Category Archives: Falsehoods and Skepticism

What is Treason, Exactly? (And has it been committed by anyone you know recently?)

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What is treason, exactly?

I recently asked on major social networking platforms, “Did Donald Trump Commit Treason,” and got two well argued and often detailed answers: “Yes!” and “No!”

Then, I read On Treason: A Citizen’s Guide to the Law by Carlton F.W. Larson.* I discovered that both positions are wrong. And right.

Ultimately, it can not be argued that Donald Trump violated the treason clause of the US Constitution in his dealings with Russia, even if the worst that has been suggested is true. (Larson’s book came out before 1/6, so it is silent on the events of that day.) When people in the US use the term “treason” in a sentence like “Trump committed treason, lock him up!” they are (inadvertently, most of the time) referring to the Treason Clause in Article II, Section 3, of the US Constitution, which says:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

First, I’d like to point out the use of the plural in referring to “The United States.” This is how the United States were/was referred to prior to the US Civil War. After the war, it would have been “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against it.” But I digress.

Some of this is obvious, some of it not, but I learned from Larson’s book that treason must involve giving aid to an enemy of the US, in the sense that we are in a state of war. However, we have been and are now at war with multiple entities with no formal declaration of war, and haven’t been since World War II. Why war has not been declared since then is a bit mysterious, but I hear it is because it would make the US a war criminal country, since it is against convention of international law to go to war against anyone. But again I digress.

The point is, if someone adhered to (helped) the Hanoi government during the US period of involvement in the Viet Nam war, that act would be considered aiding a country at war with us, because everybody understand that a war is a war even if Congress has not declared it.

But, there are enemies, to which Larson and other legal experts apply the highly technical legal term “frienemies,” that are countries with whom we are not getting along at all, but avoid using the “w” word because we would all die in nuclear holocaust. Such as Russia. Trump did not commit treason in his dealings with Russia not because there is no declared war with Russia, but because we don’t want to openly admit we are in some sense at war with Russia. A treason charge against Trump for aiding Russia by the US Attorney General would be tantamount to declaring war against Russia, and then, we would all die in the nuclear holocaust.

If you think that Trump still could be considered to have committed treason against the United States by aiding Russia, then you would be absolutely correct. Maybe. But if you think that the US can or should charge Trump with treason based on his dealings with Russia, then you would be absolutely wrong, but NOT because we are not technically at war with Russia (see above) but because we won’t admit to being in a state of hostility against Russia. (By the way, if you want body counts, you can have body counts. Many have died in the cold war, Russia had seen to the killings of US soldiers, putting Trump in place as US President to disrupt our country has resulted in countless excess Covid-19 deaths, and so on and so forth).

In my personal opinion, the so-called “insurrection” was treasonous, even in the narrowly defined Constitutional sense. Why? It was an attempt to put an unelected dictator at the head of government, using a violent attack on a major US governmental facility. But with whom are we at war you ask? Well, the group of terrorists who carried out that attack. According to the legal arguments discussed in Larson’s book, the major terrorist groups such as ISIS and the US are functionally at war. A person who aids ISIS can be considered committing treason, if certain other things are in place.

But wait, hold on. If these insurrectionists are “at war” with the US, then they are not really committing treason, they are in essence soldiers. They can’t even be charged with criminal activity and would have to be treated as prisoners of war. That would require their immediate release because hostilities are over. But, what about those who aided them but were not with them? What about those guys??? Treason would apply.

But what does the Civil War say about this? The southern soldiers and generals who were captured during the war were treated as prisoners of war, yet the North never considered the southern states as separate. The northern legal attitude towards the south, in the eyes of Europe was (ideally) “this is not a war between belligerents so don’t aid or recognize the south.” Yet southerners were treated as soldiers. This contradiction was sometimes the focus of much attention at the time, and sometimes ignored. It never, however, went way. So, when the war ended, why weren’t the generals and soldiers and such charged with treason? Because it wasn’t really a war? No. Mainly because of the terms of surrender supplied by General Grant, and the political approach preferred by Lincoln. But what about Jefferson Davis? Why was he not charged with Treason? For that, I’ll let you read the book.

Clearly, little is clear. And, to me, one of the most interesting things about Carlton Larson’s treatment of treason is the degree to which relevant legal arguments are made, to help define treason, in settings where there was never a successful (or in some cases, even unsuccessful) prosecution. One would think that treason law would emerge as a combination of what the US Constitution says and what high court decisions include. Well, there is some of that. But a large amount of the legal conversation, opinions that help us to understand treason law in the US at the Federal level, come from decisions made, in some cases to NOT pursue a case, by US attorneys or other prosecutors, and by lower court judges wrestling with the problem.

In some cases, a treason charge was not made, or failed in court, because of the “two witness” rule or for some other technicality. But, the legally framed conversation that happened among the participants still informs us of what treason might or might not be. Not mentioned above is the idea that the treasonous person must be a citizen of the United States. Turns out, that is not strictly true. Why? Read the book. This part is really fascinating. Generally speaking, the most common outcome of a possible consideration of treason, in US history, has been to not make that charge because it is so difficult. The second most common outcome, possibly (I did not keep count) is to fail in court for similar reasons.

