12/8/12

Someone is wrong on the internet


From Skeptic NorthI discovered an entertaining site recently called Skeptic North. It’s a Canadian equivalent to several similar sites and blogs I read that are mostly American-based. It challenges popular assumptions, ideas, trends and pseudoscience and other claptrap. In a Canadian way, of course.

Meaning that it’s usually much too polite in how it handles some of the balderdash online. I’m less gracious. Bullshit is bullshit and should be called out.

I discovered it when I was looking for some additional backup material on COLD FX, an over-the-counter, made-in-China product (I hesitate to call it a medicine; is pseudo-medicine a proper word? or should I just call it a commercial placebo?) made from a purified ginseng extract, that claims to boost your immune system and prevent colds and flus. The discussion has raised itself on Facebook again, with the usual “I don’t care what scientists say, it works for me…” comments.

CBC’s Marketplace show did a’ expose that debunked a lot of the claims, but I found the show a little too sensationalist for my own taste. I was glad to see the article on Skeptic North about the show shared my concerns over the presentation*.

…I was turned off by the typical “confrontation TV” drama they included.

The effectiveness of Cold FX has been debated and challenged long before CBC got around to it. UBC professors questioned it back in 2006. They found:

The main purpose of these studies was to see whether the ginseng extract would reduce the incidence of acute respiratory illnesses (flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, a virus that causes flu-like symptoms), as defined by subjective symptoms such as cough, sore throat and runny nose. The researchers, reporting the results in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found “no significant difference between the placebo and the ( Cold-fX) groups for the number of (acute respiratory illnesses) defined by symptoms.” They also found “no significant difference in the severity or duration of symptoms related to (acute respiratory illnesses) between the two groups in either study.”

The secondary purpose of the studies was to measure the difference in the incidence of laboratory-confirmed (typically by a viral culture) acute respiratory illnesses between the two groups. In the placebo groups, six and 12 per cent of the subjects in the two studies contracted flu or respiratory syncytial virus. In the ginseng groups, these percentages were lower — zero and two per cent — which suggests the ginseng had some therapeutic benefit. However, in each case, the “p value” — the probability that chance explained the difference — was high enough that these differences, by the researchers’ own admission, were not deemed statistically significant.

In 2009, Science-Based Pharmacy published the results of three studies that challenged the product’s claims. Here are the results from the three studies:

Bottom line: If we accept the combining of the two trials, we can conclude the following: In nursing home residents, when taken for 8 to 12 weeks, Cold-fX appeared to reduce laboratory-confirmed cases of colds and flu, but had no effect when considering what patients actually reported.

Bottom line: A healthy adult taking Cold-fX might expect to have 0.25 less colds over a 16 week period. This has led some to question whether this result is clinically relevant.)

Bottom line: Over a 16 week period Cold-fx failed to demonstrate an improvement over placebo. Given the high number of study design flaws, data omissions, the poor quality journal, and long publication delay, it is difficult to draw conclusions from the results. At best, it is suggestive that Cold-fX needs to be taken for at least eight weeks, with a flu shot after four weeks, before it may have any noticeable effect.

And the conclusion in the article?

What if I feel like I’m coming down with a cold? Will starting Cold-fX now have any effect?

There is no published evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of Cold-fX if started at the onset of a cold.

CV Technologies offers a 300mg form of their product (“Extra-Strength Cold-fX“) with the directions to start “at the first sign of colds of flu symptoms”. There are no published trials documenting the effectiveness of the 300mg dosage strength, or evaluating the dosing instructions of 12 capsules over the first 3 days, in reducing the duration of colds or the flu.

The Ottawa Skeptics site also has a good article critiquing how the studies are presented, and says, for example,

Although this trial was well designed, reviewers have criticized the interpretation of the results. For example, the study team described the combined reduction in lab-confirmed influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) as “an overall 89% relative risk reduction”[22] (i.e., an 8% reduction compared to a 9% incidence rate), which is true but misleading. In reality, there was simply an absolute risk reduction of 8% points.

Claims that COLD FX has approval for its packaging statements have also been challenged, as this National Post article notes:

Health Canada has not authorized COLDfX’s long-standing claim that consumers can obtain “immediate relief” from colds and flu by dramatically increasing the dosage, the Vancouver Sun has learned.

You can read the company’s own comments about their battle over claims with Health Canada in 2007, here. Back then, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a well-respected organization, cautiously noted that,

Bottom line: Until more studies are done, it’s too early to conclude that Cold-fx can shorten—or cut your odds of catching—a cold or the flu. Even so, Cold-fx is the only remedy we found with any evidence that it might improve your chances of getting through the cold and  flu season without coming down with something.

This lukewarm endorsement has not been repeated since  to my knowledge (I subscribe to their excellent newsletter, Nutrition Action). In general, CSPINET has been critical of all herbal remedies and done a lot of work researching their claims and effectiveness (which generally is none). Nonetheless, some of the claims made by COLD FX have been the subject of a recent class-action lawsuit, which, as far as I know, is still being decided.

