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New Wrinkle in the Climate Debate

neurologicablog Feed - Thu, 09/21/2017 - 4:54am

No matter what happens, it’s part of the conspiracy, at least in the perspective of the conspiracy theorist.

But let’s back up a bit. We talking about scientists trying to understand climate change, and specifically the effects of released carbon into the atmosphere. There are a few layers to this question, which is predictably complex.

The first layer is quite basic – sunlight heats up the earth, which radiates some of that heat back out into space as infrared radiation. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reflects some of these infrared photons back down to the Earth, trapping some of that heat. This is commonly known as the greenhouse effect, and hence CO2 as a greenhouse gas. The more CO2 there is in the atmosphere the greater this effect, and the warmer the planet.

The far trickier part, however, is to predict exactly how much warming will occur in response to a certain increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. To answer this question climatologists develop complex climate models, which have to consider all the natural variables that affect climate. They then compare the predictions of these models to what has happened and what does happen, and then tweak them.

The result is not a precise prediction but a range of possible outcomes with a degree of certainty. This is standard procedure in any science dealing with complex systems. You can see in this graph the various models used by the IPCC and the range of possibilities with error bars. All predict warming, and odds are that some average of the various models is the most likely outcome.

A recent study addresses this very issue, and is getting a lot of attention because it favors the lower end of the range of possible outcomes. Published in Nature Geoscience, the authors looked at recent global temperatures and adjusted the climate models to account for this data. When they ran their adjusted models forward they found that the amount of warming will be lower than the average IPCC estimate.

They also calculate how much carbon dioxide the world can emit before we will cross the 1.5°C threshold of warming above pre-industrial levels. That threshold was chosen because that is the goal of the Paris Climate deal, to limit warming to 1.5°C in order to prevent some of the worst outcomes of climate change. With their new models they found that the world could emit three times as much additional CO2 than predicted by previous models before crossing 1.5°C warming. This would make achieving the Paris goal still very difficult, but not impossible. (Some feel the goal was impossible according to other climate models.)

This new study, however, is going through the meat-grinder of analysis by other experts. Critics argue that the authors used a period of time for their analysis, around the turn of the millennium, that was characterized by a flattening of global warming due to other natural climate trends. These other trends obscured the warming due to CO2 release. Further, during this time there was more CO2 going into the ground and the oceans, again hiding the true effect of CO2 release, but this carbon is now in the carbon cycle and will have long term effects on the climate.

In short, they argue that the authors new model is hopelessly flawed, and underestimates warming because they relied on an unusual period of time in the record where other natural trends obscured the real effects of CO2 release.

The authors, however, push back, arguing that they accounted for these factors, which were only minor players in their climate model.

I have no idea who is correct. The experts will have to hash this out, and likely there will need to be further studies and replications to come to a consensus. But keep in mind, this debate is not about whether or not anthropogenic global warming is happening, just about the degree. And all the climatologists involved agree that it is significant and will be bad.

But of course this situation is ripe for exploitation by denialists. This is one of their core strategies – interpret disagreements among scientists about details as if it calls into doubt the more basic points of agreement. Which animal evolved from which? Perhaps evolution did not happen at all. Were five or six million Jews killed in the holocaust? Perhaps the real answer is zero. Will there be 1.5 or 2.0 degrees of warming by the end of the century? Perhaps there won’t be any at all.

Even more interesting is the response of Roy Spencer, one of the few holdout climatologists who denies global warming. He sees this debate all as a deliberate conspiracy.

I suspect there have been years of discussions in e-cigarette vapor-filled back rooms where Empire leaders have been discussing how the increasing disparity between models and observations should be handled. The resulting new paper is part of a grand scheme that Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich perfected decades ago. I believe the new narrative taking shape is this: “yes, we were wrong, but only in the timing of the coming global warming disaster. It is still going to happen… but now we have time to fix it, before it really, really is too late.”

Essentially he thinks that the climate change “Empire” is worried that people will think there is no point to trying to mitigate climate change because it is already too late. Therefore, imperial disinformation officers decided in secret to soften the predictions so that it is just barely possible to avoid the bad outcomes of climate change if we act right now.

If anyone had any doubts that Roy Spencer is a kook, rather than a serious climate scientist with reasonable objections to the consensus, this article should put those doubts to rest.

This is an excellent example of how the conspiracy narrative is bullet-proof. No matter what happens, even the normal course of scientific debate, it is part of the grand conspiracy.

I certainly hope that these new lower predictions are closer to the truth, but will have to go with whatever the evidence and consensus of expert opinion based on that evidence says. At the end of the day, there is uncertainty in the climate models. There has always been uncertainty, and I don’t think anyone ever argued otherwise. The error bars have always been there. Even the IPCC’s latest report gave their predictions 95% probability, which means a 1 in 20 chance they are wrong.

But we often have to make decisions with imperfect information, which means we have to play the odds. Given the range of predictions and the levels of consensus, it seems reasonable to make policy based upon an average of the various models as probably being close to the actual outcome. Further, as I and others have argued many times before, there are many win-wins that we can do to mitigate CO2 release without making any sacrifices. In fact, they are good ideas even if you don’t believe in global warming.

Replace those incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs – it will save you time and money. For many people going solar will reduce their electricity bill. As a nation we need to update our energy grid anyway, so let’s do it now. Developing grid storage will also be a huge benefit to the stability of the grid and the efficiency of our energy production. And reducing pollution will save billions of dollars in health care costs.

Going to clean renewable energy and an updated infrastructure is a no-brainer. It’s a win-win – it’s not a sacrifice at all, just a good investment. And if we avoid the worst outcomes of global warming at the same time, that’s the icing on the cake.

 

Categories: Skeptic

Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 90

Center for Inquiry News - Wed, 09/20/2017 - 8:34am

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!

Note: This newsletter will be taking a one-issue break, so look for Cause & Effect No. 91 on October 18. The Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter will continue on schedule as usual.

The Top Stories

Blasphemy in the Eye of the Beholder: Free Inquiry on the Blasphemous Arts

Get ready to experience moving, provocative, and often hilarious expressions of religious doubt in the latest issue of Free Inquiry, the leading journal of secular humanist thought, published by CFI’s Council for Secular Humanism.

September 30 is International Blasphemy Rights Day, an occasion established in 2009 by the Center for Inquiry to highlight the global struggle to defend dissent and celebrate the fundamental human right to question, criticize, and even ridicule any idea, belief, or ideology. To mark the occasion, Free Inquiry highlights the blasphemous arts with contributions from two artists, painter Bruce Adams and performance artist Pat Oleszko, as well as some very thought-provoking cover art, with a special (non)appearance from a certain prophet.

For more insight on blasphemy, there is also some heretical fiction from award-winning author John Roberts and a reflection on the utility and ethics of blasphemous speech from ex-Muslim journalist Sara Ali.

All this, plus the second part of the magazine’s “symposium in print” on secular humanism and philosophy, in the October/November 2017 issue of Free Inquiry. Get it on shelves now or by print and digital subscription at secularhumanism.org/fi.

 

Jeff Sessions and the Junk Science of the Polygraph 

According to recent reporting, Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who is unsure whether secular Americans can have an “understanding of the truth”) intends to subject National Security Council staff to a lie detector. But despite what you might see in movies, on television, or even in a local police department, lies cannot be reliably detected by a polygraph test. Federal courts no longer accept their results as evidence, and today they serve an almost theatrical purpose, often used more to frighten than to detect deception.

So last week the Center for Inquiry put out a statement urging the Attorney General to change course. Citing the work of Skeptical Inquirer contributors on the myth of the lie detector, we explained that the polygraph is based on junk science with an error rate of more than 52 percent, no better than a coin toss.

Morton E. Tavel, MD, wrote that the use of the polygraph is “a perversion of science” with the potential to do incredible harm to those falsely determined to be engaged in deceit. Physicist Alan P. Zelicoff called the polygraph “a ruse,” primarily “a tool of intimidation.”

Whether or not Sessions goes through with his threat, it is important that Americans know that the polygraph has no place at the highest levels of government power, and certainly should not be determining who is fit to keep our country safe.

 

News from the CFI Community

New Richard Dawkins Live Events in L.A., Hartford, and Pittsburgh

We have three brand new opportunities for you to see and hear Richard Dawkins in person this fall, as he engages in unscripted conversation with special guests live on stage for “An Evening with Richard Dawkins.”

October 29: Richard will be hosted by CFI Los Angeles at the Alex Theatre, and he’ll be joined on stage by renowned author Michael Lewis, whose highly acclaimed books include Moneyball, Liar’s Poker, The Big Short, Flash Boys, Boomerang, Losers, and many others, spanning the worlds of Wall Street, professional baseball, and presidential campaigns. You surely will not want to miss this chance to see the sparks and ideas fly between these two sharp, quick-witted, brilliant fellows. Get your tickets right now, before they’re all gone!

November 4: Richard takes a quick trip to the other side of the country for an engagement in Hartford, Connecticut, at the Bushnell. His guest for the evening will be announced soon, but you can still buy your tickets now.

November 7: Tickets will go on sale soon for Richard’s appearance in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University. Stay tuned!

 

An International Response to the Murder of Gauri Lankesh

Few in the United States had heard of Gauri Lankesh, a respected journalist in India, editor of the Patrike, and fierce activist for free expression and freedom of the press. She strongly opposed the “Hindutva” policies of the Hindu nationalist government led by Narendra Modi, and she organized various conflicting factions to protest caste discrimination.

Lankesh was murdered on September 5, just outside of her home in Bengaluru. The identity of her killers is not yet known, but it is widely believed she was killed for her political advocacy and outspoken criticism of the government. Her murder is frighteningly similar to that of renowned Indian skeptic Narendra Dabholkar in 2013, as well as that of other dissenters in India.

This tragedy brought the Center for Inquiry together with the European Council of Skeptical Organizations (ECSO) for a joint statement to condemn the murder (of course) and to urge more affirmative action by the United States, Canada, and the European Union to defend free expression around the world.

“We’ve lost far too many friends and allies to the violence of religious and ideological extremists around the world,” said Barry Karr, executive director of CFI’s Committee for Skeptical Inquiry in the statement. “But we can’t let the perpetrators get the last word. They want to silence dissent, but we will never be quiet about the fundamental human rights to free expression and inquiry.”

 

Countdown to CSICon 2017: The Alternative to Alternative Facts

CSICon Las Vegas 2017, the biggest and most exciting skeptics’ event of the year, is almost here! Taking place October 26–29 in the city of illusions itself, with a slate of speakers and events so impressive, you might think we’re just feeding you #fakenews. We understand. It’s hard to tell these days.

Which is exactly why we need CSICon: your alternative to alternative facts.

To keep the anticipation and excitement going, the indefatigable Susan Gerbic brings us two fresh new interviews with CSICon speakers, which are also not #fakenews.

