Astrology at the New York Times

December 29, 2020 • 1:00 pm

In the past couple of days we’ve seen the Guardian tout astrology twice, and now the Globe and Mail. What I’d forgotten is that the New York Times has also been doing it occasionally—certainly more often than the Paper of Record should. For evidence, see Greg Mayer’s survey last year of the NYT’s treatment of astrology.  As Greg said:

 I did a search at the Times’ website for “astrology”, and the results were intriguing, verging on appalling. The first 9 results were all supportive of astrology; and all had appeared since since July 2017. Many treated astrology as a “he said, she said” affair, which is bad enough, but often the astrology critic was a token. If a respected news outlet treated climate change, evolution, or gravity this way, we’d all be rightly outraged. (This search did not catch the latest astrology article on which Jerry posted; I’m not sure why.) The 10th astrology result was from 2011, an article about a race horse named Astrology.

I haven’t updated his search, but today’s podcast/article will add at least another tick on the “supportive” side. It’s a 33 minute podcast discussion between NYT columnist and writer Kara Swisher and “famed” astrologer Chani Nicholas, who’s just developed a $15/month horoscope app that’s going to make her wealthy.  Click below to hear the podcast, or click on the “transcript” button (here) to read it.

Because I can read faster than I can listen, I printed out a transcript, which turned out to be 37 pages long in 8-point type (granted, there’s a lot of spacing). But I dutifully began reading it, so you don’t have to.

Well, I couldn’t get through more than 12 pages before my brain got the equivalent of a stomach ache: a mental nausea that made it impossible to continue reading. Swisher lobs softball questions at Nicholas, and Nicholas does a planet-based reading for her (knowing, of course, who she was talking to). Unfortunately, at least in the first third of the piece that I read, two questions were missing that a good journalist would ask of a quack:

1.)  What is the evidence that astrology works? (There is none, of course, and you’re welcome to request a pdf of this double-blind test, published in Nature, showing that professional astrologers aren’t any good at predicting your personality from your birth sign.)  This, of course, makes astrology a form of quackery, and its promotion like the NYT promoting the drinking of bleach to cure Covid-19. Well, there’s a difference, of course: astrology won’t kill you; it just makes your wallet thinner. To be more charitable, its promotion is like the paper touting Christianity as a helpful crutch in these dire times.

2.) If astrology works, how does it work? What is it about the alignment of the planets that can somehow materially affect peoples’ brains and upbringing to give them a particular personality and fate? How does Mars, so far away, exert a force on an embryo?

But only a petulant scientist, steeped in “scientism”, would ask these churlish questions. If people say astrology helps them—and Americans pay $2 billion per year for this form of quackery—who are we to question whether it works or not?

If you have a cast-iron stomach, by all means listen to this pabulum. What I want to know is the answer to a third question:

3.) How can a respectable journalistic outlet (one eager to call out Trump’s lies) tout astrology in this way without casting aspersions on it?

And readers might produce the theories, which are theirs. Is it a replacement for religion? A cheap for of psychotherapy? A form of amusement that nobody takes seriously? All three?

I don’t know. All I know is that its promotion in the country’s most famous newspaper, and in many other places, repels me.

Chani Nicholas. Mother Jones illustration; Getty, Don Arnold/Getty

Yet another pro-astrology piece in the Guardian

December 28, 2020 • 9:00 am

Yesterday I noted that The Guardian, Britain’s version of HuffPost, had published an astrology piece on December 26, and didn’t bother to note that the five astrologers it presented were discussing unevidenced claims. It was pure bunk. Indeed, the article’s author, Deborah Linton, made several statements that seemed to vindicate astrology.

Well, that wasn’t the first astrology piece that the paper published that week. Reader Jez called my attention to the publication, five days earlier, of an even dumber article about astrology, which you can see by clicking the screenshot below. This one is straight-up woo, presented without reservations or caveats, and written by Emily Segal, a True Believer.

What we have here is simply a long-form astrology column that deals largely with the Jupter/Saturn conjunction and what it means. According to Segal (who I suspect was actually paid for these lucubrations), it means that we’re moving from an Earth Period to an Air Period:

Besides its visual dazzle, this event has special significance through an astrological lens: it marks the official shift from a 200 year period during which Jupiter and Saturn made conjunctions primarily in Earth signs into a 200 year period of conjunctions in Air signs, marking the advent of a new epoch in a larger 800 year macro-cycle.

. . .  In astrological terms, Jupiter signifies expansion, growth, and coherence – but can also lead to cancerous hypertrophy. Saturn represents the opposite principle, of limitation, structure, and containment, often considered the cruel taskmaster of the zodiac. Together they are like life and death, warp and weft, and their conjunctions signal key moments in the formation of collective reality.

And the inevitable good news:

As for your own experience: don’t panic. Elements are traditionally neutral, which means going from a period typified by one to a period typified by another doesn’t spell disaster. Epochal shifts are part of life, though not everyone has the privilege of living through one like this, since they only happen every 200 years. While I definitely recommend keeping your eyes peeled for changes, don’t expect everything to update all at once – the Air period may be upon us, but certain heavenly revolutions are a slow burn, indeed.

The “privilege” of living through 2020? I don’t think so. And as for her “prediction” that change will happen, but not all at once, well, is that something we need an astrologer to tell us?

I won’t go on—the whole piece is ineffably stupid. But it also includes her justification for her own work:

I am a trend forecaster. Part of my job is about zooming out and looking at big-picture data and trends in order to analyze the present and model key changes to come. I’ve found that astrology, which tracks data from the motion of stars and planets and tries to extrapolate trends and meaning from it, is a useful, evocative model for pattern recognition. I’m not alone in this fascination: Astrology is absolutely booming among millennials and Gen-Z, led in part by a renaissance of scholarship around the subject over the last ten to fifteen years, which has restored a great deal of classical legitimacy and rigor to the admittedly woo-woo new age astrology of the 1960s and 70s.

If there is any evidence that astrology actually helps us understand events, or that people’s characters are formed by their “signs”, let Segal give it to us. In fact, tests have shown that the whole enterprise is a bunch of baloney, booming among Millennials or not. (If you want to see a good double-blind test that was published in Nature, go here (if you can’t see it, make a judicious inquiry).

Oy, my kishkas!

