Copenhagen Skeptics in the Pub schedule

The schedule for Copenhagen Skeptics in the Pub has been organized for the rest of the year.

The talks take place at Café Nutid at 19:00. All talks will be in Danish. The links take you to a facebook event for the talk – it is not necessary to sign up and it is free to participate.

12. september: Sidsel Kjems: Hvad ved du om folkekirkens økonomi?

10. oktober: Niels Marthinsen: Musik og naturvidenskab

14. november: Andreas Hoff og Kim Bartholdy: 100 myter om sundhed

12. december: Nanna Rolving: Status på HPV-vaccinen

We are busy trying to create the schedule for the first half of 2017, and always welcome suggestions to subjects and speakers relating to science and skepticism. Talks can be in Danish or English.

Lazy linking

A round up of interesting articles and posts that I have come across the last couple of weeks.

400-year-old Greenland shark is oldest vertebrate animal

The Guardian article is about the newest research into the Greenland shark which indicates that they have a lifespan of centuries, and might be the oldest vertebrate animals around. The scientists did this by looking at the carbon-14 in the eyes of some captured sharks, and used this to estimate the ages of the specimens. This is obviously imprecise, but it does clearly indicate that the sharks have been around for a long time.

As a side note, this article can’t help remind of the old story about the bowhead whale swimming around with a 100-year old harpoon fragment embedded in it.

 

In other marine news, it appears that humpback whales protect potential prey from Orcas, even when the prey is of entirely different species, such as seals.

Humpback whales interfering when mammal-eating killer whales attack other species: Mobbing behavior and interspecific altruism?

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are known to interfere with attacking killer whales (Orcinus orca). To investigate why, we reviewed accounts of 115 interactions between them. Humpbacks initiated the majority of interactions (57% vs. 43%; n = 72), although the killer whales were almost exclusively mammal-eating forms (MEKWs, 95%) vs. fish-eaters (5%; n = 108). When MEKWs approached humpbacks (n = 27), they attacked 85% of the time and targeted only calves. When humpbacks approached killer whales (n = 41), 93% were MEKWs, and ≥87% of them were attacking or feeding on prey at the time. When humpbacks interacted with attacking MEKWs, 11% of the prey were humpbacks and 89% comprised 10 other species, including three cetaceans, six pinnipeds, and one teleost fish. Approaching humpbacks often harassed attacking MEKWs (≥55% of 56 interactions), regardless of the prey species, which we argue was mobbing behavior. Humpback mobbing sometimes allowed MEKW prey, including nonhumpbacks, to escape. We suggest that humpbacks initially responded to vocalizations of attacking MEKWs without knowing the prey species targeted. Although reciprocity or kin selection might explain communal defense of conspecific calves, there was no apparent benefit to humpbacks continuing to interfere when other species were being attacked. Interspecific altruism, even if unintentional, could not be ruled out.

Nation Geographic has a good write up about this: Why Humpback Whales Protect Other Animals From Killer Whales

 

In completely unrelated news, it appears that better health coverage makes people more healthy. Hardly a surprising information, but there are now actual data to back this common-sense conclusion up.

Obamacare Appears to Be Making People Healthier

A few recent studies suggest that people have become less likely to have medical debt or to postpone care because of cost. They are also more likely to have a regular doctor and to be getting preventive health services like vaccines and cancer screenings. A new study, published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, offers another way of looking at the issue. Low-income people in Arkansas and Kentucky, which expanded Medicaid insurance to everyone below a certain income threshold, appear to be healthier than their peers in Texas, which did not expand.

It seems incredible that it is necessary to collect data about this, when it is so obvious that it would be the case. There are, however, many things that appears obvious, which turns out to be wrong, so it is good that the researchers uses this opportunity to find data to expand our knowledge.

 

Jennifer Raff has written a very interesting post about human cannibalism:

Cannibalism and Human Evolution

The post starts out with the following bit of family story:

One of my aunts was once asked during an interview for a position in the criminal justice field “Is there any kind of criminal you don’t feel you could work with?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Have you ever seen ‘The Silence of the Lambs?’ I don’t do cannibals.”

This reminds me of a story I was once told by an elderly lady from New Zealand, who told about back when she went to school, and one of her teachers explained to the class that people used to be cannibals, but that this no longer was the case, and that they of course don’t know what humans taste like, to which a Maori girl in the class put her hand in the air, and said, “excuse me miss, it tastes like chicken”.

The girl, who almost certainly didn’t have any firsthand knowledge of this, didn’t make any friends in the class.

There certainly is a strong taboo surrounding cannibalism. Probably especially so when you are in areas where it has been practiced within the last couple of centuries.

 

ThinkProgress has a good article on John Lott, a pro-gun “scientist” who is actually a fraud:

The NRA’s Favorite Gun “Academic” Is A Fraud

The United States seems to be in a perpetual cycle mourning mass shootings in the country. This year alone, there have already been 233 mass shootings, where four or more victims were shot, leaving 310 dead and 930 injured. But every time another shooting happens, advocates pop up arguing that more guns don’t actually lead to more violence and stall the much-needed conversation about gun control.

