The Young Turks get the science wrong on GM food

September 27, 2012

I’m a huge fan of the internet news show The Young Turks (and to only a slightly lesser extent their sister show on the Current network). They release daily clips of their show on YouTube. I make it a point to check most of those clips out on a regular basis, and I’ll go as far as to say The Young Turks is usually among the best sources of news out there today.

All the more reason for me to be disappointed at a recent piece they did on genetically modified (GM) food and the company Monsanto, an agricultural company and major producer of GM food:

Monsanto is a popular target of conspiracy theorists superstitious of GM food and to be fair, like any corporation, there’s an excellent chance they cut corners and misbehave every chance they get to save money.

Now when a recently published study on the effects of genetically modified corn on rats arrived at seemingly frightening conclusions along with scary images of tumorous rats, many news outlets jumped on the story. But The Young Turks went further than simply reporting the story. Co-host Ana Kasparian went on to claim that there is still insufficient evidence that GM foods are even safe. And while mentioning that Monsanto was debating the merits of the study, she failed to mention other critics who don’t work for Monsanto and poisoned the well with a statement about how Monsanto is quick to come down “against anyone who says anything negative about them.” Of course that’s the case with any corporation at all times and it neither validates nor invalidates the specific study being reported on. Kasparian goes on to show a clip from a documentary titled “The World According to Monsanto,” which talks about how Monsanto gets around heavy FDA oversight.

Is Monsanto dirty? Almost certainly. Just like pretty much every corporation. The problem here is that The Young Turks are letting their own cognitive biases influence their judgment in this case instead of performing their usual due diligence. When it comes to issues of corporations using their money to influence politicians, there’s no better source than The Young Turks. And when the oil industry funds bogus “tobacco studies” suggesting that anthrogenic global warming isn’t legitimate science, they’re very good at knocking that down. But when you have a story like this one that only superficially plays into that narrative and where the independent science largely reinforces the point of view that conveniently favors the corporation, The Young Turks seem to fall into the trap of assuming Monsanto’s defense is just another corporation shamelessly defending itself with bogus research despite the fact that the science is on their side.

Now The Young Turks also played a clip from the days of the Reagan administration when then Vice-President George H.W. Bush visited a Monsanto factory and can actually be heard saying essentially that he intends to ensure the government looks the other way with Monsanto, saying, “We’re in the ‘dereg’ business.” There’s no getting around how bad that looks both for Monsanto and the Republican Party. HOWEVER, to be fair, within the context of that quote, there’s nothing about fixing the system so unsafe products make it to market. Rather, Bush seems to be responding to a concern over getting past bureaucratic red tape to simply get some authorization sooner. I’m not saying Monsanto isn’t dirty, but the actual promise there was not nearly as serious as looking the other way on safety policies. And for the record, George H.W. Bush hasn’t been Vice-President in a very, very, very long time. The damming clip we’re being presented with is about 25 years old. It can’t reasonably be used to discredit the Monsanto of today.

Kasparian also shows some inconsistency when she poisons the well by dismissing all the studies Monsanto presents that show the safety of their GM products as being all deeply flawed while simultaneously bolstering a study that, as it turns out, is itself deeply flawed:

Within 24 hours, the study’s credibility was shredded by scores of scientists. The consensus judgment was swift and damning: The study was riddled with errors—serious, blatantly obvious flaws that should have been caught by peer reviewers. Many critics pointed out that the researchers chose a strain of rodents extremely prone to tumors. Other key aspects of the study, such as its sample size and statistical analysis, have also been highly criticized. One University of Florida scientist suggests the study was “designed to frighten” the public.*

How could Ana Kasparian and Cenk Uygur have been so fooled? Presumably because the study reinforces their biases. That’s not a criticism of them personally though as we are all guilty of doing this from time to time. That’s why Steve Novella encourages people to ratchet up our skepticism when we hear information that reinforces our previously held beliefs.

