Thursday, May 28, 2015

How to do bad science

Here's an instruction manual:
“Slim by Chocolate!” the headlines blared. A team of German researchers had found that people on a low-carb diet lost weight 10 percent faster if they ate a chocolate bar every day. It made the front page of Bild, Europe’s largest daily newspaper, just beneath their update about the Germanwings crash. From there, it ricocheted around the internet and beyond, making news in more than 20 countries and half a dozen languages. It was discussed on television news shows. It appeared in glossy print, most recently in the June issue of Shape magazine (“Why You Must Eat Chocolate Daily”, page 128). Not only does chocolate accelerate weight loss, the study found, but it leads to healthier cholesterol levels and overall increased well-being. The Bild story quotes the study’s lead author, Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., research director of the Institute of Diet and Health: “The best part is you can buy chocolate everywhere.”

I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website.

Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic. My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany. We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data. It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science. The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.

The rest of the article explains the details.

This was fraudulent only because the authors of the study knew they were doing bad science. Maybe you think journalists shouldn't be skeptical of such things, but the alternative is to spread misinformation - which they did in this situation.

Also, note that Bohannon couldn't get this study accepted in peer-reviewed scientific journals. That's because other scientists would have checked his research methodology and seen that it was crap.

But he still got it accepted in the 'scientific journal' equivalent of diploma mills, which aren't peer-reviewed and where the only qualification is that your check clears. Actual working scientists wouldn't pay any attention to what they publish, but it would sound authoritative to uninformed laymen.

This is another reason why intelligent laymen should accept the scientific consensus, while being skeptical of sensational claims in the popular media, promoted by celebrities, or pushed by true believers, whether 'scientists' or not. The scientific method includes procedures designed to filter out bad science like this.

That's why scientists do it. (No, it's not to suppress the truth, and you'd have to be incredibly gullible to think otherwise.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Bill Nye reveals stunning breakthrough about the universe



I may have to start watching Inside Amy Schumer. This is the second clip I've posted from the show. (The other was "Football Town Nights.") Are they all this good?

The astonishing goal of Supreme Court Republicans

The U.S. Supreme Court is now going to hear a case, brought by a right-wing political group in Texas, to change America's traditional "one person, one vote" political system.

Astonishing, isn't it? And frightening, given the continued 5 to 4 dominance of Republican political activists on the court. They've already decided case after case by rejecting precedent and pushing Republican political interests in that strict 5 to 4 voting (just as, I should point out, they gave us George W. Bush as president, also 5 to 4).

Josh Marshall at TPM makes a good point about all of these terrible Supreme Court decisions:
It is increasingly difficult to find any unifying theory or rationale behind the Supreme Court's election and election financing decisions other than the goal of securing the electoral interests of the Republican party. That sounds harsh. But a simple process of elimination leaves little other conclusion. States rights, originalism, deference to legislatures, various constructions of democratic theory and a lot else are controlling except when they're not controlling. Most of the decisions line up with the conservative jurisprudence espoused by the Court's conservative semi-majority. Except when they don't. Cases are plucked out of the lower courts long before the high court has any obligation or need to intervene. The new case which will review the 'one person, one vote' rule which has been reining law for half a century would likely diminish the voting power of cities vs rural areas, minorities vs whites and Democrats vs Republicans, if decided on behalf of the plaintiffs. In other words, why not?

When the Republicans on the court selected George W. Bush as president in 2000, they decided against states' rights for pretty much the first time ever. It was pretty clear, I thought, that they just wanted a Republican president.

Since then, as Marshall points out, there's been no guiding principle whatsoever. The five Republicans (all men, all Catholic) simply seem to make their decisions on what will benefit the Republican Party.

That's political activism, not deciding cases of law. And indeed, some of them have remained active in right-wing politics, despite being on the bench of the highest court in the land. They don't even pretend to stay impartial.

Republicans have broken America's political system. They've broken Congress by refusing to do anything our first black president wanted, just because he wanted it. They agreed to do that before he'd even taken office for his first term, while America was embroiled in two wars and while our economy was collapsing in the worst economic crash since the Great Depression.

