“Spring straining” (DDT)

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DDT is short for a 31-lettered, synthetic insecticide created during the Great Depression. Its initial use was to kill disease vectors such as mosquitoes, lice, and tsetse flies. It was so effective and beneficial that discoverer Paul Hermann Müller received the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Subsequently it was used in agriculture to protect crops from a variety of pests, and again proved efficient at doing so. But in the late 1950s, detractors raised the alarm about possible health effects on people and animals. The main concern was that DDT was causing eggshell thinning that resulted in the death of embryonic birds.  

Following the 1962 release of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, DDT’s use was prohibited in many countries. While the ban has been cited by some as helping bird populations recover, others have characterized it as overzealous. Those in the latter camp consider its alleged detrimental effects to have been exaggerated. They further note that DDT has the sizable benefit of saving Third World lives through malaria reduction.

We now know that eggshell thinning can be caused by lead, oil, phosphorus, calcium deficiency, and dehydration. Stress can also be a factor for captive birds undergoing testing. While DDT could also be to blame, Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning wrote that several studies in the 1970s and ‘80s failed to correlate even high levels of the insecticide with thinning. To be fair, other studies reached a different conclusion, one that was consistent with what Carson suggested. After perusing the studies and examining the issue, Dunning wrote, “My conclusion based on a review is that there probably is a correlation, but it’s not a strong one; and at best it’s only one of many causes. Whether DDT is used or not would probably not have a large impact on bird populations.”

Further, Silent Spring focused mostly on bald eagles, a species that was already experiencing a significant decline because of habitat loss and over-hunting.  The Bald Eagle Protection Act and the bird’s placement on the endangered species list in 1967 spurred its successful comeback. Attributing this to a DDT ban is likely a correlation/causation error.

And even if a DDT ban has benefited bird populations, those in the Third World are dying because of it since the insecticide remains one of the most effective pesticides at fighting malaria. Although DDT remains legal for insecticide use where widespread malaria exists, money for combating mosquitoes often comes from wealthy donors in the West.  Those donors sometimes stipulate that DDT not be used, leaving recipient nations with less efficient options. That contributes to such results as 407,000 Africans dying from malaria in 2016, compared to zero killed by DDT.

 

  

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“It’s not a game” (Momo Challenge)

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I had little doubt the Momo Challenge was a hoax when I first heard about it. And last week my news feed became overwhelmed with articles testifying to that conclusion. I was pleased to see this moral panic squashed in a world populated by flat Earthers, anti-vaxxers, persons who think a cold Minnesota January disproves climate change, and non-GMO labels on foods that have no genetically-modified equivalent. Score one for reasoned thinking.

Momo is a sculpture created by a Japanese special effects company and there is no evidence she has been coopted by a shadowy organization dedicated to fomenting a mass suicide of teens and tweens.  

Still, an online legend tells of children being enticed to harm themselves by a creepy, bug-eyed critter who is equal parts reptilian, avian, and woman. Momo is said to pop up on social media posts, messaging apps, and videos. She then instructs, encourages, or threatens children to complete increasingly dangerous tasks like pill-popping, slicing their skin, or stabbing others. She often warns participants to never tell authority figures about the challenge, which often ends in suicide.

While there is no evidence this game is real, it plays on concerns of legitimate phenomena such cyberbullying and sextortion. It also repackages campfire tales of hook killers and dead children embedded in a drunk driver’s car grill and fits them for the modern age and today’s technology.  Skeptic leader Benjamin Radford considers the Momo Challenge to be a continuation of folk tales where youngsters are challenged to conduct a bravery ritual. This could including laying on train tracks, spending time in a haunted location, or chanting “Bloody Mary” into a mirror.

Beyond panicky parents, irresponsible TV networks are also fanning the fearful flames. CBS Baltimore reported that Momo “can target kids through Peppa Pig or Fortnite when parents aren’t around.” Yes, this creature is so frightening and cunning she somehow knows when adults leave the house. Not just a certain set of parents, but any adults worldwide who have children at home. Asserting that such a skill exists should have been a huge tipoff that none of this was real and the network was negligent to not better question this story before airing it.  

The decision may have been partly driven by there being several dozen 24-7 news outlets competing to fill space or airtime. Part of that airtime was spent on CBS Baltimore going so far as to claim Momo has been “reportedly linked to suicides in other countries,” without specifying where this happened or what the victim’s name was. Indeed, while the game has been blamed for a handful of suicides, none of those deaths have been confirmed as being part of a twisted viral challenge, for which no evidence exists.

