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In Which Anastasia Writes A Review

January 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Dearest readers,

I just wanted to take some time to share this review from my fiance Anastasia on the play “Informed Consent” by Zoe Laufer.

Anastasia’s take on the play is much more critical than others, and I find myself largely in agreement with her criticisms. The issues raised in “Informed Consent” are complicated and require careful and subtle understanding. To heighten the drama, it seems to me that complexity is substituted for one-dimensional conflicts that simplify and obscure, rather than elucidate, the problem.

The scientist has motivations that make her obsession with the research much more personal than what happened in real life, and I believe that this skews the conversation that the play tries to create against the scientific research aspect. Like other plays Anastasia has reviewed, such as Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem,” it seems that the drive to create a compelling narrative for the heart overtakes the story for the brain. Complex ethical and philosophical issues can be explored in theater, but “Informed Consent” and “The Hard Problem” do the topics that they cover a disservice and, therefore, their audiences.

Make no mistake: I certainly believe that we should have these kinds of difficult conversations, especially the one that “Informed Consent” tries, but fails, to elucidate. But narratives can be a dangerous way to approach them, and these two plays show why. Ascribing emotional, personal motivations to the researcher undercuts the argument in favor of scientific research while doing nothing to really advance our understanding of the ethics involved between the Native American tribe and the researchers.

In case you’re wondering, in large part I sympathize with the Havasupai Tribe’s concerns and I think that the University and the researchers erred and acted somewhat unethically. But I do not believe that automatically makes the scientific questions raised and the answered found ethically wrong, or morally wrong. My hope is that, in the future, researchers will tread carefully and ensure that they do have consent for the kinds of genetic studies that they want to perform.

I also hope that if someone writes a play about future ethical issues in scientific endeavors they will not distill the side of science into a character with made-up questionable and personal motivations that were not present in the real events that seem to poison the well for science and scientific investigations.

Penn and Teller: Bull*%&! Episode 2: “Alternative Medicine”

April 27, 2015 2 comments

So it’s pretty obvious that I haven’t been doing a great job of keeping any of my blogs updated regularly. I have a new job as a Nurse Assistant at McLaren Greater Lansing working the night shift (7 PM-7AM) and I’m still getting used to the new sleeping schedule. I’ve also been doing some work for the Clinton County Democratic Party, so the time I have for writing is a little slimmer than I’d prefer.

Still, I wanted to make the next post in my rewatch of Penn and Teller Bullshit and maybe get back in the swing of writing. I was upset that I completely forgot about the April 2015 A-to-Z Blogging Challenge, but I don’t think that I would have been able to keep up with it.

Anyway, let’s get to the good stuff:

Original Air Date: January 31, 2003
Production Code: 102

The second episode of Penn and Teller’s show is called “Alternative Medicine.” This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart as I am extremely skeptical of complimentary and alternative medicine. In fact, I’ve linked back to one of my favorite blogs, Science-Based Medicine, multiple times over the years on this very subject. I haven’t seen this episode in a long time, so I’m very anxious to see their treatment of the issue.

The show starts with Penn reciting a list of diseases that Teller is supposed to have, while Teller acts as if he’s afflicted by them (and he sneaks in a few tricks, too). It’s a very comprehensive list of maladies that most people have had some experience with, including cancer and eczema. Penn wants to try to cure Teller of these diseases without visiting a doctor, declaring, “Let’s try some bullshit!”

And I think he’s right on point, there: the thing about a lot of alternative medicine is that it doesn’t have a good basis of support. Often, the scientific studies that are done on alternative treatments show no better outcomes than a placebo, and when alternative treatments do have some kind of benefit, they become mainstream medicine. I think it’s rather fitting that Penn starts the episode with a brief history of medical quackery, including showing a picture of an advertisement for cocaine toothache drops.

Medicine used to be a hodge-podge of nonsense (though, to be fair, things outside of mainstream medicine are more than likely still nonsense). Modern medicine has added structure, regulation, and standardization to medical treatment in a way that has reduced mortality, stopped disease, and increased the lifespan. There’s still a rich, fascinating history of medical treatments before we achieved this, such as using radium-infused water as a health tonic. As you can imagine, drinking radioactive substances didn’t have many health benefits.

The first target that Penn lays his sights on is reflexology. Basically Penn says that “reflexologists believe that the foot contains pathways to every nerve ending and organ in the body, and that by putting pressure on various points of the foot, a plethora of diseases can be eliminated.” This is followed by a gag where Teller is trying to change the sparkplug in Penn’s car by tapping the tires. It’s not a bad metaphor, to be honest. There isn’t any anatomical or physiological reason to believe that manipulating the feet will have an impact on any organs.

One thing that the show recognizes is that these alternative treatments are huge cash cows. Not that mainstream medicine isn’t expensive–at least it produces verifiable results and is backed by numerous studies. The reflexologist that is shadowed on the show charges, according to Penn, $55 an hour to apply a pulsating machine to the foot that seems to be nothing more than a foot massage. It’s noteworthy that there is no consensus about how reflexology is supposed to work, even amongst reflexologists.

Next, Penn tackles magnet therapy, which he notes at the time of the show’s production was a billion-dollar per year industry. According to Quack Watch, “There is no scientific basis to conclude that small, static magnets can relieve pain or influence the course of any disease. In fact, many of today’s products produce no significant magnetic field at or beneath the skin’s surface.” This is backed up by links in the wikipedia article, which note that the magnetic fields produced by the magnets used are too weak to influence blood flow.

