Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


A few days ago, an old friend I haven’t seen for some time dropped by for a shoot-the-shit session. We’ve never been especially close, but always enjoyed hanging out and, in the old days, did some home brewing together. He’s a smart guy, an ex-Army officer, and fairly progressive politically.

It was late afternoon, approaching evening, with a deep blue sky overhead, with a jet streaking to the northwest leaving a lengthy contrail behind it, with both of us sitting in the shade around the back-patio table. We were about two beers in, and as the contrail spread out and drifted straight above us, I pointed to it and drawled, “Chem trails!” thinking we’d have some fun talking about conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.

I was wrong.

He proceeded to vigorously expound the chem-trail conspiracy theory, but couldn’t provide anything approaching coherent explanations of why? how? — what’s the purpose? how’s it work? — who’s doing it (the government, of course)? or how could “they” cover up a massive conspiracy over a period of decades?

It was like trying to nail mucilage to a door. He retreated into a cloud of ever-vaguer (hence harder to debunk) claims, and eventually withdrew to the ultimate conspiracy-theorist position: “You can’t prove I’m wrong. Prove it!” Never mind that the burden of proof is on those making claims, especially extraordinary claims.

I then asked him where he was getting his information from. Guess, just guess. It was all on the ‘net of course, and the first site he mentioned was — wait for it — Infowars. I took a deep breath and asked him, “You don’t look at The Guardian, CNN, NBC, New York Times, AP, Al Jazeera, El País [Madrid daily, which has a great online site], or any of the other normal news sites?” Nope. They’re part of the “cover up,” and he only trusts Infowars and other sites that are “consistently accurate.”

At that point, I said something to the effect of “You’re out of your goddamned mind!” “No you are!” etc., etc., until we decide to have another beer and switch topics, to something we could agree on, such as that Trump is a cancerous polyp lodged in the colon of humanity.

My pal’s immersed in an alternate-reality bubble that’s hermetically sealed, and that confirms his faith in the reality of “chem trails.” Oh dear! Sigh.

The chem trails “theory” (a bad misuse of the term “theory”) sounds fairly harmless, but it isn’t. Why? Once you abandon rationality and evidence-based decision making — i.e., the scientific method — in any area, you’re totally adrift, vulnerable to emotional appeals, and with no even remotely reliable means of determining the real from the imaginary.

Thus, medieval clerics believed that witches caused thunderstorms, contemporary religious fanatics insist that a mass of cells smaller than the head of a pin is a human being, others insist that the world is ruled by a cabal of Jewish bankers, and still others insist that a mean-spirited sexual predator and con man who’s never done a day’s work in his life and began receiving a $200,000-a-year allowance at the age of three, is somehow on the side of the working man.

All of these irrational beliefs and conspiracy theories have obvious, real-world consequences.

So, how do we debunk conspiracy theories? Critiquing them and presenting massive contrary evidence seems, by itself, to have no effect. Just look at the Trump personality cult. Trump openly bragged that he could murder someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and no one would care. It’s probably more extreme than that. As I’ve mentioned previously, Trump could probably strangle a puppy and then sodomize its corpse live on national TV, and his sycophants would excuse his behavior as “Trump being Trump,” “a different kind of president.”

Trump flaunts this immunity by resorting to ever more blatant lies, lies that a third-grader should understand as lies, and that demonstrate his hold over his followers. A recent example is his claim that China will pay the tariffs he imposed on Chinese goods. It would take an absolute moron or a totally subservient, brain-washed cultist to buy this obvious denial of reality. Yet, millions of people apparently do buy it.

So, what to do?

Regarding Trump’s goose-steppers, they’re only 26% of eligible voters (in 2016, Hillary got 28%, minor party candidates 5%, and fully 41% were so disgusted they didn’t even bother to vote), and once economic reality hits them in the face — especially the upcoming recession [my guess, mid to late 2020] and ever-increasing medical bills — some will abandon him. Most won’t, but some will.

In a broader sense, cultists are almost unreachable. Until physical reality smacks ’em in the face, they’re unreachable — and even then most will cling to their Glorious Leader and his scapegoating, turning their hate on the helpless and near-helpless.

We need to reach those who haven’t yet fallen into the clutches of cults and those who are wavering.

How?

