Oprah Boycott: All Kinds of Stupid

September 7, 2008

Oh good grief. If you’ve been following drudge and a host of conservative pundits, you may have noticed an odd story crop up, seemingly out of nowhere, claiming that Sarah Palin had been denied a place on Oprah Winfrey’s show. The story then turned into drudge’s usual fallback: there had been anonymous debate behind the scenes as to whether Palin should be invited onto Oprah’s show. The whole thing appeared to be a bid to win Palin a free media spot.

But far from letting the sneaky bid drop once Oprah herself had denied the already substance-free rumors, people are actually serious about this. As in, they’re actually acting all outraged about it. The Florida Federation of Republican Women is even calling for an Oprah boycott.

The whole thing has a canny, stiffly staged air: an embarrassing spectacle of joiners playing to a campaign script, rather than people doing anything on principle. Oprah, for her part, seems to have a very reasonable and fair principle: no active, headline candidates during the campaign. She openly supports Obama, but since declaring so, has not invited him or his surrogates on to campaign. I don’t see any unfairness there. I see a media figure with a laudable policy of neutrality. Oprah owns her own show: if she wanted to use it to promote Obama constantly, she could have (within the limits of FEC regulations). But she hasn’t.

We’re 60 days out from the election. Sarah Palin is apparently going to spend the next two weeks in an undisclosed location, refusing questions from actual reporters, rejecting what would also be free media spots on countless news programs… but she’s somehow entitled to what amounts to a free campaign spot on Oprah’s (private) television show… when no other candidate, not even other female candidates like Hillary herself, is given such airtime. And that’s… unfair? Especially biased?

Nope. It’s all an act or profoundly cynical posturing: another out of the blue bid for attention. And the fact that people can promote it with a straight face, let alone use bombastic rhetoric about entitlement and desert, is simply astonishing.


Obama Still Wrong on Race: McCain’s Smears Of a Different Sort

July 31, 2008

Josh Marshall over at Talkingpoints Memo is having a little spat with Jake Tapper at ABC. The subject? Whether Obama is right to imply that McCain has been pushing xenophobia and racist themes in his recent bout of negative campaigning.

As Obama put it:

“But, since they don’t have any new ideas the only strategy they’ve got in this election is to try to scare you about me. They’re going to try to say that I’m a risky guy, they’re going to try to say, ‘Well, you know, he’s got a funny name and he doesn’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the five dollar bills and, and they’re going to send out nasty emails.

But Tapper has it right here.

Read the rest of this entry »


Penn & Teller BullS***!: Learn What a Labyrinth Is Jillette!

July 31, 2008

As a skeptic, it’s hard not to like Penn & Teller’s Showtime show BullS***! But it’s also hard to avoid the fact that the show often skimps on the skepticism and science in favor of some seriously self-righteous ranting. The result is a product that’s hit-or-miss when it comes to factual matters and honest debate, but nearly always dead on when it comes to satire.

Their recent episode “Being Green,” in which they poke fun at some truly loopy enviro-hype, is a perfect example. There’s plenty of utterly ridiculous “carbon consciousness” cults and other such fluff out there, all well deserving of a critical eye and a derisive snort. But as is often the case, Penn mixes his bombastic, disdainful style with sloppy science and sometimes even just plain ignorance. He starts the episode, for instance, with the grossly misleading trope about how scientists were predicting an ice age only 30 years ago.

But it’s not the big controversial issues that best illustrate this problem: it’s the sometimes little things that he gets wrong that turn into blowhardery.

As far as I’m concerned, his real crime comes during his otherwise side-splitting coverage of an alt-med therapist who claims to treat the “eco-anxiety” experienced by some truly hapless goofs. After handing her patients “river rocks” and asking them to explain their feelings about their mother, Earth, she takes them on a spiritualized walk through a labyrinth with Jillette’s narration mocking her every step of the way.

But in the midst of it Jillette says something that’s just unforgiveable: (paraphrasing) “That’s not a labyrinth! A labyrinth has choices! This is just a boring walk to nowhere!”

Uh… no, technically it doesn’t. Didn’t the Muppets teach you anything, Mr. Jillette?


