Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Fighting the avalanche

Wednesday was the National Walk Out Day for the #NeverAgain movement, and it's estimated that over a million high school students walked out of their classes to protest the government's inaction on gun law reform -- and the fact that many elected officials are in the pockets of the NRA.  While some school districts were supportive of their right to protest, others chose to punish the ones who participated with penalties up to and including suspension or paddling.  (Yes, there are schools that still inflict corporal punishment on students.)

And of course, the backlash from the general public against the students who participated went full-bore almost immediately.  A quick perusal of social media was enough to gauge the vitriol being hurled at them.  One person I saw called them "lazy little snowflakes."  Others said they were only walking out so they could claim justification for skipping class (odd, then, that in our area -- where many schools were closed because of a snowstorm -- students showed up anyhow so they could stand in solidarity with the rest of the protesters).  They were called names (a politician from Maine called #NeverAgain leader Emma González "a skinhead lesbian").  They were accused of being tools of the radical left.  Most frustrating -- at least for me, looking at it from the outside -- is the level of condescension from adults, the implication that there's no way that these young adults could possibly have a relevant opinion, or one that the adults themselves should take seriously.

What this demonstration has proven, however, is that the adults who are misjudging and/or dismissing these teenagers are doing so at their own risk.  There is no sign of this movement going away, or being at all quelled by the snark being hurled their way, or how they are being portrayed in social media and (most of) the conservative press.  A banner was put up on a fence near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday with a particularly trenchant quote from Douglas herself:

The last time I've seen an anti-establishment uprising this powerful was the anti-Vietnam-War protests of the 1960s and early 70s.  The same kind of insults were lobbed at protesters back then; they were ne'er-do-wells, hippies who just wanted to tear down the rule of law, stoners whose opinion didn't count and shouldn't be taken seriously.

Today's establishment should look at the results of that episode as the cautionary tale it is.

It's worth considering looking even further back in history, however, and recognizing that civil disobedience is how this country was founded.  And while we call the people who launched the American Revolution are called "the Founding Fathers," they were by and large young people.  In 1776, James Monroe (and French ally the Marquis de Lafayette) were 18, Aaron Burr 20, Nathan Hale 21, Robert Townsend 22, George Rodgers Clark 23, and James Madison 25.  While some of them were in their thirties and forties -- notably George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams -- the Revolution was not fought, or even led, by staid, dignified elder statesmen.

These kids have stood up to politicians all they way up to the president of the United States; they are not going to be silenced by disdain.  And it bears mention that a significant portion of the teenagers who are participating will be of voting age by the November elections; virtually all of them will be voting by November 2020.  And trust me, they are not going to forget the elected officials who have ridiculed them and dismissed their opinions.

Whether you agree with them or disagree with them, this movement is not going to be stopped.  The wise among us will at least engage in an honest dialogue with them.  The foolish will discount their power and try to stand in their way, or even pretend they don't exist.

If these young adults are snowflakes, prepare for an avalanche.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Closing the books on homeopathy

There comes a point when there is absolutely no reason to continue investigating a claim for which there is no evidence (or significant evidence against).  Pursuing it beyond that point is a waste of money, time, and effort, and can only be explained by people's desperation not to have their pet idea proven wrong.

That point has been reached by homeopathy.  It is useless, unscientific horseshit.  Case closed.

But if by some chance you still were unconvinced, consider the paper that was withdrawn last week from the journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  The title of the journal itself makes me wince a little; to paraphrase Tim Minchin, when alternative medicine has the support of evidence, it is thereafter known as "medicine."  But setting that aside for a moment, the paper in question was written by father/son team Aradeep and Ashim Chatterjee, and claimed that the homeopathic remedy "psorinum" was effective in treating cancer.

Without even knowing what "psorinum" is, any claim that a homeopathic "remedy" can cure cancer is about as close to medical fraud as you can skate without committing an actual crime.  If you don't know how "remedies" are created, the quick explanation is that you take a substance of some kind and dilute it past the point where there is any of it left, and then use the resulting water to treat whatever condition has symptoms like the ones created by ingesting the original substance.

