Pizzagate Part 2: The Conspiracy Theory Too Crazy for Alex Jones

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In my monthly live show, Quiz-o-Tron, in which comedians battle scientists on science trivia, I used to always have a category called “Science According to the Daily Mail.” The Daily Mail used to be a haven for conspiracy theories and bad science reporting, but over the past few years they’ve become more and more mainstream, to the point where I had to really dig through to find the crazy. So I switched to a category on “Science According to Infowars,” Alex Jones’s website, where the crazy has risen to the top like a delicious cream. Chemical weapons that turn frogs gay, 1987 GI Joe cartoons accurately predicting a dystopic future, AI deciding who lives and who dies — they have everything.

Well, almost everything. It turns out, there’s one conspiracy theory currently gaining traction that’s too hot even for Infowars: the claim that there’s a hotbed of child sex trafficking in Arizona currently being covered up by the government. Sound familiar? It sounds a hell of a lot like Pizzagate, the Alex Jones-approved conspiracy theory that Washington politicians like the Clintons were sexually abusing children in the basement of a pizza place. Jones spread the claim around so much that one of his followers went there with a gun to free the kids, firing shots around the room and nearly murdering innocent people.

So why isn’t Jones on board for the Arizona-Pizzagate? Arizzagate I guess? I don’t know, I don’t think it has a hashtag yet.

Jones claims that Arizzagate is a honeypot — a trap to get alt-right conspiracy theorists to show up and be arrested for trespassing. He and his minions claim that the person responsible for spreading this conspiracy theory is possibly a government plant. That plant’s name is Michael Meyer, though for some reason he goes by several completely different names, like Lewis Arthur. Meyer has been involved in several similar alt-right events, like the Bundy ranch stand-off, but Jones’s fans have insisted that this is more proof that he’s an informant.

Despite this opposition from his own side, Meyer has still managed to get people on his side, like Stewart Rhodes, president of Oath Keepers, which Southern Poverty Law Center lists as one of the biggest anti-government organizations in the country. The conspiracy theorists who buy into Arizzagate are gathering supplies and volunteers to storm the supposed sex trafficking site with guns blazing.

I should mention that local and national authorities have looked into these claims and found them completely baseless, but of course that means nothing to these people because they don’t trust the government.

And that’s where things get interesting, to me: the reason why Alex Jones isn’t on board with this is that because now, in the year of our lord 2018, Alex Jones does trust the government. He trusts Donald Trump, who of course considers Jones a friend and an important voice in our media. Jones wrote on Infowars, “it’s not just local police saying that nothing’s there – President Trump’s own DHS, which has been massively busting up human trafficking rings all over the US, has investigated the homeless camp and said nothing is happening there.” That’s right — things are so insane these days that the biggest anti-government conspiracy theorist in the world trusts the federal government because Donald Trump is in charge. Jones believed Pizzagate because Democrats were in charge at the time. He is skeptical of Arizzagate because white nationalists are in charge now.

I’m extremely interested to see how the conspiracy theorist community reacts to this and to future issues like it. Will they continue to be anti-government, stockpiling their guns and keeping their “bug-out” bags at the ready? Or will they let all that go now that the government that agrees with them is in charge? It’s a tricky situation, and the best we can hope for is that they all turn on each other and devour their own movement — hopefully, before someone gets killed in yet another shootout over a pedophile ring that doesn’t exist.

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Visceral horror

For years, I was involved in these uncomfortable debates within the atheist community where one side would argue “Reason and Science!” and the other would say “Emotions matter!”, and I would uneasily argue that they both matter — uneasy because I’m happier talking about science and am not at all charismatic or able to draw on any kind of emotional sympathy. Old Nerd Talking, that’s me.

But right now, in the court of public opinion, we’re seeing the debate play out, and what’s clearly winning is emotion — and, I think, reason as well, but it’s the feelings that are driving the discourse. I think that’s important. It really settles the argument that both are necessary. What’s punching everyone in the gut so hard is that the Republicans have thrown away any attempt to mask their lack of humanity.

