They scam horses, don’t they?

Hey, veterinarians have to be pretty smart and disciplined to even be in that career, so it’s nice to see how many of them have to be rigorous and skeptical. Here’s an example of the universal problem of quackery explained by a vet:

One reason that many products and treatment methods remain on the market is because of this simple, and not entirely irrational, thought process: “I tried it, my horse got better, so it works!” Unfortunately, even when a horse’s problem improves following treatment, this, by itself, often cannot prove that the therapy was responsible for the improvement. Here’s an example. In other times, people did rain dances when the weather was dry and occasionally, it must have rained. Thus, they kept on dancing. That’s the same bit of logic I’m talking about as applied to determining whether treatments really work, or not.

There are some ethics involved here, as well. I believe that people who provide treatments and therapies for animals have a moral and ethical obligation to prove, first, that they are safe and, second, that they are effective prior to selling them to horse owners (NOTE: Not everyone agrees, as evidenced by the buckets of BS that are currently being peddled). It’s usually not that hard to demonstrate that a therapy doesn’t do any harm to an animal – the treatment is given, the animal doesn’t die, and there you go. Proving that it’s effective can be quite another matter, even if effectiveness is easy to claim.

This is a very common psychological exploit. Most organisms do have natural healing abilities; I’ve noticed over the years that if I have a cut, it magically heals, even though I don’t understand everything that is going on. Unscrupulous humans are able to hover over that ongoing process and claim that they’re the ones responsible for activating the magical healing power, even when they’re not, and there isn’t anything magical about it. We’re usually quite eager to have wounds and disease go away, so we’re psychologically willing to accept the ‘aid’ of said unscrupulous guru.

It’s especially potent for problems that have a variable progression, like cancer or back pains.

And it works on horses, too. Well, not actually on horses, but on gullible horse owners, who often have a deep emotional and financial investment in their animals. Once you’ve got the horse folk convinced, it’s an easy jump to bilking humans over human diseases.

My favorite example is Tellington TTouch, a kind of psychic massage therapy.

[TTouch] is a bodywork and training method based on circular movements of the fingers and hands all over the body. The intent of the TTouch is to activate the function of the cells and awaken cellular intelligence — “turning on the electric lights of the body.” The TTouch is done on the entire body, each circular TTouch complete within itself. It is not necessary to understand anatomy to be successful in speeding up the healing of injuries or ailments, or changing undesirable habits or behavior.

And, according to the unqualified and untrained woman who peddles this crap all over the world, it cures just about everything. Stress, migraines, depression, arthritis, stroke…it even enriches your relationships!

That’s a pretty impressive list of accomplishments for a system of touching rituals made up by one person based entirely on her own intuition. Unsurprisingly, however, there is absolutely no reliable evidence to support any of these claims. The TTouch web site claims, “We have also gathered a rich legacy of anecdotal evidence to support the effectiveness of TTouch to enhance personal wellness and quality of life” without any apparent recognition that this is meaningless in terms of validating the claims made for the treatment.

Unfortunately, the reason it’s my ‘favorite’ quack therapy is that it is heavily promoted by my university (well, one branch of my U — the backward and problematic Twin Cities branch) at the Center for Spirituality and Healing, the ongoing embarrassment thriving at the heart of one campus in this system. I’m looking at the long, long list of faculty and staff associated with this disgrace and thinking about how the science division at my campus is understaffed, and how all across the university we could use more support for the social sciences and humanities and arts, and how our students keep facing tuition increases, and right there is a fine piece of useless fat that could be cut away, and the loss would immediately benefit the University of Minnesota.

It’s a clear example of bad thinking doing actual harm.

I never get to feel smug about atheism anymore

The Southern Baptists had a big fight among themselves at their conference. What triggered it, among all the mundane minutia, was a proposal to repudiate the alt-right and reject racism.

