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, February 28, 2015

A recall-the-idiots clause

There should be some kind of provision for removing from office politicians who unequivocally demonstrate that they are morons.

Being in public office is highly demanding, requires thinking on one's feet, and necessitates having a working knowledge of a great many different areas.  So I'm not expecting perfection, here.  Everyone makes missteps, and our leaders are no exception.  They should not be excoriated just for uttering a gaffe here or there.

But sometimes, there are examples of idiocy so egregious that they really should prompt a recall of some kind.  We need to be led by the best minds we have -- and if politicians demonstrate that their IQs are lower than their shoe sizes, they should be shown the door.

Because I'm guessing that some of these people are too stupid to find the door unassisted.

I bring this up because of four -- count 'em, four -- examples of deeply ingrained stupidity in our elected officials just from the past three days.  WARNING: put a pillow on your desk, because I'm guessing there will be multiple headdesks to follow.

Let's start with Representative Barry Loudermilk of Georgia, who was asked at a press conference about the link between vaccines and autism.  He responded that he chose not to vaccinate his own children.  "We didn't immunize," he said.  "They're healthy."  Which is analogous to a guy saying, "Seatbelts are unnecessary.  I drive without a seatbelt, and I'm still alive."

Oh, and have I mentioned that Representative Loudermilk is on the House Subcommittee for Science and Technology?

Then we have Idaho Representative Vito Barbieri, who was in a hearing about a bill that involved the use of telemedicine -- using tiny remote devices to give doctors information, such as a little camera that could be swallowed in place of a standard colonoscopy.  Barbieri asked a doctor who was giving testimony in the hearing if the same technique could be used to give doctors information about the fetus during pregnancy.

"Can this same procedure then be done in a pregnancy?" Barbieri asked.  "Swallowing a camera and helping the doctor determine what the situation is?"

The doctor patiently explained that that wouldn't work, because a woman's reproductive system isn't connected to her digestive tract.

"Fascinating," Barbieri replied.  "That makes sense."

Is it just me that finds it appalling that we're allowing men who don't know that a woman's uterus isn't connected to her colon to make decisions regarding women's health?

Even worse is New York Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti, who wants a bill passed blocking the use of GMOs in vaccines.  Here's the language he wants passed:
There's just one tiny problem with all of this.  The processes he's describing are the ones used to inactivate the viruses and bacteria used in vaccines.  If the bill passed, it would require that vaccines contain unmodified pathogens -- i.e., the strains of the microorganisms that cause disease.

Can't you hear what the doctors would have to tell parents?  "Just to let you know, Mrs. Fernwinkle.  One of the side effects of this tetanus vaccine is that your son will get lockjaw and die, because I'm injecting him with the tetanus bacteria itself."

But no one is a better candidate for the "You Are Too Stupid To Govern" award than Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is the chair of the Committee on the Environment and Public Works, and who this week brought a snowball into the Senate and threw it on the floor.  "In case we have forgotten, because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record, I ask the chair, 'You know what this is?'  It's a snowball, from outside here.  So it's very, very cold out.  Very unseasonable."

Which makes me want to scream, "There is a difference between weather and climate, you illiterate moron!"  "It just snowed" is not an argument against climate change, just as "I have lots of money" is not an argument against world poverty.  And ironically, the same day as Inhofe did his idiotic demonstration, scientists at Berkeley National Laboratory in California announced that they had data directly correlating carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere with the trapping of thermal energy -- something that has been demonstrated many times in the lab, but never under ordinary conditions out in the environment.  The data -- which has been collected over a period of ten years from two widely-separated sites -- agrees exactly with climate-change models that nitwits like Inhofe think have been manufactured by evil scientists for their own personal gain.

So I really think we need to have an option for recall.  An "I'm sorry, we have to hold a revote, because we accidentally elected a blithering idiot to public office" clause.

I mean, seriously: do we want these people in charge of making decisions about our future?

Now, I have to go.  I've got an ice pack and some aspirin waiting for me.  My forehead hurts.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Civil disobedience as a moral imperative

Let me just say at the outset that I'm a law-abiding sort.  With the exception of getting pulled over twice for driving too fast, I've never had a single unpleasant run-in with the cops.  And both times I got caught speeding, I was able to argue my way out of a ticket.

While I'd like to think that my history of clean living is because I have a respect for authority and the rule of law, some of it is due to the simple fact that I hate complications and conflict.  If I come up to a stop sign in broad daylight, and it's clear that no oncoming car on either side is within a quarter-mile of the intersection, I'd rather stop, look both ways, and then go rather than run the stop sign and risk having a third opportunity to explain my actions to a cop.

But my question of the day is: are there times when deliberately, knowingly breaking the law is the right thing to do?

I'm talking, of course, about civil disobedience.  And in my opinion, sometimes putting your own legal record, safety, or (perhaps) life at risk to make a higher point is not only the right thing, it comes close to a moral imperative.

A 2010 sit-in in Budapest protesting forced evictions of the poor [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The whole idea of breaking the law to bring attention to a greater wrong has been much on my mind lately, for two entirely different causes, both of which will be immediately evident to regular readers of this blog.  The first one is the "opt-out" possibility for standardized testing, which is coming to a head in a lot of states, most recently New Mexico -- where state education officials are using combative language to make the point that exempting students from standardized tests is illegal, and districts that do not compel all children to sit for mandated exams risk losing their funding.  A number of districts are rebelling, some even providing pre-printed forms to parents to sign that exempt their children from the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exams.

And none did it with such panache as the Las Cruces School District, where the forms were printed with the statements, "Federal and state laws require all students to participate in state accountability assessments," and "These laws do not offer an exemption or right of refusal to test."  One has to wonder how close they were to adding, "But this form allows parents to exempt their kids anyway," and "You can kiss the Las Cruces School District's rosy-red ass, policy wonks."

The other area in my life in which civil disobedience is making some demands is in our area's attempts to block the storage of LPG (liquified petroleum gas) in unstable salt caverns beneath Seneca Lake.  Over 200 people, including my wife, have been arrested and charged with trespassing for blockading the gates of the facility, and I'm likely to be in the next round.  (Apparently they're not marching the protesters off in handcuffs, which I find kind of disappointing.  Such a missed opportunity for a photo-op.  But if someone can get a photograph of me being arrested, when it happens, I'll certainly find a way to post it here.)

Of course, what I'm talking about here is mild compared to the penalties you can incur in other countries.  Protesting against repressive governments in other countries can get you jailed and/or tortured, being that that's what repressive governments do.  Deliberately breaking the law to make a point reaches its pinnacle of risk in places like Saudi Arabia, where last week a young man was sentenced to death by public beheading for tearing up a qu'ran, hitting it with a shoe, and uttering curses against the prophet Muhammad.  Apparently the man is an atheist -- or, as they call them in that part of the world, an "apostate" -- and he was demonstrating his contempt for religion in general, and Islam in particular, by his actions.

And Saudi law being what it is, in a few weeks he'll almost certainly find himself kneeling in the city square of his home town of Hafr al-Batin, and his head will be severed with a sword.

Which brings up the question of when a cause is important enough to risk your own life.  Or, to put it another way, when is something legal, and at the same time so ethically wrong, that putting yourself in harm's way is the right thing to do?

Not easy questions to answer.  Human morality being the shaky thing it sometimes is, it's easy to conceive of someone breaking the law for his/her own selfish ends, and then justifying it by calling it civil disobedience.  It's also true that one person's civil disobedience is another person's immorality -- as in the parents who are putting other children at risk of disease by their insistence on their right not to vaccinate their own kids.

These are difficult things to sort out.  The best choice is to do a lot of soul-searching before you embark on such a course of action, not only to be certain you understand the risk, but to make sure that you're not engaging in equivocation to rationalize away something that you really shouldn't have done in the first place.  As we discuss at length in my Critical Thinking classes, morality is a deeply personal thing, and unfortunately the words "moral," "ethical," and "legal" don't always line up the way we might hope.  I'll end with a quote from that exemplar of the willingness to put one's life at risk for a higher cause, Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote, in Letter from the Birmingham Jail:
There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.  I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.  You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws.  This is certainly a legitimate concern.  Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws.  One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?"  The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.  I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws.  One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.  Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The fire of the mind

In Umberto Eco's masterful medieval murder mystery The Name of the Rose, we meet a villain who is willing to kill, over and over, to stop his fellow monks...

