Sunday, October 25, 2009

3 deaths in the name of "New Age" are infinitely too many, but who can stop it?

I'm by no means an expert on much of anything, but there are some things that I can emphatically say are wrong without having to be an expert. Somewhere Richard Dawkins and a gaggle of moral philosophers are chuckling, but I digress...

In case there were not enough reasons to doubt the authenticity of New Age spiritualism, this week came
the deaths of three seemingly healthy individuals that had been duped by a guy that appears, frankly, to be full of crap. For the Wikipedia version of the story, click here.

James Arthur Ray's website screams kookiness. I'm not going to link to it because I don't want to increase hits to his website by default, but rest assured Google makes it very easy to find. Here's an actual quote from his website:

Throughout his life, James Arthur Ray has studied and been exposed to a wide diversity of teachings and teachers – from his collegiate learning and the schools of the corporate world, to the ancient cultures of Peru, Egypt and the Amazon. Armed with this comprehensive and diverse background in behavioral sciences, coupled with his experience as a successful, entrepreneur, and an avid thirst for spiritual knowledge, James boasts the unique and powerful ability to blend the practical and mystical into a usable and easy-to-access formula for achieving true wealth across all aspects of life.

You read that correctly. This man took diverse knowledge that has been long unknowable or too complex or "hidden" or what have you, and combined it into a "easy-to-access formula" for "true wealth".

Not seeing the red flag? Here it is: anytime a guy (or gal) decries having unlocked an ancient secret, or cured cancer, or otherwise solved some intensely sexy mystery and only they know the simple answer, rest assured they are 1) selling something and 2) are hoping you believe them. How many "miracle" cancer cures have failed over the years?

For example, this dude appeared in the The Secret, the beloved-by-Oprah piece of crap that the weak minded have latched onto in place of hard work and careful planning. Give a human a cure-all and they'll pay whatever you demand. James Arthur Ray seems to be no exception. I only wish he'd applied The Secret to keep his marks safe in the Arizona desert last week.

After subjecting his subjects to days of fasting and "spiritual" meditation and cleansing, he fed them a breakfast buffet and stuck them in a sweat lodge (the genesis of which is a mystery, according to the blame-shufflers in Ray's camp). Unfortunately there was not appropriate medical supervision by Ray's staffers and three lives were lost.


Here's a comment from one of the retreats participants that should shed some light on the issue:

A woman identified as Barb told the callers that a channeler at the retreat last Friday said the deceased had an out-of-body experience during the sweat lodge ceremony and "were having so much fun that they chose not to come back."

Really? Or is it possible that these "Spiritual Warrior" goons didn't know what they were doing and didn't act in a manner conducive to preserving human life? Is it not possible that caution was thrown to the wind in order to give "a show" to the participants, hoping they would spread positive word of mouth and return with new individuals in the future? Judging from the way these sort of New Age retreats are run (generally speaking), I have my suspicions there was some sad ignorance at work in this situation.

There needs to be some sort of oversight over the cranks that operate in the margins of naturalism and medicine and science. There should be a requirement that trained medical professionals are present at all times during these dangerous retreat activities. Furthermore, the leaders of these retreats should be bonded and held personally responsible for the activities that take place while participants are under their guidance. These dudes shouldn't be able to hide behind corporate shields and blame-shifting to continue practicing their crap. Plain and simple.

Let me be clear: my heart goes out to the families of the victims of this crime. The Yavapai County Sheriff's office is investigating the deaths as homicides. Hopefully some justice will come from this senseless tragedy.

These are the dangers present from New Age and hardcore naturalism and homeopathy when left unchecked (not to mention Christian Science and other religions that are anti-medicine). Kooks operate in the margins and speak to the uninformed or the unskeptical or the desperate, and sometimes legitimate care is foregone (i.e., Westernized medicine and treatment) in favor of unproven, "woo-woo" cure-alls that have no more effectiveness than sugar pills.

