Sunday, September 8, 2013

Why I Hate Conspiracy Theories.

A friend of mine posted a blog article in defense of his love of conspiracy thinking. The article did this by listing 16 theories that turned out to be 'true.' They ranged from "rasslin' is fake," to "all science is a lie." I'm not going to link to the blog post, because he didn't bother linking to any of his sources, and when he did his sources turned out to be other conspiracy theory websites and I would often have to spend half an hour tracking down the actual source, so fuck him. His moniker is Blindfold, though, if you want to track it down yourself.

So I spent all of my Sunday morning tracking down a lot of the relevant facts, or lack thereof. And since I will be neither blatantly making shit up nor screaming into an echo chamber full of like-minded extremists, I will provide links to relevant sources. And they won't just circle back to my own blog, because I try not to be a lying dick. I also might just be plain old wrong about some stuff. Because that happens.

Point the Zeroth: Always Bet on the Least Plausible Outcome

The piece begins by encouraging the reader to be more open-minded towards the tinfoil hat crowd, as they are so often right about so many things. In fact, a recent study found that Conspiracy Theorists (CTs,) are more sane than normal-brained people. The linked article absolutely does not make the claim that CTs are 'more sane' than non-CTs. The only potentially negative trait associated with accepting the official narrative was hostility, although
"there is a risk that [the researchers] may not have captured the full spectrum of responses, as we specifically excluded comments that consisted solely of threats, insults, or ridicule." 
Apart from that, CTs were found to be more distrustful, more likely to confuse unexplained with unexplainable, more likely to make arguments from ignorance and assertion, and were found to be more concerned with arguing against the official narrative and raising trivial objections than supplying viable alternative explanations.


Wood, Douglas. A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories:

Point the First: Monkey Cancer Vaccines. For Real.

Despite the article providing a 404 error as their source, there is, and has been, tons of information about SV40 and vaccines widely available on the web from reputable, agenda free sources. Well, I say agenda free, but there is a definite bias towards reality. For example, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia states that
  1. SV40 was present in cancers of people who either had or had not received the poliovaccine that was contaminated with SV40.
  2. SV40 has not been present in any vaccine since 1963.
  3. People with cancers who were born after SV40 was no longer a contaminant of the polio vaccine were found to have evidence for SV40 in their cancerous cells.
  4. Using current techniques, it is difficult to distinguish SV40 virus from other common and related viruses.
  5. Epidemiologic studies do not show an increased risk of cancers in those who received polio vaccine between 1955 and 1963.
I've written about simian virus 40 before on the blog, so I'm not going to rehash it other than to dump some links to relevant information.


Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: 

Other crap:

Point the Second: ATM Machine Facial Recognition Software

I believe the author is confusing "easily foreseeable advances in consumer technology," with "conspiracy theory." Also: the Office of Unnecessary Redundancy Office would like to speak with the author.

Point the Third: Monsanto and the Government are Vanishing Anti-GMO Activists, Maybe

Genetically modified foods are currently the only option we have for feeding ourselves over the next quarter of a century. Crop-burning, anti-GMO activists/eco-terrorists like Greenpeace should be opposed, because they're dangerous, misguided idiots. Every study performed about the safety of GMO's (save for the sole long-debunked and almost comically flawed Seralini article,) has found that GMO's are about as safe as could be reasonably expected, and certainly better than any of the alternatives.

Apart from all of that: The source provided by the article leads back (eventually,) to a German newspaper reporting that some anti-Monsanto activists claimed that Monsanto attacked their computers. And while it's no secret that Monsanto and the US government have a history of shady dealings, there is no evidence that Monsanto had anything to do with the alleged cyber-attack. It does sound like a sorta-okay premise for a sci-fi movie though.


