The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘myth’

Anti-Science and Science Denial: It Isn’t Just for the Political Right?

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 4, 2014

I have used up many electrons on this blog discussing the problem of anti-science and science denial regarding creationist and climate science denier movements.  I have also discussed many times about how those movements seek to destroy the credibility of science in order to prop up either their religious or political worldviews, which usually tend to be quite right-wing in nature.

However, lest we cease to be critical thinkers about the problem of anti-science and science denial, let us not over simplify the issue in to being a problem of only the political right.  Case in point: many of the worst of the anti-vaccination movement (AVM) are strongly left-leaning in their politics.  This is emphasized rather hilariously in this recent Daily Show segment:

An Outbreak of Liberal Idiocy

vaccines

 No, this chart isn’t the idiocy.  The idiotic part is that anyone would seriously deny that vaccinations are the reason why these deadly diseases went away.

In the segment, the Daily Show interviewer discusses the topic of vaccines with someone who can only be described as an ideological science-denier… who is on the political left.  I really like how Orac at Respectful Insolence breaks this down:

In the piece, in particular Bee makes fun of a crunchy lifestyle blogger, Sarah Pope, who, after establishing her liberal-crunchy bona fides (after Bee’s amusing prompts, of course), rattles off pretty much every antivaccine trope and bit of misinformation and pseudoscience in the antivaccine canon, claiming herd immunity is myth, that vaccines cause autism, that they don’t work, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Yesterday, Pope wrote about the interview thusly:

” “The Epidemic of Idiocy” that The Daily Show segment labels the no-vaccination movement is head scratching given that the anti-vaccine movement is being led by the most educated in our society.

Are all those parents with college degrees, master’s degrees, PhDs and, yes, even many MDs that are saying no to shots for their kids complete idiots?

Highly doubtful!

No-vax parents aren’t the real “science deniers”. In fact, they the ones most interested in the science because they are digging into the research and demanding unbiased, objective data to support vaccination, not the slanted version presented by the CDC and conventional pediatricians like Dr. Offit who makes millions supporting the very industry that handsomely maintains his lifestyle.”

Uh, no.

No matter how much Ms. Pope wants to claim the mantle of science through the University of Google, she and her fellow antivaccine activists are just as antiscience as anthropogenic global climate change denialists and creationists (a.k.a., evolution denialists). They also share another important trait with people holding those antiscience beliefs. They’re just really, really good atmotivated reasoning, and one reason they’re so good at motivated reasoning is because they are educated and smart, which is why vaccine denialists and other science denialists are sometimes referred to as “smart idiots.” It’s a very apt term. I do, however thank The Daily Showfor making me aware of Ms. Pope. Her blog looks like—shall we say?—a highly “target-rich” environment for potential future blog posts.

However, we should take care to not oversimplify the AVM and the political affiliations of its adherents, because while there are many AVMers who are left-wing, there is also a strong (and apparently growing) right-wing element to vaccine denial.  More from Orac:

However, there is also a very strong strain of antivaccine views on the right as well, including General Bert Stubblebine III’s Natural Solutions Foundation, far right libertarians, and others who distrust the government, including government-recommended vaccine schedules.

Indeed, many of the the antivaccine people and groups whom I monitor tend to be anything but liberal politically. For example, The Canary Party, a rabidly antivaccine group that pushes the idea that toxins in vaccines are responsible for autism and all sorts of health issues and that autism “biomed” quackery is the way to cure vaccine injury recently teamed up with the East Bay Tea Party to oppose vaccine mandates in California. Moreover, the Canary Party has also recently been sucking up to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), with one of its major financial backers, Jennifer Larson, contributing a lot of money to Issa’s campaign (indirectly, of course) in order to buy influence and win a hearing by his committee examining autism and focused on vaccines as one potential cause. Fortunately, Issa’s hearing in 2012 was a bust.

So what are we to conclude about this question of anti-vaccination and political affiliation?  Well, the answer appears to be “not much” because it seems the question hasn’t been rigorously studied…

Unfortunately, there aren’t actually a lot of good data examining whether there is a correlation between political affiliation and anti-vaccine views. I blogged about this very issue a three years ago, discussing an article by Chris Mooney looking at polling data and doing the best he could to characterize the politics of vaccine denialism.