Church Killer Adkisson’s Reading List: O’Reily, Hannity, Savage

July 29, 2008

A few more details coming out about what Mr. Adkisson thought he was doing by showing up at a Unitarian church and opening fire with a shotgun.

According to the Knoxville police, Adkisson’s writings expressed that he believed the church was a legitimate target “because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country’s hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of major media outlets.”

The church apparently was once attended by his ex-wife at one point, where she no doubt was thought to have picked up or practiced many of the ideas that Adkisson found so detestable. And the Washington Post’s “On Faith” has more on his obsessions:

Adkisson, who had served in the military, said “that because he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement he would then target those that had voted them in office,” the search warrant states. Among the items seized from Adkisson’s house were three books: “The O’Reilly Factor,” by television commentator Bill O’Reilly; “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder,” by radio personality Michael Savage; and “Let Freedom Ring,” by political pundit Sean Hannity.

All three of these books are, of course, over-the-top, take-no-prisoners partisan screeds. I don’t want to endorse the idea that these writers caused Adkisson to do what he did. But all three of them are books that a madman who hates liberals would find much resonance and comfort in, and nothing to make him think twice.

They don’t counsel thoughtful realism. They don’t endorse moderation or skepticism in their condemnations. They don’t really even acknowledge that liberals might be sincerely mistaken: they instead paint pictures of near-perfect perfidy, depravity, and treason that are destroying and undermining every principle of good society. If you take everything they say seriously (something I don’t think any of those authors actually do themselves), then it’s not hard to see how one could conclude that the stakes are high, and the enemy unredeemable.

None of them endorse mass murder, of course, and so these authors can legitimately disavow any responsibility for what Adkisson, and Adkisson alone, decided to do. But at least off camera, I hope these authors feel at least a tiny bit of regret for a missed opportunity. At one point, they had his attention, and yet so thoroughly failed to make him think twice about his hatreds.

Instead, they simply gave him a tune to sing along with in his desperation. Nothing but reinforcement in his obsessive belief that all the evils in his life stemmed from a single source. For these authors, the grossly uncharitable and uncompromising rhetoric of political shock-jockery was at least partly just theater. Rants that just sounded too good, and were too effective as political spin, to be slowed down with caveats or compromise.

But, unfortunately, at least one person wasn’t in on the joke.


Breaking: PUMAs May Conceed that Obama was Actually Born, Still Exists Today

July 23, 2008

Over at Reason’s Hit and Run, David Weigel has uncovered shocking side-show developments: the never deterred Hillary Clinton-or-bust PUMAs have, all this time, been continuing in their opposition research efforts into the murky past of Obama’s time as as an embryo. And, much their dismay, they’ve discovered shocking evidence that… Obama was maybe actually sort of born in Hawaii after all.

This too-perfect to be anything but suspicious piece of evidence comes in the form of a birth announcement in a Hawaii paper that just so happens to announce Barack Obama’s birth as occurring on the very same day that he was allegedly born.

Even as a fetus, Obama was plotting to take control of the White House.

And yet, the proud PUMAs still aren’t quite convinced: they have a twelve point list of suspected shiftiness, and a spirited comment thread full of theories and fantasies about this astonishingly irrelevant issue.

Then comes the loopiest sentence of all:

Jackson, I’m not sure that any info on the COLB is fake, but perhaps the document was set up to appear to be fake, so that we would spend hundreds of hours studying it…

Did you get that? Premier PUMA TexasDarlin is actually suggesting that there might have been a vast conspiracy to alter or misrepresent authentic documents such that they appear to be fake, all to throw her off the trail of… something. Something embarrassing about Obama’s mother.

You’d think with all the heated rhetoric about how Hillary’s campaign was was sabotaged by sexism, these people could find something better to do than spending their days trying to dig up dirt on the private relationships of a young woman living in the roaringly sexist 60s.


“DNA-Based” Perfume Scam Gathers Steam

July 21, 2008

Longtime Skeptic’s Carnival readers might remember an item I wrote about “DNA-based” perfume way back when. Well, it seems that “My DNA Fragrance” has taken a step up in the world, securing a couple of celebrity plugs and a mention on E!’s Chelsea Lately Show. Their website no longer features jangling flash-based music, but instead a bunch of sweaty spokesbodies writhing in silk to a new slogan: “The scent is in you!”