  • First, science communicator and Forbes contributor Kavin Senapathy talks to Susan about her problem with the pseudoscience-hawking “The Food Babe,” her efforts to demystify GMOs, and how Buffy the Vampire Slayer led the creation of the documentary she’ll be debuting at CSICon with Natalie Newell, Science Moms.
  • Then, we hear from Evan Bernstein, one of the co-hosts of the popular Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (SGU) podcast, who discusses the power of radio and podcasts to help foster a community, and previews the special SGU recording happening live on stage at CSICon.

And what else is so great about this CSICon? It will feature brilliant and compelling speakers such as James Randi, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Cara Santa Maria, Michael Mann, Maria Konnikova (pictured at left), Richard Saunders, Eugenie Scott, and so many more. And since it’s all happening at the Excalibur Hotel and Casino, there will be spectacular entertainment events, magic shows, and even a Halloween disco party. (That last one really does sound like #fakenews, but it’s not.)

So get registered right now, and we’ll see you in Vegas at CSICon 2017!

 

CFI Highlights on the Web

Even though CFI’s Committee for Skeptical Inquiry successfully convinced news outlets such as the Associated Press to stop calling science deniers “skeptics,” misuse of the term persists. So CFI Los Angeles director Jim Underdown helped the LA Times understand the difference in his letter to the editor. 

Speaking of science deniers, right-wing news outlet The Federalist criticized CFI’s Joe Nickell for his positive review of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel. Joe, sharply and with considerable class, responds by exposing the myriad holes in their “argument.”

* Benjamin Radford, CFI’s expert on scary clowns, comments on the Juggalo March on Washington, an event for fans of the Insane Clown Posse. Is there any evidence that Juggalos are a “criminal organization”? Do they know how magnets work?

Jack Jenkins at ThinkProgress reports on the GOP’s passage of an amendment intended to kneecap the Johnson Amendment, allowing churches to more or less become super-PACS for candidates. As before, he cites CFI’s Legal Director Nick Little.

* Susan Gerbic once again takes on “grief vampire” Tyler Henry, this time for the claim that he predicted the death of Alan Thicke by talking to Thicke’s dead relatives. The claim is not convincing.

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


Upcoming CFI Events

CFI Transnational

CFI Austin

CFI Indiana

CFI Los Angeles

CFI Michigan

  • September 23: Service Day: Habitat for Humanity in Flint.
  • September 27: Zana Zangana discusses his journey away from Islam and the importance of questioning religion in a presentation on his book, Where Was God Hijacked? Violence and Human Rights in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

CFI Northeast Ohio


CFI Tampa Bay

CFI Western New York

  • October 20: Dave Hahn, a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Buffalo, delivers a presentation on conspiracy theories, how to define them, and the harms they can cause.

 

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 www.centerforinquiry.net. 



 

Categories: , Skeptic

eSkeptic for September 20, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 09/20/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

WHAT IS PATREON? A New Way to Support the Things Skeptic Creates

Patreon is on online platform that exists as a new way for you to become one of Skeptic’s patrons. Patreon exists to help creators get paid, so they can continue to create more amazing things — things that inspire us, teach us, and challenge us.

Patronage, of course, is a really old idea. If it weren’t for patrons, we might not have had Mozart, Shakespeare, or Leonardo da Vinci. They all had patrons!

Patrons set a monthly subscription-style payment for the level of support they want to give. This creates a sustainable income, allowing us to create, without worrying about how we will fund our projects. Patreon explains in this short video:

Check Out Our New Patreon Page and learn more about this new way to donate to Skeptic by watching our introductory video below. Your patronage will certainly be rewarded, and your pledges are tax-deducible! Patreon automatically emails a receipt for your monthly pledges, once each month.

Patreon is simply a new way to donate monthly to Skeptic. If you would prefer to continue donating in the way(s) you have always done so, please continue to do so. We greatly appreciate your continued support, no matter how you donate.

In conjunction with our 25th anniversary milestone that we are celebrating, we would also like to share with you this recent profile of Michael Shermer featured in the Wall Street Journal, published on September 1, 2017, written by Alexandra Wolfe, republished here with permission.

MICHAEL SHERMER’S SKEPTICAL EYE

The founder of the Skeptics Society has devoted his career to questioning orthodoxies, from religious belief and self-help movements to the anti-scientific claims of left and right

Michael Shermer, the founder of the Skeptics Society, points to a single event in the late 1970s as his breaking point with the Christianity of his youth. The “final straw,” as he calls it, was finding himself at the hospital bedside of his college girlfriend, who had been a passenger in a van that rolled off the side of a hill, breaking her back and leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. He prayed fervently for her recovery, to no avail. “If anyone deserved to be healed it was her, and nothing happened, so I just thought there was probably no God at all,” he recalls.

His career over the past several decades has involved insistent questioning not just of religious belief but of other sorts of orthodoxy, in pop culture, self-help, science and politics. This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Skeptics Society, which is now a 50,000-member group dedicated to “promoting critical thinking and lifelong inquisitiveness.”

In his longstanding monthly column for Scientific American, Dr. Shermer, 62, has turned a critical eye on antivaccination advocates, the campus craze for condemning “micro-aggressions” and disinviting controversial speakers, and the movement to ban genetically modified crops. He has come out against both climate-change alarmists and deniers. (He tends to side with commentators such as Matt Ridley and Bjorn Lomborg, who agree that humans are changing Earth’s climate but argue that the consequences may not be as dire as doomsayers think.) In his columns and books, he has debunked everything from UFOs and claims of alien abduction to conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 attacks.

A convert to evangelical Christianity as a high-school student in La Cañada, Calif., he went to Pepperdine University intending to become a theologian. But after taking classes in science and philosophy, he decided to study psychology instead. He later earned a Ph.D. in the history of science at Claremont Graduate University.

Unable to find a job as a professor, he went to work at a cycling magazine in Irvine, Calif. He became so interested in the sport that he started cycling hundreds of miles a week and racing long distances, with the support of corporate sponsors. In 1982, he co-founded the 3,000-mile Race Across America, which bills itself as “the world’s toughest bicycle race.”

At night, Dr. Shermer taught at Glendale Community College. He is now a presidential fellow at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., where he offers a course called “Skepticism 101.” The school is about 2½ hours from Santa Barbara, where he lives with his wife.

Dr. Shermer started the Skeptics Society in 1992 out of his garage. For the past 25 years, he has also edited and published Skeptic magazine, which he says tackles issues scientifically, questioning hypotheses and weighing research and data. “The principle is to start off skeptical and be open-minded enough to change your mind if the evidence is overwhelming, but the burden of proof is on the person making the claim,” he says. “I would change my mind about Bigfoot if you showed me an actual body, not a guy in an ape suit in a blurry photograph.”

Dr. Shermer is the author of more than a dozen books, including Why People Believe Weird Things (1997), whose targets included creationists, Holocaust deniers and believers in ESP, and The Moral Arc (2015), which argued that reason and science have made the world progressively more just.

His new book Heavens on Earth comes out in January. In it, he casts a critical eye on many religious visions of the afterlife and on the high-tech quest to evade death through such methods as deep-freezing (cryonics) or uploading memories into the cloud. “There’s no assurance that by copying every last thing in your brain, you’re going to wake up and say, ‘Here I am!’ ” he says. “You wouldn’t wake up inside the computer—you’d just be dead.”

President Donald Trump may often dismiss “fake news,” but Dr. Shermer warns against shrugging off evidence. Still, he says, “Everyone does it to a certain extent…It’s a little more heightened now because the internet is so fast to respond in real time.” Politicians have always ignored data, he says, though Mr. Trump “seems to be more bold about it than others, and that inspires others to do the same.”

Recently, Dr. Shermer has denounced both the alt-right and “the regressive left.” After the violent white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, he warned against what he calls “this whole ‘punch a Nazi’ thing,” including the actions of the controversial far-left movement known as antifa. “This is why the antifa movement is just as bad as the white supremacist movement,” he says. “They both feel they have a moral cause that’s worth dying for and worth killing for.”

In the decades ahead, Dr. Shermer expects to see more people adhering to secular philosophies and Eastern religions with stronger links to science: Meditation, he says, can clearly improve health and well-being.

He is less enthusiastic about the rise of some New Age philosophies, which he says can contain troubling quasi-religious urges toward utopianism. “There is no one answer to what makes a perfect society,” he says, and the attempt to create an earthly paradise can turn murderous, as it did at Jonestown in Guyana in 1978: “Someone is in your way, preventing you from achieving eternal happiness, and they have to be dispensed with.”

Dr. Shermer considers organized self-help movements misguided because they tend to encourage people to chase after money and a simple ideal of happiness, rather than to find satisfaction in a purposeful life.

“Most of what we do doesn’t make us happy, it makes us more fulfilled as a person,” he says. His morning bike ride, for example, wasn’t fun, he says. “It’s a suffer-fest,” he says. “It’s 90 degrees out, my lungs are screaming and my legs are screaming, but I feel better after.”

SCIENCE SALON # 15: OCTOBER 15, 2017 Donald Prothero & Timothy Callahan—UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says

UFOs. Aliens. Strange crop circles. Giant figures scratched in the desert surface along the coast of Peru. The amazing alignment of the pyramids. Strange lines of clouds in the sky. The paranormal is alive and well in the American cultural landscape. In UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens, Don Prothero and Tim Callahan explore why such demonstrably false beliefs thrive despite decades of education and scientific debunking.

Employing the ground rules of science and the standards of scientific evidence, Prothero and Callahan discuss a wide range of topics including the reliability of eyewitness testimony, psychological research into why people want to believe in aliens and UFOs, and the role conspiratorial thinking plays in UFO culture. They examine a variety of UFO sightings and describe the standards of evidence used to determine whether UFOs are actual alien spacecraft.

Finally, they consider our views of aliens and the strong cultural signals that provide the shapes and behaviors of these beings. While their approach is firmly based in science, Prothero and Callahan also share their personal experiences of Area 51, Roswell, and other legendary sites, creating a narrative that is sure to engross both skeptics and believers.

Order UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens from Amazon.

Reserve your seat(s) online or by calling 1-626-794-3119. Online reservation closes Sunday October 15, 2017 at 11am PDT.

Reserve seat(s) online

2018 | IRELAND | JULY 15–AUGUST 2 Join us for a 19-day tour of the Emerald Isle

Ireland’s famed scenic landscape owes its breathtaking terrain to a dramatic 1.75 billion year history of continental collisions, volcanoes, and glacial assault. Join the Skeptics Society for a 19-day immersive tour of the deep history of the Emerald Isle, while experiencing the music, hospitality, and verdant beauty that make Ireland one of the world’s top travel destinations.

Full details & Registration

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Soft Robots

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 09/19/2017 - 4:56am

Part of the reason I like science fiction is because it can be a thought-experiment about future technology and society. For this reason, like any self-respecting nerd, I often pay close attention to the details of how future technology is portrayed. Stepping out of the movie-as-entertainment and storytelling for minute, and focusing on the ideas that went into crafting a vision of technology advanced beyond our current tech – how did they do? What assumptions did the creators make, and did they break any laws of physics.

