Totally unpredictable news

The grand unifying theme of the news the last few days has been “who could possibly have predicted..”
A brief summary:
• North Korea is expanding its nuclear facilities. Surprise!
• Sen. McConnell is determined to ram through confirmation of whatever wackanoodle nutjob Trump nominates for SCOTUS, regardless of his own precedent, the individual’s qualifications, or ongoing investigations into the very legitimacy of the current regime. Surprise!
• Sen. Flake briefly considered the possibility of growing a backbone and slowing the confirmation. Then, he immediately caved. Surprise!
• The retiring Supreme Court Justice’s son has been helping Trump launder billions of dollars of Russian gangster money. Surprise!
Another mass shooting. Surprise!
• Our shi-tzu was offered a piece of carrot as a treat. She was not impressed. Surprise!

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Here we go again…

It’s baaaack! The Monster that Will Not Die! The persistent claim that vaccines cause autism! OOOOHHHH!!!! NO!!!!!

So, this got posted to my wall on Facebook: “International scientists have found autism’s cause. What will Americans do? Five clear, replicable, and related discoveries explaining how autism is triggered have formed an undeniably clear picture of autism’s causation, and possibly ways to alleviate the symptoms, too.”

Oooh! A link to Some Dude’s Blog which in turn links to five honest-to-goodness studies. Very impressive. Let me blog about this in more or less real time while I read/investigate/analyze it.

First off, who is this Some Dude? Unsurprisingly, J.B. Handley is a long-time anti-vaxx crank. I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of him before. He’s known for claiming that mercury in vaccines cause autism… no, wait… aluminum in vaccines cause autism… or something in vaccines causes autism, he’s sure of it, because, well… reasons.

OK, the first study is by Chris Exley, et al on the subject of aluminum in vaccines causing autism from a journal called Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology. The first problem with such a claim is that the amount of aluminum in vaccines is trivial in relation to the aluminum we ingest from other sources. So, why should it be the Al in vaccines that causes autism? The Exsleys and Handleys of the world claim that mercury injected in vaccines has extra-scary properties which make it rush through the blood brain barrier like water through a hull breach on the Titanic or something. Sorry, paranoid, sciencey-sounding twaddle (nanoparticles! macrophage! ) aside, aluminum is aluminum. Once it’s in your bloodstream, it doesn’t matter how it got there. And 90+% of the aluminum in your blood got there from your food.

Remember Impact Factor from my previous blog on vaccines and autism? Well, Scijournal.org gives Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology an impact factor of 3.225. For comparison, Cell, one of the top journals, rates a 30.41 from the same source.

And, surprise, surprise, Exley is a crackpot. He’s also on the board of the very journal which accepted his dubious paper for publication.

So, we’ve got ridiculous claims made by a crackpot published in a unimpressive journal cited by an anti-vaxx layperson. Wonderful. Persuasive.

Continuing to read Handley’s blog post, I get confused. Handley writes about neuroscientist Paul Patterson’s work at Caltech. As near as I can tell, Patterson’s work was well respected. Some of his work concerned causes of autism, specifically immune responses in pregnant women as a possible cause of autism, but I don’t see anywhere (oh, wait, there’s one highly speculative mention of the flu vaccine in a magazine article, not a journal, that Handley cites) that he specifically fingers vaccines as a possible cause. And the anti-vaxxers in general aren’t claiming that vaccines given to pregnant women are causing autism in the babies; they’re mostly claiming that vaccines administered to the children are causing autism in those same kids, which flies in the face of the overwhelming scientific consensus that autism is predominantly caused by genetic and epigenetic factors. Now, IF the claim was that vaccines given to pregnant women were causing autism in the offspring, AND IF we had evidence that vaccines given to pregnant women caused the “maternal immune activation” that Patterson hypothesized, then they’d have something, as the maternal immune activation would fall under the epigenetic heading. But neither condition is true, so it’s just a strange tangent. Or maybe Handley is just throwing random blobs of poo at the wall and hoping some of it sticks.

Handley goes on the cite the work of Chris Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic at the University of British Columbia, whose paper was recently retracted by its journal for the silly little quibble of fraud. Unsurprisingly, Handley doesn’t bother to mention this. Far more prominent careers than Shaw and  Tomljenovic’s have been destroyed over far more minor transgressions. Quacks of a feather flock together.

Good gravy, Handley’s blog post is long. I’m only a third of the way through and I’m sick and tired of slogging through bullshit. That’s enough for now. Maybe I’ll get back to it.

 

 

 

 

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Handicapping the 2020 Race

OK, I’m supposed to be getting some work done, but I have this irrepressible urge to write a blog post. Let’s see if I can get it done in one sitting without wasting time on silly research and stuff.

We’ve got a Presidential Election coming up. Before you know,  we’ll be getting all hot and heavy about it. I thought I’d jump the gun and handicap the Democratic field before anybody even formally announces their candidacy. Just because. For each possible candidate, I’ll jot down some quick notes, give them a Professor Garth grade, and note their odds of winning the nomination from Garthie the Greek.
I suppose I have to say this: any of these candidates are preferable to anybody the Republicans will conceivably barf up.