It didn't make any difference what Barack Obama wanted, because they agreed to this before he'd even taken office or proposed anything at all. Indeed, they held to it even when the Democrats adopted the Republican Party's own health care plan!

And now, Republican Supreme Court justices are apparently deciding legal cases based on what's best for the Republican party. Our nation cannot function like this. Our democracy cannot function like this. The Republican Party is deliberately harming America for partisan political benefit.

And by and large, they're getting away with it.

Cop tases and pepper-sprays stroke victim



This guy suffered a stroke. But he made the mistake of being black, so instead of helping the man, the police shot him with a Tazer, pepper-sprayed him, and then drove over his foot (that last was an accident, admittedly).

This video was posted on the Russia Today YouTube channel, but it's raw footage from the police cam. Here's an article about the incident, in case you think it's just Russian propaganda.

The black driver was charged with several crimes (hit-and-run, reckless driving, and driving on a suspended license), all but the last apparently a result of the stroke.

The police weren't charged with anything, though one officer resigned after his superiors concluded that he'd used force that was "not appropriate."

But seriously, can you even imagine this happening to a white driver? Maybe it does. I have no doubt that white people face problems sometimes when dealing with the police. But the automatic assumption of guilt that black people face is just something else.

There was another recent incident in Cleveland, where the police shot 137 bullets into a car at an unarmed black couple. Apparently, it started when the car backfired while driving past a police station. OK, I can understand the concern.

But 137 shots? Both people in the car - unarmed, remember - were shot more than 20 times each. One cop jumped up on the hood of the car and pumped 15 shots through the windshield, after the car had already stopped (and the rest of the officers had stopped firing).

Even that man was found "not guilty" of voluntary manslaughter. None of the other police officers were even charged with anything.

Do you wonder why African-Americans get angry at this stuff? I don't.

Here's another thing: There was a recent shootout among gangs in Texas where 9 people were shot to death and 18 were injured. Hundreds of guns were found at the scene - more than 300, apparently - with plenty of other weapons, too.

Scary stuff, huh? But these were white gangs:
The prevailing images of protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, over police killings of black men were of police in riot gear, handcuffed protesters, tear gas and mass arrests. The main images of a fatal gun battle between armed bikers and police in Waco, Texas, also showed mass arrests — carried out by nonchalant-looking officers sitting around calm bikers on cellphones.

There's more:
The firefight in Waco is raising questions about perceptions and portrayals of crime in America, considering the vehement reaction that the earlier protests got from police, politicians and some members of the public.

Unlike in Ferguson and Baltimore, where protests went on for days, there was no live news coverage of the Waco shootout. And yet the incident at a Texas restaurant hasn't been used as a bridge to discuss other issues about families, poverty and crime, media critics, columnists and civil rights activists say.

They complain that there appears to be little societal concern about the gunplay at a restaurant in Texas, whereas politicians — including President Barack Obama — described violent looters in Baltimore as "thugs," and the media devoted hours of television and radio airtime to dissecting social ills that affect the black community. ...

Civil rights attorney Charles F. Coleman Jr. said only minority communities get blamed for violence, while no one blames white families or white communities for fatal violence by white men, characterizing such events instead as "isolated incidents."

Coleman noted that protests, some violent, that flared up around the police killings of black men, most of which involved an overwhelmingly black crowd, were called "riots" while college and professional sports championship celebrations and losses that turned violent, most of which involved an overwhelmingly white crowd, are not.

"But when you look at Ferguson, or you look at a Baltimore, when you look at these sorts of incidents, we have a tendency vis-a-vis the media to actually question why it happened to the victim, and we go further and then we impute liability on the entire community and sort of do this systematic victim blaming of black America," he said.

Make no mistake, I'm not excusing riots. I'm not saying that people should run from the police, either. (Having a stroke, though,... that's hardly criminal activity.) But look at the differences in how these incidents are treated and in how various people are perceived.

We have a problem with racism in America. A big problem. Yes, we've progressed. It's better than it used to be. But "better" isn't "good."