Now I tried to reach out to both Uygur and Kasparian about this via Twitter. I wrote:

@cenkuygur @AnaKasparian Sorry guys but you got the science wrong in your recent Monsanto piece: …

And I must say I was a bit disappointed at the response I got:

I don’t think Kasparian is accurate in her assessment of the research, but given the limitations of Twitter, I gave one more response:

@AnaKasparian Do u at least agree w/ Slate’s analysis that that specific study isn’t entirely credible? &how further back mustGM rsearch go?

Unfortunately, like a skilled politician, Kasparian dodged both of my direct questions and gave me just a talking point:

I decided to stop there as I didn’t wanted to try and drag her into a lengthy Twitter debate. But while I recognize that at least among non-Republicans, comparisons to climate change deniers can seem like name-calling. In the past, denialists of various stripes have often taken great umbrage with being compared with Holocaust Deniers, due to the stigma attached to that. But I don’t think Keith Kloor, in his Slate article, was out of line with his comparison because he wasn’t necessarily comparing them on a scale of respectability. Rather, the basis of the comparison seems to be that both climate change deniers and the anti-GM crowd distort the science based on their respective political leanings. And based on my, to be fair, limited understanding of the science of genetically modified foods, the study’s lead author, Gilles-Eric Seralini, did just that, and The Young Turks’ position on this issue is less based on the science and more based on their distrust of corporations, a distrust that usually serves them well but which in this particular case has led them to false conclusions. 

Now to be clear, I think Ana Kasparian and the rest of The Young Turks team are excellent journalists. I happily call myself a fan of Kasparian and The Young Turks.  But on this issue, I happen to think she’s dead wrong.

Further reading:

NPR – “Manipulating Science Reporting” – interview with Carl Zimmer about recent study referenced above.

World Health Organization – 20 Questions on Genetically Modified Foods

WebMD – Are Biotech Foods Safe to Eat?

“Food Fight: The Case for Genetically Modified Food” By Brendan Borrell

Skeptoid podcast – “Genetically Modified Organisms: Jeopardy or Jackpot?”

Science Daily – “Spontaneous GMOs in Nature: Researchers Show How a Genetically Modified Plant Can Come About”
Science Daily – “Engineered Plants Make Potential Precursor to Raw Material for Plastics”
The Atlantic – “A Golden Opportunity to Rethink Genetically Modified Foods” by James McWilliams
“Cloned Beef” by Steven Novella
Science Daily – “Genetically Modified Chickens That Don’t Transmit Bird Flu Developed; Breakthrough Could Prevent Future Bird Flu Epidemics”
“GMO plants and herd immunity”
“GMO chickens and herd immunity”
“The Conspiracy Meme” by Ted Goertzel

The ‘This American Life’ retraction

April 5, 2012
Logo from the radio program This American Life

Logo from the radio program This American Life (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a bit of an old story but many people may not be familiar with it. Back in January, the NPR radio program and podcast, “The American Life” aired an episode where they allowed a spoken word artist named Mike Daisey to perform his stage piece about his visit to China and the shocking discovery he’d made while there about the worker conditions in the factories that manufacture Apple products. They did so with the understanding that the facts presented in the story met the journalistic standards for accuracy. Then earlier this past month, in an unprecedented move, This American Life broadcast an entire episode-long retraction.

I’d heard about the story but just got around to listening to both episodes for the first time. Both make for amazing listening, so I highly recommend them. But the most fascinating part of this is of course the retraction episode. Sadly, it’s a rare thing today to see professionals publicly admit they’d made major errors in judgment, own up to it, and apologize. And it just goes to show how much the crew at This American Life care about the truth.

But even more interesting about this show is that they were able to interview Mike Daisey about the inconsistencies in his story at length. That interview actually surprised me because Daisey doesn’t deny all the accusations as one would expect. Early into their interview, he seems to have an answer for everything.

