human heart

When it comes to preserving donated organs for transplantation, the last several decades gave doctors only one choice to keep them alive long enough to be useful. Chilled and transported to the recipients as quickly as possible to avoid spoilage. But a new generation of technology built with a much better understanding of organ structure and function is giving us a new option. Say goodbye to coolers and hello to sterile biospheres where organs are kept warm, fed, and with a private circulatory system until they’re ready to be transplanted. All of the surgeries done using warm, functioning organs have been a successes thus far, and the companies who make these organ-preserving devices are already eyeing improvements in sustaining organs using nutrient and temperature settings the donor organs need for their unique conditions, sizes, and shapes, instead of a general treatment for their organ type. Think of it as the donated organ getting first class transportation to its new home. But that’s making some people feel a bit uneasy…

According to reactions covered by MIT’s Technology Review, and repeated elsewhere, organs being restored to full function may be blurring the line between life and death, and not waiting a proper period of time means that instead of donating organs of a deceased patient, doctors are actually killing someone by harvesting his or her organs so others can live. In some respect, we do expect that sort of triage in hospital settings because after all, there’s only so much even the best medical techniques and devices can do to help patients and if doctors know that all efforts will be in vain, it only makes sense to save time, money, and resources, and give others a shot with the organs they need, something always in short supply. Wait too long to harvest the heart, liver, and kidneys, and they’ll start to die putting the would-be recipient at risk of life-threatening complications or outright transplant failure. However, if you don’t wait long enough, are you just helping death do its job and killing a doomed patient while her family watches? The fuzzier and fuzzier lines between life and death make this a very complicated legal and ethical matter.

But even considering this complex matter, the objections against refined organ harvesting miss something very important. Doctors are not taking patients who can make a full recovery into the operating room, extracting vital organs, putting them in these bio-domes, and sending them out to people in need of a transplant. These organs come from those who are dead or would die as soon as the life support systems are shut off with no possibility of recovery. Revive hearts which stopped after a patient died of circulatory disease and the patient will die again. Support organs inside the body of someone who is brain dead, or so severely brain damaged that recovery just can’t happen, and all you’re doing is extending the inevitable. It takes a lot more than a beating heart or working liver to actually live and these new preservation devices are not giving doctors an incentive to let someone die, much less speed up a patient’s death. They’re giving us a very necessary bridge towards the artificial or stem-cell grown organs we are still trying to create as thousands die of organ failure we can fix if only we could get them the organs they need…

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death with rose

Starting a skeptical blog is exactly like starting any other blog. No committee requests to review your posts and approve the skeptical label, no regular audits of your content are held by JREF, or any other skeptical group, and the only third party classification of skepticism you’ll get would come from DMOZ, which would select a category to post a link to your blog so web crawlers for major search engines can quickly and easily index it. But at the same time, when you find blogs that use the s-word in their titles and tags, there’s a certain kind of content you expect from the posts and podcasts. You’ll be looking for references to scientific works, critical take on personal testimony and anecdotal evidence, and a distinct lack of conspiracy theories. Just imagine your surprise when a blog called Skeptico rushes to defend a doctor who claimed to have proof of a picturesque afterlife after a bout with meningitus from the “liberal atheist media” following a less than flattering expose of him and his troubled background in Esquire. Seems odd, right?

Yes, to be fair, the article seemed very clear about where it was going even before it started to officially challenge Dr. Eben Alexander’s story, which while very typical among those who went through near death experiences, was very much the kind of agenda-first journalism I decried a few weeks ago. But that said, while the Tinder story blatantly ignored science that sabotaged a point it wanted to make and its writer employed all manner of semantic games to wave it away, the tale about Alexander is unflattering, but factual. He had the training and skills to be a really great surgeon, but he made mistakes and tried to cover his tracks when caught by patients who were harmed by his inattention to detail. It’s very unlikely, at least to me, that he spun his tale of seeing the afterlife out of whole cloth, but it does seem likely he fine-tuned it to make sure it will fly off the shelves and get him maximum exposure. These are not tricks unknown to the market for books and public appearances by those claiming firsthand accounts of the afterlife.

And if we turn to Skeptico for a look under the name, we’ll find not so much a skeptical blog that looks into near death experiences as much as we will ardent supporters of these stories whose goal isn’t so much to find a scientific explanation for visions during NDEs, but to come up with a scientific word salad to support the idea of the afterlife. They are not skeptics but believers with an axe to grind against atheists and skeptical scientists and their entire proof of malfeasance in the story ran by Esquire is a conspiracy theory that the writer is carrying out orders from a dark cabal of atheists, liberals, and doctors threatened by Alexander’s story and desperate to take an accomplished neurosurgeon down a few notches. Throughout the transcript we never do learn exactly what was being lied about or evidence that quotes were being misappropriated, we are simply assured that it happened because, well, Mrs. Alexander says so. And if you keep looking around the site, you’ll find a dozen more hypercritical posts about Dr. Alexander’s skeptics.

