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VR is the Future

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 01/02/2018 - 5:11am

I have written about virtual reality (VR) before, but over the break I acquired my first VR headset so now I have experienced it for the first time. It is better than I imagined.

It is still to early to make firm predictions about how the technology will be used, but my personal experience has definitely upgraded my optimism. First let me talk about the experience itself, and then we can delve into possible applications.

In case you are not aware, VR involves wearing a headset that completely covers your vision and fills your visual field with a 360 degree 3D digital reality. In addition there are sensors which can read your location in the room and sense your controllers as well. You have to setup the space so that the system knows where the edges are. You can move about freely in the space, and virtual gridline walls will appear to warn you that you are approaching the edge.

The first thing I noticed when I activated the VR software is how completely natural it felt. I was a little surprised, actually. I had some fear that it would be a bit disorienting and I guess I assumed it would feel artificial, perhaps primed by how the tech is sometimes portrayed in Sci Fi.

I am using an HTC Vive with Steam VR software. You first appear in a room, which is like your digital office. The space is beautiful and very realistic at the definition available. You can, of course, tell it is not real, especially if you look closely at things that require a great deal of detail, like a tree. But at the level of detail it felt completely comfortable, even pleasant.

The overall experience is great. It is nice to be able to simply look at what you want to see, to change your perspective and to move around in the space in order to interact with it. What I think I learned from this is that VR has the potential to simply be a great computer interface.

I had wondered if people would want to use VR instead of just looking at a monitor for basic computer applications. I don’t think we are quite there yet with the tech or the applications available, but its very close, certainly close enough for early adopters.

What is nice about a VR office is that the monitor essentially fills your entire world. You can have applications open on the different walls of your office and interact with them very naturally. You can customize your digital office to optimize its utility – you can have a clock on the wall to monitor the time, other information displayed where you can conveniently look at it but it will not be in your way. You can easily find what you are looking for, because you already have a lifetime of experience living in a 3D world.

You can also easily interact with objects in the real world, because they can be represented in the digital space. I had no problem putting down and picking up my controllers, because I could see them in VR. The controllers could also be skinned with different applications – think about that, the appearance of the controllers can be infinitely modified to fit their current use.

I was amazed at how visceral the experience was. One of the environments you can choose is a space platform in low orbit above the Earth. You are standing on the edge of this open platform, with the globe of the Earth spinning below you. I felt the unease of being at that height.

I have only had time to sample a few applications, but they are amazing. The first thing I did, of course, was play Fallout 4 VR. No surprise here – VR games are fantastic. In the game I can literally peak around a corner and aim my digital gun (it’s a first person shooter), and then see where my bullets are going to adjust my aim. I can swing my digital club at an enemy, and if I hit, I hit. When I want to consult my Pip Boy (a wearable computer on my wrist), I simply raise my wrist and look.

In the other applications, movement was limited and I had no sense of vertigo at all. In the game, however, I had to run through the virtual world. There are essentially two ways to do this. You can make a series of short teleports – use the controller to point to a spot a few feet away and move your character there You can do a series of quick jumps to move fairly quickly. In this mode I had no vertigo.

The other ways is to walk or run more naturally through the environment. In this mode I had almost instant motion sickness. The visual experience of smooth movement is more inducive to motion sickness than the sudden jumps. The jarring disconnect between what your visual system thinks is happening and what your vestibular system feels is exactly what causes motion sickness.

Part of this was my unfamiliarity with the controls – suddenly running sideways, for example. As I got better with the controls I was able to reduce the motion sickness, but not eliminate it. I had to switch back to the short teleports.

There are also some museum applications available, although these are currently limited. This showed me the potential of VR first hand. The Museum of Natural History has a VR display where you are standing in the middle of five exhibits. You can look at them in high res, rotate them, zoom in, and click floating boxes for more information. You can then go to a more detailed experience with that exhibit – pick up the bones and move them around.

Many of the available locations, like the museums, are created through laser scanning. This captures them is high 3D detail. While impressive, you can see the limitations of this technology. It has a hard time separating items that are touching, or filling in crevices.

But even with the current limitations, a virtual museum trip is still worth it. No, it is not as good as the real thing in meat space, but visiting a location, art gallery, or museum in Japan in VR is better than not doing it at all (you know, because it’s in Japan). There are also certain advantages, like the control over information and perspective.

Not surprisingly, we are just scratching the surface as VR (since it is a relative new technology). Already, however, we are at the point where it is a useful technology for interfacing with our computers. I expect (and hope) the applications will explode as adoption increases.

Right now the only fully realized applications are games. If you are into immersive games, VR is awesome. Even simple games, like a shooting gallery, were a great experience in VR.

The rest of the applications I felt were introductory novelties. I still need to do much more exploring, but what I would like to see is an office built to function as your workaday digital office – not a mock up of what such an office could be. I want to see real digital museums and locations.

Also, the social media applications are immense. Steam has rooms you can host, but while there you have a cheesy floating avatar and you can’t do much. A highly functional VR social media space could be incredible. In fact, I predict there will be entire VR conferences. Imagine the possibilities there.

Like many new technologies, at first we figure out how to duplicate more traditional functions in the new media. But then people figure out entirely new functions, optimized to the new technology. So probably the best VR has to offer has not even been imagined yet.

There are also some clear ways the tech needs to improve. The wires are a bit of a hassle. You get used to avoiding tangling yourself up, but still a wireless experience would be better.

The definition will improve incrementally I am sure, and that will enhance the experience. The laser scanning will likely also incrementally improve. Right now I feel like I am looking at raw scans. There needs to be much more post production where errors are fixed, and holes filled in.

We also need more ways to interact. Typing is OK with the controllers (you point like a laser at a virtual keyboard and select one letter at a time).  Having a glove that allows me to use all 10 of my fingers would be better.

I am not sure how long it will take to eliminate the motion sickness (and to be clear, I am particularly sensitive to this). Any way to match my actual physical movement with my avatar’s movement will help. They are already working on this (like being in a bubble that moves as you physically walk, but keeps you in the same place).

The bottom line is that the current VR tech is ready for prime time, and if you are a gamer I highly recommend it. But I look forward to the improvements in the technology, and await the more fully realized applications.

 

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #604: Net Neutrality Reexamined

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 01/01/2018 - 4:00pm
A skeptic's guide for organizing the issues raised by Net Neutrality.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #651 - Dec 30 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Fri, 12/29/2017 - 8:00am
Year end review; Science 2017; Best and Worst of 2017; In Memoriam; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

Science Friction

Skeptoid Feed - Thu, 12/28/2017 - 4:00pm
Finally, a documentary film about scientists who get misrepresented by the media.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 96

Center for Inquiry News - Wed, 12/27/2017 - 12:02pm

Cause & Effect is the biweekly newsletter of the Center for Inquiry community, covering the wide range of work that you help make possible. Become a member today!

