Aug 12 2019

The Epstein Conspiracies

This was highly predictable. Of course there are conspiracies surrounding the apparent recent suicide of Jeffrey Epstein while in prison. That’s just background noise now. There are conspiracies about everything. Apparently the two shootings last weekend were false flag operations, because #conspiracies.

Just as predictably, news about the conspiracy theories, how they spread, and how they are treated by the media is itself news. And yes I get the irony that here I am blogging about it. It’s turtles all the way down. I guess in order to have something interesting to say I have to get one level more meta than everyone else – does that do it? Getting meta about being meta?

By now this phenomenon is old news. The traditional editorial filters are no longer in place. They have largely been replaced by algorithms which determine which news items are “trending.” This becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop that allows the worst information to spread. Of course, this has always happened. Sensationalism and propaganda spread because they are interesting. They break up the mundane monotony of our lives. They are a real-life soap opera.

Jonathan Swift observed in 1710, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” There are also several versions of, “A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes.” The source of this quote, often mistakingly attributed to Mark Twain, is unclear. The point is – the inherent advantage that false but sensational information has in the human mind over prosaic truth has long been observed. And that, of course, is the ultimate medium, the human mind. The external method of spreading false information is incidental to the core phenomenon, but it can influence the speed with which such information spreads and the credibility it is given.

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Jul 30 2019

The Challenge of Deepfakes

You have probably heard of deepfakes by now – convincing video manipulation that is improving rapidly, getting better and easier. Right now you can often tell when a video has been manipulated. The human eye is very sensitive to movement, facial expressions, and other subtle cues. But the best examples are getting more difficult, and experts predict there will be deepfakes undetectable by most people within a year.

How will this affect the world? Most reports I read simply say that people won’t be able to trust videos anymore (we already can’t trust photos). But that doesn’t capture the situation. People knowing that video can be manipulated won’t really solve the problem.

The problem is psychology – people can be primed and manipulated subconsciously. Let’s say, for example, that you see a video of a famous person committing a horrible crime, or saying something terrible. Even if you know such videos can be faked, or hear the claim that that video was fake, the images may still have an emotional effect. It becomes part of your subconscious memory memory of that person.

Human memory also will contribute to this effect. We are better at remembering claims than remembering where we heard them (source amnesia) or if they are true or not (truth status amnesia). Seeing a dramatic video of a person doing something horrible will stick with you and will be much more vivid than later information about forensic examination of the video.

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Jul 16 2019

Multi-Level Marketing Is Still a Scam

Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) companies are inherently, in my opinion, exploitative. The MLM model is that the sales force is hierarchical – you are hired by someone who takes a cut of what you earn. You, in turn, can make money by recruiting your own sellers, who each pay you a cut of what they earn, and what everyone below them earns. In other words – it’s a pyramid scheme.

A raw pyramid scheme is just a transfer of money – I give you $10, and recruit five people to give me$10, and so on. Everyone makes money, except for those who get stuck at the bottom of the pyramid. Pyramid schemes are generally illegal because only the people at the top really make money. The math of the situation guarantees that even in a few generations the pyramid will burn itself out. (1-5-25-125-625-3,125-15,625-78,125-390,625-1,953,125-9,765,625-48,828,125-244,140,625) In 13 levels you get close to the entire population of the US, in 2 more, close to the population of the Earth.

An MLM is basically a pyramid scheme in which a product is used as cover for the transfer of money. Sellers need to buy product from the company, which they may use themselves but are also meant to sell. Some MLMs require a minimum purchase each month, whether you sell it or not. In this way also the salespeople are also customers. It amazes me that this is at all legal. Most states and the federal government regulate MLMs rather than outlaw them completely For example, sellers need to demonstrate that they make most of their income from actually selling products, not just getting paid by those under them. Certain practices, such as requiring a minimum product purchase, can be outlawed as well.

