The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for the ‘conspiracy theories’ Category

Rumors and Misinformation in the Aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 17, 2013

As you well know by now, there was a horrific bombing of the Boston Marathon yesterday on Boston’s Patriot Day.  Like many people, I spent much time last night discussing the situation online.  And, of course, in the aftermath of such an emotionally charged and upsetting situation, rumors, speculation, and – sadly – conspiracy mongering will run rampant.   However, I am of the feeling that knowledge is power, and it is better to say “I don’t know” than to speculate wildly; after all, as I told someone online last night: “rumors =/= knowledge”

So, in the spirit of spreading accurate information and squashing rumors, misinformation, and conspiracy mongering regarding the Boston Marathon Bombing, I would like to refer the reader to this collection of rumors and junk debunked from our friends at Snopes.com:

snopeslogo

Please take a few minutes to check that link, and by all means spread it far and wide over the Internet and via social media, because we do ourselves no favors by giving into our fears and allowing them to make us act irrationally.

Posted in conspiracy theories, internet | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Birthers Hit a New Low…

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 20, 2012

So there’s this nutjob… err, I mean law enforcement officer… named Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona who has apparently taken it upon himself to “prove” that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen (a conspiracy theory known as “birtherism“).  This has consisted of basically engaging in rampant conspiracy mongering that President Obama’s birth certificate (which you can see here) is a forgery, despite the fact that it has been certified as authentic repeatedly.  Well, in their quest to pursue their bigoted… err, I mean intense and serious… investigation of the citizenship of the POTUS, they have hit a new low.

And here it is:

The Globe Magazine… that bastion of journalistic excellence.  *Sigh* ‘Nuff said.

Posted in conspiracy theories, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Addressing Birthers: Turning the Tables and Outright Mockery

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 24, 2012

In the last few days, the political process in the great state of Arizona has been made a mockery of by one of its own highest elected officials, Arizona secretary of state Ken Bennett.  That’s because Bennett mentioned last week in an interview that due to “outstanding questions” regarding President Obama’s citizenship, he might have to withold Obama from the Arizona ballot in November’s presidential election.  He stated that while he personally believed that Obama is a U.S. citizen, he also had a duty to “investigate” because he kept getting emails (about 1200 of them) demanding proof of Obama’s citizenship.  Essentially, a bunch of birther conspiracy theorists pestered Bennett, and he went off on this fool’s errand as a way of appeasing these nutbags in the base of his own Republican party.

But the joke’s on Bennett, because not only did the state of Hawaii address his concerns (by providing solid evidence, yet again, that proves Obama was born in the U.S.), but it did so by turning the tables on Bennett and his fellow birthers:

Hawaii’s Now Asking Birthers to Prove Who They Are

Ken Bennett, Arizona’s secretary of state, is the latest person to question the President’s birthplace, although he’s doing it the way people do when they want to call it into question but don’t want to seem like a loon. Bennett, a Republican who perhaps coincidentally is planning to run for governor in 2014, said on a radio show last week that he’s looking into the issue, and that it’s “possible” he might keep Obama off the Arizona ballot in 2012, not because he thinks the President isn’t a “natural-born citizen” but because some other people say they think that and so he’s gotta look into it. …

… In the meantime, though, he’s just waiting (apart from his other secretarial duties) for Hawaii officials to provide verification. He said on the show that he was puzzled it took them eight weeks to respond to his request, and when they did respond they still didn’t give him what he wanted.

Instead, they asked him to prove who he was:

On Thursday, Bennett said he sent his request to Hawaii officials eight weeks ago but has yet to get the proof he was hoping for…. In the weeks since then, Bennett said, Hawaii officials have forced him to provide proof that he is who he says he is. They asked him to send them copies of the Arizona laws that prove the secretary of state really is the person in charge of handling the ballots. Admittedly, Bennett said they told him they were “tired of all the requests.” But he is continuing anyway.

Oh my, that’s embarrassing!