Unfortunately, the facelift doesn’t seem to have been accompanied by any further explanations of what the heck “based on your DNA” actually means, leaving my skepto-meter solidly at “scam.” In fact, it’s potentially a scam on the level of “naming a star” after someone.

All we know, still, is that you pay nearly 100$ for a Q-tip to swab your cheek, mail it back to them, and then they supposedly have this sample sequenced in a lab. Sometime later, you receive some  “personalized” perfume in an aluminum spray bottle. What happens in between, and what “personalized” even means when translating DNA sequences into smell, is anyone’s guess. They aren’t telling:

Your DNA sample is processed into a numerical sequence similar to a social security number. No one can use this code to deduct any genetic information. Your DNA is used as the blueprint to create a one-of-a-kind fragrance from your genetic code. No two people have the same genetic sequence. Therefore, no two fragrances can smell alike.

My DNA Fragrance™ is made through our revolutionary fragrance formulation process using your genetic sequence as the blueprint to create your exclusive elixir. In the fragrance industry fragrance formulations are a highly guarded trade-secret.

If I took a section of your sequenced DNA (particularly a string without any “identifiers” as they claim), assigned colors to each codon, and then made an image out of it, it would look like, well, random noise. And there are a zillion different ways one could “map” genetic sequences onto another medium such as mixed perfume scents. The results of any one method would technically then be “unique” to you, but the arbitrary choice of method means that you could end up with just about anything at all as an end result.

Why would assigning DNA sequences to smells be any different? The method of translation is everything here. I could build a perfume mix based on the number of moles on your back if I wanted to: the key is not uniqueness, but rather how the source information relates to some final goal. Without telling anyone what the goal of that matching is, and how the DNA sequences help reach it, talking about the final perfume being “based on” your DNA would be just pseudo-scientific psychobabble. So either they are looking for particular genetic markers that in some way relate to genetically determined body odor (thus allowing the company to compliment it with a specific mix of perfume scents), or they’re just arbitrarily translating genetic gibberish into nasal gibberish.

However, if this company has actually identified all the specific genetic markers that determine someone’s body odor, it’s news to me. And news to biologists. While there’s certainly evidence that some significant portion of BO is genetically determined, even top geneticists aren’t anywhere close to having a complete map of the genes determining one’s natural “musk,” let alone knowing all the different genetic variations possible throughout the world’s population. Does this Beverly Hills company know something that top geneticists don’t? Unlikely.

Worse, as I noted in my original article, even if they did have such a process, it would be a tremendous waste of effort. What someone smells like is not some sort of mysterious secret that only your genes can reveal. Noses can do it directly, and on the cheap. Mailing in a patch of a sweaty, pit-stained T-shirt would be a lot more direct and effective way to get information on someone’s unique stench.

Of course, this is all assuming that they even bother running the expensive DNA sequencing at all. Without any information on how your DNA would be mapped to specific scents, this company has a tremendous incentive to simply pocket the huge lab fee, skimp on or entirely omit the sequencing/mapping process, and then just send customers randomly mixed scents. How could anyone argue that they had gotten things “wrong?” What would “wrong” even mean, without any idea of what the translation process is aiming at or trying to match?

In light of all of this, the new testimonials are a hoot:

There are a couple of things that we noticed that might intrigue you too. Glynis insists that there is an element of the fragrance that smells just like the children when they were tiny babies and believe me the look in her eyes tells me something is going on there!

Babies in general have a pretty distinct and recognizable smell, and perhaps the perfume happened to contain an element of that. But if the implication is that the perfume managed by design to capture not only what this specific woman smelled like, but also her children too, then that’s even more implausible than the original sales pitch.

I also noticed that as she moved her hands close to her face the scent would trigger Goosebumps down her arms; something she did not notice herself until I pointed it out to her.

Sounds like a mild allergic reaction to me!

Of course, maybe I’m just spoiling the fun here: giving someone a perfume “tailored to their DNA” may not really mean anything scientifically, but people obviously appreciate the overall sentiment (hence the marketing appeal).