I tend to be most fascinated by what hidden assumptions and biases go into visions of the future. I wrote about this previously with respect to spaceship design. The same idea applies to how robots are portrayed in science fiction.

For example, perhaps my biggest peeve is Star Wars (probably because it is a beloved franchise). I don’t necessarily mind the design of droids, because you can argue that they are intended to look unmistakably mechanical. However, we get a few glimpses of artificial robotic limbs – Luke’s hand and Vader’s arm, for example. These appear to be entirely constructed of wires and pulleys. Vader’s arm is the worst – the stump is nothing but a mass of wires.

This image of artificial robotic parts is almost ubiquitous in science fiction, although recently there are some great examples of moving past this cliche. Just compare the original West World, where robot faces look convincingly human, until they are removed and revealed to be rigid metal with wires underneath. The recent series West World, however, portrays soft 3D printed robotic technology. That’s what I’m talking about. Soft Robots

There are many reasons why we would want to develop soft robotic technology. In industry there are applications that require flexibility, including manipulating small or soft parts. We also might want soft robots anytime they need to interact with humans or other living things, especially medical applications.

Soft life-like prosthetics are the holy grail. We can make soft skin, flexible joints, and a rigid frame. Perhaps the biggest obstacle at this point is making soft artificial muscle. We are making some progress, which I will get to shortly, but it remains difficult to imitate living muscle.

Like many technologies I discuss here, in order for artificial muscles to be useful they need to have a suite of simultaneous properties, the lack of any one can be a deal-killer. The ideal battery, for example, needs to have high capacity, low weight, many recharge cycles, relatively quick recharging, able to discharge fast enough to power demanding devices, should be stable (not burst into flames), and be made of materials that are cheap, abundant, and non-toxic.

For artificial muscles they need to be soft, have high tensile strength, and be able to contract and expand repeatedly without limit, with both rapid and fine control, able to produce significant power, under conditions compatible with a living user. A technology can have most of these properties but be very slow, and therefore useless as a prosthetic, and only potentially useful for narrow niche applications. Another technology might be too weak to be of practical use, even if everything else is perfect.

As with battery and other technologies, I often read about “breakthroughs” where one feature is significantly advanced, and the press release glosses over the glaring deficits or casually states, “Researchers are now working on fixing this deal-breaking deficit, which they are confident they can do in the next funding cycle.”

This brings us to the latest news on soft robotics which prompted this post – researchers at Columbia University have designed a soft artificial muscle that is able to contract and expand with electrical or thermal control, and:

 The new material has a strain density (expansion per gram) that is 15 times larger than natural muscle, and can lift 1000 times its own weight.

Impressive – but where is the deal breaker? Here’s one:

After being 3D-printed into the desired shape, the artificial muscle was electrically actuated using a thin resistive wire and low-power (8V). It was tested in a variety of robotic applications where it showed significant expansion-contraction ability, being capable of expansion up to 900% when electrically heated to 80°C. Via computer controls, the autonomous unit is capable of performing motion tasks in almost any design.

Requiring heat of 80°C (176°F) is not practical for human applications. This could be useful in industrial applications, however. Also, it seems like it can be actuated just with electrical stimulation of 8 volts, which could work. But here is the real limitation:

The researchers will continue to build on this development, incorporating conductive materials to replace the embedded wire, accelerating the muscle’s response time and increasing its shelf life.

The “response time” is the critical bit. Watch the video’s on the link – the contraction and relaxation of the artificial muscle is slow. It literally moves at about the speed of a sloth, so this would be great for robotic sloths, but not so much for human prosthetics.

As always, I hope the researchers are successful in solving these issues. The response time is a non-trivial problem, however, and may be intrinsic to the technology. Popular discussions (flowing from the press release) of such technology always assumes that the advance is on a trajectory to the final goal, but that is often not the case. We may not get to an artificial muscle with human-level or greater properties via this technology. This could easily be a dead end if the response time problem is unfixable.

Still, even a dead end can be useful if it teaches us something, and may help point to the way to whatever technology will ultimately work. Or maybe not – we still don’t have room temperature superconductors or a viable storage option for hydrogen fuel cells, despite all the advances made.

What this means is that it is difficult to predict when we will cross the finish line to a viable technology. Success is not simply a matter of tweaking or iterating current technology. It may require an entirely new material or approach, and such advances are impossible to predict. I do think we’ll get there eventually, but who knows how long it will take.

Human-level soft robotic muscles, however, would be a tremendous technology to have, and will rapidly revolutionize the prosthetic industry.

 

 

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #589: The Big Pharma Conspiracy

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 09/18/2017 - 5:00pm
Popular claims of a Big Pharma Conspiracy don't stand up to any rational scrutiny.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Update on Arctic Sea Ice

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 09/18/2017 - 5:15am

The extent of Arctic sea ice is an important marker for global climate change. In the last forty years it also has been unequivocally shrinking. NASA has been tracking Arctic sea ice extent at different times of the year, with the September minimum being an important point of comparison. Like any chaotic system there are going to be short term fluctuations, but the long term trend is crystal clear. Look at the graph and look at the video on the NASA site linked above – the shrinking is clear.

The first estimates for September 2017 are in and they are consistent with the overall trend. Arctic sea ice’s most recent maximum for the September minimum was in 1996 at 7.87 million square km. The minimum minimum was in 2012 at 3.62 million sq km – less than half. This year the minimum is estimated to be 4.7 million sq km, slightly more than 2016. All of the last 10 years are below the average for the previous 30 years.

This past year we had a warm winter, which led to the lowest amount of March Arctic sea ice on record, but a cool summer allowed the Arctic ice to rebound a bit.

All of this adds to the strong scientific consensus that the globe is warming and this trend is largely due to human factors (not natural cycles). But as you probably know, there is a well-financed campaign of denial, ideologically and financially motivated, to muddy the waters and create doubt and confusion about this scientific consensus. This is easy to do with complex scientific questions.

For example – what is the best time frame in which to view the changes in global average temperatures, Arctic sea ice, or some other marker? If you zoom in on the data too closely you see the year-to-year noise. If you back up too far you see natural trends that happen on the scale of tens of thousands or millions of years, and short term changes are lost. If you look at trends in the data over decades and centuries, however, then the noise flattens out and you can see what is happening over a relevant period of time. It’s easy to change your focus, however, to get the view that you ideologically desire.

You can also focus on a different subset of the data. For example, if you just look at Antarctic sea ice, it has been increasing over this same time period. But this needs to be put into context. First, Antarctica is different than the Arctic. The Arctic is all ocean, there is no land mass there. Antarctica is a continent, so it has continental ice and is surrounded by sea ice, so the dynamic is different. We need to look more thoroughly at the overall ice situation to see what is happening.

First, if you look at total sea ice at both poles, that is decreasing. The loss of Arctic sea ice is greater than the increase in Antarctic sea ice. The dynamics in the Antarctic are also different. The water there is isolated by a circumpolar current around the continent. Ice is also fed by fresh water, which freezes more easily, and wind and precipitation coming off the ice shelf.

Further, if you look at the continental ice the Antarctic glaciers are losing mass. However, there was already a general trend toward greater snow fall in the Antarctic, although that trend has slowed. It is still disputed whether the total snow and ice mass in the Antarctic is increasing or decreasing, but the trend is turning down in either case.

If we back up all the way and look at total global ice, which seems like the best measure and avoids any cherry picking, the trend is also clear. Total global ice is decreasing, including glaciers, continental ice shelves, and sea ice.

Is there room for any doubt? Sure, there is always room for doubt in science, it’s built into the process. That is another source of confusion, however. Scientists talk about our level of confidence, and the robustness of the consensus, which is at a fairly high level considering the complexity of the topic. Politicians and those advocating that we do something about climate change, however, may state things in a way that they feel captures the situation, but is not strictly scientific. For example, they may say that climate change is a fact and settled science. Deniers then exploit this to argue that those who accept climate change are trying to shut down debate and are not being scientific.

None of this touches the strong scientific consensus, however. Further, we can simultaneously accommodate the built in doubt and openness required by science and the need to make decisions based on what we do know. The level of consensus, and the level of certainty about the fact that adding large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere is driving a trend of global warming is high enough to justify taking preventive actions.

If a doctor is treating a patient and they are 95% certain they have an infection requiring an antibiotic, and two other doctors are also consulted and they agree with the recommendation, it is probably best to start antibiotics rather than watch the patient die while debating the 5% uncertainty. You have to make a risk vs benefit assessment based on the data and uncertainty that we have.

If we make a risk vs benefit assessment of anthropogenic global climate change, even acknowledging all the uncertainties, it seems obvious to me that the prudent thing to do is to take some rational steps to mitigate climate change. That does not mean ruining our economy, as deniers will claim. It could mean simply accelerating research and developing into carbon neutral energy sources, and encouraging their early adoption.

As I have argued before, burning fossil fuels has multiple costly negative effects, not just climate change, including pollution and adverse health outcomes. The finances are pretty clear at this point – money invested in non-polluting renewable sources of energy is money well spent, and it will save us much more money in the future while improving quality of life.

Renewable energy sources are the technology of the future, can lead to energy independence, reduced pollution, and improved health. Even if you don’t mention climate change, it is still advantageous to switch to renewables. That is a point worth driving home. And if we prevent a climate disaster, that’s good too.

Categories: Skeptic

Dr. Nancy Segal — Twin Mythconceptions: False Beliefs, Fables, and Facts about Twins

Skeptic.com feed - Sun, 09/17/2017 - 2:00pm

Dr. Nancy Segal, the world’s leading expert on twins, has a new book that sheds light on over 70 commonly held ideas and beliefs about the origins and development of identical and fraternal twins. Using the latest scientific findings from psychology, psychiatry, biology, and education, Dr. Segal separates fact from fiction. Each idea about twins is described, followed by both a short answer about the truth, and then a longer, more detailed explanation. Coverage includes embryology of twins, twin types, intellectual growth, personality traits, sexual orientation of twins, marital relationships, epigenetic analyses, the frequency of different twin types and the varieties of polar body twin pairs. This book, and Salon with Dr. Segal, will inform and entertain behavioral and life science researchers, health professionals, twins, parents of twins, and anyone interested in the fascinating topic of twins and what they can teach us about human nature.

Dr. Segal earned her Ph.D. in the Social Sciences and Behavioral Sciences from the University of Chicago. From 1982-1991 she was a post-doctoral fellow and research associate at the University of Minnesota, affiliated with the well-known Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. She is currently Professor of Psychology at CSU Fullerton and Director of the Twin Studies Center, which she founded in 1991. Dr. Segal has authored over 200 scientific articles and book chapters, as well as several books on twins. Her previous book, Born Together-Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study (2012, Harvard University Press) won the 2013 William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association. Her other books include Someone Else’s Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth (2011), Indivisible by Two: Lives of Extraordinary Twins (2007) and Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior (2000). She is the 2016 recipient of the Wang Family Excellence Award from the California State University administrators and trustees for “exemplary contributions and achievement.” She was recognized as CSUF’s Outstanding Professor of the Year in 2005 and as the Distinguished Faculty Member in Humanities and Social Sciences in 2007 and 2014. She has been a frequent guest on national and international television and radio programs, including the Martha Stewart Show, Good Morning America, the Oprah Winfrey Show and The Forum (BBC). Dr. Segal has variously served as a consultant and expert witness for the media, the law and the arts.