Daisey reminded me of Stephen Glass, the young writer at The New Republic in the 1990s who was discovered to have fabricated most if not all of his articles partially if not entirely. Glass’ story was made into a great film a few years ago called “Shattered Glass.” In that film, we see Glass similarly having an answer for everything when confronted with inconsistencies in his work. It’s only after his Editor, Charles Lane, starts really digging and finds himself drowning in an ocean full of  excuses that when taken individually all sound plausible enough but together add up to an implausible whole. The real Charles Lane has an audio commentary on the DVD of the film, which itself provides  fascinating insight into the mind of a pathological liar. That’s not to say that Daisey is a pathological liar but his answers during the interview, especially in the beginning, feel much like Glass’ plausible lies that only crumble when presented in their totality.

But here, a completely different Glass, This American Life host Ira Glass, confronts Daisey and what we get is some very surprising confessions, often following some of the longest on-air silences I’ve ever heard as Daisey seems to slowly attempt to formulate the best lie only to give up and eventually cop to the truth, though he stops short of identifying his behavior as “lying.” Though he earlier rejected the notion of moral relativity, later on he attempts to distinguish standards of truth in journalism from standards of truth on stage, admitting to failing the former while still maintaining the same misrepresentation of facts is completely acceptable on stage knowing audiences are going to trust his first-hand accounts are not drastically altered for dramatic effect and accurately reflect events that really happened.

In a way, I’m actually glad this happened because this makes for a great teaching moment about critical thinking. Ira Glass flat-out states that once Daisey told him that he no longer had the contact information for the one person he says was with him on the entire journey, the one person would could verify some of his claims, that Glass should have pulled the story then and there. Ira Glass courageously takes full credit for the error in judgment, and I think the show is better for it. Now we know how committed This American Life is to being honest. And now millions of listeners will learn lessons in the importance of fact-checking and how to spot a phony.

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Reason Rally 2012

March 27, 2012

Me with PZ Myers

This weekend, I attended the Reason Rally in Washington D.C. This was the largest gathering of atheists and rationalists in history.

Now there’s a lot of debate about how many were actually in attendance, with reported numbers ranging between 5,000 and 30,000. Now I can say with strong confidence that it was a lot more than 5,000. And allegedly, official park figures suggest it was around 30,000, while others are simply asserting their own numbers based on their own personal guesswork.

Me with AronRa

In any case, it was a wonderful event. I got to meet numerous people I admire while sending Washington a message that they can no longer afford to ignore us. Throughout the day, American Atheists President Dave Silverman spoke to the crowd. And while I’ve often been critical of Silverman in the past, he was fantastic on the day. Other great and memorable speakers included Adam Savage of the Mythbusters, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Penn Jilette, Eddie Izzard, Jamie Kilstein, former Westboro Baptist Church member Nate Phelps, Youtube atheist Cristina Rad, and many more. Other YouTubers in attendance were Thunderf00t, AronRa, Ashley Paramore, and ProfMTH. The audience was also treated to musical performances by Tim Minchin and Bad Religion.

Of course, with the single largest gathering of atheists, it was inevitable that religionists would crash the party. Though to be fair, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) was actually invited by the National Atheist Party, a controversial move that wholeheartedly support. The WBC are a joke and are also hated by, well, everyone. Goading them into attending not only increases media attention but also almost guarantees the press will be positive towards us as it’s hard to look like the bad guys when placed next to the funeral-picketing, hate-mongers of the WBC. While repulsive, I’ve often said that the WBC are not only one of the least violent religions in the world as well as that they practically do our job of showing the problems of religiosity for us by simply continuing their usual antics.

