Warnings of impending danger: Science and Social Factors

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This is a paper I prepared for an ethics graduate class and have updated (7-June-2014). I present it in conjunction with a Strange Frequencies Radio podcast appearance on Sunday June 8.

Natural disasters happen every day. The people who can help prepare society for them are not psychics or crank pseudoscientists but those who study events inside out and upside down – scientists. Those who consider prediction a part of their research and responsibility range from weather forecasters to seismologists and volcanologists.

It’s a great responsibility to be tasked warning officials and the public about probable natural disasters. Warnings of impending danger cause predictable social and economic effects that must be considered along with achieving the primary goal, which is safety and minimizing loss of life. If a disaster prediction is wrong, several million people might be unnecessarily affected (Olsen, 1989 p. 107) and the region may suffer economic losses. If it is correct, but delivered inadequately, disaster is inevitable.

Accuracy of predictions is based on what is possible to observe and data that can be collected. For example, hurricane predictions are very accurate because scientists have extensive weather instruments and well-tested forecasting techniques to use. Volcanic hazard areas and shorelines prone to tsunamis are mapped based on zones identified through historical records – scientists can find geologic evidence that the land was affected by lava, ash or debris flows or inundated with waves of debris.

For many predicted events (volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, floods, blizzards), there is time to deliver the message and adequately prepare for the event. The worst situation is certainly earthquakes. There are no widely accepted precursors for quakes. Reliable prediction are long-term and large-scale — relatively unhelpful for preparation. With the potential for large seismic events to kill huge numbers of people, earthquake prediction theories have been particularly problematic and fraught with ethical dilemmas for the scientific community, public authorities and media.

It’s important to distinguish between predictions from the scientific community and those arising from the nonscientific community (pseudoscientific speculation, psychics and cranks). Scientific predictions must be supported by background theory and data and withstand skeptical scrutiny to be considered credible. The foundation mechanisms, explanations, calculations and assessments are expected to have gone through the gauntlet of peer review in order to gain acceptance. If the foundation is valid, then short-term, specific predictions will be credible. Predictive successes that have followed the conventional route include volcanic evacuations (Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, and the island of Montserrat) and severe weather alerts. Psychic and pseudoscientific predictions are not supported by theory or data and are not credible. I’ll not be addressing the ethics of those predictions as they are in a whole other realm.

Failed predictions fall on an impact scale from low (creating public inconvenience) to high (massive death tolls) with economic losses and potential career destruction in between. The following are some notable examples that highlight the major pitfalls inherent in predicting (or ignoring predictions of) natural disasters.

The Brady-Spence Debacle

In 1976, Dr. Brian Brady, a U.S. government scientist, made a specific prediction for a huge seismic event to take place in Lima, Peru in July of 1981. While the prediction itself was remarkably detailed, the theory supporting it was completely opaque (Olsen, 1989 p. 41). Brady’s theory had not been tested or published for peer review. During the lead up years to the event, things got complicated. Egos, priorities, agendas and protocol hijacked opportunities for proper, coherent, scientific critique. Peruvian officials and the public were confused by the lack of a reliable feed of information. The unstable political situation at the time led Peruvian citizens to think that their government was using the prediction to continue military control (Olsen, 1989 p. 131; Sol & Turan, 2004). The predicted quake did not occur. But, widespread disorder, decline of tourism, decrease in property values, and general public unrest resulted in an estimated economic damage in Lima of $50 million (Mileti & Fitzpatrick, 1993 p. 55).

The lack of following scientific protocol led to the situation getting out of hand. This episode is an example of a loss of objectivity by the chief scientist, the failure of the scientific community to address a serious situation in a coordinated way, and government agencies accepting rumors and pursuing misguided agendas without accurate information.

Armero

In 1985, Columbian scientists knew that villages in the valleys around the Nevado del Ruiz volcano were prone to disaster from eruptions. Yet, money was not allotted by the government to monitor the active volcano. The data that could be collected was ignored or not taken seriously by officials. When the media reported that an eruption would produce deadly mudflows that would obliterate the village of Armero, civic leaders called these press reports “volcanic terrorism”.

