Dr. Oz, Disinfected by Sunshine

I was a guest on HuffPost Live this afternoon, joining a panel to discuss the whole Dr. Oz imbroglio, and something struck me that I wound up mentioning at the end of the segment. I pointed out that we’ve suddenly found ourselves at a point in media and culture in which crap pseudoscience and the denial of reality are starting to get called out.
Think about it. Dr. Oz, a TV doctor whose influence and popularity are probably unmatched by any similar figure in modern history, is being taken to task for promoting “miracle” weight loss “cures,” garbage “natural” remedies meant to do everything from improve your sleep to stopping cancer, and other, even more brazen examples of pseudoscience like homeopathy and psychics. He’s “America’s doctor,” sporting the Oprah Seal of Infallibility™, and millions of Americans swear by his every utterance. Nonetheless, not only are major news outlets tracking and exposing his nonsense, but he was even hauled before a Senate committee and given the business by Claire McCaskill. (I got a little media hit for that one, too.) That’s a huge deal.

Earlier this week, the FDA held public hearings on the marketing and regulation of homeopathy, a branch of pseudoscience that is so blatantly fantastical that even calling it “pseudoscience” gives it way, way too much credit. And yet billions of dollars are spent on homeopathic products, and its adherents insist on its medicinal properties, despite its complete disconnection from, like, physics. It took some doing, but now by holding these hearings, whatever their result, the FDA is implying to the public that “there’s something fishy here,” something worth holding hearings about. My colleague Michael De Dora was even invited to give testimony near the beginning of the hearings (here’s video in some weird Adobe format), and articles are popping up left and right that quote what he said. (He also did two great public radio interviews.) More and more Americans are hearing the message that homeopathy, that branch of medicine that you heard was “natural” and “alternative” is actually a bunch of junk.

And of course this year we saw the fall of the anti-vaxxer, as a series of measles outbreaks, particularly in Disneyland, led to a serious backlash against the celebrity-championed war on immune systems. Even the pandering GOP politicians trying to make common cause with the anti-vax movement are finding themselves looking ridiculous, as the political press corps does a collective facepalm.

All of this has been taking place in just the last few months, and the seeds of it have been germinating for a few years now. Part of the reason, I think, is that more reality-accepting young journalists are on the ascent, and the current trend for reporting is the “wonkblog” or “data-driven news site,” where raw facts make more good, clickable web copy. I’m seeing it not just at Ezra Klein’s and Nate Silver’s sites, but sites as diverse as Boing Boing (quirky culture), The Verge (tech lifestyle), io9 (science fiction and fantasy), Raw Story (left-wing outrage-posts) and many others. My friend Ed Beck suggested that it really all began with Phil Plait’s move to Slate from Discovery in 2012, and he might well be on to something there.

Organizations like mine, the Center for Inquiry, have been a key part of this shift, I believe, as every day we chip away at bad assumptions, lazy thinking, and credulousness. Bit by bit, we make the case for the acceptance of science – science the process, as well as its products – and the critical examination of extraordinary claims. The ideas that vaccines cause autism, that water retains a “memory” of a substance it no longer contains, or that magic beans can burn your fat or kill your cancer, are all claims that require that kind of critical, skeptical eye.

Only today have I allowed myself the luxury to step back and think, holy shit, I think we might be getting somewhere. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve moved that sisyphean boulder only a couple milimeters, but even just having gotten that far, I’m telling you, the view is better.

Here’s my HuffPost appearance, with a bunch of smart people.


(Note: On the Dr. Oz thing in particular, you have to read the work of Michael Specter and Julia Belluz.)

Here Come the Apologetics from “Some” Mars One Candidates

The true believers of Mars One have begun to respond to the criticism the program is facing, most specifically from the excellent investigative work of Elmo Keep, whose pieces I have now cited twice on this blog. Yesterday, I wrote about how Keep’s reporting reveals that Mars One is beginning to look less like a noble scientific enterprise, and more like a profit-seeking rapture cult.
Today, I am directed to a rebuttal piece that is part group-response from Mars One candidates, and part personal response from candidate Oscar Mathews Correa. I’ll get into a few of its specifics in a bit, but it’s more or less what you’d expect, an attempt to correct or put in context the problems that Keep’s reporting has raised.

Now, to be entirely clear, I should say that the first part of the article is allegedly by a group of Mars One candidates, as no names are given. Rather, it is attributed to, literally, “Some Mars100 Facebook Candidates.” So right off the bat we’re in sketchy territory, as no specific person is willing to put their name to it (other than Correa, I assume).