GMOs and World Hunger:

Overview of the Seralini Affair:

Bad Science and GMOs:

Süddeutsche Zeitung: (The sustainablepulse article [itself linked from the activistpost article {itself linked from the original piece}] didn't bother to link to the original article. Burying the source material three or four pages deep and forcing the reader to search through the relevant website themselves is really common with conspiracy articles. I don't even know if this is an intentional tactic to weed out the insincere, but it certainly functions as one. If anyone knows German, feel free to search for it yourself.)

Point the Fourth: Science is Using GM Animals for Research. MILLIONS OF IT!

I didn't realize this was a conspiracy. Unless official releases from the government outlining the facts regarding common practices qualify as conspiracies. Regardless, Blindfold doesn't give the source for his story (surprise, surprise). I managed to track it (through pages and pages of conspiracy theory websites,) to a report published by the UK's Home Office, as ordered by the House of Commons, titled "Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals."

The increase in GM animal use is explained, according to Dr Ted Bianco of Wellcome Trust:
"The scientific community is deeply committed to reducing the numbers of animals used in research, but despite significant progress, animals remain an essential part of helping us understand disease and develop much-needed new treatments. This year's increase reflects the use of powerful techniques to help us model with greater accuracy human disease. In particular, the inclusion of genetically-modified mice, whose breeding alone counts as a procedure, is largely behind this increase, but will ultimately allow us to reduce the number of animals used."
So, yeah. Evil scientists and their evil science. Or something.


Home Office Report:

Expert reaction to same:

Point the Fifth: Animal Human Hybrids! Chimera People! Stem Cells! GMGMGM!

I didn't realize this was a conspiracy either. At least among people that don't get their news solely from potheads and drunk construction workers at bars, at any rate. I can see how it could pose a moral quandary, though, as replacing faulty heart valves in humans with valves from cows or pigs is widely accepted, but mixing human stem cells with other embryonic animals, which could raise the effectiveness of such transplants, seems to cross some anthropocentric line with some people.

As far as I can tell, this is yet another 'science is evil because God' argument being made by certain segments of the scientifically illiterate religious population, most of whom don't seem to even know what, exactly, is being debated.


Chimera controversy:

Point the Sixth: Obama is Spying on the Spies Spying on the Spies...

Blindfold provides his own blog as a source. Well, I'm an 800 year old time traveler. I said so yesterday, so it must be true. You know what? I don't have enough information to say one way or the other. It seems fucking unlikely, though, as one would imagine people like Blindfold and Alex Jones would be the first to be vanished if it were true. Given how incompetent the US government is at almost everything else, I doubt that they got The Perfect Police Surveillance State right.

Point the Seventh: Professional Wrestling is Fake. Seriously.

THIS qualifies as a conspiracy? The two 300 lb steroid monsters that go on tour together and jump, professionally, on each others heads aren't really trying to kill each other? Way to ferret out the truth there, Bernstein.

But seriously, you figured out that professional wrestling is fake and not human corpses filled with demons and goat blood and reanimated by the Rothschild banking cartel as part of a modern panem et circenses to distract the modern poor from the NWO's nefarious plan. That's something. So, point to Team Lunatic for siding with reality for once.

Point the Eighth: Texas is Running Out of Water.

That's not a conspiracy. That's basic fucking math. Pollution + population growth + limited supply of fresh water + no plan to address any of the above.

Point the Ninth: IRS Targets Conservatives

Again, no source. Even granted that it happens/ed, this wasn't treated as a conspiracy until after the story broke. As far as I know, "I knew it all along!" is not a credible demonstration of predictive utility. As for the IRS, why, exactly, wouldn't they examine the tax records of Tea Party groups? You know, the political extremist tax protesters whose entire political worldview consists of the first half of "No taxation without representation." I can't imagine why the IRS may think those good people might be hiding something from them.

But the fact is that there aren't enough facts to definitively state that it was a conspiracy to target Tea Party groups for political reasons, or just a misguided time-saving measure instilled by someone at the IRS, or something else entirely. It's currently under review. Anything else is speculation and should be treated as such.

Point the Tenth: Fluoride is Evil Because!