Cory Booker
In many ways, the New Jersey Senator is the heir to Obama. The demographics are obvious. Obama and Booker are friends. And the two are similar politically in that they sound more progressive than they really are. Booker talks the talk, but does he walk the walk? That vote against re-importing prescription drugs is a mighty big albatross for him to drag around; progressives are not going to forget it. He might get some traction as a preferred corporatist candidate, but I don’t think he’ll win the nomination.
Professor Garth grade: C. Odds of winning the nomination: 20:1

Joe Biden
The former VP keeps making noises about running, no doubt he’d get lots of big money support. But… seriously? Give me a break. Biden is 327 kinds of old. Old ideas, old approach, old money, old militarism, etc. If the Democrats manage to lose this election, it’ll be because they nominated an old corporatist blandocrat fuddy-duddy like Biden. If there’s one thing the Democratic Party is good at, it’s losing elections by nominating “moderates” that hardly anybody really likes.
Professor Garth grade: D-. Odds of winning the nomination: 10:1

Bernie Sanders
Speaking of old, chronology is Bernie’s only real shortcoming. He’s the most popular politician in America. He’s got the campaign apparatus, he’s got the base of support, he’s on the right side (well, the CORRECT side) of the issues, but he is old. I’m not sure when simple age becomes a major drawback. But as long as his health is good, he’s a force to be reckoned with.
Professor Garth grade: A-. Odds of winning the nomination: 5:1

Tulsi Gabbard
The Hawaii Congresswoman rose to prominence as an advocate for Bernie in the primaries in 2016. As a member of the House who is just barely old enough to be legally elected President, I’m not sure if she has the gravitas and the resumé to pull it off… this time. But she’d make a mighty fine VP and heir apparent.
Professor Garth grade: A-. Odds of winning the nomination: 30:1

Kamala Harris
The California Senator has positioned herself very well for this race. She’s been on the national political scene just long enough to be familiar, but not not so long that anybody is tired of her, and not so long that she’s accumulated a lot of enemies. She is progressive enough that many of the otherwise disaffected lefties will vote, vote for her, and vote with some enthusiasm. Yet she’s not so radical that she’ll totally alienate the moneyed interests which pull the puppet strings on the Democratic Party leadership. If she can successfully walk the just-left-enough tightrope, she’ll be formidable.
Professor Garth grade: B. Odds of winning the nomination: 2:1

Kirstin Gillibrand
The New York Senator is an all-but-formally-announced candidate. I confess: I don’t really know much about Gillibrand. The main thing I do know about her is that she was initially a sponsor of a flagrantly unconstitutional bill to forbid boycotts of Israel. She has withdrawn as a sponsor, and support of Israel might seem like a non-critical issue, but the First Amendment is important. It really calls her decision-making skills into question that she’d even consider supporting such a bill.
Professor Garth grade: Incomplete. Odds of winning the nomination: 20:1

No doubt, I’ve left somebody obvious out. No doubt, other candidates will emerge as the election draws closer. But, from a simple horse racing perspective, Harris looks to me like the most likely nominee.

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Vaccines and Autism: the Final Word

OK, let’s do this…
I grieve for the state of public discourse in this nation. It’s seems that way too much of the discussion and debate is focused on endless reiterations of the same tired arguments which, to any sensible person, have been over for a long time. I mean… flat Earth? seriously?!? Yes, there are quite a number of people who are seriously arguing that Earth is flat.

Another “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me” argument is the claim repeated endlessly that vaccines cause autism. They don’t. “Do vaccines cause autism?” has been one of the most studied questions in all of science over the last twenty or so years. And the answer, over and over and over and over, is NO. Studies in all of the most prestigious relevant journals. Big studies, medium sized studies, short-term studies, long term studies. In vitro. In vivo. Mercury in vaccines does not cause autism. Aluminum in vaccines does not cause autism. Formaldehyde in vaccines doesn’t cause autism. Vaccines don’t cause autism when they’re administered several at a time. Vaccines don’t cause autism on a fewer, slower schedule. There’s no known mechanism by which vaccines could possibly cause autism. While the symptoms of autism may show up after vaccines have been administered, the disorder’s causes are genetic and epigenetic, so it’s spectacularly improbable that vaccines administered well after birth could be a cause. The question has been answered. It’s not up for debate. It does not need further study.
https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism.html
http://justthevax.blogspot.com/2014/03/75-studies-that-show-no-link-between.html
http://blogs.plos.org/speakingofmedicine/2017/01/20/the-why-vaccines-dont-cause-autism-papers/
http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/yes-autism-rate-rising-vaccines-caused-vaccines/

Nonetheless, the claims keep coming. There seems to be a cottage industry of professional quacks, cranks, and crackpots endlessly recycling the same drivel and a herd of credulous paranoid laypeople who parrot anything that supposedly supports their worldview.

In a completely unrelated Facebook thread a little while back, I was commanded to refute this “peer reviewed” study from a “.gov website”:
“A two-phase study evaluating the relationship between Thimerosal-containing vaccine administration and the risk for an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis in the United States”
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3878266/
Unfortunately, I have other things to do besides produce detailed rebuttals to pseudoscience sometimes, so it took a while… several months, in fact. But here goes. Let’s look at the study, the journal it was published in, and the authors. Perhaps this will serve as a microcosm of the larger discussion which we really shouldn’t be having any more. Maybe we’re talking about this specific study, maybe we’re talking about the supposed link between vaccines an autism, maybe we’re talking about the state of academic journals today, maybe we’re talking about the sad state of scientific literacy in our country. Or some mix of all those things.