The very first problem with this piece is that it calls Keep’s criticisms a “conspiracy theory” right in the title, when in fact it’s the opposite. Keep implies no conspiracy, there are no wheels-within-wheels nor powerful, shadowy entities pulling any strings. If there were, the program would be more successful. But one could certainly infer (as I do) a scam. It is more accurate to say that the rebuttal’s authors are perceiving a conspiracy against them, when of course none exists.

Let’s cover some of the points made by “Some Mars100 Facebook Candidates” in the first part of the article. This will by no means be exhaustive, but touch on some of the points that stood out to me. In Keep’s latest article, former candidate Joseph Roche says that Mars One’s training and expertise requirements fall well below those required of NASA astronauts. To which the “Some” respond:

The Mars One project is very different to a typical NASA mission, and therefore has very different requirements for its astronaut candidates. The Mars One candidates would be primarily colonists, not pilots. It is likely that course corrections and landing procedures will be automated — for uncrewed as well as crewed spacecraft.

There will be 10 years of training between selection and launch, which absolutely does compare to NASA’s level and depth of training. This training might cover emergency manual control of spacecraft if applicable.

“It is likely that…” and “This training might cover…” – why don’t they know? A program designed to send colonists to Mars for the rest of their lives doesn’t know what it will train them for? Or is it that the “Some” haven’t been told? Why not?

Keep reports that the alleged primary source of funding (which would have to be enormous since we’re talking about colonists on freaking Mars), supposedly a TV production company, bailed on the program. The “Some” say all is well, because:

The primary source of finance is to be an investment firm in the first stages of the mission (leading up to and including the first manned mission). The documentary and live broadcast aspects of the project are expected to bring in revenue at later stages of the project. Mars One is in talks with both an investment firm and a new production company to take over the documentary aspect of the project. Collaboration with Endemol [the original production company] was reportedly ended as they were unable to reach an agreement over the terms of the contract.

Which investment firm? What firm on Earth is willing to be the primary source of billions of dollars for this vague project? And it is vague, even in how the “Some” describe it. Funds are always “expected,” and Mars One is always “in talks” (remember the “meetings” from my Underpants Gnomes post). It’s all a lot of promised milestones, none of which have been reached, and by their own admission, at least one has fallen through. Why is this all so murky?

That’s my overall impression of the rebuttal from the “Some”: It’s airy and hangs its assertions on “talks” and expectations, with little to nothing that is solid, decided, or in place.

Moving on to the second half of the piece, we have Correa’s personal response (which is itself apparently an extract from another article somewhere else). Like the “Some” response, it doesn’t begin well either:

That rascally Elmo Keep is at it again.

“Rascally”? Yeah, I’m really ready to take this person seriously. Note, too, that Correa refers to Elmo Keep as “Elmo” and not by her surname, as through they’re buddies.

Correa, overall, seems to believe that the bad impression now being given by Mars One is the result of some “missteps in public relations,” not to any problems with the facts of the program.

He plays a cheap emotional trick early in his response by putting a lot of emphasis on the early medical screenings undergone by candidates, as though this made up for the thin application and paltry interview process, and drops in that the medical screenings “surprisingly revealed some candidates with cancer, potentially saving their lives.” You see? Mars One is already saving lives! Just with its application process! Only a monster could object to saving people’s lives from cancer.

Correa seems to me to be fixated on the supposed agendas of various parties rather than the legitimate criticisms of the program. He writes:

For example, in one televised interview done in the Miami broadcast area (en Español), a NASA engineer attempted to refute some MarsOne mission plan elements by saying we would never get to Mars until we could land 40 metric tons on the surface. This is not true. Yet he receives airtime because he works at NASA, and of course they have their nascent “Mars missions begin on the ISS” agenda to promote.

Ah ha! You see! It’s a conspiracy by NASA who want to stop the Mars One mission from succeeding, because what they really want to make sure humans get to Mars the NASA way.

And yes, he receives airtime because he works at NASA. Because he actually has a chance of knowing what he’s talking about. He might actually bring facts, expertise, and experience to the discussion.

Unlike, well, “Some.”

I wonder if we’ll see more of this. This particular article isn’t egregious, but it smacks of defensiveness, released to fill the dead air coming from the Mars One organization, and its lack of substance only increases my already-deep skepticism of the project. More worrying is how it reads like religious apologetics. They believe it will all work out, because it’s been promised. And the promised land itself, Mars, beckons so strongly, and feels to them to be so close.

