June 28, 2014

Recurring Lies on Immigration

By Dave

This graphic is making the rounds on social media. It is a distillation from a several years old viral email of misrepresentations and outright lies. This is an example of the kind of outrageous lies circulated among opponents of immigration to stir them up into a totally artificial fury. Despite the fact that it has been extensively debunked it comes around year after year spreading the same lies.

Previously extensively debunked at snopes.com: http://www.snopes.com/politics/immigration/taxes.asp
LA Time rebuttal: http://opinion.latimes.com/opinionla/2007/04/may_day_mythbus.html
LA Now: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/readers/2007/11/internet-immigr.html
LA Times again: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/readers/2010/05/10-facts-about-immigration-not-from-the-times.html
Truth or fiction: http://www.truthorfiction.com/rumors/i/illegal-aliens.htm#.U67Y96gWdek
LA Times: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/07/local/me-tobar7
Classically Liberal: http://freestudents.blogspot.com/2006/12/anti-immigrant-hoax-email-exposed.html
The Lone Truther: http://goldenstate.wordpress.com/…/the-lone-truther…/

Between these every claim in the graphic and others is proven to be false or misleading.

June 27, 2014

Misassigning Blame for Immigration Crisis

By Eugene Kiely

A TV ad falsely claims Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander is “responsible” for a surge of “illegal aliens” who are “overrunning our border” because he voted for “amnesty.”

The surge in illegal border crossings is the result of poverty and violence in parts of Central America and has been fueled by false rumors being spread in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that the U.S. is issuing “permits” to those who wish to live in the U.S.

The immigration overhaul Alexander supported last year did not become law and did not change immigration policy.

Crisis at the Southwest Border

The TV ad – “Crisis in America” – began airing on June 26 and comes from the campaign of Alexander’s Republican primary opponent, state Rep. Joe Carr.

The ad starts by saying, “There’s a crisis in America. Thousands of illegal aliens are overrunning our border.” That refers to the recent surge of migrants crossing illegally into the U.S. from Central America, and it is accurate.

Obama administration officials held a conference call with reporters on June 20 to discuss a “surge” of illegal immigration from three countries in Central America: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told reporters that this fiscal year, as of June 15, “approximately 52,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended along the Southwest border.” That’s double the 26,000 figure from the same time period in fiscal year 2013.

Another 39,000 adults with children also have been apprehended as of May 31, Mayorkas said.

The U.S. Department of Defense has agreed to temporarily house thousands of the unaccompanied children at three military bases – Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas and Naval Base Ventura County in California – because the surge has swamped Homeland Security’s existing detention centers.

So, the problem is real. But the ad uses false logic to blame Alexander for it.

The ad goes on to say, “President Obama created this crisis only after Lamar Alexander voted for amnesty. He is responsible.”

The ad cites Alexander’s June 27, 2013, vote for the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, which passed the Senate 68-32. The bill would have implemented various border security measures first, and then allowed those who were in the U.S. illegally to apply for provisional legal status and eventually citizenship – a process that would take at least 13 years. In an op-ed, Alexander explained his vote, saying the bill would increase funding to secure the border and create jobs.

First, the ad is wrong to call the bill “amnesty,” as we have pointed out numerous times in the past when writing about bills that make citizenship conditional upon meeting numerous requirements.

Second, the Senate-passed bill has yet to come up for a vote in the House, so Alexander’s vote did not change immigration policy. Even if it did become law, the bill would apply only to those living illegally in the U.S. before 2012 — so all those now crossing the border would not be eligible to apply for provisional legal status, let alone gain citizenship.

Donald Rickard, a spokesman for the Carr campaign, tells us in an email that the mere existence of the Senate immigration bill is responsible for “the crisis on the border” and cites as evidence a May 9, 2013, letter from a labor union that represents border control agents. The group, which opposed the bill, wrote: “Driven by mere speculation that S. 744 may be enacted by Congress, illegal border crossings have spiked dramatically.”

At the time the letter was written, apprehensions of those illegally crossing the Southwest border were definitely rising — although the claim that they had “spiked dramatically” is a matter of opinion. Compared with the previous fiscal year, the number of apprehensions increased 15 percent in the first eight months of fiscal 2013, from October 2012 through May 2013, and 16 percent for all of fiscal year 2013, from October 2012 through September 2013, according to U.S. Border Patrol data. There were 414,397 apprehensions along the Southwest border in fiscal 2013 – up from 356,873 in fiscal 2012.

