No! Not a professor!

Ignore that awful RateMyProfessor website. I do, and I don’t even know my score there, and no, don’t tell me. The recipe seems to be to teach an easy class and give out lots of As, and then students will go on there to tell their peers what courses to take. For instance, here’s Steven Smith, a former journalism professor at the University of Idaho.

Wow! 4.5 out of 5, making him an awesome professor. That praise has to be muted a bit, since three of his peers in the same department got perfect 5s.

Of course, when you step out into the real world, you get a rather different perspective. Steven Smith has been arrested.

An account in Smith’s name for a mobile cash payment service was linked to an investigation into children using social media to send sexually explicit photos of themselves in exchange for money sent to them via the app, according to court documents.

The victims, 10-to-14-year-old girls, sent images to an Instagram account and received money through a cash app account. Internet activity of both accounts were traced to Smith’s Spokane home, the documents said.

Chat conversations showed Smith was aware of the girls’ ages, the documents said.

He had a “very large amount” of images depicting child sexual abuse and was actively downloading more when investigations searched his home Thursday, the documents said, adding that when a detective asked if he knew why they were there with a search warrant he replied, “yes, it’s probably from what I have been downloading.”

That’s Professor Steven Smith on the right, looking awesomely professorial

That’s something I’ll remember any time anyone brings up RateMyProfessor. Also, any time someone assumes that being a professor makes you smart.


The question is, who is getting suckered? And the answer is…journalists. Or maybe I should say “journalists”. Maybe “newsreaders” would be more accurate?

I have seen so many so-called news stories that are basically reporting that TikTokkers said “X,” as if it’s news. TikTok is the babbling of attention-seeking children who will say anything to get a rise out of you. No, really — I got a TikTok account when I heard how popular it is, and I watched some of these videos, and believe me when I say that they skimmed the bottom-most slime from YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter from those sources and made them Tik-Tok superstars. I have not been tempted to actually use that account since.

The media have been painfully credulous, though. Don’t journalists get training in research and evidence anymore?

It seems to happen over and over again, and the mainstream media always makes it worse. The mainstream media hears about a “TikTok challenge,” reports on it like crazy, and people freak out that TikTok is destroying the children or some such.

And every single time, it turns out that the media got the story wrong. Often ridiculously so. There was the “devious licks” challenge, which at least had some basis in truth, but which TikTok cracked down on almost immediately. But when good reporters scratched the surface they found that it was mostly kids pranking adults, making them think that something bad was going to happen.

But, even worse, there was a big moral panic about the “slap a teacher” challenge that the media got up in arms about. Only, that one turned out to have been literally made up by some random adult and then spread by a school cop on Facebook, claiming that it was an upcoming TikTok challenge. Or the “school violence challenge,” which was reported all over the media, causing many schools to shut down entirely for the day, where there is no indication that it was ever actually a thing. And, if it was, the news was spread much more widely by TV news anchors freaking out about it without any evidence that it was real. And, no, the NyQuil chicken challenge was never actually a thing.

And now there’s been another one. At the Washington Post, Taylor Lorenz highlights how the Today Show did a segment about “the boat jump challenge” in which kids were allegedly jumping from moving boats into the water for clout on TikTok. Only problem it was all made up.

Remember the “Tide Pod challenge” from a few years ago? That was nothing but a moral panic. In 2018, the height of the craze,

Last year, U.S. poison-control centers received reports of more than 10,500 children younger than 5 who were exposed to the capsules. The same year, nearly 220 teens were reportedly exposed, and about 25 percent of those cases were intentional, according to data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

In 2018, there have been 37 reported cases among teenagers, half of them intentional, according to the data.

TikTok lured maybe a dozen or so teenagers to stupidly chomp down on a Tide Pod. If you’ve seen any of their videos, what then happens is gagging and spitting the thing out. The real danger is not the seductive allure of TikTok, which got a few idiots to do something idiotic, but that a lot of young children were tricked by the candy-like appearance of the pods to bite down on them. That’s what the story ought to have been — about bad, dangerous marketing by a gigantic corporation. Instead, a few attention-seeking twits got what they wanted, and Tide sailed on as the responsible adult in the room.

