Posts Tagged “critical thinking”

'Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.' -H.L. Mencken (PsiCop original graphic)I’ve blogged a few times about the ongoing scam that is anti-terror security in the US. Their actions are frequently extreme and misdirected, and often absurdly out of proportion with the risk being dealt with. The government’s excuses for all of this ridiculousness are legion: “An abundance of caution” is typically cited as being necessary, as well as the need to be vigilant because the terrorists are everywhere.

I concede there are terrorists working to attack Americans … as well as people all over the planet. It would be insane to say there’s absolutely no danger. What I’ve consistently questioned is whether what’s being done, actually diminishes that risk, as well as whether or not the measures that are taken, are worth the small increase in safety they might provide. I’ve long agreed with experts like Bruce Schneier that it’s all just “security theater,” or useless exercises intended to make people feel safer, without actually doing anything to make them safter.

In its review of New York City’s claim of success in contending with the threat of terrorism, ProPublica has examined the city’s record, and found its claims disingenuous (WebCite cached article):

The NYPD is regularly held up as one of the most sophisticated and significant counterterrorism operations in the country. As evidence of the NYPD’s excellence, the department, its allies and the media have repeatedly said the department has thwarted or helped thwart 14 terrorist plots against New York since Sept 11.

In a glowing profile of Commissioner Ray Kelly published in Newsweek last month, for example, journalist Christopher Dickey wrote of the commissioner’s tenure since taking office in 2002: The record “is hard to argue with: at least 14 full-blown terrorist attacks have been prevented or failed on Kelly’s watch.”

The figure has been cited repeatedly in the media, by New York congressmen, and by Kelly himself. The NYPD itself has published the full list, saying terrorists have “attempted to kill New Yorkers in 14 different plots.”…

Is it true?

In a word, no.

A review of the list shows a much more complicated reality — that the 14 figure overstates both the number of serious, developed terrorist plots against New York and exaggerates the NYPD’s role in stopping attacks.

ProPublica goes over this list of NYC anti-terror successes, and points how they’re really failures. I’ll leave the details up to them to explain, but I do urge you to look at them and see it for yourself.

I’m disappointed the mass media have reported on government anti-terror activities as uncritically as they have. It’s not as though the record on a lot of these matters can’t be verified … as ProPublica demonstrated. But it seems the mass media generally aren’t interested in checking it out.

Now, if I were a committed ideologue, I’d chalk this up to some sort of “media bias” (of whichever direction). But I need not appeal to anything that subjective. I think the reason the mass media have refused to examine the government’s anti-terror track record, is because reporters (outside of ProPublica!) are — quite simply — too lazy or too incompetent to bother doing it. This is not the only field they’re uncritical about … for instance, I’ve caught media outlets reporting uncritically on the paranormal. A lack of critical thinking on the part of reporters, is just one of many aspects of modern journalism that’s severely lacking.

Photo credit: PsiCop original, containing the wisdom of H.L. Mencken.

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OlKu / Flying Saucer with Alien, via Open Clip Art LibraryThe 1947 Roswell, NM UFO incident is the stuff of UFOphile legend. For “true believers” in extraterrestrial visitation, it’s pretty much all they need to know. That it was not actually an extraterrestrial vehicle crash, does not matter to them. That no one has offered the slightest bit of verifiable evidence it might have been, does not matter to them. That the government has explained what really happened — over and over and over and over and over again — does not matter to them. No, the more they’re told it wasn’t an extraterrestrial crash, and could not have been, the more convinced they become that’s precisely what it was.

For UFOphiles, facts are irrelevant … they know “the Truth” and that’s all there is to it.

But it’s not as though they haven’t had time to gather up and present some meaningful, compelling evidence. Say, pieces of the crashed vehicle which have been objectively tested and determined to have only extraterrestrial origin. Or body parts that have been examined and shown cannot be from any animal on earth. UFOphiles have had decades to produce that — but they have staunchly and vehemently refused to do so. Instead, they just bellyache and whine about “government cover-ups,” as though somehow that absolves them of the obligation to demonstrate the veracity of their outlandish claims.

It’s not a coincidence that, on the 65th anniversary of the supposed “flying saucer crash,” one more wingnut UFOphile has decided to come forward and claim he somehow knows an extraterrestrial vehicle crashed that day in 1947. As USA Today reports via the Detroit Free Press, he’s a former CIA agent who says he saw the evidence in a government vault (WebCite cached article):

A former CIA agent is going on the record to say the alleged UFO incident on July 8, 1947, in Roswell, N.M., really happened, the Daily Mail and other news organizations report.

Chase Brandon, who worked 35 years with the CIA, said documents regarding the alleged landing of beings from outer space are locked up at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Va.