... from reading a book.

The following is a spoiler, so you can skip the next few paragraphs (scroll down to where it says [end spoiler alert]) if you haven't read Eco's novel.  Which I hope you all will, because it's brilliant.  But the punchline makes a point that needs to be made now, seven centuries after the time in which the novel is set, as strongly as it did then.

Europe of the early 14th century was a grim place, and life was, in Thomas Hobbes's words, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."  Religion had an iron grip over people's lives, and the learned men of the time taught that the fear of god was paramount.  This fear was translated downwards into fear of the "hierarchy of heaven," as represented here on Earth by the Pope, Cardinals, Bishops, and the monastic system.  And within that system, questioning and freedom of thought was considered heresy, punishable by death.

In this system we find two opposing characters: the brilliant and curious scholar Brother William of Baskerville, and the stern and unyielding Brother Jorge of Burgos.  William is called in to solve a series of murders that have occurred in an unnamed abbey in the mountains of Italy.  The murders revolve around the abbey's magnificent library, the secrets of which are only accessible to the librarian and his assistants.  And one by one, the monks connected with the library are being picked off by someone who is bound and determined to keep some of its knowledge out of the hands of the monks (or anyone else).

The knowledge in question turns out to be a book by Aristotle that was thought lost; the second volume of his Poetics, in which he describes the proper use of comedy, and argues that laughter is freeing, proper, and purifying for the soul.  When Brother William solves the mystery, and discovers that Brother Jorge is behind the murders and has hidden the book, he confronts the old man, and asks him why it was so important to keep such a seemingly innocent volume out of people's hands.  Brother Jorge responds:
(L)aughter is weakness, corruption, the foolishness of our flesh... (H)ere, the function of laughter is reversed, it is elevated to art, the doors of the world of the learned are opened to it, it becomes the object of philosophy, and of perfidious theology...  You saw yesterday how the simple can conceive and carry out the most lurid heresies, disavowing the laws of God and the laws of nature.  But the church can deal with the heresy of the simple, who condemn themselves on their own, destroyed by their own ignorance...  Laughter frees the villein from fear of the Devil, because in the feast of fools the Devil also appears poor and foolish, and therefore controllable.  But this book could teach that freeing oneself from the fear of the Devil is wisdom.  When he laughs, as the wine gurgles in his throat, the villein feels he is master, because he had overturned his position with respect to his lord; but this book could teach learned men the clever, and from that moment, illustrious artifices that could legitimize the reversal.  
To Brother Jorge, it is worth killing, and dying, for his desperate necessity to keep others from knowing the justification of laughter, mirth, and irreverence.  And in the end, he destroys the book and burns down the library to keep that knowledge from the world.

[end spoiler alert]

Which brings us to what has happened in the Middle East in the last few days.

The depredations of ISIS have been all over the news lately, but none have seemed more bizarre and pointless to the western world as two that have occurred recently.  The Islamic State's arm in Libya four days ago burned a pile of musical instruments, saying that such things are "un-Islamic."  Then, just two days ago, ISIS members in Iraq burned the hundred-year-old library in the city of Mosul, destroying 8,000 rare books that were a treasure-trove of cultural information and history.  "900 years ago, the books of the Arab philosopher Averroes were collected before his eyes...and burned," wrote activist and blogger Rayan al-Hadidi.  "One of his students started crying while witnessing the burning.  Averroes told him... the ideas have wings...but I cry today over our situation."

[image courtesy of photographer Alan Levine and the Wikimedia Commons]

Why, in a situation where ISIS members are fighting daily to maintain ground and to keep control of the people they've conquered, would they stop what they're doing to burn musical instruments and ancient manuscripts?  It seems pointless.  Wouldn't they have better things to do with their time and energy?

No.  What ISIS is doing has its own pervasive, evil logic.

It has to do with exactly the same thing that Venerable Jorge hated the idea of: reading, laughter, and music free people from fear.  If you are going to control people, you must control their thoughts.  The first thing you do, therefore, is to destroy any opportunity for them to experience something outside of that control.

Music lifts our emotions into heights that cannot be measured.  When we read, our spirits are free to think any thought, put ourselves in other people's minds, other places, other times.  Dancing does the same thing, which probably explains why Saudi Arabia's "morality police" arrested some young men four days ago for dancing at a birthday party.

Can't have people experiencing anything outside of the narrowly prescribed range of thoughts, feelings, and actions.  If people go outside that range, anything could happen.  And would.

And then, the sword-bearing horrors who are now running much of the Middle East would not be in control any more.  People would learn that there's more to life than fear and obedience, more than living in terror of a grim, humorless cadre of thugs who are so afraid themselves of intellectual and emotional freedom that they will stop at nothing to prevent it from spreading to others.

I live in hope that in our world of interconnectedness and free flow of information via the internet, such control cannot be maintained for long.  We have seen the difficulty the Saudis are having in keeping the holes in the dam from leaking; bloggers and activists who openly criticize the regime are growing in numbers.  Some, such as Raif Badawi, have paid a horrible price for exercising that freedom.

But the truth that ISIS doesn't want their victims to realize is that the spirit of free thought burns hotter than the flames of destruction.  Even if you set fire to books and musical instruments, you can't really control thoughts, even through threats and terror.  The human mind is stronger and more resilient than that.  So even though I weep for the treasures that were lost in the burning of the Mosul Library, I remain optimistic that the desperate and amoral men of ISIS will one day be trod underfoot and forgotten to all but historians, just as their brothers-in-spirit -- the Inquisition of the 14th century -- have been.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The myth of the moral high ground

I have a big sign on my classroom wall that says, "Don't believe everything you think."

It's an important rule-of-thumb to keep in mind.  Far too many people become completely convinced that whatever has popped into their brain must be the truth -- sometimes to the point that they don't question it.  Especially if the "truth" under consideration appeals to a conjecture that they've already fallen for.

It's our old friend confirmation bias again, isn't it?  But instead of using slim evidence to support the claim, here you don't need any evidence at all.  "That seems obvious" is sufficient.

Which brings me to two studies released in the past two weeks that blow a pair of neat holes into this assumption.

In the first, a study by IBM's consulting arm looked into whether it's true that millennials -- people who reached their majority after the year 2000 -- are actually the entitled, lazy twits that many think they are.  Because that's the general attitude by the rest of the adult world, isn't it?  The stereotype includes:
  • having been taught by an emphasis on "self-esteem" that there's no reason to push oneself, that "everyone should get a prize" just for showing up
  • being idealists who want to save the world without doing any actual work
  • being narcissistic to the point of unwillingness to work on a team
  • having a severe aversion to criticism, and an even stronger one to using criticism constructively
  • having no respect for authority
And the study has shown pretty conclusively that every one of these stereotypes is wrong.

Or, more accurately, they're no more right about millennials than they are about any other generation. According to an article on the study, reported in The Washington Post:
The survey... didn't find any support for the entitled, everybody-gets-a-trophy millennial mindset.  Reports of their doting parents calling bosses to complain about performance reviews may be out there, but, on the whole, IBM's survey shows a different picture.  Millennials list performance-based recognition and promotions as a priority at the same rate as baby boomers do, and they cite fairness, transparency and consistency as the top three attributes they want in a boss.  Someone who "recognizes my accomplishments," meanwhile, comes in at only sixth place... 
If there's any big takeaway about millennials from IBM's study, it's that they want pretty much the same thing most employees want: an ethical and fair boss, inspirational leadership and the opportunity to move ahead in their careers. Where there were differences, they tended to be relatively small.
And at the risk of sounding cocky -- because I'm as prone to this bias as anyone else is --  I have to say that I wasn't surprised by its findings.  I've worked with teenagers for 28 years, and despite the frequent "kids these days!" and "we never got away with that when I was in school!" grousing I hear from my colleagues, my general attitude has always been that kids are kids.  Despite the drastic differences in cultural context between today and when I started teaching, there have always been lazy kids and hard-working kids, motivated kids and unmotivated kids, entitled kids and ones who accepted responsibility for their own failings.  The stuff around us changes, but people?  They remain people, with all of their foibles, no matter what.