It’s curious to me that people who swear by COLD FX and other non-medicinal products like echinecea - another herbal product proven ineffective – yet will not get a flu shot, which is backed up by considerable research and science and endorsed by every national and provincial health organization and medical association in Canada and the USA. COLD FX is endorsed by Don Cherry. Which do you believe is the more credible? As The Paltry Sapien blogger (another entertaining skeptic) wryly comments.

We like to talk about science and proof and rationality, but in the end belief in hockey and maple leaves and the coldness of winter wins out. Cold FX, this “struggling true-blue Canadian company,” in Cherry’s words — producing a product in China, not Alberta — deserves our allegiance.

Flu shots are free in Canada. COLD FX is expensive (emphasis added):

Over a four-month period, subjects in the ginseng group experienced, on average, one-quarter of a cold less than the placebo group. That means each person has to spend a total of $86 to prevent one-quarter of a cold.

I ascribe a lot of this to the New Age belief that so-called “natural” products (a nebulous term of little value, like “organic,” both degraded by slippery definitions, lax regulations and unscrupulous marketers and – ironically – corporations) are better than manufactured ones. That counterintuitive leap has extended into all sorts of silliness, from belief in astrology and Feng Shui to crystal therapy and magnetic bracelets over astronomy,  architecture, science, and medicine. And let’s not forget UFO abductions, creationism and the Mayan apocalypse – or flu-shot paranoia.

I have yet to find an all-natural computer or iPad on which I can post that observation.