Well, too bad. There’s lots of fun to be had in the world, and not all of it involves buying into dodgy, poorly defined product claims. And for more than 100$ minimum, we’re talking about serious amounts of money that could be spent on sentiments that actually make sense when you think about them.


Adulterers for Marriage!

June 29, 2008

No wayFrom the “What, Seriously?!” file comes this incredible story of Congressional hubris: ten Republican Senators are co-sponsoring the usual federal “marriage protection” balderdash. That, and the complete lack of explanation of how banning some marriages would in any way help preserve or enhance other marriages, is nothing surprising.

What is surprising is who the Republicans tapped to headline this doomed bill: habitual prostitute client David Vitter (R-LA) and suspected old-school gay cruiser Larry Craig (R-ID).

If this isn’t all just an elaborate joke… then it’s a wonderfully, wonderfully amusing world we live in.


Ben Stein, Still Classy, Tells ADL to Shove It & Finally Doubts Darwin Quote

June 21, 2008

Via Thoughts in a Haystack, I see that Expelled is currently appealing to Canadian audiences and reviewers… and getting about the same critical results it saw in the US.

John Pieret highlights two interesting new elements of the story.

First, there’s Stein’s response to the Anti-Defamation League, which was understandably unhappy about the way in which Stein’s film played the Holocaust for a cheap ideological goose, and completely ignored the rather pertinent role of antisemitism:

When I asked Stein about this statement, his response revealed his hostility toward the Anti-Defamation League more than anything else, as he told me bluntly, “It’s none of their f—ing business.”

Next comes the rather shocking realization that Stein is apparently only just now either realizing or openly admitting that the Darwin quote he reads in the film from Descent of Man… the one supposedly showing Darwin’s love of eugenics and amorality… was a highly edited, misleading quote mine:

When I alerted him to the alteration of the Darwin quote and read him the full passage, he said he was “kind of dismayed if that’s true.”

It’s a little late to be “kind of dismayed.”

I have a lot of sympathy for creationists who basically read lists of carefully compiled and context-excised quotes supposedly from biologists, and are basically hoodwinked into a bunch of misconceptions about what those biologists really thought and argued.

But when you put together an entire motion picture whose premise is that the majority of working scientists are basically giant conspiracy of dunces and you know better… well, we’re rather past the point where you can employ ignorance as an excuse.


Shock: Tim Russert Passes Away at 58

June 13, 2008

It’s a sad day for broadcast journalism to lose someone so young, so suddenly. I never met Russert myself, but I do know many people who are going to feel the loss very severely. Friends, colleagues, and family deserve every condolence.

I last saw Russert in person during one of the final debates between Clinton and Obama, where he was a moderator. For all the criticisms people over the years have had about Russert’s style, his preoccupations, his biases, what his style, preoccupations, and biases gained him was an sense of incisive immediacy and even a bit of danger (perhaps something that was easier to feel and appreciate live).

Long before the new generation of loudmouth and dogmatic pundits ironically trademarked “no spin zones,” Russert was pursuing an interview style truly designed to throw powerful people off their guards. Folks have and will debate whether he played favorites, whether he pursued distractions, even whether he was, on some issues, too timid.

But he always struck me as a newsman who at heart just wanted interviews and stories to truly be informative: to not simply have well-prepped politicians repeat back the same information and platitudes that everyone already knew were coming. After working to get where he was, at the pinnacle of political debate, he wanted his job to be interesting at least, worth all that effort and opportunity.

Getting that meant having a style that was a little rougher, and a little less perfectly balanced, than critics might have wanted. But it was quite often worth the effort, and whatever criticisms people have of today’s modern media of which he was a part, I think they’ll quite quickly look back and miss him all the more.


The New Age “Secret” in Hawaii: You Created Your Cancer Circumstance!

June 8, 2008

In my opinion, Hawaii is the best and most beautiful of our 50 states. But while I was down there blissfully schooling with reef fish, I also happened to notice that the local media seemed saturated with the New Age/New Thought nuttery known as “The Secret.” Many of its luminaries were offering talks, conferences, and workshops throughout the summer, with tickets that ran as high as $250 for “V.I.P.” seats.