…[a lot of “whereas”s citing the Bible deleted]

WHEREAS, there has arisen in the United States a growing menace to political order and justice that seeks to reignite social animosities, reverse improvements in race relations, divide our people, and foment hatred, classism, and ethnic cleansing; and

WHEREAS, this toxic menace, self-identified among some of its chief proponents as “White Nationalism” and the “Alt-Right,” must be opposed for the totalitarian impulses, xenophobic biases, and bigoted ideologies that infect the minds and actions of its violent disciples; and

WHEREAS, the roots of White Supremacy within a “Christian context” is based on the so-called “curse of Ham” theory once prominently taught by the SBC in the early years—echoing the belief that God through Noah ordained descendants of Africa to be subservient to Anglos—which provided the theological justification for slavery and segregation. The SBC officially renounces the “curse of Ham” theory in this Resolution; now be it therefore

RESOLVED, that the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Phoenix, AZ, June 13-14, 2017, denounces every form of “nationalism” that violates the biblical teachings with respect to race, justice, and ordered liberty; and be it further

RESOLVED, that we reject the retrograde ideologies, xenophobic biases, and racial bigotries of the so-called “Alt-Right” that seek to subvert our government, destabilize society, and infect our political system; and be finally

RESOLVED, that we earnestly pray, both for those who lead and advocate this movement and those who are thereby deceived, that they may see their error through the light of the Gospel, repent of their perverse nationalism, and come to know the peace and love of Christ through redeemed fellowship in the Kingdom of God, which is established from every nation, tribe, people and tongue.

It was initially rejected, and they refused to bring it to a vote, which led to outrage and fury, especially among the black pastors, as you might guess. I’m reading a summary of the conference where all this battling went down, and feeling kind of smug and superior for an ephemeral moment, since we atheists would never have such a conflict. How can Southern Baptists be so obtuse and bigoted?

And then I remembered…you all must remember a few years ago when the big schism that split the atheist community was a simple statement that guys should maybe not hit on attendees at atheist conferences. Remember how people blew up at the very idea that there ought to be anti-sexual harassment policies at our conferences? Remember how some jerk atheist was made a pariah because he dared to publish an account of the rape of a young woman by a prominent speaker at those conferences? Or how about the long roster of loud atheist youtubers who are mouthpieces for misogyny and racism and the alt-right?

I’m also noticing that we atheists also do not have an organization that has formally denounced racism, sexism, and the alt-right as firmly as the goddamned primitive ‘stupid’ Bible-wallopers of the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC has done better than atheists on this one, and there’s very little likelihood that we’ll improve, since the official policy everywhere seems to be that atheism will not take a stand on issues of moral significance. There is the Copenhagen Declaration, which is brief and general and takes a step in the right direction, but could use some greater specificity and should be updated to reflect current issues, and definitely should be at least as strong as the SBC statement.

By the way, despite the wrangling, the Southern Baptists eventually accepted a revised version of the proposal; the major change seems to be a deletion of the repudiation of the “curse of Ham” nonsense, which is unfortunate, since that was a major argument that led to the Civil War, among other ongoing atrocities.

It’s also not perfect. It still has a line about opposing “racism…and vice“, which is code for continuing discrimination against different sexual orientations. But at least they took a stand against Nazis, which is something atheists should do, too.

And probably won’t. Too many alt-right, Nazi, libertarian crapsacks in our ranks.

I love infuriating creationists!

We have angered Ken Ham!

In a recent blog post to his Answers in Genesis website, leading creationist Ken Ham laments the supposed power of atheists and the “secularist media,” complaining that they are damaging the reputation of his Ark Encounter, and the economy of the surrounding local businesses, writing:

Recently, a number of articles in the mainstream media, on blogs, and on well-known secularist group websites have attempted to spread propaganda to brainwash the public into thinking our Ark Encounter attraction is a dismal failure.

Sadly, they (atheists and the secular media) are influencing business investors and others in such a negative way that they may prevent Grant County, Kentucky, from achieving the economic recovery that its officials and residents have been seeking.

In other words, Ken Ham blames atheists for his trouble. Ham is refusing to take responsibility for his own failure, and refusing to take responsibility for his broken promises to the citizens and business community of Grant County, Kentucky.

Uh-oh. A collision is coming. On one side, a bitter, pissed-off creationist who wants to blame atheists for every failing of his horrible phony theme park.