But as for these herbal concoctions – many people want a pill to do for them what they would better get from proper hygiene (frequent hand washing), good nutrition and exercise – without having to do all the work. It’s like the herbal-diet-fat-burning pills: instant gratification without the sweat. Won’t happen.

~~~~~

* For the sake of balance, not everyone thinks the CBC Marketplace show was either accurate or good journalism. For example, blogger Shireen Jeejeebhoy says,

By the end of the twenty-two-odd minutes, Marketplace’s entire piece, when read between the lines and engendering Herculean effort not to be distracted by the bells and whistles, boils down to COLD-FX prevents colds. The claim it provides immediate relief needs further study; the China connection is no different than every other product we buy (have you checked where your frozen veggies are grown lately?), thus is not COLD-FX specific and is a separate topic; the bacterial contamination is old news and a non-starter. In other words, Marketplace told its alert viewers to take COLD-FX daily if you want to prevent colds.

12/5/12

How to Survive the Mayan Apocalypse


Bizarro cartoonHow will anyone survive the “end of the world” predicted for December 21, 2012? Easy: by breathing. That’s because it won’t happen. That the Mayans never predicted it would seems to have bypassed a few of the tin-foil-hat brigade.

The complex Mayan calendar simply ends one of its long cycles – just like ours ends its annual cycle on December 31. Just like we end decades, centuries and millennia on Dec. 31 with a year that ends in zero (10, 100, 1000). But most important: it’s a calendar, fer cryin’ out loud. It’s not a Magic 8 Ball. You think the free bank calendar you picked up last week is going to predict anything?

This is bad news for Bugarach, of course. The tiny French hamlet has been identified by the cohorts of believers in faux-Mayan silliness as the only place on Earth that will survive the imagined apocalypse:

 …Bugarach – population 176 – has been earmarked by some of the doomsday cultists as the only place in the world which is going to survive Armageddon, scheduled for December 21 this year by an ancient Mayan prophecy.

The canny residents of Bugarach are making the most of the sudden influx of loony souvenir hunters by overcharging for everything that’s not nailed down:

Souvenirs include ‘authentic Bugarach stones’ from Pic de Bugarach’s rock-face itself, on sale for €1.50 (£1.20) a gram, and ‘natural pyramids of pyrite iron’ from underground.
Meanwhile, a bottle of water from the local spring, which can apparently cure a range of ailments, costs an eye-watering €15 (£12).
One landowner is even offering up his four-bedroom home with close up views of the mysterious peak for £1,200 a night.
But for those on a budget, he can offer camping space in his field (tent not included) for 400 euros a night.

As the Daily Mail noted in late November, the waves of gullible tourists has caused a local crisis:

In France, the authorities have been forced to ban access to a sacred mountain, rumoured to be a haven from the apocalypse, because hordes of believers have been flocking to the region in recent weeks.
Legend has it that the Pic de Bugarach in south-west France will burst open on that day revealing an alien spaceship which will carry nearby humans to safety.
A hundred police and firefighters will also control approaches to the tiny village of the same name at the foot of the mountain, and if too many people turn up, they will block access there, too.

“Legend” has it? Not quite. According to Wikipedia that is the belief of a small group of New Agers on a nearby commune. They seem to be growing in number (and are possibly planning a mass suicide), but it’s not a local “legend” as the Daily Mail suggests. It’s a recent delusion. And as the exasperated mayor of this hamlet, Jean-Pierre Delord says, authorities should ban visitors until at least December 22 because it would prevent,

“all these idiots turning up in sandals walking up a snowy mountain, that we then have to rescue”.

Seems, however, that Bugarch isn’t the only place that will survive, however. Sirince, a small town in Turkey, has also be deemed a safe haven by the New Agers, and locals are cashing in on the waves of gullible fringies who are arriving:

Sirince, a small town of 570 — with a bed capacity of around 1,000 — is now expected to host more than 60,000 people trying to avoid the apocalypse as the date of Dec. 21 approaches.
Normally a one-day accommodation at a hotel in the village costs around TL 100-500. Following the prophecy, costs of accommodation hit a new record. Prices per single room are currently TL 3,000 and could reach as high as TL 6,000. Moreover, around 3,000 members of national and foreign press will be in the village for a live broadcast.

Dork Tower cartoonDeja vu: who can forget the thousands of witless celebrants flocking to world sites at great expense to see in the “new millennium” arrive on January 1, 2000. All that proved was that idiots are bad at simple math – the millennium actually began in 2001. But the tourist operators weren’t about to correct these fools, at least until their cheques cleared. (They may flock to Guatemala this time, however, if the Guatemalan government has its way.)

There are apparently many people who believe this improbable “apocalypse” will really happen, although you can never be sure online whether someone believes or is just riding the trend of popular attention. Or that they’re not just pulling your leg. For example, on 2012apocalypse.net – a mishmash of all sorts of pseudoscience, superstition, New Age spiritualism, aliens, Nostradamus, and related claptrap – the writer says:

Many Great Prophets, Religious Scriptures, and Scientific evidence point to a possible apocalyptic event happening in the year 2012.

Well, you can already see the flaws in this argument. First you have to believe in the validity of any prophet, and of the literality of any religious scripture, or in this case, apparently every religious scripture. But the science? Nah. Not there.

The end of the Mayan calendar coincides with a galactic alignment, in which the Sun will align with the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Not quite, it’s actually about 6 degrees north of the galactic centre line on Dec. 21. But so what? It’s an annual occurrence. As NASA notes:

Each December the Earth and sun align with the approximate center of the Milky Way Galaxy but that is an annual event of no consequence.

NASA goes on at great length to explain the so-called alignment, stating, “…the sun appears to enter the part of the sky occupied by the Dark Rift every year at the same time, and its arrival there in Dec. 2012 portends precisely nothing.”

Precisely nothing is exactly the amount of credibility in the entire Mayan apocalypse conspiracy. Coincidentally it’s the same credibility you find in crop circles, UFOs, magic crystals, astrology, numerology, angels, psychics and ghosts.

That hasn’t deterred the believers. In fact, little seems to dent the armour of their belief. One man in China (about as far from the Mayans as anyone could be), spent his whole life’s savings to build an ark to escape the expected destruction, according to the Daily Mail:
