September 27, 2014

The poor get poorer in Texas public schools

The Waco Trib has a good article about how school districts, faced with diminished federal and state funds (are you listening, Greg Abbott? of course not), more and more school districts are searching high and low for grant money to supplement the lost funds elsewhere.

Only one problem.

As the article notes, many poorer and/or smaller school districts can't afford a full-time grantwriter.

Many districts created educational foundations several years ago, but those were done in part to adjust for flat or declining state dollars back then. To expect an education foundation to ramp up even more, or one starting from scratch to meet not just a couple of years worth, but a decade's worth, of revenue issues, is too much.

And yet, voters in "red" communities and school districts who aren't as rich as Dallas-area's Highland Park, or even as the Waco area Midway, will still pull the "R" lever unthinkingly on Nov. 4.

Well, folks, if you're voting to perpetuate your own problems, you deserve the problems you're perpetuating.

At the same time, school districts are whoring themselves out too much for technology, like the iPads mentioned near the bottom. That money you raise?

Spend it on better teachers. Spend it on better, and greener, playgrounds. Spend it on a school community garden. All of that will help your kids more than iPads.

Michael Shermer, meet Barbara Ehrenreich: two self-flunked not-so-#skeptics

Mr. & Mrs. Michael Shermer; not a ghost of a chance?
I've already blogged about Ehrenreich and her new book on alleged teenage mystical experience, starting with a long book review and then adding blogging thoughts about the psychological struggles I see lying behind both the teen and the modern Ehrenreich.

Well, now, Michael Shermer, at a minimum, leaves himself open to the criticism and interpretation of seeming to have dived even deeper into the ex-skeptic pool, but all based on recent adult experience.

He married the loverly Jennifer Graf (more related to this further down) just a few months ago. Shermer notes that she was raised by her mother, and describes her late grandfather, Walter, as "the closest father figure she had growing up, but he died when she was 16."

Anyway, Ms. Graf is a native of Germany. Before their marriage, they had her possessions shipped over here to the States.

Among them was one item of sentimental value once owned by her grandfather, an old radio.

Shermer gives the details:
His 1978 Philips 070 transistor radio arrived safely, so I set out to bring it back to life after decades of muteness. I put in new batteries and opened it up to see if there were any loose connections to solder. I even tried “percussive maintenance,” said to work on such devices—smacking it sharply against a hard surface. Silence. We gave up and put it at the back of a desk drawer in our bedroom.
OK, so Shermer admits he's not a professional electronics repairman, while also letting us know that he could have hit the radio hard enough to jiggle something loose.

Moving on ...

We're at their at-home wedding and reception, when this:
Being 9,000 kilometers from family, friends and home, Jennifer was feeling amiss and lonely. She wished her grandfather were there to give her away. She whispered that she wanted to say something to me alone, so we excused ourselves to the back of the house where we could hear music playing in the bedroom. We don't have a music system there, so we searched for laptops and iPhones and even opened the back door to check if the neighbors were playing music. We followed the sound to the printer on the desk, wondering—absurdly—if this combined printer/scanner/fax machine also included a radio. Nope.

At that moment Jennifer shot me a look I haven't seen since the supernatural thriller The Exorcist startled audiences. “That can't be what I think it is, can it?” she said. She opened the desk drawer and pulled out her grandfather's transistor radio, out of which a romantic love song wafted. We sat in stunned silence for minutes. “My grandfather is here with us,” Jennifer said, tearfully. “I'm not alone.”
First, we have a clearly emotional situation for both, which he later admits. And, doubly so for her.

However, he seems to "recover" with this observation:
What does this mean? Had it happened to someone else I might suggest a chance electrical anomaly and the law of large numbers as an explanation. ... In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.
All would be fine and dandy if he ended there.

Next, he tells us:
Yet the eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave her the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation.
Seemingly, he wants to believe. Not just wanted to believe, then, past tense, but wants, present tense, a couple of months later. Note the "had it happened to someone else" caveat from the previous pull quote. And, add to it that, even with others, he "might suggest a chance electrical anomaly." Not "would suggest," but "might suggest."

And, we're still not quite done.

But, he doesn't.

First, though, I want to go to the first sentence from the paragraph where the last pull quote came from, which says:
Jennifer is as skeptical as I am when it comes to paranormal and supernatural phenomena.
Sounds great, right? Also sounds like a typical "pitch," with the pitchman establishing his alleged bona fides before making the sale.

Now, let's go to his last sentence:
And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.
Boy, is that laden with loopholes, both stated and unstated.

First, true scientific investigation would have taken the radio to a repairman. Note that Shermer said he HAD changed batteries, so a normal power source for the radio was in place. Change in humidity or other things could have caused a connection to be made. A transistor radio would then have played for what? About a day, that's what, until the batteries died.

Indeed, he didn't even have to start by taking the radio to a repairman. A scientific investigation, or a semi-scientific skeptical investigation, would have started with carefully, carefully removing the old, dead batteries from the radio -- carefully so as not to jar again whatever loose wiring, or loose crud that can build up on batteries and connections -- Shermer presumably jarred loose with banging the radio in the first place. Then, replace the batteries with fresh ones! If it plays, voila! Solution and answer.

Second, both a true skeptic and a true scientist wouldn't operate off "sample size = 1." That's even more so when a true skeptic or a true scientist recognize that when that "1 = yourself," you don't have single-blinding, let alone double-blinding.

