Virginia Senator Tim Kaine asked her if she supported compliance with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act as a requirement for receiving federal funding, she replied, "I think that's a matter best left to the states."

So wait a moment.  It's up to the states to determine if they'll follow a federal law?  One that mandates equal access to facilities and services for all students, regardless of disabilities?

That response, however, became a refrain.  On a question regarding guns in schools asked by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, she once again said, "I think that's best left for states and locales to decide."  Allow me to point out that Murphy represents the district in Connecticut where the Sandy Hook massacre took place.  When he understandably responded with incredulity, DeVos went into a bizarre description of how she knows of a school in Wyoming where they keep a gun to protect students from "potential grizzlies."

The response was so weird that #PotentialGrizzlies trended on Twitter for hours afterward.

Most of her testimony was a rather clumsy dance to avoid answering questions directly.  When given a long list of statistics regarding the failure of schools in Detroit, she responded that she thought Detroit schools were actually doing quite well.  Asked about her stance on science education, apropos of the teaching of evolution and climate change, she said, "I support the teaching of great science."

Well, forgive me for being a little dubious on that point, given DeVos's history of supporting groups like Focus on the Family and the Foundation for Traditional Values, both of which have worked tirelessly to eliminate the teaching of evolution in public schools.  Not to mention her own words, "Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God's kingdom."

The supporters of the President-elect are saying, "Give her a chance."  Well, you know what?  I am under no obligation to "give a chance" to a person who has shown herself to be wildly unqualified for the job she's been nominated for.

Imagine if this was the approach taken in business.  A CEO interviews a candidate for a job, and the prospective employee refuses to give direct answers to questions, and in general shows himself to be a terrible choice for the job.  If the CEO didn't hire him, would you tell him, "You should have given him a chance?"

Worse still is the realization that the "chance" we're being asked to take here is to risk the education of millions of children.  We have no option at this point but to give Donald Trump a chance; after today, he'll be the president whether we like it or not.  We are not, however, required to give a chance to his incompetent nominees.

That's why we have confirmation hearings.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Thus sayeth Lord Steven

I'm not in the habit of using Skeptophilia as a forum to give publicity to weirdos, but sometimes I find a member of the Wingnut Coalition that is so delightfully out there that I just have to tell you about it.

In this case we have a guy who calls himself "Lord Steven Christ."  As if "Christ" was Jesus's last name or something.  (Although musician and stand-up comic Stephen Lynch did riff on this idea in his song "Craig," which is about Jesus's bad-boy brother, Craig Christ.  Note: the song is hilarious, but at the same time runs pretty close to the edge of sacrilege more than once, and is highly NSFW.  You have been warned.)

Anyhow, Lord Steven's website is a sight to behold.  First off, he's very fond of having photographs of himself all over the place, usually shirtless and in mid-flex.  It also has links to three dozen or so videos, the general gist of which is that the Earth is concave and the sky is made of glass.

I'm not making this up.  So now we've gone one step past the Flat Earth lunacy; the Earth is actually shaped like a bowl.  The reason we can't see this -- why, for example, someone with a telescope can't see Japan over there on the other edge of the bowl -- is because "light bends to the center so you can't see the other side."  Whatever that means.  But anyone who doesn't believe this, Lord Steven says, is delusional.  He says that NASA and the other pesky people who investigate the universe and have come up with different answers are "lie-n-tists."

But the most interesting part of his spiel is his take on religion, because in his opinion there should be only one religion, and that is the religion of Lord Steven.  In fact, he wrote a letter to Pope Francis demanding that he turn over the keys to the Vatican forthwith, which I include in toto below because it's just that wonderful:
Dear Jorge Bergoglio: 
As your fellow Jesuit colleagues should know very well, I am the Returned Christ.  I am awaiting exaltation to world authority over all mankind.  I am ready to establish my Kingdom. 
According to the Malachy papal prophecies, you know that you, by taking on the name Francis di Pietro, have fulfilled the office of the last pope dubbed as Peter Romanus. According to the prophecy you are called to feed the people.  You are to feed them with the truth of the reality of the Kingdom of God, in which I am on the verge of establishing.  You are also commanded to tell the people that I, Christ am back, returned in a new body with a new name "Steven", the Crowned One.  You are commanded to help educate the people of my return and the hoped for liberty and righteousness to all the people that fear my name. 
You also should know that I am the "Dreadful Judge" that is mentioned in the Malachy prophecy, which also states that Rome will be destroyed.  I am here to execute judgment upon the entire Earth, and to educate the masses about taking cover prior to the hail descending from the sky, and the sun burning up the Earth. 
I am here to implement my universal mark upon humanity.  This will separate the sheep from the goats.  All who submit and wear my Seal of the Living God will be protected and blessed, those who refuse will be left to perish outside of safety. 
I command you to conceal not my identity and my message to the masses.  For the time is short and judgment is at hand.  You are to point them to me as the returned Christ. 
I expect a quick response from you confirming your obedience to me. 
The Lord Steven Christ
So that's pretty unequivocal.  I haven't heard what, if anything, Pope Francis responded, but I'm guessing that Lord Steven's demands were ignored given that I haven't heard anything about Francis resigning.  As far as the rest of his message, I have to say it's pretty nice of him to Educate the Masses before the hail descends and Earth gets burned up by the Sun, but I'm a little less enthusiastic about Perishing Outside of Safety.