I hope too many people don’t get screwed too badly.

Stuck in the Middle with You: The Awkward Sidelines of Skepto-Atheism’s Internal Battles

Image by Shutterstock.
Mommy and daddy are fighting, and they’re ruining Christmas. This is pretty much how I feel most days when I glance at my Twitter feed or peruse the blogs of the skepto-atheosphere. People I like and respect making each other miserable, attacking each other, and each more or less defining the other as either a monster or a bucket of spit.

Despite my best intentions, I fear that I often come off as “above it all,” in the snootiest sense of that term, as I tend to avoid mixing up with myriad debates and wars. First and foremost, this has to do with my job, where it would boot little for me or my organization for me to paint myself, and then by perceived association my employers, with one particular faction’s colors. I have not always succeeded in avoiding doing so, but it’s what I try to do.

Another major factor is my own aversion to conflict. My self-loathing is deep enough that being on the receiving end of attacks, or even perceiving myself to have dropped in the estimation of someone I like, is enough to send me back into therapy. (I actually am back in therapy but that’s unrelated to this little rhetorical flourish.) Few are the hills I feel are worth dying on. So unless the issue in question is of such significance to me that I feel I have to get over my anxiety, I tend to stay out. One example is my recent post on violence against women portrayed in video games, which I was terrified to post, and I kept in a draft state well after it was finished, and even then I didn’t tweet the link or post it to Facebook, just so I could delay any blowback.

But perhaps the most galling part of this is when the war of words is, as I mentioned before, between people I like and respect, people who I believe to be on the same side in almost all things, to have more overlapping goals than opposing, and to be coming from equally principled and well-meaning points of view. And regardless of where I personally come down on a given issue, I can recognize the validity and wisdom in aspects of those positions I don’t agree with. Like I was taught in retail, I begin by assuming positive intent.

(Let us also assume I’m not talking about plainly malicious trolls, and give me the benefit of the doubt that I would not consider genuine harassers who mean harm among my friends, or among those I respect. Okay?)

The current kerfuffle over Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one good example. I have my own opinion about it, friends and colleagues of mine have opposing opinions, and the argument over those opinions immediately became not only personal but all-encompassing. Someone who holds the opposite of one’s own opinion on the issue is not only wrong, but probably an awful person all around, and therefore deserving of awful treatment.

Name any issue about which our community has argued, and this template will probably apply. So what’s one to do?

No really. What should I do?

Here’s what I have done. I haven’t always been weirdly silent. Again, my staying on the sidelines is often necessary for reasons that are bigger than me. Other times, I feel compelled to speak despite the discomfort. In some of those occasions when people I like and respect are locked in Twitter or blog combat, and I note that one of the combatants is going over the line and causing genuine distress, even if I agree with them on the issue, I will contact them privately to ask for a change in their behavior, to mitigate their wrath or gleeful pillorying of their opponent. I try to remind all involved, privately, that we’re all coming from the same place of wanting freedom and equality, even if we don’t agree what that looks like. I try to remind all involved that the person they’re arguing with is a flawed human, with feelings. I think once in a while it helps.

It makes keeping these friendships challenging. When holding the wrong opinion (on what to the outside world might seem a niche concern) is all that stands between me and total outcast status, getting involved at any level in these arguments fails any cost-benefit analysis for me. Worse is when those I do agree with are being dicks about it, where I want to defend one side intellectually, and the other personally. And those differences are excruciatingly difficult to parse, particularly on Twitter, but on any medium.

There’s no solution proffered by this post (sorry!). If anything, I think I just want to convey that there are many moving and changing parts to all of our arguments, and it’s too easy to turn respectful disagreements into the casting of others as villains and sops. I think, and this is an opinion, that to truly hold to the principles of skepticism and rationalism as well as humanism and compassion, is to recognize these nuances, and to make an effort to perceive the moving parts for what they are. It’s to resist the urge to demolish, and to consider the humanity of those with whom you argue.

I mean, really, we can’t all be monsters.

When in Doubt, Blame Slender Man

Image by  Marijune Alejo
This is entirely predictable, and disappointing. Because of a couple of recent incidents in which young people have commited crimes because of the perpetrators’ imagined connection to the entirely fictional being Slender Man, certain corner of the media were sure to be on the lookout for what might constitute a “trend” or “epidemic” of Slender Man-related offenses.