Third, a true skeptic, and a true philosopher, would recognize the logical fallacy or fallacies being committed. I could argue that they include shifting the burden of proof, appeal to authority, the regression fallacy (since he claims the event's importance is what it is, without looking at its cause), and the bull's-eye fallacy, also called the sharpshooter fallacy (relates to that "sample size =  1).

Fourth, you can't tell me that the phrase "the doors of perception" isn't a deliberate play toward Aldous Huxley's book of that name. Fifth, the phrase "marvel in the mysterious" also tells me Shermer wants to believe.

Thus, I have to agree with the current top commenter on the story page; the last paragraph is an embarrassment.  Next thing, Michael Shermer will join Barbara Ehrenreich in writing a book about his teenaged mystical experiences. And, per that note, and feedback I've gotten, if I'm misinterpreting this piece, I'm not alone; I may be taking my interpretation up a step from that commenter, but we're in the same neighborhood.

Barbara Drescher, maybe it's time you write about your new boss as part of blogging about why smart people do (or believe) stupid things. Beyond her, I wonder what Jim Lippard, Daniel Loxton and others at Insight think about this. I know I'm not alone in my interpretation. Besides the scornful first commenter on the piece, another person, on the place on Facebook where I saw this shared, invokes Marcello Truzzi, who fell out of the modern skeptical movement precisely because he wanted to treat the study of paranormal phenomena with too much use of intellectual kid gloves.

Does Shermer actually "believe"? I don't think so. But, the eagerness of his degree of "wanting to believe" is, in itself, highly anti-skeptical and strong enough to leave him open to the charge that he does appear to actually believe, at a minimum.

And, if Shermer didn't want to leave himself open to critique like this, at a minimum, he didn't have to write the piece he actually did write, since he had a couple of months of reflection time since the wedding. At a maximum, he didn't have to write anything.

Also, is Scientific American now embarrassed by this? No Tweet and no Facebook post about it, though it does a lot of other stuff on both its social media.


Sidebar: Now that he's married, that puts up another (theoretically) obstacle to his (alleged) pantsitis, which I discuss in moderate depth in this post about the James Randi Educational Foundation's problems with finances, alleged sexism, and apparent founder's syndrome, and with a more narrow focus, this piece about Shermer's alleged sexual behavior problems.

Also, per that "pantsitis" issue, which I discuss in those two blog posts linked two paragraphs up, that picture of the Mr. and Mrs., while not quite cradle robbing, seems to indicate a full decade of age difference, at least. If there's fire behind the smoke of sex-related allegations against him, the picture's a partial explainer.

So, arguably the three biggest leaders in movement skepticism today are an ill-healthed octegenarian with founder's syndrome (Randi), a mystic pseudoskeptic with a pants problem (Shermer), and a libertarian-leaning lawyer with his own baggage (Ron Lindsay of Center for Inquiry). Seriously, who would want to be involved with that until the Augean stables are cleansed?

At the same time, an overall good roundup here of why PZ Myers has no business criticizing anybody else's sexual behavior. Liquor him up as much as Shermer may have been at times, and the yucky behavior toward women he sometimes has shown himself would probably be at the level of rumors of criminal behavior on his own part.


Sidebar 2: If it's all for the sake of love, then surely the irrationality of love had Shermer ready to feel this way before the wedding, and will do so in the future, too. And, that's probably another reason I'm single. It's not romantic idealism about marriage or other romantic partnerships; it's compatibility idealism.


Sidebar 3: I don't think that most people at a skeptics' group who are commenting on my posting this there are actually reading through to read all of this.

September 26, 2014

Texas Public Policy Foundation — hoist by its own petard

This spring, I blogged about the Texas Public Policy Foundation ready to help out my current town of residence on some community improvement issues. Well, TPPF has gotten official approval from the city to set up a city clean-up program with adult and juvenile probationers.

And, that leads to the petard hoisting of itself by TPPF.

This cleanup work was one of the ideas that TPPF’s Jess Fields mentioned to this city in his initial presentation.

That said, what's one of the major components of trash blowing around streets in dirtier communities?

Plastic grocery bags.

And, TPPF already has a  history that shows its inimical to the interests of this county.

Well, TPPF has a “tag” on its blogs called “over-regulation,” and one piece by Fields himself claims that banning plastic grocery bags, as Austin did, may be “deadly” because reusable bags might harbor killer bacteria

Yes, canvas grocery bags, like the ones I’ve used for a decade, could kill you. Last I checked, they had done me a lot less harm than Texas’ mountain cedars. Of course, since many of those cedars in the Hill Country provide shelter for Endangered Species Act-listed golden-cheeked warblers, TPPF would probably love to help me and other allergy sufferers by abolishing the ESA, then chopping down cedars. What swell folks, eh?

Note to TPPF: Any canvas bag toter who croaks in front of the North Austin Whole Foods? It's much more likely to be a botox OD than "baggus salmonellicus." Second guess is finding something non-GMO in that bag or something, not the bag itself. Third? Asphyxiation from finding out that a vial of TPPF hot air was detonated inside the bag.

Seriously, I'd love a statewide push by somebody like Public Citizen to get all communities, including this one, to adopt some sort of plastic bag ordinance.