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Five more stupid things about the Men's Rights Movement



Steve Shives does a series of these, and I previously posted his "Five Stupid Things about the Men's Rights Movement" video.

This is a followup to that - as he says, it was voted on by his Patreon supporters. But he actually produced an earlier followup (which I posted here) called "Seriously, the Hell with the Men's Rights Movement."

I like his style, especially since anyone on YouTube takes a lot of crap from MRA supporters if they speak out.

BS and the 'Food Babe'



This is Yvette d'Entremont, the 'Science Babe' and critic of the 'Food Babe,' Vani Hari, who's supposed to be one of the 30 most influential people on the internet.

Yeah, America: bringing the intelligence and perception of 'reality TV' to every walk of life.

To begin with, I dislike this whole 'babe' stuff - on both sides. But it's always an effective marketing ploy, isn't it?

And to her credit, the 'Science Babe' is an actual scientist (though she runs that website full-time now). Of course, she's not nearly as well-known and popular as the 'Food Babe,' and she doesn't make anywhere near as much money, but she doesn't just spout bullshit, either.

Unfortunately, this stuff demonstrates that pseudoscience is an equal-opportunity employer, not just embraced by right-wing ideologues. The left also has its faith-based thinking, based mostly on scientific ignorance and the distrust of corporations.

Now, I can understand the latter, but let's not go completely off the deep end. Belief in a world-wide scientific conspiracy about food additives, GMOs, or vaccines is just as dumb as believing in a world-wide scientific conspiracy about global warming or evolution.

But it's always easy to criticize the other side, isn't it? Admittedly, right-wing crazies have a lot more political power. For all its faults, the Democratic Party does generally accept science. Although there are plenty of Democrats who don't, they don't control the party.

This video is long (though the last 15 minutes or so is a question-and-answer session). But she's an entertaining speaker, mixing plenty of humor into her talk. And I always like to remind people that pseudoscience isn't just a problem on the right.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Insanity and paranoia in the Republican Party



"It's like this machine of insanity and paranoia that he [Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-TX] keeps feeding quarters into. And, unfortunately, it's working."

Yeah, it sure is. 60% of Republicans - and 75% of Tea Partiers - actually think that Barack Obama is going to invade Texas, or "aren't sure," because of military exercises our country has conducted ever since we became a country.

Note that my own father was participating in one of those large military exercises, in the backwoods of the Deep South, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. That's how our military practices, when we don't actually have a war to fight - or even when we do, sometimes.

Here's the article TYT links to at the International Business Times. But you know, in regards to the video, I have to feel sorry for Barack Obama. He's just constantly taking flack from the right and the left.

Even in a video like this, describing complete insanity on the right, TYT makes sure to slam Obama a few times, themselves. I guess you're either with us - in every little detail - or you're against us, huh? LOL

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sharia law comes to Walmart



Ironically, this is exactly what Allen West and right-wingers like him want Christians to be able to do.

They want to give Christian pharmacists the right to refuse to dispense birth control. They want Christian photographers, bakers, and doctors to have the right to refuse service to gay people. They want to give Christian businessmen the right to decide what their employees can and can't do on their own time in their personal lives.

Allen West hates Sharia law because he's jealous. He wants 'Sharia law,' but only for his own religion.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Republicans are still lying to you


Jeb Bush is campaigning to be the next president of the United States. I still find that just... astonishing. How in the world could he think that America would be ready for another Bush?

(Yes, I know that he hasn't "officially" announced his candidacy. He did, however, admit that he was running for president - accidentally - before reversing course after remembering that the law on campaign donations changes after a candidate declares his candidacy.)

Now, he's had a bad week, saying that yes, he would have invaded Iraq even knowing what we know now. Even Republicans were taken aback by that, so he's been hemming and hawing ever since, attempting damage control. At one point, he claimed that even answering the question would show disrespect to our military!

Finally, he threw in the towel. Knowing what we know now, he agreed that it was a mistake to invade Iraq. (He still doesn't admit how that action created ISIS, though, or helped Iran, or... well, much of anything else. After all, he actually says he gets his foreign policy advice from his brother! And most of the people on his staff were involved in that terrible, terrible decision.)