The character is now one of the most ubiquitous and well-known in the online universe. Yet none of the many Momo images that have been shared show her taking a menacing tone with vulnerable youngsters. Instead, we’re just seeing the same picture of the same sculpture. She is touted as a widespread danger in a time where everyone has multiple ways of recording at any moment and we still lack any documentation of this twisted game happening. The closest thing are edited Peppa Pig videos with Momo sliced in, and these are not tied to anyone committing self-harm.

Still, news reports include boilerplate language about police warnings and sick cyber stalkers. There are also exhortations to monitor children’s activities and regularly check their apps and devices. Those are sound ideas, but a nonexistent threat need not be the impetus to follow through on them.

One UK parent told the credulous Daily Mail the game bore the responsibility for her 5-year-old cutting off part of her own hair. I can affirm that self-administered Kindergartener trims take place without a disturbing online presence being involved. A Kansas mother likewise blamed Momo for her son’s angry outbursts. This continues a long trend of cursing culture icons for leading youth down a wayward path. Before Momo, there was Beavis and Butt-Head, before Beavis, there was Elvis, and before Elvis there were wood-pulp paper books.

Indeed, the Momo Challenge has the features of a moral panic. First, it centers on a demented group or activity that attack us decent folk. Second, the response to moral panics is disproportionate to the threat they pose. Finally, for all the alarm they cause, moral panics have a relatively short shelf life, and this has been exacerbated in the social media age. Society has overcome its fear of comic books, Buddy Holly, and Dungeons & Dragons, and Momo seems headed for a quick retirement. Just as certain is that the resulting moral-panic vacuum will be short-lived.

 

“Hope springs infernal” (Diamond curse)

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Often times, that which is opulent or long-hidden will be said to carry some type of misfortune. Examples include select 19th Century manors, King Tut’s tomb, and the Hope Diamond. The latter is huge chunk of cerulean rock, a 45-carat eye-popper worth about $250 million, although its current owner, the Smithsonian Institution,  is neither willing nor able to sell it.

The diamond takes it names from one of its former owners, British banker William Hope, who acquired the massive gem in 1839. It made its way to Simon Frankel, who found the blue beauty to be a white elephant. You might have a Honus Wagner baseball card valued at $800,000 that you are trying to sell, but it’s only worth that to you if you can find a buyer. Frankel was having the same liquidity issues with the Hope Diamond. So he spun a wildly improbably tale, based in zero reality, that the jewel carried a curse.  His hope, so to speak, was that this would help him locate a purchaser who would paradoxically find the curse both unsettling but intriguing.  Frankel eventually sold it to Selim Habib, though it’s unclear whether the supposed curse influenced Habib or if he even knew about it.

The next year, the Times of London ran a satirical story which mocked Frankel, but which has come to be taken as truth, a forerunner of today’s fake news epidemic. The anonymous author told how the diamond once belonged to a Russian prince who gave it to a famous actress before shooting her on stage, after which angry patrons stabbed the monarch to death. Another owner committed suicide and the next recipient fell over a cliff to his grisly death. Later, assassins took out a young Turk royal wearing the diamond and a Hindu priest swiped it before succumbing to an unspecified agonizing death. This was all make-believe and wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously, but was instead needling Frankel for his curse claims.

Taking this ludicrous legend to new heights, The New York Times followed with a nonsense article that purported to catalog what had happened to previous holders. It reported that Habib and the diamond had been lost at sea near Singapore. Now, there had been a Selim Habib who went down in that shipwreck, but he merely shared his name with the Hope Diamond owner. Another ill-fated keeper, a cohort of King Louis XIV, is said to have been mauled to death by wild dogs. The monarch’s eventual beheading, along with that of Marie Antoinette, have also been cited as curse-related. Besides murders and suicides, there were rumors of insanity and bankrupt former multimillionaires among those who had procured the diamond.

While some of the owners did die horrific deaths, Marie Antoinette being the most prominent example, these bloody endings are explicable without invoking a curse. A revolution, for example, finishes off regime leaders whether or not they possess a specific gem.  