The second study hits near to the quick for me.  It revolves around a common perception of atheists as angry ranters who are mad at the whole world, and especially the religious segment of it.  I've been collared about this myself.  "Why can't you atheists be more tolerant?" I've been asked, more than once.  "You just don't seem to be able to live and let live."

But according to a paper soon to be released in The Journal of Psychology, the myth of the angry atheist is just that -- a myth.  The study's authors write:
Atheists are often portrayed in the media and elsewhere as angry individuals. Although atheists disagree with the pillar of many religions, namely the existence of a God, it may not necessarily be the case that they are angry individuals.  The prevalence and accuracy of angry-atheist perceptions were examined in 7 studies with 1,677 participants from multiple institutions and locations in the United States.  Studies 1–3 revealed that people believe atheists are angrier than believers, people in general, and other minority groups, both explicitly and implicitly.  Studies 4–7 then examined the accuracy of these beliefs.  Belief in God, state anger, and trait anger were assessed in multiple ways and contexts.  None of these studies supported the idea that atheists are particularly angry individuals.  Rather, these results support the idea that people believe atheists are angry individuals, but they do not appear to be angrier than other individuals in reality.
Of course, there's a logical basis to this stereotype; it's the militant ranters who get the most press.  And not only do the angry individuals get the greatest amount of publicity, their most outrageous statements are the ones everyone hears about.  It's why, says Nicholas Hune-Brown, the public perception of Richard Dawkins is that he's the man who "seems determined to replace his legacy as a brilliant evolutionary biologist with one as 'guy who’s kind of a dick on Twitter'"

Once again, we should focus on the outcome of the study -- that atheists are no more likely to be angry than members of other groups.  It isn't saying that there aren't angry atheists; it's saying that there are also angry Christians, Muslims, Jews, and so on.  The perception of atheists as more likely to be intolerant and ill-tempered is simply untrue.

[image courtesy of photographer/artist Emery Way and the Wikimedia Commons]

So back to my original point.  It behooves us all to keep in mind that what we assume to be true may, in fact, not be.  How many times do we all overgeneralize about people of other political parties, religions, genders, gender preferences, even appearance and modes of dress?  It's easy to fall into the trap of saying "All you people are alike," without realizing that what seems like an obvious statement of fact is actually bigotry.

It may be impossible to eradicate this kind of bias, but I'll exhort you to try, in your own mind, to move past it.  When you find yourself engaging in categorical thinking, stop in your tracks, and ask yourself where those beliefs came from, and whether they are justified.  And, most importantly, whether there is any hard evidence that what your brain is claiming is true.

And if the answer to either of the latter questions is "No," then take a moment to suspend your certainty.  Look at the people you'd been judging without needing to make a judgment.  Get off the moral high ground.  I think you'll find that empathy and tolerance are, in general, a far better perspective from which to view the world.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The dark side

I love science, but sometimes scientists can be their own worst enemies.

The reason I say this is that scientists sometimes have a tendency to throw caution to the wind and engage in speculation, which then gets reported by the media as "scientific fact."  When said speculation turns out to be false, or is superseded by other models for which there is more evidence, laypeople get the wrong idea that scientists sit around all day making shit up, and when it turns out to be wrong, they just make more shit up, and on and on it goes.

So media bears a large share of the blame for this, as usual.  But that said, it would be nice if there was some way for scientists to identify in their academic papers when they're engaging in tentative hypothesis, and when they're elaborating on a well-established and rock-solid theoretical model.

Amongst the latter would be evolution and anthropogenic climate change.  Just had to throw that in there.

But as an example of the former, let's look at a paper by Michael Rampino, professor of biology at New York University, who recently published a paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society proposing that the periodic mass extinctions that have occurred on Earth might be caused by the interaction between the Solar System and a thin layer of dark matter along the galactic plane.  Rampino writes:
A cycle in the range of 26–30 Myr has been reported in mass extinctions, and terrestrial impact cratering may exhibit a similar cycle of 31 ± 5 Myr. These cycles have been attributed to the Sun's vertical oscillations through the Galactic disc, estimated to take from ∼30 to 42 Myr between Galactic plane crossings. Near the Galactic mid-plane, the Solar system's Oort Cloud comets could be perturbed by Galactic tidal forces, and possibly a thin dark matter (DM) disc, which might produce periodic comet showers and extinctions on the Earth. Passage of the Earth through especially dense clumps of DM, composed of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) in the Galactic plane, could also lead to heating in the core of the planet through capture and subsequent annihilation of DM particles. This new source of periodic heating in the Earth's interior might explain a similar ∼30 Myr periodicity observed in terrestrial geologic activity, which may also be involved in extinctions. These results suggest that cycles of geological and biological evolution on the Earth may be partly controlled by the rhythms of Galactic dynamics.
The difficulty, of course, is that dark matter is still yet to be detected, despite years of search.  We can observe that there's something out there that, from its gravitational effects, seems to make up most of the universe's mass.  But what it's made of, and what its properties are, are completely unknown.  "WIMPs" -- the Weakly Interacting Massive Particles Rampino references in his paper -- are one candidate for the constituents of dark matter.  But they, too, are yet to be confirmed to exist, despite multiple experiments designed to detect them at the Large Hadron Collider.

So Rampino is proposing that a 31 ± 5 million year mass extinction cycle (5 million years representing a 15% variability either way) links to a 30 to 42 million year galactic-plane-crossing cycle (which represents a 16% variability either way) via a mechanism connected to a type of matter we've never seen and whose properties can only be guessed at.

Map of the "dark matter halo" surrounding a galaxy [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, don't get me wrong.  Thinking outside the box is the way great discoveries are made.  For example, it was Einstein's decision to throw away the "problem of the constancy of the speed of light" that led to the discovery of the Theory of Relativity.  Einstein's contemporaries had spent decades trying furiously to explain away the fact that in a vacuum, light seemed to move at the same speed in all reference frames, something that couldn't happen according to classical mechanics.  All sorts of wild ideas were proposed -- for example, a universal "ether" that permeated the universe, and through which light moved -- and one by one they were knocked down.

Einstein, however, decided to take the "problem of the constancy of the speed of light" and turn it into the "law of the constancy of the speed of light" and see what mathematical predictions came out of that assumption.  And then, run experiments to see if those predictions worked.  Lo: the Theory of Relativity, with its wild time dilation and Lorenz Contraction weirdness.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that there's nothing wrong with speculation.  I just wish there was some way for scientists to differentiate between when they're proposing a speculative hypothesis and reporting on an experimentally-supported theory.

Maybe they should write speculative articles in "Comic Sans."  I dunno.

I say this because I'm seeing stories come up all over the place, just in the last couple of weeks, claiming that "dark matter killed the dinosaurs."  Which Rampino himself would admit is not justified at this time (note in the passage I quoted how many times he uses the words "could," "might," and "may").  And when someone else proposes a different mechanism to explain the periodicity of extinctions, it'll also get reported as fact, and laypeople will have further evidence that all scientists do is come up with wild tales all day long.

So I really should revise my initial statement.  It's not that scientists are their own worst enemies.  It's that popular media are the scientists' worst enemies.  That, and the fact that the public still doesn't really understand how science is done (look at the ongoing confusion about what the word "theory" means).

And given the fact that a significant proportion of the public still doesn't accept the findings of science that aren't speculative, the last thing we need is to sow more doubt in people's minds by misrepresenting the parts of science that are still only conjecture.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Backfires and improprieties

If there is one cognitive bias that makes me want to punch a wall, it's the backfire effect.