For example: the homeopathic sleep-aid "calms fortĂ©" is made by diluting caffeine.  I shit you not.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

In the case of "psorinum," however, we have an additional level of "what the fuck?" to add; the "remedy" is made by diluting...

... wait for it...

... fluid from the blisters of someone who has scabies.

I feel obliged to say at this point that I am not making this up.  The site Homeopathy Plus, which is the source of the link above, says the following about "psorinum:"
Those who need Psorinum usually lack vitality and are prone to mental disturbances.  They catch infections easily, especially colds, and recover slowly.  Skin complaints are common and if unattended will be dirty and offensive but these days with frequent bathing and access to steroids, are less likely to be so.  The person is also likely to be anxious about health, work, poverty and the future which leads to depression, despair and sometimes, suicidal thoughts.
You read that right.  If you're depressed because you're poor, the treatment is to ingest serially-diluted scabies pus.

Anyhow, the Chatterjees wrote a paper suggesting that "psorinum" could treat cancer, and evidently that was too much even for Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  When it was found that (1) the "ethics board" that cleared the study the paper was based on was identical to the Board of Directors of a clinic the Chatterjees owned, and (2) both the father and the son were practicing medicine without a license, it was too much for the authorities, too, and the pair were arrested.

This, unfortunately, is not a unique occurrence.  Papers supporting homeopathy have, one and all, been shown to be cherry-picked, if not outright fraudulent.  100% of the controlled scientific studies of homeopathic claims have resulted in zero evidence in favor.

So enough people-hours and research grant money has been wasted on this.  Homeopathy was a ridiculous claim from the get-go, but it was only fair to test it.  The research community did so.  It failed.

Case closed.

Now, the next step is to get those useless sugar pills off the shelves at CVS and other pharmacies.  I know the principle of caveat emptor applies, and if you're choosing to waste your money on fake treatments, you deserve what you get.  But the companies that make this stuff are profiting off the general public's gullibility and ignorance, people are taking quack remedies for serious conditions instead of seeking out legitimate medical help, and the Food & Drug Administration needs to put a stop to it.

As far as the Chatterjees go -- to quote a friend of mine, "I hope they bring them some 'psorinum' sugar pills in jail to cure their 'anxiety about the future.'"  To which I can only add: "Would you like some highly-diluted skin lotion for that burn?"

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Guest post: An interview with K. D. McCrite

A few years ago, I met author K. D. McCrite, whose series The Confessions of April Grace is beloved by both kids and adults for its beautifully-drawn characters and whimsical, sometimes screwball comedy storylines, all seen through the eyes of her title character, a girl growing up in rural Arkansas.  It wasn't until I'd known K. D. for some time that I found out that she had an alter ego -- Ava Norwood, the pseudonym under which she writes dark, gritty modern novels that only share with her other books a signature crystal-clear writing style.

K. D. herself is a deeply spiritual woman, despite the fact that her Norwood novels have more than once cast organized religion in a harsh and unfavorable glare.  We've become fast friends even though we don't have the same philosophical outlook -- in fact, our differences have led to some really interesting discussions, and far from distancing us, those conversations have deepened our friendship.

I thought it'd be interesting to hear her views on spirituality, writing, and how she reconciles her beliefs with her unflinching Norwood novels.  So she's my guest interviewee on Skeptophilia today.  I hope her answers get you thinking.  And I also hope you'll check out her novels, to which I've included links at the end of this post.


