? and the Contrarians

questions

The most hardened conspiracy theorists make reckless, baseless accusations based on wild conjecture that represent the most extreme examples of begging the question, which is when one assumes their premise to be true without offering supporting proofs.

Then there is a less-stringent type of theorist who paints themselves as being merely curious or skeptical. And if that’s what a person is genuinely being, fine. Good, even. But asking questions can be different than seeking answers. The latter may involve genuine research and querying sites and sources one holds in low regard. Most importantly, it means being willing to arrive at a different conclusion than what you might wish for

This week, I saw an offensive and absurd meme which insists that the George Floyd tragedy was staged. The “evidence” is an assertion that the officer is resting the bulk of his weight on his free knee and that the police license plate has no numbers or letters other than “POLICE” in large characters across the breadth of the plate.

The answers to these issues could be found by seeking out physiologists or the Minnesota DMV. But those making such assertions make no such attempts. They merely pronounce victory over the brainwashed sheep and ignore any evidence that would come out during trials or investigations and assume an impossibly-large stable of crisis actors to pull of the ruse.

If an answer were to be offered, those posting such memes would reject the response, regardless of the science, the evidence, or the credentials of the speaker. We are nearly two decades removed from 9/11 and some people are still “just asking questions” about melting steel beams or how a passport could avoid incineration. These types portray themselves as open-minded and, by default, anyone who disagrees with this approach to be closed-minded. After all, who could be against examining and “just asking questions”?

But again, people who use this phrase are generally not actually just asking questions. Rather, they are disingenuously phrasing a hardened belief as a question while trying to maintain a façade of being reasonable and open to truth.

An anonymous Logic of Science blogger wrote, “Good questions stem naturally from known facts and evidence. In other words, they have a basis in reality.” Bad questions, such as those related to the Floyd tragedy, are without evidence and just unfettered conjecture being crammed into a predetermined narrative.

The blogger demonstrated the difference between a genuine question and one which only aims to make the speaker seem curious. He used an example from his field of herpetology. Regarding why aquatic turtles emerge from water to bask on rocks and logs, there have been suggestions that this action might be related to temperature, immune functions, or parasite cleanings.

“All of these are good questions…based on our existing knowledge of biology,” he wrote. But suppose someone ambles along and posits that maybe the shelled creatures are seeking escape from interplanetary interlopers who have invaded their lake.

“That would be a bad question, because it’s not based on any known facts. There is no reason to think that aliens are involved, and we’d need good evidence of the presence of aliens before it would be rational to even consider the possibility that they are involved.”

Indeed.  Yet the conspiracy theorist response such dismissals is to declare the other person to be in on the plot, scared of the truth, or trying to hide something.

But since there is no rationale for thinking aliens are chasing turtles or that Floyd and his murderer props in a ruse, these ideas can be discounted out of hand. Christopher Hitchens nailed this one when he declared, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

So wondering how COVID-19 came to be is a natural thought and could even be the first step in the Scientific Method of trying to find a cure.

However, asking, “Did Bill Gates orchestrate the coronavirus so that he could microchip us all” is a poor question. There is no evidence to suggest Gates devised the virus or wants to use the resulting vaccine to track our movements. Persons arrive at such conclusions by taking a circuitous route of cherry picking disparate points and ignoring the Law of Truly Large Numbers.

The “just asking questions” crowd rarely issues such interrogative statements in good faith or for genuine dialogue. Anyone who asks if Bill Gates is going to microchip us via a future vaccine has already answered their own question.

There is nothing wrong with asking a question if one will examine the evidence and accept where it leads, but that’s not usually the case. I have presented strong evidence to the contrary when persons have asked if HAARP is controlling the weather. The response was not to thank me for the enlightenment, but rather a galvanizing of their beliefs. They were “just asking questions” based on those beliefs, not on wanting to know.

“Frack no” (Hydraulic fracturing)

tapwater

Hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, is a procedure where workers pump high-pressure water into natural gas reserves that sit deep underground. It serves to break up the rock and make the natural gas easier to mine.