The other Republican presidential candidates - and there seems to be a million of them, already - were happy that Jeb Bush stumbled. And most Republican leaders - though not all - have come to a consensus on the Iraq War issue.

But as Josh Marshall at TPM points out, they're still lying to us:
As the GOP has quickly settled into a new consensus that the decision to invade Iraq was - at least in retrospect - a mistake, it has come with a willful amnesia bordering on a whole new generation of deceit about exactly what happened in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. To hear Republican presidential candidates tell it, Americans believed Saddam Hussein had a stockpile of Weapons of Mass Destruction which justified and necessitated the invasion. Since he didn't, there was no reason to invade. The carnage and collateral effects we've seen over the last dozen years only drives home the point: knowing what we know now, the invasion was a mistake. We wouldn't do it again.

While it's welcome to see the would-be heirs of President Bush, including his own brother, acknowledging the obvious, this history is such a staggering crock that it's critical to go back and review what actually happened. Some of this was obvious to anyone who was paying attention. Some was only obvious to reporters covering the story who were steeped in the details. And some was only obvious to government officials who in the nature of things controlled access to information. But in the tightest concentric circle of information, at the White House, it was obviously all a crock at the time.

While it is true that "WMD" was a key premise for the war, the sheer volume of lies, willful exaggerations and comically wishful thinking are the real story.

Let's start by reviewing some essential history and the several categories of willful lies that paved the ground for war.

First, it is true that US intelligence agencies believed well before President Bush even entered the White House in January 2001 that Saddam Hussein likely continued to possess or be developing some chemical and possible biological weapons capacity, as he had prior the Gulf War in 1991. Other Western intelligence agencies believed the same. But the nerve gas that Saddam used against Kurdish civilians in the 1980s never posed any imminent threat to the United States or really any direct threat to the United States mainland at all. These junior WMDs were a real issue. And that is why there was a broad consensus in favor of re-instituting the inspections regime that had been in place into the 1990s.

It was from this kernel of truth that the Bush administration and numerous neoconservatives policy experts and propagandists spun up a web of lies and willful exaggerations that goaded the country - already traumatized and angry after the 9/11 attacks - into war.

Marshall goes into details about this. If you don't remember this as clearly as I do, it's a good read. I don't want to copy it all here, so let me just finish with this:
It is very important to remember that before we invaded, Saddam Hussein actually did allow inspectors back into the country, thus undermining the key argument for following through with the threat of invasion in the first place. But the critical point is that we didn't invade Iraq because we had "faulty" intelligence that Iraq still had stockpiles of sarin gas. The invasion was justified and sold to the American public on the twin frauds of the Iraq-al Qaeda alliance and the Saddam's supposedly hidden nuclear program. As much as the White House and the key administration war hawks like Vice President Cheney tried to get the Intelligence Community to buy into these theories, they never did. And to anyone paying attention, certainly anyone reporting on these matters at the time, it was clear at the time this was nonsense and a willful deception.

At the time, I did buy into some of that. (I was trying to pay attention, but I'm not a journalist.) I accepted our government's claims that Saddam Hussein wanted to get nukes, though it was clear that it was a long-term problem, if so. (I knew that an Iraq-al Qaeda connection was a crock. If you knew anything at all about Iraq, that never did make any sense.)

I still opposed the Iraq War, for at least three reasons:

  1. We were already engaged in a war in Afghanistan. If at all possible, why not finish the war you've got before starting another one? (Note that Afghanistan might not have turned out so badly if we'd kept our eye on the ball. We took people and equipment out of Afghanistan in order to fight in Iraq, and that let the Taliban recover.)
  2. UN weapons inspectors were searching for WMDs in Iraq, so why not let them continue? Sure, Saddam was playing games with them. But he really couldn't stop them. Threatening invasion in order to get them back in the country was fine, but that made an invasion completely unnecessary (even if Iraq had possessed weapons of mass destruction).
  3. We were still keeping a no-fly zone over Iraq, so Saddam Hussein couldn't really do anything, anyway. There was absolutely no need to invade the country, certainly not any pressing need.

