Fake-News: Maajid Nawaz, the SPLC, and the New York Post

With all this talk of post-truth, post-fact, and fake-news, it would seem like deception is a rather new phenomenon. Of course, deception has always been with us, but I do think something has changed. Firstly, society at large has lost faith in institutions, and so has lost interest in the notion of a source being authoritative. Secondly, in many ways, we have reached peak information, at least in a psychological sense. These two intersecting problems inculcate the spreading of falsehoods by undermining most peoples critical faculties. In other words, even though there has always been deception, our current context has given deception a particular advantage, and thus has precipitated its influence and severity.

The ebb and flow of trust in institutions and authority is itself not new. Watergate had a particularly undermining effect in the 1970’s, as was to be expected. However, today, this lack of trust in institutions is more diffuse, owing mainly to the increased access to information (whether true or false), combined with the availability heuristic. We are way more likely to remember all the catastrophes than to appreciate all the incremental things that make life better. Now, with the internet, all sources of information are on neutral footing. Which in itself is not too problematic, but for the untrained it can take time to determine that Natural news is less credible than the New York Times.

More credible, of course, does not mean infallible, but credibility is time saving. No one has an infinite amount of time. I can’t do a deep dive on every story. I also can’t be every where at once. I rely on the fact that somebody somewhere is providing me with important and accurate information. This is where the problem exacerbates. Once we lose trust in institutions, who is credible? How do we determine who to listen to? Who to trust? The short answer is that most people begin to trust only that information which comports with their own world view. To a certain extent, people do this anyways. We are prone to seek information that doesn’t challenge us. However, with an appropriate appreciation of authority, you might be more compelled to conform to the facts. After all, people who put in the time to be experts in their field are probably more qualified then those on the outside. It is in this sense that expertise should hold some public clout. The issue is that when authority has been undermined the crank seems to be as equally credible as the expert. It is therefore, in times of institutional distrust, hard for a lay person to determine the credibility of experts.

For journalism, credibility is harder to measure. There is some indication that trust in news institutions is declining, but it still remains fairly high. However, trust in the information provided by these news institutions seems to be lower. Part of the problem is that news institutions tend to have an ideological slant. Some have recently taken this ideological slant to be evidence of the fake-news phenomenon, but it is actually the inevitable outcome of news being reported on by humans. Stories with an ideological slant are not necessarily fake, they are often true with specific facts, but come prepackaged with a narrative. The issue is that, in some sense, the news is always grey, or various shades thereof. By contrast, fake-news is simply false. Facts that are made up out of whole cloth, as opposed to being ideologically bent.

The proliferation of fake-news is due to the distrust of media institutions causing all reports to be in some sense authoritative regardless of their source, combined with the time saving propensity to accept stories at face value that comport with readers world view. Although fake-news can be uncovered rather quickly by more authoritative media outlets, the effects often remain. However, conflating fake-news with biased news can further exacerbate this trend towards media distrust, and it is important to recognise the difference.

As a case study, take for example, this story found in the New York Post, about the Southern Poverty Law Center. According to Paul Sperry, the Southern Poverty Law Center buried data that suggested an increase in Trump inspired hate crimes against white children. To begin with, the New York Post is a tabloid, that is famously known for its sensationalism combined with a flagrant right-wing agenda. Sperry himself has spent the last part of a decade writing books about how Muslims are infiltrating the US government, of which there is little evidence. He also wrote piece after piece about the Hilary Clinton e-mail probe, which, to at least some credible legal scholars, was really a non-issue. None of this is definitive proof that the New York Post story is false, but it highlights some issues that might point towards its credibility.

What makes this story of particular interest is that Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim reformer who was recently labelled an anti-Muslim extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, immediately shared the New York Post piece over Facebook and vigorously defended it. I have defended Nawaz against the SPLC, and agree with him that labelling him an anti-Muslim extremist is illiberal and should be criticised. I understand why the New York Post article would be appealing to him, given how the SPLC has tried to undermine his credibility, but what saddens me is his response to the criticism of the New York Post article:

The ctrl-left is as post truth as it complains the alt-right is. And arrogant for not seeing it. Both disregard facts that don’t suit their narrative. Both scrutinise opposing news to a high degree, yet digest news that suits their confirmation bias willingly.
Dogma is dangerous. Ditch it.

I agree with the sentiment, but disagree with its application in this particular instance. Part of the problem was that there was no corroboration of the New York Post story. Furthermore, every source used by the Post was blatantly against the SPLC. This, combined with the credibility of Sperry and the New York Post I believe warranted a certain amount of skepticism as opposed to the immediate acceptance provided by Nawaz. The only people who seemed to run with the piece were white nationalist groups like Storm Front, conspiracy theorists like InfoWars, and Nawaz. One of these things is not like the others.

Eventually the SPLC responded to the New York Post piece. It turns out that the Post, according to the SPLC, mischaracterised the data they supposedly withheld in their report. As they put it:

We asked in the survey whether educators had “heard derogatory language or slurs about white students” because we were concerned about all students.   About 20 percent of the respondents answered affirmatively to the question – a statistic that we readily shared with the Post reporter.  We included in our report a number of comments from educators who answered the survey question affirmatively. Our analysis of the comments showed that the language in question almost never was actually directed at white students; more often it was expressed as disappointment and frustration with white people in general for having voted for Donald Trump. Out of approximately 10,000 comments in which educators described specific incidents at school, only 103 – or about 1 percent – involved statements that could be interpreted as anti-white. Of those, fewer than five were directed at white students.

Contrast this with how the Post framed the interaction:

Asked last week to provide the data, SPLC initially said it was having a hard time getting the information “from the researchers.” Pressed, SPLC spokeswoman Kirsten Bokenkamp finally revealed that “about 20 percent answered affirmatively to that question.”