He found evidence in a mysterious box in CIA headquarters … but strangely, refuses to say what was in the box:

“That’s all I will ever say to anybody about the contents of that box,” [the Huffington Post] quoted Brandon as saying. “But it absolutely for me was the single validating moment that everything I had believed and knew that so many others believed had happened truly was what occurred.”

So, Mr Brandon, you say you’ve seen evidence … but not only do you refuse to produce it, you refuse even to describe it? We’re just supposed to take your word for it? Because you’ve said so? Really!?

Sorry, but no. You want to say you can “prove” an extraterrestrial vehicle crashed at Roswell NM, Mr Brandon? Then produce your fucking evidence … or else shut the fuck up and go away. I’m not stupid enough just to swallow the line you’ve reeled out, and I’m insulted you would actually expect me to do so. Man up, Mr Brandon … and all the rest of you UFOphile lunatics. Your games and bullshit are juvenile, and insulting to our intelligence. Take responsibility for your claims. Either produce objective, verifiable evidence for them, or go away and stop bothering the rest of us. OK?

Photo credit: OlKu, via the Open Clip Art Project.

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Hartford Courant / Photo page / CNN Breaking News tweets 'Supreme Court strikes down individual mandate portion of health care law'Folks, I’ve said it before and will say it again: It pays to be skeptical. Of everything. This morning offered a great example of why caution is in order. As the Hartford Courant explains, two major media outlets — CNN and Fox News — both published erroneous information on the Supreme Court decision released this morning (WebCite cached article):

For CNN and Fox News, among other news organizations, the twitter frenzy proved to be a source of embarrassment. Both news organizations falsely reported that the bill had been struck down, as did those who repeated the error.

A tweet by CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) containing the incorrect report was retweeted over 1,100 times. For example, Huffington Post tweeted “We jumped the gun in following them (Fox and CNN). Apologies for the confusion.” …

CNN originally tweeted that the Supreme Court struck down the individual mandate for health care and displayed the information prominently on their website. Their blunder also unfolded on television, where Wolf Blitzer said the network had received conflicting reports. The network was forced to publicly issue a retraction.

Fox News also displayed incorrect information, as they displayed a television banner reading, “Supreme Court Finds Individual Mandate Unconstitutional.” The network changed it’s message soon after re-reading the court’s decision.

Note that this is eerily similar to something that played out, nearly as famously, some 6 months ago, when former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno was prematurely reported dead. The same impulse, it seems, was at play here … CNN and Fox News were so eager to release a story — any story! — on the highly-watched case, that they didn’t take a few moments to check and see if what they were spewing was factual. They may well have had a story “pre-written” and launched it, without even taking the time to be sure it had any relation to the decision itself.

It’s nice that the Courant reported this error, but I note — with chagrin — that they did so within the framework of a different faulty journalistic trope, that is, “news-that’s-not-really-news.” The article’s lede is:

Twitter activity around today’s Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act peaked at more than 13,000 tweets per minute at 10:17 a.m., significantly more than the 900 TPM that was tracked during the oral arguments in March, reports Rachael Horwitz, a representative from Twitter.com.

The article adds that lots of Google searches were made for the story, too. Listen, reporters, I don’t need to be told that “people use Twitter” or that “people use Google.” Nor do I need to be told that Twitter use and Google searches spike when a big story breaks. Those are both things I already knew, without having to be told. What on earth made you think that’s “news”? It’s not. You guys really need to stop already with that trope. OK?

Update: Media critic Howard Kurtz at the Daily Beast has pointed out that not only did some media outlets get the story factually wrong, initially, but they had also had made what turn out to have been inaccurate predictions of the results of the case (cached). Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, so perhaps it’s not fair to condemn legal pundits like Jeffrey Toobin for not having gotten it right … but isn’t that a reason for them just to refrain from making predictions at all? The mass media are now jammed full of yammering, talking-head “pundits” who present themselves as prescient and all-knowing, and prattle endlessly about things they cannot necessarily know with as much certainty as they claim. Yet, they continually do it. Even after they’ve been proven wrong about things, on multiple occasions.

I would love for there to be a “pundit-prediction database” in which every prediction made by the talking heads is collected up and then evaluated to see if it came true. Then we might be able to hold these jabbering windbags accountable for their nonsense and gibberish. We already have something like this — informally anyway — for politicians, in the PolitiFact and FactCheck projects. There’s no reason this principle can’t be extended to media figures too.

Photo credit: Hartford Courant (cached).

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NEW YORK LOTTERYHere’s a stunning example of how not to do critical thinking, and why amateurs and idiots should never attempt it on their own. A (believing) woman won the New York lottery recently, as a result of a mock prayer by her (atheist) son, and he’s now a “true believer.” WNBC-TV in New York City reports on this irrationality (WebCite cached article):

A mother and son’s prayers were both answered with one scratch of a lottery ticket.