Daily Mail

Other wingnut sites promote the idea of a rogue planet – “Nibiru” or “Planet X” – or maybe a brown dwarf star suddenly appearing in the solar system on that date and hitting Earth. Or maybe just changing us irrevocably by dumping hostile aliens on us, as one (wacky conspiracy-theory) site suggests:

Nibiru will not bring worldwide destruction, although we could say that life will change as we know it. With all the attention that our extraterrestrial family is paying to earth, it’s unlikely that we will visited by the Anunnaki to further enslave us… or that we be destroyed… we’re already a totally enslaved planet. Everybody in our universe eventually turns to the Light, and this is the case with Anunnaki.

And this is not the wackiest of the lot. Over at this site, you’ll walk the path of the furthest edge of the lunatic fringe:

Without a doubt, Planet X is bombarding Earth with flaming fireballs from its debris tail, which, blown by the solar wind, billows directly toward Earth. Blazing hunks of junk from this tail are hurled at us with increasing regularity.

Another zany New Age site has all sorts of bizarre stories about this mysterious planet that apparently only its believers can spot and photograph, since it eludes the equipment of skeptics and astronomers alike:

Many pictures and videos of “Second Sun” sightings are being captured on cameras by people all over the world. Alberto Cardin in Italy gets excellent captures of Planet X in the sky. How does he do it?
Alberto says it is easy to do. He uses the film cut from an old floppy disk as a filter and closes the the camera lens (having a good view). He also uses classic Mylar and orange colors. As can be seen in Alberto’s pictures, using different color filters to repress the Sun’s glare brings out different features. Due to the red dust in Planet X’s tail, a red filter allows more of this color to come through and yellow is close to red in the spectrum (ZetaTalk and Poleshift.ning).
You cannot cover-up a second sun in the sky!
The citizens of earth have a right to know about the catastrophes and earth changes Planet X brings and what the future holds for Earth, so that all, and not just a select few, can prepare for what lies ahead, in their own way, as as best they can. It’s time for the truth.

The truth is that your tin-foil hat is on too tight.

And don’t even get me started on the self-described “psychic” Nancy Leider, who claims to be channeling aliens from the star system Zeta Reticuli. Leider, who is nuttiness incarnate, claims she was abducted by gray extraterrestrials, the Zetas, when she was a child. They implanted a chip in her brain to allow them to communicate telepathically with her, which she spews forth on her website, Zetatalk (when the aliens are not channeling their anti-Israeli political diatribes through her, it seems). For example, the Zetas made this comment on Dec. 1:

We have described the location of Planet X since 2005 as being within the orbit of Venus and moving slowly outbound.  It is moving in a retrograde orbit, pushing the Earth back from when it was stopped in its orbit in 2003 in the December position. It was in the September position in 2009 and then by 2012 had moved to where it will remain until the Pole Shift –  the August position. Meanwhile, the cup has tightened. Venus has pushed closer to the Earth, the Dark Twin has fallen behind the Earth and is trying to pass the Earth in their shared orbit, and the Earth’s wobble has gotten more severe and violent. It is the very crowding of these planets in the cup in front of Planet X that causes the slow pace of Planet X as it tries to move outbound away from the Sun in its retrograde orbit.

She goes on to say that NASA is covering this up, but President Obama will make the announcement that Nibiru is real, later this month, once he escapes from their scientific clutches. It’s fascinating, disturbing reading, but ultimately entertaining, even if it’s not really polite to laugh aloud at the hard of thinking. I love a good conspiracy theory and can’t help myself reading this stuff (local conspiracy theories have become thin and worn of late, and could benefit from a dose of Mayan apocalypse drama).

In 1995, Nancy Leider originally predicted this imaginary body would hit Earth in 2003 and wipe out mankind, but when it failed to happen, she changed the date to 2012, and her hapless followers… well, they followed her like the sheep they are. Does this remind you of Harold Camping and his “rapture” of 2011?

NASA says (and you can read the sigh and shaking head in the response):

Nibiru and other stories about wayward planets are an Internet hoax. There is no factual basis for these claims. If Nibiru or Planet X were real and headed for an encounter with the Earth in 2012, astronomers would have been tracking it for at least the past decade, and it would be visible by now to the naked eye. Obviously, it does not exist. Eris is real, but it is a dwarf planet similar to Pluto that will remain in the outer solar system; the closest it can come to Earth is about 4 billion miles.

Wacky New Age siteSome loonies thought Nibiru was going to crash into the Earth on November 21. NASA scientists apparently “confirmed” it, they told us. Maybe you missed the impact. Or maybe it just passed by us in 2003 (Nibiru, the writer says, is the home of the Anunnaki, a reptilian super race, “…evil, lustful, incestuous, bloodthirsty, deceitful, jealous and domineering. They are also carnivorous and are often cannibalistic. They also demand human sacrifices of virgins from those they conquer and from their own kind whom they enslave.”). I seem to have missed the “earthquakes, tidal waves, severe flooding, food shortages due to climatic conditions, diseases, meteor fire storms, volcanic eruptions and the like” that the near-hit created.

Or maybe Planet X never existed at all and the astronomers are right! That would mean either the hoaxers were deliberately misleading people or are complete fruit loops who have lost all contact with reality (both of which traits are found in creationists, by the way). I’m never sure whether to be amused, entertained or frightened by these people, their wild claims and their equally wonky followers.

No amount of debunking can allay the fears of the superstitious twits, however. In response – no doubt to the frustrating necessity of denying the end of the world so often – the US Government actually released an official message saying “don’t worry“:

False rumors about the end of the world in 2012 have been commonplace on the Internet for some time. Many of these rumors involve the Mayan calendar ending in 2012 (it won’t), a comet causing catastrophic effects (definitely not), a hidden planet sneaking up and colliding with us (no and no), and many others.
The world will not end on December 21, 2012, or any day in 2012.

The Center for Disease Control was a little more humorous, in posting a satiric blog piece about the impending zombie apocalypse. Why not? It’s as likely as the imaginary Nibiru or some other fancified end-of-the-world mechanism. Or the “Anunnaki” – an invention way beyond mere crazy. If people actually believe that, it’s no wonder we can’t teach science in schools.

