By Jeremy W. Peters and Elizabeth Dias

Worried their chance to cement a conservative majority on the Supreme Court could slip away, a growing number of evangelical and anti-abortion leaders are expressing frustration that Senate Republicans and the White House are not protecting Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh more forcefully from a sexual assault allegation and warning that conservative voters may stay home in November if his nomination falls apart.

Several of these leaders, including ones with close ties to the White House and Senate Republicans, are urging Republicans to move forward with a confirmation vote imminently unless the woman who accused Judge Kavanaugh of sexual assault, Christine Blasey Ford, agrees to share her story with the Senate Judiciary Committee within the next few days.

The pleas are, in part, an attempt to apply political pressure: Some evangelical leaders are warning that religious conservatives may feel little motivation to vote in the midterm elections unless Senate Republicans move the nomination out of committee soon and do more to defend Judge Kavanaugh from what they say is a desperate Democratic ploy to prevent President Trump from filling future court vacancies.

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By Jared Holt

Vice President Mike Pence will address this year’s Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, an event put on annually by Religious Right group Family Research Council.

Last year, President Donald Trump was the first sitting president to address the group. Trump was invited to speak at the conference again this year, but at the time of publication, his attendance was unconfirmed.

The Values Voters Summit is hosted annually by the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has listed in its index of hate groups. FRC president Tony Perkins and his employees have actively lobbied against marriage equality and transgender rights for decades—an agenda that Perkins told radio listeners he once discussed with former White House adviser Steve Bannon. Last year, Bannon and other White House officials recruited FRC in their war against the Republican establishment that they believe to be too moderate.

As made abundantly clear last year, Perkins and his ilk have retooled their “family values” message from years past to include unwavering support of the Trump administration and its allies. Since last year’s conference, FRC has provided cover for failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore after he was accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls while he was in his 30s, announced that evangelicals were giving Trump a “mulligan” for his alleged affair with Stephanie “Stormy Daniels” Clifford as long as he continues to fulfill their agenda, and called for prayers to protect Trump from “left-wing news media.” Coincidentally, Perkins has also received an appointment to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

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By Mickey Desruisseaux

September means the return of school, football and twangy Green Day singles. It’s also the month when television networks dish out new shows hoping to make a connection with audiences for the long run. One of the fall’s newcomers is CBS’s dramedy “God Friended Me,” the premise of which is exactly what the title suggests. An aggressively atheistic podcaster named Miles (Brandon Micheal Hall) accepts a friend request on Facebook from the big guy upstairs.

‘God’ starts suggesting more friends for doubtful Miles to add, whom he starts running into almost immediately afterward in real life. Each of them has problems that Miles seems uniquely attuned to solving, and each, in turn, seems to possess a quality that can teach Miles something about the world around him. But while the schmaltzy premise is surprisingly well-executed, the pilot episode ends up reinforcing a paradigm in which belief is viewed as the norm, disbelief as an aberration and atheists as errant members of the flock waiting for a shepherd to guide them home.

It turns out that, as the son of a pastor, Miles was a devout child until his mother was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. He prayed endlessly for God to cure her, only for her to die in a car accident after making a miraculous full recovery. The tragedy shattered Miles’ faith and his relationship with his father, pushing him into becoming the oh-so-sour atheist he is today. I nearly chucked my laptop across the room, before remembering that in the real world, exaggerated displays of exasperation are pretty expensive.

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By Griffin Connolly

Rep. Mike Johnson, who represents a vast swath of Louisiana’s northwestern corner, accused California atheist groups of trying to spy on students at a school in his district by taking covert video.

“WARNING TO OUR FRIENDS IN BOSSIER SCHOOLS (Please share),” Johnson wrote on Facebook Tuesday, referring to Louisiana’s Bossier Parish (the state’s equivalent of a county) that includes parts of Shreveport.

“Last night we received very credible information that atheist litigation groups in CA have contacted private investigators in our area to try to hire them to obtain hidden video of Christian student groups and activities at Benton High School and potentially other Bossier Parish schools,” Johnson wrote.

The Louisiana Republican’s post was first reported by the Shreveport Times. Johnson’s spokeswoman, Ainsley Holyfield, declined the Times’ requests for information about the California litigation groups and the congressman’s sources.

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Wow. We can get away with just about anything.

An Anchorage man who strangled a woman unconscious on the side of a road, all while threatening to kill her, and then masturbated on her, walked out of court on Wednesday with no future jail time under his belt.

How? How can he escape punishment? Well, the judge decided that losing his job was penalty enough, and since he was a “member of the community”, he had faith that he’d never be naughty again.

Let’s just ignore that he said this:

After Schneider’s victim woke up, he reportedly told her “that he wasn’t really going to kill her, that he needed her to believe she was going to die so that he could be sexually fulfilled.”

And this:

“I would just like to emphasize how grateful I am for this process,” Schneider said. “It has given me a year to really work on myself and become a better person, and a better husband, and a better father, and I’m very eager to continue that journey.”

He’s going to do it again. You know he’s going to do whatever he can get away with.

By the way, does anyone still think Kavanaugh won’t be on the Supreme Court soon enough?

Our REAL problem is that many men have no choice but to rape because they have no opportunities to date attractive women.

An interesting “defense”. So if I can’t land a date with Scarlett Johansson, I can justifiably rape someone? If someone finds Ann Coulter attractive and asks her out, she’d better put out, because turning him down means he’ll go on a rape rampage?

It’s also a curious binary. If you don’t get a date, your only alternative is rape?

I must update my diary. Change is happening fast, and I begin to fear that my experiment, my delving into esoteric, alien knowledge, could outstrip my feeble efforts at control. Let this be a record to explain my fate.

Prelude: I opened the mysterious sac, and to my delight, discovered beautiful jewels: like opalescent pearls, they rested quietly in a great mass, promising fortune for the future.

Day Zero: I kept the pearly orbs in a glass chamber, where I could observe them whenever I desired. I often desired. My eyes were drawn to their simple elegance, time after time. My obsession, I realize now, was a portent of danger.

Day One: O Glorious Day! The orbs dissolved away to reveal candy-like, plump babies, pale and soft, capable of only feeble stirrings of their pallid limbs. Such innocence warmed my heart.

Day Two: Their limbs have lengthened. They walk about clumsily, but still somewhat endearingly, peering about with their eight eyes. I try not to notice that a few of their siblings seem to be motionless, empty husks, drained of all life and flesh, but perhaps they are just molted exoskeletons? One can hope. I feel a vague disquiet, so as a precaution, I scatter a few flies in the dish.

Day Three: I peek into their chamber. All is quiet. The flies all lie dead and crumpled, sucked dry, but of the Children of the Orbs, almost nothing. The dish is quiet and empty. I examine the egg sac, and find it also nearly empty, with only a few scouts meandering about, and a tiny few babies just stirring at the bottom. Where have they all gone?

Then I notice a thin strand of webbing from the egg sac, stretching upward and to the side. I follow it, and there, massing on the lip of the chamber, is a great army of spiders, clustering together and building a citadel of cobwebs. They are working together. They are cooperating. What are they planning? Escape? Rushing their captor? Constructing an altar for the dark ritual that will summon Atlach-Nacha, the spider god, and begin their reign? I do not know.

I feed them more sacrifices, and close the lid. I don’t know which I fear more, that I will be accepted as their obedient human servitor, or that I shall meet a merely physical fate. If I should disappear in the next few days, tell the constabulary to look high up, in some dark corner of the building, for a grim mummified form, swaddled in silk. Tell them burial is inadequate, that I should be burned to be certain.

Apparently any twit with an obsession and a lot of persistence can do it. For example, Mike Adams, the “Health Ranger”, peddles silly supplements and “cures” alongside his right wing weirdness, and it seems he’s been a fanatic about linking to himself, and building a mass of self-referential garbage websites to create a custom echo chamber.

Much has been written recently about online “echo chambers”: the idea that we are catered to on the Internet with sites and recommendations that reinforce our preexisting beliefs. If you watch a lot of science videos on YouTube, follow many scientists on Twitter, and regularly search for scientific questions on Google, your online experience will shift away from neutrality, as search results, post sorting, and recommendations will be tailored to your pro-science stance. This is an echo chamber because, in due time, you only hear your beliefs repeated back at you and stop seeing what’s happening on the other side.

Echo chambers for the pseudoscience crowd exist as well, though Mike Adams’ online bubble is so vast and self-sufficient, it warrants the term “ecosystem”.

It’s impressive, in a narrow minded way. Every little whim he has prompts the creation of a new website, and then they all link to each other, so once you find your way to one, you reverberate all over the place, getting nothing but the Mike Adams perspective and the Mike Adams sales pitch.

A bit of online sleuthing revealed that Mike Adams owns over 50 websites. The topics they cover go beyond alternative medicine and help shape an entire worldview: fear of medicine and science (,,, anti-Left and pro-freedom hype (,,, and doomsday prep advice (,

He has his own search engine and his own social media site! Get sucked into that bubble and you’re never getting out again, by design. All it takes is dedication and a small team of people constantly taking advantage of search algorithms to assemble a self-reinforcing internet empire. One thing surprised me.

His Twitter account boasts 124,000 followers. On the day I write this, he has tweeted about reducing your risk of stroke by drinking full-fat milk; about the chemical bisphenol-A causing gender confusion; and about a woman who cured her cancer with cannabis oil. These tweets lead to his websites, which can be searched via his Good Gopher engine and accessed through his social media platform.