Look, I get it. Airtight evidence of an afterlife, even a religiously ambiguous one, would make all the injustices, problems, and suffering of our existence much easier to bear. Knowing that your death would reunite you with lost loved ones and favorite pets would make a terminal diagnosis feel like a bit less of a burden. Humans, understanding their own mortality, have been picturing some sort of life after death since the first shamans and cave paintings, desperately hoping that this is not all there is to existence. But the fact of the matter is that we don’t have NDEs that are so thoroughly researched and inexplicable that we can cite them in peer reviewed literature and replicate them. If we did, religious snake oil salesmen wouldn’t be chasing people who suffered one to write stories about visiting the other side and speaking authoritatively about what we will encounter once we shed our mortal coil to an audience desperately eager for reassurance. The people who run and frequent Skeptico are part experiencers, part anxious believers, and in part victims of a lucrative market for the ultimate reassuring story. But they’re not skeptics.

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relativity formulas

In a quote often credited to Albert Einstein, the famous scientist quips that if you can’t explain a concept to a six year old, you clearly don’t understand it yourself. Now, it may take a very bright six year old to truly comprehend certain concepts, but the larger point is perfectly valid and can be easily proven by analyzing the tactics of many snake oil salespeople hiding behind buzzword salads to obscure the fact that they’re just making things up on the spot. If you truly understand something, you should be able to come up with a very straightforward way to summarize it, as it was done here in a brilliant display of exactly this kind of concept. But sadly, scientists are really bad at straightforward titles for their most important units or work, their papers. Countless math, physics, computer science, and biology papers have paragraph-length titles so thick with jargon that they look as if they were written in another language entirely. And that carries a steep price, as a recent study analyzing citations of 140,000 scientific papers over six years shows.

You see, publishing a paper is important but it’s just half the work. The second crucial part of a scientist’s work is to get that paper cited by others in the field. The more prominent the journal, the more chances for citations, and the more citations, the more important the research is seen which means speaking gigs and potential applications for fame and profit. But as it turns out, it’s not just the journal and the work itself that matters. Shorter titles are objectively better and yield more citations because scientists looking at long, complicated titles get confused and won’t cite the research, unsure if anything in it actually applies to them. Quality of the work aside, the very fact that other experts can’t tell what you’re going on and on about is bad for science, leading to even more people doing the same work from scratch. To truly advance, science needs to build on previous work and if the existing work seems to be an odd fragment of alien gibberish at first glance, no one will review it further. So next time you write a scientific paper, keep its title short, sweet, and to the point. Or no one will read it, much less cite it as important to the field.

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astronaut on mars

Astrobiologist Jacob Haqq-Misra likes to ask questions about our future in space. If you’ve been following this blog for a long time and the name seems familiar, it’s because you’ve read a take on a paper regarding the Fermi Paradox he co-authored. But this time, instead of looking at the dynamics of an alien civilization in the near future, he turned his eye towards ours by asking if it would be beneficial for astronauts we will one day send to Mars to create their own government and legally become extraterrestrial citizens from the start. At its heart, it’s not a really outlandish notion at all, and in fact, I’ve previously argued that it’s inevitable that deep space exploration is going to splinter humanity into independent, autonomous territories. Even further, unless we’ve been able to build warp drives to travel faster than light and abuse some quantum shenanigans to break the laws of physics and communicate instantaneously, colonists on far off worlds would eventually become not just different cultures and nations, but different species altogether.

However, the time scales for that are thousands to hundreds of thousands of years, while plans for an independent Mars advanced by Haqq-Misra are on the order of decades. And that’s very problematic because the first Martian colonies are not going to be self-sustaining. While they’re claiming their independence, they’re being bankrolled and logistically supported by Earth until a time when they can become fully self-sufficient. Obviously that’s the goal, to travel light and live off the land once you get there, but laying the basic infrastructure for making that happen in an alien wilderness where no terrestrial life can exist on its own requires a lot of initial buildup. And under three out of the five main provisions of what I’m calling the Haqq-Misra Mars Charter, the relationship between the colonists and Earth will be parasitic at best, violating international laws on similar matters, and ultimately restricting the colony’s growth and future prospects.

For example, under the charter, every piece of technology sent to Mars is now Martian property in perpetuity and cannot be taken back. What if this technology is software updated by a steady internet connection used for communication between the two worlds as NASA is planning? Will some Martian patent trolls start suing Earthly companies for not handing over the rights to their digital assets? Not only that, but if a Martian pays for this software, he or she is in violation of a trade prohibition between the planets. That’s right, no commerce would be allowed, and neither would input on scientific research that the Martians feel infringes on their right to run their world as they see fit. In other words, Earth is expected to shell out cash, send free technology, write a lot of free software stuck in legal limbo, and keep its opinions to itself. This does not sound like setting up a new civilization as much as it sounds like enabling a freeloader. Any even remotely plausible Martian colony will have to pay its own way in technology and research that should be traded with Earth on an open market. That’s the only way they’ll be independent quickly.