An example: when my kids were very young, I let them watch what I thought was a harmless, fun, children’s movie. I didn’t realize that it was a horror movie.

That movie was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Does anyone remember this character?

It was striking: my kids were fine with the movie, until this guy shows up — a villain called The Child Catcher who snatches up children and drags them away from their families. He affected them immediately in a way that no other monster movie ever did. They’d cover their eyes. They’d run out of the room. They probably had nightmares about him, because all I had to do was say the words “Child Catcher!” and they’d shudder. I think if they had the choice of being attacked by the wolfman or the Child Catcher, the wolfman would win every time.

I got to visit my little grandson a few weeks ago. He’s 7 months old. Babies are fine-tuned, sensitive people detectors, and you could see it in his behavior, the way his eyes would light up and he’d squirm with happiness when he saw his mommy and daddy. He’s barely a person, he’s new and squishy and helpless, and the first concept his newly developed brain is forming is a love for his parents. I realized that I’d die fighting anyone trying to separate them.

It’s totally irrational. But this stuff matters. Donald Trump and the entire Republican party have steered themselves right into Child Catcher territory.

I’d like to think this would lead to their downfall, but unfortunately, Trumpsters also love children, and the only way they can resolve the dissonance is to dehumanize brown children even more — they aren’t babies, they’re future MS-13 gang members! That’s precisely what we’re seeing right now, and it could make everything even worse.


All those guns were never about defending “freedom”


What would Liam Neeson do?

Say he got word that some terrorist had kidnapped hundreds of babies and was holding them hostage until the government met his ransom demands — and he’s no piker, he’s asking for tens of billions of dollars.

Well, I’m a little disappointed that no action hero has stepped forward to deal with this situation.

Trump administration officials have been sending babies and other young children forcibly separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border to at least three “tender age” shelters in South Texas, The Associated Press has learned.

Lawyers and medical providers who have visited the Rio Grande Valley shelters described play rooms of crying preschool-age children in crisis. The government also plans to open a fourth shelter to house hundreds of young migrant children in Houston, where city leaders denounced the move Tuesday.

Since the White House announced its zero tolerance policy in early May, more than 2,300 children have been taken from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, resulting in a new influx of young children requiring government care.

Rachel Maddow has the response I would make, because I’m no action hero either.


Another hangout this weekend

We have a topic: Phrenomythic and I will discuss body plans, and apply that important concept in developmental biology and evolution to ideas about aliens. Check it out on Saturday at noon, Central time.


A #NationalStrike? Think about it.

From Libbie Grant on Facebook, here’s something we can prepare for.

Folks. There is serious talk today all over Twitter about organizing a national strike to force the GOP-controlled Congress to either impeach Trump or force his resignation. This is a great idea, but it’s something we need to prepare for, and we may not have a whole lot of time to prepare.

What is a national strike? It’s when everybody in the country refuses to spend money. If you can also refuse to go to work and do your job, that’s good too, but the crucial part is the refusal to spend money. 70% of the USA’s GDP is personal consumption. That means our entire economy–and by extension, our government–depends on us spending money on the stuff we use or own. We have almost no exports anymore; our exports are, in effect, our individual citizens’ personal consumption.

Those of you who are my age or older remember what happened just after 9/11. Everybody was freaked out and shocked, so Americans hunkered down in their homes and did nothing, went nowhere, bought nothing unless they absolutely had to. Just a few days of decreased spending had a massive impact on our economy and our government. I remember George W. Bush going on TV and pleading with Americans to start spending money again. That wasn’t just another idiotic thing W said because he’s a dummy; it’s what Congress asked him to do because they found themselves unable to function at that critical time due to the sudden cessation of our economy.