But, mirabile dictu, the Guardian deigned to publish a letter criticizing the article above. Its author, John Zarnecki, is an emeritus professor of space science at The Open University as well as Director of the International Space Science Institute at Berne, Switzerland. Click to read, but I’ll put the whole letter below:

Zarnecki:

I read with rising horror the piece by Emily Segal (The ‘great conjunction’ kicks off a new astrological epoch. So what now?, 21 December). After the third sentence, it is frankly bunkum and hocus-pocus. Especially at a time when surely we must be following rationality and logic, promoting astrological nonsense such as this is quite irresponsible.

As a former president of the Royal Astronomical Society (2016-18), I am sure that I can speak for all astronomers in asserting that there is absolutely no evidence that astrology offers us anything other than an occasional 30-second diversion between other more useful activities.

Where is one piece of serious peer-reviewed research that tells us that astrology is worthy of more than historical interest? None of the so-called propositions merits any serious discussion.

And if the conjecture that “astrology is absolutely booming among millennials” has any basis in truth, then God help us! Luckily, none of the millennials that I know have shown any sign of such tendencies. I hope this is just a passing aberration on the part of the Guardian and that reason will soon return.

Well, it wasn’t passing; the aberration returned five days later. Who’s in charge of this stuff at the Guardian? Segal’s article is the equivalent of the paper publishing the allegations of QAnon as if they were real. And people spend billions of dollars on astrology, so by enabling and validating it, the Guardian is doing us a real disservice. If you subscribe, note that part of your money may have gone for Segal’s fee.

The Miscreant: Emily Segal (from her Twitter site)

 

The voice of reason: John Zarnicki (from his Wikipedia page)

Guest post: The New Yorker suggests that “other ways of knowing” can cure Covid-19

December 17, 2020 • 9:15 am

A few years ago I got an email from a colleague who was disturbed about the anti-science attitudes of the New Yorker, which include an emphasis on “other ways of knowing” —often through the arts and literature. But first I’ll repeat my colleague’s analysis:

The New Yorker is fine with science that either serves a literary purpose (doctors’ portraits of interesting patients) or a political purpose (environmental writing with its implicit critique of modern technology and capitalism). But the subtext of most of its coverage (there are exceptions) is that scientists are just a self-interested tribe with their own narrative and no claim to finding the truth, and that science must concede the supremacy of literary culture when it comes to anything human, and never try to submit human affairs to quantification or consilience with biology. Because the magazine is undoubtedly sophisticated in its writing and editing they don’t flaunt their postmodernism or their literary-intellectual proprietariness, but once you notice it you can make sense of a lot of their material.

. . . Obviously there are exceptions – Atul Gawande is consistently superb – but as soon as you notice it, their guild war on behalf of cultural critics and literary intellectuals against scientists, technologists, and analytic scholars becomes apparent.

Today’s topic, though, is “other ways of knowing through folk wisdom“. In particular: ways of healing used by indigenous people. Now this shouldn’t be rejected out of hand; after all, many modern remedies, like quinine, derive from plants used by locals. But that doesn’t imply a wholesale endorsement of “the collective lived experience” touted in this video about plant-based healing. For the “collective lived experience”, after all, sometimes includes shamanism and, in the example below, “spiritual elements” as a way of curing disease. And here the disease that “lived experience” tackles is something the Siekipai of Ecuador have never experienced: Covid-19.

Reader Jeff Gawthorpe saw a New Yorker video at the link below; I’m not sure whether you’ll have free access, but you will using the yahoo! finance link at the bottom, where the video was republished.

Jeff is about as distressed as I by the fulminating wokeness of the magazine and delivered his critical “review” of the video, which I asked if I could put up in full, including his name. (I don’t like paraphrasing other people’s words, especially when they’re as good as the analysis below). Jeff said that was fine, and so here is his take, indented. I have to say that I agree with it, and have a few comments of my own at the bottom.

Around 30 minutes ago I happened across a dreadful video on the New Yorker‘s website, which drove my temptation to meet head with keyboard through the roof. This piece of ‘journalism’ was entitled: “Fighting COVID-19 with Ancestral Wisdom in the Amazon”. And yes, It’s as bad as it sounds: unscientific, irresponsible nonsense. Complete tosh.

The message which the piece attempts to convey is that COVID-19 can be dealt with by ‘lived experience’, ancient ‘ways of knowing’, and a few bits of boiled tree bark. Then, if you hadn’t had enough already, Just before the end, a caption pops up saying: “With a new stock of plants, the Siekopai are prepared to address future outbreaks of the virus according to their traditions.” Urrrhhgg.

You’ll notice that they are canny enough to maintain a degree of plausible deniability by making no definite claims. To me this demonstrates the very worst of journalism:

  • Conveying mistruths to support an ideology
  • Lacking the courage to commit to claims by asserting them as supportable facts

That’s bottom of the barrel journalism at the best of times, but now it’s irresponsible, reckless even. It presents a clear message that indigenous knowledge and ancient wisdom are perfectly acceptable ways of dealing with the pandemic. At no point is it mentioned that these ‘remedies’ are not backed by evidence, clinical or otherwise.

As you know, many western societies have huge anti-vax movements which often distrust and denounce mainstream medicine. Unfortunately, this video just adds fuel to the anti-vaxers fire. By failing to mention that these plant ‘remedies’ have zero efficacy, they are providing implicit support to the anti-science, anti-vax groups. Worse still, they are acting like digital snake oil salesmen, imbuing members of the public with false confidence that that they can avoid or fight off this virus with a couple of well chosen tree bark specimens. It’s dangerous, irresponsible nonsense.

Click below to see the video:

My own comments are few. First, it looks like the “remedy” includes cinchona bark, the source of quinine, as a palliative (the remedy seems directed at symptomatic relief rather than a cure).

Second, even “lived experience”, while useful, is no substitute for double-blind clinical trials. Granted, the Siekipai can’t do that, but they sure as hell should take the vaccination when it gets to them.  And, like Jeff, I think it’s totally irresponsible of The New Yorker to present this video without any kind of caveat. After all, when Trump skirts the truth, they don’t hesitate to correct him.  I guess “lived experience of indigenous people” is a different matter—it’s not as if they’re recommending drinking bleach or anything.

Are we “scientific fascists”?