And, I should note, that Larson affirms that very few US Federal treason cases have been brought, and among those that were, few have succeed, because the requirements of the provision are intentionally hard to meet.

I discovered an interesting Reality vs. Wikipedia rip in the chronosynclastic continuum. According to treason expert Larson, only one person in the US has ever been put to death on a Federal treason charge, and he was not a US citizen, and did not commit treason, it was not really in the US but in a recently acquired territory, and perhaps he was not even tried in what would ultimately be considered a legal court. Nonetheless, he was hung by the neck until dead after being convicted of treason. Larson notes that nearly all discussions of treason don’t mention him, and I checked Wikipedia: Hipolito Salazar is not mentioned. However, there is a second person that Larson is mum about who was executed for Treason in the US under apparent Federal authority: William Mumford. Wikipedia says he is the only person so executed, and gives details. I suspect Mumford doesn’t count because he was tried and convicted under Martial Law by a military tribunal, which would be different than being charged with Treason under US jurisdiction and Article II, Section 3, Clause 1. If so, I say, “stand there in your wrongness and be wrong, Wikipedia!” One can argue forever as to whether Mumford was legitimately convicted of this or that law. The statement was made that he was charged and hereby convinced of Treason and he was then executed, right or wrong. But if the law that applied was not Articla II, Section 3, Clause 1, then he does not count, while Salazar does count.

In On Treason: A Citizen’s Guide to the Law Carlton F.W. Larson, a widely recognized expert on Treason law, describes and analyses every case of treason, or almost case of treason, or case of almost treason, in the US (and several cases outside that purview). The history of treason law, also covered in detail, is full of interesting (and sometimes necessary) contradictions. The origin and history of the Constitutional article itself is fascinating.

So the other day, a neighbors house was entered by hooligans, things stolen, and when the neighbors returned (they were out) they found that lots of their stuff had been trashed. Right there in broad daylight. Do you think that the perpetrators should be charged with robbery? If you have a degree in Facebook Law, you will probably swoop in on that statement and say, “why, no, it is not robbery, burglary! They can’t be charged with robbery. Burglary!” But you would be wrong in some states. What you call burglary by you is, in some states, called “housebreaking” if it happens during the day, and this happened during the day. Gotcha.

Treason is a little like that. The concept is centuries old. Most or all US states have treason laws and they vary. As noted above, the definition of Treason is not easy, since it relies on citizenship and a state of war, and also, an understanding of what “helping” the enemy was. All three of these things are tricky concepts.

I think that if you read this book, and you see someone say “so and so should be charged with treason” your immediate response will no longer be (if it was before) either “right, obviously!” or “no, that would be insurrection!”

Donald Trump committed treason in his dealings with Russia, according to me (but Larson says no) but he can’t be charged with Treason because we are not at a sufficient state of war with Russia. Both yes and no are valid answers to the question posed above, in my opinion. Not only is the answer “yes and no” more correct as a response to the question, it is a heck of a lot more interesting, if you bother to find out why. And to do so, read On Treason: A Citizen’s Guide to the Law.

While you are waiting for the book to arrive, have a look at: Treason, the Death Penalty, and American Identity also by Carlton F.W. Larson.


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We’ll Always Have Dover

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Lewis Black, the gruff comedian, has a shtick about evolution. At one point he intones that he carries a fossil with him, and when he runs into a creationist, he holds this trilobite up, pointing it at them, and yells (he’s always yelling), “Fossil!” Then, if they still don’t get it, he throws it over their head.

I do exactly the same thing, but instead of just any creationist, I target public school administrators who are soft on science, and instead of a fossil I just yell, “Dover!”

Nobody wants to get Dovered.

Dover was the US Federal court decision that found that science class can not teach religion, that creationism is a form of religion, affirmed that so called creation science is just another form of creationism, and specifically determined that “Intelligent Design” is just more creationism.

Dover is to the teaching of evolutionary biology what Rove v. Wade is to reproductive rights, plus or minus. Plus, in the sense that Dover may well be an even more solid decision (though not at SCOUTS, never got to SCOTUS because it was so solid). Minus in the sense that it restricts an activity that can still go on at low level if we are not careful.

The point is, the 15th anniversary of the Dover decision is coming up. The National Center for Science Education, under the directorship of my friend Genie Scott, coordinated the Dover win, and has produced “Rembering Kitzmiller v Dover” for your perusal. For a deepre dive, see Laura Lebo’s book The Devil in Dover: An Insider’s Story of Dogma V. Darwin in Small-town America.

“cdesign proponentsists” = smoking gun

^^ look it up ^^^


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Widespread Rejection of a Covid-19 Stick is a Click-Baiting Falsehood

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A high percentage of people are going to get the Covid-19 vaccine that is available to them, because they are going to be choosing between two clearly labeled doors. One door says “Look like you believe science has something to offer.” The other doors says, “Maybe you die!”