For those not duly acquainted with this stuff, it’s essentially a self-help/motivational speaking movement that has proudly leaped off the deep-end with mystical pronouncements about the nature of thought and reality. Namely, they claim that the entire universe is shaped by people’s thoughts, and that a “Law of Attraction” allows you to draw the things you want to you just by thinking about them. The whole shebang is, in the end, pretty standard pseudoscience: lots of very vague claims, few falsifiable, coupled with the attitude that any skeptics are party-poopers messing up all the magic with their negative nancyings.

Wishing got me this hatAnyway, one of Hawaii’s local papers featured an interview with one Mike Dooley “former Hawaii Marine brat,” former tax accountant, T-shirt salesman, and now multi-million dollar motivational mufti for the Secret movement. His trademark idea is that “Thoughts Become Things.” He even, without any sense of self-parody, has some sort of super-adventure club called TUT.com to promote it.

How did he come to conclude that he (and maybe you, if you can afford the 130$ workshop) could recreate reality with his mind?

Not finding answers in the mainstream, including the religion I belong to [I was] a good old Catholic boy. I was left to draw conclusions–deductive reasoning. For instance, [that] we’re powerful, loved, eternal, that time space must be illusions. These were my inner suspicions. We are divine creators. What we focus on, we ultimately manifest. Books helped me confirm my inner suspicions about life.”

I’m not sure how or why “deductive reasoning” got downgraded to “inner suspicion” halfway through this paragraph, but the idea that time and space are “illusions” is a pretty darn extravagant claim. And it’s one that I’m not so sure you can use an “inner suspicion” to discern the truth of. Entirely within the confines of your own mind, it’s perfectly possible to think of the universe, and everything that happens in it, as illusion. That’s because it’s the ultimate in unfalsifiable beliefs: any possible evidence to the contrary can simply be classified as part of the illusion.

But what does it really mean to assert that time and space are a mirage… and then try to simply move on from there as a being within that false reality? If everything is fake, what’s real, and how does Dooley know?

Worse still, Dooley promotes his approach by insisting that his method can deliver all sorts of material wants: money, cars, worldly success. But that’s bizarrely out of step with his own philosophical assertions. If reality is a distracting illusion, then all these physical goodies would themselves also be a distracting illusion. What sense does it make to declare reality a complete fantasy and then spend so much time demanding cold hard cash out of it? At least when most Buddhists tell people to let go of any attachment to existence, they mean it whole-heartedly: not merely as a means to a materialist payday.

So, while Dooley calls his insights a philosophy, insisting that what he’s selling is neither religion nor a cult (and thus wonderfully compatible with either), it’s a woefully incomplete and vague sort of philosophy. This is especially so when he runs up against the obvious problem with his few coherent claims: if people create their own reality, then why would anyone choose to suffer? Wouldn’t this mean that individuals are all 100% to blame for any circumstance they find themselves in? When you get sick, is it merely because of a lack of will? Are cancer patients to blame for their colon killing them and their chemo treatments torturing them?

Well, according to Dooley, in addition to the Law of Attraction, there are “other parameters, none of which take away our power, but do explain the disparity we see in the world.” He doesn’t list any, or explain them further. Instead, he sort of slides around the implication without really answering it:

“Fault is not a word that would be used spiritually. We choose our lives, the stage, knowing ahead of time that there could be hardships. Irrelevant of the circumstances, we are creators. Why was such a circumstance created. Every person that has cancer has it with their own intents, rationale, and motivation. To say “Is it their fault?” is taking the whole thing out of context. They are master creators. There are reasons. Whether or not those reasons can be pinpointed doesn’t take away our ability to recognize that we are creators and that things do not happen to us by chance or accident.” (emphasis added)

“There are reasons”? We have cancer with “our own intents”? I’m not sure what the heck that means, but it sure sounds like cancer patients are indeed due little sympathy for their self-inflicted sufferings.

Give me old-time theodicy any day of the week. It doesn’t make any sense either, but at least it isn’t quite as vague and off-the-cuff.

