Ghost Haunts Dumbells, Say Dumbells

September 27, 2008

Little needs to be said about this story, other than to wonder how this stuff manages to percolate up to top news sites like Fox, where a vague blob moving around in some security camera footage of a gym gets dubbed a “possible fitness phantom.”

Look: I know it’s too much to ask the news for “objectivity” or “balance” these days, but you’d think that the one thing news reporters should be good at is investigative skepticism. The FoxNews story says that a security company has ruled “out insects, dust and headlights from the outside” as the cause for the artifact (note that the original story doesn’t say any such thing.) How? It looks exactly like the standard “bug on the lens” effect: so how is that being “ruled out?”


Conservatives Are More Likely to Believe Falsehoods If Told They Are False… And Why That Might Be Sensible Of Them

September 15, 2008

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone versed in psychology, but more and more research is supporting the idea that political falsehoods are effective: even if they are later exposed as false. Whether you be Democrat or Republican, the emotional effect of a compelling narrative or juicy smear seems to remain even if its decisively debunked. While we all seem to form knee-jerk attitudes initially because of certain claims, but we don’t base the attitude on the continued veracity claims: the attitude stands on its own with out without the survival of the supporting claims.

But in some cases, it’s even more bizarre than that. As political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler discovered, conservatives are especially prone to a sort of backlash effect: being given evidence that a claim is false seems to make them more likely to believe it’s true:

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might “argue back” against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same “backfire effect” when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research.

Kevin Drum thinks that this effect may have something to do with the carefully celebrated disdain many conservatives have cultivated for experts and media sources in general, and there may be something to that. Drum also notes that the source of the refutation didn’t seem to help either: conservatives seem more likely to believe a politically convenient falsehood even if it’s FoxNews that’s trying to correct the misinformation.

Liberals will no doubt find this research as yet more evidence that their counterparts are indeed stubborn science-haters who prefer ideology to reality (conservatives may, ironically, respond by denying the science behind this study). But before we go whole-hog down that route, I can think of one major explanation for the results that Drum might have missed, and for obvious partisan reasons.

Simply put, this research might not be evidence of conservative pigheadedness: it could just as easily be taken as evidence of legitimate conservative cockiness in the face of consistently lousy critics. That is, it could be that, in the actual real-world experience of most conservatives over the past few decades, prominent “refutations” of ideologically pro-conservative claims really have turned out to be wrong a lot of the time. Perhaps even so much that encountering strong objections to such claims is itself a good statistical predictor of their veracity.

This isn’t necessarily a rational reaction on a case by case basis; it doesn’t have to be. Like any Pavlovian mechanism, what matters is simply its general effectiveness as an association over time and experience. A knee-jerk “backfire effect” response may not make conservatives look very good in a controlled situation in which the claim is already known to be wrong. But it might be a reaction that’s served conservatives pretty well in everyday political life.

Thus, what may be at work here is simply a difference in actual historical experience. Refutations of claims that liberals like may simply have turned out to be valid more often than the refutations of claims conservatives like. And because each group has had different experiences, they’ve developed different knee-jerk mechanisms for how they process a refutation of a politically convenient claim.

Of course, this explanation would require you to basically accept that, in practice, conservative claims really are right more often than liberal ones. Or, at least, that critics of core conservative claims tend to be a lot sloppier and untrustworthy than critics of liberal claims. As someone that leans towards the liberal side of things myself, my own knee-jerk reaction is to find such possibilities absurd: how could our “reality-based community” be less reliable than… than… them?!

The problem, of course, is that I’m obviously too biased to subjectively sum up such a broad and comprehensive balance sheet of overall trustworthiness. Nor can I think of any immediate way to test a partisan bias in “accuracy” empirically.

But I do know that it’s at least a possible explanation for the highly partisan nature of the “backfire effect” that the researchers observed; it’s one which I can’t, as a good social scientist, immediately discount just because I happen to get all worked up about McCain’s latest campaign ads.

And it is an intriguing thought in any case: that the individually irrational behavior of a certain group towards criticism could itself be evidence that their ideological red meat is generally more accurate in the face of criticism.


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.


Blessed Are the Peacemakers: For They Shalt Have .50cal Machine Gun Turrets

September 6, 2008

Missed this story when it first broke, but can you think of a reason for a local police department to have an armored personnel carrier with a mounted 50 caliber machine gun turret? Can you imagine them actually using such a thing in a residential neighborhood in the U.S.?

Probably not. The Sheriff claims that the vehicle will “save lives” and reasons that when “something like this rolls up, it’s time to give up.” I’m all for the police being appropriately armed, but give me a break. First of all, this thing is not going to have time to “roll up” unless the police are either conducting a pre-planned raid, or having a long standoff. And in either case, I very much doubt that an APC is going to intimidate criminals any more than twelve guys in riot gear and machine guns already can. .50cal machine guns are for closed firing ranges and war zones: places where you either want to have safe, human-target-free gun fun, or else turn real human beings into hamburger. They don’t belong in residential or urban police operations for anything short of Die Hard.