Bokenkamp did not provide an explanation for the absence of such a substantial metric — at least 2,000 bias-related incidents against white students — from the report, which focuses instead on “anti-immigrant sentiment,” “anti-Muslim sentiment” and “slurs about students of color” related to the election.

Now, one could argue about which side adequately framed the interaction, whether the information was readily supplied or eventually revealed after a lengthy time of prodding, but this hardly seems like some kind of cover up. The choice to omit some of the data seems rather benign in the context provided.

Maajid Nawaz, as these things go, never responded to the SPLC’s clarification. The Post, Storm Front, and InfoWars never offered retractions. Everyone’s narrative remains firmly intact.

The problem highlighted by Nawaz’s response to criticism, is that the spectre of fake-news or post-truth, can be used by anyone to deny truth. Fake-news simply becomes news I happen to disagree with. Facts, again, become irrelevant.

But what are the facts here? Was the Post really wrong? Did the SPLC intentionally withhold the information? I don’t know. That to me is the big issue with fake-news; our credulity in the face of world view supporting information. People tend to be radically opposed to not knowing, but lacking knowledge is probably more common than having it. We therefore speculate about motives and intentions when evidence regarding motives and intentions are hard to come by or difficult to interpret. It is hard not to see the SPLC as being evil when they have personally (and wrongly) attacked you, but it does not follow that they are wrong about everything. Once you have made wrong-doing an essential part of a groups character, it is difficult to catch yourself subconsciously interpreting data in an attempt to further bolster that narrative, though it might be factually deficient.

Take, for example, the recent case where four black teenagers assaulted a white teenager and live streamed it on Facebook. This was a terrible crime, regardless of what the motives were, and yet social media, and the news, were constantly trying to figure this part out. Was it a hate crime? Was it inspired by Black Lives Matter? Is this the fault of social justice warriors? Sure, the perpetrators call the victim white and say ‘Fuck Donald Trump’ while harming him, but they never explicitly state “We are doing this because we wish to slaughter white people”. They also never mention Black Lives Matter, but it is possible, in some convoluted way, that they were inspired by some of the rhetoric around the Black Lives Matter movement. It is also possible that this whole thing was staged by our lizard overlords, but maybe some things are less likely than others.

There is some evidence to suggest this was a hate crime, although it seems weird in the context that one of the perpetrators was the victims friend. Weird, but not definitive. reality tends to be far more messier than our narratives. There is absolutely no evidence that this is linked, in any way, to Black Lives Matter. But there remains a lot we don’t know, and that might always be the case when it comes to violent crimes. Adding speculation to fill the gaps in our knowledge is at the very least useless, and at its worst utterly harmful to the goal of maintaining a reality based society. I have no problem calling this incident a hate crime if that is what the facts demand, but I also see no problem with withholding judgement until more facts are in. Though I do agree this case doesn’t necessitate the degree of public scrutiny it has received when compared to the larger American context. Conservatives may feel that attacks against whites are a real and growing issue, but when your feelings do not correspond to the facts, it is your feelings that need to change.

The take home is that reality is messy. We should try our best to hinder our propensity to want to add narrative to events which lack sufficient information. We should learn to be alright with not knowing. However, when there are clear facts, we should be willing to accept them, even when we find the facts to be unpalatable.

 

 

 

Anti-Intellectualism and The Death of Facts

We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.

– Richard Hofstadter

What is a fact? It is something that differentiates truth from falsehood. If vaccines cause autism, then there should be a fact of the matter. Something that makes it the case, or not. This is an important aspect of the universe, especially considering that it is directly related to human well-being. Without facts, well thought out actions are impossible. There would be no predictability, and thus no way to make plans that would reliably succeed. If there existed no fact of the matter about vaccines and autism, no way of determining the truth or falsity of that claim, then there would be no reasonable method of choosing whether to vaccinate or not. Facts matter.

With the election of Donald Trump, I fear we now live in a post-fact era (or post-truth, given that I was scooped by the Oxford Dictionary). Of course, in many ways this distinction is arbitrary. It is not as if on November 7th facts were respected and appreciated, but then on November 8th they disappeared. What occurred on November 8th was the culmination, a rise to power (if you will), of the growing trend towards factlessness. Both on the right… and the left.

My concern going forward is that this trend will continue, or further exacerbate the complex problems we already face. There have been peaks of factlessness before, but they mostly occurred top down. Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union was enforced by the Communist Party. Today, facts are readily available, but they are either ignored or denied with the most casual pretense towards a vague notion of common sense. People today feel entitled to a sort of base confidence, a complete trust, in their uncritical judgements. What Stephen Colbert diagnosed as truthiness.

Truthiness has become the new normal. People feel entitled to their own truth, regardless of whether or not it conforms to facts. This entitlement undercuts any critical dialectic by reinforcing the knee jerk response that both parties will have to simply “agree to disagree”. As if agreement is not possible, since there is nothing to determine who is right. Those who persist, who try to get clear about facts, are dismissed as ‘elites’. Just watch this painful interaction between Newt Gingrich and a CNN reporter about the state of violence in America. He sums up their discussion by stating “As a political candidate I’ll go with how people feel, and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians”. I take it that ‘theoretician’, like ‘elitist’, is being used here as a form of slander.

What does all this mean? Well, we have an intellectual class trying to understand the motivation behind Trump supporters, and some of them are missing the forest for the trees. People are no longer motivated by facts. They have lost faith in the institutions that are the standard bearers of facts. What I fear, is that those who are educated on the left will retreat back to theorizing, instead of working hard to restore that faith. Or they will continue to engage in tactics that ignore the underlying cause of our current predicament. Calling Trump and his supporters racist, didn’t prevent him from winning, and continuing to call them racists isn’t going to fix the fact that he was, indeed, elected.

