Archives For laws

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When four researchers decided to see what would happen when robots issue speeding tickets and the impact it might have on the justice system, they found out two seemingly obvious things about machines. First, robots make binary decisions so if you’re over the speed limit, you get no leeway or second chances. Second, robots are not smart enough to take into account all of the little nuances that a police officer notes when deciding whether to issue a ticket or not. And here lies the value of this study. Rather than trying to figure out how to get computers to write tickets and determine when to write them, something we already know how to do, the study showed that computers would generate significantly more tickets than human law enforcement, and that even the simplest human laws are too much for our machines to handle without many years of training and very complex artificial neural networks to understand what’s happening and why, because a seemingly simple and straightforward task turned out to be anything but simple.

Basically, here’s what the legal scholars involved say in example form. Imagine you’re speeding down an empty highway at night. You’re sober, alert, in control, and a cop sees you coming and knows you’re speeding. You notice her, hit the breaks, and slow down to an acceptable 5 to 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. Chances are that she’ll let you keep going because you are not being a menace to anyone and the sight of another car, especially a police car, is enough to relieve your mild case of lead foot. Try doing that on a crowded road during rush hour and you’ll more than likely be stopped, especially if you’re aggressively passing or riding bumpers. Robots will issue you a ticket either way because they don’t really track or understand your behavior or the danger you may pose to others while another human can make a value judgment. Yes, this means that the law isn’t being properly enforced 100% of the time, but that’s ok because it’s not as important to enforce as say, laws against robbery or assault. Those laws take priority.

Even though this study is clearly done with lawyers in mind, there is a lot for the comp sci crowd to dissect also, and it brings into focus the amazing complexity behind a seemingly mundane, if not outright boring activity and the challenge it poses to AI models. If there’s such a rich calculus of philosophical and social cues and decisions behind something like writing a speeding ticket, just imagine how incredibly more nuanced something like tracking potential terrorists half a world away becomes when we break it down on a machine level. We literally need to create a system with a personality, compassion, and discipline at the same time, in other words, a walking pile of stark contradictions, just like us. And then, we’d need to teach it to find the balance between the need to be objective and decisive, and compassionate and thoughtful, depending on the context of the situation in question. We, who do this our entire lives, have problems with that. How do we get robots to develop such self-contradictory complexity in the form of probabilistic code?

Consider this anecdote. Once upon a time, your truly and his wife were sitting in a coffee shop after a busy evening and talking about one thing or another. Suddenly, there was a tap on the glass window to my left, and I turned around to see a young, blonde girl with two friends in tow pressing her open palm against the glass. On her palm, she wrote in black marker "hi 5." So of course I high-fived her through the glass much to her and her friends’ delight, and they skipped off down the street. Nothing about that encounter or our motivations makes logical sense to any machine whatsoever. Yet, I’m sure you can think of reasons why it took place and propose why the girl and her friends were out collecting high fives through glass windows, or why I decided to play along, and why others might not have. But this requires situational awareness on the scale we’re not exactly sure how to create, collecting so much information that it probably requires a small data center to process by recursive neural networks weighing hundreds of factors.

And that’s is why we are so far from AI as seen in sci-fi movies. We underestimate the complexity of the world around us because we had the benefit of evolving to deal with it. Computers had no such advantage and must start from scratch. If anything, they have a handicap because all the humans who are supposed to program them work at such high levels of cognitive abstraction, it takes them a very long time to even describe their process, much less elaborate each and every factor influencing it. After all, how would you explain how to disarm someone wielding a knife to someone who doesn’t even know what a punch is, much less how to throw one? How do you try to teach urban planning to someone who doesn’t understand what a car is and what it’s built to do? And just when we think we’ve found something nice and binary yet complex enough to have real world implications to teach our machines, like writing speeding tickets, we suddenly find out that there was a small galaxy of things we just took for granted in the back of our minds…

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As just about every organization with the word “family” in its name, the Family Research Council is an archconservative group that spends its time fighting against big government when it wants to fund social programs or raise taxes, and promoting it when they think it should barge into your bedroom to check if you’re having sex in the positions they deem not too indecent with a person they find acceptable to be your sexual partner. So when one of the FRC’s senior fellows went on the radio to advocate the illegalization of pre-marital sex, declaring that “functioning societies” could never tolerate it, it’s hardly big news. Considering that virtually every major study on the subject shows that between 80% and 95% of the Western world engages in pre-marital sex and the modern Occidental civilization is nowhere near collapse, I could only describe his comments as downright imbecilic and so fantastically detached from reality that it boggles the mind.