GB: How does a spiritual person -- which you clearly are -- deal with the capacity for abuse inherent in organized religion?
KM: That’s not easy to do.  The life of a Christian should be simple: follow the example and teachings of the one who showed us the way.  Jesus was not an abuser, or a loser, or liar, or snob, or swindler.  He moved among all classes of people, showing no favoritism for wealth or status.  When people came to him, he did not turn them away.  He gave generously from what he had, and he served others.  Whether we believe he’s the son of God or we don’t believe in god at all, we probably agree the example of his life is the right way to live, if we want peace and contentment in our lives.  So when people claim to be Christian, but are wrapped up in ego, materialism, power, status, and legalism, I get a little hot under the collar.  No wonder Christianity now carries with it a repugnant image.  I rarely call myself a Christian any more.  I prefer Follower of Christ, and I do my best to live up to his example.
GB:  Tell me about your Ava Norwood novels, and how you reconcile your own beliefs with your writing, especially given the fact that some of the most despicable characters in them are representatives of organized religion, and yet consider themselves holy and sanctified.
KM: My books penned under the name of Ava Norwood feature people who have fallen into some kind of religious existence built on sand.  That is, their lives are set to collapse because what they are doing is foolish and weak.  I’m mixing metaphors here, but a reader should know when he opens an Ava Norwood novel, the characters are going to reap what they sow by the end of the story, good or bad.  It’s my hope that the books are thought-provoking, even enlightening.  If not, I hope I have at least offered a great read.

GB:  So you write in two different styles/personas.  One as Ava Norwood, and the other as K.D. McCrite, who writes family-friendly fiction that sometimes touches on Christian values.  Is there ever an issue with one fan base getting offended by the books in the other genre?
KM:  This is always a concern to me.  The Ava Norwood books have strong language, and graphic scenes of a violent or adult nature.  But let me be clear: the language and the scenes are not gratuitous.  They are true to the life and nature of the characters, and without them, the story would be weaker and have less impact than I intend.  I recognize that some people prefer their reading fare to be squeaky clean, and I understand.  I recommend that, rather than being offended or upset that I have chosen to use profanity, sex, or violence in a realistic way, they leave books by Ava Norwood unopened.  Otherwise, the purpose of the story is diluted or ignored because the offended reader can’t get over the portion that upset them.

Then we have the K.D. McCrite books, written for anyone from eight to 108.  Unfortunately, the audience for them restricts itself because of the lack of violence, sex, and language.  There are readers who seem to believe that there is no story without those elements.  However, I’ve been told by numerous people that “I assumed I wouldn’t like the book, but once I started, I really enjoyed it.”  The fact is, humorous, heart-warming stories can be every bit as gripping as something darker and grittier.  But how will these readers ever know that if they judge the books without reading them?
GB:  How would you answer a fan who did get offended?
KM:  "Offending someone was not my goal while writing this book, and I’m sorry you feel that way."  How else can one respond?  Not everyone is going to like everything.

Here are links to some of K. D.'s books -- I've read many of them, and thoroughly enjoyed them, both the ones she writes under K. D. McCrite and those she writes under Ava Norwood.  Give them a try!

As K. D. McCrite:
In Front of God and Everybody (April Grace #1)
Cliques, Hicks, and Ugly Sticks (April Grace #2)
Chocolate-Covered Baloney (April Grace #3)
Pink Orchids and Cheeseheads (April Grace #4)
Eastgate Keeps On Singing (Eastgate Cozy Mysteries #1)
Coming in the future: The Case Files of April Grace -- a series about a grown-up April Grace, who has become a private investigator...
K. D. has also written extensively for Annie's Mysteries, a fiction book club.

As Ava Norwood:
If I Make My Bed in Hell
Poured Out Like Water

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Leadership by the unqualified

I'm going to ask a question that will undoubtedly be uncomfortable for the 33% of Americans who are still in support of what our current administration is doing:

Why are you content to have people in jobs for which they are manifestly unqualified, and about which they display nothing short of catastrophic ignorance?

