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?


Credit Where It’s Due

January 13, 2009

What will be Bush’s greatest positive legacy? I think PEPFAR is a likely candidate, despite its flaws. I can’t think of any other program initiated by Bush that has helped so many people.


Yes, Some People Enjoy This

April 8, 2008

carman witch

And not just for the humor.

Carman’s “A Witch’s Invitation”

Some of the lyrics:

One peaceful afternoon I picked up from my mailbox the strangest looking letter I’d ever seen, a chilling little envelope bordered with flying bats, and serpents whose eyes were tinted green. The letter was addressed to me so as I opened it I froze. What I read turned my complexion three shades of blue. It said, “My name is Issac Horowitz. I’m a male witch, a warlock and I feel I need to spend some time with you.”

You know, there are more homoerotic undertones here than in The Lord of the Rings. I’m sure it was unintentional though.

He had the house you’d expect, the old English cottage, a “Nightmare on Elm Street” special right to the core, the overgrown ivy, the gate that creaked when opened, somehow you’d expect Freddy to answer this door. The doorbell rang, a hollow gong, the knob twisted then opened, and Issac stood before me with a grin. His jet black hair and well trimmed beard flowed with his black silk clothes. My skin crawled as he said, “Please come on in.”

Actually, all the warlocks I know live in incredible well-kept single room flats in dense urban areas. Guess Carman met one of the rare suburban warlocks.

Then he led me to a high backed chair as he meticulously began to unfold his scenario with evil patience.

Bet that chair will bring a pretty penny on eBay.

I was given a giant leather bound book jammed with newspaper clipping, thus the reason for this witch’s invitation. With eagerness he pointed to each article with pride. He said, “I healed this woman through a Babylonian chant; See this man, I cured him while performing druid worship; I was paid to curse this man with AIDS by his aunt.”

Which really sounds familiar to the superstitions you run into in Africa about AIDS. Sigh…

And later. . .

I knew then how Moses felt, how when his rod turned to a serpent and the three Egyptian magicians did the same.

Man, I hate it when my rod turns to a serpent.

At the end:

Then Issac jumped up from his chair and screamed, “You must leave now!” I said, “I will, but one last obligation-Next time think twice before you rumble with a man of God!!! ”

That’s what Ted Haggard said.

h/t Lame-O Weblog


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.


How to Really Be Sure If You Have AIDS

June 27, 2007

Here’s this week’s roundup of off-the wall searches that brought people to my blog:

10) trids

Well, it is a good joke.

9) “is sam harris jewish”

Yes.

8) ben stiller nose job

Really?

7) put God on trial

If that’s an imperative, it’s a little strong.

6) prophecies regarding croatia

Um.. scary.. I’ll have to look into this one.

5) kosovars idolize bush and america

4) trojan condom

Is someone shopping? Well you can buy condoms online. Enjoy.

3) trojan condom + pig

2) a cat and dog reproduce together

Now that’s just sick.

1) How to really be sure if you have aids

We can test for these things you know. Um… go to your doctor. Now.


There’s Always an Alternative

June 11, 2007

If your standards are low enough.

I just spent a good hour looking at the website of Scholars for 9/11 Truth and Justice, largely because I came across a website talking about how great the ‘evidence’ is for a controlled demolition. After reading some of their ‘evidence’–which largely consists of a drip of pseudoscience here and a heavy coat of logically-indefensible theorizing there–and find myself slightly more educated about their arguments, and overwhelmingly unconvinced.

The most interesting thing for me is the similarity between the 9/11 Truth movement and Creationism/ Intelligent Design. Both of these are based on the idea that the status quo simply cannot be correct, largely because of personal incredulity. There’s no way I could have evolved from monkeys… There’s no way there’s a natural mechanism that would create X… There’s no way that those planes and/or fires could have brought down those buildings… And what they end up with an alternative theory that is less plausible than the mainstream one which is supported by evidence. This also seems to be similar to other forms of pseudoscience, like that of HIV-denialists.

Here’s an interesting example from the 9/11 site:

The word theory when used in the derisive sense of ‘conspiracy theory’ connotes detailed speculation unfounded in fact. However, a theory can stand apart from a detailed scenario explaning the means and methods behind observed events. For example, a theory of the controlled demolition of the Twin Towers can be proved simply by disproving its converse — that the Towers’ collapses were spontaneous. (emphasis added)

That last sentence is the interesting part. Of course, it’s bad logic, and bad theorizing. One should look for the more parsimonious theory–that which fits better with the available evidence. Even if one were able to disprove specific evidence for the official theories (which, judging by the evidence presented on the website, certainly hasn’t been done, but is assumed to have been done), that wouldn’t mean the alternative theory is more plausible. It’s reminiscent of the Wedge Strategy of the Intelligent Design movement:

The objective (of the wedge strategy) is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to ‘the truth’ of the Bible and then ‘the question of sin’ and finally ‘introduced to Jesus.’

Simply convince people that the main theory is either untrue or unpalatable, and then they’ll no other choice but to embrace the alternative conveniently offered at the moment of doubt. Moral for the day: If you see this strategy elsewhere, be wary.


If You Don’t Like to Think About AIDS, Don’t Read This.