Gloria Bentivegna of West Babylon won $1 million in the New York Lottery’s Sweet Million game one day after her son had called on God to give his mom the money. …

But Sal Bentivegna, 26, never saw eye to eye with his mom’s beliefs, describing himself as somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist. …

Last month, mother and son’s ongoing debate over religion came to a head as they played the slots in Atlantic City.

Sal Bentivegna challenged God to prove he exists.

“I said, if he wants me to believe, he’ll give you a million dollars.”

The answer came within twenty-four hours. …

A few days later, Sal joined his mom at Ss. Cyril and Methodius church in Deer Park. It was his first church visit in some twenty years.

“I don’t think one can ask for more proof than something like that short of God or Jesus appearing physically in front of you,” said Sal.

Unfortunately — in the eyes of strict logic — this “challenge prayer” is proof of absolutely nothing whatsoever. First, there is no direct, causal link between the “prayer” and the lottery win. It’s possible that the mother would have won the lottery without the prayer being said. There is such a thing as a coincidence, you know … even if religionists conveniently refuse to accept that coincidences happen.

Second, a lottery win is too wild, statistically, for one such event to tell us anything. What would be needed is something bigger and more meticulous; a larger sample size, i.e. many more lottery tickets than just one, and controls, i.e. some of them which are not prayed for. In other words, demonstrating a connection between prayer and lottery winnings would require a large, well-designed, tightly-structured study.

One challenge prayer and one lottery win do not meet this standard.

In fact, given the nature of the supernatural, it’s ultimately impossible to design any such thing, since one can never exclude elements of the supernatural, which — by definition — lie outside the control of anyone operating such a study, as R.T. Carroll of the Skeptic’s Dictionary points out. In other words, even the best-structured study could, conceivably, be mucked around with, if God chooses not to cooperate with it or purposely muddles its results. No study can possibly be set up so as to work around or isolate out the supposed omnipotence of God.

As one would expect, fierce Christians are jumping for joy at this news, e.g. this story from the Christian Post (cached):

Realizing that the odds of his mother winning were so farfetched, Sal has now become a firm believer.

He testified, “I can’t shrug off that Jesus had a hand in it.”

“No pun intended, but it was a Godsend,” he said.

Gloria Bentivegna, reflecting on what had happened, is thankful to God for her winnings, but even more thankful for her son’s conversion. She said: “’God performed two miracles, a true miracle.”

What these jubilant Christians forget is that their religion is not supposed to be based upon challenges to God and real-world events. This is what their scripture explicitly tells them, e.g.:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Converting to Christianity as a result of a financial boon doled out (supposedly) by God, is precisely the kind of “boast” that this epistle condemns. Thus, any Christians rejoicing over this, are actually being anti-scriptural!

Photo credit: Leo Reynolds.

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Evolution & Darwinism in Schools: Teaching Evolution & Darwinism Encourages Immoral, Bestial Behavior (Image © Austin Cline, Licensed to About; Original Poster: Library of Congress)The drums of the vast armies of Christofascism in the US are beating incessantly, and their forces are on the march. In skirmish after skirmish, they’re gaining victories around the country. The latest of these came in the Tennessee legislature, whose House approved a law that would teach religion in that state’s science classes. CBS News reports on this religionist debacle (WebCite cached article):

Tennessee’s Republican-dominated House of Representatives has overwhelmingly passed a bill that would protect teachers who want to challenge the theory of human evolution.

Thursday’s 70-28 passage of HB 368 [cached] was hailed by sponsor Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, who said the proposal was designed to promote “critical thinking” in science classes.

It will be a cold day in hell before any Religious Rightist like Dunn ever truly gives a flying fuck about “critical thinking.” His promotion of this bill shows he has no comprehension of what “critical thinking” is.

The truth of the matter is this: TN HB 368 is NOT — and never was — about “critical thinking” at all. Religiofascists don’t like or want “critical thinking.” They demand, instead, “rigid dogmatic thinking,” and unwavering thralldom to their unbending, irrational metaphysics.

Rep. Dunn’s claim to be concerned about “critical thinking” is a lie, and that places him in my “lying liars for Jesus” club.

For anyone who’s not yet clear on this, “intelligent design” and its various relatives are all just variations on Creationism. It was none other than an evangelical Christian federal appellate judge — appointed by George W. Bush himself — who declared “intelligent design” a sham, a transparent cover for Creationism, in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005). Prior to that, the US Supreme Court had ruled that Creationism was effectively a religion and is therefore forbidden in public schools, in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), and subsequently that evolution by contrast is not a religion, in Peloza v. Capistrano School District (1994).