The doctor that they have promoting magnet therapy on the show is, to be frank, wrong on just about everything. Magnets do not produce an “energy field,” they produce a magnetic field–magnetic fields that are orders of magnitudes too weak to affect the body. This doctor also has no idea what magnets are and stumbles through a frankly embarrassing attempt to describe them which I won’t even attempt to repeat here.

Sigh. The doctor is nuts and thinks that stress builds up in your body and that magnets can…do something? I think. To relieve that stress, apparently. It’s a big pile of nonsense. Teller does another gag, this one involving blood and magnets that I won’t give away, to demonstrate it.

I think that the highlight of the episode is a gag that they put on in a mall to show how gullible people are, and how responsive they are to the power of suggestion. An official scientist-looking person will demonstrate how effective the magnets are at treating them (even though, as they reveal, the magnets were completely demagnetized). It’s a pretty fantastic experiment.

The third target is chiropractic. This is harder to tackle because it’s so widely accepted and there are several different lines of thought on it. The quack chiropractors are the ones that agree with the nonsense idea of subluxations (and that most health problems come from the misalignment of the spine–hey, screw germ theory of disease, am I right?) and skew anti-vaccine to others that are nothing more than glorified physical therapists. It’s not hard to see that I don’t have a high opinion on chiropractic and I try to steer people clear of it if I get the chance (why go to an expensive chiropractor when you can go to a physical therapist and get the same, if not better, outcomes?).

And, again, the show finds the perfect avatar of the extreme side of chiropractic in a man who makes claims about chiropractic spinal adjustments that are irresponsible and unfounded, and in a perfect world a few would be criminal.

One of the things I appreciate about Penn and and Teller Bullshit is that they don’t shy away from showing things that will be controversial and disturbing. They show the chiropractor cracking the necks of children, along with the cracking sounds. Anyone with any knowledge of human development would know that children, especially young children, aren’t even fully developed or grown. Spinal and neck manipulations are dangerous–extremely so! This chiropractor then goes on to tell the story of how he treated a baby, and boasts that the youngest he ever adjusted was, in his words, a minute and a half old.

Yes, a baby. Spinal and neck manipulation of a baby. Let that sink in. The fact that this man isn’t in jail speaks volumes about how permissive we are of bullshit alternative medical treatments. The bones of a baby’s body aren’t fully formed. Any kind of manipulation of the spinal chord or neck could be fatal.

I just don’t have the ability to spend any more time on this bastard. I sincerely hope he never seriously injures anyone.

But the bottom line here is that all three of these alternative treatments are about salesmanship. We’re talking money pumped in to create the illusion of legitimacy, advertisements, and political lobbying to feed million and billion dollar industries that produce very few, if any, positive health outcomes. Tell the people what they want to hear: don’t like vaccines? Say that you don’t need them with this magical herb. Don’t trust “Big Pharma?” Sell essential oils and claim they can heal disease, when in reality they do nothing more than make things smell better.

The show moves back to the reflexologist, who trains people to be reflexologist in a sort of “pay as you go” setup, where the people will actually start “treating” people before they even start to “learn” his methods so that they can pay him for more. If you think that this is a scam, well, you’re not alone. Imagine if they let medical students practice medicine before they got their medical degrees.

I think that this was a great episode, when the dust settled. It was hard to watch the chiropractor manipulate the neck of a child, but that’s the kind of thing you can’t shy away from if you want to see how dangerous these people can be. I don’t have a problem with new ideas in medicine getting a fair shake. If the doctors or whoever can come up with an idea, and it can stand on its own after tests and experiments and criticism, that will advance medicine.

But the examples of alternative medicine demonstrated in these episodes have been tested. And they don’t produce good results. Often, you have people who are trying to sell you something you don’t really need if you just go to the doctor regularly and take care of yourself. The lesson to learn is to be skeptical. Ask questions. Do this for doctors and people in mainstream medicine, too. If a doctor can’t answer a question, or deflects, then you have good reason to seek another opinion. I would be good money that none of these alternative medicine practitioners could satisfactorily answer questions put to them. For instance, “What is a meridian, and how does rubbing a foot draw ‘energy’ from the brain to these meridians?”

The safe bet for health is always the treatment that has a mountain of credible data to back it up. Alternative medicine lacks that.

Previous episode

Penn and Teller: Bull*%&! Episode 1: “Talking to the Dead”

March 15, 2015 1 comment

Hello dear readers!

Tonight I want to start a project that I’ve wanted to do for a while now because I think there’s a lot of potential to have some interesting discussions. Penn Jillette and Teller, two of my favorite illusionists, put together a daring kind of show in which they took controversial topics and discussed them from their unique perspective. Sometimes this created shows in which their political ideology trumped science (like the global climate change episode), but other memorable times we got episodes in which they created one of the best visual metaphors for vaccines to date.

If you haven’t seen this series, I encourage you to do so. And one of the first things you should keep in mind (apart from the warnings about nudity and language) is that this is a show about skepticism, and applying skepticism even to the skeptics. The show is called Bullshit! for a reason–the two hosts may be peddling it, and it’s important to call even them out.

Of course, when doing so it’s important to be tactful.

To be fair, I don’t think I was kicking him when he was explaining that he made missteps. It’s hard to convey what you mean on the internet, much less in 140 characters. In case Penn ever sees this post, I want to apologize for the tone–but I was offering an honest critique of the show, not trying to put him down.