The Top Stories

The Anti-Claus Works on Christmas, Raises Thousands for Secular Rescue

For the vast majority of those reading this newsletter, Christmas Day was a day off of work. (If you’re a parent of young kids, you were likely still doing a great deal of work but not being paid for it.) The same is true for the Center for Inquiry (CFI), for though we are one of the world’s leading secularist and skeptic organizations, we also understand and appreciate the meaning and significance of this time of year for so many non-Christians, religious and nonreligious alike. In fact, The Columbus Dispatch just spoke to Monette Richards, executive director of CFI Northeast Ohio, about this very phenomenon, wherein Christmas is a primarily secular holiday, the religious roots of which are incidental.

But one member of our CFI family is having none of it, and that’s of course the “Anti-Claus” himself, Tom Flynn. Apart from being executive director of CFI’s Council for Secular Humanism and editor of Free Inquiry magazine, Tom is also the author of The Trouble with Christmas, and in accordance with his outright rejection of the holiday, every year on Christmas Day Tom comes into the office and works a normal day.

And so he did this year as well, but rather than toil away in solitude, Tom found a way to bring his special brand of yuletide defiance to the world and even help a very good cause.

On Christmas Day (or, as Tom thought of it, last Monday) Tom livestreamed his workday online. While “doing editor stuff” at his desk, he took questions from viewers, explained some of the weirder aspects of the Santa mythos (if you want to feel really unsettled about Santa legends, go look up his buddy Black Pete), and most importantly, helped raise money for CFI’s Secular Rescue program.

Secular Rescue is the CFI initiative that seeks to lend assistance to those secularist writers and activists whose lives are threatened by religious extremists in places such as Bangladesh, Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Dozens of freethinkers have been brought to safety thanks to Secular Rescue, and they are once again free to speak their minds and serve as courageous examples to others around the world.

At the end of Tom’s marathon broadcast, CFI Vice President for Philanthropy Martina Fern announced that viewers pitched in over $2500 for Secular Rescue, and with the help of some very generous supporters, those donations were matched, bringing in more than $5000.

So whether or not you celebrate Christmas or any other holiday, even Tom agrees that doing this kind of good deed is a really wonderful gift.

You can still watch the recording of the livestream right here, in case you need seven hours worth of Tom Flynn to keep you company. Maybe next year, Tom will livestream through all eight days of Hanukkah. We’ll ask.

 

A One-Two Punch to Homeopathy

Two salvos were launched against the deceptive and dangerous marketing of homeopathic fake medicine last week, both thanks to the Center for Inquiry’s relentless pursuit of stricter regulation of these baseless treatments.

On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it would begin to take a tougher stance against the manufacturers of those homeopathic products that pose the greatest risk to consumers’ health and safety. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said, “We respect that some individuals want to use alternative treatments, but the FDA has a responsibility to protect the public from products that may not deliver any benefit and have the potential to cause harm.”

We cautiously applauded this news, noting that CFI has been pushing for these changes for many years and in 2015, was invited to deliver testimony to the FDA on homeopathy. Gizmodo even gave CFI credit for this new development. But still in all this time, very little has changed, so we will be watching closely to see whether the FDA follows through.

A few days later, CFI filed a complaint against CVS Health in the DIstrict of Columbia’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. We warned that CVS is both deceiving and endangering the health of its customers by marketing homeopathic products as though they are scientifically proven treatments (which they are most certainly not) and displaying those products alongside real, evidence-based medicine.

“CVS is deliberately creating the false impression that homeopathic products are as safe and effective as scientifically-proven medicine,” said Nick Little, CFI’s Vice President and General Counsel, in our statement. “By obscuring the crucial distinction between genuine and sham treatments, CVS is unscrupulously abusing the trust of its customers while putting their health and even their lives at risk.”

Stay tuned as this reinvigorated push against fake medicine proceeds.

 

Policy Update: Johnson Amendment and CDC’s Seven Words

The religious Right has been relentless in its efforts to dismantle the Johnson Amendment, the law that bars tax-exempt nonprofits (such as churches and the Center for Inquiry) from endorsing or advocating against candidates for political office. The amendment has taken blows from executive orders and sneaky legislative schemes since Trump came to office, and the end of the amendment truly seemed nigh when its repeal was included in the GOP’s major tax-cut bill.

Well now there’s good news, whatever one might think of the tax overhaul itself. Thanks in large part to the pressure exerted by you and all those who spoke out against this repeal, religious and nonreligious alike, by the time of final passage the scrapping of the Johnson Amendment was no longer part of the bill. This is certainly not going to be the last time the religious Right tries to kill the Johnson Amendment, but we can be proud that as of now the law still stands.

Also, you may have noticed the outcry over news that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had reportedly “banned” the use of the following words in its reports: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.” If true, this would have indicated a whole new level of Orwellian Newspeak.

But now it looks like the truth was that experts readying the budget proposal for the science and diversity-hostile GOP Congress suggested that these words might raise red flags and complicate their efforts. Either way, we released a statement telling the CDC to stand firm, advising them “to reject this aggressive strain of ignorance and hostility which seeks to make ‘science’ a dirty word. The CDC cannot stay above the fray of politics by choosing to serve some Americans at the expense of others.”

 

A Few Days Left to Make an Enormous Impact

Louis Appignani is helping us to start 2018 stronger than ever, challenging the supporters of reason and science to give our shared mission the resources we need to make even greater progress. But he’s not just asking; he’s participating. Louis has generously agreed to match every single donation to the Center for Inquiry all the way up to a quarter million dollars.

Louis will double the power of every contribution that comes in from now until the end of 2017, but that’s just a few short days away!

He’s giving all of us the opportunity to make a powerful impact in support of freethought, free expression, and free inquiry. With reality being twisted every day by the forces of superstition, conspiracy theories, and religious dogma, there’s never been a greater need for CFI to have the resources to confront these challenges.

Make no mistake; Louis Appignani is serious about this mission. For decades, he’s been a champion of secularism and the rights of the nonreligious.

Please don’t miss this opportunity. We can meet the Appignani Quarter Million Dollar Challenge and do more for our cause than ever before. Make your tax-deductible, matched donation right now.

 

CFI Highlights on the Web

UFOs have been top-of-mind lately after the New York Times reported on secretive military projects intended to investigate sightings of unknown craft. Looking to get a rational look at belief in aliens and UFOs, Alexandra Ossola at Futurism spoke to CFI’s Joe Nickell. They discussed the importance of scientific rigor in the evaluation of UFO claims and why believing in UFOs doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.