But, historically, that’s still very low. The total is lower than it was in fiscal 2010, when there were 447,731 apprehensions, and much lower than it was in the early and mid-2000s, when apprehensions routinely topped more than 1 million per year.

The Pew Hispanic Center in 2012 speculated that increased border patrols were responsible for a sharp decline in apprehensions of Mexicans illegally crossing the border and a weakened U.S. economy was responsible for a leveling off in the net migration from Mexico.

What has been markedly different about the current surge is that it is coming from three Central American countries, not Mexico, and it largely involves unaccompanied children, not adult men looking for jobs.

As we said earlier, the number of unaccompanied children illegally crossing the Southwest border has doubled in fiscal 2014, from 26,000 to 52,000, compared with the same period in fiscal 2013.

The Congressional Research Office, in a June 13 report, noted that 73 percent of unaccompanied children apprehended on the Southwest border in fiscal 2014, as of May 31, came from three Central American countries and only 25 percent from Mexico. That’s an almost complete reversal from fiscal 2009, when 82 percent of unaccompanied children caught at the border were from Mexico and only 17 percent from the three Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

A CRS chart below illustrates the trend, which started in fiscal 2012, but exploded this year.

Source: Congressional Research Office *Oct. 1, 2013 to May 31, 2014

Clearly, there is something going on specifically in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. But who or what is to blame? There is a partisan disagreement over that.

What’s Fueling Crisis?

At first, the administration blamed “rising levels of violence in Central America,” as it did in a June 9 press release announcing that Fort Sill will be the third military base to house unaccompanied children who crossed the border illegally. There is evidence that supports that claim, based on interviews the New York Times did with those who illegally crossed the border. But the Times’ article showed the surge has been fueled by rumors about “permits.”

New York Times, June 16: While most men are held and processed quickly for deportation, border authorities struggling to manage the influx have been releasing pregnant women and parents with young children, allowing them to join family members living here and issuing them a deportation hearing notice. Migrants have sent word back home they received a “permit” to remain at least temporarily in the United States, feeding rumors along migrant routes and spurring others to embark on the long journey.

During the June 20 conference call with reporters, administration officials acknowledged that false rumors of “permits” were fueling the crisis, and they vowed to take action to counter the misinformation. The Times wrote:

New York Times, June 20: Until now, White House officials have insisted that extreme poverty and an epidemic of gang violence in those Central American countries were the main causes of the unanticipated spike in illegal migration.

But many migrants also told Border Patrol agents they decided to set out for the United States after hearing that it was offering some kind of entry permit. Many other migrants who asked for asylum after being apprehended have been allowed to stay temporarily, further fueling hopes that Central American women and children were receiving special treatment.

On a conference call with reporters, Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said the administration was moving to “push back” on “misinformation that is being deliberately planted by criminal organizations, by smuggling networks, about what people can expect if they come to the United States.”

Republican critics say the president and his lax enforcement policies toward children are to blame for the surge in illegal immigration.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas are among many who specifically blame the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which allows immigrants who have been illegally living in the United States since June 15, 2007, to remain in the U.S. legally for two years.

The DACA policy was an executive action taken without congressional approval. It was implemented by the Department of Homeland Security on June 15, 2012 — about one year before the Senate vote on amnesty. In a precursor to the DACA, the director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement a year earlier — on June 17, 2011 — issued a memo that said immigration agents should use “prosecutorial discretion” when deciding whom to detain and deport. That policy — again taken without congressional approval — urged the deportation of those with criminal records before students, military veterans and others deemed to be low risk.

Other Republican critics — including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who voted for the comprehensive immigration bill — say the rumors were fueled by the administration’s slow response to the crisis and its refusal to send a clear message that those crossing the border would be deported.

We don’t know how the rumors got started and whether the president’s actions or inactions are to blame.

But, even if you accept the Republican premise, it still does not follow that the president “created this crisis only after Lamar Alexander voted for amnesty.” There is no evidence of a causal relationship between a Senate immigration bill that never became law and a current surge of Central Americans crossing the Southwest border.