The backfire effect is a well-studied psychological tendency wherein people with strong opinions on a subject are presented with a logical, rational, fact-supported argument against what they believe in.  The result?  Those people double down on their original opinion.  In other words: given evidence against what people believe, they will believe it even more strongly.

Take, for example, something I've discussed more than once in this blog: anthropogenic climate change.  The data and the jury are both in.  The world is, on the average warming up, and this is due to human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels.  This warm-up has destabilized the climate, resulting in the worst drought California has seen in recorded history, two years of record high temperatures in Alaska, and two consecutive winters where the northeastern and north central United States have been punished by a chunk of Arctic air that has been cut loose and sent southward by a meander in the jet stream, resulting in a series of snowstorms that buried Boston under eight feet of snow in the last four weeks.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So there's no real doubt about all this any more.  But that doesn't mean there's not doubters, because that's not the same thing, apparently.  And we got a nasty dose of the backfire effect, apropos of said doubters, just in the last couple of days, with the announcement that one of the most prominent climate change deniers, Dr. Wei-Hock (Willie) Soon, has received a huge percentage of his funding from the petroleum industry...

... without disclosing that information in his scientific papers.

In scientific circles, this is known rather euphemistically as an "impropriety."

And we're not talking about small amounts of money, either.  Soon received a total of $1.2 million from the fossil-fuels industry, including $409,000 from Atlanta-based Southern Company, which has invested heavily in coal-fired electrical plants -- and which sponsors an anti-climate-change lobby in Washington, D.C.  Then we have the $230,000 Soon got from none other than the Koch brothers.  Additionally, he has been heavily funded by Donors Trust, an Alexandria (Virginia)-based funds transfer outfit that takes anonymous donations and passes them on to (mostly conservative) causes.

Can you say "conflict of interest," children?

I knew you could.

Soon, who is employed by the Smithsonian Institution, is likely to find himself in completely merited hot water over this.  W. John Kress, interim undersecretary for science at the Smithsonian, said about Dr. Soon's actions, "I am aware of the situation with Willie Soon, and I’m very concerned about it.  We are checking into this ourselves."

So this seems like something that would be hard for the deniers to explain away.  For years they've argued that all you have to do is "follow the money" -- that the climatologists are biased to find evidence for climate change where there is none, because that's the way they get funding.  The knife should cut both ways, shouldn't it?

Apparently not.  The screaming denier-machine swung into action almost immediately, with a slimy little smear piece appearing in that made it look like Dr. Soon was the victim.  Referring to the people who accept that human activity is causing the planet to warm up as the "lickspittle posse" -- a phrase that may win the award for throw-up-a-little-in-your-mouth metaphor of the year -- the author, James Delingpole, portrays Dr. Soon as a beleaguered champion of the truth, fighting against what amounts to the environmental mafia.  But after blathering on in this fashion for a while, he goes on to say something that's actually kind of interesting:
I spoke to Soon last night. He told me that of course he receives private funding for his research: he has to because it’s his only way of making ends meet, especially since the Alarmist establishment launched its vendetta against him when, from 2009 onwards, he became more outspoken in his critiques of global warming theory. 
Harvard-Smithsonian strove to make his life harder and harder, first by banning him from working on anything even remotely connected with issues like climate change or CO2, then by moving his office away from the astrophysics department to a remote area Soon calls Siberia.
Of course Dr. Soon is allowed to accept private funding.  What is required by scientific ethical standards, however, is that he admit the source of those funds up front in his papers, which he has not done, and now he got caught.  But what's more interesting, here, is that Delingpole inadvertently points out one of the central problems with all of this.

Soon isn't a climatologist.  He's an astrophysicist.

Okay, it's vaguely connected, I suppose, because his claim all along has been that any warming is due to an increase in the radiant energy the Earth receives from the Sun.  But if you're trying to find the errors in the climate model, wouldn't you ask a climatologist to do it?

Oh, wait.  The climatologists are all in the pockets of Greenpeace.  Never mind that Soon is in the far, far deeper pockets of the Koch brothers.  That, apparently, is irrelevant.

But the overall effect is to make the deniers deny even harder, as the world warms up further (c.f. a Scientific American article in which we find out that there have been zero months since February 1985 that have had average temperatures below the overall 20th century average), and the climate continues to oscillate wildly, and we continue to do absolutely nothing about it.

Easier, I suppose, to accept the status quo than to change your habits.

Or your opinions.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

What the cat dragged in

One thing I try to keep in mind when I'm reading something controversial is the fact that all humans have biases, including me.  And sometimes these biases are so powerful that they become blind spots -- something we believe so strongly that we flatly refuse even to consider any evidence to the contrary.

And when you tie in powerful emotions to these blind spots, people become so immovable in their convictions that trying to change their minds is damn near impossible.

One rather unexpected case of such a blind spot surfaces periodically on a listserv I belong to.  As some of you may know, I'm a rather rabid birder, and have been known to stand in the freezing cold for hours or trek through a leech-infested steam bath of a southeast Asian jungle just in order to see birds I've never seen before.  So I belong to a listserv called "BirdChat," so I can connect with other similarly-obsessed and dubiously-sane people around the world.  And every once in a while, someone will bring up the topic of...

... cats.

When you bring up cats -- more specifically, outdoor cats -- you immediately sort the birding world into two groups.  The first has a mortal hatred of outdoor cats, and considers their toll on bird populations to be ridiculously high.  The second, which consists almost entirely of people who own cats that are allowed outdoors, dismisses those contentions as nonsense.

[image courtesy of Mark Marek Photography and the Wikimedia Commons]

And the battle escalates quickly.  Usually someone brings up the Stephen's Island Wren, a little flightless bird that lived only on one island near New Zealand, and which was exterminated by the islanders' pet cats.  Someone else will counter that we're not talking about small islands, here, that allowing Mr. Fluffums to catch a sparrow or two every once in a while is just allowing him to express his natural hunting instincts, and isn't hurting anything.  Some hothead will then propose turning loose coyotes near Mr. Fluffums' stomping grounds, and seeing how his owners will feel about "natural hunting instincts" then.  Tempers rise, unsourced facts and statistics are thrown around, and no one gives an inch.  Usually a moderator will have to step in and say, "You people need to stop this right now," and everyone will return, grumbling, to their respective corners, until the next time the subject comes up.

So at the risk of setting off a firestorm here, how 'bout we look at an actual peer-reviewed study regarding the subject?  Can it be true that outdoor cats are a problem, or are we looking at people who take bird conservation way, way too seriously?

Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter Marra wrote an article for Nature about two years ago that settles the issue, fact-wise, once and for all.  Called "The Impact of Free-Ranging Cats on Wildlife in the United States," it describes a "systematic review and [quantitative] estimate [of] mortality caused by cats," and came up with the following staggering statistics:
We estimate that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals annually... Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals.
That's "billion" with a "b," folks.  And focus especially on the last sentence; cats are the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for American birds.  More than legal and illegal hunting; more than pesticides; more than collisions with automobiles, wind turbines, and airplanes.

In fact, more than all of those put together.

About the study, Dr. George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy, said:
The very high credibility of this study should finally put to rest the misguided notions that outdoor cats represent some harmless, new component to the natural environment.  The carnage that outdoor cats inflict is staggering and can no longer be ignored or dismissed.  This is a wake-up call for cat owners and communities to get serious about this problem before even more ecological damage occurs.
Pretty unequivocal, you'd think.  But the response from cat owners has largely been: silence.

The reason I bring all of this up is a conversation I had a couple of days ago with someone who was troubled because she has a bird feeder, and also an outdoor cat.  So she is, in effect, luring in birds so the cat can kill them.  Is there anything, she asked, that she can do to keep the cat from killing the birds in her yard?

I said, "Keep the cat indoors."

She looked dubious.  "But... I don't want to do that."

I gave her an incredulous look.  "Then you shouldn't have a bird feeder."