With that said, I want to start a “rewatch” and a review of the first episode, entitled “Talking to the Dead.” It’s the first show of the series, and it sets the tone and makes an introduction.

Original Air Date: January 24, 2003
Production Code: 101

The show opens with Penn talking to a prop headstone belonging to Houdini, which is very apropos to the topic and the show itself. Houdini is perhaps the most famous illusionist in history (his name is even an idiom!), and I’m sure both Penn and Teller find inspiration in his life. There’s a lot of humor in the show, which is a necessity because, often, they’re dealing with controversial and difficult topics in the show. Penn, for instance, will say, “See, it’s easy to speak to the dead,” after speaking to the prop headstone as if Houdini was listening to him.

One thing that stands out to me is that Penn admits that they have dealt out bullshit, but that they tell people that they lie. I think that this is particularly why the show works–and it reminds me very much of the work of James Randi, who made his mark by exposing people like Uri Geller as bullshitters. Who better to expose bullshit but bullshit artists themselves?

And in case you’re wondering why the show is called “Bullshit,” Penn explains it is for legal matters; apparently, calling people con artists and quacks will open you up to legal action, whereas saying they’re full of it is a-okay. Admittedly, after watching this episode I’m a bit leery of calling any bullshitter a fraud, but just talking about who they are and what they do is more than enough to get the point across.

So obviously this episode is about people who claim that they can communicate with the dead. It’s important to note that I’m a scientific skeptic and I don’t believe that ghosts or spirits exist, and even if they did, they probably have more important things to do than sit around and talk with us boring idiots all day. But there are certainly powerful emotional reasons for people to buy it–perhaps they miss loved ones, or can’t move past the grief of losing a life partner. These feelings are very understandable and they’re human. We should be empathetic to these people because we’ve all lost someone close to us.

And that’s why the people that take advantage of people in grief need to questioned. If they’re exploiting people, and lying to them, they should be exposed.

I have to agree with Penn when he says that they’re not interested in the money that psychics who claim that they can communicate with the dead are taking from vulnerable people–what matters is that they desecrate the memories that the people hold of their lost loved ones. How are people influenced by exploitation of those memories, and is it harmful? As Penn says, the only thing we have left of the people who leave us behind are our memories of them–more valuable than the money that they take.

Penn also introduces the Center for Inquiry, a group that is famous for its pro-science advocacy and fostering skepticism toward supernaturalism. What’s perhaps most useful is that they list and explain a number of methods that are used by performance artists and psychics to connect with their audiences. The first method is “cold reading,” which is described as a way of fishing for information “while giving the impression that you’re getting this information from some supernatural source…”

Psychics will make a lot of guesses, and eventually hit upon something that’s accurate. It’s a version of the sharpshooter fallacy. The psychics will make many misses, but what are remembered or stressed are the hits that they make. And if you’re a psychic with a TV show, you’re going to be incentivized to edit the show such that the misses are, well, missing.

There is also “hot reading,” in which the psychic gives very detailed or accurate answers, and this is accomplished when they’ve done some prior research or have spied on the people in the audience. It’s kind of a despicable cheating, but for unsuspecting people it’s probably a bit overwhelming. It’s pretty easy to accomplish by putting microphones in waiting areas, or planting people in the audience to suss out information as if they’re just people there to watch striking up a conversation.

I suppose if you’re going in knowing what the show is about, and appreciate a good illusion, there might not be a problem with it. I love watching magicians fool me with illusions, so why not enjoy a good psychic show? There might not be a reason to be so critical if they’re not exploiting vulnerable people and if they come clean about the tricks they use.

Perhaps the most obvious is the “shotgun approach,” where the psychic takes advantage of a large audience and plays the odds. It’s likely if they just throw stuff out at an audience, they’ll chance upon a member who has some connection to a random name they throw out. For example, “does anyone here know an Ed? Edward? I’m getting a name that starts with an E.”

I think that method is kind of ingenious, actually. The audience participates actively–if they hear something that they can relate to, and get involved, they’re probably more willing to be fooled. “Yes, my uncle’s name was Ed!” It’s like the psychic has made a personal connection–and can channel this uncle to them. And when the audience appreciates this by, say, applauding, it reinforces the belief that it’s real. So, in effect, the audience member will supply the information and fill in the blanks, essentially doing the job for the psychic.

I think one of the highlights of the episode is when people involved in the Bullshit show aren’t allowed to bring their cameras into a John Edward live show, and they’re asked to leave the premises. I think that’s pretty revealing, actually–anyone’s skepticism alarm should be raised as soon as they’re disallowed from observing or recording such performances. If anyone could actually speak to the dead as psychics, why wouldn’t they want as many people to see that as possible? What would they be so afraid of? Why not let skeptics bring in their video recording devices? Prove that you can actually do what you say you can?

I think what I appreciate so much about this episode is that they not only list the methods that psychics use, but that they avoid attacking the people who go to the psychics. That’s very important: we’re all vulnerable, and sometimes we all fall for bullshit, but we don’t move past that and do better when people make fun of us and criticize us for our mistakes. We need to empathize with these people–try to help them deal with their grief without making empty promises and bullshitting them.

Penn closes the episode by saying, “You don’t heal a broken heart by pretending its not broken.” Indeed. The showmanship of a psychic is no true balm for the wound of a lost loved one.