This, of course, does not mean that his supporters weren’t racist, either overtly, or that they engaged in practices that contribute to systematic oppression. This also doesn’t mean we need to empathize with them. What it does mean, is that if we desire to solve the problems we are about to face, we need to better understand what we are up against. It also means we need to come to term with the fact that some of his supporters were probably not racist or misogynistic, but I would argue, they were all, at the very least, mistaken. I can work with someone who is simply mistaken, overt racists are a bit harder to deal with. Furthermore, calling people who don’t think they are racist ‘a racist’ is not going to make them receptive to a well reasoned argument about why they are wrong.

Now, that claim alone will provoke ire from those who voted for him. I am becoming the poster boy of the ‘elite’ by simply declaring a Trump vote to be a vote based on a mistaken apprehension of the facts. Any appeal to having the correct facts, will necessarily proceed to the problem of appropriately adjudicating what the facts are. What is the difference between our sources? Why do I side with the CNN reporter and not Newt? The solution to that problem is in understanding why crime statistics matter, and coming to that solution requires background knowledge gained by an appropriate education. In other words, we need to have an appropriate handle on the type of expertise we have, and a better grasp of the expertise of others. We need to trust that others have a better grasp of certain facts than we do. However, this meta-cognitive ability, of realizing you might be wrong, often requires a degree of competence obtained by a decent education. The less educated tend to be more confident.

Is it any surprise that Trump won more votes among those who are the least educated? That back in April, Trump proclaimed to his supporters that he “loved the poorly educated”? Yet raising this issue seems offensive to those who supported him. As Tomi Lahren of The Blaze argues “Somehow a piece of paper has now become the standard for intelligence and the new bar for an ‘educated voter'”. She proceeds to show clips of anti-Trump supporters chanting “Fuck Trump!”, while she sneers “Let’s take a look at some educated voters”. Her defense of trump voters is that “Most of us are hardworking people that built businesses, families, served our country, and followed the law. If you think that makes us any less than you, you’re dead wrong”. Well, it depends of course on what you mean by ‘less’. I don’t denigrate those who have not spent the time to become educated in a certain field, but that fact alone does mean that you are going to be less educated. That, is a simple fact. I know less than car mechanics when it comes to the inner workings of my car, that shouldn’t make me feel ‘less than’ a mechanic in a way which is meant to be insulting or demeaning. After all, I can’t know everything and nor could anyone else.

Expertise is something important, and her rallying cry is anti-intellectualism in its most potent state. It is an appeal to an outdated sense of ‘aw shucks’ folksy wisdom, at the expense of the actual hard labour required to comprehend the complexity of the universe. Building a business, raising a family, serving time in the military, are all things that take a certain amount of skill and dedication, but they aren’t going to tell you whether or not the climate is warming and whether or not that warming is caused by human beings. The idea that these more parochial activities constitute a sufficient justification for being knowledgeable in highly complex domains which are unrelated is the foundation of our post-fact era. Of course, calling Trump supporters stupid is not a solution, and let’s be clear, I don’t think they are stupid, I think they are misinformed about particular issues. They are, as Hofstadter elegantly put it, afflicted by their fantasies.

I have avoided discussing the facts about why Trump voters are mistaken, because that is not my concern here. I am more concerned here about getting people to realize that there are facts, before I engage in discussing what the fact are. We need to get the majority of people who distrust journalism, to trust it again. We need to get the majority of people who distrust general expertise, to trust it again. Trust, not unconditionally, but with a reasonable expectation that it is reliable. This means that academics need to get their hands dirty.

Those academics also need, as philosopher Richard Rorty describes in his book Achieving Our Country,  to move from a Cultural Left back to a Reformist Left. My worry is that Rorty’s suggestion won’t succeed given that the academic left has its own problem with facts. His solution is that the left needs to talk less about cultural theory and more about the practical concerns of social economic policies. But that means we need to learn economics and psychology, rather than learning how to deconstruct them. This problem was highlighted by Bruno Latour, one of the prominent figures of the Cultural Left:

Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show the lack of scientific certainty’ inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a “primary issue.’ But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument—or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?

This intended emancipation has actually stymied progress. Remember, as I started this essay, without facts, well thought out actions are impossible. If we are to fix the problems that await us, we need to restore the status of facts, and given that we are now in the post-fact era that won’t be easy.

Be vigilant, hard times are ahead.

Alex Jones Is A False Flag

Back in November of 2015, after the Paris shooting, I was shocked at the amount of conspiracy comments that were left on Youtube videos discussing the attacks. The Paris attacks struck a personal chord with me. I have played in bands most of my life, and have attended many concerts as well. All events like this are tragic, but the Paris shooting destroyed something sacred for me. As an atheist, live events such as these are much more like cathartic religious experiences than simply music shows. It is about the closest thing I have ever come to having, what some would call, a spiritual experience. Watching Jesse Hughes, leader singer of Eagles of Death Metal, discuss what he experienced was a way of coping with a kind of loss. I want to cry every time I think of what Hughes said, during an interview days after the shooting with Vice magazine, “Our friends went there to see rock and roll and died, I want to go back there and live”. It was a simple reminder that we will not be defeated in the face of hatred.

Sadly, not everyone viewed the tragedy as what it was; a brutal attack committed by angry people motivated by a particular religious ideology against their perceived enemy. Instead, as the comments to the Vice interview attest, many people saw the Paris attacks as a false flag. False flags are covert operations which are designed to appear as if they are being carried out by a particular group, when, in fact, they are being orchestrated by somebody else. In this sense, they are the bread and butter of conspiracy theorists. As someone who spent some time in the conspiracy theorist community, believing that 9/11 was orchestrated by the US government, I witnessed the proliferation of false flag accusations. Ironically, my eventual departure from the conspiracy community was due to the incoherent ramblings, and constant false flag promoting, of conspiracy Super Saiyan, Alex Jones. Which brings us to today. Not even 24 hours after the tragic shootings in Orlando, Alex Jones, once again, is crying false flag.