Church leaders added to the propaganda by telling people of the village not to fear. The poor population made no preparations to evacuate. Inevitably, the volcano erupted. That night, those who attempted to evacuate did not know where to go. Civil defense tried to get people out of the town but many refused to go – telling rescuers they were certainly mistaken. 23,000 people perished when a flood of meltwater and warm mud buried the town. Armero no longer exists, bodies were incased in dozens of feet of debris.

Government inaction in this entirely preventable situation was devastating. The situation was a heartbreaking testimony to the vulnerability of the poor to manipulation by authority  (Bruce, 2001).

Browning’s New Madrid prediction

Iben Browning was a scientist with unconventional ideas who took his claim directly to the media who gave it wide coverage. He pronounced that an earthquake on the New Madrid fault in the US Midwest would be triggered in December 1990 by tidal forces. In light of his prediction, serious social disturbances occurred. When the quake did not occur, he was ridiculed. Sol & Turan (2004) note that one can not use the defense of free speech to support predictions such as this since they create social disturbances with harmful consequences. Your speech has consequences.

Mr. Browning rejected scientific protocol and valid criticism but used the press to create a stir. While these actions were unethical if one subscribes to the ideals of the scientific community, the media also shares some blame for giving Browning’s opinion credibility it did not deserve. Several cranks persist in using this same “tidal forces” idea, unsupported by science, to gain attention from the media.

Katrina

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes ever to hit the United States. A US House Committee (2006) investigated the catastrophe and found, though the forecasts were remarkably good, the right information did not get to the right people on time and decision-makers seriously underestimated the threat.

It was well known how vulnerable New Orleans was to hurricanes yet there were inadequate provisions, few acts of leadership, government ineptitude, misguided advice, and media hype of violence that together resulted in a pathetic governmental response and heightened death toll. Katrina also revealed ugly issues of race and class treatment which showed that being poor and black put one at a distinct disadvantage in a disaster situation. Previous federal government cuts for disaster preparedness had increased the vulnerabilities and taught a hard lesson about paying now or paying later.

Boxing Day Tsunami

The Sumatra-Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was an example of lack of coordinated monitoring, notification and evacuation procedures that caused an enormous and mostly preventable loss of life (Revkin, 2004). Fifteen minutes after the offshore quake that generated the deadly tsunami, U.S. scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii sent out a warning bulletin. In spite of attempts they made to contact counterparts in other countries, the calls were not answered; the information and warning did not get through. Thousands died along populated coastlines completely unaware of the incoming surge scientists knew was coming.

Back in 2003, Dr. Phil Cummings of Australia had pushed for an expansion of the tsunami network into the Indian Ocean. Formation of a study group was met with resistance from participating countries and the network was never expanded. In hindsight, it was noted that Dr. Cummings had accurately predicted the damage that would be done to Sumatra and India. This event put the new word “tsunami” into the vocabulary of many citizens around the world.

L’Aquila, Italy

Giampaolo Giuliani forecasted the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy based on radon ground emission readings – a scientifically questionable (but not outlandish) theory. Giuliani was reported to authorities for “spreading panic” by broadcasting his warnings weeks before the predicted event. Italian scientists assured the townspeople that quakes were not predicable and officials forced Guiliani to remove warnings from the internet (Neild, 2009; Mackey, 2009). When the predicted quake did not occur on the expected date, March 29, the Italian Civil Protection Agency denounced Guiliani as “an imbecile” (Israely, 2009). A quake occurred on April 6 destroying the central city of L’Aquila and killing more than 300 people.

In this case, a desperate scientist had made an attempt to do what he thought was the right thing. The government agency chose to use ridicule and censorship instead of providing a measured, coordinated response to a questionable scientific prediction. What might have been the result if a different tactic was undertaken?

