Probability of Lunacy

January 19, 2009

I like drawing comparisons between the sociology of various conspiracy theory/ non-mainstream beliefs: Creationism, HIV denialists, 9/11 Truthers, homepathy, vaccines-cause-autism, etc. Sometimes the case is made easier when fools combine more than one of these subjects on their own. But, I learned to my chagrin last night that there’s always a believer in any crowd. In the South I’d count on it being a Creationist, but in DC the odds are pretty much even. So a conversation that started with Autism and vaccines ended up on why Building 7 fell.

I think I’ll try to approximate the odds of with a new maxim: In any social group, the probability that no quacks will be present is inversely proportional to the number of people in the conversation multiplied by the number of crazy batshit theories espoused.

So, for a conversation involving 5 people and 5 quack theories, there’s only a 1 in 25 chance that everyone will be sane. Sad, eh?


Recognize the Brainwashing

January 7, 2009

One of the best ways to draw out Internet crazies is to post on someone’s favorite pet conspiracy theory in mocking, derisive tones. It’s like Will Smith dripping blood on a sidewalk in I Am Legend (a movie that had the potential to be really good, alas). I’ve done this before, rather accidentally, when posting about the 9/11 “Truth” community. It also works with Creationism, which, while not exactly a conspiracy theory (we all know that the evil Darwinists are the true conspiracy) shares a lot of the same features.

On that note, I came across a website today while exercising my conspiracy theory fetish: a list of top Conspiracy Theory Sites
:


Caption: ALIENS CAN’T PROTECT US FROM COMING WORLD WARS, OR EARTH IMPACTS BY COMETS/ASTEROIDS! FALSE SIGN OF PROTECTION COMING! RECOGNIZE THE BRAINWASHING!

It’s really hard to tell if some of these sites are serious or not, but I tend to assume they are…


Caption: Mind Deprogramming is a site to help you to protect yourself from mind control from The New World Order and The Illuminati. You can watch hundreds of videos exposing the truth the corporate controlled media do not want you to see.


I Don’t Heart Lee Strobel

January 5, 2009

Largely because I don’t understand why someone would continue to stand behind a book that’s so atrociously bad that it’s been demolished again and again.

But props where they’re due: Strobel is engaging with Hemant Mehta and his readers at the Friendly Atheist.


Breathtaking Inanity

March 31, 2008

jeremiah wrightgeorge w. bush shaking finger

Nicholas Kristof has an excellent op-ed today on conspiracy theories and America’s collective intellect (or lack thereof). Kristof manages to work in Jeremiah Wright, 9/11, AIDS, evolution, and education all in one column. Pretty good.

Ten days ago, I noted the reckless assertion of Barack Obama’s former pastor that the United States government had deliberately engineered AIDS to kill blacks, but I tried to put it in context by citing a poll showing that 30 percent of African-Americans believe such a plot is at least plausible.

My point was that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not the far-out fringe figure that many whites assume. But I had a deluge of e-mail from incredulous whites saying, in effect: If 30 percent of blacks believe such bunk, then that’s a worse scandal than anything Mr. Wright said.

It’s true that conspiracy theories are a bane of the African-American community. Perhaps partly as a legacy of slavery, Tuskegee and Jim Crow, many blacks are convinced that crack cocaine was a government plot to harm African-Americans and that the levees in New Orleans were deliberately opened to destroy black neighborhoods.

White readers expressed shock (and a hint of smugness) at these delusions, but the sad reality is that conspiracy theories and irrationality aren’t a black problem. They are an American problem.

Jeremiah Wright’s statements that the US government created AIDS and was responsible for 9/11 disturbed me even more than his racist rants. The latter is more understandable in my eyes, whereas the former are such a departure from rational thinking that I can find no excuse for believing them. Of course, 9/11 conspiracy theories are fairly widespread in the general population too. Kristof continues:

These days, whites may not believe in a government plot to spread AIDS, but they do entertain the equally malevolent theory that the United States government had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. A Ohio University poll in 2006 found that 36 percent of Americans believed that federal officials assisted in the attacks on the twin towers or knowingly let them happen so that the U.S. could go to war in the Middle East.