Before addressing why Alex Jones is completely, and utterly, full of shit, it is important to highlight the sheer absurdity of false flag claims. One of the most upvoted comments on the Vice interview is angrily directed towards the Eagles of Death Metal: “BIGGEST ASS CLOWN BAND EVER!!! crisis actor sell outs FUCK YOU!” What this comment is alluding to is the idea that many people involved in large scale tragic events are really actors, hired by the powers that be, in order to stage tragic events to subvert democracy or pass unpopular laws. Forget the fact that a recent paper shows that conspiracy theories are mathematically prone to unraveling the larger they get. Forget that the Eagles of Death Metal have been a band for years, and that Jesse Hughes’ pro-gun pro-freedom rhetoric contradicts the claims that he is paid actor for a government supposedly staging events to subvert these very ideals. Not to mention the fact that he blames the political left for the attacks, something which ironically conforms to the conspiracy narrative.

Now, I disagree with a lot of what Jesse Hughes has said since the shooting, but I don’t hold it against him. He was not coached to be politically savvy prior to this event, and I wouldn’t be able to predict what I would say or do if I had been in his place. Let alone how to deal with being given a larger audience, due to the fact that a bunch of assholes decided to kill people who simply showed up to enjoy your music. But it is a further tragedy that Hughes’ experience, however he chooses to manifest it, is being systematically denied by a sub culture that sees him as a puppet. Even worse is the idea that the parents of Sandy Hook were also crisis actors. Some parents even being harassed by conspiracy theorists to prove that they actually had children prior to the shooting. Yet again, the same nonsense is being promoted just hours after the Orlando shootings.

Alex Jones who has made the crisis actor claims about Sandy hook and the Boston marathon, has, in the case of the Orlando shooting, taken a different approach. Instead of saying these attacks were staged, he instead claims that the attacks happened due to the governments open border policies and the acceptance of Syrian refugees. The false flag being that our government does nothing to stop these attacks, in order to, you guessed it, destroy liberty and take our guns. Now, the fact that the shooter was born and raised in America doesn’t fit that narrative, but that hasn’t stopped Jones. Who is now claiming that ISIS is activating death squads in America. Don’t forget to also buy his air purifying products to protect you against chemtrails (advertised in all his recent videos).

Jones also claims that he has never been against homosexuals. Although, he compares those who advocate for gay rights to a space cult with a eugenic plot to kill the worlds population. He also thinks that the supreme court ruling on same sex marriage opens the door for pedophile politicians. He views Islamic extremists as reprehensible for how they treat the gay community, something which I agree is terrible, and yet Jones’ radical Christianity leads him to think that the gay agenda is a eugenics space cult defending pedophiles.

Remember also that Jones is a supporter of Donald Trump. After years of supporting the birther movement, Trump and Jones make natural allies. Which, to me, is the biggest thing to fear from these types of attacks. With every threat and attack population level political conservatism increases. This is also why the left has failed to adequately deal with this issue. Calling Jones or Trump Islamophobic isn’t going to do anything. Their millions of followers don’t trust the narratives promoted by mainstream media. They see the medias denial that these attacks have anything to do with Islam as evidence that the main stream media is corrupted by a shadowy organization. Of course these attacks do have something to do with Islam. I take the fact that the shooter self-identifies as a Muslim, and claims it to be the reason for the attacks at face value, but that fact isn’t that helpful in the long run. These kind of attacks are not just carried out by Muslims. This is why Sandy Hook was a hoax, while Orlando was terrorism, to try to make the random acts of large scale violence fit a narrative.

I am glad I eventually got out of this community, and discovered science and reason, but we ignore the conspiracy underbelly at our peril. Alex Jones has over a million followers, and Donald Trump is the front runner of a majour political party in one of the most powerful countries in the world. The conspiracy is becoming mainstream, and no one really knows how to deal with it.

 

 

Yes, We Need GMO Bananas

There was a lot of activity regarding GMO bananas back in February, when Iowa State University was going to run a study on the human consumption of GE bananas. This study was protested by a petition that received 57,000 signatures. Several pieces have been written by those who oppose the tests, and GMOs in general, all of which expose the absurdity of the anti-GMO movement. I will mainly focus on one article, written by Eric Holt Gimenez for Huffpost Green, titled “Yes, We Need No GMO Bananas”.

Gimenez’s article is based on the premise that the petition signed by the protestors should not be summarily dismissed as anti-science quackery. Of course, for someone who works for an organization that vehemently opposes GE technology, this is the angle that he would want to promote. Food First is a non-profit that works against the industrialization of food production. They openly criticize the Green Revolution for promoting ‘technological intensification’, as if this were a bad thing. The worry, for organizations like Food First, is that the Green Revolution, although responsible for saving billions of lives, contributed to the over use of pesticides and removed food sovereignty. However, to go from this concern to a rejection of technological intensification is, to put it mildly, patently absurd. Pesticides are a necessary part of agriculture, therefore being able to make these pesticides safer – by intensifying the use of technology – would actually be a good thing. In fact, GMOs have reduced the use of many pesticides and have replaced them with relatively benign ones. As for food sovereignty, if this was really related to the Green Revolution, the problem has little to do with technology, but instead with our legal systems. So, instead of arguing against technological advancement, maybe Food First should focus more on the legal and economic factors which help destroy food sovereignty. Assuming the lack of food sovereignty is currently as bad as they claim it to be.