In 2012, an Italian court convicted six of the scientists and a government official of manslaughter for failing to give adequate warning of the deadly earthquake. Were they at fault or just mistaken? What happens when scientists are held THIS accountable for a correct guess in an uncertain situation? The public will suffer.

The parties involved

Most crises are not instantly obvious. They take time to develop, sometimes from vague or contradictory signals (Boin & t’Hart, 2006 p. 49). Citizens expect public official to make critical decisions, provide direction and issue emergency warnings (Barberi et al., 2008). Because they are not experts on scientific topics, officials are vulnerable to misunderstanding and mischaracterization (Olsen, 1989, p. 38 and 139). Social scientists note “the public wants to hear things from people they trust” and “they want to hear things repeated”. Miscommunication can occur all too easily when an official speaks outside his area expertise and/or garbles the message. Constant, and correct communication is the key.

Predictions have a way of leaking to the press. The media can be an effective and critical means to deliver warnings and will look to experts for information and confirmation. Scientists, however, have not traditionally been open to making themselves available to address the public. One can argue that it is their ethical obligation to be accessible in such a situation and they MUST do so to establish and retain their place as a credible source of information. Otherwise, alternate, not-so-credible sources step in to fill the void.

New electronic media means word-of-mouth takes on a whole different scale as warnings from credible and non-credible sources are passed instantaneous around the world. “Prediction” via email or social network platforms is popular. Likely unaware that a warning is scientifically baseless, and without an easy way to judge its credibility, a receiver feels that she is doing a good deed by passing on a warning of impending doom. Warnings like this can cause undue concerns and economic effects.

The elemental question in predictive scenarios is: when is the evidence adequate to make a prediction to the public? Many prognosticators feel they have potentially life-saving information and are overcome with a moral obligation to inform the public regardless of protocol. They can’t seem to adequately assess the potential fallout if they are wrong. The public, however, considers costs of all kinds and is not always compelled to follow scientific advice. The public may be misled by a manufactured scientific controversy (such as vaccine dangers or global warming).

Science gets accused of oppressing unorthodox ideas that may form the basis of innovative prediction theory. The punishment for a scientific maverick can mean the end of a career. Desperate scientists with unorthodox ideas, rejected by their peers, will put forth their ideas to the community who will listen – the media and public.

The modern public generally has veneration for science and scientists (Posner, 2004 p. 97; Barberi et al., 2008). Yet, science can not deliver absolutes or provide guarantees. The prediction scenario must take public perception into account or the prediction will cause harm whether the event occurs or not.

The world’s most vulnerable population is the poor. Keys et al. (2006) asserts that expensive warning systems are a hard political sell if it is just to save the poor populations.

Governments and citizens will hesitate to undertake precautions that are expensive and time consuming. The public, however, is influenced by seeing others in the community (or, these days, online) taking a warning seriously (Mileti & Fitzgerald, 1993, p. 87). Where the people are poor, uneducated or distrustful of government (Bolin, 2006 p. 129), there can be a reluctance to accept an “official” warning to evacuate. People who feel they are in control of their lives take action to survive. Those who feel their lives are controlled by an external force will passively await whatever fate will come. Fatalistic attitudes, especially as a result of religious beliefs, are still encountered today, most notably in poor populations (Quarantelli et al., 2006 p. 19, and Bruce, 2001 p. 19). Leaders must be forthright to convince citizens to take the most reasonable course of action. Compassion for personal human concerns must be displayed for a warning to be heeded. Government must be prepared to follow through with obligations to the population whether the event occurs or not.

Conclusion

Many predictions are valid attempts to do the right thing under uncertain circumstances. There are social and political reasons why a prediction is taken seriously or completely ignored. The media and public may give a baseless prediction credence where the scientific community does not.

When the public, media and politicians become involved, a prediction becomes socially complex. Warnings must be delivered in relation to social conditions (Rodrigues et al, 2006b p. 486).