And they got one! Last week, a teenage girl in Pasco County, Florida allegedly set fire to her family home after an argument. Afterward, she apparently texted an apology to her parents. Luckily, no one was harmed, but the girl was charged with arson and attempted murder. You’d think this would be news enough, but then there’s this shocking angle. The Tampa Pay Times reports:

The investigation also revealed that the girl frequents the websites creepypasta.com and souleater.com, which are both associated with Slender Man, the fictional internet character who was said to be the motivation behind two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls stabbing and nearly killing a classmate earlier this year.

That was enough for Huffington Post and Fox News to run with.

The HuffPo headline reads, “ANOTHER Slender Man Attack? Teen Allegedly Burns House Down With Family Inside.” Fox tells us, “Fla. teen with Slender Man obsession sets fire to home with family inside.”

The HuffPo headline follows Betteridge’s Law (“Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no”), as you can imagine. Nothing in that piece or in any other reporting I’ve seen indicates that this event had anything to do with Slender Man, and the fact of the teen’s interest in sites that feature Slender Man are entirely coincidental.

You know who else thinks that? The investigators. Here’s the reporting from WTSP:

At this time, investigators have no evidence to believe that she set the home on fire because of the violence found on these websites, but authorities remain concerned.

Predictably, probably looking to have something to say, a general warning about those scary interwebs is given by the sheriff:

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco says that while Slenderman and websites like CreepyPasta and SoulEater may not have directly led to the teen setting the fire, he wants parents to be aware of their existence and the content they contain.

There’s obviously nothing wrong with parents being aware of what content their kids consume online, and obviously there’s no direct line here.

Fox’s headline goes in a slightly different direction, claiming that the teen has a Slender Man “obsession.” But there’s been no reporting that supports that characterization. But it serves to draw a connection where perhaps none exists. There could be a connection, but no one’s reported any evidence as of yet.

From my limited exposure, clearly the kind of material that comes from these websites is inappropriate for certain young people. Clearly it’s not for kids, and emotional teens are already impressionable, so I don’t want to downplay the influence that violent media could have on a young mind. By no means.

Some of the reporting notes that the teen in question was also reading many other violent media online, but since they’re not known to a general audience, they go largely ignored in the clickbait pieces.

My critique here is of some in the media’s choice to infer or imply a nonexistent connection to a hot-button Internet phenomenon to a genuine crisis for a real family. Who knows what affect any of this media she’s consumed may have had? And who knows what else might be going on in this scared, angry girl’s life that could have driven her to this kind of act? Crying “Slender Man” is easy, and exploitative of a family in a terrible time.

Hey, I have a lot of fun with Slender Man. I find the idea that a mythical horror-being, birthed online, and whose creator has explicitly said is entirely made up, has had such an impact on imaginations and psyches. It’s obviously fictional, and yet it stirs something in people’s lizard brains that makes them truly scared. So I’ve made funny images with Slender Man, I like to make jokes about him, and I like to tweet this:

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 1.58.38 PM

If anything bad were to happen to me, or if I were to do something crazy, would that be ANOTHER SLENDER MAN ATTACK?


Montaigne: A Skeptic and Secular Humanist Before It Was Cool

Montaigne is a huge influence on my writing, as he exemplifies what I love best about the form of the “essay,” where certitude about a subject is put aside for self-reflecting deliberation. He’s also the prime influence of Andrew Sullivan, who also inspires my writing, and Sullivan is currently hosting at his site a book club series on a truly wonderful book: Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne.

Of particular interest to folks around these parts of the blogosphere is how Sullivan and his readers keep returning to Montaigne’s apparent lack of religious feeling and his general skepticism. Indeed, it is often said in these posts in one form or another that skepticism was Montaigne’s key trait, the thing that differentiated him from the rest of his contemporaries, and fueled the very creation of what we now know as an essay.

Here’s how Sullivan puts it in the introductory post, with my emphasis:

[Montaigne’s is] a philosophy rooted in the most familiar form of empiricism. It is resolutely down to earth. …  This is a non-philosophical philosophy. It is a theory of practical life as told through one man’s random and yet not-so-random reflections on his time on earth. Andit is shot through with doubt. Even the maxims that Montaigne embraces for living are edged with those critical elements of Montaigne’s thought that say “as far as I know” or “it seems to me” or “maybe I’m wrong”.

Now read on as what we began talking about as Montaigne’s skepticism begins to sound like something else:

[H]ere’s what we do know. We are fallible beings; we have nothing but provisional knowledge; and we will die. And this is enough. This does not mean we should give up inquiring or seeking to understand. Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism.