I guess you can't have everything.

He also has other stuff about how he's in favor of the New World Order as long as he gets to be in charge, and that his followers need to get this complicated star-pattern design tattooed on the back of their right hands so he'll know who not to smite.  "Please also be wise and reverent in relating to me," Lord Steven writes, "because there are many proud and bashing people online that do not understand who they are relating to."

Here's Lord Steven's seal, in case you are interested in a hand tattoo.

Then there's his diatribe against Alex Jones, because apparently Lord Steven is of the opinion that like the Highlander, amongst the wingnuts There Can Only Be One.  He says that Alex Jones is a "child," and that it'd help us to see that if Alex would dress up in a bib and a frilly bonnet and hold a rattle.

Which is a mental image that will forever haunt my nightmares.

So anyhow, the whole thing is highly entertaining, in a weird, performance-art sort of way.  I strongly recommend watching some of the videos.  I watched one of them, after fortifying myself with a glass of scotch, and only twice had to pause it and put my head down on my desk to recover.  After a second glass of scotch, though, some of it actually started to make sense, so I decided I'd better either stop watching or stop drinking.

Which was a rather easy choice to make, honestly.

But I felt obliged to pass along the website to my readers, in the hopes that you'll find it as engaging as I did.  Unless, of course, you're a "proud and bashing person," in which case you'll probably just roll your eyes and stop watching.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Honest vulgarity

*Note to the more sensitive members of the studio audience: as the subject of this post is profanity, there's gonna be some profane language herein.  Be thou forewarned.*

My dad had a rather ripe vocabulary, probably largely due to the 29 years he spent in the Marine Corps.  My mother, on the other hand, was strait-laced to the point that even saying the word "sex" in her presence resulted in a raised eyebrow and the Fear-Inducing Stare of Disapproval.  My dad solved this problem by inventing new swear words (such as "crudbug") or repurposing actual words for swearing (such as "fop").  When my mom would get on my dad's case about it, he would respond, completely deadpan,"Those aren't vulgar words, Marguerite," which was true in detail if not in spirit.

It's probably obvious by this juncture that I take after my dad a lot more than my mom.  I tend to have a pretty bad mouth, a habit I have to be careful about because my job involves guiding Tender Young Minds (although I think I could make a pretty good case that most of those Tender Young Minds have a worse vocabulary than I do).  But by this point in my life, my mom's litany of "the only people who need to use vulgar language are the ones who don't have any better words in their vocabulary to say" is ringing pretty hollow.  I may have a lot of faults, but I'm damn sure that a poor vocabulary is not amongst them.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I tend to use swear words on two occasions -- for the humor value, and when I'm mad.  And to me, those are two very valid instances in which to let fly.  I still recall the great jubilation I felt when as a graduate student I first ran across John J. McCarthy's seminal paper on the linguistics of swearing, "Prosodic Structure and Expletive Infixation," in which we find out the rules governing inserting the word "fucking" into another word, and thus why it's okay to say "abso-fucking-lutely" but no one says "ab-fucking-solutely."

