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

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Red truth, blue truth

At the same time that social media has opened up possibilities for long-distance (and cross-cultural) contact, and allowed us to befriend people we've never met, it also has had the effect of creating nearly impermeable echo chambers that do nothing but reinforce confirmation bias about our own beliefs and the worst stereotypes about those who disagree.

This is being highlighted in a rather terrifying fashion by The Wall Street Journal in their feature "Blue Feed, Red Feed," which they describe as follows:
To demonstrate how reality may differ for different Facebook users, The Wall Street Journal created two feeds, one “blue” and the other “red.”  If a source appears in the red feed, a majority of the articles shared from the source were classified as “very conservatively aligned” in a large 2015 Facebook study.  For the blue feed, a majority of each source’s articles aligned “very liberal.”  These aren't intended to resemble actual individual news feeds.  Instead, they are rare side-by-side looks at real conversations from different perspectives.
It's worth taking a look.  Here's a small sampling of a "red feed" for the recent "alternative facts" interview with Kellyanne Conway:
AWFUL LIBERAL Hack Chuck Todd Attacks #Trump – Kellyanne Conway Rips Him Apart (VIDEO)
Jim Hoft Jan 22nd, 2017 10:39 am 273 Comments
The liberal media today is in the sewer.
More Americans believe in Sasquatch than the crap coming from the liberal media.
After eight years of slobbering all over failed President and liar Barack Obama the media has suddenly decided to take on this new administration.
Today Chuck Todd went after Donald Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway on Meet the Press.
Kellyanne Conway ripped him a new one.
Notice how this condescending ass snickers as Kellyanne answers his question!

The Trump administration should boycott this horrible show immediately.
Contrast this with the "blue feed" on the same topic:
If you are puzzled by the bizarre "press conference" put on by the White House press secretary this evening (angrily claiming that Trump's inauguration had the largest audience in history, accusing them of faking photos and lying about attendance), let me help explain it. This spectacle served three purposes: 
1. Establishing a norm with the press: they will be told things that are obviously wrong and they will have no opportunity to ask questions. That way, they will be grateful if they get anything more at any press conference. This is the PR equivalent of "negging," the odious pick-up practice of a particular kind of horrible person (e.g., Donald Trump). 
2. Increasing the separation between Trump's base (1/3 of the population) from everybody else (the remaining 2/3). By being told something that is obviously wrong—that there is no evidence for and all evidence against, that anybody with eyes can see is wrong—they are forced to pick whether they are going to believe Trump or their lying eyes. The gamble here—likely to pay off—is that they will believe Trump. This means that they will regard media outlets that report the truth as "fake news" (because otherwise they'd be forced to confront their cognitive dissonance.) 
3. Creating a sense of uncertainty about whether facts are knowable, among a certain chunk of the population (which is a taking a page from the Kremlin, for whom this is their preferred disinformation tactic). A third of the population will say "clearly the White House is lying," a third will say "if Trump says it, it must be true," and the remaining third will say "gosh, I guess this is unknowable." The idea isn't to convince these people of untrue things, it's to fatigue them, so that they will stay out of the political process entirely, regarding the truth as just too difficult to determine. 
This is laying important groundwork for the months ahead. If Trump's White House is willing to lie about something as obviously, unquestionably fake as this, just imagine what else they'll lie about. In particular, things that the public cannot possibly verify the truth of. It's gonna get real bad.
It's not like they're looking at the same thing from two different angles; it's more like these people aren't living in the same universe.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Add into the mix a paper published this week in PNAS Online by Michela Del Vicario, Alessandro Bessi, Fabiana Zollo, Fabio Petroni, Antonio Scala, Guido Caldarelli, H. Eugene Stanley, and Walter Quattrociocchi of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science in Lucca, Italy.  The study, called "The Spreading of Misinformation Online," not only describes the dangers of the echo chamber effect apropos of social media, but the worse problem that it insulates us from correcting our own understanding  when we're in the wrong. The authors write:
Digital misinformation has become so pervasive in online social media that it has been listed by the WEF as one of the main threats to human society.  Whether a news item, either substantiated or not, is accepted as true by a user may be strongly affected by social norms or by how much it coheres with the user’s system of beliefs.  Many mechanisms cause false information to gain acceptance, which in turn generate false beliefs that, once adopted by an individual, are highly resistant to correction...  Our findings show that users mostly tend to select and share content related to a specific narrative and to ignore the rest.  In particular, we show that social homogeneity is the primary driver of content diffusion, and one frequent result is the formation of homogeneous, polarized clusters.  Most of the times the information is taken by a friend having the same profile (polarization)––i.e., belonging to the same echo chamber...  Users tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization.  This comes at the expense of the quality of the information and leads to proliferation of biased narratives fomented by unsubstantiated rumors, mistrust, and paranoia.
It would be easy to jump from there to the conclusion that there's no way to tell what the truth is, that we're all so insulated in our comfortable cocoons of self-approval that we'll never be able to see out.  That's unwarrantedly pessimistic, however.  There is a method for determining the truth; it involves using evidence (i.e. facts), logic, and an unrelenting determination to steer clear of partisan spin.  Giving up and saying "No one can know the truth" is exactly as unproductive as saying "my side is always right."