#ClimateChange alarm — new secular #Puritanism? New #socialism? Maybe not

While I generally agree with the idea that we should be climate change alarmists, even as we learn new threats to our climate, like methane vents and hydrates far south of the Arctic, nonetheless, while not calling climate change worries "socialism," I think Charles Mann is onto something.

Mann, in a long new piece in the Atlantic, talks about doing a better job of communicating climate change. As author of "1491" and "1493," he's arguably a climate historian in small part, therefore has a legitimate "standing" to talk.

That said, first, a few concerns. No. 1, I think to some degree he overestimates the willingness to dialogue of many deniers, "skeptics," and people halfway in that neighborhood.

That said, he's right to note that putting this issue in terms of economics and cost-benefit analysis is bound to fail, because how can we price out something like, say, being unable to grow corn in Texas in 2100, at least like we do today? That itself doesn't go far enough. It still buys into the neoliberal conceit that everything is reducible to cost-benefit analysis.

Example 1? This, about leading "New Environmentalism" neoliberal William Nordhaus:

Nordhaus provides graphs (!) showing how a gradually increasing tax—or, possibly, a market in emissions permits—would slowly and steadily ratchet down global carbon-dioxide output. The problem, as he admits, is that the projected reduction “assumes full participation.” Translated from econo-speak, “full participation” means that the Earth’s rich and populous nations must simultaneously apply the tax. Brazil, China, France, India, Russia, the United States—all must move in concert, globally cooperating.
Problem is, as the European Union has shown, there's a huge difference between a tax and emissions permits. If he can't grasp that, then, yeah, he's going to be a sucker for Nordhaus-style environmental neoliberalism. (Mann also ignores that cost-benefit analysis conservatives, and many neolibs, in the public policy sector have done only mild lifting, if that, for a carbon tax.)

Mann does mildly chide Nordhaus thinking later on, but not nearly enough.

Where does, say, Yellowstone National Park fit into that? If it does, it's a lot more pricey than Nordhaus will admit, if the Colorado River basin is worth as much as $500 billion — per year. More from High Country News, here, on how that was derived. Also from HCN, what price do you put on still-traditional Alaska Natives traditional style of life?

That said, the piece isn't all bad. And, the "good" part, per the first paragraph and the header, is near the bottom.

But, there's more than that.

This graf, which shows that environmentalism wasn't always liberal, is our real starting point:
The bet demonstrated little about the environment but much about environmental politics. The American landscape first became a source of widespread anxiety at the beginning of the 20th century. Initially, the fretting came from conservatives, both the rural hunters who established the licensing system that brought back white-tailed deer from near-extinction and the Ivy League patricians who created the national parks. So ineradicable was the conservative taint that decades later, the left still scoffed at ecological issues as right-wing distractions. At the University of Michigan, the radical Students for a Democratic Society protested the first Earth Day, in 1970, as elitist flimflam meant to divert public attention from class struggle and the Vietnam War; the left-wing journalist I. F. Stone called the nationwide marches a “snow job.” By the 1980s, businesses had realized that environmental issues had a price tag. Increasingly, they balked. Reflexively, the anticorporate left pivoted; Earth Day, erstwhile snow job, became an opportunity to denounce capitalist greed.

And, from there, we move to the worries about "socialism." As someone who often votes for Green Party candidates, but isn't a registered Green, I think Mann is about 60 percent right.

The so-called "Gang Green" environmentalists got in bed with industry after Bill Clinton's election, after all.

But, beyond the idea that modern environmentalism is a new socialism, maybe Mann is right that it's a new Puritanism.

He focuses on Bill McKibben, rimshotting off Paul Ehrlich of 1970s fame.
To stoke concern, eco-campaigners like Bill McKibben still resort, Ehrlich-style, to waving a skeleton at the reader. Thus the first sentence of McKibben’sOil and Honey, a memoir of his climate activism, describes 2011–12, the period covered by his book, as “a time when the planet began to come apart.” Already visible “in almost every corner of the earth,” climate “chaos” is inducing “an endless chain of disasters that will turn civilization into a never-ending emergency response drill.” 
 The only solution to our ecological woes, McKibben argues, is to live simpler, more local, less resource-intensive existences—something he believes is already occurring.
To that, Mann responds with this riposte:
Poppycock, the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner in effect replies in The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse. A best-selling, telegenic public intellectual (a species that hardly exists in this country), Bruckner is mainly going after what he calls “ecologism,” of which McKibbenites are exemplars. At base, he says, ecologism seeks not to save nature but to purify humankind through self-flagellating asceticism. 
 To Bruckner, ecologism is both ethnocentric and counterproductive. Ethnocentric because eco-denunciations of capitalism simply give new, green garb to the long-standing Euro-American fear of losing dominance over the developing world (whose recent growth derives, irksomely, from fossil fuels). 
Far be it from me to like citing a Forbes "contributor" favorably, but it's true — tar sands oil will get to market somehow. Rather than fight, if it's that much more carbon-intensive than "regular" crude oil, fine. Carbon tariff would take care of that. That said, if we address leakage issues (still a concern), not only is sending this oil by pipeline safer than by rail, it also frees up trains to ship food rather than having it rot.

Back to the neo-Puritan angle, though.