Correction, June 30: The original article misstated who would have been eligible to apply for provisional legal status and, ultimately, citizenship under the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act. The act would apply only to those who were living illegally in the U.S. before 2012.

– Eugene Kiely, with Eden Everwine

August 18, 2012

Truther Taken for Psych Evaluation

By Dave
Topics:
9/11 Myths

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The conspiracy fringe is in a state of extreme agitation over the news that one of their own was taken into custody by the FBI and hospitalized for psychological evaluation based primarily on provocative statements made on his Facebook Page.

Brandon J. Raub is a former marine whose recent Facebook postings included postings about 9/11 conspiracies, chemtrails and general anti-government invective, as well as relatively mild apparent threats of general violence, including “The Revolution is here. And I will lead it, “Sharpen up my axe; I’m here to sever heads”, and “The people responsible for posioning the America people from the sky will be held accountable. And there is going to be justice.”

The threatening statements and photos of Raub posting semi-nude with an antique shotgun are not particularly unusual for young people acting out their dissatisfaction with the increasingly restrictive government in the United States. What may distinguish his page is the combination of revolutionary rhetoric with clearly nutty conspiracy theories and the fact that he has a military background – a triple threat of red flags which may have drawn the attention of law enforcement.

However, his last few posts before he was taken into custody suggest that he may have been involved in deliberately attracting the attention of federal law enforcement and he seems to have been aware that he was going to be taken into custody a day before it happened when he posted “The Revolution will come for me. Men will be at my door soon to pick me up to lead it. ;) ” It seems likely that he believed that his arrest would be some sort of catalyst for revolution.

It is significant that Raub was not arrested, but rather put under psychiatric evaluation. This seems like a relatively rational response to his behavior. While it is absolutely unacceptable to have the government monitoring private internet postings and evaluating online behavior as the basis for arresting people, if Raub did deliberately draw attention to himself as being potentially dangerous, putting him on a three-day psychiatric assessment was a more reasonable response than arresting him and treating him as a terrorist.

It has been well established that the irrational belief in conspiracies can be a symptom of a mental disorder called Cognitive Dissonance, which can lead to delusions and violent or self-destructive behavior in its most extreme form. Victims become paranoid and separated from reality and ultimately sociopathic and unable to relate to other people normally. Traditionally this disorder is dismissed as harmless, but it is not surprising that in combination with violent statements and aggressive behavior it might be considered a matter of concern.

If the people around the shooters had watched for warning signs like this then the recent shooting sprees in Colorado and Wisconsin might have been avoided. In both cases the men involved had shown increasingly peculiar behavior and had cut off ties to family and friends. If they had received psychiatric help before their behavior became dangerous many lives might have been saved.

From video made at the time he was taken into custody it appears that Raub had surrounded himself with a community of like-minded people. This cult-like environment, which is not uncommon among “truthers” and other conspiracy obsessives, likely contributed to and encouraged his behavior and his isolation from responsible family members who might have intervened out of concern for his mental health.

I absolutely do not support the misuse of psychiatric holds as a way of bypassing due process or of any kind of forced psychiatric treatment, but treating conspiracy obsession as a mental disorder and taking it seriously as a sign of a condition which may worsen and can be treated is a better response than criminalizing this behavior. It’s certainly better than the alternatives of treating more and more of the general public as if they were potential criminals or ignoring problematic behavior until it leads to acts of violence.

October 21, 2011

Christian Values and Halloween

By Dave
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More and more I see local churches replacing Halloween with a generic harvest festival or even more egregious, Reformation Day where they celebrate the achievements of Martin Luther and rampant sectarianism. And of course, at the crazy extreme many self-righteous christians are rejecting the day altogether as too symbolic of paganism which to their minds is only a veneer of ancient culture spread thinly over the reality of devil-worship.

We all know that Halloween started out as a pagan holiday, but why does that immediately make it evil in the minds of so many. Pagans weren’t devil worshippers and they weren’t monsters and they’ve contributed a great deal to our culture. Perhaps their ancient traditions might deserve a day of recognition rather than being tarred with the brush of Satanism and discarded.