Even if the Republicans in the Bush Administration hadn't been lying to us, the war would still have been a bad idea. But they were lying to us. And as Josh Marshall's column points out, they're still lying to us.

The Bush Administration used deliberate lies, exaggeration, and implications they knew were untrue in order to drum up support for what they wanted to do. And knowing what we know now, they almost certainly would still have invaded Iraq, don't you think? After all, Bush got re-elected.

Mission accomplished, right?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

This is why I'll miss Jon Stewart


Who's going to hold Fox 'News' accountable, especially in such an entertaining way, once Jon Stewart leaves? After all, The Colbert Report is gone, too.

Oh, well, let's enjoy it while we can.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Pew report on religion in America


The Pew Research Center has written another report on religion in America, this one from polls completed last year: America's Changing Religious Landscape. I find it fascinating, especially compared to a similar study they did just seven years ago:
The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.

To be sure, the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven-in-ten – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith. But the major new survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center finds that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. ...

Even as their numbers decline, American Christians – like the U.S. population as a whole – are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Non-Hispanic whites now account for smaller shares of evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics than they did seven years earlier, while Hispanics have grown as a share of all three religious groups. Racial and ethnic minorities now make up 41% of Catholics (up from 35% in 2007), 24% of evangelical Protestants (up from 19%) and 14% of mainline Protestants (up from 9%).

This really becomes fascinating when you look into the details. But first, what about those "religiously unaffiliated"? At nearly 23% of the population, we're a larger group than Catholics (20.8%), mainline Protestants (14.7%), or any other religious group except for evangelical Protestants (25.4%).

But the vast majority of those 'nones,' as they're often called, don't describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. Instead - in this poll, at least - they subscribe to "nothing in particular."

What in the world does that even mean? "Nothing in particular"? Are these people who can't even be bothered to think about religion? Are they non-believers who can't bring themselves to admit it? Are they the vaguely 'spiritual'? Are they deists?

They're not Christian, although most were raised Christian. Obviously, you can't very well be Christian if you believe in "nothing in particular." Can they simply not take that final step to full skepticism? I really don't get it, but whatever they are, they're nearly 16% of the U.S. population now.

The percentage of atheists has nearly doubled in seven years, but it's still just 3.1% of the population. Self-described agnostics are now 4%. (Yes, I know. Those aren't contradictory labels. You can be an atheist and an agnostic, as I am. But 'atheist' is a difficult word for many people, even some nonbelievers.)

Still, note that there are more self-described atheists in America than Jews and Muslims combined. (Note: That's not even including agnostics.) There are more atheists than Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Orthodox Christians combined, too. We're still not even close to the number of "nothing in particular," though, and I really don't understand that.

Still, the trends are good. The 'unaffiliated' aren't just growing in number. They're also young and getting younger, while Christian groups are aging. 36% of young adults (age 18-29) are 'unaffiliated,' compared to only 12% of the 65+ age group. In Christian groups, it's just the reverse. The elderly are most likely to be Christian.

It's not just percentages that are changing, either. In the seven years since the previous report, the adult population in America grew by 18 million people. But the number of Christians dropped by 5 million.

I'd expect the Catholic Church, in particular, to be helped by immigration. And indeed, racial and ethnic minorities make up a whopping 41% of American Catholics today (they're increasing in other Christian groups, too). But despite that, the number of adult Catholics has dropped by 3 million, and by more than 3%, in just seven years.

(Again, the report notes that, "The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men." This isn't just a trend among white Americans - or even among young Americans, though the numbers are higher there. "Baby Boomers also have become slightly but noticeably more likely to identify as religious “nones” in recent years.")

Speaking of Catholics, here's another astonishing number: 41% of American adults who were raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic. 41%!  Incredible, isn't it? Most other Christian groups see the same trend (19.2% of U.S. adults are former Christians), with the 'nones' being just the reverse (most having been raised Christian).