While we don't need 2 billion sub-Saharan Africans lusting after 8 ounces of beef a day from farting, belching, climate-damaging cows, there is, much more than with China, the issue of asking others to wear the hair shirt. That's especially true because, perhaps even more than with Peak Oil, we stand to lose more than them from climate change.

"Puritanism" isn't a perfect comparison. That said, to the degree it works, actual Puritanism promised an eternal payoff to its devotees, as did/do Catholic flagellationist movements. A secular Puritanism doesn't even offer that; all it offers is the moral self-satisfaction of the Puritan thought process.

That said, Mann had even easier targets than McKibben, albeit less-known ones, James Kunstler comes immediately to mind as a nutbar.

Jevons' Paradox comes tangentially into play, and that's that the Western world will also adjust its energy use to new technologies and modes of production. In other words, if those LED lights save electricity, people will use it elsewhere.

However, just when I think the piece is good, overall, even if bumpy?

It gets better, but still bumpy.

Mann warns us that the idea of geoengineering may raise its head up enough to draw more airplay — and more legitimate alarm.
A single country could geo-engineer the whole planet by itself. Or one country’s geo-engineering could set off conflicts with another country—a Chinese program to increase its monsoon might reduce India’s monsoon. “Both are nuclear weapons states,” (David) Keith reminds us.
Let's hope it doesn't get that bad. 

Update, Sept. 26: Naomi Klein's new book may be somewhat over the top in this area, too. That said, so is at least some criticism of it.

Example No. 1 of that? Will Boisvert of The Breakthrough.

Both he AND the "environmental Puritans" are at least partially wrong. I've blogged myself about environmental Puritans, but, I have just as little use for the Nordhaus/Schellenberger types, and I know that's what "The Breakthrough" is about.

At the same time, I do not totally look forward to the new generation of Earth Firsters. A "muscular" environmentalism should have carefully delineated stages of escalation, and should never undertake actions that could harm other humans; no tree spiking. Also, environmentalism comes first; anarchism can sit way in the back of the bus, just like it should have done in the Occupy movement. (Lord, spare environmentalism from a Black Bloc type of infiltration.)

September 25, 2014

James Randi and founder's syndrome at #JREF? Like #CFI?

Special update, Sept. 24: Jeff Wagg, a non-immediate predecessor of D.J. Grothe's, albeit under different title (assuming that "general manager" = "president," and with the stipulation that at least Phil Plait was intervening), supports Alison Smith's account about an alleged sexual assault by skeptic Michael Shermer at the 2008 The Amazing Meeting, part of this piece by Michael Oppenheimer on misogyny in the skeptical community.

Per the whole thread on which Wagg comments, he adds that Smith told him at that time that Shermer had raped her, as well as her being very drunk before she went to her room.

And, Wagg says Smith's story hasn't changed.

That said, did Wagg contact police himself? It doesn't look like it. He reportedly talked to Randi, but obviously Randi didn't call police. As for why Smith didn't? Well, many rape victims, especially if away from their normal surroundings, are hesitant to do that. And, it looks like, per an Ophelia Benson post at Free the Bullies, that Smith apparently didn't want outside action.

At the same time, even if Shermer was "trying to get her drunk," nobody put a gun to her head. Nobody forced her to let Shermer in her room, either.

However, that said, we also at a minimum seemingly have further confirmation further confirmation about what Randi said about Shermer in the Oppenheimer piece: That he blamed alcohol for alleged bad behavior like this. We also have further confirmation that, in Shermer's reaction to said piece, he seems to have been lying about his relationship to alcohol.

And, per the original header of this piece, if all Randi can do is call Shermer a "bad boy," we also seemingly have further confirmation of founder's syndrome at best and toleration of unethical and possibly illegal behavior in the name of money and PR at worst.

Meanwhile, I'm going to respond to a general train of thought on Ophelia's comment list.

Per a number of the comments, reporting an alleged crime is not necessarily legally limited to the victim. In fact, adults in most states are **required** to report allegations they hear about child abuse, especially child sexual abuse. Even if the victim is an old enough juvenile to theoretically talk to police himself or herself, or even if the victim is now an adult, but statute of limitations has not expired.

Nor is someone who has heard about an alleged crime perpetrated by one adult on another necessarily morally limited. Let's say something similar to this happened in 2012, and the person to whom Smith, or some other victim, talked to, knew that Shermer had an alleged history by that time. Were I, at least, the person getting my ear bent, I would at least consider going to the police on my own.

Again, none of this is meant to blame Wagg for not doing more than he did.

And, there's further evidence of founder's syndrome at Randi anyway — the nepotism. Randi's then-boyfriend, now-husband, "Jose Alvarez," Devyi Peña of identity theft infamy, was the board's secretary at JREF. Even for an unpaid board position, that's not best practices.

Meanwhile, related to this? If more and more of this starts panning out, will skeptics, at least one of them a refugee from JREF, stay on board with Shermer's new blogging platform, Insight, at Skeptic? Again, this isn't an immediate question, as both a question to said participants and a rhetorical one, but ... it is one that at some point, per my "if," may need to be answered.

On the apparent drunkenness level of Smith, there's also the issue of liability. And not just of the hotel or whatever. If JREF had its own wet bar, and that's where she was getting sloshed, if outsiders were running it, they're responsible. If JREF ran it, ditto.

