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No Johnson Amendment Repeal in GOP Tax Bill

Center for Inquiry News - Fri, 12/15/2017 - 10:45am

Today, Congress’ final tax reform bill is revealed to the public. We’re pleased to let you know that the bill does not contain language to attack the Johnson Amendment. Churches will continue to be banned from endorsing candidates for office. There won’t be any new tax deductions for contributing to a theocratic super PAC. 

CFI supporters like you helped to make a positive change. The separation of church and state is a pillar of our constitutional democracy, and your advocacy helped protect our system of government from the influence of religion.

This doesn’t mean that our fight is over. As we speak, the religious right searches for a new legislative vehicle through which to implement their theocratic agenda. We need to stay vigilant and prepare to speak out again. And with your support, CFI will be right there in the halls of Congress, working with our allies to keep the U.S. free and secular.  

Once again, thank you for making your voice heard. When we act together, we hold our elected government accountable to the ever-rising percentage of secularists, nonbelievers, and skeptics in American society.

Jason Lemieux
Director of Government Affairs
Center for Inquiry

P.S. From now until December 31, Louis Appignani is matching every donation to CFI up to a quarter million dollars. There’s never been a better time to be a part of our movement for science and reason. Make your matched donation today and double your impact.

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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 


Categories: , Skeptic

Saturn’s Rings Are Younger Than Previously Thought

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 12/15/2017 - 4:00am

The gorgeous rings of Saturn are one of the most dramatic features of our solar system, and certainly a favorite of any backyard astronomer. Are they, however, a fixture that have been present for the majority of the life of our solar system, or are they a recent addition?

Of course we have no observations from millions or billions of years ago, so we can only infer their probable age. Up until recently astronomers believed they were probably ancient because the large collisions that likely produced them would have been far more likely in the early crowded solar system. However – recent evidence from Cassini has changed that conclusion.

The Cassini probe made detailed observations of Saturn and its rings for years, until it plummeted into the planet this September. Scientists are still analyzing all the data it sent back home. Two lines of evidence suggest that the rings of Saturn are far younger than previously suspected.

The first new finding deals with the thickness of the rings, especially the main B ring. Astronomers estimated the amount of mass in the rings, and concluded that they were collectively greater than that of Saturn’s moon, Mimas. This further suggests that a massive collision produced them, leading to the ancient ring hypothesis. Cassini observations have revised our estimate of the rings’ mass, however:

Iess leads Cassini’s radio experiment team, which used tiny Doppler shifts in the spacecraft’s radio signal to determine the mass of objects it orbited. When Cassini began threading the gap between Saturn and its rings during its last passes, the team could pick out the gravitational pull of the rings—and hence their mass. “The central value is consistently 0.4 Mimas’s mass,” Iess said.

So there is less mass in the rings than we thought, which makes a more recent origin more plausible. This seems like a pretty thin line of evidence, but the next one is more significant. Cassini also made observations that revised our estimates of the rate of “micrometeorite flux” – this is the rate at which dark sooty micrometeorites fall into Saturn from the outer solar system. This dark dust would darken the icy rings of Saturn. We could therefore use a measurement of how dark and sooty the rings are to estimate their age. However, we also need to know the rate at which that is occurring – the flux.

Painstaking measurements by Cassini over 12 years has given us a much more accurate measurement, which is 10 times the flux that was previously estimated. That, by extensive, revises down the estimated age of the rings based on their sootiness. This is a much stronger line of evidence and comes pretty close to a direct measure of their age.

The new age estimate for the rings is only 150-300 million years old. That is much younger than previously thought.

That means for most of the life of the solar system Saturn did not have its current ring system. Perhaps we are just lucky to be living in a time when we have such a rare and lovely spectacle.

A related question is, how long will the rings last. This has not yet been answered, but Cassini data may yet help us with that question also. The rings do appear to be raining into Saturn from the near edge. Material from the rings are also bleeding out from the outer edge. But there is currently a wide range of estimates of how long such rings survive, and no clear consensus. It’s possible they will last less than a billion years, or shorter.

That could mean that ring systems around the major gas giants come and go over the several billion year history of our solar system. All the gas giants have some rings, but for Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus they are thin. Are these thin rings remnants, or were they formed thin? A billion years ago did Jupiter have a massive ring system while Saturn was relatively bear.

We may never know the answer to that question, but it is also possible we can infer more about the past from the remnants of today. And that is the deeper lesson here. We can know about the past scientifically through reasonable inference from the information we can gather today.


Categories: Skeptic

Antarctic Ice

neurologicablog Feed - Thu, 12/14/2017 - 5:05am

Perhaps one of the most underrated science stories of 2017 was the separation of a massive iceberg the size of Delaware from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica. That is because this is not an isolated event, but just a dramatic part of a larger story – the melting of Antarctica.

Antarctica contains most of the ice on Earth (90%). Much of that ice sits on top of land, unlike Arctic ice which is floating. When floating ice melts it just fills the space that it had displaced. There is a little bit a sea rise due to rising temperatures – water expands as it warms. But this amount of sea rise is small overall. When ice that was sitting on land flows into the ocean, it raises the sea level more significantly.

Antarctica is comprised of glaciers sitting on top of the continent, which itself is mostly below sea level. These glaciers are as thick as three miles. They are divided into a western glacier system and an eastern glacier system. West Antarctica, which is melting faster, contains enough ice to raise the sea level by 14 feet. East Antarctica is more stable but still showing some early signs of melting. All the ice here could raise the sea level by 175 feet.

As the glaciers melt during the warmer months they follow channels out to the ocean. These channels, however, are blocked by ice shelves, which act like a cork, keeping back the ice and helping to maintain the stability of the glaciers.

The ice shelves themselves have a certain structure – they rest on the sea floor but as they extend out from the continent eventually the ice lifts off the sea floor (called the grounding point) and as the ice extends out further it is floating on top of the water. The breakup of these ice shelves is a concern, because that would essentially remove the stopper and greatly accelerate the rate at which glacier melt finds its way to the ocean.

What recent research has shown is that warm ocean water is traveling along channels under the Antarctic ice shelves, melting the underside of the shelves and eating away at the grounding point. This is weakening the ice shelves, increasing the rate at which they break up. The giant Larsen C iceberg was a symptom of this phenomenon.

As the ice shelves weaken, the rate at which the glaciers move to the sea is accelerating. Essentially ice forming and melting in the Antarctic has been in a homeostasis, and now that balance has shifted with melting happening faster than ice is being replaced. There seems to be no question at this point that Antarctica is changing. Even without any further release of CO2 or warming, the warming we have already caused has shifted the equilibrium. Some scientists estimate that existing warming will result in a sea level rise of about 10 feet. Of course, further warming will only make this worse.

Really the big question for Antarctica is when – will it be 50 years or 500 years before the ice shelves disintegrate completely and significant glacial ice finds its way into the ocean? There is the possibility of a domino effect, because the ice is holding back further ice. As it collapses, the ice behind it is then unstable and may collapse. Scientists are concerned because much of the increased melting is happening under the surface ice. The ice shelves and glaciers are being hollowed out, forming pockets and streams of water below the surface. At some point the system may collapse.

It is always difficult to warn about possible future calamity. It is easy to come off sounding hysterical, and critics can easily paint you that way, even if you are being sober and careful. Further, with many natural phenomena there is always uncertainty. How bad will an epidemic be? What are the odds of that asteroid hitting the Earth? What will the effects of the Y2K bug be?

The thing is, it is reasonable to prepare for and attempt to prevent possible negative outcomes based upon our best current estimate. It is unreasonable, even folly, to demand near 100% certainty before taking reasonable steps to prevent harm. And of course if you are successful, then the critics can always claim that there was never any risk.

So, we don’t know exactly what is going to happen in Antarctica or when. What scientists can see, however, is that the rate of melting is increasing, the ice shelves are becoming unstable, and this is further increasing the rate at which glacial ice is finding its way to the sea. They cannot sea the future, but they can make reasonable inferences and warn about possible threats. It’s good to know what the range of possibilities is – what is the best and worst case scenario. Generally speaking we should prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

You can also take a risk vs benefit approach. What is the risk of doing nothing? What is the risk and expense of taking specific steps to mitigate anthropogenic warming? Obviously you don’t want the cure to be worse than the disease. But let’s take a sober look at the “disease.”

Even a modest 10 feet of sea level rise (modest compared to the potential from Antarctic ice melting) will flood the southern tip of Florida, will flood many coastal cities, and displace millions of people. Further, with rising sea levels storm surges will be much worse. Coastal flooding from storms can be devastating. The cost would likely rise into the trillions. That is not even the worst case.

I think that justifies taking some aggressive steps to mitigate further climate change. Our technology is already heading in the direction of renewable energy sources. They are getting cheaper, they are distributed, and they reduce pollution. They also reduce dependence on a limited resource, one that often comes from unstable parts of the world. Energy efficiency technology saves everyone money, so they are a win-win. Accelerating the development and adoption of superior technology is a no-brainer. It is only being opposed by vested interests in the status quo.

We would do well to heed the warnings of our scientists, especially when there are some obviously beneficial steps we can take.

Categories: Skeptic

Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 95

Center for Inquiry News - Wed, 12/13/2017 - 10:36am

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

Robert Bartholomew Elected to CSI Fellows

This month, CFI’s Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) welcomed its newest fellow, Dr. Robert Bartholomew of South Auckland, New Zealand. Nominated and elected by CSI’s twelve-member Executive Council, fellows are chosen for their distinguished contributions to science and skepticism, as well as their demonstrated ability to provide practical advice and expertise on various issues and projects of importance to CSI.

Robert Bartholomew has earned the respect of the skeptic community through his sociological work on topics such as mass hysteria, moral panics, and mass delusions, as well as the history of folklore and the paranormal. Bartholomew teaches history at Botany Downs Secondary College in South Auckland, New Zealand, and has degrees in sociology from The Flinders University of South Australia, the State University of New York at Albany, and James Cook University in Queensland, Australia.

His books include American Hauntings: True Stories Behind Hollywood’s Scariest Movies (written with CSI’s Joe Nickell), A Colorful History of Popular DelusionsMass Hysteria in Schools: A Worldwide History Since 1566, The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America’s Loch Ness Monster, The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes (written with CSI’s Benjamin Radford), and Panic Attacks: Media Manipulation & Mass Delusion, among many others.