And this is what I mean by secular humanism. (Not necessarily that truth is “beyond our grasp” — I would modify that to an acceptance that there may be things our meat-based cranial wetware can never quite process, but not that we know this to be so.) Life is finite, but in the time we are conscious and mobile we have an opportunity to investigate and make meaning as we will. To do that, you need to come to terms with mortality and, if not the non-existence, then at least the inaccessibility, of the supernatural.

For the record, though I have accepted the lack of a supernatural, coming to terms with mortality is a state of being that continues to prove elusive to me.

There’s more. As the conversation at Sullivan’s blog goes on, readers begin to clamor for a discussion that answers not just whether Montaigne was a skeptic, but whether he was an outright atheist. (Indeed, they really want to know if he qualifies as a “New Atheist,” which I think is a pointless question.) To try for an answer, they go to the authority, Sarah Bakewell:

I am an atheist myself and therefore quite inclined to look for an atheist Montaigne. On the other hand, I came to feel that this would be an over-simplification.

By temperament and general world-view, Montaigne was extremely skeptical, and this inclined him towards atheism. But he was skeptical about all claims to a single truth about the world – both religious claims and what we might now call scientific ones. … I think I’d sum up my impression of Montaigne by saying that he was not necessarily an atheist … but that he was profoundly, enthusiastically, gloriously secular.

That sounds right to me. Ascribing atheism to historical figures for whom such an outlook would have been extremely alienating I think is largely a fool’s errand. We do it with Jefferson, Lincoln, Shakespeare, and on and on, and while any or all of these individuals were certainly skeptical, contemplative, analytical, and prone to challenge outlandish notions, they lived in times when out-and-out atheism would have been quite a leap, and even if they were privately entirely atheistic, we’d likely never know. So too, I think, with Montaigne.

I went back into my notes from my first reading of the Essays to unearth some of his better skeptical passages, and I tell you my cup runneth over. Take away some of the more archaic structure of the 16th century prose, and you could read these passages in Skeptical Inquirer:

‘Tis very probable, that visions, enchantments, and all extraordinary effects of that nature, derive their credit principally from the power of imagination, working and making its chiefest impression upon vulgar and more easy souls, whose belief is so strangely imposed upon, as to think they see what they do not see.

Or how about this for a way to describe the latest flimflam artist or psychic:

These ape’s tricks are the main of the effect, our fancy being so far seduced as to believe that such strange means must, of necessity, proceed from some abstruse science: their very inanity gives them weight and reverence.

That’s awesome.

He also leaves clear room for the existence of God, even if he finds such a being wholly out of his ability to comprehend. But he does so seemingly as a hedge:

[R]eason has instructed me, that thus resolutely to condemn anything for false and impossible, is arrogantly and impiously to circumscribe and limit the will of God, and the power of our mother nature, within the bounds of my own capacity, than which no folly can be greater. If we give the names of monster and miracle to everything our reason cannot comprehend, how many are continually presented before our eyes?

Some say God is responsible for this or that event, but Montaigne says that making such claims limits the potential power of said God, and leaves no room for actual discovery or investigation.

Thence it comes to pass, that nothing is so firmly believed, as what we least know; nor any people so confident, as those who entertain us with fables, such as your alchemists, judicial astrologers, fortune-tellers, and physicians.

“God” is such a big idea, so open to interpretation and imagination, with so many ways it could be presumed to manifest, that it makes sense that Montaigne doesn’t tell us that such a thing absolutely doesn’t exist. But his experience in the real world allowed him to be keenly and unabashedly skeptical. And as he does not seem to have lived his life nor written his works in any explicitly Christian mode, we can also say, as Bakewell does, that he was indeed “profoundly, enthusiastically, gloriously secular.”

The Earth Will Be Peopled by Entirely Another Generation

Yes, they cared about this a hundred years ago, too. From the New York Times, December 12, 1912:

For those who delight in that sort of amusement to-day is a day to celebrate by writing a great many letters and dating them, each and every one, 12–12–12. The sequence of the twelves makes positively a one-day stand and no more. Those who put off their writing after to-day will never again while they live have this opportunity! When again a person takes pen in hand to indite a letter with the figures 12-12-12 in the dateline, an entire century will have passed, and the earth will be peopled by quite entirely another generation. Last year there was 11-11-11, but, alas there never can be a 13-13-13, unless they change the calendar a great deal.

Found via the indispensable Twitter account, The Times Is On It.