Finally, on this update, to once again riff on an old proverb:

"Where there's smoke, there's fire — and often, there's also someone fanning the flames."


Earlier this week, I blogged about the stunning (not necessarily shocking), just stunning, news that D.J. Grothe had been axed as president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, with the 86-year-old founder himself coming back to run the organization.

(Update, Sept. 5: Randi provides a pablum update as opaque as the original. This, in layperson's terms, might be called "adding fuel to the fire of rumors." Maybe Randi is now in Bill Nye territory and figures any PR is good PR.)

A few follow-up points here, mainly related to the header.

First, Grothe's $95K plus benefits, especially given the cost of living in LA, is not a huge amount for a man in his position.

Second, Randi's $250K as non-executive chairman of the board (page 7 of the PDF of a recent IRS 990 form) IS a huge amount, and would be at an even larger nonprofit. True, that's from 2012, and in 2013, he made "just" $195K, as reported on the latest 990. The principle still stands, I think.

(At Skeptics Society, both Michael Shermer as president and Pat Linse as CFO make a shade under $80K, per its 990. So, we'll say $160K vs $300K; that said, even with a down year, JREF's revenue ratio is also at least 50 percent above that of Skeptics' Society, and was twice that in a good year. So, still a bit of an edge to Skeptics' Society, but not a huge one.)

In fact, it reminds me a small bit of the "skeptic" whose feet of clay (or dollar bills) I have pointed out strongly in the past — Brian Dunning. If JREF had gotten to the point where nobody on the board, or other staff, was questioning this level of salary, that's not good. And, it makes it look like Randi, like Dunning, was getting a bit of the guru treatment.

If JREF was in existence at this point primarily to put on the annual The Amazing Meeting which, in turn, served as a fundraiser and kept Randi's name and face in the public eye, which, in turn, helped pay the freight for $250K, then lather, rinse, repeat, I guess. I mean, I could call that the functional equivalent of money-laundering.

Speaking of, I'm also, per Pro Publica, comparing JREF and Skeptics' Society on net revenue.

(Gnu Atheists, don't try to dogpile. P.Z. Myers' "book," to use the term loosely, of almost totally unedited blog posts, was the same thing. He — and Ed Brayton — aren't old enough for founder's syndrome, but there's plenty of guru syndrome already at Freethought Blogs.)

And that's not a whole lot better than the board at Center for Inquiry several years ago, questioning one donor making up, reportedly, one-quarter of annual contributions, nor questioning if that person's money couldn't be used for things like matching donations fundraising drives rather than just dumped in the kitty.

If "movement skepticism" groups aren't going to start, with a page from Descartes, by being skeptical about themselves, that's also not good. Many seem to be, and some were before this point. I'd love to hear more about not only legitimate concerns about Grothe's management, but also any legitimate concerns about Randi's larger stewardship or similar issues. That includes whether some people have felt uncomfortable saying more, earlier, due to Grothe's shadow. Or Randi's, perhaps even more.)

Related to that, how many different skeptical organizations are needed? One person on a Randi forum suggested that Michael Shermer and his Skeptics Society might just swallow up JREF — most likely waiting tastefully until his death, unless Randi himself initiates action first. Yes, the SJWs don't like Shermer, but, you just have to fight them off. As far as "branding" issues, well, hell, death is going to force the Randi branding issue front and center anyway; did he think he was immortal?

And, that's just a couple of many questions.

Why does JREF still exist? Why doesn't it just let Shermer take it over? How many different national skeptics' groups are needed? Does a non-executive chairman of the board of a small nonprofit need a $250K salary, if finances are a concern? Is said $250K, or even $200K, part of why he's worried about his organization's finances? Does founder's syndrome exist here as well as it did at CFI? Without getting into allegations about Grothe's character, or his management skills, those are just a few of many questions to ask, aren't they? (That said, his management skills, at least his time-management skills, as well as his fundraising, do seem to be questionable. That said, P.Z. praising Eugenie Scott? What alternate world is this?)

Per that phrase "founder's syndrome," I think it can come in a variety of forms. Note my "did he think he was immortal" rhetorical question.

Randi has the opportunity to address several of these after a new president is named. He can expand the board by a couple of members, become a non-voting chairman, and reduce his pay down to, say, $100K.

(Note: I just got done serving four years on the board of directors of a small nonprofit. The founder, the year before I came on the board, stepped down as both executive director and chairman of the board, as well as not running for a non-chairman board position. That's how you stop founder's syndrome, if that's part of what's up here.)

Beyond that, what is "movement skepticism"? What should it be? Without going down the road of Gnu Atheists and saying it should cover the theism-atheism debate, should it get into more than cryptic creatures, ghosts, UFOs, and other fringe claims? Should it branch into politics and related social issues (and not in a social justice warrior way), in which case, libertarianism within the movement might finally be flushed out, once and for all? (That said, Shermer himself appears to have moderated his libertarianism again.) Of course, Snopes currently has kind of a lock on some of that.

In other words, how big — or how small — of a pond do modern "movement skeptics," or "scientific skeptics," or Skeptics™, as I call them at times, really want?

These last questions are, in part, rhetorical. I suspect many may want a smaller pond. And some may still want a guru or two as well.

As for the "unification" of different groups, as I've blogged before, Shermer's SkepticBlog is down to just 1.5 regular posters, Donald Prothero plus an occasional assist from Daniel Loxton. Some of this is also probably "all things Internet." People come and go from various movements in the online world.