The Study

Yup, the study is on a .gov website, alright. But that site is just a great big database of medical studies. Inclusion does not impart any particular credibility to the study. The study was (electronically) published in an online journal called Translational Neurodegeneration.
More about that journal and scientific journals in general later.

But, on to the study itself. Here’s my detailed, comprehensive analysis of this study: so what?

Seriously. So what? A group of folks re-crunched some carefully selected old numbers and claim to have found a correlation in that particular dataset between vaccines containing thimerosal and autism. That is all. So fucking what. Do I have to say it? Really? OK. Correlation does not prove causation. Anybody who has ever done a high school science project is supposed to know this. One more time: correlation does not prove causation. Repeat as many times as necessary for this to stick in your brain.

This study does not address the issue of why so many other studies with larger, more reliable datasets have found no correlation. It does not propose a mechanism by which vaccines could cause autism. It does not address the fact that diagnoses of autism continued to rise long after thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines. It does not address the question of why it’s the mercury in vaccines supposedly causing autism when there are other sources of more mercury (and mercury in a form which accumulates in the body) in people’s lives. Plus, it uses the unreliable, unconfirmed data from the VAERS database.
http://parentingpatch.com/problem-vaers-database/
http://www.harpocratesspeaks.com/2013/11/vaers-few-things-we-need-to-discuss.html

Admittedly, I don’t have the medical and statistical chops to perform my own detailed analysis of the specific methods and statistical techniques used in this paper, but the foundational flaws are so obvious, it doesn’t really seem necessary. I poked around the web anyway, to see if anyone had analyzed this study. I didn’t find much about this particular study. I found lots about the authors, though. More on that later. The closest thing I could find to an analysis of this specific paper was this dismissive tidbit from Matt Carey: “Ever heard of that paper? That’s what happens to mediocre science published by biased authors. No one cares.” In short, so what?
https://leftbrainrightbrain.co.uk/2014/08/31/comment-on-expression-of-concern-measles-mumps-rubella-vaccination-timing-and-autism-among-young-african-american-boys-a-reanalysis-of-cdc-data/

The Journal

Scientists communicate their findings to each other through peer reviewed technical journals. For the elite journals, this peer review process is brutal. Leading experts in the fields relevant to the paper analyze every aspect of the study, from the original question through the study’s design, data gathering, statistical analysis, and conclusion looking for flaws. When a study goes through this process and is accepted for publication, it has earned a degree of credibility. The conclusions are not automatically correct, but there’s real support for them. It should be noted that one study, even a well-designed one, does not instantly overturn established scientific consensus.
Less prestigious journals are a mixed bag. For some, the peer review process is nearly as exhaustive as the most prestigious journals, while others have only a thin veneer of peer review. Still others are predatory journals  which will publish anything the authors pay to have published. Their “peer review” is a bad joke. There are several cases where people have pranked them by sending gibberish papers. As long as the check clears, they sail through “peer review”.

So, what’s an interested lay person to do? How do we tell if a particular journal is really peer reviewed or if it’s “peer reviewed”? There isn’t one absolutely reliable gauge for a journal’s credibility, but it’s easy to check three important factors:
• Impact factor. This is a measure of how many times the articles in this journal are cited by other researchers. In general, better research is cited more, so journals with more highly-cited studies are more reliable.
• Longevity. Shady journals seldom last long. Newcomers are suspect.
• Paper publishing. Printing on real paper costs money, and it’s dependent on subscriptions from real libraries to make it viable economically.

Sure, there are excellent journals which e-publish, haven’t been in business for long, and don’t have an impressive impact factor yet. But those are the exception, rather than the rule. But studies in journals which match those criteria warrant extra scrutiny.

Here’s a good overview of the state of peer reviewed journals today:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIlBsfTx3Kc&t=5s

So, what about Translational Neurodegeneration? It was established in 2012. It e-publishes. According to Scimago Journal & Country Rank, its H-Index (a measure of impact) is 19, averaging 3-4 citations per document. For comparison, Cell, one of the tippy-top journals, has an H-index of 655, averaging around 28 citations per document. Cell has been publishing on paper since 1974. I don’t see any reason to accuse Translational Neurodegeneration of being a hard-core predatory journal, but it’s not especially prestigious, either. One point in favor of the credibility of this journal is that they did have the editorial integrity to retract a paper by Brian Hooker, one of the authors of the study in question here.
https://translationalneurodegeneration.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/2047-9158-3-22

For what it’s worth, the specific study under discussion here has been cited 11 times, which sounds sorta-kinda halfway impressive, except that 7 of the citations are by authors of the study. On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with self-citations. Statements along the lines of “in my previous study, I determined a-b-c; in this study, I’ll attempt to determine if d-e-f necessarily follows” are perfectly reasonable. On the other hand, self-citations do not indicate that the paper in question has made a significant impact in the field.