For that Barb woman to say the victims were "having so much fun" during their out-of-body experiences that they didn't want to come back is childish, naive, asinine, and cold. Does she honestly believe the families of the victims will believe that garbage, or at least take any comfort in it?

But true believers will never admit their beliefs are flimsy at best and dangerous at worst. Scientists and medical professionals need to take a stand and encourage oversight over this New Age bunk, before it can claim any more innocent lives in the name of "holistic" total wealth cure-alls and, I'm afraid, buying the cult's ringleader a new summer home and luxury auto.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

2 CIT 2 Fail

A couple weeks ago, CIT Group Inc. found itself on the brink of collapse, pleading that the company was too big to fail.
Timothy Geitner in MC Hammer pants
Timothy Geitner in MC Hammer pants
In other words, CIT, like MC Hammer, the Goldman Sachs Group Inc., American International Group Inc. (AIG), and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., is too legit to quit.

If Joseph McCarthy was alive and powerful today, I suspect he would be enraged at everyone who has or has had anything to do with financial bailouts. NeoMcCarthies should be wrongfully imprisoning market intervention sympathizers. Instead, the neoMcCarthies are attacking health care reform supporters. Why???

Bailouts of economic powerhouses are exactly the kinds of assaults on free market capitalism that the late Senator McCarthy fought so unethically against! Propping up a financial cartel does serious harm to all banks, businesses, and individuals who are not owners or employees of some part of this this cartel. Furthermore, these bailouts only prolong the inevitable failure of these too-big-to-fail anti-anti-trusts.

Instead of dealing with this real assault on American capitalism, the neoMcCarthies for some reason are choosing to make boobs of themselves using their effective political tactics against popular, beneficial, and characteristically American (and capitalist) health care reform. Financial reform should be incomparably more controversial than health care reform, but for some reason the neoMcCarthies seem to be content spending time and resources making themselves look bad without benefiting many people, including themselves.

Joe McCarthy was hereIf John McCain had voted against the bailout last fall, he might have won the presidential election. If Barack Obama had voted against the bailout, he might have won the presidential election by a greater margin. Although opinion polls at the time showed popular support for the bailout, the situation was abnormally complex. People were afraid of the state of the economy and of the future. Racists, sexists, age-discriminators, and others were afraid of White House candidates. The presidential election was temporally near enough that people had selected a favorite candidate and were echoing that candidates views to make their choice look cooler and more popular. Obama and McCain both supported the bailout, so major-party supporters from both parties were voicing their support for the bailout. I suspect that most of the public support for the 2008 financial system bailout (and most other recent economic bailouts) came from fear and acquiescence response bias.

Arguing for or against (and participating in or protesting) this kind of uncapitalist financial policy is mostly academic and impractical. The times, they are a-changin', as Bob Dylan said, and "the Great Recession" (as we like to euphemize these days) is a bigger force than we can control. Within the decade, CIT, Goldman Sachs, Bear Sterns, and AIG will be as bankrupt as Lehman Brothers, as bankrupt as MC Hammer in 1996, unless these entities radically transform.

Of course CIT has been bailed out - at least this time by bondholders instead of the government. Bailouts can't save anyone though. Substantial changes have to be made, or these companies will run themselves right back to -- and through -- the ground.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Thank you, Bill Kristol, for demonstrating what's wrong with America in 30 words or less.

This article is in response to a Politico post via Yahoo! found here.

Bill Kristol--not to be confused with the immensely talented, nice, and undouchey Billy Crystal--is a tool. Don't believe me? Okay, read this:

“The Left has dozens of organizations and tens of millions of dollars dedicated to undercutting the war on terror. The good guys need some help too.” --Bill Kristol

Yeah, you read that correctly, folks. An example of yet another neoconservative genius insulting half of America to enrage the other half of America. This has flavorings of past Republican tools (*cough* Sarah Palin *cough*) referring to the Midwest as the "true" America (or some such raving bullshit), insinuating very plainly that places such as Los Angeles and New York are not "truly American".

Republicans aren't alone, however. Democrats are not above insults either.