Surprisingly, I'm not talking here about Trump himself, although I'd argue that those charges could just as easily be levied against him.  The fish rots from the head on down, as the saying goes.  But here I'm referring to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who was interviewed by Lesley Stahl a few days ago on 60 Minutes, the results of which are nearly unwatchable, if you (like me) hate seeing someone completely humiliating themselves in public.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

What's especially appalling about this interview is that Stahl was not trying to nail DeVos to the wall.  In fact, some of her questions strike me as softball.  And DeVos still couldn't give a coherent answer.  As an example, Stahl asked her if, under her leadership, schools in her home state of Michigan had gotten better.  After all, she allegedly got the nomination from Trump because of her work promoting charter schools there, so her influence in Michigan far predates her appointment to the Department of Education.  Here's her answer:
I don't know.  Overall, I -- I can't say overall that they have all gotten better.  There are certainly lots of pockets where the students are doing well.  Michigan schools need to do better.  There is no doubt about it...  I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.
"I don't know?"  The Secretary of the Department of Education is asked about the current status of schools in her home state, and she says, "I don't know?"  For one thing, how can she have gone into this interview not having at least prepared an answer for this question?  I mean, if there's an expression that means the opposite of "out of left field," that's what this question was.

And she can't talk about schools in general, because they're "made up of individual students attending them?"  What the hell does this even mean?

But those were far from the only problems.  When Stahl asked her if she'd visited any underperforming schools, DeVos answered with a flat no.  Stahl, whose cool, collected persona slipped, betraying a moment of pure astonishment, said, "Maybe you should."

DeVos looked confused, and echoed, "Maybe I should."

Then DeVos tried a salvo of her own.  "The federal government has invested billions and billions and billions of dollars in the educational system," DeVos said, "and we have seen zero results."  Stahl, who unlike DeVos had actually done her homework, said that this wasn't true -- that test scores over the past 25 years had risen steadily.

DeVos gave her a walleyed stare for a few seconds, and said, "What can be done about that is empowering parents to make the choices for their kids.  Any family that has the economic means and the power to make choices is doing so for their children."

"What can be done about that?"  What can be done about what?  Rising test scores?  Heaven knows, we can't have that.  And what on earth did that non-answer have to do with the question Stahl asked?

And on and on it went.  I honestly at some point had my hands over my eyes because I couldn't bear to watch.  But after the video clip was done, and I had recovered from being that long in a state of wince, I started to get mad.  How is this woman qualified to run the Department of Education?  My sense is that she would be out of her depth in a kiddie pool, and the sole reason she is in the position is that she is a multi-millionaire plutocrat who donated to Donald Trump's election campaign.

So, to the conservatives who've read this far: how can you accept this?  This honestly has nothing to do with party.  Betsy DeVos would be drastically unqualified regardless what her political leanings were.  But there she sits, on the Cabinet of the United States, and she does a public interview in which she comes across as a blithering idiot...

... and not a single Republican leader has anything to say about it.

C'mon, people.  At some point sound leadership has to outweigh party affiliation.  It is ridiculous that our country's educational system -- our hope for the future -- is being run by a woman who, in my grandmother's words, "don't have the brains that God gave gravy."

And these sorts of things keep happening, and over and over, not one damn thing is done about it.  All I can say is, I hope that in November, people will remember this and vote out the kiss-ass rubber stampers who are giving Trump and his rich cronies a bye on everything from appointing nitwits to canoodling with porn stars.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Woo-woo casserole recipe

Today, I ran across a truly wonderful site, if by "wonderful" you mean "bizarre."  It is called Divinorum Psychonauticus, which loosely translated from sort-of Latin means "Spirit Sailor of the Divine," even though to my ears it sounds like a spell from Harry Potter.  The site is subtitled "Where science fears to tread, art staggereth."  Whatever the fuck that means.  Its creator, Erich Kuersten, seems to be a raving wingnut, although in his defense he's up front about that.  In his "About This Author" paragraph he calls himself "legally insane ten times over," although in his posts, he seems entirely serious; I saw none of the hallmarks of Divinorum Psychonauticus being a spoof site.  In any case, I bumped into the site because of the post, "The Bigfoot-Ancient Alien Connection: Solved!", whose title seemed to promise great things.

I was not disappointed.

The first thing I noticed was how deftly the article explains why we haven't seen Bigfoot.  It is not, as many think, because Bigfoot doesn't exist.  It is also not, as others explain, that Bigfoots are intelligent, wary primates who live in trackless wilderness with plenty of places to hide.