And of course there’s the provision that no human may lay claim on Martian territory. However, should the colonies lack a sufficiently strong armed forces, their ability to enforce this provision would be pretty much nonexistent. Sovereign territory takes force projection to stay that way so what this provision would be doing is creating an incentive for military buildup in space as soon as we set foot on Mars. Considering that the top three space powers which will be capable of a human landing on another world in the foreseeable future currently have strained relations, it is not something to take lightly. Runaway military buildup gave us space travel in the first place. It can change the world again just as quickly. And I can assure you that no nation in the world will be just fine with heavily armed extraterrestrial freeloaders with whom they can’t engage using a lot of resources these countries have to provide on a regular basis to keep them going. There’s not going to be a war for Martian independence that Haqq-Misra wants to avoid, but there may be one of Martian annexation. And probably a fairly short war at that when the troops land.

Now, all that said, after a century of colonies, terraforming attempts, and several generations of colonists who know Mars as their home, I can definitely see the planet turning independent. It’s going to have the self-sufficiency, economy, and culture to do so, and that culture isn’t going to be created ex nihlo, as Haqq-Misra is hoping to force by declaring astronauts Martians with the first step on alien soil. They will be speaking with Earth daily, many will identify with their nations of origin and their cultures, and it’s all going to take a long time to gel together into something a future researcher can call uniquely Martian. And what it will ultimately mean to be a Martian will be shaped by two-way interactions with those on Earth, not by forced isolation which could give megalomaniacs a chance to create a nation they could subjugate, or utopians a chance to build an alien commune with the consequences that would entail, while people who could help give a group of critics a means to be heard, are legally required to stay out of the way. But the bottom line is that we need to learn to thrive on Mars and spend a great deal of time there before even thinking of making it its own autonomous territory. It will happen, just not anytime soon.

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cleaning the sea

Unless you live under a rock on an alien planet, you probably know all about the massive hacks which successfully revealed every digital asset used to run Ashley Madison, the much maligned, famous dating site for cheating spouses. And you probably also know of several very vocal and visible morality crusaders in the U.S. and Europe, who have been outed as long term members paying hundreds of dollars to guarantee having affairs. A top notch cybersecurity reporter with trusted sources in the web’s seedy underbelly, Brian Krebs, has already found evidence that an enterprising group of extortionists used the leaked data to blackmail some of the users in spear phishing campaigns, demanding bitcoins to keep their affairs quiet. Although one does wonder how effective this scam would be if the data is already easy to access and a concerned spouse could just do a search for familiar e-mail and physical addresses to find a match. Seems like an attempt to scare someone to reflexively hand over some hush money. But I digress a bit…

While it’s pretty hard to gather too much sympathy for people who cheated on their spouses or advocate for their privacy, even if every users’ situation may be different, and many more than likely did not actually meet anyone, whatever we may feel towards them shouldn’t obscure the very real problem with so much of our lives playing out on the web. We need to work past all of the moral outrage and schadenfreude and come to grips with the realization that we’re using a number of sites to do things with which we can be blackmailed. Sure, those who wanted to get laid behind their spouses’ backs have something to be ashamed of and issues to work though, but consider the previous big adult site hack, that of casual sex site Adult FriendFinder. Sure, a few users were definitely cheating on their spouses, most of the users were swingers, or simply looking for a hookup on a site that seemed large and recognizable enough to work for them to get some of their basic urges met, well outside the prying eyes of today’s societal moralists.

It’s one thing when you’re busted for trying to cheat or cheating, but when you’re either in open marriage arrangements, or are single and just want casual sex and get the same vultures with blackmail threats in your inbox for being an adult with a sex drive, shouldn’t that be different? If you use the web for anything less tame than reading the news and surfing social media sites, a dark cloud should not hang over your head with every hack. And sadly, there’s not much that’s possible to do to prevent large hacks like this. From sloppy coding, to outdated certificates, to a server that hasn’t been updated in months, there are simply too many vectors for an attack, so when you’re a large target, the surface area you have to keep secure forever is immense, while hackers need only one point of entry, once to do a lot of damage. Your best hope is just to not be interesting enough to warrant anyone’s attention to avoid being blackmailed, but given how many cybercriminals are out there, if your email is on a list, you’re a viable target anyway.

That leaves us with the question of what to do when the next embarrassing, adult-oriented hack comes. Note the “when,” not an if because there will be another one. The simple, but very likely unsatisfactory answer is to just own up to whatever may be found about your sex life and figure out how to deal with it if it’s something you’ve tried to keep under wraps but can’t. We can’t hide our preferences in the closet anymore because social media is everywhere and everybody has been using dating sites, mainstream or adult, leaving a lot of digital fingerprints. Maybe the new trend of opening up about sex in casual conversation is actually a good thing here. I’m certainly not talking about adding a favorite sexual position to your Facebook profile’s likes section, or an album of you with your favorite sex toys to Instagram, but more about not shying from any adult topics of interest to you. Because after all, why should you? You’re an adult, adults have needs, and they more often than not have the money, mobility, and chances to get them fulfilled.