Mike Adams’ dark, conspiratorial Wonderland is vast and the rabbit hole is frightening in depth. “Down, down down. Would the fall never come to an end?”

OK, 124,000 twitter followers is a respectable number, but it’s not that large — I’ve got something over 150K, and I’m a nobody. What it takes is willingness to leverage those numbers, to use those people to shape a profitable network, and that just takes persistent wanking over yourself. Mike Adams is not particularly intelligent, and even he can do it…which makes me realize how little real insight it takes to create, for instance, a religion. Build a bubble around whatever — Scientology, Mormonism, Christianity, Mike Adams — seed it with busy little monkeys telling each other how vital their message is, and basic human predispositions will take over and make it grow, and fling more reinforcement/cash to the object of their fascination.

If ever I try to turn those 150K followers into a Church of PZ (I won’t), remind me of this post and tell me that once upon a time I considered that kind of manipulation to be evil.

You probably don’t have to worry about it, because one thing it requires is a lot of mindless work to keep the pump running, and that’s something I’m not good at.

eiffel tower

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2018 edition of New Humanist

After Charlie Hebdo: Terror, Racism and Free Speech (Zed) by Gavan Titley, Des Freedman, Gholam Khiabany
and Aurélien Mondon (eds.)

Whites, Jews and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love (Semiotexte) by Houria Bouteldja

While terrorism is, by definition, an act that seeks to puncture the routines and complacencies of everyday life, some acts of terror resonate longer and deeper than others.

“Successful” terror is that which provokes fear, talk and concern, that which draws into its radius of impact those who are not physically injured or closely connected to those that are. The attack must become a symbol, a fissure in society, almost to the point where its significance floats free from its material reality.

9/11 was one such successful terror attack; the attack on the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015 was another. While France has seen other – and bloodier – terrorist incidents before and since, the consequences of Charlie Hebdo are still being played out. For that reason, the collection After Charlie Hebdo takes as its subject the aftermath of the event and its impact on France and beyond, bringing together contributions from a wide range of French and international scholars

The attack produced a wave of solidarity in its wake, including rallies across France and worldwide. The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie circulated for weeks and months afterwards. It is this outpouring of solidarity that After Charlie Hebdo seeks to question. As such, this will not be a comfortable read for many of those who were shocked and disturbed by the attacks. In their various ways, the contributors to the collection highlight how the ideals invoked in the aftermath of the attacks, such as “solidarity”, “secularism” and “free speech”, are not innocent ones.

The response from the French state and amongst many French (and international) public figures was to rally around the principle of a secular France, in which free speech would be defended as an almost sacred right. Yet, as the various contributors show, the “universalism” of the values that France supposedly embodies collapses under scrutiny. French imperialism may have professed to bring civilisation to the uncivilised, but in practice it depended on racial hierarchies that made a mockery of universalist pretensions. Similarly, while French secular laïcité may purport to treat all citizens equally, without regard to religion or background, too frequently it is indifferent to the needs of citizens who are discriminated against and marginalised by virtue of precisely those characteristics that it purports to ignore. Pious defences of free speech also ignore how it makes a difference if those who are publicly ridiculed and abused are in a subordinate position in the wider society.

For all of the reassertion of universal values following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the state of emergency that France declared has only reinforced the position of French Muslims as outside the national community. Subject to intense police scrutiny and often isolated in the banlieues, French Muslims are unlikely to see demands to “integrate” as fair, to say the least.

Yet this is not the end of the story. However much the cosy assumptions of much of France (and the UK for that matter) are worthy of unpicking, After Charlie Hebdo also has its own problematic gaps. There is, first of all, an absence of empathy from many of the contributors. In resisting the enforced consensus that followed and the rote repetition of condemnation, too much is lost. Similarly, there is no real confrontation of the ways in which people can be viscerally frightened by terror (that is, after all, its purpose). The concerns of those who worry it could be them or their families next are unlikely to be quelled by calls for a long-term process of reckoning with the racist legacy of French imperialism, necessary as that might be.

The perpetrators of the attacks are also mostly absent from the collection, as is the ideology that drove them. At times, the contributors fall into mechanistic thinking, seeing the attacks as an inevitable consequence of how Muslims are treated in France and elsewhere. While some chapters point out the general ignorance of Islam among many of those who have perpetrated terror attacks in France, and the fact that the Charlie Hebdo attackers were not part of an organised global group, that doesn’t render fundamentalist ideology meaningless, or simply an excuse.

Finally, there is too little consideration of anti-Semitism. The siege of the kosher supermarket Hypercacher, which came two days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, is hardly mentioned, nor is the repeated targeting of Jews by Islamists in France and elsewhere. In contrast, Houria Bouteldja’s incendiary work Whites, Jews and Us puts the Jewish issue front and centre. A French-Algerian activist, her short book has attracted considerable debate in France and worldwide. A sometimes thrilling polemic, Whites, Jews and Us offers an unabashed call for a revolution against the indelible racism at the heart of white rule; a call for an insurrection in which she offers “revolutionary love” as compensation for the dismantling of white privilege.

Bouteldja’s book starts by pointing out how Jean-Paul Sartre, who supported anti-imperialist revolutions, also undermined his revolutionary credentials – according to her – by supporting the existence of Israel. This demonstrated an unwillingness to abandon his whiteness; something which Bouteledja argues is a prevalent tendency on the French left. For her, Zionism is nothing more than Jewish capitulation to white supremacy, in which the west got rid of more of its Jews and gained an imperial outpost in the same moment. Jews are therefore a disappointment:

You have given up on depriving white people of their throne and instead pledged allegiance to them. You have abandoned the “universalist” struggle by accepting the Republic’s racial pact.

It is hard to read such words and not conclude that for Bouteldja, Jews can only be an enemy until they give up (white) Zionism and receive her revolutionary love in return. There is a frightening absolutism here. A world in which there is only one power in the world, white western power, and where the barrier between power and powerlessness is absolute until it is breached by revolution. Yet power and agency are not only ever deployed in one direction. For in the moment when someone is shot, whether that someone is Jewish, Muslim, rich or poor, absolute power resides in the shooter, however temporarily. With that power, comes responsibility and agency, and however much that may complicate considerations of where the strongest redoubts of power and privilege lie, we cannot simply ignore it.

Even though I learned much from both these books, they left me with a kind of despair. They exemplify the all-too-frequent tendency of those who (rightly) criticise western hypocrisies to replace one kind of blindness with another. Perhaps we need a new kind of universalism that would truly live up to its name: one that would be a scourge of the abuse of power whoever wields it, that would strive for empathy with all, giving no one a moral pass. Then again, perhaps this would simply slide back into the smug complacencies so evident in French republicanism and in other supposedly colour-blind western ideologies. Maybe humans are incapable of anything other than a partial recognition of our common humanity.

Kent Hovind has been working on “Dinosaur Adventure Land”, Part Deux, on a pretty piece of property in Lenox, Alabama, and it’s gotten him a credulous, friendly online interview. If you want to see what it looks like, Hovind himself gives a video tour — there doesn’t seem to be much at all there. This one photo says it all.

Man, it must be rough when he and Ken Ham get together, if they ever do. It’s a toss-up whether Hovind would be mortified in the competition over who has the fancier big boat, or Ham who would be shamed by the fact that Kent is offering the same amount of scientific information that he is.

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Flu season is here, and so I wanted to make a quick video encouraging you to get a flu shot! Let’s go over a few of the most common objections:

But I never get the flu

FUCK YOU, I never smash my car into walls but I still have airbags, don’t I? I never set myself on fire but I still have a fire extinguisher under my sink. Also, you might have not had the flu but been an asymptomatic carrier — that means that you don’t get sick, but you still walk around infecting everybody around you, you fucking asshole. You might not be sick, and then you go to see your cousin’s new baby, and baby’s can’t be vaccinated, so the baby gets the flu, and then the baby dies. You think I’m fucking joking? 179 kids died last season. 179 that didn’t have to die if the people around them were all vaccinated.

I got the flu once and it wasn’t so bad

First of all, a “cold” isn’t a “flu.” If you got the flu and it wasn’t so bad, you actually had a cold. The flu is bad. You will explode fluids out of every orifice for many days. Everything hurts. Your hair hurts. You will be fucking miserable, for up to TWO WEEKS OF YOUR LIFE.

But I DID get the flu and I didn’t die

Congratulations on not dying from the flu! Guess who DID die from the flu just last season, just in the United States? 56,000. It’s the 8th leading cause of death. You’re more likely to die of the flu than to die in a car accident, and dying in a car accident is what they compare everything to!

Anyway, I don’t really care if you die or not. You’re just some jerk who has the ability to get a flu shot but refuses. I care about your grandparents, who have a bad immune system and are more likely to die. I care about little kids with asthma, who are more likely to get attacks, and die. I care about babies who are too young to have been immunized yet, and might die.

But the flu vaccine might make me get sick

NO! This is a stupid, stupid myth invented by stupid humans who don’t understand correlation and causation. Someone got the flu vaccine one day and then got a cold the next day and decided they must be related, and it’s not because they touched about 3,000 filthy doorknobs during cold season in the previous week leading up to their symptoms appearing.

Some vaccines don’t contain influenza at all. The ones that do contain an inactivated virus that is literally impossible for it to make you ill. You won’t get the flu from a flu vaccine.