At this point, about the only thing I can say is that regardless of the political motivations of those who buy into and promote the dangerous nonsense espoused by the AVM, their lies and pseudoscience must be countered.  So how do we do that?  How do we in the skeptical and pro-science movement formulate an effective message to counter the AVM’s noise and misinformation?  Well, I am happy to say that last year a study was published (via the JREF and Women Thinking, Inc.) on this very question.  Please give it a look :)

Posted in medical woo, politics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Global Warming Deniers Confuse Climate with Weather, AGAIN

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 7, 2014

If you live in North America, then no doubt you’re aware of the so-called polar vortex which has come down from the Arctic to freeze the hell out of the continent.  And, just as surely as the temperatures started to drop, global warming deniers began to shout about how this supposedly proves that global warming isn’t real.

Okay, so you see here’s the thing… it’s called *global* warming because the whole globe, on average, is getting warmer.  Saying that a cold snap disproves global warming is like saying that the IRS no longer exists because you got a tax refund once.

BdTnhYVCcAAI_AC

See all that red?  Yeah, that’s where the climate is getting warmer.  And notice how there’s more red than blue? [image source]

I’ve blogged about this very topic before, namely that “climate” isn’t the same thing as “weather”, but seeing as how the deniers are once again spouting their nonsense, it bears repeating…

Winter is NOT “Proof” of Global Cooling

… The primary flaw in this argument is good ol’ fashioned cherry-picking of data: the “coolers” are choosing to focus only upon data which supports their claims, while ignoring the vast amount of data which points in exactly the opposite direction. By focusing on just the weather reports over the last couple of weeks, or for only a certain part of the planet, they leave out the fact that climate is a phenomenon which is global in nature and that climate science is concerned with long term trends.  Essentially, they are confusing weather with climate.  Climate experts recently made this point in an Associated Press article which has been widely circulated.

Bottom line: when taking all of the data into account, both concerning the timeline as well as the Earth as a whole, there is a clear warming trend. …

There are some other really good articles about this latest confusion regarding how the polar vortex fits into the broader picture of global warming.  For your reference, I’ll suggest two of them:

1. Can global warming be real if it’s cold in the U.S.? Um… yes!

This article is really good because it goes through some of the basics about global warming and climate change in general, and then it emphasizes the importance of temperature trends and statistical analysis of the data.  My favorite part is as follows:

Global warming isn’t expected to abolish winters in the U.S. anytime soon. Right now, climate experts are worried about a 2°C to 4°C rise in global average temperatures by the end of the century. That would create all sorts of disruptive changes. But those few degrees aren’t enough to completely undo the larger swings in temperature we see each year between summer and winter in many parts of the world.

Indeed, many climate models suggest that we’ll still see record cold snaps in the United States as the planet heats up. They’ll just become much less frequent over time — while record heat waves will become increasingly common. See this paper in Geophysical Research Letters from 2009: Over the past decade, it notes, the U.S. has experienced about two daily record high temperatures for every record low. If the planet keeps heating up, that ratio will shift to 20:1 by mid-century. There will still be record lows in many areas. They’ll just be rarer. …

2. Go home, Arctic, You’re Drunk.

This is a humorous and informative post from my skeptical colleague Greg Laden wherein he lays out just how it’s possible for global warming to actually account for the polar vortex phenomenon:

… The apparent contrast between extreme cold and global warming is actually an illusion. If we look at the local weather in many parts of the US we see a giant blob of cold “Arctic air” moving south to engulf our humble hamlets and cities, as though the Arctic Coldness that we know is sitting on the top of our planet, like a giant frosty hat, is growing in size. How can such a thing happen with global warming?