Government and scientists have an obligation to learn from historical events and not repeat mistakes. Even false alarms do not diminish future response if the basis and reasons for the miss are understood and accepted by the public (Sorensen & Sorensen, 2006 p. 196-7). Therefore, authorities should be willing to prepare their citizens without hesitation if the prediction is supported by science.

Science has an established process to be followed for a theory to gain acceptance. Scientists should be discouraged from short circuiting this process and appealing directly to the public. However, the scientific community must evolve its process to include modern technology and the new media in consideration of basic human needs and various responses to life-threatening events.

References
Barberi, F., M.S. Davis, R. Isaia, R. Nave, T. Riccia (2008). “Volcanic risk perception in the Vesuvius population.” Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 172: 244 – 258.

Boin, A. and P. ‘t Hart (2006). “The Crisis Approach”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 42-54.

Bolin, B. (2006). “Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Disaster Vulnerability”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 113-129.

Bourque, L. B., J.M. Siegel, M. Kano, M. M. Wood (2006). “Morbidity and Mortality Associated with Disasters”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 97-112.

Bruce, V. (2001). No Apparent Danger. NY, Harper Collins.

Bryant, E. (2005). “Personal and Group Response to Hazards”. Natural Hazards, Cambridge Univ Press: 273-287.

Hinman, L. M. (2005). “Hurricane Katrina: A ‘Natural’ Disaster?” San Diego Union-Tribune. San Diego, CA. Sept. 8, 2005.

Israely, J. (2009) “Italy’s Earthquake: Could Tragedy Have Been Avoided?” Time Retrieved April 7, 2009 from http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1889644,00.html.

Johnson, B. F. (2009) “Gone and Back Again”. Earth (07 Apr 2009) Retrieved April 20, 2009 from http://www.earthmagazine.org/earth/article/1fe-7d9-4-7.

Keys, A., H. Masterman-Smith, D. Cottle (2006). “The Political Economy of a Natural Disaster: The Boxing Day Tsunami, 2004.” Antipode 38(2): 195-204.

Mackey, R. (2009). “Earthquake Warning was Removed from Internet”. NY Times News Blog (The Lede) (06 April 2009) Retrieved April 6, 2009 from http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/06/earthquake-warning-was-removed-from-internet

Mileti, D. S. and C. Fitzpatrick (1993). The Great Earthquake Experiment. Boulder, CO, Westview Press.

Neild, B. and G. Deputato (2009) “Scientist: My quake prediction was ignorned”. CNN.com (06 April 2009) Retrieved April 6, 2009 from http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/europe/04/06/italy.quake.prediction.

Olsen, R. S. (1989). The Politics of Earthquake Prediction. Princeton, NJ, Princeton Univ Press.

Posner, R.A. (2004). Catastrophe: Risk and Response. Oxford Univ Press.

Quarantelli, E. L., P. Lagadec, A. Boin (2006). “A Heuristic Approach to Future Disasters adn Crises: New, Old and In-Between Types”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E.L. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 16-41.

Revkin, A. C. (2004). “How Scientists and Victims Watched Helplessly”. New York Times. December 31, 2004.

Rodriguez, H., E.L. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes (2006a). Handbook of Disaster Research. NY, Springer.

Rodriguez, H., W. Diaz, J. Santos, B.E. Aguirre (2006b). “Communicating Risk and Uncertainty: Science, Technology, and Disasters at the Crossroads”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 476-488.

Scanlon, J. (2006). “Unwelcome Irritant or Useful Ally? The Mass Media in Emergencies”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 413-429.

Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina (2006). “A Failure of Initiative”. Washington, D.C., US House of Representatives.

Sol, A. and H. Turan (2004). “The Ethics of Earthquake Prediction.” Science and Engineering Ethics10(4): 655-666.

Sorensen, J. H. and B. V. Sorensen (2006). “Community Processes: Warning and Evacuation”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 183-199.

USGS (1999). “Most Recent Natural Disasters Were Not the Century’s Worst, USGS Says.” News release – US Dept of Interior, USGS (Geologic Hazards) (30 December 1999).