"I don't want to do that, either.  I like the birds."

"Then keep the damn cat indoors."

Having seen the firestorms that have erupted on the BirdChat listserv, I let the topic drop.  Because when you tie in biases and preconceived notions with the emotions -- especially about something as emotionally-laden as pet ownership -- things can escalate really quickly.

The data is out there.  Let me reiterate: outdoor cats are the single worst cause of bird mortality in the United States (and, I believe, in Great Britain as well).  So if you care about wildlife, the only responsible thing to do is to keep your cats inside.

But I have to wonder how many minds this will change.  On topics like this, it's far easier to frown, say, "Oh, but this can't really be about my cat," and go on doing what you've done before.  I hope I'm wrong, mind you, because this is one topic on which the jury has weighed in, and the verdict is unarguable.

But as we've seen all too many times before, changing people's minds when they've already decided what they believe is often a losing battle.  Sometimes the attitude is "evidence be damned, I'll do what I like."

Friday, February 20, 2015

Fluid morality

I try not to let my skepticism slide over into cynicism.  The latter, a disbelieve-everything-they-say approach, seems to me to be as fundamentally lazy as gullibility.  Being a skeptic is harder, but ultimately more likely to land you near the truth; keep your mind open, wait for hard evidence, and then follow that wherever it leads.

But there are some realms in which I am reminded of Lily Tomlin's line, "No matter how cynical I get, it's just not enough to keep up."  And one of those is the way fracking is being presented by the powers-that-be.

Consider the highly publicized publicity stunt by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who in 2013 drank a glass of fracking fluid to show how safe it was.

"You can drink it," Hickenlooper told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.  "We did drink it around the table, almost rituallike, in a funny way.  It was a demonstration… they’ve invested millions of dollars in what is a benign fluid in every sense."

[image courtesy of photographer Joe Sullivan and the Wikimedia Commons]

The gas companies have stated outright that the ingredients are "sourced from the food industry," but still refuse to give a complete formulation for how it's made, saying such information is "proprietary."  Hickenlooper agrees, and said, "If we were overzealous in forcing them to disclose what they had created, they wouldn’t bring it into our state."

Under pressure from environmental groups, the gas industry has released a list of "the chemicals used most often" in fracking fluid, along with their purpose.  They state that "there are dozens to hundreds that could be used as additives" above and beyond these, although this is downplayed.

They look like they're doing everything they can to be completely transparent, up to the point where it starts to jeopardize their trade secrets.  "Here, we'll show you what we're doing!" they seem to be saying.  "You want the water supply protected, and safety to be paramount?  Well, so do we!"

Then you have to wonder why the industry has not rushed into the breach when people have been injured by the chemicals in their "benign" fracking fluid.  Makes you almost think they're... covering something up.

In 2008, a gas driller, Clifton Marshall, came into the emergency room in Durango Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango, Colorado, after he had spilled fracking fluid on his clothes and boots.  Marshall was in a bad way, but it didn't end there; Cathy Behr, an emergency room nurse, spent ten minutes working on Marshall without using adequate protective equipment.  By this time, the emergency room had to be cleared because the smell of the chemicals was strong enough to make people gag.  But Behr, who had come into direct contact with the contaminated clothing, was to experience worse.  Two days later, the nurse found herself back in the emergency room, but this time because she was sick; she had jaundice, and was vomiting and feverish.  The doctors found that Behr was in multiple organ failure from "poisoning by an unknown chemical."

Pressed by the hospital to tell them what was in the fracking fluid that sickened Behr and Marshall, the gas company -- Halliburton Industries -- refused, saying it was a trade secret.  If anyone released what was in the fluid, they said, they would sue -- and then pull their multi-million-dollar drilling operation from the state.

Hospital officials backed down.  To this day, no one knows what was in the fluid.

In a rural community in Pennsylvania -- no one knows exactly where, for reasons you'll see in a moment -- the owners of a 300-acre dairy farm signed a land-use agreement with a gas company, allowing fracking on their land.  The disturbance would be minimal, the gas company said, and the risk slight.  After the drilling began, though, the family who owned the farm, the "Rogers" family (not their real name), began to question the effects that the operation was having on their drinking and agricultural water, and agreed to participate in a study by an independent agency to monitor what was happening.

But they couldn't do that, they found out quickly.  Here's how TruthOut reported the story:
The Rogers did not realize they had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the gas company making the entire deal invalid if members of the family discussed the terms of the agreement, water or land disturbances resulting from fracking and other information with anyone other than the gas company and other signatories... 
Mrs. Rogers initially agreed to participate in a study Perry [the scientist coordinating the study] was conducting on rural families living near fracking operations. She later called Perry in tears, explaining that her family could no longer participate in the study because of the nondisclosure clause in the surface-use agreement. She told Perry she felt stupid for signing the agreement and has realized she had a good life without the money the fracking company paid them to use their land.
There are also dozens of cases where gas companies have been sued because their operations have permanently contaminated drinking water supplies, and have settled in the litigants' favor -- but only on the condition that the litigants sign a statement mandating that they never disclose what the gas companies did.  This is an easy out for the gas companies; people will usually settle for an amount of cash that the gas industry considers a pittance as compared to the bad press they'd receive if such information became public.  "At this point they feel they can get out of this litigation relatively cheaply," Marc Bern, an attorney with Napoli Bern Ripka Sholnik LLP in New York, who has negotiated on behalf of homeowners, said in an interview.  "Virtually on all of our settlements where they paid money they have requested and demanded that there be confidentiality."

There are also multiple cases where doctors have appealed to gas companies to release what is in fracking fluid, to allow the doctors to treat patients poisoned by exposure to it, and the industry has complied -- but only if the doctors themselves agree to a lifelong nondisclosure statement.

And state governments are caving in from the pressure by the industry.  Just last year, North Carolina passed a bill that made it a crime for anyone to disclose the constituents of fracking fluid.  The name of the bill?  The "Energy Modernization Act."

Still think that the gas companies are all about safety and transparency?  Then consider one more story, again from southwestern Pennsylvania, only two years ago.

Chris and Stephanie Hallowich lived with their two children, then 7 and 10, in a house in rural Washington County, when they started experiencing health issues from water that had been fouled by a fracking operation nearby.  They were desperate to get out of their house, and sued the gas company, Range Resources, for enough money to cut their losses and move.  Range Resources agreed to a $750,000 settlement, but required (guess what?) a nondisclosure agreement.  The Hallowichs could not speak to anyone about fracking, or the Marcellus Shale, or Range Resources, or their symptoms, or the contamination to their water supply, ever.

And that lifelong gag order also applied to their children.

The Hallowichs' attorney, Peter Villari, said directly to Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Paul Polonsky, who heard the case, "I, frankly, your Honor, as an attorney, to be honest with you, I don’t know if that’s possible that you can give up the First Amendment rights of a child."  Pozonsky didn't have an answer to that except that this is what the Hallowichs had to agree to if they wanted to settle.

"That someone would insist on confidentiality of a minor child," Villari said, "or that it would be discussed within the context of a proposed settlement was unusual.  I have not encountered it before and I have yet to encounter it again."

"Unusual" isn't the word I'd use.  I think "unconstitutional" comes closer to the mark.

The frightening part of this is that because the gas industry is wealthy and powerful, they are pulling the strings here -- and everyone else is dancing to their tune.  They have no reason to bend.  They've been getting their own way at every turn, from politicians and courts that conveniently ignore the dangers to ordinary citizens because (frankly) money talks.

Where this skein of lies comes full circle, though, is in asking why the gas companies are this protective of the ingredients in the fracking fluid.  I simply don't believe that this is a trade secret that is worth keeping simply from a proprietary-protection argument alone.  Surely each of these companies can't have discovered a formula that they think is so wonderful, so much better than their rivals', that they'd engage in all of these dubiously-legal shenanigans to protect it?

Isn't it just slightly more likely that there's something in this fluid that is not exactly "benign?"  Something that might, in fact, be toxic enough that to make it public would alert the public to how much danger they're actually in?