But wait: what if I told you that it all made sense because… because… Jesus!

Sheriff Lott stated that the name selected from the entries will be “The Peacemaker” because that is the APC’s purpose and the bible refers to law enforcement in Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God”.

As DrugWarRant points out:

In all my reading of the beatitudes, I never once imagined Christ astride an Armored Personnel Carrier complete with a turret-mounted .50-caliber belt-fed machine gun, surrounded by apostles in SWAT gear, as he said to the crowd “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”


Public Support for “Fairness” Doctrine Disgusting

August 15, 2008

There’s just not a whole lot to say about it.

41% of Americans believe that the government should “require all radio and television stations to offer equal amounts of conservative and liberal political commentary.” Many even want to extend the doctrine, which would essentially enforce points of view on the listening market rather than letting listeners decide, on the internet, which is even more absurd.

I find this poll result almost as upsetting as the high number of Americans who believe in old-school creationism, or can’t find their own country on a map of the world.

It is hard to know exactly how people interepreted the poll questions. Perhaps they didn’t entirely understand what they were agreeing with: perhaps they only meant that they wished media sources as a whole were more balanced and thoughtful. I’m all for that. But the way to achieve it is by promoting, recommending, and endorsing with your feet those voices that take the time to find reason, evenhandedness, and balance.

Forcing by regulation show by show, site by site balance, on the other hand, is as silly as demanding that two people having an argument in person each give equal time defending the other guys position. The whole point of the liberal scientific method, the whole point of free speech and open debate, is that we hash things out in adversarial contest. It isn’t that we try to artificially create balance: we find it in the midst of neverending debate. It’s a collective, society-wide process.

The other faulty assumption I suspect is at work here is the idea that there needs to be “balance” across every single medium of communication. But there’s nothing wrong with the fact that conservatives happen to prefer radio, and liberals newspapers, and so on. The point is the views expressed and people’s free access to them, not how those views happen to be transmitted.


Double Standard for SWAT Shootings: Police Need to Address It, Not Just Deny It

August 14, 2008

I’m not sure I approve of the choice of examples, but the basic point made by Stephen Littau in this post is worth making: there’s a huge double standard when it comes to the actions of police officers and ordinary citizens that honest members of law enforcement need to seriously address and explain.

When an officer in the midst of a SWAT-style “dynamic entry” points a gun at an unarmed woman holding a baby and pulls the trigger, killing her, the fear and confusion of the situation alleviate all legal and moral culpability. In fact, they would only face 8 months in jail even if they were to be found culpable. Likewise if an officer fires through a door and hits civilians: it’s okay. Stuff just gets hairy on the job like that.

But when a citizen fires a gun at what they think is an assailant through a door, they not only face the death penalty, but often get it.

It’s true, of course, that every situation is different. Oftentimes the officers are noble people, and the civilians in question are not. But there is an undeniable overall pattern in which the very same mitigating factors are cited to completely exonerate officers in the line of duty, but yet are denied any role at all in the treatment of civilians.

Officers can’t have it both ways: the whole point of their “shock & awe” SWAT warrants is supposedly to surprise people (many of whom are sleeping and never hear the muffled cry of “police” through their walls and closed doors). The inevitable and predictable result is chaos and confusion. The police cannot deliberately and thoughtfully create such a situation and then claim that the chaos justifies anything they (trained professionals) happen to do. And they certainly cannot claim that excuse for themselves, but then at the same time maintain that ordinary citizens who often have no idea what’s going on are fully responsible for everything they do.


Bigfoot Has Heart Attack, Dies En Route to Press Conference

August 14, 2008

Skeptics everywhere are waiting with perfectly normal breath for the imminent press conference: two professional Bigfoot hunters are claiming that they’ve finally bagged a specimen. There’s even a decidedly nasty photo of the find with what looks like an extra from Planet of the Apes stuffed in an ice cream freezer.

The hunters claim several Bigfoots were spotted walking upright in the area the body was found but won’t reveal the location “to protect the creatures”.

The proud caretakers of the alleged Bigfoot body are promising DNA evidence and more convincing documentation soon.

As we know all too well, the follow-up stories will rarely get bigger headlines than the original claims… even if these guys are later exposed as the most blatant of liars. The result is that the idea of Bigfoot will get another cultural “bump” (in internet message-board parlance). The specific content of the “bump” rarely even matters for such things: even the embarrassment of exposed fraud or ridiculous mistake won’t undo the interest generated.

For two guys with a business based around Bigfoot, that’s a pretty hefty motive for shenanigans. They’re going to have quite a burden of proof here.

Update: Looks like we won’t even have to wait. A “legitimate” Bigfoot research outfit makes a pretty open and shut case for “hoax.” All the guys in question have a history of outright hoaxing, and their story here doesn’t hold up either.