As a fellow of CSI, Bartholomew joins a truly distinguished list of scientists, academics, writers, and activists such as astronomers Neil deGrasse Tyson and Jill Tarter; biologists Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson; Nobel laureate physicists or chemists Leon Lederman, Murray Gell-Mann, Steven Weinberg, and Sir Harry Kroto; philosophers Daniel C. Dennett, Susan Haack, and Mario Bunge; anthropologist Eugenie C. Scott; psychologists James Alcock, Ray Hyman, Steven Pinker, and Richard Wiseman; magician/author James Randi; science educator and television host Bill Nye; Cosmos creator/writer Ann Druyan; plus many prominent physicians and medical scientists who critique questionable medical claims.


A Quarter Million Reasons to Give Your Support

Louis Appignani is back, challenging the supporters of reason and science to give our shared mission an end-of-year boost. 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. 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 amazing opportunity that Louis has presented. 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.


News from the CFI Community

Margaret Sullivan on Point of Inquiry: Reality-Based News Must Rise Again

CFI’s flagship podcast Point of Inquiry returns this month with a timely interview on the state of the reality-based news media. Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist and former Public Editor of the New York Times, joins host Paul Fidalgo to discuss this most tumultuous moment for journalism, as news consumers must choose among not just different interpretations of current events but conflicting versions of reality.

Their wide-ranging conversation covers such topics as the recent revelations of sexual harassment at prominent news outlets, how the mainstream media must reckon with its mistakes leading up to the 2016 election, the failed efforts by a right-wing media operation to trick and embarrass the Washington Post, and even Sullivan’s own roots in Buffalo, New York, which also happens to be the home of the Center for Inquiry.

Listen and subscribe to Point of Inquiry on your podcast app of choice, or visit


Skeptical Inquirer on the Problem of Racism

We are living through a time of heightened racial tension and hostilities, particularly due to the aggression of white supremacists who have crept out from the shadows of society and onto the front pages. The issue of race is understandably impassioned, with conflicts driven by fear, anger, frustration, and resentment. That’s why now is the time for an exploration of America’s racial divides that is rational and evidence-based. This month, Skeptical Inquirer provides just that, a skeptic’s guide to the plague of racism.

In this latest issue, U.S. Air Force Academy psychologists Craig A. Foster and Steven M. Samuels write that the evidence-based tools of psychology and sociology must be brought to bear if racism is to be meaningfully reduced; Stuart Vyse argues for a new focus on the things that unite warring sides and seeks to accomplish shared goals together; Sam Scott highlights the groundbreaking work of Jennifer Eberhardt on how perceptions of racial groups badly distort justice; and Terence Hines compares the pseudoscientific justifications for white supremacy to the claims of astrology (though conceding that one never expects to see a group of astrologers “brandishing clubs and guns to attack a group of skeptics”).

Subscribe to Skeptical Inquirer today, in print or digitally on all major app platforms, and look for the January/February 2018 issue on newsstands now.


CFI Highlights on the Web

From Free Inquiry:

  • CFI’s president and CEO, Robyn Blumner, revisits the conflict that arose over Richard Dawkins’ scheduled event at KPFA in Berkeley, cancelled by the radio station over complaints about Dawkins’s statements on extremist Islam. Looking at the state of free speech and identity politics, Robyn says her heart “broke a little” seeing results of a poll showing college students with shockingly misguided ideas about what the First Amendment does and does not protect.
  • Rebecca Newberger Goldstein reconciles philosophy and the hard sciences, making a powerful case that these two fields should be seen as complementary, writing, “The progress that the Enlightenment unleashed regarding the questions both of what is and what matters has carried us forward to this moment, when we can discourse knowledgably not only about the universal stochastic laws of quantum mechanics but also about universal human rights.”
  • Tom Flynn delves into the records of the Templeton Foundation, the institution known for richly funding pseudo-academic attempts to legitimize religion as on par with science. Tom characterizes one project, “Understanding Unbelief,” as “nearly three million dollars for sharper tools to help believers explain, clinically, what’s wrong with nonbelievers.”

From Skeptical Inquirer and

  • Stuart Vyse introduces us to Dan Q. Posin, a DePaul University physics professor who helped popularize science from the 1950s to ’70s, an “elfin mustachioed man” who told “fascinating stories about atoms, comets, galaxies, and space travel.”
  • Stuart also takes a look at the utility of superstitious beliefs. While superstition’s rituals certainly have no real supernatural power, might they have some other benefits?
  • Susan Gerbic once again pursues her white whale, “grief vampire” Tyler Henry (aka “The Hollywood Medium”). This time, she parses Henry’s tactics from a Today Show appearance…which happens be along with Matt Lauer, who is in the news for…other reasons.

At the CFI Free Thinking Blog:

  • Joe Nickell investigates the legend of a treasure protected by a ghost—a stash of gold that is said to have been revealed by the ghost himself to the patrons of Buford’s Tavern in Virginia.
  • Showing that things are not always as rife with conflict as they’re made out to be, Benjamin Radford critiques the reporting on an alleged racist backlash against an African American man playing Santa—a backlash that, happily, never really was.
And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.

Upcoming CFI Events

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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!

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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 


Categories: , Skeptic

eSkeptic for December 13, 2017 feed - Wed, 12/13/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN “SKEPTIC” COLUMN FOR DECEMBER 2017 Outlawing War: Why “outcasting” works better than violence

After binge-watching the 18-hour PBS documentary series The Vietnam War, by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, I was left emotionally emptied and ethically exhausted from seeing politicians in the throes of deception, self-deception and the sunk-cost bias that resulted in a body count totaling more than three million dead North and South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers, along with more than 58,000 American troops. With historical perspective, it is now evident to all but delusional ideologues that the war was an utter waste of human lives, economic resources, political capital and moral reserves. By the end, I concluded that war should be outlawed.

In point of fact, war was outlawed … in 1928. Say what?

In their history of how this happened, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (Simon & Schuster, 2017), Yale University legal scholars Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro begin with the contorted legal machinations of lawyers, legislators and politicians in the 17th century that made war, in the words of Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, “the continuation of politics by other means.” Those means included a license to kill other people, take their stuff and occupy their land. Legally. How? […]

Read the complete column


Sigmund Freud and his daugher Anna Freud on holiday in the Italian Dolomites. [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

In this week’s eSkeptic, Raymond Barglow discusses how the psychoanalytic tradition inaugurated by Sigmund Freud casts light on the mainsprings of human motivation and helps to explain human irrationality and encourage recovery.

Why Freud Matters
Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and the Skeptical Humanist Tradition

by Raymond Barglow

“A great part of my life’s work has been spent to destroy my own illusions and those of humankind.”
—Sigmund Freud

“What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.”
—Anna Freud

Over the past half century, some of Sigmund Freud’s ideas have been debunked, and he personally has been exposed as a doctor who misunderstood and harmed a good number of his patients.1 I do not take exception to this evaluation. Especially during the years when he was building his career as a doctor, the founder of psychoanalysis deceived the public, if not himself, about the evidence for his views and his ability to cure. There is, however, another side to Freud’s character and to his achievements that the critics overlook. Indeed I believe that Freud belongs up there in the pantheon of great skeptical humanists alongside Socrates, Voltaire, and Hume. Like them, Freud believed that reason could help people undo the hypocrisies and deceptions in their lives, permitting a recovery of sanity and a measure of happiness.2

As well, Freud’s critics fail to recognize the contributions made over the past century by the psychoanalytic movement that he inaugurated. To make this second point, I’ll review the accomplishments of Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna, whose role was pivotal in developing psychoanalysis in an open-minded, evidence-based way. Her work is a telling counterexample to the broad claim that psychoanalysis is an irrational theory and ineffective practice.3 Anna Freud and her colleagues not only observed assiduously, but also subjected the very concept of “observation” to scrutiny. When adults are observing and interacting with children, Anna Freud recognized, their perceptions may be clouded by their prior expectations: observers see what they wish to see and overlook or push aside everything else.

Mistaking Our Own Motives

Although Sigmund Freud’s own professional conduct was marred by the prejudices of his time, some of his concepts do cast light on the sources and nature of human irrationality. Freud believed that the mind is influenced by unacknowledged motives and unspoken memories. And that belief informed not only his “talking cure” therapy but also his social activism on behalf of issues that ranged from free mental health care to the humane treatment of shell-shocked soldiers who had survived the First World War.

Since the early 17th century when Rene Descartes penned his Meditations, rationalist philosophy had held that the human mind is unified and transparent to itself. Freud affirmed instead—and this is the premise that still informs psychoanalysis today—that humans are inclined, by nature and by nurture, to mistake their reasons for believing and acting. That we are fallible in this manner, mentally conflicted and influenced in ways that we only partly understand, is a condition that Freud found illustrated ubiquitously in dreams, slips of the tongue, religious beliefs, sexual preferences, and the foibles of our relationships with others. And he made this “diagnosis” of the human condition the basis for doing psychotherapy in a new way. […]

Continue reading

A NEW STORY! How C0nc0rdance 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!

The creator of this video writes: “Skepticism, to me, is the process by which I evaluate claims. It’s not cynical, rejecting every idea that makes me uncomfortable. It’s not credulous, accepting new ideas because they’re edgy, counter-culture or popular. I try to apply the same process of empirical evidence-gathering, careful study, and rational argument to every aspect of my life, from the laboratory, to the Internet, to conversations with friends.”

Watch the video


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

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…



You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. Your ongoing patronage will help ensure that sound scientific viewpoints are heard around the world.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Why Freud Matters Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and the Skeptical Humanist Tradition feed - Wed, 12/13/2017 - 12:00am

“A great part of my life’s work has been spent to destroy my own illusions and those of humankind.” —Sigmund Freud

“What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.” —Anna Freud

Over the past half century, some of Sigmund Freud’s ideas have been debunked, and he personally has been exposed as a doctor who misunderstood and harmed a good number of his patients.1 I do not take exception to this evaluation. Especially during the years when he was building his career as a doctor, the founder of psychoanalysis deceived the public, if not himself, about the evidence for his views and his ability to cure. There is, however, another side to Freud’s character and to his achievements that the critics overlook. Indeed I believe that Freud belongs up there in the pantheon of great skeptical humanists alongside Socrates, Voltaire, and Hume. Like them, Freud believed that reason could help people undo the hypocrisies and deceptions in their lives, permitting a recovery of sanity and a measure of happiness.2

As well, Freud’s critics fail to recognize the contributions made over the past century by the psychoanalytic movement that he inaugurated. To make this second point, I’ll review the accomplishments of Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna, whose role was pivotal in developing psychoanalysis in an open-minded, evidence-based way. Her work is a telling counterexample to the broad claim that psychoanalysis is an irrational theory and ineffective practice.3 Anna Freud and her colleagues not only observed assiduously, but also subjected the very concept of “observation” to scrutiny. When adults are observing and interacting with children, Anna Freud recognized, their perceptions may be clouded by their prior expectations: observers see what they wish to see and overlook or push aside everything else.