There are a few supposed issues with fracking: That it so pollutes tap water that the liquid can catch fire if a match is lit near it; That it unleashes toxic chemicals which contaminate our ground water; and that it causes earthquakes.

It’s true that holding a match next to a running tap that contains enough methane – the main ingredient in natural gas – will result in a burst of flames. However, whether this can be pinned on fracking is doubtful.

Water wells are shallow, whereas fracking takes place miles underground. There are usually several layers or rock formations between where the fracking takes place and where well water resides. There’s little if any transfer of gas or liquid between these two stratum, which are separated by many rock layers.

The burning of water can happen anytime wells are near an area housing natural gas. Mining of this gas can cause methane to move from a high-pressure area to a lower-pressure one. Also, an inadequate seal on natural gas wells may leak methane. This is especially likely to occur near old, abandoned wells.

Now, onto the assertion that fracking pumps hundreds of poisonous chemicals into the ground. Water makes up at least 98 percent of fracking fluid. Another one percent consists of a proppant, which is mostly sand. The rest of the fracking fluid serves as a lubricant and what is used differs based on circumstance. Toxicity is determined by amount, not ingredient, and while there are trace elements used in fracking that would be hazardous in higher concentrations, they are used in safe numbers during this process.

As to earthquakes, in the strict definition, fracking causes these, but only ones so minor that they do no damage.  Whenever a rock cracks underground, it qualifies as a seismic event. However, fragile shale is the main kind of rock involved and fracking drills horizontally through natural gas, not through a hard rock fault zone.

Fracking the shale to break it up is unlikely to relieve any massive forces. Rather, fracking opens up shale in a stable manner, the sand holds the fractures open, and no unstable layer results. Finally, since all this takes place miles below the surface, pressures are easily sufficient to hold the ground in place.

 

“Golden deceiver” (φ)

CAT

With this year being an unfortunate exception, I have traditionally ran an NCAA Tournament pool. For the last several seasons, I have used a point-distribution system based on the Fibonacci sequence, in which any given number is the sum of the previous two numbers. When applied to a Tournament pool, this means that the sequence awards up to 8 points for a correctly naming a regional final winner, up to 13 points for calling a national semifinal correctly, and up to 21 points for picking the right champion.

The system’s originator also devised a control whereby upsets are worth more points, relative to how big a shocker it is seed-wise. The system used some fairly advanced mathematics, and being not fairly advanced mathematically, I forwarded the pool outline to a Ph.D. in the field, who confirmed that the ideas presented were sound. As if I needed more proof, the first year that I used the system, I won the pool.

The Fibonacci Sequence is frequently associated with the Golden Ratio, although there is no evidence that the 13th Century Italian mathematician was thinking about the ratio when he came up with the formula. He devised it while solving a problem that centered on rabbit populations.

The idea that Fibonacci employed the Ratio while coming up with the sequence that bears his name is one of many myths associated with the Ratio.

The Golden Ratio has the value of 1 to φ, or phi. φ is about 1.618, but like pi’s 3.14, this is an approximation since phi is an irrational number that strings along infinitely.

φ and the Golden Ratio have multitudinous mathematical applications. Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning explained one such case thusly: “If you take a rectangle whose sides are proportional to the golden ratio, you can cut a square off one end of it, and the resulting small rectangle that remains is of the exact same proportions as the original. You can cut a square off of that and you’ll get a still smaller golden ratio rectangle, and you can do this ad infinitum.

Nature has discovered its applications. Dunning noted that, “A tree is most efficient if as many leaves as possible are visible and not shaded by other leaves. As a stem grows, it follows a genetic formula to know how often to produce a leaf and at what angle from the preceding leaf…Produce φ leaves per turn and no two leaves will ever shade each other.” A similar process allows sunflowers to grow with maximum efficiency.

Phi also plays a role in better acoustics and dynamics. Engineers can cancel unwanted audio waves or resonances if they design sound rooms or theatres on Golden Ratio principles.