Update, Sept. 12: Although Grothe is not mentioned, the issue of sexism and misogyny in movement skepticism gets a thorough walk around the block by Mark Oppenheimer in Buzz Feed. The biggie? Naming Shermer's hitherto-nameless 2008 accuser. Shermer, in turn, has issued a long denial. That said, as with other forms of abusive behavior (Ray Rice and his wife) an (alleged) abusee remaining amicable with an (alleged) abuser, whether sexual or physical, is not all that out of the blue. It's surely a minority, but how small of one? On the third hand, and I know the social justice warriors don't want to hear about it — if alcohol was involved, nobody put a gun to your head to make you drink, did they?

It is interesting that Shermer didn't comment on this Randi comment from Oppenheimer's piece, though:
“Shermer has been a bad boy on occasion — I do know that,” Randi told me. “I have told him that if I get many more complaints from people I have reason to believe, that I am going to have to limit his attendance at the conference. 
“His reply,” Randi continued, “is he had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember.”

Very interesting, especially since Shermer claims, at least on the 2008 issue, to have been sober.

Let me put it this way. At age 60, Shermer is old enough, and has been around movement skepticism enough, to be part of the old guard in more ways than one. 

The overall truth, on Shermer in particular, and Oppenheimer's piece in general, is probably somewhere in the murky middle. And, again, why I can declare at least part of a pox on Skeptics™as well as Gnu Atheists.

To riff on an old cliche:

"Where there's smoke, there's usually fire. ... And, there's also often someone fanning the flames."

Know what I mean? If not ...

In other words, there's probably problems and issues on both sides of this street.

Does Oppenheimer's original piece infantilize women? I don't think so. I 'm not as much inside "movement skepticism" as some, so I don't know.

Did it perhaps put lipstick on a pig in its discussion of Rebecca Watson? Probably yes, on second read.

Update, Sept. 13: Shermer's now drawing fire from many humanist types for a letter he wrote supporting sentencing leniency for convicted conservative icon Dinesh D'Souza, who pled guilty earlier this year to a campaign finance violations charge. I agree, per a Facebook comment, that it's not that Shermer agrees with D'Souza on everything, but that, due to the number of times they've debated each other in front of paid audiences, it's a "follow the money" issue.

Update, Sept. 18: Skepticblog is being replaced with something new, per Barbara Drescher's comment. Jim Lippard has one of the first posts. Questions of "why," that run through my thoughts, are answered well right here, in his tracing the roots of modern movement skepticism back to the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP:
But what were CSICOP’s original goals, and has the organization successfully met them? What are the goals of the other skeptical organizations that have been formed in the U.S. and around the world since (and in a few cases, before) CSICOP, and are they being achieved? Just what is the value and purpose of “organized skepticism” as a movement, as a set of institutions, as a network of people participating in conferences, writing articles and books, recording podcasts and videos, and interacting online? What does it accomplish, what is the broader social context in which it resides, and what is its relation to the institutions, practices, and subject matter of science? Does it do anything that isn’t already done by science, science journalists, science communicators, historians and philosophers of science, social studies of science, science museums, science educators, and just ordinary amateur science-interested people? What can skeptics learn from these other areas? What does it mean to self-identify as a “skeptic”? Where has skepticism gone wrong, and what can we learn from its failures? Are there alternatives to “organized skepticism” that might better achieve all or some of its goals?

Click the link; you'll learn what Jim plans to cover and more. 

And, for more background, click this link, also included in Jim's piece. Daniel Loxton goes into a bit more depth, already in 2007, on some of these issues.

Also, if Drescher is part of the new effort at Skeptic, is she still going to be doing anything with Randi, or not? Especially since Randi's own column is reportedly not in the latest issue of his foundation's magazine, that plot thickens, too.

Update, Oct. 7: At the same time, an overall good roundup here of why PZ Myers has no business criticizing anybody else's sexual behavior. Liquor him up as much as Shermer may have been at times, and the yucky behavior toward women he sometimes has shown himself would probably be at the level of rumors of criminal behavior on his own part.

#ESPN shows #NFL dollars still come first over #Simmons "rant"

Bill Simmons / Via Washington Post
Its ombudsman can brag all he wants about Ray Rice coverage on Outside the Lines, but that was limited to the Baltimore Ravens, not the NFL home office.

When Bill Simmons, who, despite all his own faults and issues, carries a lot of monetary and other water in Bristol, Conn., repeatedly calls NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a liar? Well, we can't have that!

So, Simmons gets a three-week suspension.

Bill, one suggestion? Do a post-suspension "mailbag" about the suspension, just to jerk ESPN's corporate chain. You know you want to.

Was it the profanities? Well, ESPN didn't explicitly say that. At the same time, the WaPost notes that both Keith Olbermann and Teddy Bruschi have called for Goodell to be fired. Its four bullet points about the suspension are worth a read.

Also, per SI, maybe it was in part to show that, despite whatever water Simmons carries, ESPN wants to show he doesn't get preferential treatment.

And, since he called out his bosses:
“I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I'm in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. Because if one person says that to me, I'm going public. You leave me alone. The commissioner's a liar and I get to talk about that on my podcast ... Please, call me, and say I'm in trouble. I dare you.”