Mistaking Our Own Motives

Although Sigmund Freud’s own professional conduct was marred by the prejudices of his time, some of his concepts do cast light on the sources and nature of human irrationality. Freud believed that the mind is influenced by unacknowledged motives and unspoken memories. And that belief informed not only his “talking cure” therapy but also his social activism on behalf of issues that ranged from free mental health care to the humane treatment of shell-shocked soldiers who had survived the First World War.

Since the early 17th century when Rene Descartes penned his Meditations, rationalist philosophy had held that the human mind is unified and transparent to itself. Freud affirmed instead—and this is the premise that still informs psychoanalysis today—that humans are inclined, by nature and by nurture, to mistake their reasons for believing and acting. That we are fallible in this manner, mentally conflicted and influenced in ways that we only partly understand, is a condition that Freud found illustrated ubiquitously in dreams, slips of the tongue, religious beliefs, sexual preferences, and the foibles of our relationships with others. And he made this “diagnosis” of the human condition the basis for doing psychotherapy in a new way.

Freud perceived himself as following in the footsteps of those who had in the past challenged the pretense that human beings stand exalted as masters of their own fate and the pinnacle of creation:

Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first [ascribed to Copernicus] was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable…. The second [ascribed to Charles Darwin] was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him.

Human pride now has to suffer, Freud wrote, a third, “most bitter blow” from empirical inquiry, which discloses “to the ‘ego’ of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house.” This view of the mind’s internal division launched what might be called a “research program” that since the turn of the 20th century has encompassed a great deal of qualitative and quantitative study of human psychology. And much of that study has been skeptical in character, calling into question not only conventional understandings of individual pathology but also wider cultural values and practices.

Psychoanalysis as a Research Program

It’s true that not many studies conducted within a psychoanalytic framework satisfy the gold standard in medical science: the randomized controlled trial based on quantification and statistical analysis. Certainly the activity of observing a child in a clinic is quite different from that of observing a planet through a telescope or a bacterium on a petri dish. But these forms of inquiry have much in common as well. The qualitative research carried out in Anna Freud’s “laboratories”—nurseries, clinics, residential and day care centers—was guided by the same criteria of systematic observation, conceptual parsimony, and explanatory power that guide rational empirical inquiry of any kind.

At the core of the psychoanalytic research program stand not only theoretical propositions but also an ethical principle—a commitment to humane care for people suffering intense psychological distress. Against the centuries-old stigmatization of mentally disturbed people as “mad,” Freud and his followers advocated tolerance and compassion. To be sure, the psychoanalytic profession has not always lived up to these values. In some parts of the world, including the United States, during the 20th century psychoanalysis became an enterprise governed by a medical elite that was self-serving and dogmatic. And psychoanalysts, beginning with Freud himself, indulged in a great deal of unwarranted and harmful speculation: pathologizing homosexuality4, attributing women’s wishes for independence and equality to “penis envy,” positing metaphysical entities like “the death drive,” etc. When Freudianism became an entire “climate of opinion,” as Auden described it at mid-century, that climate was not universally a liberating one. On the other hand, psychoanalysis did give support to progressive movements during the 20th century that ranged from the Harlem Renaissance and civil rights struggles in the South to gay liberation and the women’s movement.5 Feminists such as Juliet Mitchell, Nancy Chodorow, and Jessica Benjamin rejected the assumptions made by mainstream psychoanalysis about women’s and men’s “normal” roles and behaviors; yet they found psychoanalytic concepts useful for understanding the childhood origins of gender differences and the devaluation of women’s lives. Perhaps psychoanalysis’ most consequential contribution, though, has turned out to be its reconsideration of the norms for raising children. The science of this subject was advanced by researchers such as Anna Freud, Margaret Mahler, D.W. Winnicott, John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Selma Fraiberg, and Daniel Stern. These studies influenced Spock, Leach, Brazelton, and other authors of widely read books that give families advice about relating to children.

Another domain impacted by psychoanalysis was jurisprudence: conventional legal assumptions about human free will, responsibility, and punishment were challenged, often successfully, by considerations that pointed to the sometimes exonerating psychological and social origins of criminality. Eminent judges including Holmes, Frankfurter, Cardozo, and Frank even reflected on the possibility of unconscious prejudices entering into their own deliberations.6

In brief, as a research program interacting with medical, educational, legal, and other cultural institutions, psychoanalysis has made many important contributions.

Sigmund Freud’s Critique of Religion: “The Future of an Illusion”

Sigmund Freud began psychoanalysis by inquiring into individual pathology but later in his life sought to understand civilization’s “discontents” as well. Freud believed that religion is one of the domains in which human reason runs aground. In his 1927 essay, “The Future of an Illusion,” Freud not only exposes the irrationality of belief in God (others before him had done that) but he goes a step further and aims to explain that irrationality. Responding to their experiences of helplessness, Freud suggests, humans seek a benevolent, all-powerful protector who will shelter them from suffering and uncertainty and assure an orderly world. God, as conceived in most biblical traditions, is modeled after an adult authority who towers over a child, promising guidance and reward, but also severe punishment for misbehavior.7

In keeping with Daniel Dennett’s discussion later in the 20th century of the “intentional stance,”8 Freud points out that people imbue nature with subjective agency:

Impersonal forces and destinies cannot be approached; they remain eternally remote. But if the elements have passions that rage as they do in our own souls, if death itself is not something spontaneous but the violent act of an evil Will, if everywhere in nature there are Beings around us of a kind that we know in our own society, then we…are still defenceless, perhaps, but we are no longer helplessly paralyzed; we can at least react…. we can try to entreat them [supernatural beings], to appease them, to bribe them, and, by so influencing them, we may rob them of a part of their power.

In the course of the evolution of the human species as well as in the personal history of each individual, Freud argued, there occurs a kind of thinking that creates imaginary beings and narratives, dispensing with the empirical constraints that govern our everyday practical interactions with our surroundings. Religion in its traditional patriarchal forms exemplifies such thinking when it authors a story such as the one told in the Bible, Koran, or other canonical text, a story that serves the purpose of representing a well-ordered and protective world. Beginning with Freud, psychoanalysis finds a similarity between such religious stories and children’s “make-believe”—that wonderful expression in English that conflates imagining with believing. Notoriously, the inconsistencies of these narratives with everyday facts does not make them less real. A child whose imagined companion is a blue creature with five legs needn’t be fazed by an adult who points out that all animals encountered in the past have, at most, four legs. “My friend has five, I can count them!” Everything is possible for a creative imagination free of constraints imposed by reality. And for that reason, religion, which Freud believes is developmentally as well as conceptually continuous with children’s magical thinking, does not respond to evidence-based objections. “Primary process,” the name that Freud gives to thinking of this kind, is associative and metaphorical: “There are in this system no negation, no doubt, no [mere] degrees of certainty.” “Secondary process,” on the other hand, is cognition that weighs evidence and recognizes a difference between appearance and reality, and that is willing to sacrifice fantasy’s immediate gratification in favor of long-term real gains.

This distinction between two ways of thinking about the world is widely recognized today. Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, for instance, posits a neurological difference between two kinds of cognition—“System 1” is fast, instinctive, and emotional, while “System 2” is slower, more patient and logical—that is remarkably similar to Freud’s distinction elaborated a century ago. Freud’s critique of religion anticipates as well the reasoning that would be advanced later in the century by skeptics like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Michael Shermer. For instance, in response to the tu-quoque argument—“Sure, religion rests upon ultimately unjustified basic premises and arrives sometimes at mistaken conclusions, but doesn’t science too?”—Freud writes:

You will not find me inaccessible to your criticism. I know how difficult it is to avoid illusions; perhaps the hopes I have confessed to are of an illusory nature, too. But I hold fast to one distinction. Apart from the fact that no penalty is imposed for not sharing them, my illusions are not, like religious ones, incapable of correction…. If experience should show…that we have been mistaken, we will give up our expectations.

Freud points out that unlike religion, science evolves in relation to its empirical encounter with reality:

People complain of the unreliability of science how she announces as a law today what the next generation recognizes as an error and replaces by a new law whose accepted validity lasts no longer. But this is unjust and in part untrue…. A law which was held at first to be universally valid proves to be a special case of a more comprehensive uniformity…. a rough approximation to the truth is replaced by a more carefully adapted one, which in turn awaits further perfecting. There are various fields where we…test hypotheses that soon have to be rejected as inadequate; but in other fields we already possess an assured and almost unalterable core of knowledge.

Freud eloquently articulates here a robust empiricism. Of course science is, as Freud recognizes, imaginative too, but, in the words of another Austrian, Karl Popper, scientific “conjecture” is subject to “refutation.” (Freud often failed to “practice what he preached,” however; he notoriously dismissed objections to his own views as psychological “resistance.”)

Freud was aware that rational considerations are unlikely to successfully challenge the grip of religion on believers: “motives based purely on reason have little effect against passionate impulses.” Those impulses, Freud submits, receive cultural encouragement that typically begins with the religious instruction of children:

Think of the depressing contrast between the radiant intelligence of a healthy child and the feeble intellectual powers of the average adult. Can we be quite certain that it is not precisely religious education which bears a large share of the blame for this relative atrophy?

The connection made here between religion and childhood “atrophy” was, not surprisingly, poorly received by civil and political authority in the country Freud was living in. Invested in the preservation of traditional “family values” and staunchly opposed to liberal reforms in education and mental health services stood the Roman Catholic Church, a bastion of reaction in Austria, Italy and elsewhere in Europe. In the 1920s, Austria’s Social Democratic Party competed for political power against the Christian Social Party, which received strong clerical support. And in Austrian schools, religious instruction and practices, including priest-administered mass, confession, and processions, were mandatory. Quite aware of this reactionary context, Freud recognized that undoing the hold of religion would require, ultimately, transforming religion’s institutional foundations.