December 2, 2020 • 1:15 pm

This article from Medium floated into my ambit, with a title was guaranteed to lure me like a mayfly lures a trout.  The author, Roderick Graham, is an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and has his own eponymous website.

The main point of his article is to outline a set of ideas and behaviors that he calls “scientific fascism”, which appear to involve the use of data, reason, and logic in a way that attacks Graham’s favorite ideas about social justice. It’s the combination of “scientific” and “fascism” that intrigued me.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Graham gives a definition of scientific fascism that guarantees that it will fulfill the secret mission of its adherents:

I offer this definition of scientific fascism:

“Scientific fascism is a body of ideas characterized by the desire to erase the unique experiences of minority groups, obedience to a narrow view of science, and a dismissal of people who disagree as being devoid of reason or intelligence.”

. . . . and as part of the definition he includes these behaviors practiced by “scientific fascists”:

The scientific fascist adopts as their tools of choice science and reason. The purpose of using these tools is only ever to mount an attack on the ideas underpinning social justice activities. These ideas include “lived experiences”, “safe spaces”, “white fragility”, “heteronormativity”, “systemic racism”, “toxic masculinity” and “microaggressions”, to name a few. This is one of the qualities that separates scientific fascism from scientism. Scientism is an extreme belief in science. [JAC: no it’s not!] Scientific fascists, on the other hand, are using science and reason for the political goal of pushing back social justice activism.

Now of course science and reason can be used to criticize any ideology or idea, be it Critical Studies, other aspects of social justice, liberalism as a whole, the ideology of Republicans, Communism, and so on.  But Graham uses the term “scientific fascist” only for those who use science and reason to attack social justice—and his conception of it—which already shows that the two words of his mantra “scientific fascist” have been construed more narrowly.

But he’s dead wrong in his second quote, for the purpose of using “science” and “reason” is NOT “only ever” to mount an attack on social justice, or to try to “maintain social inequalities and erase the experiences of minority groups from public discourse.” But you could, of course, use science to see if safe spaces work, or if there is such a a thing as implicit bias, but somehow I don’t think Graham would favor that kind of science. He’d rather use “lived experience”—those people who say that they require safe spaces and have been victims of unconscious bias.

By Graham’s definition, then, scientific fascists are identified by what they do, not by the fact that they use reason and science in an authoritarian way (whatever that is; how can data be non-authoritarian?). Ergo Graham is not being profound when he says stuff like this:

At the risk of belaboring the point, the scientific fascist is only ever interested in using science to push back against social justice ideas. Within academia, knowledge production is varied. Professors in history, law, business, and theology, just to name a few, use many different approaches to producing knowledge within their field. Scientific fascists are not interested in those fields unless they attempt to speak to the experiences of minority groups.

Well, we can argue about whether business, law and theology are “ways of knowledge production”, unless they use scientific (i.e., empirical) methods. But under Graham’s definition, someone who criticizes theology and its dictates for being irrational and nonscientific is not a “scientific fascist” unless she is going after social justice aspects of theology, like God’s supposed dictates.

The above gives us a hint of how Graham says is the best way to counter scientific fascists: use LIVED EXPERIENCE.  We all know the fallacies of generalizing from anecdotes—through anecdotes, multiplied through, say, a scientific poll, can become data. But Graham doesn’t talk about that. Rather, he’s referring to someone who uses their “lived experience” to produce knowledge by generalizing from it.

So what do “scientific fascists” say? Graham has a little list. Here are some examples of how we (I suppose I’m one of them) use science to attack social justice. We supposedly make statements like these:

“…the desire to erase the unique experiences of minority groups…”

  • “I believe in the Englightenment [sic] principles of individual liberty.”
  • “Why must you always put people in groups. I am an INDIVIDUAL!”
  • “What kind of ‘lived experiences’ do trans folks have? What is an experience if not lived?”
  • “All Lives Matter”

Only the first statement has anything to do with science, but none of these statements involve using science to do down social justice. They are statements of preference that do not involved data.  Let’s throw these in the circular file and move on to how we supposedly misuse science:

“…obedience to a narrow view science…”

  • “Sociologists are a bunch of left-wing communists, and you cannot trust their research.”
  • “Critical scholarship is a cancer in our society and must be removed from our universities.”
  • “These studies departments — women’s studies, queer studies, black studies — they produce no real knowledge.”
  • “Critical theory is unfalsifiable.”

The first and second statements are not science, construed either narrowly or broadly, but are slurs, that don’t involve data. (I suppose you could test whether sociologists are all “left wing communists”!)

The third statement is one that can be debated so long as you define what you mean by “knowledge”. I would claim that, in general, Critical Studies departments aren’t usually in the business of producing knowledge (though some practitioners are), but are in the business of pushing an ideology and burnishing people’s self image.

The last statement, too, is worth debating, because perhaps Critical Theory, unlike the structure of DNA, evolution, or the cause of malaria, might indeed be unfalsifiable. I have yet to hear an adherent to Critical Studies outline what could falsify it.  But in truth, although these statements may be made by scientists who are used to a certain level of rigor in their experiments and conclusions, they do not stem from science itself.

And this is how we supposedly use science to “erase” minorities and our purported opponents (by the way, if you see the word “race” or “harm” in a screed, head for the hills):

“…and a dismissal of people who disagree as being devoid of reason or intelligence.”

  • “Ibram Kendi is a low IQ individual.”
  • “Here are the fallacies in this claim.”
  • “Black folk are being told there is racism by liberal elites (but there really isn’t).”
  • “The woke are irrational and illogical.”

Good Lord! First of all, you’d have to be a low IQ individual yourself to claim that Ibram Kendi is a “low IQ individual.” You may not like his ideas, but you can’t take issue with the fact that the guy is smart.

The second claim is indeed a use of reason and logic to attack an argument. There’s nothing wrong with it, nor does it dismiss people as being devoid of reason or intelligence. In fact, the statement itself is a use of reason and intelligence to address an argument, not to impugn anyone.

I don’t quite get the third statement. One may argue about whether “structural racism” is pervasive (and argue, based on its definition, whether it is), but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who says that there is no racism. The data even show it, reflected in the differential rate of traffic stops by police, which, since the black/white difference narrows at twilight, is surely based on anti-black racism.

As for the last statement, well, it may be true in some instances—indeed, like this article itself, which attacks science and reason not for their supposed lack of value, but because they’re supposedly a tool of racism.