That’s a national strike. That’s what we can do–what we NEED to do–in order to force the Republican-controlled Congress to act. They will NOT act without it.

We all need to be preparing now for the national strike. With luck, it will only need to last for a few days, and Congress will cave. But we should be prepared for a longer strike if necessary.

Here’s what you need to start doing right now in order to make this strike effective and ensure you can continue to participate without putting yourself or your loved ones at risk of too much discomfort.

-Stock up on non-perishable food, enough to last up to a month. Canned stuff. Can your own goods now if you know how to do it and have the equipment. Go for foods that are calorie-dense and/or filling. Dried beans are cheap and will keep you going indefinitely. Buy a ton of them and store them in solid, critter-proof containers.

-Make sure you have a good can opener and a spare.

-Stock up on medications and other care supplies for a month or more.

-Stock up on all the pet supplies you will need for a month or more.

-Assume that this evil, fascist government will attempt to fight back by shutting down utilities in some cities. That may include your city. So that means you must: 1) Get those big 5-gallon water jugs, lots of them, and fill them up now, and put secure coverings over the openings so bugs can’t get in. Store them in a safe place. 2) Have camping supplies? Great! Stock up on white gas or other fuel sources to run camping cook stoves. If you don’t have a camping stove already, get one now. They aren’t terribly expensive and you can find used ones on Craigslist. You should have one anyway in an emergency kit (as those of us who live in earthquake country know!) 3) Be sure you have working flashlights and plenty of batteries. 4) Get a solar charger for your personal electronic devices. 5) Pull out some cash and keep it in a safe place in case you need to buy anything in a real emergency situation. Or put aside valuable items you think you can trade to your neighbors. 6) Consider what your town is like during the summer and think ahead to your comfort needs. Plan how to meet those needs without electricity or money. Maybe that means identifying the coolest location in your neighborhood and making a plan to spend the hottest hours of the day there. Start thinking about this stuff now. 7) Check in with your elderly and disabled neighbors to be sure they are similarly prepared for utility shutdowns and have supplies laid away and a way to contact help if they need it. 8) Make a plan for waste disposal if those utilities are shut down, too.

Be prepared. A national strike is almost certainly coming at this point. With luck, it won’t be a long-term situation and it’ll be over in a matter of a handful of days. But be sure you’re ready in case it’s not over so quickly.

I would support this. The only question is what fraction of the population would actually join in…because face it, there are a heck of a lot of people who think fascism is just fine.

Another thing that could be done: Marches are planned all across the country for 30 June. I’ll be there!


Donald Trump’s Space Force and the True Threat from the Skies!

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President Donald Trump has just ordered the Pentagon to immediately start setting up a sixth branch of our military: the space force. I wonder where he got that idea from? This makes perfect sense of course, because I think we can all agree that we just don’t have enough people whose job it is to murder other people. Right now, we only have the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and the Coast Guard, which all together have about 1.4 million people in them (plus more than a million more on call) and cost taxpayers $441.6 billion, the most expensive in the world. And with Trump regularly picking fights with our long-term opponents like, um, Canada, clearly we’re going to need some more firepower.

Trump says that the Space Force will be responsible for cementing our national identity in space, which is important because in space no one can hear you scream lies about how great America is. He also says that it’ll be necessary for security, because we all know that you can’t get billions of dollars in taxes without scaring people.

Of course, Trump is right to think that our safety is at risk from threats from space — not from Independence Day-style aliens, of course, but from giant fucking rocks currently hurdling towards us. It’s not something that might happen one day — it will happen. One day, an asteroid will collide with the Earth and the results will be very, very bad for us and any other large creatures who enjoy having air to breathe and food to eat. It happened before — remember the dinosaurs? And it’s going to happen again.

The only way that it won’t happen is if we (humanity) get our shit together in several ways: we first have to get way better at detecting near-Earth objects, which are things like asteroids that zing by us, closer to Earth than the distance from us to the moon. We know about thousands of them, and log more each week, but we’re still missing out on a good 75% of them. We need to have a net of satellites that can identify these objects long before they become a problem.