The Authors

Hang on, folks, the ride gets wild at this point.
Two of the authors of this study are the father and son team of Mark and David Geier. They have a long history as anti-vaxx researchers. Mark has some legit degrees and was, until recently, a practicing MD. David has no discernible degrees or other qualifications, but that doesn’t seem to stop him from practicing medicine and authoring research papers. One consistent theme of criticism of the Geiers’ anti-vaxx work is that they basically write the same paper over and over again. They use the same unreliable, old data sources, the same dubious statistical analyses, selectively report only the data that supports their pre-determined conclusions, and cling to the same a priori assumptions in study after study.
“…the studies by Geier could not establish a causal relation between MMR and autism because of their methods—such as using statistical measures incorrectly and omitting facts about their research approach. Similar problems were found in six other studies by Geier.”
{Wilson K, Mills E, Ross C, McGowan J, Jadad A (2003). Association of Autistic Spectrum Disorder and the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella Vaccine: A Systematic Review of Current Epidemiological Evidence. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 157:628-634. quoted in http://quackfiles.blogspot.com/2005/03/mark-geier-untrustworthy-autism.html}

Until recently, the Geiers had a substantial following in the anti-vaxx crowd. Mark testified as an “expert” in over 90 legal cases about vaccines. They both spoke at anti-vaxx gatherings around the USA.

But what has really made the Geiers famous (or infamous) is their “Lupron Protocol” for treating autism. Basically, they got an idea in their heads that testosterone binding to mercury was the root cause of autism. Do I need to mention that there was no credible medical or biochemical basis for this? They used human subjects for trials of their treatment which involves chemical castration of children. I do not understand why the Geiers are not in jail. The results of this horrific, unethical study are that the Lupron Protocol doesn’t work (duh!), Mark has lost his license to practice medicine, David has been fined and booted from Maryland’s Autism Commission (why was he there in the first place?), and the Geiers are disgraced, even in the eyes of most of the anti-vaxx crowd.
https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/chemical-castration-of-autistic-children-leads-to-the-downfall-of-dr-mark-geier/
http://www.harpocratesspeaks.com/2013/05/mark-geier-not-leg-to-stand-on.html

I was going to go into some detail about the other authors of this study, but this draft has been sitting around for a couple of months, so I’m just going to post it. Sufficeth to say, they’re professional crackpots who’ve made their careers in the field of bad science.

So, in conclusion, the vaccine-autism “debate” for lay people boils down to: who are you going to believe, the overwhelming consensus of top researchers in relevant fields and their dozens of large, carefully-controlled,  brutally peer reviewed studies in all of the most prestigious journals; or a small band of crackpots recycling unverified data and morphing it into obviously bad papers which would be laughed out of a seventh grade science fair but are nonetheless published in dubious journals so that anti-vaxx cuckoo birds can have “peer reviewed” studies to cite in an attempt to look credible?

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Who’s to Blame?

The unthinkable has happened. Unless there’s an unprecedented revolt by the electors in the Electoral College, we’re about to inaugurate the vilest President imaginable, a person who embodies the worst traits of America: bigotry, misogyny, arrogance, pseudo-Christian hypocrisy, wealth-worship, anti-intellectualism, etcetera.  And to go along with the Evil One in the White House, we get  Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. How did we get here? Who’s to blame for this horrific turn of events? I’ve composed a series of open letters to the culprits.

But first, yes, it is important to play the “Blame Game”. If we don’t face up to what went wrong, if we blame the wrong people, we will inevitably repeat the same mistakes. Exhibit A: The election of 2000. People who should know better continue to blame Nader voters, not Gore’s gawdawful campaign, for that debacle. So, this time around we get a blandocrat putz as a VP nominee, and a Republican-Lite POTUS candidate who pathetically fails to offer a real vision. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

 

Culprit number one: Trump voters

Dear Trumpsters-

What the fuck is wrong with you people? Seriously, where did you get the idea that this reverse-Midas Cheetoh would make a good President? His record includes zero public service of any sort. His business record is awful; he inherited zillions and has bankruptcy after bankruptcy; he refuses to pay thousands of people who’ve worked for him; his businesses are a long list of pathetic failures and frequent frauds. He has no real policy proposals, just lies, platitudes, frothing resentment, racism, misogyny, and more lies. No, I don’t think you’re all racist misogynist imbeciles. You just don’t think that being a racist misogynist imbecile is a deal-breaker for a candidate. Come to think of it, that’s a distinction without a difference. You ARE a bunch of racist misogynist imbeciles.

 

Culprit number two: non-voters

Dear Apathetics-

Yeah, I get it. You don’t like voting for the lesser of two evils. There was nobody on the ballot you could get behind enthusiastically, so you stayed home. Yes, both parties are awful, but they’re not equally awful. Yes, Clinton and her fellow corporate blandocrats down-ballot are boring, uninspiring, and wrong on a whole host of issues. But the Republicans are just plain evil. Get in your time machine, go back to election day, control of your gag reflex, and fucking vote. And next time, educate yourself and work for candidates you actually support in the primaries.

 

Culprit number three: the DNC and the rest of the Democratic Party leadership

Dear Corporatist Buttwipes-

Stop barfing up these pathetic spineless unprincipled douchebags you call candidates. Nobody likes your corporate blandocrats. Nobody likes your retread Republicans. Nobody likes your corporate super-PAC puppets. Just being a little less awful than the Republicans does not mean you automatically cruise to victory; it just means that barely half the registered voters bother to show up.