After reading this article—and I draw to a close, for discussing it involves too much “emotional labor”—I realized that it has nothing to do with science at all. It is an attack on those who use reason and logic to go after the social-justice ideas that Dr. Graham embraces. The word “fascist” is in there simply as a pejorative: someone who argues against those who want to restrict immigration, and who uses the same kind of authoritarianism and data would not, I suspect, be called by Graham a “scientific fascist”.

You might entertain yourself by thinking of related names that characterize people like Graham, but in the interest of reducing my peevishness, I’ll refrain.

AP/NORC poll: Most religious Americans see a message from God in the coronavirus pandemic

July 26, 2020 • 9:00 am

In one way things haven’t changed since the Middle Ages: the onset of a pandemic leads people to search for a greater meaning, usually involving the wrath of a god. So, for instance, the Black Death was blamed on a lack of piety (penitentes arose), the perfidy of the Jews, and so on.

Now, in America, many of us are still seeing God’s will in what’s happening. A poll by the Associated Press and the respected polling operation NORC, along with the University of Chicago Divinity School (!), shows that roughly two-thirds of Americans who believe in God think that the deity is sending us a message through the pandemic.

Click on the screenshot to read the report:

An excerpt:

The poll found that 31% of Americans who believe in God feel strongly that the virus is a sign of God telling humanity to change, with the same number feeling that somewhat. Evangelical Protestants are more likely than others to believe that strongly, at 43%, compared with 28% of Catholics and mainline Protestants.

The sad tale is told in the first graph below. Note that this is not a cross section of Americans, but of believers. Yet even 42% of the “unaffiliated” (i.e., the “nones”) think that the pandemic somehow conveys a message from God. Of course born-again Protestants think that in  spades (70% of them), but even 65% of Catholics adhere to that delusion.

Note too that the message is “humanity needs to change how we are living.”  It’s not clear exactly what we’re doing wrong this time, or what we were doing wrong in 1918, but surely this is a nasty God. After all, did he have to kill 644,000 people (today’s total death toll worldwide) to convey that message? Why did he kill the children, too? And are the U.S. and Brazil particularly in need of that message? And why, in the fourteenth century, did God kill off 60% of all Europeans? After all, they were far more pious than Americans today, but yet they got an even sterner message.

The second row in the figure below shows that 73% of born-agains, compared with 52% of Catholics and only 32% of nones, think that God will protect them from being infected.

All this testifies to the power of delusion, since there’s not an iota of evidence that God engineered this pandemic. Those who assert such a thing must answer these questions: How do you know this? What are we doing wrong to anger God? And do the national disparities in death tolls comport with the message that God’s supposed to be sending?

 

There’s a racial breakdown too, though it’s not graphed:

The question was asked of all Americans who said they believe in God, without specifying a specific faith. The survey did not have a sample size large enough to report on the opinions of religious faiths with smaller numbers of U.S. adherents, including Muslims and Jews.

In addition, black Americans were more likely than those of other racial backgrounds to say they feel the virus is a sign God wants humanity to change, regardless of education, income or gender. Forty-seven percent say they feel that strongly, compared with 37% of Latino and 27% of white Americans.

An explanation from the Sophisticated Theologians®:

David Emmanuel Goatley, a professor at Duke University’s divinity school who was not involved with the survey, said religious black Americans’ view of godly protection could convey “confidence or hope that God is able to provide — that does not relinquish personal responsibility, but it says God is able.”

Goatley, who directs the school’s Office of Black Church Studies, noted a potential distinction between how religious black Americans and religious white Americans might see their protective relationship with God.

Within black Christian theology is a sense of connection to the divine in which “God is personally engaged and God is present,” he said. That belief, he added, is “different from a number of white Christians, evangelical and not, who would have a theology that’s more a private relationship with God.”

Now talk about a real delusion, have a look at the figure below. (This appears to be a sample of all Americans, not just those who believe in God, though it’s not clear.)

As the report notes, “Overall, 82% of Americans say they believe in God, and 26% of Americans say their sense of faith or spirituality has grown stronger as a result of the outbreak. Just 1% say it has weakened.”

Think about that: a naturalistic pandemic that kills people willy-nilly, still increases people’s faith in God!

What, pray tell, would decrease their faith in God? When there’s no pandemic faith remains steady, when there is a pandemic faith grows stronger, so should we expect that when the pandemic wanes, or we get a vaccine, faith in God will decrease? No, of course not: believers will just say that God is satisfied that people will change their lives. Still, it’s up to believers who think God’s sending a message to be explicit about what that message is. After all, if you know God is sending us a message, you must also know its content.

Gwynnie’s summer luxuries

July 10, 2020 • 1:30 pm

I know you’ve all been asking yourselves, “What on earth is Gwyneth Paltrow doing this summer?” For we always want to know what the rich are doing because, as Hemingway said, they’re different from you and me.

Well, Gwynnie has put up a post documenting her summertime activities, which of course involve products she’s bought, many of them sold on her goop website.

And so we have Gwyneth, her hubby, and her children’s (Apple and Moses) “summer at home”:

Gwynnie tells us that she’s been “living in this very soft G university sweatshirt“, adding that it’s “having a moment right now.” Well, maybe a moment for her bank account for the sucker costs $195. For a sweatshirt! And it’s not cashmere or anything, just 60% cotton and 40% polyester.  And seriously, Goop University? Woo 101? The motto appears to translate as “Goop: We are Pharos”, whatever that means.

Son Moses got a boob jigsaw puzzle (not from goop, but from jiggy). For only $40 the lad can indulge in fantasies while perfecting his motor skills as well as becoming acquainted with all manner, shapes, and ethnicities of the female breast. What a progressive and liberated mom she is! I hope Moses said, “Thanks for the mammaries!” (But what did Apple get?)

Gwynnie gives a summer reading list, which we’ll mercifully leave aside, but what did she give herself? Well, for one thing, a number of different “cleanses”, as she’s into detoxing big-time, even though it’s totally bogus. On top of that, she purchased herself a fine Gemstone Heat Therapy Mat, retailing at goop for the bargain price of $1,095. This is said to approximate a spa experience. Those gems and pulsed electromagnettic fields, as well as those good negative ions, will tone you right up! The deets:

Approximate an at-home spa experience with this heating mat. It combines five natural therapies: hot stones, far-infrared light, red light, pulsed electromagnetic fields (PEMF), and negative ions. And it’s designed to temporarily promote local circulation, ease muscle tension, and maintain overall relaxation and well-being. Lie back as the amethyst, tourmaline, and jade gemstones warm up against your skin. Feel yourself unwind in the infrared heat. And let it out: ahhhhhhh.