I’ve got a different idea of how christians should deal with Halloween. It seems to me that it would be a perfect day of atonement for them. The church is supposed to teach humility and responsibility, so perhaps its time that christians as a whole, regardless of sect, acknowledge the excesses of their faith and make amends for some of those outrages. Let’s start with the Catholics. Halloween is a perfect symbol of their past history as a cannibalistic cult which consumed other religions, absorbing and perverting their holy days – like Halloween – and then persecuting their members and enslaving them. From the time of Rome into the modern era the Catholic church practiced aggressive syncretism, moving their own holidays to coincide with major events of the pagan year to make conversion less of a change for their missionary targets. They even changed basic elements of the faith, turning the Virgin Mary into a mother goddess figure, almost co-equal with Jesus in order to appeal to cultures with mother goddess based religions. All of this with the aim of seducing people away from their traditional beliefs, suppressing their cultural traditions and ultimately making them dependent on the church not only for faith, but in many cases economically in a state of literal serfdom to religious institutions which owned huge amounts of land and required peasant labor to make the land profitable. Perhaps on Halloween Catholics could spend a little time apologizing to all of our ancestors for this history of exploitation and oppression.

Then there are the protestent sects, starting with Martin Luther and his followers who in addition to reforming the church also displayed a particular bloodthirsty zeal for stamping out any kind of religious deviation even where it existed only in their imagination. It is their Reformation which brought us the Witch Craze in Europe and later in America, with thousands tortured, burnt and hanged. To a large extent they are even responsible for the crimes of the Catholic Inquisition, because it gained great power in response to the pressure put on the church in response to protestantism. Most of the witches condemned during this era were not practicing pagans or practicing witches or anything but crazy old women who irritated their neighbors and fit the stereotypical image of the witch. Nonetheless they were dragged in and tortured, forced to give confessions and name those who consorted with the devil with them, and then those innocents were hauled in too and more forced confessions would lead to more accusations and ultimately more torture and murder of the innocent. Maybe the Episcopalians and Anglicans should apologize for the outrages of Matthew Hopkins the self-appointed ‘Witchfinder General’ of England. American protestants can remember those killed and imprisoned in the Salem Witch Trials. And perhaps Lutherans should make amends for the 60,000 supposed witches killed in Germany in the great Witch Craze of the 16th century.

The spriit of the witch hunt isn’t exactly gone today. Modern christian extremists – particularly American fundamentalists – continue to ostracize, persecute and stygmatize those who don’t want to conform to their ideas of faith and morality. The attacks on Halloween are part of this, but it includes their hatred of homosexuals, neo-pagans, moslems, unwed-mothers, fornicators, secularists and even other christian sects, especially Catholics. Their attempts to eliminate Halloween are characteristic of this intolerance of anything which isn’t sufficiently sanctimonious. Perhaps they could set Halloween aside as a day to do something unfamiliar – practice a bit of tolerance and the forgotten value of christian charity.

Of course, the real victims of all of this are the kids. For them Halloween isn’t about religion, it’s about fun and dressing up and candy. These are valuable parts of childhood, and those who want to do away with the traditions of the holiday are doing so at the expense of the joys which make childhood special. Intolerance against groups and religions is part of history, but when the weight of that bigotry falls on our kids today then it has gone too far. The desire to insert religion into every aspect of life is a sickness. It causes people to be unable to differentiate between harmless fun and the seduction of the devil. People who can’t draw that line probably shouldn’t be in positions where they can make decisions like changing Halloween into a harvest festival or banishing trick or treating to the local mall. They may think of themselves as godly, but I just think of them as killjoys.

October 5, 2011

Noam Chomsky on 9/11 Truth

By Dave
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Those who have read my writing know that I’m no fan of Noam Chomsky’s political views, but I have to admit that there are things about Chomsky which I can’t help but admire. His ability to chop logic and reason things out is undeniable, and his honesty in acknowledging facts which don’t necessarily fit with his anarchosocialist worldview is refreshing.

A case in point is his rational opposition to the “Truther” movement, where he applies simple logic to point out the fundamental illogic of their views. No need to mess with pseudoscience or hypotheticals when the foundational assumptions of the Truthers are so fundamentally irrational. It’s well worth watching Chomsky dissect the movement on video.



August 23, 2011

Ron Paul is Not a Truther

By Dave
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Ron Paul has worked very hard through two presidential campaign seasons to cross the line from being the Republican Party’s token libertarian gadfly to emerging as a legitimate leadership figure with a chance of winning the nomination in 2012. In his quest he has been both helped and hindered by his own followers. On the one hand their devotion to Paul and their enthusiasm are amazing, giving him an edge in fundraising and promotion which none of the other Republicans can match. On the other hand, a fraction of those enthusiastic supporters are just plain nuts and their statements and beliefs have been used against Paul by his critics inside his party, in the other party and in the media.