I know what I’ll be doing on December 22, too: blogging “I told you so” to all the gullible New Agers who bought into one more internet hoax.

11/24/12

Another popular myth debunked: moon doesn’t make crazies


Craxy lunar ideas“Myth Debunked: Full Moon Does Not Increase Incidence of Psychological Problems,” says the headline on a story on Science Daily. I was amused by the notion that, in 2012, anyone would seriously believe that the moon affected human psychology – especially supposed educated people.

In this case, it was very serious and resulted in a paper with the lengthy and ponderous title, “Impact of seasonal and lunar cycles on psychological symptoms in the ED: an empirical investigation of widely spread beliefs.” The abstract says:

This study evaluates the impacts of seasonal and lunar cycles on anxiety and mood disorders, panic and suicidal ideation in patients consulting the emergency department (ED) with a complaint of unexplained chest pain (UCP)… Patients with UCP were recruited from two EDs. Psychiatric diagnoses were evaluated with the Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule for DSM-IV… Significant seasonal effects were observed on panic and anxiety disorders, with panic more frequently encountered during spring [odds ratio (OR)=1.378, 95% confidence interval (CI)=1.002–1.896] and anxiety disorders during summer (OR=1.586, 95% CI=1.037–2.425). Except for one significant finding, no significant effects of lunar cycles were observed. These findings encourage ED professionals and physicians to abandon their beliefs about the influence of lunar cycles on the mental health of their patients. Such unfounded beliefs are likely to be maintained by self-fulfilling prophecies.

Whew. Although the full text of the report isn’t available to non-subscribers, the article on Science Daily explains:

…researchers … focused specifically on 771 individuals who showed up at the emergency room with chest pains for which no medical cause could be determined. Psychological evaluations revealed that a sizeable number of these patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.
Using lunar calendars, the researchers determined the moon phase in which each of these visits occurred. The results of their analyses revealed no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases.

That struck me as the study’s face-palm moment, the time when the Simpsons’ “Doh!” should have been shouted by the researchers as they smashed their palm into their heads.

“Geez,” one of them must have said as the data came in, “I’ll bet if we explore this further, we’ll also find out Friday the 13th is no more unluckier than any other day. What next? Black cats aren’t bad luck? We can safely walk under ladders? We don’t need to toss salt over our left shoulder when we spill it? Saying “gesundheit” when you sneeze doesn’t keep demons away? When will it end?”

That so-called “link” between behaviour and lunar cycles is merely a hangover from the discredited pseudoscience of astrology; it oozes from our ancient past when superstitious cave people believed the planets and stars were gods and demons and could affect our lives. Believing lunar phases can affect psychology today is akin to believing magnets or crystals can make you healthier. Pure and simple balderdash. It’s not a great leap from believing astrology to believing in creationism and Scientology, or that vaccines are a government conspiracy to enslave you.

The researchers also found that “anxiety disorders were 32% less frequent during the last lunar quarter.” Their analysis of this statistical oddity?

“This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account,” suggested Geneviève Belleville. “But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems.”

Coincidental? You think? What’s the other choice? That the moon made people less anxious one week every month? Come on… what next? Lycanthropy?

But what’s scary is that, according to the study, the majority of medical professionals BELIEVE that the moon affects personality and mental health. These are the people into whose hands we entrust our well-being! We expect them to be scientific, observant, and logical – even skeptical and suspicious (skepticism is what drives intelligent inquiry). Not medieval, not superstitious, not silly. If I want that, I can find it in copious amounts on the Net. When doctors start believing in astrology, I expect them to trot out the “healing crystals” for my bad humors, or kill a chicken to cure my possession.

This study’s conclusions run contrary to what many believe, including 80% of nurses and 64% of doctors who are convinced that the lunar cycle affects patients’ mental health. “We hope our results will encourage health professionals to put that idea to rest,” said Dr. Belleville. “Otherwise, this misperception could, on the one hand, color their judgment during the full moon phase; or, on the other hand, make them less attentive to psychological problems that surface during the remainder of the month.”

“Color their judgment”? Break out the ouija board then next time you go to your doctor, because if he or she believes the moon is influencing your state of mind, you better contact the spirits for answers. Or better yet, run for the exit.

Oh wait. There are no spirits. No ghosts, no goblins, no orcs, no Easter Bunnies, no demonic possession, no vampires, no werewolves, no angels, no psychics, magic crystals don’t cure disease and magnets don’t make you healthier. Astrology is bunk. Palmistry is bunk. Phrenology is bunk. Sorry to have to break the news.

Wait a second. This isn’t the first study to debunk this particular silliness. It’s the umpteenth. According to the Skeptics’ Dictionary:

Ivan Kelly, James Rotton and Roger Culver (1996) examined over 100 studies on lunar effects and concluded that the studies have failed to show a reliable and significant correlation (i.e., one not likely due to chance) between the full moon, or any other phase of the moon, and each of the following:
-the homicide rate
-traffic accidents
-crisis calls to police or fire stations
-domestic violence
-births of babies
-suicide
-major disasters
-casino payout rates
-assassinations
-kidnappings
-aggression by professional hockey players
-violence in prisons
-psychiatric admissions [one study found admissions were lowest during a full moon]
-agitated behavior by nursing home residents
-assaults
-gunshot wounds
-stabbings
-emergency room admissions [but see]
-behavioral outbursts of psychologically challenged rural adults
-lycanthropy
-vampirism
-alcoholism
-sleep walking
-epilepsy

Gosh. the moon doesn’t affect ANYTHING*. Must be bad research. Let’s try again… maybe justify our research grants… when do we stop repeating this stuff?

Okay, folks, let’s agree that this issue is finally settled with this, the umpteenth-and-one study. Don’t waste any more time chasing shadows, not on my tax dollars. It’s been debunked many, many times. Let it rest and focus your attention on real science. Please don’t follow this up with a study on black cats or Friday thew 13th.