  • LED Display Controller: Time and Temperature settings, 3-6-12-hour auto shutoff timer

  • Number of layers: up to 21 functional layers

  • Materials: High-quality, nontoxic

  • Voltage: USA power 110-120V (available in 220-240V upon request), 220W

  • 13 lbs of natural amethyst gemstones; 33 tourmaline ceramic gemstones, 30 natural jade gemstones

All of this was reported on Page Six, which adds some juicy details:

“I’ve made a commitment to start writing every day for five minutes because I’ve always been scared of journaling and don’t often write things down. It’s a daily micro mental challenge,” the 47-year-old wrote.

The “Politician” star recently told Town & Country that she is well aware that her Goop empire is constantly criticized but she couldn’t care less.

“The people who are triggered by me — ‘I don’t like her because she is pretty and she has money’ — it’s because they haven’t given themselves permission to be exactly who they are,” she said.

No comment on the “micro mental challenge” or the huge achievement of writing for five minutes a day, but I love her explanation of why people don’t like her.  No, I don’t dislike her because she’s pretty and rich; I dislike her because she’s vacuous, self-absorbed, and, above all, pushes onto her credulous followers woo like jade vagina eggs and gemstone relaxation mats.

 

George Ellis responds to my criticism of his argument for free will

June 15, 2020 • 9:30 am

Yesterday I posted a critique of an Aeon article by physicist George Ellis, arguing that science itself gives evidence for true libertarian free will. This rests on his claim that psychology exerts a “top-down” effect on molecules, and those top-down effects, because they stem from our thinking, our experiences, and our personalities (all subsumed under “our psychology”), constitute libertarian free will. (He didn’t say exactly how the top-down stuff gives a non-physical “agency” to people, but merely suggests that it’s a way to think about it.)

For once most readers agreed on my take, mainly because those readers who aren’t hard determinists like me still accept the laws of physics, while Ellis seems to argue that the “top down” influence on our molecules, and hence our behavior and “choices”, cannot be reduced to physics, and in fact is free of the laws of physics.

My response was brief. Your personality and character—the “top”—are formed by changes in your brain induced by your genes, your environment, and all the experiences you have. And those changes are ultimately molecular changes that affect neurons.  And those changes obey the laws of physics. There is no “top” free from the laws of physics. (I add here that Ellis won the Templeton prize for harmonizing science and religion, which may go some way towards his promotion of a free will that seems quasi-religious, but certainly seems dualistic.)

Reader Steve commented on that post, saying “I asked Ellis to read your post and reply. Here’s what he said: https://aeon.co/essays/heres-why-so-many-physicists-are-wrong-about-free-will?comment_id=33240″

I consider this an inadequate answer, but I won’t engage with Ellis’s ad hominem argument that “it’s a typical Jerry Coyne response.” I’ll address his comment on the “core issue.” And that is Ellis’s claim that physical things like electrons and “psychological” things like feelings, emotions, and behaviors, are two different things; in fact, they are two entirely different things, and you can’t understand “psychology” using molecules.

Perhaps we’re not at the stage where we can predict the effects that the environment or brain molecules have on behavior, but we’re not completely clueless, either. Should Ellis doubt this, ask him to imbibe a few stiff bourbons and see if there aren’t predictable results. Or give him a course of testosterone and see how it affects his behavior. As many people, including me, have indicated, there are plenty of experiments showing that one can affect one’s decisions, one’s beliefs,—and, indeed, one’s sense of agency—through physical manipulations of the brain, whether they be by experimenters or disease.

In contrast, as Sean Carroll has emphasized repeatedly (see the article and tweet below) not only that there’s no evidence for physics-free top-down causation, but, indeed, there’s evidence against it from the laws of physics. There is no way we know of for nonphysical thoughts to influence physical processes.

The solution, of course, is the parsimonious and evidenced idea that thoughts and feelings are the results of the laws of physics, combined, of course, with the evolution that helped program our brain to (usually) behave adaptively.  When Ellis says “the true statement is that electrons interacting allow and enable the thoughts to take place at the psychological level,” he might as well say, “the electrons (and other particles and molecules) are what make the thoughts take place at the psychological level.” Then the influential “top” goes away.

Here are some writings by Sean Carroll on the intellectual vacuity of downward causation. Click on screenshot below.

 

I get emails

June 3, 2020 • 9:00 am

I’m working on a longer post that should be up later today, showing a reader’s analysis of the question, “Did countries led by women have a better response to coronavirus?”, an issue that got a lot of publicity and that I discussed here on May 17.  We’ll have a statistical analysis of the issue, something I called for and that has now been done, but in the meantime here’s an attempted comment by a reader who has her own website.

The comment I received (but didn’t publish as a comment) is below, and the website, included in the post, is by someone who is a religionist (one of the posts is “How God changed my life”). What I found interesting is the overt rejection of the idea of any objective truth, something that infected the Left from postmodernism.  As she maintains, science has PROVEN that “you create your own reality.”

I wonder if “solomon-samolin” feels that the view that infectious disease is caused by microbes (the real truth) is just as true as the Christian Science view that disease is caused by faulty thinking. Does she go to doctors or shamans?

The sad fact is that all too many people share the views below. I don’t think this is a joke because, after all, the person has their own website.

solomon-samolin
hannamckenzie.wordpress.com

Commenting on “A religionist (?) writes in.”

You create your own reality. Science has proven that. What we believe in becomes truth. Is it any wonder everyone is so sure that their own beliefs are superior to everybody else’s? Isn’t it obvious by now that two sets of contrary beliefs will work just as well for the holders of those beliefs? I think we’ve reached the point now where we can say, “If you’re trying to convince someone else that their beliefs are wrong and yours are right, then you need to back off…” Because, after all, you create your own reality, right? I mean, it’s the Aquarian Age, man. The Aquarian ethos is predicated by this fact that we all understand, “Hey, you create your own reality, right? Just because someone else’s beliefs contradict yours, doesn’t mean one of you has to be wrong, and one right. If you’re the one hating on the other for their beliefs, than you’re the one in the wrong. So, it turns out, there are really only two kinds of beliefs, in this regard: those who believe that only their beliefs are right; and those who accept that a contrary set of beliefs may be just as valid as their own.