Joe’s vast knowledge of the paranormal was also sought by the UK’s The Sun, where he brought the skeptical perspective to reports of spontaneous human combustion.

Religious Right commentator Dennis Prager runs an online fake-university (it’s really just a YouTube channel) called “PragerU,” and in one such “course,” an article by Peter Schenkel in Skeptical Inquirer is invoked to help prove the existence of God. Not so fast, says YouTuber potholer54, who lays out exactly how our magazine was misquoted and misconstrued.

At CFI’s Free Thinking blog, Benjamin Radford backs up the principle of due diligence in reporting, responding to some of the backlash he saw from his piece on the exaggerated reports of displeasure over a black Santa.

And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.


Upcoming CFI Events

CFI Austin

CFI Indiana

  • January 30: At “Books, Booze, and Brains,” computer scientists Matt Powers and George Takahashi discuss Ready Player One.

CFI Western New York

  • January 19: CFI’s new Director of Government Affairs, Jason Lemieux, presents a talk on his experience as a congressional staffer and what it’s taught him about getting through to public officials.


Thank you!

 

Everything we do at CFI is made possible by you and your support. Let’s keep working together for science, reason, and secular values. Donate today!

Fortnightly updates not enough? Of course they’re not.

       •  Follow CFI on Twitter.

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Cause & Effect: The Center for Inquiry Newsletter is edited by Paul Fidalgo, Center for Inquiry communications director. 

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at www.centerforinquiry.net. 

 

Categories: , Skeptic

I, Too, Am Thinking About Me, Too

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 12/27/2017 - 12:00am

Sarah Silverman recently made a video in which she described the painful conflict she was feeling about her good friend of 25 years, Louis CK. Watch it and you will see cognitive dissonance in action: on the one hand, she loves and admires the man, and values their long friendship. On the other hand, she detests and condemns the exhibitionist sexual behavior that he acknowledged. Many of the people watching this video wanted her to reduce that dissonance by jumping one way or the other: disavow their friendship, or trivialize his behavior. In this brave embrace of her emotional conflict and their friendship, she did neither.

Our whole country is living in a constant state of hyper-dissonance: “my political candidate/my most admired actor/a brilliant artist/my dear friend has been accused of sexual abuses and misconduct; how do I cope with this information? Do I support him/see his movies/enjoy his art/keep the friendship or must I repudiate him entirely?” Living with dissonance and complexity is not easy, but surely skeptics, of all people, must try. We hear a story that outrages us and, just like true believers and justice warriors of any kind, we’re off and running, and once we are off and running we don’t want to hear quibbles, caveats, doubts, complexities. Thus, when the Guardian (Dec. 17, 2017) reported Matt Damon’s remarks that there was “a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation. Both of those behaviours need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated,” Minnie Driver blasted him: it’s not for men to make distinctions; “there is no hierarchy of abuse”; men should just shut up for once. “If good men like Matt Damon are thinking like that then we’re in a lot of fucking trouble,” she said. “We need good intelligent men to say this is all bad across the board, condemn it all and start again.”

No hierarchy of abuse? Really? That is one of the universal symptoms of revolutionary zealotry: go for broke, ignore gradations of villainy, who cares if some innocents are thrown over the side, we are furious and we want everything at once. No wonder those of us in the boring older generation, who have lived through cycles of anger and protest, are so annoying. “Wait!” we keep saying. “Be careful! Remember the stupidity of ‘zero tolerance’ programs in schools, where a kid who brings a pocket knife for show-and- tell, or a 6-year-old boy who kisses a 6-year-old girl, got expelled?” We have also learned that while there is a time and place for revolutionary zealotry, the hardest challenge comes next, because change will not be accomplished without allies.

While many celebrate the courage of the accusers who are coming forth to tell their stories, let’s keep in mind that in today’s climate it also requires courage to raise dissonance-producing dissent. In case you missed this essay—and you might have, considering how hard it was for the author to get it accepted anywhere—here is some of what Claire Berlinski wrote in “The Warlock Hunt” for The American Interest (December 6, 2017):

This article circulated from publication to publication, like old-fashioned samizdat, and was rejected repeatedly with a sotto voce, “Don’t tell anyone. I agree with you. But no.” Friends have urged me not to publish it under my own name, vividly describing the mob that will tear me from limb to limb and leave the dingoes to pick over my flesh. It says something, doesn’t it, that I’ve been more hesitant to speak about this than I’ve been of getting on the wrong side of the mafia, al-Qaeda, or the Kremlin?

But speak I must. It now takes only one accusation to destroy a man’s life. Just one for him to be tried and sentenced in the court of public opinion, over-night costing him his livelihood and social respectability. We are on a frenzied extrajudicial warlock hunt that does not pause to parse the difference between rape and stupidity. The punishment for sexual harassment is so grave that clearly this crime—like any other serious crime—requires an unambiguous definition. We have nothing of the sort.

Of course she has been “more hesitant to speak about this” than about Al-Qaeda, not only because of the predictable tsunami of attack, but also because we are always more hesitant to criticize people on our side, or those whose goals we share. It feels…disloyal. And disloyalty feels dissonant.

In a previous column on the belief in the “cycle of abuse,” I noted that if you created a fourfold table (“abused as a child? yes/no”; and “abusive as a parent? yes/no”), most people pay attention to only two cells: the abused children (yes) who become abusive parents (yes). They don’t attend to the many people in the invisible cells: abused children who do not become cruel parents (yes/no), and the nonabused children who do (no/yes). Thus, in the current intoxicating rush to accuse and bring down sexually coercive, abusive men, what cells are we overlooking?

The men and women who do not conform to the stereotype; the women who are not victims and the men who are. In the legitimate exhilaration of hearing women’s stories being believed and accepted at last, what voices are missing?

  • The voices of women who thoroughly enjoyed their years of sexual freedom and experimentation; who slept with professors and bosses and coworkers for pleasure and excitement, and whose careers were not ruined thereby.
  • The voices of women who had some awful encounters, or boring ones, or regrettably stupid ones, but would never blame, let alone sue, their partners on the grounds that they were at least 50% of the people in the bed.
  • The voices of women who enjoy being groupies, who seek celebrities and other powerful men for trophy sex and bragging rights, just as men have done with glamorous women.
  • The voices of shy men and boys who have felt pressured or even coerced by women, whether the women were their employers or dates.
  • The voices of men who would not dream of having sex with a woman who is blotto drunk, unconscious, or unwilling. The negativity bias dominates: we hear and remember so much about the bad guys that the good ones become invisible. Further, the good ones who would and should be allies are demonized and dismissed because they are not 100 percent ideologically pure.