This is why, whenever I get into a discussion with birthers, I first insist that they prove – to my satisfaction – that they are citizens of the United States by giving me a copy of their birth certificate.  You can just imagine how happy they are to hear their own stupid arguments turned back at them :)

But it gets even better.  Apparently, Bennett was using the fact that he received so many requests (about 1200 or so via email) about President Obama’s citizenship as justification for this colossal waste of time and resources.  So how can one respond to such a wimpy excuse for backpeddling out of such a dumb position?  Answer: outright mockery…

Mitt Romney: Is He a Unicorn? More Than 17,000 People Want Ken Bennett to Find Out

Is GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney a businessman? Or is he really a unicorn?
At the time of this post, more than 17,000 people would like Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett to find out.
In response to the 1,200 “birthers” who asked Bennett to verify with the state of Hawaii — yet again — that President Obama has a birth certificate there, the left-wingers would also like Bennett to check out their conspiracy theory.
“I understand you are considering kicking President Obama off the ballot because some people continue to raise questions about his birth,” the petition to Bennett says. “Well, I believe it cannot be proven conclusively that Mitt Romney is *not* a unicorn. A unicorn would not be qualified to be president. Thus, I hope you will apply the same standard to Romney, and investigate the unicorn question.”
Indeed, Romney has never denied being a unicorn, and the left-wingers say it’s possible Romney’s hair could be covering up a unicorn horn. …

Ridiculous?  Of course it is – but that’s the whole point!  Once you have set the bar so low by trying to kowtow to the level of birther conspiracy mongering, you might as well open the door to ludicrous inquiries such as that above about the Romney-Unicorn.

Congratulations, Mr. Bennett!  You’ve earned this:

Posted in conspiracy theories, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Politics and Gas Prices Redux: “Obama Has Doubled the Cost of Gas”?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 17, 2012

As a brief follow up to my recent post titled Gas Prices and Politics: Fact vs. Fiction, I wanted to pass along some deeper analysis that my fellow skeptical blogger Phil over at Skeptic Money did.  It puts a bit more meat on the bones of my previous argument that (duh!) the President of the United States actually has very little power to affect the price of gasoline at the pump.  Read on…

Obama Has Doubled The Cost Of Gas

Blog idea from The Skeptical Teacher. [That's me :)]

This is one of the new right-wing talking points. The interesting point is that it’s true.  Well, the part that the cost of gasoline going up.  However, Obama had nothing to do with it.

“Gas prices since Obama took office have risen by 103.79 percent. No other presidents in recent years have struggled as much with soaring oil prices.” – US News

Here is a graph from DShort.com.

Notice the green line.  It is the price of oil.  In 2008 while the recession was going strong the price of oil was bid up to almost $150 per barrel by crazed speculators.  When the speculators faced the fact of decreased demand due to a global recession the price of oil collapsed to around $40 per barrel.  The result is a dramatic drop in the cost of all things that come from oil – including gasoline.

Obama took office on January 20, 2009 at the very bottom of the price drop.  Many countries are doing much better now than in 2008-9 and global demand has increased.

Just the other day someone told me that the price of oil was going up because Obama was limiting the production of oil.  I thought he was full of crap so I went and searched out the facts for myself.  If you ever want data on energy production go to eia.gov.

I found this specific data that shows US Crude Oil production.  In 2008 (The year before Obama became president) the US produced 4,950,000 barrels per day.  In 2011 the US produced 5,659,000 barrels per day.  An increase of 14.3%.

They also claimed that Obama has reduced off shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  In 2008 The US produced 1,152,000 barrels per day and in 2011 it was 1,318,000.  Wrong on both accounts.

Their third claim was that more off shore drilling would reduce the cost of gasoline and maybe back to what it was 3 years ago.  The US produced 5,659,000 barrels per day in 2011 and 23% (1,318,000 / 5,659,000) from the Gulf.  US oil production is about 11.6% of the worlds total oil supply.  If the Gulf is 23% of this total and you doubled this amount (this could take 10-20 years) then that would increase world production by less than 3%.  I’m sure that this hypathetical and dramatic increase would lower the cost of gas.  However, I would guess by $0.10 to $0.15 per gallon. [emphasis added]

Posted in conspiracy theories, economics, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Gas Prices and Politics: Fact vs. Fiction

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 12, 2012

I don’t usually post on economic issues, but I wanted to say a few things regarding the recent brouhaha regarding higher-than-usual gasoline prices in the United States.  The issue has become heavy political fodder due to this being a presidential election year, and there have been a number of dubious claims made on the matter.  So, to help sort fact from fiction on this issue, I would like to reference the following well-written article from Paul Brandus at The Week.

While there are a number of excellent points made throughout the article, I wanted to focus on the big #1 myth: the notion that the president of the United States has some kind of magical ability to control the price of gasoline…

Why you’re wrong about gas prices and politics

I recently wrote about the many myths and misunderstandings Americans have about gas prices, oil companies, and the presidency. A few folks got upset because the facts and figures I mentioned weren’t what they wanted to hear. But as John Adams said: “Facts are stubborn things.” With that in mind, here are a few more myths and misunderstandings — about gasoline, renewable energy, politicians — and the facts:

Myth #1: Presidents have major power over gas prices
Gasoline prices have more than doubled on Obama’s watch, from $1.89 on Inauguration Day in 2009 to last week’s $3.93 (AAA data). That’s an increase of 107 percent. But guess what? Gas prices skyrocketed 387 percent between 2002 and 2008, when the average price of regular went from $1.06 to $4.11, before dropping again before Obama took office.