But of course none of this confuses or surprises me. No, what I find so bizarre and worthy of an actual post about Pat Fagan’s brain-dead proclamations is how incredibly unaware of the world around him he must be to think even for a moment that he had a logical line of thought. At least the Fox News featured prude with a superiority complex famous for his obnoxious naiveté on the subject, Stephen Crowder, was at least self-aware enough to shame those of us who treat sex not as a forbidden fruit, but as an important facet of any romantic relationship, not demand that the government crack down on anything sexual without a ring and a marriage license involved. Fagan’s plea for the Supreme Court to illegalize pre-marital sex by once again making it a crime to sell contraceptives to singles is so patently absurd and so spectacularly devoid of any hint of nuance or logical follow-up that is sounds like a manifestation of a pathology.

Then again, we’re talking about zealots who see the world in black-and-white absolutes, whose definition of a crumbling society is based on their belief that any family unlike the ones in which they and tried friends and loved ones were raised is fundamentally wrong and broken, and that just the fact that the typical American family has changed over the last 60-plus years is a sign of societal collapse. Perhaps I’m simply expecting too much to have such people think through the talking points they spew and realize why so few take them seriously, much less take the time to study anything about human sexuality or acquaint themselves with the volumes of work showing that artificial prudishness results in more unwanted pregnancies, more STDs, and more demand for social programs to support kids and their young parents, who had children when they weren’t ready for it and were lied to about their family planning options. They’ll simply find any excuse to stay in their cozy, self-righteous bubbles, getting high on their own pious fumes…

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For the last few years, we’ve all been told that ill-considered pictures on social media sites were going to come back to bite us. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter if you had a few crazy or wild pictures from your college days on Facebook because you’d just limit the access to your friends and it’s college so those days are past and should have nothing to do with your ability to do the job for which you’re applying. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Employers are judgmental and your privacy settings can be manipulated or circumvented, and lately there have been too many cases of employers doing exactly that. And without a court order and a lot of hard work, you will not be able to prove that you were rejected for a job not because you didn’t have a high enough GPA or enough years of experience, but because a picture of you having — gasp! — some fun once in a while, made a prudish HR manager purse his lips in disapproval and ditch you.

To help remedy this state of affairs, Viviane Reding, a high ranking European politician, is now trying to introduce a "right-to-forget" law which would mandate that pictures you no longer want on social media sites are removed and stay gone. Technically, social media sites already comply with takedown requests but the process can be slow and cached versions can still rear their ugly heads if someone knows how to rephrase a search. This law basically wants the image to vanish from the web as much as possible, and by doing, is asking too much. Once a picture is out on a website, it can be downloaded and reposted, cached, and distributed at a whim and any picture that goes viral can have literally thousands of different copies residing on servers around the world. Just try to track all of these copies down. You won’t be able to because the very nature of the internet today will be against you. That means that if you become internet famous for taking some very awkward body shots at a bar snapped by an amused stranger, you’ll just have to live with knowing that there’s little you can do to make sure that picture is wiped out.

So this is a bit of an issue, isn’t it? With everybody carrying around a camera linked to a social media ecosystem that’s not going anywhere anytime soon, despite its poor profitability, you will either have to watch your every step, become a homebody, or just deal with the consequences as they come. We can no longer get away with stashing embarrassing or questionable photos of ourselves in a shoe box or throwing them in the trash. How do we handle that? My suggestion is purely non-technical. We adapt our culture to deal with it and think twice before anything goes online under our names. That’s all we can really do because adding more filters, blocks, hacks, and privacy settings just tends to create new security holes and rarely deter determined sleuths with a good grasp of how social media and exploits work. And employers looking through profiles on social media sites will need to stop looking just because they can, since so many of them will already perform background checks, credit checks, employment verifications, education checks, and drug tests. Really, that should be more than enough.