I asked my friend Leonore Tiefer, a sexologist and feminist, for her concerns on the “Me, Too” movement and she responded: “There’s a rush to judgment. A conflation of all offenses. An underlying truth about the lasting effects of shame. Little room for complexity. Some bastards getting their long overdue due. Lots of lawyers looking for cases and money. Lots of institutions needing to cover their asses for money/legal reasons. Opportunists galore with axes to grind.”

That about sums it up.

Whenever a movement is fueled by rage and revenge, it is more important than ever to tolerate complexity and ask questions that evoke dissonance. We can all imagine the ways in which “Me, too” might benefit women, but how might it backfire? Because it will. Moralistic crusades to censor “sexist” pornography, for example, led to suppression of lesbian books, sex-ed books, and plain old sexypleasure books that someone thought of fensive. What might be the consequences of a moralistic crusade to root out any behavior that might be misconstrued—now, next week, in 10 years—including affectionate touches, supportive hugs, jokes? Do professional women really want a Mike Pence world where they cannot have a business dinner or go to a party without a chaperone? When feminists find themselves in bed with right-wing puritans, they are going to get screwed.

What, exactly, are the goals here? The answer is clear in the case of hotel housekeepers, fast-food workers, and immigrant women who are routinely subjected to disgusting sexual harassment and who rarely have recourse to protect themselves from the powerful men who feel entitled to abuse them; in the case of women who enter formerly male-only occupations (tech, science, the military), where hostile harassment and rape are weapons to convey “you don’t belong here; get out.” The answer is always clear when the goal is to bring down some bad guys and protect the powerless.

But the goals of “me, too” seem eerily non-political, other than “bring down the patriarchy and by the way let me tell you about me.” For the vast majority of women in their personal and professional lives, where the complexities of sexuality abound, surely another goal is to become more assertive and clear about their wishes. If women seek true sexual equality, they have to do some hard thinking about their own behavior. As Laura Kipnis observes in Unwanted Advances, when did “empowerment” for women come to mean filing an assault claim months after a drunken night rather than developing the ability to say to the guy, “take your fucking hand off my knee”? She writes:

Why would she go to the apartment of a guy she already didn’t trust? This isn’t victim blaming. It’s grown-up feminism, one that recognizes how much feminine deference and traditionalism persist amid all the “pro-sex” affirmations and slogans… And that’s what has to be talked about, along with changing male behavior. (p. 219)

Finally: What do we learn when we follow the money? When schools and companies feel they must expel or fire someone without due process, solely on hearsay and unfounded allegation because they are terrified of lawsuits, how is justice aided, how is it impeded?

Epidemics are always clearer in hindsight. In the 1980s and 1990s, I watched as the recovered memory hysteria, aided by beliefs that Satanic ritual abuse cults were proliferating across America and that daycare centers were run by pedophiles, tore hundreds of families apart. In 1981, Ms. magazine had a cover story on Satanic cults, with the overline: “Believe it!” Without evidence? No, thank you. But the mere fact that there was no evidence for recovered memories of trauma, Satanic sacrifices, and other preposterous claims did not slow the steamroller—and steamrollers always leave the wreckage of human lives in their wake.

And so, in 1993, I wrote a review of the many best-selling books promoting this dangerous nonsense—most notably The Courage to Heal and Secret Survivors—showing that their psychological claims would be obliterated in any Psych 101 course. I was deluged with hate mail, and this was before the echo chamber of the Internet. A sociologist colleague wrote to express her dismay and fury that I, a feminist, could possibly disbelieve any of the women coming out of therapy having newly “remembered” that their once-beloved fathers had sexually molested them for 15 years, somehow doing so without leaving any corroborative evidence from family members or others. A few months later, she wrote to me again, to apologize—and to ask if I knew a lawyer who could help her brother. Who was being falsely accused.

I hadn’t thought about that essay in many years, until journalist JoAnn Wypijewski sent me an email:

I reread that NYTBR piece of yours last night, amazed to see that you had written this: “To raise these questions does not mean that all ‘reawakened’ memories are fraudulent or misguided. It does mean that we should be wary of believing every case of ‘me too’.” The very phrase…down the decades … and what have we learned?

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for December 27, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 12/27/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

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In this week’s eSkeptic, social psychologist Carol Tavris reminds us that it is more important than ever to tolerate complexity and ask questions that evoke cognitive dissonance whenever a movement is fueled by rage and revenge. Tavris is the coauthor of Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts .

I, Too, Am Thinking About Me, Too

by Carol Tavris

Sarah Silverman recently made a video in which she described the painful conflict she was feeling about her good friend of 25 years, Louis CK. Watch it and you will see cognitive dissonance in action: on the one hand, she loves and admires the man, and values their long friendship. On the other hand, she detests and condemns the exhibitionist sexual behavior that he acknowledged. Many of the people watching this video wanted her to reduce that dissonance by jumping one way or the other: disavow their friendship, or trivialize his behavior. In this brave embrace of her emotional conflict and their friendship, she did neither.

Our whole country is living in a constant state of hyper-dissonance: “my political candidate/my most admired actor/a brilliant artist/my dear friend has been accused of sexual abuses and misconduct; how do I cope with this information? Do I support him/see his movies/enjoy his art/keep the friendship or must I repudiate him entirely?” Living with dissonance and complexity is not easy, but surely skeptics, of all people, must try. We hear a story that outrages us and, just like true believers and justice warriors of any kind, we’re off and running, and once we are off and running we don’t want to hear quibbles, caveats, doubts, complexities. Thus, when the Guardian (Dec. 17, 2017) reported Matt Damon’s remarks that there was “a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation. Both of those behaviours need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated,” Minnie Driver blasted him: it’s not for men to make distinctions; “there is no hierarchy of abuse”; men should just shut up for once. “If good men like Matt Damon are thinking like that then we’re in a lot of fucking trouble,” she said. “We need good intelligent men to say this is all bad across the board, condemn it all and start again.”

No hierarchy of abuse? Really? That is one of the universal symptoms of revolutionary zealotry: go for broke, ignore gradations of villainy, who cares if some innocents are thrown over the side, we are furious and we want everything at once. No wonder those of us in the boring older generation, who have lived through cycles of anger and protest, are so annoying. “Wait!” we keep saying. “Be careful! Remember the stupidity of ‘zero tolerance’ programs in schools, where a kid who brings a pocket knife for show-and- tell, or a 6-year-old boy who kisses a 6-year-old girl, got expelled?” We have also learned that while there is a time and place for revolutionary zealotry, the hardest challenge comes next, because change will not be accomplished without allies.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Skeptoid #603: Sonic Weapons in Cuba

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 12/25/2017 - 4:00pm
There is a much better explanation than sonic weapons for reported attacks against US diplomats in Cuba.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #650 - Dec 23 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 12/23/2017 - 8:00am
What's the Word: Accretion; News Items:FDA Regulates Homeopathy, Pentagon UFO Videos, How the Flu Kills, CDC Word Hubbub; Who's That Noisy; Interview with Joe Nickel; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

Science in 2017

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 12/22/2017 - 5:58am

Science continues to kick ass in 2017, despite the fact that it often feels as if our species can’t get out of our own way. Obviously we need to keep our eye on important social and political issues, but it is reassuring to realize that there are many scientists quietly working away in their labs, clinics, observatories, or wherever to nudge our collective knowledge forward.