Gimenez begins by saying the move towards testing is, in some sense, something to praise. This is because, as he claims “the GE industry has yet to carry out any epidemiological or regional ecological studies to assess GE’s adverse impact on public health or the environment.” Guess what, here is a list of over 400 studies conducted on the health and environmental safety of GE products. More studies than these exist, since the database is not updated regularly, but the point should be clear enough. Anti-GMO critics continuously claim that these products have not been tested, and yet this is simply and utterly false. Which makes Gimenez’s statement, that we have all been part of an “uncontrolled industrial experiment”, simply mind boggling.

Of course, Gimenez, though happy that there is finally a test – though an absurd assertion given the prevalence of GMO research – is unhappy that the ISU study was directed at the beneficial aspects of the GMO banana. In other words, the scientists wanted to know whether the beta carotene in the banana was actually having a beneficial effect. Gimenez, also downplays the role in which this petition was worried about the health effect of GMO bananas. AGRA watch, another ideological non-profit, makes it clear that they were concerned about the safety and environmental impact of the GMO banana, which is why they promoted the petition. The most depressingly hilarious concern is raised by David Schubert. Schubert, who has a PhD in immunology, and works for the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, should know better. However, as this piece written in 2014 shows, Schubert is ideologically opposed to GE technology. He even raises the dreaded specter of Agent Orange, as a reason to reject GE food, which, in fact, is not related to GE food at all. Here is Schubert’s comment to AGRA watch regarding the banana study:

Beta carotine [sic] is chemically related to compounds that are known to cause birth defects and other problems in humans at extremely low levels, and these toxic chemicals are possible if not likely by-products of plants engineered to make large amounts of beta carotene.  Since there is no required safety testing of the banana or any other GMO, doing a feeding trial in people, especially women, should not be allowed.  It is both unethical and immoral, particularly because there are several naturally occurring varieties of banana that are safe and have higher levels of beta carotene than the GM varieties.

If it isn’t obvious why this statement by Schubert is word salad, let me be more precise. For one, I have no clue whether or not beta carotene production, within plants, is linked to the production of chemicals which are responsible for birth defects. I have looked, and can’t find anything. Sadly, Schubert never mentioned where he got this information either. I also like the use of the word toxic, serving no more of a purpose than to stoke fear in those who already ideologically agree with him. Again, wouldn’t it have been nice if he had mentioned what this toxic chemical compound really is? Secondly, the gene that was used to make these bananas was taken from… other bananas. Therefore, the production of beta carotene in these bananas is similar to if not identical to the production of beta carotene in these other banana varieties. So, if Schubert is right, there should be an increased rate of birth defects for those who eat bananas with high levels of beta carotene, and yet he explicitly states that naturally occurring high levels of beta carotene in bananas are safe! Clearly, having a PhD doesn’t make one immune to poor argumentation.

Getting back to Gimenez, his next paragraph takes the cake for bold unsupported assertions. He claims that the creation of this GMO banana is running under to false assertions; that Ugandans will eat the banana, and that there aren’t bananas high in beta carotene already there. Again, no sources are given to provide evidence against either of these assumptions. The first assumption, is one for which there is no clear answer, but this should not dissuade researchers from trying. Other vitamin A solutions have failed to make an impact, so why not try to take a staple crop used in those regions, primarily by the poor and marginalized, and fortify it? The second assumption is dismissed by Gimenez, but again, he is simply wrong. You have to ask yourself, if those varieties exist in Uganda, why are Ugandans still vitamin A deficient? The problem is that there are economic, ecological, and cultural reasons for why these bananas are not grown and eaten. The modified banana is a staple crop for poor farmers in Uganda, who are with the highest rates of vitamin A deficiency. Therefore, it is more likely for Ugandans to adopt this strategy than to begin growing a new type of banana, which is economically and ecologically not practical, and culturally not wanted.

Gimenez then turns conspiratorial. The only reason Cornell University is arguing against these protestors is because they received money from Bill and Melinda Gates! Cornell isn’t the only institution against the protests, considering that the majority of scientific institutions support the safety and efficacy of GE products, and not all of them receive Gates money. Gimenez then claims that these institutions are stymieing public debate, but are they? Trying to educate the public about the scientific consensus of the safety of GE products is only seen as stymieing if you work on the assumption that GMO food is bad in the first place. Conspiracy theorists abound though, for example, this article claims that Bill and Melinda Gates are modifying this banana so that they can profit off of it. Ignoring the fact that this GMO banana is being developed by the Ugandan government, and is not being patented. The new theory is that this product would be an open-door to allow for the release of further GE products, but if there is no reason to fear GMO food this isn’t really a problem.

This gets to the next part of Gimenez’s problem, that we shouldn’t just focus on GE technology to help fix hunger. This is because hunger and vitamin A deficiency is also social and political issue. But who seriously ignores this fact? After all, why else are the scientists working directly with the Ugandan government? This is a frequent complaint of pseudo-scientists, that somehow academics are blinded to the holistic processes of health and safety. This, of course, is nonsensical spin. However, this spin has an official seal. As anti-GMO activists frequently point to an IAASTD report, as Gimenez does in this piece, which claims that we shouldn’t be investing all our time in GMO technologies. For a full debunking of this report I recommend this article. I will add, however, that this report, released in 2009, is a bit outdated. It is also alone. One lonely outdated report is, well, useless, scientifically speaking. Especially a report which ignores the large scientific consensus surrounding such foods.

Here is the heart of Gimenez’s position:

Science is a negotiation – an iterative process rooted in asking questions, in testing hypotheses and counter-hypotheses. Thus it is crucial that scientists and students of science, regardless of status, expertise or background, be able to ask critical questions regarding each other’s work without fear of vitriolic retribution or retaliation. The GE proponents’ over-simplified approach — and their attacks against anyone who questions them are not only unscientific — pose risks to us all.