Why isn’t “fault” a word that can be “used spiritually” anyway? We’re back to my usual complaint here: tossing the word “spiritual” or “supernatural” into a concept does not magically alleviate one’s need to explain what the heck you’re claiming is going on. Or, in this case, why a concept like “fault” can’t apply to the idea of people apparently choosing their circumstances. And it doesn’t explain how Dooley can know or “recognize” that nothing happens by “chance or accident.”

Traditional motivational speakers don’t dabble in metaphysics like this: they teach people how to improve on their circumstances, find explanations for things after the fact, repurpose lemons into Fruitopia. They teach positive thinking because it can help lead one to more positive behavior, not because it’s some sort of magic incantation.

I know enough about even the traditional “self-help” methods and movements to be highly skeptical of them, and advise the same skepticism for others. But the kooky claims of this Secret stuff positively scream “scam.”


Mike Myers vs. Hinduism. Deepak Chopra vs Skeptics.

April 1, 2008

Mike Myers, comedian of Austin Powers fame, is apparently ruffling some feathers amongst Hindus with his upcoming film “The Love Guru.” I tend to be somewhat sympathetic to the concerns of religious people when films appear to ridicule or caricature their beliefs: particularly religious minorities that aren’t well understood in the U.S. to begin with. My sympathies don’t extend to complaining about the films themselves of course (religion shouldn’t be any more or less open to fair game ridicule than anything else): I can just understand the concerns about the negative cultural results.

It’s one thing to mock a culture we are all intimately familiar with: we have a solid basis of understanding that comedy can enhance or even challenge. It’s quite another thing when the only thing many people have to go on is a caricature. And while Hinduism deserves as much criticism and analysis as any cultural, religious, or political force, Hindus, as people, also deserve better understanding and acceptance as part of the bargain.

That said, what’s of particular interest to skeptics regarding this film are Myers’ comments about Deepak Chopra, who is considered by most skeptics to be the reigning king of new age, pseudoscientific woo. Myers claims that his character is based on Chopra, but also notes that Chopra is a close friend.

Myers… …says in an episode of the Sundance Channel’s “Iconoclasts” that Chopra, his longtime friend, was the inspiration for the Love Guru character.

“He is the basis of why I went down this path of a character like that, and it’s because I am interested in higher states of consciousness and I am interested in comedy,” Myers says. “The guru, he breaks down your barriers, gets you silly and gets you light so you’re in a place to receive love.”

Will Myers be poking fun at woo and alt-med in a way that skeptics can be proud of? Or will he be basically celebrating the Chopra-hype with a lighthearted endorsement of its ideas? Seems pretty ambiguous at this point, but its something to watch.


It’s Ok to Slap a Woman as Long as its Over a Baptism Dispute

March 25, 2008

Meet footballer (that’s AMERICAN footballer) Cedric Wilson: former wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Why former? Dude hit his girlfriend, apparently out at a bar. Fair enough. Not acceptable behavior on the Steelers.

Now meet linebacker James Harrison:

On March 8, Harrison was charged with assaulting his girlfriend, Beth Tibbot, in her Ohio Township home. According to a police affadavit, Harrison broke down a door, broke Tibbot’s cell phone in half as she attempted to call 911, then slapped her face with an open hand, knocking off her glasses. He was charged with simple assault and criminal mischief and faces an April 3 preliminary hearing before a magistrate in Bellevue.(emphasis added)

Sounds like some pretty messed up behavior, no? Well, according to the teams’ chairman, Harrison’s place on the team is secure, because he had a good reason. What reason? Here’s the chairman’s explanation:

“What Jimmy Harrison was doing and how the incident occurred, what he was trying to do was really well worth it,” Rooney said of Harrison’s initial intent with his son. “He was doing something that was good, wanted to take his son to get baptized where he lived and things like that. She said she didn’t want to do it.”

Now, I know believers have every reason to think that baptisms are good and important things to do to their children. But I hope everyone, believer or non, would still agree that baptisms are not exactly the sort of immediate emergency situation that would make it “really well worth it” to break through a door, destroy a cell phone being used by a frightened woman to dial the police, and slap that woman in the face.

HT: Feministing and Skepchick.