Bullshit gets off to an auspicious start by exposing what is essentially an obvious target for skepticism, and it does it in an empathetic and clever way. If nothing else, it provides a good starting point for further research into psychics and people who claim that they can talk to the dead.

The next installment of this series will focus on Episode 2: “Alternative Medicine.” I’m actually looking forward to that one.

Next Episode

A-to-Z Challenge Day Twenty-Three: Wrestling with My Conscience

April 26, 2014 1 comment

Today’s post was originally meant to be a light-hearted retrospective of how hard it is to maintain good writing quality in the face of writing a blog post every day. It’s not that I haven’t loved doing it, but I usually like to take my time so I can write something with high quality. Instead, I have chosen to take some time today to write about something that I think is important.

As I have written before, I am running as the Democratic Candidate for State Representative of Michigan’s 93rd Congressional District. It’s my first foray into politics and my first time running for office, so it will be a great learning experience. Already I am getting questionnaires from groups and PACS who are looking for candidates to endorse (or, well, the other kind of thing they do).

Today, I got a letter from Americans for Prosperity of Michigan inviting me to fill out a questionnaire on several different topics. Well, in all honesty, the word “questionnaire” is a bit strong for what they’ve sent me. Enclosed was a letter explaining who they are with a statement that the questionnaire is meant to be “simple  and straightforward.” Simple and straightforward, in this case, means a total of seventeen yes/no questions using loaded words and giving no space to write an explanation of your policy stances.

They also inform me that they will reserve the right to distribute my answers in “any way [they] see fit” and that they “reserve the right to inform citizens of any candidate’s unwillingness to answer these questions.” Well, if that’s the case, then I will not be filling out their childish questionnaire and, instead, I will be writing more extensive answers on every question that they’ve asked right here on this blog. I feel that’s fair, right?

Before we get into that, I feel it is important to describe who and what Americans for Prosperity is, and I think you’ll see why it is important we address that. According to Wikipedia (a really good go-to source for these kinds of things), Americans for Prosperity is a “conservative political advocacy group” and “has been called ‘one of the most powerful conservative organizations in electoral politics’.” Americans for Prosperity also has ties to Koch Industries, lead by powerful energy magnates David Koch, who was chairman of the AFP Foundation, and Charles Koch, his brother. Americans for Prosperity has been accused of airing misleading advertisements, and has been given “pants-on-fire” ratings for the veracity of claims but independent fact-checking organizations.

They are also, of course, the group behind the nationally reported attack ads on the Personal Protection and Affordable Care Act that have featured misleading or hard to fact-check claims. There are three of them that have been fact-checked that I want to talk about briefly here. The first one, which aired here in Michigan, is about a caner patient who lost her previous health plan and had to get a new one that was in line with the ACA’s standards. While I sympathize with Boonstra, the ad was revealed as misleading. Glenn Kessler, writing for The Washington Post, reviewed the ad and wrote:

Meanwhile, Boonstra told the Detroit News that her monthly premiums were cut in half, from $1,100 a month to $571. That’s a savings of $529 a month. Over the course of a year, the premium savings amounts to $6,348—just two dollars shy of the out-of-pocket maximum.

We were unable to reach Boonstra, but on the fact of it, the premium savings appear to match whatever out-of-pocket costs she now faces.

Glenn Klesser originally wrote that he awarded the ad two “Pinocchios,” the rating system he uses to determine the level of dishonesty in a claim or ad. However, after some more investigating, he downgraded the ad to three “Pinocchios” and added:

Take a close look at the subtle difference in the language of these two ads sponsored by the limited-government group Americans for Prosperity. The first ad claimed the out-of-pocket costs were so high that “it’s unaffordable.” When that line was questioned—and Democrats demanded proof be given to television stations running the ad—the issue became much fuzzier. Suddenly, it became “a plan that doesn’t work for me.” That is much more subjective and harder to fact check.

I’d once again like to reiterate that I have nothing but sympathy for Julie Boonstra and that it is my fervent hope that things work out well for her. I am only investigating the veracity of these political advertisements. And the investigation, so far, is not looking good for AFP. They subtly changed the language of the advertisement, and as Kessler notes, some of the claims were incorrect. According to Kessler, she can keep her doctor, her premiums were cut in half, and she has a premier gold plan. Kessler writes: “In other words, her old plan cost $13,200 a year—before co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses. The new plan is $11,952—including co-pays and out of pocket expenses. That’s a savings of more than $1,200 a year.” It’s plan to see that she will be getting the same care with significant savings.

So, in the end, this is an ACA victory, and a success story. Stories like these are why I support the PPACA. I wish Julie well and I hope that she continues to get the treatment that she needs.

The second ad features a family from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Glenn Kessler also covered this one, and of this ad he wrote:

Wendt published an opinion article in which she provided additional details about her options and confirmed that she choose not to select a plan on healthcare.gov that could have saved her thousands of dollars a year. Our colleagues at FactCheck.org ran the numbers and found several options that “would provide better benefits at less cost than the plan” Wendt currently has.

For this reason, Kessler awarded the ad two “Pinocchios” and noted that the claims in the ad were hard to swallow. And I have to agree: the claims do not seem to bear under scrutiny. While I take no joy in sussing out these details, it is important that we consider where the information is coming from, and whether or not the information is true or false. In this case, it seems that both ads have had misleading claims that have ill-served the people of Michigan.