John Lott is, if not the most influential, certainly the most prolific “academic” in the gun debate. He has authored weekly columns in local newspapers on the horrors of gun free zones, published widely-distributed books on the ostensible benefits of right-to-carry laws, and his newest book The War on Guns has received rave reviews by prominent conservatives, like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Newt Gingrich.

I had missed the fact that John Lott had turned up again like a bad penny.

As the ThinkProgress article explains, John Lott lies and distorts gun statistics, makes undocumented claims, lies about his data and research, and has been caught sockpuppeting both book reviews and comments to articles and blogposts.

Tim Lambert at Deltoid has done a lot of work debunking John Lott’s stuff in the past.

It’s Climategate all over again

A couple of weeks ago, apparently timed to cause most damage to the DNC and Hillary Clinton, Wikileaks leaked a number of emails taken from the DNC mail servers by hackers, which appears to be Russian, or have ties to Russia.

After the leak, Wikileaks tweeted out a number of claims about the content of the emails, often linking to a specific email as some kind of evidence. This was picked up by others, and others also added new claims.

Just about all of these claims have now been pretty much debunked (see e.g. here)

The only part that hasn’t been debunked is the fact that several of the DNC staff expressed displeasure with Bernie Sanders, and made suggestions on how to stop him. None of which appears that anyone has followed up upon. Several high position DNC staffers have resigned because of this.

Looking at this, I can’t help thinking of Climategate.

Apart from the Russian hacker connection, there are also many other similarities:

The emails were released at a time to maximize their harm. In Climategate, the emails were released just before the Copenhagen Summit, and was a major cause of the very limited results from the summit. In the DNC emails, they were released just before the DNC convention, but with limited results.

Frustrated comments were taken as evidence for nefarious plots. In Climategate, frustrated scientists wrote about how to stop bad science from getting published, and about withholding data from people they knew would twist and misuse them. In the DNC emails, DNC staffers talked about how to harm the Sanders campaign. In neither cases, did any of the emails lead to any actual actions!

Emails are quoted out of context. In both Climategate and the DNC mails, there are many passages that appears problematic if devoid of context. These are of course those passages that gets quoted all the time. Looking at those passages in context, they suddenly appear much more reasonable (or as the words of a frustrated person, as described above).

The Climategate mails managed to do real, everlasting harm to the planet, by derailing the summit and make the scientist take time to defend themselves. Time they could have spent on research instead.

So far, it appears that the DNC mails haven’t had the same effect, probably because many of us are wiser to the methods of the attackers, and because new technology makes it easier to look up the facts. There is still a risk that the DNC mails might cause lasting damage though – if they somehow gives Trump and the GOP a leverage, allowing him to win. That would cause harm not only to the DNC or even the US, but to the entire world.

In other words, it is important to ensure that any claims about the DNC mails are met swiftly and resoundingly.

Theoretically, the DNC mails could still hold a ticking bomb for the Hillary campaign, but that is highly doubtful. If they did, someone would already have brought it up.

On a passing note, I will just say that it is highly likely that we will see similar email dumps in the future, and it is important to remember Climategate (and the DNC mails), when reacting. Instead of just believing any claims made about what they say, make sure to check the actual mails out, and to do so in context.

Pseudo-science at the Olympics

BBC has a news story up called Why are so many Olympians covered in large red circles?, about the appearance of Olympic athletes with perfect circular red marks on their bodies.

I saw the pictures, and thought “Cupping? Surely it can’t be!”

Unfortunately I was wrong, and it seems like the pseudo-science of cupping has now become a fad among Olympians

The mark of an Olympic athlete, at least at Rio 2016, seems to be a scattering of perfectly round bruises. Swimmers and gymnasts, particularly from Team USA, are among those seen sporting the mysterious dots.

No, not paintballing misadventures or love bites – they are the result of a practice known as “cupping”; an ancient therapy where heated cups are placed on the skin.

Cupping is a treatment from the medieval times (and earlier), where the causes for diseases were not understood, and it was believed to help treat a number of ailments. There is no scientific evidence for it being effective at treating anything.

The BBC writes:

The technique, which is a form of acupuncture, is done by lighting flammable liquid in a glass cup.

Once the flame goes out, the drop in temperature creates suction which sticks the cups to the body.

The suction pulls the skin away from the body and promotes blood flow – and leaves those red spots, which typically last for three or four days.

Of course, it doesn’t in any way or shape promote blood flow – that is an entirely undocumented claim. Those red spots are bruises.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Olympic athletes are willing to try anything in order to win. But cupping?? What’s next, using leeches for bloodletting??

Edit: Orac has of course written a great blog post on cupping: What’s the harm? Cupping edition

More similarities

In response to my last blogpost, Dorte Toft (Danish blog) pointed out that Jonathan Bachman’s picture also had many visual similarities to the picture of Tess Asplund standing up against a neo-nazi march in Sweden. Look and compare.