And on to science education:

Then there’s this embarrassing fact about the United States in the 21st century: Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution. Depending on how the questions are asked, roughly 30 to 40 percent of Americans believe in each… President Bush is also the only Western leader I know of who doesn’t believe in evolution, saying “the jury is still out.” No word on whether he believes in little green men.

One thing I’d like to know here is in regards to how the question about “flying saucers” is asked. Are people asked if they have seen a flying saucer, or if they believe they exist, or if they believe there may possibly be extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe. If it’s the latter, then I’m crazy too, because the astrobiology grants I’ve done research for NASA under are all aimed at looking for extraterrerstrial microbial life. But I think there’s a big difference between believing reports of so-called flying saucers and having a more Carl Sagan-esque view on life in the universe.

Our breathtaking collective ignorance (and/or paranoia) has an impact on public policy in a democracy as well:

Only one American in 10 understands radiation, and only one in three has an idea of what DNA does. One in five does know that the Sun orbits the Earth …oh, oops…. How can we decide on embryonic stem cells if we don’t understand biology? How can we judge whether to invade Iraq if we don’t know a Sunni from a Shiite?

And then there’s a disturbing little bit about our political process. This is one reason someone like Mike Huckabee can rise to national prominence, while many of the most education and intelligent Americans are probably disqualified from our highest office because they’re too elitist:

From Singapore to Japan, politicians pretend to be smarter and better- educated than they actually are, because intellect is an asset at the polls. In the United States, almost alone among developed countries, politicians pretend to be less worldly and erudite than they are (Bill Clinton was masterful at hiding a brilliant mind behind folksy Arkansas sayings about pigs). Alas, when a politician has the double disadvantage of obvious intelligence and an elite education and then on top of that tries to educate the public on a complex issue — as Al Gore did about climate change — then that candidate is derided as arrogant and out of touch.

And here’s a good (and true) slam on where the conservative movement as a whole is going:

The dumbing-down of discourse has been particularly striking since the 1970s. Think of the devolution of the emblematic conservative voice from William Buckley to Bill O’Reilly. It’s enough to make one doubt Darwin.

Really, is there anyone comparable to the late Buckley? Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and the like have certainly expanded conservative media, but they’ve consistently done it by making it ever more xenophobic and ignorant. But let’s not forget the stupidity and misleading tactics of people like Michael Moore either.

bill o'reilly fox newsrush limbaugh oxycontinmichael moore ugly

There’s no simple solution, but the complex and incomplete solution is a greater emphasis on education at every level. And maybe, just maybe, this cycle has run its course, for the last seven years perhaps have discredited the anti-intellectualism movement. President Bush, after all, is the movement’s epitome — and its fruit.

Please, oh please.


From Darwin to Hitler?

March 30, 2008

charles darwin adolf hitler

“From Darwin to Hitler,”–that’s what Ben Stein has said he would have preferred the title of Expelled to be. Well, he didn’t get his way, but the early reviews do report the movie goes back and forth between shots of Nazi gas chambers and modern evolutionary biologists with disturbing and rather obvious implications.

Of course, the Nazis did draw heavily on so-called “Social Darwinism,” which is/was a rather ignorant application of the biological principle of natural selection (the description of which is a statement of what “is”) to the field of social policy (the prescription of which is a statement of what “ought to be”). How well Social Darwinism was rooted in actual Darwinian evolutionary biology is debatable. But whether or not the application of Social Darwinism to society has horrific results has no bearing on the underlying biological truths of universal common descent and natural selection. To argue that it does is an appeal to consequences.