But surely the Toxic Substances Control Act would protect the public from this kind of thing.  That's why it was passed.  Right?

Wrong.  TSCA has an exemption for reporting "Tier 2" exposure to chemicals -- i.e., exposure that happens after the chemicals leave the site of manufacture -- for "petroleum process streams."  If you're exposed to fracking chemicals, you have no federal leverage to force the industry to give you information, much less to force them to stop what they're doing.

So the only way all of this will halt is if enough people know about it, and refuse to sign the fracking leases.  Already we're seeing cases of eminent domain being invoked in laying in pipelines to carry the gas; the only way to halt the industry is to cut off its source.

Which is why it's so critical that people find out about these things.  Because as we've seen, once the damage is done, the industry has been more interested in hushing it up than cleaning it up (or, heaven forfend, changing their ways).  And if that doesn't justify some level of cynicism about their commitment to decency, safety, and public health, I don't know what would.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

FBI versus Facebook

For the latest reason to freak out, consider the claim over at America's Freedom Fighters that some of your Facebook friends are actually FBI agents conducting surveillance on your activities.

Now, there's good reason to be careful of what you post, and it has nothing to do with some undercover cop posing as your old college drinking buddy.  Doing anything online leaves a digital footprint so big it can be seen from space, and potential employers and college admissions officers now do routine checks to make sure that the person they're considering hasn't done anything too sketchy.  

Or stupid.  There are hundreds of stories of people who have been reprimanded, fired, or expelled for posting inappropriate stuff on social media, and most of them make you wonder how the people in question manage to tie their own shoelaces.  Examples include:
And so on.  So yes, it is possible to get yourself into hot water from what you post.  It's why I'm pretty careful; I'm a teacher, a public figure in our little community, and I try to be fairly guarded about what I say and do online.  (Not, mind you, that my life is rife with drunken debauchery, or anything.  I'm such an introvert that I consider drinking a beer and watching an episode of Lost in Space a wild night.)

But still, there's such a thing as taking paranoia too far.  And the article "How Many of Your Facebook Friends are Undercover Feds?" takes the concept of being cautious about one's digital footprint, and runs right off the cliff with it.  The writer contends:
U.S. law enforcement agents are following the rest of the Internet world into popular social-networking services, going undercover with false online profiles to communicate with suspects and gather private information, according to an internal Justice Department document that offers a tantalizing glimpse of issues related to privacy and crime-fighting.
Which applies to me how, exactly?  They can check me out all they like.  Oh noes!  The Justice Department is going to see my vacation photographs!  Horrors!

The best part, though, is the article's signoff:
We urge you to very careful about who you ‘friend’- They could be a part of the government or the Left’s attack on Conservatives… GOD BLESS AMERICA!
And of course, they never tell you how you might tell your true friends from the Undercover Leftist FBI Covert Operatives.  You're left suspicious of everyone, which I have no doubt is the intent.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

What I find funny about this is two things.

First: you seriously think that you're that important?  Unless the person reading this blog is some kind of master criminal or terrorist or spy, the FBI clearly has better things to do with their time and resources than to go through photographs of what you had to eat at the Chinese restaurant last night.

Second: do you really think that if the FBI were interested in you, they wouldn't be able to find out about you unless they friended you on Facebook first?  That's so naïve, it's kind of adorable.  I mean, can't you just hear the conversation?
Agent #1:  "We've got to crack this case, and it all depends on finding out what Steve Hickenlooper had for dinner last night!  But dammit, he won't accept my friend request!" 
Agent #2:  "He's a wily one, Steve is."  *snaps his fingers*  "Hey, I've got it!  Maybe if you sent him a friend request posing as his high school girlfriend, LouEllen Finkwhistle!  He'd fall for that!" 
Agent #1:  "Isn't LouEllen the one who got fired for calling her boss a 'pervvy wanker'?" 
Agent #2:  "Yup.  She deleted her Facebook account after that happened.  So if you pretended to be her, Steve would never know it wasn't actually her." 
Agent #1:  *rubs his hands together*  "EX-cellent."
So anyway.  My advice is continue to have fun on social media, but do be careful what you put out there.  The rule of "once you put it online, it's online forever" is a pretty good one to follow.  But as far as thinking that your online contacts are all undercover agents spying on you -- relax.  No offense, but you're honestly not that interesting.

Of course, that's what I would say, isn't it?  So thanks for clicking on this post, and all.

*reaches for little black book to write down your name and email address*


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

America über alles

A recurring question in ethics is how good (or at least average) people could have participated in the Nazi atrocities.  Didn't they recognize that what they were doing was wrong?  Because it is clear that many of the people who were caught up in the Nazi fervor were from quite commonplace origins.  They were not, by nature, violent monsters who were out looking for evil things to do.

But they did swallow the horrific ideology.  They accepted the rhetoric that the Jews were inherently inferior, the myth of German exceptionalism, the fear-message that if the enemies of the Thousand-Year Reich weren't stopped, Germany would be overrun by people bent on its annihilation.

And it worked.  A few people recognized what was happening as it was happening, but far more capitulated, either standing by silent while the horrors were occurring or else actively helping the Nazi leaders.

Key to Hitler's ideology was the creation of the "Hitler Youth."  The idea -- and it was as perceptive as it was evil -- was to catch young people early, drill them with the message that Germany was (1) superior and (2) threatened.  Teach them that their first duty was to the Fatherland, that this came before anything, and that anyone criticizing Germany was wrong, trying to subvert the cause for his or her own wicked ends.

[image courtesy of the German Federal Archives and the Wikimedia Commons]

In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote:
Everybody who has the right kind of feeling for his country is solemnly bound, each within his own denomination, to see to it that he is not constantly talking about the Will of God merely from the lips but that in actual fact he fulfils the Will of God and does not allow God’s handiwork to be debased... Whoever would dare to raise a profane hand against that highest image of God among His creatures [i.e. Germans] would sin against the bountiful Creator of this marvel and would collaborate in the expulsion from Paradise. 
Which brings me directly to what is happening right now in Oklahoma.

You may not have heard about this; certainly the people responsible are not eager to have it become public knowledge.  But a committee in the Oklahoma legislature, led by Representative Dan Fisher, is looking toward eliminating AP (Advanced Placement) classes from Oklahoma high schools, saying that it is a violation of the state constitution to have a "mandated national curriculum."

But this is, at least in part, a smokescreen, because what is at the heart of this is not States' Rights issues.  It becomes obvious what the motivation is when you look at the first AP class that the committee has in its sights: AP US History.  And the argument for getting rid of AP US History is that it "eliminates the idea of American exceptionalism," focusing instead on "what is bad about America."

This demand that history courses whitewash our flaws comes from a retired history teacher and current activist and writer named Larry Krieger.  Krieger is incensed that the AP US History curriculum focuses on issues like slavery and the Japanese internment camps, instead of on areas where Americans have risen to higher ideals.  "Consider for a moment, from the beginning to President Obama’s recent declaration of why we had to wipe out ISIS, why do we send American boys and women into harm’s way to pay any price, bear any burden?" Krieger said in an interview.  "We do that because they are the defenders of liberty and freedom -- in short, our core values.  And so to scrub that out of the American narrative is a real egregious injustice.  People who call themselves liberals haven't really understood what... American exceptionalism means, and why it is so extremely important that it be taught to our kids.  Because what unites us as a people — we're not united by ethnic differences, religious differences, we're united by our core values."

Sound familiar?  It should.

Also unsurprising is the fact that it succeeded.  Yesterday the Oklahoma House Common Education Committee voted 11-4 to eliminate the teaching of AP US History in the state, "unless the College Board changes the curriculum."

Who wants to place bets on which AP course is next?  Hmmm, I wonder.  Could it be... biology?  Where students learn that humans evolved just like all other life forms on Earth, that human biological exceptionalism is a counterfactual myth?

Catch them while they're young.  Teach them that (1) they're superior, and (2) their way of life is threatened.  After that, you can accomplish whatever you want.