Here are some of the science news stories from 2017 that I think deserve notice and give us a good indication of what is to come.

The Age of Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering is nothing new, but we seem to be on the upswing of an exponential curve with this technology. In recent years CRISPR has provided cheap and fast genetic manipulation, resulting in an explosion of research and potential applications. The technology borrows a system from bacteria used in their immune defense against viruses. It allows for the specific targeting of sequences of DNA which can then be clipped out and even replaced.

CRISPR technology continues to advance on two main fronts – improving the technology itself, and finding applications for it. This year researchers discovered how to adjust the specificity of CRISPR targeting – making it slower but more precise as desired. As powerful as this tech is, we are still on the steep part of the curve and it continues to improve.

Meanwhile applications are starting to appear. The FDA approved a cell therapy for cancer, in which a patient’s immune cells are engineered to better target cancer cells. CRISPR has also been used to alter gene mutations that cause heart disease in a human embryo.

This one gets my vote for the most likely to be a transformative technology over the next 20 years.

Human Evolution

There were several stories this year detailing fossils of protohumans. Together they demonstrate that the human evolutionary tree is more complex than previous evidence indicated. As I wrote earlier this year:

Last month I wrote about Graecopithecus, a possible human ancestor from just after the split with chimpanzees about 7 million years ago. Also last month it was reported that an analysis of new Homo naledi specimens dates the fossils from as recently as 236 thousand years ago. H. naledi share some primitive features that paleontologists thought would date to about 2 million years old, but they also have some more modern features.

In April I also wrote about the latest study of H. floresiensis (the Hobbit) showing that it is very likely this was indeed its own species.

And another find moves the date for the earliest Homo sapiens back to 315 thousand years ago. The bottom line is that we realized this year the human family tree goes back farther and has more branches than we realized. We are still at the point where new fossil finds are expanding the picture as much as filling is the details.

The Psychology of Belief

As an activist skeptic I love the fact that the science of belief continues to advance, and did so in 2017. Our brains are still the most important scientific tools we have, and the better we understand them the more effectively we can explore and understand the universe.

There were a number of studies this year that, for example, explored why people fall for conspiracy theories. It turns out, we have a desire for certainty, and a desire to feel special – both of these needs are fed by feeling that we have the inside scoop on a conspiracy.

Researchers also found that we alter our memories of our past beliefs in order to make them more consistent with our current beliefs.

Another study clarified the distinction between confirmation bias and desirability bias.

Perhaps the biggest skeptical story this year was follow up on Bem’s psi research. Essentially Bem and colleagues conducted a consensus study in which they attempted to replicate his prior finding of being able to respond to future stimuli. The study was properly rigorous, and was also dead negative.

This should be the final scientific nail in Bem’s claims. However, Bem and his fellow psi believers also showed their true pseudoscientist colors:

In their conference abstract, though, Bem and his co-authors found a way to wring some droplets of confirmation from the data. After adding in a set of new statistical tests, ex post facto, they concluded that the evidence for ESP was indeed “highly significant.”

They couldn’t resist a little post-hoc p-hacking.

Gravitational Waves

2015 saw the first detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes. In 2017, however, we found the first gravitational waves from colliding neutron stars, and the third and fourth major detections total. What 2017 showed is that the detection of gravitational waves was not a fluke. It truly is the beginning of an entirely new discipline within astronomy – this year confirmed the birth of a new science.

LIGO uses precise lasers at right angles over long distances, that intersect and cause interference patterns. That interference will change even from the tiniest movements of the lasers – the sensitivity is 1/10,000th the diameter of a proton. Let that sink in.

LIGO is one of the most amazing feats of engineers in the name of science in existence.

Metallic Hydrogen

This discovery has potential, but it remains to be seen if it will truly be significant. Harvard scientists discovered how to make metallic hydrogen using high-pressure physics. That may not sound like a big deal, but it could be, if it turns out that metallic hydrogen can be stable enough to use as a new material.

The two big potential applications include being a room temperature superconductor. This is the holy grail of electronics – being able to conduct electricity without resistance could revolutionize computers, electronics, and the electric grid.

Also, molecular hydrogen could be used as a super rocket fuel, with 3-4 times the specific impulse of existing fuel. That would be huge, making rockets much more efficient and making missions to Mars and beyond far more plausible.

At the very least, the ability to make metallic hydrogen in the lab will be useful for physics research. I don’t know if this one will pan out to have specific applications, but it may. The rocket fuel applications seems the most plausible, and could change the future of space travel.

But wait, there’s more.

There were many more science and skeptical news stories in 2017, but these are the ones that stuck out for me. (Let me know your picks for best science 2017 in the comments.) This year also saw the March for Science. I don’t know if it accomplished anything concrete, but it was good to see thousands of people standing up in support for the critical role that science plays in our society.

I feel that science represents the best of human potential, and is our greatest collective achievement. It is difficult, messy, ridden with bias and errors, but it slowly grinds forward. It is amazing to consider what we have achieved in such a short time when we apply rigorous scientific methods to our exploration of the universe.

 

 

Categories: Skeptic

The Return of Lysenkoism

neurologicablog Feed - Thu, 12/21/2017 - 4:45am

It seems that bad ideas never truly go away. Whatever cultural or psychological factors favored their rise in the first place may bring them around again and again. A solid debunking may knock them down for a while, but a new generation, ignorant of the past, can resurrect them as needed.

I have to say, despite the fact that I am an experienced and even jaded skeptic, the rise of flat-earthers over the last couple of years surprised me. I know that there are no practical limits to self-deception and the distorting effect that a powerful narrative can have on perception and motivated reasoning. But still I can be surprised when new examples push the limits of sloppy thinking.

Now, vying for the title of dumbest pseudoscience to resurrect, we have the apparent return of Lysenkoism in Russia. A recent article in Current Biology details how sympathy for Trofim Lysenko, while still fringe, is on the rise in Russia, apparently riding a wave of anti-Western and pro-Stalin sentiment.

A brief history of Lysenko

I have often used Lysenko as an historical example of what can happen when ideology trumps science and reason. The story is such a perfect and extreme example that it almost sound apocryphal, but it is entirely true. A recent article in The Atlantic also gives a good overview, but here are the highlights.