Since he was one of the scientists conned into being in the film, Richard Dawkins, has been vocal in responding to the film. For the record, I really enjoy Dawkins’ science writings, but I have some quibbles with Mr. Dawkins myself, some of which are described well here, but in this case he hits the nail on the head”

The alleged association between Darwinism and Nazism is harped on for what seems like hours, and it is quite simply an outrage. We are supposed to believe that Hitler was influenced by Darwin. Hitler was ignorant and bonkers enough for his hideous mind to have imbibed some sort of garbled misunderstanding of Darwin (along with his very ungarbled understanding of the anti-semitism of Martin Luther, and of his own never-renounced Roman Catholic religion) but it is hardly Darwin’s fault if he did. My own view…is that there are two reasons why we need to take Darwinian natural selection seriously. Firstly, it is the most important element in the explanation for our own existence and that of all life.

Secondly, natural selection is a good object lesson in how NOT to organize a society. As I have often said before, as a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-Darwinian as we can make it. I approve of looking after the poor (very un-Darwinian). I approve of universal medical care (very un-Darwinian). It is one of the classic philosophical fallacies to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Stein (or whoever wrote his script for him) is implying that Hitler committed that fallacy with respect to Darwinism. If we look at more recent history, the closest representatives you’ll find to Darwinian politics are uncompassionate conservatives like Margaret Thatcher, George W Bush, or Ben Stein’s own hero, Richard Nixon. Maybe all these people, along with the Social Darwinists from Herbert Spencer to John D Rockefeller, committed the is/ought fallacy and justified their unpleasant social views by invoking garbled Darwinism…

Anti-Semitism was around long before evolutionary theory. And maybe we could make a better case for blaming the Holocaust on scientists such as Pasteur and Koch whom Hitler actually quoted, unlike Darwin. Or Mr. Luther.

For those of us raised Protestant, it’s easy to think of Martin Luther as a hero who rebelled against the dogma of the Catholic Church when he nailed his 95 Theses to that door. Because our time for history is short, and the facts our inconvenient to our mythologizing, we don’t always get the complete picture.

Luther wrote a thesis in 1543 helpfully entitled On the Jews and Their Lies. Please note that this was a full 316 years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Because he was such a thoughtful guy, Luther included this list of recommendations on how to get rid of the Jews:

1. “First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. …”
2. “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. …”
3. “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them. …”
4. “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. …”
5. “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. …”
6. “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them. … Such money should now be used in … the following [way]… Whenever a Jew is sincerely converted, he should be handed [a certain amount]…”
7. “Seventh, I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow… For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the stove, feasting and farting, and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. No, one should toss out these lazy rogues by the seat of their pants.”
8. “If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews’ blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from our country” and “we must drive them out like mad dogs.”


Sound familiar??

So, we already knew Ben Stein wasn’t up on his biology, but now we know he is ignorant of history as well, and likely purposefully so. Oh well, at least he’s got his movie career going for him.


The Power of Conspiracy Theories

March 30, 2008

They’re. All. True.

9/11 world trade center dust image

Just kidding.

I’ve blogged before about the “9/11 Truth” movement/ conspiracy theories. But I came across a great summation and rebuttal of many of this sub-culture’s beliefs and suspicions that I thought was worth sharing. On eSkeptic, Phile Molé gives an account of a convention hosted by 911truth.org in Chicago, goes through details of their many spurious claims, and then has this fascinating conclusion of the “power of conspiracy theories.”

We need to return to a question posed near the beginning of this discussion: Why do so many intelligent and promising people find these theories so compelling?

There are several possible answers to this question, none of them necessarily exclusive of the others. One of the first and most obvious is distrust of the American government in general, and the Bush administration in particular. This mistrust is not entirely without basis…The revelations of Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, and other nefarious schemes great and small have understandably eroded public confidence in government. Couple that with an administration, that took office after the most controversial presidential election in more than a century, and one that backed out of international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, misled citizens about the science of global warming and stem cell research, initiated a war in Iraq based on unsupportable “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction, and failed to respond in adequately to the effects of a hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, and you have strong motivations for suspicion…

[However,] the mistakes made by our government in the past are qualitatively different from a conscious decision to kill thousands of its own citizens in order to justify the oppression of others. Most importantly, there is the fact that most of what we know about the bad decisions made by our government is only knowable due to the relative transparency with which our government operates, and the freedom to disseminate and discuss this information.