In short, you are likeliest to have a leak blow over when people who know you see the hackers as leering perverts and bullies, not you as a hypocrite on a crusade against the immorality of a crumbling society, which is actually tamer than it’s been in over a century. If we learn anything from the shameful outings of pious moralists and user profile leaks from hookup sites, it should be that not being able to talk about your sex life like an adult or have a clear and constant lines of communication with your partners is what creates truly awful problems, and if you don’t own up to your wants and needs, and use the web, a hacker will do it for you at some point. And it may sound paradoxical, but it seems that instead of helping anonymity and leading double lives as some really hoped, the web, thanks to the rise of social media, is actually forcing our public personalities to match our private ones. It’s going to be a long transition, but one that seems to be pretty much inevitable because its driver is unprecedented and isn’t going to go away…

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my_neighbor_cthulhu_600

You probably know that H.P. Lovecraft was not known for his health, wealth, progressive views, or success in life, In fact, anything positive that happened to the man took place long after he’d been buried in obscurity. Today we know him as the creator of the sci-fi horror genre, a classic inspiration for ancient alien theories as we know them today, and yes, a virulent racist who had immense distaste for anyone who was not a white, male, wealthy Protestant with English roots, and drew on it to create alien monsters who ignored his protagonists at best, or would pray on them with a bizarre indifference. Society’s views have evolved since his lack of a heyday, and a lot of his creations found new lives in an entirely new genre. But the creator of these creatures still has to be acknowledged with all the vile cultural baggage this brings, which leaves his fans with a dilemma: accept the flawed man for his work alone, or find a way to reconcile the stories with his eloquent but vicious insults peppered throughout the thousand of letters he wrote.

Personally, I’d argue for the latter. Had Lovecraft been accepting and open-minded, there’s no way his tales would be as alienating and so focused on the “others” who, in the tradition of old, typical Puritan lore, hid in woods and caves far away from civilization. Venture away from what you know, trust, and find comfortable and familiar, and monsters who do unspeakable things in the shadows will find you if you don’t find them first. Science fiction isn’t really about predicting a future as much as it is about working through the authors’ concerns when writing. Lovercraftian horrors are emblematic of the collective American panic over the rapid changes brought by the sudden industrialization of the country and its rather unique geopolitical situation as an isolated empire too distant and expensive for many people to visit, yet too alluring to stay away. We can whitewash the xenophobic paranoia underneath it to make liking the stories seem to be a little more acceptable, but we’d be taking away from how they ultimately came about and why.

Flawed authors, like flawed characters, offer more depth because they can take us into a really uncomfortable place in which we can second guess our emotions and add depth to their stories in a way others might not have. Lovecraft had written a few parables about immigrants taking a small New England town over in a plot not at all dissimilar from the anti-communist commentary known as the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, true. But in most of his work, the aliens he feared were not actively evil for the sake of being evil or actively menacing. They simply came from far off places with no care about anything beyond themselves, and their malevolence was simply a means to an end, not a source of joy or a purpose in and of itself. His fatalism about how often these “others” were welcomed to America surely contributed to the nihilistic conclusions written for his characters. They witnessed insanity, barbarity, evil, and malevolence, yet no one seems to notice, much less do anything about it. Lovecraft’s mind manifested immigrants as monsters from the stars and their cultures as archetypes of “Satanic cults.” And it’s compelling.

In fact, consider the descriptions of what hooded figures did behind closed doors as detailed by the inciters of the Satanic Panic, then compare them to Lovecraft’s lurid narrations of the black masses held by those who worshiped the Old Ones. Chanting to awaken a scaly, winged entity or unspeakable horrors from beyond? Check. Sacrificing infants or young virgins, offering pure and unspoiled blood to the monster before whom they prostrate? Check. Orgies, intoxication, a great deal of nudity, and uncontrolled violence brought on by the malevolent effects of evil they summoned? Check again. It may not have been conscious, but it certainly seems that “experts” on Satanic cults, who were either frauds or deluded activists, heavily borrowed from Lovecraft’s stories, or at least reached into the exact same fears he used to build his underworlds. Similar patterns apply to the followers of the ancient alien theory, whose description of the Anunaki is a spiritual retelling of stories involving the Elder Things, who built their cities on Earth and created humans as both an obscene joke, and a source of useful slave labor to mine resources.

What we can take away from this is that while there’s no excuse for xenophobia and racism, no society is immune from the same fears of those who are different, and they all resort to virtually the same tropes to describe why those others are evil and should be shunned, if not fought. As our exact fears and ideas about the world change, however, we find new meanings for stories written long ago and adopt them to signify something else. Lovecraft was not ahead of his time but very much a product of it, and its environment and flaws. It’s just that his tales are uniquely styled and their villains so vague, indifferent, and sinister enough not to be cartoonishly evil, an entire generation of people raised in a connected world with many friends from the nations and ethnic groups their beloved author very vocally and actively despised, can dust them off to read their own fears, worries, and sense of alienation into them. Perhaps that’s Lovecraft’s greatest success as an author, managing to distill the literary formula for pure, simple human fear.

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galaxy in hands

We all know that our vast universe is lousy with galaxies. Trillions of trillions of the things sprawl across the known cosmos and more than likely, the unknown one as well. We know a lot about them, including how many of them form. Enormous halos of dark matter and gas collapse into a massive black hole that consumes the matter spiraling around it, producing a bright quasar that takes eons to cool off and settle into a quiet, normal, mature galaxy that prefers a nice nap to a billion year rave under the blazing light of superheated plasma, and has a diversified portfolio of stars that will come and go until the last one flickers out of existence many epochs from now, as the second universal dark age begins. But often times, when astronomers look back toward the earliest galaxies, they find plenty of seemingly fully grown, mature galaxies among the quasars, something that technically shouldn’t happen if all galaxies come from halo collapse events.

