Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Smoking Baby

You know, quite frankly, I'm shocked at you people. First you attack a toddler's right to kick back with a relaxing smoke, then what? Before you know it, you'll be saying that we shouldn't let kindergartners openly carry a firearm (it's their 2nd amendment right, god damn it.). The kid works a 14 hour day, the least you could do is let him enjoy a pack of cigarettes in peace... Hell, in some countries, that kid's old enough to vote and raise his own family.
Of course I'm kidding. No country actually allows toddlers to vote (though Texas may have the death penalty for pre-k criminals). Naturally, the toddler doesn't work 14 hours a day (only 8...)
I'm joking- mostly. What I actually find disturbing is the appalling hypocrisy of peoples' response to the smoking baby video. Indonesia, along with many other poor nations, has a long standing history of child labor. I'm not interested in passing moral judgment on the countries or parents who participate in child labor, because I feel that's beside the point. The point, of course, is that well fed, educated (relatively speaking), suburban Americans were outraged at the idea of an Indonesian toddler smoking, but apparently those same Americans are not really bothered by the idea of that same toddler going to work (full time) for exploitative companies in conditions that would be legally unfit to keep a pet in here in this country a few years down the road.
Based on that logic it would be preferable to send your child to work at a shoe factory or garment industry for $0.22 an hour, than to give that same child a cigarette. While I'd be inclined to agree that both of those endeavors are hazardous- I would disagree that the former was necessarily better than the later (according to one recent report, factories were paying child laborers a meager $4.53 a week for working 7-13 hour shifts 7 days a week in hazardous conditions).
This is not a call to action, partially because I find that terribly gauche.  Chances are, you've made a conscious decision to ignore child labor in third world countries, and that is your right. Part of America's beloved freedom means we aren't required to care about the fate of others. But stop pretending that you do.
Stop posting on your blog about how much you worry for this boy. Don't tell me on Facebook how many health problems he's at risk for. And stop chastising his parents for allowing him to "destroy" himself (your sneakers say 'made in Indonesia' don't they?).
At least have the guts to square with your apathy.
In my opinion, your "sympathy" is another link a long chain of exploitation. In this case, it isn't exploiting him for cheap labor, it's exploiting him for a cheap ego boost. Attacking the very visible vice of smoking makes us feel good and reassures us of our moral supremacy (and thus our unspoken right to exploit "lesser" people without feeling bad about it). Similar tactics were used to justify the exploitation, dislocation, enslavement, and murder of countless populations throughout human history.
There will be those who, when called on their obvious hypocrisy, will respond by saying "OMG! I am so against child labor! I think we should protest all those companies who don't pay children a fair wage!"
What an insipid solution. This may surprise you, but the kids aren't working to get a jump on their 401 K plans. Children in Third World are forced to work because it's often an economic necessity. They have to work to support their families. Simply putting them out of work is not going to solve the underlying issues that create national poverty. In fact, it might have the opposite effect and drive more children into illicit activities just to maintain some semblance of their standard of living.
There is no easy solution to child labor problems. Raising minimum wage tends to drive exploitative labor to another country who is willing to work for pennies, so they can produce goods to sell to consumers, who would shop elsewhere is the businesses raised the prices of their wares.
It's easy for Americans to say they will do the right thing with their money, put in practice, they haven't. The right thing is a difficult, if not impossible, thing to do.
However- stifle the urge to fly into a self-righteous diatribe, ranting like you're the holiest thing since Bono, on your FB every time a small sliver of the reality endured by poorer nations hits YouTube. One of the few things that I find more offensive than cigarettes are self-congratulatory hypocrites.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Ghost of Phoebe Prince