It's funny.  Every time I think I can't become more appalled at the direction that the oversight of public education is going, the powers-that-be outdo themselves.  They're becoming more overt about it, though; let's turn children into little factoid-spewing machines, meeting the benchmarks and rubrics and skill sets, and (above all) toeing the party line.  For heaven's sake, don't give them autonomy, values clarification, critical thinking skills.  Teach them not only what they're supposed to know, but what they're supposed to believe.  Label any push to educate students in how to perform critical analysis (even of their own country's leaders) as an "egregious injustice" designed to undermine our "core values."

Can't have people thinking America has flaws, after all.

Don't get me wrong.  When I look at the alternatives, I'm damn glad to be an American.  I would fight hard to protect what we have here.  But there's a difference between being proud of our country and thinking our country can do no wrong, believing that anyone who takes a good hard look at our past (and present) failings is trying to destroy our way of life.  What happened to the concept that clear-headed, rational analysis of history prevents us from making the same mistakes over and over again?

Better, apparently, to paint our ancestors as blameless, to spin the myth of American exceptionalism, so that any blow to the edifice, however justified, is looked upon as a dire threat.

It puts me in mind of a quote by Voltaire that I have above the whiteboard in my classroom:  "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Time's wasting, Mr. President!

What is it about President Obama that has brought out the conspiracy wingnuts in droves?

Maybe it's just that I wasn't as aware of such things back then,  but I don't remember crazy conspiracy theories erupting around George W. Bush.  There were lots of people who suspected that he had that IQ of a baked ham, but you didn't hear the sort of loony claims that we're seeing with Obama.

Yes, I know he's African American, but can it really be that simple?  It's not like other African Americans are the targets of this sort of thing.  No one is saying, for example, that Kanye West is in league with the devil, except possibly Beck.  But being in league with the devil is only the beginning of what you hear, where Obama's concerned.  Being in league with the devil is mild.

Here's a sampler of some Obama conspiracy theories I found -- all from the last couple of days:

From a letter to the editor in the Davidson County (Tennessee) Dispatch:
God states that seven kings must come before the rise of the Antichrist. Revelations 17:10 says the seventh king will reign for a short amount of time. Is Barack Obama the seventh king? 
Obama's lifted sanctions off Iran with promises that a peace treaty will be made but does nothing to inspect Iran as they continue to make nuclear weapons. Does Obama already know Iran's actions and is helping Iran? God says Israel must be attacked by Iran to start a war between all nations before the Antichrist can rise to create a peace treaty between these nations. Everything God said is happening. The Lord can return for God's children at anytime.
From an article in The Daily Coin:
The ever encroaching police state, the fact that all financial markets, over the entire global, are rigged. Since when does the President come out and tell Congress that he needs omnipotent powers to continue to expand the wars of aggression? What next, maybe world war; cast a dragnet across the internet to begin scooping up owners of alternative news websites? Perhaps begin systemically killing the bankers in the back office with the codes and programs that run the derivatives markets and rig the equities markets?
From Family Research Council's commentator Craig James, in response to a caller who claimed that Obama was planning to stay in office for a third term, and using that term to convert all Americans to Islam:
Obama trying to stay in power for an illegal third term is a concern of mine.  I plan to pass a note along to [FRC President] Tony Perkins on how we could escape that. 
[A third term] would be horrible.  It’s not like we’d have Ronald Reagan staying in office for another year or so while we’re in a state of emergency.  It’s not like we’d have someone who really cares about you and me.  We’re talking about someone who is there in that office as the leader of the free world, the United States of America, who doesn’t get it.  That’s the concern.  It fires me up, the thought that the guy can stick around in that office beyond a year and three-quarters.  He’s got to be gone.  We will follow up on that.
From conservative talk show host Michael Savage, who claims that Obama caused the measles outbreak:
I was asked about the origins of the measles outbreak in America and it’s pretty clear to me that it came in with the illegals.  We know that Obama committed a crime against humanity by dumping many, many, many, many ill people, mothers and children primarily, on us this summer unscreened, many of them brought in a killer virus, measles, tuberculosis and other illnesses. 
And all of these are just from the past couple of days.

What gets me about all of this is how these claims keep sprouting, like crabgrass in a garden, even though they never come true.  We've been hearing for years now about how Obama was the Antichrist (or some other wicked dude from the Book of Revelation), and that this means the End Times are imminent.  And lo, here the world still is, un-Ended.  We've heard over and over about how Obama wants to herd us all into FEMA camps and cut our heads off with guillotines, and we're all still running around with our heads firmly attached.  We've heard that Obama wants to silence people who dislike him by any means necessary up to and including assassination, and yet Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Alex Jones and Ann Coulter are still alive and kicking and spewing their rhetoric on a daily basis.

So if Obama is an evil mastermind, he's kind of an incompetent one, you know?  He's like one of those guys on Scooby Doo who has everyone convinced that there is a scary ghost haunting the carnival, and no one can figure it out except for a bunch of goofy teenagers, who unmask the ghost and it turns out to be the carnival owner, who would have gotten away with it if it hadn't been for Those Meddling Fox News Commentators And Their Stupid Dog.

I'm kind of sick of waiting, frankly.  I mean, at this point I've been warned so many times that I'm ready for something to happen, and now's as good a time as any.  We're all snowbound, here in the Arctic tundra (a.k.a. upstate New York), and I'm feeling a little stir-crazy with the cabin fever.  Let's stir things up, okay, Mr. President?  Get together with your wicked Illuminati friends, and cast your spells to summon up Satan or whatever, and let 'er rip.  Because so far, you've kind of sucked at establishing a New World Order (or converting us all to Islam or bringing forth the Beast With Seven Heads, or whatever people think he's doing over there in the White House).  So far, you look pretty much like a typical politician, doing what politicians do.

And life can't be that prosaic, right?

Of course right.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The dinosaur deniers

So now apparently it's a thing amongst the devoutly religious not only to believe that evolution is false, but that dinosaurs never existed.

I'm not making this up.  According to Chris Matyszczyk over at CNet, there's a whole movement within Christian fundamentalism to "disprove the existence of dinosaurs," and, especially, to stop children from being exposed to information about them.

There's a group, apparently, called Christians Against Dinosaurs, and Matyszczyk investigated them, initially thinking that they had to be some sort of The Onion-esque satire group.  Sadly, Matyszczyk found that they're real.  And serious.

"I'm getting sick and tired of dinosaurs being forced on our children," said one member of Christians Against Dinosaurs in an online video you can watch on the above link if you can stand faceplanting multiple times.  "I for one do not want my children being taught lies. Did you know that nobody had even heard of dinosaurs before the 1800s, when they were invented by curio-hungry Victorians?...  Dinosaurs are a very bad example for children.  At my children's school, several children were left in tears after one of their classmates (who had evidently been exposed to dinosaurs), became bestially-minded and ran around the classroom roaring and pretending to be a dinosaur.  Then he bit three children on the face."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The invention of dinosaur fossils by "curio-hungry Victorians" would have come as a great shock to 3rd century Chinese historian Chang Qu, who describes the discovery of what he called "dragon bones" at a site that would later prove to be a rich paleontological site of Jurassic-era fossils.  Equally shocked would have been 17th-century British naturalist Robert Plot, who described the fossilized femur of a Megalosaurus in his book The Natural History of Oxfordshire.