No, it's because Bigfoots have all of their junk DNA turned on, and that allows them to time travel.  In Kuersten's words:
Our DNA is tampered [sic] down, which is to say a lot of our 'junk DNA' is disconnected. We're like parrots with clipped wings, while Bigfoot's are unclipped. If we could access all 100% of our brain, 'turn on' the dormant DNA, we could do some of the things Bigfoot does, such us 'skipping' through time, being able to wink in and out of existence (and thus avoid capture).  In fact this is why they are so evasive... they're on the run if you will, from the castrating scissors of the Greys.
Well, I have to admit that if a gray alien with castrating scissors was chasing me, I'd try to avoid capture, too.

Kuersten then adds a nice seasoning of biblical "history" to the mix:
The story of the Great Flood and all that - the Annunaki went to wipe us all out and start again because they made us in their image and likeness and with many of their powers, their ability to tap into the higher dimensions of consciousness (there are nine total), to vibrate their Kundalini energy in and out of existence and forward and backwards through time, and into alternate dimensions.  So when the sasquatch /earlier race learned how to 'wink out' they no longer wanted to mine gold for their masters.  They had the power to hide, and went on the run.  The next wave of humans (the Annunaki/Greys spliced with early ape hominid DNA) had these aspects of the brain shut off, the wings clipped.  But the flood couldn't reach the high up mountains, which is why the bigfoot and yeti are often found there. 
Is that why that is?  I'd always wondered.  The Himalayas, for example, have always seemed to me to be a singularly inhospitable place, what with all that snow and ice and thin air.  If I were a primitive hominid, I would choose somewhere rather nicer to live.  Maui, for example.  But evidently the reason you never see sasquatches on the beach, wearing swim trunks and sipping drinks with little umbrellas, is because they got stranded up in the mountains after the Great Flood and now, 4,000-odd years later, they still haven't been able to find their way down.

But why, you might ask, are Bigfoots frequently seen getting in and out of UFOs?  I know I've asked that question myself, and usually my response has been, "hallucinogenic drugs."  But Kuersten disagrees:
The reason Bigfoots are sometimes found getting into and out of UFOs is explainable as either a kind of bigfoot terminator or traitor, working to infiltrate the bigfoot colonies, or various 'friendly' alien visitors--the equivalent of, say, Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves
Okay, now I understand!  Some of the Bigfoots are in cahoots with evil aliens.  Or friendly aliens.  Or Kevin Costner.

Figure 1.  My expression while reading all of this.

And finally, how does Kuersten know all of this, as clearly there is no way you could get here via any of the more standard ways of thinking?  By this time, you will not be surprised to find out that the answer is: spirit animal guides.
I asked my 'channeled' guru panther animal spirit guide.  Believe it or not, that's what he 'told' me, in the weird non-linguistic way that spirit guides will.  Now, he's quite a trickster as I've learned on more than one occasion.  But this all makes a lot more sense than some of the daffy theories (I've heard), so I'm posting it here.  Make of it what you will, and remember, the truth is so strange no language can encompass it, so never be afraid to leave language at the door when entering the higher planes! 
Oh, I will, Erich.  I left language with baggage check, and am ready to be x-rayed by the TSA (Transcendental Safety Authority) before boarding my astral plane! 

If you're not satisfied with this selection from Divinorum Psychonauticus, there's also "Remembering my 2012 Galactic Alignment Euphoria, Non-Duality, Quetzlcoatl Visions, Cult Leadership, and Inevitable Fever," "The New Line of Alien-Human Hybrids - Wilkommen auf der Future!", and "Uma Thurman is From Venus."  And yes, in that last one, he is talking about the planet Venus, i.e., the place with an atmosphere of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid, where the surface temperature averages 462 C.  (I've heard people say that Uma Thurman is hot, but I don't think that's what they meant.)

Figure 2: Uma Thurman's home world

So anyway.  That's our brief foray into the deep end of the pool for today.  It's kind of like a recipe for a woo-woo casserole, isn't it?