Chart from Doug Short

When gas prices exploded from 2002 to 2008, Democrats — including then-Sen. Obama — were wrong to blame George W. Bush, just as Republicans are wrong to blame Obama for the 107 percent jump since 2009. So who can we blame? The “blame,” if that’s the word, lies largely with the ever-changing market cycles of supply and demand — not just in the U.S., but around the world.  I know, I know. It would be so much simpler if you could just blame one person for the rise in global commodity prices. But that’s not how it works. Sorry.

I find this kind of thinking, the willingness to blame those in power for whatever calamity that happens to befall you at any given time, to be fascinating.  I remember when gas prices were high back in 2007 and people were blaming then President Bush; and now some people are blaming President Obama.  It’s almost as if these folks, in their own minds, grant some kind of god-like powers to the president once they are elected; and of course our leaders do not have such powers.  I suppose it is a way of coping with the uncertainty in the world: rather than admit the reality that even our most powerful leaders are often quite powerless (and the implication that we, as individuals, have even less power than we thought) against the random nature of the universe, many people would make up a fiction that “they” (insert spooky music) are behind it all and to blame; so if we can only get “them” out of power, then things will automatically get better.  Such thinking is strikingly similar to that employed by many conspiracy theorists.

If you find yourself in this mode of thinking, I’ve got a news flash for you: reality doesn’t give a damn what you think; it doesn’t give a damn what the president thinks.  And casting blame hither and yon will do nothing to change that.  Sorry to burst your bubble.

Posted in conspiracy theories, economics, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments »

More High Resolution Images of the Apollo Moon Landing Sites

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 7, 2011

We’ve been here before, and I’m sure we’ll be here again, folks.  NASA has just released a set of even higher resolution images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera of the Apollo 17 landing site (see my previous blog entry on earlier images here), which shows – yet again – more evidence that human beings really did go to the Moon!  Here are the images…

Clearly visible are equipment left on the Moon’s surface (such as the base of the lander which is casting a clear shadow) and numerous tracks left by the astronauts’ footprints in the lunar regolith.  And here is a magnified version of the above image, centering on the base of the lunar lander itself:

Image credit: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera

[**Aside: Bad Astronomer Phil Plait has an excellent analysis and specific breakdown of these newest images here.]

Sadly, this probably won’t stop conspiracy-minded Moon hoax theorists from spinning their usual nonsense denying the fact that we sent humans to the Moon (see this excellent analysis by Bad Astronomy of the Moon hoaxer claims).  That’s because, no matter what evidence is provided (even including high-resolution images of the landing sites and human footprints on the Moon), these conspiracy theorists will attempt to rationalize it away, such as by invoking the all-powerful Conspiracy (i.e., all the images are faked, except – of course – the very images the hoaxers use to claim the Moon landings didn’t happen).  Case in point, just today I received the following comment on an earlier blog post on this matter:

Haha – your photo’s prove the fake – look closely at the image of the Apollo 14 landing site and you can see the the LM has no height profile compararive to it’s shadow – thankyou for the proof – hahahaha. Also the eagle landing module has a shadow the shape of a christmas tree. Why would that be?

Of course, one can see clearly in the higher resolution photos above of the Apollo 17 landing site that there is an obvious height profile compared to the shadow of the lander base.  As for the Eagle lander having a “shadow the shape of a christmas tree”, one should note that what was left behind on the Moon was the base of the lander, not the entire lander structure with the descent module attached (because, duh, that part brought the astronauts back).  It’s details like this the conspiracy theorists overlook in their zealous attempts to simultaneously deny reality and spin some kind of fantasy world where they are clued in to what’s really going on.

I’m content to allow these whackjobs to continue spinning their tall tales that fly in the face of mountains of evidence, including their utterly abyssmal understanding of physics (see the Bad Astronomy link for more on that).  Meanwhile, the rest of us can sit back and enjoy the fact that we still have the right stuff :)

Posted in conspiracy theories, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Putting “Birther” Stupidity Into Context: President Obama Gets Osama Bin Laden

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 2, 2011

This image, which seems to be getting spread around the Internet, puts the entire stupidity of the conspiracy-mongering “birther” movement into context…

‘Nuff said :)

Posted in conspiracy theories, humor, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Laughing at Birther Conspiracy Theorists: Stephen Colbert Combines Humor & Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 30, 2011

In a hilarious example of calling the bluff of the conspiracy-mongering, reality-challenged, walking hairpiece that is Donald Trump (along with all of his “birther” buddies), President Obama produced his long-form birth certificate.  Of course, Obama’s U.S. citizenship was solidly established long, long ago (as clearly outlined at this Snopes.com link), but the birthers kept on moving the goalposts and making ever-more crazy demands for evidence.