But I know someone who got the flu vaccine and then still got the flu

First of all, most of the time that this happens, the person actually got a cold, not the flu. But it can happen, because there are many different kinds of influenza and the vaccine doesn’t always protect against all of them. However, the vaccine is likely to make the flu less painful for you if you do end up getting it. That’s one of its selling points!! It’s like saying, oh, I got in a car accident and my seatbelt didn’t prevent me from breaking my arm. Yeah, it didn’t, but it sure did stop your head from popping off and isn’t that nice?

And here’s the other thing: if everyone gets the flu shot, you won’t end up getting the flu at all anyway because of herd immunity. Herd immunity is the idea that if 90% of people are immunized, the virus doesn’t have enough hosts to jump to, and it ends up dying out. That’s right! Getting a flu shot can help make influenza extinct. Fuck influenza. Let’s kill it.

But vaccines cause autism

VACCINES DON’T CAUSE AUTISM. Vaccines cause adulthood.

They’re free if you have insurance, but even if you don’t you can get one for like $20 at your local pharmacy and it takes less than ten minutes. Do it, and do it now because it takes two weeks to build up in your body, and shit is gonna start going down in the next two months.

Don’t kill a baby. Get your fucking flu shot.

The post HEY DINGUS, GET YOUR FLU SHOT appeared first on Skepchick.

By Michael Stone

Conservative Christian and U.S. Senate candidate for Mississippi Chris McDaniel claims 99 percent of rape allegations “are just absolutely fabricated.”

McDaniel, in an interview with the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, discussed the recent allegations of sexual assault being made against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Speaking on the conservative Christian program Focal Point, hosted by Bryan Fischer, McDaniel was asked about the alarming allegations being made against Kavanaugh. McDaniel replied:

I’m tired of all these made up scandals frankly. We have a system where Judge Kavanaugh is obviously well suited for, and they’re going to drag something up even theoretically, allegedly from all those years ago that all of a sudden disqualifies this man. All of a sudden, he’s a terrible human being. No not a chance. I don’t fall for it anymore. I hope the American people aren’t falling for it. These allegations 99 percent of the time are just absolutely fabricated.

Note: McDaniel is not only claiming that Kavanaugh’s accuser is a liar, he is also suggesting that 99 percent of all women coming forward to report crimes involving sexual assault and rape are also liars.

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Here in the United States, we don’t have socialized healthcare because we hate the idea of paying for someone else’s medical bills. So instead, we pay for other people’s medical bills when they post on websites like GoFundMe and JustGiving. Somehow it’s just not fun unless you know the person involved is about to die or go bankrupt, or possibly both.

Unfortunately, other countries with more sensible healthcare opportunities aren’t immune from desperate people posting on crowdfunding sites to help with medical expenses. The difference is that while in the US most of the people are raising money just to see a real doctor or afford a real treatment, the people in places like the UK have exhausted their options with legitimate doctors, and are now desperately trying to find “alternative” treatments to save their lives. Sadly, this often means that they’re playing into the hands of quacks and charlatans.

The Good Thinking Society, a non-profit established by Simon Singh a few years back, has just published an investigation in the British Medical Journal looking at the extent of the problem, and it’s pretty bad. Since 2012, Brits have raised about $10 million for bunk cancer treatments, most of which are going to quacks abroad. The most famous recipient here in the US is the Burzynski Clinic, which skeptics have long tried to get shut down. The clinic is based in Texas and is run by Stanislaw Burzynski, who charges patients hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat their cancer with completely unproven techniques, at times telling patients things like “the cysts forming in your tumor is evidence of the tumor dying because of treatment,” when in fact that’s a common occurrence in tumors that are alive and well.

While the Texas Medical Board and the FDA have attempted to shut him down since as early as the 1990s, Burzynski continues to escape justice and bankrupt people dying of cancer.

Edzard Ernst points out that crowdfunding sites do have standards, such as not allowing people to raise money for terrorism, and so he says they should do a better job of cracking down on quackery. The sites themselves think otherwise, with a spokesperson from JustGiving telling the BMJ “We don’t believe we have the expertise to make a judgment on this.” And it’s a fair point…it’s much easier for a layperson to understand why funding ISIS is wrong than it is for them to know why funding antineoplaston cancer treatment is wrong. Not only is the medical terminology tough, but it’s hard to tell someone with cancer that they can’t raise money because you and your platform don’t believe the treatment they want will be effective. All these people hear are success stories–even if they’re completely made up out of whole cloth, they believe them because it’s what they want to hear.

And incredibly, the BMJ spoke with someone who did get ripped off by a cancer quack and who still doesn’t regret it even though they now realize that it was bogus. Sarah Thorp raised money for her dying sister to be treated with coffee enemas at a clinic in Mexico. She spent $21,000 on three weeks of treatment before they realized it was a con and left (I’m sorry, before they became “disillusioned” and left), and her sister died within the year. But she still says that the clinic gave her sister hope, which is what she needed to keep going after the NHS told her she was done for.

That’s so relatable, because the medical establishment in any country can sometimes feel depersonalized and cruel. Sometimes doctors are overworked and unable to spend time with patients. Sometimes they miss things, and sometimes, especially with women and minorities, they dismiss concerns as hysteria and exaggeration.

So much of this problem can be fixed by fixing our healthcare system, and it’s incredibly troubling to see a place that already has way better healthcare than we do here in the United States still facing some of the same problems we have. It’s better, but it still has a long way to go.

And that’s what I think the solution is. Sure, let’s get sites like GoFundMe to weed out people who are being taken advantage of by obvious con artists and quacks, but at the same time let’s build a better healthcare system that allows patients to feel truly heard, and to feel like people instead of customers or damaged products. “Hope” and “comfort” shouldn’t cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. They should come free with the other services.

The post Crowdfunding Healthcare Leads to Cash for Con Artists appeared first on Skepchick.


This article is a preview from the Autumn 2018 edition of New Humanist

There must have been times when Urbain Le Verrier did not believe it himself. How could the pages upon pages of spidery calculations with which he had filled his notebook possibly have anything to do with the messy real world? He persisted because he had faith in Isaac Newton’s universal law of gravitation; because he knew success would bring him not only fame and fortune but immortality; and because, now he had let slip about his quest to one or two people, he had no choice but to front it out.

Le Verrier was on the hunt for a new planet. What convinced him it was out there was the puzzling motion of the outermost world in the Solar System, Uranus.

Uranus had been discovered from a back garden in Bath in 1781. The announcement of its discovery by William Herschel, a freelance German musician from Hanover, created an international sensation.

Uranus was the first planet to be discovered that was unknown to the ancients and it was the first planet discovered in the age of the telescope. Orbiting the Sun in the frigid, dark wastes far beyond Saturn, the planet doubled the size of the Solar System overnight.

But there was a problem. Uranus had actually been observed by English astronomer John Flamsteed back in 1690, who had mistaken it for a star. And others had recorded it too. When the historical observations were combined with observations made after the discovery of the planet, it was possible to deduce the precise path that Uranus was taking in its 84-year journey around the Sun. The trouble was that, each time such an orbit was calculated, within only a few years the planet was found to have strayed from its allotted path.

There could, of course, have been something wrong with Newton’s law of gravity, the means by which the orbit of Uranus was calculated. But the theory had been so amazingly successful in explaining the motion of the planets, the precession of the equinoxes, ocean tides and so on that it had achieved a status comparable to the word of God. So, what was perturbing the orbit of Uranus?

Le Verrier became convinced that there must be another planet even further from the Sun than Uranus, whose gravity was tugging on the planet and causing it to wander from its predicted path. Unfortunately, he knew neither the mass nor the distance from the Sun of such a planet. And it is an annoying feature of Newton’s law of gravity that a small mass nearby can have the same perturbing effect as a big mass further away. It was just one of the many complications faced by Le Verrier as he attempted to calculate the location and properties of a hypothetical planet that could explain the anomalous motion of Uranus.

* * *

Day after day and and late into the night, he worked, bent over his desk at Paris’s École Polytechnique. And, finally, he had an answer. But this was only the beginning of his problems. When he went to see the director of the Paris Observatory to ask for a search of the patch of sky where he believed the planet must be, François Arago fobbed him off. National observatories like the ones in Paris and at Greenwich existed principally to make tables of the locations of planets and stars for navigational purposes. This involved many people carrying out lengthy and painstaking observations. Arago did not want to use up valuable telescope time on a wild goose chase for a planet whose existence seemed to him to be the remotest of long-shots. Besides, nobody in the history of the world had ever before made such a ridiculous prediction.

Fed up and frustrated, Le Verrier wrote letters to astronomers all around Europe asking for help in his quest. One of them was a very junior astronomer at the Berlin Observatory who had sent his thesis to Le Verrier the year before (Le Verrier had ignored it). This astronomer, Johann Galle, would not even have had access to the Berlin observatory’s giant Fraunhofer refractor telescope had not director Joseph Franz Encke taken the night off to celebrate his 55th birthday.

But, on the night of 23 September 1846, Galle and his assistant, Heinrich d’Arrest, began scanning the part of the night sky specified by Le Verrier. And, incredibly, within an hour, they found a tiny fuzzy disk crawling across the sky between the constellations of Capricorn, the goat, and Aquarius, the water carrier. It was exactly the location Le Verrier had specified. (Unknown to him, the location of Neptune had also been predicted independently, though not made public, by Englishman John Couch Adams.)

The discovery of Neptune was an international sensation and Le Verrier became a scientific superstar. Newton’s law of gravity not only explained what we could see, it also predicted what we could not see. Whereas Uranus had been discovered merely because it happened to wander into the field of view of a telescope, Neptune had been discovered by a man with a quill pen sitting at a desk. Le Verrier’s prediction was unprecedented in history.

