Archive for August, 2010

Same as it ever was……

Monday, August 30th, 2010

There has been a lot of media talk in recent months about the nature of much of the criticism that Obama has received from the public and the conservative blogosphere. Some voice concern that the passion and volume of the anger toward him and his administration is unprecedented and unbecoming to the office of the Presidency. Chris Matthews once again repeated this point today, with the recent survey that 31% of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim. He also showed a recent tabloid cover that promoted pictorial “proof” that Obama was a Muslim. Chris acted perplexed about why there was so much looniness being expressed out there among the wacky right-wing.

I’ll give him this much. Yes, there are quite a few angry people out there who say a lot of odd and ugly stuff about Obama. The thing that I have to laugh at is the way this tone is such a revelation to so many liberal talking heads and bloggers!

It’s like the years 2000 to 2008 never happened!

A Rasmussen poll in 2007 (2007, mind you!), showed that 35% of Democrats believe that President Bush knew about the specific 9/11 attack and choose not to stop it.

A number of tabloids and partisan bloggers pushed the theory that Bush had become mentally unstable and began drinking again. Kitty Kelly put out a book that described Bush using cocaine at Camp David during his father’s term in office. A Chicago-based artist exhibited an Artistamp painting of Bush with a gun pointed at his head. A British film-maker created a documentary-style movie depicting the assassination of Bush (and won an award at a Toronto film festival). You can go to the blog at zombietime and see some truly heinous protest signs, t-shirts and bumper stickers.

I could go on further, but I think you get my point.

Some also may say that death threats against Obama spiked as high as 400 percent higher than the average amount around the spring of 2009, but a Newsweek article in November of that year indicated the the threats had since lowered to the same levels of the Clinton and Bush years. It may have risen again over the last year, but I’ve seen no data to confirm it.

Anyway, my main point is that part of this polling regarding conspiracies involving Obama and Bush can be attributed to one thing. And it is basic Psychology 101. The halo effect. A person with one perceived trait, good or bad, is assumed to have a range of other such good or bad traits. People may not even be sure it is true, but if it is a negative halo, they refuse to give the person the benefit of any doubt. Dislike of either President can often translate to other negative perceptions across the board.

I will say this too: Eugene Robinson (also on Hardball) did admit one thing that I’ve felt that Obama flubbed a long time ago. He has never picked a church to attend in the D.C. area. Even if it is mainly for show, the media clip of a President leaving church and shaking the minister’s hand has become a fairly standard and “comforting” (for lack of a better word) scene for many Americans. As Eugene says (and I agree), some (not all) of this “Is he a Christian” stuff could have been tamped down early on.

Many of you may say “who cares”, but an astute politician should.

Penn & Teller vs. the Antivaxxers

Monday, August 30th, 2010

I’ve got a bit of an obsession with skepticism lately, so let’s keep rolling. Courtesy Phil Plait (who, by the way, has a new TV show), comes word of this cool clip that I assume is from the latest episode of Bullshit! (I don’t get Showtime): Penn and Teller take on vaccines:

Update: Some followup items inspired by Knarly’s comments in the comments:

Smashing Cars for Skepticism

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Quick: Which would you rather be driving in a 40mph head-on collision: A 1959 Chevy Bel Air or a 2009 Chevy Malibu?

I hope you said the Malibu. From Dragonrock posting at the JREF Swift Blog: Of Cars and Conspiracies.

I went to view the video on Youtube and saw the different copies have hundreds of comments claiming everything from the Bel Air had the engine removed to the frame of the older car was rusted and simply broke. Others say that something was done to the Malibu because the new plastic car wouldn’t have a chance against one made of sheet metal.

These conspiracies spread because of what “everyone knows.” The list of things everyone knows is long and includes things like: Toilets swirl one way in the northern hemisphere and the other way in the southern; Silencers turn the loudest gunshot into a quiet “fffffttt”; that Bogey said “Play it again, Sam”; and, of course, older cars are stronger than newer ones. But, in all these cases, what “everyone knows” is actually wrong.