Order Twin Mythconceptions from Amazon.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #636 - Sep 16 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 09/16/2017 - 9:00am
Interview with Massimo Pigliucci; What's the Word: Occult; News Items: Equifax Data Breach, Cassini Grand Finale, Larges Void in the Universe, Microplastics; Who's That Noisy; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

Cassini’s Dramatic End

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 09/15/2017 - 5:00am

The Cassini probe to Saturn has been considered one of the most successful space missions in history. Today it will plunge into the upper atmosphere of Saturn. As the atmosphere gets thicker on its way down the probe will begin to tumble from the turbulence, until it is ripped apart by the violent forces and finally melts in the intense heat of the gas giant. (As I am writing this there are just 30 minutes left.)

This is the intended fate of the probe. It was launched in 1997, took seven years to get to Saturn, and has been studying the planet and its moons for 13 years. It has dramatically improved our knowledge of the Saturn system. Cassini was the first probe to orbit Saturn. Prior to that, Pioneer and Voyager had performed flybys, which give is quick glimpses but do not allow for extended study.

In addition to being a feat of science and engineering, Cassini surpassed expectations. It original mission profile was for four years. It was able to have two mission extensions, for a total of 13 years. Now it is almost completely out of fuel – its mission is over.

NASA debated what to do with the probe when it was done. They could have left it in Saturn orbit, but they decided that would have no scientific value. I don’t know if they could have sent it on a trajectory away from the solar system. It may not have been possible to give it enough velocity to break from the Sun’s gravity.

So they decided to end Cassini’s life with a dramatic plunge into Saturn itself. In preparation they had Cassini transmit all of its remaining data to Earth. It has now given us all it has to give – except for what little data it can send during its grand finale. Cassini can transmit only about 30 kilobits per second, which is not enough to send pictures, so the cameras will be off. It will still be transmitting live data from other instruments, however – one last burst of scientific information.

The plunge also allowed NASA to send Cassini on a highly elliptical orbit that took it closer and closer to the planet, exploring the region between the rings and the atmosphere for the first time. Its final orbit will bring it within the atmosphere, resulting in its fiery death.

Cassini has brought us a treasure trove of amazing images of Saturn, including the most detailed pictures of its rings, and polar views of the planet revealing the strange hexagonal cloud pattern. We also learned that Enceladus has liquid water under its icy surface, and that geysers occasionally spurt this water out into space, creating the opportunity for a future mission to sample this water looking for signals of life.

Titan, too, has turned out to be even more interesting than hoped.

“Data from Cassini-Huygens revealed Titan has lakes and seas of liquid methane and ethane, replenished by rain from hydrocarbon clouds.
The mission also provided evidence that Titan is hiding an internal, liquid ocean beneath its surface, likely composed of water and ammonia.”

I’m watching the livestream now. Mission control is busy, but everyone seems calm, doing their job quietly and professionally. It’s four minutes to the end. They just went to high-rate control, meaning they are having to fight turbulence in order to keep the transmitter pointed at Earth. They are operating at “half a hair dryer” worth of energy.

They lost the signal pretty much right when predicted, at 11:55:46, and end of mission was officially called.

Categories: Skeptic

India Opens Homeopathy Laboratory

neurologicablog Feed - Thu, 09/14/2017 - 5:00am

As I continue my efforts to fight against pseudoscience in medicine, I often ask myself – how bad can it theoretically get? I have had this discussion with others as well, some of whom argue that we should not worry because science will win out in the long run. Science is self-corrective, and pseudoscience will become marginalized over time. I hope this optimistic view is correct, but I am not reassured by the evidence.

Let’s consider A recent article in the hindustantimes, written completely without skepticism or irony, details how the government of India has opened a state-of-the art laboratory to study homeopathy.

Howrah-based Centre of Excellence in Fundamental Research in Homoeopathy will also undertake fundamental research studies in homoeopathy with an interdisciplinary approach.

“This institute has undertaken several clinical research studies such as autism, psoriasis, vitiligo, breast cancer, hypertension, migraine etc. along with proving of new drugs in homoeopathy with their clinical validations,” said Naik.

The lab will support PhD students in homeopathy and focus on research into viral and other infectious diseases. This is all part of the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH). In India, pseudoscience in medicine, including homeopathy, have been fully institutionalized and are explicitly endorsed by the government.

This is how bad it can get.

For those who may not be aware, homeopathy is 100% pure nonsense. It is not herbal medicine as many falsely believe. It is based on a 200 year old pre-scientific belief that you can take a substance that causes a symptom, dilute it out of existence, and its magical essence will remain behind and somehow treat the illness which causes the same symptom. It’s witchcraft.

Further, multiple independent systematic reviews of the clinical evidence have concluded that homeopathy does not work for anything.

Science is Fragile

The historical experience of homeopathy has an importance lesson to teach us – science can be fragile. In fact, one hard truth we have been forced to confront recently is that many of the institutions we have taken for granted are more fragile than we had suspected.

Many professions such as journalism, medicine, and science depend on a shared culture and dedication to a set of standards and principles. However, it is possible to turn those standards on their head, to create pseudojournalism, bad medicine, or fake science. News outlets dedicated to an ideology or a tribe rather than to journalistic standards can easily displace real journalism.

The fact is that institutions and professions are based on a shared set of rules. Members have to agree what those rules should be and abide by them. This takes a certain amount of understanding and courage. Perhaps it is just too easy to become complacent, to collectively forget why we have the rules in the firs place.

Science also has rules, and requires a true dedication to fairness, openness, and to methodology over conclusions. It requires judgement, and the willingness to challenge core assumptions. Science works when scientists are willing and able to ask – is this really true? How do we know?

The institutions of science are fragile because the only thing standing between them and descent into rank pseudoscience is the collective understanding and dedication of its members to high standards. This is a high energy state, however, and will tend to degrade to lower energy states in which cutting corners is progressively acceptable.

If you don’t think this can happen, it already has. Over the last few decades absolute pseudoscience has worked its way into mainstream medicine. It was frighteningly easy for this to happen – all it really took was a lack of concern and outrage on the part of the majority of medical professionals and scientists. This is embedded in a more complex social context, such as the rise of post-modernism and political correctness within academia. These, in my opinion, eroded an unflinching dedication to the truth which is necessary for any legitimate scholarly activity.

I watched as it became acceptable to change the rules of science in order to promote nonsense. Promoters of magic and witchcraft were allowed to have their own peer-reviewed journals, set their own rigged standards, lobby for laws which eroded protections for consumers and created a literal double standard for their snake oil, and were progressively made the gate-keepers of their own claims.

When we look at India (and also China with respect to TCM and chi) we are seeing where this all leads, unless we collectively fight hard to stop it. I now think it is naive to believe that science will someone work it all out. It won’t do it by itself, because there is no abstract science. Science is a human endeavor, it is only as good as the institutions and culture of science.

Science can easily, therefore, be subverted to other agendas, political and ideological. Homeopathy is fully institutionalized in India. You can get a “degree in baloney,” conduct research in a tricked-out lab, get published in journals – and it all means nothing. It will never self-correct, because the entire process is biased and subservient to a belief.

What all this shows is that the difference between real science and fake science is often razor thin. I also fear that we may have a limited time window to turn this around. The purveyors of snake oil and medical pseudoscience have so thoroughly infiltrated our institutions that they are now influencing the next generation of scientists and doctors. Once the next generation is fully indoctrinated, who will be around to ask the hard and important questions? They will be in the minority, on the fringe, impotent to effect any real change.

I have colleagues in China who have expressed that very reality. They understand that chi is magical pseudoscience, but they are working in a culture that accepts the reality of chi without question. They essentially have no opportunity, short of sacrificing their career, to stand up for reality.

This is how bad it can get.

 

Categories: Skeptic

eSkeptic for September 13, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 09/13/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

WATCH THE LIVE STREAM THIS SUNDAY Dr. Nancy Segal — Twin Mythconceptions: False Beliefs, Fables, and Facts about Twins

Reserve your seat(s) online or by calling 1-626-794-3119. Online reservation closes Sunday September 17, 2017 at 11am PDT.

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ABOVE: UC Berkeley, Sproul Hall Plaza, October 1 1964. Free Speech Movement advocates, including Mario Savio in this instance, speak from the roof of a police car. They remove their shoes before climbing on the car, in order to do no damage. In the back seat of the car sits an FSM leader whom the police have arrested.

Is Antifa an enemy of free speech? In this week’s eSkeptic, Raymond Barglow discusses the recent violent demonstrations in Berkeley, which purported to “fight fascism,” while fueling it instead.

Radically Wrong in Berkeley

by Raymond Barglow

Berkeley California is famous for its history of political protest. In 1949, faculty and students at the University of California opposed an anti-Communist loyalty oath imposed by the Board of Regents. In 1964, Berkeley was home to the Free Speech Movement and subsequently to resistance against the war in Vietnam. These political efforts were all peaceful — very deliberately so. In the early 1960s, some Berkeley activists had traveled to Mississippi and other Southern states to give support to the Civil Rights Movement, and they returned as advocates of Martin Luther King’s politics of nonviolence.

Although wide differences remain, it clearly is possible for us to reach through to one another, not with a fist but with an open hand.

During the Free Speech Movement (FSM), the protesting students made a point of allowing the speech of those who disagreed with them. They held that even speech deemed repellent should be countered not by disallowing that speech but by meeting it verbally with a different point of view. “Freedom of speech,” said FSM leader Mario Savio, “is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is. … That’s what marks us off from the stones and the stars…. It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels.” This high-minded ideal has not weathered well in Berkeley in recent years. In 2017, this town, former champion of free speech, has become known instead as its enemy: those who gather here in Berkeley to express their support for right-wing causes cannot anticipate that their meetings and rallies will be allowed. Committed to shutting down such events are several small but very militant left groups: “black bloc” and “Antifa,” both of which originated in Western Europe in the 1980s, and “By Any Means Necessary,” a revolutionary organization that was founded in the United States in 1995.

UC Berkeley, Sproul Hall Plaza, February 1 2017. Protesters light a bonfire, assault police, break windows, and prevent right-wing pundit Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking. A few demonstrators then march downtown, setting more fires and damaging property.