Sigmund Freud the Social Activist

Although Freud believed that the fundamental cause of irrational belief is the individual’s wish to believe, he was acutely aware that cultural norms and practices also predispose us to view the world irrationally—not only in the domain of religion but elsewhere in our lives as well. Hence Freud came to accept the view advanced by his social democratic colleagues and friends that private life is linked to social circumstance. In 1927, the year in which Freud’s “Future of an Illusion” was published, he signed on to a public manifesto announcing support for social democratic ideals and aims. But his progressive political affiliations began long before that. Freud’s close friend and collaborator Sandor Ferenczi was a social democratic activist, as was Margarete Hilferding, the first woman member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, and many other early psychoanalysts. Victor Adler, widely regarded as the “father of Austrian social democracy,” was Freud’s lifelong friend. Under Adler’s leadership, reformist and revolutionary tendencies in Austria united following the world war to create a democratic path forward that was independent of both Russian Communism and unfettered Western capitalism. In keeping with this hopeful vision, a passion was kindled in Freud for social justice. In 1918 he gave a speech in Budapest that was radically egalitarian in its aims and advocated for a militant social welfare program:

It is possible to foresee that at some time or other the conscience of society will awake and remind it that the poor men should have just as much right to assistance for his mind as he now has to the life-saving help offered by surgery…. When this happens, institutions or outpatient clinics will be started … such treatment will be free.

Europe’s psychoanalytic community welcomed this initiative. In cities such as Budapest, Vienna, Berlin, and London, clinics were set up that provided mental health services on a sliding scale and that, in Vienna for example, reached out to counsel the poor whose neighborhoods were distant from the wealthy and glamorous Ringstrasse at the center of the city.

Therese Benedek’s membership card for the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society, including a 5 Kronen fee for support of the Society’s free Polyclinic. (Danto, Elizabeth Ann Danto. 2005. Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918–1938. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 148)9

Among those whom the free clinics served in Austria and Germany were veterans returning from the First World War, many suffering from what we call today Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): terrifying flashbacks, chronic insomnia, tremors, loss of speech, inability to work, loss of affection for family and friends. These soldiers became scapegoats, accused by politicians and physicians alike of faking their symptoms and shirking their duties off as well as on the battlefield. Right-wing leaders and the popular press believed that Germany and Austria had lost the war because of a “Dolchstoss” (stab-in-the back) by domestic “enemies” who included not only social democrats but also these psychologically injured soldiers, whose symptoms were attributed to weakness of will and poor moral character. The standard treatments for these traumatized soldiers included solitary confinement, straight jackets, electrotherapy, and even brain surgery, aiming allegedly to restore them to sanity.

Freud and the first generation of psychoanalysts in Vienna took strong and public exception to these treatments. Freud wrote the introduction for the 1918 book Psychoanalysis and the War Neuroses, authored by four of his colleagues, which disputed the conventional victim-blaming account of war trauma. Then in 1920 Freud provided written and oral testimony in a court case involving mistreatment of war veterans. His judgment was unequivocal: Military doctors, not the foot soldiers, were the “immediate cause of all war neurosis.” During the war, Freud said, psychiatrists had “allowed their sense of power to make an appearance in a brutal fashion.” They had “acted like machine guns behind the front lines, forcing back the fleeing soldiers.” Freud did not shy away from the wider political implications of his public testimony: he vigorously supported Vienna’s progressive public health agenda and allied psychoanalysis with the wider social democratic movement that moved the city leftward in the post-war years.

Anna Freud’s Critique of Child-Raising Practices

Education as well as psychotherapy fell within the purview of the psychoanalytic movement Freud founded. His psychoanalytically-minded colleagues in the 1920s set out to reform all of the institutions in Vienna that were involved in raising and educating children. Among these activists was Freud’s own daughter Anna. From 1922 to 1927 she taught in an elementary school, and then followed in the footsteps of her father and became a psychoanalyst. With a declared commitment to serving Viennese families of all ethnic origins and class backgrounds, Anna Freud and the psychoanalytically minded community to which she belonged participated in the cultural revolution that became known as “Red Vienna.”

In the 1920s, Vienna’s municipal government became the largest landowner in the city and funded a massive project to provide public housing for the poor. Among the 370 so-called “people’s palaces” that were built, this one, Bebelhof, contained 301 apartments. Its interior courtyard, shown above, encouraged cooperative activities. Some of those served by the Psychoanalytic Association’s free clinic lived here. (Photo by Buchhändler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1925 Anna Freud co-founded an institute for the preparation of teachers in Vienna whose mission was to replace authoritarian methods of education with psychoanalytically-informed, more permissive ones. While Anna Freud was an admirer of educational reformers such as Maria Montessori, her psychological perspective went a step further: she took into account that, as her colleague D.W. Winnicott famously put it, “there is no such thing as a baby, there is always a baby and someone.” Anna Freud recognized the distorting influence of “countertransference” in adult-child relationships: parents, counselors, and teachers bring into their interactions with children their own unmet needs and anxieties.

In 1927 Anna Freud started a nursery for impoverished or neglected children under the age of three. Its mission was to learn directly from the children themselves and to develop humane, effective methods of treatment. Such treatment required, she believed, careful observation to confirm and disconfirm assumptions, staying alert to preconceptions about “what children need,” empathizing with children to understand their experience, and defending them when necessary against state, religious, and even parental authority. For over a decade Anna Freud was a leader in a “Children Seminar” in Vienna that discussed clinical cases and tested psychoanalytic theory against them. Although she remained largely loyal to her father’s language—language that did sometimes narrow her vision—she used that language more empirically, disregarding metaphysical implications of the orthodox terminology.

In “Lectures for Teachers,” Anna Freud referred to “Struwwelpeter” (Slovenly Peter), a children’s storybook immensely popular in Austria and Germany, to illustrate conventional ideas about raising children. (Heinrich Hoffmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons: 1, 2, 3)

First in Vienna and then in London where she relocated in 1938, Anna Freud moved psychoanalytic theory and therapy in new directions. She took into account the wide diversity of circumstances that shape human lives and disagreed with the view that all psychopathology originates in early sexual experience. Her approach to working with children was, of course, not unique. During the first half of the 20th-century, progressive education became in Europe and America a social movement embraced not only by teachers but also by psychologists, psychoanalysts, social workers, and parents. Although psychoanalytic principles, including an emphasis on family circumstances that influence children’s capacities to relate and learn, were not universally accepted within that movement, they contributed a great deal to the revolution.

Anna Freud became involved in legal reform as well: her writings on child custody issues, for example, which distinguish between a biological parent and what Anna Freud calls a “psychological parent” (an adult who is raising a child in a loving, thoughtful way and whom the child regards as a parent) were influential in revising family law in England and the United States.

An atheist like her father, Anna Freud confirmed his view in “Future of an Illusion” that humans can live fulfilling, altruistic lives without needing guidance from religion. She provided moral as well as intellectual guidance to her colleagues and students, and was considered by those who worked with her the warmest heart a child could ever hope to meet.

Anna Freud the Scientist

In Vienna’s Jackson Nursery, which opened in 1937 and was directed by Anna Freud, new staff members received not only a uniform but also pencil and paper which they were to use to record observations of the children they encountered: how they reacted to separations from their parents or other caretakers, how they related to other children, how they dealt with staff, how they coped with disappointment and anger, etc. These observations were then pooled and discussed by workers in the clinic—during breaks when the children were napping, for example. Gathered into case histories, these observations formed a basis for reflecting on explanatory constructs and for revising nursery policy.

When Anna Freud moved to London and administered the Hampstead War Nurseries and Clinic, she continued to emphasize direct and systematic observation. (Methodical child observation was pioneered as well by psychoanalyst Esther Bick, working at the Tavistock Clinic in London. Like Anna Freud, she was a Jewish refugee who came to England from Vienna.) The result was what we would today call a “database” consisting of thousands of individual case histories, broken down into distinct data fields and indexed by subject matter. Anna Freud explained:

What we hope to construct by this laborious method is something of a “collective analytic memory,” i.e., a storehouse of analytic material which places at the disposal of the single thinker and author an abundance of facts gathered by many, thereby transcending the narrow confines of individual experience and extending the possibilities for insightful study, for constructive comparisons between cases, for deductions and generalizations, and finally for extrapolations of theory from clinical therapeutic work.

Although Anna Freud recognized that observation is always theory-laden, she worked under the assumption that it is possible to suspend belief in one’s own views sufficiently to describe human situations in experience-near terms that are neutral between competing hypotheses. And in the Hampstead War Nurseries and Clinic, the detail in such observational description was sometimes quite fine-grained. For children impacted by “Blitzkrieg” air-raids during the London war years, for example, the observational protocol distinguished five kinds of anxiety, ranging from fear of a “real danger” to feelings that derived from other causes, including the emotional responses (calm/panicked, caring/self-centered) of parents to their children’s and to their own vulnerability. Beginning in the 1940s, many researchers made use of evidence provided by Hampstead clinical data. Anna Freud joined with Dorothy Burlingham in writing, for instance, War and Children (1943) and Infants Without Families (1944)—books that draw on Hampstead research and that refute common misconceptions about children’s responses to violence and loss.

Anna Freud on Human Irrationality

Like her father, but not captured as he was by metaphysical ideas about the nature of the mind, Anna Freud sought to understand the psychological mainsprings of reasoning gone awry. In 1936 she published The Ego and The Mechanisms of Defense, which elaborated ways in which people deny and disavow evidence they do not wish to see. Such machinery of the mind helps to explain collective as well as individual behavior. The concept of denial, for example, is exemplified today in the refusal to recognize the dangers of global warming and climate change. Projection and displacement are common in the scapegoating of immigrants. Anna Freud’s discussion of another defense, “identification with the aggressor,” is relevant to the popular appeal of fascist ideology. “By impersonating the aggressor,” she writes, “assuming his attributes or imitating his aggression, the child transforms himself from the person threatened into the person making the threat.” For example, a child who gets a shot in a doctor’s office goes home and, pretending to be the doctor, gives a shot to a doll or stuffed animal. By becoming the powerful agent who inflicts pain, the child masters feelings of smallness, fear, and anger.10

Such a dynamic, reproduced politically, can lead adults who feel victimized and powerless to identify with a charismatic, reassuring leader. Anna Freud’s book was published just as the forces of the extreme right were taking over in Austria. Her analysis of aggression would later be incorporated into psychoanalytic studies of “the authoritarian personality,” and it enters as well into the work of George Lakoff on the psychological origins of liberalism and conservatism. In such contemporary efforts to understand how deep fears and longings motivate political allegiances, the influence of the psychoanalytic tradition is unmistakable.

The Moral Arc

The voice of reason is a soft one,” wrote Sigmund Freud, “but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing.” The European skeptical tradition has for centuries exemplified that voice and stood against false hope and illusion, recommending instead a clear-minded encounter with reality that is capable of grasping and changing the circumstances of our lives. Since its invention at the turn of the 20th century in Vienna, psychoanalysis at its best has advanced this humanist project. And if certain cities in the past have been stars in a historical “moral arc” that “bends toward truth, justice, and freedom,”11 then Vienna in the years 1918–1934 must be counted as one of the most brilliant.