This is all wonderful, but the Golden Ratio’s beauty has been coopted by the pseudoscientific crowd. Perhaps the best known example is the claim that the ancient Greeks who designed the Parthenon employed the Ratio, as assertion without historical or mathematical evidence. A look at the Parthenon’s design shows no employment of the Ratio, though some armchair archeologists think they have discovered it, which is mostly based on miscalculations.   

Another pseudoscientific claim is that the Golden Ratio is found throughout the human body, such as the width of the shoulders compared to the height of the head, where the belly button is in relation to the rest of the body, or the forearm’s length competed to the distance from the head to the fingertips. The glaring issue with such claims is that such proportions are different for everyone and thus, the Ratio is not in play. In the tree and sunflower cases, application of the Ratio is uniform for every such living organism.

A nearly soundproof way to tell real manifestations of the Golden Ratio from assumed ones is whether it serves a purpose that could not also be served by a similar number. A tree’s employment of the golden angle for its leaves’ distribution serves a clear purpose and requires φ. An example of a mistaken assumption is claiming that the joints in human fingers become longer at a rate that follows the Golden Ratio. Not only is this measurably wrong, but it would provide no specific benefit to people when they are filling out NCAA Tournament brackets or otherwise using their hands.

“Home evasion” (Social distancing and the immune system)

SUBGUN

There are many conspiracy theories centered on the coronavirus. Some of these would seem mutually exclusive but all are still bandied about by believers. For example, the suspicion that China developed it as a bioweapon is at odds with the idea that COVID-19 is mostly innocuous and being greatly overblown by leftists hoping to wreck the economy. Harmless chemical warfare does seem a tad contradictory. Yet this position, at least when broken into two separate charges, is a regular feature of the conspiracy crowd, whose members make appearances on my news feed with annoying regularity.

While there are many COVID conspiracy theories, our focus today is the narrow idea that being mostly homebound damages our immune system. In short, proponents feel that social distancing harms, not helps, the situation. Similar attempts to invert the normal order pop up frequently among conspiracy theorists: Excess carbon dioxide is good for the environment; insulin causes diabetes; vaccines are worse than what they prevent.

In Mother Jones, Keira Butler wrote of three persons who have posted claims about the putative immune system damage that social distancing is causing. She referenced two physicians and one engineer, who made separate videos outlining their positions.

It is telling that these claims were pitched to a sympathetic audience on YouTube and not submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. Alas, we will still assess the legitimacy of their assertions, not where they aired them.

The gist of their argument is that the lockdown is harming the immune system. They base this on the notion that germs and disinfectants are in constant battle, both evolving and adapting as they try to get the upper microscopic hand. Without exposure to enough germs, the trio argue, the immune system may grow lax and put up too feeble a fight. In some cases, there is merit to this idea, which is why some immunologists argue against trying to develop ultra-germ killers since it opens the chance that the germs which survive will further adapt and form a superbug, which is impervious to all treatments.

But this does not apply here since COVID-19 is not a chronic immune condition, but rather a novel virus that attacks the afflicted in ways immunologists don’t fully understand. As a novel virus, our immune system has no defense in place for it.

Moreover, isolated persons are still exposed to germs at home, which is another strike against the notion.

Social distancing helps to slow the spread of the virus and the anti-lockdown fervor, which is based not on the rate of infection or any projections, but on livid persons wanting a haircut and dine-in pizza, figures to be a public health disaster.

I miss the park, PTA meetings, and arcades, but not more than I value the health of my children, myself, and everyone else. A nationwide commitment to social distancing and pursuit of a vaccine would have solved this problem.

But selfishness and the ignoring of science are winning. A virus has no idea nor concern if its host is a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or independent, so this should have been the ultimate non-partisan issue. Instead, it is highly divisive and shows how dangerously close to the mainstream anti-science tropes and conspiracy theories are becoming.