This superficially seems like a great idea. But at what point is something so true, so beyond doubt, that systematic questioning and protestation become a hindrance to scientific progress as opposed to a integral part of its functioning? Creationists deserve ridicule because they are wrong. It is not that I am critical of questioning itself, instead I am critical of bullshit. If anti-GMO activists continue to trot out tired and debunked claims, then I am going to continue to counter their propaganda. It is funny how Gimenez’s dire prediction can work in the opposite direction. If Gimenez is wrong, his anti-science fear mongering, and promotion of questioning in the face of overwhelming evidence, will pose a risk to us all, especially to those kids who are needlessly going blind due to vitamin A deficiency. This is the pseudo-scientists appeal for open-mindedness, but as the brilliant Carl Sagan famously said, “Be open minded, but not so open that your brain falls out”. It is time we put the brains back into environmental activism.

Another Horgan Hater

Anyone familiar with the skeptic movement is probably well aware of John Horgan’s talk at NECSS, and his subsequent blog post. Rather than cover all the horrible scientific inaccuracies, and lack of awareness, I will address why Horgan’s opinion resonates with the wider public. For direct criticism of the content of Horgan’s presentation David Gorski, and Steven Novella have wonderful responses.

As a side note, in a future post (or possible video?) I will be criticizing the work of Robert Whitaker, someone who Horgan cites as a respectable journalist. I happen to think Whitaker is wrong, on a lot of issues, but there doesn’t seem to be that much information online explaining how wrong he is. I hope to fill that void in the future; so look out for that! Ironically, this is precisely WHY we need a skeptic movement, so people can think critically about the people they use as sources. And the fact that Horgan used Whitaker as a source, at a skeptic conference, where he criticized skeptics… is priceless.

The first thing that really annoys me with his talk, which is a standard way of shutting down a conversation, is that he automatically set up the skeptics movement as being ideologically motivated to reject his talk. That way, any criticism towards his talk can be perceived as petulant whining and thus easily dismissed. The fact is, that skeptics cover a wide range of topics, including a lot of the issues that he himself raised. We are not, as a whole, superficially science enthusiasts that simply digest what we are spooned by the media or by scientists. The skeptic movement, at its best, has a respectful appreciation for earned expertise, combined with an attitude of critical self reflection and a desire to learn. Of course, not everyone who self identifies as a skeptic is going to be “right”, after all, Bill Nye was wrong about GMO’s (and still is wrong about philosophy), but at least he tries to maintain a proper skeptical outlook. Horgan’s talk reflects a common straw person of the skeptical movement; one which is used by cranks to convince their followers to believe in superstitious nonsense. That skeptics are mindless followers of science.

My main issue with Horgan’s talk, is that Horgan assumes that wanting to end war is obvious. If there is one thing I have learned as a skeptic, it is that very seldom is anything obvious. A lot of issues are complicated. Take, for example, the local food movement. Contrary to popular belief it is not always environmentally beneficial to buy your food locally. Why? Because water use, and soil efficiency, can often create more CO2 locally than the CO2 produced to have the food shipped from more efficient areas. However, sometimes that is really hard to calculate and figure out. People cling to catchy little slogans “eat local!”, “end war!”, but these sayings often try to simplify very complex realities with almost no benefit to actually solving the shared underlying issues.I sometimes have to defer to experts, given that I don’t have the time to do a deep dive on every aspect of the ecological impact of food production while at the same time keeping a steady job.But even then, it is often that when you become deeply familiar with a specific knowledge base that you become intimately aware with the fact that the world is far more complicated than it superficially seems. Only when you know a lot about one specific subject do you realize that there is so much more that you don’t know about it, and then you realize that everyone, in almost every field, has the exact same thought. It is amazing that we know anything, given how little we actually know.

Of course, most people, and most skeptics, would probably love to see an end to war, but we often disagree about the best ways to accomplish such tasks, given how complicated such tasks are. Furthermore, it is not clear what evidence exists to make such complex predictions. Almost no one predicted Donald Trump, and yet Horgan thinks we can somehow reach a consensus on the proper means of ending world wide conflict? Violence and war have been decreasing, but it is not clear what is causing these declines. Steven Pinker has catalogued a lot of interacting social and psychological factors which he thinks play a role in this decline, but his review is far from conclusive. That being said, Pinker is a skeptic, and he is addressing the issue that Horgan thinks that skeptics should address. Given that Horgan had the stage and an opportunity, why didn’t he provide any reasonable solutions to the problems he wishes that we would address (even though we are already addressing them)?

Lastly, Horgan’s distinguishing between soft and hard targets is simply silly. Homeopathy is a soft target? Then why are they a billion dollar industry? The fact that people are avoiding proven cancer treatments for sugar pills is an important issue which requires a movement to combat it. How do we expect to solve war when it is this difficult to convince ordinary, every day people, that homeopathy doesn’t work. The skeptics movement is important because we are on the pulse of why people believe weird things. Why we are motivated, not by the evidence, but by heuristics and biases which lead reasonable people to make unreasonable decisions. So called “soft targets” make these human faults salient, in order that we might learn from our mistakes. If we hope to end war, we should probably get to the bottom of why people believe in Bigfoot first. Horgan has his priorities backwards.

Anti-Vaccine Bingo: This Week, Epilepsy

An article has been making the rounds on the internet claiming there is a link between vaccines and epilepsy. This is outrageously false, but worth taking a deeper look. Mainly because this article highlights some key points which can be used to teach others how to skeptically read things on the internet.

The article’s first paragraph nicely highlights all that is wrong in what follows:

The rate of epilepsy among children and the elderly has been skyrocketing, with 1 in 20 children under five now suffering from the seizure condition in the United States. More and more parents say that vaccines triggered their children’s seizure disorders. The government maintains that while vaccines can trigger febrile (fever related) seizures, the many cases of epilepsy that begin immediately following infant vaccination are merely coincidental or were bound to occur eventually.