When misfortunes have occurred, deducing that this means there is a curse attached to the Hope Diamond requires cherry picking. Tragedies are highlighted, while any good fortune bestowed on the owners is ignored. For example, the Smithsonian has housed the diamond longer than any owner ever possessed it and the Institution has yet to suffer for this.

Furthermore, some of the tragedies afflicted not the owners, but their family members, and counting these instances as part of the curse greatly increases the pool of potential victims.

Most of the tragedies were made-up, often not even having a name associated with them. And the genuine instances are explicable through the Law of Truly Large Numbers.

It could be argued that the idea of a Hope Diamond curse is a morality tale about greed. In the lesson, someone who is already extremely affluent suffers when he or she tries to become even wealthier instead of using their substantial holdings for charity, alms, and the public good.

“Holey book” (Biblical contradictions)

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If one’s favored holy book contradicts itself, how is a follower to handle it? For Muslims, the verse which appears later in the Koran overrules the previous dictate. The contradiction is still there but at least there’s consistency with how to approach these discomforting occurrences.

Christians have much more complex ways of dealing with Biblical contradictions. Some deny their existence, but this requires extreme pretzel logic when there are  opposing statements as blatant as what is entertainingly detailed here. Exhaustive lists of such contradictions exist elsewhere and we won’t rehash them here. Rather, we will focus on the way the problem is handled by believers.

Christian fundamentalists tout the Bible as an immaculate work created by a flawless, all-knowing being. But it reads more like a hodgepodge product of Bronze Age Middle East nomads who took their limited knowledge of human nature and the natural world, then came up with magical explanations to fill in the sizable blanks.  

They also created Old Testament rules that were largely wiped out by Jesus. And the afterlife, which received barely a nod or description in the Torah, becomes a focal point of the New Testament, which lays out an everlasting Heaven in glorious detail. The gospels and epistles also introduced the doctrine of the Trinity, which was never referenced in the OT, and which in fact stands in sharp contrast to the overarching theme of that work – that there is one omnipotent, all-powerful, controlling god who gets riled by the notion of usurpers or contenders to his throne.  

The explanation for contradictions that I am most open to is translation errors. The Bible has been copied into many languages and each scribe has been encumbered with his own experiences, biases, and shortcomings. In fact, it would be stunning if there were no contradictions in a voluminous work patched together by dozens of writers over several hundred years. A seamless final effort could be a sign of divine authorship or at least extremely tight refinement and editing.

Now onto some other arguments I find less persuasive. Some believers have described the scriptures as a continuing revelation of God to Mankind. The deity refrained from revealing his full knowledge at the outset, but whenever he said anything, it was true. Some say this progressive revelation continues today.

That’s why Latter-Day Saints leaders keep coming up with new stuff, as do organizations ranging from upstart cults to the Catholic Church. In the 19th Century, a revelation from God to Mormon leaders decreed that marriage between races be forever forbidden. A later revelation cancelled that prohibition, and in this ever-changing system, the anti-miscegenation dictate could again be pronounced.

A major issue with the progressive revelation explanation is that it comes from persons who demand scriptural support for other positions, particularly iconoclastic ones. And there is no biblical verse which states God’s handiwork is ongoing, which suggests the Ten Commandments were a rough draft, or that scriptures were ever incomplete.

Another argument is that God delivered what folks were ready for, so people in different times and cultures would get told what they needed to hear. Again, this is not Biblical, which should matter if one is zealously defending the Bible. The likes of Ken Ham and Bryan Fischer regularly gloat that the Bible never changes, yet we see many instances of that, including verses involving key messages and doctrinal issues, such as the afterlife, how one gets there, and whether there is one form of God or three.

The most frequent answer is that Jesus is the key, but why would he be the stopping point? What negates later revelations to Mohammed, Joseph Smith, David Koresh, Jim Jones, Sun Myung Moon, Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, and many lesser-known cultists and charismatics? The next-to-last verse in the Bible, Revelation 22:19, reads, “If anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City.” Yet its placement near the end was merely the way way the final product was arranged; Biblical books II Peter, Titus, and I and II Timothy were penned after this warning in Revelation.

Blogger Bob Seidensticker noted that after the Bible was complete, “there were doctrinal inventions from 21 ecumenical councils,” which took place from 325 CE to 1965. Besides this, there were “many schisms within the Christian church,” to the point of having 37 varieties of Baptist.   