I have the impression that people who have been taken in by anti-vax thinking, but only to some degree, who are not acolytes of that cult, get the stick when push comes to shove. They think about their health, their children, and they make the right choice. Certainly, it does not go the other way. Add this to the fact that a) the most refusing population out there is the US population, and in the US the refusal (as well as the acceptance, by the way) of the vaccine is almost entirely political, and we can guess that much of the “no, no” really means “ok, whatever.”

Yet another factor is the reporting. Whenever a poll has an undecided middle, or a weak “yes” or “no” element, it is possible to report the poll in a biased matter, even if the poll itself isn’t biased. This is clearly what happens when we see “X% say nope” without mentioning that a number equal to a third or fourth of that said “I don’t know, whatever.”

Here are some data for three polls that address this topic.

An April 2020 survey in seven European countries, with 7,662 respondents showed that 81.1% of the population were indifferent or willing to be vaccinated. (73.9 were explicitly willing.)

A Pew Research Center poll in mid September of Americans compared May and September. This September poll was taken at the height of cynicism about the Trump regime’s handling of Coronavirus, just before Trump himself got the virus. In this poll, 49% of all respondents said “no” (to some degree) to the vaccine (“I don’t know” was not a choice in this survey), with 56% of Republicans preferring to not be vaccinated, and 42% of Democrats preferring not.

The May survey showed those numbers at 27% for the whole survey, and 34% and 21% for Republicans vs. Democrats, respectively.

The September poll is probably the one most cited by those who prefer to be alarmed, but it actually underscores the likelihood that people will get the the shot at much higher numbers. A waft from 27% to 49% over four months indicates that the pollsters are not sampling what the questions indicate they are sampling. There is a huge amount of elasticity in what people say. Also, the fact that this survey had no room for “I don’t really have an opinion” forced people into a category. Given the high degree of politicization of the disease, which mainly consists of many Republicans preferring to appear to be reject science (in order to make lefty big city elite academics cringe) or Democrats rejecting a vaccine they see likely to be yet another Jared Kushner scam, the best numbers, among these, in my opinion are optimistic. In May, before the politicization occurred to a great degree, 72% of Americans said yes to the disease, but only 11% felt strongly about no. That conforms with the other surveys.

A survey reported in late October and published in Nature, across 19 countries, showed that 82% were indifferent or preferred the shot (61.4% were willing, the rest indifferent). Of those who seemed not to want the shot, only 9.8% felt strongly that way.

My friend, scientist Roderiko Kampen, recently suggesting, while agreeing that resistance to the vaccine will diminish over time, to “never underestimate human stupidity. Nothing is stable or ‘normal’ now, every single day some butterfly may flap the global hurricane. Humanity has thoroughly outlived its stay and is now beginning to meet that cool adversary – i.e. my great friend – called reality.” I agree. There will be pockets of resistance that will prove troublesome, and lives will be taken and illness spread because of resistance to science. But, ultimately, most people are going to get the shot, and at some point, schools are going require Covid-19 vaccination alongside the already required vaccinations in order to attend.

Look, people endlessly complain about TSA, and they complain more about TSA and the equivilant agencies around the world, the modern security systems at airports, even more than they complained about the totally fake ineffective security that was prevalent before 9/11, especially in the US. But they still get on the plane with a some sense of security. Covid-19 is worse than terrorism, by the numbers. We are having, in the US, a 9/11 level event every single day as I write this. The vaccine is the way out of this plague. People are going to get vaccinated. I would even go one step further. Anti-vax will always be with us. It is an industry, and anti-anti-vax is also an industry. But a movement (or, really, scam) designed to hamper the fight against this pandemic will get weaker, not stronger, over the next year.


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Who Killed JFK for $1.99?

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And by that, I mean, for a limited time only (I assume) you can get the book Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK* by Gerald Posner for $1.99 in Kindle form, probably just from the US.

Many years ago, when I was Junior High age, there was this older kid who was convinced that JFK was still alive, and being kept on life support in Dallas. He was convinced Lee Harvey Oswald had been a patsy, and JFK was killed by the Mob, the Russians, the Cubans, and LBJ. In some combination. The grassy knoll. All of it. The moment he graduated from school he disappeared to Texas to run down his suspicions.

I was sufficiently impressed that I went out and got a JFK conspiracy book and read it. I was shocked as to how many different ways this conspiracy could have played out. At first, anyway. But by the time I was done with the book I realized that the author had no theory, just a lot of little pieces of theories that contradicted each other.

So, I read The Warren Report: The Official Report on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy*, which I think I still have on my shelf somewhere. It was also confusing and somewhat contradictory, but there was a clear effort to make a fulsome statement about the evidence, and it was hard to contradict the conclusion that Oswald acted alone. But, the argument, while the only argument one could come up with, was not compelling. It was just there as a likely conclusion.

Then I forgot about it and didn’t care for a while. Then, I ran into Case Closed, read it, and realized how simple the argument is. There is a small number of key facts that really focus the mind with respect to this event.

For example, Oswald had attempted to assassinate a person earlier on, and that attempt explained why he had the rifle, why he had the ammo, and why he was practicing. It also explained why he was in possession of fewer bullets than the rifle would actually hold at the time the opportunity to kill JFK presented itself. Those two facts together jive with the number of shots fired, the number of shell casings that the people downstairs from the sniper’s nest heard hit the floor, and the number of bullets accounted for.