The full irony of this last point hit me while I was at the conference. Here was a group of about 400 people gathered to openly discuss the evil schemes of the U.S. government, whom they accuse of horrible atrocities in the service of establishing a police state. But if America really was a police state with such terrible secrets to protect, surely government thugs would have stormed the lecture halls and arrested many of those present…

It is notable that conspiracy theorists (and this likely applies not just to 9/11) tend to be clustered at the extreme right and left of the political spectrum–you’ll find few apathetics or moderates dedicating this much time to activities this far out of the mainstream.

Another reason for the appeal of 9/11 conspiracies is that they are easy to understand. As previously mentioned, most Americans did not know or care to know much about the Middle East until the events of 9/11 forced them to take notice…The great advantage of the 9/11 Truth Movement’s theories is that they don’t require you to know anything about the Middle East, or for that matter, to know anything significant about world history or politics. This points to another benefit of conspiracy theories — they are oddly comforting. Chaotic, threatening events are difficult to comprehend, and the steps we might take to protect ourselves are unclear. With conspiracy theory that focuses on a single human cause, the terrible randomness of life assumes an understandable order.

This may be the major thread connecting conspiracy theories to Creationism. And actually, for some believers Creationism really does function as a conspiracy theory, where they see a nefarious band of scientists denying evidence and making up fossils and such. Or just kicking the intelligent-design proponents out of academia, as the upcoming “documentary” Expelled asserts. Here Molé makes the conspiracy theory / creationism connection even more clear:

The great writer Thomas Pynchon memorably expressed this point in his novel Gravity’s Rainbow: “If there is something comforting — religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.” The promiscuity of conspiracy theories toward evidence thus becomes part of their appeal — they can link virtually any ideas of interest to the theorist into a meaningful whole…

With the standards of evidence used by conspiracy theorists, there is no reason why the Freemasons, the Bavarian Illuminati, or the Elders of Zion cannot also be involved in the 9/11 plot — it just depends on what you find the most solace in believing. As it turns out, some conspiracy theorists do throw one or more of these other parties into the mix, as a popular and bogus rumor that 4,000 Jews mysteriously failed to come to work on 9/11 shows.

Solace is something all of us needed after the horrible events of 9/11, and each of us is entitled to a certain degree of freedom in its pursuit. However, there is no moral right to seek solace at the expense of truth, especially if the truth is precisely what we most need to avoid the mistakes of the past. Truth matters for its own sake, but it also matters because it is our only defense against the evils of those who cynically exploit truth claims to serve their own agendas. It is concern for the truth that leads us to criticize our own government when necessary, and to insist that others who claim to do so follow the same rigorous standards of evidence and argument.


Checklist for Quacks

July 13, 2007

Have you ever sat down and wondered, “Am I a scientific quack?” Well, probably not. But I’ve met enough True Believers in pseudoscience to give myself pause. What I really am the person to come up with a scientific breakthrough? How will anyone ever believe me? Doesn’t science trudge along, a la Thomas Kuhn, in the dominant paradigm until the evidence suggesting otherwise is just too overwhelming to ignore? What if I’m part of the new paradigm that will supplant the old, and I want to get the word out?

After all, weren’t many breakthroughs originally derided? Who believed the Earth actually revolved around the Sun? Who knew that Helicobacter pylori bacteria played a role in ulcers? Who knew that RNA interference played such a large role in cell function? Or that cells were programmed to self-destruct as a natural part of development? Or that a thing as wacky as prions actually existed? (After heliocentricity, these ideas won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 2005, 2006, 2002, and 1997, respectively).