~~~~~

* Also from the Skeptics’ Dictionary:

Many believe in lunar myths because they have heard them repeated many times by members of the mass media, by police officers, nurses, doctors, social workers, and other people with influence. Once many people believe something and enjoy a significant amount of communal reinforcement, they get veryselective about the type of data they pay attention to in the future. If one believes that during a full moon there is an increase in accidents, one will notice when accidents occur during a full moon, but be inattentive to the moon when accidents occur at other times. If something strange happens and there is a full moon at the time, a causal connection will be assumed. If something strange happens and there is no full moon, no connection is made, but the event is not seen as counter evidence to the belief in full moon causality. Memories get selective, and perhaps even distorted, to favor a full moon hypothesis. A tendency to do this over time strengthens one’s belief in the relationship between the full moon and a host of unrelated effects.

11/19/12

Ten Lessons Learned From the Petraeus Affair


Sex scandal cartoonAfter watching the recent, exaggerated – and sordid – upheaval over the story about an extramarital affair that the (now former) head of the CIA had with his biographer, I have come to several conclusions about America, sex, American media and publicity:

1. Americans, who bought millions of copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey“, a poorly-written, highly derivative, pornographic book, and then turned it into a national industry that includes home parties where BDSM equipment is sold to housewives, and dozens of spin-off blogs based on the book, are easily offended by “racy” emails between consenting adults.

2. Americans, who consume a vast quantity of online pornography, and who turned the porn industry from a back-alley business into a multi-billion-dollar business, are offended when real, consenting adults outside of the sex trade, have ordinary sex. And, of course, get caught.

3. Americans, who elevate mediocre and untalented stars, starlets (like Pam Anderson) and wannabes (“socialites” like Paris Hilton) to exalted popular status when they make an explicit video recording of themselves having sex and then ensure it gets broadcast all over the Internet for millions to view, are offended when consenting adults have sex and don’t make a sex tape for the public to watch.

4. Americans, who revel in graphic sex scenes and nudity in their TV shows (i.e. True Blood) and  have made entire TV series based on sex and adultery (i.e. Sex in the City), condemn extramarital sex between consenting adults as a “scandal” in their TV news and in other media. (When exactly is a news story a scandal? See here.)

5. A sexual liaison between consenting adults can become headline news for weeks, even though it has no proven effect on national security, has no proven effect on the business of the state, is not a criminal matter – but is simply a private matter between the parties involved. Meanwhile, Americans avoid real news stories and have no idea what’s happening in the world. Few American media outlets seem either willing or able to rise above the tabloid-style headline. As Saskboy writes:

The American media is very primitive, which is why it avoids complex and important issues, and instead resorts to tabloid topics like sex scandals. While their country is embroiled in an unprovoked war in Iraq, occupies Afghanistan (along with Canada), and itches to bomb Iran for oil, they’re worried more about where the wiener Petraeus has been.

6. Sex is still a potent weapon for partisan battles in politics. Republicans will try to use anything they can to hurt the Democrats and especially president Obama, by blaming them for the scandal or worse – trying to impeach him.

Republicans have quickly shifted from licking their election defeat wounds to trying to tie the David Petraeus’ affair to Benghazi in order to impeach President Obama…

After losing elections, paranoid conspiracy theories are Republican comfort food used to soothe the fractured psyche of those who got a taste of what ‘Real America’ actually thinks of them. If anyone thought the GOP rank and file would learn any lessons from their latest defeat, think again.

7. Americans love sex scandal, and revel in making it into public entertainment. They will glorify the ‘scandal’ by turning a rather mediocre affair into a glitzy Hollywood drama to elevate the titillation level.

The hormone-charged hijinks have now spread to include military groupie and Tampa socialite, Jill Kelley, who blew the whistle on the marriage-breaking manoeuvres and the current warlord of the Afghan campaign, Gen. John Allen.

But who to cast in the leading roles? Here are our picks: Denzel Washington as President Barack Obama; William H. Macy as Petraeus; Demi Moore as Broadwell; Teri Hatcher as Kelley; Jack Nicholson as Gen. Allen; Vin Diesel as FBI Agent Frederick Humphries, and the Sopranos Steve Schirripa as Kelley’s cuckolded hubby, Scott Kelley.

8. The American government and media have screamed loudly about the exposure of their government documents to public scrutiny on Wikileaks, and demanded that the site’s owner, Julian Assange, be tried for treason. Yet the same media and government officials revel in exposing the sexual peccadilloes and personal lives of consenting adults caught in an affair.

9. Americans have always loved sexual scandal. As the Constitution Daily reports, this sort of event have captivated American audiences ever since the nation was first formed:

The current sex scandal involving the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the military, and possibly several private citizens isn’t the first in Washington, but it has some things in common with the huge scandal that hit Alexander Hamilton more than 200 years ago. The Maria Reynolds affair was the David Petraeus-Paula Broadwell-John Allen triangle of its day in the 1790s, with its admission of adultery, scandalous mail exchanges, and a high-profile resignation.

Political cartoon10. Nothing is ever secret online, no matter how you try to hide it. A nation that voluntarily and eagerly gives up its privacy online, and will post revealing details and even photos about its private life and body parts, is apparently shocked when private details of an affair between consenting adults are made public. Obviously had Petraeus posted the details and videos online, he would have become a media star.