And of course there is other evidence.

If you think JFK was killed by someone other than Oswald acting alone, you must read this book so you can disabuse yourself of whatever misconception you labor under at present. If you understand that Oswald killed JFK but are annoyed at the occasional conspiracy theory that pops up, get this book and read it, and you can snap back clear and irrefutable refutations at such arguments. If you find conspiracy ideation interesting, get this book because it is a key argument regarding what we generally see as the first in a diverse family of modern conspiracy theories.


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James Randi is dead

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James Randi, well known and influential skeptic, debunker, founder of the Committee for skeptical Inquiry, and the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), died on October 20th. He is most famous for debunking paranormal claims. His debunking of other falsehood was a bit weaker and less important (he rejected anthropocentric global warming for way too long, until he got a good talking to by a couple of doods who explained it to him in words of many syllables). He is famous for teaching America how to bend a spoon unmagically, and so many other tricks.

He created the “Amazing Meeting” which was a meeting in Las Vegas that was fairly amazing, but eventually devolved into an MRA meat market so everyone stopped going. (Not Randi’s fault.)

But never mind those low points (just trying to be honest here, as he would prefer). Never mind his cult status (which did more to to devolve than advance his work). James Randi was a consistent force pushing popular culture in the direction of truth and away from mysticism. He made a difference.

In the end, he did manage to predict his own death with amazing accuracy. Possibly.


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Is Forbes Magazine a Danger to Scientists?

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The other day a friend asked me, “Is Forbes Magazine legit? Should I believe what it says about climate change?”

It was a good question, since there are many outlets that have clear biases in favor of climate inaction, or even, climate reality denial.

I’m actually not sure if Forbes is a trustworthy source. I’ve seen articles about energy that are informative, and I’ve seen articles about energy that are misleading. I don’t remember off hand any articles about climate change per se.

Until now.

Roger Pielke Junior has an op ed that does damage to Forbes’ reputation, and to Roger’s reputation as well. And, unfortunately, it is a sad story. In the OpEd Roger seems to be claiming that the volunteer organization, Skeptical Science, has done damage to a short list of academics, including his father, his colleague Judith Curry, and himself. What Roger does not understand is that the criticisms that come from Skeptical Science are true. The damage to these three was self inflicted.

Here is the story.

There are two Roger Pielkes: Senior and Junior. Both are academics, and both have produced work that has been criticized by the climate science community. I’m not actually all that familiar with Senior’s work, but Junior’s work has been on my radar screen for some time, and it is an enemy ship, as it were. Junior’s main point is to contradict the increasingly well established science on the frequency, level of impact, and importance of major storms like Atlantic Hurricanes. He has variously made claims that they have not gotten stronger, that climate change is unrelated to these storms, that they are not coming with more frequency, and that their impact is not important. I believe that way down deep in his analysis, there is a fundamental flaw. He shows that the overall economic status of the US is not impacted by hurricanes, but the former is measured by GDP, and GDP increases with increasing devastation by major storms. This is because when a major storm comes along and wipes out cities or coastlines or whatever, there is so much economic activity spent on recovery that GDP goes up.

Junior has taken criticism from other academics poorly, and he has taken it personally. He has teamed up with another academic who has also been criticized heavily. This is Judith Curry. Curry’s work has been criticized by the climate community for a few reasons, but mainly this: She claims that the trend towards increasing global surface temperature is predictable by a non-global-warming scenario in which some other internal variation explains the warming. This idea, however, seems to come from a misunderstanding of the underlying stochastic (and other) dynamics of the models she has used. She is, I’m pretty sure, wrong. There may have been a time, perhaps 15 years ago, when her interpretation of the data could stay alive while more information was gathered, but that time has long past, and sadly, she has not allowed her hansom hypothesis to die an honorable death by fact.

The third element in the current drama is the organization and web site “Skeptical Science.” It is a volunteer run entity that has help from a lot of scientists and communicators. Some of my own work has been reprinted there, and I use it as a reliable and well organized source of information on climate denialism, and actually, climate change itself. If you don’t know skeptical science, you should. It is an excellent resource.

Now, here is the sad part. Rumor has it that Roger Pielke Sr. has recently become ill, and it appears that Junior is in a state of upset, possibly depression, and almost certainly in some kind of socio-psychotic episody state of some sort. I’m not qualified to diagnose so I won’t, but in the vernacular sense Junior has gone ’round the bend, and is in a mode of attacking the Skeptical Science people who, over the years, have been hard on Senior, Junior, and Curry, all three.

This is not an over the top inappropriate hardness, that Skeptical Science has produced. In fact, it is relatively toned down compared to the feelings the three deniateers have produced when they hate on science and love on the fossil fuel industry, indirectly, in their writings, their congressional testimony, and so on.