The next step is coming up with a way to alter the course of these objects. Once we know they’re on a collision course with Earth, we may be able to blow them up (ooh, weapons!) or nudge them out of the way. The earlier we can see them, the less we have to nudge them to make sure they don’t murder us.

“But Rebecca,” you may be thinking, “surely that’s a job that Space Force can handle!” That would be nice, if we didn’t already have an administration specifically set up to deal with threats like that. It’s called NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office and for most of its existence it had a budget of only $4 million, until President Obama bumped it up considerably in the hopes of funding a human mission to an asteroid, and its current budget is $50 million. Still, that’s $50 million compared to a single Air Force missile-detecting satellite that costs $1.5 billion. The Air Force’s space budget for the next five years is $44.3 billion. That’s right, the Air Force already has a space wing called Air Force Space Command and while I hate the military in general I do have to say that their logo is fucking awesome. According to the Air Force secretary, the Air Force’s space funds are “to be able to deter, defend and prevail against anyone who seeks to deny our ability to freely operate in space.”

I freely admit that I don’t have access to classified documents that may reveal that, say, Canada is planning to somehow stop the US from existing in space. But I do have access to information that says we are currently being bombed with tons of material from space, and it’s not coming from any evil empire here on Earth. Obviously we need to protect our satellites, and yes, I would love a little early warning if North Korea decides to launch some janky-ass, refurbished nuclear missile in our direction. Also, if I were forced to join a branch of the military obviously I would want it to be called SPACE FORCE. I’m human after all. I grew up with Voltron.

But at the end of the day we need to recognize the fact that our administration is giving peanuts to a program that can actually save all life on Earth, in favor of sending the military to space, a place with absolutely no credible military threats incoming. This isn’t a Heinlein novel. If we’re going to invest billions of dollars into space, let’s do it intelligently.

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How to Trick People into Being Less Disgusting

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I know this is going to be hard to hear, so brace yourselves: most of y’all are disgusting. I mean, absolutely disgusting. And I say that as a person with a fairly cavalier attitude towards hygiene. Like, I wash my hair once a week, tops. But my hands? I wash my hands all the time. I wash them before I make or eat food, I wash them after I take the dog out for a walk, and most importantly, I wash them after I use the toilet. Even if there’s no running water, I have a bottle of sanitizer. If you don’t wash your hands at least after you use the bathroom, I will judge you. And please don’t ever touch me.

Many of you right now are thinking, “I agree! Washing your hands after using the toilet is important!” I’d say about 92% of you would think that, but unfortunately research shows that only about 66% of you say that you wash your hands every time. That’s right, that’s not even an observational study: 34% of people admitted they don’t wash their hands every time they use the toilet.

To make matters worse, 95% of you don’t wash your hands properly, meaning for at least 15 seconds, and that does come from an observational study. That same study found that half of all men didn’t even use soap.

It’s a big deal, because teaching communities to wash their hands reduces the spread of diarrhea by 30%, and by almost 60% in people with compromised immune systems. It also reduces the spread of the common cold and other respiratory diseases by up to 20%. And if you think all that isn’t a big deal, you should know that diarrhea and pneumonia are the two worst killers of children — almost 2 million children every year.

Don’t worry, I’m not just making this video to shame you into washing your hands after you pee. I’m also going to tell you about a cool new study that could enable us to trick you disgusting germ factories into washing your hands. Science!

In a funny twist, the secret may be to make washing hands slightly more difficult. Bear with me. Psychologists at the University of Colorado Denver and the Chinese Academy of Sciences conducted a joint study in which they approached Chinese food factories — that’s food factories in China, not factories anywhere producing Chinese food — and tried to get the employees to improve how often they were using sanitizer to clean their hands and workspaces. Each employee already had a spray bottle full of cleaner in it, but the researchers gave everyone in on factory a second bottle that let them squirt the cleaner on their surfaces. It worked the same way but the delivery system made it a little more inconvenient to use.