Indeed, the article by FactCheck.org that Kessler references reports that, “It turns out that Wendt found a cheaper, subsidized plan on the exchange, but declined to accept it because she did not want her children on the Children’s Health Insurance Program.” She had an opportunity to pay less, but decided not to because she didn’t want her children enrolled in CHIP, which is certainly her right. The FactCheck.org article is very well-written and researched and definitely worth a full read. It further states that, “We don’t take issue with Wendt’s decision, but rather her assertion that the Affordable Care Act is ‘destroying the middle class,’ when other families faced with the same choices may have made a different decision that could save them thousands of dollars a year.” This is also what I take issue with because it obfuscates the facts of the new health care law (here’s a third article by Glenn Kessler on another misleading anti-Affordable Care Act AFP ad which he rates with two “Pinocchios”).

But these ads also highlight another issue which is vital in our democracy: money. How much money is being pumped into our elections and by whom? The Detroit News reports that:

Americans for Prosperity, backed by the Koch brothers, said it will spend $1.5 million for the three-week ad buy. It puts the group’s spending in Michigan at around $5 million — almost all targeted against Peters for his vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

$1,500,000 for a three-week as buy, with total spending at $5,000,000. Five million dollars. And, as I wrote above, the ads are largely misleading and have been debunked from a number of sources. I don’t know about you, but five million dollars is a lot of money to me. Personally, I have spent maybe $20 on my campaign so far, not because I haven’t been campaigning, but because I am not raising funds or taking money from outside groups. I will not be in the pocket of special interests or other outside groups who want to throw money around to influence elections.

With that rather expansive background, let’s get to my answers for their survey. They ask seventeen question in five categories with two question in an “additional questions” area. Each question is yes/no and offers no room for exposition.

Healthcare:

1) Support setting up a state healthcare exchange in response to Obamacare?

First of all, it seems to me that this is a loaded question because Obamacare is a word the polls more negatively than the actual name of the legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. I shall address it by writing ACA when I make my responses.

Now, to answer this question, yes, I do support setting up state healthcare exchanges as per the ACA. Personally, the ACA has worked for me as it allowed me to stay on my parents’ health insurance while I was attaining my bachelor degree at the University of Michigan and afterward, as took the science and health classes required for a Master’s Degree in Physician Assistant Studies. This was vital for me as I have a heart condition called aortic valve stenosis that requires biannual echocardiograms and other expensive tests (with costs that can reach up to $6,000). But more than that, a state-run exchange would better help me find a plan that would work for me, as well as others like me. Recent reports even indicate that Southern states don’t want the ACA repealed.

2) Support the state of Michigan’s expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare?

Yes, I do support the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA. As this document, provided by the State of Michigan, explains:

Medicaid would be expanded to 133% of the Federal Poverty Level, meaning that those living at or near poverty (about $30,000 per year for a family of four) would receive health care. In total, 320,000 Michiganders wil be covered in the first year, 470,000 will be covered by 2021, and Michigan’s uninsured population will drop by about 46%.

If these figures are correct, we can lower the population of uninsured people in Michigan by 46% (which I would call a good thing), which means giving health coverage to people who didn’t previously have it. So you have to be thinking, now, how much does this cost us? Well, the report claims that, “There is no net cost to the state over the next 21 years, and Michigan will save $320 million in uncompensated care costs by 2022 and $206 million in General Fund costs in 2014 alone.” So it saves the state money because it decreases uncompensated care costs.

How could you possibly oppose this? It has positive outcomes for Michigan residents and positive outcomes on Michigan’s budget.

3) Vote to allow an “opt-out” of Obamacare when possible?

No, I will not vote to allow an “opt-out” of the ACA when possible. This feels like a sound-byte ready question to hammer people with. I’m not really sure how this law would work or what the consequences would be if it passed. How does one “opt-out” of a law that is designed to ensure you can’t be denied for pre-existing conditions, or allows children to stay on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26? Is it an opt-out of the mandate? Or an opt-out of…what? Are you going to buy a private insurance policy? Because all of them will be regulated under the ACA. This question is not clear and I can find no real credible information on what the legislation would look like, so my answer is a solid and firm no.

Energy:

1) Support a 100% competitive electric energy market? (Background: currently it’s only 10% of the market with thousands of customers on a waiting list to switch energy suppliers.)

I don’t support a 100% competitive electric energy market, but I certainly do support competitive energy markets. It’s obvious that we need to be critical of where the electric energy comes from and how much a competitive market helps consumers. I would have obvious questions: how do we regulate a 100% competitive market and how does the average consumer get informed about the choices of providers?

2) Support raising Michigan’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)?

The Renewable Portfolio Standard is a fancy term for a regulation that mandates an increase in energy from renewable sources. A full report on the status of the Michigan RPS can be found here.

In the last election cycle, Michigan voters were given the choice to raise the RPS to 25% by 2025 as a constitutional amendment, which was voted down with 60% opposing. The current RPS is 10% by 2015. Perhaps 15% over the course of 10 years is a little high, but I have to say that, generally, I support raising the RPS over time so we can transition to renewable forms of energy. That being said, I am not totally opposed to nuclear power. I do, howveer, prefer biomass, geothermal, wind, and solar power. And with the leaps in photovoltaic cell technology, solar power isn’t the pipe dream it used to be.

3) Vote to ban the practice of Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) in energy exploration?