That star was extinguished when the Nazis came to power in Austria. But at the end of the Second World War, social democracy rose from the ashes and once again became influential in Europe. Psychoanalysis evolved too. Ironically, the dispersal during the 1930s of Vienna’s psychoanalytic community, which included many Jewish refugees, helped to distribute the theory and practice of “the talking cure” worldwide. In the many countries where these exiles settled, psychoanalysis developed in new directions. A fair evaluation will recognize the failings, but also the insights and accomplishments, of the research program that Sigmund Freud launched over a hundred years ago.

References & Notes
  1. Schaefer, Margret. 2017. “The Wizardry of Sigmund Freud.” Skeptic, Vol. 22, No. 3.
  2. There is indeed something of a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde character to Freud, who eloquently espoused ideals of human reason and scientific method, but then often failed to apply them. His life illustrates a basic psychoanalytic principle: human beings are apt to misperceive their own motives, powers, and prejudices.
  3. Although this article focuses on the contributions made by Anna Freud, the broad case against psychoanalysis is contradicted also by the achievements of other “pioneers” of psychoanalysis: Karen Horney, D.W. Winnicott, and Margaret Mahler, for example.
  4. The psychoanalytic tradition is shot through with contradictions on the subject of homosexuality. Anna and Sigmund Freud viewed homosexuality as deviant. Yet she, with the at least tacit approval of her father, lived with her partner Dorothy Burlingham for over five decades.
  5. Zaretsky, Eli. 2004. Secrets of the Soul. Alfred A. Knopf.
  6. Dailey, Anne C. 2017. Law and the Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Perspective. Yale University.
  7. Freud considers religion only in its mainstream forms. He has little to say about theology—Spinoza’s pantheism, for example—that dispenses with a “God-the-Father” conception of the divine.
  8. Dennett, D. C. 1987. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  9. Benedek exemplified the unorthodox paths that, from the very beginning, women psychoanalysts would take. When Benedek was criticized for being too informal with those she saw in therapy (she said hello and goodbye and shook hands with them), she replied, “If I did not do that I would not be myself and that would not be good for my patient.” She wrote books on personality, depression, parenthood, and women’s sexuality.
  10. In the television series Breaking Bad, Walter White explains to his wife: “A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that’s me. No, I am the one who knocks!”
  11. Shermer, Michael. 2015. The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People. New York: Henry Holt.
About the Author

Raymond Barglow has a doctorate in philosophy from UC Berkeley and doctorate in psychology from the Wright Institute in Berkeley. He has taught at UC Berkeley and Trinity College and writes on science, ethics, and political issues.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Space Policy Directive 1 – Return to the Moon

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 12/12/2017 - 5:00am

Yesterday President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1 (SPD1), an executive order that will shape NASAs priorities going forward. Essentially the directive states that NASA’s primary mission is human space exploration, with a specific goal of returning to the moon.

The Directive is the result of recommendations made by the National Space Council (NSC) – a council of experts that advises the executive branch on all matters dealing with space. According to NASA, in June of this year:

President Trump has signed an executive order reestablishing the National Space Council. The council existed previously from 1989-1993, and a version of it also existed as the National Aeronautics and Space Council from 1958-1973. As such, the council has guided NASA from our earliest days and can help us achieve the many ambitious milestones we are striving for today.

The NSC recommended to the White House that NASA’s priority should be the Moon, and SPD1 is the result of that recommendation.

I think the core vision for SPD1 is solid, and something I have supported for years. Specifically, our human exploration priority should be establishing an Earth-to-Moon infrastructure, including a permanent presence on the moon. We should only set our sights on Mars after we have a stable moon base. There are several reasons for this.

First, colonizing the moon is much easier than Mars. The moon is three days away from Earth, while Mars is 9 or more months. We don’t even have the technology at this point to protect martian astronauts from the radiation they would be exposed to on the trip. Going to Mars is a logistical and technological problem perhaps an order of magnitude more difficult than going to the Moon.

Being close to Earth also means that resupply and rescue missions would be much more feasible. If something goes awry on Mars, good luck to you. Don’t expect help anytime soon. For a moon base, however, we could theoretically have a rocket on standby, something that could launch within a week, and be on the moon in another three days.

All of the main issues we would confront on a Mars colony would also exist on a moon colony, and so once we developed the knowledge and technology to have a self-sustaining base on the moon, we could use that knowledge to then build bases and colonies on Mars. A moon base would need proper shielding, an energy source, and sources of food, water, and oxygen.

We are currently eyeing possible lava tubes as locations for permanent bases on the moon.  These are caves carved out by ancient lava. They could be geologically stable locations under ground, which would provide natural shielding from radiation and micrometeors. The same is true on Mars.

So walk before you run. It is likely hubris and folly to set our sights on Mars when the moon is much closer and more feasible.

But further – the moon could be a stepping stone to Mars. A trip to Mars could have two stages. The first is getting to a way station on the moon. This will get you largely out of the gravity well of Earth. You can also optimize ships and other infrastructure for getting from the Earth to the moon, and then have a separate infrastructure for getting from the moon to Mars or elsewhere.

SPD1 mentions a Deep Space Gateway – this is a station that would be in lunar orbit. The Gateway would be the transfer point to Mars and other distant destination in the solar system. NASA describes how this might work:

“This spacecraft would be a reusable vehicle that uses electric and chemical propulsion and would be specifically designed for crewed missions to destinations such as Mars,” agency officials said. “The transport would take crew out to their destination [and] return them back to the gateway, where it can be serviced and sent out again.”

One advantage to this kind of system is that you don’t have to lift all the fuel it takes to get to Mars with you out of Earth’s gravity. You just need the fuel to get to the Moon, and then take a separate ship to Mars. This all comes from the rocket equation – you need enough fuel to carry the fuel to carry the fuel, etc. So making one big trip with all the fuel is inherently inefficient. Any way we can break it up into stages, or refuel along the way, is highly useful.

Ideally we would produce the fuel on the moon, which is entirely possible. NASA is already working on ways to extract oxygen, water, and volatiles from the lunar regolith.

The new directive also has a loser, however. It ends NASA’s goal of sending a mission to an asteroid – the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). This is unfortunate. Asteroids are also a potentially very useful resource. Developing the technology to mine asteroids could have a massive economic impact on our planet. Asteroids could be a source of fuel, water, oxygen, and enough metals to dwarf existing supplies of gold, platinum, and other precious metals.

While I know we can’t do everything, and we need to have priorities, I do lament the missions we must forgo. Of course, I would much rather see just a net increase in our investments in space. I think these are likely to be worthwhile investments which will pay for themselves many times over in the long run.

But there is another aspect to SPD1 that is encouraging – in addition to establishing NASA’s goals, the directive discusses optimizing how NASA will collaborate with the growing private space industry. I am perhaps even more encouraged by the development of private space companies in the last decade than by any NASA directive. Once we cross the line where going to space can be profitable, then space exploration will really take off.

There is, for example, a company called Planetary Resources, Inc. Their goal is to mine the solar system. If they manage to get their hands on one asteroid with platinum group metals, they will potentially net trillions of dollars. That is a big risk, but also a huge potential payoff. We may see a future with space mining corporations more wealthy and powerful than most nations.

I did not see any mention in the coverage of SPD1 of robotic exploration. I presume that NASA will continue this core mission as well. Robots are still the most efficient way to explore space. While I support human exploration and colonization, I recognize that humans are fragile. We are not built for space. Keeping people alive and healthy in space is a major part of the expense of human space travel. I still think it is a worthy endeavor for our species.

But we should ride on the backs of our robotic servants. Robots don’t need food, water, oxygen, or atmospheric pressure, and are much more tolerant of a wide range of temperature and exposure to radiation. If we just want to send a pair of eyes to a location to explore, robots are the way to go. Robots can even pave the way for our travel to new locations, like Mars. Let them do all the hard and dangerous work, and create an infrastructure for us to inhabit.

Overall I think the SPD1 is a good thing. I like that it shifts the focus away from Mars and towards the moon. That puts things in its proper order. I would much rather have a successful moon mission, that establishes a long term lunar presence, then a one-off or failed Mars mission.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #601: Hide the Decline: Climategate Demystified

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 12/11/2017 - 4:00pm
This infamous scandal was said to have proven global warming was all just a hoax. Umm, no.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Goop Nonsense – Yes It Matters

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 12/11/2017 - 4:35am

Paltrow has defended her “lifestyle brand” by saying that they are just giving women choices, and being open. Nonsense – don’t be swayed by such distractions.

I unapologetically support reason and scholarship as critical values for human civilization. This is increasingly true as our world gets more complex, as the stakes get higher, the margins for error lower, and as our culture and economy are increasingly global.

We cannot get by just shooting from the hip. We need people with specific expertise who transparently follow a process that is logically valid and based on evidence. We need standards of scholarship and intellectual rigor that are up to the challenges we face. We also need to make this work within an open and democratic society, where public opinion matters.

What all this means is that it is more important than ever to have a well-educated public, and for our public discourse to respect standards of honesty and excellence. It matters if people understand and accept what experts have to say about vaccine safety and effectiveness, the evidence base for manmade climate change, the safety of GMOs, and the nature of health and disease.

But there is not just a quality control issue here. There are people and institutions who have vested interests in opposing transparent scholarship and standards. They may be motivated by ideology, tribalism, a misguided worldview, or simple greed. They may even think they are the good guys, and that the ends justify the means.

That is perhaps the most insidious belief infecting our culture today – that as long as your intentions are pure (or pure enough) then methods don’t matter. Your team are the good guys, and the other side are the bad guys, so do whatever it takes. In a recent speech President Trump made this attitude very clear:

“There are powerful forces in Washington trying to sabotage our movement. These are bad people, these are very, very bad and evil people. . . . But you know what, we’re stopping them. You’re seeing that right now.”

Getting back to Goop – this brand is the embodiment of abandoning standards, method, and evidence. There is nothing benign about this, and it should be viewed in the larger context of our society. Paltrow and her people have abandoned any pretense of science-based quality control in order to sell an image. In doing so, they make all of their customers victims.

They further attack their critics as biased, closed-minded attention whores. They are essentially selling a narrative – one of empowerment. Don’t worry about the scientific details or such trivialities as evidence – their products will make you feel empowered.