One of the most important ways is the teaching of science and critical thinking skills in grade school and high school. Give people these tools early, and they’ll use them to safeguard themselves, their friends, and their families. (It’s no accident that the leading dissidents in the USSR were scientists.)

Another way is through ridicule. Irrational, cultist beliefs are invariably absurd, and often harmful, when held up to the light of day. Ridicule won’t reach brainwashed cultists, but it will reach the young and those with doubts. We need a legion of George Carlins and Christopher Hitchens to tell the scathing truth (honorable present-day shoutouts to Jim Jeffries, The Onion, and The Satanic Temple).

A third and important way is to present factual, well documented information. For decades, this was the only approach used by rationalist and atheist groups, and it’s clearly inadequate. But in combination with these other approaches, it’s invaluable.

There are probably other good ways to combat conspiracy-theory/cult beliefs, but these are the ones that immediately come to mind.

Please add your ideas in the comments section. I’d love to hear them.

 

 

Joke of the Day 6-11-19

Posted: June 11, 2019 in Humor, Jokes, Skepticism

–from Seattle Propane’s Wallingford Sign


Corrupted Science front coverThe Revelator newsletter, from the Center for Biological Diversity, will be giving away free e-book copies of John Grant’s Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology, and Politics in Science starting tomorrow and ending on Sunday. The offer holds for both current and new subscribers.

If you’re not a current subscriber, just click on this link to their site.

We’d highly recommend The Revelator newsletter — it’s free, well written, and enlightening — and if you subscribe by Sunday, you’ll get a free e-copy of John Grant’s informative, infuriating, and amusing book.


“I should think judging by his ostentation, his absence of good taste [that obviously] he was eaten with vanity and ambition and his only measure of success was in terms of dollars and influence. . . . It must be a terrible thing to have to keep telling the world how great you are and to want so badly to achieve what is really impossible. We have much to fear from these people, but in a sense, I think, they are tragic.”

–Zina Worley, quoted by Pope Brock in his highly entertaining nonfiction book, Charlatan

Worley was not referring to Donald Trump, but rather to “Dr.” John Brinkley, a quack who exploited and and oft-times mutilated and killed the desperate and gullible who came to him for help. Brinkley became a multi-millionaire through sale of grossly overpriced ineffective (e.g., colored water) and outright harmful patent medicines, and through unnecessary, harmful operations intended mostly to restore male “virility.” Those operations included the implanting of goat testicles in human scrotums.

John R. Brinkley

Brinkley’s similarities with Donald Trump are striking: both preyed on the gullible and desperate; both were fascist sympathizers; both constantly bragged about themselves; both lied incessantly; both claimed to represent and be the voice of the common man — Brinkley nearly won the governorship of Kansas in 1930 and 1932; both had vulgar taste and indulged in ostentatious displays of wealth; both sometimes stiffed those who did work for them; and the one was brought down by a dogged, principled investigator, and, one hopes, the other soon will be. (There are other similarities, but these are the ones that immediately come to mind.)

The primary difference between the two men, other than working in different fields of fraud, was that Brinkley came from a very poor background and Trump was a trust-fund baby who received over $400 million from his slumlord dad.

 

 


Steven Salzberg

“There’s no legitimate reason to use terms such as ‘Chinese’ medicine, or American, Italian, Spanish, Indian, or [insert your favorite nationality] medicine. There’s just medicine – if a treatment works, then it’s medicine. If something doesn’t work, then it’s not medicine and we shouldn’t sell it to people with false claims. The same is true for alternative, holistic, integrative, and functional medicine: these are all just marketing terms, with no scientific meaning. They merely serve to disguise sloppy, unscientific thinking at best, and in a less charitable interpretation, outright fraud.”

–Steven Salzberg in his well worth reading piece on the Forbes web site, “WHO Endorses Traditional Chinese Medicine, Expect Deaths To Rise


“[I]t is at an end with priests and gods if man becomes scientific! — Moral: science is the thing forbidden in itself — it alone is forbidden. Science is the first sin, the germ of all sin, original sin. This alone is morality — ‘Thou shalt not know.’ All the rest follows from it.”

–Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ


(We ran two earlier, considerably shorter versions of this post in years past under the title “Nazi Germany and the U.S.A.” As you might have noticed, things have changed a bit lately, hence this update.)