I personally find the WBC so non-threatening that I actually wanted to have my picture taken with them. Unfortunately, however, they kept their distance, possibly to keep their kids from hearing Nate Phelps, the prodigal son of the Phelps clan. I never even saw them. I did, however, get to interact with other evangelical groups such as those representing a ministry calling itself “True Reason.” I had a semi-lengthy discussion with one young member of that ministry and tried to teach him a little about moral philosophy. I also managed to get my hands on a DVD copy of Ray Comfort’s insipid 180 Degrees video which he markets as his never-fail secret to convincing pro-choicers to oppose abortion in about a minute. The movie is available for free online and Comfort’s amazing tactic is not very persuasive…at all. In fact, I’m so confident his video is not persuasive and does nothing but demonstrate what a clown religious nuts like Comfort are that I’d happily become a distributor of the DVD myself.

All in all, it was a fun event and hopefully the start of a growing political movement by rationalists.

I just can’t help but think what a shame it is that Christopher Hitchens didn’t live to see the Reason Rally because the central message of the event seemed to remind me of a Hitchens quote:

“Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.”

Surprisingly, despite all the constant in-fighting among skeptics concerning confrontational methods, the Reason Rally seemed to unambiguously support confrontationalism. And I can’t seem to find anyone in the movement criticizing the rally for being undeniably a call to arms for skeptics to get involved in efforts that will help push our message into the mainstream. Hemant Mehta called for attendees to run for public office while the attention given to young Jessica Ahlquist suggested fighting to maintain church-state separation through litigation.

Further, many of the speakers promoted humanist values through governmental policy with few even acknowledging libertarianism. The only mention of libertarian methods I caught was a quick remark in possibly my favorite speech of the day by Adam Savage:

Savage’s speech perhaps best summarized that key message of the Reason Rally:  we cannot no longer afford to stay on the sidelines and be mere spectator of injustice and misinformation. We must unite and fight back against the bullies of untruth who exploit the ignorance of others and cause great suffering in the world.

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An Honest Liar: The James Randi Story

February 23, 2012

Yup, unfortunately I”m still taking a break from the blog. I actually did write a lengthy piece a few weeks ago but WordPress accidentally erased it all, which was super discouraging. Anywho, I’ve been business with a lot of other projects and haven’t really been in the frame of mind to get back to blogging about skeptical issues. But I do plan to return at some point in the near future.

But in the meantime, here’s a trailer to an upcoming documentary about James Randi:

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Skeptics exposed

January 26, 2012

One of the great things about the skeptical community is that, unlike many other movements, we can laugh at ourselves. This might explain why the following video has gone viral:

I too am guilty of uttering many of these cliches. Perhaps this is a sign that we need to start changing up our rhetoric and finding new clever expressions to become tomorrow’s cliches.

On another note, I know this was a short one. I’m still kind of on hiatus, which I hope will end soon.


DJ Grothe responds to misogyny accusations

January 10, 2012

Ever since “Elevatorgate”, there’s been a great deal of discussion among skeptics about an alleged misogyny problem within the skeptical community. Having seen at least some of the vitriol thrown at Rebecca Watson in particular, I’ve been inclined to support these efforts.

But since the new year began, it seems like there’s been a new alleged scandal over feminist issues almost every day. And it seems like the same few prominent skeptical bloggers have been at the center of these controversies, not as the victims of inequality or as the alleged perpetrators of an injustice, but as the ones bringing these stories to light.

This recent string of accusations as well as the behavior showed to individuals who have been accused has forced me to grow concerned. And apparently, I’m not alone.

The latest skeptic to be accused of unfair treatment towards women was DJ Grothe himself, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation. In her most recent blog, Greta Christina charged him showing a pattern of “defending sexist language and behavior”, to which Grothe wrote a lengthy response in the comments section, which goes on to address many of the same concerns I’ve been having with what is beginning to look like a McCarthyist culture developing in our movement. Though I don’t want to put words in Grothe’s mouth and I should say that I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says.

Here’s Grothe’s comment in its entirety:

Greta: Some quick answers to your questions, although because of the nature and culture of these sorts of blogs, my comment here will be seen by fewer people than see your I think incorrect take on things, unfortunately. Such is the nature of these sorts of posts (direct responses can get buried in comments), and so I would appreciate if you link to my response here in your original post.