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The citizens of Missouri recently approved a “right to pray” amendment by a landslide, which would be huge news if the Constitution of the United States didn’t have an Establishment Clause and there was a law against being a practicing member of a religious group. But it does, which raises the question of why would the citizens of Missouri vote to have a right they already have. Well, if you look at the sneaky clause stating that “no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs,” then you’ll probably note the Religious Right’s typical sneaky tactic of using an existing protection for religious freedoms, tacking on something it really wants, and portraying it as an extension of a basic an inalienable right to believe. Well, a denomination of Christianity. Other religions will have a tougher time being accepted even if they try to use the exact same laws the Religious Right fought to institute.

Now, this is just not good reasoning because under this logic, I could justify that because I’m an atheist and never liked that whole “under God” thing on money, much preferring a return to “e pluribus unum” as the official motto, I could just whip up my own money with the motto which meets my views and use it instead of the officially recognized legal tender. Sure, sure, atheism isn’t a religion, but the Establishment Clause grants me free speech and we can argue that my free speech and beliefs regarding religion are constitutionally protected so I should be allowed to counterfeit. But I’m pretty confident that the Secret Service would disagree with my opinion of the law were I to start printing my own “godless” bills and have much more of a legal leg to stand on when they send me to a federal penitentiary. You see, the right to free speech doesn’t entitle me to always get my own way in everything. Secularists can understand that. The Religious Right, convinced of its own divine moral superiority, simply cannot.

As far as the fundamentalists are concerned, religious freedom can only exist when they’re given preferential treatment and allowed to get their own way every time. If they can’t do as they wish with nary a peer from criticism, they’re being oppressed by hateful sinners and heretics. And God forbid that the delicate little ears of their precious children be forced to hear scientific facts. They would so much rather rehash the same talking points that have been publicly debunked and eviscerated countless times by anyone who passed a science class when it comes to evolution and cosmology, and leave it at that. So this is why they’re trying to make it sound as if closing one’s ears and screaming “la la la, I can’t hear you!” is somehow sane or acceptable behavior in schools when teachers present the findings drawn from millions of papers and hundreds of years of research rather than bow to the zealots and start science class by flipping to the first page of Genesis and proceeding to read it word for word.

Science is not optional. Facts are not optional. There are a lot of facts and findings that I don’t very much like either, but if they have strong evidence behind them, I have to listen to them. Any creationist kook can vomit a Gish gallop and then refuse to accept when he’s proven wrong but that won’t make DNA stop being a double helix, or invalidate natural selection, or make the stars 6,000 years old. To claim that we knew more about the world 2,000 years ago then we do today, and that the vast bodies of work that created the modern, technologically advanced civilization where men have walked on another world were crafted by bedeviled heretics whose only goal is to remove the godly from their faith in a conspiracy lasting since the 1500s, is utterly absurd. But this is exactly what the Religious Right in the United States does day in and day out, coming up with more and more excuses for their intolerance of other faiths, ideas, opinions, and ways of life, and ways to pettily defend their seemingly fragile faith.

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Accommodationist philosopher extraordinaire, Michael Ruse, who recently decided to compare the scientific method to religious revelation, has managed to produce yet another emanation of cluelessness that’s spot on in explaining how those crusading against scientific education think and proceeds to entirely miss why the line of thought being explained is wrong. This time, the subject is a much discussed new Tennessee law that grants teachers immunity from teaching their students pseudoscience by calling this a debate. Why students who are still just learning about the topics involved need to have some sort of debate about something they’ve not been taught yet seems rather odd but with the governor too scared of the backlash if he signed the bill into law and too cowardly to face and creationists if he vetoed the bill, this bizarre legal construction was elevated into law by default. Now, scientific organizations obviously want it repealed because pseudoscience, religion, and political indoctrination don’t belong in the classroom, but Ruse warns that the law might be against them. Not because they’re wrong about the science mind you, but because of all those darn atheists…

[The New Atheist movement's] supporters openly and explicitly link evolutionary thinking with non- belief, sneering at those (like myself) who think that science and religion can exist harmoniously together. I don’t care what the law says, politically this is moronic. The citizens of Tennessee, the judges of the Supreme Court, are going to believe that if evolution alone is taught in schools the kids of the country would be getting atheist propaganda – no matter what actually happens – and they are going to want to counter it. I imagine every time that Richard Dawkins opens his mouth, the Discovery Institute lights a candle of thanks, or whatever it is that evangelicals do these days.