I just have one question: are you people morons, or just plain ignorant?

It makes no sense to insult District A to garner votes/support from District B. Why, you ask?


Since when is it appropriate or patriotic or within the job description of elected officials to put down New Yorkers, or Californians, or Pennsylvanians for no purpose other than to preach to their own choir, so to speak? I find it egregious, outrageous, unprofessional, and unacceptable to cast off certain individuals--AMERICANS all, mind you--because they disagree with your politics or are "different" than you.

In another setting this behavior would be called "racism", "sexism", "homophobia", "xenophobia", or just plain "stupid ignorance".

But because these politicians know they are preaching to the choir when they make these statements, they get away with it. They rally support for "the cause" by firing up supporters and pissing off opponents. Would they be so cavalier to make such asinine and thoughtless statements to a crowd of opponents? Not likely.

Back to Bill Kristol for a second. "The good guys need some help too" versus "The Left". Kristol actually stated the "good guys" are the guys that aren't on "The Left"; meaning that the "bad guys" are The Left. Ipso facto, Liberals are categorically bad.

You know what else they are? AMERICANS.

These intellectually vacuous bozos--as we all know, everywhere in government and politics--claim to hold a patent on patriotism and "God Bless America" and morality and freedom und so weiter. Meanwhile, they will disparage any other American simply for conflicting views. Is it just me or does that completely fly in the face of what this country is supposed to stand for? Is it not supposed to be free for all people? Is it not the United States? To quote the Kentucky state motto: "United We Stand, Divided We Fall"?

Someone should remind these bozos of that fact. When these people make such comments, they indicate to the masses that this kind of vociferous mudslinging (more like "social civil war") is what politics should be, and the political discourse suffers as a result (see: Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh).

Politics mean more to many politicians than the United States of America, and these peoples' actions speak louder than their allegedly patriotic words.

Hopefully the next generation will attempt to take this country back from the vapid, hostile edge of insanity back to the glory we all know can thrive in AMERICA.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Public Option... From Space!!!

Last week, Media Matters Action Network combined data from the latest New York Times / CBS News poll and a 2007 Associated Press / Ipsos poll to show that 1.04-1.67 times as many Americans believe they know someone who has seen an extraterrestrial spacecraft than oppose a public option. Without the two-year-old shock-value space-alien statistic, the numbers are still striking: a solid majority of Americans support a public option and have all along.
  And there continues to be support for a "public option" -- a health  insurance plan like Medicare administered by the government.    GOV’T HEALTH INSURANCE PLAN     Now  8/2009 7/2009 6/2009    Favor  65%  60%  66%  72%  Oppose 26  34  27  20     But those who favor a public option divide on whether they would  support overall health care reform without the public option. 42%  would, but 39% would not.     SUPPORT HEALTH CARE REFORMS WITHOUT A PUBLIC OPTION?        View on public option:      All  Favor  Oppose  Favor   38%  42%  35%   Oppose  40  39  48  Don’t know  22  19  17
The second question included in the included snippet of the poll results is telling and scary. While a substantial majority of Americans want health care reform with a public option, we as a nation are split right down the middle about whether we want health care reform without a public option.

Also last week, NPR's Julie Rovner ran a story that speaks for itself titled "Poll: Public Says Voice Not Heard In Health Debate".

A few things are clear. A substantial minority of Americans stand to lose a lot of money and power if meaningful health care reform of any sort becomes law. This substantial minority has a lot of money and power to lose. This substantial minority does not want to lose their money and power. This substantial minority will do what it can to protect their money and power. With the strength of a mandate, America supports a government-run health insurance system as a cornerstone of health care reform. Without a (federal or state-by-state) government-run health insurance system, the current health care reform measures are not enough to make substantial positive changes. The substantial minority knows all of these facts. The substantial minority is loudly and powerfully fighting the public option because without a government-run health insurance system, this substantial minority can continue to exploit the majority of the country.

