Archive for October, 2009

Update on my earlier blog entry on this subject: CNN reports that an arrest has been made:

An Iraqi man accused of running down his daughter in Arizona because she had become “too Westernized” is being held on two counts of aggravated assault, police said Saturday.

Police in Peoria, Arizona, say Faleh Hassan Almaleki, 48, struck his 20-year-old daughter, Noor Faleh Almaleki, and her friend Amal Edan Khalaf with the Jeep Laredo he was driving in a parking lot in Peoria on October 20.

Apparently he’d fled the country in an effort to avoid prosecution:

After the incident, Almaleki drove to Mexico and abandoned his vehicle in Nogales, Peoria police said.

He then made his way to Mexico City and boarded a plane to London, England. British authorities denied him entry into the country, and he was put on a plane back to the United States, police said.

I love how people like this are proud of committing violence in the name of their principles — whatever they are — but somehow don’t manage to be quite proud enough to allow themselves to be prosecuted for them. I could be mistaken, but that kind of behavior more closely resembles sniveling cowardice, than cultural pride.

Oh, and I love how a guy who ostensibly opposes “westernization” and “modernism,” chose to use a very modern and western-invented means of escaping justice … i.e. flying on an airplane.

Just saying.

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Halloween inevitably creates “danger” scenarios, especially regarding trick or treat. Back when I was a kid we heard about poisoned candy. With maybe a couple of exceptions — including one in which a child was poisoned by a family member, not a stranger he’d solicited candy from during his trick or treat outing — these stories are pretty much unfounded.

The scare has moved on to new targets since then. Now the danger is sex offenders who will — the presumption goes — prey on visiting kids. CNN, among other media outlets, breathlessly reports:

During the week before Halloween each year, Lt. Steve Rose of the Sandy Springs Police Department in Georgia knocks on the doors of every registered sex offender in his jurisdiction.

Rose set out in his unmarked Dodge Charger Wednesday with a printout of 20 names to verify that the people on the list live where they say they live.

His mission brings him and members of his force to subdivisions, houses, hotels and and apartment buildings in this Atlanta bedroom community of about 85,000 people.

“We do this to give people a level of comfort so they know we’re keeping tabs on them,” said Rose, a former sex crimes detective with 34 years of police experience.

Gee, that’s so nice and comforting. The only trouble is, the whole thing is a crock! LiveScience reports, via Yahoo News:

Each year at Halloween, parents have concerns about trick-or-treating, and many believe that a danger far graver than chocolate overdose awaits their children in quiet neighborhoods: sex offenders.

This scare is fueled by alarmist news reports and police warnings. In many states, convicted sex offenders are required not to answer the door if trick-or-treaters come by, or to report to jail overnight. In many states including Texas and Arkansas offenders will be required to report to courthouses on Halloween evening for a mandatory counseling session. …

A new study shows that the public has little to fear from sex offenders on Halloween. The research, published in the September issue of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, examined 67,307 non-family sex offenses reported to law enforcement in 30 states over nine years. …

“There does not appear to be a need for alarm concerning sexual abuse on these particular days,” the researchers state. “Halloween appears to be just another autumn day where rates of sex crimes against children are concerned.”

The bottom line is that resources and money are being wasted:

Not only is the hype and fear unwarranted, but the study also suggests extra taxpayer dollars spent monitoring sex offenders on Halloween are wasted. All the mandatory counseling sessions, increased police presence, and so on had no effect at all on the incidence of sexual abuse on Halloween.

It’s time to grow up and stop already with moral panics and the scare tactics. That goes for the police departments looking to ratchet up their overtime budgets, and reporters in the mass media who know better than to frighten people without good reason. OK?

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No less an authority on the matter than Pope Benedict XVI has declared Halloween to be “anti-Christian.” The (UK) Telegraph breaks the news:

The Holy See has warned that parents should not allow their children to dress up as ghosts and ghouls on Saturday, calling Hallowe’en a pagan celebration of “terror, fear and death”.

The Roman Catholic Church has become alarmed in recent years by the spread of Hallowe’en traditions from the US to other countries around the world. …

The Vatican issued the warning through its official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, in an article headlined “Hallowe’en’s Dangerous Messages”.

The paper quoted a liturgical expert, Joan Maria Canals, who said: “Hallowe’en has an undercurrent of occultism and is absolutely anti-Christian.”

Let’s be clear on the matter: Halloween as it’s celebrated in the United States, is more or less a modern holiday created by a culture which happens to be majority-Christian. Sure, it has elements of the old Celtic Samhain, as well as a few other pagan influences. But it also has more modern influences, e.g. Guy Fawkes Day. It is firmly pegged on the Christian calendar as the evening prior to All Saints’ Day (aka All Hallows’ Day, hence, Hallow E’en). Halloween is, in short, an amalgam of pre-Christian as well as Christian-era practices, contorted by American commercialism into something which has completely lost any tangible connection to anything the Druids were doing in ancient Europe on Samhain, or even to the Gunpowder Plot cooked up by Guy Fawkes.