Well, yes, of course there are people in Tennessee as well as many other states who believe that evolution is just atheist propaganda responsible for all the evil in the world, but they believed that many decades before a popular atheist movement was ever even mentioned in the press. Dawkins and New Atheism are just big red herrings here and regardless of which movement links evolution and their cause, this doesn’t make the peer reviewed science behind it change its validity. Backers of the Tennessee law don’t care about the science and the quality of education for students, they see every worldview unlike theirs as heresy, and because they won’t be allowed to simply ban it as they have before, they’ll try to outshout it. Americans’ relationship with evolution has been very complicated and needlessly stays so, just because we can’t seem to put our foot down to say that facts are facts and we have to teach facts if we want educated and capable students. Those in danger of fainting in shock when the facts disagree with their opinions should examine their own worldviews first rather then rush to censor and outshout any fact they find offensive by virtue of it not fitting into their ideology. Ruse, in his ongoing effort to appease creationists of all types, either doesn’t understand this or refuses to.

When the typical supporters of bills that allow creationism in science class try to support their assertions that evolution is not scientific, they almost invariably proceed to describe the way evolution works in Pokemon and declare that no one has ever seen anything like this happen. Well yes, they haven’t. If they did, we’d have to be triaging our current body of knowledge about evolution for any useful scrap. Creationists fight the science with their ignorance and according to Ruse that’s certainly dreadful and all, but at least they’re not listening to what they consider atheist propaganda so that’s a positive start, right? No, not at all. Ruse is implicitly giving those who value dogma over facts the implicit license to ignore science at whim and then proceeds to blame a very popular but rather small group of atheists for these people’s inability to consider the possibility that no, a deity who created a sprawling universe with hundreds of billions of galaxies and countless trillions of stars did not come down to this planet to coddle them throughout their lives, and have a deep and very personal telepathic relationship with them. As much as accommodationism is claimed to be a framework for reconciling science and religion in cases like these, to me it seems like nothing more than atheist bashing and appeasement.

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Obviously there’s no justification or mitigating facet when it comes to child pornography and it is, just as it has to remain, an instant condemnation that leaves a giant skidmark on anything good someone involved with this horrid form of child abuse may have accomplished at any point in his life. You could avert World War 3 then go on to create a democratic, transparent, and effective government for the people of Somalia thus winning a well deserved Nobel Peace Prize. But get caught with child porn and you’re an instant pariah and no wonder. We’re supposed to protect children. They’re our future. They’re our hopes, dreams, and when we have children, it’s a commitment to decades of raising and educating them, and we’ll do whatever it takes to keep them safe from violent sociopaths and perverts, especially when those perverts claim to study divine moral authorities and get easy access to kids by invoking their position in society. But as much as we want to protect children, we have to ask ourselves if we really want to completely obliterate legal online privacy and security while promptly exposing ourselves to blackmail, abuse, and a high potential for identity theft and financial fraud to do that?

Just like the issue with SOPA and PROTECT IP, the bill which opens another digital Pandora’s box has a very noble-sounding title and gives those intended to enforce it nearly limitless powers. A real world equivalent to this legislation would be declaring martial law to cut down on convenience store robberies. This isn’t just web traffic friendly hyperbole since both SOPA and PROTECT IP would’ve allowed anyone to take sites offline for any report of copyright infringement, real or not, the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographer’s Act is mandating that your ISP store absolutely everything about your activities on the web for 18 months, and when I say everything, I’m also talking about keeping your personal financial information on file. That odd rash that could be mistaken for an STD you looked up on WebMD? Or the sexy lingerie you bought online? All saved by the company providing your internet access along with your bank accounts so if someone at your ISP decides to blackmail you in the future or take a luxury vacation with your savings or your credit card, all that’s needed is access to your personal data, data that’s unlikely to be all that well secured since your ISP is not on the hook if your personal information is compromised unlike your bank or credit card issuer. They’re just storing it in data centers because they have to and PCIPA doesn’t come with any guidelines for handling sensitive data.