Ron Paul is in no way responsible for the beliefs and delusions of his followers in the same way that Jodie Foster was not responsible for John Hinckley’s attack on Ronald Reagan. It might be different if he encouraged them or deliberately pandered to them, or shared their more radical obsessions, but he has not done that, and has often made very clear where he disagrees with them. Bizarrely they seem oblivious to this and in many cases are convinced that Dr. Paul shares their beliefs no matter how often he clearly states that he does not.

One striking example of this is his relationship with the 9/11 “truth” movement, the tumultuous cabal of conspiracy fanatics who advocate an assortment of bizarre and contradictory theories about the attack on the World Trade Center, each one more implausible than the last. Many Truthers are outspoken Ron Paul supporters and are absolutely convinced that he agrees with their beliefs, despite all evidence to the contrary. When confronted with direct statements disagreeing with them from Dr. Paul their cognitive dissonance kicks in and they translate what he says into something different which fits their delusions.

In a recent discussion a Truther said to me “I watched a video on national TV where he (Ron Paul) renounced the official version of 9/11 and called for more investigation. He even said that he couldn’t rule out an inside job.” Yet when challenged to produce a video of this statement he could not provide a link to one. What he and other truthers progably actually saw was one of several television interviews like the one below:

In these interviews Paul criticizes the 9/11 investigation, but not on the basis that they came up with the wrong explanation for the attacks. What Paul always focuses on in these interviews is his concern that the investigation did not look at root causes of the attacks in our foreign policy or the incompetence of government agencies which failed to prevent the attacks. Nowhere does he ever support any alternative theory on the 9/11 attacks.

That’s a provocative and potentially controversial position for him to take, but it’s decidedly not the same as advocating or in any way supporting any of the popular conspiracy theories. Paul’s views still fall within the political norm and they don’t in any way endorse any alternate interpretation of the basic facts of the events of 9/11.

Because there is this common perception among his own supporters that he holds beliefs which he seems not to, he ends up being asked about it a lot. Those supporters are delusional, so they pretend his answers denying their movement don’t exist and for his part, Paul seems puzzled and annoyed that the rumors persist, as you can hear in this radio interview:

Paul has even rejected 9/11 conspiracy theories in a presidential debate, early in the 2008 election. But in this case, as often happens, when offered an opportunity to speak directly to his supporters and urge them not to continue to promote delusional ideas which hurt his candidacy dy association, his natural inclination to support free thought and free speech lead him into the error of appearing tolerant of their beliefs. Despite having every reason to whack them on the knuckles and send them to bed without dinner, he’s too tolerant and too nice a guy to be firm with them, even if it may well cost him the presidency again in 2012 as it did in 2008.

A lot of this is a function of wilfull denial of reality, a kind of cognitive dissonance where the truthers are absolutely divorced from reality. In this video truthers ask him about the conspiracy and he gives a reasonable and compelling explanation for why their theories are irrational, because the government is too inept to have actually carried out a conspiracy on that grand scale, and that if anything went on it was just a coverup of government incompetence.

Clearly some people get the mssage, but a core group among his followers won’t accept the truth about 9/11 even from a revered leader like Paul. The response you can see on the message thread which goes with the video shows how delusional his truther followers are. One writes “yeah sure.. he can’t say it was a total inside job even though IT WAS. You have to be cautious about these harsh comments.” Another rationalizes away Paul’s statements saying “I think Paul suspects that it was an inside job too, but he doesn’t want to cross that line, for it would completely ruin his presidential aspirations.”

Even though Paul is clearly rejecting the 9/11 conspiracy theories in these statements, that core group of crazy followers can’t accept the possibility that he disagrees with them and they have convinced themselves that Paul, who they revere for his truthfulness, is lying to protect himself and actually agrees with them no matter how many times he denies it.