But if galaxies don’t start with a bang, how would they accumulate their heft? Well, they’d simply accreate it from relatively cool gas flowing into them from the structure of the universe itself. As these jets of gas flow away from existing galaxies and are pushed by massive energetic events, they can eventually funnel down into a proto-galaxy with a lot of angular momentum, sending it spinning and quickly accumulating more and more matter. While this sounds like a very hot and tumultuous process, it’s actually anything but. The filament feeds dark matter and gas at steady rates and the spin it imparts is barely faster than what’s typical for a mature galaxy. Known as a cold flow model, it explains why some galaxies appear to have aged before their time, a factoid used in many speculative cosmology papers and blog posts to question the age of the universe to imply it was much older than we think. These early galaxies did not actually age quickly, they were still quite young. They simply didn’t have a violent birth and didn’t need to stabilize.

Even though this model has been around for a long time but we’ve never been quite sure if it’s happening in the wild. Until now, when a team of astronomers at Caltech saw a disk of gas and dust some 400,000 light years wide nearly 10 billion light years away steadily fed by a cool gas filament just the model predicted. Not only do we have a good explanation for the discrepancy between early galaxies, we also have direct observational evidence that the theory is correct. A few hundred million years of steady feeding and this galaxy will grow into a huge, stable wheel that looks as if it’s been around for at least an order of magnitude longer than it has, evidence that the universe’s biggest and most important structures don’t always have to be born from an immense cataclysm but gentle nudges from gravity and enough time can do the trick. But we’re not yet done with the cold flow model. Now that we know that the basics are right, we can flesh out exactly what happens when cool gas filaments fuel star birth how they affect the distribution of those stars infants. But that’s space for you. There’s always something more to discover…

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barefoot

Many writers are not exactly great at doing their jobs. Now, I don’t expect them to do an original investigation in every blog post and article composed only of quotes from primary sources, with self-gathered raw data available for download, because with today’s deadlines and lack of living wage retainers, that’s simply impossible. But what I would like to see is getting a media mention which doesn’t call me a journalist, because that’s not what I actually do, something apparent for anyone who clicks the link to my quick bio page. Even worse than being too lazy to follow just a single link to get an accurate idea of who is being quoted however, is when writers have a really obvious agenda that they buttress with a wall of anecdotal evidence hidden behind a journalistic facade of confidential sources with altered names and ages. And this is the case with a massive story that left Tinder apoplectic since it accused the company of outright destroying dating.

Contributing editor Nancy Jo Sales obviously wanted to tell a story of how young people use an amoral piece of technology to do away with anything resembling normal human relationships in order to satisfy their lustful urges, and dammit she was going to tell that story. In order to get a convenience sample to prove her hypothesis, she hit up popular bars in NYC, a college town in the Midwest, and an undisclosed location in Delaware about which we’re told nothing further. A properly unsympathetic cast of characters to present the anecdotes she needed is assembled throughout the story, young men and women she could not have painted any more unlikeable than she already had, and the entire tale of the soul-sucking technology is in effect narrated by their alternating boasting about how many people they’ve slept with and whining about all of the “meh” to lousy sex. All of it, we’re told, is powered by Tinder and wouldn’t happen otherwise.

Over thousands of words we’re educated on a strategy to hook up with as many as 100 sexual partners per year from lumbersexual dudebros, and complaints about brutally sexual IMs from women who say they’re tired of being wanted only for their bodies, yet hook up with men whose performance they disparage to each other at a moment’s notice. Oh how they try to find a true, devoted, monogamous soulmate and spend their nights bettering themselves instead of having mindless sex with strangers, but that wicked siren call of Tinder beckons them so. Much like the kids who don’t want to do their boring, overwhelming homework blame social media for all their procrastinating tendencies, these 20-somethings are trying to justify the fact that when you are old enough to drink, can hold down a job, and aren’t outright repulsive, you’re probably going to have lots of mindless sex when the opportunity presents itself. They’re doing nothing that’s out of the ordinary or wrong, yet a judgmental reporter with an agenda sitting across from them will push them until they’re justifying their own libidos, knowing they’ll be ridiculed in the media.

But aside from the technophobic, old-fogeyish condescension of the article, seemingly inspired by Evgeny Morozov’s typical tropes, and a cast of characters that couldn’t be more unpleasant, some of the worst problems lay with the utter disregard for science and statistics. Sales was at least vaguely aware that her anecdotes about 20-somethings barely having enough time to get showered and put in a day at work or in class before hopping back into someone’s bed were in direct conflict with studies showing that the “hookup culture” she decries is actually an extreme outlier rather than the norm, and she does try to confront the disconnect. But instead of using a different study or directly engaging with the findings, she merely handwaves them away with an evasive quip that all studies are open to interpretation. Well, how is this study open to different interpretations when the data speaks loud and clear? What exactly should we be interpreting in a different way and on what basis? Sales’ appeal is basically journalist-speak for “please ignore studies that undermine my agenda, trying to sell a story here people, move along, okay?” After more anecdotes, she does try to inject some scientific support for her assertions by quoting the problematic conclusions in the book Sex at Dawn and implicating Tinder in enabling them.