Learn to roll your eyes when someone says TikTok challenge, OK? It’s always just clickbait.

Snake oil salesman, grifter, flimflammer, scoundrel, swindler…I could go on

If you’re curious about who would sign up for a Neuralink implant, as I am, you will discover that the volunteers have been seduced by lies.

“I would love to be on the cutting edge of medical science, to be able to bridge the gap of humans and technology,” says Adam Woodworth, a 40-year-old security manager for a museum in Indianapolis who suffers from short-term memory loss due to a military injury. He is swayed by the notion — one Musk promotes heavily — that Neuralink’s device may be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease and brain disorders like his. “I understand there are risks, but someone has to be willing to step up and take that risk,” he says. “I am willing to be one of those people if Elon and the Neuralink team will be willing to allow me to participate.

“Also not sure if it will be possible right off the bat,” Woodworth adds, “but I am also a Tesla owner, and it would be pretty rad if I could communicate with my car using just my mind.”

Dear god. It will not help with short term memory loss. It will not treat Alzheimer’s. I imagine this is, at best, a Phase 0 trial — they’ll plug the widget into this guy’s head, and if his brain doesn’t bleed out and he doesn’t have seizures, they’ll chalk it up as a great success. That’s it.

If Musk is telling volunteers that they’ll treat Alzheimer’s and memory loss, that’s fraud, plain and simple. Medical fraud. He’s making false promises he can’t keep, that will trick people into getting invasive brain surgery.

Of course he’s lying at a phenomenal rate. He’s Elon Musk.

Yet Musk, who has poured at least $100 million of his own money into the venture, makes far broader and fantastic claims about the capabilities of his company’s implant. Apart from declaring that it “will enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using their thumbs,” and “paraplegics to walk again,” he’s speculated it could eventually treat blindness, schizophrenia, depression, autism, obesity, and insomnia, and one day meld human consciousness with AI. This is in addition, of course, to creating a direct channel between minds and machines, not to mention the global internet. Oh, and did we mention that Neuralink could, according to Musk, allow for telepathic communication? (Neither Musk nor Neuralink responded to a request for comment as to whether these claims were somewhat hyperbolic.)

It will do none of those things.

Here, I have a pill that will reverse aging, restore libido, make you lose weight, increase your brain power ten-fold, and give you the power to read minds. (In small print on the label, it mentions this pill can’t do all that yet, but research is continuing that will eventually produce a pill with those powers.)

Am I a quack if I peddle a pill, claiming it has those powers, even if it has that tiny disclaimer? Should I be arrested, fined, and possibly imprisoned for that kind of fraud? I think so.

Why aren’t the police on Musk, or at least the consumer protection office, or even the better business bureau? This quack is taking advantage of people with real illnesses!

Two science-fiction writers got into a fight, and it didn’t matter

That’s the story here, two science-fiction authors disagreed with each other about colonizing the galaxy, and you can stop reading now, because it’s all fuss and bother about a fantasy. Except, I would argue, that the disagreements and advocacy of their respective positions have consequences, and I agree far more with one than the other.

Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a novel called Aurora about a failed effort to colonize Tau Ceti with a generation ship. It’s pessimistic: complex engineering projects fail if you try to keep them running for centuries, the biology of small populations fail predictably if you have limited genetic diversity and limited environmental information, human societies are messy and fragile and tend to fall apart over time, and biology is complex and unpredictable and your destination is either going to be dead (which isn’t good) or teeming with independently evolved organisms (which is worse). He wrote the novel in response to a weird-ass initiative from NASA called The Hundred Year Starship.

In 2011, NASA and DARPA (the Pentagon agency that gave birth to the internet) lent their names to a project called The Hundred-Year Starship. Its aim was to coalesce the space community behind a goal of launching an interstellar mission by your time: 2112. For generation ship dreamers, it was like Christmas had come.

And then along came Kim Stanley Robinson to stomp over all our dreams and tell us that Santa Claus didn’t exist.