In another factory, they offered employees the option of soaking their hands, which was way more inconvenient than the spray bottle but also much more effective.

In a third factory, which was the control, they just gave the employees a second spray bottle in a different color.

Their hypothesis was based on the “decoy effect,” the idea that if someone isn’t too thrilled about one thing, you can offer them another option that is worse in order to make the first thing look better. For instance, if you sell used cars and you’re trying to sell someone a lemon, when they ask to see something else you can just show them a complete junker, making them more likely to think maybe the lemon isn’t so bad.

Sure enough, in this case offering the factory workers a less convenient option made them more likely to use the spray sanitizer they’d had all along. Prior to the study, 70-74% of employees had sufficiently clean hands during hand swap inspections. After the study, that figure rose to 92-98% in the two groups that got a less efficient option. The number stayed the same in the control group.

The study was such an immediate success that one of the factories let the researchers know that they implemented the decoy sanitizer throughout their entire workforce. The researchers are going to follow up by testing the decoy effect in hospitals, since it’s incredibly important that healthcare professionals wash their hands to prevent the spread of disease, yet only 78% of them are doing it.

After that, maybe they can figure something out for public restrooms. Many of them already have decoy soap dispensers, but those are just soap dispensers that are broken or empty. Not quite the same. But maybe it could be as simple as offering both a liquid soap dispenser and a bar of soap, though that’s not the sort of thing that would probably be done in, say, a dive bar. But I bet there’s another way we can trick people into washing their hands even in dive bars. Scientists! Get on it!

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Trump’s New Gag Rule Will Result in More Abortions, and More Women Dying

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I’ve talked a few times about the “Mexico City Policy,” also known as the Global Gag Rule, which Donald Trump reinstated upon entering office. The policy takes away millions of dollars in federal funding for any international nonprofit that so much as mentions abortion as an option for women, even in countries where abortion is legal. Experts estimate that this policy will lead to the unnecessary deaths of 21,000 women.

Apparently that wasn’t enough death, so this week Trump announced a domestic version of the gag rule: he will remove all federal funding from any organization that offers abortions or provides referrals for abortions, forcing organizations like Planned Parenthood to lose millions of dollars or else split into two separate entities — one that provides abortions, and one that provides birth control, cancer screenings, pap smears, and other crucial health services used mostly by low-income women. The only upside is that unlike the global gag rule, these organizations can still mention abortion — they just can’t help women actually get them.

Planned Parenthood already receives zero federal money for abortions, so this is just another way that the Religious Right is attempting to use Big Government (something they are ostensibly against when it doesn’t benefit them) to prevent women from accessing healthcare. We already know what will happen here, because the research is done and clear: women will die. Without easy access to birth control (and sex education), more women will get pregnant unintentionally. And when that happens, women will continue to seek out abortions, but when they can’t get them safely and cheaply, they will opt for dangerous back alley procedures. So compared to today, we will see more fetuses aborted due to this policy, and more women die from botched procedures. Truly a great Trumpian victory.

Reagan tried this same shit back in 1988. It ended up going to the Supreme Court, which ruled that it was constitutional. Luckily, Bill Clinton got into office and stopped it, but the precedent is set — this will go through. The only thing that tied up the Reagan version was the stipulation like in the global gag rule that stopped organizations from even mentioning abortion. By ditching that part, Trump makes it more likely that his version will stick. And by the way, I say “Trump” but you know that idiot doesn’t give a shit about any of this. This is Mike Pence’s baby — the same Mike Pence who kicked off an HIV crisis in his home state because he hated Planned Parenthood so much.