You ask two questions:

Question #1: Do you really think there is any context in which making threats of gender-based, sexualized violence — towards a person of any gender, but especially towards a female writer and her readers — can be justified?

No, of course I don’t. There is no justification for the use of such language, as I think you should know, since I’ve said as much many times already, including in an email exchange that you began with me the same day I made the comment that offended you on your post contra Long. I believe what Long said is unjustifiable, and I also believe that you treated him unfairly in your post against him. These two opinions are not incompatible: someone can be unfair to someone else who has done something wrong. I have explained why I hold this opinion in that email exchange you had with me, as well in numerous other comments on this blog network. You and I disagree about if/how you treated him unfairly, and you seem to be unable to allow for that disagreement. As a professional writer, maybe handling disagreement through public blogging and/or flogging is easiest or most natural for you; but publicly excoriating folks for not assenting to a view I hold is not how I am used to engaging in honest argumentation. You “fervently beg” me to agree with you, and of course I have already stated numerous times that Long’s comments were unjustifiable, but I simply do not agree that you treated him fairly.

You ask what I intend to do about it: well, I certainly don’t intend to write a punishing blog post against Long. But for the record, I wrote Long a message that day and clearly stated, among other things, how out of line I thought he was to use such language, even if he or others felt he was deliberately provoked. I do not believe he disagrees.

But again, and to repeat, threats of violence are unjustifiable, regardless who is making them.

Question #2: Do you really think that feminist bloggers in the atheist/ skeptical movements are writing about sexism and misogyny, and pointing out examples of it in our communities, primarily so we can manufacture controversy and draw traffic?

No, I do not think this, nor did I ever say this. What I do think is precisely what I have said: that I believe some of the controversies in the atheist blogosphere (certainly not limited to topics related to feminism or sexism) appear to me to be fomented for the hits that result. If I am wrong, and blog hits are no motivation in writing such posts, I will happily stand corrected. But I’d certainly hope that these “call-out” posts against various people in skepticism for real or supposed sins do in fact generate a lot of hits, because if they do not, I see little other real-world pay-off. I have been told by two people now who have been personally involved with one of the controversialist blogs that there has been explicit direction from that blog’s founder to this effect. Such controversialist posts seem like a pretty ineffective way to work to actually improve any situation, such as for example increasing women’s participation in skepticism, or at least seem to be far less effective than would be making better staffing and programming decisions, so I hope they at least result in an uptick in hits.

I do not deny in the least that you feel passionate about these issues; I also feel passionate about them, and have worked for over a decade to address issues of equality in skepticism, atheism and humanism, and to challenge instances of institutional sexism within these movements. But I submit that in your passion, Greta, I think you are sometimes just too quick to vilify and make enemies, and to sometimes encourage your fans to engage in such enemy-making. You may do this unintentionally; I think people can sometimes be blinded by their various passions. This is the in-group/out-group dynamic that I find unsettling about some of the atheist blogs — disagreement with some bloggers on various topics (not just feminism, to be sure) appears to be not at all well tolerated. It is these blogs by skeptics and atheists attacking others in skepticism that I think is an unfortunate turn in our movement(s) over the last year or so. (Note that some of these posts don’t just disagree through reasoned arguments but engage in calls for boycotts, public punishment or public shaming — Zvan’s recent blog post claiming I was a sexist actually engaged in literal ad hominem, stating that I have a problem and the problem is “me,” as a person, as an example.) (And before you could possibly misunderstand: this is not at all to say that I do not also find the vile and reprehensible things some folks have said to women bloggers to be more than unfortunate. One should be able to disagree with an opinion leader on various matters and about various approaches to these and other topics without being ugly, personally insulting, sexist and misogynistic, and it is deeply regrettable than many commenters on all sides of the issues during the various controversies did not do so.)