On February 1, 2017, Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing media star, was prevented from speaking in Berkeley by violent activists belonging to these groups and intent on, in their terms, “stopping Fascist speech.” On the day of Yiannopoulos’ scheduled appearance, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin tweeted: “Using speech to silence marginalized communities and promote bigotry is unacceptable. Hate speech isn’t welcome in our community.” A few hours later he qualified that statement in another tweet, “Violence and destruction is not the answer,” but that scarcely corrected the first impression conveyed to the world: across the political spectrum, the mass media condemned the “bigotry” and “hypocrisy” of Berkeley’s far left. An article in the liberal-leaning Huffington Post pointed out that Berkeley had gifted a propaganda victory to the right:

The violence at the UC Berkeley campus Wednesday night which cancelled the speech of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos is such a debacle for the national opposition to Trump that it almost defies belief…. At exactly this moment, because of what happened at Berkeley, the Trump regime gets to present itself as the guardian of free speech in America. […]

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Radically Wrong in Berkeley

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 09/13/2017 - 12:00am

ABOVE: UC Berkeley, Sproul Hall Plaza, October 1 1964. Free Speech Movement advocates, including Mario Savio in this instance, speak from the roof of a police car. They remove their shoes before climbing on the car, in order to do no damage. In the back seat of the car sits an FSM leader whom the police have arrested.

Berkeley California is famous for its history of political protest. In 1949, faculty and students at the University of California opposed an anti-Communist loyalty oath imposed by the Board of Regents. In 1964, Berkeley was home to the Free Speech Movement and subsequently to resistance against the war in Vietnam. These political efforts were all peaceful — very deliberately so. In the early 1960s, some Berkeley activists had traveled to Mississippi and other Southern states to give support to the Civil Rights Movement, and they returned as advocates of Martin Luther King’s politics of nonviolence.

During the Free Speech Movement (FSM), the protesting students made a point of allowing the speech of those who disagreed with them. They held that even speech deemed repellent should be countered not by disallowing that speech but by meeting it verbally with a different point of view. “Freedom of speech,” said FSM leader Mario Savio, “is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is. … That’s what marks us off from the stones and the stars…. It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels.” This high-minded ideal has not weathered well in Berkeley in recent years. In 2017, this town, former champion of free speech, has become known instead as its enemy: those who gather here in Berkeley to express their support for right-wing causes cannot anticipate that their meetings and rallies will be allowed. Committed to shutting down such events are several small but very militant left groups: “black bloc” and “Antifa,” both of which originated in Western Europe in the 1980s, and “By Any Means Necessary,” a revolutionary organization that was founded in the United States in 1995.

UC Berkeley, Sproul Hall Plaza, February 1 2017. Protesters light a bonfire, assault police, break windows, and prevent right-wing pundit Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking. A few demonstrators then march downtown, setting more fires and damaging property.

On February 1, 2017, Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing media star, was prevented from speaking in Berkeley by violent activists belonging to these groups and intent on, in their terms, “stopping Fascist speech.” On the day of Yiannopoulos’ scheduled appearance, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin tweeted: “Using speech to silence marginalized communities and promote bigotry is unacceptable. Hate speech isn’t welcome in our community.” A few hours later he qualified that statement in another tweet, “Violence and destruction is not the answer,” but that scarcely corrected the first impression conveyed to the world: across the political spectrum, the mass media condemned the “bigotry” and “hypocrisy” of Berkeley’s far left. An article in the liberal-leaning Huffington Post pointed out that Berkeley had gifted a propaganda victory to the right:

The violence at the UC Berkeley campus Wednesday night which cancelled the speech of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos is such a debacle for the national opposition to Trump that it almost defies belief…. At exactly this moment, because of what happened at Berkeley, the Trump regime gets to present itself as the guardian of free speech in America.

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Yiannopoulos’ aborted talk on the UC campus in February was followed by two more attempted right-wing rallies in downtown Berkeley on March 4 and April 15. On each occasion, activists were successful in using violence to prevent the gathering from happening. Then on August 27, Berkeley again drew national attention. In the morning, about 4,000 citizens rallied near the UC campus. The day was sunny and the demonstration entirely peaceful, organized in response to a planned “anti-Marxist” right-wing rally scheduled to take place that afternoon. Mocking the stereotype of Berkeley as a bastion of Marxism, some of the counter-protestors donned Groucho Marx costumes.

Mocking the stereotype of Berkeley as a bastion of Marxism, some of the counter-protestors donned Groucho Marx costumes. (Photo by Emilie Raguso, used with permission)

This counter-protest gave peaceful expression to Berkeley’s solidarity with immigrants and other threatened communities. But several hours later and several blocks away, a small number of leftists, most of them clothed in black, once again started fights with individuals whom they deemed “fascist” and therefore unwelcome in this city.

Defense of immigrants, African Americans, and Muslims is these activists’ avowed altruistic aim. But ironically, their strategy of violence and destruction of property has the opposite effect, casting the far right as staunch, outspoken freedom fighters, rather than increasing support for the very communities that they claim to “protect.”

During the Free Speech Movement, the protesting students made a point of allowing the speech of those who disagreed with them. They held that even speech deemed repellent should be countered not by disallowing that speech but by meeting it verbally with a different point of view.

As a consequence of its new reputation for suppression of public speech, Berkeley has become the most coveted town in America for rallying the right. Celebrities like Ann Coulter, Ben Shapiro, and—again—Milo Yiannopoulos want to give talks in Berkeley because they know that the violent response to their appearance will vividly illustrate the right’s view of the left as intolerant and vile. As Michael Shermer noted on Twitter, Milo wants protesters at his events, even titling his latest tour the “Troll Academy Tour”, reminding students that if they really wanted to hurt Yiannopoulos just ignore him completely. There’s nothing a public political speaker hates more than staring out at an empty room.

Here we go again: Milo Yiannopoulos's “Troll Academy Tour" is coming to a college near you in search of protesters. https://t.co/nsR6KNxqqR

— Michael Shermer (@michaelshermer) September 3, 2017

Again, students: Milo's TROLLING you. He WANTS you to protest! Don't oblige. If you really want to hurt him DON'T ATTEND! Speakers hate that

— Michael Shermer (@michaelshermer) September 3, 2017

Not surprisingly, Berkeley’s intolerance has become a favorite subject on Fox News and other right-wing media. (Fox News host Tucker Carlson has a regular feature titled “Campus Craziness” that finds plenty to ridicule about Berkeley’s free speech fights.) But voices on the left have criticized this intolerance too: veterans of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement issued a statement in support of Yiannopoulos’ right to speak on campus, explaining that “Banning him just plays into his hands politically…. The best way to battle his bigoted discourse is to critique and refute it.”

Violent demonstrations in Berkeley, purporting to “fight fascism,” fuel it instead; they not only communicate a negative image of the left to the entire country but also confirm the convictions of the assaulted right-wing protestors: the violent opposition that they encounter, which is abetted by the inaction of the Berkeley police,1 reinforces their conception of the left as antagonistic to talk that it does not like. They leave our town strongly convinced that the left is an enemy of free speech.

This does not have to happen. Berkeley is not Charlottesville.2 Some of us who have attended right-wing gatherings in Berkeley and have talked with pro-Trump demonstrators have found that we sometimes agree with them on fundamental values, including support for the struggling working class in this country. Although wide differences remain, it clearly is possible for us to reach through to one another, not with a fist but with an open hand.3 Dialogue of this kind is nearly excluded, though, by violent confrontation. Each side creates a reductive profile of the other. The far left reasons that the President is a fascist and white supremacist, so those who support him must fall into that category too. Protestors on the right similarly essentialize those whom they confront at the barricades: they are all communists who hate America. Contrary to these simple mirror images, sociological surveys disclose diversity within the ranks of the pro-Trump protestors as well as among those who demonstrate against them.4

Diligence on the part of city officials would have prevented the recent political violence in Berkeley. Although the fighting on the city’s streets has been conducted by a few alt-right and extreme left activists, its enabler has been a third party: Berkeley’s civic authority and police. The Mayor, City Council, and City Manager have neither spoken out clearly in favor of free speech nor worked with the police to ensure that freedom. (In stark contrast, UC Berkeley’s new Chancellor, Carol Christ, has unequivocally announced the university’s commitment to freedom of speech.5)

City leaders attribute the attacks against pro-Trump rallies to outside agitators, and it’s true that some of the adversaries of free speech come to Berkeley from elsewhere, intent on silencing right-wing speakers. But the thinking that lies behind their actions is far from foreign to the left in the Bay Area and beyond. The self-described “anti-fascist” activists in Berkeley are not “mindless” or “crazy.” They conceive of themselves as aligned with left theory and practice as these have evolved over the past century and a half. They can cite precedents for their approach to politics in both the anarchist and Marxist traditions. The slogans proclaimed by Antifa, such as “Become Ungovernable” and “Smash Capitalism,” draw upon vintage strategy of the revolutionary left.

The longing for a better world can result in acts of foresight and courage—or in the dashing of any hope for such a world at all. (Image commonly used over the past ten years or so as a poster at anarchist demonstrations. In this case the Antifa logo appears in the corner.)

From an orthodox Marxist or anarchist perspective, a ruling class has to be overthrown, not persuaded. Since the time of Karl Marx, leftists have observed that capitalism maintains “law and order” by the application of coercion: the wealthy and the politicians whom they “buy” will deploy any means required to assert their rule, such as police intervention to break labor strikes and military action abroad to ensure access to raw materials and a cheap supply of labor. There has always been disagreement within the left about whether such predation can be peacefully resisted. A classical location of this debate was Germany at the turn of the 20th century, when Eduard Bernstein criticized the revolutionary scenario of a sudden rupture with capitalism and violent inauguration of a classless society. Some Social Democrats found that scenario increasingly unlikely and joined Bernstein to advocate instead on behalf of an “evolutionary socialism” that would transform capitalism gradually.

Although wide differences remain, it clearly is possible for us to reach through to one another, not with a fist but with an open hand.

This debate within the left has never been resolved. In the 1960s, the American New Left departed from the Communist and Socialist left in significant ways, but never reached consensus about the use of force to advance progressive causes. In her 1969 essay “On Violence,” Hannah Arendt concluded that “The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.” Others on the left disputed that view. Martin Luther King Jr.’s pacifism, for example, was rejected by Malcolm X.

There are historical reasons why leftists give up on nonviolent paths to social change. During the early 1960s, it was plausible to believe that racial segregation and war could be countered effectively by means of marches and rallies and peaceful acts of civil disobedience. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the war in Indochina dragged on, and American urban ghettos remained destitute, those willing to take extreme measures, such as the Weathermen and Symbionese Liberation Army (and groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy), resorted to violent assault against “the system.”

Such “rage against the machine,” taken up these days in Berkeley by Antifa and its allies, targets the entire apparatus of public decision-making, including elections and the mainstream political parties that engage in them. This contempt for mainstream party politics, which is not just a marginal phenomenon today but has wide support on the left, is counter-productive. When the Democratic Party is written off as hopelessly compromised and corrupt, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: abstention by those who are too “pure” to participate in the Party allows moneyed interests to play a dominant role in the Party and to set a conservative agenda that the left abhors.