Here's another positive trend:
As the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated continue to grow, they also describe themselves in increasingly secular terms. In 2007, 25% of the “nones” called themselves atheists or agnostics; 39% identified their religion as “nothing in particular” and also said that religion is “not too” or “not at all” important in their lives; and 36% identified their religion as “nothing in particular” while nevertheless saying that religion is either “very important” or “somewhat important” in their lives. The new survey finds that the atheist and agnostic share of the “nones” has grown to 31%. Those identifying as “nothing in particular” and describing religion as unimportant in their lives continue to account for 39% of all “nones.” But the share identifying as “nothing in particular” while also affirming that religion is either “very” or “somewhat” important to them has fallen to 30% of all “nones.”

The raw numbers still surprise me. How could 30% of the people who pick "nothing in particular" as their religious belief still claim that religion is important in their life? I really don't understand it. Still, as I say, the trend is very positive.

There are all sorts of interesting stuff in the details, especially when you play around with their interactive database tool. For example, despite gains among the 'nones' in every demographic category, they remain mostly white and mostly male. However, among us atheists, that is especially pronounced, with 78% being non-Hispanic white and twice as many men as women. Clearly, we need to work on that.

Here's some more fun stuff: Which group do you think is the best educated, and which the least? Well, Jehovah's Witnesses easily have the least education of any group, as 63% have no college education at all, and just 3% have a post-graduate degree.

But it's Hindus in America who have far and away the most education. 88% have at least some college, and 48% have a post-graduate degree! Admittedly, Hindus are only .7% of the population, but that's still very impressive.

Jewish adults are second. 81% have at least some college education, and 31% have a post-graduate degree. The 'unaffiliated' are sort of in the middle - better educated than most Christians, but not as much as non-Christians in America (or as much as Mormons and Orthodox Christians, either).

Of course, all of those other groups are very small percentages of the U.S population. Mormons, Orthodox Christians, and all non-Christians combined are only 8% of the population, while there are nearly three times as many of the 'nones.' It's hard to beat the averages - or trail them very much, either - with really large numbers of people.

Another way of looking at this is by educational group, and that shows the 'unaffiliated' at 21% to 25% of the population in every category. Interesting, isn't it? I guess I wouldn't have expected that. Anyway, I could browsed this stuff for hours. Heck, I already have. But I'll stop now. Feel free to check it out for yourself.

As an atheist, I have to find this report encouraging, but if anything, I'm surprised that we haven't grown even faster. Of course, I've never understood why everyone isn't an atheist. I've just never understood faith-based thinking.

And I still don't understand why atheists aren't a larger proportion of the 'nones.' I suppose I understand why some nonbelievers want to call themselves "agnostics," rather than "atheists" - well, I can accept that, at least - but why are atheists and agnostics together only about a third of the 'unaffiliated'?

That's still a significant number of adult Americans, of course. It's more than Jews, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus combined. But it's a much smaller number than it should be.

Still, when I was a kid, I didn't know any other atheists. Indeed, I didn't know anyone else who wasn't a Christian - as far as I knew, at least. And even in college, atheists were almost unheard of. Things have changed a lot since then - not enough, but we're certainly heading in the right direction.

Criminalizing citizen science


Nice picture of Yellowstone National Park, isn't it? But as this article points out, Wyoming has just passed a law to criminalize taking photos like that, with penalties of up to a year in prison.
Wyoming doesn’t, of course, care about pictures of geysers or photo competitions. But photos are a type of data, and the new law makes it a crime to gather data about the condition of the environment across most of the state if you plan to share that data with the state or federal government. The reason? The state wants to conceal the fact that many of its streams are contaminated by E. coli bacteria, strains of which can cause serious health problems, even death. A small organization called Western Watersheds Project (which I represent pro bono in an unrelated lawsuit) has found the bacteria in a number of streams crossing federal land in concentrations that violate water quality standards under the federal Clean Water Act. Rather than engaging in an honest public debate about the cause or extent of the problem, Wyoming prefers to pretend the problem doesn’t exist. And under the new law, the state threatens anyone who would challenge that belief by producing information to the contrary with a term in jail.