Actually, if you think about it, how can such a thing happen at all? Imagine a somewhat different scenario. Imagine the giant global hulu-hoop of warmth we know of as the tropics suddenly expanding in size to engulf the United States, Europe, Asia, and in the south, southern South America, southern Africa, Australia, etc. for a week or so, then contract back to where it came from. How could that happen? Where would all the heat necessary for that to happen come from? That seems to be a violation of some basic laws of physics. Now, cold is not a thing — it is the absence of heat — but the same problem emerges when we imagine the giant frosty hat of arctic air simply getting many hundreds of percent larger, enough to engulf the temperate regions of the planet. As easy as it might be to imagine such a thing given the images we see on regional weather maps, it is in fact not possible. The physics simply does not work that way.

What is happening instead is the cold air mass that usually sits up on the Arctic during the northern Winter has moved, drooped, shifted, gone off center, to engulf part of the temperate region. Here in the Twin Cities, it is about 8 below zero F as I write this. If I go north towards the famous locality of International Falls (famous for its cold temperature readings often mentioned on the national news) it will in fact be colder. If I go even farther north, at some point it will start to get warm again, as we leave the giant blob of cold air that has engulfed us. In fact, it is relatively warm up on the North Pole right now. Alaska and Europe are relatively warm as well.

The graphic above from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts shows what is happening. The Polar Vortex, a huge system of swirling air that normally contains the polar cold air has shifted so it is not sitting right on the pole as it usually does. We are not seeing an expansion of cold, an ice age, or an anti-global warming phenomenon. We are seeing the usual cold polar air taking an excursion. …

Of course, I don’t expect any of this to phase the hardcore global warming deniers, because they’re off in a fantasy world of their own.  No doubt that next time winter strikes the northern hemisphere, they’ll be back spouting this nonsense once again; it’s just plain sad and predictable.  I almost feel sorry for them.  I mean, how can you not feel sorry for them when this moron is one of their primary spokesmen?

trump daily show GW

Posted in global warming denial | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Skeptical Teacher Interviewed on The Pink Atheist

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 17, 2013

This past Sunday evening, I was interviewed on The Pink Atheist podcast/radio show.  The topics of discussion were the vaccine survey research I was involved with and the importance of promoting a good pro-vaccine message, as well as talking about some of the physics behind various crazy demonstrations I perform both in and out of the classroom.

Click the link below for the full audio of my interview, which starts at the 20:25 mark.  Enjoy! :)

The Pink Atheist

pink atheist

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Opinion Survey on Vaccines Published by JREF and WT,Inc

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 18, 2013

I am very pleased to announce that a ground-breaking survey conducted on the issue of people’s opinions regarding vaccines and vaccination has been published; the work was a joint project of the James Randi Educational Foundation and Women Thinking, Inc. and it gets to the heart of how those of us who support good science-based medicine can communicate a more positive message on vaccines.

In addition, I am happy to say that I took a personal role in this research during my time with the Women Thinking, Inc. organization :)

[**Addendum: My skeptical colleague, Jamie Bernstein, wrote a wonderful piece on this survey research over at Skepchick, and she outlines there just how many people were involved in this process over the last few years.  Check it out!]

So, without further ado, I would like to link to the JREF’s press-release on the survey; please note that you can download the full paper at this link, so please share it!

Opinion Survey by JREF and Women Thinking Free Foundation Supports Childhood Immunization

The James Randi Educational Foundation and Women Thinking, Inc. have come together for an opinion survey aimed at better understanding the spread of the unfounded “vaccine panic” that prevents some parents from getting important immunizations for their children. The project, Immunization: Myths, Misconceptions, and Misinformation, explores better ways to communicate a “vaccine-positive” message.

“Vaccine misconceptions have been running rampant, which should not only be concerning to science advocates but to parents and the greater public,” said WTinc President Louise Kellar. “Previously it had been unclear which misconceptions had been taking a toll on parents. Through this survey that the JREF funded, we hope that that science advocates and educators will be able to focus their outreach efforts, thereby helping children have the best start in life and hopefully saving some lives in the process.”

The joint project is an opinion survey that includes data from hundreds of parents of young children. The survey data was collected by volunteers at events where parents may be especially vulnerable to “anti-vaccine” messages. The JREF and Women Thinking, Inc. is happy to make the results freely available to public health and science advocates to help inform their efforts to support childhood immunity.