Basically the whole point is to give law enforcement instant access to everyone’s personal data if they want to investigate someone for involvement in child pornography and come up with arrest warrant worthy evidence in several hours rather than several weeks or months. But as for those of us who have nothing to do with sordid child abuse and whose data is to be archived for effectively all time (not to get too technical, but such data will be around for a lot more than 18 months in the real world, I assure you), there’s no safeguard that will keep all this crucial information safe from characters with dubious intentions. Personally, if someone wants to peruse my financial records for an investigation in a court of law, I have no problem with producing what’s required as I’ve committed no crime and have nothing to fear from a judge. But just because I have nothing to fear doesn’t mean that I’m fine with my financial records and internet searches just floating around for a random employee or contractor at an ISP to dig through. Unlike law enforcement, they have zero business looking through them, and having seen how seriously they take security (hint, not very at all), I don’t trust them to have any of it. To go after child pornographers and pedophiles whether they are businessmen or holy men is noble. To declare an open season on everyone who uses the web and treat them as guilty until proven innocent is not.

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With the well-deserved drama over SOPA and its sister bill, which are akin to taking a nuke to the web so an organization of huge content producers can protect their business model, Matthew Yglesias decided to make an impassioned defense of online piracy, arguing that it’s actually good to have a little of it because not every download means a lost sale and a number of these illegal downloads could translate into paying customers down the line. While it’s certainly true that a million illegal downloads of a $0.99 track doesn’t mean a loss for the studio that released it to the tune of $1 million, and it’s possible that a few thousand people who decided to download the track not because they knew the artist but didn’t want to pay but because it was free, went out and bought more of the artist’s music in the future, this odd logical calculus forgets about those who will only download because they don’t want to spend any cash. And while this seems like an omission, Yglesias’ leap of logic in positing that illegal downloads actually generate money gets truly bizarre in this example…

[E]ven when copyright infringement does lead to real loss of revenue to copyright owners , it’s not as if the money vanishes into a black hole. Suppose Joe Downloader uses BitTorrent to get a free copy of Beggars Banquet rather than forking over $7.99 to Amazon, and then goes out to eat some pizza. In this case, the Rolling Stones’ loss is the pizzeria’s gain and Joe gets to listen to a classic album. It’s at least not obvious that we should regard this, on balance, as harmful.

Why would we even regard this as a balance? The Rolling Stones are in music because it’s a business. The music they create is what pays their bills. Declaring that because they’re rich, they must’ve had enough and it would be just fine to pirate it (as many downloaders do) and spending money on pizza while getting the work they did for free, is not a balance. No one from the local pizza place is going to give the Rolling Stones a cut of the profits made on selling to Joe or Jane Downloader unless they own the pizza places in question. It’s very doubtful that Yglesias actually wants to say that it’s ok to download whatever you want as long as you spend a few bucks on a snack while you enjoy your pirated acquisition, but that is indeed what he seems to be saying and by the same logic, we could say that’s perfectly fine to download his book rather than buy it as long as we pay a visit to the grocery store after we do and get something for dinner between reading the result of months and months of his work. I’m sure he intended the proceeds from the book to be used to pay his mortgage and take his family on vacation, but hey, it’s ok. The money he doesn’t get will be spent elsewhere, right?

One of the big problems with the attitude that we should be able to download what we want because we want to and the content owners will often act like bullies, is that it opens the door to abuse. New artists trying to get into the entertainment industry have their efforts pirated and even though the downloaders praise them for an innovative or well executed song or movie, these artists don’t see a dime and never get on the radar of major corporations that could make them new household names. As a result, piracy perpetuates the status quo, the sequel, the remake, and the rehash along with an online entitlement culture which says that because of bad business habits or bad faith on the part of the content owners, you are now entitled to have whatever you want for free. Just try that with a nasty car dealer and see how far you’ll get with declaring that the car you wanted to buy is too expensive and the dealer is too shady, therefore you’ll be taking it free of charge. You’d expect to end up in jail of course. But in the digital world, this kind of behavior seems to be tolerated. And come to think of it, if music and movies today are all crap, why do you even want to download them in the first place? Why not let the studios and labels release crap and fail because no one buys it or listens to it? Surely we’d be able to get something new and exciting made or produced then, something worth paying to see and hear.