Robinson is best known in our time as the author of the Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, all written in the 1990s, the latter two set in your century). He’s what they call a hard sci-fi guy — he talks to the experts in the field, reads the latest research, does his level best to get the science exactly right. For example, all of his novels set in the 22nd century feature a flooded, post-climate change Earth. (Again, we’re really sorry about that.)

Watching a Hundred-Year Starship conference incensed Robinson. “It was a combination of a scam and a religious meeting,” he says, “presented with such an authoritative sheen, such pseudo-science.” So he went to NASA Ames, discovered a lot of internal consternation about the agency’s involvement with the project, talked actual planetary science with actual planetary scientists, and published Aurora in 2015.

I sympathize. It is a scam. There is a range of such ridiculous projects that are cheerfully supported by people who should be much more responsible. It ranges from the starry-eyed optimism of people like Seth Shostak, who want to pump money into SETI with exactly the same mindset as people who buy lottery tickets every week, to malignant rich assholes like Elon Musk who think the Earth is doomed to become an ecological hell-hole, so they are eager to get off this planet to one that is already dead. He sees trouble coming, and his response is to invest in the most expensive, futile tomb he can imagine. And unfortunately, that imagination is fed by overly optimistic science-fiction writers.

I like science fiction, myself. I also think it can be valuable in inspiring people to think about the future. But I would like people to be inspired about ways to solve real problems — we have lots of them crashing over us right now — rather than imaginary bullshit, like how we’re going to get to and colonize a planet we haven’t even seen. There is a place for that, but it’s called escapist fantasy, and there’s nothing wrong with it, unless you lose track of reality and muddle it up with real-world issues.

I will remind you that what inspired Robinson’s novel was NASA and DARPA supporting the idea of building a generation ship to carry humans to another star system 10 or more light years away, to be built and launched in the next century. Elon Musk isn’t going to build a viable colony on Mars, yet we’ve already got people day-dreaming about voyages that could last centuries, launched to destinations unknown, as if that has a chance in hell of happening. At the rate we’re going, the starship collapse Kim Stanley Robinson imagines in his novel is more likely to occur on a grander scale right here on Starship Earth, and we aren’t going to rocket away from it, no matter how many physicists and fantasy authors close their eyes and wish real hard.

That pessimism about space colonies annoys Gregory Benford, who wrote a negative review of the novel. It’s not a rebuttal of the ideas that Robinson advance, but really is just a review of where he thinks the story fails.

In 2012, Robinson declared in a Scientific American interview that “It’s a joke and a waste of time to think about starships or inhabiting the galaxy. It’s a systemic lie that science fiction tells the world that the galaxy is within our reach.” Aurora spells this out through unlikely plot devices. Robinson loads the dice quite obviously against interstellar exploration. A brooding pessimism dominates the novel.

Yeah, the review consists almost entirely of picking at plot holes in the book — which may be entirely valid flaws in the novel. He thinks, for instance, that Robinson “stacked the deck” by making the planet the starship arrives at implacably hostile to human habitation, which is the most likely outcome. The universe is not designed for us, so the majority of destinations are going to be uninhabitable! I think Robinson stacked the deck by making the imaginary starship actually succeed in arriving with a live crew at a distant star, which is already incredibly unlikely, and then being able to turn around and fly back to Earth. Unlike real life, I guess we can fix a plot hole in a book by just rewriting the planet so it’s a paradise.

Then I notice why Benford is disagreeing with Robinson — he’s the editor of an anthology of stories based on that silly conference!

Now I have a dilemma. I’d kind of half like to read that book, but only because it would probably make me really angry at the “scam and a religious meeting” and pseudo-science aspects of it all. Do I really need that kind of negativity in my life? Maybe. It does keep the bile flowing.

Neuralink and the delusional world of Muskians

I know, I’m getting a reputation as that guy who hates Elon Musk (I don’t, I hate hype), but his latest is just too much bullshit. He has bought a company called Neuralink, which has the goal of creating brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). OK so far. These interfaces are cool, interesting, and promising, and I’m all for more research in this field. But Musk gets involved, and suddenly his weird transhumanist-wannabe fanboys start hyperventilating. I double-dog dare you to read this puff piece, Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future. It begins roughly here, with the claim that Musk is going to build a Wizard Hat to make everyone super-smart:

Not only is Elon’s new venture—Neuralink—the same type of deal, but six weeks after first learning about the company, I’m convinced that it somehow manages to eclipse Tesla and SpaceX in both the boldness of its engineering undertaking and the grandeur of its mission. The other two companies aim to redefine what future humans will do—Neuralink wants to redefine what future humans will be.