As evidence for where the forgoing standards leads, at the upcoming Goop conference one keynote speaker will be Kelly Brogan, who is an HIV denier. As Orac reports:

In her post, Brogan approvingly cites HIV/AIDS denialist Celia Farber’s claims about HIV/AIDS:

This fact would be less concerning if this trial was not the foundation of empirical treatment of pregnant women around the world with a medication so toxic, it kills mother and their unborn. She raises questions about assumptions we have come to believe are truths –

That HIV is a meaningful diagnosis (she references the false positive testing likelihood in pregnancy, the unstandardized lab standards from country to country, and the abandonment of even those criteria in Africa where an HIV diagnosis can be conferred based on symptoms like malaise and diarrhea alone).

That HIV causes AIDS (a syndrome of 25 illnesses that does not satisfy Koch’s postulates of infectious disease).

That drug toxicity associated with AIDS treatment may very well be what accounts for the majority of deaths.

Farber also references the role of vitamin A in reducing HIV transmission, if we are to accept the clinical relevance of this concern, and how unacknowledged the role of nutrition is in infectious disease – stating that before the discovery of niacin and vitamin C, pellagra and scurvy were thought to be contagious.

Brogan is also anti-vaccine. From Brogan’s website, and article on vaccines states:

Will you grant government bureaucrats carte blanche to define and ultimately direct the education and welfare of your children across a broad spectrum of issues, and to allow your children to be taken away if you do not comply?

Yes, that’s exactly what this is about.

This is precisely the point. If we don’t treat this critically important decision as the intensely private affair that it is, then we co-create a culture in which it’s legitimate, then appropriate, and ultimately imperative for others — bureaucrats, doctors, schools, employers, reporters, neighbors — to ask and then tell us what we must think and do.

The message is clear – don’t trust experts, everything is a personal choice, the most important thing is to empower yourself and answer to no one.

Paltrow may think she is harnessing this attitude just to sell jade eggs women can put up their vagina, or magic stickers that will give you good vibrations, but she is also reinforcing and promoting a pernicious anti-intellectualism that is eroding our society.

Unlike Trump, I don’t think this is a struggle largely between good people and “bad evil” people. I think this is largely a struggle among various narratives, where most people think they are on the good side (which is whatever narrative they have bought into). There are also some bad people out there exploiting the whole situation and making it worse (there always is), but that is not the core phenomenon.

Humans are tribal by nature. We also tend to organize our understanding of the world around stories and narratives. This naturally leads to a situation in which everyone picks a side, buys into that narrative, and then sees the world through that filter. It is now easier than ever to ensconce ourselves in echochambers that reinforce our tribal narratives, and disparage everyone else as “fake,” as “trolls,” and as “very bad and evil people.”

The way to rise above our tribal nature is through objective facts, legitimate scholarship, and valid logic. In other words – there needs to be some objective external standard against which ideas are tested, and conflicts resolved. Without this we will devolve into our warring factions, with no mechanism for common ground.

So yes, the fact that Goop sells magic stickers does matter. Of course they are not responsible for the woes of our society, they are just one tiny manifestation of it. But as I think we have learned recently, tolerating nonsense, anti-science, and sloppy thinking tends to normalize those very things. Then it becomes easier to accept them in more important and bigger contexts. The little lies set you up to accept the bigger lies.

This is similar to the process of falling into an abusive relationship. Looked at from the outside you might be tempted to think – how can anyone let someone else treat them that way? But the victims in those relationships felt the same way. At first they accepted small abuses, they excused them, and normalized them. The abuses then became larger and larger, and the excuses grew with them. Eventually the victims get into a situation they never would have accepted previously.

We can’t allow the small anti-intellectual abuses to normalize anti-intellectualism. Yes, it matters when people believe in ghosts or Bigfoot because in order to maintain that belief they have to abuse scientific thinking and philosophy. It matters if they buy what Goop is selling, which is not really stickers or jade eggs but an anti-intellectual narrative that pretends to be about freedom.

It is not by accident that the Goop conference is hosting someone who is anti-vaccine and an HIV denier. When you suspend intellectual rigor in order to sell magic stickers that is where you inevitably lead.

Categories: Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #648 - Dec 9 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 12/09/2017 - 8:00am
What's the Word: Digitigrade; News Items: Nearly Complete Hominid Skeleton, Before the Big Bang, The Causes of Science Denial, This is Your Head in a Particle Accelerator; Who's That Noisy; Your Questions and E-mails: Chunking, Follow Up on Net Neutrality; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

In Half a Second

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 12/08/2017 - 5:04am

If you have not yet read Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, I recommend it. I have discussed its basic principles here many times, and I am reminded of it by a new study that evaluates how we quickly size-up groups of people.

Before we get to the study, here is a quick overview. Kahneman and Tversky did the foundational research into cognitive biases and heuristics – ways in which our thinking is biased or constrained. Kahneman calls this system 1 thinking, or intuitive thinking, which is the fast sort. There is also system 2 thinking, which is slow and analytical.

He admits that these are metaphors, there probably isn’t two distinct biological systems in our brains, but they help us think about the different ways in which we think. Actually, given that our brains are hierarchical, the two-system model may be based in biology to some extent. There are the primitive older parts of our brain that are more system 1 – instinctive, emotional, and fast. Then there is the neocortex – which gives us executive function, and slow deliberative decision-making. I don’t think you can make a clean separation, but it is a useful schematic that is probably more true than not.

In any case, the two systems work together to shape our perceptions and decision-making. The idea is that we evolved rapid-response cognitive systems that makes quick and dirty judgments that are accurate enough and biased in whatever direction favors survival. We can then follow up these quick perceptions with more careful analysis when we have time.

But also, we are fundamentally lazy, which we can less judgmentally characterize as being efficient. We seem to always be looking for ways to minimize our cognitive work. So we rely on system 1 automatic thinking probably more than we should. We also have a tendency to substitute easy problems for more difficult ones.

For example, we have a left number bias. There actually is a reason that items cost $19.99 instead of $20.00. We know rationally that the penny difference is insignificant, but we don’t spend the mental energy to think about it. We have a tendency to substitute a simpler algorithm – how big is the left most digit, for the slightly more involved task of analyzing the entire number. $19.99 feels smaller than $20.00. This is a reasonable short cut, if numbers are random, but the short cut is easily exploited by crafting prices that end in all 9s.

Perception of Groups

With that background, let’s take a look at a new paper published in Social Psychological and Personality Science called, “Threat in the Company of Men: Ensemble Perception and Threat Evaluations of Groups Varying in Sex Ratio.”

Previous research has found that people can very quickly determine what general category another person belongs to – male, female, race, and age. We can also very quickly (less than a second) determine someone’s emotional state – are they happy or angry.

This makes sense from a survival point of view. An angry young adult male is likely to be more of a threat than a happy old woman. We can almost instantly make that determination, and then dedicate more resources to further evaluating the threat represented by the angry young male. Are they armed, are they looking at me, are they alone?

This is also interesting because perception research has shown that sometimes the age, sex, and race of a person is all we really perceive about them. You can see videos demonstrating this online. About half the time, if you switch one person for another during a casual social interaction, the subject won’t notice the change. The probability of detecting the change in person goes up if you change age category, sex, or race.

What this may reflect is that we don’t notice the change if there is no change in perceived threat category.

The new study extends this research to groups. They had subjects quickly view pictures of groups of people and then asked them various things. They asked them to estimate the ratio of men to women, and to evaluate how threatening the group was. The researchers also measured indirect implicit markers of threat perception.

They found that in 500 ms, half a second, subjects were able to accurately perceive the male:female ratio of groups. This ratio also was the main factor in determining their assessment of how threatening the group was. The total number of males was also a factor.

What this suggests is that our system 1 easy problem that our brains use to rapidly assess potential threat of a group is how many men does the group contain in total and what is the ratio of men to women. We can get this information in a flash.

And again, it is easy to make sense of this in terms of survival advantage. Primate war parties generally consist of all males. If you come across a group of 20 males, they are probably up to no good. A mixed group of half females, however, is probably not going to war or hunting, but may just be a traveling social group.

Of course this is not always true – that’s the point. It is just true enough to lead to a quick 500 ms snap impression that will alert us to a potential threat. We can then take a closer look (from a hidden vantage point, perhaps) to more thoroughly evaluate the potential threat.

By coincidence I happen to be watching Godless – an excellent miniseries, by the way. This takes place in the old West and in part follows the exploits of an outlaw band of thirty men. The premise of the show is that the West at this time was a very dangerous place. Any time strangers meet they immediately suspected danger and were extremely cautious, and their assumptions were usually warranted.

In several scenes characters come across the band of 30 outlaws, and the show does an excellent job of creating the impression of how intimidating and threatening such a group would be. I definitely noticed watching this show how as a viewer you start to size up groups of people to determine if the characters you are following are being threatened, and you can see how any large group of men is immediately suspect. Even when they are the good guys, they are menacing until proven otherwise. Likewise the presence of women in the group is reassuring.

I also notice that the presence of young children in large groups is also very reassuring, although this was not examined in the current study. This research could also be extended to include the age of the people in the groups, and also their racial makeup.

Beyond just being fascinating, research like this elucidates how our brains function. This knowledge can then be turned inward – to tweak the relationship between system 1 and system 2 thinking to maximal utility. Ideally we would extract the advantage of making rapid assessments, but know how and when to back them up with analytical thinking, and avoid succumbing to lazy thinking.




Categories: Skeptic

Alternative Medicine Kills

neurologicablog Feed - Thu, 12/07/2017 - 4:57am

If the best available evidence is used to determine which treatment strategy for a serious illness has the best survival, than any “alternative” to this evidence-based treatment should, by definition, have a lower survival.

That is a simple and straightforward fact. You have to believe in some twisted conspiracy theory to avoid the obvious conclusion.

But good scientists like to dot all their “i”s and cross all their “t”s. In August Yale researchers published a study in which they looked carefully at the outcomes of cancer patients treated with conventional treatments vs those who opted for so-called alternative treatments. They only considered patient who used alternative treatments instead of proven treatments.

What they found was not surprising, but should be sobering:

Following 2:1 matching (CCT = 560 patients and AM = 280 patients) on Cox proportional hazards regression, AM use was independently associated with greater risk of death compared with CCT overall (hazard ratio [HR] = 2.50, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.88 to 3.27) and in subgroups with breast (HR = 5.68, 95% CI = 3.22 to 10.04), lung (HR = 2.17, 95% CI = 1.42 to 3.32), and colorectal cancer (HR = 4.57, 95% CI = 1.66 to 12.61).

