I Knew the Discovery Channel Shooter

james-lee-and-signI’ve always been worried by crazies and fanatics. What really cemented for me that we should oppose and speak up against these kinds of ideas was my experience with James Lee, known as the Discovery Channel Shooter (even though he didn’t shoot anyone).

James was very active on tribe.net as was I for some time, some years ago. Primarily I was involved in the political and skeptical tribes but despite the presence of people like me, tribe.net was always pretty overrun with conspiracy theorists, religious nutters and other people deeply entrenched in ‘woo’.

James didn’t particularly stand out from the other crazies at the time but, looking back, I can see some warning signs that separated him from the other kooks and nutballs on the site. Things that might help others differentiate the genuinely dangerous or at-risk from the trolls, Poes and harmless crazies.

I often wish I’d put more effort into getting through to him, into debunking the nonsense he and others spread there. I see it now, still, all across social media and bullshit spreads much faster than truth or sober thinking. It’s made me treat so many different peculiarities and crazy ideas much more seriously – at least in terms of the harm they can do.

Here’s what – from memory – separated James from the others:

  1. James’ obsession was singular. While his concerns were environmentalist and extreme the object of his obsession was the Discovery Channel. This made little sense to anyone who talked to him. They weren’t ‘evil’ in his mindset, the problem that he had was that they weren’t doing enough to tackle and promote environmental concerns. He became utterly fixated on them to the exclusion of all others.
  2. James took his actions into ‘real life’. James wasn’t just a ranting voice on the internet. He tried to organise other people and got more desperate when nobody really followed his lead – despite having his believers and enablers on tribe.net and elsewhere. He picketed their building, he made the transition from shouting and ranting online (everywhere he could) to ‘doing something’.
  3. James wouldn’t engage. Anything beyond his obsession didn’t seem to exist for him. We would ignore feedback that went beyond the bounds of his beef with Discovery Channel and would angrily and emotionally react to anyone not in agreement with him on that singular focus. He did, however, pay attention to positive feedback which he did get from other crazy – if less crazy – people and peacemakers.

I don’t think we can afford to ignore or tease people like this online. I think they must be confronted with dissenting views and, if necessary, reported and dealt with legally or psychologically as happened with Dave Mabus. Their obsessions and peculiarities are amusing only so long as they don’t tip over the edge and encouraging or enabling them can do just that.

There aren’t ‘two sides’ of equal worth to every story and as skeptics we need to publicly oppose and debunk everything from homeopathy and anti-vax nonsense to religion and 9/11 conspiracies. They’re literally and figuratively poisoning political and social discussion and advancement and they’re leading to tragedies like James Lee.

His actions have been branded those of a terrorist. He was mentally ill. He needed help, he needed to be taken seriously, he needed someone to talk sense and get through to him. He didn’t deserve to be shot.

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Scepticism? Really? A Case in Point.

I’ve been hemming and hawing over whether to post this in here or not for some time. Firstly because I’ve pretty much said my piece – and apparently pretty well – about Atheism+. I was going to let it go at that but then I had an ‘altercation’ on Twitter with an A+ supporter neck deep in feminist theory and saw an article in the New Statesman on A+ that said the following:

Less than a week old in its current form, Atheism+ is the brainchild of Jen McCreight, a Seattle-based biology postgrad and blogger at the secularist Freethought network. She has called for a “new wave” of atheism on that “cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime.” 

And well, reading that following the altercation stuck in my craw because from what I’ve seen thus far, it’s simply not true. Scepticism is not being applied to sacred cows or presumptions arrived at within the echo chamber of their existing movements.

Put on the spot to come up with an example I went to the 1/4 rape stat that gets bandied about. Rather than try and convince me – as one would hope a rational sceptic who has arrived at a decision would do – I was instead subjected to a barrage of insults, accusations of being delusional and of warping the stats.

My reasons for being sceptical of the 1/4 ‘statistic’ are expanded on below for sake of completeness, but aren’t really relevant. The point was that they were being completely non-sceptical of their own claims and abusive rather than trying to back it up or explain how those stats were arrived at.