If you want to respond to this person, I’ll inform her of this thread.

Another befuddled person touts panpsychism, proposing some possible (but impossible) tests of the idea that all matter is conscious

May 28, 2020 • 9:00 am

I continue to be baffled by the presence and lucubrations of apparently sentient people who claim that consciousness inheres in all matter, from electrons to us. This view that everything (including the Universe itself) is conscious is called panpsychism, and I’ve written about it at length.

Why is this cockeyed theory so popular? Because it purports to solve the “hard problem” of consciousness—the “problem” of understanding how events in our environment are perceived by our senses and than translated into “qualia,” or subjective sensation. My view (and that of philosophers like Patricia Churchland) is that once we understand the mechanism of how this works—all the neural correlates of having various qualia—then the hard problem disappears. Or rather, it’s a pseudo-problem.

But that’s not sufficient for the panpsychists. They say that correlation is not understanding, and seek some deeper understanding. But the “deeper understanding” always seems to enter the murky swamp of philoso-babble, leaving science behind.

Panpsychism is a supposedly naturalistic attempt to solve the hard problem, but it does so by sleight of hand: by assering that all matter is conscious, even electrons, rocks, and stars.  And when you combine enough atoms and molecules, each with a rudimentary consciousness, then presto!, you get the higher-level consciousness of animals like us.  The sleight of hand is that this is a “turtles all the way down” strategy, and never solves the “combination problem”: how the rudimentary consciousness of many molecules combines in a way to create more complex and sophisticated states of awareness and sensation in humans.

The empirical problem with panpsychism is twofold: it’s an assertion with no evidence to back it up, and there is no way of testing whether it’s true.  But now Tam Hunt praises the theory once again in Nautilus—a site and magazine partly supported by the John Templeton Foundation—and links to his year-old piece in Scientific American where, he claims, there are ways of testing whether nonliving matter has consciousness.

We met Tam Hunt nine years ago, when he was touting what I called “stealth creationism”, a claim that neo-Darwinism was grossly inaccurate, espousing instead a teleological view that, among other things, was panpsychist:

. . . . mind and thus purpose are inherent in all of nature – but extremely rudimentary in most cases. However, as matter complexifies in macromolecules like amino acids (which form spontaneously in many situations), this innate mind and purpose starts to play an increasingly significant role in evolution. It is, thus, a bootstrapping process that has no end in sight. . .

Below (click on screenshot) is Hunt’s new article at Nautilus, where he pushes panpsychism and also links to an article where he outlines some possible tests of the hypothesis. Note that in the title he claims that electrons may “very well be conscious.” That implies a degree of certainty that’s simply not warranted by the evidence. In fact, there is no evidence for the consciousness of electrons.

We can first dismiss two of the lines of evidence used repeatedly by Hunt as evidence of panpsychism:

a.) Panpsychism has been around a long time. 

 So why should we think that creatures with brains, like us, are the sole bearers of consciousness? In fact, panpsychism has been around for thousands of years as one of various solutions to the mind-body problem. David Skrbina’s 2007 book, Panpsychism in the West, provides an excellent history of this intellectual tradition.

But of course, so have many false or unevidenced notions, like Christianity and Judaism, as well as even older forms of faith. The durability of an idea has no bearing on its truth. What we need is evidence.

b.) Famous people have been panpsychists or limned the idea.  Hunt names, among others, Alfred North Whitehead, Galen Strawson, David Bohm, and others who have adhered to some form of panpsychism, as well as physicists like Neils Bohr and Freeman Dyson, who have been naturalists but not panpsychists. Hunt likes to argue that naturalism supports panpsychism because in the end, mind is made of matter, and if brains evince consciousness, then, well, so must matter. But that, of course, doesn’t mean that all matter is conscious, any more than it means that all matter is alive even though living beings are made of electrons and other particles. The Argument from Authority and Famous People again doesn’t move me; we need evidence.

Here’s some of Hunt’s argument:

While inanimate matter doesn’t evolve like animate matter, inanimate matter does behave. It does things. It responds to forces. Electrons move in certain ways that differ under different experimental conditions. These types of behaviors have prompted respected physicists to suggest that electrons may have some type of extremely rudimentary mind. For example the late Freeman Dyson, the well-known American physicist, stated in his 1979 book, Disturbing the Universe, that “the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when made by electrons.” Quantum chance is better framed as quantum choice—choice, not chance, at every level of nature. David Bohm, another well-known American physicist, argued similarly: “The ability of form to be active is the most characteristic feature of mind, and we have something that is mind-like already with the electron.”

Many biologists and philosophers have recognized that there is no hard line between animate and inanimate. J.B.S. Haldane, the eminent British biologist, supported the view that there is no clear demarcation line between what is alive and what is not: “We do not find obvious evidence of life or mind in so-called inert matter…; but if the scientific point of view is correct, we shall ultimately find them, at least in rudimentary form, all through the universe.”

Tam further argues that the nature of quantum mechanics itself supports panpsychism, saying things like the following, which borders on the ridiculous (let me replace “borders on the” with “is”):

Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, author of the 2018 book Lost in Math, has taken a contrary position. “[I]f you want a particle to be conscious, your minimum expectation should be that the particle can change,” she argued in a post titled “Electrons Don’t Think.” “It’s hard to have an inner life with only one thought. But if electrons could have thoughts, we’d long have seen this in particle collisions because it would change the number of particles produced in collisions.”

Yet “change” means many different things, including position in space over time. What Dyson is getting at in his remark about electrons and quantum theory is that the probabilistic distribution-outcomes of quantum experiments (like the double-slit experiment) are better explained as the product, not of pure chance (another way of saying “we don’t know”), but of numerous highly rudimentary choices by each electron in each moment about where and how to manifest.

Does a rock make such choices, then? If so, why don’t we see rocks moving as well as they choose “where and how to manifest”? “And now I am become Conscious Rock, the Befuddler of Neurology.”