* * *

Beginning many millennia ago, priests and rulers had struck awe in their subjects by predicting astronomical events such as eclipses of the Sun and Moon. But this form of prediction involved merely recording observations of the night sky and spotting any recurring patterns. Science, in marked contrast, finds the universal laws behind the patterns. And those laws not only represent a deeper level of understanding but are also portable. They can be applied in entirely different domains. So, for instance, Newton’s law of gravity – formulated to explain the motion of planets around the Sun – can be used to predict the arrival of two tides every 25 hours.

Le Verrier, in deducing the location and properties of an unseen planet, had revealed the central magic of science: its ability to predict things never before suspected, which then turn out to actually exist in the real universe. As the biologist and philosopher Jean Rostand would say one day: “Science has made us gods even before we are worthy of being men.”
But Le Verrier’s discovery of Neptune was merely the first striking instance of this god-like power. In 1863, in a scientific tour de force, Scots physicist James Clerk Maxwell distilled all known electrical and magnetic phenomena into one small set of equations. “Maxwell’s equations” predicted the existence of an “electromagnetic field” that permeates empty space, and the possibility that a disturbance might ripple through it. According to the equations, such a wave would travel at precisely the speed of light in a vacuum. Incredibly, light was a ripple of electricity and magnetism.

This was not all that Maxwell’s theory predicted. It was possible for such an “electromagnetic wave” to oscillate at any of an infinity of different frequencies. Visible light spanned only a tiny range. But there could exist oscillations that were both more rapid than visible light and more sluggish. The universe, it turned out, was permeated by invisible light. By convention, we talk of the seven colours of the rainbow but in reality, beyond the range of what we can see, there lie millions of other colours.

I always remember this (unattributed) poem quoted by Arthur C. Clarke in his book Report on Planet Three:

A being who sees me tapping
The five-sensed can of mind
Amid such greater glories
That I am worse than blind.

In 1888, the German physicist Heinrich Hertz, in his laboratory in Karlsruhe, succeeded in both generating and detecting one form of invisible light: radio waves. In doing so, he made possible the ultra-connected world of the 21st century in which billions upon billions of voices, emails and web pages continually fly though the air all around us. “From a long view of the history of mankind – seen from, say 10,000 years from now – there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics,” said American Nobel prize-winner Richard Feynman.

And, in the 20th century, scientists have continued to exercise the god-like powers demonstrated by Le Verrier and Maxwell. In 1930, English physicist Paul Dirac wrote down a quantum mechanical equation describing the electron which was compatible with Einstein’s special theory of relativity of 1905. Much to his surprise, he noticed that the equation predicted the existence of a “mirror universe”. A mere two years later in California, American physicist Carl Anderson was studying “cosmic rays” – high-energy subatomic particles from space – when on a photographic plate he spotted the track of the first particle of “antimatter”: a positively charged counterpart of the electron, soon christened the “positron”.

In 1930, to explain an anomaly of radioactive “beta decay”, the Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli out of “desperation” predicted the existence of a subatomic particle so mind-blowingly antisocial that it could travel through light years of lead before being stopped. “I have done a terrible thing,” he declared. “I have postulated a particle that cannot be detected.” However, in 1956, H-bomb scientists Frederick Reines and Clyde Cowan achieved the impossible. They detected the “neutrinos” emerging from a military reactor at the Savannah River facility in South Carolina. (Hold up your thumb. 100 billion neutrinos are passing through your thumbnail each second. Eight and a half minutes ago they were in the heart of the Sun.)

The most recent examples of this magical predictive power of science are the fabled Higgs boson – whose parent “Higgs field” is responsible for endowing all other subatomic particles with mass – and gravitational waves. Peter Higgs, hiking in the Cairngorms in 1964 (actually, there were four other physicists involved too), used powerful symmetry arguments to predict the existence of a hitherto unsuspected subatomic particle. In 2012, 40 years later and after tens of billions of euros spent on constructing the Large Hadron Collider, there it was: the Higgs particle. Albert Einstein, in Berlin at the height of the First World War, predicted the existence of ripples in the fabric of space time. Almost a century later, in September 2015, they were detected on Earth by Laser Interferometric Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. They had come from two merging black holes which have briefly put out 50 times more power than all the stars in the Universe combined.

* * *

Einstein highlights something interesting about this ability of science to predict the existence of things never before suspected, which are then found to be real things in the real universe. It is extremely hard for the practitioners of science to believe this is really possible. Einstein himself did not believe in two major predictions of his theory of gravity of 1915: black holes and the Big Bang. Even in the case of gravitational waves he vacillated, predicting their existence in 1916, un-predicting them a year later, before predicting them again in 1936.

There are countless other examples of this. The central magic of science is so magical that the scientists themselves can scarcely believe it can be true. This was something pondered by the American Nobel prize-winner Steven Weinberg in his popular 1977 book about the Big Bang, The First Three Minutes. Why, he wondered was the prediction of the heat of the Big Bang fireball, published in the science journal Nature in 1948, totally ignored, and the “cosmic background radiation” discovered only by accident in 1965? “The problem”, he concluded, “is not that we take our theories too seriously but that we do not take them seriously enough.”

And this is the crux of it. It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for physicists to truly believe that the abstract mathematical equations they scrawl across whiteboards and blackboards actually represent real things that exist in real world. Famously, the Austrian physicist Eugene Wigner remarked on the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the physical sciences”. Mathematics, it turns out, is a perfect analogue for physics. Why the Universe should have such a twin nobody knows.

There have been some brave speculations in recent years, however. Swedish-American physicist Max Tegmark has proposed that the reason maths is so good at representing physics is that maths is physics. In other words, every mathematical entity is actualised. Tegmark imagines a vast “multiverse” of universes. In some of these domains, there exists only basic maths such as geometry or Boolean algebra. These are not complex enough to create anything of interest. However, in a few domains of the multiverse, there exists mathematics at least as complex as the fabled “theory of everything”. In such domains – and we live in one of them – the maths is capable of generating the complexity of galaxies and stars, planets and people.

* * *

The English physicist Stephen Wolfram takes a different view, however. Just as a drunk who loses their keys at night will look for them under a streetlight because it is not possible to see anything anywhere else, Wolfram maintains, physicists apply maths to the part of the universe where it is applicable because, obviously, there is no point it applying it to places where it is not applicable. The places where maths is applicable are the simple parts. There, it is possible to capture behaviour in a mathematical formula, which has predictive power. In the complex parts – turbulent interstellar gas clouds, biological systems and so on – however, it is not. They are fundamentally unpredictable.

Wolfram thinks that most of what the Universe is doing is complex and cannot be modelled with mathematics. In fact, he wrote a book, A New Kind of Science (Wolfram Media, 2002), about how to illuminate the bulk of the processes going on in the universe – not with mathematical equations but with simple recursive computer programmes.

The fact remains, however, that physicists are just as gobsmacked as they were in Le Verrier’s day about the
incredible predictive power of science. The central magic remains as magical as ever. In 1971, the English
astronomer Paul Murdin discovered Cygnus X-1, the first black hole candidate in our Milky Way. The existence of such an entity had been predicted in 1916 by the German astronomer Karl Schwarzschild, dying on the Eastern Front of an auto-immune disease that covered his skin in ugly and painful blisters.

Murdin, like every other scientist who has ever confirmed a scientific prediction, expressed amazement at his discovery. “The surprising thing is that black holes turn out to be real objects,” says Murdin. “Incredibly, they actually exist!”

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I’ve mentioned a little bit about QAnon in previous videos without going into much about what it is, and who “Q” is — I’ve only talked about some of the results of their idiocy, like people trying to free supposed child slaves (who don’t exist) in the middle of Arizona.

But since then, a few more things have happened, Q-wise, so let’s get a little bit deeper into it.

QAnon is a poster on 4chan and 8chan who claims to be a top level political agent with confidential information about how Donald Trump is secretly fighting a war on evil Democrats and Hollywood elites who are involved in pedophile sex-trafficking and New World Order-type of things. Q delivers this information in Nostradamus-like code, leaving his growing cabal of followers to desperately try to decipher what it all means.

Over the past few months, the Q posts have started claiming that big information is coming soon, and that soon the entire world will see that he and his followers are right about their absolutely insane conspiracy theory.

I have occasionally checked in on the Reddit outpost for the followers of the conspiracy theory, r/GreatAwakening, and it’s part terrifying, part hilarious, and part baffling. And here’s the thing: it’s also now a religion, with Q set up as the prophet. I say this because reading through the comments there reminds me of studying Christianity, Millennialism, and other belief systems based upon prophecies that just never come true. If you’ll recall, Jesus was crucified and promised to return. These days, most modern Christians tend to think of that as being far in the future, but back in the day, but when Christ died his contemporaries assumed his return would happen within their lifetime. Obviously that didn’t happen, and if humans were perfectly logical beasts then that would have been the end of that right there.

But they’re not, so Christianity is still going strong today. Each time Jesus failed to appear, new scriptures were invented to explain why it hadn’t happened before, and why it would happen this time. The date got pushed further and further back, and eventually mainstream Christians just figured, “Eh, it’ll happen at some point, no big deal.”

The exact same thing is happening with QAnon followers. Obviously the entire thing is completely made-up, but a ridiculous number of people still believe in it, for a variety of reasons. Like most conspiracy theories, it’s appealing because it allows people to believe they know something others don’t know, that they are a part of something good, that the world is in good hands and the leader of our country is actually doing something helpful for people in need. At the same time, the people around them are all pointing out that they’re idiots who believe in an idiot conspiracy made by and propagated by other idiots.