I really need you guys to understand this — this is huge, and horrific. This is the anti-choice Religious Right taking their biggest step ever in preventing women from accessing health services — not just at Planned Parenthood, but at any clinic in the United States that has the ability to refer women for abortions.

If you live in the United States and you give a shit about women’s health, please follow Planned Parenthood and take action on their behalf. Go to and send a statement to the Department of Health and Human Services letting them know that women are humans who need their help, not baby factories who should give up cancer screenings just to have a baby they never wanted and can’t care for. If we can tie this up for as long as a previous generation tied up the Reagan gag, we might be able to delay it past the point that Trump and all his cronies are indicted, tried for treason, and hanged, at which point we will just all agree to make Cynthia Nixon president for awhile.

Hey, a girl can dream. Still, let’s do what we can.

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Why Are We More Creative After Getting Some Sleep?

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One of the weirdest things about being alive is that in order to just survive, we humans need to spend about a quarter of our lives unconscious and hallucinating. And one of the weirdest things about our scientific knowledge is that we don’t know why we do a thing that we all do 8 hours a day. It’s insane! Like, you’d hope that if every human on earth spent 8 hours a day singing Abba even though a surprising portion of them didn’t even want to, we’d have a pretty good idea of why that happens. But sleep (and dreaming) remain this weird mystery that scientists are slowly trying to figure out by coming at it from many different angles at the same time — why do we do it, what is actually happening in our brains when it happens, and how do we benefit from it, for instance.

One of those angles is explored in a new study by Cardiff University researchers, led by Professor Penny Lewis. Lewis has a hypothesis that dreaming leads us to creative solutions to problems we are working on while awake. I was intrigued by this research not only because I think sleep and dreaming are weird, wonderful things, but also because I think creative problem-solving is weird and wonderful, too. I remember when I first started working as a creative copywriter, I was freelancing and super confused as to how to bill my clients. If I’m trying to come up with the perfect ad copy, I don’t necessarily just sit down and write for, say, two hours and send them a bill for that. I first would read up on everything I needed to know (what the product was, what the client wanted to say about it, who the target customer was, whether it was a billboard or an email or whatever). Then, I’d take a break. I’d go for a run, or play a video game, or something else that took my mind off the work. I found that when I would return to the problem, it would be way easier to knock it out of the park compared to if I had just spent that time staring at an empty Word document. But I couldn’t bill the client for the time I spent playing pinball, could I? Even if that’s when my brain was doing the heavy lifting in the background?

(The solution to that, I eventually realized, was to basically just bullshit like every other creative freelancer. You do your best to come up with a fair invoice and don’t stress about it too much.)

But I did notice that whatever creative solutions I could come up with after doing some unrelated activity paled in comparison to the solutions that came to me as I woke up the next day (if ever I had that much time to work on a project!). I wondered if other people had the same experience — it turns out, they do! And scientists like Professor Lewis are working on why.

Prior to this research, there was scientific debate as to whether creativity is boosted during REM or non-REM stages of sleep. Lewis’s hypothesis is that it’s both working together. She says that during non-REM sleep, our brains replay our memories and overlaps them to find common characteristics. For instance, you might remember visiting an amusement park that day, and also a few years ago, and as a child. Your brain focuses on the commonalities: a roller coaster; an overpriced hot dog; a log flume. That forms your idea of what an amusement park is, in general. Then your brain enters the REM stage, in which it replays memories that might have an unexpected, novel association to the other things: maybe swinging a bucket of water upside down connects to the loopty loop roller coaster in the way that things seem to “stick” to the bottom if it’s moving fast enough while going upside down, or maybe the spray of the log flume connects to…I don’t know, I can’t think of anything because I haven’t taken a nap to come up with a creative enough connection. But your brain is basically cycling through a bunch of memories to see what sticks, forming connections between things that weren’t there before. After about 90 minutes of all this, it starts over again with non-REM sleep.