If the Bible were complete and unambiguous, these later interpretations would have been unnecessary and divisions among those genuinely seeking godly knowledge would not have taken place. A perfect, unchanging text would require no adaptations, interpretation, or explanation.

 

“Faraway lies” (Lyndon LaRouche)

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With Lyndon LaRouche’s passing last week, the world has lost a far-left, far-right, far-out conspiracy theorist whose enemies were an ever-changing gumbo. Over the years, he made eight spectacularly unsuccessful bids for the presidency. But while the results were the same, his message changed.

LaRouche initially embraced Marxism, to the point of launching Operation Mop Up, wherein his followers swung fists, bats, and chains at members of the Communist Party and others on the extreme left. His intent was to establish dominance over likeminded groups, similar to how Hitler considered organizations other than Nazis – even if they agreed with the National Socialists on every issue – to be his enemies.

Unlike Hitler, LaRouche failed in this hegemonic attempt and within a few years, he had swung 180 degrees and became politically aligned politically with the Ku Klux Klan and Liberty Lobby. But his paranoid conspiracy theorist mindset continued unabated, as he blamed environmentalists for the Iranian Revolution, leveled charges that Walter Mondale was a Soviet agent, and suggested AIDS patients be quarantined. This was accompanied by megalomaniacal claims, such as LaRouche alone being the one who could broker Arab-Israeli peace. 

He considered Henry Kissinger, Queen Elizabeth, environmentalists, and Satanists to be the forces behind the drug trade and much more. While he loathed many persons and organization, he had a particular disdain for all things British, thinking that their Empire never actually withered and they still controlled the world. He considered The Beatles and Harry Potter to be part of the nefarious plot. What the bloody hell, bloke?

When not making paranoid pronouncements, LaRouche stated a goal of militarizing nearly every aspect of society. He also wanted to exorcise Brits and their culture and create new super-race. While his viewpoints changed, the common thread was a doomsday ending via a worldwide economic collapse that only his proposed financial strategies could prevent. Along the way, he served five years for mail fraud and tax evasion, temporarily sharing a cell with Jim Bakker. Hard to say which party got the worst end of that deal.

In the 1990s, LaRouche tried to cozy up to a wide variety of groups, including those in the timber, ranching, and mining disciplines. His overtures were rejected, causing him to copy from the conspiracy theorist textbook and consider the lumberjacks, et al, to be part of the plot, one controlled by British libertarians and Milton Friedman lackeys.

By the 1990s, he abandoned the far right for the mushy middle and offered support for President Clinton, labeling his impeachment a right-wing attack and suggesting Monica Lewinsky was a Likud agent who had infiltrated the administration.

Such ideas are no more, unless his death is just a British hoax.

 

“Traffic cops” (Human trafficking hysteria)

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From communists to drugs to terrorists, the US has had its share of panics. While each of those entities existed, the putative cure often brought additional ailments and instead of fixing the problem, exacerbated it. We are seeing the same drawback today with the focus on human trafficking. Alarmist language, stereotyping, and relying on those without expert training are leading to the same problems we saw with the other panics.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, writing for Reason, profiled how hotel giant Marriott, in a now-deleted Tweet, boasted that its employees are trained to “spot an escort, to “keep an eye on any women who are traveling alone,” and to “not allow some women to drink at the bar alone.” Certainly, no decent person would want human trafficking anywhere and it’s easy to understand a business being vigilant about making sure it never took place on its premises.

But the deleted Tweet insinuates that a woman cannot be trusted to be by herself or to be left to her own devices. Not that men get a free ride, either. Some airlines conspicuously move adult males seated next to an unrelated minor and some men have even been accused of having an underage concubine at a hotel when the teenager was actually his daughter. None of these measures are eradicating human trafficking.

Often, the paranoia takes on racial overtones. Cindy McCain, co-chair of the Arizona Governor’s Council on Human Trafficking, made a minor news splash when she contacted airport police about seeing a woman and toddler of different ethnicities together. She recalled, “Something didn’t click with me. She was trafficking that kid. She was waiting for the guy who bought the child to get off an airplane.” 

This overzealous effort to foist a kidnapping turned out to be nothing more than McCain inconveniencing and embarrassing a mother and her child. Terry Firma at Patheos wrote, “A passion for or against a movement or a great cause often leads people to look for, and then to see, examples of their bugbear everywhere.”