Having said that, I can’t say what exactly is going on with Roger Junior other than that he is clearly upset. He has produced a large number of tweets attacking Skeptical Science and its volunteers. He has tweeted out personal and private information about Skeptical Science people and other scientists, information that was previously stolen by denialist hackers. His tweets have been, at least in part if not majority, taken down by Twitter, and his account was, at least for a time, suspended.

Roger Pielke Junior attacked volunteers and scholars who had been defending science, attacked them, and science, in inappropriate ways, and for his trouble he has been chastised by Twitter.

I and several colleagues have contacted Roger, or friends of Roger, to see if someone can talk to him, to see if someone can talk him down.

But what happened instead, is Roger published an OpEd airing his grievances in Forbes, raising the stakes, and making his attack official and sanctioned by a major publishing outlet.

This is a credibility hit for Roger, but not one that will matter to him. This is a credibility hit for Forbes. I have no idea if Forbes Magazine cares about its credibility in the science community, or in the environmental community.

Regardless of what Forbes intended, or wanted, it got this: Scientists and science communicators must now regard Forbes Magazine, or its editorial staff, as dangerous. Roger Pielke Junior, having some sort of apparent breakdown, was easily able to weaponize Forbes. That can only have happened if Forbes wanted it to happen. Stay away from Forbes, my friends and colleagues. Don’t touch it with a ten foot pole, unless your ten foot Pole is a very tall Eastern European attorney with experience in libel law.

This is a developing situation. Much of it is happening on Twitter. One of the more pertinent tweets I’ve seen so far is this one by Climate Scientists Gavin Schmidt:

And now (added) Dana Nuccitelli has tweeted this, with a link to a new Skeptical Science post addressing this issue:

And from Katharine Hayhoe:


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Native Americans Actually Do Exist

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The law works differently in different countries. If you commit a crime in one country, and jump over the border to an adjoining country, what can or might happen to you depends on the arrangements that have been made between the two countries.

Similarly, the law that applies, and the actual application of the law if any, is complicated when it comes to non-natives committing crime on native lands, which are separate nations, within the United States. I am very far from an expert on this. What I know about it comes from conversations with my friend Shawn Otto, who wrote a novel set in this boundary space between native and non-native lands (Sins of Our Fathers: A Novel, excellent story, go read it).

PZ Myers commented on something related in a recent blog post in which he notes a recent study suggesting that nearly half of non-Native Americans do not believe that Native people exist.

Recently, a host on a wildly popular podcast, who is Indian (as in from the Indian subcontinent, in Asia) took to referring to himself and his compatriots as “real Indians,” a reference to the idea that Columbus got it wrong when he referred to the indigenous people he ran into in the Caribbean as “Indians,” thinking he was in Asia while at the same time not having a very clear concept of what “Asia” might actually be.

I found that reference deeply offensive and I’m neither Asian-Indian or American Indian. Its just that Native Americans have enough trouble being taken seriously that I’m pretty sure they don’t need some over privileged Hollywood type from California suggesting that Native Americans are in some way non-real.

I grew up in Upstate New York, and later moved to the Boston area. That was, in a sense, going backwards in historical time in relation to Indians. From my own studies of regional history and archaeological work in the time period, I knew that a very large percentage of the Native cultures near Boston, and anywhere near Boston, were wiped out way early in the Colonial Period, while Native groups played a more persistent role in US history in New York and nearby areas of Canada. Putting this another way, we are not even quite sure of the full range of tribes that existed or what they called themselves, along the Massachusetts coast, while the New York area Haudenosaunee and some Algonquin groups are well known in history, and very much present both on and off reservations.

I remember moving to Milwaukee for a year, and discovering that Wisconsin had what was referred to as the “Indian Problem” by some people. It sounds a little more obnoxious than it actually was. The problem was disagreement over fishing rights and regulations in commonly held territories, and it was a problem that involved claims by Indian groups vs. claims by the state. I heard the term “Indian Problem” later, and read it in older documents, when I moved to Minnesota. The process of taking land from Indians, and otherwise pushing them out, moving them aside, or starving them off, was very recent in Minnesota. There are living people who’s grandparents had artifacts from the Dakota War(aka “Sioux Upraising” or “Little Crow’s War”). Some of those artifacts may have been body parts from Native Americans executed after the uprising was put down. In historic documents, the “Indian Problem” seems sometimes to refer to the constant threat of Indian attack in areas near Minneapolis or Saint Paul, well within the current boundaries of the Twin Cities metro area, early in the 20th century. These attacks are memorialized in stories and newspaper accounts, way post-date the Dakota War, and I’m 100% sure they never ever happened. They were used as a publicity stunt to make the idea of traveling out to the Twin Cities to stay in a hotel and take in the fresh air more exciting for New Yorkers and others out east.

The study mentioned above is described here. The study shows that Native American erasure from common or popular understanding in the United States is partly due to the way Native people and issues are treated by the media. Also, Natives are largely underrepresented, or absent, in educational programs, or where they appear, it is as historical figures or factors as though they existed in the past, but not necessarily now.