Again, this is very typical of agenda-driven journalism because in Christopher Ryan, one of the book’s authors, she found a willing ally who would tell her that humans are naturally wired to be sexually insatiable and have as many partners as possible, and that Tinder basically made the formerly inefficient process of acquiring a large roster of sexual partners more efficient. What it means for society is that Millenials are leveraging the technology to sexually gorge. Like all bite sized pseudoscience, it sounds logical and thoroughly researched at first blush, but with even a cursory glance beyond the word salad shows that it’s not true. Not only did we already see that far from gorging, Millenials are actually on a sexual diet, but Ryan’s book is really controversial because it’s really another agenda-driven work, rejected from scholarly publication for this very reason. Actual sex researchers find it filled with problematic assertions and say it only gets one thing right. Humans are not monogamous for life. From that data point, Ryan and his co-author go off on their own merry way while most academics say that we’re serial monogamists.

Of course this isn’t an ironclad conclusion, human sexuality is very malleable and there are lots of people who just like having lots of sex with different partners, dedicated polyamorists, and a periodic one-mate-for-life type of person. But in general, as we can see by the stats, people like to be in relationships with one other partner and most of their exploration is within the context of these relationships, even if it includes bringing in other people. When a said relationship ends, a new one is sought out. So what Sales did was find a sexual type that best matched her pre-sold narrative and reached out to an author with suspect credentials in the field in which he claims to be an expert for the purposes of selling his book, who quickly backed her up in spite of plenty of evidence to the contrary, evidence she has no choice but to evade to keep telling her story with whiny, annoying NYC hipsters whose adventures on Tinder get them lots of very lousy sex with equally unpleasant partners. No wonder Tinder’s PR reps were furious. At worst, they are being accused of destroying society, at best, all of their users are being painted in a terrible light.

Here’s the bottom line on this. You cannot judge what technology is doing to society when what you’re being told about it comes from a writer who decided what story she wants to tell before it gets written, backed up with trendy pseudoscience, and runs contrary to every large study that we have on the subject. In reality, Tinder is having absolutely no effect outside a small group of people who used MySpace, OkCupid, Plenty of Fish, and outright sex and swinger sites with the same exact results they now use Tinder. The only thing the mobile app did is made it easier for them to hook up on the go, when they’re sitting in a bar or at home, bored. They want sex, they now just care about finding a warm body, and then, justifying that to a reporter with excuses we expect from teenagers who want to play video games instead of doing homework and tell us all that video games are rarely fun and the only reason they play is because the games are there. But this otherwise terrible example of journalism did teach me something. If you’re single on the prowl and find yourself in NYC, Tinder is probably not your best bet for a fun hookup.

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bumbling ninjas

Remember the nasty and bitter social justice clashes that rippled out across what still remained of independent pop sci and skeptical blogs, the ones that ended up swallowing a good chunk of organized skepticism and sent many groups into a slow, quiet slide into nowhere? Well, they’re all the rage on college campuses and writing about them and their effect on students and all of the adjuncts who have to teach perpetually aggrieved and offended students is all the rage for media outlets. In the New York Times, there was a longform discussion of how the movie PCU has been playing out in real life in upper crust private schools, an adjunct shared his fear of the vocal college liberals in his class on Vox, and after the countless articles generated in response to these pieces, even The Onion stepped in to give the topic the obligatory snark treatment. To cap things off, we have even been treated to an academic thesis that political correctness on a widespread scale is actually teaching students to follow a downright pathological worldview.

In the lefty circles of social media, the term political correctness is often held as simply treating others with respect being ostracized by bigots, an imaginary pejorative like that now constantly used social justice warrior moniker. But as with SJWs, there’s a point where activism turns ugly and becomes far more for the sake of the activist than the people on whose behalf the person advocates. It’s one thing to demand some sort of vocal disapproval when faced with a bigoted behavior on a college campus. Making fun of a group of people for the sake of offending them for a punchline just isn’t appropriate in public. But the politically correct activists in colleges and outside of them go far beyond that and actively mollycoddle the groups they want to protect to the point where everything must come with trigger warnings and every classroom must be near some sort of “safe space” if not turn into one, as if the groups being protected are incapable of an academic discussions of complex, controversial topics, the reason why they’re in college.

See, colleges are supposed to be places where your ideas are challenged and where a difficult topic for you is externalized and experimented with in the relatively consequence-free space of classrooms. It wasn’t long ago that I too was a college student and in AI classes we took on the topic of drones and other potential killing machines that we might one day be called on to build with several veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the room. If we can’t talk about it in class as we’re learning about relevant implementations of complex ideas, where getting wrong answers or expressing a controversial opinion just means more discussion rather than a death by remote control on the other side of the world, where can we? If you’re a pacifist and refused any grant to help make killer robots possible, does that give you the license to pretend they can never exist and run away from discussing what they could do if left unchecked? Real life simply doesn’t care about your feelings when comes to a topic and gives no trigger warnings.