There are two main claims here, which i will dissect separately. The first claim is that epilepsy is skyrocketing. The second claim, which is a bit more complicated, involves the relationship between Doctors and parents, and their differing standards of evidence.

“Skyrocketing”: I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means

A rocket is something that goes from slow to fast at a fairly quick pace. In order for the analogy to work, something that skyrockets must dramatically change between two time points in roughly close proximity. For example, in places that do not vaccinate, measles can skyrocket. Where measles was almost eliminated in the United States, 113 cases were linked to the Disney Land outbreak last year, which spread due to low vaccination rates. Therefore, there was an environmental cause of the skyrocketing disease; a decrease in herd immunity.

To my surprise, with the 1 in 20 figure listed in the articles title, there was no mention of a preceding number. We can’t determine based on one number alone what the trend of diagnosis is. With a simple google search, no news was found indicating any trend in epilepsy cases. In fact, the only thing that came up, was the article itself!

Those two facts alone should be sufficient for an immediate quick skeptical read, but I decided to go a bit deeper into the research to see what I could learn about the prevalence of epilepsy. Epilepsy is highest in children younger than 5, which is what the 1 in 20 figure represents. However, kids younger than 17, have a prevalence between 6-10 in 1000, depending on which study you look at. These studies were mostly conducted in the mid 90’s, and as far as I can tell, none of them claim that this number is indicative of an increase in epilepsy, but simply a more robust accounting of its prevalence. Again, this leaves me wondering, how this author concluded epilepsy was skyrocketing?

Even more telling, in the study cited in the last paragraph, they acknowledge the difficulty in measuring childhood epilepsy. What they say is worth quoting in full:

Almost 40% of children in our study previously diagnosed with epilepsy/seizure disorder were not reported by parents to currently have the condition. Although these data could reflect a true remission of seizure activity, they could result from an initial “misdiagnosis” of epilepsy/seizure disorder, inclusion of some children with single febrile seizures, or variation in interpretations of the terms “current” versus “ever” having seizures.

If epilepsy is frequently misdiagnosed, so that the prevalence is probably lower than the 1 in 20 figure, then it doesn’t seem like the rocket has even been launched.

The Pitfalls of Patternicity: The Plural of Anecdote is NOT Data

Michael Shermer, in his book The Believing Brain, describes what he calls patternicity “…the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise”. Patternicity is not always bad, after all, our folk psychology, and folk physics, tend to lead us towards correct predictions some if not most of the time. However, our tendency to find patterns, even where none exist, can lead us into trouble. This is why we do science, and why we should approach anecdotes skeptically.

The main body of the article is basically a list of anecdotes, which are almost always useless in determining the causal relationship between an environmental stimulus and a disease or disorder. There are three main problems with the anecdotes provided; the problem of diagnosis, the differences in time between the supposed cause and its effect, and the problem of biased sampling.

Given the frequency of misdiagnosis as pointed out in the previous section, some cases of febrile seizures will be diagnosed as epilepsy. Febrile seizures are a possible side effect of vaccines, although they are relatively harmless they can be scary to witness as a parent. One of the anecdotes is as follows:

My daughter had her first seizure about 12 hours after her mmr shot at 12 months. When I contacted the administering gp we were told it was a normal reaction to the vaccination febrile seizure, and it will not happen again. from then on she started having myoclonic seizures where her eyes would roll for a split second. when i mentioned this to the GP they said, those will go away with time. Instead of going away they have increased in length and frequency.

Notice how the seizures changed? It is possible that the child had a febrile seizure initially, but then later developed epilepsy. This is portrayed as Doctor incompetence, but diagnosis can be complicated. Given that the symptoms of a febrile seizure and epileptic seizure can manifest themselves similarly, diagnosis is difficult. Notice as well that it seems like the patient self-diagnosed their child with myoclonic seizures.

Diagnosis is not simple, you can be misdiagnosed, you will tend to self-diagnose, and in the future your diagnosis could change. In fact, 70% of children outgrow their epilepsy. None of the anecdotes provided gave any indication of whether or not the epilepsy remained, improved, changed etc.

The times between the vaccine and the seizure differ from anecdote to anecdote. Some range between minutes after, to days after, to weeks after.

My son had his 1st seizure IN THE DOCTOR’S OFFICE 1-2 minutes after receiving two vaccinations. The seizures continued from that day forward.

My son is now 6 years old and has been having seizures since he had his first vaccine at 2 months of age. He had his first seizure about 36 hrs after his needle. He did not have any fever, actually has never had a febrile seizure ever, but has had a multitude of others.

My son has been having neurological problems, seizures, movements that doctors aren’t sure what to call, etc. since last May. He was a healthy 18 mos. old little boy and then 11 days after his checkup (vaccines) he vomited and had a 1+ hour seizure.

Even in the first anecdote, there is a gap in time between the first febrile seizure and the supposed myoclonic seizure. We are not told how long the myoclonic seizure occurred after the initial seizure. It could be that the child had both a febrile seizure that was vaccine related, but was also going to eventually develop epilepsy, the two having nothing to do with each other.

If vaccines do cause epilepsy, or autism, or anything, there should be some consistency between the onset of the problem and the supposed cause. Given that no mechanism has been provided, probably because no mechanism exists, people can just decide that their child’s seizure is vaccine related even when it occurs weeks after they received their shot.

There is also the concern of the ‘post hoc, ergo propter hoc’ fallacy, which is related to the oft quoted phrase, correlation does not equal causation. Just because something occurs after something else, does not mean that that something caused it. This is why scientists try to isolate potential causes in order to increase our confidence in the causal relationship. A simple anecdote is worthless, since it wasn’t isolated from the myriad of potential causes which make determining causation almost impossible. This is especially problematic in the field of health, since a lot of what goes on beneath the skin is hidden from us.