The story of Phoebe Prince, the Irish girl who hung herself after a series of encounters with alleged bullies, reminds me of Columbine. There's no good news- only a chronology of events that go from bad to worse.
Make no mistake people, it isn't the redundant cynicism of the story that bothers me-  but a willingness to uncritically accept guilt or innocence based on little more than emotional pandering. (I was actually astonished at the venom directed towards those kids by many adults.)
When the story first broke, claiming that Phoebe Prince had been bullied by her classmates to the point of committing suicide, I was skeptical.
To clarify- I wasn't skeptical that Phoebe committed suicide. I wasn't skeptical that an older boy had a relationship with her that he ended. I wasn't skeptical that her romantic rivals behaved cruelly towards her. I was skeptical that a person is driven to suicide, that something could cause an otherwise normal person to suddenly become suicidal.
In every case of suicide I have ever heard of, suicide is the culmination of persistent, chronic (often lifelong) psychological and emotional issues. Evidence suggests that suicide has a strong biological component. Depression and suicide are both linked to low levels of serotonin- and there's evidence that genetic factors also play a role in suicidal behavior. Other personality disorders further increase the likelihood of suicide.
Nonhuman animals commit suicide too.
(Before anyone jumps on me about it, I'd like to state that I don't believe that the same type of self-destruct sequence seen in other lifeforms is exactly the same as human suicide. I'm merely pointing out that suicide is not unique to humans- and that alone merits further investigation into the phenomenon. It also means that if nonhuman animals can terminate themselves in absence of complex internal dialogue, then maybe a similar stress response exists in humans, outside of the actions of other people.  It could also be argued that the animals studied were responding to environmental stress by killing themselves- hence returning blame to outside factors. Still, that doesn't explain why some things terminate, and others don't, even when confronted with the same stressors. Suffice it to say, suicide is an abnormal response to comparatively normal stimuli. So there.)
Now I've sidetracked myself- I'm not interested in debating the degree to which biological factors contributed to Phoebe's death.  My point is, that there were other factors in her death. Well before the now-infamous South Hadley bullying bout, in 2008, Phoebe was cutting herself severely enough to cause scarring. She was on Prozac and Seroquel. Seroquel was used in her first suicide attempt following a break-up, two months before any of the alleged bullying related to the current case even took place.
None of this condones the actions of the South Hadley teens- but what exactly were those actions? The specifics of what occurred not only vary, but just don't seem that severe. (Sorry.) From what I've read, Prince was called a 'slut' in person and on Facebook, Twitter, and Craigslist. Her books were knocked from her hands (although according to some, this can't be corroborated). Threatening text messages were sent to her phone. She had an empty can of soda tossed at her head from a moving car. While that's horrible- it's not unheard of.
(And for those of you who are wondering, yes I have had things thrown at me. I have had my books knocked out of my hands. I was never called a slut [that I know of], but I have been called other choice names. It isn't fun. It hurts. But it does happen and probably always will.)
Those kids behaved like real assholes. On that matter, I am 100% convinced.... but are they criminals? One of the basic precepts of American justice is that a person has to intend to do something wrong. Even if it isn't the standard for committing a crime (ignorance of the law doesn't excuse breaking it so on and so forth...) the lack of intent to commit a crime usually mitigates the crime itself, at least in the eyes of the public.
I don't think the South Hadley kids were trying to kill Phoebe (if they were, they probably would have thrown something sharper from the car... I joke. I joke. Please don't text me death threats, you bullies.) Those kids have not had the benefit of the mitigating effect associated with lacking intent- at least in part, because everyone's been bullied (don't waste my time telling me you're the one kid who was never EVER bullied. I think you're full of it.). Those painful, personal memories can be difficult to see past.
Even if I extend the benefit of the doubt to those who claim to have never been bullied- they've at least seen it on TV, and isn't that the most credible and realistic medium for the diffusion of information?
To complicate matters further, Phoebe's parents were outraged and wondered why the school officials didn't do more to save their daughter. Yeah. Why? But Mr. and Mrs. Parents of Phoebe, I must also ask, why didn't you do more to save your daughter? As a mother, if my daughter had attempted suicide, the first place she'd be headed would be to a hospital with lots and lots of therapy- not back to school. Why didn't the parents know about this bullying- and if they did- why didn't they do something about it? If your child has a history of self-mutilation, attempted suicide, and severe mood disorders, it stands to reason that you might want to monitor things like cell phone use and computers. After all, her parents fundamental gripe was that because Phoebe was troubled someone should have paid more careful attention and been more proactive- but that door swings both ways. It was within her mother's power to disconnect the cell phone and remove the bullies' ability to torment her daughter. She could even have called the cops (which, as a tattler, I would have done). Yet she did none of that, and that makes her parents at least as responsible as the school officials- if not more so. And as adults, aren't they ALL more responsible for the tragedy than the children who stand to face jail time?
I could muster some self-righteous, anti-bullying ire if I thought about every time I was ever bullied. In fact, I did when I first began reading Phoebe's story- but then another uncomfortable thought crept into my mind. I certainly have said my fair share of mean things: You're stupid. Were you raised by boars? What's wrong with you, dumbass? Are you some kind of moron? Wow... nice highlights. Did you use the Clorox bleach pen? I've probably given as good as I've gotten, and I think that's true of everyone.
Again, there are those of you who lie to yourselves and say "Not me. No,no,no, no." To those people... well I'm simply not interested in holding a conversation with a group of deluded vagabonds. For the rest of you, every kid I've ever known, who could be identified as a 'victim' of bullying, was at least as savage as his/her bullies behind their backs. I've known nerds who made fun of fat people. I've known fat people who make fun of red necks. I've known red necks who make fun of homosexuals- and the cycle of disdain goes on and on. 
At the end of the day- we share the role of bully and bullied- embodying both at once. It just happens to be easier to remember all the times where we took it, rather than dished it out.
In addition, portraying bullying as a social phenomenon practiced by some routinely, rather than a circumstantial social occurrence that's practiced to some extent everywhere, obstructs our ability to understand human nature in an objective way.
Our species didn't invent bullying. Chimpanzees are noted for their aggressive social maneuvering, as are others species of nonhuman primates. Competition for access to mates, in particular, can be incredibly fierce.
I am not one of those people who think that kids will be kids, and that it's a 'normal' for kids to ruthlessly terrorize their peers. I simply think sending the South Hadley kids to jail won't send a message about justice and won't save kids like Phoebe. Even if 'vulnerable' children are sheltered in high school, what happens when they leave the cocoon of the public education system? Do they have special services set up to make sure they remain immune from the kinds of negative social interactions all the rest of us face? Who protects them then? Inevitably, life throws everyone a curve ball, and for people with psychological issues those curve balls can be deal breakers.
The South Hadley 'bullies' should be punished, but they should be punished based on their intent- not based on our anger towards our own bullies or impersonal ideals of moral perfection. In other words, they should be punished the way you would want your kid punished if they were guilty of the same crimes.
I mentioned a parallel between this case and Columbine. In both, young lives were senselessly lost. Blame was tossed in every direction. From Columbine, what ultimately emerged was a witch hunt, were schools pulled 'troubled kids'  from their classes to "talk"(read= 'kids in black or wearing trench coats'- occasionally they hit on a bona fide weirdo but most of the time it was the usual suspects who happened to have the misfortune of having too many piercings) . Kids were deprived of their education by being sent home from school for offenses as innocuous and inane as refusing to turn T-shirts inside out (that happened to me).
None of it amounted to anything of course. There was no feared global trench coat mafia lurking in the shadows waiting to kill their high schools. There's absolutely no evidence that any of those rules deemed so necessary in the wake of Columbine ever prevented any bullying (if anything, singling kids out to go to special talking groups only made them more of a target for their peers). Nor is their proof that it prevented any school shootings.
That's because Columbine was never about Marilyn Manson T-shirts or bullying. It was about two very disturbed young men who suffered from a myriad of psychological and emotional problems. Bullying and societal apathy may have shaped their psychosis- but it didn't create it. Everyone exploited easy scapegoats- video games, bullies, and Manson but no one made a serious attempt to look at the boys' pre-existing problems. The trouble with that kind of selective reasoning is that it reinforces incorrect ideas about why things like Columbine and Phoebe Prince's unfortunate suicide happen.
The Prince case is shaping up to be a witch hunt too, although the subjects of these hunts are not completely innocent. 
But rather than waste time needlessly persecuting overworked school officials, or sending 17-year-old girls to prison, why not discuss ways to better recognize kids actually in need of mental health care services. Or perhaps highlighting the need to better understand the biological factors that make someone predisposed to suicide. Maybe the parents could speak out about the lessons they learned from their tragedy. Then perhaps some good could come out of the loss of a bright, young girl and lives could be saved.
I disagree with those that trumpet empathy as a means to eradicate social meanness. It can't. Meanness is an integral part of human nature- you can't shame it into non-existence. The ability to act like an asshole is a universal human skill. Examining the reason why we're mean and what role it serves would be more useful than championing simple solutions to issues that are inherently complex.
What I think is most ironic-the press uses terms like 'evil brood' and "Mean Girls' to describe the children involved... (just a reminder, they haven't had due process and they aren't even able to vote) which is a little like the things they're condemning the 'evil brood' for doing to Phoebe Prince in the first place. So who are the real bullies in the end?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Somewhat Quarterly Moron Report- The Ignominy Awards