Trofim Lysenko was basically a crank. He was a poorly educated peasant, but was an enthusiastic communist who came to the attention of Stalin, who liked his ideas and supported him. Lysenko rejected Darwinian evolution and genetics. He did not even think genes existed. He believed that the environment had unlimited ability to shape plants and animals in permanent ways. This fit very well with communist ideology.

With Stalin’s support, Lysenko was put in charge of Soviet agriculture. Under Lysenko the collectivist farms, which were already failing, failed even more. As the Atlantic recounts:

Lysenko forced farmers to plant seeds very close together, for instance, since according to his “law of the life of species,” plants from the same “class” never compete with one another. He also forbade all use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Wheat, rye, potatoes, beets—most everything grown according to Lysenko’s methods died or rotted, says Hungry Ghosts (a book about Lysenko).

Lysenko believed he could train plants to have whatever traits were needed. His ideas were rejected by the world outside the Soviet Union, and he was mocked as an incompetent. But back at home, Lysenko enjoyed tremendous power and prestige. Under his command Soviet biology was gutted, genetics was destroyed and set back half a century by some estimates. He had scientists who disagreed with him jailed, fired, or even killed.

It was an ugly picture of what happens when science is subservient to ideology, arguable the most extreme example in history. As a result of Lysenko’s crank ideas, the famine that was already underway was worsened. Lysenkoism was also exported to other communist countries like China, who also experienced horrible famine. Millions of people starved due to Lysenko’s crank ideas, making him arguably the scientist with the largest body count in human history.

The Return of Lysenko

Lysenko’s power faded after Stalin died, and Lysenko himself died in 1976. He was still revered to some extent, but that too faded and was gone by the 1990s. But now, according to the Current Biology article, Lysenko and his ideas are making a comeback. The authors suspect that there are two main reasons for the revival.

The first is epigenetics, which is the study of environmental influences on gene expression and phenotype. Epigenetic factors can help adapt an organism to current environmental conditions, such as drought, famine, or abundance. These factors can even be inherited to a limited degree, affecting the next few generations. These factors are essentially a tweak on genetic inheritance, allowing for short term phenotypic adjustments to changing environmental conditions.

Frustratingly, epigenetics is often poorly reported on and explained to the public, hyped into something that it is not. Epigenetics is not the inheritance of acquired characteristics, nor does it refute any of the main pillars of Darwinian evolution. But a superficial reading of epigenetics can twist it into such things, and that is apparently what is happening in Russia in order to argue that Lysenko was right after all.

Of course, Lysenkoism is not epigenetics in any way. Lysenko rejected the existence of genes and had bizarre ideas about how plants behave. He did not anticipate epigenetics, nor does any recent epigenetics research rescued Lysenko from being a pure crank.

But probably the real reason for Lysenko’s return is that he represents former Soviet glory and is a symbol of anti-West ideology. Embracing Lysenko is a way of sticking it in the eye of Western foes and standing up for Russian exceptionalism.

It seems the core lesson of Lysenko has faded along with the memory of the horrors he created. It is a dangerous thing when ideology trumps science. We live in a big and complex world, and often the stakes are high. Our civilization is dependent upon technology, and we are straining its resources. One wacky idea about agriculture, if implemented on a large scale, can be disastrous.

And of course it does not take much imagination to think of other examples of ideology trumping science and evidence. Global warming denial, anti-vaccine sentiments, anti-GMO hysteria, and alternative medicine are all a triumph of narrative over logic and evidence.

These problems are all exacerbated by a general anti-elite, anti-expert, and anti-intellectual sentiment. It is too easy and too accepted to reject knowledge with hand-waving conspiratorial thinking. The bar has been lowered to the point that people can actual believe that NASA is engaged in a massive conspiracy to convince everyone that the world is a sphere and gravity exists. What about the pictures of a round earth from space? They are “fake news.”

I hope we don’t need another 30 million people to starve to death so that we can relearn the lessons of Lysenko for another generation.

 

Categories: Skeptic

“Anti-Claus” Tom Flynn to Livestream Work Day on Christmas for Life-Saving Charity

Center for Inquiry News - Wed, 12/20/2017 - 9:52am

On December 25, you can bear witness to a one-man War on Christmas, as Tom Flynn (aka “The Anti-Claus”) broadcasts a merry act of yuletide defiance, livestreaming his very ordinary work day, answering real-time questions, and doing some good for persecuted nonbelievers on the other side of the globe.

From 10am to 5pm ET on Christmas Day, Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, and author of The Trouble with Christmas, will do as he always does: work his regular office 

hours. (After all, it’s not the birthday of anyone he knows.) But this year, Tom will share his solitary workday with the world with a livestream from the headquarters of the Center for Inquiry (CFI) in Amherst, New York.

While he works, alone in an empty Center for Inquiry building, Tom will answer select questions from viewers and solicit donations to CFI’s Secular Rescue program, which helps bring to safety those secularist writers and activists in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Iraq, whose lives are threatened by religious extremists.

To make it more fun, and a little more nerve-wracking for Tom, viewers can donate into one of two columns: Christmas Spirit or Lump of Coal. If enough donations come through the Christmas Spirit column, Tom promises to do something Christmassy like trim a tree. (“Oh, I cringe when I even think of that,” says Tom.”) And if sufficient donations come into the Lump of Coal column, Tom will blaspheme against the holiday, such as tossing said tree off a loading dock.

Plus, those who give to Secular Rescue during the livestream will be eligible for special prizes, such as a framed piece of embroidery bearing the words “Santa Can Suck It.” It’s all a chance for some light-hearted and snarky fun, all for a vital cause for free expression and the lives of persecuted dissidents around the world.

Tom Flynn the Anti-Claus will begin the livestream on December 25 at 10am ET, going until this very ordinary day’s close of business at 5pm ET. Viewers everywhere, whether they love Christmas or hate it, can tune in at centerforinquiry.net/christmas.

# # #

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at www.centerforinquiry.net. 

 

Categories: , Skeptic

eSkeptic for December 20, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 12/20/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

MARCH 5, 2018 | AUSTIN, TX An Evening with Sam Harris & Michael Shermer

Join authors Sam Harris & Michael Shermer for a night of skepticism, science & reason. Sam Harris is the author of five New York Times bestsellers. His books include The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, Free Will, Lying, Waking Up, and Islam and the Future of Tolerance (with Maajid Nawaz). Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. He is the author of New York Times bestsellers Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil, and The Moral Arc. His next book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality & Utopia.

This event will include a lengthy audience Q&A and book singing. Premium ticket holders will have guaranteed access to the book signing. If there is enough time, others will have an opportunity to have their book signed as well.

Questions? Call the 3M Box Office at (512) 474-LONG (5664), TTY (800) 735-2989.