Luckily for all of us, Cosmic Variance has compiled an Alternative-Science Respectability Checklist. Excerpts follow:

Believe me, I sympathize. You are in possession of a truly incredible breakthrough that offers the prospect of changing the very face of science as we know it, if not more. The only problem is, you’re coming at things from an unorthodox perspective… Perhaps you have been able to construct a machine that produces more energy than it consumes, using only common household implements; or maybe you’ve discovered a hidden pattern within the Fibonacci sequence that accurately predicts the weight that a top quark would experience on Ganymede, expressed in femtonewtons; or it might be that you’ve elaborated upon an alternative explanation for the evolution of life on Earth that augments natural selection by unspecified interventions from a vaguely-defined higher power. Whatever the specifics, the point is that certain kinds of breakthroughs just aren’t going to come from a hide-bound scholastic establishment; they require the fresh perspective and beginner’s mind that only an outsider genius (such as yourself) can bring to the table.

No sarcasm there. Rule 1:

Acquire basic competency in whatever field of science your discovery belongs to.

But! But! Seems a bit demanding, doesn’t it?

Now, you may object that steering clear of such pre-existing knowledge has played a crucial role in your unique brand of breakthrough research, and you would never have been able to make those dazzling conceptual leaps had you been weighed down by all of that established art. Let me break it down for you: no.

Rule 2:

Understand, and make a good-faith effort to confront, the fundamental objections to your claims within established science.

Continuing:

Scientific claims — whether theoretical insights or experimental breakthroughs — don’t exist all by their lonesome. They are situated within a framework of pre-existing knowledge and expectations. If the claim you are making seems manifestly inconsistent with that framework, it’s your job to explain why anyone should nevertheless take you seriously…. If you claim that the position of Venus within the Zodiac affects your love life, you’re not only positing some spooky correlation between celestial bodies and human affairs; your theory also requires some sort of long-range force that acts between you and Venus, and there aren’t any such forces strong enough to be relevant.

And finally, Rule 3:

Present your discovery in a way that is complete, transparent, and unambiguous.

Not likely. But in case someone still needs convincing, have them submit their theory to the Crackpot Index.


Letter to a Christian Educator

July 6, 2007

Something special has come into my possession. A student who goes to a private, conservative, Christian school I’m familiar with got upset about some of his terrible liberal professors (all of whom are intelligent Christians who hold at least one position said student simply can’t fathom) and wrote a letter to the president of the university. For some unknown reason, the student then felt compelled to post the letter online for all to see (bragging about his conservative chutzpah, maybe?). Then he got cold feet and removed it… but Google cache is a cruel master and preserves such humorous nuggets in perpetuity. (Edited for brevity and anonymity, but the substance remains accurate.)

This is a copy of a letter I recently sent to [Christian U President] and some other [Christian U] big wigs…. I would encourage all of you to write a letter of your own on any of these issues that concern you. Feel free to copy and paste any of my letter to use in your personal grievance to the “powers that be.”

“Dr. [Christian U President]:
I am a current [Christian U] student and will be entering my junior year of college this fall. With that said, you should be aware that I have encouraged my classmates to also write with their similar concerns.

Oh, I’m sure the comments are a-flooding in.

Dr. [X]’s online journal is where most of his [Christian U]-hating is done… However, there several inappropriate displays outside of his office, in which he mocks [Christian U] and Conservatism. His comments in class have also been insubordinate and inappropriate.
This man is very clearly anti-[Christian U], anti-Conservative and, in my opinion, anti-American.
Regardless of your personal political views, regardless of the political values held by [Christian U]: this is an embarrassment to our school… What kind of message is being sent about [Christian U]?

Wait? A University can hold political values? It’s an embarrassment to have teachers who don’t all think and teach like zombies?

Many have yelled “freedom of speech” in defense of [X]’s comments, but I do not think his Constitutional rights can save him on this one. As you are aware, he is obligated to uphold the standards and principles held by [Christian U]: after having sat under his teaching, I am afraid he is failing miserably.

This student was probably either sleeping or fuming in anger that anyone could think differently, or think to judge America by the same standards as the rest of the world. In fact, I would say said professor’s views on politics flow more understandably from his faith than said student’s views. If I may speak for him, this professor sees himself as a Christian in an unjust world, and finds it as necessary to buck the trend of big “C” Conservatism when it doesn’t line up with his faith.