Typically, I use this blog as a platform to talk about simply being stupid. Stupid can be explained in a variety of ways, but mostly the offending party has limited culpability, because they're dumb!  I make fun of them, and you laugh about it (assholes), and it's good times. But sometimes laughing isn't enough. Sometimes, people are so absurdly dumb that they SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF THEMSELVES for it, because sometimes ignorance is inexcusable.
This is my salute to that very special brand of stupid... without further ado, The Ignominy Awards!

I don’t actually know why this is a category. Most girls seem to be stupid. That statement sounds sexist. That’s because it is.  However, the simple fact that my statement is sexist doesn’t make it untrue.
(I don’t think that the stupid is biological… I don’t know if that makes it better or worse… )
The girls I’ve met who aren’t vapid, babbling vacuums are few and far between, but even in a category that seems predisposed towards stupid, there are some who attain breathtaking new levels of dumbness. For example, the girl who asked “Do you think the bus ride from Michigan to Germany will be long?” or the one who thought Henry Ford was once the President of the United States.
(For her, this is some ongoing issue, because she also thought Ben Franklin was one of our Presidents- which goes to show that the illustrated version of American History may not necessarily be the best choice for a high school textbook. Incidentally ladies… I‘ve never heard any comparable comments out of the guys… I‘m just throwing that out there…)
These are the unique women who write “I Luf Edward Cullen” on their binders, only they spell Edward with an ‘I’ and Cullen with a heart somehow. So to you people (and I use that term loosely)…
There is such a things as stupid questions, and you ask them.  Stop it. I do not succumb to the egalitarian notion that everyone should participate in everything, so I think it’s best for all parties involved if you guys drop out of school and leap right into your careers- become crack whores now, because studies show that there won’t be enough crack whores to meet this country’s demand in the future.
I hate to be the one to tell you this (no, I don’t really hate it) but if you think there are two Pacific Oceans because that’s how it looks on a flat world map, then you SHOULDN’T be a nurse. Nobody needs medical help from you, and quite frankly I cringe at the idea that you may one day be processing any of my paperwork.
Just stop it. Not everybody has to get an education. That’s what welfare is for!
Didn’t you ever wonder why every time a woman becomes a powerful lawyer or politician she’s plastered on every cover and written about in magazines? They don’t do that for men, and the reason why is because smart, educated women are hard to find.
Unfortunately… stupid girls have no such problem.
You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself.
As I said, I don’t think the stupid is biological. I think it is the result of a society that talks a good game about equality but has no real standards of achievement for women. That’s where individual initiative should come in. Read a book once in a while so you don’t sound like such a moron.  Buy a map. Hire a tutor and learn how to do basic addition, so when you’re at the register we don’t have to stand there for an hour and a half behind you while you try in vain to add 5.93 to 4.99 to see if you did indeed get the sale price.  Or just pull your head out of your ass once in a while so you don’t ask questions like “Is Spicy Thai Soup spicy?”
And for God sakes, put your f***ing cell phone away because nobody wants to get your stupid texts (kk?)- accept for other stupid girls and the date rapists that love them.