* * *

REFERENCES TO FASCISM abound in American political discourse. Unfortunately, most of those using the term wouldn’t recognize fascism if it bit ’em on the butt, and use it as a catch-all pejorative for anything or anyone they dislike. But the term does have a specific meaning.

Very briefly, as exemplified in Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, fascism is an extreme right-wing, phony-populist ideology and political-economic system (which Mussolini dubbed “the corporate state”), the key features of which are strident nationalism, militarism and military worship, a one-party state, a dictatorial leader with a personality cult, a capitalist economic system integrated with state institutions (to the mutual benefit of capitalists and fascist politicians), suppression of independent unions, government use of media as a propaganda instrument, suppression of civil liberties and all forms of political opposition, and an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy.

The racism, racial scapegoating, and racial persecution that permeated German fascism are not part of fascism per se, unless one wants to classify extreme nationalism as racism. There’s a case to be made for that, but for now let’s consider them as separate maladies. But since the topic of this post is the comparison of Nazi Germany to the U.S.A., we will consider racism as well as fascism in the following comparisons.

Getting to the headline topic, just how similar is the present-day U.S. to Nazi Germany? Let’s look at specifics:

 

Nationalism

  • Nazi Germany: See Deutschland Uber Alles, Triumph of the WillLebensraum, etc., etc.
  • US.: “American exceptionalism,” “God Bless America,” “Manifest Destiny,” “Make America Great Again,” etc., etc. From ideological justification for invasions, territorial annexations, and military interventions to everyday trivialities (Nazi armbands in Deutschland, flag worship in “the land of the free”), America gives Nazi Germany a run for its money as regards nationalism.

Corporate Capitalist Domination

  • Nazi Germany: The German industrialists (notably the Krup armaments company) were key Hitler backers, and benefited handsomely from his rule.
  • U.S.: Trump has filled his cabinet with people from the fossil fuels industry (e.g., Rex Tillerson, former head of ExxonMobil) and big banks, notably Goldman Sachs (Steven Mnuchin, et al.); Obama’s primary 2008 backers were Wall Street firms and the pharmaceutical companies; Bush/Cheney’s were the energy companies.

Of late, Trump’s slavishness to the interests of the big corporations has become blindingly obvious with his dismantling of clean air and water regulations (which safeguard public health while impeding corporate profits), his attempts to open millions of acres of federal lands (including national monuments) to desecration by mining and fossil fuels corporations, his (and other Republicans’) attempts to restrict access to Medicaid, to allow the insurance industry to discriminate against those with pre-existing conditions, and his refusal to do anything about the obscene price of prescription drugs and the obscene profits of the drug companies. (Trump’s “plan” to reduce drug costs was complete bullshit designed only to string along the gullible while providing cover for the continued gouging of the public by big pharma. The fact that pharma stocks spiked immediately after Trump released the details of his “plan” tells you all you need to know about it.)

Militarism

  • Nazi Germany: The Nazis constructed the world’s most powerful military in six years (1933-1939).
  • U.S.: Last year, U.S. military spending accounted for approximately 43% of the world’s military spending, and the U.S. has hundreds of military bases overseas. With the aid of his accomplices in Congress, Trump just boosted the “defense” budget to approximately $700 billion, not including the tens of billions in the “black budget.” The figures aren’t final yet, but it’s a good bet that current U.S. military spending not only considerably outstrips any other nation’s (China’s is hard to judge because of secrecy, but may be as high as $250 billion), but could quite possibly now account for a full half of the world’s military spending.

Military Worship

  • Nazi Germany: Do I really need to cite examples?
  • U.S.: “Support our troops!” “Our heroes!” “Thank you for your service!”

Military worship is almost a state religion in the United States. Tune in to almost any baseball broadcast for abundant examples; this worship even extends to those on what passes for the left in the United States: Michael Moore, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow.

Military Aggression

  • Nazi Germany: “Lebensraum” — you know the rest.
  • U.S.: To cite only examples from the last half-century where there were significant numbers of “boots on the ground,” Vietnam (1959-1973), the Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1970), Grenada (1983), Panama (1988-1990), Kuwait/Iraq (1991), Afghanistan (2001-present), Iraq (2003-2011). And this doesn’t even include bombing campaigns and drone warfare. Then there’s the matter of proxy aggression enabled via logistical and intelligence support by the U.S. The most horrific current example is the brutal Saudi intervention in the Yemeni civil war.