To translate – all the subjects in the study who used alternative medicine to treat their cancer had a 2.5 times higher death rate over a five year follow up. Those subjects with breast cancer had 5.68 times higher death rate, and colorectal cancer 4.57 times.

As was suspected, breast cancer had the most stark outcome. If you have breast cancer and you use the best standard treatment you are likely to survive. If you use alternative medicine you are likely to die.

As the authors point out, this was an observational study. They controlled for as many variables as they could, and the most plausible interpretation is that avoiding standard cancer treatment in favor of useless alternative treatments is what caused the higher risk of death. But other factors cannot be ruled out.

Why, then, would any rational person choose alternative medicine to treat their cancer? Here I think the answer is simple – because they have been lied to by quacks and charlatans. Patients facing a serious, possibly terminal, cancer diagnosis are vulnerable. They are understandably frightened and concerned. There are no great options before them – they have to face the consequences of the cancer, and/or they have to face invasive treatments with some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and radiation.

Then along comes a friendly practitioner who says there is a third option – gentle “alternative ” treatments that will cure the cancer without all the horrible side effects. It is an escape hatch from a terrible situation. Further, alternative gurus have their marketing down. They know which buttons to push, and how to sell their narrative. They have answers to the reasonable questions anyone should ask. If the alternative treatments are so safe and effective, why isn’t everyone using it? Well, because doctors are in the pocket of Big Pharma who just want to protect their drug profits. They are closed-minded to real healing and only know drugs and surgery.

They have a narrative that has evolved and been tweaked over centuries to lure in desperate patients with false promises. They use testimonials which any marketer can tell you is very effective, but utterly worthless as real evidence. Dead patients tell no tales. Some will pretend to be scientific, without ever doing any real science – it’s all just part of the marketing.

At this point you might be wondering why we allow people to treat cancer with unproven therapies. Well, they have a strategy for that to – they call it “health care freedom.” They have managed to convince enough people that patients have a right to whatever treatment they want, but really what the gurus are interested in is their right to sell whatever treatment they want with whatever claims they want. They want the right to practice fraudulent medicine without any standard of care. It is the ultimate con.

Any cancer doctor can tell you stories of patients with curable cancers who instead opted for alternative treatments and as a result dies a horrible unnecessary death. It is good to now have some numbers to put on this phenomenon. This study, however, did not capture the negative effect of delaying treatment – it only counted people who never received conventional treatment. So the harm of false hope from fake cancer treatments is greater than even what this study revealed. And of course there are many more diseases out there than just cancer.

Our goal should be to have reasonable standards of care so that patients are offered the best treatments available, with full transparency and autonomy. That means we use rigorous evidence to ask all the important questions that will inform patient choices. Further, it is blatantly unethical, and should be illegal, to lie to patients in order to give them false hope in order to lure them away from proven therapies in favor of magic water and other fraudulent treatments.

In practice, however, it isn’t, because all you have to do is label whatever nonsense you are selling as “alternative” and suddenly it’s all good. Academia and the medical profession are not working hard enough to correct this situation. Our politicians have no clue what is going on, and there simply isn’t the political will to do anything. Studies like this are a good start to help turn around public opinion, but we are working against a multi-billion dollar alternative medicine industry with effective lobbying and marketing.

They have managed to flip the script, and sell a narrative in which they are the heroes, when in fact they are the villains. They are literally killing their patients for profit.

Categories: Skeptic

eSkeptic for December 6, 2017 feed - Wed, 12/06/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

SKEPTIC MAGAZINE 22.4 Campus Craziness: The New War on Science

Skeptic 22.4: Campus Craziness
on sale now in print & digital editions

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…

Read Skeptic magazine on iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Kindle Fire HD, Mac, and PC. Get the digital edition instantly from, or via the Skeptic Magazine App. Or, pre-order the print edition from Shop Skeptic. The print edition won’t likely hit newsstands for another week or two.

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JUNIOR SKEPTIC # 65 Ghost Ships

Get this issue of Junior Skeptic bound within issue 22.4 of Skeptic

Physically bound inside each and every issue of Skeptic magazine is Junior Skeptic: an engagingly illustrated science and critical thinking publication for younger readers (and the young at heart).

Today we’re leaving safe shores far behind, and sailing out over the waves in search of the sea’s eeriest mysteries. Imagine the ocean at night, a thousand miles from the nearest city light. Imagine cold salt wind on your face, sails overhead, a creaking deck beneath your feet. Suddenly a shadow looms out of the darkness, masts and tattered sails silhouetted against the sky. Your crew shouts in alarm, spinning the wheel to avoid a collision. A strange ship slides by. It is silent and empty, without a living soul on board. Passing like a phantom, it vanishes into the night. What just happened? Can tales of ghost ships be explained?ke fictional movie zombies actually exist in the real world? Let’s find out!

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Junior Skeptic # 65

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ROBERT TRIVERS’ LECTURE The Evolutionary Genetics of Honor Killings

This lecture, based on a ground-breaking study by one of the greatest evolutionary theorists since Charles Darwin, Robert Trivers, examines the curious case of honor killings, which seem to make no evolutionary sense—why would a father kill his own daughter and thereby eliminate half of his own genes from propagating into the next generation? The answer is to be found in who, exactly, is committing these murders and why.

In short, the vast majority of honor killings are conducted by fathers and uncles who murder young women who have been arranged to marry a first cousin but who have fallen in love with someone outside of the family.

When Dr. Trivers did the genetic analysis he found his answer.

This riveting talk by Dr. Trivers took place in Dr. Michael Shermer’s Skepticism 101 course at Chapman University, filmed on Thursday November 16, 2017.

The lecture was followed by a conversation between Dr. Trivers and Dr. Shermer, which will be released in a separate video at a later date.

Also of Interest, by Robert Trivers
  1. The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception (lecture on DVD)
  2. Skeptic 20.4 — our special issue on Robert Trivers

UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens

In this episode of MonsterTalk, we welcome back alum Don Prothero (Episode 22, Episode 43, Episode 68) and first time guest Timothy Callahan to discuss their new book: UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says. From an introduction to the scientific method, to the often overlooked explanations behind many undying legends of the UFO field, the two authors dive deep into the conspiracies, misconceptions, hoaxes and religions that have emerged from the field of UFOlogy.

Listen to episode 144

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Plastic Waste

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 12/05/2017 - 5:09am

I know, there are already so many things to worry about. It’s almost painful to hear about one more way in which we may be harming the world. Such reports are also often couched in emotional and dramatic terms.

However, it’s important to sift through the rhetoric and evaluate what the science says about what is actually going on. There is increasing reporting about the coming plastic apocalypse. We are dumping massive amounts of plastic into the environment, and some of that plastic is winding up in the world’s oceans. The world produced 343 million tons of plastic in 2014. Only 10% of that plastic was recycled. In total we have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, which does not biodegrade for hundreds of years.

The fact is, human civilization is big enough that we have to think about the effects of our massive industry. Producing that much plastic will likely have an impact on the environment. The biggest impact may be the percentage that winds up in the oceans – about 10%. Once there is just breaks down into smaller and smaller bits. Many animals accidentally eat the plastic, which can be fatal.

The good news is there are simple and effective ways to manage our plastic waste. The number one plastic polluter is China –  almost 9 million metric tons of their plastic ends up on the ocean each year. The next country is Indonesia, with just over 3 million metric tons, followed by the Philippines, at just under two. The USA ranks 20th with less than 300 thousand million metric tons.

You may have noticed that there are countries with far bigger economies than Indonesia who produce far less plastic waste ending up in the ocean. The US still has the largest economy in the world (24%) with China second at 14.8%. So with a larger economy we dump 1/30th the plastic into the ocean as China.

This means that it is possible to properly manage our plastic waste. While the world average for recycling plastic is about 10%, the US is 28%. There is still a lot of room for improvement. But we also keep a larger portion of that plastic from getting into the ocean.

So what do we do? At the very least we need to bring all countries in line with average plastic management. The worst polluters need to make significant changes to the way they handle plastic, and that alone would make a dramatic improvement. That’s the low-hanging fruit.

But every country can do better. Recycling rates should be much higher. This is mainly about making it easy to recycle.

Companies can also evaluate what plastic they produce as part of their products and packaging, and consider ways to limit plastic and use more biodegradable materials.

There are lots of little things individuals can do as well. I actually find it easier to shop with large reusable bags, rather than carrying small plastic bags or fragile paper bags. That’s a win-win. I have also switched from using disposable plastic water bottles to a reusable water bottle. This ends up saving money – so again, a win-win.

Plastic is an extremely useful material. It is cost effective and practical for many applications. I’m not arguing that we should stop using it altogether. But it does have the feature of remaining in the environment for a long time, and findings its way into the ocean. So we just need to use it intelligently, to minimize waste down to a sustainable level.

We don’t need any major innovation or change in our economy. This problem is actually not that hard to fix, just by picking the low-hanging fruit.


Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #600: A Musical Retrospective

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 12/04/2017 - 4:00pm
Everything you didn't know about ten years of Skeptoid musical episodes, including the reason.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Causes of Science Denial

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 12/04/2017 - 5:09am

Over the last few decades the challenges we face promoting science and critical thinking have become greater, but so have the tools at our disposal. The “science of anti-science” has been progressing nicely, and we now have a much more nuanced view of what we are up against.

Carl Sagan was fond of saying that, “Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood.” That was the conventional wisdom among skeptics at the time (quote from Demon Haunted World, published in 1997) – that the problem of pseudoscience or science-denial was essentially one of information deficit. Correct the deficit, and the science-denial goes away. We now know that the real situation is far more complex.

To reduce the acceptance of pseudoscience or the rejection of real science, we need to do more than just promote scientific literacy. We also need to understand what is driving the pseudoscience, and we need to give critical thinking skills.

A recent publication of a series of studies looking at the roots of science rejection is a nice cap on this research: Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection.

The researchers looked primarily at three forms of rejection of science: climate change denial, vaccine rejection, and skepticism about GM technology. They also looked at a number of possible correlating factors: political ideology, moral purity, religiosity, support for science, faith in science, and scientific literacy.

There are a lot of details here, and if you want to delve in deeply it’s best to just read the original study (it’s pretty accessible). I will give a summary of the overall findings here.

They found that climate change denial was predicted mainly by political ideology, but not by low scientific literacy. Vaccine rejection was predicted by low scientific literacy and low faith in science, and also by religiosity and moral purity. Distrust of GM food was predicted by low scientific literacy and low faith in science. Neither vaccine or GM food rejection were predicted by political ideology.

Further, there was a lot of interplay among these various measures. For example, religious orthodoxy was the main driver of low faith in science and support for science.