Put another way … Halloween is not a religious holiday. It is also not an areligious holiday. It has very little to do with Christianity, except that it happens to be the evening before All Saints Day.

The Pope makes the mistake of trying to relate everything to his religion, and because he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about, he decides it can only be “against” Christianity. Well, your Holiness, this time it’s not about Christianity or Catholicism at all. Put your Christian persecution complex away for once and try to grow up just enough to understand that. OK?

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Occasionally a correspondent accuses me of being “in cohoots” with Big Pharma. Of course I’m not — no one at any pharmaceutical company anywhere in the world even knows I exist, and they surely don’t give a damn what I say about anything — but the conspiracy-minded nevertheless believe that I’m a puppet of Big Pharma and the Vast Conventional-Medicine Conspiracy. Well, I’d like to contradict that, by going on the record as denouncing something a Big Pharma company did, as patently absurd on its face. (Pun intended!) This one comes from Consumer Reports via Consumerist:

Brooke Shields Has Hypotrichosis

Oh no! Brooke Shields used to have stringy, stick-figure eyelashes! I figured this out after watching Consumer Reports’ video dissection of a new commercial for Latisse, the glaucoma medication that has been rebranded as an expensive, temporary eyelash enhancer with side effects.

The referenced video is below, for your perusal:

I absolutely agree that Allergan taking a glaucoma medication and marketing it (with a large enough budget to pay for Brooke Shields!) for another — completely-frivolous — purpose, is flat-out ridiculous, if not irresponsible … it’s not as though insurance, Medicare or Medicaid are going to pay for a merely-cosmetic use of a product this expensive.

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I blogged a while back on a French court case in which the Church of Scientology was accused of organized fraud. Well, the verdict is in, and as the BBC reports, it’s not in Scientology’s favor:

A French court has convicted the Church of Scientology of fraud, but stopped short of banning the group from operating in France.

Two branches of the group’s operations and several of its leaders in France have been fined. …

Prosecutors had asked for the group’s French operations to be dissolved and more heavily fined, but a legal loophole prevented any ban.

Instead, a Paris judge ordered the Church’s Celebrity Centre and a bookshop to pay a 600,000-euro fine.

Alain Rosenberg, the group’s head in France, was handed a two-year suspended jail sentence and fined 30,000 euros.

Three other leading members of the group were also fined.

A ban is not possible as a direct result of this case, then, but it might still happen:

Ban ‘still possible’

Unlike the US, France has always refused to recognise Scientology as a religion, arguing that it is a purely commercial operation designed to make as much money as it can at the expense of often vulnerable victims, the BBC’s Emma Jane Kirby reports from Paris.

The BBC article does not, unfortunately, fully explain how a ban is possible. One can only hope that it happens nonetheless. It couldn’t happen to a better bunch of people. Of course, I mean that facetiously … for an explanation of what the Church of Scientology has done, see this recent three-part (with sidebar stories and videos added) exposé of the group, by the St Petersburg Times — the paper showed a lot of courage in taking on an organization which has been willing to do almost anything, including unethical or even illegal activities, to bring down its critics.

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Robert T. Carroll of the excellent Skeptic’s Dictionary site offers some insight into why the forces of Antivax seem so prevalent in the media and have taken hold of the US in an unprecedented (and dangerous) way. (I’ve blogged many times on the Antivax movement.) You see, it’s all about presentation, and incompetence. I’ll let him tell the sad tale, which is sparked by one of Carroll’s correspondents named “Jan” on a related but different topic:

Of course, the news media whether it be Fox (that arm of the Republican party) or the liberal elite media (that arm of the Democratic party) report the anecdotes, not the RCTs [randomized controlled trials]. Two recent stories illustrate the kind of evidence Jan counts and the kind that the media thrive on.

One story involves a young woman who developed a weird neurological disorder (dystonia) ten days after getting a flu shot. The nature of the story makes it clear that there must be some connection between the young woman’s health problems and the flu shot. The reporters don’t have to come right out and say that the shot caused her problems. That’s clearly implied by having the report at all. Reporters aren’t paid to encourage viewers to think, however. So, don’t expect them to investigate other possible causes of the young woman’s problems. They won’t report that 9 days before her illness, she drank 20 shots of tequila. [For those of you who can’t figure it out for yourselves, I’m making this stuff up about the nine days of Christmas for illustration purposes.] Eight days before her illness, someone spiked her drink with ecstasy. Seven days before her illness, she ate a hamburger at McDonalds. Six days before her illness, she spent time in a toxic building where the DMV is located. Five days before her illness, she fell out of bed. Four days before her illness, she drank some bottled water that a friend gave her. Three days before her illness she watched a whole movie in fast forward mode. Two days before her illness, she took a neuroleptic for facial pain. And the day before she got ill, she rode a roller coaster for three hours. Why didn’t the reporters note these things? Why didn’t they go back eleven days and beyond to see if there might not be something people might causally connect to the illness? Because the flu shot is the current bogeyman. Next year it could be ground beef.