Everybody at the DNC should resign or be fired immediately; replace them with principled progressives. Completely revamp the Presidential nominating process. No more superdelegates. No more bizarre convoluted incomprehensible caucuses. Balance the schedule geographically so that conservative southern states do not have disproportionate influence.

Then, get to work on the congressional candidates you bless. Reject previously unchallengeable dogma. The best fundraiser is not necessarily the best candidate. The most (cough-cough) “moderate” candidate is not necessarily the best choice, either.

Then, after these reforms are implemented, we can have a progressive POTUS and a progressive-majority Congress governing the smoldering ruins left over from the Trump administration.

 

Culprit number four: Hillary Clinton

Hillary-

It must be rough. Three national campaigns with all of the advantages a candidate could possibly have: universal name recognition, endorsements from big political and media names, big money donors up the gazoo, your buddies making up the rules for the party nominating process, and what do you have to show for it? You lost the D nomination to a charismatic whippersnapper in ’08. You barely eeked out an unconvincing nomination victory over a grumpy geezer who entered the campaign with 4% name recognition in ’16. Then, with the Presidency practically handed to you on a platter, you managed to lose Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan to Donald Fucking Trump. Seriously, a Democrat lost fucking Michigan to a Nazi. What kind of a craptastic campaign do you have to run to make that possible?

Face it, regardless of whatever merits you may have in other walks of life, as a candidate, you suck beans. Maybe you would have been a tolerably decent President, but as a candidate, as a campaigner…

Enjoy your retirement.

If there’s one piece of good news in this disaster, it’s that we will never have to endure another Clinton campaigning for anything ever again.

 

Culprit number five: hyper-feminists

Dear Gynocentrists-

Allow me to mansplain for a second, and say a few really outrageous things that will make steam come out of your ears: candidates should be evaluated based on their merits as individuals. A pair of X chromosomes does not make one a better person or a better politician. All criticism of a female politician is not necessarily automatically intrinsically sexist. When you deflect all criticism of your candidate as automatically sexist regardless of specifics, you lose the argument, and you lose votes for your candidate. Hillary lost because she’s a lousy candidate, not because she’s a woman. There are a few women (Elizabeth Warren, for starters) who would have won easily, if one of them had been the Democratic nominee. Hillary lost because her slogan might as well have been “vote for me, because inertia”, not because she’s a woman. Hillary lost because she’s a status quo candidate when nobody likes the status quo, not because she’s a woman. Hillary lost because she failed to offer a real vision of what she wanted to accomplish and what she wanted America to be, not because she’s a woman.

 

 

Do you notice how Bernie supporters and minor party voters don’t make the list?

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The Coming Re-Alignment

A few years ago, in the course of a political discussion with some friends, I made a comment something along the lines of “if we must have a two-party system, couldn’t we at least have one where the current corporate ‘Democratic’ Party is the conservative one?” Now, it looks like that re-alignment is actually happening.

The recent primary elections have exposed major schisms in both of today’s parties. The Republican Party’s post-Reagan madness has seen it devolve into several squabbling factions: the bigot Republicans, the theocracy Republicans, the libertarian Republicans, and the “moderate” Republicans. On the Democratic side, the corporate blandocrats remain in charge after fighting off a progressive rebellion.

Republican Humpty-Dumpty

For the moment, the Bigot Republicans have taken over that party. Facts are irrelevant, policies are irrelevant, science is an evil conspiracy. If we just blame all our problems on brown people, black people, women, homosexuals, and liberals while chanting “USA! USA!” really loud, all of our problems will be solved. In simple electoral terms, that strategy is doomed. The Orange One is seeing major blocks of his own party peel off, and he’s not picking up significant numbers of independents or disaffected Democrats. America is not as white, or as male-controlled, as it used to be. I’m not sure if it ever was quite that stupid.

The coming election will see not only the resounding defeat of Trump, but substantial losses by the Republicans down-ticket as well. The evangelicals are trying to hold their nose and vote for the serial adulterer, but their enthusiasm is under-whelming. Libertarians have their own candidate, who will attract a substantial number of votes that might otherwise go to a Republican. The moderate Republicans—both of them—will wind up voting for Hillary. Plus, Republican House and Senate candidates are in a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t dilemma: do they support Trump and go down in flames, or do they disavow Trump, lose the support of their base, and go down in flames?

It’s hard to imagine a future Republican leader who can re-assemble the shattered fragments of the Reagan/Bush coalition and put together a nationally viable party. Today’s America is too diverse for a party which only appeals to uneducated straight white male Christians. Sure, the remnants of the Republican party will continue to win local races and congressional seats in the deep South and parts of the Midwest, but its fragmentation and dogmatism will preclude it from winning a national election in the foreseeable future.

Progressive Revolt

On the Democratic side, the primary election revealed a simpler, dichotomous split between the corporate wing of the party and the progressive one. On many issues, the post-Reagan Democratic Party has drifted rightward alongside the Republican Party’s rightward plunge into madness. Today’s Democrats support grossly bloated military budgets, bombing Middle Eastern wedding parties, job- and environment-destroying trade deals, private for-profit prisons, more drilling for oil, fracking, pipelines, low taxes for the uber-wealthy, overseas tax havens for profitable corporations, and on and on. Is this Democratic Party part of the solution, or part of the problem? Is it a surprise that the candidate pre-selected by the ruling cabal before anyone had actually voted faced a revolt?