Why the desire for ignorance rather than informed discussion? The reason is pure politics. The source of E. coli is clear. It comes from cows spending too much time in and next to streams. Acknowledging that fact could result in rules requiring ranchers who graze their cows on public lands to better manage their herds. The ranching community in Wyoming wields considerable political power and has no interest in such obligations, so the state is trying to stop the flow of information rather than forthrightly address the problem.

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. Right-wingers seem to have figured out 1984, haven't they? Only they see it as an instruction manual.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Friday, May 8, 2015

Fear of atheism explained?



Note the misspelling of "atheism" in the graphic here. That just drives me nuts. But the rest of it is interesting.

I don't know if this explanation is true or not, but I've often wondered why religious believers hate and fear atheists so much more than they do theists who disagree with them.

I mean, why should my disagreement be so alarming, when believing in different gods entirely - and not yours - isn't? (Not to say that many people don't hate those other believers, too, but the hatred of atheists is just unmatched.)

I always figured it was because atheism threatens them as an actual possibility. I mean, the typical theist isn't going to be tempted by some other religion than the one he was raised to believe. Sure, converts happen, but they're very, very rare.

You're a Christian because you were raised Christian. If you'd been raised Muslim, you'd believe in Islam. If you'd been raised Hindu, you'd be a Hindu now. But you're certainly not going to be tempted by any of those religions now. How silly would that be?

Usually, you don't even have to think about it. As a Christian, you might ask an atheist if he doesn't fear Hell - the Christian Hell, of course - but you yourself don't lay awake at night worrying about the Islamic Hell. Of course not! After all, you weren't raised Muslim.

Atheism, on the other hand, is an actual option. You see it as a threat, because it does threaten your beliefs, while other religions don't. Theists tend to be scared to death of atheism because there's a real, non-zero chance that they might become atheists, themselves.

In a way, I always thought it was similar to how virulent homophobes have so frequently been caught engaging in homosexual acts themselves. Their hatred and fear of homosexuality came from the very real threat it posed to them.

For people like me, on the other hand, it's quite different. I can't imagine why gay marriage would affect me in the slightest. No matter how welcoming society becomes for gay people, I'm not going to be tempted to form a homosexual relationship, because I feel absolutely no sexual attraction for men. Thus, I don't feel threatened by it.

I made the title of this post a question, because I don't know if this is the right answer - or even part of the answer - or not. One study certainly doesn't settle anything. It seems plausible, but then, I think my own explanation seems plausible, too.

Maybe they're both right. Or maybe neither is. I don't know.
___
Edit: PZ Myers has posted several reasons why that video annoys him, most of which back up my own doubts (though explained better). He also says:
For being the “most despised and distrusted group in America”, we do fairly well. Atheists tend to be better educated and a bit more well off than many believers; I can walk down an upscale suburban street and not get hassled by the police or shot. Ask a black atheist or a woman atheist which aspect of their identity is most likely to get them discriminated against, and it usually won’t be their atheism.

So back off on the persecution theme, already. Leave that to the Christians.

Good point. Indeed, all of the points he makes there are good. Nevertheless, it is true that atheists poll very, very badly in America, far below most other groups of people.

I don't feel 'persecuted' by that. As far as I can tell, I've never been discriminated against because I'm an atheist. Then again, no one can tell I'm an atheist just by looking at me, and the subject rarely comes up in conversation. Still, even when people do find out I'm an atheist, they don't seem to treat me any differently than they always have.

Of course, those people already know me. Would they hire a stranger if they knew he was an atheist? Would they vote for a politician if they knew he was an atheist? Atheists have the huge advantage that we look just like everyone else. And it's very, very easy to stay in the closet.

But it's still true that theists tend to hate and fear atheists - although most of them have probably never even met an atheist, as far as they know - more than other people they disagree with. I'm not convinced it's because we remind them of death (I'd need better evidence before accepting that explanation), but it's still an interesting question, even if I don't feel like a victim.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Better Life



Three years ago, I supported a Kickstarter project for a book by Chris Johnson called A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy & Meaning in a World Without God.

Johnson did a great job with it, though I must admit that I didn't read the whole thing. It's a large coffee-table book, so I just browsed it, looking at all of the pictures and reading about the atheists I recognized (from the Internet; I've never met any of them in person), and some I didn't.