Honestly, I think there are too many questions about the safety of the chemicals and processes in fracking for me to give it any support. I wouldn’t support a ban, per se, but I would definitely support serious investigations into the safety of the fracking tech for consumers near the sites. Does it, for instance, cause earthquakes and poison water supplies? It certainly seems there is a lot of evidence to the positive for both of them, as Ohio has found links between fracking and earthquakes. This data and information is not something we can ignore, and it needs to be addressed before we can really start the fracking process.

I want to know: is fracking safe? The evidence points to the answering being no.

Academics:

1) Vote to remove Michigan from the list of states adhering to common core standards?

I would not vote to remove Michigan from the list. I will acknowledge that there are problems with the common core standards at the lower grade levels, such as math tests that are problematic or perhaps developmentally inappropriate (and I have addressed the questions about certain math problems here), but it seems that the standards are fairly more sensible at the high school level.

I can’t ignore very real concerns that the common core standards place too much emphases on test taking and argumentative writing, but these are all things we can address within the context of the standards.

2) Support using student performance/progress in determining teacher pay & job security?

I have questions about such things. How do we assess student performance and progress in relation to teacher’s teaching ability? Is it how well they do on standardized tests? How well they fare in grades?

How does parental responsibility factor in, as well as the responsibility of the students themselves?

In short, I don’t see how to make this work in any practical or fair way. Why put the blame on the teachers when the parents and the students are also accountable for how well they do in class? I don’t ever recall hearing from any of my parents, grandparents, or family that it was the teacher’s fault I did poorly on a test. It was always my failure to prepare, and I can’t argue with that. When does the student or parent’s responsibility end and the teacher’s begin?

3) Support expanding the number and accessibility of cyber schools in Michigan?

No. The news I see shows that they generally have abysmal records, and I am wary of any private virtual institution.

Roads:

1) Vote for higher fuel taxes? (Background: Michigan has the 5th highest taxes on gas in the country).

According to this article, MDOT states that “state fuel tax revenue, which is dedicated exclusively to road and transportation funding, has been falling since 2004 as a result of inflation and increasingly-efficient vehicles.”

It’s true that we have one of the highest taxes on gas in the country. It’s also true that we have crumbling roads and bridges in need of maintenance. If not a fuel tax to fund road repair, a use tax. We cannot avoid this problem and it will cost money to fix, and each year we ignore it, the costs only increase.

2) Vote for higher vehicle registration fees?

We might consider this for repairing the roads as vehicle registration fee increases would be a good way to direct a use tax at motorists, so people who don’t use roads aren’t being taxed. My last vehicle registration fee was $116, so I already feel the pinch. Still, if it would save my suspension and tires wear and tear and possible other, more costly damage, I think it would be worth it.

3) Work to dedicate all revenues collected from fuel taxes to transportation purposes: primarily road repairs and construction?

As the above article indicates, this seems to already be the case, so I guess I would just support the continuation of such.

Taxes:

1) Support a repeal of the Michigan Personal Property Tax (PPT)?

I wouldn’t support a full repeal, no. As this article from the Detroit Free Press mentions, “But state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, said she feared the state would be the ultimate loser, with the loss of $300 million in tax revenues in the first year.”

I would like to know how local communities will cope with the loss of revenues, and how a $300,000,000 hole in the budget will be filled.

I support restructuring and modernizing the PPT, however.

2) Actively support and vote to lower the Michigan State income tax rate back to 3.9% or less? (Background: The current rate is 4.25%–in 2005 it was 3.9%)

As with all tax issues, we have to ask how we make up for the loss of revenue in the budget, and if we slash the budget, which parts we slash. A balanced approach to this question requires more than just asking to support tax cuts. Nobody likes high taxes, but at the same time we have to assess where the revenues to fund state and local services will be coming from. This website shows that Michigan has a relatively low state income tax compared to other states.

3) Vote for appropriations that grow at or less than the rate of inflation?

I can’t support appropriations that grow less than the rate of inflation. MSU notes that “If appropriations had been increased at the average national rate for five years, MSU would have an additional $140 million in state support, sufficient to reduce tuition by approximately 21 percent.”

If appropriations grew less than that rate of inflation, we’d fall even further behind in vital areas like higher education. It’s important that we keep investing so things are properly funded.

Additional Questions:

1) Support state tax revenue being used for the city of Detroit to emerge from bankruptcy?

It depends on how much state tax revenue would be used. It’s important that we revitalize the state’s economy, and doing this would probably mean helping out the communities in Michigan that are currently having issues like bankruptcy.

I can’t outright say I would support it.

2) Support placing all government workers (including teachers) into a defined contribution and retirement plan?

I need more information on what this “defined contribution and retirement plan” looks like before I can comment on it.

And that’s it. It’s a lengthy post and it took me hours to write it, but it was necessary given the brevity of the questionnaire itself and the group that sent it. All of these questions were answered sincerely and to the best of my ability in the short time I had. I will not be sending the questionnaire back to Americans for Prosperity of Michigan because I was not impressed with its quality.

I imagine that they might use some of what I have said here against me in some way during the election, and that’s okay. I’m being honest and upfront, checking my sources, and doing my best to stand up for the best interests of the Michigan residents I hope to represent, and even those that I would not. I hope that people interested in my positions will find their way here, and more than that, I hope they will engage me in a reasonable and open dialogue about these issues. That’s really what I’m after here: dialogues about how to move Michigan forward for the better.

And I would rather do that free of moneyed and special interests that, as I have shown above, aren’t entirely trustworthy.

Thank you for reading.