Another group of people who should be ashamed of themselves? People who say they don’t support organized religion, but claim in an ever-so-self-congratulatory tone to take their kids to church because their kids were “searching” and wanted to know about religion. Who the hell do you think you’re fooling? If you have deep belief in religion and you want to foster that in your children, go for it. I will be happy to take on you and your litter some other day to argue the merits of your position. BUT- at least you were honest and I respect that.
You people, on the other hand, are completely and totally full of shit. You supposedly think religion is a form of brain-washing that teaches people to be conformists, but in spite of your strong views, you take your children to church? In other words, you are subjecting your children to something that is damaging in your personal estimation because they wanted to be subjected to it?
That’s a little like letting your kid learn about nature by playing with rabid raccoons (next time little Johnny will listen when you tell him to leave varmints alone… he may be dead but hey… ya got to make sacrifices when you’re a parent.)
If you believe an experience is bad, you’re supposed to try to keep your kid AWAY from it stupid.
Now there are those who will argue with me and say you have to allow your children to make choices, so if your kindergartener wants to go to church you should let them be exposed to it.
Again, I hate to be the one letting you in on these little secrets, but KIDS DON’T KNOW WHAT’S GOOD FOR THEM! That’s why they need adults in the first place. You know what my daughter wanted for a snack in kindergarten? Play-doh.
That hardly sounds like the meal of choice for a spiritual seeker contemplating the existential mysteries of life and beyond.
Then there are those specialized morons who drag their kids from a Catholic church, to a mosque, to a pagan blessing, and finally to a synagogue just to round things out.
Do you know what you’re teaching your kids about what you believe? Nothing. More specifically you’re teaching your kids that you believe in NOTHING. You have no idea what’s right or wrong, or worse, that there is no right or wrong. The only thing they take from the experience is that religion is no more of a commitment than the color of your nail polish.
Discovering meaningful things about yourself requires introspection beyond what a 5 year old is capable of.
You’re not raising Buddha. You’re only raising the next generation of morons who thinks religion is a game and spirituality can be bought online for $24.99 plus shipping and handling.
You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself!

Awww. You love Haiti do you? What’s that? You gave a dollar (a whole dollar!) to help the poor starving orphans? Good for you! So, since you love Haiti so much I guess that means you can find it on a map right?
Oh what’s that? You don’t own a map? Because you gave your dollar to orphans!?
You despicable phony bastards… Haiti, the Caribbean island nation, was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, suffered a severe shortage of medical care, and was caught in nigh-endless cycle of violent political upheaval for most of it’s existence. Where was your dollar then?
In your wallet, that’s where. It wasn’t until equally despicable, exploitative celebrities started tweeting because the few meager things the Haitians actually did have got destroyed in a devastating earthquake that anyone here knew what Haiti was, let alone sent any money.
The only reason most Americans have given any money to Haiti is because it makes it easier for you people to forgive yourselves for being so completely and thoroughly oblivious to any real global issues. Giving a dollar to the Haiti relief fund makes it easier for us to forget that places like Haiti actually exists and helps us get back to the business of eating French Fries and driving to our garbage cans to throw away our trash.
You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself!
Exploiting the misery of already miserable people is one of the most morally reprehensible (completely ubiquitous) things to emerge from our gluttonous, self-indulgent society.
For the most part, I’m not any better. But then again, I don’t claim to be. I don’t download “save Haiti” wallpaper for my desktop. I don’t buy “help Haiti” pins so that $0.30 of my $2.99 goes to help the unfortunate victims of the earthquake.
But I do know about Haiti’s political turmoil. I would support actions that would bring long term stability to the area. Oh…. And I can find it on the map. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Control Group- Subject #02 Not-So-Psychic Predictions

#1 I believe that the stability of the globes climate is going to take a leap and 
spiral downward 
#2 I believe a big TV icon shall die in the same base publicity as Michael Jackson
or Billy Mayse 
#3 Therese going to be an assassination attempt on President Obama 
#4 Nasa shall make yet another great discovery in the cosmos 
#5 The 2012 prophecy is going to escalate 
#6 The war in the east is going to take a sudden turn 
#7 a breakthrough in cancer treatment 
#8  A great scandal "similar to Quammy Kilpatric" in high places 
#9 Many people will die in natural disasters this year 
#10 and Dan dirty apes shall inherit the earth! lol jkjkjk 
The economy shall greatly stabilize

Sunday, January 17, 2010

My Not-So-Psychic Predictions For 2010

1. I predict that obesity is going to be a real problem this year. I mean it's going to get really out of control. I think a lot of states in the south are going to have real problems with it.

2. I predict that there's going to be a lot of turmoil between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

3. I think Jessica Simpson is going to end up having a few relationship problems this year. She's going to be very hurt and I think the people around her see this coming.

4. Obama is not going to have an easy year. Something that he does is going to strike a nerve and I really think it's going to be about gay marriage.

5. The South is in for some real rough weather this year. I see flooding and hurricanes.

6. Winter in the midwest will be pretty much average, but  think it will start out mild, but then there will be some real cold days.

7. There going to introduce a new medication, like Viagra, but not. It's going to be for some kind of condition relating to erectile dysfunction.

8. There's going to be a lot hybrid sales this year. Consumers are going to get fed up with paying for gas, so I think more people will buy hybrids.

9. There's going to be a really crazy work out trend that gets started. It's going to be very strange, and I think it's going to involve some sort of special equipment.

10. The Harry Potter movie is going to be huge. The kids are going to start to branch out once the movie is over. The girl who plays Hermoine is going to really head towards becoming a serious, dramatic actress.

Step one of a control group,check.