Now that President Obama has provided his long-form birth certificate, you can expect the birthers to move the goalposts once again and go even further down the rabbit-hole (in true conspiracy theorist fashion).  In fact, to give you a sense of what is likely to come, satirist Stephen Colbert quite effectively skewers Donald Trump & the entire birther movement – enjoy! :)

**Follow-up: In an astonishing example of moving the goalposts & special pleading, like I mentioned above, take a look at what the “Queen of the Birthers” – Orly Taitz – has to say to journalist Lawrence O’Donnell when he directly challenges her on the fact that President Obama produced the very birth certificate she has for so long demanded.  This is utterly amazing, and it gives a clear view into the twisted mind of a dedicated, true-believing conspiracy theorist.  Wow…

Posted in conspiracy theories, humor, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Anti-Nuclear Stupidity: When Ideology Trumps Science & Reason

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 15, 2011

I just wanted to post a follow-up to my earlier posts on the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis (for reference, those earlier posts are here and here) and the related ideologically driven, anti-nuclear hysteria that is being pushed by far too many people.  An excellent example of this kind of zealotry is on display on the comment sections of my two previous posts, and I just want to focus on a few particular comments made here by people who are misrepresenting facts at best and engaging in some pretty despicable fear-mongering at worst.  I think it serves as a pretty useful exercise in critical thinking to examine such claims…

Comment #1: Here is the first comment I want to examine, regarding my blog post titled Japanese “Nuclear Fallout Map” is a FAKE!!!

Well, I’ve been keeping track of all this fallout business from the beginning and I have to say, it’s not looking good. There are reports from Arkansas and several other states concerning elevated radiation levels in milk and municipal water supplies, as anyone who’s been keeping track of this has probably heard by now.
So if this is all B.S. then why is radiation showing up all over the U.S.? And most importantly, why isn’t the media talking about it?

First of all, this commenter is equating the detection of “elevated” radiation levels with “dangerous” radiation levels, and they are not the same thing.  As has been pretty thoroughly reported, radiation from Fukushima has in fact reached various parts of the United States (as well as other nations); however, what this commenter is not saying is that such levels of radiation have been detected in trace amounts.  In the context of radiation, “trace” essentially means “so small that you don’t have to worry about it.”  And whether or not the amount of radiation detected is higher than the normal background isn’t as relevant as whether or not the amount is near the danger level – and, in all the cases of such radiation detected in the U.S. the danger level is no where close to being reached.

What this commenter also neglects to mention is the fact that, as I’ve stated before, there are other (natural & artificial) sources of radiation around us all the time!  As this link to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows, there are sources of radiation everywhere – from the sky, the ground, your house, your food, etc.  Hell, chances are that you have received a higher dose of radiation from reading these words on your computer screen than you’ve gotten from the Fukushima power plant.

As for the last comment: “why isn’t the media talking about it?” – I have no idea where this innuendo of conspiracy comes from, seeing as how the media has been going on and on about this story for well over a month now, and all along most media outlets are screwing up the science just as is this commenter.

The comment continues:

Telling the public that radiation levels are only “slightly elevated” and causes no health hazards. Just like our Government “experts” told the natives living around the Atoll islands out in the Pacific the same line of nonsense after they tested twenty-three nuclear devices including the first hydrogen bomb between 1946 and 1958. 10 years later 90% of them had died from cancer.

Again, this smacks of blatant conspiracy mongering.  Also note the outlandish claim that 90% of the inhabitants of the islands within the Pacific Proving Ground had died of cancer within ten years – there is evidence that those people were negatively affected (through higher rates of cancer & birth defects) by the related fallout, but nothing to support the claim of a 90% death rate within 10 years time.  This is precisely the kind of hyperbole which displays zealotry trumping facts & reason.

Continuing on:

Also it has been announced that Fukushima will most likely surpass Chernobyl as far as radiation emission levels are concerned.
Now, if radiation from Chernobyl was detected all over the northern hemisphere (and that is a fact)and the Fukushima event is supposedly far worse, what fool in their right mind would question whether or not radiation from the Fukushima event would make it to the U.S.?
It has and it will continue to do so.