The numbers tell the story. An analysis by the FTC found that 100% of the 350 MLMs they looked at were top heavy, meaning that the vast majority of the profit went to the very top promoters, while everyone else lost money. A staggering 99% of those involved lost money. In fact, it’s worse than a no-product straight pyramid scheme, in which 90% of participants lose money. There, of course, will be exceptions – that seller who is 2-3 standard deviations from the mean, who was in the perfect situation, or just has exceptional business and marketing skills. They make money, and then they become the poster child for that MLM. If they can do it, you can do it.

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Jul 04 2019

Pseudodemocracy

Today is the Fourth of July. First, I want to say happy birthday to my two brothers, Bob and Joe, fraternal twins who were born on the 4th. But also happy birthday to America. The 4th is always a good time to reflect on what the American experiment in constitutional democracy really means.

I tend to look at it this way – process is more important than outcome. This is true in the same way it is true for science and critical thinking. Science is a system of valid methods used to build an empirical model of reality. In science, using proper methods is what counts, not the outcome of the experiment. When you put the outcome first, and then use whatever methods necessary to generate the desired outcome, that’s pseudoscience.

In the same way we have a system of government that puts the rule of law, with the Constitution being the highest law, above any particular outcome. It is supposed to be a peaceful and fair method of determining things like law, justice, rights, and the expenditure of common resources. It is valid in that it derives from the people with fair and even representation. Obviously the system is not perfect, partly because people are not perfect, but also because running a country with over 300 million people is horrifically complicated and must, by necessity, involve numerous trade-offs.

But the idea of the Constitution is that we have a system, and if everyone follows the system then at least there are checks and balances, there is a system for correction of error, people have a way to make their will felt, and the whole thing grinds messily on. A friend of mine recently observed, however, that what really has surprised and even frightened him over the last two years is the realization that the whole system is much more of a gentleman’s agreement than he ever imagined. I tend to agree.

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Jun 24 2019

Study on Visual Framing in the Presidential Debates

This week we will have the first primary debates of the presidential cycle, with two Democratic debates of the top 20 candidates (10 each night). A timely study was just published looking at the coverage of the different candidates in the 2016 primary debates of both parties. The results show a dramatic disparity in how different candidates were covered.

Unfortunately, the headline of the press release is misleading: Study Shows Visual Framing by Media in Debates Affects Public Perception. The study did not measure public perception, and therefore there is no basis to conclude anything about how the framing affected public perception. The study only quantified the coverage. But what they found was interesting.

They went frame by frame through the first two primary debates of both parties and calculated how much coverage each candidate had and what type – solo, split screen, side-by-side, multi-candidate shot, and audience reaction. This is what they found:

We likewise considered how much time the camera spent on a given candidate before cutting away by computing  -scores for each candidate’s mean camera fixation time (see Figure 3). This allowed us to see whether networks were visually priming the audience to differentially perceive the candidates as viable leaders. These data show that across the four debates, only Trump, specifically during CNN’s Republican Party debate, had substantially longer camera fixations (  ) than the other candidates (   to 1.84). During this debate, Bush (  ) was the only candidate besides Trump to have a positive z-score, providing modest support for our visual priming hypotheses concerning fixation time (H2). While for the Fox News debate, Cruz (  ) and Huckabee (  ) had substantially higher  -scores than the rest of the field, including Trump, their scores were well within the bounds of expectations. Likewise, on the Democratic side, neither CNN (   to 1.17) nor CBS (   to 0.89) gave a significant visual priming advantage to any candidate, although there were trends toward front-runners Clinton and Sanders having slightly longer than average fixation times during both debates.

Essentially, there was a lot of noise in the data, but only one significant spike above the noise – during the CNN debate Trump had significantly more camera time than the rest, with Bush also having greater camera time but not nearly as much as Trump. At the time they were the two front-runners in polling. Clinton and Sanders also had a trend towards more camera time in their debates, but not statistically significant.