We don’t build colleges for students to emotionally Nerf themselves and become family lawyers who can’t discuss rape or pedophilia, doctors who can’t deal with pharmaceutical companies in their offices, or food scientists who can’t be in the same room with a GMO experiment. Life isn’t easy, but that’s why you have to be tough, why you have to be bigger than your feelings, and to be able to look a real life bigot or hatemonger in the wild, and not shy away from confronting all the offensive garbage he spews. Fewer than five years ago, drunken hookups on campus were lessons to be learned. Now there’s an army of activists who made their careers on turning long night of bad decisions into criminal cases and legislating sex and gender among teenagers still trying to figure this stuff out for themselves, often failed by their schools’ shoddy sex ed. When the activists’ critics say that we can’t turn classrooms into echo chambers by the aggrieved for the aggrieved, sanitized and censored from all ideas deemed offensive, they’re actually worried about the students’ abilities to deal with the real world on their own, not just resisting “progress” for the sake of obstinacy, or because they’re following some sort of secret bigoted agenda.

And perhaps the worst thing to me about the new dawn of political correctness is the aspect of identity politics being forcibly crammed into every topic, so in order to even be allowed to have an opinion heard, you have to divulge very personal information to be seen as relevant. I don’t feel comfortable volunteering my childhood memories and sex life in order to be allowed to say something in a nevertheless important debate, but that’s what I have to do in order for zealous activists to actually address a point being made rather than dismiss me because I don’t have a deep personal stake in a topic. The narcissism in play is astonishing because every debate has been turned into “me, me, me” and “how I feel about this” instead of what everyone thinks and what should be the right answer if there even is one. Buying wholesale into PC culture seems a lot like buying a ticket into one’s own navel and shutting out the rest of the world for a sanitized echo chamber made to your personal liking so you never, ever have to feel uncomfortable and can deploy a constantly ready string of buzzwords to preemptively silence any new ideas.

Yet this is exactly what we get when we allow the “invalidation” argument be used to censor an emotionally charged topic. The idea that by presenting a different view on a subject you are not simply giving a dissenting opinion but actively invalidating the experience of another person is a frequently used but absurd reasoning to shut down debates about PC-sensitive matters. One of the most frequent places you see this is when law courses mention false rape and child abuse allegations, something that sadly happens in a small percentage of cases to help an ex-spouse find legal leverage in a divorce and custody proceeding. The fact that false allegations really do happen, and that they do in no way invalidates what victims of rape or child abuse suffered, or change the guilt of the perpetrators. These concepts are not mutually exclusive. However, that we’re told that because someone could use a term or a factoid totally out of context to attack an individual’s rights or demean someone’s experience, we are not to bring it up is asinine. People who are deluded enough to consider every case of rape a shakedown by evil women just out to get their money will voice their opinions regardless. They’d just make up their own “facts.”

Even worse is that dogmatic adherence to perfect communication in which the right terms must be used at the right time, in the right context, in their right tone every single time, drives away a lot of people who are very much on the dogmatists’ side. Even in an extreme PC echo chamber like the current incarnation FTB after the Atheism+ fiasco, the gatekeepers of what is and is not properly sensitive and correct can be eaten alive by the mob they created for voicing the wrong opinion at a moment’s notice. Alienating your friends and allies because they’re not perfect and can’t keep up with the current lingo decided to be the most sensitive and inclusive is not a good way to advance an agenda. It’s a great way to pat yourself on the back for taking others’ stories and identity issues on an emotional joyride so you can feel like you’re doing something good for the world, but for an actual movement that needs allies and advocates, it’s a terrific way to stay marginalized. And the same goes for the frequent lack of self-reflection among the most vocal activists who take criticism like this not as constructive feedback, but as a personal slight and a chance to play a game of Privilege Bingo to swiftly invalidate the person who made it.

But there is a silver lining to all this. Many of the cases cited in all the articles about it are rather extreme one-offs in very liberal colleges attended by upper middle class students with way too much free time on their hands and lots of misguided passion to make things right. For the many words expanded on how adjuncts are terrified of their liberal students, just a handful of cases in which students storm out or complain are ever given. In the meantime, your typical students on campus are having all sorts of debates on social media with people whose opinions they find to be objectionable or downright hateful, and roll their eyes when the campus’ often self-appointed guardians of personal sensitivities have another protest or interfere with day to day classes. It’s not that colleges and students are perpetually at war with each other over what their professors should be allowed to say in class, it’s that a vocal minority found a good cause to take too far in search of a meaningful pursuit when not studying for midterms and finals. Eventually, they’ll get bored and a far more reasonable approach to controversial subject matter in campus will again put freedom of speech and academic debate above personal opinions of a dogmatic few.