As you say, Zvan’s blog post cites three examples as evidence of my “hav[ing] an unfortunate pattern of . . . defending indefensibly sexist behavior by other men in the atheist/ skeptical movements.”

But the claim that I have a history of misogyny or of supporting sexist behavior is unsupportable.

Her three examples include 1) my comments on Watson’s post contra Krauss earlier in the year, 2) my “liking” a Facebook post by CFI Michigan justifying their choice of a speaker when she attacked them online for it, and 3) my comments on your blog post contra Long.

I stand by all of my comments (and “liking” CFI Michigan’s post about their speaker decision), and have never “defended indefensibly sexist behavior by other men in the atheist/ skeptical movements.” And I have seen a lot of such behavior at the organizations I have worked at over the years, and have always worked to change it. But when an author like Zvan recourses to my “liking” things on Facebook to argue that I exhibit sexist patterns of behavior, she seems to be sort of grasping at straws — they are in no sense examples of a pattern of sexist or misogynist behavior. I submit that such posts by folks like Zvan are focused moreso on whom a blogger might be more rewarded for publicly excoriating rather than for what legitimate reasons they might do so.

I have worked deliberately for many years to increase the involvement of women and racial minorities in skepticism, and to challenge institutional sexism within these movements. Of course, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. But when I started working professionally in skepticism, there were almost no women employees other than secretaries. Of the women currently working professionally at the three national skeptics organizations, I have personally hired half of them myself, all of whom were for positions of leadership. I have worked to change, and have changed, various relevant corporate policies. In my programming decisions, I have made TAM more representative of the talents of everyone, not just of white men. (This is not because I believe in quotas — I certainly don’t— but because I think the skeptics movement benefits when it draws from and includes the talents of everyone, and doesn’t ignore the contributions of half of the population.) For contrast, look at the following:

CSICON 2011: 12 women out of 51 speakers on the program. (23.5%)
NECSS 2011: 9 women out of 27 total speakers (33.3%)
Skeptic’s Society Science Symposium 2011: 0 women out of 4 speakers (0%)
Skepticon IV (2011): 4 women out of 12 speakers (25%)

All of these events are fine and worthwhile events, and I think women and everyone else should feel welcome and safe at all of them. I regret that you now fear for your safety at TAM. Call me biased, but I think TAM stands out for the quality of its program, and not only because half of the speakers were women.

I want skepticism to flourish probably at least as much as you do, and I believe it is flourishing more now than ever, despite various internet controversies of past months. Some indications include that our organizations’ conferences are bigger than ever, attracting younger attendees than ever and have more racial and sexual minorities attending than ever, and this is not accidental; it is hard work. The press attention we win as we work to educate the public about this point of view is increasing. Our organizations are growing. Our grassroots groups are more active and numerous than ever. Our activism campaigns demonstrate measurable results and help people. I think it is a confusing turn if you conclude that you want this movement to flourish but that I do not. We merely may disagree that polarizing blog posts that result in enemies-list-making, calls for people to be fired, boycotts, etc. are the best way for our movement to flourish.

That said, I know that this movement has much more work to do for equality — concerns about misogyny are certainly not misplaced and we must all remain vigilant in addressing them. I do believe some of the reaction to real problems of sexism in our movement(s) has been hyper-vigilant, unduly polarizing, and a distraction from the actual hard work needed to fix problems. Further, I do think it is pretty ineffective way to improve things to try and publicly force assent, to bully or punish people who disagree with various approaches, to misrepresent people’s views to make our arguments seem stronger, or to be too quick to vilify. Some of these atheist blogs are sort of empty on the principle of charity in arguments, and I realize this may be because of past wounds in the blogosphere. But I’m hopeful we can adopt different, better, more effective approaches to address these problems. And just because you favor one approach and I favor another does not mean that we are not both working in common cause. People can take different routes to the same destination, and because you prize this sort of blogging doesn’t mean that I can’t prize other ways of addressing similar problems.