But enough; Tam’s argument is pure panpsychist boilerplate. Where it becomes novel is where it becomes “testable”, or so Tam says. In this year-old article in Scientific American, Tam says (above) that he was trying to transform some philosophical considerations into “a testable set of experiments.” But when you read the piece, you see that what he proposes isn’t testable at all (click on screenshot):

Here he argues that there are three types of correlates of consciousness that we can use to test “inanimate” matter to see if it has consciousness:

Neural correlates.  We can use EEG, fMRI, and other neurological tools to see if a patient is conscious. But of course you can’t use these on electrons or rocks, as they have no neurons!

Behavioral correlates.  Tam uses the example of cats purring, flexing their toes, snuggle when petted, and appearing to show fear and curiosity. To him that’s evidence for consciousness. The response is obvious: you can build robots that show these behaviors, too; in fact, some already exist. Are those robots conscious simply because they show behavior similar to those of organisms we think are conscious? Not in my view!

Creative correlates. I’ll let Tam describe this one:

Creative output is another source of information for assessing the presence of consciousness. If for whatever reason we can’t examine neural or behavioral correlates of consciousness, we may be able to examine the creative products of consciousness for clues.

For example, when we examine ancient architectural structures such as Stonehenge or cave paintings in Europe that have been judged to be as much as 65,000 years old, are we reasonable in judging the creators of these items to be conscious in ways similar to our own? Most of us would say: obviously, yes. We know from experience that it would take high intelligence and consciousness to produce such items today, so we reasonably conclude that our ancient ancestors had similar levels of consciousness.

What if we find obviously unnatural artifacts on Mars or other bodies in our solar system? Do we reasonably infer that whatever entities created such artifacts were conscious? It will depend on the artifacts in question, but if we were to find anything remotely similar to human dwellings or machinery on other planets, but which was clearly not human in origin, most of us would reasonably infer that the creators of these artifacts were also conscious.

But robots could do that, too. In response, Tam says that we can distinguish creative things that are products of consciousness from creative things that are the product of, say, artificial intelligence:

We can conduct a kind of “artistic Turing test” and ask study participants to consider various works of art and say which ones they conclude must have been created by a human. And if AI artwork consistently fools people into thinking it was made by a human, is that good evidence to conclude that the AI is at least in some ways conscious?

My answer is “no.” But this is all ludicrous anyway, for we’re not asking about AI, but about rocks, electrons, glasses of water, or, for that matter, bacteria and flatworms. None of these could show creativity of that type. It is curious that while panpsychists don’t accept correlation studies in neurology as a solution to the “hard problem” of consciousness, Hunt touts exactly similar types of studies as a way to see if inanimate matter is conscious.

Thus, all three of Tam’s “correlates” fail to yield a program for determining whether electrons are conscious.  There is no such program.

Then, you’re probably asking yourself, how do we determine whether anything is conscious, including our fellow humans? And my answer is “Inference and self-report”.  We infer that humans are conscious because they’re similar to our individual selves, and that primates and mammals have a consciousness somewhat similar to ours because they’re our evolutionary relatives. As for self-report, well, I tell you that I’m conscious. You could say “prove it”, or take me for a zombie, and I couldn’t really convince you otherwise.

In the end, we can infer that some animals are conscious (given that we define consciousness as subjective sensations and thoughts), but we can’t make an airtight inference. But that’s true of all science. All we can do is make inferences to the best explanation, and I’d claim that the most reasonable inference is that everyone reading this is conscious—not a bot or a zombie. And the best inference about electrons, rocks, and hydrogen atoms is that they’re not conscious, for they show none of the features that makes us think that our fellow humans are conscious.

I am not one of those scientists who denigrate philosophy as a whole. But some philosophers are prey to ludicrous ideas, and panpsychism is one of them. The popularity of the idea shows that intellectual termites are chomping away at the framework of philosophy. Perhaps, as Matthew Cobb said in his interview with Michael Shermer, panpsychism—which he said is “not even wrong”—will shortly disappear from the scene (see 4 minutes in). One can hope!

 

h/t: Paul

A large percentage of conservatives (indeed, of U.S. adults) subscribe to a bizarre Bill Gates conspiracy theory

May 24, 2020 • 9:30 am

It’s unbelievable what Trump supporters, Republicans, and conservatives can bring themselves to believe, but this new Yahoo/YouGov poll shows that bizarre and unevidenced beliefs are held by a substantial proportion of not just those on the Right, but of all U.S. adults. This article (click on screenshot below) centers on both Bill Gates and the coronavirus, particularly a vaccine. The poll was conducted in May, and you can link to the main results by clicking on the screenshot below.

 

The most bizarre contention, debunked by Snopes, is that Bill Gates is using his money and promoting Covid-19 vaccinations to create an authoritarian country where everyone will be surveilled via the implantation of microchips (presumably inserted surreptitiously during vaccination).  As Snopes notes,

primary focus of that foundation, and of Gates’ philanthropy in general, is the reduction of inequalities in health outcomes, with a focus on the developing world. Via these organizations, he also funds research into technological solutions to public health problems in the poorest communities globally. Since 2015, he has been raising alarms about the world’s potentially catastrophic lack of preparedness for a pandemic.

In part because of his advocacy for vaccines, Gates has also been a major recipient of the anti-vaccine movement’s vitriol for well over a decade. Years of manufactured animosity built by false claims from these anti-vaccine groups have, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, combined with the dubious claims of doomsday soothsayers and cryptocurrency Youtubers to create a sprawling COVID-19 conspiracy theory centered on Gates.

The basic allegation against Gates goes like this: He is using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to push a vaccine with a microchip capable of tracking you along with the rest of the world population.

Snopes debunks this, saying that Gates’s only remotely related argument is that perhaps people should have certificates of either immunity after having contracted the virus or after having been vaccinated, and those documents could be used for travel and entering new countries. Whether they will be required is up to the countries, not to Gates. That’s about it.

So that’s the basic allegation. How many Americans agree with it? See the chart below of the poll’s results, and weep copiously.

Yes brothers and sisters, friends and comrades, 44% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats—one in five Dems—accept this bizarre theory. Indeed, half of all those who get most of their news from Fox News accept the theory, while only 26% think it’s false. As expected, those who voted for Trump four years ago have statistics almost identical to those of Republicans in general. Those who are most sensible are the Democrats, those who get most of their news from the liberal station MSNBC, and those who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But even the latter categories show more than a quarter of people saying that they aren’t sure whether the microchip implantation theory is true.