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inhuman pope

While the news keep calling Kepler-452b another Earth before somewhere in the depth of most breathless articles noting that all we know about it is that it’s rocky, similar in size to us, and it’s orbiting its parent sun exactly where it should to have liquid water, but we have no idea if it can actually support life or if its atmosphere actually allows liquid water to remain liquid. After all, we thought for many centuries that Venus must be a tropical rain forest underneath its clouds. As a candidate for a second Earth it was perfect on paper. Same size, the right orbit to allow for vast oceans of liquid water, thick atmosphere; it all looked so promising. And then the Soviets ruined everything by landing a probe on its surface to confirm it was a planet sized kiln, and the clouds were actually a miasma of noxious poisons. Kepler-452b could easily turn out to be suffering an eerily similar fate. Of course, it would be amazing if we could take direct snapshots of it and see massive oceans and clouds of water vapor, but until then, we should hold the champagne.

Regardless of what we learn about Kepler-452 however, theologian Mark Lindsay is ready with an opening salvo against the unbelievers who would use another Earth as an argument against the religious tenet that humanity was specially created by a deity and destined to play a big role in the fate of the cosmos. Just like every high minded theologian, he adopts a toned down view expressed by Bruno that the magnificence and wisdom of God could not be constrained just by one planet but that the Bible allows for many planets and many beings on those planets that all happen to be God’s children. Therefore, he says, should we find intelligent Keplarians, they will be another confirmation of the vast reach of the divine powers of creation rather than proof that our world’s religions aren’t up to snuff when we look to the stars with some knowledge of what’s out there and what we’re doing. It sounds like the comforting, borderline-deist verbal ointments voiced before when the scientific search for alien life got underway. But it also glosses over the important and immutable parts of faith academic theologians like Lindsay so often avoid.

Remember the opinion voiced by Bruno that Earth isn’t the only inhabited planet watched by an almighty creator liberally borrowed by Lindsay? Do you also happen to remember how it ended for him? Rather than being praised for his insight and his ability to harmonize science with faith, he was burned on a pyre as a heretic. Many believers hold that their faith is special and the text they call sacred is literal and inerrant. Should you question it or reject any of it, they are justified in retaliating against you, be it shunning you until you’re a social outcast, or murdering you with machetes for the glory of their god. Nowhere do many religious texts speak of other worlds, and those that do refer to them as places where gods dwell rather than just other Earths. Just tell a cleric who preaches his faith in ISIS territories that Earth may not be the only world where Allah watches what happens and see how that works for you. Or try asking Evangelical Christians for an opinion of evolution on alien worlds and try to have an open-minded discussion. Ivory tower theologians seem to forget how literally the faithful take their holy texts and how big of an issue that becomes when they’re taken out of their comfort zone. It’s a debate-changing omission.

Also, how many religious texts hold that certain people are picked over others to play a bigger, or defining role in universal affairs? How many chosen people are there? What about aliens on other worlds intelligent enough to try and interact with us? What’s their role in the universe and which holy text says that? Do the ones that do contradict each other and if they clash, which of these inerrant, literal, irrefutable texts is the right one? These aren’t trivial questions by the way, but very real problems posed by introducing an intelligent species into ancient religions. If they are also God’s children, where in the family tree do they fit? There definitely have been many a sincere attempt to look for alien-friendly metaphors in Torahs, Bibles, and Qu’rans, but none of them have been accepted by mainstream theologians, much less mainstream believers as the faith’s canon. As far as today’s gamut of belief runs, there seem to be only two places for aliens to occupy. They’re either irrelevant to God’s plan and shouldn’t even be mentioned, or they are actually angels or demigods in their own right sent by a deity to warn, teach, or punish us.

Of course the latter possibility only applies to highly advanced alien civilizations that understand interstellar travel and can communicate with us, and only in the context of highly educated, and wealthy nations where fundamentalism tends to be more subdued on average. What if they are not that far ahead of humans as far as science and technology goes? What rules apply to them out of the holy texts? If there are things humans do that displease God, surely there must be an equally important list of prohibitions for the aliens. We’re told that here on Earth, premarital sex is a sin. If the alien species in question don’t have the concept of marriage, are they all sinners, or are they exempt from the universal law of morality ordained by God? If homosexual pairings anger God who made all things male and female, do hermaphroditic aliens violate the law or do they have to follow a different set of rules? If they have their own set of divine rules to follow, is this list handed down to them and if so, in what form? Are they, like humans, apparently meant to follow some of the laws but not others citing some grand religiously historical effect?

All these questions might seem positively asinine in context, especially when talking about alien species we know nothing about and which may not even exist. But at the same time, when you take to a public podium and proclaim that your faith is ready for alien life without demonstrating how exactly it would work in light of the new discovery and how you intend to get today’s faithful to follow your lead, these are the kind of questions that go unanswered. Simply throwing out an extremely confident assertion that your religion can withstand whatever your throw at it without actually throwing anything at it to demonstrate means that you’ve just dodged the question you wanted to address. When citing a scientist’s argument about aliens being bad news for God as his jump-off point, Lindsay scoffs that his verbal target has no experience or knowledge how to properly analyze a religious text. He then hypocritically spends the rest of his argument parsing conveniently sourced semantics that aren’t even from the Bible. And this is why it’s hard to take a theologian espousing the powers of his faith in light of new science seriously. Instead of really asking what new discoveries means for their faith, they craft reflexive, soothing word salads.

[ illustration by Aram Vardazaryan ]

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