Even more cheering was the paper I just read yesterday by Gilad Feldman, Huiwen Lian, Michal Kosinski, and David Stillwell called "Frankly, We Do Give a Damn: The Relationship Between Profanity and Honesty" in which we find out that habitual swearers tend to be more honest, and which also should be the winner of the 2017 Clever Academic Paper Title Award.  The authors write:
There are two conflicting perspectives regarding the relationship between profanity and dishonesty.  These two forms of norm-violating behavior share common causes and are often considered to be positively related.  On the other hand, however, profanity is often used to express one’s genuine feelings and could therefore be negatively related to dishonesty.  In three studies, we explored the relationship between profanity and honesty. We examined profanity and honesty first with profanity behavior and lying on a scale in the lab, then with a linguistic analysis of real-life social interactions on Facebook, and finally with profanity and integrity indexes for the aggregate level of U.S. states.  We found a consistent positive relationship between profanity and honesty; profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level and with higher integrity at the society level.
Besides the general finding that profanity is positively correlated with honesty, I thought the variation in profanity use state-by-state was absolutely fascinating.  Connecticut had the highest levels of swearing, followed by Delaware, New Jersey, Nevada, and New York (not too goddamn shabby, fellow New Yorkers, and I'm proud to have done my part in our state's fifth-place finish).  Utah came in dead last, followed by Arkansas, Idaho, South Carolina, and Tennessee.  One has to wonder if religiosity has something to do with this, given the bible-belt status of most of the states at the bottom of the pile, but establishing any sort of causation was beyond the scope of this study.

Okay, so I'm coming across as self-congratulatory here, but I still think this research is awesome.  Given the amount of grief I got from my mom about my inappropriate vocabulary when I was a teenager, I think I'm to be allowed a moment of unalloyed pleasure at finding out that I and other habitual swearers are more likely to be honest.  So while I'll still have to watch my mouth at school, it's nice to know that my turning the air blue at home when I wallop my shin on the coffee table is just my way of honestly expressing that bone bruises hurt like a motherfucker.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Deadly pseudoscience

In 2012, a 19-month-old boy named Ezekiel Stephan spiked a fever and was obviously in distress.  His parents, a British Columbian couple named David and Collet Stephan, decided not to seek medical attention for their child, instead treating him with "natural" and "alternative" treatments such as extracts of hot pepper, garlic, onion, and horseradish.

The little boy had bacterial meningitis.  By the time they decided to get the boy to the emergency room, he had lapsed into a coma, and hours later he died.

The Stephans were arrested and tried for "failing to provide necessities of life for their child."  David Stephan was said to be "completely unremorseful" and was sentenced to four months in jail.  Collet was put under house arrest for three months.  Both were ordered to perform 240 hours of community service.

And now, the Stephans have gone to Prince George, British Columbia to promote "natural remedies" for Truehope Nutritional Support, Inc., a company founded by his father.  Truehope's EMPowerPlus is one of the "remedies" that "assists with brain function" that they gave to their child shortly before he died.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Dave Fuller, owner of Ave Maria Specialties, a "holistic health" store that carries Truehope products, seems to give nothing but a shoulder shrug with respect to the Stephans' actions.  "Who am I to say that just because something happened that was an accident the guy regrets — his son died — that he shouldn't have a job?" Fuller said.

Let's be clear here.  This was not an accident.  Bacterial meningitis is a horrible disease, but caught early enough, is treatable.  This couple deliberately ignored their little boy's increasingly severe symptoms in favor of quack "remedies," rejecting modern medicine for alt-med bullshit.  And as a result, their child died.

Unfortunately, this abandonment of science in favor of pseudoscience is becoming increasingly common.  The medical researchers are labeled as shills for "Big Pharma," and their data is rejected as inaccurate or outright fabrication, designed to "keep us buying drugs" or "keep us sick," and any information about low efficacy or side effects is allegedly covered up.

In fact, we're one of the healthiest societies the world has ever seen.  Most of the diseases that killed our great-grandparents' generation are now unheard of (how many people do you know have had diphtheria?).  And yet there are people who want to reject everything that modern medical research has given us in favor of the same kinds of remedies our ancestors used -- that didn't work very well back then, and still don't work now.

It's this same idea that is driving Donald Trump's links to the anti-vaxx movement, most recently his request of a meeting with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an anti-vaxxer who hides behind the "we just want safe vaccines" half-truth -- and Kennedy is now apparently going to head up a "vaccine safety board" to further investigate such nonsense as the link between vaccines and autism, which has been studied every which way from Sunday and always results in no correlation whatsoever.

All of this gives the impression that we need oversight because at the moment vaccines and other medications are simply thrown out willy-nilly by the medical researchers with no vetting at all, and that now we'll finally have someone making sure we're protected from the evils of Big Pharma.  Of course, nothing could be further from the truth; there is already the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices (which has been around for fifty years) which oversees the testing and evaluation of vaccines and provides data to the CDC regarding efficacy and potential side effects.  The same is true for other medications; there is a rigorous set of tests each drug has to undergo, first on animal models and then (if they look promising) on human volunteers, before they are approved by the FDA.