Rather than isolation and inoculations, the other side embraces the naturalistic fallacy, where it is assumed that whatever is natural is good and whatever is artificial is bad. Butler cited one error-laden anti-vax group post, which claimed that masks, gloves, vaccines, and synthetic soap damage the immune system. This is another example a topsy-turvy belief where the prevention is labeled as the cause. The also claimed that fear damages the immune system. There is no truth to this, a good thing for the bazooka-toting Subway patron.

 

 

 

 

“A lot of nonsense” (Empty hospitals)

YELLOWKID

Proponents of medical conspiracy theories frequently exhort detractors to “do their research.”

By this, of course, they don’t mean earn a master’s in a related field, conduct original testing, give presentations to experts in the field, and submit findings for peer review. They mean spending two hours on Google or YouTube, watching videos that eschew the Scientific Method entirely, have been carefully filtered to include only items that agree with the pre-determined conclusion, and which dismiss all contrary evidence as more proof of the conspiracy.

Now, theorists have coopted another term and are mangling it to fit their agenda. They label “investigative journalists” those who tote video cameras into mostly empty hospital parking lots, and present this as evidence that COVID-19 is a total hoax or at least massively overblown.

There are a few reasons why the number of cars and trucks present is a poor vehicle, so to speak, for deducing the seriousness of a virus.

First, there are more than 5,000 hospitals in the United States, and about .1 percent of them have been hard hit by the coronavirus. If doing a story on the virus’ spread, it is logical that news media would focus on those hospitals and not those which only had one or two cases. Skeptic leader Benjamin Radford noted that stories which make the national news are seldom ones that are indicative of what the entire country is experiencing.

There are virus hotspots since the spread of COVID-19 varies widely by region and population center. It would be expected that some hospitals would be overwhelmed, some would have moderate impacts, and others be barely affected.

A second factor is that fewer people are going to the hospital because of reduced budgets and staffing. Radford wrote, “Most hospitals make half or more of their revenue from elective procedures, which have been put on hold.”

He continued, noting that this now sometimes includes even serious matters: “A survey of nine major hospitals showed the number of severe heart attacks being treated in U.S hospitals had dropped by nearly 40 percent since the novel coronavirus took hold in March. Patients are so afraid to enter hospitals that they are dying at home or waiting so long to seek care that they’re going to suffer massive damage to their hearts or brains.”

No visitors are allowed and fewer medical personnel and prospective patients are showing up at hospitals, hence less vehicles.

None of the “investigative journalists” brought up these points or asked questions of anyone, be they hospital employees or an outside medical expert. They have no journalism degree, experience, or training. They merely posted videos of themselves walking around a parking lot, drew unsubstantiated conclusions about what it meant, and hit ‘upload.’ If that’s journalism, my drive to Dollar Tree makes me a NASCAR champion.

“See through it” (Blindfold reading)

BLINDFOLD

In India, there are those who claim children can read and see through solid objects while blindfolded, and proponents dub the ability midbrain activation.

The midbrain is part of the anatomy, located at the top of the brain stem. Its purpose is to coordinates eye and body movements, and it also plays a role in hearing, short-term memory, and pupil constriction.

But in a classic pseudoscience tactic, proponents adopt a genuine scientific term then misuse it. Skeptic leader Brian Dunning uncovered a midbrain enthusiast on YouTube who claimed the midbrain remains in an inactivated state until acted upon by a series of mental exercises. Other than select Indian yogis, this portal remains closed, per the video.

Allegedly, achieving midbrain activation gives children the ability to keep their eyes closed and still be able to read, bike, play chess, and identify colors and pictures. Further, the youngsters can recollect readings for much longer and can commence to Shining by telepathically communicating with each other.

All of this is accomplished with a series of brain gym exercises, which allegedly serve to increase the brain’s melatonin production, and allows one to better see in the dark. There is nothing in medical literature to justify concluding that elevated melatonin levels produce an ability to enhance nighttime vision. Nor is there any evidence support supporting such wild ideas as telepathy or being able to see while blindfolded.