Yeah, yeah. I know… today’s Democrats are really good on some issues too. Gay marriage, equal pay for women, abortion rights, great. You want to know a dirty, politically incorrect, secret? Social issues are cheap. You can support gay marriage and still rake in the big campaign contributions from Exxon, because that’s not an issue the global corporate monoculture cares about. Meanwhile, we’re still pumping billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere and the perpetual war in the Middle East and central Asia continues apace.

You want to know another secret? Talk is cheap, too. The corporate Democrats talk the talk regarding climate change, but the moment they face some resistance they capitulate utterly and walk… away. The obstructionist Republicans are convenient props for the corporate Democrats. The Ds can claim to want to do stuff, and then just throw up their arms and walk away when faced with resistance. If shit happens, it’s all the Rs fault for obstructing the Ds’ proposals. If good stuff happens, it’s a triumph of the Ds over the obstruction. And all of this without the Ds demonstrating a hint of a trace of an iota of a vestigial remnant of backbone. The corporate cash keeps flowing, because the Ds haven’t meaningfully challenged their corporate overlords.

The Bernie Sanders rebellion shows that I’m not the only one who is sick of the bullshit. A two party system where one party is completely insane and the other is content to be slightly less bad is not a healthy, sustainable democracy.

The Future

So, where are we going, and what are we doing in this handbasket? The short term prognosis for the corporate Ds is great. Hillary’s certain to be the next President, and even the bland, unprincipled, big money candidates the DNC recruits will likely win control of the Senate and cut deeply into the Rs’ majority in the House. But this should not be read as a ringing endorsement of corporate blandocracy, only a repudiation of the vile, poisonous Republican brand.

The corporate Ds will then have to govern. The Rs will still have the ability to obstruct, and the few progressives aren’t always going to march in lock-step with Clintonian ‘compromises’.

Will Clinton’s really, truly, honest-to-goodness, completely sincere attempt to overturn Citizens United succeed? Of course not. She’ll make a timid effort to start a constitutional amendment drive and then give up. Possible legislative mitigations will be ignored. As one of the biggest beneficiaries of today’s Money Rules system, she has little reason to try too hard. As the leader of an ostensibly progressive party, she has an obligation to give the issue lip service.

Will Clinton’s really, truly, honest-to-goodness, completely sincere opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership prevent it from being implemented? Of course not. If it’s not shoved through the lame duck session of Congress, she’ll “re-negotiate” the deal, making superficial changes while leaving the guts of the monster intact. Then, she’ll shove that through Congress, using the fast track authority passed while she so conveniently hadn’t declared a position yet.

So, Clinton winds up with a rebellion from the left, belligerent obstruction from the right, and a ringing mandate to not be Donald Trump. Not much will get done by the federal government the next four years. But she gets multiple scapegoats to blame for this. Wonderful.

In the 2018 Congressional races, the DNC will succeed in nominating another herd of neoliberal corporate blandocrats. Turnout will be low, and many of them will lose. Hillary and the DNC will blame the hippies for not marching in lockstep behind her anointed nobodies. OK, that prediction was just too easy.

I’m not sure what happens in 2020. Will Hillary seek a second term? Will the progressives make one last attempt to reform the Democratic Party, or will they form a new party?

But, by 2024, a few things will have happened:

  • The Republican Party as we now know it will have dissolved into national electoral irrelevance, a victim of a diversifying electorate and factional squabbling. The Democratic Party will continue to drift to the right on a whole host of issues. It will continue to wallow in giant pits of corporate cash. It will lose support from the left, and gain support from today’s “moderate” Republicans.
  • The Libertarian Party will gain support from the government-hating factions of the former Republican Party, but not enough to be much of a factor nationally.
  • A new left wing party will form. It will win a good number of seats in Congress from the West and the Northeast, but it will be very difficult for this new party to gain power nationally, as the Ds will have all of the money and campaign finance reform won’t pass any time soon. One immediate benefit of the existence of this party is it will stop the inexorable rightward drift of media discourse. It will be impossible for the media to ignore future Bernie Sanderses.
  • The Green Party will continue to be irrelevant. The new left party will form outside the current Green structure.

So, eventually, the two party system re-establishes itself, with the Clintonistas in the right wing party. Where they belong.

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[unconvincing] Reasons to Support Hillary Over Bernie

OK, let’s do this…

I’ve been ruminating on this post for a few months, but I haven’t sat down to write it, because I need to work for a living, and—frankly—nobody reads my blog. But I can’t get the idea out of my head.

One thing I’ve noticed about the great Hillary versus Bernie struggle is that the arguments put forth by Hillary supporters are really really dumb. Oops. That was undiplomatic, and Hillary supporters always swoon whenever anything mean is said about The Annointed One or her followers, so I’ll rephrase that. One thing I’ve noticed about the great Hillary versus Bernie struggle is that the arguments put forth by Hillary supporters are unconvincing. There, is that better?

Let’s make a list of unconvincing reasons to support Hillary over Bernie, with the far-too-easy rebuttals.

Hillary is a real Democrat; Bernie just joined the Party for the election
Really, Hillary people. Really? You folks make this “argument” over and over as if it were convincing and unrebutable. Yet, it’s so stupid… let me tally just a few of the ways.