* I use the term prediction throughout this post since I am referring to the cases where a particular event was said to occur within a discrete time frame in a certain location. Please see this post in which I distinguish forecasting from prediction.

Originally published on this blog on 28 Mar 2011

Getting noticed for not calling people stupid

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Two observations today: one positive, one negative. Want to make an impact with your skeptical commentary? You TOTALLY can.

First, an unexpected effect. I was contacted by researchers in Japan who saw one of my Doubtful News articles railing against media who published a baseless story about a woman who claimed MSG (monosodium glutamate) in many foods resulted in a glutamate imbalance that caused autism and other neurological disorders. The article that I cited was published on Fox News but they had pulled it from the San Francisco Chronicle. It was copied without much additional info to several other sources. It was worse than “false balance”. Even though the original article mentioned no scientific research supports this claim, that point was lost in the scary headline. The researcher who contacted me noted that my piece was the only one that was openly critical about the story. That was the gist of my piece – one person (supported by some ridiculous autism woo woo sites) has a zany idea and that is considered news? That is fear mongering for no reason and it’s a problem in our society.

The researchers, who were affliated with a big e-commerce company in Japan, were interested in the market image of MSG in the US and other countries. I was able to provide some informed opinion about food fads and fallacies that I learned through my work on Doubtful News and by through skeptic-based health media.

I consider the exchange with market researchers, as well as my various contacts with reporters and journalists, a direct effect from blogging a science-based point of view, building a web presence, and appearing high in search results. How about that!

Google search results

Top search results in Google for MSG+autism

I really don’t think I’d get so many requests for exchanges if I was one of those asshole skeptics. While talking to other science-minded people about my interest in the paranormal and why people believe, I too often hear dismissiveness. And worse, I hear paranormal beleivers being called “stupid”, “idiots”, “moron”, and the like – that they deserve to lose their money or waste their time because they’re dumb. No. That would be YOU who are dumb. It’s well-established that paranormal belief or buying into questionable claims is NOT a sole result of education and IQ. Smart people believe a lot of nonsense things.

I find great value in my discussions with pro-paranormal people. By treating them with respect and finding out about their opinions, I can better understand the subject completely and work to change misperceptions. If I went around yelling that “BIGFOOT DOESN’T EXIST, you idiot” or “How can you be so stupid to think that a place is haunted?” I would be exactly as obnoxious as the people who regularly scream at me on blog comments and email telling me to “Get educated” or “Shut up about stuff [I] know nothing about.” Yeah, I get that a lot. I’m not going to go down the name-calling road. It makes me hit delete so what do you think happens when we do the same?

I’m pissed that skeptics are still thought of as curmudgeonly, closed-minded, know-it-alls. No wonder people dislike them. Many do seem to be complete assholes. The answer to why people subscribe to paranormal or fringe beliefs is far more complicated than “they’re stupid”.

Deal with the claim, not the people. And I still follow the trope “don’t be a dick”. It actually works.

Sciency, scientifical and wackadoodle are now official

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New words have been added to the Oxford English dictionary, the “definitive record of the English language”, including a few near and dear to me…

New words list March 2014 | Oxford English Dictionary.

  • bookaholic: Yes, I am a minor sufferer.
  • Coney dog*: I very much enjoy these and have since I was a kid.
  • demonizing: This word is getting around, overused, just like “evil”.
  • do-over: I like this word, employ it often.
  • ethnozoology*: A technical term for the actual scientific part of cryptozoology. [Definition given as "The traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning animals; the scientific study or description of this."]
  • sciency*: This is one of my words, obviously. But they spelled it wrong. Sounds Sciencey [Definition given as "Of a somewhat scientific or technical nature; (also) having an interest in or aptitude for science."] The “somewhat” is important.
  • scientifical method*: I wish I knew what they meant by this versus the scientific method! [Definition given is as an older use meaning "scientific method"] *pffth*
  • scientificality*: Ditto. [Definition given is:  1. A scientific or technical issue, term, or detail. 2. The property or quality of being scientific.] For the 2nd def – I used the word “scientificity” but that’s not been recognized.
  • scientificness*: Ditto. [The quality of being scientific.] Ok, boring.
  • Scientological*: This was capitalized so I am REALLY curious. [Yep, having to do with Scientology.]
  • sword and sorcery: Cool!
  • wackadoo*: Citation needed. [Definition given as: A. Crazy, mad; eccentric. B. An eccentric or mentally unbalanced person; a crank, a lunatic.]
  • wackadoodle*: Love this word. On my list of favorites. [Definition given as the same as wackadoo although this does sound like a crazy poodle.]