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In times of war, a lot of laws tend to get suspended, overlooked, or modified to provide some sort of a military exemption and these changes are then rarely discussed once the war is over. During the Civil War, Lincoln’s administration suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus. FDR sent citizens to interment camps to soothe fears that Japanese-Americans were actually Imperial spies as demonstrated by Dr. Seuss. After wars are over, a few officials meet and the original rules are restored. But when you declare a war on terror and keep it going on for more than a decade, legal exemptions for it quickly start becoming the norm because while the war is still going, you can’t reverse the extraordinary measures even if by now they’ve become a fact of life. And in the spirit of ongoing wars, the Senate has decided that it really, really, really wants to give the military the right to detain American citizens suspected of being terrorists indefinitely, without trial. And what’s ever crazier about this idea is that neither the military or the FBI even want that ability and actually protested loudly against the whole thing, knowing full well that it would be a logistical, legal, and public relations nightmare.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and FBI Director Robert Mueller have spelled out their opposition in letters to lawmakers. Mueller said that because the legislation applies to people detained in the U.S., it could disrupt ongoing international terrorism investigations and make it difficult for the FBI to work with a grand jury or obtain subpoenas. He also described the waiver as too cumbersome, requiring that it be obtained from the defense secretary in consultation with the secretary of state and the director of National Intelligence with a certification to Congress.

So basically, the Senate said to the defense establishment "here, you can lock up any suspect for as long as you want" and the military and the FBI said "oh no thank you, we’re not touching that with a fifty foot pole, it’s all good right now" while the CIA gave a noncommittal statement about a need for flexibility. Then, instead of just taking the hint and quietly dropping the provision, the Senate replied "we said, here, you can lock up anybody you think should be locked up" and packaged it into a bill which funds all military and intelligence agencies to the tune of $662 billion to make sure the provision passes in another triumph of political posturing over both common sense and a good swath of the Constitution. Remember that politicians don’t necessarily care how their laws will be implemented, they’re far more focused on getting their bills made into law, then moving to a new bill to be passed or crushed. I’m even willing to venture a bet that they really don’t care if the military or the law enforcement and intelligence agencies never use this provision fearing it would be ruled unconstitutional the second a lawsuit is filed because quite frankly, it doesn’t take a legal scholar to deduce its flaws.

No, what the politicians care about is telling all their constituents that they were tough on terrorism and are the vanguard of national security as shown by their willingness to let the defense establishment lock up would-be terrorists. Were President Obama to veto the provision, the Republicans would have a field day making attack ad after attack ad accusing him of defunding national security and being soft on terrorism, despite authorizing drone strike after drone strike after drone strike in numerous terrorist havens, and operations to kill bin Laden and al-Awlaki. And after the veto, they may just decide to create another crisis, putting the future of the military and intelligence services at stake just to score more points. It’s insane political brinkmanship at its worst and it’s this kind of nightmarish perpetual campaigning and incessant bickering that’s paralyzing the government, holding up real debates and changes, and contributing the Congress’ approval rating plummeting into single digits. At this point, it’s hard to find things that are less popular than lawmakers other than a wandering band of neo-Nazis who kick little stray kittens with steel-toed boots just for fun, or the Westboro Baptist Church. Yet, reelection rates to Congress hover around 90% as a testament to gerrymandering and sectionalism.

For the sake of our future, we need to find politicians who will know when to stop campaigning and playing an insane game of chicken that threatens to plunge the country into chaos every time they don’t get their way. You cannot govern like that, no one can. This is how nations are broken and how institutions collapse. This is why we don’t have better schools, better science and research programs, and why so many bad ideas fester like a bad infection rather than being mercifully terminated to save all of us time and money. Yes, government is the problem, but it’s not its institutions or its methods that are at fault. It’s those who cannot stop to put the interest of their nation ahead of their own greed, ambition, and hunger for power after winning yet another election, the politicos who are blinded by partisan games and don’t care that millions are hurt by their selfish myopia. The minute they stop campaigning and acting like spoiled teenagers with a huge allowance, we’ll all be far better off and we can actually do something about our problems rather than await the next hysterical partisan drama over the slightest little bullet point in a thousand page bill.