Everytime QAnon promises that the world will soon find out everything, they get a renewed feeling that they’re right, they’re not idiots, and soon everyone will know. Just like the early Christians, in the days following a disappointment, there are those who are confused and feel like giving up. Here’s a post that I saw the other day, after a promised 9/11 reveal failed to happen:

“I think a lot of us are a little down today. We have been trusting the plan every day and red-pilling daily. Now, loved ones think we are insane because we keep saying “it’s happening” and then nothing.”

She then describes how many times they’ve been disappointed before, but then instead of coming to the conclusion of “oh, wait, maybe this means the entire thing is a giant hoax,” she writes, “I pray for patience and pray for protection for Trump. Thank you to all Patriots for the enduring work to make our country and lives a better place for us and our children!”

These people have invested so much of their identity into this hoax that they feel they must keep going. It’s a form of the sunk cost fallacy — the idea that if you’ve invested a lot into something, you can’t just quit. You have to keep going until you feel your investment has been paid back, even if the chances of that happening are slim. It’s how casinos make their money, and it’s how conspiracies like this keep trucking along.

The good news about all this is that this week, Reddit made a good call and decided to ban the QAnon subreddit. I’ve mentioned this before, but the science suggests that this means that these people will mostly disperse. Without a community cheering them on, there’s a better chance that some of them will wake up (so to speak) and realize what a bunch of bunk this all is.

The post The Religion of QAnon appeared first on Skepchick.

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As a science communicator and a person who is generally interested in cool tech, I think I surprise a lot of people by not being an early adopter. A lot of my friends rush to buy the newest gadgets, while I am generally happy to be writing the script for this video, and later will be editing this video, on a 7-year old laptop.

The reason is because I love advances in technology but I hate consumerism — I think the world would be a way better place if we stop throwing away things just because there’s something shinier we can buy. As a society, we’re going into debt while producing more waste, and working people to the bone to make us things we don’t need and are just going to throw away within the year.

With that anti-consumerism screed out of the way, I was watching the latest Apple keynote with interest. I mean hey, I’m in the industry and it’s at least helpful to know what’s going on. Plus I get some good comedy Tweets out of it.

I do tend to use Apple products, and I do have an Apple watch, which I bought because I eventually want a future with Dick Tracy watches. I want to make and receive phone calls on my wrist, and to not have to worry about carrying a phone with me everywhere I go. Plus I just think watches are cool. I know, I know, there are exceptions to my anti-consumerism.

While I won’t be upgrading my watch this year, I was really impressed with what Apple is doing with their watches and with the software on them. They’re really focused on health apps, and I currently use my watch to monitor my progress on runs, to make sure I’m moving enough during the day (since most of my day is spent on my ass, writing), and even to check out my heartrate when I go surfing. Here’s what my heart rate looked like last year when a shark’s fin surfaced about ten feet from me!

With this year’s watch, Apple is stepping up their health game. They’ve teamed up with an app called Cardiogram and heart researchers at UCSF to clinically study whether or not an Apple watch can detect atrial fibrillation, which is a heart arrhythmia that can lead to stroke. One in four people have it, but nearly half of those people have no idea they have it. That’s why it’s so dangerous, and also why it would be helpful if there were a way to let otherwise healthy people know that they have it. After all, ideally you want to discover you have a deadly condition before it turns deadly.

Doctors can’t convince a bunch of healthy people to walk around with wearable electrocardiograms, but a lot of people are already walking around with Apple watches. By putting electrodes on the watch, researchers were able to collect data from patients with atrial fibrillation before and after they got treatment to correct it. They were then able to use that data to train software to detect the condition in people wearing the watch. Just wearing the watch itself can’t make it an ECG, because that requires a closed circuit that goes through your heart (though you could do by touching a hand to the crown of your watch!), but the watch alone can detect the rate and rhythm of your heart to figure out if a real ECG might be necessary for you. The software was extremely good at doing this in laboratory conditions, and less reliable but still very good in real world conditions, where people are moving around more, wearing sunscreen that gets in the way of the electrodes, and basically doing things that make it a little trickier to determine exactly what their hearts are up to.

In the next month, these watches will be on the wrists of millions of people. Last quarter they sold 4.7 million watches…if they do that next quarter (and if most of those sales are the newest version of the watch), that’s more than a million people with atrial fibrillation who will have the watches, and about 500,000 people who have the condition but don’t know it. According to the real world tests, about 70% of them will be alerted. That’s 350,000 people who might learn that they have a potentially deadly disorder. That happens to be exactly how many people die every year in the US from atrial fibrillation.

That’s all back of the envelope stuff, and I’m not saying that Apple watches will suddenly stop all deaths from atrial fibrillation. Far from it — most people who have the occasional a-fib won’t die from it. And there are definite problems, with the initial study and the implementation — the algorithm was trained using only 50 people with the condition, and only having a 70% rate of true positives means that there will be plenty of false positives, which will lead to people unnecessarily being scared and wasting their doctors’ time. And Apple watches are really freaking expensive, so the only people buying them are the people who already have decent insurance. The people who can’t afford to go the doctor anyway probably can’t afford an Apple watch.

But this is still a great start. The software has already saved the life of one tech blogger who was in an early testing phase of the software, and you can read about how the software popped up an alert and allowed him to connect with a doctor directly through the app, who sent him a proper wearable ECG and then sent the data to his doctor, who was able to confirm the blogger was spending about 30% of his day in a-fib, which is extremely dangerous and would eventually lead to blood clots and stroke.

(On a side note, I was relieved to see that the alert doesn’t just say “go to the doctor.” It connects you with someone immediately, which should help screen out false positives and reduce the burden on doctors and the potential paranoia in users.)

If algorithms like this catch on, and if smart watches catch on, then in the future we may be able to have more economical options for people who currently can’t afford them. And with more people wearing things like this, we’ll get more data, which will lead to more accurate alerts. And this isn’t just for atrial fibrillation: a watch can also warn you about things like diabetes, and sleep apnea, and high blood pressure.

So I’m not saying that everyone should run out and go into debt for an Apple watch, but I am saying that if you were going to blow that money on shiny new baubles anyway, you could do worse than supporting some tech that might end up saving some lives. Plus the next time an apex predator pops up next to you, you’ll be able to see exactly how freaked out you are.

The post Could an Apple Watch Save Your Life? appeared first on Skepchick.

Book cover

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2018 edition of New Humanist

Warlight (Jonathan Cape) by Michael Ondaatje

In July, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient won the Golden Booker, awarded for the best work of fiction from the last five decades of the prize. His latest novel, Warlight, may be more subdued but is nonetheless a beautifully crafted work of fiction that shares similar themes. Both are set in the aftermath of the Second World War, explore the unreliability of memory and feature shadowy characters with hidden motives. Ondaatje takes time to construct his multi-layered narrative and delivers it in fragments. Julian Barnes once remarked that “narrative tension is primarily about withholding information” and Ondaatje is the master of concealment.

It’s 1945 and everything in 14-year-old Nathanial’s world is shrouded in secrecy, from the moment his mother and father leave him and his elder sister, Rachel, in the care of an enigmatic figure they nickname The Moth. Their father, they are told, has been promoted to take over Unilever’s office in Singapore. Their mother, Rose, will dutifully follow him. Nathanial and his sister hate their English boarding schools and elect to return to their London home. There they are presided over by their guardian, whom they believe to be a criminal, while their parents remain absent. The blackout curtains are no longer needed, but dusk remains: “There were parts of the city where you saw no one, only a few children, walking solitary, listless as small ghosts. It was a time of war ghosts, the grey buildings unlit, even at night, their shattered windows still covered over with black material where glass had been. The city still felt wounded, uncertain of itself.”

Nathanial admits he has entered “a borderless terrain between adolescence and adulthood”. A youthful narrator, we understand, is more likely to misread adults, misunderstand secrets, confuse truth and lies, and may not recognise a threat until it is too late. Nathanial spends time with a friend of The Moth, a shady character known as The Pimlico Darter for his boxing prowess and hailed as “the best welterweight north of the river”. His real name, we learn, is Norman Marshall, and he is a consummate smuggler. Nathanial works with The Darter on a river barge transporting illegal cargo, including greyhounds, from France. Here, also, the gloom permeates everything as they travel “through the dark, quiet waters of the river . . . We passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were in a time capsule of the war years where blackouts and curfews had been in effect, when there was just warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river.”

Light and shade are clearly symbolic in Ondaatje’s novel. On one occasion, The Moth tells Nathanial, by the “small fall of red gaslight”, a devastating childhood memory he has suppressed. Lies and disguise are also potent motifs. As Nathanial observes early on: “It was a time of true and false recollections.” He does not know who to trust and his own sense of identity is vague. His sexual awakening is similarly shrouded in mystery. Nathanial begins an affair with a teenage waitress whom he meets in “semi-dark rooms” in empty houses on the market with her estate agent brother. He hears her true name just once and swiftly forgets it, only to be reminded of it in Warlight’s stunning denouement.

Ondaatje’s title refers to the time in which the book is set, to the shadowy world of espionage, and the flickering quality of memories. The second half of the novel is set in Suffolk in 1959. Nathanial, now 28, works in the Foreign Office and is trying to make sense of the past. Gradually he uncovers what his mother was doing during the war, why she left her children after it had ended, and why her life remained in danger. In his trademark lyrical prose, Ondaatje keeps the reader guessing until the end but, when he does reveal the truth, we realise the clues have been scattered throughout the narrative.