One lesson from all this is that belief is very complicated, and it is difficult to tease apart all the various influences. A study, for example, that only looked at political ideology and science rejection would miss a massive part of the picture. We also have to consider direct vs secondary effects – does religious orthodoxy directly lead to rejection of vaccines, or more through a desire for moral purity and an overall lack of faith in science?

We also have to think about what factors this study did not examine. I noticed the distinct absence of any measure of conspiracy thinking. There is plenty of evidence that a tendency to accept conspiracy theories also predicts rejection of science in the right context. I would also be interested to see how faith in government and corporations also plays into science rejection, and if these are independent variables at all or completely predicted by political ideology.

The possible permutations are endless. The best we can do is pull out some general trends as they apply to specific beliefs. For example, these studies suggest that scientific literacy itself will do nothing to combat rejection of the consensus of scientific opinion on climate change, but it may be very effective in reducing unwarranted skepticism toward GM technology, and go a little ways toward mitigating vaccine rejection.

Here is one way I would put this all together – we have to understand acceptance and rejection of science as part of an overall narrative. People have a certain world view, or narrative by which they make sense of an overwhelmingly complex world. This is understandable, even necessary. We need to organize our knowledge into manageable bits that hold together with a common thread.

The trick is understanding one’s own narratives and how they color and filter the world. Further, we need critical thinking skills in order to constantly test our narratives for internal consistency, logic, and factual consistency with reality. We need to be able to step back from our own narratives, so that we can use them as a tool, rather than being enslaved to them.

So one way to make sense of all the complex interacting variables, only some of which were examined in these studies, is to see how they fit together into a common narrative, or more likely multiple overlapping narratives. We might think of these as archetypes (or less charitably as stereotypes). For example we might have someone whose narrative is dominated by the notion of purity – moral purity, clean eating, freedom from corporate greed and the moral and physical “toxins” of modern society. There may be religious and secular versions of this narrative, with varying levels of scientific literacy, but not aligned to any particular political ideology.

Alternatively another archetypal narrative might be the conspiracy theorist – someone with an extreme distrust of power, who themselves feel powerless, who understand the world as a struggle between those in control and the sheep. In such a worldview, the only defense is paranoia and distrust, and anything less is naive.

Part of what we skeptics have been trying to do over the years is identify and understand the various common narratives that seem to get in the way of science acceptance or that drive the embrace of pseudoscience. While I think we have made good progress there, the far harder part is then mitigating the negative effects of those narratives. Again – simply promoting scientific literacy is not enough (although it often helps).

In fact there is recent research which shows in order to change someone’s beliefs about science we need to replace their existing explanatory narrative with another one. We can’t just take away their blanket – we need to give them a new way to make sense of the world.

What I take from all this is that what skeptical activists need to do, in order to make the world a more skeptical place, is to not only promote science, support for science, and overall scientific literacy, but all increase critical thinking skills. Further, we need to promote a narrative of scientific skepticism – we need to explain how skepticism provides a useful and accurate way of making sense of the world.

This means that people need to identify as critical thinkers, to identify with prioritizing the accuracy of their beliefs over all else. Being correct is more important than supporting your tribe, or reinforcing your ideology. Until we get to that point – we will lose to the existing narratives.

Categories: Skeptic

15 Credibility Street #30: Bear with us, yeti again

The Doubtful News Feed - Sun, 12/03/2017 - 3:53pm
This episode has two cryptozoologically-themed topics. We have a follow-up on the Bigfoot-naming show from last episode and there is a new paper about Yeti DNA just out that is not making cryptozoologists too happy. See the comments on this post about the new proposed name for Bigfoot and why it’s bad science and not…
Categories: Skeptic

15 Credibility Street #30: Bear with us, yeti again

The Doubtful News Feed - Sun, 12/03/2017 - 3:53pm
This episode has two cryptozoologically-themed topics. We have a follow-up on the Bigfoot-naming show from last episode and there is a new paper about Yeti DNA just out that is not making cryptozoologists too happy. See the comments on this post about the new proposed name for Bigfoot and why it’s bad science and not…
Categories: Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #647 - Dec 2 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 12/02/2017 - 8:00am
Interview with Britte Hermes; Forgotten Superheroes of Science: Hisako Koyama; News Items: Speciation Event Observed, UK Water Companies Use Dowsing, NET Neutrality, Interstellar Visitor; Who's That Noisy; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

Liberation Procedure for Multiple Sclerosis – The Final Chapter?

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 12/01/2017 - 5:03am

In 2009 an Italian neurosurgeon, Paolo Zamboni, published a controversial article in which he claimed that patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) suffered from blockage in the veins that drain blood from the brain, that this correlation was strong and the pattern suggested a causal relationship. He called his newly identified condition Chronic Cerebrospinal Venous Insufficiency (CCSVI). His article concluded:

CDMS is strongly associated with CCSVI, a scenario that has not previously been described, characterised by abnormal venous haemodynamics determined by extracranial multiple venous strictures of unknown origin. The location of venous obstructions plays a key role in determining the clinical course of the disease.

I first wrote about the resulting controversy in 2010. At the time I concluded that there was good reason to be skeptical, that there were many “red flags for crankery”, but that further research should be done to put the question to bed. There were many reasons to be skeptical, not the least of which is that an entirely vascular cause of MS went against decades of research showing that MS is an autoimmune disease. In that first article I also wrote:

Then one of two things will happen: either the new idea or treatment will fade, becoming little more than a footnote in the history of science, or a subculture will persist in believing in the treatment and will dismiss contrary evidence and mainstream rejection as a conspiracy. Which course the new idea will take seems to depend largely on the original scientist – if they accept the new evidence and abandon their claims, it will likely fade. If they refuse to give up in the face of new evidence, then a new pseudoscience will likely be born.

Well, here we are 8 years after Zamboni’s original publication. How has this drama played out?

Scientifically, the story is fairly typical. One researcher published an exploratory study with dramatic new claims. Most new claims in science will turn out to be false, and so we don’t get excited until we see independent replications. We can also assess plausibility to make predictions about how likely it is that the new finding will pan out. In this case the scientific community was very skeptical, and early replications were mixed, but mostly negative, and none as dramatic as Zamboni’s findings.

Over the last 8 years hundreds of studies on CCSVI have been done, exploring various aspects of these claims. The correlation between CCSVI and MS was studied, using various imaging techniques, and comparing MS patients of various types and severity, patient with other neurological disease, and healthy subjects. In the end it was found that there is no correlation between CCSVI and MS.

While the basic correlation was being studied, researchers were also studying treatment of CCSVI by opening up the blocked veins, an intervention called the liberation procedure. This kind of research takes years to complete. Early studies were negative, but this only motivated believers (Zamboni chief among them) to call for bigger better trials. Well – those trials have now been complete. Earlier this year a large Canadian study showed no benefit from the liberation procedure for MS patients.

And now we also have the results of a four-year study conducted by Zamboni himself, just published in JAMA Neurology. The results were completely negative, leading Zamboni himself to conclude:

Venous PTA has proven to be a safe but largely ineffective technique; the treatment cannot be recommended in patients with MS.

Now we will see what effect this has on the other side of the story – public perception and the reaction of the MS community. We will see if my prediction above comes true, if Zamboni’s admission that the liberation procedure does not work will allow the whole CCSVI affair to fade away. Alternatively, it may be that populist belief in CCSVI has already taken on a life of its own, and will survive after losing the support of its creator. It also remains to be seen if Zamboni will have the courage to stick by the results of his own research, or will backslide into maintaining some belief in CCSVI.

For now I give Zamboni credit for conducting a well-designed study, and for not spinning the results in his publication. He can fully redeem himself and even become a hero if he now campaigns against the monster he created, in the name of science and what’s best for patients. CCSVI is now a famous cautionary tale – what legacy in that tale will Zamboni ultimately make for himself?

The monster he created was substantial. His preliminary research, which should never have seen the light of day outside of wonky research journals for other experts, became a public sensation. News of a possible new treatment for MS spread throughout the MS community, with the usual exaggerations and anecdotes. The result was not pretty. Desperate patients understandably wanted access to a potential new treatment, and were largely unhappy when experts told them the treatment was not recommended. This lead to conspiracy theories and general distrust between some patients and their MS doctors.

Of course all this was happening on the background of a general cultural movement in which expertise is easily dismissed, and trust of experts is threatened by memes spread on social media. It is hard to calculate the harm that was ultimately done to patients because of all this. We know that several patients died receiving the liberation procedure – so there was some direct measurable harm. But how many other patients had suboptimal treatment for their MS because of their faith in a highly implausible new theory that was crashing almost as soon as it was published? How much money was funneled to quack clinics, and all the ultimate harm that they do, by patients seeking out the liberation procedure?

Lessons from CCSVI

This is a cautionary tale, but I fear it will soon be forgotten. It’s not like this is the first time something like this has happened, and yet the cautionary tales of the past are not generally known. How many people remember the radioactive tonics of the early 20th century, or Abrams Dinomizer, or the countless other treatments that were popularized based upon flimsy preliminary evidence and ultimately were useless?

There is a reason skeptics and promoters of science-based medicine recommend caution when new medical ideas are first proposed. We know from extensive history, and also from studying the medical literature quantitatively, that most new ideas will turn out to be wrong. We know that preliminary positive evidence is a very poor predictor of ultimate success. Anecdotes are inherently deceptive and cannot be relied upon to make conclusions. And plausibility matters – if a new idea goes against established principles, it is more likely to be wrong.

In medicine especially, all of this matters. Experts genuinely try to come up with a bottom line assessment of risk vs benefit with any intervention. With the liberation procedure it was clear that the probability of harm vastly exceeded the probability of benefit, which itself was tiny. It is dismissive and arrogant to wave away sober expert analysis with cheap conspiracy theories or claims of bias or protectionism.

It is in everyone’s best interest that we remain cautious in the face of preliminary evidence. Let the science work itself out. I know this is especially difficult for desperate patients or their loved-ones when faced with a serious illness without adequate treatment. But that is also already taken into consideration in the risk vs benefit analysis. We will give speculative or experimental treatments on a compassionate basis – but not anything. We still need to assess plausibility and the probability of harm vs benefit.

It was entirely clear that the liberation procedure for MS was not justified, even on a compassionate basis. The fact that the experts were correct in retrospect should not be brushed aside. However, I predict it will be for the next speculative treatment and the ones after that. Only with structural change to the way such information is disseminated and the practice of medicine is regulated can be prevent victims of the next liberation procedure.

Categories: Skeptic


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