June 10, 2007

Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece recently entitled “Save the Darfur Puppy.” I think he was going for getting a reaction with the title, and it worked, at least with me. You’ve probably notice that the media loves stories about endangered species–always cute, cuddly ones, never rodents–because people are moved by these stories. On the other hand, a crisis like the genocide in Darfur is unlikely to get airplay commensurate with its magnitude. And likewise with AIDS, which despite being of tragic scale–two or three flaming World Trade Centers full of people dying every day–rarely hits the news, in part because it’s the same old, depressing story, every day.

So, when I saw that Truthdig had an interview called “Stop Ignoring AIDS and Africa,” I gravitated light-wards. The piece is an interview of Stephanie Nolen, the author of a new book called “28: Stories of AIDS in Africa” which tells one narrative of a (real, actual, living and breathing) human being with HIV in Africa for every one million of the estimated 28 million living with the virus. I certainly plan on reading this book, but here’s what really caught my eye–this picture:

And its caption:

Bongos, an 8-year-old HIV-positive boy, waits in a hallway at the Sparrow Rainbow Village medical clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa, in November 2005.

This really hits home, because I volunteered at Sparrow back in 2005. They do incredible work, and my few weeks there were extremely moving. Sparrow is an orphanage and adult hospice–a “village”–where those with HIV are cared for. The corridor in the background is the central part of Sparrow’s administrative center, which connects some of the hospital rooms (for the sickest patients), a kitchen, administrative offices, and even a makeshift morgue. Because most of the patients there receive some level of antiretroviral treatment Sparrow is really, sadly, one of the best places to be in Johannesburg if you’re a kid with HIV.

Here are some compelling quotes from Nolen’s interview on Truthdig:

You show people a picture of one sad-looking puppy and everyone runs for their wallet, and you tell them that 30,000 children die a day of diseases that can be prevented for less than a buck and nobody gives a rat’s ass. I don’t know what it is, what that says about us as a species, but I certainly know from a long time reporting about HIV in Africa that it’s true.

On narrating an issue where the statistics are numbing:

Their lives could not look more different in some ways than the lives of an American or a Canadian. But when you sit down in the little counselor’s booth in Malawi or Lusaka and they say to you, “You have AIDS, you’re going to die,” that doesn’t feel different than it would if you were in America. And it’s getting people to realize that those people had all—sure, they’re Africans—but they had all those same expectations around their lives. They want to graduate from high school, they want to start a little business, they want to, you know, persuade that really cute girl they’ve been eyeing for a long time to go out with them. It isn’t any different. You’ve really got to go, go really micro to make people understand that story, to get them past the numbers.

On finding stories of progress:

You know, I think we get very often this perception of it being a grim story where not very much changes…We also don’t hear that huge progress has been made in responding. There were, for example, when I started reporting on this full-time, there were fewer than 100,000 people on treatments and today there are 1.5 million in Africa. And everybody said, “You can’t do it, there’s no way you can treat in Africa.” Well, that’s a 13-fold increase in four years, and those people have better survival rates on treatment than most Americans on treatment do. So lots of victories.

On money and broken promises and the real roadblock to widespread treatment programs (trained health care professionals):

And there’s a lot more money available than there was….They need about $6.8 billion to meet those proposals, and they have, you know, like, $1.85 in change. Constantly, countries promise money and don’t deliver or don’t promise anything like what’s needed to respond. So we need money. I think, even more than money, these days we’re realizing that there are some more intractable problems that are going to need more creative solutions. So you can use that money to fly in boxes and boxes of pills. You can’t fly in nurses, doctors, pharmacists. I mean, you can fly in a few, but not enough to meet the needs of a whole, continent-wide healthcare program, right?

On the underlying economic inequalities that drive the epidemic:

You know, I meet lots of young women who’ve been given information about HIV but who are selling sex down at truck stops because their parents have died, they’re raising their siblings and that’s the only option that they have. So, you know, they say, “Fine, we’ve been told about HIV in the safe-sex textbooks, but HIV might kill me in five years or 10 years and we’re all going to starve to death next week if I don’t do this.” So, you can address some of the obvious things around prevention, but unless you change the factors that drive people into risky behavior, then you haven’t achieved very much.

And, a bit further afield, but still in Africa, on Darfur and the war in Uganda:

And, you know, it’s also interesting to talk about Darfur because, yeah, there are probably 300, 350,000 dead there and a lot of people displaced, but it is in fact a far smaller conflict than the war in northern Uganda which has been going on for 21 years. You have four times as many people displaced in northern Uganda. You have four times as many people dead. Well, when did we last hear about that one, right? I mean, Darfur is suddenly sexy because George Clooney goes there and, meanwhile, the war in northern Uganda that relies almost entirely on child soldiers … you don’t hear about that one.

On Bush’s PEPFAR program (providing treatment for AIDS in Africa):

Well, you know, I’ve done a lot of call-in radio lately where people call up and are yelling about the Bush administration letting people die, and here they are, spending all these billions of dollars in Iraq. Why don’t they do something in Africa? So I say to people, “Well, guess what? Actually the $15-billion, five-year program to intervene for AIDS in Africa, that the Bush administration dreamed up, has been the single greatest response to the pandemic ever.” And then there’s kind of silence on the end of the phone, you know?

And its problems:

…They’re saying a group that’s going to get U.S. funds to distribute condoms or put AIDS programs in schools or care for sick people, has to sign a piece of paper condemning sex work. And that’s like crazy moral language that just has no place in a place where people are selling sex to eat.

I like Stephanie Nolen. And I like Truthdig.

(If you’d like to learn more about or donate to Sparrow, please do so!)