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As I’m sure you know by now, one of the primary symptoms of a crank is an acute inability to take criticism. As in the person in question starts foaming at the mouth with rage when confronted with the idea that he may not necessarily be 100% correct about his profound and revolutionary idea. Now of course not everyone who will shy from criticism is a crank by definition, there are a lot of people who simply take all criticism personally, primarily because they form such profound attachments to their ideas. However, if you hold on to your ideas a little too tightly and start justifying why everyone says you’re wrong as some sort of nefarious conspiracy, you’ll more than likely be in the final stages of your descent into crankhood. And when you’ve found a way to make some cash by selling your pseudoscience, you’re highly prone to lashing out at those who point it out with an infuriated threat of a lawsuit. That’s exactly what a PR flack for the Burzynski Clinic has been doing across the skeptical web after Quackometer’s Andy Lewis wrote about the clinic’s founder’s false promises and greed in the case of a young girl with a brain tumor being charged £200,000 for his supposed cancer treatment.

In response, a marketer, and, apparently, esteemed legal scholar, Marc Stephens, proceeded to carpet-bomb skeptics on his hit list with cease and desist e-mails, each more threatening than the last, and the verbage of which made it easy to imagine the author howling in rage as he quite literally pounded it out on his keyboard, keys flying in every direction. You see, apparently Stephens isn’t just threatening skeptics with lawsuits, but in his rampage, he’s actually exposing a grand conspiracy created by Michael Shermer and involving numerous skeptical bloggers to discredit the dashing researcher Stanislaw Burzynski and his revolutionary therapy for a whole host of cancers once thought incurable. His proof, the one he demanded the bloggers on his hit list to show their audiences, consists of screen caps of tweets and blog posts authored by skeptics. No, that’s it really. If you call yourself a skeptic and wrote something unflattering about the Burzynski Clinic, you’re a part of the conspiracy and therefore, must either shut down your blog or scrub it of anything that doesn’t praise Marc Stephens’ bosses. Don’t bother asking for a list of passages with which the Clinic disagrees. You know what you did you evil, nasty skeptic you, so either shut up or suffer the wrath of Burzynski’s squad.

Stephens could not have been serious about taking this Gordian Knot of accusations to court, could he? Does any judge actually allow a case naming hundreds of not thousands of people as defendants based on such flimsy conspiratorial nonsense? Though the discovery period would be rather fun and all those skeptics may get a chance to explain the flaws of Burzynski’s claims, pointing out that one can follow Stephens’ pretense at logic to draw a similar conclusion about skeptical coverage of alien abductions, psychics, and ghosts. Then, the very same skeptics could turn around and demand that the Burzynski Clinic pays them for their time, legal expenses, and damages for the harassment it inflicted. I mean come on, the Clinic let someone with serious deficiencies in civilized communication electronically bully a blogger still high school, attaching Google Maps snapshots of his home in his e-mails. This is beyond a cease and desist. This was outright harassment and intimidation, and Stephens, acting like a character from the Godfather movies told his targets that they got real nice homes and families and it would be a shame if anything were to happen to them. If I were Rhys Morgan, this e-mail would be forwarded to my neighborhood police department for safekeeping.

Now, after nearly a week of Stephens’ nastiness, the Clinic’s already shaky web reputation has plummeted in just about every way possible. Trust sites now rank them as a scam, search results are being filled with blog posts explaining why to steer clear of them and stories of their intimidation, and they know full well that a lot of medical bloggers are either working on, or are now posting detailed scientific explanations of why Burzynski’s version of chemotherapy fails to work, and how he can claim to keep doing trials while really using them as a smokescreen to either administer chemotherapy, or do his own personal research while charging patients a ridiculous amount of money for it. Keep in mind that not a dollar of his fees could be covered by the patients’ health insurance policy because the treatment is still considered to be experimental, making this a very, very profitable endeavor. Were he to simply sell chemo treatments and accept his clients’ insurance, he’d have to negotiate his outrageous prices with insurance companies which would quickly drive them back down to terra firma. So with the damage still ongoing, Burzynski’s staff did the only partially sensible thing they could in this situation and sent out e-mails and a press release saying that they’ve fired Stephens.