As you can figure, the access to OED is paid and I don’t have a subscription which sucks. Can you help me out if you do and post the meanings to the 9 starrred words? I’d appreciate it. I want to be all definitive, you know. Thanks to those that sent the explanations to me!

Scientific people use words and their meaning properly. Scientifical people do not. I don’t want to just look sciencey, I want to get it correct.

You can also email paskeptic(at)gmail.com. Thanks.

Engage outrage, sacrifice skepticism

carol and sharon
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Drs. Carol Tavris and Elizabeth Loftus are two female role models of skepticism and critical thinking that tower above any others for me. They have established an influential body of work that has informed, influenced and inspired many people. This work has nothing to do with their personas, their creation of drama for attention (the drama came as a result of their scholarship that was sometimes shocking and controversial, but scientific), or their gender. They are also friendly, kind and lovely people and I consider it a privilege to have met both of them and chatted for a while.
carol and sharonsharon and beth

Feminism in skepticism is a messed-up, misguided issue right now. Any story about harassment or rape is loaded with emotion, not reason. Reason, if applied, is seen as a betrayal. That’s disgusting and I rarely talk about it. However, truth matters to me.

This brings me to two important stories that came out yesterday, one of which was written by Tavris and quotes Loftus. The second references the Tavris piece and has a foundation in the work of Dr. Loftus.

Memory. It is flawed.

This is one of the most important concepts that any human in modern society would do well to grasp. Imagine the problems it could alleviate if we could admit our memory might be wrong about something; if we could recheck facts instead of being so invested in a flawed system of memory.

Tavris wrote a feature for e-Skeptic called Believe the Survivors or the Science? What the science of memory can teach us about the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen case. If you are at all interested in the case, PLEASE READ IT. It captures exactly my concerns when I read the harrowing letter by Dylan Farrow and didn’t know what to think about it. Here’s a bit:

When an emotionally compelling story hits the news, it’s tempting for all of us to jump to conclusions. Many people are inclined to believe, as I first did in the McMartin [preschool Satanic abuse] case, that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Wrong: sometimes there’s just smoke—and mirrors. The problem, as studies of cognitive dissonance show, is that as soon as we take sides, the brain sees to it that we will justify and solidify our position by seeking only the information that confirms it, and deny, ignore or minimize evidence that we could be wrong.

Of all things skeptics should be aware of is how we can so easily be fooled. Yet, I see tripe about victim blaming and shame heaped on some for questioning claims. HOW CAN YOU FORGET the Satanic Panic, the Salem Witch trials, the false eyewitness testimony that put countless people in jail and possibly some to death? This is not trivial.

Ben Radford wrote this piece: The Anatomy of False Accusations: A Skeptical Case Study | Center for Inquiry. It outlines an accusation of sexual assault where the evidence clearly points to the conclusion that it didn’t happen. And then cites many more. Many, many more certainly exist that we don’t know about.

We need to accept that not everyone is speaking truth, whether they consciously know it or not. But… that does not necessarily make them a liar, a bad person, or worthy of scorn. People are complicated. Our brains, our culture, our relationships are complicated. Accept that things are not black and white. There is no justification for “for me or against me” statements. I am not against an alleged victim or for an alleged perpetrator. I am for the best solution which means the relevant facts should come out before judgement. We are people and we make mistakes, all the time.