Sadly, though, Christians Against Dinosaurs is not some kind of isolated wacko splinter group.  There's a whole movement afoot to discredit all fossils.  Consider the post over at Clues Forum entitled "The (Non-religious) Dinosaur Hoax Question," wherein we find out that because fossils are "rock in rock," the paleontologists are simply taking blocks of rock and carving them into whatever shape they want, and then saying, "Look!  A fossil!"  Here's a sample:
Fossils, then, are basically bones that have turned into a sort of rock. They are rocks that mimic the form of a bone that is now long gone. Many of the dino bones on display in museums are bone-shaped rocks essentially. The problem I have with this is that, according to many cable TV “science” shows I have watched over the years, these dinosaur fossils are often found embedded in rock. So, we're talking about digging out rocks imbedded in rock and we must trust that those who prepared these fossils for display have correctly carved away the non-bone rock from the real bone rock. But, in our hoax-filled world of fake science, doesn't this rock-in-rock situation make it rather easy for creative interpretations of what the animal really looked like? And, once a particular animal is “approved” by the gods of the scientific community, wouldn't all subsequent representations of that same animal have to conform with that standard?
I think what bothers me most about this is the phrase "our hoax-filled world of fake science."  Does this guy really think that scientists are getting grants to sit around making shit up?  And because all of the other scientists are in on it, no one blows the whistle?

Oh, and then the guy does this whole thing about how the discovery of fossilized Velociraptor claws are suspect because they look "just like bear claws."  Can I just ask one question?

Wouldn't you expect bear claws and Velociraptor claws to be similarly-shaped, because otherwise they wouldn't be called "claws"?

The most mind-blowing thing about this is how simple it would be to destroy the whole "argument," if this guy was really interested in finding out answers.  All he'd have to do is two things: (1) volunteer to go on a paleontological dig, and (2) talk to any scientist about how peer review is done.  But no, that's apparently too much to ask.

Much easier to sit at home talking out of your ass about "non-bone rock and real bone rock."

And then, then, the guy has the audacity to refer to himself as "skeptical."  This use of the word (as in "climate change skeptic") just makes me want to punch a wall.  "Skeptical" does not mean "someone who disbelieves in random stuff."  It means "keeping your mind open until sufficient evidence is obtained."

And don't even get me started about how the author calls his disbelief-o-thon a "theory."

But back to Christians Against Dinosaurs.  The group has a Facebook page, wherein we are told, "We all know God never created dinosaurs, and its great to have a place we can all celebrate this... I only hope that it serves as an outlet for others too afraid to speak out about their doubts in the field of paleontology.  It is healthy to question the world around us and not just take the word of science as gospel."

The last sentence of which should win some kind of Unintentional Irony Award.

Oh, yeah, and on the Facebook page we also find out that "The Museum Industry Complex are [sic] ruthless."  The rest of us, apparently, are simply shills for the Paleontological Mafia.  Jack Horner, then, would be the Don Corleone of the dinosaur world, and if we try to interfere with his research, we stand a good chance of waking up with the severed head of a T. rex in our bed.

So anyway.  The latest in the world of reality denial; don't argue that extinct species died in the Great Flood, argue that they never existed in the first place.  I wonder what's next?  Maybe deciding that all of us science-types don't exist, either.  The whole world is populated by a few thousand holy people, and everything else is imaginary, placed there by Satan to trip up the true believers.

If you're going to deny reality, hell, why not go all the way?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Blocking the paradigm shift

Yesterday, something rather unusual happened; I left an educational staff development day without feeling like I needed to kick a small innocent furry woodland animal out of sheer frustration.

Usually, calling these things "a waste of time" is a tremendous understatement, but in yesterday's installment we were given a talk by Dr. Willard Daggett, the CEO of the International Center for Leadership in Education, and I left with a great many things to think about.

Daggett himself has not been immune from controversy, something about which you can form your own opinions after an easy Google search.  But that's not what I want to look at here.  His talk yesterday centered around moving from what he calls the "Urgent Issues" -- things like the Common Core Standards, APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review, the "teacher grading" system), state-mandated standardized tests, and budget cuts -- to looking at what most of us think of as the second-tier "Important Issues."

Those "Important Issues," Daggett says, are the ones that should be moved to the front of the line.  They include: the increasing gap between what schools do and what colleges and business leaders want; the rate at which colleges report students underperforming, needing remediation, and dropping out before graduating; and competition in the global marketplace with college graduates in technical fields who are better educated than the ones that the United States is producing.

In dealing with all of these, Daggett says, educators have been more reactive than proactive.  We keep doing things the same old way, even if the "same old way" isn't working so well.  We have ignored the research about how children learn, about what makes the content rigorous and relevant, about how to increase literacy and mathematical ability.

But the most important thing he said, in my mind, was when he started talking about how we teach our content areas as a disconnected series of facts.  I'm guilty of this myself; I've heard that in an introductory biology class, students learn more new vocabulary than they do in the first year of a foreign language.  We're shy on application and problem solving, and focus instead on teaching (and testing students on) a fact salad that has little connection to the real world.

It's time, he told us, to look at other ways of doing what we do.

I found myself unable to argue with much of what he said.  And this is despite the reputation I have for being something of an opinionated gadfly.  He showed a slide that he said represented how people feel who propose making major changes to schools:

The cat, of course, is the one who is proposing the changes, and the line of German Shepherds the school staff.  He used his laser pointer to point out the dog in the middle who looks like he's about to run out and eat the cat for dinner, and said, "And I'm sure that everyone in this room knows which faculty member's face should be on that dog."  At which point more than one of my colleagues looked in my direction.

So as I said, it's a minor wonder that I didn't get angry.  Because much of what he was saying is a stinging indictment of what I've spent the last 28 years doing, and Dr. Daggett had facts and statistics to bolster his contentions.

But here's the problem, something that I mentioned to him during a break, and for which he didn't have a very good answer.

How can teachers, administrators, and school boards institute a major paradigm shift when (1) students and teachers are still being evaluated on the same old metric of regurgitation-based standardized tests, and (2) legislators are still tying the funding of schools to students' scores on those tests?

Most of us recognized the problem before yesterday; the reason that Dr. Daggett's speech didn't raise more hackles is that the majority of the people in the room already know the scope of the problem (even if they may not have known the specifics he brought up).  But we're caught between knowing that the world is changing, and that we're not meeting student needs very well, and a leadership that demands that we assess student achievement the same way we've been doing for the past fifty years.

It's not the teachers who are blocking the paradigm shift.  It's the people in the State Department of Education who are designing all of the assessments, and the state legislature that is holding the purse strings.

But it was one of the last things he said that made me sit up and frown a little.  He told a personal anecdote about a family member who had had emergency surgery for a life-threatening injury, and compared the way surgeons are treated in hospitals with the way teachers are treated in schools.  "Teachers," he concluded, "are the equivalent of the front-line surgeons in hospitals.  We should treat teachers like surgeons."

All well and good to say.  We have a governor here in New York State who trusts teachers so little that we're not even allowed to grade our own final exams, because of worry that we'll cheat.  We have to fight tooth and nail for every pay increase we get, while the state aid that pays our salaries is cut every year, and the governor has mandated a property tax cap so that school boards couldn't even raise the tax levy if they wanted to.  We're at the whim of a Board of Regents that is so out of touch with what is happening in schools that they have publicly stated that standardized test scores should comprise 50% of a teacher's final "grade," and that if the teacher doesn't meet the benchmark on that 50%, the other 50% -- evaluation by administrators, classroom visits, and so on -- doesn't matter.

Hell, they don't even trust the administrators.  The latest proposal is to have classroom observations done by outside evaluators, to keep the principals from cheating.

Treat us like surgeons?  We're so far from that level of respect and (dare I mention it) salary that the comparison almost made me laugh out loud.  The distrust and disrespect current government leaders have for the teaching profession, and the resultant stress on teachers, is one major reason why we're hemorrhaging talent -- the best and brightest are finding other careers.  Consider, for example, the loss of Stacie Starr, winner of a 2014 Teacher of the Year award in Ohio, who in her resignation speech said, "I can’t do it anymore, not in this ‘drill ‘em and kill ‘em’ atmosphere.  I don’t think anyone understands that in this environment if your child cannot quickly grasp material, study like a robot and pass all of these tests, they will not survive."

So while I thought Dr. Daggett had some good ideas, we were left with no real direction for solutions.  The situation won't change until the leadership does, and I don't see that happening any time soon.  Until then, we're doing just what the State Departments of Education are mandating that the children do; focusing on disconnected details, and avoiding any application of what we know to the real world.