I actually don’t see this as a huge problem in Minnesota, and I assume it is more of a bi-coastal and possibly Southern thing. Native American presence in Minnesota is pretty out front, and I think it would be very difficult to find that more than a tiny percentage of Minnesotans think Native Americans don’t exist. Of the several individuals running for Governor or Lt. Governor in Minnesota this year, at least one is a Native American. This does not mean that the attitude about Native people is good. It probably isn’t on average. Native American reservations are often discussed in the same light as really bad urban neighborhoods, as places to avoid. At best, Native Americans are interesting or quaint.

(I note that the above mentioned Shawn Otto write the script for a brand new planetarium show in our local natural history museum, in which a kid bonks his head and ends up in an oz-like world where he learns about the history of the universe. The role is played by a young Native boy. That was helpful.)

A few years ago there was an effort by the state, I think through the Department of Education, to have more reference to Native peoples in schools. The way they did this was, in my view, not smart. Although the standard itself was somewhat better defined, they essentially required that every core course taught in the schools incorporate something about Native Americans. That’s it. Simple. This, of course, required that, say, the physical science teacher, or the math teacher, be sufficiently expert in Native American studies of some sort, to come up with something, and sufficiently enlightened to not end up doing something harmful, misleading, or hateful. There are a lot of ways to get a key bit of subject matter into a curriculum. Telling each teacher to come up with ten minutes on that topic no matter what they are teaching has never been done before, for any topic. Why this topic? Clearly, the mandate was not being taken seriously.

From the Women’s Media Center coverage of the above mentioned report:

When exposed to narratives about Native people that included factual information about present-day Native life, more accurate history, positive examples of resilience, and information about systemic oppression, respondents from all demographics showed more support for pro-Native policy and social justice issues. Information that was shared with respondents included simple statements such as “The government signed over 500 treaties with Native Americans, all of which were broken by the federal government. From 1870 to 1970, the federal government forcibly removed Native American children from their homes to attend boarding schools.” On key issues such as the Indian Child Welfare Act, racist mascots, and tribal sovereignty, 16-24 percent more people supported the position of tribes after being exposed to these new messages.

That large a shift in public support can easily be the difference in an election outcome, a bill’s passage, or the actions of large corporations, such as sports teams. Positive and accurate portrayal of Natives in the mainstream media has the potential to significantly advance Native rights in this country. Alongside the report, Reclaiming Native Truth released a guide for allies on how to improve coverage of Native Americans. The guide includes examples of positive messaging and questions for media makers to ask themselves, such as “Am I inadvertently contributing to a false or negative narrative by not taking into account or including contemporary Native peoples in my work?”

“The research really challenges the media to do their job better. The media has a deep ethical responsibility to not fall into these standardized tropes,” said Echo Hawk. “We can do a lot in terms of empowering Native voices and telling Native stories, but we can’t do it on our own. We need non-Natives as allies who are also talking about us and championing accurate representation.”

Photo above: Minnesotans learning about Native Americans at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum, in Minnesota.


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Schrödinger’s Lie: A quantum leap in understanding metaphors

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Sex, Lies, and Power

When I was a graduate student, and later, teaching, at a Great East Coast University*, one of my adivsors was the famous Irven DeVore. We taught a very large introductory biology class nicknamed “Sex” but also known as “Human Behavioral Biology,” or, in the school’s tradition of naming all important courses after World War II bombers, “B-29.”

The fact was not lost on DeVore that we intended to enthrall, or at least, lock in the room four times a week, batches of 500 or so individuals who were training up to grasp in their hot little hands the very levers of power. Our job was to teach them what human behavior was all about. Clearly, that was an awesome task. And, DeVore reckoned that the best way to responsibly carry out this task was to inform the students what was actually going on, so they would be less likely to miss the point.

“You are all destine to eventually grasp the very levers of power,” he would tell them. “And here, we are undertaking the awesome task of learning about human behavior. During this course, there will be occasions when we will simplify the subject matter, in order to make important points. In effect, we’ll tell the occasional white lie to arrive eventually at a greater truth.”

There would be a pause.

“It is not lost on me and should not be on you, that now and then we are casting false pearls before real swine.”

Another pause. One in 15 students would then giggle. A different 1 in fifteen students would sneer. The rest would not emote, but they would dutifully write down the words.

What’s a meta for, anyway?

After my own fledging as a tosser of pearls, I departed from DeVore’s philosophy. I replaced white lies with truthful placeholders. Instead of “All genes code for proteins,” it would be “All proteins are coded for by genes, and that is the job of many but not all genes.” That was an easy one, and the placeholder there is the implication that there are other genes that do other things. A more difficult case might be “On balance, wealthy individuals have more offspring than poor ones, but half the time you measure this it will seem untrue. But, most of those times, you are measuring it wrong, and you can learn all about that in a 3000 level course we offer on Thursday afternoons.”

A white lie, in education, is a simplification that is demonstrably untrue, but used in cases where getting at the full truth involves more advanced material than appropriate for the course, or in some cases, just takes up too much time and doesn’t get you much in return.

In a sense, analogies are white lies, but with an even higher purpose.