Brave woman at Baton Rouge protest

 

Tess Asplund standing against neo-nazis

Note: there is a major difference between the two situations, in that the neo-Nazis in Sweden doesn’t represent the official Sweden,  but they are alike in the sense that the depict a woman standing up against injustice.

Bravery in the face of aggression

I suspect that you have all now seen this photo from Baton Rouge by Jonathan Bachman

Brave woman at Baton Rouge protest

 

This is a photo that probably will become iconic, showing a brave woman standing in the path of the police dressed for a riot. It looks like the photo is taken just before the two policemen uses force on her.

When looking at the photo, I can’t help seeing a parallel to another photo of someone standing still in the path of violence.

 

Tank man at Tiananmen Square

 

Many people will find the comparison between the use of tanks on Tiananmen Square and the use of police in Baton Rouge as over the top, but it is a valid comparison – the difference is just a matter of degree rather than of type.

It is awful quiet around here

Yes, I know, this blog has been pretty much missing in action for a month now. I apologize – that is no way to behave when you’ve just moved your blog.

The silence is mainly due to two facts:

  1. My home computer died on me. I was uninstalling some stuff, because I wanted to upgrade my OS to Windows 10, but somehow I managed to delete something important in the process, turning my computer non-functional.
  2. I have moved apartment. This last happened nearly 10 years ago, and I underestimated how much time and energy it would take.

I won’t promise daily blogposts any time soon, but I will try to write something a bit more often.

Labour politician killed in the UK

There are many ways to try to stop democracy, but one of the most effective, and worst, is to attack politicians that you don’t agree with. This is probably why this is one of the preferred methods in less than democratic countries. Unfortunately, it also happens it countries where democracy is well instituted.

We saw it when Gabrielle Giffords was attacked in the US.

Today, we saw another such case, this time in the UK, where member of parliament Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death.

Little is known so far, but it appears that the assailant is connected to Britain First, a far-right group. Jo Cox was a member of the Labour Party.

It seems unlikely that the attack was planned by Britain First, but it is not entirely impossible, as they have in the past sought out confrontations and have ties to Ulster loyalists, who committed terrorism in Northern Ireland. Even if they didn’t plan the attack, Britain First has certainly created the environment where such violence could take place, and thus share part of the responsibility for the attack.

The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Trump edition

In November, 1964 Harper’s Magazine published Richard Hofstadter’s now-classic The Paranoid Style in American Politics which discusses how paranoia not only was, but has always been, a part of US politics, going back to the founding of the country.

The article is more than half a century old, but seems all to relevant for the current times.

Reading the article, it focuses on the paranoia that was around back then: anti-communism, and before that anti-masonry and anti-Catholism, but one can’t help think that one could just as well substitute with anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, and anti-Muslim paranoia, and have a fitting description of the current political environment in the US, exemplified by the Tea Party and the Trump candidacy.

At a recent Trump rally, the paranoia showed itself fully:

Before Trump came on stage an announcer asked – as is customary at Trump rallies – that supporters identify any protesters to security and shout “Trump! Trump! Trump!” until the dissenters were removed.

There were protesters, and their presence was particularly obvious in the smaller, dimly lit venue. When security escorted them out through the emergency exits, the opened doors shot rays of sunlight across the theater.

The suspicion of protesters reached a point at which Trump supporters were informing on each other for not being “real” supporters. One woman pointed security toward a couple sitting quietly in their seats. “Them,” she mouthed.

The couple seemed baffled and denied to a security agent that they were anything but genuine Trump admirers. He waved them toward the exit and said, “Let’s go.”

Afterward the informer, who declined to give her name, grinned as onlookers congratulated her. “I heard one of them say ‘Never Trump’,” she said. “And one held up three fingers, like this.”

She held up her hand in a Boy Scout salute.

What did the three fingers signify?

“I have no idea,” she said.

It is easy to find it hilarious that Trump supporters are turning on each other, but let’s not forget that this is not a healthy political environment, since it allows people like Trump to move to the front.

I hope and believe that Trump will be soundly defeated by Hillary Clinton come the election, but I also think it is important to take a long, hard look at the situation that could allow Trump to become a candidate.

Hofstadter focuses a lot on McCarthyism in the article, and I think there are some very good parallels about how that was addressed and how one should address the GOP (Trump) base. McCarthyism failed for several reasons, but the most important seems to be the overreach, when Senator McCarthy took on the US army. Trump and his irk is likely to overreach in similar ways (e.g. Trump’s accusation that US soldiers stole money in Iraq) – when such episodes happens, it is important that the non-political parts of the establishment stand up against him, and denounce him.

In other words, they should shut him down, similar to how Joseph N. Welch shut down Senator McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings with his famous “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” reply.

Not that I believe they will have the chance to do so quite so effectively, but I’d believe that a rebuke from the leadership of the US military would carry some weight among certain parts of the GOP base. These people might stop up, and think about what was said, and step away a little away from the paranoid style, moving the country ever-so-slightly towards a more reasonable discourse.