Scepticism towards everything?

My arse.

***

Data Used
Female population of England and Wales: 27,503,500 – 2001 census data. [1]
Reported cases of Rape (British legal definition) British Crime Survey: Worst recorded year 2010/11 – 14,624 recorded incidents.[2]
UK female life expectancy (CIA World factbook): 82.25. [3]

Rounding down population to: 27,500,000 [4]
Rounding up rape incidents: to 15,000
Rounding up life expectancy: to 83

As a percentage of female population 15k rapes is a yearly incidence rate of 0.05454545454%. [5]

Rounding up yearly incidence rate to 0.06%
Multiply percentage by life expectancy: 4.98%. [6]
Round up to 5%.

Under-Reporting?
To get to 1/6 two out of every three would need to be unreported.
To get to 1/5 three out of every four would need to be unreported.
To get to 1/4 four out of every five would need to be unreported.

This does not seem likely as efforts to destigmatise and otherwise make it safe to make a rape report have had no particular discernible effect on reports.

RAINN suggests that around 50% of rapes go unreported. That would take us to 10%, which is ghastly enough, but far from the 1/4 that is often bandie about. Despite giving the claim every extra opportunity it doesn’t seem to measure up.

The BCS self-reported section, which has the advantage of not having anything to hold people back from reporting, but the disadvantage of no hard data, reports an incidence of 0.4 for the year 2010/2011 between ages of 16 and 59 (43 year span). Even if you presume that and multiply it up (as above) that’s still ‘only’ 17.2%. That’s enough to meet the 1/6 but not the larger extents and is a probably a gross overestimate.

Rape is clearly a terrible crime and far too prevalent. 1% would be far too prelevent.
It is simply not necessary to mangle the stats to make it seem worse than it is and this may, in fact, be deleterious to the cause through the effect of making people suspicious.

Now, it’s possible that the US (origin of these claims) is much more rapey than the UK or has lower reporting rates, but it seems unlikely the difference would be that marked.

It’s not like I’m the only person to be sceptical.

[1] – UK population has been overestimated for some time but this appears to be about right for 2011/12
[2] – These are reported/recorded incidents. Female only. It does not take into account false accusations.
[3] – This is still going up. IIRC a recent BBC story said it was now 83.
[4] – This is the only case in which I have rounded down, rather than up. Everything else has been rounded to favour the high-incidence rate hypothesis.
[5] – Yearly incidence, not lifetime chance/number.
[6] – This isn’t realistic. Odds of being raped are not evenly spread throughout age. Again, it’s done to favour the high incidence hypothesis.

Four Reasons that Don’t Hold Up

The author of the Blog My Reasons seems to have made me a project to debate these reasons they believe in god, but having a debate hidden away purely in the comments isn’t a great way to proceed. I’ve taken a look at their reasons in the hopes that it would be something different and new but alas, it seems not. If this post seems curt it’s because these are mostly old hat and have been dealt with many times before.

1. Complexity

There’s a lot of stuff listed here but unfortunately it’s mostly redundant. The basic idea is that the modern cell is so complicated that it couldn’t possibly have evolved. Well, there’s a problem with that right away. The modern cell is itself the result of around 3.75 billion years of evolution and not the simple replicator that the first proto-cell or proto DNA/RNA would have been. There are two great primers and indications of how simple early replicators can be. Firstly Dr Szostak’s work on early replicators and secondly Spiegalman’s Monster.

The blog also cites non-organic material but in actuality planets, galaxies, stars etc are all pretty damn simple. They’re just BIG. Gravity and motion is all it takes to explain any of them.

The problem is really that a) complexity is not indicative of design and b) irreducible complexity… isn’t.

2. Religions Point to a Deity

Well the earliest religions are more animistic, pointing to ‘spirits’ and we see no indication of those either. Most religions have been polytheistic, but if you’re trying to argue for ‘a’ god, then that’s singularly unhelpful. Right off the bat it’s obvious that this is an argumentum ad populum and so can be dismissed without further ado.