Finally, all these anecdotes were culled from a message board of an epilepsy foundation. In other words, this is a biased sample, from a population of worried people. A proper epidemiological study will look at the population at large, and given that there is no reason to suspect that epilepsy is increasing, such a study would most likely be a waste of time, energy, and resources.

All of which is why the Doctors are not worried of, or suspicious of, a link between vaccines and epilepsy. Notice the title of the article states that parents are questioning; not Doctors, not scientists. The parents see this as Doctors being dismissive, but really it is probably because most people don’t understand what consists of good evidence. Personal anecdote, no matter how compelling, is simply not good enough.

A Narrative Confusion

It is clear that the author of this piece is trying to create a narrative, especially considering the lengths she goes to avoid the obvious pieces of evidence sitting right in front of her. Notice the first sentence of the article:

The rate of epilepsy among children and the elderly has been skyrocketing, with 1 in 20 children under five now suffering from the seizure condition in the United States.

It took me awhile to see it, but when it finally struck me, it was so obvious what was going on. Why did she include the elderly in this first sentence? Think about it; if the article is claiming that childhood vaccines are causing an increase, a skyrocketing increase, in epilepsy, why is epilepsy skyrocketing in the elderly? A population which would really only be exposed to a single vaccine.

Notice how she also avoids the evidence that 70% of children outgrow their epilepsy:

Approximately 1 in 100 adults now has epilepsy in the United States, while 1 in 20 children under five years old are now believed to have the disorder.

How odd, that she would include the elderly as having skyrocketing epilepsy, acknowledge that adults do not, but then use that fact to bolster how frightening it is that more children have it. Odd, or clearly the case of someone trying to fit the evidence to their narrative. Funny, however, that the evidence so obviously does not fit her narrative that she can’t even succeed at contorting the evidence to make it work in her favour.

Conclusion

Vaccines don’t cause epilepsy. They don’t. Seriously, internet. Stop.

Cow Burps and Global Warming

One of the main motivations behind becoming vegan (or at least vegan-ish) was learning that cow flatulence is one of the main contributors, bigger than car exhaust even, to global warming. I came to this belief long before I had the ability, or the education necessary, to adequately assess the science. Now that my veganism is grounded in more ethical concerns, I have decided to reflect on some of my initial reasons to see if they conform to the science. This is not a ‘debunking’ post, since there does seem to be evidence on this issue, but the answer isn’t at all clear, and unpacking it can be a lesson in the complicated inter-connectivity of the human impact upon Earth’s climate.

Cow Burps: The Introduction of Methane into our Atmosphere

If I can debunk one thing, it isn’t cow farts, but their burps, which contribute the largest impact on the climate. Cows, which belong to the class of animals called ruminants, produce a large quantity of methane from bacteria which help to aid in digestion. I won’t cover exactly how methanogenesis works, but it is fascinating, and you could learn more about it here. What interests me is how this gas, once it is expelled, impacts the climate.

The first thing to note, which is integral to this issue, is that methane, in fact, is increasing in our atmosphere. From about 700 ppb pre-industrialization to about 1800 ppb today (2011), the highest concentration in 800, 000 years. However, there are several contributing anthropogenic factors, such as rice agriculture, landfills, natural gas, ecological conversion of forests into agricultural plots, the release of methane from glaciers and permafrost due to warming effects already anthropogenically caused, and of course, cow burps.

It is hard to put a number on how much of this atmospheric methane is directly caused by cows, this is due to the variability in the sources of methane release. Some estimates put cattle methane production at about 37% of all anthropogenic sources of methane in the atmosphere. Since cows can produce between 30-50 gallons of methane per day, depending on their diet, this number is difficult to quantify when assessing cattle’s long term impact on the climate.

Is Methane Worse than Carbon Dioxide?

Almost everything you read online tells you that methane is about 20-30 times worse as a green house gas compared to carbon dioxide. This figure is measured by GWP (global warming potential), which is a relative measure of the amount of heat trapped by a green house gas, compared to a similar weight of carbon dioxide. This can get complicated, given that methane has a shorter half life than carbon dioxide when it is in our atmosphere. In a 20 year window, methane can be 86 times worse, as a green house gas, compared to carbon. The 20-30 times figure is the difference in effect, compared to carbon dioxide over a 100 year period. The longer window you look at, the more methane’s GWP will decrease.

When compared to car exhaust, cow burps are worse in the immediate future, but not as bad as car exhaust in the long term. The take home message is that both are bad, but the relative risk between the two is not as simple to calculate.

Solutions

One solution is to modify the cows diet in order to decrease the amount of methane produced. Switching to crushed oilseeds reduced methane production in cattle by about 20%. Feed supplements have also been designed to reduce methane gas production in cows. Cows given a methane inhibitor decreased methane production by 30%. However, all of these are added costs into a system that would still add inputs into the climate system which impact warming.

In the end, I still think veganism, or at least a non-dairy, non-beef, diet is one of the best strategies towards reducing this greenhouse gas. This, of course, will not offset our climate impact completely. Any type of agriculture is going to have a release of greenhouse gases.So going off dairy and beef means calories created by other means, albeit with a substantially smaller impact.

Realistically, going completely off beef and dairy won’t be accepted by most people, so even a modest reduction in these products can have some sort of effect. The best solution is probably one that combines all three strategies. Change diet when the cost to do so is cheaper than supplementation. Supplement when changing diet is more expensive. All the while decreasing our consumption of cow related products.

Conclusion

I am not a climate scientist, nor a chemist, nor an agricultural ecologist. So, if any of the information here is inadequate please message me and I will update, fix, reform what I have written here to better suit the data.