That doesn't mean the process is foolproof.  Humans are fallible, data can be misinterpreted, experiments can fall prey to unintended sample bias.  There's no doubt that the profit motive in the pharmaceuticals and health insurance industries has led to price inflation for medications.  But the drugs themselves are, by and large, safe and effective, and sure as hell are better than horseradish extract for treating meningitis.

But the step from "the system has some flaws and could use reform" to "reject all modern medicine in favor of roots and berries" is all too easy a step for some people, and in the case of the Stephans, it resulted in their son's death.  And, more appallingly, they're still hawking the same stuff despite a very real test case establishing that it's worthless.

The bottom line: science isn't perfect, but as a means of determining the truth, it's the best thing on the market.  And also, the trenchant comment from Tim Minchin's performance piece "Storm:"  "There's a name for alternative medicine that works.  It's called... medicine."

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sifting fact from fiction

President-elect Donald Trump's latest ploy, any time he is criticized in the press, is to claim that what they're saying is "fake news."  (That, and to threaten to revoke their right to cover his speeches.)

Five days ago, he tweeted (of course, because that's how adults respond to criticism) that the Russian dossier alleged to have compromising information on him was "fake news and crap."  The, um, interaction he is alleged to have had with some Russian prostitutes was likewise "fake news, phony stuff, it did not happen."  About CNN, he said the "organization’s terrible...  You are fake news."  He's banned reporters from The Washington Post from attending his events, calling it "incredibly inaccurate... phony and dishonest."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

There are two things that are troubling about this.

One is that Trump himself has been responsible for more than one demonstrably false claim intended to do nothing but damage his opponents.  Kali Holloway of AlterNet found fourteen, in fact.  Trump either created himself, or was responsible for publicizing, claims such as the following:
  • Barack Obama was a Kenyan Muslim and never attended Columbia University
  • Hillary Clinton was covering up a chronic debilitating illness and was too sick to serve
  • Ted Cruz's father was involved in the plot to kill John F. Kennedy
  • Thousands of Muslims in and around New York City had a public demonstration to cheer the events of 9/11
  • Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered
  • 97% of the murders in the United States are blacks killing other blacks (when confronted on this blatantly false claim, he said, "It was just a retweet... am I going to check every statistic?")
  • Millions of votes in the presidential election were cast illegally
  • Climate change is a Chinese hoax
  • Vaccines cause autism -- and that the doctors opposing this fiction deliberately lied to cover it up
And so on and so forth.

So Trump calling out others for fake news should definitely be an odds-on contender for the "Unintentional Irony of the Year" award for 2017.

The more upsetting aspect of this, however, is that Trump is implying that you can't trust anything on the media -- except, of course, what comes out of his mouth.  The implication is that nothing you see on the news or read in the newspaper is true, that the default stance is to say it's all fake.

This is a profoundly disturbing claim.  For one thing, as I've said many times before, cynicism is no more noble (or correct) than gullibility; disbelieving everything is exactly as lazy and foolish as believing everything.  For another, the media are really our only way of finding out what is happening in the world.  Without media, we would not only have no idea what was going on in other countries, our own government would be operating behind a smokescreen, their machinations invisible to everyone but those in on the game.

Which is a fine way to turn a democracy into a dictatorship.

There is some small kernel of truth to the accusation, however; it is true that all media are biased.  That CNN and MSNBC slant to the left and Fox and The Wall Street Journal slant to the right is so obvious that it hardly bears mention.  To jump from there to "everything they say is a lie," however, is to embrace a convenient falsehood that allows you to reject everything you hear and read except for what fits with your preconceived notions -- effectively setting up your own personal confirmation bias as the sine qua non of understanding.

The truth, of course, is more nuanced than that, and also far more powerful.  We are all capable of sifting fact from fiction, neither believing everything nor rejecting everything.  It's called critical thinking, and in these rather fractious times it's absolutely... well, critical.  As biologist Terry McGlynn put it, "When we teach our students to distinguish science from pseudoscience, we are giving them the skills to identify real and fake journalism."