This article is a preview from the Autumn 2018 edition of New Humanist

"Your financial life will be healthy,” a preacher’s voice booms to a congregation of thousands in São Paulo’s crowded inner-city district of Brás. Inside the church, the crimson seats are comfortable, the air odourless and the vast marble floor immaculate. This is the Temple of Solomon, and today is Prosperity Monday.

Brazil’s newest and most spectacular Pentecostal church, the headquarters for the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), can hold 4,000 worshippers. There are six daily services, each with a different theme. Monday promises to help solve economic woes and celebrate the financial success of others. This means it can be “particularly busy”, an usher says as he attends to the Disneyland-sized line forming in front of the entrance.

Since the £185m church opened in 2014, Brazil has experienced one of the worst economic recessions in its history. Some 12.7 million people are out of work. Crime rates across six states teeter into civil war territory and homelessness in the biggest cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro is on the rise. This toxic mix of poverty and violence has left many of Brazil’s citizens desperate for hope.

The belief that faith can lead to riches is a form of Pentecostalism known as the prosperity gospel. The possession of material goods is seen as proof of a good dialogue with God. In a cash-strapped Brazil, these promises of personal wealth are drawing big crowds. At the Temple of Solomon, the clean bathrooms, free water fountains and safety provided by security guards add to the appeal.

The church, supposedly a replica of the ancient Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, is a symbol of the rising power of evangelical Christianity. Estimates suggest that 28 per cent of the population consider themselves evangelical. According to official statistics, back in 2000 that figure was barely 15 per cent, and in 1980, just six. These increases have gone hand in hand with a decline in Roman Catholic congregations. In 1970, 92 per cent of Brazil’s population considered themselves Catholic. That had dropped to under 65 per cent in 2010. Many who call themselves Catholic do not actively attend church.

The UCKG, a global evangelical church founded in Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s, has one of the largest congregations, at roughly seven million. Walk down any high street, even in remote parts of the country, and the church’s seal of red hearts with white doves adorns shop windows, lampposts and car bumpers. Evangelism has been rising in Brazil for at least two decades. But in recent years, its influence and reach have stepped up. “When the economy is doing badly, when there are no jobs, we respond to that,” says José Maria de Souza Junior, an international relations professor at Rio Branco University in São Paulo.

As evangelism has grown (from 22 million to 27 million congregants over the last five years), so has its political influence. Already, 93 of the 513 lower house representatives and three of Brazil’s 81 senators are aligned with evangelical churches, while famous footballers openly promote churches at international matches. Evangelical church officials tend to downplay their links to politics. But evangelicals are playing a key role in imposing regressive law changes – seeking to restrict access to abortion and introduce life sentences without parole. These are reminiscent of policies in place during the country’s decades-long military dictatorship, which ended in 1985.

As October’s general election approaches, evangelical churches are seeking a bigger role in politics, with plans to secure at least 150 seats in the lower house and an additional 12 senators. Although they posit themselves as an alternative to corrupt politicians, the churches are broadly unregulated and not transparent about their finances. Their play for greater influence raises serious questions about the future of South America’s biggest economy. So why are so many people in Brazil flocking to evangelism, and how could this change the country?

* * *

A few hundred metres from Rio de Janeiro’s palm-tree-lined sea front, Marcelo Crivella is holding a microphone. The newly appointed 60-year-old mayor of Rio is addressing and blessing a large group of residents.

“Crivella is different, he is pure,” shouts one member of the UCKG standing in the crowd. This sums up the appeal of evangelical politicians to many voters: they stand as an alternative to corrupt congressmen. Other politicians linked to the church are looking to Crivella’s success.

A former gospel singer with the UCKG, Crivella won control of Rio in November last year. His victory was a surprise: Rio is a broadly progressive city, famous for its annual carnival and gay pride march. But Rio has also been hit by a recent surge of gang violence and unemployment. Crivella may have condemned homosexuality, but he also promised to crack down on crime. His appointment solidified the rise of religious conservatism in national politics and showed that voters were willing to choose candidates from outside the mainstream.

The evangelical vote in this October’s presidential election is looking towards Jair “Messias” Bolsonaro. A firebrand former army captain, he was baptised live on television in 2016 by Pastor Everaldo, a prominent leader of the Pentecostal church of the Assembly of God (the second biggest evangelical church). Evangelical leaders are backing Bolsonaro, and he has garnered roughly 30 per cent of public support in early polls. However, he hasn’t secured support from a major political group: his attitudes and policies remain controversial in a country where the prevailing political mode is liberal conservatism. Bolsonaro has said he’d prefer “a dead son, over a gay son”. Without proper endorsement and funding for his campaign, some argue he will struggle when the race officially kicks off in August.

However in 2018 the power of social media and a notable shift in political, social, and religious attitudes could all play in Bolsonaro’s favour. His main campaign message is that he is incorruptible. Some 120 million voters are connected to the internet in Brazil. Bolsonaro commands by far the biggest number of followers across the most popular social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) with 8 million in total as of August 2018. That’s 3 million more than his main rival in online popularity, former president Lula da Silva, who plans to stand despite sitting out a 12-year prison sentence for

National politics today is extremely fragmented, and the evangelical bloc – already sizeable – can use this precise moment to their advantage. Spanning different parties, the group has an estimated strength of more than 10 per cent of the lower house of Congress, second only to the “ruralistas”, or large-scale farmers’ group. The more seats they secure, the easier it will be to exert influence over government financing, the media, tax reforms and legislation, particularly when few single groups currently dominate the political arena.

Their legislative priorities are conservative by Brazilian standards and could restrict liberties for ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. One priority is to lower the age at which youths can be tried as adults, in an attempt to curb escalating crime rates. Evangelical congressmen are pursuing an anti-gay, anti-abortion and, in some cases, pro-firearm agenda.

The political power of evangelism was first felt in the capital Brasilia in 2011 when the government of Dilma Rousseff, then president, sought to introduce an “anti-homophobia kit” in schools. Evangelical politicians threatened to withdraw support for the ruling coalition, made up of the left-wing Workers’ Party and centre-right Social Democrats. Rousseff’s plan was swiftly shelved. If evangelicals secure more seats in 2018, this blocking of new legislation could become a regular occurrence.

* * *

For nearly two decades, the socialist Workers’ Party dominated national politics with its palatable populist message. During the first half of the party’s administration, the Brazilian economy grew at its fastest rate in a quarter of a century. Credit was abundant, prices heavily subsidised by the state, and a new, confident middle-class was expanding. In the words of Lula, then president, they “took 36 million people out of extreme misery and allowed 40 million to join the middle class.” The church – both Catholic and evangelical – took a backseat in politics, as the state provided people with a level of security.

That optimism is barely recognisable today. Lula was convicted of masterminding the largest bribery scheme in the country’s history and since April this year has been in prison. Rousseff, his successor, was impeached in 2016 for fiddling with government accounts. Today, Brazil is consumed by a prolonged economic and political crisis and voters are tired of a political class seen as self-serving.

A vast anti-corruption investigation, operation Lava Jato (or Car Wash), has implicated dozens of politicians across the ideological spectrum. In a recent survey by Ipsos, 94 per cent of Brazilians said they do not feel represented by their politicians. Many are turning towards “clean” outsiders not embroiled in the bribery scandal.

This is where practising evangelicals and their virtuous image come in. These politicians have been given a boost by recent campaign financing reforms, which restrict donations from Brazilian companies, but allow churches to direct their congregations – and their TV and radio channels – towards favoured political contenders. Politicians who align themselves with the evangelicals can legally access the vast resources at the disposal of these churches, although most do not readily admit to church financing.

This is no small benefit. The founder of the UCKG and its bishop in Brazil, Edir Macedo, is widely considered one of the fathers of the modern Theology of Prosperity. He owns a major national television network, Record. Since he purchased it in 1989, Record’s audience has catapulted to 15 per cent of Brazil’s overall TV audience – second only to Globo. Macedo is Brazil’s richest pastor, with an estimated net worth of £708m. He also happens to be the uncle of Crivella, the newly appointed mayor of Rio.

* * *

Despite its massive wealth and influence, the evangelical church has successfully appealed to those who have suffered most from the prolonged economic downturn. Sitting at a kitchen table, Edneir Oliveira dos Santos, a woman in her mid-50s, is preparing to go to one of UCKG’s Thursday sermons. She was born to a large Catholic family in the poor north-eastern state of Bahia, and grew up illiterate. On moving south to São Paulo, she switched allegiances and learnt to write. “I’d been praying to all these saints at the Catholic services and felt I’d forgotten about Jesus. My church today is more accessible,” she says, adding that the pastor “really explains” the Bible.

Like many in Brazil, Santos associates Catholic congregations with “smart clothes, rich people”. She met her husband, a shoemaker, a few years ago through a UCKG church gathering and says that the church’s work with the homeless is addressing a very real present-day problem in Brazil. “I’ve seen [evangelicals] welcome very lost people in my area – by just giving them a cafezinho and talking,” she says. Pastors at her church attend to the dozens of addicts sleeping rough, whom she says the state has all but abandoned. Evangelism has long appealed to working-class communities, but the hardship of recession has strengthened its message.

The role of class differences in evangelism’s rise is reflected by Brazil’s most famous international celebrities: its footballers. Many of Brazil’s top footballers hail from working-class communities – and many are neo-Pentecostalists, committed to spreading the evangelical message at home and abroad.

