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


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.

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.

Nary a Whisper

July 17, 2007

Props to Laelaps for a great post on the “Strange Silence About Paleoanthropology from Creationists.” It’s worth a read.

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.


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.

All and Enough

July 11, 2007

Humanist Quote of the Day:

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.

(from Humanist Manifesto III)