Sylvia Browne's Not So Psychic Predictions

In light of the recent posts on Skepticblog regarding Sylvia Browne, I felt it was necessary to add my two cents. (Imagine that).  I decided to take several of Sylvia’s end-of-year predictions from the past several years, and compare them with what has actually happened. This isn’t new.  Smugbaldy did this for several years. He divided his results into 4 separate groups, Hits, Misses, False Alarm, and Correct Rejection and created a complex system of scoring.  There are a few flaws in his methodology  and weaknesses in his classification system, however, that led me to do it my way.
1) Baldy had no mechanism that allowed for a comprehensive analysis. He evaluated each year separately, and came up with a new figure, rather than average her averages to find out what her typical rate of accuracy was. 2) His system of classification was unnecessarily complicated. A ‘Correct Rejection’ is still an incorrect prediction, and there appears to be no practical reason to separate them. The same goes for a False Alarm. There appeared to be no standardized criteria to separate a ‘false alarm’ from a miss, and both are simply incorrect. 3) He uses unproven assumptions in his calculations. In some instances he marks a correct prediction as incorrect because it was possible that Sylvia had ‘foreknowledge’. However it is equally possible that she did not have foreknowledge.  If you are claiming to be objectively evaluating data, then you are obligated to do it objectively, regardless of your personal opinions.
It turns out that there is no reason to ‘pad the data’, because Sylvia is pretty damn wrong on her own. To reach my results, I divided her predictions into several categories: Correct, Incorrect, Cannot Be Verified, and Obvious. I’d like to note that ‘obvious predictions’ are the smallest percentages and they had to be really really obvious for me to place them in this category. Some examples of these are when Sylvia predicted tornadoes would hit Kansas and Texas, two states in tornado alley.  Do you think tornadoes would be likely or unlikely in a place known as Tornado Alley. I don’t think Francine (Sylvia’s spirit guide who tells her the future) is necessary for that one. Another example of an ‘obvious’ prediction is when Sylvia predicted that Jamie Lynn Spears would have her baby.  The fact that Jamie was pregnant was already common knowledge, and having a baby obviously follows being pregnant. One could argue that there are events like miscarriages, but events like that are far from likely, and they typically don’t strike wealthy females who can afford the best doctors. Other predictions can’t be verified. For exmple, Sylvia predicted that Owen Wilson would have another “dip” into depression after his highly publicized suicide attempt.
What kind of prediction is that?
What constitutes a dip? A dip in who’s opinion? Sylvia’s? Owen’s? The lack of specificity makes it impossible to evaluate whether or not the prediction was accurate.
(In my opinion, I have “dips” into depression occasionally. I think everyone does)
I managed to thoroughly evaluate predictions for the years 2007-2008 (58 predictions total). Here are her statistics:
In 2007, 24 out of 39 predictions were incorrect (61.538%). 6 out of 39 were correct (15.385%). 8 out of 39 couldn’t be verified (20.513%). 1 out of 39 were obvious predictions (2. 564%). ß that was the Tornado Alley prediction.
In 2008, 9 out of 19 were incorrect (43.368%). 5 out of 19 predictions were correct (26.315%). 4 out of 19 could not be verified (21.052%). 1 out of 19 was obvious (5.263%).
That means Sylvia was wrong in her year-ahead predictions about 52.453% of the time. (You’d be better off flipping a coin.) She was only right about 20.85% of the time. Her predictions were too vague to evaluate about 20.783% of the time and simply obvious the remaining 3.914% of the time.
Does that count as being psychic. Supporters will point ot the fact that my own experiment yielded a success rate of only about 11%, and Sylvia’s success rate was almost double that. That’s true, by my respondents had to guess one word out of a random sequence of 20. Some of the predictions that I counted as correct for Sylvia included such banal fair as “a democrat’ will be the next president. She had a 50/50 shot of getting it right. Some other 50/50 questions she got wrong- for example she predicted that Tom Kat’s baby would be a boy, but Suri was a girl.
But I digress… as I began to evaluated Sylvia’s predictions for 2009, I began to notice a pattern. She predicted the same events over and over again. She’s been predicting that this will be the year that Brad and Angelina break up every year since 2007. Coincidentally, she also predicted Jennifer Aniston would marry, 3 times in a row, that Lindsay Lohan would straighten her life out make a comeback in 2008 (and that’s obviously wrong unless Sylvia Browne has VERY different definition of comeback than you and I).
She has predicted that the war will end for 3 consecutive years, and each time she’s been wrong Her latest not-so-psychic prediction says the war will end this year... pass that one on to the top brass).
Now it stands to reason, if you make the same predictions year after year, you’re bound to be right one year. I can predict with a 100% certainty that the war in Iraq will end one day, the part that would make that somehow psychic would be if I could tell you the day it would end… or the month… or ever the correct year. C’mon! Francine needs to get her story straight…
The weirder thing is Sylvia’s own interpretation of her accuracy.  She claims to have predicted Obama would be the next president, but in 2006 she claimed that Kerry and McCain would be the presidential candidates and Kerry would win. Do you frequently confuse Kerry and Obama, because from where I’m standing there’s a huge difference.  Is her spirit guide blind? In 2007, she predicted we wouldn’t have a black president for another 8 years. Obama was elected in 2008, and 2008 + 8 = 2016. Francine is not only blind, but also shitty at math.
BY DEFINITION, A PSYCHIC CAN NEVER BE WRONG. A psychic has to know the future, that’s what makes them psychic in the first place. Theoretically that means all of their predictions would be accurate. If any are wrong, then the psychic obviously didn’t know what was going to happen and was only guessing- hence they aren’t psychic.
Even if we want to play make believe and we pretend that Francine is real and she tells Sylvia the future, how does that change the fact that Francine is typically wrong? If your spirit is only guessing does that make you special?
I see no compelling evidence to support the idea that Sylvia is psychic. One thing bothers me though… there’s no control group. In order to be a solid case study, I would have to prove that Sylvia is accurate with about the same frequency as a non-psychic person. Since I have no statistics from a control group, my case study is flawed.
I don’t intend to all that oversight to continue…. I’m making some predictions of my own, and I’m going to conduct another mini-experiment to valid my conclusions.