In a large mixing bowl, place 2 lbs. finely ground Bigfoot. Add:
  • a chopped Annunaki
  • biblical references to taste
  • 3 tbsp. references to poorly-understood science
  • 1 cup higher dimensions of consciousness
  • 1 cracked UFO
  • 1 pint time travel
  • 1 spirit guide (preferably "panther," but "weasel" will do)  Mix well. Place in a greased baking dish, and bake at 350 F until well-done  Serve immediately.
Pairs excellently with most wines.  In fact, the more your guests drink, the more palatable the casserole will seem.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Natural smackdown

For today's piping hot serving of schadenfreude, we have: YouTube has terminated Mike Adams's account.

Adams, you probably know, is the wingnut who founded Natural News, which is the world's biggest clearinghouse for loony alt-med claims and unfounded conspiracy theories about things like "toxins."  Amongst other completely wacko ideas, Adams claims that:
  • AIDS is not caused by HIV.
  • Infectious diseases in general are not caused by germs.
  • We're all being poisoned by "chemtrails."
  • Evidence-based medical research is a huge shell game being played by doctors, scientists, and "Big Pharma," with the aim of keeping us sick so they can keep making money.
  • GMOs are all hazardous to human health.
  • Homeopathy works.
So this termination is actually a big deal.  The account's entire library of videos was deleted, meaning that if someone linked or embedded one of them on a secondary site or blog, they will now show as "This Video Is No Longer Available."

Before you start yelling at me about the First Amendment and free speech, allow me to state for the record that "Free Speech" doesn't mean you have the right to say anything, anywhere, with no consequences.  I can claim the First Amendment protects my right to tell my boss to fuck off, and no court in the land will side with me if I'm fired.  YouTube quite rightly has rules to play by, and if someone's account violates those rules, it is entirely within their purview to delete their videos.

Adams, predictably, had a complete meltdown, just like he did when Google took steps to stop him from gaming their search engine optimization software to propel his links to the top of search pages.  He, of course, claimed that the action taken was not because he violated one of Google's policies; this was a targeted attack against his message.  And now YouTube has joined the ranks of the persecutors.  Adams said:
In the latest gross violation of free speech committed by radical left-wing tech giants, YouTube has now deleted the entire Health Ranger video channel, wiping out over 1,700 videos covering everything from nutrition, natural medicine, history, science and current events. 
Over the last two weeks, YouTube has been on a censorship rampage that’s apparently run by the SPLC, a radical left-wing hate group that despises Christianity, the Second Amendment and patriots in particular.  Hundreds of prominent conservative video channels have been targeted for termination by YouTube, leading many independent media leaders like myself to call for government regulation of YouTube to protect free speech and end the tyranny.
The SPLC, allow me to point out, is the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, hate crimes, and extremists in the United States, and only gets involved with YouTube if there's a video that promotes ethnic, racial, or religious hatred.  So targeting the SPLC is nothing short of bizarre.

But the long and short of it is, YouTube is a privately owned, for-profit company, and there is no reason in the world that it should have to host Mike Adams's nutcake screeds if the Board of Directors says it doesn't want to, any more than I should have to allow Adams to do a guest post on Skeptophilia because he claims it's his right under the First Amendment.  So in fact, what he's doing right now is whining because he flouted the rules and got caught at it, and is trying to deflect the blame on the liberals and tech giants and (for fuck's sake) the SPLC.

Myself, I have to admit my reaction to this was: ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.  Much as I advocate for the right of free expression and the principle of caveat emptor, it really would be a better world if we had fewer people making crazy and potentially dangerous claims.  So I'm afraid I can't work up much sympathy for Adams.  In fact, what I really wish is that he would take Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and Gwyneth Paltrow along with him.  That would really be some schadenfreude I could get behind.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Safety shift

It's simultaneously amusing and a little frightening how sure we all are of our own opinions.

When challenged, we tend to react either with incredulity or with anger.  How on earth could anyone believe differently than we do?  Our own beliefs arise, of course, from a careful consideration of the facts, of the world as it is.  If you think differently, well, you're just not putting things together right.