A competing midbrain activation theory holds that nāda-yoga, which incorporates sounds into the bodily contortions, can vibrate the brain, with those waves causing activation. Again, this is unsupported by any validated research.

It turns out that the whole deal is nothing more than an illusionary trick, and a poor one at that. Subjects merely sneak glances through a gap on either side of their nose, as they are wearing blindfolds placed in such a manner as to allow this. Children in on the ruse tilt their head back to look at something in front of them, or hold the object close under their face in order to see it by looking down past their nose.

Under controlled conditions, the supposed ability always fails. When researchers have the subjects try and read through a sealed opaque container, or the blindfold is affixed by a skeptic or neutral party, the only magic is that the ability to read blindfolded vanishes.

Which isn’t really a big deal since the kids can just take the blindfold off and read that way.

“Gold meddle” (Yamashita’s treasure)

GRIFFINGOLD

I have taken a few trips to the Philippines and will probably get back some day. If so, I could embark on a quest to find tunnels bored into green mountains, which lead to rolling hills of gold bullion. This collection, large enough to make every Moline resident a millionaire, is dubbed Yamashita’s Gold and has eluded all treasure seekers, government expeditions, and history buffs.

Legend tells that during World War II, Japan looted as much gold as it could plunder, melted it, and used captured Filipinos to bury it. Finally, the invaders sealed the victims and the booty. Many legends contain a harrowing aspect, even if the overarching idea – in this case a fortune waiting to be found – is an attractive one.

The Japanese looters planned to return for the riches when the fighting ended.  When they were defeated, they lost the gold as well, and there it still sits, awaiting discovery by a Scrooge McDuck.

All this is a greatly-condensed version of Sterling and Peggy Seagrave’s book, The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan’s Imperial Family. A sequel, Gold Warriors: America’s Secret Recovery of Yamashita’s Gold, whose title acts as a spoiler, details how we Yanks got that treasure, plus some Nazi loot, and kept both in a slush find to fight them no-good Commies. We won the Cold War, so I guess it worked.

A counter claim has been made by treasure hunter Charles McDougald, who reported that he and fellow hunter Robert Curtis went looking for Yamashita’s Gold, with the blessing and funding of Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos. They claimed to have found the stunning stash, yet produced no gold nor even a photo of such. After a second expedition failed to yield even a claim they had found it, the duo were booted from the country. They claimed this only happened since they were so close to finding it and Marcos wanted it all to himself. 

In such a scenario, the dictator would, of course, swooped it up, bought his wife 10,000 more pairs of shoes, and further funded the elimination of his enemies. Yet, Curtis and McDougald inadvertently revealed that they didn’t actually believe Marcos was about to horde it when the accepted Corazón Aquino’s offer to resume the search following the 1986 revolution. This expedition managed only to damage landmarks and spur accusations about booby traps preventing the find. Following repeated failures, the two were banished from the country a second time.

Yet another claim came from Rogelio Roxas, who filed suit against the Marcoses for the treasure’s value. Roxas claimed he used a map given to him by the son of a Japanese soldier to find Yamashita’s Gold and a golden Buddha. The discovery included seeing the corpses of the victims who were buried along with it.

Roxas insisted he and his compatriots tried to sell the Buddha to finance removal of the rest of the treasure, whereupon Marcos had expedition members tortured until they revealed the location.

While there are various claims about the gold, they have the commonality of having produced none of the treasure.

And while Japan was in control of the Philippines for about three years, it had no intention of making it a colony and, in fact, knew it could not hold the country forever. It would have been a terrible location to bury treasure.

The, cough-cough, History Channel claims the Japanese carved symbols on rock faces leading to the locations of all the treasure tunnels. Yet neither History Channel producers nor anyone else has been able to follow these glaring clues to the stash.

It’s true the Japanese government and military seized valuables and raided the treasuries of invaded nations. But the resulting bounty went to the war effort, not to the planning of the granddaddy of all scavenger hunts.