Blindfold links to a CNN post. CNN is not a fucking expert on dentistry. Or chemistry. Their commenters sure as fuck aren't either, although I may be biased in disregarding claims like "im a denist in a small town with no floride and we have no cavity problem." None of the conspiracists can even agree on what, exactly, is so EVIL about water fluoridation. Disposal of industrial waste via human kidneys? Causing more tooth loss? Keeping people docile? Giving children cancer? Nanny-state overreach? Communists seeking to impurify our vital liquids? Speeding up the aging process? Shills for Big Pharma doing...something nefarious? Slack-jawed idiots demonstrating the woeful state of our educational system by banging wildly at their keyboards while not understanding the basic difference between fluoride and sodium fluoride? Literally all of those claims are made in the first page of comments on that post.


The Fluoride Debate, with expert commentary:

Point the Eleventh: Cell Phones Give You Cancer!

No sources. I know, I'm a dick for expecting them. The claim that "an increasing number of studies" support this dickhead's silly-ass assertion is dubious at best, as a Google Scholar search for his quote "At the highest exposure levels — using a mobile phone half an hour a day over a 10-year period — the study found a 40 percent increased risk of glioma brain tumors" yielded exactly zero matches. Exactly. Zero. I counted. So it very probably didn't come from a legitimate scholarly source and likely wasn't even a 'study.'

There are, however, legitimate studies of the relationship between increased cell phone usage and cancer rates. Unfortunately for Blindfold they conclude that "The results of this investigation, the first nationwide cancer incidence study of cellular phone users, do not support the hypothesis of an association between use of these telephones and tumors of the brain or salivary gland, leukemia, or other cancers," and that "a weight-of-evidence evaluation shows that the current evidence for a causal association between cancer and exposure to RF energy is weak and unconvincing."

Just to be fair, cell phones are new things, so who knows, maybe in twenty years when we're all dead from brain tumors the CT crowd can tell me they told me so.


Johansen, Boice, et al. Cellular Telephones and Cancer:

Moulder, Foster, et al. Mobile phones, mobile phone base stations and cancer:

Point the Twelfth: Prescription Drugs Kill People

This is less of a conspiracy and more a fundamental problem with the United States' for-profit healthcare system and relative impotence of the FDA. And here I was thinking that the FDA was the bad guy for the tinfoil hat crowd. I guess both the pharmaceutical industry and any regulatory boards pertaining to it are both part of a larger conspiracy.

Unless and until we, as a people, are willing to have a grown up discussion about socialized medicine then it will remain a problem. At some point we're going to just have to accept that as bad as Big Gummit can be, it is less bad than Big Pharma, at least in this area.

Source for the unsourced source:

Point the Thirteenth: Liberal Elitists Call for Eugenics!

Blindfold proves this by providing quotes from David Rockefeller, Ted Turner, John Holdren, Paul Ehrlich, and Bill Maher. I say "providing quotes," but half of them are just links to infowars articles.

The Rockefeller, Turner, and Holdren quotes that appear here seem to have sprung forth directly from the collective hive-mind of the Illiterati blogosphere, like some kind of electric fungus that grows on large spots of confirmation bias and malice. I'm not saying they didn't say these things. I'm not even saying they didn't say them in context. But unless someone provides a source for the quotes I'm not going to take some guy named Blindfold's word for it.

The Ehrlich quote,
 “To our minds, the fundamental cure, reducing the scale of the human enterprise (including the size of the population) to keep its aggregate consumption within the carrying capacity of Earth is obvious but too much neglected or denied.”
while accurate, is also an example of quote-mining and the power of decontextualization. Ehrlich is speaking of basic, common sense practices to keep society within the sustainable limits of planet earth, like not having so damn many kids. There literally is only so much fresh water to go around. Remember? That was part of Point Eight of your own damn article, Blindfold. If population growth continues to increase at its current rate we will, seriously, not to be a dick, hit an upper resource limit. Ehrlich is pointing this out and stating that the best course forward is to slow our reproduction rate.