Is there an effective alternative to a left politics of despair? The challenge facing the left today is to persuade the public that it really does have a program that will serve the common good—an inclusive program in keeping with the progressive vision written into the 2016 Democratic Party National Platform by activists in the Clinton and Sanders campaigns. Can a progressive coalition hold the line against the Trump agenda, take back the Congress in 2018, and win elections in state legislatures as well? Protect those communities that are threatened by the current Republican administration? Replace resurgent militarism with a peace program that provides jobs and rebuilds America? Impassioned organizing and advocacy, not violence in the streets, will advance the causes that communities like Berkeley hold dear.

About the Author

Raymond Barglow has a doctorate in philosophy from UC Berkeley. He participated in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in 1964 and has taught at UC Berkeley and Trinity College. He writes on science, ethics, and public policy issues, and belongs to the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club.

References
  1. Police officers have been present at the pro-Trump rallies in Berkeley, but instead of protecting the demonstrators, they have mostly stood by inactively as the brawling occurs. According to Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who advises law enforcement agencies, police are capable of intervening effectively in situations of this kind: see Veklerov, Kimberly and Ioannou, Filipa. 2017. “Berkeley Police Get Flak for Hands-Off Approach to Protest Mayhem.” San Francisco Chronicle (April 17).
  2. Many of the leaders of the pro-Trump rallies in Berkeley have been extremists with racist, totalitarian ideas. But many of their followers, although they may voice some of these ideas too, are self-styled “freedom lovers” and “patriots” who regard the left, not themselves, as anti-free speech and fascist.
  3. Nonviolent intervention is capable of inaugurating dialogue between warring perspectives. See Chenoweth, Erica and Stephan, Maria J. 2012. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Columbia University; Nagler, Michael, 2014.
  4. Diversity within the ranks of the alt-right is documented in Nagle, Angela. 2017. Kill All Normies. Alresford Hants, UK. 2017.
  5. “[T]he First Amendment protects even speech that most of us would find hateful, abhorrent and odious, and the courts have consistently upheld these protections…. We will not tolerate violence, and we will hold anyone accountable who engages in it.” Christ, Carol. 2017. “Chancellor Christ: Free speech Is Who We Are.” Berkeley News, Public Affairs (August 23).
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Safety and Ethics of Self-Driving Cars

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 09/12/2017 - 5:01am

Germany just came out with their first regulations for self-driving cars that address how they will be programmed with respect to safety. Specifically – what should the programming do if harm cannot be completely avoided and it has to decide between the lesser of two bad outcomes? Germany is the first country to come out with such regulations, and therefore sets the example for other countries who will likely follow.

Here are the key elements of their decision:

  • Automated and connected driving is an ethical imperative if the systems cause fewer accidents than human drivers (positive balance of risk).
  • Damage to property must take precedence over personal injury. In hazardous situations, the protection of human life must always have top priority.
  • In the event of unavoidable accident situations, any distinction between individuals based on personal features (age, gender, physical or mental constitution) is impermissible.
  • In every driving situation, it must be clearly regulated and apparent who is responsible for the driving task: the human or the computer.
  • It must be documented and stored who is driving (to resolve possible issues of liability, among other things).
  • Drivers must always be able to decide themselves whether their vehicle data are to be forwarded and used (data sovereignty).

This all makes sense to me and I don’t see anything overly controversial. Prioritizing people over property is a no-brainer. Treating all people as of equal value also seems like the right move. This is because you could not individualize such decision – only treat people demographically or as part of a group. This would be too ethically fraught to be practical.

The rules assume for now that “driverless” cars have the ability to drive themselves, but still require a licensed capable driver to take the controls when necessary. In fact, the report discusses the possibility that if the programming encounters a decision dilemma with regard to minimizing death and injury, it may turn control over to the human driver at that time to make the tough decisions.

That was the trickiest part of the recommendations, in my opinion. I certainly wouldn’t want the car to suddenly turn over control in an emergency situation. The driver would be hard pressed to react quickly enough to produce a superior outcome to the programming just doing what it can. The report does say if the driver does nothing it would brake and come to a stop as a default. I suspect we’ll find that the default response of the car is likely to be superior to the outcome of giving the human driver sudden control.

The report also explicitly recognizes that automated cars are safer than human-controlled cars. This is already true, and they will only get safer. After 1.8 million miles of driving, Google’s automated cars were in 13 fender-benders, 100% caused by other drivers.

Further, having automated cars on the road will increase safety for everyone – not just those in the automated cars. The higher the percentage, the safer our roads will be. Germany concluded this creates an ethical imperative for governments to facilitate self-driving cars. Perhaps one day they will be mandatory.

The reasons for this enhanced safety are obvious. Driving safely requires constant attention and the ability to react to a sudden hazard with little warning. Humans are terrible at constant attention. We can become tired, distracted, and lose focus. We can become confused by complex intersections or road signs, or blinded by the sun. We may decide to drive while impaired, either because we are sleepy or inebriated.

Computers do not get distracted, do not lose focus, and are never fatigued. They are simply better drivers than humans. This fact alone is creating great pressure to adopt automated vehicles as quickly as possible, now that the technology is here. It seems like this tech will be like smart phones – in a very short time they will become the norm. With cars, however, a “short time” could be 20 years. This is because people tend to hold onto their cars for a long time – the average age of a car on the road in the US is 11.5 years. So even if all new cars purchased were self-driving, it would take a decade to replace most of the cars on the road.

But there are some areas where self-driving vehicles may take over more quickly. Trucks are one example. Shipping requires driving long distances, a much better job for a computer than a human. There are lots of trucks on the road and if they had the enhanced safety profile of a self-driving car that would make the roads much safer.

Taxis are another example. Uber has already demonstrated that the old taxi model is outdated. The new model of using an app and and algorithm to match driver and passenger is much better. Now make those Uber cars self-driving and the roads may quickly fill with driving as a service. This may significantly decrease the need and motivation for even owning a car for many people.

So even if there are a lot of old traditional cars out there for the next 20-30 years, the roads may disproportionately be occupied with automated vehicles fairly quickly.

This is a good thing not only for safety, but for efficiency. Automated vehicles are also likely to be more energy efficient. They can be programmed to optimize acceleration and braking to minimize energy use. Again this is something that humans are not very good at. Cars that give real-time feedback to the driver about energy use do improve fuel efficiency, but computer algorithms could be optimal.

Further, an integrated system could theoretically reduce travel times. Traffic could be streamlined and optimal routes calculated. Also, with Uber type services, you won’t have to make round trips to drop people off.

Once we get to the point that vehicles are fully automated we won’t need a human driver at all. This could add further efficiency. This would reduce the number of people who need to be in the vehicle, assuming the driver is only providing the driving service (like driving a truck or dropping someone off). That is 150 pounds or so less in the car, which improves fuel efficiency. This would have the added benefit of saving time for all those unneeded drivers.

There really is no practical downside to changing over to self-driving cars. This is a huge win for society. One potential subjective downside is the perceived loss of freedom and the fun of driving. That factor may linger for a generation or two, but eventually driving a car will likely become like riding a horse – a pastime or sport rather than a necessity.

The German report mentions the vulnerability of hacking. This is clearly a risk. They recommend that measures be taken to make automated vehicles and their support systems as secure from hacking as possible. This is likely going to be the biggest issue of safety, and we should definitely be spending a lot of resources figuring out how to bake in security from hacking right from the beginning. All such cars should, at the very least, have a fully manual override. The human driver should always be able to take full control in a way that is hack-proof.

But that is not enough. Self-driving cars will need extreme security from hacking. To me that is the only big question mark – how secure can we make them?

Germany’s new regulations are a step in the right direction, and hopefully will motivate other countries to follow suit. This is going to be a relatively rapid technological change, and it’s best that governments get out in front of it thoughtfully.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #588: Celebrity Pseudoscience: 2017 Edition

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 09/11/2017 - 5:00pm
A look at which celebrities are currently working hardest to erode the public intellect.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

PETA’s Counterproductive Attack on Young Researcher

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 09/11/2017 - 5:20am

In North America house sparrows are a menace. They are an invasive species introduced in the 19th century, and have established themselves as a large population. Unfortunately they do so by displacing many local species, such as blue birds. They are cavity nesters and will use up many of the prime nesting spots before migratory native birds get a chance. Their presence reduces the population of many native species.

Birders have a special disdain for house sparrows and European starlings (another invasive species). They are both a threat to bird biodiversity. They are also not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which means it is legal to remove their nests and even to capture and euthanize them (you can then donate them to raptor refugees for food). Many birding enthusiasts recommend active measures to control house sparrows and minimize their impact on native species.

Partly for these reasons house sparrows are an ideal target for scientific research. They can be legally captured, and the research will then serve the extra added small benefit of removing house sparrows from the wild.

All of this makes it all the more ironic that PETA has chosen to target a young researcher (a post-doc) for harassment due to her research on house sparrows. Really, PETA, you have chosen the wrong subject to defend, the pests of the birding world.

The irony does not stop there. Christine Lattin, the post-doc in question, is an animal-lover herself. She is researching stress on captured birds to better understand how different bird species respond to stress. She hopes this research will lead to more effective management of rescued birds. Lattin laments herself:

 “I’m trying to reduce the number of animals used in research, protect endangered species, and help animals in general,” she says. “I think we could find common ground.”

So PETA has chosen as their villain du jour a young researcher who is just trying to protect animals, and as their poster-child of animal rights the asshole of the birding world. That is some solid PR work there.

But of course it gets worse. PETA is now also using all the worst tactics of social media trolls, aligning themselves in behavior with the worst elements of our society. As Science reports:

Then the protests began. In mid-June, about 20 activists—most PETA employees—demonstrated outside a conference building in Long Beach, California, where Lattin was presenting her work. Signs read: “Christine Lattin: Stop Torturing Birds!” A month later, posters appeared across Yale urging the university to shut down Lattin’s work, and more than a dozen PETA supporters held signs on a busy street corner in downtown New Haven, Connecticut. And in August, PETA posted a video on its Facebook page featuring ominous music and pictures of Lattin overlaid with text claiming that she lured birds from the wild to torture them. The video received nearly a million views, and protesters demonstrated again, this time outside Lattin’s research building. PETA is organizing another protest—outside Lattin’s home—on 13 September. It has shared her home address and a Google map of her location with its supporters.

They are protesting at her work and her home. She is getting daily death threats and harassment. She is currently living in fear for her family, including her young child.

As evidence that this campaign will likely not have the intended effect PETA hopes for, just read the comments to the article on Science’s Facebook page. They are mostly critical of PETA (yes, I know, a self-selective group) and hit many of the proper themes of this criticism. They point out that PETA is hypocritical, choosing the wrong target, and employing radical methods that just relegate them to the fringe.

I think the comments accurately capture why this campaign will likely backfire. PETA’s efforts serve to undermine the very cause they claim to promote.

The fact is, most intellectuals and researchers, like Lattin, support animals rights and the ethical treatment of animals. That is the mainstream of opinion on this issue, and it has been institutionalized. All animal researchers must be trained and certified on the proper treatment of animals in their care. PETA wants to move further in the direction of animal protection. I understand that, and I do not fault them for advocating for their ethical position (even though I disagree with it).