It seems that almost inevitably, many of the commenters over at Greta’s blog seem to be unwilling to address Grothe’s stronger points and have tried to draw attention onto his weaker ones, demonstrating his point about charity of arguments. It seems that even when an accused tries to reach out a hand of friendship, the mob seems content to set fire to it rather than seek peaceful understanding.

Like Grothe, I absolutely support further discourse regarding what might be a legitimate misogyny problem in the skeptical movement, though I think it’s important that future discussions on the subject be civil, as opposed to what I’m starting to see from some of these bloggers. They’re being too divisive, too bullying, too unwilling to accept reasonable dissent, quick to misrepresent the other side, too quick to condemn and unwilling to find peaceful resolution. And if one happens to find oneself unfairly condemned by this extremely influential in-group, there’s no mechanism for appeal. I think these bloggers have begun to abuse their influence and I’m glad someone as prominent in the movement as DJ has spoken up…even if they didn’t really give him a choice.

[Writer’s note: This article will be open to comments but I do insist all commenters remain civil and respectful both to me as well as to each other. Abusive comments will not be tolerated and will be removed]

News From Around The Blogosphere 10.27.11

October 27, 2011

1. Skeptical zombies ignored by James Van Praagh – In possibly the best PR stunt the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has ever come up with, their president, DJ Grothe led an army of zombies on a mission to get self-proclaimed “psychic” James Van Praagh to finally take the JREF’s Million Dollar Psychic Challenge. Not surprisingly, Praagh’s goons kept the zombies from meeting with him but of course that doesn’t matter as this story is getting a lot of press.

2. Church’s bogus AIDS cure causes 3 deaths – Though this is an isolated incident, this is precisely the kind of tragedy that can be expected in a culture that demands unquestioned belief and condemns skepticism.

3. 60 Minutes pisses off anti-vaxxers – As part of their Steve Jobs-centered episode this week, 60 Minutes ran a segment on the remarkable benefits that iPads and other tablet devices have demonstrated for people with autism. And somehow by simply highlighting an important, practical tool in helping autistic people communicate, they’ve pissed off Age of Autism. And bravo to Age of Autism’s commenters for declaring war on Temple Grandin of all people. That takes serious balls. Maybe their next target will be blind nuns, adorable puppies, and AIDS-infected orphans. I’m just shocked Age of Autism didn’t rant about the fact that Pfizer is a major sponsor of the show.

4. ‘Sybil’ admits she never really had multiple personalities – The most famous alleged case of multiple personality syndrome, or what’s now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder was based on lies and manipulations.

5. Atheists doing volunteer work – This is something I want to see more of in atheist groups. This is one of the ways we’ll change people’s negative stereotypes about atheists.


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Julia Galef on The Ethics of Paranormal Investigation

August 17, 2011

My friend, Julia Galef, recently moderated a panel at The Amazing Meeting 9 on the topic of The Ethics of Paranormal Investigation. Since then, she has put up on Measure of Doubt, the blog she shares with her brother, these two videos discussing her own further thoughts on the subject:

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TAM 9 and the return of the ‘Don’t be a dick” debate

July 19, 2011

The Amazing Meeting 9 (or TAM9 From Outer Space) took place this weekend. I wish I could say that was the reason I’ve been neglecting my blogging duties for the past week but unfortunately, I’ve once again missed out on the largest skeptical conference in the world (hopefully I’ll make it to TAM10).

No, I’ve just been busy with a number of other projects this past week, one of which is a slightly skeptically themed short film I directed that I’ll be probably be posting here when it goes live on the internet next month. I can’t post it now because it was made for a 72-hour film festival that requires the entries to not be publicly available until after the festival ends. But if all goes well, within a week or so I’ll finally be able to post a skeptically themed short film I wrote. I’ve been wanting to post it for awhile now but now the only obstacle is getting one more actor to sign a release.