The mind-bending bigness of Neuralink’s mission, combined with the labyrinth of impossible complexity that is the human brain, made this the hardest set of concepts yet to fully wrap my head around—but it also made it the most exhilarating when, with enough time spent zoomed on both ends, it all finally clicked. I feel like I took a time machine to the future, and I’m here to tell you that it’s even weirder than we expect.

But before I can bring you in the time machine to show you what I found, we need to get in our zoom machine—because as I learned the hard way, Elon’s wizard hat plans cannot be properly understood until your head’s in the right place.

I dared you to read it, because I’ll be surprised if anyone can plow through it all: it goes on for almost 40,000 words (I know, I pulled it into a text editor and confirmed it), and that doesn’t count all the crappy little cartoons scattered through out it. When the author says you cannot properly understand it without putting your head in the right place, he means you have to start with sponges and be lead step by step through a triumphalist version of 600 million years of evolutionary history, which is all about a progressive increase in the complexity of brain circuitry. It’s an extremely naive and reductionist perspective on neuroscience and intelligence that presumes that all you have to do is make brains bigger and faster to be better, and that computers extend the “bigger” part but are limited by the speed of interfaces, so all we have to do is improve the bandwidth and we’ll be able to battle the AIs that Musk thinks will someday threaten to rule the world.

All the verbiage is a gigantic distraction. It’s virtually entirely irrelevant to the argument, which I just nailed down for you in a single sentence…without bogging you down in a hypothetical history of flatworms and a lot of simplistic neuroscience. He summarizes Elon Musk’s glorious plan in yet another crude cartoon:

It is accompanied by much grandiloquent noise and promises of planetary revolutions, but what needs to be asked is “How much of this is real?”. The answer is…pretty much none of it. We are currently in the little blue ball at the lower left labeled “starting point”, and Musk has bought a company that is doing tentative, exploratory research on building BMIs (I guess that this whole field is new enough that they are all, by default, “cutting edge”). Everything else in the diagram is complete fantasy. Elon Musk has bought a company, and is cunningly trying to inflate its value by drowning the curious in glurge, techno-mysticism, and making shit up, which, because he has this mystique among young male engineers, will probably succeed in making him more money and fame, without actually doing anything in the top two thirds of that cartoon.

I do rather like how the third step is “BREAKTHROUGHS in bandwidth and implementation”. You could replace it with “And then a miracle occurs…”, and it would be just as meaningful.

Let’s add a little more reality here: Musk has a BS in physics and economics, and started a Ph.D. in engineering, which he dropped out of. He has no education at all in biology or neuroscience.

Another shot of reality: he’s buying this company in collaboration with Peter Thiel’s venture capital company. You remember Thiel, right? Wants to prolong the life of old rich people by transfusing them with the blood of the young? Libertarian acolyte of Ayn Rand who is now advising Trump on policy? If you think this is a recipe for a post-Singularity paradise, looking at the people backing it ought to tell you otherwise.

So why are these filthy rich people getting involved in this nonsense? Let’s ask Elon.

Fear and ignorance, like always.

They’ve imagined a huge, shadowy existential risk which does not exist yet — you might as well drive your decisions by the possible threat of invasion by Mole People from Alpha Centauri (oh, wait…they also fear aliens). They don’t know how AIs will develop or what they’ll do — nobody does — and they lack the competencies needed to guide the research or assess any risks, but they’ve got a plan for generating all the benefits. These guys are as terrifying to me as the Religious Right, and for all the same reasons.

They have fervent worshippers who will vomit up 40,000 words based on inspiration and wishful thinking, and then wallow about in the mess. It’s possibly the worst science writing I’ve encountered yet, and I’ve read a lot, but still, take a look at all the commenters who want it to be true, and regard grade-school and often incorrect summaries of how brains evolved to be informative.