I suspect that this conspiracy will fade rather quickly while the JFK, moon hoax, 9/11 truthers will be around for a while.  But the root of all of them is the same and that’s a lack of critical thinking.  I’m of the opinion that the hard core conspiracy theorists are a lost cause, but educating children, not on conspiracies, but on basic critical thinking will cause belief in these stories to die a slow death.  It’s hard to fix our world, but maybe we can keep our children from screwing up theirs quite as badly.

That assumes, of course, that each generation gets its own world to screw up fresh. Unfortunately, for certain kinds of long-lasting screwups, the generational inputs are additive.

When Scientists Actually Do Fabricate Data

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

In light of recent discussions we’ve been having about alleged bogus science, I thought this story was interesting. It concerns Dr. Marc Hauser, a “star researcher” from Harvard who is an expert on animal and human cognition, and who has written on the evolutionary basis of morality. It also appears, though, that he may have intentionally fudged research data in order to arrive at a predetermined result: Marc Hauser May Have Fabricated Data at Harvard Lab.

Some forms of scientific error, like poor record keeping or even mistaken results, are forgivable, but fabrication of data, if such a charge were to be proved against Dr. Hauser, is usually followed by expulsion from the scientific community.

“There is a difference between breaking the rules and breaking the most sacred of all rules,” said Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia. The failure to have performed a reported control experiment would be “a very serious and perhaps unforgivable offense,” Dr. Haidt said.

Makes for an interesting contrast, doesn’t it? You could compare it, say, to the East Anglia Climate Research Unit, where allegations of misdeeds following the theft and selective release of emails led to three independent investigations, all of which found that researchers acted with honesty and integrity, and that their results were scientifically valid.

Girl Want Steak. Want Now.

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

My son is 12, and finicky about what he eats, so the lead from this item by Ed Bruske resonated with me:

Like every family, we’ve had our food battles with our 10-year-old daughter. With great dismay, we watched a pre-schooler who amazed us with the range of her palate (she couldn’t get enough Altoids or wasabe peas) morph into a bratty pre-teen who turns dinner into a slugfest with a litany of foods she refuses to eat.

“What’s for dinner?” is no longer an innocent question, but the opening salvo of our nightly culinary donnybrook.

For the rest, see: My daughter, grass-fed rib-eye fanatic.

Armstrong and Doping and Anti-Cancer Philanthropy

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

The NYT continues the ongoing discussion of Lance Armstrong’s alleged doping, in this case looking specifically at the impact it would have on his activism and philanthropy in the fight against cancer if he were found to have been lying: Some Fear Armstrong Inquiry Will Taint Charity.

I was especially interested in this passage:

Jay Coakley, a sociologist and the author of “Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies,” said that he had no doubt that Mr. Armstrong was guilty of doping, but that it did not matter. For athletes, he said, the line between performance enhancement and medical treatment has become so fuzzy that it is impossible to discern.

“Deciding to use performance-enhancing substances and methods has nothing to do with lack of morality,” Mr. Coakley said. “It has to do with normative structure of elite sport, and the athlete’s commitment to his identity as an athlete.”

I don’t have any personal knowledge as to whether or not Armstrong used illicit doping during his career. But overall, I think the explanation that there is, in fact, a high-level conspiracy among elite cyclists to conceal the extent of doping in the sport, and that Armstrong’s statements over the years have been carefully calibrated to avoid exposure to perjury charges should the truth come out (“I’m the most-tested athelete in the world”, “I’ve never failed a test”, etc.), appears more likely to me than the competing explanation: that professional cycling is essentially “clean”, with a few outliers like Floyd Landis being exceptions rather than typical.

Or, more briefly, I think Armstrong is probably lying, and Landis is probably telling the truth, at least about whether or not Armstrong doped while on the US Postal Service team. But the evidence I’ve seen is fairly inconclusive as to specifics, and my belief has more to do with the overall context of professional sports, and the relationship between money and performance when even the tiniest advantage can have huge financial consequences.