That said there are other reasons why humans would have this common weakness for religion. Humans tend to false pattern recognition with a particular weakness for seeing human agency or imagery. We think we see a human face in the moon. Is it a human face? No. This is pareidolia. Similarly we expect concious, human agency where there is none. “OK, who hid my car keys?”

Why does this happen? Evolutionary Psychology suggests that there must be an evolutionary reason but that doesn’t mean our modern conclusions are correct. Humans are social animals who live in a social context. Amongst other humans most interactions and events DO have agency and erring on the side of suspecting and accounting for that would have survival value. Similarly there’s survival value in being paranoid. Mr Caveman is walking through the woods when he hears a twig snap. Should he assume it’s a sabretooth and run for his life or brush it off and ignore it? Even if it isn’t a sabretooth most of the time, paranoid caveman is more likely to survive and father children and pass on the ‘RUN!’ meme socially.

3. Pascal’s Wager

I cover some of the profound issues that shoot this argument to shit in a previous post. Little point going over it again.

4. NDEs

Are hallucinations caused by the release of DMT in the brain under extreme duress and ‘coming up’ out of oxygen starvation to the brain. Some include Out of Body experiences but these have similarly been debunked and have been artificially induced. Skepdic has a good summation of NDE claims and debunking.

The only variance here is the claim that the congenitally blind can have visual NDEs. Well, as it turns out only 10% of people who are legally blind are actually completely blind and even they often have some sense of light and of spatial awareness.

The study most often cited examined a whole 30 blind people who had supposedly had NDEs and reported 80% had had visual hallucinations in their NDEs. Keep in mind that 10% of 30 is only three and that this really doesn’t constitute a good example. Furthermore their star witness did not report full visual hallucinations but ones without colour. This is good reason to suspect that they might simply be reporting what they were expected to or how sight had been described to them.

The way to settle this would probably be to induce an NDE like experience in a person who was congenitally blind while scanning them in an fMRI for activity in the visual parts of the brain. We’ll have to see if this ever happens but in the meantime the paucity of evidence and its suspicious cast forces one to suspend judgement and hold the proposition false under the burden of proof.

Outside of this particular wrinkle, NDEs (and OOBEs) have been more than adequately explained at this point.

Why do people report similar experiences? Similar situations and stresses upon the body will induce similar effects just as certain drugs induce similar effects. Prior to the popularisation of  the ‘typical’ NDE, reports were very much varied according to cultural inculcation and tradition. It is only with the emergence of the typical NDE story that we have seen this homogenisation. It’s a similar phenomenon to how alien ‘abductees’ used to report a panapoly of different aliens from hairy dwarfs to giant lizard men but the popularisation of the ‘grey’ has homogenised that.

 

No More Ebay Hokum-Pocus?

So it seems eBay has decided to crack down on woo (or fraud as it’s otherwise known). While reaction in the neo-pagan and other woo-communities has been predictably shrill there remains some confusion over what is and isn’t allowed to be sold now. Spells, it seems, are not allowed so you can’t pay someone $6.66 to cast a love spell on your behalf. Understandably it’s bloody difficult to even know if someone’s done ANYTHING when they say they cast a spell and getting your money back when your amour doesn’t fall panting at your feet is going to be irksome.

Of course, they all cover their arses with the ‘entertainment purposes only’ and ‘no refunds’ despite the fact that a lot of them claim to believe in their magic spells, healing energies and so on. That just makes it even trickier.

The confusion seems to arise when there are physical items also involved. You may well still be able to buy crystals, dream catchers, wands, books of spells and so on which means there’s still a route for people to get shaken down by charlatans and pious liars but at least it’s an improvement.

I don’t imagine eBay will be banning the sale of bibles or homeopathic remedies any time soon though, more’s the pity. At the very least these sorts of things are doing financial harm to the buyer and I wonder if the ban extends to the claims, blessings etc of other religions.

It’ll be interesting to see where this all ends up and whether anyone will try to assert that it’s religious discrimination. Maybe we can take a leaf out of the new tobacco restrictions and label all religio-spiritual items with the word ‘BULLSHIT!’ and nothing else.

If I were of a more exploitative frame of mind I’d be registering SorcerEbay right now.