  •     Issues. What makes a “real Democrat”, anyway? Blindly marching in lockstep behind the leaders? Or commitment to the issues which supposedly define the Party?
  •     Political parties. The two party system is about as popular with the electorate as Ebola. It’s even less highly regarded than Nickelback. Yet the only way to win political office (outside of Vermont) in this country is through one of the parties.
  •     Nader. Of course, the people making this argument would be the very same people who would squeal the loudest if Bernie ran as an independent or as a Green.
  •     Hackdom. We’re choosing who we think would make the best President, not who has been most loyal to the Party establishment, or who has raised the most money for down-ballot corporate blandocrats.

Hillary is more moderate, so she’d negotiate better with the Republicans
Here is a complete list of all the Republican office holders who are willing to sit down and negotiate with Hillary in good faith:

  1.   Nobody
  2.   Really. Nobody.
  3.   You’ve got to be fucking kidding.
  4.   The fact is, there’s no negotiating with today’s Republicans.

Hillary is a woman
One point we can all agree on: it’d be fine and dandy to have a female POTUS. But which woman? And is that the only criterion? If you just want a woman President for the sake of having a woman President, you’ve got to realize that your argument works just as well for Carly Fiorina, Michele Bachmann, or Sarah Palin.

The Republicans would say mean things about Bernie in the General Election campaign
In contrast, the Republicans would have a calm rational discussion of real issues with Hillary. It’s not like there’s any precedent to suggest that the Republicans would say anything mean about Hillary or anyone else named Clinton, now is there? Face it, the Republicans would slime anybody. It’s what they do. They’d be no slimier or less slimey with Bernie.

Hillary could get stuff done
Actually, electing Hillary is the recipe for perpetual gridlock. As long as Hillary and DWS are running the Party, down-ticket Democrats will be corporate blandocrats like Braley and Republican retreads like Crist. Turnout will be low and Republicans will continue to have power to gerrymander and obstruct. A more progressive party would motivate younger and otherwise disaffected voters to show up on election day and break the gridlock.

Bernie’s promising the impossible
If you don’t attempt things that are difficult, you never get anything done at all.

The incremental change Hillary proposes is realistic; Bernie wallows in naïve idealism
Once upon a time, during the Bill Clinton administration, I was on the play selection committee for our local community theatre. Somebody asked me if I was enjoying it. I said something like “It’s kind of an exercise in Clintonian Democracy. You know you’re not going to be able to do what you really want, so you start with a watered-down compromise proposal. Then, you further compromise down from there. When it’s all finished, you step back and ask youself ‘would it have been any different if I’d just let the barbarians run things?’ “.
The fundamental problem with the pragmatic incrementalism espoused by both Clintons is pre-emptive surrender. Real solutions are never proposed, so they’re never discussed. The best that can be hoped for from this approach is a slight deceleration in the rate we’re going backwards.

Hillary has more foreign policy experience
Yes, she has more experience at supporting wars and military coups. But those are not good things.
Bernie is a—gasp—socialist!
Yes, the Republicans would make red-baiting a central feature of the General Election campaign. But they’ll do that anyway. They always do. Even Ronald Reagan would be called a Commie by today’s Republicans.
Hillary is more electable
Poll after poll after poll after poll shows just the opposite. Hillary has historically bad approval ratings. Hilary is disliked by all Republicans, nearly all independents, and an awful lot of Democrats. Bernie does better than Hillary against Trump in virtually every poll. I know the polls are of somewhat limited value this far from election day, but what other criteria do we have, conventional beltway dogma?

Hillary is a good liberal
Good liberals do not play kissy-face with Henry Fucking Kissinger. Good liberals did not support the Iraq War. Good liberals did not support the coup in Honduras. Good liberals are not quick to try to bomb-away our foreign policy problems. Good liberals stand their ground and fight for important issues. Good liberals do not support “free trade” agreements. And on and on.

Bernie supporters are mean to Hillary supporters
It’s true that this debate has not always been completely civil, and that is unfortunate. It’s not true that any excesses have been one-sided. Hillary supporters have proven themselves quite adept at spouting insults, lies, and misleading half-truths. At the same time, Hillary supporters have often proven to be thin-skinned, whiny little kindergarteners. They can dish it out, but they can’t take it. But seriously, folks, on the scale of such things, this has been a remarkably civil, issues-based campaign.

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Back from the dead…

Well, poo. I’ve been really busy lately. Sometime in the last month or so, I noticed that ye  olde blog wasn’t working. Attempts to access it were greeted with a database connection error. I poked around a bit trying to fix it, but to no avail. I went so far as to do a new WordPress installation and imported a back-up copy of my old posts into it. That sorta worked, but the text was littered with  non-printing characters rendered as gibberish.

I finally figured out the problem. I’d changed the database password some time back as a security measure, without realizing that WP used the same damn password. A simple change to the wp-config.php  file, and voila! The Blog Which Nobody Ever Reads is back online.

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looking critically at sciencey claims: a layperson’s guide

The web world is full of claims about what science has supposedly proven or what a recent study has shown. Many of these claims are dubious; some are pure distilled bullshit, some actually have merit. Here I present my guide to separating the wheat of wisdom from the chaff of fraud, hyperbole, and pseudoscience.