I strongly disagree with PETA’s tactics, however. It is supremely self-righteous. They are so convinced not only that they are correct, but that they have the moral high ground and those who disagree with them are evil. Some of the e-mails to Lattin make this clear:

 “You should kill yourself, you sick bitch!” Then the messages on Facebook and Twitter: “What you’re doing is so sick and evil.” “I hope someone throws you into the fire …”

I understand that sometimes in order to make meaningful social change you have to get attention and take extreme action. But that should always be a careful judgement, not a knee-jerk reaction. Not everything deserves all out social war. You can also try to change minds through debate and discussion. If you think you are correct, your ideas should speak for themselves. Ideas can be more persuasive than protest, if you are actually in the right.

PETA, however, does not act like an organization with a thoughtful ethical position, dedicated to changing society for the better. They act like a group of misguided fanatics most concerned about feeding their own sense of self-righteousness. The current debacle is not just a miscalculation on their part – it is a reflection of their core problems.

I also think that PETA acts out of desperation because they are not in a strong ethical position. They are not right, and that is ultimately why they have a hard time convincing many people.

All animals do not deserve the same rights. Their frequent claims of – we don’t do this to humans so why would we do it to animals – just doesn’t resonate with many people. It’s because animals are not people.

We should afford some rights to animals and we should treat them humanely. Those rights should be in proportion to their sentience, which I think is an ethically reasonable position. We slaughter billions of bacteria each time we take antibiotics to fight an infection, and no one worries (or should worry) about killing so many organisms.

No one worries much about baiting hooks with worms, or exterminating termites.

However, the more neurologically sophisticated organisms are, the more they can experience their own existence, to experience suffering, the more protection they deserve. A sliding scale of rights and protections is therefore a reasonable ethical position, and I think where most people fall.

I also don’t think that simply killing animals is unethical, as long as they don’t suffer in the process. We should focus on minimizing stress and suffering, rather than worry that they are ultimately sacrificed. Death is part of the experience of all animals, and in fact most animals in the wild are going to suffer when they die. Most animals will end up as prey, or die from injury or disease.

In response to this argument when I have given it, some have responded that at least it is not by human hands. We are responsible for the death we bring, not death in the wild. I don’t find this argument very compelling, however. There is a small point here, but it fails to address the main issue – do you care about animal welfare, or only about our own culpability? Is this about feeling good, or protecting animals?

Further, we need to meaningfully address the question of what it means to protect animals. I honestly don’t think that most animals need to live meaningful fulfilling lives, because they are not capable of doing so. At best they can lead content lives free from suffering. If a cow’s existence consists of grazing and mating, and at one point that existence ends without stress or pain, I see no ethical problem with that.

Some animals are stressed by captivity, and that needs to be considered. Ironically, that is exactly the focus of Lattin’s research – she wants to better understand how different birds are stressed by captivity in hopes of minimizing that stress.

This brings us back to how PETA’s efforts are so misguided that they are unethical on many levels, and if anything are counterproductive to the cause of protecting animals. And if you disagree with this position, have the courage of your conviction to defend your ideas, rather than resort to harassing and trolling people who disagree with you.

 

 

Categories: Skeptic

15 Credibility Street #24: Feeling out of this world

The Doubtful News Feed - Sun, 09/10/2017 - 12:56pm
This shorter episode is heavy on the theme of “people really believe this stuff” and why that’s not something to scoff at. I (Sharon) am off to attend a cryptozoology event this weekend that might prove to be a bit weird. I also express some thoughts about the years worth of content on Doubtful News…
Categories: Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #635 - Sep 9 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 09/09/2017 - 9:00am
Live from DragonCon 2017 with special guest Brian Brushwood; Special: Costumes at DragonCon; News Items: The Benefits of Vaccines, Conspiracy Personality, Hurricane Harvey, Oldest Hominin Footprints, Heavy Element Creation, More False Claims from Goop, Deorbiting Space Debris, Electric Car Legislation; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

How People Thrive

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 09/08/2017 - 5:08am

There is a science to happiness and to what we might call thriving (sometimes called flourishing) – not just surviving, but being happy and fulfilled. Obviously any such phenomenon is going to be very complex and variable, but some clear patterns are emerging in the psychological literature. A recent study by Brown et al reviews that literature in an attempt to summarize what we know about thriving.

Brown identifies a number of factors that contribute to thriving, but the core seems to come down to two things: being confident and being good at something. Other researchers looking at the same question have had a slightly different emphasis, but I think are essentially saying the same thing. Thriving correlates with living with purpose, for example. Other studies emphasize community and having a belief system (which may just be a proxy for having a purpose). Having a purpose in life has even been associated with better physical health in older adults.

Here is the full list of factors that Brown identifies as correlating with thriving:

A: Is:

optimistic,
spiritual or religious,
motivated,
proactive,
someone who enjoys learning,
flexible,
adaptable,
socially competent,
believes in self/has self-esteem.
B: Has:

opportunity,
employer/family/other support,
challenges and difficulties are at manageable level,
environment is calm,
is given a high degree of autonomy,
is trusted as competent.

So, we like to feel that we have a purpose, that we are challenged but not too much, and that we have the skills, support, and opportunity to meet that challenge. Interestingly, the description of people who are vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist organizations are those who lack these same things – a sense of control, competence, and an opportunity to succeed. This breeds resentment, depression, even desperation.

Many studies focus on religion as a specific variable. There is a solid correlation between being active in a religion and happiness. That same research, however, shows that being religiously active contributes to happiness through two main underlying factors – having a sense of purpose and social connectedness, the same two factors that keep coming up in the literature.

Of course you can have a sense of purpose and can have a robust social network without being a member of any particular organized religion, but religion does make it easier. It comes pre-packaged with purpose and a community. There are plenty of secular analogues, however, such as being a member of a social movement or cause.

There appears to be a number of lessons we can take from this research. For individuals, if you want to be happier and feel more fulfilled, then focus on the attributes listed above. Engage in life-long learning. Try to master something – anything. If your day job is not fulfilling, find another career path, or take up a hobby that will fill your life with some purpose and give you a skill to hone.

Further, invest time, effort, and resources in building your personal community. Make and maintain meaningful connections. Join an existing community that shares your values and interests.

Also notice the things that are conspicuous for not being on that list of what makes people happy. The research clearly shows, for example, that material possessions do not make people happy. However, to further clarify this, material resources are important to happiness up to a certain point – that which is necessary to meet our basic physical needs and to help us feel secure. Some things also give us time (time-saving devices), which also contributes to our happiness, especially if you use that time to do something you find meaningful.

Further, gifts which give experiences result in greater happiness and enjoyment that physical things.

There is a complex relationship between income and happiness. In general, greater income results in greater happiness, but there are some nuances in the data that need to be discussed. First, this relationship is strongest among the very poor. Income positively and strongly correlates with happiness at the lower end of the income scale, and gets weaker above a basic living wage. This makes sense since money can buy security, opportunity, the luxury of time, and health – up to a certain point.

Further, the correlation is strongest for overall happiness (how happy are you in general?) but is not present for moment-to-moment happiness (how happy are you right now?).

Finally, the correlation may not have a simple cause – it may not be or only be that money makes us happy. It may be that people who work hard and are confident are both happy and make more money.

I think the lesson here is not to focus so much on wealth and on obtaining things, thinking they will make you happy. Rather, focus on nurturing the features that make people feel fulfilled, including learning, being flexible, networking, and developing skills. Obviously for people living in poverty, that is a major issue, but developing these traits may help them escape from poverty.

All this does lead to the other implication of this research, beyond the individual to the societal. For a society to thrive and flourish optimally it should facilitate thriving of its members. Our public policies should at least consider how best to give people the opportunity and resources necessary to thrive. Some of this is a matter of basic social and economic justice.

Providing the social infrastructure for thriving is also important, however. This may be as simple as facilitating the existence of groups and organizations that have a purpose and provide a community and purpose for individuals to join.

I recall the discussion around the Iraq war and the notion of nation building. Some commenters at the time pointed out that under a regime like Hussein’s the social infrastructure was destroyed. There were no rotary clubs or the like. There was no social infrastructure. So when the government was toppled, the resources simply did not exist for people to participate in rebuilding their communities and their society. Building social capital like that takes generations.

Further research into the question of thriving is clearly needed to flesh out all the complex relationships, and how best to promote thriving on an individual and societal level. There already is a lot of data to point is in the right direction. The simple answer, at least on the individual level, is to do stuff. Do something that develops you as a person and gives you a sense of purpose. Do not spend your resources surrounding yourself with comfort and things – surround yourself with opportunity and purpose.

Categories: Skeptic

Eliminating Personal Belief Exemptions for Vaccines

neurologicablog Feed - Thu, 09/07/2017 - 5:17am

In the US routine childhood vaccination is required for entry into public school, and in some states even private school. This is a reasonable public health policy. Vaccination not only protects the individual against common infectious diseases, but when enough people get vaccinated this creates community immunity (often referred to as herd immunity) which protects everyone.

Any parent knows first hand that children are seething vectors for germs. Their concept of hygiene, generally speaking, is often not the same as the average adult. Put a large group of children together in a close environment like a school, and you have basically created a disease factory.

Further, some children cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. They may have a chronic illness that makes their immune systems too weak to handle the vaccine, or they have an intolerance to vaccines. For these children, if they want to attend school, their only protection is the community immunity that results from all the more healthy children being vaccinated. 

Vaccine Exemptions and SB277

Over the decades those with a belief system that lead them to anti-vaccine views have persistently lobbied their state governments to allow for exemptions to mandatory vaccination laws. Much of this lobbying has come from the Christian Scientists, who are often anti-vaccine. They have mostly lobbied for religious exemptions to vaccines, but this has often extended to more permissive non-medical exemptions in general.

America also highly values personal freedom as a general cultural feature. In order to balance the public good and personal freedom the laws do not mandate vaccination for all children – only if you want to enter the school system and mix your child with other children in large groups. If you don’t want your child to be vaccinated, you can home school them.

Whether or not this is the optimal balance of freedom and public good is a matter of debate, but that is where we are. The fight now, when it comes to state vaccination laws, centers around how permissive to make the rules that allow parents to seek exemption from the vaccination requirement to enter school.

All states allow for medical exemptions if children have a medical condition that is a contraindication to vaccination. This is non-controversial. There are three other levels of exemption we can consider: more permissive medical exemptions, religious exemptions, and personal belief exemptions.

Of these religious exemptions are perhaps the most controversial. Even among proponents of science-based medicine, it is unclear if this is a fight we think we can win. We should try, but not necessarily go down with that ship. Eliminating religious exemptions in states that have them is likely to meet the most opposition. Personal belief exemptions (PBE) are the most vulnerable. They are essentially parents saying that they don’t want to vaccinate their kids, and make mandatory vaccine policies an illusion. Definitely we can and should eliminate PBEs in all states.