On the other, a certain atheist who is planning to visit said theme park and to write mocking, sarcastic posts about it (unless, of course, they finally convince me that science is wrong) this weekend. Yeah, that’s me: I’m flying to Cincinnati tomorrow for the 2017 Midwest Zebrafish Meeting, and before that meeting starts I was going to zip out to the Ark Park on Friday morning. Maybe it’ll be a very quick visit if the creationists happen to recognize me.

I should warn them that bad things happen to people who throw me out of creationist events. Better to let me wander about and gather ammo for ridicule.

Not even Gwyneth Paltrow believes in Goop

There was a Goop Summit in LA, where people paid $500-$1500 for the privilege of buying Goop merchandise and listening to goofy pseudoscientific quackery.

In the day’s first lecture, Sadeghi spoke for nearly 90 minutes about integrative photosynthesis, spiritual Wi-Fi, laterality to the body, neuro-vegetative signs and the ontological experience called your life.

He spoke of June 4, 1997, the day Paltrow first reached out, as the most important of his entire life, moreso than his marriage or the birth of his two children. He’s saved every email she ever sent him, and spent half an hour walking the audience through a detailed explanation of Paltrow’s first bloodwork, her then-recurrent urinary tract infections and an ovarian cyst that, he said, threatened to blow out her back. (One of the enduring mysteries of Paltrow’s success as a health and wellness guru is her endless stream of medical ailments.)

Sadeghi went off on some interesting tangents. What makes water wet? he asked, more than once. I nearly got a master’s in electric chemistry asking that question.

He stated that we still don’t know how birds fly, despite the Wright brothers inventing the airplane by observing birds in flight. I am probably one of the most authentic human beings you will ever meet, he said, a pronouncement usually reserved for anyone working a con.

The whole thing was oozing bullshit, but at least it was overpriced luxury bullshit.

What I found most interesting is that Gwyneth Paltrow did an interview on Jimmy Kimmel’s show, and it was incredibly revealing. She knows nothing about the stuff she sells! When asked about various items in the Goop catalog, all she provides is nervous laughter and embarrassed looks and denial.

It’s obvious that she is not a True Believer, so my impression of her intelligence grew a notch. Unfortunately, that means she’s a knowing con artist so my impression of her integrity and honest shrank two notches. I wonder what it’s like to be trapped in a lucrative job that you do not respect?

Actually, I also wonder what it would be like to be trapped in a lucrative job, period.

Can we classify capitalist exploiters as terrorists now?

There has been a terrible fire in London — flames raced up a residence tower, killing 6 and putting about 70 in the hospital. Normally, that would just be local news, but this fire has a horrifying twist: the management company has been receiving warnings from residents about poor fire safety for at least 4 years now. Residents were advised that if there were a fire, they should just sit quietly in their apartments and wait for the fire department to take care of it. Yeah, just sit quietly during this:

It’s the literal personification of the “This is fine” dog.

Really, the management company has been fully aware, and they’ve received incessant complaints, and their response has been to tell everyone to shut up. You can never trust a landlord — this is why we’re supposed to have laws that constrain capitalist excess.

I don’t know whether this is cause for optimism or despair

Doug Erwin argues that we’re not in the middle of a 6th mass extinction. It’s not because we haven’t decimated life on planet Earth; it’s because if we were, the catastrophe would be immense, and we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

“People who claim we’re in the sixth mass extinction don’t understand enough about mass extinctions to understand the logical flaw in their argument,” he said. “To a certain extent they’re claiming it as a way of frightening people into action, when in fact, if it’s actually true we’re in a sixth mass extinction, then there’s no point in conservation biology.”

This is because by the time a mass extinction starts, the world would already be over.

“So if we really are in the middle of a mass extinction,” I started, “it wouldn’t be a matter of saving tigers and elephants—”

“Right, you probably have to worry about saving coyotes and rats.

“It’s a network collapse problem,” he said. “Just like power grids. Network dynamics research has been getting a ton of money from DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. They’re all physicists studying it, who don’t care about power grids or ecosystems, they care about math. So the secret about power grids is that nobody actually knows how they work. And it’s exactly the same problem you have in ecosystems.