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A NEW STORY! How Seth Andrews, the Thinking Atheist, Became a Card-Carrying Skeptic

As we announced a few weeks ago in eSkeptic, we asked several friends to tell us about those “aha!” moments that led to their becoming skeptical thinkers. As promised, here is another one of their incredible stories on YouTube. Enjoy!

Seth Andrews is the host of The Thinking Atheist podcast which “reminds atheist and believer alike to engage the brain, to challenge even the most sacred of traditions/beliefs, to be passionately curious about our world and universe, and to never be satisfied with the charge, ‘You just have to take it on faith.’”

TELL US YOUR STORY!

Tell us your story and become a card-carrying skeptic! Thank you for being a part of our first 25 years. We look forward to seeing you over the next 25. —SKEPTIC

Become a Card-Carrying Skeptic

SCIENCE SALON # 15 NOW ONLINE Donald Prothero & Timothy Callahan — UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says

UFOs. Aliens. Crop circles. Giant figures scratched in the desert surface along the coast of Peru. The amazing alignment of the pyramids. Strange lines of clouds in the sky. The paranormal is alive and well in the American cultural landscape. In Science Salon # 15, Michael Shermer interviews Dr. Donald R. Prothero and Timothy Callahan about their new book, UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens, exploring why such demonstrably false beliefs thrive despite decades of education and scientific debunking. Also, listed to Blake Smith interview Prothero and Callahan in episode 144 of MonsterTalk: The Science Show About Monsters.

Watch Science Salon # 15 now

SCIENCE SALON # 16 NOW ONLINE Dr. Robert Trivers — Evolutionary Theory & Human Nature

Dr. Robert Trivers and Dr. Michael Shermer have a lively conversation on everything from evolutionary theory and human nature to how to win a knife fight and Trivers’ membership in the Black Panthers. Don’t miss this engaging exchange with one of the most interesting scientists of the past half century.

This Science Salon followed Dr. Robert Trivers’ lecture on ‘The Evolutionary Genetics of Honor Killings,’ which he gave in Dr. Michael Shermer’s Skepticism 101 course at Chapman University on Thursday November 16, 2017. Watch the lecture.

Watch Science Salon # 16 now

Learn more about Science Salon and stay informed about upcoming salons by subscribing to eSkeptic: our free, weekly email.

Here’s what’s in the latest issue of Skeptic magazine (22.4): When Science Becomes the Enemy • No Barriers to Inquiry • When Secularism Becomes a Religion: The Alt-Left, the Alt-Right, and Moral Righteousness • Radically Wrong in Berkeley • I Am Not a Racist, and So Are You: An Unauthorized Peek at the Great Shaming Taking Place at an Institution of Higher Learning Near You • From Camelot to Conspiracy: Memory, Myth, and the Death of JFK • The SkepDoc: Diet Sodas • Junior Skeptic on Ghost Ships, and more…

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Not a dinosaur!

The Doubtful News Feed - Tue, 12/19/2017 - 11:37am
A story put forward in November (and posted to our Facebook page) is recirculating again via dubious sensationalist media reports. Is this a dinosaur? Remains of T-rex-like ‘animal’ found in Uttarakhand’s Jaspur (Dated November 17, 2017.) It’s now appearing in India Times. Same story, same carcass. An electrician from Uttarakhand found a dinosaur-like creature’s corpse with…
Categories: Skeptic

Not a dinosaur!

The Doubtful News Feed - Tue, 12/19/2017 - 11:37am
A story put forward in November (and posted to our Facebook page) is recirculating again via dubious sensationalist media reports. Is this a dinosaur? Remains of T-rex-like ‘animal’ found in Uttarakhand’s Jaspur (Dated November 17, 2017.) It’s now appearing in India Times. Same story, same carcass. An electrician from Uttarakhand found a dinosaur-like creature’s corpse with…
Categories: Skeptic

Pentagon UFO Video

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 12/19/2017 - 5:10am

I am not impressed. That is often the reaction I have to hyped reports of alleged evidence for strange phenomena. They never turn out to be truly impressive or exciting. The recently released Pentagon UFO videos are no different.

The backstory is that it was recently revealed that the Pentagon funded the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program for five years with a total of $22 million. The program officially ended in 2012 but apparently its members continued to investigate interesting reports off the books. The former director of this program, Luis Elizondo, pushed to have some of the evidence they uncovered made public, resulting in the release of the video.

Elizondo is a believer. He is quoted as saying:

“I think this is a national security imperative,” Elizondo said. “We have clear things that we do not understand how they work, operating in areas that we can’t control.”

Does all of this add up to the likely conclusion that we are being visited by advanced aliens? I’m doubtful.

First, the existence of the program itself is not even suggestive that we are being visited by aliens. This is a common theme in the UFO community – interpreting typical government secrecy as hiding proof of aliens. The fact is the government does engage in secret programs and tries to cover their tracks. The Roswell incident, for example, was an airforce coverup – of a secret program to spy on Soviet nuclear testing. Area 51 does exist – to test secret spy planes and similarly classified tech.

The Pentagon studies “anomalous aerospace threats” because they may relate to Russian technology or threats from other countries. Some weird sightings may also represent natural phenomena that might threaten aviation. At the very least such a program will help us identify apparent anomalies better so that when we do encounter novel foreign technology we will be better able to recognize it.

In other words – even without aliens visiting the Earth there are plenty of reasons for our military and intelligence organizations to be interested in studying apparent anomalous aerospace phenomena. The mere existence of such programs does not prove or even suggest that the government has secret knowledge of alien visitors.

What about these new videos? They are the UFO equivalent of blobsquatch. Believers describe the incident in more dramatic terms:

Chris Mellon, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence who is now involved with To the Stars, recently described the features that made the craft in the Nimitz incident so unusual.

“It is white, oblong, some 40 feet long and perhaps 12 feet thick … The pilots are astonished to see the object suddenly reorient itself toward the approaching F/A-18. In a series of discreet tumbling maneuvers that seem to defy the laws of physics, the object takes a position directly behind the approaching F/A-18. The pilots capture gun camera footage and infrared imagery of the object. They are outmatched by a technology they’ve never seen.”

This is not an objective interpretation but rather one filtered through the assumption that the phenomena was a craft. As regular readers should know, believing is seeing – how we perceive our senses is massive influenced by our beliefs and assumptions.

In reality, determining how big and therefore fast an object is requires knowledge of how distant it is. If the perception of distance is off, then interpretations of size and speed will be similarly off. So a small, slow, and near object may appear to be a large, fast and distant object, but that is just an optical illusion.

The pilots also report seeing the object “break the laws of physics.” That is always a red flag for me. If you think something is breaking the laws of physics, then there is likely an error in perception.