I’m normally pretty resistant to conspiracy theories. But in this case, the situation seems tailor-made to nurture an actual conspiracy, with strong financial incentives both to cheat in the first place and to engage in a conspiracy to conceal the prevalence of cheating afterwards. To have a whistleblower you pretty much need what we have with Landis: Someone who knows he’s out of the sport, and really doesn’t care anymore, and has enough of an ego to be willing to make himself even more of a pariah by going public. The only piece missing is the smoking-gun evidence that a whistleblower trying to take down a huge commercial enterprise pretty much has to have in order to weather the storm of countercharges that are the predictable result.

Update: Fairly hilarious: Lance Armstrong Wants To Tell Nation Something But Nation Has To Promise Not To Get Mad.

In the Navy…

Friday, August 20th, 2010

This came courtesy of Hiro/Aaron. So funny.

Dorothy Davidson’s Fun with Photoshop

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Isn’t local politics fun? Bessemer mayoral candidate Dorothy Davidson claims Nick Saban endorsement, passing out fliers with altered photo.

See also the update, in which Davidson’s campaign manager takes the blame: Bessemer mayoral candidate’s campaign manager admits he lied about endorsement from Alabama Coach Nick Saban.

Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” Talk at TAM 8

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

Phil Plait is cool:

Phil Plait – Don’t Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

Toles on Global Warming Denialism

Friday, August 13th, 2010

What Tom Toles said: Election digest.

If you can’t accept the conclusions of 98 percent of the scientists whose FIELD IT IS, then why even bother with science? If that high a percentage of field of study is to be discounted ENTIRELY, then we are in deep trouble, which, of course, we are. It would be so simple if it were just a matter of ignoring the yelping commenters hereabouts: “Move on, Mr. Cartoonist! Chill out Tommy! There are more important things to worry about!”

Really? Which would those things be? This may be the only political issue whose results could be catastrophic PERMANENTLY. But the deliberate dust storm thrown up by fossil-fuel-centric interests has succeeded in contaminating and paralyzing the American response. Quite a victory for the deniers! It looks like mass-suicide to me.

NYT on the Other Neda

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

This story in today’s New York Times caught my attention: Mistaken as an Iranian Martyr, Then Hounded.

Iranian intelligence officials, Ms. Soltani said, pressured her to come forward publicly to show that she was alive and denounce the shooting as faked, and threatened her when she did not comply.

The Iranian secret police seem oddly inept in some of their propaganda efforts. There was that obviously photoshopped image of the rockets being test fired, for example, where you could clearly see where the billowing smoke clouds had been cloned to make it look like there were more rockets than there actually were. Or this story, in which they took an unrelated English-literature teacher and, after Western media sources mistakenly identified her as the woman shot and killed in that heart-breaking YouTube video, pressured her to participate in their weird propaganda effort to undercut the video’s impact.

These days Neda (the Neda who was not shot and killed), with the help of Amnesty International, has fled to Germany, where she has been granted political asylum. But she’s “haunted”, says the NYT:

“Both sides have destroyed my life, the Western media and the Iranian intelligence,” said Ms. Soltani, staring out the window of her apartment. “But I still have the hope that at least the media will realize what they have done.”

So: lessons for today:

1. Crappy journalism, even in the days of the Web when no one really expects journalists to have professional standards, has a price, and it’s paid by people like Zahra “Neda” Soltani.

2. The Iranian intelligence service are the Keystone Kops of government propaganda. But maybe they don’t care. Maybe, like the people pushing global warming denialism, it doesn’t matter if their shtick is ludicrous and transparent to anyone with an active bullshit detector. Because people with active bullshit detectors are not their intended audience. They’re looking for the low-hanging fruit: people who want to believe what they’re pushing, and won’t bother checking the facts.