“There are some provocative conclusions that may be drawn from the survey data,” said JREF President D.J. Grothe. “Although the scientific community has done a good job refuting the misinformation of the most vocal anti-scientific anti-vaccine campaigners, the survey data suggests that most parents do understand the importance of ‘herd immunity,’ but just consider this a greater risk than possible harm to their children coming from vaccination. We hope the information from the survey will help science educators and activists better understand parents’ concerns in order to help them make the healthiest choices regarding childhood immunity from dangerous diseases.”

The JREF-WTinc survey, conducted over the last two years and released to the public today, aims to help science advocates fill gaps in the public’s understanding of the vaccine panic. The opinion survey asked specific questions about parents’ beliefs and fears about immunization, their media consumption, and their conversations with friends, family, and doctors. From the report: “The most effective anti-vaccination arguments are those that induce fear in parents by naming frightening ingredients and by greatly exaggerating the risks of vaccinations. The best pro-vaccination arguments were those that focused on a good-parenting message, such as suggesting that not immunizing your child is equivalent to putting them in a car without a car seat.”

You may download a copy of Immunization: Myths, Misconceptions, and Misinformation here.

Click here to read the rest of the press-release

Posted in medical woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Loch Ness Monster Activity is Likely Just Seismic in Nature

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 8, 2013

I ran across two articles recently about the latest research regarding the Loch Ness Monster.  And by “research” I really do mean serious scientific work: it seems that many supposed Nessie sightings over the years have been accompanied by audible rumbling and gas bubbling up to the surface of Loch Ness.  There seems to be a plausible geological (note: “geological” does NOT equate to “big freaking monster”, just to clarify) explanation for these phenomena.

As a lesson in critical thinking (or a lack thereof) in the media, let us compare the coverage of this research from two different sources, the Scientific American blog and the Huffington Post.  First, the SciAm blog…

The Earth-shattering Loch Ness Monster that wasn’t

Summer is traditionally Silly Season, when newspapers publish strange stories about aliens and monsters again and again to bridge holiday time – and so will July on “History of Geology” be dedicated to frivolous science stories…

In 2001 the Italian geologist Luigi Piccardi presented during the Earth Systems Processes meeting in Edinburgh a hypothesis explaining the supposed appearance of the sea/lake monster “Nessie” as a result of geologic forces.

According to Piccardi’s idea the historic description of the monster – appearing on the surface with great (earth)shakes and rumours – could be associated with bubbles emanating from the bottom of the Scottish lake of Loch Ness in response of seismic activity along the Great Glen fault system, passing below the lake. …

VERNE_1864_Voyage_au_centre_terre_Plesiosaurus

… Not only biological constrains, also the geology don’t seems to support the existence of an earthshaking monster in Loch Ness.  Common earthquakes from the Loch Ness area range between magnitude 3 to 4, larger events were recorded only in 1816, 1888, 1890 and 1901. These earthquakes don’t coincide with the years of supposed increased activity of Nessie (like 1933). Even the largest Scottish earthquakes were anyway too weak to cause any observable effects on the surface of Loch Ness (curiously the great earthquake of Lisbon in 1755 generated waves on Loch Ness, but no Nessie sighting is reported for this year).

Piccardi himself sees the value of his hypothesis more in the possibility to make geologists aware of the geological origins of some myths, as to propose verifiable cryptozoology.

Well, that seems pretty good: a well thought-out article regarding an area of actual scientific research, even going so far as to note the limitations of Piccardi’s hypothesis.

Now, let’s see what the HuffPo has to say…

Loch Ness Monster Mystery Solved? ‘Nessie’ Just Bubbles From Seismic Activity, Geologist Says (VIDEO)

… The first claimed sighting of “Nessie” occurred in the sixth century, according to Scientific American. Legend has it that the creature appears along with earth tremors and bubbling from the bottom of Loch Ness, one of Britain’s largest freshwater lakes.

Formed as a result of a long-ago collision between the northern tip of Scotland and the rest of Britain, the loch sits over the 62-mile Great Glen fault line. Piccardi argues that this position may have fueled centuries of Loch Ness Monster rumors.