McCain was likely unaware that 14 percent of the population is biracial, and with surrogacies, adoption, and remarriage, mixed race families are common. Also, about 20 percent of women keep their maiden name when getting married, and this can result in immediate family members having different last names. But these changing demographics are ignored in favor of alarm at airports, bus stations, and hotels.

One example cited by Reason involved an Asian woman and a Puerto Rican man sharing an orange juice, with this being touted by an airline employee as one sign that something wasn’t quite right. Another time, members of the Korean band Oh My Girl spent 15 hours detained at LAX on suspicion they were being trafficked. Keeping with the ethnic stereotyping, hospitality industry personnel are trained to consider references to massage parlors and Southeast Asia as potentially being a trafficking tipoff.

Like other panics, this one encourages citizen spying, which is now augmented by enhanced digital surveillance capabilities. Traffic cameras, indeed. Employees are cautioned to be on the lookout for travelers who seem fatigued or sleep deprived, even though these are common and expected conditions for someone who has spent hours on the road. Also under suspicion are guests with little luggage, with pornography, with multiple phones and computers, or who decline to have their room cleaned. Other signs are said to be: A waiting woman who is picked up by a man (especially if she’s scantily clad and he’s older); a car parked with its license plate away from the door; multiple rooms booked under one name; and having too many condoms. Even shabby clothes, sunglasses, and an oversized hat can be considered evidence of wrongdoing.    

For all this hyper-vigilance, we are seeing no uptick in trafficking convictions, and in fact, this nightmare seldom occurs. Firma wrote, “Sex trafficking is so rare that an experimental court in Delaware, set up to fight it, had to close for lack of victims. In the UK, the biggest ever investigation of sex trafficking failed to find a single person who had forced anybody into prostitution in spite of hundreds of raids on sex workers in a six-month campaign by government departments, specialist agencies and every police force in the country.”

Police, specialized agencies, and prosecutors are finding very few human trafficking victims. It’s hardly fair to expect flight attendants, bus drivers, and hotel housekeepers to manage it.  

“Pilot episode” (Reincarnation)

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Reincarnation tales are almost always from people remembering their past lives as brave knights, Russian empresses, or trailblazing scientists. We never hear from someone reminiscing about their former experiences as a plumber, vagabond, or serial killer.

One of the more prominent tales in recent years centered on James Leininger. By the time he was 2, James had memorized the names of many airplane models and he also had recurring nightmares in which he piloted a crashing Corsair.

His precocious abilities and terrifying nighttime visions were fused by his parents to create an implausible tale that James had lived a past life as a heroic Allied fighting ace who met his demise at Iwo Jima. In fact, he had merely had a normal childhood interest and an overexcited mother and father.

The mom, Andrea, looked into other tales of past lives, while his father, Bruce, pored over narratives of World War II aerial battles. James, after much prodding, and receiving praise for giving appealing answers, learned how to give the “correct” response. All supposed evidence for his past life is, of course, anecdotal and are explained away as confirmation bias and cherry picking.

There’s no telling how many inconsistencies had to be dismissed or how many undesirable answers had to be ignored for his parents to arrive at their “conclusion,” which clearly was crafted ahead of time. They also had an accomplice, a self-described past lives therapist named Carol Bowman. The trio plugged in sizable gaps in James’ “recollections” and inferred what they wanted to from the sessions and after filtering discomfiting information. Eventually, they cobbled together a consistent narrative, which they presented as fact.

Bowman encouraged the parents to continue James’ fascination with World War II planes, and to let him know he was a reincarnated pilot. This notion hadn’t come from the toddler, who would have no idea what reincarnation, death, or rebirth were. Being a toddler fixated on airplanes, he naturally relished a fantastic tale where he played the role of a heroic pilot. And like most youngsters, he sought approval from adults in general and his parents in particular.

ABC ran a shamelessly credulous profile of the story, with the blogger Skeptico outlining the selective memory and reporting that it entailed. For example, Mrs. Leininger showed her son a toy plane and pointed out what she presumed to be a bomb. James told her it was instead a drop tank. She acted as though there was no way a child his age could know this. However, per the Pittsburgh Daily Courier, the Leiningers had visited flight museums, including ones that featured World War II aircraft with drop tanks. That he would remember this detail is much more likely due to his being a young boy obsessed with airplanes than it is because he is a reincarnated fighter pilot.