I won't lie to you.  Sorting fact from fiction in the media (or anywhere else) is hard work, far harder than simply accepting what we'd like to believe and rejecting what we'd like to be false.  But it's possible, and more than that, it's essential.  Check sources -- even if (especially if) they're from your favorite media source.  Check them using sources that have a different slant.  Go to the original documents instead of merely reading what someone else has written about them.  Apply good rules of thumb like Ockham's Razor and the ECREE (Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence) principle.  Pay special attention to claims from people who have proven track records of lying, or people who are making claims outside of their area of expertise.

Donald Trump's snarling of "fake news, phony journalism" every time he's criticized should immediately put you on notice that what he's saying is questionable -- not (again) that it should be disbelieved out of hand, but that it should be scrutinized.  Over the next four years, people on both sides of the aisle are going to have to be on guard -- never in my memory has the country been so polarized, so ready to begin that precipitous slide into sectarian violence that once begun is damn near impossible to halt.  Our leaders are showing no inclination to address the problems we face honestly and openly -- so it falls to us as responsible citizens to start sifting through their claims more carefully instead of simply accepting whatever half-truths or outright lies fit our preconceived notions.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Pajama game

So the latest alt-med health craze is: high-tech pajamas.

I'm not making this up.  Under Armour has just released a Tom Brady-endorsed line of "Athlete Recovery Sleepwear," which according to the advertisement works as follows:
Far Infrared is a type of energy on the infrared spectrum that has several benefits for the human body.  TB12 technology was developed to harness it even when you’re resting. The soft bioceramic print on the inside of the garment absorbs the body’s natural heat and reflects Far Infrared back to the skin.  This helps your body recover faster, promotes better sleep, reduces inflammation, and regulates cell metabolism.
The main problem with this is that reflecting heat back to your body is what a good blanket will do.  It's entirely possible that ceramic-impregnated cloth does it more efficiently, but I'm not convinced that you're going to get any health benefit out of fancy pjs any more than you would out of a nice down comforter.

NOT Tom Brady pajamas.  [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

To be fair, there has been some research on the effects of far infrared on health.  Some of the results were suggestive -- especially those linking far-infrared sauna use with lowered inflammation -- but the main study I've seen cited has a good many woo-ish bits, such as the following:
For FIR used as a therapeutic modality the alternative terms “biogenetic radiation” and “biogenetic rays” have been coined and widely used in the popular literature. FIR wavelength is too long to be perceived by the eyes, however, the body experiences its energy as a gentle radiant heat which can penetrate up to 1.5 inches (almost 4 cm) beneath the skin.  FIR energy is sufficient to exert rotational and vibrational modes of motion in bonds forming the molecules (including the water molecules) as well as resonate with cellular frequencies.
What, exactly, does "resonating with cellular frequencies" mean?

Then there's this site, which is so loony that it falls into the "not even wrong" category.  Here's an excerpt long enough to give you the general gist, but not so long that you'll kill valuable brain cells by reading it:
FIR has vast penetrating and healing powers.  You know that if the Astronauts are taking advantage of the power of Far Infrared by using it in their Space Suits, there has got to be some value to it.  FIR emitting Bio Ceramic mineral compounds are even used to line the inside of their space shuttle to replicate the energy of sunlight.
We're also told that far infrared rays are "unique in that they travel in straight lines" (like all electromagnetic radiation, actually); that they "vibrate at the same frequency as the human body;" that they are "drug-free;" that they "reduce the acidity of the body" and that "a more alkaline body is healthier;" and that they "help heal burns and reduce scaring [sic]."

Well, I don't know about you, but that all sounds pretty convincing to me.

The difficulty of all of this is that the First Law of Thermodynamics, which is strictly enforced in most jurisdictions, indicates that any heat reflection you get from ceramic pajamas is not going to introduce any more energy into your person than the amount you lost to radiation in the first place.  Like I said, if you're cold at night, get a blanket.

I haven't mentioned the fact that the Under Armour Athlete Recovery Sleepwear will set you back $144.98, an expense that could be obviated entirely by doing what I do, which is ditching the pajamas entirely.  That may have been too much information, but it's probably still worth it if I've saved you 145 bucks.

So in summary: there may be some small benefit to wearing Tom Brady's pajamas, but even if the results are not the placebo effect they're unlikely to be anything you couldn't achieve other ways.  The benefits of far-infrared are still pretty dubious, and most of the positive results have been with far-infrared emitters -- like heat lamps and saunas.  If you're looking for a way to sleep better, put your money into a more comfortable mattress instead.  And for cryin' in the sink, don't fall for the whole "resonating with your body's cellular frequency" bullshit.

Although it could be worse.  They could have mentioned "quantum."