As is often the case, the substantial minority is substantial largely because of their power, money, and organization. Although 3-4 times as many Americans want a government-run health insurance system than oppose one, the minority are organized, loud, motivated, and have money to throw around. We have the numbers, but they have the guns, so to speak. We need to rise up and bury this powerful, exploitative substantial minority.

We can worry about the visiting space aliens later.

Friday, October 9, 2009

So God's real? Then prove it, or leave me alone.

I hate to post two religiously-themed articles back-to-back (the last was only indirectly religiously, actually).

It is with increasing disgust that I face believers of varying religions. Personally, I'm agnostic--I don't pretend to know if there is or isn't a god or gods, and at any rate don't believe the existence of such a god should determine how I live my life; I answer to myself and those around me and hold myself to a high moral standard.

What is increasingly tiresome is being urged to "just believe" instead of being "so logical". Really? Since when is being logical bad? Forgive me when I think through a problem before coming to a conclusion. I forgot this is America, where we slap one another on the back for instantaneous action instead of a reasoned response. "Ask for an apology after the fact, not for permission before the fact," or something like that.

It seems to me that if you are going to presume the existence of a god (a giant assumption, based on what we know from science and logic), the
ball is in your court to prove such an assertion. There is no logical reason whatsoever for me to just "believe" the Bible because it's the alleged word of God (which god? Yahweh? Flying Spaghetti Monster? Who knows!). The Bible was written hundreds of years after the alleged events described within. Would you believe something I wrote about some dude fighting in the Civil War, based solely on the fact that I claim I received the information from the spirit of that very dude? Would you not call me crazy? So why do we not question believers? Moreover, why do we let believers get away with such nonsense?

Imagine this scenario. You're sitting in a living room: TV, couch, coffee table, etc. etc. Nothing special. Out of the blue I tell you my coat closet is full of little demons that will drag you to Hell if you open the door after dark. Here's the question: how do you respond? Do you believe me, because since I live here I should surely know "the truth" and have no reason to lie to you? Or do you ask me to prove it? Threaten to open the door and see whether or not I try to stop you?

The point is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. You can't suppose there is a magical space being that created all that ever was, is, or will be without
some proof to believe such a thing. How do you know your supposition is the true supposition? What about all those other folks that say you're wrong? Are they all wrong, or are you mistaken?

What we need in this country is a more questioning attitude. Americans seem to question their politicians almost as a point of pride, yet many dismiss religious questioning as heathen activity for godless morons. The truth is, when you have so many people preaching different versions of The Truth, it means (by logical terms) either we are all wrong or we are all right. Neither end result really
tells us anything, and certainly doesn't give us any divine guidance.

Regardless of there being a god or not, do you feel more or less compelled to pay taxes? To not murder? To not steal? If the only thing keeping you from murdering, raping and pillaging as you please is the notion that doing so may prevent you from going to heaven (or avoiding hell), then get the hell away from me! I want to be surrounded by people that do what's right because they have an inherent sense of rightness. Like the old question goes, "Is it right because God commands it or does God command it because it's right?" The former leaves you with the untenable position that God makes arbitrary decisions based on nothing more than his/her fancy. The latter leaves you with a notion that there is a larger set of principles that are so righteous even God himself believes in it. In that case, why do you need to believe in a god? At this point god seems redundant or, at best, necessary to live a moral and good life.

Understand that if you believe in Creation or the Biblical account of the world, it is up to YOU to find a way to justify that. I'm not going to be persuaded by hearing "the Bible is the word of God" (unprovable) or "you don't want to go to Hell, do you?" (unprovable). Creationists say God put fossils here to test our faith, to see if we would trust the Bible or "evil" Science. If that is true, what makes you believe He didn't put the Bible here as a test? Maybe the
true reward goes to those that live good lives regardless of their beliefs; maybe there is only Hell, and religion was devised by a god to see who would have the guts to enjoy themselves and who would live in fear of what they cannot see? The point is that none of these assertions are more or less provable than anything in any religious document, and you have no more or less reason to believe that then you do to believe in Faeries.