Lewis acknowledges some problems with her hypothesis. For instance, she thinks that the hippocampus (the area of the brain that records long-term memories of events) “nudges” the neocortex (the part of the brain that records facts and ideas) into layering those common memories during non-REM. She doesn’t have the hard evidence that that’s what is happening, exactly, but she hopes to in future studies.

She also points to cases like a man who, do to a brain injury, can’t experience the normal amount of REM sleep but still manages to be creative, to the point that he makes puzzles for his local newspaper.

So it’s all still kind of messy, but I’m excited to see what she does next. She’s actually working with a computational neuroscientist to create an artificial intelligence that sleeps so they can see what it does. How cool is that? And yes, I do desperately want to make an electric sheep joke here but I cannot, sadly, because my friend Ed Yong already did that in an awesome article in the Atlantic where I learned about that. Go read that to learn more about this super weird research!


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school of doubt

SIU Zero-time Adjunct Follow-up

[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]

After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.

Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?

Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.

Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?

In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.

What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?

Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.

Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.

First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.

Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?

Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.

So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?

Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?

Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.

This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.

*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).

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And so It Has Come to This

Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.

Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.

Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):

Dear Chairs,

I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.

Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.

These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.

The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:

· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.

· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.

The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.



Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research

P: 618/453-2466
F: 618/453-3253

In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.

For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.

But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.

At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.

Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.

And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.

[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]

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*Out of Office Response* Re: quick question?


Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.

This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.

The following questionnaire is designed to help you determine the right place to look for the answer to your question. Please go through it in order until you find the answer to your query. IF and ONLY IF you go through the entire list without finding the answer to your question, please follow the instructions at the end as to where to send your question in order to receive an answer directly.

Let’s begin, shall we?

1. Am I your professor, and are you currently enrolled in my class?

If the answer is NO, please consult your course schedule online to determine which professor you are supposed to be bothering with your inane question.

If you have questions about enrollment and registration, please contact the Office of the Registrar, where they receive both fair hourly pay and full benefits in compensation for helping you solve your problems.

2. Is the answer to your question on the course syllabus, which we went over in detail on the first day of class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

Questions answered on the syllabus include but are not limited to:

When and where does our class meet?

What assignments do we have and when are they due?

When are exams and what will be on them?

How many points are deducted from our final grade when we email you questions that are clearly answered on the syllabus?

3. If your question is about a specific assignment, is it answered on the assignment sheet, which we went over in detail in class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

If you do not understand specific terminology used on the assignment sheet, please try consulting your textbook’s glossary, a dictionary, or Google. You may also want to try coming to class, where I teach you what these words mean.

4. Is your question answered on our course FAQ page, which currently lists 127 commonly asked questions and is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

You may find it easier to use Ctrl+F and search for specific keywords to navigate this very long document.

5. Is your question unrelated to our class, inappropriate, or just plain unanswerable?

Such questions might include but are not limited to:

How much wood a woodchuck can chuck

The sound of one hand clapping, trees falling in the woods, or other Zen koans (try this book instead)

Whether or not Bernie would have won

6. If you have reached the end of this questionnaire without finding the answer you need, you probably have a valid question. Congratulations!

Please contact your TA for assistance.

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Required Reading, 5 March 2018

Just one today, because it is Important.

Ron Srigley, “Whose University is it Anyway?” LA Review of Books, Feb 22, 2018.

On another note, you may be noticing some visual changes across the Skepchick network. Along with the face lift we hope to soon put out a call for new writers and ramp up the activity a bit again, so watch this space!

The post Required Reading, 5 March 2018 appeared first on School of Doubt.

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Pros of Participation Grades 3

Continuing my series on the downsides and benefits of grading participation, here is another benefit.

3. It is a motivation for some.

There’s no magic secret to motivating people, and broadly speaking it doesn’t work. One of the common skeptical criticisms of practices like firewalking and other such “motivational” activities is that the motivational effect is very short term. The body likes homeostasis and hearing someone yell “you can do it!” at you doesn’t do much to make long-term changes in the massively complicated set of hormonal interactions that affect our desires and willpower.