Bill Maher, on the other hand, is a blowhard liberal comedian and should be treated as such. I happen to like him, but I would never consider him an expert source for information on overpopulation. And certainly wouldn't take anything he said as a call for genocide. If Blindfold can't tell the difference between an obvious use of hyperbole to make a comedic point and an insidious plan to execute grandparents and unwanted children then he likely has far more pressing concerns than what late night talk show hosts have to say. Like growing a sense of humor or building that shrine made of cat ears his lawnmower keeps telling him to build, or having his shoelaces taken away so he doesn't try to stab an orderly with them.

Source for the Ehrlich story which, lets face it, is the only potentially relevant one that doesn't appear to be completely made up:

Point the Fourteenth: Satanists are Killing People! For SATAN!

Speaking of mental illness: Blindfold provides a link to one example of this epidemic happening once. ONE example does not make a pattern. The church has been warning us about this for hundreds of years, and you can provide one example of it actually happening? I could probably find one example per week of Christian faith healing directly leading to the death of a child in the States. Why isn't Blindfold concerned with that? Even if Meraz-Espinoza's murder of his mother isn't a case of "he's fucking crazy," it doesn't mean the act was directly motivated by Satan because Satan doesn't fucking exist. Neither does the Christian god. Both are just examples of dumb motherfuckers doing dumb motherfucker shit because that's what dumb motherfuckers do.

Meraz-Espinoza story:

Point the Fifteenth: The Spies That Are Spying on Each Other While They Spy on Us Are, in Fact, SPYING ON US!

Well, yes. That is what the Patriot Act did. It wasn't a conspiracy. It was a highly publicized response to the 9/11 attack. I don't think the problem is as far-reaching and pervasive as most CTs would like it to be, as that would involve 60% of the population spying on the other 40% for a living and it'd get pretty fucking lonely around here. I'd personally (and rather charitably, I feel,) say that this is an example of the broken clock proverb, as there is actual evidence of domestic spying.

The problem with broken clocks, of course, is that no one can tell when they're right. If I were to say "scientists have found a way to control other people's actions" or "scientists have managed to stop light," you would, prima facie, have no reason to believe me. And if I couldn't back those claims up, you fuck-well shouldn't believe me. If those assertions turn out to be true, you have no reason to believe I didn't just make a couple of lucky guesses. And if they turn out to be false, I don't get to claim your evidence discrediting me is part of a larger conspiracy. Those are what I consider fucking ground rules when making sensational claims. Blindfold again didn't source his information, because why would he, and at this point I can't be assed to track down Inglis' original statement in this blatant example of horseshoe theory, and am gonna just go ahead and assume that the CT crowd isn't privy to some special information the rest of us are not.

Point the Sixteenth: The FED is a Debt Machine That Manufactures Inflation Ron Paul 2012!

Is the Fed problematic? Yes. Can we do better? Yes. Will we do better? No. Not if the loudest voices in the room are so focused on demonizing the problem that any workable solutions go unheard. I don't have the answers. The CT crowd fucking definitely doesn't.

The Fed was installed as a possible solution to debt and inflation. It just didn't work the way people thought it would. If a proposed solution doesn't work the next step is not to abandon treatment. The next step is to try something else.

I haven't heard anything sane being proposed by anyone. I admit, I haven't looked very hard, so don't get me wrong, there are probably answers out there. I just haven't heard them. They're probably being put forth by quiet people with masters degrees in political theory and economics, bouncing around on message boards no one reads and papers no one without a college education in a related field understands. They don't fit on fucking bumper stickers, in other words.

The Ron Paul/anti-fed/survivalist/Goldmember/We-Never-Fucking-Think-Anything-Through crowd would never, in a million years, support those people, because those people rely on facts and science and intellectual elitism and informed opinions and a clear understanding of the interplay of the public and private sectors, and most of this list directly attacks facts and science and all of it holds elitism and both the private and public sectors in equal contempt, and the 'freethinkers' that constantly repost this shit without questioning it immediately consider any informed opinion that doesn't toe the party line either a shill for the Bad Guys or a clueless 'sheeple.'