First, start with a bold claim from the interwebz. “According to a new scientific study…” …maybe it’s a nutritional claim, maybe it relates to climate change, maybe vaccine safety, or maybe… any of dozens of topics. How do we go about verifying the veracity of this claim?

Look at the source. Inevitably this is a secondary source, rather than an actual journal article detailing scientific research. Is it from a respected purveyor of science news to laypeople? A mainstream news site? An unfamiliar website? A known purveyor of ka-ka? If it’s from a well-known manure spreader like NaturalNews, CollectiveEvolution, Mercola, or WorldNetDaily, you’ve got a big red flag already. If the site is unfamiliar to you, check it out. Look at the other articles on the site. Is it full of paranoid fantasies? Biblical prophesy? Really wacky New Age twaddle? If the site is a mainstream news site, take the conclusions with a big grain of salt; many otherwise respected news sites do a really crappy job of science reporting. If the site is a quality science site, good. But it’s still not exempt from critical analysis.

Read the source. Does it commit flagrant logical fallacies? Perhaps the most common is assuming that correlation proves causation. Grandiose extrapolations? Another red flag is a persecution complex. They mocked Galileo, they mock me, therefore I’m just like Galileo…. uhhh… no.

Lool at the source’s sources. If we’re really looking at a new scientific study, find the study. If your secondary source doesn’t link to the actual study, that’s a little red flag. If it doesn’t provide necessary clues to find the study, it’s a big red flag. If there is no peer-reviewed study to be found, you’re probably dealing with a crackpot making wild claims without foundation.

Look at the actual scientific paper. First off, most serious scientific journals don’t let everybody browse the entire journal. This sucks, but it’s the way things are at this point. Generally, you can read the abstract for free, but if you want to read the whole thing you have to fork over the big bucks. Fortunately, the abstact is usually enough for our puposes as laypeople. The abstract outlines the question, procedures, and conclusions of the study briefly. Often, when I’ve looked up the source for a claim, I’ve learned that the author of that secondary source article completely misrepresented the actual findings. When this happens, you can write off the original claim as crap. Often, the analysis of the secondary source author is shakey, but not outrageous. Perhaps a tentative call for further study has been stretched into a bold conclusion. Perhaps a petri dish study of tissue in a lab has been extrapolated grandly into (yet another) cure for cancer. Another question you should be able to answer from the abstract: is this  original research, or are the authors just crunching numbers? Meta-analyses can be useful, but often analyzing other people’s data is just a cheap way for someone to get published. Tally up the number and size of red flags accordingly.

If you haven’t completely rejected the original claim at this point, check out the journal which published the study. Is it a known, prestigious journal like Nature, Cell, JAMA, or Lancet? This brave new world we live in is full of dubious “peer-reviewed” journals which publish anything that somebody pays them to publish. It may take some Googling to assess the reputation and credibility of a journal.

Then, check out the authors of the study. Are the authors experts in the field they’re writing about? One category of bad science I’ve noticed a lot lately is experts in one field writing about a completely different field. When a computer scientist makes wild claims about biochemistry and the biochemists laugh at the study’s absurdity, I’m inclined to believe the biochemists. An astronomer doesn’t necessarily know any more about mammalian paleontology that you or I do, regardless of how many degrees that person has earned.

Please, people, follow this procedure (or a similar one) before you share that sciencey-sounding meme which just happens to reinforce what you already believe.

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More on Thomas Hardin

I’ve wasted enough time that I should spend doing money work on Thomas Hardin. For now, at least. I have learned a few things in the meantime. The Elic White/Thomas Hardin was a different dude. There were lots of Hardins in the West Virginia/Kentucky region (there’s even a Hardin County) at the time, and quite a few folks moving west from the over-harvested forests back east to the virgin ones in the Pacific Northwest. The two Thomases with Comforts were probably some kind of cousins, and both lines kept the alternating generations of sons getting the recurring family names thang. Plus, different branches of Hardins were marrying and shooting different branches of Blankenships throughout the region at the time. It looks like Elic White lived a normal life after the episode which sent him to Oregon; the Thomas Hardin who shot my gg grandfather was a bad bad dude through and through.

When I wrote the previous post I wasn’t sure about the Bateman shooting/robbery in 1901. That really was our guy. One of the newpaper articles about the triple murder/suicide discusses the Bateman episode and tells how TH’s father and step father secured a pardon for him after only part of his sentence had been served.

A few of the articles about TH mention multiple wives, with some of them dead under suspicious circumstances. I haven’t been able to track them down. As I said, there were lots of Hardins and several Thomas Hardins in the area at the time. Several of them got married. But none of the documented marriages seem to be THAT Thomas Hardin. It’s likely that he didn’t document his conquests, but it’s also possible that the newspaper accounts exaggerated his nastiness.

There are also report that he torched a family member’s home, with several people narrowly escaping from the burning building. I can’t find a trace of that in the newpapers of the period.

The circumstances of his marriage to 12 year old Rosa Belle Smith seem really nasty, too. The newpaper accounts of the murder mention assault, possible drugging, kidnapping, etc. But details are hard to come by. Rosie’s father died in 1906. Did TH have something to do with it? I do not know.

Most of the articles about TH are on his page in the genealogy part of my site.

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