“Loch Ness is exactly on the fault zone,” Piccardi said in 2001, according to The Telegraph. “When there are small shocks, it can create a commotion on the water surface. Along the fault there can be gas emissions, which can create large bubbles on the surface. There are many surface effects which can be linked to the activity of the fault.”

But Piccardi’s theory is not without critics, especially among Loch Ness Monster enthusiasts like Gary Campbell, president of the Loch Ness Monster Fan Club in Inverness, Scotland.

“Most of the sightings involve foreign objects coming out of the water. There’s two most common — one’s a hump, and the other is a head and neck,” Campbell told ABC News. “At the end of the day, there’s still sightings that are inexplicable. There’s something physical in there.” …

*facepalm*

Where to begin?  First of all, the fact that the HuffPo elevates a pseudoscientific hack – in this case, the Gary Campbell who runs a fan club for the Loch Ness Monster – to the level of a serious critic of a pretty plausible area of scientific research speaks volumes.  Apparently, to the HuffPo, “scientist” equates with “anyone who can make sh*t up”.

Next, pay attention to Campbell’s response: “At the end of the day, there’s still sightings that are inexplicable…” So that proves… what exactly?  That there isn’t a full explanation?  And how exactly does a lack of an explanation provide any validity to the explanation via invoking Nessie?  This is a classic argument from ignorance, and one could just as easily invoke leprechauns or unicorns as an explanation using such shoddy logic.

Last, but not least, is the final few seconds of the video at the HuffPo link, wherein the host shows some TV anchors moaning about how they don’t want to accept the geological research of Piccardi because they like the idea of Nessie.  The HuffPo host summed it up as follows:

“Sometimes you just don’t want scientific reasoning, and you just want to believe.”

600px-Double_facepalm

Posted in cryptozoology, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Myths and Misconceptions About Christmas

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 15, 2012

Once again the season is upon us, when much of the world’s population celebrates Christmas and all the holiday trappings thereof.  I’ve made numerous posts on the subject before, including The Physics of Santa Claus, how the idea of Santa Claus can be used as a tool to teach critical thinking to kids (including a podcast interview I did on the subject), and the tongue-in-cheek celebration of Newtonmass :)

And, of course, along with all of that, there is not to be missed the chance to spread some skepticism and critical thinking regarding Christmas in general.  To help with that, my skeptical colleague Phil over at Skeptic Money has once again posted the Ultimate Christmas Quiz that you can use to test your (and that of your friends and family) knowledge of the holiday.  You might be surprised to learn about all of the myths and/or misconceptions which exist in popular culture about Christmas…

Ultimate Christmas Quiz

Ultimate Christmas Quiz

Note:  if you enjoy this quiz, check out The Ultimate Easter Quiz.

There are 12 questions below, how many will you get right?  Can you do better than your friends?  Your christian friends?

Pull out a piece of paper and mark your answers.

FYI… The answers are at the bottom (no cheating….) count your correct answers and see how you score.

The Ultimate Christmas Quiz – By David Fitzgerald

1. What year was Jesus born?

a. We don’t know for sure, since the gospels disagree irreconcilably.

b. We don’t know for sure, but the gospels agree it was during the reign of Herod the Great (died around 4 B.C.).

c. We don’t know for sure, but the gospels agree it was when Quirinius was governor of Syria (6 A.D.).

d. We don’t know for sure, but the gospels agree it was the year the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars.

e. D’uh! The year zero, of course.

2. According to the Gospels, what day was Jesus born?

a. Dec 25th.

b. Dec 24th.

c. No date is given in any gospel.

d. The day of the Winter Solstice.

e. The third night of Hanukkah.

3. What pagan holiday did later Christians “borrow” to celebrate Jesus’ birthday?

a. The Greek Brumalia festival

b. The Roman feast of Saturnalia

c. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”)

d. All of the above

e. None of the above

4. So what day was Jesus really born? 

a. Jan 6

b. Feb 2 (Groundhog Day)

c. March 25

d. We can’t be certain.

e. Sometime during Sukkoth, the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles

5. According to Mark (the oldest gospel) where was Jesus born?

a. He doesn’t say.

b. By the chimney, with care.

c. In his parent’s house in Nazareth.

d. A manger in Bethlehem.

e. A cave in Bethlehem.