The reason for this is all about drama, and using emotion to “hook” the reader/viewer/listener:

Obviously, an emotional anecdote will be more persuasive than a dry report on RCTs and statistical probabilities of being harmed versus being protected by a vaccination. Also, the fear of possible harm carries more weight that the hope of possible protection from harm. Further complicating the data is the values issue that’s involved here. Getting vaccinated or not affects the whole community, not just oneself. For most people, protecting themselves and their children is a higher priority than protecting strangers. By getting a vaccination and avoiding the flu I not only protect myself but prevent myself from infecting others who aren’t vaccinated and who might be greatly harmed by the flu.

Since this is not a tangible, observable benefit in people’s favor, they ignore the good that vaccines do. They concentrate, instead, on the harm it might do them … which if it came to pass, would be tangible and observable to individuals.

Anyway, the issue with the antivaxxers is more a matter of emotion than evidence. It doesn’t matter that 28 pregnant women in the US have already died from swine flu and no pregnant woman has been harmed by the vaccine. It doesn’t matter to antivax parents that the chance of their child being harmed by a vaccination is near zero. It doesn’t matter that there is an almost certain benefit to their child and the community at large by having the child vaccinated. It doesn’t matter that 43 children in the US have died recently from swine flu* and none have been harmed by the swine flu vaccination. They have an anecdote: an 8-year-old boy died a week after his swine flu vaccination. It must have been the vaccine that killed him even if health department officials deny it. Their denial is proof they’re covering up something. And so it goes.

The problem is not just that Americans lack critical-thinking skills. That’s true, and it’s quite bad enough. But even those who are capable of thinking critically, are denied access to information they could use, by a mass media which is hell-bent on playing up the drama behind everything and withholding information that runs contrary to the dramatic narrative, because it might tend to dilute the drama and thus fail to “hook” viewers/readers/listeners sufficiently.

This is insidious, folks, and it needs to stop. The mass media must begin to take responsibility for what they’ve done … not only in the case of building the Antivax movement, but in many other areas too. Journalism in almost any field is rife with misinformation and artificial drama, and too full of informational holes to be of any use to those not subject to being emotionally hooked. No one is served by this … no one … except maybe the media outlets themselves, in the form of higher ratings. They ought to be ashamed of themselves. And Americans should no longer tolerate it.

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A recent study — of admittedly limited scope — suggests a psychosocial mechanism by which people latch onto and maintain extremist viewpoints. Live Science reports on this:

For many people — more than you might think — public and political dialogue seems dominated by extreme views that don’t resonate.

A new study suggests a possible reason: People with extreme views seem more willing to share their opinions than others, but only if they believe, even falsely, that their views are popular. …

The upshot of the research: Students who held extreme views on the use of alcohol on campus were more likely than others to voice their views. The key to their bold approach, scientists found, was that they tended to believe their views actually represented a majority, when that was not in fact the case.

What happens, then, is a combination snowball and echo-chamber effect:

That situation can set up a self-feeding cycle that promotes the voicing of extreme views on one side of an issue and causes moderate and even extremists on the other side to stay relatively quiet.

One person who believes his/her extreme — but minority — view to be popular, talks about it, giving the appearance to the (few) others that agree, that it is, in fact, popular, and they begin talking about it … and eventually, all their chatter drowns out everyone else.

The article explains how the study was set up and executed. And its authors arrive at this supposition:

The findings suggest possible parallels in politics, [Ohio State professor and co-author Kimberly Rios] Morrison figures.

She cites a hypothetical community that tends to be moderate politically, but leans slightly liberal. People with more extreme liberal views in the community may be more likely than others to attend publicly visible protests and display bumper stickers espousing their liberal views, because they think the community supports them.

A self-feeding cycle might ensue.

“Everyone else sees these extreme opinions being expressed on a regular basis and they may eventually come to believe their community is more liberal than it actually is,” Morrison said. “The same process could occur in moderately conservative communities.”

When you add to this the power of the mass media — which largely invented the “Right vs. Left,” “red-state vs. blue-state” mantra and keep presenting the US as a country crudely divided by extreme ideological thinking, it’s no wonder Americans cannot think in any other terms.

Granted, this particular study has a number of caveats, so it’s not safe to assume this scenario is “proven.” At the moment it remains merely an interesting and plausible hypothesis.

Hat tip: Crossroads Arabia blog.

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