Misuse and Misrepresentation of Science

  • The Nazis suppressed “Jewish science,” financially supported and sponsored fringe pseudoscience (into the supposed superiority of Aryans, among other things), and based government policy (including the Holocaust)  on that fringe pseudoscience. They mutilated science to force it to fit into the procrustean bed of their ideology, and millions died as a result.
  • U.S.: Here, the misleading “science” is supplied by the major corporations and their bought-and-paid-for “scientists,” who denigrate real science while promoting corporate-sponsored studies that promote corporate interests. Prominent examples include the efforts of the tobacco, pesticide, and sugar industries to present their deadly products as safe while vilifying scientists whose research demonstrated the actual effects of their products. Tens of millions have almost certainly died as a result.

Currently, the most serious such assault on science is corporate-funded climate change denial. It’s been obvious for decades that climate change is real and a deadly threat, and over 95% of climate scientists agree — and have agreed for decades — that it is. Yet the fossil fuels corporations have funded and promoted the work of a very few contrarians (whose work doesn’t, upon examination, hold up) to cast doubt on climate change science so that they can wring every last dollar from coal, oil, and natural gas.

Now, official U.S. policy is based on climate change denial pseudoscience. Trump has filled his administration with science deniers, especially climate change deniers, notably Scott Pruitt at the EPA, who are busy undoing clean air and water regulations, are doing their best to promote use of dirty fossil fuels, and are discouraging the use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Trump has even proposed public subsidies for money-losing coal-fired power plants that utilities are planning to close.

As in Nazi Germany, government policy is based on willful ignorance of science. Millions upon millions will almost certainly die as a result, unless the government drastically reverses its course and implements evidence-based policies based on the work of climate scientists.

(For more on all this, see Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology, and Politics in Science [revised & expanded], by John Grant. Full disclosure: See Sharp Press published Corrupted Science.)

Incarceration and Slave Labor

  • Nazi Germany: The Nazis built concentration camps holding (and exterminating) millions, and employing slave labor.
  • U.S.: In comparison, the U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world, far outstripping China, with only Russia’s incarceration rate being anywhere near that of the U.S. Slave labor is routine in America’s prisons.

Justice System

  • Nazi Germany: The Nazis had a three-tiered “justice” system: one for the rich and powerful (who could get away with virtually anything); a second for the average citizen; a third for despised minorities and political foes.
  • U.S.: There’s also three-tiered “justice” system here: one for the rich and powerful (who can get away with virtually anything); a second for middle-class white people; and a third for almost everyone else.

Obama’s “Justice” Department never even investigated the largest financial fraud in world history that led to the 2008 crash, let alone charged those responsible. Prosecutors routinely pile on charges against average citizens to blackmail them into plea bargaining and pleading guilty to charges of which they’re not guilty; it’s no accident that America’s prisons are filled with poor people, especially blacks and hispanics who can’t afford bail and good legal representation; at the same time cops routinely get away with murder of blacks, hispanics, and poor whites.

Suppression of Unions

  • Nazi Germany: In Nazi Germany, the government tightly controlled the unions, and used them as arms of the state.
  • U.S.: In the U.S., the government merely suppresses strikes when “in the national interest” and allows corporations to crush union organizing drives through intimidation and by firing anyone who dares to attempt to organize.  Of late, the Supremes have further crippled the unions by outlawing the collection of fees from nonmembers who the unions represent in collective bargaining. (Admittedly, the sell-out, hierarchical, visionless AFL-CIO unions bear considerable responsibility for this sad state of affairs.)

Free Speech

  • Nazi Germany: Total suppression of free speech; direct government control of the media.
  • U.S.: There’s near total corporate control of the media, and suppression of free speech when it shows the faintest sign of threatening, or even embarrassing, the government or the corporations that control the government. The Obama and Trump administrations have viciously gone after whistleblowers and reporters who have exposed their wrongdoing — Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, James Risen, Reality Winner, et al.

Trump routinely attacks journalists who report anything even slightly embarrassing to him, or who point out any of his almost innumerable lies. Of late, he’s upped the ante by attacking the press as the “enemy of the American people” in a transparent attempt to intimidate the press and provoke the anger of his worshippers.