6. According to Luke, who were the Wise Men?

a. A group of 2 – 12 Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia.

b. Three kings of orient bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh from afar.

c. There were no Wise Men.

d. Cupid, Donder and Blitzen.

e. Melchior of Persia, Caspar (or Gaspar) of India, and Balthazar of Arabia.

7. According to Matthew, who showed up on the night of Jesus’ birth?

a. Shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night

b. An angel and a multitude of the heavenly host

c. The prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna

d. Ten lords a-leaping

e. No one.

8. What happened after Jesus’ birth?

a. Impossible to say for sure – two of the gospels tell completely contradictory stories, and the other two say nothing.

b.  Good tidings were brought for him and his kin; and then figgy pudding, for they would not go until they get some.

c. Scary stuff: An angel warns Joseph via a dream to flee their home in Bethlehem for Egypt. Herod kills all the baby boys in the region. After Herod’s death, they return to Judea but are afraid of Herod’s son, so they move to Nazareth in Galilee instead (evidently, Matthew forgot that Galilee was ruled by Herod’s other son!).

d. Happy stuff: The shepherds spread the good news to all, baby Jesus is circumcised, and after the obligatory 40 days for ritual purity, brought to the temple in Jerusalem where prophets hail him as the Christ. They return home to Nazareth and go back to Jerusalem every year for Passover until Jesus is twelve.

e. We aren’t told, the gospels immediately cut to his adulthood.

9. Which of these traditional Christmas elements were originally pagan?

a. Christmas Trees

b. Yule Logs

c. The Birth of the Savior

d. Boughs of Holly and Sprigs of Mistletoe

e. All of the above

10. Where does the word “Yuletide” come from?

a. It’s an abbreviation of the Latin ultimus ides, “last holiday of the year.”

b. From Germanic/Old Norse “Jul-time” or “Jól-time” (the midwinter fest).

c. Named after Julius Caesar, who invented Sanctus Clausius, the Roman Santa Claus.

d. Named in honor of Hywll Tydd, ancient Welsh god of reindeer and socks.

e. Nordic priests copied the name from the Christian Christmastide.

11. Who started the War on Christmas?

a. True American Christian Fundamentalists and the Founding Fathers

b. Richard Dawkins

c. Godless atheists, the liberal media, gays and lesbians, activist judges, science teachers, lawyers, the ACLU, democrats and everyone else we hate.

d. The Jews

e. Al Qaida

12. Our familiar modern American “Santa Claus” is based on all these earlier figures, EXCEPT for:

a. The English Father Christmas, Charles Dickens’ characters and the Victorian cartoons of Thomas Nast.

b. The Dutch Santa, Sinterklaas or Goedheiligman

c. A de-horned, sanitized, anagram of Satan.

d. Mighty Norse thunder god Thor’s father, Odin

e. St. Nikolaos, 4th-century Greek bishop and patron saint of children.

Bonus Question! (re-gifted from the Ultimate Easter Quiz)

13. Who wrote these gospels, anyway?

a. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – I mean, come on, it says so right there.

b. Actually, none of the gospels even claim to be written by eyewitnesses -all were originally anonymous and written at least a generation later.

c. Well, it’s more like the end of first century for Mark and sometime in the early to mid 2nd century for the others, if you must know.

d. Hold on – Not only that, but Matthew and Luke just reworked Mark gospel, adding their own material and tweaking Mark’s text to better fit what they thought it should say.

Incidentally, if you want the answers, then you have to go visit Phil’s website for them.  Cheers! :D

 

Posted in religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Cognitive Dissonance in Partisan Politics: The Case of Gas Prices

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 9, 2012

In a follow up to my recent posts (here and here) on the issue of rising U.S. gas prices and how the President and Congress really have little power to affect them, despite the belief by some that they do, I heard an excellent piece on NPR this morning about this very subject.  Of course, in NPR fashion, they went a bit deeper and actually started to discuss in a scientific fashion why it is that Republicans are blaming President Obama for higher gas prices now whereas a few years ago it was Democrats blaming then President Bush for higher gas prices.  Check it out…

Partisan Psychology: Why Do People Choose Political Loyalties Over Facts?