Sources Used to List and Validate Predictions (Go Ahead, Check My Stats... Unlike Sylvia's, Mine Are Right)

Pick A Sign, Any Sign

I don’t now, nor have I ever, believed in psychics. Vague or obvious predictions don’t impress me.  In fact,  I’m rather hard to impress in general.  I have, however, had several friends who do believe in psychics, and some who consult psychics regularly. One of my friends poured a considerable amount of her money into psychic readings, and it started to get on my nerves. Typically, I have a policy of not directly interfering in my friend’s lives- but in my opinion this qualified as an exception. My friend assured me that this psychic was the “real deal” and she offered to set up an appointment, and I agreed only because I was absolutely certain that I could debunk this “real deal”. I let her refer me, but the caveat was that I wanted her to tell the psychic nothing about me and I wanted to make my own appointment. I heard that some psychics do background checks on clients to find out basic information in advance. So I lied about my name, and made the appointment under a friend’s name (with her permission of course). I didn’t trust my friend to not pass along vital information, so I fed her false information about when I would make my appointment and I didn’t mention that I would use a different name. So when I went, I was quite surprised when one of the first statements the psychic made was “you’re a Scorpio aren’t you?”
(I am). I was incredulous.
The friend, who’s name I had used, was a Leo not a Scorpio. I had selected her for that reason. So it was impossible for the psychic to have gotten that information from a background check. It was unlikely that the friend who had referred me was aware of my ruse, and hence unlikely that she could have been an informant. That only left the friend who had lent me her name- and it was doubtful that she would have assisted the psychic because she was as skeptical as I was.
I could not arrive at an explanation that sufficiently explained my experience. It was possible that it was a lucky guess, a damn lucky guess. The other possibility was that she  was psychic, but I’m not convinced of that for reason’s I will explain later.
I couldn’t leave it alone. In spite of the fact that this happened years ago, I was haunted by the fact that I was unable to solve this mystery. When the topic of Sylvia Browne came up, I decided that I wanted to conduct an experiment to see how likely it was that a “non-psychic” could correctly guess a random zodiac sign.
The methodology of the experiment was fairly straightforward. I would assemble several lists of 20 zodiac signs at random. To prevent any unknown variable from impacting the experiment, I wrote all 12 zodiac signs on slips of paper that were identical in size and material. Those slips of paper were placed inside a bag, the bag was shaken, and then I drew a slip of paper from the bag, recorded the result, and placed the slip back into the bag. This was repeated 20 times, in 4 separate sets.
I selected 20 people from my list of family and friends, and asked them to participate in the experiment by making a list of 20 zodiac signs.
18 of 20 individuals responded with a list. I then proceeded to compare their answers to my random lists of 20.
My hypothesis was that each person would most likely guess one correct sign out of twenty, but in reality, the number was slightly higher.  After comparing the experimental set of 20 against the random ones, the median number of total correct guesses were 4, but the average was slightly higher: 4.29. That means that out of 40 random signs, the average non-psychic person guessed correctly 10.73% of the times.
The number of correct guesses ranged from 0-10 . My sister guessed correctly most frequently, and averaged 2.5 correct guesses in each set.
However improbable,  a lucky guess is entirely possible- according to my mini-experiment it can occur 10.73% of the time.
However, if I was going to try to convince someone I had psychic powers, I would probably approach the task with a bit more of a method.  I would use census figures to sketch out a portrait of each demographic by examining census records. From the extrapolated data, I would make seemingly specific predictions based on my guess of the client’s approximate age. Theoretically, if the census reflected the information that more babies between 1980-1981 were born between October and November it would be fairly easy to guess that people approximately that age (do the math you lazy bastards) would  be statistically more likely to be a Libra or a Scorpio. This information is attainable at various website like this one :
I’d naturally be wrong sometimes- but never fear because a good talker can work around a simple stumbling block like inaccuracy. I would just say “Oh well I am definitely seeing Scorpio (Libra, ect) around you. Do you know someone who is that sign?” or how about this gem “I bet that Scorpio is in a strong house in your chart!”
Quite frankly, I do not know for certain that my chum’s psychic friend used this strategy. I do, however, know for certain that the psychic friend’s predictions for me were way off. She told me I’d change jobs, nothing remotely close to that happened in any reasonable span of time- and we can only assume that she was making predictions for the near future, since almost anyone could predict that an individual will change jobs at sometime in their lives. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average person born in the later half of the baby boom held 10.8 jobs between the ages of 18 to 42.  Most of these jobs were held between the ages of 18 to 27.
She made vague predictions that “something” will be happening in my love life. Nothing new “happened” in my love life.
She also told me that I was worried about my income (I wasn’t particularly worried) and that I would “stable out” (I don’t even know what ‘stabling out is, and thus I can’t evaluate that statement). About the only specific information she gave me was my zodiac sign… and I already knew that.
The World’s Foremost Psychic herself, Sylvie Browne did not fair any better, but I will address that shortly in a separate post. But if you’re psychic maybe you can just read my mind… don’t forget that if dearies.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Shermer and Chopra- A Love Affair