AC Milan’s former midfielder Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, or “Kaká”, was anointed a Presbyterian priest. Current Cruzeiro Esporte striker Frederico “Fred” Chaves Guedes is a recent convert. Luís Antônio Corrêa da Costa, aka “Müller”, became a pastor, while both Rivaldo and Jorginho, part of the national team that brought Brazil to World Cup victory in 2002 and 1994 respectively, founded their own churches. Rather than discussing the technicalities of the game in post-match interviews, many thank Jesus and refer to their direct relationship with the Holy Spirit. “Through television images, photos in the press, but more currently through posts on social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), these symbolic gestures promote Neo-Pentecostals’ religious beliefs,” writes Professor Carmen Rial, a social anthropologist at the Federal University of Santa Catarina.

Links between sport and religion are nothing new to Brazil – all the great Brazilian clubs have their own Catholic chapels and patron saint. But shared financial interests make the relationship between evangelicals and football more powerful. The church gains more worshippers and thus more donations from footballers and their fans; the players build their fame among churchgoers and receive significant support to pursue their sporting careers. Together they are using this moment of political and economic fragility to influence national politics as they play together on a new stage in modern Brazil. The football players, especially those working in Europe, are major financial contributors to the evangelical churches now seeking greater
political influence. And Ronaldinho, who memorably scored the goal that knocked England out of the 2002 World Cup, joined the conservative Brazilian Republican Party (PRB) earlier this year, a party linked to the UCKG. He may even stand for Congress.

Brazil’s religious institutions operate without much scrutiny. Churches do not have to disclose their financial records to authorities, and worshippers rarely report their donations on tax forms. Last year, federal police uncovered a ring of evangelical pastors accused of running a Ponzi scheme in which 25,000 churchgoers were asked to invest at least £750 with pledges of high returns that never materialised. The UCKG founder Bishop Macedo has faced down a number of scandals and was briefly jailed in 1992 on fraud charges. In 2011, São Paulo federal prosecutors charged him and three other church leaders with money laundering, tax evasion and racketeering. Macedo is yet to be tried for the charge of money laundering, while the other charges have since expired or been rejected in court. Macedo brands the charges persecution.

Brazil has made huge efforts to crack down on corruption and clean up politics in recent years. The rise of the evangelical church seems at odds with this broader progress. If voted in, the evangelical candidates will command a significant slice of political power, and other parties will be forced to negotiate with the bloc. Perhaps the big question for Brazil is whether it is about to replace one establishment with another.

Book cover

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2018 edition of New Humanist

Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave (HQ) by Zora Neale Hurston

“Of the millions transported from Africa to the Americas, only one man is left,” Hurston writes in Barracoon. Her task, in this rediscovered 1930s masterpiece of literary journalism, was to record his life.

While Britain celebrates having outlawed the slave trade (though not, at that point, slavery) in 1807, it is estimated that a quarter of all enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas after then. Kossola – later named Cudjo Lewis – was one of them, and he arrived in Alabama on a covert slave ship called the Clotilda, at some point in 1860.

Hurston – a writer, ethnographer and prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance – met him over 60 years later and interviewed him several times. She would bring peaches, watermelon and ham in the hope that he would feel like talking that afternoon. Sometimes he didn’t say much, or told Hurston to leave him in peace, but other days he was warm and narrated his life in great detail.

Kossola lived in west Africa until he was 19, and recalls his desire to find a wife and start a family. That was before a raid by Dahomey warriors. His description of the massacre is difficult to read: women and older people were decapitated, and their heads attached to the belts of their attackers; the young and fit, Kossola among them, were tied together and marched for several days towards the Atlantic Ocean.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is little detail of the slave trade itself in Kossola’s account. Unlike Saidiya Hartman’s influential history Lose Your Mother, we do not get a vivid description of his time waiting, in chains, to board the ship. Nor are many pages committed to the voyage along the Middle Passage – and even Kossola’s descriptions of slavery are cursory. Indeed, Kossola only spent five and a half years living as an enslaved man; he spent many more living in postbellum Alabama.

Crucially, however, he was a man who came of age in Africa, while many other former slaves had been born in America or only had distant memories of their former homes. This is what makes his account so unique and so different from the testimonies of people like Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano or Sojourner Truth. Kossola’s story is not one of self-realisation and emancipation, it is one of protracted loneliness and disorientation.

Upon emancipation, Kossola and the others from the Clotilda realised they could not afford a ticket home, and so they worked, saved and built something for themselves in Alabama.

They called their village “African Town”. Kossola married Seely, a woman who had travelled with him from Africa, and they went on to have six children. They gave their children African names and American ones, but growing up they were mocked and called “savages” by the other “coloured” children in Mobile, Alabama.

Kossola’s family brought him great joy, but four of his children died young and in tragic circumstances. Outliving his children – and later, his wife – only deepened his loneliness.

In one of their final interviews, Hurston asks if it is OK to photograph him: “When he came out I saw that he had put on his best suit but removed his shoes. ‘I want to look lak I in Affica, cause dat where I want to be,’ he explained. He also asked to be photographed in the cemetery among the graves of his family.”

Hurston allows Kossola to “tell his story in his own way without the intrusion of interpretation”, but her short descriptions – of his silences, expressions and idiosyncrasies – convey so much. The book is often most affecting in its subtlety. Not in the descriptions of decapitations, nor of the Middle Passage, but in Kossola’s repeated phrase “in de Afficky soil”, which he returns to so often, insistently, as he tries to convey what has been lost.

Hurston did not live to see Barracoon in book form because previous publishers requested that she translate Kossola’s dialect into plain English, which she refused. This refusal is a mark of her respect for Kossola and his way of telling, a recognition that suffuses the book. He liked Hurston and he hoped that his story would travel home: “I wante tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody dere say, Yeah, I know Kossola.”

Unfortunately, there was no one in “Afficky soil” who heard his call, no one to say “Yeah, I know Kossola”. If it is true that he was the last man alive transported from Africa to the Americas, then this precious book should be read as a eulogy for all those who were taken – over 10 million of them – and who lived and died far from home.

When reading Barracoon today, the challenge is to move from the worlds Kossola narrates to our own. Criminalisation and mass incarceration the US, structural violence in the Caribbean and Latin America, and police brutality and the Windrush scandal in the UK all remind us that our present is distorted by slavery’s afterlives. Barracoon is one man’s story, but it captures the brutality of the racial ordering which continues to define our present.

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We’re living in a time of absolute information overload. The week I’m recording this video, one of the US President’s staff is being convicted of serious crimes while another has been taken into custody and is currently telling the world about the crimes he committed on behalf of the president. Also my state is on fire, and Pokemon Go just released a new update and there are hoppips everywhere. That’s just a random selection of the things on my mind today.

My point is that through all this, I nearly completely missed a huge fucking story, so huge that I spent some time researching it to make sure it was really happening because I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it prior. And it’s not because major news sites haven’t covered it — it’s just that there is so much going on that this one nearly slipped through the cracks for me.

Saudi Arabia has arrested five human rights activists, including women’s rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham, and is considering the death penalty. They’ve been in custody for two years, and in October, a judge will determine whether or not to behead these people for peacefully protesting. The charges are things like “participating in protests,” “filming protests,” and “chanting slogans.”

Al-Ghomgham is in the spotlight in particular because she would be the first women’s rights activist to be executed by the state, and that would set a precedent for the dozen other women who have recently been arrested for similar “crimes,” and not to mention any future women’s rights champions who they decide to round up.

If you can believe it, it actually gets worse. Canada is pushing back on the Saudis, stating in no uncertain terms that the Saudis should release the activists. Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced that “Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of expression around the world,” which is the kind of position you want your government to take. Unfortunately, it’s not the position my own government is taking, because they’re a bunch of garbage human beings who should be out on the street, not in our Congressional halls.

This week, the US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “It’s up for the government of Saudi Arabia and the Canadians to work this out.” To “work out” whether or not peaceful human rights activists should be beheaded. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the US has been supportive of the Saudis since the 1940s when they promised to keep that delicious oil flowing in exchange for the US staying out of tiny human rights kerfuffles like this one, and I’m sure it’s also a coincidence that Russia has publicly backed the Saudis on this issue (of literally beheading peaceful human rights activists).

The UK hasn’t been much better, “urging restraint” for both Canada and Saudi Arabia. Sure, because fucking *CANADA* isn’t showing restraint. Hey Canada, we know that stereotypically you guys really fly off the handle all the time so try to just cool it. Oh and you, too, Saudi Arabia, could you show a little restraint when you behead those peaceful activists? I mean besides the restraints you’ll be using to hold a woman down while you chop her head off for asking for basic rights?

So yeah, it’s all pretty fucked up. I don’t have an answer right now — call your congressional representative I guess? Will that help? I honestly don’t know. I’m pretty beaten down. I found a petition with 199 current signers. I guess you could sign that.

Or we could storm Washington, DC and overthrow our corrupt, disgusting government and try to replace it with something with an ounce of humanity. Yeah, I think that’s the best option here.

The post WTF? US is OK with Saudis Beheading Human Rights Activists appeared first on Skepchick.

ToS1Recently, a few people on Twitter were kind enough to mention ‘Theatre of Science’ – a joint project between best-selling science writer (and pal) Simon Singh and I from many years ago. I thought it might be fun to turn back the hands of time and share some more information and photos about the project……

In 2001 Simon suggested that the two of us create, and present, a live science-based show at a West End theatre. I knew that this type of entertainment had been popular around the turn of the last century, but was initially sceptical about it working for a modern-day audience. However, Simon won me over and I agreed to give it a go. Simon then persuaded The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts to fund the project and The Soho Theatre to stage the show.