It’s amusing that in late 2010, one political site was wondering aloud if sex scandal was dead as a political weapon or would hold media attention:

Perhaps in America the road to forgiveness is simply becoming shorter. Maybe, people are seeing what many in other countries have seen for years –the political sex scandal may change the conversation, but doesn’t by any means change the game.

However, as The Onion wrote satirically, this silliness may have opened some Americans’ eyes to some of the real news they’ve been avoiding while googling the salacious news about Petraeus:

WASHINGTON—As they scoured the Internet for more juicy details about former CIA director David Petraeus’ affair with biographer Paula Broadwell, Americans were reportedly horrified today upon learning that a protracted, bloody war involving U.S. forces is currently raging in the nation of Afghanistan. “Oh my God, this is terrible,” Allie Lipscomb, 29, said after accidentally stumbling on an article about the war while she tried to ascertain details about what specific sexual acts Petraeus and Broadwell might have engaged in. “According to this, 2,000 American troops have died, 18,000 have been wounded, and more than 20,000 civilians have been killed. Jesus Christ. And it’s been happening for, like, 11 years.” Sources confirmed that after reading a few paragraphs about the brutal war, the nation quickly became distracted by a headline about Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash’s alleged sexual abuse of a 16-year-old boy.

The long run? America’s attention span for real news – Gaza, Syria, the Fiscal Cliff, pollution, GMO foods, the environment, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Congo, and on and on -.is that of a gnat’s. But a sex scandal appeals to American’s mixed-message attitudes about sex – part smut, part puritan, all agog – and will capture American audiences for weeks and weeks, at least until another scandal takes over the headlines.

PS. Here’s a fun infographic on adultery from the National Post.

11/17/12

Post-US Election Thoughts: The Blame Game


GOP soul searchingIt didn’t take long for the blame, the vitriol, the accusations and the excuses to start spewing forth from the Republicans, after Obama won a second presidential term. You would think that the party would be chastened, introspective and look to where they failed to engage the electorate. Do some serious soul-searching: what failed? Policies? Platforms? Ground work? Attack ads? Flip flops?

Instead they seem to have their collective heads stuck in the sand and instead to looking inwardly, they are blaming others for their failure. And throwing in an unhealthy dollop of vituperation, as expected.

Mitt Romney, the billionaire whose wobbly platform shifting, and his wildly inappropriate choice of a Tea Party running mate, isn’t blaming himself, his party or his candidate for VP for his failure. He’s blaming Obama for giving gifts to select voter groups:

“The president’s campaign, if you will, focused on giving targeted groups a big gift,” Romney said in a call to donors Wednesday. “He made a big effort on small things.”

Romney said his campaign, in contrast, had been about “big issues for the whole country.” He said he faced problems as a candidate because he was “getting beat up” by the Obama campaign and that the debates allowed him to come back.

In other words: it wasn’t his fault. It was the other guy who bought votes. Nothing to do with the misogynist comments from a handful of Tea Party candidates running for office under the Republican banner. Or his own comments about the “47%” of Americans who live off the government.

Paul Ryan, too, is blaming others, rather than his own ideologies. As Thinkprogress noted:

After the election, Rep. Paul Ryan blamed “urban voters” for costing him the vice presidency…

So, Paul, you would now restrict urban voters from participating in the democratic process? Not surprising: Republicans tried very hard to to (and did, in some cases) put into effect restrictive voter ID laws that would have seriously limited the right of many to vote – especially the poor and non-white populations.

Personally, I’d put a good weight of the blame on the choice of Ryan for the loss because he scared anyone with an education higher than third grade or with an income less than $250,000 a year. Aside from getting that harridan Ann Coulter into heat, his choice even alienated the moderate side of his own party. Others agree:

But Romney’s worst choice of the campaign—besides being honest about his belief that Detroit should go bankrupt to really punish the unions—was the man he picked as his running mate: Paul Ryan.

People wondered what Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney had in common besides being born into rich families and a profound belief that poor people are lazy. Now we know: they both lost their home states. Heck, they both lost their hometowns.

LOL.

The main reason Ryan still has his seat in the House is the only reason the GOP still has control of the House—gerrymandering.

Secessionist cartoonThis blame game is happening on the oddest fronts, too. A wacky secessionist movement has developed among the fringies and tin-foil-hat crowd. In the southern USA, Derrik Belcher, wants to withdraw from the USA because of Obama taking the USA into a socialist state (proof that Americans don’t understand what the word actually means). Belcher himself is quoted as saying in what is surely one of the quotes that best sums up the Tea Party’s systemic stupidity:

“I don’t want to live in Russia. I don’t believe in socialism. America is supposed to be free.”

He was the focus of a good interview on The Current yesterday. Belcher’s story would be funny if it wasn’t gaining ground swell among the Tea Party fundamentalists: he’s mad at Obama because his state (actually, his own city, and not the federal government) closed down his topless car wash in 2001 for obscenity (when Bush was president, not Obama). Even though he comes across as an angry crackpot in interviews, he has garnered about 30,000 signatures on his online petition. Birds of a feather.