I read the transcript of the recent debate between Deepak Chopra, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Dinesh D'Souza and Michael Shermer (I was unfortunately unable to watch the debate on Larry King Live).  The subject of the debate was ‘Near Death Experience’ and the possibility of an afterlife. This is by no means the first debate on the subject. In fact, Michael Shermer has previously debated Chopra before on the topic of an afterlife.
I think in each debate Shermer misses the target. I agree with his aim, but I disagree with his approach. I don’t want to say that Shermer routinely brings a knife to a gun fight, because that’s giving Chopra too much credit. I’d rather say Shermer routinely brings a knife to a rubber chicken fight.
Regardless of how articulate or well thought-out Shermer’s arguments are, he just can’t keep pace with Chopra’s vague soliloquies. Shermer accurately observes that Chopra talks in Deepakese, a language which seems to be constructed to say as little as possible about anything. Shermer offered some genuinely hilarious examples on his True/Slant page, like this pearl of convolution:

“Birth and death are space-time events in the continuum of life. So the opposite of life is not death. The opposite of death is birth. And the opposite of birth is death. And life is the continuum of birth and death, which goes on and on.”

(A comment which tells us absolutely nothing useful about life, death, or Chopra’s take on it. Though I believe most people would answer, if asked what the opposite of life was, would answer ‘death’, I think the question is flawed. If being dead is not the opposite of being alive, then what objectively is? That’s the opening that Chopra uses to insert his opinions of what life after death consists of, but whatever ‘being dead’ may entail to each individual it still amounts to the same condition of not being alive in one‘s current incarnation. Technically birth and death are events at the opposite end of life, but pointing this out underscores no important truth since everyone generally gets the idea in the first place. It’s just exploiting a syntactical oversight that gives the impression of depth when there is none. The next important component in this statement is Chopra‘s assertion that the cycle of life and death goes ‘on and on‘- a fact which Chopra has no way of knowing or confirming without relying on foggy recollections of persons in an altered state of mind. This habit of attaching an unconfirmed theory to a proven fact is another nasty habit of Chopra‘s which I‘ll get into later…)

Shermer points out another interesting example of Deepakese:

“There are traditions that say the in-body experience is a socially induced collective hallucination. We do not exist in the body. The body exists in us. We do not exist in the world. The world exists in us.”

Simply stating that traditions exists that supports your beliefs does not really mean that those beliefs are accurate. Cross-culturally hundreds of ‘traditions’ exist, many which blatantly contradict others. Are all of the traditions are right? Well they can’t be, obviously. The only reason a person would point out the existence of a ‘tradition’ would be to make an argument to authority, a sort of modified, specialized ad populum fallacy. Because a lot of people believed it, and believed it for a long time as indicated by the word ‘tradition’, it must be correct.

It’s correct unless you consult someone from a different tradition…
That statement also makes a claim that, at the outset, cannot be proven or disproven. How could we prove that we are not a collective hallucination?

(I think, therefore I am. Or nowadays, I blog, therefore I am. But how couldI know I am not hallucinating that thought? Maybe we all live in the Matrix…)

The problem with arguments like this is that when you reduce them to their simplest parts, nothing is real- and that idea is simply useless. Whether we’re a collective hallucination or not we will eventually starve to death if we don’t eat  (and while the length of time may vary greatly from individual to individual, as mystics claim, and no one may necessarily agree on what happens after the fact) the fact remains that you physically die if you don’t eat. The same goes for meeting other biological needs. That underscores the necessity of having an agreed upon reality, whether that reality exists solely because we’re the hallucination of a Martian  that’s dreaming and he made these rules up, or whatever silliness you want to substitute.

As I’ve said before, Dr. Chopra’s ideas about reincarnation and life after death could be correct, I can’t disprove them, however I can point out that he completely lacks any objective evidence to support them. Regardless of the reasons Chopra can’t produce evidence to support his claims, Agent Smith, gremlins, aliens, Shermer, it doesn’t change the fact that the only person who can validate Chopra’s claim is Chopra- and we can’t really expect him to have an objective opinion on the topic. No matter what the reason is, if information can’t be validated then it has no basis in this reality, however valid it might be in the multiple realities that exist in Chopra’s head.

Beyond life and death, some of what Chopra says is just nutty. Here is one Shermer omitted, that I found stupid.

“One very important phrase there: existing scientific knowledge. I don't think science and spirituality are things that are enemies. You know? Science has always looked at the world objectively. When we're looking at consciousness, it is our consciousness that's looking at consciousness.”

Hey guys… I’m going to impart to you a revelation here… if  I’m looking at the mirror evaluating myself, then it’s only me evaluating the self that I’m looking at. You feel me? That’s a big funking duh! Thanks for that because I know I never could have pieced that together Chopra…

I can’t take the time to point out every silly thing Chopra says, because nearly every that comes out of his mouth is silly. Aside from silliness, Chopra’s primary endeavor was making fun of Shermer by repeatedly asking stupid questions “Is it your networks we’re talking to?” “Is it your neurons?” Even by my standards, it was juvenile bullying at it’s worst, and Shermer was scarcely able to get a word in.  When he did get a chance to be heard, the response was typically laughter from the three (stooges) in the studio.

Later Chopra followed the debate up with a bloggish entry about how much he dislikes the term ‘woo woo’ (a derogatory term used by ‘skeptics’ and one that wasn’t used in the debate) and went on to say how little anything skeptics called him mattered and how nothing Shermer said really bugged him. (And that's only his trillionth entry about how little he cares what skeptics think about his woo woo... and I meant absolutely nothing dirty by that!) I find it unusual to devote such a volume of words to telling the world precisely how little you noticed whatever you’re writing at length about.