One of the things that was emphasized in my educational psychology classes was that teachers can’t motivate students. That is, we can’t make them want to do things. While we can try to set up extrinsic factors to “motivate” students, we have no real effect on their efficacy (eg. offering candy fails if a student doesn’t like candy) or on the much more powerful intrinsic motivators.

There are, of course, things that teachers can do to affect what students do. If this wasn’t the case, school wouldn’t really work at all. Millions of students do homework, take notes, and write tests that they don’t really want to, because they have some kind of motivation to do them that pushes beyond their personal disinterest.

Grades are one such motivating factor. Not all students are motivated by grades, and those who are are not all motivated to the same degree. However, there are such a significant number of students who are that it seems logical to use. Grades can even be an indirect motivator. A child might not care about the letter on the paper, but a parent might. The child may be motivated by a parental attitude, meaning that grades are important even when they are not.

(I’m not going to discuss whether grades are a good reflection of student ability – this post is simply proceeding with the fact that this system exists, not arguing about whether it should.)

If participation is important at all, it stands to reason that it should be graded. Grades reflect student performance and part of their performance is in how they participate, so it is not as if grading participation is assessing something irrelevant (like assessing physical appearance). Because many students are motivated by grades, tying participation in class to students’ grades can be an effective way to get some students to participate more in class.

A key weakness in this argument is that it is assuming that participation is important. In some cases, participation is truly irrelevant (and in such cases I would certainly argue against grading participation). However, in the cases where student participation is vital, including it as part of grades can be a good idea.

Another weakness of this argument is that it depends on students. If they do not care about their grades, this is once again irrelevant. However, there are always some who do care, directly or indirectly, and there can be ways of encouraging students to care (such as point out how a grade can affect their chances of getting something they want, like a job or special program).

One other potential problem with this argument is that one might argue that students who are motivated by grades also tend to participate well in class anyway. As a former extremely shy student who obsessed over grades, I can say that there are a number of classes in which I owe my active participation entirely to the fact that I was graded on it. Though I’m not a majority, students like me do exist and we can be a part of the reason to grade participation.

The post Pros of Participation Grades 3 appeared first on School of Doubt.

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Evidence to House of Commons Sci Tech Select Committee on Research Integrity

Sorry not to be in regular blogging mode at the moment. Here’s a video of our evidence session to parliament, where they are running an inquiry into research integrity. I think clinical trials are the best possible way to approach this issue. Lots of things in “research integrity” are hard to capture in hard logical […]
bad science

How do the world’s biggest drug companies compare, in their transparency commitments?

Here’s a paper, and associated website, that we launch today: we have assessed, and then ranked, all the biggest drug companies in the world, to compare their public commitments on trials transparency. Regular readers will be familiar with this ongoing battle. In medicine we use the results of clinical trials to make informed treatments about […]
bad science

Meaningful Transparency Commitments: the WHO Joint Statement from Trial Funders

By now I hope you all know about the ongoing global scandal of clinical trial results being left unpublished, and of course our AllTrials campaign. Doctors, researchers, and patients cannot make truly informed choices about which treatments work best if they don’t have access to all the trial results. Earlier this year, I helped out […]
bad science

How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Robin Ince just asked if I know any epidemiologist lightbulb jokes. I wrote this for him. How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb? We’ve found 12,000 switches hidden around the house. Some of them turn this lightbulb on, some of them don’t; some of them only work sometimes; and some of them […]
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“Transparency, Beyond Publication Bias”. A video of my super-speedy talk at IJE.

People often talk about “trials transparency” as if this means “all trials must be published in an academic journal”. In reality, true transparency goes much further than this. We need Clinical Study Reports, and individual patient data, of course. But we also need the consent forms, so we can see what patients were told. We need […]