And not only do we use our certainty in our own rightness to make judgments about others, we also use it to cement our own conclusions over time.  I recall with some discomfort the time I was being interviewed on a radio program, and the host asked me a perfectly legitimate question for someone who is a self-styled skeptic, namely: has there been a time that I have been challenged in one of my beliefs, and after analysis, turned out to be wrong?

Well, it was a fair knock-out.  I could only recall one time that, in the (then) five years I'd written Skeptophilia, that a reader had posted an objection that changed my mind.  (If you're curious, it was about the efficacy of low-level laser therapy on wound healing; she came at me with facts and data and sources, and even if I'd been inclined to argue, I had no choice but to admit defeat and retreat in disarray.)

But other that that?  When I get objections, I tend to do what most of us do.  Say, "Oh, how sad for you that you don't agree with me," and forthwith stop thinking about it.

What's so appalling about this is how easily those seemingly set-in-stone root beliefs can be changed by circumstances outside of our control, and often, without our even knowing it's happening.  Which brings me to a simple but elegant experiment done at Yale University by John Bargh, Jaime Napier, Julie Huang, and Andy Vonasch that appeared in the European Journal of Social Psychology late last year.  The experiment springboarded off a longitudinal study done at the University of California that showed that the more fear a child expressed over novel situations in a laboratory at age four, the more conservative (s)he was likely to be twenty years later.  Conservatives, it has been found, are more likely to regard the unfamiliar with suspicion, and in fact, have higher activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with anxiety.  Liberals, on the other hand, have a greater degree of trust in the unknown (whether justified or not), and tend to be less fearful of new people and new experiences.

So what Bargh et al. decided to do was to see if the opposite might hold true -- if changing people's sense of being safe would alter their political stances.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And they did.  Bargh's team guided participants through an intense visualization exercise, which for some participants was about having the ability to fly, and for others being invulnerable and safe from harm in all situations.

The results were dramatic.  In Bargh's words:
If they had just imagined being able to fly, their responses to the social attitude survey showed the usual clear difference between Republicans and Democrats — the former endorsed more conservative positions on social issues and were also more resistant to social change in general. 
But if they had instead just imagined being completely physically safe, the Republicans became significantly more liberal — their positions on social attitudes were much more like the Democratic respondents.  And on the issue of social change in general, the Republicans’ attitudes were now indistinguishable from the Democrats.  Imagining being completely safe from physical harm had done what no experiment had done before — it had turned conservatives into liberals.
This study has a couple of interesting -- and cautionary -- outcomes.

First, the researchers did not look at how long-lasting these changes were, so even for those who think the changes were a good thing (probably my left-leaning readers), there's no guarantee that the leftward shift was permanent.  Second, consider the fact that the shift occurred by having people visualize an imaginary scenario -- i.e., something that isn't true.  Even if the shift was long-lasting, I have some serious qualms about changing people's beliefs based on having them imagine a falsehood.  That, to me, is no better than having them persist in erroneous beliefs because of a lack of self-analysis.

But to me the scariest result of the experiment by Bargh et al. is to consider how this tendency is exacerbated -- or, more accurately, manipulated -- by the media.  Conservative news sources thrive on inducing fear.  (As one example, think about the yearly idiocy over at Fox News about we atheists' alleged "War on Christmas.")  By the same token, liberal media tends to focus on stories that make you feel better, at least about the usual left-wing talking points -- stories, for example, of immigrants who have succeeded and become model citizens.  In both cases, it's powered by our tendency to shift rightward when we feel threatened and leftward when we feel safe -- and, in both cases, to keep listening to the news sources that reinforce those feelings.

I'm not at all sure what to do about this, or honestly, if there's anything that can be done.  We all have our biases in one direction or the other to start with, and we're pretty likely to seek out news sources that corroborate what we already thought.  A combination of confirmation bias and the echo-chamber effect.  But what the Bargh et al. study should show us is that we can't become complacent and stop considering our own beliefs in the sharpest light available -- and always keep in mind the possibility that our own opinions might not be as carved in stone as we'd like to think.