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Jun 06 2019

The Metric System Is Not a Conspiracy

Oh boy. I probably shouldn’t do this, but my “someone is wrong on the internet” instincts are overwhelming me. Tucker Carlson recently had on a guest, James Panero, who essentially repeats the arguments he laid out in this article. Who is Panero? Apparently he is an art critic. I don’t know if he is truly a conspiracy nut, or was just looking for an issue to propel him onto the media for his 15 minutes of fame.

I will also say at this point that I don’t think Carlson is worth responding to. He, in my opinion, is just a highly paid troll catering to an extreme political view. Of course I don’t know what he actually believes, but I wouldn’t assume he believes what he says. Performance art is a more likely hypothesis.

In any case, it doesn’t really matter. He put the arguments out there, complete with factual errors and poor logic, and it’s worth setting the record straight.

Carlson starts:

“Almost every nation on Earth has fallen to tyranny: the metric system,” said Carlson. “From Beijing to Buenos Aires, from Lusaka to London, the people of the world have been forced to measure their environment in millimeters and kilograms. The United States is the only country that is resisted, but we have no reason to be ashamed for using feet and pounds.”

He mispronounces “kilograms” then makes a funny face – performance art.  But on to the actual arguments. Panero makes the point that “It was customary units that calibrated the machinery of the Industrial Revolution and took us 240,000 miles to the moon.”

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May 31 2019

Teaching Media Literacy

Like many activist skeptics I have spoken to, on several occasions I have been summoned to jury duty, which was a short-lived experience. On voir dire I was asked what I do and the fact that I host a skeptical podcast came up. This lead to my almost instantaneous dismissal. Lawyers, apparently, don’t want a skeptical jury. They want jurors they can manipulate. Likewise, politicians often appreciate a pliable electorate, willing to internalize whatever slogan or propaganda they feed them. Democracy, however, functions best when citizens are informed and can think critically about the information politicians and their government are feeding them.

This is why there is so much hand-wringing over what many feel is a crisis of “fake news.” As is often pointed out, fake news is nothing new, but we do seem to be entering an era of “truth decay.” Media contains more appeals to emotion, and fewer verifiable facts. Social media is certainly playing a role in this, but of course it is complicated to fully define this. The prevailing question is – what do we do about it?

As CNN reports, Finland’s answer is to do something radical – teach media literacy to all citizens. As CNN also points out, Finland is a small homogeneous country with a particular culture and national identity, which means we cannot simply extrapolate their experience to other countries. The media landscape in the US, for example, is very different. But, there is also likely considerable overlap in the challenges being faced. Finland also faces Russian propaganda exploits, and is dealing with the same array of social media outlets as everyone else.

What is media literacy? The National Association for Media Literacy Education (which ironically has the horrible acronym NAMLE), defines media literacy as:

The ability to ACCESS, ANALYZE, EVALUATE, CREATE, and ACT using all forms of communication.

One example of good communication would be, for example, not overusing all caps. But seriously, the goal is essentially to teach critical thinking in the context of consuming all media. This goal might be familiar to the readers of this blog. This is also the exact topic of my recent book, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to know what’s really real in a world increasingly full of fake. The subtitle is another way to frame media literacy.

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May 13 2019

The Ending of Game of Thrones

<Warning – spoilers galore if you are not up to date>

I always knew, deep down, that Game of Thrones (GOT) would not have a happy ending. Once Ned Stark got his head cut off at the end of the first book/season, I think everyone knew this was a different kind of fantasy story. I read the books first, and as I did it became clear that I was reading a tragedy and a horror story, not heroic fantasy.

I have a few thoughts I would like to share as the last episode of the series is ready to air. The people I watch the show with had a range of reactions to the second-to-last episode, but I think it was completely consistent with the story George R.R. Martin has been telling us all along. He has been deconstructing the medieval fairy tale right in front of our eyes, hitting us over the head with the reality that we already know. It’s interesting how difficult it can be for many to just accept that.