Please, spend some time thinking about the judgements you have made against people who have not been in a position to defend themselves. Is it really worth it to condemn them based on one or a few outrageous allegations and a swell of public outrage? I have been appalled at the feminist-skeptic-niche’s (which is a false label) reaction to some allegations (ALLEGATIONS!) of assault and/or rape. You aren’t helping anyone by being closed-minded and automatically defaulting to the female victim. She needs your sympathy but she also needs more than just that, because things are very complicated.

From Tavris:

What we should not do, as my coauthor Elliot Aronson has said, is “sacrifice our skepticism on the altar of outrage.” Outrage is good when it leads to constructive, mindful efforts to promote justice—for innocent children and for innocent adults. But outrage without skepticism and science is a recipe for hysteria and witch hunts.

When web hosts roll over their customers: DMCA complaints

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Here is something we don’t think about for our websites and blogs: How do they respond to DMCA complaints? As critics of those who HATE to be criticized, we are GOING to get this kind of nonsense threat and intimidation.

michael mcgurk photo-illo

I spent a harrowing Friday and Saturday moving my Doubtful News site to a new host after a crapload of issues from my existing host: InMotion Hosting. I was using VPS which made me a mid-tier customer. Because of the site traffic, we had to add on Cloud Flare to help ease the server load. Nearly every week, I was logging into chat or calling InMotion support to inform them that the website was down. They gave me tips on cache plugins (which sometimes messed up the site or didn’t help at all), told me my plugins were problems, that Apache had crashed on the server or that there was up and down load. Obviously, this was not a great fit but it was better than the 3 previous hosts we outgrew within months.

The final straw came from their horrendous and incompetent response to a bogus copyright complaint by a “psychic” businesswoman who claimed infringement by use of her trademark in our web post. This was regarding a news story that was NOT about her in any way. I didn’t even know she existed. Not only is that not applicable to copyright law (none of us would be able to write about Apple or Microsoft or any name brand), but we didn’t even use her damn trademark in the post. You can read about it here and have a look at what kind of person does this sort of thing.

Continue reading

Reality Check: We all need it (Book review)

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There are some writers for which you know pretty much exactly what you are going to get. Donald R. Prothero is one of those writers. I expect a well-researched, comprehensive treatment of the topic with a flavor of emotion here and there. That’s what I got with Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future, 2013, Indiana Univ Press.

The core of the book is summed up in the John Burroughs quote given on page 1:

To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, but to imagine your facts is another.

RCOnce you observe the methods of creationists as the classic example of science denialists, you can recognize the same tactics in those that reject climate change. I have also noted the same tricks in environmentalists or those holding contrarian views about vaccines, the paranormal, and various consumer products.

The premise of Reality Check is that when “a well-entrenched belief system comes in conflict with scientific or historic reality” the believers in this system will actively discount, ignore or distort the facts that go against it. They may stop at nothing to defend their belief – they will lie, hide evidence, manufacture evidence, pay people off, bully, harass, discredit, and even threaten the scientists who are  supporting the “inconvenient” conclusion.

The book highlights denialism rampant in the fields of environmentalism, global warming, evolution education, vaccine information, AIDS treatment policy, medical claims, energy policy and population size and growth. Each chapter exposes the hidden agendas of those who reject the scientific consensus and provides the reader with the solid, established evidence.

Continue reading

American gypsy psychics: Book review

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I was enticed to read this book, American Gypsy, by Oksana Marafioti,  after the Rose Marks trial. Marks was from an infamous Romani family who had repeatedly been charged and now found guilty of fraud due to their psychic-related business dealings.

amgypI didn’t know if this book had anything regarding the Romani [Gypsy] culture but I was interested in why Rose’s greatest fear was not being able to provide for her family and her loss of freedom in jail.

I did find some understanding here and it was a fun and enjoyable read as well.

Regarding the psychic issues: The writers mother can read coffee grounds as prophecy. She was encouraged to use this skill when money was tight and it worked. The author admits that the readings were more like psychotherapy, where people just needed to talk to feel better. Continue reading