As well, Trump routinely lies about damn near everything, great and small — Politifact clasifies 69% of his statements as being “mostly false” or worse — counting on the fact that the press (e.g., New York Times) is reluctant to label his lies as lies, allowing Trump to muddy the waters and mislead the public.

Fortunately, Trump doesn’t have complete control of the media. But he does have the sycophantic tools at Fox “News,” Breitbart, InfoWars, and the rest of the right-wing echo chamber. Almost worse, 67% of Americans get at least some of their news from social media sites such as Facebook, with an unknown percentage getting all of their news from these platforms (predominantly Facebook). What makes this dangerous is that Facebook feeds them news reports that, based on their previous “likes” and other use, reinforces their existing beliefs and prejudices.

Add that to Trump’s denigration of the free press and you end up with a significant part of the population that’s woefully misinformed.

Other Civil Liberties

  • Nazi Germany: Total suppression.
  • U.S.: Suppression when individuals exercising those liberties show the faintest sign of threatening the government or the corporations that control the government. The coordinated suppression (by the FBI, local governments, and corporate security agencies) of the Occupy Wall Street Movement nationwide in 2011/2012 is the latest large-scale example.

Spying Upon Citizens

  • Nazi Germany: The government had a massive eavesdropping operation. No citizen was safe from government scrutiny.
  • U.S.: The FBI, DHS, and NSA — and let’s not forget Facebook — make the Nazis look like amateurs.

Free Elections

  • Nazi Germany: Total suppression
  • U.S.: U.S. citizens have the opportunity to vote for the millionaire and billionaire representatives (over half of Congress at last count, plus the president) of the two wings of the property party: one wing being authoritarian, corporate-servant, science-denying theofascists, the other wing being merely authoritarian corporate servants who routinely betray those who elect them. As well, the Republicans are doing their best to destroy what passes for American electoral democracy through egregious gerrymandering and voter suppression on an industrial scale.

Racism

  • Nazi Germany: Do I even need to cite details?
  • U.S.: (We’ll restrict ourselves here to the present.) The “justice” system imprisons blacks at a rate over five times that of whites, and hispanics at a rate about 30% higher than whites. Cops routinely get away with murdering poor people, a disproportionate number of them blacks and hispanics. Median household wealth for whites is 13 times that of blacks. And median household income for whites is 60% higher than that of blacks and hispanics.

As well, the Republican Party’s longtime “southern strategy” — and its largely successful attempts to disenfranchise black voters — was and still is designed to appeal to racists.

Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric and racial scapegoating of Mexicans and other hispanics is merely the cherry atop this merde sundae.

Victimhood

  • Nazi Germany: Hitler and the Nazis whined constantly about the German people being victims of the Jews (under 1% of the population at the time) and the supposedly vast Jewish conspiracy permeating all facets of social and economic life, even depicting Jewish people in propaganda films as vermin: rats. In short, Hitler stirred up hatred of a powerless minority by presenting them as victimizers rather than victims.
  • U.S.: Trump whines constantly about an “invasion” of Latin American immigrants — fleeing horrific violence and political and social repression — who he portrays as rapists, murderers, drug dealers, and gang members endangering the nation through a supposed crime wave. (In reality, per capita criminal activity by Latin American immigrants is lower than that of Americans as a whole.)  In short, Trump stirs up hatred of a powerless minority by presenting them as victimizers rather than victims.

Personality Cult

  • Nazi Germany: Again, do I even need to cite details?
  • U.S.A.: Trump worship is rampant on the evangelical right, who see this steaming pile of viciousness, hypocrisy, and narcissism as the means to their theofascist ends. And Trump encourages such sycophancy. The cringe-inducing filmed cabinet meeting last year in which cabinet secretaries heaped fulsome (in both senses of the word) praise and thanks on the dear leader is but one example. Another example: Last July presidential aide and Trump toady Steven Miller said on Fox “News” that Trump — who would likely flunk a fourth-grade English test — was the “best orator to hold that office [president] in generations.” All hail the Glorious Leader.

 

Yes, there still are significant differences between Nazi Germany and the U.S.A.  But they grow smaller with every passing day.