Anywho, while I haven’t attended TAM9, The Friendly Atheist has posted a live blog of the proceedings as they happened during the entire weekend’s events:

You can read about the Friday Morning Session here, the Friday Afternoon Session here, the Saturday Morning Session here, the Saturday Afternoon Session here, the Sunday Morning Session here, and the Sunday Afternoon Session here.

From the looks of it, it was an amazing success with over 1600 attendees, making it the largest turn-out yet and proving that the number of passionate skeptics is growing.

Now from what I can tell, once again, the issue of how to communicate with the public was the central theme of the event, particularly in the Sunday morning presentations such as Dylan Keenberg’s talk, Ashley F. Miller’s talk, and the more heated “Communicating Skepticism” panel discussion featuring PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott, Carol Travris, Phil Plait, and Jamy Ian Swiss, moderated by Sadie Crabtree.

And so, while I’ve written endlessly about my position that there’s a place for both skeptical diplomats and firebrands in our movement, the commentaries of TAM9, including Daniel Loxton’s latest commentary have convinced to briefly take yet another go at it.

I’m confused over the use of words like “radical” or “militant” with regards to the skeptical and/or atheist movements because we have no prominent radicals. I can’t think of anyone who commits violence in the name of skepticism or atheism like the “radicals” in past social movements. If the term is being attributed to someone like Richard Dawkins, then I dare say the word has lost all its meaning because Dawkins is just slight to the right of Mr. Rogers. If it’s PZ Myers who’s being considered the radical, he’s only slightly more aggressive in tone than Dawkins. Neither to my knowledge has committed violence or incited others to commit violence. If merely being passionate and firm in ones position is the new radical and something that is to be condemned by our movement, then our movement is doomed to forever be ignored.

Believe it or not but Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck didn’t become influential because they were the model of polite and calm discourse. Nobody is suggesting we turn to dishonesty or screaming insults at our opponents, but unless some of us are willing to be at least a little more assertive and confrontational than science communicators of the past, no one is going to pay the slightest attention to us, just like they didn’t before. And why would they? The media thrives on controversy. Unless someone is putting up some kind of real fight, they’re simply not interested. We may not like the idea of advertising a strong, fairly hard-line position but as someone whose expertise is in media, I have to say its a necessary evil if one is to get heard over all the noise out there. That’s not to say we should behave like the WBC or PETA by being as offensive as possible to grab attention, just that it wouldn’t hurt to put up the occasional giant roadside billboard unambiguously calling self-proclaimed psychics frauds…

…or a billboard like the bottom one displayed here:

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News From Around The Blogosphere 6.23.11

June 24, 2011

1. Introducing the solar-kini – A designer has created a bikini with embedded solar panels that can charge your mobile technology while your sunbathe.

2. Granite State skeptics hand out psychic bingo cards to John Edward’s audience

The cards had a five-by-five grid of vague “hot words” and scenarios that often come up in cold reading, a term used to describe how it’s possible to elicit information from people without their knowing it.

Mentalist Mark Edward also weighed in on this story here.

3. Hundreds of Mormon ads appear in NYC – Maybe this is just a really elaborate campaign to promote the Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, but something tells me not a single one of these ads mentions the Mormon home planet of Kolob. Maybe if Mormons were a little more honest about their beliefs and practices, more would trust them more and they wouldn’t need the improve their image. And if you’re embarrassed by your own beliefs, maybe you should change your beliefs. Just a thought.

4. Self-help guru James Arthur Ray convicted in sweat lodge deaths – He was found guilty of negligent homicide in the deaths of three of his followers during a botched sweat lodge ceremony.

5. More proof that reality TV is not real – I’ve worked in reality TV, so I don’t need convincing. But for those who aren’t convinced yet, the opening to “MasterChef” featuring a crowd of allegedly thousands of applicants has been exposed as a clumsy Photoshop job that just pastes the same groups of people multiple times.

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