There’s no question that Ron Paul’s relationship with the truthers, as with other fringe groups, is a mostly one-sided relationship. They like Paul, but he clearly doesn’t like them very much. He finds himself involuntarily saddled with a cadre of fanatical nuts who follow him around and end up associating themselves with his campaign and no matter what he says and does he can’t get rid of them. They don’t realize they’re dragging him down to defeat by tainting hm with their lunacy and he’s too nice a guy to tell them to go to hell.

It’s really a tragic situation and the irony of it is painful. Inevitably, when the behavior of his followers causes Paul to come up short in his last and greatest campaign in 2012, after the fact those followers will gather over a beer and blame his defeat on the grand conspiracy they also blame for 9/11, never understanding that it was them and their actions which doomed their hero, because they could not bring themselves to shut up and accept reality and listen to what he was actually telling them.

A version of this article originally appeared on Blogcritics.org

August 23, 2011

Flight 77 Evidence

By Dave
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9/11 Myths

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The arguments of 9/11 “truthers” on the impact of American Airlines Flight 77 into the pentagon are particularly farfetched given the existence of multiple videos of the crash and hundreds of eyewitnesses as well as massive physical evidence including large parts of the plane with serial numbers and DNA identification of the remains of the passengers.

I think these two videos are particularly effective in debunking their claims. The first features all three live surveillance videos of the crash, which although they are at a low frame rate clearly show parts of the fast-moving plane as it impacts the building. The second is a nice, simple explanation of how truthers use quotes out of context to misrepresent the statements of key eyewitnesses. Why they engage in deliberate misrepresentation of the facts is a question which enters the realm of abnormal psychology.

August 15, 2011

Placebos And Deception

By Dr. Romeo Vitelli

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." - Richard Feynman

We (meaning people) are really good at fooling ourselves. Our brains excel at that task perhaps in excess of all others. I suspect this derives from one of the basic functions of our brains - consciousness, which is a constructed illusion of our own existence. This is not to say that we do not exist, or that our consciousness is not constructed from real information about the world. Our senses have a practical relationship to reality that serves us well. But the end result, our stream of consciousness, is massively constructed. Information is filtered, interpreted, and altered, then stitched together with the gaps filled in seamlessly. Our brains are constantly making assumptions about what is probably happening, projecting our vision into the future, and altering one sense based upon information from other senses. At the highest level of functioning, our reasoning ability, our brains spend a lot of time and effort serving our basic emotional needs. So we construct a fictional reality from a highly egocentric perspective. The default mode of human behavior is to engage in "motivated reasoning" - to rationalize away the negative, and emphasize the positive. Skeptics, to varying degrees, but generally, understand and accept this view of the human condition. We can rattle off examples of how hopelessly biased and mistaken people can be on a regular basis. There does not seem to be any practical limit to the degree to which people can fool themselves. And yet, on an equally regular basis the skeptical position is often casually dismissed by grossly underestimating the human capacity for self-deception. We hear phrases such as, "so many people can't be wrong," "Where there's smoke there's fire" (referring to anecdotal evidence)," or "Do you think everyone is crazy or lying?" The effort to promote science-based medicine (SBM), which is an inherently skeptical project (and is now officially supported by the JREF) encounters the same casual dismissal of our arguments. The most important specific manifestation of this dismissal is justification by "the placebo effect." This is why we have spent much time at SBM writing about placebo effects, and why that was our chosen topic for the SBM panel at TAM9 this year. Essentially, the evidence strongly suggests that placebo effects are largely a manifestation of the same kinds of self deception that leads to belief in alien visitation and Bigfoot. People report that they feel better because of expectation, suggestion, confirmation bias, and a simple desire to get better. They interpret regression to the mean or random fluctuation in symptoms to a cause and effect from treatment. They do not properly isolate variables and will interpret non-specific effects as effects of a specific intervention. The perception of symptoms in the first place is also highly susceptible to the full spectrum of psychological effects. And further, psychological stress can sometimes manifest as physical ailments, which of course can then respond to the mere suggestion of treatment, which can help alleviate stress. Engaging all of these psychological effects, as well as distracting patients from symptoms, or getting them to focus more on the positive, and take better general care of themselves, is all part of the therapeutic ritual. This may even include real health benefit from stress reduction, improves lifestyle, and improved compliance with treatments. When the subjective experience of symptoms improve with a physiologically inactive treatment, many people (I would say most) do not want to believe the apparent effects are due to placebo effects. They want to believe that they are benefiting from the specific effects of a treatment. There is a tendency to be insulted, as if this means the symptoms (or the improvement) was "all in their head" - a commonly used phrase that is meant to imply dismissiveness. But it's not dismissive. It's no more dismissive than suggesting that someone who believes they were abducted by aliens simply had a hypnagogic hallucination, or that someone who believes they saw a ghost experienced pareidolia combined with suggestion. It's no more dismissive that chalking up the sense that a psychic was very accurate to confirmation bias and a reasonably well done cold-reading. People are really good at deceiving themselves, even to the point of manufacturing false experiences and memories. This is not dismissive or insulting - it's the human condition. It is also why we need science. Science is a collection of methods that are designed to control for the significant human tendency toward bias and misperception. If we want to know whether some people have psychic ability, we cannot base our conclusions on anecdotes alone. We need to observe the alleged phenomenon under tightly controlled conditions - conditions that do not allow for all the various methods of self-deception. The same is true for any medical intervention. If we want to know if a treatment works, we have to test it in such a way that placebo effects can be controlled for. Only if there is a consistent effect in excess of placebo effects do we conclude that the treatment "works" - that it has a specific physiological effect. More and more, however, proponents of treatments that do not appear to work when studied in controlled conditions are arguing that they "work" through placebo effects. This is like saying that psychic abilities "work" through cold reading. Placebo effects are mostly, and in some cases entirely, psychological effects and self deception. But even skeptics are often left with the question -well, if it makes people feel better, then who cares. I think an appropriate analogy is this - it's like saying, well, if people are entertained by a psychic reading, even if it's nothing more than a cold reading, than who cares. Sure, you can make an argument for doing a "psychic" reading for entertainment purposes only. But I think most skeptics understand the risks of doing a cold reading in order to convince someone that one's abilities are genuinely psychic, and then hitting them up for larger and larger sums of money in order to contact their dead relative. In medicine the stakes are even higher. It is dangerous to use placebo effects to convince individuals, the public, and regulators that an inactive treatment is effective. If someone is convinced that homeopathy works because it "helped" their cold symptoms, they may be inclined to rely on homeopathy when they have a serious illness. Further, placebo effects have been leveraged to get superstition-based ineffective remedies into medical schools, scientific journals, and funded by the government to be researched. Limited resources are being diverted to pay for and research nonsense. In other words - there is clearly demonstrable direct and indirect harm from confusing placebo effects for specific effects. All of this mischief is largely due to the fact that people significantly underestimate how massively susceptible we are to self-deception. Feynman's observation is as relevant today as it has ever been
August 7, 2011