Why on earth does anybody believe such a palpably false myth, one supported by no facts at all? Well, for the Right, it’s tribalism, with right-wing tribalism going along with an antivaxer stance. It’s above my pay grade to dilate on why the right is so suspicious of vaccines given that many conservatives support them, but some how it’s taken hold. The Yahoo site gives details:

The new Yahoo News/YouGov survey shows that skepticism about a possible coronavirus vaccine is already taking root on the right. There is little partisan disagreement over vaccines in general: 83 percent of Americans consider childhood vaccines either “somewhat” or “very” safe, and more than 80 percent of Democrats, independents and Republicans share this view. The same goes for concerns over the safety of “fast-tracking” the vaccine through the typical research and regulatory process: 73 percent of Americans are at least somewhat concerned, with little difference by party affiliation.

But when it comes to actually getting vaccinated, Clinton voters are nearly 30 points more likely to say they will (72 percent) than Trump voters (44 percent). A majority of Trump voters say either that they plan to skip the shot (29 percent) or that they aren’t sure (27 percent), even though the president himself has been pushing hard for a vaccine. 

As a result, only half of Americans (50 percent) now say they intend to get vaccinated “if and when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available,” with nearly a quarter (23 percent) saying they won’t — a 5-point decline in the percentage of “yes” responses and a 4-point gain in the percentage of “no” responses since the previous Yahoo News/YouGov survey two weeks ago. The rest (27 percent) say they’re not sure.

With 83% of Americans considering childhood vaccination safe, half of us still won’t get vaccinated when there’s a safe coronavirus vaccine. This is the downside of all the doubt sowed by the conspiracy theorists: it makes people less likely to get vaccinated. And this isn’t the same as ignorant suspicion of evolution or advocacy of flat-earthism, for doubt about tested vaccinations leads to sickness and death. There are no fatal complications of creationism.

There’s more misinformation and tribalism concerning—yes, you guessed it—hydroxychloroquine, which has been unproven as a virus preventive and seems positively harmful when given to those already infected. Have a look at this:

Vaccines are not the only subject of misinformation. Another example with dire implications is hydroxychloroquine. A majority of Fox News viewers (53 percent), along with nearly half of Trump voters (49 percent) and Republicans (44 percent), think the antimalarial drug is an effective treatment against COVID-19 — even though study after study has not proved that to be true. In fact, a new study of 96,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients on six continents found that those who received the drug had a significantly higher risk of death compared with those who did not.

Far fewer Trump voters, meanwhile, say that hydroxychloroquine is ineffective (just 17 percent) or that they are not sure (34 percent) — an upside-down perspective that may have something to do with the fact that the president told reporters Monday that he has been taking the drug for the last “couple of weeks” as a preventive measure.

In contrast, only 5 percent of Clinton voters say hydroxychloroquine is effective. Seventy-three percent of Clinton voters say it is not.

The poll also found that a plurality of Trump voters (41 percent) say they would take hydroxychloroquine if it were available to them. Only 4 percent of Clinton voters say the same; 80 percent say they would not take the drug. The Food and Drug Administration has warned that hydroxychloroquine should be used only in clinical trials or hospitals because it can trigger fatal heart arrhythmia in COVID-19 patients.

Well, physicians who are responsible doctors won’t treat infected people with the drug, and I hope that they won’t write prescriptions for it as a preventive. But some will. The upshot is that trust in science in general will be eroded, as well, I think, as trust in vaccinations.

As we saw from the statistics above, the Left isn’t resistant to the blandishments of misinformation, either. For example, on the issue of “reopening” cities and states, we see this:

The left is not immune to picking and choosing its preferred version of events. Democrats (58 percent) are more likely than Republicans (33 percent) to believe that “coronavirus-related deaths have surged” in early-to-reopen red states such as “Florida, Georgia and Texas” — as are Americans in general (45 percent). Yet average daily deaths have declined in Georgia and Florida since reopening, while holding roughly steady in Texas.

The statistics for reopened states were given on the news last night, and, as the poll notes, they contravene the Left’s scenario that prematurely reopened states will suffer huge tolls from a resurgence of the pandemic. That hasn’t happened so far, and yet the Left believes it more than the Right. Again, tribalism. It is, of course, possible that these states will suffer another onslaught of the virus, and our best attitude should be a wait-and-see one.

There are a bunch of other results, all showing tribalism in belief about what’s true, even when we don’t have sufficient data yet (well, what did you expect in such a religious nation?):

But views on reopening are starting to diverge as well. Asked in previous Yahoo News/YouGov polls whether stay-at-home orders were the only way to stop the spread of COVID-19 or whether “the cure is worse than the disease,” majorities of Americans, both Democratic and Republican, said the former. Now for the first time, a majority of Republicans (53 percent) say the cure is worse. Among Trump voters and Fox News viewers, that number skyrockets to 59 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

On the right, nearly every question about reopening is trending in the same direction. Pluralities of Republicans (44 percent) and majorities of Trump voters (55 percent) and Fox News viewers (61 percent) now support the protesters demanding an end to lockdown measures. Wide majorities of these right-leaning groups also say they are more concerned about lifting restrictions too slowly than too quickly; most Americans — by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin — still say the opposite. And while 62 percent of Americans say they’re more worried about the impact of the coronavirus on people’s health than on the economy, the right disagrees: 63 percent of Republicans, 68 percent of Trump voters and 73 percent of Fox News viewers say they’re more worried about the economy.

This is going to cause another fractious election result, which we knew anyway. I still think Trump will lose, and have bet a few hundred bucks on that result; but I’m appalled at how many American continue to support a man who’s so obviously mentally ill—a narcissist of the first water—and how many still buy into his ridiculous statements. As I’ve said, I lived through the Sixties—through Nixon, Reagan, and W., but I never thought I’d live to see a President and an administration so dysfunctional. And, even worse, how many Americans support Trump. Do they really admire the guy, or are they using him as a cudgel against the Left and what it represents to them (lax immigration policy, more concern for racism, and so on)?

And I have no idea why tribalism has increased so much in the last decade or so. Even the Reagan years seem almost halcyon compared to the today’s seemingly irreparable divisions in the ideology of Americans. I’d be interested in hearing readers’ take on this.

Apropos, here’s a photo sent in by reader Barry:

h/t: Ken