Still, all kind-hearted ecumenism aside, I'll end with a quote from the eminent Richard Dawkins: "When two opposing points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie somewhere in the middle.  It is possible for one side to be simply wrong."

Monday, January 23, 2017

An obituary for facts

Of all of the things to be appalled about over the last few days -- and there is a wide selection to choose from, something for everyone -- nothing chilled me like the announcement by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer that the crowds attending Donald Trump's inauguration set a record.

"This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period," Spicer said.  "That's what you guys should be writing and covering."

Which, of course, is blatantly and demonstrably false.

Then, when Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway was asked about Spicer's claim on NBC's Meet the Press, she said that it wasn't a lie -- that Spicer had simply given the public "alternative facts."

On the face of it, this may seem like a small matter -- the people who are in charge of presenting Donald Trump's public face to the media stretching the truth to assuage the new president's ego.  But think about it.  What Spicer and Conway are saying is, "Facts don't matter.  Accurate reporting doesn't matter.  All that matters is believing what you're told."

And even more terrifying is that Trump's followers, by and large, did believe what Spicer and Conway said.  "I don't believe one damned thing that comes from the crooked, bought-and-sold mainstream media," one person posted on Facebook.

"The liberal press will do anything to disparage our president," said another.  "No lie is too big or too small as long as it casts him in a hateful light."

This last one is the same person who posted the following photograph:

And I've already seen the following three times, with a caption of "Finally allowed back in the White House:"

We're being consistently steered away from respecting facts and evidence toward ideology, belief, confirmation bias, and a cult of personality -- an approach far more consistent with North Korea than with the United States, where Dear Leader is the center of near-worship on the basis of everything from his flawless statesmanship to his golf game.

But that's the direction we're heading.  Unsurprising, then, that governmental positions are being filled with people who have the same attitude-- predominantly climate change deniers (Tom Price, Rex Tillerson, and Scott Pruitt) and young-Earth creationists (Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, Jeff Sessions, and Vice-President Mike Pence himself).  None of these views are based on logic, rationality, or fact; they're either blind, doctrinaire belief in the face of evidence, or confirmation bias to accept a claim because it's politically or economically expedient.

What blows my mind is how far this ignore-the-facts approach can take you.  If you believe that the crowds at Trump's inauguration were yuuuge, then that's what they were, photographs (or any other evidence) be damned.  If you think the Earth is 6,000 years old, none of the mountains of evidence showing this to be untrue will convince you -- but you will swallow that Beowulf was an "eyewitness account of dinosaurs showing that they coexisted with humans," as was just claimed this week by Answers in Genesis spokesperson and "scientist" Andrew Snelling.

And once you believe that facts and evidence don't matter, it's apparently a small step to believing that a thin-skinned, narcissistic egomaniac who is a serial adulterer and (by his own admission) guilty of sexual assault could be the anointed one of god.

As George Orwell put it in 1984, "The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.  It was their final, most essential command."

We've got a rough road ahead.  I'm cheered by the numbers of people who turned out for the Women's Marches Against Trump -- literally millions of people came out for what were almost entirely peaceful demonstrations against what this administration stands for.  But we've got our work cut out for us.  We have elected and appointed officials, and (apparently) a significant slice of the voting public, who have written the obituary for a fact-based understanding of the world, in favor of "alternative facts" that fit the way they wish things were.  And I'm at a loss for how to approach this.  Because once you've decided that anything other than evidence is the best guide to determining the truth, I have no idea how you could be convinced that you were wrong about any belief you might hold.

Heaven knows I'm not infallible myself, but I do have one thing going for me; if you think I'm wrong, show me the evidence.  I might not like it, but faced with the facts, I'll have no recourse but to say, "Huh.  I guess I was wrong, then."  But if the media lies 100% of the time (except when they say something you happen to have already believed), when your favorite political figure has no flaws and was elevated to the position by god himself, when the hard evidence itself is suspect -- you have erected an impenetrable wall around yourself, locking yourself in with nothing but your ideology for company.

And a nation full of people like that might be the most dangerous thing in the world.

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."