But of course, the bloggers who made his hit list are still on the hook, they said, especially bloggers in the UK where suing for libel is a breeze. In other words, Stephens was apparently following Burzynski’s policy when he tried to threaten bloggers who were critical of his boss into submission. It’s just that he went overboard in his campaign and had quickly become a liability. At the end of the day, Burzynski and his staff are still snake oil salespeople, their products still don’t show any real potential to fight cancer according to the FDA, the NIH, and just about every other major group of medical professionals, and his "clinical trials" have gone on so long and include so much sketchy data, they qualify as clinical trials only by the vocabulary definition. The end goal of a clinical trial should be to test the efficacy and safety of a new treatment, then get it to market quickly, not have eleven of them rotating for years on end while charging participants $7,000 to $15,000 for the first round, then bilk them for an additional $4,500 to $6,000 every month for up to a year. That, my friends, is not a clinical trial, but a very profitable racket, one to steer clear of if you or someone you know has the awful misfortune of being diagnosed with cancer. Any cancer has to be treated promptly and aggressively, and time lost to questionable and unethical experimentation could turn out to be life lost in the worst case scenario.

[ illustration by Andrew Steven Foltz ]

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If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I strive to have something up every day. But while the last time I took a day or two off was a particularly nasty case of strep, yesterday was just a day off. After a busy week filled with a small blizzard of little projects and trying to wrap up my thesis paper, my schedule just got to me and I had to pull the plug on everything for just a little bit. Today I’m back with something the skeptic in you will find either amusing or ridiculous, or maybe even both depending on your sense of humor. Last year, I did what I tend to do quite a bit around here and wrote a rant about the double standards for alt med businesses as legally allowed and encouraged by DSHEA, wondering why the alt med industry doesn’t stop trash talking about their pharmacological competitors but get their concotions tested, licensed, and shown to be safer and more effective in clinical trials. Now, in the U.S. there’s a lobby protesting even the slightest change to DSHEA so no quack could ever be deprived of his right to sell snake oil, but in the EU, a recent update to a directive on herbal potions requires every remedy to be licensed to avoid any toxic or contaminated pills on the shelves.

And of course, alt med practitioners respectful of people’s safety over profits, unlike those crude, careless, or downright evil peddlers of drugs on the top floors of the skyscrapers owned by Big Pharma, and started to get together and figure out how to best comply with the Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive and get all their products licensed. Oh. Wait. No, they just threw a huge temper tantrum and started a petition to reverse the directive while complaining that the THMPD will cut into their profits because it will take plenty of cash for manufacturers to stay compliant and licensed throughout the EU. You know, kind of like every pharmaceutical firm has to pay for millions for studies and government approval before it’s allowed to sell its newest pills to a target market and how this regulation and the requirement for scientific merit and legitimacy means that most drug makers have to sink between $800 million and $1 billion into getting a product from the lab to the corner pharmacy. Meanwhile, all alt med potion mixers have to do is to say that their product is natural (which would imply that drug makers must use supernatural ingredients), and presto, they can sell whatever they want. But now, being required to just get a license, not actually test product efficacy, mind you, just get a license, and an industry that cares so much about the people is at arms and pushing its old anti-science tropes…

While it benefits citizens for governmental agencies to advise on efficacy and safety of products by utilizing a particular method of inquiry, [it] may not address the needs of individuals and presumes that there is only one system for obtaining accurate and beneficial information. That is equivalent to allowing only one religion as the accepted source of truth.

Really, so giving people cold medicine, homeopathic pills, or nothing at all, and then comparing how well the people feel along with how fast they get over their cold by using either the accepted treatment, homeopathy, or just suffering through their colds and replicating the study several times is the same thing as seeking a divine reply to one’s question in a holy book? Maybe if you can’t tell the difference between objective fact and studies on a particular subject, and prayer, you shouldn’t be telling people to trust you with their lives because you’re a menace at worst and a waste of time and money at best. And again, note that this reaction is based on the fact that the licensing requirements will cut into quacks’ profits. You know profits, the things for which so many alt med sites and pundits cast pharmaceutical companies as the right hand of Satan on Earth and use to justify their participation in some New World Order conspiracy to thin the human population by tricking people into a chemical dependency on lethal toxins. But if some of their tens of billions in annual cash flows will have to go to a licensing commission, they act suspiciously like Big Pharma, rallying their forces to repel laws that exist to make sure that they don’t take shortcuts in the lab or the manufacturing facility. So what does one call people whose actions are the exact opposite of their rhetoric? Oh yeah, hypocrites.

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