Religious folks will say "if you are so sure there is no God, then prove it!" Clearly they don't have a grasp on even basic forms of logic (which our entire understanding of the universe are based on and have been proven time and time again). You
cannot prove a negative. You can never say something doesn't exist, because there's always an "out": Nessie may exist because when people search for her, she just "hides" in the forest (for example).

But you
can prove a positive. If God does exist, there should be some proof somewhere. It is on the shoulders of the believers to present this evidence. If not, they should be prepared to acknowledge their beliefs are based on nothing more than faith. Not science. Not reality. Faith. And they therefore must accept that there's a chance they are wrong about it and there is no God, or they're worshiping the wrong god.

It's always quite amusing to hear a pious believer speak of the Absolute Plan of God, that "what will happen
will happen no matter what mere mortals do to try and change it." Is that so? Then why do these same people look both ways before crossing the street? Why do they begin praying in airplanes? If God has predetermined it's your time to die (and you lived a life worth of Heaven, as you believe you have) then crying and whining and being scared seems silly. If you really believe what you say, you should fear nothing. Period.

To those that say "God
makes us look both ways before crossing the street; that's part of His plan, too!" I say only, "HA!" Let's see where this takes us: if God plans everything down to the details of individuals looking both ways before crossing the street, then it's not unreasonable to assume he's determined your career, spouse, salary and breakfast too. There goes the notion of free will! And with the removal of free will we are left to question the value of faith. If God decides who will be faithful and who will not, we are literally nothing more than active little figures in his sandbox, made for the exclusive purpose of worshiping Him and for His entertainment. That's a depressing notion to me.

Instead, be accountable to yourself. Be accountable to each other.

That's something I hope we can
all believe in.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bill Maher--Wolf in Sheep's Clothing?

Allow me to begin by saying I love "Real Time with Bill Maher". I think it is the exact kind of show that's needed to balance the insane screaming Glenn Beck provides.

But if you are a skeptic--as I am--you know there are two sides to Bill Maher: Hero Bill, and Bizarro Bill. Confused? Not for long.

Hero Bill is the Bill I watch the show to see. He confronts disruptive audience members, he is not afraid to have a panel of conservative foes and debate them three-on-one, he does not tolerate celebrities that are still spreading 9/11 conspiracy garbage, he voices a liberal yet well-reasoned view of what he thinks America is all about. You may not agree with him, but if you watch the show it is clear that he loves his country but disagrees with what we've become.

Bizarro Bill is the Bill that claims modern medicine is what makes Americans so unhealthy. Bizarro Bill claims drug companies run the country, that complementary and alternative medicine is better-equipped to treat disease than most medications. For all the good Hero Bill does, he is a shill for the alternative medicine and anti-vaccination crowd (which I hate to say is very strongly concentrated among liberals) and encourages that ignorance to be spread. His rejection of medicine is reminiscent of Tom Cruise's Scientology-backed rants.

So who cares, right? Big deal! Well, usually I agree. I kind of give Bill a pass because of his political toughness and willingness to go toe-to-toe with the much more aggressive and hateful conservatives.

But recently Bill Maher was awarded the Richard Dawkins Award. From its website:

"The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins."

The issue I have with Maher receiving this award is that the award's criteria requires the recipient to advocate INCREASED SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage.

Bill Maher is anything but a beacon of scientific knowledge.

It seems that the award is being given to Maher because of his high-profile as a celebrity, as opposed to his true skeptical and scientific credentials. How can anyone who rejects modern medicine in favor of antiquated bologna (that's been shown to have no effect whatsoever in treatment) be considered for such an award? It's simple: a celebrity with a certain level of visibility was chosen over a no-name "true blood" candidate.

I will not argue that Bill Maher is totally unqualified for the award: part of the criteria regards promoting a nontheist lifestyle, which Maher certainly does. But should skeptics be willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater just to be more visible? Does selling out now not compromise the backbone of the movement in the future?

I love Bill Maher's show. I think his stand-up routines are usually hilarious. But I draw the line at making him a role model for skepticism.