The reason to analogize, or create a metaphor, is not to gloss over details, but rather, to bring the conversation to a more advanced understanding of something. A good metaphor causes an “aha” moment and a nudging of thinking in the direction of truth. It is not explicitly a lie, but an analogy is always in fact part lie. Usually the lies stay in the background and can be ignored, but if a given analogy is worked too long or too hard, you can almost never avoid stumbling over them.

For example, varying amounts of water running through pipes of varying sizes at varying speeds is a very good analogy for electricity when you are teaching the very basics of voltage and amperage. But this metaphor breaks the moment you realize that electricity doesn’t really slow down or speed up like water does. It breaks even more when you realize that alternating current lives outside the wire (pipe) a good bit of the time, and can actually be transmitted across vast distance of space and then picked up by another wire. Your lawn sprinkler is not a great analogy for a radio.

This aspect of analogies is often lost, perhaps sometimes willfully, though I think usually unconsciously, and can lead to arguments. This is not an uncommon way people are either wrong on the internet, or we identify wrongness in others. Or, inappropriately accuse others of being wrong.

Quantum Leap

I find this more often true in the physical sciences. For example, the use of the “quantum leap” as a metaphor is considered by most unacceptable. In physics, at the quantum level (at a very very small scale), it turns out that things (matter/energy, or particle/wave doohickeys) can not move through space or time, or energy levels, at just any old increment. There is a minimum. (See Planck’s Constant.) It is almost like everything exists in a giant four dimensional egg carton (the three dimensions of space, and a fourth of time) and everything is an egg that has to go in one of the spots eggs go in, never in between.**

In this world, the term “quantum leap” would simply mean the egg goes from one egg holding space to another, with absolutely no inbetweenness happening.

In the metaphorical use, a quantum leap means you go from one place or state to another without any inbetweenness. In some remote areas of the world where even today roads are not built, local transport was always on foot, then suddenly, it could be via bush plane. More specifically, the movement of important people or highly valuable goods went from walking to flying. That is a quantum leap in transportation.

In the TV show Quantum Leap, scientist Sam Beckett intends to “leap” across time using a fancy machine. Things go differently than planned, and one of the things that ends up happening is that he leaps across space and time but also into different individuals (I think, I never watched the show). People, especially physicists, complain about this use of the phrase “quantum leap” because a true quantum phenomenon is a quantum phenomenon because it is happening at this very very small scale where space, time, and energy increments are at the absolute minimum.

However, it is not a mistake to use the quantum metaphor for this TV show. The leap is there. The leap without the inbetween is a feature of the story. At quantum size scales, everything leaps. Here, the metaphor is used to refer to that same sort of leaping, also known as saltation.

If you think the metaphor is only correct if it is applied to objects with particle-wave duality and at scales where the you can see and feel Planck’s length, then maybe you don’t know what a metaphor is.

A Metaphor is like a your checklist of things to fix in your house this weekend. Not completely checked off.

Think of a metaphor as a list of attributes. Like this:

  • It is very small, at size scales of 6.4 X 10-34 or so.
  • Things go across space in increments of that unit size, not continuously.
  • Things go across time in increments, not continuously.
  • Things go across energy levels in increments, not continuously.

Then, you check off one item on that list, maybe two, because you are using those attributes in your sentence. Sam Beckett leaps across time and space, he does not glide gracefully through time and space like the rest of us. That sort of thing.

If, at the end of your sentence, you’ve found that you have checked off all of the attributes, and if your attribute list is pretty complete, then you have not invoked a metaphor. You have merely stated a truth. You are not using features of a thing to expound about another thing. You have simply expounded about a thing, remaining in a single meaning-generating dimension. Your metaphor has collapsed on itself and become itself. You said nothing interesting. You might make a good Wikipedia writer.

A fact used in a metaphor is like Schrödinger’s cat. You never know if it is real or not real until you use it. Then, it is either a bit of truth because that part of the metaphor is transferred between the frame of the metaphor and the frame of the object of discussion, or it is a bit of a lie because it is the part of the frame of the metaphor that you are leaving behind.

In the case of Sam Beckett, the nano-nano scale of quantum mechanics is not a feature of the TV show’s main character. His saltational behavior is. He leaps, quantumly, across time and space.

Oh, and in case you didn’t know, when Schrödinger originally invoked his his famous dead-not-dead cat, he did so to underscore the abject absurdity of certain aspects of quantum mechanics. Others took this absurd joke and ran with it, asserting that it was part of actual reality, not a joke about reality. This is a case where a metaphor has bitten the writer in the ass, and so, it is appropriate that it is a cat because they are capable of biting in both real and metaphorical worlds. Also, note that Planck’s constant was originally conceived as a white lie as well, a kludge to help make the math work. Later, Planck and others realized that the apparent mathematical necessity of rounding everything off to an interval worked to solve matter-energy problems at that level not because it was a cute trick of math, but because it was a deep truth of reality. That is a little like deciding to count all your expenses and income in sums ending in two, and suddenly all the money in your wallet has become two dollar bills. Since two dollar bill is a metaphor, that leaves you with a pocket full of metaphors.


*Which shall be unnamed, because when I tell people I went to Harvard, they get mad at me, presumably, because they did not.