The Conspiracy Mentality in a Nutshell

By Dave
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The woman in this video appears to be serious, and her thought process expresses perfectly the conspiranoid mentality which suspends normal knowledge and reason and replaces them with something resembling a rabid squirrel running endlessly in a circle.

July 23, 2011

Featured Idiot: David Icke

By Dave
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We’ve profiled some amazing freaks and goofballs in this column, but David Icke sets a new standard for nutty.  He may be one of the most ambitious of conspiracy nuts, going beyond normal levels of delusion and paranoia to offer us a unified theory of global conspiracies, with all the various paranoid fantasies favored by others united into one giant conspiracy.  Sure, he hates the Jews for being the secret masters of the world, but they’re just the front men.  Behind them are alien intelligences which ontrol everything and have guided human evolution.  But wait, there’s more.   Apparently there are also reptilian alien shapeshifters from another planet and/or another dimension living among us, breeding with us and  stealing our natural resources and feeding on our fear and emotions.

Ok, so Icke is a clinical paranoid delusional case.  What’s really scary is that he has apparently gained some legitimacy with the far right political fringe and there are people who are politically active who take some of what he spews seriously.  Many on the conservative fringe pick up on Icke’s anti-globalism and seem to get drawn into his whole rather intricately developed cosmology, including the ever-present clown prince of the fringe, Alex Jones. Apparently it’s just a few steps from the Queen of England running the drug trade to reptilian aliens using mind control to feed off of our life energy.  But it’s enough for now to point out that Icke is as nuts as they come, and if you run into one of his followers head in the opposite direction as quickly as possible.

If Icke ever starts making sense to you, just remind yourself that the TV show “V” was a work of fiction and not a good basis for a personal philosophy.