I think they had little recourse.

That said, pulling the podcast is stupid. Deadspin, via Slate, and I assume other places, has a cached version.

Bill, one suggestion? Do a post-suspension "mailbag" about the suspension, just to jerk ESPN's corporate chain. You know you want to.

The Post notes that, if somebody besides ABC/ESPN lands the next NBA contract, he'll likely "walk" to wherever that is. At the same time, ESPN may be very ready to let him walk. It seems like Bill's already creating elbow room.

On the other hand, if, say, NBC gets the NBA, does it want Simmons? Bill, you might want to check that out, too, before angering Bristol too much more.

Update: ESPN appears to be circling the wagons on this one. Ombudsman Robert Lipsyte is also claiming that calling Goodell a liar, and not the challenge to ESPN management, was the primary reason for the suspension. It's like ESPN doesn't even care that this think called the Internetz exists.

September 23, 2014

EU sees #Google as the new #Microsoft

Here's the latest details on the European Union's battle against what it sees as monopolistic practices, and a monopolistic default position, on Internet search engines by the giant Google.

As with Microsoft, I applaud the EU's concern. But, how to address this issue differs a fair degree from Microsoft.

Microsoft was bundling Internet Explorer with its OS on Windows-based computers, if you remember. There's no bundling of that sort with Google.

That said, there is bundling, if you will, of Google advertising with its search engine.

Here's the issue as discussed so far:
The dispute has been running since 2010 when rivals, including British price-comparison site Foundem, complained about the way it displayed results. 
The deal suggested by Google in February was rejected after 20 formal complaints made the EU rethink its original decision to accept the proposals. 
Under the terms of the deal, Google agreed to reserve space near the top of its European search pages for competitors, which would be open to rivals to bid for via an auction. 
Rivals argued that Google's solution was unfair for a range of reasons, including the fact that Google would make money out of the changes.

I agree with the concerns in the last paragraph. I'm not sure that the money should go to the EU; maybe it could be donated to a program to buy computers for distribution in the developing world. 

I'm not totally sold on the crux of the solution in the third paragraph, even.

Fines are the next step, up to 10 percent of Google's $55 billion annual income. While Microsoft was not fined that steeply, it was fined more steeply than US regulators were even considering, with the hint of even steeper fines after that.

The EU is at least as bureaucratic as the US, and somewhat neoliberal, though, fortunately, not as much so as the US.

September 22, 2014

Dallas Symphony shows the perils and issues of the modern orchestra

My brother-in-law's mother passed away a little over a month ago. Her children decided to have her cremated, then have a memorial service ta a convenient time for all, in Dallas.

So, I got an invite, and headed on up from the exurban Waco area. While there, I thought, let's see what the DSO is playing. Answer? Mahler's Ninth! And, the Stokowski transcription of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue, a nice appetite whetter.

So, I go online to order. And problems begin.

On various browsers, on both the Mac at work and the PC at home, with various privacy and protections settings, the website WILL NOT bring up the Meyerson's seating arrangements for me after I click on wanting to buy for Saturday. I have to toggle to Sunday, where it does show that. Then, it keeps showing that when I toggle to Saturday. OK, we have a problem but I an work around it.

Then, I see that even the cheapest seats, in Choral Terrace, are up to $22. OK, not ideal, and a definite increase from when I last lived in Dallas, five and a half years ago. But I know that symphonies (Minneapolis, Atlanta) are struggling. So, I click to buy.

And, I see that that $22 does NOT include a $7 "handling charge." I'm upset at a bit of pricing dishonesty and think about not buying; I wait.

Finally, Saturday morning, I decide to do the deal. Well, by that time, all but two front row seats in Choral Terrace is sold out, and one of those is at the audience end of the one side.

It's OK; there's still one front row center section seat.

I'm told I need to log in. So, I try an old email address, with multiple passwords. None work. I check that account; no password email for the DSO is saved.

So, I call their customer service line.

Closed on Saturdays. I can understand being closed on Sundays, but Saturdays? That's poor customer service for a major arts venue.

So, back to the website.

"Login with Facebook."

I don't like doing that, but, I think, OK.

I'm told the link doesn't work. (And, I had unblocked Facebook Connect on Ghostery, so it wasn't that.)

I figure maybe it's something on my settings on the PC at home. So, a quick drive to the office.

Nope, doesn't work there.

So, DSO? Counting that handling charge, per my best recollection, on the cheap seats, your prices have increased more than 50 percent since the 2008-09 season. When I had season tickets to Choral Terrace, all three classical subseries, in 2004-05, it was $9 a pop; getting one set of six concerts was $10 an event, $9 for each of the second six and $8 for each of the third. Whatever handling charge existed was definitely less than $7 a concert.

And, with all those price increases, you have a website with functionality issues and no Saturday customer service?

So, DSO, I'll think even more carefully about future purchases next time I'm in the Metroplex.

Fort Worth has no choral terrace. Its cheapest seats are the front few rows of the orchestra. They're at $20 plus $3 for handling.  And, that's on the floor, facing the orchestra.

The second cheapest in Dallas is $49 vs. $32 in Fort Worth. Top price, comparing Saturday to Saturday, is $145 in Dallas vs. $68 in Fort Worth.

Yes, Dallas is a better orchestra, and has a larger orchestra to pay. But, it seems like the DSO is pushing its price points.