While Fukushima has been upgraded to a level-7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), the same INES rating as Chernobyl, to claim that it is just as bad – or even worse! – than Chernobyl is simply laughable.  First of all, it has been clearly documented that the total amount of radiation released from Fukushima is only about one-tenth that of Chernobyl, and that radiation release is much more localized & less lethal than Chernobyl ever was.  In fact, the Chernobyl accident resulted in a direct death toll of 56 (due to immediate radiation sickness) as well as estimated 4,000 additional cancer fatalities among people exposed to elevated doses of radiation. As a result, the city of Chernobyl (pop. 14,000) was largely abandoned, the larger city of Pripyat (pop. 49,400) was completely abandoned.  It should be noted that, so far, there has yet to be a single death confirmed to be related to radiation released at Fukushima.

So, despite the similar INES rating of 7, comparing the two events – in terms of severity of radiation release & dispersal as well as human fatalities – is like comparing apples and hammers.

As for the rambling about radiation reaching the United States, see my previous notes on that.  Once again, “detectable” does not equal “dangerous”.

Last, but not least:

Now to say this is “fear mongering” is ridiculous, I have checked my facts and I suggest everyone else does the same. Because it doesn’t seem like the people we pay to keep us informed concerning such things, are doing their jobs very well. As far as hair and teeth falling out, I don’t think it will get anywhere near that bad but, the long term health effects of low level exposure should be considered at least.

More conspiracy mongering.  I think this section of this person’s comment can be best summed up as follows:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in conspiracy theories, environmental hysteria, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Donald Trump & Birtherism: How to Argue with Birthers?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 12, 2011

Lately, billionaire & bad-hair aficionado Donald Trump has been getting a lot of press by going around the talk show circuit and making references to the supposedly “questionable status” of President Obama’s U.S. citizenship.  In case you didn’t know, there is a name for this particular brand of reality-denying conspiracy mongering: birtherism. (And, just for the record in case you didn’t know, President Obama is a natural born U.S. citizen ;) )

And, yes, it seems that – for whatever reason – Donald Trump has jumped aboard the birther crazy train.  I don’t know if this is for him to gain traction among the hardcore conservative base of the Republican party (a whopping 51% of whom believe President Obama wasn’t born in the United States!) before announcing a bid for the presidency or if it could all just be a publicity stunt in order to get Trump more face-time with the media (and therefore, more money).  Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: the media has swallowed Trump’s line of codswallop hook, line, and sinker.

And there’s the rub, folks.  By the mere fact that the media is giving all of this attention to Trump in the first place, in a sick sort of way it gives him (and, by extension, his nutty “birther” claims) a kind of validity.  The best thing the media could do is to simply ignore this kind of nonsense; there should be no “fair & balanced” reporting on this issue, because those who continue to peddle this stupid conspiracy theory are dead, flat wrong.  To steal a phrase from Christopher Hitchens, Trump and his birther buddies are not the kind of people that should be taken seriously at all; in fact, they’re the kind of people who should be spouting their lunacy out on the streets while they sell pencils from a tin cup!

So the best thing the media could do, if they were interested in covering real news stories instead of sensationalistic garbage, is to tell Trump to take a hike.

Now, if you are confronted by a birther and there is no way to avoid the conversation with them, how should you engage them?  I have one piece of advice on this, and – thus far – it has never failed me.  Tell them that in order for them to have a valid opinion on the issue of President Obama’s citizenship, they must first prove, using their own standards of evidence, their own status as a natural born U.S. citizen.  In short, they must provide to you the following:

1.  Their original birth certificate.
2. A newspaper clipping that highlights their birth.
3. Records proving that their mother was present in America at the time of birth.
4. Investigations from multiple fact-checking organizations that have held the documents with their own hands to verify that the documents from #1-3 exist and are authentic.
5. A press release by at least two officials within the state of birth, verifying that these records are on file.

After the birther has provided said evidence, which seems to sum up the current standard of evidence which they demand that President Obama provide, then tell them they can go on and spin their claims all they want.

Every time I have confronted a birther with this line of argumentation, the result is universally the same: they either ignore the challenge, get angry about you questioning their “patriotism”, or they scuttle away to hide under the nearest rock.  And if they get offended and/or try to run away or change the subject, hit them with this one: “Why won’t you provide this evidence?  What are you hiding?!!” (cue spooky music :) )

Try it sometime.  You’ll find the results very revealing somewhat entertaining, too.  Perhaps the next time Donald Trump is on television, the next media personality to interview him will have some real balls and ask him to put up or shut up.

Posted in conspiracy theories, media woo, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

 
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