It’s time for America’s religionists to grow up and get over the fact that science is not theirs to control. Evolution is science, at the moment, so that’s what should be taught in science classes. Period. End of discussion.

One final note for any other religiofascists out there who think they can force their religion on public school kids in the name of promoting “critical thinking”: To paraphrase V.P. candidate Lloyd Bentsen’s famous quip, I know Critical Thinking; Critical Thinking is a friend of mine. You don’t know what Critical Thinking is.

Hat tip: Mark at Skeptics & Heretics Forum at Delphi Forums.

Photo credit: Austin Cline / About.Com.

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Derby Superior Courthouse, aka Sterling Opera HouseIt’s to be expected, I suppose, given that Halloween is almost here. But the news media continue to waste their time — and that of their readers/listeners/viewers — on stories about “hauntings” and the paranormal. It’s something I’ve blogged on many times already, and there doesn’t seem to be any end to this pathetic journalistic trope. The latest example is one I saw tonight on WTNH-TV out of New Haven, CT, reporting on the putative “haunting” of the Sterling Opera House in Derby, CT (WebCite cached article):

News 8 is with two paranormal investigators checking out one spot in Connecticut some say is haunted, the Sterling Opera House.

Dan Rivera and John Silveira run “Above the Realm Paranormal” which checks out reports of Unexplained noises or shadows or other things you can’t explain yourself.

The Sterling Opera House was built in 1889. It’s undergoing a renovation.

The “meat” of the report is in the video, which is right here:

The problem is that none of this so-called “evidence” proves anything. Gobs of light on photographs? Lens flares. Supposed children’s voices saying “Help me”? Some guy off-camera holding something over his mouth, saying it in falsetto.

Please, spare me the protestations of how “genuine” and/or “sincere” these “paranormal investigators” claim to be. They may be genuine, in which case they’re deluded. They also may not be, which makes them frauds. Either way, not good.

And the good folks at Channel 8 News were taken in by it. For shame. We don’t need any more “haunting journalism.”

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Glenn Beck's Christmas Road ShowNo surprise, here, folks. Glenn Beck is still as much of a raging ignoramus as he ever has been. He doesn’t believe in evolution (again, no surprise!) because it hasn’t been proven to him. Unfortunately his view of what constitutes “proof” of evolution, demonstrates his ignorance about it and his failure to comprehend what it really is. According to the Atlantic’s Wire blog, Beckie-boy recently babbled (WebCite cached article):

Fox News host Glenn Beck has denounced the theory of evolution, saying that he knows it is false because he has never seen “a half-monkey, half-person.” Beck coming out against evolution is hardly surprising, but his not-so-persuasive scientific analysis has drawn the usual round of mockery and revulsion. Scientists say that our closest living ancestors are not monkeys but apes, with which we share a common ancestor.

In addition to failing to understand what the science of evolution is and what it really says, Beckie-boy also falls headlong into the trap of a common fallacy:

[Beck said,] “How many people believe in evolution in this country? I’d like to see. I mean, I don’t know why it’s unreasonable to say this.”

For the record, Glenn, it is, in fact, very “unreasonable” — not to mention illogical and irrational — to use popular belief to bolster a claim. This is a fallacy that’s known by many names: appeal to the many, appeal to consensus, the bandwagon fallacy, appeal to the masses, the democratic fallacy, appeal to popularity, the fallacy of the many, or — more formally — argumentum ad populum.

The fallacy here lies in equating popular belief and perception, with veracity. They are, however, not the same, and this is demonstrable. Consider, for example, that at one time, the vast majority of humanity, if not all of humanity, believed the Earth was at the center of a universe only a few thousand miles in diameter, inside of which the sun and everything else revolved around it. We have, however, discovered this is not the case: The Earth is not the center of the universe; instead, the Earth revolves primarily around the sun, however, the sun itself is part of a galaxy and revolves within it; that galaxy is part of a galactic cluster, which in turn is part of a supercluster; and the universe in which we live is vastly larger than just a few thousand miles.

In case anyone needs an even better understanding of the illogic and failure of argumentum ad populum, look here, here, and here, and here.

Put as simply as possible, veracity is not up for a popular vote, as Beck seems to think it is. The truth doesn’t care what anyone thinks of it, not even what millions or billions of people think of it. The truth is what it is. It’s there for us to discover … if we only will look for it.

But Beckie-boy doesn’t want us to look for the truth! He just wants us to settle for what “seems to be” and what satisfies the most people emotionally. Sorry, Glenn, but since humanity is collectively stupid, the last thing I’m going to do is use popular polling data to decide whether something is true or not.

Hat tip: Unreasonable Faith blog & Mark at Skeptics & Heretics Forum on Delphi Forums.

Photo credit: The Rocketeer.

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