(And, I tried looking ahead to this weekend's concert, and guess what? The same website issue, on not immediately displaying seating issues, happened for this coming Saturday.

Why smart people — and movement skeptics — do dumb things; irrational, anti-rational, non-rational

Over at Insight, Skeptic's new blogging spot, Barbara Drescher has a nice piece on the "smart people do dumb things," reminiscing on joining Mensa, with the lead-in of a fairly well-known story of a college prof falling victim to the fake Russian lover scheme. That said, such issues, or related ones, aren't confined to Mensa.

Let's see if motivated reasoning gets tackled over there. One can be so smart and so skeptical to be sure that secondhand smoke isn't carcinogenic and that global warming isn't real. Or, one can be so smart and so skeptical to be sure that "little tweaks" to websites aren't criminally fraudulent. Or one can be sure that such smart people in positions of skeptical authority are right when they are being sure. If you're active in "movement skepticism," I don't think I need to name names.

Beyond that, the forums at the James Randi Educational Foundation website have had people start threads defending irrational ideas. (I guess that, and the effort involved in moderating them, is why Randi is dumping off the forums.)

More seriously, this is the tip of an iceberg. There's differences, I would say, between non-rational, irrational and antirational actions.

And, I'm going to address a bit more how I see those three as separate from each other.

Non-rational actions are of a few different types.

One is, per Daniel Kahneman, where "fast," reflexive thinking is expected. To riff on our ancestry, if you're on a safari vacation, and the grass rustles, you jump just as much as an australopithecine 2 million years ago, since that rustling grass could signify a lion.

Somewhat similar are non-reflexive, but still emotional decisions. You don't analyze why you like chocolate ice cream more than vanilla or strawberry, you just eat.

Third are leaps of faith and similar actions that are forced decisions. (Not all leaps of faith are forced decisions, of course.) Let's say you have a job offer and have 24 hours to decide whether to take it or not. Interviews have been entirely by phone or email; you've never met the bosses and principals at the other end; you've never seen the work site; you've never met your would-be coworkers. At the same time, you're actively looking to get out of your current employment situation. You may, after you leap, find more information that, had you known it earlier, would have led to a decision not to leap. (The issue of emotional dissonance, an emotional parallel to cognitive dissonance, might come into play on some of these issues.)

Then, there's irrational decisions, like the college professor chasing the fake lover. If we would just stop a minute and do our "slow" thinking, we'd escape many of them. They need no more explanation.

Then, there's anti-rational decisions. A good example is Richard Nixon late in his second term, in foreign policy decisions he made after Watergate started catching up to him. He figured if he acted nuts enough vis-a-vis the Russians, they'd think he actually was nuts. Of course, that could be considered rational, as well as anti-rational.

The whole edifice of North Korea's leadership and its action in foreign affairs might be a more reasonable idea of anti-rational action.

Arguably, the Mutual Assured Destruction stance on nuclear staredowns between the US and the USSR in the 1950s is another.

Interesting, that the first three examples I recognized of deliberately anti-rational action are all international affairs, isn't it? Interesting, and scary.

Update, Sept. 26: Drescher needs to pen an addendum about her own boss.

September 21, 2014

#WendyDavis had one definite whiff in her debate with #GregAbbott

In Friday's Texas gubernatorial debate, candidates each got to ask one another a question:
In the middle of the debate, when the candidates asked each other one question apiece, Abbott asked Davis if she regretted her vote for Obama.
She did not answer directly, instead transitioning quickly into a version of her stump speech.

The moment underlined Davis’ challenge as she tries to make up major ground in the campaign’s final weeks if she is to overcome the 20-year drought of Democrats winning statewide office.

“She didn’t want to be linked with the national Democratic Party while running for a state office for Texas,” (said Paul Jorgensen, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American.) “And going into the debate, I’m sure she knew that Abbott was going to try to do that. And so she didn’t want to play into his hand there, but it led to a rather weak answer.”
Yeah, that was weak.

Correct answer? A rhetorical question. Or a string of them.

"Mr. Abbott, do you regret voting for a governor who's now under indictment for abuse of power? Mr. Abbott, do you regret voting for a governor who's now under indictment because he tried to muscle aside the district attorney investigating him for campaign-related financial issues related to you? Mr. Abbott, do you regret not having better oversight as attorney general over donations to politicians that may have led to favorable treatment for donors by the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas?"

Yep, she should have been prepared for this Abbott question with a comeback like that.

But, instead, either she herself or her staff and handlers blew it. In my opinion, she's getting bad advice to not tie Perry's indictment to Abbott every chance she gets. From the day the Perry indictment broke, her campaign staff has kept her buttoned down on this issue, and I think it's a stupid decision.

You're down a dozen or more percentage points in a lot of polling, from what polling we've had. It's time to unbutton and swing for the fences; there's just six weeks left.

We'll see if she does that in the second debate.

We all know, per scorecarding, that she has to rattle Abbott. My mock suggested answer for her to give to Abbott at least would have a chance of doing that. You've got to try to bell Abbott with the word "corruption." After that, Sen. Davis, if you want minority voter turnout for you, not just in percentages but in total numbers, you then have to bell the Abbott cat with voter suppression.

Speaking of, there's still time to vote in my poll at right, about this year's race.