They even have a prediction on how everything will go down that sounds right to me:

But instead, here’s what you might expect from the press conference: Biscardi will waltz in with two smiling impostor Russian “scientists” … who will say whatever Biscardi has paid them to say about the “body” that he’ll never allow the press to examine in the flesh.


Congresswoman: Jesus = Apathetic Neglect

August 12, 2008

When it comes to environmental issues, I’m far from a PETA-pal or global warming groupie. I think massive factory meat production is bad, but I don’t think a few random people being a vegetarian helps stop it. And I think global warming is both a real and man-made effect, but I’m skeptical that we can seriously reduce our emissions enough to make a significant difference (developing directly counteractive climate-change technologies are likely the best hope for a solution, IMHO).

But I see all that as a form of practical realism, not an outright denial that human activity is destroying parts of the planet we should both care about (like the coral reefs) and which will ultimate come back to affect us negatively.

Realism, however, is not quite the strong-suit of many on the religious right. Case in point, Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who had this to say about Democratic efforts to improve emission standards and other anti-pollution crusades:

“[Pelosi] is committed to her global warming fanaticism to the point where she has said that she’s just trying to save the planet,” Bachmann told the right-wing news site OneNewsNow. “We all know that someone did that over 2,000 years ago, they saved the planet — we didn’t need Nancy Pelosi to do that.”(emphasis added)

Yes, that’s right folks: no need to preserve things like coral reefs, coastlines, or cropland in Africa. No need to speak of doing good works in the world, or even not screwing over our fellow man by dumping poison into his atmosphere.

No no: all that matters in life is whether or not a bizarre, largely unintelligible ideology is true or not, thus “saving” us from the hypothetical insane rage of the very being peddling salvation from its own bizarre universe.

Sometimes you’ve just got to drop your jaw in awe that anyone could come up with this stuff, let alone believe it strongly enough to be so self-righteously smug about it.


Did Religion Evolve to… Divide Humanity?

August 1, 2008

That’s what two scientists from University of New Mexico are claiming in a recently published study. The gist is that people seem to do better against infectious diseases when they are fractured and isolated into various societies and sects. Thus, we would expect to see a far greater diversity of religious sects in tropical areas with many dangerous infectious diseases. And, apparently, we do.

“Why does Cote d’Ivoire have 76 religions while Norway has 13, and why does Brazil have 159 religions while Canada has 15 even though in both comparisons the countries are similar in size?” they ask.

The reason is that religion helps to divide people and reduce the spread of diseases, which are more common the hotter the country, the research suggests.

Any society that increased its coherence by adopting a religion, and dealt less with local groups with other beliefs as a result of cultural isolation, gained an advantage in being less likely to pick up diseases from its neighbors, and in the longer term to have a slightly different genetic makeup that may offer protective effects, for instance by making them less susceptible to a virus.

Unless there’s more to it, this strikes me as a remarkably weak argument. I can think of a heck of a lot of other factors that set tropical areas apart from, say, Norway, in ways that seem much more relevant to the development of religious sects. Poverty is a huge one. Lack of education. Lack of, well, health care to deal with the misery of disease. Maybe the researchers have controlled for all these other, more plausible effects, but I don’t see any discussion of this critical methodological challenge in the article.

And, of course, there’s always the alternative model of causation: it’s religious differences that cause disease, as the one-true God smites those who try to get too creative in their worship!

Off topic, but can anyone explain what the final sentence of the article means? Is it just a editing oversight? Because it doesn’t seem to make much sense:
In earlier work, the team linked the rise in the numbers of women who worked with left wing and liberal politics.
Linked them… with what? If they just mean that they tracked the rise of women on the left, that would make sense, but “linked” implies some sort of further correlation, no?

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.

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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?


Are All Toddlers Theists? Researcher Says Yes. I say: Eh?

July 29, 2008

Via Hemant at Friendly Atheist comes a story on the work of Oxford psychologist Olivera Petrovich, who claims in a recent interview that her research has shown that the concept of God is essentially endemic to toddlers, while atheism has to be learned later on. She bases her conclusions on several cross-cultural studies, primarily relying on Japan as a cultural foil to Western theism. Since Japanese culture (by her characterization) “discourages” metaphysical speculation and the idea of a God as a creator, finding children instinctively leaning towards a God-like being as the cause of natural things supposedly implies that children instinctively believe in a God.

As one blogger puts it: Atheism is definitely an acquired position.

Or is it? The main problem I have with her reasoning is that Petrovich seems to conflate the idea of “inherent belief in God as a developmental stage” with “an idea that’s very likely to occur to someone if they are confronted with a particular question.”

That is, she doesn’t actually present any evidence that most, let alone all, children who are not exposed to theistic beliefs as a normal practice, go around regularly and actively believing in God (i.e. seeing a dog, and always then thinking “oh, God made that”) Rather, her research seems to imply that many children will, when presented with the question of ultimate origins, eagerly jump to the offerred conclusion that a powerful, psychological entity would be behind otherwise inexplicable events and causes.

That’s not really the same thing at all.

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