After that, he decided to make a movie, which I also backed on Kickstarter, and it's just been released. This is the trailer for A Better Life: An Exploration of Joy & Meaning in a World Without God.

I just watched it yesterday, and it's superb. It was a smaller project than the book, since he only interviews about a dozen atheists, but they're a good cross-section of people - all rather photogenic and at ease in front of the camera, but of different ages and backgrounds.

The film combats claims that atheists are necessarily unhappy without a god and demonstrates that atheist lives are at least as filled with joy and meaning as those of religious believers. It's an hour and a half long, which is just about perfect, I'd say. And it's really beautiful.

What it's not is an argument against theism. This isn't about debates, and it's not even about in depth interviews. It just lets you see and hear from a dozen happy, well-adjusted atheists from different walks of life.

There's humor, too. If you do rent the film, make sure you watch till the very end. He's got some bloopers included with the credits.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Tax Free



Joni Mitchell and Mrs. Betty Bowers, America's best Christian - does it get any better than this?

The Tulsa race riot



Incredible, isn't it? And no, I didn't learn about this in history class. How about you?

TPM has more about these incidents here:
In November 1898, white supremacist forces in Wilmington, North Carolina planned and executed the only coup d’etat in American history, overthrowing the city’s democratically elected Fusion Party officials and installing their own officials in their stead. Over the subsequent days, in a similarly and concurrently orchestrated series of events, rampaging mobs, featuring both white Wilmingtonians and members of militias from around the state, attacked and brutalized the city’s African American community, murdering many residents, forcing most of the others to abandon their homes and community, and burning much of it to the ground.

Members of that African American community tried to tell the rest of the nation what was happening, as exemplified by an anonymous woman who wrote a desperate plea to President McKinley requesting federal protection (her letter went unanswered). But it was instead the white supremacists whose version of the story became the nationally accepted one, a process that began immediately and culminated a few weeks later when Alfred Waddell, a former Confederate officer and one of the supremacist leaders, wrote “The Story of the Wilmington, N.C., Race Riots” for the popular publication Collier’s. Waddell’s story, accompanied by H. Ditzler’s cover illustration of marauding armed African Americans, led to the designation of the coup and massacre as a “race riot,” a description that has continued to this day.

The decades after Wilmington saw many more such massacres: Atlanta in 1906, Springfield (Illinois) in 1908, East St. Louis (also Illinois) in 1917, Chicago in 1919, Tulsa in 1921, and Detroit in 1943, among others. While there were certainly unique details in each case, the fundamental story remained the same: rampaging white mobs destroying business and homes and brutalizing citizens of the cities’ African American communities. In Tulsa, as in Wilmington, the mob mounted a machine gun on a vehicle and rolled it through the streets, firing at will. And in each case, in both the contemporary national media coverage and the subsequent historical accounts of the massacres, they were consistently (if not indeed solely) described as “race riots.”

I never heard a word about any of that when I went to school. Indeed, when it came to the Civil War, the Confederacy was romanticized.

They say the victors write the history books. Going by that, who really won the Civil War?

Thursday, April 30, 2015

An atheist reads The Magic Man in the Sky



This is Steve Shives reading, and commenting on, Carl Gallups' The Magic Man in the Sky. Lots of fun, isn't it? Better him than me! I certainly wouldn't want to wade through this garbage.

This isn't the first in his playlist - he's already at chapters 15-17 here - so I'm just posting this as a sample. Give it a try.

Note that this isn't the first work of Christian apologetics he's critiqued, either. In fact, I think this is the eleventh, so he's really a glutton for punishment. (You can find all of them here.) But he does a superb job with all of them.

They're not dry, either. He's quite humorous and very entertaining.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

2015 White House Correspondents' Dinner



Baltimore may be burning, but this is funny! Barack Obama knocks it out of the park every year at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. I always sympathize with the comedian who follows him.

This year, it was Cecily Strong:



She's good, but she didn't hit with every joke, like the president did. As I say, he's a hard act to follow.

Then again, that might be my fault. I pay attention to politics, but not to television, so I know I missed some of her jokes.