In the first half, Simon used mathematics to ‘prove’ that the Teletubbies are evil, undermined The Bible Code, and illustrated probability theory via gambling scams and bets. After the interval, I explored the psychology of deception with the help of magic tricks, optical illusions and a live lie detector. It was all decidedly low-tech and mostly depended on an overhead projector, a few acetates, and some marker pens!  We opened in March 2002 and quickly sold-out. The reviewers were very kind, with The Evening Standard describing the show as ‘… a unique masterclass on the mind’ and What’s On saying that it was “…uplifting, thought-provoking and frequently hilarious.” In 2002 we also took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

 In 2005 we staged a far more ambitious version of the show at the Soho Theatre.

tos4A few years before, I had been involved in a project exploring the science of anatomy, and had arranged for top contortionist Delia Du Sol to go into an MRI scanner and perform extreme back-bends. During Theatre of Science, we showed these scans to the audience as Delia bent her body into seemingly impossible shapes and then squeezed into a tiny perspex box.

In addition, musician Sarah Angliss demonstrated the science behind various weird electronic instruments, and performed songs on a saw and a theremin!

We wanted to end the show on a genuinely dangerous, science-based, stunt. HVFX – a company that makes high voltage electricity equipment – kindly supplied two huge Tesla coils capable of generating six-foot bolts of million-volt lightning across the stage. At the end of each show, either Simon or I entered a coffin-shaped cage and hoped that it would protect us against the force of the million-volt strikes. The stunt attracted lots of media attention and once again we quickly sold out.

ToS2In 2006 we staged it at an arts and science festival in New York (co-sponsored by the Centre for Inquiry).

Nowadays we are used to people enjoying an evening of science and comedy in the theatre, but back then lots of people were deeply skeptical about the idea. If we proved anything, it was that it’s possible attract a mainstream audience to a show about science.

Anyway, I hoped you enjoyed reading about it all and huge thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make the project a success, including: Portia Smith, Delia Du Sol, Sarah Angliss, Stephen Wolf, Tracy King, Nick Field, HVFX, Austin Dacey, Jessica Brenner and Caroline Watt (who came up with the title for the show) and, of course…..Simon Singh!

Theatre of Science Show - Soho Theatre




I have teamed up with the folks at Business Insider to make this short video containing science-based tips on how to be more productive and a better leader. Enjoy!

coverMy new book on how to remember everything is out today!

I have a terrible memory and so went in search of all of the quick and easy mind tricks that will allow you to remember names, faces, your PIN, and other important information.  It even has a super magic trick built into it.

You can buy the book here and I have created this new Quirkology video with 10 amazing memory hacks…


Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered “dark.”

I was meeting with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist; Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital; the commentator and comedian Dave Rubin; and their spouses in a Los Angeles restaurant to talk about how they were turned into heretics. A decade ago, they argued, when Donald Trump was still hosting “The Apprentice,” none of these observations would have been considered taboo.

Read the rest at The New York Times

The post Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web appeared first on Sam Harris.

In October last year I was invited to CSICON in Las Vegas to interview Professor Richard Dawkins.  The video has just been posted on Youtube, and here’s the two of us chatting about evolution, The God Delusion, and my aunty Jean.

[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).

The post SIU Zero-time Adjunct Follow-up appeared first on School of Doubt.

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]

The post And so It Has Come to This appeared first on School of Doubt.

Suppose we had robots perfectly identical to men, women and children and we were permitted by law to interact with them in any way we pleased. How would you treat them?

That is the premise of “Westworld,” the popular HBO series that opened its second season Sunday night. And, plot twists of Season 2 aside, it raises a fundamental ethical question we humans in the not-so-distant future are likely to face.

Read the rest at The New York Times

The post It's Westworld. What's Wrong With Cruelty to Robots? appeared first on Sam Harris.

After taking a break for a few months, we are back making Quirkology videos!  Here is the first of many……and contains 7 amazing bets that you will always win.  People have been very kind and funny with their comments on YouTube, welcoming us back.  I hope you enjoy it…….


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.

The post *Out of Office Response* Re: quick question? appeared first on School of Doubt.

Joe Rogan speaks with Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz.

The post The Joe Rogan Experience #1107 appeared first on Sam Harris.

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.

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.

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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
Someone contacted me hoping to find young atheists who might be interested in being part of a new series. I’m not particularly interested in having my mug on TV, but I would love to have some great personalities represent atheism on the show, so I offered to repost his email on my blog: My name […]

Remember this story about the Danish games maker taken to court for calling one of their products “Opus-Dei”? There is a press release today.

Opus Dei: The game, not the sinister, secretive cult

Opus Dei: The game, not the sinister, secretive cult


Catholic Church’s Rights to “The Work of God” Stand Trial

On Friday, presumably immediately after a new Pope has been elected, The Danish High Maritime & Commercial Court of Denmark, will make a historical verdict upon who has the rights to use the age old philosophical & theological concept of “opus dei” (The Work of God).

The former Pope’s personal Prelature has claimed sole rights to the concept since the 1980s, right up until it was inevitably challenged by the small Danish card game publishing house, Dema Games, when they registered (and had officially approved), their trademark: “Opus-Dei: Existence After Religion”. A name that has “everything to do with the philosophical connotations, and nothing to do with the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei” , Managing Director, Mark Rees-Andersen says.

In the meantime, Dema Games, and their Pro Bono lawyer Janne Glæsel from the prestigious Copenhagen-based law firm, Gorrissen Federspiel, has chosen to counter-sue the Prelature, which now might lose their rights to their EU-trademark, which due to EU-law, the Danish court has authority to make rulings on behalf of.  The sue was an immediate media security event.  Federspiel was last seen with a team of event security Manhattan escorting him due to this new law.  In effect, he has his own concierge security service.

Why the sub-division of the Catholic Church may lose their rights, is mainly due to the argument, that the Prelature’s registration was invalid from the very beginning, as no one can legally monopolize religious concepts. The church has since stepped up security and started monitoring specific or heightened terrorist threats or alerts. Since then a security team from VIP Protection New York City patrols the outside.  Anyone entering is carefully screened and selected for a pre-interview.

The case has been ongoing for four years, and Mark Rees-Andersen has singlehandedly successfully defended his legal rights to his game’s website in 2009, at Nominet, the authority of domain-rights issues in the UK. Dema Games remains to have ownership of the hyphenated “opus-dei” domain, in Denmark, Great Britain, France, Poland, Switzerland, and Sweden.


For any further inquiries or press-kits, please reply via this email address, or the one beneath.

Best regards / Mvh,

Mark Rees-Andersen
Managing Director,

Dema Games

UPDATE: (19/03/2013) They lost. (The sinister, secretive cult, that is. Not the games maker.)

All throughout my youth, I dreamed of becoming a writer. I wrote all the time, about everything. I watched TV shows and ranted along with the curmudgeons on Television Without Pity about what each show did wrong, convincing myself that I could do a better job. I flew to America with a dream in my […]

I don’t know. Let’s see if meretricious corporate fuckwads has any effect.

Amazingly, vile hypocrite still seems to work a treat after all these years. (Do a g-search on it. That was us. We did that!)

Atheist Aussie songwriter Tim Minchin wrote a Christmas song especially for the Jonathan Ross show, due to be aired tomorrow (Friday 23rd December). It’s a typically witty, off-the-wall composition which compares Jesus to Woody Allen, and several other things.

Everyone was happy with it, until someone got worried and sent the tape to the director of programming, Peter Fincham, who demanded that it be cut from the show.

Minchin states

He did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shit-stirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.

This is indeed a very disappointing decision.

Hats off to Charlie Hebdo. This is tomorrow’s cover:

Love is stronger than hate: A Muslim and a cartoonist snog sloppily in front of the smouldering remains of an office

Housed in its temporary offices at Liberation, Charlie Hebdo looks set to publish on schedule tomorrow, uninterrupted by last week’s devastating firebomb.

Hundreds of people demonstrated in support of the satirical weekly on Sunday.

Hebdo demo: Support for the magazine has been strong this time round

The president of SOS Racism was among the supporters, declaring that

In a democracy, the right to blaspheme is absolute.

Editor “Charb” said,

We need a level playing field. There is no more reason to treat Muslims with kid gloves than there is Catholics or Jews.

Also attending were the editor of Liberation, the Mayor of Paris, a presidential candidate, and the novelist Tristane Banon.

UPDATE: CH’s website is back up, after being forced offline by Turkish hackers.

A friend linked me to this. I was a sobbing mess within the first minute. I sometimes wonder why I feel such a strong kinship to the LGBT community, and I think it’s because I’ve been through the same thing that many of them have. So I watched this video and I cried, because, as […]
UPDATE #1: I got my domain back! Many thanks to Kurtis for the pleasant surprise: So I stumbled upon your blog, really liked what I saw, read that you had drama with the domain name owner, bought it, and forwarded it here. It should work again in a matter of seconds. I am an atheist […]
Chadwell writes: I’m a 16 year old in highschool and I guess my natural cynicism lead me to question the dogma and ignorance of religion. I was a christian but I just figured that why would god send the only salvation to man kind to a single area and practically turn his all-mighty back on […]
@davorg / Thursday 20 September 2018 22:24 UTC