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call irony.

How the Fed works, at least on paper:

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Poor Mormons

I hate being Devil's Advocate sometimes, but...

I was recently visited by door-to-door Mormons. And while I realize they prefer to be called Latter Day Saints or Saints, I prefer to call them Mormons because calling them "Saints" sounds like they're a street gang in a karate movie from the 1980s.

Anyway, we had a nice, long chat wherein I got to use phrases like 'intrinsically self-assigned' and 'geologic column' and 'principle of falsifiability' and feel very smart and proud of myself. And I updated my Facebook status accordingly, mentioning that I felt bad for Mormons. Twelve people liked that post, as opposed to the normal one or two whenever I post anything negative about any other subject.

Here's what I don't understand, and also why I feel bad for LDS's: At least some of the people that liked that post about Mormon missionaries are Christians. Or claim to be. Or just really like lower-case 't's and falling for logical fallacies. Now, I've read the book of Mormon. And the Bible. Repeatedly. And I can definitively say that the claims made in the Book of Mormon and the claims made in the Bible are statistically identical, since they agree with and reinforce each other like 99% of the time. Particularly about the general depiction of the Almighty as a capricious, cruel, genocidal, vindictive, racist, sexist, insecure, psychotic monster that tortures his children to fulfill unknowable perversions. It's a new New Testament. Written by and for 'mericans. So from my perspective these Protestants mocking the LDS church is like arguing over what color dragon poop is in August during a drought. Until somebody establishes the existence of a dragon you're only going to succeed in looking ridiculous.

Oh, but those poor, misguided Mormons for believing that Ghost Jesus visited the Americas and turned some of them white, when everyone knows he didn't make any pit-stops on his way back to an invisible paradise that used to be a real place until telescopes turned it into a metaphor. Can anyone prove either of those accounts are accurate? Or at least offer a compelling case in favor of one or the other? Considering all of our current understanding indicates that neither bodily resurrection nor eternal, extra-dimensional paradises exist, I'm inclined to believe both parties are just arguing in favor of different kinds of wrong.

Oh, those poor Mormons and their corrupt church that robs them blind to build shopping malls and wage political campaigns. Isn't it nice that all other Christian pastors preach in the wilderness, wear rags, and eat bugs? Especially since they don't claim that they're in the metaphorical wilderness of upper-middle class income brackets. I'm pretty sure "Go and sell all that you have" and "you cannot serve both God and Mammon" are meant to be applied to the entire hierarchy, not just the parishioners. I have never, ever, ever, in my entire life, met a Christian that chose to give his or her fortune to the poor and mooch off the goodwill of strangers in exchange for vapid platitudes and groundbreaking insights into the human condition like "Don't kill people." I sure have met a fuckload of Christians that think that kind of thinking is socialism, though. Well, what idiots think socialism is, anyway.

Oh, those poor Mormons and their widely publicized sex crimes. Which church, then, is blameless? If the metric to be used is gender equality and lack of child rape, then I would imagine that Scientology is clearly the least worst choice, if only for its relative newness and exclusivity. And having been invented in an age and place that has largely figured out that human sacrifice, infant genital mutilation, slave trafficking, murdering dissenters, stoning disobedient children, arranged marriages, and outlawing blended fabrics are not, all things considered, wholesome activities.

And I'm not saying this out of anger towards the people that liked that status, so please don't take it that way. They can believe an albino goblin wants them to build a house out of prosthetic limbs so long as they don't hurt anyone and recognize that not everyone will share that belief.

I just wish that occasionally one of them would read a few webpages on cognitive bias, perform a few experiments, and do some opposition-research on what they believe before they point out that, yes, sometimes people get together in groups to believe different insane fairy tales than themselves. I mean, obviously they have functioning bullshit detectors. It would be so great if they would just point those detectors at their own belief systems.

But they don't.