Charlie Reidel/AP — President Bush and then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry shake hands at the end of a presidential debate in 2004 in St. Louis. Researchers want to better understand why partisans’ views of the facts change in light of their political loyalties.

When pollsters ask Republicans and Democrats whether the president can do anything about high gas prices, the answers reflect the usual partisan divisions in the country. About two-thirds of Republicans say the president can do something about high gas prices, and about two-thirds of Democrats say he can’t.

But six years ago, with a Republican president in the White House, the numbers were reversed: Three-fourths of Democrats said President Bush could do something about high gas prices, while the majority of Republicans said gas prices were clearly outside the president’s control.

The flipped perceptions on gas prices isn’t an aberration, said Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan. On a range of issues, partisans seem partial to their political loyalties over the facts. When those loyalties demand changing their views of the facts, he said, partisans seem willing to throw even consistency overboard. …

Click here to read the entire story

Posted in economics, politics, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

President Obama, God, and Agency Where None Exists

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 27, 2012

I was inspired to write the following JREF Swift blog post as a result of my earlier posts (here and here) on the question of gasoline prices in the United States and the powers (perceived or real) of the U.S. president.  I hope you find it enlightening…

President Obama, God, and Agency Where None Exists

On my blog, I recently put together a post – Gas Prices and Politics: Fact vs. Fiction – about higher gas prices and how people are blaming President Obama for it.  As I pointed out there, Republicans blaming him for the increase in the price of gasoline (and oil in general) are wrong for the same reason as when Democrats blamed former President Bush back in 2007: the President doesn’t really have that much power to influence oil and gasoline prices.

So, if it is true that no such power exists for the leaders of our government to affect the price at the pump (and that is true, as the prices are set more by market factors such as global supply and demand of oil), why is it that people want to lay blame upon our mostly blameless leaders?  I struggled with the answer to this question for some time, but I think I have finally hit upon a possible answer: many people, either consciously or not, attribute powers to the President of the United States and Congress that simply do not exist.

And that asks the next obvious question: why do people attribute such powers to our political leaders?  Why is it that many of us assign almost god-like abilities to our decidedly non-god-like and wholly fallible authority figures?

I think the answer is multi-faceted and can give some interesting insights into how we think about a lot of things, especially regarding politically oriented topics.  In addition, an analysis of this topic can lead us into a deeper discussion of a philosophical concept known as “agency”.

First, I think (somewhat cynically) that there are some, if not many, politicians in government who, either actively or inactively, encourage the notion that they have more power than they are in reality.  After all, this is one of the reasons why people vote for candidates running for political office: because they make promises and we expect them to deliver on those promises, whether or not those promises are in any way, shape, or form realistic to achieve.  This also goes for the various subsidiaries which surround the government, such as lobbying groups, political action committees, etc.  But it’s too easy to stop there.

Second, I think that in many ways we are somewhat hard-wired to make inferences to the existence of things which are not there.  In philosophy, this is sometimes referred to as “agency”, where we assign some kind of powers and abilities to an entity through our beliefs about that entity or our behavior towards it.  For example, how many of us have been in the middle of some very important work on the computer when suddenly the program crashes?  No doubt that many of us then engaged in a certain amount of cursing at (not necessarily about) the computer, as if it could not only hear but understand us.  (Aside: my wife works with computers for her career, and she will swear up and down that “they know what we’re thinking”)  The computer itself is real enough, but what about the agency which we assign to it?

But when you step back and think about it, it’s downright silly to rant and rave at the computer.  The most obvious reason for this is that it simply doesn’t work.  Yell at the computer all you want, but that won’t fix the problem; actually trying to solve the relevant hardware and/or software problem will fix things.  The other reason is that, let’s face it, at the end of the day the computer is simply a collection of circuits, wire, switches, and assorted electronics.  Does it really have a mind with which to interact?  The answer, so far with today’s common technology, is a negative, yet for some reason we engage with the computer as if it did have such a mind.  And in so doing, we assign agency to the computer. …

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Posted in economics, philosophy, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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 »

 
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