The Kensington Forgery

The infamous Kensington Runestone is kept in a museum just a few miles up the road from me. It’s a carved rock that was dug up on a farm in the 19th century by a Swedish farmer, and purports to tell the tale in runes of a doomed Viking expedition that had come down from Hudson’s Bay to meet a tragic end at the hands of the Minnesota natives. More likely, it’s a cunning artifact produced by the farmer, Olof Öhman. It’s an unlikely bit of pseudo-history, and I’d love to see an unassailable disproof of its source.

Martin Rundkvist is reporting that Öhman’s signature has been found on the stone. Unfortunately, I find the evidence for that even more weirdly unlikely than that Vikings carved it. There are various numbers scattered around in the account written on the stone — the number of Vikings, the days spent traveling, that sort of thing — and the guy who claims to have detected the signature uses these numbers in a bizarrely oblique way.

The inscription has twelve lines. Larsson counts the words from the left on odd-numbered lines and from the right on even-numbered lines…

Uh, why? What if you counted from the left on even lines and from the right on odd lines? What if you counted characters up from the bottom, or whatever other random number-juggling you could do. This reeks of post-hoc fitting of an interpretation to the data set, and I don’t believe a word of it.

Rats. We’re going to have to keep on rolling our eyes at the silliness in that little museum to the north, I guess.

(Also on FtB)

Stand for Science: Confront Homeopathy

Aww, the students of Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists have warmed the frigid, friable cockles of my black heart. They’re having a protest of homeopathy on the Twin Cities campus this Friday! They’re hosting a lecture debunking that nonsense, and are planning to poison themselves with homeopathic dilutions.

Take that, Center for Spirituality and Healing! We all see right through you.

Homeopathy is renowned for both its popularity and the overwhelmingly incorrect pseudoscientific tenets it purports. In the UK, the growing 10/23 protest has called for the end of government support of such unsupported blather. It’s about time the United States joined her sibling. This October 28th, join CASH at the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities and the Center for Inquiry at Michigan State in protesting the pseudoscience of homeopathy and its faulty ‘regulation’ by the FDA.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates the homeopathic industry not to lend credibility to such products, but to supposedly protect consumers from products that can kill them. This is not enough. Just like with actual medications (as homeopaths liken their products to), testing of the claims made by such companies must be both accurate and rigorous. Without such standards, homeopaths openly use the stamp of FDA approval to advertise for the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies.

Join the growing numbers who are taking a stand for science-based medicine. Join us on October 28th in confronting homeopathy and demanding that the FDA require peer-reviewed, scientific research in order to garner its approval. Participation is easy!

Protest on October 28th at your local university, hospital, or drugstore that dispenses homeopathic remedies. Conduct an ‘overdose’. Give a statement to your local media. Write a letter. Sign the petition. Take a stand for science.

The following materials may be of interest as well:

CFI’s industry-wide petition (no signatures):

CFI’s Walmart-directed petition (signature-based):

Secular Student Alliance activity packet:

More information from CFI:

Updated information from CASH:

Join CASH and CFI in taking a stand for science-based medicine on October 28th. Making evidence-based thinking a movement and not a counterculture requires effort, and the efforts of many hands can move more mountains than the faith of a few.


Chelsea Du Fresne
Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists
University of Minnesota- Twin Cities

(Also on Sb)

Prepare yourself for a megadose of the awesome

Tonight, at 8pm ET, the cast of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe will be bracing themselves with caffeine for their overwhelming plan to saturate the world with a non-stop 24 hour live program. I think it’s a kind of anti-homeopathy: they’ll be delivering a super-concentrated dose of an effective agent all at once to their audience. Tune in and listen, especially since it would be so sad if they were exerting themselves so magnificently to a tiny group of people.

I’m going to try and catch bits and pieces of it. Unfortunately, I’m not insane, so I will be getting more sleep than the SGU rogues, and I’m also going to be off in Fargo for Project 42. And I’m also up to my eyeballs in a grant proposal I must get done this coming week! Maybe listening to Novella in the background will make my writing potent enough to impress the agency administrators.

(Also on FtB)