The fact that Shermer and Chopra continue to debate one another, then promptly complain about the debate, seems reminiscent of an old married couple. In the strangest way, the two seem meant for each other.

(And if I had any sense of timing, I would have written this for Valentine’s Day…. Damn it!)

The bigger problem is that it points to a willingness to substitute depth for convolution. Anything that rings of spirituality, however hollow, is followed with a nigh religious zeal.

Well, at least there's some good news for Chopra... even is he loses debates to Shermer for the rest of his life he can always try again in his next life... that is.... assuming his theories are correct.

Friday, January 1, 2010


I reserved commenting on the events of Climategate until all necessary information was present and accounted for. A lot of individuals from the scientific community rushed forward to support the climate scientists. Opponents of anthropogenic global warming took advantage of the opportunity to exploit the leaked emails and proclaim global warming to be a hoax.  Most people seemed to agree that the scientists had done something wrong, but could not reach a consensus regarding what that something was and the extent to which it was wrong.
The fact that a small handful of climate scientists may have tampered with data didn’t impress me. The case for global warming is strong. It’s effects can be immediately and empirically verified, and experts from numerous disciplines can present data that would be consistent with global climate change.
(For you clever readers, I do understand that evidence of climate change is not necessarily evidence of anthropogenic climate change. However, if we agree that there is a symbiotic relationship between climate and the biological life it supports, it would be hard to imagine that altering an ecosystem or environment to the degree that man has in many cases had absolutely no consequences. It would be counterintuitive to believe that altering or destroying features that play a role in regulating the planet’s climate would not effect the climate at all. That‘s silly.) 
So I wasn’t moved to try to persuade the masses that climate science was valid, because a few emails doesn’t significantly undermine years of inter-disciplinary research. It seemed to be a crisis that would blow over quickly, and not have much impact on public opinion.
However, then the full report of the emails was released, following review by the AP.
It concluded what every reasonable person already expected- ‘Climategate Emails Do Not Reveal Fraud’. I heaved a sigh of relief, thinking that I had been correct. Then I read the article. They may not have committed fraud, but the emails were nonetheless troubling. They showed how angry the climate scientists had grown with their skeptics, and the degree to which they were frustrated by FOI requests and public opinion.
But was there response justified? One quote taken from the emails, regarding the death of a global warming skeptic, said “In an odd way this is cheering news!".  Another said that the best way to address critics was  by "continuing to publish quality work in quality journals (or calling in a Mafia hit.)" There were allusions to attempts to keep skeptics from obtaining data. A third scientist said of a critic "I'll be tempted to beat the crap out of him. Very tempted." Those remarks seemed more damaging and embarrassing to science than any of the excerpts alleging fraud.
It was a clear reminder that all scientists are human, and sometimes humans behave rather badly.
It bothered me that once the angry shouts of ‘fraud’ died down, no one had anything to say about what actually transpired.
There is a common expectation for scientists to be objective in all their endeavors and, of course, that’s impossible. Scientists are people… blah, blah, blah. But we aren’t talking a spat with the missus or an angry email to a sister. It isn’t unreasonable to expect that scientists should demonstrate objectivity towards the data they’ve gathered. While it’s understandable to not waste your time indulging laymen, the emails pertained largely to skeptical colleagues- fellow climate scientists. Part of being a scientist means being able to retain objectivity when evaluating data and having your own data/conclusions scrutinized.
If being objective and scrutinized isn’t your strong suit then maybe you should find a different job, because chances are, you’re not cut out for research science.
(I hear hotel management is a nice field…)
The same goes for the responses of the scientists in question towards FOI requests. If it’s your intention to tell people that they’re going to be microwaved by their own planet (which seems to be the prevailing idea of global warming’s end result, at least in the public’s imagination), then you should be prepared for scared people to argue up and down that you’re wrong, and frightened people will do nearly anything to avoid reaching the conclusion that terrifies them. This includes filing frivolous FOI demands.
Human evolution sparks the same angry controversy and the same degree of terror in it’s opponents. Implying that humans evolved on this planet, rather than being designed or created, is tantamount to saying there’s no God in the eyes of extremists. That’s a scary thought for them.
If that type of response is not something you’re prepared to deal with then maybe you should become a receptionist, or at the very least work in a less controversial field of science.
The appropriate response to the emails should have been a unanimous rebuke of the scientists in question. After all, I doubt anyone would tolerate comments like that coming out of  their children (they call that cyber bullying now). I find it hard to imagine that it’s more acceptable when it’s coming from highly-educated, grown-ups with access to crucial information regarding an issue that effects the whole of our species.
Of course, all of this would mean more coming from me if I didn’t get so agitated with creationists  who demand an explanation of our primate lineage, solely so they can try (as best they can) to pick it apart. I  quickly learned how to deal with those people. I just tell them Jesus told me humans evolved on the planet, and he wrote it down on a napkin. Buddha signed it, but then my dinosaur ate it.
It’s an absolutely ineffective way to persuade anyone of anything- but then again, who says it’s possible to persuade them? Creationists and global warming doubters have such an investment in their beliefs that if the overwhelming evidence already available hasn’t convinced them, it’s doubtful that me (or climate scientists) restating it will have any impact on their views.
Attempting to convince people who have made up their mind to not be convinced is pointless (and it will give you a migraine).
As science becomes a more important fixture of our society, it becomes necessary for us to define societies relationship with it. That could mean restricting FOI requests, or creating new penalties for avoiding  submitting to them. Numerous solutions would make sense. It doesn’t make sense to allow scientists to get away with behavior that would be unacceptable by virtually anyone else.