I have no idea ultimately what caused this encounter. We simply don’t have enough information. It is probably something truly unusual, given that it was selected out of numerous encounters as being the most interesting. But weird and unusual stuff happens without it being aliens. Possibilities include instrument failure, and unusual natural phenomenon, or secret foreign technology.

The objective evidence we are left with, mainly the videos, is simply unimpressive. We see a glowing blob in the middle of the field without any features that can be used to truly judge what it is, or even how big or far away it is. It could be an artifact as far as we can tell from the video.

I would like to see a technical analysis of the original video. This may shed more light on what it is, and I predict any more detailed information will move us in the direction of a prosaic explanation. I am always completely open to the idea that it is an alien spacecraft – but I need more than a blob and a confused eyewitness report.

I also find it telling that Elizondo pushed to have what he felt was the most compelling evidence in the hands of the government made public, and this is the best they had. Unless there is an even more secret government program to study UFOs, this apparently is the best evidence years of research has revealed. If Elizondo were aware of smoking gun evidence it seems he would have said so or pushed to have that made public.

But of course if you think there is a conspiracy to cover it all up, everything that happens or doesn’t happen is just part of the conspiracy. You can just imagine that the conspiracy goes one level deeper – Elizondo is a false flag operative made to make it appear that the government does not have smoking gun evidence. Sure.

As I said, I am willing to be convinced. If the aliens are benign, I would even love to be convinced. Show me the evidence. But all we are getting is extremely low grade evidence and a lot of wishful thinking.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #602: Should Moms Eat Placentas?

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 12/18/2017 - 4:00pm
The modern practice of Western mothers eating their placentas is a new and strange attention-seeking behavior.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

CDC Word “Ban”

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 12/18/2017 - 4:58am

I received a flood of e-mails over the weekend pointing me to reports that the CDC is banned from using seven words or phrases in their upcoming budget proposals. They are not George Carlin’s famous “seven dirty words” you can never say on television.  Rather they are: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based,” according to the Washington Post, who broke the story.

First let’s discuss the status of these reports – they are not official public statements from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the HHS (department of Health and Human Services) or the Trump Administration. They are anonymous reports from CDC officials who were present during a meeting in which the seven unwanted terms were discussed. Apparently this report was confirmed with several people who were present.

CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald has pushed back against these reports without straight-up denying them.

“I want to assure you there are no banned words at CDC. We will continue to talk about all our important public health programs,” CDC  said in a Facebook post. “I want to assure you that CDC remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution. As part of our commitment to provide for the common defense of the country against health threats, science is and will remain the foundation of our work.”

Meanwhile the HHS stated the reports were a “mischaracterization.”

What I can best infer from the various reports and statements is that there is no official ban of any words or phrases. Rather, at a meaning where CDC officials were discussing their upcoming budget requests, it was recommended that certain phrases be avoided in order to have the best chance of approval from the Trump Administration. The seven dirty terms were a strategy, not a directive or outright ban. That is the “mischaracterization.”

It is telling, in my opinion, that no one is saying the reports are a lie, a fabrication, or completely wrong – just a “mischaracterization.”

The Post also reports:

In some instances, the analysts were given alternative phrases. Instead of “science-based” or “evidence-based,” the suggested phrase is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” the person said. In other cases, no replacement words were immediately offered.

This fits the “strategy” interpretation – how to phrase things in the budget requests so as not to trigger any pushback from the conservatives who currently hold the purse strings.

What All This Means

While it seems clear there is no official “ban,” the implications of these reports remain disturbing. This is a manifestation of excessive politicization of science at government institutions. I say “excessive” because any scientific effort funded by the government with public money is by definition politicized. Politics is the mechanism by which public priorities are established.

But the government should not micromanage the scientific process itself. They should maintain a “light touch” on scientific organizations and let the experts do their job, and let the free market of scientific ideas and evidence sort out what works from what doesn’t.

My choice of terms here is very deliberate. If you have been reading anything about the net neutrality debate you will likely have heard these terms countless times from the FCC director, Ajit Pai. I don’t want to get distracted by this separate controversy – I just want to make the point that conservatives seem to understand the limits of government micromanagement when they want to, but then are free to micromanage science over social issues they care about.

Also, while an outright ban would be more egregious, the passive inhibition of free thought at government funded scientific and health organizations is perhaps more pernicious. You don’t have to “ban” ideas if you have made it clear they are unwanted and you should avoid them if you want funding.

And of course, avoiding the term “science-based” caught my attention, given that I coined the term “science-based medicine.” In a way I am oddly flattered that they thought to include it and not just “evidence-based.” The alternate phrase, “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” I read as meaning that science won’t get in the way of ideology. If the community feels uncomfortable with a vaccine for a sexually transmitted virus, well their discomfort can take precedence over public health, no matter what the science says.

In case anyone is tempted to interpret all of this as benign and reports as an overreaction, we do have history to provide context. In 1997 congress added an amendment to an operations bill stating that the CDC is barred from research that “advocate or promote gun control.” The CDC was even threatened with having it’s budget cut. Since then the CDC has conducted no research into the health effects of gun ownership, gun control laws, or gun safety.   The congressional statement did not ban gun research itself, just advocacy, but the message was clear, and the CDC has listened. No gun research.

The bottom line is that the CDC has been properly cowed. They have to keep the powers that be happy by avoiding anything deemed controversial. Science and health are secondary to the prevailing ideology.

This is simply incompatible with the mission of a science-based organization. Science needs to be free, even a little rebellious. I don’t think that being horrified by these reports from the CDC is an overreaction. We need to be vigilant of even a whiff of ideology constraining science in our public institutions.

It is in everyone’s best interest that some agencies operate within a framework of professional standards, and that they are specifically cut off from political, ideological, or tribal agendas. A scientific organization charged with protecting the public health certainly qualifies.

Categories: Skeptic

15 Credibility Street #31: Put some feathers on those dinosaurs

The Doubtful News Feed - Sun, 12/17/2017 - 5:22pm
First, we have an update on two previous stories then we have a bit of a theme going regarding new fossil finds and the distinction between dinosaurs and birds and report on thylacine DNA and the Pope’s personification of Satan ideas. Brett Talley nomination is withdrawn ABC on the white matter brain change in Cuban…
Categories: Skeptic

15 Credibility Street # 31: Put some feathers on those dinosaurs

The Doubtful News Feed - Sun, 12/17/2017 - 5:22pm
First, we have an update on two previous stories then we have a bit of a theme going regarding new fossil finds and the distinction between dinosaurs and birds and report on thylacine DNA and the Pope’s personification of Satan ideas. Brett Talley nomination is withdrawn ABC on the white matter brain change in Cuban…
Categories: Skeptic

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