However, after the Disneyland measles outbreak the political calculus on this issue definitely changed. As we have been predicting on SBM for years, it will likely take a significant return of previously eliminated infectious diseases before the public wakes up about the need for mandatory vaccination. That is exactly what happened. In the wake of the Disney outbreak, California passed SB277, which went into effect on July 1, 2016, and which eliminated all non-medical exemptions, including religious and PBE.

At the same time, however, the bill expanded medical exemptions, giving doctors more leeway in granting it. Previously a medical exemption requires a vaccine contraindication, and now it can include a family history of a reaction to vaccines and other softer indications.

Now it has been a full year since SB277, and JAMA has published an article reporting the results. Overall, the results are good. Non medical exemptions significantly decreased, from 2.37% to 0.56%. However, at the same time medical exemptions increased from 0.17% to 0.51%. Overall vaccine exemptions decreased from 2.54% to 1.06%.

So – bottom line is that SB277 worked. It decreased vaccine exemptions by more than half. These percentages may all seem very low, but it makes a big difference for two main reasons. First, the higher the vaccination rate the more effective is community immunity. Getting a few more percent of kids vaccinated can make a huge difference. Second, these numbers are statewide, and are not evenly distributed. There are pockets of vaccine refusal, and likewise those pockets can be significantly decreased by eliminating PBE.

Of concern, however is the tripling of the rate of medical exemptions. These increased in areas where PBE decreased, and so there does appear to be some substitution. However, it is difficult to interpret exactly what that means. Some parents with children with legitimate reasons for medical exemptions may have used the PBE option because it was easier. A medical exemption requires a letter from a doctor. Now they have to go through that extra step.

But of course some parents who really are just vaccine hesitant may have sought a medical exemption for a questionable reason to replace their PBE. Researchers would have to gather further information in order to resolve this. It also suggests that SB277 can be tightened further, perhaps narrowing the range of what constitutes a legitimate medical exemption, to keep vaccine rates high.

We also know from other studies states with more permissive exemption laws have lower vaccine rates and higher risk of vaccine-preventable diseases. In addition to whether or not they allow religious or personal belief exemptions, states differ on how difficult it is to obtain such exemptions. States that make it harder have higher vaccine compliance.

Overall the data is clear – if we want to optimally protect the public from outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, and to eliminate and perhaps even eventually eradicate some of those diseases, we need to have strong mandatory vaccination laws. Personal belief exemptions all have to go. Religious exemptions should go too, but that will be more of a fight. In those states who allow for religious exemptions, it should be difficult to obtain them (like requiring parental education about the importance of vaccines). Further, medical exemptions should be evidence-based, and not overly permissive.

SB277 was a great step forward, but we can’t stop there. Of the 50 states, 47 of them allow for some combination of religious and personal belief exemptions. There is a lot of work to do.

Categories: Skeptic

Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 89

Center for Inquiry News - Wed, 09/06/2017 - 9:28am

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

A Trusted Source in an Age of Misinformation 

In the era of social media, where we are drowning in news and rumor at all times of the day, information and opinion have been commoditized. When misinformation and uninformed assertions are as easy (or, more likely, easier) to spread as the truth, there is genuine value in being known for reason and honesty. Since its very beginnings four decades ago, the Center for Inquiry has built a firm reputation as a reliable source of information and commentary from all who seek it, and that particularly includes journalists.

Three thoughtful articles in recent weeks serve as excellent examples of how journalists who wish to cut through the noise of false news and “hot takes” know to turn to the people of the Center for Inquiry for trustworthy insight, analysis, and plain old facts—including CFI’s own advocacy and good works.

Last month, religion reporter Kelsey Dallas of the Deseret News took note of two issues affecting the secular community: political representation and religious freedom. CFI is well known as an advocate of true religious freedom, for believers and nonbelievers alike, and have worked passionately to defend those rights in the U.S. and around the world. But like many freethought organizations, we have lost the seat at the table we once had in the previous administration. CFI Legal Director Nicholas Little explains that the experiences and perspectives of nontheists must be a part of the wider struggle for religious freedom.

At The Daily Beast this weekend, reporter and religion scholar Brandon Withrow sought to explore the secular perspective on morality without God. Given the alarming results of a recent study on the ongoing bias against atheists, Withrow asked several key figures in freethought about their moral foundations. Among them were our own Richard Dawkins and, quoted at considerable length, Monette Richards, executive director of CFI Northeast Ohio. (Withrow also spoke to recent Point of Inquiry guest James Croft.)

Finally, this weekend in the Sunday Herald of Scotland, Russell Leadbetter published an important profile of CFI’s Secular Rescue program, our initiative to offer assistance to secular writers and activists whose lives are threatened by violent extremists in countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, and bring them to safety in other countries. Leadbetter looks at the origins of Secular Rescue and highlights some of the lives that the program has helped to save.

 

CFI Receives Grant for New Projects from James Hervey Johnson Foundation 

The Center for Inquiry is honored to be the recipient of a significant grant from the James Hervey Johnson Charitable Educational Trust of San Diego, California. Totaling $112,456, the grant will support CFI’s work on four major projects in publishing, historical preservation and appreciation, and community building, all to further CFI’s mission to foster a secular society based on reason, science, and humanist values.

“This generous grant will help us give new life to deeply meaningful freethought institutions under our care,” said Robyn Blumner, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. “Each of these four projects will serve to educate, enrich, and enlighten both longtime freethinkers and those who are just discovering our ideas and our community.”

The grant will be distributed between the following four initiatives:

  • $45,000 will support the publication of The Truth Seeker, America’s oldest continuously published freethought periodical. Since 2014 The Truth Seeker has been owned and operated by the Council for Secular Humanism, publisher of Free Inquiry magazine and a program of the Center for Inquiry. Under its current editor, Roderick Bradford, The Truth Seeker has emerged as the leading publication exploring the history of the freethought and atheist movements.
  • $32,456 will help fund a complete redesign of the Freethought Trail, a series of 112 historical sites in west-central New York State significant to the history of freethought, abolition, women’s suffrage, and other radical reform movements. This will include a full updating and redesign of the Freethought Trail website, adding enhanced searchability, mobile-friendliness, and new interactive features. 
  • $20,000 will underwrite a conference celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, to be held in Syracuse, New York, on August 18–19, 2018. 
  • $15,000 will fund necessary improvements to the new physical location for CFI’s active Los Angeles branch. CFI Los Angeles plans to relocate to its new facility in the fall of 2017.


The James Hervey Johnson Charitable Educational Trust was funded from the estate of James Hervey Johnson. Mr. Johnson was the fourth editor of The Truth Seeker, founded by D. M. Bennett in 1873. The Trust has supported the Center for Inquiry and its program the Council for Secular Humanism through multiple grants during the past two decades, this latest being among the largest yet bestowed.

 

News from the CFI Community

CFI Austin Providing Relief for Houston

The dedicated community of CFI Austin is stepping up to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Last weekend, they delivered relief supplies to fellow Texans in Houston, bringing food, clothing, pillows, sheets, blankets, and toiletries. This week they’re calling upon the greater CFI community to show their support with monetary donations. So far, CFI Austin has raised $700!

You can make donations through PayPal using membership@cfi-austin.org.

They’ll make use of anything they get this week for a food bank in Houston or for flood refugees in Austin. The deadline to donate is Friday, September 8, at midnight.

 

The Tireless Teaching of TIES

The Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES), our program for training middle school science teachers to improve their understanding and teaching of evolution, has had a very productive summer. For example, TIES Director Bertha Vazquez gave several training workshops for teachers at the Opening of Schools Science Teacher Professional Development Day in West Palm Beach, Florida. Plus, two new upcoming workshops have been added to the calendar, bringing TIES’s total up to seventy-three.

September 8, Alan Wasmoen will present at the Nebraska Academy of Sciences/Nebraska Association of Teachers of Science Fall Conference in Kearney, Nebraska. On November 18, Christopher Moran will give a workshop at the Virginia Association of Science Teachers Conference in Roanoke.

This vital and growing program is just getting started, and there’s always something new in the works. To keep up with Bertha’s TIES updates, see her column at CSICOP.org.

 

Countdown to CSICon 2017: October Cometh!

The leaves are just beginning to change color. Parents across the country are breathing deep sighs of relief as school begins again. Retail stores are (already) hawking Halloween costumes, decorations, and candy. You know what that means…it’s almost time for CSICon 2017!

How “almost” is it? Really almost. CSICon 2017 kicks off October 26 in Las Vegas at the fantastical Excalibur Hotel, going through the weekend to October 29. This year’s conference will feature brilliant and compelling speakers such as James Randi, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Cara Santa Maria, Michael Mann, Maria Konnikova, Richard Saunders (interviewed here by Susan Gerbic), Eugenie Scott, and so many more.

For a taste of what’s in store, check out the latest season of CFI’s Reasonable Talk video series, which is totally devoted to talks from CSICon 2016. But, trust us: a web video is no substitute for being there in person. After all, you want to be there to experience all of the amazing speakers, all the entertainment events, and all the fun and silliness at the Halloween disco party.

So get registered right now, before all the leaves fall and the kids go berserk from all that Halloween candy. See you in Vegas at CSICon 2017!

 

CFI Highlights on the Web
  • On the latest episode of CFI’s flagship podcast Point of Inquiry, host Paul Fidalgo talks to Ethical Culture leader James Croft, grappling with the difficult questions and realizations sparked by the Charlottesville white supremacist violence, and discussing how humanists are called to lead the way in healing our national wounds.
  • Despite being exposed as a peddler of pseudoscience by everyone from The New Yorker to the U.S. Senate, Dr. Oz carries on. At CSICOP.org, “SkepDoc” Harriet Hall takes aim at one more of Oz’s absurd regimens, the “grapefruit detox diet.” Harriet warns us, “Stay away from the land of Oz.”
  • Benjamin Radford considers what it seems many so-called “mediums” do not: ethics. As these conduits to the afterlife claim to be able to channel the words of the dead (often dead celebrities), they can never be verified and give little consideration to the impact they have on those still living.
  • As CFI’s resident expert on evil clowns, Ben also uses the release of the new film adaptation of Stephen King’s It to take the opportunity to look back on the history of Pennywise the clown.
  • The popular obsession over the concept of “wellness” may be making some us feel rather, um, unwell. Kylie Sturgess interviews journalist Brigid Delaney about her experiments (on herself) with all manner of “wellness” products from around the world.
  • In Skeptical Inquirer, Kyle Polich looks into the claims of mysterious disappearances from national parks in the “Missing411” series of books.
  • What’s the big deal if academic and scientific journals move a decimal point? Stuart Vyse writes about the debate over whether these journals should change their standard for statistical significance from .05 to .005.
  • Joe Nickell pays tribute to H. David Sox, who died last month. Sox was a researcher who began promoting the veracity of the Shroud of Turin but came to realize it was a forgery. Writes Joe of his work, “I learned with what intelligence, integrity, and verve [Sox] approached that subject—and so many things that mattered.”
And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.


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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 www.centerforinquiry.net. 



 

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