The day after learning of Dr. [X]’s outlandish comments…I was blown away by comments made in my Biology class. Dr. [Y], my teacher, told my class that there is overwhelming evidence that shows homosexuality is genetically inherited. After making this large, outlandish, sweeping statement, he proceeded to change subjects. I very politely raised my hand and asked if he would show us some of this “overwhelming evidence.” Dr. [Y] then responded, “If you want to add an extra week to this class, we might have time. Are you interested?” I politely responded, “No, I am not interested—I don’t believe it. I just think that’s a BIG statement to make and not show any evidence to back it up.” Dr. [Y]’s response was a simple “ok” and the discussion was over.

The unfortunate thing about general education science classes is that those who are incapable of understanding specific research (due to ignorance of science and unwillingness to consider arguments) are fed conclusions they will simply brush off as ideologically suspect, and the professors often do not have the time to discuss the evidence. This is sad because it misrepresents the process of science while maintaining its conclusions. That said, an extra week of class probably wouldn’t suffice to give this student the background needed to understand (and certainly not trust) such findings.

This is not my first conflict with the science department: in Spring 2006, Dr. [Z] presented the idea of the “Big Bang,” Evolution, and “Millions of years” to my Geology class. I should have written this letter then.

These concepts were likely introduced from the “here’s what most scientists think happened” perspective, not the “this is true” perspective. I should note that Dr. Z is what could be classified as an Old-Earth Creationist. I understand that he believes the Earth is billions of years old, that some species evolved and such, but that humans were a special creation. What’s the problem with that?

These occurrences, along with the showing of Al Gore’s propaganda film “An Inconvenient Truth” in the [auditorium] last semester, have led me to a place of discontent. While the spiritual mindset seems to grow more and more close-minded, the political tolerance on this campus is out of control! Why is it that the religion of environmentalism is promoted…?

Yes! Down with this Godless tolerance! Down with Godless environmentalism! Let us take the Creation and rape it to fulfill our own lust for wealth, oil, and dead Arabs! (Did I mention this student is pro-anything-military? Yeah).

I am not an administrator; I do not claim to know how to fix these problems. I only know that [Christian U] is not the same place it was 2 years ago when I stepped onto this campus. Attending this school has been a GREAT financial burden on me and my family, but it is a burden I have gladly carried—until this point. My parents have often encouraged me, saying, “We know [Christian U] is expensive, but it’s worth it. Public education is full of liberalism and corruption, but [Christian U] is an alternative.”

I wish I had a transcript of that conversation.

I’m not here to say that [Christian U] is corrupt; I simply feel shortchanged. I could receive a liberal, worldly education for one third of the cost at any public university. That is not, however, what I desire: I want to be educated by Christian brothers and sisters, in a Godly manner.

(I don’t see how any of the professors previously mentioned act in an ungodly manner, promoting things like free inquiry, science, evidence, etc.)

Please work to resolve these issues. Dr. [X] has gone unchecked for years—he needs to be controlled. As for Dr. [Y] and Dr. [Z], I’m sure they feel they can say anything “in the name of science,” but I think they are mistaken. There is a higher standard; there is a higher entity than science.

The last paragraph is really my favorite. It’s one thing to disagree with God’s politics (the Right-Wing side, not Jim Wallis’ book), but quite another to say things in the name of science. God forbid that we look at the evidence objectively and consider what it supports or does not support.

Welcome to conservatism.


More Creation Museum Fun…

June 22, 2007

Tara Smith over at Aetiology has a nice fresh take on the Creation Museum. If you haven’t read about it already, please observe the biggest waste of $27 million ever spent by fundamentalists. Hint: I know some kids with AIDS who could use the money (remember Matthew 25 anyone?) so send it here instead…

And BlueGrassRoots has an excellent photo tour of the museum. It includes these great comparios of God’s Word vs. Human Reason (guess which one is BAD!):

creationmuseum038.jpgcreationmuseum037.jpg