Josh Derke

Democratic Candidate for State Representative, 93rd Congressional District

A-to-Z Challenge Day Seventeen: Quarks, and Quasars, and other Quantum Nonsense

April 19, 2014 11 comments

I think it was Deepak Chopra who first discovered that you could make any kind of outrageous claim you wanted to as long as you put the word “quantum” in front of the words “mechanics” or “science.” For instance, “According to quantum mechanics, the quantum superposition of the wave function is such that all things exist in every possible way that they can exist simultaneously until you observe it, then the wave function collapses.”

See? A pile of nonsense. I think.

So what’s the deal with quantum mechanics, anyway? It’s a complex field of study that seems like it’s mostly math and focuses on things that are infinitesimally small. And, shocker, it also happens to be probably the most rigorously evidence field of science we’ve got right now. Even more so than the other great scientific theory, evolution (tons and tons of evidence if you know where to look–why not start out and get Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection from Project Gutenberg?).

I think that reason that quantum mechanics finds itself so easily manipulated to support pseudo-scientific woo like quantum energy fields that do…um…something? I don’t know,  there’s some stuff out there about spiritual energy fields thanks to quantum this or that. I lose interest and zone out when I figure out it’s bunk. Oh, anyway, the reason I think that it’s so easily manipulated is because there are people who want to prey on the naivete and scientific illiteracy of others to make millions of dollars selling junk that doesn’t work with a pretty label.

Well, this isn’t working. I keep getting sidetracked by the some incredulity that’s seeping to the surface. Let’s talk for a bit about Erwin Schrodinger.

Now this is a guy I could play extreme chess with.

Well, there’s also a ton of other scientists who really led to the breakthroughs that spawned QM, like Neils Bohr, Albert Einstein, and Werner Heisenberg.

The father of quantum mechanics.

Anyway, Schrodinger came up with a famous thought experiment called Schrodinger’s cat (this was before the days of the animal rights movement). It presents a paradox in the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics in which a cat is placed in a box with a bottle of poison and a radioactive element. If a sensor detects the decay of an atom, the bottle of poison is broken and the cat dies (poor cat!). Well, the idea is that after a while because of quantum superposition the cat exists simultaneously as both alive and dead. This occurs until the box is opened and the cat observed, at which time the superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or another, i.e., the cat is either dead, alive, or somehow napping on your laptop keyboard.

And what’s with cats, anyway? I mean, they think they’re so great and in charge. Well, quantum mechanics makes fools of us all, I guess.

I keep digressing. The purpose of talking about Schrodinger’s cat is to illustrate just how much quantum mechanics goes against our intuitions and how little “common sense” can help us understand it.

After all, how can a cat be both alive and dead? Well, that’s where the charlatans step in. It’s because of quantum energy fields and flux and all kinds of other spiritual things that connect all life and stuff. Think positively and buy my product and the quarks and quips and other kinds of subatomic particles and imaginary things that begin with the letter “q” will heal anything!  Feeling tired? Buy this quantum field harmonizer kit that jiggles the quarks in the free air around you, stimulating a reaction at the cellular level, down to the quantum level, in your brain, revitalizing you and giving you an extra pep in your step with a minimum exposure to rads.

Quit quaking and quickly quaff the quantum quencher! A miracle drink that synergizes your mind with your body, helping you to produce better healing effects.

Gah. I can’t keep up this bloody joke any longer because it starts to cross the line from satire to a mirror-image of some actual quantum nonsense.

I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade here, but none of this stuff means a damn thing. Anything that has the word “quantum” in the title or description besides extremely complex theories with equations like this one:

Yeah. Look at that. Fun stuff.

probably isn’t real science. It’s probably just pseudo-science masquerading as science.

So, in essence, what this post is really about is learning how to check your sources, and really it’s an advertisement for skepticism. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are a number of great resources to get real, knowledgeable opinions on a lot of information floating around on the web, like one of my favorites, Science-Based Medicine.

Oh, and the quasar bit was really just because I love astronomy. Thanks, NASA.

A-to-Z Challenge Day Six: False Trivia (For Everyday Situations)

April 7, 2014 2 comments

True or False?

So today, for the letter “F,” I have decided to talk about something that I had thrown around a few years ago with a friend. I had a habit of bringing up what I called “false trivia” that are essentially lies based on kernels of truth. These kinds of things tend to be believable because they play on stereotypes, or some bit of known facts about something.

I first thought about this when I was watching an episode of Psych in which Shawn tells Gus that Hitchcock was “obsessed with women’s Japanese household slippers…” Gus, of course knows that it’s baloney, and Shawn admits as much, but it got me thinking: how many untrue “facts” could you spread just by causally bringing them up everyday conversations?

This isn’t the same as, say, political advertisements that just spout lies (or the new Americans For Prosperity ads that don’t make any claims that can be called into question to avoid fact-checking). This is more like False Trivial Pursuit. It wouldn’t be something like, “Did you know Alex Trebek is an alien?” That’s not clever, is it? Here’s something that sounds somewhat plausible: “Did you know that Alex Trebek shaved his mustache because Sony Pictures Studios did a focus group and determined that mustaches were losing viewers?”

We all know that Trebek shaved that righteous ‘stache (it was big news!), but I don’t think that many people remember when that happened, or why. This give you an opening to make up a story. But you have to be careful not to overdo it.

For instance: “Did you know that Alex Trebek shaved his mustache because Sony Pictures Studios gave him an ultimatum? They wanted to give Jeopardy! a hip new look and mustaches were so ’80s. They threatened to hire Jimmy Fallon in his place unless he took a razor to the upper lip.”