**Don’t take my description of quantum mechanics to the bank. But that’s roughly my understanding.


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The Origin of Life and Life on Other Planets

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The Origin of Life and Life on Other Planets

Several parallel discussions inspire me to write this post partly in the hope that you will chime in.

The chance of life elsewhere in the universe just went to near zero. Or did it?

Continue reading The Origin of Life and Life on Other Planets


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Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is Wrong about the Supermoon

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I don’t know much about astronomy, but I am a scientist and I know this. One key scientific concept that is rarely grasped by non scientists but at the same time drives much of science itself is variation.

Indeed, the understanding that variation is key is one of the characteristics that separates the ancients, who may have engaged in what looks like science but rarely advanced true understanding, and the moderns (to oversimplify greatly, ironically).

The moon and other celestial bodies always do the same thing, never change in their course or appearance, and once one has finished cataloguing them, there is nothing else to see.

Or is there? Isn’t there in fact change all the time? Isn’t change itself the essence of the universe? Is it not true that a star is a dynamic thing that has a birth, stages of life, a death, and from its remnants come other things? Isn’t this how astronomers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson are able to utter such brilliances as “I am made of star dust”??? Don’t planets form, collide with things or things with them, cool, change dramatically across the surface, even break lose form their orbits now and then? Continue reading Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is Wrong about the Supermoon


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Falsehood: “People, not guns, kill people”

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Yes, of course, you need a person (usually) to pull the trigger. But it is abundance of and ease of access to guns that causes the United States to be off the charts in woundings and killings from firearms. This is what the research has shown for a very long time and continues to show. Here, I’ll give you yet another example. All of the following text, and the tables, are exerted directly from the paper. Continue reading Falsehood: “People, not guns, kill people”


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Falsehood: “Voters are kept from political involvement by the rules”

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Voting is not party involvement.

We hear a lot of talk these days about “voters” being repressed in their attempt to be involved in the Democratic primary process. There may be something to that, and it might be nice to make it easier for people to wake up on some (usually) Tuesday morning and go and vote in a Democratic or Republican primary or visit a caucus. But there is a difference between a desire for a reform and the meaningful understanding of that reform — why we want it, how to do it, and what it will get us — that makes it important to do what we Anthropologists sometimes call “problemetizing the concept.”

We can start with the statement that in the primary system, “Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic (small “d”) process.” That sentence seems reasonable, even important, and is essentially a call for open, instead of closed, primaries, or in some cases, for replacing a caucus with a primary. Continue reading Falsehood: “Voters are kept from political involvement by the rules”


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Falsehood: “If this was the Stone Age, I’d be dead by now”

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It is generally thought that life expectancy in the past was less that it is today for our species as a whole and in the case of industrialized countries in particular. However, this belief counts as a falsehood not because it is untrue (it is, in fact, true) but because many people get this idea wrong in a few different ways. People often:

1) confuse life expectancy with lifespan;

2) underestimate the life expectancy of many past populations; and

3) think of the past compared to the present as a dichotomy, the present being one way, the past being the other way, failing to recognize diversity and variation in life history variables across our species and across time … life expectancy is seen as a measure of quality of life (which it may well be) that has tracked the one way progress of the human condition from a widespread past condition of short-lived misery to the present and much improved condition of living long and prospering.
Continue reading Falsehood: “If this was the Stone Age, I’d be dead by now”


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Is Blood Ever Blue? Science Teachers Want to Know!

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According to one of the leading experts on the human circulatory system, blood flowing through veins is blue.

I’m not going to mention any names. All I’ll say is this: A person I know visited a major research center last year and saw a demonstration of organ removal and some other experimental stuff. A person also visiting asked the famous high-level researcher doing this work if blood was ever blue. What he said was not recorded in detail, but it was very much like this statement I found on the Internet:

… human blood is red as soon as it is oxygenated. Blue blood flows through veins back to the heart and lungs…..
[source: Some Guy on Yahoo Answers]

My friend was disturbed by this, as s/he had been teaching high school students for years that blood is not blue. Her understanding of the situation was that people thought blood was blue because standard anatomical drawings and models depict arteries as red and veins as blue, and because if you look at your veins they are blue. Obviously veins are not clear, but if you don’t think that out you might assume that you were seeing blue blood.

Continue reading Is Blood Ever Blue? Science Teachers Want to Know!


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Falsehood: Correlation Implies/Does Not Imply Causality

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As is the case with any good falsehoods, one can never really be sure what the falsehood may actually be. In this case, there are two falsehoods: 1) When we see a statistical correlation between two measurements or observations, we can not assume that there is a causal link from one to the other. This is the way the statement “Correlation does not imply causality” or some similar version of that aphorism generally means, and this is an admonishment we often hear; and 2) When we see a statistical correlation between two measurements or observations, there probably is a causal link in there somewhere, even when we hear the admonishment “Correlation does not imply causality” from someone, usually on the Internet. To put a finer point on this: What do you think people mean when they say “Correlation does not equal causality?” or, perhaps more importantly, what do you think that statement invokes in other people’s minds?
Continue reading Falsehood: Correlation Implies/Does Not Imply Causality


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