Belcher is just one of many. As Rawstory reported,

Disaffected Americans have created hundreds of “We the People” petitions on the White House website following President Barack Obama’ re-election earlier this month. There have been petitions from each of the 50 states requesting permission to secede.

Secede? Because you don’t like how the democratic process works? Or maybe don’t understand it? Boggles the mind. Well, not really – 46% of Americans believe in creationism, so I would expect to have the same percentage does not understand the basic tenets of democracy or how elections work. I suspect what these Tea Party followers think of as a good government, most of us would think of as the Christian Taliban – a scary, repressive theocracy.

It’s a bit ironic that the last times states sought to secede, in 1860, it was because a Republican president had been elected.

My solution: give the secessionists Alaska: see how they fare after one winter and how many are begging to come home. And then tell them no. They can have Sara Palin, their dim-witted poster girl, as their new leader.

It’s also ironic is that Republican Senator, Ron Johnson, blames Obama’s win on “an ignorant electorate”:

“If you aren’t properly informed, if you don’t understand the problems facing this nation, you are that much more prone to falling prey to demagoguing solutions. And the problem with demagoguing solutions is they don’t work,” Johnson said. “I am concerned about people who don’t fully understand the very ugly math we are facing in this country.”

To me, these angry secessionists are examples of an “ignorant electorate” and they all seem to be Republicans! So is he blaming his own supporters? After all, that “:ignorant electorate” elected him…

Some Goppers are blaming Romney rather than Obama, for their failure, merely a different flavour of the blame game: blame the guy, not the party that has been hijacked by the uber-right minority. Few seem to blame Paul Ryan, probably because his anti-working/anti-middle class ideologies are close to the fringies’ hearts. Plus they’re too busy trying to secede to focus their myopic sight on one of their own.

To be fair, not all Republicans are playing the blame game, or screaming secession. Several high-level Goppers have decried Romney’s comments and suggested a need for the political equivalent of a deep colon cleansing for their party. They’re calling for some collective navel-gazing, instead of finger-pointing.

My own take: the Republicans will split into two parties: the radical right and the moderates going their own ways. Or possibly a third national party will emerge that appeals to one of these groups and they will jump the GOP ship for it. Either way, the Republicans cannot continue as a party divided by such opposing ideologies before it implodes. Or the fringies take over completely. Either way, their ship is on the rocks and the Tea Party is still at the helm.

11/13/12

The Useless Web


Useless web sitesWe all know Wikipedia is not always accurate, and sometimes biased. We all know that most internet quotations are wrong attributed or misquoted. We all know that the Web is full of useless, trivial pap like “psychic” hot lines, astrology, creationism and Ann Coulter. Plus it’s replete with the shallow: salacious gossip, celebrity skin, innuendo, pornography, political extremism, angels, UFOs, crop circles, anti-vaccine advocates, religious fundamentalists – the intellectual-nourishment equivalent of a  box of greasy fries and a sugar-laden soft drink.

But they are content-rich, compared to the truly useless material collected on The Useless Web. Well, maybe not Ann Coulter. She’s still pretty much the standard by which trivial and shallow are measured. Even the colour of Kim Kardashian’s latest shoes are more relevant to the real world than anything Coulter has to say.

If you really want to waste a whole lot of time exploring the pointless edge of the internet, beyond Ann Coulter that is, go to the link in the previous paragraph and click away. Be prepared: you will be sucked in. It’s hard not to see just one more…

But it’s not alone. true to the meme-like nature of the internet, others join in pointing out the pointless. For example, Pointless Sites and Pointless Web Pages (don’t bypass the older site list either). Some, like I-Am-Bored.com seem to pile on user-submitted links of varying levels of worthlessness into their pages.Others, like House of Geekery and Makeuseof.com, compile lists of uselessness, with some pointless commentary to muddy the waters. Useless added to useless equals…? Right.

Ann Coulter is still pretty much the standard by which trivial and shallow are measured.

Other aggregators of non-utilitarianism include 15.com, Squidoo.com, Ambitweb.com, About.com, the Daily What, Splitsider, PCWorld, Digital Trends (and check the video for the Japanese World Cup, linked below the list!) and many more.

Useless doesn’t mean they are not artistic, however. Some are outright brilliant (check out www.xkcd.com/1110/ for an example of weirdly wonderful useless).

Okay, so it’s a waste of time. But it’s an entertaining waste of time, so not entirely without merit. Some people apparently have taken to studying these sites with all seriousness. Know Your Meme has a short history of them, deferring intellectually to them as “single serving” sites (a long list of such sites is here). Codehesive tracks the story of a single, single-serving site.

Jason Kottke wrote about this phenomena back in 2008, and coined the term. Since then it has entered the language age even made its way to Wikipedia.There’s even a single-serving site webpage generator.

But don’t get stuck in the intellectualizing. When you have ten minutes to waste, just go back to the top of the post and find the first link. Click and enjoy. Don’t think too hard about any of it. Just celebrate the useless.