Actually, that one seems kind of believable, too. I’m kind of curious how the internet would play a role in that as well. I’ve got a post coming up in this challenge (it’s for the letter “Z” actually) that addresses things on the internet that are just wrong that people believe that could be debunked by those people had they actually the interest in doing the research. You’d think that with all of the freely available information you’d be able to check your facts, but it turns out that the internet actually counters that with our own innate confirmation bias.

So I’m actually pretty certain I could start a blog or a website that reveals little-known trivia that starts to be believed by a large number of people.

But I’m not that evil.

In Which An English Major Proposes a Solution to a Common Core Math Problem

March 26, 2014 5 comments

I’m sure by now many of you, dear readers, have seen the story about the Common Core math problem that not even a person with training in higher math could solve. In this post I’ll lay out some background involving the story, and then propose a simple solution for the problem in question. I’ll conclude with a brief note about why I think problems like this are important.

First off, a bit about my background (for new readers). I earned my bachelor degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan, which required almost no mathematics courses. I did elect to take a number of science courses with complex math, as well as statistics courses, and communication studies classes that required an understanding of statistical analysis. It can hardly be argued that I am a math expert since I’ve never really taken much beyond calculus.

I have to admit that I was a bit surprised when I first came across the story not too long ago. According to Elise Sole of Yahoo’s Shine network, Jeff Severt, a frustrated parent who has a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering, couldn’t solve his child’s homework problem. I think I can sympathize with that. Right around the time I hit fourth grade my parents failed to be of any help with my own math homework, and the frustration of that helplessness was pretty evident on my father’s face, especially.

I’d like to note that Elise uses words like “elaborate” to describe the method the fictional “Jack” character uses to solve the problem, which I believe is misleading. I think with some thought it’s actually quite simple, but that might be the training I’ve had in logic and critical thinking as an English major. I do have to admit, however, that the answer to this problem suggested itself to me fairly quickly.

Now, I’m not saying this makes me a better mathematician than Jeff Severt, and I’m not intending to write about my grand intellect (which, honestly, could probably be about as grand as an old saltine for all the good it does me–that was a bit of humor). I am saying that, just maybe, the issue here isn’t with the method that Common Core is using here. Indeed, I think the general goal of trying to teach different methods of solving math problems, as well as teaching the logic that underlies mathematics, is worthy. Perhaps, then, the issue is with critical thinking skills.

The problem has all the information one needs to solve it. It requires a bit of logical inference based on the information that is given and the ultimate goal you need to reach. I think this is a good way to teach people how to use critical thinking and logic to solve problems instead of just using the algorithm that Jeff uses to get it over and done with. Perhaps it’s just my inner-geek speaking, but I actually like problems that make me think like this one. The method outlined in this problem is not the quickest, certainly, but it does present a real problem that requires a bit of thinking to reach the solution.

Anyway, what is the solution?

The first thing you note is that Jack was trying to solve the problem 427-316 by using a number line to count out the numbers he was subtracting. Built into the question is the information that Jack reached the wrong answer, and on the number line you see that his erroneous answer is 121. To show the process of counting from one number to another, he uses arcs that sweep above the number line.

The first three arcs, starting from 427 and working backward, are groups of 100. Under the number line, after each arc, you see that Jack correctly notes the number that is reached when he works backward in groups of 100. The order is this: 427–>327–>227–>127. When the three groups of 100 are combined into 300, you should start to get a feel of where the logic is going in this solution. Jack is making groups of numbers that add up to 316, to make counting back from 427 to 111 simple when showed graphically on a number line.

With 300 numbers accounted for, and with the number 127 reached, Jack then needs to account for 16 more numbers to add up to 316. The number line shows that he starts to count by one with smaller arcs. There are six such small arcs that you can count, bringing the number down to 121. That leaves us with 306 of the 316 we need. This is where Jack makes his mistake. He stops at 121.

The answer to the question, then, is to show that Jack had the right strategy for this method of solving the problem, but he didn’t go far enough to reach the 316 he needed to get the right answer. A suggestion about fixing these problems in the future could be to add up the groups of numbers he counted off on the number line to make sure he has taken away the correct number from the starting total. The difference between 121 and 111 is 10, the exact amount needed to get from 306 to 316.

What I think that Jeff, and many who sympathize with his frustrations, miss is that this is a problem that wants children to explore different methods of thinking about numbers. Sure, when you write out the problem the way that Jeff did, it is trivially easy to solve. However, Jeff’s difficulty in solving the problem, especially with a background that suggests math intensive studies, underscores why we need to teach these methods.

I don’t have particularly strong feelings about Common Core one way or another, but I am a fan of teaching the logic of numbers and different ways of thinking about them. My training as an English major, which included critical thinking and logic (plus a bit of old-fashioned pattern recognition) helped me to see the solution to this problem relatively quickly with no headache involved.

I would caution those who are critical of these methods, and argue that this is making math too confusing and complex, to slow down and think about how we’re teaching our children to think. Teaching methods like this are relatively unfamiliar to a lot of people and will be prone to problems, but I think the long-term payoff will be greater than the bumps along the way. Critical thinking skills are vital to understanding the world and all of its complexities, and this certainly challenges the thinking skills of people used to simple algorithms to solve math problems.

So, gentle readers, I hope this was a useful exercise. I certainly found it an enlightening experience.