The final delusion was that Martin would bring it all back home. In the end the heroes would defeat evil, a good person would sit on the throne, and a golden age would dawn – it’s the Lord of the Rings ending. But come on – didn’t we all know this story was not LOTR?

First, the Night King, the White Walkers, and their army of the dead was always a side show, even if it was the most captivating. Most of the series has focused on the title action – a game of thrones. I liken the Night King to a natural disaster – it’s looming in the background, some are warning of it, but mostly people ignore it while they focus on their short term politics. In the end we are really not prepared when the disaster finally arrives. The living actually straight-up lose the battle of Winterfell. (Don’t get me started on the terrible battle tactics: opening with a frontal cavalry charge, putting your troops outside your own choke point, and not opening with a sustained artillery bombardment, etc. – but that’s a side point.)

I think the lesson there is that death comes for all of us, and the best we can really do when we confront it is to either say, “not today,” or to face it bravely. Somehow life manages to keep crawling forward.  It’s like the Plague, in the end it’s a distraction from what we are really interested in, our political battles.

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Apr 23 2019

Behind the Curve – Flat Earth Exposed

I finally watched Behind The Curve, a documentary about the Flat Earth movement. It is a powerful documentary which provides important insights into this fascinating phenomenon. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it.

For me the most interesting moments were those when the Flat Earth believers the film focuses on show a flash of insight. They never quite get there, but they have all the pieces in front of them, they see them, they see their significance, but can’t quite make the final emotional connection.

The other aspects that I found most interesting were those that provided generic insight into how ideological movements work. There is some basic and universal human psychology going on, and in some ways it’s a mirror to any group of humans, including skeptics.

I also was especially interested in the question, directly addressed by the film, of how best to approach Flat Earthers and the entire movement. What is our responsibility here as science communicators, and what is our best strategy?

Some reviews have focused on those moments when Flat Earthers did experiments to test their theory, and were wrong. These are, of course, delicious. For example, one group purchased a ring laser gyroscope, a \$20k device that can very sensitively measure movement. They say straight up, and correctly, that if the earth is a globe and it rotates once every 24 hours, then there should be a 15 degree drift in the gyroscope every hour. That is their experimental hypothesis.

So – they set up the device and…it measures a 15 degree drift every hour. QED – the Earth is a rotating globe.

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Mar 26 2019

That’s Not a Witch Hunt

Every time I heard someone use the term “witch hunt” recently I was reminded of that quote from Indigo Montoya from The Princess Bride – “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” With the recent release of the Mueller report, many news outlets feel obliged to interview people on the street about their opinions. This is an inane practice that provides no useful information, just cherry-picks random opinions. Every single time I heard the term “witch hunt”, it was used incorrectly.

It’s not just random people who do not understand the term. Because Trump has used the term over 260 times and counting to refer to the Mueller probe, many political commentators have also been using the term – mostly incorrectly. Dana Milbank, for example, wrote in the Washington Post:

Just because Trump says something, however, doesn’t automatically mean it’s wrong. The treatment of Trump by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and other investigators does have characteristics of a witch hunt. This is because Trump has characteristics of a witch.

So says a leading authority on the history of witchcraft, Thomas J. Rushford, history professor at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale. In an anthropological sense, Trump “is really quintessentially a witch figure,” the professor tells me, and if what is happening to Trump is a witch hunt, “it is only in a good sense, that is, this is society policing the boundaries that they believe to be ethically and morally right.”

But there is no witch hunt “in a good sense.” This misunderstands the essence of what a witch hunt is. The logic here is that if Trump is analogous to a witch, then the investigation was a witch hunt. Or, on the other side, if Trump is innocent of collusion, then by definition the investigation to determine whether or not he is guilty is a witch hunt. One random interviewed person even said that because the probe found no evidence of collusion it was a “failed witch hunt.”

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