The good news is that we aren’t dead yet! The bad news is that when the end comes, it will be rapid and non-linear and unimaginably devastating. Just to put it in perspective, this is small potatoes compared to a real mass extinction:

For instance, it stands to reason that, until very recently, all vertebrate life on the planet was wildlife. But astoundingly, today wildlife accounts for only 3 percent of earth’s land animals; human beings, our livestock, and our pets take up the remaining 97 percent of the biomass. This Frankenstein biosphere is due both to the explosion of industrial agriculture and to a hollowing out of wildlife itself, which has decreased in abundance by as much as 50 percent since 1970. This cull is from both direct hunting and global-scale habitat destruction: almost half of the earth’s land has been converted to farmland.

The oceans have endured a similar transformation in only the past few decades as the industrial might developed during World War II has been trained on the seas. Each year fishing trawlers plow an area of seafloor twice the size of the continental United States, obliterating the benthos. Gardens of corals and sponges hosting colorful sea life are reduced to furrowed, lifeless plains. What these trawlers have to show for all this destruction is the removal of up to 90 percent of all large ocean predators since 1950, including familiar staples of the dinner plate like cod, halibut, grouper, tuna, swordfish, marlin, and sharks. As just one slice of that devastation, 270,000 sharks are killed every single day, mostly for their tasteless fins, which end up as status symbol garnishes in the bowls of Chinese corporate power lunches. And today, even as fishing pressure is escalating, even as the number of fishing boats increases, even as industrial trawlers abandon their exhausted traditional fishing grounds to chase down ever more remote fish stocks with ever more sophisticated fish-finding technology, global fish catch is flatlining.

Related concept: error catastrophe. One of the properties of organisms and food webs is that they’re surprisingly robust — you can punch holes in them and take out pieces and they just keep going until suddenly, the network can’t compensate and the whole thing just collapses. We’re cheerfully battering whole ecosystems and cheerfully telling ourselves how tough and resilient the world is, and it’s true…until one last damaging blow causes an abrupt disintegration.

Oh, did I say I didn’t know whether to be optimistic or despairing? I lied. I know which one I feel most.

Are we not surprised?

No, we are not. Megyn Kelly left Fox News for good reason — no one of any political stripe deserves sexual harassment — but she was a perfect fit for that network. She became a star at Fox because she embodied the conservative ideals of people like Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, and everything was copacetic between them all on a political plane. Being a victimized women does not make her an ally or an admirable person. Ann Coulter is subject to some of the most scurrilous, rancid attacks by people on the left; that’s wrong, it makes me sympathize a little bit with her on a personal level, but she still holds hateful and odious views for which she should be spurned.

A lot of us were shocked that MSNBC, the so-called ‘liberal’ news network, offered Kelly a job, but I suppose we should recognize the reality that the news networks are unprincipled profit-making establishments that cannot be trusted to pursue truth over dollars. But now Kelly is following the instincts that served her well on Fox and is interviewing Sandy Hook ‘truther’ (about as contemptible a title as you can bestow on anyone), Alex Jones. And she has so little conscience that she could simultaneously promote Jones and host a benefit for the Sandy Hook families (she’s not now, fortunately).

So why are confirmed liars and phonies like Alex Jones and Megyn Kelly and other ghastly serial liars like Jeffrey Lord given a loudspeaker at every opportunity? Yet at the same time others, like Reza Aslan (whose show I despised for its insipid religious apologetics) get fired? How can people be upset at a performance of a Shakespeare play that has someone who looks like Donald Trump cast as Julius Caesar? That’s a serious promotion given to the president, and yes, Julius Caesar gets assassinated, but the whole point of the play is that the assassins get their due, and that murder is a violation of Republican principles.

I’ve come to the conclusion that free speech is an illusion in a world where power puts on the mask of liberty. It’s not free speech when it’s selectively denied and used solely as an excuse to justify hate and the expression of one set of values. It’s not free speech when Nazis think it means they get to slash people’s throats. It’s not free speech when it’s a club used to rationalize trampling on the rights of the oppressed by the privileged.

So I’m not at all surprised when a regressive toady like Megyn Kelly keeps bubbling up to the top. She’s part of the demographic that knows very well how to manipulate the concept of free speech to make lies a virtue.